(Note: due to formatting issues I couldn’t resolve, I strongly recommend reading on a laptop or tablet instead of a phone.)
It had been about three months since we first met Señor Hablando, the Talking Man. He never gave us a name, but was prone to babbling to us or to himself – or to ghosts, we were never quite sure – so Señor Hablando it was. He hadn’t stopped stinking, and his right arm never got better, but it was good having him around. When he wasn’t talking to himself or collecting avocado pits, something of an obsession for him, he would watch out for Jorge and Carlos, leaving me and Eduardo to search el dompe for food, clothes, and anything else that might come in handy.
And in three months’ time we had made vast improvements to our lot. Señor Hablando had found a few old shipping boxes, still intact. Eduardo and I helped move them back to our shed, which we dismantled to build a better one. Señor Hablando cut the wooden boxes, leaving two sides and a ceiling. He put four of them together and cut a doorway in them, resulting in a large one-room shed with wooden walls. We put aluminum sheets on the roofs and nailed the walls together with some spare boards. After Jorge and Carlos matted the dirt floor with cardboard and newspapers, the place was almost comfortable, and big enough for all five of us to stretch out at night. Señor Hablando kept an ever-growing mound of avocado pits in one corner of the house – where he found so many, I’ll never know – and it wasn’t uncommon for him to wake us up in the middle of the night with his babbling, screaming at los diablos and lost lovers.
We hadn’t stopped with that one shed, though. Eduardo and I dug a fire pit with a shovel missing half its shaft and lined it with some rocks. Using old, rusted car parts and broken boxes, we fenced in what we claimed as our property, some fifty feet of clear dirt in the middle of three large trash mounds. At the highest elevation on our dirt, we had erected another shed. This one only had two walls, and the front and back were open to the wind. It had an aluminum roof, like where we slept, but this roof was taller and the walls weren’t as thick. I could stand in this shed without hitting my head, and so could Señor Hablando, but he didn’t come up to this shed much.
The best part about this new shed was the furniture. I had scored a leather armchair with half its stuffing ripped out. It sat in front of an old, box-shaped television with a cracked screen, which I had plugged into a power generator that we found with working batteries. The generator was loud, and didn’t always work. And I knew eventually the batteries would run out and I’d have to find new ones. But until then, I could watch the one video cassette that we had, a black-and-white recording of an El Santo movie showcasing the famous luchador’s battles against ferocious devils. The program was interrupted with commercials frequently, and the last ten minutes of the movie weren’t recorded, so I would never know how it ended. Still, gathering around the TV and hoping that the generator didn’t give out of power was a fun pastime for me and my brothers.
That said, we didn’t have a ton of free time. Our family had grown to include some livestock. Chickens clucked from a little pen that Jorge had made out of old chicken wire and cardboard. We had two piglets and a gentle cow that Carlos milked frequently. And we had three dogs, a mother and two perritos. The mother was missing an eye and had tears in her black-and-blonde coat where other dogs had bitten and clawed her. Her fur was matted with mud and yellow pus, and flies always swarmed around her. She looked vicious, but when I first came across her a few weeks ago she ran up to me, tail thumping, rubbed all over my legs, and rolled over on her back to be petted on her swollen, pregnant belly.
I looked out over our property and grinned. I saw Jorge and Carlos playing with the puppies. They bounded after a stick that Jorge threw, then rather than fetching it like well-trained dogs one of them grabbed it up in its mouth and loped away. The other one chased it, the two biting at each other in an effort to claim the stick. Jorge and Carlos laughed and ran after them.
Three brothers and Señor Hablando. Two piglets, three dogs, some chickens, and a cow. I had even grown used to the smell of el dompe and our livestock, more or less. All things considered, we’d done alright for ourselves. We had our own little ranch, right in the middle of a landfill.
