(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 three weeks, but my leg still ached.
I sat in my leather armchair, having found a comfortable spot where the stuffing wasn’t too lumpy or the springs too jagged, and kicked back to elevate my leg. I had cut my jeans at the knees, turning them into shorts. It made it easy to see the black scabs that marked where the dog had bitten me.
I could still walk and even run if needed, but not without a limp. And I could forget about distance running. Sure, I had plenty of stamina, but that didn’t mean anything running on a bad leg. In short, that dog had laid me up badly, and left me more dependent on my socios than I liked.
At least the cows had brought in good money. I’d spent mine on more ammunition and fresh new shirts for me and my brothers, and a couple avocados for Señor Hablando. Come to think of it, I hadn’t seen Señor Hablando this morning, which was strange. He was usually out talking to the pigs this time of day, pausing, listening, and responding to them as if they were conversing with him.
Eduardo popped out of the aluminum shack, looking around at the animals for a moment before he turned and started up the hill towards me.
“Oye, Chacho,” he said as he ducked into my shed. I had the power generator off right now, so he didn’t have to speak loudly to be heard.
“¿Qué pasa, mano?”
“Señor Hablando. Él salió.”
“What’s up, bro?”
“Señor Hablando. He left.”
“¿Qué?” I leaned forward. Señor Hablando had left? That didn’t make any sense. I protected him. When my socios or other dompe boys made fun of him or threatened to beat him up, I stuck up for the man, loco though he was. That alone should have made him want to stay.
“De verdad. Anoche él se escurrió.”
“It’s true. Last night he slipped away.”
I sat back in my armchair, considering. He was helpful for feeding the animals, but that wasn’t anything Jorge or Carlos couldn’t do. He had helped us build some sheds, but besides feeding the animals all he did was collect avocados and stink. Sure, it was nice having him around, and he was fun to listen to. But we didn’t really need him anymore. I voiced my thoughts to Eduardo, who to my surprise glared at me.
“Los hermanitos tienen miedo,” Eduardo snapped. “Primer fue Papá. Después, Mamá nos abandona. Ahora es Señor Hablando. Los hermanitos tienen miedo porque todas los padres les abandonan.”
“Our little brothers are scared. First it was Dad. Then, Mom abandoned us. Now it’s Señor Hablando. Our brothers are scared because all their parents have abandoned them.“
I listened, and I couldn’t respond immediately. The anger in Eduardo’s voice couldn’t be intended for me. He was probably feeling abandoned too, but wouldn’t admit to it. Besides, he was the second-oldest. He was almost twelve, and he’d have to shoulder responsibility for the hermanitos.
“Entonces, ve y los consolas.”
“¿Es todo?” Eduardo yelled.
“¿Qué quieres para yo haga?”
“So go and comfort them.”
“What do you want me to do?”
Eduardo’s voice climbed from a yell to a shout. He told me to be there for them. He accused me of ignoring him, and Jorge, and little Carlos. With no shortage of swearing, he told me that I wasn’t doing enough for them. That I didn’t care about them.
Blood roared in my ears. “¡Cómo te atreves lo digas!”
“How dare you say that!”
I jerked the chair upright and stood up, jabbing a finger at Eduardo. Ignoring the pain in my leg, I stepped towards him, towering over him.
“¡Me importa los hermanitos más que todo! Mira. ¿Ves este casa? Es de basura, verdad, pero es mejor que nunca. ¡He construido porque me los importa! De Dios, ¡entonces he robado los ranchos! ¡Me duele la pierna porque me los importa! ¡Disparé un hombre porque me los importa!”
“My brothers mean more to me than anything in the world! Look. Do you see this house? It’s made of trash, sure, but it’s better than nothing. I built it because I care! By God, that’s why I rob ranches! I hurt my leg because I care! I shot a man because I care!”
I felt hot tears just behind my eyes, but Eduardo only raised his voice over mine.
“¡Nunca estás aquí! Estás siempre con tu socios. Estamos tu hermanos, Chacho, y ¿no quieres pasar tiempo con nosotros?”
“¿No escúchame?” I roared.
“Eres peor que madre,” Eduardo whispered. “A menos madre tuvo las agallas a decirnos que ella no nos quiso.”
“You’re never here! You’re always with your homeboys. We’re your brothers, Chacho, and you don’t want to spend time with us?”
“Were you not listening?”
