My apocalypse doesn’t ride on horseback or raise the dead or add suns to the sky. It arrives by tank and drone, the strict report of automatic weapons, the spying eyes of neighbors. It seeks my spouse’s life. Mine, too. I don’t expect to survive.
Chula has better odds. She is a four-time triathlete, perfect eyesight, no injuries. She can lift our six-year-old the way I haul a fire log. If anyone can outrun the law, it’s Chula.
“When they come for us,” I said, after Kaila was born, “You take the children and the backpack and head for the safe house.”
Chula’s blue eyes narrowed. “And you’ll catch up. You have a pack, too. We’ll go side by side, like always.”
“Sure. If I’m alive.”
Her glare could melt Antarctica. “And what if I’m dead instead of you?”
“That’s so much less likely. I wouldn’t plan on it.”
She raised her pale brows to emphasize my hypocrisy, but I didn’t care. If our survival depended on me, we were in trouble.
Like any ordinary evening, I put the baby down in our room after feeding her. Night darkens the sky. We leave the lights off as much as possible to avoid surveillance from the outside. I trip over the corner of the dining room rug, the one that’s bent upward from all the other times my foot caught it. (My muscles are clumsy thanks to the polio redux pandemic, but I’ve had lots of practice at falling; I know how to avoid sprains and broken bones.) I land on my forearms, nearly prone.
A bullet sings over my head and penetrates Chula’s.
For five seconds, I freeze.
For five seconds, I stop breathing.
My mind refuses to accept the image in front of me. No. No. No no no.
The inhale comes in a rush.
Her neck has no pulse.
I fling a blanket over my beloved’s body and cover it all: the blond hair now matted with blood, the shards of glass catching the streetlight, the limbs splayed like a sleeping toddler, the stain spreading outward on that rug—that thrice-damned rug, which I will never see again.
A yellow thread snags on the hinge of my wrist prosthesis. Chula’s favorite color. I yank it out and stuff it into the center of my bra as I crawl across the room. More bullets trash our windows. A rubber band made of devastation tightens around my heart and lungs.
I speak my farewell in my thoughts. To say it aloud is to provide evidence to the sensors. I wish I had time to give Chula a farewell kiss. I wish she’d lived. I hope the people outside think we’re both dead.
In the windowless hall, I stand and run. My booted feet slam against hickory planks, our home improvement project from back before fear decorated our lives. Now, we sleep in our clothes and wear shoes in the house. Photos flash by along the beige wall, memories outlined in black, all but the newest: the four of us huddled in bed after I gave birth to Kaila. That one I taped up, unframed. It gives easily and fits in the back pocket of my jeans.
I burst into our room and reach under the antique bed-frame. I pull out my backpack, filled to eighteen pounds, the same weight I carried across the Andes during our Choquequirao trek. I was a decade younger and fitter then, but today I have to travel only one fourth the distance. At sea level, that’s manageable. It has to be.
I tighten the straps on the pack. The baby sling hangs on one corner of the crib. Kaila whimpers as I snug her swaddled form against my torso. I lock my arm into a static, supportive position under her, and turn it off to conserve battery.
In the adjacent bedroom, Myles hides under his bed like we taught him to. His dark curls catch the last light from the window. He has the same hair as his father, killed a year ago while attempting to cross the border, the very same one we’re headed for.
“Time to go, baby,” I whisper.
He crawls out. “Where’s Chula?”
I failed to rehearse the words for this question because I didn’t expect to be here. “I’ll explain later.”
Suspicion darkens his six-year-old face, sets his jaw. Not a tantrum, not now, baby, please, we gotta go.
“Don’t forget Dino,” I say.
It’s part distraction, part truth, but it works. Myles lunges for the stuffed Tyrannosaurus rex and clasps it to his chest. We run to the side door and out into the chill night—oh, I forgot the jackets, did we pack jackets?—but we can’t turn back because the tank turret looms above the fourth house down the street. A white cover hides the surgical van beside the house. I don’t dare use it, not with all that damning evidence inside, but I send it a silent farewell. Another tie to Chula, severed.
We duck through the hidden door in the back fence, down the alley, across a demented mosaic of chipped stone and glass. I grab my phone and increase the light amplification in my implanted lenses. (They told me it’s an experimental technology with some risks. I told them to shut up and take my money.) I follow the snaking line of garden hose that surrounds a data cable, poached for my illegal purposes.
The hose runs into a plain door set into a low building. I pull it free and fling it back toward the house. They can’t know where we went. My thumb goes against the sensor-lock. A light next to it blinks red. I curse under my breath and lick my too-dry skin and try again. Turn green, turn green, turn green—yes!
I open the door. Where is Myles? He was just here. How could he—oh shit!
