I wrote this story over a year ago to process my reactions to political events. A friend who read it told me that it’s very close to the experience of a friend of hers, which made me shudder.
I hope you enjoy it and that it continues to be fiction.
“Will you get away from that goddamn door?”
“Mateo, I need to get to work. Just let me out.”
Manuel held his breath, listening to his parents through his bedroom door. His computer was quiet: the internet hadn’t been working since Monday. Instead he could hear unfamiliar sounds from outside: muffled voices, shattering glass, sirens rising through the heavy Miami air. The occasional distant gunshot.
“Please.” He could hear the exasperation in his mother’s voice, the effort with which she was holding her own frayed nerves together, terrified that if she fell apart the whole family would disintegrate like the flakes of ash that Manuel had seen floating past his bedroom window.
“No, woman. You’re not leaving this apartment. It’s not safe.”
She sighed. “If I don’t get to work then nothing will be safe. Who’s going to bring in the money? You?”
Manuel heard movement; his father was standing up, sliding his back up the warped door to their apartment, heaving his legs upright beneath him. If Manuel closed his eyes he could picture his father’s face, the indignation mixed with fear for his family.
“I said no. Get inside. Stay away from this door. Distract yourself with something.”
“Don’t talk shit! How can I distract myself, with the kids cowering in their bedrooms?”
Manuel heard footsteps; his father was approaching his mother.
“Don’t,” she said, her voice tight.
His father responded with a grunt followed by silence. He shrank back from the door, backing onto his bed. Wishing that his parents had let him install a lock.
There was a quiet tap on the door.
“Manuel, honey? Let me in.”
He slid down in his bed, hiding under the bedclothes. He didn’t want his mother to see the marks on his arms where he had been picking at his skin. Or the bloodstains on his sheets.
The door creaked open and his mother’s bulk appeared around it. She forced a smile but her eyes betrayed her bewilderment.
“Hi, sweetie,” she said. “You okay in here?”
He nodded, sniffing. “You not going to work?”
His bed dipped as she sat at its end, her hands twisting in her lap. “Not today, sweetie.”
“What the fuck’s going on?” His brother Enrique burst into the room, ignoring their mother and heading for Manuel’s window. The curtains were drawn; Enrique put a hand on them.
“Don’t.” His mother’s voice was shaking.
Enrique turned and scowled at her. “Oh hell, mom, it’s just a fucking window. I want to know what’s going on.”
“Exactly. Just a window. Glass. If they see you looking out, you don’t know what they’ll do.”
Enrique sighed. “You can’t keep us all locked up in here, mom.”
She shrugged. “Talk to your father.”
Manuel watched his brother’s scowl. His eyes darted towards the door; he knew who was keeping them here, but preferred to confront their mother instead.
Their mother turned to Manuel, giving him a sad smile. “Come on, honey. Let’s go into the kitchen. Get you something to eat.”
She reached out a hand and Manuel took it. Her hand was large and warm, with a smell of roses. As she pulled him out of the room, Enrique called after her.
“It’s all your fault anyway, you stupid woman.”
Manuel winced and looked up at his mother. She blinked heavily; he could see the sadness on her face as she pushed away her reaction to Enrique’s taunt.
He turned to face his brother. “How can it possibly be her fault? She didn’t even vote.”
Enrique snorted. “You’re not too bright, are you little bro? That’s exactly why it’s her fault. Hers and millions like her.”
Their mother stiffened but said nothing. She tugged on Manuel’s arm and he followed her through to their tiny kitchen, where she lifted him up onto the counter while she made him a jelly and peanut butter sandwich. As they passed through the narrow hallway he realised that his father was missing from his sentry post by the door.
“At least these keep, huh? We’ve got enough of your favourite to last us…” She glanced in the cupboard and her face fell. “A few days, at least.”
“Mom, when can I go to school?”
She looked up from his sandwich and reached a hand out, covering his clenched fists with her own palm. “Soon, son. Soon.”
“Why can’t I go today? Why can’t you go to work? Mom, I hate it here. I want to get out.”
She inhaled deeply and bit her tongue, then pursed her lips. “I’m sorry, son. School isn’t safe right now.”
He watched in silence as she spread peanut butter on his sandwich. She put the lid on the jar, screwing it tight. “You do know I couldn’t help it, don’t you?” She didn’t look up from her task.
“Not voting. I had to work. The lines were long. They’d fire me if-”
“Is it open?”
She looked up, startled. “What?”
She turned to him, considering what to say. Then she turned back to his sandwich, her eyes averted. “Uh-huh.”
“So why can’t I go?”
She closed her eyes. “Like I say, it’s not safe. My work neither. There’s been – trouble – downtown.”
