The seven of us were sitting in the living room, watching Birdman on Cartoon Network, when our grandmother, Toya, stormed in from the kitchen and told us she was going to the store to buy more meat for my little brother’s fourth birthday party. Before the door slammed shut and her ominous warning (which was directed to me) of: Titi Victoria is in the back sleeping so don’t do anything wrong, flew through our ears, the straws had been collected in Reuben’s hand and we plucked them from his closed fist, each hoping that we were not the one who pulled the smallest piece. When it was Reuben who was left with the fragment clenched in his tight palm, his twin sister Maria screamed:
Then we ran through the apartment as if we paid rent and had the liberty to do so, without any care for Titi Victoria who was in the back room passed out on the bed, drunk.
I ran through the hallway. It seemed to slither through the heart of the apartment. All of the rooms hugged it; the doors were always closed; and Toya draped the windows of the two bedrooms that faced west with heavy curtains; so light seldom penetrated. As a result it was so dark that sometimes we’d walk with arms outstretched so we wouldn’t hurt ourselves trying to pass through. One time, when Mommy came from work she had suggested to Toya, while she was getting us ready to go home, that she put lights on in the hallway and Toya threw her hands up in protest saying, Count your steps like I do. I don’t need to spend extra money.
I stopped in front of the bedroom my father used to store his DJ equipment. I opened the door. The inside was dimly lit. It was the ideal place to hide because there were large empty boxes scattered about as well as a storage bin that had been restored from its use as a tin trash can. However, my eyes widened and I cringed. For a brief second I thought about sneaking in and hiding, but Toya constantly told us we were not allowed to go in there ever since my father had gotten locked up, for the one-hundredth time, a few months before. By the way she said it you’d swear that the room was cursed by something—she was always telling us we were doing something wrong—like there was some sort of monster that secretly dwelled here, watching, and preying on the inevitability of our ignorance and disobedience. Entering any space, in her absence, liberated It and entrapped us. But we always thought our grandmother’s sayings were outlandish and seldom paid attention to them. On the days of my father’s trials, Toya left us alone in the apartment and each time we played red-light-green-light-one-two-three in my father’s room. Once, my nine-year-old cousin Christopher accidently destroyed a piece of equipment and another time we’d made so much noise the neighbors complained. On both occasions Toya returned in such a bad mood that when she received the reports of our misbehavior she was surprisingly reserved. Yet we knew better because when our mothers returned that evening Toya would admonish our wrongs, giving us beatings she said:
Your children will remember!
All of a sudden I jumped in fright. My five-year-old cousin, Nina, was walking through the hallway like a resurrected corpse—the kind that search for brains in those low-budget movies we weren’t allowed to watch—and she crashed into me as I stood before the doorway of my father’s room.
“We can’t go in there,” she said after I told her it would be a perfect spot for a hiding place. “We’ll get a beating our grandchildren will remember.”
So she grabbed my hand and we searched for another place to hide.
When we reached the end of the hallway, where the two other bedrooms were located, we found ourselves in a dilemma. The room to the right was Toya’s, inside was pitch black. My eyes widened again. Nina had opened the door but I didn’t even consider entering, afraid that Toya would somehow know that we’d been inside her “sacred place.” The door to the left was ajar and Titi Victoria’s snores floated faintly through the opening. In the darkness we glanced at each other as if to silently express what each of us was thinking: there is no other option. So Nina and I turned left and slowly opened the door.
Despite our calculated movements we could not stop the door’s hinges from creaking. Nina’s breathing grew rapid. “Oh God,” she exhaled when the sound of the others footsteps scurrying to find a spot to hide could be heard in the distance.
Then, all of a sudden, a door slammed behind us and we turned around. A hand, our concentration made invisible, had shut the door to my father’s room and a rustling so terrible was heard within that we stopped. Our bodies almost moved towards my father’s room to investigate when the small, confident voice of Reuben proclaimed:
“Ready or not, here I come.”
At that point Nina was so distressed that she pushed forward with great force; the door flew open; the knob went BOOM against the wall; and a sudden flash of light blinded me.
Once my eyes adjusted to the light I saw that there were no curtains on the large windows to shield the room from the midday sun. The room was almost empty, save a scarlet colored mattress that lay in the center of the space upon which Titi Victoria was sleeping. It lay near a closet door—the perfect hiding place. We would always talk about creeping by Titi Victoria, while she was sleeping, and cautiously make an opening in the closet to slip through, but none of us had the gall to do it. Instead, we would stare at Titi Victoria in her yellow dress and imagine that she was immersed in a dream because for us she resembled a perfect image of tranquility. It was said that was what Toya was like in her youth, and we wondered if that was the reason the men in the neighborhood were so enamored by her. When they spoke about her it was as if she was a peaceful Caribbean goddess and looking at her you could see how they could be right. Her face was incorruptible, part of her straight black hair was plaited in a diadem braid while the rest flowed endlessly past her smooth bronze shoulders, her hands rested somewhere on her flat stomach, below her swollen chest, and were speckled with faux sapphires and rubies fastened in rings that were gold-plated. But then, there was the deep noise she made while she slumbered, and the stringent odor of alcoholic sweat in the air that made the memory of her all too hideous and real to us.
