One thousand American dollars bought Angelina the right to risk her life with thirteen others. The money came from her mother now safely employed in Phoenix but Angelina knew better than to tell her guide that. She told him she had worked for the money for over a year and sold everything her parents had left her after they passed away.
He had shown no emotion at all about her plight as he took her money and tucked it away. It was as if so much time in the desert had sucked the warmth from his heart and left him cold and uncaring.
“Wait here until tonight,” flat and indifferent, a sentence repeated many times before. He could have told her about getting water to take with her, could have told her about the exhausting heat and the unforgiving sun of the upcoming days but he did not have to. Everybody had heard the stories of those who had died on the same journey.
She had what she thought she needed, many bottles of water and warm clothes for the cold desert nights. She had a large straw hat to cover her from the sun and even had three days worth of American meals in pouches like their military used. The backpack was heavy for her but she knew it would get lighter fast and besides she was only seventeen and very strong. Sewn carefully into her jeans was a bundle of five American twenty dollars bills, her emergency money.
She knew she was pretty and that was the last thing she had to rely on should worse come to worse. That thought upset her so much she only touched on it once before tucking it away deep inside where she would not have to examine it again. It was enough.
She could survive. She was ready.
The old bus smelled of unwashed bodies and heavy exhaust, so she sat next to an open window and endured the forty-five-minute ride, trying not to breathe any deeper than necessary, trying to be small and unimportant and anonymous and especially not attractive. Doubtless the other three women in the group, all just a little bit older, were doing the same thing. They finally ground to halt and exited the bus to stand in a motionless, confused group, fourteen ignorant pilgrims waiting to see what their money had bought them. Their guide was the last one off.
“My name is Santos,” in the same flat tone. “Stay with the group or you will be left behind.” There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was speaking the truth, but he left no time for unease. He turned, picked up his pack and walked into the desert night. He did not look behind.
Angelina scurried to stay with him as did all the others. The confused muddle of people slowly unraveled into a single line following their guide as goslings follow a mama goose. She wound up in the middle of the line following the man ahead and feeling the eyes of the man behind as he followed her into the night. The only sound was footfalls on the hard surface. Nobody had anything to say. Four hours of steady walking stumbled past before the guide stopped.
“Ten minutes,” he said. “Watch out for snakes,” and he sat down right where he was. Angelina looked around as best she could before easing to the ground. It felt wonderful to get that heavy pack off her shoulders and she drained a whole bottle of water in response to the thirst that had overtaken her an hour earlier. She left the empty bottle where it lay and peered into the desert. The pale light of the partial moon didn’t show much, in fact everything looked the same no matter which direction she turned her head. She felt a little uneasy as she realized just how dependant she was on this unpleasant man named Santos.
All too soon came his “Vamanos,” and they followed dumbly into the dark once more; another four hours of sore feet and screaming shoulders. Only he didn’t stop after four hours. He kept walking and they kept following as the eastern sky bled red over the horizon and then they could see where he was heading.
Four walls half-crumbled with age grew up from the horizon as they stepped off the distance. Once a building many years ago but a building no more, the straight walls were all that remained and were the only sign of order in the random shapes of the desert; in fact the only sign of mankind anywhere. There was no clue as to why the building had been there in the first place or who had put it there.
“We endure the day here,” Santos said, and took a spot in the shade inside. He stretched out on the sandy floor and covered his face with his hat. He appeared to fall asleep immediately.
The man who had been following Angelina all night looked at her. “I would have picked a different coyote if I had known this one was going to talk so much,” he said. Amused, Angelina smiled at him and using her jacket draped over her pack as a pillow, settled down on the sand as weary as she had ever been.
Sleep soaked into her makeshift pillow until the sun reached the spot where she lay and cooked her feet awake. She woke just long enough to move across the floor into the shade from the opposite wall and drank another bottle of water. Four gone, eighteen left. She eased out her full length in the shade and rested her head on her pack once more until sleep once again took her away from the drab, forlorn place.
It was about four when she woke, surprised at how stiff and sore she was. She was young and in good shape. She could only imagine how terrible the older and less fit must feel. She took out one of her MREs and ate it, her first one ever. The meal was a little bland for her taste but there was a cute little bottle of hot sauce and that helped some.
Several other members of the group were awake too, gnawing on their own hoarded food while others were still trying to sleep in the heat, attempting to store up rest they knew they would spend on the long night ahead.
The second night of travel was worse, much worse. Her feet complained each time they came down on the unyielding desert and her shoulders screamed with the weight of the pack even though by the end of the night there was only the weight of the twelve full bottles that were left. Come dawn, each step was a new hurt, an adventure in pain and there was no talk at all when they finally sagged to the sand in a small rocky cul-de-sac. There were a few audible and obviously well felt moans.
Santos looked at the group. “We are now in the United States,” he said, but if he had hoped to raise their spirits they were far too tired for enthusiasm.
