Ernesto and his aunt Natalia sat in the bed of a pick-up truck that drove down a sand-covered road into the desert town of Sasabe. They both wore baseball caps, sweaters, and jeans two sizes too large to protect their skin from the sun. Six men they’d met in Altar that morning sat beside them. Ernesto identified two of them as the brothers, and the rest as the old man, the soldier, the teacher, and the deportee. The men shared stories of people they’d known who’d disappeared entering the U.S. through the Sonoran Desert, the crossing they’d embark upon at dusk.
The truck parked in front of a liquor store with a faded yellow paint job. The coyote they’d hired to guide them stepped out of the truck’s passenger side door and lowered the rear tailgate. Sancho was heavy for a man who led people across seventy miles of desert for a living. A tattoo of a young girl’s face marked his neck. “We got a few more hours till we reach the crossing. Stretch your legs, have a smoke, buy extra water if you got the money. We leave in ten.”
The men jumped off the truck. Ernesto and Natalia walked over the street’s cracked asphalt in search of food. This stop would be their last chance to eat for three days, before they reached Ernesto’s mother in Phoenix. He scanned the liquor store and the cluster of wooden houses that lined the dirt road ahead for a place to find scraps.
Behind the liquor store, they found a dumpster. Natalia pushed the lid open and motioned for Ernesto to hold it.
“I can dig this time,” he said.
“You keep watch.” She pulled herself onto the ledge and rummaged inside. Ernesto puffed out his chest and looked for any sign of a store clerk who might come outside to chase them off. He was fourteen, half his aunt’s age.
Natalia let out a cry of success and dropped back onto the pavement. She held a half-eaten sandwich still wrapped in butcher paper, guarded from the insects that infested the dumpster. She gave the sandwich to Ernesto. The succulent meat smelled so strong he could taste the flavor, but he handed back the sandwich – she had gone without food two days longer than him.
“It’s a three-day walk to the next city,” she said. “Eat it.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“At least have some bread.” He tore a piece of bread off the sandwich. “That’s all you want?”
“You eat the rest.” He told himself that the extra days of hunger would make his mother’s cooking taste that much more delicious.
Natalia’s eyes wandered to the impending feast. She sat with her back against the dumpster and devoured the sandwich.
“In the U.S., I bet they have so much food, you can find whole sandwiches in the dumpsters,” Ernesto said, a prediction game they played on their long journey north.
“In the U.S., nobody looks through the trash for food. Even the poorest people can buy something to eat.”
He never found her answers as amusing. Everything she said sounded like something his mother had told her.
Sancho whistled from the far side of the store. Natalia swallowed the last bite and licked the mayonnaise off her fingers. Ernesto helped her up and they walked back to the group.
The truck continued west on Highway 2. When the road arched over a hill, Ernesto noticed dark clouds hovering beyond the border wall. He’d pictured blue sky and hot sun for the next three days, but the storm gave him hope that this last part of the journey would be colder than expected.
Hours later, the metallic structure of the wall ended, replaced by a vehicle fence that divided the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Sancho had told them they needed to drive this deep into the desert to sneak around the territory where the Border Patrol kept watch. The truck pulled to the side of the highway and Sancho opened the tailgate. Ernesto and Natalia grabbed their backpacks, two gallons of black plastic water bottles and jumped off the truck bed.
The group followed Sancho off the road through a field of tall grass to a rusted steel fence the height of Ernesto’s waist. He grabbed the fence and hoisted himself onto the other side. Setting foot on U.S. soil, the two brothers embraced, the soldier opened a warm beer he’d saved for the occasion, and the teacher shared a cigarette with the deportee and the old man.
Ernesto and Natalia stepped over the fence last. He felt less like he’d entered the land of the free and more like he’d snuck onto a stranger’s property. His mother had mentioned that a desert separated the border from civilization, but he saw no distant skyscrapers, heard no sounds of a bustling city. He looked ahead at the endless expanse of dead grass and cacti and wondered how they’d reach her home in three days. To arrive here, he and Natalia had traveled 4,000 kilometers and crossed three international borders. They’d outrun thieves who lurked on the roads between cities. They’d sprinted from dogs that chased them off private property. They’d jumped between the roofs of moving train cars to flee from bandits who killed migrants that rode north. No threat of violence existed out here, but if something happened, if they became separated from their group, they’d never find a way out.
