The gun had gone off. It was an accident.
A medallion of El Cristo hung from the rear view mirror at the end of a silver chain. The dashboard splashed it with red light. Its polished surfaces reflected the desert moon. Manuel stared. It swung with every turn, each bump in the road. It was his only companion. He felt alone, in more ways than he cared to count.
El Cristo was watching him, he knew.
“Come on, come on!” He swore. The Rio Grande, and escape, lay ahead. He checked behind, certain that the sky would soon be blazing with red and blue strobes. His foot was to the floor. The engine strained to maintain the pace. A sign blurred in the darkness. Fifteen more miles.
His heart raced, he could scarcely breathe. A cry jerked from his tightened throat.
He had robbed a church. The same church where his mother wept each day. She prayed without ceasing, always for him.
“I ask that El Cristo will humble you in this life, Manuel,” she had once said, “so that you can live in the next. You and your gang think you’re tough. But you’re arrogant and cause nothing but pain. Niño, come pray with me.”
He had pushed past her. “La Raza first, mi madre. El Cristo can wait.”
When the gun fired he had shrieked like a child and ran stumbling from the sanctuary. Arrogance had been stripped from him in a muzzle flash.
The tires kicked up gravel along the shoulder. He struggled to regain control. Branches from the sage brush slapped at the windshield like claws grasping for his throat. He swerved back onto the pavement, straddling the center line.
He had dumped the money box onto a table. There wasn’t much from the poor congregation. He was searching for more when a hand touched his shoulder. He turned, startled, his muscles tensing. His finger squeezed the trigger. He hadn’t meant to. The report was deafening but not as jarring as the eyes that searched his own.
The exchange lasted no more than an instant. The instant seemed eternal and continued to replay in his mind.
What haunted him most was the sound of his mother’s last word. “Niño?” She didn’t seem angry, there was no fear in her voice, no disappointment. Instead her tone was laced with confusion as if she were searching for a last puzzle piece that had somehow slipped away.
Then the bullet had pierced her face.
His eyes stung at the memory, his vision blurring with moisture. “Mi madre, mi madre, mi madre. Lo siento. Lamento mucho.” The words choked him, burning as they spilled out. “I’m sorry. It was an accident.” Tears streamed down his cheeks. He swiped at his eyes, trying to shut off the torrent.
His face felt sticky.
He looked at his palm. It was smeared with blood, dark and clotted. He couldn’t breathe. He rubbed his forehead, running his hand along his nose. More of the same, streaked and red. He screamed and began to claw at his face with shaking fingers, trying to scrape away his mother’s gore.
But he was stained with it, both on his flesh and in his being.
He felt a blackness swallowing him, his soul being dragged into a depth he couldn‘t fathom. A weight pressed against his mind. “Mi madre! Why were you there? You weren’t supposed to be there!”
She wept each day, always for him. “You cause nothing but pain. What will you do in the next life?”
He didn’t hear the grating sound of metal shattering the wooden guardrail. The arroyo was one hundred feet deep, the embankment steep and rocky. His world became a tumbling cacophony. But all he could hear was his mother’s confused voice, “Niño?” All he could see was El Cristo, flickering in the darkness and reaching for him.
And then there was nothing.
One arm was pinned. The steering wheel pressed into his ribs. Liquid, vile and hot, spilled from his mouth. The medallion of El Cristo swung before him, splashed red from his blood, and that of his mother. Its polished surfaces reflected the flames coming through the engine compartment. Manuel stared. El Cristo was calling for him, he knew. He closed his eyes. He saw himself covered with blood, the blood of El Cristo.
He stretched out his hand and grasped the medallion.
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