“THIS IS MR. VIDAS,” explained Diego’s court-appointed attorney as they headed into juvenile court. “He’s the probation officer assigned to your case.”
The stocky thirtysomething PO was shorter than six-foot-one Diego, but his grip was that of someone sure of himself, his voice calm and confident. “Good to meet you, Diego.”
Diego shook hands warily. What would Vidas want from him? What if he decided he didn’t like Diego? Would he recommend that the judge lock him up in juvie?
The courtroom looked like the set of some law drama—except for Diego this wasn’t TV but real life. His life, spinning from bad to worse. He’d let himself down. Big-time.
He slid his lanky frame awkwardly into the defendant’s chair, aware of the faint smell of his own nervous sweat. He wished he could change the channel and be at home, taking care of his aquarium fish or goofing around with his little brother, Eddie;
or at the beach with his best friend, Kenny, hunting for shells and riding waves; or at school, watching Ariel across the hall, hoping she might look over at him. He wished he could be anywhere else in the world but here.
As the bailiff announced the case, Diego’s outgrown dress shoes chewed at his ankles. His crimson-colored tie felt like a noose around his neck. And from beside the brightly polished judge’s bench, Vidas’s hazel eyes peered directly at Diego—as if trying to see inside him, figure him out.
Diego glanced away, trying to act casual as he slid his hands beneath the defense table, where he tugged the cuffs of his long-sleeve shirt down to make sure they covered the cuts above his wrists.
Judge Ferrara, flanked by the American and Texas flags, gazed up from the file he was reading and peered over the front of the podium. “Your name’s Diego MacMann? What is that? Mexican-Irish?”
Diego sat up, caught off guard. Wasn’t the judge supposed to address the lawyers? Ms. Delgado, his attorney, nodded for him to respond. Little sweat blisters burst onto his forehead as he replied, “Um, yes sir, your honor.”
At seven years old, he’d moved from Puerto Vallarta, on Mexico’s Pacific coast, to Corpus Christi when his mom married his stepdad, James MacMann. In the process, “Mac” had adopted him. Nobody had asked Diego what he wanted.
“Well, that’s interesting,” the judge mused. The lenses of his horn-rimmed glasses made his eyes look huge and round as an owl’s. “Sixteen years old…” He continued to read the
file aloud. “…first time misdemeanor assault…”
The incident had happened at school, in the hallway outside the cafeteria on the way to lunch. Fabio Flores, a junior who painted his fingernails purple, wore eye makeup, and told the entire school he was gay, kept grinning at Diego.
It pissed Diego off. Why the hell did Fabio keep looking at him that way? Diego told him to stop, but Fabio kept it up until Diego couldn’t stand it anymore. The anger moved like a pair of hands across his body.
He popped Fabio in the face—only one punch and not even that hard—expecting Fabio to block him. Or run away. Or something. He’d clearly seen Diego’s punch coming. Why’d he just stand there?
His nose spurted like a fire hydrant, gushing blood all over the hall tiles. Girls screamed. The hallway monitors pinned Diego to the floor.
He knew he shouldn’t have hit Fabio. He’d never wanted to hurt anybody. But even though he said he hadn’t meant it, the vice principal suspended him for a week. And Fabio’s dad had pressed charges.
“So does this mean,” Judge Ferrara continued speaking directly to Diego, his voice turning angry, “that you’ve got an Irish temper or a Latin temper? Or both?”
“Um, I don’t know.” Diego stumbled over a response, as a bead of sweat trickled down his forehead. “Your honor, sir.”
“Well, whichever it is”—Judge Ferrara jabbed his finger toward Diego—“you’d better learn to control that temper or I’ll put you in jail. You understand that?”
“Um, yes,” Diego replied, his voice trembling.
“Yes what?” the judge demanded.
“Yes, I understand, your honor, sir.” Diego’s heart pounded fearfully.
Judge Ferrara glared at him a long moment, then shifted his gaze to the prosecutor. “How do you wish to proceed with this case?”
While the prosecutor related the plea bargain, Diego only half-listened, rattled by his fears of being jailed.
Before court, Ms. Delgado had explained to his mom and him the plea deal:
“If you plead not guilty and a trial proves you are guilty, the prosecutor will demand jail time. But if you plead guilty and forego trial, the prosecution will usually support whatever sentence your PO recommends. Most likely you’ll get probation. Maybe even less than that. It’s your decision, but if I were you, I’d take the plea deal.”
With his mom’s agreement, Diego had said yes to the plea bargain. Anything to avoid jail.
Judge Ferrara now accepted the plea, ordered a presentencing investigation, and set a disposition date. Next thing Diego knew, he was back in the waiting room with his attorney, his mom, and Vidas.
“Now, you do whatever Mr. Vidas says,” Ms. Delgado told Diego. “Okay? I’ll see you on your sentencing date.”
