Coming of Age Teens & Young Adult

From Andrea’s point of view, the most valuable thing in the world was empty space. She dreamed of space all to herself, of a vast field or wide open street, to run freely or do cartwheels or throw her arms out and spin and never worry that she would knock something or someone over. To Andrea, open space like that was all but unimaginable.

Her home was a small island surrounded by warm, turquoise seas, and at some point it had probably been beautiful. But that time was long past. Today, almost all palm trees or tropical flowers had been stamped out, replaced by brightly-colored concrete buildings divided by streets choked with vendors and stray dogs. The closest thing to a field was a patch of dirt that passed for a soccer pitch.

Andrea’s father had told her that around 25,000 people shared the island, which seemed like a lot to her, especially all crammed together in a space that she could walk across in half an hour. In her fourteen years of life, Andrea had never been anywhere else.

It was July, season of muggy, chore-filled mornings and torrential afternoons spent languishing on her bed under a fan, headphones not quite blocking out the neighbor’s fussy baby. Living in a single story, three-bedroom house with her parents and her two-year-old sister, Cami, as well as her uncle and older cousin, privacy was a laughable concept. Andrea usually dreaded the summers, though being stuck in a stuffy classroom wasn’t any better, and this year she at least had a job, of sorts, to earn a bit of money. 

It’s not like the summer deep clean isn’t a full time job in itself, Andrea lamented as she dragged a mop around the tile floor of the front room. The ancient, floral couch easily filled half the floor space, and the side tables were piled high with books, knick knacks, and an old TV set. The effect was claustrophobic. 

Catching a glimpse of the clock radio, Andrea realized that she had somewhere to be. 

“I need a break, Mom,” she called as she passed the kitchen door on her way out. 

“Where are you going?” Carla appeared, shiny-faced from being over the stove, wiping her hands on a stained apron. Some curly wisps of black hair had plastered themselves to her forehead.

“I won’t be long, just need some air before it rains,” Andrea told her, pulling the metal door, painted white, closed behind her.

There were no sidewalks on the island, so Andrea walked down the gutter to avoid the oncoming flow of scooters, bicycles, and the occasional beat-up car. During the rainy season, the mornings were abuzz with people avoiding the downpour by getting their tasks done early. 

“Fresh fruit! Mangos, watermelon, oranges! Good prices!” a vendor pushing a cart overflowing with brightly-colored produce shouted as he walked. 

A mango was just what Andrea needed. She forked over a coin and selected a fruit with rosy, sun-kissed skin, anticipating eating it at her destination. 

She reached the edge of the island, where the stretching turquoise sea may have been tempting if it weren’t for the floating trash and toxic foam. She dangled her legs over the sandy slab of concrete that divided the thin strip of beach from the road behind her, watching the men drag their boats up onto the sand. Though no one would suspect it from the way that she absent-mindedly bit into her mango and idly drew patterns in the loose sand with her fingers, she was paying close attention to their faces and the cargo they hauled into the back of a pickup truck. Once they were gone, Andrea pushed herself to her feet and brushed her hands off on her denim shorts. She had information for her cousin.

Anthony could usually be found heckling the soccer players at the field, so that’s where she headed. As the one public recreation area on the island, it was always crowded. At dawn, seniors gathered to jog slowly around the perimeter, and the rest of the day was dominated by matches that lasted late into the night, except for the hours when it was raining. Scanning the throngs clustered around the edges, Andrea spotted her cousin with his friends, rattling the chain link fence and shouting at the players. 

She waved to catch his eye. No use. “Anthony!” she shouted. 

He looked over sharply, then picked his way to the edge of the crowd. “What’s up?”

“Three crates on the 10 o’clock, David and another guy I didn’t recognize, older. Loaded into the same white truck.” 

Anthony dug in his jeans pocket and pulled out three coins, which he handed to Andrea. “Thanks. I’ll be here if you catch anything else.” He ran a hand over his buzzed head. “We really need to get you a phone.”

Andrea liked the idea of her own phone, which her parents insisted they couldn’t afford. “Yeah, we do!” she grinned.

Anthony laughed. “We’ll see.” He turned to go, but paused, as if a thought had just occurred to him. “You know, my boss is here for a few days and is having a party tonight. If you want to make more money you should come and meet him.”

For a few years, Andrea had watched with envy as Anthony brought home new clothes and gadgets, like the flat screen TV in the room he shared with his dad, Carla’s brother. If he was offering her an inroad to earning that kind of money, she was taking it. 

Later that evening, after the rain, she put on her only dress, pale pink and summery, and experimented with a bit of eyeliner. It made her look grown up, she decided. At half past eight, she tiptoed to the front door, hoping to avoid her parents. 

“I’m going to Elicia’s!” she called out, slipping through the door.

Anthony was waiting for her, and together they walked to the other side of the island. His tall, mustachioed boss, Oscar, greeted them at the door and showed them the house, where guests mingled in hallways and on sofas. It wasn’t what Andrea would call a mansion, but the interior was a clean white that made it feel spacious. Only one person lived there, and not all the time, so there were even a few empty rooms. Most intriguing, the center of the house was open to the sky, with a lush bougainvillea forming a fuschia canopy. She lingered in the courtyard, imagining having such a space at home. 

