Excerpt from Bait:
“This is Mr. Vidas,”
explained Diego’s court-appointed attorney as they headed into juvenile
court. “He’s the probation officer assigned to your case.”
thirty-something PO was shorter than six-foot-one Diego, but his grip was
that of someone sure of himself, his voice calm and confident. “Good to meet
Diego shook hands warily.
What would Vidas want from him? What if he decided he didn’t like Diego?
Would he recommend that the judge lock him up in juvie?
The courtroom looked like
the set of some law drama, except for Diego this wasn’t TV but real life.
His life, spinning from bad to worse. He’d let himself down. Big time.
He slid his lanky frame
awkwardly into the defendant’s chair, aware of the faint smell his own
nervous sweat. He wished he could change the channel and be at home, taking
care of his aquarium fish or goofing around with his little brother, Eddie;
or at the beach with his best friend, Kenny, hunting for shells and riding
waves; or at school, watching Ariel across the hall, hoping she might look
over at him. He wished he could be anywhere else in the world but here.
As the bailiff announced
the case, Diego’s outgrown dress shoes chewed at his ankles. His
crimson-colored tie felt like a noose around his neck. And from beside the
brightly polished judge’s bench, Vidas’s hazel eyes peered directly at
Diego—as if trying to see inside him, figure him out.
Diego glanced away,
trying to act casual as he slid his hands beneath the defense table, where
he tugged the cuffs of his long-sleeve shirt down to make sure they covered
the cuts above his wrists.
Judge Ferrara, flanked by
the American and Texas flags, gazed up from the file he was reading and
peered over the front of the podium. “Your name’s Diego MacMann? What is
Diego sat up, caught off
guard. Wasn’t the judge supposed to address the lawyers? Ms. Delgado, his
attorney, nodded for him to respond. Little sweat blisters burst onto his
forehead as he replied, “Um, yes sir, your honor.”
At seven years old, he’d
moved from Puerto Vallarta, on Mexico’s Pacific coast, to Corpus Christi
when his mom married his step-dad, James MacMann. In the process, “Mac” had
adopted him. Nobody had asked Diego what he wanted.
interesting,” the judge mused. The lenses of his horn-rimmed glasses made
his eyes look huge and round as an owl’s. “Sixteen years old…” he continued
to read the file aloud “…first time misdemeanor assault…”
The incident had happened
at school, in the hallway outside the cafeteria on the way to lunch. Fabio
Flores, a junior who painted his fingernails purple, wore eye makeup, and
told the entire school he was gay, kept grinning at Diego.
It pissed Diego off. Why
the hell did Fabio keep looking at him that way? Diego told him to stop, but
Fabio kept it up until Diego couldn’t stand it anymore. The anger moved like
a pair of hands across his body.
He popped Fabio in the
face—only one punch and not even that hard—expecting Fabio to block
him. Or run away. Or something. He’d clearly seen Diego’s punch
coming. Why’d he just stand there?
His nose spurted like a
fire hydrant, gushing blood all over the hall tiles. Girls screamed. The
hallway monitors pinned Diego to the floor.
He knew he shouldn’t have
hit Fabio. He’d never wanted to hurt anybody. But even though he said he
hadn’t meant it, the vice principal suspended him for a week. And Fabio’s
dad had pressed charges.
“So does this mean,”
Judge Ferrara continued speaking directly to Diego, his voice turning angry,
“that you’ve got an Irish temper or a Latin temper? Or both?”
“Um, I don’t know.” Diego
stumbled over a response, as a bead of sweat trickled down his forehead.
“Your honor, sir.”
“Well, whichever it
is”—Judge Ferrara jabbed his finger toward Diego—“you’d better learn to
control that temper or I’ll put you in jail. You understand that?”
“Um, yes,” Diego replied,
his voice trembling.
“Yes what?” the
“Yes, I understand, your
honor, sir.” Diego’s heart pounded fearfully.
