It was cool and yet the sweat was dripping between his shoulder blades and down his back. Just a few more miles, he kept telling himself. The cargo was less agreeable. Another few minutes and the break would have to be over.
“Let’s go,” he said, his voice rough, breaking through the silence. The air was dry, making it hard for him to speak or even swallow.
A pair of light eyes looked up at him. “Already?”
“I was sure you’d fallen asleep,” he said, offering her a hand.
“I wanted to sleep,” she said, brushing her jeans off. Her hand touched her shin and she winced. “I just couldn’t get comfortable.”
There was a hole in the leg of her pants, the blood still wet. Each time he caught sight of the cut he looked away. The last stop shouldn’t have been so close, but it was impossible to gauge these things. It was his sixth trip this year, and yet the nature of the work made it unpredictable.
“I couldn’t sleep either,” he said, staying close to her, his voice low. “Know anything about that Emanuel guy?”
“No, but he gave me a weird vibe,” she said, lowering her voice.
It was the same conclusion he had come to. Most people were quiet, uncertain, scared. Emanuel was none of those things. If anything, he was calm and confident. Someone with too much confidence might lead to a mistake or worse.
“How much further, sir?” a small boy said, his white shirt now brown from the dirt they’d lain in.
“Not too far, kiddo,” he said. “I need you to stay close to your mom and sister. Remember, you’re my deputy.”
“I know,” the boy said, beaming. “I’m doing a good job, right?”
“Great,” he said, wiping the sweat from his brow. “I know I can count on you.”
The boy smiled and hurried back to his mother. The small family was laden with bags. Even the boy carried a satchel across his back that seemed too big for him. Everyone in the group was carrying as much of their belongings as they could, hoping to build a better life across the border.
“Hey,” the girl said as she looked up into his face. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Let’s go.”
With one look back, making sure the group was following, he started forward. The standing rule was to move as he moved, avoid the roving lights, be quiet, and if you get separated, enjoy the trip back home. The route they’d taken to escape at the last stop had forced him to use a less familiar path. The stars were guiding him now. Though he thought of them as cargo, they were still lives, his responsibility. It was something his father had instilled in him, one of the only things.
An hour passed and the group was moving slower. There was no point in trying to speed up the pace, they couldn’t keep up. Everyone was tired and hot, exhausted from days of walking and camping in the wilderness. His eyes scanned the people as they passed him. First was the girl with the cut on her shin. Then there was the mother with her young son and daughter. The daughter was only two. At that age, there was a good chance she wouldn’t remember any of this once they settled down. Behind her was a pair of lovers, a year older than he was, engrossed in each other. If anyone was going to get caught, they’d be the first. The lovers seemed too engrossed in each other to notice anything dangerous, or anything at all.
After the lovesick couple was his least favorite member of the group, Emanuel. The man had a rat-like appearance. His clothes were all black and he was carrying a weapon of some sort. This was not permitted, but there was no way of enforcing that rule. A fifteen-year-old boy standing up to a grown man would never work. The last thing he needed was to get killed over a hunch.
Behind Emanuel was a group of people all wearing dull-colored ponchos. It looked like they were already dressed to assimilate. Each of them carried two bags hidden under the loose fabric. Any of them could have been mistaken for natives, ready to pick fruit as soon as they arrived. The wages were abysmal, not enough to live off of, even if there were eight of them.
The last of the group was the most unpredictable. Parents often sent their children unaccompanied when they couldn’t afford to go with them, and he found himself looking into the eyes of former classmates. None of them could go back to school, back to their old neighborhood. The gangs had taken over and if not the gangs, the draft. There was always someone needing bodies, in whatever shape they were in.
These weren’t his friends. But it was hard not to feel bad for them, even if they’d bullied him when they were ten. At the time, their families had been affluent and well-to-do. Now that affluence couldn’t buy a loaf of bread or a pint of gas. There were more than twenty people in his group, all with the same grim, dire expression. The rich kids passed him and he stared forward as they did so.
The sound of something in the distance caught his ear and he turned, tilting his head. A moment passed. The sound drew closer. In a flash, he raced past the long line, saying in a hoarse whisper, “Down. Everyone get down.”
Like dominoes, the group fell, heedless of the broken objects that were strewn across their path. The ponchos served well to camouflage those that wore them, and it crossed his mind to consider requiring all cargo to wear them in the future.
Breathless as he reached the front of the queue, he hid behind a broken-down truck, next to the girl. “You hear that?”
“A plane?” she said.
