Sarah and I didn’t have a lot of time to come up with a decent story as to why we were coming into town at this hour. We’d have to make something up on the fly. I was decent at that, working with my back against the wall, improvising. I knew how to lie, I knew how to wear a mask.
I didn’t know about Sarah, but I’d trust in her ability in that regard. I’d have to.
Sarah slowed the RV one more time, but this time, she drew us to a stop.
Here we are.
It was the border patrol’s turn to make a move, and when they did, it was in unison, the guards and dogs walking in step with one another. They mirrored each other in their steps, though, a group of two officers and a dog moving to Sarah’s side, and another group of equal numbers moving to mine. The trucks started up and eased forward onto the road ever so slightly, blocking our way even more. The RV would bump into them if we tried to get through.
They were circling us.
We could go in reverse, but that would defeat the purpose, and there was miles of road behind us. If we tried to go back the way we came now, we’d be done for, right then and there.
So, in short, we were surrounded. Guards and a dog on either side of us, trucks directly ahead, and the implicit threat of what would happen if we turned back. Our only course of action now was to do nothing.
We stayed still.
Sarah put the RV to park, and was able to bring down the windows for the approaching officer. I looked between the ones on her side and mine. The windows would stay up.
All four of them were Caucasian, covered in a heavy looking uniform, topped with body armor. Green was the overbearing color, with patches and badges in yellow. I could read it, plastered on the front of their uniform, in all caps.
‘BORDER PATROL FEDERAL AGENT.’
Three men, one woman, and of the four total, only two had guns strapped to their hip, but the other two held the leashed that kept the dogs in place. There were other things, too, attached on their body armor and person, their own walkie-talkies kept in pouches, flashlights, maybe other weapons. Not that it was too dark to see, but whatever they had, they weren’t going to show unless we gave them a reason to.
We weren’t going give them a reason.
The ambient, soft glow of the vehicles and their lights gave the officers enough to get a decent look at us. I’d imagine that pulling out the flashlights could be taken as being too forward, intimidating. As of right now, this was routine, they were just doing their jobs. And for Isabella, and the other hundred and two people looking for another second chance back in Mexico, we’d let them do just that. Their jobs.
A man approached the open window, talking to Sarah.
Not even a ‘good’ add to that. Just a simple observation.
Sarah’s response was much more cordial.
“And good morning to you, sir.”
The politeness almost had a bite to it.
The officer didn’t pick up on it. Or, he probably did, but he chose to ignore it. And even that was cutting it close. Anymore of that, and they’d hone in on it, use that as an opening to press harder, dig deeper into our facade. We couldn’t have that.
From between my lips, I produced a low hum. Sarah was close enough to hear it and interpret it as a warning.
Don’t test them.
“It’s early, isn’t it?” Sarah added, as if it was an excuse.
“It is,” the officer said. “Takes a lot to stay up, and not miss anything.”
“Well, I hope you don’t overwork yourself too much, too soon, then.”
“I suppose that depends on how things go.”
I definitely picked up on that.
“May I ask what you’re coming into town for?” the officer asked.
I supposed I shouldn’t be surprised, that they’d ask questions. They’d ask regardless of how polite or rude we were. We were still here, at this hour. Suspicions would be naturally raised, regardless.
Moving more my eyes than my head, I checked our surroundings one more time. I noted the officers and the dogs and the trucks. I recalled a sign that was supposed to welcome us into town, but one the of the trucks blocked my view of it, now. I didn’t get a chance to catch the name of the place.
One of the officers at my side caught my glancee, and nodded. I nodded back, suppressing a yawn, and glancing down to the dog he had with him. A canine. The dog was showing his teeth, pushing air out between his teeth, resulting in a low growl.
“Just passing through,” Sarah answered, her focus still on the officers at her side.
“The highway’s back the other way. This town isn’t exactly a tourist trap, so unless you have some business here, I don’t blame you if you ended up passing by here without even realizing it.”
“The road less traveled by? I took us off the exit just to see where it goes. We’re just traveling, passing through. If we could travel by wind, we’d go where it takes us.”
The man expression, and demeanor, changed slightly. He was nodding, his eyes a little wider.
“That’s neat. I appreciate that. Going with the flow. We just got posted up here, so I have to come to terms with the fact that I’m going to be seeing nothing but old bricks and older people for a long, long time.”
