MLA Platinum Award Press Release

Excerpt from American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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American Dirt

A Novel

by Jeanine Cummins

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins X
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
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    Jan 2020, 400 pages

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Print Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

One of the very first bullets comes in through the open window above the toilet where Luca is standing. He doesn't immediately understand that it's a bullet at all, and it's only luck that it doesn't strike him between the eyes. Luca hardly registers the mild noise it makes as it flies past and lodges into the tiled wall behind him. But the wash of bullets that follows is loud, booming, and thudding, clack-clacking with helicopter speed. There is a raft of screams, too, but that noise is short-lived, soon exterminated by the gunfire. Before Luca can zip his pants, lower the lid, climb up to look out, before he has time to verify the source of that terrible clamor, the bathroom door swings open and Mami is there.

"Mijo, ven," she says, so quietly that Luca doesn't hear her.

Her hands are not gentle; she propels him toward the shower. He trips on the raised tile step and falls forward onto his hands. Mami lands on top of him and his teeth pierce his lip in the tumble. He tastes blood. One dark droplet makes a tiny circle of red against the bright green shower tile. Mami shoves Luca into the corner. There's no door on this shower, no curtain. It's only a corner of his abuela's bathroom, with a third tiled wall built to suggest a stall. This wall is around five and a half feet high and three feet long—just large enough, with some luck, to shield Luca and his mother from sight. Luca's back is wedged, his small shoulders touching both walls. His knees are drawn up to his chin, and Mami is clinched around him like a tortoise's shell. The door of the bathroom remains open, which worries Luca, though he can't see it beyond the shield of his mother's body, behind the half barricade of his abuela's shower wall. He'd like to wriggle out and tip that door lightly with his finger. He'd like to swing it shut. He doesn't know that his mother left it open on purpose. That a closed door only invites closer scrutiny.

The clatter of gunfire outside continues, joined by an odor of charcoal and burning meat. Papi is grilling carne asada out there and Luca's favorite chicken drumsticks. He likes them only a tiny bit blackened, the crispy tang of the skins. His mother pulls her head up long enough to look him in the eye. She puts her hands on both sides of his face and tries to cover his ears. Outside, the gunfire slows. It ceases and then returns in short bursts, mirroring, Luca thinks, the sporadic and wild rhythm of his heart. In between the racket, Luca can still hear the radio, a woman's voice announcing ¡La Mejor 100.1 FM Acapulco! followed by Banda MS singing about how happy they are to be in love. Someone shoots the radio, and then there's laughter. Men's voices. Two or three, Luca can't tell. Hard bootsteps on Abuela's patio.

"Is he here?" One of the voices is just outside the window.

"Here."

"What about the kid?"

"Mira, there's a boy here. This him?"

Luca's cousin Adrián. He's wearing cleats and his Hernández jersey. Adrián can juggle a balón de fútbol on his knees forty-seven times without dropping it.

"I don't know. Looks the right age. Take a picture."

"Hey, chicken!" another voice says. "Man, this looks good. You want some chicken?"

Luca's head is beneath his mami's chin, her body knotted tightly around him.

"Forget the chicken, pendejo. Check the house."

Luca's mami rocks in her squatting position, pushing Luca even harder into the tiled wall. She squeezes against him, and together they hear the squeak and bang of the back door. Footsteps in the kitchen. The intermittent rattle of bullets in the house. Mami turns her head and notices, vivid against the tile floor, the lone spot of Luca's blood, illuminated by the slant of light from the window. Luca feels her breath snag in her chest. The house is quiet now. The hallway that ends at the door of this bathroom is carpeted. Mami tugs her shirtsleeve over her hand, and Luca watches in horror as she leans away from him, toward that telltale splatter of blood. She runs her sleeve over it, leaving behind only a faint smear, and then pitches back to him just as the man in the hallway uses the butt of his AK-47 to nudge the door the rest of the way open.

Excerpted from American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. Copyright © 2020 by Jeanine Cummins. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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