Eight lanes of pavement boil and pop across the Mexico–United States border, and eight lanes of vehicles crawl slower than a walk, halting for several minutes at a time. Their passengers cool themselves by running the heat with the windows up. They roll them down only for vendors walking fearlessly among them, selling ice water, claiming it is clean. Shrubby trees wither tawny and crisp all through the unbearably blue-sky day. Then the sun sets without warning and it becomes almost chilly. Fires flicker beneath overturned plow disks filled with oil, a technique borrowed from Cantonese ex-patriates, as the back fat of pigs fries and melts from the flesh.
It was at the end of a summer like this when De Anza Junior High School came back in session and Marcos Bejarano disappeared.
Marcos’ family came from Tijuana in kindergarten; nobody remembered when the visit had become permanent. In quiet migrant fashion, they kept to themselves. Marcos was a talented midfielder and the first sixth grader to grow a moustache. These feats set him apart from his peers in mystery transcending speech, shrouding him in his own glory. Marcos spoke little, but there was a certain diction to his movements and silences.
“Did you saw Marcos yet?” Danny Ramirez tilted back in his seat, craning his neck to look two chairs down at J.J. Garcia. It was third period– social studies with Mrs. de la Rosa– she had given up on classroom management years ago. J.J. frowned. He shook his head but did not move his eyes from the pencil in Hector Obregón's hand.
“He maybe dropped out,” J.J. suggested. He leaned closer to Hector, who sat between them. “He could work for a farm. My dad told me sometimes they pay kids that are illegal.” Suddenly J.J. tensed, then pounced. There was a brief struggle. Hector clung to the lead-end of his pencil, gritting his teeth, but J.J. easily won the little tug-of-war. “Rebatalo,” he said in triumph. The game had uncertain origins but immense popularity among their classmates.
“That’s not fair!” Hector complained.
“Somebody's gotta know where he went,” Danny said, ignoring Hector’s grievance. “Marcos is the best soccer player.”
“Marcos is nicer than you guys,” Hector said, jumping from his seat and yanking his pencil back. J.J. yelped– Hector had accidentally tattooed the fleshy area above his left knee.
The cafeteria percolated with the murmur of a hundred voices. Danny repeated his question to each of the students. At first, no one knew where he had gone. Then someone said that Marcos had been killed. It was a dirt-biking accident, they whispered, in the desert, near where Lucasfilm had abandoned pieces of Star Wars set. No, it was outside of San Diego, a car crash. No, it was the dirt-bike after all– the wheels had wiped out on a jump and Marcos was crushed. The official story was disputed until Milene Gonzalez remembered that her brother saw it happen. “His head was smushed and bloody, like a watermelon,” she said solemnly, demonstrating with her fruit cup. Milene enjoyed several minutes of celebrity while sickly sweet, slightly jealous girls begged for more details, and boys who had known Marcos from the soccer field or the lunch line paid her more attention. But suddenly they all knew all about it– everyone had always known, with the high sad mysticism of adolescence, that Marcos was dead.
The tectonic plates that had only slumbered beneath the students shifted. They would have preferred the building to collapse than the cosmos, their cosmos that was destroyed by the stench of loss. They shuffled aimlessly through the halls like slow-motion ping pong balls into the field, now lawless; the players unassigned; the hierarchy unclearly defined. When Carlos Campos was accused of cheating at kickball there was no authority he could be brought to for justice. The game necessarily devolved into chaos. Each blade of grass became an enemy, a hollow laugh at the one who was dead while it was allowed to live.
Danny found Hector throwing up in the bathroom. “No one I know ever died before,” he apologized.
The following months crystallized and hung in the memory of the eighth graders, leaving them with the permanent impression of earthly hostility. Everything reminded them of Marcos. The Santa Ana winds whispered his name during recess until they gave up playing games altogether. When they walked home along the hard exposed deposits of silty clays, burned but not consumed in the sun, they felt themselves shrivel like the puddles of moisture that appeared during what passed for the rainy season. The lemons ripened at Christmas and flowered again for Easter, an attempt at life in the desert, before another dead, hungry summer and the stalking of the lobo. Aquila, the Eagle, returned glittering to his battle with the serpent in the stars.
Danny hoisted himself out of the window onto the flat stucco roof, trying not to drop any of the cans clutched haphazardly to his chest.
J.J. watched him with interest. “Where did you get those?” he asked.
“Well, where did he get them?”
