La Celda de la Muerte

Submitted into Contest #148 in response to: Write about a couple touring an empty apartment they might rent.... view prompt

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Fiction Latinx Coming of Age

Before the tent crashed in, the arguing voices had already woken him up and Juan's skin prickled with apprehension, how could he protect his sister and himself?

Looking out into the bluish tint, something was new, the noise and talking outside were always loud, but the shouting voices were fighting, over what? He couldn't make it out, fear bounced around in his head like a soccer ball.

Living on Broadway of the migrant Camp, there were people around their tent all hours of the day and night. He tried to fall asleep but could not get comfortable.  He was tired of being scared, of being responsible.  His little sister had somehow turned sideways and was kicking him in his back.  He closed his eyes because he couldn't close his ears and it didn't help. Again, rage boiled up inside at his Mom for leaving them, forcing him to grow up  and be responsible for his 6 year old sister.  Suddenly the voices were louder, closer. Then he recognized Ricardo’s voice, the toughest man in the Camp. Juan looked over and saw his sister's eyes in the dark, looking at him, scared.

”It will be OK,” he said.  He pulled his arm out of his blanket to reach over for his sister's hand. Praying the loud arguing would end soon and Ricardo would leave, Juan squeezed Esme’s hand to give her strength. 

Then his small blue world collapsed.

 A large body fell on the tent, squirming and punching, the tent poles cracked. Engulfed, the thin fabric covered his mouth and eyes, cutting off light and air.  He held on tight to Esme and focused on not letting go. She twisted and pushed against Juan. He couldn't breathe, he felt their cooking utensils, his book, Esme’s doll, their clothes, the blanket all pressing on him, and still the man’s weight was pushing him down, enclosing him in a dark box,  he gasped and Esme’s hand was slipping, he lost her! 

He heard the zip of the tent flap and felt hands grabbing his legs and pulling, and soon he and Esme were standing outside their crushed tent, a man still lying on it, moaning, a few of their neighbors in the Camp talking to them, but Juan could only hold Esme who was crying hysterically.

“We have to get out of here, we have to get to Father!” Esme cried, while a neighbor shook her head in pity. The red armbands came to take care of the man who fell on their tent. Just migrants themselves, they took care of most medical needs of the Camp. Juan saw him still on the ground, holding his stomach, his feet twisting in worn, holey socks, until he was bundled on to a stretcher. 

“Ricardo caused the fight” the whispers went.  “He grabbed him with his claws and threw him down…” 

“No he stabbed him, like this quick, with his giant knife..." Another said.

“He almost killed him,  over his boots!  You have to watch out for Ricardo, he is El Diablo….”  

Juan looked at the hurt man, and shook slightly, he wanted nothing to do with Ricardo.  

Juan and Esme stayed in the tent of one of their mothers friends, Cassandra, for the night. When the morning came she went to speak to the Camp Aid staff to see about getting another tent. Juan took Esme with him to do the job he did every day, collect water.  

They walked together down Broadway, the main street in the migrant Camp to the fountain line and stood quietly. Juan, nine years old, was small for his age and the responsibility he carried for his family. He looked with longing at the boys playing in the dusty small square. He saw his friend Diego playing soccer, and some other boys were throwing a frisbee. Juan’s Father had shown him how to throw a frisbee, and they used to play in the evenings in their yard.  Watching the boys, Juan can feel the plastic disc in his hand, he practices an imaginary throw while he stands in line. Smooth flow of his arm, parallel to the ground, a quick snap of his wrist; it would have been a perfect throw. He brushes his hair out of his eyes and moves it behind his ears, his black hair is longer than he likes. He looks down at his clothes, frustrated nothing fits, everything is too big.  He has been looking for better fitting clothes in the pile of donated items, but still only too large or too small, or too ugly to wear. He bends down to fix the cuffs in his jeans as he stands in line and brushes the dirt off the American style sneakers. 

“Stop fussing with your clothes” Esme said, mimicking their mother. 

Juan looked up, suddenly wishing his mother was there to criticize him.  Esme is in her faded blue dress. She is too thin, he thought, carrying on the worrying their mother did. She needed to eat more, and talk more, she spent most of the time just staring off into space, or collecting small stones. Though Juan understands.  The Camp has a horrid smell, and it sucks the strength out of Juan, he sometimes can not get the energy to even play frisbee with Diego, which is the only thing he looks forward to.  Even if the frisbee is warped and twisted and doesn't fly straight anymore. 

Juan, Esme and their mother started traveling days and weeks and months ago from their home in El Salvador. They are trying to meet their father in the United States.  MS 13 threatened to take Juan to work for their gang. A large group was going north, and they, needing to leave, joined it.  They have been traveling with this group for several months, but then, stalled, they are stuck in this Camp for migrants.  Just south of the US border, so close to their  goal. Then their mother fell ill.  She was recovering, then she wasn't, and she passed.  Juan still looks for her to show up at their tent, looking for them, and asking if Juan took good care of his sister.

