And a Single Day by Randy William Santiago
During a discussion with Lorrie Moore on the radio show To the Best of Our Knowledge, Executive Producer Steve Paulson asks, “What do you think makes a really good short story?” This is precisely the kind of question countless writers perennially ponder, and the master storyteller’s answer is at once accessible and illuminating: “The primary thing is of course that you give the reader an experience of something,” Moore says. “And it probably should be a psychological experience, an experience that has both intelligence and emotion in it.”
At CRAFT, we love to talk about stories in terms of narrative arc, major dramatic question, premise, character development, et cetera—in short, the elements of literary craft. But all those concepts are really just ways to talk about the experience a writer is offering us, just vocabulary that helps us consider the specifics of what makes that experience compelling or dissatisfying, resonant or confusing, riveting or flat.
In “And a Single Day,” Randy William Santiago offers readers a full-fledged psychological experience, and while we could consider that experience through terminology like pacing and diction, all we really need is what many of us first learned about stories: they have characters, settings, and plots. Here, Santiago immediately puts that trifecta into dynamic play: a mother with two kids, in a Chicago park after being evicted, in need of a place to stay. As readers, we enter a microcosm already in motion with the main character desperately phoning everyone possible for help while night descends, and that motion continues, soon bringing us to another character, a different setting, and further plot developments, all of which work synergistically to deepen the experience of immersing us in twenty-four hours of this family’s plight. As characters transform settings and plot developments transform characters, the story thrums with intelligence and emotion—particularly the emotional honesty of being “scarred by poverty, violence, and eviction,” as Randy shares in his author’s note.
Ultimately, Randy William Santiago uses this honesty to engage with matters of personal and societal significance that are challenging to openly discuss. Casting them in the form of fiction, he brings us all into a vital conversation. —CRAFT
We shall leave, for remembrance, one rusty iron heart. The city’s rusty heart, that holds both the hustler and the square. Takes them both and holds them there. For keeps and a single day.
—Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make
My kids strung the darkness together like fireflies the night we got evicted. Running circles around the dead streetlights until their bodies became blurry. Until I couldn’t tell them apart from the boys playing soccer in the park, all of them thin and dirty and just too dark.
Look, Ma, Rubén yelled as Alex chased after him. He can’t catch me, he yelled.
The two of them ran without a care in the world. Like we didn’t just get the boot from that dusty-ass building across the street—the Harding Building—where junkies and hookers and drug dealers manage to make it by alright, somehow surviving the jacked rents and police patrols. You can’t wipe your ass around here without a cop harassing you about it.
Chicago is a mess, but Rubén and Alex smiled at her anyway. They ran around like the comfort of tomorrow was guaranteed. I couldn’t see past that night, or any night for that matter—so where was I supposed to take our lives from there?
I tried to figure that out by the payphone. Called and paged everyone and their mother for a room, a couch, a fucking floor for Christ’s sake. I couldn’t stomach the idea of telling Rubén and Alex that we’d be sleeping on a park bench for the night. It was hard enough having to lie about our day, telling them that our new apartment wasn’t ready yet, so we’d play in the park until it was time to move in.
I couldn’t stomach the idea of them questioning me:
Why aren’t we going back home?
When is the new apartment gonna be ready?
Where’d Héctor (my low-life ex) go?
Is he coming with us?
I put coin after coin into that payphone but nobody would take us in. Not sure what I expected at a quarter to eleven. My face began to shake. I wanted to scream, to stretch my voice every which way until my problems disappeared, and my life too.
But instead, I cried. Slid coins through that metal slot, and cried some more when no one answered my calls. Cried because I couldn’t take care of my kids, cried because I was stupid enough to have them in the first place, cried because I knew they’d be better off with another woman, someone who could provide for them. I damn near drowned the phone with my tears when Shoelace finally picked up.
Oye, Lucy, you gotta breathe, he said when I started to talk. I can’t understand you.
I tried to breathe. M-m-me and the k-kids need a place—
Respira, Shoelace repeated again and again, until I paused, and breathed.
