Segundo bows his head, the face that makes people run now hidden from full view. His hands are still, resting over his knees. He watches his mother Clara at the altar holding a tiny piece of Paco’s dried belly button. She prays over it before pressing it between the pages of her bible. She plants a kiss on Paco’s photo, then another kiss on Segundo’s forehead, and ushers him out of the bedroom. This has been her everyday ritual for the past year, ever since his wicked game with Paco in the soil.
Segundo goes back to finish his sweet plantain at the dining table. He waits. When his father honks the car horn he jumps up in his chair. Clara rushes to the front door holding a business suit his father needs laundered. “Glenny, watch Segundo. And forget Menudo. Watch him.” The suit floats with her like a ghost made of grey cloth.
“Ma, take me,” Segundo says as she leaves. Clara does not hear him through the music floating out of Glenny’s cassette player. She disappears into sunlight, her gardenia perfume trailing behind her. Glenny rolls her eyes, the reluctant summer babysitter. She sets a white pill down hard near Segundo’s plate. He stuffs it deep into his pants pocket and then runs as fast as his short legs can carry him, away from the apartment. Away from Glenny's loose hands.
“Take the medicine for your heart defect,” Glenny calls after him, but he is out of the apartment without minding her or her rules, without minding his face or his misshapen heart.
In no time Segundo finds a broken tricycle. He plays alone with the bike outside the apartment complex. Some of its parts are scattered around on the ground. He collects the parts into the hem of his shirt saying, “Mine, mine, and mine,” before wheeling the tricycle toward Proeza's courtyard. The back wheels squeak as they turn when he reaches the yard.
Traffic buzzes behind him on Máximo Gómez Avenue as he works on the tricycle with his hands only. He wraps the front wheel around its small rim; realigns the back wheels; steps onto the crooked cross-bar and straightens it with his weight. He rotates the handlebar until it tightens and bangs on to the seat once, twice. The seat snaps it into place. At twelve years of age he has never ridden a bicycle and does not know the feeling.
“They left you,” he says to it. “But I got you.” “Mi Moto,” he names it as he brushes dirt off the tiny pedals.
In less than five minutes, he is holding a near-new tricycle. It is less broken as he turns the handlebar—left, right—to see how the front wheel moves.
“Not garbage! No, no, no, no, no,” he says to it. Segundo does not play like other boys his age. His toys are the things he builds.
Always in motion, his hands are expert at scavenging, and are forever gathering, fashioning structures out of something his feet trip over, especially if school is out, like now that it is August. This week alone: Arranging salvaged wood planks and cinder blocks into shelves for his big sister’s one thousand books on Monday. Repurposing rubber tires into flower planters for his mother on Tuesday. Crafting a tie rack for his father out of twigs and twine on Wednesday. Erecting cardboard forts that held in strong winds on Thursday.
Today is Friday and Segundo is caressing the tricycle when two boys pass him in the courtyard. They stop a few feet away from him, standing near a palm tree. One of them puts his index fingers into the corners of his own mouth, tugs down hard, and sticks his tongue out at Segundo. He waggles his tongue around and makes air bubbles with his saliva. The other boy scampers about orangutan-style, exaggerating each movement, his hands sweeping low and in wide arcs over the green-green grass.
“There goes Bob the Builder!” one says to the other.
“That bike’s falling apart when he sits his fat Weeble Wobble ass on it!”
Both cackle. They say nothing to Segundo. Neither one looks straight at him. When Segundo opens his mouth to say something, the other two run off, racing each other. He hangs his head; looks down into his own hands, alone again.
His hands are so adept at handling inanimate objects that he does not understand how they break the living things he yearns to touch. At five years of age an egg he stole from a hen to warm till hatching time, and which he crushed on the way home. At seven, earthworms he fondled until they shriveled in his pocket while in his seat at the Batey School for Exceptional Learners. At nine, a frog he dissected with a sharp rock, and which he tried to put back together with rubber cement. At eleven, just one year ago, Paco, his little brother, in that game.
