The Mystery Woman in Room Three is a new serialized young adult novel by Aya de León about two undocumented teenage girls in Florida who uncover a kidnapping plot to stop important climate legislation. This is the first part of six to be released over the next several weeks.
IT’S A FLOOD DAY in Proctor, Florida, a small city near Miami. The bus makes its way slowly through streets filled with ocean water. Even though Proctor is a few towns inland in Miami-Dade County, our science teacher explained that we hit the disaster jackpot. Proctor is situated in a low crevice in the flood plain, so the town floods more each year, sometimes even on sunny days like today. My science teacher says this is the climate crisis coming home to us.
The bus stops at the corner two blocks away from Mami’s job, and I exit the rear door in front of a convenience store. After three months in the U.S., I can read the English on the side of the bus: climate change is real.
Neighbors say these days used to be treated as an emergency, but now it’s just business as usual. Schools and businesses are open, and everyone is expected to just move through a city of seawater like it’s no big deal. Unfortunately, I need to cross the street, and this means getting soaked up to the middle of my calves, water seeping up my light wash jeans and darkening them to the knee. Mami says to be grateful for the good things at times like this. I’m grateful that I have on cheap sneakers, not nice shoes that would be ruined. I suppose she would say that she’s grateful for all the flooding in Proctor bringing down the property values, because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to afford to live here near the job she was so lucky to get.
Usually, I slip into Shady Orchards Nursing Home and no one notices. With enough staff coming and going, I blend in. Mami often hides a sandwich for me behind the fake plants in the lobby that I grab before heading to La Rica’s room to do my homework. But not today. Today, the building has been partially evacuated due to the flooding. Apparently, all the sandbags weren’t enough to keep the water from spilling in through the hallway and down into the multipurpose room on the basement floor. They’re not letting anyone into the building for the time being. Now what do I do?
Our last apartment in the Dominican Republic had doorknobs that didn’t exactly fit some of the doors. The previous owner had changed the original knobs for newer, fancier ones, but they didn’t have pins that were long enough for the older, thicker doors. If you didn’t open the doors just right, the knob would fall off, and then we’d be looking around on the floor for the hardware. We’d put the knobs back on and attempt to screw them in place, but it wasn’t a good fit. So the screws would barely go in, and the knob would come off in your hand if you didn’t pay attention.
Our whole life in the United States is like that. Nothing screwed in securely. We don’t have papers to be here legally. We don’t have a bank account. We don’t have family here, or a lot of cash, so we can’t rent an apartment. And now the security guards are blocking my way into Shady Orchards. All loose pins, dropping all the time.
Mami and I stay in a rooming house that’s sketchy. We have our own room with two locks on the door, but we share a bathroom and people are going in and out all the time. That’s why we came up with the plan for me to come to Shady Orchards after school. Mami gets paid in cash to cook here, so that’s good, but she can’t really have her daughter hanging out. I need to be invisible until we can afford a better situation. Invisibility is easy in the early afternoon. The day nursing supervisor doesn’t pay attention to who comes in. I can walk right past her and she’ll never ask what I’m doing there. But the evening supervisor—the one with the blonde bun and green scrubs—is all eyes and ears. She comes on at 4:45, and after that I need to stay hidden.
The security guard keeps us outside and I watch the minutes tick away: 3:55, 4:25, 4:40. I’m hungry the whole time.
I’m standing behind two women I recognize from the maintenance crew.
Our whole life in the United States is like that. Nothing screwed in securely. All loose pins, dropping all the time.
“This is ridiculous,” one of them says in Spanish. “I’m here to work, but they won’t let me clock in. By the time they let us into the building, it’ll be halfway through my shift. I’ll have to stay late to finish my work, and by then the bus won’t be running. By the time I pay for the rideshare home, and my husband buys dinner for the kids, it’s taken twice as much time and I’ve spent half my pay. Not to mention that I’ll barely get any sleep before I have to go to my second job.”
“Same here,” the other woman says. “My sister-in-law has a union job. I don’t have the skills, but she was telling me that if they pass the Green New Deal, there will be so many jobs that they’ll train you for them. I’ve been here for ten years, and I always planned to go home to Colombia. But our family home was destroyed in a landslide last year. Not to mention the water shortages. My life is here now. I never wanted to, but I may need to become a citizen, just so I can vote.”
Before she can say more, a security guard opens the front door for all of us to come in. It’s 4:55 when I walk down the sodden path and step over the sandbag barrier into the waiting room. I peek in the hiding place, but there’s no sandwich. The flood has thrown off everything. Sure enough, the blonde nurse is in the hallway, talking to another staff member wheeling a cart with more sandbags. I need to wait until the coast is clear to get past her.
I hunker down in the lobby, slouching low in one of the vinyl chairs. I take a few handfuls of the candy they keep in a big glass bowl as the TV plays the news. I can’t quite follow what they’re saying in English, but the screen shows captions in Spanish. I don’t bother to read them, because the pictures of the flooded cities tell it all. Then I hear a voice in Spanish. I look up to see a young Latino priest, speaking to his parishioners.
