I only needed a few steps to walk over to Isabella, but that felt like its own journey, getting there. Each step was harder, the second guessing getting stronger.
No turning back now.
I sat across the table. With a particular slowness, she moved her eyes from the window to me. She put the chocolate bar into her mouth.
“Hi Wendy,” she said, mumbled.
She bent her chocolate bar until a piece snapped off, remaining in her mouth. She chewed and ate it, eyes trained on me. She set the rest of her snack down when she finished.
“If that’s even your real name.”
“It is,” I said, somewhat amused by her immediate confrontation. “Is the candy good?”
“I’ve had better.”
Isabella glanced back outside the window.
“Back in Mexico. That’s why I’m going back.”
“Must be really tasty, then.”
Isabella blinked, then kept blinking. Her eyes glimmered.
“It is,” she said.
That tug got even stronger. Constricting. Almost suffocating.
“Any other reasons why you’re going back? If I may ask?”
It was hard to ask, I could hear my voice get tight.
But it was probably harder for Isabella to answer.
I watched as she tried.
“After you saved me from the Ghosts, and that long but not really long story with that bitch and that bus, I finally got out of Stephenville. Things didn’t really get better from there.”
“I went to other cities, even hitched a ride to other states, where it was supposed to be better. It wasn’t really. Places wouldn’t take me because of some new rule I never heard of, or they didn’t want to risk it, or maybe they didn’t like the color of my skin or whatever. It sucked, trying to do things the right way when the world treated me like I wasn’t supposed to be on it, that it was wrong for me to exist.”
“Been there, felt that,” I said.
Isabella faced me, her stare turning more intense, into a glare.
“Maybe if I didn’t keep your promise to stay away from gangs, I would have had a better chance of living here, maybe even thriving. I tried to do right by you, Wendy, but… You didn’t even do right by yourself.”
She was lashing out. It reminded me of D.
“I disappointed you,” I said.
Isabella put her hands on the table, picking up her chocolate bar again. She spun it around between her fingers, careful to only be touching the wrapper.
She muttered something in Spanish before switching back to English.
“Yeah, duh, you did. That promise was always in the back of my head, no matter where I went or what I was trying to do. It was the only thing I had that gave me any real direction. I try to remember stuff my padres told me, but it gets fuzzier, and with each day that passes, and the more I have to use English, the more my whole life back in Mexico feels like a hazy dream. It doesn’t seem real.”
Isabella tapped her chocolate on the table. Tapping it some more. A nervous twitch?
“If I stayed away from the gangs, maybe karma would help me out and make things right again. But, no, everything and everyone kept telling me they didn’t want me. And all I can do now is go back. It sucks.”
She had repeated herself, in a roundabout way, but it served to make her frustrations clear. Isabella probably hadn’t gotten a chance to talk to anyone about anything. She wanted to – needed to – vent, I’d give her that outlet. It was the least I could do.
“It certainly does suck. I’m sorry to hear that, Isabella.”
Snapping off a piece of chocolate, Isabella tossed it into her mouth. She spoke while she chewed.
“I ain’t wanna hear it from you.”
I just had to let it roll off my back.
“So, you’re going back to Mexico. What’s the plan when you get there?”
Isabella tapped her chocolate again.
“There’s nothing for me here, it didn’t work out, so I don’t have a choice but to go back. I recently got into contact with a relative. Mi tío. Coca farmer. He’s farther south than my old place, but it was something. So I went back to Stephenville, with no real plan in mind on how to get back, until I find out about this transport. Now I’m here.”
“Well, hey, farming isn’t too bad. Work off the land, start of a new life. At least you get to eat some tastier chocolate.”
Isabella gave me a look like I was stupid.
“It’s coca, not cacao. Leaf, not beans. And I’m not starting a new life, I’m going back to the one that forced me to run away in the first place.”
I was a gang leader, my people sold drugs, yet I was still slow on that world and lingo. It clicked now, though.
“I never knew you put so much consideration into that promise,” I said. “Staying away from that life.”
Isabella went back to playing with her food. When she spoke, it wasn’t muffled.
