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Peque

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peque- little one, kid; a term of affection

Her mamá did not like him. Abuela was always mad at him. Everyone else seemed to avoid him. But Dolores didn't. Dolores thought that he might have been the very best of Family Madrigal.

Isabela used to be her best friend, but ever since she got her gift, all she wanted to do was play with flowers, and Dolores wanted something new.

Bruno was funny. And tall. Like a big palm tree for her to climb. He spent a lot of time in his room or in the woods, but when he came around, he always found her, and gave her some odd gift like a ball or a rat or dulce.

And he always played with her, too, and called her peque. Everyone else was always busy, helping save the town with their gifts, but Bruno seemed to avoid the others at all costs.

Instead, he'd tell her things, stories and fairytales and random one-off thoughts, and she always listened intently. Sometimes he'd ramble on and on, using big words that she didn't know yet, but he seemed to want to tell her as much as she wanted to hear, so they would sit in each other's company for hours, until Mamá found her and scolded Bruno for filling her head with nonsense. Dolores didn't mind.

oOo

Dolores took a deep breath and reached for the doorknob. Glowing, glittering light flooded her vision and she gasped. The door shone and shifted and BOOM! A firework exploded in her ear, and the band suddenly played their music louder, blaring against her head, and voices, so many voices, were screaming over each other, over and over again, stomping on her brain.

People were streaming through the door, into her room, but she couldn't bring herself to move at all.

She gasped and fell to her knees, curling in on herself, trying to get away from the noise. Abuela was in front of her, talking, saying something, but there was too much to hear, and she could hear all of it, and— "STOP!"

A strong hand wrapped around her arm and pulled her from the celebration. She scrambled to keep up, stumbling alongside his long, swift strides. "Bruno, please, please make it stop," she begged. He said nothing, and she wanted to hug him for it.

They turned the corridor, up to his door. He led her through an hourglass of swishing sand to a huge world with stairs and mountains and blessed, wonderful dulled sound.

He knelt in front of her, wiping away the tears that were falling from her eyes. "Can you still hear them?

She listened closely and nodded sadly. "They're quieter now."

He looked at her quizzically, then nodded once, determined. "We'll climb until they're gone."

It took them all the way to his weird magic sand cave before the voices finally stopped, and she wanted to cry all over again.

"I don't want this. This doesn't feel like a gift."

"Sometimes gifts are a curse in disguise." He had said it under his breath, not for her to hear, but she did hear it, and it made her stomach churn.

"Do you not like your gift either?"

He looked at her sharply, then melted into a softer gaze. "No."

They didn't say anything else, the only sound was the chatter of his rats, scurrying about.

Later, she was overjoyed to tell him that, in her room, she couldn't hear the noise at all.

oOo

"All I need to do is read this sheet of paper?"

"Shh, don't let Abuela hear. But yes, just read it out loud. Slowly, so I have time to write it all down."

"You're sure you'll be able to hear me?"

"Positive. I can always hear Mamá arguing with tía Julieta during school."

He chuckled. "And why couldn't you just study for the test the normal way?"

"I tried, but Abuela needed me in the village all day yesterday! I don't know how she expects me to be perfect in school while still— "

He held up his hand with an amused expression. "I know all about how she can be. I'll help you anytime, peque."

She smiled.

oOo

"Please?" Dolores tugged on his scratchy green cloak and held onto the 'e' for as long as she could.

Finally, he turned around and looked at her, eyebrows drawn. "I don't want to disappoint you, peque, and my visions somehow always disappoint people."

"I won't be mad at you. No matter what you say."

"Dolores, I'm sorry, but I can't. I can't afford to lose you. Without you, the insanity would probably take me."

She giggled. "Tío Bruno, you are my best friend, I'm never going to leave you."

"That's what your mother said." He chuckled. "You need more friends your own age, anyway."

"I could say the same to you. Besides, no one wants to be friends with a girl who knows everything they've ever said."

She threw her hands up, exasperated, and his expression turned sorrowful for a moment, but he still shook his head.

"You told Isabela her fortune! I guess she must be your favorite niece." She crossed her arms and pouted her bottom lip, looking up at him with big, pleading eyes.

He turned away and sighed under his breath, "Dammit."

"I heard that!"

