by Alison M. Scott
Ariel felt her calf muscle stretch as she propped her leg against the metal rail of the bridge. She winced and leaned into the sore ache. After hours sitting on the hot, cramped bus in a tiny seat, her body was stiff. As she shifted her weight to stretch her other leg, she glanced to her left where her brother was standing. Hector stood with his head down, tapping furiously on his phone screen, probably texting his boyfriend back at home, a million miles away. She closed her eyes and rolled her neck, feeling the pop with a sigh of relief. As she brought her head back down and opened her eyes, she turned to Hector.
“Where -” she stopped in her tracks. “Hector?” She dropped her leg and turned, scanning the crowd frantically. “Hector?”
She had meant to ask her brother where her parents were, and now she was staring at a strange woman instead of Hector. He had been right there next to her. She continued to look around, standing on her tiptoes for a better view, and her stomach began to knot. Ariel was alone, on a bridge between Guatemala and Mexico. Her pulse quickened with each passing nanosecond. What if her family left without her? They didn’t even know where they were going. They couldn’t go home.
“Hector? Mama? Papi?” She began to move along the bridge, staying close to the metal ledge. The white railing extended toward the sky like bars on a jail cell. The bridge was no more than two lanes wide, but everywhere Ariel looked there were people. To her left, her right, in the water below, paddling rafts toward Mexico. Her parents could be anywhere, she realized. Her brother could be anywhere. Three other buses had stopped on the Mexico side of the bridge, just before the road sloped upward toward the river. They dropped their passengers as close to the border as they could go without getting stuck in the swarm of people. The coronavirus had closed the camp Ariel’s family had been living in for the last 3 months, hoping to have their asylum case heard by the US government. Their chances had been slim to begin with; now, they were being sent back to Guatemala.
As she walked, skirting the crowds and holding her backpack tightly to her chest, she continued to scan for Hector.
Her phone trilled in her backpack. Dropping it to the ground, she fumbled with the zipper and yanked out the phone. The screen lit up with Hector’s name.
“Hector! Where are you?”
“I thought I saw Mama and Papi near the middle of the bridge, by the crossing”, he explained. “But if it was them, I lost them. Where are you?”
“Against the railing”. She looked up, down, around for a landmark. “I don’t know. Everything looks the same. I’m near a boy with a green jersey on. It says ‘Eagles’”. In desperation she spun to her left, facing the water. “A man near me is wearing a yellow hat. There are two people in a raft in the river right in front of me. They have people hanging off the side”.
“Ok, don’t move. I’ll find you.” The line went dead.
* * * * *
She shivered and pulled her arms closer to her chest. Her thin hoodie didn’t do much to keep her warm, and a breeze was blowing off the river. Ariel had been sitting for hours again, this time against a rock. Much less comfortable than the bus, something she couldn’t have imagined this afternoon.
She reached into her backpack for her phone and stopped, withdrawing her hand. The last time she checked to see if Hector had called, her battery was at 18 percent. She didn’t know how much time had passed since then, but it couldn’t have been more than 20 minutes. The last thing she wanted to do was kill her battery. The phone was her only tie to her brother, to her parents.
A tear slipped out before she even realized what was happening. The wet, cool sensation on her cheek startled her, and the sobs burst through her calm facade. Her chest burned with a tightness that caused her to gasp for breath. Where were her parents? Where was her brother? She had done as Hector instructed and stood still next to the white railing, rooted to her spot on the bridge. After what must have been hours, she had started walking beside the ledge. She wandered up and down each side of the Mexico border, and eventually walked off the scorching pavement to the cooler earth below. It was muddy, and she feared there were snakes, but men on the bridge were starting to stare at her as the sun began to set. Her stomach flipped thinking about the charcoal gray eyes that had settled on her as she looked up from her phone before leaving the bridge. It was better here.
* * * * *
A twig snapped in the distance, and Ariel’s eyes flew open. She sucked in a breath and put her hand over her mouth, her calves beginning to tremble as she took in her surroundings. The tremors moved up her body and settled in her stomach, the flip flip flip matching her heartbeat. She must have fallen asleep.
As quietly as she could manage, she turned her head and looked behind her rock toward the bridge. People still lined the structure, although she could barely see them in the dark. The lights above were faint and mostly broken. She dropped her gaze to the area around her, the damp riverbank that smelled of fish and garbage. No one was in sight.
