“Man, I ain’t bullshittin’.” Paolo smacked the counter, held eye contact with the cashier. The lone Circle K employee didn’t look convinced but couldn’t keep his focus on the boy in front him because of the three boys roaming the shelves of candy and chips. Paolo knew this. He knew he had the higher ground in this duel, so he kept pushing, pleading his case not to pay the full dollar-twenty-five for the fresh cup a soda he’d just poured himself.
The cashier surrendered. “All right, but don’t be coming in here trying to pull this shit again.” As he rang up Paolo’s soda, he muttered. “Don’t think I won’t call the cops on you punk ass—” he looked up.
“Hey! Lemme see what you two got in your pockets!” He pointed at Dolfo and Alan as they walked towards the door. But he hadn’t even finished saying “Hey” before Dolfo took off like a stray bullet.
Alan, though, froze.
“Come here.” The cashier motioned with a finger. Alan looked at Paolo for a life preserver, but found his older brother looking over him, past him.
“The hell happened over there?” Paolo pointed.
Expecting to see a tidal wave or some other punishment coming to crush him and his cousins, Alan turned around slowly.
Outside, the blue sky had dark gray spilled all over it. Clouds almost never showed up in the summertime, so the smoke looked like it would start raining—raining what? who knew—but everyone stared in silence. Including the cashier.
The only one who wasn’t distracted was Martín. He came up behind his cousin and yelled, “Run, fool!” and both kids bolted.
Paolo didn’t hesitate either, he grabbed his soda and raced out the door. The cashier didn’t say anything to him on his way out.
- * *
“Dumbass crackheads burned their house down.” Dolfo said to his out-breath-cousins when they caught up to him. He bit into the candy bar he’d just stolen and laughed.
Still trying to catch his breath, Paolo surveyed the scene and saw a firefighter staring at him. Paolo remembered, for a second, when he was much younger, when his teacher had asked the class to draw a picture of what they wanted to be when they grew up. He’d drawn a picture of himself in a red coat, wearing a red hat, and holding a snake-like hose that spat blue and purple at his drawing of his own house. He shook that picture from his mind and, with his breath caught, stood straight up, met the firefighter’s gaze. He put his chest out and tilted his head back, like cholos used to do, and looked down his nose at the firefighter: what’s up, pinche güey? He looked at the scene around him and got an idea.
“Let’s go into the alley to see if we can sneak into the backyard,” he said, and Martín and Dolfo nodded. Alan didn’t nod but he didn’t have a choice.
He scanned the house once more. Its history didn’t matter to him; what mattered was what could happen next, especially if no one else was there, other the firefighters. He and his crew headed for the end of the block, and turned in to Booker T. Washington Street.
They were about to reach the alley when Martín whistled and they all looked up to see an EVPD cruiser coming their way.
Behind his sunglasses, a cop scanned the boys up and down as he drove by. It was anyone’s guess what he was doing in the neighborhood: responding to the 9-1-1 call and the fire, cutting through on his way to the station, or looking for a group like this to fill part of a boring summer’s day.
“You kids try ‘n’ stay outta trouble, huh?” he said. His face was hard, dark and let them know it was a threat, not a reminder.
Still feeling like a G from dogging the firefighter, Paolo wanted to show the cop he wasn’t afraid of any words or uniform, but Dolfo and Martín interrupted his stare by saying, in their white voices,
“Yes sir, officer!”
“We will, sir!” Martín even saluted him like he was a sergeant or general. The cop turned his head forward and drove.
“Man fuck five-O,” Dolfo said, in his normal voice, when the cop was far enough.
“What if he heard you?” Alan was spooked, itching with guilt. He was four years younger than Paolo and still young enough to feel bad about stealing from a store.
“That fool can’t do shit to us.” Paolo scolded his little brother. “Come on, let’s go.”
At the alley, they moved into their usual positions: Martín walked to the corner and took off his shoes and hid them in a neighbor’s bushes—almost everywhere in the neighborhood was a pair of sneakers hanging from a telephone wire, so this trick always worked or at least looked real. Dolfo and Paolo bent down to re-lace up their sneakers tight, and they brought their shorts up to their waists and secured their belts to make sure they wouldn’t sag. Dolfo looked up and down Washington one last time. They were ready to go.
