Photograph by David Peterson
The night before the escape attempt — two nights after Asaad’s beating — the crew had a heated exchange. Lori, Rafael, and Windward did, that is; Asaad was by this time on the decline and, after an exhausted attempt at his night prayers, had fallen into a fitful sleep.
“If we tell the guardias he’s got a fever, maybe we can get ’im some medicine,” Lori insisted in a hushed voice.
“You’re joking, right?” Windward, the youngest, hugged his knees and rocked, sitting upright.
“We fall behind deadline,” whispered Rafa, sitting on his bunk’s edge, elbows on knees, head drooping.
Lori shook her head to drive sleep away. “Too much behind quota and we’re all gonna be busted down to twobafours.”
“I do feel bad for the man, for real,” said Windward, “but yeah, we’re talking about all of us, now.”
Lori leaned a little toward Rafa, across the aisle. “You ain’t heard from your cousin at the West End? Your primo? In Cali-for-nigh-ay?”
An ember of anger sparked in Lori, and she stoked it as her best shot at keeping awake. “How is this our responsibility anyways? We were busting our butts to make quota even with a crew of four, so how’s it our responsibility to not just do his share of work, but to drag his ass outta bed and practically carry him back ’n forth to detail?”
Windward rocked a little harder and forced his eyes open, their round whiteness stark in the outline of his dark face. “So, you saying maybe in the morning, we just don’t help him outta bed?”
Rafael Alejandro let this go, let the conversation go — and it faded and burnt out abruptly as the other two, as though by agreement, slumped into sleep. Rafa, no less weary, rose silently in the dark. There was something to decide, and something to see and to know before it could be decided.
The night came and went, as always: an eyeblink. At the blast of the morning klaxon, the battered Asaad lolled to the edge of his bunk and lay there, hugging his sheet around him. Running late for — or God forbid, failing to attend — WordoftheLord was a punishable violation. And punishable meant transfer to the brutal 24-hour “twobafour” shift, or in extreme cases the snare-drum “you’re fired” by Heckler & Koch subfusil, or at very least the offender not getting this day his Dailybread, the only substantial meal.
So Windward and Rafa wrestled Asaad out of bed, to his feet, and to chapel. He remained huddled into himself throughout. His eye socket had further swelled and purpled, and his cough had grown alarming — not because it sounded so bad, but because Asaad couldn’t suppress it, and any disturbance during WordoftheLord was also a punishable violation.
Fortunately, the guardias were sufficiently indifferent today that Asaad wasn’t punished, though he did catch a few heavy looks. Then the crew filed off with the entire horde to Dailybread, and on to the road.
Their present Wall detail was a 30-minute hike from camp, up a rugged ridge-road. About halfway, a Latino boy from one of the twobafour crews — no older than 16 — stumbled and fell. Pointing with his subfusil’s muzzle, one of the guardias directed two fellow twobafour grunts to pick him up. They gripped the shoulders of the boy’s orange jumper to drag him, face up.
“You think he’s dead?” Lori whispered.
Windward, tallest of the crew, shook his head as he plodded up the steady gravel incline. “Goddamn mountains. Who knew there were mountains in the desert?”
“Who knew the desert could be in the mountains?” Lori whispered back. Seeing that boy fall, Lori and Rafa had each raised a hand to stabilize the feverish Asaad, shuffling along between them.
“I knew that much,” Rafa muttered. Then, “I dream of my son again, last night.”
“Come on, nobody wants to hear your dreams. Why you gotta?” Windward threw Rafa a look.
“He walk into this big house,” Rafa began. “Like, mansion house. I follow, but inside, can’t see him. The house, upstairs is beautiful, but I go downstairs — sure he went that way. Pero downstairs is not like basement — more like caves. But old, rotten furniture is the walls, or stone, and dark, but I can see enough. Basement is like ruin, like laberinto, on and on. Maybe forever. Then I forget my son, Gabriel, and when I turn corner, in the dark I see — ”
“Seriously,” Lori whispered. She fixed him with a stare, hazel eyes in a pale-pink face. “We don’t need to hear it.”
The fallen boy was dead, it turned out. In the earliest days of the Wall, the story went, the dead had been tossed in with the concrete back at the quarries. But with decay, this resulted in instabilities — gaps — in the Wall’s foundations. Now, when the bodies were taken away by the flatbeds after they’d dropped their loads, nobody knew to where. Burned, or buried by bulldozer — what difference did it make?
The Wall had begun as a RealAmericans First project, to put the unemployed back to work. After about six months, though, budgetary reality had kicked in. The bid submitted by the main contracting firm, Brightwater USA, proved grossly optimistic, and within six months re-negotiations commenced. To the surprise of many, the Mexican government declined to pay, and taxing immigrants’ remittances proved a legal and practical quagmire as Brightwater sent revised estimates, swelled with many fat zeroes, Congressward. The tax-averse, spending-averse Congress balked. Back and forth it went. As the handwriting on the Wall grew clearer, Brightwater, unwilling to abandon this high-profile project, started “implementing correctivities.”
