WHEN THE COYOTES COME 'ROUND
I glance at my cousin with the rough coconut skin that he hides underneath a ratty hooded sweatshirt. A plate of rice, fenideni sauce with too much green onion, lumpias—which are Chamorro eggrolls—and two cans of beer sit between us on the coffee table. He picks up a lumpia, examines it, then tosses it to our uncle’s Pomeranian. The dog, which is barely twice the size of the eggroll, sniffs it and runs into the kitchen to hide in my uncle’s pant leg. My cousin takes a swig of beer and slams the can back down on the glass tabletop.
I haven’t seen him without the sweatshirt since we were kids and he lived on the farm. (My family, painfully nostalgic of the ranch back home on the island, calls it the lanchon familia.) But my aunt says, “When he takes it off and has nothing covering his face...well, he looks like my brothers.” In the family, keeping the resemblances means everything. I’m told I look like my father’s eldest sisters when I go without straightening my thick, black hair. “So leave it curly,” my father says. I make sure to never grow it longer than a bob.
My cousin, my sister Nina, and I sit on the sofa in silence. On the television, a reality show blinds and deafens us. Nobody cares, but nobody cares enough to change it; it’s better than having to face each other. Besides, what’s left to say?
Three of my aunts and two uncles whisper in the kitchen. Aunt Isa—the short one with a fabric orchid tucked in her hair and a tattoo on her chest—is my cousin’s mother. She pokes at an eggroll that she’s torn open. She fries more rice. She pours strong, black coffee into a mug. She’s too frantic to eat, but too frantic to stop chewing on shreds of pork and cabbage. It’s all she can do since she quit smoking a year ago.
Everyone else has flown in from various places throughout the week. My father Tomas will drive in later this evening from Chicago. The other brothers and sisters who cannot make it send love and money.
The whispers match the fluctuating volumes on TV. They think if they use euphemisms, such as the things, we won’t realize it’s really the things my cousin stole. Or, if they say the gathering, we won’t know they’re talking about the i-n-t-e-r-v-e-n-t-i-o-n.
“Are we ready for it tomorrow?”
“I don’t know.”
“Wait for Tomas to get here. He’ll know.”
“Why did it take us so long to do anything about this?”
Everyone knew about my cousin before Nina and I did. A week ago, she and I were passing through town, on our way to St. Louis, when everything came to light. We just wanted to stop for the night to rest. But we walked into the garage and found our cousin. Lying there. Unconscious. Car still running.
What the hell were we supposed to do?
Looking like my eldest aunts is important, but nobody gave a damn to tell me about my cousin and the needles sticking out of his coconut-skin body. A body that hung halfway out of his beat-up old car like he was being peeled apart.
How was finding out that way fair at all?
On the farm, the green land rolled on for miles before it was swallowed by forest. If you weren’t paying close enough attention, you’d miss the fences and it’d look like wild horses were running freely from one edge of the woods to the other. Auntie Isa had plants that made the place resemble the old lanchon familia, and Dad made her decorations, like latte stones that stood at the gated entrance of the gravel driveway or big milk jugs that he painted with oceanscapes and seashells.
Until Nina was born, the farm had been my summer home—my exciting weekend getaways where adults weren’t looking over my shoulder. Unlike my mother, Auntie Isa worked a lot, leaving my cousin and I free to do whatever we wanted. We’d spend most of our time horseback riding on Tasi and East Wind, or swimming and fishing in a pond we stumbled upon. At night, we’d stay wide awake—he on the floor, on top of a mattress made of blankets, and I on the couch—and listen to the wild animals sneak up along the fence and sound their night voices.
One early summer morning I was sitting in the cab of an abandoned semi, which was parked on the far side of the property. I lay on my back across the seat, trying to stretch myself until my palms pressed flat against one door and my feet could touch the other, when my cousin ran up. He swung the passenger door open and my feet flailed through the air.
“Alex!” I screamed, upset with him. But then he held his hands out and presented me with a defiant brown chicken that he squeezed tightly. It looked like an angry, ruffled cat, like the ones that hung around the shed.
“You want it?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said without hesitation. Living in the city, I knew I’d never have another opportunity to own a chicken again. I kicked my way into an upright position and reached towards it. “I get to name it, ya know.”
“I’m gonna name it after you ‘cause you’re both brown.”
“You’re brown, too, Cammie.”
“Yeah, whatever,” Alex said, plopping the chicken down on the seat beside me. “If you keep it, though, you gotta protect it. Coyotes come ’round at night.”
The poor chicken didn’t know what was happening. It squawked and flapped its wings, hopped to the floor, and then down to the dusty, clay ground. Alex and I just looked at each other and shrugged.
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