They turned, startled.
“What, Alan?” Dolfo asked anxiously.
Alan didn’t hang out with the older kids. Normally he was at home watching tv or reading a book or doing anything else where he wasn’t in the way. His mom wanted him to spend more time with his brother, though; she didn’t like him being inside all day by himself. Paolo hated dragging Alan around, and Alan hated being dragged around by Paolo.
“I’m not as fast as you guys. What if the cop comes back or someone else sees us?”
Paolo—still mad at his brother for almost screwing up in the store, still mad at his mom for working all day and leaving him in charge, still mad at his dad for leaving and never coming back—swelled with anger and smacked Alan upside the head.
“Quit being a little bitch!”
Alan clutched the back of his head like parts of it might fall off, he didn’t make another sound and walked into the alley.
Behind the house, the backyard smelled like shit—hot and watery, boiled shit.
Paolo pulled his collar over his nose but it didn’t help much. He, Dolfo, and Alan stood there, staring at the house and trying not to get sick. He wanted to leave, but he couldn’t. He’d come for something, anything, and he wouldn’t leave with nothing.
Suddenly they heard, in the distance, the whistle that meant Martín had seen a cop or anyone else who would care what they were doing.
“Damn, man. There ain’t shit here ‘cept the smell of rotten ass.” Dolfo spat. “Let’s bounce.”
Paolo turned toward where they had entered and saw Martín run by, with both shoes on, purposely not looking towards them.
Time was up.
They turned to walk down the alley when Alan spoke up.
Dolfo and Paolo followed the small, dusty finger to a medium-sized box, up against the house, in the singed weeds, surrounded by dirty rags and rusted tools.
Paolo gave his cousin a knowing look. Dolfo glanced down the alley towards Washington and breathed deeply. He was the fastest of his cousins; maybe the fastest person in the neighborhood. In his twelve years of life, he’d outran more cars, cops, bullies, and sorry-excuses-for-step-dads than anyone could count. He was up and over the chain-link fence in a move so smooth and that any comic book superhero would’ve wanted to see it again so they could take notes.
He crept to where the box sat, fighting back tears and gagging all the way. He knelt to pick it up, and, straight out of a horror movie, the house’s back door crashed open, and in the doorway, resembling every nightmare ever, was a firefighter with an axe in his hand and his face in a mask.
“Hey!” The monster wheezed. “What the hell are you kids doing?”
Dolfo didn’t give the firefighter a second look. He ran to the fence, hurled the box over and then hurled himself over. In an instant, he was nothing but kicked up dirt and a memory.
Paolo had grabbed Alan by the shoulders and yelled “Run!” before Dolfo had tossed the box over the fence. Alan went flying down the alley, opposite the way they had entered and opposite the way Dolfo soon disappeared. Since he was the oldest and biggest, Paolo knew it was his job to get the box. He bent down and picked it up. It was heavy, but he felt a rush of strength through his arms and legs. Before he turned to follow Alan, he saw that firefighter had taken off his mask and was looking at him with pity or disappointment or maybe even jealousy.
“Chinga tu madre, cabrón!” Paolo yelled. He was off, following the same path he’d sent his scared brother down. He ran hard and carried the box like a baby, carefully, almost with love.
“A la chingada!” Martín was going to explode. He, Paolo, Alan were at their hideout behind their tío’s house. “We hit the jackpot, fool!”
The box they had taken was filled, from corner to corner, top to bottom, in protective plastic wrapping, with porno magazines. And Martin didn’t know what to do with his hands or his eyes: all the blood rushing at the same time to his chest, his brain, and his barely-pubescent dick.
It was like they’d been stranded on a desert island, and this box was their first contact with the world beyond—an unexpected relief package. Who knew what else could wash up on the shore? Alan stared. His eyes growing to try to devour all the images coming out of the box. But Paolo couldn’t thinking about how he hadn’t seen Dolfo since the alley, a half hour before. What if the cops had grabbed him? What if they were coming to their secret hangout spot next?
“Hey,” he said. “So did you see where Dolfo ended up running to?”
