“Santi, you know you can’t take that,” Zion sighed as she watched her boyfriend inspect the Aunt Jemima syrup bottle.
“I could’ve when I was your little brother’s age,” Santiago grumbled, pouring the syrup all over his pancakes. “Man, I miss this stuff. Too bad it’s worth my whole paycheck. Shoot, let me turn into your gold digger instead of your boyfriend.” Zion swirled around her cereal and glanced up at Santiago, grinning before switching the subject.
“Papá told me before he left today that he’s leaving for some government meeting in Maracaibo tomorrow afternoon and won’t be back for a couple days.”
“Wait, so you can go to the protest on Sunday?” Santiago said excitedly. Zion snorted.
“You make it sound like I’m doing this for the fun of it.”
“Well, I know that, but it’s been awhile since you’ve gone to one,” he responded softly, grabbing her hand, “I’m happy you’re coming back, I’m going to see if I can get out early then.”
“Yeah, well, Papá has been keeping a close eye on me since last month. I think he’s been a little suspicious because my eyes were still red from the tear gas when I came home that one time. Your family can watch Ricky right?” Her brother perked up from the game he was playing on his phone at the sound of his name.
“Of course, you know my mom loves Ricky. I’ll let her know.” Santiago said as he ruffled Ricky’s hair from the side of the table. Ricky ducked his head away, hating when people touched his hair when he had spent so much time in the bathroom trying to get the perfect hairstyle.
“Shoot, I’m gonna be late,” Zion said as she checked her phone, “And you need to get to work too.”
“Can’t I just spend the day with my girlfriend?” Santiago pouted, slumping on his chair.
“I wish that too, but someone’s gotta help pay the bills and it sure isn’t going to be the government,” Zion said as she got up to look for some food. “Ah, here we go. Take these, I’ll just say Ricky decided hide his dinner from tonight and ate this.” She tossed some bags of chips and bananas to Santiago. “This should help.”
“But what if I actually wanted to do that?” Ricky whined.
“That’s unfortunate,” she replied.
“Oooh Zion, you’re a little rebel I see,” Santiago joked as he tossed the food into his bag.
“A little rebel huh,” Zion muttered, “ But I don’t want you to go out to the gathering and lose out on money if you can help it. They’ll always be more of them.”
“Who knows, maybe Robérto will be feeling the power of God and let everyone out early. I’ll let you know.” He kissed her swiftly, “Gotta go. I’ll be throwing rocks at your windows when I want to see you again.” Zion laughed and waved goodbye as she watched Santiago slip out through the window in the living room. Inflation was so bad in Venezuela that Santiago spent more time there trying to get money from his factory job than being at home or with Zion. He was the only male in his family and the only source of income. The rest were all younger sisters that his mom had to take care of. Zion tried her best to help them, sometimes sneaking some cash or food to Santiago. But she knew it was never enough; the need would always be more.
Zion stared up at her father, General Símon Castillo. He glared at her, with his acne, scarred face and deadbeat eyes.
“What in the devil’s name is this?” He slid his phone over to her. On the screen, there was a photo of a large outdoor crowd on a wide street in downtown Caracas filled with people. Their faces were painted yellow, blue and red and Venezuelan flags flew high in the air. As Zion looked closer she saw herself in the front lines with a sign held in the air in big bolded letters reading ONE DAY YOU’LL UNDERSTAND.
Knowing that there was no way out of this, Zion had to speak the truth. “Yeah.”
Zion’s head snapped to one side, and she felt a sharp sting.
“You’re pathetic. I raised you to be better than this, to not side with these pendejos, use your head!” Símon snarled at her.
“Yeah, because hours of waiting for food because of the damn government is such a convenient thing these days, especially if a person is working their ass off to support their family,” Zion shot back. Símon surprisingly stared at Zion, for this was the first time ever she actually verbally contradicted his remarks. Before, Zion would never bring the conversation about his work up, and opted out of the talks during dinner when he would speak of what the government was planning.
“So you’re feeling bold now, mija?” Zion’s father said, “First you go out on a march, and now you’re deciding that you’re some presidente and you’re ready to lead the country? Should we put your name on a ballot and have people vote for you and to decisions for us since you know so much?”
“I know enough that what the government does is absolutely nothing for the people!” Zion yelled, rising up from her seat. “I’ve tried understanding your ways, but it seems to me that you government people seem to only care about yourselves.”
The next thing Zion could taste was blood. She heard a phone fall to the ground and felt a push as her head banged against the wall.
“You need to shut up right now,” Símon growled. “I have been poor; I know what it’s like to live when I didn’t know where my next meal came from. I know. I have worked my whole life to where I am today, and you should be damn grateful you live in a nice house with nice things.”
