Authors: Kem Nunn
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary
The lights of Las Playas danced below her. She would be home soon. Tomorrow she would call the garage. But as she started into a long right-hand curve there was a loud cracking sound from the front end of her car. The steering wheel jerked beneath her hands and suddenly she was unable to steer. She hit the brakes. The car began to slide. It was unimaginable. She had seen the lights of home, yet here she was, trapped inside a metal projectile, unable to maneuver, hurtling down a hillside at sixty miles an hour, and it had happened just like that, in the wink of an eye.
She clung to the wheel with both hands, trying by force of will if necessary to turn away from the skid, to hold the car on her side of the road, then watched as the double yellow line passed beneath her, as the inevitable headlights made their appearance, as the night filled with the thundering blast of an air horn . . . She shut her eyes, anticipating impact, the plastic wheel rushing to crush the bones of her chest. Yet somehow the truck missed her. The car rocked in the wake of its passing—a no doubt momentary respite. Magdalena screamed. She screamed for the car to stop. She screamed in the face of what she saw—her own death—a smear of gore upon the highway. A rocky shoulder appeared before her, and beyond that, the side of the mountain from which the road had been cut. She shut her eyes once more. The car slammed broadside into the mountain. The impact bounced her head off the driver’s
side window. And still the car continued to move, its interior filling with dust, choking her screams, grinding away toward some final resting place above the lights of Las Playas, wed to the flank of the old mountain as surely as if God had intended it.
And that was where she sat, in the dampness of bodily fluids, confounded by her own survival. She seemed reluctant to give up the wheel, but sat still gripping it amid clouds of dust, the reek of gasoline, as rocks of various sizes continued to rain from the mountainside. One came through the windshield, striking the dash. The event suggested an imminent death. In time, however, even the sporadic landslides seemed to pass and she was alone with the hissing of a dead engine, the popping of hot metal, cooling in the night, and finally, as from a great distance, the sound of footsteps on the highway. Her eyes ticked to the rearview mirror. She saw a moving shadow in dim light. Still, she was ready to be helped and she reached to undo her seat belt even as someone began to tug on the passenger side door. The door no longer opened smoothly. The car rocked. The door released with a loud pop then swung back, groaning upon its hinges. Magdalena put her head against the headrest and closed her eyes, awaiting a voice, a helping hand. What she got was silence, the sound of surf from the far side of the road—which struck her as odd. Even in her condition she was capable of this observation, that there was something wrong with the silence, the muffled pounding of surf, and she turned to look.
At first there was only the night sky, a few faint stars scattered above the sea, and then a man, bending to peer into her car. The man was ragged and unwashed, missing teeth. He wore a leather jacket over a naked torso, a large Aztec sun tattooed upon his abdomen. She knew about the missing teeth because the man was grinning like a hyena, which, under the circumstances, she was willing to take as a bad sign.
A kind of sickness swept over her then—a dark thing that cut to
the bone. There was no way out on her side of the car. The man reached inside and began to pull at her arm. She hardly knew how it happened. One second she was frozen behind the wheel, the next she was outside, the wind on her face, her back against the ruined car. And still, no words had been spoken.
The men were two in number. She could see them clearly now. The man with the missing teeth continued to hold her by the arm. His grip was strong and cold. “Check it out,” he said. The missing teeth gave him a lisp. “The bitch is still alive.”
The other man was standing a few feet away, in the middle of the road, looking back in the direction from which they had come, a shadowy figure, yet close enough for her to see an eyeball tattooed in the bald spot at the back of his head.
The man who held her appeared to be waiting for the other to give instructions. “Maybe we should take her to the beach,” he said.
Magdalena waited with him, staring into the tattooed eye. It had no lids but floated there as a perfect orb, trailing gore, as though recently plucked from another’s skull. The effect was both dispiriting yet oddly mesmerizing as quite suddenly the entire scene went up in lights and one more truck, like the one that had narrowly missed killing her, came barreling down upon them.
The truck seemed to fill the entire road and as the man farthest from the car danced to avoid being struck, Magdalena managed to free a hand and began to wave. The toothless man cursed in her face, reclaiming her arm then bending it behind her back. He put his weight against her, pinning her to the wrecked car. She slammed her forehead into his nose. Cartilage cracked against her skull. Blood sprayed her skin. The man’s hand flew to his face and Magdalena broke free, directly into the path of the coming truck.
What followed was a cacophony of horns and brakes, a storm of dancing lights and burning rubber. Magdalena ran toward the far side of the road, the huge truck jackknifing behind her, sliding into
what was left of her car. Given the immense weight of the truck, the sound that accompanied this collision was like a heavily booted foot crushing an empty aluminum can. Magdalena did not look back. At her feet was a long sloping shoulder that dropped to a dirt road. The road ran to the border, skirting the last of the Tijuana beaches. There was little time to think. She launched herself from the shoulder, half running, half falling. She covered the last few yards on her ass, in a landslide of dirt and gravel. She could hear them above her. She heard voices raised in anger and then a gunshot. And she began to run once more. She ran for the steel fence and the lights of the border patrol. She chanced a look over one shoulder and saw them coming—little more than shadows, the dust of their descent hanging above the highway where the lights of the truck continued to burn.