So many extra mouths to feed didn’t pose as much of a challenge as I first thought it would. Jorge and Carlos brought buckets of water from the little creek near the edge of el dompe every day, so we never ran out, even with as much as the cow drank. As for food, we just gave the dogs and pigs whatever food was too nasty for us to eat, and they found their own food around our home anyway. The cow ate hay, which wasn’t too hard to find in large amounts, even if it was time-consuming. The chickens, however, needed seed, and that was something we couldn’t find in el dompe. Every week or so, I had to steal some from a rancho nearby. Stealing seed was nothing, not after stealing the cow, chickens, and piglets.
I had another job tonight, but it was barely noon. There was still plenty of time to find some food and sell a chicken or two to the other people in el dompe. Unlike when I first came here, now everyone in el dompe knew me. They called me Hombrito – Little Man. And they knew not to mess with me. El dompe had street kids like us, old crazies like Señor Hablando, and women that would rather live in a landfill than a brothel. They knew me, and they respected me.
“Oye, Chacho!” Eduardo jogged up to me. He was wearing his hoodie tied around his waist. His tee shirt used to be all grey and red stripes, but now it was starting to look more like Señor Hablando’s greyish-brown rags. I made a mental note that we could stand to buy some more clothes next time I had spare money.
“Hola, Eduardo, ¿que pasa?”
“Hey, Eduardo, what’s up?”
“Nada. ¿Qué hacerás hoy?” he asked, sitting on an overturned bucket under the roof.
“Nothing. What are you doing today?”
I told him my itinerary: find food for everyone, sell a couple chickens, go spend time with the socios, or my homeboys that helped me steal.
“¡Míralo!” I told Eduardo after I gave him a rundown of my schedule. I waved him over to a small crate behind my armchair. “Mi último premio.”
“Look at this!”
“My latest prize.”
I held up my latest acquisition to show my brother. The metal grip was cold and heavy in my hands. The sleek cylinder extended out a few inches; not a whole foot, but enough to look intimidating. The gun wasn’t loaded, so there wasn’t any risk of misfiring. But I had a full box of ammunition on the crate in front of me.
“Jesús, Chacho,” Eduardo whispered. “¿Es una pistola real?”
“Sí.” I grinned. “Los robos va a ser más fácil hoy.”
“Jesus, Chacho. Is that a real pistol?”
“Yep. The robberies are gonna be way easier now.”
Eduardo shook his head, a rueful smile on his lips as he looked down at my new toy. He was both fascinated and nervous, it was easy to see.
“Tienes cuidado,” he finally said. “La policía no tontear.”
“Be careful. The police don’t mess around.”
I assured him that I’d be careful, and reminded him that the police hadn’t caught me yet. They probably didn’t even know about me. If they did, they wouldn’t look in el dompe. They’d look in the alleys of Tijuana. I was being careful, but I also had good cover.
“Sí, mano. Pero no olvida que eres un niño aún.”
“Tengo quince años,” I snapped. “Tengo cuidado. Recuerda que he encontrado toda la comida, y refugio. Estoy responsible.”
“Sure, bro. But don’t forget you’re still only a kid.”
“I’m fifteen. I’m being careful. Remember that I’ve found all out food, and refuge. I’m being responsible.”
Eduardo raised his hands in a “calm-down” gesture. He said that he knew I was looking out for us all. He just insisted one more time that I exercise caution.
He turned to leave, but I caught his shoulder.
“Mano, ¿Señor Hablando se comporta bien?”
Eduardo shrugged. “Normal. Habla mucho.”
“Bro, is Señor Hablando behaving well?”
“As usual. He talks a lot.”
Señor Hablando may have talked to himself a lot, but he was nice to have around. Another human presence, even an old crazy like him, was somehow comforting.
“Sí. Creo que es bueno que lo guarde.”
Eduardo cracked a smile. “Sí. Lo me gusta.”
“Yeah. I think it’s good that we kept him.”
“Yep. I like him.”
Carlos and Jorge had taken to him right away, even if they openly mocked him for his tendency to monologue. It took a couple weeks for him to grow on me and Eduardo, but he did, and we couldn’t deny it.
