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Stations of the Cross

Whatever their reason, no one leaves home until it's too late.

By Laura PresleyPublished 3 years ago 16 min read
2

Que onda, niñita?”

The boy isn't much older than Jorge. His face is handsome, still soft beneath the shadow of his first beard, but Lace has seen him passing pills and powder at the corners. She knows that behind his back there's a gun, the same way she knows that Los Zetas gave it to him.

Last month, her favorite cousin Daniela left school with a sweet-faced boy and never came home. So they said, at least.

Lace is seven. Daniela is – was – thirteen.

Behind her, the front door slams. Her brother cuts a scarecrow's shadow, his hand light on her shoulder. Next year, maybe, Jorge says, he will go to college. He keeps his fingernails short and clean. He will be an architect, he tells Lace, shows her page after page of cities and skyscrapers. The taller the building, the more Jorge loves it, their improbable upward reach of steel and stone.

“Find a different corner,” he says.

The boy snorts. It's an ugly sound. “Should be running for us, not from us.”

Jorge spits at his feet. “Me importa tres cojones. Me estas cabreanado.”

The boy's mouth laughs. His eyes do not.

He stays very still. Like a snake, Lace thinks. Not afraid.

Waiting.

But Jorge kisses her hair and his smile is the same as ever. He smells like peppermint, like the gel he runs through his dark hair now to impress the girls.

“Adios, hermanita,” he says. “Go inside and play. The dogs out here keep barking.”

She doesn't think to tell him to be careful.

They find Jorge's body in an alley just blocks from the house. His backpack is empty and his shoes are gone.

They do not find his head.

-

Uncle's cigarette smoke rises, makes lazy circles around the ceiling. Lace crouches at the top of the stairs, her toes pressed into the carpet.

“Your son bought you a few days. That's all. You think they aren't hungry anymore? Te vas pa el norte.”

Her mother knots a dishrag in her hands. The swollen mound of her stomach strains the fabric of her funeral dress.

“So you want to trust the coyotes' run. You think Los Zetas doesn't line their pockets, too?”

Glegario shrugs his narrow shoulders. He has a tired face, worn thin by a poor man's eagerness to gamble.

“The more of us there are, the better our chances. It's the safest way. The only way for you, Consuelo. Better than la bestia.”

Lace shudders. El tren de la muerte passes the outskirts of the city, the rooftops of its cars crowded with riders. When she was younger she waved, but the people atop only cringed, pressing themselves flat as corpses to avoid the trees' reaching branches. Now she's heard the stories, seen their fears realized in the faces of those who return shame-faced, less an arm or leg. La bestia's teeth turn tirelessly against the tracks, waiting for you to fall asleep.

Worse: even la bestia isn't safe from the gangs. They prowl its rooftops like lions, robbing. Wounding.

“Safe,” Mother says. “Nothing's safe.”

“Here least of all. Give your daughter a chance, Consuelo,” Glegario says. “Your second son. Please. We can make it to Texas. The papers take time, but they'll come. Then there's work. Real work.”

Consuelo looks at Father, her eyes sharp, the corners of her mouth pulled down.

“And what will we have when we get there?” she says.

Joseph looks towards the stairs, where his son's bedroom light should be glowing beneath the door. Should be, but isn't. Lace leans back into the shadows.

“Each other,” he says.

-

They decide what they can live without and the answer is everything. They sell Mother's jewelry at pawn. Aside from food, Consuelo packs only a backpack full of clothes, folds the baby's christening gown into neat creases. When Father raises his eyebrows, she says

“Vamos con Dios,” and her voice leaves no room for argument.

She leaves her everyday necklaces, heavy strings of bright beads, but wears her rosary.

Lace carries her favorite bear to the front door, the one Jorge gave her for her birthday, and looks away from her mother's frown. She knows she's too old, but nothing else in her room matters. Just this.

Her father hears the things she doesn't know how to say, and lays his hand on Consuelo's arm. Squeezes, not unkindly, and she sighs.

“What happens when she loses it, Eduardo?” she says.

“She's lost her brother,” he says. “Let her have the bear.”

They leave the keys on the kitchen table, where Senora Reyes will collect them. In the doorway, Consuelo pauses. She spent her wedding night here, brought her first two children home from the hospital to lay them in their cribs. She expected to bring her third here, to cry and laugh and coo between these familiar walls.

There is no laughter today. They're late. They hurry Lace along the street, Glegario checking his wrist for a watch that isn't there.

Lace looks for the boy from the corner, but doesn't find him.

-

A priest meets the families outside the city. He is younger than Father Alejandro, who spoke at Jorge's funeral. Like Jorge, Lace will never see Father Alejandro again. The thought makes her sad, but her parents told her to be brave.

