For me, immigration is personal. And I don’t like to call it illegal immigration either. I prefer immigration without choice. You see, my maternal grandmother was here illegally. She came on a visitor’s visa in 1930. She overstayed her visa. My mother was an anchor baby. Had she gone back to Europe and “waited” for her number to come up she would have died in Hitler’s concentration camps along with the rest of her extended family who weren’t lucky enough to have a sister here who figured out how to get her out of Europe. Obviously, had she gone back and waited, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this to all of you. I hope you enjoy “The Wall,” and that it helps you to spread the message. We still have the time and the power to stop this.
Robert Brown rinsed his hands with cold water from the porcelain sink in the men’s room then dabbed his face. He stared at himself. He straightened his navy blue tie and smoothed out his battleship grey shirt before returning quietly to his desk in the perpetual near silence of the Fulfillment Services Accounting Section of the Department of Homeland Security.
He peered through the glass partitions into the office of the Regional Director of Fulfillment Services. The uniformed man was still there. Though Robert could hear nothing through the soundproof glass that sectioned off his boss’ office from the rest of the workspace, he knew the man was laughing, his head tossed back and his body heaving with each convulsion of hilarity. The Director laughed as well and he wasn’t a man known for his mirth.
Robert looked up at the photo of President Spencer that hung on the wall directly opposite his desk. Spencer’s eyes focused on Robert nine hours a day, 9:00 to 6:00 minus one hour for lunch mandated from 12:00 to 1:00 regardless of what time you wanted to eat. Spencer was hailed as the savior of the Republic. It was rumored that before his second term expired he would break with convention and pass a constitutional amendment to run for a third term. For the good of the nation, he said.
Robert focused on his computer screen. He had to finish this assignment by the end of work today. There was no staying late either. Employee desks and computer screens were locked by departmental security at 5:00 exactly. Then the security guards came, checked their bags and escorted them to the parking lot. He smiled to himself. His work was important. The good of the nation depended on it. The future of the nation depended on it.
He focused on the task at hand, monthly accounting for July 2022 for the warehouse facility at Green Island, New York. He pondered the numerous two letter codes that represented the various categories of items he accounted for both incoming and outgoing. The codes never had any clear relationship to what they represented. Clothing for instance wasn’t CL but rather BZ, electronic equipment wasn’t EE or EQ, but rather MM. This was how the government kept us secure; secrecy, codes, staying a step head of the enemy. He smiled to himself. We know about everything and everyone who comes in and out of the country. Nothing and no one passed into the population without a security review. And it worked. There hadn’t been a terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 2020.
Robert entered and rechecked his numbers, entering the raw data he had received from the Green Island facility into columns; date of entry, type of package, clearance code, disposition code. The work was repetitive but reassuring. He was protecting the homeland.
The door of the Director’s office opened. The man in the black uniform stepped out, still laughing noisily. Robert focused on his screen.
“I trust then we will see you in Green Island soon. I want you to see the facility and what we’ve accomplished there,” the man in the black uniform said quite loudly. He gazed about the room, scanning the cubicles and the faces. Robert breathed deeply and continued working.
“I look forward to it,” the Director said.
The man in the black uniform extended his hand. “We have served the nation and our people well,” he said.
“Yes, I believe we have,” replied the Regional Director of Fulfillment Services.
Robert got into his car and pulled out of the parking lot toward Route 787. He headed north toward Troy. The trip took just over a quarter hour. He stopped at the American Diner for dinner. It seemed just about everything was called the “American” something these days.
Robert parked toward the back of the lot. He stepped out of the SUV. The air had cooled a bit but was very damp and muggy. It reminded him of summers during his childhood in Yonkers. The season would change soon, the leaves with it.
He sat down at a booth in the corner of the diner. The waitress walked toward him with a smile. “Hello Robert, how are you? Haven’t seen you in a while?”
“Been busy, you know, with my dogs,” he replied. He liked Bethany. She was petite and slim, her dirty blond hair falling to her shoulders. When she smiled her whole face lit up. He often thought that he would like to ask her out, take her somewhere for a fun Sunday, perhaps for a hike along the Hudson and a picnic. But he knew that would never happen. He was too shy. He kept to himself.
