My interest in becoming a writer started around my twelfth birthday. My mother gave me a book, “Little Men,” by Louisa May Alcott.
Joel stood there in the dark building trembling with fear, grateful that the men and boys who circled him had allowed him to pull up his underwear. Only Mamá was supposed to see that part of him. That had been the worst of the initiation, standing there in front of them exposed. Or so he thought.
Though he felt like it, Joel dared not cry despite the aches that screamed from every part of his body. His face, arms, upper and lower torso were smeared with blood, some of which was not his own. A couple of the boys who had punched him in the mouth had cut their fingers on his teeth. His right eye was starting to swell, and blood trickled from a nasty cut to his left ear.
Joel survived the first round of the initiation. Each member of the gang had taken their turn, striking him with broom handles, sticks, or their bare fists. The eighteen-year-old men taunted him and burned their half-smoked joints into his buttocks. Fifteen-year-old punks had spit on him while they cut his arms and legs with razor sharp switchblades and rusty box cutters. A thirteen-year-old barely two years Joel’s senior had thrown gut-wrenching punches and kidney-bruising kicks into his weakening body.
Yet through all of it, Joel did not dare allow himself even the smallest cry for mercy. Even when they struck the crippling blow in the worst possible place for even the strongest of men – a blow that sucked the wind out of his lungs and drove him to his knees – Joel managed to stand back up. He focused intently on Raul and the pride that lit his eyes and split his lips in a sneering grin as he bragged to the gang about the toughness of Joel.
However, it was Raul’s hand that hurt the worst. He was Joel’s older brother, the Diablos leader, and he threw the last punch that sent his little brother sprawling back to the floor of the abandoned warehouse. He circled the injured boy, feeling a measure of twisted self-importance that the youngster had lasted so long without breaking.
Though his eyes burned to cry and the gasp that escaped his lungs threatened to be a sob, Joel dared not show any weakness. He ground his teeth together in a growl as he struggled to regain his senses. Instead of giving in, he focused on the deep resentment tearing a new rift in their relationship. That rift had been growing for a while, though Joel had desperately tried to deny its existence. Now it widened within a blaze of anger. An older brother’s hands were never supposed to hurt you.
Joel rolled over to one side, but a gang member was watching his face. He left a bloody handprint on the cold cement as he first pushed up to his knees. His breathing forced through clenched teeth came out in spurts mixed with spittle and blood.
One of the older boys, who sported a shadow of facial hair, gave him back his jeans. Despite the bleeding cuts on his legs and the welts rising from the broom handles, he pulled them on quickly to cover his diminutive build from the taunts of the others.
“You got no hair on your Testículos yet, but you took it like a man!” Raul shouted proudly. “Not even a single baby tear!”
A strange smile turned up the corners of Raul’s lips, enhanced by a devious gleam in his eyes. Joel studied him for a minute, trying to interpret the expression. Could it be that Raul was proud that his little brother had just endured the initiation? This realization offered some hope that he could at least save a remnant of what remained of his fractured family. A cautious smile tried to surface in his left eye and teased his heart with hope.
Raul’s smile withdrew as his eyes turned cold. “You’re not a man yet and cannot be part of the gang.”
“But you said…” Joel’s voice quavered, and every boy leaned in with the hope of seeing him tune up to tears.
“Don’t, worry little brother. None of these guys are going to lay another hand on you.” Raul clapped him on the shoulder as he reached around his back. “You passed the first part like a man.” He produced the gun that he kept concealed in his back waistband. “Now it’s time to complete your initiation into the gang.”
Joel stared at the gun with trepidation. Raul turned him slowly to another boy the gang had waiting in the shadows.
Oh, God! Why was Enrique there?
Joel froze in place, paralyzed by the dread of what Raul wanted him to do next. Had his best friend also suffered the initiation into the gang? Was he now going to have to punch or kick the younger boy, too? The thought of hurting someone smaller or weaker than himself abhorred him.
The group of boys formed a circle around the two brothers and the younger boy. The boys were thirsty for more violence, cheering their leader when he pointed the gun to the temple of the boy kneeling on the floor. Raul seemed proud now, but Joel felt sure it was not meant for him.
“Enrique is the brother of Pedro, a rival gang member,” Raul spoke with disdain directed toward the crying youth. “They wronged the Diablos, so now he must die to show that we rule these streets.”
