Disclaimer: I don't own the characters; they belong to Quiara Hudes, and Lin Manuel Miranda
Author's Note: I posted a story awhile back called "Waiting for Sunrise" that centered on the blackout. But then the trailer for the "In the Heights" movie came out. And it made me wonder...what if the blackout and all the crazy stuff that happened the night of July 3, was all on purpose? So I moved the story ahead a few years, which is why some of this will be familiar, and matched it up with our current world situation and some dialogue from the trailer, and this was the result.
Usnavi de la Vega pulled the grate down over the front window with a satisfying clang, wiping his hands on his jeans. He turned, bumped into someone behind him. "Ay, sorry, man, I-"
The man, taller than him, white, wearing a suit, stepped up into his face. "Yeah, you oughta be," he sneered at him. The guy stared at him, as if daring him to try something. Usnavi cocked an eyebrow, saying nothing, not wanting to start something.
Well, wanting to, but he didn't really want to show up at the Rosarios that night with a black eye and a busted lip. Instead, he waited until the guy was heading down the street before jogging across to Abeula's to get changed.
Abuela was watching the news when he let himself in the front door. "Usnavi," she called, hearing the door. "Have you seen this?"
He tossed his hat on the back of the sofa and came to sit by her. Claudia was pointing at the screen, and Usnavi reached over to turn the volume up.
"…Several people have gathered outside on the streets of the Washington Heights bar, one known to be a frequent hangout for the neighborhood's mostly Latino residents, calling for the deportation of illegal immigrants from New York City. Washington Heights, of course, is host to a large population of foreign-born-"
Usnavi hit MUTE on the TV remote. Explains the guy at the store. So far a lot of this stupid immigration and race stuff had confined itself to downtown, but apparently someone had decided it was no longer going to be quiet uptown.
"Are you and Vanessa still going out tonight?" Abuela Claudia asked him.
After Nina's dinner…we can hit up the club and…check out the fireworks.
Usnavi weighed the options. Then he nodded. "I, yeah, I think so. We'll be careful," he assured her. "So far, all's they're doin' is yelling and wavin' signs." And being assholes outside bodegas. He kissed her on top of the head. "'Sides, they come at us, we'll just dazzle 'em with our sick moves," he kidded.
"Usnavi, I've seen you dance," Abuela pointed out, her voice half teasing, half worried. Usnavi wrinkled his nose at her. "We'll be all right, Abuela," he reassured her. "Now come on, we gotta get ready to go to Kevin and Camilla's."
An NYPD cruiser came whipping past them as they walked down to the Rosario's brownstone. Usnavi watched it turn a few blocks ahead of them. His palms started to sweat a little. He wondered if any of it would come up at dinner…
…Dinner never happened. The news that Kevin Rosario had sold the cab company had taken his feet out from under him. Just another casualty of gentrification, he thought as he escorted Abuela back home. She and Vanessa were going off in rapid-fire Spanish ahead of him. Between that and the mob of people just blocks away…suddenly, the oppressive heat of the holiday weekend makin' his fridge break and Mister Softee seemed like the least of their worries…
And Benny…man, Benny. The guy was gonna need to seriously cut loose tonight. Usnavi decided to make it his personal mission to make Benny have some fun tonight. His best friend deserved it.
Right now, they all did.
Someone yelled out something particularly nasty and Unsavi shot them a dirty look as he ushered Vanessa past the mob and into the club. So far, they seemed content just to yell and hurl insults. The NYPD had officers outside, but since they weren't doing anything but exercising their First Amendment rights, they mostly were just watching. Inside, the salsa beats were hot and the drinks were cold and Benny…Benny and Nina got into it and Vanessa was off dancing with some other guy...
...And suddenly there was enough drama inside the club that Usnavi forgot all about the people outside.
Usnavi jumped backwards out of the way as Jose came flailing off the end of Benny's fist. The other man hit his head on the edge of the bar and slid, dazed, to the floor. Usnavi looked up at his friend. Benny was clearly drunk (maybe the shots were a bad idea, Usnavi thought), his eyes bright as he shook out his hand and swore in Spanish. It was a phrase Usnavi had heard the cabbies that worked for Kevin Rosario say over the dispatch on really bad days. Benny's picking up more Spanish than he thinks he is.
He heard Yolanda tearing Benny a new one en heated Espanol for beatin' up on her date. Last time Usnavi'd heard her swear like that, he'd been kicking her out after she tried to seduce him behind the counter at the bodega. And here I thought she'd saved all that just for me. He rolled his the back wall, Nina and Vanessa were both frozen, eyes wide and staring agape at Benny, Nina especially, like she couldn't believe what Benny had just done.
