Rebeca led her brother to the canal she’d found two months earlier, a place that before that day she’d resolved never to tell him about. He’d called dibs on the bike they’d stolen from their cousins, so she was on foot. He rode next to her, standing on the pedals and circling around her as she jogged toward the canal. When he saw the dust kicked up by the tires settling on his clean sneakers, Jovany said, This better be good.
The canal ran underneath an overpass that the city had abandoned and left unconnected to the main expressway, so the spot was quiet despite being surrounded by an exploding Miami. Steep dirt slopes led down to the water, and tall weeds spiked all along the banks. This canal wasn’t close to any houses — they’d been living with their uncle Juanfe and his family for almost two months before Rebeca had even found it.
Once she could see the rusted guardrail, Rebeca started counting, in her head, the number of palm trees she’d used to mark the spot along the canal — six down from the overpass — where less than half an hour earlier she’d found the dead body.
Rebeca ran up to the rusty part of the rail and pointed into the water.
—Look, she said.
Jovany came up behind her. The body was so close to the water’s edge that it looked as if it were resting its head on the shore. He was still face down. She’d guessed it was a man because of the short hair. He wore jean overalls that had dark brown smears between the legs. These canals had no current — they were oily and silent enough for mosquitoes to walk on them — but one of the dead man’s arms fanned away from him, away from where Rebeca stood next to Jovany. She crossed her arms over her chest, determined not to hold her brother’s hand.
Jovany said, Oh my God. She could not read his look—if he was happy or scared. Ever since he’d started at Edison Junior High and left her behind in the fifth grade at their old school, she’d had trouble interpreting his smile. He jumped over the guardrail.
—I saw it today after school, she said. I wanted to wait for you, before I got closer.
She had pedaled harder than she thought possible on the bike ride back to grab Jovany. She’d found him in their cousin Rosario’s bedroom, the one Juanfe had declared theirs until their mom came back. She’d stood with her hands gripping the doorframe, watching her brother unlace the pair of sneakers their mom had given him before leaving to go after their father.
Jovany had been so focused on the shoes that he jumped when she finally said, I found something.
Her hands still ached from gripping the bike’s handles, and she felt a blister budding on her thumb. She stepped over the guardrail toward Jovany. She swallowed, her throat rough from running beside him.
—Oh my God, he said again, softly this time. You’re not scared?
She wrinkled her face at him, trying to look mad that he’d even asked.
—No, she said.
As they started down the steep sides of the canal, dirt and small rocks rolled down into the water. Careful, he mumbled. She held out her hand to him, but he grabbed her by the wrist. Now that they were closer, the air smelled something like mildew and spoiled food. Rebeca covered her nose and mouth with her hand. Jovany went ahead of her and said, It’s not that bad. She dropped her hand from her nose and put the inside bottom of her thumb in her mouth so that she could suck on the blister. The skin tasted salty.
—Should we tell somebody? she said.
Jovany looked up to where they had left the bike, then he looked at his sister, squinting. She felt her face getting hot, so she looked down at his sneakers. Their mother had left almost four months ago, but Jovany cleaned them so often they still looked new. But now, she saw him kick the dirt. He said, Who would we even tell?
Rebeca didn’t know if she was supposed to answer him, or what her answer would even be. To share the secret with any of their cousins meant getting in more trouble, and Tío Juanfe had told them too many times to stay on his wife Cacha’s good side. Besides, no one had been at Juanfe’s house other than Jovany. All three cousins, Rosario — the oldest at fourteen, older than
Jovany by a year — Teresa, and Gabriel, went to Immaculate Conception, a Catholic private school that let out later than the county elementary and junior high. Juanfe always picked them up, and Cacha had had to start working night shifts at the hospital on top of her regular ones. Jovany took two long steps and picked up a dried palm frond, then got closer to the body. Rebeca followed him.
—Don’t touch it, she said. It could have diseases.
—I’m not stupid, Jovany said.
He poked the body with the big dry leaf. He squatted down near the head; the face was turned toward the water. He sniffed the air and cleared his throat. When he turned back to Rebeca, his smile was so big she took a step back.
—I don’t think he’s been here that long, there’s no bugs, he said.
