Crossing lines

The boy was thirsty when she found him. He hardly spoke, and she couldn’t understand his words when he did, but Vanessa watched his chest rise and fall as quickly as a jack rabbit’s, even though he was just sitting on the ground beside a mound of his belongings, and had been for as long as she’d been crossing the desert toward him. He was young, younger than Vanessa and about half her size, with long skinny limbs and brown skin that was turning red as the dirt around him.

Vanessa took a bottle of water from her pack and handed it to him. She watched him take it all down in a few gulps and smiled, glad for the chance to help. The Arizona sun was glaring down at her with treacherous heat, and the air smelled putrid, like someone had left a rotten egg to cook on the ground, but the open desert was where she preferred to be. She knew the other children, like her older brothers, were either in air-conditioned living rooms with video game controllers in their hands or jumping into the cool waters of the community pool, but Vanessa didn’t mind the heat. It was with her always, and she didn’t know why everyone else seemed determined to try to escape it.

“We don’t play like that,” her mother said, each time she let her daughter in to realize she hadn’t been playing with her brothers but wandering the desert. “Desert’s not safe. That’s for those other kids.”

She didn’t have to specify for Vanessa to know what she meant, that black kids weren’t meant to play in the desert. It just wasn’t how things were in her neighborhood.

Vanessa took the empty water bottle back from the boy. He looked up at her with grateful brown eyes, wiping away the dark hair and sweat that covered them. What he carried with him seemed meager and sparse, just a small green pack that seemed like it once carried more, if Vanessa didn’t count the mound that was covered by a blanket. He couldn’t have carried that. She’d seen the desperation in the way he drank the water, of course, but only just now realized that he wasn’t out there for fun, like she was. He was one of those other kids her mom talked about. That they debated about on the news. The ones whose parents her father grumbled about at dinner.

She shielded her eyes to look toward the rocky area marked by sporadic spiked barbed wire.

“You made it,” she said to the boy with a grin. “You’re in America!”

She expected him to understand that last word, at least, and held up her arms triumphantly, but the boy only looked more terrified, with wide eyes and trembling lips. She started to move away from him, gesturing for him to follow.

“Come on,” she said. “Time for your new life.”

The boy shook his head. “Mi hermano,” he said.

Vanessa looked down, noticing for the first time that one of the boy’s legs was injured, his pant leg soaked below the knee in blood so dark it looked black.

“Hermano,” she repeated. “Yes, your leg. Can I see?”

She reached out to touch it, but the boy pulled it back from her, and she felt silly in her haste. This boy didn’t know who she was. He couldn’t understand her, and certainly couldn’t be expected to trust her. She remembered stories she’d overheard, of the men who carried guns and sneered as she and her brothers passed, doing worse to people they found crossing the border. She wondered if someone would hurt the boy on purpose.

“We have to find you help,” she said, more gently this time, but feeling a little more urgency in getting the boy to move from the open space.

The boy seemed to understand what she wanted, but he shook his head as his eyes began to fill with tears.

“Mi hermano,” he said again, and though she didn’t understand what he was saying, Vanessa recognized his grief. He held his hands out before him, small palms up, in what seemed to be a universal symbol for loss. She noticed his hands were held above the outstretched blanket, and as she moved closer to it, he repeated his wail.

“Mi hermano, mi hermano.”

She wasn’t sure if he would let her touch his belongings, but his face was in his hands now so she moved to the blanket. With care and two fingers, she lifted one small corner of the thick wool fabric, then gasped and dropped it down, her heart pounding a nervous drumbeat in her chest.

She’d only seen, as a strange oversized reflection of her own dark hand, stiff brown fingers. Now she recognized the smell in the air, not as ordinary desert stench but the smell of desert death. Had she smelled this before? She stood up, watched the boy’s sunken face mourning for his brother. Had she seen this before? The grief, the desperation now seemed to be an ordinary sight she’d simply never stopped to observe before.

What could she say? She was lost for words, and knew the boy wouldn’t understand her even if she found them. She suddenly felt quite protective over him, knowing somehow that he was in for more trouble, and she’d do anything to keep him from it. She put one hand on his shoulder, feeling his bones tremble until her palm settled upon them. With the other hand she picked up his green pack. He’d carried it far enough, and they would have to move soon.

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Published in: on July 3, 2010 at 10:36 AM  Comments (2)  
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