The Mercados by Lisa Ko

 

 

The Mercados

by Lisa Ko

 

    

               

Brian knew he was busted the day the new kid arrived in school.

Julio, the new kid, didn’t appear to be much of a threat to anyone else. Number one, he was a fat kid. Number two, he was brown and foreign. These things did not work in your favor in 1987 in Warwick, New Jersey. What saved Julio’s fat, foreign ass from becoming an instant pariah was that he was also a big kid, shaped like a cement block, his soft, meaty arms straining the seams of his red short-sleeved Polo shirt. Julio’s spiky black hair was slicked back with gel, and even one month into the seventh grade, a shade of a mustache bloomed, a darkened caterpillar on his tanned upper lip. The head-to-toe Polo wardrobe saved him as well, although it was walking a thin line to dress like the crown prince of Bahrain at Warwick Junior High.

Brian could not remember there being any other foreign students at school before, except for Sami and Ginger, whose family had moved to New Jersey from Nigeria and attended Warwick Elementary for three months in the second grade before moving to live with distant relatives in the Midwest.

Julio’s family was filthy rich. Or they used to be filthy rich, back in Manila, where Brian’s parents had also grown up. The way Julio told it, his family, the Mercados of Mercado Shipping International Corporation Incorporated, were so badass they lived in a gated compound surrounded by armed guards. Julio’s driver took him to school every day in the family’s black Mercedes 500SL. That’s the way it was done in Manila, he told Benny Kaufman and Shawn Oberhaus and Greg Napolitano as they jockeyed around him at recess. Although Brian had been hearing about the new kid all morning, Julio was not in any of his GATE classes. GATE stood for Gifted and Talented Education. The first time that Brian saw him was at recess.

“Get outta here,” Greg yelled. “So they shoot you and stuff? You ever own a gun?” Shawn and Greg jumped up and down like they were about to piss themselves.
            “Oh, yeah,” Julio said. His wore tan slacks, black leather shoes, and dark wraparound sunglasses. “Everyone owns a gun. You’d get killed without it. My older brother, these two guys he knew were taken hostage. A couple weeks later they found the car dumped in this field outside the city.” Brian watched as Julio pointed his finger at Benny Kaufman’s freckled forehead. Benny jolted. “Boom. Heads blown straight off.”

The boys snickered. One of them asked, “They eat the heads, too?”
            “What?” Julio sounded confused. “No way.”

Brian held his breath. He crossed his fingers behind his back, twisting them around one another tightly until it hurt. The bell rang, and he heard nothing more about Manila for the rest of the day.

 

“So what do you think of the new kid?” asked Davey Underham. They were hanging out at Davey’s house and watching Star Trek re-runs after school. Sometimes Brian thought about how Davey was not just his best friend, but also his only friend. Davey’s head was imprisoned by a complicated, steel-like structure to keep his braces aligned, and he had zits—a recent development, although the rest of him remained stubbornly prepubescent—but Brian wore a retainer that caused him to spray spit whenever he spoke too fast and a thick pair of glasses that fogged up in the cold and absolved him from playing team sports. They were the two shortest kids in class, smaller than all the girls even, especially since the girls had grown tall in the past year. Yet Julio, with his Filipino blood, somehow possessed both the height and girth that Brian lacked.

 “He’s going to get his ass kicked,” Brian said. “Shawn and Greg and them are only pretending to like him. Then they’re going to clock him.”

“Yeah,” nodded Davey. Brian didn’t know if he really believed this himself. He crossed and uncrossed his fingers, hoping that Greg or Benny or Shawn or anyone else in school wouldn’t say anything to Julio about how he, Brian, had claimed to be an expert on the city of Manila and the country of the Philippines.

The week before Julio had showed up at Warwick Junior High, all of the kids had to do a short speech on what they did over their summer break. Brian reported spending July and August living with family in Manila, dodging bullets as armed guards with matching Uzis flanked the front doors of the Manila Mall. The truth was, Brian’s mother had not allowed him to go to the mall the last time they had been in the Philippines. “It’s too dangerous,” she said. “This isn’t New Jersey.”

