Some dickhead from ICE cuffs my son. He’s just six years old. I’m on my knees beside him, my hands cuffed behind my back. On the TV, Dora the Explorer and Boots are trying to find Hip-Hop Bunny’s stolen basket.
“It’ll be okay,” I say and fake a smile. “Your mom will get you real soon, okay?”
“What about you?” he asks, his bottom lip quivering.
“Edgar, I’ll be fine. You don’t have to worry about me, okay?”
“Okay,” he says. Tears run down his face.
Another dickhead from ICE enters my living room. “We got the brother or what?”
Outside I see a man in navy blue slacks and a bulletproof vest emblazoned with the letters FBI, and I know everyone is here because of my brother.
After in-take I walk to my cell. My cellie sits up from the bottom bunk and nods. He yawns, blinks the sleep from his eyes. I toss my prison-but-not-prison-issued bed roll onto the top bunk, walk over to the sink, and throw water on my face.
“My name’s Hugo,” my cellie says.
“Marco.” I dry my face with the sleeves of my new orange jumpsuit. “How long you been here?”
“About a year and a half.”
“That’s a long ass time to get deported.”
“The wheels of justice roll slow for us illegals.”
The walls are bone white and bare save a few hooks and a shelf lined with toiletries, an empty mug, and a battered copy of The Stand. I lean on the doorjamb, take in the lay of the land. A dozen tables bolted to the floor. Checkerboards painted atop every one of them. A couple TVs fixed high up on the wall, and a bank of phone booths.
“This your first time locked up?” Hugo asks.
“Don’t worry.” Hugo lies back down, closes his eyes. “It’s not as bad as prison, but keep your eyes open. Shit still happens.”
Men of every shade of brown wander the unit. Mexicans and Central Americans. Some Asians. Even a couple black guys. Africans, I presume.
“What got you in here?” I ask.
“They say I stole a bike. What about you?”
“They say I have a brother.”
“That’s some fucked up shit. What did he do?”
“Something bad I guess. You think they’ll let me get my baby mama’s number out of my phone?”
“Not unless you got something to offer them.”
I can’t tell if he’s implying ass.
“They got computers here?”
Hugo shakes his head. “They ain’t got shit here.”
“Sanchez, Marco!” A guard shouts.
“You been here like three minutes, and you already their favorite.”
“I’m lucky like that.”
In an interrogation room, the fed in the navy blue suit sips coffee, fiddles with the papers inside an open manila folder.
“Hello, Mr. Sanchez.”
I take a seat.
“I’m Special Agent Kovacs from the FBI. Do you know why I’m here?”
“Good. Then I’ll cut to the chase. Where’s your brother?”
“I don’t know.”
“I think you do.”
Agent Kovacs slides a document across the table.
“Your phone records show text messages from phones associated with your brother.”
The document lists various phone numbers and call times.
“If you check the actual messages, you’ll see he asks about my kid, how he’s doing. He never says where he is.”
“And you never ask. I know. Still, a prosecutor might be able to convince a jury that you aided and abetted a known fugitive. That charge has a few years behind it.”
“I didn’t aid and abet shit.”
“Maybe, maybe not, but your brother almost killed an FBI agent. Someone’s paying for that. You’re in this country illegally, right? As it stands the United States government is within its right to deport you, and I am also within my power to expedite your case and have you deported to San Salvador within the week. What do you think about that?”
I wouldn’t know El Salvador from Mozambique.
“But maybe we don't send you back. Maybe you give us your brother, we forego any charges, and you can stay. What do you think?”
“Like I said, I don’t know where he is.”
Agent Kovacs places my phone records back into the manila folder.
“Maybe you should think about your son.”
“He’s a citizen. Leave him out of it.”
“Calm down. I’m not going to do anything to him, but if you refuse to cooperate, I will do everything in my power to keep you away from him. I will keep surveillance on his mother’s apartment so if you manage to sneak back into the US and try to see him, we’ll snatch you right up and deport your ass right back to that dump of a country.”
Agent Kovacs stares me down, but I avert my eyes. He chuckles.