“Mi Moto,” says Segundo and circles the tricycle, inspecting it. A toy headlight rests on the ground beside him. He grabs it and presses it onto its base on the handlebar. Plastic snaps into plastic. It holds!
“Take you home.” Segundo wheels it through the courtyard with one hand, stooping low enough to fall head-first. He is big for a twelve-year-old. He has a long-long torso and short legs with the girth of tree trunks. With every move, everything about him rolls in every direction; his face leads the way.
Palm trees stand like soldiers in formation along the perimeter of the courtyard. The wind kicks up, ruffling long palm fronds. He looks up at a small flock of wild parrots that caws past, in flight.
A little girl walks into the yard and jumps when Segundo flashes his smile. She stops cold, frowns, looks about. He takes a few steps forward, still holding the tricycle, his free hand with short fat fingers splayed. The girl walks backward fast. She runs away, he follows, pointing back at the tricycle.
“Mamá, Mamá!” she screams, running toward a woman who is standing near the front of the complex, close to the avenue. The woman calls her over with one hand.
The complex is a city within a city. There are pastel colors as pale and bright as sunshine on every building. Behind the woman: two semi-circles of apartment buildings stand opposite each other. These buildings are ringed by repeated rows of other four-story buildings with stacks of identical, coral-pink terraces. Their patterns make Segundo trip. Segundo stops short and bends at the waist. He places a hand across his heart and rubs the spot. His heart is speeding up at will. He forgets the pill, gulps air. The complex stretches out around him in all directions.
The precise layout of the complex often leaves him near vertigo, and causes him to lose his way on the paths of the adjacent developments. He has been losing his way ever since he learned to walk, at age two and a half, and once he started wandering past the repeating facades, unaccompanied. He glances up at the girl.
“Mamá! Make him disappear,” she wails as her eyes bulge. She reaches her mother, twisting around her to shield herself with the woman’s body. She cries louder.
From a few yards away, Segundo watches the woman reach behind her back to hold her daughter with both hands. She shoots a look at him; her mouth tight, her eyes hard like the walls behind her.
“Come … I found it! Broken. Mi moto. I fix it,” Segundo says. He bares his teeth in a smile like a grimace. Neither one addresses him.
“Don’t even look at him,” the woman says. The two turn their backs to him and speed-walk away, bodies clasped. They leave him standing there, all smiles and arms outstretched.
Segundo’s face, over-eager, smiling hard, and in constant pursuit, says PLAY WITH ME NOW to anyone who crosses his path. The kids in his neighborhood dart in every direction when his face meshes into a smile that spreads wide and sets into a floppy mask. He has wide-spaced teeth encircling a tongue that does not fit in his mouth. His cheeks droop in folds, and spit collects where his overgrown bottom lip hangs open, so loose that you can see down to the purple gum line, as he drools, until he tucks in his lip and swallows.
There is no one else to play with in Proeza’s courtyard. Segundo stashes the toddler-bike behind some shrubs. He gives the seat one last loving pat before walking away.
“Mine. My friend, Moto,” he says to it. He feeds his hunger for people with the broken things he repairs; Segundo is ravenous for friends.
Uno and Boca Chula were his only friends in the District. They chose him one day when they observed what he could do with his hands and no tools: he built them a small sturdy hut, using only twigs and soft plant stems to tie the sticks together into walls and a roof, draping a sheet over it to complete it. He could do things with his hands that they could not, and he made them toys they could not buy. So they forgave his face.
They would wait for him every day at dismissal, hiding behind the Batey School’s perimeter wall, until Segundo would appear through the gates, one able body in a procession of helmets, wheelchairs, and boxy walkers, all reflecting sunlight. Segundo was one of the few steady on their feet, ambulating among children with bionic limbs who handled their crutches like extensions of themselves, fused aluminum and steel wings, folded for walking.
