I have never hated sand more in my life than I do now. It’s squashing in between my toes like a rotten tamale. The tiny individual pieces burn tiny individual holes into my skin. I can feel them embedding themselves underneath my toenails, where they’ll travel with me for the next ten miles. Sand follows us as does the threat of death does. I would pull off my shoes and throw them across the desert for being so pinche useless if I didn’t need them to spare what’s left of my feet as I continue to tread along El Camino de Diablo--the most dangerous way to cross the Mexican-American border.
In the sky, there’s the sun. It beats down at our backs like we’re meat muffins in the world’s biggest oven. Some woman already fainted from the heat about three miles back. I wonder if her body has already been covered by the drifting, sandy winds of the desert, but I have no desire to go back for her and find out.
There’s about ten of us left. We started with twelve, but that woman was probably dead and our ‘guide’ was definitely gone. Ditched us sometime last night. The bastard. Now, I only care about three of the ten making out of this alive: my twin, my little sister, and me. The rest can become sand underneath my feet.
My sister trots up to me and squeezes my hand in silence. Her lips are cracked and the skin’s starting to peel off.
“I made a friend,” she chirps, probably the only chipper one left in the mob of migrants.
“Oh, yeah?” My twin brother says, “who?”
She points a stubby finger at a girl dragging along the edge of the pack. “Maria.”
“That’s nice,” I mumble subconsciously.
“When we get to the other side, we’re going to get candy together.”
“So when are we gonna get there?”
“Soon,” my brother lies. “Then you can have all the candy you want.”
Her eyes shone with fresh hope. “Really?” She breathes.
“Yeah,” my brother smiles to himself. “I’ll find a good job and treat you.”
“I wonder if Mama likes candy.”
“Where is Mama?” My sister finally asks.
“She’s waiting for us on the other side,” my brother answers gleefully.
I wince. Oh, our mother is waiting on the other side alright--the other side of heaven. But, they don't need to know that.
The sand in my shoes weighs down my feet as I trudge forward against it with my siblings.
We walk like zombies, but instead of rotting skin, we have blistering skin from overexposure. I’m only shocked awake from this state of mind-numbing existence when a cactus tears at my pant leg, drawing blood. I give the wound a small glance, shrug, and keep walking without even bothering to treat it. It is definitely the least of our problems.
We’ve traveled maybe ninety miles by now? Out of the hundred and twenty. My sleeping sister hugs my sweaty clothes as I lug her on my back. She’s light, maybe thirty pounds. Dangerously underweight for a six year old, but I’ll fix that when we get to America. I’ll get a job with my brother. Find an actual home to live in, not a shack whose primary function is to hide us from the coyotes--Mexican gangs. Going to America will fix everything. I know it will. Because it has to.
My brother talks in a voice gentle enough not to disturb our sister. “We’re finally going to see her again. Can’t you just wait?”
“Yup,” I bite my lip. He’s talking about Mama again. I scoff. Like he’s stopped talking about her since ‘she’ since that envelope with enough money to smuggle us up North. In truth, I got that money from doing a number of small favors for the coyotes.
“I miss her chiles en nogadas, don’t you?”
I feel a twinge in my stomach. Might be hunger. Might be guilt.
“Man, I tried to make them myself, using her old recipe, but they never turned out the same!”
I give him a hollow laugh to fill the emptiness of my hesitation to answer. “I know, I tried the first batch.”
“I can’t believe how much money Mama managed to send us. She must have gotten a nice job.”
“Sure…” my reply drifts off as I fail to meet him in the eyes.
“And Camila, I bet she’s psyched to see her. Those two were always so close.”
My sister’s weight exponentially increases on my back. It’s almost too much for me to carry. I shrug her up higher and keep moving.
“Once we get to the other side,” my brother states, “we’ll all be together again.” He closes his eyes and he breathes in the dry desert air, letting the warmth embrace his lungs. “And everything will be perfect.”
