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Authors: Malín Alegría

Crossing the Line (5 page)

BOOK: Crossing the Line
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ater that night a boisterous crowd pushed at the door to the restaurant, but Fabi's mom told them Garza's was closed. From their elated cheers, Fabi gathered that the home team had won the football game. Alexis watched the crowd with longing eyes as her mother turned on the neon “Closed” sign.

Their cousin Benny had dropped out of the medical program at the University of Texas a couple classes shy of his degree. He knew enough to check Chuy's vitals and clean up his bloody face. By then, the rest of the family had arrived — both grandmas, Grandpa Frank, and Santiago's mom, Consuelo. Leo and Grandpa Frank had helped Chuy up to a chair as Milo and Fabiola mopped the dirty floor.

“Tell us who did this to you,” Abuelita Alpha demanded over and over, shaking a fist of rosary beads so tight it was making her veined hand turn blue.

“Don't make him talk,” scolded Magda. “He's just been assaulted.”

“But we have to know who did it,” Grandma Trini protested. She was wearing a tight Dos Rios High School T-shirt and still holding her pom-poms from the football game.

Chuy tried to speak but he was having trouble taking a deep breath.

“Are you sure his ribs aren't broken?” Fabi asked, leaning on the mop. “I still think we should go to the hospital.”

Benny straightened up and dried his hands on a warm cloth. “He'll be fine. He's just a bit shaken up. Just needs some rest.”

Chuy tried to sit up higher in his chair, and struggled to speak.

“He's trying to tell us something,” Alexis said excitedly.

“He knows who did it!” Trini cried. “He knows who did it!”

With much effort, Chuy explained what had happened — how he had been locking up after his shift and hadn't been paying attention because he was in a hurry to get to the Western Union before it closed. Every payday, Chuy sent money home to Mexico to help support his father and siblings. Chuy's money put food on his family's table.

Then someone grabbed him from behind and someone else punched him in the stomach. He couldn't see their faces because it was dark. They took all his money and then beat him some more and threatened to kill him if he said anything or followed them.

It was a horrible story. No one wanted to admit that something like this could happen in tiny Dos Rios. This was not the big city like Houston or Reynosa — everyone knew everyone here, so they probably knew whoever had done this awful thing, too.

Fabi had always felt safe in Dos Rios. She used to walk around town at any hour of the night without a care. She knew every street and corner. But now, in a matter of minutes, she felt like a stranger in her own town. There were a lot of new faces, mostly refugees from the drug wars on the other side of the river. For the first time, Fabi realized, she was really afraid.

Leo and Benny helped Chuy move slowly out to Benny's SUV. A few minutes later they heard the engine grumble, taking Chuy home. Georgia Rae and Milo left moments later.

“La Santa Muerte,”
Abuelita Alpha said in a soft voice. She made the sign of the cross over her face. “This place carries the stain ….” she muttered, looking around the restaurant as if the devil himself were going to pop up from under the table. “We must get Father Benavides to come bless the place at once.”

Grandma Trini started to giggle softly behind her hand. “
, now I know you're going senile. You can't blame the
for everything.”

Abuelita Alpha turned bright red. “Don't mock the devil!”

But Grandma Trini only laughed louder, tossing her hair-sprayed, stiff
back like a mane.

The door chimed, and Santiago walked in with a light step. “Hey, everybody, what's good to eat?” He stopped, noticing the somber mood. “Who died?”

“Santiago.” Abuelita Alpha ran up to him before anyone could stop her. “You should not be walking around by yourself at night. It's not safe.”

“Ah, Abuelita Alpha.” Santiago snuck in a kiss on her cheek. “No one messes with me. Not with these guns,” he said, flexing his arm muscles. Santiago went around the table kissing everyone. When he reached his mother, Consuelo, he threw a roll of dollar bills onto the table in front of her. “Ma, this is for you.” Everyone gasped in surprise.

“What's this?” Consuelo asked, worry sneaking into her voice. She didn't touch the money. Her fingers hesitated, hovering over it.

Santiago laughed. “It's money. What? You don't know money when you see it?”

“But where did you get it? I thought they fired you from Burger King.”

“No one fired me. I quit that place,” Santiago said. He grabbed a Coke from the refrigerator and downed it without pausing for air. No one said a word. Their minds were racing with speculations.

