Robert looked at the clock next to his bed. It was 1:30. He had helped Ahmed to bed hours earlier. The boy couldn’t speak again after finishing his story. Robert couldn’t sleep. He took his cell phone from the night table and turned on the flash light app, pointing it down toward the floor. He wedged it up against the bed frame. The light flooded the floor but left the room in darkness.
He got up from the bed and lowered the blinds on the windows then slid the closet door open. He reached behind his shirts and pushed them to the side revealing a safe. He turned the lock dropping the combination into place. The door popped open. Robert took an old shoebox from inside the safe and sat down on the floor beside his bed. He opened the box and touched the contents tenderly. On top of the pile was a photo of an old woman dressed in traditional clothing. He smiled and felt his throat tighten.
“Abuela,” he whispered. “Te amo y como te espero.” It was the first time he had spoken Spanish since his Grandmother sent him away in 2018. He thumbed through the other papers and photos, his birth certificate with his real name on it as well as his true place of birth. A picture of the parents he never knew, his high school diploma and his forged passport and fake birth certificate, the one that made him American.
He was lucky, that’s what his abuela had said. He had very light skin, como un gringo. He could pass. He didn’t have an accent like she did. He could have a life. He didn’t have to go back to Venezuela. She would be fine. What did he know of Venezuela? He was an infant when his parents were murdered. He had no memory of them or of their country. She had carried him on her back through jungles and deserts to come to America. She had lost her son; she wouldn’t loose her grandson too. She made a home for him and raised him right, working twelve hours a day, seven days a week. He had done well in school. He would go to college. Then everything changed and America went crazy. That’s when she sent him away.
Abuela had paid dearly for the documents. He went to live in a different part of Yonkers where there weren’t Latino people. He kept an eye on her when he could with stealth from afar. She was apprehended in the street and couldn’t produce her papers because she had none, as in reality he didn’t either.
He watched the news and knew the time and place the deportations would take place. He went to watch it, to catch one last glimpse of his abuela. There were crowds cheering. He saw her as she boarded a bus that would take her to the Mexican border. His heart broke but he knew if he shed even one tear the crowd would know who he was and would send him to the same fate or worse. And there with his abuela directing the deportation was Marcus Johnstone.
He shed those tears now. He had shed them before but not in a long while. What had they done with her, this fine old woman who he loved so and who had loved him. Why hadn’t he saved her? Had they done to her what they did to Ahmed’s parents? He had been the willing participant in hiding the evidence. His body shook with the fierceness of his sobs. He stifled the sound as well as he could. He would do something now.
Robert drove over to the diner. He had one last thing he needed to do before he headed north. He had packed all his camping equipment into the rear of his SUV along with Ahmed hidden in a duffle bag. He needed to make sure the dogs were taken care of.
Bethany was in the dining room working when he arrived. He approached her as she walked toward the kitchen.
“Can I speak to you a moment?”
She looked around. “I’m kinda busy.”
He touched her forearm. “It’s really important.”
She took a breath. “Okay. Just give me a moment.” She walked over to the other waitress, who nodded in agreement then walked back to Robert. “All right what’s up?”
“I need a big favor.”
“Sure, if I can.”
“I have an emergency. I have to go out of town for a few days. I found out last night.”
“It’s my aunt in Yonkers, she’s very old, dying.”
“Could you feed the dogs for me while I’m gone?”
Bethany took a step back. “Robert I’d like to help you but is it safe? I mean Dobermans?”
Robert nodded. They’re in the back yard. You just throw them some chopped meat once a day. Here’s some money to buy it with. They’ll be fine till I get back.”
“Please,” Robert said.
Robert stayed off Interstate 87. It would have taken him to the Canadian border in 4-5 hours. The local roads north were safer. Ahmed was on the floor in the back of the SUV. If Robert saw a cop car he told Ahmed to zip himself up. He stopped a couple of times so they could eat and relieve themselves, pulling off the road, hiding the car behind some trees or a thicket of bushes.
He kept the radio on and the conversation at a minimum. He was torn. He suspected everything Ahmed told him was true. No one could make this up and how else would the boy end up in such condition. He couldn’t think about what might have happened to abuela. She had sent him away to save him. Everything she had ever done was to save him.