Flames engulf our house and balloon outward. The light blows my vision and all I see is a little shadow flying through the air, away from the back fence, toward me. Myles lands head-first.
A second rubber band, made of recrimination, constricts my heart and lungs. I run to my son, wrap my arm around his chest, and drag him through the door. I lay him down. Be alive, please baby, be alive. His chest rises and falls. Relief swims in dizzy circles around me.
Dim red lights wake at our presence. Racks of servers line the walls. Bundles of cables stretch across the ceiling to a staircase dug through rock and earth. Our escape route normally ferries large quantities of data and the occasional service person.
I peer into the gloom. I can’t carry them both downstairs.
Goddammit, Chula, you should be here!
I trip as I come off the last step and land on my knees rather than my newborn. Kaila fusses when I place her on the ground next to the backpack, but she doesn’t raise a cry. I limp my way up to retrieve Myles, unlocking my prosthesis and powering it on as I climb.
Once I have them both at the bottom, I allow myself a minute to breathe and listen. No sound penetrates from outside. No door slams open above us. No one shouts. I pull the kill switch in the wall—our little modification. Dirt seals off the room above. The stairs end in nothing.
We’re in a tunnel lined with network access. I’d patch into a cable if I could, but it’s all useless now. Instead, I grab my phone, which is nearly out of battery. We have a system across the family, a handful of sites where we leave nonsense text, meaningful only to one another. I write: Had to visit the loo. With the T. rex and the raptor. Lost my other ring. I scan all the locations. My brother hasn’t left a message in over a week. My parents and Chula’s live in friendly states, thank goodness. Two less things to worry about.
Myles whimpers. In the glow from the screen, I see patches of crimson across my boy’s skin. The soles of his shoes are melted—to his feet? I shudder and banish the thought. He’s breathing. He’s alive. He’ll be fine. He will, he has to be.
The tunnel shivers around us. Dust motes dance in the artificial light. I shove the phone into my pocket. We can’t linger too long. I consider the pack, sized for multi-day hikes. Myles is small for his age. Maybe. Out come the spare clothes, a multi-tool, a sticker book, hiking poles, diapers, formula, snack bars, water bottles, an optical cube with all our memories. The jackets must have been in Chula’s pack.
I use the knife from the tool to tear holes on either side of the pack’s bottom, then I slide Myles in and snug the compressor straps around him. In the outer pouches, I cram in six diapers—they’re lightweight—a spare outfit for Kaila, three packets of formula, two snack bars, one water bottle, and the data cube. It’s an old dilemma: weight versus comfort.
The multi-tool goes in my back pocket, my only weapon, should I need one. The baby goes on my front. My son rides on my back, a forty-four pound load. His head lolls against my shoulder. In the interest of minimizing weight, I remove my prosthesis and add it to the discards on the ground.
The hiking pole helps with my new center of gravity. Grief and determination fuel my steps. If I don’t survive, neither do they.
Chula strides through the tunnel, Myles running alongside. I imagine him whining that his legs are tired. Chula tucks him under an arm, her bicep bulging but not strained. In this vision, I’m a ghost floating behind them. All goes according to plan, and they escape. Loss and pain are not mine to bear. I don’t have to be the strong one.
For twelve hours, I walk. Trudge. Plod. Stumble. Every three hours, I stop to feed Kaila, half from my breasts, half formula, all of it while standing or kneeling. The yellow thread tucked into my bra draws my gaze as often as my baby’s dark eyes. I reach my right hand back to check Myles’ pulse and breathing. I slide water into his searing mouth with my finger tips and hope he doesn’t dehydrate too much.
Things I can manage to think about are time, quantities, and steps. Others, I push away—my inevitable failure, Chula sprawled on the rug, our cold, stiff bodies lying in this catacomb-like space.
Should we have stayed in this state? We asked the question at least once a week. I found the patients and guided the van. Chula and the robots performed the abortions. In this place, our life-saving service was punishable by death. We knew the risk. We couldn’t lie to ourselves about that.
But it wasn’t supposed to be me, here, dragging our family to safety.
Chula contacted the resistance, made the arrangements. (We kept my identity secret to better protect the children, whom I carried for the same reason.) She had the reputation: a doctor, one with a rare skill. I was a data miner. Nothing special about that.
At last, a staircase rises ahead. The cables converge upward. My legs weigh more than elephants. Damn elephants. Why do they have to be so massive? Step, step, one… more… step.
I’m through the door into another data center, equally unattended. My phone is dead, but I remember the route to the safe house. I remember most of what I see, a leftover habit from years of wearing glasses (and being nearly blind without them). Dawn glows in the eastern sky. It lights our way to a low, sprawling house painted gray with white trim. The side door has an electronic lock. I enter the eight-digit code. A faint click indicates that it works.