“Peter,” one of the other officers said. A woman.
The man who had been talking to Sarah, Peter, turned to the officer next to him.
“What? It’s not like it matters if we’ve been here for five days or five years. I’m just trying to make some chit-chat.”
“Then we can talk after this, we’ve got all the time in the day. Now is not the time.”
“Yeah, but, I’ve been assigned to so many stations with you that you’re kind of boring, now, Chels. There’s nothing new I can get out of you.”
“Then talk with the others.”
“And have them turn out boring, too? No thank you, I’ve learned my lesson. Strangers are way more interesting. You get the good stuff, and then they’re gone forever. They’re strange.”
‘Chels’ rolled her eyes, shaking her head. She took half a step away from ‘Peter,’ pulling her hand up into view. She was holding the leash for the other dog.
“You are unbelievable,” she said.
“The job’s still getting done, don’t you worry. The check’s still coming in the mail.”
“That’s not- whatever, Peter, it’s your call.”
“Right, it is.”
I watched the scene unfold, taking what I could out of it.
They seemed relaxed, casual about how they were conducting themselves and their job. Despite what Chels tried to convey, she still let Peter get away with being cheeky. And she was the one holding the leash.
Or… was Chels holding the literal one, and Peter the metaphorical? Seemed to me that it leaned that way.
Was this the B-Team, sent out to the middle of nowhere in some nothing town to squat and keep watch?
If that was the case, that made me feel a little better about being stuck here with them.
“I’m going for a walk,” Chels said. Her arm was lightly tugged one way. Her dog. “Cerber has been begging for one since we got out.”
“Already? Sure, go ahead. We shouldn’t be long, yeah?”
Peter put his attention back on Sarah.
“Where was I? Oh, yeah, going with the flow. That’s a cool feeling to have. Being free. But, I’d bet it’s not always so liberating. Otherwise, you’re just wandering around, aimless. You need some anchor to keep yourself on track. You girls have any destination in mind?”
Please don’t say El Paso.
“Rio Grande,” Sarah said, “We’re just taking the long way around.”
It wasn’t our real destination, but El Paso was on the border, and the Rio Grande was the border, bringing that connection up to these people was the last thing we needed. The less we gave border patrol to think in that direction, the better.
What was Sarah thinking?
“Oh, very neat,” Peter said. “My team and I have actually taken a couple trips down there, ourselves. Have y’all seen it before?”
“No, it’d be our first time.”
“Then y’all are in for a treat, it’s a beautiful place, with great scenery, and so much of it, too. It won’t disappoint.”
“Can’t wait to visit.”
Peter paused, before coming back with, “Is it just you two girls that’ll be going down there?”
“Just us two,” Sarah replied.
“Have you all been anywhere else? If you have, I want to hear all about it.”
“We’ve actually just started our trip. We haven’t seen anything that interesting, yet.”
“Oh man, then you got the whole world ahead of you! There’s a lot of great places to visit, just in this state alone, there’s so much to go to and check out. There’s the big cities, historical landmarks, great landscapes and parks to camp out at. And all the stuff to do, as well. Y’all have had barbeque here, right?”
“Of course. Been here all my life, born and raised. If I wasn’t eating moqueca or feijoada, it was brisket.”
“Sounds delicious, I like that. And you?”
Peter turned to me.
“I, uh, I’m not much of a meat eater.”
It was the only words I had gotten out since this interaction began.
Peter looked as if he felt bad for me.
“That’s a shame, you’re missing out then. But, I know some of the bigger cities have some great vegetarian and vegan places, though, those types of communities have been thriving in recent years. I should know, my niece actually is a vegan, herself, and whenever I got the chance to go up to visit family, I’d either get taken to all these obscure joints, or I’d have to look up even more obscure joints so I can surprise her when I get there. She loves surprises, it shows that I care and I’m willing to put in the effort for her. Know what I mean?”
“That’s sweet,” Sarah commented.
“I know right? She’s old enough to live on her own, now, so it’s the least I can do since her father’s no longer with us and her mother… made a similar choice, herself.”
A pause followed, as if Peter was waiting for a response from Sarah. His eyes went down, his expression distraught. It seemed too forced, too exaggerated, to be genuine, but it could have gone either way, really.
