She was a connoisseur of fluorescent lights. Under the buzzing stare of the gas station lamps,
Laura rubbed her pregnant belly and glanced down at the blood on her hands. She shut off the engine
and took a deep breath before she reached into the backseat of the old Honda Civic and pulled out her
backpack, which had only a few items of clothing she hadn’t fully outgrown yet. She went into the
convenience store and walked up to the cashier, a young boy, not much older than she was.
“Where’s your bathroom?”
“Holy shit, are you okay?”
Laura hadn’t thought about the rest of her body. She’d only seen her hands on the steering
wheel, the red finding shelter in the lines of her hands, her fingers embedded with the DNA of a
stranger. She hadn’t been in front of a mirror to see what the rest of her looked like. She glanced up at
the security camera and saw that her face and shirt were drenched in the same crimson hue. Her black
hair was matted in places where the blood had dried.
“I just need to use the bathroom,” she said, trying to sound calm, as if this was a typical
“Sure, it’s straight back that way, past the beer,” the clerk said, pointing his finger.
As Laura walked away, the boy shouted, “Should I call someone?”
“No!” she yelled back. “I just had an accident, but I’m fine.”
Once she was in the restroom, she turned on the light and locked the door. The light flickered
slightly, enough to send her mind racing back to the blood. So much blood , she thought, like some
fucked-up baptism .
She’d never heard noises like that come out of a human being, and she never wanted to hear
those sounds again. After she was done peeing, she went to the sink and used brown paper towels
soaked in water to scrub the dried blood from her fingers, her wrists, her cheeks. She wasn’t sure how
blood got on her face, but she knew she had to remove it. She had to get rid of every trace of what had
She felt a kick to her stomach and rubbed her belly, hoping it would get the baby to calm down.
She changed into a clean shirt and jeans and threw the bloodied garments into the trash can. As she
laced up her shoes, she couldn’t help but think of that afternoon two years ago, before Luz, before Jose,
before Leroy’s, before that row of palm trees, before sex, before all the blood.
“What the fuck's wrong with you? You never seen a room before?” Laura didn't reply. “Pinche
puta. Look … You're going to be sleeping here,” he pointed to a corner of the room where a pile of
dirty laundry sat on a twin mattress near the wall.
The apartment wasn’t much. When Laura walked in the front door, she wasn’t surprised that it
was so small, but she was more surprised that her uncle had made no effort to clean up the place. She’d
been taught her whole life that if you were having company over, you cleaned the entire house from top
to bottom, scrubbing the base boards, cleaning windows, wiping dust off the doorknobs. But this
apartment was fine with its dirt and dust.
The living room had only a flannel-covered couch and a television set on a wooden nightstand.
There were two doors on the opposite wall of the entryway, each went into their separate rooms,
Laura’s being the one on the right, closest to the bathroom. To the right was a small doorway that led
into a tiny kitchen, which was almost blocked by the refrigerator taking up the most space in the
apartment. Where a dining room was supposed to be was only a table with no chairs. Clearly, no one
was invited for dinner.
After showing Laura her room, Hector walked toward the kitchen and stood in the doorway,
seemingly letting Laura take in the space. She was also taking him in. She hadn’t seen him in years,
and he was much different than she remembered. She didn’t remember him having so many tattoos,
and the way his face rested on a look of disdain didn’t seem to mesh with the image Laura had of him
when she was little. He used to play games with her on her parents’ couch as they argued in the kitchen
over how long Hector was going to stay. He would challenge her to rounds of I Spy, always picking
objects that were easily identifiable so Laura could win. And when her parents weren’t looking, he’d
often sneak her a piece of candy he’d picked up from the store.
Now, watching him watch her, she could see their own similarities, their dark hair, their brown
skin, same eyes. But his skin wasn’t as smooth as it used to be. His wrinkles were starting to form in
the corners of his eyes, tired from either a lack of sleep or watching too much of the world outside.
“Now, I don't know what the hell your parents raised you like, but now you're with me, and
here, we all contribute. So, if that means you gotta get out there and hustle some shit, figure it out. But I
expect you to bring me forty bucks a week. And that's just for starters. After you've been here awhile,
I'm gonna ask for more. Aight?”
