First published in Fiction Southeast
2019, First Finalist Ernest Hemingway Prize for Flash Fiction
Shortlist London Magazine Short Story Prize
They fly around the city making their cawing sounds, behaving like nothing is crumbling. The city is crumbling. I have not eaten in five days. That is a lie. I have dug through garbage from a restaurant and after shooing the flies away and smelling the leftover food, got a bite to eat. When I first saw some boys eating garbage it grossed me out. How could they do that? They disregarded everything and plunged right in. I could never lower myself to do that. Never. Ever. And here I am.
I look at the sky and see them, blue, beautiful blue and yellow. I am told that they were not originally from the city. They came from our jungles, our Llanos, the plains. People would buy them on the road, thinking they would make a great pet. That was when the city had money and opulence. But they didn’t know they had to keep their wings clipped. They escaped. They found freedom. But they didn’t know how to return to where they were from and found the city perfect, plenty of high rises. Plenty of giving, loving people.
I want to fly like them. And I will, soon. I have a visa. I am lucky that family friends in other countries want to give me wings. But I am scared. Six months ago I had a job. With inflation, it paid enough to barely buy my mom’s insulin in the black market.
I see the men in black uniforms buzzing around in their motorcycles take someone. She was in a demonstration a couple of months back. They surround her, two men to a motorbike. They pull her pants down to her knees, then they lift her and place her on the back of a motorbike and they are gone.
In my sleep I imagine them doing that to me. But I’m a bird. I can fly. I’m blue.
I wish I could fly now. But I feel really bad. That means leaving my mom behind. That means many of my friends calling me a coward because I’m leaving instead of sticking it out here. And starving, and dying, and losing whatever dignity I have left.
They are angels. In my sleep, I dream of floating above the city. Many people can’t take it anymore. They think they can fly and they plunge from a 12-story high building smashing into the ground. Maybe they wish they could fly. I’ve seen the videos. I’ve seen the real stains on the sidewalks. I’ve had the hushed conversations with neighbors. We all know we are not that far, but don’t want to admit it.
They don’t land on my balcony or my building. I guess we are not special enough, but I hear them. I wish they would come for me, take me away.
When the men in black take people, we no longer react. We look away, we act like we never saw them. We hope that someone in some building is recording with their phones and placing it on the waves for the world to see. Still does no good. The world doesn’t care.
I no longer fight. I no longer demonstrate. I sit and plan where I can find food. I hold myself and rock looking out my balcony, nine-stories high. I wonder if I could fly. They say I could go away soon. Soon is not soon enough. My hunger, my anger, my fear, my anguish is taking the best of me. I’m a coward. I will not be here to take care of my mom. I dream that I will be able to send her money once I’m away in the States. That in the black market my friends will buy what she needs.
I’m lucky because I will be blue. I will fly away. Many friends have left on a bus, to end on foot. At the border, they are searched. The National Guards tell them to strip, they stick their fingers in their vaginas searching for contraband. The Guards smile defiantly, looking at their eyes for an expression. They let them know they are enjoying the exercise. And then jackpot, they pull out their money. Fifty dollars that took them six months to amass for the trip.
They call and cry. They wish they could fly. But all they now have to do is forget. I’m still inside the city. I can be a bird too, I can adapt. Try anything, I promise.
Sometimes they land on a building across mine. I see them. Free. Curious. Untamed.
The tickets should arrive soon. My mom reassures me “Alejandra, you must go.” That she will be fine. This is the only way. I must not lose hope. I tell her “no Mamá, I can’t leave you behind.” I don’t want to let go. I’m afraid. I’m a coward. I’m scared of flying, even if it means me good.
Every new day numbs the previous day’s atrocities with new ones. And they push. And we the people accept. So we look at the sky, at the blue, at the birds and wish, dream of angels.
We receive a phone call on Skype. It’s a cousin in the States. They ask, do we want one ticket or two. They could bring my mom up as well.
She frowns saying no. It’s just me.
I fall from the building. I can’t fly. I don’t have wings. I descend, the concrete will crush me. My mom washes my tears, she knows how I feel. She knows I would never leave her.
But she tells me. Fly. You must go.
My wings are clipped. I can’t go. If I fly, I will plunge.
“No, my daughter. You will fly. You will soar, you must go.”