Today, we're sharing the first chapter from Laekan Zea Kemp's debut novel, SOMEWHERE BETWEEN BITTER & SWEET! Scroll on to get a sneak peak of this YA novel, out April 6, 2021.
GREASE HISSES AND POPS beneath the staccato drums ticking from the speaker above my brother Angel’s head. The song fades beneath the clank of metal and the sound of his voice calling orders across the kitchen.
“Adobada. Mole verde. Guiso de flor.”
I hear him through the crack in the back door of the restaurant, my forehead pressed to the cold metal as I count my breaths, the beats in between. Go inside. The restaurant is descending into chaos. You don’t have time to fall apart.
But the voice in my head isn’t alone. There’s another voice, biting and cold and cruel.
You’re a mess, Pen. You’re just going to make a mess.
I call it a liar, I pray that it is. Then I grit my teeth and yank the door open.
In the kitchen, glass bowls full of garlic, cilantro, and guajillos slide across the counter, crashing against the faded Spanish labels pressed to jars of canela, anise, and comino. The glass jar of cumin tumbles, exploding against the concrete floor like a flash of orange gunpowder.
The impact ignites a thousand memories. My father’s pipe speaking in tobacco apparitions. The knock and twist of the molcajete, the slap of my mother’s bare feet on the kitchen floor. “Volver Volver” low and stretched like dough as my father hums it over the sound of the radio. Even when they’re not here, their love is still the heartbeat of the place.
“Comin’ in hot!” Angel slams a slab of meat down on the cutting board. “I need runners!” He slaps the counter, summoning the waiters who are dripping in sweat and trying to remember to smile.
But that’s hard to do when you’re slammed and short-staffed. Not to mention the fact that the number of free meals my father’s been doling out has nearly doubled, which means fewer tips but twice the work.
Glass shatters and I rush into the dining room. Gabby, the new girl I spent six hours training this week, is on all fours. When she sees me, she cowers. I don’t just forget to smile. When I’m at the restaurant my face is physically incapable.
She scrambles to scrape up the broken plate and slices her hand. She winces, but I’m not sure if the tears are from the pain or my proximity.
My other half, Chloe, abandons the hostess stand and steps between us. “Try using a broom next time.” She helps Gabby to her feet before trading her hand for the broom. While Gabby cleans up the mess, Chloe pulls me aside. “It was an accident,” she says, reminding me that these kinds of things do indeed happen and that I should defer to her in moments requiring human compassion since she is much better equipped for them. Which also reminds me why she’s my best friend. “Besides, half the people in here are so drunk they didn’t even notice.”
Chloe’s right. We’ve reached that point in the night when we’re slinging more drinks than tacos, and the Frankenstein monsters on our menu—which I’d created specifically for the inebriated—are flooding the line. There’s the fried egg pork carnitas perfect for a pounding headache, and the barbacoa with bacon and refried beans that soaks up alcohol like a sponge. I watch as one of the waitresses carries out a stack of corn tortillas filled with tripas and potatoes smothered in queso blanco—the holy grail of hangover remedies.
Chloe pushes up her glasses, using her shirt to dry the bridge of her nose. “You okay?”
Beneath the buzz, her voice sounds far away. It still stings. But just because Chloe can sense something’s off with me doesn’t mean anyone else can.
Seeing my anxiety grow fangs is a privilege reserved for exactly one person (and only when we’re spoon‐ deep in a carton of Amy’s Mexican vanilla ice cream and there’s no one else around to see me cry).
“I just took a quick break,” I say, eyes trying to steal back more questions. “I’ll be fine.” I’m not exactly sure what fine even means, but it’s good enough for her to let me walk away. For now.
On my way back to the kitchen I’m stopped by one of our neighbors, Mr. Cantu. His baseball cap is covered in paint, and that’s when I notice the spray can in each hand.
“Pen, is your father here?”
“He’ll be back in the morning. Is there something I can help you with?”
He deflates. “I’m here to paint the sidewalk. He said he’d pay me fifty bucks.”
I look from him to the crowd outside the entrance. The sidewalk’s full of people. “Tonight?”
“Well, tomorrow morning. But it’s just that I could really use the money now.” He motions to the parking lot. “My wife’s right outside. She already had the stencils made. We can get started right away.”
