Authors: Jeanine Cummins
By the time Mami returns to pull Luca from the shower,
he’s curled into a tight ball and rocking himself. She tells him to stand, but he shakes his head and rolls himself up even tighter, his body flapping with panicked reluctance. As long as he stays here in this shower with his face lowered into the dark angles of his elbows, as long as he doesn’t look Mami in the face, he can put off knowing what he already knows. He can prolong the moment of irrational hope that maybe some sliver of yesterday’s world is still intact.
It might be better for him to go and look, to see the brilliant splatters of color on Y
nifer’s white dress, to see Adri
n’s eyes, open to the sky, to see Abuela’s gray hair, matted with stuff that should never exist outside the neat encasement of a skull. It might be good, actually, for Luca to see the warm wreckage of his recent father, the spatula bent crooked beneath his fallen weight, his blood still leaching across the concrete patio. Because none of it, however horrific, is worse than the images Luca will conjure instead with the radiance of his own imagination.
When at last she gets him to stand, Mami takes Luca out the front door, which may or may not be the best idea. If
were to return, what would be worse – to be on the street in plain sight, or to be hidden inside where no one might witness their arrival? An impossible question. Nothing is better or worse than anything else now. They walk across Abuela’s tidy courtyard and Mami opens the gate. Together they sit on the yellow-painted curb with their feet on the street. The far side is in shade, but it’s bright here, and the sun is hot against Luca’s forehead. After some brief swell of minutes, they hear sirens approaching. Mami, whose name is Lydia, becomes aware that her teeth are chattering. She’s not cold. Her armpits are damp, and she has goose bumps across the flesh of her arms. Luca leans forward and retches once. He brings up a glob of potato salad, stained pink with fruit punch. It splats onto the asphalt between his feet, but he and his mother don’t move away from it. They don’t even seem to notice. Nor do they note the furtive rearrangement of curtains and blinds in nearby windows as the neighbors prepare their credible deniability.
What Luca does notice is the walls that line his
’s street. He’s seen them countless times before, but today he perceives a difference: each house here is fronted by a small courtyard like Abuela’s, hidden from the street by a wall like Abuela’s, topped with razor wire or chicken wire or spiked fence posts like Abuela’s, and accessible only through a locked gate like Abuela’s. Acapulco is a dangerous city. The people take precautions here, even in nice neighborhoods like this one, especially in nice neighborhoods like this one. But what good are those protections when the men come? Luca leans his head against his mother’s shoulder, and she puts an arm around him. She doesn’t ask if he’s okay, because from now on that question will carry a weight of painful absurdity. Lydia tries her best not to consider the many words that will never come out of her mouth now, the sudden monster void of words she will never get to say.
When they arrive, the police pull yellow
escena del crimen
tape across both ends of the block to discourage traffic and make room for the macabre motorcade of emergency vehicles. There are a lot of officers, a whole army of them, who move around and past Luca and Lydia with choreographed reverence. When the senior detective approaches and begins asking questions, Lydia hesitates for a moment, considering where to send Luca. He’s too young to hear everything she needs to say. She should dispatch him to someone else for a few minutes, so she can give forthright answers to these dreadful questions. She should send him to his father. Her mother. Her sister, Yemi. But they are all dead in the backyard, their bodies as close as toppled dominoes. It’s all meaningless anyway. The police aren’t here to help. Lydia begins to sob. Luca stands and places the cold curve of his hand across the back of his mother’s neck.
‘Give her a minute,’ he says, like a grown man.
When the detective returns, there’s a woman with him, the medical examiner, who addresses Luca directly. She puts a hand on his shoulder and asks if he’d like to sit in her truck. It says
on the side, and the back doors are standing open. Mami nods at him, so Luca goes with the woman and sits inside, dangling his feet over the back bumper. She offers him a sweating can, a cold
Lydia’s brain, which had been temporarily suspended by shock, begins working again, but it creeps like sludge. She’s still sitting on the curb, and the detective stands between her and her son.
‘Did you see the shooter?’ he asks.
‘Shooters, plural. I think there were three of them.’ She wishes the detective would step aside so she can keep Luca in her line of sight. He’s only a dozen steps away.
‘You saw them?’
‘No, we heard them. We were hiding in the shower. One came in and took a piss while we were in there. Maybe you can get fingerprints from the faucet. He washed his hands. Can you believe that?’ Lydia claps her hands loudly, as if to scare off the memory. ‘There were at least two more voices outside.’
‘Did they say or do anything that might help identify them?’
She shakes her head. ‘One ate the chicken.’
The detective writes
in his notebook.
‘One asked if
‘A specific target? Did they say who
was? A name?’
‘They didn’t have to. It was my husband.’
The detective stops writing and looks at her expectantly. ‘Your husband is?’
Lydia nods, and the detective whistles through his teeth.
She nods again. ‘On the patio. With the spatula. With the sign.’
‘I’m sorry, se
ora. Your husband received many threats, yes?’
‘Yes, but not recently.’
‘And what exactly was the nature of those threats?’
‘They told him to stop writing about the cartels.’
‘Or they would kill his whole family.’ Her voice is flat.
The detective takes a deep breath and looks at Lydia with what might be interpreted as sympathy. ‘When was the last time he was threatened?’
Lydia shakes her head. ‘I don’t know. A long time ago. This wasn’t supposed to happen. It wasn’t supposed to happen.’
The detective folds his lips into a thin line and remains silent.
‘They’re going to kill me, too,’ she says, understanding only as these words emerge that they might be true.