I stumble inside. A couple emerges from a bedroom. Their alarmed expressions tell me everything about our appearance. A question buzzes through my ears into my head.
“Chula Smith.” I whisper her name as an incantation and sway on the tiled floor, surrounded by walls and furniture and warmth. We’re safe, for now.
They leave us in a bedroom decorated with faded posters of augmented-reality stars. They remind me of my past life—trawling the net for good data, piecing it together like clues in a mystery. The skill came in handy for finding those in need of Chula’s services. Most people don’t notice the breadcrumb trails they leave on the internet.
Myles lies on the single bed, his burns dressed as best as we could, half a bowl of chicken broth coaxed in by small spoonfuls. Kaila and I rest on the floor. An unzipped sleeping bag lies beneath us. My heart, entrapped by its two rubber bands, beats with the restless fury of a butterfly in a net.
Outside our door, our hosts’ voices rise in argument. They gave me code names—Bravo and Foxtrot—and didn’t ask for mine, but they know I’m not Chula.
“Smith is the priority evacuee, not the family,” says Foxtrot. “We can’t make an unscheduled supply run without authorization. Two more days. They’ll last.”
“She has four-month-old baby!” Bravo sounds upset. “And her child needs medical attention, more than we can give.”
“And we need to maintain our cover or we’re no good to anybody. I don’t like it either, but we can’t risk everything for a low-priority group.”
Their voices drop away. They use the wrong pronouns for me, but I’m in no position to correct them.
Bravo’s right. Myles needs a doctor. If Chula were here, she could take care of him. If Chula were here, they’d be on their way to the border already. If Chula were here, if, if, if.
Kaila whimpers. I sit up to give her my left breast, the better one. I lean against a wall and use my legs to support her body, but it takes time, and she’s crying before I’m ready. She’s calmer when we switch sides. Her black eyes stare into mine, all serious business until a smile breaks her suction and lights up her face.
I can’t help returning it, but I’m thinking, please make enough milk today, please for today and tomorrow and the next, until we get out because we used the last of the formula and it’s rationed and these people don’t have a baby so we can’t get more.
For twenty minutes after she stops feeding, Kaila is sunshine and roses. When she fusses again, I try to latch her on, but she’s having none of it. Her wail brings in our hosts.
“You need to quiet her down,” Bravo says. “We’re not supposed to have children here.”
“She’s hungry,” I say. Shame heats my neck and cheeks.
Foxtrot frowns. “Can’t you feed her?”
“I did. I—I can’t make enough for her, and I’m out of formula.”
The two of them exchange a look before leaving the room. This time, their conversation doesn’t carry. I imagine Foxtrot saying, “That’s one more strike against them. What a useless person. We should send them back to die,” so I force my wobbly, spent leg muscles to stand, and I bounce my baby. My right shoulder aches from her weight, and my ghost arm prickles with pain. I rock Kaila through it all until she gives in and sleeps, and then, at last, so do I.
To my surprise, Foxtrot tells me the next morning to get ready to leave. I don’t question it. We sit in the back of an old gasoline-powered truck, manually driven. Myles is stretched out by my feet, and Kaila hangs in the sling. Empty crates fill the remaining space, hiding us in case anyone opens the doors. This couple imports produce from across the border. Who better to smuggle contraband than someone with legitimate business?
We move through the sparse early-morning traffic on the slow roads, the ones where you can still drive a vehicle yourself. Through the gaps in the wooden slats, I catch glimpses of posters. “Jesus welcomes all.” “Life is sacred.” “A righteous husband will provide.” Sometimes I only see a few words, but I’ve memorized them. Chula and Myles’ father and I had a marriage, but not one that this state would recognize.
“Damn,” Foxtrot says.
The van careens to the right and accelerates. I brace my feet against a crate to keep from sliding.
“What’s happening?” I call out. The gap in the cab’s rear sliding window lets my voice through.
We turn sharp left, and Myles slides to the right. I grab him before his head hits the wall.
“Do you have a mobile? I can route you!”
Foxtrot slides the window further and tosses me a device wrapped in yellow flower-print. Our eyes meet for a second.
“My daughter’s.” Foxtrot’s words clip.
I launch the map software on a dead girl’s phone, unlikely to be traced. If I had my virtual-reality headset, I could work faster. I do what I can manually, fingers flying across the screen. Data overlays stack tiny icons—not my customized versions, but no time for that. I scan for safe zones to hide a truck. A produce warehouse lies three miles out of our way. Bonus: we’d pass under a freeway bridge to get there.
“Two blocks, then left and an immediate right,” I call.