“You’re worse than Mother. At least she had the guts to tell us she didn’t want us.”
My head was pounding at this point, and I was seeing red. I didn’t feel myself pick up the gun, but suddenly it was in my hand, trained at Eduardo.
“No lo di otra vez,” I growled.
“Tú no disparas tu hermano,” Eduardo said. His hands were spread, but he took a step towards me. “Escúchame, Chacho.”
“Never say that again.“
“You wouldn’t shoot your own brother. Listen to me, Chacho.”
He told me to listen to him? He should have been listening to me. I was the one who did all the hard work. I was the one who risked his life to earn money for his younger brothers who would be dead without him. My head pounded with my heartbeat. I was the one who got his leg bitten when I didn’t even need to rob ranchos in the first place. I cocked the hammer back. If I was on my own, I’d never have gotten hurt, but I stayed with my hermanitos when nobody else would. If it wasn’t for me they wouldn’t have stood a chance. And Eduardo told me that I wasn’t doing enough?
I lowered my arm and pulled the trigger.
The bullet bit into the dust at Eduardo’s feet. He stared at the bullet for a long moment. Then stared at the gun, its mouth still smoking. Then looked up at me. Something was broken in his eyes.
“Vete al infierno.”
“Go to hell.”
His voice came out in a cracked whisper. He turned and stormed from my shed.
I stared after him. After a moment, the gun fell from my hands. “Eduardo…” I said, but it came out too quiet. He didn’t stop; he broke into a run, stealing out from our dompe rancho.
Eduardo was gone.
* * *
I looked down at the blazer in my hands. It was black originally, now dusted in brown dirt and saturated with dompe smells. The right sleeve was partially ripped at the seams of the shoulder, and the left sleeve was missing its brassy buttons at the cuff. But it looked nice enough. It would do for the funeral.
I pulled the blazer on, its black weight tugging on me like chains. Underneath, I wore a grey button-up shirt that fit me no better than the baggy blazer. I didn’t have time to find slacks, so I wore another pair of jeans and tennis shoes.
Jorge and Carlos were dressed similarly, if without blazers.
Together, we walked to the edge of our property, where our neighbors had gathered around. Everything was washed in dark shades; thick clouds had rolled in, bringing a chill wind. The dompe boys that played near the garbage trucks stood huddled together, faces gaunt and traumatized. My socios stood near them, yet apart. Tía and the other dompe ladies were gathered close. Somehow all of the ladies had managed to find dresses with dark fabrics. The boys and my socios had a mix of dark t-shirts and poorly fitting button-ups.
Eduardo was already there. He wore a tuxedo with yellow flowers in his lapel. How they managed to find a tux in el dompe that fit Eduardo’s small frame, I’ll never know, but they did. His hair perfectly combed and his clothes meticulously arranged, Eduardo looked better by far than anyone else at the funeral.
Fitting, as he was the guest of honor.
I approached the old wooden boxes that had been repurposed into a coffin. With each step I wanted to turn and flee, but I couldn’t stop walking forward. And I saw him. He rested in the coffin like it was a bed from which he would wake at any second. I could almost have sworn I saw his chest rising and falling. His arms lay folded over his stomach, hands joined. His skull had been cracked, but I could barely see where fluids had leaked out his ears. He only looked peaceful: eyes closed and a faint smile in the corner of his mouth. I almost thought I saw an eyelid twitch, and caught my breath expecting him to sit up and open his dark brown eyes.
He only lay there.
“Eduardo…” I was vaguely aware that it had started to drizzle. I got down on my knees in the mud, leaning over the coffin.
Jorge’s account of what had happened rushed through my head, more emotion than coherence. Eduardo had run away from me, furious. He told Jorge and Carlos that he was going to the garbage trucks. They had followed, thinking it all fun and games. Eduardo and the tall dompe boy had taken bets on which one could hold on to the truck the longest.
Eduardo won the bet, of course. He had clung to the back of the truck, whooping and taunting the tall boy. Until the truck had lurched to a halt, and Eduardo had been flung into the bed of garbage. When the truck started again, he flew back, tumbled out of the truck, and landed on his back in the mud.
He had started to get up. Jorge had said that he was grinning, I remember that clearly. Probably elated over his reckless victory. But he’d had the wind knocked out of him, and he sat back for a moment to catch his breath.
That’s when the truck lurched into reverse.
And backed over him.
When Jorge and Carlos ran to him, they found his imprint in the mud, and he was buried in a pool of water and blood.
