A young girl stood in a desert canyon just north of the border between the United States and Mexico. She was wearing a short, tight black skirt and a low-cut red blouse of soft, clingy material. On her feet were high-heeled shoes.
She was thirsty.
It was just before dawn on a Wednesday in mid-March.
To the south was Mexico. The girl stood on U.S. territory. The canyon was in Imperial County, California. The nearest city was Imperial Beach, only a few miles to the west.
A fence separates the United States from Mexico. It runs from Imperial Beach for fourteen miles into Tecate. The fence ends at Colonia Nida de las Aguilas, a riverbed, now dry, which crosses the border. The girl was standing well east of that point.
The land to the north of the border is four hundred square miles of dry and barren hillsides.
The girl had regular features, and smooth, unmarked brown skin. Her eyebrows had been plucked into a careful, artful line. As she looked at her surroundings she bit her lips gently together, then opened them and lightly ran the tip of her tongue along the back of her upper teeth in a reflexive, thoughtful gesture.
Her eyes were brown and her long dark hair was held back from her face with a red ribbon.
She stood at the bottom of the dry riverbed. Along the riverbed stood or sat other young girls, dressed like herself, in short skirts and high-heeled shoes. There were perhaps fifteen girls altogether. At the head of the canyon stood a man with a rifle. He was looking away from the girls, to the north. With him was another young man. The men wore blue jeans and sturdy leather boots. The man with the rifle wore a white tee shirt and an open tan jacket. The two men were talking to each other. A third man stood some distance away. He cradled his rifle, an expensive American make, loosely with one arm as he smoked a cigarette.
The girls were being marched through the canyon. They had started two hours before, in the dark, and had walked seven miles in the desert to get to this point, just north of the border. They had crossed the border without incident, as the area was not well patrolled. It was cool in the canyon and the sky over its eastern rim was beginning to turn pink. Soon the real heat of the day would begin.
The girl was thinking. She stood apart from the other girls. If the guards were looking away, she could run. She looked down the canyon, the way they had come. The dry river bank had taken a sharp curve as the water that formed it had found softer rock to carve through. That created a natural wall, and a limit to the sightline of the men holding the guns. If she ran back the way they had come, south, she would have a chance. Once she was behind the wall, she could climb up to the top of the ridge and escape down the other side.
She was only one girl. They had other girls to watch and they were hurrying to meet someone, someone with a truck, further north. If there were a diversion, a moment in which to run, she could get behind the wall. She tensed her calf muscle. Her feet were still calloused and hard. Once she discarded the crippling shoes, she could run. She knew she could.
Altagracia Guzman was fourteen years old. Until nine weeks ago she had lived in a suburb of Delicias, a city south of Chihuahua, Mexico. She had been a student in middle school and had won the school prize in geometry the previous quarter. She was studying English and could count to one hundred and exchange simple greetings. Her father and mother were preparing for her Quinceañera, the party to mark her fifteenth birthday. Her mother ran a sewing and tailoring business out of their home, and Altagracia could sew a straight seam by hand if she had to but preferred the sewing machine. Her mother depended on her for simple tasks: shortening trousers, letting out a waistband, and was teaching her how to make a satin evening jacket for a high-paying customer.
Altagracia could also make perfect tortillas that never tore in her hands and never burned. She made arroz con pollo and corn tamales. When her mother was occupied with her little twin brothers, Altagracia did the cooking and had supper ready when her father came home from his maintenance job at the factory.
All this had changed when two men grabbed her on her way home from school on a Friday. By habit she walked with her friend Edelmera, but that day Edelmera’s mother had called for her early at school; her grandmother had become ill and the girl was needed at home.
Altagracia had been alone on the two blocks that skirted the edge of the industrial park in the southern part of the city. When the white panel van pulled up to block her path she thought the driver meant to ask her directions. Then she saw the look on his face but it was already too late. Someone grabbed her elbows from behind, and the first man put a cloth to her face with a strong-smelling chemical. She was aware of being lifted off her feet and she heard the opening of a metallic door.
