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First pages

One Flew Over the Coyote Den

A coyote killed my mother. Yeah, I know: weird way to die. Even weirder, fifteen years later, a pack of coyotes tried to kill me. Hello, my name is Gus, and I’d like to know how to get rid of coyotes, once and for all. The thing is, not all coyotes walk on four legs. My family’s predators, the ones trying to take me down, were of the human variety. The man responsible for Mama’s death, a smuggler, had no regard for human life. I get that. In all fairness, being a predator is tough. You have to recruit or chase your target. The failure rate is pretty high, not to mention all the wasted energy during the chase. Every once in a while, the pesky little prey doesn’t always cooperate. In my case, the pesky little prey chose to fight back. The predator was a school, Desertview Elementary, and I was the not so innocent victim.

The black box stared me down questioning my nerve. It’s all there, the whole sordid story, locked in my time capsule. A year’s worth of writing marinated in the box. A year’s worth of pain and heartache. “Write it down,” Mr. Fincher said. “Write it all down. Pain flows out the pen.” Mr. Fincher, my teacher, likes to talk about the power of pain.

He taught us that introverts are sensitive to pain especially the pain of others, and writing is a way to ease the pain. Fincher says that introverts make great writers. According to him, they thrive in a world of solitude and reflection. According to him, listening is more valuable than talking. According to him, introverts gain energy from themselves. Ultimately, storing their artistic passion, developing an inner strength, and producing great works of art.

He says most artists are introverts. Fincher says I’m an introvert. Fincher says I’m an artist. The worst year of my life still bubbled beneath my skin. A year of love, a year of loss and a year of learning cooled like magma in the black box.

The year in question: my fifteenth. I wanted what most teenagers take for granted. I wanted a family. For me, family is not just about blood; it’s about trust, and I have trust issues. My issues stem from the past, and my past involves a big yellow CAUTION sign. Traffic signs warn of hazardous or unusual conditions ahead. Such as falling rocks, leaping deer, and crossing immigrants. That last danger is me. On the sign, below the block-lettered caution, a silhouetted family flees hand in hand. The faceless family crossing the border belongs to my family, the Romero’s.

We crossed into California. Papi leaned forward, the headstrong father, like the father from the sign. Mama held me tight and wouldn’t let go, like the mother from the sign. The biggest difference between the Romero’s and the sign. I'm not the little girl with pigtails who couldn't keep her feet on the ground. Fifteen years ago, I was the miracle boy. Me, Gustavo Romero, the boy who wouldn't die.

Before the police.

Before the murder.

Before I fell in love.

Maybe things do happen for a reason; maybe they don’t. It doesn’t really matter. Here’s the thing: I know I’m strange. Most kids talk, talk way too much. I don’t speak. Most boys, my age, have kissed a girl. I’ve never even held a girl’s hand. Most kids don’t live in their head like I do. I seem to only live in my head. Too often, I analyze, reanalyze, and over-analyze until my original thoughts are unrecognizable. My whole world is a brain game. Fincher says I’m an observer, a person who processes things from a distance. He’s right. That’s me, and I’m okay with my strangeness. As weird as I am, it fits, like my skin, my only wish is that my skin were a little thicker. Mr. Fincher encouraged (forced) me to share my story. Of course, I survive, no big shocker there, but the twists, turns, and detours I could’ve never predicted. I see it as a story of obsession.

In Fincher's class, we debate quotes. Like this one from Kafka: “Follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.” Fincher, also, says we can better ourselves if we read, read, read, and read some more. He says, as you read and uncover new words, an interest in language develops. Obsession (noun): an idea or thought that continually occupies or intrudes on a person’s mind. My story has nine obsessions ranked in reverse order according to impact. Be forewarned, some of these can cause substantial harm.