Eduardo and I grabbed some paper bags and set out into el dompe to find some food.
* * *
“Hola, Tía. Quieres pollos, ¿sí?” I asked as I approached one of the dompe ladies. Her name wasn’t really Tía, of course, but she somehow always managed to find a little something – food or a beat up toy – for all the dompe kids.
Tía smiled at me with her crooked yellow teeth, stretching her saggy, liver-spotted skin. “Sí, Chacho, gracias.” I could never help staring down at the wart on her crooked nose; it sprouted three wiry black hairs. She looked like a hag, with her cataracted eyes and stringy greyish hair, but she was always kind.
“De nada, Tía. Pero, necesitas pegame.”
“Por supuesto.” Tía rummaged through the deep, dirt-stained apron she wore over her tattered blouse and sweatpants. She pulled out a disfigured plastic tractor. “¿Quieres un juguete para tu hermanitos?”
“Gracias, no,” I said. I appreciated the offer, but needed something with more substance. “¿Tienes dinero?”
“Hello, Tía. You wanted chickens, right?”
“Yes, Chacho, thanks.”
“You’re welcome, Tía. But you’ll need to pay me.”
“Would you like a toy for your little brothers?”
“Thanks, but no. Do you have cash?”
Instead of answering my question, Tía launched into one of her gossipy rambles, as she tended to do. I refrained from rolling my eyes, but she was worse than Señor Hablando. She expected me to listen to everything she said, but she told me one or two details about every niño in el dompe and a few of las mujeres besides. From the parts I did listen to, I gathered that the boys still played their game with the garbage trucks, and Eduardo had gained both popularity and notoriety among the other boys. A few new women had wound up in el dompe a couple days ago and were complaining about the smell. Finally, I steered Tía back to my request for money in exchange for the chickens.
“Tengo un poquito. Treinta pesos y un dólar Americano. ¿Es bien?”
“Es perfecto. Eso por dos pollos, ¿verdad?”
Tía scrunched up her face in concentration, distorting her smile into a horrid mass of wrinkles, warts, and liver spots. “No,” she said after a moment. “Eso por tres.”
“Dos y tres huevos.”
“I have a little. Thirty pesos and an American dollar. Sound good?”
“That’s perfect. That for two chickens, right?”
“No. That for three.”
“Two and three eggs.”
It was a quick walk from Tía’s trashy hovel to my makeshift ranch. I passed Señor Hablando with a quick wave, not wanting to interrupt his conversation with whichever ghost of the past he was talking with as he clutched an avocado pit in his good arm, the other one flopping uselessly at his side.
“Oye, Chacho!” Eduardo called, running over to me. He was wearing a new t-shirt, faded blue with Spider-Man’s masked face on the chest. Like all other “new” shirts we got, this one was speckled with grime and the smell of sewage. “Tu amigos está aquí.” He pointed uphill to my shed, where I heard coarse laughter and swear words.
“Perfecto, necesito hablarlos. Favor de dar dos pollos y tres huevos a Tía.”
“Sí. Y tráigame el dinero ella te das. Debe ser treinta pesos y un dólar Americano.”
“Your friends are here.”
“Perfect, I need to talk to them. Please give two chickens and three eggs to Tía.”
“Yes. And bring me the money she gives you. It should be thirty pesos and an American dollar.”
Having given Eduardo instructions on my trade with Tía, I started up the hill towards my shed. Tía was a kind woman, but she was also a survivor. If I hadn’t given Eduardo exact instructions, she probably would have ripped us off, giving him only a few pesos and claiming that that was the trade. That’s how the world works in el dompe. You cheat your friends and you survive. And you give them gifts when you have no use for something, and you help them out when they ask. It’s a strange balance, but it’s one that we manage. Either that or we curl up and die.
“¡Oye, es Rey Hombrito!”
“¡Corre! ¡Va a mandar los poli!”
“¡Ey, manos! ¿Que pasa?” I sauntered into the room, tossing a mocking salute at my socios.
“Hey, it’s King Hombrito!”