“Well glad to see you anyway,” Bethany said. “What you think you want to have?”
“What’s good tonight?”
She thought for a moment then bent toward him and whispered. “I know we’re calling them something else now but we’ve got really good chicken enchiladas.”
He smiled. “I think I’ll just take a burger and fries.”
Robert flicked off the TV. He had to let the dogs out and put away the folded laundry. He couldn’t watch anymore anyway. President Spencer dominated the news. It seemed 25 of 30 minutes of every broadcast was dedicated to covering him. Spencer’s rise seemed like a whirlwind. Robert never saw it coming.
Trump won the election in 2016. It took everyone by surprise. It wasn’t even a close win. His party won control of both houses of congress too. All the experts and the pundits had been proven wrong. Mike Pence was his V.P. After three months in office Trump stunned the nation. He would resign. He had realized he never wanted to be President anyway. He just wanted to show the nation that he was a winner.
Pence chose a little known activist to replace himself as V.P. He said the nation needed young blood and fresh thinking. Richard Spencer was the president of the National Policy Institute, a non-profit that promoted the rights and culture of “European-Americans”. He said he would respect the constitutional rights of all Americans.
A little less than a year later Pence was assassinated while on a trip to Europe to sign an agreement to pull the United States out of NATO. By the summer of 2018 Spencer had begun the transformation of American society along the lines he said President Trump would have wanted. Trump, from his perch in Mar Lago, endorsed Spencer’s programs.
“Okay boys,” Robert said to his twin Dobermans, “time to go out.” He opened the door to the rear yard from the kitchen then picked up a stack of laundry and carried it upstairs to his bedroom. As he placed his undershirts in the top drawer of the dresser he heard the dogs growling and underneath the growl whimpering. Grabbing his pistol and a flashlight from the bottom drawer he rushed down the stairs and out the door into the yard. The dogs stood at attack stance in front of the garbage pails.
“Down, back,” Robert commanded them.
They stepped backwards slowly, still growling. He circled around them and pulled out his flashlight shining it directly into the face of a teenage boy cowering behind the pails.
“Please don’t shot me,” the boy said.
“Come out from there,” Robert ordered. He looked around at his neighbors’ windows to check if any lights had gone on, or if anyone was watching from behind the darkness.
The boy stepped out from behind the pails. He was skinny and filthy, his clothing in tatters. His face was gaunt, chin partially covered by thin, wispy hair. Robert figured the boy couldn’t be more than fifteen years old.
“What are you doing here?”
“I was looking for something to eat,” the boy whimpered. He averted his gaze then covered his eyes with his hand to shield them against the intense beam from the flashlight.
Robert noted the boy’s skin. He looked around at his neighbors’ windows again. “Maybe we should continue this discussion inside.”
The boy took a step to the right. The dogs growled again at his ever so slight movement.
“Down boys,” Robert said. “Shhhhh.” He patted one on the head. “Back in the house,” he ordered. The dogs stepped back tentatively at first then turned and ran through the gaping lighted portal that was the door to the kitchen. He gestured to the boy with his head. “Inside.”
Terror was evident in the boy’s face. “But the dogs…”
“The dogs won’t bother you unless I tell them too. Now, into the house.”
The boy moved slowly toward the kitchen door. The dogs watched from inside. As he put his foot onto the first of three steps that led to the stoop the dogs began to growl again. He stopped. Robert walked in front of him, the pistol pointed at the boys head. “Don’t try to run ‘cuz I know how to use this.” He went into the kitchen and put the dogs into their large crates in the corner of the kitchen. “Come in now,” he called to the boy.
The boy walked the three steps slowly. In this light Robert could see how emaciated the boy was. He could also see his complexion clearly. He gestured with his head toward the living room. “Go in there and sit down.”
The boy obeyed. Robert took a quick look out into the yard then closed the door and locked it. He put the flashlight on the counter but kept his pistol. He walked stealthily into the living room slipping the doors of the dogs’ crates shut as he passed.
He studied the boy perched on the edge of the couch. The room had quickly filled with the scent of the boy’s unwashed body. Robert pulled two tissues from the box on the coffee table and covered his nose. “Get up. I don’t want you stinking up my furniture.”