Obsession #9. The cinema. I’m obsessed with movies. Most kids my age can’t turn off video games. I can’t turn off movies. I grew up (or never grew up) studying movies. My dad wanted to be the ultimate American. In his view, the silver screen represented everything truly American. At first, it was his way to learn English. Shortly after that, we were watching several movies a day. It became somewhat of an addiction. Now, all those movies are stuck in my head. My brain is like a light switch that toggles between movie life and real life, always shifting from one reality to the next. The good news: movies allow me to see life through a different set of eyes. The bad news: random film scenes always pop up, pop up uninvited.

Just the number “nine” starts the movie wheel spinning. I have a little man in my head churning the wheels of my imagination, sorting movie clips. I call him Bob. Bob stops on the number nine. Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke raid a refrigerator in 91/2 weeks (honey on her outstretched tongue). Rabbit takes down Papa Doc in 8 Mile (313, hands in the air). A mysterious box arrives; it contains Gwyneth Paltrow’s head. In the movie Se7en, it doesn’t even show her severed head, but my little buddy decides to invent that lasting image. Thanks to Bob, I won’t be able to sleep tonight. The wheel keeps spinning with the numbers theme. Will Smith defends J.D. Salinger in Six Degrees of Separation (that’s not a deer hunter's cap). Nicholson tells a waitress to hold a chicken between her knees in Five Easy Pieces (Jack’s the Man). A rookie priest gets tongue-tied during the vows in Four Weddings and a Funeral (that’s why I don’t talk). A bullet punctures a lung in Three Kings (slow-to-fast motion at its finest). Fredo dies on a boat in Godfather 2 (poor Fredo), and Chief breaks free, in my all-time favorite film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. See, it is an illness. I’m not a normal fifteen-year-old even by California’s loose standards.

Obsession #8. Gambling. Simply put, Uncle Nelson.

Obsession #7. Beauty &the Beast. The play, not the movie. Our class became obsessed.

Obsession #6. Shakespeare and Fincher. “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.”

Obsession #5. Borders. Living and dying. North and south. Sane and insane.

Obsession #4. Music. “Without music, life would be a mistake,” (Nietzsche)

Obsession #3. Fincher. Yeah, I became obsessed.

Obsession #2. Testing. My school has issues. ASSessment issues.

Obsession #1. Love and Luz Chavez. A problem, a big problem. Don’t believe the people that tell you all you need is love. Love is the worst addiction, the hardest to quit.

You’ll have to excuse me, the movie light switch is on again, and Bob is shuffling scenes. The topic? Let’s stay with obsession: Glenn Close boils bunnies. Mark Wahlberg takes Reese Witherspoon for a roller coaster ride. De Niro roams the lonely streets of New York City. Quick, let’s turn the switch off before Kathy Bates, and her sledgehammer show up.

Movies aside, there’s no question, I’ve changed this past year. I’ve grown. I‘ve learned many truths. Most of what I know, I learned from Fincher. He taught us that on the Clash’s third album “London Calling,” every song is great. I learned that Shakespeare knows more about me than me. Fincher also taught me, that life goes on, no matter what happens. But most of all, he taught me to trust again.

Last but not least, I am an immigrant, a so-called alien, and a selective mute. The written entries with an asterisk, I wrote after I opened the black box.

Border Crossing

* August 4, 1989 (Papi’s version)


"Stack them." The man in the hat gave the orders. "Like wood."

The man without a hat stacked the bodies. Twelve of us lay down in the van, and I lay on top of mama, swaddled in a blanket. We drove north, the border, a distant memory. Papi cracked a window, and the ocean breeze welcomed us to our new country.

"Across the road." The man in the hat flicked a cigarette. "Meet on the beach past the checkpoint."

Eight lanes to the beach, no lights. Papi grabbed Mama's hand.

"Follow me," Papi said. Ten other men searched in the dark. The man in the hat drove off, so Papi led us toward the water.

One lone headlight shone in the distance.

I am a miracle.

I am a survivor.

The light moved sideways. Papi disappeared, a dozen scattered souls searched for the shore.

We heard the light. It seemed so far, far away. The light took Mama.

I am a miracle.

I am a survivor.

The light skidded off the road.

Papi ran to Mama. “Dios mio!"

Papi ran to me. "Dios mio!"

Papi picked me up.

Papi couldn't pick Mama up. Her wedding ring hung around her neck, too big for her finger. Papi snatched it and ran. I bounced in his arms.

Giant Dipper

* August 4, 2003


Clack, clack, clack the coaster rose. Whoosh, the Giant Dipper lived up to its name. I heard screams. Did Papi scream? Who am I kidding? Papi wouldn’t scream. He barely talks. You see, the Romero’s don’t trust words, or screams for that matter. Papi taught us to trust actions. He always said that people will show you their character and that most people are Askholes (those who ask too many questions). Papi didn’t trust Askholes.

Some people pronounce Papi like Popeye. Don’t do that. It makes him mad. You pronounce it like Pa and pee. Better be careful there, he wouldn’t like that either. Papi doesn’t like bathroom humor. To be honest, I’m having trouble writing about Papi. Mr. Fincher said the key to writing is to show, don’t tell. I’m not sure what that means. How do you show what’s in your head? For me, I can’t escape my thoughts, and I sure don’t know how to write them. How do you show fear? How do you show loneliness? Fincher said to write the part before the black box as if I was talking to a friend. But I don’t know how much this so-called friend knows? I guess I’ll just try and show a little and tell a little.

The trip to the Giant Dipper wasn’t for pleasure. Papi hated roller coasters, and I hate roller coasters. Long ago, Mama saw a postcard with a picture of a giant coaster, on the beach. Mama said she’d like to ride it one day, so Papi and I go to ride, in her honor.

Our beach trips were not about roller coasters. They were a way for me to gather information, more pieces of the family puzzle. On any other day, when I asked questions about Mama, I would get a shake of the head. “Ahora no.” However, on August fourth, that day, I was allowed to speak of the unspeakable. I could be an Askhole.

Papi and I usually didn’t talk right away; he rode first. The Giant Dipper, built in the1920s, was one of the first coasters ever made. Some say it’s a wooden masterpiece; I say it’s a death trap. The coaster doesn't sound safe, so I never ride. Papi rides, and it hurts his back. He rides for Mama, and I watch. I watch for Papi.

August fourth, our family’s version of The Day of the Dead, a time to welcome Mama’s soul back. I used to think her soul rode the Giant Dipper with Papi. I used to think I heard her scream. I don’t think that anymore. When I was younger, going to the Coaster, was a treat, but the last couple of years, the routine had gotten old. Papi wandered around suffering from post-traumatic coaster syndrome while I acted like an Askhole and tried to pry away family secrets from his death grip.

On our last trip, after Papi’s traditional one ride, one is enough, we headed to the boardwalk. Papi walked south to the jetty, past the volleyball players, past the surfers, past the past. The further you go the quieter it gets, and Papi needed the quiet.

"Why wasn't I hurt?"

"I don't know," he said. Papi gave me his usual scraps and pieces.

"Do you miss her?"

"Every day, every hour, every minute, I miss her." Papi didn't look at me.

"Is she in heaven?"

"I don't know," he said. I expected him to say yes. I expected him to tell me everything. Do I have her eyes? What were her dreams? Her nightmares? Her secrets? Papi didn’t even have a photograph. Do I look like her? I can’t even picture her in my mind.

Papi stopped walking. “Heaven is here, look around you."

I looked around and stretched my arms out. Papi didn't laugh.

"Hijo, you make your heaven and hell right here on earth." Papi left the boardwalk for the ocean. He walked fast and didn’t look back when he talked. "Life is what you make it. It took me many years to understand, most of my life I made my hell." He glided further away on the wet sand, and I struggled to keep pace.

"Hijo, things are good, no?"

"Yes, Papi."

"Do you know why?"

I didn't answer. I knew things were good. Papi achieved the American dream.

"I decided to live my life," Papi said. He turned around and looked through me, and I blinked; I always blink first. "Cinema under the Stars would never be if I didn't make it happen." Papi turned and walked toward the rocks. "You are like me, too quiet, don't let life pass you by, you have to act, take part in life."

