He said two days.
We are hungry. We have shirts wrapped over our noses from the smell. This is a life very different, far from Papa’s old brown recliner or Mama’s familiar scent. And no one knows how long the dark man with the white eyes has been gone.
We’d been counting the hours by the changing sheen of the glare on the floor that seemed so far below us. It was dark otherwise. We’d all come in at different times that first day, but I’d counted about 30 of us, all crammed in, itching and sneezing, taking our turns moving slowly under the close ceiling of pink insulation toward an open air vent. On our second rotation, Emeto reverted to our old airport game.
“You have to find… the person stuffing their face with two hamburgers at once!” In his whisper I can hear a touch of his old asthma. In the light of the vent, I can see the red tiredness of his face. Something wells in me but I push it down. I’m not ready to cry. Not until we get safe, and find Agatha.
“He’ll be done by the time I get there, little brother. Who else is there?”
“A fat man who can’t even make it up the escalator! He’s very orange.” I shuffle over and push my mouth close to the grate, filling my lungs with fresh air. It only takes a second for me to find the orange man. He carries golf clubs and a fat smile.
My stomach rumbles. Concentrating on making the pain go away, I take a breath and look at the orange man again. His glow suddenly makes me nauseous. I look away only to see someone I recognize.
“He’s coming.” I say.
The boy to the left of Emeto begins to whimper. No. Not yet. I am not ready to cry. Instead, I remember Mama. Her instructions. I’d been repeating them to myself, like a recipe. Agatha Padilla. Primera Cda Desi de Lac, La Curiela, Ecatepec. Password, “Importar para El unico sitio que queda.”
“You were there when you were six years old, mi vida. Do you remember? It is a big place, but the people are friendly. Just ask the way to La Curiela. There is a park there, where you played soccer with your cousin. It is not far, I trust you.”
“Alita? There’s footsteps.”
The footsteps are hurried. A vent on the other side of the space suddenly disappears, letting in a dim orange glow and the shadow of a giant.
It seems to take hours for everyone to wriggle out into the corridor. In the better light, I look again at the man who had come to get us. Who Mama had trusted, or not trusted, but handed us off to anyway. He had no name, but his face told his feeling. He began herding us down the nighttime corridors like a gentle, urgent shepherd.
Again a pang shoots through me. I double over, catching the stitch in my side from not going to the washroom. Leaning against the wall, I pee in the open. Through the shame, the anger begins again. I see the look in that man’s eyes, yelling at Mama for speaking Spanish. It was me who had to see her tears later. And again when we found out they’d taken Papa from work. He’d fought for our country, but that didn’t stop them.
“This way,” says our guide, opening a door to the right. Emeto waits for me and takes my hand, squeezing as we walk under and around the operational runways. It is this that brings me closest to the edge.
“Keep your brother safe, mi vida.”
After a while, the planes become smaller. They sit as if in a parking lot, unused, waiting for their one or two regular passengers to board. Before I can stop myself, daydreams flash before my eyes. A rich man flying us in fancy clothes to Mexico. He would feed us until we were stuffed. Mama would already be waiting.
Turning another corner, the dream fails. Only one plane is there, sitting in the dark. It is small, and bare, and seems made of tin foil. It’s not big enough for all of us. A short, hairy man confirms my fears. I cannot take them all, he says. Both he and our guide look back at us with remorse.
Somehow, I know they are going to split up Emeto and I. The smallest will go. With his small hand still gripping mine, another hand, colder, tighter, closes in on my lungs.
Then, as if she were standing beside me, I hear her calm voice on the wind.
Yes, Mama, I answer. I will save him like you did.
I turn to Emeto and begin whispering fast.
“Emé, listen. There is something I need you to remember.”
Emeto nods, looking up at me with wide, brown eyes.
“Remember when we lived in Colorado, when Papa had to do training? What did Mom make the days he came home?”
“Apple pie?” Emeto asks quietly. Both of us swallow our hunger.
“Yes, Emé. You have to remember those words. Each letter stands for something. It’s like a game. Mama told it to me. You have to remember, and when you get off the plane, find someone to help you. No one in a uniform. A nice family. Just spell out Apple Pie, okay?”
We had time to practice only twice before they began making their selection. I held Emeto’s hand for as long as I could.
“Apple Pie,” he mouths, getting on the plane. “Agatha Padilla. Primera Cda Desi de Lac. La Curiela. Ecatepec. Password: Importar para El unico sitio que queda. Apple Pie.”
He will be okay. I say it to myself as Mama must have. I can survive in a cage. Teardrops mark the ground near my sneakers. Get safe, she had said. As if there was such a thing anymore.
Although this story was written when this issue began feeding into our headlines (was unable to publish due to submission constraints), many of the children separated from their parents have still not been reunited.
Inspiration for this story came from the many news articles telling the individual tales of deportation and separation, including this one, which talks about a two-time over-seas army vet who was deported to Mexico in March, 2018.