I don’t know when I started crying, but Eduardo’s features blurred in front of me. Tears, snot, and rain streaked my face. Gentle thunder rumbled in the distance. Or maybe it was just in my head; I wasn’t sure.
Unbidden, my last conversation with Eduardo raced through my head. I tilted my head back to the sky and screamed; this time I was sure the crack of thunder was in the sky, not my mind. Large drops lashed my face, mingling with my own salty tears and sticky snot. I sat next to the coffin, burying my head between my knees, my body shaking uncontrollably with sobs that started deep in the pit of my stomach before working their way through my arms and chest and out my eyes, nose, and mouth.
Eventually, I became aware of someone talking to me.
I looked up to see Tía. “Hijo,” she was saying. “Necesitamos enterrarlo.”
“Son, we need to bury him.”
The dompe boys stood by solemnly, holding shovels and spades. The hole they had dug was already filling with water, though a couple of them were trying to bucket it out.
Tía’s words didn’t register until at least the third time. I nodded, wiping the snot off my face with the sleeve of my blazer. Four of the dompe boys took the coffin’s lid and fitted it in place. This coffin wasn’t professionally made. It was just a couple crates nailed together. It wasn’t watertight, or bug-proof. I only hoped that Eduardo could still find rest.
They took the coffin and lowered it into the wet hole, other boys quickly moving to shovel mud back over it. Time blurred as Miguel, Tito, and Juan offered me their condolences. The dompe boys followed suit before they disappeared.
“Él fue increíble,” the tall boy said.
Tía and the other ladies said their goodbyes after making me promise that I would go to them if I needed anything at all.
Finally, it was only me, Jorge on my left, and Carlos on my right, staring down at the mound of mud under which our brother lay.
In el dompe, we are survivors. We help each other out and cheat each other on the same day. It’s a hard world, but we make it work. However, when one of us does fall, any scheming that may occur is put on hold. We gather as humans, and we mourn.
We stood there until it stopped raining and we couldn’t find any more tears to shed. I finally reached down and took each of them by the hand.
“Vamos a cenar, ¿sí?”
“Let’s go eat, okay?”
They let me lead them back into our ranch. The dogs were wrestling over a scrap of garbage; the cow chewed some wet hay; and the pigs foraged through the mud for anything edible.
Wordless, Jorge and Carlos fetched dry wood from the aluminum-roofed shed and I used an old cigarette lighter to start the fire. We huddled around it and heated our dinner: stale bread and expired hot dogs. I passed out the food on old plastic plates, and we ate.
I stared into the fire, flickering orange flame while it hissed and spit sparks.
“¡Una estrella fugaz!” Carlos suddenly exclaimed, pointing up to the sky.
“A shooting star!”
I looked up, following where he pointed. I was too late to see the shooting star, but I did see a vast sky of twinkling lights in the darkness, perforated with dark patches where clouds still lingered. I hadn’t realized that most of the rainclouds had already blown away, yet the stars shone across more of the sky than clouds could cover.
All the old stories my madre used to tell me flooded back, and I felt no older than Carlos. Fresh tears found their way out of my eyes as I looked at my two little brothers.
“Mira a las estrellas,” I said. “Las estrellas tienen muchos cuentos.”
“¿De verdad?” Carlos was wide-eyed as he looked up.
“Sí. Voy a decirles un cuento,” I told them. “Sobre un guerrero azteca se llama Eduardo. Mamá y Papá dieron nos hermano Eduardo su nombre porque les gusta el guerrero azteca.”
“Look at the stars. The stars have lots of stories.”
“Yeah. I’m going to tell you a story about an Aztec warrior named Eduardo. Mom and Dad gave our brother Eduardo his name because they liked the Aztec warrior.”
Of course, I highly doubted that any Aztecs were ever named Eduardo, but that wasn’t the point. I only vaguely remembered the stories my madre used to tell me, but I remembered enough that I could make up the details as I went. Come to think of it, my madre was a high school dropout. I don’t know where she heard the stories, or if she made them up too. Or if whoever she heard them from had made them up. But then, they were stories. Maybe that was the point of a story: whoever first told the story wouldn’t tell it the same way I did. But we could both offer hope in darkness, like a star. Maybe that’s why my mamá told those stories to me all those years ago.
So I told them the story of Eduardo, the most courageous Aztec warrior that ever lived.
* * *