Autism Belongs

By Dr. Sharon A. Mitchell

General fiction, Romance

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18 mins

Preview of Autism Belongs

PROLOGUE OF AUTISM BELONGS

     He flew against the door, causing it to burst open just slightly, and then slam shut again. He backed up and flung himself another time, with the same results. Next, he swiveled, attacking the door with his back instead of just one shoulder. This time the door bowed a few inches, before returning to the latched position.
     The woman on the other side of the door alternated between soft sobs and low singing. She crooned a lullaby, sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish, sometimes in a language incomprehensible. “My baby, my precious baby,” she murmured. Tears flowed freely.
     Her head smacked back against the door with each blow. With her back to the door and her feet braced against the edge of the vanity, she fought to keep the door closed, the only barrier between her and her attacker.

CHAPTER ONE OF AUTISM BELONGS

     Tomas grabbed his pocket as his cell phone vibrated. A half second later the ring tone sounded that could indicate only one thing - his wife was in trouble. Again. He wheeled the skid-steer loader to the side of the warehouse, fishing the phone from his pocket. Finger on the answer button, he raised his eyes to meet those of his boss.
     Mr. Humber didn’t say a word.
     Tomas raised an index finger in the signal for “just one minute”. Even the warehouse noises could not mask the sounds of sobbing both he and Mr. Humbly could hear coming from the tiny speaker on the phone.
     “It’s my wife,” explained Tomas. “Our son....”
     “I don’t care.” Mr. Humber’s face belied his words. He paused and his expression hardened. “We all have problems, but this is company time. Once or twice, maybe we can overlook it. But I’ve spoken to you before about this. I said that if you take that phone call, it’s over. Either get that loader moving or come see me in my office. I’ll be watching.”
     The sound of sobbing was masked by an unintelligible roar, the smashing of glass and shrieks of “No!” Tomas hesitated only a microsecond then put the phone to his ear.
     “Maria! Maria! Are you there?” He paused. “Maria, speak to me.”
     “Oh, Tomas, I am so sorry to bother you at work.” Through practice, Tomas could make sense of his wife’s broken words.
     “It’s okay, Maria. Take a deep breath. Try to calm yourself and tell me what’s happening.” As if he didn’t know.
     “It’s Manny. He’s mad again. I’m sorry. I don’t know what I did. He just came at me. I thought we were all right, and then he just started in.”
     “I know, honey. It’s not your fault.” Tomas paused. How many times had he wondered the same thing himself? “Are you hurt?”
     “I’m okay. It’s just a bit of blood and it’s stopping now, but Manny, he’s so upset.” In the background the sounds of yelling and pounding overrode her words.
     “Where are you now? Where is he?”
     “I’m in the bathroom, like you told me to do. Manny’s on the other side of the door. I’m so sorry, but I think he’s made new holes in the door and part of the door jamb may be off. He’s pushing on the door, trying to get in. I’m not sure the lock will hold.”
     “Did you position yourself the way I told you to?”
     “Yes. My feet are against the vanity and my back is to the door. It’s keeping the door shut, but the door bounces each time he throws himself at it.
     “And Tomas, I think Manny has broken many more things this time. He threw the toaster to the floor and I think some parts flew off. He’s mad that I’m hiding in the bathroom, so he’s throwing dishes now. It sounds like lots are smashed.”
     “That’s okay. The main thing is that you’re safe. Now, is Manny safe? Did you lock the hallway door so he can’t get out of the apartment?”
     More sobbing. “I, I don’t know. I think so. Oh, Tomas, I just don’t remember for sure. I try to always do that when you leave for work. Maybe I did but I’m not sure. Oh, what if he leaves? Maybe I should go out and check.”
     “No! Don’t do that. Just stay put. Remember what happened the last time you went to check and I wasn’t there? We can’t afford any more hospital visits. And, we know he hasn’t left. I can hear him in the background, so he’s all right. Just stay there. I’ll be home as soon as I can. I love you. Just wait for me. I’m on my way.”
     Tomas’s mind flashed to an image of the deadbolt he’d placed on the door to their apartment. Just under the deadbolt was a chain lock. No, no, Maria would not have put on that latch. She’d only turned the door lock and the deadbolt. Otherwise, how would he get in to rescue his family?

