The river behind her, Bess crossed her arms and rubbed her shoulders as she walked through more endless scrub. She was wet up to her waist and both the poncho and her nightgown were soaked as they flapped against her legs. A cold breeze cut through the wet garments and she shivered as the tingle of gooseflesh flooded her body.
The sun was already washing the western horizon with an orange haze. The lights of a sleepy border town glimmered in the distance. She flapped her arms against the gathering cold, knowing she wouldn’t make it there before dark. Another waft of wind cut through her wet garments and her teeth chattered as a shiver rushed through her. She would have to find someplace warm, and soon. Sleeping in the open was no longer an option as she thought of hypothermia setting in. She uncorked her bolsa and took another swig of water. Her bones ached and her muscles were again starting to cramp from the exertion of walking almost non-stop since tumbling out of the old man’s truck. But walking was the only thing she had left that would keep her awake and ward off the cold. She had come too far to let herself end in a shivering heap of futility.
The lights started to blur and she had little more than a vague awareness of her feet shuffling through the dirt as she drifted towards the town. Her teeth ached from the waves of chattering rippling through her jaw and her shoulders convulsed as her body tried to ward off the deepening cold that was soaking into her. As she drew closer to the lights, she could see somebody walking along one of the streets just ahead of her.
Sleepy porch lights peeked out from houses on one side of a wide street, but she opted to head to something closer, the flickering neon sign of a bar perched over a sloping wood shingle storefront. A car sat across the street with its lights off. As she approached the car, Bess could make out the darkened silhouette of somebody sitting in the driver’s seat.
Then she saw it: the outline of an official looking emblem sprawled across the door and the thin rack of lights straddling the roof. Her heart thumped as she realized it was a sheriff’s car sitting across from the bar – probably waiting for the inevitable ruckus that came from the patrons drinking late into the night.
A surge of strength welling up inside her, Bess managed a loping jog towards the car.
The man inside was idly watching the street to his front when she banged on his window. Startled, he jerked his head around to look at her and she could see his hand reaching for something between the seats. “No,” she said, her voice a wailing croak. She shook her head and banged on the window again.
The man rolled it down just an inch and said, “Step back.”
Bess nodded and stumbled back away from the car as he opened the door and stepped out. Everything she knew came gushing into her mind and she wanted to spill it all out onto the ground while she had the chance, but her mouth ached from chattering and her jaw was stiff from the cold.
She fell to her knees and looked up at the man. Between waves of chattering, she croaked out the only words she had the strength left to say.
Bess sat in a worn leather chair against the wall in front of the sheriff’s desk while he rummaged through the papers that seemed to cover it like leaves fallen from a tree. The phone on the corner poked through them like a raft on the open sea.
Bess let the casual disarray of civilized life smother her as he mumbled something to himself and shuffled through the different piles of papers overflowing from a cheap wire basket.
“Mae,” he called out, “have you seen that CART bulletin that came in last month?”
The slender redhead sitting at the small desk in the front lobby didn’t seem to be much older than Bess. Scrunched into blue jeans and a short-sleeved plaid shirt, she tapped long purple nails as she opened drawers to peek inside. “Nope,” she called back. “You really need to get a system to keep that important stuff where you can find it.”
The sheriff lifted his head and caught Bess’s mesmerized gaze. His hand stopped shuffling and he asked her, “You sure you don’t want something?”
Bess shook her head and let her eyes dart away, unable to keep from guarding herself against another unknown threat looming in the night. But she was warm now and her jaw had settled down. Her shoulders were calm, too and the poncho was drying in the glowing warmth of a steam radiator on the wall next to her.
The sheriff yelled back through the doorway, “We don’t get one of these but once every six months.” He dug into the basket and pulled the entire stack onto his desk, crumpling lesser papers underneath. He licked his lips and leaved through the thick stack until he found what he was looking for, declaring, “Ah ha!” as he stood up with the paper in his hand.
