FICTION September 1, 2023

The Delivery Boy


“Whatever might be is simply not there: 
only murmurs, ripples, in the dark, in the night.” 
- Popul Vuh

De Los Santos Marcos, A Delivery Boy
Tuesday, 3 p.m.

De Los Santos looked up to gauge the position of the sun, but the sun was not there. Instead, above the sickly white tree that stood at the edge of the garden, and above the many rooftops and sharp edges of the Brooklyn skyline, there was a gaping hole in the sky. Crouching inside the void was a feathered creature with the ruthless eyes of an owl and the thin, sharp teeth of a cat. A cold sweat gathered at his temples.

“Qué pasó, hombre?” asked Jerónimo, but De Los Santos could only point mutely at the sky.

Jerónimo followed his gaze. “Clouds? Pigeons?” They spoke Spanish, one man Guatemalan, the other Colombian.

De Los Santos shook his head. “A messenger,” he said, saliva pooling in his mouth. He threw up his breakfast, spewing cornflakes and bile onto the dying grass.

Jerónimo put out his cigarette against the dusty earth, matter of fact, in the tight jeans and white T-shirt he wore to wait tables at Maya Café. “Don’t be such a girl,” he said. But now he was taking care not to look up. “Let’s go back inside.”

De Los Santos shook his head. The sharp teeth, the owl’s eyes—they signaled death. His blood went cold. “My mother!”

“What about her?” Jerónimo was already headed across the garden to the safety of the café.

“I have to go.”

Jerónimo turned back, his broad face serious. “You can’t, you’ll be fired.” He gestured beyond the garden’s gate. “Where will you go?”

“To find Maximón.” 

“Who the devil is Maximón?”

“A god,” he began. But that wasn’t right. “An idol.” De Los Santos spoke more Kaqchikel than Spanish, which already lacked important words. “He’s made of wood. You bring him rum, cigarettes…And he helps.” He pushed through the gate.

Jerónimo shook his head. “I don’t know your Guatemalan witchcraft.

It wasn’t witchcraft, he thought, fumbling with his bicycle lock. Maximón provided relief and counsel, necessary as breath. De Los Santos had brought a cheap figurine on his crossing and placed it lovingly on the only table in his cousin’s apartment in Bensonhurst, beneath a poster of Britney Spears. It had been a great comfort to him during these first nine weeks in the United States, but it was only a figurine. He needed the real thing, the life-sized Maximón in his black suit and hat. Back in San Lucas, Maximón reposed in a room of flowers, candles, and incense. He also resided in Santiago, San Andres, Xela, and, De Los Santos hoped, New York.

The lock fell open; his bicycle was free. De Los Santos hopped on board.

Cars whizzed by. Disembodied sounds reached his ears: a woman laughing, reggaetón, the carnival blare of an ice cream truck. Panic buzzed in both ears.

Gary, the Resident in Charge of Area A
Tuesday, 6 p.m.

“Shit, somebody just registered,” said Gary. Then, “Wait, shit, the registrar fucked up the name.”

Alta Gracia, the intern, peered at her screen. “Marcos, De Los Santos,” she read aloud. “Bicycle accident.” 

“That’s not a name,” said Gary. Registration was constantly fucking up names, switching out vowels, and dropping hyphens. It slowed him down because nobody could place orders until the patient’s name was correct in the system, and was that too much to ask? 

“Maybe it is a name,” said Alta Gracia, constantly aggrieved by the state of the world. “His name. De Los Santos.” 

“I’m gonna go ahead and guess his real name is Marcos,” said Gary. He was the senior resident in charge here.

Alta Gracia blinked her enormous eyes. “Perhaps we should ask him,” she said, and she blinked slowly, spoke slowly, it was torture.

The icon indicating Spanish-fucking-speaker popped up. Gary paused, considered. Alta Gracia spoke Spanish, but she was egregiously slow, a living nightmare in this emergency room. All day, every day this week. He turned to the medical student instead. “He’s yours.”

“Mine?” Brittany Brathwaite looked up from her textbook. She was skinny and severe, her hair pulled back in a knot.

“You’re from Guam, right? You speak Spanish?”

She inclined her head, not gracing him with a response. She carried herself that way, he thought, like she disapproved of him. Yet he liked her. She was smart and driven, didn’t leave halfway through her shift to take her fucking yearbook photo, and never abandoned her patients to “just grab some lunch.” She was a soldier, the real deal.

Now another patient popped up on the board: a five-year-old girl with seizure x 3; at the same time, his phone vibrated—Mom. He silenced it. 

