When their grandfather goes missing, teenage Santiago and seven-year-old Izzy fear being separated. In order to raise his little brother, Santiago sacrifices a scholarship to Duke and often outwits Immigration Control. But when Izzy fights a classmate, Santiago struggles to teach him that real men avoid violence — without revealing his secret: to provide for him, he has joined MS-13, America’s most dangerous gang.
Izzy asks, “Where are we?” Stopped on the side of the street four houses down from Spyder’s, I take the key out and groan the handbrake back.
“Owner of the hotel lives around here. I need to pick up my money,” I poke his belly, “for the bus tickets.” Then I scan out the windows at the imploding one-story houses. Tan and crumbling inside themselves. Garage doors with crooked slabs, as though they were tattered accordions. Windows grimy at the tops so they narrow in on us. Gutters drooping from the roofs, spilling brown leaves and crying black water. Frowns everywhere.
Izzy nods then reaches for the door, but I say, “Stay here.” His eyes jolt, just like when I tell him, “Lock it and don’t open, even if the cops say you need to.”
He twirls his fingers into the bottom of his Darth Vader shirt and says, “Just hurry please.”
I rake his hair again, and this time his head rolls with my hand. Then I glance beside my left thigh to the storage area in the driver side door, where most teenagers hide cases of Camels. But do I really need it? I tap my bottom lip then point at Izzy’s backpack. “Have a book or something for meanwhile?” He smirks, reaches between his legs, and unpacks his Game Boy. “Aren’t those banned from school?” I ask, but by now, I’ve slipped it from the storage area to beside my thigh.
Powering his Game Boy on, Izzy whispers, “I can hide a lot in my backpack.”
I have to chuckle as I reach across myself to open the door with my free right hand. “Still stuck on the Sith Lord?” I ask him looking back over my right shoulder.
He sighs as the theme song plays. “Yeah. Even if I’m Vader, he kills me. His lightning is so cheap. Can you please beat him later?”
My left hand swings outside and hides against the side of the car so he can’t see it as I step out. I say, “No way, you can do it.” Then I exit completely, shut the car door behind me, switch it to my right hand, and turn around to look at him through the window. I wave goodbye with my empty left hand, smiling, my stomach tight from missing him already. My right hand slides it into the back of my waist band. The jazz cassettes aren’t the only thing of Grandpa kept in the Honda.
From outside, I tell Izzy, “May the force be with you.”
At Spyder’s door mat with the image of the Virgin Guadalupe, I hear the Spanish accents of a telenovela on the other side. The plywood door wobbles within its frame when I knock it, then I turn to our Civic in the distance and spot Izzy’s clump of hair through the window. Love that ladybug.
The front door unbolts and a voice says, “Hola, Kayda.” I rotate to see Abuela’s sunken face under the baby-blue shower cap she always wears. She looks like a wax statue under a heat lamp, every feature sagged and spent. “Ven, ven,” she says opening for me, then she says, “Ah, ah, botas, botas,” and directs my boots to the mat. I blush and wipe my heels, smearing mud over Mother Mary’s golden rays. “Okay, ven, ven.”
In her living room, she hugs my waist then leans back to cup my face. I’m not even six feet but still a foot taller than she is. To embrace my cheeks, her hands have to reach so high that the sleeves of her pink bathrobe slide down her cadaver arms and bunch at her shoulders. She asks, “¿Cómo estás?”
“Bien, bien, Abuela. Need to talk to Spyder.” She’s not actually related to me, but because she’s Spyder’s grandmother, she’s mine, too. She’s everybody’s.
“Lo siento, César not here,” she replies. There’s also a reason she calls Spyder by his real name, but calls me, Roach, Tick, and Pillar by what she christened us. “Others outside,” she says motioning to the backyard, “with poor chickens. Pobre chickens. Maybe Tick know where César is.” She notices me mull my lip, so she asks, “Okay?”
“Just distracted. And you?”
“Like mierda,” she says then flicks her head toward the television, which shows a cowboy scolding a weeping woman. “Esteban killed Antonio, her lover.”
“Sounds like Antonio deserved to die.”
“No, Kayda. Antonio more handsome. He shoulded killed Esteban. If I Antonio, I kill Esteban first and steal his wife.” She grins and shuffles toward her couch, but hoisting her pointer toward the ceiling to emphasize, says, “Kill Esteban first.”
Abuela settles into her reclined seat and perches her slippers on the outstretched footrest. They wiggle like pink bunny ears. From the backyard sound the slaps of hands against wet backs. Abuela says, “They playing with your gallo.”
“It’s not mine. Spyder told me to buy it, but the breeder promised he’s a good one. What do you think?”
“Bonito, but shy. Very shy. Like you.” She giggles. “But pobre chickens. Dogs ugly and stupid, but those gallos so handsome. I say to César no more chicken fights, pero no escucha.”
“Sorry. He told me to buy it.”
“It okay, Kayda. But pobre chickens, pobre poor chickens,” she murmurs.
I nod and duck my hands into my pockets so they have something to do. In the pouch of the cushion, Abuela is a hollow puppet, as though the silk of her fuchsia bathrobe drapes from a hanger. A naked cat in a sweater.
She says this carefully: “So handsome, but so sad. They wait until we make them fight, then they die. Pobre chickens.” Her eyes question me. “Do you feel like that?”
“Like a chicken?” I half-chuckle. “I’m no coward.”
