That Carlitos had killed his brother was never in dispute, but what the Court could not decide was whether or not it was premeditated. It is difficult to believe a thirteen-year-old boy could plan his own brother’s death. Not even Carlitos could tell you with any certainty whether or not he had planned the whole thing. What the Court knew was that one afternoon, a very ordinary afternoon, Carlitos struck his brother Pedro in the back of the neck with a branch, a branch with a sharp enough spike to puncture the carotid artery. That his brother fell to the ground in the front yard with blood squirting from his neck, each beat of his heart propelling the blood across the dying grass in a thin arc, was never discussed. Not even the court knew these additional details of the death. What it knew was that Carlitos struck his brother in the neck and killed him. The blood pulsing, the dying grass, Carlitos standing there holding the branch as if he were paralyzed, the sun disappearing from the sky then twilight and shimmering, the way he kept yelling at his brother to get up, to stop this crap, to stop it, get up: the court knew none of that.
“Carlos! Get up! I am not going to call you again. You need to get up and do your walk now!” Every morning at 10:30 the doctor’s assistant would come and fetch Carlitos. The walk lasted exactly thirty minutes, and the path was the same one used each and every day. This assistant, Bill, was a wiry Asian man who, to Carlitos, looked nothing like a Bill. A Bill was some white guy wearing a preppy shirt, one called Biff by his friends. Some Asian dude should not be named Bill. It wasn’t that the name Bill was too white but that to Carlitos it seemed like a fraudulent name. He, Carlitos, couldn’t escape his own name and the fact of how it marked him, preceded him. Carlos Drogón Blanco, son of Ricardo and Rosa, called Carlitos because he was smaller than he should have been up until about six years of age. Carlos Blanco was a name that one couldn’t escape from the way Carlitos believed the name Bill allowed this Asian man to do. Carlitos wanted desperately to ask if that was a nickname, an English name. He wanted to know if fake-Bill had another name, a real name.
“Get up! I know you can hear me. Doctor says you have to do this, and that is what you have to do.” The “do” at the end of the sentence went on: Carlitos heard it as do-oo-ooo-oo, the “o” almost endless through the plexi-glass window. So Carlitos got up, went to the door, looked through the plexi-glass at fake-Bill, and then watched as he unlocked the door. Fake-Bill had been helping take care of Carlitos for about six months. Carlitos knew it was literally a matter of weeks before someone new would show up. These assistants never lasted more than seven months. Somewhere around the six-month mark, they would be promoted, or fired, or they would quit. Carlitos had lost track of how many assistants he had seen over the years. Fake-Bill was at least consistent. He would talk to him in the same way, in a dull and almost patronizing way. Carlitos liked that. Fake-Bill didn’t try to understand Carlitos, didn’t try to glean something via his eyes or his expression. Many of the previous assistants would try to keep notes, try to decipher the expression on Carlitos’s face or the way he moved his eyes. Each wanted to find a way of understanding this man who had killed his own brother. Each wanted a prize of some kind, a prize like Carter and others received for deciphering hieroglyphics on tablets from Ancient Egypt. One by one, these assistants would give up. But fake-Bill never tried anything like that. He just showed up and did his job.
“You know the drill. Hand, please. And yes, you have to wear the strap.” Strap is what fake-Bill called the leash that attached the handcuff he placed on Carlitos’s wrist to the belt around fake-Bill’s waist. Even though the grounds were fenced, this was a requirement. And Fake-Bill was right; Carlitos knew the drill. But today, Carlitos didn’t want to put on the handcuff. And maybe, in some odd way, Carlitos hoped that this would somehow get him out of doing the walk, a walk that time after time filled him with more and more anxiety. He could tell you how many azalea bushes and how many hydrangeas lined the south walk. He could tell you that at the time of his walk, at this time of year, that the oak casts a shadow across the third concrete block from the end of the long sidewalk. He could even tell you that the jays would be here next week and would be territorial and aggressive because of the newly hatched, struggling chicks. Carlitos knew all of this, but he would never tell a soul.
After the walk, what the doctor sometimes referred to as a “constitutional,” Carlitos was put back in his room. The door was locked. Fake-Bill said something about how he wouldn’t see him at lunch or at afternoon games because he had an interview or something. Carlitos was only half-listening. When he looked back, all he saw was fake-Bill’s back as he exited the outer-doors of the hallway that led to his single room with its single bed, its one chair, its one small table, and a sink above which hung an old mirror and a shelf with one coffee mug, one plastic glass, and his sad toothbrush next to one small tube of toothpaste. Suzanne, the red-haired woman, would arrive in an hour with his mail and place it in the bin by the door at the end of the hallway. She never so much as waved or said a word when she did this. She just dropped the mail in the bin and then walked out. If he had mail, they wouldn’t retrieve it from the bin and give it to him until after lunch. The caretakers and assistants knew that to let Carlitos read any letters before lunch might lead to a difficult meal. The letters often riled Carlitos up. Made him act out. Made him even crazier than everyone already thought he was. The one aspect of these letters no one discussed, not even the doctor, was the fact they all came from one person, Rosa Blanco. The letters all came from his mother.