They moved away mere days after their game with Paco, last year. Their families stayed only as long as it took to pack clothes, photo albums, and important documents. A neighbor swooped in to rescue whatever was left in corners and behind doors, purses and belts and crucifixes hanging from nails.
Segundo’s shadow cuts into the sunlight gleaming over the grass. He watches the wind become visible in bits of trash that rise and twirl up into the air before him, in a ten-foot funnel. It lifts debris into itself, moving forward, then splitting apart, and dropping litter here, there. A plastic bag catches air and fills up like a sail; it floats away.
Crossing the yard in a straight line, Segundo takes a corner exit and disappears into the shade of the walled corridor that leads to the street. He exits at the other end and clangs the gate shut. Stooping down, he picks up an empty bottle lying in the gutter. Plastic crackles in his hand as he crumples the bottle like it is tissue paper. He heads to the park across from Máximo Gómez Avenue.
Every day, Segundo is fixated by the things others discard; he studies how they travel and disappear. He tracks the places where these things accumulate and are gobbled up, whole. Everywhere in the National District, he sees garbage he obsesses to reuse and make new.
This garbage makes of the streets his marked trails: at the nearest intersection, faded canvas sneakers swaying from electrical wires, laces tangled; one tiny Converse pair the size of Paco’s feet. One block down, by his mother’s church, clumps of artificial hair and glossy cassette ribbon hanging from forked tree limbs dotted with shredded newspaper woven into nests. On the next street, a brown baby-doll stuck in the branches of a dried out shrub. And a framed portrait of his city sprawling to the Ozama River’s edge propped against a light post on the way to school. Trash carried by rainwater into storm drains, mounded high on barges and falling over their sides; flowing downstream; lining the riverbanks—leading his way to and from the avenue. These things teach him the way through his expanding neighborhood. They indicate where he should turn right, left, and cross; where he should walk straight, stop, and keep going. They are his markers home, and his path to everywhere else. They make him troll the city for treasures every day with or without his parents’ permission, with or without Glenny’s violent eyes tracking him. And when some key part of this trash disappears, if he goes too far, he must all of a sudden relearn the way.
Segundo walks through the litter of his neighborhood sniffing for the nearby river. He wipes drool from his chin with his forearm. Today the city smells of motor oil and water vapor. Other thick odors hit him full-on, as if he is breathing through each one of his enlarged pores—cuchifritos, roasted peanuts, corn on the cob, hot asphalt, tar.
A loud rumbling moves down the avenue. The smell of rotten oranges fills the street. One step, two steps, three, and then Segundo freezes in place to stare. A white monster-vehicle slows to a crawl. It rumbles and vibrates, then stops, hissing. Two men dump things in. Lift, heave, dump, and repeat. Lift, heave, dump, and repeat, together, like this, moving on down the block, the two separate to gather things left a bit far from the curb.
Segundo’s mouth hangs slack as he bugs at how refuse disappears into the back of the slow-moving garbage truck. And he marvels at the green drool of its enormous mechanized tongue when it clamps down on bags that burst open and leak before vanishing. He sees the truck swallow a sofa, a loveseat, and an armchair—an entire furniture set, gone!—in one hydraulic gulp. He wonders where those things go, and if they ever return.
“Everything in your belly,” he tells garbage truck as it creeps to the intersection. “Not my bike!” he says and sticks his tongue out at it.
The neighborhood is lit up in the highest light of day, under a mean August sun. The avenue’s hum fills his ears. People everywhere sweat, not moving beyond the avenue. Some sell, some buy. A church bell sounds off. A woman in a house dress flies up St. Barbara’s front steps for midday mass. Her head is a rainbow of hair rollers.
Segundo walks one block. His heavy footsteps are noiseless in the deep bass of commerce at the vendor stands spanning the avenue. Boys half his age sell coconut candy in traffic. Furry black flies circle pyramids of goods, buzzing. People wait in lines with fingers curled around folded dollar bills. A man jangles coins in a loose fist.