“The mob pretty much runs the city,” Brian told the class in his presentation. He stood with his back against the blackboard’s metal chalk ledge and pushed his glasses up with his index finger. “The Filipino mob.” He echoed the phrases he had heard his parents say. “The gap between rich and poor is extreme. It’s not like it is in America. Here, only the really rich people have maids. In the Philippines, if you’re just a regular person, you’ve got all these maids working for you. The maids are just kids. Kids don’t have to go to school if they’re poor, so they work as maids.”

That afternoon, everyone wanted to talk to Brian, not just Davey and the other GATE kids. In the cafeteria, Sharon Batelli and Eddie Morrissey peppered him with questions. What did it feel like to have a gun pointed at your head? Did you get to see any of the maids naked? Brian answered the questions the best he could. He said he had a car and driver in Manila, and a gang of mob men had chased them down, which ended up in a bloody shoot-out on a city street. “Miraculously,” Brian said, breathless from all the attention and surprised at his own storytelling talent, “I escaped unharmed.”

“Tell them about the bodies,” Davey said, a thick stream of spittle dribbling out from between his braces. Brian elbowed his friend to get him to shut up. Now he had to make up something quick about bodies.

“Bodies?” Sharon’s nose crinkled. “What bodies?”

“It’s just that the neighborhood smelled really bad,” Brian said. “Then I found out that they put dead bodies in the dump. Bodies that were kidnapped.” He paused for maximum effect, then said the first thing that came to his mind. “After they ate their heads in a special blood stew.”

The kids shrieked. Some covered their mouths and made gagging noises, as if they were about to hurl.

 

It wasn’t as if Brian had never been to the Philippines. He had been there twice: once when he was five, and the summer before, when he was twelve. He barely remembered the first trip, although his mother still liked to tell everyone about the horrible diarrhea he had gotten from accidentally drinking a glass of tap water. “It just kept on spraying, like a faucet!” she would say, slapping her thighs. On the second trip, Brian and his parents stayed with his grandparents, who lived in a one-room apartment down near Chinatown in an old neighborhood called Santa Mesa. The buildings were squat, blacked with soot, and throngs of school children mobbed the bumpy sidewalks.

Inside Brian’s grandparents’ apartment, a mysterious brown liquid dripped without shame from the ceiling corners. Roaches the size of cucumbers scuttled across the screen of the television that Brian’s parents had brought over from America, on which Brian’s grandfather watched his soccer games at dawn before the mandatory citywide brownouts. Brian sat on a plastic stool and ate sweaty pieces of various tropical fruits with names he could not pronounce while his mother fanned him with a rolled up newspaper. Sweat stains formed on his mother’s silk tops. Twenty years in the States and she had forgotten how to dress in the tropics.

Brian had never thought of his family as rich, but his cousins and second cousins thought he was a big shot. They imagined the homes in America looking like the sets of Dallas and Dynasty. When Brian mentioned that his father rode the bus to work in Manhattan every day, his cousins asked if there were gangs on the bus.

“Ay,” said one of Brian’s aunts. “I will pray for your father’s safety.”

 

One night they had dinner in a family compound where Brian’s parents’ friends lived. These friends had grown up poor but were now very wealthy. Young men stood sentry behind the compound’s barbed wire entrances checking the cars that came in and nodding to each other as they smoked cigarettes with one hand, guns gripped in the other. At first, seeing so many guns scared Brian. He had only seen guns on TV and in the movies, the kinds he imagined people held and fired every day in places like the Bronx. Inside the sprawling compound houses, the children of Brian’s parents’ friends watched cable movies in air-conditioned TV rooms while teenage girls, not related to the other children, dusted, mopped, folded laundry, and chopped vegetables, lowering their voices and scattering to the edges of the house whenever any of the senior family members came home. That night, at their host’s dinner table, Brian asked his mother where the girls lived and where they went to school, but she told him to be quiet and pass the lobster.

 

Brian was walking home from school when the maroon Oldsmobile slipped up next to him. It was an old man’s car, an ungraceful boat with tinted windows. The driver’s side window rolled inched down and Brian immediately thought he was about to be kidnapped. According to the Warwick Chief of Police, who had done a safety presentation in school last year, kidnapping was a common problem in small suburban communities.