“Of course I did, what else could I do? Ever since I came into this country, you were the only one who ever gave me a helping hand, or at least did it without expecting something in return. No one else ever gave me a chance. And… I did all that I could with that chance, and…”
Isabella smacked the chocolate bar back onto the table. More pieces broke off.
“And all I ever got was some fucking shitty candy.”
What followed was only the droning of tire on road, Isabella as she sniffled, periodically. Her eyes continued to have that shine to it. That glimmer. Isabella was doing all she could to keep her emotions in check, but I could see the cracks. She’d break, one day, and everything would come out and overflow.
It was like looking at an old photo.
I glanced away, keeping my eyes down.
“If, if you’re still worried about having disappointed me, don’t be. You haven’t done anything wrong, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up over falling into shitty circumstances. Stuff just happens sometimes, things fall into certain places, and you have to pick it all up from there. And how you go about doing that, that defines you. So, do you know what I see?”
“I see someone strong. Hell, stronger than me. It takes so much to fall into this world and not completely lose your head.”
I heard a huff. An empty laugh.
“Ha. Heard that one before. Sorry to say, Wendy, I’ve already lost it. I’ve already lost.”
Then, Isabella let out a long, drawn breath.
“I have a headache,” she said, seemingly out of nowhere.
She sounded so sad.
That tug went taut, until I felt a sting.
“Stephenville,” I started, “This world, it’s…”
“It’s fucked,” Isabella finished.
I smiled, slight.
The RV continued down the road. After a minute or two, I checked out the window, wanting to see the view again.
It looked even better, now that we were farther from the city. The stars were brighter, larger in numbers. Tracing shapes and lines across the sky.
I started talking while the stars shined back.
“Can I ask a weird question?”
“We’re in a weird time, sure.”
“What, um, how did I come across to you, when we first met?”
“How did you come across?”
“Like, what was your impression of me, if you can remember. I know it was a while back.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. That day is fucking seared into my brain forever. I was, I was with Georgie and Bronson and some others, and I had to get one thousand dollars as initiation to join the Ghosts. Anything went, as long as I got my one thousand by the end of the week. I didn’t have much of a choice, I was new to the country, alone, and I needed protection… but, I didn’t make much progress. So they took me along to make the difference.”
I kept quiet, letting her talk, but I was anticipating her answer. The destination, rather than the journey.
“They made pick random people to rob. And the first person I happened to pick was you.”
“That’s some luck,” I commented.
“It, I remember you being really amazing, honestly,” Isabella said. “I only saw bits of it, but you took them out and you made it look easy. Pushing them around, tossing them like it was nothing, all sorts of crazy shit. It was everything I wish I could do, wish I could be.”
“You are,” I whispered.
It set me back, hearing that. To think Isabella held her in such a high regard, after only one encounter. That Isabella spent the next few months trying to live up to a standard that was set by someone else. And that Isabella was beating herself up over not meeting that expectation.
All because of Alexis, yet Isabella knew me as Wendy.
Was ‘Wendy’ just a mask for Alexis, back then?
And what about–
I felt my heart drop at the thought of a follow up question to that. I screwed my eyes shut, and turned away from the window.
Isabella asked, “How’d you even learn to fight like that?”
Yes, good, more of that. More distractions.
I answered with my eyes still shut. Seeing blank.
“I never learned, and I don’t even really operate on instinct. I just have a leg up on everyone else. On people.”
“What does that mean?”
“I’m, I’m not exactly human.”
I didn’t see Isabella’s reaction, but the long pause that followed gave me an idea. Shock, surprise, maybe fear.
“You, you are-”
Her voice was shaking.
“I am,” I said.
I felt several hits on my arm. I forced my eyes open. I saw Isabella, leaning across the table, repeatedly tapping me, punching me as she got more and more worked up.
“Wendy, wake up, what? Excuse me? That’s too vague, you better tell me what that means. That better not mean what I think that means!”
I nodded, shaking a bit from Isabella’s continued assault.
“It does,” I told her.
Isabella stopped, and slinked back into her seat, slouching. Her eyes glued to me.
“No fucking way,” she said.
“Please try to lay off the cursing.”
Isabella nodded back, her eyes huge. She breathed.
“No fucking way.”
I gave Isabella some time to take it all in. It was a lot to take in.