     Tomas clicked off his phone, glancing up at the window overlooking the warehouse floor. Yes, as promised, there was Mr. Humber watching him.
Knowing what was coming, Tomas drove the loader to its parking spot, shut off the ignition and plugged the machine into the recharger. He did his usual walk-around to ensure that his area was safe and he’d left nothing in the way to harm a co-worker. If he was careful and precise, everything would be all right. They’d all be fine. Squaring his shoulders, he trudged up the stairs to knock on the door to his boss’s office.
     The muffled “come in” came sooner than Tomas hoped. Mr. Humber stood behind his chair, a tidy pile of cash precisely in the center of his desk blotter. The edges were exactly lined up. An envelope with the name Tomas Rodrigues typed in large block letters was just above the stack of bills.
     Unsure whether to attempt an explanation, Tomas waited. So did Mr. Humber.
     “You answered the phone.”
     “Yes, sir.” What else could Tomas say?
     “You made your choice.”
     He knew it was inevitable, but he needed this job to support his family. Struggling to maintain his dignity, Tomas tried. “I felt I had no choice, sir. My wife, she was in danger. Is in danger.”
     “Tomas, we are not unsympathetic to your situation. It’s tough. I know that. But we have a business to run here. We need workers we can depend on.”
     “I understand. And, I am a good worker.”
     “Yes, you are. No one disputes that, when you’re here. But how often do these calls come?”
     As Tomas started to answer, Mr. Humber held up his hand.
     “No, don’t answer. It doesn’t matter. At first, we understood. Emergencies happen to us all. We didn’t keep track. But then it became a regular thing. Once a month, maybe we could overlook, but this is the third time this week. And the final time.”
     “I know, sir. We are working hard to solve the problem. I...” As much as he’d like to, Tomas could not promise that it would never happen again. That drew his mind back to what was likely happening with his son and wife at that very minute. He calculated how long it would take him to run home. There were less people on the streets in the middle of the day, so he could be faster than when going home after work.
     “I’m sorry, Tomas, but it’s over. This has happened too many times for us to keep you. We need workers we can depend on.”
     Tomas winced. A man was to be trusted. He must live up to his responsibilities. If he took on a commitment, he would fulfill it. And now, he’d let down this company that had taken a chance on him when he first came to this country. He had failed.
     Mr. Humber indicated the money on the desk. “Here is your severance pay. It covers the two weeks until the end of this month.”
     Tomas started to interrupt, but Mr. Humber held up his hand.
     “No, this is the way we are doing it. To be blunt, you’re fired. But we do recognize the good job you do when you are here, so we’re paying you out to the end of the month.”
     Tomas waited a second then raised his eyes from the money to Mr. Humber’s face. “What if...?”
     “No, this is final.” He softened. “Look, in six months or a year, if your situation changes considerably, maybe we will talk again, but I’m making no promises. There are other men waiting to take your place who are dependable workers.” He watched the way his words affected Tomas. “Go home and attend to your family. We wish you well.” He gathered the bills into the envelope and passed it to Tomas.
     Neither man offered to shake hands.

