Ch 2: The Trouble Around Us

The days in juvenile detention were long and grueling. Miguel had quickly learned to navigate the unspoken rules of the facility, but there were times when standing up for himself came at a high cost. One afternoon, as the boys were finishing their lunch, Miguel found himself confronted by Marcus, a notorious figure in the detention center who had a gang of followers.

"Yo, Garcia, you got my toilet duty today," Marcus sneered, tossing a mop at Miguel's feet.

Miguel glared back. "I'm not cleaning no toilets, Marcus. Do it yourself."

The room fell silent. Marcus's crew closed in around Miguel, their eyes gleaming with anticipation. Marcus stepped closer, his face inches from Miguel's. "You think you can talk to me like that, punk? You're gonna learn today. I ain't the one to play with!"

Before Miguel could react, fists rained down on him. He tried to defend himself, but the numbers were against him. He hit the floor hard, tasting blood. The guards were slow to intervene, a reminder of how little anyone cared about what happened to kids like him.

As Miguel lay on the cold concrete, pain radiating through his body, his thoughts drifted to his mother, Maria. She was his anchor, the reason he kept fighting. He couldn't let this place break him.

Spit Is Disrespect

Across town, Maria was at the diner, working the night shift as usual. The smell of grease and stale coffee clung to her clothes, and her feet ached from standing for hours on end. She wiped down the counter, lost in thought about Miguel, when a customer walked in.

"Service here is slower than a snail," the man grumbled as he took a seat.

Maria approached him with a practiced smile. "Good evening, sir. What can I get for you?"

The man glanced at her nametag, his expression twisting with disdain. "You people shouldn’t even be here, let alone serving food," he muttered.

Maria's smile faltered, but she maintained her composure. "I'm sorry you feel that way. Would you like to order something?"

He spat in her direction and some of his spit hit the side of her face. "Yeah, how about you go back to where you came from?" Then he and his buddy laughed.

Maria's hands trembled as she wiped away the spit, fighting back tears. She couldn't afford to lose this job, not with the attorney fees piling up. Her manager, Tom, stood nearby, his arms crossed, watching the exchange.

After the man left, Maria approached Tom, her voice shaking. "Tom, that customer was incredibly disrespectful. He spit at me and made racist remarks. This isn't right. Aren't you gonna do something about it?"

Tom sighed, looking bored. "Look, Maria, I get it. But this is a business. We can't afford to lose customers. If you can't handle a little criticism, maybe this job isn't for you."

Maria's eyes widened in disbelief. "Criticism? He spit on me because I'm Hispanic! I work hard every day, and I deserve to be treated with respect."

Tom shrugged. "I need employees who can deal with the customers, no matter what. If you can't, you know where the door is."

Maria's heart sank. She couldn't afford to quit. Not with the bills, the mortgage, and Miguel's attorney fees. She nodded, swallowing her pride. "I'll get back to work."

No Wifi

Later that night, as Maria cleaned a house in a wealthy neighborhood, she let her tears fall. Each scrub and sweep was a reminder of the sacrifices she made for her family. She thought of Miguel, hoping he was safe, praying for his early release. She would do anything for her children, endure any hardship, but the weight of it all was becoming unbearable.

When she finally returned home, exhausted and emotionally drained, she found Miguel's younger brother, Carlos, asleep on the couch. She kissed his forehead gently and sat down, her body aching, her spirit weary. She whispered a silent prayer for strength, knowing that tomorrow would bring more of the same struggles, but also the hope that one day, things would be better.

For now, she had to keep fighting, for herself, for Carlos, and most of all, for Miguel.

Usually, Maria relied on their neighbor Hugo, a college student, to watch Carlos while she was at work. Hugo was diligent and kind, using the money Maria paid him to help fund his education. However, with Miguel in detention and Maria working two shifts, the arrangement had become strained.

Hugo knocked on the door one evening, just as Maria was about to leave for her night shift at the diner.

"Hey, Maria. Can we talk?" Hugo asked, looking concerned.

"Of course, Hugo. Come in," Maria replied, trying to keep her fatigue from showing.

