As the sun started to set, the waters outside my window were lit a bright orange. Normally around this time, me and dad would go out and play on the beach until the sun finally set. But dad hadn’t been home for awhile. Not since he left a week ago. Every morning I woke up and hoped that he’d return. I sat at my window sill and looked out at the water as the sun set.
“You’ve got to be strong Juaquin.”
Dad wouldn’t want me moping around waiting for him. I opened up the window, stepping my bare feet onto the shingles of the roof. Mom hated it when I did this, and dad made me promise never to tell her it was his idea.
I walked to the very edge of the roof to look for a proper landing zone. After eyeing the sand of the beach I took a few steps back to get a running start and launched myself off the roof. The key was to keep your momentum once you hit the ground. When I landed I tucked myself into a roll before springing back to my feet.
For the fun of it I tried climbing the palm tree sitting between the water and our house, Dad could make it all the way to the top, which made my first failed attempt embarrassing. That only motivated me though. Within a month I could scale the tree. Dad and I would time each other to see who could climb it fastest after that. When he was around.
I climbed to the very top and perched myself there. I looked at our one and only neighbor’s house. That was the Rios household. Raul Rios was my dad’s best friend ever since they were kids. They always dreamt about living next to each on a beach with a view when they had families. After they got promotions, they finally could.
“If you have determination, there’s nothing that can stop you.” Dad taught me.
I peered inside the house and see a petite girl around my age pass by the window. It was Melissa, Raul’s daughter. Both of us were eight years old, but she never let me forget that she’s a few months older. With our similar light skin and brown hair, a lot of people have mistaken us for siblings with how much we’re around each other.
I waved to catch her attention. She spotted me in the tree and parted the windows. She hollered, “Looks like you’re feeling better!”
I nodded, “Yeah. Want to go swimming?”
She smiled, “Yeah, one second!” She hurried away from the window. Usually she’d jump out the window just like I would. Why wasn’t she now?
I shuffled my hands and feet and lowered myself down from the tree. Melissa promptly reached the base of the tree watching me as I make my way down. “If you’re not quick, I’ll have to come up there and pull you down.” She teased.
“I’m coming. I’m coming.” I laughed. I looked down and noticed an unassuming boy with unkempt black hair in baggy clothes standing behind Melissa. It took me a second for me to recognize Arturo. Was he there the whole time? Melissa must’ve invited him over again.
I stepped down from the tree, “Do you want to come swimming with us?” I asked Arturo.
“No, I’m okay.” Arturo quietly responded, his eyes never met mine. I wasn’t surprised, he never liked doing anything physical. He seemed so soft.
“Come on. It’ll be fun.” Melissa said gently, she never acted that way with me. Arturo nods. Her words were all the encouragement Arturo needed.
Melissa turns back to the wild girl I know her as and she gives me a quick jab to my shoulder, “I’ll race you!” She said as she began to sprint towards the setting sun. I dug my foot into the sand and began to chase after her, stripping my clothes off as we made it into the water, Arturo following slowly behind.
Arturo mostly waded around in the shallow water while Melissa and I splashed around deeper in.
Ever since we stopped some kids from picking on him at school, Melissa’s been inviting Arturo over. Arturo really liked this strategy board game called Damin based on a war from the past. Melissa would play with him, but it was too boring for me. I couldn’t stand sitting still like that.
Our dad’s didn’t like us spending time with him though. Especially Melissa’s dad Raul.
“He’s too weak. Kids like him won’t do well once they’re adults. They hold the rest of us back. He won’t last long after he turns 18.” Raul educated us, stroking his beard as spoke, “He’s not like you two. You two have that indomitable will that this country needs more of.”
I splashed some water at Arturo, but he just stood there. I threw some more water at him to try and entice him to splash back, but instead he just started to walk out of the water.
“Don’t run away! I’m just playing.” I said.
“I’m done swimming.” Arturo continues to trudge out of the water.
“Don’t be such a pushover. This is why those kids at school picked on you.”
“Juaquin!” Melissa chided me.
“It’s not.” Arturo said as he started to dry himself off and put his clothes back on.
“You can’t be so weak Arturo. My dad said that Population Control takes weak people away.” I tell him.
Arturo glared at me intensely. There was anger in eyes.