The charge nurse stuck her head in the room. “Gary. The girl who seized looks bad. Also, you have two kids to sew, one with fever, and a Spanish kid who fell off his bicycle.” She smiled sadly at him, half angel, half boss, she who saved his ass and handed it back to him daily. “Have you eaten?”

His phone vibrated again. Gary shook his head. Fuck that. He needed to get control of this fucking ER.

Alta Gracia, the Mexican Intern Who Had Been Educated in the United States
Tuesday, 6:10 p.m.

Acetaminophen had many names—Tylenol was just one of them. It was also called paracetamol, Panadol, Mapap, etc. In order to prevent double-dosing, she always asked families whether any of these were already given. She asked several different ways because some didn’t consider acetaminophen a medicine, at least not in the same way as, say, albuterol or insulin. 

“Hey Alta, did you put in my Tylenol order?” Iris, the charge nurse, was asking.

“Sorry—I need to pop into the room first. Which is it?”

“Room five, the kid with a fever. Pérez.” 

“Oh.” Doom settled over her shoulders. Pérez would be Spanish speaking, which meant she’d be sucked into the room and held indefinitely, unable to leave as the clock hands churned mercilessly through the minutes. The moment she came through the door—brown, big-eyed, and familiar—the Latinxs told her everything. They asked every question they’d saved up over years of visits to English-only doctors, like, “Why does my son breathe fast after eating mangos?” They pressed iPhones into her hand to video chat with tío or tía or abuelita back home and explain that yes, Flaco had broken his leg, but no, he would not need surgery, gracias a Dios. There was no such thing as “popping into room five” if it contained the Pérez family and you were Alta Gracia Tierrafuego de la Paz. There was only a journey, an odyssey, a comingling of fates. She was ashamed of this, her disinclination to engage, but the currency of the ER was speed. 

“Alta?” said Iris. “Please. He’s burning up.”

 “Sorry.” She clicked open the chart. A four-year-old, 13 kilos. Could that be right? It seemed small for a four-year-old. 

Now Brittany and Gary were back in the workroom, possessed by la rabia of the ER, that strange, pressured frenzy that overtook every doctor and nurse in its yellow corridors and artificial light. 

“Iris, I need a line and labs for the seizure girl,” said Gary.

“I need a Tylenol order,” the nurse retorted.

“I need to discuss the boy with the bicycle accident,” said Brittany. 

“Nobody’s stopping you,” said Gary. He was such a jerk. While he spoke, his fingers flew over the keyboard, and the Tylenol order was in.

Brittany Brathwaite began to speak. She had a British accent with, Alta Gracia thought, a hint of island in it. “De Los Santos Marcos is a seventeen-year-old Guatemalan male who reports that he saw a messenger—or a demon—then got on his bicycle in search of a large idol to help save his mother and was struck by the opening door of a taxi.”

Alta Gracia sat up. 

Gary’s face went tight. “I’m sorry, what?”

“It is his chief complaint,” Brittany said in a serious voice. “Saw a demon, struck by taxi.” Alta Gracia really took her in then: her straight back and intense eyes, the shiny clipboard she held in her hands. She wore a severe white blouse buttoned high up her neck, and the flatness of her chest beneath the stiff material made Alta Gracia awkwardly aware of her own enormous bosom. 

Gary folded his arms and put his head down on the desk. “Just start from the beginning.”

“The patient reports that he was in the garden of the restaurant where he works as a delivery boy when he looked up and saw this demon. Because it resembled an owl and a cat, he understood it as an omen of his mother’s imminent death. To preempt this, he rode his bicycle into Manhattan looking for some kind of doll…” She looked down at her notes.

“Can we skip this part?” Gary said from somewhere between his folded arms. “Can we talk about the door that smacked him in the head?”

Brittany nodded primly. “He was struck by the door of a taxi as it opened on 49th Street and fell to the ground. No loss of consciousness or vomiting. On further questioning, he is allergic to a red plant that comes out in February—”

“I’m gonna stop you right there,” said Gary, tousled head raised like a plumed serpent. The room grew tense, the air suddenly thin. “Does. He. Have. A. Headache?”

“I am sorry. I forgot to ask.”

“Go back in,” said Gary. “We need to know. It is the whole fuc—the whole point of the interview. To find out what his symptoms are right now.”

Back at Yale, Alta Gracia had majored in Latin American history and written her senior thesis on the Popul Vuh. She had been thinking, during these frenetic weeks, that she would like to write an ethnography of the emergency department, with its confluence of patients, students, residents, and specialists, each with their own modes of self-expression, their own individual and collective needs and wants. She would begin by comparing the ER to Tulan, the Popul Vuh’s Tower of Babylon, and end by pronouncing that, considering the vagaries of word choice, things omitted—or worse, assumed—and the fogginess of context and perspective, it was amazing that any patient’s story survived at all. 