“Papá, when was the last time you’ve been to your hometown? To see your tíos, tías, and cousins? When was the last time you talked about the fact that at one point 70% of the people didn’t have power in Venezuela or how people didn’t have the right stuff to get themselves cleaned? Or how Mamá was shot by one of you, but of course, you made up some stupid fantasy on how she was a spy, working for Maduro!” Her father could deny it, but Zion had sat next to her mother in the pool of blood, cradling her head as the guard drew back his gun. She couldn’t forget so easily.
Then, Zion couldn’t breathe. Meaty hands clung to her neck, not letting go. “Don’t you bring up your mother to use it against me. You know why she died, and it wasn’t because she was joining the rebels.” Zion gasped for air as the hands loosened. Her mother had been caught in a crossfire between rebels and government officials some years prior, and that had formed a brick wall between Zion and her father. He had claimed that the rebels had shot her, but Zion remembered that it was in fact the government to who killed her.
She could drop this conversation, or keep it going and suffer the consequences. But she was tired. Tired of the lies, the fake nods and smiles, the parties with other rich government officials, tired of watching the news with a sense of hopelessness, tired of being fake. She wanted to be real for once in her life, and nothing would be the same after that.
“You may not think this, Papá, but we do have one thing in common. We love this country too much to stop what we do. No matter what I say, you won’t change, and I won’t either,” Zion quietly said.
“When you finish school, I want you out.” Símon respond. “I can’t look at you in the eye and raise a little girl who rejects me. Now I know who you really are.” Símon turned and looked one last time at his daughter with a dark expression and he walked away. Tears pricked at the corners of Zion’s eyes. Her shoulders slumped. She turned her head towards the living room door, and there stood her 12 year old brother Ricky.
“Papá’s sleeping so I grabbed some ice from the fridge,” Ricky said, looking down at his shoes, rocking back and forth. She grabbed the ice, wincing as the coldness hit her face.
“Yeah, Zion?” Ricky responded still looking down at his shoes.
“Ricky, look at me,” she pleaded. After a few long moments he brought his eyes back to hers. “How much did you see?”
“All of it.” Zion laid back on her bed, the exhaustion coming on to her. “You didn’t even fight back. Why, Zion?”
“You’re too young to understand that,” she replied.
“I’m almost a teenager, I can handle this,” Ricky said, more firmly than before. He sat on on a chair and crossed his arms, “Why didn’t you fight back, tell the cops anything?”
She laughed bitterly, “What am I going to say to the cops, that a general who helps lead this country throws phones at his daughter? This is why you don’t get this, because men don’t listen to these type of things.”
“I do, and that’s not right!” Ricky said, anger evident in his voice. Zion remembered the times where she would run into school late because of having to cover her face with makeup. She remembered crawling on the floor, picking up broken shards of glass so Ricky wouldn’t step on them later. Before her mom died, she remembered her mom teaching Zion which bottles of liquor made her father drunker faster, so she knew when to stay out of his way.
“Life isn’t right or fair,” Zion replied, “You just gotta keep on marching along.”
“But what’s the point if you come home to get beat up like a rag doll and looked down upon. Zion, how did you let this happen?” Zion looked at Ricky dead in the eyes.
“So you don’t say shit like that. I didn’t choose to come home to have Papá beat me. I can’t control when he decides that he wants to scream in my ear for an hour. I stand and take this from him because he pays things I need and life. I have dreams, Ricky. I have a dream where I travel the world, looking at different people’s lives, trying new foods, discovering new things. I can’t do that if I’m living in the streets or some run down apartment trying to support myself. And you don’t deserve to be living alone with that bastard who calls himself a father. So I take all of it so you and I can have a better life in the future.” Zion’s eyes begin to cloud, all sorts of emotions beginning to spill out.
Ricky broke eye contact and paused for a bit. “Did that ever happen to Mamá?” he asked softly.
“Worse than me,” she said, “I remember her telling me she named me Zion because it means to rise up and all. I guess she thought I was gonna make a difference with Papá.”
“Well, that photo of you holding up that sign is all over Facebook, so I think you doing okay with that difference part,” a voice jokingly called from Zion’s opened window.
“Santiago!” Zion scolded as her voice went into a whisper. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Oh, yeah, I texted him,” Ricky said sheepishly. “I thought you may have wanted to see him and Papá is in those deep sleeps where nothing can wake him up.”
“And of course Santi came,” Zion said, with a smile tugging her lips.
“Damn, I might have to expose myself to your dad because he’s really pushing me to give him a nice bruise,” Santiago said. He softly lifted Zion’s chin up to take a closer look. The bruise had began to become an angry purple.
“Yeah, and you’ll end up getting us both killed,” Zion replied. Santiago had placed his phone on floor when she saw a text notification from a random number.
