by Armando Gonzalez
Maria was in her room, sitting in a chair next to her bed, praying while holding her wooden rosary necklace. She was waiting for her husband to come home. She prayed that Miguel, her husband, wouldn’t work so much. Even on weekends, instead of being with her, he mostly spent it working. His wife used to tell him to stop telling people he was available to work because then he would have a lot of work, and most likely would end up working all week with little to no rest. Miguel didn't seem to mind though. He liked working.
Miguel left around eight in the morning. That morning, before he left, as he sat on their bed and was putting on his pants, Maria asked him what time he thought he would be back. He said probably eleven in the morning. While Maria was currently praying, it was soon going to be one in the afternoon. She hoped he didn’t lie to her.
After she felt satisfied with the amount of praying she had done, she began thinking of what could still be done around the apartment. Although she had basically completed all the necessary work, she still behaved like an employee on the clock, trying to find something to do so as to avoid being seen by their bosses doing nothing. She first went to the kitchen to see if the floor needed to be mopped. There were some footprints on the kitchen floor, most likely from Miguel’s boots when he was mowing lawns. It should have only taken somewhere around five minutes or less to clean it but she took her time. After she was done mopping the kitchen floor, she checked to see if there were any dirty plates in the kitchen sink. There were only two dishes and three glass cups. She washed them, just as slowly as she mopped the floor. After the dishes, she checked the wooden living room floor, but unsurprisingly, it was pretty clean. She checked all around the apartment to do any kind of cleaning, but there just wasn’t anything to clean. She thought of praying some more, but she didn’t think it was necessary, as she was taught by attending mass over the years, that it’s more about the sincerity behind a prayer than the amount of praying one does in a day.
Suddenly, Maria got the idea to go to church. If Miguel wasn’t going to come home anytime soon, then she would go to church, even if it wasn’t Sunday. She knew that Miguel would get annoyed if she did this, and ask her why she went to church, even if she told him there was nothing to do at home. She ignored these thoughts.
She changed into a loose fitting dress, brushed her hair and put on black block heels. Before she left, she told her kids if they were hungry, to serve themselves a bowl of the albóndiga soup she made. She told them that she would be back in an hour, and if their dad asked where she had gone, to tell them she had gone to church.
On her way to church, although she felt like she was partially going to church out of spite, she felt happy. She was happy because she felt like she was improving, becoming a more resilient person, each time she went to church. This happiness slowly faded away though, when she tried to push open the front doors of the church, only to find they were locked. She was very confused. She thought the church was open at all times. She went to the back of the church to see if there wasn’t possibly a mistake. When she was in the back of the church, standing behind a black steel gate, she expected there to be parked cars and people walking across the parking lot of the church, but instead she didn’t see any cars and or anybody walking. Just then, she saw someone. There was a man, coming out of the side doors of the church, who then started walking across the parking lot.
As soon as she saw him, she yelled: “¡Señor! ¡Oiga!”
The man stopped and turned towards the direction of where the yelling was coming from. He squinted his eyes, trying to find whoever it was who was yelling. Finally, his eyes met hers, and he began walking towards Maria.
“¿Está cerrada la iglesia? ¿Pensé que estaba abierta toda la semana?”
“Antes sí. Pero ya no porque gente de la calle se estaban metiendo, y eso estaba molestando a la gente.”
“¿De verdad? Nunca sabía que eso podía pasar. Bueno, gracias por decirme.”
She walked away, a bit saddened and disappointed. She was looking forward to going to church, especially since it was her first time going to church on a weekday. Unsure of what to do, she began walking home. All she wanted was to spend some time with Miguel. Now she couldn't even go to church on a weekday, which she thought wasn’t asking for much.
When she came back home, to her surprise she saw Miguel’s green truck parked on the curb right in front of their apartment. She remembered when he first brought the truck home, it was so bright and shiny. Now, because the car stood out in the sun for some years, the green paint was so faded that it almost looked like there were clouds painted on the hood and roof of the car. He bought the car from his boss, who sold it to him cheaply. When he brought home the truck, it seemed to Maria like a luxury, to be able to have another car. Now, she despised the truck, just the sight of it made her angry, because it symbolized one thing to her: money. Part of the reason her husband had bought the truck wasn't only because he wanted another car, but because he saw an opportunity to make money. The green truck enabled him to go quickly from lawn to lawn, with all the necessary equipment in the bed of the truck.
She opened the door to the living room. One of her sons, Daniel, who although wearing headphones that prevented him from hearing her come in, still did not turn around even when a line of sunlight directly hit the screen of the computer he was using when she opened the door. She was about to tap his shoulder to ask if his dad was home when she heard someone coming from the kitchen and down the hall to where she was. It was her husband, wearing his gray, long sleeve shirt, which was now sweaty and dusty and grass stained. Sweat poured down from his balding head. On top of his head were thin, short strands of hair, which were matted down from wearing a hat, which almost made him look like a newborn baby that was just taken from their mom’s womb. He was sucking on his long neck bottle of Corona.
“¿A dónde fuisteis?” He took a sip of his beer.
“Fui a la iglesia, pero no estaba abierta.”
“¿A la iglesia? Pero no es el fin de semana.”
Her husband said nothing, just took another sip of his beer.
“¿Qué hiciste de comer?”
She walked to their room. While she was taking her block heels off and putting them under her bed, she asked him, “¿Pensé que ibas a llegar a las once de la mañana?”
“Yo pensé que iba a llegar en ese tiempo, pero los chinos querían que hiciera otro trabajo, y los acaparadores también me pidieron que hiciera otra cosa.”
“¿Por qué no les dices que no puedes, pero que lo puedes ser para otro día.”
“Pues, es que no quiero quedar mal con la gente. Es importante que les diga sí, o no sería capaz de hacer más dinero.”
He reached into his pocket to get his black worn out wallet and took out four twenty dollar bills and showed them to Maria. When she saw the bills, this did little to nothing to change the indifferent expression on her face.
“Gané ochenta dólares hoy. Y todavía hay dos personas que no me han pagado.”
“¿Son las mismas personas que no te pagaron la última semana?
“Uno sí. Es el blanco.”
“Deberás parar de trabajar por él. Nomás se está haciendo tarugo.”
“Ya sé, ya sé. A lo mejor sé.”
“¿Ya quieres comer?”
Maria walked to the kitchen to heat up the pot of albóndiga soup and got the griddle to heat some tortillas. Miguel took his time drinking his beer and then slowly walked over to the small kitchen. Once he sat down on a chair, Maria asked him “¿Cuántas horas trabajastes?”
“No más de cinco horas.”
“¿No más cinco horas?”
Miguel, unsurprised at his wife’s reaction, chuckled.
“Cinco horas no es mucho.”
“Y te aseguro que no descansaste.”
“Los hombres no se cansan,” he said.
“Ya para diciendo eso. Los hombres pueden sentirse cansados,” she said with her face hardened, tired of the joke.
Miguel laughed, his head bouncing up and down, and said, “Okay, okay.”
Once the albóndiga soup was hot enough, Maria got a bowl from the cupboard and started pouring the soup into the bowl. As she was pouring the soup and albóndigas into the bowl she was holding, Miguel asked her “¿Por qué fuistes a la iglesia a hoy?”
“Pues, no más se me ocurrió.”
Her husband, suddenly serious, didn’t immediately answer.
“No creo que sea necesario ir a la iglesia hoy.”
“Ya sé, pero me gusta ir a la iglesia cuando puedo.”
Maria placed the bowl of albóndiga soup in front of him. He didn’t eat more than one albóndiga when he asked: “Deberías enfocarte en lo que ser en la casa en vez de pensar en la iglesia.”
“No había nada que hacer aquí. Terminé todo.”
“¿Y no te vas a cansar mucho yendo a la iglesia durante la semana?”
“Si vamos a hablar de quién se cansa más, vamos a hablar de ti.”
Her husband laughed.
“¿Por qué te rías?”
“Okay, pero yo me canso por una buena razón,” he said with a grin on his face.
For the first time, she laughed, too, out of impatience for the way her husband spoke to her.
“De verdad tienes un problema. No más quieres trabajar, trabajar y trabajar. Dices que trabajas de necesidad, pero te pasas, como si no tuvieras dinero. Algunas veces, en el momento que vienes del trabajo, ya te quieres pelar para trabajar otra vez, no comas muy bien o no me dices que ya te vas a ir. Y cuando–—no me callas, deja mi de hablar–—llegas de tus otros trabajos a la casa, estás irritado, te enojas cuando los niños o yo no te ayudamos rápidamente a bajar todas tus herramientas del camión. Tú solo te haces infeliz por hacer algo que es de necesidad.”
“¿Qué quieres que haga? Si trabajo mucho, me canso, pero tengo dinero. Si no trabajo mucho, no estoy cansado, pero voy a tener poco dinero. Si realmente quieres que trabaje menos, ¿por qué no me ayudas o encuentras un trabajo?”
“Miguel, tú ya sabes que no puedo ser eso.”
“¿Por qué no? Creo que puedes hacer la mayoría de lo que no haces ahora y seguir trabajando.”
“¿Qué estás diciendo? ¿Que no trabajo?”
“¿Piensas que estar sentado casi todo el día es trabajo?” he said and laughed a mocking laugh, which made him appear like a child.
“Ya me estás ofendiendo.”
“Pues, no te mates.”
“¿No me mato? ¿Tú piensas que pudieras tener un trabajo y llevar a las niños a la escuela, comprar y hacer de comer, llenar la botella de agua, llevar los platos, limpiar la casa, lavar la ropa, tirar la basura, juntar a los niños de la escuela, y dar atención a los niños?”
“Todo lo que dijiste son trabajitos que se pueden hacer rápido.”
“No se puede prestar atención a los niños rápido, solo se puede hacer lentamente y con paciencia.”
Fed up with her arguing, he got up and left.
“¿A dónde vas?”
“Voy a regar el zacate.”
She was going to say more to him, but she knew when to stop talking, because at some point, in the middle of an argument, her husband would eventually start to tune out everything she said, even when she did have a point. She noticed he had barely eaten anything from his bowl. From where she was sitting at the small kitchen table, she could hear him in the backyard getting the hose to water the front lawn. She didn’t know what to do. After sitting in silence for a few minutes, she got up to get her wooden rosary from their room, and started to pray once again.
Armando Gonzalez is Chicano, born and raised in Santa Ana, CA. He has one published story in Somos en escrito called “Haircut” (click here to read it).
A Cuban Soap Opera Remake
by Matias Travieso-Diaz and Eloy Gonzalez-Argüelles
[I want to speak, I want to speak, tell everyone Albertico Limonta is my grandson,
the child of my oldest daughter Maria Elena.]
Don Rafael del Junco’s silent litany in El Derecho de Nacer by Felix B. Caignet
In mid-2047, the Instituto Cubano de Radio y Televisión (Cuban Institute of Radio and Television, or CIRT), received a proposal for a revival of the 1948 radio soap opera El Derecho de Nacer (The Right to be Born) by the Cuban radio writer Félix Benjamín Caignet Salomón. At the time, El Derecho, as it was called, swept Cuba by storm, and then spread to all of Latin America in a run that lasted over fifty years. It was regarded as one of the most influential soap operas of all time, and had been the subject of numerous radio, television and movie adaptations. The revival (in the form of a TV series to be aired in Cubavision) was to start in April 2048 to coincide with the centenary of the original radio broadcast.
José (“Pepe”) Cubero, a brilliant movie and TV producer and director, was the proponent and strongest defender of the project. He acknowledged that the 1948 soap opera would have to be modified a bit to make it consistent with the culture and politics of twenty-first century Cuba, but felt the changes would be small and well within his creative abilities.
The proposal met opposition from some of the most orthodox members of the Communist Party. They claimed that the original story was rife with the type of bourgeois, capitalistic ideology that had been eradicated after almost ninety years of Socialist rule. Other opponents, more practical, pointed to the chronic economic crisis that bedeviled the island with words like these:
“Anything we broadcast must encourage the Cuban people to work harder, make sacrifices, concentrate on rebuilding the economy in the face of the heartless Yankee blockade. El Derecho is a frivolous, escapist diversion that would get us sidetracked from our mission. And it will run for many months, compounding the damage.”
The matter was kicked upward to land on the lap of Miguel Diaz-Canel, who had been President and First Secretary of Cuba’s Communist Party for almost thirty years. He was in his mid-eighties and getting ready to step down, so he was in no mood to mediate in ideological disputes. He ruled:
“Let Pepe Cubero come up with a proposed screenplay and give it to the President of the CIRT and the Minister of Culture. Let those guys decide what changes to the screenplay are required to render it acceptable, make those changes, and run with it. Don’t bother me with this shit again.”
The Minister of Culture, Haydée Alonso, who had studied in Paris, quoted Sartre, and prided herself on being open-minded and liberal (within the ideological bounds of the Party), was enchanted with the idea of a revival of El Derecho, so she was inclined to give Cubero a relatively free hand. This was good news to Cubero, although no one else liked Haydée. No one forgave her for her unpatriotic preference for smelly Gauloise cigarettes that stunk up the studio, and that she did so “in the land where the best tobacco in the world used to be grown.”
The CIRT President, Danylo López, was an old, dried-up bureaucrat concerned mainly with toeing the Party line and avoiding controversies, and was not amenable to letting Cubero get away with much. Torn between polar extremes, development of the new version of the soap opera proceeded in painful fits and starts.
The first bone of contention was the character of Don Rafael del Junco, the villain of the story. Everyone agreed that Don Rafael, a haughty unscrupulous landowner, was a proper embodiment of the pre-Revolutionary capitalistic class. However, at the end of the original 314 episodes, Don Rafael reconciled with his daughter and grandson, and ended up being presented in a somewhat favorable light. “We have to change the ending” argued Danylo. “There can be no redemption for the enemies of the people.” Cubero reluctantly agreed to modify the end of the series so that Don Rafael got his comeuppance. He was hoping against hope that by the time the last episodes were filmed Danylo would have changed his mind.
Then there was María Elena, the daughter of Don Rafael and mother of the hero of the series. Again, everyone agreed that she showed courage in refusing to have a late term abortion and insisting on giving birth to her illegitimate child. However, in the original series she sought shelter for her grief in a convent, where the nuns and other members of the community treated her with compassion and understanding. Danylo was loath to include any episodes that praised religious people. “Religion is the opium of the masses, and the State must not condone it in any manner.”
Cubero had to change the script to have María Elena become a sort of hermit, seeking solace from the apparent loss of her child on a deserted shore. That in itself was problematic, since Cuba had implemented an internal passport system that was rigidly enforced. In the new Cuba, there was nowhere to hide. At the end, this discrepancy was allowed as poetic license, hoping it would not be noticed by anyone who had the power to object.
In the original El Derecho María Elena leaves her newborn baby boy in the care of her once wet nurse, the black María Dolores, who saves the infant from being slain on orders from Don Rafael, manages to give Don Rafael the false impression that she and the baby are dead, and escapes with the infant to a remote village. There, she raises the boy as her own child, naming him Alberto (“Albertico”) Limonta.
One salient and recurring problem was the relationship between “son” and “mother,” due to the fact that María Dolores claimed he was her son, even after his infancy. Yet, the actor chosen by Cubero to play Albertico, Ontario (“Guapito”) Ledesma, was white. Very white. Blondish. On the other hand, the lady portraying María Dolores was black, as stipulated by Caignet in the original soap opera. Coal black. No one seemed to find the discrepancy odd except for Haydée, who said that the role of María Dolores seemed taken out of Gone with the Wind. Her remark was met with a deadpan silence, for nobody in Cuba remembered or cared about old Yankee movies.
The racial disparity problem did not fully surface at first, because the boy who played Albertico as a child had a darker complexion that made his relationship with María Dolores more credible. But later on in the show, when Ontario assumed the role of 25-year-old Albertico, María Dolores’ claim that he was her son began ringing hollow. Different suggestions were considered: darkening Ontario’s skin with blackface make-up like Laurence Olivier in Othello, other things of that nature. Haydée opposed them all, because, she said, it was not impossible that Albertico could still be María Dolores’ biological son. So, things were left unchanged. There was one scene, however, when the script called for older Albertico to run up to his mother and say, “Mamá, I love you so” as he hugged the black woman. The scene had to be redone many times because the crew in the studio—and later on, even Albertico and María Dolores—could not control their laughter. In the end, the scene was filmed as it was and prompted sarcastic comments among the viewers once aired.
Much was done in the original series to highlight the discrimination and ill treatment that both María Dolores and Albertico endured on account of her race. Danylo liked that and wanted to accentuate the criticism of the racist society that existed in the country before the Revolution, but was opposed by Haydée, who warned not to overdo that aspect of the plot. “Remember, Danylo,” she said, “there are still people left in this country who believe blacks are inferior, although they won’t openly admit to it. There is no point in rubbing their noses on our commitment to equality among the races.” At the end, Danylo carried the day. Albertico, who was white, would be repeatedly abused and discriminated against for having a black mother and being a mulatto.
