They’re More Afraid of You
Jack OrtizFiction / Number 98
South-Central Los Angeles
I never met my father. I don’t know how my mother died. Sometimes she’d leave the house and come back a couple days later. Until one time, she doesn’t. I am ten.
My aunt picks me up from school early, and in the parking lot she tells me my mother passed away. She squeezes my hand. “She’s dead,” she says, eyeing me.
I ask my aunt how she died, but then I forget to listen.
Traffic moves fast on the freeway. I stay at her house that night, in Freddie’s old bedroom. Freddie, who died only a year ago. I couldn’t sleep. I felt his ghost in the room.
We moved from Inglewood to Willowbrook. I don’t say a word the next day. Or the day after. Aunt Dulce smiles at me every chance she gets. She doesn’t start losing her mind yet. I want to know where my mother is, what happened, but I’m too embarrassed to ask again.
It happens all the time. I’ll find myself lost in the middle of someone’s story. Someone giving instructions. The teacher explaining an activity. I look right at her, sometimes I nod—I don’t even realize I’m not paying attention. Not to my teacher. Not to the priest at my aunt’s church who cups my hands and tells me: “Here’s what you should be doing.” There’s always a beat of silence, for questions, I guess. Or to take a breath, like ready, go.
Then everyone starts moving but me.
Aunt Dulce pokes her head into my room, says, “Freddie, get dressed.”
I roll over and stare at the ceiling. The bruise on the back of my head aches against the pillow. Aunt Dulce has been calling me Freddie all year. My name is Julián. I used to correct her, but after a while, I thought, Fuck it, let her pretend. Aunt Dulce’s mind is fading, but it still shocks me. If she had cared for Freddie in his final days instead of holding onto a grudge—if she had heard his death rattle through the wall, like I did—maybe then she would remember.
I get dressed and eat the eggs and toast Aunt Dulce made. She sits across from me with her coffee. By the sleepy dread in her eyes, the way she slowly picks up the newspaper as if it’s a chore, I can tell she’s back in reality, where her son and her sister are dead and she’s left with me.
Aunt Dulce takes a piece of paper off the table, my drawing—of Man Orok, the antihero I invented—and lets out a soft sigh of self-satisfaction. “You left this in the living room.” On her way to the kitchen, she scratches my head and I flinch. She doesn’t remember last night, not that I’m surprised.
She sticks my sketch to the fridge, with my five other drawings she’s already posted there. “It’s mine now.”
Within an hour she always forgets that I’ve broken a rule and paces the living room, muttering angry Spanish. I’ve only picked up a little Spanish, but I hear Freddie’s name and my mother’s name, and I wonder what Aunt Dulce is scolding them for.
Last night, I’d been out late with a couple of friends, skating and smoking cigarettes at the park. When I got home, Aunt Dulce was waiting for me, sunk in her armchair facing the street, glaring through the windows and the bars shaped like tulips. Then she moved from the window. She stood behind the screen door, her arms folded. I stood on the porch, waiting for her to open the door.
I’ve broken curfew before, and this has always been the part when she loses her shit. I’d yell back: “I was barely gone! You told me to get you a Pepsi!” Sometimes she believed me and eased into the nearest chair, silenced. One time I tried telling her I was 20 years old, but that didn’t work. When she didn’t believe me, I’d test her. “So what did we eat for dinner then? What priest did all the talking last time?” I knew questions like that only made her angrier. And I thought, Good. Then I’d lock myself in the bathroom until she was done barking nonsense.
But last night, she said nothing.
She grabbed my hair and wacked me with her fist again and again, until I was bowing away from her, saying, “I swear. You told me to take out the trash. I swear.” It was the first time she hit me. Hard. Like I was her son.
Sometimes I wonder: if a friend or a teacher called me Freddie, would I even realize their mistake? I think we saw ourselves in each other, and everyone, even Freddie, would warn me not to turn out like him.
When my mother told me I would repeat the first grade, she was crying and rubbing my head against her breast, but all I could think was at least I’d be taller than everyone else, and hopefully smarter. Neither turned out to be true. A few days after the news came that I’d flunked, Cousin Freddie and Aunt Dulce were over to watch TV. I was drawing in my room, and Freddie came in. I didn’t turn, but I heard the ice move in his drink, and my back tensed up. He said, “Maybe you’re autistic. Those kids are really good at one thing and retards at everything else.” He reached over and picked up my sketch. “Actually, you’re not that good at drawing either. You’re probably just a pendejo.”
I looked down. I never knew what to say when adults were telling me things about myself.
“It’s okay,” Freddie said. “I was never good at anything either. Shit, I was in high school five years before I dropped out.”
Freddie once gave me a box of manga comics. I never found out where he got them. I still read them. Freddie could be nice like that. But other times, he would fuck with me. One night at my house, he pulled me out of bed and motioned for me to follow him in the dark. He led me down the basement steps, slowly, holding his hand out for us to halt and listen for noise from my mother’s room. Then he’d signal forward again like a spec ops soldier.