She came to in the back of the van, hearing the engine and smelling the diesel fumes. There were seven other girls in the van.
The first part of her journey ended in Calle Santo Tomas, in the La Merced section of Mexico City.
This neighborhood has been a home to low-end prostitution since the 1700s. She fought and was beaten, resisted and was starved. When she decided to quit eating and starve herself to death, she was force fed. At last she submitted. She was forced to parade in the square in front of them, display herself in her skimpy garments. Allow them to view her, to select before purchase, to walk with them back through the warren of rooms to the space allotted her. It was a mockery designed to make her feel complicit, to provide a pretense of agency where there was none. Each man bought fifteen minutes. Four men in an hour. Eight men in two hours. The nights began at ten pm and ended at three in the morning. Twenty encounters in each night’s work.
Altagracia kept track of the nights by ballpoint-pen marks on the edge of her mat. When she was alone in the early hours of the morning she closed her eyes and counted to one hundred in English, recited the conjugations of the English verbs she had been taught: to have, to be, to be called, to play, to eat, to love. She remembered garments she had sewn for her mother; she recited the prayers she had been taught in church. She whispered her street address and pictured the white tablecloth with the blue embroidered edge she had made when she was nine as a gift for her mother. She remembered the silver chocolate pot her father had purchased for her mother and recalled how her mother stirred the chocolate for the family.
The nights had followed one another for sixty-one nights. Then another panel van and another journey in the jolting darkness with the smell of diesel. They were being driven north this time—she was being taken into the United States. The forty-eight states were big. She knew that from her geography lessons. Once she was in that big place she would be lost forever. She wanted to go home.
The sun had not yet come up and the light had an obscuring quality that she hoped would be to her advantage.
The two men at the head of the ravine were still talking. The third man put down his cigarette and turned behind a rock to relieve himself.
Then, a scream. And another. “Culebra! Culebra!” A girl had seen a snake. They were all terrified of rattlesnakes. A knot of confusion, more screams, a scuffle; the men were looking away. She saw her chance, she ducked, she ran. South, as they would not expect. East toward the sheltering wall. One shoe fell off as she pelted forward, then she stepped out of the other just as easily. Her feet felt sure on the hot flat rocks of the stream bed. Overhead she felt the air cool as the shadow of the rock wall came over her. In a moment she would be underneath it and then she would have a chance.
Behind her she knew the guard was raising his rifle, but she could not spare him a thought. Her entire being was focused on forward motion. She pumped her arms, reaching for the next foothold with her long legs. Her lungs were burning and there was a sharp pain in her side. She ignored it and breathed hard, in through her nostrils, out through her open mouth, keeping her lungs full so that she could continue running.
Now she was behind the outcropping of rock and she began to climb. Another stream had come down to join the main canyon where they had been. She found easy footing suddenly in softer, moister soil that was clustered with smaller pebbles. She climbed rapidly upward into the heat of the sun, then turned south again with the rising sun on her left-hand side, along the top of the ridge. She kept running, looking forward, never back, the canyon now behind and below her. The land sloped rapidly downward to a road. They were this close to a road! She could hardly believe it. She feared the road because she would be exposed, but she could run so much faster. The road was blacktop, with clear white lines painted at the margins, and a double yellow line down the middle. She didn’t know this but the road was California State Route 94, which parallels the northern border of Mexico.
She stumbled down the last bit of the slope, bruising her ankle on a rock, landing on her buttocks and sliding down; the sheer black fabric of her skirt rode up and the rocks scraped and cut her long brown legs. She couldn’t think about what she looked like; she had to keep going.
At the margin of the road she looked again for the sun. South, she wanted to run south, home was south. She kept the sun on her left side and settled into a steady jog. No one was shouting, no one was shooting, she would not look back; she would only look forward.
The sun had risen higher when she heard a car. She glanced backward, fearful. It wasn’t the van. It wasn’t the white panel van. Suddenly she felt close to tears. She saw a boxy square shape, a large sedan. With sudden hope and desperation she stopped, turned to face the car, and stood in the middle of the driving lane, waving her arms.