“Run! He’ll call the cops!”
“Hey, bros! What’s up?”
Immediately, I recognized something was wrong. For one, there were only three of them; Ricardo was missing. Then their comments as I walked into my shed registered, as well as the sarcastic, scornful tones in which they were spoken. There was a chilly atmosphere in the room, despite the simmering early autumn heat.
“¿Qué quedan?” I spread my feet, squaring my stance.
“What’s going on?”
I looked between Juan, Tito, and Miguel. Juan and Tito were sitting on overturned orange buckets, a bikini magazine forgotten at their feet as they glared at me. Miguel stood, leaning against one of the beams, arms folded against his chest.
“¿Tú nos chivas, no?”
The accusation caught me completely off guard. “¿Yo, tú chivo? ¿Qué el carajo ustedes provocan pensarlo?”
“Los poli consiga Ricardo.” Miguel’s deep voice carried hurt and betrayal.
“You ratted us out, didn’t you?”
“Me, rat you out? What the hell made you think that?”
“The cops got Ricardo.”
He was only fourteen, but his voice had manned up before any of the rest of us, even if he was still skinny as a twig; it earned him the nickname Vozgrave, or Deep Voice. The fact that he used Ricardo’s full name instead of his nickname was a bad sign, too. I had given them their nicknames, as a sort of initiation. It also helped me assert myself as boss.
“No decimos alguien,” Tito said. “Entonces seas tú.”
“¿De verdad, Teta?” I glared at him, emphasizing his nickname.
“We didn’t tell anyone, so it must have been you.”
Teta meant “boob,” a play on his name once we saw a similar word in one of those bikini magazines. He hated it.
“¿Es verdad, Chacho?” Juan stood from his bucket.
Well, did you, Chacho?”
He was taller, bigger, and stronger than all the rest of us, so I always made fun of him the most. I had to remind him who was boss around here.
I jabbed a finger at him, cussing him out for making such a suggestion against me. I walked right up to him; he shrugged his muscular shoulders as I approached, and balled a fist. I didn’t let him strike first.
I reached up and clocked him across the mouth, making him stagger backwards.
He swore and swung on me.
I ducked under his blow and reached under my wooden crate. My fingers found the cold steel. His knee came up at my face, and I didn’t have time to dodge. It cracked into my nose, and I saw stars.
I rolled over on my back, but came up in a crouch. I raised my gun at him.
The effect was immediate. All three boys jumped back, cursing and shouting.
“Tiene una pistola!”
Tito flipped open a switchblade.
“Dejalo, Teta.” I glared at him. “O él es muerto.”
“Drop it, Teta. Or he’s dead.”
Tito glared, but dropped the knife.
“¡Soy el jefe aquí!” I reminded them. “Tengo más a perder que ustedes si los poli nos descubran. ¿Por qué ustedes vaya delatar?”
“I’m the boss here! I have more to lose than you if the cops find us. Why would I rat you out?”
None of them spoke. The world was spinning lazily in front of me, my forehead throbbing where Juan kneed me. None of them knew this, thank God, but the ammunition was still in a cartridge in that small wooden crate.
My pistol was empty.
If they decided to fight me, I was a dead man. I just had to hope they couldn’t see how terrified I was. My knees were shaking under my jeans, and my hand trembled as it clutched the gun aimed at the larger boy. The gun was heavy, even without ammunition, and the grip slicked with my sweat. I could feel sweat trickling down my forehead, but they would attribute that to the heat.
Tito kept eyeing his blade, and Juan stared at me, unblinking, hands spread in diffidence but knees bent, ready to spring if he needed to. Miguel just stood next to the wall, slightly behind one of the heavier beams to make himself a smaller target.
“Respuestame,” I said, hoping it sounded more like a growl than a squeak. “¿Por qué ustedes vaya delatar?”
“Answer me. Why would I rat out any of you?”
My question hung in the hot air. Still, none of them spoke; the only sounds were my power generator whirring loudly and some flies buzzing. In the distance, I could faintly hear mariachi music from a vendor’s radio.
