When Emilio is denied an odd piece of jewelry promised to him by his late uncle, he rightfully suspects there is more to the iron box and his broken family’s poverty than his mother wants him to know.
He sets out to uncover his family’s secret, even if it means disturbing a grave.
Chapter 1: Mi Tío
I had been warned. And I listened—until I turned thirteen.
Now I am tired of listening.
My uncle’s grave holds the answers to what my family hides—the answers I seek.
I glance around the sparsely furnished apartment, the advancing autumn chill clinging to its corners. I shake my head. There is more to life than this.
I ease the front door into its jamb until the latch clicks, then slip in and around the shadows of the sleeping town, and arrive at the cemetery in the deepest part of night.
I go straight to the bush that shelters my provisions, items I had painstakingly accumulated over the past month—items that must not be missed: a rusty shovel out of a neighbor’s trash bin, an old camping blanket lifted at a friend’s sleepover, a spare windbreaker.
The jacket had been the hardest, because I had to admit to Mamá I’d lost it at school, and had to witness her disappointment while she shelled out and handed me precious coins from the food jar to buy another at the second-hand shop before the colder weather set in.
Today I add the burned crusts of bread I’d salvaged by offering to clean up the kitchen and take out the trash, some mushy apples I claimed to have eaten, and part of yesterday’s school lunch: a rye bread sandwich with mustard and cheese—a real treat. The food is wrapped, along with a bottle I’d procured and filled with water, in Mamá’s freshly laundered cleaning rags, stowed until tonight in a box of old schoolbooks under my bed.
I toss the cloth package upon my heap of treasure and stand in the mist with a hand on my hip, contemplating my next move.
Dig, I guess.
I bring the shovel and hit the dirt, removing bite after bite of ground, pushing downward with my sneakered foot. In the mulchy soil, even the force of my lightweight is enough to hasten the process.
I’d planned this for a month, yet now that the time draws near, apprehension seeps into my limbs as surely as this darn mist dampens my clothes.
“Dig, Emilio,” mi tío, my uncle, would say. “The hours till dawn grow short.”
I dig, heave the dirt, breathe, and dig some more until I find my rhythm. Dig—heave—breathe.
Moisture in all its forms claims my face, my body, my clothes. Mist mingles with sweat and wet, black earth clings to cloth and skin alike.
I pause to drink and begin to panic that my planning has been poor. Even if I slip indoors through my bedroom window to contain the dirt, and change my clothes before Mamá knocks for breakfast, I own no other footwear. I have come home dirty before from running around in the woods, but Mamá does not like it. It is painstaking to clean the shoes for school—and how do I do it unseen in a dwelling of that size? Mamá will know I was out in the night, and what then?
I stopper the bottle and toss it back into the bush.
I worry and dig faster, thinking as I go. So Mamá discovers I snuck out. So what? Not unusual for a boy my age. She may be good on clues, but it’ll never occur to her I was here.
Still . . . it’s more lies. She’ll catch on. Then it’ll be a case of what to say when I’m caught fabricating—something else Mamá does not like.
My thoughts halt as abruptly as my shovel. I test the feel of what is situated below, in the dark. Too springy for earth. Too dull for rock.
I brush aside soil and confirm. I’d hit wood.
I look out beyond the hole I had dug, glance around wildly. In the east, pale rays pierce the black silhouettes of trees; a gray dome eats at the indigo night.
Breathing hard now, I scrape the lid clear.
The morning clouds blaze orange when I cast the shovel aside and kneel.
My fingers brush across the splintered wood. My lips part. My breath stops.