I looked around the park: the guys were still playing soccer and the kids were still running circles around the dead streetlights and a white couple was walking their dog. I didn’t see the couple when we first got to the park but then they suddenly appeared and something about the way they walked, how relaxed they seemed, told me they weren’t leaving any time soon. It was hard to breathe after seeing them, the air felt thick again and I couldn’t swallow it. It cut right through me.
You there? Shoelace asked and I said, Yeah, remembering that I was still there.
We got evicted today, I said. Don’t have nowhere to go.
What the fuck, Shoelace said. How’d that happen?
They raised the rents again, I said. These fucking lowlives only care about their pockets.
I started sobbing again and Shoelace said, You and the kids pull through. We’ll talk about it later.
Somehow his voice calmed me the same way now that it did six years ago, when the kids’ father left me. Rubén was only four then, Alex two. Haven’t seen their father since—that piece of shit.
C-can you pick us up? I asked, before clearing my throat. We’re in Kosciuszko Park.
I got you, Shoelace said. Just chill there. I’ll be right over.
My face was melting but then a breeze came and brushed my tears away, caressed my cheeks. It didn’t last long, but it made me forget about the humidity, trapped in the concrete by that July sun.
The breeze left and the white couple came. They crept closer to me, staring me down like they were the law or some shit. I took a deep breath, wiped my nose with my arm.
Thank you, Shoe, I cried. I owe you.
Alex ran toward me as I hung up the phone. He asked if everything was okay. His right hand reached behind his back, bending like a twig. His head hung toward the ground, his neck too weak to carry it. Poor kid was so thin, hadn’t eaten all day.
I’m fine, I told him. We’re gonna leave soon.
But you were crying, he said, pointing at the streaks on my cheeks. I wiped them away with my arm.
Rubén began walking toward me but I told him to keep playing. Alex too. Go ahead and run around some more, I said.
I’m tired, Rubén whined. Is the apartment ready yet?
Not yet, I said. Just keep playing for a little longer. We’re leaving soon.
I don’t think I can run anymore.
Rubén would you please—
I’m tired though, he cut me off.
Go fucking play somewhere before you piss me off! We’re leaving in a couple minutes, I said.
Alex and Rubén hung their heads so low their hair damn near blended into the grass of the soccer field. The soccer match was ending but someone called a penalty on the winning goal. The guys started arguing in Spanish, which the kids don’t know, so Rubén and Alex didn’t pay it no mind. I noticed the white couple walking faster now, necks bent toward the soccer field. The woman pulled a cell phone from her jeans. I was about to call the boys over when Shoelace paged me. Immediately after, the air exploded.
Kla! Kla! Kla!
For a moment, I thought the bullets hit me or one of the boys, and I jumped. I ran. My body was warm, like it was literally melting now. My heart screamed. My chest too. Where was Rubén? Alex?
By the time I pulled myself back, all the sweaty guys—Mexican, Puerto Rican, Guatemalan—had scattered like roaches when the light drop, running like the grass was on fire. The white couple was gone too. Only one person never moved, like a tree, rooted to the neighborhood. A kid who used to compliment me at the liquor store. Couldn’t have been more than eighteen years old.
Damn, ma, them curls got my head spinnin, he’d say and I’d slap it away, chuckling.
Now he’s gone. His thick dark hair was scattered across the turf, tangled with chunks of his heart. Rubén ran toward me with bug eyes.
Rubén, where’s Alex?
We were just playing and then we heard the shots and ran here as fast as we could but everyone was running and we didn’t wanna get taken or stomped so we hung back and then came over here as fast as we could, Rubén said.
Rubén, where the fuck is Alex?
Rubén’s eyes got bigger and so did mine. We scoped the park from behind the payphone booth. Police sirens stole the soundspace of cicadas and traffic. The smell of sweat and piss strangled the air. The tears inside me grew. I thought my heart might explode when Rubén shouted: He’s right there!
Alex was hiding under a bench, staring at the boy in the field. Looked like a turtle in its shell, his back was tight, his body a clump. We ran toward him but he didn’t budge and he wouldn’t look at me.