CHAPTER TWO OF AUTISM BELONGS

     Pulling out his phone to check the time, Tomas hurried out of the place that had given him and his family a good living almost since the day he arrived in this country. He’d advanced in both responsibility and pay through hard work and diligence. He took pride in doing a good job and being known as a stand-up guy. Now, his reputation was shot.
     His steps quickened as he realized just how much time had gone by since Maria’s call. Was she all right? Where was Manny, and what was he doing?
     Tomas retrieved the last call on his cell phone and pressed the buttons to check on Maria. No answer. Maybe in his worry, he did something wrong and it wasn’t Maria he’d called. He slowed his pace and punched in the numbers one by one. It rang once, twice, four times, and then clicked over to voice mail. At least he heard the sweet voice of his wife, but she didn’t pick up. Tomas slowed and checked the number printed on the screen. Yes, it was the right number, of course it was, and he’d heard her answering machine message.
     The phone went into his shirt pocket and he ran. Maria would know how worried he’d be and answer the phone if she at all could. Or, she’d call him back if she hadn’t gotten to the phone in time. Tomas took the phone from his pocket to make sure he hadn’t accidentally turned it off. Nope, it was on. His pace edged up from a jog to a sprint.

     The punch came between his shoulder blades with a force that sent Tomas into a nose dive. His chin hit the sidewalk, followed by his nose and forehead. One hand scraped along the concrete; the other protected the chest pocket that contained his precious cell phone, his only link to what might be happening at home.
     The blow stunned Tomas momentarily and he didn’t know what had happened. He turned his head to glance behind to see what he’d tripped over. That was when he noticed the pairs of sneaker-clad feet surrounding him by the entrance to the alley.
     Tomas braced his hands under his shoulders to push himself to his feet. It didn’t work. A foot kept him on the ground, a foot that planted itself almost directly where the punch had landed moments ago. Instead, Tomas raised his head, trying to make eye contact with one of his attackers. His gaze skittered around his limited field of vision to see if help was coming. No one. By late afternoon this street would be teeming with commuters heading home from work, but now, well, it was deserted.
     “Dios mio,” he muttered. “Que Dios me ayude.”
     “Huh, there’s no help for saps like you,” was the only reply Tomas heard.
     He tried again. “What do you want?”
     “Your money, genius, what do you think?”
     “I don’t have any money. I just lost my job today. I’m broke.”
     “Riiight. That’s what they all say.” His buddies joined his snickers. “Now hand it over.”
     “I told you. I don’t have money. I got fired, I’m telling you. I can give you my boss’s name and you can go check. He’s only a few blocks away.”
     “I feel a nap coming on and Joey here, well, he’s got a thirst on. We need your cash and anything else interesting from your pockets.”
The toe of the sneaker by Tomas’s right ear tapped on the sidewalk. Its owner said, “Now we can do this nice and easy or we can do it the hard way.”
     “What do you mean?”
     “Is he dense or what?” His buddies laughed with him. “You can nicely hand us everything that’s in your pockets or we can take it from you. I figure we’re being pretty big, giving you options here.”
     “I don’t have any money.”
     “This is getting old. Have at it, guys.”
     Rough hands turned Tomas to his back. Unprepared for the move, the back of his head cracked on the sidewalk. One grimy hand felt the hard, rectangular shape in his shirt pocket and fished out Tomas’s cell phone, waving it in the air.
     “No, come on, guys. You gotta give that back to me. My wife, she’s hurt. That’s the only way I can keep in touch with her and my boy. I need that. She could be bleeding and unconscious. I need my phone.”
     “Ah. For a sob story, that’s not bad, but we’ve heard better, right boys?”
     Other hands continued their search through Tomas’s pockets. One hand shoved the side of his face into the sidewalk while a booted foot kicked his hips over to follow his face. A fist dug out the envelope that was jammed deep into his back pocket.
     There was the sound of paper tearing. “Well, looky, looky what we have here.” The guy fanned the bills in the air.
     “Please, that’s my severance pay. I told you I just got fired. We need that. I have to pay the rent next week and without a job, that’s all we have.”
     “Ah, you’re breaking my heart, sucker. Here. The milk of human kindness and all that...” A five dollar bill fluttered to the ground by Tomas’s shoulder.   With one kick to his back, and one tromp on his hand, they left.