“Even the Pope has said that we need to prioritize the climate crisis,” he says in Spanish. This time, the subtitles across the bottom of the screen are in English. “The Pope hasn’t gone as far as endorsing the Green New Deal,” the priest continues. “But I think it’s our best hope of finding solutions. It would create a transition to clean energy in a way that would protect communities most vulnerable to the climate crisis—immigrants, people of color, the poor, the unhoused, young people. And it would create millions of good-paying jobs with benefits that would transform the economy, as well as agriculture. Those of you who can vote should consider finding out where your representatives in Congress stand on the Green New Deal. Those of you who can’t vote should consider finding ways to make your voices heard on this issue. I know you all want a safe world for your children, your children’s children, and so on. . . .”
Then they cut to the other big story. No new developments in the disappearance of Florida Senator Jane Samuelson. I look away from the TV to the hallway for my chance to get into La Rica’s room.
I glance back at the TV, where the newscaster is telling us about plans for a big climate protest in Miami. Then my chance comes. Someone yells from the front door, they need help getting a wheelchair over the sandbag. When my eyes glance back to the nurse, she is heading toward the door to help lift the patient in a wheelchair. I quickly make my way down the hall, ducking past the cart with the sandbags, cringing as my soggy sneakers squeak on the wet floor.
Using the key Mami gave me, I unlock Room Three, La Rica’s room. “The Rich Lady,” I think to myself, as I practice translating everything into English in my head. This woman has been unconscious for weeks, in the biggest room at Shady Orchards. It’s even got an extra bed that nobody uses.
“Bendición, señora,” I say. I always greet her this way. Even though she’s unconscious, I feel the need to show respect. She looks the same every day. Old and pale and thin and silent.
I settle down on the other bed and close the curtain to hide myself if anyone comes in. I unpack my bag and pop the last piece of candy into my mouth. Picking up my English for Speakers of Other Languages worksheet, I press “record” on my phone. The English words sound so perfect coming out of my mouth, but I catch mistakes when I listen to them later.
The dog is moving quickly across the grass. I say the words slowly and carefully. English pronunciation is hard and it makes my mouth tired. But I’m more frustrated by not understanding so much in my classes.
The steady beeping from La Rica’s monitor settles me into a calm rhythm as I continue reading phrases from the worksheet into the recorder.
Suddenly the old lady gives a slight murmur.
I’m not supposed to be here. But then, she isn’t supposed to be able to talk or move. Isn’t she in a coma or something? Not able to eat or drink?
I stay completely still, barely breathing, waiting to hear if she says anything else. She doesn’t. After a while, I think I must have imagined it. Or maybe it was the grumbling of my own belly. But then I hear the shooshing sound of fabric rubbing against fabric. I peek through the slit in the curtain around me.
La Rica is pushing the covers off her chest, moving like she’s underwater or half-asleep. She lifts her ancient head from the pillow. Her short, white hair is flat in the back. She’s not supposed to be moving. I thought she was comatose.
Tubes and wires lead from her body to all kinds of equipment. One of the machines starts beeping faster. Is that her heartbeat?
Then she pulls her leg out from under the covers. Oh, no! She’s going to try to stand. Mami says she’s been here for weeks and can’t even get up to use the bathroom. She has a bedpan for that. Looking at those pencil-thin legs, I know they won’t support her frail body. She’ll definitely fall onto the white linoleum floor. As she heaves herself up, she seems to wobble. Maybe she’ll fall back onto the bed and go back to sleep or back in a coma or whatever.
Instead, La Rica seems to muster all her strength and begins pulling her other leg out from under the covers. As she tries to stand, I leap from behind the curtain and cross the room in three long bounds. As the old lady half-topples out of bed, I catch her.
The moment she lays eyes on my face, she grabs my shirt, both to hang onto me and, I think, to emphasize the urgency of her message. She speaks fast and in English and I can’t understand. She says the same thing over and over, burning the sound into my mind. In the background, the beeping grows faster and faster.
I stare into her pale, distraught face with its deep creases. I must look frozen, my own face staring back. I don’t know what to say. But then a wave of exhaustion seems to overtake her and she collapses. I’m afraid she’s had a heart attack or something, but the beeping continues at a steady speed. She slumps forward onto me with a final murmur, a word I recognize: “Help . . .”
Is there something else I should do? I ease her back onto the bed and stand up.
Suddenly, I hear footsteps running toward us. That beeping machine must have alerted the nurses.
I rush back to the bed behind the curtain. I can’t let them see me. Mami could get in trouble if they do, especially because we’re not supposed to have a key. If a machine were measuring my heartbeat, it would be beeping out of control.
I manage to pull the curtains closed just as the door opens. I sit on the bed, my legs tucked under me, making myself as small as possible. Through the slit in the curtain, I can see three people come in. Two nurses and a police officer. I recognize the usual nurse and the blonde head nurse. Good. They can help her.
La Rica stirs. She takes one look at the cop and attempts to sit up again.
The head nurse barks an order to the regular nurse, who steps to the side and unlocks a cabinet. She brings out a large syringe and a small vial of clear liquid. The head nurse takes them and carefully fills the syringe. She says something soothing to La Rica, but the old lady looks from her to the big syringe.
“No!” she protests and shrinks back on the bed. The machine is beeping even faster now.
The cop and the other nurse pin her down while the head nurse gives her the injection. At first, she resists. But then her body goes limp, lapsing back into the coma-like state. The beeping slows to its usual tempo.
As I watch it all, I try to stay silent, to not even breathe. I glance at my phone and see that it has been recording everything. Is the ringer on? Could I get a call, a text, a notification that would give me away? At first I was worried about Mami getting fired. Now I’m afraid we could get in even worse trouble. A police officer? Nurses? Using drugs to put this old woman in a fake coma? What’s going on here?