Alex, we have to go.
He didn’t respond, kept staring at that boy in the field, all his homies gone, his heart scattered like a busted windshield. A life for a point.
Alex, let’s go. Now!
Alex got up and walked ahead of me, toward the park entrance. Kept looking over his shoulder and into cars, watched the traffic suffocate Diversey. Jumped whenever a car revved too loud or screeched.
Don’t walk ahead of me, I said to him, reaching for his arm, but he ran off.
Don’t run in that street! I screamed.
The smell of burnt rubber singed my nostrils, those whiny tires scared me shitless. Something about looking at that cop through his windshield made Alex go stiff, almost like he’d seen a ghost. A big white man with fiery cheeks jumped out the car. Without saying anything, he walked toward Alex and snatched him by the wrist.
This your boy? he asked.
Wanna tell me why he’s running in the middle of the street after a shooting? the cop said. Alex’s body folded beneath his wrist.
He’s eight, I tried to say without giving away my fear. My right fist tightened; my knees loosened.
It’s the west side, the cop replied, seems like they get younger by the day.
His partner stood near the car, trying to avoid eye contact with me. Alex looked like he wanted to go back into his shell, and I felt bad that he couldn’t get there because I wanted to go too. Rubén’s cold hands were pinching my thighs.
He’s only eight, I said, doesn’t know what a gun looks like.
So he didn’t see anything? the cop asked. Neither of them?
I saw everything, I said. They were facing the street when it happened.
How about you all wait in there while I figure this out with your mother? he said and pointed the kids to the car, his partner slowly opening the door, looking at me for approval. I never gave it, because I knew it wouldn’t make a difference what I wanted, and I wasn’t about to surrender my kids to them willingly.
Cops were scattered across Kosciuszko, tracing the boy’s body with white chalk. The air was sticky, attaching itself to everything. Grass, asphalt, mind, skin all clumped together, nothing alone anymore, which might explain how that cop’s hand found its way to my ass.
He tried to play like he was guiding me somewhere, but men only ever want one thing, don’t give a fuck about your safety, even less about your kids. When you got kids to protect, you play along. So I did.
I talked him up how I do every man that needs to be in control—twirled my curls between two fingers, told him how fine he was, gave him the number to my pager. He didn’t need to know that I was homeless, that I was just evicted from the Harding Building, that Shoelace would be there any minute to get me and the kids. All he needed to know was that he had control, and that I wouldn’t take it from him. Not that I ever could.
Shoelace lived in Wicker Park, with all the yuppies. Back in the day, they wouldn’t’ve stepped foot in Wicker, but now they all live in tall boxy buildings with big-ass windows. Now they eye you like you’re the intruder.
We passed by some yuppies’ houses on the way to Shoelace’s apartment. Most of their curtains were open, so I saw everything they did: the crime shows they watched, the meats and cheeses and fish they ate, the wine they drank. None of it seemed real, almost like sitting in a theater and watching someone’s life play out on the screen.
Since the yuppies arrived, cops patrol Wicker Park like it’s the Magnificent Mile, stopping anybody who ain’t white and harassing them so much they never wanna return. They claim they’re enforcing curfew laws when they slam Black and Brown boys against fences, but really they’re hoping something sticks (and they always find something, especially the shit that ain’t there. Twelve is good at that.).
Shoelace said that didn’t happen but he’s basically a whiteboy—light skin, green eyes—so he wouldn’t know. Yuppies don’t see the Puerto Rican in him. But I remember all the years at the Puerto Rican Festival in Humboldt Park: Shoelace singing Spanish lyrics ’til his voice disappeared, dancing salsa ’til his knees buckled.
My knees buckled when I saw the building he lived in. Made of wood and metal and glass, going this way and that, like the builders weren’t sure where to put them but knew they could fit in anywhere.
Rubén walked onto the sidewalk and stared at it, but Alex looked from the curb. Wouldn’t move forward until I told him it was okay. I held his hand all the way up to the apartment. Shoelace lived on the third floor.