Mrs. Cantu can draw almost anything—caricatures, animals, flowers. She turns her sketches into stencils and her husband paints them into custom house numbers. I didn’t know my father had commissioned them to paint the sidewalk outside the restaurant, but it doesn’t surprise me. There’s someone doing odd jobs around here almost every day, not because we need the help but because they do.
“We’re really busy tonight, Mr. Cantu....”
“I can set up cones. I can work around the crowd. Just give him a call,” he pleads.
I lead him back toward the entrance. “I’m sorry, but he’ll meet you in the morning. Like he promised.”
He stops. “Then an advance. You pay me now, and I’ll get to work as soon as the sun comes up.” He’s got a death grip on both paint cans, his eyes red like he hasn’t slept in days. “Please, I have to have the money tonight.”
I lower my voice. “Or what?”
He lowers his too, glancing at the faces nearby. “Or he’ll take something else.”
The look in Mr. Cantu’s eyes spurs my pulse, then my feet. I make my way to the bar, knocking on the counter where Java, one of the bartenders, is flirting with some girls from a bachelorette party waiting to be seated.
“I need fifty from the cash register.” I motion toward Mr. Cantu. “Another side job.”
“What about when I come up short tonight?”
I sigh, taking the cash. “I’ll figure it out.”
He nods, relieved. Because I always do.
That’s who I have to be when I’m here. Pragmatic. A problem‐ solver. Even when my brain is quicksand and no amount of medication can drag me out.
You’re a mess, Pen.
Everything is a mess.
I find Mr. Cantu and hand over the money. “And you’ll be here first thing in the morning.”
“Yes, yes, of course.” He shakes my hand. “Thank you, Pen. Tell your father thank you.”
On my way back to the kitchen, the burn in my knees finally registers. Somehow, my five‐hour shift has stretched into seven. I take the place of one of the platers, my thoughts silenced the moment my signature desserts start coming up the line. For the first time all night, the clenched fist around my lungs lets go. I adorn cakes and pastries with mint leaves and powdered sugar, cinnamon and drizzled cajeta. I suck the Mexican caramel from my thumb. Nothing hurts anymore.
Someone knocks into me from behind, my chest smearing the coconut icing on the piece of cake I just plated. The cake I bake from scratch every single day.
I can hear Struggles, resident dish boy, wheezing behind me, his shoes squeaking as he tries to tiptoe back to the dish pit. I spin, my ponytail whipping him in the face as he raises his hands in surrender.
“I’m s‐sorry.... I was just—”
I grab him by the shirt collar, waiting for everyone else to turn and look. I prefer an audience when I bite someone’s head off. Not because I like the attention, but because I like the insurance. The scarier I am on the outside, the less likely they are to see what’s underneath.
“Bring me another piece.” Struggles takes a step and I yank him back. “If you so much as breathe on it, I will hurt you.”
He scampers away just as another crash ignites from the dining room. I scan the floor for Gabby. Instead, two guys are wrestling by the bar, their bodies knocking drinks off the countertop.
As I wind back through the dining tables, the other bartender, Solana, claws at the arm of one of the drunkards until it’s twisted behind his back. Java ducks behind the bar, groaning as he searches the shelves. I find what he’s looking for before he does, and I poise the air horn between the two brutes. Then I squeeze. They hold their ears, rolling like insects until Solana and a few of our regulars drag them outside.
I call out to Java, “Disaster tax, stat!”
It’s his cue to bump up the price of alcohol for the rest of the night. It’s almost 1:00 AM, which means that everyone left in the bar will be too drunk to care. We’ll make back what’s currently stuck to the floor and then some.
Chloe already has a mop in hand, and I whistle for Struggles to roll out the bucket. He lathers the floor. Gabby grabs a tray of food. She takes one step into the soapsuds and busts.
I find Angel through the order window. He rakes a hand down his face, calculations racing behind his eyes of every broken glass and plate, every spoiled piece of food.
I can see that he’s about to lose his shit, but the chaos of the restaurant is nothing compared to what’s thrashing inside my own head. The voice I’ve been trying to ignore all night sinks its hooks in me.
Just collapse, Pen.
Let it all collapse.
The sound is a tsunami. But this—the mess, the money we’ve lost, the money we’ve been hemorrhaging for months—is more like a Category 5 hurricane, grainy and muted in a black‐ and‐ white photo. The worst of it still looming in the distance. Moving so fast it’s practically still.