“And that's just the beginning, Mom,” he continued. “I got this new job. It's going to pay me a lot of money, you'll see. You won't have to worry about anything anymore. I'm going to take care of you now.” Santiago smiled, puffing out his chest. A country melody chirped from his phone. Santiago said he had to go. He helped himself to a
pan dulce
and took off, leaving the group in a stunned state of silence.

Abuelita Alpha sniffed loudly, breaking the uncomfortable stillness.

Fabi's aunt Consuelo turned on her quickly. “Don't you dare!”

“Did I say anything?” Abuelita Alpha retorted. Her eyes were growing large. “But if he's hanging out with those Salinas boys now, nothing good will come out of it, you hear me?”

Consuelo stood up. “I can't listen to this.” She grabbed her purse and stormed out the door.

“The truth burns. Burns like the holy cross,” Abuelita Alpha mumbled to herself as she sipped the cup of coffee in front of her. “That child is a bad seed. I always thought so.”

“Mamá!” Magda cried, shocked.

“Don't tell me you weren't thinking it!
Por el árbol se conoce el fruto

“Ya basta!”
Leo called out.
“Santiago is a good kid. Sure, he gets in trouble, but who didn't at his age? He didn't rob Chuy. And I don't want to hear any more gossip about this unless you have proof. We all know how gossip spreads like wildfire here.”

Abuelita Alpha huffed loudly in disapproval, crossing her arms and legs, but Fabi sighed with relief. She hated to think her cousin could do such a thing, and she hated everyone talking about him behind his back like this.

Just then Fabi's phone vibrated in her back pocket. It was a text from Santiago saying to meet him behind the restaurant. Leonardo and Magda had gone into the kitchen to discuss the incident in private. Quiet murmurs started again from the table. Fabi mumbled some excuse about watering the cactus, not that anyone noticed, and slid out of the room.

The screen door slammed loudly behind her. It was a cloudy night and she didn't even have the stars to help orient her. She turned on the light switch. The dull yellow glow from the bulb over-head created shadows that jumped out from the corners, trash cans, and random junk her dad dumped back there. An owl hooted from behind the shed. It reminded her of the stories she heard as a kid of
La Lechuza
, the witch who could turn into an owl, predicting death. Of course, Fabi didn't believe in those scary bedtime tales. But the soft hooting still made her kind of nervous.

Then a figure jumped out from the shadows and grabbed her.

“Aghhhhhhh!” Fabi cried, jumping.

Santiago started to laugh and then he said in a scary old lady voice, “
La Lechuza
is coming to get you.”

“Not. Funny.”
Fabi punched his shoulder. She didn't want to admit he really scared her, and was thinking of the exact same scary story.

Santiago laughed harder, practically doubled over in hysterics. “You should see your face. I thought you were going to wet your pants.”

Fabiola couldn't believe him, pulling pranks after what had just happened. “What do you want, Santiago? Why did you call me out here?”

Santiago wiped his eyes and finally regained control. “It's not a big deal. I just need you to hold something for me. You got the key for the shed, right?”

A warning light flashed in Fabi's mind. “Why? Why do you want the key? Why not just ask my dad?”

“Whoa,” said Santiago, putting his hands up in a “calm down” gesture. “What's up with the twenty questions?”

“Did you know that Chuy was beaten up and robbed today?”

Santiago looked stunned.

“Right in front of the restaurant. Did you know that he was covering for me tonight? He wasn't even supposed to be here,” she said, all her worry and guilt coming out in a rush.

“Wait!” Santiago interrupted. “Do you think I had something to do with that?”

Fabiola hated herself for suspecting him. It felt so wrong. But she didn't know what to believe anymore. “Well, you tell me.”

“Is it because I gave my mom money?” Santiago turned away. He cursed under his breath. Then he said, “I swear that I had nothing to do with what happened to Chuy.”

Fabi stared at him for a minute. She really wanted to believe him, but there was a little seed of doubt in her mind.

Santiago held on to her gaze until finally, she relented. “Okay, I'm sorry,” Fabi said, feeling calmer. “I don't know what I was thinking. This whole thing has me jumpy.”

“It's cool.” Santiago bit his lower lip, thinking. “Hey, so do you think I can store something in that shed?” He motioned at the metal storage unit.

“What is it?” Fabi pulled out her keys from her back pocket.

Santiago's eyes lit up and he ran to the alley. He came back carrying a crate of metal objects. Fabi unlocked the shed and slid the door open. He unloaded several more crates and stacked them on top of each other. She glanced at the round metal cylinders. Hubcaps — expensive hubcaps. She pulled one out.

