The kids decide to hide from their Papá. It’s an old game, and they haven’t played in a long time. After the oldest girl gives the signal, five little bodies scatter into different parts of the house. They settle into their preferred hiding spots: under the sink in the kitchen, the gap where the shelves meet in the living room, behind the television, in the broom closet. Then there is a loud smacking sound, and someone yells, “Hector ran into the wall again!”
They reappear. The youngest boy hobbles into the room. He’s missing an eye, always been missing it, and rubs at the spot where it should be like a phantom limb. He looks just about to cry. They decide to hide together instead.
An argument over the location ensues:
“How about the garage?”
“That’s dumb, he goes there first.”
“We can’t all fit in there.”
“How about the shed?”
They used to hide from their Ma all the time. When she looked for them, they could tell where she was by the scent of lemons that followed after her, one that clung to her in the summers, when she’d keep the trees out back. Lemon trees still lined the back fence, six of them, in varying shapes and sizes. The kids liked to name them after people they knew: old Teresa, for the tree bent over the wrong way, or Leopold, for the short, squat one that looked like the butcher.
When their Ma looked for them, they were always found. Their Ma had been a finder since birth. At eight, she found her father’s lost dog stuck in a wall of their home, an event which was talked about in her neighborhood for some time. The dog, which had crawled into the wall through the foundation, ended up stuck in the hallway between bedrooms. When the family laid down to sleep at night, a howling, wailing sound reverberated from the rooftops to the sinking foundation. They couldn’t rest. They slept very little. For a time, they believed the sound to be the spirit of the lost animal, which must’ve died somewhere, and was upset at the family for having been lost. She saved that dog.
Like the dog, their mother found lost socks and hairpins, the backs of earrings and forgotten books, tutting oh, mis pollitos, rhythmic like the lullabies she would sing them to bed, oh, my little baby chicks. And they were just that: a tangle of limbs and sticky hands, bird-boned, hollow and light.
What made a person a good finder? They knew how to hide.
The kids choose the shed in the yard to squeeze into, accommodating each other in the dark. They are used to squeezing against each other. The five of them share a room, two of the girls a bed. They often hear each other from across the old boxes propped up to separate the boys from the girls. At night, the sounds of them ping-pong across the room: snoring, cooing, muttering, grumbling as the sheets twist between a pair of legs. When it’s cold, they all fight over the blankets. And when it is really cold, when their breath comes in frosty clouds, even the boys crawl into each other’s beds:
“Body heat,” one would mutter.
“Body heat,” the other would affirm.
Outside the shed, night starts to fall. The sun dips and the sky tints purple at the rim. Around them, farms stretch in every direction, wire clothes lines with flapping underwear and sheets, property lines hedged with dried-out bushes of some kind of berry that didn’t stand a chance in the heat.
As the light wanes, the night bugs start jittering, and the sound of them opens up the land, expanding like an exhale.
The kids begin to bicker:
“Well, you only got one eye.”
“Don’t be rude.”
“Ouch, that’s my foot.”
“Your elbow’s in my eye!”
“That’s not my elbow.”
“Is he here yet?”
“What if he doesn’t come?”
Someone starts tapping a tune on their thigh. Then, other sounds: a cough, some feet shuffling in the dirt, the tink of metal hitting metal as objects budge around them—finally, a hushing noise. They get quiet.
Sometimes their Ma would wait for their Papá, too. At night, they could hear their mother outside on the couch with the television on low, passing the time. They could imagine the way she was sitting, with her legs bent underneath her and her knitting in her lap, looping her needle in and out and around. When Papá finally got home he would go to the refrigerator first of anything and crack-pop open a cold one. An old routine.
He’d do it before washing the dirt out from underneath his fingernails or even taking off his muddy boots. Inevitably, he tracked in mud onto the linoleum in the kitchen. Inevitably, he made some stain on the carpet that wouldn’t come off. He always said he would get around to cleaning it later. But a man does the same thing every day for long enough and he can start to lose track of the mud on his shoes. He was not a good finder, and a poor hider, too.
One night, the television is on louder than it should be, and the laugh track keeps the kids awake. They hear fragments of their parents’ voices through the shouts of angry men, saying things like expect too much and what sacrifice? and these are choices and it’s not simple. What their Ma and Papá talked about wasn’t really a special kind of conversation. It was the kind of words that had passed between a hundred pairs like them before. But the kids listen as hard as they can, and after awhile, there’s no more talking. Then they hear footsteps that don’t sound like Papá’s heavy boots, and the front door slams shut and the laugh track is the only sound in the house.