I don’t remember how long I stood in the middle of the doorway staring at her, but Nina had somehow moved away from me unnoticed. And it was only when I heard another door open and close harshly and small heavy feet running in the hallway, did I finally snap from my reverie.
“Get over here stupid,” I heard Nina whisper from Toya’s bedroom. “You’re going to get us caught.”
I ran into my grandmother’s bedroom.
From underneath Toya’s bed Nina and I listened as Reuben easily discovered the others. I’ll admit, at first I felt a little secure knowing that we might not get caught. (Although we constantly defied her commandments, our flesh reminded us of the stings it received from the times we’d entered her bedroom without permission—so we knew when it was best not to tempt Toya’s wrath.) And it seemed that Nina had defied our grandmother too, when she decided to hide in her bedroom, but after a few moments it was obvious that Nina had acted purely on instinct.
“We’re not suppose to be in here,” Nina bemoaned.
Then, she reached for my hand. Her palms were sweaty and her legs were trembling. Sunlight from Titi Victoria’s room caused the shadows to play before us. My nerves were also on edge. I could not distinguish the feet I heard rumbling throughout the apartment from the shadowy movements in front of me. I remembered the noise that sounded from my father’s room from before and gave into the belief that Reuben was no longer searching for us, It was.
Nina was also becoming increasingly anxious. “I think I saw them go into Titi Victoria’s room,” she whispered.
When what seemed like hours had passed, I let go of her hand. By then the noise of her chattering teeth became unbearable. Then, I felt a spreading wetness on my leg.
“What’s that,” I asked.
Nina’s breathing grew rapid, its rhythm faster than her trembling limbs. Then the smell hit me.
“Did you just pee on me?”
I screamed and moved from underneath the bed.
Suddenly a loud noise, like a shotgun, sounded from somewhere in the apartment.
Moments later my cousins Reuben, Santiago, Maria and Christopher, barged into Toya’s bedroom.
“What happened,” Maria asked.
“She peed on me,” I yelled.
The laughing was silenced by Santiago:
“You’ll wake up Titi Victoria.”
“We’ll just have to clean her, and this room up, before ‘buela comes back,” Christopher said.
Christopher and Reuben pulled Nina from underneath the bed. Her clothes were soaked in urine. They rushed her into the bathroom before she started to cry. The rest of us went into the kitchen and got the mop, a bucket of hot water, and a roll of paper towels.
“We have to clean up without making too much noise,” Santiago said, carefully rinsing the mop with his ruddy fingers. We knew he was trying to avoid the violence that might ensue if Titi Victoria’s sleep was interrupted, but even the best intentions he had were always lost in his words because at eight-years-old he always said everything with an attitude. He rolled his eyes at me as I stood in my underwear by the doorway watching Titi Victoria who was lost to an oblivion we, at that moment, all silently longed for.
“Shut up before you wake her up,” Maria said with paper towels wrapped around her hand. She was seven and was always annoyed by the mishaps of her siblings, especially Nina since she was the youngest and constantly got them in trouble with Toya and their mother.
“I can’t believe we gotta clean up after this puerca,” she mumbled.
A few minutes later we were relieved. Despite the fact that Nina and I slightly smelled like piss, we had finished cleaning up and were discarding the evidence of our scandal in the garbage pail. Then, we heard the rattling of Toya’s keys. We ran before the lock of the apartment door turned, and the door opened.
In a matter of seconds we were sitting in the living room staring at Birdman on the television screen. Toya entered with bags of groceries—we pretended to be hypnotized by the cartoon.
“Where’s your brother,” Toya asked me.
All of a sudden our façade shattered and we silently panicked. Our heads froze and our eyes moved rapidly left to right. We were so concerned about trying not to get into trouble we’d forgotten about my brother. When our prolonged silence almost gave us away, Christopher said nonchalantly:
“In the room sleeping.”
(It never fails: every time we play hide-and-seek my brother is always the first one to be found.)
“Go get him,” Toya said to me while she placed the bags on the kitchen table. “I bought him a nice shirt for today.”
I moved towards everyone and whispered: “Which room is he in?”
No one answered. Their eyes continued to blankly scan the television screen.
“Yo,” I whispered in a voice so low it was almost a grumble.
“Eres sorda?” Toya snapped.
I stood up and desperately tried not to look suspicious.
(My brother always played hide-and-seek by covering his eyes and pretending to be invisible.)
I envisioned places my brother could be hiding and tried to calculate a specific spot.
No way in hell I can check right now, I thought, not wanting to arouse Toya’s ire. But the pressure of uncertainty, while having to produce an answer with Toya’s breath on my neck, was nerve wracking. I tried to calm myself by taking Christopher’s words at face value, but I knew my brother was not sleeping in my father’s room there was no bed for him to lay. I thought about the certainty of my conclusions and began to tremble. When I finally walked out of the living room I thought, Why is there always something? Why can’t we just play?
