When I was eight, I found a dying man in my tree fort behind my house.
We lived twenty miles from the Arizona-Mexico border with nothing but desert and mountains to the south of us. My father had warned me about illegal aliens, which I assumed were the green Martians I saw on TV. It didn’t occur to me the man would be anything other than a human being wandering the desert without food and water.
My tree fort was an overgrown paloverde with green branches tangled and weighted in mistletoe. Inside, I kept a pile of books and two old couch cushions. When I found the dying man, he was covered in dust, laying on his side with his head resting on a cushion, foaming at the mouth. We spent a good long minute staring at each other in shock, accessing our fears. But I saw more fear in him than I’d ever seen in a man, and all I wanted was to keep him safe, which I knew meant not telling anyone. My father was prone to fits of rage, and my mother took pills, patting the side of her head like something had come loose.
I was happy to have a secret, to care for someone who made me feel seen and needed. I brought him water and crackers and an endless supply of leftover meatloaf my mother made twice weekly, which no one seemed to like except for the dying man. He nodded to me, saying gracias, which was the only Spanish word I knew. Each day he seemed to be getting better and stronger; each day he taught me a new word: ojos, boca, corazón.
I brought him comics with silly pictures and a stuffed bear he called Oso. Como estas y Oso? I learned to say as I greeted him, coming directly from the bus stop after school. He smiled and laughed and patted the dirt for me to sit. La escuela es muy importante, he said. I nodded in agreement because I loved third grade. I loved my teacher, Mrs. Stanwick. More than anything, I loved not being home. I did my homework while he stared up through the treetop humming songs I didn’t know but made me think of flowers growing up a vine in a faraway place. Sometimes he’d sing to a creased photo of a woman and children he kept in his back pocket. Your family? I asked. Si, he nodded. Mi familia.
It sounded so beautiful rolling off his tongue, the way quail call its young, and I smiled, thinking I could be part of his family too. I pointed to my house and said, Mi familia. He nodded but looked concerned, and for a moment we shared a new secret, one I’d been keeping even from myself, that my father yelled at my mother about things she wasn’t doing right, that I’d stick to the scant shadows of the desert for as long as possible to avoid his belt, that my family was broken.
Pablo, he said, patting his chest. Jennifer, I said, patting my head. He pointed to my heart and said, Ángel. And I beamed with pride because I knew that word.
At dinner, my father spoke about things I didn’t understand, about no good politicians, taxation, aliens who came to sell drugs and take our jobs, reminding me of that movie I’d seen between my fingers at my cousin’s house where space invaders took over human bodies. I began to wonder if it had happened to him; his face shifting into an angry mask as the night wore on. I had remembered a happier version of him, a time when his breath wasn’t sour and his tongue wasn’t sharp.
I thought I should warn Pablo about these body snatchers when I took him leftovers that night, not wanting him to turn into someone his family wouldn’t recognize. I looked up alien in the English-Spanish translation book I’d borrowed from school. Extraterrestre. Then I gathered a plate of leftovers and a new jug of water. I was almost to my fort when I heard my father behind me.
“What the hell are you doing?” he asked, propping himself up on our cinderblock wall. He’d been laying down, looking up at the night sky.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Why’re you carrying a plate of meatloaf?”
I was good at lying at that point, keeping his moods at bay, but I stood with the plate shaking in one hand and a jug of water sloshing around in the other.
“Thought I’d have dinner in my fort,” I said.
The full moon shone upon his face in a silver haze, gutting his eyes, lighting up the amber bottle clutched in his fist.
“We just ate. And you hate your ma’s meatloaf.”
The blood flowing in my body began to burn as he hopped off the wall and walked towards me. His eyes followed mine to my fort.
“You have someone in there?” Dad walked over to the tree, ripped the branches apart and disappeared inside.
“Pablo!” I yelled, dropping the food and water, rushing in behind him. Dad spun around in the empty space.
“Pablo?” he said, then repeated it as he shoved me to the ground. “If I ever find a boy in here, I’ll kill ‘em.”
I looked up at him, an ink mark looming above me, his face a distortion of shadows and shapes. As he left, the moon took his place, shining through the broken branches to the spot where Oso laid, and scrawled deep in the dirt next to him was a drawing of an angel with the name Jennifer scrawled underneath.