The jetty rocks stood at attention. "Most people never do what they want, when I did, it all lined up, like a giant wave. Hidden hands, maybe Mama, maybe all the generations before me. Hijo, you are a survivor, you are a miracle."

Papi tried to smile. I balanced on the rocks. Mama loved this man. A man with intense focus and presence. A man other women called handsome. His mahogany skin, beautiful and defined, stood out against the cloudy gray background. You know, guys are not supposed to call another guy beautiful. Papi would not want to be called beautiful. Rugged, maybe. Masculine, for sure. The truth: he was beautiful. Will I look like him? Probably not. I'm not defined. I’m not beautiful.

"Hijo, when the time comes you must listen to your heart, more than listen, follow your heart." A rogue wave sprayed us. I should've asked more questions. Papi didn’t make it easy, a master of deflection. He turned questions into sermons.

We sat in silence. What would I do with my life? Papi turned an abandoned hotel rooftop into a magical retreat. Papi created Cinema under the Stars. I hadn't created a thing.

The silence overwhelmed me.

"Tell me more about Mama."

Papi stood on a rock.

"She was pregnant; two lives lost on that lonely highway." Papi walked away.

I didn't know what to say. My mother wasn't a memory to me. My Mama, I didn't know her. I didn't miss her. I missed the idea of her. What else did I lose on that highway? A brother? A sister? I can’t even imagine. A brother might have made all the difference.

Cinema under the Stars

* August 27, 2003


Summer about to end, my fifteenth birthday two weeks away, and I didn’t have a clue about my future. Most kids want to start driving lessons, get their permit, not me. The Romero’s don't drive, too many chances to meet the police.

The big, yellow sign still haunts me. Highway deaths declined. They put up a fence where Mama died, not eight lanes to cross anymore. The city made an island and put up lights, but the sign remains. Strangers laugh and make T-shirts, the silhouetted immigrants replaced by extraterrestrials, aliens. I don't laugh. It’s not funny. The sign is me.

I am a miracle.

I am a survivor.

If I were the girl from the sign, the one with the pigtails, this year would be my quinceanera. I didn't want a huge celebration. What I wanted: a new birthdate. Being born on the eleventh of September, I guess you’d call that bad luck.

The nation mourns, and cupcakes come to mind. Cupcakes. Two years ago, Ms. Ellis, my eighth-grade teacher, decided she wanted to try something new. Every birthday in her class would be a cause for celebration. All the kids singing on your special day. Some kids loved the attention; some did not. I did not.

The television screen showed updates of attacks on the World Trade Center, in real time. Updates of a plane slicing through one of the towers.




The White House Chief of Staff whispered the news to the commander-in-chief. Our country’s president sat stunned in a Florida classroom. My cupcake bomb arrived, delivered by the attendance kid, and I sat there just as stunned as our president. Ms. Ellis brought the gift to my desk. The class focused on my prize, and Ms. Ellis sang in a cracked voice, a few class members joined in, a very few. I stopped listening. Happy Birthday can be a long, lonely song.

The Unites States was under attack, and Ms. Ellis stood there, singing her heart out. Kids must've thought I had one of those moms that would deliver a cupcake to school. The song finally finished, and the class went back to the TV screen. We watched a second plane bury itself into the south tower. I picked up the cupcake and went straight to the trash. The last thing we needed that day was celebrating.

Last year, as a high school freshman, I walked lost in a sea of nameless faces, happily lost. My birthday, off the radar, Wilson High acknowledged 9/11 with a moment of silence. The silence was golden.

This year, leading up to my birthday, I remember being happy, really happy, Cinema under the Stars happy.

"Hijo," Papi said. "Need you today." Papi's orders quick and to the point. "Big Lebowski fortieth birthday tonight. Need some props, keep it under three hundred dollars. Go. Take Benny with you." Benny worked for Papi, not the hotel. The good thing about Benny: he followed orders, my orders.

