Two blocks from Morris Street, Kevin Hammond realized he’d made a wrong turn. Until the wailing ambulance sirens sped past his car, he thought he was driving to work. “That’s what three months living at the hospital will do to you,” he thought with a heavy sigh. “You end up forgetting you ever had another life.” Looking past the columns of prickly cacti guarding the road, he saw disheveled university students making their way to an early round of classes. They stood impatiently, waiting for permission to cross the busy street.
Driving past the hospital annoyed him. He couldn’t count the times he’d been told just how lucky, just how blessed his wife and daughter had been to be there. He remembered a nurse reassuring him, saying,“We’re a research hospital, affiliated with U of T med school- the best treatments available this side of Texas. We’ll take care of you.” He pressed the gas harder, barely slipping through the yellow light, thinking bitterly how useless that prestige had been in the end. The only thing it got him was an endless shuffle of disconnected, wide-eyed interns staring at his dying wife and their premature baby as if they’d been petri dishes instead of living human beings.
Seeing both his beautiful wife and their first child—a long-awaited girl they’d named Katie —in intensive care, transformed into bizarre, grotesque caricatures, with intubated faces, foreign lines of fluid piercing their flesh, had shocked Kevin into an unusual compliance. He couldn’t say why but, somehow, their strangeness demoted him into an unqualified and inadequate stranger. At irregular intervals, when a probing mob of white-cloaked bodies wandered into the dark-curtained room, mumbling alien phrases, he’d slowly nod, bewildered, only pretending to understand. That first day they’d advised, “Antimicrobial therapy with mega-dosage penicillin” and forty-eight hours later an unfamiliar credentialed face advocated, “total abdominal hysterectomy.” In both cases, his only response had been “You’re the experts; you know what you’re doing.” After all, what did he know about childbirth complications? No matter how much he wished otherwise, all he could do was wait and pray.
Fourteen years as a U.S. Border Patrol Agent hadn’t prepared Kevin for the hospital’s barrage of dispassionate, cryptic mutterings. Sometimes, dazed by sleepy hours guarding his girl, he’d frantically gulp down coffee and wonder if the hospital cafeteria laced it with a mild anesthesia. Or, when his dark-circled, itching eyes suddenly jerked open, wide after one of his many involuntary dozes, he suspected that the humming medical equipment competing for his wife’s attention had somehow hypnotized him. He wasn’t able to shake himself from his mental prison. Although his yearly government performance reviews consistently contained remarks like “scrupulous attention to detail” and “exceptionally qualified to meet agency standards,” at the hospital he was helpless.
Now, speeding through the congested interstate traffic, heading to his first day back at work, Kevin needed to live up to his rock-solid reputation. If he hadn’t glimpsed the hospital maybe he’d have seen the familiar sights of downtown El Paso whirring past. Instead, he thought of his wife and how he’d never see her again. How, after the white coats brought him a form titled “Do Not Resuscitate”, he’d compressed the paper with a dense fury and found the will to refuse. When he’d snapped the pen in two, hurling it onto their disinfected floor, the nurses stared up in alarm from their ever-present charts, eyebrows raised in surprise as if suddenly and unwillingly awakened.
Afterwards, he’d gazed at the blue ink oozing from its casing. He couldn’t remember how long he’d knelt there, rubbing the beige linoleum with those pathetically inadequate, institutional paper towels. The ink soaked through, onto his wrinkled skin, into the creases and whirls of his fingerprints. It reminded him of his first foray into law enforcement, when he’d excitedly rolled each of his digits onto a faded black stamp pad. Back then, his heart had pumped expansively, like it might conquer new territory.
After that day in the hospital he didn’t sleep. He didn’t need the coffee anymore, either. Those last weeks at the hospital he’d pretty much lived in the NICU, passionately guarding his little girl’s frail but growing body, fiercely hovering over her humming incubator, harshly demanding every detail of her treatment. Even when the nurses patiently explained Katie’s regimen, he’d scowl, unsatisfied.
