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FRIDAY, 7:00 A.M.
His eyes blinked open and went to work like two rescue searchlights, scanning for threats. Just as it had been every morning for going on four years now, his first waking thought was to get away. Get gone before it was too late. The hell with everyone else, he thought. Just run.
No. Not ever. Omar Ortega was never going to be that guy.
The stifling heat of the previous day still lingered, transforming the eight-by-eight room into a cocoon, incubating the three damp adolescent bodies. Omar’s little brother, Hector, was pressed against him on the twin mattress, snoring lightly, his mouth hanging open like a flytrap. Omar grabbed the metal bar just above his head and vaulted over the thirteen-year-old boy with ease. He landed in the middle of the room, which was cluttered with a mishmash of cheap furniture he and his mother had saved from the roadside, dumped there by a prick of a landlord after his most recent eviction.
He looked to the corner of the room, not surprised by what he saw: small cot neatly made, crucifix and rosary beads left on the pillow. He hadn’t heard her leave, but he knew she was already on the bus headed to Rancho Santa Fe. There, she’d make breakfast, pack lunches. Hustle her employers and their children off to work and school, then spend the day cleaning their home and scrubbing their toilets. He fought against jealousy and bitterness, knowing it damn sure wasn’t her fault.
Omar hoisted himself up to look at the top bunk, where his sixteen-year-old sister, Sofia, still slept. He gently brushed the long strands of damp black hair from her cheeks, then kissed her lightly on the forehead. He was filled with his usual combination of love, fear, and dread, but, more than anything, he felt a determination to keep her safe from the almost daily threats of the California barrio.
“Buenos dias, mija.” Her eyes fluttered open as he whispered in her ear. She hunched her shoulders and settled farther into her pillow, smiling at the sound of his voice. “Time to get up.”
Dropping back to the floor, Omar looked out the pane of dull glass to the low-slung rooftops, a dark tapestry woven in a hundred shades of black and gray. Tar-covered power poles jutted out from the ground, staring back at him like an army of defiant middle fingers. Dozens of cables crisscrossed the air in the haphazard pattern of a botched afterthought. Off in the distance, barely visible dots of pink stucco shimmered on the hills of San Marcos. Seven miles, he thought. Might as well be seven hundred. Seven light-years. Like faraway planets at the end of a telescope.
Omar allowed himself a grim smile of satisfaction. Not so far anymore.
He turned away from the window and checked himself out in the mirror. His skin, deep brown from months of outdoor labor, stood in contrast to the white boxer shorts he slept in. He flexed, proud of the ten pounds of muscle he’d gained in the past six months. His body lean and toned. Stomach flat and well-defined, arms sculpted—to his own eyes, he looked like a welterweight. Pushing aside a pile of his brother’s dirty clothes with his foot, Omar dropped to the threadbare carpet and began his morning routine of a hundred push-ups. The first thirty took less than thirty seconds and his chest bounced off the floor with each repetition.
Thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three …
His excitement for the coming days fueled him. The past three years had been tough, but now it was official. Come next week, he’d be the first Ortega to ever graduate high school. And he wasn’t just dragging himself across the finish line. Hell no. Straight A’s since ninth grade and top of the honor roll.
Forty-one, forty-two, forty-three …
He glanced at his preenlistment certificate, tacked to the dingy, yellowed paint near the bed. The army recruiter had made it clear: turn eighteen, finish high school, and you’re in. To celebrate his birthday last month, his mom had made him a cake decorated with toy soldiers. He locked his elbows in the up position, feeling strong. A moment of rest, then he kept going.
Sixty-one, sixty-two, sixty-three …
Omar pictured himself graduating from basic training. His mother would want to be there, but how? A cross-country trip to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, meant money for a bus ticket, food, hotels. All sorts of things that multiplied the possibility of a run-in with a state trooper or some other inquiring asshole of a cop. Or worst of all, a Border Patrol checkpoint tossed up across some random highway. No. The expense and risks were too high. She couldn’t come. But there would be a day when Omar returned to her in his dress green uniform, an army insignia on his shoulder.