Sancho signaled to the man driving the truck and the truck swung a U-turn and drove back toward town. For a moment, Ernesto thought to chase after the truck, but he reminded himself there was nothing left for them in Honduras. They’d lived in a shack on a muddy street, all of their family was dead or had moved away, and his best opportunity was to La Mara. He thought of the last time he saw his mother—nine years earlier—that night when she cooked him tamales, a rare treat. She told him stories about his father, who died before he was born, and they fell asleep together on a floor mattress. The next morning, he woke up alone and Natalia told him that his mother had left in the middle of the night to send money home from the U.S.
Sancho jogged north and called for them to hurry. Ernesto took the first step forward and Natalia walked beside him, unzipping her backpack to use an old shirt inside to wipe her face. At the bottom of the bag lay a pair of neon green sneakers she’d brought with her; shoes Ernesto’s mother had sent her years ago. The shoes were the most valuable belongings she’d ever owned, and that was why she never wore them.
“You ever gonna get rid of those?” Ernesto asked. They’d had to pack their lives inside their backpacks. He never understood why she’d wasted so much space on shoes.
“We’re gonna show up in Phoenix smelling like shit. But when we get to your ma’s, if I can throw out my old shoes and put these on, at least I can walk through her door with a little dignity.” She covered the shoes with her old shirt and zipped the backpack shut. “Come on, Neto, let’s not make them think we can’t keep up.” She waved for him to follow her.
They walked second to last in the group. The old man followed backward behind them to brush away their tracks with a shrub, as Sancho had instructed. Ernesto continued their game to pass the time. “In the U.S., everyone has a kitchen the size of those mountains up ahead.”
“Nobody ever smells,” Natalia said. “Clean water always comes out of the faucets.” They forgot they were in the desert until a gurgling sound came from her stomach. She sucked her cheeks against her teeth like she’d eaten something sour.
Ernesto thought of the sandwich. “You okay?”
She looked at the sky. “It’s colder than I thought it’d be.” She rubbed her shoulders. “I’m fine.” Ernesto took her hand. They stopped playing the game and followed the coyote toward a granite mountain on the horizon.
At night, blackness made the desert feel as claustrophobic as a tomb. Ernesto imagined there could be cacti, snakes, and rats surrounding them, but Sancho led them down a path mapped out so well, that Ernesto never so much as grazed a bush. He could only sense Natalia’s presence by the warmth of her palm. She continued to drink water, another sip every few minutes.
“Pace yourself,” he said.
She drank again and her steps grew slower. The old man kept bumping into her. “Vamanos. Más rápido.”
Ernesto resented her for walking so slow. She was the one who’d eaten.
She rubbed her forehead. “I feel dizzy,” she said.
Half an hour later, she pushed Ernesto aside and vomited.
“¡Cállete!” Sancho said. He turned on his flashlight and the beam spun around to illuminate orange chunks of half-digested food covering Natalia’s clothes. She hunched over and held back a sob.
“You okay?” the teacher asked.
“Something you ate?” asked one of the brothers.
She caught her breath. “I’m sorry. I’m better. Let’s go.”
The deportee stepped forward. “Can you walk?”
Natalia closed her eyes and nodded.
“Are you sure?” Ernesto asked.
“I can walk. I’m fine.”
“A couple more hours,” Sancho said. “Then, we rest.”
The deportee looked at Sancho. “Give her a second.”
Sancho clicked off the light and continued north.
Ernesto squatted beside his aunt and rubbed her back. He blinked until his eyes readjusted to the darkness. The soldier and the brothers followed Sancho, but the deportee, teacher, and old man waited.
“Tell them I’m fine,” Natalia whispered to Ernesto.
He wanted to believe her. Now that the sandwich was out of her stomach, he assumed she’d get better. “She’s fine,” he told them. “We’re right behind you.”
The darkness hid the deportee’s and the teacher’s faces. They stood for another moment, then turned to walk north. Only the old man with the shrub waited to brush away their tracks.
Ernesto unscrewed his bottle cap. “Cup your hands. I’ll give you some water to clean yourself.”
