Home > The Smallest Part

The Smallest Part
Author: Amy Harmon

Prologue

It was a big lie. The biggest lie she’d ever told. It reverberated through her head as she said it, ringing eerily, and the girl behind her eyes—the girl who knew the truth—screamed, and her scream echoed along with the lie.

“Are you in love with Noah, Mercedes?” Cora asked. “I mean . . . I know you love him. You’ve been friends forever. We all have. But are you in love with him?”

Mercedes had wondered since if her response would have been different had she been facing Cora, looking into her big, blue eyes as she answered the question. She didn’t know if she would have been able to hide the truth from her. Cora knew her too well. But Mercedes had been lying to herself for a long time, and she was good at it. She was the mighty stone-face, the tough chick, the sassy Latina, and Cora loved Noah too. She was in love with Noah.

So Mercedes lied.

“Ha! No. Not like that. Never like that. Noah is like my brother. No.” Mercedes heard the lie in the way her accent suddenly appeared when she said “never.” Her r curled, and curled again on “brother,” underlining the falsehood. Mercedes didn’t speak English at home, but she spoke it fluently, and her accent only reared its ethnic head when she wanted it to. Or when she was full of shit. Mercedes wasn’t selfless. Noah had kissed her, and she had kissed him back. She thought about him constantly. Morning, noon, and night. If it had been anyone else—anyone—she would have stuck out her chest, folded her skinny arms, and let her feelings be known. She would have claimed him. She would have.

But it was Cora. Brave, beautiful, broken Cora.

When Mercedes watched Noah and Cora together, they looked right. They fit. Cora had always been taller than all the boys, but she wasn’t taller than Noah. Noah grew six inches his sophomore year in high school, climbing to six-foot two, and he and Cora were like slender trees, looking down on a forest of saplings, looking down on Mercedes with their lovely benevolence. Mercedes grew a few inches herself sophomore year and topped out at five-foot two. She was grateful to have reached that not-so-lofty height; her mother, Alma, was five feet on her tip-toes, and Oscar, her papi, had been five-foot six in his dreams.

Cora’s willowy frame and sweet temperament complemented Noah’s lean height and his introspective nature. Noah’s eyes were the saddest, wisest eyes Mercedes had ever seen. His eyes had always been that way. The wavy, brown curls flopping over his forehead and coiling at his nape softened his angular face with all its sharp edges. He’d buzzed it once, the summer before eighth grade, and he’d looked so naked, so strange, that Mercedes had made him promise never to do it again. It had scared her seeing him that way, as if there were no child left inside him, as if there never had been. But when Cora was around, Noah’s eyes weren’t nearly so sad and nearly so wise. But then love makes fools of everyone, doesn’t it?

Mercedes knew Noah first. She could have said that. She could have called dibs. They met when they were eight years old, two years before Cora moved into the Three Amigos apartment complex. He’d been leaning against the door to his unit, playing with a yo-yo. His knees were knobby and his shorts too short, as if he never grew wider, only longer, and had been wearing them since he was four.

“Hi,” Mercedes had greeted him, her eyes on the bouncing string and the expert way he moved his wrist. He had such patience, such a quiet containment, even then . . .

His eyes lifted, smiling at the corners, before they dropped back to the shiny red yo-yo with the dirty string.

“Hello,” he responded softly.

“I’m Mercedes. You can call me Sadie. I live over there.” She pointed at the door across the hall.

“Mercedes? Like the car?”

“Is it a cool car?” she asked.

“Expensive.”

“Well then, yeah. Just like the car.” Mercedes nodded seriously. Expensive was good.

“I’m Noah.”

“Like the guy with the ark?” she asked.

He flipped the yo-yo up into his palm but didn’t release it again. His brow furrowed as he studied her.

“What guy is that?”

“You know. He had a big ark and put the animals on it because the world was going to be flooded. The guy who’s responsible for rainbows.”

“I’ve never heard of him.” His eyes were wide. “How many animals did he save?”

Mercedes laughed, bewildered. Everyone knew about Noah’s ark, didn’t they? She’d been raised on Noah’s ark and Daniel in the lion’s den and Moses and the parting of the Red Sea. She knew all the Bible stories. It was the only book her grandma—her abuela—ever read to her. They even had a picture of the pope on their living room wall and the Virgin Mary above the toilet, with little candles resting on the tank. Abuela insisted, because it was the only place there was ever any privacy for prayer.

“He saved all kinds. Two of each. A girl and a boy.”

“And the rainbow?”

“God told Noah he wouldn’t ever flood the earth again and gave him a rainbow as a promise.

“Huh. Cool. How long ago was that?”

“A long, long time. About 300 years or so,” Mercedes mused, liking the way it felt to know the answers to his questions. Being the youngest in her family—a family that consisted of her and her parents, her maternal grandmother, an aunt, and two older cousins all crammed into a three-bedroom apartment—meant no one listened to her. It was crowded, and Mercedes was a beloved annoyance.

