We pause for a moment under the searing sun, and I struggle to see in the distance. My sunglasses are pretty much useless after the miles and miles of flat land, some of it punctuated with dead things. Grasses? No. Cacti, some of them kicked over, some of them clustered in groups like us. Moving slowly across this horrible area, I am hungry, yes, but I am more thirsty than anything. Each cactus spine threatens us as we slink towards the border. It’s always like this—each time I promise myself I won’t do it again, but yet, here I am all the same.
The distance moves, and we are stationary. I am exhausted beyond belief, and the arid temperature only means we stink less because I am sure we are all just about done for. It’s always this way. I keep reminding myself to stop counting steps and keep checking on everyone here. They are counting on me and my partner, Chelo, to guide them to safety and a better life on the other side. We made promises. This time, I plan to keep them all.
In the forefront, Chelo spots two jugs of water. The kid runs ahead, smacking his maroon lips angrily. He holds one jug up, then another, and empties the contents into his mouth before I can shout at him, "Wait! Wait! It may be poison!" He doesn't even seem to mind at this point. He looks so small that for a moment; I think of my own son. I miss him, but sentimentality doesn’t help. At least soon I can slide a few dollars into his mom’s apron.
I met the kid and his uncle earlier this week at the Nuevo Laredo bus station. It was there that I witnessed his uncle giving up, praying, and asking around for a guide. I was stupid enough to promise the uncle that I would help. I said nothing after I watched the uncle tearfully place the money into his nephew's hands and then peel back a few dollars. Whether he intended to buy a bus ticket, or a beer, it’s not my cause. I’ve got more problems to cloud my mind, and these types of things happen more frequently than anyone would care to admit. Who hasn't spent their last few dollars chasing a dream? I handed the uncle a smile and placed my hand firmly on the boy's neck. "Don't worry, uncle. We will be there by noon." The nephew reminded me of my own son. The uncle seemed relieved as he turned and walked away from the bus terminal, his image eventually dissipating like the massive fumes from the parked beasts.
That was three days ago. One night of walking, a few hours of sleeping, a close call with a snake, and we were off again. The moon grew wide and low. I woke again, walked, and felt my legs give way. I held the kid back with me, I am sure, but along the way I knew that if I had made the journey alone at 11, I would not have made it. I'm older now, and more experienced with these sandy hells, but still. We have too much to lose at this point, and we’re so close.
I finally catch up to the kid. He seems fine. Joyous even. He smiles and then yells again that there is water for all of us. I can't believe it. A blue tank. Is that one poisoned? I wonder. Or is it full of the piss from farmers who chased us with shotguns last night? Or full of real water? I can’t trust it until I taste it for myself. I feel my heart race under my exhausted chest.
The last time we saw one of these tanks, it was empty. My stomach still shakes, and our bodies don't even perspire at present, but I strengthen my resolve to keep going. I need that water. I reach into my pocket and rub my saint amulet and walk ahead. My blisters rub in my left shoe and I can feel the cushion erupt into a moist mass. My feet are trashed, through and through.
We grow closer. The old man we nicknamed “Dino” for “dinosaur” begins to drag his feet. Chelo offers to carry his bag. Though he refuses, I can see that he is reaching the point of desperation. I stop for a moment, consider asking if I can hoist him on my back the last few meters to the tank, but I stop myself. I’ve got to carry on. I don't want anyone to get used to being held. Not our wives, not our children, not us.
I wave Dino on. "Hurry, old man, before I drink it all." He laughs. "Wait, friend, I hear it's actually mescal...." I see him return to consciousness and hope. He laughs again, the weight of his breath pushing him forward, his tired hands grasping a Wal-Mart bag with canned tuna and dreams, he walks forward again.
Melissa Wabnitz Pumayugra is a Texas writer who enjoys a tall tale and a medium iced coffee. Her work centers around identity and cultural phenomena. Her work can be found on twitter (mel_the_puma), Hobart, Blood Orange Review, Emerson Review, Shirley Magazine & more.