I nearly crumble under the weight. He notices and catches me. “Mateo, can you carry Camila for a little bit?”
He smiles. A kind and genuine smile. We may be twins, but our smiles are nothing alike. Mine are dry and as harsh as this desert with all its stupid sand. “Sure.”
Taking care not to wake Camila, I slide her onto his back and we continue.
While we walk, Mateo whistles a little. It’s an old song our mother used to sing to us when we were babies. I’m surprised he still remembers it.
And every note hits like a brick.
“Mateo,” I finally croak, “there’s something I have to tell you.”
I stare at the sand. Surely, it’s too late to try and go back regardless of what I tell him, right?
I edge my toe into the sand with every step, slightly slowing my pace. “Well—“
Suddenly, Camila’s head pops up from behind Mateo’s head. “Morning,” she croaks. “Are we there yet?”
“Just a little bit longer,” Mateo coaxes. “Go back to sleep.”
Her droopy eyelids are nearly closed when Camila screeches at us. “Maria! Maria’s falling behind!”
Alarmed, our heads swing back to see our sister’s new friend limping twenty feet behind the group. “We have to wait for her!” Camila insists.
Mateo and I exchange a look. The same thing is on our minds. “Tell you want, I’ll go get Maria while you go back to sleep?” I promise.
Her fingers lace themselves into Mateo’s shirt collar and she nods off once again.
I pause for a minute and let the rest of the herd pass me as I wait for Maria. She’s about the same size as Camila. The same underfed weight. The same chocolatey brown eyes of a baby mule deer that Camila has.
“Don’t leave me,” she whines as she tries to keep up.
“Where’s your family?” I ask her.
“Don’t know. I came here with my Mom, but she’s gone now. I haven’t seen her in awhile.”
The woman who fainted…
Maria reaches her tiny hands up at me. “Can you carry me?”
I huff. The crying words of a child in need, nearly impossible to ignore.
I glance back over at Mateo; he’s already slowing down with Camila. This heat stole all of our strength while the sand absorbs all our energy with every step. I would need to switch again with him soon.
Then, with that final thought, I walk away from Maria.
What? I said nearly impossible to ignore.
I think the worst part of leaving Maria behind wasn’t that I was basically condemning a child that looks a little too much like my younger sister to death. It’s the time. This isn’t some instant act of abandonment, where you turn around and she’s out of your sight and life forever. No, you can still see her desperately clambering after you, hear her begging to not be left behind.
And at some point, you’re just continuously whispering to yourself, “if not her, than me. If not her, than Camila.”
Someone’s always left behind. We can’t afford dead weight. You just gotta pray it isn’t you or someone you love.
This chanting isn’t done to justify your actions to yourself--because you know there is no true justification for it--, but done to prolong your own guilt just long enough for her to be gone, to render it irreversible so you can finally convince yourself to just move forward.
I don’t remember the exact moment we ran out of water. The exact moment our empty bottles gave us the death sentence. I only remember the dry taste of the roof of my mouth. The inside of my throat stings like I just swallowed a cactus that also happened to host a beehive.
Camila walks beside us now. Her feet drag a little, but she’s got the spirit. Meanwhile, Mateo has stopped whistling since his lips crack with every moment. My eyes are glued to the ground, and all they see is the searing caramel colored sand that sneaks its way into my shoes. Then, my eyes skim over something that wasn’t sand.
Kneeling down beside it, I examine the piece of plastic.
“What is it?” Mateo asks.
“A water bottle,” I echo as my fingers trace over a fresh cut in its side. The sand is still moist underneath the bottle, still lapping up its contents like a greedy pig. Stealing our last hope of survival.
“A water bottle?” Mateo repeats. “From what?”
“Some Americans drop full water bottles in the desert for migrants.” I pick myself up and dust off my knees. “But we shouldn’t be caring about an empty water bottle.” In the distance, I hear the purring of a car’s engine. “We should be worrying about what slashed it open.”