He always hated leaving Katie. But, every few hours he’d somehow propel himself past those heavy white doors, through those antiseptic halls, to the eighth floor where his blond-haired wife lay comatose. She slept there, guarded only by the fresh, white roses he placed by her bedside every Sunday, the occasional visitor and an army of beeping machines.
Her blonde hair. He remembered how she shamelessly monopolized their one bathroom every morning, meticulously styling her long hair. Early in their marriage, when Kevin complained, calling her obsessed, she’d teasingly threatened to shave it off. Reaching beneath the chipped sink, she’d pulled out his electric clippers, plugging them in the outlet behind the toilet. He’d stood in the open doorway, smiling a dare at her and she’d grinned back, held the sheers to her forehead, and switched them on with a flip of her thumb. Then he’d wrestled the clippers away and they’d made love, the laughing kind, the kind that means we’re not just lovers, we’re friends, too. And afterwards he’d buried his face in that hair, inhaling its rose-shampoo fragrance, feeling its silky smoothness on his unshaven face. He’d never complained after that.
That last day in her hospital room he’d pushed the heart monitor away from her bed and stroked her matted mane, feeling the knotted, tangled mess, and nearly wept. He knew nothing of hair styles, but a cheap black plastic comb, a consolation prize for desperately rummaging through the near-empty drawers beside the bed, almost cried out for use. So, hesitantly, he pulled the comb down one gnarled, blond lock. Hmmm… not too bad. Gaining confidence, Kevin edged closer, carefully maneuvering past the twisting tubes sprawling like malignant tumors over her body. Reaching out, he again moved the cheap comb downward when, halfway through the stroke, he recoiled at the monitor’s abrupt, shrill screech, unintentionally catching the comb in a massive, unyielding knot of dirty hair. The insistent machinery couldn’t mask the decisive snap of black plastic teeth. Pounding feet on linoleum answered the clamorous gadgets but Kevin never had another chance to uncoil her tangles. In the end, he’d paid a stranger from the funeral home to fix it for him.
Now, as he sat at a stoplight, Kevin squeezed his eyes tightly and knew he had to clear his mind. Katie depended on him. On him alone. Besides, he knew there was much to be grateful for: though he missed his wife terribly, his daughter had recovered, and his sister had moved in to help care for the infant. How many people had jobs waiting for them after a long hiatus, anyway? If he didn’t get his act together, what could he offer Katie?
Turning onto South Zaragosa, Kevin scanned the familiar road for marks of change. No, it looked pretty much the same–everything from the misspelled sign announcing the border patrol offices to the weed-infested beds of flowers wilting in the Texas heat. Pulling into the cracked, pot-holed parking lot, one change surprised him. A shiny black SUV filled the parking space he’d occupied for nearly his entire career. “The guys wouldn’t do that,” he thought. “I guess they’re messing with me.”
The black double door made the same old, high pitched squeal as Kevin opened it and the same dusty, artificial plant guarded the foyer. When the guys glimpsed him walking down the dim, fluorescent-lit, carpeted corridor, they crowded around him, banging him on the back and shaking his hand. Alvin leaned in and warned, “Man, watch out for the new sarge. He’s out to prove something. We’re pretty sure he drove that black SUV straight out of hell.”
The whole group acknowledged the remark with a turbulent sea of nods. “True. You may be Mr. Goody-Two-Shoes but watch out, man.”
The men hastily dissipated as an unfamiliar face moved towards Kevin commanding, “Back to work, men. This isn’t Happy Hour. Officer Hammond, I’ll see you in my office in ten minutes.”
Kevin raised his eyebrows and walked towards his office in the corner.
“Uh-uh, man- the sarge moved stuff around. Your cubicle’s down that way now,” Alvin whispered grimly before he high-tailed it towards his own desk.
Kevin found a desk bearing his nameplate not too far down a parallel corridor. Chucking his briefcase in the corner, he looked around at the windowless walls, at the dusty, laminate furniture topped by an outdated computer.