Another pop sounded nearby, like glass under a boot. The ground was littered with tree branches, beer bottles, soiled diapers, trash bags. She had chosen her rock because she had been able to clear a space to rest against it without sitting in broken glass.
She had trouble placing the direction that the pop had come from. A faint buzz rose from the bridge, the frantic conversations of its occupants bouncing off the river below. Every so often, metal clanged as they charged the gate in the middle.
Ariel flipped onto her stomach and willed her body to flatten into the earth. She held her breath and peered to the side of the rock.
Click. “Don’t move. Hands up. Hands up.”
The voice had come out of nowhere, deep and authoritarian. It was closer than any of the other sounds.
“Miss. Hands up and behind your head!” The Voice boomed louder when she didn’t immediately comply.
Arms shaking, Ariel moved her hands behind her head. The Voice grabbed her wrist and sat her up. Light pierced her eyes and she wished she could shield them.
“ID?” The Voice inquired.
She shook her head no. Her passport and any other important documents were in her mom’s bag.
“Where are you coming from?”
“Where? This is Mexico.”
She had known that of course but hoped to appear confused and lost. Which, she supposed, she was. “Otay Mesa”.
The Voice swung his flashlight around, out of her eyes, and swept over the area around the rock where she had hidden. After finding it empty of others, he gestured for her to stand. “Let’s go. Back to the bus.”
“What bus? I got separated from my parents and brother.” The Voice ignored her as he pulled her to her feet. “How will they find me? Are they on the bus?” The questions tumbled out of her as The Voice led her toward the bridge. Her legs shook as he practically dragged her, holding underneath her arm to keep her moving and upright. His fingers dug into her flesh through her sleeve. She wished for Hector, and the thought stopped her in her tracks.
The Voice gave a tug, but Ariel resisted.
“My backpack. I had a backpack. I need it”.
With a roll of his eyes, The Voice held up her pink, mud-stained bag. “This it?”
Ariel nodded and felt a wave of relief. She must have missed him picking it up when he had hauled her to her feet back at the rock.
His radio squawked and he unclipped it from his belt. Someone on the other end said something that sounded like the adults on Charlie Brown.
“Female. Age unknown, found on the banks”. He looked down at her. “How old are you?”
She swallowed. “Fifteen”.
“A minor. Unaccompanied”. He stuffed the radio back into place and sighed.
* * * * *
Her head dipped and she started, snapping up. Ariel rubbed her eyes and took in her surroundings. A gentle vibration below her feet felt soothing, even though she was cramped in her seat and the air was thick with body odor and sweat. A bus, she realized. She was back on a bus. Whimpering behind her turned into a full-fledged wail when they hit a bump.
She craned her neck to see behind her to the back. The bus was full. Turning again, she noticed her seatmates for the first time. Next to her on either side were two girls. They looked young, maybe seven or eight.
“Where is your mom?” Ariel asked the girl on her right.
The girl shrugged. Wrinkling her brow, Ariel looked across the aisle. There she saw three boys, all no older than her age. They wore tank tops and basketball shorts. One had a baseball hat pulled over his face as he leaned against the headrest. As she slowly moved her gaze back, row by row, realization set in. The bus was full of kids.
The Voice’s words echoed in her mind. “A minor. Unaccompanied”.
Her heart pounded in her chest. She looked out the window and tried to place where they were. In the dark, all she could see were headlights passing by in the other direction.
* * * * *
Vrr. Vrr. Ariel jumped in her seat at the faint buzz against her feet. Her phone. She scrambled to pull her backpack to her lap. The battery symbol flashed when she tapped the screen. Five percent left. A tiny “1” sat in the corner of her messages.
Her hands shook as she pulled up her text messages. Hector.
The police took me n I’m goin to lose my phone. I’m at the border jail. Tell Mama n Papi.
Tears welled in her eyes. She leaned her head against the window as they trickled down her face. Glancing up, she caught a glimpse of a sign in the streetlight.
Frontera USA -->
About the Author
Alison M. Scott is a writer of creative non-fiction, flash fiction, and short stories. After being gifted a journal in elementary school, she was hooked and has been writing ever since. Most recently, her work appeared in Rebelle Society and is forthcoming in The Nasiona. Originally from suburban Philadelphia, Alison and her wife line in their cat's New England home.