He tromped past Bess and through the doorway, his cowboy boots thumping against the cheap Linoleum floor. Bess heard his voice from the next room. “Call this in, number’s at the top there.” The girl tapped the phone and started murmuring something Bess couldn’t hear as he sauntered back into his office.
Looking around, he pointed at the bunk in the single jail in a side room adjacent to his desk. It had a thin mattress and folded gray blanket on top of what looked like sheets that were at least clean, even if they were a little dull.
“You can sleep in there for now, until I get things arranged for somebody to come pick you up.”
Bess eyed the cell, which was about the same size as her room at Los Rojos.
Smiling, the sheriff said, “I’ll keep the door open.”
Bess stared at the black bars and cringed as a knot tightened in her stomach. “No,” she said, clutching at her poncho from the inside, “I’m fine right here.”
“Well, it’s going to be a bit of a wait, so I hope you’re comfortable.” He smiled, waiting to see if she would change her mind. Bess just shook her head.
He picked up the phone and turned it around. “Is there somebody you’d like to call?”
Bess stared at the phone, uneasy with the feeling that she could actually reach out and pick it up. Sitting in a sheriff’s office, guarded by another man with a pistol, she couldn’t help feeling that she was being set up to break a rule that would bring on more punishment.
Her mind tried to tell her differently. The weapon was visible, not tucked into the back of his belt. And his badge was visible, too. She could walk anywhere in the office she wanted without somebody yelling at her and she even noticed that the door in the front lobby was unlocked.
“Is it alright if I step outside for a minute?” she asked.
The sheriff smiled at her, his sun-worn face softening with a hint of creasing at the corners of his eyes reminding her of her father. “Sure. But don’t go far.”
She stood up, adjusting her bolsa and checking to make sure her knife was still in her hand beneath the poncho as she stepped into the front lobby. She walked across the floor in a diagonal line, then switched directions and walked another diagonal, tensing as she waited for somebody to tell her to stay on the sidewalk. Instead, the girl at the desk just looked up at her with a quizzical grin.
Bess reached the door and stopped. She looked at the metal rail stretched across its smeared glass that peered out into a narrow street lit by the dull yellow light of a wooden lamppost. She pressed her cheek against the glass, straining to look down the street. It was barren and dusty and led quietly to the main road running through the center of town and its scattering of shops, all looking out at their own barren stretch of road.
She pushed the door open. She held it open for a moment, looking at the street and waiting for somebody to appear and push her back inside. Instead, a soft gust of wind rippled along the cracked sidewalk, stirring up a wisp of sand and then setting it back down.
Her body surged with a vague numbness as she stepped onto the street and let the door close behind her. She curled her lips inward, clenching them over her teeth as a gush of relief welled up inside her. She let out a soft cooing sigh and leaned against the wall next to the door.
Her eyes watered and she relished the feeling of a tear tracking down her cheek as she let the tension that had been wound up inside her like a watch spring uncoil and gush out of her in a shudder of relief.
For the first time, an overwhelming thought found its way into her mind. It was over. It was all over. Jefe wasn’t here to force her to watch him kill one of the girls or make her feel that at any moment he would pull out her father’s revolver and put a bullet through her own head. There were no guards lurking in the darkness, a constant hulking beast herding her and the rest from one misery to the next.
Then she thought of the girls. She was safe now, shrouded in the dark obscurity of nowhere, guarded by a simple man who couldn’t be bothered to file papers but would never hurt her. More than that, she knew he would shoot anybody who would try. But the girls – they were all in their rooms now, boxed in like animals, sleeping off the champagne, the drugs, and the nightmares that still peeked in to remind them of what had happened and what would always happen for the rest of their short lives at Los Rojos.
She wept for them, swallowed up by a relentless guilt she hadn’t seen coming for her in the shadows of the street. They would always be there. Even if Los Rojos someday disappeared and Jefe was taken from this world, they would still be there, in her mind, looking at her. Were they glad she was gone? Did they know she had found a way out of the nightmare they would never escape?
Whose blood was next on the courtyard?
The world crashed down around her and Bess slid to the sidewalk, her body shuddering as she ached to expel the visions from her mind. But she knew there weren’t enough tears to wash them away. Jefe’s final revenge would be that he would always live in her mind, asking a question she could never answer. What about them, Teresita Fuego? What about them?
Bess clenched her fists and beat them against the thin fabric of her nightgown, pummeling it into her thigh. She gulped in air and held it, squeezing her eyes tight as she forced her thoughts of Los Rojos back into the recesses of her mind. She knew she couldn’t ever get them out, but she would find a place to keep them.
She had to breathe. She had to live. All she had to do was find the next moment, reach out for it and hold onto it. And breathe.
Bess stood up, still quivering from the visions of Los Rojos and saw her hand reach out for the door, as if were somebody else’s and beyond her control as it pulled against the curved metal handle.
Some other part of her was in control as she seemed to float across the floor. Her body was ahead of her now, walking, breathing, seeing as it waited for her mind to catch up to the moments it was already gathering for her.
She stopped in front of the sheriff’s desk, staring at the phone.
His voice floated out to her, as if from outside the room. “Are you OK?” She could feel herself nodding as she pointed at the phone.
He picked up the receiver and handed it to her. “What’s the number?”
She blinked at the gray buttons on its surface and stepped closer so she could reach them. “I’ve got it,” she murmured.
She pressed each button firmly, holding her finger against it before moving on to the next as she dialed her mother’s number. She let the pressure from each one turn her nail white and reveled in the process of going from one to the next. Each was a moment, collected, savored and pulled inside as she reached out from where she had been to somewhere else.
It didn’t matter that her mother was an abusive drunk or that she would always blame Bess for what had happened to her father. Compared to Los Rojos, these were barren jokes that life had played on her and she wondered how such trivial things could bother anyone.
“Hello?” Her mother’s voice was strained, but sober.
“Hi mom, it’s me.” Her own voice sounded like it came from a little girl coming in from the cold to find a cup of hot chocolate sitting on a kitchen table.
“Oh my God,” her mother blurted out. “Baby, are you alright?”
Bess didn’t know how to answer. She needed time to find the answer and then put it into words that people who had never endured Los Rojos would understand. For now, she lied. “I’m OK Mama.”
“Where are you?”
Bess heard something in the background, then a muffling of the phone as her mother covered the speaker for just a moment.
“What was that?” Bess asked.
“Nothing. I just needed to get a tissue out of my purse.” Her mother sniffled and asked again, “Where are you?”
Bess wasn’t ready. She needed a bridge from Los Rojos to the world where her mother lived before she could see her again. It didn’t matter what it was made of and she reached for the first thing she could think of.
“I’m sorry about what happened to Dad,” she said. “I mean, about getting him into that situation. It was my fault.”
“Oh, honey, no,” her mother said. “Don’t … Don’t… That wasn’t your fault sweetie.”
“But if I hadn’t -“
“No,” her mother said more firmly. “I didn’t do that right. I slipped. I should have never brought home that damn bottle… I’m sorry too, I guess. You know, it was just hard for both of us.”
“Maybe too hard,” Bess said.
“We’ll work it out,” her mother said, her voice tightening as she regained her composure. “Now, please, tell me where you are.”
“Hold on,” Bess said, handing the phone to the sheriff. “She wants to know where I am,” she said to him, shrugging.
He took the phone and smiled at her as he spoke. “Hello, Mrs. Kincaid? Yes, this is sheriff Bransom, down in Cabrillo County…. Yes ma’am, it’s pretty far from most everywhere else…. I know – ma’am….” He switched the receiver to his other ear and sat down behind his desk.
“Yes ma’am, you can come on down, but I have to hand her off to CYFD before you can take her home.”
Bess locked her gaze on him and shook her head.
“No ma’am, it’s nothing like that. It’s just procedure. Hold on….” He cupped his hand over the mouthpiece and nodded at Bess.
