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.