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Coffee

Chapter Text

When Alex was eight-years-old, he tried coffee for the first time. He’d grown up watching his mother prepare it every morning, captivated by the ritual—she would boil milk on the stove, then pour it over a mug of instant coffee and brown sugar, stirring the whole thing vigorously until it turned a pale, frothy beige. Sometimes, as an afterthought, she would sprinkle in a pinch of cinnamon. When he was very young, Alex would drag a kitchen chair over to the counter and stand on it to get a better look at Raquel’s process, his brow furrowed in concentration in a way that always made her laugh.

In the afternoon, while Alex and Jaime were busy studying in their bedroom,  she would repeat the process and take two cups out into the backyard. It was a small yard, ostensibly shared with the other tenants of the building, but Raquel and James were the only ones who ever put it to any use. They would sit together after work, sharing instant coffee over a tiny table and trying their best to avoid any topics of conversation that might bring reality crashing down on them. Their arguments were reserved for the kitchen, late at night or early in the morning, when James had failed to come home on time, when he confessed to having lost another job, when he noticed the stack of bills Raquel hadn’t paid yet. But these lazy afternoons in the yard were safe from argument: protected, like the warm mugs cradled tightly in their hands.

When the sound of their laughter floated through the boys’ bedroom window on the second floor, Alex would inevitably set aside his homework and watch them from above, though Jaime would grumble and tell him to leave them alone. Despite his distractibility, Alex would always finish his work before Jaime (“It’s because you’re little, and they don’t give little kids real homework,” Jaime would say), and if Raquel and James were still out in the yard he would dash downstairs to join them.

On one of those rare, blessed days when homework hadn’t been assigned, Alex paced restlessly in the bedroom. He’d been sent up with Jaime as usual, an injustice beyond anything he or anyone else in history had ever experienced. After he’d said as much a couple of times, Jaime looked up from his homework to shoot Alex a filthy look.

“Just read a book, Alex,” he said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

“I can’t,” Alex wailed dramatically. “I’ve read everything we have a million times!”

“Not everything, just the baby books.”

“They’re not baby books!” Alex said, stomping his foot. “They’re chapter books and they’re long and you can’t even read them.”

This was only partly true. Alex still had trouble with some of the more advanced books, but his mother would sit with him in the evening and help him sound out the trickier bits. Still, most of the books in their parents’ room were off limits. Jaime said it was because they talked about sex and drugs and other things Alex wasn’t supposed to know about.

Jaime’s face reddened, but he turned back to his workbook instead of taking the bait. “Whatever.”

Alex took some satisfaction out of his glimpse at Jaime’s homework, which had more answers crossed out than filled in. “You haven’t finished your times table.”

Jaime kept working.

Alex crouched down and snuck a finger under his brother’s nose to point at the paper. “You’re supposed to know these already. Mrs. Baker said she was gonna start teaching us this in the spring.”

“Get your finger out of my book.”

“What’s seven times five?”

“Thirty-five.”

“That one’s easy,” Alex said quickly. “Seven times eight?”

Jaime shoved him away. “Let me study, Alex!”

He stood up and walked in a tight circle around Jaime. “Seven times four?”

“Fuck off,” Jaime snarled.

Alex involuntarily clapped his hands over his mouth. “You can’t say that!” he said, and to his embarrassment his voice came out shrill and childish.

“Fuck. Off,” Jaime repeated.

Tears sprung into Alex’s eyes, and he said in a rush, “just because you’re stupider than me doesn’t mean you get to talk like that!”

Instead of responding, Jaime grabbed a heavy book from the pile next to their bed and hurled it at Alex, clipping him on the shoulder. Alex ran from the room and slammed the door behind him, crying in earnest and clutching the aching spot on his arm. He charged down the stairs, fully prepared to throw the backdoor open and call out for his parents. When he put his hand on the door handle, however, his outrage petered out. The pain in his shoulder suddenly filled him with shame instead of anger, an inexplicable weight in his stomach, and the thought of landing Jaime in trouble for what he’d done made his skin crawl. Instead he wiped away his tears and sniffed hard, taking in a few shuddering breaths the way he’d been taught by Mrs. Baker. Opening the door a crack, he listened in on his parents to make sure he wouldn’t interrupt something important and get yelled at for it.

