I live in South Gate, California. It’s part of Los Angeles. South Gate is California’s version of Compton for brown people. Things happen here—some good, some not so much.
“Jacqueline, someone is in the house.” It’s Mamá. “Jacqueline, wake up.”
She gently closes her hand over my mouth; she looks at me through eyes wide with fear. My baby brother, Roberto, is sleeping like a log next to me. Did you know that babies snore?
I hear it: a footfall and a creaking floorboard at a time when nothing is supposed to be creaking. I know every sound this old house can make. I’ve spent years finding every loose floorboard on my way to the fridge at one in the morning. More recently, sneaking out to be with friends, all done with stealth, total silence so that Mamá will not hear. I only fool myself. I have a real mama. The kind who hears everything, sees everything, and knows everything I do. She just lets me think she doesn’t know what I’m up to.
“There it is again, Jacqueline!” Mamá whispers.
Roberto sleeps as she takes her hand away from my mouth, her eyes darting left and right. Her breath comes fast, and my heart is now pumping like mad. She carefully picks up Roberto. He does one of those baby snorts but is back asleep in seconds. She moves off the bed silently and gets low protecting Roberto. She looks toward the window, and then back to me. She’s thinking about getting out.
I touch her hand and whisper, “Mamá, I’ll call nine one one and get the police,” as I reach for my IPhone, my most prized possession. I clutch it, and just as my thumb moves over the home button, the charger cable tightens and the phone slips from my hand, bouncing off the nightstand and landing with a hard and loud thunk on the worn wood floor.
The bedroom door shatters at the frame. A masked figure charges through the destroyed entrance in a flash. I instinctively roll off the bed. I land in a heap on my elbows and knees and scrabble like a crab under the bed. Pop, pop, pop. I know the sound. I know it too well. All of us in South Gate know that sound. Pop, pop, pop. Except when you’re in front of the gun, it’s more like boom, boom, boom.
“I got you now, chiquita!” an angry male voice yells as the bullets tear through the mattress and the walls of my bedroom.
One shot hits the floor in front of my face, scattering wood shards like shrapnel into my eyes and mouth. My ears are ringing, and I smell the acrid odor of burned gunpowder. I hear someone yelling.
“Juan Antonio, stop! Wrong house! The ones we want live next door. Cops are coming,. Get out, amigo, rápido.”
The wrong house! I’m nearly killed by a gangbanger who can’t read street addresses. The intruders run like the cowards they are, laughing, cursing, and kicking our furniture and possessions out of their way. All I hear is crackle, crackle, crackle as their shoes crush through the broken pieces of our belongings—and sirens.
“Mamá! Mamá!” I yell. No answer. I’m filled with fear. “Mamá, Mamá!” I want to get out from under this bed, but I’m trapped, caged by fear. I do something I don’t usually do: I yell in Spanish. I’m not ashamed of being brown. I love my heritage, but I’m an American, and my mama is Mexican, and sometimes she only hears Spanish. “Háblame, por favor.” Silence.
The sirens are coming closer. I can’t move. If I stayed here, nothing would change. I could hide under this bed, and nothing would change. I want to stay here. Wood splinters from the floor cover my face. I brush the splinters and some tears away. I know as soon as I crawl out, my world might be gone.
I’m only fifteen. I’m still a little girl. Why is this happening to me and my family? I clutch my crucifix hanging around my neck, pray, and cry.
The wail of the sirens is just outside now. Screeching tires, car doors slamming shut, heated voices shouting urgent orders. Darts of red and blue light jet through my window to dance and play off the walls and floor of the room. I roll to my left as I hear the front door crash open and more people invade our home. In the shadows I see a small, crumpled silhouette lying against the wall under the half opened window, motionless. The cops are here, but it’s too late.
“Mamá. Mamá!” I barely get the words past the enormous knot that forms in my throat. I cannot control the tears now. “Háblame, por favor.” I begin to sob, and sorrow surrounds me like a cold, wet blanket.
The light comes on. Through tear-filled eyes, I can see a distorted image of my mother’s back. She’s on her left side, curled up on the floor, head down, knees pulled up to her waist with something tucked away in her middle. I see bloodstains on the back of her pink pajama top, three small smudges of red spreading over her top like blooming roses.
Someone enters. I see two black shoes, shiny as mirrors, slowly walk to Mamá. A hand wearing a black glove reaches out and touches her shoulder. She does not respond. The gloved hand rolls Mamá slightly, and I hear its owner speak.
“Oh God! Sergeant! Sergeant Washington! Down here! We’ll need a bus—fast!” the man with the gloved hand yells.
I don’t get it. Why would anyone need a bus? We need the medics. For just a moment, I’m distracted thinking about this. When I come back to reality, I let out a cry that has been tied up inside me for too long. It startles the man with black gloves and shoes. He moves fast. The mattress is lifted off the bed and thrown aside. Brightness floods through my dark sanctuary. For the second time tonight, someone is pointing a gun at me.
“Are you okay?” Black Shoes asks as he lowers his gun. The bare-bulb ceiling light is hard on my eyes, and I squint at him. I cannot speak. I have no voice. I just nod my head, fold my arms, pull my knees up to my chest, and rest my left cheek in the puddle of tears on the bullet-scarred wooden floor.
“Can you slide out or should I move the bed for you?” he asks as the gun goes into its holster.
I breathe deeply and start to pull myself together. I inch toward the side of the bed away from Mamá. It’s quiet now. The sirens have stopped their urgent cry. There are now many people in the house, but they step softly and speak in hushed tones. The lack of noise is surreal and wrong. Something is way out of whack. That’s when it hits me. Where’s Roberto? He should be screaming like crazy right now. My mind races: Did those creeps take him? Has he been kidnapped? I wonder. Those kinds of things happen around here.
My thoughts collide with panic and anger. I’m stricken with fear, guilt, and sorrow. I’m confused and afraid. I look back to my Mamá lying motionless on the floor, and I get it. All the emotion, everything I was feeling, is drained from me—instantly removed in a violent gush of pain. I convulse on the floor under the cold, bare light. The harsh light of a devastating revelation.
I start to shake so much that Black Shoes thinks I’m having a seizure or something. A tall ebony-skinned woman comes in. She has three gold stripes on the blue sleeve of her uniform. She looks at Black Shoes.
“Whaddya got?” she asks Black Shoes in a flat, uninterested tone.
He looks at her and then turns his head and looks down toward Mamá and then me. The woman officer follows his gaze. I can see it in her face. She’s not a stranger to the street or what happens here. This is not new to her. She has seen the worst. She’s probably hard as a rock, but she melts anyway. Her shoulders drop, and she exhales as if someone just punched her in the stomach. She moves toward me and drops down on one knee.
“What’s your name, honey?” she asks.
I can barely utter a response. I’m so numb now with pain and fear that I can hardly remember my name. “Jake. My name is Jake,” I weakly reply, reassuring myself that I’m still alive. She reaches for me. I flinch and pull back. She backs off a little.
“Jake, I’m going to take you out of here. I’m going to pick you up and carry you out. Promise me you’ll keep your eyes shut.” It’s a command, but it’s given in a kind way. I know she cares and wants to help.
I move carefully to her. She slips her hands under my arms, and in one motion we’re up and moving quickly to the demolished doorway.
I don’t keep my promise. I look.
Just before we leave the room, Black Shoes rolls Mamá onto her back. There wrapped in her arms, his head tightly tucked under her chin, is Roberto. His red T-shirt clings tightly to his tiny body. That’s when I know for sure. His T-shirt was white when we went to bed.
My world is gone.