Not a soul in this world, living or dead, will ever know it, but Sands fears the silence at night. He dreams sometimes of rough hands grabbing him and holding him down, the hiss of the red-hot needles as they slide into his ears, the quiet popping sound his eardrums make, this last sound he will ever hear.
In the beginning he slept with the radio on, turned down low, of course. But still, on. Later he graduated to a fan, pleased by the dual purpose it served, keeping him both sane and cool. It only took one night, though, to teach him the error of his ways. One night of Chiclet creeping into his room – because he was making noises in his sleep, of all the pathetic things – to check on him.
It could have been worse, he always reminds himself. He only winged the kid in the arm instead of shooting him between the eyes like he intended. The resulting shitstorm only lasted a week or so, and even then it was really only Ramirez doing the pissing and moaning; the kid forgave him as soon as he regained consciousness.
These days, he sleeps with no sound to accompany him. When he wakes up, heart pounding, the silence pressing in close, he tests it with phrases from his past muttered fiercely under his breath.
"Piso mojado," he whispers into the dark.
Sands is on a quest to find the perfect puerco pibil. It takes him near and wide, over hill and dale, and all that jazz.
Chiclet is always the one to suggest their next destination. He's really into the spirit of things, eager to hear Sands' review. He also always pesters Jorge to have a chance to drive the car, and Sands dutifully plays along.
For the hell of it one day he pulls his gun and presses it to the side of Ramirez's neck. "Let the kid drive," he says.
Chiclet doesn't do too badly. The kid only leaves the road once, and that's not entirely his fault, judging by the sound of squealing tires coming from the other car. Parking is not his forte though; they end up in the grass – sideways.
The puerco pibil at that particular cantina is pretty good, but not good enough. Not perfect. Still, he's in high enough spirits as he's brushing his teeth later that night, getting ready for bed. It's the sound of the bristles that does it, filling his senses so he can't hear anything else. He's caught completely off guard when Ramirez's hand grips him by the back of the neck and shoves his head down into the sink.
Water cascades over his head, soaking the black cloth that binds his eyes beneath the sunglasses he affects during the day. While he's still trying to figure out how the hell someone else got the drop on him, Ramirez catches his free hand and twists his arm up behind his back. He lashes out with his other hand, still holding the stupid toothbrush, but the positioning is all wrong and he can't do much.
"If you ever pull a gun on me again," Jorge breathes into his ear, "you better be prepared to pull the trigger."
Sands relaxes. He grins into the sink and the water swirling just beneath his chin. "I can do that."
Jorge grunts acknowledgement, then lets him go.
Sands stands up straight, flicking wet hair out of his face.
Ramirez hands him a towel to dry off with, and for that, Sands refrains from shooting him in his sleep.
In one lovely establishment that reeks of smoke and stale sweat, he hears the sound of silver chains.
Mariachis are a dime a dozen in this country, and this isn't the first time he's heard such a sound. But these chimes are different.
Sands raises his arm, hand high above his head, and waves. "El!" he calls cheerily, just one friend greeting another.
The restaurant gets very silent, except for a few people either too ignorant or too stupid to know better.
El's heavy, measured stride takes him to their table. "What is he doing here?" he demands.
Sands holds up his plate. "Puerco pibil?" he offers.
Ramirez mutters something about a long story. Chiclet is silent, no doubt staring with big calf eyes.
El leans in, chains a'jingling, a dark brooding presence so strong he probably has his own gravitational field. "If I ever see you again," he says, "I will kill you."
Sands can't help smirking. He's perfectly safe, and he knows it.
"Well, okay," he says. He lowers his voice a little, confidentially speaking. "And the next time I see you, I will kill you."
El draws in a sharp, shocked breath.
The resulting silence is hilarious. Sands gives his plate a tempting little waggle. "Sure you don't want to try some? The pork is a little dry, but honestly, this is the best I've had in months."
After a long moment, El jingles his way out of the joint.
Sands shrugs and resumes eating. "More for me," he says.
They run into El more and more often as the months go by. No one ever wonders why this should be so. It just becomes part of the routine, like Chiclet asking if he can drive, swearing he'll do better this time, or Jorge complaining about the traffic. It takes a while for the mariachi to unbend enough to sit with them. He doesn't say much, even when he does grace them with his presence. He never does accept any food Sands offers.
When Chiclet starts stealing out of the house for some unsanctioned guitar lessons, Sands sighs melodramatically. "We've lost him, Jorge."
"Just in time, too," Ramirez says.
Sands can't help it. He laughs.
In a swelteringly hot cantina forty miles outside of Juarez, Sands thinks he may have finally found it: the perfect puerco pibil. The meat is seasoned just right, and he can taste how right the coloring is. Everything else measures up too, from the vegetables to the wonderfully chill bottle of beer in his hand.
El likes to demonstate how well he thinks he knows Sands – which is to say, not at all. "So, are you going to shoot this cook?"
Sands leans back in his chair. He thinks about it. "No," he finally says. "I need one more meal to be sure. We'll come back tomorrow."
"No shooting," El says firmly.
"What did I just say?" Sands says with the calm, slow patience he would use in speaking to a retarded monkey.
El scoffs under his breath, but wisely says no more.
They drive back to their hotel under humid skies that promise more lurid heat tomorrow. Even sheltered by the long shadows of summer, it's damn hot.
He stands in the doorway of his rented room, smoking a cigarette, the dying sun on his face. He listens with interest as El walks up; it's the first time the mariachi has ever followed them from the restaurant.
He gestures toward the western sky. "I bet that's a real beauty."
El does not say anything at first. A chain sings as he shifts his weight delicately. Then, "Yes," he says. "It is."
Sands exhales twin plumes of smoke from his nostrils and reminds himself that he was never really into sunsets anyway. No matter what El says, he's not missing much.
"Tomorrow," El says slowly, "I would like to try your meal."
Sands turns toward him. He grins. "I thought you'd never ask."