Judge Ferrara glared at
him a long moment, then shifted his gaze to the prosecutor. “How do you wish
to proceed with this case?”
While the prosecutor
related the plea bargain, Diego only half-listened, rattled by his fears of
Before court, Ms. Delgado
had explained to his mom and him the plea deal:
“If you plead not
guilty and a trial proves you are guilty, the prosecutor will demand
jail time. But if you plead guilty and forego trial, the prosecution will
usually support whatever sentence your PO recommends. Most likely you’ll get
probation. Maybe even less than that. It’s your decision, but if I were you,
I’d take the plea deal.”
With his mom’s agreement,
Diego had said yes to the plea bargain. Anything to avoid jail.
Judge Ferrara now
accepted the plea, ordered a pre-sentencing investigation, and set a
disposition date. Next thing Diego knew, he was back in the waiting room
with his attorney, his mom, and Vidas.
“Now, you do whatever Mr.
Vidas says,” Ms. Delgado told Diego. “Okay? I’ll see you on your sentencing
She said goodbye to
everybody and Diego’s mom immediately turned to Vidas. “I want him to be on
“Ma!” Diego protested. “I
don’t need probation. I’m fine!”
“If you’re fine, why are
we here?” She spoke to him as though he were a kid, despite the fact that he
stood taller than her—even when she wore heels, like now. “I try to talk to
him,” she told Vidas, “but he won’t listen to me. I don’t know what to do
with him anymore.”
“You’re the one who never
listens,” Diego muttered. He figured Vidas would take his mom’s side like
other adults normally did. But Vidas didn’t. Apparently he was used to
hearing such arguments.
“Hold on.” He calmly
raised his palms up between Diego and his mom, referee-like. “Let me explain
what happens next. For the pre-sentence investigation, I’ll need to conduct
a home visit, get your school records, interview the victim, and hear your
side of the incident. Based on what I find out, I’ll recommend a sentence to
the judge. It might be probation or something else.”
“But not juvie, right?”
Diego’s voice rose, tight and tense.
“Probably not,” Vidas
said. Once again he peered into Diego’s eyes as if trying to glimpse things
that Diego didn’t want him—or anybody—see.
“But it’s too soon for me
to rule anything out,” Vidas continued. “A lot will depend on you.”
Diego looked away. Why
couldn’t Vidas just assure him he wouldn’t end up in jail?
“How is he behaving at
home?” Vidas asked his mom.
“Most of the time he’s a
good boy. He takes care of his brother in the evenings and makes their
dinner, he does his chores and homework…”
Hearing her praise, Diego
relaxed a little—until she added, “But sometimes his anger just explodes.
I’ve told him he needs to control his emotions.” She turned to Diego. “Why
won’t you listen to me?”
“Why don’t you listen to
me?” Diego shot back.
“And his father?” Vidas
“His step-father died,”
his mom said softly, “three years ago.”
Diego glanced down at the
floor, not wanting to think about Mac’s suicide, wishing he could just
forget Mac altogether.
“I’m very sorry to hear
that,” Vidas told his mom. Then he pulled a scheduler from his herringbone
jacket. “What’s the best day for a home visit?”
“I have to work two
jobs,” his mom explained. “I only have Sundays off.”
replied, “the visit needs to be during office hours, Monday through Friday,
eight-thirty to five-thirty.”
His mom glared at Diego
and shook her head so angrily that the chrome clip fell out of her hair. “I
can’t keep taking time off because of your fights. You’re going to make me
lose my job!”
Feeling a little guilty,
Diego stooped down and picked the clip up. He knew his mom was struggling to
keep their family afloat. There hadn’t been any life insurance settlement
because Mac’s death was a suicide. But even when Diego tried to help his mom
with money from his Saturday job, she told him to save it for college.
As he handed her the clip
her gaze softened. “Thursday, I guess,” she told Vidas. “Can you please make
it later in the afternoon so I don’t have to take the whole day off?”
“Sure. No problem. How
about four o’clock?”