“That’s… not as sweet,” Sarah finally said.
What the fuck was happening, here?
This Peter guy was talking, spouting nonsense, wasting his time, his crew’s time, and my time. Rambling, going off on tangents, blabbering about nothing, keeping us here for nothing, and…
“You two look rather young, skipping school for a trip? And don’t be afraid to say that you are, I won’t tell your teachers.”
Peter’s smirked even harder after that line.
“My friend’s eighteen, and I’m slightly above that number. We’re free to do whatever we want.”
“Are you, now? So y’all two are rolling along the great American plains, tackling whatever it is you come across?”
“Something like that.”
“Alright then, let’s see, this would be the awkward part of the job. May I see both of your IDs? I just want to make sure, is all.”
There wasn’t a delay or pause or sense of hesitation from me or Sarah.
“You may, sir,” Sarah said. We both shifted in our seats to reach for our wallets, our IDs.
I pulled out mine. My ‘real’ one. Not the one that was given to me in order to get into the Lunar Tower. I would have preferred to use that one, but it was probably wasn’t registered in any notable system. My actual one was. D had made sure of that.
I passed the card to Sarah, and she handed it over to Peter. Carefully, he looked between the cards and our faces.
“Sarah?” he called out.
“Here,” Sarah replied.
“Present,” I said, the only other word I was allowed to get out.
Hated it. Hated not being the one in control.
“Oh,” Peter said, reading the cards, “You girls are from Stephenville?”
“Yes we are,” Sarah said.
“I heard it’s been quite… chaotic, over there, lately. Always something in that town, right?”
“Right,” Sarah said.
“Tell me. Have you seen it yourself? The Bluemoon?”
This conversation was dragging for so long it hurt.
“The Bluemoon hasn’t been publicly seen for a few months, now.”
I noted that Sarah avoided answering the question directly.
“I’ve heard about that. I have colleagues up in Stephenville, and they’re all worried about what that might mean. And apparently, there’s been rumors that there’s another one in town? But I haven’t gotten anything concrete about that.”
Peter looked at us, eyebrow quirked up.
“Have you girls heard anything about that?”
This was cutting it way too fucking close.
Sarah continued to answer for the both of us.
“Not me, no. That whole situation is one of the reasons why we decided to head out of town.”
“Ah, I get it. Getting out of the craziness of everything while still trying to see something new. I can get behind that. It’s a good way to stay sane. Wouldn’t you say so?”
““I, I guess you can say that.”
I searched for something to say, something I could add to take or wrestle control of the conversation away from Peter. We were still blocked, surrounded, and we needed to get through and catch up with Tone. He had one hundred and two people with him, and we needed to keep track of them. I needed to. And I couldn’t do that if I was still stuck here.
I kept trying to search.
“And to think, that’s on top of the-”
He turned to look off to the side, where I couldn’t see. There was a delay as he stayed in that position.
Then everything clicked into place.
Peter nodded, slow, silent, before turning back to us. He handed the IDs back to Sarah.
Chels returned into view at the side window. Judging by how quickly she came into frame, and how she stopped, it didn’t seem like she had to wrangle another animal to come with her. Chels didn’t have her dog.
She looked back from Peter, then focusing on Sarah, studying her. I glanced back the officers beside me, and they had straightened up, as well. The dog’s growl ramped up, his muscles more defined underneath the short fur. I saw teeth.
I pressed my feet flat on the floor, as if the pedals were on my side.
Then, as par for the course of this conversation, it was Peter that broke the silence.
“If I may, since I like talking with strangers so much, if I could direct my line of questioning elsewhere?”
He asked, as if we had any control over that.
Sarah had paused, but it wasn’t like Peter’s. His, in short retrospect, seemed deliberate. Sarah had hesitated.
“Of course. I’m, I’m an open book.”
I balled up my fist, wanting to hit something, someone, and it took everything I had within me for that someone to not be Sarah.
Peter looked relieved.
“Good to hear, really, it is. Okay, I just have to ask…”
He wore a similar expression from before, with his eyebrow up. But this time, that fake, casual air had been swept away. He had lifted the veil.
“In leaving Stephenville, you didn’t happen to bring some of that craziness along, did you?”
The question was left in the air for some time.