Wasn’t much in the apartment—furniture, some dishes, pots and pans—but there was so much space and also a balcony. Some plants hanging from the railing. The balcony door was open, letting in a nice breeze and also the noise of the neighborhood. Laughs and shouts and car horns and the rattle from the train tracks nearby. The Damen Blue Line.
Is this our new apartment? Rubén asked, but then Shoelace walked into the living room with a box of donut holes from Dunkin’ Donuts. They screamed at me and the kids after an entire day without anything but a Frosted Honey Bun for breakfast.
It ain’t much, Shoelace said, but it’ll hold y’all off ’til the morning.
Rubén immediately stuffed his face. Alex sat on the couch, staring at his shoes.
Ain’t you gonna eat any? I asked him.
He struggled to lift his eyes. I never understood what people meant about eyes being heavy, until I looked at Alex’s. I’m not sure they were heavy themselves, to be honest with you, but they made me feel like an anchor was tied to my leg.
Go eat some, I said, but Alex stayed put. I called his name.
I don’t want any, he said without looking up from his shoes.
You have to eat something, Alex.
He didn’t respond this time, neck bent over his shoes like the end of a streetlight. I wanted to yank him from the couch, especially after what he pulled with the cops, but Shoelace touched my shoulder.
Déjalo, he said, he’ll probably eat when we’re all gone or asleep.
I walked over to the counter where Rubén was and watched white powder from the donut holes clump onto his chin and lips. You’d swear he had the best day of his life, the way his crooked teeth showed.
Where can we sleep? I asked.
The couches have pull out mattresses, Shoelace said. The boys can each have one.
And what about me?
Figured you could chill in the room, with me.
I don’t wanna take your space, I said, and he smirked and then told me to take the room.
You’re not taking my space, he said. Like I said before, I got you.
Shoelace helped the boys pull out the mattress before walking me to the bedroom. Touched my hand before cutting the lights. He always wanted me, made light plays back in the day but was always respectful. Never crossed the boys’ father.
I never imagined me and Shoelace fucking before, with him knowing their father and all. Didn’t matter how many times Shoelace made a move. Maybe it wouldn’t’ve been so bad though, to fuck and forget that night and maybe that day too, to disappear for a few minutes. To breathe.
I woke up to the smell of Spam and the sound of crackling oil. Shoelace was standing by the stove, but his hands seemed to be everywhere, reaching for spatulas and pans and plates. Cracking eggs and frying them until the edges became crispy. Sunlight filled the apartment. The sun was warm and so was the dust when it crawled up my nose.
Rubén’s in the bathroom, Shoelace whispered.
He lifted an egg from the pan, flipped it for a couple seconds, then slid it onto a bed of Spam. Held it toward me, so I sat at the counter. The Dunkin’ Donuts box was still there, just about empty. The donuts were arranged and stacked to make the box seem fuller. Shoelace pointed at Alex with his lips when I looked up from the box. He smirked, his thin lips a bit fuller now with the sun on them.
Told you he’d get him some, Shoelace said.
I looked at Alex on the couch. He was hiding under a thin blanket. A mold of his face turned toward us but I pretended not to notice and bit into my toast. Egg yolk dripped from my lips. My stomach grumbled after I swallowed, forgetting what it was like to have actual food inside.
You gonna have any? I asked Shoelace.
I been eating, he said. Made my sandwich first, so that I wouldn’t be hungry once y’all’s were done.
You’re funny, I said and he smiled.
Good morning, lil’ man, Shoelace said, that’s some wild hair you got.
Rubén smiled, pretending to put his curls together.
You hungry? Shoelace asked him.
Mhm…what you making?
Spam and eggs.
I love Spam, Rubén said before opening the Dunkin’ Donuts box.
No more donuts, I said, you need real food. Here, have some of mine.
Rubén took a bite, which apparently made Alex feel confident enough to leave the couch. Was wondering if you’d ever get up, I said to Alex. He sat at the end of the counter between me and Shoelace.