“Okay, thank you. I hope
you can help Diego. Maybe he’ll listen to you.”
“Let’s see what we can
do,” Vidas said optimistically. He shook her hand goodbye and turned to
Diego. Grasping his palm as if squaring some deal, Vidas once again looked
him in the eyes, as if searching for something.
Diego tried to not look
away, although he wished Vidas would stop doing that.
Outside the courthouse,
Diego tore away the strangling necktie, a gift from Mac his mom had made him
wear. Inside their old Toyota, he cast off the cramped dress shoes and
changed into his well-worn sneakers, grumbling, “Why’d you have to tell him
to put me on probation?”
His mom ignored the
question and phoned the nursing home where she worked. Although she told
them she was on her way, when she pulled out of the garage, she glanced at
the clock and asked Diego, “Isn’t it after your lunch period? We’d better
stop to eat.”
“I thought you had to get
“Yes, but you have to
eat.” His mom always made sure he ate.
They stopped at a fish
and chips place across from the seawall overlooking the bay. Inside the
restaurant, he noticed that the Value Meal included a mini spyglass
telescope. He decided to get one for his friend, Kenny, just for fun.
Sitting down at a booth,
Diego’s mom bit into a battered shrimp and commented, “Mr. Vidas seems like
a very nice man.”
“You don’t even know him
yet,” Diego protested. She was always too trusting of people. “How do you
know he’s not some serial killer?”
“Ay, you’re being
silly.” His mom pressed a napkin to her lips. “You need a man to talk to—a
“You don’t know what I
need,” Diego fired back, recalling his previous so-called father figure,
Mac. “You’ve got no idea.”
Nobody but he knew the
truth about Mac. His mom had never wanted to know, even when Diego tried to
tell her. Now it was too late; it was over. Mac was dead.
Turning away from his
mom, Diego lifted the tiny spyglass to his eye. He stared out the window
toward the dark green waters of the bay, thinking—and wanting to forget.
After lunch, Diego’s mom
jotted him an excuse note and dropped him off at school, telling him, “No
more trouble, okay?”
He slammed the car door
without answering. Couldn’t she understand that he never wanted to
cause trouble? He signed in at the attendance office and arrived at his
locker just as the bell rang, flooding the hallway with students.
“’Sup?” Kenny smiled,
walking up to him. “Glad they didn’t lock you up.”
He and Diego had been
best friends since middle school—bonded by good grades and their shared love
for the ocean.
“Nah, the PO has to do a
report first.” Diego bonked Kenny over the head with the mini spyglass,
“What’s this?” Kenny
grinned at the telescope and lifted it up to his glasses.
“Yo, MacMann!” Guerrero
called from two lockers down. “So, who’s your PO?”
Guerrero had already been
sentenced to probation: for driving his foster dad’s car without a license,
crashing it into a telephone pole, and knocking out the power for an entire
neighborhood. He talked and acted as if he was Diego’s buddy, but to Diego
he was mostly a pain in the ass.
“A guy named Vidas,”
Diego yelled back.
“He’s a fag,” declared
Guerrero. To Guerrero, everybody was a fag.
Diego ignored the
comment, his attention caught by a figure across the crowded hallway: Ariel.
To Diego, she was the
most amazing girl at school, maybe even the entire planet. She was beyond
cute: radiant, with skin that emanated warmth and the world’s most perfect
breasts. Added to that, she liked tropical fish, the same as him. He’d seen
her at the mall’s pet shop where he worked. But to his regret, he’d passed
up two ideal opportunities to talk to her, freezing up each time.
“She’s smiling at you,”
Kenny whispered to Diego.
“Nah, she isn’t,” Diego
murmured, even though it looked like she was. He felt himself turn red as he
“She’s smiling cause she
thinks you’re dorky.” Guerrero snickered. But at that moment, even
Guerrero’s jerk comments failed to faze Diego.
“Why don’t you go and say
hi to her?” Kenny suggested.
As if it were that easy.