“I’m not sure what that means,” Sarah said, her words slow, sounding unsure.
If only I knew how to drive, I’d be the one talking to Peter. I could have found a way to talk ourselves out of this. I could have.
Peter answered Sarah.
“You see, Sarah, my boring colleague Chelsea here was taking a short walk with our patrol dog, and he just decided to take a seat, and he hasn’t budged. He’s still there right now.”
Peter glanced to his side, as if to confirm it again. From where I was sitting, I couldn’t see the dog.
“Yup, there he is, right next to your RV. And he won’t move unless I give him the order to. Cerber listens and adheres to my every word, he’s wholly obedient. Russ, too. And so, with him, sitting and staying on his own? That can only mean one thing.”
Fuck. Here it comes.
Peter backed up from Sarah’s window. One step, and then another. All the officers assumed straighter, proper positions.
“Sarah, Wendy, may I ask the both of you to please step out of the vehicle?”
Fuck. Here it is.
The dog must have sniffed out Isabella. I was scared that might happen, but I didn’t have any way to counteract it, sitting here. And I had let Chels – Chelsea – slip my mind as soon as she slipped out of my eyesight.
Peter, fucking Peter.
All this small talk had been leading to something bigger. The blabbering on, the minutia, it was all done in order to keep us preoccupied, giving Chelsea time to circle around the RV.
“May I ask what the issue is?” Sarah asked, trying to sound calm, cheery, but it came out sounding anything but.
Peter smiled. It made me sick.
“No you may not.”
I felt as if I’d gotten hit in the stomach.
There wasn’t much wiggle room in this scenario, nothing I could use to get the upper hand. Sarah turned, slow, looking at me. Handing over what little control we had over to me.
We couldn’t refuse the order of a federal officer. Doing so would put an end to this for sure.
Sarah stared, and there was nothing I could tell her. All I could do was shrug. Resigned.
It took an agonizing amount of time to get out of my seat, Sarah trailing behind by a bit. My arms were sore and my joints were stiff. I suppressed the urge to yawn again. That nap hadn’t done me any favors.
I saw down the length of the RV. I could see top part of my luggage bag, the handle sticking out a little, tucked under one of tables.
My heart was beating so hard it could break. So bad, did I want to telegraph the current situation to her. To will her to run or find some way to make an escape.
Because I was afraid that I might not be able to help her anymore.
I disappointed you again, Isabella. I am so sorry.
Every step was hard, each proceeding one more difficult and heavy. I nearly fell to my knees as I left the RV, leaving Isabella inside. Alone, curled up, constricted in the gloom.
So close to breaking.
We were met by the four officers, the two dogs. They were standing in a line, the dogs sitting up front. They were ready.
Lights then flashed into my eyes. I put my hands up, squinting. Now they had their flashlights out. They weren’t being so friendly, anymore.
As if the bright was a tangible thing with volume, Peter spoke over it all.
“We’ve had reports of some… unwanted and undocumented individuals making their way through this quaint town. They may not have stayed for long, but their stench has remained, ruining what peace and solitude this town has enjoyed for many years. Off the beaten path, many have been ‘just passing through’ in increasing numbers, and the people here have suffered for it. That, is why we are here now.”
Trying to get at least one eye on the situation, I risked a look, peeking through harsh light.
The canines bristled, their teeth bared, and lifting themselves back up, as if preparing to pounce. If those officers released the leashes, the canines just might do that exactly.
“No one is getting through here unless they’re supposed to be here in the first place. And we’ll make sure everyone present is on the up and up. But, let’s make certain that we’re not missing anyone, shall we? I’d like to get a proper count.”
One hundred and three things came to mind. Then one. And then zero, because I had no idea how I was supposed to get us out of this. I wasn’t even in the RV. We were still surrounded.
This was getting worse and worse.
And Peter, this asshole, was playing it up like it was some kind of show. As if to stave off his own boredom, he was using the power he had over us and flaunting it.
He reminded me of Styx, in that way. The long-winded babble, the tricks and games. I so wanted to slap his head off. I had the strength to do it, too.
I had the strength, but not the power. Sarah and I were still here, stuck. We hadn’t even gotten into town.
And if nothing changed, it would be all over. And we had just barely started.
Fuck me. Fuck us. Fuck all of this.