The first, obvious expedient was prison labor: cheap and endlessly available. That initiative reigned for some 80 miles of Wall, but morale was poor and craftsmanship spotty — and to stay on schedule, more hands and backs were needed. The next step was a natural. A combination of cash-only contractors and their Border Patrol connections established the conduit for illegals — Mexicans, mainly, with a smattering of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Chinos, and Árabes — who soon became the bulk of the workforce. At first these were mostly men, but with time, additional channels to cártels were cemented, and bright-eyed children from sixteen to six began appearing to round out attritted crews. The bottom line ruled all, and these deals made sound financial sense.
The quota was one tower per crew, per day: simple mathematics for a grueling timetable. In the past two days, as Asaad’s work slipped, the crew’s progress had slipped too. Now they were straddling two towers in a day, fighting to finish one and complete the entire next one to catch up — and failing.
This day started bad and wended toward worse.
Two floors’ worth of what should have been yesterday’s work remained. As they raced through the upper living quarters, as they rushed the plumbing and prayed it would hold, Lori reflected that neither at her father’s short-lived auto repair shop — where she’d helped while Gary was still alive — nor at the air-conditioner factory, where begging got her work enough to feed and clothe the kids after Papa’s garage tanked and after Gary’s head-on with that drunk driver — at neither of these stressful jobs had guardias in desert camo and tan boots stood by lobbing insults punctuated with subfusil gestures.
The living quarters done, they moved to the top, the turret level, as the morning sun rose above the plexarmor windows. There, hustling to wire the wireless, Windward’s mind wandered to his father, his constant “projects,” always fixing what wasn’t broke, re-flooring, re-drywalling, re-wiring — always enlisting young William Edward, when Windward wanted to be listening to music or practicing his crescent-kicks and axe-kicks in the back yard. Until the divorce. After that, with Moms, he was teen Man of the House, and not only his presence and help but his on-the-cheap improvisation was demanded.
“These skills will serve you well someday,” his father had insisted. But PapaJames had definitely not meant that in the prison-to-hard-labor-on-a-Mexican-border-wall sense.
As the crew wrapped up the turret level, the two guardias — a stocky, taciturn fireplug of a half-WASP half-Latino dude they called HalfLat, and a possibly Samoan, possibly something else guy they called The Samolipino — took a leisure break. HalfLat had spotted a pair of coyotes (the four-legged kind) on the Mexican side. The two occupied the south-facing sniper alcove, extended their subfusils’ shoulder stocks, took aim out the sliding gunports, and loosed a deafening, nerve-shredding barrage south of the border. When they stopped, Rafa sneaked a look and saw one coyote lying unpeacefully on yellow rock, in a spatterpool of burgundy.
The hope of catching up to quota was a mirage. Hurry as they might, snag by snag the work stumbled; the first eight-hour half was nearly over by the time they started on the next tower — the one they were mandated to finish today. They were accosted in transit by another pair of guardias, a K9 unit who for sport set their German shepherds on the crew. The dogs’ bark was worse than their bite, but they barked and growled a good game — gnashing teeth, snapping so close that slaver splished onto legs — until Asaad, who’d loathed the dogs even pre-fever, buried his head in his forearms and howled in fear and frustration.
Fever or no, Asaad had worked the best he could all morning, though this amounted merely to passing the odd tool, or holding this or that in place for someone else to affix. Work was the only imperative on the Wall. Work was life: grinding, slogging, muscle- and soul-whittling life. Not-work was German shepherds, an avalanche of guardia abuse, twobafour shifts. Not-work was this morning’s boy on the road.
As they started on the next tower’s underlevel, Asaad was fading. He didn’t collapse; just stood by the concrete stairwell shaft, staring at the floor — safe for the moment, with the guardias upstairs. Windward and Lori both cursed him as he stood there, unreacting. Rafa only glanced from the corner of his eye as he attached a restraint housing, and remembered the night, two nights ago.
The two guardias that night — they’d be here today too, soon —were the tall, hunched Black Texan and the iron-pumped, high-strung blond Midwesterner. When Windward had gone to tell them the underlevel was finished, the guardias had walked him back down the steel steps to the cement dungeon. There they’d looked over the works — though this was by no means procedure. The crew knew better than to object. But as the guardias fiddled with the code-lock, the Kevlar-lined security door, the three-ringtone motion sensors, and the wall restraints, Asaad — anxious to move on, make deadline — let out an exhale a little like a sigh.
The beefy Midwesterner wheeled to eyeball him.
“You offended that we want to quality-check your work?”
“No, sir!” Asaad shook his head.
The Black guardia said, then, that they ought to test the wall restraints. Asaad was first. Just for reassurance, they locked down the other three too — Windward, then Lori, then Rafa — and hooded them to spare their tender sensibilities. As the sickening thumps fell, as Asaad drew sharp breaths between the few moans he couldn’t keep in, the other three felt for him. Mostly, though, they stewed over how this would affect their timeline — not only the others, but even Asaad, between blows and kicks, found himself calculating the minutes lost, and how much of today’s “sweet sixteen” shift would be left after.