 Frantic techno music blasted through the speakers and the air conditioner’s cool gust seeped out to the September afternoon. A Filipino guy, high school age or a little older, was behind the wheel. Julio sat in the passenger seat with his sunglasses in place.

“Hey brudda,” the guy said. He wasn’t smiling.

Brian stared. In his Sears Tuffskins, he felt his stomach slide down to his knees, as if he was about to drop a load in his corduroys.

Julio leaned over, a wide grin peeking out through the smoke. “Hey, you want to get in? You wanna ride?”
            Brian knew he shouldn’t take rides from strangers, but Julio was technically not a stranger.

The driver popped the locks. “Get the fuck in the car,” he barked.

Brian obeyed. He opened the door to the back seat and slid inside the car with his backpack on, unsure of whether or not he wanted to commit to taking it off. The bag’s bulk forced him to hunch forward so that his face was almost pressed against the back of Julio’s seat. His feet could not touch the floor.

The seats were a soft beige, leather and cool to the touch. Julio turned around to face Brian. “Hey,” Julio said. There was a ring of sweat around his forehead despite the climate control. “This is my brother Destino.”

“Nice to meet you,” Brian said. From the driver’s seat, Destino responded in Tagalog. Destino looked too skinny to be Julio’s brother. His Polo shirt was yellow, the collar turned up. He wore his hair cropped short against a dark tan. A heavy gold chain hung around his neck. “Oh,” Brian said. “I only speak English.” He tried not to breathe, because he knew secondhand smoke was bad for you. But holding his breath only gave him the hiccups.

“Shit,” Destino said. He knocked the heel of his hand against Julio’s jaw. Julio’s head snapped back. “I thought you said he was Filipino.”

“He is!” Julio’s semi-whisper came out in a whine.

“My parents speak Tagalog, but I only understand a few words,” Brian offered lamely. Crouching down, he put the heel of his hand against his jaw and knocked it back, to see how it would feel. His jaw throbbed in time with the music.

Destino cracked open the window and snapped his cigarette butt out into the street. “It’s cool,” he said, although Brian could sense he disapproved.

 The Mercados lived in Brian’s side of town, near Warwick’s small downtown. Brick and vinyl sided houses were nudged up against one another. On warm weekend afternoons fathers washed their Chevys in the driveways, dressed in cut-offs and flip-flops. Davey and a lot of the other kids at school lived across town in one of the more modern developments near a golf course. In Davey’s neighborhood, no one seemed to venture outside except to get into their cars.

 

Destino pulled the car into the driveway. Brian followed the Mercado brothers into a small split-level house with a similar layout to his own, but with less furniture. Boxes were scattered everywhere. In the living room, several frames, swathed in plastic bubble wrap, leaned against the blank walls. A large television set sat on top of a larger, sagging cardboard box, the corners rounded by layers of thick packing tape. There were no calendars. Brian felt a sudden fear at being alone with Julio and Destino. Were they luring him to their house to kidnap him? Would Destino beat him up, or ask him to recite facts about Manila geography to prove that his family was indeed Filipino? Julio and Destino walked ahead of Brian into a dimly lit kitchen decorated in peeling wallpaper with brown and yellow flowers.

A pretty middle-aged woman with pale smooth skin and conspicuous gold jewelry sat at a round table. He arched eyebrows gave her an expression of stuck surprise.

“Mom,” Julio said. “This is Brian. He’s in my class at school.”

Julio’s mother smiled. Her teeth were neat and straight. “Baby Mercado,” she said, offering Brian her manicured hand. She smelled flowery, like a strong air freshener. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m so glad that Julio has found a friend in school.” Brian wondered if Julio was supposed to be his friend.

 “I’m going to go watch TV,” Julio announced, and Brian stood up, trying to figure out if that was also his cue to leave. But Baby held his wrist, her grip unexpectedly tight.

“No, stay and chat with me a bit,” she said, as Julio padded off into the living room. Brian sat back down and wiped his sweaty palms on the thighs of his pants.

 

After Destino dropped Brian off at home, Brian asked his parents if they had heard of the Mercado Shipping International Corporation Incorporated. According to Baby, it had been the number one international shipping corporation in the Far East, until bad fortune befell them and the family was cheated out of their wealth.

