As soon as the sun started creeping through the blinds, I was aroused by the shining light whispering my name. There wasn’t much to see out my window, except our makeshift tire swing and a few beer cans in the yard from the night before. But, still, I enjoyed watching the warmness of it all — how the sun crept atop the roof of Octavio’s house. If I was lucky, I’d sneak down to the end of our drive to take in the sight of Downtown San Antonio’s skyline. It was strange the way Emilio and Teresa could sleep through the next ice age.
On the weekends, I was forced to stay in bed until Emilio woke up or 10:30 — whichever came first, knowing how early I liked to wake. Mom claimed our brains needed sleep to recover from the nonsense we filled our minds with.
I started singing in pretend Spanish one Saturday — which is to say that I was spewing gibberish since knowledge of the real language has become nearly extinct within our family. But, sharing a room with Emilio made it easier to take out my opponent or, in this case, I was trying to revive him.
“Ooka clacka mongakin no.” I sang, and Emilio began to shuffle in his bed. I waited a minute before continuing.
“Lo el la ooh la la.” My overuse of Spanish articles began to work like a charm.
“What?” Emilio asked, sounding groggy. He raised his torso to look in my direction as if my singing was hypnotic. His bed was on the other end of our room, and I quickly reverted to a tombstone position before he’d notice I was awake. After realizing he might have been hearing voices because I still appeared to be knocked out, he rolled over, pulling the covers above his head.
“Dile que tú me quieres!” I bellowed in real Spanish this time, remembering a song I recently heard on the radio and holding the ending long enough for my brother to re-awake. Mom used to make fun of how we enjoyed music without quite understanding the lyrics. Emilio tackled me.
“Shut up!” He demanded.
“Emilio, it’s okay. ¡Dile que yo soy el que te quiere!” I kept singing while he put me in a headlock, hoping Teresa would hear us fighting in the next room. Having her awake would guarantee I could get out of bed to enjoy the sunrise. To no surprise, she waltzed into our room in seconds, performed a plie before inquiring about our conundrum.
“What’s the matter, boys?” She asked, sounding like our mother and executing an arabesque.
“None of your beeswax!” We grunted in unison while I was squirming to get out of Emilio’s grasp.
“Shh… You’re going to wake mom.” She whispered softly.
The idea of waking mom was never something to gamble, and Emilio stopped immediately but not before delivering a final punch to my right arm.
“Ouch!” I exaggerated. “Good, at least ya’ll are awake. Now we can go.” I recovered quickly and stated abruptly, unfolding my legs to step out of bed.
“And, where do you think we’re going?” Teresa asked, trying to sound disinterested in venturing outside. Truth is, Emilio and Teresa knew exactly where I wanted to go. They just hated having to get up for it and make the trek. There was a place we all liked to visit to soak in mother nature’s morning symphony of sounds and beautiful lighting. By now, we’d spent too much time futzing, and we were about to miss the climax. “Just bring the boom box!” I ordered.
We weren’t walking anywhere special. Our hangout was a park only a few blocks away, and the radio was for the after show. It brought kids out from all over the neighborhood. They were swayed by the jams we played and the moves we made. I guess you could say we were like the children from Miss Peregrine’s home — except our caregiver was Ms. Ortiz, and we were her band of misfits.
The story of how we got into dancing began by watching mom perform in front of the mirror as part of her workout routine. We used to sit on barstools around this empty room where the stereo was located. Teresa’s ballet lessons were meant to provide more structure to the forms we created. Naturally, Emilio and I just weren’t into all that. But, Teresa insisted that we create a routine that flowed better with the music. We were reluctant to start doing plies the same way we freestyle, but Teresa could mirror our mother’s reaction to being upset. “Damn you boys! Get in position!” She’d yell as if ready to slip off her chancla. Contrary to popular belief, mom never used a flip-flop to discipline us. Instead, she whipped us into shape by revealing the fire in her eyes. The power of her words was poetic. Yet, they released a sense of fear at disappointing her. All she had to do was give you “the look”, and you knew what was coming next. You’d cringe at the sound of your full name. “Santiago Ceferino De La Peña!” She roared many a full moon.
When we finally stepped out into the world, we looked like a cow chewed us up and spit us out. I didn’t have time to iron my jeans. Emilio was wearing his wrestling uniform, which hadn’t been washed in a few weeks now, because he had practice later and somehow kept forgetting to throw it in the hamper. Teresa always seemed to have her ballet dress on, and I wore a holey shirt with ripped pants. We gathered on the front porch, looked out over the yard and down the street, turned up the volume on the boom box, pressed play, and bobbed our heads to the beat the whole way to the park without a care in the world for who we might disturb.
Octavio lived across the street and was first to be captivated by our noisemaking, heart thumping parade. He operated like clockwork and could be enticed to do just about anything. It was funny watching him because he wasn’t the ideal dancer. He was one of the few remaining neighbors that were in the community when we moved in. The first time he saw us step out of our house in usual fashion, he ran up to us to introduce himself and figure out what we were doing. It took him awhile to understand that we weren’t ignoring him, but we often didn’t speak during our procession to the park. Dancing, after all, is about attitude. Eventually, he’d get into lockstep as soon as we approached the curb and turned towards the sun. But, on this day, we were on a mission.
“Did you bring it?” I asked him.