The guardias took their time, even tested out the plumbing by hurling a bucket of (clean) toilet water onto Asaad’s face, and gave an especial bludgeoning around the temple of his left eye. After his drenching, Asaad had had neither time nor means to dry himself, and night in the mountains was chill and breezy.
So things had begun, and so had gone downhill in the three days after. The daytime guardias kept their distance, sometimes even alternating naps, in contrast with the hyped-up evening pair. Yet guardias were also accountable for progress. Since their only motivational strategies were abuse/don’t abuse, at seeing Asaad worsen — symptoms of concussion and fever, shivers, ballooned temple now tinged with black highlights — they switched to don’t abuse. So in the second eight, Lori, Rafa, and Windward sped through the whole tower’s HVAC, then through installing the ground-floor intake chamber: fingerprinter, Cloud-based registry, and tattoo-puncher (the guardias’ favorite — they called it the tat-a-rat).
They made their way up, past the unfurnished-concrete second floor. Here an exterior door opened onto thin air, with attachments beside it for a not-to-be-found rope ladder. Rumor said that in active towers, this door was often used for no-paperwork “second-story deportacions” — the deportee being tossed 15 or 20 feet down onto the unforgiving Mexican terrain. In that land of sun, scorpions, cártels, and no water, prospects for the injured were not good. As the crew passed this level, legs heavy, the 11 pm klaxon sounded: shift over, blessed be, but only a third of today’s tower finished.
Back downstairs they trudged, each’s thoughts much the same: Our crew’s skills are the best, better than any other HVAC/tech crew’s; but falling behind even one day is a violation, and today makes three in a row — with no better hope for tomorrow. Weary as they were, none said a word on the way to lineup — except Windward, once, leaning on Rafa and murmuring,
“You gotta contact your cousin and get us transferred to Cali-for-nigh-ay.”
Rafa was uncharacteristically silent: silent at this plea, silent through the lineup, even silent as, eyes half open, they shuffled down the dark gravel road, shoulder to shoulder. As they set off, Lori saw Asaad shivering and laid a hand on his shoulder; Rafa stripped off his undershirt and worked it over Asaad’s jumper, an extra layer against the night. Every morning and every night, however downcast the others’ mood, Rafael always told his dreams — always, and they all thought they hated him for it. Tonight, though, no dreams tap-danced from his lips, and this was worse. They trudged half the 30-minute hike in oppressive silence, until at last Lori spoke.
“Rafa, can you tell us one of your dreams?”
Windward tsked halfheartedly; Rafa kept plodding along, but finally said, in a hush,
“Last night I dreamed of razorwire.”
A quick, eyes-only scan for guardias or other work crews. None nearby.
Windward and Lori stared. Windward recalled the morning, seeing Rafa squatting, brushing yellow dust off his pant legs moments after the klaxon rang. Even the fever-ridden Asaad now hoisted his head and looked sidelong at Rafa, whose hand was wedged into Asaad’s underarm to stabilize him. Rafael kept his eyes down. His breath came and went heavily, as though even respiration was a burden, until he sighed.
“I hear nothing from my cousin. No going to hear, I guess.” His eyes tick-tocked, scanning, always scanning. “So last night I sneak out to see the camp fence — see how difficult to escape.”
“Are you nuts?” whispered Lori.
“They shoot people,” added Windward, glancing around less subtly. Rafa nodded. They walked for a while.
“So?” said Lori.
“The camp — must move often,” Rafa said, “to keep with building of the Wall. So it’s no so secure, like a real prison camp. Most security come from threat — of shooting, or twobafour shift. And from isolated location; no many roads through mountains.”
“You’re really thinking on doing this?” said Windward.
“You means me?” said Rafa. “No me; has to be us. I no can carry him myself. Has to be us. All of us.”
Windward sighed. “Two more months on this crew and I’m back to the good life — well, as guest of the Jessup Correctional Institution of the State of Maryland. I dunno.”
Rafa looked at Lori, who hissed, “They shoot people,” evoking an mmm-hmm from Windward. She shook her head dejectedly. “Shit. I ain’t here from prison, and I’m even getting paid — supposed to be, at least. Ain’t seen a check yet, though. An’ I ain’t free to leave any more’n you all.” She kicked a stone over the edge of a precipice. “We could damn well get killed.”
“Yes,” Rafa said. Asaad stumbled, and Rafa groaned as he caught his weight and heaved him upright. “But yes or no, got to decide. This camp almost finished. Time soon to move, more west again. Last night I slip over fence, scout the roads — a road no far from here leads to bridge. Sign say, El Bravucon 11 mile. We can make that in one night, before morning count. There, maybe take a car or ATV cuatrimoto, before nobody knows. Is possible we escape.”
He lowered his hips, shifted Asaad’s weight up onto his shoulder. “We wait until camp moves, maybe too far from bridge. If we must walk too far, morning come, they catch us on the road.”
This was discussed no more. But with profound glances they communed, mind to mind — and by the time they reached camp, the decision was made.