She kept her hand in her mouth, the salt taste mingled now with blood.
Jovany looked at the head even closer, squatting down so low that his butt almost touched the dirt. He lifted the head by the hair, and she heard water trickle, but he stood between her and the face, so she couldn’t see.
—Come look at this, he said, his free hand waving her over.
She crossed her fingers behind her back, then squeezed her nose shut with her other hand and squatted beside him. He was still holding the head up by the hair.
The man’s face looked almost human. Everything was where it was supposed to be, but his lips, cheeks, and nose were very swollen, and there were purple splotches on his cheeks and forehead. The eyelids were almost all black.
—He musta closed his eyes before he died I bet, Jovany said.
Jovany reached out to touch the face, but Rebeca grabbed his arm and yanked it toward her. Stop it, he said, pulling his hand from hers, but he didn’t try to touch the face again. He lowered the head back into the water. They sat there silent, staring. Rebeca realized she’d uncrossed her fingers when she’d gone for her brother’s hand, but since nothing bad had happened as a result, she didn’t re-cross them. Jovany pulled his t-shirt collar over his nose.
—He looks like a cartoon, Rebeca said finally. She watched her brother to see if he would laugh at the funny voice that pinching her nose gave her.
—I bet he maybe killed himself, he said. He turned toward her, and though she couldn’t see his mouth, she knew from the crinkling skin around his eyes that he was smiling.
—What should we do now? she said.
Jovany looked back up to the bike, then up and down the length of the canal. It was perfectly straight for as far as they could see. He turned his head, looking at the overpass for a long time. Rebeca watched him, waited for him to say something, then finally turned to her blister, the bubble of it shining like a red gem.
—This is a cool place, huh? she said. She dug the thumb with the blister into the dry soil.
She had never known if there were many canals around the apartment complex they used to live in, because when their dad still lived there, he had never allowed them to go far from their block. Even after he left for the last time, and their mom had gotten to the point where she was more worried about tracking him down than anything else, they never went past the street corners he’d set up as boundaries. It wasn’t until a couple weeks into living at Juanfe’s house that his wife Cacha had pushed them to play outside, anywhere in the neighborhood, away from her kids and her house.
—It’s quiet, he finally said. He pulled up a clump of dry grass and let it fall from his fingers. We should get him out of the sun.
He stood, wiped his hands on his shorts. Help me out, he said.
Jovany found another palm frond up near the bike, and he pushed the man all the way in the water again with his shoe. They used the fronds to guide the floating man toward the shade a few yards away. Jovany kept the man close to the shore. His palm frond was bigger and went deeper into the water, and he was in the front. Rebeca used hers to keep the man’s legs from spreading too far apart. When they started moving the man, she put her shirt over her nose just as Jovany had done.
The air was much cooler under the overpass. After they’d slid the man into the shade, Jovany jogged a little ways away from the body, lowered his shirt back down, and coughed, but Rebeca stayed near the body, close to the water, in case he started to float away.
—It’s not that bad, she said this time, making fun of him.
—Very funny, Rebekita.
This was what both their parents had always called her. Their father called Jovany Joey. Their mother had hated that. The smaller fights between them would start with her mother yelling things like, That’s not what I named him, to point out who had and hadn’t been around to decide something like a name. Tío Juanfe and Cacha never used any nicknames for them; Rebeca hadn’t heard Rebekita in almost four months.
—Don’t ever call me that, she said softly. Don’t ever again.
Jovany came back into the shade and put one hand on each of her shoulders. He hugged her to him, and his underarms smelled like grown man.
—Hey, hey, he said. Cacha is wrong, okay? Mom’s coming back. You’re still Rebekita. So relax.
Rebeca did not want to say that after so many months she was starting to believe her aunt more than her brother, so she said nothing. He let go of her shoulders and looked at the man in the water.
—Cacha’s a bitch anyways, he said. Don’t tell on me that I said that.
He cleared his throat, stood up straighter, and said to the water, Don’t believe anything people won’t say to your face.
Rebeca said, Yeah, because she didn’t know what he wanted her to say, and because she wanted him to think she understood everything he ever talked about. Their arms touched while they stared at the man in the water.
