This story placed second in the Annual Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition. The winners were listed in the July/August issue of the magazine, so I figured I’d share it on my website now.
I’m up early, keeping watch while Mama cooks breakfast in a cluster of trees, the open flame licking just high enough to heat the pot but not so high it will set a tree on fire or send thick smoke drifting out for the wrong eyes to see. I sneak a glance at the pot, hoping maybe there’ll be meat in there this time, or fish. My eyes linger just long enough to see that it’s only beans again, then Mama cuts me off.
“Your eyes can’t keep watch out there when they’re looking over here,” she snaps. “Walk further to the tree line, stand guard. Foolish boys…”
….soon become dead boys, I say to myself, repeating the line that has become her mantra ever since my brothers disappeared. I’m off before Mama has time to finish the line herself, gripping the gun tight in my hand.
I hear an ocelot as I make my way through the woods, or imagine I do. The ground is full of snakes. You don’t see them, but they’re there. You can feel them in your bones – vipers, rattlesnakes, boas – lying in wait, hungry, vicious, cruel, ready to pounce. I wonder if my little sister was eaten by snakes. I said this out loud the other night and Mama slapped me, so now I keep my thoughts to myself. But still I wonder: Is my sister inside a snake? And Papa too? Did Tito, my cousin, turn rat, trading in his own flesh and blood for a few coins to spend on whores and tequila? The thought shames me, but I have reasons for thinking it.
“Pray to the Virgin for your father, sister and cousin,” Mama told me. “The police must have detained them. They will join us soon, closer to the border.”
No, I want to say, the police didn’t detain them. The outlaws intercepted them on the way to the village and stole their money and carved them into pieces. They will rot in the sun, Papa and baby sister, while Tito sleeps with whores and we trudge through this jungle, step by step, staying hidden from the police and outlaws but not from the snakes.
“We should turn around and go back, Mama,” I replied. “Back to home.”
She grabbed me by the collar. “There is no home where we came from, only where we’re going. You must be a man now, with Papa not here. The police will hold them for a while, scare them, make them pay money, then release them. This is how it works. You hear these stories always. They will meet up with us later. Closer to the border. Closer to our new home.”
She sat on a log and put her face in her hands, looking twice as old as her years. Papa told us: keep moving toward the border. Don’t try to go back, don’t leave the woods, stay hidden. Mama quietly cursed herself for letting them take my sister along. I moved to comfort her. She hugged me and then gently pushed me away. Later, she prayed.
The scent of the beans follows me as I move toward the tree line. I hunger for meat, stew, a large piece of fish. Even the rice is gone. It spilled out of Tito’s sack and into a stream, useless now. I wonder if Tito did it on purpose. Tito, who once ran wild with the street gangs before finding salvation from sin, miraculous salvation, amazing grace.
Papa said he and Tito would go to a nearby village to buy more rice. My sister pleaded to go with them, saying she was bored, why can’t she go into the village, too?
“Stay here with your mother and guard the camp,” Papa told me. “If we’re not back by sundown, pick up and move north without us. Mama will know where to go. Don’t try to find us. Shoot anyone who comes near.”
They left for the village, the three of them, my sister’s bent Saint Christopher medallion dangling on a string around her neck.
Two days later I move toward the tree line, smelling the beans behind me, darting my eyes from side to side.
“Boy,” a voice calls from the shadows. “Come here. I need help.”
I jerk my head around, raise my gun. I see a man lying on the ground, propped up against a tree. An older man, maybe as old as Papa, who is two years older than Jesus on the cross. The man has dark eyebrows and hard skin and red eyes. He is bleeding from the stomach. He has tattoos on his bald head and a deep scar on his neck. His arms lie limp beside him. I point the barrel of the gun between his eyes.
“You’re a traveler, yes?” the man says. “Making the long journey north. God has sent you to save me. Hail Mary, full of grace. They shot me and broke my arms and left me here for the beasts to feast on. Do you think the beasts would find me delicious? I’m thirsty. You got water, something to drink?”
I shake my head and lock my eyes on the man, saying nothing, tightening my grip on the gun.
“Those cocksuckers,” the man says, his voice raspier than before. “They should have put one in my eye and finished the job. But the bad men always underestimate the good ones, yes? I can’t pull myself up, but you can help me. You’re my savior, boy. Step closer, let me get a good look at you.”
I stay put, gun at the ready. Buzzards fly overhead. The heat is beginning to rise now that the sun has moved higher. I hear another ocelot, or think I do. My stomach growls.
“You’re heading north, toward the border,” the man says. “Fleeing misery for the good life up in God’s country, the land of opportunity. The white people will welcome you with open arms and shower you with riches. One day you’ll own a big mansion with a beautiful garden and a pretty blonde wife who takes you in her mouth twice a day.”
The man laughs. A small stream of blood escapes and crawls down toward his chin.
“Help me up. I can’t move my arms. We’ll walk to the village, find someone to heal my wounds. After, you and I will eat a big meal together.”
“Why were you shot?” I ask.
The man smiles. Some of his teeth are gold.
“Why is any honest man shot?” he answers. “Evil, greed, fear. It is the eternal battle, good versus evil. Come help me up. You’re not the kind of boy to let a man die in the jungle.”
I inch closer to the man, leading with my gun. I can smell the stink on him, as if he hasn’t bathed in years. He smells of corruption and death.
“Don’t move,” I tell the man. “This gun goes off easily.”
“How can I move?” he says, smiling.
I step closer until I am right above the man. I reach down and check his pants pockets for weapons. His breath is heavy and foul. One pocket is empty. The other holds a piece of string. I pull it out. The string has a Saint Christopher medallion tied onto it. The medallion is slightly bent and smudged with dirt. It has a tiny speck of blood on it.
“A little angel gave that to me,” the man says. “She said it was for protection, safety, God’s….”
The first shot finds his neck. The second rips his ear off. His body shakes twice, violently. His head drops to the side and stays there. Blood sprays the damp leaves. My ears ring and I stumble backwards, tripping over my feet. I spring up quickly and sprint through the woods, back to Mama and the pot of beans.
Mama greets me with a look of panic on her face. “I heard gunshots,” she says.
“Hunters,” I answer, calmly. “Shooting wild pigs, I think. They didn’t see me.”
“And you saw no police or outlaws?”
I shake my head.
Mama breathes a sigh of relief. “We’ll eat and move on. We must keep going north. Papa, Tito and my baby girl will expect us.”
The beans fill my belly, but they would taste better with meat. Mama eats mechanically, silently, without passion. I feel the Saint Christopher in my pocket, but I don’t tell Mama it’s there.