Each by a separate route, they hustled through the halogen-broken dark to the rendezvous point, in the shadows of the commandante’s hut, near a stretch of razorwire untouched by lights. Windward and Rafa had already stripped off their and Asaad’s jumpers. As Lori approached, Windward surveyed the nearest guard huts. When no signs of vigilance appeared, Rafa tossed their escape-mat, fabricated by tucking together all their jumpers, to drape over the razorwire. One by one, with an eye to the huts, they surmounted the razorwire, Asaad with painstaking, manhandling aid. Once all four had crossed, they set off.
Four miles to the bridge; 11 miles to the town of El Bravucon— these distances didn’t seem so far. But even blessed by the light of a waxing moon in a cloudless sky, the uneven road was slow going, taking turns two by two propping up Asaad. They pressed on as fast as they could: with dawn and the count, their absconding would be known, and guardias, accompanied by dogs, would come. Three miles down the narrow road the way divided, and they followed the El Bravucon sign’s direction.
The bridge, ahead in the night, was blocked by an orange-and-white-striped BRIDGE CLOSED barrier, flanked by a floodlight on a high tripod. The four paused in the brush a couple of hundred meters out, squinting at the bridge, the sign, the floodlight. After a few moments, Windward whispered,
“You see him? Opposite side from the light.”
Rafael and Lori squinted harder and saw: a guardia, sitting cross-legged on a concrete curb this end of the bridge, unmoving.
“Asleep?” whispered Lori.
Rafa motioned the others deeper into the brush and left them, circling outside the spotlight’s great ellipse where penumbra faded into umbra, through ankle-high creosote, avoiding the jabs of cactus needles as best he could, and belying his own protestante conversion by praying to the Virgin that the rugged ground hid no snakes. He stopped before he got too near, squatting in the shallows of a bush, and stared harder.
Alli. At the foot of the glaring light’s tripod, one arm threaded through a crossbar, another guardia rested. In the long minutes Rafa squatted and watched, though, the man didn’t move. From this proximity, Rafa could see that the first one they’d spotted, away from the light, cradled a subfusil in his lap as he… slept: of this Rafa was almost certain. The guardia beneath the light was more difficult to see — whether he was armed (extremely probable), and crucially, whether he was asleep.
Rafa considered his options. Probably, if he was caught, the others were far enough out that they could slip away unseen. And a test was necessary before the four attempted to sneak by. Still plagued by fear of serpientes, Rafa walked his fingertips along the dark ground until he found a small-enough pebble. His entire body taut as a fist, he aimed and tossed the pebble onto the road, to patter across some five meters in front of the guardias.
He watched. Waited.
But neither man stirred at the sound.
Sleep is no stable state, especially outdoors at night, sitting on pavement in a cold wind; the present fortuitous circumstance could change any minute, any second. With his gaze bouncing back and forth between floodlight and guardias and his own obscured footing, Rafa returned to his compañeros. Sighting them was difficult, so he simply relinquished stealth as he drew nearer where they ought to be, trusting the scrunch of his footfalls to announce his return.
“Sleeping?” whispered Windward, creeping out from behind a thicket.
Rafa nodded. “Now is chance. We got to move.” He set out, silently as he could. As the others fell in behind, Windward and Lori bearing Asaad’s weight, Rafa half turned and briefed them.
“So,” said Lori, “Do we grab for one a’ their weapons?”
“We got nothing to tie them with, for real,” said Windward. “We grab a semi from one of ’em, that almost guarantees a throwdown. An ugly one.”
“No sure we can plan,” said Rafa. “We just sneak past? What if one of them move? And if one wakes up? And if both? Also, if they wake up, they do shoot immediately or call us to stop?”
“Too many variables, you’re saying.” Windward visored his eyes, trying to suss out the guards’ forms and positions from the floodlight glare. “Better just to see how things play out and move as the situation demands.”
Rafa nodded again, breathed deeply, motioned with his head, and kept moving. He approximated his previous route until the four were perhaps 30 meters from the light. Here Rafa raised a hand, tensely, for halt. He pointed at the spot under the floodlight where the near-invisible guardia sat — still asleep, for all they could tell.
Rafael turned in the moonlight and looked each of them in the eye. Lori pointed at him and mouthed YOU LOCO. Rafa grinned, waggled his finger at himself and at the other three (including near-insensate Asaad by default) and mouthed, me… you ALL loco.
Then they began to creep: breath by suppressed breath, step by feather-toed step, wide as they could keep, wary of the guardias, conscious of the rocky ground, leery (at least Rafa was) of imaginary serpientes, and chary, too, of the unseen edge of the ravine the bridge spanned — toward which they must be creeping.
Rafa found it, with a slip of the boot, an unintended hiss of breath, a nerve-freezing loss of footing and the beginning of a tumble, arrested by a frantic reach from Lori, who was nearest to him, and who caught a fistful of Rafa’s shoulder-blade and shirt and yanked.
Here they were, then: the only direction left was toward the bridge. The nearer the ravine the better, of course, to come up as far behind the light and the guardias as possible; but also, the farther from the ravine’s edge the better, for the exact reason Rafa had just demonstrated. So, keeping as near to and as far from the precipice as possible, they advanced — Windward now leading and Lori and Rafa walking sideways, crablike, behind, Asaad suspended between them.