Martín didn’t look up. He probably hadn’t even heard what Paolo asked. He was crazy about girls and their parts. When he was seven, he had found some magazines in his dad’s closet, and when his dad caught him looking at them, the ass-whooping he got let him know that this stuff was especially off limits. He wanted more, always.
Paolo got mad.
“Hey, pendejo.” He reached forward and smacked a magazine out of Martín’s hands. “I said ‘did you see where Dolfo went?’”
Martín snapped out of his trance.
“Uh. Yeah. We both split up and he ran to the projects. He probably went to his house or to lay low with Alex or Gabi.” Martín shrugged. “It’s not like they could catch him anyway.”
Paolo felt himself relax a little. He picked up a magazine—the women on the cover were all wearing big sunglasses, some had their hair dyed orange and some green, and they all had on shiny, silvery outfits like they had travelled back from the future just to be in a porno magazine. They reminded Paolo of some of the stories he liked to read, the ones about people exploring new planets and trying to decide if the aliens they met were friendly, deadly, or both.
He looked over at Alan and remembered all this was new to him, including the hideout behind their tío’s house.
“You know you’re not saying shit to Ma about this, right?”
Alan looked at his brother, more confused than surprised or scared. “Y—yeah.” He nodded.
“Word.” Paolo smiled. “Now stop staring and get in on some of this shit, it won’t hurt you.”
After dinner that night, Paolo was washing the dishes when Alan came into the kitchen and asked him: “Lolo, do you think it’s okay that we left that box behind Tío Salo’s house?”
He didn’t look up or turn from the sink. “I told you, you need to stop being such a nena, man.”
Alan was quiet. Over the sound of the water, Paolo could hear the tv in the living room and knew his Ma had fallen asleep on the couch again—the couch he normally slept on. He kept washing, kept his head down.
“Nobody ever goes back there, so there ain’t nothing to worry about. Plus, Tío Salo works nights so he ain’t even awake during the day, you know?” He turned to put a cup on the rack and didn’t realize Alan was right behind him. The cup hit Alan in the face and crashed against the tile floor.
“Pues qué chingados haces?!”
The words roared from the living room into the kitchen like a wave of gun fire, blasting through the door to destroy everything in the way.
“Get outta here!”!” Paolo said just above his breath and shoved his brother.
Alan stumbled out of the kitchen like a cockroach given a second chance.
Shortly after, their Ma came into the kitchen. Paolo was kneeling, using one hand to sweep the glass shards into another; he didn’t dare look up, even after he saw her feet right below his nose. He knew better than to stand in any position that could be seen as challenging, and he also knew cowering wouldn’t do any good.
The hits came. He could hear the hard thuds as much as he could feel them against the back of his head: earthquakes, volcanoes, and thunder between his ears. His vision went black and when it came back he saw the floor and the glass and his hands through tears he couldn’t stop.
Ma’s voice came like lightning strikes. “Qué onda pues, cabrón?! I wake up too early! I work too hard for you to be tan pendejo!”
Paolo didn’t make a sound, didn’t lift his head. He thought, briefly, about standing up, just this once, and fighting her, but instead he kept sweeping and trying to force the tears back where they belonged. Maybe he would finally do something, but first he would pick up every piece of broken glass, no matter how small.
Then silence, calm. After a few moments, he felt her hand. It rested on the back of his head, fingers running through his hair—rainfall after the storm. He stood to see her crying, and he knew he couldn’t do anything more. He was taller than she was, had been for years. She leaned in and hugged him, and he hugged her, still holding broken glass in his hand.
Though it was more shaded than anywhere else in the alley, the lot behind their tío’s house wasn’t spared from the triple-digit heat. It was Alan who, after flipping through a couple of pages in a magazine, said “Are we really just gonna hang out here all afternoon?”
“What’s the problem, man?” Dolfo put down the magazine he was flipping through. It was one called Sport Boys and had women pretend to be playing sports in every picture. Paolo remembered looking at one where all the women were completely naked except for scarves, hats, and ice skates. He imagined himself, naked, on the ice with the women, all of them chasing after one another for warmth and fun. He wiped at his face angrily and blamed his brother for the heat.
“Yeah, Alan, the hell’s your problem?” He snapped.