—I want you to go stand over there, Jovany said, moving away from her. He pointed to the place they had just stood. I’m gonna drag him out.
She wanted to tell him no, that he should just leave it, but before she could, Jovany pulled the shirt back over his nose, covering the bottom of his face. His eyebrows were very dark. She didn’t like how scary they looked — drifting alone above the white cotton — so she left her brother in the shade and walked back into the sun like he’d ordered. By the time she turned back around, Jovany had positioned himself above the man, ready to do the job alone. She lowered her shirt from her nose.
It didn’t take a long time to move him, but it looked hard. Jovany pulled with both hands on one side of the man’s overalls, then used both hands to pull the other side level, alternating each pull so that the man got dragged up in a zigzag. Jovany wiped his head with his forearm, and Rebeca was relieved that she didn’t have to remind him about diseases.
He stopped pulling once the dead man was only in the canal from the knees down. The water made soft lapping sounds around the clothes. She could hear her brother’s hard breathing. He had his back to her.
—Come on, he said.
He looked to his left, up at the overpass support columns, at the dark shadows between them. He spit in that direction, but a string of saliva clung to his chin, and he quickly wiped it off with his arm. Rebeca said from her spot in the sun, Gross.
—Come on, he said again. He turned to face her. Help me flip him.
She walked closer to them, blinking as she came into the shade.
—Really? she said. You really wanna flip him?
—I thought you weren’t scared.
He held his hands out and lunged a step toward her, trying to touch her. She darted to the side and they both laughed when she said, Stop it, Jovany! They faced the body. Grooves in the dirt around him showed the dragging.
—I’m not scared, she said. She looked at their feet. Jovany’s sneakers were very dirty now, especially at the toes where they had sunk into the mud. Her own shoes were still mostly white — just a little dusty from the run to the canal — and she wanted to wipe them off. I just don’t want to get dirty, she said.
Jovany looked at her looking at his sneakers.
—Too late for that, he said.
She didn’t touch the man’s skin. Instead, she pulled and pushed him by his clothes. When he finally flopped over, one of his legs splashed back in the canal, but she stood on the other side of him, so only Jovany got wet. When they finished, Jovany bent forward with his hands on his knees, breathing hard. The dead man’s stomach pushed out the pockets on the front of the overalls as far as they’d go, pulling tight on the straps at his shoulders. Just like a cartoon, she thought.
—He didn’t look so fat in the water, she said.
—He smells worse now, too, he said.
Rebeca didn’t think it was that much worse, but she didn’t say anything.
—We can’t tell Juanfe, Jovany said. He’ll think something bad.
—And especially not Tía Cacha, she said.
Jovany glared at her. He bit his lower lip and wrinkled his forehead. He looked exactly like their father when angry, and since she’d never noticed this before just then, she stepped back.
—Why would we ever tell Cacha anything? he said.
Rebeca’s mouth opened a little, then it closed. She had learned never to talk back to adults, and her brother’s face confused her, so she took too long to say, What’s your problem? Jovany turned and marched up to the bike, kicking dirt behind him with each hard step. Rebeca stood there, glancing back at the dead man. His mouth looked so much like a smile that she almost smiled back, until she saw that Jovany had left her alone. She got to the top of the canal, and was surprised to see him still there, sitting next to the bike. He stuck his chin out at it and said, You take it. I don’t want to give the bike diseases.
As they walked back to Juanfe’s house, Rebeca pushed the bike home instead of riding it so that Jovany could keep up, the handlebar rubbing against her blister the whole way.
* * *
Their cousins were at the dining room table doing homework when they got back. Gabriel’s assignment was to color a drawing of Mary holding baby Jesus, so there were crayons sprawled all over his end of the table.
—Where were you? Rosario said without looking up.
Her brown hair was so long that she always bragged about sitting on the ends of it by accident. Jovany had asked once if that happened to her on the toilet, too.
—None of your business, Jovany said.
—Dad! Rosario said. Rebeca came up to the table and saw that Rosario had drawn a string of zeros on the lined paper in front of her. Rosario did not look at Rebeca, but she stretched her arm over the writing to hide it.
Jovany mumbled something behind her and escaped to Rosario’s room before Juanfe could come out from the kitchen.
