The 12 Rules of Survival | Episode 23: Things Are a Little Different

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Nicholas Belardes is a dual-ethnic Chicano writer. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the YA-themed edition of The Latinx Archive: Speculative Fiction for Dreamers (Ohio State University Press), Southwestern American Literature (Texas State University), Carve Magazine, Pithead Chapel, Barrelhouse, and others.

He illustrated map drawings for the New York Times best-selling novel West of Here, and is the author of the first twitterature in novel form, Small Places, which has been studied as part of digimodernism in literature by scholars who seek to discover the fusion of art with digital technologies, in specific, electronic fiction as a new literary current.

Sometimes a ghostwriter of contemporary fiction and YA, he currently lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his wife Jane. The 12 Rules of Survival is his first MG novel. You can find him at nicholasbelardes.com or on Twitter @nickbelardes

Artist: Timothy Banks timothybanks.com or on Twitter  @teabanks

Things Are A Little Different

The dining room table is full of food and voices when we arrive.

Grandma Benita, running around with food, sets a basket of tortillas on the table. Janelly and cousin Alex whisper to each other—something about the dogs who are currently outside whining to be let in.

Snapers barks when he sees me. I start to go to him but when Bella starts chewing his tail they both go running into the yard.

 A couple of guys I don’t know are laughing at the table. I don’t know at what. A woman I also don’t know is next to them.

My sisters spoon pozole into their bowls and rice and beans onto plates.

Finally the laughter dies down. One of the men starts talking as he eats. He wears a golf cap and has a long-sleeved shirt. The cuffs are rolled up. Tattoos on his forearms are blue and made of words and lines. I can’t tell what they say. “About time you get here, sister,” he says glancing at Mom then at me. I’m just standing there while Mom finds a place for her purse on a nearby counter.

“I thought I was going to be gone longer.” Mom says. “The rescue team said they wouldn’t have news for a while so I took Cameron to see Grandpa Gonzales.”

“You did?” he says as if surprised. “Did he start talking crazy?”

While he addresses Mom the other guy says to me, “They haven’t dug out your old man yet?” He’s got slicked black hair, a sloping forehead, moustache and a rectangle of hair beneath his lower lip.

The woman next to him knocks him with an elbow. “Reuben. Don’t talk to your nephew like that.”

“Mocosa, that hurts,” Reuben yelps. “He knows I’m just trying to lift his spirits. Right m’ijo?”

 I kind of shrug as Mom says, “Cameron, these are your uncles Reuben and Shaun. Reuben’s wife Tanzina is the one with the fast elbow.”

“Hi Cameron,” Tanzina grins. “I’m your auntie. Nice to meet you.”

“Come sit down you two,” Shaun scratches his head beneath his golf cap. “I’ve been waiting for pozole all week.”

“We’re celebrating Shaun’s birthday,” Mom says to me before talking to everyone else. “I thought I’d bring Cameron by since things were getting crazy.”

“People were arguing,” I say.

I take a seat next to Janelly. Alex is next to her. Mom sits on the other side of me.

 “You getting to know your old lady?” Reuben says to me. “I’m still trying to figure her out.”

 Mom jumps right in. “Do you have to call me that?”

 I hardly know how to answer Reuben’s question.

“Come on. You can’t be shy at this table,” Reuben says to me. “Do you even know your mom?”

“Reuben!”

“A little,” I say.

 “A little?” Reuben laughs. “Do you know your old lady used to travel the world? She backpacked everywhere.” He sticks his chin out at her. “Did you tell him that you’ve been to the Pyramid of the Moon, the Narcopolis, and that one pyramid with the church on it? What’s it called? Tlachihualtepetl?”

 Mom shakes her head.

I’m dumbfounded. I didn’t know Mom visited such faraway places.

Reuben continues: “Everybody thought she was crazy when she said she wanted to go traveling alone. That was right after she went fruit loops with your old man. She had to go find herself. Boy did she.” He grins at Mom. “Where did you meet your second husband? Some Mexico City bar . . .”

“Reuben, shut up,” Tanzina says. “Be nice to both of them or I’m taking you home.”

 “Thank you, Tanzina,” Mom says. “Can somebody pass the pozole?”

Grandma Benita still hasn’t sat down. “Here, I’ll fill your bowls,” she says. Mom hands her two bowls while Grandma Benita continues, “Reuben, if you don’t stop being stupid I’m going to tell everyone how much you cried when Godzilla died in that Nineties movie.”