Papi only dealt in cash, didn’t like any cards. I wasn’t sure if he hated banks or banks hated him. Either way, our hotel room acted as home, bank, office or whatever we needed it to be. Papi kept his money in empty DVD cases, lots of money, lots of DVDs, right there in Papi's room at the Saint Francis. The twenties hid in his favorite section (1970s), so I opened the Cuckoo's Nest DVD and took out fifteen bills. I knew if I shopped smart, some of that cash might find its way back into my pocket.

Papi created Cinema under the Stars. The rooftop of the Saint Francis Hotel transformed into a movie-lovers paradise. He spent years restoring classic car seats to put in his cinema. The rooftop oasis was full of restored seats, gardens, and personalized cabana areas. His movie experience also included a specialized menu depending on the film choice. Papi created something special on top of that hotel, and people paid good movie to watch a movie at Papi's place.

I helped create those special movie memories, and for the Lebowski party, I knew where to go. First order of business: find Benny to drive, then it was time for a Larry visit.

"I’ll take all the bowling pins?" I said. Larry knew I didn't like to haggle.

"All ‘em?" Larry said. I nodded, and Larry gathered the pins.

"Any bowling balls?" I said. Larry paused. His fingers disappeared into facial hair as he took his time trying to figure out the puzzle. I strutted because Papi trusted me to get the props.

"Matter which ones?" Larry said. I shook my head, and we loaded ten bowling balls in the cart.

"Any Persian rugs?" Larry's hairy face widened with recognition. If anybody knew the Dude, Larry knew the Dude.

Larry quoted line after line as we shopped. I wasn’t surprised he knew Lebowski (looks like he could've been one of the extras in the bowling alley). Papi counted on Larry to bring his beard to Cinema under the Stars at least once a week.

"Lebowski should be a fun one," Larry said.

"Private party," I told him.

Larry sent me for another cart. He didn't just run a thrift store; the man was the curator of his own Smithsonian.

"One hundred and forty-two big ones," Larry said. I handed him eight twenties and walked away (before he could give me any change). Benny helped me load.

"One second." Larry ran back in his museum and came back with an empty Folgers coffee can in each hand, one last prop. He pounded on the hood as a goodbye.

Papi's costume and prop booth highlighted people's experience at Cinema under the Stars. Especially after a drink or two, costumes and props were as popular as the show. I never drank, but I was sure glad when others did. The more people drink, the more people tip. Movies like The Big Lebowski always brought in a well-oiled crowd. It was my duty to overserve them.

"Nice touch with the IN-N-OUT cups," Papi said. He pulled the plastic off his classic car seats. “We need a hundred pigs in a blanket. Make them like her toes, you know, Bunny. Make ‘em Bloody." Papi only had to give me directions once. “Cookies too,” he said. I knew almond slivers would work for toenails, so I made a mental note to find green food dye.

The last detail, costumes.

“Jesus or the Dude?” Papi unfolded the purple onesie.

“Dude,” I said. “Bathrobe over purple onesie every time.”

I printed up a bunch of Lebowski quotes for place mats (used the hotel copier and laminating machine). The less I spent, the more I could keep. Papi wanted bowling alley meets shabby chic. Little white lights twinkled around the trees. Bowling pins and balls hid in every corner. It was a perfect summer night. We were ready, including the always popular costume booth.

"Benny take off the Viking helmet," Papi said. Benny hunched over his fourth White Russian.

"Yes, Boss." Benny lifted his orange glasses and slammed the rest of his drink and pretended to be busy.

Papi looked disturbing as Jesus Quintana (complete with goatee, hair net, and painted nail). I couldn’t take him seriously with that purple onesie, weirded me out, big time. I grabbed a sarsaparilla bottle out of a bowling bag cooler. The sarsaparilla was Benny's idea, his only idea.

The classic car seats ruled the rooftop. Each seat elevated with wooden risers providing a perfect view of the big screen. As a bonus, you could see the San Diego skyline while the movie played. Papi’s collection included all types of seats: bucket seats, bench seats, reclining seats, back seats, and they were all vintage. During the movies, Benny always sat in one of the seats that had a steering wheel and console still attached. Papi even had a few truck beds. Customers always came early to reserve their favorite seats, holding hands like teenagers.