Finally, Miguel spoke. “Adivino no fue él, manos.”
“I guess it wasn’t him, guys.”
Tension drained out of my shoulders. I felt lightheaded, less from the heat or my throbbing nose than from relief. I lowered the gun, though I didn’t set it down.
Tito seemed ready to see reason, but Juan didn’t look quite as convinced.
“Él me pega primer. Y ¡él señala la pistola a mi!”
“He hit me first. And he held the gun on me!”
Both statements were true; I did punch him first. And the gun, still heavy in my hand, was not a good way to bring Juan back to my side. I made a split-second decision, relying on the gamble that Miguel and Tito were convinced that I was innocent. I held my gun up again, aiming it at a side wall away from them, and pulled the trigger.
It clicked emptily.
“No tiene munición,” I admitted. “No fui a dispárote, de verdad.”
“It doesn’t have ammunition. Really, I wasn’t going to shoot you.”
Juan’s posture relaxed a bit. Tito reached down and scooped up his switchblade, carefully closing the knife and pocketing it.
I turned to see Eduardo standing at the entry to my shack, holding some crumpled bills in one hand. He passed them off to me then went back to tend to the animals. It crossed my mind to keep all the money for myself, citing their insubordination as a reason not to pay them. But I didn’t want any more trouble.
“Mira. Ustedes pago porque confio en ustedes, y porque ustedes son mis amigos. Mis socios. Muchas personas no paguen traidores, pero ustedes yo perdono. No hacen otra vez, o voy a guardar el dinero solamente para mi. ¿Entonces?”
“Look. I’m gonna pay you because I trust in you, and you’re my friends. My homeboys. Many wouldn’t pay traitors, but I forgive you. Don’t do it again, or I’ll keep the money for myself. Got it?”
They nodded in response to my generosity laced with subtle threats.
“Perfecto. Diez pesos para ti, y para ti, y para ti.” I doled out the cash, and my socios greedily pocketed it.
“Perfect. Ten pesos for you, and for you, and for you.”
I looked out of my shed to the sky, pinkish orange as the sun descended. A couple hours until the cover of night, but the ranch we were hitting wasn’t exactly close. I pushed past Tito and grabbed my ammunition box, popping the cylinder out and loading it up.
“Vámonos.” I led them out of the shed towards our next job.
* * *
We sat on crates near the edge of el dompe. Well, three of us sat; Miguel, as always, preferred to stand, feet spread and arms crossed. The smell was marginally better here than at the main trash mount: more rotting food, less human excrement. Twilight painted the sky dark indigo, and the first few stars of the night were out. I don’t remember any of their names. Mamá used to tell me the constellations and the stories behind them, before. Now studying the stars just left a bitter taste in my memories.
I briefed my socios about the ranch. From what I’d observed and heard, the head rancher was gone tonight. There might be a couple ranch hands, but if we threatened them and tied them up, they wouldn’t cause us any trouble. Yes, we had done that before, but we had never actually hurt anyone. I didn’t know if la policía had ever been notified about us – probably, seeing as how they got Ricardo – but at the same time, la policía weren’t much more than a glorified and legalized crime syndicate. Probably some of the officers were in the cartels when they were off duty. Knowing this, a lot of ranchers in the area preferred to take care of thieves themselves. Which meant there was a good chance we weren’t reported too often. Besides, even if we were reported, we had bandanas and hoodies. They would only see four teens, no defining features. And they would check the alleyways and hideouts in the main city, or caves in the hilly, arid chaparral around Tijuana. They wouldn’t think to check el dompe.
“¿Preparados?” I glanced at my three homeboys. “Obtenemos tres vacas, no más.”
“Vacas son difíciles,” Tito said.
“Sí, pero son dinero bien,” Miguel countered.
“Ready? We’re getting three cows, no more.”
“Cows are difficult.”
“Yeah, but they’re good money.”
