Zitlally's family is undocumented, and her father has just been arrested for speeding and deported back to Mexico. As her family waits for him to return—they’ve paid a coyote to guide him back across the border—they receive news that he and the coyote’s other charges have been kidnapped and are being held for ransom. Meanwhile, Zitlally and a new friend find a dog in the forest near their trailer park. They name it Star for the star-shaped patch over its eye. As time goes on, Zitlally starts to realize that Star is her father’s “spirit animal,” and that as long as Star is safe, her father will be also. But what will happen to Zitlally’s dad when Star disappears?
“A vibrant, large-hearted story.”—Publishers Weekly, Starred (on Red Glass)
An Excerpt fromStar in the Forest
There is a forest behind my trailer, through the weeds and under the gate and across the trickly, oily ditch. It is a forest of very, very old car parts, heaps of rusted metal, spotted orangey brown, with rainbow layers of fading paint, and leaves and vines poking and twisting through the holes. Birds and snakes and bugs sometimes peek out from the pipes and hubcaps. My neighborhood is called Forest View Mobile Home Park. I think this must be the forest they're talking about.
On the day Papa was deported, that's where I went.
The police had pulled him over a week earlier, and while he was in jail, Mama was on her cell phone all the time.
Deportado, deportado, deportado, she said, in a hushed, dangerous voice.
Deportado, she said to my aunts Rosa and Virginia and Mar’a.
Deportado, she said over the phone to Uncle Luciano in Mexico.
Deportado meant Papa would be sent back to Mexico, and it would be very, very hard for him to come back.
The day before he was deported, I saw Papa at the jail. He stared at me through the scratchy plastic divider. The phone shook in his hand. He said, "Goodbye, Zitlally." Then he whispered, "Ni-mitz nequi." I love you.
He looked strange in the blue jumpsuit, and even stranger because he was crying, right there in front of the other prisoners and their families and the guards. But my tears stayed hidden under a stone inside a cave inside me. I worried that Papa thought I wasn't sad because my face was dry when I said goodbye.
The next day, alone in the car part forest, I felt tears pushing out like a geyser.
My name is Zitlally. Estrella. Star. That's what it means in Nahuatl. Nahuatl is what Papa speaks to me in secret, even though I don't understand. It is a soft language full of shhhhs and perfect for whispering at night. I used to think it was the language of the stars, what they whispered to each other. This year during the Mexico unit in school, I found out it was the language of the Aztecs. The Aztecs are supposed to be all dead. Maybe they're the ones whispering. I didn't tell anyone that their words aren't dead. I know because Papa speaks them. Because he named me one. Because I hear the stars whispering. Shhhh.
The day after Papa was deportado, Mama was on the phone saying deportado, deportado and crying and Reina was watching a murder movie on TV and Dalia was hanging out with her friends at the edge of the park that no kids are allowed to go to because of the broken glass and needles. Usually Mama would frown and Papa would say that Dalia couldn't hang out with them and that Reina couldn't watch murder movies, but now that Mama was always on the phone, saying deportado, deportado, she didn't notice much.
I brought my math worksheets outside and sat on the ripped Astroturf porch, leaning against the tin side of our trailer. I shivered and wished I'd brought a sweater. It was a little cold because it was April.
Fractions. Four-fifths. The fraction of my family here. Papa used to look over my shoulder as I did math homework and help me. He didn't do problems the way Mr. Martin did on the board. He had his own system. He was a framer and always had to cut wood perfectly, down to the exact one-eighth of an inch, and not waste any wood. He was a master of fractions.
Something crashed, something glass. It came from next door. Then came a waterfall of bashing and breaking and yelling. It was that girl, Crystal's, mom and her mom's boyfriend.
I never talked to Crystal at school.
My best friend, Morgan, said that Crystal shopped at garage sales.
My second-best friend, Emma, said she had poor dental hygiene and chronic halitosis.
