The old man’s rusted pickup truck rattled, creaked and thumped as it hobbled along the ruts etched in the desert floor. The steering wheel gyrated in his hands as the wheels fought against the ruts and scrub brush that grew next to them. Several times, Bess came off her seat and plopped back down while he mumbled something in Spanish, which she assumed was cursing he didn’t want her to hear.
Bess hung her elbow out of the rolled down window and squinted as dust billowed into the cab, happy to be going from one place to another without worrying about what rule she might break next and whether or not she would see the next morning because of it. Her father had once told her freedom was a sliding scale. She understood now what he meant when he said it was something she had to fight for one inch at a time and was easily lost by the yard. At that moment, freedom was the luxury of riding in the desert without worrying if she was going to drop dead by the end of the day.
She wiggled her toes against the thick leather of the sandals he had given her and her thoughts drifted to the girls she had left behind. They would be in the shower room, getting ready for the reception. After that, they would walk barefoot back to their rooms, put on dresses and shoes and then wait to be unlocked and herded to the parlour to greet the evening’s clients.
She tried to set her mind free from the rest, but it came at her like a train in the night. The sickly pale light of her lamp, the sweat and panting of the men, the grunts and giggles and occasional scream – they all swirled together and slammed into her mind. She knew even then they would never go away and she would never be able to outrun them. She would never be free of them. Yards lost, never regained.
She shook herself from the reverie when the truck slowed down. She glanced at the old man as he peered over the steering wheel, squinting at something in the distance.
“Is that a truck?” he asked.
The sun was dipping below the horizon now and it took a moment for Bess to let her eyes adjust to the dim light of dusk until she could see the vehicle parked about a half mile in front of them.
“Could be,” she said.
“What color is it?”
“Um. Something light. Hard to tell.”
“Is it a covered truck?”
Bess squinted harder, catching the waning gleam of sunlight on its roof. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Listen to me carefully,” he said, still peering over the steering wheel. “When I say, you need to open the door and jump out. I’ll go slow, but they can’t see us stop.”
Bess’s mind raced as she swept away her lingering thoughts of Los Rojos. Her heart surged and she felt her skin prickle as her senses attuned to every detail of her surroundings – the arid scent of dust wafting through the cab, the old man’s face drawn tight in concentration as the truck lumbered to a near standstill.
“Stay down until I get to them,” he said, “and then go north.” He shot her a glance. “Do not go back to the house. They will look there next. When you see the river, turn east until you find a highway. That will lead you to a border crossing.” He looked at her, his face drawn down in a worrisome frown. “And home.”
“That’s not Ortega?” she asked, pointing at the vehicle now almost shrouded in darkness.
She placed her hand on his. “Who is it?”
“For me, it is the way home.” He tried to smile, then shook his head. “I’m sorry.” He turned the wheel so that her door was angled away from the vehicle waiting for them and said, “Now go.”
She leaned over and threw her arms around his neck. For the second time in her life, a man had put himself between her and those in the world who would hurt her. As she felt his hand grasp hers, she kissed his grizzled cheek, breathing in the scent of his aging leathery skin. “Thank you,” she said.
She pulled her arms free and looked in his eyes one last time, soaking in his near-toothless grin and crow’s feet that splayed out from his eyes, just as her father’s had. Then she tugged at the latch of the door.
She jumped out and felt herself rolling across the ground as brush and rocks pummeled her body until she came to rest on her stomach. She coughed at the choking dust rolling away from the pickup as the old man sped back up and lurched towards his destiny.
She lay still for what seemed an eternity as the sound of the truck thumping along the ruts faded and it finally stopped next to the other vehicle.
She checked her belongings, making sure she had her water bag, knife and poncho. She picked up the white envelope, not sure what to do with it now that the plan to meet Ortega had blown up. She rolled it up and tucked it in her hand next to her knife, in case it had something that would be useful later on. She picked up her hat and brushed the sand from it before tugging it back on her head.
She started to crawl east, putting distance between herself and the trucks. She looked over her shoulder to watch them, waiting for the old man to drive his pickup truck away. She watched for as long as she could until twilight rolled away, chasing the sun over the horizon to leave her once again in the darkness of the desert night.
She stood up and continued walking east. She figured an hour would be long enough and then she could turn back north and find her way home.
She patted the bolsa slung around her neck and rubbed her fingers along its swollen contour. She knew it would be a full day before she would need it and the desert had already taught her the discipline to wait until then before even thinking about taking a drink.