Now Brittany was holding forth that she had no access to a translator. There was no phone in the room, and hers was out of battery.

Alta Gracia dove for her bag, extracting a charger. “Use this!”

Gary glowered. “I thought you spoke Spanish.” 

“No, Gary,” said Brittany. “I am from Guyana—The only country in South America with English as its official language.” After a moment, she added, “I speak English.” 

Gary pounded hard on his desk. “Who here speaks fucking Spanish?”

“I do,” said Alta Gracia. He knew it perfectly well.

“Go see Mister Marcos Santos de los Marcos. Ask if he has a headache. And figure out the deal with the fucking demon.”



Two words. Her name was two words. High Grace. If you used only the first word, it was no longer her name. It was an adjective with no object, no purpose in life. She turned back from the door.

“Call a fucking psychiatrist.”


“‘Where did you come from? I don’t know your faces.
What are your names?’ said Earthquake.”
- Popul Vuh

De Los Santos Marcos with A Psychiatrist Who Had Been to Honduras
Tuesday, 8:30 p.m.

Through the curtain, De Los Santos could see the little girl shaking. She shook as though possessed, a living cataclysm of tall buildings and blue lakes, tricksters, and fire. And then, because all human suffering is drawn from the same well, he turned to the messenger, whom the telephone translator had called “demon,” and asked, “How will my mother die? And when?” But she only preened and pecked at the floor with her curved beak. Hot tears slid down his cheeks. 

Alta Gracia had run from the room with the nurse named IRIS, but now another woman stepped inside, her shocking red hair sticking out like the spikes of a rambutan.

“I’m a doctor of the sentiments,” she said in terrible Spanish. “Do you have intimate knowledge of this place?”

He did not trust himself to speak and only shook his head. 

“I’m very sad there is no telephone for calling a translator,” the redhead continued. “But I have been to Honduras.”

Her smile was kind, and she wore green sneakers, which signaled new life, the gratification of sex, and wealth. A green candle lit before Maximón meant money would come soon. Her Spanish was poor, but his was not perfect either. 

“Where are you during this minute? Do you know?”

“Consejo.” He’d never been inside the hospital, but he knew it from the billboards around the city. It was called Our Lady of Good Counsel. The Americans, as was their custom, had moved letters around and removed the final O, but otherwise, they had left the word intact. The billboards were magnificent, like the poster of Britney Spears at Dino’s restaurant and key shop; one could see in Britney’s eyes her struggle to attain greatness, the inner light that guided her. Each billboard likewise showed careworn people whom one assumed had been gravely ill but had been guided back to life and health by the doctors, who walked these hallways, and by the power of the building itself, which was present in all the billboards, backlit like a religious image, shining with divine mystery and comfort. He understood it could only have been fate that brought him here when the taxi door had opened so shockingly into his face. 

He had descended into Consejo as if through a tunnel, after the long, roaring ride through unknown streets—so many streets!—then rolled down a labyrinth of ramps and halls to arrive at this windowless place, the messenger atop the shoulder of the orderly. She was an incurious bird—he had expected her to fly about, exploring, but she stayed close.

They—he and the messenger—had been greeted by two nurses, like the manikins who greeted the twins in the underworld in Popul Vuh. He’d read it in primaria. Their nametags said, “IRIS SHE HER” and “NANCY SHE HER.” They must have been sisters or cousins.

IRIS had fine black hair and slanting, dark eyes. She wore a pearl bracelet with a dangling sun and the word “Manila,” her daughter or her city. “I need you to breathe,” she said in Spanish, and he tried, although his breath did not come easily. He blamed this on his loneliness. How harshly his roots had been torn! They tore as he crossed into the US, when he arrived in New York, and as he climbed the stairs to his cousin’s airless apartment at the end of each day. How it had cost him to learn the many streets of Brooklyn! And how his spirit ached when customers lifted the food from his hands and turned away to nourish their own families.

IRIS pressed a cold pack to the lump on his forehead and guided him to a room. The messenger fluttered in behind them, her yellow eyes darting from the sink to the shining rows of cupboards and the bed with its clean white sheets. The nurse pressed a colorful ball into his hand and pantomimed squeezing it hard. 