“So …”

Santiago carried the last crate into the shed. “You wouldn't believe me,” he told her.

“Try me.”

Santiago stopped and leaned against the shed. “Well, I was on my way to the football game when I found this box truck that was deserted on the side of the road. The rear door was rolled halfway up. I was curious, so I took a look ….”

“You stole them!”

“I found them, all right? I didn't steal nothing. I told you I

“Is that how you're making all that money?”

Santiago licked his lips. “I don't like where this conversation is going. I appreciate you doing me this favor. But the less you know, the better. I just want to wait a little, you know. I promise I'm going to move it. I'm going to sell them, too, all legit, because that's the kind of guy I am,” he promised.

“Okay, Santiago.” Fabi didn't like any of it, but she didn't want to nag him, either. “Sometimes the things you do just seem wrong for some reason. So just … be careful, all right?”

Santiago smiled. “Always. I better go.” He waved and said, “Later, cuz,” before heading back to the alley where his truck was parked.

As Fabiola watched him drive off, she had a bad feeling about this situation, but she also knew she couldn't control her cousin. No matter how much she might want to, she couldn't save him from himself.

he buzz from the first football game continued to race through the halls the following week. Crowds burst into cheers whenever a football jock stepped into the halls — even if he was a benchwarmer. But Fabiola couldn't share in the school's celebratory mood. She wanted to, but she just couldn't stop thinking about the mugging. It felt so personal. It could have been her. It
been her. Worse was the feeling that everyone in her family blamed Santiago. Fabi still wasn't sure what to think, and either way, Santiago wasn't making things any easier with his new hubcaps business.

Just before lunch, Fabi spotted her sister walking with a bunch of her friends to the cafeteria.

“Hey, sis, how's it going?”

Alexis just shrugged her shoulders, waving her friends to go on ahead. “Okay, I guess. I can't believe I missed the first high school football game of the season. Sounds like everyone was there.”

Fabi couldn't believe her ears. “What?”

“You know what I mean.” She squeezed Fabi's hand. “If Mom hadn't forgotten her wallet, we wouldn't have stopped at the restaurant. It just kinda sucks, you know — timing.”

They grabbed their food and headed to an empty table. Fabi struggled with her feelings. How could her sister be so selfish? Chuy had been mugged, and by someone they probably knew. Wasn't that freaky? Shouldn't everyone be worried that there was some crazed mugger among them? And wasn't it actually
timing that they'd found Chuy before his injuries had gotten much worse?

Fabi shook her head to clear it. She just wanted to be normal for a second, so she tried to change the subject.

“Do you need a ride to your voice class today? I think Santiago is —”

Alexis was staring over Fabi's shoulder. A sly smile danced on her face. “I think I have a ride.”

“Hey, Alexis.” Dex Andrews leaned on the table, gazing at Alexis and of course completely ignoring Fabi. “Missed you at the game last Friday.”

Alexis blushed, tossing her hair flirtatiously. “I know. I hate myself for missing it, but I had this family emergency.”

“Everything okay?” Dex asked.

She waved her hand in a “forget it, it's nothing” gesture. “Don't worry about it.”

“I know what you need,” Dex said as he pulled a yellow rose from behind his back and offered it to Alexis with a great flourish.

Alexis giggled as she accepted the rose.

Dex smiled, looking relieved. “Would you like to join me for lunch?” He motioned toward the jock and cheerleader tables. Then he put his hands together in a pleading gesture that obviously made Alexis weak in the knees. Before she'd actually managed to say anything, Dex grabbed Alexis's lunch tray and started for the other side of the cafeteria.

Fabi watched in shock as her sister crossed into jock territory. Alexis couldn't care less about
the rules
. She did as she pleased — just like
she always did

“Hey, can I sit here?” a familiar voice asked. Fabi looked up at a blue lunch tray. Milo stood there, bobbing his head to some music on his iPod. Fabi wanted to tell him to leave her alone, but before she could, he plunked down across from her. Milo dug into his messy chili and cheese dog with gusto. But Fabi had lost her appetite and threw the baby carrot that she'd been holding back onto the tray in front of her.

Milo noted Fabi's silence. “Are you okay? That was crazy about your friend the other day. It reminded me of some of the hate crimes I saw in Phoenix. But I never saw nothing like that, you know, up close.”

“Hate crime?” Fabi asked, startled. “Who would hate Chuy? He doesn't do anything but work hard. He goes to school. And he's supporting his family in Mexico.”

