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Poetry Finalist: “This one’s for all the little Latin kids who never came home-“

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— for whatever reason. Maybe they misplaced something on the
kitchen counter
or forgot to leave something there.

After a while, dreams are all you become.
They’ve taken over the roses creeping up the cracked wallpaper
and spread like kudzu over the cross on your abuela’s wall,
the one she touches un mano to before she goes to sleep.

After a while, she will stop lighting candles for your safe return.
Mamita will put a hand on your hermana’s when she sets your place at
the table
and saves some empanadillas for you, your favorite,
and a café con leche for when the evening needs a little sweetness—
the kind you used to lend—
and say, “No, chica, not tonight.”

Papá will be stoic as ever, but when the ladies are done with their
cafés and table talk, when they go off to pray to Santa María and tuck
themselves into bed,
he will stand on the porch blinking at the fireflies and gnats,
willing everything to be still, for the buzz of the crickets to turn to amber
in the air—
so he can imagine that it is the night he last saw you,
with your back to the door and your feet the only noise in the darkness,
hand lightly sliding down the rail.

Maybe you laughed and said, “No te preocupes,”
turned around one last time. “Te prometo,
I’ll be home soon.”

So maybe you’re an oathbreaker or a tragic hero or maybe both,
and maybe you can’t come home or maybe you won’t.

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Mamá has given up and Papá doesn’t say anything,
just reaches for another cigar,
and Abuelita has run out of candles and saints.
But I for one would like to believe that your hermana at least
will have a plate full of empanadillas y plátanos verdes
and a café con leche in a little white teacup
waiting for you,
should you ever decide to stop by.

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