The mere prospect made Diego break into a sweat.
“Go reel her in,”
Guerrero taunted, “and bring her back.” Placing both paws on Diego’s
shoulders, he launched Diego across the hallway. And as though pulled by the
tendrils of Ariel’s long full lashes, Diego felt himself floating toward
Her smile beckoned as
though it were a lighthouse. Her green eyes sparkled like sunlight on the
ocean. But as Diego almost reached her, a guy wearing khakis and loafers
sailed in front of him, cutting him off.
“Hey, Ariel,” Preppie
Dude greeted her. And even though Ariel peered over the guy’s shoulder,
Diego whirled around and raced back to his locker in record-breaking time.
grabbed Diego’s arm and play-punched him. “Real smooth!”
Diego shook him off. He
didn’t like guys touching him, especially some jerk like Guerrero.
“What happened?” Kenny
Diego didn’t want to
admit he’d wimped out. “I think she’s got a boyfriend.” It was probably
true. How could any girl that spectacular not already have a
smirked—“you can always go back to Fabio.”
“Shut up!” Diego barked,
wanting to pound Guerrero, nearly forgetting he’d been in court for assault
only hours earlier. Luckily, Kenny pulled him back.
During the remainder of
the school day, Diego tried to concentrate on his class work and stop
thinking about how he’d once again botched up with Ariel. It embarrassed him
that at sixteen, he’d never even kissed a girl, although not for lack of
interest. He liked girls. A lot. A whole lot.
In his room alone or
while taking a long shower, he’d fantasize about holding a girl in his arms,
stroking her hair, kissing her lips... He’d run his hands tenderly across
her breasts and when she wanted more, he gladly gave it to her. And
afterwards, she laid her head on his chest, happy and satisfied.
But in real life, if a
girl so much as said hi, he choked up. It was hopeless. He felt like a
When he got home that
afternoon, he peeled his backpack off and sat at his aquarium, his thoughts
swirling about Ariel. Had she really been smiling at him? Could any girl
that amazing ever actually be interested in somebody with problems like his?
He gave his clownfish,
Nemo and Gill, a tiny snack of dried krill and then played peek-a-boo with
them through the tank glass. The saltwater fish required more care and
attention than freshwater ones, but it was worth the hours he spent looking
at their brilliant colors, imagining them on a faraway reef. He loved his
A short time later, his
eight year-old brother’s school bus stopped out front. He joined Diego,
watching the clownfish dart in and out of the anemone. While Eddie jabbered
about his school day, Diego mostly just listened and let him talk. He didn’t
mention his appearance in court. His mom had told him not to, since his
little brother looked up to him so much.
After sitting for a while
leaning into each other, the boys started horsing around. Diego had been
teaching Eddie to box, so he could defend himself if anybody tried to mess
“Keep your fists up,”
Diego taught him like he’d learned from boxers on TV.
Eddie loved the
horseplay, giggling as his older brother fought off his punches but
ultimately let him triumph.
Since their mom didn’t
get home from her night job till after nine, it fell upon Diego to make
dinner and help Eddie with homework. Eddie sat at the kitchen table with his
schoolbooks, asking Diego questions while Diego boiled noodles, fried ground
beef, and heated tomato sauce. Mac had taught him to cook—mostly basic stuff
like spaghetti and burgers.
Tonight, after they’d
cleaned up the kitchen and put the plates in the dishwasher, Eddie watched
TV and Diego went to his room to do his own homework. But the loser feelings
about his botch-up with Ariel kept gnawing at him. Leaving aside his
schoolwork, he walked to his dresser mirror and examined his reflection.
His hair was thick and
black. And his eyes were nearly as dark, just like his mom’s. His cheekbones
were high, his jaw square.
“You’re a handsome boy,”
Mac had often told him. Diego had wanted to be handsome, but not for Mac.