Old Flora Diaz is dead. The old bruja is finally dead. A sister of hers came here to plan the funeral and burial and had the nerve to ask me if I could help her. Me. As if I would ever help do anything for that bruja. Look at what she did to you and your Father! I know that as well as I know anything. I know she is in Hell now. She never went to Mass, that Flora. She never went once in all the years I have lived here. And she should suffer in Hell for all of her evil ways. Not even Guadalupe can help her now.
The doctor says you have been doing well lately. You know you need to do well, Carlitos. You need to learn to follow the instructions of the people there. It is for your own safety. You cannot be stubborn. You have to remember how lucky you are to be alive. God spared you so I wouldn’t have to cry more than I already do. God spared you death despite what you did. And you need to be thankful for that.
I pray for you each and every day, my son. And I pray you don’t end up in Hell. All we can hope is that Pedro speaks to God on your behalf and reminds God it was an accident, reminds Him that you didn’t mean to kill him. Will you tell me that? Will you tell me, your only mother, that it was an accident? I know it was an accident, but could you tell me this? I know I ask a lot, but because of your carelessness I lost a son. Do you ever think of that? I lost one of my sons.
Okay, I will close the way I always do, by telling you I love you and by telling you I am praying for you. Be good for the people there. Please son, be good.
amor y besos,
Rosa always ended her letters to him with amor y besos. It was the only time where her desire to use English correctly could not be implemented. To close a letter with English was akin to abomination to Rosa. And it made Carlitos crazy, despite the fact he understood this better than almost anyone his mother knew. Everything about her letters made him angry. Several times per week these letters arrived and each and every time they were essentially the same. She prayed. She wanted him to admit killing Pedro was an accident. She was suffering. It was as if all he needed to do was read the first paragraph only. That was the only part of the letter that changed from letter to letter. One could read a letter from two years ago or the one that would arrive two days from now — they would both be the same. And yet, despite this, Carlitos always read the entire thing. No one else wrote to him. He had no one else. The letter was as much a part of his routine as the walk.
Carlitos did not behave himself at Lunch. He often didn’t. He ate, at most, four bites of his sandwich and then started throwing the rest of it across the small dining hall, at which point he was promptly returned to his room. He long ago discovered that this was a surefire way to get sent back to his room. He hated lunch. It was the only meal where he had to sit with the crazies and watch them all try to be normal. He wanted none of it. Breakfast and dinner were always brought to him in his room. And he would bet money that the reason lunch was in the dining area and not dinner had more to do with lack of staffing at dinnertime than anything else. And in this, Carlitos would be 100% correct. At lunchtime, the entire staff was there. And even though Carlitos had no idea exactly how many people worked at the facility, he had somehow figured this out. Lunch was the bane of his existence. He had been sitting across from the guy who had raped his sister and then cut out her tongue so she couldn’t tell anyone about it. Carlitos couldn’t understand how anyone could be so stupid as to cut out someone’s tongue with the notion that this could stop them from “talking.” Things like this never worked, not even in the movies or old books. Tongue or no tongue, the truth always came out. The lawyers had argued insanity and the Court spared him for a life in prison. Most of the other patients there didn’t know the whole story about how the incestuous rapist ended up there, but very little escaped Carlitos. Many assumed he was dumb, and they said unbelievable things within earshot of him, things they would never say in front of another patient. But the rapist was making terrible smacking noises as he ate, which he often did, chewing with his mouth open in a slow and methodical way so that the food could be seen going from solid to less solid states, his large tongue slowly moving the chewed-up food around in his mouth, and Carlitos was convinced the rapist was doing it on purpose to annoy him. Some ham smeared with mustard, pulled from the uneaten portion of his sandwich and thrown across the table, put a quick and clean end to the situation. Carlitos was back in his room within six minutes.