In one scene intended to bring more “realism” to the story, a classmate of Albertico has a fight with him and calls him an “hijo de puta” (a bastard), not an uncommon insult in Spanish. Danylo objected to the use of such foul language, as it was not in keeping with Socialist morality. Haydée replied that this choice of words was used by ordinary people and prude sentiments to the contrary were a bourgeois atavism. A heated debate ensued and, at the end, Haydée seemed to say that the language in the series should not be controlled by a “partido de hijos de puta,” which many people took to refer to the Communist Party. Haydée, however, swore that she had not said “Partido” but “partida,” meaning “bunch” or “group,” without any political connotation. Since no one could produce a definitive argument, the matter was dropped, along with the entire scene.
Many episodes later, thanks to María Dolores’ innumerable sacrifices, Albertico manages to make it through the university and becomes a famous doctor. In the original version, Albertico gets to be rich and lives in comfort with his aging “mother.” Both Danylo and Haydée objected to this turn of events. Cubero was required to rewrite that part of the story to have Albertico live modestly, see indigent patients for free, and travel to Haiti to help treat the victims of a devastating earthquake. In the rewrite, Albertico returns to Cuba with a newfound social conscience, alert to the inequities of the capitalist society and committed to fighting them.
Later in the series, Albertico is doing night duty at a public hospital’s emergency room when several injured people are brought in after a traffic accident. One of them is an old man who is bleeding to death. The victim’s blood type is AB negative, the rarest type, which is unavailable at the ill-equipped public hospitals of pre-Revolutionary times. Albertico, AB negative himself, gives a transfusion that saves the man’s life. The victim, who is no other than Don Rafael del Junco, recovers and as he convalesces, he invites his savior to come to dinner and meet his family. There Albertico meets Isabel Cristina, daughter of María Elena’s sister Matilde, and a budding romance blooms between the couple, unaware that they are cousins. Danylo was not in favor of retaining potential incest as part of the plot, and Cubero had to add another twist at the end of the story where it is revealed that Isabel Cristina is not the natural daughter of Matilde, but only an adopted one, eliminating another potential offense to Socialist morality.
Don Rafael, now fully recovered, is one day taking a stroll near an outside market, when he spots an old black woman that he immediately recognizes as María Dolores, who he had written off as dead many years before. He follows the woman, overtakes her, and confronts her. María Dolores acknowledges that she and Albertico are alive and well, and rebukes Don Rafael for his cruelty. Cubero is asked to add language to the confrontation scene wherein María Dolores lists once again all the aristocrat’s misdeeds and concludes with a stirring pronouncement: “Beware, for your days are numbered. The people soon will hold you accountable for all the crimes you have committed against your family and against society.”
Staggered by these revelations, Don Rafael returns home, where he promptly suffers a stroke (“derrame cerebral”) (a common mishap in soap operas) and falls into a coma. In the original version, Don Rafael stays in a coma for many months, burning with desire to impart the crucial news of the existence of his missing grandson to his wife and daughter, but is paralyzed and unable to speak. Here, however, science rather than politics interferes with the progress of the story. By 2047, a process had existed for years by which an artificial intelligence (AI) could accurately decode words and sentences from brain activity. Using only a few seconds of brain activity data, the AI can guess what a person is trying to say and translates it into a voice recording. The AI was commonly used throughout the world, including Cuba, to help people unable to communicate their thoughts through speech, typing or gestures.
The existence of the AI technology rendered a crucial portion of the original version of El Derecho vulnerable to ridicule by the viewing public. There was no way Don Rafael could linger, speechless, for several months. Cubero and his creative team struggled with the problem for weeks and finally had to come up with a lame solution: Don Rafael suffers a “derrame cerebral,” but recovers almost immediately and, instead of bringing the existence of his grandson to the attention of everyone, has a change of heart and continues to cover up his earlier nefarious crimes by accusing María Dolores of theft and charging Albertico with complicity in the black woman’s schemes.
Isabel Cristina, whose love for Albertico has not been diminished by Don Rafael’s accusations, alerts her boyfriend before the police can seize him, and Albertico escapes to a bitter exile in Tampa, where his mulatto identity subjects him to additional discrimination and mistreatment at the hands of the American imperialists. Meanwhile, María Dolores lingers in jail and ultimately dies of sorrow.
From that point on, the plot of the revival diverges entirely from the original radio show. Albertico becomes a revolutionary hero and travels back to Cuba to take up arms in the mountains against the corrupt government. He alerts Isabel Cristina of his whereabouts and she joins him to continue, together, their fight for justice. Through one of his comrades, who knew Isabel Cristina’s parents, it is revealed that Isabel Cristina and Albertico are unrelated, whereupon the couple is chastely married in a civil ceremony conducted by a rebel leader. They are enjoying a brief honeymoon when they learn that Don Rafael has been killed in a terrorist attack against the Presidential Palace, where he was attending a reception. Albertico and Isabel Cristina kiss and hug each other, relieved at the evildoer’s death, and the series ends.
As the first six episodes were filmed, José Cubero had increasing misgivings about the product he was going to set before the public. Technically, the series was as good as he was capable of putting together: photography, score (instrumental renderings of Cuban ballads going back to the 1800s), sound effects, customs, editing, were all first class. He had assembled a cast of experienced actors and actresses, with a famous Spanish TV personality in the role of Don Rafael. Much of the series was shot in locations selected for their beauty or historic interest.
Artistically, though, Cubero felt he was doing a disservice to—actually, betraying—Caignet’s original work and regretted all the compromises he had been forced to make to get the project approved. As a way to hide his guilt, he made sure of the destruction of all copies existing in Cuba of the audio, TV and movie versions of the series, be they from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Venezuela or Mexico. Cuban censorship saw to it that no written materials describing the 1948 series were available to the public.
Since there was nobody alive who had listened to the original broadcast, Cubero felt confident that he would not be confronted by critics of the savaging he had been forced to perform on the original. Still, he went to bed the night of Tuesday, March 31, 2048 with a heavy heart, in anticipation of the premiere of the series the following evening. He tossed and turned in bed all night and, in the few minutes of actual sleep, was accosted by the image of a dapper slim man sporting a trim moustache and a mane of black pomaded hair, who appeared and disappeared before him making menacing gestures and repeating incessantly a single word: “Why!!?”
The first episode of the new rendering of El Derecho de Nacer was shown on Cubavision at 9 p.m. on April 1, 2048. The show ran, Monday through Saturday, for 310 episodes, the last one playing in the spring of 2049. While initially garnering much public attention, interest in the series wore off quickly, so that the last episodes were seen by almost nobody. Many concluded that much of what was shown and said in the series was predictable and no different, except for its excessive duration, from other political indoctrination efforts by the government.
José Cubero finished producing the last package of ten episodes and sought and was granted permission to take a short vacation abroad to recover from his massive effort. He was last spotted taking an Iberia plane bound for Madrid on April 15, 2049.
He was never seen again.
Matias Travieso-Diaz was born in Cuba and migrated to the United States as a young man. He became an engineer and lawyer and practiced for nearly fifty years. He retired and turned his attention to creative writing. Seventy of his stories have been published or accepted for publication in paying short story anthologies, magazines, blogs, audio books and podcasts. Some of his unpublished stories have also received “honorable mentions” from a number of publications. A collection of some of his short stories, The Satchel and Other Terrors, is scheduled for publication in February 2023.
Eloy González Argüelles was born in La Habana, Cuba, and came to the United States in 1961. His studies culminated in a PhD in Romance Languages at the Ohio State University. He taught at Wheaton College (Norton, Massachusetts) and the University of Massachusetts (Harbour Campus) before moving to Washington State University (WSU), where he taught Spanish literature and literary criticism for 38 years. For ten of his last twelve years before retirement he was Chair of the Department of Foreign Languages and Cultures at WSU. His output includes a novel, a book on the chivalric novel, and articles in scholarly journals and conference presentations. Upon retirement he became an Emeritus Professor at WSU.
“so they sold their names”
Honorary Mention Extra Fiction 2022
May We Be Named
by Angela Acosta
Humanity’s voyagers always came on ships, back when Sol was the closest star and home stayed within the ecliptic. They came from the places the maps would no longer show as star charts guided them towards lands where Terra would be but a distant memory. With skin colored from equatorial sunbeams and languages forged from centuries of cultural contact and strife, they were ready when the Exodus finally occurred, and generation ships whisked them away across a sea wider than the Atlantic.
Marcela tore her eyes from the screen that displayed the full weight of generations of ship born ancestors when a thin stream of light coming from the hallway alerted her of Zamora’s presence.
“¿Tienes chisme?” Zamora asked, sauntering into the room like only a little sister could.
Marcela relaxed her stiff shoulders and let out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding in. She’d tracked enough of the gamma lineage for this wake cycle. With the lights back on, she started reshuffling the notes she printed out on carbon copies that littered her desk.
“Yeah, turns out they meant to put you on the Calabaza ship and got the paperwork mixed up,” Marcela smirked, waving one of her notes in the air.
“No way! You know I can’t even cook frijoles right; I don’t belong on a restaurant ship. Unless, you know, I got to be the engineer and eat up all those delicacies.”
“You wish!” Marcela nudged Zamora with her elbow.
“So, made any progress today?”
“Five generations of lineage gamma from three centuries ago found in the data sent by laser from the Prerromano ship, no está mal,” Marcela shrugged and looked back at the data in front of her.
She continued, “It’s strange, really. There seem to be fewer lineages than active ships. I can’t find us in all the data. You know even Tía Flora gave up ages ago on this project.”
“¿A qué te refieres con lo de ‘find us’? I thought this was about the ancestry of the whole fleet. What do we have to do with anything? What does our ship’s history matter?”
“It means everything! I know I’m supposed to be collaborating on this project for the good of the fleet, but you know I’ve been doing some research on the side.”
“But they’re always telling us that we’re all siblings and that race doesn’t exist anymore, that we’re all homo sapiens. Somos de la raza…”
“Cósmica, literalmente. Pues ya lo sé, pero es un mito, uno de esos que vinieron con los primeros cohetes.”
Having just finished her own school lessons for the day, including a lecture on how the old ways no longer applied, Zamora was utterly perplexed. She perched herself on a free corner of Marcela’s desk and took a closer look at the branches of the family tree, thinning out as they got closer to the present moment of year 534 of the Exodus.
“Mira Zamora, where is our family in this?” Marcela zoomed into a patch only a few years removed from Zamora’s birth in year 523.
“It doesn’t matter…”
“¿A quién le importa?”
“Pues a nosotras, a todos los del Arbolito. Look, before I crunched in the data for gamma lineage, I already noticed some irregularities from the beginning. They’re telling us we’re doing something meaningful by putting together these lineages, that it’s for the good of the fleet and our history. It’s just busy work, Zamora.”
“Fine. I don’t know who all our family is, but Marcela tengo haaaaambrreeee. Can we pleaseeeee go the mess hall now? I heard Tío José is making pupusas and I want one that isn’t spicy.”
“Ya vamos, but I still want to learn more about this. Maybe I can bug Tía Flora about the genealogy research after dinner.”
Sure enough, Zamora piled her plate high with pupusas and maíz, freshly made from their onboard hydroponics garden. Marcela, ever the apprehensive about her research, took a smaller portion of food and joined the other kids and teenagers huddled around a game of dominos made from scrap cardboard. Zamora enjoyed the camaraderie but couldn’t wait to finally talk to some adults. For some reason they always stayed quiet about what they knew of their families, and though they praised her for her research, they never asked many questions or gave her any good leads. She always had to look elsewhere, like taking chances asking the Prerromano ship with a complicated array of laser networks to reach them five lightyears away.
Tía Flora was watching her favorite zero g handball game and knitting. Approach with caution, Marcela thought to herself. She sat herself next to her only biological aunt and engaged in the requisite small talk. By the second half of the game Marcela had steeled herself for the conversation.
“Tía, you know I’ve been doing a lot of work on the lineage, and I don’t need to bore you with it, but…”
“Mi’ja, I’m glad you’re doing that research project, but it doesn’t interest me anymore. What are you doing, hunting down lineage omega or something?”
“I’m working on lineage gamma now actually; I have five more generations worked out. In fact, I’ve already sorted out adopted and biological parents and have some diagrams for the research team I’m going to send by laser tomorrow…” Marcela needed to stop herself before she lost sight of what she came to talk to her aunt about. Tía Flora had already focused back on the game, the clinking of the knitting needles in synch with the pace of the game.
“Sorry, force of habit. Tía Flora, I want you to tell me about us. ¿Quiénes somos los del Arbolito? ¿De dónde venimos?”
Tía Flora finally perked up and cracked a smile, “It took you seventeen years to ask me that, eh? It took my friend Adriana over twenty and she quickly became disinterested again.”
Marcela relaxed in her chair and tucked herself into the story Tía Flora was inevitably going to launch into. Tía Flora switched to Spanish, as she was wont to do when talking about the past, but her tone of voice changed, and it was as if she saw herself somewhere else. The youth proudly tout the fact that the past was light minutes away and wholly unreachable while elders grieve that chasm of memories.
“Hace ya treinta años, Adriana me preguntó sobre nuestros antepasados. Y, a pesar de la falta de información que tenía, yo sabía que había que compartirla con cualquier persona que tenía el mismísimo deseo. Me imagino que hasta la Zamorita sabe recitar las historias oficiales de quienes somos, ¿cierto?”
Marcela smiled, “Justamente me las estaba contando según lo que va aprendiendo en la escuela.”
“Pues, la Adriana me dijo una frase que nunca jamás saldrá de mi mente. Me dijo basta con esas historias del Éxodo con las ramas de los árboles y que ‘I don’t want your tender history, give me the truth’. So I did.”
“Tender history, huh? Is it, though? Now that I really think about it, es un cuento de hadas. I’ve always wondered about how the data was received on these family trees and why I couldn’t ever find myself on them. You know, I always thought I was different for asking about my own heritage. Pero, there’s something they’re not telling us and it’s going to be bittersweet.”
“Yes, but I have no doubt you are as ready as you’ll ever be to hear it. Éramos muchos durante los primeros cohetes y hemos venido desde zonas muy lejanas de la tierra. Había gente de los ríos, de la selva llamada la selva amazónica, de islas y grandes continentes. Había de todo.”
“Pero nos han dicho que han venido todos de la península de Florida y que allí empezó la migración.”
“Que no, que la península solo tenía las bases de lanzamiento.”
Marcela muttered to herself, “that sure does make more sense…”
Tía Flora stared at the screen transfixed in thought, as if recalling the very thread of the ancestors she was to spring forth from her mind like Athena.
She continued in English, “I found…a packet of data. I was going through some of the earliest data sent about the different lineages and I found a diary. It was a real book too, scanned of course, but I hope somewhere those pages are still preserved. I had half a mind not to tell anyone about it and keep minding my business, especially since it’s not mentioned anywhere in the ever-expanding literature on Exodus genealogy. It was the diary of someone named Hortensia from the beginning of the exodus. She talked about several ships we still have in the fleet, la Calabaza, el Ateneo, el Dominicano, however there was something greater I learned that day. People who couldn’t afford passage on the Exodus fleet sold the only thing they had left. It confused me, because I know those people were so connected to their plastic items and chucherías.” The clicking of her knitting needles reminded Marcela of the noise of plastic toys her sister played with.
“But you figured it out, right?”
“Mi’ja, they had nothing left to give, no currency or valuable metals and they could barely even secure a kilo in the bulkhead, so they sold their names.”
“¿Qué dices? Ya tenemos todos los nombres. Nos han nombrado a todos nosotros.”
“Pero tú y yo solo tenemos un solo nombre, la María Victoria tiene dos, pero así son todas las Marías.”
“But we each have a name, tía. I still don’t understand.”
Tía Flora put down her knitting needles and beckoned Marcela closer. Parting her wavy dark hair, she began making a large braid.
“Nos han dicho que nosotros del Arbolito somos latinos. Somos de distintas regiones del continente de las Américas y todos hablamos español e inglés. There are at least five other ships like us with slightly different accents and facial features, and they make us believe we’re all the same.”
“We come from Terra, there’s no difference, is there? The skin color is just from the different melanin produced in sunnier, warmer places compared to colder ones.”
“Eres muy inteligente, you know there’s more than that. Yes, these colors used to define us and now we think more logically, but the Exodus took away our names and our culture. We had special foods, and, while I know most aren’t religious anymore, there were special ceremonies and festivals just for us. We gave that up the moment we named ourselves part of the fleet.”
Left, right, middle, Tía Flora’s fingers made quick work of Marcela’s hair. Marcela thought the braid felt odd, a bit lopsided, but she didn’t want to criticize her aunt. It’d be easy enough to readjust later.
Tía Flora secured the bottom of the braid with an elastic band and Marcela went in search of a mirror and finally saw what her aunt had so lovingly knitted into her hair. Her thick hair had been carefully sectioned into different braids, all coming together to form a larger braid that ran down the right side of her head.
“Mira, ¡qué bonita!” Tía Flora exclaimed, admiring her work.
“Thank you, tía. It’s your best creation yet. Where’d you learn to do something like this? We almost never wear our hair in braids. We’re supposed to keep it tied neatly away from our face with a ponytail or bun.”
“I got the idea from our ancestors. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors, the ones with wavy hair, textured hair, and hair dark as the hulls of our ships wore braids as a source of cultural identity. They wove patterns into braids to chart maps towards the homes they left behind just as we leave drawings as marks of each ship in the fleet.”