Visions of smiling girls, free nakedness, and cooler weather: they were all just ideas and distractions. Sweat, heat, dirt and more sweat: this was real. His brother’s whining: this was also real.
“It’s just really hot.” Alan shrugged. “I don’t have a problem.”
Dolfo turned to Paolo. “I mean, maybe we could try to go get a soda or some shit from the Circle K,” he said.
Paolo shook his head. “Fuck that shit, man. You got any money?” He swiped at Dolfo.
Paolo turned to Alan. “And what about you, fool? It’s so fuckin’ hot.” He mimicked wiping tears from his face. “And I’m just una nenita who can’t keep myself from sweating like a bitch.”
Alan looked down. He felt like he had failed, again, at being in his own family.
“That’s what I thought.” Paolo could feel his pulse in his ears. “Unless you wanna try to steal some more shit, especially when they’ll be lookin’ extra hard at us, then guess what?” He looked to his cousin and then to his little brother. “We ain’t doin’— ”
“Hey! What’s going on back here!” a deep voice called out.
Paolo froze where he stood, panic screamed inside his body.
A second later, Martín appeared from behind a wall, laughing his ass off. He made his voice deep and unrecognizable again. “What’re you little wetbacks doing back here, huh? Playin’ butt darts?” Then he went back to laughing. Dolfo joined in. Even Alan found himself laughing with relief.
Paolo needed a second to collect himself.
“The fuck’s your problem, ese.” He flipped his hands like he was ready to rumble.
“Chill.” Martín was finally coming down off his laughter. “Chill. I was just messin’ around, man.” Martin brought his palms to his chest and tried to catch his breath.
“Damn, Lolo,” Dolfo said wiping tears of laughter from his eyes. “You shoulda seen your face when you thought Tino was five-O or some shit.”
Paolo, standing in the middle of all of this felt himself begin to cool down. The fantasy of the naked ice-skaters began to creep back into his mind and he relaxed. He looked at Martín, but this time with a small smile. Martín got him.
“So where the hell you been, man?” Paolo took his seat again and picked his magazine, one called Southern Belles and Butts, up off the dirt.
“Yo, so check this shit out.” Martín reached into his pocket and pulled out some crumpled up dollar bills. “You know Mikey? He saw me with a magazine and said he’d give me five bucks for it. It was a pretty shitty one, too; like, one where the girls barely show anything.” Martín laughed. “Horny little dumbass probably ran all the way home with a boner.”
No one joined him in laughter this time.
Instead, Dolfo, wiping the sweat from his face with his sleeve, stood up and walked towards him. “Hey, so, we each get a dollar then, right? You said it you got five?”
Martín stopped laughing. He closed his fist. “What?” He shook his head. “Uh uh. It was my idea. If you want some money go sell some of this shit yourself.”
Dolfo got in his face. “You ain’t keepin’ all that money, fool.”
Alan looked at his brother: don’t let this happen.
Paolo rushed to put himself between the two, his back to Dolfo. “All right. Chill. Chill.” Martín, suddenly brave behind his human shield, held up the money. “You want some money, then go ask one your daddies for some.” He’d lit the fuse.
Dolfo’s mom couldn’t keep men around for very long but that didn’t stop her from trying. Dolfo didn’t know his dad and didn’t dare ask about him; not because he was afraid of what the question would do to his mom, but because he was terrified that she would tell him and that he was one of the men in the neighborhood who did nothing but smoke in the park and wait for their luck to change. He didn’t have a dad, as far as he was concerned, and anyone who said otherwise was bound to catch the hell he kept in his fists.
“I’m gonna fuck you up, you fuckin’ puto!”
Paolo felt Dolfo push into his back and felt his hand near his ear. He turned around, without thinking, and shoved Dolfo to the ground.
“Back up off me, asshole!’”
Dolfo was up in a flash and was about to go at Paolo, but Alan stepped in between the two of them. He didn’t say anything, but he looked like he was getting ready to start screaming and never, ever stop.
Paolo felt the heat choking his body. He felt like he was boiling, but it felt like anger. It felt like he was angry at Dolfo and Martín. And the box.