The road is dangerous, he says. He implores them to be careful. As God is just, so are men cruel.

“Bendito Dios,” he says. “Te alabamos y te damos gracias porque siempre caminas con quienes cruzan las fronteras en busca de una vida mejor.”

“Amen,” says Father.

“Amen,” murmurs Consuelo. Lace echoes her parents.

“What now?” she says.

Joseph reaches for Lace's hand and she takes it. Her small fingers disappear beneath his. “We walk.”

At first, it might be only a field trip: the older children sing, skipping ahead. There are two-liters of water to pass, cigarettes to share between the adults. For some, like Lace's parents, this is their first trip to the border. For others, it's their second, their seventh. There is a boy with a face so bruised it's black and a girl whose arm ends at the elbow. Consuelo gives Lace a stern nudge, reminds her not to stare.

But the sun is tireless and there is no escape from the driving, draining heat. The songs grow softer, then stop. Gnats crowd Lace's nostrils. When she walks, her legs ache; when Joseph carries her, they sweat twice as much. Consuelo rubs mud across her neck to soothe the sunburn, shows her how to crouch in the grass to use the bathroom.

She isn't allowed to run, or to speak to strangers: too many children are lost on the road. It will take only a moment. They are wanderers now. La migra are not their friends.

Outside their family, they have no friends.

Be brave, they say. Again and again. Be brave.

Lace sees one fight and then another. Her family walks her past them, their eyes glued forward. The second time, it's grown men, hissing and spitting like cats. She shivers.

They spend hours in ditches, waiting for the all clear from those nearer the road. When it rains, Consuelo ties plastic bags over Lace's hair, tugging them low over her ears. Joseph wraps his shirt around her shoulders, crouches bare-chested in the shade, doing his part to keep watch. Her father no longer smells like cologne, just sweat and sometimes cigarettes. She has never seen her father smoke before.

While they walk, he tells her stories about their new home. When this is over, you'll barely remember. You'll have a gallon of soda, until you throw up, he promises. A new pillow. The old bear can have himself a bath.

So can you, she says, and he roars with laughter.

So can I, he agrees.

Her feet grow sore, then blister. Her toenails split. She envies the train riders. After the soles of her shoes begin to peel, Joseph approaches one of la bestia's conductors: the rooftops won't do, but if they can pay him to open a car, they can ride with the cargo, Glegario says.

The man takes one look at Consuelo's belly, at the exhaustion on Lace's face, and smiles. Joseph returns swearing.

“Pendejos,” he says. “All of them. Out for their wallets and nothing else.”

“Just as well,” Consuelo tells him. “A man who will sell you once, will sell you twice.”

They find a woman to tape their shoes together again. Better than nothing, she says. It's what they have.

Lace cries at night. When the men complain, Consuelo pleads softly with her, then covers her mouth with a callused hand. Her stomach presses against Lace's back.

Mantente firm, mi amor, her mother whispers.

Buses pass; cars pass. The men raise their arms, but no one slows.

-

A woman meets them at the shelter and leads them to the showers: her strong fingers knead the mud from Lace's hair, braids it fresh down her back. The shampoo smells like a dream she had once. Her clothes, long beyond washing, are replaced, her blisters rubbed in salve and bandaged. At the table, she snatches the cup of milk she's offered and bursts into tears when Consuelo demands her apology.

The woman shakes her head. Her eyes are kind. She offers Lace's mother the second cup of milk. It's the first they've had since leaving home.

After a moment, Consuelo cries too.

The truck's brakes squeal and the coyote's face is hidden behind his sunglasses. The tailgate dangles, the rear bumper riddled with dents.

Por favor, Joseph says. Sweat cuts a steady line down his brow, soaks into his beard. It's been days since the last shelter; the water in their bottles is stale and hot.

My wife is pregnant. Her feet hurt. Just an hour. Just that long. Our daughter is so tired.

“You'll pay me?” he says, but it isn't a question. Rides cost. Everyone knows. No coyote runs for free.

Consuelo shows him their thin fold of money and he laughs. “Not enough.”

His head turns, slightly, and even behind the glasses Lace feels the weight of his eyes. Glegario steps in front of her, shakes his head.

“No,” he says. “Deniro.”

“No mames,” says the coyote. He laughs, sharply. Joseph pulls Consuelo back, away from the shower of gravel.

The dust settles on Lace's tongue. Her feet throb. She presses her face into her bear's matted brown fur. It stinks. So does she.

The family watches the truck disappear, and they say nothing.

They walk.

-

Lace stops counting the days, but one night Uncle steals away and returns with a handful of ice chips and a pair of fat, red ribbons. When she asks how he found them, Glegario only winks.

