One minute, I’m pushing too-sweet frosting across my plate and feeling awkward around all the new family, the next, I’m huddled under the table with cousins I’ve never met, trying my best to keep my little brother quiet and still until the danger passes. I peek under the long, white tablecloth. Wedding cake and shattered dishes litter the hard floor. Men in shiny black dress shoes run through the cake leaving white and blue footprints behind. Chairs and even some tables are toppled over. Screaming. Crying. Shouting. Everyone is yelling in Spanish. Grandma never taught Mom how to speak it, so Mom hasn’t taught me, but I don’t need to understand the words to understand that some very bad men are here and everyone’s afraid. My parents and new relatives, whose names I don’t remember, surround Grandma. She’s lying on the floor, but I can’t see her face. Is she dead? Mom’s crying and Daddy’s heavy arm is around her. I want to run to Daddy--let him wrap his arms around me, too, but I’m afraid to come out. I slide back under the table and sit criss cross applesauce. My heart pounds in my ears and I squeeze my eyes tight to keep the burning tears in my head where they belong.
I look at the new cousin I do know. Usually, she’s pretty, with big blue eyes and hair even longer and blonder than mine. And silly as it sounds, she honest-to-God has a place for a name. When Auntie told me my brother would be the ring bearer and this beautiful stranger would be the flower girl, I cried and begged her to change her mind. It was bad enough that my brother, who didn’t even want to wear what Daddy called a monkey suit in the first place, got to be in the wedding. Bad enough that my grandparents and all my aunties and uncles talked about this new girl like she was the most perfect thing in the world when they used to talk about me like that. But now, I wasn’t even good enough to carry a stupid basket of flowers down the aisle?
Her face isn’t so pretty now that she’s crying. Her white flower girl dress is wet and wrinkled. She must have spilled water on herself scrambling under the table with us. I look down at my own spotless yellow dress and am proud of myself for not getting it dirty or wet. If Auntie had picked me for flower girl, my dress would still look brand new. Her eyes are wide and tears stream down her cheeks. Snot drips from her nose and she wipes it with the back of her hand and then wipes her hand on her dress. Boy, did Auntie pick the wrong girl. But I promised Auntie I’d be nice.
“Everything will be okay, America,” I tell her. Her English is about as good as my Spanish, and she just stares at me. I open my arms and hug her and my brother at the same time. I’m only six, but I know it’s my job to keep my brother and younger cousins, including this new one with a country for a name, safe.
“Dannie, what’s happening?” My brother asks around his thumb. His lips are frosting flower blue.
“We’re hiding. Be still.”
“From grownups. It’s hide and seek.” I don’t want to scare him, but I need to keep him under the table until the coast is clear. “Shut up or they’ll find us and we’ll lose.”
Hide and seek is his favorite game, so he nods and waits in silence. The cold from the hard floor seeps into me and even though it’s stuffy under here, I shiver. A few minutes later, my stomach starts to cramp. It always happens when I’m scared or cold, and I know if I don’t get to a bathroom soon, I’ll have an accident right here under the table. If I pee myself at Auntie’s wedding, Mom will have to teach me a lesson--maybe even in front of everyone. The thought of being screamed at and spanked in front of a zillion people almost makes me cry out loud. I squeeze my stomach into itself, bite my lip, and pray for a miracle.
“Stay here,” I tell my brother when I can’t stand the cramps anymore. “I have to pee.”
“But you’ll make us lose the game,” he whines.
I don’t have time to argue with him, so I shimmy out from under the table and crawl toward the nearest toppled chair. Even though I think I might explode, I take a few seconds to look around the room. Three police officers put my new uncle in handcuffs. One of them shouts something about Uncle having a “wet back” so he has to leave. Uncle is sweating, but his back looks dry to me. Auntie is standing next to Uncle, crying and begging them to let him go. My other uncles are right up in the cop’s face, yelling and cussing. Mom’s big brother looks like he’s ready to punch one of them in the nose.
The cramps scream at me and I know if I don’t get a move on, I’m not going to make it. I stand up and sprint past Grandma. She’s sitting up now, but is sobbing like someone just died. Everyone’s so focused on her, Auntie, and Uncle that nobody sees me as I dart, lickity split, through the open double doors and down the hallway to the bathroom, just in time. Ten more seconds, and I would have messed myself on the brick-colored hallway carpet.
When I leave the bathroom, Grandma and Grandpa are sitting on a bench outside the reception room. Grandpa is helping her drink a cup of water.
“Guera,” He pronounces my nickname wheda. “What are you doing out here?” His smile is big but his eyes are hard. The band is playing again and music surrounds us.
“I had to go potty.”
He pats the bench, inviting me to sit with them. “Where’s your brother? Aren’t you supposed to be watching him?”
I sit next to him and swing my legs back and forth. “He’s hiding under the table. I told him to stay there until I come get him.”
He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. “You were in there when the men came, mija?”
“Ay, Dios mio,” Grandma grabs her chest and starts crying again. Her mascara looks like rivers of motor oil. “My heart. Those monsters!”
Grandpa says something in Spanish and she buries her head into his neck.
“Don’t you worry about it. Everything’s okay now,” he tells me. “It was just a joke.”
“A joke? Why was everyone so mad? Aren’t jokes supposed to be funny?”
“Si, Guera, they are.”
“What was the joke, then?” I wonder if it was some kind of grownup humor that I’m just too young to understand, even though everyone tells me I’m mature for my age.
“Your uncle moved here from Mexico, and those men pretended to arrest him to send him back. I guess they thought it was funny because a lot of people get arrested and sent back. It’s something that scares Mexican families even more than El Coco.”
Usually, Grandpa’s voice is soft and calm, but now it’s low and scratchy. In all my life, I’ve never heard him yell or use a cuss word. He doesn’t do those things now, but I can almost see waves of anger shimmering off of him.
I close my eyes and think about Uncle Jay, mom’s youngest brother, turning his eyelids inside out and chasing me through the house. Ohh! I’m the CocoMan, Dannie. I’m coming to eat you! I hate when he does that. Even though I know he’s not El Coco, part of me thinks maybe he really is, and I get so scared I cry. Sometimes, I even have an accident.
“That’s so mean. Why would they do that at Auntie’s wedding?”
“I don’t know, mija, but praise God it was just a stupid joke.” He wraps his arm around me and kisses the top of my head. “Do you want some more cake?”
The thought of cake makes my stomach spin, but I take his hand and let him lead me back inside. I make my way back to the kids’ table and peek my head under the tablecloth. My brother and America are still there, holding each other.
“Dannie,” my brother says. “What took you so long? I thought the Coco Man got you.”
“I’m okay. You know no stupid Coco Man can get me. I’d punch him in the--you-know-where!"
America has stopped crying, but she’s still a mess. Shame dances with frosting in my belly and I realize I don’t hate her anymore. She’s just a little kid, like my brother, hiding under a table. But while he was afraid of Coco Man, she was afraid her uncle--our uncle--would be taken away and she’d never see him again.
I stick my hand under the tablecloth and smile at her. “Vamos,” I say, hoping I used the right word. “Let’s get some cake.”