He chuckled and looked back. "What do you want to know, anyway?"

She looked around and lowered her voice, "There's this boy in school. He's tall and he writes poetry and he's very loud, but his voice is so nice, I don't mind. I want to know if I'll be with the love of my life when I grow up."

Bruno started laughing. Laughing so hard that he had to steady himself on a wall of Casita, which rumbled in time with his shaky breaths.

"It's not funny!"

"Of course not, sobrina. It's just that I've never had someone as young as you ask to know about something like that. I'll give you a vision if you really insist."

"I do!"

"And promise you won't be mad at me?"

"Promise."

oOo

"Why do you always do that?"

"Do what?"

She propped herself onto her elbows in the deep, soft sand of his room. "The knocking." She gestured to the cave walls. "And the whispering. And the salt."

"Oh. I— I don't really know. I just do. It makes me feel better."

"Why?"

He chuckled. "What's with all the questions, peque?"

"I hear every time you do it. And you do it a lot. It doesn't bother me—you're the quietest person I know, actually. I was just wondering."

"What about my rats? Do they bother you?"

"Oh no, Bruno. I love your rats."

"Really?"

"Of course, why do you think I hang out with you so much?" She threw a hand over her mouth, fighting to contain her giggles until they spilled from his mouth instead.

oOo

Dolores sat at the large and far too noisy table.

Isabela sat beside her, blooming perfect little flowers with a meticulous pop, pop, pop that seemed to echo in her brain.

Abuela and tío Agustín were arguing with each other, in little hushed tones, and sometimes she wondered if they forgot she could hear everything. Abuela was upset that Mirabel hadn't gotten a gift—she didn't need her ears to know that—and Agustín sounded ready to slap her with an arepa.

Luisa was drumming on the underside of the table in repetitive, catching patterns that hummed in the back of her mind.

Camilo was shifting over and over again, a dragon, a rat, herself, and the rhythm was going to drive her insane, and then Mirabel started whimpering and tapping her foot against the floor, while a thunderstorm started above her mamá, and the priest a half block away sneezed.

Dolores had to fight to keep from covering her ears.

Abuela hated it when she tried to cover her ears.

Tío Bruno was quiet, at least. Not that he was ever loud around her. Only his soft, swishing footfalls and low murmured half-words could be heard. She glanced once around the table for him, then twice, then, "Where's Bruno?"

Five distinctly adult faces turned sharply to face her, eyes wide and resentful and… worried?

Abuela spoke first, when it was clear no one else would. "Bruno is gone."

"Gone?"

"He disappeared after the," she shook her head. "We don't think he's coming back."

"Madre, I told you I should be the one to tell her," her mother chimed in hurriedly. She looked back at her with red frizzy hair, damp with rain. "It's probably for the best, mija," she whispered, though the storm brewing above their dinner table said otherwise.

She looked from one face to the next, each studying her with concerned expressions. Had they all gone crazy? Had she gone crazy? "What do you mean, Bruno is ri— "

"Peque, Dolores, please don't tell them, please don't, please don't, please don't." It was Bruno, there was no doubt about it, but he sounded frantic, and it felt like he was whispering directly into her mind.

Abuela looked at her urgently, grasping onto her hands. "What is it, nieta? Can you hear him?"

She took a breath. Then another, looking around. "No." The lie shook her to the core. Why were they all so fine that he was supposedly missing? She had heard them, of course, whispering about where Bruno was. But Bruno was always off, doing odd things in the woods or his room or with her.

Never actually missing.

Yet everyone sat around like nothing was wrong. Like a piece of their puzzle wasn't missing.

"Thank you, mi sobrina."

Where was he? He was loud enough that she was certain he was in the room, and yet…

She heard a distinct shuffling and a light flashed in a crack behind Abuela. Was he in the walls?

oOo

Everyone knew how much she loved Bruno, so everyone expected her to be heartbroken after he disappeared. And she would have been, if he was really gone. But she could still hear him, creeping through the walls of Casita, always keeping quiet, always keeping out of sight.

All she needed to do was find him. Then she could make him explain and bring him back out to the family and make everything right again.

She followed his quiet footfalls, his knocking on the walls, and the scurrying of his rats for hours until finally giving up. He must have known she was looking for him. And he was trying to stay hidden. From her.