She said good-bye to everybody, and Diego’s mom immediately turned to Vidas. “I want him to be on probation.”
“Ma!” Diego protested. “I don’t need probation. I’m fine!”
“If you’re fine, why are we here?” She spoke to him as though he were a kid, despite the fact that he stood taller than her—even when she wore heels, like now. “I try to talk to him,” she told Vidas, “but he won’t listen to me. I don’t know what to do with him anymore.”
“You’re the one who never listens,” Diego muttered. He figured Vidas would take his mom’s side like other adults normally did. But Vidas didn’t. Apparently he was used to hearing such arguments.
“Hold on.” He calmly raised his palms up between Diego and his mom, referee-like. “Let me explain what happens next. For the presentence investigation, I’ll need to conduct a home visit, get your school records, interview the victim, and hear your side of the incident. Based on what I find out, I’ll recommend a sentence to the judge. It might be probation or something else.”
“But not juvie, right?” Diego’s voice rose, tight and tense.
“Probably not,” Vidas said. Once again he peered into Diego’s eyes as if trying to glimpse things that Diego didn’t want him—or anybody—to see.
“But it’s too soon for me to rule anything out,” Vidas continued. “A lot will depend on you.”
Diego looked away. Why couldn’t Vidas just assure him he wouldn’t end up in jail?
“How is he behaving at home?” Vidas asked his mom.
“Most of the time he’s a good boy. He takes care of his brother in the evenings and makes their dinner, he does his chores and homework….”
Hearing her praise, Diego relaxed a little—until she added, “But sometimes his anger just explodes! I’ve told him he needs to control his emotions.” She turned to Diego. “Why won’t you listen to me?”
“Why don’t you listen to me?” Diego shot back.
“And his father?” Vidas asked.
“His stepfather died,” his mom said softly, “three years ago.”
Diego glanced down at the floor, not wanting to think about Mac’s suicide, wishing he could just forget Mac altogether.
“I’m very sorry to hear that,” Vidas told his mom. Then he pulled an electronic planner from his herringbone jacket. “What’s the best day for a home visit?”
“I have to work two jobs,” his mom explained. “I only have Sundays off.”
“Unfortunately,” Vidas replied, “the visit needs to be during office hours, Monday through Friday, eight-thirty to five-thirty.”
His mom glared at Diego and shook her head so angrily that the chrome clip fell out of her hair. “I can’t keep taking time off because of your fights! You’re going to make me lose my job!”
Feeling a little guilty, Diego stooped down and picked up the clip. He knew his mom was struggling to keep their family afloat. There hadn’t been any life insurance settlement because Mac’s death was a suicide. But even when Diego tried to help his mom with money from his Saturday job, she told him to save it for college.
As he handed her the clip her gaze softened. “Thursday, I guess,” she told Vidas. “Can you please make it later in the afternoon so I don’t have to take the whole day off?”
“Sure. No problem. How about four o’clock?”
“Okay, thank you. I hope you can help Diego. Maybe he’ll listen to you.”
“Let’s see what we can do,” Vidas said optimistically. He shook her hand good-bye and turned to Diego, grasping his palm as though squaring some deal. Once again he looked him in the eyes, as if searching for something.
Diego tried to not look away, although he wished Vidas would stop doing that.
Outside the courthouse, Diego tore away the strangling necktie, a gift from Mac his mom had made him wear. Inside their old Toyota, he cast off the cramped dress shoes and changed into his well-worn sneakers, grumbling, “Why’d you have to tell him to put me on probation?”
His mom ignored the question and phoned the nursing home where she worked. Although she told them she was on her way, when she pulled out of the garage, she glanced at the clock and asked Diego, “Isn’t it after your lunch period? We’d better stop to eat.”
“I thought you had to get to work.”
“Yes, but you have to eat.” His mom always made sure he ate.
They stopped at a fish-and-chips place across from the seawall overlooking the bay. Inside the restaurant, he noticed that the Value Meal included a mini spyglass telescope. He decided to get one for his friend, Kenny, just for fun.
Sitting down at a booth, Diego’s mom bit into a fried shrimp and commented, “Mr. Vidas seems like a very nice man.”
“You don’t even know him yet,” Diego protested. She was always too trusting of people. “How do you know he’s not some serial killer?”
“Ay, you’re being silly.” His mom pressed a napkin to her lips. “You need a man to talk to—a father figure.”
“You don’t know what I need,” Diego fired back, recalling his previous so-called father figure, Mac. “You’ve got no idea.”
Nobody but he knew the truth about Mac. His mom had never wanted to know, even when Diego tried to tell her. Now it was too late; it was over. Mac was dead.
Turning away from his mom, Diego lifted the tiny spyglass to his eye. He stared out the window toward the dark green waters of the bay, thinking—and wanting to forget.