Laura nodded. She thought to herself for a moment that if she closed her eyes long enough,
she'd wake up. She'd be perched on the sand of some faraway beach, having woken from a nap. The
waves colliding with one another and coating her bare feet before the tide would redirect its course,
before the currents would envelope the trickling strands back into the blue.
“Hey!” Hector snapped his finger in her face. “Pay attention, you little shit. I'm talking to you.”
“Sorry,” Laura mumbled.
“Now, I got some friends coming over tonight. When they get here, you get gone. Entiendes? I
don't care where you go, who you go with, just don't come back until the morning.”
“But I don't know where to go,” Laura said, as she nervously eyed every corner of the living
room, no hiding spot revealing itself.
“I don't give a fuck! Figure it out! You got two hours.” Her uncle took a beer out of the fridge,
walked over to the couch and laid down. Laura stood a few feet from the front door, not sure where to
go. If she stepped toward the couch, he might think she was on the attack. If she stepped too close to
the door, he might think she was running away. Her feet rested on this uncomfortable plateau. She felt
as if she took one step in the wrong direction, she would fall to her death.
“I'm gonna take a nap,” Hector said. “Don't wake me for shit.”
He turned his body to face the back of the couch, shutting out the world, shutting out his niece,
his cold beer starting to sweat onto the carpet as the afternoon heat picked up. From where she was
standing near the front door, she glanced at the whole apartment. This was it. The flickering TV set, the
slept-in couch, cupboards with expired food, a kitchen table with no invitation. This was her home now.
Laura stayed still. Standing by the front door, she could still hear her social worker’s voice
declaring that Hector would be her new guardian.
Hector. Her uncle on her dad's side. They'd never been close except for the occasional visit, and
even then, he seemed like a dream. She’d heard the stories. Tales of prostitutes, junkies, and beaten
girlfriends. According to her mother, any time Hector came around, it was always to stir up trouble
before disappearing with another girl he'd convinced to seek the good life a few miles yonder. Laura
always heard his name spoken with a hint of disdain, especially from her mother, but she couldn’t
reconcile the image she had of him in her head with the unsavory stories she heard when she was
supposed to be asleep.
Since no one came forward to collect, the state tried to seek custody and place her in a group
home with other refugees. But Hector came out of nowhere to stake a claim.
“So, you’re saying he lives near Waller?” the social worker asked through the phone as she took
notes on a paper tablet.
Laura sat, facing this woman, facing the desk, swinging her legs back and forth under her chair.
She looked down at the floor, hoping that if she ignored everything around her, she could fall in, like a
swimming pool, and no one would notice her doing laps through the hallways, practicing her back
“Mmhmm… okay,” she said, scribbling away.
“Umm…” Laura started, before the social worker held up a hand to indicate she wasn’t ready to
hear what Laura had to say.
“I know he has a full-time job, but if he’s a mechanic, why does he live in that part of town?”
She put the pen down to take a sip of her coffee, listening to the voice on the other end relaying
information Laura wasn’t privy to, bits of code, a secret language between people who had offices with
bad lights and stale coffee.
“I just don’t know if this is the best option,” she said, looking at Laura. They connected eyes for
a moment before she looked back down at her notepad and ran her finger over the lines of cursive
populating the page.
“From what she’s told me, she said she hasn’t talked to him in years. Are we sure this is in her
best interest? … Okay … Okay… Fine. I’m going to drive her out there in a bit,” she said quietly,
almost as if she didn’t want Laura to hear, even though she was sitting directly across from her, only a
desk with a bunch of papers and photos of children blocking them from one another.
“Look,” her social worker said after hanging up the phone. “I know this is a difficult time. But
your uncle is going to take care of you now. Here's my card.” She reached into a black satchel near her
feet and handed Laura the card. “If you need to call me for any reason, please do. For anything. Do you
understand?” Laura looked out the window. It was all she was good for in that moment. “I know it
might be hard, but who knows? Your uncle might just be what you need right now.”
That was the last thing Laura remembered hearing before she turned her mind off.
“Your uncle might just be what you need right now.”
