Vinnia sits cross-legged and spreads her dark blue skirt around her on the linoleum so she looks like an inverted morning glory. But it's too late: bright yellow pee has already escaped the protective cover of pleated cotton and now flows uninhibited toward the base of the oven. Chock-Chock is too vigilant to miss this. He narrows his eyes and juts out his lower lip just like a soldier planning an attack.
That's bad to pee yourself, says Chock-Chock.
Vinnia turns away and focuses on the gleaming chrome toaster. She pats her skirt flat against the floor and tries to hum a tune but it comes out like a moan.
You heard me, Vinnia? says Chock-Chock. A bad thing to pee yourself. Very bad. Your mother will be very mean to you now.
Vinnia's head snaps forward. Don't lie to me, she says. You're a liar. And you're not even family, really.
Chock-Chock walks toward Vinnia and stops at the edge of her skirt. He holds his arms out from his body like a crucified Jesus, closes his eyes, and slowly steps onto Vinnia's skirt.
Stop it! she yells. Vinnia tries to stand but falls back down with a little grunt. Let me up! Vinnia tugs at her skirt but Chock-Chock weighs almost a hundred and twenty pounds, much too much for a sixth grader, and twice what Vinnia weighs. Chock-Chock keeps inching forward, feeling his way blindly but purposefully.
Stop it! Vinnia now pleads. You're hurting me!
Chock-Chock stops, opens his eyes, and lowers his arms. I'm stopping now, he says. See? Stopped in my tracks just like that, and he snaps with his left hand.
Vinnia wipes her cheek.
Just like that, Chock-Chock says again with another snap. On a dime.
Vinnia smiles. Thank you, she mouths.
What? asks Chock-Chock.
Thank you, she answers this time in a louder voice.
Chock-Chock crosses his arms across his chest and breathes through his mouth as if he's winded. You are very welcome, little lady, Chock-Chock says after a few seconds. He pulls his lips into a smile revealing small, white teeth and a pink tongue. Yes, very welcome, indeed.
A key slides and clicks at the front door. Chock-Chock steps back from Vinnia. The door opens with a happy, Hello! as Vinnia's mother struggles with grocery bags.
Hello tía, says Chock-Chock.
Mrs. Vargas smiles and walks toward the kitchen.
Look what Vinnia did, he says, pointing down to the yellow streak of pee.
Mrs. Vargas puts her packages down on the counter. A box of raisins falls out and bounces into the almost-empty sink.
Oh, Vinnia, she says to her daughter. Vinnia, Vinnia, Vinnia, what are we going to do with you?
Chock-Chock smiles and catches Vinnia's eye. He nods just a little. Vinnia snorts.
Sorry, mama, she says keeping her eyes on Chock-Chock. Sorry.
You're too old for this, says Mrs. Vargas as she reaches for the roll of paper towels. Too old, mija, too old.
Chock-Chock says, I can help.
You're such a little gentleman, Carlos, says Mrs. Vargas.
Vinnia quickly stands startling them. But Chock-Chock was mean!
Don't call him that! says Mrs. Vargas. It's an ugly name. Carlos is who he is.
Vinnia looks at her feet.
Mrs. Vargas turns to Chock-Chock and coos, Carlos, sweetie, let me go change and if you can start cleaning, that would be a huge help to me. She hands him the paper towels and tells Vinnia not to move until she comes back. Vinnia nods and her mother leaves.
When they hear the bedroom door click closed, Vinnia leans into Chock-Chock. Clean my pee, she whispers. Clean it, Chock-Chock.
Chock-Chock stops moving, doesn't know what to say. Vinnia leans closer. Clean it, she says in a hiss.
Chock-Chock steps back. Looks around. His mind goes blank. He hears Mrs. Vargas in her bedroom humming like she's not mad at Vinnia anymore. Vinnia laughs. Chock-Chock walks to the sink, wets the paper towels, kneels by the pee. He wipes at the puddle near Vinnia's shoes. Then he stops suddenly and looks up at Vinnia. She stares down at him, smiling.
Clean it, she almost sings. Clean it now.
Vinnia smells like soap and her hair glistens wet from the bath. She tries to keep up with Chock-Chock as they head to the Sav-on. Chock-Chock clutches a five dollar bill in his left hand.
