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Glass is Just Hot Sand

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Bruno was already waiting at the table when the rest of the family began to trickle in. His mother, as always, came first, sweeping in straight-backed and proud, smiling down at little Camilo trailing her skirts. Camilo was finally starting to wear his own face again after several long months of being someone, anyone, else. Bruno had almost started to forget what his only nephew looked like, except that here and there he had managed to sneak a peek at the boy as he slept, when his face was his own.

 

The rest of the family rolled in moments later, his sisters and their husbands, and a pack of laughing kids. Luisa carried Mirabel on one shoulder, gesturing flamboyantly with open arms, pretending to almost drop the girl as her sister laughed and clung to her broadening neck. Bruno smiled at them. It was good to see Mirabel laugh again. She had been too quiet after the failed gifting ceremony.

 

Maribel didn’t smile back. No one did. Bruno drew back from the crack in the wall and sat at his plate, waiting for the family to settle so they could all eat.

 

***

 

Pepa and Felix were arguing. Well, Pepa was arguing. And crying. Water was seeping through one of the rat holes under the kitchen sink, but at least the walls held the clouds and lightning at bay. Bruno slid one sopping foot sideways out of the stream, adjusting his view through a rotted out knothole to peer at the loaf of bread on the table, quickly growing soggy under the onslaught of rain.

 

Bruno had really been looking forward to that bread. He had watched Julieta baking it and smelled it all morning through the walls of Casita, babying the toe he had bruised last night stumbling around in the dark of the walls. That was what he got for exploring new areas when it was dark out, but Dolores had been wandering around the insides of the house so he hadn’t wanted to risk leaving the walls.

 

“I just don’t understand,” Pepa was saying through tears and rain and thunder, “why we keep losing them. After Mirabel, doesn’t this family need another baby to keep the gift alive?”

 

Ah. That was the real upset. Bruno eased back from the wall as Felix drew Pepa in. The bread was a lost cause now anyway.

 

He made his way through the walls until he couldn’t hear the rain anymore. The toe ached. Maybe he had broken it, hard to say, and he had never really had to wonder about those sorts of things since they got their gifts. Healing was always just a meal away. It still was, even if Julieta didn’t make anything special just for him anymore.

 

The floor was dusty when he settled onto it, back against the wall. He had only been in these walls, adjacent to the bedrooms, for short periods, just to peek in and make sure they were all there, that everyone was okay and safely tucked away in their beds. He hadn’t worn the paths clean with his feet as he had his main living areas. Bruno ran a toe in the dust, sketching out a wobbly smile with stars for eyes.

 

His foot came away covered in grime. Bruno grimaced. His mother would be so disappointed if she could see him now. She had always been on him about the sand in his hair and his pockets and shoes, the constant gritty glitter on his arms and hands. He had taken care to wash up every day when he first ventured into the walls, but it was difficult to maintain. The walls were more dust and dirt than anything else.

 

He brushed roughly at his bare foot, knocking his sore toe with a yelp. “Ow. Owww. Bad idea, Bruno, you idiot.” He held the toe with both hands, warm firm pressure, and hoped it stopped hurting soon.

 

Something fell onto Bruno’s head. He startled and jumped to his feet. The rats startled and scurried away into the dark. Someone giggled on the other side of the wall.

 

There was a sweet bread on the ground. He picked it up, mouth already watering. Julieta had made some yesterday but he hadn’t managed to swipe any before they were whisked off to gift to the village.

 

“I heard you run into the wall last night,” Dolores whispered. Or was that Camilo, pretending? Something sounded… off about her voice.

 

“I didn’t run into it,” Bruno said, “it ran into me.”

 

“Casita can be naughty,” Dolores agreed. A pause, then a sniffle. “She threw me and Mirabel away from the kitchen.”

 

Bruno gave the wall a little pat. Good house. “Little nieces shouldn’t be eavesdropping on their parents anyway.”