You like Spam, big man? Shoelace asked. Alex smirked. I think you need you some, tan flaquito que eres, Shoelace said, tapping Alex’s bicep.
Watching Alex smile at Shoelace made me want to smile, but the longer it lasted the less I enjoyed it. Them all wrestling in the living room didn’t help. Don’t get me wrong, it was nice to see them smiling and all, but something about Shoelace’s hands on their bodies reminded me of the cop, how he twisted Alex beneath him, how he broke him.
Ya, I said. Leave them alone so they can eat.
Think we found the new Shoelace, Shoelace said with a hand on Alex´s shoulder. Tan flaquito, he said.
That boy can’t hold onto weight, I said. Even after eating all them donuts.
Alex pushed himself away from Rubén and Shoelace and went back to the stool.
What’s wrong now? I asked him.
I didn’t have any donuts, he mumbled.
I saw the box, Alex. Ain’t nothing to get upset about.
Couldn’t touch them donuts, Shoelace said, but he won’t be able to let go of this breakfast. Right, Lil’ Shoe?
I didn’t like Shoelace interfering with me and Alex. I didn’t like how friendly he seemed either, smirking and playing with the boys like he was their father. He convinced Rubén and Alex to wrestle with him again, six arms and legs slapping the air like helicopter propellers or fireworks just before they explode.
Enough with the games, I said to Shoelace, you’ll make them sick.
Aw, they’ll be fine, Shoelace wheezed.
I said enough, Shoe. Lord knows how many donuts they ate last night. Especially este, I said pointing to Alex, eating half the damn box at the crack of dawn.
Alex hurried back to the couch and used the blanket as a shell.
It’s okay if you had some, I whispered. I’m not upset.
I didn’t have any, he snapped.
You’re gonna calm down with that shit attitude, I said. Get up and fix the couch. And fix that face too.
You gotta chill, ma, Shoelace said when I returned to the counter. Shorty had a rough night. All y’all did.
Why you telling me then?
We had the rough night, not you, I said. Why you telling me like I don’t know? Like I wasn’t there or some shit.
I’m just tryna help, he said.
Spam was burning in the pan behind him. A thin gray smoke blocked sunlight from entering the apartment. The louder I raised my voice, the stiffer Rubén became, as if he was finally waking up, remembering the night we had. It felt like everyone was sleeping and it was my job to wake them, but no matter what I did, how high my voice got, nothing changed.
You can help without clowning me, I said, sliding a shoe on.
Where you going? Rubén asked.
We’re leaving, so put your shoes on.
Come on, you don’t have to go, Shoelace said. At least let them eat first.
You gotta learn how to cook before you offer someone food, I said.
I get you’re upset, Shoelace whispered, pulling me by my elbow, but you don’t gotta be a bitch about it. It’s no wonder nobody’ll take you in.
Shoelace released my elbow when the fire alarm went off. Then he sprinted to the kitchen to pour water on the burnt Spam. Rubén and Alex were trembling when I snatched them and shoved them out the door.
I’m through with your stupid ass, I yelled at Shoelace.
I’m only trying to help you, and this is how you do me?
I barely heard him over the alarm, barely saw him through the smoke, thinning his lips and body and apartment into shadows.
Ma, what happened? Rubén asked from the haze.
Where are we gonna go?
Can we eat something?
Is Shoelace gonna be okay?
Ya! Enough with the questions. I don’t wanna hear you anymore. Enough with the goddamn questions.
My chest began to throb and my head too. I wanted to be alone, just for a few minutes. I wanted space to breathe.
We walked past Wicker Park and into Bucktown in silence. I wasn’t sure where we were going but I never stopped walking. A few times, Rubén and Alex trailed behind to look at the houses in construction and I shouted Hurry up! until they ran, their shoes kicking dirt onto the advertisements.
It took us about an hour to get to Logan Square. Walking down Milwaukee, we passed all those yellow and gray stone buildings and stopped at the Logan Theatre. Shrek was being advertised. Rubén asked to see it.
