by Ben Wright
The metal floor lurches beneath me. As it does so, my stomach flips acrobatically, and it feels as if my body will follow. Both of my feet leave the floor, but only just. I reach out in the artificial darkness and hands reach back to catch me. They are my father’s hands; I’m only just able to make out his face in the weak light that slips between the cracks in the walls. He steadies me but doesn’t say a word. We stand there in silence, rocked by the consistently inconsistent vibration of the floor.
I hate feeling off-balance like this, but I trust him to hold me in place. If he’s as tired as I am, he doesn’t show it. I don’t know what time it is, but the yellow daylight slipping in suggests morning at least. It has been hours since we got into the truck at dusk, but he doesn’t seem to be flagging. I’ve heard other men mock him for his height, but to me, he’s the biggest man in the world. He has made this crossing at least five times now. He goes for weeks or months at a time, sending money back home for my mother, brother, and me. I worry about his safety the whole time he is gone, but he assures us that the trip is very safe with a smile that sneaks behind the wiry black hairs of his mustache. This time, now that the rest of us are with him, is the only time I’ve doubted his assurances. Not because I doubt his strength or commitment, but my own.
We stand close to the middle, standing room only here. I wonder if those close to the walls can take comfort from leaning on them or if they only make the constant motion worse. I try to ignore the people standing closest to me as they rock uncontrollably, bumping into me and into each other. I feel the beating of a couple dozen hearts, can taste the stale smell of other people’s breath filling this small space. I wonder if I was taller if the people around me would pay more attention and give me more room.
I’m big for a girl my age (almost as tall as my father now), but I am still growing. Boys are finally starting to notice me, but they all have pimples on their faces or holes in their shoes. I wonder if American boys look the way they do on television or if they also have pimples on their faces. I’ve been watching American television with the closed captioning on a lot lately, trying to teach myself English. I have a few words now, but not many. My mother tells me that I sound just like an American when I say “Coca-Cola.” I take it as a compliment.
I look at her through the dark. She is tall enough that my little brother is eye level to me when she holds him in her arms. The trip has been long, but he has slept quietly for most of it. My mother has been feeding him cough medicine to keep his cries from drawing attention to us. She insists on carrying him most of the time, though my father and I have taken our own shifts. On my turns, he is heavy and limp, like a bag full of produce. I hand him back to my mother when he begins to fuss for milk. I think she’s beautiful and dignified in a way that I hope I will be when I grow older. She is the smartest woman I have ever met. She has the most English of anyone in our family, and she has taught me everything I know from cooking and cleaning, to math and reading. I tell her that she could be a teacher when we get settled in America. She laughs at me and tells me to play outside.
Outside is only a few feet away at this point. If I could swim through the crowd and pull up the large door, I could fall right out onto a dusty road somewhere. It would be hot out there, but a breeze would be a nice change from the stuffy, stagnant air inside. I want to laugh and yell and stretch my arms and legs. Standing still and quiet for so long is harder in a lot of ways. I bend over to massage my legs, wishing I could just sleep through the trip like my brother.
But perhaps most of all, I worry about the virus. I adjust the bandana I wear across my mouth. It smells like my father’s sweat from all the times he took it with him to work. Most of the others have similar solutions but some don’t, and all of us are breathing the same air. Few people talk, but I hear the occasional cough or sneeze, and I worry. I worry that I will make it all the way to America just to die from the virus shortly after. And it is so bad there, I wonder if it’s a good idea to even go right now, if my father and mother will even be able to find work, if we will catch the virus there.
My thoughts are interrupted by the screeching of brakes as the truck slows to a stop. My heart, on the other hand, starts beating faster than ever. Why are we stopping? Are we there? Have we made it safely? Have we been stopped by someone? ICE? Border patrol? Why are they stopping us? Are they going to search the truck? I don’t know how many of these thoughts are mine or if they are floating into my head from all of the people around me. People begin to fidget nervously, then catch themselves and stop. I hear shushing and people stifling sobs. I strain my ears as hard as I can, willing them to hear more of what’s going on outside. I imagine myself as a bat, hanging upside-down in a cave with a million others, listening to the distant sounds of fluttering insect wings or their mouthparts sawing at foliage.
A car door closes.
And the whole world holds its breath.