“Use my water,” she said. He assumed she knew best and took the bottle from her hand. The black plastic concealed the waterline, but the container hinted she’d drunk half her supply. He poured a sip’s worth of liquid over her hands. “Thank you, Neto.”
Usually, he found the name endearing, but today it reminded him he was only fourteen years old. In San Pedro Sula, he’d always thought of himself as an adult. He was responsible for caring for his grandmother while Natalia worked as a make-up artist at a mortuary. When local gangs executed an entire family or a group of farmworkers, he’d skip school and help her dress corpses for burial. That he’d seen more dead bodies than most soldiers made him feel like a man. But he’d never dealt with limited water in a desert before. He wondered if using the resource for anything but drinking was a childish solution.
They followed the group. Natalia continued to vomit and drink water to stay hydrated. Within two hours, she finished her first bottle. An hour later, she dry-heaved. The sound of his aunt choking made him demand that she drink from his bottle, if only so she’d have something to throw up.
“Hurry,” Sancho said, keeping his pace. “You don’t want to get lost out here.”
Ernesto slung her arm over his shoulders and carried half her weight around his neck. He wished they’d never eaten that sandwich.
Sunlight appeared over the eastern hills. They arrived at the base of the granite mountain they’d walked towards last night and Sancho dropped his backpack at the mouth of a shallow cave. “We rest here today. Continue at dusk. Shade from the mountain won’t keep you cool, but it’ll spare you from a nasty sunburn.”
Everyone claimed a part of the cave or a patch of weeds outside it to call their own. The soldier who’d drunken beer now gulped down water. The brothers shared a pack of corn tortillas. The teacher ran rosary beads through his fingers. The old man put his hat over his eyes and used his backpack as a pillow.
Ernesto lowered Natalia to the ground beside the cave entrance. He propped her up in a sitting position, hoping that gravity would keep down her last drink of water. The strain on his muscles alleviated, but so many hours of pressure gave him a headache.
The deportee stood over them. “How are you?”
Natalia managed a smile. “I’m fine. I don’t think there’s anything left to throw up.”
He waited another moment, as if deciding to say more, but once she looked away from him, he went to sit with the old man.
Ernesto turned to his aunt. “You’re feeling better?”
She shook her head. “We don’t know these people, Neto. We can’t let them see we’re weak.” She said the same thing the day they left home. They were like small animals. If they revealed themselves as helpless, they’d become easy prey.
“I know. But I don’t think I can carry you for two more days.”
“I’ll be better after we rest.”
“Let me ask the deportee.” He stood, but she grabbed his arm.
“Ask Sancho. Your mother said we could trust him.”
He helped her lay on her back and went to find Sancho resting against the mountain. “Will you help me carry Natalia tonight?”
Sancho lit a cigarette. “Your aunt’s putting us behind schedule.”
“She just needs sleep. We’ll go faster when she wakes up.”
Sancho stood and gestured for Ernesto to follow him. They walked away from the group to the edge of the mountain’s shadow.
“There’s nowhere to hide if la migra comes looking for us,” Sancho said. He blew smoke into the air. “That means I can’t guarantee safe passage. Passage you’re all paying for. If she can’t keep up with the group, then I’m leaving her behind. I’m sorry.”
“Señor, you can’t do that—”
“Listen, kid. I didn’t get into this business so I could leave people to die. The other men have families and they’re only carrying enough water to last them two more nights.”
“You can’t leave us out here.”
“You’re asking me to put their lives in danger—”
“How is this your plan?” Ernesto asked.
“Did you and her make a plan if one of you couldn’t go on?”
Ernesto shut his mouth. They’d talked about what to do, of course. Natalia told him to keep moving forward, never allow himself to be deported, but now that the situation was real, everything they discussed felt wrong.
Sancho pointed to the tattoo of the young girl on his neck. “I’m sorry. I went through the same thing when I crossed with my daughter.”
“You left your daughter?”
Sancho laughed. “No. I carried her out. And I did it without asking for anyone’s help.” He tapped the ash off his cigarette. “We won’t leave you. Only your aunt.”
“I’m not leaving her. Even if I have to carry her myself.”