By the floodlight, Windward estimated the best course and so they advanced, slowly to avoid waking the guardias, but not too slowly for fear they’d wake in their own time. Forward, watching those hunched, seated shadows, fixating on unseen hands, imagining those hands twitching on unseen subfusils; forward, silently forward until the subfusil could be seen and the guardia was only a body-length away, and Windward’s foot touched pavement.
Eyes locked on the guard, Windward groped behind him with an arm as he sidled ravineward, trying to locate the bridge-support, desperate to touch something that could guide him yet unwilling to take his eyes off the guardia for even an instant. At last the backs of his fingers thudded against cold girder. Rafa laid a hand on his shoulder then, and by hand signs directed Windward to look forward, across the bridge, while Rafa, bringing up the rear behind Asaad and Lori, watched the watchmen.
So they advanced.
In ordinary life, a BRIDGE CLOSED sign conveys a very specific meaning — that would-be crossers need refrain, because gravity, whose imperative bridges are built to thwart, might function in its usual way upon those who attempt this span at this time. Somehow, this ordinary implication of a BRIDGE CLOSED barrier hadn’t entered the escapees’ minds. They’d assumed the bridge was closed because errant Wall-workers might cross, and that the orange-and-white barrier, together with the guardias, merely served to discourage such truancy.
So when Rafael, mincing sideways over ragged pavement with gaze fixed on the guardia behind, suddenly felt Asaad stop short — a chain-reaction jolted through Lori from Windward’s sudden halt — Rafa’s first reaction was angry confusion. All that mattered now was to get distance from guardias and subfusils, to move swiftly toward El Bravucon, to find a vehicle… to advance. There could be no reason to stop, and from this conviction flowed his flash of rage.
When Rafa turned his head — this in itself incensed him, having to take his eyes off the guardias — he saw Windward’s surprised, dumbfounded face looking back at him. This enraged Rafa all the more, since Windward’s face ought to be turned toward El Bravucon, forward, advancing; certainly not backward. Backward was the guardias; backward was the camp; backward was —
Then Rafa looked down. He remembered what gravity was, and why bridges are built. Beyond Windward’s boots was… nothing.
The bridge’s concrete, so pocked and pitted where they’d already passed, had given way completely near mid-span. It had apparently fallen away in a crumbling avalanche, leaving a gap the whole bridge’s width and at least five meters across. For the past five years, a great portion of the nation’s treasury had been funneled into the Wall, at a time when much infrastructure — roads, water lines, power, and of course bridges — had degraded to the point of failure. With Asaad pillared between them, the three peered over the brink.
And thus they confronted again a decision they’d thought was behind them — to leave or not to leave their feverish crewmate. The sound-of-mind three might negotiate the precarious beams of the bridge’s underskeleton, but with Asaad, this was unthinkable. The drop-off merely to set foot on the beams was too far, the night too dark, and the canyon-gusts too strong and sudden.
To leave or not to leave…
The question had been decided once, and though each of the three entertained the notion with varying conviction, none was willing to voice the question, to float the option of sacrificing Asaad, here on this broken and forlorn bridge to freedom. Speaking would rouse the guardias — though this was surely only superstition, for the wind hissed far louder than any whispered voice — so they stood perfectly still, stuck. Finally, Rafa said what nobody wanted to hear:
“So the only way is past the Wall.”
Time and geography being what they were, returning to camp posthaste in what remained of the night — inscaping, so to speak, back over the razor wire — seemed their best hope. By so doing, at least they might get water and Dailybread to nourish them in the cartel-ruled deserts south of the Wall. The pendulum of dumb luck, though, ordained that upon sneaking back into the prison camp, they’d be caught. So they were.
The commandante, a muscular fat man draped in desert-khaki camo and an air of tense authority, wielded the terrifying power of whim: any or all of them might be pistol-whipped, busted down to twobafours, or summarily gunned down. Even whim, though, gave way to managerial necessity. Here on the Wall, labor was cheap and life too, but skilled hands with wire stripper and acetylene torch were precious, here where success was measured solely in finished miles of functioning rampart and tower. So, much morally improved by the commandante’s red-faced reprimand, the four found themselves — two hours after their return, strung out with sleeplessness, fatigue, and strain — walking the long road back to the Wall.
With the guardias hovering so close, listening, watching, there could be no planning, only opportunism. The guardias watching their crew had been upped to three, the third annoyed to be yanked from his downtime into an extra shift. This third guard, who looked like an Italian or a Greek, spat and shoved and fucking scumbag’d, even punched when the mood struck. Flanked by this pendejo and two others, the familiar HalfLat and Samolipino, the crew entered the tower.
Prodded by the guardias, they passed from the Wall’s morning shadow through the Kevlar-plated entrance, into the cylindrical concrete stairwell at tower’s center, not glancing to either side at the tat-a-rat station and fingerprinters. Up the spiral metal stairs they went, past the open door to level 2 — the deportación level, with its portal onto thin air over the Mexican side, which seemed their one hope of escape, but at which, with the guardias’subfusils and hostility near at heel, the crew dared not even glance. Past it they climbed, to the third level, the lower living quarters. They opened the door and fanned out to their several tasks.