“That’s really beautiful,” Marcela reflected. She felt a tightness welling up in her chest and a newfound appreciation for the ancestors from Terra bloomed within her. Not even when conducting her research did she ever truly feel the full weight of the bygone generations who attempted to pass their knowledge to her. She was the product of dozens, if not hundreds of generations of sentient homo sapiens who kept humanity moving forward without forgetting their roots.
“It suits you well, your ancestors would be proud of you.”
“Thank you, tía. I have to ask; did you ever figure out any of the names they gave away?” Marcela was suddenly anxious, knowing she’d remember this moment for years to come. This was to be the moment when everything clicked, when she no longer was one of a multicultural fleet, but the daughter of people from countries she could find on the old globe.
Tía Flora harrumphed, ostensibly at the terrible play that had finally ended the handball game, but Marcela knew it was really meant for her.
“Pues, ya te lo conté, we gave them up centuries ago. We tucked our braids into our helmets and some of us were smart enough to use the braids to spell our histories in Nahuatl, like the Calabaza ship. They’re the Xolapa from México. But us, we weren’t so lucky.”
“But couldn’t we take a DNA test? Contact other ships for information that might’ve been overlooked in the existing lineage. We could…”
“It’s too late for that. We’re never going to have their names or the certainty of knowing who our ancestors truly were, but I do have something you might want to see.” Tía Flora turned off the projector and sent her off to find Zamora. She needed to see this, too.
The chefs had already gone off duty and the sisters and Tía Flora huddled under the dimmed light of the mess hall. Zamora looked unsure of herself as she shuffled her feet in place, and Marcela wished the photons from the nearest star system could illuminate the dark portholes but they were once again too far in the black.
Tía Flora flipped through a few recipe books and finally settled on the one that looked the most battered and full of stains from centuries of moles and salsa.
“Pues mira. Ni el dedo de Colón podría apuntar a lo que está escrito aquí. Zamora, can you read for us?” Tía Flora put her hand on her shoulder in encouragement.
Zamora twisted her face like she’d just eaten a lime. “It’s in Spanish?”
“Claro, mi’ja. Así fueron escritos todos los libros de nuestros antepasados.”
“Pero solo hay una lengua escrita, el inglés,” Marcela chimed in.
“Pues me parece otra ridiculez de esa escuela…obvio que todos los seres humanos podían escribir con pluma. ¿Creen que los latinos iban a escribir sus historias en el idioma de otro contiente? Sound it out, you’ll figure out what it says pretty quickly.”
Zamora began, “Las galletas de Elisa. Se preparan con…con sus ingredientes favoritos. A ella…le gustaba hornearlas para días festivos como…como los cumpleaños y las quinceañeras.”
Looking over Zamora’s shoulder, Marcela read the recipe to herself and said, “It’s a cookie recipe, but it’s telling us about someone named Elisa. And the one on the page next to it says ‘Los pasteles de tío Oswaldo’. What is this, tía?”
“Girls, when they sold their names and left Terra with the Exodus, they made these recipe books to share their favorite dishes. They turned recipe books into the ancestors they couldn’t take with them. These are their obituaries.”
“But there’s hardly anything about Elisa in this…” Marcela protested.
“You must read the whole book; each recipe gives you a little more about each person’s story. I’ve been piecing together when people were born and that sort of thing.”
“So we can finally put together this lineage?”
“No, so we can read about their lives. We can honor them even without the branches on the Arbolito all filled out. Many of these people likely aren’t related to us anyway.”
“Marcela, basta con your research. Tía, have you ever made these recipes?” Zamora interrupted.
“We still make some of them, but without the animal products they had access to on Terra they probably don’t taste the same.”
“Can we still try?”
Tía Flora chuckled to herself, “I’d thought I’d never see the day when you’d want to try to bake something. Sure, tomorrow morning you don’t have any lessons so why don’t you bring some of your friends to the kitchen and we’ll whip something up.”
The next day, Zamora and a few of her friends were busily churning out cookies under the careful watch of Tía Flora using ingredients rationed for those who weren’t on the team of cooks. Notwithstanding Zamora’s occasional clumsiness and trepidation around the oven, the lunch rush was ecstatic to try something new. A few of the adults even petitioned to add the sugar cookies to the dessert menu, the highest honor for the young bakers. Zamora later tearfully told Marcela that it was all her fault if they ship her off to the Calabaza ship now that she can properly bake.
Marcela sometimes wished she were as capricious as her younger sister, but age and her research kept her curious. She wanted to beam to everyone else on the research team that it was just a project to keep people busy. They were fed packets of data and crunched the numbers all day long so the ships with the most resources could continue chasing after habitable planets and building new spaceports. Those very families must have taken her own ancestors’ names hostage centuries ago.
Indignant, Marcela clenched her hands and closed her eyes. She breathed deeply, imagining a warmth spreading through her body as if she were spirited away to her ancestors’ hot and humid homelands.
She closed out some of the programs she had been running with the ancestry data and set aside a data packet for herself to send to a few trusted friends she had on the Arbolito and other ships. Speaking clearly into the monitor in front of her, she spoke a language she hoped to one day be able to write.
“Soy Marcela, del Arbolito. Créeme cuando les explico que nuestros antepasados tenían nombres para sus familias. Mi tía me dice que sus nombres fueron vendidos a los que controlaron el Éxodo y que fueron tirados como basura de plástica. Ya no quiero repetir esa historia, así que quiero que nos nombren. Hasta que tengamos anclados a los linajes todos los nombres, me llamaré Marcela Nombremos. Puede que parezca contra los deseos de la flotilla, pero quiero identificarme como persona con una historia. Cualquier interesado puede usar este nombre. No lo daré a mis hijos si los tenga. Es un nombre a alquiler, un nombre que declara su intención. Espero que les sirva.”
Angela Acosta is a bilingual Mexican American writer and Ph.D. Candidate in Iberian Studies at The Ohio State University. She won the 2015 Rhina P. Espaillat Award from West Chester University, and she was recently nominated for Best of the Net. Her speculative writing has or will appear in On Spec, Eye to the Telescope, Radon Journal, 365tomorrows, and Shoreline of Infinity. Her work has been featured in Latinx magazines like Panochazine, Somos en escrito, and Latinx Audio Lit Mag. She is author of the speculative poetry collection Summoning Space Travelers (Hiraeth Books 2022) and chapbook Fourth Generation Chicana Unicorn (Dancing Girl Press 2023). She enjoys rock climbing and biking in her free time.
Matchmaking and Taxes
by Russ López
“Watch out,” my sister Elena warned me, “Abuelita Marisol has decided you are too old to be single. She’s hired Señora Alba to fix you up with a suitable young man.”
Grandmother wasn’t the only one who thought I needed a partner. My mother gently told me last month, “I keep looking for a saint we could ask to help you find a novio.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the chances of the Catholic Church creating a patron saint of queer relationships was infinitesimally small.
It didn’t matter who or what you were, my family thought no one should be single. My Aunt Davida kept pushing me to go out and meet guys. “Sleep around until you meet one you like,” was her advice. “That’s the best way to find true love.” This from a woman who married my uncle when she was sixteen and was still blissfully with him nearly fifty years later.
One cousin suggested I should sign up for a dating service, not knowing all the apps I had on my phone, and another told me it was time for me to think about children. “You aren’t getting any younger,” he admonished. They preferred I meet a nice Mexican man, of course, or at least someone Latino. But that wasn’t necessary. Everyone just wanted me to be with someone.
I had four siblings, all of whom had at least embarked on a long-term relationship even if they didn’t last. It was my turn, if only to give everyone something to gossip about. “I’m sure there is someone wonderful out there for you,” Elena promised me. “And we will all talk behind your back about why he puts up with your annoying habits.”
I was twenty-six, out of school, and living on my own. I had graduated with a business degree and was an independent adult gainfully employed. On paper at least, it was time I acted like an adult. While my family was otherwise proud of me, Mom still had a picture of my league champion soccer team from my high school up in the hallway, they thought that being single made me incomplete.
On the other hand, I felt like I was just starting out in life. Despite the low-cost education I received from the California State University system and living at home my first two years, I graduated with huge student loans I can barely make the payments on. I drive an old car that embarrasses me and live in a studio apartment my brother Mike calls the smallest in Silicon Valley. I have far too much Indian blood in me to pass for anything but Mexican so if that isn’t a guy’s taste, I am out of luck. An accountant for a real estate company, my only luxury is my gym membership. Now that I think about it, maybe I was too dull to be marriage material.
If you want to hire a matchmaker, Señora Alba is a great choice. Not only is she a well-respected bruja, she also dabbles as a curandera, and during tax season prepares returns for half the neighborhood. Thus, she knows everyone: the good, the bad, the broke, and the single. In my family alone, she found Uncle Rodrigo his second wife, cured my cousin Manuela of hiccups by brewing a special herbal tea, and helped Elena straighten out her 401(k) roll over. “You weren’t too proud to go running to Alba to have your taxes done,” Elena taunted me. “What makes matchmaking so different?” Still, the idea of Alba assessing my physical, emotional, and financial strengths and weaknesses disturbed me. And though Alba has excellent taste in men, her love life is legendary, I was put off by her meddling. Angry that they thought I was a pathetic loser at romance, I vowed to Elena, “I am going to reject anyone that Alba picks out for me.” Childish, but they had hurt my feelings.
The next evening at the gym, I found out my humiliation had gone public when Mike and his buddy Alejandro teased about the matchmaking going on all around me. “No ring yet,” Michael reported to Alejandro as he held my hand up. “I’ve heard Alba has interviewed over a hundred men in three languages and none have agreed to woo my hermanito.”
“It’s his baby face,” Alejandro suggested as he pinched my cheek. “He’s cute in that muchacho next door kind of way but dating him would be like going out with a puppy dog. That’s not everyone’s taste.” Michael and Alejandro laughed while I turned red. They were best friends, having met when they started working at Mayfair High School where Mike taught Drama and Alejandro ran the ESL program. Though Alejandro was handsome and gay, I never paid much attention to him because he never expressed any interest in me. However, he had the key as to why Abuelita had made my love life her priority.
“Last Saturday, your grandmother was at Pancho González and Julian Chávez ‘s wedding. You should have been there, it was spectacular,” he explained. “They wore matching tuxedos and arrived in separate coaches drawn by white horses. There was a sit-down dinner at eight prepared by a chef from Oaxaca, and a midnight buffet that featured sushi and a taco bar. They had a band inside rocking the best norteño music I’ve ever heard, and a DJ blasting party tunes out on the patio. Your grandmother danced for hours. Everyone did. Sometime after her third glass of champagne, Abuelita told me you were her only chance to have an over-the-top gay wedding in the family.” I was doomed.
Over the next several days, I kept my eyes out for a setup, but nothing happened until Friday when Abuelita asked for a favor. “I bought a new television online and didn’t want it stolen off my porch, you know how bad the crime is on my street. So I had them deliver it at Santiago’s Market where I need you to pick it up for me. When you get there, see Tony, Santiago’s son. He’ll help you get the TV into your car and then come over with you to bring it up the stairs to my apartment. I arranged it all.” This was so obvious that I had a hard time not laughing. Still, if Abuelita asks me to do something, I do it.
Again, my humiliation was public and there was a crowd at the market when I got there including my mother, two aunts, my brother, and Alejandro. It was as if someone had sold tickets. “This is too entertaining to pass up,” Alejandro said, smiling.
To punish him and to thwart Alba’s machinations, I asked Alejandro to help me with the television. I admit I was tempted by Tony. He was mad handsome and still as built as he had been during his high school wrestling days when I had drooled over him. But I was determined not to let Grandmother run my love life and refused Tony’s offer to help. Abuelita must have been surprised when Alejandro and I carried her television into her apartment, but she didn’t say anything. I had won the first round in this war, but I didn’t gloat.
Afterwards, Alejandro and I went out for burgers to dissect the setup. “You know Alba would lead with a Dominican, she loves their music,” he teased. “Let’s face it, your family could use some outside blood.” That was true. Just about everyone in the family had married someone from Coahuila. Abuela had married a second cousin from her little village while Mom and Dad had lived across the street from each other growing up. My family never went too far afield to find our mates.
“Nothing against Tony, I’d have a roll in bed with him anytime.” I wondered why we had never hooked up. Maybe I was too timid to act on my crushes. “But he has no ambition beyond running his father’s store. I want someone who wishes he could go to Mars, even though he knows it will never happen,” I told Alejandro. “I want a guy who lives in his dreams. Tony is too literal.”
“Dang, you are tough,” he replied. “I’m lucky that Alba isn’t pushing me on you.” We both laughed.
Thanks to Alba, I started getting all sorts of strange requests. A guy I barely knew wanted me to be his date at his sister’s quinceañera party, a one-night trick from two years ago suddenly resurfaced to ask me to dinner, and a man at the gym invited me to go home with him. “You’re hot as hell, bro,” he said as he stood next to me in front of one of the wall mirrors by the free weights. “I want it right now.” Fortunately, Mike and Alejandro didn’t see us leave together. Gym guy was not one of Alba’s setups, however. Though I had a good time, it turned out he had a boyfriend.
The hits kept coming. A guy on Grindr texted me that he was “Grandmother approved” while a bartender asked me how the matchmaking was going as he slipped me his phone number. “I am exhausted from all this,” I complained to Alejandro the next evening at the gym.
“Cheer up,” he said as he hugged me. “Now you know everyone wants your hot body.” His arm around my shoulder felt good.
The next Thursday, everyone went to see Mike’s students perform Romeo and Juliet. With a party of thirty in an open seating auditorium, it was chaos with people trying to figure out where to sit. At the very last second, Alba ordered Kyle Moon, a gym coach, to take the seat next to me. This may have been innocent, but with Alba in action, I suspected everything. As far as I knew, Kyle was straight and I was pretty sure that Abuelita would prefer me to date a Latinx guy, but under the circumstances, I was annoyed by this blatant setup. To make matters worse, Alejandro was sitting on the other side of Kyle, rather than next to me, and by this point, I was convinced that he should be the one I go out with. But of course, he wasn’t anyone’s idea of a proper boyfriend for me. Keeping my anger hot, Abuela and Alba sat behind me, and before the play started, they loudly assessed the romantic potential of every young man in the audience. I seethed.
The family had found out I was gay ten years ago when I stupidly left a Valentine’s Day card from a classmate on the kitchen counter. Billy Martínez was a dream and had worked for a week to create a giant card that opened up into a three-dimensional football stadium with our names in a pink heart at the fifty-yard line. My parents were cool, though I was mortified when they put the card up on the mantle to show off. Elena helped me through that time. “Be grateful,” she told me. “Mom is trying to tell you the family loves you more than anything.”
Not everyone was nice about my being gay. Aunt Julia’s boyfriend is always making crude jokes, and a cousin pointedly told me that I was never allowed to be near her kids. There were guys at my high school who threatened to kill me, and a group of girls nicknamed me mariposa rosa and painted pink butterflies and obscene drawings on my locker. I was happy to get out of there alive.
Watching the doomed romance unfold on stage, I kept wondering why I was single and ultimately decided I was too shy. There were several men that in hindsight would have loved to become involved with me, but nothing ever happened because I was too scared to initiate a relationship. When this matchmaking ended, I vowed, I would go out there and act on my feelings. Then I decided not to wait. I abruptly asked Alejandro to go on a date as we walked out of the auditorium.
“Sure, if you want,” was his response. I didn’t find that reassuring.
Regretting my spontaneity and fearing more public humiliation, I said, “Please don’t tell anyone about this. You know how everyone is watching me.” He agreed to keep it quiet.
Alejandro is so handsome, he makes me nervous. He is two inches taller than me with a perfectly proportioned body, well-muscled arms, and a widow’s peak that draws attention to his big sparkling eyes. We are about the same dark shade of brown and he has a way of talking with his hands that I find irresistible. Three years older than me, he was much more grounded than I could ever be. Though he likes to laugh and is always full of jokes, he is serious while I am all giggles. Thus, I didn’t have high hopes for us going forward. I figured he was only going out with me out of pity.
It turned out to be the best date I had ever been on. We were blissfully happy and totally in sync with each other. At one point I was suppressing the urge to laugh and tell him I was having a great time because I didn’t want him to think I was a gushy romantic when Alejandro leaned back, laughed, and said, “This dinner with you is so wonderful, I don’t want it to end.” I was hooked.
He spoke a lot about his family. “As the youngest, I am the only one with status; everyone else stays in the shadows so they don’t get picked up. From the start, I had to interpret for them and represent them when we faced the outside world.”
I felt all of my privilege for being born in the US, but I also knew the pushes and pulls he had experienced. “We all have to work together to protect the most vulnerable of us,” I told him. “A lot of folks are here without documents. We live intertwined together, we share our lives. If we lost any one of them, we all would suffer,” I felt helpless as I always do when the topic is immigration.
“I teach ESL to help the kids who are like me when I was young,” Alejandro told me. “There is so much pressure to get ahead, yet at the same time, their families so depend on them that they can’t keep up.” Mike had told me how Alejandro’s students adore him and how he is always helping them navigate the bureaucratic mess that ensnares non-citizens.
“I know how our families frame our lives,” I said. “My father wouldn’t let me become a social worker or a community organizer. No. I had to major in something practical like business. ‘We gave up your brother to teaching to help our people. You have to look for other ways to make something of yourself,’ he told me. You’ve met my father. I couldn’t ever go against his wishes.”
