Raul did his best to live incognito because nobody could see past his tall palm– like shape and they took him as an instant challenge. He would hide under the covers each night before bed, in his own childlike cave made of sheets and dreams, and fall into whispers. He was a lonely teen with gangly teeth and long, stretched out arms that draped down, almost to his knees in clown proportions, the kind that people always said would be good for basketball, but he was anything but athletic. His body was like Atlantic Avenue, the street that stretches from the freeway to the coast, and much like those who crossed the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific, he was full of goals, but was stuck in the wrong time and town. His black hair was full and round, big like the fronds on the California palm, and it spread out as a hat over his dark face. To onlookers, he was a man, but inside he was a sweet boy, with a tender little chicken heart, the kind of heart that feels everything, and wants everything, the kind of heart that misogynists expected a girl to have, the kind we know exists in more than a few of us, but we pretend is rare. He was a target for the boys because of his stature. Who could conquer the king? That was the question that was asked during games of poker when the boys got together to puff their chests out and dare each other before running out to look for the target of those dares and calling them sissies, trying to pick a fight. Your mama was good last night. That sort of thing, you know, the songs of the streets. Because he was a giant with a rabbit heart, he had to keep the hard shell, like a turtle, like a tortoise that lives a hundred years, with the face of an extra terrestrial.
Raul learned to keep his tiny little beating heart, the one that was like a soft boiled egg, that could puncture with the tiniest prick, its yolk spilling out onto the lungs that surrounded it, in a bind, making sure to keep it hidden and safe. No one could see it. It would be the end of him. After all, he grew up where a man had just run down the bike path a few days before, stabbing people for no reason, or for no reason they could decipher (was there ever a reason?) and the boys on campus yelled out to each other across the halls screaming names to piss each other off and maybe start a fight or maybe end up fighting someone else all together. He grew up where you couldn’t have the heart of a squirrel and let it show.
His mother and father wore the clothes of his home country, the Dominican Republic, and because of this, he was already the one to stand out, not only because of his stature, but because of his lack of street clothes. They looked soft with their bright colors and sweet smiles, which would have been lovely in a community where needs were met and school was a place of learning. Of all the people in his crew, he had only one he could rely on. Only one friend had his back and understood him. He was a palm as well, towering above the others on their campus, but he wasn’t like Raul.
Solomon, the skeleton of Sinaloa, Solo, that’s what they called him, knew Raul and saw his soft eyeball heart without ever asking why it shed tears. Maybe because Solo’s dad had one of those same jelly hearts before he was taken to the River Hades, maybe that’s why he got him, or maybe it was because Solo, had once been sweet like a strawberry, as a young boy, before all of his flesh was ripped out. That could have been it too. No one knew the reason, but it was obvious that they were twin palms. When the guys came up behind Raul, which they often did, and tried to scare the shit out of him, make him mad, or maybe try to push him into a fight, Solo was always there to defend him and keep him out of it. He had a reputation for violence, and unlike Raul, he was from the heart of the cartel in Mexico. He knew exactly what it took to stay on the train top. He held nothing back and stooped down to meet them where they were. How dare you shake this palm. Raul stood tall above them and tried to ignore the gnats while the skeleton took them to meet their maker. He guarded him from his tormentors on the ground and Raul loved him with his tiny crow heart as he sat watching from above.
Solo fought everyone who looked at him and took the wrongs of the world out on his ignorant foes. His sense of mercy had been drowned out of him when he was only five and his mother died of a broken heart and a broken skull. His stepfather had gotten mad at her one morning. Smash. Crack. Scream. He took a bat to her face after finding that she had been studying for the GED instead of making his dinner. Alcohol and violence ran deep–they were playmates. But Solomon was not going to make the same mistake. He vowed to be smarter. Since the 7th grade, when he first met Raul in Spanish class, and his family had taken him in after he lost his parents, each to their separate tragedies, he had vowed to be a protector for him. He saw that Raul was a dahlia, and knew that if someone touched him in hate, his petals would fall to the ground causing him to die a slow and wilted death. His loyalty and love for the only brother he could name was as strong as the blood rushing through his thin body and it fed the only part of him that wished to be alive.
But the vultures had made a decision and the decision was to circle. They had to find out if the palm would break. They had to get in a punch while Solo wasn’t there. At 4pm, after talking to Miss Gonzalez about his D in AP Lit, Raul made his way off campus happy to have convinced her to allow him to rewrite an essay. It was on Love in the Time of Cholera, a book he’d found synchronous to his own experience– a heart that beats too strongly, feels too much. The plague ran through his veins. Solo was usually there waiting for him but because he had to work early that day, he didn’t stay back. The rivers had calmed recently and he wasn’t as worried about a surge, so he assumed Raul was on campus talking with one of the teachers, as usual, and he got on his bike, looking up at a palm tree littered with crows as rode. His stomach dropped when he saw them, but he brushed it off. Omens weren’t real.
Raul never saw them coming.
When Solo heard about how they had tied Raul to a palm tree and beat him to a pulp, he ran out of his aunt’s house in a rage. Who are the motherfucking bastards? I’m gonna find them and kill them. They had beaten him up, and more importantly, had broken his kitten heart, and the petals began to fall to the dust, just as Solo had feared they would. The storm was too rough for Raul and the river was as dry as the lungs that held his labored breathing. He was like a dandelion seed floating in the sky, an entire field of dandelions and their seeds floating, where a mere breeze causes all of them to lose their grip on their stem and be forever blown away.
Solo vowed to get revenge. He learned who had committed the horrible destruction of his sunflower brother, poisoning the root of the flower, and gouged out his heart like a purveyor ruthlessly ripping diamonds out of a mountain, not allowing the blood to coagulate at the end of the artery, causing it to gush. His aunt warned him not to go out onto the streets– you will fall to the same end as your parents– but he could not swallow the idea of staying silent and watching his friend wilt as the rats ran freely in the night streets, sucking the blood out of anyone they saw softness in.
Raul’s parents wept with Solo and told him that their son would heal, but he knew what damage had been done. Please don’t go, Solo. We don’t want to lose you, they said.
Solomon had learned about the decapitations of the medieval times, and the disembowelment that the victors would perform on their captives. He knew how careless and disgusting tyrants could be, and although he wished for a world of sitting by the pool or a beautiful beach on an island, without a care in the world with enough food in his fridge, and parents who loved each other, or were at least alive, and maybe a fluffy dog, running around chasing its tail, he knew that this was not the world that he resided in. His world was like tire tracks on the pavement skidding to a stop. His world was rusty chains and nails, dragging on the floor, hitting their heads on the ground at each bump. His world was the bomb falling on the shelters in Ukraine while mothers try to guard their babies. His world was one of the braves and untold love, a love that bled in tiny hidden hearts. He had to avenge Raul although they begged him to stay still.
With his head hung down, like a willow who weeps, hanging everything out in one last request for water, he made his way out of the front door and into his last night. Raul gasped as he felt the weight of his brother, the twin palm, falling.
They never saw him coming.
Photograph by Enric Cruz López