Mamá's lost her mind again. It happened sometime last night. I know because it's Saturday morning and her station wagon is gone, and the house doesn't smell like huevos rancheros, and I woke up an hour ago to find Papá sweeping broken lamp shards off the floor.
This is the third time it's happened, so we know what to do now, what to expect. Last time someone found Mamá swimming in a fountain in a park a few towns over. Papá went and got her and she was home by dinner, shivering and sneezing like a Chihuahua.
Maybe that's why he doesn't call Tío Benecio to come and watch Luis and me like he did before.
"You're in charge today, Hugo," Papá says from across the kitchen table. He pulls his muddy work boots as high as they'll go, tugs on the laces. When he turns my way, the sunlight from the window makes his face look tired and old, like a raisin. "You're a big boy now. The temporary man of the house. ¿Entiendes?"
I tell him I understand. I don't mention how last week, after I tried telling my brother the truth about Santa Claus, Papá yelled and told me he'd never been that inconsiderate when he was ten. I just say yes and keep my mouth shut and listen to the sound of Luis snoring in his bedroom.
"Good," he says, rising to give me a hug. When he wraps his arms around me, he smells like smoke and aftershave. "I'll be back soon with Mamá."
"Don't tell your brother what's going on. You know how he gets."
He doesn't let me go until I promise not to tell Luis.
Then he's headed for the door with me right behind him. Then he's starting his car and rolling down the windows and backing out of our driveway. Then he's too far away for me to see him, even though I'm still waving goodbye.
The first time Mamá lost her mind, a year ago, our uncle thought he was doing the right thing by telling us the truth.
After Papá sped off down our street spraying gravel everywhere, Tío Benicio sat Luis and me down on the sofa, stood in front of us, and told us that our mother had been spotted near a McDonald's downtown, pulling out her hair and shouting swear words at pedestrians. He told us the police had gotten involved, which is how Papá found out.
"Perdida," he said, pointing to the top of his head and spinning his finger in a circle. Then, for Luis, he said in English, "She's lost."
And right after he said that Luis jumped up from his seat next to me and he went, "Then let's go find her! Let's find Mamá!"
"You misunderstand," our uncle said, shaking his head. "I don't mean she's lost physically."
But then Luis did that thing all five-year-olds do. He stomped his feet on the hardwood until I could feel the sofa shaking. And when that didn't work, he kept saying it louder and louder: "Let's find Mamá!" And finally, when he couldn't get me to say it with him, he cried. He dropped to the ground and banged his fists against the floor and cried.
Only then did Tío Benicio give him what he wanted.
He led my brother and me to the kitchen, through the door, out to where our backyard meets the woods. He told us to wait right there, by all the twisty trees and the fallen branches. He went back inside the house and returned minutes later with our puffer jackets and a set of flashlights, even though it was March, and the afternoon sky was as blue as the Cookie Monster. After zipping up Luis's baggy jacket, he said, "Let's go find Mamá."
By the end of the day, I was grateful for the jackets and the flashlights, because we stayed out there until it was past dark and my skin had turned numb from the cold. Every time there was a noise—a twig breaking under our feet, a bug chirping—Luis would point his flashlight in that direction and shout "Mamá!" and we'd have to follow him because he would take off running. By then, the batteries in my flashlight were dead, and I tripped a few times and scraped my hands and knees when I tried to keep up with him.
"Can we go back now?" I asked Tío Benicio after my fourth fall, showing him my sore hands. It was the first time I'd spoken since we went looking for Mamá. "I need some Band-Aids."
In the glow of the moonlight and his flashlight, my uncle gave me a look that I'd seen too often on my father's face. It was the "please-let-your-brother-win" look.
So I did that thing all nine-and-a-half-year-olds do. I told him it was okay, that I would go back to the house by myself, alone, in the dark.
Tío Benicio made another face, only this time it was like he just ate a lemon. He sighed. "It's getting late, Luis," he shouted into the darkness. "Let's head back now. We can order some pizza."
Luis complained that we hadn't found Mamá yet, but his hunger won that fight. He let our uncle take his hand and guide us back home.
And there she was, waiting for us on the sofa. A patch of hair was missing from the side of her head and her clothes looked wet, but it was Mamá. Luis shouted her name.
Papá took one look at us—at our dirty clothes and faces, our scratched bodies—and made a funny face of his own.
"Would you look at that!" Tío Benicio said. He glanced at the room like he'd never seen it before, looking everywhere but at Papá. "There she was this whole time. She was probably looking for us while we were out looking for her."