The boy quickly rose from his seat and covered his eyes with his hands. He began to cry, silently. “I’m sorry sir, please let me go. I was only hungry. I haven’t eaten in days.”
Robert’s mind raced. He wasn’t sure what to do. The law was clear about harboring vagrants. “Where are you coming from?”
The boy began to weep.
His voice rose. “Answer me or I’ll call the police now.” He picked up his ID badge from the coffee table. “You see this? You picked the wrong house to trespass. I work for Homeland Security. I defend this country. Now tell me who are you? Where did you come from?” Robert walked forward a step and pointed the pistol at the boy’s head.
The boy sank to his knees, the tattered, dirty rags that served as his clothing accentuating the boniness of his starved shaking body. “Just kill me,” he begged between his sobs. “I can’t take anymore.”
“Where are you from?” Robert asked again, this time nearly shouting. The dogs growled from the kitchen.
The boy looked up at him. The face Robert peered into was barely human, but the eyes, deep and dark, implored Robert to show mercy in whatever form it took. They touched something inside Robert. He lowered the gun and his voice.
“Where are you coming from?” he whispered.
“Green Island,” the boy said then collapsed.
Robert looked at the body on the floor then at the cable box. It was nearly midnight. The dogs continued growling. He needed to get control of the situation. In these times you had to be careful. His neighbors knew his habits the same way he knew theirs and every light in the house was on and that was unusual. No matter that, he was sure at least one of them was aware that something had happened in the back yard.
He stared at the boy and covered his nose again then began moving about the first floor turning off lights. He went into the kitchen, calmed the dogs, filled their bowls and latched them into their crates, turned out the kitchen light and closed the door behind him.
Robert glanced back into the living room. The boy hadn’t moved. He sprinted up the stairs and flicked off the lights in his bedroom and the bathroom. He pulled out a pail from under the bathroom sink. He used his cell phone for light and filled the pail half full with cold water from the tub. Grabbing a hand towel from the rack next to the door he headed back downstairs stealthily so as not to get the dogs barking again. An emergency candle sat on the table next to the sofa in case of blackouts. He lit it, it’s light casting a golden glow over the room.
Robert knelt over the boy. His stench was nauseating. He soaked the hand towel in the pail of cold water, wrung it out and placed it on the boy’s forehead keeping it there for a few seconds then wiped the boys cheeks.
The boy began to stir. When he opened his eyes and saw Robert hovering over him he pulled away, terrified.
“Relax, I’m not going to hurt you.” Robert said.
The boy tried to prop himself to a sitting position but collapsed again.
“Stay there,” Robert said walking to the kitchen. He realized how ridiculous his statement was. Where would the boy go? He didn’t have the strength to sit up.
Robert returned from the kitchen with a glass of apple cider. He loved this cider. It was made just outside of Troy at Van Wyke’s Orchard. Their family had come to the Hudson Valley more than 400 years earlier. It was truly American. He knelt in front of the boy again and offered him the glass. The boy made the effort to prop himself up on his elbow again, this time successfully. Robert held the glass as the boy put his boney fingers around it and Robert’s hand. His nails were cracked and dirty. His skin, stretched thin against his bones, was the color of caramel. They looked like the hands of an old person, not a young boy.
The boy sipped at the cider slowly, “Thank you,” he said.
Robert hesitated. “You’re welcome.”
After a few minutes the boy sat up. “Please, may I go? I won’t bother you again.”
Robert shook his head. “It’s too late now. You can’t be on the roads at this hour, you know that.”
The boy’s head dropped between his knees. Robert thought he was crying again. It was impossible to know for sure in the semi-darkness.
“You’ll stay the night,” Robert said. “I have an extra bedroom. But first you need a bath. You stink.”
Robert walked up the stairs to the second floor and into the bathroom. He pulled the emergency candle and matches from under the sink and lit it, placing it on the floor next to the tub. He plugged the drain and turned on the water then scrambled down the stairs to the living room. “Can you stand?”
The boy tried to get up but couldn’t make it to his knees. Robert held his breath so as to close off his nose from the boy’s filthy body and offered his hand to him. He pulled him up then propped him with his left arm and dragged him up the stairs leaving him seated on the toilet. He reached around to the small linen rack and pulled out a towel.