Brian’s mother wrinkled her forehead, thinking. “No. I don’t think so.”

Brian’s father looked up from the newspaper he was reading. He shrugged. “

“I guess their son Julio is my friend from school.”

“We should invite them over for dinner,” his father said.

His mother clapped her hands in delight. “Yes, a dinner!” Over Brian’s protestations, she found Julio’s phone number from a class roster. On the phone, Baby Mercado announced that she and her sons would be delighted to come for dinner, although The Mister, she said, was still back in the Philippines.

“Business,” Baby explained.

For days, Brian’s mother worked in the kitchen, preparing complicated Filipino dishes that Brian had never tasted. “They must be homesick,” she explained. “I was like that too, when I first came here.” Brian’s parents had moved to New Jersey from New York City when he was two years old. They were one of the first non-white families to live in Warwick. Brian’s mother had made friends by looking through the phone book and cold-calling the families with Asian-sounding last names.

 

Although Destino had started to pick his younger brother up from school each afternoon, pulling up to the playground in the Oldsmobile, slowly rolling down the window and making a show of flicking his cigarette ash onto the pavement. The kids of Warwick Junior High stared at Destino, his car, and Julio, wearing his signature sunglasses, lumbering into the Oldsmobile’s passenger seat to a loud techno soundtrack. One morning, Benny Kaufman arrived at school dressed in a olive green Polo shirt and a pair of brown sunglasses. Benny’s friends teased him mercilessly, but Benny stood firm. By the next week, four more boys were wearing shades on the playground.

Brian marveled at how Julio, possibly because of his complete ignorance at the Warwick clique system, had become, against all odds, cool. It had been that way as well with Sami and Gigi, the foreign students from Africa. They won the kids over fast. Being from Africa made them exotic. Sami was the funny girl who would do anything on a dare, eating four containers of prunes from the cafeteria at lunch to the endless amusement of her friends, although she was laughing with them, giggling so hard she could barely keep the last prunes down. Her sister Gigi was quieter, reading and trading comic books with Brian and Davey in the library. Some Sundays, when his mother woke up in a bad mood and made him go to church with her, Brian spotted the two sisters, dressed in bright yellows and oranges, sitting with their parents in one of the back pews. He never thought of Nigerians being Catholic, too. When Sami and Gigi left, the classrooms grew quiet again. Even Benny and Greg and Shawn talked about how much the girls were missed.

Brian was never again offered a ride with Destino and Julio. Instead, he walked with Davey, lurching beneath the weight of their oversized backpacks, heavy with the Garfield comic books they had borrowed from the school library. Both of them hoped that they wouldn’t get beat up on the way by eighth graders like they did last spring. Brian went home with a bloody nose and lied to his mother about how he had fallen prey to a vicious nosebleed after class.

 

While walking to school each morning, Brian crossed and uncrossed his fingers three times, making a silent plea to not be exposed as a fraud. A teacher or another classmate might mention his Manila presentation while Julio was nearby, asking both of them to elaborate on the city’s dangers. Julio and the rest of the school would turn Brian into a laughing stock when his lies unraveled, forcing him to admit that his tales of close encounters with dead bodies and guns had been made up, that his knowledge of Manila barely extended beyond his grandparents’ apartment.

He imagined Destino coming to get him. Everywhere Brian walked, he kept a lookout for Oldsmobiles. “You think we eat heads?” Destino would say, his fist hanging over Brian’s face, wound up and ready to fire. “You think we are savages? You should be ashamed of yourself.”

 

            It was a crisp November evening when the Mercados and the Sees assembled around Brian’s family’s dining room table. The table was set with real silverware for the special occasion, bought half-off at Odd Lot. The group was feasting on a mostly home-cooked meal of blood stew, lechon, and pancit noodles. What Brian’s mother did not cook herself she purchased from the Asian supermarket in Fort Lee and then re-heated in her own Corningware.

            Baby Mercado, wearing a tight yellow pantsuit and a polka-dotted bow in her hair, told Brian’s mother about her face-lift. “It’s no big deal, Mona,” she said. “You reach a certain age, everybody does it. There’s no shame. We all want to look beautiful.”
            “I would consider plastic surgery,” said Brian’s mother.  “I hate these eye bags.” Brian squinted at his mother, trying to spot bags.