The student doctor arrived next: Brittany Brathwaite. She was black as a Garifuna, which would have shocked him weeks ago, but now he knew many people in New York were black. The people were black, umber, yellow, and gray here; their hair was like cornsilk or the branches of trees, or like rope or fruit or the gnarled tail of a dog.

Alta Gracia came next, briefly, but ran off when the child began shaking. He wished she had not gone. Her intelligence made him shy. He, himself, had made it no further than the fifth grade. Her large eyes held a bit of condescension as she looked from his hair to his cheap shoes, but she spoke his language—his second language. His first was Kaqchikel. 

His shoes had cost 250 quetzales, enough to take his sweetheart to Dino’s for dinner, then to dance at El Condor and drink two beers—but in the United States, they were not considered good shoes. Jerónimo, from Café Maya, said they were not constructed properly.

Jerónimo was Colombian, a good man, but he had been in the United States a full year, and he didn’t understand De Los Santos’s position. For example, De Los Santos needed a new key for his bicycle lock. Jerónimo told him a key could be made at Jomdibo, and he wrote down an address that De Los Santos could not decipher. He would never find Jomdibo, nor, he reflected, would he ever find Maximón in this dizzying city. 

Maximón! The wide, warm eyes that were always open; the heart that knew one’s suffering!

“Marcos,” the redhead said rather loudly. “Would you be interested in sitting down?”

He was surprised to find that he was still on his knees. He had been like that for some time…since Alta Gracia had exited. He stood and eased back towards the stretcher, keeping an eye on the messenger. She was preening now, her small, sharp teeth gleaming in the yellow light. Did the redhead see her? He thought not.

“I feel glad that you know your location. Do you know the date of this day?” 

He squeezed the multi-colored ball. The messenger bared her teeth at him, and he threw it at her, missed. The redhead jumped. “It is the 20th of July,” he said in Spanish.

She scribbled something on a notepad. “Where were you going this day on your bicycle?”

The bicycle! His cousin’s, and now he’d lost it.“I was looking for the sun.”

“I was told you were looking for…” She flipped through her notebook. “A doll.”

“Maximón,” he said.

“Mashimoan?” So strange coming from her, and now he saw that she had sky-blue eyes with life and movement to them, like water. “I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”

They sat in silence then, and the messenger flew down to rest on the redhead’s shoulder. He thought of the blue lake under the glinting sun, the lap of the water against the dock, the trees that cast their shadows. The world was a deep bowl, and the lake filled it up. Sometimes the clouds hung low; he walked through them and breathed them in. He thought of the dogs, the snakes, the bats, the heavy moon. Even the owls were beautiful back home when the death they announced was another person’s. Then it was just the cycle of life and death, two sides of a pebble. 

“Wait!” she slapped her forehead, dug into the pocket of her white coat, and produced a phone. She held it up as though a butterfly had landed in her palm, and she was delighted by this turn of events, the tenacity of the butterfly, and the faith such a butterfly must have that it could land here and not be captured or crushed or devoured by the crepuscular bird with its awful teeth. She typed on her phone and waited. “Spanish, please.”

A genial man introduced himself on speaker. “Please tell me, what brought you to the hospital?”

“A messenger came to warn me about my mother’s death.” 

Hesitation on the line. “An actual messenger, or is this a figure of speech?”

“An actual messenger.” 

This was translated.

The bird let out a screech, shaking her feathers. Turquoise, red, yellow, silver—Impossible to ignore, but the redhead didn’t react. Instead, she asked, through the translator, “Have you called your mother?”

“She doesn’t answer.”

“Her friends?”

“Dino doesn’t answer either.”


“Her boss—and mine before I came here. He has a restaurant and key shop. He also sells posters of celebrities, like Britney Spears.” 

The old man had taught him to work the key-cutting machine, starting with the placement of the tracer and blade and then the proper alignment of each key. He’d taught De Los Santos many things: how to clean the machine, repair it when broken, and also how to please his sweetheart in the cemetery behind the church…this in extremely specific terms he appreciated deeply, as his father had disappeared long before.

In New York, he had no sweetheart, no Dino, no mother. His cousin was barely home, he drank too much, and he befriended men who didn’t care about him. 

The redhead ran her hand through her strange, lovely hair. “De Los Santos, you look sad.”

He hid his face in his hands.

She came toward him in her green shoes. “Hey, it’s okay. A lot of people feel sad in New York City.” The translator translated, his voice solemn and kind. 

The redhead’s brows were knit as though she were waiting for De Los Santos to speak but listening to another voice as well, perhaps of all the science that she knew, which was, of course, extensive. Her red hair was a beacon up above him, its own sort of brilliant sun. “You want to find Mashimoan because he is like… like a cure for you. He’s a helper for you. Is that right?” 