 

Another sniffle. “I heard them anyway. I hear everyone . Even you.”

 

Poor child. She had to learn to turn a blind eye on things since she couldn’t give the world a deaf ear, a little girl with a village-worth of secrets swirling in her little head. Bruno couldn’t unsee his visions either, and he had never been able to help speaking them too. Bruno was pretty sure both of them would rather anyone’s gift but their own, most days. 

 

(Camilo’s gift topped Bruno’s list–he’d love to step outside of his own skin. His wasn’t very good.)

 

“Anyway you were listening too,” Dolores accused, voice closer now through the wall, thick and wet. “I heard you in there.”

 

“I wasn’t eavesdropping ,” Bruno said, grimacing. “I just wanted some bread.”

 

“For your foot,” Dolores said. “I know.” She pitched her voice low and gruff. “Ayeeee, ow, my toe! ” She broke off her impersonation with another giggle, a little less thick with tears. “If you’d let me find you last night, Uncle Bruno, I had the sweet bread for you.”

 

 Bruno blinked, looking down at the bread in his hands. He turned it over in his fingers. It was the kind with the pink frosting. His favorite. “You were looking for me?”

 

“You woke me up when you cried,” she said.

 

“I didn’t cry. I was surprised.” Bruno tore the bread in two and dropped one half out the hole behind the portrait. It wouldn’t do much for pain that wasn’t physical, but maybe the sugar would help with the tears. “Thank you, Dolores.”

 

“You’re welcome,” she said.

 

There was a sound across the house, a voice faintly echoing down the hall.

 

“I gotta go. Bye, Uncle Bruno!”

 

“Bye, Dolores,” he said, taking his first bite of bread. He chewed placidly for a moment then blinked, alarmed, and called after the girl, knowing she would hear though the sound of her feet was already so far as to be nearly imperceptible to his own ears: “Don’t tell anyone I’m here, okay?”

 

No answer, or she was too far away to be heard. Bruno had very average hearing–he had never claimed to be above average in anything but bad news. Still, she hadn’t told anyone yet and it had been months since he first spirited himself away. Humming to himself, Bruno took another bite, wiggling his toe and finding it felt as good as new.

 

It was only once he was licking his fingers clean that Bruno realized that Dolores had either been carting the roll around with her everywhere or had heard Bruno complaining and come looking for him again. He smiled and wiped at his eyes with the back of one hand, wondering how he had managed to be born into a family so pure of heart.

 

***

 

There was a knocking at the wall behind the family portrait. Bruno went still, Ratthew supine in his hands where Bruno had been brushing his belly.

 

“Uncle Bruno?” Dolores called, knocking again, tap-tap. “I know you’re in there.”

 

Bruno set Ratthew down and crept to the crack, peering through this way and that. Dolores sat at the head of the table, backwards in the chair with her chin resting on both hands on the seat back. The room was empty. He didn’t need to ask if she was sure they were alone–Dolores always knew.

 

“What’s the password?” he asked, levelling her with a look. “So I know it’s you.”

 

“Oh! Um.” Dolores furrowed her brow, thinking hard for several long moments, before suddenly grinning. “Camilo is stupid!”

 

“That’s not the password!” Bruno chastised. “I didn’t like that one.”

 

“Well I don’t remember the other one,” Dolores said. “Camilo would be so mad if he had to say this one so you know it’s me. Camilo wouldn’t even know you’re here anyway and if you have to ask then it would already be too late, so I don’t know why we have to use one.”

 

“I’m not supposed to have to ask,” Bruno said. “You’re supposed to start with the password.”

 

Dolores sighed. “Okay, Uncle Bruno.”

 

She was sick of his silliness. Bruno knew the look. He didn’t normally see it from her . “What’s going on today, Dolores? Is something wrong?”

 

“No,” she said. “Everything’s fine .”

