Part One: Gina, 1962-66
Miami - Summer, 1962
The witch is always home.
She never leaves her house or yard. Her sole visitor arrives only after sundown. Strange music can be heard late, late into the night and singing.... singing that sounds like the wails of the dead. If the witch wants something, all she has to do is wave her broom in the air to make it happen.
At least that's what all the neighborhood kids say.
A hedge of wild, bright crotons and chicken wire fencing rings the property of Alma Hankins. Ten-year-old Gina Fontana stands on the burning sidewalk and strains on her best ballet tiptoe, trying to peek over it. This is the first time she has come to the witch's house since Manny moved away, and the only time she has ever come alone. It is three whole blocks from her house! If her mother knew where she was, she would be so mad she would scream her head off. Mom screams a lot.
The air is humid and Gina feels sticky, sticky, sticky. She fans her legs with the skirt of her thin cotton dress. It is red plaid with cap sleeves and a white Peter Pan collar, and it was her favorite school dress until her mother carelessly splattered it with Clorox when she was trying to do the laundry after drinking too much wine. Overhead, a black cloud threatens a drenching tropical storm. Gina lifts her long, heavy chestnut brown ponytail that has slid down her neck and rewinds a rubber band around it. Then she wiggles around as she digs lacey, pink nylon panties out of her damp butt crack and sings the song Daddy always sings to her, "Regina Angelina, Gina Lina, Angel Gina."
The chicken wire fence keeps out the children Miss Hankins hates. The old witch only likes cats. Cats, cats, cats... Gina counts more than a dozen sprawled on the porch of the tiny yellow bungalow that is perched on cinderblocks. Manny told her Miss Hankins can turn herself into a bird, and she can turn children into tasty little mice for her beloved cats to torture and eat.
Manny said, "If you hear a crow screech, it is the witch getting ready to swoop down on you!"
Gina misses Manny so much. He had been her neighbor since they were in the first grade. She thinks about him a lot. And lately whenever she hears Johnny Angel on the radio she has dreamy, kissy thoughts about him as if her were her boyfriend or something. But it was never like that when he was around. God, he was so bossy! He thought he knew it all. Gina liked ignoring him and making him mad because even though Manny was a year older than her, they were in the same grade at school - he had been left back a year when his family came from Cuba and he didn't know any English.
Manny Becerra has a baby brother named Carlito who looks like a fat little angel with golden ringlets all over his head and a sweet, heavenly expression on his face. Gina has never heard him cry. He just smiles and laughs and is the happiest baby on earth. Last weekend Gina, her parents, and her brother Frankie went to visit the Becerras at their new house in the next county. She spent the afternoon playing with Manny in the celestial blue swimming pool in his backyard. Sometimes Gina wishes she and Manny were married and Carlito was their baby. She wonders what Manny would say about that. He would probably throw back his head and laugh, his teeth shining white against his tanned skin.
A hand comes down on Gina's shoulder; she jumps and lets out a startled cry.
"I didn't mean to scare you, baby doll," a strange man says, "but I found this hungry kitty, and I thought it might be yours."
The stranger is tall, taller than Daddy or even Frankie who is really tall for a sixteen-year-old. But the man's face is sickly white, almost green, and his cheeks are pitted and scarred. Yuck! His hair is black and greasy. And Gina doesn't like the way he looks at her, like he's hungry... like the way the wolf looks at L