“Rum and coke, Andrea?” Oscar extended a glass, bubbly and enticing. She reached for it, but Anthony stepped outside just in time to block her hand. 

“She’s only fourteen!” he scolded.

Oscar chuckled. “This young lady? I never would have guessed. Just coke, then.”

Andrea blushed. She accepted the soda, feeling very grown up as Oscar offered her a seat under the bougainvillea. Anthony stood a little ways away in the arched doorway.  

“How much does Anthony give you to be his lookout?” Oscar asked, leaning against the wall.

“Three per tip.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Your cousin is good to you. Stick with him and you’ll soon be making more than you ever could hairdressing or fixing teeth or whatever your parents want you to do after high school.”

Andrea grinned. “That sounds good to me.”

“It should. Did Anthony show you where he’s moving next month?”

Surprised, Andrea glanced at her cousin, who had the decency to look slightly guilty. “Moving? No, he didn’t.”

“Why didn’t you tell her, Anthony?” Oscar shook his head. He pulled the newest iPhone from his pocket and brought it closer so Andrea could see the screen. “This is where he’ll be training for a while.”

He flipped through a slideshow depicting a green valley bordered by distant mountains. There were low, wooden buildings, but Andrea ignored them, captivated by the wide open pastures. She would feel free there, she knew, claustrophobia just a memory. Best of all, there was no concrete. 

“The houses are nothing to write home about, but the setting makes up for it, don’t you think?”

“It’s huge! You get to live there?” She looked up at Anthony, who nodded.

Oscar clapped her on the shoulder. “Anthony trusts you, and I trust Anthony. Show me a job well done, and in a few years you’ll get off this island, too.” 

The thought lifted Andrea’s spirits for the rest of the night, which she spent trying new, fancy foods from charcuterie boards and being entertained by Oscar’s stories. By the time she realized the hour and said goodbye, the sky was already turning pale yellow on the horizon. 

She slipped through the front door as quietly as she could, uselessly, as it turned out. Carla was sitting on the couch in her striped pajama set, waiting. 

Her face was deadly serious as she said, "I have one question for you." 

Andrea reluctantly faced her mother, suddenly self-conscious in her dress and eye makeup.

"What is it?" She tried to keep her voice light, as if this were a normal conversation.

"Are you working with Anthony?" Without meaning to, Andrea looked down at the floor, confirming it. Carla sprung up, throwing her hands in the air. "Don't you know what those people do? What they've done to our community?" she shouted.

Andrea glanced down the hallway nervously. "Shh, you'll wake everyone up." 

"Let them wake up!" Carla replied, though she lowered her voice. "How can my daughter throw her life away?"

"They're not bad people. Don't you remember when they brought Christmas gifts for all the kids? And Anthony says they bring tons of money onto the island." 

"If you think anyone sees that money other than themselves, you need to open your eyes. Besides, they hurt people, Andrea. Kill them, even." 

"No one that doesn't deserve it. And only when they have to."

Carla let out a cry of despair, burying her face in her hands. "What did I do wrong?" she wailed.

Andrea rolled her eyes. She hated it when her mom got so dramatic, but she put her arms around her anyway as a symbolic show of comfort. 

To her surprise, Carla shrugged them off. "Just go to bed. I’m sure you're tired after your big night."

Having changed into a t-shirt and cotton shorts, Andrea lay on her sheets under the lethargic ceiling fan. The more she thought about her mother’s reaction, the more furious she became. Her one chance to get off this stifling patch of concrete, to create a life better than she ever thought was within reach, and of course her mother tries to ruin it.

She wants me under her thumb, where she can control me forever, she thought.

The sun had made its way through the gap in the curtains and Cami was stirring in the next bed before Andrea’s exhaustion won out. Hours later, in the early afternoon, a racket in the hallway disturbed her. She roused herself and poked her curious head through the doorway.

A steady stream of clothing and other items was flying out of Anthony’s room. Perplexed and horrified, Andrea watched his TV soar out the door and smash onto the tile floor.

"What’s going on?" Andrea shouted, rushing down the hall. She ducked a pair of jeans as she burst into the bedroom and was shocked to see her mother, back facing the door, furiously emptying Anthony's dresser.

"Mom, stop it!" yelled Andrea.

Carla turned around, panting. She looked unhinged, all wide-eyed with sweat running down her brow. "No, I will not stop it. I don't want him in my house anymore. I have turned a blind eye for too long!" 

"You can't do that!" Andrea protested.

Carla raised her eyebrows and took a step forward. Though a good four inches shorter than her daughter, she managed to look absolutely intimidating. "Oh, no? He’s eighteen. His boss can make good on his promise and put a roof over his head, because I’m done with him.” She took another step, brandishing her index finger. “And if I find out that you’re working with him, or even talking to him, you’ll never leave this house again.”