Angelina ate another MRE and lay down to sleep, careful to keep her pack underneath her head. Everything she had to survive was in there and some of the others were already running out of supplies.
One more day to go plus just a little bit more; that was what Santos had promised and she hoped it was accurate. That was about all the longer her supplies were going to last. She really wanted to quit, to chuck it all and be back home but the thought of Mama waiting in Phoenix helped keep her going.
The day disappeared into weird heat-generated dreams and sweat-damped sleep that was not at all restful. Late afternoon became real at last and she finally sat up, still bone weary and sore.
“So this is adventure?” it was the man who had followed her both days. Deep fatigue showed in his eyes.
“I hope not,” was her quiet reply and he smiled tiredly at her. She deliberately turned away from him. She did not want to make any friends on this journey. It seemed like a good idea for her not to care too much about any of the others and that was why she avoided the other women. Her pack yielded another MRE and bottle of water. There was time for supper before nightfall, time to absorb some much-needed energy for the trial ahead. She wondered if her mother had gone through all this, wondered if she had been at this very spot looking at the same things Angelina was now seeing. It made her feel closer.
And so, supper finished, and water downed, she was full and not thirsty when the men in brown uniforms appeared. She did have to go to the bathroom, but that was obviously going to be put off for a while.
There were three of them, and two of them covered Santos with their rifles while the other one watched the rest of them. Santos was searched but he was unarmed, and the three strangers relaxed a little.
“You have been caught entering the country illegally,” the taller one said in perfect Spanish. His tone was not unkind. “We understand why you are here, but we cannot permit you to stay. You will be returned to Mexico, probably before nightfall tomorrow.”
Dismay flooded through Angelina. One thousand dollars, money her mother had worked hard for, was now wasted. The entire sum had been spent for two days of hard suffering, two days of walking to nowhere.
“I would like you to kneel in a straight line right here,” the man said. “Your hands will be restrained behind your back for your safety and for ours, but first does anybody need any water right now? Food will be provided when you reach the station.”
She could almost feel the disappointment in the group and it was stronger than thirst. Nobody needed water.
The sand was hard and gritty even through her jeans and she hoped they would not be on their knees for long.
“Please cross your ankles,” was the final command and they all did. She supposed that would make it more difficult to get up fast in case somebody decided to run for it.
Two of the three men worked their way up the line with plastic wire ties and bound their hands behind. When the man reached her, Angelina quietly told him she needed to go out into the desert for a moment. It was an embarrassing thing to say to a stranger.
“We will take care of that in a minute,” he said to her and he pulled the wire ties snug against her wrists. She was a little surprised when he put another one around her ankles but there was nothing she could do about it anyway, now that she was trussed up like a turkey ready for baking. Her bladder was prodding at her and she hoped it would not be too long before she was given the opportunity to solve that problem.
Now that their prisoners were safely secured the three men stepped a small distance away and began to talk softly. The one who had tied her hands nodded at Angelina once then pointed right at her as the other two followed his finger and looked over at her. After a few more words, the one who had tied her came over to her.
“You can go out into the desert a little way,” he said, “only I must accompany you.”
She protested a little without even thinking about it. It would be way too embarrassing to have a stranger watch her and she told him that quietly, feeling the flush of shame burn her cheeks.
He smiled. “I do not have to watch,” he explained. “Just as long as I can see the top of your head you will be fine.”
She nodded, relieved, and he knelt and with a small wire cutter popped the plastic bands around her wrists and ankles.
“Let’s go,” he said, and she got to her feet with a quiet grunt, surprised at the pain in her two-day-abused muscles.
Angelina followed him into the desert, trying to remember exactly where the rest of her group was in case she should get lost. The man really didn’t have to watch her. She had no idea where she was and nowhere else to go except back to the camp.
“Far enough,” he said, and he smiled at her, she could see the flash of his teeth. He walked away from her further into the desert.
Angelina did what she had to do as fast as she could. Her relief was almost a solid thing.
“I am finished,” she said and in a few moments, he appeared as if by magic to lead her back to the camp.
“You move very silently for such a big man,” she said and was rewarded with another smile.
Suddenly they were back, and the line of kneeling people was unchanged. Her empty spot in the middle waited for her and without being told she settled to her knees, crossed her ankles and held her hands behind. The man replaced the wire ties and joined his friends for another small conference before he addressed the captives.
“We will come down the line and remove the ankle ties,” he said. “Once all the ankle ties have been removed you will be told to get up and will follow us to our vehicle. You have all been cooperative and we appreciate it very much. Continue to cooperate and all will be well.” He nodded at the other two and they went to the back of the line.
The ankle ties made a funny ‘pop’ as they were cut. Angelina heard the ‘pops’ work up the line toward her and finally the big man was at her side.
“What is your name?” he asked.
“I wish you had stayed home, Angelina,” he said.
“So do I,” and she meant it.
Then it was her turn and she never heard the pop as the small caliber slug spit into her head. The big man eased her to the ground so as not to alarm the still living and moved to the next in line.