Magdalena ran on. Surely, she thought, the border police would have to see; they would have to come . . . But the dirt road stretched out empty before her and she could not risk a foot race to the fence. She cut instead between a pair of tiny wooden shacks that sold colored ice to the children, locked and boarded for the night, then stumbled into the sand. Unfortunately the move was not enough to elude the men. Where, she wondered, was the goddamn patrol? She ran toward the border—not fifty yards away, yet the men were still behind her. She went directly toward the fence, waving her arms, calling for help. A spotlight swept the beach from the U.S. side. She ran to that place where the light pooled in the sand. A shot rang out at her back. The sand jumped not a yard in front of her. My God, she thought, they will stop at nothing. And she made for the water, where it was only after she had lost her footing on the uneven bottom and felt the cold, that the rashness of this act became clear to her. It was only then, unable to stand, that she remembered the terror of Las Playas.
The current took her at once, stronger than any man. She was
carried north, fighting to breathe, to call for help. The huge fence loomed above her, repository of crosses, the names of the dead—the infamous fence. In Las Playas they died among its narrow pilings on a regular basis, pinned there like so many exotic insects by the powerful currents that swept the beach, the currents she had failed to consider. And she had seen how it would be, drowned at the border like one more clueless pilgrim, within shouting distance of the river that had taken her mother. The irony drove her to renewed efforts. She struck out with her arms, pulling for the beach, but already the fence was upon her. She slipped beneath the surface, striking a post with her shoulder. Incredibly, however, the terrible fence seemed to give way beneath her. She clutched at something in the darkness—ragged metal that cut her hands then crumbled in her grasp as suddenly she was through. For an instant her head broke the surface and she saw the big fence one more time, sliding away from her now, moving south as the currents swept her north. She would drown, she concluded, in the land of the free. Whereupon a big wave broke directly on top of her, taking her wind, driving her down. She thrashed in the darkness, in the terrible creeping cold, till death was something she could taste, and in the end she gave herself to it . . .
Later, in the days that would follow, amid delirium and fever, she would remember that she had given up—she who had always been so proud of her resolve, a believer in the strength of will. She had quit on life. But a strong arm had taken her. At least this was how it had seemed, that in the absence of hope, a strong arm had found her, and pulled her—it could not have been more than a few yards—to that place where her feet touched bottom so that in the end she actually staggered from the sea beneath her own power to lie half dead and gasping on a broad beach, sky above, earth below,
and no sign at all of anyone or anything that might have helped her, though once, gaining her knees, blinking the salt from her eyes, she believed that she had seen something—a spectral figure, half clothed, hovering at the edge of a dune. But the image seemed to fade before her eyes, dissolving like ectoplasm into the gray predawn light as if the light itself had begotten it, so that when it was gone and she was alone on the beach she could not be sure if what she had seen was a thing that truly existed or only some trick of the morning—an image brought forth out of water and air. She had called out anyway, her voice thin and wavering, every bit as ethereal as whatever it was she had called out to. There had been no answer. No voice on the beach save her own. And yet this was the story she had to tell. Had it happened on the Mexican side of the fence they would have brought flowers, there would have been a shrine, a visit by a priest. Pilgrims would have thrown themselves to the waves, to Our Lady of Las Playas.
On the U.S. side of the fence, there was only this Fahey, the man who had followed her into the dunes, who had killed the dogs, and so she told him. She told him of the wraithlike presence, of the currents and the men on the road, of the fence that had broken beneath her, and of the names of the dead . . .
The words came in torrents. The man listened, or so it seemed. Her surroundings were unclear. They came and went. Once she opened her eyes to find the man bending over her. He appeared to be wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a worm on the front. The worm was brilliant green with a yellow stomach. It wore sunglasses and a cowboy hat. A bubble above the worm’s head contained the words “Worm Farming Can Be Fun.” She thought that perhaps she had begun to hallucinate. At her side was a table lamp in the shape of a hula girl with a shade beaded by dusty fringe while above the man’s head there was what she took to be a surfboard suspended by canvas straps. She watched as the surfboard multiplied and began to
rotate, at first like the blades of a fan, then morphing into a kind of pinwheel and spinning points of light. In a moment of lucidity she concluded that it was the cuts, the bad water. She felt the onset of chills, a deep pain snaking through her lower abdomen. The wheel of lights spun faster. She saw the man once more—a weathered face framed by beard and matted hair. He seemed to be bending over her, eyes so bloodshot as to appear both blue and red. The colors of his flag, she thought. She felt his breath upon her skin. A wave of fear swept through her. “I’m going to be sick,” she told him.
were putting a burro into a horse trailer when they caught sight of Fahey’s truck raising dust on the Dairy Mart Road. It was early and the dust was nearly indistinguishable from the pale rags of fog still drifting above the marsh grass of the estuary.
The cowboys, as Fahey liked to call them, were employed by the California Department of Parks and Recreation. Each carried a business card designating them as “workers” for the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve. Their names were Jack Nance and Deek Waltzer and they drew modest salaries for maintaining Border Field State Park, where as part of their duties they cleared trail and mended fences. Their preferred mode of transportation for this work was horseback—in part because there were horse trails across the valley, from the freeway to the beach, and people willing to ride there, particularly in the summer months when the valley was
deemed to be less toxic, and in part because they loved horses and all things connected to them. They were frequenters of the rodeo, especially the illegal Mexican rodeos staged by the Oaxacan Indians in a section of the valley known as Garage Door Tijuana—a labyrinth of corrals, stables, and ramshackle housing screened from public view by scores of cast-off garage doors strung together in a crazy quilt of makeshift fences and behind which the Oaxacans were more or less free to carry on as they pleased. The San Diego sheriff’s department held jurisdiction there, as throughout the valley, but unless someone was murdered in broad daylight, they seemed content to leave the Tijuana River Valley to the park rangers and border patrol, to the assorted cowboys, truck farmers, Indians, environmentalists, drug runners, bandidos, and burro eaters who either made the place their home or at least the source of some meager income.