by Alex Luceli Jiménez
Miguelito’s calves are strong but his face is that of a child. He looks like an unfinished statue that an uninspired artist began chiseling, starting with toes and working up until there were thick thighs emerging from the slab of brown marble. Then the artist must have grown tired, taking a break and leaving his face an unrefined work-in-progress. Now Miguelito stalks around the oak tree in aimless circles, baby face crinkled. Sometimes he stops to wipe clumps of dirt from between his bare toes.
“Miguelito,” the girl says, watching him, “why aren’t you wearing shoes?” He shrugs.
“Papá said to save them for when we’re working. They’re no good anymore anyway. They have holes.”
From her place against the thick trunk, she frowns. “Your feet must hurt.”
“Not really.” Miguelito huffs, throwing his chest out haughtily. He sits down on the decaying grass, a casualty of the scathingly dry summer. “The skin is hard.”
“The season is ending. What will you do now?”
“Papá says we’ll go where there’s more work. In three days we’re leaving. Will you come to say goodbye?”
“I already told you I can’t.”
“I don’t even know your name.” He sounds bitter. It makes her feel sad. “And you only let me see you on Sundays.”
“They’re nice Sundays, aren’t they? Haven’t I been helping you learn English and do long division?”
“Can you at least tell me your name before I leave?”
She crosses her arms, standing up and avoiding his stare. He is ten, soon to be eleven. Too wise for his years. Too tired for his skinny body.
“I forgot my name a long time ago.”
“How can you forget that?”
“I’ve been busy.”
“Busy at school?”
“I haven’t gone to school in a long time.”
“But you’re smart.”
She smiles. “There are a lot of things I’ve forgotten, but I remember a lot of what I learned in school. I learned English faster than all my siblings.”
“How did you learn so fast?”
“I can’t remember. I just know that I learned.”
“How did you forget?”
“I don’t know. I forget if I’ve forgotten something until I think about it. Like I said, I remember some things.”
“Can you help Papá with his English, too?”
“Three days isn’t enough time for that.”
He nods, like he gets it now. “We have to say goodbye today, don’t we?”
“Yes, we do.” The shadow of the tree makes her eyes look dark when she murmurs, “Miguelito, do you want to see something I have never been able to forget? I have a gift for you, but the memory isn’t so nice.”
She points into a part of the forest where the trail begins to disappear. Then, somber, she stands and crosses her arms in front of her dirt-ridden cotton dress. In the tradition of someone unaccustomed to generosity, Miguelito’s eyes widen. He is flustered when he stands, skittish when he follows after the strides of her bony legs.
“I don’t have anything for you.”
“You’ve given me time, Miguelito. There’s nothing better.”
“Papá told me to get home before the sun goes down.”
“It won’t take too long. I know where we’re going.”
“No. Hold my hand.”
His dirt-covered fingers are hot against her chilled hands. She holds onto him as she leads him into the thick verdant crevices of the forest she knows so well; though she is taller, older, and faster, she deliberately walks as slow as she can. Gives him a chance to keep up. Gives him a chance to think he can keep up.
It is growing darker. Miguelito’s voice quivers when he whispers, “Papá says that when it’s dark, monsters come out.”
“He’s right, you know. Monsters are real.”
“You’ve seen them?”
“I saw one out in the fields, once. You’ve got nothing to be scared of because your legs are too strong. Monsters like to be in charge, but only if you can’t kick back.”
“But you’re bigger than me.”
“Only in height, Miguelito. Now help me move these rocks. What I have for you is under them.”
She clings to his hand up until they reach the mound. Then she lets go, and falls to her knees. He follows suit, too eager to raise questions. They work quickly, moved by imminent nightfall, and do not speak. It is only when the rocks are gone and a thin layer of dirt remains that she says, “Move back.”
Isolated now, she casts aside the hard time-worn clumps.
“A trash bag?”
Carefully, she peels away at the opening of the old plastic.
“These are for you,” she whispers, removing a pair of white sneakers from an unidentifiable mass. She knows he must be aware of the foul odor by now.
“These are your shoes,” he says, crinkling his nose.
“They’re for you now. Maybe you’ll grow into them by next year.”
“Why are they here?”
“You don’t worry about that. Take these and go to your Papá. It’s dark now.”
“But — ”
Through the trees comes a wave of yellow flashlights. Four men swarm through the leaves. One of them stands at the head of the group, and comes forward when he sees the crouching boy.
“Miguelito! I told you to be home before dark!”
“¡Mira, compa! Miguelito found a body!”
“I didn’t find nothing — ”
“How did you find this, Miguelito? Tell me how you found this!”
Shouts flood his senses. Miguelito looks towards the girl in search of something, anything, an answer. She isn’t there. Just the white sneakers, cold canvas in his arms.
AUTHOR BIO: Alex Luceli Jiménez is a writer and middle school English teacher living in Soledad, CA. Her writing has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Berkeley Fiction Review, Lunch Ticket, Ram Eye Press, and Barren Magazine. She was born and raised in southern California. Visit her online at alexlucelijimenez.com and on Twitter @alexluceli.