Even now he could almost feel Mac’s hand running through his hair, tousling
Diego reached inside his
shirt and pulled out the elastic cord that hung around his neck. Fastened to
it with two bits of wire was one of the first presents Mac had given him: a
Great White Shark’s tooth.
At the time, the huge
tooth had barely fit into Diego’s five year-old palm. The triangle measured
over two inches wide at the base and was equally long, its jagged edges
tapering to a perfect point. Everyone in his neighborhood had wanted to see
it, especially the boys. Filled with awe, they ran their fingers across the
bone-smooth surface and gingerly tapped the tooth’s razor-fine tip.
The tooth gave Diego a
feeling of power and strength. Since the day he first got it, he always kept
it on—showering with it, eating with it, sleeping with it. Sometimes he woke
at night and carefully ran his hands across it, to make sure the tooth was
One afternoon shortly
after Mac’s suicide, Diego had come home from school with his mind a
whirlpool of swirling thoughts and feelings—similar to today. Trying to calm
himself, he’d taken hold of the shark’s tooth, as an impulse overcame him.
He lifted the underside of his forearm, where his skin was lighter-colored,
and pressed the tooth’s point against it.
There was no pain at
first. His skin sank beneath the tooth’s pressure. Then he pressed harder.
The tip punctured the flesh and a heat spike shot up Diego’s arm. With total
clarity, he watched a bright red bead bubble to the skin’s surface.
Slowly, he sliced the
tooth’s serrated edge across his flesh like a steak knife. It was only a
slight cut, but deep enough for pain to flood his body—a sharp pang that
diminished all his other feelings.
A tiny rivulet of blood
oozed up from the cut and glistened on his skin like sparkling lights. The
entire room suddenly appeared brighter, its colors more clear, every sound
more crisp. He ran his fingers across the tingling gash and felt a little
proud. He hadn’t shed a single tear.
A week after that first
time, he’d cut himself again. And the next week and the next. The whole area
between his wrist and left elbow became crisscrossed with scars.
Perpendicular slices. Bisecting angles.
Sometimes the pain was
excruciating. He knew he shouldn’t be doing it, but he couldn’t stop. He
didn’t want to. With each cut he felt a new thrill—a release of some
pressure that had built up inside him. He was letting it out.
To staunch the blood, he
nabbed band-aids, or cotton balls, or gauze pads from the medicine chest.
When those supplies were spent, he used toilet paper and scotch tape, or
anything else he could find. When he peeled the bandages off, they sometimes
stuck and burned like fire.
He took care not to cut
so deep that he’d need stitches, and if a wound began to look infected, he
slathered it with antibiotic cream. He didn’t want his mom to find out. The
secrecy of the cutting brought back a familiar feeling from when Mac had
been alive: once again, Diego had begun to live a double life.
His mom never questioned
why he used so many band-aids. Perhaps she was too busy working to notice.
Or maybe she just didn’t want to know.
At school, a couple of
teachers had spotted the cuts and asked, “What happened?” Diego’s heart
raced as he told them the same thing he’d told Eddie: “Just an accident.”
“Do you want to talk
about it?” one teacher persisted, obviously not believing him.
“No,” Diego answered.
Confessing how crazy he was acting would mean admitting it to himself, too.
“You shouldn’t do that to
yourself,” Kenny had said, wincing at the scars. “Doesn’t it hurt?”
“Yeah.” Diego nodded
evasively. “But I like it.”
“I thought only girls
cut,” Guerrero had sneered when he noticed the marks.
To avoid attracting
anymore flak, Diego began to wear only long-sleeve tops—cotton tees mostly,
whose sleeves were pliable enough to pull down below his wrists. When his
left arm got full, he started on his right: the excitement of fresh skin.
And when his arms filled up, he ventured across his chest. With each cut he
felt stronger and more powerful than ever. Like tonight.
He sliced the tooth
across his skin and for a moment all his confused and painful worries about
Ariel, Vidas, his past, and his future disappeared. Somehow, he’d get
Read the rest, starting June 2009 - wherever
books are sold - in stores and online!