It’s late at night when the memory comes for me, like it always seems to when the relief of sleep is ready to draw me under. The fire. I recall it as a heat on my face, a deep, quick voice that might be my father’s, my brother’s skinny arms around me, the glass of the windows blowing out, explosions that for the longest time I thought were fireworks. But they were gunshots; I know that now. The curtains going up like they were made to burn. The thick smell of smoke. Then darkness.
All I can do is lie on my cot in the corner of the washroom and wait for the memory to burn itself out. The room is small and square. Sand oozes up between the splintery floorboards. There’s the washbasin where I spend most of the day, and there’s my beat up writing desk in the corner, buried in books bought or stolen from traveling sellers.
Memory is a monster, far worse than anything lurking under a bed. I rub my eyes, slap my cheeks, anything to fight it off. But it’s no good. So I close my eyes and dig down deep into the past, trying my best to remember the good times in between the bad.
I think of my brother, Nikko. I think of the old stories he used to tell me. Of bullet catchers and gunslingers. Of good versus evil. In Nikko’s stories, good always won. I think of our parents’ old homestead, before the fire. I think we were happy then, but I was too young to know for sure. So young that when I try to imagine my parents’ faces, the image is blurred like a washed-out photograph. And then there’s the monster again, coming for me in the memory of the orphanage, in the glowering faces of the Brothers and Sisters who took us in.
“Immaculada Amaya Moreno!” the Sister yelled. “Get over here now!”
And there I am, peeking out from behind my brother. He was bigger than me and good to hide behind.
“Imma,” I said. “Call me Imma.”
The Sister grabbed me by the arm and hauled me in front of some fat old man, the latest prospective adopter. Some who came to the orphanage wore the nervous expressions of hopeful parents, but mostly they were people looking for cheap labor. Small hands are good for watch-tinkering or bullet-making. Small fingers are useful for polishing the inside of shell casings.
“This one’s ready for immediate adoption to a good home,” the Sister said. The fat man grabbed my hands and checked my fingers. Held me by the jaw and pulled down my lip and examined my teeth and the whites of my eyes like he was buying a farm animal.
“Too skinny,” he said. “She looks ready to keel over.”
“You’d be getting her at a significant discount,” the Sister said. But the fat man just snorted and moved on down the line, examining the other orphans. I hid back behind Nikko and he put his arm around me.
Back then, Nikko didn’t have much more meat on his bones than I did. He was starved-looking, cheeks pasty and sucked in, his smile crooked and forced. But he was always the strong one. He had a sorry little mustache that I remember him being so proud of. Whenever I think of him walking around with his shoulders back and his chin up to show everyone his new mustache, looking like a dead caterpillar stuck to his upper lip, it makes me smile, a smile so big my dry lips split and I taste copper. It’s my second favorite memory of my brother.
One day, he took me by the shoulders, stared straight into my eyes, and said, “Imma, after I get out of here, I’m going to join the bullet catchers. And all the wealthy families and banks and shop owners are going to want to hire me as their bodyguard.”
“What’ll happen to me?” I asked, my voice small and squeaky.
“I’ll earn enough money to get you out, too. I’ll buy a whole block of apartments in a wealthy town and we’ll live like royalty.” And I believed him. I loved so much the person he was going to be that my eyes would cloud over and I’d smile big, probably the biggest I’ve ever smiled, a smile that showed off all my missing baby teeth. Nikko was a dreamer. That’s my favorite memory of him.
I was nine the last time I ever saw Nikko. He had just turned fifteen, and he was proud of every one of those years. The night of his birthday, I helped him tie bedsheets together for a rope to climb out the window of our dormitory. We slept in a large room, crammed with rusty iron bunk beds and the sounds and smells of hundreds of orphaned children sleeping. He flung the bleached white sheets out the window and the full moon made them glow. The evening was so bright that I could see for miles into the desert. Nikko grabbed me by the shoulders the way he always did when he was excited and said, “I can’t take you with me now. You’ll slow me down and we’ll get caught. But I’ll come back for you.”
“Promise me,” I said,...