In her latest, acclaimed YA novel, Lilliam Rivera creates an intricate dystopian world, where fierce Latina girl gangs rule in order to survive.
DEALING IN DREAMS
QUEENS OF THE UNDERGROUND
The streets are eerily quiet, which causes me to tighten my guard. We left the healing center right at the start of breaking night. We don’t have to travel far. I continue to feel on edge.
A wall that once proclaimed our victories has a pink slash across our names. Deadly Venoms are claiming space and scratching us out. With one major loss, our rep is taking a hit. Only shows we need to do right by Déesse or we will never be back up. Without me having to say a word, Smiley covers up the names with new ink. THE LMC FOR LIFE.
Nena bumps into me. She walks so close it’s as if she’s afraid to lose me. She should stay in Mega City. Oversee our home. Nena is so green when it comes to fighting. She needs more training. There is not enough time. Then again, we might need her. The more fists the better.
Nena smiles at me. Those big, innocent eyes of hers. How will she react when I tell her we’re heading into Cemi? What will my soldiers say? Will they tell me I’m a fool? Will they say no to the plan? I wish I didn’t have to make these types of decisions.
We reach a gate that blocks the entrance to the 183rd station. Truck and Shi pry open the gate to create a gap large enough for us to squirm our bodies through. Inside, it is completely dark. We stand still until we adjust to the darkness. Soon we are able to make out the stairs leading down to the tunnel. Nena uses her mini-blowtorch to light the way. We listen to make sure there are no signs of toilers trying to move in. We’ve found one or two stragglers before and kicked them out. That’s how Nena came to us. Soon after Manos Dura was iced, Nena showed up asleep on the second step, curled up like a lost puppy. Truck threw her out. Nena came back the next night and the next. She was determined to be accepted into the LMC. Every night Truck sent her flying. On the sixth day, I let her in. Truck was angry with me when I made the decision. We were grieving over Manos. Nena appeared when I needed to go beyond the hate that wanted to consume me. When I focused on Nena, the feeling of hopelessness dissipated.
More steps lead further down. The perfumed smell that recently emanated from Déesse in the healing room is now replaced with rust and rotting rodents. We eventually reach a cement wall. For most stragglers, the adventure to try to set up house in our station ends at this point. Once they make it here, the station appears to have no further access.
Smiley hoists Nena up. Nena lifts an unsuspected grate hidden behind a pile of broken cement. She pushes her body through the small grate and disappears. The sound of dripping water can be heard in the distance. It was Shi who located this station for us. She managed to dig deep in the Codigos archives and find this unassuming place overlooked when walking aboveground. We didn’t create this tunnel. I’m pretty sure it was a random old-schooler who did it. With Shi’s help we were able to locate the right openings, create new traps, and make it our home.
“She’s taking too long.” Truck shakes her head. “Manos used to make it to the other side in less than five minutes. She’s too slow.”
A couple more minutes pass before Nena dislodges a side entrance visible only to the LMC. To enter we must go down on our knees and crawl. It’s a complicated procedure to get to the place we currently call home. It’s worth it. When the LMC first started, we lived in crowded stations with hundreds of other families. There was no privacy. You had to hold tight to your belongings because people would easily steal them.
The LMC moved from there to other stations. Crews tried to bum-rush. Mini battles played out. It took a few tries before we located this one. It was empty. Within a couple of days we cleaned house and moved in.
“Fix that.” Truck points to the broken glass spikes sticking out of the ground. Smiley kneels and replaces the spikes with new ones. Once we pass through a short hallway, we drop down to an open space. A few more feet left.
For the past six months, the steel car bearing a faded letter “D” on the side of it has been ours. Along with the concrete and steel, there is actual growth down here. A slew of plants manage to grow inside. Shi says it has to do with these panels installed in the ceiling. She said they were once called heliostatic panels and they somehow deliver sunlight from above ground. The plants add a nice bit of green even though we barely tend to them. Smiley thinks they are just glorified weeds. Funny how even in the darkest of places, life manages to break through.
The LMC pile into the rusty car. They light candles and place their offerings on the altar. Mementos from before they became an LMC are gathered in a corner. Smiley puts a sueño tab by the image of her mother. Truck drops a blue stone by a crude sketch of her brothers. Shi leaves a piece of paper with a word on it that only she knows. Nena drops a food pellet in front of a ragged worn doll. I cut a piece of my head wrap and place it on a fabric once part of my mother’s dress.
“Line up,” I say. My voice sounds hoarse. I’m still in pain from the throwdown, and I have a pulsating headache. Why does it feel as if weeks have passed me by? Manos. The ANT. The throwdown. And Déesse’s mission. So much. I must find the right words. I will use anger to give me courage.
Featured with permission of the author and publisher, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Read an excerpt of The Education of Margot Sanchez and our Q&A with the author here.