When you roll up to the house on the outskirts of Freeridge, all you can think is that if you don’t make it back, your moms is gonna find the body and kill you all over again.
“You’re the dog groomer, right, Julián?” your new employer asks, crushing your hand in his massive fist. He’s at least 6’5, built like a brick shithouse, and you’re unconvinced that there’s an area of his skin not covered in... increasingly disturbing tats. If he wanted to, he could smash your skull between his palms like an overripe melon, and you really wish you could get that image out of your head. “Dios, glad you’re here— my little girls, they were playing in the mud with Princesa, she’s a lot harder to rinse off than they were.”
“You have kids?”
“Three.” He pulls a battered Hugo Boss wallet out of the back pocket of his cargo shorts, flips it open to show as many angelic girls smiling into the camera. “Four, if you count Princesa, claro. Come in, make yourself at home.”
You don’t have enough of a death wish— or bad enough manners— to comment, but Cuchillos’s house looks exactly how you expected, all nouveau-riche wealth flaunting and no actual taste. There’s a guy about your age perched on the arm of the tackily-patterned couch, smoking a blunt as he leafs through a ziploc bag of dollar bills— he’s wearing a wifebeater and chinos, his head shaved, a huge cross tattoo carved into his neck with new black ink. He snorts out the side of his mouth when you enter his field of vision. “You lost, homie?”
“Play nice, cabrón, and don’t fuckin’ smoke in my house.” Cuchillos says with a sharp look, like a father scolding his teenage son— a splotchy blush rises on his cheeks, and that’s when you notice the teardrop under his eye, visibly older than the other tattoo. “He’s here to groom Princesa. You finish countin’ those stacks yet?”
“No, señor,” he mutters, and picks them back up. He’s got a trace of an accent in his voice, like he grew up south of the border, but you don’t have time to speculate before Cuchillos is shoving the most spoiled poodle you’ve ever seen into your arms... yeah, you think those might be real diamonds embedded in her collar, no joke.
The job itself, it’s not so bad, if you try to forget who your new employers are— for all the tacky decor and gold-plated taps on the bathroom faucets, the house is otherwise serene and tidy, you can hear Cuchillos’s little girls playing outside while you trim Princesa’s matted fur and clip her nails. You almost manage to pretend you’re in some suburban home, around Brentwood, when the door flings open behind you.
“This your real job, huh?” Teardrop says as he steps inside, Cuchillos out of hearing range; you’re trying to hold Princesa still long enough to tie the last bows in her fur.
You can’t help it, you bristle like an irritated porcupine. “Pays the bills,” you say, a curl of attitude creeping into your voice, though this guy’s got a piece on his hip and it’s not your brightest idea. “There a problem?”
You’re not an idiot, you can tell what he’s hinting at, it’s obvious in his narrowed eyes and growing smirk. You grew up half-wild in high school, carried a knife to homeroom for a while, back when being a skinny little twink made you persona non grata for every cholo ready to throw hands in the halls. You wish, for the first time since you got it, that your hair wasn’t shaved into an undercut.
He doesn’t say anything, just continues having an attitude at you, shoves his hands in the pockets of his cargo shorts like he thinks you scare easy. You bob your head at the baggie clutched in his fist, try to turn the tables on him. “Took you a lot of hard work to make all that?”
He smiles at you like he’s got a blade clenched between his teeth. “Robbed a bank.”
When you stumble out of the bathroom with a much cleaner dog than a couple hours ago, you finally meet Cuchillos's wife— she’s wearing a Juicy sweatsuit with JUICY written across the ass, the eerily smooth planes of her face could only have been created by lethal amounts of Botox. She looks like an Orange County housewife, not the ruca of Freeridge’s biggest gangbanger, except for the traces of coke you can see around her nostrils. “I baked some cookies for you to take home, mijo,” she says with a blinding smile as she scoops Princesa up, “they’re in the kitchen.”
You’re too afraid of being poisoned to eat them, but you’re also far, far too afraid to refuse to take them home.
“I’ll leave you a good review on Yelp, compa,” Cuchillos says on the porch, like this was a perfectly normal business deal that just went down. Then he clamps his hand on your shoulder. “Hol’ up. You free next Saturday? Vicky’s friend Maria, her shih tzu’s been looking real ragged lately.”
You look at the cobwebs and teardrops embedded in the drawn skin on his face. You look down at the cash clenched in your fist, three times your usual rate— think about the rent, groceries, utilities you could pay with that. You say yes.
Two things happen, after you spend an hour chasing Maria's spoiled ass dog around a room full of coke and guns. First, somehow you’ve become affiliated with the Santos, without it ever being explicitly said. Second, that guy from Cuchillos’s house, the one who had an attitude— he keeps showing up like a piece of TP stuck to your shoe.