Sancho flicked the cigarette into the dirt. “Get some sleep.” He walked past Ernesto to the mountain. Ernesto wanted to say more, but feared that if he angered the coyote, Sancho might leave them while they slept. The mountain’s shadow shrank by the minute.
That morning, he lay on the ground and tried to sleep beside his aunt. By noon, the temperature rose so high that he felt he was baking inside of an oven. But his thoughts kept him up. What if he had to do it, leave her to die in the desert? His sore joints and pulsing headache tempted him to do it. She was already dehydrated. Several times, she woke up to drink his water. If he stayed with her, it’d only be to keep her company until she died. If he left her, he’d walk faster, reach his mother in two days like Sancho promised.
But if their fates were reversed, she’d never leave him. When his mother left, Natalia had stayed behind to care for him and his grandmother. She dreamed of going north with her sister, earning a college degree, and opening a beauty salon of her own in Phoenix, where she would give makeovers to the living. One day, his grandmother gave Natalia her blessing to go north. Don’t waste your life caring for a sick old woman, she said. Ernesto tried to convince her to go north, as well. Take me with you. But Natalia said no. She refused to leave either of them behind. At sundown, Ernesto heard the distant whirring of helicopter propellers. He looked up at the sky, but only saw clouds. The sound grew louder. He looked around at the sleeping men. They would be spotted. He ran to shake Sancho awake. Afraid to make a sound, he pointed to the sky.
Sancho jumped to his feet and ran to each man. “Into the cave. Hurry. Hide.”
Ernesto woke Natalia, put his arm around her and helped her into the cave. Within seconds, everyone huddled against the inside wall and waited for the helicopter to pass.
Sancho mouthed, “Don’t talk,” and stared at Natalia. Ernesto rubbed her back. She took rapid breaths. Her forehead felt as hot as a cement sidewalk in summer, but she never gagged.
A minute later, the propeller noise faded. Sancho peered out of the cave. “Grab your things. We’re going.” The men followed him outside.
Ernesto offered Natalia his hand. She reached for him and tried to push herself up, but fell back onto the floor and sucked in her cheeks. “A minute. Just a minute.”
Outside, the men slung on their backpacks and drank from their water bottles. He wanted to ask them for help, but knew Sancho would not wait.
“We don’t have a minute.” Ernesto crouched to her level. “If we keep slowing them down, they’re going to leave us behind.” She looked up at him and swallowed. “Sancho won’t let me ask the others for help. I know you can do this.”
She steadied her breath. “I can do it.” She put one hand in his, the other on the wall. “Let’s go.” She pushed herself up.
They followed the group north around the mountain into a grassy valley that looked nothing like the dune-covered desert that Ernesto had anticipated on the trek through Mexico. Sancho walked fast, but the other men moved slower behind him. Though the men said nothing, Ernesto believed they were keeping him from falling behind because he’d saved them from the helicopter.
Natalia drank her final sip of water and discarded the empty plastic on the trail. Throughout the night, other men drank the last of their water as well. The old man brushed their bottles under the nearest shrub as he passed. It seemed only Sancho had brought enough water for three nights. After hours of darkness, the men behaved strangely. The brothers talked about how much they loved each other as if they were drunk. The teacher stripped down to his underwear, complaining it was too hot. At dawn, the deportee peed on a barrel cactus and his urine came out brown. Ernesto licked his dry lips, looked up at the dark clouds overhead and prayed for rain.
“I wish I never ate that sandwich,” Natalia said.
“I wish we never came out here.”
“No. I’m glad we left home.” Her words reminded him that he’d been the one who encouraged her to cross. They’d buried his grandmother five months earlier. After the funeral, he said they should honor her wish for them to go to the U.S., but Natalia wanted to stay in San Pedro Sula until Ernesto was older. Boys younger than me have gone, he’d said. I’m old enough.
She now moved like a person walking underwater. If he could go back to that moment, he’d say, “I’m too young. Let’s stay here, Tía. Please.”
The first drop of rain hit his nose. By dawn, a monsoon of cold water pummeled the desert. Deep puddles filled holes in the ground. Every step through the mud sucked on his shoes and he strained his leg muscles to keep from slipping.
Sancho led the group up a hill to escape the flooding valley. “No time for rest, amigos. Rain’s perfect for keeping la migra away.”