Seventy-six, seventy-seven, seventy-eight …
The soldier with the close-cropped hair and chiseled face hadn’t just walked through the galleria. He strutted, like he owned it, everyone stepping aside, reaching out to clap him on the back. Like his brown skin didn’t matter a bit. All that baggage just washed away. All people saw was that he was dressed in green. Omar had only been five years old that day, but he knew. Even then, he knew he’d be that man. He’d wear that uniform. People would step aside and let him pass. That night, he’d told his father, and the man’s face had lit up. The voice, still so clear it rang out in Omar’s memory.
“Un soldado? Aye, hijo. That would be a very proud thing.”
Ninety-eight, ninety-nine, one hundred.
Omar went low one last time, pushed off the floor, and jumped back to his feet. He shook out his arms and shadowboxed like Ruben Olivares, whom his dad had always said was, pound for pound, the best fighter to ever come out of Mexico.
He lifted his pillow and picked up his one pair of Levi’s, carefully folded and placed there the night before. He slipped them on, then slid his hand into the pocket, unable to resist the desire to have a look. Two neatly folded, hard-earned hundred-dollar bills. His off-the-books pay from a week of heavy lifting at a construction site. Today, after school, he’d go to the bank and deposit the cash and that would do it. Two thousand seven hundred fifty bucks. Hundreds of hours of backbreaking labor. Months of saving. But finally he could cover the security deposit and first month’s rent. A three-bedroom house in a safe San Marcos neighborhood, a world away from the Vista barrio. They could put the last three years behind them like some kind of bad dream.
Shaking off the dark thoughts, Omar told himself he had it all worked out. The army would provide a roof over his head and plenty to eat, which was all he needed. His paycheck would go directly to his mother. It wouldn’t be much, not even two grand a month, but it would cover the rent and take the edge off groceries. Once he finished basic training, he’d find part-time work near his army base. He’d clerk at a convenience store or work the counter at a fast-food place. He heard lots of soldiers did that. In the meantime, his family would be safe.
He pulled his number 84 Dodgers jersey from the closet. Seventy-eight bucks. A crazy extravagance, but he’d been caught up in the moment during a field trip to Chavez Ravine. From a seat in the bleachers, he’d watched twenty-three-year-old Mexican phenom Julio Urias four-hit the Astros. A poor kid from Mexico, just a few years older than Omar, Urias could throw a baseball ninety-eight miles an hour into a ten-inch square. Urias had used his skills to bust out, and Omar couldn’t help but feel a sense of kinship. He might not have the ballplayer’s arm, but he was no less determined.
Bending down, he scooped up a pair of dirty chonies and threw them at his brother’s head. “Get up, Hector. Get out so your sister can get dressed.”
Once his brother was moving, Omar poked his head out the bedroom door. The coast was clear. He’d made a game out of avoiding contact, like a Special Forces fighter trapped in enemy territory. He moved down the short hallway without a sound and locked himself in the bathroom.
After splashing cold water on his face, he rubbed wet hands across the stubble of hair, liking the low maintenance of his new look. He’d shaved his head a week ago, getting rid of his thick, collar-length black mane. When his mom had walked in and seen his shorn head and the clumps of hair on the floor, she’d crossed herself and brought her hand to her mouth. “Porque, hijo? Tu no eres chollo.”
He had laughed in agreement. “You’re right, Ma. I’m not a chollo.”
He told her the army cut off everyone’s hair, so he was just planning ahead. She raised her hands in the air with relief and took hold of his face, pulling him down to kiss each cheek.
The drone of a Mexican telenovela came from the living room. He peered into the room, dimly lit by the glow of the television. The back of the man’s massive head, clouded in cigarette smoke, poked up over the blue Naugahyde couch that dominated the small room. A nearly empty bottle of Fireball tequila sat on a crusty wooden end table next to an overflowing ashtray and half a bag of pork rinds. Omar had walked in on his mom cleaning the room a few days after they had moved in. He’d been angry about it, telling her the man’s filth was his own problem.
Copyright © 2020 by Neal Griffin