We stand here, silent, still, willing ourselves to disappear, to skip over this moment in time. It’s as if we believe that wishing hard enough will free us from what comes next. The air is electrified by a truckload of panicked minds. I can feel it in my chest as my heart tries to escape. I can feel it tingling in my fingers and toes. My body is shaking, and time feels as if it is crawling by in slow motion. My bandana falls off of my nose as my jaw clinches behind it so hard that I worry that my teeth will crumble. I can feel the blood flowing through my veins, especially in my head, as if some blockage has been removed and the backed-up pressure has sent it gushing forth.
I look to my parents. They are staring at the door at the back of the truck, but they seem calm, stoic. I try to steady my breathing like my father had taught me. I had asked him how he stays calm before we left my childhood home for the last time. “Breathe in as much as you can,” he had said, “like your lungs are two balloons. Fill them up until you can’t anymore. Hold it there for a second or two, then blow all of that air out. All of it. Keep blowing out until your lungs are empty. Then do it again until your heart has slowed down.”
The memory is like a life preserver. I don’t know how I remember it now, but I do what my father taught me. I breathe as slowly and mindfully as I can. I think of my insides as an out-of-control fire. I tend it with my breath, bringing it to bear, making it my tool. The fog clears from my mind, and I’m able to focus. We’re just stopped; a door closed. Those two things could happen for any number of reasons. There’s no indication that they’re even connected. Perhaps we’re simply stuck in traffic, or there is some kind of maintenance issue with the truck. The driver may open the back any minute now to tell us that there’s nothing to worry about. Better yet, the door may stay closed and the truck could begin moving again.
The blood has stopped pounding in my head and my breathing has quieted. I can finally make out noises outside of the truck. I can hear the truck’s engine. It has been a constant background noise for so long that I had begun to filter it out. I didn’t know if the sign is good or bad that it is still running. I imagine that I can hear the sounds of other cars around us, but it’s hard to be sure with how loud and close the truck’s own engine is.
But now I can hear it. What I expected but hoped I wouldn’t hear. A voice. Or maybe voices. It’s hard to tell over the sound of the truck’s engine. It’s even harder to make out what they are saying. It is a deep voice (or voices?). It must be a man. Based on the patterns, it sounds like at least two people. One voice will say something, then another will respond. They don’t seem aggressive or scared. The tones are pretty even. That must be a good sign, right? But I don’t recognize the words. After a bit, I realize that they are speaking English. It’s not necessarily bad, but not as good as if they were speaking Spanish. Or is it? I begin to confuse myself trying to think of all the different explanations for our stop and the men’s voices outside the truck. But my mind keeps slipping to images of white men with bullet proof vests and guns. I picture German Shepherds and handcuffs.
I look over to my parents. They are still staring at the door. I realize that I’ve been looking in the direction the voices are coming from, the driver’s side of the truck. My parents must feel my stare, because they look down out me at the same time. I can’t see their mouths from behind their masks, but they smile at me with watery red eyes. I smile back and my father pulls me closer to him.
There in his arms, all of my worry seems to fall away. I know that as long as we are together, him, my mother, my brother, and me, that nothing else matters. It doesn’t matter what is waiting for us: ICE, cartels, Mexicans, Americans, desert, city, whatever. We are together, and that’s the only thing that matters. I look up at my mother. One hand holds my brother to her chest, and the other counts beads on her rosary. I hadn’t noticed it before. Had she just pulled it out, or has she been speaking to the Holy Mother this whole time? Has she been asking her for protection? Mercy? Has it worked? I close my eyes and try to join in with her, if only in my mind. I only get about halfway through the first Hail Mary before---
The back door of the truck crashes open. It sounds like thunder and the sun outside is brighter than lightning. I hear people around me gasp in surprise as we are suddenly exposed to the outside world. I can’t immediately tell what awaits us. I am blinded by the sudden light and it takes a few moments for my eyes to adjust.
When they do, though, I am not happy with what I see. A man has opened the door. He wears a black vest with a black hat, black face mask, and reflective sunglasses. In this uniform, he almost doesn’t look human.