By the time Foxtrot makes the right-hand turn, I’m ready with three more instructions, and so we dance with our pursuers, avoiding known camera sites and drone-zones. This low-bandwidth communication is awkward. I would guide Chula’s surgical van remotely, directing the auto-driver from home. I could avoid patrols and prying electronics without speaking a word.
“Hard right at the three-way,” I call.
Our tires screech, and the truck keels, but we keep most of our speed. Foxtrot drives almost as well as an auto-car.
“Second left, through a tunnel, and then right into the driveway and stop!”
And that’s it. We wait with the engine off. Blood rushes in my ears to fill the silence. My heart beats so hard that Kaila must feel it through the sling.
Another truck, similar in shape and size to ours, sits next to us. The mobile’s data shows a third one parked beyond. The rolling metal door of a warehouse is in front of us, the words “Farm Fresh With Love” painted in bold green letters across it.
Foxtrot crouches into the wheel-well so that they’re not immediately visible from outside. I scrunch down and install my custom overlay. Nothing to do now but wait.
A drone buzzes past, then another, ten minutes later. They blip on the mobile’s screen, little white skull icons.
The sun rises over the warehouse. For two miles in each direction, the map is clear of skulls and coffins and machine guns (the icons for tanks and foot patrols). I give us another fifteen minutes to be sure. We can’t afford much longer or Kaila will wake for her next feeding before we cross the border. That would end us.
“Let’s go,” I say.
Foxtrot sits up and starts the engine. I’m grateful for their trust—that I know what I’m doing.
As we approach the border station, I rearrange the crates to block us from all sides. I can’t see the squat, hard-edged buildings, but I remember them from pictures, their walls studded with cameras.
The sun blazes over endless desert. The back of the truck becomes an oven as soon as we stop moving. I peek through the crates to see what’s happening. The view isn’t good.
“Documents.” A deep voice speaks the word.
A hand takes something from Foxtrot, then returns it and says, “Please exit the vehicle for a security pat down.” Smug. “And cavity search.”
The truck jostles as Foxtrot exits the cab, out of my view.
Does this happen every time? Is this the cost to move us or a regular part of doing business? A third rubber band snaps into place around my heart and lungs. It’s made of rage, and I can’t breathe. Heat rushes through me. Keep your hands off my driver! I will rip your goddamn head off and watch the life pour out. I will—
Foxtrot climbs into the cab.
“Proceed,” the guard says.
We drive on, past two barbed-wire fences set one hundred yards apart, into California and safety. The word tastes bitter in my thoughts: what kind of safe place uses people like that to secure its borders? But on this side, at least the work that Chula and I did would be legal.
If I close my eyes, I see her body sprawled in our house. I see the photo of our spouse’s body laid out in the desert, a cruel souvenir sent by the border troops. Am I a coward for running away? Should I go back when Kaila is older? No, whispers Chula’s voice. No way, whispers our husband’s. Keep the children safe. Raise them. We agreed on that when we decided to stay in Arizona, in a house reduced to rubble, in a life burnt to ash.
We stop again in half an hour, just as Kaila is beginning to stir. Through gaps, I see a single-story ranch house with other small buildings behind it. Foxtrot opens the back gate and moves the crates out of our way. I blink in the sudden brightness. Two brown-skinned men pull Myles out on a stretcher and carry him toward the house. I force myself to meet Foxtrot’s gaze.
“I’m sorry about the… search,” I say. “Thank you for helping us.” The most inadequate words I’ve ever spoken.
Do you have to go back? The question dies before it reaches my lips. I know the answer because I lived it, too. I risked my family so that we could help the women who couldn’t escape. If the state hadn’t found us, we’d still be there.
“Take care,” Foxtrot says.
The truck rumbles down a dirt road toward a field lined with vegetables.
I follow my son and discover my mother waiting inside.
“They got word to me as soon as you crossed the border,” she says, “and I got your message before that. I’ve been waiting nearby, just in case.”
She opens her arms to me, and I sink into them.
“I’m so sorry about Chula,” she says.
She doesn’t say, “I told you so,” or “How could you do this to your children?” or any of the dozen other recriminations I’ve imagined in her voice.
Kaila squirms and fusses, sandwiched between us. I need to feed her. Over my mother’s shoulder I see Myles on the bed, his chest rising and falling, his eyelids fluttering. He hasn’t woken enough to speak. I wonder what silent price he’s paid. Was our work worth the cost of my son’s condition, of my spouses’ lives? I may never have the answer to that. Maybe none exists.
As I feed my baby, the bands that constricted me loosen, enough for regret and sadness and rage to expand. My tears land on Kaila’s chest. For now, it’s enough that I got us out. The children are safe and alive. I have no desire to consider what comes next, not yet, not today. Right now, our survival is all that matters.
(Editors’ Note: S.B. Divya is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)
© 2018 by S.B. Divya