The car slowed and stopped. It was a red Subaru, dusty from off-road driving, with a man driving and a woman passenger. Altagracia ran to the side of the car. The blond woman lowered the window on her side. “What’s the matter? Are you in trouble?”
The words didn’t mean anything to Altagracia, but she could read the woman’s expression. Intelligent, cautious, maybe helpful.
“Please,” said Altagracia in English. “Please . . .” Her English deserted her. She switched to Spanish. “Help me. Help me please. I must go south.”
The man spoke. He had close-cropped dark hair and was wearing a blue polo shirt. “What’s going on? What’s she doing out here dressed like that?”
“She needs help.” The woman spoke, in English, suddenly decisive. “And we’re going to give it to her.” She spoke to Altagracia in Spanish. “Get in. We will help you.”
Altagracia pulled the door open and collapsed on the back seat.
“I don’t know where she’s coming from, Michael,” said the woman. “But we’re getting out of here. Let’s get going.”
Michael put the car in gear and stepped on the gas. Altagracia burst into sobs.
“Here, here, it’s all right now.” The woman spoke in English, then in Spanish. “¿Quieres agua?” She handed Altagracia a narrow water bottle. At first all Altagracia could do was hold it next to her face, then she got her breathing under control, opened the bottle, and took a long drink.
“¿Cómo te llamas? What’s your name?”
Altagracia looked directly at this surprising woman who spoke to her in her own language. She didn’t answer.
The woman continued in Spanish. “My name is Elizabeth. I am a translator. I work for the court system in Imperial City. Are you in some kind of trouble?”
“No trouble,” Altagracia lied. “I want to go home.” “And where is your home?”
“Delicias, near Chihuahua.”
“What’s going on? What’s her story?”
“She says she’s not in trouble. She just wants to go home.”
“Not in trouble? Dressed like that? In the desert at 5:30 in the morning? She’s in trouble.”
“Just drive, okay?”
“Is anyone following us?”
“Us?” Elizabeth turned around, scanned the empty highway behind them.
“No, no one’s following us.”
“Good.” Michael looked in the rear-view mirror and then again at the road. He wore glasses with silver rims. “Are you hungry?”
Altagracia managed a small nod.
Elizabeth reached into a cooler by her feet, found a sandwich in a plastic wrapper, and handed it to Altagracia. The girl took it warily. It was thick, homemade bread, with cheese and some kind of spicy filling. She took a bite and chewed carefully. As she ate she became hungry.
“How did you get here?” Elizabeth asked.
Altagracia shook her head. “Some bad men. I just want to go home.” She pictured her mother’s kitchen clearly, the table with the white tablecloth and the blue embroidered lace border that she had made when she was nine. “I live in Delicias,” she repeated, and gave the address. “Is it far? Please?” She said “please” in English.
“We will help you,” Elizabeth said. “Help her do what?”
“Help her get home.”
“Home? To Delicias? South of Chihuahua? That’s far. That’s not in Baja. That’s in mainland Mexico.”
“You understood a lot for someone who says they don’t speak Spanish,” Elizabeth said.
“Whoever brought her out to the desert is going to be looking for her,” Michael said. “I’m just looking at the larger picture here.”
“I don’t think so,” Elizabeth said.
“I think if they were looking for her she wouldn’t have gotten this far. And if she’s a trafficking victim like I think she is, they won’t be chasing her; they’ll be trying to get the rest of the girls across. The thing to do is to take her to the police.”
“No!” Altagracia shouted. “No. Not the police. No police.” She remembered the police who had been her customers in La Merced. She grabbed Elizabeth’s arm and began to shake uncontrollably. “No police. I just want to go home.”
“We’ll get you home, I promise.”
“And what about our trip?” They were on their way to land they owned in Baja.
They had left their home early that morning. It was a vacation they had planned for weeks.
“Peter has those dental clinics in Mexicali. He can take her back into Mexico.”
“Smuggle an illegal back into Mexico? Are you kidding me?”
