Needle: A Short Story by Daniel Olivas

By Daniel A. Olivas



Fátima’s mother nudged her daughter and whispered, “Mija, go and say good bye to your brother.”  Fátima’s left eye twitched and she shifted in the pew.  The hard wood made her tiny rump throb with soreness.  She lifted her head, squinted, and focused on the gleaming, light blue, 20-gauge, steel casket that stood before the altar.


Padre Espinoza had positioned himself to the right of casket, head bowed, eyes locked on his congregation, waiting for family members and friends to begin the solemn procession by the body.  From his vantage point, he could not see the body.  He preferred it this way.  The priest had done this so many times he eventually devised a game where he had to guess who would be the first to break down (someone always broke down), body shuddering with grief, shaking hand stroking the face of the dearly departed.  His track record was quite remarkable, about eighty percent correct over the course of a decade.  Who would it be this time?  Would it be Renata Quesada, the young man’s widowed mother?  No.  She was strong.  When her husband died three years ago, Renata was a rock.  Not a tear.  No gnashing of teeth.  No rending of garments.  Who would it be?


Fátima’s mother nudged her daughter again, this time harder, so hard Fátima almost fell out of the pew.

“He was your only brother,” she hissed.  “Say goodbye to him.  Now.”

Fátima knew this moment would come.  She was prepared.  She slowly lifted her little, blue, vinyl purse by the fake, gold chain, stood and took a deep breath.  Her mother nodded at this moody cipher of a twelve-year-old daughter.  This one who had worshipped her now dead older brother.  How could she be so heartless?


Padre Espinoza lifted his head an inch, focused on Fátima who stood near her seated mother, and encouraged with an almost imperceptible smile this slight but beautiful girl to come forward and be the first to look upon the body.  Would she be the one to break down?  No, probably not.  The priest shifted his eyes and scanned the congregation.  A full house.  The entire parish was here to say good bye to one of their own.  A war hero who served his country honorably in Afghanistan.  But a foolish young man nonetheless, who slammed his Honda Accord into an ancient oak in Topanga Canyon late one night after drinking too much.  These poor boys and girls—and they were really just children—who come back from the horrors of war with little to prevent something like this.  What a shame.  What a waste.


Fátima now stood in front of the casket but kept her head up, eyes resting on the large crucifix behind the altar.  She did not need to see her brother’s face.  She had seen it too many times, felt it close often enough, especially after he came back from the war.  Fátima slowly unsnapped her purse and reached in.


The priest closed his eyes and sighed.  He missed his own parents, both long dead.  When they moved from El Paso to Los Angeles, he was two and they were barely out of their teens.  They lived long enough to witness their only child take his final vows but not much longer.  The priest had been the one to break down first when his father died.  His mother had to comfort her son, a grown man.  But when his mother passed not more than a year later, the priest had to be strong because he was now truly alone.


Fátima’s fingertips pressed gently within her small purse, feeling their way, in search of what she had placed within it early that morning.  She kept her eyes on the crucifix, absorbed by Jesus’ plaintive eyes looking upward to His father, asking for relief from suffering.  Her fingertips recognized a crumpled Kleenex, three quarters, a chap stick…and then…ah!  That’s it.  Fátima’s thumb and index finger closed upon what she had been searching for.


Why does God let bad things happen to good people?  It was the question he hated most.  Of course, he had answers to this ubiquitous query.  Answers formulated by great theologians.  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; thus, there is not a person who is purely good.  And: There are no bad things, at least for those who love God.  Or: So God can bring about a greater good.  He had offered these and other aphorisms to his congregants throughout the years.  But Padre Espinoza long ago lost faith in these answers.  None of them made sense anymore.  How could they?


Fátima lifted the long needle from her purse and looked down at it.  She counted to three, leaned close to her brother, and pierced his cheek.  Fátima was surprised at how easily it went in, a clear liquid oozing slowly from the point of entry.  She felt brave, strong.  She pulled it out and then put it in again, this time moving faster.  Two times, and then three, four, five.  Hitting bone.  Over and over until her brother’s cheek tore open.  Six.  Seven.  Eight.  Nine.  And then she stopped.  Nine.  The number of times Fátima’s brother put himself inside of her when their mother slept, late at night, down the hall.  Nine times before that night he died.  Twice before Afghanistan.  Seven times after he came back two years later.  Nine.


The priest’s reverie broke when a woman gasped.  Who was it?  He looked at his congregants.  It was the young man’s mother, Mrs. Quesada, who now stood, mouth agape, hand pointing to the casket.  The priest followed the woman’s finger to Fátima who stood by her brother’s body, breathing heavily, but smiling peacefully at the large crucifix as if she had seen a divine vision.  The priest stared at this girl who looked so beautiful in the dim light of the church.  Why was her mother upset?  This was acceptance, thought the priest.  This is what God desires from us.  There is nothing wrong with this child of God.  She is perfect in every way.

Daniel Olivas is the author of seven books including the award-winning novel, The Book of Want (University of Arizona Press, 2011), and Things We Do Not Talk About: Exploring Latino/a Literature through Essays and Interviews (San Diego State University Press, 2014). He is also the editor of the landmark anthology, Latinos in Lotusland (Bilingual Press, 2008), which brings together 60 years of Los Angeles fiction by Latino/a writers. His writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Fourth & Sycamore, PANK, Prairie Schooner (Briefly Noted), Fairy Tale Review, Exquisite Corpse, New Madrid, Superstition Review, Pembroke, and many other literary journals. He has also written for The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Los Angeles Times, Jewish Journal, El Paso Times, High Country News, Los Angeles Review of Books, and La Bloga (where he blogs on Chicano/a and Latino/a literature), among other print and online publications. He earned his degree in English literature from Stanford University, and law degree from UCLA. By day, he is an attorney in the Public Rights Division of the California Department of Justice in Los Angeles. 

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