Benny stumbled his direction and Usnavi moved to intercept him. "Damn, man," Usnavi breathed, then, louder, "Yo, we should go-" He reached an arm around Benny's shoulders to lead him toward the door.
He felt his arm almost hyperextend as Benny yanked his arm off and tossed it away. "Get off me, man!"
Usnavi groaned. "Man-"
The lights went out, plunging the club into complete darkness. There was a pause, silence. Then, a wave of voices.
"Turn the lights back on!"
"What the hell, man?"
"Hey, there's somethin' in front of the doors!"
"Try the back! What do you mean, they're blocked?"
"Wha-" Usnavi stumbled, hitting his knees as someone collided with him. Girls were screaming. He heard glass breaking on the dance floor, and then a wave of bodies knocked him to the floor as the panicked clubgoers started to riot.
Benny sobered up faster than he ever had in his life. His head spun as he fumbled in his pocket for his cell phone, flicking it to life as chaos erupted around him. "Nina!" he yelled into the fray, cursing the uselessness of his cell phone in the wave of bodies as everyone surged for the exits. Or tried to. Even the emergency exit lights were off in the black hole of the club. Benny reached a hand out, catching someone in the chest. Said someone swore in Spanish and Benny felt knuckles connect with the bottom of his chin- a lucky shot, considering. Benny reeled, felt his jaw, and then continued his search. "Nina!"
Usnavi managed to get back on his feet, the palms of his hands stinging from the broken glass and the heels and sneakers that had stepped on him as he'd tried to get up. He grabbed ahold of something to pull himself up, felt that it was one of the high top tables. He hung onto it like a life preserver. Like Benny, he reached into his front pocket for his cell and the screen emitted a weak blue glow as he waved it around. "Vanessa?" he called out into the craziness. Someone ran into him, shoving him into the table and he nearly dropped his phone. "Yo, quit shovin', you sonofa-" A girl ran past him, screaming/crying. "Somebody's gonna get killed, for real!" Usnavi yelled at the top of his lungs, but nobody could hear him.
Sonny jumped off the top step onto the sidewalk and took off at a run down the street toward the bodega, a baseball bat in his hand. The second the power had gone out, he'd found the Louisville slugger signed by Alex Rodriguez by feel, and ran in the direction of the bodega, ignoring his swearing father ordering him to come back. He nearly ran into Graffiti Pete, who was coming from the opposite direction. The streetlights were out and Pete grabbed him by the hood. Sonny took a swing, almost catching him before he saw who it was in the dim light of a passing car. "The hell, man?" Pete ground out, keeping a firm grip on the bat. "Where you goin'?"
"Gotta get to the store," Sonny breathed, "gotta guard the store!"
Pete nodded. "I'll go with you! They're tearin' it up out here, throwin' bottles, lootin'. Pretty sure someone popped some shots off a block over. You heard from Usnavi?" he asked as the two of them ran the direction he'd come from."Saw him at the club, but then the lights went out and I couldn't see nobody!"
Sonny froze. "Blackout?"
"Blackout," Pete confirmed. "Managed to slip out the front 'fore a buncha them protestors started blockin' the doors."
Damn it, Usnavi…."Shit, I hope he's okay! What the hell's goin' on?" Sonny asked. He hadn't seen the news or anything, so he hadn't heard about whatever was going on.
"Buncha people protestin' up the block," Pete wheezed as the two of them kept running. "Dunno man, the cops were all up in that and then someone was yellin' somethin' about the club and then like, the whole neighborhood went dark."
Vanessa was pinned in a line of people. When the blackout happened, she and Nina were close to the door, but now nobody could find it in the darkness. A hand flailed desperately behind her, catching her in the back of the head. "Someone better open these goddamn doors!" Out of frustration and terror, she yelled over the din, "Usnavi! Help me!"
She thought she heard him yell her name, but it was impossible to pinpoint where it came from in the insanity. The room was hot and sticky and loud. Someone ran into her from behind, knocking her to the floor.
Usnavi had finally collared Benny, literally reaching out a hand and by sheer luck, grabbing hold of his best friend's blue collared shirt. Pale blue light illuminated his friend's face as Benny reared back for a punch. Usnavi threw an arm up, "Don't hit me, bro, we need to find the girls and get the hell out of this place!"
"I can't find Nina!" Benny yelled back, dropping his fist instantly. "Nina, where'd you go?" he screamed.