“César say you argue when he give you job.”
“I didn’t argue, I explained the consequences. We can’t push if we’re always fighting the Kings. Spyder needs to understand that if I just drop Carthage, they’ll send soldiers. Then who knows what’ll happen. 5–0 will snoop around, and we won’t be able to ship. And no product means no profit. I’m here to profit.”
“You here, Kayda, to obey César,” says Abuela leaning forward. “La Mara didn’t spread from LA para dinero. Cliques now in Boston, Nueva York, in Baltimore. Mara everywhere. But those cliques growing faster than us. More Kayda, we need more. ‘More’ makes men.” She glares at me. “So if César say, ‘Carthage,’ lo quiero muerto.”
I yank my hands out of my pockets and fold my arms, teeth gritting. “Sorry.”
“Remember where Tick find you?” asks Abuela. “One of our houses, needle hanging from you like a sword from a toro. Crying and calling yourself a coward and screaming for your grandfather? Tick ask you, ‘Want to buy more?’ And you weep and say you want to sell.”
“Yes,” I say, “I hadn’t gotten any work for –“
“So I give you chance. I tell César to break you and make you man. Now look at you,” she says.
I feel nauseous at the memory. I remember standing in the middle of the cockfighting ring in the yard. Spyder with his dark skin and web of veins sprawling up his neck, positioned outside the chicken wire with his arms crossed. The North Carolina day roasting, but he still wore the red shirt with the red sleeves. Always wears sleeves. Tick hopping up and down beside him so his bare chest jiggled. His piss yellow cracked-tooth grin shining beneath the devil horns drawn on his forehead. The jittery recruiter. Roach next to him, young at age fourteen, pulling at the white stick in his mouth and wiggling his shoulders. His skunk smell spreading toward me. Pillar, oldest at twenty-four, standing far from it all, fearful for me in his retired fat clown way. He spent the time rubbing his swollen belly.
“No fighting back,” spoke Spyder, biceps still bundled over hidden fists and peering up at me with his head lowered. “Suck it up for the thirteen seconds.”
I nodded, already brainstorming explanations to Izzy for the bloody eye and dislocated shoulder. He’ll cry all night. First, Grandpa gone he’ll think. Then, Santi hurt. He’ll feel as though the world hates him. But what else? I also prayed my teeth were left alone. No medical.
After nodding to everyone else, Spyder widened his stance and shouted, “One!” Then Roach flicked from his face the burning bush, but Tick was first to hop into the ring, and he charged toward me, probably pretending I was his older brother who liked to twist lit cigarettes into his toddler back. And as Tick cocked a fist, in his eyes I saw the spark of lighters.
Abuela says, “You have a chance now, but you look angry at us. When they drag you from backyard into my living room, did I get mad when you drool blood onto my carpet? No. I hug you and say, ‘Here, we love you.’ And you sob and promise, ‘Mara para siempre.’ Is it still ‘Mara para siempre’?”
I confirm, “Forever.”
But from deep within her face, like black marbles thumbed into dough, her cat eyes scramble around me. “I think you lie, Kayda. You argue. You no around. I cook Sunday, everyone here, but not you.”
“You no tattoos. No where ‘MS.’ You try to hide?” she asks.
“Spyder actually likes that. Pillar and Tick can’t go anywhere without scaring people, Kings spotting them, or Blue tailing them. I can. I look normal. That’s why he assigns me more than them.”
Her brows casually rise, and with tongue-in-cheek, she leans against the armrest of the couch to check the television. Her slit eyes finally crank up to me. “You know I gave ‘green light’ on Long Legs, si? He didn’t understand ‘para siempre’ and ran. He leave Mara and ran. So we ‘green light’ him. Long Legs knew we ‘green light’ him if he run, but he ran. And what happen? Mara clique in Nueva York find him and send him back to me. I watching Telemundo and hear knock. Fedex man at door with three boxes.” She holds up the appropriate number of fingers, and the corners of her lips creep up, like the grinning Cheshire cat. “’Green light’ mean three boxes. Mara growing. Mara everywhere. ‘Para siempre,’ entiendes?”
I confirm, “Forever.”
She asks, “How Izzy?”
I shudder. After our clash over the hit on Carthage, Spyder ordered Tick to follow me to my trailer. He saw Izzy through the window.
“He’s at school,” I reply.
“Tick tell me he very hermoso. More handsome than you. Why you try to keep him secret?” she asks. “We your only family.” She licks her teeth. “Find your grandfather yet?”
I claw at her, seize her by her throat, and hoist her up, shaking her within my grasp so she rattles like a skeleton. That head of a goblin. I chuck her at the TV so her forehead slams against the volume knob and the shower cap flutters off her scalp. But only in my thoughts.
I force through my teeth, “Not yet. But I’ve been checking the news and the papers.”
“Go to the police. They help you.” She chuckles.
The screen door creaks open, and in pops Tick’s face with his horn logos and his trademark teardrops. He says, “Orale, puto. Thought I heard you. Gotta see this.”
Abuela, gazing back at the screen now buzzing with bad reception, waves her wrist at me and says, “Let me watch mi telenovelas.”
I bow then march toward Tick. I hope the cancer shrivels your lungs.
But right as I step out the door, she lets out, “When a country doesn’t believe someone exists, it very easy to make that person — not exist. Entiendes?”
The screen clacks behind me.