By Stephen E. Campbell



The two boys couched low as they came to the edge of the underbrush, hesitating in the still night air.

Roberto, wiry and agile, looking older than his fourteen years, suddenly put his finger to his lips. Poised and alert as a jackal, he whispered to his twin brother.

“Angel, did you hear that..?”

Angel shook his head, but the two remained motionless, reading each other’s thoughts, fully prepared to wait as long as they had to. Better to be sure. They’d already been waiting their whole lives for this chance.

Stretched out before them the shallow river valley was barely visible under the pale slice of moon. They’d planned it this way, waiting until the sky was just right, the visibility as low as it would get. The only thing better would have been cloud cover. But clouds and rain were rare, and the Mexican desert could be as bright as day under a full silver moon.

They sat, patient and silent for nearly half an hour, alert to the rumble of a border patrol jeep, the thump of a distant helicopter engine, or even more fearful, the lethal footfalls of river bandits.

When his senses told him that it was clear, Roberto slowly rose to a semi-standing position and scanned the horizon like his Indian grandfather had often shown him and Angel. Look just above the rim of darkness, the old man had taught them. If anything moves you will see it from the corner of your eyes.

Angel stood and Roberto turned and saw him remove a small object from his shoe.

Que tienes?” he asked, “What have you got there?” They had agreed to bring no money, nothing that would identify them as Mexican citizens. Nothing that would remind them of what they were leaving, nothing that would sully their rebirth in this new land on the far side of the river.

Angel grinned, his face a mirror of Roberto’s, and held up the small foil packet.

Un poco de insurencia,” he answered, “dulce de nariz.” Nose candy. Cocaine.

Dios mio, are you crazy?” Roberto held out his hand, but Angel kept smiling and shook his head then stuffed the packet back into his shoe.

“You’ll be happy when I sell this in El Paso, happy with the dollars.”

Roberto just shook his head. It was like arguing with himself. And he knew how stubborn he himself could be.

The two boys now edged gingerly out onto the broad flood basin, the smell of the shallow muddy water increasing as they neared the river. There was a stretch of nearly a quarter mile to the edge of the steadily moving current, a spot that they had decided to cross because of the water’s depth.

They would wade out nearly halfway, but then have to swim a short distance until they touched the river bottom again. It was a dangerous place. A place that few would try to cross, a place seldom patrolled by U.S. border police or bandits alike.

They walked silently, shoulder to shoulder, as fully exposed as they would be on a journey that had started 200 miles inland on the back of an old Ford truck.

The most important thing now was luck. Luck and timing. Stealth and patience had brought them this far, but now they walked erect under the rising moon, because crawling would do them no good. Out in the open even a beetle had no place to hide on the no-man’s-land between the brush and the river’s edge.

 Angel was first to reach the water. He cupped his hand and scooped up a fistful and let it drain through his fingers. Then both youths took off their battered sneakers and, lacing them together, slung them over their necks. Angel stuck the tiny packet between his teeth and then they were in the Rio Grande and on their way to a land of promise.

As they treaded carefully across the muddy river bottom they could feel their thoughts intertwined, holding them together like a net. Their large family, their many brothers and sisters and father who had died of tuberculosis two years earlier, swirled before them like the water that eddied around their legs. A mother who was saddened and relieved both, her twin babies now as big as men, making room for others. They would be staying with the sister of their mother, once they crossed this river, and that fact lessened the sadness somewhat, maintained the connection of family and memory.

So had their mother expressed herself to them. They were more impressed by the rumors that in Texas, boys of sixteen could already own cars. The cash dollars that they would earn working for their uncle would lead them to this soon.

Angel now led the way as the water became deeper, twisting and knotting itself around their waists, their chests, up under their armpits.

Roberto watched as his twin now turned, the little bag of “cocaine” wedged between his grinning, gleaming teeth. Angel had reached the limit of the shallow water. Now they would have to swim. Swim across that invisible, elusive, seductive international boundary that ran mysteriously down the middle of the river, separating rich from poor, past from present, present from future.