In the basement, he handed me a marker. “Your mama wants you to decorate the walls before you guys paint,” he said. “She really likes your drawings.”
“Draw whatever you want.”
I held the marker.
“It’s all good, I promise,” Freddie said. He sat down on the old couch, next to his bottle of vodka, and drank.
I drew entire planets, clouds, cars, trees—sensing Freddie behind me on the couch, following my lines—and for every stick figure, I turned to him, pointed, smiled, and said, “You.”
The next day, my mother yanked me out of bed and spanked me as I shouted, “Freddie made me do it! Freddie made me do it!” Eventually she chilled out and called Aunt Dulce. Her voice rose and quickened angrily, and I was glad I couldn’t understand. Then she was silent, listening. By the time she hung up, I was dressed but late for school.
My mother embraced me. “I’m sorry, Mijo.” She carried me into my room and tucked me back into bed fully clothed. Through my jeans, I couldn’t feel the softness of the sheets.
Freddie was banned from our house. I didn’t see him for a week. Not until I was walking home from school one day and he picked me up in his truck. He looked like shit. The tiny muscles around his eyes were twitching like when you flex your arm for a long time. He drove fast, fishtailing around corners in our neighborhood. He smoked from a pipe the color of a burnt lightbulb. “What did you tell your ma?” he said.
The truck went faster, growling like a machine gun. I told myself, It’s just a joke. I told him, “Nothing. Nothing.”
The engine coughed and the neighborhood ended into a city of warehouses I didn’t recognize. We saw a cop car. Freddie hit the brakes, and pushed my head, saying, “Down, down.”
I smiled. The officer had seen me, through his sunglasses, I was sure. He had looked at me like I was a man, like I could hurt someone.
I’m a freshman at a continuation high school. In class, I feel myself dozing off. I put my forehead to the cool desk and let myself fall asleep. In a dream, my mother and I are in a room surrounded by hundreds of masks—eyeless, gutted shells of doll heads. There is a breathing sound: huhuuh huhuuh huhuuh like God’s breath ticking away. My mother looks sorrowful, like a relative just died or like we are both about to die but there’s no sense in fussing about it.
“Julián.” My mother’s voice.
“Julián.” The teacher’s voice.
I look up. My classmates are laughing. I shake my head to clear away the masks.
After school, I pick up my pen and look around my room, wondering what to draw. It still looks like Freddie’s room, even though I’ve lived in it for five years. His Rancid poster still hangs on the wall.
“Julián,” Aunt Dulce calls from the bathroom.
After my mother died, when I was nine, I stopped talking. Whenever I spoke, I couldn’t hear my voice. The words floated out of my mouth like cartoon, ghost-white font—the quiet sounds in comics that can’t be drawn: whimper, sniff, sigh.
One day, after school, Aunt Dulce and I were sitting in silence. She said, “When are you going to start talking?” I grabbed a cookie from the coffee table and took a bite. “You should always have snacks for your guests. Your mother never put out food when we visited.” In the silence, as she waited, each crunch of the cookie was like glass shattering, feet crushing gravel. My mouth was dry. I couldn’t stand the noise. I felt like I was stealing food right in front of her. I needed her gone so I could swallow.
“Is this as loud for you,” I said, “as it is for me?”
“Is what as loud?”
“Are you home?” Aunt Dulce calls from the bathroom.
I sigh and then sit against the wall by the bathroom door. On the couch, I see Freddie’s old sleeping bag. Aunt Dulce keeps it in a plastic box in her closet, but she’ll randomly bring it out. It’s faded green and yellow, worn and vibrant like a tossed-out traffic vest. It’s hunched on the couch cushion. Every time I see it, I can’t help but imagine Freddie’s cancer-thin bones curled inside.
“How was school?”
Then I remember: I hate her. So much I wouldn’t care if she died. “Actually,” I say. “I had a bad day. My head hurts.”
“I’ll look at it when I get out.”
She’s being nice because of the bathroom. It’s bright in there and you don’t feel so lonely in the small space. Aunt Dulce will sometimes spend two hours in the bathtub. And she will sometimes take three baths in one day. I decide this is a good time to ask:
“Can you take me to Inglewood tomorrow? I want to hang with Maceo.”
“Who’s that?” she says.
“My friend. He lives by my old school.”
“You can just drop me off by the school.”
“It’s on Fir,” I say, trying to picture her face behind the door. Her cheeks are bigger than my mother’s. If they were both in the tub, water up to their noses, they’d be twins.
“No,” she says.
Get out of the fucking tub already.
I look up at the ceiling, at the layers of glitter holding the fragile popcorn together. The same ceiling as the house I lived in with my mother. From my bed I used to look up at it glistening and imagine I had the power to spray stars into existence.