Andrea turned and ran down the hall and onto the street. Anthony would fix this. He would explain to his aunt, like he had explained to her, that sure, sometimes they did things that seemed bad, but it was for a good reason. Andrea needed to escape this overcrowded house on this overcrowded island where no living thing had any room to thrive. Why wouldn’t her mom want that for her?

Her flip-flops slapped against the pavement as she dodged dog poop and garbage on the way to the soccer field.

"Andrea! Hey!"

She whirled to face the voice. Anthony, in the crumpled clothes from last night, was leaning against the wall next to Effie's Corner Store, clutching an energy drink. He looked rough; even from across the street, Andrea could see the circles under his eyes. She jogged over, crossing expertly between two scooters. 

"You have to come home, now!" She demanded as she approached.

He raised a thick eyebrow. "Why? Everything alright?"

"No! Mom is throwing out all your stuff! She wants you gone and I think she broke your TV."

Andrea thought that would get him moving, but he just laughed, a grating laugh that turned into a cough. "Auntie Carla's doing all that?"

Andrea nodded emphatically. "Yes, you need to talk to her! I can’t explain things as well as you can." 

But Anthony shook his head and took a long sip. "You couldn't pay me enough to deal with your mom when she's mad. Besides, there's nothing there I really need." 

"What about your TV?" Andrea bounced on the balls of her feet, anxious to start on the damage control.

"If it still works, you can keep it. I'll just get a new one. I'll have all the stuff I could want soon, anyway." He drained the can and crushed it under his foot, where it stayed.

Andrea had forgotten that he was leaving soon, and that it wouldn’t be difficult to pretend that she had nothing to do with him. She felt deflated and embarrassed at her overreaction.

Anthony pushed himself off the wall. "I’m about to do a job. It’ll be yours once I’m gone, so it would be good for you to come. You in?" 

"Yeah, sure,” She smiled, blunder forgotten.

"We’ll start here," Anthony said, stepping into Effie's Corner Store.

It was dim inside, and Andrea’s eyes took a second to adjust. Anthony walked past the chips and canned foods to the checkout counter, where Effie, the white-haired, soft-spoken shop owner, didn't bother to greet him. 

"I don’t have it all yet," she said quietly, pulling an envelope from underneath the counter. Andrea noticed that the old woman's hands were trembling.

Anthony snatched the envelope and skimmed through the bills inside with his thumb. He smiled suddenly, a crocodile grin. "This is only 200. You no longer require our protection?"

Effie’s eyes widened. "No, no, of course I do. I'll get the rest." 

Both Effie and Andrea flinched as Anthony’s fist slammed the counter. He wasn't smiling anymore. "I'll be back tomorrow." He knocked over a rack of packaged cookies on his way out.

Andrea hesitated. This was the job she had wanted, she was realizing, but it wasn’t coming easily to her. Effie, who had sold her candy many times, met her eyes, then looked away. The old woman seemed defeated.

"Andrea!” Anthony called from outside. 

As she stepped over the scattered packages onto the street, Andrea noticed that the light had changed.

"The rain’s gonna start soon," she said, face turned toward the dark clouds.

"Hurry, then. We’ve got more stops.” He headed up the street, and Andrea jogged to catch up.

"What happens if she doesn't pay?" she asked.

"There’s no way she won’t,” he replied confidently. “She’ll find it.”

“How do you know?”

“She’d have to be crazy to choose affording to send her grandson to school over actually having a grandson, don’t you think?” He barked out a dry laugh. “A small price to pay for safety.”

“Safety from what?”

“If we didn’t collect, someone else would. And maybe they wouldn’t be as nice.”

“It’s nice to threaten to kill her grandson?” 

Anthony looked over at her. “I thought you knew what you signed up for.”

“I did but—” Andrea began. 

“Do you know what would happen if people weren’t scared of us?” Anthony cut her off, “This island would be chaos. Fear is the tactic, not violence. But fear doesn’t just happen.”

A few drops began to fall. Andrea felt them soak into her skin just a few seconds before the skies opened and the downpour began. 

Anthony ducked into a doorway, the Beltran Laundromat. “Good timing. You want to talk this time?”

Andrea willed her feet to move, to step into the door. She was foolish to stand out here in the rain, she knew that. But she couldn’t go in. 

“I think I might go home, actually.”

Anthony stared. “I’m leaving soon. You have to know the routine.”

“I know,” she said. She turned around. The street was deserted; she was the only soul saturating herself with rainwater.

Her home was silent, Anthony’s things still strewn about. Andrea dripped into her room, where Cami was napping. She reached under her mattress, pulling out a thin canvas pouch. Quietly, she walked back into the rain.

Effie was seated at the counter with her head in her hands, standing to attention when she saw Andrea come in. “He said tomorrow!” she cried, panicked.

“I’m here as a customer.” Andrea knelt down, gathering the packages of cookies that littered the ground. She set them on the counter. “What else can I get for 104 dollars?”

March 18, 2022 04:01

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