“Are we almost there?” Lupe asked. The rumbling of the truck drowned her voice. She tried again, louder, but all that came out was the rasping of her throat. The truck slowed to a halt. Lupe felt the people around her perk up. She listened to footsteps crunch on the rough desert road near the back of the truck. Lupe faced the sound, eyes wide.
The door opened and a blinding light swarmed in, reflecting off of sweat. Faint mumbling erupted amongst them. Lupe shivered as a brisk blast of air hit her. She pressed against her boyfriend’s body, but he stood up and jumped off the truck. The rest of the people followed suit. They kept quiet so as to not attract any wildlife. Eventually, Lupe got up and asked for a bottle of water. As she gulped down the warm, sandy fluid, a little girl came up to her, “May I have some water, too, por favor?”
“Of course, nena,” she replied, handing the bottle over. Lupe walked away from the truck, towards the dark abyss of the desert. She could hear the howls of coyotes in the distance, the soft whistle of the desert breeze. As she stood there, she imagined she was facing her home. It had been three days since they began to travel. Every day she traveled the farthest distance she had been from home.
It wasn’t her idea to go to the states. In fact, she was quite content with her life back at the pueblo. She loved the rich smell of burning wood in the morning, the buzz of insects flying through the thick forested mountains, but her mother insisted she went to the states. Their crops weren’t as productive as previous years, they had no money to buy more animals, and the family had grown immensely. Lupe was the eleventh child of thirteen.
Lupe’s mother was a strong woman at the peak of her strength, but now she showed signs of fatigue. Her face slowly wrinkled over time, her hair lost its black brilliance and now seemed to have been touched by the moon’s rays. She tried to keep the house together, but without her husband, no one took her seriously. It would be a great day if she could find a loaf of bread for her children to share.
Despite the family’s shortcomings, Lupe knew nothing else. She had grown to live with their poverty. She didn’t ask for anything, but her mother wanted a brighter future for her. When Lupe’s boyfriend offered to take her to the states, Lupe’s mother quickly decided for her.
“You deserve a better life than mine,” she said, caressing Lupe’s hand.
A week after, during the dark hours of the morning, Lupe got her backpack of provisions and headed to the village plaza. A pickup truck stood parked at the center, illuminated by a single lamppost. The truck had seen many miles of desert, had carried countless people to what they thought was their dream.
Her boyfriend sat at the back of the truck. He didn’t acknowledge her presence. She never understood why he was so indifferent. She blamed it on his father, a cruel man that spent his weekends getting drunk and taking his anger out on his wife and children. Her brothers warned her against dating him. They feared he would turn out to be just like his father.
She threw herself next to him. No reaction. They sat there in silence as several others crammed themselves into the space. After a couple of minutes of heavy breathing, the driver got into the truck.
They felt the engine roar to life. Lupe felt her stomach turn, her fingers clutched her backpack. She felt paralyzed, helpless, empty. When the truck started to move, she wanted to jump out and run back home, run back to her mother, her family, but she stayed there, quiet. Whether it was to follow her mother’s wishes, for herself, or for her boyfriend, she did not know.
They drove through the rugged mountain roads, frequently driving over potholes that would jolt people into the air. They watched the sun rise from the mountains, throwing its rays across the vast land.
They drove all day, and the sun was beginning to set when stone houses appeared from behind the mountains. The road led to an entrance, after which it disappeared. People slowly moved to the side as the car approached. Children ran across the cobbled streets, playing with a deflated ball. A group of men sat on their house steps, enjoying a couple bottles of beer.
The driver took them to a small church. Once the car stopped, Lupe got off the pickup and stretched. Her boyfriend stayed in the truck. Lupe looked around and spotted a small shop. She headed in and looked for something to drink.
“Where are we?” The small voice had come from a young woman behind her. Lupe turned around to see a willowy figure looking down at her. Lupe recognized her face. She had often seen her in the village soccer courts, dominating the game. What was her name, again? She looked frightened.
“I’m not sure. I think we’re nearing the border.”
“I’ve seen you around before, haven’t I? You’re Lupe, right? The one dating El Colorado’s son?” Her boyfriend’s father had quite the reputation around the village as an abusive man. They called him “the colored one”, a nickname for the devil. She didn’t wait for Lupe to answer.
“My name’s Laura.”
“Lupe,” she nodded at Laura as acknowledgement.
“What did you see in him?” Laura asked, referring to her boyfriend.
“Is that his name? Yeah, him.”
“He’s not like his father,” she pressed, but even to her it sounded like she was trying to convince herself. After their initial spell of love wore off, he became cold and distant. He would humiliate her in front of his friends to make them laugh. He would ignore her at times, and at others they would make passionate love. His mood constantly changed, and Lupe didn’t know why she was still with him.