     Tomas cradled his hand to his chest. Gently, he shook it. Bruised, but not broken. He used his other hand to help push himself into a sitting position. He rested his elbows on his knees and hung his head.
Now what? What was he going to do? A man’s duty was to look after his family and he’d just lost the last bit of money they were likely to see for a while.
     His family! How long had it been? He reached for his cell phone and reality flooded in. It was gone. What was he going to do?
As spry as a man at least twice his age, Tomas got to his feet. He held back a groan as he flexed his shoulder muscles and resumed his journey home. His urgency hurried his steps into a lumbering jog.
     At the apartment door, Tomas realized with relief that the punks had not taken his keys. Thank God he kept just the two keys on a ring and they’d sunk deep into the corner of his front pocket. What if they’d taken his keys and he couldn’t get inside to Maria and Manny? What if they’d found out where his family lived and paid a visit when he was not there to protect them?
     Protect them. Yeah, right. A fine job he’d done of protecting himself. But what could he have done, he wondered, as he used the handrail to pull himself up the three flights of stairs to their apartment.
     As he reached the top floor, all was quiet. There was no knot of fellow tenants huddled outside their door listening to the sounds of battle within. Once, elderly Mrs. Weymouth had even called the police.
     Instead, all was silent. At least the door was shut.
     It took only a few tries for Tomas’ fingers to fit the key into the lock and turn the mechanism the correct way. As silently as he could, Tomas swung open the door just enough to get his head in. Carnage. Carnage and silence.
With a sweaty hand against the door, he pushed, still gently enough to make room for his head and shoulders. Not a sound. He entered fully, shutting the door behind him, all the while his gaze taking in the state of his apartment, the apartment his Maria tried to keep so beautifully.
     His eyes landed on the couch and on Maria. There she was, her head draped over the arm of the overstuffed Goodwill find. Was she...? No, there was the rise and fall of her chest. These episodes with Manny left her so exhausted. But, her face. One eye was swelling shut. The trickle of blood over her eyebrow had slowed and was now drying in blobs and runs. Her cheek bone was swollen and he knew from experience that it would soon turn a plethora of rainbow colors. Oh, his poor, beautiful wife. She’d been hurt. Their son, the child she raised so lovingly, had hurt his mother. Again.
Manny! Where was he? Stepping farther into the room, he scanned the apartment. The space was small - a living room and kitchenette spot all in one, beside a galley kitchen just wide enough to allow two people to pass if they were back to back. Maybe Manny was in the over-size storage closet that housed the mattress where he slept.
     Tomas started down the short hallway and there he was. Manny was asleep on the floor in front of the bathroom door. Drying tear tracks and mucous streaked his face. There was blood on some fingertips and bruising on his knuckles. One side of the bathroom door jamb was off, with its tip stuck into the drywall beside the doorway. Tomas cringed. He’d have to patch the sheet rock and somehow find paint exactly the right shade to match the wall, so the landlord would never know that their son had made a hole in the wall. Another hole in the wall. The jamb looked to be in one piece, so replacing that would be easier.
     The open bathroom door allowed him to see the order and tidiness inside, telling him that Manny had not gotten to his mom while she hid, bracing herself against the door. Thank God. His Maria’s injuries could have been much worse if the door had not held or if Maria had not braced herself sufficiently to keep the door closed against their son’s attack.
     It looked like Manny had exhausted himself and fallen asleep. When things had been silent long enough, Maria would have opened the door just a crack and peeked out, ready to slam it shut if Manny launched himself at her. Tomas winced at the thought. To think that a boy, his boy would hurt his mama. No child ever had a mama as good as his Maria. Where did Tomas go so very wrong to raise a son who could harm a woman, let alone his own mother?
     Unwilling to wake Manny and risk an episode erupting again, Tomas tiptoed past. He noticed that the child was covered with a blanket. Ah, Maria. After being hurt and terrified by their son, she still looked out for him.
Gently, he leaned over the couch and pressed his lips to her uninjured cheek. She awoke with a start, hands up to protect herself, fear evident in her widened eyes, her mouth open to shriek.
     “Sh, sh, queirda.” He placed a gentle finger over her lips. “It’s all right. You’re safe now. I’m home.”
     Maria raised herself up on one elbow. “Manny?” she asked. She tried to look over her husband’s shoulder.
     “He’s fine. He’s asleep on the floor in front of the bathroom.”
     “Ohhhh.” Maria sank back onto the couch and closed her eyes. A tear trickled down her cheek. “I’m sorry about the mess, Tomas. I’ll work on that in just a bit. I was so tired by the time Manny stopped that I needed to lay down for a minute.”
     “I know, I know. Sh. Stay where you are. We’ll clean up together in a little while. Right now, I just want to know that you’re all right.” Maria moved over to make room on the couch for her husband. They cuddled together, relishing this quiet oasis in the turmoil their lives had become.
     For a time, all was silent, and then Tomas asked, “We should talk about it.  Can you tell me what happened?”