“Hey, I don’t know, ok?” Danny pulled a box of cigarettes from his pocket. He stuck one in his mouth, white end first, then flipped it around. He snatched a lighter from his other pocket and fumbled for almost a full minute, but finally managed it without having to break his brooding expression. Hector, to the side with his arms folded, looked away as if witnessing something indecent.
“Are you gonna do FFA?” he asked. His face was set toward the horizon.
“Maybe,” Danny said. It came muffled through his teeth clamped around the cigarette. “Last year, when we paid for Suffolk lambs, Mr. Fletcher went gambling and stole some sheep from some farmer.” Besides Milene, Danny was still the shortest person in the class, but he tried to look majestic, standing in the harsh electric light casting shadows across his face.
“Te vieron la cara,” J.J. said wisely, picking up one of the beers.
“Hey, you think I could stop him?” Danny argued. He started to cough and got angrier. “Just shut up, ok?”
Hector inspected one of the cans that had rolled over to him. “Do you just open it like a coke?”
“Man, you never seen a beer before or something?” J.J. jeered. He opened his can with a satisfying hiss and apparent fearlessness.
“It sounds like a coke,” Hector said doubtfully. He and Danny opened theirs. Danny spat out the half-burnt cigarette and stamped out the embers. They sat down on the ledge, avoiding each other’s eyes.
Clouds of dust tinged the light pollution from the city a burnt orange that sifted down from the sky, suffocating the houses and dampening the sound of the radio that besides J.J.'s Gameboy was the highest tech any of them had ever owned. Over the desert mountains they could see the black outline of three crosses seared across the strange light. Some resident had put them up in the sixties when it was cool to be religious again, and when Christianity was almost as religious as marijuana.
“When I was little I thought Jesus died there,” Hector confided.
“Jesus died like a hundred years before Columbus even discovered California,” J.J. said. “Are you stupid or what?”
“Hey, quit it, man,” Danny said. “I thought kinda the same thing, but I thought they executed people there. Like Manuel Flores.”
“No one killed Manuel Flores,” J.J. said. “He got away from the police. My dad told me he’s in Mexicali.”
“Hey, I saw him last week,” Hector said, getting excited.
J.J. laughed. “You should pray he did not see you, gordito,” he said. “He is not allowed near another kid ever again.”
It was quiet. Hector looked down in shame. “I made that up,” he mumbled.
They dangled their legs in the warm breeze, watching the lights of houses gradually switch off in surprise. The beer rose and settled in their brains. A neighbor began playing guitar; farther away, a coyote wailed. The music and the coyote became one in their mourning and seemed to meld with the sorrowful silhouette of the crosses.
J.J. cleared his throat. “One year ago,” he said. Danny and Hector nodded. “Do you guys, like, think about it a lot?”
“Yeah,” Hector said. “I got so scared, I’m never going near a four-wheeler again.”
“Cause your mami won’t let you,” Danny said. “I don’t get it. How come no one else died the whole time, huh?”
“He was just that kind of guy,” J.J. said. “You know how he looked? Like, always thinking and sad and like that.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Hector said eagerly. “I always knew there was something special with him.”
“That’s true,” Danny sighed. He took several gulps of his beer and set it down, hiccupping.
Hector belched and shifted uncomfortably. “I heard Yasmin gave her dog tequila at the party last night, and it died.”
“Man, you just believe anything, huh?” J.J. said. But nobody drank any more.
Danny looked at his mother’s garden of raised cactus beds spread fifteen feet below them. The back of the beehive shrine loomed large and white on the other side. You could only see its back but Danny could feel the statue of the Virgin watching them through the plaster with its glass eyes. He thought he had seen a ghost there once.
J.J. shivered. “Do your parents know we’re up here?”
Danny rubbed at the scar the cigarette had smeared in the stucco. “Probably.”
They arrived hungover to their first morning at the public high school, represented by a hideous clip art bulldog. Its only claim to fame was a successful varsity soccer team composed of twenty-something year old Mexican men. The day promised to be like all those that came before: vatos smoking in the parking lot, fresh graffiti of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the bricks, dry cracked hands tearing and bleeding at the lift of a pencil. Then around eleven came the vague sensation of disturbance. It started lower, in the stomach, and wormed its way into the heart. A cool ripple of fear passed through the students in shudders and side-eyes.
The apparition was taller and darker than Marcos had been, and somehow quieter. Yet there was something undeniably familiar about the gait and the jeans worn thin at the seams, exposing an inch of ankle above sneakers rubbed colorless with age. Between periods, the phantom slipped from class to class. A tangible strain caught at the student body like a net, preventing them from speaking. No one wanted to face the desecration of the grave. The school endured hours of agitation, waiting for the final bell, then poured out of the doors like a burst dam. A silent circle formed around the stranger in an uneasy, unconscious dance.