5551212: Land is ready. Better to leave this weekend during that rally Downtown because all attention will be there.
Santiago took a long look at his phone and then back at Zion. “So you’re leaving,” Ricky stated.
“I have no choice, they’re picking us off one by one. Taking us into ‘questioning’ and never returning. I can’t just ditch my family and run away. And that’s why I’m also here. I want you and Zion to come with me. It’s off the map, they’ll never find us,” Santiago started rambling.
“Are you being serious? For good?” Ricky said, surprise written on his face.
“Until things change here, yeah. But I don’t know when that’ll change.” Zion sat quietly. The weight of the day’s events started overwhelm her. She shut her eyes, wishing she could curl up in a ball and never leave. “Zion, you’re scrunching your eyebrows. What are you thinking,” Santiago said as he waved his hand over her face. “I don’t want to leave you or Ricky in this hell hole.”
“I don’t know.”
Santiago straightened up. “Zion, this is your chance to get away from your dad and you’re saying I don’t know! His second job is to beat the shit out of you, and you want to stay?!”
“She wants to do stuff with her life,” Ricky said. “Zion can’t do that if she’s in hiding.” Zion nodded slowly in agreement.
“Ricky you’re going,” Zion said.
“Wait, what?” Ricky turned towards her.
“You’ll be able to leave when you’re older, but you need to get out of here now. I’m leaving in a year to college and you’re not about to be staying with Papá alone.” Zion responded firmly. She blinked back tears, knowing she was about to lose everything.
“Zion, Santi’s right. You can’t stay here.” Ricky shot up from the bed. “It’s not safe.”
“I can survive another year. But I’m not letting what happened to me or Mamá happen to you. I’m going to drop you off tomorrow with Santiago and you’re going to leave with him. Do you understand?”
“But Zion––” Ricky began, but Zion cut him off.
“Ricky, do you understand me?” Zion said more sternly, swallowing the lump in her throat.
“I can’t believe you,” Ricky’s voice shook. He stormed out the room, leaving Santiago and Zion alone.
“Zion, he has a point. It’s not safe here anymore. Please, Zion. I can’t lose you.”
“Before my mom died, she said to do something with my life. I need to get out of this country. But I also need to finish my fight with my father. I have fought too hard and long to let him get away with what he does,” Zion said brokenly. She began to sob, knowing that she was about to lose everything she loved for good. Santiago held her, both letting the tears streak down their faces.
“Ricky, stay near,” Zion called as she weaved her way through the streets of Caracas. Today was the day that Ricky would go with Santiago. Zion had been feeling numb, but she spent as much time as she could with the boys. Ricky of course, had pouted, fought and argued with Zion everyday as she kept her stance. Ricky grabbed her shirt to stay close. Their father (again) had left for another meeting. Zion assumed that he thought she would be too scared to leave the house but here she was in a middle of a protest in broad daylight. The day was muggy, with the sun beating down and not a cloud in sight. They were walking alongside the protesters, going to the small market where Santiago would be waiting.
“Hey! Over here!” A voice called from a distance. Santiago stood waiting with a grim expression on his face. Zion began to walk faster, knowing that their time to get out unnoticed was dwindling because the crowds were beginning to move ahead. When they got there, Santiago cleared his throat. “So this is it,” he said.
“Yeah,” Zion blinked and looked away. Santiago wrapped his arms around her, rocking slowly back and forth.
“Thank you for choosing me. I’ve never been in love like this before,” Santiago whispered into her hair.
“The last thing you say won’t be a song lyric now,” Zion laughed shakily as she looked into her boyfriend’s eyes, “This isn’t the end, I’ll come back.”
She tipped toed into one last kiss when all of a sudden, she heard a thud and a voice screech, “ERES EL HIJO DE LA GRAN PUTA.” She spun around just in time to see a guard walking by pick up a large stone that had ricocheted off of the shield he was carrying.
“HEY YOU, DID YOU THROW THIS?” the guard yelled as he marched right towards Ricky, who had a determined look on his face. Zion knew that there was only a few seconds before her brother would be smacked on the floor, ruining his chances of ever leaving.
“No, that was me, idiot,” Zion said as she stepped in front of Ricky.
“Say that again, bitch,” the guard snarled, stepping closer.
Zion looked back with a look of desperation and mouthed GO before responding, “Fuck off.”
She didn’t get a last glimpse of Ricky or Santiago, but she hoped they had gotten away. More guards came closer and just as she predicted, her face hit the asphalt and her arms tightened around her back. Then, she felt a cool barrel in the back of her head.
“Say it again, I dare you,” the guard barked in her ear. Zion shut her eyes and all she could hear was her own heartbeat slowly beating, everything fading out into the darkness.
Then, there was nothing.