I can’t help the frustrated sigh that escapes my lips, hurled at mi padre, my dad, like a gust of wind that threatens to flatten our house of cards. It’s my fault. I should have built something stronger with the cards I was dealt. But I didn’t. I didn’t know how.
“Go away,” I say. “Vete.”
I’m not planning to attend school today.
In fact, I didn’t plan to be in the States at all.
“Vamonos. Let’s go,” mi padre repeats in his heavily accented voice, yanking me off of the couch. “You will not miss senior year.”
He has this new thing where we have to speak English as much as possible now that we live in the States. I almost wish I weren’t fluent. Several trips to Florida, and I am.
With a grimace, I pass him, reluctantly moving toward my room. It feels like my feet are sinking, like I’m walking over sticky sand instead of thick, dirty carpet.
How did I get stuck in this place?
I open my dresser drawer and pull out faded jeans, a white T-shirt, and my Smith & Wesson.
“No,” mi padre says, grabbing the gun.
I take a step toward him, challenging. He does not back down.
“This is why we left,” he says.
Hypocrite. Under his bed is a similar gun, waiting. Just in case. But he’s also the one who taught me how to fight. I’m bigger than he is, but he has more experience. And the scars to prove it.
Not that I haven’t been in countless fights myself.
“Fine,” I say through clenched teeth, and turn toward the bathroom.
The hot water heater goes out after five minutes. The tiny two-bedroom apartment—this hole we now call home—is the only thing mi padre could afford. It’s not much, but it’s inexpensive. That’s all that matters. The plain white walls remind me of an asylum. Feels like I’m going crazy already.
Our jobs keep us afloat. They’re our life vests, our only chance of survival in a sea of ravenous sharks. Mi padre found a job with a lawn crew a couple weeks ago. Not many people would hire him with his scarred face and tattooed body. A restaurant offered me work part-time. Two shifts as a cook, one as a busboy. They promised a free meal every night that I worked. Couldn’t pass that up.
“Don’t be late for school or work,” mi padre says as I step out of the house.
School’s only ten minutes away. I walk, staring at the graffiti-covered sidewalk that stretches in front of me like a ribbed canvas. Latinos roam the block. It didn’t take moving to the States for me to know that’s how it is. The gringos, white people, live in nice houses and drive cars to school while the rest of the world waits for a piece of their leftovers. I’m trying not to think about how screwed up it all is when a Latina walks up to me.
“Hola,” she says. “
“She’s mine,” the guy says, staring me down. “Entiendes, amigo?”
“I’m not your friend,” I say, gritting my teeth. “And you do not want to mess with me.”
Lola is smiling. I wonder if she enjoys the attention. Probably. I’ve met too many girls like her. She fits the type.
“You don’t know who you’re messing with,” he says, stepping closer.
A few guys come out of nowhere, closing in on me. Blue and white bandanas hang from their pockets like a bad-luck charm. I know what the colors signify. Mara Salvatrucha 13 Gang, or MS-13.
I turn to Lola. Watch her smile.
This is all part of the game. What I can’t figure out is if the guy really is her ex and she doesn’t care that she could be getting me killed, or if he sent her to see how tough I am, to help decide whether he wants to recruit me.
I turn to walk away, but someone blocks my path.
“Going somewhere?” another gang-banger asks.
This whole time I’ve wondered if I’d end up fighting at school. I hadn’t thought about the fact that I may never make it in the first place. I silently curse mi padre for hiding my gun. He wouldn’t get rid of it completely, though.
“What do you want?” I ask.
The original guy laughs, looks me up and down. The number 67 is tattooed behind his right ear in bold black numbers. It only takes me a second to figure out the meaning. Six plus seven equals thirteen.
“What are those markings?” he asks, eyeing my tattoos.
“Nothing,” I lie.
If they wanted to fight me, they would’ve done it already. This is a recruit.
“Where you from?” he asks.
I don’t answer. Members of MS-13 stretch around the globe like fingers. They can easily check my past. I’m not gonna give them a head start.
“Swallow your tongue?” one of the guys asks.
I’m trying to figure out if I can win a fight against the five guys who surround me. I look for weak spots, scars, old injuries. I look for bulges that might be weapons. I’m a good fighter. I think I can take them. But at the same time, fighting will guarantee me a follow-up visit from MS-13.
Just then, someone speaks behind us. “Is there a problem?” a police officer asks from the safety of his car.
Everyone backs away from me.
“Nope,” one of the gangbangers answers. “We were just leaving.”
“See you around,” 67 says, throwing an arm around Lola.
I turn my back and walk the last block to school. The police officer trails slowly behind, like a hungry dog sniffing for scraps. He leaves as I enter the double doors.
I think about what my dad said. Moving here will give you a brighter future.
His words sit heavily on my mind, like humidity on every pore of my skin. His intentions are good, but he’s wrong. So far, moving here has done nothing but remind me of my past.