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Red, White, and Blue

"Jesus loves me, this I know.  

For the bible tells me so."

Her voice soft and whispery as she rocked me back and forth singing my favorite Sunday school song.  She smelled of perfume and Marlboro cigarettes, a smell I'd come to find such comfort in.  I had awaken from that dream again (perhaps nightmare is more appropriate). The dream haunted me nightly for well over a year and sporadically in the many years that followed.  In the glow of the night-light I could see her long hair, a bit frizzy from the Houston humidity, her face healing from another bruise.  Still she rocked me, my little, four-year-old body, light and boney, but heavy with grief beyond my years. It was just the two of us and our cat Tom Tom in our one bedroom apartment there on Freeport Street. The place was cheap, in the lower-working class neighborhood of Cloverleaf, and it was our home.

Back to the dream...the same dream.  I was in my dad's house in 2nd ward on the East side of Downtown, Houston, the house that my grandfather built which sat in the shadows of the skyline.  I was there alone on his sofa with just enough light to see myself and the door to Michael's room which was just off the living room.  His door was open, but just open to darkness.  Was he in there?  Had he come home?  He couldn't have come home.  He was dead.  That's what I heard them say.  Dead.  Dead.  What does dead mean? Gone.  Gone...forever?  His room was just empty, but the door was open.  And I was there on the sofa. 

The dream never made sense to me, but I'm guessing that four year olds never really can understand the concept of death, especially one that happens so quickly and viciously as Michael's. 

Michael was my half-brother, 15 years my senior, from my father's previous marriage.  I hadn't lived long enough to get to know him well, but I have three very vivid memories of him, including the day he died. 

The memories come back like moving photographs that begin and end with a flash of color. The sounds don't quite match up with the moving lips of the people on my mental TV screen.  There is laughter, the laughter of children.  High-pitched, uncontrollable giggles of a very young boy and a slightly older girl.  They are running around something resembling a concrete maze.  Every few seconds, Michael peeks over the maze and scares them into running the other direction.  Finally, he scoops down and grabs them, grabs us, my sister and I.  In his arms we continue giggling, as if laughter is all we have and all we need. 

Flash to white, the picture changes.  The buzz of a motorcycle, Michael behind the handle bars, and me (all of three years old) in his lap.  Flash to white again, and we're at the local pool.   It's him and I.  He's telling me how he likes to dive from the diving board.  One day I'll do that too. The motorcycle buzzes again and we're back in front of the house. A woman is screaming.

"Michael! Michael!"  It's my mom, and she's frantic, though deservedly so.  She slaps him across the back and grabs me. More screaming.  Flash to white.  Then flash to black.

The phone is ringing. My dad and I are in bed.  Hours have passed since we were sitting in the back yard, looking up at the fireworks.  July 4th, 1987.  The City of Houston puts on a great fireworks show.  This was the first year I remember seeing it.  The flashes of color filter this memory more so than the others, in manic bursts. The sound of explosions in the distance.  Flash to white. Another explosion.  Flash to red.  And then finally, a flash to blue.  It's as if everything that exists in this memory is filtered by one of those colors. 

The phone is ringing.  I look up at the alarm clock.  It's the 80s.  Our alarm clock had plastic numbers that flipped down with each new minute, illuminated by a faint, orange glow. I don't remember the time, but given that Michael's death was on the 4th, it had to have been before midnight.  My dad answered the phone, his voice deep and raspy.  I don't remember what he said, but there was worry in his voice.  My father (even to this day) is not a man to show emotions, but there was a different tone to his voice then. 

Flash to white.  We're there. There are police lights.  Flash to blue.  My dad runs ahead of me.  There are people all around us, but I feel very alone.  Directly in front of me there is a body lying in the grass.  I can't see his face, but I know it's Michael.  Flash to white like the sheet that covers him.  My eyes shift back and forth as I process exactly what is happening.  Sirens wail around me.  My dad wails too. 

"Daddy what is that?"  I look at the upper left of Michael's chest.  Something is protruding from Michael, tenting the sheet that covers him.  And then I realize as my father kneels beside him, as I see the sheet is stained in the very color that my memory is then filtered with...flash to red.  

Michael Renee Vasquez, my older half-brother, of 18 years, was stabbed to death at a party that night there in Second Ward.  In the late eighties, there were a series of gang fights and killings in the area (another one of our cousins was killed months later).  Michael's killer was never caught.

I was always told that Michael died protecting his friend, and while I'll never know exactly what happened, that's how I would want his story to one of valor.