Lupe paid for a bottle of water and they both walked out. The sky had turned into a rich shade of blue. The sun seemed to be completely set, but its rays still managed to break through. She walked back to the truck to find her boyfriend laying in the truck alone, gazing at the star streaked sky. Lupe didn’t like to look up at the sky. It frightened her to see. She sat next to him and offered him the bottle. He drank it all and belched loudly, then grunted in thanks.
They stayed there for a couple of minutes, in silence. Lupe sat there pondering her future alone in an unknown world. Unbeknownst to her, the same thoughts haunted Clemente’s mind. His back still hurt from the whipping his father had given him a couple days ago for dropping a bucket of drinking water. His father was probably wondering where he was. Clemente had decided he could no longer live with him. He did love Lupe, but he didn’t know how to express his feelings. He couldn’t say “I love you” because it felt stupid, too sentimental. He couldn’t let his guard down. Besides, he wasn't blessed with good looks. What if she tried to leave him? What if she had someone else in mind? He couldn’t risk losing her. She was his only companion now.
The driver came back once the moon floated high above their heads. The clouds broke the moonlight, like leaves of trees in sunlight.
“Is everyone here?” he asked. Everyone had returned and they replied softly in response. “Follow me.” He led them to the back of a church. A truck stood there, engine purring. The back was open and the man motioned for them to get in. The group huddled to the truck and climbed on board. As Lupe climbed in, she heard the cries of a group of coyotes in the distance. Once everyone was inside, the man closed the truck. Everyone was silent. They felt the truck begin to move.
This is it. There’s no turning back now. For some reason, she felt the same way now as when she looked up at the sky.
Lupe reached next to her and grabbed Clemente’s hand. Her fingers wrapped themselves around his clammy ones. He tightened his grip.
Lupe stared at the horizon as she saw rays of light pushing through the dark sky. Everyone had started to go back in, but she stood there, at the line between road and desert. She watched the sky turn a rosy shade of pink. She watched the stars disappear into the oblivion. She watched the sky, the terrible sky. She wanted to look away, but couldn’t She felt her stomach churn, as if she were flying towards the emptiness.
A hand grabbed her shoulder, and her moment shattered. She turned around and saw it was Clemente. He motioned to the truck.
“We have to go.”
“Do we? Why can’t we stay here? We can live happily here. I don’t mind being poor.”
“No, we have to go,” he pressed, a hint of impatience in his voice. He tried keeping calm, but he felt his impatience begin to turn into anger. Lupe, sensing the tension, walked back. She didn’t want to make him angry while they were still traveling.
After another day of travel in the hot confines of the truck, they came out into the air. They were off the road, near the base of a mesa. Plateau and mountain surrounded them. A scorpion, pale as the underbelly of a fish and illuminated by the moon’s milky light, crept across the brittle ground. It stopped in front of Lupe’s foot, who looked down at it in disgust. With a grunt, she crushed it under the torn soles of her shoes.
“We’re walking,” said the leader. Lupe grabbed her bag and jumped off. They walked in a group, eyes on the ground, trying to scrutinize what they were stepping on. Their only sense of direction was the flashlight bobbing up and down in front of them and the faint moonlight that managed to break through the clouds. Trees began to surround them, blocking out what little natural light they had. They walked for a while on what seemed to be a very faint path. After a couple of minutes, they stopped.
“Let’s make camp here.”
The leader made a fire, illuminating where they were. It was a clearing amongst the trees, with a canopy of leaves over them. Clemente threw his bag against a tree trunk and plopped down, hands behind his head. He motioned for Lupe to do the same.
Lupe looked around for a comfortable area. She lay down near the tree Clemente was, in the shade of various small trees. She watched the fire flicker, listening to the buzz of the bugs, feeling the cool breeze caress her face. Slowly, sleep began to pull her eyes closed.
“Lupe!” The shout woke her up. Everyone was scrambling. Countless flashlights surrounded them.
“La migra!” They had found them.
She saw Clemente frantically searching for her, but no one could see her. She was safe in her area. She saw as the officials held people down. She watched as they were taken away. Still, no one spotted her. In the chaos, their guide showed up behind her, with a small group of people.
“Come with us! Quick!” They reached for Lupe. She watched as the officials captured Clemente. She felt herself move towards him, but if she went with Clemente, she had no idea what to do from then. She didn’t even know if she wanted to be with Clemente. He hadn’t done anything yet, but she was afraid of him, afraid of what he might become. But if she didn’t, she might get across the border on her own. She could live on her own and create a new life. She could be away from him.
She tried to move, to go with the guide, to return with Clemente, but she couldn’t. She crouched there, feeling the blood in her fingers turn cold, feeling the vibrations on the ground of the scattering group, listening to the coyotes howl at the dark void above. She couldn’t move.
Cristian Martinez is a senior at Regis High School in New York.