CHAPTER THREE OF AUTISM BELONGS

     Maria’s muscles spasmed in defensive mode.
     “Sh, it’s okay querida. I’m right here and Manny’s still asleep. Tell me what went on.”
     “I’m so sorry. I didn’t see it coming at all this time. I don’t know what I did to set him off. I thought we were having a good morning. I was drinking coffee and reading a letter from my madre. Manny was at the table with me, eating cereal - dry, the way he likes it. He was picking up each piece with his fingers and seemed to be enjoying it. Then he stuck a piece in his ear - you know how he does that. I held his head, trying to get it out of his ear. Manny kept twisting his head and pulling away from me. He grabbed a spoon and started banging it on the table and hollering while rubbing the side of his head. He flipped over his cereal bowl, spilling it, which made him even madder. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong.
     “Then he yanked open the refrigerator door and started throwing things onto the floor. He grabbed the milk and tried to put it on the table. It landed partly on his overturned bowl and spilled. I caught the carton pretty quickly and set it down. I got a cloth and started cleaning up the mess. I kept telling Manny that it was all right.”
     Tomas nodded. Such incidents were not unusual.
     “And then he ran to the cupboard, but tripped over some of the fridge stuff that he’d thrown on the floor. He bumped his head on the table leg and started yelling even more. Before I could get to him, he made it to the cupboard and got out the cereal. When I saw that he was heading back to the table, I righted his bowl and got ready to pour in the milk for him. That seemed to be what he wanted because once I poured from the box, he climbed back onto his chair.
     “I thought the trouble was all over. He’d wanted milk with his cereal but didn’t know how to tell me that. As he began eating, I put things back in the fridge and started cleaning up the mess.” She looked up at her husband. “I’m sorry the place is still such a disaster.”
     Tomas pulled his arms more tightly around his wife and kissed her forehead just to the left of the rising bruise. “What happened then?”
     “Manny took only a couple bites, and then got madder than ever. He threw his cereal bowl across the room, and his spoon. He yelled, and then he looked at me. Tomas, I know that look; I’ve seen it before. I braced myself like you told me to and got on the opposite side of the table. Still, this time that didn’t help. He launched himself across the table at me. It happened so fast that I couldn’t get out of the way. Plus I was worried that he’d fall and hurt himself. Falling on me would hurt him less than falling from that height onto the floor.”
     “Oh, my dear, I’m sorry I was not here for you.”
     Maria placed one palm along Tomas’s cheek. “You were off making a living for us. It’s my job to look after our home and child while you are out supporting us.”
     With Maria’s words memories of that morning flooded back - the shame of being fired, then the indignities of being robbed. How would he tell this lovely woman who was doing so much for their son that he had lost his job? There would be time for that later. Now, he must be there for Maria. “Did he hurt you?”
     “Oh, not so badly; I reacted quicker today. Honest, Tomas, I’m all right. It only bled for a while and the bruising, well, we know that that will go down. We do not need to go to the doctor or hospital this time. And, I think Manny is all right, although we should look at his hands. He pounded so hard and so long on the bathroom door.”
     “How did the two of you get from the kitchen table to the bathroom?”
Maria hung her head. “I ran.” She met her husband’s eyes. “I tried, really I did. I tried to talk to him. I tried to figure out what was wrong. I tried reasoning with him but he was just so mad. He kept hitting me and hitting me and yelling and punching, and then he tried picking up things off the floor to hit me with. I remembered what you said, how if Manny knocked me out, who would be here to look after him and what harm could he do to himself? So, I tried to get away from him and as soon as I could, I ran to the bathroom.
“Oh, did that make him mad. Remember the last time I did that? When he found that he could not get to me? Well, this time I think it was even worse because he remembered, I think. He used his fists on the door. It was so loud and so hard and the door actually moved when he pounded it. I was afraid that he was going to bust it open. He tried. He was so strong and he was furious with me.
     “We need to check his nails; he may have hurt them. He tried to tear the jamb off the door to get in. He tried biting at the door knob when hitting it didn’t work. I heard some splintering when he was kicking the door. That’s when I called you. Sorry Tomas, but I thought the door was going to give and then what would I have done? I know that your boss does not like it when I call you at work but I didn’t know what else to do. It felt like I was trying to block the door for hours.”
     “Querida, it is fine. You did exactly the right thing. We’ll be okay.”
     Their conversation was interrupted by the sounds of blankets and clothing shifting against the hardwood floor by the bathroom.