Reuben doesn’t act phased at all. “Yeah? Well them Godzilla babies were gonna grow up with no old man and I already knew how that was. I was six when you kicked Dad out.”

“Seriously?” Shaun jumps in. “You say that like you wanted Dad to stay around?”

“He deserved it,” Grandma Benita says.

“I’d say. I still feel that belt,” Shaun says.

I wonder if they’re talking about the old man in the old folks home. He seemed nice to me. But then, that’s the thing. Kids don’t get to see how much old people have changed.

Reuben chimes in. “He wasn’t that drunk. He was filtered out of our lives like this little boy.” He nods to me. “He may be senile now but he was better for a quite a while, and you know . . .” He looks at Grandma Benita whose eyes squint like she’s about to dump pozole over his head.

“Quit blaming women for your problems,” Tanzina interrupts.

Grandma Benita hands Mom a bowl of soup that she places in front of me along with a tortilla. Grandma Benita then says to Reuben: “That’s enough. Okay?”

 Reuben quietly dips his tortilla in his soup.

“Want rice and beans?” Mom asks me.

 “Not a lot,” I say.

  “What are you, a bird?” Reuben says to me.

This time Mom gets angry. “If you don’t leave him alone, I’m going to throw you out myself. I don’t care whose birthday it is.”

“I wouldn’t miss him,” Shaun says about Reuben.

 Reuben smiles. “Yes you would. You always miss me.”

I’ve never grown up with a brother or sister. Just me, Dad and Snapers. So all this arguing is a little unnerving. At the same time I kind of like watching how my uncles and aunt interact. I’m also learning a lot about Mom. Where before I wasn’t interested, now I am. I try to imagine her at a pyramid in Mexico or Egypt. She’s taking small bites of pozole, her eyes on her brothers as if waiting to see what they might say next.

“Fine. I’ll change the subject,” Shaun says. “Any of you want to come to the rally in Bakersfield? Our little cousin Gaspar is going to be there. He’s leading a walkout.”

“Not now,” Grandma Benita says. “We don’t need to talk about that.”

 “Not now what? I teach Ethnic Studies courses, Mom. It’s part of what I do. I have to be active or nothing will change in this country.”

Grandma Benita shakes her head. “Cameron doesn’t need to hear all this La Raza talk right now.”

 “What are you talking about?” Shaun says. “Who’s going to teach the little man about being brown if we don’t talk about ourselves honestly and with conviction?”

 Grandma Benita spoons herself some soup. “This just isn’t the time.”

“That’s what they said at every walkout, protest and strike,” Shaun says. “Do it later! Now isn’t the time! I tell you what. The time is always now to do something. And not just that, but now is the time for kids to learn about Dolores Huerta, or Cesar Chavez. How about Ruben Salazar? Not to mention a lot of great writers, and a lot of important issues like Dreamers, detention centers and walls. We all know about the walls . . .”

“Viva la Raza!” Reuben cheers.

“See?” Shaun fist bumps his brother.

“What’s La Raza?” I ask.

“The cosmic race,” Shaun says. “It’s something we talk about when referring to the mixing of races, and the pride we feel in that, in who we are . . . Some people think the words are a barrier, others, empowering . . .”

“I told you. I don’t want this discussion right now,” Grandma Benita demands. I’ve never seen her this impatient. She goes on: “We have a lot of stress and uncertainty right here in this family. The thoughts you all need to have are for this little boy’s father to come home. So enough’s enough. You can talk about all of that stuff later.”

 “I ain’t causing stress,” Reuben says. “Are you?” he asks Shaun.

 “Not at all.” Shaun looks at Mom. “I don’t mean anything negative. I just want that little man to know we’re not invisible.”

“We don’t want to be filtered out of his life,” Reuben says again.

 “Will you stop it about Grandpa? No one is being filtered,” Mom says. “I’m helping my son now, today, and it’s the right thing to do. Once everything settles down and Arthur is rescued, things are going to change. When that happens, if he wants to learn from you or me or all of us, then we can have those discussions.”

This scares me a little because I don’t know what she means by “things are going to change.” I don’t want to ask either. Not in front of everyone. I poke at my food.

“Can we eat?” Grandma Benita says. “We’re celebrating Shaun. Let’s not forget that we have plenty to be thankful for.”

Shaun leans toward me about to say something.

