Just because you shoot something doesn’t mean it dies right away, thinks nine-year-old Diego as he plays dead in the gravel of the schoolyard. He counts to thirty slowly because that’s the rule when you’ve been hit in this game of zombies vs soldiers.
Three years ago he crossed Guatemala into Mexico. He was on his way to America, looking for the mother who’d been forced to leave him as a child. Along the way he saw many other kids, alone and vulnerable like himself. The lucky ones were only beaten and robbed. He saw two boys shot and left to die from their wounds. They didn’t grab their throats and fall over in crumpled heap like his classmates do. The iron crush of death tightened much slower. He held Felipe’s hand for hours as life seeped out him and the ground stained red. That’s where La Migra, the Mexican immigrant officer, found him before putting him on El Bus de Lágrimos* back to Honduras.
Diego closes the door on the nightmare memory and tries, yet again, to be a normal American boy. He plays the silly game where everyone lives to eat brain-food snacks at mid-morning recess. He wants to belong. He wants to bring honour to the kind-hearted woman who adopted him.
The first bell of the day rings and Diego jumps to his feet, happy to shrug off the pantomime of violence. While the other kids chatter around him, Diego takes one last look at the list of words for the morning’s spelling test. He’s ready for another perfect score.
At ten o’clock shots ring out in the hallway, just as Diego is dotting the i in the word kindle. His head flies up, his eyes round. He knows the sound of gunfire. At the front of the class, the teacher’s stands, ashen-faced.
‘Everyone—behind me—under my desk,’ she yells.
Diego flies to the floor and the others pile on top of him.
When the shooting is over and the emergency responders have removed the injured and the slain, they find the limp body of a small Hispanic boy. His pulse is strong and his eyes are responsive but he does not acknowledge their words.
Finally his adoptive mother is there, holding him, stroking his hair. ‘It’s okay now, Diego,’ she says. You’re safe. You don’t have to pretend any longer.’
© Maggie Bolitho
Photo from Wikimedia Commons: boys at play from Hampshire and Solent Museums
* the bus of tears
Footnote: this story was inspired by the nonfiction book Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario.