Maria Maniaci, Sterling Heights Grand Prize, Fiction
Faster. You need to go faster. Through the streets and down to the Malecón, your bare feet slapping the pavement. Car horns bleat and music blares from doorways and open windows. The two of you twine in and out of traffic. At the seawall Rey turns and smirks back at you over his shoulder, his dark hair curling against his sweaty forehead as he jumps down and speeds out across the sand. Youre a moment behind, out of breath and your heart pounding as you chase after him.
Faster. Across the beach and then up to the rocks. Rey starts to climb and you lurch up after him. The stones bite your fingers and scrape at your bare legs. Your arms quiver but you reach up and pull, you dont stop until you reach the top and scramble over the edge.
Reys already there. He gets to his feet and reaches a hand down to pull you up. Together you step to the edge. Two sets of toes curl over the precipice. He laughs and you laugh and then youre yelling screaming yourselves hoarse. The wild sound carries out over the water below, the ocean spreading outward and endless, toward the future and possibility.
The door bangs behind you because you always forget. Your mother is waiting, sweaty and tired, her thin blouse sticking to the small of her back. Her lips purse as she grabs your plate from the oven with a towel over her hand, banging it down on the scored wooden table and yanking back your chair.
You sit and with a hand on her hip she glares as you shovel forkfuls of beans into your mouth, but theyre still warm and so good and youre so hungry. When you smile at her she throws the towel down and stalks off toward the bathroom, coming back a minute later to kneel down beside you. The cloth in her hand is soft and wet with tincture as she swabs at the scrapes on your legs, her hands gentle, at odds with her words as she mutters; I shouldnt feed you. I should let you starve. Who do you think you are? Barely 13 years old and coming in at this hour? Worthless ... feral ... like a dog in the streets. God must be very angry to give me such an ungrateful son. ...
Outside the kitchen window you can hear the night calling. It twines with her words and licks at the hairs on the back of your neck. It tells you things, important things, things only meant for you to hear.
From the living room your father watches from over the edge of his book, his thick-fingered hands dwarfing the books dust jacket, glasses pitched low on his nose. He says nothing as his gaze trades between you and your mother and then over to the window. You wonder if he hears what you hear. Or if he did once too.
You tilt your head and smile at your father and your father smiles back.
No matter how the seasons turn, Reys always a year older and taller and stronger. No matter how fast you run you cant catch up. In the fall when school starts back Rey doesnt want to go climbing with you anymore.
But you still follow; watching now as Rey practices his future in shadowed doorways and alleyways amidst the abandoned rubble of Collective failure. You watch him and you learn and you learn to pretend so that when he pushes her toward you and smiles like he knows a secret, you know exactly whats expected of you and you do it.
Even with your eyes closed you know hes watching and you listen for him, tethered through sound to familiar rhythms in the dark. In your mind youre co-conspirators. Brothers in arms. Pitched together in a battle for stakes you dont understand yet.
But there are still those perfect nights, now and again, when its just you and Rey, racing across the sand, tangling together and laughing at the edge of the waves.
In the summer in late August, Rey and his family move away.
There are places in the middle of things where the streetlights dont reach. Places no one ever goes except on purpose. The boundaries arent physical, just shadow and trees, but theres outside and theres inside and youre certain of your place.
Outside music plays and people laugh; sounds of families wandering past on their way to get ice cream. Inside the grass is cool and wet and rich, tree branches knit the moonlight into lace. Shadows move between the trees. Here are conversations of body and sensation beyond words, and here inside is the truth youve instinctively learned to seek.
Lying on your back in the grass. Head spinning. Rum hazy and lax. You hear footsteps but youre too far gone to care. Youre laughing at a joke the moon is telling you and then you feel a boot nudge your cheek.
What have we got here?
He crouches down and shines a flashlight in your face. The light makes you wince and try to shield your eyes but he bats your hand away and looks down into your face, his lips curving into a smile sharp as a blade.
Then the flashlight traces down your body. In the edges of the light you see his uniform and the nightstick tied to his waist and what hes doing with his other hand. You reach to try and button your shirt but your hands are clumsy and he just bats them away again.
He clicks the flashlight off and reaches for his belt. You close your eyes.
You run, the rum burning out of your system with every pounding stride, needing to move fast, stopping only once by the fountain to rinse out your mouth and splash water over your face.
The door bangs behind you and your mother is standing washing dishes. She doesnt look up. Your little brother is curled in your fathers lap on the sofa, eyes fixed on the flickering light of Tom and Jerry as the two of them sit eating ice cream. Your father looks at you and smiles. You dont smile. You nod and head to your room, curling up in a ball on your bed.
A minute later you hear your fathers footsteps.
I brought some for you, he says, standing in the doorway, a coffee mug full of ice cream held out in his hand.
Its mostly melted but still good. Sweet. He sits down on the edge of your bed and watches you eat. Did you do your homework?
Sí, papi. You lie, you havent been to school even once this week.
He reaches out and ruffles your hair. Good boy.
With a hand to the back of your neck he pulls you in close. You close your eyes and breathe in deep; laundry soap the same like your own clothes smell and the forever scent of his cologne, his hand solid and warm against the back of your neck.
You leave early for school before anyone else is up and take the long way around the park. It looks different in the daylight; prosaic and small. There are flowers and old men playing dominos on stone benches. You reach the school but keep walking, past the statues and the boardwalk and then down to the beach. Youre almost 15 now and climb the rocks with practiced ease.