Joel was speechless. The gang had stripped Enrique of his clothing and brutalized him nearly senseless. Blood poured slowly from his wounds. Joel looked into those eyes filled with terror and pain. Enrique’s voice, which had sweetened the choir at the mission, flooded with wails as he begged for his life. Hope flashed briefly in both Joel and Enrique’s eyes when the gun lowered away from the little boy’s head. Raul turned to his younger brother and offered the gun to him.
“Just like that, little brother. Pull the trigger, and you will finally be one of the brothers.” Raul flashed a wicked smile as he pushed the gun into Joel’s trembling hand. “Become one of us.”
Joel gasped mutely and tried to refuse the gun. His memory of the power it wielded was intense. He knew what the weapon was capable of doing. It was warm from pressing against Raul’s back. The metal was bright silver with ivory inlays in the grip. Raul closed both of Joel’s trembling hands around it, forcing him to accept the weapon.
Joel accepted the gun with respect for the power it wielded. The same gun had changed his life many years before. It weighed just as heavy now as it did then. However, now it was just not the shiny toy he thought it was years before. It seemed much heavier. He threw a disconcerted glance at Raul, who now seemed to tower over him the way most adults did in his life.
Joel had not expected that turn of events. When Raul told him of the beating he would receive during the initiation, he accepted the challenge with worry over how bad it would hurt. When the older boys began to beat and humiliate him, he did not realize his brother would participate in the abuse. He withstood it, knowing that they would not kill him. After all, he was the younger brother of their leader. Then they dragged in Enrique, and a knot of dread tightened in his gut.
“Go on,” Raul urged, gesturing toward the beaten boy.
Joel turned to Enrique, feeling ashamed for what Raul wanted him to do. The gun shook in his hand, and he had not even raised it yet. He tried to look away from those eyes. He tried to look at the floor where the boy sat on his knees in a pooling mixture of urine, feces, and blood. There was so much blood! It churned Joel’s stomach to think of the more horrible things the gang had done to the other child.
“¡Pequeña basura! He is the brother of Pedro Garza,” Raul had said as he held Joel’s chin in his hand, forcing the younger boy to watch everything. “He cannot be a friend to any of the Diablos.”
Joel tried to raise the gun. For a moment, he and Enrique looked at each other. Both boys realized the desperation they shared and the inescapable predicament in which they found themselves. Enrique still cried aloud, but he was weakening from blood loss and could do nothing else to defend himself.
Joel’s mind traveled back to just the first of the week when he had first caught glimpses of Raul outside of the mission walls. How his heart had soared that day! Raul was alive and free! He would keep his promise to Mamá to take him to Mexico to find their distant relatives living in Guadalajara.
Joel left Enrique on the playground and ran up to the fence surrounding the mission. He called out to Raul, eager to reach through the fence and touch the hand of a member of his family again. Something was wrong, though. The older boy acknowledged him, but he did not cross the street. Joel was hurt. Raul’s eyes were dark and void of the one thing that Joel needed most. Raul turned and disappeared into the city crowds.
Joel was haunted for the whole week that followed their strange reunion. He had wanted to see a reciprocation of the love and joy he had expressed. Raul's two years he served in the juvenile correctional facility must have given him a cold, indifferent heart. Dejected, he returned to the playground and sat beside Enrique, though he was too shocked to want to play.
“Who was that?” Enrique asked.
“I thought he was my brother.” Joel could not hide the hurt in his voice very well.
He had known Enrique as a friend on the playground for several months, though the other did not live in the mission as he did. Father Michael ran a Christian school within the mission, which catered to the neighborhood around it. The two attended several of the classes together.
“Shoot him!” Raul nearly shouted the demand.
Joel’s eyes shot up to his older brother, the only family member concerned enough to take care of him when their mother had been deported. Raul was not even part of the gang back then, though he longed to join in their glory. The older boy had spent his early adolescence fighting with nearly everyone unfortunate enough to cross his path. Joel had long admired his brother for that talent.
Raul earned his way into the gang by winning fights. He took leadership by killing rivals and commanding respect. Joel could not let him down, not now, especially not after he had survived the initiation without shedding a tear. He hurt all over from that brutal beating, but he determined himself not to cry. Tears were for pequeños mocosos. About to turn twelve, he was about to become a man and only a step away from joining his brother’s gang.