They both made good points. Cows are hard to hustle. They can be loud and slow, and sometimes they won’t walk forward if they feel like they can’t find a good place to step. But they do pay well. Miguel knew a butcher near el dompe that wasn’t opposed to gutting a stolen animal and selling it to cooks for their tacos and tamales. We sold some of our steals to him for far less than he’d have to pay normally, but still quite a gain for us. Still, we were down a member. This would be difficult without Ricardo. He was usually our runner, but now Miguel would have to step in, being the fastest after Ricardo.
“Dos vacas,” I decided. “Y herramientas de granja si es posible.”
“Two cows. And farm tools if possible.”
We pulled up our bandanas and hoodies as night crawled across the dusty countryside. We had a half-moon providing enough illumination to make out the dusty, weed-choked bluffs. They looked like blue-grey islands poking out of an ocean of shadows. We stuck to the shadows, winding through little dales and valleys as we approached the ranch. In the distance, the main house blazed with light, pouring from unshuttered windows. The bluffs gradually flattened into grazing land, dotted with the silhouettes of cattle. Juan, Tito, and I waited, crouching in the shadows of the bluffs as Miguel took off at a jog towards the ranch.
We waited, silent. Crickets chirped and frogs croaked, and occasionally a cow in the ranch lowed. Somewhere a nighthawk shrieked as it dove on its unsuspecting prey. Its cry, something between mournful and majestic, hung in the air for a moment. The comparative silence after the shriek faded left me ill at ease.
The long, undulating bay of a bloodhound rang through the air. Excited barking quickly followed, from the throats of at least three dogs. Nervous mooing broke out, the cows made uneasy at the dogs’ excitement.
They had found Miguel.
Exactly as planned. Now he would retreat into the bluffs; trained guard dogs would pursue him for a considerable distance, but would give up once they got too far from their ranch. And their barking would undoubtedly lead most of the rancheros on duty away from the livestock.
As if on cue, shouting rang out. Two men flicked on flashlights and took after the dogs. They were far enough away that I couldn’t see many details, but I saw that those dogs were big. Miguel had better not twist his ankle in the dark, or there would be nothing we could do for him.
“Vámonos,” I whispered.
We took off at a crouching run, staying low to the ground and clinging to the shadows until we came to a cow that had strayed closer to the bluffs than the rest of the herd. Juan led the way, coaxing it as he stroked its neck. He slipped twine around it, tying off the noose and gently tugging to lead the cow towards the shadows.
The cow lowed and stared at Juan, otherwise unresponsive. Tito slapped its flank as he moved to get another one, prompting it to take a few steps forward. Capitalizing on its momentum, Juan tugged on the twine and the cow conceded to follow.
So far, the heist was running like clockwork. Just one more cow and we could high-tail it back to el dompe. Home free, just like that.
Except Tito’s cow was not being as cooperative. The second he touched its neck, it bellowed and tossed its head to one side, knocking Tito over. He sat down hard on his butt, then scrambled backwards on hands and feet. The cow mooed again, loudly.
“Tito, consiga una otra!” I hissed.
“Tito, get a different one!”
As I skirted past the ornery cow, it bellowed again. Tito stood, dusting off his pants. He handed me his coil of twine and we moved up to the next closest cow. Other than a couple swishes of its tail, it paid no heed to the previous one’s angry mooing.
Tito and I slipped the twine around its neck. It looked up at me with large, trusting eyes that reflected the starlight. Juan already had one, and this one would go with us. The rancheros still shouted in the distance, far away from this side of the ranch.
This one would be easy.
And then the dog barreled into me.
By the time I heard it coming, it was too late. I turned around, the twine falling from my hand as the shadowy shape crashed into me, all snarls and flashing teeth. I fell to the ground. My arms flew up to shove the slobbering maw away.
Tito yelled and his knife flashed.
The dog leapt away, yelping and limping, but it didn’t retreat entirely. I rolled over onto my feet, feeling my sleeves. They were wet, but in the darkness I couldn’t tell if it was blood or saliva. I wasn’t in enough pain for it to be blood, it seemed, but adrenaline might be masking the pain.