“Can’t you just take more hours?” James was saying.

“I told you already, they don’t have anymore to give me,” Raquel replied, her voice brittle.

“Then we’re just gonna have to get by, and things’ll pick up around Christmas. They always do.”

There was a long pause.

“I can’t believe you,” Raquel said quietly.

“What?”

“Do not put this all on me. Do not do that.”

Alex stared at the peeling green paint on the door and gripped his shoulder tighter. Maybe it would be better to just run out now and interrupt them, he thought. This wasn’t supposed to happen, they weren’t supposed to have this conversation in the yard. He’d heard it all before, none of it was new. Papá would fret about the money and make a couple weak suggestions, mamá would shoot them down and tell him to get a real job, papá would escalate things and yell at her for not respecting him, for not being patient, for not being grateful. If things were really bad, he would end it all by calling her selfish, and she would tell him to get out of her home. He knew that this was how things went. But they weren’t supposed to argue here, now, during his and their favorite part of the day.

He ran out to them before James could say anything else, throwing himself into his mother’s arms and shaking the little table so that the cups of coffee clattered against their saucers.

He buried his face in his mother’s stomach so that he wouldn’t catch the look she was exchanging with James, the “not in front of Alex” look that she thought he was too young to notice. When he pulled away she took his face by the chin and frowned at him.

“Have you been crying, Alejo?” she said softly. Her dark, curly hair was pulled back into a bun that was beginning to fall apart after a long day working at the resort. Alex shook his head no and blew one of the stray locks back out of his mother’s face. She smiled at that, and pulled him onto her lap.

“And did you finish your homework, Alex?” his father asked. Alex only nodded. “Why so quiet?”

“Don’t question a miracle,” Raquel said.

James laughed, throwing his head back. He was handsome, Alex thought suddenly. Very handsome. Mamá was lucky to have him. They settled into an easy silence. His father sipped his coffee and stared absently at the odd little palm tree that had betrayed them by bending over into the neighbor’s yard. Raquel pet Alex’s hair in a gentle, repetitive motion, a small gesture of affection that he knew he was too old for but nevertheless craved. After a minute, she tapped him on the forehead so he had to crane his head back and look at her. She scrutinized him closely, taking in his pink cheeks, his bright eyes, his spiky, clumped together eyelashes.

“Here.” She handed him her cup of coffee. “Have a sip.”

This wasn’t something Alex had expected. He couldn’t count the number of times he’d pleaded with his parents to give him some coffee, even a little bit mixed in with a cup of milk. Mamá always said he wouldn’t like the taste, papá said he didn’t need the caffeine. From what Alex could tell, caffeine just made people less sleepy, and he didn’t see much harm in that. Now he had a steaming cup of coffee right under his nose. He instinctively glanced at his father to see what he thought of all this, but James just smiled and gave a short wink. And that was enough to wipe out the last of the dark thoughts swimming through his mind. Jaime cursing at him, the bruise on his arm, the well of shame in the pit of his stomach, overhearing a budding fight between his mother and father, right where they were supposed to be happiest…it was all wiped out by a cup of coffee, a smile, and a wink.

“Go on then,” Raquel prompted.

He sipped the coffee, ignoring the bitterness and focusing on the rich sweetness of the brown sugar. It was terrible, unfamiliar and tart, but he managed to gulp it down. He smacked his mouth a few times to try and get the aftertaste out.

“No good?” James asked.

“I like it,” Alex lied. “Can I have another sip?”

“One more, that’s it,” Raquel said.