Joel lifted the gun again, and it waivered just inches from Enrique’s temple. It felt unbelievably heavy in his grip, and he could not bring himself to steady the barrel. He tried to command his finger to pull the trigger, but his hand refused to cooperate. It was insane! All he had to do was pull the trigger, but every time he thought he could do it, something would cause him to flinch. He tried not to think of the other boy and instead recalled the first time he had fired a pistol.
Poppi had been alive then, and it was Joel’s fifth birthday. A piñata hung in the backyard. His father had been drunk and showed off a new pistol to Raul, who was fourteen at the time. Joel could not remember a time when his father was not drunk. He did remember the last time he busted a piñata, and its guts spilled out on the ground. The gun helped that happen.
When Poppi passed out after one too many beers, Raul had to help Mamá carry the man inside their modest little home in the suburbs. The pistol remained on the pink patio table for a curious five-year-old to investigate.
“¡Mijo!” Mamá’s voice still screamed a dire warning that came too late. “¡Baja eso! ¡Ay, Dios! ¡Raúl!”
Joel gripped the pistol with both hands and locked his elbows. Raul had taught him to hold the gun that way so that the recoil would throw his arms up over his head instead of back into his face. The loud pop and sudden dangerous recoil were what Joel feared now. Even though Raul had taught him how to fire a gun properly, he could still see it flying back and hitting him in the head. The memory caused him to tremble again.
Mamá’s beautiful face appeared before him; how he missed her! When Poppi died in a prison riot not long after Joel turned seven, Immigration had Mamá deported back to Mexico. The move cost her dearly with her life. Poppi had been running drugs across the border. When he failed to return, the cartel on the other side of the border lost a lot of money. She could offer them nothing but her life. There was still the matter of the debt to haunt the boys, but Raul quickly learned how to make his life valuable to the cartel.
Mamá had been very beautiful. Joel thought of her when he watched the make-up commercials on television. None of those women could ever hold a candle up to his Mamá. He held out hope for a long time that she would be able to return home until the day he learned that she would never come back.
Joel stayed with his Tia at first, but that did not last too long. He would have run away had he known the misery soon to come. She would not have Raul, who would have protected him, in her home. He could not be controlled and preferred to live with his homies from the old neighborhood. Joel was too young to tag along with him at the time. He spent his time in the miserable confines of Tia Marie’s roach-infested apartment. Even that would not have been so bad.
Tia Marie had a constant flow of strange men come through her doors, several of the men content to take a little boy off her hands from time to time. Thinking of those vile men and the things they enjoyed doing gave Joel new resolve. He suddenly wished that just one of those men kneeled in front of him now instead of Enrique. That would help! If he could just imagine that it was one of those mal bastardos in front of him, he would not hesitate to shoot.
Joel forced himself not to think of Enrique and tried to focus on the first mal bastardo that had ever used him. That fat gringo frequented his Tia’s apartment for the sole purpose of visiting her beautiful nephew. Sometimes, when the gringo gave her money, Tia Marie would leave them alone in her apartment! She knew what was going on!
Joel tried to picture Tia Marie kneeling in front of him as well. No matter how hard he tried to picture the two adults who had hurt him, Enrique’s terrified face came back to him.
“Don’t chicken out on me, little brother,” Raul whispered gruffly into his ear. “Get it over with and join your family.”
Joel could tell Raul was losing his patience as he glanced cautiously up. “I’m trying.”
During Joel’s first six years of life, they grew up together without a care in the world. Alcoholism took Poppi out of the picture as a father figure and forced the older brother into the position of man-of-the-house. Raul was the only part of Joel’s early life that had remained untarnished until Mamá’s death. He had never before witnessed the violence that his older brother was capable of before.
The gang would be Joel’s family now. They would protect him. They would help him hunt down the fat gringo and torture him until he begged for death. Even though they had committed some of the same terrible things to Enrique right before his eyes, even though he knew it was wrong, they would keep it from happening to him again. They would be there for him.
Joel raised the gun again. The barrel seemed steadier, the metal lighter. He clenched his teeth and tightened his grip. Enrique’s eyes widened when he realized what was about to happen. He had no strength in his voice, but his mouth still uttered a silent screaming ‘No!’
The child’s blue eyes caused Joel to hesitate one last time.
Father Michael had eyes of the same color.
Just the other day, Father Michael had offered Joel a position in the Sunday choir. He longed for the chance and was able to stand next to Enrique. In the try-outs, he won a solo part. As he started to sing, he loved the way his voice carried throughout the cathedral. When Father Michael had rescued him from the streets two years ago, Joel discovered that singing for God helped free him from the demons that haunted his mind. He had felt so wonderful singing that day.