I realize that whatever I’m recording could be evidence. I pick up the phone to silence it. Then I point it toward La Rica, to better record what is happening.
I’m not supposed to be here. But then, she isn’t supposed to be able to talk or move. Isn’t she in a coma or something?
The nurses and the cop begin to argue. I only catch a few words: Job . . . Fire . . . Quiet! . . . Sorry. The regular nurse leaves, then comes back moments later wheeling a bag of fluid on a stand. The head nurse hooks it up to La Rica’s other arm with a second IV. They say some more things in English that I don’t understand. When the cop leaves, the two nurses switch to Spanish.
“I’m sorry,” the regular nurse says. “I didn’t—”
The head nurse holds her hand up. “What’s done is done,” she says. “But from this day forward you need to earn that bonus we’re giving you.”
The regular nurse nods, and the head nurse gives her final instructions in English before the two of them walk out. When the door clicks shut behind them, I take in a few big breaths. My body shudders as I let out the air.
I notice that the phone I’m gripping in my hand is still recording. I turn it off. The time is 7:34 p.m. Mami gets off work at eight. She usually comes by a little bit after that and knocks on the door to let me know the coast is clear and I can come out. But not tonight. I can’t wait in here one more minute. I gather my stuff to escape without even saying goodbye to La Rica.
I use the emergency exit and climb out the bathroom window, which is hidden behind a hedge. After the latch clicks shut behind me, I circle back to the lobby. I have to slog through sodden fake grass to get to the flooded walkway. Once inside, I text Mami where to find me.
I have at least twenty minutes to wait. I play the recording, listening closely with my earbuds as I try to make sense of what I saw. I catch a few more words and phrases, but I still can’t really understand it.
Let me tell you something: Google Translate doesn’t work unless you speak slowly and clearly. It can’t translate an old woman yelling, or three people talking over each other on the other side of the room.
Still, they keep saying one thing, and it seems to be the key to everything: So dated. Each one of them has said those words, even La Rica: You have to help me. They’re keeping me so dated.
I type it into my English-to-Spanish translation app, but it still doesn’t make sense. So dated translates to tan anticuado or tan anticuada. Basically, so antiquated. Like so old? Help me! I’m so old? Yeah, she’s old. She looks like eighty? Ninety? But it doesn’t make sense. Plus, the proper translation of old is vieja. Nobody goes around saying they’re antiquated. Maybe rich people do? And why do they need to give her a shot for being old? Most of all, why is a cop involved?
Nothing about it makes sense except Help me. I know from TV shows and movies exactly what that means. Now, instead of feeling hungry, I have a tense feeling in my belly that something is really wrong.
I can’t wait until Mami gets off work and I can tell her everything.
LAST YEAR when I was fourteen, I took English for half a semester at a really fancy school in the Dominican Republic. I only went there for three months. On my first day, the teacher introduced me. “Good morning, class. We have a new student, Amandys Castillo.”
Standing in front of everyone, it was obvious that I was the darkest in the class. Mami had pulled my hair back in a tight braid that day, so no one could see its wild texture. But there was barely a wavy-haired girl in the class, let alone one with lips as full or a nose as wide as mine. I sat in the seat the teacher pointed me to and felt the whispers at my back all day.
The other girls had already taken a few years of English, and they spoke it around me so I wouldn’t understand them. But looking down on someone is a universal language. I didn’t need to be able to translate things like, Who let her in here? or Did someone decide that the maid’s daughter deserves an education? to know what was up.
The English class at that school was way ahead of me, so the teacher sent me to a class with much younger kids. I learned phrases like How are you today? and How is the weather? I didn’t learn how to translate anything useful, like the hateful words whispered behind my back: I heard her mother is just the girlfriend of a guy with money. She’s not even his wife. Or I heard her mother was a cook at a hotel restaurant. Probably just there trying to meet rich men. I certainly didn’t learn how to respond to any of those statements in English. Instead, I learned how to respond with I’m fine, thank you. How are you? And the weather today is lovely.
Sitting on the vinyl couch in the waiting room at Shady Orchards, I stare at the recording on my phone as I play it again. La Rica kept saying so dated. English is the hardest thing about moving to the United States. I just can’t understand people.
After doing all I can to translate what I heard, I still can’t understand what I just saw happen in La Rica’s room, her cry for help, the nurses, the injection, the cop. The gnawing feeling in my belly has turned to numbness. Finally, Mami shows up a little after eight, and we leave through the sliding glass doors to take the bus home.
Mami takes us to a different bus stop so we don’t have to cross the street again through the floodwater. The moment we’re seated, I tell her everything I saw happen in Room Three. “La Rica needs our help,” I say.
“Mija,” Mami says. “We can’t get involved with any of these people’s problems.”
“Mami,” I say. “Listen.”
I hand her one of my earbuds. She puts it in her ear. I play the recording of La Rica pleading, “You have to help me! They’re keeping me so dated!” Mami pulls the earbuds out of her ear and grabs me by my shirt. “Amandys, you need to keep your mouth shut. Who could we tell? No one at the nursing home, because you’re not supposed to be there. We don’t have papers here. We can’t make any trouble or we can get deported back to Santo Domingo. We’ve got nowhere to go back home. We’re just now getting settled here in the U.S.”
She lets go of my shirt. It’s the second time someone has grabbed my shirt today.