Marcos hung his head. “We were in Salinas,” he mumbled.
“Ai,” Hector accused. “You died in the desert. Oscar saw you.”
“My family went to work with my Tío Chuy.”
“No, I swear, man,” Hector panicked. “It’s like, I know that you died, like I knew it inside of me.”
Marcos wriggled with embarrassment. “I helped them on a farm.”
A moment of silence.
They felt the sun creeping overhead in its long and lonely arc. Marcos began to toe a picture in the dust. The circle continued to move around him, closing in as if for the kill, haunches rigid, ready to tear him to pieces. In that moment it was possible to understand how the dogs of Actaeon had turned on their master.
Marcos lifted his head and met their eyes. They drew back in awe and glanced at one another, almost as though they had just been asleep. He turned and parted the crowd wordlessly.
“Did you really die?” Danny shouted after him. He started to run after the silent figure, but J.J. and Hector caught his arms and held him back, struggling. “Hey Marcos!” But there was no answer. Marcos walked home as the others followed him with their gaze. The cruel heat of August stretched his shadow toward the east.
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I liked the representation of the kids all trying to be more grown up! Some lines which I thought worked well -...everyone had always known, with the high sad mysticism of adolescence, that Marcos was dead. -Besides Milene, Danny was still the shortest person in the class, but he tried to look majestic, standing in the harsh electric light casting shadows across his face. -The circle continued to move around him, closing in as if for the kill, haunches rigid, ready to tear him to pieces.
Thank you Marty! Those were some of my favorite lines, too.
I think this a jewel, I liked so many things; it is beautifully written and I think you capture well some elements of the latino culture in the U.S., e.g. the Spanglish, some minor grammatical errors when he spoke, the reference to "la virgen de guadalupe", etc. Also, there are some pearls that you drop that made me chuckle along the story, e.g. "Te vieron la cara", or that christianity was almost as cool as marihuana back in the days :) this was awesome, thanks for sharing!
Your comment really made my day! Thank you for seeing and appreciating my story.
Your characterization of both people and settings is lyrically beautiful. The air of mystery and youth is palpable, that coming of age, on the verge, almost grasping of things bigger than oneself - and the surety that the story made up about it true, especially after the mind replays every awful avenue... such a difficult thing to capture. I can't even describe what I mean, but it's what you put in your story seemingly effortlessly. This is delicious in description. I'm going to throw in an ancient reference here: Picnic at Hanging Rock. ...
Thank you for your lovely comment! I am so grateful to hear that you received the impression I was going for. I assure you it did not come easily - I've been experimenting with ways to convey my dad's and my own experiences for years now and this is the best I think I've come up with. I greatly appreciate the read.
Awesome story. I kinda suspected at first that Marcos wasnt dead, but then you threw me off by how life was going on so by the time he showed back up I had forgotten my earlier supposition.
I am so glad to hear that the element of mystery came through in your reading! Thank you for commenting.
Katy, you have been on my reading list for sometime now! And so glad I started with this. Really enjoyed this! Beautifully descriptive - sort of reminded me of East of Eden at times (and I LOVE East of Eden!) The bluntness of Milene was excellent and I feel true to life, sort of akin to how the death in the Ode to Billy Joe is discussed (if you know the song!) I loved the grief reaction of the three lads was so good! And the underlying guilt/shame of ‘wrong doing’ and the awkwardness of their feelings that I felt was wove through the smok...
Thank you for this wonderful comment. Although the story needed work, I am delighted at your enjoyment. I'm not sure if you've seen my bio, but Steinbeck and O'Connor are two of my favorites, so that praise was really touching. Thanks again!
Your works are always captivating. Another hit from you. Keep them coming.
Thank you, Philip!
Haha, I was waiting for the reveal when they would find out he was alive! This one was so enjoyable to read, and your descriptions of that summer heat, ugh, I could just feel it! Well done :D
Thank you, Riel! I am so pleased you enjoyed the read.
Found the problem with theme (aka: artistic statement). You are convoluted. Title: all Jesus. I can find probably 8 major arguments for this archetype and probably …20 allusions. Lovely: “ Marcos began to toe a picture in the dust” You can’t go archetype on Jesus though; he divides the world (and the denominations). He is the proverbial elephant in the living room. There are so many avenues to analyze the Christ. Gone for 3 days and stayed in Abraham’s Bosom. This was the bulk of your story. But then we wouldn’t have the JJ/Hector/Danny ...