Standing in Hector’s living room, Laura wondered if it was too soon to call. Would she catch
the social worker just a few miles away, eager to turn the car around and scoop Laura up, save her from
whoever this man was, this person who was a mere skeleton of what Laura remembered him being. She
didn't move from that spot until she was sure her uncle was asleep. Once his snores filled the room with
their staggered chorus, she stepped toward the bathroom. She closed the door and sat on the toilet. Beer
bottles and cigarette butts littered the tiles. Another party she was absent for. She bent down and
reached into her backpack for her notebook. Mrs. Vargas, her 5 th grade language teacher, gave it to her.
“You're already a great writer, mija. Take this book and see what stories you have to tell.” So, she did.
I'm alone. I see things I'm not supposed to see. Ma and Pa wouldn't want me here, but it's not up
to them. The lady in the suit says I have to stay here. I don't want to be here, but it's not up to me either.
I don't know how I'm supposed to make money. He wants forty dollars a week, and that's already
making me scared. I never had to work before, and I don't even think I'm old enough.
And I'm confused about Uncle Hector. When he used to come and visit, he used to put me on his
shoulders, dance me around and tell me funny stories. I know that was a long time ago, but how can he
just forget? I wish he could see me how he used to, and that he'd just let me go to school. What kind of
work is out there for me? What am I gonna do? Ma? Pa? If you can read this … or hear what I'm
thinking … Please help.
She could feel his soft breath on her cheek. “Mija, there's a rainbow outside.” Still half-asleep,
she conjured the strength to get up and look out her window. The curtains billowed in the gusts that
sent slight shivers down her spine. Her nightgown swirled around her feet as she walked across loose
floorboards to see a glimpse of color in a gray sky. Each step brought her closer toward that array of
hues calling out to her in the quiet morning.
The room was quiet, except for the sounds of her and her father’s footsteps on the hardwood.
The clouds beyond her window were a mixture of deep ash and hopeful creams, coating the land
outside in a dull haze. But she could see streaks of pink and orange where the sun was starting to
ascend and coat everything in a warm embrace. The green hills were quiet and steady, everything still
waking up and adjusting to a new day. The breeze brought in a coolness that collided with the warmth
of the room. Laura wanted to dance in that coolness, feel the winds take her body and move it to the
rhythms of the morning.
Last night was a dream. She'd lost herself in that small, sad apartment, drowned beneath the
currents of ash and tile. It had all existed in her mind. Now, she stood by this window, and her father's
hands rested on her shoulders.
“You see that?”
“Mmhmm ... It's gorgeous.”
“God made it just for you, mija. You see those swirls of color. Some people say that at the
bottom, where it touches land, there's a pot of gold. Do you think that's true?”
Laura looked out at the horizon and saw a single bird, lost in a sea of sky, its wings barely
holding up its little body. She held her breath and watched it cross the clouds until it got lost in a haze
of vibrant blue, a speck of life claimed by the atmosphere.
“No,” she responded. “If that were true, there'd be no poor people.”
Her father laughed at her response. He bent down to kiss her cheek. She turned to look at him;
his face carried smudges of motor oil. He'd been working on his GTO again. Sometimes, he stayed up
all night in the garage, listening to AC/DC and sipping cognac from a small glass. She often woke up in
the middle of the night and sat by the door, listening to the music and sipping water from her favorite
cup. It had daisies arranged in a perfect circle near the rim.
She walked across the room and got back into bed. Before drifting to sleep, she looked at him
again. “I thought you were gone forever.”
“Never, mija … Go to sleep.”
Laura woke to the sound of a woman's cackle. As her eyes opened, she could see from a tiny
sliver of light beaming from under the bathroom door that she was surrounded by those same cigarette
butts and beer bottles. Laura peeled herself off the bathroom floor, where she’d fallen asleep. She tried
to adjust her eyes to the darkness of the room, aided only by the light coming in from the window
above the bathtub. The room was small. Except for the bathtub, there was only a toilet and sink, no
shelves, no place to put anything really, which explained why the floor was covered in garbage. There
wasn’t even a trash can. Apparently, no one had come to use the toilet because she would surely have
woken up. She heard her uncle laughing, his voice echoing through the door.