“Here, try to undress and cover yourself. Then I’ll help you into the tub.”
Speechless, the boy began to pull at the filthy clothing. It literally came apart from the effort to remove it.
“Leave it on the floor,” Robert instructed.
“Can you help me to stand?” the boy asked.
Robert moved toward him. As the boy pushed up against the sink with his hand to raise himself his pants fell to the floor. With his body exposed Robert nearly gasped. He had never seen a human being in such condition. His muscles were as tattered as his clothing had been, his skin covered with sores and his bones pressing through the nearly translucent flesh. He lowered him into the tub and handed him a bar of soap.
“Thank you,” the boy said barely above a whisper.
Robert felt his dinner move up into his throat. The boy looked up at him, tears in his eyes. “Could I have a little more of that juice?” he asked.
Robert trotted down the stairs and brought the bottle this time. When he returned the boy was lathering the soap slowly on his body. In the candlelight Robert saw the tears streaming down his cheeks.
“My name is Ahmed,” the boy said. He was seated on the sofa. Robert had dressed him in some of his cloths. They hung on him. “I escaped from Green Island three days ago.”
“What were you doing on Green Island?” he asked.
“The took us there from the camp.”
Ahmed looked at Robert. “The camp where I’ve lived for the past two years. We were taken there after the National Security Act was passed. It’s near Ft. Hunter.”
Robert felt a chill. “You’re a Muslim?”
Ahmed hesitated. “Yes, I am, we are, were. My parents emigrated from Pakistan. I was born here. We lived in Brooklyn before all this started.”
Robert recalled the near panic that had ensued after the bombing of the Mall of America by the Islamic Brotherhood for the Caliphate. President Spencer reacted quickly. It was no longer safe for Muslims to move freely among us, he said. He pressed for quick passage of the National Security Act. They would be cordoned off into their own neighborhoods, patrolled by the NaHoSePo, the National Homeland Security Police. It was only temporary, he claimed. Each family, each individual would be vetted. If they passed security they would be reintegrated into American society in special settlement zones.
“Where were they taking you?”
“I’m not sure. They loaded us onto a train and said we were to be transferred from Green Island to a new community near Fredonia. We would be given jobs in the factories there and housing.”
“You look like you’re starving.”
“I am starving. There isn’t much food in the camps. Many died, my younger sister, my grandparents. We sleep in huts. There is no work, or school. We just wait for death.”
Robert felt as if he would vomit but he wanted to keep control of himself in front of the boy. “Why did you jump from the train?”
“My parents told me to run. The train stopped and it was night and we were near the door. “Get to Canada, they said. “Walk north, stay off the road.”
I said, “No, I want to stay with you” and they said “no, it’s better for you if you don’t. Get to Canada and then bring us to you.” “
“So you jumped off the train?”
Robert took a deep breath. He glanced at the cable box. It was almost 2:00 AM, too late to call the police. They would ask him why he had waited hours to turn in the boy. “Well, I guess you’ll stay here for the night. I work for Homeland Security. I should probably turn you in.”
Ahmed nodded his head.
“Follow me. Keep out of sight tomorrow and when I get home from work we’ll figure something out.”
Robert stared at his computer screen. He tried to concentrate. Ahmed’s story troubled him. He knew about the vetting of Muslims. It was necessary. There was no other way to stop the attacks. It was unfortunate, but at least for a while they needed to be kept in their own communities. They would be happier there, as the President said, where they could live according to their own rules and traditions, free to live according to their religion. That was what religious freedom was all about, wasn’t it?
“May I have everyone’s attention for a moment?” the Director said.
Robert looked up. The Director was standing at the door of his office. The man in the black uniform was standing next to him.
“I would like to interrupt you’re work for a moment to introduce to you the Director of Fulfillment Services for the Northeast Region, Lieutenant Colonel Marcus Johnstone. He would like to speak to you.”
Robert felt the butterflies flutter in his chest. He looked around. His co-workers, to the last, rose. He did the same. He watched Johnstone scan the room, smiling. Johnstone removed his cap and shouted, “America First!”
“America First,” the crowd responded.