I’ll see about coming back this weekend, I said even though I couldn’t afford the $4 tickets for the three of us.
Shoelace paged me later that morning: My bad 4 earlier. Come back?
I was in McDonald’s, watching the kids eat my last few dollars away. Wondering where their next meal would come from. I could figure something out for myself, I could starve if need be, but I had them to worry about. As much as I didn’t want to depend on him, Shoelace was willing to feed us all. So I told the kids we would walk back.
Shoelace was still at work when we got back to his apartment. He fixes cars and random appliances around the city, odd jobs mostly. Been at it since high school, guiding our neighbors’ cars into his uncle’s garage for a tune-up, checkup, face-lift. Blew most of his money on beer and weed but, occasionally, he’d save enough to drive up to Wisconsin Dells in his uncle’s van.
It was always us and the kids’ father and Shoelace’s girlfriend of the month. We’d squat in the back of the van, the four of us, eating ham and cheese sandwiches on french rolls after smoking thick blunts.
There wasn’t any ham and cheese in Shoelace’s apartment. Wasn’t much but some peanut butter, concord grape jelly, and unfortunately, Wonder Bread. Milk too, but no cereal. I spread half the jar of peanut butter between three sandwiches. Dabs of jelly to top them off. Poured tall glasses of milk, and I was free for at least forty-five minutes.
There wasn’t a phone in the apartment, so I took the time to lay on Shoelace’s bed and drift asleep.
Shoelace got back from work around 6:30 with two boxes of Little Caesars and a bootleg of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on VHS. Had a bag filled with candies—Nerds, Butterfingers, Mike and Ikes, Sno-Caps.
I’m glad you came back, he said, trying his best not to smirk.
The kids wouldn’t stop staring at the pizza box, so Shoelace placed it on the coffee table and said, Go ’head and get some.
He handed me a separate black bag. Junior Mints and Crazy Bread from Little Caesars. My favorites. As frustrating as he could be, Shoelace knew how to chill and how to get you there with him. The kids were good, I was good, and he was good. It was like the days in the Dells, everyone was content.
Me and the boys watched the movie from one couch and Shoelace from the other. Alex sat on the floor near my leg so I would rub the back of his ear.
Harry Potter wasn’t my kinda movie but the kids loved it. Alex couldn’t stop himself from leaning forward, so I moved my hand in order to give him space, but then he leaned his head back toward me and my finger molded to the shape of his ear.
I passed Alex and Rubén each a piece of Crazy Bread before taking the empty boxes to the kitchen.
Here, Shoelace said, lemme help.
There wasn’t any light on in the kitchen and I couldn’t find the light switch. Shoelace took the boxes, then poured me a glass of spiced rum. It’s all I got, he whispered and we shot it together. My face shivered.
I’m so fucking tired, I said. I’m tired of not having my shit together.
I feel that.
Getting a place, getting comfortable, getting the kids settled, then what, some yuppie buys the building and jacks the rent?
That’s fucked up, Shoelace said.
How’s that my fault?
It’s bullshit, I said, still feeling the rum opening my chest and stomach. I’m sick of it.
Shoelace leaned forward, damn near pinning me against the counter. You can’t keep doing this alone, he said.
Remember, a man got me in this mess.
Yeah, but he helped you maintain that roof.
Then he fucked up my rent agreement with the new owner, I said.
Oh, I didn’t tell you?
I used the story as an excuse to create space—waved my arms dramatically and pivoted toward the entrance to the living room. I watched Shoelace’s hands the entire time, how his fingers twitched the further away I got.
Before he moved all his shit out, I said, he began breaking things in the apartment. Plates and vases and picture frames. Then he tried to run out to make it look like I was the one creating a scene. Like an idiot, I chased him so everyone and their mother saw it happen.
Fuck, Shoelace said, then poured himself another shot and reached over to pour me one.
I’m good, I said. Next morning the new owner told me the rent hadn’t been paid in months, that we owed $1300. I’ve never had $1300 in my life, which I told him. Héctor said he paid it, I told him. Eviction notice came after that. We stayed as long as we could.