Reasonably simple: wire the refrigerator outlet and the wall outlets under the laptop desks; anchor a cord across the ceiling and down to the flat-screen TV, mounted to the rounded stairwell wall, where it could be watched from an L of sofa. Poor Asaad could make no pretense of helping now. The others laid him on the sofa but the guardias insisted his place was the concrete floor — where he lay, huddled, murmuring a prayer, sapped of any strength whatsoever for prostrations. Though this was the simplest level, the other three contrived to drag the work here out as long as they could. The second floor, with its egress to México, was so close, so very close. In secret glances, in bumping arms, in throat-clearings they spoke, conspired to seize any chance to best the guardias, whether by guile or by force. But Lady Luck showed an unsmiling face of concrete, and eventually their stalling led to a hammering elbow into Rafa’s ribs, from the ItalianGreek.
So upstairs they went, dragging poor Asaad’s inert weight, to the upper living quarters. A twobafour crew had muscled backbreaking burdens all the way up here: sinks; toilets; the accompanying plumbing; toilet stalls; shower heads and shower stalls; and the components of ping-pong table and weight bench — including the dumbbells and plates.
Assembly and install: haste, urgency, flecked with sudden what-ifs like starbursts of reflected sun on a hard-flowing stream. Lori, bolting together toilet stalls, considered what a torque wrench would do to a guardia’s face; Windward, wrenching tight the toilet outflow pipe, pondered how well a heavy lug would serve in applying a rear chokehold; Rafa mulled over the shieldworthiness of a shower stall against subfusil bullets. The guardias, for their part, fantasized what their own equipment could do to the not-bad-if-you’re-stuck-in-a-fucking-desert brunette with the round ass, crouched down, bolting toilet stalls to the floor. Asaad, abandoned now to a puzzlepiece gym-mat, lay twitching, buffeted by unknown dreams.
At one moment all three guardias clustered behind Lori, ogling. The Samolipino’s subfusil hovered within Windward’s grasp, and Rafa envisioned creeping up behind the three, armed with stall-shield and screwdriver-shiv — slowly, to give his compañeros time to note him and coordinate their assaults. He took a step; another step, grip firm on the screwdriver, breath hot in his lungs; another step —
And the ItalianGreek turned. Rafa made a performance of nothing-happening, of merely swinging the stall wall through a broad arc into its place; but the ItalianGreek had sensed something. With deadly serious eyes he raised his subfusil and took a bead on Rafa’s heart. The other guardias savvied this something, too, and fanned clear of grasping hands to ready their own weapons.
Rafa leaned the stall wall away from him and raised his hands, only to see he still clutched the screwdriver, dagger-style in a sweaty fist. He forced it to drop, with a resounding clatter.
The first blow — of the subfusil’s butt-edge — struck his upper chest, grazing the bottom of his collarbone, into the gap above the pectorales. This knocked the breath from him; he buckled. The kick that followed was clumsy but hard, forceful enough, he feared, to reroute the turnings of his intestines. Defiance was no victory, now — might even be fatal — so Rafa obeyed instinct and fell to the concrete floor, fetal, hugging his hurts, heaving for breath. Lori and Windward made no move; the guardias were soldier-muscled, well rested, fire-armed. The two could only be still and pray — though God seemed withdrawn from listening range lately, if He was anywhere at all.
Lori got a backfisted punch in the temple, too, for good measure, from the HalfLat guardia. But after a few tense moments they were all permitted to resume their work.
The three guardias’ shift was nearing its end — signifying the halfway mark of the sweet-sixteen — when the crew finished the upper living quarters: Rafa gave the last nut on the weightlifting bench a last twist; Windward turned the screwdriver one last time to snug up the ping-pong table top.
They called to the guardias and stood submissively until acknowledged. At a nod from the ItalianGreek, they gathered up their tools, and Rafa and Windward gathered up the clammy and too-limp Asaad. Then all trudged upstairs to the top level — the turret. When they stepped up off the stairway, though, and the guardias glared expectantly, an unspoken order to work, Rafa merely sighed and slumped his shoulders. With perfect gentleness, he and Windward laid Asaad down on his side, and Windward folded the fourth partner’s hands beside his chest and touched his eyelids shut. Windward breathed, and sighed, and said,
Both Lori and Rafa bowed their heads. But the guardias recoiled from the figure on the floor, whose unnmoving husk harbored who knew what maladies. Into that long moment came sounds from below: a door opening and closing and a Midwest-accented voice calling out,
“We got to carry him down,” said Rafa. He wanted to add for proper burial but swallowed it, for fear the guardias might laugh.
“You’ll stay put till the next shift comes up. This is not our watch anymore,” the Samolipino answered. The three guardias left down the stairs.