“I understand. We are all still trying to figure out our way between our families and the world,” Alejandro nodded. He still lived at home, though Mike told me he wanted to move out. “I’m always second guessing myself. I wonder if teaching is the right way to go. Sometimes I think I should run for office to change things. My father thinks that I am crazy when I talk about that, but I like to aim high.” I just stared into Alejandro’s eyes, lost in their possibilities.
After a brief silence, Alejandro said, “When you give me that cute puppy dog look, I have to ask if your apartment is really as small as your brother says it is.”
“It is pretty cramped,” I answered. “When I have a guy over, we have to be on top of each other all night long.” I let that sink in as I explained, “I moved out of my parents’ place when my sister and her three kids came to live with us. I was too old to sleep on a couch every night.” Then I took another bold step. “Want to come back with me?”
When Alejandro looked around my tiny apartment, he smiled and said wistfully, “You are so lucky. I wish I had a place like this.” Then he pushed me down on the bed.
Within a week Alejandro was spending every night with me. By the end of the month, he had moved in. We alternated Sunday dinners, one with his family, one with mine, and we did everything together: the gym, soccer, and knocking on doors to get our candidate elected to the city council. Still, as far as I knew no one had a clue we were seeing each other, and I was happy I had outsmarted Alba. I wanted to keep things quiet but the news of our relationship began to leak out. Elena saw Alejandro’s car parked in front of my apartment early one morning, and Mike caught us sharing a drunk sloppy kiss after our soccer team went out to celebrate a big win. He confronted us when he saw me wearing Alejandro’s beat up Mayfair High tee shirt at the gym. “Listen up, lovebirds. Either you go public, or I am going to tell everyone. I can’t keep a secret.”
It is hard to overstate the status of Mexican grandmothers. Fathers may love us to pieces, but they always have unreasonable expectations. We have to have perfect in every way. My father even had an opinion on what car I should drive. “Get a dark sedan. Cops always pull over a Mexican driving a red SUV.” Daughters have it even worse. Mexican fathers’ primary role in life is to make their daughters miserable by being overprotective. They hate every boy who even glances at their virginal little girls.
Mexican mothers are similarly ambiguous. They will fight to the death to protect us, but they also feel it is their duty to wheedle, threaten, prompt, and cajole their sons to do what they think is right. It drove my mom to madness if I left the house in a wrinkled shirt, for example. “If the teachers see you disheveled, they will blame me,” she said, tears running down her cheeks at the thought of the humiliation. Again, Mexican daughters have it worse because their mothers try extremely hard to prevent them from making the same mistakes they did. Daughters are too much like their mothers to get along.
Grandmothers, however, are the warm source of unconditional love. There are never any fights, never an argument or raised voice, and they never hurt our feelings. Abuelita would slip me cookies when my parents weren’t looking, and she let me stay up late to watch spooky movies when she babysat me. I admit to being annoyed when she made me say the rosary with her, and I grew bored the hundredth time she told me how bad things were in Mexico before she left. But those were minor quibbles.
Abuelita was the tough matriarch of our family. Denied the opportunity to go to school, she had taught herself how to read and write Spanish and after she moved to California, learned it all over again in English. She organized everyone to come to the United States, and when the window to citizenship opened up in the eighties, she had everyone apply. She and Abuelito raised seven children, and thanks to their force of will, none of their children or grandchildren succumbed to gangs or drugs. After a lifetime of hard work cleaning hotel rooms, Abuelita was at last retired, but only because her children demanded she rest. We all did whatever we could to please her.
Imagine my fright that I was going to confront her, perhaps the first time since the time of the fifth sun—the Aztec creation myth says we are in the fifth world—a grandson was going to directly contradict his grandmother. But I owed it to her. I couldn’t let her keep spending her money finding me a match.
My opportunity came while we were at Tía Agueda’s house. Alejandro was out back teaching Mike’s four-year-old and the other kids how to merengue; by now he had spent so much time with my family that if I showed up someplace without him, everyone asked where he was. My parents and their siblings were playing cards around the dining table while arguing over who was responsible for the latest defeat of the Mexican National Soccer Team. Abuelita and I were cleaning up in the kitchen. She is a tiny woman; I could easily lift her up over my head. Her short hair had turned gray before I was born; now it was mostly white, which made her dark skin glow. While she talked about her volunteer work at the parish, I kept looking at her to assess her mood. But she is as undecipherable as a marble statue. No one knows what Abuelita is thinking, but we always know what she wants. And here I was about to go against her wishes.
Surprisingly, it went very well. “Alejandro is a good boy. His family is very proud of him.” That is the greatest complement Abuelita has for anyone. “Es muy guapo,” she added. “Though both of you need to put on some weight.”
“No hard feelings?” I asked. “I am so sorry you were worried about me. I apologized for making you go through all this.” It was heartfelt.
“Pues, it was worth a try. I only wanted to help,” she said with a smile. I offered to reimburse her for Alba’s fee, but she refused. “This is a business transaction between the Bruja and me. Don’t go poking into it.” I backed off and put it out of my mind because I was excited that I was in a full blown, open, happy relationship with Alejandro. And I was with him on my own, without anyone pushing us together.
My sister finally told me what happened. “You really are a fool,” Elena rolled her eyes at my innocence. “No one can outsmart a bruja. It’s impossible to stop an abuela when she sets her mind to do something. Everyone knows that Alba planned to set you up with Alejandro from the beginning.”
Russ López is the author of six nonfiction books as well as book reviews and journal articles. After an extensive career of community organizing and social justice advocacy, he is the editor of LatineLit, a magazine that publishes fiction by and about Latinx people. “Matchmaking and Taxes” is part of a planned collection of short stories tentatively titled, The Lesser Saints of Silicon Valley. Originally from California, López has degrees from Stanford, Harvard, and Boston University. He currently divides his time between Boston and Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Te tardastes mucho
A Walk on Luna Street
by Kim Vázquez
Flora didn’t remember falling asleep, but she must have because she was suddenly startled awake by someone calling her name. “Flora.” She heard it again and looked around. It sounded like her brother’s voice calling out to her, but that was impossible. He had been dead for over thirty years.
Voices drifted down from the roof where the rest of her family was watching the sunset. And Flora put her hand on her chest, forcing herself to relax. That’s all it was, her family calling to her. Her mind was playing tricks on her, making her believe she heard her brother’s voice.
Flora looked over at the stairs that led to the roof. Maybe she should have gone up there after dinner. One of her favorite things was sitting with her son and grandchildren to watch the sunset. And if she were with them now, she wouldn’t be sitting here thinking she had heard the voice of a ghost.
But she had been tired and wanted to relax on the couch and enjoy the warm evening breeze. Besides, she had seen enough sunsets in her life. At ninety-six, she earned the right to do what she wanted. Flora had spent her whole life working hard, and she was tired, so tired. And that’s what she told her son earlier when he tried to insist that she join them on the roof.
“Flora, vente.” She heard it again. It was louder this time. She wasn’t half-asleep, and she was almost positive that it was Antonio’s voice. “Except he’s dead,” she told herself.
The setting sun streamed through the large wooden doors that led to the balcón, and a memory of Antonio waiting for her came with it. He was in front of the house on Luna Street where they had grown up and sounded a little annoyed as he called out for her to hurry. Papá was forcing him to take Flora with him and his friends to the movies, and he was not to let her out of his sight.
Papá always made Antonio take Flora with him. Antonio might not have liked it too much, but Flora loved it. And as she ran down the stairs to meet him, she smiled. After the movie, she would get him to take her for ice cream.
Antonio complained, “Te tardastes mucho.” He told Flora she was slow and he didn’t like being late. But he always said the same thing. Then Antonio would smile. And it was always the same sly smile like he knew something that she didn’t, a secret she would love.
The sun had almost set, its light was a deep orange, and it covered everything in its glow. Flora felt almost like she was in a dream as she pushed herself up and stepped onto the balcón. She wanted to see where that voice calling out to her was coming from even though she was half-blind and wouldn’t be able to see too far.
Sure enough, there was no one on the street. Flora was sure of it, and she wasn’t surprised.
“Inventos míos,” she mumbled under her breath, and for a second, she wondered if she was starting to lose her mind. Or maybe she was just tired. She had been tired a lot more lately. She also had been thinking about the past a lot more.
That’s what it was, Flora told herself. She was letting her memories get to her. She took a deep breath and shook her head. Then she told herself to leave the past behind, where it belongs. Those times are over and gone. She headed back to the couch, then looked up at the ceiling and said a little prayer just in case she was losing her mind. “Que sea lo que Dios quiere,” she mumbled.
“Mami, ¿estás bien?” She heard her son call out from upstairs.
“Sí,” she called back. “I’m just tired,” she thought to herself as she grabbed one of the throw pillows she had made off the couch next to her. A thread was loose, and she tried to see where it was coming from but couldn’t make it out. Maybe tomorrow she’d sit at the sewing machine and fix it. She hadn’t done any sewing in a while because of her lousy eyesight.
And that was a shame because sewing was her lifelong trade. Gracias a Dios, she had learned one. It saved her when her husband took off with another woman, leaving Flora alone and afraid in New York to raise two young boys by herself. But none of that mattered now. It was over. She had survived and had even come back to Puerto Rico.
Flora stretched her legs out. She should go to bed, but her exhaustion was overpowering. She felt it in her bones. Besides, a part of her enjoyed the warm breeze coming in from the balcón. It made her feel safe and comfortable. There was always a lovely warm ocean breeze that made its way down Luna Street in the evening, and she had loved it since she was a child.
She closed her eyes and felt her body relax. Just then, her brother’s voice called out again. This time she jumped up quickly and practically ran to the balcón. She surprised herself with how fast she was able to move. She looked out at the street and saw a man standing below. He waved at her. And he seemed familiar, but she couldn’t see his face clearly.
“Flora vente.” The man called out, and Flora was sure that it was Antonio’s voice.
The man waved, and Flora stood frozen to the balcón’s handrail. She had a feeling in her chest that made her want to go downstairs and see the man, but a voice in her head was telling her not to go.
Flora decided to ignore the voice in her head and go with the feeling in her chest. She called out to her son, “Vengo ya,” and rushed out the front door. Usually, Flora held onto the handrail tightly as she made her way down the stairs, but this time it was almost like she was a kid again. Her steps were steady and confident. She smiled and went faster.
Flora stepped onto the sidewalk and looked around for the man, half expecting him to be gone. He stood on the corner and waved to her. She squinted, trying to see him clearly. A breeze made its way down Luna Street and brushed against her skin. She felt refreshed, almost invigorated. The tiredness she had been feeling before was gone.
He was leaning against the wall waiting for her just like he used to do. The closer she got to him, the clearer her vision. He had the same angular face she remembered, and his hair was dark and messy.
Antonio smiled at her, “Por fin llegastes.” And it was the same smile he had always had. Like he knew a great secret that Flora was going to love.
Flora stopped and looked up at him. “¿Cómo? How are you here?”
His eyes sparkled like she remembered, “I was waiting for you. Te tardastes mucho.” She smiled at him and felt the tears filling her eyes. It felt like he had never left.
“Vente,” Antonio held his arm out so she could grab ahold of it, and she looped her arm through his.
“Mami, ¿estás bien? Flora heard her son’s voice calling out to her. It sounded so far away. She turned to look behind her and felt an ache in her heart.
Antonio looked down at her and patted her hand to reassure her. She nodded, “Que sea lo que Dios quiere.”
Then she turned back and smiled. She was ready for her walk on Luna Street.
Kim Vázquez grew up in Puerto Rico and moved to New York to study Dramatic Writing at Tisch School of the Arts, NYU. The lack of representation and diversity in children's books drove her to write a middle-grade Latinx mystery that she is currently querying while she works on another. She's had various articles curated and published on Medium, including “Green Plantains and Memories of mi Isla” and “An Afternoon in la Plaza del Mercado.” She's also had a short story, “The Lady in White,” published by the Acentos Review.
It does not flicker
A Quiet Night on the Boulevard
by Jacob Teran
The block was not as active tonight. Olympic Boulevard is one of the gateways to enter our urban domain known as South Sapro Street and, on this night, it is absent of travelers and hostile combatants.
You can hear the last metro bus making its way down the Boulevard to the depot drop off—final destination. A long day of picking up hard workers, tweakers, cholos, and dropping them off to where they need to go.
Neither juras pass by with sirens, nor local tweakers roam the block looking for a potential vehicle to break into, just, the calm and quiet sound of the wind and train that makes its presence known to our barrio. These nights seldomly visit my barrio and when the sweet sound of silence makes its way to Sapro, the tranquility is always welcomed.
I am in my messy room of my mom’s 2-bedroom apartment that I have not cleaned for days, lying in bed. I can feel the temperature drop from my open window as the smell of rain and burnt cannabis roaches permeates my room. I slip on my already tied DVS skating shoes, grab my hoodie, and make my way out into the abyss of my barrio.
I head to the local Valero Gas Station to pick up a blunt wrap to indulge with my homeboy, Iggy. A light haze of cool droplets penetrates the dark sky making the lonely night that much colder. The smell of wet asphalt is refreshing with each sloshing step that I take. The local Valero was the place to buy a 3-pack of some cheap beer if no one was in the mood to go to Superior Market. The fluorescent lights beam blue and yellow, and read, “Valero Gas Station” with the “o” turned off or perhaps, dead. The people inside know me and even though I am still a minor by age, they never card me when I buy a pack of frajos, especially blunt wraps.
As I make my way back on the wet asphalt of the Boulevard, I can smell and hear all sorts of familiar elements that ignite my senses. Across the street from the Valero was Cedar Ave. Someone was always washing their clothes on the corner of Cedar and the Boulevard in the evening. An old steel clothesline is engulfed with colorful socks, white t-shirts, and blue jeans. Probably a small family since I always see a group of three to four kids playing in the street just before the sun sets. The scent of Suavitel Fabric Softener always reminded me of my Abuelos in Boyle Heights, as their neighbors used a similar product for their clothes.
The next thing I immediately notice is the fresh scent of cannabis burning nearby. It must be the homies from my block congregating at Cheddar’s pad since he lived two houses from the corner of Cedar. The thick skunky aroma of indica burning in the street at night always felt like I was home—a comforting feeling. Suavitel and marijuana were the telltale signs I am home.
Between Cedar and Sapro, an area on the Boulevard, is where I feel the most alone as I walk. As I walk pass Cedar, I look to the left side of the Boulevard stretches to its desolate side of abandoned buildings bathed with graffiti. To my right was a long fence of white wood that closed off the side of an apartment. This wooden canvas is marked “SLS,” for SAPRO LOCOS, the acronym for the locotes on my street. Other times, they were crossed out by the rival barrios in the surrounding area and down south of us, passing the railroad tracks, beyond the Boulevard and away from the domain of Sapro.
The spray on walls, scribes on windows, markings on wooden fences, trees, light posts, and curbsides, are all voices without faces that speak. A language that only people that live here understand.
I walk under the streetlight between Cedar and Sapro, probably the most remote section of the Boulevard where peculiar occurrences would take place. In this desolate part of the Boulevard, voices could be heard with not a single person around, tall, shadowy figures have followed people only to disappear in a blink of an eye, and the streetlight itself would flicker violently when someone walked under. I could never account for the first two things that homies and neighbors have spoken of, but the streetlight flickering, that was real. Probably some glitch with the wiring under the asphalt, but, whatever rationale could explain, it always made me feel like some ominous entity was following me.
I walk under it tonight. It does not flicker.
I pass by the streetlight and eventually the Cliff to walk across Sapro to a dark grey Astro van. I could see the radio’s light slightly brighter as I approach the van’s sliding door. I knocked on it twice before opening it to be greeted by my homeboy, Iggy,
“Fuckin’ Guill! Finally! Ah Ah! Ah!” Iggy’s laugh was always amusing. Iggy or Iggs, always sounded like his laugh was backwards.
“’Sup G, was’ crackin’?” Coming into the van, we shake hands.
“Nada güey, posted trying to get faded. ’Sup with you? Where da bud at?”
“Shit, I thought you had it.”
“Lying ass vato! Ah! Ah! Ah!”
I pop out the grape flavored swisher I bought from Valero as I come in slamming the sliding door after me.
“Firme! Grape will go good with this shit.”
Iggy starts cutting up the swisher with a dull razor as I begin to break up the sticky indica from the baggie I was clenching since the odd streetlight. Iggy hands me a ripped Home Depot cardboard he used to dump out the tobacco from the swisher. Bone Thugs’ “Resurrection” is playing in a CD player he installed for his mom’s van’s radio. The music suits the quiet night and the session we are about to have. The dank bud begins to stink up the van with a skunky aroma as I break up the sticky flower that sticks to my fingertips.
We start conversing about the extracurricular activities that have been making the block hot: South Siders and Veil Street have been coming through our block and hitting up their placas in our area. A few tweakers from a few blocks away stealing the vecinos’ recyclables. Really typical mamadas that occur in our barrio. Sometimes we laugh about it. Sometimes we get into heavier conversations.
I hand the cardboard with the potent shake I just broke up to Iggy, “Trip out G, isn’t tonight quiet as fuck?”
“Fuck yea, Guill…but…” Iggy licks the wrap’s end to seal the blunt, “…it’s firme, I like nights like this. Don’t you?”