He stops at the intersection and pans his head from left to right, roving the scene for building supplies. Across the avenue: There is the sugar-cane-juice-stand with big bundles of six-foot cane stalks, standing upright. The frituras, the Johnny cake, the coconut-water spots. Three-foot-tall vats of boiled corn cobs set on metal stands that sport enormous tricycle wheels.
A man with a wok of roasted peanuts placed over a rolled up towel on his head calls out, “Maníce, maníce, maníííceee!”
“El manícero,” Segundo whispers and reaches into his pocket for money. Some coins clink against his heart pill. He forgets the peanuts and pops the white pill into his mouth, gulps it down dry. Then he hears a ruckus.
There—beyond the vendors and past the bus turnaround—a group runs in the park. The group changes shape and twists into itself, with big kids and little kids running together in the same direction, then fast in another, cornering some invisible thing, contracting, taking off suddenly, expanding, and turning in wide arcs as a single mass.
Segundo smiles that foot-long smile and hurries to join the revolving mob. His bottom lip hangs loose, but he pushes it back up with two fingers.
Half a dozen motorcycles zip past, weaving through traffic like fire ants. Cars. Honking. Sputtering. Hot air. An opening. Segundo hurls himself at oncoming traffic and crosses.
“Run, kid!” someone in the group shouts.
Segundo enters the park. The bulge around his middle makes him wobble-trot. He catches up. The group rolls toward him with its many arms and legs. He knows almost every face he sees, but they are not his friends. Some, those from his complex, know about his little brother, Paco, and some do not.
“Why you so SLOW?”
“It’s leaving!!! Block it!”
“NOW, now. Get it!”
“Go, Segundo, go. It’s running toward you!!!”
“Where, where?” Segundo asks. He sees only legs and feet flashing across trampled grass, and through these, more legs.
“Catch it, catch it!”
“What? What is it?!”
The group continues to move to the left, to the right, then away, and back again.
“You see it?”
Segundo looks everywhere, searches the area at the tips of pointed fingers, but cannot see the target.
“He can’t keep up with it.”
“There! Right there! Grab it!”
The group moves closer to Segundo and splits apart a little.
And then, through a gap in the bodies, he sees what the group is chasing: a chick!
“What a mongólico Segundo is!” They mimic his eyes, slits on either side of a flat-bridged nose.
“Go, go, GO!!!”
The chick runs past him. Segundo runs toward it. Now he sees it in slow motion.
Its pink skin glistens through partings in damp feathers. Its eyes bulge, layered by rings of wrinkled skin. A sliver of tongue pokes out of its beak. This is not a newly hatched, fluffy chick, all yellow cuteness, but one of those with a long neck and long legs, in that awkward stage between chick and adult. It has a spikey line of red flesh growing out of its head.
Goose bumps form all over his skin.
“Guácala. UGLY!” Segundo shouts at its head, which is squashed in on both sides.
The frantic chick takes off again. Segundo follows.
“Don’t let it get away!” he hears, and runs faster, to catch up. He and the group chase the chick farther into the park, running up a slight hill.
Segundo runs and bends and runs and bends. With arms out, he ducks, reaches, misses every time, almost at its tail. Drool stretches into a see-through string over his chin, falling as he moves. The chick runs with its head held high, going beyond the grass and onto a path lined with benches. Then it falls down the stairs to the paved monument square below.
The group breaks over the stairs like water splitting around the sharp edges of rocks. They collect around the monument and roll onto grass. Segundo shoves his way through the group. He hops around the chick from side to side, with arms outstretched and feet spread far apart sumo wrestler style. The group forms a circle around boy and chick.
“Cockfight!” someone yells, everybody laughs.
Locked into the frenzy, Segundo throws himself on the ground and lands on his belly with a great heave. His hands wrap around the chick. Its heart thunders against his palms. He rises to his knees and stands, holding it. The chick’s legs are crossed under its body, the digits of its scaly feet curled back, black dirt stuck in its claws.
