The 12 Rules of Survival | Episode 7: Why Am I Here?

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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

Part Three

Third Rule of Survival: Find Refuge

Why Am I Here?

I start talking to myself—though not out loud.

She’s your mom. Get over it. Big deal.

To get over anything is a lot harder than it sounds.

Sophia, my mom, however, is a stranger to me.

I’ve never been to her house. Only met her twice.

I guess she had some problems after I was born. Dad told me she had things to work out for herself. Said it wasn’t my fault she left. I guess she had these mood swings that no one knew how to handle. He said it was big people stuff. Mental stuff. Depression. Bipolar something, and something else.

Dad said they fought all the time, that he was too young and stupid to understand their relationship. I think that’s his way of saying he’s partly to blame, which I think is good though I never knew her. She disappeared when I was still a baby.

About a year ago when Dad told me all of this he said she’d been better for a while but that she was very nervous to talk to me.

The day he told me about her I said: “What? She wants to see me?”

I didn’t know what to think. I was both excited and afraid. I think fear won that day because I acted like I didn’t care.

Dad said, “She’s your mom. It’ll be okay. This will be good for you. Besides, I’ll be there.”

We saw each other a couple of times. Once at the park. Once at pizza. She and Dad did most of the talking. It was like I didn’t even exist. I played on the slide, I dropped ten dollars in tokens into karate video games and Skee-Ball trying not to show how scared I was.

I remember looking at her. Not staring. Just thinking how different we are. She really is pretty, though I felt kind of weird thinking that. Her hair is long and black. Silky. Her skin is way darker than mine because she’s fully a brown-skinned person. She calls herself a Chicana. I’m only half Mexican-American, whatever that means. A lot of brown-skinned kids go to my school. Some were born in Mexico. Others in Ecuador, Guatemala, Korea, Nigeria and other places. It’s no big deal. We’re all friends.

So, yeah, half of my ancestors were from Mexico. Half are brown. Half one thing, half another. I hear a lot of people don’t like the word “Hispanic,” that the government made up that word. I’m still figuring out what all of this means though a couple of times Dad called me a Chicano because I cheered for a migrant caravan on the news. I wondered if Chicano was a bad word. Someone said it is in Mexico but not in America.

Mom’s eyes, soft and brown, seemed scared the day we met at the park. I remember just kind of sitting there. I didn’t understand why she wanted to visit me.

I guess I was too scared of her to really think she was family.

I didn’t know her. I still don’t.

Anyway, back to Mom’s house. Sophia, I mean, Mom.

She steps out of the way to let me, Snapers and Patricia in the house. I look around for the pug to jump out, but don’t see the little fur monster. We go into the living room. Mom seems kind of angry the way she squints at Snapers.

Two girls huddle next to her. The shorter one who answered the door seems kind of babyish. She’s definitely younger than me. The other girl is also younger than me. Both have long black hair like Mom. Same noses too. A little smallish and flat but not ugly or anything. Everyone is just different, you know? Their rosy lips have two little hooks in the middle—two little mountains with wild slopes. Mischief shines in their eyes. One other thing. They seem angry like Sophia—just not as much. They probably want to know why me and Snapers are there. I do too. This really sucks.

Two other kids, a boy and a girl, sit on a rose-print couch. The boy has a head of curly black hair and a huge body that oozes out of his plaid shirt. He doesn’t seem to care about anything. My eyes scan the carpet after meeting his. The girl next to him, obviously his sister, has poufy curly hair and pink-rimmed glasses in the same style as Mrs. Lucas. She seems my age and watches everything closely, especially Snapers, who she briefly smiles at.

Sophia crosses her arms. She doesn’t smile. Not once. “No one said anything about a dog,” she says.

Why is Mom so mad? I want to shrink into the floor. If I had my skateboard I’d probably make a run for it. I’d really have a chance because Snapers can run like the wind when he pulls me down the street. Doesn’t matter because I forgot my skateboard while packing.

I really try to will myself to be invisible.

“The dog . . .” Patricia says, then corrects herself, “Snapers, is going to help Cameron cope with what’s happening. His father is trapped . . .”

“I know what happened to his dad,” Sophia interrupts.

Patricia goes on, “Snapers is well trained. Cameron says he likes other dogs . . .”