Slow down! says Vinnia.
Chock-Chock glances over his shoulder but doesn't slow down. Vinnia looks so clean now in a crisp, white Hello Kitty blouse, red shorts, white Keds. No smell of pee. He turns ahead again and squints so that he can see the big Sav-on sign. And then he hears it for the first time: Vaya a casa.
Chock-Chock stops and lets Vinnia catch up.
What? he asks.
I said you shouldn't walk so fast! Vinnia's upper lip shines with perspiration. My legs aren't as long as yours!
No, says Chock-Chock. That other thing you said.
Vinnia wipes her lip with the back of her hand. That's what I said! To wait!
Chock-Chock lets out a squeak from his narrow nostrils and starts his trek again to the store. This time he walks slowly enough for Vinnia to keep up.
Sorry I said you weren't really family, says Vinnia trying to get Chock-Chock to say something.
Yeah, he says.
I mean, you are adopted. That's no secret.
And even if you weren't, reasons Vinnia, we would only be cousins. And besides, it's not my fault your mother is sick.
Vaya a casa, the voice says again. This time, Chock-Chock knows it's not Vinnia. The glass doors of Sav-on are so close that he can feel the air-conditioned air pour out when an old man leaves the store. But it's not the old man talking. The voice sounds soft, like a woman's. Chock-Chock hands Vinnia the five dollar bill.
Go in and get the Cokes. I'll wait here.
Vinnia's eyes widen with excitement. Yes! she squeals as she snatches the money and runs into the store.
Now Chock-Chock can look around to find out who's talking to him. He narrows his eyes, wrinkles his nose, and slowly scans the perimeter of the parking lot beginning from the Ralphs at the left, then All-American Karate Studio, Pizza Hut, Alfonso's Chiropractic, Dollar Tree and finally Sav-on.
Come out, says Chock-Chock. I know you're around here somewhere.
But there's no answer. He notices Vinnia waiting in line struggling with a six-pack of Coke. Chock-Chock figures he should help his cousin but then he notices a woman in the shadows of the purified water machine near the store's entrance.
Vaya a casa, says the woman.
Chock-Chock shades his eyes so he can see her better. She reminds him of his mother who has been sleeping for almost two months at a hospital in El Paso. They called the sleep something else but he can't remember what. The woman smiles and motions gently, slowly with her hand for Chock-Chock to approach. He smiles back at her and takes a step forward but stops. She isn't pretty but the face is kind and brown like his mother's. A floppy straw hat almost hides the woman's dark eyes. She gestures again. Chock-Chock takes two more steps and stops. He notices for the first time that the woman hugs crutches under her arms and only one leg peeks out from under her white, cotton skirt. A too-large man's shirt—blue like the sky—hangs on her thin frame and billows where she has tucked it in carefully at her waist.
What are you doing?
Chock-Chock's head swivels in response to Vinnia's voice.
Nothing, he says trying to sound bored.
Well, I got the Cokes! she squeals.
Good. Give me the change.
Vinnia hands over two balled up dollar bills and a few coins. Let's go home, she chirps. It's hot!
Chock-Chock shoves the money into his pants' pocket and takes the Cokes from Vinnia. As they start to leave, Chock-Chock turns to see the woman again. The sun is bright and he squints. He's not certain if she's still standing by the water machine.
Hurry! says Vinnia. The sun is burning me!
Okay, says Chock-Chock. Okay.
Chock-Chock pulls the blanket up close to his chin and tries to get comfortable on the sofa. He misses his bed back in El Paso but his aunt is nice and the sofa is the best she can do. His eyes are now use to the dark so he can discern the china cabinet across the room. It's filled not with china but with Mexican dolls made of brightly-painted papier-mâché. He can make out the fat lady on the horse, the group of mariachis that are really grinning skeletons in costume, several doves, the Virgin of Guadalupe. There are others hidden in the shadows but he knows they're there: dancing dogs, a beautiful mermaid, a bloody heart, a smiling devil, a dappled tortoise, a long-tailed cat.
Chock-Chock's eyelids flutter and he yawns. He tries to remember how his mother smells but he can't. His mind wanders to the woman on crutches. How did he hear her from so far? Why did she keep telling him to go home? And which home? El Paso? Here with his aunt and cousin? Chock-Chock shifted to his side as his questions kept running through his mind: How did she lose her leg? Did she have a son? Why didn't Vinnia see her?