The sound drew closer and they looked skyward, seeing searchlights long before the aircraft came into view. It was a helicopter, military by the look of it. The lights streamed down in all directions and everyone did their best to be still. This wasn’t the first airborne transport they’d seen. The signs on the side were that of the border patrol. That was far more troubling.
The first time Rob had seen the sign he had been with his father. It was his first smuggling job. The metal sign hung from the building with a large black border and red background with the number three in white on it. The paint had faded since the last time he’d seen it. The smell of death was all around the place. Many people went in, few came out looking the same, if they came out at all. There were always trucks and buses bustling out, people with forlorn, desperate looks on their faces staring out the windows.
The sound receded and she nudged him. “Is it safe?”
“Let’s give it a few more minutes,” he said, knowing the group could use the rest to slow their racing hearts after another near-miss.
If the air was being watched, the road would be guarded as well, more so as they got closer. It wouldn’t be long now. Another few minutes and he turned, giving the sign to get moving. The group moved at his command and another hour slid by. The pace was much faster now, as everyone wanted to get off of the road, get to their destination, their salvation, as soon as possible.
It would be a long trek back home and he didn’t want to think of the constant questions from his mother. At home, things were different. His family didn’t struggle as others did. His father had done everything possible to protect them and he now continued that tradition.
The sky was beginning to lighten. The sun would be out soon, making it impossible to go any further. The border should be less than a half hour away. Time was running out.
“We’re almost there,” he said. “Come on, everyone.”
All who passed him smiled, relieved that the ordeal was almost over, except Emanuel. The man looked more foreboding than before. “How far?”
“A half hour,” he said, running a hand through his slick hair, hoping to avoid a confrontation. “I think we are just a couple miles away.”
“I hope you’re right,” Emanuel said, poking the younger man twice in the chest.
Now was not that time to fight back. His gun was at his back, hidden under his long, tattered raincoat. One quick shot and Emanuel wouldn’t be a problem anymore. A smile crossed his face. The money in his bank account slowed his trigger finger.
Fifteen minutes of walking and the border was just ahead. There wasn’t a hint of anyone nearby. Another easy transport. Everyone rejoiced in their own ways, the pace increasing.
One of his former classmates stopped, putting a hand out. “I didn’t think you were worth the dirt you lived under, but I guess you’re alright.”
“How the mighty have fallen,” he said, shaking his hand.
“I’ll rebuild,” he said, tightening his grip. “I’m going to crush you in the next life.”
“Good luck with that.”
The girl hovered behind him, not saying anything at first. Once the guys had passed, it was the mother and her family who stopped. “Thank you.”
“Be safe,” he said, patting her on the back, glancing at the boy. “Be good, kiddo.”
The boy grinned, following close behind his mother. The lovers passed without a word. Emanuel hung back, watching from a distance.
“You…thank you,” the girl said. “For everything.”
“It…you were a lot of help,” he said, trying to smile. “All the best. I hope you can get your family over.”
“I hope they can find someone as good as you.”
“I’m not sure I’ll keep this up…it’s a tad dangerous, if you hadn’t noticed.”
“I might have,” she said with a laugh. “But…thank you…again.”
It was an awkward moment, one he hated. A hug would be too forward. Two days in close proximity and he couldn’t say he knew her at all. With the number of people he ferried, the faces all blended together. It was critical to remain detached. Perhaps she knew that. The moment passed and she gave him a small smile, and turned to join the rest of the group.
Emanuel came up behind him, giving him a nudge. “That was your one chance, virgin.”
“I’m not…shut up.”
“She’s sweet on you,” Emanuel said with a deep, throaty laugh.
“I…get moving, man,” he said, feeling uncomfortable.
Emanuel nodded, offering a hand. “You did alright, kid.”
“I tried,” he said, shaking his hand. “I…thanks for not shooting me.”
Emanuel furrowed his brow and cocked his head. “I wasn’t armed.”
“That’s not a sniper rifle across your back?”
“Okay, man, whatever,” he said, putting his hands up. “I need to get clear, too.”
“I know,” Emanuel said, glaring at the ground. “You…you’re the rats, you know.”
“Spreading this disease of people…and for what?”
“Money — that’s what the world runs on.”
“And what happens to those places? The people there don’t want to have more people…and what about the country they’re escaping? What about them?”
“What do you care?”
“I care…because it isn’t legal.”
“Be cool, man.” Now he knew the feeling he’d had about Emanuel all along.
“I can’t,” Emanuel said. “I…I need to…fix this.”