The second sip was better than the first, though not by much; as it went down, he closed his eyes the way his father sometimes did when he drank coffee, miming satisfaction. But Alex felt positive that he could learn to like the taste—as long as there was plenty of sugar to mask it.

Chapter Text

Their new apartment was smaller. His mother had said that they were moving to Saint Croix because she had gotten a better job, but Alex didn’t see how that made any sense—they seemed to have less of everything now. Less money, less space, less time together. Actually, a lot of things didn’t make sense anymore, which frustrated him immensely. After all, he was eleven, too old to be kept in the dark. And if that weren’t frustrating enough, the lies his mother tried to feed him were always too subtle and subjective to argue with, though he gave it his best shot.

They were never very big lies, either, more like passing comments. “Isn’t this a beautiful apartment?” or “I like the longer drive to work, it gives me time to think,” or “The other kids don’t hate you, they’re just playing around.” They were always delivered with a heaping of false cheer, which only confused Alex more. Jaime usually rolled his eyes and walked away, as though he already knew what the truth was. Maybe he did. Alex hated to admit it, but thirteen sometimes seemed a lot older than eleven.

Still, Jaime was at a disadvantage, because he never had the kind of honest morning talks with their mother that Alex got. When they were drinking café con leche at six in the morning, Raquel never lied to him. This was partly because of the time of day: Alex woke up early every morning to make coffee for his mother before she left for work, and he knew that she didn’t have the energy to come up with any optimistic little fibs. She was quiet, sleepy, and maybe a little grumpy, but she was always honest.

The half hour they had together in the mornings was the best part of Alex’s day—he clung to his mother constantly, and in the afternoons she would usually chastise him, chasing him away from the stove while she cooked dinner or prying him off of her elbow when they walked down the street. “Why don’t you go play with your brother, Alejo?” she would groan when he interrupted her nap for the fifth time. “Why don’t you call one of your friends and go to their house?” He didn’t tell her that Jaime had stopped hanging out with him months ago, or that he didn’t have any phone numbers to call. 

But in the morning, Raquel seemed to want nothing more than to sit across the table from her youngest son and drink coffee. If Alex brewed it just right, she would sigh happily and smile at him. That smile was what Alex thought of when he made the coffee—it was his motivation. Except for that one Thursday, when his motivation was to sweep all the coffee grounds off the floor before his mother saw the mess he’d made.

“You having trouble in there, baby?” Raquel called from the other room.

She must have heard the clatter of the Café Bustelo can when Alex had hastily slammed it upright. He brushed the last of the grounds into a dustpan and turned back to the stove. “Nah, I’m almost done.”

“Your farina is getting cold.”

“Shit,” he muttered under his breath, then raised his voice to say, “Thanks, mamá, I’ll be right there.”

The simple stovetop espresso maker had seen better days. The metal bottom was scorched black, and the hinged lid sat a little crooked. He’d put the coffee in the filter already, patting it lightly and then licking off the grounds that stuck to his fingertips, and he’d filled the bottom half with tap water. The gurgling of the pot was interrupted by a sharp beep from the microwave, and Alex dashed over to pull out a mug halfway filled with steaming milk. Just as he set it down on the counter, the coffee on the stove fell silent. The timing was perfect, but that was only to be expected: he did this every day. He filled another cup halfway with coffee, mixed in a liberal amount of sugar, and poured the whole thing into the mug of hot milk. When he first started making the café con leche for his mother he’d mix the milk, the sugar, and the coffee all at once, but careful experimentation had taught him to keep the milk separate until the very end.

Alex eyed the espresso maker, which still had a cup or two left in it. He knew if he asked Raquel she would pour a tiny dash of espresso into some hot milk for him, but if he just waited for her to leave for work, he could help himself to a full cup straight from the pot. Just one cup, to help him focus in first period and to perk himself up. That’s what he’d heard adults say about coffee, anyway. That it “perked them up.” The phrase always made him think of tiny songbirds on a telephone wire. Alex took it to mean that it made one feel warmer, brighter, and happier, at least for a little while. That’s how it made him feel, anyway.