Listo?” said Angel, “Ready? Okay. Vamonos. Let’s go!”

The leapt in tandem, the milky, muddy water cool against their scalps, flowing through their hair, sweeping them along in its surprisingly rapid current.

For Roberto it seemed like they would have to swim forever, the far shore rushing by as they labored, stroke by stroke. The grit of suspended silt from faraway places, American places, soon to be seen and embraced, rubbed against his teeth and eyelashes. Just ahead, Angel’s determined splashing suddenly gave him renewed hope, and as they approached the U.S. shallows both boys raced neck and neck, reaching the sandy bottom almost at the same moment.

They stood in the dim moonlight, muddy hair plastered against their foreheads, laughing silently, knowing that this was it. They were here. They were Americans.

Roberto looked into his brother’s eyes and then something splashed in his face and for a moment he was frozen. The expression in Angel’s eyes was stuck in that glorious realization of freedom, of victory, but behind the expression something had already gone awry.

Angel reached across his chest with one sinewy, sun-browned arm, and grasped his shoulder.

And then Roberto knew what had splashed him. It was a piece of that shoulder. Flesh and muscle and blood, like pieces of himself, ripped from one brother to the next by the impact of a high velocity rifle slug.

Abajo!” Angel suddenly cried out. “Down!”

The pair dived back into the silt-filled water and let the current carry them quickly downstream, sucking them back into the deeper water, the river now suddenly a haven instead of a barrier.

Fifty yards down they breached together, gasping for air as the pop of a distant rifle report was followed by a snap in the water directly between them.

In the darkness Roberto could see Angel drifting out of reach, weakened already, in shock from the first bullet’s impact. He grabbed at his brother’s sleeve but Angel let out a groan and pulled away.

By now they had drifted several hundred yards. There were more rifle reports but the slugs skipped harmlessly off the water further upstream. Roberto grabbed again and this time missed completely. Angel was moving further and further away, caught in a river eddy, only the top of his nut-brown hair showing above the surface.

Roberto continued to struggle after his twin but the river was strong and he was weak. Soon Angel was just a speck in the distance, barely moving, slipping away into the night.

Roberto now moved without thinking, not daring to think, his arms burning with exhaustion. The river was beginning to increase in speed as it approached a narrow bend, the great mass of water funneling ever faster into the gorge ahead. Almost a man, but still a boy, he grew dizzy with the exertion and tried to float, gasping, the heavy water pulling him down like quicksand.

Finally even the dizziness began to give way and overhead the smudged and sickly moon look down on a vast expanse where mud and sand and water all had become one.


* * *


When he opened his eyes again Roberto could see a sliver of dawn growing along the edge of the eastern sky. Overhead the stars were still bright but the moon had faded and was tilted against the horizon.

He found himself lying on a slender beach, bathed in shadows from the walls of the narrow gorge above. It was almost morning. He was on the north side of the river. The Texas side.

He stood and peered out across the water, across to the other shore, then up and down the length of the river as far as he could see. There was no sign of Angel. No sign of his twin, the other half of him that had been torn away.

In the struggle and the panic he had lost the shoes strung around his neck, but in his pocket he found a tiny packet, something to get him started in the new world. A commodity. Somehow Angel had shoved it into his brother’s pocket as they fought the current and Roberto now turned it over and over in his hand.

It was all he had. All he had of Angel. A tiny piece of aluminum foil, folded carefully to keep out the moisture.

Then Roberto noticed, on the surface of the packet, a faint impression in the delicate foil.

Forming a gentle crescent from the way it had been held, the packet still showed the teeth marks of his brother. Angel’s loving smile.

He returned it gently to his pocket. Turning his back to the south, he silently scaled the shallow gorge and headed across the sagebrush and towards the gleaming American city.

Stephen E. Campbell has been published in The Boston Globe, including a recent short story contest; Upbeat; New England Business, and is writing a crime novel set in Victorian London.

Copyright 2017 Stephen E. Campbell. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!

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