I turn and stare out the window as we pass a big billboard. It shows a white family drinking soda. They’re all grinning, like your family and soda are all anyone could ever need in life.
I never really knew my dad. Mami is the only family I have. I thought that all I had to do was tell her about La Rica and she would explain it. Fix it. Like she always has with everything—until now. But I guess that’s another thing that’s different here in the U.S. My Mami used to be my rock. I could always count on her to be strong anytime I was scared. Will I have to be strong all by myself in this new country?
Mami taps me on the shoulder, and I turn back to her.
“Nena,” she says. Her voice isn’t as sharp, but still serious. “You need to erase that recording.”
I nod, then I make it look like I’m pressing the “delete” button. I don’t though. La Rica’s face haunts me. So does the memory of three people rushing in and overpowering her. Even if I can’t go to the authorities, I need to be able to understand what I just saw. I need to play the recording for someone who speaks English.
At school the next day, I know there’s just one person I can talk to. Mariluna Contreras is a junior and the “language buddy” the teacher assigned me as an ESL student. Mariluna hangs with a group of Puerto Rican girls. Puerto Ricans usually have more money and status than us Dominicans because they’re U.S. citizens.
During lunch, I eat by myself, as usual. Today’s cafeteria menu is a burger and fries, so not that bad. I finish quickly and walk over to the Puerto Rican girls’ table. I feel nervous approaching them, even though Mariluna has always been nice to me. As my buddy, she sought me out during the first week of school to see if I needed anything. I didn’t need anything; I needed everything: someone to translate for me, show me around, help me understand how things work. I thanked her and said I didn’t need any help. Now we just smile or wave in the hallways if we pass each other between classes.
I look from Mariluna to the three girls she’s sitting with. One has straight blonde hair, and the other two are wavy-haired brunettes. Only Mariluna has brown skin and black curls, which spill over her shoulders. I flash back to the girls at the rich school I briefly attended in the Dominican Republic and almost chicken out. But I can’t get La Rica’s face out of my mind. I slept poorly last night, worrying about what’s going on. I have to at least try.
“Excuse me, Mariluna?” I tap her on the shoulder.
All four girls look up at me. Only Mariluna is smiling. I don’t know if the other girls have an attitude with me or if I’m still caught in the flashback from my old school.
“Amandys,” Mariluna says. “Que pasa?”
“Sorry to interrupt,” I say in Spanish. “I have a . . . a situation. I sort of need some translating.”
“Right now?” Mariluna asks.
“No . . . I . . . the bell is about to ring,” I say. “I was thinking maybe after school?”
“Sure,” Mariluna says. “Meet me on the front steps.”
The rest of the day crawls by. Mostly, I tune out, because it’s so hard to understand. All I can think about are the words in the recording on my phone. So dated. Help me.
During history class, we go to the library to hear a presentation from a smiling lady in a blue suit. I’m not sure what she’s talking about. I ignore her and stare at some of the posters on the walls. Mostly they’re pictures of famous people and the word READ in big red letters. I know what that means, but the only celebrity I recognize is Jennifer Lopez.
There’s also a color picture behind the librarian’s desk of Senator Jane Samuelson, who has been missing for several weeks. She reminds me of Doña Rosita, a landlady we had back in the Dominican Republic. Doña Rosita was maybe in her fifties. Same fiery red hair as the senator. Same bright lipstick. Same darkly lined and thickly lashed eyes. Same heavy makeup—even a similar shade. But the senator is a white lady with a year-round tan, and the landlady wore makeup that made her face a couple of shades lighter.
After school, I wait on the front steps. Students walk past onto a street where the floodwaters are receding. The sky is perfectly sunny, but the ground looks like it’s been raining hard. I watch a line of students crossing in the middle of the street, because water is backed up in the drain at the corner.
The school is a mix of Black, white, and Latinx kids. Because I’m new, I can’t really tell who belongs in which group. Is the brown girl with the curly hair Black or Latina? Is the dark-haired boy in the hoodie white or Latino? There’s that cute Black boy with the short dreadlocks. Is he American Black or Caribbean Black? There are some Asian students, too. A bunch of them in my English for Speakers of Other Languages class. The one thing we all have in common is what side of town we live on. Let me put it this way: there are no rich kids at my school.
I’ve been waiting for nearly fifteen minutes and just starting to wonder if Mariluna has forgotten about me when she comes running out.
“Sorry,” she says. “I got my phone confiscated in gym and had to run all the way over there to get it.”
“Thanks for coming,” I say.
“So what do you need translated?” she asks. “Is it a homework assignment or something?”
“It’s not part of school,” I say. “I hope that’s okay. It’s . . . something I recorded.”
“I don’t understand,” she says, her brow furrowing.
“I heard something,” I say. “At my mom’s job. This lady—it’s a long story. I didn’t mean to record it. I was just . . . I had my recorder on for homework. But then . . . Can I just play it?”
She looks from me to my phone. “Okay,” she says. Her face looks uncertain.
I realize I’m nervous and my hands are shaking a little. I hit the “play” button.
The dog is moving quickly across the grass.
“No, wait,” I say. “That’s not the right place.” Then I play it. La Rica calling for help in English: You have to help me. They’re keeping me so dated. Then I fast-forward to the nurses and the cop coming in.
Watching Mariluna’s face while she listens is like watching a flower bloom. First her face is a tight bud, but slowly her eyes open. Her mouth opens. Her whole body is blooming with outrage.