“Same old, same old,” he thought until he caught the edge of a familiar gold frame lying on the file cabinet. Lifting the frame, he noticed a massive, web-shaped crack marring the glass which held a favorite photo of his late wife. A photo from their last vacation — before the baby, before the hospital. He’d splurged on a trip to Hawaii. She’d always wanted to go, and after she showed him the positive pregnancy test, he surprised her with dinner at her favorite Indian joint downtown and presented her with the plane tickets. In the picture she smiled, blonde hair shining, with a background of impossibly blue waves, beside a lush display of white hibiscus.
“Officer Hammond, get in here immediately!”
Kevin’s head jerked upward at the sound of his name. Quickly replacing the picture, he muttered, “Crap!” before heading up the hall. Entering his boss’ office, Kevin caught the musky scent of sweat.
“Sorry, Sarge. I lost track of time,” he apologized.
“If there’s one thing I won’t allow, Officer Hammond, it’s lost time. Never let it happen again.”
“Hammond, I’ve looked at your files. You know what I think?”
“I’ll be honest with you, son. Your evaluations look too good to be true. What do you have to say for yourself?”
“I hope to earn your respect, sir.”
“That’s right, boy. You’ll be earning every last ounce of respect you get ‘round here. Now get out of here and catch me some border bandits.”
With that, Kevin about-faced briskly from the room. Exhaling forcefully, he made his way back to the dusty cubicle assigned him while curious eyes from around the office looked on. Parking himself in the worn black swivel seat, he switched on the computer, wiped the dust from his wife’s picture, and propped it on his desk.
“Welcome back, Officer Hammond,” he thought wryly, “Well, back to the grindstone it is. Katie’s counting on you so you better get to work.” Then, with another glance at the damaged photo, he pivoted his chair towards his computer, thinking, “Three months of backed-up emails won’t read themselves.”
Several hours later, Kevin felt eyes trained on his face and looking up, he saw his boss glaring at him from across the hall. “You gonna sit in that chair all day, Officer?”
“No, sir. Just catching up, sir.”
“You better run faster, then. No officer of mine spends a day glued to a seat. Catch ‘em and bag ‘em, boy. That’s the only work worth doing ‘round here. Do you have a problem with that?”
“No, sir. What would you like me to do, sir?”
“What would I like you to do?” Sarge replied sarcastically. “How about getting in a car and driving a route? Would that be too difficult, buddy?”
Kevin grabbed his stuff and glanced around the office for a couple minutes, wondering, “Is it lunch time already? Where’d they all go?” Shrugging his shoulders, he grabbed a set of keys off the wall, signed out, and walked out the door, thinking, “What does he expect out of me? There’s no one here to partner up and he’s gonna chew me out no matter what I do! I’ll just drive around until lunch ends and then come back.” Reading hours of backlogged emails did nothing to solve his problems, anyway. Besides, Kevin always enjoyed heading out on patrol. Solitary patrols broke protocol, but maybe the searing sun burning through El Paso could illuminate his thoughts.
A handful of government-issued black Chevy Tahoes sat baking in the near-empty parking lot. As Kevin opened the closest vehicle’s door, the building’s distorted reflection moved down the pivoting door in rippling waves. Quickly switching the air on, he shifted gears and made his way out of town.
Passing through a row of restaurants, the scent of wood-smoked barbeque seized his attention. He and his wife ate there a couple times and she’d always said good things about it. Sometimes she’d joke and say that fattening him up was her personal mission. Then their friends would laugh and congratulate her on a job well done. His pants fit loosely these days. Friends brought food by the house all the time but every time he sat down to eat, he’d end up looking at the empty seat staring at him from across the table.