But even back then, when Papá asked to speak with Tío Benicio alone in the kitchen, when Mamá stood and scooped Luis and me in her bony arms, I doubted my uncle's words.
The Saturday morning cartoons are finished by the time Luis stumbles out of his bedroom. We eat cheese quesadillas for lunch. It's the only thing Mamá's taught me how to cook. Luis says his taste too buttery, but he still inhales both of them before I'm done with one of mine. With his mouth half-full, he asks where Mamá and Papá are.
"They went over to see Tío Benicio and Tía Abriella," I say, pleased with how natural the words sound. I've been practicing them under my breath for the past hour. "They should be back in a few hours."
Luis closes his mouth, gulps his food, and looks at me like I just grew a second head. We've never been alone in the house together, just the two of us. I'm hoping he doesn't realize that. I haven't come up with any more lies yet.
"Well," he finally says, "can we watch some TV?"
We spend the rest of the afternoon watching Nickelodeon game shows, rooting for the families that look the most like us to win. They never do. After the sixth episode in a row where our favorite family loses, Luis starts to whine, so I open the VHS storage cabinet and let him pick a movie to watch. He chooses the same one as always, some dumb movie about an elephant who can fly. I've never been able to focus on it to understand why or how that's possible, and that doesn't change today, but it keeps my brother from asking questions.
It's almost seven o'clock when the elephant movie ends, and all the sunlight is gone outside. The house is silent. Before I can distract him, Luis asks, "Aren't they supposed to be home by now?"
"Who?" I say, and look at the dirt underneath my fingernails, nice and calm-like.
"Mamá and Papá," he replies. "You said they'd be home in a few hours. But that was at lunchtime."
"Maybe they're watching a movie too."
Luis stares at me like he did when I told him about Santa, like maybe what I'm saying is true or maybe I'm just being mean and pulling his leg.
"Well, I'm hungry," he says, and his stomach rumbles at that moment as if to prove his point. "I wanna eat dinner."
"Okay," I say, and head to the kitchen. "Fine." I'm getting ready to wash the quesadilla skillet when Luis tells me to stop.
"I don't want quesadillas again," he says. "I want hot dogs."
"We don't have hot dogs."
"Yes, we do," he says. He opens the fridge, bends down, and snaps back up with a package of hot dogs in his right hand. "See?"
"Well, I don't want those," I say. "I want quesadillas again."
"No. You don't make them right. Mamá's are way better."
I can feel something in me starting to slide away as I grip the skillet tighter and start washing it.
"Mamá's not here right now," I tell him. The words come out meaner than I meant.
"Okay, well, she'll be back soon," he says. "If you won't do it, I'll just wait until she's here to make me some hot dogs."
"You're gonna be waiting a while then," I say. And before I can stop myself, before I can remember the promise I made to Papá, I add, "Because she's lost again."
At the same time that I finish washing the quesadilla skillet, Luis drops the package of hot dogs. They hit the floor with a soggy thud. Then they skitter over to my side of the kitchen when Luis kicks them while running out of the room.
"We have to look for her!" he shouts. I can hear him opening the hallway closet, swiping the coats and jackets while trying to reach the flashlights on the top shelf. "We have to find Mamá."
The hallway noises die down. "We have to, Hugo. She's lost."
"Papá left me in charge, and I say we're not doing that. It's too late and too dark out. He left to go get her anyway. They should be back soon."
Luis's feet shuffle across the floor and he pokes his head into the kitchen again. "But that's how it was last time. You heard what Tío Benicio said. She only came back because we were looking for her."
"No, she only came back because Papá brought her back."
"That's not true." But even Luis doesn't sound like he believes what he's saying. "That's not what Tío Benicio told us."
"It is true," I say. "She wasn't looking for us. She doesn't even care about us."
It isn't until the words are out of my mouth that I wonder why I said them, whether I actually believe that or if it's me getting caught in the moment. But now that they're out, I can't take them back, and as the big brother, I can't back down either.
"She doesn't care," I say, because it's like when I was telling him the truth about Santa Claus: now that I'm going I can't stop. "That's why she keeps losing her mind. She wants to leave us but Papá keeps going after her. He won't let her leave. She doesn't care about us anymore."
When my brother makes a face, it's like nothing I've seen from Papá or Tío Benicio. His lips go into his mouth, and his eyes seem to stare at everything and nothing at all, and his shoulders get all droopy until they look like that flying elephant's ears. Then the only sound in the house is Luis dragging his feet against the hardwood. And then the only sound is the slamming of his bedroom door.