They call him Spooky, for some reason— they all look pretty damn spooky to you— but his real name must be Oscar, because that’s what Cuchillos refers to him as. You’ve been around long enough to hear the chismes from this Santo cousin named Jesús— stuck in a permanent narcotic haze from too much lean— that Oscar’s girl Rosita left him a couple months ago, and he’s been acting like someone pissed in his Cheerios ever since. It’s not a satisfactory explanation for you, though, not with the looks he gives you, like you’re the one who stole her away from him. Either he’s an inch from calling you a puto, or just jealous of Cuchillos’s attention, but you’re close to making the worst decision of your life and confronting him when you get invited to a party.
“You should come to our place tonight, homes,” another one, Ángel, says between tokes on a dark blunt, watching you massage shampoo behind a Pomeranian’s ears. “We’re gettin’ crunk, you hear?” You have to wonder how that’s any different from a regular weekday for them; he slaps you on the back, almost sends you flying face-first into the tub. “Maybe we’ll even find you a sweet lil’ Santo hyna.”
You hesitate, for a couple of seconds, once you’ve got your equilibrium back. You’ve never even had much to drink, except the time you got absolutely shitfaced at your cousin Mariana’s quince— and the less said about that, the better. Moreover, you could have the sweetest Santo hyna they’ve got, and that wouldn’t do the slightest thing for you. But you find yourself saying yes anyway, and that’s how you end up watching gangbangers smoke crack pipes while sitting on overturned plastic buckets.
I’ve really had better nights, you think as you nurse a roach, watching them get rowdier and looser as the night goes on— there’s all sorts of hard shit being passed around, xans, ketamine, even bags of straight-up coke, which is the last thing any of them need. You feel like a high schooler again, dragged to a couple parties by friends who invited you out of pity, when the first fight finally breaks out to your left.
"Rosita, calm down," Oscar snaps; you turn your head lazily, realize you must've missed quite a bit between your first and last cups of lean. "Go home already, ain't playing witchu."
Rosita’s pretty, you guess, as much as you can judge aesthetically; with her dark eyes blazing with anger and her hands on her hips, she’s intimidating enough that Diego takes a couple steps back. “Pendejo, I’m not a lollipop, you can’t just give me to Oscar to shut him up again!” She shoves him even further back; he grins at her, a nasty grin. "You seriously invited me to—"
"Nenita, you can suck me any day—“
“Basta.” Oscar doesn’t put his hands on him, but it looks like a close thing, his teeth bared. “Ain’t you said enough already?” This time he does pull his fist back, lands a punch right in the center of Diego’s bicep, hard enough that it’ll leave a bruise in the morning. "Get outta here, and leave her the fuck alone. Our business is our business." He waits until both Diego and Rosita have stalked off towards the grill, then, for reasons you can't begin to fathom, comes over to you and takes you by the arm. "Think we should talk."
He leads you inside the house and then, bizarrely, into the hall closet, sighs and cradles his face in the palm of his hand; you should feel afraid, launch yourself at the door, but you just lean against the back wall and breathe in the smell of dusty coats and unfinished plaster. “You aight?” you ask, got enough manners for that, as much as you dislike him. You have no idea what made him drag you in here in the first place. You still have no idea why you let him without screaming.
“Sorry, homes.” He spits the words out like a rotten blueberry; you get the sense he hasn’t done a whole lot of apologizing in his life. “Know I’ve been busting everyone’s balls lately. Burros in the crew thought gettin' me back together with Rosita would fix it.” He fumbles behind his ear for a cigarette, fumbles for a lighter, then realizes this is a far too enclosed space for that. "I should get home soon. Cesar's there."
“My kid brother— he's nine. Shouldn’t have left him alone tonight.”
“He should be okay,” you say with too much drunken confidence, “for one night, right?” Though you’re wondering why the kid’s alone at all, where their moms is at. (Never entertained the idea of them having a dad at all).
Oscar jerks his head at you irritably. “He gets real nervous if I’m not home. Thinks I won't come back at all."
“I have a sister, too. Lluvia,” you manage to get out through incoherent giggles. “She’s not my—“ God, you’re not drunk enough to say she’s not your real sister, you're never going to be that drunk. "I love her so much, you know that?"
He looks at you like you never had any brain cells to begin with. "That's just. Having a sister, genio. There's no too."
"Probably not." You feel sick, all of a sudden, your stomach swooping and your brain full of static. "Hell are we doin' in here, ese? Been waiting for the plot twist."
“You’re—“ He swallows so hard you can see his Adam’s apple throb up and down. “Shit. I keep looking at you.”
"Yeah, I noticed.” You stumble back into a pile of Adidas sneakers. “Looking at me like I fucked your moms on your kitchen table.”
You don’t talk like that, normally. It kind of thrills you, becoming someone other than yourself for that second.
“Not like—“ He cups the back of your head, threads his fingers through the longer hair there, and kisses you; you’re too shocked to pull away at first, his mouth at once bitter with cheap beer and sickeningly sweet with lean, and your body folds into his like an origami crane. “Got me fucked up,” he says as your lips slide apart. “I look at you, forget what I’m supposed to want.”
“You’re an asshole,” you slur almost admiringly. “Just don’t talk.” Then, before you can think twice, you put your hands on his broad shoulders and kiss him back, dizzy from the smell of pot smoke coming off him. His stubble scrapes against your chin; it feels good, better than it should. You'll regret this in the morning, but it's not morning yet.