The onlookers’ voices blend with his own super loud heartbeat; the two sounds fill Segundo’s ears. He cannot think. He swallows hard, breathes through his mouth. His eyes are as open-wide as the chick’s. He holds it up in the air like a trophy, cupped in both hands. Its beak parts in rapid pants; it turns its head from one side to the other to look out of each eye.
“HE. CAUGHT. IT!”
“He’s slow, but—.”
“Look at his crazy people eyes! He’s all EXTRA.”
“Now he thinks we want to play with him!”
Segundo walks along the inside of the circle, his chest rising and falling fast. He forms an “o” with his mouth and puffs out deliberate shallow breaths to slow his own heart—a trick he learned at the Batey.
Segundo thrusts the chick at the group, some kids pull away from him. A boy shoves him back into the circle, but wipes both hands on his shirt.
Segundo stumbles, laughing. Now he is holding the chick by the head. Its body dangles at his side. A girl who lives in his building points at him with scared eyes. A few kids clap, some cheer, others do not move or make a single sound. Standing in the middle of the circle, Segundo takes a slow 360-degree spin to look into every face until his own face breaks into a wide, saggy smile. They looking at me, all looking at me, is his only thought, and the thought amps up his heart.
“What you gonna do with that nasty chick?” a boy asks.
In a nanosecond, Segundo starts swinging his right arm in big, steady circles, round and round, as if rearing up for the fastest pitch in the ballpark. They laugh as he swings the chick around nonstop. He looks at his own arm—up-down, up-down, up-down. And just when it looks like the chick will fly out of his hand, Segundo jets away. He wobbles up the stairs, cuts between two benches and down the hill. Winding back across the lawn, he jogs out of the park and to the avenue.
The group sweeps across the six-lane avenue, breaking up into traffic, running through it as cars brake, now following the boy with the chick that hangs limply from his hand.
The chick’s limp body is like Paco’s body a year ago, arms and legs dangling from his father’s arms. Unsupervised, Segundo and his little brother, Paco, played a game with Uno and Boca Chula. The game: “Play Dead.” Each one of the four was to take a turn being buried alive. "Like at the beach," Uno said. Uno was the oldest of the three and he called out the orders.
“Cuz not one of us is punkin’ out,” Uno said. “We’re all doin’ it. Paco is the littlest one, so he’s first. My grandfather has shovels. Let’s get them so we can finish faster!” “Let’s go,” said the other three. The four walked into the sun with Segundo hurrying to catch up.
They proceeded with great relish, flinging dirt, laboring to keep soil from sliding back into the hole. They took no breaks. Then, they borrowed two buckets and a small wagon from Segundo’s garage. And they made a sizeable hole in no time, but still, they dug some more.
As Paco crawled in, Segundo held one of his small hands and did not let go until the smaller boy said, “Ok,” and pulled out his hand with a little yank. Paco lay in the hole, sucking on the hard candy they bribed him with to go first. Segundo produced the candy out of his fingers like a magician. He removed the wrapper with a flourish, and handed it to Paco, their soiled fingers touching for a second as the candy passed from one brother to the other. And he was gentle when, at Uno’s command, he covered Paco’s face with a sheet of lined paper to keep soil from getting into his eyes, nose, and mouth. “No bugs,” Paco said, and Segundo understood.
They filled the hole fast and packed it down as hard as they could, walking around and leaving their footprints in the soil. Then they sat on the ground, directly above Paco, sweaty and with dirt stuck under their nails, wondering what it is like to be dead. The intense heat muted the sounds of the neighborhood. No breezes blew. Two minutes passed and Segundo pressed his ear against the ground, listening for his little brother.
Paco died of asphyxiation three minutes later.
They buried Paco in the heart of the National District in a cemetery without paths.
The day after the burial, Segundo pressed his ear against his parents’ bedroom door, listening for his mother. Instead, he heard his father’s voice coming through the door.
“Clara, I’m beginning to love Segundo less.”