“I want to thank you for your dedication to the future of our country. I don’t know that you fully realize how important your work is to the achievement of security for our nation. It is as important as the wall we built at the Mexican border. It is the means by which we keep danger screened, caught and accounted for. Though you are not on the front lines nor on the news you are the unsung heroes of our future. You are the net by which we catch the threats we face. Thank you!”
The room erupted in applause. Johnstone smiled broadly. He raised his fist. “America First!” he shouted again.
“America First,” Robert shouted back, his fist and voice raised.
Johnstone walked through the room stopping at every few desks to shake hands.
“Robert,” the Director said.
Robert smiled. “Yes sir.”
Johnstone extended his hand to Robert. “Great job you’re doing here.”
“Thank you sir,”
“Robert is one of our best technicians,” the Director said. “He works quickly and efficiently.”
“That’s excellent,” Johnstone said. “Keep up the good work.” Johnstone began to step away then stopped. “Robert it is?”
“Where do you live?”
“Are you from the Capital Region?”
“I grew up in Yonkers.”
Johnstone smiled. “Me too. I thought you looked a bit familiar. Where did you go to high school?”
Robert swallowed hard. “Roosevelt.”
Johnstone nodded. “I went to Lincoln.”
Robert thanked himself for lying.
“Perhaps we crossed paths in the past.”
“Perhaps,” Robert said.
Johnstone smiled and moved on.
Robert looked at the clock. It was 4:45. He was dead tired. He picked up the stack of reports he had printed and assembled for the Green Island facility and walked to the Director’s office. He tapped on the glass door. The Director gestured to him to enter.
“Where shall I put these?”
“Over there,” the Director said, pointing to the credenza against the wall. “Small world, Robert.”
“What do you mean sir?”
“You and Johnstone, him recognizing you.”
Robert’s heart rate jumped. “Yes sir, but to tell you the truth I didn’t recognize him,” Robert lied. “I didn’t want to insult him though.”
“Good move, he’s an important and dangerous man.”
Robert hesitated. “Sir, may I ask you a question?”
“Yes, of course.”
“In these reports, I’ve been producing them for eight months now, there are a couple of codes I don’t understand.”
“Which would those be?”
“XX, XY SR and CH”
“Why do you ask?”
“Because all the other codes have definitions.”
The Director smiled. “Why do you think that is?”
Robert stood uncomfortably. He felt the perspiration begin to form on the back of his neck and under his arms. “They’re classified?”
“Yes.” The Director smiled. The 5:00 alarm sounded. “See you tomorrow.”
Robert neared his house. He had stopped at the diner to pick up dinner for himself and Ahmed. Bethany teased him about the second dinner. She asked him if he was hiding a wife somewhere? He blushed. “No,” he said. “He wouldn’t have time to cook tomorrow since he would have to work late.” He hoped she didn’t know the work hour rules for his department at Homeland Security.
He had thought about it all the way home. XX and XY. No one could be that obvious, but wasn’t hiding in plain site the safest way to hide? Male and Female, were they accounting for people? Almost 90% of the count in those categories went on to a processing facility a few miles up the river to be incinerated. The remaining 10% were dispatched to a warehouse in Fredonia.
He pulled into the driveway. The dogs were in the yard. When they heard the car they began barking. He grabbed the bag with the food. The dogs jumped up. He held the bag over his head. They smelled the food and were hungry.
“Shhh,” he said, “Down boys.” He patted them on the head. “You stay here for a few minutes. I’ll be right back.” He entered the house to find Ahmed sitting on the couch with the shades drawn. He looked at him. “How are you feeling?”
“A little stronger. I hope you don’t mind I ate some of your food.”
“No, that’s all right.” He held up the bag. “I brought us some more.”
Ahmed looked at him. “Thanks,” he said barely above a whisper. “I’ll leave tonight. Just explain to me which direction Canada is.”
Robert put the bag down on the coffee table. “We need to talk.” He pulled the chair from his desk and sat opposite Ahmed. “Go ahead open the bag, eat.”
Ahmed reached for the bag tentatively. He removed the two Styrofoam containers.
“They’re the same,” Robert said.
Ahmed handed one of the containers to Robert and opened the other. Inside was a thick hamburger on a bun with French fries. The food was still steamy. He lowered the container to his lap and lifted the hamburger out and to his nose before taking a bite. “I haven’t eaten meat in three years,” he said.