I can navigate that kind of stillness. Which is why Angel is always the one who gets to lose his shit while I’m the one who cleans up the mess.
As he hurls a string of expletives at anyone within earshot, I shove away the voice for the millionth time tonight, find a pair of gloves, and get to work.
By closing time, I reek of tequila and onions. There are only four hours until my father and the morning crew will get breakfast started. But I know he’s already awake. From where I’m scrubbing tables in the center of the dining room, I see his headlights creep up the mural on the back wall of the restaurant, settling over the guitar‐ playing skeletons as he puts his truck in park.
Java strips off his shirt on his way to the back door.
“Sol, you’re still covering my shift tomorrow, right?”
She looks back at Angel. “I can’t pour drinks and plate at the same time.”
“New guy’s starting tomorrow, so we won’t need you in the kitchen.”
“But we just got Gabby,” I say.
“Yeah, and we all know how that worked out,” Solana huffs.
“What’s with all the new hires?” Java asks.
I want to ask the same question, and more specifically, why our father hasn’t said anything about it to me.
“Struggles...” Angel slaps the dumpster out back. Struggles is halfway inside. “What the hell are you doing?”
Struggles climbs back out holding a crate of canned tomatoes. When he notices our looks of disgust, he says,
“They’re still good.”
“You mean they expired three days ago.” Angel tries to yank the crate from his grasp.
I step between them. “Which means they’re still good enough for Struggles.” I push the crate back into his arms and he races down the steps to his ride.
We wait for everyone to pull out of the parking lot and then we walk back around to our father’s truck. Angel pulls the door open, letting me slide in first before he slumps down next to me with a sigh.
My back hurts, my legs burn, sweat painting my neck. I scrape my hair out of my face and find pieces of lettuce and dried enchilada sauce. Angel is just as filthy, the hours stuck to us in layers of grease while time has burrowed even deeper into my father’s skin.
He’s been waking up before the sun every morning for the past fifteen years. Cooking migas and tamales and carne asada. Cleaning up broken glass and spilled drinks and half‐ eaten food. Hiring cooks and bartenders and dish washers; firing them too. Wondering if people are going to show up that day, if they’re going to like the food, if they’re going to pay what it’s worth. And going to bed every night hoping that it was enough. To pay the bills. To raise four kids. To open the doors another day.
I can see those worries on his face. But even covered in filth, in food my father used to love, in sweat I can’t wait to wash off, there’s nothing I want more than to wear the same worry he does, to wake up with the same freedom.
“You smell like shit,” my father says.
“You mean I smell like money,” Angel corrects him.
My father almost laughs, but then his eyes track to the neon glow of the restaurant sign stamped against the hood of the truck. There’s something on his mind that can’t quite make it to his lips.
“Mr. Cantu asked for an advance on the sidewalk,” I say.
He sighs. “Did you give it to him?”
“Good,” he says, backing out onto the street.
“He seemed scared,” I add, some of that fear still clinging to me.
This gets his attention, and it’s just a flicker, his eyes quickly returning to the road, but I swear there was something like fear in them too.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
Angel jumps in. “Did he take money from you-know-who?”
“Mind your own business,” my father says.
Angel huffs. “Well, if he did, he’s a fool. Especially after what happened to—”
My father slams on the brakes. Angel and I are thrown forward as the truck idles in the middle of the empty street.
My father looks right at us and says, “Never judge another man for how he tries to feed his family. We’re no better than him. We’re no better than anyone.”
On the rest of the drive home, our father is quiet, Angel and I so still we’re both close to dozing off. Suddenly, I feel my father reach an arm around me, letting me use his shoulder as a pillow. With the same hand he musses Angel’s hair, and even though I know this is all we’ll ever get, that his tenderness toward us will always be confined to the dark, I curl as close to him as I can and wish with everything in me that someday I’ll grow into the parts of him that are better than us all.
Preorder SOMEWHERE BETWEEN BITTER & SWEET today!
Laekan Zea Kemp is a writer living in Austin, TX. She’s also the creator and host of the Author Pep Talks podcast, as well as a contributor to the Las Musas podcast. She has three objectives when it comes to storytelling: to make people laugh, cry, and crave Mexican food. Her work celebrates Chicanx grit, resilience, creativity, and joy while exploring themes of identity and mental health. Her debut novel, SOMEWHERE BETWEEN BITTER & SWEET is forthcoming from Little Brown in spring 2021.
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