Tomas had questioned Segundo about Paco’s death. “He said it with a blank stare, Clara. 'I don’t know.' No feeling, no remorse. Not a single tear . . . like he has no heart.”
“You know he never thinks too far ahead, or back, that he cannot. That he … he lacks that capacity. Segundo couldn’t have intended Paco’s death.”
"That's called involuntary manslaughter!"
"NO! With Segundo there is no consequence. It’s something he can’t measure."
“They buried him ALIVE, Clara. And he says he doesn’t know? Like he couldn’t save him?”
Segundo had pointed straight down at the ground when his father arrived from work and asked, “Where is Paco?” When he pounced on the small mound, it was too late to pluck out his youngest son. Still, he got on his hands and knees, and crawled on all fours in his navy blue business suit, his tie dragging on the ground as he scratched at the soil with his bare hands, feeling around for the boy, refusing to use the shovel that was lying nearby.
When they dug him out of the ground Paco’s hands were still, and so was his chest, his flawless Betty Boop lips slack. His face was clean where the sheet of paper had been, but the rest of him was coated with soil. Soil fell from his limp body when they carried him inside with Segundo following the trail.
Tomas cried so hard people restrained him.
Everyone within a half-mile radius of his block heard the man’s wild, wild howling.
Segundo stared and stared at the two spots where his father’s perfect pant creases disappeared into the soil stuck to his knees.
And at the funeral, they saw him hop—up-down, up-down—ashen with grief, with eyes clenched shut, his face a deep grimace.
“Crying more than a woman,” said some of the elder ladies, and men, shaking their heads in disbelief for so long that they forgot they were still saying, “no, no, no, no, no.”
“His beautiful boy, four-and-a-half years old.”
“And now left with the other one … with that mouth.”
Segundo heard it all chewing with his mouth open standing by the platter with a pyramid of sandwiches cut into tiny white triangles.
A year later, and his father still does not look him in the face.
“Tomas, don’t make me defend him as my heart breaks in two for Paco.”
"Paco was the only person, besides you, who could look at Segundo with love in his eyes!"
"Eyes you never had for him, not even when they took him from my chest and he clung to my cheeks with both hands, crying out each time they tried to pull him away to stick him in that incubator. I saw how you looked at him!”
“I wasn’t ready!”
“And then, when I could only see him through glass and his little heart was so wild that it was beating through flesh and bone. You were nowhere to be found.”
“Must be I’m as incapable of loving him, as he’s incapable of reasoning.”
At that, his mother let out a sob so loud and long and ragged it made Segundo jump away from the door as if it had scalded him.
At the third sob, Segundo ran to his room and sat before the small altar, with Paco’s memory haunting the saints and the statue of Baby Jesus surrounded by his things—his baptismal hat and handkerchief, his pictures arranged like a martyr around the statue, and the smooth stones they brought back from the river arranged into a heart. The saints’ eyes followed his every move when he sat at their feet.
“Uno’s gone … Boca Chula’s gone … Paco’s gone,” Segundo whispered to his mother’s saints, uttering his own one-word novena.
They found him kneeling before Paco’s photo with the candle still unlit, his head in a deep bow. When Clara bent to look into his face, there were wide tear tracks on his cheeks, his perpetual smile erased. She wiped his chin first with one hand and then with the other. A drool stain spread across his chest, soaking into his t-shirt. His sister Glenny tucked a small hand towel into his shirt collar. She spread the towel across his chest with gentle hands.
The chick is a white blur moving across the road. Cars swerve to avoid the last of the group crossing the avenue.
Segundo enters the complex with the group at his heels. Sneakers stomp down the entrance ramp. People turn to look at them as they reach the front courtyard, where they stop and regroup, before moving deeper into the complex.
Segundo leads, twirling the chick by the neck high above his head. When he brings down his meaty hand to look at it, its closed eyes startle him. The eyelids are grey and beneath them the eyeballs are sunken. His skin breaks out in goosebumps. He drops the chick. It does not move when it falls to the ground.