            “I had the eyes done,” Baby said, laying each of her index fingers under each of her eyes. “And a little bit taken out of the chin.” The fingers moved to her chin. “The eyebrows, too.”
            “Eyebrows?”

            “Tattoos,” Baby whispered, loudly enough so that the entire table could hear. “I know a great doctor in Hong Kong, does it all.”

            Brian’s father asked Destino how his family ended up in New Jersey.

            “I’m not really sure, Mr. See.” said Destino. “I guess because it is close to New York. My mother has some relatives there.”

            “And your husband…” Brian’s father started to say, but then trailed off on realizing he may have touched on a sensitive subject.

“He had to stay back home for a little while. You know, business. But it’s lonely here in the States. It’s so different than back home.” Baby looked at Brian’s mother as if to say: You know how it feels. Brian’s mother did. She had told Brian many times about how she had been a nanny for a rich family, then a bank clerk, then a bank teller for a Chinese American bank in Chinatown, where her white American boss was kind enough to eventually sponsor her for a green card. Soon afterwards she met Brian’s father, who opened his first savings account ever after putting himself through school at Queens College. He asked Brian’s mother out on a date while handing her the deposit slip with his first American paycheck from his first job that didn’t involve washing dishes, busing tables, or cleaning bathrooms. She had been charmed by his height. 

            Julio was silent. He ate quickly, breathing in short huffs as he mechanically deposited noodles into his mouth. Brian picked at his food, wishing that his mother hadn’t sat him next to Julio. What was Julio doing at his house? Brian wished that Davey was here instead, or that he had kept his big mouth shut and hadn’t told his parents about the Mercados in the first place.

            After dinner, the grown-ups settled on the living room couches to talk. “Brian,” his mother called. “Show Julio and Destino your room.” Brian led the Mercado brothers up the short flight of stairs and down the hall, suddenly ashamed at how stupid his room must look. The Star Trek posters on the walls, the stuffed animal Garfield on his bed, the bookshelves full of science fiction paperbacks and model airplanes. Destino picked up one of the airplanes, a replica of a German fighter plane from World War II. “Did you make this?” he asked. Brian nodded. He watched Julio and Destino inspect the room, inch by inch. Julio suddenly dropped down on Brian’s bed. The plaid comforter sagged.

“What do you think they’re talking about down there,” he asked his brother.

            “Mom’s plastic surgery, the visas, how times were so tough now we’re struggling.” Destino rolled his eyes. “Same old shit.”
            Julio’s gray socks were now on Brian’s comforter. His head was on Brian’s pillow. The Garfield lay helpless and squashed beneath his shoulder.

            Destino put the model airplane down on the shelf. Brian resisted the urge to run over and check to make sure that Destino had not bent one of the wings. “You ever been to the Philippines?” he asked Brian.

            “Twice.”

            “His grandparents live there,” Julio said, looking over at Brian. “Right?”
            Brian nodded. “In Santa Mesa.”

            Destino walked over to Brian’s desk and sat on it. “That place is a shithole. Dangerous place, right?”

“It’s pretty dangerous,” Brian said. He felt a tinge of annoyance rise up. What right did Destino have, calling his grandparents’ place a shithole? “I guess.”

“That’s right,” Destino said. “We didn’t live near there, though. We lived in Greenhills. You been to Greenhills? You need to know someone who lives there to get in.”

“I think we visited some friends there,” Brian said. He thought of the compound, the armed guards. There were no guards in Santa Mesa.

“You know what we used to do instead of going to school? Play hooky and smoke crack out at my friend’s country club.” Destino laughed. “You know what crack is, Brian?”

            Brian’s voice came out higher than he wanted. “Yeah.”

            Destino whistled. “Yeah,” he echoed. He shifted his weight on Brian’s desk, crinkling the papers underneath him.

            Brian couldn’t help it. “Excuse me, Destino? Could you maybe move a bit? You’re sitting on my homework.”

            Destino’s face registered genuine surprise. He lifted his right leg and slid the papers off the desk, smoothing them down with his hand. “Sorry.”