Juanfe stood in the doorway of the dining room. He had a close-cut beard and wore the same pants — with paint splatters on them, all sorts of colors—that she’d seen him wearing back when he had a job and left the house at the same time as Cacha. Juanfe still installed air conditioners for people sometimes, or fixed refrigerators in the neighborhood for cash, and when he did, he would tell stories about the insides of other people’s houses to all five of them while they ate. Juanfe always cooked dinner wearing those pants — he called them his Work Pants — because he said it was hard work, cooking for five whining kids.
He was wiping his hands on a towel. What is it now, he said.
Rosario pointed at Rebeca and said, She won’t tell me where she was.
—She doesn’t have to tell you, he said.
—And Jovany said something bad to me, I heard him, Rosario said.
Gabriel and Teresa looked up at their father. Rebeca heard Gabriel kicking the table leg with his feet.
—Rosario, please, I didn’t hear anything. You need to stop this. You’re too old.
He threw the towel over his shoulder and put his hand on the back of Rosario’s chair. The girl covered up the zeros even more, but she kept writing them, the pencil moving in bigger and bigger circles. She said to Rebeca, Your mom didn’t call today either.
—Rosario, enough, Juanfe said.
—She never will. And you’ll be homeless when my mom kicks you out, she said.
Juanfe grabbed her by the back of the arm, pinching her with his huge hands, and said, Ya te lo dijo bastante veces through gritted teeth. He pulled her from the chair into the kitchen, and she screamed, but Rebeca couldn’t hear what Juanfe whispered as he hit her. Teresa and Gabriel looked at each other, and Teresa covered her mouth because she started to laugh. Rebeca looked at Jovany’s shut door, then at her cousins, who were now staring at her. She leaned forward across the table.
—Your mamá is a bitch, Rebeca whispered, though she didn’t need to, because Juanfe would not have heard her over Rosario’s wailing.
Rebeca ran, weaving through the living room furniture, and grabbed the doorknob to Rosario’s room, opened it, and slammed it shut behind her. Jovany was sitting on the bed, his shoes still on. He looked confused. She pressed her back to the door and stood with her weight against it for a few minutes, long after she heard Teresa and Gabriel yell Daaaaad in unison. Juanfe never came and knocked. They knew he had run out of excuses — for them, for his own kids, and for his sister — and when he yelled thirty minutes later that dinner was ready, Rebeca and Jovany ate while watching television — something their cousins were never allowed to do.
During an especially loud commercial, she whispered to Jovany, What if they find out?
He finished chewing, then whispered back, They won’t. Only you and me know, nobody else. Stop talking about it already.
He sounded angry with her, but then he gave her a wide smile. A big black bean stuck to one of his bottom front teeth, making it look like it was missing, but she didn’t tell him. She didn’t want to ruin the secret, so she smiled back. And she ate all of her food even though Juanfe had burned the rice again.
* * *
The next day, Rebeca sat at her desk, kicking her legs more than usual, anxious for school to be over. Even though she was in fifth grade, she in no way felt she ruled the school the way the other fifth graders thought they did. She knew there was a sixth grade somewhere, in another school, and that being in it was inevitable — it had happened to Jovany, and she was next.
When she’d first found the canal, it had helped school go by faster for her. During class, she would think about where around the canal she could find good rocks to throw to make the biggest splash, or she imagined herself crouched down and staring at any bugs floating by the water’s edge. But by the end of that day’s language arts class, just before lunch, she knew she wanted to talk to the dead man, and since she’d settled on it so early, all she could do was pick the scab on her blister and wait.
She did not stay to get her math test back at the end of the day. She didn’t care how she’d done, or whether she’d have to get Jovany to sign their dad’s signature to it again. Everyone else swarmed the teacher to get their grade, but she ran from the room.
The bike was in the backyard, leaning against the chain-link fence. When she got closer to it, she saw a note taped to the handlebars. It was in Rosario’s handwriting, and it said, This is ours. You can’t use it anymore. Rebeca left the note on the bike so that Jovany would find it when he got home. Together, she thought as she ran to the canal, together they’d figure out how to get Rosario into worse trouble with Juanfe.