“Let it go,” he said, trying to guess whether Emanuel was going to kill everyone or just him.
“I…” Emanuel turned, staring at the retreating group, his hands limp at his side.
This was his chance and he took it, pulling the gun out, pressing it to the back of Emanuel’s head. “Enough…once they’re clear…you’re done.”
“I’m…I’m not what you think,” Emanuel said, not moving.
“I’ve heard it all. It’s always the same. Some relative you have to avenge, some injustice no one cares about but you…I don’t care. You end, here and now.”
“You’re making a mistake…a big mistake.”
“Yeah…my mistake was taking your money,” he said, grabbing Emanuel’s collar. “On your hands and knees.”
“Don’t do this,” Emanuel said, falling forward.
“I can’t have you jeopardizing this.”
“Your illegal livelihood?”
“We all need to make money,” he said, shoving Emanuel again. “I bet you didn’t get your gear for free.”
“I paid a high price.”
“I could have used these hours ago,” he said as he pulled the night-vision goggles off of Emanuel’s head.
The sun was now reaching across the horizon. The refugees were almost there. A few more steps and his job would be complete. The moment was always one he loved. The smell of freedom as they crossed into Mexico, out of the remnants of the United States. Each person had paid half a million pesos to cross over. The dollar was worth next to nothing.
Floodlights sprung forth, trucks circling as the refugees were spotted and caught. The pleas and cries could be heard from where he and Emanuel waited. There would be a bonus for getting them this far without being spotted by the government first. The money for providing new “inventory” for terrorist groups was high and this one paid the most. There were many buyers to choose from.
The two young women would be sold into slaving. The young men would be put into hard labor. The poncho group and small family might be able to get away. None had anything of value and might have contacts on the other side. A smirk crossed his face as he thought of the people who’d trusted him. Each one, save for the girl, was being delivered in near-mint condition. It was unfortunate he couldn’t see what would happen to his old bullies. Anything was too good for them and now he had a hostage to deal with.
“Any last words?” he said, pressing the gun into Emanuel’s head.
“I’m with the office of the president.”
“I’ve heard that one before,” he said with a laugh. “Let me guess, you’re the president in disguise.”
“Seriously, kid…you’re…murder is a…”
“Wouldn’t be my first.”
“In my back pocket…my clearance card…just…look.”
“Mr. Smith?” he said as he pulled the ID out. “This is so fake. Who are you fooling?”
“Kid…it’s a codename, listen…this…the government wanted to know how everyone was getting out…I’ve been…recording everything…they…they already know who you are…”
“I let my hand off this trigger and I know you’ll kill me.”
“How stupid do you think I am?”
“Very,” Emanuel said. “And…did…did you just send those people to their deaths?”
“How…how can you? And me?”
“You? No…” It was more fun to make him wait. The gun was tight in his hand as he heard footsteps approach
“Que paso, Roberto?”
The armed guerilla moved around him. The militia wasn’t far behind. A few more captured refugees and he would be promoted from guide to assassin. The man grinned at seeing Emanuel. The ID was taken, the smile growing wider.
“Good work, my young friend,” the guerilla said with a thick accent, pulling Emanuel to his feet. “Mr. Smith…we go to Washington with some demands, including a mighty gift for the resistance in America.”
“You can’t,” Emanuel said, struggling, doubling over with a grunt as a punch landed in his midsection. “We’re just trying to find a solution.”
“No one wants your solutions,” the young man said, smiling. “Can I get a ride back?”
“Of course,” the guerilla said. “We give you a new gun, too. Does that one even work?”
Emanuel glared. “You can’t do this…I’m an official of the United States…protected by—”
Another punch to the gut and the armed guerilla leaned in. “There is no United States. The country was too worried about looking outside to see what was happening inside. The terrorists were always here, right under your noses. Now the help you refrained from giving others has bitten you. You are alone and you will be sold to the highest bidder. Thank you for helping us get a new tank…I wanted one with a really, really big turret.”
Emanuel looked at him, a cold hard stare, before a bag was pulled over his head. The guerilla nodded at the nearby jeep. “How is your mother?”
“Good,” he said. “She misses my dad.”
“Ah, that is to be expected…does she know?”
“Best not to tell her.”
“Ah, what can she do?” he shrugged. “She’d still have to keep me around…”
“When a woman finds her lover’s killer, no matter the relation, she will react with vengeance…best not to mention it, Roberto. You are too good at what you do.”
“My dad taught me everything I know.”
**I wrote this short story years ago - my vision of Trump's America**