The dust  kicked up by the many feet shuffling in line choked Esme and she coughed into her shoulder. The once bright colors worn by those in line were covered by the dust, faded by the many washes and days in the sun.  Just morning, the heat had already started, still spring but he can feel the days getting longer. Their blue tent was only a meager protection, the heat still came through and made the tent only slightly better than being in the direct sun. 

The crowd of people jostled but straightened out soon enough with the practice of standing in line everyday. Juan saw Ricardo walk next to the line, and he stiffened, wary.  Ricardo, looked at the line, looked at Juan, and then stepped to the side, waiting.  

Ricardo was well known in the Camp. Tall, and dark skinned like them, he was wearing jeans and an untucked black satin dress shirt, a large sombrero shadowed his face. The sunlight reflected on his shiny black cowboy boots. They shuffled and scraped on the ground, a sound that worried Juan. 

Were those the boots the man was stabbed for? 

Juan looked away to watch the boys playing soccer, wishing he could be out there. 

They filled up their water jugs and started back to their tent.  

“That jug is too big for you Nina,” Ricardo said. “Why don’t you let me carry them.  I can help you.”  His huge hands slowly opening and closing, hung well below the ends of the black cuffs. 

“Um, no we are Ok,” Juan said and tried to move Esme to his side. She was struggling to carry her water jug, and was moving slowly. 

“I can help,” Ricardo said, and reached for Esme’s jug.  “No!” Juan said, but carrying two jugs was awkward, and he put one down to stop him. The man was quick though, and he grabbed Esme’s jug, and then with a step toward Juan, scaring him back, he grabbed one of Juan's jugs too.  He then ran through the crowd, so quick that his hat fell off, caught in the breeze, it fell right next to Esme.  She picked it up and put it on, smiling. 

Juan cursed, using the words he heard the older teenagers use when they sat around at night. 

Cassandra, nearby, came up to them and handed Juan a small jug with water, “Here this is for your sister.  I am sorry for you. But it is not his fault,” she said. ”It is this Camp, we are pushed together, more and more come in, but we can not get the papers to get out. The system squeezes us, people turn evil. Do not blame the man, blame this system that makes him steal to survive.”

“Gracias.” Juan said, and then saw Esme wearing Ricardo’s hat.  

“You stole his hat!” He said, fear shooting through him, the water stolen from them, forgotten, disregarded in the greater concern of Esme wearing Ricardo, El Diablo’s hat.

Juan looked up sure that Ricardo would come back and demand his hat, but he wasn’t there. 

“Come on! '' and pushed his sister toward what was left of their tent.

“Esme you need to get rid of that hat!  Ricardo will come for it, like he did the boots and kill us!”

“No, this hat is mine. It is magic!” Esme proclaimed

“How is the hat magic, does it produce food, does it make you fly?”

“No it is my protection,” Esme said, pulling the oversized hat tight on her head by the brim.  Juan just cursed again. 

The Camp Aid worker came by with Cassandra. She looked around at the flattened tent, their possessions still strewn around. 

 “My name is Dolores, and I will help you.” Dolores said.

“There is a bigger tent available in a better situation, over against the wall, away from Broadway.” She said. “Or we can just replace this one. What do you think?” 

“I don't know, it is not safe here.” Juan said, worried Ricardo would know where to find them.

 “I understand, we can move you.” Dolores said. "One thing, some people say this other tent is, I don't know how to say this, it is maldito, cursed. It is a fine tent though.  Do you want to go look  at it?

“Yes,” Esme said, and Juan nodded, a mythical curse better than a real one.  

“Come on you two, I will give you a tour.”  Dolores smiled, and held out her hand for Esme and started walking over to the far side of the Camp.   

Juan dragged his feet, a cursed tent!  On the way over Diego found them and tagged along.  Dolores led them up into a lane between the tents, and next to a high stone wall, the edge of the Camp.  The first thing Juan noticed was the cool air.  The high wall provided afternoon shade, cooling the air, and he could feel his emotions cooling as well, finally out of the fierce pounding sun.  Some people from neighboring tents looked on and shook their heads, “La Celda de la Muerte, “ the whispers said. "They are too little to die..."

Directly against the wall, it was more stable and not a pop-up tent like most of the Camp, a larger square tent that an adult could stand up in.  

“It is even closer to the bathrooms,” Dolores said.  “See it is very nice, and available because of this silly idea.  This is the only tent like this, if you don't want it you can go back outside to Broadway, and we will bring you a replacement tent.” 

Juan looked in and saw several large sleeping mats on the floor, and one wooden stool with folded towels on it. He tried to see what was cursed about it. “I don’t know-”

“I know this has been hard for you, since your mother passed. As an added incentive, if you take this tent, and show everyone it is not cursed, we can get you an appointment tomorrow at the visa office.” Dolores smiled, holding their fate in her hands.