Maximón was Maximón. He didn’t know the Spanish words or if they even existed. “Yes.”

The translator sighed and addressed him directly. “Hombre, there is no Maximón in the United States. Well, maybe in California. Not here.”

Now an angry doctor entered, eyes big as a rabbit’s. His nametag said GARY. “IsHeCrazy?” GARY shouted. “Yesorno, yesorno, yesorno?”

Gary, the Resident in Charge of Area A 
Tuesday, 10:40 p.m.

“Gary. What the hell?” His mom was an angry blonde woman, usually on skis. They were not close. 

“I’m working.”

“Do me a favor.”

The psychiatrist he’d dragged from the delivery boy’s room stood beside him, smiling like a Hare Krishna. 

“I bought ski pants, but they auto-populated to your address instead of mine. Can you overnight them? UPS does it. They’re twenty-four hours.”

Iris appeared. “Gary, your endotracheal tube is in the right mainstem. For the little girl with the seizure.”

“Just buy them again. With your address.”

“What?” Iris arched her brows and played with her bracelet. 

She was his only friend here. No, fuck that, she hated him. She just played nice to keep the ER moving. He’d intubated the seizure kid on the first try, hot shit, but the bad news was he had mainstemmed it: he was only ventilating one fucking lung. “Not you. Thank you. My mom.”

“I need them this weekend.”

“Buy different pants.”

“Gary. The tube.” Iris was getting upset. 

He couldn’t hang up, but he couldn’t stay on the phone either. He set it down grimly.

“Need a minute?” asked the redhead, the psychiatrist. She was way too smug.

“I need a diagnosis for this Guatemalan.”

“Is there anyone who knows his baseline mental status?” she asked. “We can’t reach his mother.”

“What’s the point? She won’t speak any English.” 

“Or Spanish,” pointed out Alta, aggrieved, as usual, that he hadn’t read the fucking memo about indigenous people or languages.

Everybody stood in the workroom and discussed the delivery boy. The psychiatrist thought he might have susto, which she’d learned about during her extensive two-week experience in Honduras, and described it as “a Spanish way of being scared.” Brittany suggested opiate withdrawal; perhaps he had used Blue Demon, a street drug, but Gary nixed that one. His mom blew through Percocet like fucking Tic Tacs; he knew it when he saw it. 

His phone vibrated so violently that it nearly leaped off the counter. Mom. He ignored it and rose heavily to his feet. He was tired and fucking hungry. He followed Iris out of the room like a schoolboy. At the threshold, he turned and pointed at Alta Gracia. “Scan his head.”

“I am not comfortable with that plan.”

“Just do it.”

“I need a diagnosis.” She was stalling. “I can’t put the order in the computer without a diagnosis.”

“Susto,” he said, spotting a mother lode of graham crackers at the nurses’ station. 

“If you already know, why expose him to radiation?”

“It’s a diagnosis of exclusion. He could be having a stroke. We don’t know. We don’t know anything about anyone. Only what they tell us.” He snagged some grahams, ripped the packaging, and crammed two into his mouth.

“It is unequitable to expose him to radiation just because we cannot understand him.”

Gary laughed. She was so self-righteous, so principled, the luxury of those who aren’t yet responsible for anything. “What if he went home and died, and his paperwork said susto? Bye, bye, medical license. Hello, lawsuit. Hello, front page of the New York Times: medical doctors stereotype Hispanic patient who then goes home and dies.” 

He could see the anger in her black eyes. She knows I’m right, he thought. She’s angry, but she knows I’m right.

Alta Gracia, the Mexican Intern Who Had Been Educated in the United States
Tuesday, 8:30 p.m.

The trouble with English speakers was that they always made you wait for the noun. The girl was having an unprovoked first-time afebrile seizure. But by the time Iris got to “seizure,” precious moments had gone by, and Alta Gracia had ridden a roller coaster of uncertainty from dog bite to migraine to asthma attack. Unmoored with no noun, she had forgotten what she hoped for in this world, let alone the sentence. This was how they wore you down. 

“Let’s go!” said Iris. “Fast!”

She hesitated. Safe, correct, fast—that was her hierarchy of intention. Fast was for bandits and birds of prey.

When she’d first entered the delivery boy’s room, the psychiatrist hadn’t arrived, so it was just herself and De Los Santos Marcos. She’d meant to bring ice cream to room five on her way, but Bonifacio WhatsApp’d her. Faced with competing urgencies—her boyfriend, room five, the delivery boy, and a sudden, oppressive hunger, she’d chosen to do her work.