Aunt Dulce hasn’t driven in three months. She’s been walking to the Ralph’s a few blocks away for groceries. The last time she drove, she took us down several blocks on the wrong side of the road. She turned right on red without stopping, and a truck behind us honked long and angry, leaving a heavy silence in the car. I had to give her directions to get us home. I wonder how long she would’ve been lost in the city without me.
I smile. “You should know where it is,” I say. “You drove me to that school for a whole year.” The first time she drove me, right after my mother died, I felt like a burden. I stared out at the dew, hugging myself, trying to disappear. Aunt Dulce rubbed my shoulder and hummed. It made me feel as if she would be driving that way regardless.
I hear her shift in the water. “Where’s Freddie, Aunt Dulce?”
I smile through the long silence. “He’s . . .” is all she says.
My bruised head throbs against the bathroom door. I want her gone. I want her to wander and wander until her feet swell like my head, until she can’t even remember the warmth of bath water or the smallness of the tub, until all she knows is the open ocean of LA.
I imagine her eye-level with the plane of water, trying to go to some place smaller, her reflection disappearing. My shoulders are sinking with her. If she forgets how long she’s been in the tub, maybe she’ll forget who she was saying no to. “Can you take me to Inglewood tomorrow?”
“Sure. I think that will be okay.”
I stand up and see the Bible on the coffee table. It’s Friday, which usually means we’ll have Bible study after dinner. Last time we were at mass, our priest urged us all to go see The Passion of the Christ. Aunt Dulce had said we would go soon, and that we’d start reading the Gospels. I hear her arms lift out of the water and the creak of the drain. I take the Bible and hide it under the kitchen sink.
That night, I dream. I know it’s a dream because I’m watching my own cartoons like a movie. My illustrations are alive and more detailed than Takeshi Obata’s or Katsuhiro Otomo’s. I watch Man Orok as he stands in a dirt field, gazing at his nemesis. They’re preparing for battle, dirt twirling at their feet and hair, magic before a storm. Before I can see what happens, the door to my room squeaks open.
My aunt’s silhouette moves to the center of my room. She touches her temple and sighs deeply. Her shadowed head faces me. “Freddie?” she whispers.
I open my mouth and hesitate, studying her, the way her hand leaves her head and reaches into the dark. “You’re in my room, Mama,” I say.
“Oh. I’m sorry.” She shakes her head. I recognize it—the shock of hearing your name in a dream.
It’s Saturday, and on the way to Inglewood, my aunt keeps making turns I don’t tell her to make. “Not here. Where are you going?” I say.
“Fuck!” she says, looking at me, like it’s my name.
I almost say, What? Instead, I say, “Turn here. Right.” There is no other way to turn. “This is right.” I can hear the cruel edge in my voice.
Her lips tighten against her wrinkled face. Her head rattles lightly. “I hate this,” she says. “I’m never doing this again.”
“Okay.” I look down at the skateboard between my legs and spin a wheel. It stops short. I need new bearings.
“Left here,” I say, pointing.
We approach an intersection, and the light turns yellow, but Aunt Dulce doesn’t slow down. “Aunt Dulce.” It’s red now. “Okay, stop. Stop!” But we’re past the line. “Okay—” and she stops.
We are hit. On her side. My head shakes, and the world darkens a little. I stumble out of the car, into the haze of sunlight. There’s a green light and a red light and birds flying in panic. People standing on the sidewalk like cardboard cutouts, like mirages. I creep around to the driver’s side. White smoke lifts from the other car’s hood. “Look!” someone says, and I spin around. It takes me a moment to realize nothing is coming at me.
The car that smashed into ours is a BMW, one of the cheaper models. Some middle-aged, Hollywood dickhead gets out the car and whips off his sunglasses like he’s on the set of CSI. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” he asks me.
I turn to my aunt. Her side window is cracked. She’s blinking around, looking for something familiar, recognizing nothing.
I pass the EMT’s concussion test. They seem to think I’m all right, but keep asking if I’m sure I don’t have my ID. I laugh and shake my head no, like, Nice try but you’ll have to take my word for it, I’m nineteen. The Hollywood dickhead is yelling at the cops, and I hope he knows he’ll never see a penny for this. Even if it is our fault, there’s no way in hell we can afford it. I tell them I’m fine, and they tell me to ride in the ambulance with my aunt. She doesn’t cry or moan or speak, but I see pain in her body. Strapped into a stretcher, she looks stern and pissed off. She wears the same expression when the service is bad at a restaurant, the music too loud, the waitress a ditsy college girl.
In the ambulance, I keep catching the EMTs glancing at me. One says, “You any good?” I stare at him. “The board. You any good?” I look down at my skateboard and tighten my grip on it.