“Take a couple days to think it over. Trust me. There’s no pride in hiding your brother.”
Agent Kovacs collects his papers, knocks on the door. A guard steps in.
“Please restrain Mr. Sanchez. As you can see, he’s a bit agitated, and I believe he’s a danger to himself and staff.”
The guard smiles. “He looks like a spitter, too.”
“That he does.”
After two guards strip me of my clothes, they strap me to a chair and place a mesh hood over my head. Then they wheel me to solitary confinement where I spend the night thrashing, digging the straps into my forearms. I didn’t realize I was screaming until I could scream no more.
A guard takes me back to my unit. Rope burn sears my wrists and ankles. Men lumber about, play checkers or cards at the tables. From the second tier, Hugo throws his hands up, as if to ask, where the fuck were you?
I walk into my cell and head straight for the sink and rinse off the blood caked on my forearms.
“They give you the chair?” Hugo asks.
“What’d you do?”
“Probably the worst thing you could have done.”
“Can they do worse?”
“What do you think?”
I think about my son, whether his mother got to him yet, or if he was processed into some DCFS shithole, and I break.
“Hey, man. Don’t let them see you that way. They’ll know they got you. Wash your face.”
Hugo stands in front the doorway, blocks me from view.
I splash some water on my face.
“ICE took my kid.”
“They’re ruthless motherfuckers. They go after anyone else?”
“No. No one else to go after. My mom married a white guy years ago. She’s a citizen now. I’m their only leverage.”
“Let me guess. They’re going to deport you if you don’t talk.”
“Then you got a problem, but if I had to decide between my kid and my brother, I know what I would do.”
The choice anyone else would make.
“It’s not that simple.”
Once in a blue moon, usually when my brother was locked up, my mom drank herself into oblivion and reminisced about our last days in El Salvador.
“During the civil war,” she’d say, “it wasn’t bad enough that a death squad killed my husband—your father—because he was suspected of being a Marxist—which he wasn’t—or that you had to worry about being gang raped and killed, you also had to worry about the government recruiting your children into the army.”
Sometimes she used the word kidnap instead.
“They would round up kids in soccer fields, movie theaters, or churches for Christ’s sake and take them straight to basic training. They had no shame. They’d walk right into a school or orphanage and take whoever they saw fit for war.”
It’s what they did to my brother. He was ten years old at the time.
In 1988 they made him a spy, my mom would tell me—my brother would never say anything about his time in the army. He’d walk around town and report back what he heard. He’d finger whom he suspected of being a guerrilla, or a guerrilla sympathizer, anyone who spoke like a Marxist, used the word bourgeoisie. Though he never cut out the tongue or eye, flipped the switch, or pulled the trigger, he knew he was responsible just the same. In the barracks—and later at home—he had nightmares of eyeless men chasing him through the streets. Their eye sockets oozing blood black as dusk. Despite the nightly hauntings, he kept up his end of the deal, and nothing happened to me or my mom.
In the dining hall, Hugo stares at the shriveled apple on my plate. “You going to eat that?”
I toss him the apple, and he bites right into it.
“You know, they don’t feed us enough. Most fuckers here lose crazy weight. Shit, I already lost fifteen pounds here, so you need to eat whatever they give us.”
“This shit’s spoiled. You know that, right?”
I push my plate of rancid meat to the other side of the table.
“I would say you’ll learn to love it.” Hugo redirects the plate to himself. “But you probably won’t be here long enough. No offense.”
“It’s fine. I could stand to lose a few pounds before I get deported and then kidnapped and killed.”
“It’s not that bad down there. Like any place, just depends on the city. You got people down there?”
Hugo chuckles and almost chokes on his apple. He thumps his chest.
“Sorry,” he coughs, laughs again. “Man, they call San Salvador the murder capital of the world.”
A twig of a man sits across from Hugo and me.
“Manny, Marco. Marco, Manny”
Manny nods, digs into his spoiled meat. “Where you headed?”
Manny winces. “Hope you know people down there. Fucking murder capital of the world.”