“I’m not going anywhere until I see my mother first,” Bess said. The sheriff squinted at her for a moment and then nodded as he uncupped his hand.
“Mrs. Kincaid? Right… Well, Bess is in a bit of shock here I think and she says she wants to see you as soon as possible. So you come on down. It’ll be a while before CYFD gets here anyway, so you might even get here before they do…. Yes ma’am. They still need to take her in and do some paperwork…. I know, but don’t worry. Like I said, it’s routine… Alright then, we’ll see you soon. Goodbye now.”
He cradled the phone and leaned back in his chair. “It’s going to be a while,” he said, arching his brow. He pointed at the cell and said, “You sure you don’t want to get some sleep?”
Bess glanced at the bars and sat down in the leather chair. Tucking her knees up under her poncho, she said, “I can sleep just fine right here.”
He folded his hands and gazed at her for a moment. She waited for him to burst into a tirade about how the rules said she had to sleep in the cell because she didn’t listen and couldn’t learn. No, Teresita Fuego, you must sleep in the cell. She clutched at the inside of her poncho again, pushing the thoughts back into the fatigue suddenly shrouding her mind.
“Alrighty then,” the sheriff said. He looked away and started shuffling through his papers again, as if she wasn’t even there, giving her as much privacy as he could without actually leaving.
Bess stared at the badge pinned to his shirt pocket as a haze fell over her. Her body floated away and the room grew dim as she stared at the badge and it morphed into a shimmering light reaching out to her. Her vision narrowed and night fell before her eyes. The light winked at her, then slipped away, then winked at her again and she realized it was the lighthouse reaching out to her from the shore. She felt cold water lapping around her as she started to swim towards it and noticed a girl standing on the shore. Her heart sank as she thought of seeing Lago again, as she always did during the endless swimming of her dreams. But Lago wasn’t there.
This time, it was herself smiling and waving as she swam across an endless ocean that never let her reach the shore.
Bess woke up to the sound of hushed voices coming from the front lobby. She grimaced as she unfolded her legs from the chair. One of them tingled with pins and needles. The other one ached from a shallow cramp that knotted up in her calf. Her heart started to race and for a moment, she thought to check her nightstand for the syringe and vial, then realized she was in the sheriff’s office as the clutter of paper on his desk came into focus. She let out a slow breath as her heartbeat settled back and she realized it was just fatigue gnawing at her body.
She cranked her head from side to side and uncorked her bolsa to take a long swig of warm water. She took just as much as she needed to keep her strength, saving the rest for later to postpone dehydration for as long as possible. It still hadn’t occurred to her to ask for a drink of water from the sheriff. She checked to make sure the knife was still in her hand underneath her poncho and stood up.
She stood in the doorway, looking into the lobby. The street outside the front door was still dark and the sheriff shifted his weight from one foot to the other as he talked to a trio of people standing between him and the door.
Bess padded up next to him and he casually nodded at her as a woman with short blonde hair, glasses and a prim cotton blouse talked.
“Like I said, there have been some rotations at the office.” She pulled a card out of the small square of a purse hanging over her shoulder and handed it to the sheriff.
The woman shifted her gaze and said, “You must be Bess.” Her mouth opened with a pearly smile, but her eyes stared right through Bess, as if she were analyzing her in some way.
“Yes,” Bess said quietly, stepping sideways to half hide behind the sheriff.
“I’m Ms. Filmore from CYFD?” the woman said, as if she expected Bess to confirm her identity. She extended her hand like a board, with her fingers tight against each other. Bess looked at her hand, shifted further behind the sheriff and eyed the two stoic men standing behind the woman. They were clean-shaven with close-cropped hair and neatly pressed sports jackets. Both stood with their feet slightly apart as they stared at the wall behind Bess. To her, they looked like anything but the kind of people that were comfortable around children.
“Yeah, I’m sorry Ms. Filmore,” the sheriff said, “but I was expecting Donna, so I’m going to have phone this in.”