“Who were the people?” she asks. “Doctors? Nurses?”
“The two women were nurses,” I say. “The guy was a cop.”
“You’re sure he was with the police?”
“He was in uniform,” I say. “So what does it mean? So dated? What are they saying?”
“Not so dated,” she translates. “Sedated. Drugs. They’re keeping her drugged.”
Now I’m the one with eyes open wide. Of course! Drugs. I saw the nurse give them to her. I play it again, and Mariluna translates it, line by line.
“You had one job,” the police officer says. “Keep her sedated.”
“There was a flood,” the head nurse replies.
“I don’t care what happens here,” the cop says forcefully. “Everyone else in this place can wash away for all we care. You have to keep her quiet.”
“I understand,” says the head nurse. “We’ll give her to a second IV to keep her sedated.”
“I saw that,” I say. “They hooked up the IV.”
“I’m sure this is some type of elder abuse,” Mariluna says. “Who’s the lady?”
“They call her La Rica,” I say.
“She’s probably, like, some billionaire and her kids are keeping her like this so they can steal her money,” Mariluna says.
“You really think so?” I ask.
“It’s got to be something like that,” Mariluna says. “Apparently, someone’s paying a lot of money to keep this lady asleep.”
“What do we do about it?” I ask. “I told my mami, and she says not to get involved.” I don’t know Mariluna that well yet. I don’t want to let her know we don’t have papers. I also don’t want her to know that Mami shut down the conversation without even really listening.
“I mean,” I begin, and then figure out a way to explain. “We can’t contact the authorities. Because there was a cop involved and everything. And the nursing home is obviously in on it. My mami says there is nothing we can do.”
“Of course there’s something we can do,” Mariluna says. “My aunt is a nurse. She talks all the time about those IV bags. If there’s even a bend in the tube, the patient might not get all the medication. It’s easy enough to cut off the drip. We could do it with a binder clip. If that’s how they’re giving her the drugs to make her sleep, we can stop the supply and she’ll wake up. We need to find out more.”
“We?” I say. “Like you and me?”
“Yeah,” she says. “That’s why you came to me, right?”
“Right,” I say. “Of course.”
“Where can we work on this?” she asks. “At your house?”
I think of the single room that Mami and I share at the rooming house. “No,” I say. “I go to the nursing home after school. I was gonna catch the bus over there this afternoon.”
“We need to come up with a plan,” Mariluna says. “We shouldn’t work on it where anyone can overhear. Let’s go to my house. I only live a few blocks from here.”
I find myself nodding, and then and text Mami that I’ll be at a friend’s house instead of coming to Shady Orchards.
“Is your friend a girl?” Mami replies. “What’s her name? Will an adult be home? What’s their address? Can I meet them when I pick you up?”
Mariluna and I answer all the questions, and Mami agrees. But I can tell—even through texts—that she’s suspicious. She worries that I’ll be hanging out with a boy or smoking. Of course, if she learns what I’m really up to, she’ll be even more upset.
We walk down past the basketball courts, where a group of girls practice shooting from the free throw line. Mariluna lives up the street from school, just a half mile north. I watch the ball sail in a perfect arc into the net.
“So you’re Puerto Rican, right?” I ask.
“No,” she says. “I’m Dominican. Like you.”
“But I thought—” I stammer. Her Spanish sounds Puerto Rican to me.
“We were living in Puerto Rico until Hurricane Maria destroyed our apartment building. Then we came to Florida. My aunt lived here, so we joined her. Before Puerto Rico, we lived in Santiago.”
“We lived in the capital,” I say, although we lived in a few different places.
Mariluna tells me that she learned a bunch of English in Puerto Rico and came to live in Proctor in 2018. That’s why she speaks English fluently and without an accent.
Mariluna’s apartment is on the sixth floor of a building that faces a freeway. A vacant lot next door has turned into a kind of jungle, with some garbage but also with wildflowers blooming.
“We live here with my aunt,” Mariluna says as we walk up the five flights of exterior stairs. “She’s home today, but she’s asleep. She works the night shift. My mami works until five.”
The building has no hallways or elevator, only outdoor concrete steps and exterior entrances.
“You’re an only child, too?” I ask.
“No way,” she says. “I have two little sisters and a baby brother. The girls are twins. Three years old. My brother’s almost two. They all stay with a neighbor during the day.”
I don’t ask about her dad, and she doesn’t ask about mine.
We’re a little out of breath by the time we reach the sixth floor. Me more than Mariluna. She takes out a key and unlocks the door.
“Consider yourself warned,” she says. “The place is a mess.”
She isn’t lying. The sofa and chairs are covered with books and crayons. Laundry. A big package of disposable diapers. A basket of kiddie toys. The kitchen table is covered with what looks like the dishes from breakfast, with more unwashed dishes in the sink. It looks almost as if the family was surprised in the middle of breakfast and fled for their lives.
I expected the place to be bigger, because six people live here. But it’s just a small two-bedroom. One bedroom door is closed. I assume her aunt is sleeping in there. The other is wide open, revealing a room in some ways messier than the rest of the apartment. Or more crowded, really, with a double bed at one end and a single bed at the other. I try doing the math to figure out where everyone sleeps. Maybe Mariluna and her mom in the double bed and the little kids laid out longways on the other bed.