 

She scowled as she said it and he was reminded suddenly that she was now a teenager. She was a sweet girl, quieter than the other kids and more prone to fade to the background than most, but even Julieta had been a terror at that age, for just a few years. Worse, Dolores had a quiet gift as well, easy to overlook and not often asked for. The family didn’t keep secrets, not from each other, and they talked openly about everything .

 

“Oh, that’s good then,” Bruno said, rubbing his finger along the chipping plaster on the walls, waiting.

 

“It’s just-” Dolores started, launching into a dramatic tale of treachery and betrayal. Camilo, of course, was the villain. He usually was. It was a good story, actually, and Bruno was reminded somehow of the bickering Rateo and Ratilda had gotten into recently when Rateo stole the warmest, knottiest yarn they had.

 

“I never even wanted a little brother in the first place!” Dolores said, and even yelling she was hardly louder than most spoke by day.

 

“Brothers are the worst,” Bruno agreed. “Though I can’t say about younger ones.”

 

Dolores didn’t seem to hear him, and that was funny, wasn’t it? “And then he accused me of stealing his toothbrush. His toothbrush! Why would I even do that?”

 

“Toothbrush?” Bruno said, blinking, and drew back to look over his shoulder at where Ratthew had been until recently. That was where it had come from. Well, Ratthew really preferred the hard bristles for a rub and Camilo should be using soft ones anyway. It was better for your teeth.

 

“So I told him that I was going to listen for the first circus to pass by and send him on it, and then he started crying and told mama, and now I’m in trouble when he started it.”

 

“That’s very rude,” Bruno said, pressing his eye back to the crack. Dolores was scowling at the floor, an errant curl fallen over one eye. “But have you heard one? A circus? I’ve never seen a circus.”

 

The annoyance fell away from Dolores’ face. She scrunched her nose at him. “No. But Camilo doesn’t know that.”

 

***

 

A cupboard creaked open on the other side of the wall. Bruno sat up from his slump in the corner where he had been watching a spider build its nest, preparing itself for company. That was probably just Luisa, come for a midnight snack. Dolores usually knocked for him when she ventured out at night, but sometimes she didn’t if he was so quiet she didn’t know where he was. Bruno had been very quiet. It had been one of those days.

 

But now there was sound and it might be someone to talk to. Maybe he could come out and they could have something to eat together, and Dolores would tell him about her day, and Bruno could tell her about the new comedy he and the rats had been cooking up. She was going to love it, he just knew it. It had the largest cast yet and there was even a death at the end. Dolores always liked it when the ending was sad.

 

Bruno peered into the kitchen. It was Dolores, crouched on the floor and peering into the shelf where her parents usually stashed the extra special treats. She wasn’t supposed to sneak those. Bruno never told. (Bruno couldn’t tell, but he wouldn’t even if he could. She was the best niece.)

 

Bruno pattered down the tunnels he called home and slipped out into the empty hallways of the family home. Dolores would have heard him coming by now. He hoped she might pull out something special for the both of them, since he was usually too anxious it’d be noticed if he took things just for himself. They could eat them and he could run some plot points by her, and maybe the show would be ready in a few days. She could attend the premier.

 

“You’ll never guess what Rat Manuel Miranda is working on this week, mija!” he said, bursting through the kitchen doorway with arms thrown wide.

 

Dolores screamed.

 

Bruno screamed.

 

And suddenly it wasn’t Dolores crouched at his feet, it was Camilo, wide eyed and open mouthed, looking like he was preparing to scream again.

 

And then it was Dolores again–or, no, finally –sweeping up behind Camilo and slapping a hand over his mouth. “Camilo, quiet!” She started whispering fiercely in his ear, eyes on Bruno the whole time.

 

Bruno didn’t wait around any longer. He fled back down the dark hallways, in behind the painting, and tucked himself right back into his little corner. The spider had finished its web, and it had found a new friend. It was winding it up in little white threads, spinning and spinning until the thing was nothing more than a still little bump. Bruno stared and hardly breathed.