Sometimes after school he itched to make another pot, but he always managed to resist the urge. Though he had an hour alone before Jaime came home, and another four before his mother did, he had a gut feeling that Raquel had her reasons for not giving him coffee. At the very least, she would be disappointed if she found out, and he definitely didn’t want that. It was strange, too—he never got the urge when he was working on something interesting, like math or literature or history. If he cared about the subject, his focus was so intense that he usually didn’t notice when his mother and brother came home. But on those rare occasions when the homework proved difficult (stuff for science class, usually), it felt as though his eyes were slipping off the page; the tiniest snag held him up for hours as he struggled to pay attention to the words in front of him. Coffee would help, he knew it would, if only his mother would approve.

He left the rest of the espresso on the stove and took Raquel her mug. In exchange, she passed him his bowl of crema de farina. He could tell she was going to have a good day, because she’d mixed in cinnamon, cloves, and anise in addition to the usual milk and brown sugar. When he dug his spoon in, he unearthed a blueberry.

“Pretty good, huh?” Raquel said, raising an eyebrow.

“If you put in more than one blueberry, then yeah!”

She laughed and swatted him from across the table. Half the time Raquel was too wiped out from her last day of work to bother with the farina in the first place. On the mornings when she shuffled into the living room and barely said a word to Alex, he knew to make it himself, along with the café con leche. Today, however Raquel was smiling before she’d even tried her coffee.

“What does your brother eat after I’ve gone to work?” she asked.

Alex shrugged. “Cold cereal, or nothing. He’s lazy.”

“No name calling.”

“What, it’s true! He’s asleep all the time, he wouldn’t even get up if he didn’t have school.”

Raquel sighed and leaned back in her chair. “He’s a teenager, baby. That’s all.”

“He’s only two years older than me,” Alex pouted.

“Yeah, and in two years you’re gonna be the exact same way.” Alex gave her a look, and she sighed again. “Okay, maybe not exactly the same. But he’s nearly fourteen, you know? He’s got a lot to deal with.”

Alex didn’t see how Jaime had more to deal with than him. Jaime didn’t do anything around the house, he didn’t help their mom, or play with Alex, or work a part-time job like some of the other kids his age. He just put on a big show of walking Alex to and from the elementary school, sometimes picking up groceries on the way home.

“Just don’t tease him for sleeping in.”

“Whatever,” Alex grumbled, letting farina drip out of his spoon and back into the bowl.

“And don’t play with your food.”

He obediently took a bite, then gestured with the spoon at Raquel’s cup of coffee. “Do you like it?”

“Your best effort yet, Alejo.” She paused, undid her bun, then drew her hair back and retied it. “Listen, about Jaime…”

“You’re finally putting him up for adoption.”

“Shh, stop it, no. I was talking to him the other day, and we were thinking of sending him to your tío and tía in San Juan, for the summer.”

“What?”

“Maybe a full school year, if he likes it there.”

Alex had a weird, hollow feeling in his stomach. “…Why?”

“Well, they offered to put him up, give him room and board. He can work part-time for your tío and send us some extra money.”

She really was honest in the mornings, Alex thought.

“He can work in Christiansted,” he said.

“What, I thought you two were sick of each other,” she said.

“We’re not, we just—”

“Punch each other when you think I’m not looking, steal each other’s stuff, and argue constantly?” Raquel interrupted.

Alex blushed. “No. I dunno.” He tried changing tact: “If you’ve gotta separate us, why should Jaime get to go? He doesn’t even have any friends there, I’ve got Ned!”

Strictly speaking, Jaime did have friends in Puerto Rico, ones he’d made on their previous three trips to visit their mother’s family. But they were never the same friends twice, and he didn’t keep in touch with them as far as Alex could tell. Ned Stevens was Alex’s constant friend, his best friend. They’d sent emails back and forth since they first learned to type, usually once or twice a week.