I walked to my father’s room and stood in front of the closed door. I was petrified. The snoring from the back room did nothing to quell my mood. I moved to open the door but it was shut. I turned the knob and it wouldn’t give. I struggled with it.
“ ’buela,” I yelled. “The door won’t open.”
Reuben appeared behind me like an apparition. He had a penchant for surprising one with his soft steps. He also turned the knob to no avail.
Then Toya approached. She was a large woman and wore a silver bracelet around her ankle—so her steps always sounded her arrival.
“My poor grandchildren,” I muttered under my breath.
“Move out of the way,” Toya said with disdain. “These doors don’t lock.” Then she opened the door easily with one twist of the knob.
The velvet curtains that covered the small window of my father’s room allowed a faint radiance to penetrate the space. Toya did a quick surveillance of the room before she said that my brother was not there.
“Why would he be sleeping here, idiota,” Toya asked suspiciously.
I didn’t answer her. I stood there with a terrified look on my face.
Reuben instinctively checked for my brother in the other rooms.
“He’s not in any of them,” he reported.
In the darkness Toya’s face seemed to flare up. “Where is your brother?” she screamed, the clinking of her ankle bracelet sounding as she moved toward me.
“I don’t know,” I said throwing my hands up to shy away from her wrath, expecting the regular physical punishment. Instead, silence—the most brutal form of terrorism.
Toya took a step back into the hallway and became one with the shadows. From within the room I could only discern distant sounds and movements. After a while I imagined that during our game we had exhumed the thing that Toya said was hiding here and It was finally before me. Horrified, I immediately closed my eyes, believing that acknowledging Its presence would justify my perishing by Its hands. Then everything melted and all at once I became a Birdman proclaiming my name flying toward the sun, my cousins sitting on the floor paralyzed with concern, the foul air between Titi Victoria’s sporadic snorts, the faint light that painted the walls of my father’s room, the empty boxes near my feet, the strange darkness of the hallway, the trembling nerves of my shaky knees, my lost brother. Then, a hand suddenly struck my temple. It seemed during that time Toya had been talking to me.
“…Contra! You are just like your father: the oldest, but you never have sense.” Toya’s anger resonated in my eardrums.
“Christopher is the same age,” I muttered, half-crying and half wishing I hadn’t replied.
“Christopher doesn’t fight Christopher doesn’t steal Christopher goes to school don’t worry about Christopher worry about your brother being somewhere before I beat the shit out of you!” she said hitting me in the head again.
I was afraid but it was fear, which propelled me into the hallway. I called for my brother in a voice that came straight from the bottom of my stomach. The shadows did not shift. Reuben called with me. And nothing moved. Then the three of us called his name in unison. There was no response.
“I told you to stop playing in that room,” Toya said, indignantly.
The four of them, who seemed to be impervious despite Toya’s irate incantations, sat before the television while Reuben and I searched independently throughout the apartment. But my brother was lost to the closets, cabinets, hampers, beds, boxes, bags, garbage, and shadows. Then, after five minutes of searching, Toya’s anger escalated into panic.
“Why can’t I leave you alone without something going wrong,” she said with profound sorrow, placing the weight of emotion on the last word as a means to call attention to those invisible things that move us and, when ignored for any length of time, can lead to devastating tragedy. It was her mantra. The things she said before, and while, she roughened her hands on our skin—desperate attempts at enervating her fear. Her words never made us flinch. This time it was received as a testament to her convictions and afterward, only silence.
From the quiet erupted a cloud of despair. A morbid stillness followed. At some point Toya turned off the television so she could concentrate; she sat on the edge of the sofa biting her fingernails; then reached for the telephone. Her weariness magnified by our breathlessness—a refusal to admit that something terrible could’ve occurred even if she wasn’t absent—then broken when gastric juice churned through my shaky guts. “No hay paz para los impíos,” she said as she motioned to dial.
All of a sudden Christopher stood up and told Toya to hang up the phone. Then he moved toward the hallway. Toya, Reuben and I instinctively followed him. His limbs charted expertly through questionable terrain. He led us to my father’s room and pointed toward the storage bin, the one that had been restored from its use as a tin trash can, and we suddenly recognized something we had overlooked before. There was a huge indent on the lid from the weight of a heavy object placed atop it and the radio laid beside the bin as if something inside had rattled it off. We all moved towards it with anxiety. The lid was shut tight and Toya pulled twice in order to pry it open. It sounded like a gasp when it finally gave.
In the faint light we saw Toya reach into the bin with both arms. I’d thought the worst until…
“’buela, ‘buela,” my little brother said. “Did I win?”
Toya didn’t answer. Instead she lifted him out of the bin and told him to go with me.
Then I took him by the hand and led him into the hallway where we were swallowed by the darkness as our burden momentarily marched off with the trumpet of snores that thundered from the back room and the steady drumming of Toya’s hands on Christopher’s flesh.
Joseph Cáceres is a writer from New York. He has received the BRIO grant from the Bronx Council of the Arts for his fiction. His work has appeared in Slice Literary. And he is currently working on a novel.