I was deep in my dream so the phone ringing didn’t sound real. I moved closer to Eloisa, her skin warm against my body. She pressed against me, the feeling of her heat exciting me.
The phone rang again. This time I knew it was for real. I reached over and grabbed it from the little table next to the bed. The screen was all bright and the light hurt my eyes. It was 3:17 in the morning and I didn’t recognize the number. Cono, who was waking me up en la madrugada? I clicked off the ringer and stuck the phone under the mattress then rolled back over to Eloisa and held her close. I kissed her neck, the salty taste of her skin in my mouth.
The phone vibrated under the mattress. What was this shit going on? I reached around underneath and pulled it out, the same number.
“Cono, Quien es?” I shouted.
I heard Tonio’s voice but it wasn’t his number. What the fuck was going on?
“Hermano,“ Tonio’s voice said again.
“Where are you brother?”
“At my house. Come quick.”
I didn’t say nothing else. I just pulled on my pants and ran out.
When I got to Tonio’s it wasn’t pretty. Everyone was outside in the darkness, the whole patio. Tonio was standing in front of the door. He was wearing only his shorts and he was covered with sweat, which glistened on his skin under the light above the door. He was holding his pistole in one hand and a cell phone in the other. At his feet was a stranger grabbing his leg and moaning. There was blood everywhere.
I looked around. The people looked back at me the way they always do, like they’re waiting for me to tell them what to do. “Go home,” I said. Nobody moved at first. “What did I tell you?” I shouted. They started to move away slowly, mumbling to each other.
I walked closer to Tonio. Carolina was standing behind him in the doorway, their daughters hiding behind her. “Go back to bed,” I told the children.
“No padron, we want to see what happens,” said the older one.
They are my goddaughters. I was sick that they saw this. This is no place for children. I gave her a look, muy fuerte. “Go back to bed.” They turned quickly and were gone. I looked at Tonio. He didn’t need to tell me cuz I knew, but I asked anyway. “What happened here?”
Tonio looked at Carolina then back at me.
“He broke into the house,” Carolina said.
I looked down at the ladron. I was surprised Tonio didn’t put the bullet in his chest or his head. “What’s your name?”
Cons: A Dominican term roughly equivalent to God Damn
Quien es?: Who is this?
Madrugada: The hours between midnight and sunup
Patio: A small residential area of anywhere from 10 to 60 homes and apartments off a main road. There is little or no car access.
Muy Fuerte: Literally very strongly, to say or do something with intent
Como?: How? What?
‘Onces: Entonces, So?
Ya, lo tengo. Clara: I got it, yes.
Guagua: A truck or SUV used for transporting things or people
Campo: The countryside
No lo puedo: I can’t do it
Maricon: Insulting term for homosexual
He didn’t answer me. I asked him again. He turned his head away still grabbing his leg above the knee. The blood was coming pretty fast. This time I didn’t ask, I kicked him in the side instead.
“Marvin,” he mumbled.
As the word ‘maricon’ came out of my mouth Carolina whispered something to Tonio I couldn’t believe I heard. “Como?” I asked her.
“I shot him,” she repeated.
I looked at Tonio. He shook his head up and down.
“Go back in the house,” I said. Carolina turned and disappeared through the door like her daughters before. I looked at Tonio again. “Dimelo.”
The ladron groaned again. He looked at us, his eyes filled with terror. “Take me to the hospital, please.”
I could sense some of the neighbors watching from behind the darkness of their windows. I took the pistole from Tonio’s hand and whipped the ladron to knock him out. He deserved it anyway. Imagine he broke into the house of a man with no more than he had. What’s wrong with these people? What’s wrong with my country?
Finally Tonio spoke. His dark eyes were filled with hopelessness. “I woke up and he was standing over me. I wasn’t sure what was happening. Then he put his hand on my mouth and a machete at my throat. I knew it wasn’t a dream. I swung my arm and knocked him in the chest. He fell back and dropped the machete. I jumped out of the bed and began to kick him. Carolina woke. She grabbed my pistole from under the mattress and shot him.”
“How did he get here?”
“He ran a few feet then fell down the stairs. He stumbled this far. I grabbed the pistole and ran after him. In the moment he got to the door I was behind him and all the neighbors were in front of the house.”
“Ya, lo tengo. Claro.”
Tonio looked straight into my eyes. He was desperate. “Brother, what are we gonna do?”
I knew exactly what we were gonna do. First we laid some plastic sheets on the floor of my guagua to catch the bleeding. Tonio had them in back of his house from when he was building the second floor. Then we put the ladron in the back of it. I hit him pretty good with the gun, so he was still out. But he was still breathing. And the blood was still coming but it slowed down a lot.
I drove around for a while hoping nature or Dios would take the decision away from me. The deserted streets of Santo Domingo gave way to the thick trees of the campo in the darkness. You know I been in New York for 20 years now but even though I was born here I still can’t get used to it the way the city ends and the campo starts.
Is very different in New York. Even if you drive out of the city, let’s say you go to New Jersey, when you cross over the bridge there’s still lights. It still looks like a city and when you keep driving it gets a little different, houses not big buildings but it’s not like the campo.
When you hit the campo it comes on you real fast. The lights stop, they just stop. It’s dark. The darkness is like ink, thick and somehow mojado, kinda wet. You feel it and then when you eyes adjust all of a sudden you can see the stars and when the moon is out you can see the outlines of the mountains in the distance. It’s very beautiful, the way God intended the night to be. When you stop the car you can hear the darkness and the things that live in it. This darkness is alive. It feels alive the way I feel alive here, like you can feel the heartbeat of the world around you.
