nna was thirteen when her younger brother Danny called the Garcia boy a dirty ‘spic. She found out in the middle of her home-ec class. Mary--an Irish girl, just like Anna--tapped her on the shoulder and whispered the story into her ear.
She would be lying if she said she was surprised. Hector Garcia had been the topic of her family’s dinner table for more than two years. He was a tall, handsome boy of sixteen, his black hair cut to a short crew. He always wore shirts that could show the size of his muscles, the hair already sprouting from his chest, or both. Anna would have had a crush on him had it not been for his intense rivalry with her older brother, Patrick. The two--Hector and Patrick--fought endlessly with each other. They ambushed each other outside of classrooms or lockers or even out in the school yard. In one especially brutal confrontation, they broke the high-school’s trophy case. So, it made sense that if anyone asked Danny how he felt about his big brother’s enemy, Danny would naturally find some way to insult him. Anna would have done the same, even if their father had not told them to do so. But she would never have used a slur.
Word traveled in that district as fast as the gossip was hot. A lesser insult would have barely made it around the middle school by lunch, let alone reach the high-school. But Anna knew that her brother had misjudged the power of the slur, a thought confirmed when, by the end of the day, word returned to the middle school that Hector would be keeping an eye out for “that ugly paddie.” There was no question what this meant--Danny had a beating coming his way.
Anna said nothing to her brother on the bus ride home. Nobody said much of anything to Danny, who sat towards the front with an ashen look on his face. Poor boy, Anna thought, he thinks he’ll be attacked today. He thinks Hector Garcia will be waiting at the bus stop, fingering his blade.
Anna knew otherwise. She was sure Hector would wait two days before he responded. Despite the viciousness of the statement, Hector likely saw it as nothing other than part of his feud with Patrick. Because Danny had used a slur, Hector was forced to make a threat in response, but at its heart the threat was only another challenge to Patrick. Hector would spend the next day waiting for Patrick. If Patrick attacked Hector, Danny’s insult would be forgotten in an hour. If Patrick did nothing, then Hector would find little Danny on the next day, Friday.
So, Danny had nothing to fear yet. Anna, however, would say nothing. His terror would be the beginning of his penance, his punishment for disgracing their family by using a word like “‘spic.” She let him stew the entire bus ride and walk home. Only when they made it inside the front door and he smiled in happy relief did she say, “You think you got off? Wait until pa hears.”
His smile crumpled.
Nobody in the house said anything else about the matter until dinner that night. After their mother served the meal, their father, as was his custom, asked each of his five children about their day, starting with Nick, the youngest. When he reached Danny, Danny only shrugged and said, “It was fine.”
“Fine?” their father repeated. “Just fine?”
Danny shrugged, his face bent towards his plate. “Yeah,” he said. “Fine.”
The old man watched Danny a moment, chewing on a bite of bread. “And what about Hector Garcia?” he asked.
Anna hid her smile in her napkin. Patrick immediately broke in, leaning across the table towards his brother while looking at the old man. “There is nothing to worry about with Hector Garcia,” Patrick said.
Their father looked at Patrick, still chewing. “Oh?” he asked.
“Hector has always been my problem,” Patrick said. “This stuff with Danny is just a part of that. He was sticking up for me, just like you told him to.”
“I see,” the old man said. “So, you’ve called Hector Garcia a ‘dirty ‘spic’ too?”
Of course he knows the whole story, Anna thought. Their father could sense family dishonor better than he could hear, taste, or smell.
“No,” Patrick admitted. “I haven’t.”
“Good,” said their father. “Because if you had, I’d whip you too.”
Danny kept his face towards his plate. He did not look up as their father slowly returned his gaze to Danny. Each of the five children had been whipped by their father before. Anna could still remember her last time, could still feel the strap if she closed her eyes and thought of it. She felt some pity for Danny then, but maintained the conviction that he deserved it. Anna also noticed their mother’s silence. Whatever their father decided, the couple had likely already talked it over.
“Does that scare you?” the old man asked. “The idea of me whipping you? Well? Does it?”
Danny managed a meek, “Yes, papa.”