Once Freddie came over for dinner without Aunt Dulce. I was nine. His clothes and hands were dirty, and he was carrying a duffel bag. At dinner, he talked fast about places he might live. “My friend has a shoe store. I might be able to sleep there.” Something was off about him. “And work there, too.” This light slapping noise kept coming from his mouth, a dry, restless tongue. My mother and I finished, and he still had half a plate of food. We waited, listening as he rambled. He started talking about Aunt Dulce. “I never stole from her,” he said. “I hope you don’t believe her. She just wanted an excuse to kick me out.”
My mother shook her head. She didn’t offer to let him stay the night.
A few months later, he was back. When he rang the doorbell, my mother paused, told me he had cancer. He rang again. She let him in with a wave of her hand, like she was saying, This is what cancer looks like. As he carried his filthy duffel bag through our front door, he looked almost the same, but he didn’t offer his normal smile.
He sat at dinner with us, but he didn’t eat. He said he’d been to the hospital. “I wouldn’t tell them I had a safe place to go,” he said. “I liked it there, it was new. I like new things. And some guy’s like, There’s no reason for you to be here. We got you a ride. They put me in a taxi, I swear to God. And I realized, I’m sitting there thinking, This the first time I’ve ever been in a taxi.”
He looked at us, then he looked only at me. I asked, “What happened after that?”
“Oh. When I got back, I could barely walk, so I just laid in my sleeping bag, listening to some girl in a tent next to me kept saying, I won’t jeopardize shit for my kids. I don’t know who she was talking to, but later she got on the phone with her daughter and started singing her lullabies. Actually, she was singing Mariah Carey or some shit, but it sounded like lullabies.”
The next day, I heard my mother scold Aunt Dulce on the phone. I could understand: Your son is sick. Your son is dying. He won’t steal. Aunt Dulce wouldn’t believe it.
At first, he could talk between the coughing fits, and I was happy when he watched my movies and used my shampoo. Then he got really sick, and I don’t know why but he was bleeding out of his asshole. Every day my mother went in my room and closed the door behind her to clean him up. He fought her because he was sick and didn’t know any better. He was strong against my mother. When she said she couldn’t do it by herself anymore, I helped keep his legs down as he lay on his stomach. I looked at the massacre that was his asshole once and didn’t look again.
During his last nights at our house, I could hear him on the other side of the wall. He would say “Ho . . . ho . . .” It wasn’t a moan; it was like a conversational word. Ho to you, sir. And to you, Ho. Like he was walking through a park, tipping his hat to each person who crossed his path. There were long silences, and through the wall I wondered what deeper language he mumbled in between.
He went to a hospice and died two days later. I was still sleeping in the living room because I liked the blowup bed. My mother and I went to clean my room and found blood on my blankets. I looked up at her, expecting sympathy for my sacrifice of a blanket. But she gazed out the window with half-closed eyes as her hand dangled at her side. Her knuckles looked older, paler, wrinkled as the bedsheets. She took my blankets to the dumpster in the alley.
My mother, Aunt Dulce, and me took Freddie’s ashes to RAT Beach. The water was choppy and gray. A headless seal washed up on the sand. Its skin was white, its patches of exposed blubber whiter, its entrails like clear, melted light bulbs. A few kids were dancing around it, laughing. My aunt said, “Let’s find another spot.”
The shore was rocky. She walked into the water, wetting her jean skirt. She dumped the ashes and coughed in the haze. As the tide came, I grabbed my mother’s shoulders. Foam rushed my toes, and I gripped her neck, pulled her hair, so Freddie couldn’t reach out of the murk and pull me in.
My aunt kept a lot of his stuff, but the only thing I catch her brooding over is his nasty-ass sleeping bag. One time I asked if she washed it, and she said, “What do you think?” Not like it was obvious—she sounded like a teacher who wants you to try and figure it out yourself. When they assume you’re smart enough to know the answer.
“Your aunt is going to be okay,” the nurse says for the tenth time. “Are you hungry?”
“What do you want? Chips? A cookie? Juice?”
She waits there for another moment and leaves. It’s only after she leaves that I realize she’s hot as fuck. Or maybe just pretty enough to be only a little bit out of my league—looks-wise. In everything else—career, brain, experience—I don’t stand a chance, but maybe that’s what she’s looking for. These are my thoughts as I sit in an empty space where they will soon bring my aunt. Feet move under the curtains like a father helping his kid in a bathroom stall. Except everything is clean and bright and I feel like I could wait here for hours.
The nurse brings my snacks and tells me if I need anything, I can ask for her. She touches my shoulder. “My name is Autumn,” she says before heading off again. I watch her leave, her perfect ass in thin pants decorated with girly anime characters, the kind in books you see gossiping in school always, blushing at their lockers when a boy appears and sees a picture of himself taped inside the door. A school girl’s bug-eyes separate her ass crack. She has an orgasm blush, which in anime is pretty much the same as any blush.
They wheel my aunt’s bed around the corner. She looks strange under the blankets. I haven’t seen her in bed since I was a little kid peeking into her room, asking her about the ghosts under my bed. “There you are,” Aunt Dulce says.