As soon as the last had vanished into the stairwell, Windward leapt into motion from where he’d knelt, beside Asaad. He unbuttoned and yanked his orange jumper’s top half off to hang at his waist, tugged the plug of one of their two extension cords from the wall, looped and tied it off around his waist. Raising his arms like a brown-skinned, white-tee-shirted Julie Andrews, he spun in swift circles and, as human spool, took up the orange extension cord around his torso. The guardias’ voices, warning the evening shift of the situation, echoed from below. The day-shifters’ voices faded, and the evening-shifters’ grew as they ascended. Revolution by revolution, swiftly Windward spun, until he reached the cord’s end.
The guardias’ footsteps were very near, coming up the stairs. The first of their heads would emerge from the stairwell at any moment — and Windward struggled to both tuck the loose plug into the coils and shrug his jumper-top back on all at once. As the first of the three guards, Midwest, stepped onto the turret level, Windward was kneeling again beside the motionless Asaad, displaying an abiding grief and stillness. Yet when Rafa glanced, he saw Windward’s trick hadn’t quite worked: the plug he’d tried to tuck in had fallen loose, and now peeked, dangling, from Windward’s pant leg.
Three guardias for the day shift, three for the evening: the tall, lanky Black Texan, the white Midwestern beef-boy, and, to their surprise, the ItalianGreek — back for another shift. If his mood had been abusive before, it was worse now.
Rafa had insistently motioned to Lori until she crouched and took Asaad’s other arm. There she and Windward stayed, expecting a nod from the guardias, permission to carry Asaad away. But the guardias, though they kept their distance, showed no urgency toward his removal. Instead, they stood and stared. Finally, Midwest Blond said to Rafa,
“Word is you’re a hero. An escape artist. A Mexican Houdini or Criss Angel. Escaped from the camp.”
Rafa kept his eyes down, though not so down as to miss the guardias’ movements, if they made any. But he said nothing. The Midwest guardia continued.
“And the rest of you with him. Dumbass is anyone who tries to escape, but double-dick dumbass is then comin’ back to camp again. Cowardly enough to run, and so cowardly you even chickened out of running. You got something to say? Any of you?”
Rafa most certainly did not, and neither did the others. “Why they di’nt just shoot you I’ll never understand. Looks like your friend there’s off to meet Allah. Most Mexicans are better dead than alive, too.” He looked to his squadmates for a sense of where they stood on this, now that he’d come out and said it. No PC bullshit here on the Wall.
Rafa, standing at semi-attention, poised himself — making every effort not to show it — to fight, if this cabrón tried to kill him. The image of Gabriel, the son he hadn’t seen in so long, floated into Rafa’s mind: the round head, the shaggy hair, the contented smile. This image, which at other times evoked feelings of deepest peace, now evoked a bloodthirst, a proud wish to go down fighting if he had to go. But whatever his turmoil within, Rafa never looked up.
Midwest, with glances to his companions, released the magazine from his subfusil. He weighed it in his hand and, running his thumb down it, mouthed the numbers half-aloud as he counted the bullets. Rafa counted along, unwittingly, and stopped when the guardia stopped — at thirty. The guardia then punched the magazine back into the catch, looking sharply at Rafa.
“Umm, sir?” Windward broke the silence. “Dead body here — c’n we carry him down and out?”
The lanky Black guard sniffed toward Asaad. He glanced at Midwest and replied,
“Damn well better. But not we — not two of you. Just you. Carry him out yourself.”
The ItalianGreek said, “Should I go along?” but before he even finished this short utterance, Rafa was on his feet, angrysulking, stomping toward his tools and the crated parts for the auto-motivated sniper seats. He muttered under his breath, and the Black Texan guardia, who knew some Spanish, caught the words “respeto por los muertos” — respect for the dead — amidst the curses.
Midwest watched Rafa, his expression mingling caution with anticipation. “Naw, I think we all three better stay up here.” Then to Windward, adjusting his grip on Asaad, he added,
“If you’re not back in four minutes, one of us’ll come down after you. ’Nuff said.”
“Yes, sir,” Windward answered, and hurriedly dragged Asaad, gripping under both armpits, to the open stairwell. As he passed, the Black Texan guardia looked down. He would notice the plug hanging from Windward’s trouser-leg; how could he not? The dead man, though, was diversion enough that the guardia missed the obvious, and off Windward went, down the stairs, dragging Asaad above him, bumpily, gingerly but swiftly, knowing the clock was ticking.
Down the spiral, the thumping of Asaad’s feet on metal step after step reverberated in the round stairwell. Past the bunkroom. Past the upper living quarters. Past the lower living quarters. Four floors down, to the second floor.
Windward — paranoid, maybe — prayed the guardias couldn’t hear the difference between this second-floor door opening and the first-floor door, where he ought to be. He back-walked, dragging Asaad for all he was worth, across the bare concrete space of the “deportation level” — to the exterior door. This he unlatched, quietly, and allowed only a moment’s glance down at the drop-off, a good 20 feet, to the rocky Mexican desert. He stripped his top off and unwound the extension cord, this time holding an end above his head and whipping it around as though twirling a lasso. He yanked that last uncooperative 3 feet out of his pants leg and cow-hitched one end (thanks to PapaJames for forcing him to stick with the goddamn Scouts a year) around the floor anchor for the ladder that wasn’t there. He yanked at his knot, hard, and it seemed to hold. Then he went to work on Asaad.