Manuel shrugged. This was nothing new to him. He’d lain awake for the last six nights, listening to the ‘trouble’ unfolding outside. It had started small, with a few people huddling round a fire, placards leaning against their legs. But then some other kids had come along and thrown firecrackers into the blaze, injuring Mrs Chavez from across the street. It wasn’t long before more of them arrived; Latino youths like his own brother, baseball bats barely concealed in their shirts. And the outsiders, the white kids with scowls painted over their facial tattoos. He hadn’t dared look out of his window in daylight for fear of being spotted, but at night he’d watched them goading each other, police appearing from time to time and then disappearing as if everything had been dealt with.
But it hadn’t.
There was a commotion from outside and his mother’s head shot up. She dropped the butter knife, making it clatter on the floor. Manuel resisted the urge to jump down and pick it up.
“What the?” she gasped.
He heard the door slam, followed by footsteps. Then it opened again.
“Get the hell back in here, you idiot boy!” His father. Enrique must have left the apartment.
He slid off the kitchen counter, his heart pounding in his throat, and slipped across the hallway and into his room. His mother was standing at the open apartment door and didn’t notice him. His father was nowhere to be seen.
He eased his door shut and padded to his window. The room smelled musty; his mother had forbidden him to open the window and the stink of his own sweat was overpowering.
At the window he hesitated, images of what might be outside flashing through his mind. He heard a bang echo through the apartment block; the outside door. Enrique.
He felt his body turn cold, as if someone had poured a bucket of ice over him. He grabbed the curtain between his forefinger and thumb and jerked it open, easing his head into the gap between it and the window.
The window was obscured by condensation, his own breath settling on the glass. He wiped at it with his sleeve, feeling even colder.
He stood on tiptoes to see the sidewalk in front of their block; he could just make out the top of Enrique’s head. On the sidewalk opposite was a group of people, anonymous shapes from this vantage point. One of them had a dog on a scrappy looking lead and another was holding a baseball bat, slapping it into his open palm.
Enrique shuddered then looked again at his brother, who hadn’t moved.
“Enrique, get back in here!”
He leaned his head into the glass to try and see; his father was somewhere below, out of sight. Standing in the apartment building’s doorway, he assumed. He hated that doorway; it concealed a dark, scary hallway with one faint, flickering light and a strong scent of urine. Every day when he got home from school he would throw himself through the outside door and not stop running till he was safely in his bedroom.
The group on the sidewalk turned as one, disturbed by his father’s voice. He heard a muffled shout as one of them – the one with the dog – stepped into the street. He could see the kid’s face now; he was maybe twenty years old, with a scar running down his cheek and a sneer playing on his lips.
Manuel shrunk back from the window, wishing his mother were with him. After a moment the urge to know what was happening got the better of him and he leaned in again.
The kid wasn’t alone now; the others had joined him. More baseball bats had appeared; one of the kids had raised one to his shoulder as if about to take a swing. He looked down to see his brother step into his side of the street, his feet shuffling through the litter that had accumulated over the last two weeks. Street sweepers hadn’t dared venture into this neighbourhood for days.
He looked at Enrique, muttering under his breath. What was his brother doing? Why didn’t he just carry on down the sidewalk and leave these kids alone?
“I’m asking you to leave.” It was Enrique speaking, his voice echoing against the blank walls of the apartment block opposite. Manuel looked up, wondering if anyone was watching from over there. Hoping that having witnesses would save his brother.
The kids laughed. The one with the dog bent over and muttered something in its ear, fondling its head. It growled, its teeth bared.
“No. That’s your job. You just fucking leave. Go back where you came from.” This kid was larger than his companion, with a broad back that made Manuel shudder.
“I live here.”
More laughter. “Not for long, you don’t. We’re taking our country back.” replied the kid with the tattoo. He let go of the dog and it pulled away from him, jumping at Enrique. Manuel closed his eyes.
He opened them again when he heard a scream. A hand was on his shoulder, a hand that smelled of roses.
“Manuel, honey. Come away from the window.”
“But Mom.” His voice came out as a croak.
There were noises outside his door again, raised voices.
“You goddamned fucking fool! What were you playing at?”
“Why did you do that?”
“Do what? Rescue you? What a stupid question. Do you have any idea what those boys would have done if I hadn’t grabbed you?”
He heard a thud; a fist landing on flesh. Was his father beating on Enrique? He shuddered; other boys in his class had fathers who liked to use their fists but he was lucky. His father preferred to use his voice.
He shrugged his mother’s hand away and slipped into the hallway. His father was slumped against the door. Enrique was standing over him, his eyes blazing.
“Enrique!” His mother was behind him, her breathing heavy. He could feel her flesh brush against his back as her chest rose and fell. “What have you done to your father?”
His father raised a hand. “It’s okay, it’s okay. Better he hit me than start a fight with those assholes out there.”
He backed into his mother, watching his brother. Enrique looked small and ashamed.
“Say sorry to your father, son,” his mother said, her voice shaking.
“I’m sorry,” Enrique squeaked.
His father raised a hand and lifted himself up; Enrique supported him, the two of them leaning into the door. Outside a siren blipped; he heard the muffled sound of a police radio.
The family went quiet, listening. He heard a few barks followed by slamming doors, car engines and then silence.
It was over. For now.