“Peter has never so much as smuggled a candy bar in all the years he’s been running those clinics. He crosses the border twice a day. They give him a free pass. He’s the perfect person. Then she can get a bus to Juarez and go south from there. It’s possible. It can happen.”
“And who’s going to buy the bus ticket?”
“That’s not important now. Just drive, okay? There’s no one following us. I’ll call Peter in an hour or so when he’s up.”
Altagracia had been listening with wide eyes. Elizabeth explained rapidly in Spanish. Home, Altagracia was thinking. She could get home. She relaxed against the back of the seat and fell instantly into a deep sleep. In a dream she heard a girl’s voice. “You’re just going to leave her here like this?” It was a voice she knew. Who was the girl talking about? Leave her where? When the car changed speed and slowed down she snapped awake. “What is it? What’s happening?”
Elizabeth’s voice was soothing. “We’re stopping at a rest stop. It’s okay.” The car slowed more, and stopped.
“I can give you some different clothes if you want them,” Elizabeth said.
“Yes, please.” Altagracia spoke in English.
Elizabeth took clothes out of a small bag in the back of the car. She walked with Altagracia to the rest stop, but Altagracia didn’t feel the same psychological hold from Elizabeth that she had felt from the madam in La Merced. She changed clothes in a stall in the restroom—a pair of jeans, a clean white shirt with long sleeves that she could button as high as she wished. A tan windbreaker that was slightly too large. She looked at herself in the restroom mirror. There was nothing to show where she had been, what she had done, who she had been. She looked as she always had, only older. With luck, she could pass for eighteen.
“Do you want to discard the old clothes?” Elizabeth asked.
Altagracia put them in the trash container and they walked back to the Subaru side by side. Altagracia looked around. No one was watching them.
Michael joined them at the car. He looked at Altagracia. His look was neutral, not charged with possession or calculation. “All set?”
In the back of the car, Altagracia fell asleep again. She awoke again at dusk. They were in a residential neighborhood. “This is where our friend lives. Peter. He can help you. He can take you back into Mexico.”
Altagracia nodded. Somehow she knew she could trust these people. “We will leave you here,” Elizabeth said. “Peter is ready. He can take you in his car. You will have to lie on the floor of the back seat. We will cover you with a blanket and put some boxes next to you. He crosses the border regularly for his businesses in Mexicali. He is a trusted person. No one will question him. He speaks Spanish too, but not as well as I do. Here is money.” Elizabeth put folded money in her hand; it was pesos. “This is for the bus.” Then she gave her different money. “This is dollars. In case you need them.”
Peter was small and stocky. He looked like an accountant on a TV soap opera she used to watch at home with Edelmera. He was waiting by his car, a Kia sedan. Altagracia lay down on the floor in front of the two back seats. She was between two large boxes packed with glass bottles. Elizabeth touched her shoulder. “Peter will take you to the bus station. Good luck.”
Elizabeth pulled a blanket over Altagracia and shut the door of the car. The car started and drove from the quiet neighborhood into an area of heavy traffic. The sounds of the city were all around her. The car slowed and stopped. She breathed shallowly, through her mouth.
“Across again?” A male voice. Spanish. It must be the border control.
“Emergency surgery at the clinic.” Peter’s voice was light. His Spanish was good, but mispronounced: a strong American accent. “Got a panicked call. The technician needed some supplies. You know how it is.”
“Is that what’s on the floor in the back seat?”
“Yeah, it’s surgical kits, a new sterilizer, slides for the X-ray machine. Unless I’ve got lucky and it’s a teenaged girl.”
Altagracia stopped breathing.
The guard laughed. “You, get a girl? With that face?”
“Come on, it’s not that bad.”
“Crossing back to the states again tonight?”
“As soon as I deliver the goods.”
“All right then.”
The car accelerated again and Altagracia breathed. She was in Mexico, she could go home. Again she pictured her mother’s kitchen table; the white cloth with the blue embroidered edge, the stove and the kettle; the silver pot for making chocolate, her father’s gift to her mother.
They drove for several blocks. Peter stopped the car, got out, and opened the back door. “It’s the bus station; you can get out now.”