After a time, Joel began to trust the man, slowly discerning that the man of God did not seek to pleasure himself with young boys the way the fat gringo did. Father Michael was a very good man who loved people almost as much as he loved God. This made Joel very curious, and as his trust for the priest grew, he began to inquire about God. As he learned about God, he also learned about why life happened the way it did.
Father Michael was able to deduce most of the terrible things in Joel’s life up to that point when he entered the mission. He wanted to help the boy. Before Raul returned to Joel’s life, Father Michael attempted to arrange for a counselor to help him. The boy felt ashamed and frightened that someone knew the fat gringo raped him and decided to run away from the mission with Raul. He did not realize the trouble he was getting into.
It would have been easier to pull the trigger if Joel had not remembered Father Michael. He could see the look of disappointment returning to the man’s eyes upon learning that the boy he had rescued and had faith in reclaiming from the streets had committed murder. Joel knew that all would be lost the moment he pulled the trigger. There would be no way for him to go back to the mission.
Joel also knew that if he did not kill the other boy, the gang would leave him. Raul, his only brother, would turn his back on him forever. Enrique was dying, anyway. He sat on his knees, very pale and hanging his head from exhaustion. The gun started to shake in Joel’s hand again. Why could he not just pull the damned trigger?
Could it be possible that Father Michael would never find out? The thought of disappointing the man caused a deep ache in his heart. It had felt good to be good. What he faced was evil. The conflict was confusing, but he could see no way out that ended peacefully.
God would know. Joel knew that murder was a sin. It was a sin as dark and horrifying as the sin of the fat gringo. He had a sense that God surrounded him as he sang to Him in the cathedral. Where was God, now? Why was He allowing this evil thing to happen?
Joel looked around, his eyes wide with terror. He let the gun drop once more. The sight of the other boys disheartened him. They had formed an even tighter circle, their eyes hungry for fresh blood. They were cutting off all hope for escape from the dark abandoned warehouse. They seemed to have grown bigger than they were before. He jumped when Raul stepped closer.
“Whatsa matter, mocoso, you got no cajones?” Raul hissed. “All you gotta do, little brother, is pull that trigger. That niño gordo,” he gestured with disgust to the other boy, “is not familia! His brother…He’s the one who cut me!” He made Joel look at the long gash in his shoulder that still oozed fluids from improper healing. “He made me bleed, and now his brother will pay. All you have to do is pull the trigger, and you will become one of us.”
Joel swallowed a lump in his throat as he realized he had no other choice. He found it extremely hard to breathe as he made his final decision. He turned back to the other boy, who reminded him of Father Michael’s compassion. He tried to make himself angry again, but that did not help. Enrique no longer pleaded for his life and seemed to wait for the bullet to end his misery.
Joel closed his own eyes so that he would not have to see the images plaguing him. He knew he had to do it fast and lifted the gun where he needed it. Enrique made one last cry of protest as Joel quickly pulled the trigger.
The gunshot was not thunderously loud, as Joel had expected. He had been unsteadied, and the recoil of the shot threw him sprawling backward. His eyes forced open. He landed on his back, and the wind escaped his lungs as his head crashed against the floor. His ears were ringing. Raul knelt near him and took the gun from his still trembling hand.
“¡Vienen los policías!” The warning caused the gang to scatter into the darkness like a roach-infested cabinet opened to the light.
“You are no longer my brother.” Raul stood up and shot the gun at Enrique to finish him off. “Don’t you know that suicide is the coward’s way out?” He spat in Joel’s face and then turned to leave. “Come on, guys! The cops will be here soon.” He threw the gun down near Joel’s body. “It doesn’t matter. They’ll think you killed him anyways.”
Joel could not reply, could not even blink as Raul’s saliva trickled down his nose and into his eye. Darkness crept into his field of vision. Words became echoes as his conscience drained away from him. In his mind’s eye, he saw Father Michael closing the front gate to the mission and locking it before walking away. All he could do was stare into that dark void taking over his vision, taking away the feelings that ebbed away from the fringes of his existence. The red and blue lights that began as blurs on the dusty ceiling above faded away as well, taking away the last sounds of life, the approach of footsteps, and the slowing beat of his heart…
“Oh, dear God, no!” Father Michael’s painful cry pierced Joel’s darkness in the last moment of his consciousness. “Not the little ones!”
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