“Step to side, please, away from the vehicle,” Peter ordered, posturing. “Hands where I can see them, as well.”
I wasn’t able to look at Sarah and gauge how she was doing. I couldn’t even look back at the RV anymore, with it being behind us. My thought kept going to Isabella.
Run, for the love of anything you have left, run.
Hands out and raised, we stepped to the side, moving just an inch closer to the officers and the dogs.
The dogs freaked out even more, on all fours and ready to charge. Their leashes went straight, the dogs nearly choking themselves on their collars.
“Down boys! Down!”
They weren’t angry, this was more than that. Agitated, to the point of being enraged.
I could identify with that.
Peter tried to speak over the dogs, but their presence was louder, overpowering.
“Chels, take Cerber and-”
Chels didn’t get a chance to take Cerber.
Agitated, enraged, both dogs charged.
It was quick, sudden. It was a surprise and it was painful.
The combined weight of two large animals out me on my butt. Then my back.
Cerber and Russ started gnawing and clawing, their teeth trying to find something to chew through, be it my sleeves or the skin and bone underneath.
I threw my arms out, over my head, in a vain attempt to get them off, or at least away. But I had little wiggle room.
These dogs were trained to keep people down. Probably trained to hurt and main men much larger than them, those who had a reason to want to run away. Men much larger than them. They had the strength and the teeth.
And that desire burned, as if these animals had a personal and vested interest in tearing me up into shreds.
Grinding, gnashing of the teeth, the pain growing hot, searing me. I scrambled for purchase, trying to find my way back to my feet, but they pushed and clawed and gnawed with that much more intensity.
I could have answered with my own strength, tear these dogs apart, match these animals with that animalistic, raw energy, too, but I wasn’t by myself, and I didn’t have my mask. Using my strength now would out me as something much more than human. And I couldn’t begin to imagine where these guys would try to deport me.
Tearing, growling, these dogs weren’t letting up. I pushed, and my finger must have slipped on some slobber or wet teeth, because my hand fell right into the open maw of Cerber.
He clamped down, twisting his head, and I allowed myself to scream. Blood-curdling.
They wouldn’t stop, it wouldn’t end.
Hatred, I could feel it, emanating from the dogs. It was potent and severe and true.
They didn’t want to pin me down for the officers to detain me. They wanted to kill me, themselves.
I heard screams, equally terrified. Not my own. Others, somewhere.
Grabbing, teeth catching on clothes and skin. It was like these dogs were coordinating with one another, finding the best angle to work and rip me into pieces. They were trained, after all. Maiming was forced fed and positively reinforced into their code.
They jumped off me, my limbs splayed, still trapped in their toothy grip. They tugged in opposite directions, like they were trying to split me down the middle.
Inklings of ideas, I tried to think on how I could use this, somehow.
But it legitimately hurt. So much.
I yelled again.
On reflex, I flexed my arms, pulling them inward, putting my strength against theirs, so they wouldn’t actually turn me into two pieces. It helped. Somewhat.
It’d have to take another force to get them off of me.
“Cerber! Russ! Down, heel!”
More tugs and pulls, but the overall force and strain on my arms lessened.
It took a considerable amount of time, but the dogs were eventually forced off of me. I was allowed to breathe again.
“Shit! Chels, Mike, hold them down! Hold them!”
Then I was free. Free of the dogs, with only the night sky in my view.
Someone dragged me a distance away, then helping me stand again.
She moved my arm around her shoulder. I tried not to lean and use her for support, but she positioned herself so I’d have to.
Fine, I’d take it.
Splatter of spit and sweat left flecks on the lenses of my glasses. It smudged the image, but I could take in the scene.
It was a lot different from before.
Sarah and I were standing, Peter and his crew were on the ground, holding the canines down and restraining them by the collars and leashes. The dogs were still protesting, snarling, fighting their masters every step of the way, wrestling free. It took the collective effort of four people to keep two wild animals down.
I breathed, swallowed. My body was numb, my arms mending underneath the sleeves.
“Wendy,” Sarah said, still watching the pigs and dogs. Animals, playing in the filth and mud.
I stopped, then I started again.
“I’ll be alright.”
Sarah shifted, moving an arm. She kept me in place with the other, though.