As he rigged up his best try at a harness around Asaad’s shoulders, for a moment the man’s limpness almost convinced Windward that Asaad was dead. Wouldn’t that just be the way — after the arguing, the plotting, the second-guessing, and the improvised fake-out (“He’s dead” — Oscar-worthy performance, right there). Wouldn’t it be just God’s own way to take the man right now, on the verge of freedom, after all that? But no — Asaad was ill, he was all kind of out of it, but he was breathing.
Windward tugged at the harness cord; it looked to hold. Then, cursing how straight-up foolish this was, he wormed his way into a loop between the anchor and Asaad, sat down with the sole of one foot braced against either side of the open door’s frame, Asaad under his knees. One hand looped into the cord and gripping it tight, with the other hand Windward slid Asaad out the door — into Mexican airspace, so to say — and, cord binding painfully around his wrist, began to lower his unconscious crewmate.
Rafa, assembling the south-facing auto-motivated sniper seat, slid open a plexarmor wall panel in the alcove. He worked at his usual pace, the flow that always put the others to shame with its efficiency. As he worked, he monitored the guardias with peripheral vision. When the moment came and the three were distracted harassing Lori, he poked his head out the opening to look down, then pulled it back in — smoothly and efficiently as any of his movements. Four minutes, they’d said, before they’d go looking for Windward. Even allowing that these guardias weren’t so exact as they pretended to be, there wasn’t time to waste. This all had to go like clockwork, or the escape’s interlocked gears would jam up, to probably fatal results. Lori took the risk of glancing at Rafa. Rafa took the even greater risk of returning a subtle nod, the nod of a sloth. He’d seen: Asaad now rested on the rocky ground, directly and far below Rafa’s feet. Windward would be descending at this moment. Time for the next phase.
Lori stood and hopped from foot to foot — magnificent actors, this crew! — and said,
“It’s hours since our last toilet break. I can’t hold it any more…”
Midwest scoffed loudly, but assented. “I’ll go with. About time I see what’s taking your black buddy so long.”
So Lori led and Midwest followed, down the spiral stair. Asaad, Rafa counted, was out. Lori: in going to the baño she would be two floors closer, only one floor and one guardia away from out. She’d find a way. She’d have to — for here was Rafa, fingers and arms adroitly piecing together the sniper-seat while his mind walked through the situation. Still two guardias here, vulture-eyeing his every movement. One more, Midwest Blond, who’d followed Lori down, must also be considered as between Rafa and the deportación level.
One guardia… one guardia Rafa might, with luck and faith in God, distract and overpower. Maybe. But two — two guardias would beat him. They would break his bones — break his skull — with their subfusils, with the butts or with the bullets. They would kill him.
There must be a way.
There must be a way.
He watched as his fingers allen-wrenched a servomotorized armrest into place.
There must be a way.
They would kill him.
They would kill him, and enjoy killing him.
There must be a way.
Then, from a few floors down, a shout. Sounds of a struggle — a body banging against metal. Another. A scream of rage — Lori. Midwest Blond screaming a curse.
Three gunshots — and Rafa jumped. He wheeled and saw both guardias running for the steps… but the ItalianGreek had the presence of mind to stop, to let his squadmate, the Black Texan, go; to stay with Rafa, as the other ran with heavy metallic bootsteps downstairs.
One guardia… yes.
Rafa moved toward him, toward the stair behind the man’s boot-heels, hands spread at his waist to show open palms; heavy lug teetering upright, out of sight, in his right back pocket.
“Only want to help…” Rafa soothed as he eased forward. The guardia leveled his subfusil, finger quivering on the trigger.
Another shot from downstairs. The guardia glanced down. Rafa drew the hefty wrench, threw, dodged aside as the heavy end — a miracle — thudded into the ItalianGreek’s jaw, just below the ear, as he fired a deafening gun-burst. Not knowing if he was shot, Rafa zigzagged, charged, jump-kicked the guardia with all his force — clear across the circular stair opening, tumbling across the floor… dropping the subfusil. Rafa stared at the weapon for an eternity, for a fraction of a second.
No time. He flew down the stairs, with no thought to silence, not feeling his feet ever touch a step. As he passed the lower living quarters, near the stairwell door stood the other two guardias, subfusils raised. He slammed the heavy door at them with his shoulder, never slowing. More explosions of gunfire and he didn’t know, once again, if he was shot.
Then he was on the second floor, the deportación level, still running. For an instant, he thought of Lori, but… shooting, more shooting, and those two guardias alive… no.
No Lori. No going back.
His mind was mirror-clear, lucid; his body cascaded forward, a liquid — and for an instant he was not Rafael Alejandro; he was Gabriel, his son, grown to a man, a superstar, dribbling the football fast as the wind toward an unguarded gap, for the winning goal — and then he was Rafael again. No time to grab the orange extension cord and climb down. Guardias coming, all three with subfusils, maybe here behind him already. The deportación door was open; beyond it, the perfect blue of the desert sky. He didn’t know if he was shot.