 

It was some time later that there came a knock on the wall. Bruno drew his knees in close to his chest and waited. It would be Pepa who came, probably. Camilo told Pepa everything.

 

“Um. The… The rat howls in… Um.” Dolores’ voice, fumbling over the password. He had made it too complex. They had forgotten it, the both of them. “...Camilo is stupid.”

 

He smiled faintly. Yes, that was Dolores.

 

“Uncle Bruno, are you there? I can’t hear you.”

 

“Yes,” he said, and pushed off with his hands, getting his knees under him enough to knee-walk toward the wall. “I’m here.”

 

“Oh, good. I was afraid you’d run away into the mountains.”

 

“Too cold out there,” Bruno said. “Maybe in summer…”

 

Quiet for a moment. “Camilo won’t say anything. I made him promise. Please don’t go.”

 

Promises only went so far. Bruno knew that. Camilo could promise but he was just a child, a child who had hardly known Bruno even before he had disappeared. It had been several years now, hadn’t it? Did Camilo even remember him at all?

 

“I told him if he told anyone that you would say his name and curse him for all eternity.” Dolores sounded very solemn, and he wondered if she thought that was true. Even little Dolores? “Also that I would dunk him in the river and let the fish eat his tongue.”

 

Bruno sat up taller and pressed his eye to the crack. “You really said that?”

 

Dolores was already looking back, sitting on the table with her feet on the head chair. Her hands were folded demurely in her lap. Sweet little Dolores, threatening her brother with curses and carnivorous fish.

 

“Of course. I wouldn’t let him tell.”

 

***

 

Bruno had never before wished to have Dolores’ powers but he did now, pacing the wallways, pressing his eyes and ears to every hole and crack he had to no avail. The whole family was ensconced in one of the interior rooms, one of the few places Bruno didn’t have any access to. Even little Mirabel and Camilo had been called inside not long ago, though he supposed they weren’t going to be the youngest Madrigals for much longer.

 

Bruno clutched the little rat plush in his hands, fingers rubbing over the rough stitches, the uneven button eyes. It was his first try at making a toy but he hoped his new niece or nephew would forgive the poor craftsmanship. He hadn’t made anything for the other children when they were born but it was different this time. The child would probably never even set eyes on him, and it had been so long since there’d been a new addition. There had never been more than 3 or 4 years before a new baby had joined the family, but it had been ten long years this time.

 

A sound came, muffled behind the heavy doors between Bruno and his family. A wail, perhaps? The high cry of a new babe, born wet and confused into the arms of a family that would love and hold it tight? Or maybe just the voice of one of the other children, growing impatient with waiting. Still, the sound continued, quiet through the distance.

 

The sound grew louder, then muffled again. The anterior door creaked open. Bruno had his eye pressed tight to the wall so he saw the moment it swung open, and Dolores came slipping through. She had grown tall, tight curls pulled into a high ponytail, lithe and elegant. Her face had never quite grown to fit her eyes, though, still wide and over-large in her face, like she was perpetually just a little surprised. She still had the same button nose. She was still his little baby niece, smiling big as she hurried toward the wall where she knew he waited.

 

“It’s a boy!” she said, pressing her eye to the same hole and blocking the light for both of them in her excitement. Bruno drew back so they could both see each other, and how long had his hands been shaking? It wasn’t even cold. “He’s called Antonio.”

 

“Antonio,” Bruno whispered. “A strong name.”

 

Dolores’ eye disappeared. Something fell through the hole. “Aunt Julieta made chicken soup for mama. We’re all having some but I couldn’t sneak a whole bowl for you, uncle.”

 

Bruno knelt and picked up the little bundle of cloth, unwrapping it carefully, the fabric faintly damp and growing damper as he reached the inner layers. There was a chunk of chicken inside, still warm. “Thank you, Dolores. This is wonderful.”