The people in the truck begin shifting around and talking excitedly in Spanish and broken English. Those closest to the door back up, but there is no where to go. And the man who has opened the door is not alone. Behind him, there are three other men dressed similarly, but they hold their guns in their hands. They are long rifles-- the kinds that soldiers and gangsters carry. They aren’t pointing at us yet, but their presence makes me imagine bullets ripping through all of us here in the truck. I recognize the driver talking to one of the armed men, but I can barely hear him over the many voices around me.
The man who opened the door now yells over the voices. At first, he barks at us in English, then in Spanish. I almost don’t understand him because of his accent, but he uses short, direct words. He tells us all to get out of the truck. Everyone freezes in fear until he repeats the order, this time placing a hand on his gun. The gesture is subtle, but every single person in the truck catches the message. It is a message that doesn’t need language, one that communicates on a primal level.
The people on the truck no longer hesitate. They start to hop down one or two at a time, and the armed men begin to usher them out of view. Some men turn around after they disembark to help the old or young off of the truck but before they can, they are forced out of sight by the armed men. We slowly follow the crowd towards our fate at the back of the truck. My mind is in a hundred different places at once. I focus mainly on the simple task of getting outside, but I can’t help speculating about what comes next. What will they do to us? If they send us back to Mexico, what will we do? We have nothing left back there.
Eventually, I make it to the ledge and hop off. I move quickly enough that I’m able to turn around and take my brother from my mother so that she can get down too. But as soon as he is in my hands, one of the armed men begins to push me around the side of the truck. Now that I’m outside, I can get a better view of the area. We are on a road surrounded by cars. I notice the many people looking at us through their windshields, and I hide my face in embarrassment. I don’t know why. I don’t understand what I’ve done wrong, but I feel like a criminal.
I notice more than the cars, though. It seems like we had just passed over a bridge. The water underneath is dirty and choppy, and there is a line of cars trying to pass. We’re not being ushered back to the bridge, though. Instead, we are fed into a group of people walking towards the side of the road where a large bus, facing the same direction the truck had been, waits for us. The people are lined up and directed into the bus. I follow behind with my brother still in my arms, since there is nothing else that I can do. I try to look over my shoulder for my mother and father, but I can’t see them through the crowd. I bump into the person in front of me and my brother wakes up.
He begins crying, and I focus my attention on him. I bounce him in my arms while making soft shushing noises. I talk to him quietly. I tell him that everything will be alright, that big sister has him, that mama will be here any moment now. I have to be strong now for him and my parents. It will only be a moment while we load onto the bus. Once we are all on board, I’ll find my mother and father. They will know where we are going, what will happen next. I just have to pretend that I am calm for a little while longer.
When I get onto the bus, I find two seats together and sit. I have been standing for hours. I had long forgotten how tired my legs were. I stretch them out as far as the close-packed seats will allow and spread myself over the two seats. This way, my mother can take one and my father can stand in the aisle as some people are already starting to do. I don’t try so hard to console my brother anymore. No one will want to sit next to a crying baby. But that theory is quickly debunked.
A girl my own age, maybe a bit older, sits down next to me. I’m forced to scoot over, closer to the window, to give her more room. I tell her that I’m saving this seat for my mother. She asks where my mother is. I say she is with my father and that they’re just behind us. She tells me that she was the last one on the bus. I look ahead and see that what she says is true. The bus doors have closed. Four guards take up the front row of seats and face backwards towards us. I scan the crowd for my mother and father, but I don’t see them. In fact, this is the first I’ve noticed that most of the Mexicans on the bus are children.
The bus begins to move, and my heart races more than ever. I look out the window, my eyes racing over the crowd. There, I see my father’s Dallas Cowboys hat, and my mother is standing beside him, wide eyes doing sweeps of the area. They are being loaded into a different bus. But theirs is facing towards the bridge, and we are driving away from it now. I put my hand to the window. I can no longer tell if the sobbing, the wailing, the cries of “mama, papa” are coming from me from my brother or from one of the many children on the bus heading in the opposite direction of our parents as they melt away in the distance and the blur of tear-filled eyes.
About the Author
Ben Wright is fiction writer from Kansas currently living in Utah. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University and works as an adjunct English professor. He's deeply interested in the communicative and transformative elements of fiction. Ben sees his role as a straight white man as seeking to understand the complicated nature of the suffering of others in order to engage more sympathetically and to share what he learns.