Now, trying to pass the time, he made a left turn into the restaurant’s parking lot and circled the building for the drive-thru. An orange plastic cone and a sign reading, “Drive-Thru Closed for Remodeling- Let Us Serve You Inside” barred the passage. Shaking his head in exasperation, Kevin turned the wheel away from the restaurant. “I can’t go in there,” he thought. “Now isn’t the time.”
The road out of town looked quiet enough on this ordinary week day. He didn’t know exactly where to go. “I hope those lazy bums eat their lunch and get back to the office quickly,” he thought before turning onto a familiar, dusty side road leading to the river. A new series of white PVC irrigation pipes traveled from the riverbed, following the road, moving water to a nearby cotton farm. Even from a distance, Kevin could see the snowy white bolls waiting for harvest. Within a week, those fields would explode in activity as cotton pickers traveled up and down their rows, stripping the plants bare until only a brown barrenness remained. Growing up in the south meant he’d seen those white fields transformed many times. Sometimes he thought cotton’s journey from plant to cloth almost seemed miraculous.
Now, as Kevin’s eyes roved over the dry Texan border a flash of bright, patterned fabric stood against the white, blooming cotton bolls, shaking Kevin from his reverie. Years of law-enforcement experience refined his instincts, pushing distractions from his mind. He knew with near certainty that he’d stumbled on illegals trying to make it into the nearby city.
El Paso’s reputation as a haven for illegal immigrants had become a joke; it happened so often that Kevin read its signs like a second language. Initially, he’d had all the excitement of a proverbial young buck. He couldn’t help himself; he’d look everywhere for illegals. He’d be out with his wife and while she shopped, he was scanning the swarming hordes of mall- goers. Sitting on a bench, he’d suddenly hear, “Kevin. Kevin! Earth to Kevin! I’m talking to you! Have you heard I word I said? Why do I even bother taking you out?” He tried explaining himself: what his job meant to him, how he wanted to be the best, but in those early years she couldn’t really understand. As time went by, though, she stopped interrupting his pensive contemplations. Instead, she took to watching him. Sometime he’d catch her stare and she’d smile quietly, like a deer in the woods, alert but almost invisible.
He didn’t know exactly why or how it happened, but he gradually lost the need to enforce borders everywhere he went. He hadn’t thought about it until those long days in the hospital gave him nothing but time to think. Had it been around year five? Or eight? He wasn’t sure but at some point he found his life more absorbing than his job. Maybe it was the way the people looked sitting across from him as he filled out their deportation papers. Or the way the families cried, screaming goodbyes as he tore them apart at the close of visiting hours. Every morning he’d pin his badge on his uniform with a sense of pride but he replaced zeal with extreme competency. He put in his hours, he followed the law, and that was enough.
Today, he surveyed the surrounding fields through the sunlight glaring off the windshield. He needed to catch another sign, a sign like the patterned cloth. A sign for Katie. He needed this for Katie. He didn’t relish the hours of bureaucratic paper-pushing he’d have once he picked up these people but in the end, laws were laws. Besides, it would look good for him, after so many months off, to come back with a catch.
He pressed hard on the gas pedal, propelling the black Chevy Tahoe past a roving colony of tumbleweeds, down the rocky incline, towards his approximate target. The furious sound of stones hammering his wheel beds shattered the farm’s peace. Shadows racing in the distance confirmed his suspicions. An aggressive pace brought him close to them in a matter of moments even though the closer he got, the faster they ran. It looked like just two – a man and a woman.
He wanted to think that, with all his training and experience, he was safe. In anger, he thought back to the guys eating lunch, to the new boss, to the hospital, and pulled out his gun. He knew from experience that the majority of these cases were just desperate people looking for a new life, but this year the Mexican gangs were bold. Los Zetas beheaded their rivals not far from the border and kidnapped random civilians. It wasn’t beyond them to kidnap a border agent or to operate in pairs. What was he getting into? If he was the one in the hospital bed, signing a DNR, what would happen to Katie?