* * *
She could smell the dead man from the top of the canal — like wet wood, like swamp and something too sweet. But it was quiet the way it was always quiet there, the cars on the expressway far off, behind her, and no one around.
He was where they had left him, and he still looked very fat underneath his overalls around his belly, but Rebeca thought he looked sunken around his shoulders, like he was sad, as though someone had just told him bad news. She approached him slowly, and sat below him on the slope of the canal’s edge, so that she was right near the water: far from his face, but close to his knees. The water was absolutely still.
She looked at his face for a long time without saying anything. She crawled up closer on her hands and knees next to him in the dirt. The patches on the forehead, nose, and chin were the same yellowish green as the hunks of spit left on sidewalks by boys walking to school in the mornings ahead of her. She waved away a fly that was poking in his nostril. She cocked her head at the yellow patch on his forehead and said out loud, Ouch.
She said to him, I wonder what happened to you. The fly settled on his chest and crawled underneath his shirt. She kept breathing through her mouth but her eyes watered. She blew another fly away from his cheek. There were dry cracks in his lips, but his mouth was still swollen and smiling.
—Even you can smile, she said, lowering her face to look closely at his mouth. You even died and you’re still happy.
She felt cold all over for just a second, and she worried that maybe she had to pee. She moved to bend over his face so that it was directly under hers. No part of her touched him, and her arms strained to keep herself hovering above his mouth.
—Hey, she whispered. She heard a buzz near her ear.
Then she yelled it — Hey! — without moving. Her voice echoed underneath the overpass. She yelled more things, there close to his face. Stop smiling, stop it! She waited and heard the echo again. Stupid, she yelled. Stupid man! Hey, what’s wrong with you? She laughed at how her voice moved around the two of them.
She bent her neck back to look up at the concrete beams running from one side of the canal to the other, put there to support the forgotten overpass. There was no graffiti, and the concrete looked smooth.
—Hey, she said, then listened. She yelled random sounds: woot, la-la-la, nuh-uh. She kept looking at the beams as if she would see the sound bounce above her. She tilted her head so far back while kneeling that she felt the skin on her neck stretch and felt dizzy. With her head all the way back she said, Rebeca. She closed her eyes and shouted, Rebekita.
She imagined that word being the one to wake the man up, make him open his purple-lidded eyes, thrust his rotten hand toward her wide-open neck. She looked down at him quickly, as if she’d catch him peeking at her. She said, Go, do it. She hovered so close to his face that she couldn’t see anything clearly, just amazing colors around his mouth, the hues almost enough to keep her close to him had it not been for the smell. She couldn’t pretend anymore — that smell was killing her.
She moved away and leaned back on her hands, and said, See?
After a few minutes, she pulled her knees up to her chin and felt their soft hairs against her lips. Then she hugged her legs and considered telling him the things she couldn’t talk about with anyone else, especially not Jovany. She could tell him what Jovany had said not to think about: how their mom had chased the car of one of their dad’s friends — screaming down the street in front of the whole complex and then sitting in the road until cars honked — after he had given her their dad’s message: that he wasn’t coming back at all. He’d gone back to his mother in Cuba — where she still lived — because after two kids and so many jobs, he’d just been happier there. Rebeca watched from the living room, how her mother hit the man over and over again with her purse and then with her fists until the man said, Fuck this, and ran out of the door. She could tell the dead man how their mom had screamed, This man will be the end of me while driving them to Juanfe’s to spend the week, and how even though she’d never seen her mom so angry and sad at the same time, she never thought that what she meant by the end was that she wouldn’t come back for them either.
She felt that same cold from before come over her again when she heard voices behind her. She jerked up and listened, and knew that there were several of them. She had never, in her two months of going there, ever seen anyone else at the canal. She looked at the man’s body and wanted to hide him from whoever was coming, and that’s when she first thought that she could get in trouble because of him. She looked where the voices were coming from at the canal’s edge, then back at the man, and she ran up the side of the canal to the dark places between the overpass supports to hide in the shadows.
She squatted behind the small cement barrier and was surprised it almost completely hid her; the pits between the columns were deeper than she’d guessed.
A boy’s voice yelled, Holy shit, man! A moment later she could see him. He had on baggy basketball shorts.