“Where I'm from,” Milo said between bites, “being brown is reason enough for getting jumped.”

She flinched. “Really? That wouldn't happen here.”

“No? Why not?”

“'Cause we're all Mexican,” Fabi said, motioning around the room. Anyone could see she was right. The school was 80 percent Hispanic, with just a sprinkling of whites and a few other ethnicities. Despite Milo's comment, she refused to believe that Chuy was the victim of a hate crime.

Sure, she was aware of the anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican attitudes across the country. She saw lots of it on TV. And people were getting hurt. But that kind of stuff never happened in the Valley.

“Hey, Fabi, I need to ask you a favor,” Milo said, interrupting her thoughts. When he paused, Fabi nodded for him to go on. But Milo squirmed.

“What is it?” she asked, leaning over the table to hear him better.

Milo bit his lip nervously. “Well, it's kind of embarrassing.”

“Spit it out.”

“Okay, well, I have this gig, and they gave me money for treats and stuff, and I agreed because I thought they just wanted chips and salsa, but apparently treats means something different here in South Texas. And I was thinking since your family runs that restaurant and everything …”


“Can you teach me about Texas barbecue? By Saturday?”


Dex started taking Alexis to her weekly vocal classes after school. It was fine with Fabiola; she didn't like the idea of her sister waiting for a ride after dark. Alexis wanted to be her own person at school. Fabi couldn't hate her for that, but she did miss hanging out.
Things change
, she told herself as she put on an apron at work.

Business was usually slow on Wednesday afternoons; only the regular local customers were in. The senior-citizen brigade was there, reading the obituaries and drinking coffee. Grandma Trini was feeding mashed beans to Baby Oops.

Fabi's mother came up to her, wearing a matching apron over her dark floral dress. “Where's your sister?”

“Voice class,” Fabi answered, pinning her hair out of her face.

Magda looked at her for a second. “Her teacher just called and said that she needed to reschedule class for another day.”

“Oh, that's right.” Fabi thought quickly. “Alexis mentioned that to me after school and said that she was going to stay at the library for a study group.”

“Study group?”

Fabi nodded and turned quickly to pick up some napkins and silverware. Now she was lying so her sister could hang out with Dex Andrews.


As the day turned into evening, Alexis finally snuck into Garza's behind a group of new customers. Fabiola grabbed her sister's hand the minute she caught sight of her and pulled her into the hallway that led to the bathrooms. “You sneaky little —” It took all of Fabi's strength to hold back her words. But this was not the time or the place. “I don't know where you've been, but your vocal coach called —”

“Oh, crap,” Alexis interrupted, slapping her forehead with her hand. Fabi grabbed Alexis's wrist and pulled it away from her face.

“What's that?” Fabi demanded.

Alexis blushed, but there was a hint of pride in the way she fingered the new silver chain with a sparkly letter pendant around her neck. “Oh, this, it's nothing. Dex —”

“No, those things on your
?” Fabi demanded, pointing to two large, round love bites under her sister's new necklace.

Alexis's eyes grew wide with shock. “Oh, no!” she cried, covering her throat with her hands. “What am I going to do?”

“There's makeup under the sink,” Fabi said, exasperated. Her sister's charades were going to drive her crazy!

Alexis ran into the bathroom. “Oh, and I told Mom that you'd gone to a study group after school,” Fabi called after her.

“Fabiola!” her father's deep voice boomed from the kitchen. She stomped her foot in irritation. Why did everyone always have to call her for everything?


The restaurant picked up for the dinner rush. Between orders, Fabi noticed Alexis arguing with her mother and then storming out of the restaurant. She prayed that her mother didn't find out about her little lie. If only Alexis had told her that she wasn't going to her class, then maybe she could have covered for her better. But then again, Fabi thought, why was she even covering for her? The whole family was convinced that Alexis was going to be a singing sensation. She'd received special treatment, voice and music classes, since she was eight years old and won a singing contest at the stock and trade show. But now, she was throwing it all away for a make-out session with Dex.

At the end of her shift, Fabiola began to count her tips. Her mother came over and sat across from her. She took off one of her two-inch heels and began to massage her swollen feet.

“What are you going to do with all that money you save?” her mother asked. “You never buy anything nice for yourself. Isn't that the shirt you got for free at the rodeo last year?”

“I don't need anything, Mom,” Fabi said, sliding all the coins into her coin purse.

“You're saving to run away from us, aren't you?” Magda teased — but her eyes betrayed real worry behind her joke.