Banging his hand on the steering wheel, he cried out in anger, “God! What am I supposed to do? What am I doing?” before slamming on his breaks and spraying pebbles towards his targets. He jumped from the vehicle, aimed his gun, and commanded with his limited Spanish, “Freeze! Border Patrol! Paré!” The two dusty, panting figures broke their flight and then, with a disconcerting suddenness, burst into frustrated, angry tears. Facing away from Kevin, the man raised his hands in surrender while the whimpering woman also stood with her back to Kevin but her hands hidden, as if paradoxically frozen by the dry, Texas heat. Sweat poured off Kevin’s face as he trained his gun on the woman. Only her panting sobs broke the silence of the clean, white surrounding acreage. Images of his wife and daughter flickered through Kevin’s mind and as he shouted “Hands up! Manos arriba!” but still the woman refused to comply. As Kevin repeated himself, he heard his heart pounding, intense adrenaline magnifying every shadow in that lonely land. He couldn’t take a chance here. He couldn’t let Katie down. He couldn’t…
The weeping woman pivoted, slowly exposing what, he couldn’t say. The man stood stock-still, weeping frantically with muscular, brown arms upraised. Kevin could hear the faintest snatches of, “Por favor, por favor” from the two. Still the woman turned.
What left his throat as a shout nearly ended in a cry, a cry of desperation, “Paré! Manos arriba! Por favor, Señora! O God! Manos arriba!” Still she turned, the courier of some unwelcome, unseen message, until, with shaking, unsure hands, he fired.
“Ay Dios! Ay Dios, mío!” the man cried, rushing to the fallen woman, who lay on a bed of crushed cotton. Kevin, pale and nauseous, stood slumped, exhaustedly holding his warm weapon, watching the man shake the body before him. “Oh Dios!” he cried again, at last turning the body for Kevin to fully see.
A tiny body cradled in masses of white, flourishing fruit. Kevin, perplexed and astonished, felt himself warily shift closer, as if pushed from behind, catching his breath as a faint, treble sob hovered in the air.
“Oh God! Is it alive? Is it alright?” Kevin exclaimed.
He rushed forward, precautions forgotten, kneeling beside the child only to find a vacant stare, a pathetic, whimpering cry to pierce his heart. He knew sickness when he saw it.
Twisting to face the fallen woman, he saw the man shaking her in vain. Kevin begged him, “Paré, señor! Ella està muerta,” but the man wouldn’t give in. Putting a hand on his shoulder, Kevin begged, “Senior, paré, por favor…” only to have his hand roughly shaken off by the man’s determined jerking.
Turning away, Kevin carefully picked up the infant and examined its distant, black-eyed stare for signs of hope when behind him he heard a strangled gasp. A choking female breath panted, “Por favor, por favor, mi bébe! Él está enfermo! ¡Ayúdeme!”
Kevin exclaimed in surprise when saw the man help her sit up. “Is there blood? Did I miss her? Oh God, I hope I missed!”
The woman gazed up at Kevin, begging for mercy, repeating herself: “Mi bébé! Él està enfermo!” Then, timidly rising to her feet, she brought herself to stand before Kevin as he held the child in his arms. “Su nombre es Casta,” she murmured quietly. Then, caressing the child, she echoed, “Casta. Casta.”
Kevin gazed at each face before him. The man and woman stood side by side, his strong arms circling her waist, supporting her weight as she leaned into his hold. They stared back with a strange combination of diffidence and hope, into Kevin’s eyes . Looking down at the baby, the pressure of forming tears overwhelmed his eyes as he whispered, “Casta… Casta.”
The woman offered the smallest of smiles. Then, pointing at herself, she said, “Me llama Estacia” and touching the man’s shoulder, she said, “Se llama Adan.”
Kevin didn’t know what to make of this. He typically only learned the names of illegals as he perfunctorily jumped from one bureaucratic necessity to the next, filling out papers, bubbling in codes, adding files to a database. His eyes rested on the cotton and the irrigation pipes feeding the sturdy, blooming plants, as if they might also speak. The worst heat of the day had passed and a small breeze lifted his hair. Kevin gazed back at Estacia and Adan, at the white fibers streaking their clothes. Then, feeling the slight, infantile warmth on his arms, he returned a slight smile, saying, “Kevin. Me llama Kevin.”