Grandma Benita looks at him.

 “Alright, mama!” he laughs. “I was just gonna say we need to remember those who are saving lives.”

Reuben chuckles. “One thing you gotta love,” he says to me. “This family.”

“That’s more like it,” Grandma Benita says. “This family is all we have. And we welcome Cameron as a part of us. We pray for the safety and the health of his father and the same for the others trapped underground. We pray for everyone involved.”

Janelly turns to me as she slips a spoonful of hominy, vegetables and broth into her mouth. “I played with Snapers while you were gone,” she says. “He likes to chase the tennis ball.”

I pick up my spoon and swirl my pozole, watching vegetables tumble over each other. “Did he get the ball all slobbery?” I ask.

 Janelly laughs. “Yes.”

“He’s a slobber factory,” Alex says. “And he doesn’t stop chasing the ball. Ever.”

 I nod. “Takes him a long time to get tired.”

My sisters had been tightlipped until Alex said, “slobber factory.” My little sister Sharon repeats the words to herself and laughs.

 “He always slobbers when we throw the ball,” her older sister Maria adds.

“I didn’t know you played catch with him.” I say. This totally surprises me. I thought they hated me and Snapers. I’ve been feeling bad leaving him here all the time. And then I remember what I was told not long ago: to talk to my sisters, that they’re afraid too.

Maria stuffs a bit tortilla in her mouth. “Who do you think got him to like Bella?”           

“We play with him all the time when you’re not around,” Sharon says. “Bella got jealous so decided to make friends. Now they’re besties.”

Maria shushes her.

Mom laughs.

So do I. Mom and Grandma Benita had been trying to get me to talk to my sisters. I’d been so stubborn.  I’m not even thinking when I stuff a bite of pozole in my mouth. At first I try not to taste it. I hold the bite in the side of my cheek and awkwardly swallow the broth, trying not to taste it on my tongue. It’s not that it smells awful. It actually smells pretty good. It’s just I don’t want to taste anything horrible. Dad knows I’m a picky eater. I get weird about food all the time. Anyway, I want to swallow all the vegetables without chewing but also don’t want to make a fool out of myself. Everyone is still kind of laughing and talking about things when I slowly chew a little bit, just enough that when I taste the vegetables, I’m not grossed out. This really astonishes me. The pozole is really good!

I chew the rest of my bite, swallow and take a long drink of water.

“Are you okay?” Mom asks. “Your face got a little red.”

 “Too spicy for him,” Reuben says. “Better start making two batches like you did when Shaun was a baby.”

  “Hey watch yourself,” Shaun laughs as I interrupt.

“This pozole is awesome!” I declare, shocking myself that I am so vocal. But I don’t stop there. “Dad’s doesn’t taste anything like this. It’s . . . hideous.”

Grandma Benita’s voice is full of pain: “Tell me he doesn’t buy it from a can, m’ijo.”

Everybody laughs at this as I take another bite. “He does!” I say. “And it’s awful! I thought all pozole was terrible. But not now. Just Dad’s.”

 “Oh bless you!” Grandma Benita says. “You are a good boy.”

This is a great moment. Though I’ve been full of fear, this breaks some of the ice in this house. I feel sort of guilty about this too, like I’m beginning to fit in even though they’re so different from me, from how I grew up. I can’t help but think that I’d really like to visit Mom again after Dad is rescued.

Everyone talks and I eat and eat and eat, as if I haven’t for days. It seems like I’ve been starving myself from real food. I guess that was dumb. Either way, I really hope Dad’s rations are keeping him full of energy.

That’s the Eighth Rule of Survival: Ration Supplies.By now you know where I learned it along with the others.

I ate very little the night of the fire. But we still ate, sharing sandwiches and sodas in the Hobbit hole. We had a lot of food then, and saved some that we thought we might need. But this is different. Dad’s been trapped for days. He needs air. He needs light. And he needs to really ration his food until they can send down more.

And I do too. That’s how I’m going to survive. That’s why this is a good moment in all of these bad moments. One where I start to realize that growing up might have been different if Mom and Dad had stayed together.

Somehow I still have to stay focused. Dad needs my energy. I feel I’ve gotten some rations for myself to help with that, though I would give them to Dad if I could. Then I think: maybe I should just walk right in the tunnel mouth and see how far I can get. There’s no one to help me with that though I’m seriously considering my own journey into the dark mountain where he’s trapped.

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