He looked at the clock on the dashboard. It read 9:30. He estimated he was a little over an hour from the border. His plan was to stop a few miles from the border and hide the SUV off the road. He would set up camp deeper into the woods and then just before daybreak he would send Ahmed off with enough food to last him for the day. Ahmed could ask for asylum. He would head back to Troy. He would tell Bethany his aunt had improved and he was able to come back early. Maybe she would go out with him to the movies. He needed to put all this behind him.
The truth was he wasn’t sure why he was doing this. He couldn’t change what happened in the world. He was irrelevant. He couldn’t change what America had become. He was alive. His abuela had saved him. Every day he lived was what she wanted for him. Maybe he would find a wife, get married, have some kids. Maybe Bethany would be interested in him if he opened up a little.
The lights came up fast behind him. He saw them flashing in the rear view mirror but didn’t think anything of the high beams till the red and blue flashers went on. He slowed and coasted over to the side of the road, the police car pulling up beside him.
“Don’t say a word or move,” Robert called to Ahmed.
The cop got out. He was a big boy, easily over six feet and built like a football player. Robert rolled down the window before the cop asked to give an impression of normalcy.
“Good evening officer,” Robert said. He smiled at the cop.
The cop shined his flashlight around the car. “Going camping?”
“Yes,” Robert answered.
“It’s late you know. We don’t want anyone near the border after dark. You’re less than a mile away.”
“Um, I’m sorry sir. I guess I got lost. I was just looking for a good place to stop for the night.”
“A little late for setting up camp.” He shined the light into Robert’s face.
“I was looking for a motel. Like I said I’m lost. I was going to find a campsite
“The closest camp site is 25 miles back. Let me see some ID.”
“And your registration too.”
“It’s in the glove compartment.”
“Okay, show me your hands.”
Robert lifted his hands into the air. The cop walked around the car to the passenger side and opened the door then opened the glove compartment.
“It’s there in that envelope,” Robert said.
The cop pulled the envelope from the glove box and walked back around the car. He took the license and registration from the envelope and shined the light on it then back into Robert’s face.
“Looks like you. Now tell me what you doing all the way out here at this time of evening.”
“I told you officer I’m going camping.”
“You also told me you’re looking for a motel.”
Robert felt himself begin to shake. “I’m lost, I’m sorry,”
“Get out of the car.”
The officer raised his gun and pointed it directly at Robert’s head. “I said, get out of the car.”
Robert did as instructed. He kept his hands above his head. The officer popped the rear door and shined the light around the back. Robert stared at the duffel bag with Ahmed inside. If he moved they were dead. The officer moved around a couple of items. He looked into the paper bag with the food in it. “How long you going for? That’s a lot of food for one guy.”
“A few days, my girl friend is gonna meet me tomorrow.”
The officer picked up a clear plastic wallet from the floor of the SUV partially hidden by the duffel bag and held it up. Robert couldn’t believe Ahmed could stay so still. His heart was beating out of his chest and his legs shaking.
“My work ID,”
The officer examined it. “You work for Homeland Security?”
“Yes,” Robert mumbled. “But I’m just a data technician.”
The officer holstered his gun. “Then you should know better. We don’t let anyone near the border and if you get too close the fucking Cannuks will shoot at ya.” Head back that way. There’s a motel back in the next town.”
“Yes sir. May I get back into the car?”
Robert turned the car around and drove off down the road. He watched in his rear view mirror to see if the cop would follow him. He watched as the cop’s rear lights disappear down the road. He pulled over into a thicket and pulled the car behind it.
“Ahmed,” he called out.
“Yes,” came his response.
“You all right?”
“Yes,” Ahmed said.
Robert got out of the car and helped Ahmed out of the bag and the rear door. He smelled something.
“I’m sorry,” Ahmed said. “I peed myself.
Robert pulled the boy to him. “That’s Okay, I have extra pants in the back. At least we’re alive and nearly free.”
They spent the night in the rear of the SUV. Robert barely slept. At four he woke Ahmed. “We need to get moving.”
Ahmed looked at him. ‘We?”
“Yeah it’s too dangerous for you. You’ll never make it on your own. Anyway I’ve decided to go with you. I’ll leave the car here, take you as far as the border then double back.”
Ahmed looked at Robert. “Thank you.” He walked to Robert and embraced him. “I thought you would kill me a few nights ago and now you’re saving my life.”
An hour later they saw the first signs of the border, a low barbed wire fence and a warning, “Canadian border 2,500 feet, caution. Proceed at your own risk.”