The woman placed her hand on the sheriff’s elbow and said, “That won’t be necessary.” The sheriff glanced at her hand. She reached back into her purse and pulled out a form with the official CYFD seal and an official looking signature at the bottom. “This is the release form.” The woman released his elbow and tapped the form. “I just need you to sign right here.”
Bess studied the two men. They didn’t move. They didn’t look at her. But they had a look that was intimately familiar to her. They stood waiting for something, ready to put things back the way they should be. Ready to haul her back onto the sidewalk or toss her into her room or just stare her down with an unspoken threat because she had done something Jefe didn’t like.
“No,” she said, clutching at the sheriff’s arm as she scooted behind him. He glanced back at her, frowning.
“It’s alright, Bess,” he said. “They’re here to take you someplace you can sleep and get something to eat before you go home. They just need to make sure -“
“Not until my mother gets here,” Bess said. “They’ll have to wait.”
The woman huffed impatiently. “I’m sorry, but we really don’t have time for this, miss. We need to get you back to our facility so we can process your case.” Bess yanked her arm away as the woman reached for her.
The sheriff eased the woman’s hand away and uncurled his arm protectively in front of Bess.
“Now look here,” he said, “if she doesn’t want to go just yet, I think we can wait until her mother gets here and settle all this then.”
The woman’s eyes glazed over and her mouth went flat. She rolled her shoulders back and said, “I’m real sorry to hear that sheriff.” Bess shivered as the woman stared straight into her eyes. “I really am.”
Bess felt the breath knocked from her lungs as the woman lunged at her and pinned her against the wall. Looking over the woman’s shoulder, Bess saw the two men reach behind the lapels of their sports jackets and swing out stubby black-barreled guns on leather straps. The sheriff reached for his own holster as both guns spat out yellow flashes with a ripping clatter. The bullets lifted the sheriff from the floor by several inches and sent his body sprawling across the room in a smear of blood.
Even as the shell casings clattered on the floor, the two men swung their weapons down and stomped over to Bess. One of them squeezed her chin, sending a spur of pain through her face, and said, “Jefe said you would be a pain in the ass.” He jutted his chin towards the sheriff’s body. “Now we have to clean up this mess because of you.”
Still holding Bess’s shoulders against the wall, the woman said, “That’s enough. We need to get her out of here.”
The man flicked Bess’s chin away and stepped back. He made sure Bess saw when he reached under his lapel and wrapped his hand around the grip of his weapon.
The woman pursed her lips and glared at Bess. “Are you going to behave now?”
Bess’s heart pounded in her chest so hard, she could hardly breathe. She couldn’t speak and simply nodded her head. Vaguely, she felt her knife still nestled in her hand. She squeezed her hand around the grip and held it flat against her leg.
“Good,” the woman said, sliding her hand around Bess’s arm. “Then let’s go.” She jerked Bess’s arm and hustled her towards the door as the other man pushed it open.
Just as they stepped onto the sidewalk, Bess felt the woman’s body jerk and then she heard a small explosion from across the street. She looked down to where the woman had been holding her arm and no longer saw the woman’s hand. Where the woman had been walking next to her, she only saw the blank of night air.
She craned her neck around to see the woman’s body crumpled against the wall of the sheriff’s office. Most of the middle of her body was missing, practically severed from the rest of her and her eyes stared out, frozen wide in shock.
The glass door shattered as the two men were just about to step through. They reflexively ducked back inside as Bess heard a second explosion. Then, she heard his voice.
“Run!” the voice yelled. The voice came from a compact parked haphazardly across the street. “Over here!”
Before she completely understood why, Bess pumped her legs as hard as she could and sprinted across the street to hunker down next to a giant of a man. His dark forearms bulged with taught muscles as he held the biggest revolver she had ever seen pointed at the sheriff’s office. His eyes gleamed against the chiseled contours of his dark face as he stared down its site.
“Who are you?” she asked. Another clattering rip erupted across the street and a spray of bullets thumped against the car. Bess clutched his arm and instinctively brought her knife out from under her poncho, holding it poised in its sheath.