AFTER LUNCH, Diego’s mom jotted him an excuse note and dropped him off at school, telling him, “No more trouble, okay?”
He slammed the car door without answering. Couldn’t she understand that he never wanted to cause trouble? He signed in at the attendance office and arrived at his locker just as the bell rang, flooding the hallway with students.
“’Sup?” Kenny smiled, walking up to him. “Glad they didn’t lock you up.”
He and Diego had been best friends since middle school—bonded by good grades and their shared love for the ocean.
“Nah, the PO has to do a report first.” Diego bonked Kenny over the head with the mini spyglass, laughing.
“What’s this?” Kenny grinned at the telescope and lifted it up to his glasses.
“Yo, MacMann!” Guerrero called from two lockers down. “So, who’s your PO?”
Guerrero had already been sentenced to probation: for driving his foster dad’s car without a license, crashing it into a telephone pole, and knocking out the power for an entire neighborhood. He talked and acted as if he were Diego’s buddy, but to Diego he was mostly a pain in the ass.
“A guy named Vidas,” Diego yelled back.
“He’s a fag,” declared Guerrero. To Guerrero, everybody was a fag.
Diego ignored the comment, his attention caught by a figure across the crowded hallway: Ariel Lamar.
To Diego, she was the most amazing girl at school, maybe even the entire planet. She was beyond cute: radiant, with skin that emanated warmth, and the world’s most perfect breasts. Added to that, she liked tropical fish, the same as he did. He’d seen her at the mall’s pet shop where he worked. But to his regret, he’d passed up two ideal opportunities to talk to her, freezing up each time.
“She’s smiling at you,” Kenny whispered to Diego.
“Nah, she isn’t,” Diego murmured, even though it looked like she was. He felt himself turn red as he smiled back.
“She’s smiling cause she thinks you’re dorky.” Guerrero snickered. But at that moment, even Guerrero’s annoying comments failed to faze Diego.
“Why don’t you go and say hi to her?” Kenny suggested.
As if it were that easy. The mere prospect made Diego break out in a sweat.
“Go reel her in,” Guerrero taunted, “and bring her back.” Placing both paws on Diego’s shoulders, he launched Diego
across the hallway. And as though pulled by the tendrils of Ariel’s long, full lashes, Diego felt himself floating toward her.
Her smile beckoned as though it were a lighthouse. Her green eyes sparkled like sunlight on the ocean. But as Diego almost reached her, a guy wearing khakis and loafers sailed in front of him, cutting him off.
“Hey, Ariel,” Preppie Dude greeted her. And even though Ariel peered over the guy’s shoulder, Diego whirled around and raced back to his locker in record-breaking time.
“Smooth!” Guerrero grabbed Diego’s arm and play-punched him. “Real smooth!”
Diego shook him off. He didn’t like guys touching him, especially some jerk like Guerrero.
“What happened?” Kenny asked.
Diego didn’t want to admit he’d wimped out. “I think she’s got a boyfriend.” It was probably true. How could any girl that spectacular not already have a boyfriend?
“Well”—Guerrero smirked—“you can always go back to Fabio.”
“Shut up!” Diego barked, wanting to pound Guerrero, nearly forgetting he’d been in court for assault only hours earlier. Luckily, Kenny pulled him back.
During the remainder of the school day, Diego tried to concentrate on his classwork and stop thinking about how he’d once again botched up with Ariel. It embarrassed him that at sixteen, he’d never even kissed a girl—although not for lack of interest. He liked girls. A lot. A whole lot.
In his room alone or while taking a long shower, he’d
fantasize about holding a girl in his arms, stroking her hair, kissing her lips…. He’d run his hands tenderly across her breasts and when she wanted more, he’d gladly give it to her. And afterward, she’d lay her head on his chest, happy and satisfied.
But in real life, if a girl so much as said hi, he choked up. It was hopeless. He felt like a loser.
When he got home that afternoon, he peeled his backpack off and sat at his aquarium, his thoughts swirling about Ariel. Had she really been smiling at him? Could any girl that amazing ever actually be interested in somebody with problems like his?
He gave his clownfish, Nemo and Gill, a tiny snack of dried krill and then played peekaboo with them through the tank glass. The saltwater fish required more care and attention than freshwater ones, but it was worth it for the hours he spent looking at their brilliant colors, imagining them on a faraway reef. He loved his fish.
A short time later, his eight-year-old brother’s school bus stopped out front. He joined Diego, watching the clown fish dart in and out of the rose-colored anemone. While Eddie jabbered about his school day, Diego mostly just listened and let him talk. He didn’t mention his appearance in court. His mom had told him not to, since his little brother looked up to him so much.
After sitting for a while leaning into each other, the boys started horsing around. Diego had been teaching Eddie to box so he could defend himself if anybody tried to mess with him.
“Keep your fists up.” Diego taught him like he’d learned from boxers on TV.