            Julio sat up in Brian’s bed. “You always do your homework, huh.”

            “I guess,” Brian said.

            “Huh,” Julio said. “I never do my homework.” He considered this and then started laughing. “The teachers don’t care. They cut me a break since I just moved here.” Both Destino and Julio found this incredibly funny.

Brian didn’t want to laugh. There was a long silence. He wondered what smoking crack felt like. “Hey.” He pulled out the Nintendo that his parents had bought him last Christmas and plugged it into the TV on the folding table next to his bed. “Want to play video games?”
            Julio snatched at one of the Nintendo controls. “What games you got?” Destino grabbed the other control.

            Brian handed the box of games to Julio and sat down on the floor. He had seen the bedrooms of his parents’ rich friends’ kids, complete with awe-inspiring collections of games only available from Japan and Hong Kong, but he had also caught a glimpse of the bedroom that Julio and Destino shared on Wedgewood Avenue the afternoon he had been in their house. Two twin beds, nothing on the walls, no blinds or curtains on the window, only boxes stacked in the corner.

 

In the school cafeteria the next day, Brian was picking at meatball heroes and fruit cocktail with Davey when they overheard Julio retell a familiar story to a bunch of boys in his loud, accented voice. Julio had told it at least twice before, and Brian wondered if the other kids were getting tired of hearing variations of the same Manila crime dramas.

“And then these two big guys jumped out of a car,” Julio was saying. “They were after my brother Destino, you know, because he was having beef with their friends. Destino’s friend Manny dealt crack, and my brother was trying to help out his friend, and the guys were carrying these huge pipes, ready to kill my brother. This was in Tondo, this tough neighborhood in Manila. You should never go there alone.” A gold chain, a thinner version of Destino’s, hung around Julio’s thick neck.

            Across the table, Shawn Oberhaus rolled his eyes. “That’s the same story you told last week,” he said.

            Between sixth and seventh periods Brian passed Julio in the hallway and nodded. Julio gave a nod back.

 

 

A few weeks later, school let out early one day for parent-teacher conferences. The entire seventh grade was hyper, knowing that they would only have morning classes. It was a mild late November day and warm enough to walk into town with only a light jacket. Davey and Brian rushed out the door with the rest of the kids after third period, making their way across the soccer fields towards town. “My dad gave me five bucks yesterday for helping him rake the leaves,” Davey said. “We can play pinball and get slices at Franco’s.”

            On the way to town was a small footbridge that crossed a narrow creek dividing the soccer field from the edges of the school property. Beyond the field was a patch of woods, marked by a dirt field lined with goose shit, gum wrappers, and dead leaves. This was where the eighth graders had jumped Davey and Brian last spring

            Davey heard it first. “Brian, what’s that?” Brian stopped and listened. Somewhere nearby, a kid was getting the shit kicked out of him. He heard the rhythmic thuds of sneaker soles against clothing and flesh, the victim’s shouts protesting and begging the beater to stop. 

Brian sprinted after Davey through the clearing. He spotted them behind the trees. Shawn, Greg and Benny stood in a circle, kicking a writhing figure on the ground. Brian saw the red Polo shirt, the leather shoes sprawled in the dirt. Shawn’s sneaker sank into Julio’s thick stomach with sickening force. What came out of Julio was something that sounded like a dying car horn.

            “Fuck,” Davy yelled. “Run!” Brian turned and ran until his breath felt as if it was about to give out. One of the arms of his glasses had slipped, leaving the frames hanging crooked around his nose. He met Davey, panting, on the sidewalk that ran around the perimeter of the woods.

“They’re clocking him,” Davey said, as if it wasn’t obvious. He was breathing so hard he was almost hyperventilating. “I need one of my Mom’s pills,” Davey cried.

Brian wiped his glasses on the sleeve of his T-shirt, then re-arranged them on his face. For a moment he wondered if he should go back into the woods to see if Julio was okay. After all, Julio had eaten dinner at his house. Then he pictured Shawn and Greg and Benny. He remembered the eighth graders. There were no more noises coming from the woods. “I think we’re safe,” Brian whispered.

