Seventeen-year-old Pancho Sanchez is on his way to Saint Anthony’s home, an orphanage in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Mrs. Olivares, a social worker, tells him not to mess up this time. She pulled strings to get Pancho into Saint Anthony’s rather than a juvenile detention center. Formerly he was staying at a foster home, where he badly beat another boy. She says that others think she is making a mistake. Pancho also thinks she is making a mistake, but he does not say so out loud.
Mrs. Olivares says she knows Pancho is angry about the death of his sister, but it will not help if he takes this anger out on others. The police have closed the case on her death because they say there was no sign of foul play. Rosa, who was twenty years old but had the mind of a child, died of unknown causes in a hotel room after having had sex with someone. Pancho is convinced that she was lured to the hotel and murdered.
Father Concha, who runs Saint Anthony’s, shows Pancho a dormitory filled with little stall-like compartments, one of which will be Pancho’s “room.” As he unpacks, a boy named D.Q. approaches in a wheelchair. The boy looks desperately ill; he has cracked lips and yellow skin. He explains that most of the kids at Saint Anthony’s work during the summer. They get to keep two-thirds of their earnings, but they have to give one-third of their earnings to the orphanage to help out. Father Sanchez cannot find summer work for Pancho outside the orphanage, so Pancho’s job will be to act as a companion to D.Q. for the next few months.
Through Pancho’s first few days at Saint Anthony’s, D.Q. hangs around almost constantly, insisting that they are going to be friends. Pancho does not want to be friends with anyone. He is silent or rude as much as possible. D.Q. does not seem to mind. He explains that he has a kind of brain cancer called diffuse pontine glioma, which is going to kill him. When the doctors can do no more to help him, he wants to come back to Saint Anthony’s and die in bed in a room where he can hear the other boys on the basketball court.
As soon as Pancho can get away, he takes a battered bike and rides to the café where Rosa worked. He speaks with another waitress, Julieta, who explains that Rosa had a boyfriend but would not say who he was. Julieta saw the man from a distance once or twice; he was an older Anglo man without much hair. She also says he drove a red construction truck with a name that included the words “and Sons” painted on the side. Julieta also confesses that Rosa used to meet high school boys in the alley behind the café, where she would “do things” for money. Julieta says Rosa did not know better and it did not mean anything. Pancho leaves disgusted.
When Pancho returns to Saint Anthony’s, D.Q. confides that he is writing a book, The Death Warrior Manifesto. He says that Death Warriors have to embrace life and refuse to whine, even internally, about their problems. He also says he knows on a gut level that Pancho is the one to help him do what he needs to do. In return, he promises to help Pancho. Pancho, who wants to kill Rosa’s boyfriend, thinks there is no way a dying cancer patient can help him.
Pancho goes to the trailer where he grew up to retrieve Rosa’s diary and a revolver. Reading the diary, he learns that Rosa wanted to tell him about her boyfriend, Bobby, but that Bobby made her keep the relationship a secret. Rosa also wrote that she wanted to wait to “do everything” with Bobby. When Bobby heard this, he threatened to leave her and go back to Albuquerque. To prevent this, she changed her mind. The diary ends with the words:
Tomorrow he will take me to a place where we can just have fun and I can show him if I truly love him. After that he will come meet Pancho. If I love him why am I afraid.
After he finishes reading, Pancho swears to himself that he will find Bobby and make him pay.
One day D.Q. explains that he has a living mother. She dumped him at Saint Anthony’s after his father died but wants to act like a real mother now that he is sick. She wants him to go to Albuquerque to accept an experimental cancer treatment, but he knows it will make him suffer through bad side effects and have little chance of saving his life. He explains:
It’s a kind of trade-off. Maybe I get a couple more months, but at what price? I need to have my strength and wits about me.
D.Q. has agreed to go along with the treatment for one month, provided that his mother gives up custody of him in return. He wants Pancho to come along and be with him during the treatment. Pancho agrees but only because it will take him to Albuquerque, where Bobby lives.
When the boys arrive at the hospital in Albuquerque, D.Q.’s mother refuses to sign the custody papers. She promises to do it after D.Q. does his month of treatment, but both boys can tell she does not want to let her son go at all. Pancho is confused by the antagonism and separation between mother and son. Afterward, he tells Father Concha in private that it “must be an Anglo thing.” Father Concha suggests that D.Q. needs Pancho because he has had so much experience with death that he is no longer afraid of it. Pancho reflects that this is true:
The idea of death filled him with anger, hatred, a suffocating urgency, remorse even, but there was no fear anywhere.
After D.Q.’s first chemotherapy treatment, the boys move into Casa Esperanza, a home for children who...
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