America. They’d made it! Papá let Ruben off his back.
Rio Grande water squished in their shoes as they scrambled up the river bank onto foreign soil. Papá grabbed a handful of dirt. He breathed in its earthy scent as though it were the purest oxygen.
“Smell that, niño,” he whispered. “American soil even smells rich.”
Ruben had seen America several times from across the river. In the daylight it looked the same as Mexico. But to him, the prospects of the land shined warmly like how he pictured heaven would, or the mosaic portraits of the saints he’d seen in a church once.
Papá would tell him stories about how America had so many jobs that there weren’t enough workers to fill them. Once there, Papá would be able to make enough to send Ruben to the doctor for his heart.
Now, sprawling before Ruben was the vast Texan landscape, quiet, dark and mysterious, like the desert night sky. It didn’t seem real. You could get lost here. They had waited to cross over on a night of a new moon, to lessen their chances of getting caught. Papá had warned him of the Border Patrol, too. Thinking of this, Ruben became aware of the fluttering in his chest.
“Are you watching your heart, niño?” Papá asked.
“Sí, Papá,” Ruben said. It was bad for Ruben to get too excited.
“Do your breathing exercises. Think of your uncle and cousins. You’ll soon get to see them. You remember how much you like Uncle Javiero? And Cousin Franco. You like Franco, Sí?”
“Sí, Papá. Muy mucho.”
Papá’s brother and his family had crossed the river some years back when Franco got sick and there was no money to help him. Now they lived with a relative Ruben had never met who was a U.S. citizen, and who got Uncle Javiero a good job.
Papá suddenly crouched, tugged Ruben down by his shirt sleeve. “Stay put.” He thought he’d heard something.
“Quiet, Ruben.” Papá’s breath was sour. Ruben’s own hair, which he’d let grow long, stunk strongly of river water. Ruben’s heart flopped and it felt as though it had broken loose inside his body.
Oh no! Ruben felt in his pocket for the beads of his mother’s rosary. The rosary! Where is it? It must have fallen out in the river. His mother had given it to him before she’d passed. She’d died from a staff infection that spread to her heart. Antibiotics could have saved her, Papá said, but doctors don’t work for free. There was never money. There were no jobs. How was anyone expected to live? They’d all die. They needed to escape.
A sound! This time Ruben heard it. He went through the rosary beads in his head. Our Father who art in heaven… Hail Mary full of grace… He wondered if Papá was praying. He prayed for him too, just in case.
Flashlights! They flipped on not even a hundred yards away. It made where they were seem several shades darker. The night suddenly seemed terrible. Two circles of light moved toward them. The amplified sound of Ruben’s breathing became unbearable to him. Surely the Border Patrol could hear him. Surely they could hear his heart too, throbbing irregularly in his ear drums.
He glanced at Papá in the foreign night. He’d never seen Papá’s face look so unfamiliar. It was as though he were seeing Papá for the first time, or seeing him from an unusual angle. Papá’s tender, round face appeared rigid and older, much sterner. Ruben was suddenly afraid of what Papá might do. Papá had already seen Mamá die. He wasn’t about to outlive his son, too.
Just before the lights flooded their hiding spot, Papá whispered, “Run, Ruben.”
“Run. Your uncle will meet you. He will take care of you. Now run.”
“Ruben.” Papá cursed so Ruben knew he meant it.
In the dark, the brush grabbing as his feet, he heard the steely English of the Border Patrols’ voices. He heard struggling, fighting. He heard Papá shout something he could not make out. Ruben ran faster and harder than he was ever allowed to—his first bitter taste of freedom in America. He couldn’t see where to go. The fighting grew louder before it met an abrupt end. Silence. Then English voices again.
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