I hold my breath.
“Your aunt Dulce had a hemothorax,” Autumn says. “We were able to. . .” He arms are thin, a little hairy. She probably doesn’t have a boyfriend. Her skin looks young, but her voice is so adult. I’m worried she’ll leave again. “There was also a liver laceration,” she says. “But it isn’t life threatening.”
Aunt Dulce’s eyes narrow on me and I look away.
“How do you feel?” Autumn asks me. “Everything is loose, isn’t it?”
“You know, loosey goosey?” She flops her arms around. “I can’t believe I just said that. Anyway, it’s a massive shock to be in an accident like that. It might take some time for your body to calm down from it.”
Looking at Aunt Dulce now, you wouldn’t think she’s just been through a car crash, ambulance ride, and some procedure. Her eyes relax.
“She’s on a lot of medication for the pain,” Autumn says. “So,” she claps her hands together. “I need to know if you have someone coming to pick you up.”
“I told you, I’m nineteen.”
“Right. But if you could bring ID if you come alone next time that would be great.” Autumn sighs and turns to leaves again. “Wait,” I say.
She turns around. “Hmm?”
She smiles for the first time. “Hey, I’ll be around, I promise. I’m Autumn. I’m not hard to find. I’m usually a med-surge nurse, so I’ll probably be helping your aunt tomorrow.” I want to tell her I remember her name. She didn’t have to tell me again. I like her smile, mouth open a little, flattered that I want her around. I turn toward the nearest exit, feeling my aunt’s eyes on my back, and leave.
Skating home, I see two cops on the corner, their flashlights aimed at an old lady sitting in the dirt of someone’s side yard. She’s holding a spray bottle, wearing gloves, and I imagine my aunt, working away, cleaning dirt, treating everyone like a neighbor. The old lady says, “I’ve been working here for years.”
In my room, I count forty-two dollars, saved up in lunch and dinner money from Aunt Dulce. The last time I asked her for money, she gave it to me and said, “I don’t know why I help a sister that never even bothers to call.” She’s not always like that. Sometimes I come home to her humming as she cooks, and I’m reminded of how she would wink at me across the dinner table at Christmas when my mother was telling her how many tests I failed that year. “He draws these birds in class,” my mother would say, waving to a colorful sketch tacked to the wall. I used to draw that bird—thin and quick with green, glowing eyes—over and over again. Later on, I gave it arms and legs and a cigar.
I know I should eat the leftovers in the fridge before they go bad, but I go to McDonalds instead. After eating, I linger in the hard booth a while, watching people coming and going, pigeons hopping around on the tables outside.
The next morning, the house is dim and quiet. It hits me that I did this. I’m the reason I have the place to myself. It feels weird. I look out the window, into the empty driveway, and imagine my aunt lost in the city. Parking at a gas station, asking strangers for directions without saying hi or introducing herself. They’d all think she’d been wandering there forever.
My mother used to do that, bark questions at people, gripping my hand at the county fair, “Do they have baby sitters at the Kids’ Zone?” As if everyone was an employee. They didn’t have baby sitters there, but she left me anyway. I wandered off to a big tent guarded by two dancers who were carving the air with twirling chains of fire. I went in. An invisible man spoke into a microphone: “Sayeth the Lord, ‘Lucifer shalt not create life as I create life.’ Yet behold!” The curtains lifted. On stage, a man stood with something growing out of his neck, an alien face. He was looking up at the sky, his hands in the air like “take me.” He put the alien up to a microphone. Every time he flexed his neck, the alien’s mouth moved, squeaking like an armpit fart. I ran out of the tent, crying. Some adult helped me find the Kids’ Zone and waited with me.
I put my shoes on. Outside, I drop my skateboard onto concrete. The sun is high. I don’t know what day it is. My bones still feel hollow from the crash, like if I don’t clench my muscles around them, they’ll float away. I step on my skateboard. Maybe Autumn will be there like she said she would. I wonder what characters she’ll have on her pants this time. I think of her smile and the seam down her ass crack, parting the giggling school girls. I start skating to the hospital, wondering if she reads comics like that.
I enter my aunt’s room, a lot nicer than the curtained space in ER. Bright and new. She smiles at me, and I sit in a chair next to the bed. Under her blanket, her hips seem tilted, restless. Nothing like the frozen figure on the couch I’m used to, with her hunched back, chin hanging below her shoulders.
I watch TV with her—Oprah, the War on Terror, other bullshit. Sometimes she mutters a question. I say, “Mmhm.” I’m waiting for Autumn to show up this whole time, and eventually she does.
“ID?” she says.
I shake my head, no.
“We have a case manager here. I can call him right now.”
She sits in one of the chairs and relaxes as if she were a family member. “We’ve been testing your aunt Dulce’s brain for trauma, so I have to ask. “Has she seemed a little off lately?”