Mariluna moves some laundry off the couch onto a chair, making a place for us to sit. She rummages around in the kitchen and finds a bag of platano chips. As we crunch on them, she puts her hand over her full mouth and whispers, “So do you think we can pull it off? Cutting the drug drip to La Rica and finding out what’s going on?”
“I guess,” I say. This isn’t really what I had in mind. I wanted to tell an adult so they could take care of it. But Mami is the only adult I trust. I guess I sort of thought Mariluna would know another adult we could trust. Like, “Ms. Fulana is really nice! Let’s tell her about it. She’ll know what to do.” But Mariluna seems to think we need to handle it ourselves.
“I mean,” Mariluna says. “If she really is a rich lady and we rescue her, she might . . . I don’t know. Cut her kids out of the will and leave us all her money. You never know.”
That thought hasn’t occurred to me. All I know is that I can’t go to Shady Orchards every day, knowing that an old, helpless lady is being kept against her will. I’ve sat in that room for weeks, doing my homework a few feet from her. Breathing the same air. And the whole time, she was a prisoner.
“I think I could sneak you in,” I say. “The daytime head nurse is always talking or scrolling on her phone. She doesn’t pay attention to what’s going on. It’s just the evening nurse.”
“Great,” Mariluna says. “Tomorrow is early dismissal.”
We plot it out. School gets out at 2:20. I usually go to the library for English learners tutorial, but I can skip it. We’ll get to Shady Orchards on the bus around 3:45. That gives us more than an hour before the evening nurse comes on duty. But would that be enough time? Now that they have her on the second IV, no one comes in to give the five p.m. injection. And no one has come in before evening rounds, except yesterday when the machines were beeping so fast.
We talk through all the possible problems. I draw a floor plan of the home from the main entrance to La Rica’s room. Then I sketch a more detailed floor plan of the room. By five p.m., we’ve exhausted our planning and we start our homework. I’m reading what’s basically a picture book in English when a woman comes out of the second bedroom. I presume this is Mariluna’s aunt. Her room—or what I can see of it behind her as she comes out—is totally neat and organized. An oasis of order in the chaotic apartment.
“Buenos dias,” Mariluna chirps, though it’s practically dusk.
“Hola,” her aunt says with a yawn. Mariluna makes introductions, and we kiss each other hello on the cheek. Her aunt’s name is Lorina.
“Make yourself at home,” Lorina says.
“Titi Lorina,” Mariluna asks. “I’m doing some research about chemicals affecting the body. If someone was on an IV sedative drip that was keeping them, you know, unconscious, how long would it take after you shut it off for them to wake up?”
“What science class is this?” Lorina asks.
“It’s not for a class,” Mariluna says. “It’s for a story I’m writing. It’s more science fiction than science.”
“Well,” Lorina says. “It would depend on a lot of factors: the dosage and drug they use. The age of the patient. Their health. How long they’ve been sedated.”
“Let’s say the person was old,” Mariluna says. “Not in great health, and heavily sedated.”
Lorina considers. “In less than an hour they’d probably start coming out of it. But it might take days for the drug to be completely out of their system. How awake do you want them to be in the story?”
“Totally conscious,” Mariluna says. “Able to talk and think pretty clearly.”
“I would give it one to two hours,” Lorina says.
“Thanks,” Mariluna says and writes it down in her notebook.
“I want to see that story when you finish it,” Lorina says.
Mariluna smiles. “You’ll be the first to read it,” she says.
By six in the evening, Mariluna’s mother arrives with the three smaller kids. She looks like a slightly older version of Lorina.
She kisses her sister and daughter hello. While Mariluna makes the introductions, she gives me a pleased-to-meet you kiss on the cheek. I notice that she has the same kind of hair as Mariluna, and though she’s wearing hers in a tight ponytail, her curls still poke up through the pulled-back surface of her hair.
Meanwhile, Lorina greets the little kids. “How are my nieces and nephew today?” she asks, sitting on the floor and hugging all three. “I missed you so much. I think you’re all taller than when I saw you last night!”
The twins are the first to come check me out. Both girls hide behind their mother’s legs and peer at me shyly. But that doesn’t last long. The next thing I know, they’re pulling out every toy and stuffed animal they have and showing them to me.
While Lorina seems to be getting ready for work, Mariluna’s mom starts cooking.
“Amandys,” she calls from the kitchenette. “Would you like to stay for dinner?”
“Yes, please,” I say. I’m not sure what I would have done if she didn’t ask. Mami won’t get here until like nine.
The kids create a frenzy of activity around us. It reminds me of visiting my uncle’s house. We even lived there briefly during the year before we left the Dominican Republic. I like having more kids around. I mean, it would be a bit much to sleep with them and my mother in a tiny room like Mariluna, but still really sweet.
Dinner is a bit of a zoo. Mariluna’s mom serves pollo guisado con arroz blanco. The chicken stew is thick with potatoes and carrots. Lorina packs hers to go, with a huge scoop of white rice, and heads out. The twins scream that they’re hungry, and I help make their plates. A Spanish radio station plays in the background. It goes from music to the news. There’s been a big climate change rally in Miami. I hear people chanting in English, and someone translating what they’re saying. It’s like a hundred people are joining us at the table demanding climate action now. “Here in Florida, the climate crisis isn’t some future thing. It’s happening now. Too many of our lawmakers want to act like there’s nothing we can do. Or that we need to spend the next ten years coming up with solutions. We already have solutions. The Green New Deal would make the changes that we need to make in ending our dependency on fossil fuels and transitioning to green energy in ways that wouldn’t leave any communities behind.” Even as the young woman speaks, the rally is still chanting loudly in the background. “The Green New Deal would transform our economy and support workers’ rights, Indigenous rights, migrant rights, and guarantee good jobs, benefits, health care, housing. And that’s why our lawmakers want to keep their heads in the sand. Because the Green New Deal solutions would mean that the rich can’t keep getting richer. But if they keep their heads buried in the sand, at least here in Florida, they’re going to drown.”