She was blinking, the lower lip shaking, and when she had the constitution to speak, the words were trembling.
“So this whole time, you were… La luna azul. The one everyone is so afraid of. The world’s first…”
She didn’t finish, but I knew what she was going to say.
“Super, isn’t it?” I asked.
From behind me, but at the front of the RV, Sarah called me out.
“I thought you were sleeping!”
“In a minute!” I answered back. I wouldn’t leave her hanging.
Isabella, though, was still trying to process what I had just told her. She was staring back out the window, but it didn’t look like she was focusing on anything in particular.
“Why?” she questioned, “Why tell me this now?”
Because I wanted to move the conversation to something else.
“Thought you might want to know. And to see that you shouldn’t try to compare yourself to anyone, because you’ll always find something that isn’t up to par, or at least you perceive it to be that way. If nothing else, build yourself up, and trust in your own strength. Don’t dwell on your limits, but know your capabilities, and do better.”
Isabella raised an eyebrow.
“So you’re telling me to believe in myself?”
“Is that not important?”
“Now you sound like my-”
Isabella closed her eyes, and when she opened them again, they glimmered.
There was a kind of rhythm in our conversation. An ebb and flow. We’d talk, reach a point that was either too sore or sour to press further on, and we’d stop, cooling off before starting it up again. We had just flowed, and now, we were on the ebb again.
A lot to pick apart, from what Isabella told me, and while the connections weren’t clicking, they did tug.
“So you were a hero,” Isabella said, sounding hollow, deflated. “You were my hero, since you saved me, that day. Ever since I came into America, and even after I left Stephenville, I wondered what the Bluemoon was up to. There was a period of time where nothing happened. No sightings, no activity, nothing. It was like you just… disappeared. Even people in South Tucson were worried that something went down, and what that could mean. To think you were doing this, all this time.”
A buzz, as I heard Sarah coordinate with Tone, who was still tailing the RV. Sarah called the update. We were still good.
“Being a hero isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be,” I said. “And it certainly isn’t realistic. You can’t save everyone. And with this, I can help more people in one day than I ever did as a hero in one night. You can’t break the system from the outside, but you can put it into your favor from the inside. Walls are built for invaders, right? So take the opposite approach. If you want to kill something, do it from the inside. Like a parasite.”
I added, “And it’s not like I’m not wearing masks anymore.”
Isabella huffed again, as if she had found something amusing in what I had said.
“Parasite is a good word, it describes the people you work with so well.”
A not so slight jab at my colleagues. I could taste the venom.
“I can tell you’re not a fan,” I said.
“Can you blame me? I used to be a member of Lawrence’s gang, and that was the beginning of my hell, here. It was probably his idea to make me do that last minute run with Georgie and those guys. And that bitch? I can still hardly believe you work with her, now.”
“She has her… moments,” I said, wording it in a specific way. I knew who she was referring to. “But when push comes to shove, she has your back.”
Isabella shot a look at me.
“She has my back,” I said. “And she might have yours, if you decide to be on her side.”
“Are you asking me to join your gang?”
I didn’t mean to go in that direction, but I wasn’t against it, either.
“I mean, if you want the protection, we can provide it. A roof, a bed, clothes, food. No strings attached, too, if you want to be excluded from doing any work related to Los Colmillos, just let me know and we can set that up as well.”
Isabella’s expression switched between doubt and curiosity. It had turned out to be an intriguing offer for her, after all. I saw her consider it.
“Are you serious?” Isabella asked, “You bring this up now, after we just left the city?”
“You can always just take the return trip with us. The people on the other side of the border are expecting a certain number of their precious ‘cargo,’ but I doubt they’ll miss someone who changed their mind.”
Isabella sat back, fixing her posture. She reached for her chocolate again, and took another bite. I noticed that she had the energy to grab it in the first place.
She spoke with her mouth full. “I’ll… think about it. I feel like, my whole life, I’ve been going from place to place. Always traveling. I can’t ever have somewhere to call my own. It would be nice to have… that, for once. I’ll think about it.”
Weary, exhausted, drained. She had come across as someone who was much older than she actually was.
I suppressed the urge to grin.