Robert took the wire cutters he had slipped into his bag and clipped the barbed wire. He was surprised and satisfied when there wasn’t an alarm though he imagined it could be going off somewhere else, like the border patrol office. “Okay, proceed with caution,” he said to Ahmed. “And see those wires sticking up out of the dirt?”
“Those are landmines. Keep your eyes open and don’t step on one.”
They walked through the thick forest a combination of deciduous and pine growth. They heard a low hum coming from somewhere ahead of them. After a couple minutes more light penetrated the growth as the sun started to rise.
“Imagine, this used to be an open border. You could walk right into Canada.”
“When did it change?” Ahmed asked.
“About two years ago. A response to the National Security Act. Hundreds of thousand of people fled into Canada. They couldn’t accept any more.”
As they walked toward the light Robert realized the forest ended. A large cleared area was in front of them. They stopped. He looked up and was shocked by what he saw. In front of him was a 50-foot high concrete wall. At intervals of about 300 feet behind the wall were manned guard towers. He had heard about this but the government had said it was anti-American propaganda. They had lied. In fact the Canadians had built a wall across the nearly 4,000 mile border with the United States just as we had built one along the border with Mexico.
“What do we do now?” Ahmed asked.
Robert looked behind him. “Shit,” he mumbled. Before he could respond American border patrol officers appeared running toward them from behind shouting, “Stop. Don’t move or we’ll shoot.”
“Run,” Robert screamed.
Ahmed stood motionless, paralyzed by fear. He began to cry.
Robert screamed at him again. “Run.”
Ahmed turned and headed for the wall. Robert got down on one knew and pulled one of the two automatic pistols he had holstered to his hips and shot at the border guards running toward him. The first one took a bullet in his thigh. He screamed in pain. The second stopped to help him and unloaded a few rounds sloppily in Robert’s direction. Robert turned and ran trying to catch up with Ahmed.
Three soldiers appeared on the platform of the guard station that topped the wall directly in front of them. Ahmed was almost there. Robert could see he was tiring. “Run Ahmed, run,” he screamed. He turned to look behind him. The second border guard was gaining on him. He dropped to his knee again and took aim. He released a round and felled the border guard with a shot directly to his head. Behind him at the edge of the forest he could sense and see the movement of more men. If they caught him they would kill him.
When he turned he saw Ahmed at the wall. “Please help us,” he called out to the guards. There was nowhere for them to go. The border guards would catch them and everything he had done in his life would catch up to him. He caught up to Ahmed and looked up at the faces of the three Canadian guards. “Please, they’ll kill us.”
There was no response.
“Please,” he screamed again. The border guards were setting up a firing line behind them, with a submachine gun. Her looked up at the Canadians. “This boy escaped a killing center,” he shouted. “I have proof.”
One of the Canadians took a megaphone and shouted to the American border guards. “Stand down or we will shoot. You are on Canadian territory.”
An American guard took a rifle and shot at the Canadians. “Fuck you,” he called out.
Two of the Canadian guards fired back in the direction of the Americans. “Stand down,” the third shouted again through the megaphone. The Canadian attached two hooks to the concrete wall of the guard tower and threw something toward Robert. As it unfurled he realized it was a ladder. “You are in Canada. The border starts where the forest ends. Climb now, quickly.”
Robert picked up Ahmed and flung him over his shoulder. He climbed the ladder quickly tuning the screaming and cursing of the American guards out of his head. He glanced back as he reached the top and saw them retreating to the forest line. The Canadian guards grabbed Ahmed from his shoulder then helped him over the wall. Robert turned back one more time for one last look at the United States. He turned to the Canadian guards. “I am Roberto Morena,” he said. “I have been living as a white man in the United States.” He pulled his documents from inside his knapsack and gave them to the guards. “This is Ahmed al Qalifa. He escaped from a killing center.”
The guards looked over the papers and stared at Robert. “And how do we know this is true?”
“Because I have the evidence right here.” He pulled a tiny transportable data drive from his pants pocket. “I worked for the Department of Homeland Security.”
A. J. Sidransky is an award-winning novelist. His most recent book, Forgiving Mariela Camacho won the David Award for Best Mystery of 2015. His debut novel was selected as a finalist by the National Jewish Book Awards for Outstanding Debut Fiction in 2013 and his second novel, Stealing a Summer’s Afternoon was selected by the Next Generation Indie Book Awards for Best Second Novel in 2014. He lives in Washington heights with his wife and son and works as a writer for a magazine. Check out his website at www.ajsidransky.com.