Mateo clutches Camila tightly against his side while she buries her head in his shirt. “Border patrol?” He asks.
I glare at the sleek metal of an anti-immigrant Minuteman’s car. I can practically already hear the loading of their guns. Already hear them firing.
“We need to run, now.”
I pick Camila up, sling her over my shoulder, and start sprinting while she fires off complaints and grapples at loose strands of my hair. Mateo picks up after me and we break off in a mad dash from the rest of herd--who by now seem to get the idea.
My heart stops for a second when I hear the first shot pop, but it starts again when it isn’t followed by an agonized wail.
One of the worst truths of life is that you can’t outrun a couple of idiots in a car. In a last ditch effort to hide, I shove Mateo’s face into the ground and dive behind a large, dead bush. Our clothes snag on its even branches, scratching against our sore skin but we don’t dare make a sound and out ourselves.
I wrap my arms around Camila and bring her close, protecting her with my body. The tires stop squealing. For a moment, it almost seems like we’re in the clear. Like we’ll get out of this God forsakenly sandy hellhole alive.
And in the next moment, that hope withers like a desert flower.
“Scorpion!” Mateo screeches as he jumps out and kicks a scorpion off his foot.
“You idiot!” I scream, but my words are lost over the sound of a gunshot.
My brain doesn’t quite process the scene in front of me. There’s my brother, my twin, falling with eyes wide open and a slight trace of blood on his lips. My sister shakes in my arms. I can hear the motors of the Minutemen revving up as they speed away leaving their damage behind like our footprints leave the sand behind. The other vehicle still approaches.
The sand embraces Mateo. It envelops him in a scorching hug, but he can’t feel the pain of the sand over the pain of the bloody hole in his chest. His lips rapidly move like a fish gasping for air. I place my hands on his chest and try to shake him back awake as his body goes limp. The blood drains from his wound and soaks into a now crimson sand, deeper and deeper to someplace I can never follow.
I want to scream. I want to scream at the sand and demand it to give me my brother back. It has no right to take any more of my family away.
I hate this stupid sand so fucking much.
Camila sobs, I don’t. Tears are wasted in the desert.
Before I know it, a pair of calloused hands from the new vehicle grapple my shoulders and pull me to my feet. Another pair peals my sister from me, but she tries to squirm her way back to me.
I glimpse over their bullet proof vests and read the words: United States Border Control.
They load us into a bus that has a floor covered in sand and lost hope. Then, they drive off and leave me brother for the buzzards.
I tell myself he’ll be the first to reach the other side. The other side of heaven. Just like Mama.
There’s an abnormally large grain of sand in my right shoe. A desert pebble. It’s stuck between my worn sole and my heel. It followed me here. Carried with me like all my burdens.
If I ever get a chance to rate it on Yelp, this detainment center is getting a negative eight out of ten. The entire place is frigid. I feel like I went from boiling in lava to being jammed in the ice tray in a giant’s freezer.
The sand in my shoe rubs against my skin. My eyebrow twitches and I finally yank my shoe off and throw it across the room. The sand scatters across the air in slow motion before the shoe slams into the wall with a loud thud! A nearby I.C.E. officer jumps in fright. I throw my other shoe and free my feet of all the sand. The officer yells at me as I slouch against the wall and close my eyes.
In the far corner, my sister quietly munches on a cookie they gave her. I.C.E. took any documents we had about an hour ago. Now we wait.
I don’t know how long it was until they released my sister and me.2 The only clock in the room hangs broken on the wall. To be honest, I don’t care. I just grab my sister and book it out of the building as fast as possible.
Along with a small group of other immigrants, we’re taken to a shelter in Arizona. They let us stay there for a little bit while we ‘plan our next move’.
“So, where are we going?” Camila pipes up.
I take my time to answer. “Somewhere… somewhere where things will be better. Somewhere without sand.”
She shrugs. “I never really liked sand anyway. It gets stuck in my shoes all the time.”
I give her a small chuckle. “I know.”