With the exception of the walk and the lunch, Carlitos spent the majority of his day locked in his room. He had no telephone or television. All he had was an iPad, the gift of a philanthropic organization. The doctor had to approve any downloads of apps for it. No streaming video and, since the internet connection in the patient areas was limited and controlled, no email either. To even download an app, Carlitos had to make an appointment with the doctor’s secretary. What Carlitos was supposed to use the iPad for was to read books. Mostly he played a game with exploding jewels. At night, he would use an app that showed the night sky and the stars. He would lie on his back in the dark of his room with his iPad raised over his face at arm’s length looking at the constellations. As with the jays and the shadows, he had grown aware of when to expect certain constellations. He had that kind of a mind. He preferred keeping a journal on his iPad, despite the fact they provided him pencils and notepads. The notepads were never a problem, but the pencils were always tricky. Sometimes, the pencils seemed to elongate before his very eyes into spears and stakes. They would transform into branches in his hand, branches with spikes and thorns and all manner of pointed things. What Carlitos could not understand was why this never happened with, say, his toothbrush. The toothbrush always remained a toothbrush. But pencils, well they sat in the corner of the room in their box. He couldn’t use them. He wouldn’t look at them.
Once every few weeks, Carlitos would be summoned to see the doctor. It had been the same doctor for the entire time he had been there. The doctor would ask him questions and then watch for a change of expression. It was almost always the same. “Have you had any dreams, Carlos? Any visions of odd things? Are you keeping your journal?” Carlitos’s face remained unchanged. Sometimes, the doctor would ask if he had gotten any interesting news from his mother. Other times he asked whether or not Carlitos wanted to see a priest. For this, and this alone, Carlitos would offer a response. He would slowly rotate his head left to right and back to the left. “No? You still don’t want to see a priest? Your mother always asks if we can let you see a priest …” Again, Carlitos twisted his head. And again, the doctor would sigh and jot a few words on the paper in Carlitos’s chart. As he wrote, Carlitos stared at the doctor’s pen. He didn’t do this to see if it would transform into a branch or switch but to decipher what the doctor scribbled in the chart, the chart that had grown larger and larger with time, the one labeled CARLOS DROGÓN BLANCO, No. 0167 in yellow and white plastic tape. That day, the doctor wrote: “Status unchanged. Responds with head nod No. No other response. Remains mute.”
When Carlitos lined up three jewels of the same kind on his iPad, they would explode and new jewels would fall into the excavated space. If he lined them up like an L, they exploded in a different way. As they exploded, Carlitos felt he could almost make out markings in the background of the screen, small etchings or hieroglyphs. But he could never remember them long enough to string them together, to construct the message he was certain was there behind the jewels. The jewels exploded and the small traces of light then faded away. And then there were new jewels. Father Happy had told Carlitos that every living soul was like a jewel in God’s eyes. And somewhere buried deep within Carlitos, this resonated each and every time the jewels exploded, though he couldn’t explain this to anyone, much less himself. Beautiful jewel, Father Happy called Carlitos. Beautiful jewel. But there on the screen of the iPad, the only beauty was when row upon row of jewels exploded like fireworks and then twinkled like stars. No priest. Carlitos absolutely did not want to see a priest, any priest.
Fake-Bill arrived on schedule after a few days’ absence. “Carlos! Get up! You know what time it is.” Carlitos walked to the door and received the acrylic handcuff and the strap. He walked with fake-Bill down the path, around the stone garden and then down the main walk and back. The birds were fairly silent, something that seemed strange. It was as if half or more of the birds had disappeared. And there were no jays around to have scared the other birds off. Carlitos looked all around for the jays. The jays were supposed to be there, practically everywhere, by then. The lone long branch that hung over the walkway, the one that littered the walk in the fall and shadowed it at this time of year, the one that almost without fail would be perch for a bird or two at this hour, was empty. This did not seem right. He followed the branch from the central trunk of the tree out, out, tracing each branch branching into smaller branches, but there wasn’t a single bird in the tree. There was always a bird there. At this time of year, there was always a bird there. He was not stupid; he knew that it wasn’t necessarily the same bird. But there was always a bird there. Just as they were approaching the door to the wing where Carlitos stayed, fake-Bill announced: “It’s my last day, Carlos. They have been training my replacement, and the doctor will introduce you to him tomorrow. I got into med school. Not that you care or anything, but just wanted to tell you.”
Carlitos stopped and stared at fake-Bill and, for the first time, fake-Bill saw a living man inside Carlitos’s eyes. What fake-Bill expected was anger or rage, but what he saw was something closer to fear or panic. Fake-Bill knew in that moment he would be a great psychiatrist. He knew it as surely as anything. He had cracked the mute who refused to show a thing, the poker player who never gave a thing away with his expression. Fake-Bill was sure of it, sure he had seen panic in Carlitos’s face, his eyes. Yes, he knew he was destined for greatness after all. “So, come on Carlos. Let’s get you back to your room.”