“Get out of here!”
At my order, Tito grabbed the twine and led the cow towards the bluffs. Already spooked by the savage dog, the cow willingly ran at a bumbling lope.
I turned to dart after them when I felt red pain in my calf. The dog snarled as I fell face-first in the dust.
I kicked at its snout and rolled over. I reached into my hoodie pocket, gripping my pistol.
The dog bayed, a bloodcurdling sound laced with snarls.
“¡Oye!” A ranchero ran up toward me, holding a shotgun by its barrel. “¿Trate robarnos?”
“Hey! You tryin’ to rob us?”
The dog barked to punctuate the accusation. The ranchero adjusted his grip on the shotgun, holding it with both hands so that he could easily raise it on me.
My hand was in my hoodie, and it was dark. He couldn’t see my pistol.
He closed the distance between us, training the shotgun on me. The dog growled, but waited to see what its master would do.
I acted on gut instinct. I jerked the pistol out, pried the hammer back, and pulled the trigger.
My arm jerked back so violently I almost didn’t hear the shot ringing through the night. But I did hear his scream, a high-pitched wail of agony. The dog bayed.
I jumped to my feet. The ranchero was on the ground, clutching his leg where the bullet had bitten into his thigh. Blood soaked his pants, looking like sticky black ink in the darkness.
He choked out a sob, then screamed up at the stars.
The dog kept barking at him, and at me, jumping between the two of us. Its hackles were raised, but it didn’t move to bite me again.
My hand was shaking so badly I almost dropped the gun. I couldn’t tear my eyes from the blood. So much blood. It wouldn’t stop coming.
I did that to him.
Shouting was drawing closer, I realized. With effort, I tore my eyes from his wound. From my handiwork. I clenched my jaw and tightened my grip on the pistol.
Then I turned and fled.
For a time, I didn’t even notice the injury in my leg. I barely even noticed the jolt each time a foot hit the dusty ground, propelling me deeper into shadow. Dust underfoot, wind in hair, and stars overhead, I felt it all yet registered none of it. I just ran.
Finally, well away from the ranch, I slowed to a halt. I ripped my bandana down from my mouth, gulping air with my hands on my knees. I wasn’t far from el dompe; the glow of Tijuana’s suburbs in the distance told me that. No sight of Tito, Juan, or Ricardo.
Suddenly pain spasmed through my leg.
I gasped, and the next thing I knew I was sitting on the ground. I looked down. One leg of my jeans was completely ruined, perforated with long rips. In the dim orange glow of the city, I could see that my leg was slick with dark blood.
The sight of my maimed leg looked all too much like the bullet wound I gave the ranchero. Except, he was bleeding so much more. It was pooling on the ground before I left. Blood, and blood, and more blood.
I rolled over on my side and retched. Lunch came out the first time, half-digested saltine crackers and moldy cheese. But it wasn’t enough. I got to my knees and retched again, sending empty fluids out too.
My leg twitched again, racking my body with a dull red pain that pulsed with my heartbeat. A stick in my side stabbed me each time I tried to breathe. I fell forward, collapsing next to my vomit.
I found myself on my back, looking up at the stars. Stars. I hated the stars. They say that the stars are always watching over you, looking out for you. To hell with that. The stars never did anything to look out for me. They just twinkled and watched. If they looked out for me, they would have done something. Like stopped my madre from abandoning us. She was still out there somewhere, twinkling like a star and not lifting so much as a finger to help.
We could have made it together, if she hadn’t dropped us in a trash heap. Between her and me and Eduardo, we could have taken care of ourselves. And Jorge and Carlos. But instead, we were on our own. I had to shoulder the responsibility of parenthood at fifteen. Sure, I’d done well, all things considered. I’d looked after them. I’d done what I could, and then some.
But now, looking up at the apathetic pinpoints of light in that dark sky, I’d never know if I was a murderer.
* * *