Mariluna and I bring the plates to the table, and sit down with the twins. Things on the radio get a little quieter when the reporter interviews a young refugee from Central America. He says he came to the U.S. as a result of climate change in his home country.
At least that’s what I think he says, because even though he’s speaking Spanish, the twins are talking nonstop, recounting their day with the neighbor, whose cat got lost and then found. The twins talk over each other and finish each other’s sentences.
They’re finally quiet, for a moment anyway, when Mariluna’s mom serves dessert—arroz con leche, and I dig in. Now the news has an update on the missing senator. After reminding us that Senator Samuelson was last seen several weeks before, they explain that she never arrived for a hair appointment. That’s got some people online complaining that she was off getting her hair done even as the people of Florida face serious problems. Others are saying women in politics are simultaneously scrutinized for their appearance and criticized for spending time on it. And a few argue that the senator’s family is going through the worst time of their lives, and why can’t people just show some respect? And they all go back and forth from there.
I’ve barely finished my chicken stew but the twins have wolfed down their rice pudding. They start fidgeting and get up from the table to show me more toys.
“Can I help with the dishes?” I ask, eating the last few bites of milky pudding and white rice.
“If you could just keep an eye on the kids,” their mom says.
I play with them on the living room floor while Mariluna clears the table. She puts away the leftovers and her mother washes the dishes.
At bedtime, the twins say, “We want Amandys to read us a story!”
So I do. I read three of them. Two in Spanish. One in English. It’s actually kind of hard. I stumble over some of the words on each page, but the girls know the story well enough to help me. It’s humbling, having three-year-olds coach me with my English. But if we’re going to rescue an old rich lady—who probably only speaks English—I need all the help I can get.
It’s a little after nine when Mami comes to pick me up. By then it’s quiet, except for the twins’ gentle snoring coming through the open bedroom door. Mariluna’s mom has nursed the toddler to sleep. Mother and son are dozing in the chair when my mother knocks. Mariluna’s mom rouses herself and asks Mariluna to get the door while she puts down the baby.
Mami is definitely winded from walking up the stairs. She looks around approvingly.
When Mariluna’s mom comes out of the bedroom, they make introductions. I learn that Mariluna’s mom is named Consuelo. Within minutes, they’re talking like old friends.
As Mami and I turn to leave, I notice Mariluna has a large binder clip in her hand. She puts its loop end over her finger and twirls it.
“Thanks for coming over, Amandys,” she says. “See you tomorrow.”
Now she flips the binder clip around and pops the levers back, then opens and closes it like we plan to do on La Rica’s IV.
Mariluna and I smile at each other. Everything is going according to plan.
SCHOOL THE NEXT DAY feels weird. Mariluna and I are definitely friends now, but I don’t know her other friends. Does that mean it’s cool to sit with them at lunch? I brought leftovers from Mami’s job, so I don’t need to go to the cafeteria. I don’t want an awkward moment, so I eat lunch in the library.
The only class where I even try to pay attention today is English for Speakers of Other Languages. We’re reading aloud a short passage about the federal government. I can follow it pretty well, because president and presidente are so close. So are senator and senador.
One girl from China asks a question about something with a senator. A boy from Mexico grumbles under his breath in Spanish. He says he can’t stand la senadora because of her conservative stances on immigration policy. For all he cares, she can stay disappeared. I’m always a step behind, but I realize he means the redheaded female senator from Florida who has been missing.
“Mr. Vargas,” the teacher says, waving her hand in her Would you like to share with the whole class? Gesture.
He shakes his head, and we go back to reading from the book.
Mariluna and I agree to meet on the steps after school, and this time she gets there first. The two of us walk to the bus stop.
“Where were you at lunch today?” she asks.
“I brought food from home,” I say.
“Well next time bring it and come sit with us,” she says.
“Okay,” I say. “I didn’t want to presume. I mean. We’re friends, but your other friends don’t really know me.”
“I like my group of friends, but . . .” she says. “It’s different. They’re more—” she breaks off. “There’s the bus!”
We run and catch it, which is great. It puts us ten minutes ahead of schedule.
My stomach feels all jumpy inside. Everything is so different than two days ago. Mami thinks I’m somewhere that I’m not. I have a new friend. And I’m sneaking into Shady Orchards to interview an unconscious old woman who we think is possibly being held prisoner.
Mariluna and I sit near the back door. The bus is less than half-full, but I don’t want to talk about the plan where people can hear. Still, the silence feels awkward, so I ask Mariluna what she meant about her friends.
“They just—” she says. “All their families have more money than us. They have really nice birthday parties at cool arcades and stuff. We just have a cake in the park and the kids can run around. They’ve all been to my house, but not before we cleaned up, you know? I don’t want them to talk about me behind my back.”
I nod. I tell her about the rich school I went to in the Dominican Republic.
