“It’s time,” the smugglers mutter, steely-eyed, unblinking. “It’s time.”
“Martina,” her mother whispers a final directive. “You be Martin until these men take you over the border.” She zips up her daughter’s padded jacket and inspects her newly shorn hair. Just 11 years old. She can pass for a boy.
“Yes,” Martina replies, meeting her mother’s gaze with one just as determined.
“You know what to do, yes?”
“And if any of these men try to hurt you . . .” her mother’s voice drops even lower, trailing off.
“I will slice their throats.”
Her mother recoils a bit at her daughter’s stoic expression, talking of killing as easily as picking out a nail polish color. But growing up under an utterly corrupt government, illegal drugs and violent crime rife in the streets, and schools terrorized by gun violence, there is no other recourse for Martina.
The smugglers seem impatient, almost hostile to both mother and child. For a moment, Martina’s mother almost asks for the money back. Forget leaving her disguised daughter with these strangers to cross the border into another country. She will take Martina home and cook for her. Yet, tomorrow will offer nothing more for either of them. If Martina is to have a better life, she needs to leave this country.
“Do what you need to do,” her mother says, giving her daughter one last embrace. She folds a small handful of crumpled foreign currency into Martina’s hand. It’s all she has. She’s sold anything of value for this chance.
“Goodbye, mother.” Martina turns to leave, following quickly after the men who no longer wait.
“I will see you soon,” her mother calls, but the lie dies on her lips.
“Thank you—” Martina turns, looking back with her dark, ageless eyes.
Martina’s mother puts her hands over her heart. Her child was always so independent, so capable. God will protect her, far away from this godless land.
Martina knows her mother will watch until the group disappears into the night. She adopts a more masculine walk and lumbers after the smugglers, silently, a baseball cap pulled down low over her dirty face.
🜋 🜋 🜋
After several hours of walking off road, the group stops to rest in a thicket. Martina notes one of the older men has twisted his ankle. The man quickly wraps the injured leg tightly in rags while his nephew pleads his case to the smugglers. They briefly listen, staring at him with little interest. Finally, they wave him off.
“No, my uncle needs to go with us. It’s important—”
“Leave them both.”
“No! You go,” the older man says, eyes wild in pain and panic. “Take him with you, please. I’ll stay.” His hands reach out, an act of supplication.
Cold eyes remain unmoved.
“You will both stay,” the smugglers irrevocably decide, motioning for the others to move forward. The trucks will arrive shortly, and there is no time for broken old men.
🜋 🜋 🜋
The semi-tractor-trailer truck is full of pulp and paperboard. In the midsection, a small carve out allows Martina and the others to huddle together, avoiding detection by border guards. She surreptitiously sips water from her small plastic bottle and munches on the pecans her mother packed. Sitting on a small stack of corrugated fiberboard is surprisingly comfortable, buffering her from the rough bumps and dips of the highway. The truck driver seems to find each crevice and pothole with glee.
Martina dozes. She half listens to the others.
“And he hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, even a land that floweth with milk and honey,” recites a young woman with eyes closed, clicking prayer beads together.
“Keep your God to yourself,” grumbles a middle aged man, dark face etched with life’s disappointments.
“Let her be.” Another woman interjects. Her companion motions her into silence. Best not to get involved in any altercations. They are so close. Their long, expensive journey almost at an end.
“She should pray to the border guard.” The middle aged man laughs bitterly. “It would do her more good. You get caught—you get sent right back to hell. And there’s hell to pay to get out of hell again!”
“She should pray to the drones,” another adds. “The drones are the ones to fear. The border guards can just sit and hunt us down from the comfort of their desks.”
“I thought we were crossing over by boat?”
“The river is being watched tonight. The smugglers pay some of the border guards to tip them off.”
“For me? The truck is better. I don’t like boats,” remarks the young woman. “Too many of us have drowned already.”
“Too many of us have crossed already,” groans the middle aged man. “Even though the border is thousands of miles, we are pouring across like ant trails. Our country will soon be emptied! And the chance of our getting caught is higher than ever.”
“Why should we stay?” replies a young man. “I want to work. There is work. I want a doctor when I’m sick. There are good hospitals. Not like our country, where the rich have everything. The poor? Just broken dreams.”
“We are hated here, though. Despised,” laments another. “They will make fun of us. Call us names.”
“Not the ones who work hard!” states the middle aged man. “I know how to work. Not like today’s young people who just want to stare at their phones and take drugs all day long.”
“That’s not really—”
“The schools are good and clean,” a pregnant woman interrupts, rubbing her belly. “There is so much possibility. For all of us,” she says, smiling.
Most of the migrants look down, unsure, yet holding steadfastly on to that particle of faith. Does anyone want anything more than just a chance?
“Who is that boy?” one asks. “The one who doesn’t speak?”
Martina sits up, instinctively knowing they are looking at her. She pulls her baseball hat down further.
“Who are you?” inquires the pregnant woman. “Why are you doing this? Why are you making this dangerous trip—all alone?”
Martina feels for the knife tucked into her backpack, just to make sure it is still there. She doesn’t respond at first. She feels the eyes of the others on her.
“I just want—” Martina says, voice cracking. “I just want to be free.”
The truck jolts to a stop. The small group goes silent, paralyzed with a sharp fear. Is this the end or the beginning?
Light pours in as the roll-up door opens.
Martina walks out first, blinking in the daylight.
“All right, you filthy Americans,” the smugglers say. “Welcome to Canada.”