Hi Tommy! I'll just reply to this comment, though I read all of your comments carefully. I think you are spot on identifying my biggest struggle with this work - whether I'm making it an allegory for Christ or not, and if so how I can avoid the impression of a "false Messiah" if there isn't a real miracle at the end. My instinct would be to make the allegory more obvious/heavy-handed with a literal resurrection, but I'm running up against the problem that this student is based on a real person who didn't die. If this is a partially true st...
Thank you for patience. You might be constrained to knowing the players..been there
Clapping for Katy. (We have same situation near Salinas...kids just disappear). You have probably 6 zingers... Layers of character mixed with social description...from the worship of weed to a kid lighting a cig on the wrong end. This is the reason to read anything: learning and analyzing; an ethnography. So, the narration is good like a bathtub reader (where you just sit back and taste each sentence and enjoy). Did you max out the story? 1) technology. How many people know about the missing kids? 2) the setting does not intrude on t...
I was thinking a lot about what you said on technology. That would make a big difference today with smart phones. The story takes place in the early 90s but I didn't want to get too technical/specific. I threw in a line about radio and Gameboys to try and resolve the issue and set a time period. I thought that was great advice.
Pour moi, "technology" is the unique item in a story. Like Dahl has a kid raised vegan that smells bacon. (Raising a kid in the woods as a vegan is the tech, for me) It is more than a writing device. Your tech was the kid following work and leaving school like a ghost. (Pardon if I don't standardize these words) ..cell phones are just props. The technology is how you, the author, put something new in the readers brain.
Time period would go to tone.
Kudos for something... I read maybe five people try to incorporate non-english words into their stories this week.... Most of them failed. When you incorporate the Spanish you also seem to define it by context or outright definition. Therefore your use of the Spanish is not clumsy. Trust me when I say there are so many people being clumsy with foreign words these days. It appears to me that you have the exact rhythm to make the foreign word in addition to the story instead of a Roadblock.
First para snaps the setting. BOOM you are there. (How many hours would you have to research to make this setting in Wisconsin?) Just thinking aloud
This was an enjoyable read. I think it comes across strongly as a friends-growing-up story, between J. J., Hector, and Danny. The scene where they drink and smoke, trying to come to terms with facing death at their young age, definitely hits that coming of age vibe. Each of them has their own character, and particularly Hector. Beyond this, I think a lot of the descriptions are strong. The disruptive effects of the death on all the students, how the social order is broken and there's an aimless spirit for a time, comes across well. Likewis...
Excellent analysis here. The telling is in the classical but gentle way. (Nice catch on the balance of kids having to deal with the lies). I catch even more details on second read. Clapping for a lovely response.
Thanks, Tommy! You're right, second (or third) reads can be revealing, and some stories certainly deserve it.
Thank you so much for reading and commenting! I'm glad you enjoyed the story. I agree that the description may be too lengthy for such a short story - I was worried about that when I submitted. I'm keeping it for now because it's how my dad tells stories and this one was self-consciously written in his style. (I may have some Steinbeckian influence here, too...)
Wow I really enjoyed this story! I liked each of the characters, and how unique the storyline and plot was. It was a great read! I loved some of the phrases you used while describing how some of the kids felt after learning Marcos had supposedly died, such as "The Santa Ana winds whispered his name during recess until they gave up playing games altogether." and "The tectonic plates that had only slumbered beneath the students shifted." It was all really great wording throughout the story! I also loved how you based it on some of your father'...
Thank you for your lovely comment! I was unsure about a lot of the descriptions, so I'm glad that you liked them.
This is my third draft of a story I've been working on for several months. It has obviously been difficult to write, but the story is very important to me since it is based on real characters and events from my father's life. Stylistically, the story is ambitious inasmuch as I tried to write the way my father speaks: blending lyrical prose with Spanglish dialogue and authentic early-teen life experiences. Though the characters and events are based on reality, including the return of a classmate thought dead by the entire school, none of the ...
That is a very gracious way to say everything. The story is good. Please know that. My Gut says the story is not maxed out. Some stories can be told normal, some with layers.... And some do everything right that become classic literature... This story has potential for the last one. What some committees call The human condition. So I have made two little comments about your story so far and I'm thinking about all of your symbols... I'm thinking something about it is too gentle. It needs to slap harder at the end... (Resurrection, verses ...