From the top you look out over the water. Kick a stone down with the toe of your sandal. Its not the same. Dressed in moonlight the ocean is fathoms deep and flawless; in daylight simply a moat.
Everything is so much finer in the dark.
Your mother is crying and waving her arms in the air, the letter from Reys parents tight in her hand, white envelope flapping like the wings of some broken bird.
No. Youre too young! I wont allow it! Look at you! What are you doing with your life? Always the wrong things with you. Dont think I dont know; I know. I know what you are!
Your fathers voice cuts in loud and sharp, Thats enough! and everything stops; your mothers crying; the acid words youre ready to spit back; even your little brother stands stock-still, a half-eaten plantain halfway to his mouth.
Your father passes a hand down your arm, takes hold of your elbow and turns you so youre facing him. His eyes are searching, and youd do anything give anything for him not to see. But he does. You swallow hard and his eyes go soft.
Will this make you happy, Mijo?
You nod. And then so does he.
Alright. Then youll go.
Being with Rey again is different. Youve changed youve both changed but maybe you more so; there are ways now in which you think youve finally outrun him. Sometimes you see him looking at you as if youre a stranger, and sometimes you think maybe you are.
When they catch you, Reys father grabs you by the collar and slams you against the wall. Your face hits and your lip splits open and Rey, he doesnt think, he just grabs you by the arm, snags his backpack and the two of you you just go.
Its fun at first. Freedom is heady. Lights and colors and sounds. You explore the city like you used to explore the forests edging Havana together; at night you stretch out on the sand beneath the boardwalk and make plans. Lying there looking out at the water and waiting for sleep, its hard to believe youre on the other side looking back. You never want to go back, and you hope maybe neither does Rey.
But when the money runs out it gets very hard.
It rains for almost a week. It rains so long you can hardly remember ever being dry. And then it finally stops. Youre sitting next to Rey on a curb at the side of the road somewhere inland. Rey hasnt said anything in over an hour, hes pulling up blades of grass and rolling them together in his palm, their green blood staining his fingers. You bump his foot with your squishy sneaker and smile.
Do you like it here? he asks.
You nod. Youre with Rey. Sí. ¿Y tu?
He looks up at you and shrugs. His eyes are tired. Im hungry, and fuckin sick of being wet.
Something in you shudders because, yeah, you have gone past him now, though you know instinctively not to let him see it. Instead you knock your knee against his and throw an arm across his shoulders.
Half a mile down the road from where Rey lies sleeping you put out your thumb. The third car to pass slows a little farther up, tires spitting out gravel as it rolls to a stop. The window rolls down like magic when you approach and he looks you over and asks, Looking for a ride?
You smile in the way that never failed to earn you an ice cream cone or half-full bottle of rum in the park.
He leans over and pushes the passenger door open and you get in.
Rey looks so peaceful. You think maybe you should let him sleep. But the foodll get cold.
Rey man you hungry?
He mumbles and then comes awake, his expression dazed at first but then he smiles when he sees the bag of food. Smells it.
Howd you get this? he asks, smiling big, shoving his hand in the bag and fishing out a carton of french fries.
You shrug and hand him a milkshake.
He finishes the fries and sandwich in like a minute and then burps loud on purpose and laughs.
You laugh back and burp even louder and when he wipes at his mouth with the back of his hand you lean in and kiss him, licking away salt and grease. Still hungry?
He nods and you reach into the bag and dig out the last of it a little red cardboard box soaked through with grease.
Apple pie, huh? He grins. So its official, then?
The two of you share the little cake and then he urges you down onto the damp ground but you dont mind that at all because his mouth is cinnamon sweet.
You learn to wait until he falls asleep at night before you head out, because you dont mind doing it, not really, but it bothers you the way he looks at you when you come back. He never complains about being hungry anymore even when you know he is. You know hes homesick, and you know he could go back even if you cant. And that eats at you. So youre careful to make it so hes never hungry; so you always have enough money stashed for a motel room if it rains.
Whats your name? he asks. Its the first thing hes said since you got into the car. But now youre parked. Youre near the beach. You can hear the water. And crickets. And wind. Around you its dark. No streetlights. No moonlight. Too cloudy. Hes young and hes not looking at you. You can smell the fear on him.
Alejandro, you tell him. Though no one ever calls you that.
Alejandro, he repeats back. Ale-jan-dro. Slow, like its a puzzle. When he finally looks at you his eyes are jittery and frightened. So what do you do, pretty Alejandro?
Whatever, you say, shifting sideways in the seat, your back notched against the door.
He laughs and tips his head back against the headrest. Shit, you think you know something about me, dont you, Ale-jan-dro? His voice is sing-song-y and quiet. Well maybe you do and maybe you dont.
He reaches under the seat just as you reach for the door handle.
You spin around, get your bearings, then you take off running fast. Its far. Your legs ache and your lungs burn with every breath but you dont stop until your reach the cliff. You climb the rocks and you keep on climbing, hand over hand, you climb until you reach the top and you cant go any higher.
And then youre there.
The beach. Its so beautiful. The moon shines down on waves that catch the light and throw it back up. Around you palm fronds whisper to each other in a language you can almost understand. You lay back on the rocks and pant, trying to catch your breath with the stone cool and smooth against your back. You tip your head back and laugh because youre 17 years old and tall and strong and proud. Seventeen years old now and youll never be anything else.Send comments to [email protected]