“Yeah, it’s just trippy,” I kept looking down the Boulevard from the second-row window of the van. Usually, a suspicious car or jura patrolling would pass, but nothing.
Iggy hands me the lighter, “Do the honors and spark it up, Guill! Ah! Ah! Ah!”
I light one side of the blunt and roll it around slowly as if I’m hot roasting a pig, making sure the cherry got an even burn. I take a couple of light hits as if I was smoking a cigar to get the cherry just right. As the smoke enters my lungs, I can feel it spread throughout my chest making me want to cough. I hold it in and exhale through my nostrils, feeling the euphoria of both weed and Krayzie Bone’s lyricism.
Iggy is chain-hitting the blunt and seemed like he forgot I was in the session with him. He looks halfway towards me from the driver’s seat, “…Guill, I wanna tell you some shit that some OG told me a while back. This vato was a firme ass foo, a real one. The shit he said was the truth dog, palabra, and I still believe this shit to this day.”
I looked at Iggy thinking ahh shit, this foo is faded. “Handles, G.”
Iggy put the blunt down to his chest as it continues to burn, “And I don’t give a fuck what anyone says, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise either. You gotta believe this shit, Guillermo. You’re gonna have foos try to press you, call you a bitch and all that…but fuck that.”
I was thinking, Iggy is never going to get to the point, “Yeah Iggy, handles, I hear you foo.”
Iggy turns as much as he could to the seat behind him where I’m sitting, “You don’t got to be from nowhere and still be G wid’ it. A lot of foos think you gotta be from somewhere to be hard, claim a hood, get into mamadas and put in dirt, and all that bullshit, but chales, güey.” He pauses and takes another rip from the blunt.
“Escucha güey…Just be you dog…and that’s keeping it gangster.” A bit of mota and street wisdom Iggy shares as he takes one big rip and lets out a huge cloud of smoke that makes him start choking and laughing.
Iggs passed the almost finished blunt back to me as he was coughing all over the place. “Damn, foo, you aight, haha!” “Hit that shi…that shit…Mem…” Iggy kept coughing and all I could think about was why he was telling me this.
I sit there as Iggy is coughing his lungs out and felt this was the most genuine thing my homeboy ever told me. Growing up in the hood, I always thought I would eventually get jumped in the hood when the time came. But what Iggy just confided hit me profoundly. I couldn’t stop thinking about it during our session.
We kill the blunt and hear a few of Iggy’s primos coming back to interrupt our private hotbox. Fuck. Who is this? There are a chingo of us on the block and whoever comes to a session either has weed or none.
“Eeeeee, look at you scandolosos right here,” Iggy’s primo Fat Boy always loves putting people on blast.
Iggy looks up and blasts back, “fuck you dick, where were you when I hit you up earlier to blaze it?” Fat Boy smirks. “Don’t even trip, I share my shit homie, not like you assholes,” Fat Boy starts opening up a bag with his own weed that he had.
Looking to me, Fat Boy laughs, “’Sup Memo, where’s all da bud at? You and Iggy are straight holdouts.”
I smirk and laugh. “Dick, you foos had your own VIP sesh, so Iggs hit me up. Got ends? Still have some leftover yesca.” Fat Boy ignores me as his brother Scraps and Cheddar come through pushing themselves in the van talking mumbling and complaining that Iggy and I were smoking without them, although they just smoked without Iggy and me.
“Hey dick, my Jefa is gonna come out trippin’ with all you foos in here being all loud and shit,” Iggy always snapped when unexpected dudes came, even if they were his primos.
“Don’t even trip, my Tía loves me,” Fat Boy said as he was breaking up some of his bud nudging me for the cardboard with the leftover bud on it.
“Not you fat ass, you’re burning the spot,” Iggy capped back as he was looking for a track to play on the van’s CD player stereo. Scraps, Cheddar, and I all started busting up laughing from the exchange between Iggy and his primo, Fat Boy. DJ Quik’s “Pitch in On a Party” surrounds the van’s speakers as the van gets louder and I kept thinking about what Iggy told me.
Fat Boy looked back at Scraps and Cheddar, “Shut the fuck up turkey and you too cheddar.” Fat Boy’s hermano Scraps was chubby like Fat Boy, but shorter. Everyone called him “Turkey” or “Danny DeVito,” which he hated. Cheddar had pretty poor hygiene when it came to his teeth. He never brushed his teeth, and the result made his dientes look like picante corn nuts.
“Dick, you’re fucked up,” Cheddar shakes his head.
“You’re a scandalous vato too, ‘Gay-mo,’” Fat Boy looks to me. The homies would either call me “Guill” or “Memo,” short for Guillermo. Other times, “Gay-mo,” because it sounded funny to them, and I also hated it.
“Just be you dog,” I pat Fat Boy hard on the back of the shoulder.
“Fuck, let’s go finish this shit out in the front of your pad Fat Boy, you burned the spot.”
“Fuck it, let’s bounce then,” Fat Boy said as we all get up to leave the van.
We all walked to the front of Fat Boy and Scrap’s pad. Their mom was asleep, so we had to creep and crawl if we didn’t want to get kicked out of the yard. Fat Boy and Scrap’s oldest brother Beaker wasn’t home either, probably getting all pedo with some lady that he would always say he was going to marry but then break up with weeks later.
We all post up on the bed of Beaker’s 1987 El Camino, laughing quietly, talking about how cold the night was. We start packing bowls from Cheddar and Scrap’s weed pipes and begin a new rotation. Iggy’s stomach was bothering him, so heads to the restroom. The four of us, without Iggy, sit in the back of the El Camino getting faded as the night continues to get colder and quieter.
Suddenly, a car comes out the cut from the corner of the yard where we are posting up, on the Boulevard. Fat Boy and Scraps lived at the corner of our street and had thick bushes that made it hard to see who was walking or driving by, especially at night.
* * * *
We then see four shadows running around the corner of Fat Boy and Scraps’ pad outside the fence. The moonlight was our only aid in seeing through the darkness. One shadow stood at the corner keeping trucha, while one other dude stood outside of the gate. The other two shadows came up to us in front of the fence where we happen to be sitting.
“Where the fuck you from, Ese?! This is big bad Southside Greenwood Gang! Fuck ‘Scrape’ Street!”
The bald shadow brandishes a .45 cuete and points it to each of our stunned skulls. All of us with our sweaty palms open, shield our chests, afraid and frozen in an already cold evening. The nefarious shadow, only three feet away from the silver diamond-shaped fence that separates us, stands fiercely. The streetlight reveals his inked face, a black spider web trapped his entire face with the center of the web starting from the shadow’s nose. Eyes as black as obsidian, stabbing us with his soulless glare, listo for anything.
“Hey dog…we’re from nowhere…we don’t bang. I live right here,” Fat Boy being the oldest of us speaks, shaken up, choosing his words carefully. The shadow looks at him with disdain and then all of us. He points his cuete at each of us asking us individually if we claimed Sapro Street. With our arms raised, palms open, not knowing what to think or do, we deny because we are in fact not from the hood, yet.
“I don’t give a fuck! You’re caught slipping out here! This is Southside Territory! Fuck Sapro Street! Bitch ass levas! The spider webbed shadow looks to his homeboy for confirmation to off us right then and there. The shadow raises his less dominant hand and cocks his cuete. Coming back from the restroom, Iggy comes out to a situation he was somewhat familiar with.
The second shadow by the fence gate sees Iggy and hails out, “Who the fuck are you?! Southside Greenwood Gang, ese!”
Iggy opens his palms towards the second shadow, “Hey, I don’t bang dog. I live right here in the back, this is my Tía’s pad. These are all my primos, we’re just right here burning some bud. My primos are kids G, they ain’t soldiers. We are family right here.” Iggy being much older than us already knew the street lingo—along with his street intellect and rhetoric, Iggy’s response disheartens the shadows.
Although this was a typical night in my barrio, we never had a neighboring group roll up on us like that. This night made me realize the brevity of life, the choices I make and the words I choose influence what can happen next. Iggy’s words echoed in my mind and made me realize a lot of shit—life is short and can be taken in an instant. I want to change and do better, but it’s difficult when you have no direction or positive influences. But Iggy made me think and that was perhaps one of the most impactful things someone ever told me.
The dude with the cuete throws up his insignia, claims his hood one last time so we could all remember it, and dashes off to the car with the other shadows and drove off into the abyss.
The rain never came but the smell remained…Some fuckin’ quiet night.
Jacob “Jake” Teran is a proud Chicano living in the San Gabriel Valley, Los Angeles. Jake is a 2nd generation Chicano who was born in Montebello, Los Angeles, east of Los Angeles. He has published one short fictional story at his community college at Rio Hondo College and a master’s thesis for his graduate program, where he obtained his Masters Degree in Rhetoric and Composition. He is currently teaching composition to several departments in two colleges that include indigenous and Chicanx literature. Jake currently lives in the San Gabriel Valley where he is working on a novel based on his experiences growing up in his barrio that deals with gang lifestyle, drugs, violence, and finding one’s identity in a chaotic concrete jungle.
“Because they looked like people.”
Winner 2nd place Extra Fiction 2022
by Shaiti Castillo
Listen to Shaiti Castillo perform "Garden People"
My grandmother would tell me about the little bug people that would roam her garden back in her small pueblo deep in México. This was only when Mamá wasn’t in the room because she’d scold her from spreading tales of brujería in a house that worshipped God. Even as the disease ate away at what was left of my grandmother’s brain, her stubbornness had continued to grow. Rooted deeply within her like an oak tree. I would trade cups of cafecito for tales of the little bug people while Mamá was out running errands.
“Who were they?” I would ask in a whisper, as if Mamá would barge in at any moment and catch us exchanging sins.
“They didn’t have names. They didn’t speak either.” She would reply. I’d sit there patiently, processing the information before asking another question. Time with her was precious. The more questions I asked, the more lost she seemed to get.
“How do you know they weren’t just normal bugs?” I’d ask. She would sit there for a moment and take a small sip of her hot coffee, surely burning her tongue.
“Because they looked like people.” The answer was simple, but it wasn’t enough for a curious child like me.
“How so?” The slight tapping of my feet against the tile floor exposed my growing impatience. She didn’t seem to notice.
“They had faces. Eyes, a nose, a mouth…” She would go on to list general anatomy. I bit my lip.
“Bugs have faces.” I interrupted and she stopped speaking. Then a hoarse laugh escaped her thinning lips. It was an unpleasant sound, like tv static. Her childhood spent working in factories had caught up with her lungs.
“Smartass,” She said just loud enough for me to hear in her thick accent. It caught me by surprise.
“Nana!” It was my turn to scold her. She never cursed, always said it wasn’t very lady-like.
“As I was saying,” She paused to let me settle down. “They had faces. But not bug faces. They looked like you and I. Except they were little.”
She slightly pinched her fingers together to show me an estimated size of the bug people. I nodded.
“They had the body of the bugs, but they all could stand on two feet. Like you and I,” she explained, pushing herself off her seat. I scrambled next to her in case she fell but she swatted my hands away. She set down her mug and proceeded to put her hands on her hips. Stretching her back just a bit to stand proudly. I couldn’t help but giggle at her display.
“How’d you find them?” I asked as she slowly sat herself back down. Retreating back to her caffeine.
“They were stealing,” She shook her head in a feigned disappointment. “I had planted some sweet grapes for the summer and I caught them in the act!”
“Maybe they were hungry, Nana.” I said in defense of the bug people. It’s not a crime to be hungry.
“That is no reason to steal.” She sighed. “I forgave them, of course.”
“Then what?” I began to grow eager. This was the most I had gotten out of her in a while.
“Then we became friends. I would visit them every day after work and bring them whatever I had left over. Even if it was a few beans.” She smiled to herself. “I would make them little chairs and tables out of sticks and leaves I found around the yard. I would sew together little dresses using paper magazines. I left them gifts, and they would leave me some as well.”
“What did they bring you?” My hands were resting under my chin. Eyes wide like an owl at midnight.
“Random trinkets they would find. Shiny stuff. Sometimes it’d be silverware, sometimes jewelry. Sometimes it’d be a coin or two which made a big difference at the time.” Her smile grew, but stayed closed. Her wrinkles stretched themselves across her face, but the glossiness in her eyes brought a sense of youth.
“Then what, Nana? Where are they now?” I jumped up a little in excitement which startled her. She dropped the mug and it shattered across the floor, spilling what was left of the brown liquid. She stayed silent.
“I’m so sorry! Be careful and stay there while I clean it up, there’s glass!” I stood up immediately. She sat there, unfazed. I slipped on the sandals that were beneath my chair and stepped out back to grab the broom. When I slipped back inside, Mamá had made her way into the kitchen.
“What happened?” She let out a dramatic breath. Throwing the groceries she had carried inside onto the counter. She ripped the broom from my hands and began to sweep. “¿Estás bien, Ma?”
There was still no response from my grandmother. She sat there, frozen in time. Her frail hands still shaped around the non-existent mug.
“What did you do?” Mamá turned to face me and I stuttered. “Her mind is very fragile right now, you know this.”
“I didn’t do anything, I swear! We were just talking.” I aimed to defend myself but the weight of guilt sat itself like rocks, heavy in my stomach. I had asked too many questions. “I’m sorry.”
My grandmother spoke a few words for the rest of the day. Simple responses that would please Mamá. I had refrained from speaking to her in fear of only hurting her more. She would trade sweet glances and small smiles with me over dinner. Her way of letting me know things were okay.
That night I joined my grandmother in her bed. The window was open and it let a cool enough breeze in that encouraged us to be under the covers. I laid my head on her shoulder, adjusting my weight so as to not crush her feeble body. We laid there in silence as we usually did. There was a full moon out and the sound of crickets chirping lulled us to sleep. As my eyes grew heavy and my breathing became steady, she spoke.
“I’m going to die,” She faintly said. My eyes became watery saucers at her sudden statement. When I gained the courage to look at her, she had already fallen asleep. Her eyes were closed, thinning lashes falling over her cheeks. Paired with the same small smile she had given me earlier. To her, everything was going to be okay.
She didn’t wake up that morning. The doctor said she had died peacefully in her sleep and that in her position it was the best way to go. I stood at the doorway as Mamá wept at the foot of the bed. A blanket had been thrown over my grandmother’s body as we waited for someone to take her.
My puffy eyes looked out the open window. The sun was bright and it was a beautiful day. Something that my grandmother would have appreciated dearly. She hated sad events. The sounds of chirping crickets had transitioned into the chirping of sparrows. Light and airy.
At the corner of my eye, I noticed a pop of color. I tilted my head in curiosity, walking over to hover over the windowsill. Sitting there were two red grapes. Perfectly ripe and gleaming. I looked up to the sky and smiled.
Beyond the Cave
by Kevin M. Casin
Bran arrived at the cave. The shadows held by the chalky stone frame played with him, shaping into the fairies from his dreams. Maybe they were eating the travelers.
Nic grunted as he climbed onto the shale slab. He rolled and lithely sprung to his elvish feet.
“Why the gods thought to bring us together, I will never understand,” he grumbled. He tossed his loose brown hair. His brown hands brushed charcoal dust from his caramel leather vest and adjusted the bow and quiver on his back. “Bring me to my death, he will. Just watch…”
Bran wrapped a fleshy arm around Nic’s slender shoulders and said “see, it wasn’t so bad!”
“Be careful, Bran,” Nic said. “Your research won’t save up. We slipped past the guards. No one is coming if something goes wrong.”
“Oh, stop worrying. What’s the worst that could happen? We’ll look around and go home.”
Bran looked around for bone, carcasses, anything that might show signs of a feast. He found none. If they weren’t eaten, then maybe captured and held against their will?
“Since you’re so worried, I’ll go in first,” said Bran. He took his birch staff into his brown hand and slipped the vine band off his chest. He looked back at Nic with a smirk, “and make sure everything is safe before you come in.”
Darkness washed the world from Bran’s skin. He held his staff tight with both hands. A tingle entered his fingertips. It felt like magic. Maybe there were fairies. But he wanted to see them. In the shadows, he searched for the portal to their world, the one he had traveled to in his dreams since he was a child. He hoped to find the glass structures that pierced gray clouds.
Was the silver-eyed man there, and his haunting robotic speech? How about the orange man with green tendrils, the one who soothed him?
“Maybe some light will help.” He set his hand over the branches of his staff. He felt them curl under his palm, but he before he could speak the spell, Nic interrupted.
“Bran! Come look at this!”
Bran rushed to the near end of the cave—he realized was more of a tunnel. Nic gently cupped a pale, orange hermit crab.
“That’s not from the Otherworld!” Bran huffed.
The crab scuttled into its shell, bunched into a fist.
Nic laughed. “They never did like you. Maybe there’s something to learn here. Not everything has to be otherworldly. Sometimes a crab is just a crab, and that’s okay. Pay attention to what’s real, Bran. The rest will always work itself out.”
Bran rolled his eyes. “When did you get so old and wise?”
A chilled breeze knocked Bran’s thick, black curled hair onto his face. The roar of the great sea called to him. He looked out over the cliffs beside Nic.
“What is that?” Bran asked.
Perched on crags, Bran saw a castle. Pointed towers, like fangs biting into unfurling storm clouds. Thick, dreary walls sprouted from the algae-green rocks and stabbed the central tower. An eerie chill seeped into his skin and pinched his nerves. He hated the feeling of insects creeping over him.