Them blanquitos only care about their pockets, Shoelace said.
Ain’t you living with them now?
I’m just getting mine, ma. It don’t have nothing to do with no blanquitos.
Yeah, but you’re only able to ’cause you are a blanquito.
What’s that supposed to mean?
It means you’re white, or they think you are anyway.
And what are you? Shoelace said. Don’t knock me for taking advantage. Ain’t nothing wrong with hustling to get yours. If that means playing these blanquitos, then hey, I’ll play the fucking tune ’til their ears bleed. I ain’t boutta let that hold me back. Humboldt Park and Logan Square don’t give a shit about us, don’t forget it.
Let’s go back to the living room, I said. I don’t want the kids worrying.
Shoelace sighed. He grabbed my hand as I turned around. I’m serious about y’all moving in, he said.
We can’t move here. You know it ain’t like that, I sighed. I tried to exit the kitchen but Shoelace tightened his grip on my hand. Let me through, I said.
Y’all could stay here, he said, his breath hot with rum.
Let me go.
Just think about it, ma, he said.
I pushed myself past him. Caught Alex peeking around the arm of the couch, then quickly turning back toward the TV.
What took so long? Rubén asked, but I pretended not to hear.
There were only about twenty minutes left of the movie, most of which Shoelace sat out until it became obvious the movie was about to end. Y’all like the movie? Shoelace asked from behind me.
Alex leaned his head back when Shoelace spoke and I told him to move. It’s time for bed, I said. Rubén and Alex pulled the cushions off the sofa, then pulled out the mattress. I pulled out the other one.
Come sleep in the room, Shoelace said.
I’m good with the couch, I said.
We can share my room.
Hurry up and lay down, I told the kids, then went to the bathroom. Shoelace followed me.
Drop it, Shoelace. Seriously.
Why you acting brand new?
Lower your voice, I said. The kids are trying to sleep.
All I ever do is help, but you still treat me like shit.
You keep acting like I owe you something, I said. I wanted to leave but he was standing by the door.
I’m just tired of your stank attitude. You could at least be grateful.
So what, you deserve some ass for all your hard work?
I deserve appreciation.
Well, thank you, I said. Can I go to bed now? Is that okay with you?
You always wonder why shit hits the fan, but never take the time to look at yourself. You’re a mess.
Before I realized what happened, Shoelace was covering his cheek. My handprint stained it red. The sofa bed creaked under Rubén and Alex’s shifting weight.
Ma, you okay? Alex asked. His voice was thin and wide and it trembled to the rhythm of my heart and probably Shoelace’s too. Rubén was standing near the couch with his fists clenched.
She’s good, guys, Shoelace said, still facing me.
Rubén and Alex watched the back of his head. I watched them. Shoelace watched me.
I better not see y’all when I get back from work tomorrow, Shoelace whispered before walking past me and straight to his room.
Rubén was still standing. I walked over to him and wrapped my arms around his shoulders. Go to bed, I said. Everything’s alright. Just go to bed.
It wasn’t long before he fell asleep. Alex watched me for a bit, before covering his head with the bedsheet.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that Shoelace was waiting for me to get up again, so that he could trap me. I listened closely to all the sounds that passed through the darkness. There were the creaks from the apartment upstairs and the screechy train tracks and the sound of the leaves outside. There was Alex and Rubén’s breathing.
All the sounds made it hard to listen for Shoelace, so I focused on the leaves trying to escape the howling wind. I didn’t believe they’d ever make it, but I could hope.
RANDY WILLIAM SANTIAGO is a writer from inner-city Chicago. He is a Fulbright Scholar, a PERIPLUS Collective Fellow, and a Michener Fellow in Fiction at the University of Miami. Randy’s writing has found a home in The Blue Nib, Litro Magazine, Lunch Ticket, The Masters Review, Storm Cellar, and is forthcoming in Kweli. Find him on Twitter @hoodliterati.
Featured image by Milind Kaduskar courtesy of Unsplash