The day of the Liebowski party, I remember helping Papi fold his fleece blankets. The top one hundred movies of all time, placed on every seat. I put the Fight Club fleece on my favorite seat, the one with the original pony interior of a '68 Mustang, like the one Steve McQueen drove in Bullitt.

Setting up for theme parties, meant I had to endure Papi’s movie tutorial. Some days I liked it, most days I didn’t. On that fateful day, I quizzed him.

"Lebowski, nineteen ninety-nine, make it into to your top five?" I said. Papi ranked movies by the year. His top five years never changed: ‘39, ‘41, ‘46, ‘57, and ‘77. Always in that order. For me, nothing made before 1970 should be considered great. Nothing, delete it all. Take that back, Hitchcock goes on the list, Hitchcock, I like. Needless to say. Papi and I didn’t agree on the definition of greatness.

"You’re young and foolish," Papi said.

For some reason, I decided to mess with Papi’s world. “Seventy-seven, number one," I said.

He stared at the Casablanca fleece.

I continued my sacrilegious rankings. “Ninety-four, ninety-nine, seventy-five,” I paused, “then maybe thirty-nine."

"Wizard of Oz, fifth!" He gave me the Romero look, the one where you stare without blinking. "Seventy-seven, I get, not number one of course, but ninety-four?"

"Shawshank," I said.

He stuck out his lower lip. "Give me another."

"Forrest Gump," I said in honor of Papi’s extended lip.

Papi tilted his head.

I took a swig of sarsaparilla. We were like western gunfighters at high noon. Papi was about to go off about the greatness of 1939 when I attacked first.

"Pulp Fiction,” I said. Mentioning Tarantino caused him to pause. I ran to his fake Oscar stand and shouted into the microphone. "And of course the greatest film of all time: Dumb and Dumber."

He unplugged the microphone. "Get to work Lloyd Christmas."

Jaws played on our big screen as we finished our prep work. I watched Quint scratch his fingernails on the chalkboard.

"What makes Jaws great?" Papi said. I looked up and thought of Quint, Hooper, and Brody.

Jaws? The film’s a classic because of the shark. Papi says people stopped going in the water after it came out, even to this day, people still scared to go in the ocean.

"Bruce," I said, "the shark," I said it with confidence, thinking Papi would give me credit for knowing the shark’s name.

"No." Papi laughed.

"Brody makes the movie. Brody's fear. Brody's movie. Roy Scheider can show us guilt and fear without speaking. When he silently plays with his kid at the dinner table, the movie is his.”

I didn't argue.

"It's a Wonderful Life?" Papi said. I cringed, not George Bailey again. Here we go analyzing fifty-year-old movies. Papi wrecked movies, wrecked them for me.

"Clarence getting his wings," I said.

Papi looked at me and his forehead crinkled.

"George?" I said.

"George what?"

"George's friends saving him?"

Papi shook his head like a master upset with his pupil. "It's about despair. George wanted to commit suicide. His anger. His despair makes that movie. The film turns when Jimmy Stewart realizes how many lives he’s touched. Capra brings us full circle, suicide to self-worth."

I had enough of the tutorial and moved on to Papi’s other obsession with the past: his music. He helped me roll the Wurlitzer out from the elevator. Papi loved that jukebox (played 45s). Everybody over thirty loved the Wurlitzer. Also, I remember him telling me that for the Lebowski memory disc he wanted music from the movie, so I had to find Dylan’s “The Man in Me” and The Gipsy Kings version of “Hotel California.” For private parties, I was in charge of the memory disc, you take a bunch of pictures of the guests, put it to music, done. Not that hard, but Papi and the customers loved it. The night of the Lebowski party, I never did get to make the disc.

"Papi, how'd we do tonight?" I said.

 Papi waited until everyone left to start counting money, an all cash operation. I don't know how much he gave the hotel, but we did get free room and board.

"Still counting, bad headache." Papi sat at the table with his purple onesie and his one painted nail still shining.