“You’re not old enough to work, that’s why,” Raquel said shortly.

“I am too! Lots of kids in my class do.”

“Not old enough to work legally,” she clarified. “Anyway, don’t you want to stay here with me?”

She reached across the table to hold his hand, but he pulled away. Now that she’d posed the question, an honest answer came to the front of his mind forcefully. He shook his head, his mouth clamped shut in a desperate effort to keep the words down. I hate it here, I hate it here, I hate it here. The more he focused on keeping quiet, the harder it became, until it felt as though he had no choice: “I hate it here.” 

“Alejo?”

He resisted looking her in the eyes, but spoke to the table instead. “I don’t wanna stay here, I wanna go back to Nevis.”

“Is that what this is about?” she groaned. “Look, I know new places can be tricky, but you just need to—”

“It’s not a new place!” he burst out.

Raquel’s face was impassive. “What do you mean?”

Now that he’d started, Alex knew he wouldn’t stop—he could never stop, it was all going to come pouring out of him in a horrible wave; he was going to hurt his mother; he was going to hurt them both, and he couldn’t do anything about it.

“You were here before, you lived here. And…and they all hate you!”

“Who hates me?” Her tone was flat and almost disinterested, as though she was quizzing Alex on his schoolwork.

Her question briefly stopped him in his tracks, if only because it was so absurd. Who hated her? Everyone. Christiansted may have been twice the size of Charlestown, but it was still a small town, and the only unfamiliar faces were those of the gawking, picture-snapping tourists. Men, women, and children, they all seemed to have an opinion on his mother. Alex’s classmates didn’t seem to know much, but they made snide comments when they knew he was in earshot. The other mothers shot Raquel dirty looks over the heads of their own children, the rudest ones even nudging their kids and whispering something into their ears. The men were the same as they were on Nevis, looking Raquel over greedily as she passed on the street and occasionally shouting comments that sped her along. The only difference was that this seemed to happen more often on Saint Croix. Alex knew his mother was beautiful, and at first he’d assumed that the other women were only jealous—a ten-year-old’s assumption. He knew better now.

It wasn’t because she was a single mother. Half the kids he knew were being raised the same way, and no one ever teased them for it. There was something else, something deeper and disgraceful. Something about a kid. 

“Alexander,” she said, using his full name for once. “What’ve you heard?”

“Did I have a brother?” he asked without hesitation. “Another brother, I mean.”

Her eyes widened slightly, and he knew he’d hit on the truth. He immediately longed to bury it again, but it was too late for that now.

She didn’t answer immediately, but took a few sips of coffee to brace herself and ran a hand down her face. Finally, she looked him in the eyes, sad and resigned. “Yeah, you do.”

He had thought things couldn’t get worse than they already had, but the tense she’d used stopped him cold. “I do?” 

He had assumed that any vanished older siblings his mother had tried to keep hidden from him were thoroughly in the past—dead and gone. He didn’t really know why a dead child was something scandalous, but it was the only thing that made sense.

“He’s about twenty now. Living in Florida, I think.”

“I don’t understand,” Alex said blankly.

She undid her bun again and put it up for the third time before answering. When she did answer, she spoke slowly and carefully. “There was a man before your father, I’ve told you that before.”

“The bad boyfriend,” he recalled. She’d mentioned him a few times before, usually to contrast him with James, whose many shortcomings paled in comparison.

Now she sighed and shook her head. “Not a boyfriend. We were married. When I—”

“What do you mean married?!” Alex blurted out. She hadn’t even bothered to marry his own father, the man who was supposed to be so much better than the bad boyfriend.

“Alex, please! Just listen. We were only together for a little while, but when I tried to take Peter with me to Nevis—”

“His name is Peter?” he interrupted, then shut up again when Raquel shot him an exasperated look.

