This is my chapter that won 2nd place in Adult General Fiction at the Storymakers Conference contest 2018. I'm very pleased with it and excited to share it with you!
Santi pulled his blanket over his shoulder and shrugged it up to his chin. It was October and even in Fairfield, California, the mornings were beginning to chill. The apartment floor provided little comfort, but Santi was too tired to care. With his eyes closed, he turned to lie flat on his back. Careful not to bump any of his cousins sleeping like sardines in the small bedroom, he reached his hands over his head in a long stretch. The rising sun teased the window curtains with the promise of morning.
Strawberries were the worst to harvest, he decided. Bending at the waist, row after row, was painful, even with the advantage of being nine years old and closer to the ground. Santi and his cousins would often lie down on the dirt between the rows of strawberries just to give their backs a break. But when Mama and Aunt Concha gave the order, they were up and picking again, with barely a siesta in between. Santi didn’t mind the hard work too much though. Being with his cousins was worth it.
The door opened to the small bedroom where he lay, and a shaft of light slipped past the figure in the doorway. Dust danced around Aunt Concha, stopping at the dark outline of her wide hips and sloping shoulders.
She tiptoed over sleeping cousins and put her hand on Santi’s leg. Motioning to the door, she reached out to help him from the floor. Aunt Concha was a worker, and a good one. She could have lifted Santi’s nine-year-old body up and carried him across the room with one hand if she’d wanted to. Every fall she and her children worked the harvest in Fairfield for extra money. And every fall she opened her home to Santi’s family to join in too. Santi followed his aunt through the minefield of sleeping bodies into the living room.
Aunt Concha cupped his face with her hands. “An officer is coming to take you to your grandfather. Don’t worry, Santi. I’ll pack you some food.”
“What’s wrong?” He pulled back. “Are the officers taking us away?” He was scared. He’d seen enough of his friends and their families deported back to Mexico.
“No Santi. It’s not immigration. We are legal citizens.” She pulled him into a bear hug. “You are needed at home.”
Aunt Concha was not an affectionate person, and Santi pulled against this sudden change in behavior. A knock at the ground level apartment door released him from the suffocating hug.
“Officer,” Aunt Concha greeted.
“Ma’am.” A police officer stepped through the front door. His hat was in one hand and the other hand was raised to his face where his fingers fiddled with a bushy mustache. He was tall and thin with a pronounced slouch.
Santi looked around for his mother and then remembered she had gone home during the night to pick up some more clothes and other items they needed. Mama would be home when he got there and everything would be fine. He reached for Aunt Concha’s hand.
“Santi, this is Officer… What was your name again?” Aunt Concha held Santi’s hand like a kite string in a strong wind. He tried to adjust his pinched fingers.
“Uh, Officer Roberts.” The policeman traded his hat back and forth between his hands. His skittish eyes darted from Aunt Concha’s to the floor and back.
“Officer Roberts is here to take you home.” She released her grip on Santi and turned to the kitchen.
Officer Roberts raised a hand and motioned as if to speak to her as she left. His lips mumbled a silent conversation with himself and he shook his head, his hat still spinning in his hands. Aunt Concha returned with a brown paper bag bulging with the round outline of an apple and a water bottle. If Santi was lucky, she’d have thrown in one of her secret-recipe empanadas. She thrust the bag into Santi’s hands and pushed him toward the officer.
“I’m leaving now? Alone?” Santi looked at his aunt, confused. She bit her lip and nodded.
“You’ll be okay. Go with the officer, Santi.” She ran her fingers through Santi’s hair and gave him a final squeeze then nodded to the officer. He reached for Santi and directed him out the door. As the police car pulled away, Santi watched his aunt through the back window. She stood in the open door, hands clenched over her chest.
It was a long drive and the sun burned through the car window. His cousins would be hard at work in the fields by now and Santi envied them. By the time they crossed the Sacramento River, Santi had already seen enough field and asphalt to put him in a scenic coma. Everything looked the same but he knew something had changed. Every dashed line on the road seemed to whisper “What’s wrong? What’s wrong? What’s wrong?”