When their Ma disappeared, Papá stopped showing up for work, stopped eating, stopped cooking for them, stopped flushing cigarette butts down the toilet and let them pile up instead: inside of empty bottles and in old coffee mugs, wet cigarette butts clogging the drain of the sink. He started sleeping all the time, too. The house grew quiet around him. Sometimes he slept in bed, sometimes at the kitchen table, with his head in one arm and the other dangling toward the linoleum.
The kids began to tiptoe around him. They stopped speaking above a whisper. They let sleeping dogs lie. Or sleeping dogs sleep. They ate the last of everything: the last egg, the last swirl of the peanut butter in the jar, the last frosted ice-cream bar. They foraged the far back regions of the refrigerator, finding long-forgotten goods, and stopped only when they hit the baking soda.
Finally, Abuela called to check up. They tried to tell her everything was okay, but Abuela could smell a lie through the phone line better than a shark sniffing for blood, and not an hour later there was a pounding on the front door. The sound, the loudest they’d heard in weeks, shook them out of their stupor. They let her in and she handed them a paper bag full of groceries, saying, “Wait a minute now, and find me your Papá from wherever he’s hiding.”
“But he’s sleeping,” they whined. They didn’t bother taking the bag into the kitchen, instead dumped it out on the floor and started shoveling in mouthfuls of sliced cheese and bread, guzzled milk from the bottle, shoved their hands into the pickle jar.
Abuela went to Papá’s room, where he was in bed. The air was thick and sweet with drink. It pummeled her like a wave. He looked up at her, a blind mouse in the dark, glass-eyed, disheveled. Then Abuela took him in her arms, and started kissing him all over, soft little kisses, covering his whole face with them, even his nose and eyebrows, muttering, “Mijito, mijito, mi lindo…”
And nobody—not Hector or Rosa, not Eloisa or Carlos, not even Ana—said a word. The group of them was different after that.
Abuela would say, que sea lo que Dios quiera. Let it be in God’s hands. She puts a lot of faith in faith. She feeds them on Sundays, and then, after Ma leaves, she starts coming around all the time, bringing pastelitos and new pairs of socks, and sandy, Tamarind lollipops.
And she loves them. She loves them even when Rosa says something like, “Well but I don’t think that was Jesus’ primary mission.” She loves them even when Eloisa says something like, “Carlos’ stupid girlfriend has more hair on her arms than he does.” And even when Carlos kicks Eloisa hard in the shin for saying it.
And when they swore, if they swore, when Abuela would scream at them about how dirty mouths bring evil into the house—truly satanic evil—Papá would say, “Don’t worry, Ma. I’ll take them down to the river to wash their mouths out. You’ll see.”
And Abuela would answer, “Bien. See if I care if they drown.” (But they knew she did care.)
At the river, they would stick their feet in the water, watching the current dip and roll over small rocks sticking out from the surface. They were in charge of each other. Hector had to be kept from falling in trying to catch bugs. While skipping them, Carlos had to be kept from throwing rocks at Hector’s head “accidentally.” Eloisa, who liked to find the flattest rock she could on which to sun herself, had to be kept from getting burnt. Ana kept them, and Rosa helped.
While this all went on their Papá would walk up and down the bank. This they always watched from a distance. On the bank, his boots made a wide, heavy pattern that told the story of how he had traversed—in a straight line, with some purpose, as if he was going somewhere in particular. At certain spots, the footsteps were deeper than others, which was how the kids could tell he had stopped to think for awhile.
He never touched the water, or picked up a rock to throw. He never asked them if they liked going, though they did. He just walked, as if he could keep walking until the end of the earth, one step after the other. A man who can’t find and can’t hide can only really do one thing: keep going.
From inside the shed, they hear the screen door scrape open. Then they hear one creak and then another as a pair of heavy rubber boots makes their way across the back porch. They suck in mouthfuls of air in the dark, holding their breath. Nobody moves.
The crack-pop and hiss of a can opening invades the shed. Their breaths exhale alongside its hissing, and dust whirls all around. They hear a creak and another creak, and then the sound of the screen door slamming shut.
For a moment longer they sit in the shed. The air inside is heavier than it was before, and it feels like a millennium has passed to the ticking of their Papá’s rubber boots making their way back into the house. Eventually, they follow each other out: one, two, three, four, five little baby chicks. They sit on the porch together. A few moments later, they hear the shuffling of boots again. This time the sound is different, laden with surprise—as if, maybe, they’d just been remembered.
In the morning, they find the hole their Papá put in the wall. The hole is there for a long time. It becomes a part of the house, and nobody ever asks him about it. But, eventually, they each take their turn measuring his fist against theirs. Eventually, they each stick their hand into it to see just how much bigger it is than their own.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Five.
Arnold, Jill Talbot