And my third-best friend, Olivia, said she used to pee in her pants in first grade.
Since they were my best friends forever, I knew where my loyalty was. When Crystal tried to talk to me at the bus stop, I just shrugged and smiled with no teeth and looked away.
In the two years we'd been friends, Emma and Morgan and Olivia were always inviting me to go ice-skating or to the mall or to the movies or something. It was hard work being their friend. It made me feel like a nervous squirrel, always with my eyes big and my ears perked up.
I had to watch their clothes to know what to wear. Watch their hair to know how to do mine. Watch how they stood and sat and walked so I could do the same. I had to listen to which words they used so I could use them, too. Listen to how their voices went up at the end of a sentence so I could make mine an echo.
There's a reason squirrels do dumb things like run in front of cars. They're all muddled up from so much watching and listening.
In the weeks after Papa was deported, sometimes I accidentally wore the same pair of jeans two days in a row. Sometimes I didn't bother brushing my hair in the morning. When Morgan told jokes, sometimes I forgot to laugh. I was usually staring at a thin line of dirt under my fingernail. Or the tiny scar on my knuckle. Or a raggedy cuticle.
When Olivia asked me to the indoor pool, and Emma asked me to sleep over, I mumbled excuses. At school, no one wanted me in their reading group anymore. I stared at my hands instead of talking. My words were starting to disappear, the way the last bits of snow were melting into mud.
One day, Emma invited me to ride bikes in the park--not our broken-glass park--they never came to my neighborhood--but the nice park by her house.
"I can't," I said.
Good question. Why not? And I thought, I just can't. I can't remember the right words to say or the right way to stand. I can't smile or laugh with them. I can't pretend.
I had run out of excuses. I said, "Because my dad had to go back to Mexico."
"When's he coming back?"
I shrugged. They thought he could just get on a plane and come back. They didn't know he would have to cross the desert again. They didn't know that I crossed it with him and Mama and Dalia, before Reina was born. There was a secret part of me that they didn't know about, that I would never tell them.
Then one day at lunch, after I didn't laugh at Morgan's joke about the cafeteria lady's gigantic Easter bunny earrings, my friends dumped me.
"Zitlally turned boring," Olivia said to Emma and Morgan in a loud whisper.
Sometimes I used to wonder what would happen if I stopped trying. This was it. I picked up my orange tray and moved to another table, an empty one, and decided to let myself turn more and more boring until I became nothing at all.
I found Star in the forest exactly two weeks after Papa was deported. I know because that first night, the moon was disappearing just like I wanted to disappear. But the next night, a sliver appeared, and each night after that, the moon grew and grew until it was full and perfect. And when I saw that moon full and perfect and not missing even the tiniest sliver, I fell asleep hoping that something good might happen.
The next day after school, I ran to the forest. Along the trail, little yellow flowers were pushing through. Daffodils. Someone, sometime had planted ruffly, sunshiny daffodils in the car part forest, and this cheered me up a little. I went under the gate and over the ditch and the tears were already coming because they'd been waiting all day, just pushing against their hiding places, and they couldn't wait to come out.
And then I spotted him.
It was supposed to be white but it was dirty and matted in places with brown stuff so he blended into the car part forest, like a chameleon. He was skinny, too. You could see the outline of his rib bones.
Usually, I am not a dog person. I have a scar the size of a blueberry on my thigh and another on my arm from where a dog bit me in Mexico when I was five.
But this dog seemed scared of me. Of me. He whimpered and cowered and walked in a circle and curled up far from me, under a rusty rainbow truck hood. There was a chain tight around his neck and it was attached to a hole in the hood and he barely had enough chain to make the circle and lie down.
By now my tears had already come and I couldn't go back, so I sat far from him and he watched me and I watched him. I cried and he watched me and after a while my tears stopped and he put his head on his paws. That's when I noticed it. A black patch of fur on the back of his neck.
In the shape of a star.