We all notice the pug outside a sliding glass door flying up and down, flinging itself against the glass. Snapers isn’t giving the pug much thought. He just sits there next to me. I know he really wants to lick everyone in the face.

Sophia sees my hand tighten on the leash. “Bella doesn’t like other dogs.”

“They just need some time socializing,” Patricia says.

“Now you’re telling me what to do with my dog?”

“Only a suggestion.” Patricia hesitates and smiles. “I have Cameron’s best interest in mind.”

The living room isn’t messy but it’s filled with a lot of stuff. Vases, fancy glass lamps, glass animals in cabinets, more glass on tables, even more glass on wall shelves that looks about to collapse. Makes Ms. Firstman’s desk ornaments and tin collection look cheap. Snapers could easily break everything if he started jumping around.

I hold his leash a little tighter just in case.

“How long is this going to be for?” Sophia glances at me, then again at Snapers.

Snapers grunts and lies down. He’s itching to lick her eyeballs.

“Just until this gets worked out,” Patricia says. “We can find another home if we need to. We thought you would be the best choice . . . Perhaps one of his dad’s co-workers might be better suited . . .”

That sounds good to me. Where’s Rudy? Any place besides Mom’s house. I feel like I’ve entered the middle of enemy territory. Everyone’s staring and I need to find a way to get out of here before I’m permanently trapped by Patricia the Alien, Mom, Bella the high-flying pug, or these two girls.

Sophia thinks for a few seconds. She glances at the pug doing somersaults against the glass before resting her eyes on me. I expect her to tell Patricia to take me away. I lean toward the door, anticipating my escape.

“This is their grandmother’s house,” she nods to the children in the room. “I haven’t spoken to her about it.”

Patricia smiles. “I spoke with Ms. Gonzales. She’s fine with this arrangement. She’s supposed to be here.”

Not a second later the front door flies open. In comes the craziest dressed old lady I’ve ever seen carrying a couple bags of food that she sets on a counter.

“Oh m’ijo you’re here!” she exclaims to me. “Are you hungry? I brought some food from the chicken restaurant.”

I look around as if to say, Is she talking to me?

Sophia clicks her tongue. “Mom, why didn’t you answer your phone? I called three times.”

The old lady ignores her. “Why’s everyone looking so sour? This boy’s in the middle of a tragedy!” She walks right up and wraps me in her arms. “M’ijo, you don’t remember me. I’m your Grandma Benita.”

Almost everything Grandma Benita wears is leopard-print. Her blouse. Her pants. Her earrings. Her thick furry bracelets. A large red wig styled in a bun dangles little ringlets down her cheeks. She wears a sheer leopard-print scarf around her neck. Neon eyeshadow brightens her face while black lines of mascara point from the corners of her eyes.

Before she kisses me, I glimpse her red-painted lips that glisten like cherries. She smells of rosy perfume, which instantly rubs onto Snapers and me.

“I’m so sorry about your father, m’ijo,” she says. “I know you want to be there to help but it’s really dangerous. You can stay here until they get him out, okay?”

I nod without even thinking.

She then starts doting over Snapers, which Snapers loves. “Oh, look at you.” She scratches behind his ears. “You’re such a lovely puppy. So handsome. You can stay too.”

She smiles at the two girls next to Mom. “Maria, Sharon. Why haven’t you said hello to your brother?”

“Brother?” I finally speak. “I have sisters?” Why hadn’t Dad told me?

“Cousins too,” Grandma Benita adds. “Alex, Janelly? Don’t be rude. A greeting would be nice.”

My sisters barely offer to look my way. They don’t want anything to do with hugging me. Same with me. I hold out my hand. The girls ignore me.

Sophia doesn’t say anything.

“Hug your brother,” Grandma Benita orders the girls. “And say hello to this precious doggy.”

Before my sisters can move, Cousin Janelly throws her arms around me, then around the dog.

Cousin Alex pats me on the back. “Hey cousin,” he says, shocking me with his animated voice. “You like football?”

“Yeah. I guess so,” I say.

This is getting weird fast. I’ve always been a cousin-less, only child.

Alex and Janelly laugh when Snapers licks them.

“This is such a cool dog but he’s trying to lick my nose off my face,” Janelly giggles.

Then my sisters give me hugs too. They aren’t too happy about it.

Neither am I, actually.

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