"Should I dump these in the tub?" I collected the bowling bag coolers. Papi never answered, so I dumped the coolers.

Benny lay crashed in the bed of a '55 Ford pickup. He slurred, "The Benny abides."

I came back from the bathroom and found Papi's face buried in a pile of cash; both palms clamped on his forehead.

I screamed.

Benny leaped over the tailgate. He knocked over a table as he rushed to Papi. He lifted Papi's head, breathed into his mouth, and pounded Papi’s chest.

I froze.

"Call 911!" Benny yelled. I ran. I called. They came. Fast, not fast enough. A half-eaten Bunny toe stuck to Papi's cheek. A brain aneurysm, Papi, my Papi, dead at thirty-six.

Uncle Nelson

* August 27, 2003


My world kept spinning. Devastated. I needed to escape, so I ran like a little kid, nowhere to go, felt like I'd done something wrong.

I ducked in the Cineplex right down the street from the Saint Francis, needed the darkness. I don't even remember what was playing. Papi was dead, and I went to the movies. What's wrong with me? I hid in Papi's hoodie. Benny said to take Papi’s money, so we split the take from the Lebowski party. I cleared the hotel room of any cash and found a few important papers in the Rocky DVD case. Packing for the rest of your life is not an easy task. My life whittled down to a backpack and two plastic shopping bags. I did slide Mama’s ring off Papi’s neck before Benny closed his eyes.

Theaters have always been like churches to me. Quiet. Dark. Spiritual. Emotional. Other people's problems, life a little less painful when you leave, not that night. I couldn’t process the finality of Papi’s situation, my situation. For fifteen years, we lived, loved, and laughed. Deportation was the threat, not death.

Uncle Nelson was my only hope.

I wrote down, "Mountain Meadows." The cab driver looked at me, and I didn't give him time to think. I threw my possessions against the back seat and slammed the door.

"Thirty miles east," he said.

I remember Papi once told me that Mama died thirty miles north. To get us moving, I showed the driver some of Papi's money, and the cab took off. My life headed for the outskirts, headed for the desert, headed for trouble.

Papi and Uncle Nelson hadn't talked in months. Papi couldn't forgive. Uncle Nelson borrowed Papi's cash and gambled it away.

Uncle Nelson.

A pretty bad only choice.

I couldn't speak.

My uncle lived behind a strip mall; all the stores were far off the street. Rows and rows of parking spaces zipped by, cabbie must’ve thought I was in a hurry. I wasn't.

Closer to the road, a little boutique shop made of weathered wood caught my attention. It looked out of place with all the surrounding stucco. As we sped closer, about to pass, I spotted the boutique's neon sign: "Gun Shack." I wanted to laugh, but couldn't, no voice, so I stared at the blinking light.

I am a sign.

I am a survivor.

I am a miracle.

The cab weaved its way along the back roads. The Romero Landscaping work truck came into view with lawnmowers locked in the back. I paid the driver. Uncle Nelson came out of his trailer (must’ve seen the cab pull up). He walked straight to me and my bulging backpack. Tiny gravel pebbles crunched a welcome to my new life. Uncle Nelson, our family's Fredo Corleone (the jealous brother), looked at me suspiciously. My face spoke for me.

“Deported?” Uncle Nelson said.


About me

Hello, my name is Murphy Reynolds, and I live in Oceanside California. I keep busy by teaching middle school and caring for my pets. I love the beach, especially in the winter when all the tourists are gone. A perfect day for me is writing in the morning followed by a walk with my three dogs. My students are a constant source of incredible material. Their lives are full of struggle and triumph. I am thankful for the opportunity to learn from them daily.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
The immigration sign is an iconic image from my childhood. The family fleeing has always haunted me. A few years ago, I had a selective mute in my classroom. He was my inspiration for Gustavo. Like Gustavo, my student turned out to be heroic and smart. From there, the pain flowed out the pen.
Q. Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?
Yes, we are all so much more than a number.
Q. Why do you write?
I write to ease the pain.