The detective does not move to contradict her. Unlike many of his colleagues – he’s not sure which ones, but it doesn’t matter – he happens not to be on the cartel payroll. He trusts no one. In fact, of the more than two dozen law enforcement and medical personnel moving around Abuela’s home and patio this very moment, marking the locations of shell casings, examining footprints, analyzing blood splatter, taking pictures, checking for pulses, making the sign of the cross over the corpses of Lydia’s family, seven receive regular money from the local cartel. The illicit payment is three times more than what they earn from the government. In fact, one has already texted
to report Lydia’s and Luca’s survival. The others do nothing, because that’s precisely what the cartel pays them to do, to populate uniforms and perform the appearance of governance. Some of the personnel feel morally conflicted about this; others do not. None of them have a choice anyway, so their feelings are largely immaterial. The unsolved-crime rate in Mexico is well north of 90 percent. The costumed existence of
provides the necessary counterillusion to the fact of the cartel’s actual impunity. Lydia knows this. Everyone knows this. She decides presently that she must get out of here. She stands up from her position on the curb and is surprised by the strength of her legs beneath her. The detective steps back to give her space.
‘When he realizes I’ve survived they will return.’ And then the memory comes back to her like a throb: one of the voices in the yard asking,
What about the kid?
Lydia’s joints feel like water. ‘He’s going to murder my son.’
’ the detective says. ‘You know specifically who did this?’
‘Are you kidding me?’ she asks. There’s only one possible perpetrator for a bloodbath of this magnitude in Acapulco, and everyone knows who that man is. Javier Crespo Fuentes. Her friend. Why should she say his name out loud? The detective’s question is either a stage play or a test. He writes more words in his notebook. He writes,
And then shows the notebook to Lydia. ‘I can’t do this right now.’ She pushes past him.
‘Please, just a few more questions.’
‘No. No more questions. Zero more questions.’
There are sixteen bodies in the backyard, almost everyone Lydia loved in the world, but she still feels on the precipice of this information – she knows it to be factual because she heard them die, she saw their bod
ies. She touched her mother’s still-warm hand and felt the absence of her husband’s pulse when she lifted his wrist. But her mind is still trying to rewind it, to undo it. Because it can’t really be true. It’s too horrific to be actually true. Panic feels imminent, but it doesn’t descend.
‘Luca, come.’ She reaches out her hand, and Luca hops down from the medical examiner’s truck. He leaves the still-full
on the back bumper.
Lydia grabs him, and together they walk down the street to where Sebasti
n parked their car, near the end of the block. The detective follows, still trying to speak to her. He doesn’t accept that she has quit the conversation. Was she not clear enough? She stops walking so abruptly he almost stumbles into her back. He draws up on his tiptoes to avoid a collision. She spins on her foot.
‘I need his keys,’ she says.
‘My husband’s car keys.’
The detective continues speaking as Lydia pushes past him again, pulling Luca along behind her. She goes back through the gate into Abuela’s courtyard and tells Luca to wait. Then she thinks better of it and brings him into the house. She sits him on Abuela’s gold velveteen couch with instructions not to move.
‘Can you stay with him, please?’
The detective nods.
Lydia pauses momentarily at the back door, and then squares her shoulders before pushing it open and stepping out. In the shade of the backyard, there’s the sweet odor of lime and sticky charred sauce, and Lydia knows she will never eat barbecue again. Some of her family members are covered now, and there are little bright yellow placards set up around the yard with black letters and numbers on them. The placards mark the locations of evidence that will never be used to seek a conviction. The placards make everything worse. Their presence means it’s real. Lydia is aware of her lungs inside her body – they feel raw and raggedy, a sensation she’s never experienced before. She steps toward Sebasti
n, who hasn’t moved, his left arm still bent awkwardly beneath him, the spatula jutting out from beneath his hip. The way he’s splayed there reminds Lydia of the shapes his body makes when he’s at his most vividly animated, when he wrestles with Luca in the living room after dinner. They squeal. They roar. They bang into the furniture. Lydia runs soapy water into the kitchen sink and rolls her eyes at them. But all that heat is gone now. There’s a ticking stillness beneath Sebasti
n’s skin. She wants to talk to him before all his color is gone. She wants to tell him what happened, hurriedly, desperately. Some manic part of her believes that if she tells the story well enough, she can convince him not to be dead. She can convince him of her need for him, of the greatness of their son’s need for him. There’s a kind of paralyzed insanity in her throat.
Someone has removed the cardboard sign the gunmen left weighted to his chest with a simple rock. The sign in green marker said:
My whole family is dead because of me
Lydia crouches at her husband’s feet, but she doesn’t want to feel the cooling of his pallid skin. Proof. She grabs the toe of one shoe, and closes her eyes. He’s still mostly intact, and she feels grateful for that. She knows the cardboard sign could have been affixed to his heart with the blade of a machete. She knows that the relative neatness of his death is a sort of deformed kindness. She’s seen other crime scenes, nightmarish scenes – bodies that are no longer bodies but only parts of bodies,
. When the cartel murders, it does so to set an example, for exaggerated, grotesque illustration. One morning at work, as she opened her shop for the day, Lydia saw a boy she knew down the street kneeling to unlock the grate of his father’s shoe store with a key dangling by a shoelace around his neck. He was sixteen years old. When the car pulled up, the kid couldn’t run because the key snagged in the lock; it caught him by the neck. So
lifted the grate and hung the kid by the shoelace, by the neck, and then pummeled him until all he could do was twitch. Lydia had rushed inside and locked the door behind her, so she didn’t see when they pulled down his pants and added the decoration, but she heard about it later. They all did. And every shop owner in the neighborhood knew that that kid’s father had refused to pay the cartel’s