“Huh.” Noah suddenly looked doubtful. “What if one of the animals died?”

Mercedes didn’t really know what he was asking, so she shrugged.

“What if the girl tiger died? Or the boy lion?” he persisted.

Oh. Mercedes realized what he was getting at. You had to have one of each to have a baby. Abuela had explained that much.

“I guess they didn’t die since we have lions and tigers now, right?”

“Hmm. Maybe that’s why dinosaurs are extinct,” he pondered, rubbing his chin.

“They wouldn’t have fit on the ark, anyway, at least not Brontosaurus,” Mercedes added wisely.

“So only two of each?” he queried.

“Yeah. Only two.”

Only two.

And Cora and Noah were a pair. A beautiful pair.

So Mercedes lied.

And with that lie, she let him go.

One

1985

“What is she doing?” Mercedes whispered. Her voice was awed, not critical, and Noah tipped his head in consternation, not sure he knew.

“She’s talking to someone,” he whispered back.

“But there’s no one there,” Mercedes insisted.

They watched the girl, a wisp of pale limbs and fiery hair, as she twirled around and talked dramatically to someone they couldn’t see.

“She’s so pretty,” Mercedes whispered. “She looks like a fairy who’s lost her wings.”

“Or her marbles,” Noah murmured. He was working his way through a stack of library books and had borrowed Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie on a whim. It was better than he’d anticipated. The red-haired girl kind of reminded him of Tinker Bell, come to think of it. Tinker Bell or Tootles, the lost boy who had lost his marbles. It turned out the marbles were Tootles’s happy thoughts. Maybe the girl was trying to find her happy thoughts. Noah looked down at Mercedes, standing transfixed beside him. She seemed enchanted with the red-haired girl.

“Her name is Cora,” Noah offered, hoping Mercedes wouldn’t leave him behind. With a girl to play with, one of the same age, Mer wouldn’t need him anymore. “She lives in 5B.”

“Is she older than us? She looks older,” Mercedes mused, wrinkling her nose.

“No. She’s ten too.”

“Have you talked to her?”

“No. She was crying when I saw her yesterday.” Her tears had made Noah turn around and walk away, and he’d felt bad about it ever since. He’d wanted to give her privacy, but he should have asked her if she was okay.

“Was she hurt or was she sad?”

“Sad, I think. Something’s wrong with her dad,” Noah said.

“How do you know all of this if you haven’t talked to her?” Mercedes asked, suspicious.

“My mom talked to her mom.”

“Your mom . . . talked?” Mercedes gaped. Noah’s mom—Shelly—rarely left the house in the daylight. She worked nights in the hospital, in the records department, all alone with rows and rows of files and a big ring of keys. Noah thought the hospital was peaceful at night. Mercedes said it sounded creepy. His mother slept during the day, she always had dark circles under her eyes, and Mercedes had never heard her say a word. Noah spoke for her when Mer was around.

“My mom probably just listened,” Noah amended, but Mercedes wasn’t paying attention to him anymore. She was watching the girl, Cora, with a delighted smile.

“She’s playing pretend,” Mercedes crowed, as if solving the puzzle. “Maybe she’ll let us play with her.”

At that moment, the girl turned and saw them watching her. She smiled, and Noah’s breath caught. Her smile was like sunshine, warm and bright and welcoming. She waved eagerly, as though they’d already met, and she’d been waiting for them to join her.

“Come on, Noah,” Mercedes said, slipping her hand into his and pulling him forward. “She’s going to be our friend.”

* * *

2004

Cora stood on Mercedes’s doorstep looking disheveled and disorganized, her one-year old daughter, Gia, on her hip. Her hair hung to her waist in slightly tangled, crimson waves—beach hair. She wasn’t made up, and her blue eyes were shadowed, her freckles dark on her pale cheeks, but she was still beautiful. Slim and tall, narrow-hipped and small-breasted, she’d thought about being a model until she realized modeling meant she would have to leave Noah and Mercedes behind. They had all been inseparable once. Shared fear. Shared uncertainty. Shared childhood. Whatever it was, it had cemented them.

Cora set Gia down and watched her walk on teetering steps across Mercedes’s living room to the couch, where Gia grabbed a hold and tossed a triumphant look over her shoulder, as if to say, “Did you see that?”

Mercedes clapped and scooped her up.

“You’re walking! She’s walking, Cora!” Mercedes danced with Gia, who giggled and burped and giggled again.

“She just ate, Sadie. Don’t jostle her or her bottle is going to end up all over your shirt,” Cora warned. Mercedes set Gia down, steadying her, and backed away. “Come see me, Gia. Come to me!” Gia toddled toward her godmother, zombie-like, arms out, legs stiff.

“When did this happen?” Mercedes shrieked, swooping her up again. “She was crawling on her birthday, and now this!” Mercedes was devastated that she’d missed the transition. Gia had turned one two weeks ago. Mercedes had hosted a party with a few of their friends and so many pink balloons her living room had looked like a bubble bath commercial.

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