We didn’t say a word, Tonio and me. Merengue was playing on the radio. I half laughed to myself. Funny how it is with my friends. I don’t got a lot of them but the ones I got they are like my blood. Sometimes we can be together for three hours and we don’t have to say nothing to each other. We know what the other is thinking.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it, but I knew what we had to do. I thought a lot about it driving around. We didn’t have no choice. We couldn’t take him to the hospital. If we did they would find out about Tonio’s pistole. He didn’t have no permit. Shit, he could be arrested just for that. It didn’t even matter that the ladron had broke into his house. They would arrest the ladron and Tonio and they would arrest me for helping him. I wasn’t going back to la Isabella to wait for them to figure out I didn’t do nothing.
Tonio was my best friend since we was children. I had to help him. I pulled the car off the road. I looked at my phone. It was already after 6 o’clock. We had to do what was necessary.
You could get lost here in the campo. You could drive into the jungle or the fields. That’s what I did. I got off the road and about ten minutes later deep into the bushes I pulled over the guagua and killed the lights. I turned off the radio and opened the windows. For the first time in over an hour Tonio spoke to me. “Hermano, tell me what to do.”
I don’t mind that he asks me that. I help him all the time. He’s my best friend, my brother. I would do anything for him. He’s done more than that for me. More than one time he saved my life. “You know what we have to do brother,” I said.
“I don’t know if I can do that.” He crossed himself. “We will go to hell for sure.”
The crickets breathed. I could smell the scent of the jungle around us. It filled me up. “We already going to hell for sure.” I laughed a little. Tonio laughed too. He balled his fist and held it up and touched it to mine. “But we had a good time getting there, no?”
“Till now,” he said.
“Yes. Till now,” I agreed.
His face changed. Even in the darkness I could tell. He took a deep breath. “Maybe we should go to la policia.”
I shook my head. “You crazy bro? He will say you shot him. Your pistole is illegal. I told you not to buy it that way. They would arrest both of us.”
“Maybe he won’t talk?”
“They will make him talk. The policia have a way. They know you have a house. They think you got something. They will know I live in Nueva York. They know I got something. They gonna want to get some of that something to make this go away or they gonna put us in jail too. You know we can’t do that.”
“I know,” Tonio said. We looked over at the ladron. He was starting to move a little, to wake up. “But we gonna go to hell for sure if we do this. We could just leave him here. He’s gonna die from the gunshot.”
“Or maybe not. Maybe he will wake up and decide he wants to live. He tears up his shirt and ties up the wound.” I pointed out the window into the shadows. “Then he grabs a branch from over there and he props himself up and he walks out of here. Someone gonna help him go to la policia and tell them about us. They don’t care about justice. They care what they can get for themselves.”
Tonio looked off into the receding darkness. There was the slightest light seeping into the air around us. He breathed heavily a few times then coughed.
“You gonna be sick on me hermano?” I asked. I felt a little sick myself.
“No, I’m not gonna be sick. But I don’t know if I could do this.”
I thought about it. Would I do it for him? Of course I would do it for him. But he had to tell me first that he couldn’t.
He turned back to me. “Give me the gun.”
“No, no gun.” I pulled my machete from under the seat.
“We don’t want to leave no evidence. No bullet. We gotta take the one in his leg out too. Somebody is gonna find him.”
“Not if we bury him.”
“I got no shovel. What you gonna use, your hands?”
Tonio took a deep breath again. I did the same. I could taste the jungle around me on my tongue the way you can taste a woman from her scent. I handed him the machete. He shuddered a little bit. We got out of the guagua and opened the rear door then pulled the plastic sheets out, the ladron coming with them.
The ladron’s eyes were open. His began to speak but his words were too weak to hear. He knew what was about to happen. I turned on a little flashlight and shined it into his face. His eyes were wide open looking at the machete in Tonio’s hand. He mouthed the words, “por favor, no.”
Tonio circled behind him and knelt down. He cupped the ladron’s chin in his left hand and placed the blade on his neck. The ladron raised his arms from his bleeding leg and tried to push Tonio’s arms and hands away. He had no strength.
I continued to shine the light on his face. As Tonio pressed against the flesh of the ladron’s neck his pleadings became louder. The first evidence of his blood began to seep from under the blade glistening against his dark skin.
“Press harder, quickly,” I said.
Tonio pushed his hand down against the hilt of the machete. The ladron let out a loud moan. Tonio pulled back the machete and jumped to his feet. The ladron grabbed his neck with one hand, the other still holding his leg.
“No lo puedo,” Tonio said.
“Give me the machete,” I said. I didn’t want to do this but we had no choice, especially now. I had to finish the job.
Tonio handed me the machete. The ladron continued to moan, the gurgling and begging getting louder. I closed my ears, took the machete and assumed Tonio’s position, my left hand now under the ladron’s chin. I placed the machete where the cut was. I wanted to end this quickly. One wouldn’t let a pig or a goat bleed out, too painful. As I pressed my hand to the knife the ladron screamed with all he had left.
“No,” Tonio shouted.
“Como?” I said.
“I have to do it.”
“Brother, make a decision. We don’t have time.” I gestured with my head to the light on the horizon.
He knelt next to me and placed his hand on the hilt as I removed mine. I could hear the quickness of his breath. I wasn’t sure he could do it. I put my right hand over his on the handle of the machete, my left arm over his shoulder. His shirt was soaked with sweat. “We will do it together hermano, like we always do.”
“Gracias,” he said.
And with that I pushed down his hand and pulled it to the right. The ladron’s neck opened up and the blood flowed out onto the damp soil. The sun was breaking on the horizon. I looked at it and asked God to forgive me. I told him I had to put Tonio first, even before my own soul.
A.J. Sidransky is a Nationally Recognized Author, Observer of Life, Teller of Stories. You have only one life…live it.