“When I tried to take him to Nevis, his father pushed back. He made things…very difficult for me. In the end, he only let me leave on the condition that Peter stay with him. So I…I lost custody.”

The last few words came out crooked, and Alex looked away so she could wipe the tears from her eyes. It still didn’t make any sense. There were laws to stop that sort of thing, he knew there were. And weren’t mothers supposed to stay with their kids, no matter what? Why hadn’t she at least kept in touch with this other son? He was about to ask as much when she preempted his question:

“I think his father kept all my letters and emails from him. Calling was hopeless. But…I’ve been thinking about tracking him down, reaching out. I thought you and Jaime might want to meet him, too.”

She looked at him hopefully, but Alex avoided her eyes, his fists clenched under the table. This wasn’t the story he’d heard whispers of on the street and in school—apparently his mother hadn’t run off with another man, she hadn’t happily abandoned her baby to start a new life with James. He wanted to feel relieved, but instead he felt furious.

“You should’ve told me,” he muttered.

“I’m telling you now. You gotta understand, baby, I tried to put all that behind me,” she pleaded. “There wasn’t anything else I could do.”

“You could’ve tried harder,” he said in a hard, unfamiliar voice. “You could’ve fought for him!”

“Alex…”

“Just cause things got tough, you left your kid! You left!” he shouted. He couldn’t control himself any longer, practically shaking in his seat. His throat felt scratchy and raw, his eyes burned.

Raquel froze. “This isn’t the same thing,” she said quietly, almost timidly.

“The same thing as what?

“This isn’t the same as what happened with James,” she weakly insisted.

Tears were streaming down his face now. “Stop lying!”

She put her head in her hands and said nothing.

“You’re exactly the same!” Alex shouted, and stormed out of the room. There was nowhere to go but the little balcony, a poor substitute for the lush backyard he could retreat to on Nevis. It was barely large enough for a flower box, but Alex was small for his age, and he sat with his knees to his chin.

He could hardly think straight, his blood pounding in his ears. Through the haze he heard his mother sniff a few times, the scrape of the chair on the tile floor, then the clatter of dishes in the sink. He listened for her footsteps and braced for her to come out to the balcony, a heady mixture of dread and hope disorienting him even more. But the footsteps only grew fainter, and eventually he heard the front door open and shut.

After a few minutes his mind cleared a bit, leaving him numb and drained, like he’d just recovered from a fever. He went back inside to see that his mother had only cleared away his bowl of farina; her café con leche was still on the table, the mug almost full. Alex glanced at his bedroom door and marveled at how Jaime had managed to sleep through the fight. The fight which had started with a conversation about Jaime leaving Saint Croix, he remembered suddenly.

He sat in his mother’s seat and stared at the mug. Guilt was starting to settle on his shoulders like a familiar, itchy blanket, but he wasn’t quite sure why. He still thought that he was right, and that his mother was just making excuses for herself. How was it any different, really? For a brief, painful moment he imagined his own father settling down with a new woman and new kids. The thought brought tears to his eyes again, and he shoved it back down as quickly as he could.

Alex picked up his mother’s mug. It was still warm, but the thought of tasting something that sweet right now unnerved him—at the back of his mind he thought he might not taste anything at all. Instead, he took it to the kitchen and poured it into the sink. He would stick to espresso.

Chapter Text

The police station was so brightly lit, and they’d been sitting in the same tiny room for so long, that Alex could hardly tell the time of day. Or night. It must be past midnight by now, he realized. Jaime leaned back in his cheap plastic chair and stared at the ceiling, letting his cup of coffee go cold. They’d given Alex water instead, and though he’d picked the edges of the styrofoam cup to pieces, he hadn’t taken a sip. 

The officer across the table cleaned his glasses repetitively and tapped his foot on the floor. For once, Alex didn’t bother to ask questions. What questions did he have? It didn’t matter. No one said a word. Another minute or two passed, then the officer’s radio buzzed with unintelligible static.