“I’m Dr. Tierrafuego de la Paz. Please call me Alta Gracia. I’m from Yucatán, Mexico, and I’ve brought you ice cream.” 

“That’s very good,” he said.

The boy on the bed was awkward, out of context, fidgeting with the stress ball they gave teenagers at triage. His eyes darted around the room, from countertop to ceiling to floor, as though following an insect’s flight. They were dark and serious, close-set. His upper lip was the cupid’s bow of a movie star, a bird in flight. He reached for the ice cream.

She handed him a plastic spoon from the breast pocket of her coat. He wiped it carefully on the sheet, pulled up the top of the single-serve container, and peered inside with interest.  

She tore open another package, fished out a spoon, and fell to eating.

Her patient wore the uniform of New York City delivery boys: worn jeans (clean but faded), a t-shirt, and cheap sneakers. His thick hair stood straight up and had dust in it, or maybe lice. Where, she wondered, were the Latinx prep-school boys, the lacrosse players, the heirs of rum and sugar? They had pediatricians and bicycle helmets.

“De Los Santos, do you remember how you got here?”

“Oye,” he said, looking up from his untouched ice cream. It was an invitation to listen, a turn of phrase she loved in her grandmother’s mouth, but not in this mad place. “Do you know San Lucas Tolimán?” he asked. 

“No, I’m sorry. But do you remember colliding with a taxi?” 

“It is my town.” He glanced up above the supply cabinet, then back at her. “Well, there was a mudslide in Santa Clara. My uncle died, and my aunt and cousins came to live with us. Aricely, Gladys, Heidy, y La Gorda. You can imagine we needed money.”

“But that was not today.”

“No,” he agreed. 

She glanced up at the clock. The boy chucked the ball hard at the far wall of the room. It bounced off and struck the trash can. 

“De Los Santos, I have been told you see a demon. Is that true?”

“A messenger.” He pointed into the corner.


He nodded.

She stepped around the stretcher. “I don’t see anything. No demon, no messenger.”

“Bien,” he said—rendible either as “good” or “yes, you do.”

She opened another ice cream. “What is the message?”

“Te voy a contar una historia,” he said—I’m going to tell you a story. No, a history. A lengthy tale with roots and context. Such a thing could never live or breathe here.

Her phone buzzed—Bonifacio. She stepped out.

“Boni, I can’t talk.”

“You are talking now.”

They had met over the summer, both city kids visiting their grandparents in the country. When Bonifacio showed up at the door with a bouquet of monjas blancas, Abuelita had ushered him into the salon off the courtyard, handed him a cold Tecate, and pulled up a chair. They spoke—the three of them—of school, horticulture (his parents were professors), Lorca, and Nicky Jam. One night the lights went out, and the dark settled over them. The scent of the orange trees in the courtyard, the dimness of the room, the yellow velvet chairs, the cry of the birds above….The creak and settle of the old Spanish house. When Abuelita had gone for a flashlight, he reached for her hand in the dark. Just that. And then he had whispered in her ear.

Bonifacio’s sexual powers ran the length of his oratory apparatus, starting at Broca’s area and ending with his soft, urgent voice. Sometimes she would reach for him, wrap her hands in his fine black hair, and find herself uncharacteristically unable to think a single thought. His verbal abundance canceled her out entirely, stilled, and stunned her.

“When is your vacation?”

“We don’t have vacation.” 

“Of course you do.”

How could she tell him there was no time for vacation (from the Latin vacāre—to be free, to have respite) in this speed-crazed life? 

“Mi amor,” came Bonifacio’s softening voice, “no aguanto”—I cannot bear this separation. But he would have to. They both would.

“I’ll call you after,” she said. She touched her fingertip to the red telephone icon, and Bonifacio was gone.

Back in the room, the delivery boy was throwing out his ice cream. He did so gently, like a mover loading fragile cargo. “It is too cold,” he explained. He laid the spoon on the counter. 

“Let us focus,” she said. “You see a messenger.”

“My mother always cared for us,” he said. “Myself, my brothers, and sisters. You know, there are gangs in our towns. The boys go bad, but my mother didn’t permit this. Instead, she taught us that Maximón provides. I had to find him.”


“When I looked up. For the sun.”

The ice cream soured in her stomach. His story was like Popul Vuh, chronologically impaired, full of time warps and dead ends. The ancient text began with creation, jumped to an intrepid set of hero-twins, then backtracked to their father and uncle, barely remembering to finish up the world it had so painstakingly begun.