A crack came from the cliff behind him. The rock under his feet tore away from the mainland. Nic knocked Bran down, hoping to carry them over the fissure. But he failed. Bran braced for another sensation he hated—the thrill of falling. He waited for the hands juggling his intestines. It never happened.
Bran rose to his feet with Nic’s help and the cliff faded away. Bran realized they were gliding toward the castle. Nothing but air and certain death lay beneath the levitating boulder. Bran balked at the vacuum. He hugged Nic. As he fumbled at the weight, Bran prayed to the fairies, pleading with them to carry them safely over the carnivorous sea.
The cracks aligned perfectly. It hovered in place as Bran and Nic stepped off, then pulled away, drifting back to the cliff. As they climbed a stone-carved staircase, Bran felt the vibration generated from the thrashing waves crawl up his bones. He peered over the rough edge and realized they were swaying.
Bran glanced back at Nic and said, “I think a good wind will knock this whole place back into the sea. But I guess we’re stuck here for now.”
Bran stood before a wrought iron door with bolts about his size. On its own, the door creaked open slightly. The castle exhaled stale air, like the musk of a thousand-year tomb. The breeze lifted dust from the stone slabs, taking hazy human forms, like meandering ghosts looking for their true home.
“Fairies,” Bran exhaled enthusiastically.
People—some human and others alien—skittered around him with apathetic faces and in clothes outside the custom of Ulamar. Men in long-sleeved tunics with a cloth folded over their chests—"suits,” the word came to him, but its origin was a mystery to him. One of these men strolled up to him.
Bran shuttered. His youthful face carried silver eyes that held the weight of ages. He didn’t seem as scary as he had in his dreams. Bran had power here. He wasn’t going to be intimidated.
“I am Bran, protector of Ulamar and heir to the throne. I don’t recognize you, or any of these people as my subject. Where are you from?” Bran assumed a regal voice, dropping his tone by an octave.
The man opened his arms and said, “welcome to the House of All Worlds. I am ARI: Alternate Reality Integrator.” Though his sentences ended with a flair, his smile was empty and strained. “I am tasked with carrying out our company motto: All things are possible. Is this your first time?”
Bran glanced back at Nic, who surveyed ARI with an incredulous eye.
“Are you…a fairy?” Bran asked, stepping close and examining ARI’s hazy aura.
“Fairies? Oh no, sir. I’m afraid you may be experiencing Envoy sickness. Oh, not good. Must decontaminate quickly. This way, please, right away.”
ARI extended his arm and guided the way into the dilapidated structure.
Bran looked to Nic, whose eyes held worry, but nodded as if to agree the way seemed safe enough and this was there only way out. Their only option was to find a way out that was different from the way they came. Bran walked into the castle, hoping it held some answers.
Though the decay faded as they entered, the gloom never left. Sunlight fell from the ceiling—the only light source—down a well-formed by a spiraling white staircase. Beyond the stairs, glass cages scaled the curved heights. Like an egg, or a gherkin. People scurried around, vanishing behind metal doors that slipped into dark, bland walls.
A lonely banner draped from the far wall with a symbol—a cat sitting on its hind legs, a small “S” on its chest, and a giant “U” behind it.
They reached the center of the space.
“Welcome back to Ulamar. Here, in the House of All Worlds, we can take you anywhere you want to go. With our convenient and affordable prices, we can help you visit any multiverse.” ARI spoke with an unnatural enthusiasm.
Bran considered it strange how the name of this place was the same as his kingdoms, but a nearby man caught his attention. Green roots dangling from his carrot scalp over broad shoulders. A silver uniform intimately shaped his beefy torso. The cat emblem on his peck. A scowl pinched his oily cheeks. He tapped an invisible pane, each yellow symbol vanishing with a flash under his fingers.
The man’s jaw dropped. He recovered quickly and returned to his work.
Bran thought the reaction was strange. And slightly insulting. Bran wasn’t aware of any orange people in Ulamar. He let it go.
ARI guided them through a broad doorway at the back end of the egg-shaped space.
Aisles of glossy, white saucers encased in cylindrical glass sprawled away infinitely.
“What are these?” Bran said.
ARI led them along a corridor, then stopped beside a vessel. He raised a hazy hand.
“The sickness…correct. Memory triggering may help.
“Here we keep out state-of-the-art Quantum Envoys. An array of our safe, proprietary krypton-xenon lasers vaporize customers into elementary particles and funnel them into our Alternative Reality Capacitor. By tapping into the quantum strings, we can digitally recreate you and your loved ones anywhere in the multiverse. Then—thanks to our wonderful technicians, of course—we can bring you right back home with the push of a few buttons.” ARI pointed to an orange-skinned man beside a nearby Envoy.
The same man from earlier. Now with an inquisitive grin.
Bran smiled at the familiar and attractive technician. At twenty, traditionally men in the kingdom found a wife, but he never felt that life suited him. He’d settled the reason on his insatiable need for adventures. Now, as he stared at the man, he reconsidered.
“Could this be some type of magic?” Nic asked. Bran tensed as he approached the Envoy and the technician.
“Yes,” ARI replied, “in this world, I believe the natives would refer to this work as ‘magic’. Ulamar knows this as physics. Are you familiar with Schrӧdinger’s Cat theory? No? Well, never mind then. Now, here are your neural networks from the moment you entered the House…”
With an opaque hand, ARI swatted the air. Lines webbed into circles across a hazy brain. Bran fought back tears, recalling the day his father slaughtered a sheep right in front of him. He wanted to teach his son to fend for himself, to be a man. So, he set the brain in Bran’s hands. Hypnotic green and red waves intensified as they reached the circles and distracted him from the memory.
“Obviously magic,” Bran concluded in his head.
“These two quadrants are unlinked,” ARI traced a line between two circles. A black hole broke the currents. “The memory centers of your brain. The informational flow is either impaired or repressed. A common side-effect of the transport. Not to worry. When the brain lingers in another universe it must adapt and form new connections, synapses, like these,” ARI marked another line with intense, red swirls.
A hand rested on Bran’s arm. Nic guided him away and whispered, “I don’t see any way out, but I say we try to make a run for it. I have a bad feeling. We need to go.”
“I’m afraid we can’t let you leave in this condition, Nic.”
Nic twitched and held ARI in a deadly glare. ARI stared—his calm, faux-jovial expression unmoved.
“I believe your syndrome is severe,” said ARI. With a wave, a new network appeared.
The map is framed on the memory center. Red waves flowed naturally into the two circles. No black hole.
“Connection found…Memories missing… Deleted. No leaving, I’m afraid.” ARI quieted for a moment. His hollow, silver eyes scanned the network.
The technician stepped away from the Envoy. His pace slowed as he neared Bran.
Suddenly, ARI shot erect. His head thrashed and his voice changed. Like iron rasping a metal drum. “House breached…execute…sterilization protocol.”
The technician wedged between Bran and Nic, then grabbed their arms and said, “we’ve got to go now!”
ARI’s hysteria faded as Bran raced down the corridors, guided by the mysterious technician. He passed through a new door and burst into a hallway. Glossy pale walls with silver lines slicing down the corridor greeted Bran with a meek, yet more lively welcome than the lobby. Here, the light came from strange, luminous ropes in the ceiling corners. The hall curved and as he turned the corner, he clashed with an orange woman.
He knocked down unknown objects from her metallic trays. Bran tried to frown as he swept by her, but he wasn’t sure if she caught it. He heard the objects crack as Nic’s heavy steps smashed against them.
Bran followed the man, who brought them to an elegant staircase of sterile white that coiled around a tiered, crystal chandelier. Lanky creatures with cerulean skin clothed in white silk, beaded with grey pebbles seemed to hover over the steps.
“Water fairies clad in eroded limestone,” he recalled from the old stories.
An orange woman in a silver uniform barred their path to the stairs. Bran grinned in fascination, disregarding the odd metal object in her hand and her threatening grimace. The technician yanked him away, through yet another sliding door. This time, Bran came to a cold, metal room.
A terrible place to hide, he knew, but before he could offer his thought, the technician tapped on the wall and the doors closed instantly. They were moving. Almost falling.
“What is going on?” Nic slammed the technician into the wall and held his forearm on his neck. The man didn’t fight back.
“You have to leave. A native can’t be in here. They will kill you.” The words dripped like fresh cream from his lips.
“I’ll kill you first.” Nic drew an arrow and held the sharp edge by his throat. He pressed enough to draw blood.
Bran tensed and threw his arms over Nic, pulling away. The wall caught them, but Bran didn’t let go. The embrace comforted him, and he sensed it helped Nic.
A sea flashed in Bran’s mind. A vision.
Still waters. A weight pinned his hands and body to pearl sand. Passion on his lips. Braids tickled his cheeks. Green. The face. Duran.
Bran snapped back to reality.
“I don’t think he wants to hurt us, Nic. I know him,” Bran whispered. He felt the calm air from Nic as his breath deepened. Bran held onto him. Like he might lose him.
“We do know each other, but more of that later. I’m Duran, Senior Quantum technician. In all my years with Ulamar, no native and customer have bonded so much. Every time Nic looked at you, the map turned red. He was thinking of you, Bran. Your memories together.”
“He’s been my best friend since we were kids.”
The room jerked to a stop and knocked everyone to the floor. Duran shot up, waved his arm over the wall, and yellow symbols appeared. They faded as he tapped them; replaced by more.
“Damn! They turned off the elevator. Luckily, we stopped just under the 100th floor. We’re close to the tunnel.”
He swatted the characters away and produced a slim rod from his pocket.
“Step aside, guys.” He aimed it at the ceiling and a light beam shot from the tip. Bran watched in amazement—it melted the metal into a ring. It fell with an empty thud.
Duran tucked away the rod. He set his hands on his knees and lunged. “Come on,” he said to Bran.
He sprang through the hole with Duran’s help. He landed in a dark, musky well. He followed a thick chain holding the metal box as it curved along the walls. Nic appeared, startling Bran, then helped Duran. He patted away the dust away. His hands caressed his grey clothes, moving from his chest to his waist. Bran followed with his eyes, memorizing each space.
Still waters. Pearl sand. Passion. Greece. More visions.
Bran stood before a broad door the exact size of the metal box. He hoped it might open for him, but it didn’t. Was the fairy magic even real? Or did they take it back out of spite for running away?
“Step aside, Bran. I got it.” Duran carved a hole about his height. He nudged the slab and it fell away. Once through, he held out his hand, waiting for Bran to take it. But Nic came between them.
As he drew his bow, he glanced at Bran and said, “Brawns before brains.” He winked and went ahead. Then, he signaled for Bran.
The bright light bathing the glossy walls blinded Bran. Squinting, he scampered down the empty, doorless hallway. No, it had one door, Bran noticed. At the end.
Beyond the door, a rusted staircase descended into a sewer. Footsteps echoed faintly. Bran examined the stairs, hoping to glimpse the source of the noises. The flights curled to a point, like a black hole in the sky.
“Down here, Bran. Just a bit more and we’re out of here,” Duran insisted.
Bran stepped close to Duran. From afar, his face held a spry youth, but now, wrinkles crept into the corners of his eyes. Each line is a story. Piece of Bran’s story.
He met Duran’s emerald irises, consumed by a swirl of anxiety and despair. Yet, peering from behind those emotions, hope. Life. Fairy magic set into his nerves, sparking a bulb. One thought extinguished. Now, teething with new life.
“Duran,” Bran whispered. “I loved you, didn’t I?”
A smile pinched Duran’s oily cheek. Bran stroked the dimples with an olive thumb as he welcomed another vision.
Bran awoke, desperate to experience the latest in Ulamar technology—the Envoy. He threw what semi-clean clothes he had on the floor and headed to the newly built House of All Worlds in New London.
The House—housed in the repurposed Gherkin building—was the final wonder of the world. He declared no one should bother looking for another because none stood a chance. Until a Karian took his admissions ticket, ripped it in half, and smiled.
“Welcome! I’m Duran, I will be your tour guide today. Looks like it’s just us for today, shall we get started?”
Bran nodded speechlessly.
Duran walked ahead, gesturing at captivating machinery, except Bran never looked at any of it. His attention fixed on Duran—and resisting the urge to survey the uniform revealing his beefy form. When the tour was over, Duran brought Bran to the employees’ lounge, insisting it was the final stop. After he gathered his belongings, he turned to Bran and asked,
“Are you asking me out or what?”
Bran mustered a warble and a nod. Duran laughed and led them back to an Envoy.
“You are going to talk to me on our date though, right? You’re cute and all, but I need some conversation.”
“I’m sorry. I’m just nervous. I’ve never done this before.”
“Date? With a face like that? I find that hard to believe.”
“Spend so much time with someone so unbelievably beautiful. Like a fairy.”
Duran laughed. “Lucky for you, I like fairies. So, I’ll take that as a compliment. Come on. Let’s go somewhere special. My treat.”
The Envoy sears the flesh from Bran’s bone. A prick, then nothing. Light as air, a sea breeze, his essence, his molecules, his form, condensed on a beach. “In 20th century Greece,” Duran explained, “before Columbo buried it in ash, before the Human Reconstruction after the Nuclear Wars, before the Karians ever stepped on Earth, before the Quantum breakthroughs.”
Bran laid on the pearl sand. Basked in Duran’s sun-kissed glow. Passion on his lips. And Duran in his arms and heart.
Bran believed a life, a world, a whole galaxy without Duran seemed impossible. In those days. Before he ended up here. Now, Duran was a stranger, a kind stranger, but nothing more. Though his heart told him differently.
A boom came from above.
Bran descended and arrived at a long, damp tunnel. Like the cave he now questioned. Was it real? Was anything in the last twenty years of his existence real? He felt a hand on the bend in his lower back. Nic offered a reassuring glance. Nic…was he real?
Another boom echoed.
Bran slowed as he ran down the tunnel, avoiding a fall on the slick, sandy mud. He focused on a growing light. It banished the shadows. It revealed the truth. It held the roar of the sea.
Sunlight beamed intensely as the afternoon bloomed in a cloudless sky. It warmed Bran as he emerged onto a stone table, jutting over the raging sea. Nic and Duran ran ahead and peered over the platform, each searching for something. Nic almost crushed a hermit crab.
It hopped back into its orange shell. Like the one on the cliff. He doubted if it was the same one. Was it following us on this adventure too? Bran sat beside it, feet under his thighs, and observe the little crab reappear.
Its eyes wiggled, studying Bran, judging his potential for harm. Bran wondered that too. Nic didn’t belong in the House. He belonged in Ulamar. Bran belonged there too. His heart told him so, but his mind urged him to reconsider.
Bran picked up the crab. He set its curled legs on his hand and waited for it to emerge.
“What do you think? Go with Nic or Duran. What would the fairies want me to do?”
A leg twitched.
“Bran! Come look at this!” Duran waved.
Bran sauntered over with the crab gently cupped. Duran pointed to a winding stone staircase. It ended at a pale patch of water—a sandbar. A hand rested on Bran’s shoulder and turned him toward Duran.
“Tell Nic he can climb down and swim to shore. They won’t follow him and risk revealing more to the other natives.” Duran grinned. Licked his lips, prepping for a kiss that never came. Bran didn’t meet his gaze.
His head shook gently.
“My world is so much better with you in it. I thought I’d never find you.” Duran presented his plea.
“Couldn’t I just travel with the Envoys? I can be part of both worlds.”
“They’re tearing this place down. A native, unfamiliar with this technology, entered. Even with Nic gone, they’ll destroy it. If he can find it, so can others. They might even rebuild on another part of this world. Business is business.”
Bran’s heart fluttered with debate. He felt love for Duran—at least his mind told him he loved Duran—but his feelings for Nic were different. Blood brothers. Bran just couldn’t leave him. His heart wouldn’t let him.
“He’s just some guy you met here. Those memories aren’t real. They’re just replacing old ones, like double-exposed film. I’m real. Look. Feel.” Duran set Bran’s shaking hands on his chest.
“We grew up together. Those memories are real. I think I remember what happened. The day I left New London, heading back to Greece, something happened with the Envoy. I felt the sting of the lasers, but I didn’t feel like air. It felt like water. I woke up in my mother’s arms. I was born here…twenty years ago.”
Bran glanced over at Nic, turning through pages of memories, every story refreshed. The crab tickled his palm. He peered through his fingers. Its legs were moving.
Suddenly, Nic jerked toward the tunnel. Bran looked up. Blood spattered from Nic’s chest. He dropped the bow. His hand cradled his shoulder. Bran set the crab in his pocket and rushed to help. While Duran ran to stand before three, armed silver-uniformed agents.
“Stop, wipe his memory, and let him go. He won’t hurt anyone.”
A wisp of sea spray twisted into a human.
“Hello, I am ARI: Alternative Reality Integrator, and spokesperson for Ulamar, Incorporated, where all things are possible. Unfortunately, your request for memory deletion was denied. For the safety of our customers and employees, the native must be eliminated. Please stand aside.”
Blood covered Nic’s pallid hand, pooling under him with each drip. Bran felt shallow breath beneath his hands.
“But this whole place will be destroyed. He can’t follow anyone,” Bran pleaded.
“No negotiations authorized. Please stand aside.”
An agent approached Duran and pressed the gun barrels to his chests. Resigned, Duran followed her behind ARI. Another came for Bran, but he refused to step aside.