Cerber and Russ kept at it, but Peter fell back, staying on his knees. He looked at us, and I finally got a decent look at him.
White, his hair cut short, middle-aged. He wasn’t remarkable in appearance, yet he put a huge dent on our trip to El Paso.
He had all the power and control earlier, and now, he looked bewildered.
A light flashed into his eyes, and he squinted, blinked.
“You sicced your dogs on my friend.”
Sarah spoke, clear, over the panic and struggling.
She was holding her phone. A video was being recorded.
“You stopped us, we weren’t doing anything, you forced us out of our RV and you ordered your dog to attack my friend. That’s harassment, in every single fucking sense of the word.”
It was like she was spitting acid at them. The toxicity of it all.
“I didn’t…” Peter said, weak, confused, hardly audible over his own dogs.
“You did. My friend is bleeding. Look at her!”
Peter moved his gaze over to me. I could see the moment where he realized that he was officially fucked.
Sarah hammered it in even more.
“Peter, Chelsea, and I think I heard a Mike? I didn’t catch the other name, but I’m sure it wouldn’t be hard to get, once this gets out, anyways.”
Peter snapped back to Sarah, his eyes huge.
He didn’t have anything to say, this time. Sarah knew to use that opening.
“You failed to do your job properly. You neglected your duties, and you actively attacked us when we had given you no probable cause to. Look at your dogs, you still can’t control them. This is gross negligence. Your dogs didn’t find anything, because there was nothing to find. They’ve been out of line and misbehaved since the beginning. You have nothing, no justifiable reason to do what you did.”
Chelsea shouted, the dog she was holding down had twisted and was getting free. Peter leaped to put his body weight on top of the animal.
Sarah never stopped.
“Unless you want to lose your job, Peter, you will let us leave and go through town, untouched and unmolested by your folk until our trip is over. And I’ll think about not having this video circulate all over the web. It would be a shame if you couldn’t recommend more vegan restaurants to your niece.”
Peter struggled between keeping the dog down and looking up at us. The veins on his neck looked like they were going to burst.
“We’re leaving,” Sarah said. “And that’s final. Tell your men in the trucks to pull back and let us through. We don’t have anything or anyone illegal, your dogs were wrong.”
Sarah started to move, guiding me with one arm. I didn’t need the help, but I appreciated it. It’d be a lie to say that I wasn’t rattled.
“She needs medical attention,” Peter said, sounding even weaker.
I spoke for myself.
“I do, but not from you. I have a kit inside, I’ll be using that.”
It wasn’t a lie, that we had a medical kit in the RV. It was a lie that I’d need or use it.
Sarah still had her other arm raised, pointing her phone at the officers and the dogs. The dogs still were not giving up, one of them almost biting the ear off of Chelsea to get free.
She helped me back into the RV, and as soon as we were in, Sarah shut the doors and slipped back into the driver’s seat. I was left to fall into one of the seats in the back. Close to a luggage bag, small whimpers coming out of it.
The RV rolled forward, and it was allowed to.
I fixed my posture in the seat as we moved, the window on the other side displaying the buildings of the town. I never got to catch the name of this place.
Brick, old and brown, with little personality. Small, stout buildings, I’d have a terrible and boring time leaping from rooftop to rooftop, here. A short jog would probably take me from one end of the town to the other, little in the way of distance and verticality to really let me stretch my arms and legs.
Another new thing I learned about myself. I preferred the big city, after all.
I took off my glasses, blinking more dirt out of my eyes.
I had time, but I had been rattled, myself. It was hard to catch up to the current situation. Things had been dragged out, the tension suffocating, until it all snapped back in a quick and violent fashion. And that was suffocating in its own way.
What was it with dogs?
I put the thought off, set it away for now. From dogs to ducks, and I had to get them into a row, again. We had gotten separated with Tone and the others, and we had to catch up to them and get settled again before we continued the trip to El Paso.
We had cut it so fucking close.
I brushed my arms, feeling tears in the cloth. They ruined my jacket. The skin, though, and the muscle, they were already back to being intact.
Blood pumping, heart beating.
I’d need a breather.
I didn’t sleep, but I let myself catch my breath as the town passed us by. I stayed quiet, waiting until we left town before letting Isabella know that we were in the clear, and telling her what happened.