Juan looked at Esme in her ridiculously large sombrero. 

“What do you think? He asked her.

 “I like it!”  She stepped inside and spun around in the cool open space.   

Juan took a deep breath and thought about his fear of Rodrigo, the chance to get a visa appointment against a mythical curse. 

“We can take it, maybe you can give an extra light? Juan asked.

They moved in that afternoon, though the boys, especially Diego, told him not to. Many residents of the Camp had heard of the tent, la Celda de la Muerte. They came up to him, very quiet, and said goodbye. Juan was more scared of how they were acting than what they said.  These kids, normally tough and not worried about anything, were absolutely convinced Juan was going to die.  

“My uncle's friend died in la Celda,”  the whispers said.

Another chimed in, “my friend’s cousin knew someone who died there.” 

“My friend's grandfather died there,” a small face serious.

"No one knew how."

They moved their meager possessions over the new tent and set it up.  They met the families in the neighboring tents who blessed them, and did the sign of the cross over them saying they hoped the small children could break the curse.  

That night Juan and Esme turned on the plastic flashlight given to them by Dolores, and planned  to stay up all night to see what would happen. They listened to the noises from the Camp, quieter than they were used to, until late into the night when the Camp settled down, and the night was at its darkest. Esme fell asleep against Juan, a warm bundle pulling him into sleep.  

So, it was just Juan, alone, when he heard the scratching sound. 

Suddenly wide awake, his eyes searched the dark room for the origin of the sound. The dim flashlight was almost out, when he saw it coming through a tear next to the wall. 

The light reflected on its hard black shell, flickering, so Juan could not see its shape, where it began or ended, just huge. He could feel the malevolent force coming from it, this is El Diablo.  

His breath was caught in his throat. It was huge, the front claws slowly opening and closing, the tail arched and searching, a glint of a sharp edge, waving slowly in anticipation of a strike. Slowly coming into the weak light he saw a giant scorpion, the largest he had ever seen, or even heard of.  He grabbed Esme hand, and she squeezed back, she was awake.  

“We have to be brave Esme,” he whispered, although he did not feel brave, how could he fight El Diablo, what could he do against this?  He looked over at Esme and the fear in her eyes made him remember the fear that he was feeling.  He started to shake, he was going to die in this small room, in this despicable Camp, without seeing his father again.

No, he couldn't let that happen.  Esme wearing the too large sombrero, had tears pouring down her face. 

“Give me the hat,” he said. “Maybe it really is magic.” 

 Esme slowly took off the hat and handed it to Juan. 

 He weighed it in his hands, turned it a little one way and then the other.  He held it in both hands, then with a smooth flow of his arm, parallel to the ground and with a quick flick of his wrist he threw the hat. To Juan it seemed like the hat flew all night, it floated in the dark tent, spinning, his one chance against certain death for him and his sister.  It flew straight, and then softly,  plopped onto the monster.  Juan quickly jumped down and moved the stool on top of the hat, trapping it.  He jumped back on the mat and squeezed Esme close, waiting for dawn. 

They were still together when Dolores came for them in the morning, waking them up, the red armbands with her, expecting the worst. 

 “We survived! And caught El Diablo!” Juan cried out. 

______________________

Holding Esme’s hand, they stepped on the bus to take them to the US, and to the next part of their journey, an address in the mythical land of the Phoenix, Arizona. 

Juan looked back at Diego, still standing in the Camp, still dusty. Juan looked up into the blue sky, he had earned his release. 

June 02, 2022 17:35

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4 comments

08:29 Jun 11, 2022

This was great, Marty. I was wondering where it was going when the cursed tent came up, but you really sold me on the ending. It felt well-earned after the opening scene and Juan's wistfulness over not being able to play frisbee. Some of the descriptions dragged a little bit, but they added to the emotional attachment to the characters, and at the end I felt genuinely relieved the siblings made it out unscathed. There were some nice turns of phrase in there, and the sequence when the hat was stolen was really funny. Thank you for sharing!

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Marty B
19:27 Jun 11, 2022

Thanks for the comments! This is a Mexican parable, adjusted a bit. The descriptions of scorpion and Ricardo tie together, or are supposed to!

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Todd Johnson
02:01 Jun 06, 2022

There are so many great scenes and descriptions in your story that it’s hard to point them all out, but these stuck to my mind: “fear bounced around in his head like a soccer ball.” “Then his small blue world collapsed.” “Juan cursed, using the words he heard the older teenagers use when they sat around at night. “ and when Juan is reflecting on how his father had taught him how to throw a frisbee: “Smooth flow of his arm, parallel to the ground, a quick snap of his wrist; it would have been a perfect throw” it is absolutely heart-break...

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Marty B
18:32 Jun 06, 2022

Thanks for reading! I appreciate your good words, this was a fun one to write.

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