"Someone better open these goddamn doors!"
"Go for the windows in the bathroom!" someone was yelling. Usnavi flashed his phone around, was met with his reflection and a bright light. His flashlight, reflected in the mirrored walls back by the club's bathrooms. "Here, Benny, Benny, come on, I gotta a way out!" He ducked left, Benny on his heels. The two of them were standing in the women's bathroom. Benny got to the window first, hopping up on the sink to get closer to the sill. He pushed on the frame, warped from the heat. "Won't budge," he said, hopping back down.
"The hell it won't." Usnavi ducked back into the hallway, locating the fire extinguisher. He came back into the bathroom, fighting his way through the people who'd trickled in after them and handed it to Benny. Benny was taller and stronger, and proved it by shattering the window as he rammed the extinguisher into it. The glass rained down and Usnavi ducked. Benny knocked out most of the glass and turned back. "You're smaller, man, you gotta get out and find out what's blockin' the doors. I'll start helpin' people out."
"I gotcha." Usnavi put a sneaker in Benny's hands and his friend hoisted him up. Usnavi shimmied through the window and dropped to the alley floor behind the club, wincing as he landed, then made for the delivery entrance of the bar. He saw what had been blocking the door-someone had rolled the Dumpster in front of it. Someone did this on purpose? he thought in disbelief as he grabbed the handles and pulled with everything he had. The damn thing was heavy, and between the alcohol, dancing and the heat and panic, he was exhausted.
"Here." Usnavi jumped at the voice, saw Jose next to him, bleeding from a cut on his face. Usnavi looked over at the man, who just moments before had been flirting with Vanessa and getting decked by Benny. The two of them nodded at each other. Right now, they didn't have time to be enemies. The salsa dancer pushed as Usnavi pulled and they managed to get it away from the door, just as the door slammed back and a sea of people came piling out, fighting each other to get out into the stifling night air-which was cooler than it had been inside the building.
"Usnavi!" He turned, saw Benny coming out. "More cops are showin' up out front, there's people out there blockin' the entrance, but they got 'em outta the way. Lot of 'em are runnin', man. Between that and all the other punks in the neighborhood, 's like an all out war on the barrio."
A thought hit Usnavi like a truck and he grabbed a fistful of Benny's shirt and pulled. "I need to get home, I gotta check on Abuela," he yelled frantically.
"Go, man, go." Benny told him, pushing his friend in the general direction everybody else was going. "No pare, sigue sigue!" Usnavi let go of his shirt and Benny was alone in the crowd again.
Then he heard it. Above the yelling and swearing.
The same terrified tears he'd heard from a seven-year-old little girl when lightning had hit the antenna on the building one over from hers, sending sparks flying over the edge of the roof and onto the fire escape- Benny's hand grasped an arm and he pulled a sobbing Nina toward him. Nina couldn't tell it was him and tried to push him away. "It's okay, Nina, it's me!" he yelled in her ear. "Come on, we gotta get outta here."
"Benny!" Nina sobbed into his shirt. "Oh, God, I just want to go home!"
"I'll get you there," he promised, wrapping one arm protectively around her waist and one around her shoulders.
Sonny yanked hard on the grate, trying to pull it down over the window. "I can't get this damn grate to come down!" he swore at Pete.
"Yo we can't stay here," Pete said, looking around nervously. He couldn't see shit. "They're gonna bombard the store 'til you ain't got a store no more!"
"Usnavi's got another bat in the back," Sonny replied. "I can't let anything happen to this place, man. This place is Usnavi's life."
Movement caught Pete's eye. "We're gonna get jacked up," he whispered. He reached into his pocket, pulling out a Roman candle and lighting the fuse.
Sonny gaped. "Where the hell you'd get that?"
"Does it matter?" Pete countered, holding it out in front of him. The firework ignited and the first shots exploded in the street, light and sound echoing up the block and rattling the windows. In the bursts of light, he saw the two hoods who would've looted the store take off down the street, hands over their heads.
Usnavi ducked out of habit as the first fireworks exploded out on the street. What the hell was that? he thought as he banged on Abuela Claudia's door. "Abuela?" he yelled, fumbling with the doorknob. "Abuela it's Usnavi- open the door!"
The door popped a crack and Usnavi could see candles burning in the back as Abuela Claudia slid the chain off the lock and let Usnavi into the apartment. "Usnavi, are you all right?" she asked, taking in his disheveled appearance. She was remarkably calm, considering the state of the neighborhood.