 

He remembered the last time, when Mirabel had been born. He hadn’t been allowed in during the birth, of course, but he had waited in the outer room with the children. When Mirabel had been born and the women had cleaned her and Julieta up, they had opened the doors and come out together. He remembered how small Mirabel had seemed when they had fit her carefully into the crook of his arm, how she had wailed with her face scrunched and red.

 

He had promised her she wouldn’t regret the journey. He had told her she had the best family in the world.

 

He wanted to look out the hole in the wall and look toward the door. It could open at any moment. Maybe he could catch a glimpse of the new baby. But his eyes were stinging and he didn’t want to upset Dolores. She was so sensitive sometimes, and she had come here just for him.

 

“They’re calling for me,” Dolores said. Movement shuffled on the other side, feet against the hard floor.

 

“Wait,” Bruno said, remembering suddenly about the rat. “I have something. For… Antonio.”

 

The hole wasn’t very large, but neither was the plush. He pushed it through nose-first, shoving and pressing to get the largest part through and hoping none of the stitches would break. He had gotten pretty good at making stitches strong over the years, even if they weren’t exactly pretty.

 

“It’s so cute, uncle,” Dolores said. “I’ll give it to him.”

 

“Tell them you made it, mija?”

 

“Of course. Bye, Uncle. I’ll come tell you more tonight!”

 

Bruno waited until her steps were nearly to the door before he looked out the hole. He was in time to see it swing open. His family was crowded together in the center of the room, looking at the little bundle in Pepa’s arms. She was already up from bed, thanks to Julieta’s cooking, and he could just make out the soft smile on her face. He popped his piece of chicken into his mouth as the door shut again, shutting his eyes and thinking about how warm it would be in there, how they would all press in tight to share a look. He wondered if Antonio had the same curls as his siblings.

 

***

 

Bruno was sitting under the dining table, right under where he used to eat, when Dolores found him.

 

“Glass,” she said solemnly, “is just really hot sand.”

 

“Hi, Dolores,” he said.

 

She pushed a chair out of the way and crawled under to sit beside him, resting her chin on her knee. She followed his gaze, staring at the wall beneath the portrait since they were too low to see the painting itself.

 

“I’m sorry about Ratecia,” she said after a long moment. “She sounded like a nice rat.”

 

“She was,” Bruno said. “She used to sleep on my chest when I went to sleep.”

 

Dolores nodded and wrapped an arm around his shoulder. “It was a nice eulogy. She would have liked it.”

 

“She was just a rat.” He looked away, stung by his own words. The truth hurt. Bruno knew that better than anyone. “She wouldn’t have even known what I said.”

 

Dolores squeezed him tighter and frowned. “Don’t say that. They’re not just rats. They’re your rats.”

 

“And even my rats die. They don’t live very long, mija.” He was so tired of them dying, his friends, his furry family. The death of Ratthew the fifth hurt just as much as the death of Ratthew the first, and it would just go on and on forever, generations of love and then death spun fast. “Rats aren’t like people.”

 

She was right, though. They were his, and he loved them.

 

***

 

Bruno hadn’t had the will power to move back into his old room. It had been hard enough to come out of the wallways in the daytime, to join the family in the streets and at dinner. He had taken his old place at the table, displacing the rest of the family down the table top like dominos, and had worried the whole time that at the end they might tell him that maybe next time he should sit somewhere else. Old habits die hard, and everyone had their seats without him already.

 

They didn’t. Say that. But Bruno said it to himself for them. And after so long of eating dinner with them by himself, it was almost too much to be part of the sound and the movement. It was startling everytime when someone directed something his way, and he had to think hard about whether he was supposed to answer now or after swallowing, and was he chewing too long? Were his bites too big? Why was everyone staring at him, what had he done wrong now?