“Your mother hired me,” he said. He squinted and let off another round from the loudest handgun she had ever heard. Bess’s ears rang as the revolver kicked back as the muscles in his arm bulged, straining to hold it steady. “Look, we don’t have a lot of time, so listen.” He glanced at her as another salvo of bullets rippled along the car. “Are you listening?”
Bess squeezed her eyes shut from the noise and quickly bobbed her head. “Uh huh.”
One of the men burst through the door and ran to hunker down behind the sheriff’s car in front of the office. George fired the fourth round from his Smith and Wesson 500, pulverizing a chunk of concrete next to the sheriff’s car.
“They have your mother,” he said. “So don’t go home. They’re probably waiting for you there too.”
The man behind the sheriff’s car poked his head up and leveled his weapon, sending another salvo ripping into the compact.
“When I say, you need to run straight up the street behind us and don’t look back.”
The man inside the sheriff’s office peeked through the door and yelled something at the man behind the sheriff’s car. George alternated between aiming at the man inside and the man behind the car.
“What about you?” she asked.
He looked at her and smiled. The yellow light drizzling from the lamppost across the street splashed against a wall of ivory flashing down at her. “Don’t worry about me, darlin'” he said. “I’ll be right behind you.”
She knew he was lying. Every man that had tried to protect her had lied the same way.
“Promise,” she said.
The smile faded and his eyes softened for a moment before he turned his attention back to his revolver.
The man inside lunged through the door and the revolver roared. Just as she saw the man hurled back through the office door from the impact of the revolver’s fifth and final round, George said, “Now. Go.”
George let his weapon down and opened the empty cylinder. He cleared the empty cartridges and reached into his coat pocket as another splay of bullets ripped into the other side of his compact. “GO!” he yelled, shoving new cartridges into the cylinder.
Bess forced herself to look away and reset her grip on her knife as she bounded up the sidewalk behind them and along the short stretch of road that led into the desert.
She jerked around when she heard another ripple from behind her, followed by a flurry of footsteps. George lay on his back, squirming as he tried to raise his revolver at the man running towards him. Bess ducked into a doorway and peeked around the corner as George fired another round, but the man kept running.
George’s hand fell back to the ground as the man ran up and stomped on his chest. George let out a wailing growl as the man leveled his weapon at point blank range.
Bess turned away and ran the rest of the way up the street. She heard the rippling crack of the man’s weapon and she grit her teeth as she scurried into the familiar sanctuary of scrub, sand, clay and cacti that stretched out to the horizon.
She ran, knowing she would be nothing more than a whisper in the darkness by the time they figured out what had happened.
She felt the urge to cry, but crushed it back inside her. Once again, somebody had taken a bullet because of her. She felt like she had been cursed for sins she did not commit and her penance was to have death follow in her wake wherever she went.
She offered a prayer for the man, who had known her for only a few scant minutes – just long enough to join the ranks of people dying for her. Then she prayed for it all to stop. Gasping for air as her lungs swelled with the aching burn of running, she swore that this man would be the last to suffer because of her.
At least, the last man who didn’t deserve it.
As the empty night flowed behind her, Bess realized she didn’t know where she was running. When would the running stop?
Los Rojos pushed into her mind and she shook her head, struggling to focus on the stars blinking along the horizon. Then she saw the girls shuffling along the sidewalk. She shook her head again, but they wouldn’t go away.
They turned to look at her, their eyes drooping with the certainty of their fate. She clawed at the air in front of her, trying to rip them from her mind.
They said something. She felt more than heard the message, but she knew it was the truth. It was the one reality that would never change.
She couldn’t run far enough. She couldn’t ever escape the tendrils that reached out from Los Rojos and wrapped around her to pull her back into its morass. She was too small. She was too frail. She was alone.
She had always known that Jefe’s survival depended on her never being allowed to breathe in the outside world. She realized now that there was only one way for her to survive. Jefe had to stop breathing.
©2017 Michael J Lawrence