"Fine, fine, abuela, what about you?" Usnavi replied, swallowing hard, trying to catch his breath. "I shouldn'ta left you alone-"
"Usnavi, mijo, I'm fine," Abuela Claudia reassured him. "It's all right. You're here now, and I need you to-" She broke off and led him over to the kitchen, pulling a brown paper bag out of her freezer. "Usnavi, I need you to promise me. Promise me that you'll guard this with your life." She held out the bag with both hands. Usnavi took his cell phone and shone the display over the opening…revealing stacks of green bills.
His jaw dropped. "Abuela?!" he gasped. "You-" He looked up, her eyes meeting his. She nodded once.
Abuela Claudia bought the winning lotto ticket. I'm staring at $96,000! Usnavi swore, "I've never seen this much money in my life!"
Abuela finally nodded off but Usnavi spent the entire night sitting in front of her apartment door, a knife from the butcher block in his hand. 96,000. Gotta keep it safe. "Safe," he whispered aloud. "Oh, shit. Vanessa." He yanked his phone from his shirt pocket. Dead. He leaned back against the door again and closed his eyes. Please let her be all right…
The realization hit him almost as hard as he'd hit the table in the club. I left her. Oh God, I left her there. All those people out there….He banged his head back against the door. Damnit, damnit, damnit. Did she even get out? Did she make it home? Did she make it…anywhere?
Benny didn't let go of Nina's hand until they reached the bottom of the stairs at 181st street. A squad car raced past them, siren blaring, lights ablaze. In the blue and red flashing lights, Benny caught a glimpse of Nina's tear-stained face. "I'm so sorry," he whispered, pulling her into his lap as he sat down on the steps. She curled into him. "We'll find the way home," he reassured her. "Promise."
Nina leaned into him harder and he ran his hands through her hair and whispered reassuring things to her, what few positive words he could remember in his limited Spanish. Ten minutes later, he finally felt her relax. It was only then that he let out the breath he'd felt like he'd been holding for the last eight or nine blocks. He'd found her. She was safe, and they were fine.
"Hey," he whispered. "Teach me."
He felt her head tilt upward, and he ran a finger down the side of her face. "Spanish. Give me a word. Any word." Benny encouraged her.
After a moment, Nina's voice whispered brokenly, "Bombilla."
"Lightbulb." He chuckled softly. "I see what you did there."
They both jumped as fireworks exploded overhead, echoing off the buildings, the sound wave rattling windows. Nina buried herself in his polo.
"I don't wanna go home," she whispered. "I can't go home…Dad…he-"
Benny's heart pounded. "Yeah, okay. Come with me then. Just 'til sunrise."
The last of the Roman candles burned away and Pete turned back to Sonny. "We gotta go, man, we don't have a choice. Cops'll be around to check out the fireworks, we need to run!"
Sonny gave the security grate one final tug. The stubborn gate wouldn't budge, and he smacked it with an open hand. "But the store…Usnavi'll be so pissed!"
"Better him pissed at you tomorrow morning than mourning you in a coupla days," Pete offered, and Sonny sighed in frustration because he knew Pete was right. The two boys took off around the corner just as a police car came roaring past.
"You did everything you could, man," Pete whispered to Sonny as they waited for the lights to pass. "Usnavi'll understand."
"I should…I should get home," Sonny whispered. He ran a hand over his face. "You got someplace to hide out?" he asked Pete. "So uh, so they don't get ya for the Roman candles?"
Pete shook his head. "Nah, man. I'll be good. You go on."
Sonny didn't move. Pete frowned. "Um…though you were leavin'?" He studied Sonny. For someone that should get home, the younger kid sure wasn't moving very fast. He wondered why. They couldn't stay out here. Usnavi didn't like him hangin' out at the store, thought he was a punk. But Usnavi wasn't here, so… "Hey, Sonny, you wanna come hang with me? Just 'til morning? I got a place we can go, cops don't look there and you can call Usnavi, let him know about the store?"
Sonny wrapped his arms around his middle. "Yeah," he said finally. "Yeah, okay."
Vanessa let herself into the salon and locked the door behind her, sinking to the floor under one of the sinks. She pulled her knees to her chest and closed her eyes. She'd made it out the front, running past the sea of people now scattering, some still yelling, some trying to get past the cops to come after…to come after us? She didn't stop running, pausing only to yank off her heels and toss them out into the street. Easier to run in bare feet. She'd run from the club all the way back to the salon, found the hide-a-key Daniela kept hidden in the hole in the brickwork.