The following day, after the guy who normally worked weekends showed up and took Carlitos on his walk, after the interminable lunch that he should have ended with a quick throw of food but didn’t, after the letter from his mother and news of a distant relative being sick, he was summoned to the doctor’s office where he was introduced to the new assistant that would be assigned to him. “Carlos, this is Raul Sanchez, one of my new assistants. He has been assigned to you and will be helping take care of you from now on. As you know, William has left us for better things.”
“Carlos, I go by Pedro, so you can call me Pedro.”
“Mr. Sanchez … He is the one, remember? He won’t call you anything.”
“I know, sir. But I just wanted him to know.”
“All he ever does is wave his head to say no. And he only does that when you ask him to see the priest. Otherwise, you get nothing from this one. ”
“I understand, sir. I just … Well, I just wanted to say what I would say to any of the other patients.”
“You will soon see that this kind of thing is a waste of time.”
“Yes, sir. I am here to learn and improve my skills.”
Carlitos was escorted back to his room by Raul-who-was-to-be-called-Pedro. Pedro spoke to him the entire way, something fake-Bill and the others never did. At times, Pedro spoke to him in Spanish to see if that elicited more of a response than English did. But Carlitos didn’t respond. “You know, Carlos, I am here for you. However you want to talk, we can talk. I know you write, so if you want, you can write me a letter. Anything you want to do, we can do.” Raul-who-was-to-be-called-Pedro watched for a response from Carlitos, but there was no response. Once he had deposited Carlitos in his room and locked the door, he started to walk off but turned around and came back to the door. Unlike most assistants who just yelled loudly enough to be heard through the door, through the plexi-glass window, Pedro picked up the telephone. Carlitos stared at him in disbelief but walked over and picked up the phone on his end. “Forgot to say I’ll see you tomorrow for your walk. You know, this phone thing is kind of cool. It’s like a walkie-talkie or something. It reminds me of when I was a kid. I used to connect cans together with a string …” Carlitos dropped the phone and backed away from the door without ever taking his eyes off of Raul-who-was-to-be called-Pedro. He kept asking him to pick up, but Carlitos wouldn’t. The new assistant eventually tired of trying and then hung up his end and walked away. The phone inside Carlitos’s room dangled like a small weight on a string. Carlitos wouldn’t hang it up; he wouldn’t even go near it. He stared at it and furrowed his brow. He backed away from it, from the door, until he could feel the side of the bed behind his knees. He sat then and continued to stare at the phone, the receiver in that moment looking like a musical note suspended in air.
That night, as he lay in bed holding the iPad up toward the ceiling with both hands, Carlitos tried to find Scorpio, which he was convinced he should be able to see. He tilted the iPad in every direction looking for it, but it was nowhere to be found. How could this man, named Pedro of all things, show up today? Why was he here? Pedro, his brother’s name. Why now? Why had his brother chosen now to come back? Carlitos could not, for the life of him, find Scorpio. He knew it should be there in its usual location, that it should be there at this time of year. He followed the stars, each of the small lines of branching stars that should lead toward Scorpio, and found nothing remotely resembling Scorpio. Someone had stolen it, he thought. Someone had killed it. He shifted the iPad above his head in direction after direction for almost an hour before giving up. After what seemed like hours in the dark lying perfectly still, he knew he wasn’t going to fall asleep, and he began playing his jewel game. His dead brother had taken the form of this new assistant, an assistant who wanted to be called by his dead brother’s name. His dead brother had taken human form and wanted to talk on the phone. Surely this was a terrible sign. Up until that day, the only way Carlitos had ever seen Pedro was outside in the garden. Pedro chirping the same short staccato notes in sequence, Pedro hopping sideways on a branch tapping out a kind of Morse code; these were the things to which he had become accustomed. And there in front of him, as a column of jewels exploded and caused an adjacent row to explode as well, Carlitos saw the letter P form and then disappear. He didn’t speak then. He didn’t even try. But he cried. The sounds that escaped his mouth weren’t perfect English or even a poor Spanish. They were guttural and dark, as if a language so old it didn’t yet have syllables. The vocal cords which up until then had been dried, desiccated, sick with immobility, suddenly worked. Carlitos cried and grunted a string of muted, dull coughs and chokes. And these sounds surprised Carlitos, who hadn’t heard his own voice since that afternoon so long ago after he had screamed “Get up! Get up!” He cried, and row after row of jewels kept exploding on his screen, each explosion blurred and streaked by his wet eyes. But he kept playing. Why now? Carlitos choked and sobbed. He shook with fear. And on his screen, the jewels continued falling into place, exploding in a panic and falling like stars, like those rare stars you sight on a summer night, the ones you only see when you are alone, completely alone, the ones seen when you least expect it.about the author