The Only Road
From the kitchen came a piercing scream. The green colored pencil slipped, streaking across the almost-finished portrait of a lizard Jaime Rivera had been working on for the last half hour. As he jumped to his feet, a wave of dizziness hit him, leftover from the fever that had kept him home from school that morning. It took a second for his vision to clear, his hand braced on the sill of the glassless window that no longer held the posing lizard. He took a deep breath before bursting into the kitchen. The wailing only grew louder.
No, no, no, no, please no, he thought. It couldn’t be, couldn’t. It had to be something else. Please!
“¿Qué . . .” Jaime stopped short. Mamá was slumped on the plastic table, crying into her arms. Papá stood behind
her with a hand on her back. Despite his quiet stance, his broad shoulders were hunched, making him look as distraught as Mamá.
At the sound of Jaime’s entrance, Mamá looked up. Streaks of black, brown, and tan covered her normally perfectly made-up face. She beckoned him closer, pulled him onto her lap, and held him as if he were two instead of twelve. Papá’s strong arms encircled both of them.
For a second Jaime allowed himself to melt into his parents’ embrace. But only for a second. Dread twisted his stomach into a knot. It had happened, something he’d feared for a long time. He had convinced himself with all his might that it wouldn’t, couldn’t happen, because he didn’t have anything to offer them. But they obviously disagreed. They had made that clear two weeks ago. If only he were wrong, and it wasn’t that at all.
The incident that had happened two weeks ago came back to him; his former friend Pulguita had called over Jaime and his cousin Miguel as they were walking home from school.
“What does he want?” Jaime had muttered under his breath.
“I don’t know. But at least he’s alone.” Miguel looked up and down the dirt street before crossing it. Jaime double-checked as well. Good. They weren’t around.
Miguel stopped a few meters away from the boy.
Jaime folded his arms across his chest, keeping more distance between himself and his former friend.
Pulguita leaned against a deteriorating cinder-block wall. His slicked-back black hair gave him the look of a little boy pretending to be his papá. Fourteen and unlikely to grow anymore, Pulguita was still a head shorter than Jaime and Miguel, who were two years younger. But his height wasn’t the only reason he went by the name that meant “little flea.”
“¿Qué?” Miguel asked, barely opening his mouth.
Pulguita threw his hands in the air as if he didn’t understand the hostility and laughed. Even at Jaime’s distance he caught a whiff of cigarette and alcohol breath. “Can’t a boy say hi to his old friends?”
“No,” both Miguel and Jaime answered. Not when the boy was Pulguita. Not when he had become one of them.
Until last year, Jaime and Miguel had played with the tiny, dirty boy. Then things started going missing—first bananas from the backyard and tortillas wrapped in a dish towel; later new shoes and Jaime’s drawing charcoals that had been a birthday present. Jaime and Miguel had stopped inviting Pulguita to their houses, and the little flea had found new “friends.”
Now Pulguita’s clothes were immaculate. From his white sleeveless undershirt and blue fútbol shorts to his white socks stretched tight to his calves and white Nike high-tops, everything he had on was new and expensive. To prove it, he
pulled out his flashy iPhone and twirled it around his palm, making sure the cousins noticed. Oh, Jaime noticed it. The only phone anyone in his family could afford belonged to Tío Daniel, Miguel’s papá. He shared it with Jaime’s family and other relatives, but there was nothing fancy or smart about it, just one of those old flip ones.
Pulguita turned to Jaime with a sly grin. “I saw your mami the other day, carrying a heavy laundry basket. Looks like that leg is still bothering her.”
“You leave Tía out of this.” Miguel took a step closer, his eyes glaring at him. Pulguita ignored the threat as he continued showing off the fancy phone.
“Sure would be nice, wouldn’t it, if she didn’t have to work so hard. If she could relax in front of la tele with her leg up. You two were always nice to me. I’d like to help you out, you know.”
“We don’t need your help,” Jaime said, but in the back of his mind he was intrigued. Mamá had been a teenager when she had broken her leg and it had been set incorrectly. Her limp was barely noticeable when she walked, but the injury kept her from jobs that required standing or sitting all day. She earned next to nothing washing and ironing clothes for rich ladies. Papá made barely enough at the chocolate plantation to keep them fed and sheltered in their small house that consisted of two small rooms: a sleeping one and a kitchen. The outhouse was, well, outside.
If they had extra money, just a tiny bit more, maybe his parents wouldn’t need to work so hard. Maybe they could live better. But not by earning money the way Pulguita offered. It wouldn’t be worth it.
Pulguita’s smile widened as if he were mocking them. “You’ll change your mind. Someday you’ll want our help.”
Our help. The words pounded repeatedly in Jaime’s head. His stomach twisted at the thought of what Pulguita and his new friends expected in exchange for help.
“Not until your farts smell like jasmine,” Miguel assured him. Jaime nodded. He couldn’t do anything else.
With a shrug Pulguita tapped a code on his phone before bringing it to his ear, stuffed the other hand deep into his pocket, and swaggered away.
Jaime had tried to put the confrontation with Pulguita out of his mind. Until now, in the kitchen, with his mamá wailing and both of his parents smothering him.