Hugo stepped inside and took a deep breath. "Maria, I've been meaning to talk to you about the hours. I know things have been tough with Miguel, but the hours are a lot longer than we initially agreed on. Plus, I need the WiFi for my schoolwork, and with you cutting it off, it's hard for me to stay here for such long periods."

Maria's heart sank. "I understand, Hugo. I really do. But with everything going on, I just can't afford more. I'm barely making enough to cover the bills and the attorney fees."

Hugo nodded sympathetically. "I get it, Maria. And I want to help, but it's just more than I signed up for. I need to keep up with my studies, and without WiFi, it's almost impossible. I wish I could do more, but I also need to think about my own future."

Maria felt a lump in her throat. "I don't know what to do, Hugo. Carlos needs someone, and I can't afford to pay anyone more. I can't lose this job, and I can't afford to keep you either. I'm stuck."

Hugo sighed, looking conflicted. "Maybe we can find a middle ground. I can still watch Carlos, but only for the original hours we agreed on. You'll have to find someone else to cover the extra time. Maybe ask around the neighborhood?"

Maria nodded, fighting back tears. "I'll figure something out. Thank you for being honest with me, Hugo. And thank you for everything you've done for Carlos."

Hugo gave her a reassuring smile. "We'll get through this, Maria. Just take it one day at a time."

As Hugo left, Maria sank into a chair, overwhelmed by the mounting challenges. She glanced at the clock, knowing she had to leave for work soon. She took a deep breath, wiped her tears, and whispered to herself, "One day at a time."

Neighbors Help Out

Their neighborhood, like many heavily populated minority neighborhoods, had a strong sense of community. Despite their individual struggles, neighbors looked out for one another. Mr. Foster, a Black man who lived on the same street, was a plumber by trade but an all-around fix-it guy. He had helped Maria fix things around the house and never charged her a dime. In return, Maria always sent him a plate when she made her famous chicken enchiladas.

On the corner lived Patricia, a mean old bitty from Vietnam who was the neighborhood's constant thorn. She called the police for every little thing, once even on an Uber Eats driver who was just trying to deliver her food. "He doesn't have the right to be on my property!" she'd yelled at the poor driver, and nobody could stand her nosy, confrontational nature.

Another neighbor, Santiago, owned a food truck. One time, local thugs had robbed his truck, spray-painting graffiti all over it and vandalizing his equipment. Santiago had a hard time bouncing back, but the community rallied around him. Neighbors pitched in to help clean the truck and repair the damage. They took turns keeping a lookout for the thugs who did it, and Santiago made it clear he wouldn't tolerate any more trouble. He even carried a shotgun, warning that he'd shoot if anyone came on his property again.

When Santiago's food truck was back up and running, he showed his gratitude by giving all the neighbors free food. It was a small victory for the community, a testament to their resilience and solidarity.

The Real Trouble

Despite these efforts, just two streets over lived some of the worst people you'd ever want as neighbors. That area was a hotbed of trouble, with constant shootings and frequent arrests. Miguel and Carlos had to pass those streets whenever they walked to school. Kids were always getting bullied, and neither the police nor the school officials seemed to care.

Miguel knew he had to look out for his brother, Carlos. He walked him to school each day and would walk him to his class once they arrived at school. Carlos was two years younger and because he was Autistic, his classes were on a different wing on the campus. It was a huge responsibility but Miguel was committed to his brother because the kids at school often picked on him and he had no one else to protect him.

Even though the hardships seemed to increase daily, the people on Maria's street tried to look out for each other. The neighborhood was the sore spot of the area, overshadowed by luxurious gated homes not far away. Maria cleaned a few of those homes and had always aspired to live in one of them. It would be a blessing for her and her kids. But in their current environment, it was easy for Miguel to get into trouble. Most parents worked multiple jobs, leaving kids unsupervised and often getting into mischief.

Every day, Maria found an inner strength and renewed determination. She'd wipe away her tears and stand up, ready to face another long day. She knew she had no choice but to keep going. For Miguel. For Carlos. For their future.

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