“I don’t know.”
“Julián, help me out a little.”
“Do you read comic books? Like the ones on your pants?”
“No, I just like them. I feel like with scrubs you can get really decorative.”
Decorative, I’m going to look that word up. “Yeah,” I say. “She’s kind of out of it. She forgets my name a lot.”
Autumn’s eyes widen and she leans forward, then back, as if she revealed too much.
Almost a week goes by, with a few groggy outbursts of anger from my aunt. The nurses don’t really pay attention to them except one time when my aunt tries to get out of bed. One nurse waves her hands in front of my aunt’s face and another plunges some liquid into a tube already attached to her vein, and she relaxes. They’re magicians. A strange old man pokes his head in the room and grins at me. His teeth look like muddy bricks. I wonder if sometimes my aunt forgets there’s an entire hospital around this room, full of other sick people. I think of how much time she spent in the bathroom, and I wonder why she would want to.
Autumn comes in and sits next to me. She turns to me slowly like a robot, her eyes all squinty like we share a secret. She takes my hand, and I almost pull it back, then I squeeze. “I just got an idea. Do you want to help?” she says. It’s one of those moments when you decide that someone is not normal, that they’re even weirder than you.
I nod. She’s giving me her full attention, I can feel it in her hand, eyes. I think I’m learning something, but I don’t know what. I never looked up “decorative” but I think it means pretty.
“Why don’t you bring your aunt an object of comfort from home. Something familiar that’ll help ground her.”
The next day, Autumn tells me, “Your aunt is having a good day.” My aunt doesn’t ask me why I’m so quiet like she did during my first year living with her. I remember those tip-toe moments, the punch of the fridge opening. Now, again, I feel like I’m supposed to talk, like this “object of comfort” in my backpack is going to come alive and jump out any second and do the talking for me. “I brought you something,” I say, pulling her Bible from my backpack. I’m aware of Autumn messing with the machines next to her bed.
She looks at my backpack instead of the book. “Why aren’t you at school?”
At this Autumn perks up, and our eyes meet. I know she knows I’m underage. She’s known the whole time. Why hasn’t she done anything about it?
I shrug. “It’s Friday.” Bible study. We skipped it last week because I’d hid the Bible under the kitchen sink. I used to like imagining that I lived in Bible times, but I never pay attention to Aunt Dulce reading because it’s boring. My mother had a Bible for kids with lots of pictures: Adam and Eve with leaves over their crotches and flat, peach-white skin where they should’ve had nipples. I used to believe every unread word. I still have dreams about those cartoons.
“You could have died in that crash,” Aunt Dulce says.
I look at the blank monitor next to her bed and, below, the mess of tubes and medical contraptions in a wire basket. I feel something, tears, burning their way from my stomach to my nose and eyes. Outside the room, things are beeping, rolling down the hall, phones ringing. I wonder how they cured people in Bible times. I imagine my aunt in some smoky hut while people paint ash crosses on her body, or in a river, a priest waterboarding her before it’s too late. But here she is in this bright, clean, medical place with scientific shit that doesn’t make sense but I know has a purpose. I swallow hard. “Autumn said you’re having a good day.”
She opens the book and seems to be searching. Maybe for some marker, a note she left herself. She looks at me: “In Heaven, everyone speaks every language. And for you, every language will sound like English.”
“Even these doctors? Will I know what they’re trying to say?” Maybe she thinks she’s here to die. She once said that my mother had never taught me Spanish because she wanted to be able to gossip with the adults in front of me. I told that to an older Mexican kid at the park and he laughed. Sucks for you, he said and told me that if you put Spanish as your first language, they give you half as much homework. I look at Aunt Dulce who licks her finger and starts rubbing at the ink on one of the pages. I run my hand through my hair. The bruise she gave me is pretty much gone. I think of my mother, of a time I went to the park with her. In the woodchip playground. She tosses me a deflated soccer ball that hits my temple. I let myself fall, impressed by how quickly I can lie to her. I pretend to be knocked out as my mother shoves my back, singing “Julián. Julián. Julián.”
Autumn says, “Time for some laps.” She looks at me. “Want to help?”
Soon, we’re in the hall and I have my aunt by the arm as we begin a slow lap around the unit. Autumn smiles and leaves us to it. She’s smiling because my aunt seems to know where she is, what happened.
I have a hold of her right elbow as we move across the carpet. This close, looking down at her sagging perm, her brown-dyed hair, I can see the inch of gray moving up it. I wish I could take her to the salon right this second. How much of what happened does she know? How much does she remember of everyone? I can see my mother, hugging me as I stand, arms slack at my sides. She pulls my arms around her. I give in and hug her back. Didn’t I? My mother, sweating through her T-shirt, the white one with a faded sail boat. I touch a chunk of flab on her side, tight above her waistband. I squeeze it, wondering if its hardness means muscle. I lift my fingers to show her my measurement. What did she say?