Something was wrong. Horribly wrong. And he had a feeling he knew what.
His body tensed up to break free, but Mamá’s grip only got tighter.
“Ay Jaime, mi ángel,” she said between her cries. “What would I do without you?”
Mamá released him. Her dark eyes were puffy and red. Her black wavy hair hung in tangled, wet clumps around
her face. Jaime brushed a strand away from her eyes, something she used to do for him when he was younger and feeling upset.
She took two deep breaths and stared into Jaime’s brown eyes. “It’s Miguel.”
Jaime scrambled out of his mamá’s lap. Papá reached out for him, but he jerked away. The dizziness that had almost overcome Jaime in the bedroom threatened to overtake him again.
Miguel just has the flu, Jaime tried to convince himself. After all, Jaime had been pretty feverish this morning too. That’s it. Just a bad flu.
But that didn’t explain Mamá’s crying, why she looked at him like it would be the last time.
“What’s happened?” The words choked him.
Mamá averted her makeup-streaked red eyes. “He’s dead.”
“No.” Because even though he had guessed the possibility, it couldn’t be true. Not Miguel. Not his brave cousin. Not his best friend.
“He was walking through Parque de San José after school. And . . .” Mamá took a deep breath. “The Alphas surrounded him.”
Of course, them. Jaime wrapped his arms tightly around himself, desperate to stop the shaking that had taken over his body. His sore throat from this morning
made it impossible to swallow or breathe. Parque de San José. He and Miguel cut across the small park every day, twice a day, on their way to school and back. At night it was filled with drunks and druggies, but during the day, with everyone else who walked through it, it had always felt safe enough.
Had. Not anymore.
“Di—did they—how—¿qué?” Jaime stumbled over the words. His mind had gone blurry.
A fresh wave of tears overtook Mamá. When she couldn’t answer, Papá said the words she couldn’t. “Six or seven gang members approached him. Including Pulguita.”
Jaime cringed. Of course, Pulguita. If this was the puny, stinking pest’s idea of “helping” . . .
Papá pressed his fingers against the bridge of his prominent nose before he continued, “Hermán Domingo was walking by. He saw everything. The Alphas told Miguel he’d be an asset to the gang and should join them. Miguel told them to leave him alone. That’s when they started hitting him.”
“Stop.” Jaime didn’t want to know more. He could see the Alpha gang members in his head—some big and burly, some lean and quick, and Pulguita, small enough to be squashed. All of them punching and kicking until Miguel fell to the ground. If only Jaime had been there.
“There was no stopping them,” Papá said as if he’d read
Jaime’s mind. “If Hermán or anyone had interfered, they would have put a bullet in his head. Like they did to José Adolfo Torres, Santiago Ruís, Lo—”
Jaime stopped listening because he knew the names. Older boys he’d gone to school with, grown men with wives and children. People who tried to stand up to the violent gang; people who were now dead.
Dead, muerto. Like Miguel. His cousin had come over that morning. His face, with its lopsided smile, ecstatic over his scholarship into the exclusive science prevocacional school in the city twenty kilometers away: he had always wanted to be an engineer. His disappointment that Jaime was sick and couldn’t walk to school with him disappeared as Miguel counted all the people he had to tell his good news to.
Guilt blazed in Jaime’s chest as he gasped for air. Why Miguel? Why not him? The room suddenly didn’t seem to have enough of it even with the humid breeze coming in from the glassless windows. His fault.
The gang had a strong presence in their small Guatemalan village and other villages in the area. Kids younger than Jaime were addicted to the cocaine the Alphas supplied. Shopkeepers were “asked” to pay the Alphas for protection: the protection they offered was from themselves. Protection from being robbed, or killed, if refused.
Jaime crouched down on the bare dirt floor, hiding his face in his arms. If only he hadn’t been sick this morning. If he had walked through the park with Miguel like always, could he have stopped them from attacking? Two against six was better than one against six. Except Jaime had never been good at fighting. Would it have been easier to give in? Become the gang’s newest member? Sell drugs on street corners, demand “insurance” from villagers, kill anyone who refused or got in his way? No, he couldn’t have done things like that, but he wouldn’t have been able to stand up to the Alphas either.
He’d never been brave like his cousin.
“Here,” Mamá’s voice said softly. Jaime looked up from his crumpled spot on the floor. Mamá had put the coffee on the stove and cleaned herself up. Her eyes were still red, but now she just looked tired, and old. She offered him sweet and milky café con leche. Like it would help.
Still, he held the cup, wrapping his hands around the ceramic mug as if it were a cold day instead of a suffocating one. He took a deep breath; after all, he’d been with Miguel that day when Pulguita had made his “offer.”
“Will I be next?”
His parents didn’t look at him. Mamá started crying again and Papá shook his head. Jaime got his answer.
“I don’t want to die. But I don’t want to kill people either. What can I do?” he asked the coffee cup in his hands, like a fortune-telling bruja might do with tea leaves. Neither the coffee, nor his parents, answered him.
There was nothing he could do. No one escaped the Alphas.