Another boy said, How can you stand that smell, man?
—Cuz it smells like your mom, the boy with the shorts said, not turning away from the body. She heard other boys laugh at this, their voices ricocheting underneath the overpass, but Rebeca thought what he had said was stupid.
A third voice said, Don’t touch it, and she knew that Jovany was there.
—This is so cool! the second boy said.
Rebeca could see Jovany and the three other boys near the water. Her brother walked up and stood at the man’s head, turning his back to her hiding place. All the boys were looking down at the body.
Jovany said, Told you. He looked around, past the boys. I found it here yesterday.
Rebeca’s mouth dropped open.
—Does anybody know? Did you tell your parents? the boy with the shorts said. He spit into the water. Jovany dug his toe into the dirt. His sneakers were filthy.
—Nah. Nobody else knows. Just you guys.
Rebeca bit her bottom lip to keep from saying something.
—This guy is nasty, one of them said. Shorts boy backed away a little and started coughing. The boy closest to the body leaned down and ran his hands over the leg pockets.
—Nothing, he said.
He walked over next to Jovany and bent down again. Check this out, he said. He grabbed a fistful of the man’s hair and lifted the head and shoulders off the ground, then let it fall with a sick thump. One boy said, Whoa, another said, Shit.
—Come, on. Don’t mess with him, man, Jovany said. He shoved the boy, but Rebeca saw her brother was smiling. The other boy grabbed the hair again and shook the head side to side. He said in a high voice, Oh don’t hurt me! and all the friends laughed, even Jovany.
Rebeca wished the man would wake up now and choke them all.
Jovany bent down near the man’s face. She watched him slowly put his hand near the face and pull open an eyelid, even after one of the other boys said, Don’t do it, man. All three of the other boys stood behind him and watched him peel it back. Some had their t-shirts over their noses. They made gagging sounds, but Rebeca could not see what Jovany had shown them under the lid. She blinked hard, her eyes blurred from tears.
Jovany stayed crouched next to the man’s face and got closer. He stared at the man’s mouth. One of the boys said, What?
—Nothing, Jovany said. He just. He’s, like, smiling.
The boys all looked at the mouth and were quiet for a second.
—Maybe he likes you, Shorts boy said. The other boys laughed.
—Maybe you should kiss him, another boy said.
Jovany stood up and was laughing, too, but not as hard.
—Shut up, he said. He scratched the back of his head the way Rebeca knew he always did when he was embarrassed.
—Maybe he wants to be your new dad, Shorts boy said. Rebeca saw that Shorts boy had crooked teeth and that he barely had a mustache.
—Or your new mom! he added. They all bent over laughing, even Jovany, whose laughs were big and bouncing off the concrete.
Jovany finally said, Good one. He looked for a long time up and down the length of the canal, squinting hard, and then he took a big breath. He bent back over the body.
—Hey Dad, he said. The boys were cracking up. Rebeca balled up her fists. Her legs started to burn from crouching for so long.
Jovany said, Man, Dad. You are the ugliest dad.
The boys covered their mouths with their hands, still laughing. Another voice said, For real, man. Jovany kept giggling when he was talking to the body. Rebeca thought he looked crazy. He squatted back down next to him again.
—I want to tell you about my day at school. He held in a laugh, then finished, But you’re so fucking ugly that I can’t stand to look at you, Dad.
The echoes made it sound like a hundred people laughing. Her brother’s was the meanest one, and Rebeca thought for sure it was the loudest.
Jovany pulled back his arm and slapped the dead man’s face. Brown liquid shot out of the mouth toward the boy standing on the other side of the head.
—Nasty, he screamed. He pushed the head with his foot. It looked like he’d kicked it. Rebeca took off running behind the columns, climbing over the concrete barrier once she was out of columns to hide behind. When she got to the top of the canal, she saw that Jovany’s friends had bikes. She ran past them, all the way home, thinking about how scary her brother had looked while hitting the face.
* * *
Juanfe was holding the sliding van door open, and the last kid, Gabriel, was climbing down from among their dad’s old tools. When he saw Rebeca running so hard and crying, he yelled to Rosario, Go in the house, and jogged to meet her in the street.
