fiction, poetry & more

Second Prize
$100 Award


by Veronica Lucero

Chueco and his friends walk up Esperanza Street toward town. They’re bored, the cold night radiates with the energy of the universe, and red lights can’t stop them on foot. At Walgreens, Danny and Mario solicit a lush to buy them some 40s while Smith—the white kid—buys smokes. Smith is a punk who hangs with the homies and gets a lot of flak for it, which the homies respect. Plus, they think his orange mohawk is killer.

The Smith-homie relationship is symbiotic. Hanging with the Mexicans makes Smith a subverter of his culture, which is what every punk wants, and Chueco and the others think Smith lowers their antisemitic score. They don’t want to be racists. Chueco, the only one who still goes to school regularly, knows words like that: antisemitic and symbiotic. The others don’t know Chueco pays attention in history and science.

On the way home, Mario picks a fight with Smith for not scoring weed or coke. It’s midnight and he’s not ready to call it quits. He never is. Chueco, who knows that Smith is a good kid despite his mohawk and dog collar, tells Mario to fuck off.

“Yeah, chill out,” Danny says. Because it’s three to one, Mario does.

They continue along Esperanza, talking about tattoos and Sylvia Ramos’s tits. Chueco and Smith fall behind, discussing the influence of reggae on punk. In the winter sky the moon is bright, and something about the combination of the ring around it and their conversation stirs up a feeling of hope in Chueco not unlike what he felt when his stepfather died in a car crash after getting wasted one night.

As they approach the freeway overpass, Mario points and says, “Is that a bum?”

In the fissure between the overpass and its incline, a man sleeps. He appears to be wrapped in a scrap of carpet, perhaps trying to keep warm. Mario throws a rock at him, and then he and Danny stumble up the incline where they drag the man from the fissure, unrolling him from the carpet and down the slope. Chueco notices the man’s hair is matted up like a brick of weed. A bird could crawl inside it and make a good nest there. The man is passed out in a drunken stupor, or maybe he’s just a junkie who took a really good load. This makes Chueco think the bum is like everyone else in his family, only homeless.

Before the man can come to, Mario kicks him in the stomach. Then Danny kicks his chest. The boys are shouting now, kicking the man in the groin, on the leg, his head. They’re angry at the wrong things, and it’s like watching his stepfather all over again, like watching something you can’t stop. Only Chueco knows he can stop it if he wants.

Mario yells at Smith and Chueco, who have been motionless but not indifferent. “Come on, pussies! Get your jollies before we finish him. Whitey?”

Smith walks over and apathetically kicks the man’s left thigh. After receiving an “órale, Smithy!” from Mario, however, he delivers a more forceful blow to the groin.

The man hasn’t yet budged. Except for a little blood trickling down his face, there’s no movement. Chueco knows drunks and junkies pass out. When he learned in school that some animals hibernate through winter, he started to call it that—hibernation—when his uncles passed out after doping up. He’s never tried heroin and wonders now whether it’s so powerful you could get beat up while high and not even know. If so, no wonder so many people in his family do it.

Chueco knows his friends don’t intend to kill the man—they wouldn’t do that—and because he wants it to be over, because he’s a little drunk, because he, too, is angry at the wrong things, he walks over and kicks the man who has no home. And now that Chueco stands close, he sees there’s something odd. Something is missing, and he can’t quite name it, but it’s how the Rio Grande sometimes looks in winter, sluggish yet moving with dynamic surfeit, a fullness that doesn’t have much to do with the water. It’s something else—life maybe.

“Do it like this,” Mario says, kicking the man’s chest so hard there’s a cracking sound.

“Stop!” Chueco yells. “Can’t you see he’s not moving?”

The boys gather around, incredulous. But it’s true; he’s not moving. Smith bends to see if the man is breathing. When he looks up, there’s an expression on his face Chueco has never seen before.

“I think we killed him,” Smith says. “Holy shit. I think we fucking killed him.”

Danny lifts one of the man’s arms. When he releases it, the arm falls to the ground with a thud. He stares at the spot where it lands.

“Wefuckingkilledhim,” Smith says again. “Wefuckingkilled him.”

“Relax, asshole,” Mario says. “He’s a bum. Nobody’ll care. One less piece of trash to sweep off the street.”

His bravado doesn’t have the desired effect, however, for Danny still stares at the man’s arm, and Smith can’t stop saying, “Wefuckingkilledhim. Wefuckingkilledhim.”

Chueco, meanwhile, has noticed a blue pallor about the man’s face; it isn’t winter chill. It’s how his uncle looked when they found him overdosed in his trailer, different from how his stepfather had appeared in the coffin. When Chueco touches the man’s forehead, he knows the man has been dead for hours.

“It’s okay,” he says, though he knows nothing will ever really be okay again. “We didn’t kill him.”

* * *

In bed, Chueco thinks about how he and his friends beat up a corpse. Somehow it feels worse than if they’d just beat some poor homeless guy. He considers the part he played, the velocity of his foot, a slow and half-hearted thrust with no momentum, striking the man’s abdomen, and he understands that it’s like a prologue—but he doesn’t know what follows.

Veronica Lucero is an attorney in Phoenix, Arizona who is originally from Las Cruces, New Mexico. She received her JD and an MFA in creative writing from Arizona State University as well as a BA in English from New Mexico State University. Veronica is a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, an amateur yogi, and—saving the best for last—the mother of two radiant and rambunctious boys, Gary and Slade.

December 2023