Mayan narrative was associative, not chronological—her Latin American lit prof’s favorite talking point. Back then, studying for her final, she’d tried to summarize Popul Vuh, fixing the result to her dorm-room wall with double-sided tape.

Two gods: Xpiyacoc, Xmucane.

Sea and sky, three more gods, land. 
Plumed sea serpent makes animals. 
Gods make humans: first from mud, then wood.
Wooden people become monkeys. 
A large bird pretends to be the sun.

It was meaningless. The night before the final, stomach ravaged by nervios and Diet Coke, she’d realized her error. She took a fresh piece of paper and wrote:

When will the sun rise? 
What is a human being?

She’d earned an A+, but it had not been easy, and here she was again, trying to crack the code.

How to get to the heart of the story? They were not so different, she and this delivery boy—they both spoke Spanish and were moved and motivated by love. They were tangential thinkers, ambos, distracted by the butterfly at the edge of the machine. Yet he was as foreign, as unknowable to her, as Brittany Brathwaite, with her punctiliousness and British accent. 

Could one person ever truly know another? The answer was no, ¡que no! Had De Los Santos Marcos been her identical twin and suckled at her own mother’s breast, he would still and always be a mystery because he lived outside her skin, like everyone else on the planet.

But, surely, one had to try.

A buzz of her phone, Bonifacio. Then Iris’s dramatic entrance: “The five-year-old with the unprovoked first-time afebrile seizure—she’s in status epilepticus. Gary needs you.”

Alta Gracia turned to the delivery boy—he was rising to his feet, taking in the sudden commotion. “Please,” she said. “Tell me! Do you have a headache? Right now?” There were tears in his eyes. He was miserable. She lowered her voice, pleading with him, urgent as a lover. “Yes or no?” 

“Let’s go!” said Iris. “Fast!”  

She hesitated, contemplating her hierarchy of intention: safe, correct, fast. 

The delivery boy fell to his knees. 

She raced past him as the psychiatrist entered, calling apologies over her shoulder. And then she was at the child’s side.

But not right away. Before she entered the room, before she inserted a second large-bore IV—seeing the flash of blood at its stem, pushing saline through it for all she was worth, and showing Gary, Iris, and all the world that this Mexican girl knew her shit—she read Bonifacio’s text. “I am thinking of your body,” it read. Then (noun first): “Tu cuerpo: lindo, generoso, iluminado, adorado, y deseado”— beautiful, generous, moonlit, adored, and desired (by me).


“It all came together as they went on thinking in the darkness, in the night, 
as they searched and they sifted, they thought, and they wondered.”
- Popul Vuh

De Los Santos Marcos, A Delivery Boy
Tuesday, 10:30 p.m.

De Los Santos was alone with his fear. Everyone was gone: Iris, Brittany, Alta Gracia, the redheaded sentiment doctor, and Gary. The messenger perched next to him, eerily still in the ER’s perpetual light. Perhaps she was a demon, conjured by an evil eye. He squeezed his own eyes shut, and she smiled at him from under his lids. Her face was a maze of tattoos, like the boys in the gangs, her eyes made of his own thin vessels, alive with the light and electricity of his body. Now she pressed herself against him, the feel of dry kindling against his skin, until their pulse became one and the same. She fluttered her dark wings against his heart. 

Thoughts of his mother crowded his mind like people in a subway car or spoons and forks in the amazement of a dishwasher. Her reassuring skin. Her bright huipiles, which grew soft over time, the thick rope of her hair. 

He fell into a fitful sleep, the messenger curled up on his chest.

“We are going to get a kyat-scan of your brain,” Brittany said in English, and the translator said, “Kat-escong.” After some wandering down the hallway, poking her head into this room and that, the student had taken him to a telephone at the nurses’ station. “Your thoughts are a bit disorganized,” she said through the translator. “We are worried that your brain was injured when the taxi door struck you.”  

He did not feel disorganized, only sleepy, but he didn’t disagree. “Of course you know best, and if that is what you think we should do, then naturally, we’ll do it,” he said. This was translated. Then he added, “I trust you.” They were on speaker, and the words were quite loud. “ITRUSTYOU.” People turned to look. 

“There is a risk of getting cancer from the radiation,” she continued. De Los Santos did not know what radiation was, but he understood cancer to be a very grave condition. He had known a man with cancer on his nose that consumed his face and neck. A little cousin had grown yellow and shriveled up and died; later, people said she had cancer. But it didn’t seem that something in this place of northern science could give him cancer. He discounted the idea.

