The silver blanket loudly crinkles as I shift on my thin cot. It’s supposed to keep us warm, but my bare toes are always cold. Last week one of the other kids stole my sneakers. None of the guards helped. He transferred the next day wearing my shoes. I asked a guard for a new pair, but he just laughed. Why do they laugh at us?
I miss Mama so much. Her face is fuzzy in my brain, but it’s impossible to forget the sound of her soft humming. In my mind, I can hear the clanging of the spoon against the scuffed metal bowl, the meat sloshing around in the sauce. Those thick, calloused knuckles grinding into the dough for tamales. Last night I dreamed of an old memory. We were at our worn wooden table, the whole family, filling up on steaming tamales. They were even better than Abuela’s. Her dark eyes shined under the shower of compliments. A long time ago, I asked her how she made them so good.
“Hecho con amor,” she would say with a wink.
The memory of the smell makes my mouth water. For Christmas one year, she made tons of them, enough for even Abuelo’s big belly. A neverending pit, Abuela used to complain while serving seconds. We fell asleep that Christmas night with full stomachs and warm hearts. It’s one of my favorite memories.
My stomach seizes again, and I try not to groan. When was the last time we ate? My tongue feels like one of the lizards that sunbathed in our backyard. The silver blanket rustles as my body tightens into a ball.
“Are you awake?”
I hear Margarita’s whisper and turn to her. She is seven years old, like me, but has longer hair. Mine is short, to the bottom of my ears. Mama had cut it right before we escaped Chihuahua.
“Si,” I say, offering a weak smile. My lip splits. Her stomach rumbles, and her cheeks turn red. We are both so hungry and tired. The lights never turn off, blazing white embers shining down on us. Sleep is almost impossible.
“Do you think they will feed us today?” Margarita asks. I shrug.
“I hope so.”
We wince as screams fill the space, slamming against the gray concrete walls. We look around, trying to spot who is about to be in trouble. Across the room, through the wires, I see her. It’s a little girl, maybe three years old. Her face bloats with grief, her wailing mouth gaping and her tiny fingers clinging to the fence. The other girls in her cage avoid looking at her; some even scoot away. The sound of a hundred shushes swallows her pitiful cries, punctuated by the stomping of polished leather boots.
A blonde-haired guard marches up to the cage, his thick cheeks blotchy with fury. He looks like a furious hamster. Except hamsters don’t have thick black sticks that shine in the light. The weapon catches the light as the guard raises it in the air. Margarita grabs my hand, squeezing tightly.
A scream of pain makes my heart squeeze. The girl clutches her frail hand, a dark bruise blossoming. His icy blue eyes glitter with anger. Why is he so angry? This is not a nice man.
“Shut. Up.” His growl makes my skin crawl.
The little girl continues to wail. I pray to Jesus to make her stop, to save her. Jesus does nothing, and the screaming continues. The man rights himself and stomps over to the cage door, fumbling with the padlock. The other children scurry like rats to the corners, terrified they might catch his attention. Mama would have stopped him. She would, I just know it. Once, she yelled at one of the drug kids that stood on a corner by our house. He almost hit me with his roaring new car. He could have killed her, but Mama can be scary, but in a good way. She would protect this girl.
Finally realizing her mistake, the little girl screams “no!” over and over again. Margarita sucks in a breath at the sound of another smack. My silver blanket rustles as I pull it tighter. The screams stop.
“Shut the fuck up. Do not make me come back.”
The guard turns and leaves the cage, the lock snapping back into place. His ice-blue eyes search the deathly silent crowds like a rabid wolf, but his prey learns by example. With a sound of satisfaction, the heavy boots stomp away, disappearing down the long aisle of cages. I miss Mama.
After an eternity of waiting, the sound of squeaky wheels catches our attention. Food is coming! A soft-looking female guard pushes a large metal cart with plastic-wrapped trays piled high. Everywhere in the room, little girls stand up, calling out for food.