“I wish! As if you guys would ever let me,” Fabi said, pretending to sound upset. She looked at the tattered coin purse. It held all her dreams. “I just want to see the world one day.” Her mother stared back with a bewildered expression, and Fabi added, “Haven't you ever wanted to go to Venice? Or see the temples of Machu Picchu?”

Instead of answering, Magda began to fidget with the fake white flowers on the table. Fabi watched out of the corner of her eye, pretending to play with the clasp of the coin purse.

Finally, her mother looked down at her lap and said, “I don't know where you get these crazy ideas. They must be from your dad's side of the family.” The pained look on her mother's face made Fabi feel terrible about what she'd said. She didn't have the right words to explain this urge she had to run, run far away — and what could she say that wouldn't make her mother feel like she wanted to run away from

So she changed the subject. “What's up with Alexis?”

Her mother seemed relieved. “Your sister is just in a hurry to grow up. She wants to go to some party this weekend. I told her
.” Magda looked at Fabi to read her reaction. “I don't care. She can hate me all she wants. She's only fourteen. You know how your sister gets. She can't take no for an answer. With Chuy out, we need her help here. But for Alexis, everything is the
end of the world

Fabi smiled sympathetically. That was Alexis, all right.


On Saturday night, Fabiola left the restaurant early to help with Milo's party. She pulled on her favorite pair of skinny jeans and a cute sequined top she'd bought with Georgia Rae last summer, but never wore. Then she opened the makeup tote box she got on her twelfth birthday. Most of the cosmetics were still sealed in their packaging — gifts from the Mary Kay and Avon representatives in the family. As she applied some lip liner she couldn't help but feel butterflies in her stomach. It had been so long since she went out and didn't have to be responsible for anyone. Her phone beeped, letting her know that Georgia Rae was outside and ready to go.

They arrived at the party as the sun started to set, casting warm reddish-orange streaks in the sky. Her phone beeped again — the fifth text from Milo since she'd left. He was really anxious about this grilling business!

The fancy house on the north side of the tracks was hidden behind a high wooden fence and ash trees. Fabi smelled smoke and heard a huge crash. The two girls raced straight from the truck toward the noise. Soon they found what the commotion was all about — from the back porch, flames licked the stucco roof of the redbrick ranch home. Milo was inside a cloud of smoke, unsuccessfully trying to douse the flames with a bucket of water.

“Get away from there!” Fabi shouted, waving for Milo to move out of the way before he hurt himself. She turned off the flames on the gas burner. There was a shriveled piece of burnt meat on the grill. It disintegrated into powdered ash when she tried to pick it up.

Fabi turned to Milo and couldn't help but burst out laughing at his shocked expression. “Don't they teach you boys how to light a grill in Arizona?”

He shook his head in frustration. “I had no idea what I was getting into when I promised to cater. What was I thinking? This was a big mistake. Look what I did to the meat. I ruined everything.”

Fabi hurried into the house, finding the kitchen and an apron that she tied around her waist. Back outside she smiled at Milo. “Why don't you fix up your music and leave the food to me,” she told him. Then she quickly assessed the ingredients she had to work with — and decided it was a good thing she could send Georgia Rae to the store for more food.

By the time the guests arrived, Fabi was ready. She tried to watch casually while her schoolmates checked out the food she'd made. Seeing the satisfaction in their eyes as they tried her specialties — carne asada, fresh salsa, and guacamole — made her smile. Not too bad, she thought, for throwing it together at the last minute. She also made some veggie shish kebabs, which were the hit of the evening.

Milo was bumping to his beats on the turntables. His fingertips expertly mixed Mexican, pop, and rap dance rhythms like a chef stirring together different spices. Everyone seemed to be having a good time eating, dancing, and drinking. Fabi tried to stay away from the drinkers. She didn't like being out of control and especially didn't trust a lot of the guys to keep their hands to themselves. But after much cajoling from her classmates, she gave in to a wine cooler slushy that someone brought her — it was gross, but she drank some of it, trying to loosen up and have fun like everyone else. After all, Georgia Rae was driving.

They partied into the night, watching the moon rise over the ash and oak trees in the backyard. Guests streamed in and out of the house through a glass sliding door. Milo was jumping around his DJ station making faces at her. Fabi couldn't stop laughing. She felt kind of light-headed and kept bumping into people as she danced. She had to find the bathroom.

BOOK: Crossing the Line
2.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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