The kat-escong was a beautiful machine, a perfect round O with a thin, silver tongue emerging from its depths, and on the tongue, they lay him down beneath a white blanket. “Don’t move,” said the technologist in Spanish and left the room. He was alone.

The machine drew him into its iron heart.

 As the orderly wheeled him back into the room, his phone rang. He flipped it open. 

“Wal!” – my son. It was his mother.

“I thought you were dead,” he said, shaking. “I saw a messenger.”

“Your messenger brought you news of Dino Abaj. He is dead, not me.” 


“It was his heart.” She was crying.

De Los Santos closed his eyes. He would miss the old man but was ashamed to find that, primarily, he was happy. His mother was alive. 

Now Alta Gracia stepped into the room with Gary. She lowered herself into a chair. “De Los Santos,” she said in Spanish. “Your kat-escong is normal. It means your brain is okay, but Gary is still worried. He wants you to have more tests.”

“The truth is,” said De Los Santos, “My mother is well, and I’m not worried anymore. I’d like to go home now.”

Alta Gracia’s jaw went slack. “Just like that?”

“Well, why not?”

“You came to an emergency room! You took up our time!” She closed her eyes tightly, and when she opened them, they were full of dread. “Gary will be angry.”

“That is true,” he said. “But everything has been completed here.” These were the final words of Popul Vuh. He’d liked the book when he’d read it in primaria, and while this ending seemed artificial (no story was ever completed), he could see that at some point, one had to move on.

Alta Gracia turned several colors— ghostly white, pink, then crimson with, he realized, shame— like a person who comes to Dino’s and explains they have given their key to a lover, and the lover is suddenly gone. 

“WhatDidHeSay?” said Gary. “WhatDidHeSay?”

“He said… ” she began, in English. “He said.” Then she froze, squeezing her eyes shut. “He feels.” She pursed her lips, crossed her arms, and grabbed her shoulders. “Much. Better!” Her body began to shake, her long black ponytail jumped and bounced, she threw her head back; De Los Santos feared she was convulsing. But then laughter shrieked past her lips, a force of nature. It was loud and green, tall as a mountain ringed with clouds. 

He smiled. He didn’t know what was funny, but he liked laughing with her. 

Perched atop the cabinet, the messenger watched with big, grave eyes. Being from the más allá, she probably found them strange.

De Los Santos stood outside the hospital, wondering how to get back to Bensonhurst. It was early morning, the sun edging up between the buildings. His messenger was perched atop a bicycle rack. 

“Still looking for Maximón?” Alta Gracia had just exited Consejo. She stood blinking and smiling in the morning sun. 

“Yes,” he said, “but not today. I need to go to work, and Jumdibo.” 

“Humdipot?” She echoed him and scratched her head. He handed her the paper with Jerónimo’s illegible scrawl. “Oh, you mean Home Depot.” She pulled out a pen and wrote the words with care. “It’s far from here. Why do you want to go?”

He rummaged in his backpack and pulled out his broken key. The edges were too smooth. They couldn’t grip the innards of the lock. “It doesn’t function.”

“Oh!” she said. “In that case, just go to a key shop. There is one across the street.” She pointed to where it said “HARDWARE.” 

“That’s good,” he said, amazed at his luck. With Dino gone, the key felt even more important. It was connected to his past as well as to New York City: the strange new skyline, Maya Café, his home on 18th Avenue. A way forward and back. “Thank you.”

But the girl had already turned away. Her phone rang, and she’d pressed it to her ear with a look so colored by desire, he could not even name it. There were things that could not be expressed in any language. The way a root, still dripping earth, could grieve its original place yet remain alive, maintain its stem and its leaves. 

His bicycle rested against the rack where the messenger preened her splendid feathers. She had done her job, brought news of home, and even kept vigil with him overnight. As Alta Gracia turned away, and the sun took up its spot in the sky, she ducked, swooped, flashed her brilliant feathers—turquoise, red, yellow, silver— showed her terrible teeth, then flew off above the rushing avenue into the generous sky above Consejo, over the key shop, into the allure of the ineluctable, the primarily cruel but unpredictably and lavishly compassionate, infinitely shaking city.

Rachel Salguero Kowalsky is a Guatemalan American writer, pediatric emergency physician, two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, and winner of the NEJM short-fiction contest. Her stories appear in The Missouri ReviewAtticus Review, Orca, jmww, Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, and elsewhere. She is grateful to Maynor Ajcalón Hernandez, Celestino Sajvin Sajvin, Joyce Bennett, and Lauren McNaughton for their careful review and Ixnal Cuma de Chanquín who reflected: At the heart of every story es un ser humano.