When Officer Roberts pulled into his neighborhood, Santi released his seatbelt and sat up next to the window. He pressed his nose and forehead into the glass until it fogged up. He wiped and pressed again. The car slowed to a crawl a couple of houses before Santi’s.
“My house is further up there.” Santi pointed and knocked on the back of the driver’s seat. They were so close and all he could think about was seeing Mama. Then things would feel right again.
“Yeah, so, we can’t get too close. I’m just going to park somewhere around here.” Officer Roberts picked up the speed a little and weaved between a few of the neighbors’ cars parked on the street until they were one house away. Then he pulled over and parked behind another police car.
Santi squinted and stared. There had to be ten other police cars parked all over the street and in his driveway. He opened the door and stepped out, eyes trained on his house. Yellow ‘caution’ tape stretched from the back of his house, across the front and up the driveway on the other side. The house looked like the center of a boxing arena.
“Hey, kid. You stay here in the car and I’ll be right back.” Officer Roberts walked away, his voice trailing behind him.
Santi stared through the window like it was a movie screen. A man in a suit greeted Officer Roberts and they both walked into the house through the front door. Santi waited until the door closed and then climbed out of the car and followed the yellow tape up the driveway. At first he didn’t dare walk too closely to it. Stay away, it warned. Danger. But Santi had never been able to stay away from trouble, even when he tried. He reached out and touched the tape, muscles tense. The tape felt like wet plastic and he realized his hands were sweating. He trailed his fingers on the tape as he continued up the driveway.
Closer to the house now, Santi heard a buzz of activity from inside. It sounded like the hornet nest he had found with his brother in one of the dirt baseball fields last summer. Santi knew what might happen when he threw a tomato at the hive but the air attack that followed was enough to scar him for life. Santi was a fast runner but his younger brother was not. Pushing Luis in front of him, he could not stay ahead of the mass of hornets. By the time they reached home, Santi’s back was a bumpy mass of swelling stings and his breathing was no more than a wheezing gasp. Although he was back to playing baseball with the neighbor boys the next day, he never touched another hive.
Santi stepped away from the tape, shaking. His breath was quick and shallow. Feeling dizzy he turned away and bent to balance his elbows on his knees. The buzz from the house echoed in his head. Danger.
“Santiago,” someone whispered.
Santi looked up and saw his neighbor, motioning for him to come to the far side of the driveway. She was the neighborhood Abuela, hard of hearing and nosy, but always sincere.
“Santiago. What’s going on? What happened?” Stooped with old age, she was nearly the same height as Santi.
Santi didn’t know how to answer. Something had happened but he didn’t know what. All he knew was that his house was buzzing like a hornet’s nest and he didn’t want anything to do with it.
“They will ruin your mother’s flowers. They search all through them. And the noise. They make so much noise.” Abuela clicked her tongue and motioned again for Santi to come closer.
Just as he stood to move toward her, Officer Roberts appeared at his side and pulled on his elbow. “Come with me, boy,” he said. The officer hustled back to the house, dragging Santi behind. Together, they ducked under the tape and entered through the back door, leaving Abuela shaking her head after them.
The kitchen was cast in shadow as Santi’s eyes adjusted from the outside morning light. He made out the shape of the dining table through the doorway, in the dining room. The vase of fresh flowers his mother always kept was missing. That made sense though, because she’d been with Aunt Concha and the rest of us for a week. The flowers would have wilted by now. Mama probably tossed them out when she came home last night to pack a few more clothes and things. Where was Mama? Santi rubbed his palms on his pant legs. He looked behind him. Two men in suits were talking, making notes on small pads of paper.
In place of the flowers were a bunch of grapes and a bundle of asparagus. Two shades of green contrasting with the wooden table. Next to the produce was another pile. Also green. Santi squinted and stepped forward. It was money. Piles of it. Bundles of bills falling off of each other like a landslide. Santi had never seen so much money in his life, except in the movies. Is this why they called for him to come home? Had they found a treasure or won an award? Maybe he had it wrong and this feeling he had, like a bomb ready to explode, was because something good had happened.