“That’s what I said,” Hugo says with a laugh.
“Guards are talking about you,” Manny says as he chews.
“What are they saying?”
“All I heard was something about the chair. I think you’re going to have some bad sleep tonight.”
“Hey,” Hugo says, “let’s say your house is on fire and you could only save one person, who would you choose? Your son or your brother?”
“Easy choice. My son. Why? Someone’s house on fire?”
“Yeah,” Hugo says. “His. Save your kid, man.”
“Thanks for your counsel.” I stand and bump into some Asian dude who clocks me in the face. Guards tackle the both of us, and I wind up in the chair, spit bag over my face, thrashing the night away.
My mom said she hadn’t seen my brother for six months when he came running back home, covered in guerrilla blood. After she washed him up, she spirited us away to Guatemala. Then by some miracle and God knows what—nothing my mom would ever explain besides saying, “It wasn’t easy”—we wound up in Los Angeles, California with one of my dad’s cousins.
The three of us shared a mattress on the floor of a cramped room in Westlake. Every few nights my brother would wake up screaming, drenched in sweat, telling my mom the eyeless men were coming to get him. Those nightmares never let up. Some nights he refused to sleep. He’d burrow into the corner of the room and read comic books by flashlight.
When we got our own apartment with two bedrooms, a TV, and a Super Nintendo, my brother would play games for hours on end, sometimes all throughout the night. My mom would pretend she didn’t want to watch anything. Whenever I complained, she would say, “Let him have this. He’s been through a lot.”
I didn’t tell him anything. I was just seven, and though I knew next to nothing about the world, I knew he was not all there, could see it in that unblinking stare, the way he stayed up all night with every light in the living room and kitchen on.
In the morning I walk back to my cell and rinse off my forearms again. Hugo walks in after me and slides into his bunk.
“You all right?”
“Have you ever been in that chair?”
“Glad to say I haven’t.”
“Let’s just say it sucks. So why’d that guy punch me?”
“My guess: he gave the guards a reason to throw you into solitary, strap you into the chair.”
I hop onto the top bunk and close my eyes. The cell smells like shit. I try to think of Edgar. It takes longer than I’d like to see his face.
“Figure out what you’re going to do?” Hugo asks.
“Rest up while you can because you know where—shit.” Hugo jumps to his feet.
I sit up and look outside. Before I realize a dude has a bedsheet wrapped around his neck. He hops over the balcony. The rope goes taut, and the dude’s neck jerks sideways. His body goes limp. A few inmates rush to help, but it’s too late. No one says shit. The dude’s body sways back and forth like a pendulum, slowing to the end of time.
The guards call a lock down.
Hugo shakes his head and returns to his bunk. “That’s like the third guy this month.”
A few weeks after my sixteenth birthday, my brother came home with a car. He didn’t say where he got it, whether he knew how to drive, and we didn’t ask. We knew he bought a driver’s license at MacArthur Park, and even though he looked nothing like Jameson Carbonneau—a white guy with blue eyes, a shaved head, and a too perfect smile—my brother assumed his identity anyway.
“Let’s go for a drive,” he said and then ushered me and my mom to a beat up 1986 Honda Accord.
“That’s a really nice color,” my mom said of the fading burgundy paint.
“You hungry?” he asked as we buckled up, my mom seated shotgun. “Cool, let’s get something to eat.”
He cruised down Wilshire into Korea Town, so I figured he was taking us to get some Korean barbecue, but the next thing I know we were on the 10, heading west.
“Where we going?” I asked.
“To get something to eat,” my brother said. “You already know that. Why you asking stupid questions?” He turned to my mom. “Why does he ask stupid questions?”
My mom turned to face me. “Isn’t this is a nice car?” she asked and gave me that look that said, just go along with it, a face she threw at me all too often, like when my brother renamed himself Tito Ortiz, or when he got a tattoo of a dreamcatcher on the top of his right hand.
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s a nice ride.”
“You should thank your brother Jameson for being so nice.”
My brother smiled.