“Yeah?” he said, as though he could understand it. The radio sputtered back at him. “Okay, thanks.”

“How much longer we gotta stay here?” Jaime asked, sitting up suddenly. The legs of his chair struck the floor sharply, and Alex suppressed a small shiver.

“We’ve contacted your cousins, but they’re not on the island right now. And we’ve still got some details we need to work out before you can go with them.”

“They said they’d take us?”

The officer turned to Alex with his eyebrows raised, as though he was surprised to hear the skinny little thirteen-year-old say anything. “Uh, not yet. Not exactly. For now, you’re going with CPS. Excuse me, with Child Pro—”

“We know what it means,” Jaime cut in. “I’m not going.”

“You don’t have much of a choice, Jaime.” The officer said his name as though he hadn’t just read it off the paperwork in front of him. “You’re a minor.”

“I’ve got friends I can stay with. Or at my boss’s shop, he’s got a bed for me there.”

“And what about your brother? Those friends gonna take him in too?” the officer asked, quickly losing his sympathetic tone.

“Don’t bullshit me, okay? CPS isn’t gonna keep us together,” Jaime spit, and Alex thought he heard a tinge of regret there. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking.

“CPS is only going to have custody very briefly, your relatives are coming to get you guys.”

Jaime crossed his arms. “No, they aren’t.” 

Before the officer could respond, his radio buzzed again. This time Alex made out a little of it, a familiar name—Ledja Valesco.

“You two sit tight for a minute,” he said, and left the room. Alex heard the click of a lock after he’d gone.

“Fucking Ledja,” Jaime grunted, though Alex didn’t know what grudge he had against their cousin’s ex-girlfriend.

Jaime was rarely home anymore (or what was home; they’d have to move again), even at night. When he could, he slept over at his girlfriend’s place or in the apartment above Tomás Macías’s garage. Alex still waited outside the high school at the end of the day, just in case Jaime had gone to class. More often than not, he’d opted for work at the garage instead, and Alex would’ve wasted a half hour. Sometimes though, Jaime would stroll out with his nearly empty backpack, roll his eyes at the sight of Alex sitting on the steps, then walk his little brother home. On those days, he could sometimes be convinced to spend the night at Cousin Pete’s place.

But days like that had come less and less often in the last month or so. Ever since Ledja had left him, Pete had stopped cooking and cleaning. Eventually he stopped talking, too. Alex couldn’t really blame Jaime for staying away—if he could do the same, he probably would. As it was, he studied at the library until it closed, then dragged his feet all the way home. Pete would sit on the couch and stare at the wall while Alex made dinner, speaking up only when asked direct questions. Some days, he’d lock himself in his bedroom and wouldn’t take dinner. There was a familiar feeling in the air, the same feeling that had haunted his mother’s apartment in the days between her death and the funeral. The house had died, Alex realized at one point: it had died, and he was stuck in a decaying corpse.

Jaime hadn’t been there to walk him home on this particular day, so Alex had followed his usual routine and studied at the library until it closed. The lights had been on in the house when he'd gotten there, which he took to be a good sign—Pete hadn’t just gone to bed in the early evening and left him to fend for himself. Maybe there would even be dinner waiting for him. It had been weeks since he’d had a meal cooked for him.

Against his better judgment, Alex had started to imagine a real, hot dinner on the table. Jaime would be there, having a conversation with Pete, probably about cars or baseball or something else Alex didn’t care about. Ledja would've come back, and brought their son with her. Pete missed Don Alvarez, it was obvious, even if he never said it. Alex knew it was a ridiculous fantasy, and managed to dispel it before he'd reached the front door. Still, maybe it wasn't too much to hope for a hot meal. Just a hot meal. Then he'd walked in, and…

The sudden sound of a woman wailing snapped Alex back to the present, and he jumped up from the table.

“Jesus, Alex, calm down,” Jaime said.

“Sorry.”

