A Space for Writers of the World
The cartel’s soldiers extorted old and young, rich and poor to give up the names of the town’s teenage boys. The drug lords had a quota to fill, and the soldiers were not leaving until they reached it. Silvia hid her son, Xoaquin, as best as she could, forbidding him to go outside. Despite her efforts, it only took a few weeks for informants to rat out the family. Soon after, two of the cartel’s soldiers visited Silvia’s bakery.
Silvia could not see their eyes hidden behind sunglasses, dark and shiny like the polished black boots they wore. The one with a fat chin and no neck reminded her of a toad, while the taller one’s chest puffed out, like an arrogant rooster. The Toad and the Rooster watched as Silvia attended a customer picking up pan dulce while her daughter, Ximena, finished laying out the bread for that morning. Once the customer left, they corralled Silvia with questions about Xoaquin: “Where was he? Why wasn’t he attending school? Where did she send him?”
Ximena petted Puchi, the family’s scraggly mutt chewing leftover chicken bones, to distract herself, hating their stench of stale cigarettes and sweat. Terrified, Xoaquin locked himself in the bathroom and hid in the shower with his hands covering his ears. Even then he could hear the soldiers interrogating his mother through the adobe walls.
Silvia told the soldiers that Xoaquin left months ago for her sister’s place in the capital, found many hours away. Not believing her, the men walked over to Ximena and Puchi, leering down at the girl and the pup. Silvia begged them to leave, insisting that Xoaquin was no longer there.
The Toad seized Ximena by the arm while the Rooster clutched Puchi by the skin on his back. Ximena stared at Puchi. He was small, only six months old. His dilated eyes and whimpers revealed that, like her, he also sensed danger.
Ximena began to cry.
Silvia continued to scream at the soldiers.
The Rooster pointed a pistol at Silvia. “¡Cállate la boca carajo!” he yelled, telling her to shut the hell up. “You have five seconds to tell me where your stupid boy is or you will watch as I shoot your ugly dog and your girl.”
He shot the ceiling to emphasize the threat and began to count.
“One, two, three, f…”
“WAIT!” Silvia pleaded.
“He’s in the next town with his cousins. He’ll be here tomorrow morning.”
The Rooster stared and lowered his arm, pointing the gun to the floor. For a few seconds, Ximena thought he had believed the lie. He glared at her and flashed a sinister grin, baring coffee-stained teeth. He flung Puchi to the floor and shot him in the head. Silvia and Ximena screamed as a pool of dark blood collected under Puchi’s lifeless body.
Puchi’s murderer pointed the gun at Ximena and scowled at Silvia as he warned, “Señora we will be back tomorrow and, if your boy is not here, your daughter will be the next one bleeding on the floor.”
The Toad dropped Ximena and the men walked out.
Xoaquin left his hideout to find his mother and sister sobbing in a tight embrace with Puchi’s body nearby. The poor dog’s face was blown off and his brown fur was sullied with blood. Neighbors and customers stood outside with their heads lowered as the minutes ticked by as slow as a funeral procession. No one dared to enter the bakery.
Xoaquin locked the front door as he took in the aftermath of the assault. “We can’t stay here,” he said, kissing his mother and sister on the cheek. “We have to leave tonight.”
They had started the journey as a family. But weeks into the desert, only Ximena and Xoaquin remained, brother and sister born exactly two years apart, surviving on a little water and stale bread. Their mother had succumbed to the heat, fainting each day until one day she no longer got up and joined Puchi in heaven. Ximena and Xoaquin said goodbye with prayers and songs. They left Silvia’s body in the desert covered by rocks and bush branches they collected from the unforgiving environment.
Ximena was twelve and Xoaquin was fourteen. They had grown up without a father, un mujeriego who drank too much and died too young as a result. Silvia had done her best as a single mother and her legacy was the close bond between her children.
Holding hands, the brother and sister trekked north.
One night as they rested on the ground watching the indigo sky speckled with stars, they talked about their hopes and dreams.
“Five plates of fried chicken with rice I will eat,” shared Xoaquin, imagining the food he would have once they reached their new home up north.