The whole drive I kept an eye out for cop cars. I was sure we’d be pulled over, my brother arrested and thrown in jail again, my mom crying for my brother day and night—crying me out of existence.
A half hour later, my brother turned off the Pacific Coast Highway and down a short road to a restaurant right on the beach: The Paradise Cove Beach Cafe.
The host sat us at a table by the windows. From there we had a perfect view of the ocean, white people lying in chaise lounges.
“How’d you find out about this place?” I asked.
My brother shrugged.
“You like it?”
“It looks expensive,” I said.
“Don’t worry about that. I got it.”
“He’s got it,” my mom said and playfully slapped my hand.
Almost everyone there—not counting the kitchen staff—was white.
“Would you like anything to drink?” the waiter asked.
“Three Cokes,” my brother said, “the seafood tower and a side of fries.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“You’ll see.” He stared out the window, at the Pacific Ocean. A glittery expanse of undulating blue. “It’s so clean, huh?” He rapped the table with his fist. His knuckles a collection of scabs and scars.
“Santa Monica, the water’s so dirty. It’s not for swimming. For dying, maybe. You know what I mean?”
I didn’t. But it’s how he spoke sometimes. Vague, like an incoherent poet.
“That’s why I never took you boys there,” my mom said. “Just so dirty. Probably get a disease walking in it.”
“I hear the water up north is even cleaner,” my brother said. “We should move to Washington. Live in the forest, away from everyone. No more gangbangers, drug dealers. Mom, you would love it.”
“I probably would,” she said, smiling ear to ear.
“You would. I promise. We need more air. We need trees. Water.”
The waiter delivered a metal bowl the size of a small barbecue pit filled with clams, jumbo shrimp, scallops, calamari, smoked salmon, and a three pound lobster atop it all. I didn’t know where to start.
“I wish I brought the camera,” my mom said.
After lunch my brother rented three chaise lounges on the beach, but he didn’t lay in his. Instead, he stood before the ocean and stared off into the horizon.
“You think he’s all right?” I asked my mom.
She had her eyes closed, her arms tucked behind her head. “He’s fine. He’s just relaxing.”
“Who relaxes standing up?”
“People with legs.”
“You going to ask him where he got that car?”
“Stop being such a drama queen and just relax. We’re on a beach for Christ’s sake.”
“Can you stop pretending things like this are normal?”
“He’s not hurting anyone. Just let him be.”
“Just be a good brother.”
I gave up. It didn’t matter what he did. He was her damaged angel.
The car disappeared the next day, as did the name Jameson Carbonneau, replaced by John Hoarty, a white guy from Chicago.
After the guards cut down and wheel out the suicide, they unlock our cells. I walk down to the ground level to talk to someone about my phone when someone pushes me from behind.
“Where you from, foo?” my attacker asks.
I turn around, throw my fists up.
The dumb ass laughs. “Look at you.”
It's my brother.
“You become a big bad macho since the last time I saw you? Come here.” He bear hugs the life out of me. He’s been working out, his thick arms flaunting the topography of his veins.
“How long have you been here?”
I pry myself out of his arms.
“They brought me in this morning.”
“If you’re here,” I whisper, “then why are they still asking me about you?”
My brother laughs. “I’m not me.”
“Come on. Too many ears out here.”
My brother walks me to his cell. “Out,” he tells his cellie, a frail old man on the top bunk. When the old man is out of earshot, my brother says, “I bought a new identity.”
“They got your prints. They’ll realize who you are in no time.”
“Naw.” My brother laughs and wiggles his fingers. “New fingerprints.”
“Get the fuck out of here.”
“Believe, my dumb dumb brother. Believe. They ain’t going to find the old me. I’m like the Phoenix. Reborn. Free of the past.” He raises both hands, palms upward, and then laughs. “Shit, I got a social and a passport, too.”
“How the hell does someone get new fingerprints?”
“Dark web, foo. You can find anything there, even a real life gimp.”
My brother peeks his head out of the cell and scans the balcony.
“If you have a passport, then why are you here?”
My brother sucks his teeth. “Passport’s from Argentina.”