“Juaquin! Apologize!” Melissa said like a stern mother. She’d act like that whenever she thought I did something wrong.
I’m not wrong though. Dad said when people get weak, Population Control takes them away. They did with Grandpa a few years ago when he stopped working. Sure they don’t mess with kids like us, but if Arturo doesn’t toughen up, they might come for him when he’s older.
I did feel bad though. “I’m sorry... I didn’t mean it.”
Arturo looked at me. He knew I meant it. Nevertheless, he said, “It’s okay.” He threw himself back and laid in the sand looking up at the sky. Melissa and I continued to swim around in the water, albeit much less enthusiastically. Eventually the last bit of sun dwindled away beneath the horizon. The three of us walked up the beach back home.
Mom came out from the porch of our picturesque white house, followed by Yolanda, Melissa’s mom. My mom had a slight bulge in her belly from my coming sibling. I hoped I’d get a brother.
“Juaquin!” My mom yelled with anxiety in her voice. “Its your dad!”
Without hesitation, I sprinted to the house. I noticed a military vehicle parked out front. When I stepped into the house, there he was. My dad was in a wheelchair being pushed along by Raul and another soldier in the traditional white and blue uniform of the Rhiveran Military. Raul’s uniform had a decal on its chest to indicate his rank as Captain. Dad didn’t look conscious.
“What happened?” Mom asked in duress.
“Captain Neruda was injured.” The soldier said. I looked down at my dad’s legs. They were limp.
“I’ll fill you in later Maria.” Raul said as calmly as he could to my mom. I was used to his more flippant self, but Raul was clearly distressed.
Melissa and Arturo entered the house. Raul grimaced at the sight of Arturo, “Maria, can you send the Montoya boy home? There’s no reason for him to be here right now.” Raul said, referring to Arturo.
Arturo said he hoped my dad was okay headed home. Meanwhile, Raul and Mom had settled Dad into his bedroom.
“Your dad needs his rest. You can see him tomorrow.” Raul said as he gently shut the door to my dad’s room.
“That soldier said he was injured.” I pointed out, “What happened?”
“He-. He umm.” Raul stumbled over his words, nervously picking at his beard. He looks scared, “I’ll tell you in the morning.”
I didn’t get any sleep that night. I just kept thinking about what could’ve happened, pacing quietly in my room upstairs so as not to wake anyone up.
Every once in a while I’d make my way downstairs and peer into dad’s bedroom to see that he was still asleep. Mom was sleeping in the guest bedroom, she really wanted to give dad his rest that night.
I turned the TV on mute to help pass time. I wasn’t really watching any of the channels, just going through to keep my mind occupied. The news channel caught my eye though.
‘The Rhiveran Liberation Army Strikes Again’
A rough picture of a sinister thin faced man in a green camo uniform came on screen. That was Eduardo Santoro, the leader of the RLA. A group set on challenging Population Control. The military managed to kill their previous leader, but Eduardo took over the RLA after him, turning it into the terrorist group it is today. Dad and Raul were Captains in the military, so they’ve dealt with them a lot.
I checked on dad again.
“Juaquin?” My dad mumbles. I swung the door open and climbed up onto the bed and hugged him. My dad hugged me back softly, not moving from that spot on the bed. “Hey bud.”
“Hi dad.” I released him and sat on the bed next to him. “What took you so long to get back?”
My dad softly chuckled. He didn’t seem to have the same high energy as usual, but I figured that was because he just woke up. He used his arms as support so he raised himself and look directly at me. “A lot has happened.”
“A soldier said you were injured. What happened?”
“Yeah...” My dad paused, “Juaquin, do you remember what I told you about the RLA?”
“Well, a week ago I went on a mission to bring down their leader. We found him, but they captured us.” My dad swallowed hard. “They killed everyone except me. Raul saved me yesterday, but their leader got away. But Santoro shot me in the legs before Raul got to me.”
That explained why Raul had to carry him in yesterday, “Can you walk?”
“How long until you’ll be able to walk again?” I asked.
Dad stammered to answer, “I’ll never be able to walk again.”
I froze up. All the implications were settling with me. We wouldn’t be able to play on the beach like we used to. Anything like that... At least he was here.
“Juaquin, do you know what that means?”
I didn’t know what he expected me to say, “No.”