She winced when she heard it. Letting out a sigh, she hung her head, but kept walking. She didn’t have to look. She wouldn’t have seen anything anyway. But the sound was unmistakable as it reached out across the desert as a faint pop – somebody had fired a pistol. She hoped that it might have been the old man, affecting his escape, but she knew better.
She gritted her teeth, wishing she could stretch out her hands and wrap them around somebody’s throat. No, not just somebody’s – Jefe’s. Everything that was wrong in her world reached out from those azure eyes and the rage of a broken mind that crushed everything in its path in a tantrum of insanity that would never stop.
Even in the choking silence of the night-soaked desert underneath a canopy of stars that reached out to forever, she couldn’t help feeling that he was right there, still watching her.
After walking for most of the night and into the morning, the sun now blazed down from its mid-day perch when Bess sat down to rest. She pulled off her straw hat and ran her hands through the matted sweat-soaked hair pasted against her scalp. She laid her knife and the white envelope in her lap and uncorked the bolsa, tipping it up to drain a short splash of warm water into her mouth. She let it settle, swishing it around to moisten her cheeks and tongue and then swallowed it down. She put the cork back in and let it hang by its strap, telling herself she could have another when the sun had set.
Staring at the envelope in her lap, she imagined the old man’s leathery hand scrawling on the back with his pencil, jotting down the last remnants of a kind stranger whose name she didn’t even know. She thought of his ramshackle hut, now empty and drying in the sun like the bones of a dead animal. It would be like the same kind of broken down buildings she had seen on lone stretches of highway where she had always wondered – who had been there? What happened to them? Somebody would wonder the same thing when they saw the old man’s house sinking into the sand and she felt a pang of remorse because they would never know who he was or what he had done for her.
She turned it over and unfastened the clasp. She slid out the single sheet of paper inside and gasped. Looking at what he had written, she knew there had never been an Ortega. The old man had known she needed to hear a plan – something to get her to climb into the truck with him so he could erase a few more miles between her and the beckoning cradle of home.
She read the twelve names written on the list. She recognized one of them: Angela Montoya. The last name on the list was her own.
She ran her hand over the names, trying to match them to the faces of the girls at Los Rojos. None of them sounded anything like the girls she had come to know while imprisoned with them. Like her, they had become different in captivity. They had become shadows of who they really were, unrecognizable to anybody who had known them before they had been turned into slaves to vengeance.
She opened the envelope to slip the list back inside and saw something else. She reached in and fished out the photograph the old man had shown her. She stared at the brown eyes of the little girl looking at something that Bess knew neither of them would ever see again. And neither would the eleven girls still trapped at Los Rojos.
Standing back up, Bess peered at something shimmering on the horizon she hadn’t seen for months. Her heart quickened and she picked up her pace as she scanned a swath of green winding along the landscape.
They were real trees and bushes with leaves, which meant she had found the river. She blinked, unable to believe it. She rubbed her eyes and squinted at what had to be an illusion. But they were still there. She would have to force herself to slow down and conserve her strength. Even though she could see it, she knew it was still miles away and the heat was bearing down on her, sapping her strength with every breath. It would have been better to find some shade behind a rock and sleep until it cooled down. But her heart was thumping at the prospect of wallowing in the river and she knew she would never be able to sleep now.
Walking towards the river, she tried to imagine what it was going to be like. She was a white American girl with no ID, no money, nothing but her name. Where would they keep her? How long would it take? Even if her mother drove down to get her, would that be enough? Would they need to see a birth certificate?
Somebody would ask her what had happened to her. After all this time, she wasn’t sure she wanted to answer that. She tried to imagine telling them about Los Rojos. Then she tried to imagine telling her mother.
She shifted her gaze to the ground between her and the river and the shimmering heat waves that rippled across everything like water in air. All she had to do was walk through them and somehow endure the scrutiny of people who would never understand what she had been through or who she had become.
The days were ticking down to another Teresita vanishing forever because she was too old, even before her life had even begun. Because of that, she would try to answer the questions that everyone would ask as they tried to pry into her mind to see something that really wasn’t any of their business.
To distract her from all of this, she took the picture out of the envelope. Turning it over, she saw something scribbled in pencil that she couldn’t understand. En la oscuridad que nace, la justicia de los angeles.
Bess folded the picture and tucked it in the sheath next to the blade of her knife.
She read the names on the list as she walked, then tried to remember them. She kept at it, first reading them, then looking at the approaching river and saying them until she was able to recite them from memory.
After the sun settled behind the horizon, she said them out loud one last time and let go of the envelope as her sandals sank into the moist ground of the river bank.
©2017 Michael J Lawrence