“ FUCKING BASTARD!!! He actually thought I'd let him get away with only paying me twenty
bucks. That's fine pussy right there! ” She could hear a woman cackle again and continue, “ Hey man, I
do what I can. I just know when I'm being short-changed, and he was too fucking ugly to try and pay
me half. I mean, I did that fucking fool a favor! ”
Laura stood up near the toilet. Her backpack had fallen over, and the wide assortment of pencils
and pens she'd kept thrown at the bottom of her bag were all over the floor. As she bent down to pick
them up, the bathroom door flew open, and the lights came on, instantly blinding her.
A scream so loud as to set off car alarms ignited a fire within Laura that sent her over the edge
of the tub and lunging for the window.
“There's a kid in here!” a woman yelled. Laura glanced back to see a gold-sequined tube top
reflecting shapes from the overhead lights onto her face. Stars amidst a pitch-black sky.
“Hahahaha, she's fucking trippin' in there, man!” Someone's voice echoed into the bathroom.
Laura heard faint laughing as she tried to unlatch the window and make a quick escape. Maybe she
could find that social worker, give her a call, let her know what was going on.
“What?!” She looked back once more to see Hector standing in the doorway next to the golden
goddess with smeared lipstick and a hairpiece that was halfway toward becoming a rug on the floor.
“You little shit!” Hector reached toward Laura and grabbed the back of her shirt, pulling her
away from the window. “What the fuck are you doing here?”
“Hector! What's going on in there, hahahaha!!!” The man's voice echoed into the room again.
“You got a surprise in there or somethin'?”
“Get out here!” Her uncle said as he nudged Laura into the living room, where his friends sat
around. Laura counted five heads, including that of her uncle's and the sequined deity who retreated
into the bathroom and closed the door. Five souls lingering in this purgatory, each waiting to be judged.
Laura was there to point a knowing finger, grace them with the knowledge of the willfully ignorant.
Each glance traded between a new pair of eyes left her wanting to know more. Suddenly, she was glad
she'd woken up. At least she wasn't alone.
“Who's this little one?” The woman on the edge of the couch asked. “Oh … she's an angel … Hi
sweetie, wanna come sit by me?” Laura glanced at her uncle, who didn't say a word. He nodded his
head toward the couch, indicating it was okay for her to have a seat. “Oh my God, you have the most
beautiful hair! Ray, remember when my hair was like this?”
A man sitting in a chair on the other side of the room nodded while exhaling a puff of smoke.
Laura watched as it rose and wondered if it was a part of his spirit. She watched as it quickly
evaporated into the ceiling; a piece had found heaven in the yellowed paint.
Laura sat there, letting this woman run her fingers through her strands. She eyed her reflection
in the mirror across the room. From this angle, she could see her jet-black hair illuminated by the light
of the ceiling fan winking its warm eye toward her face. Her burnt umber eyes captured a faint
reflection as she searched her dark skin for some hint of strength.
“Hector, who's she?” Ray asked before taking another puff of his cigar.
“She's my niece,” Hector said.
“What the fuck? How'd she end up with you?” Ray asked before releasing a small laugh from
his gargantuan belly.
“Her parents died. Now she lives with me.”
“They gave you a kid?” The woman asked, still stroking Laura's hair, the first real contact Laura
had had with another human in what felt like ages. All she needed was a hug and she'd feel somewhere
closer to home. Just as Laura was beginning to sink into the lovely remnants of a head of hair being
stroked lovingly by a complete stranger, the weight of her uncle's words seeped in. Immediately, she
was lost in the haunting reality that the dream she'd woken up from wasn't the one she wanted to leave.
“Sweetie ... I'm so sorry,” the woman said as she stroked. “That's gotta be pretty hard on ya,
huh?” Laura nodded in affirmation. “Well, my name is Rita, I'm an old friend of your uncle's,” she said
as she stopped running her fingers along Laura's scalp. “That sad sack sitting over there with the cigar
in his mouth is my boyfriend, Ray. And that fucked up idiota by the window is my brother, Carlos.”
Laura looked over at Carlos as he exhaled a smoke-inflected “'Sup?”