“Veinte-y-dos” by Robert Arellano
Are you a parent going through the Terrible Twos? Did you live through them and survive? Terrible Twosdays is a place to commiserate over the unending shenanigans of your Darling Children (as the online parenting communities say). Nonfiction stories will be considered, so long as names have been changed to protect the guilty. Inspired by our best-selling gift book for parents, Go the Fuck to Sleep, Terrible Twosdays joins the roster of our other online short fiction series. Unlike Mondays Are Murder and Thursdaze, we’re looking for stories with a light and mischievous feel, all about the day-to-day challenges of parenting. As with our other flash fiction series, stories must not exceed 750 words.
This week, Robert Arellano tells the story of Carlos, whose family is forced to make a dangerous pit stop.
All InTur would rent them was a Lada. Carlos was struggling with a sticky clutch when the tunnel’s sickening yellow glow exploded into the hostile glare of a Havana afternoon. Thea was abruptly hungry, the baby was wailing, and Carlos, although he would not admit it, was lost. There was a restaurant around here: El Castillo or El Palacio. “Are you sure . . . ?” Thea whined. “Nonononono!” the baby screamed. “Up there,” Carlos muttered, thinking, If we’re on the right side of the bay.
Turning left he saw turrets at the top of the hill. The road suddenly narrowed to a one-lane drive, so Carlos would have to drive to the summit. Thea fumbled with the Michelin map and pushed a pacifier at the baby, pleading, “Take nyooky.” The baby yelled “Uck!” and threw the pacifier at the back of Carlos’s head.
When the Lada crested the hill they saw the small marble castle and the bright orange guardhouse. The baby turned, curious, and stopped crying. “Bah-bah!” he sang, pointing at the freshly-painted shack. Carlos felt uneasy when he noticed something missing: other cars.
The drive went straight past the shack, but the candy-striped gate arm was up. Carlos was struggling to pull a U-turn in the small lot when a soldier came out and lowered the gate. “Shit,” Thea whispered, but Carlos knew there was nothing to worry about. They had their passports. If this was a military building, then he was sorry he had made a mistake and they would be on their way.
The unsmiling soldier, a sunburned young trigueño, tapped on the glass. Carlos rolled down the window. “Buenos días.”
The soldier did not return the greeting but stuck his head in the window, taking in Carlos, Thea, and the baby one by one. “Espérense,” he said, his expression unchanged, no por favor or un minuto, and he disappeared into the shack without raising the gate. Carlos looked at Thea, and she glowered back at him for not asking directions, for making this turn, for taking her and their baby on this homecoming trip when he had no more home. He stared at the gate while the baby babbled in delight, pointing at the red-and-white stripes.
When the soldier emerged, so did a captain, midforties with a bushy mustache, striking Carlos as strange for an officer on a militarized island where El Comandante had a monopoly on emblematic facial hair.
“Buenas tardes,” the captain said.
“Buenas,” Carlos replied.
“Por favor, salga de la máquina.” He called the car a machine like Carlos’s father used to.
Thea pulled something from her fanny pack, but Carlos gently pushed away the passports, thinking, Wait until he asks. He unbuckled his seatbelt and stepped out of the car. “Disculpe, que nos perdimos.”
“¿Qué buscaban?” Carlos wondered: What was I looking for?
“El hotel,” he lied.
“¿En qué hotel se están quedando?” El Nacional? El Habana Libre? He wasn’t thinking clearly.
“El Neptuno.” He couldn’t tell this man that they were staying in an illegal casa particular.
“¿El Neptuno?” said the captain with exaggerated surprise. “Está muy lejos de aquí, casi al otro lado de la isla.” The other side of the island—should Carlos laugh or should he frown? “Bueno, que tengan suerte.”
Carlos thought they were home free, but instead the captain held out a small basket and gave it a shake. “¿Has jugado el veinte-y-dos?” Twenty-two? Carlos racked his brain. No, he’d never heard of the game. “Toma.” Carlos put his hand inside and felt the shells. “Solo uno.”
“Bah-bah!” the baby piped up, straining against the child seat, reaching toward the open door.
“Espere,” said the captain, and Carlos pulled his hand out of the basket. “¿Le gustan los caracoles?”
Carlos said, “Parece que sí.”
The captain shrugged and held the basket through the door. “¿Quiere jugar?” Thea and Carlos watched while the baby picked a shell. The captain smiled and cooed, “Dámelo, chiquito—give it me.” The baby smiled and the captain took the shell, pulling the basket away and setting off the crying again.
The captain’s smile turned to a frown. He showed Carlos the shell. Scrawled on the back of a little cowry, the kind the santeros use to tell fortunes, a number in black ink: 22.
The soldier drew his pistol with the same cold stare. He pulled back on the slide to load the chamber. Thea screamed. Carlos felt sick to his soul. What had he been looking for, after all?
ROBERT ARELLANO is a 2014 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipient in Fiction and the author of four novels from Akashic, including the Edgar Award finalist Havana Lunar. He is Professor of Creative Writing in the Oregon Center for the Arts at Southern Oregon University.
Do you have a story you’d like us to consider for online publication in the Terrible Twosdays flash fiction series? Here are the submission terms and guidelines:
—We are not offering payment, and are asking for first digital rights. The rights to the story revert to the author immediately upon publication.
—Your story should focus on the challenges of parenting. Ideally, stories should be about children aged 0 to 5, but any age (up to early teens) is acceptable. Stories may be fiction or nonfiction.
—Include the child’s age at the time of the story next to your byline.
—Your story should not exceed 750 words.
—E-mail your submission [email protected] paste the story into the body of the email, and also attach it as a PDF file.
Posted: Nov 4, 2014
Category: Terrible Twosdays | Tags: Go the Fuck to Sleep, Spanish, Robert Arellano, Terrible Twosdays, flash fiction, fiction, short fiction, two, age two, GTFTS, Veinte-y-dos, Havana Lunar, Curse the Names, Fast Eddie King of the Bees, Don Dimaio of La Plata, Fast Eddie
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