That, somehow, lightened my mood. The tug getting less constricting, feeling more like an embrace.
The prospect of having Isabella around didn’t feel like a bad one.
“We’ve got time,” I said. “You can make your final decision once we get to El Paso.
“But, still, if I do swing that way, you’re going to have to keep that bitch away from me.”
“D’s been good, I promise.”
“No, not to protect me, but her. Who knows what’ll happen if we’re in the same room? I’m ain’t going to be responsible for what mess is made after.”
“You really do have beef with D, don’t you?”
“Damn right I do. I can’t just forget that, and I sure as hell won’t forgive it. Do you know the first thing she ever said to me?”
“You remember that much?”
“Yes, I do. Just as clear as ever. It was a question, too. She asked me permission to steal from me, and then proceeded to crash a bus full of people and steal the one grand you gave me.”
One grand. Alexis really did just toss away cash, just like that.
That’s one thousand dollars I could put into the gang, right now.
I could imagine why Isabella remembered her so fondly. Or, at least, it was part of the reason why.
“I just don’t see myself being relaxed with her around, that’s all I’m saying.”
“If you think that’s going to seriously be an issue, and I can make some arrangements so you never have to meet her again. It might cause some complications later, in case you even needed to see me. She likes to hide in my shadow, and I usually let her stay that close. Usually.”
“That sounds like crazy talk. Wendy, you’re just asking for her to stab you in the back one day, and all for a joke. No, actually, you’re giving her permission to do just that.”
Whatever happened on that bus, it really fucked with Isabella. It was understandable, but…
“You are really waiting for the other shoe to drop, aren’t you? Believe it or not, but this isn’t the first time I heard about this bus incident. We can’t take back what went down, but D’s apologized for it before, and again with you, and I can apologize for a third time on her behalf. You don’t know D like I do. She may go about things in her own way, but that’s what makes her a valuable piece on the board.”
“Maybe she wants you to think that,” Isabella said, with an ominous tone. “Maybe she’s been lying to you this whole time.”
I’d need to set these kids up on a playdate or something.
When we get back.
“Sleep on it,” I said, scooting over to the edge of the seat. “Either way, I’ll respect your decision. But, if it means anything, I won’t let you down this time, Isabella. I promise.”
“Yeah, whatever,” Isabella said. She finished up the remainder of her chocolate bar. “In a minute, though, I’m not even tired.”
I slid out of the seat, getting up. Isabella wasn’t looking at me, anymore, staring off into the distance with her jaw hanging open. She scrunched up her face. Stifling a yawn?
Me too, I thought.
“I’ll check up on you again, let me know if you need anything.”
Isabella yawned for real, this time.
“Sure, thanks, I guess.”
It was an uncertain, vague note, but I’d leave it at that. I crossed the RV again to another seat, farther in the back, where my belongings were. Sitting back down, propping my legs up, I tried to make myself comfortable. The sound of the road filled my ears.
There was so much to consider, now
Talking with D, then Sarah, then Isabella. And even Lawrence had a point. I wasn’t used to being put under a microscope like that. Alexis felt a compulsion to help out a girl she hardly knew, and I was willing to do the very same. What did that say about me, about us?
And it wasn’t just that.
D wasn’t very happy with me overseeing the transport by myself. At first, I had chalked it up to her being too attached, or maybe even because of my prodding about her past with Styx. But no, I saw that it was a symptom of a larger issue.
There was a very large, and very significant part of my past that I had routinely ignored for some time.
That time in Braham Barn.
Of all the connections that I had held on to, that one was the most clear of them all. That night. That girl. Much like Isabella, it was a night that was burned into memory, into history. Alexis had gone through that hell, but I was the one being burned.
I put my thumb on my middle finger. Right hand. I cracked the knuckle. I didn’t feel anything.
This couldn’t be ignored forever.
I groused, as if to react to my own thoughts. I’d have to start making in strides in that direction, as well. It wasn’t just about moving forward. To do that, I’d have to learn where I came from. Look to the past. Visit that barn.
I’d have to grow up.
It was a scary idea, that. And the desire to turn back and change my mind ran deeper than taking a look back to see where I had come from.
I wasn’t sure. It was hard to be sure of anything, now. I was at a crossroads.