“Why didn’t you get one from the U.S.?”
“Those shits were too expensive. Besides, I blew most of what I had on the fingerprint surgery. All I needed was a new identity anyway, so I got one from Argentina. That way if they deport me, I go somewhere chill.”
He posts up against the doorjamb. I sit on the bottom bunk.
“How’s my nephew?” he asks.
“I don’t know. ICE took him, too.”
My brother shakes his head. “That’s fucked up, but he’s a citizen. He’ll be fine.”
“But I won’t. ICE is going to deport me to San Salvador if I don’t tell them where you are.”
My brother mad dogs me. “You tell them anything?”
He nods. “Family above all. We stay true to one another, like the sparrow to the sun, you know what I mean?”
I nod because it’s all I can do to not scream.
“You remember the phone number mom gave you?”
“Yeah. I remember.”
After the government denied us citizenship and green cards, my mom arranged for her cousin Leti to rescue us if we ever got deported. All we had to do was call.
“Then you’ll be all right.”
“Do you understand what’s going to happen if I get deported?”
“You get a free vacation.”
“People migrate on foot across Mexico to flee that shithole. It’s not a fucking vacation.”
My brother rolls his eyes. “That’s just social media bullshit. It's not that bad over there.”
“What about your cousin?”
“That foo was stupid.”
“They chopped his ass up in six pieces and left him on his dad’s front door.”
My brother sucks his teeth. “He wasn’t hard enough for the game.”
“He delivered pizza. He didn’t fuck with drugs.”
“I don’t know why you got to be such a bitch about this.”
There’s no talking to him. I wonder if he even remembers living in El Salvador, or whether his subconscious erased the memory of his ghosts’ origin. His flippant attitude toward my possible deportation to the murder capital of the world suggests no—yet I’m to fall on my sword for him.
When my brother became a fugitive, my mom revised our deportation plan: if the FBI brought in ICE, as they threatened, we would remain quiet and accept deportation. It would be recompense for my brother’s childhood sacrifice. Family above all, she said. But then she remarried, became a citizen.
My brother walks onto the balcony and leans on the railing. I follow along. My brother stares at the inmates in the recreation area.
“You think any of those foos can get some herb?”
“I don’t know.”
“I haven’t smoked shit in too long, man. I’m too clear headed right now. You know what I mean?”
Not in the least.
“Where have you been?”
“Here and there. Mostly there, though.”
He would never reveal much, not even the time.
“So what’s your name?”
Not long after lights out, I hear my brother banging on his cell door.
“Get me some fucking light!” he says.
All these years, he never learned to sleep in the dark.
“Shut the fuck up!” some inmate says.
My brother keeps pounding the door and screams, “Turn on the fucking lights!”
Now a chorus of inmates shout some variant of “Shut the fuck up!” Some rattle or slap their cell doors.
“Shut your goddamn mouth,” a guard shouts.
My brother howls.
That chorus of inmates transforms into a wall of cacophonous noise that drowns out my brother’s voice. I can’t see what’s happening, but a half-dozen guards jog toward my brother’s cell.
Hugo places his hand on my shoulder and says something into my ear, but all I can hear is my beating heart.
The tumult stops. A couple minutes later, two guards drag my brother’s limp body out of the unit.
“You couldn’t do anything about it,” Hugo says.
Twenty minutes later, a guard appears at my cell door.
“You didn’t think we forgot about you?”
On my deportation flight, I get a window seat, a small consolation for my voyage to the murder capital of the world, being separated from my son for God knows how long. Besides the blue sky, there isn’t much to see. But two hours out from San Salvador, I catch a glimmer of the Pacific Ocean, and for a moment, I understand my brother.
Michael Leal García teaches and writes in Los Angeles, CA. His work has been featured in The Acentos Review, Huizache Magazine, Fjords Review, Bluestem Magazine, Your Impossible Voice, Drunk Monkeys, Lunch Ticket, and Apogee Journal. He is currently writing his first novel and raising his first child and, consequently, watching an unconscionable amount of Peppa Pig. Oink!