|Falling into the Sun
Author: Guede Mazaka
He'd lost count of how many days it'd been, but skeletons had danced in the streets five times since that Dias de Los Muertos. He thought that made fifteen, but he wasn't sure. His mother never had told him the date of his birth, and his father had only cursed and spat when he'd asked about it.
He missed them, sometimes. Less after the American had snapped at him to stop crying in the middle of the night, and he'd sobbed out the truth. The next day, he had learnt the art of using public phone booths: never more than once a week, never on the same days, never near the room. Pick one somewhere around town-don't think about it, just walk until a working phone popped into view.
That helped. He could talk to his married sister, and hear about how her husband was a no-good lying son of a bitch. But quarters were always short, though cash came and went with the wind. So did guns, and bullets. The American taught him to clean and load, though the man's own fingers grew so deft that he could do two pistols to Chiclet's one.
Chiclet was what the man had named him, and gradually, he forgot that he'd ever had any other ones. Even his sister, on the rarer and rarer calls home, seemed to not remember who he was, aside from a listener. He tossed the gum for the guns, and taught himself to ignore the stench and gaping mouths and wet-staring eyes to raid the bodies for what they needed. The first time the American had reached into an empty pocket for money to pay the hotel, and Chiclet had passed a sticky wallet over the counter, the man had grabbed his wrist. Hard. Something dark and brutal had gone across the American's face as he'd felt the crusted ridges of the stains, but then the clerk had sighed impatiently. Chiclet had paid for the room, and later, he had paid for the tequila the American had demanded.
"What the fuck are you still doing here?" the man had hissed between swallows, as liquid flame dripped sloppily down his chin.
Chiclet had searched out some tissues and gotten them ripped out of his hands.
"What do you want?" Another swallow, too fast, and golden spray all over the floor. And Chiclet. The alcohol had evaporated quickly in the heat, searing its shadow into Chiclet's skin.
//I want to help you.// That was why. That was all Chiclet needed to know.
It hadn't been enough for the American, though. He'd cursed and spat and locked himself in the bathroom for the night. He'd taken his guns in there with him, but someone could've still come in the window without him noticing. Chiclet remembered the man outlining weak points, one day when they were driving down an endless dust snake of a road and the radio had cut out. So he'd sat up by the sill and watched.
They hadn't talked about it again. They didn't talk about the names men called Chiclet, and used to accuse the American. They didn't talk about the way Chiclet started looking at the man, wondering what parts those others so badly wanted carved out of him to send so many gunmen after them.
One day, the American straightened over a body so the sun glanced off the bleached, tight skin and the faint streaks of red, and Chiclet realized that it was beautiful, like a lighted match. Heat sparked in his cheeks, and for the first time in a long time, he made himself stop watching.
That was a mistake. Someone groaned back to life, and the American had no bullets left. Chiclet looked, spotted a lost gun, and lunged for it. He tried to toss it over, but there wouldn't have been time. His fingers clenched in fear. An explosion split his ears, his head down the middle and then hot metal was burning his hands. He couldn't drop the gun.
The American took it from him, then bent down and ran dirty soft fingertips over his face. "How the fuck do you think this is helping me?"
Chiclet grabbed the hand, turned it over and looked at the dim shadows of bones beneath the bruises. //I wanted to…//
"Yeah, well, you can't." The man's voice was brilliant and merciless as his body seemed to crumple in on itself. His fingers curled around Chiclet's and pressed a forehead to the side of Chiclet's hand. "You're not strong enough."
//I can become stronger.// But it was an empty truth. Chiclet already had ashes in his mouth, smoldering coals in his belly. Painful hot fire where the American's breath touched his palm.
"That won't work, either. You're too good, Chiclet. Too fucking good, and Mexico will just twist that right round into some crazy mess. No one survives that." Chiclet's hand was dropped.
//One did.// There were smoke and bloodstains on Chiclet's fingers, glaring up at him. He tried to wipe as much of them off on his t-shirt, but it felt like his skin was peeling off with it, so he stopped. //I can take you to him.//
"Stupid goddamn fortune wheel-riding guitarfucker."
Which was what the American said twenty towns later, when they stepped into the monastery courtyard and the man walked right into a punch.
El was leaner than Chiclet had expected, but not glass-thin like the American. Pared down to flame that gently took Chiclet by the shoulder and led him outside. //What did he do to you? Who did he threaten?//
//No one. I help him because I want to.// At that, the mariachi's eyes clouded over. He and Chiclet both glanced back through the doorway to look at the dark blot wadded up against the wall. //Except I can't anymore. So will you?//
The laugh of a legend was just as fractured and bitter as the laugh of a condemned man. //What?//
//I want you to help him//, Chiclet repeated with a calmness he did not feel. His stomach hurt, and his sight was wavering like heat rising off the tar. //Because you never tried to kill him, and he never tried to kill you.//
//Yes, I heard about those.// El looked at the American again. His long shadow almost touched the man. //Where are you from?//
It took a moment to remember. //Culiacan. My family's still there, but I haven't talked to them in…a month.//
//There's a phone inside. You can use it. If you want.// And then Chiclet was seeing the two men through the arch. El knelt down in front of the American, lips slowly moving. He stayed there through the yelling and the thrashing, and he slapped down the gun. He stayed, talking while Chiclet watched. He stayed until the American suddenly collapsed, and then he picked up the other man like he would a child.
Chiclet stood until white hands came around the mariachi's back and clutched at it, the smudges and red-rimmed cuts matching the dusty black fabric. Then he took a step back, and another and another until he was standing by the car. Its air conditioning didn't work, and getting in it would be like getting into a furnace. He thought about the phone and the cool inside of the buildings. He thought about lank black hair against leather and silver chains. He thought about the slight pink on his palms where the fight-heated pistol had burned his hands. He thought about the way his own shadow had stretched and grown over the years.
He got in the car and turned the key. And he drove towards the sun.