Bran slipped an arrow from Nic’s quiver, lunged for the bow, and with a fluid twirl, he killed the agent. Bran had never killed anything or anyone in his life. Was he a man now, like his father wanted him to be?
The other two averted their aim from Nic. Each held the triggers under their fingers. Each glared in vengeance.
“Murder is not permitted on Ulamar property. Surrender or be terminated.”
Bran rolled, but his hands failed to pinch an arrow. He rose to his feet, chin high, and stared into ARI’s dead, silver eyes. With a cold grin, he said, “Fire.”
“So much for fairies.” Bran thought his last words as he closed his eyes.
One shot…a second…
Death didn’t sting. Each bullet shoved him back until the platform slipped away. Heavy, but painless—was he carrying something?
Falling again. Like the elevator. Hopefully, the sea was just as kind.
A stab woke him up. Bran reached for his leg. A bulge twitched and he remembered the crab in his pocket. He pulled it out, then set it on the pearl sand. A foamy ripple tickled his fingertips.
Bran sat up. Alive. He studied his body, searching for wounds, but he found none. But they shot him…right? This day was full of surprises.
The crunch of crumbling rocks captured his attention. It gazed out at the crags. The pillars supporting the castle snapped, devoured by thrashing waves. Unpulverized chunks of the tower fell into the sea. The castle fade into memory. Nothing more than eroded rocks.
“Good riddance,” Bran cursed.
Bran looked down. The hermit crab was gone. He followed its foot pricks to a patch of bloody sand, to Nic on his back dying.
Bran swept away lumps of coagulated blood. Three bullet wounds festered. He tore away his shirt, tearing the fabric into pieces. He bandaged the holes, hopelessly.
Nic wasn’t bleeding any more. He couldn’t.
His eyes opened slightly, and he mouthed something. His lips were too weak to understand. He felt the sentiment though. He knew Nic well enough to know he was sending his last drops of love in his direction.
Bran laid a kiss on Nic’s forehead. He rested his head on Nic’s cheek and felt the feigning air caress his chilled skin. Nic was beyond saving. He returned all the love Nic always gave him.
“Maybe it will help him, wherever he’s going,” Bran muttered.
He prepared the grave away from the voracious sea. It would not take Nic for as long as Bran lived. His promise to Nic as he laid him in the shallow grave—never forget. In its fulfillment, he would devote a day each week to visit, to tell me all about his adventures, to bring him a rock to place on the grave—a tradition to remind the dead they are remembered.
He searched for the hermit crab. He wanted to set it on the grave, give it a chance to remember Nic. It knew him too, after all. He saw the bobbing orange shell a few meters away. It wasn’t crawling away.
Bran strolled to it. The crab was nipping at a white box nestled in the sand and nudged by the ebbing waves. A message carved onto the lid:
In the box, Bran found a syringe between the black foam. The label read Mendflouramide. Bran recalled the medicine, its miraculous ability to mend bones and wounds. Many credited it with saving countless lives in the Great Pandemic. Others believed it sparked the Nuclear Wars.
Bran grabbed the box and the crab and raced back to the grave, furiously shoveling the sand with his hands. Hope in his heart. He stabbed Nic, watching the blue liquid ooze into his pallid arm. He sat on the sand like a rag dog and marked the passing time with the swash. With each beat, he prayed it wasn’t too late. It had to work.
Paralyzed in disbelief, Bran watched water trickled from his mouth with each exhale—the wounds were gone. Scarred by fresh skin and bullet shells sprawled on the sand. He didn’t dare move. He avoided any disturbance of the cruel dream. But after observing Nic heave the last drops, he knew nothing was more disturbing and he didn’t care if it wasn’t real.
Joy burst into Bran’s face. With all his weight, Bran threw his arms around Nic and wrestled him to the ground. He squeezed the renewed life from Nic, determined to never let him go and return all the love Nic ever gave him. Nic howled with laughter.
Bran let him go. He laid on the sand beside Nic and together, they watched clouds drift in peaceful silence. Bran thought one looked like a man with silver, aged eyes.
“So, what happened with the castle? It’s gone…” Nic rolled onto his side. He picked up the hermit crab, letting it rest on his palm.
Bran rolled over, his head in hand. “The fairies in the rock took it back to the Otherworld. That’s all we need to know.”
Nic rolled his eyes with a head shake. “Still with fairies. I guess they were real after all. Are we going after them again? That was kind of fun.”
“Nah. Pay attention to what’s real, a wise man said to me once. And everything will work itself out.”
Bran reached for the crab. It didn’t recoil. It tickled his hand and crawled into his palm. He held it to his face. The shadow of Nic’s smile in the background.
“It’s not afraid, I guess. You’re growing up.”
Bran enjoyed their new time together. As the sun faded, they gathered themselves and headed back to the mystic gate and the Kingdom of Ulamar.
Kevin Casin is a gay, Latino fiction writer, and cardiovascular research scientist. His fiction work is featured in If There’s Anyone Left, From the Farther Trees, and more. He is Editor-in-Chief of Tree And Stone, an HWA/SFWA/Codex member, and First Reader for Diabolical Plots and Interstellar Flight Press. For more about him, please see his website: https://kevinmcasin.wordpress.com/. Please follow his Twitter: @kevinthedruid.
un Pérez cualquiera
A Stay in Mayami
by Matias Travieso-Diaz
The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.
Eufemio Pérez Pérez was very unhappy with his name. As a youth growing up in Cuba in the nineteen forties, he rankled every time someone referred to him—whether in jest or seriously—as “un Pérez cualquiera,” a derogatory phrase that branded him a member of the lower classes, a pariah of society. The multiple “Pérez” in his surname tainted him even more—twice as common, cheapest among the cheap. Eufemio reacted to his perceived stigma by making his purpose in life to become a somebody, a man of fame, stature and accomplishment.
In High School Eufemio exhibited a decided lack of distinction. He flunked more courses than he passed, and ultimately dropped out without ever graduating. He was unemployed for a while until he was able to enroll in a trade school where he received training as a draftsman. He was hired by an engineering firm to help prepare technical drawings for a number of projects, and his performance was barely adequate. He was kept on the job mainly because he had learned to be obsequious with his superiors. Nonetheless, he saw no possibilities of advancement and bemoaned how his vulgar name kept holding him back.
Things took a turn for the better in January 1959. The country’s ruling gang fled and a new team of bearded rebels came to power. Soon, drastic changes to the Cuban society began to take place, and industries and commercial concerns were seized by the government. Nationalized enterprises were put in the hands of apparatchiks with no qualifications other than loyalty to the Revolution. The engineering offices that employed Eufemio were seized and a minor “comandante” was put in charge.
Eufemio saw the changes as an opportunity to advance himself. He proclaimed: “I’ve been a true revolutionary from day one,” and formed one of Havana’s first “Committees for the Defense of the Revolution” (a network of vigilantes whose function was to spy on other citizens and foil potential anti-government activities). He marched in all the parades, attended all mass rallies, and went to the countryside on weekends to cut cane and help with the sugar harvest. He spied on his co-workers for potential counterrevolutionary infractions, and reported several people to the Interior Ministry for prosecution and incarceration. He was secretly branded by his co-workers as a “chivato” (informant) and universally despised. He defended his snitching on others by arguing: “It’s their fault for not getting in step with the Revolution. Al camarón que se duerme se lo lleva la corriente” (The shrimp that falls asleep is carried away by the current).
By late 1961 he was well connected within the government and had become a promising low-level member of the ruling class. He was then offered a position as personal assistant to the manager of the Matahambre copper mines in the western province of Pinar del Río. The job required him to move to the village of Santa Lucía, a hamlet ten kilometers from Matahambre. Santa Lucía was nowhere: a shabby village of under a thousand inhabitants, mostly mine workers.
The town’s main attraction was a little harbor built for mined ore transport. When he was not busy helping the manager ride herd on the miners, Eufemio sat on the harbor’s pier to do a little fishing and coordinate contraband deliveries of copper ore to Mexican smugglers who resold the mineral in the American markets. He also went frequently to the only bar in Santa Lucía; there he met Cecilia, a buxom, good natured country girl who waited on tables and fraternized with the miners. Eufemio courted Cecilia and soon turned her into his common-law wife. He did not love Cecilia, who he felt was beneath him in every respect, but availed himself of her favors. He felt women were weak creatures whose only virtues lay in their orifices capable of receiving a male’s attentions.
In October 1962 a new face was seen in Santa Lucía. The man, one Miguel Angel Orozco, identified himself as a researcher from Oriente University, come to Matahambre to study the varieties of copper ore found at the mine for comparison with those from the El Cobre mine near Santiago de Cuba. Eufemio met Orozco by chance at the bar, and after a few beers concluded that Orozco’s knowledge of copper mining was not much greater than his own. Eufemio found it hard to believe that the government would allow someone so ignorant of mining matters to travel from one end of Cuba to the other analyzing ore.
As he had done to his some of his neighbors years before, Eufemio felt no compunction about turning the stranger in. He made a quick call to the security police to report potential counter-revolutionary activity. Agents arrested Orozco and another man, Pedro Vera Ortiz, who was Orozco’s accomplice. A large quantity of weapons and explosives was discovered in Orozco’s rented quarters.
The government said the captures smashed a plot to blow up the Matahambre and Nicaro mines in the Pinar del Rio and Oriente provinces. Under interrogation, Orozco admitted that he and Vera had landed clandestinely in Cuba, sent by the CIA to carry out acts of sabotage. For starters, they planned to destroy the aerial transport system at the Matahambre mine. Four hundred miners could have lost their lives if workers operating the aerial link cars had not seen the explosives that Orozco intended to detonate at the base of the towers anchoring the cable railway.
Eufemio was interviewed many times by the Cuban and foreign press and did not miss the chance to play up his alertness and revolutionary zeal. In the interviews, he proclaimed himself a revolutionary hero and stated for the record that his name was “Eufemio del Cerro,” a name under which he had chosen to be known in the future. His change in name was noticed by the state security but acquiesced to--it was not the first time that a revolutionary figure had found it desirable to adopt a new name to improve his image.
Thanks to his unmasking of the Yankee saboteurs, Eufemio del Cerro was promoted to assistant general manager of the Matahambre mine, and helped preside over an operation that, at its peak, produced 50,000 tons of ore a year and gave employment to more than 1,000 workers. Eufemio pocketed the proceeds of selling 1,000 additional tons to the Mexicans on the black market, an activity for which he grossed--after sharing with his partners in the enterprise--$100,000 a year. Half of this he had to kick back to his superiors at three levels of government to be allowed to continue with his scheme but the balance, $50,000 a year, allowed him to live as a prince in a country where misery ruled most of the population.
The good times at Matahambre came to an end in 1997 when the regime, citing increased costs of production and the drop of the price of copper in the international market, closed the mine and laid off all the workers. Eufemio was forced to return to Havana, but given his rank he was given the opportunity to move into a nice apartment in a building that had been the mansion of a now-exiled sugar baron. He left Santa Lucía one night, without saying goodbye to Cecilia. She was three months pregnant and the child was probably his; he never contacted her again.
Once in Havana, Eufemio was appointed secretary to one of the Vice-Ministers of the Ministry of Basic Industry, which oversaw the mining enterprises in the island. Since Matahambre was shut down, Eufemio was switched to support the nickel industry, one of the most important sources of foreign income for the country.
Eufemio was still working at the Ministry of Basic Industry when a negotiation was started in 2010 for the expansion of a major nickel and cobalt processing plant in eastern Cuba, the Pedro Soto Alba nickel facility —a joint venture between the state-owned nickel company Cubaniquel and Canadian mining company Sherritt International Corporation. Soon, several Government officials, including Eufemio’s boss, arranged to receive bribes in exchange for the timely deployment of qualified personnel and other project support. In a related scheme, the officials demanded kickbacks from contractors supplying equipment for the project. Eufemio received under-the-table payments from his boss for his help in carrying out these illegal transactions.
It was all fine and dandy until the government launched a corruption investigation in 2011, leading to the conviction a year later of three Vice Ministers and nine other defendants. Eufemio’s boss was among those given jail terms. Eufemio pretended he was not involved in the criminal enterprise of his superiors, and gave critical testimony at the trial about their “secret meetings” and “commercially unjustified actions.” This testimony was instrumental in the convictions of his boss and some of the other defendants. His cooperation with the investigation saved him from the same fate, and it was conveniently determined that there was no concrete evidence of his involvement in the corrupt schemes. But a file on Eufemio del Cerro (aka Eufemio Pérez Pérez) was nonetheless opened in the Interior Ministry. The Revolution welcomes Judases but does no trust them.
Given the Ministry of Basic Industry’s involvement in the Pedro Soto Alba plant scandal, the Castro government disbanded the Ministry and replaced it with a new agency, the Ministry of Energy and Mines. Eufemio del Cerro became an employee of the new Ministry and tried to keep a low profile, for he feared that sooner or later he would be called in to account for his past misdeeds.
The Canadian head of one of the companies involved in the supply kickbacks had been in prison without charges since 2011, but three years later he was brought to trial and convicted of bribery, fraud, and tax evasion. Among the documents in the massive dossier used to convict him was a receipt for a payment in 2010 to Eufemio’s former boss, which was actually signed by Eufemio because his boss was on vacation.
Eufemio learned of the existence of this incriminating document from a contact in the office of the prosecuting attorney (who was a friend of Eufemio’s imprisoned boss), and was told that the prosecutor intended to initiate a new criminal proceeding directed at Eufemio, among others. Eufemio was irate at being “singled out” for punishment, decided he had no friends left in power, and felt things were becoming too hot for him. He had to get out of Cuba.
Finding a boat to take him out of the country was not difficult; several of the people he knew in the government had yachts moored at the newly refurbished Marina Hemingway, which they took on fishing and pleasure trips to Mexico and the Bahamas. However, he could not find anyone who was willing to risk prison to help him escape. Finally, one of his acquaintances, while refusing to transport him, offered to put Eufemio in contact with a fisherman who might be willing to take him to Florida. Eufemio contacted the man, who demanded an outrageous sum of money for the job, but Eufemio was not in a position to haggle. He emptied his bank account and turned most of the proceeds over to the man. The fisherman picked him up outside his building, drove him west to Pinar del Río, boarded him on an ancient shrimping boat, and carried him away in the dead of night. Just before dawn the following day, Eufemio was dropped at Smathers Beach, near the center of the city of Key West.
He had left Cuba not a moment too soon: he later learned that a squad from the Intelligence Directorate (the dreaded G2) had been to his apartment seeking to arrest him the day after his departure. “That will teach them” he told himself. “I’m too smart for those amateurs.”
* * *
Eufemio was reluctant to seek political asylum in the United States, for he was certain that the CIA was aware of his involvement in quashing the Matahambre operation. He decided to drop out of sight for a while and lose himself in the amorphous Latino community in Miami. As most Cuban government officials of rank, he had spirited thousands of dollars away from the country and deposited them in a Miami bank, with the account under his birth name to better hide the assets. Ironically, he had to become again a Pérez Pérez in order to retrieve his money. “I’ll get my good name back as soon as I am legit” he promised himself.
Eufemio was already in his mid-seventies and had intended to keep a low profile for the rest of his life. However, his need to restore his public image made him become involved with the Cuban Republicans in southern Florida, a motley group that included among its members individuals once associated with the pre-Castro Batista regime, former businessmen and property owners who had been dispossessed by the Communists, and people who still resented the failure of the Democrats under John F. Kennedy to provide military support to the Cuban expeditionary force that was decimated in the 1961 Bay of Pigs disaster. Joining this group represented a complete reversal of Eufemio’s political allegiances, but he was never much of an ideologue and was able to adapt easily to the beliefs of his new friends.
In the presidential election of 2016, Eufemio did some campaigning for Donald Trump among the Cuban expatriate community and welcomed Trump’s victory. He was hoping to get tapped for some work in the new administration, but his being an undocumented alien was a major obstacle that had to be overcome.
He sought to enlist the help of the Florida Republican Party to regularize his legal status. He bragged: “I’m an expert on Cuban politics. If you can get me admitted legally into the United States, I’ll give you the Cuban vote, which is wobbly these days.”
The party leaders offered him a trade: they would get him political asylum and maybe even a “green card” if he would campaign widely among the general Latin population in South Florida, not just the Cubans. He would extol the virtues of the President and his administration and excoriate the deep state, the lying press, the corrupt intelligence agencies, the illegal aliens, and the liberals that wanted to keep the country on its knees.
In early 2018 Eufemio was invited to give an address to a group of non-committed Latins in the social hall of a Catholic church in Little Havana. His remarks were intended to sway the audience and bring them into the Republican fold. He defended the President, which “every patriot should do, no matter what who he is or where he comes from.” He acknowledged the man’s faults, but pointed out that the country had been brought down by his predecessors, and “he is the only one who can get us out of this mess.”
Eufemio had just finished giving his speech when there was a disturbance in the back of the room. A dozen burly men wearing black jackets that displayed the initials “ICE” burst into the gathering and ordered: “Everyone remain where you are. You are all under arrest!” The organizer of the meeting cried out in protest: “What’s this? Why are you breaking into a lawful meeting?” An agent responded curtly: “This church is known to give sanctuary to illegal immigrants. Anyone who is a U.S. citizen or a legal resident will be released as soon as his status is confirmed.”