     Maria tensed and listened. The blankets settled down again. “Tomas, I am sorry to be such a poor mother to our son. I love him, but honestly, I wish he would stay asleep a bit longer. I don’t feel ready to deal with him quite yet. Do you understand what I mean?”
     “Yes, my Maria, me, too. I feel exactly the same way. Our Manny, he has become a difficult boy to live with. I do not know what we have done wrong. He has been a different child ever since he came into our lives, not what I imagined when we were expecting our baby.”
     “I am ashamed to say that sometimes I watch out the window and see the other kids there playing, or walking to school. They are the same age as our Manny or even younger. Yet, they talk. They can go outside and play. They go to school.” Sadly, she added, “And maybe love their mamas. Maybe they don’t beat them.”
     Tomas pulled back to look into his wife’s eyes. He framed her face with his hands. “Maria, you are the best mother I know - wife and mother. Manny loves you, I know he does. We have some good times, don’t we?”
Maria nodded, with some reluctance.
     “Yes, we do. Our boy is not always like this.” Although, it seems to be happening more and more often, Tomas thought.
     They heard the sounds of Manny getting to his feet.
     “Manny, my man, come and see your tata.”
     When Manny reached the couch, Tomas lifted him up to sit between his parents. Maria put her arms around him and their son nestled into her embrace. His warm, relaxed body fit snugly. Maria thought that anyone entering the apartment now would think they were the perfect family. But they weren’t, she knew. Did other families hide such sad secrets as theirs?

     Maria moved her hands down her son’s arms. Gently, she picked up one hand and inspected it, then the other. Discoloration was beginning and those knuckles had to hurt. But from experience, she and Tomas had learned that Manny seemed to have a high tolerance for such pain. One of Maria’s fears was that Manny would seriously hurt himself one day without his parents even knowing that it had happened. He didn’t cry with pain. He didn’t talk to them. So, after each such episode, Maria tried to inspect her son’s body just to make sure he was all right. Physically. Secretly, she worried that something else might be wrong with her young one, something somewhere people could not see. Somewhere inside was something that could send her sweet boy on rampages.