—Who hurt you? He put his hands on her shoulders.
—Tío, she said. She was breathing so hard that it hurt, and she had a bad pain in her side, but the air smelled so much better away from the canal. She collapsed on the sidewalk, crying so hard it sounded like hiccups. She pushed her hand into the side that ached. He bent down next to her and waited.
—Tío, somebody’s dead.
Her uncle opened his eyes very wide. He squeezed her arms so hard she winced.
—And Jovany — but she couldn’t finish.
He picked her up and carried her to the van, put her in the passenger side seat, ran fast to the door of the house and yelled something inside, locked it behind him, and jumped in the van. The keys jangled in his trembling hands, but he eventually started the engine.
They had already backed out of the driveway when he said, Tell me where to go.
She said, The canal. By the overpass, the empty one.
When she realized he knew exactly how to get there, and that the drive took just minutes, she was mad at herself for ever thinking she had found something special.
Juanfe drove over the tall grass up to the palm trees.
—Where, he said.
She pointed to the overpass through the windshield.
—There, she said. By the water.
He flung open the door and jumped from the van without shutting it off. With the door open, Rebeca could hear laughing, all the way up there on the banks, and she knew that things had gotten worse. She climbed down from the van and took off after her uncle, who was already yelling something as he went down the steep side of the canal. The three other boys ran out from under the overpass, but Jovany was not with them. Rebeca passed them, and they were quiet as they watched her run by.
One of them said, Is that his sister? Do you know if he has a sister?
Before Rebeca could see them, she heard Juanfe say, What the fuck is going on here, and she heard smacking sounds. What the fuck is wrong with you?
Juanfe almost never cursed. She ran under the overpass and saw Jovany on the ground, huddled with his hands over his head to protect himself. His eyes were closed.
Juanfe was beating him, throwing his fists into every part of Jovany’s body. When Jovany sank lower to the ground, Juanfe picked him up by his shirt, but then threw him back down into the dirt. Then Juanfe looked at the body and gagged, burping into his hand. Jovany tried to stand, but Juanfe grabbed his whole face with his free hand and shoved him back down.
—You are sick, Juanfe said.
—Tío, please, Jovany said. Tears left clean streaks on his dusty face. Rebeca stood on her toes and moved closer to the body.
The dead man looked terrible. Somehow he wasn’t fat anymore; his overalls were baggy around his stomach. A purple-brown liquid, like motor oil, spilled from the side of him. Angry flies swarmed all over the puddle. His mouth hung open, and someone had pulled the black tongue out very far — it looked like something he could choke on. She had guessed his teeth were crooked and was confused to finally see that they were straight, but that all the ones on the sides were completely missing, leaving big black holes in his smile.
—Leave now, Rebeca, Juanfe said. That’s when Jovany saw that she was there.
—Wait, her brother said. His voice was quiet but Juanfe slapped him with the back of his hand. Even after the slap, Jovany said, Rebeca, please, tell him—
—Get back in the van! Juanfe yelled at her, but he started to cough.
She didn’t move. She didn’t know what to say. Juanfe looked quickly at the body and said, Holy Mother of Christ, and crossed himself over and over again until he started to gag. He stumbled to the columns and finally vomited in the shadows between them.
Kneeling down with his back to the three of them, Juanfe covered his face with his hands. He cried into them, chanting softly, My fucking sister, my fucking sister.
She knew Jovany heard him — the words grew larger off every column, with every echo — because he dropped his head to his sneakers. A crust of mud caked them completely. Flies circled his feet, and when they landed on the laces, he did not kick them away. Jovany’s glare rested on the shoes for too long. She waited for her brother to slap the air, to crush each fly’s veiny wings, but he refused to move, refused to protect his more than ruined shoes. A dull ache pulsed up her thumb toward her palm, and when she looked down at her hand, she saw that the blister had burst, the yolk of it dripping down in a lonely bead. Tattered flakes of skin rimmed the raw part, and the very center glowed a rotten purple. She hid it behind her back and cradled it in her other hand, squeezing her fingers together so hard it caused a new ache, one big enough to keep the blister’s sting a secret.
* * *
Infinite FiveChapters continues tomorrow with “Super King” by Samantha Peale.
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