“Nah, I will have two bowls of fried chicken and ten cheese empanadas all to myself,” Ximena said gazing up at the crescent moon.
“Do you think Mama is with Puchi now?” she asked.
Xoaquin smiled observing the grime that clung to her small round face, dry and scratched from the journey. He reached out and held her close. “Of course they are. Don’t worry, we are together and Mama and Puchi, they are our guardian angels.”
Xoaquin fell asleep first. Ximena stayed up, hoping for a shooting star. None came. Her dreams echoed her disappointment that night.
The next morning Ximena woke up with an urgency to go to the bathroom. She pushed off Xoaquin’s arm that lay heavy on her side and ran to pee a few meters away. She walked back to where they had been sleeping, noticing that his arm had not moved from where she had pushed it.
“Xoaquin?” she asked. “Xoaquin?”
She tapped his shoulder and he did not respond. She shoved him and he did not move.
Ximena pushed him harder, yelling his name, over and over.
“Xoaquin! Xoaquin! XOAQUIN!”
Trembling, she laid him on his back and placed her ear to his chest.
He was not breathing. He had no heartbeat.
He was dead.
She mourned for what must have been hours next to his body underneath the hot sun, wondering how he had died so suddenly and how she would survive on her own. She pulled at her hair as she dwelled in despair. Ximena had no one left.
Despite the pain, she realized she could not stay next to her brother’s body, afraid as she was of the coyotes and vultures. She drank the warm water left in their canteen, kissed his forehead, and hugged him one last time. She continued north to their dreams of fried chicken, empanadas, and peace.
That evening, after she could no longer walk, she sat and took off her sneakers, torn from the sharp spines and rocks of the desert. She observed her feet, swollen, bruised, and bloody. Her energy depleted, she laid down and quickly fell asleep.
She did not dream that night.
Ximena woke as the pink dawn crawled across the sky. Her chest was sore and her eyes puffy from her many tears. She put on her ragged sneakers and, with no other choice and no more water, walked north. She walked and walked, with only her shadow for company. There were no clouds in the sky, only the taunting face of the sun.
“I’m not going to make it. I’m going to die in this ugly place because of those estúpidos from the cartel,” she told herself as she stopped to rest underneath the afternoon shade of a large cactus. She looked out, contemplating how much further she had to go. The barren landscape stretched to the horizon, seemingly endless.
As she counted cacti to pass the time, she noticed something small moving toward her. Shocked, she got up, scared of what it could be. And then she heard his barks.
“Puchi?” she asked. “Puchi?”
Puchi yelped as he ran to her. She cried, unsure of what this miracle meant, closed her eyes in relief and hugged him hard, feeling his warm breath on her cheeks as he licked her face. She petted his tiny head as he barked. He then jumped from her arms and began to walk away, looking back at her to follow him.
For miles, she trailed closely behind, forgetting about her thirst, burning feet, and aching heart. Ximena was safe with him around, her brown dog with scraggly fur and caring eyes.
As night obscured the sun, Ximena and Puchi saw a soft light glowing in the distance. They walked faster until they came upon the edge of a mild sloping valley. Below was a northern town, manicured with smooth-paved roads dotted by shiny street lamps, like those pictured in the celebrity magazines she used to leaf through while Mama prepared dinner.
Everything about it was unlike the humble pueblo she left behind. The people wore new clothes and had well-coiffed hair and bright eyes. They were taller, fatter, and pinker than anyone Ximena had ever seen. They pointed at her as they whispered words in a language she did not understand. Some called out and approached her, but she ignored them as she walked with her eyes fixed on the town’s church steeple.
Once they reached the church, Ximena stood silent with Puchi, not believing her luck. The doors of the church were open and she could hear a familiar hymn sung inside. She patted Puchi. He had been such a good dog for leading her here. Ximena slowly walked up the steps that led to the entrance, holding the side rail with Puchi behind her. When she entered the church, the priest ordered the musicians and congregants to stop the music. Everyone turned to stare her way as the priest ran to her.
When he reached Ximena, she collapsed in his arms.
She looked back and Puchi was gone.