“Never mind. You're eight tonight,” he says. “Feliz cumpleaños.”

Consuelo ties one ribbon around the bear's neck and the other in Lace's hair. Her mother makes fine bows. She kisses her forehead. “Ocho,” she says.

The ice melts on her tongue and soothes the cracked corners of her mouth. She can't see herself, but her bear looks handsome in his ribbon.

Better than a cake, she thinks.

-

Not all villages are kind. At home, their neighbors gave her kind words, slipped sweets into her pockets: here, there are people who come outside only to stare and point. They do not offer their wells, or their tables. There are whispers as they pass.

Lace hates them.

Don't look, her father says. Don't listen.

When a man calls to them from his porch, smiling widely, only Joseph and Glegario approach. At home, Lace did not know there were unhappy smiles. Now she sees the difference: one is only teeth, the way a dog looks before it bites.

“You're hungry, mojados?” he says. Joseph's mouth twitches at the insult.

Then he nods.

“Gracias, señor,” he says. Stiffly.

Pride is more expensive than a meal, and only one will fill their stomachs.

Joseph pays two dollars a plate for scrambled eggs. For another dollar, there's an apple for Lace. He paid too much, Glegario says, but Joseph waves him away. Lace bites into the apple and sucks the juice greedily.

The girl's scream stills them all.

She's been with them since Cordoba: Lace has seen her darting from group to group, her jeans worn to holes at the knees, a man's t-shirt knotted at her ribs. Tattoos run their way up her neck. When the adults aren't around, she swears as well as Uncle.

The man who sold Joseph their breakfast has her by the hair.

Lace asks what's happening, but Consuelo tells her to close her eyes.

He shakes the teenager and the girl shrieks again.

“La muy cabrona le robó mi dinero.”

No, she says, no, lo siento, por favor, lo siento, but he jerks the money from her pocket and Joseph is pulling them backwards. There's a wall at their backs. The crowd tightens and tenses.

Later, Lace will wonder where the police were waiting. They rush the street. Someone pushes her. The shouting escalates, becomes something incomprehensible.

Glegario shoulders the backpack; Joseph lifts Lace into his arms. Consuelo's run is clumsy. She holds her belly with both hands.

When Lace looks back, the girl is on her knees. The officers have their hands in her pockets. The man hasn't let go of her hair. Her shoulders wrack with sobs.

Stupid girl, Glegario says. Then: lucky girl.

The apple is still in Lace's hand, but its sweet flesh has gone brown.

Candles flicker near the treeline. At first, Lace thinks they are lovely, something pretty to mark the way for them. On the road, few things are pretty.

But when her mother kneels, she understands. It's no kindness for the living, after all. Each candle is a death, someone's journey come to its sudden end. There are rosaries laid there, prayer cards printed with faded saints.

She lays a wildflower for Jorge and recites the Hail Mary with Consuelo. Joseph stands behind them. He smokes a cigarette. She hasn't heard her father pray in weeks.

“Do you remember where we're going?”

“Home,” says Lace. The word seems alien to her. They've walked forever.

“San Ysidio. Santos Isidio,” she says, plucking Lace's braid apart with her clever fingers. “He lends his blessing to the farmers in the fields, to the poor. Isidio was a kind man, an honest man. For his city to be our crossing is good luck for us.”

Lace feels her father shift behind them, hears the soft clearing of his throat. Consuelo clicks her tongue at him.

“You gave her the bear,” she says. “Let me give her my hope.”

Uncle laughs. “She has you there.”

“The cities there are different. Busy. Rich cities are always busy. Just across the fence, there are restaurants. Shopping,” Consuelo says. “Un gran centro commercial, with a hundred stores.”

At home, her mother loved shopping. Lace lets herself imagine the bright lights, clothes that smell like nothing but clean, fresh fabric.

“In the city, there's water forever. Not just wells,” Uncle says. “There's as much water as you want. Hot, cold. You can have a bath every day.”

“And you'll go to school again,” Joseph adds. “When you've finished, a girl as clever, as good as you? You can be anything you want.”

Lace likes that thought, then has one better: the baby will never have blisters like hers, or worry about Los Zetas. He will only know shopping malls and schools.

And Jorge, of course.

They make their bed behind the shrine's trees that night. Glegario takes first watch: Joseph and Consuelo lace their fingers together over Lace's belly. She sleeps well for the first time in days.

In the morning, Lace kisses her bear's head and straightens his bow before she sets him next to the sputtering candles. When she looks up, her father is watching her, his eyes soft and dark.

“For the next hermanita,” she says.