I want to ask my aunt all of these questions. Even if she wouldn’t know the answer, she could guess. She could tell me how my mother died. Where she died, who she was with, what they gave her, why she took it. My aunt stumbles like something slid beneath her. But I only have her arm, and she falls, and I sink to the ground with her. She’s already flexing in pain. A nurse is running at us. I want to say sorry and thank you. I want to promise I won’t fuck up again, but instead I say, “Watch it!”
The next day, I go back to the hospital, and the day after that, too. Mostly, we just watch TV. Occasionally, she talks. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense. There’s something I like about the place. The noises, maybe, of nurses giving instructions, hands typing, footsteps just outside our door. And Autumn, who feeds me at the cafeteria almost every time I come. She does most of the talking, sometimes about my aunt’s condition, but she also asks me a bunch of questions about my future, and I don’t know what to tell her. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“Where are you from?” I ask.
“Rancho Cucamonga. Come on, Julián, what are you good at?”
Autumn knocks her fork on the ground. “For Pete’s sake,” she says. She’s always saying shit like that instead of cussing. “What the flip? . . . Gee willikers . . . That is bananas . . .”
“We’re probably going to discharge your aunt tomorrow,” she says.
“I can still come visit you.”
She smiles. “We’ll see.”
“What’s with all the beeping in this place?” I ask.
She explains it. When she’s finished, and I’m just staring off into space, I catch her watching me and I snap out of it. Instead of calling me out for not listening, she says, “Get what I mean, Jellybean?” and I lose it laughing.
Back in my aunt’s room, the sun has gone down, and I’m getting up to leave.
“Where are you going?” she says.
She laughs as if I’m a five-year-old running for president.
“Bye,” I say.
As I walk into the hall, her voice reaches me, so sure that her words can change anything: “You can’t be there by yourself.”
When she’s back from the hospital, it’s all worse. She’s irritable, not even a little bit grateful for how I visited her every day. The first night, I go out and find some friends at the park and smoke weed, which makes me feel even shittier. Around one, they decide to call it a night because of school the next day, which I was planning on going back to just to escape my aunt.
Home, I use my key. I close the door slowly behind me, its creak resonating into the house. Through the dark, I see my aunt’s silhouette on the couch. She turns.
I laugh nervously, “That door’s so loud.”
A square of light from a car outside moves across the living room, and for a second, her face is split by light, a flash of anger, wrinkled, yellow. I see her bent shape float around the couch. I see how it knows the space. The street outside is quiet. The car has moved on.
“You steal from your mother?” she says.
I step back. “It’s Julián.”
“Get out. I’ll call the police.”
I walk into the house. “You’re crazy,” I say. Out of the dark, her hand bats me on the nose. We’re embraced, wrestling. Her boney arms flail beneath mine. I close my eyes and squeeze tighter. Her arms flutter vacantly, as if her hands flew off her wrists. “Stop!” I say into her neck. Her jaw wobbles on my shoulder. She’s rotting, but she doesn’t smell like anything. I’ve lived here for five years. “Julián!” I say. “Julián! Julián!
I’m nineteen the last time I see my aunt. She’s in a convalescent home not far from the house that used to be hers, that I always thought would be mine. I pictured this place having a green lawn—I don’t know why—but besides a few bushes under the windows it’s pretty colorless.
An old man sitting behind the glass in a rocking chair watches me smoke three cigarettes and drop each one on the concrete. I pick them up and head inside.
I show the receptionist my cigarette butts.
“Are you trying to ask me something?” she says, and I already hate this place. “The trash can is over there.”
I sign in and two ladies lead me to Aunt Dulce’s room. She’s bones under a blanket, reclining in her bed. She doesn’t look at me, and I relax a little. The two ladies sink to her level, clapping quickly, and she smiles. I think it’s an accident, but they’re clapping in rhythm, as if shooing away ghosts. Then she looks at me with that hazy smile I remember. In the mornings, she’d come into my room, still wet from a long bath, still high from the brightness, the tight walls. I’d close my eyes tighter against the dull sunlight. She’d rub my arm and say, “Time to wake up.” She wouldn’t remember the night before, yelling at me or at dead relatives or at kids drawing on the wall in a TV commercial.
After the car crash all those years ago, the nurse Autumn called Child Protective Services, and pretty soon I found myself living in my first group home, placing my shoes neatly on the rack so I wouldn’t piss off the staff.
Autumn checked up on me sometimes. Both times I got arrested, she somehow found out. She took me to visit my aunt one time and we just sat there, kind of like how I am now, but back then Aunt Dolce still knew I was her relative, some kid she could kiss on the hair. Her words were all jumbled, and the way she nodded and smiled through Autumn’s talk of how this place compared to one she worked at years ago reminded me of the terror I felt at parties, when it seemed these older kids were speaking a different language, gossiping about people I didn’t know. Suddenly my aunt cut off Autumn angrily: “I told you, don’t break the boxes like that”—a throwback, I guessed, to her days managing in retail. I looked at Autumn, and she hesitated before meeting my eyes. “Let’s go,” I said.