“It means Population Control will probably take me soon. ”
“Oh, will they fix your legs?” I said, completely unaware of what he really meant.
“No, no. They’re going to kill me.”
“What! Why?” I stammered.
“I’m too weak now to take care of myself. I’d just become a burden on you and your mom. When that happens, Population Control will take me.”
“That- that’s not fair! This only happened because you were trying to help!” I yelled. “They can’t do that!”
“Juaquin, that’s how things are. It’s for the best. The government will take good care of you and your mom because I worked in the military.” Dad justified, “I’m sorry bud. I’m sorry I never explained this properly to you before. I never expected this to happen.”
“Will it hurt? When they kill you?” I asked.
“No. I don’t think so. Its supposed to be like falling asleep.”
I didn’t say anything. I sat there quietly for awhile, not wanting it to be true.
“That’s why you’ve got to be strong.” My dad said, “If you’re a strong person hardworking person, Population Control will never touch you. Not until you’re a very very old man. You have to be strong so you can take care of your mom and brother or sister when I’m gone.”
I smiled a little bit. “Of course I’ll be strong dad. I’m your son.” I said. I hug him again. “I love you Dad.”
“I love you too Juaquin. So so much.”
The next few days had an air of dread, we knew death was coming, we just didn’t know when. I spent as much of what precious little time I had with dad as possible.
Dad had completely accepted what would happen to him. But mom couldn’t. He was only man Mom had ever been with. The only man who was brave enough to court her despite Mom’s four overprotective brothers looking after her. The idea of losing him was incomprehensible to her.
I listened in on conversations I’m sure I wasn’t supposed to. Mom proposed all these ideas to save him, saying we should hide away in a Weaktown, illegal settlements created to escape Population Control. That or take a boat and flee the country and head to the nearest continent. Anything to run away from Population Control. Dad countered everything she proposed. He said that most people who try to flee the country never make it far at sea, and that it’d be wrong for us to throw our lives away here to save him. Most of all, he didn’t want to be burden on us.
“I’m too proud a person to stand not being able to take care of myself.”
“I can’t live without you. I can’t Eugenio.” Mom spoke Dad’s name so lovingly. She truly didn’t believe she could go on without him.
“Yes you can.” Dad placed his hand on mom’s pregnant belly, “You have to.”
Mom struggled to compose herself and reluctantly nodded in agreement, “I was thinking about what to name them when they’re born. If it’s a boy, I was thinking Eugenio Jr.”
“My name?” Dad softly chuckled, “Hopefully they aren’t as much as a troublemaker as I am.” Mom laughed for the first time since Dad left.
Raul and my dad spent a lot of their time recounting all the trouble the they got into as kids over the next few days. Everyone in the area knew them as the two troublemakers turned soldiers. They’ve been inseparable their whole lives.
Visitors came by the house to say goodbye as well, old friends of my dad, comrades from the military and so on. Dad put on a brave face, but I could tell he didn’t want anyone to see him bedbound.
Raul told Melissa and I to go out onto the beach one evening. I didn’t want to leave dad, but he told me to go out too. After a few minutes outside, I heard a vehicle pull up in front of our house. I ran into the house and went to my dad’s bedroom. My bedridden dad was missing. My mom was sitting on the bed in tears, with Raul and Yolanda next to her doing their best to hold back theirs.
A vehicle started up outside. I burst through the front door and saw the words ‘Population Control Officers’ imprinted on the side of the vehicle, and it began to pull away. I sprinted after the car and followed it for as long as I could, but it was no use. He was gone.
I walked along the coast of the beach for a few hours in deep thought, before finally sitting down.
“Are you okay?” A kid’s voice came from behind me. Arturo had found me.
I rushed to wipe away my tears. I wanted to say I’m fine, but I couldn’t. “No.”
“I’m sorry about your dad.” Arturo sat down next to me. “I know what you’re going through.”
“No.” I impulsively said, “No you don’t.”
Arturo looked at me and took a deep breath, “Population Control killed my mom almost a year ago. After she married my stepdad.” Arturo calmly said. “I guess they thought I wouldn’t need her anymore.”
“You never told me.” I sniffled a bit.
“I don’t like to talk about it.” Arturo responded.
Arturo sat with me on the beach until I felt ready to head back home. We must’ve sat out there for hours.