Santi stepped forward. He had touched the tape. He had entered the buzzing house. And he was still standing. He stepped into the dining room and reached for the money. With the next step, his foot slipped and Officer Roberts grabbed him under his arms before he fell to the floor. Santi looked down to see his foot in a pool of red. He slid his toe back, revealing a streak of linoleum before the blood pooled back together. Instantly the smell hit him. Not the coppery smell, like when he cut his finger helping Abuela with dinner or banged up his knee in a bike crash. It smelled like body odor only worse—rancid and dirty.
His stomach turned and he pushed his way through the door into the dining room. His arm burned as he twisted out of Officer Roberts’ grasp. Reaching for the table, he held on with all the strength he had left. The officer followed him. Everyone stopped talking and the hive went silent, noticing him for the first time. Santi focused on the green; the asparagus, the grapes, the money in front of him on the table. But all he could see was red.
“Jeez, kid. Hold on,” said Officer Roberts.
Santi turned to stare at the officer. He screamed in his head. Why did you bring me here? Officer Roberts avoided eye contact and stood over him, like a sorry excuse for shelter. He glanced at the wall next to the doorway. Santi followed his gaze and saw two names written on the wall in fat, black marker. Rosa and Maria. Mama and Abuela. Beneath the names the wall was streaked with blood. The room spun and Santi stood still, fixated on the wall. Nothing made sense.
“Roberts!” A man in a suit stood between Santi and the officer, blocking the view of the wall. “What in the…” he glanced at Santi and cut his curse words short. “When I said bring the boy in, I meant to the office where his grandfather is waiting. Get out of here!” He shoved Officer Roberts toward the door then kneeled in front of Santi.
“What’s your name, young man?” he asked.
“Santi. Santiago Juarez, sir.” Santi looked around to see who else might be talking because the voice that came out of his mouth did not sound like his own. It warbled and echoed in his ears.
“Santiago, I’m Detective Allred. You should not be here. I’m going to send you to see your grandfather.” He waved a hand in the air and another policeman rushed over. “This officer will drive you.”
Santi nodded. “What about Officer Roberts?”
“Officer Roberts is no longer working this case.” The detective shook his head and stood. He placed a heavy hand on Santi’s shoulder. “Let’s get you back with family.”
“What about my mom?” As Santi said the words his stomach turned and his throat went tight like he was choking. “And my dad?”
The new officer looked at the detective, his mouth stretched across his face so tight it might break. Detective Allred knelt again and stared at Santiago. “This officer is going to take you to the station. You should ask your grandfather these questions.”
At the police station, Santi walked past cubicles like he was on parade. On-looking officers stood to see him and whispered behind their hands. He lowered his eyes and trudged ahead. Grandfather stood in the middle of a glass room at the end of the hall, rigid as a brick wall with his back to the door. Mama’s two brothers were sitting around a table. One held Santi’s little sister on his lap and the other had his arm around Santi’s brother, Luis.
The officer stood in the doorway and cleared his throat.
Grandfather turned and looked at the officer. His eyes were wet and swollen. “Any more news?” He held his hands out as if to receive something and they shook.
“No.” The officer shook his head. “Santiago is here.”
Santi took one step forward, hoping his legs would carry him all the way to his Grandfather’s arms before he fell. He scanned the room, trying to make eye contact but all eyes were on the officer and Grandfather. It was like no one knew he was there.
“Santiago Juarez is no longer my family.” Spit laced Grandfather’s words and his eyes bore into the officer.
The officer raised one hand to calm the old man and clarify. “I’ve brought your grandson, Santi.” Santi walked into the room and his brother and sister surrounded him with hugs. His uncles sat at the table, thrumming fingers and watching through lowered eyes.
“Thank you, officer,” Grandfather said.
When the siblings finished hugging, Santi turned to his Grandfather. ”Where is my dad?”
“You won’t ever see him again.” The blood vessels on Grandfather’s neck bulged and pulsed. “He’s dead.”
Santi’s face flushed and the room swung around him like a giant bell. “And Mama and Abuela?” He knew the answer but didn’t want to hear it. As his Grandfather ranted about death, hell and Santiago Juarez, Santi covered his ears and crawled under the table with his siblings. He held his brother and sister on either side and rocked as his.