“Well, don’t worry, I’m not going to,” their father said. Danny looked up from his plate, surprise and hope crossing his face. “Word is that Garcia boy will be looking for you,” their father continued. “I say, let him find you.”
“Pa,” Patrick said, indignant, but the old man rounded on him.
“And don’t you help him,” he spat. Then back to Danny, “You started this mess, you brought this shame on our family. What were you thinking, that you’re a man now? Throwing words like that around? Well, a man starts his own fights and he ends them too. You hear? So if you really think that Hector Garcia is a dirty ‘spic, then you go beat him up for it. Good luck to you.”
“I don’t think he’s a dirty ‘spic, pa,” Danny whimpered, “I swear, papa, I don’t.”
“Then you go and apologize to him,” their father said. “And that’s that. No helping him,” he added, a finger in Patrick’s face. “That’s final.”
And it was final, at least at the dinner table. Two days later, as Anna predicted, Hector found little Danny and asked him what a dirty ‘spic looks like. Then Danny cried and whimpered and screamed that he was sorry while Hector hit him with blow after blow after blow. Eventually, the teenager let the little boy run away. Anna was sure that would be the end of it. Hector and Patrick would resume their feud and little Danny had learned his lesson.
Except that Hector Garcia did not end it there. As Hector saw it, he now had free reign to bully his rival’s little brother. This made no sense to Hector, who wouldn’t let anyone even so much as look crosswise at his own little brother. Hector could not see why Patrick did not step in, but since he didn’t, Hector decided to terrorize Danny as many times as he could. Every two or three days, Hector would find Danny and give him a beating and Danny would sob and say he was sorry.
At the dinner table, Danny’s bruises still fresh, their father still forbade Patrick from intervening. “Danny must end this himself,” he said each night. No one, not even their mother, could tell him otherwise.
Two weeks after it all began, Anna decided enough was enough.
On a Friday afternoon, Anna skipped her last class and made her way to the high school. She had heard Patrick describe his encounters with Hector enough times to know where she would find his locker. She also knew of a small alcove where Patrick liked to wait, out of the way but with a clear sight of the hall. There was a low bench there. Anna sat and pulled a library book from her bag.
She had read twelve pages when the bell rang. Students poured out of the classrooms all at once. The sudden loud voices and flurry of steps disturbed her reading, but she did not stand. She did her best to look for him, but she was so small it was difficult. The crowd obscured her vision too much. She became afraid that she would miss him.
But then he was there. Through a gap in the crowd, Anna saw him turning from his locker, his dark eyes meeting hers for a moment before moving on. Anna jumped up and pushed her way through the crowd.
He was easy to follow. Tall and confident, he cut a swathe through the other students, some of his friends calling out as he passed. All Anna had to do was keep in his wake. They were walking towards the East exit, the one that looked out onto Powell Boulevard and led to his neighborhood. Slowly, the crowd began to thin until Anna no longer had to squirm her way through.
She waited until he began to descend the stairs. There were still people there, but not enough for Anna to miss her chance. She let him take one, two, three steps down, and then she caught him.
“Hector Garcia!” she shouted.
He turned to find Anna right behind him. On the stairs, they were at the same height. No, she realized, not the same. She was taller.
Before he could recognize her, Anna balled her hand into a fist and hit him square across the jaw. There was a flush of pain in her hand, the ripple of force crushing her bones, but she committed to it. Her punch was strong enough to knock Hector backwards. Behind him was nothing but steep descending steps.
He stopped falling in a painful heap at the bottom. Hector managed to hit each of the twelve concrete steps on his way down. He was bleeding from cuts on his arms and chest and face and he was groaning. But all that had been the point.
Anna descended the steps. He was moving now, writhing, but still not standing. Anna waited above him for a moment. The school yard was silent. Anna realized they were being watched. What she said next was heard by nearly three hundred students who spread the legend of the incident throughout the entire city and then the entire state. Eventually even her father heard about it, and he could only smile at the story. Anna didn’t care about all that. All she cared about was whether Hector Garcia heard her.
“Stay the fuck away from my brothers.”