“Yes.” He responded, pointing to the bump concealed by his shirt.
On the way to the park, every fourth beat to David Guetta’s rendition of “Would I Lie to You?” would be met with sudden body jerks to the left and then right — followed by two head bops in one direction and then the other like Mr. Roboto. The motions got passersby wondering what the hell we were doing. Their eyes were inflamed with curiosity.
Teresa set the boom box on the picnic table near the water fountain when we finally arrived. The area was a ghost town. There was a woman swaying her arms back and forth in earnest as she made another circle around the walking trail. We lowered the music and started stretching when one of the rival dance teams emerged from behind the recreation center.
“I hope ya’ll brought you’re A-game, Santiago!” Tony, the ring leader, sneered.
“And, why is that?” I questioned, snickering.
“Because, ya’ll are goin’ down!”
“Cálmate! The competition hasn’t even started.” Teresa interjected.
“We’ll see.” Tony had to have the last word.
Within minutes, crowds of people started surrounding the basketball court as we made final preparations for the contest. The event was organized after several dance teams began appearing in neighborhoods throughout the city. They each expressed an interest in proving which community had the best dancers. Of course, our family had been the original Kings and Queen of Freestyle Dance and were determined to keep its reputation and focus on the West side of town. Many fights had broken out within communities thus, and we brought a basketball to sway authorities into thinking that we were only playing a game.
I glanced at Teresa and Emilio, nodding my head to follow my lead. The music started bumping and we began stomping our feet to the rhythm, kicking off the competition. We clapped our hands together and the crowd started cheering as we moved in a repetitive motion. Two stomps, one clap, two stomps, one clap. Three stomps, two claps, a slide to the left. We repeated the movement and slid to the right, making our way to the center of the court. The other three teams choreographed similar routines.
After we each made our entrances, Octavio laid the ground rules.
“Alright, I want a nice, clean fight. No copycats. Got it?” The teams each exhibited a look of duress.
“Any team seeming to follow the same moves will automatically be disqualified.” Octavio continued.
We each stomped in agreement as we returned to our respective corners. Octavio began pumping up the crowd to start the rounds. He fired a shot to the sky, using his dad’s Taurus Judge. He had shown it to me earlier in the summer. It was the same weapon found in courtrooms to lay down the law, which was off-putting because it was unexpected.
“What the hell are you doing?” I shouted above the music. There were screams in the crowd. Many had dispersed to seek shelter.
“I was just trying to kick off the competition with a little bang!”
“Nah. Hell, no. That’s not a toy!”
Sirens could be heard in the distance as someone called the police.
“You’re in for it now, boy! Best get moving. And, lose the gun!” I told Octavio, pushing him to get out of here. He’d drawn his last straw.
I started looking for Teresa and Emilio. People were scattered throughout the park. I ran to check behind the rec center but stumbled on two unfamiliar people that were crouched together in fear. I spun in a circle, desperately scanning the area to find them. The sirens grew louder. I knew they were getting closer.
I ran home and found Emilio tending to Teresa. She was sprawled out on our cement porch.
“What happened?” I asked.
“What goes up, must come down!” Emilio retorted with disdain.
“Wha…wha…?” I tried to question, refusing to believe my eyes.
“Every action, has a reaction!” Emilio shouted. Before I could pull myself together, Teresa whispered something incoherently. She reached out her hand, and I held it. Teresa pulled me close with all the energy she could muster.
“We were just having fun.” She whispered.
“No. Not like this.” I couldn’t hold back the tears.
“It…was…an…accident.” She continued with long breaths between words this time. The ambulance arrived, but she was beyond help.
“Son, we’ll take it from here.” The paramedic said, moving me away. I let go of her hand and rose to my feet. Emilio ran to our storage room where the washer and dryer were kept. The ambulance sped off.
I stared across the street at Octavio’s house where the sun was no longer peering over the rooftop. Clouds began to form. His face peeked from behind the curtains in his living room. Emilio returned to stand beside me. From the corner of my eye, I noticed him nod approvingly, and we walked across the street. Dancing had brought us together.
I pounded on the front door. Octavio was hesitant to answer.
“Who is it?” He asked, pretending not to know.
“It’s us, man, open up. We just want to talk.” I tried to convince him.
“Us who?” He wasn’t that stupid.
“Emilio and Santiago. Just open up.” Emilio attempted. After a short pause, the door creaked open slowly. We pushed ourselves in, and Emilio pulled out the gun that was hidden in his back pocket, aimed it at him, and fired one round without hesitation. The same shot that he foolishly fired at what was supposed to be a friendly competition.
After committing the deed, we turned around to face the music. The sirens had stopped blaring, and the police had us surrounded. Their weapons were pointed towards us. “Put down your weapon, and come out with your hands up!” My hands were raised, but Emilio decided he wasn’t going to go down without a fight. He pointed his weapon at them. “No!” I jumped in front of him, knocking him down. He sprung to his feet and wasn’t going to stop.
The bullet had pierced through the muscle of my left arm. I was handcuffed and pulled to my feet. I glanced over at Emilio’s now dead body. “You have the right to remain silent…” I heard the cop read me my Miranda Rights through the ringing in my ears. He shoved me in the squad car, and my beautiful morning was over. The rain started crashing down with powerful thuds on the windshield.