“Lolo!” Alan’s voice was like a tiny wind that finds its way through a concrete cell wall, reminding Paolo that he wasn’t completely trapped. Escape could still be a fantasy. He took a few deep breaths. Turned to Dolfo and gave a half-frown—not an apology because apologies are meaningless between boys. But he let him know that it wasn’t time for them to try to break each other. Finally, he turned to Martín, still standing with his money in his fist.
“You ain’t keepin’ all that money,” Paolo said. “Dolfo, Alan, and me almost got caught tryin’ to get that damn box.” He pointed to where it sat, a front-row spectator to all the fighting and cussing. “Or.” He looked down and shrugged his shoulders. “You can keep what you got so far, but you can’t have any more magazines or pictures. It’s your choice: familia or money, man.”
Martín hesitated for a second, but didn’t take long to give them each their dollar. Still, it was too long for Paolo to feel good about. He knew his cousin could easily just tell an adult about the box and they would all be in for some ass-whoopings, or worse, depending on who found out.
“Familia for life, right?” Martín smiled, and he and Dolfo and Paolo and Alan all dapped each other up and laughed. They were cousins again.
“That’s what I’m talkin’ about” Dolfo said, almost singing. “Yo, now we can hit up the Circle K, Alan.” He patted Alan on the chest.
“Word,” Martín said. “I’m tryin’ to get me a big ass cold drink, for sure.”
As they headed out, Paolo put the box in the hiding spot they had designated for it, in between two cinder blocks and under a plastic tarp. For the first time, he was a little afraid of what the box could do to them.
Still, the rest of the summer crept by like the sun across the Arizona sky, forgettable but not inconsequential. They’d meet in the park or at someone’s house and go over to the vacant lot up against the back of their tío’s house. The abandoned car frames and overgrown weeds worked as cover and for meetings. Always, they were careful not to be followed when they went to the box. This protected their business. When one of them heard of a kid interested in buying some of their stuff, they would take the money and give the kid a few torn-out pages in return. No matter what any of them made, which wasn’t much more than a few dollars, they would find a way to split it with the rest—except Alan. Alan didn’t sell anything. Paolo still made Martín and Dolfo give him a little bit of money, though.
Then school started.
It was a little over a week into the school year—triple digit heat still accompanied them on their walks—when Dolfo brought it up.
“Ey, so what you do think about tryin’ to take some of these to Polk, man?”
The four would walk to school in the mornings, Alan would peel off at Polk Elementary School and the other three would keep walking the last four blocks to Kino Middle School. On that day, though, they stood at the edge of the neighborhood, a few blocks away from Polk. Paolo and Martín shifted their glances from Dolfo to Alan. No one said anything. When Alan finally did talk, it wasn’t what Paolo expected.
“Do you have any with you right now?”
Dolfo looked at Paolo for the final word. Paolo hadn’t kept Alan from selling pictures and pages on purpose, he just thought his brother wanted no part of it. To him, Alan was still the baby he had to watch over and keep from wandering into the street. Alan hadn’t said no, though, so Paolo didn’t feel like he could tell him no, either. Dolfo reached into his backpack and took out two magazines. Alan took them without a flinch and put them in his old Ninja Turtles backpack—one that had once belonged to Paolo.
“Órale, Alan!” Martín clapped. “You’re growing a pair of huevos, ese!” He pounded his palm against Alan’s chest.
Alan tried to laugh. He looked at Paolo, who smiled quickly and then hid it.
“Hey. Let’s go. I’m not tryin’ to be late to school again. The teachers at Kino are already looking for any excuse to hate my ass.” They walked the rest of the way like they thought summer would be back any day now, rather than falling further and further behind them.
- * *
Paolo picked up his head to see Mrs. Pruitt standing right in front of his desk. She had her arms crossed like he had asked her for money.
“Would you like to share your latest ‘masterpiece’ with the class, or would you rather put it away and get back to reading?”
The class buzzed around him like mosquitos near his ears.
He clutched the piece of paper he’d been drawing rocket ships and space weapons on and crumpled it up in one hand. “I finished my book already.” He managed as his head sunk back into a hunched position. Paolo had found The Illustrated Man in the library during his first day of English Class. He read it in no time, and he wanted to create his own stories that he could someday tell to strangers who he met out in the middle of nowhere.