That afternoon Glegario scoops handfuls of water from a puddle, spits grit after each drink. Lace's mouth waters, but Consuelo shakes her head, firmly. She brushes a mosquito from her daughter's back. Water that sits collects sickness. Better to be thirsty. Better to be tired.

“Suit yourself,” Uncle says. He winks at Lace.

But two mornings later, Lace wakes to him retching, bent in half. His face is gray. Consuelo touches his forehead and brings her hand away quickly, shaking her fingers.

“The water,” she says. “I told you.”

“Too late for that,” he says.

Soon after, there's a bus. For once, Glegario has nothing to say about the cost: he accepts Joseph's hand on his elbow to climb the stairs, settles heavily into one of the seats. He looks older than Lace remembers. She pulls her legs up tight against her chest.

As the road hums beneath them, she traces a heart on the window with one finger. Consuelo lets her feel the baby's kicks, one, two. Her brother is strong, she says. Like Jorge.

Her mother almost smiles.

But even this comfort is short: the bus stops long before another city, its doors grinding open. The hot air rushes in.

The driver shakes his head. He can continue, he says, but they cannot. The checkpoint is ahead. They'll be asked for paperwork. It's the woods for them, or la migra.

Consuelo struggles to her feet and Joseph looks at Glegario for a long moment. The question sits heavily in the silence between them, and finally, the other man shakes his head. “I need their medicine,” he says. “I'll only slow you down.”

Joseph offers him money; Uncle declines. They need it more. He'll make do. He smiles at his sister although his knuckles are white where they grip his knees.

“Raise your son in the saint's city,” he says. “Tell him all about his foolish uncle.”

“Tell him yourself,” Consuelo says.

“Soon.”

He kisses Lace's cheek and his breath is sour. She squeezes his shoulders and feels him wince.

The bus driver clears his throat impatiently. Lace gives her uncle the ribbon from her hair.

Glegario smiles at her.

“I'll bring it back to you,” he says. “Pronto.”

Lace doesn't believe him.

-

They reach the fence, and it stretches forever.

La migra are everywhere ahead. Weeks of paperwork, the others say. There are whispers of soldiers. They are rounding them up, turning them back.

Consuelo sways on her feet. Her breaths come shorter and through her mouth now, dry short pants that worry Lace. Her belly is melon sized, her shoes unlaced. Her ankles bulge.

Even Lace knows that weeks are impossible.

Joseph holds his hands out to his wife. They've closed the roads, he says. There are too many of us, now.

Everything is closed. We have to run.

Run, she repeats.

There's a hole in the fence. Up ahead. If we can just get that far, even if they take us to la hieleras –

A hole, Consuelo says. Her laughter is loud. Heads turn.

“In the fence. Like a rabbit.”

Her father, who did not weep at Jorge's funeral, is weeping now.

“Run,” he says.

They almost make it.

Someone is screaming. Everyone is screaming.

There are guns, and there are rocks, and the smoke is blinding. Someone catches Consuelo by the arm, jerks her sharply backward.

“Stop, stop,” her father says. A man pushes him.

Lace sprawls across the ground. Her pants tear and her knees bleed.

“Stop,” he yells back.

All of them, yelling stop, and none of them stopping.

Consuelo gasps when she falls. Spit runs from the edges of her mouth and her feet drum the ground and the cuffs wrench her thin wrists together. When they jerk her backwards her rosary breaks. Beads shower the sand.

Her thighs are dark with blood.

Lace vomits, thin strands of bile that cling to her scabbed lips. The air burns.

There's a sharp slap, and her father cries out.

They should have stayed at the shelter, Lace thinks. The baby would be safe there. He'd have milk. They'd all have milk.

She vomits again.

Stop. Please.

Stop.

Her frantic fingers find one of Consuelo's escaped beads, fumble it from the dirt. Dimly, she presses it between her lips and under her tongue. They can't take everything.

Past the fence, she can see the blurred lights of the gran centro commercial, glowing bright as lanterns even in the afternoon. It's a castle, its arched doorways something Jorge would crow about. Consuelo was right. There must be a hundred stores.

They were so close.

Strange, strong hands lift her.

Her father calls her name.

-

In la hieleras they write a number on Lace's wrist in thick black marker and lock the door behind her. The floor is cold and gray. The color of men's hearts. The other children have wet faces, wet noses, their socks filthy or their feet bare. They have the eyes of ghosts.

Lace sucks at the rosary bead. It's all that's left of her family.

There is vomit on her shirt, and blood.

“La cena? When do they feed us?” she says.

No one answers.

literature
2

About the Creator

Laura Presley

Laura Presley is a firm believer that magic is real and birds are not. She lives and works in Ohio with her husband, their brood of wildlings, and their excessive number of rescue animals.

IG: @makeshift.martha

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