The next day she knocked along the walls, in the same patterns she had heard him do so many times before. And she whispered things to every crack she saw, begging him to answer.

She heard his breath catch, more than once, but he never responded, not even to tease her or call her peque.

By the fourth day, she found herself envious of his rats, and that they had been deemed good enough to stay with him. Better companions than her, evidently.

oOo

She only ever mentioned it to her mamá once. After weeks of trying and failing, she finally broke down, sobbing into her warm embrace until her dress was wet with tears.

"I always knew you two were too close. He's too wild, unpredictable, to be responsible for a child."

She wiped her eyes and took a shallow, stuttering breath. "He was always responsible with me. He— "

"Mija, he's crazy. You should have been afraid of him like your brother is. I don't know how you two became friends in the first place. I should have shielded you better from him."

"He loves me, and he only ever wanted to protect me. He would never do anything to hurt me."

She looked at her sadly, and Dolores' heart shattered. "If that were true, he would still be here."

oOo

One night, she ran to the crack in the kitchen, and banged, hiding in the shadows.

She hammered her fist into the wall over and over again until her hand was red and raw, and frustrated tears flowed down her cheeks.

She begged the wall, begged Casita, begged the miracle, for anything, a single word, any acknowledgement.

"Peque."

She straightened instantly and inhaled. "Bruno?"

"I'm sorry."

"Bruno, please, please come out. Or tell me how to find you. I miss you."

The wall was silent, and she was so afraid he had left.

"I miss you, too."

"Where are you? How did you get in the walls?"

"Dolores, please, I can't tell you. No one can know I'm here. Can I trust you?"

She felt a fresh lump rise in her throat. "I know the entire village's secrets. Why can't you tell me?"

It wasn't exactly the best reasoning she could have used, but she could feel him slipping away and was desperate. Yes, she knew everyone's secrets, but she was dreadful at keeping them. But for Bruno. She would take it to the grave for him.

"It's for the best, Peque. They'd notice if you left for so long. And it's too dangerous for you anyway."

"Family is supposed to stay together. I don't care if it's dangerous."

"I know you don't."

oOo

After too many months had passed to count, she returned to the wall, needing to yell, with or without an answer.

"Mamá says you're crazy. That you've always been crazy. I'm starting to believe her. I hear you, you know. I hear everything you do. You don't even talk anymore, you barely mumble. You slink. Maybe she's right. I should have been scared of you like Camilo."

She took a deep breath. "You used to make me promise that I'd never leave you. And I never did. You were my best friend. And you left me."

She'd already started storming off when he responded, slow and solemn. "I still love you, peque."

"I don't believe you."

oOo

When he was old enough, Antonio took Bruno's seat at the table.

And Dolores loved her brother and wanted only the very best for him but that seat wasn't meant to be taken.

She begged to be excused early that night.

oOo

It became clearer to her, as time passed. She began to understand why he had left. Casita was cracking. She could hear it. And she could hear him everyday, working endlessly to patch up the cracks, to hold the family together.

He worked so hard, all alone, with no one to comfort him but his rats. It made her feel like crying.

She didn't.

oOo

Her eyes widened as she watched him approach the rubble of Casita, then sprinted to him and flung her arms around him, holding him tight to make sure he was real.

"Hola, mi peque."

"Bruno."

"I'm so, so sorry."

"It's okay. I understand now. You saved us."

He grinned.

oOo

When Mariano proposed, the first thing Dolores did was insist that Bruno ordain the wedding.

Her mamá objected, only for a little, then consented after seeing her determination.

Bruno was also hesitant. The people of the town still largely saw him as shifty and odd, and he didn't want to spoil her celebration, but she was adamant.

"You're the one who told me the future of my love in the first place. You should be the one to see it through."

It didn't take much more to convince him.

oOo

At the reception, he swung her around the floor and ruffled her curly hair with a fond smile. "You did so well, peque, thank you."

"For what?"

"Everything. For believing me. And always trying to hang around me. And putting up with me. I don't know where I'd be without you."

She wrinkled her nose. "Probably still going crazy in the walls. That's something you tend to do."

Bruno laughed, a solid, full laugh, and Dolores smiled, and everything was right again.