And then it came to him like is should have long ago. The woman was magic and only he could see and hear her. Chock-Chock remembers stories about such magical people but he thought they only lived in Mexico. Maybe she made a special trip just for him because he needed help. The woman's soft words go round and round the boy's head. He listens to his breathing grow heavier and he feels safe and warm. Chock-Chock's last thought before he falls asleep are the words, Vaya a casa. The words are soft and round and dependable. And they come from a magical woman who traveled very far just to speak to this special boy.
The next day, Chock-Chock goes to mass with his aunt and Vinnia. But the priest's words drift in and out as the boy thinks about the woman at Sav-on. His aunt mistakes Chock-Chock's absorption for piety and she reaches over to pat him softly on the shoulder. She smiles at him and he offers a smile back. She leans past Vinnia and whispers, Are you praying for your mother?
Yes, he answers.
But it's a lie. All he can think about is getting back to the store to hear what the woman has to say to him. And he has his chance: his aunt wants a copy of the Sunday Times and they sell it at the Sav-on. She says he can go on his own after he changes out of his good clothes. Vinnia doesn't want to go. That's good, thinks Chock-Chock. That's good. I can see her alone.
Chock-Chock feels liberated from the scratchy, starched church clothes. His feet almost bounce in his New Balance shoes. His elbows, knees and neck rejoice in freedom as he heads toward the Sav-on. What will she say to him today? More advice? Will she explain what she meant when she told him to go home? And then he sees her! Right by the purified water machine just like yesterday. And she wears the same hat, shirt and skirt. Her lips move but Chock-Chock can't hear anything yet. He squints and then quickens his pace. The woman sees him and smiles through whatever words she's uttering. Chock-Chock is no more than twenty yards away.
The store's automatic doors suddenly slide open and a man wearing a Sav-on vest walks to the water machine. Chock-Chock stops, waits, hoping the man will walk past the woman. But he doesn't. He goes up to the woman, places his hands on his small hips, and says something to her. The woman stops smiling, stops talking. Her eyes lower and she shakes her head. The man keeps on talking, and now he's pointing at a large bundle on the ground that Chock-Chock has not noticed until now. This can't be good, the boy thinks. But I'll wait. The man will get tired bothering the woman and then I'll get my chance to hear what she has to say.
But the man does not get tired. In fact, he seems energized the more he talks. He raises his voice and starts to yell something at the woman. The words are not nice and Chock-Chock doesn't know what to do. The woman starts to shake and then the man does something that makes the boy jump: he looks to the left and then to the right. No one is around other than the boy but the man doesn't look behind him so he doesn't know Chock-Chock stands there. Then he kicks the woman's left crutch and she falls to the ground, quietly, in slow motion. The straw hat falls off and bounces on the cement revealing the woman's black, shaggy hair.
Chock-Chock wants to help but he doesn't move. He can't. The woman hangs her head as the man turns on his heel and goes back into the store. She sobs and shakes. And then she stops and looks up. Her eyes are sharp and dark. Chock-Chock can't move his eyes from hers. The woman wipes her nose with the back of her hand. And then she speaks. And this time Chock-Chock can hear the words. She says them slowly. And then she repeats them. She speaks them to him. The words are different from yesterday. But the words are meant for the boy. He listens to them and he understands what they mean. His face burns not from the sun but from shame. Chock-Chock turns from the woman and starts to walk. And the walk becomes a trot. In seconds, the trot becomes a full run. And he runs faster with each step. Faster away from the woman. Down the street as the woman's words stay in his ears. Loud and clear. A special message. Just for him.
Daniel A. Olivas is the author of Devil Talk (Bilingual Press, 2004), Assumption and Other Stories (Bilingual Press, 2003), The Courtship of María Rivera Peña (Silver Lake Publishing, 2000), and the children’s book, Benjamin and the Word (Arte Público Press, 2005). His stories, poems, essays and book reviews have appeared in many publications including the Los Angeles Times, MacGuffin, Exquisite Corpse, THEMA, The Elegant Variation, and The Jewish Journal.