Glass broke outside and she held her breath, closing her eyes. Oh God, the bodega. Usnavi…Sonny. Please God, don't come over here, please, please…
Usnavi…Where the hell was he? Had he made it out? She pulled her phone out of her bra, dialed Usnavi, but it went straight to voicemail. She leaned back against the wall, clutching the hair dryer she'd ripped out of the drawer as a weapon.
She thought about Nina, Benny. Hoped that they made it out.
She never once thought about her mother.
The sun came up as the last of the sirens faded away.
Carla and Daniela found Vanessa curled up under the farthest vanity from the door, hair dryer still clutched in her hand. When Daniela gave her a fierce hug, Vanessa burst into tears, holding on to her for dear life.
Benny woke up with Nina in his arms, and quietly got out of bed to step out onto the fire escape. The sun was painting New Jersey in shades of pinks and oranges as it came up. He hoped everybody was okay. But mostly, he worried about Nina.
Sonny woke up in a sleeping bag on the floor in a studio apartment. He rolled over, feeling the wood of the Louisville slugger next to him, heard Graffiti Pete's snoring on the mattress across the room. When he got home, he'd have to tell Usnavi how Pete'd saved him.
And about how Sonny'd let Usnavi down…
Usnavi made sure to lock Abuela's door behind him so he wouldn't disturb her, crossing the street at a jog to find the bodega windows shattered, spray painted slurs all over the brick and the awning. Sonny was outside with a broom, probably borrowed from Daniela next door, sweeping up the glass. The bundled New York Posts outside his door had a picture of the protest outside the front. Later, when he finally pulled one out to read (much, much later) he would learn, along with the rest of the neighborhood, that the doors to the club had indeed been blocked on purpose, and the power cut off at the box in the back. The police were still looking for suspects...but they had a lot to choose from.
"Usnavi!" Sonny called out to his cousin, Pete hot on his heels. His cousin wrapped him in a side hug, never taking his eyes off the store. "Usnavi, I-I tried, man, the grate…it wouldn't-"
""sokay, Sonny," Usnavi said. "It's just things. Things can be replaced. You can't."
"I-I got mosta the glass up," Sonny said. He kicked at the pile with his sneaker. Something caught Usnavi's eye, and he bent down to pick it up. He held it between two fingers. Sonny stared. "The bodega's first customer…"
Usnavi tossed the ripped up dollar to the sidewalk. "First dollar my dad made here." He scuffed the sidewalk with his shoe. "Hey. Take whatever batteries and candles are left to the church on Audubon."
"You sure you don't need backup…oh, hey Vanessa."
Usnavi glanced up. Vanessa, still in her dress from the night before, came out of the salon. "I heard," she said quietly. I heard it all…
Usnavi took his hat off, wrung it in his hands. "I um, still got a gas range. Can I…make you some coffee?" His voice was laced with regret, and guilt.
Vanessa nodded to the bodega. "You…you've got actual stuff to deal with right now."
"Listen, uh…about last night," Usnavi started. "I…Sonny was callin', and Abuela was all alone…"
"My phone didn't ring once all night," Vanessa said, a hint of something…accusation, maybe?...in her voice. "No one cared if I was okay."
I did. I really did. "I meant to call," Usnavi bit his bottom lip.
Vanessa stared at the sidewalk. "Sorry about your bodega." Without another word, she headed up the block, presumably headed home.
Usnavi clenched a fist in frustration. He put his hat back on, brushed by Sonny and Pete. "Got yourself a new canvas," he called back to Pete. "Tag it up, have a blast."
The people last night had done their job. The neighborhood was scared. Mad. On edge. Relationships were broken. Livelihoods suffered setbacks. But if they'd hoped it would drive people away, scare them into returning to where they came from…that's where they were wrong.
Because this, Usnavi thought, as he twirled Vanessa around on the street, was their block. Hours later, flags were flying higher. Songs were being sung, in multiple languages. People were laughing. Dancing. He watched Benny stick his piragua in Nina's nose, heard her laughter. Saw Carla and Daniela teaching a couple of little girls some simple cha-cha-cha steps, soaked from the busted fire hydrant. Even Kevin and Camila Rosario were getting into it, Kevin's tenor singing the anthem of Republica Dominicana. Sonny and Pete were keeping a beat on some trash can lids.
Carnaval del Barrio, Usnavi thought with a grin. Let's see 'em try to tell us to go home now.
This was home.
Abuela...I wish you could see us now…Paciencia y fe…We're not afraid. We passed the test.
They may have come from different places, but this neighborhood at the top of the world…was their world. Home.