Something is wrong.
I move through the darkness to the place where I sneak light and run the fingers of my good hand across the surface of a loose board above me. I’ve rubbed it so much, most of the rough places are gone. I hesitate, then decide to be brave, and move the board.
Sharp yellow light cuts through the emptiness and reveals the wet half of the basement around me. My basement.
I don’t dare call it that out loud. If the man found out I even think it, he’d beat me and starve me again. He does this to teach me a lesson. Like when he made my other hand useless. That was to teach me respect. I respect him now.
The normal upstairs voices are gone now, along with their usual laughter and joy. Earlier, there was banging and screaming, and noises so loud I had to cover my ears and cry. Such great popping noises! Then the screaming stopped.
There were new voices then, and many loud crashes. Then the new voices faded away, and there was silence.
Everything around me looks the same. The rough, cold gray walls. The dry dirt on the good side of my room. The water dripping above the wet place, and its strong smells. But something is different.
I wait in vain for the voices to come back. I sit on the floor hugging myself, not knowing what to do. I wait so long in the silence that it’s time for the man to come and give me today’s food and water. But he doesn’t come.
Often, when the man forgets to give me food or water, I stand in the wet place and catch the drips with my mouth. I like to pretend that when I was small I sat splashing in a big basin full of water and bubbles. A happy lady’s face goes with these thoughts, but it makes my belly ache to think about her, so I don’t, usually.
When he’s upstairs, I hear the man talk with the other upstairs voices, but he’s the only one who ever comes down with me. I do his work in the basement, and I’m good at it. The man taught me this work. He beats me when I do it wrong, so now I always do it right.
When it’s time to work, the man brings a bright light and big heavy bags. I take smelly green stuff out of the bags a little at a time and put it on a tray until the needle points to a thin, black line. Then I put the green stuff from the tray into a little bag. I do this until the big bags are empty. Then the man takes it all away. This makes him happy, and he doesn’t beat me.
When I have no work and I’m tired, I lay down on a pile of rags to sleep.
I have a secret. I’ve kept it from the man since I was as tall as the fifth scratch that I made on the wall. I’m several scratches taller than that now, and the scratches don’t get any higher.
One day when the man beat me and didn’t give me any food, I waited for the long quiet time. Then I got brave and snuck light. I looked at the door at the top of the stairs for a long time, with my heart in my mouth, and found three places where one side of the door holds on to the wall. The places stick out a little and have pointy things on top. One of these was loose, and when I pulled, it came out of the door! At first, I was scared and put it back. But later, I pulled them all out, and the door moved! I waited, but the man didn’t come. When I got brave again, I pulled the door right off the wall! That was the first time I went upstairs.
I don’t go upstairs often. When I do, it’s only during the long quiet times when I’m so hungry that I’m no longer scared. I don’t know what the man would do if he ever caught me, but I know it would be bad.
It’s been quiet for so long now that it’s like the long quiet time. I’m hungry and decide to be brave. I climb the stairs, pull out the pointy things, and move the door. Then I see the most frightening thing of my whole life!
Everything is broken, and there’s lots of sharp glass. The walls and shelves are empty. But worst of all, the man and the other upstairs people have come apart and have the red stuff all over them.
I’ve had the red stuff come out of me sometimes when the man beats me, but never this much! I close my eyes and hold my hands over my ears, remembering the noises. Then I hear a new noise, high and low, then high and low again. It gets louder and louder. Suddenly, through a door that I’ve never seen open, come bright red and blue lights. They are very pretty, but they’re so bright and move so much that I’m scared of them.
Two men wearing blue clothes come in and point things at me. I think they want to give me something, so I reach for one of the things, but the man holding it yells at me and hits me so hard I fall down.
When I can sit up again, I’m in a strange place with lots of light. I think that it’s time to work, but the man doesn’t come. Some of the walls are funny. I can reach through them, but I can’t get out. This comforts me because it makes me remember my basement.
A man in blue clothes, not the one who hit me, comes into the brightly lit room and sits on a chair. He speaks to me through the funny wall, but he is not the upstairs man, so I don’t answer. He looks at me with a smile on his face and speaks again.
“I’m Officer Parker,” he says. “Who are you?”
I say nothing.
“You can tell me your name, can’t you?” he asks.
I like him and decide to be brave.
“I am the basement boy,” I tell him. “I do the work.”
“What work?” he asks, and writes something down.
“With the big bags and the smelly green stuff,” I say. “The work.”
“Do you know what the green stuff is?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” I say, “but it isn’t good to eat. It makes you very sick if you eat it.”
Then I feel scared and start to cry.
“I’m sorry that I came upstairs,” I say. “If you put me back in the basement, the man will let me work again, and he will feed me. I’m very hungry.”
Officer Parker looks at me with a sad face.
“The man is dead,” he says.
I do not understand what this means.
“Please don’t tell him that I came upstairs,” I say, and cry harder.
Officer Parker shakes his head.
“The man will never know that you left the basement,” he says. “You’re safe now.”
He asks me all kinds of strange questions about things called gangs and drugs. But I don’t understand any of it. I tell him about the noises and about my secret. Then I ask him if he wants me to work for him. I tell him I’m very good at it and tell him again that I’m hungry.
Finally, Officer Parker goes out, and when he comes back he gives me food. It’s very good. I’ve never eaten food like this before. He looks at some papers while I eat.
“Let’s see, according to your fingerprints your name is Miguel. Nice to meet you, Miguel.”
This means nothing to me.
“Father deceased. Mother and three-year-old Miguel caught crossing border illegally. Processed and returned to Juarez.” He coughs. “Mother’s body found in New Mexico desert two weeks later, child missing.” He pauses. “OK, you disappeared when you were three and you were missing fifteen years. Looks like that makes you eighteen and an adult.”
The food he gave me is so good I can’t stop to answer. I put as much of it in my mouth as I can.
“Well, maybe when you’re back home in Mexico someone will remember you,” he says, and smiles at me.
I look at him and smile back.
I know what home means, because whenever the man beats me, he calls me ungrateful and tells me that it’s his home I’m living in. I do not know what Mexico means, but I hope that it’s a home with lots of food.