“They’re not mean like that,” Mariluna says. “They’re just a little judgy. And sort of obsessed with boys. They like to watch TV shows and talk about the bad choices the girls are making. I prefer action shows where the girls have more adventures, you know? But it’s not really their thing. And now that Yamila has a boyfriend, it’s all she talks about. And the other girls sort of eat it up. Like she’s the queen of our group because of it.”
“Yeah,” I say. “That definitely sounds annoying.”
“You have no idea,” Mariluna says. “But they were the girls who welcomed me when I got here, and I like them a lot—when they’re not talking about boys all the time.”
I nod. I have crushes on boys sometimes, but I went to all-girls schools for a lot of my time in the Dominican Republic. But I know boys aren’t everything. Once, Mami had a boyfriend who seemed like Prince Charming, but he wasn’t. Watching her go through all of that makes me think twice about this romance stuff.
As the bus approaches Shady Orchards, I feel my heart start beating harder. After we exit through the back door, I turn to Mariluna.
“Are we really doing this?”
“Definitely,” she says.
When we walk to the front entrance, I look up at the sign. “Shady Orchards: Families in Orlando have been trusting us to look after their beloved elders since 1973.” Part of me prays that the sliding doors won’t sweep open like they usually do. I think of Mami’s warnings. We don’t have papers. If I get caught, she could get in trouble. Maybe she could get fired. If the nursing home calls the police, we could get deported.
But I can’t live with myself if I don’t at least try to find out what happened to this poor old lady. Neither Mami nor Mariluna saw the look in her eyes. They didn’t feel the grip of her frail fingers on their shirt. They didn’t hear her begging for help.
I take a deep breath to calm the hammering of my heart and try to pretend it’s no big deal that I’m walking to Room Three with another teenage girl. As we make our way down the hall, the regular nurse comes toward us.
“Follow me,” I hiss to Mariluna.
She stays perfectly calm and follows me into a women’s restroom. I look past her, and, sure enough, the nurse is going into La Rica’s room.
“Can you check if anyone else is in here?” I whisper.
She nods and checks each stall as I keep the door cracked, peeking out at Room Three.
“I thought you said nobody comes in before evening rounds,” Mariluna says.
“I’ve never been here this early,” I say. “Maybe she’s just making her day rounds.”
A few minutes later, the nurse leaves the room. We’re about to exit, when the head nurse starts walking toward us. I pull back and close the door. Is she headed for the restroom?
“I think another nurse is coming this way!” I whisper.
“Wash your hands!” Mariluna whispers back. She turns on two of the sinks, and when the nurse comes in, I’m standing at one of them, washing my hands. As she disappears into a stall, we shut off the water, grab a few paper towels, and hurry out.
“Do you think they’re done in La Rica’s room for now?” Mariluna asks.
“I don’t know for sure,” I say. “But I think we should go in.”
We hustle down the hallway. It’s quiet now, and we slip into Room Three. I quickly close the door behind us and turn the lock. Mariluna takes a moment to stare at the elderly white woman on the bed.
“Bendición, señora,” I say. Mariluna echoes me.
“Did you bring the clip?” I ask.
Mariluna stops staring and digs through her backpack. She pulls out the binder clip.
I unlock the bathroom window so we can escape quickly if we need to. When I come back, I see the binder clip on the IV tube. “Double-check to make sure it’s the right IV,” I say to Mariluna.
“I did,” she says. “I looked up the drug on the internet. It’s definitely a sedative.”
I nod. We’ve cut off the drug supply. We’ve locked the door. We’ve prepared our escape route. Now there’s nothing to do but wait.
Amandys and I decide to do some homework while waiting for the old lady to wake up. She says math is her favorite because the numbers are the same as in Spanish. I’m excited to get back to the book I’m reading. Usually I read for fun—urban fantasy adventures—but our English class is reading a Dominican author, Julia Alvarez! In the Time of the Butterflies is really good; it’s about four sisters who stand up to the dictatorship. Maybe that’s why I feel bold enough to do this.
Around 4:45, I’m just at the part where the dad gets arrested. I’ve just flipped the page, and the only sound is the beeping of the machine. Then we hear La Rica murmur.
Amandys looks up from her math. We lock eyes. The two of us jump up off the bed and rush to her side. As we discussed, I take the lead and talk to her in English. Amandys presses record on her phone, as we decided to document everything.
“Ma’am?” I say. “It’s okay, ma’am. We’re here to help.”
La Rica slowly blinks. I can tell she’s looking at me, trying to focus.
“You need to help me,” La Rica says. “They’re keeping me sedated.”
Her throat sounds dry. Amandys rushes to the sink to get her a cup of water.
“We know,” I say, patting her hand. “You already told my friend here.” I motion to Amandys. “Do you remember?”
“Yes,” La Rica says, looking at Amandys. “I told you. I remember I told you.” Amandys holds the water to her mouth and she takes a sip.
“Yes, and we’re going to help,” I say. “But first we need to know who you are. What is your name ma’am?”
“I’m Jane,” the woman says, her voice still thick with the sedative.
“Jane who?” I ask.
“Jane Samuelson,” La Rica says.
My mouth falls open and I look at Amandys. She looks confused. But she just moved here a few months ago, so she might not recognize the name. Jane Samuelson is the Florida senator who disappeared.
“La senadora desaparecida,” I tell her.
And then we’re both standing there with our mouths open.
Ready for more? Read Part Two: Alliance, of Aya de León’s The Mystery Woman in Room Three.