Eddie loved the horseplay, giggling as his older brother fought off his punches but ultimately let him triumph.
Since their mom didn’t get home from her night job till after nine, it fell upon Diego to make dinner and help Eddie with homework. Eddie sat at the kitchen table with his schoolbooks, asking Diego questions while Diego boiled noodles, fried ground beef, and heated tomato sauce. Mac had taught him to cook—mostly basic stuff like spaghetti and burgers.
Tonight, after they’d cleaned up the kitchen and put the plates in the dishwasher, Eddie watched TV and Diego went to his room to do his own homework. But the loser feelings about his botch-up with Ariel kept gnawing at him. Leaving his schoolwork aside, he walked to his dresser mirror and examined his reflection.
His hair was thick and black. And his eyes were nearly as dark, just like his mom’s. His cheekbones were high, his jaw square.
“You’re a handsome boy,” Mac had often told him. Diego had wanted to be handsome, but not for Mac. Even now he could almost feel Mac’s hand running through his hair, tousling it.
Diego reached inside his shirt and pulled out the elastic cord that hung around his neck. Fastened to it with two bits of wire was one of the first presents Mac had given him: a great white shark’s tooth.
At the time, the huge tooth had barely fit into Diego’s five-year-old palm. The triangle measured over two inches wide at the base and was equally long, its jagged edges tapering to a perfect point. Everyone in his neighborhood had wanted to
see it, especially the boys. Filled with awe, they ran their fingers across the bone-smooth surface and gingerly tapped the tooth’s razor-fine tip.
The tooth gave Diego a feeling of power and strength. Since the day he first got it, he always kept it on—showering with it, eating with it, sleeping with it. Sometimes he woke at night and carefully ran his hands across it, to make sure the tooth was still there.
One afternoon shortly after Mac’s suicide, Diego had come home from school with his mind a whirlpool of swirling thoughts and feelings—similar to today. Trying to calm himself, he’d taken hold of the shark’s tooth, as an impulse came over him. He lifted the underside of his forearm, where his skin was lighter-colored, and pressed the tooth’s point against it.
There was no pain at first. His skin sank beneath the tooth’s pressure. Then he pressed harder. The tip punctured the flesh and a heat spike shot up Diego’s arm. With total clarity, he watched a bright red bead bubble to the skin’s surface.
Slowly, he sliced the tooth’s serrated edge across his flesh like a steak knife. It was only a slight cut, but deep enough for pain to flood his body—a sharp pang that diminished all his other feelings.
A tiny rivulet of blood oozed up from the cut and glistened on his skin like sparkling lights. The entire room suddenly appeared brighter, its colors more clear, every sound more crisp. He ran his fingers across the tingling gash and felt a little proud. He hadn’t shed a single tear.
A week after that first time, he’d cut himself again. And the next week and the next. The whole area between his wrist and left elbow became crisscrossed with scars. Perpendicular slices. Bisecting angles.
Sometimes the pain was excruciating. He knew he shouldn’t be doing it, but he couldn’t stop. He didn’t want to. With each cut he felt a new thrill—a release of some pressure that had built up inside him. He was letting it out.
To staunch the blood, he nabbed Band-Aids, or cotton balls, or gauze pads from the medicine chest. As those supplies ran out, he used toilet paper and Scotch tape, or anything else he could find. When he peeled the bandages off, they sometimes stuck and burned like fire.
He took care not to cut so deep that he’d need stitches, and if a wound began to look infected, he slathered it with antibiotic cream. He didn’t want his mom to find out. The secrecy of the cutting brought back a familiar feeling from when Mac had been alive: once again, Diego had begun to live a double life.
His mom never questioned why he used so many Band-Aids. Perhaps she was too busy working to notice. Or maybe she just didn’t want to know.
At school, a couple of teachers had spotted the cuts and asked, “What happened?” Diego’s heart raced as he told them the same thing he’d told Eddie: “Just an accident.”
“Do you want to talk about it?” one teacher persisted, obviously not believing him.
“No,” Diego answered. Confessing how crazy he was acting would mean admitting it to himself, too.
“You shouldn’t do that to yourself,” Kenny had said, wincing at the scars. “Doesn’t it hurt?”
“Yeah.” Diego nodded evasively. “But I like it.”
“I thought only girls cut,” Guerrero had sneered when he noticed the marks.
To avoid attracting any more flak, Diego began to wear only long-sleeve tops—cotton tees mostly, the sleeves of which were pliable enough to pull down below his wrists. When his left arm got full, he started on his right: the excitement of fresh skin. And when his arms filled up, he ventured across his chest. With each cut he felt stronger and more powerful than ever. Like tonight.
He sliced the tooth across his skin, and for a moment all his confused and painful worries about Ariel, Vidas, his past, and the future disappeared. Somehow, he’d get through it.