You don’t really know how you went from grooming the dogs of various Santo wives to folding Cuchillos's underwear, but somehow you’re in his laundry room anyway.
“Yeah, he just makes us do all his chores for him, his wife ain’t lifted a finger in years,” Oscar says, shrugging one shoulder as he works through an enormous pile of boxer shorts. “Congrats, compa, guess you’re a real Santo now.”
He monograms his underwear— wow, in gold thread, even— and that’s what you choose to focus on instead of Oscar folding that damn basket, with his usual mechanistic precision. You haven’t spoken to him since the party, since the two of you swapped copious amounts of spit in that shut-away closet, haven’t so much as made eye contact. You’re smart enough to know the score by now, figure it’s something he’d probably rather forget.
“How’d you, uh, decide to become a dog groomer?” He folds in your direction— you could cut through the silence with a knife.
“I guess I just like dogs, figured I'd do it while I go to CC, maybe become a vet sometime,” you say awkwardly as you add more fabric softener for his wife's dirty thongs. “How’d you, uh... decide to start selling crack?”
Have you ever said anything dumber in your life?
“You’re cute,” he says, and then he’s got you pressed against the washing machine, his mouth smashed into yours. He pulls back a little, gives you a moment to disengage, but you wrap an arm around his waist and pull him closer to you, and that’s when he shoves his hand down your jeans. “Too cute. Look like you wanna be roughed up a bit.”
“You wanna do that?” you say in a low, choked voice; he hikes you up, sits you on top of the lid, and you suddenly become very conscious of how much larger he is than you.
“Wanna do a lot to you, chulo,” he says, flicking his tongue into your ear, “you got no idea. Better make this quick, though, that door don’t lock.”
He unzips your jeans and yanks them down as he sucks at your jaw, pulls your cock out of your boxers; you groan, his hand big and warm around you, kiss him until your lips are swollen while he jacks you off. You imagine him doing more than this— imagine him tossing you onto a bed and peeling the rest of your clothes off, like you weigh nothing, screwing you until you scream— and that’s when you come hard, spurting all over his palm and the front of his shirt, your strangled squeak drowned out in his mouth.
“... Shit,” you say as you come down from the afterglow, and see the white, sticky trails all over his chest.
He grins and pulls it off over his head. “At least we didn’t start it yet, homie.”
You don’t really talk about it, make anything official. But after that handjob in the laundry room, the two of you, you got a thing going.
“Yeah, Papá, I’m doing good— lo siento, I can’t come, not this week.” Your family’s cookouts are legendary, fourth of July or no fourth of July, but you promised some other damn Santo wife you’d put ribbons on her chihuahua, or sweep Cuchillos’s walk, or a million other tasks that are suddenly now in your purview. “Lluvia’s good too, yeah, she went out for a run— I’m pretty sure she brought her pepper spray, no, I’m not boutta go with her every time.” You bet she’d just love that, your unathletic ass tailing her— Freeridge might be rough, but she’s a lot better equipped to defend herself than you are. “Aight, yeah, te quiero mucho.”
Lluvia’s got one hand on her hip as she slaps her water bottle down on the table, pulls her hair out of its tight ponytail. “How long d’you think it’s gonna take Dad to figure out you joined a gang? Just curious.”
“Okay, I didn’t join a gang,” you say— you’ve got your mouth full of avocado-substitute ice cream now that you hung up, that’s not something any self-respecting gangbanger would be caught dead eating. “I’m... affiliated. Barely.” She just arches her eyebrow, and you wilt under her glare like a houseplant kept in too much sun. “Lluvia, dios, I just groom some lieutenants’ wives spoiled poodles and make cash hand over fist. They’re the best-paying clients I’ve ever had.”
“Yeah, you’re so affiliated you be hanging at their parties now.” She rolls her eyes. “Comin’ home with hickeys all over your neck— yeah, I know you stole my concealer, I’m a medium beige and you’re a warm,” she adds when you squawk. “Was it one of them? I didn’t even think they were allowed to be queer.”
“They’re... not, really,” you say awkwardly, remembering Bananas, who you’re pretty sure doesn’t get any shit because his biceps are the size of your head. “Oscar an’ me, we got somethin’ on the DL, okay—“
She cradles her face in her palm, like she can’t believe a word she’s hearing. “Compa,” she says as slowly and condescendingly as possible, “how do you think this is gonna end, huh? You and Oscar boutta ride off into the sunset together?” Lluvia’s father— you don’t want to remember him, don’t so much like to acknowledge that she ever had anyone but your dad, but he was a King. “I seen some shit. Seen what happens when a gangbanger claims someone.”
“I know what I’m doing,” you say, but the thing is, you actually don’t. Or maybe you do on some level, but you’re just gonna admit it right now, in the confines of your own skull and nowhere anyone else can hear you— you want the adventure more than you want to listen to your sister. “‘S gonna be okay, promise. We ain’t got nothin’ serious goin’ on.”