Mrs. Pruitt didn’t budge. “Well, school’s been in session long enough for you to know what to do, right?” Paolo didn’t say anything. The mosquitoes were inside him now and he felt his skin get hot all over.
Mrs. Pruitt sighed. “Well, class will be over in five minutes, so there’s no sense in sending you to the library now. Make sure you come tomorrow with a new book to read during reading time, okay?” He didn’t move or talk, afraid that he was just one big mosquito bite, about to burst open.
“Man, fuck Mrs. Pruitt!” Paolo said to Martín and Dolfo as they walked home later that day. They were heading straight for their meeting place. Alan hadn’t met them outside of Polk, but he had probably gone straight home after school.
Martín laughed. “Aw. Is that vieja making you mad?” He pretended to wipe tears from his cheeks. “That’s what you get for testing into Advanced English, fool.”
Paolo acted like he hadn’t heard the second part. “She’s just a bitch.” He spat.
Dolfo joined Martin in laughing, “No llores pues! Do you want some candy or a hug, Lolito?”
Paolo was still talking shit about Mrs. Pruitt when they turned the corner near their tío’s place and saw Victor.
He and Paolo had been in the same classes from kindergarten to fifth grade, but Victor hadn’t made it past there. Even though he was fourteen, he was still at Polk, and he was big for his age. At Polk he looked like he should be hanging out with the teachers, not the kids. Paolo didn’t know what Victor was doing, but he knew it wasn’t good.
Victor looked up at them and put a cigarette in his mouth, smiling a snake smile.
“Look who it is.” He hissed with the unlit cigarette in his teeth.
The three of them all said “what’s up” at different levels of quiet, trying to hide their fear over how close Victor was to their hiding spot.
“Yo, Paolo, so is this where your little pervert brother found the shit he had at school?”
Paolo’s head perked up. He didn’t have to say anything for Victor to know he had snared him.
Victor chuckled. “How bad is your ma gonna whoop him? I know Mexican ladies can get crazy when they’re mad. Should I tell the teachers and kids at Polk to start planning a funeral, or what?” He blew smoke right into Paolo’s face.
“You’re making shit up, man” Dolfo said, trying to cover for his cousin.
Victor kept smiling. “Swear to god.” He crossed himself. “He got caught with some magazines at recess. I guess he was selling them or some shit. What a little fucker!”
Paolo felt a coldness stab through his chest.
“Yup.” Victor blew out another stream of smoke. “They suspended his ass and everything. Y’all should really talk to him about his decisions. Who knows what other crazy shit he’ll get into next?” He smiled with the lit cigarette in his mouth. The fire and smoke and smile made him look like a demon.
He looked like them, in a lot of ways, but he didn’t speak Spanish because his mom was Navajo and his dad was gone—like Paolo, Alan, and Dolfo. Except Paolo, Alan, and Dolfo knew that each of their dads was, (is, had been) Mexican. Victor was half-Indian, half-nothing.
“So, y’all gonna show me the rest of this or what?” Victor said.
Paolo felt his body swell like a fresh cut. He fled.
He barely heard Martín and Dolfo shout at Victor, call him a puto or a pendejo; he barely felt his arms and legs pumping furiously—Alan likes school, he thought, Alan’s a good kid—dizzy, with his ears full of wind and heat, he sprinted all the way home.
By the time he got to his house, covered in sweat and out of breath, he was sure Victor had just been messing with him, and Alan would be watching tv or reading a book in the living room. Instead, he came in through the kitchen, heard the tv, and knew his Ma had left work early and knew everything was worse than he thought. He tried to slow down his breathing before going into the living room to face her.
“Ni se te ocurre, cabrón.” She said without looking at him. She was still in her work uniform, her hair still up in a bun, the way they made her wear it at the restaurant.
“Es el colmo.” She said through gritted teeth. “I work all day. I do my best with you chamacos. I don’t deserve this.” Her voiced cracked, her teeth still clenched, she wasn’t yelling, but Paolo knew that this was a limit he had never known and hoped he would never find. Still, without turning away from the tv, she said, “Lárgate. I have to work a shift tonight to make up for cutting my morning short.”
Paolo left in silence.