Handing Casta to Estacia, he motioned for all of them to follow. Another whimper escaped the child and a deluge of pain flooded Kevin’s breaking heart. “O God, what am I supposed to do?” he wondered as he opened the rear doors on the Tahoe. He’d seen the system with its rigid, impersonal, all-encompassing laws exasperating even the most long-suffering, uncomplaining characters. The couple slowly climbed into their seats, staring back at him with questioning eyes before he closed the heavy, black door.
Kevin kicked the hot rubber tires. The fertile earth, loosened from his boots’ deep crevices, fell to the ground. Opening the door, he heard his passengers in quiet conference. He couldn’t understand their words but he could hear worry in their voices. A blast of stifling heat smothered him from the oven-like vehicle. When the warm vinyl seat burned his legs and the metal seatbelt buckle bit his fingers, he snapped. “Crap!” he exclaimed, punching the steering wheel. “This is too much. What am I supposed to do?” Glancing back, into the eyes of the startled faces behind him, he caught his reflection in the rearview mirror. Stray white puffs of cotton dotted his body. He pulled wonderingly at the wisps, pinching them off his hair, from his shirt. Rolling them silently between his fingers, he could smell their fresh odor filling the car. Then, gently placing the ivory puffs on the neighboring seat, with a face of grim determination, he declared, “That baby needs a hospital.”
“Hospitál? Clínica?”Adan and Estacia questioned, breathing the words like magical incantations, as if speaking too confidently might break the spell. Kevin answered their hopeful faces by pressing forcefully on the gas pedal, launching the car over the steep, stony incline. The speeding vehicle rocked its passengers almost violently and the baby exhaled another whimper while his mother held her tightly, whispering, “Shhh… Casta…shhhh.”
In his mind, Kevin saw Katie. He saw her gray, newborn body under a heat lamp, his wife looking on. He saw Katie wrapped in tubes, nurses hovering over her body. He saw her strapped into a car seat, finally coming home. He saw her eagerly draining bottles, sucking ravenously in her thirst to live. He saw her as he’d left her just this morning, wearing the pink pajamas embroidered with white flowers, sleeping softly in her crib. He’d opened her squeaking door and when she’d murmured a response, he said, “Shhh, Katie…shhh.”
Ahead of him, he saw the familiar sights of downtown El Paso. Intersections busy with white cloaked interns and columns of decorative, flowered cacti surrounded the hospital. Pulling over, he quickly parked the car in a quiet spot and opened the rear door. Estacia exited, holding Casta tightly, and Adan followed behind. Standing beside the Tahoe, they gripped his hands, repeating “Gracias, señor, gracias,” before swiftly crossing the street and disappearing into the tall, glassy building.
Kevin stared after Estacia and Adan long after they walked through the automated hospital doors. The doors opened and shut, opened and shut. People walked in and out, all types of people. They pushed wheelchairs; they carried babies. Sometimes they held flowers. On the street corners, guilty smokers puffed away, finding camaraderie in their taboo addiction. A young couple embraced nearby, weeping passionately while down the same street an elderly man leaned on his cane, walking alone. Kevin stood there silently, watching the world spin and thinking that, just maybe, it might be beautiful.
As Kevin typed his resignation letter, he thought of Katie. Then he thought of Casta, and Estacia, and Adan, wondering how they were. He stood tall as the sarge chewed him out, labeling Kevin as weak, angry that Kevin took off three months only to quit his first day back on duty. Then, walking from his office, Kevin made the rounds, shaking hands and saying goodbyes throughout the dim, fluorescent room. Briefcase in hand, he looked around the place one last time. His wife’s photo smiled at him from across the room and picking her up, he turned to go.