As my eyelids grew heavier, I thought about what D’s reaction might be. Would she be happy? Relieved? The possibility of that made me want to get this trip over with even faster. And throwing Isabella into the mix, it made for a picture that was easier to look at.
It was hard to look at Isabella’s face. Blurry, too close. The expression didn’t seem all that light.
“Wendy, get up.”
“Uhn,” I sounded. I fixed my glasses. My neck was sore from how I was positioned on the seat. I hadn’t napped right.
Wait. I took a nap?
I rallied my will and stood up. Half-thoughts floated in my head, some dream from right before my eyes had closed. I pushed them aside to focus back on the present. On Isabella.
Isabella stepped to the side. She had been tapping me to wake me up, and she was still doing it, now.
I brushed her hand away. She stopped.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“The lady up front, she wanted you.”
Sarah wanted me? I wouldn’t want to keep her waiting.
“Alright,” I mumbled, as I crossed the length of the RV. I walked a little faster for Sarah’s sake.
I noted that Isabella was following right behind me.
“I’m here,” I said, as I reached the front of the RV.
“Hey Voss,” Sarah said, “Sorry to wake you from your nap.”
“I wasn’t napping, I just gave my eyes a little break.”
Sarah let out a small chuckle. I didn’t respond to that.
“Anyways, I’m guessing we have a situation?”
“We do, and it’s my fault.”
My stomach dropped.
Sarah took one hand off the steering wheel. She pointed ahead.
I looked ahead.
We had gotten off the interstate while I was taking a little break. We were on a much smaller road, two lanes, with no cars directly ahead or behind us. It was still dark, I wasn’t out for very long.
But I saw the town we were approaching. It wasn’t on the horizon, but I could make out the short brick buildings and shorter, stocky lamp lights that gave the place some signs of life. A small town for sure. The road we were on would turn into the main street that divided the town into two halves, and from the distance we were at, I could see the entire scope of the town. Small.
A town, seemingly forgotten in time, so anything modern stuck out like a sore thumb.
There were several of those things.
“Slow down,” I ordered.
The RV began to slow in its approach, but we didn’t stop in our tracks. We’d crawled forward, stalling. Buying time.
Figuring out how we were going to get through this. Literally.
The small dots remained small, being in the distance. It wasn’t going to be like that for long.
I counted up the tally of obstacles.
Two trucks, blocky, like metal boxes on wheels, situated at either side of the entryway into the town, a larger truck to the right. Four people, standing on the road itself. Two of them were holding onto a line that connected them and an even smaller dot.
The RV got closer, and I realized those were lines were leashes. They had dogs.
“Border patrol?” I questioned, “Here?”
Isabella reacted. I couldn’t see her, with her at my back, but she did make a small noise, and I felt a tug on the sleeve of my hood.
“Seems like it,” Sarah said.
Shit, fucking shit.
I was expecting them, we had made plans with them in mind, but I wouldn’t have expected to run into them so soon. Going on a detour was a preemptive measure, but for them to have us beat?
“Two armored vehicles, a bigger truck, four guards and two dogs. Anything else I’m missing?”
“I don’t think so,” Sarah said, “The checkpoint doesn’t look very well put together. Seems improvised.”
“You think they saw us coming?”
“I don’t think so,” Sarah said again. “The next turn onto the highway isn’t for another few miles past the town, so they’d have to see us coming from even more miles away to set up something, and given the force they brought out, it wouldn’t be sufficient to catch all of us, if they knew we were here.”
“Then, they’re as surprised to see us as we are to see them?”
“Precisely. I’m sorry, Voss, I should have seen this coming, I should have expected this.”
“It’s no one’s fault,” I said, wanting to reassure her.
No one’s fault, but there was still a problem, here. It could have been worse, but it was still bad.
“Where’s Tone?” I asked.
“A mile behind, no else on the road between us.”
So border patrol wouldn’t see the truck, yet.
“Pass me the walkie-talkie,” I said.
Sarah handed over the device. The RV continued forward, slow. Isabella still had a hold on me.
I pressed a button on the side.
“I’m cutting right to it, we’ve got BP coming up pretty soon.”