It didn’t take long for me to forgive Autumn for ratting us out to CPS. She asked if I wanted to visit my aunt again, but I refused. Whenever I hung out with Autumn, she’d buy me something—a Monster energy drink, a meal at Fat Burger—and I’d always ask for more. She confronted me about this “begging dynamic” but I kept doing it. I’d tell Autumn some horrible shit I did—I stole, I hit someone, I slammed meth—to see if she’d leave. Sometimes she’d ask me what the heck I was thinking and give me a lecture, but later on she’d just be like “Yeah?” and get all quiet. She didn’t leave, though, until two years ago. We were sitting in the car, in a sunny parking lot that could have been any parking lot in LA. I had just bought us doughnuts—I’d insisted on paying. There was no music, and when I think back that seems like a mistake. She told me I was quiet. “Why did it take you so long to call CPS?” I asked.
She didn’t answer at first, and I wondered if she heard me. “I don’t know,” she said, annoyed. “I guess I should have done it sooner.” She turned to me. “Is that what you’re trying to say?”
I shook my head, and she scoffed. “You know, I don’t know what to do all the time, either.”
I grabbed her thigh and kissed her. She kissed me back, for a second. They always do, my fat friend had told me. Until they realize whose lips it is. Her big, soft mouth opening, her breath sucking me in and in the next moment shouting, “No!” She pushed me back into the passenger’s side door, the firmness of her arms a harsh glimpse into adulthood. She brushed her clothes and looked in the mirror as if we’d just fucked. I realized her mouth hadn’t opened for me, her breath hadn’t invited me in. That was her gasping, that was terror, or embarrassment. I don’t really know the difference. Later on, when I borrowed my friend’s phone to call her a hundred times, I blamed her for leading me on, and I think it worked. I think she felt guilty. Or scared. I don’t know the difference between those either.
Autumn had given me a book about some lady whose husband died. “You need to deal with your grief,” she’d said. “A friend recommended this.” I opened it and read the first couple lines. “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant.” I probably won’t read the whole thing.
“I love her,” I told anyone who would listen. My social worker said I need to learn the difference love and hate. I kept calling her, kept thinking I just needed her to listen for one second. I’d borrow different friends’ phones, and I’d get my second with her —“Fucking talk to me”—before she hung up. One time I said, “Wait,” and she didn’t hang up. “I guess . . . You were helping me. And I still need you.” I listened for her breath, anything, and the line went dead.
I don’t know how much time my aunt has left, but I already know I’ll never visit her again. I hate this place. The way you can’t see the sky reminds me of my old home, and even my aunt’s blanket is pale. I used to be afraid of ghosts under my bed. I heard them whispering, and she told me, “Those are just the angels.” And, laughing, “They’re more afraid of you than you are of them.” That made me feel like a badass, like nothing could hurt me, like I didn’t hate my dead mother because I never needed her.
Autumn had said I seek people out who can bring this feeling back. There was the older kid I fought. He was unconscious as I knelt on him, punching different parts of his face and watching them swell like a kid poking wet sand. There was the guy with me the first time I smoked crack, coughing in a garage, the high fading faster than the smoke above me. I pretended to hand the glass stem over, teasing him like a dog and hitting it again, and again, laughing, “No, for real this time,” until it was all gone. The court-ordered AA or NA meetings I go to have this phrase: “One day at a time.” Some guy said for him it’s one second at a time. Life changes in the instant. Like the instant it takes me to suck fire through a crack pipe and fill the world with light. The hours or days that follow, crawling through a flickering hallway empty and violated are nothing to that perfect hit. Eventually, I got over Autumn, after I found Sabrina, who fucked me ten times a day, bought me shit, and broke up with me every two weeks. For a long time, I thought that’s what having a girlfriend was all about: high and low, high and low, until you’re clinging to someone just for the chance of hurting them more than they hurt you.
But now I’ll find myself lost somewhere in the hood, crashing so hard I don’t think I can exist in this body anymore. Or in the ocean next to a cloud of black water, my feet clawing to shore but getting me nowhere. And in these moments, I need to know where everyone went.
My aunt is still smiling, a bright little squeal escaping her mouth. The caregivers keep looking back at me, and I wonder how often they take time just to brighten her day. I can’t stand seeing her like this. I can’t stand remembering all times I could’ve asked her again how my mother died. I know she wouldn’t have made me feel stupid.
And I can’t stand these ladies. They’re singing now, some shit about Jesus and a blessed rock, and I’m trying not to care that they’re singing for me.
Jack Ortiz received his MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he won the August Derleth Prize. This is his first published story.Image by Lukas Bato