Was she still asleep? She could hardly believe this had all gone according to plan. Peter walked next to her and stood aside as she bought the ticket she needed with Elizabeth’s pesos.
“Are you hungry?”
Peter bought her a tamale and a Coca-Cola. He sat with her as she ate, and waited with her until her bus was called. He stood at the bus station, watching as the bus pulled out. She waved to him from the widow.
No one on the bus paid any attention to her. No one took the empty seat beside her. It had all happened with such an easy logic: Elizabeth and Michael slowing to pick her up, driving her to Peter’s place; Peter taking her across the border. Now she was on the bus, going home.
In Delicias, outside the bus terminal, she held out her hand for a cab. At first she was afraid. She was young and alone. Would he stop? Would he question her? Perhaps it was the American clothes that made her look older. The cab driver nodded as she gave him the address, the address she had repeated to herself over and over in those rooms in Mexico City.
As she approached her neighborhood she felt a tightness in her chest, a sensation that she could not breathe deeply enough. She was going home; she could see her mother, her two brothers, her father. Would he be home from the factory?
The cab turned down the familiar street. The cab stopped, she paid the driver and got out. The house looked the same. But of course it would, she had not been gone all that long. She walked toward the door. The street seemed steep to her suddenly, as if in her absence she had indeed aged, had become an old woman, an old woman with weak legs, weaker lungs.
The door stood open; it was a warm day. She hesitated at the threshold.
“Mama,” she said, “Mama.” Her mother looked up, startled, from her work at the sewing machine. Altagracia seemed to see everything with preternatural clarity. There it was, the table, covered by the white cloth with the blue embroidered edge that she had made when she was nine. Her mother’s sewing machine, the table piled high with shirts to be altered, with trousers to be hemmed. She heard her brothers playing in the other room. Her mother stood up, stepped forward to embrace her, her face open and smiling. But the scene changed, the light on the silver coffee pot suddenly blinding.
“Mama,” Altagracia said again, and then she stopped, puzzled. An exploding pain was beginning in the back of her head, her vision went away in a searing heat of white light. “Mama,” she cried again, and fell forward.
Altagracia lay on her face in the stones of Cottonwood Canyon. The bullet had caught her in mid-stride and her limbs now lay still in the terrible disarray of death. The rifleman lowered his gun. He had seen her turn just as the other girls had shouted “Culebra! Culebra!”
He inspected his work. It was a good clean shot in the back of the head, exiting through the eye. He had spent many hours practicing his marksmanship over long distances and was justly proud of his well-made American rifle. Still, given the difficulty of hitting a moving target, it was an extremely lucky shot. He had hoped to bring her down with a bullet between the shoulder blades. The loss of the girl was regrettable. In the nine weeks at La Merced she had earned the syndicate almost 9,000 pesos; less the costs of her upkeep—food and clothing—since she had been a slave and had earned nothing for herself. And his bosses would have realized $2,000 for her from her purchaser in Arizona, but that would now not happen.
He stood and turned away from the body. “Okay. Let’s get going.”
A girl stepped forward. “You’re just going to leave her here like this?”
Without a word he lifted the rifle and sighted down the barrel. The girl looked at her shoes and took a step back. He lowered the rifle.
The girl turned and followed the other girls. The footing was bad and the sun was hot as they made their way north, into Los Estados Unidos.
The rifleman followed. His boss had told him to expect losses in this part of the journey. Some girls died of exposure, some of snake bite. So far he had prevented that. And now the other girls would be more tractable. He reminded himself of a central fact of his business. More young girls were born and matured every day: this meant an inexhaustible supply of product. And there was an equally inexhaustible demand. He considered himself a fortunate man. He had found a place in the best business opportunity in the world.
Susan Thornton is the author of On Broken Glass: Loving and Losing John Gardner. She is inspired by Ambrose Bierce and admires Lyudmila Ulitskaya. Susan lives and writes in Binghamton, NY where she teaches high school and middle school French.
“Border Crossing” was originally published in Street Cred (TLR, 2015)