“Don’t think they’ve seen you, but it’s too late for us. Are you able to turn around and make it back to the highway?”
“I can. There’s no one around, so I have room. Just the road and open fields.”
“Okay, do that then. Just pass the town that way. The detour was to see if anyone was tailing us, and it doesn’t seem like that’s the case, is it?”
“It’s not, Voss.”
“Good to hear. Alright. Let’s do that. We’ll catch up with you on the highway, or you can stop somewhere safe and wait for us. Keep us posted- oh, and let D and Lawrence know about this. Tell them we’ll going to be alright.”
“Got it, Voss, turning back.”
And with that, I gave the walkie-talkie back to Sarah.
“Let’s go,” I said. “We’ll meet them head on.”
“Got it, Wendy,” Sarah said, echoing Tone. The RV accelerated.
Isabella made her concern clear. The kid who survived lonely, cold months in different cities and states, and evading these exact kind of people, she became just that, a kid. Someone who just wanted peace.
“I’ll help you find a place to hide,” I said.
“Where? There’s nothing here. If they come up here with those dogs I am so fucked!”
“I promised I’d protect you, wouldn’t I? I intend to keep it.”
Isabella was still anxious, still clutching my arm, but I caught the tiniest smidge of relief in her eyes. The idea that we’d get past this and continue to El Paso.
I’d have to live up to that expectation, that standard.
“Follow me,” I said. “Sarah?”
“Keep going, I’ll be back in a second.”
Sarah nodded, silent. I didn’t need a response, just her acknowledgement. Her foot stayed on the pedal.
Again, I went to the back of the RV, with Isabella.
I looked through everything in the RV, anything that Isabella could hide behind or under. There was a restroom, some cabinets and shelves, but those were too obvious, too easy. She’d get sniffed out in no time.
Something unconventional? To buy us some time?
I checked the ceiling. Plastic panels. But they were bolted in. I had the strength to tear them out and make a hole for Isabella, but I didn’t have the tools to set them back in. And I didn’t have the time.
Tables, the seats…
I made it to the very back of the RV. Without a full plan in mind, I grabbed my bag, zipped it open, and unpacked everything.
“Stuff everything in the cabinet and drawers,” I said, unloading stuff. “You don’t have to be clean or careful about it, in fact, it might look better if it’s strewn about. Makes the place looked more lived in.”
I kept going, taking things out, picking them one by one as the bag was becoming more empty. I hadn’t brought much with me.
There. The bag was empty.
I turned. Isabella hadn’t moved or done anything. Her hand was hovering over one of my delicates that had landed on the floor, like she was scared to touch it, even if this situation could be life or death.
“Move!” I said, hating that I had to be stern with her.
“Wait but, why-”
I passed her, picking that small pile of clothes, stuffing them in an overhead cabinet.
“They’re clean,” I said. “I don’t have any weird stuff, so just move.”
I heard activity from Isabella as I continued moving stuff.
“What’s this then?”
Small, black, with straps.
“That’s my mask,” I said.
Isabella froze, as though I told her she was holding a bomb, instead.
I flicked her on her forehead. She flinched, snapping out of it. Her pigtails swung.
“Move,” I said, more kindly this time. “You can just put that under something. If they find it, it’s not like they’ll know what that is, anyways.”
Isabella finally got with the program and moved.
With her help, we put all my stuff away.
Turning, pointed Isabella to the direction of my luggage bag, now empty.
“Get in,” I said.
I could sense the hesitation, but we had ran out of time for her to voice any of it. Isabella stepped inside, sat down, and curled into a ball.
She was small as it was, and now she was smaller. I zipped the bag back closed, stopping briefly before I covered her head.
Staring at me, anxious. That fear was back, stronger now. It gripped her.
“You’re stronger than me,” I said to her. “Never forget that.”
Isabella blinked, it was all she could do.
I closed the bag, and very, very carefully, I slid it under one of the tables, where I had my talk with Isabella, only an hour or so ago.
I returned to Sarah’s side. I sat in the passenger’s seat. Those dots weren’t small anymore.
Brief, Sarah and I shared a look. Silent, but a lot was exchanged in that moment.
The patrol readied their guard, and we were ready to meet them head on.
And then we met them head on.