He’d 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 smell. 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 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 between the rafters, itching and sneezing, taking our turns moving slowly under the closely-packed 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.
“He’ll be done by the time I get there, little brother. Who else can you find?” I’m not ready to cry. Not until we get safe. Not until we find Iliana.
“Okay, then. A fat man who can’t even make it up the escalator. He’s very orange.” I let him get a few extra breaths in before shuffling over and pushing my own mouth close to the grate. Lungs full, 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 another breath and look at the orange man again, his glow suddenly making me nauseous. I look away, only to see someone else. 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.Chiapas, Huixtla, Iliana Labado, Ixtapa.
“You were there when you were six years old, mi vida. Do you remember? Just ask the way to Huixtla. There is a church there, where you went with your cousin to pray. 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, crouched at the entrance of our crawl space.
It seems to take hours for everyone to wriggle out and down into the small 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. Like flashes, I see the look in that man’s eyes, yelling at Mama for speaking Spanish. It wasn’t him who had to see her tears later. It wasn’t him who had his Papa taken away.
“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, the fear of the planes so big and everyone watching from tiny windows.
“Keep your brother safe, mi vida,” Mama had said.
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 pass 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 us up. The smallest will go. With Emeto’s 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.
“Think, what does Papa always have us do on our birthday?”
“Eat a chili?” Emeto asks quietly. Both of us swallow our hunger, remembering the way he would playfully say, his own eyes watering, “So you remember you’re alive, ay?”
“Yes, Emé. You have to remember how to spell chili, do you? Good. 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 chili, 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.
“Chili,” he mouths, getting on the plane. “Chiapas, Huixtla, Ingrid Labado, Ixtapa. Chili.”
He will be okay. I say it over to myself as Mama must have. He will be okay. 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.