The old man dropped the shrub, unfolded a blue tarp from his backpack, and ran to cover Natalia and Ernesto. As he walked, Ernesto held out his empty water bottle from under the tarp. Every raindrop stung his sunburnt skin. Once a centimeter of water filled his bottle, he brought the lid to his lips and took his first drink in eight hours. He handed Natalia the bottle. She took several sips, then gulped down the rest. Finally, she’d beaten the virus. Finally, she’d gotten her strength back. He hugged her and laughed.
A growl erupted from her chest and she vomited water onto the tarp. She stumbled into the rain, lost her footing, and slid face-first into the mud. Ernesto threw off the tarp, dove to his knees, and rolled her over. She lay limp with her eyes closed. The only sign of life came from a wisp of hot breath that escaped from her mouth. Ernesto put his hands behind his head. How could her body turn against her like this? Didn’t it need water? Didn’t it know Sancho would leave her behind? She’d only been thirsty for twenty-four hours. She’d be fine if she were only sick, if she were only thirsty, if she were only in the desert. But not all three.
He looked back at the others who stood beside each other watching. “I’m sorry. She needs water. I didn’t know.”
“I’m sick of this,” said the soldier. “We’re a day behind. We can’t keep waiting on this puta.”
Ernesto jumped to his feet and made a fist, but Sancho stepped forward and grabbed his hand. The other men swayed where they stood and shouted at each other like they were drunk. “We can’t leave her to die.” “She’s already dead.” “We’ll make a stretcher and carry her.” “Make it out of what?” “The only way to save her is to turn her in.” “Fuck that. I came all the way from El Salvador. I’m not turning her in so they can take me too. The boy can turn her in.”
“Enough,” Sancho said. “I’m the one who knows the way to Tucson. I decide.” The men stopped and looked to the coyote.
Ernesto grabbed Sancho’s arm. “You can’t leave us behind. Please.” Wetness formed in his throat. He held back tears, knowing they’d make an argument impossible.
Sancho looked down at him. “I’m sorry, Ernesto. I think you should come with us, but these men are out of water. They can’t help you.” He pulled his arm away, waved for the others to start moving, and walked north.
The brothers, the teacher, and the old man followed, nodding to Ernesto as they passed.
“Help us,” Ernesto said. “Anybody.”
“Pendejo,” the soldier said as he passed Ernesto.
Only the deportee remained.
“Don’t leave us,” Ernesto said.
The deportee glanced between Ernesto and the group. “My daughter lives in Utah. She’s very sick. I’m sorry, but I need to be with her.”
He followed the others into a thick screen of rain. The sound of their footsteps disappeared as fast as the sight of their bodies.
Ernesto bent over Natalia and shook her awake. “They’re leaving. You need to get up. Let’s go.”
Her eyelids fluttered. She raised her hand into the air to find his face. He brought his cheek to her. “Go with Sancho.”
“Please get up.”
Her breath grew shallower as she lost consciousness. Ernesto crawled behind her and dragged her by the armpits, ignoring his stiff bones and dry throat. He pulled her nine steps before she slipped from his hands and they both fell in the mud. His headache jabbed against his temples; the ringing in his ears drowned out the rain. He looked at her limp body. Despite what she said, he refused to leave her. She’d raised him. She was more his mother than the woman he was going to meet.
He stood again, wrapped his arms around her chest, and lifted her into a sitting position. His muscles strained to the point that he thought his lower back would tear from his waist, but he pulled her to her feet and instinct made her legs stumble for placement. He took the first step and her legs followed. They walked in the direction Sancho had led the others. He searched for footprints, but the rain had washed away the coyote’s path.
They stumbled down the hill into the next valley. He stayed careful not to let his aunt’s lopsided weight cause them to slip and fall.
Once the monsoon passed, the sun emerged from behind the clouds. His joints felt like hardened concrete and his eyes had trouble seeing plants right in front of him, but he no longer felt the dry taste of thirst. Only one more day. That’s what Sancho had promised. The promise kept him from resting; his aunt would die if he slept. He ignored the truth, that he didn’t know which way Sancho had walked or how many hours they’d slowed Sancho down.