 

After three days passed and Julio was still not back at school, Brian started to worry. Perhaps he should say something to his mother, even suggest that she should call Baby Mercado. He felt he could have said something, stopped Shawn and them in the woods, although he would have gotten beat up, too. Then Julio would not be somewhere, hospitalized or dead. Each evening, he picked up the phone while holding the class roster with the Mercados’ number, ready to dial, but hung up instead.          

The fight wasn’t over yet. It was Destino Mercado who had the last word, not only pulling up to the playground in the Oldsmobile but also getting out of the car this time, waiting for Shawn and Greg and Benny to make their way out of the building after last period. Even though Shawn was one of the biggest kids in the seventh grade, he was no match for Destino, a nearly grown man.

            With the rest of the class, Brian watched the fight from the school doors, pressed against the building, as if the violence could be contagious. It lasted thirty seconds at most. Brian was surprised at how easily Shawn went down, how Benny and Greg were just afterthoughts, Destino kicking them both in the gut and tossing them to the ground as if he were knocking over bowling pins. And just as soon as it began, it was over. The teachers were out there pulling Destino off, Vice Principal Esterly shouting, “Who is this person? What the hell is wrong with you, beating up a little kid?” Shawn was lying on the pavement, wiping the blood from his face. Vice Principal Esterly and two teachers wrenched Destino’s arms behind his back and held him in what looked like a bear hug. Destino lay limp against the teachers’ arms. Brian silently begged for him to struggle and break free, to make a run for it. He could do it. But Destino didn’t move.

“Call the cops,” someone screamed.

“Holy crap,” Davey breathed.

            As the Warwick cops pulled up, sirens blazing, Brian realized that this was the most exciting thing to ever happen at school. People would talking about it for months, even years. Destino was carted off in handcuffs. Benny Kaufman managed to get himself off the playground. As the squad car drove off, he yelled, “Pick on someone your own size.”

Shawn and Benny and Greg would become heroes, hapless victims in the face of a psycho older bully. None of the boys wore sunglasses anymore, and they sported their black eyes and bruised lips like badges, pretending to protest when the girls and teachers fussed over them.

             

            Destino’s arrest ruined the Mercados’ already slim chances of getting a green card. When the police discovered his visitor’s visa was about to expire, they scheduled a date for his deportation. A rumor went around the school that he had been wanted by the law.

            Before they left Warwick, Baby Mercado called Brian’s house. They were going to Canada the next day, Baby told Mona. Destino was to report to the Newark courthouse for his deportation. After she hung up the phone, Brian’s mother burst into tears. Brian could not remember ever seeing his mother cry like that. He stood paralyzed in the doorway of the kitchen and watched her quiver and snivel wetly into her hands. Then he picked up a box of tissues and handed it to her.

            Much later, when the winter had passed and spring was almost over and there was only one month left in the seventh grade, Brian and Davey were walking home.

“Hey, remember that guy Julio?” Davey asked.

            Brian, who had grown three-and-a-half inches since November, three-and-a-half inches taller than Davey, thought about the Mercados every day.

“Yeah,” he said.

“So, was it true?” Davey asked. “Were they really running from the law? Was Destino really an ex-con? Did they get away to Canada, or did they all get deported?” Brian shrugged. “Well, don’t you ever wonder?”

Brian had examined all of the possibilities, in bed before he fell asleep and during particularly boring classes. In his version, the family made it to Canada. They went underground like in the movies. Somehow they got their papers. Julio enrolled in a school in a Toronto suburb. Destino went to college.

            Or, more likely:

            They returned to the Philippines against their wills. Baby Mercado reunited with her husband, even if she didn’t love him. Julio and Destino returned to their old lives. They were back to being just like everyone else, even if they were never as rich as they once thought they were.

Brian considered telling this to Davey.

“They were so weird,” Davey was saying, as he kicked a pebble down the path. “Julio was so fat and gross.”

Brian stopped walking, stepped up to his best friend, and stared him in the eye. Davey backed up. His lower lip trembled.

“Shut up,” Brian said. “Just shut the hell up.”

 

**

 

Lisa Ko is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY. She is completing a collection of linked short stories called No Street Like Home. Visit her at incommunicado.net.

 

                                                                                                                                 

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