“Tengo hombre,” one girl keens. The whole room begins repeating the phrase. We are all so hungry.
I miss Mama.
The woman is kind, speaking broken Spanish, handing out trays. Sometimes, she rubs a back or hugs someone desperate enough to beg for it. She wears a necklace with a silver cross on it. Margarita lets go of my hand when the guard reaches our cage, reaching to the sky for some food. My vision swims as I stand, the concrete floors coming in and out of focus. I miss Mama.
“Agua?” someone asks. Our mouths are parched deserts, thick tongues sticking to the roofs of our mouths. The woman looks sad as she shakes her head. It doesn’t matter—at least there is food.
Except there isn’t enough. There is never enough. My tray contains gray-brown slop that smells slightly like moldy cheese and rotten meat. Next to the mystery gunk is a piece of burnt toast. Although the guard has moved on, a couple of girls stand and wait, hoping they might get food too. I motioned to one of them and she comes to sit by me. The toast spills black crumbs as I split it in half. The girl, whose name I don’t know, accepts my gift with tears in her eyes. We use it to shovel the lumps of food down our dry gullets. My stomach stretches painfully. I wish we had water.
A black man comes to collect the trash. He smiles at us, tossing jokes in fluent Spanish. He doesn’t hug anyone, but he hands out high fives. He doesn’t seem to notice the sullen glares.
After what feels like years, water bottles are thrown into our cages, the blonde guard smiling as they hit heads and stomachs.
“Come on, Jones. Just pass out the damn water.” The woman guard calls out across the room. He ignores her but begins tossing the bottles onto the floor. Fury boils in my chest. I wish God would strike him down, as he did to evil men in the bible. I wish God would destroy this entire building and fly my Mama to me on a cloud lifted by angels. She would gather me into her doughy arms and squeeze me tight. We would sit on the porch, listen to crickets, and tear apart pistachios. I miss you Mama.
I think some days pass. Without windows, it’s hard to know. It’s a neverending afternoon of bright lights. Every day, more girls get tossed into the cages. There aren’t enough blankets and my tummy never stops grumbling.
An eternity later, the woman guard comes. Today, she is wearing blue eyeshadow. It does not look good. She stops in front of my cage and looks down at some papers, the silver cross swinging gently.
“Rodriguez, Antony, Abrigo, Carassco, Montilla. Levanta tu mano.” I hear my Mama’s last name. I raise my hand as she requests and she motions for me to come forward.
“Hablas ingles?” she asks. I shrug. She takes that as a no and waves her hand, signaling me to follow her. I look at her uneasily, glancing at Margarita, who gives me an encouraging smile. The woman sees the fear and her expression softens.
“It will be okay.”
We don’t believe her, but we follow because what other choice do we have? We walk down the path of cages, empty eyes tracking our movements. The large warehouse narrows down to dark hallways lined with closed doors. The sound of loud weeping gives me goosebumps.
A large door opens and the woman ushers us to the outside. It’s like nature has hit me in the face. Sunshine! Birds! Wind! My whole body guzzles in the sensations, trying to commit them to memory. The green leaves are a surprise. They weren’t even there the last time I saw the sky. Even though I am very afraid, the sun makes me smile. Are they taking me to see Mama finally?
The woman leads us to an orange bus with dark windows. The door sweeps open like a dragon’s maw, the rust shrieking loudly.
“Alright, go ahead, get on.” The woman stands by the door with her papers, watching us. None of us move. Please don’t make us go inside.
“Move it!” Another guard has come up behind us, shoving one of the girls behind me. She cries out, stumbling into me. We rush forward like frantic chickens, clucking with fear. Inside, another guard guides us to our brown plastic seats. Margarita slips in beside me, grabbing for my hand. It peels off the stick seat, leaving something on my hand.
The engine roars to life, moving the bus forward. I stare at the black windows. I hope they are taking me to Mama. I miss Mama so much.