I stand at the sink, the skillet feeling light as a pencil in my hand. Moonlight shines through the kitchen window and hits the center of the pan, and I think I can see my reflection in it. Before I can tell for certain, the house phone rings.
"Change of plans, Hugo," Papá says after I answer. "It's going to take a little longer than I thought to bring Mamá home. It won't be tonight. The police," he starts, but all that comes through the line is his breathing and the faraway sound of other people's voices in the background.
"Okay," I say, because it's the only thing I can think of at the moment. Because I don't want Papá to think that I can't handle this responsibility. "We're fine here."
"Maybe tomorrow," he says. "Monday at the latest. We're working on it."
"You can call Tío Benicio if you two need anything," he reminds me. "You know his number, don't you?"
"Yes," I lie.
"Good." And before the line goes quiet and the dial tone comes, he says, "We'll see you two soon."
They're the last words I hear before I go to bed.
The squeaky floorboards wake me. I'm thinking I must've dreamed it and I'm trying to go back to sleep, but then comes the unmistakable sound of a zipper, followed by more floorboards groaning, and finally the rattle of a window opening.
It's completely dark in my room and I'm still rubbing the dreams from my eyes, but I have an idea of what's going on. Forcing myself to get up and walk to the kitchen, I lift the one of the window blinds just in time.
Through the gap I can see the shadow of my brother in the backyard, painted in moonlight and flashlight. He's got on his polar bear pajamas and his oversized puffer jacket zipped all the way up. His flashlight moves everywhere: the trees, the ground, the woods in front of him. He looks over his shoulder once, stares at the house for a few seconds, then disappears into the darkness of the woods.
He's going to look for Mamá when I told him not to.
That thing in me earlier, that sliding feeling, is back. And now I can feel something else snapping, getting loose. The sleepiness is gone. I'm fully awake now, fully aware of my body, in control of my hands as they push open the door to Luis's dark bedroom, shutting and locking his window. Then I make my way to the front door and lock that too. I don't stop until all the entrances are locked, until there's no way back inside the house. Only then do I return to my bed and wait. I won't sleep until I hear it.
Eventually, it happens. The front doorknob breaks the silence of the house. It clanks and jiggles under the weight of my brother's hand. Once, twice, again. The noise stops.
Then his hands are against his bedroom window as he struggles to open it. His hands smack the glass in a panic.
And then they're against my window. Quiet at first, but then the sound of his knuckles hitting the glass echoes in the night. I don't move. I imagine that when he gets tired enough, he'll go to the front porch where we've got a porch swing with a cushion and sleep there for the night. It's not so bad outside—definitely warm enough to sleep a few more hours with the clothes he's got on.
Still, Luis keeps knocking on my window, and I pretend I'm asleep so long I actually end up that way.
This time when I wake up, it's because of a car door slamming. I'm not expecting much, but I tell myself that it might be Mamá and Papá. And when I get to the living room window and pull back the curtains, that's exactly who I find parked by the sidewalk. Papá is at the wheel of his Jeep and Mamá is beside him. All her hair is gone this time, and her clothes look like hand-me-downs, but it's her.
Papá did it. He brought her back.
"Luis, wake up!" I shout, my voice clogged with sleep. "They're home!"
My words bounce off the walls, the sofa, the fireplace. There's no reply. The house is completely still, so I decide to wake him up myself.
Luis's bedroom is cold. I push the lump under his covers, then pull them back. In his place are his stuffed animals, the koala and the giraffe and the bear and the monkey, all squished together to resemble a six-year-old's body. I flinch. It takes me a moment to remember what happened last night, but when I do, I rush to the front porch to wake him.
He isn't there either.
They're both out of the Jeep now, coming closer. They take each step together. Papá's got his arm locked around Mamá's, like if he lets go even for a second, she might float away like a balloon.
"We're back," Papá says with a smile. "I'm sorry we couldn't get here sooner."
"Hi, Mamá," I say, but I don't recognize my own voice. It's scratchy and sounds too high to be mine.
Mamá greets me, holds me tighter than she ever has, and in that moment, I know more than ever that what I told Luis last night was a lie. She does care.
Papá uses his free arm to check his watch. "Geez, is your brother still sleeping in there? It's almost eleven."
That sliding feeling is back again.
I say nothing as they walk past me into our quiet home. Because right now, looking at them, looking at Mamá, I also know, more than ever before, that there's so much more than just your mind that can be lost.