A little boy started to shout in a shrill voice, and Jaime couldn’t feign disinterest anymore. He stood up as well and walked over to the little window set in the door. After a second, he waved Alex over. They peered through to see Ledja Valesco standing in the middle of the hallway, dressed haphazardly in sweatpants and a button-down. For some reason, she’d brought Don Alvarez as well. Alex and Jaime had shared a room with the kid for a few months before Ledja had left, and they instantly recognized his piercing voice. A police woman was crouching in front of Don and nodding in a soothing way, taking in the kid’s babbling with a patronizing sort of solemnity. Ledja was crying hysterically, one hand pressed to her face and the other holding onto Don’s. Or, that wasn’t quite right. Don was clinging to her hand tightly, but her fingers were limp. She didn’t seem to notice he was still there.

“Huh,” Alex said in a wooden voice. “I guess she loved him after all.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed the strange look his brother shot him.

A minute later, their officer came back into the room and started spouting some jargon that Alex decided to tune out. The officer spoke to them as though they were adults, which Alex normally found refreshing. For some reason now it just left him numb. He stared at Jaime’s cup of untouched coffee and imagined it falling over and spilling, drenching the officer’s papers and uniform. He'd just reach out with his mind, like Matilda, and tip, tip, tip it over.

“Alex,” the officer said, probably not for the first time. “Alex, I need to get your statement.”

“What?”

“Before you boys can be released I’m gonna need to take your statement on what happened. Okay?”

He shrugged.

“Would you prefer if your brother left the room?”

He shook his head no, though Jaime had made to stand up.

“You want him to stay?”

“Uh-huh,” he said in an embarassingly small voice.

The officer clicked his pen. Alex cleared his throat.

“I got back around seven, and the lights were on, so I—”

Around seven? Can you be more specific?”

“Well, the library closes at seven and it’s a ten minute walk, so I guess it was 7:10. Anyway, the lights were on, and I let myself in and, y’know, said ‘I’m home’ or whatever. And I didn’t hear anything back but that’s pretty normal, so I put the water on to boil and knocked on Pete’s door to let him know I was making dinner. And he didn’t say anything so I tried again, but he wasn’t saying anything so I figured he was asleep or maybe he’d gone out. So, y’know, I opened the door.”

He swallowed hard, and opened his mouth to say more. Nothing came. He tried again, pressing his hands to his chest as though that would help squeeze the words out. There was just a dry burning in his throat, and images, images flashing through his head.

The way Pete was sitting on the bed, the way he slumped against the wall, the way his chin touched his chest, the way the soles of his bare feet were very pale, very clean, the way his hands were folded over the gun on his lap, the stain on the wall. The stain…the stain…the words didn’t come. He felt himself begin to shake but couldn’t do anything to stop it, he waved his hands frantically for a second before giving up and clutching at his chest. Jaime had his hands on Alex’s shoulders, he was saying his name again and again.

It was just like when he was a little kid on Nevis; he’d play in the waves until one overtook him and filled his eyes and ears and mouth and nose with saltwater. The force of the wave would spin him round and round, holding him under, burning his brain and turning his vision white. And he would feel as though he'd never be able to surface.

Finally, he heard Jaime say something other than his name, though he wasn’t sure what it was. What he latched onto was the sound of his brother’s voice—he was speaking in a soothing voice, it's cadence achingly familiar. He must’ve learned it from mamá.

Something hot and curved and malleable was pressed into Alex’s hand and he started to hear properly again. Jaime was telling him to breath, just breath, Alejo. For once, the sound of his mother’s old nickname for him didn’t make him want to scream and break things. It was natural. It was good. He looked down at his hands and saw that Jaime had given him a fresh cup of black coffee. He gulped it down quickly, felt his tongue burn but didn’t care, reveled in the bitterness and the heat and the familiarity. He set the cup down and nodded slowly, said nothing but prayed his brother could feel his gratitude.

Jaime looked up at the puzzled officer and smiled weakly. “He likes coffee,” he explained.