     Taking advantage of the mellow moment, Tomas relaxed with his little family. Why could not life stay just like this?
     Manny squirmed and his parents released him from their arms. He started across the floor, almost sliding in the puddle of milk.
     When Maria made to get up to clear away the mess, Tomas tightened his arm around her. “Soon. Soon we’ll get up and start cleaning. But let’s just rest here quietly for a few minutes. Manny seems okay now.”
     Indeed, he did. Looking at their beautiful child, you would never believe the tempest that had been Manny earlier that morning. It was always that way. He’d seem fine, then there would be a huge meltdown, then he’d fall asleep. When he awoke, it was for Manny as if nothing untoward had happened. But these episodes left his parents drained.
     “Maria, I have to know. Did Mr. Toolan come? Did anyone call him or the police this time?” Mr. Toolan was the building’s caretaker. Although initially patient once he realized that although he was nine years old, Manny did not yet talk, Mr. Toolan’s tolerance wore thin with repairing the damage the child caused to the apartment. Months ago he had stopped fixing the things Manny broke; making it clear that the damages were the tenants’ responsibility and Tomas must both pay for the materials and fix the damages himself.
     “No. At least, I don’t think so. I did not hear any knocking on the door or any yelling, but it was hard to hear above Manny’s noise.”
     “Maybe none of the neighbors were home and there was no note on the door when I came in, so we’re probably safe this time.”
Maria snuggled back into her husband’s embrace. Tomas hated to break this calm mood, but he had to tell her what had happened that morning.

     Manny navigated the obstacles safely to where his blocks lived on the floor. That was their spot; they must remain exactly there or the world as they knew it would come to an end. Maria only ever washed the floor under them when they were positive Manny was asleep. She and Tomas would memorize the position of the blocks, and then replace them exactly as they had been. From bitter experience, they’d learned just how precise their son’s memory was. He could tell if an angle or a distance was even slightly off.
     The blocks went tumbling as Manny knocked them over, only to begin his endless game again. As he picked up one to join the growing stack, his gaze caught the sun coming in through the window. Dust motes danced in the air. Soon, Manny’s fingers joined in the waltz, moving and swaying in the glittering dust specks. He stood, his body swaying to music that only he could hear.
     “There goes our maestro,” said Maria.
     “At least he’s quiet about it.” Tomas’s smile left his face. “Maria, there’s something I have to tell you. I have bad news.”
     Maria examined her husband’s face and noticed, really noticed for the first time the bruising. “Tomas, what happened? Did I black out and Manny hurt you?” Her fingers gently, so gently traced the discoloration on his forehead.
     “No, it was not Manny. He was sleeping when I came in. This is worse.”
Watching their son’s graceful movements of hand patterns in the sun, he continued. “I lost my job. Mr. Humber heard the phone ring and fired me. He said it was one too many times.”
     Tears slid down Maria’s face. “Oh, Tomas, I’m so sorry. So, so sorry. I should never have called you. I should be able to handle Manny by myself.”
     “No, querida. You did exactly the right thing. That was our plan, remember? Manny could seriously hurt you or hurt himself. He’s big now, too strong for you when he gets like that. You were supposed to call me.”
     “But what will we do now?”
     Tomas sighed. “Mr. Humber gave me two weeks’ pay. Firing me was not just because of today - it’s been coming for a while. He had an envelope of cash all ready with my name on it, as if he was just waiting for the moment to come.”
     “At least we’re okay for a while then. We can pay the rent when it’s due next week.”
     “No, we can’t.” Tomas didn’t know which was the more shameful part to recount - the fact that he’d been fired from a good job or the fact that he’d then lost the last of their money. “On the way home I was mugged.” At Maria’s intake of breath, he was quick to reassure her. “I’m fine. I got a bit of bruising but they didn’t really hurt me.” On his other side, out of Maria’s sight, he tried flexing the hand that had been stepped on. “I told them I had no money but they searched my pockets anyway and found the envelope with my severance pay. They took it - all of it except for this.” He pulled out the rumpled five dollar bill, staring as he folded it over and over in his hands.
Maria turned and wrapped her arms around Tomas’s neck. “As long as you’re safe, we’ll be all right. You’ll think of something. It’s just money. What would Manny and I have done if we’d lost you?”
     Indeed, what would they do, wondered Tomas.



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