Two buses were parked outside the church. Eufemio and several dozen people were herded into the buses, taken to a police station, and interrogated. Most detainees were released after several anxious hours; Eufemio and half a dozen Guatemalans and Salvadorians were kept in custody due to their inability to demonstrate their lawful presence in the country.
Efforts by Republican Party officials to free Eufemio were thwarted by the intelligence agencies. They leaked to the press Eufemio’s true identity and his role in defeating a covert U.S. operation to overthrow Castro. The attendant notoriety made Eufemio’s release a difficult public relations task for the politicians, who had little interest in protecting a tainted Latino.
At his deportation hearing, an FBI agent confirmed that the man who called himself Eufemio Pérez Pérez was in fact Eufemio del Cerro, a member of the Cuban Communist Party who had foiled efforts to restore democracy in the island and had infiltrated the United States for nefarious purposes. He was a prime candidate for deportation.
Eufemio was flown back to Havana on a cold February morning. Police and Cuban intelligence agents were waiting for him as he deplaned, for his deportation had been well covered in the media on both sides of the Florida Straits.
Three months after his arrest he was found guilty of corruption and multiple acts of theft of public property dating back to the sixties. He was given a thirty-year sentence and sent to a prison farm in a remote area of eastern Cuba. His enfeebled condition spared him the back-breaking work on the fields, but he was assigned to carry out sanitation duties throughout the camp. Watching his figure, bent with age and humiliation, as he mopped around urinals and cleaned filthy toilets, some of the inmates would question who the wretch was. The invariable response, accompanied by a shrug, was “bah, es un Pérez cualquiera.”
Matias F. Travieso-Diaz, is a Havana-born engineer and attorney, currently residing in the Washington, D.C. area. After over four decades of practice, he retired and turned to creative writing. His short stories have been published in numerous publications, including the New Reader Magazine; the Dual Coast Magazine; the Dream of Shadows MagazineCzykmate Productions - How HORROR-able Anthology; the New Orbit Magazine; the Clarendon House - Maelstrom: The Inner Circle Writers’ Group Literary Anthology 2019; and Selene Quarterly Magazine.
You know he can’t know, right?
To Grow Young
Old Simeón’s right hand was permanently clawed. His curled, yellowing nails converged towards each other in a longing gesture, as if he were trying to grasp the last strands of something long gone. Sometimes Vanessa wondered why such a particular fate had infested Old Simeón’s phalanges. She hypothesized that the clawing probably happened gradually, like the shrinking of a flower’s petals as water breathes itself out. But another, much more grim possibility had come to her one night as she was falling asleep on her unshared bunk bed. She envisioned that fatal agglomeration of blood obstructing Old Simeón’s left brain, and his extremities instantly recoiling at the evaporation of half a life.
Every morning, when Vanessa took it upon herself to massage Old Simeón’s wrinkly fingers, she felt a piercing worry that her body would betray her in that same way. She thought of all the inexcusable curses she had directed at her limited limbs when her feet couldn’t bear two days of walking after crossing the Venezuelan border. At the time, driven by impatience, she had collapsed on the side of a jungle-ridden highway, where only blades of dried grass had pierced her back into consciousness. She had asked God why none of the passing cars acknowledged her stretched out thumb, and jerking her damp sneakers out of her feet, she asked why her throbbing toes wouldn’t allow her to reach a couple kilometers further, where maybe she would find a hospitable town.
After many years, Vanessa found herself able to take pride in some things again. Small things. For instance, she claimed all credit for the slight tremble of Old Simeón’s fingers whenever his wife took his stiff hand in between hers. She took pride now, in his ability to juggle up a pair of dice and throw them on a parqués board, with the help of his left hand, which was spared by some impossible bifurcation of the brain’s connections.
The dice clinked against the glass board and showed a pair of six dots protruding from the white cubes.
“How much is that, Don Simeón?” Vanessa said, lifting his arm from the table to prevent him from accidentally pushing the pawn-shaped pieces off.
Old Simeón let out a brief growl and stared at the blank air behind Vanessa’s curls.
“Twelve,” she answered herself. She took Old Simeón’s red pawn and hopped through the boxed trail. “One, two, three, four…” Vanessa then took advantage of her turn and threw the dice on the board. They spun around until the odds settled for two and four dots.
A prolonged sigh coming from the other side of the room stopped Vanessa from killing one of Old Simeón’s red pieces. Doña Rosario’s glasses reflected the blue light coming from a box-shaped TV. The bulging screen showed footage of flooded streets and fallen palm trees, brown heads peering out of hills of roof tiles and window frames.
“Not one house is still standing, can you believe it?” Doña Rosario said, noticing Vanessa’s shared interest in the news report on hurricane Iota.
“The island will need a full reconstruction, they say,” Vanessa had been following the case from a blue radio that she kept in her room. The numbers were most astonishing. 1600 families, 98% of infrastructure. Still, she found it hard to sympathize with the victims. She couldn’t help but think that her people had probably gone through worse, just nobody had bothered to quantify it.
“Providence Island is a beautiful place,” Doña Rosario said, in her unusually high-pitched tone. “You know where my last name comes from? Abraham Robinson, my grandfather, immigrated from Britain to Providence Island.” The way Doña Rosario pronounced every one of those words with utmost pride kept Vanessa from coming up with any reasonable response.
Doña Rosario had a way of talking. When she had given Vanessa the keys to her recondite bedroom, Doña Rosario made it clear that she came from a long tradition of landowners who knew how to manage helpers in the household. “Your nursing title does not make a difference,” Doña Rosario had said. “I still expect obedience and respect in your care for my husband.” Throughout the many months that Vanessa had worked for Doña Rosario, she had come to realize that behind her harsh words stood her unconditional love for Old Simeón, but also her self-remorse for having married a man 15 years older in age. The old man’s life was coming to an end, and he was swallowing Doña Rosario’s own life along the way.
From beneath the open windows, not only moonlight leaked through the iron bars, but also the flickering lights coming from a neighbor’s balcony. Behind linen curtains, dark silhouettes danced to the congas in Rodolfo Aicardi’s La Colegiala. It was only late November, but the people of Acacías were already playing New Year songs over indecently loud speakers. At least in that respect, Acacías wasn’t all that different from back home, Vanessa thought. She had also noticed they had the same tradition of making a dummy filled with gunpowder and setting it on fire just as the clock struck midnight. Old Simeón and Doña Rosario never engaged in such activities though, because no matter what day of the year it was, they always went to sleep promptly at 8 p.m.
Old Simeón tapped Vanessa’s shoulder with a poignancy that disoriented her. He pointed at the color-lit balcony.
“They must be having a party, Don Simeón,” Vanessa said, assuming that was the information that Old Simeón was requesting.
“And you?” Old Simeón responded, his words as clear as they ever got, carrying the rasp of an underused voice.
Vanessa was not entirely sure what Old Simeón meant. Perhaps he found it strange that someone of her age was playing parqués with an old man instead of curling her hips to tropical beats, or he was wondering why the neighbors had not invited her. Vanessa smiled at the thought of these possibilities.
“None of us are supposed to be partying,” she said. “There’s a very bad virus out there, so we have to stay home.”
In some corner of the world inside Old Simeón’s mind, he knew it was the pandemic that had insulated his days so much. But Vanessa was not aware of this. She was rather excusing her situation, considering that maybe once it was all over, things would be different for her.
“You heard that, Simeón?” Doña Rosario said, projecting her voice to make herself audible to Old Simeón’s almost deaf ears. “Our last years of life, at home.”
By the time the news broadcast was over, Old Simeón had already fallen asleep on his wheelchair. His nightly routine consisted of Vanessa and Doña Rosario collaborating to strip him of his clothes and tie his diaper around his waist. The diaper was rather an ornament, since Old Simeón would wet his bed sheets every night, and every day Doña Rosario would replace them with a new set.
Vanessa had little to complain about. Her salary, although less than legal minimum wage, was enough for her personal expenses. Since Doña Rosario and Old Simeón provided her with a place to sleep and three meals a day, she also had enough money to send to her family in Venezuela every month. She planned to keep saving up to bring her mother with her too, away from a dictator’s injustices and a husband’s infidelities.
There was a catch to her living arrangement, though. Some days, Doña Rosario would wake her up particularly early and ask her to make breakfast. Vanessa could tell that Doña Rosario did not like her cooking, as she always complained that she put too much salt on the eggs, or not enough cheese in the arepas. Therefore, Doña Rosario’s request took place only when strictly essential, like when she had to go get fresh milk at the plaza on Saturday morning, or when she attended early morning mass.
This time, Doña Rosario had woken her up with a phone pressed against her ear. Doña Rosario had learned to pick up calls, but never to make them, so when some relative or friend called her, she made sure to catch up with them for at least an hour. However, when Doña Rosario had tapped on Vanessa’s door, her furrowed eyebrows and trembling lips suggested that this was not one of her usual bubbly phone calls. Instead, she was quiet, while a female voice at the other end of the line spoke in mechanical shudders.
As Vanessa walked up to the kitchen, Doña Rosario took a seat on the adjacent dining table. Old Simeón, his eyelids still struggling to stay open, sat on his wheelchair in front of the TV at the end of the room. In between the whisking of eggs and the patting of arepa dough, Vanessa managed to catch some slivers of Doña Rosario’s conversation—“What do you mean?”, “Hmph,” “God Bless,” “Why don’t you come over?”
Judging by Doña Rosario’s choice of the pronoun Tú instead of Usted, the person at the other end of the line could only be her daughter, Nadia. She was Old Simeón’s and Doña Rosario’s only daughter, even after 60 years of marriage. Less often than Doña Rosario would’ve liked, she took her Chevrolet Swift down the narrow road between Villavicencio and Acacías to visit them. When Old Simeón’s pension fell short, her teaching paychecks would pay for the house bills, as well as Old Simeón’s medicine.
Vanessa knew rather little about Nadia, but what she’d heard pushed her to garner utmost respect. She heard that Nadia had been in the house when Old Simeón had gotten his first thrombosis attack. He’d fallen on the floor, shaking and salivating as if being possessed by an evil spirit. Doña Rosario had stood frozen, covering her eyes away from the sight of her convulsing husband. But Nadia had been the one to pick her father up from the floor and place him on a chair, before calling every relative in town in search for an after-hours doctor. She was the reason he was still alive.
Once Vanessa was done helping Old Simeón eat his breakfast, Doña Rosario gestured for her to sit at the dining table.
“Nadia is coming later this afternoon,” Doña Rosario said, but she wouldn’t meet Vanessa’s gaze. “Vanessa, I need your full discretion on what I am about to tell you.”
Before making breakfast, Vanessa had tied her black curls into the shape of an onion. The pull of the low-hanging bun tugged at her hair as she nodded.
“Simeón’s brother Alberto passed away last night,” Doña Rosario said in a soft voice. “He caught that damned virus.”
Even though Vanessa had never heard of said brother, she made sure to state her condolences as politely as possible.
“You know he can’t know, right?” Doña Rosario briefly glanced at Old Simeón. “He’s not in the proper state to hear this.”
In spite of the prolonged coexistence of the three members of that household, Vanessa was the only one who made an effort to converse with Old Simeón. Sometime after Old Simeón had become speech impaired, Doña Rosario had lost all her patience, seeing that her only companion could no longer reciprocate her interactions. Now she limited herself to short words, and the warmth of touch. Vanessa, instead, would talk to him about the warm weather, the dogs barking outside; anything that crossed her mind. His answers consisted of low groans, unintelligible mumblings, and the occasional phrase that one could judge as either gibberish, or the enigmatic findings of a mind sorting through an extensive past. Vanessa liked to think it was the latter.
Whenever Vanessa heard Nadia and Doña Rosario talking to each other, she couldn’t help but wonder how it was possible that she sounded so different from them. She was puzzled by their ability to give every syllable a distinct tonality. They seemed to have every unit of sound recorded in a dictionary, that they would parse through in every uttering. They took no shortcuts, unlike Vanessa, who could not find the time to bring her tongue to the roof of her mouth swiftly enough to whistle her words—her ‘s’ sounds would descend into brief sighs. However, she had learned to minimize her vocal sloth during her time in Acacías. Doña Rosario had told her that not everyone in that town would be as kind to her people as she was.
Nadia and Doña Rosario sat on the dining table, their short coffee cups steaming next to their fidgeting hands. Vanessa glanced at them intermittently through the windows, as she pushed Old Simeón’s wheelchair around the house. She could tell that at one point Old Simeón had made a habit of walking around the house, because he seemed to have picked favorite spots to glance at throughout the perimeter. At the back of the house, he liked to look at one of the columns that held up the clay roof where the white paint had peeled off in a shape resembling a trail of mucus left by a slug. At the right side of the house, the edge that faced a living fence which separated their neighbor’s house from theirs, he liked to look at a patch of red ground where grass had refused to grow. From the turning of the soil, Vanessa could only assume that a tree had once stood there, and she imagined it to be as high as the neighbor’s balcony.
At the front of the house, Old Simeón usually stared at the plastic bowls filled with brown cat food that sat next to the front door. They owned three cats who spent more time on the streets than at home and would only let themselves be petted by Old Simeón. Today, there were no cats to be seen, and Old Simeón was instead looking through the window, towards where Nadia and Doña Rosario were sitting. Vanessa could tell by the disparity between Nadia’s age and the number of wrinkles that crisped around her eyes that she had a tough disposition. Her downturned lips were unphased by both the taste of black coffee and Doña Rosario’s slow tears.
“You must’ve been a really good man, Don Simeón,” Vanessa said, pushing the wheelchair into motion away from the window. “You raised a very strong daughter.”
The feeble white hairs on Old Simeón’s scalp trembled with the gush of the wind. Otherwise, he remained motionless to Vanessa’s words. She continued.
“I think that’s what matters. Knowing that you’re leaving this world having created something good,” Vanessa said. “Is that more or less right, Don Simeón?”
This time, Old Simeón let out a deep mumble and twitched his head in a manner that could’ve been a nod, or an attempt to shake away a mosquito’s itch. Vanessa noticed that Old Simeón seemed particularly light on the wheelchair today. One of the reasons why Doña Rosario had hired her was because of her big arms and thighs. She could manage the weight of pushing Old Simeón’s chair down Acacías’ unpaved roads and steep bridges.
“I’ve got a lot to learn from you, believe it or not,” Vanessa continued, ignorant to Old Simeón’s droopy eyelids. “I’ve been thinking about what comes next. For me, you know. I’ve been thinking that maybe after all of this virus thing is over, I could move to the city. Work for a retirement home, maybe? And meet some people. Build something of my own. Wouldn’t that be good?”
Old Simeón’s clawed hand suddenly stiffened around the wheelchair’s armrest. He sat with his spine straightened out, fighting against a decade-old hunch.
When the clock struck 2 p.m., the designated time for Old Simeón’s daily stroll was over. Doña Rosario and Nadia were still sitting at the dining table, but their urgent whispering had stopped and transformed into vociferous complaining about why the chicken delivery had not arrived yet. Doña Rosario instructed Vanessa to heat up some of the leftover rice from the day before, so she wheeled Old Simeón’s chair to the dining table and secured the brakes before walking up to the kitchen.
She had just struck a match alight when the squeak of sliding wooden chairs called her back into the dining room. Back there, Old Simeón was still sitting in his wheelchair, and Nadia and Doña Rosario were kneeling at each of his sides. His expression was twisted so that every one of the creases that time had encroached on his skin were sunken in, and dense tears were running down the labyrinth of his face.
“You told him.” Doña Rosario said, turning towards Vanessa’s newcomer presence. She took a step back and kneeled to Doña Rosario’s height.
“I swear I didn’t. It must be something else that’s troubling him,” Vanessa said, the sighs in her speech as heavy as ever.
Doña Rosario stood up and the folds on her long skirt swirled wind at Vanessa’s face. “He fought in the military, for God’s sake. He doesn’t just cry.”
Vanessa continued to excuse herself while she picked herself up from her kneeling trance. Behind Doña Rosario, Nadia took a pack of Kleenex out of her bag and handed it to Old Simeón. He folded his once clawed hand around the tissue and groaned into the white cotton. But all Vanessa could notice was the tightness of the tendons on Doña Rosario’s neck, which pulled her entire face into a murderous stare.
“You Venezuelans can’t keep your mouth shut,” she said.
That night, Nadia left without saying goodbye to Vanessa, but she found a funeral invitation wrapped in violet ribbons sitting on her lower bunk bed. After writing down an event reminder on her phone, Vanessa turned on her blue radio and pulled out the long antenna to tune in to the nighttime news broadcast. She fell asleep to the sound of a clinical female voice announcing the hopes for a successful vaccine against COVID-19 in early December.
Laurisa Sastoque is a student of Creative Writing and History at Northwestern University. She was born in Bogotá, Colombia, and currently resides in Evanston, Illinois. Her poetry work has been previously published in Somos en Escrito and the Helicon Literary & Arts Magazine. She is the winner of the Mary Kinzie Prize in Nonfiction for her essay "Contradicting Home; Anecdotes and Aphorisms." She is excited to make her short fiction debut with "To Grow Young," a piece about complicated family dynamics in rural Colombia. In addition to writing and reading, Laurisa likes to spend her time researching Latinx and Latin American history, and taking pictures of her favorite cities.