 

So he retreated back to the wallways during the afternoons and slept, as had been his habit for ten long years. He joined them at dinner, and spent the night wandering the house. He could do that now without fear, but still his heart jumped when a door opened somewhere out of sight. Like he shouldn’t be there. And when there was someone in the kitchen at night, unless it was Dolores, he would creep back the way he had come. Just like always.

 

Only tonight when he stepped into the kitchen and saw Antonio there, the boy was watching the doorway expectantly, something in his hand. Bruno froze.

 

“Hi, Uncle Bruno,” Antonio said. He smiled, beamed , then came forward and threw his arms around Bruno, this bright little nephew who had never even known Bruno. Bruno knew him, though. He had watched the boy his whole life.

 

“Hello, Antonio,” Bruno said, and carefully brushed his palm down the boy’s curls. They were just as soft as he had thought they would be, and much springier.

 

“Did you know,” the boy asked, pulling back his head, still wrapped up around Bruno’s waist, “that boy and girl toucans look the same? Just like Camilo!”

 

“Is that so?” Bruno asked, smiling. “Is that just like Camilo?”

 

“Just like him,” Antonio confirmed. “Well, except Camilo can change and toucans can’t. But Camilo can be either a boy or a girl.” He frowned. “Well, okay, I guess it’s not so much like Camilo. But Camilo can be both and so can toucans, so I think that’s close enough.”

 

“Close enough,” Bruno agreed, and let himself ruffle his hair, just a little. “What are you doing out here so late, Antonio? Shouldn’t you be in bed?”

 

“Yes,” the boy said, “but Dolores said you wouldn’t tell. It’s just-” Antonio held up his hand. There was something soft squished in his fist, “Ratiago said you made this for me. Is it true?”

 

Bruno reached out and Antonio placed the object in his hand. It was the little rat plush Dolores had delivered for him, squished and dirty and malformed these days. The stitching, he noticed, had held. “Yes. I made this for you when you were born.” It was amazing the boy still had it, and Bruno wanted to melt at the thought. And then he realized what the boy had said. “You talk to Ratiago?”

 

“Only all the time ,” Antonio said. He stepped back and reached over, opening a cupboard. Three rats stared out, their paws frozen in rice spilling from a hole in the bag. “They’re here all the time. Right, Ratalia?”

 

“They… go by those names?”

 

“Who else’s names would they go by?” Antonio picked Ratalia up and plopped her on his shoulder.

 

“Well,” Bruno said, “I guess when you put it that way…” He hesitated. “Do they mind that I ran out of names? There are so many of them.”

 

Bruno whispered to the rat on his shoulder, listened, then shrugged. “They don’t care.” The boy reached out and grabbed a handful of uncooked rice and threw it into his mouth, crunching and talking around the grains. “Is it weird having so many kids?”

 

Bruno blinked. “What do you mean?”

 

“Well there’s just so many of them-”

 

“They have their own fathers, Antonio. Real ones.”

 

“Well they call you their papa,” Antonio said, levelling him with an exasperated stare. “And rats never lie.”

 

“Oh.” Bruno leaned back against the doorway, blinking hard. “I- Well yes, I guess I did raise them, but-”

 

Antonio interrupted him, brightening: “And that means you had more kids than mama and Julieta and Abuela all put together! I have so many cousins now!” He looked over and his smile faltered. “Uncle? Are you okay?”

 

“I’m just fine, Antonio.” Bruno wiped at his eyes. His hand came away wet and his eyes stung, and Bruno didn’t want to cry in front of the tiniest of them all. “I’m glad you like your cousins.”

 

Antonio came forward and wrapped himself around Bruno’s waist again. “Thank you for coming back. Don’t ever go away again, okay?”

 

Bruno thought about the first time he’d set eyes on Antonio, sound asleep in his mother’s arms, just over a day old. He had been so small and Bruno had wished so badly to hold the boy, just for a moment. He wrapped his arms around Antonio now and pressed a kiss to the top of the wild mass of curls. “Of course. I’m not going anywhere, mijo.”