Robert watched him as he took the first taste. He bit into the burger slowly and savored it. His second bite was slightly faster than the first. Robert could see the pleasure on Ahmed’s face. The third bite and the fourth came close to devouring the burger. “Slow down,” Robert said, taking a bite of his own.
“You’re right, I could get sick.” He put the remaining portion down into the container and nibbled at the French fries.
“Have some ketchup,” Robert said. He pointed to the packets on the coffee table that had slipped from the paper bag.
Ahmed reached for one. He tore it open with his teeth and squeezed it into a corner of the Styrofoam.
“Tell me what happened to you,” Robert said.
“I already did.”
“I need to hear it again. Explain to me what happened when you were taken from Brooklyn.”
Ahmed took the Styrofoam container from his lap and put it on the table. He looked off toward the darkened stairway at the other end of the living room and began to remember.
“I was born here. My parents were students and met in college. My father got a job so he was allowed to stay. He was an engineer. He married my mother and she went back to Pakistan. He brought her a year later along with his parents. She became pregnant with me shortly thereafter. We lived in a house in Flatbush. My father was very proud of that house. He said it made him an American.”
Robert thought of the little house he had lived in as a boy in Yonkers. “Did he own it?”
“Yes, of course. We lived there together, all of us. After the Mall of America bombing you know what happened. There were attacks against Muslims, people who looked like us even if they weren’t Muslim all over the country. The President said we had to be concentrated, for our own protection. Our house didn’t fall within the protection zone, there weren’t enough Muslim families in the neighborhood so we were moved first to a protection zone.”
“Where was the protection zone?”
“Jackson Heights in Queens. They moved all the non-Muslim people out of the neighborhood then moved us there. We were given an apartment.”
“What happened to your house?”
“They were supposed to give us a new one. They gave my father some money instead, much less than the house was worth. We stayed there for about six months. The area was cordoned off and patrolled by police. It got too crowded. Then they came one afternoon and asked for volunteers to be moved the next day upstate. We would have better housing and could practice Islam freely, they said. We were happy about it. It had to be better than the tiny apartment in Jackson Heights.”
“We did. They came the next day with busses. We were allowed two suitcases each and two large boxes of household goods. We had no idea where we were going exactly. Military vehicles escorted the buses. A few hours later we arrived at the camp. They led us into an open area and registered us. There were some temporary barracks where we stayed the first night, the men and women separate. They said they knew we preferred that because of our religion. My father said nothing. The next day we were given some breakfast in the barracks, bread and tea. My father had had enough. He was angry. There was an announcement for all heads of families to come to the arrival area.”
Ahmed stopped for a moment. He took a sip from the can of soda he had been drinking before Robert returned home.
“They told us to line up. When we reached the head of the line we were given an address and a map. On the map was a large red dot. That was where our new house would be. We had to find the lot and build the house for ourselves. The barracks was only for the first night. Other refugees would arrive that day.”
Robert’s mind was racing. Was the boy making this up?
“They told us building materials and tools would arrive later that day as well. It was a week before the first shipment arrived. We slept outside that night and until we built shelter.”
“What did you do about food?”
Ahmed began to cry. “There was very little. The women went to cook in a large kitchen every day to prepare the food. What they gave us for six was enough to feed one. My grandparents refused to eat. They became sick and they died a short while later from starvation and a broken heart. They weren’t alone. We made a cemetery at the corner of the camp. The old went first.”
Robert looked at the half of the burger he had left in the container and nearly vomited.
“Eventually we collected enough wood to make a hut and we lived there my parents, my sister and me. That winter my sister died. She contracted a cold. It turned to pneumonia. There were no doctors except for those among us trained as such and there was no medicine. My father hacked at the frozen earth to bury her wrapped in a shawl without a coffin.”
Robert felt the tears flow down his face as he watched Ahmed’s tumble from his eyes.
“That was six months ago. A few nights ago they rounded us up in the middle of the night and told us we were being sent to a larger, better community in Fredonia. They put us on a train to Green Island. Fredonia was in the opposite direction. My father knew what was happening. He had heard rumors. He told me to run. He wanted me to live.”
Ahmed’s body crumbled, wracked by sobs.
“I’m sorry,” Robert said.
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.”