In Alan’s room, he found his little brother lying in bed under the covers with his back to the door; he couldn’t tell if he was asleep or not. He walked over to where Alan was and put a hand on his shoulder. The little body underneath the covers trembled, felt feverish. Even though he couldn’t hear him, Paolo knew Alan was crying.
* * *
“Hey, so, your brother didn’t tell anybody except Victor about the box, right?” Martín asked a few days later on a walk home from school. Paolo didn’t get angry but didn’t answer. Martín tried to talk through the silence.
“I mean, ‘cause, you know, we talked with Victor and we might still be able to sell stuff at Polk through him.” Paolo picked up his pace and walked in front of his cousins, still without words.
Shortly after that, they stopped walking to school together. Instead, Paolo would go to Mrs. Mendez’s fifth-grade classroom early in the morning to drop off Alan’s homework from the previous day and pick up the homework he would have to do that night. Sometimes, on the walk home, he’d see Dolfo and Martín walking with Victor, but he wouldn’t say what’s up and neither would they.
Finally Alan’s suspension ended. He and his brother walked to school together and he told everything. Victor had heard he was selling magazines and made him tell where he found them or he would tell a teacher. Alan told Victor, and Victor still did nothing to help Alan when another student told a teacher to check Alan’s backpack. Alan got suspended.
“But I never snitched on you guys, you know?” He said. “So, do you think we can go hang out with Dolfo and Martín after school today? They never came by while I was suspended. I wanna see them.”
“For sure.” Paolo nodded. He didn’t think about Victor. He tried to tell himself that, since Alan’s suspension was done, they’d go back to being cool with each other like before. Be family, be boys.
The cop car drove past them on their walk home as they approached their tío’s street. It’d had its lights on. Without thinking, they picked up the pace of their steps until they were running. Running for what? They didn’t know. Whatever was happening around the corner would continue to happen; they could run or they could slow down until it didn’t even feel like they were moving at all. It wouldn’t matter. What was happening in the neighborhood would be happening forever.
When they got to their tío’s street, they saw both police cars. They saw their tío, looking tired and terrified, talking to an officer at this front door. They saw the box, sitting on the back of one of the cars, observing, always observing, the situation expand around it like smoke from a fire that refused to die. Paolo felt, if he took another step forward, he, too, would become nothing but smoke, engulfing his brother in the process. He could see heads, three of them, in the back of one police car, and, even though he couldn’t see their faces, he knew who they were. He knew what this was. Paolo turned to his brother, who turned to him. He put his hand on his shoulder, and they walked home.
“Pero cómo es posible?”
Paolo and Alan ate their dinner and listened to their Ma on the phone with Dolfo’s mom. “For how long? Ay Dios. I’m telling you, estos huercos and this neighborhood, nothing but trouble.”
“So,” Alan whispered. “What do you think happened?”
Paolo finished his food but kept his eyes down. He said nothing.
They heard adios. Then they heard the approaching footsteps. Paolo stood up and went to the sink to have his back turned when their Ma entered. Alan sat still, the entire house—maybe the entire world—waited to see what she would look and sound like coming through that door.
“Did you get enough dinner?” She said when she entered. Her voice a forgiving breeze in a desert.
Alan, as though this was what he expected, answered “Sí, Ma, it’s really good. Are you going to sit down and eat, too?”
Paolo remained turned, his head down, eyes closed, afraid to believe.
“No, mijito,” she responded. Paolo could feel her sad smile on his back. “I think I’m going to go lie down for little bit.” Alan let out an “M-hmm,” and resumed eating.
“Gracias mijo for washing the dishes.” A final raindrop.
Paolo nodded at the sink and barely got out a “de nada, Ma.” He heard the kitchen door swing close, and he turned on the water. Warm, it ran over the back of his hand and dripped onto his plate. When he was sure she was in her room, and he could no longer stand there, Paolo turned off the faucet and went to the living room. When Alan was done, he got up, washed his plate and finished washing his brother’s plate, too.
Oscar Mancinas is a young, fly mestizo poet and prose writer from Mesa, Arizona. Currently, he resides and writes in Boston. Other work by him can be found in Contraposition Magazine, Blue Mesa Review, Phoenix Rising Review, and latinosbelike.tumblr.com. Follow him on Twitter @Oscar_Wildin