The group is silent. They stand still, watching the animal.
Segundo does not grasp death. He pokes it with the tip of his shoe. Nothing happens.
The kids turn from the chick to Segundo, who is mute. His lips part, saliva flows. The group makes the connection explicit for him.
“Assassin!” echoes another.
Then every single voice, in unison: “Assassin! Assassin! Assassin!” They point fingers at Segundo. Chanting, the group closes in on him until his back is flat against the sidewall of a building.
“Assassin, assassin, assassin!”
They chant until he cries without a sound, looking down at the mangled chick. Its feathers sparkle in the sun, flattened where his fingers pressed too hard, earlier. He hiccups a huge sob. His bottom lip quivers when he looks at them one last time.
Segundo runs. Behind him, the group chants and laughs, still pointing.
The avenue fades.
He does not turn back.
Paco would follow Segundo whenever he could. Two months before the accident, Segundo and Paco planned an escape to their favorite place. The Ozama River.
“Get down,” Segundo says.
Paco gets down on the floor, on all fours.
Segundo assumes his position, standing next to him. He hesitates.
“Now,” Paco says.
But—” Segundo tilts his head to one side and listens for his mother.
“Ready!” Paco sets off crawling fast, right out of their bedroom door. Segundo waddles down the hall, hurrying to step ahead of his little brother.
“Be invisible,” is his only hard-whisper to Paco.
In this way, Segundo using his legs as a shield, and Paco crawling, they cut through the living room, passing potted aloes and macramé plant holders hanging from the ceiling. As allies, covering each other, they move from one piece of furniture to another, ducking, straining to become invisible, avoiding their mother, until they reach the front door and step out.
“Take me to the river, Segundo!”
Some of the streets that bisect Segundo’s neighborhood run smack into the river and its smooth stones. Wide and narrow, gravel or cobbled, paved and unpaved, some end at the turbid water, and there, other streets begin. Whenever Paco goes with him, Segundo takes the straightest route to get there and back before sundown.
“This way … come!”
The brothers go on a mission, holding hands at intersections to cross streets. Neither one is phased when the houses change from concrete to slatted and wooden. Neither turns to look at the rows they pass, some houses without doors and dark, without electricity, arranged on a steep incline, with gravity pulling them into a near run when they finally cross the invisible line between the urbanized side of town and the part where no development projects have been ordered or financed by President Joaquín Balaguer.
The sloped trail of wild grass is interrupted everywhere by discarded plastics like confetti. The soil is so moist their feet sink as they near the river.
The Ozama River feeds into the sea, and so it smells of salt and seaweed. Segundo traces its scent all the way to the edge, leaving behind the back paths of the complex. Paco is his shadow.
“I smell it,” Paco tells Segundo, running ahead of him.
The brackish water forms a rich estuary where sea and river life incubate together. Each day at low tide the river’s edge crackles with newly hatched life. “Every species in the ocean spawns here,” Tomas swore to Segundo and Paco as he shook out a net on a day out catching crawfish. Clara and Glenny retrieved a pot of spaghetti and bread from the trunk. It was their last family outing, mere months before the deadly game.
Segundo’s favorite spot of the river basin is a forest of exposed roots, tangled and tall. The spot is encircled by mangrove trees with roots knobby and gnarled like a giant’s arthritic fingers, rising out of the water. The two stop before reaching that spot.
“Check under rocks!” Segundo calls to Paco.
“I am.” Paco obeys stepping between rocks. “Look. The little holes!”
“ALL OVER,” Segundo shouts, approaching.
“I WIN,” says Paco.
“I found them first,” Paco says and grins.
Segundo admires the network of tiny crab-holes. He stomps around here and there. His footprints fill with groundwater with every step. They appear and disappear in the wet sandy soil wherever his feet sink into the loose earth, disrupting numberless crabs, which break through the surface, claws first. The crabs move sideways, pincers up, some sinking back into rocky soil-sand, still clambering to flee. The ground crawls with tiny jointed legs.