To distract himself, he grunted out new predictions. “In the U.S., nobody walks. Everyone drives their own car.” He took Natalia’s turns. “Nobody works at funeral homes. Americans live so long, there’s never anyone to bury.”
Hours later, a faint churning noise came from the sky, so quiet, it at first sounded like an insect. He recognized the unmistakable whirring of helicopter blades, and looked up for signs of a flyover, but only saw blue sky. He searched for cover, but remembered what the deportee had said. He wouldn’t escape the desert by reaching a city, but by getting caught.
He dragged Natalia in a circle and looked up for a dot of salvation among the clouds. He imagined stepping aboard the helicopter, receiving food and water, flying to safety. He’d rather take his chances in San Pedro Sula than in the desert. He promised God that he’d keep Natalia safe, support her while she healed, take over her job at the mortuary, and give her the freedom to start a business back home. He’d give up any hope of seeing his mother again if it kept his aunt alive.
He pulled her forward, hoping the pilot would notice two figures cutting through the weeds. The whirring of the invisible helicopter soon drove him mad, as if a bee had become trapped in his ear. But he saw nothing. The sound disappeared.
They walked toward the next hill, a distant mound marked by a leafless palo brea tree. The hill obstructed his view of the land beyond. He decided there must be civilization on the other side, as confident as if he’d seen it on a map.
At dusk, they scrambled up thirty meters of loose dirt to the top of the hill. He expected to discover Sancho’s promise fulfilled. He reached the top, blinked his eyes into focus, but only saw another flat landscape of dead grass and cacti that stretched to a mountain a day’s walk away. Neither disbelief nor defeat overcame him, only the belief that the world was permitting him to quit. He debated whether to keep going. He’d rest at his mother’s. But if he kept walking, he’d soon become as delirious as the men. He needed to sleep if he hoped to make it out of the desert.
He brought Natalia to the palo brea and lowered her to the ground. Her weight separated from his shoulders and his muscles burned with relief.
“Five minutes,” he said. Her head fell to the side. He lay beside her and watched the slow rise and fall of her chest.
By the time he woke, her chest lay deflated. A full moon illuminated her body. With her chin pointed upwards and her lips pursed half-open, she looked as if her soul had escaped through her mouth. Ernesto stayed still. He’d have to shake her soon, check her pulse for what he already knew, but he wanted to remain in that moment of uncertainty, where her survival was still possible.
He sat up, reached for her cold wrist, and felt for any sign of life. “Tía,” he said. He’d missed the end, her turning to him, saying goodbye, taking her last breath. Her death seemed like a gift, relieving him of his responsibility to save her.
He stood and grabbed her by the arms. He could still save her body. But she was stiff and too heavy to move. He laid her arms down and sat beside her. With his head in his hands, he tried to think of any other way to bring her with him. Even if he left and returned with help, he doubted he’d find this one hill in the middle of the desert again. If he saved her body only to be captured and deported to Honduras, she would’ve died in vain. He decided he only had the time to do for her what she’d done for others in San Pedro Sula.
He opened her backpack and used the old shirt she kept inside to wipe away the mud on her face. He removed the picture of her mother from the bag and placed it between her hands, took rosary beads out of her pockets and draped them around her neck, picked off branches from the leafless tree and rested them over her body, and made a crucifix out of two twigs and laid them on her forehead. Her green sneakers rested at the bottom of her backpack. The neon shone so bright in the moonlight that he believed someone could spot the color from a kilometer away. He removed her hiking boots and placed the sneakers on her feet. If she couldn’t wear them at his mother’s doorstep, she could at least wear them once in the U.S.
He tied the laces while he recited El Padre Nuestro, then kissed her forehead and said goodbye. He stood up with his backpack, turned away, and walked down the hill. He refused to look back for fear he’d change his mind.
“In the United States…” He contemplated more predictions to keep distracted. But he was in the United States. He had no more reason to fantasize. He walked toward the next mountain on the horizon. Nothing new came to mind.
Eric Weintraub is a graduate of the Mount St. Mary’s University’s MFA in Creative Writing program in Los Angeles, CA, and the author of the novella Dreams of an American Exile, which won Heritage Future’s Plaza Literary Prize. He recently completed a short story collection that was shortlisted for the 2021 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.
© 2022, Eric Weintraub