Paco imitates the baby crabs, scampering sideways, laughing from his belly. He stoops down and turns over some more rocks along the way. Looking back every few feet he calls big his brother, “Segundo! Hurry up!”
Segundo peers into the miniscule black holes, pressing both hands flat on the ground. Water seeps into his pants, soaking his knees—a shadow moving up his thighs.
Lured by the shiny rock crabs, Segundo and Paco stay too long. Night is falling. A high concentration of luminescent phytoplankton and comb jellies are lighting up the river’s surface, and all along the edge.
“In the water—”
“I see them.”
“Make them light up. More. Look.” Segundo shows Paco by running his hand along the surface of the river—back and forth, back and forth—raking his fingers through the jellies whose bodies are mostly invisible, detectable only by their light. Paco imitates his brother and dips his hand in.
“THEY’RE GLOWING, SEGUNDO. They’re GLOWING,” Paco exclaims with pure glee and lifts both hands, cupping so many comb jellies they stream over his thumbs and fall back into the water, making the surface shimmer more with each widening ripple. He dips them back in and raises his cupped palms until his fingertips touch Segundo’s. Segundo catches the luminous stream passing from Paco’s hands to his.
The apartment is on the ground level and has a small terrace with four wicker chairs set around a small wrought iron table. His sister Glenny occupies one of the chairs. She is writing in a composition notebook, with her swan neck bent forward.
Segundo runs past her into the apartment.
He sees only black and grey contours when he enters, taking the hallway on the left to the last bedroom door, which is on the far right. He shuts the door and heads straight to the corner where his mother keeps the altar; every saint behind glass. Baby Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Saint Martin, Saint Francis of Assisi, crucified Christ all in color standing beside a tall glass of water and a dessert dish with Paco’s favorite candy. Segundo sits on the floor gazing at the candy’s glossy wrappers. He does not move until Glenny calls him.
“Come eat right now, Segundo!” Her voice is a screech.
He can still smell the chick on his hands, something like cornmeal and sweat.
“Hurry up, I don’t want to hear anything from mami.”
“I get a bottle?"
“Let’s go! You have to eat before she gets here.”
Thirty minutes later, Segundo still has not touched his hardboiled egg. He bites off a piece of bread. Bits slide out over his bottom lip as he chews with his mouth open. He places bits of bread on the edge of his plate with wet fingers.
Glenny puts down her fork with a little clatter.
“You’re impossible! Stop that. It’s disgusting!”
“What twelve-year-old still needs a bib?”
“Instead of that Batman mask you want, I’m telling ma to buy you bibs labeled with day of the week—Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. You think you can keep them straight?”
“Could you act normal?”
Spittle and food slip out of his mouth, followed by smacking sounds.
“And can you put your tongue back in your head?”
Segundo cowers in his chair.
“I mean, is there anyone worse than you?” Glenny says. “First, you’re born. And second, that face—”
“Come here. Let me tell you something."
Segundo shakes his head.
“Now you don’t like secrets, you nasty?”
But Segundo knows her habits—what she does with her loose hands. Mean backhand, hers.
“I wanna see if you can finally understand. You wanna know what’s wrong with you, half-born?” She leans over the table laying both hands flat on it.
Segundo leans back as she brings her face closer to his.
“Half-born understand?” Segundo parrots.
"Listen, it’s not about being good, or bad like with that thing you did to Paco. It’s what I’ve told you every single day of your entire life. The same thing the block tells you when you want to play and they don’t, and then you go become a garbage collector.”
“What?! What is it?”
“That. You. Are. Fucking. Ugly. GUÁCALA."
Geimy Colón was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic and raised in Brooklyn. A writer and a teacher, she obtained a BA in Creative Nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence College and an MFA from Hunter College, the latter after nearly a decade of creating literacy development and intergenerational science-based programs in four out of the five NYC boroughs. She is currently working on her first novel and a collection of short stories.