Her heart raced faster than her feet pounding the concrete. Never had she run so fast, not even across the scorching dirt just south of the border. She wore plastic sandals then. Now she had canvas shoes—white, with blue stars.
Elena’s stride stretched from line to line on the sidewalk, but she paid no attention to where her feet landed. She didn’t hear the sounds of traffic passing, or the voices of the people who jumped out of her way. She gasped for air as cold dread squeezed her chest.
Just a little faster…
She reached the parking lot of the apartment building and skidded to a stop. There was an ominous silence hanging over the place. Elena ducked behind the long line of huge trees, pressing her slight frame against the thick trunk of the tree closest to the building. Her chest heaved against the rough bark.
There were no unfamiliar cars in the parking lot. No mysterious dark sedans, no police cars with their lights flashing. But there were also no children playing in the shady patch of grass in the large courtyard. No one tossing a ball, barbecuing, shooting hoops, gossiping on the stairs between apartments.
Elena eased around the trunk, then sprinted to her front door. She pushed her key in the lock and shoved the door open. Her heart nearly leapt into her throat and she could barely raise her voice to call out.
She pushed the door closed silently and inched toward the kitchen. A shadow swept across the floor and Elena cowered against the wall.
“Mija? What are you doing home? It is so early?”
Elena gasped at the sound of the comfortingly familiar voice, as if she hadn’t taken a breath for hours. She leapt into her mother’s embrace, stretching her thin arms around her mother and baby brother carried snugly upon her mother’s back. The hot tears she fought so hard to control coursed down her cheeks.
“I heard…” she panted. “The raids…ICE…”
“Oh, Mija,” her mother whispered into her disheveled hair. “I am here. It’s okay.”
Cocooned in her mother’s arms, Elena’s pulse slowed just a bit. Baby Juan’s contented gurgles spilled into her ears, pushing away some of the panic. She sucked in a deep breath.
And then she thought of her father. Heat flashed through her as she remembered the embarrassment she often felt when she had to tell her father the things her teachers said. Because he didn’t always understand. Because he barely spoke English. Elena pushed back from her mother.
“Where is Papa?” she whispered.
Elena stared desperately into her mother’s brown eyes. And she saw it. The cold fear that sent her fleeing from school that afternoon. Elena’s gaze dropped for a moment, to the blue stars on her feet. Her mother’s soft voice drew her eyes back up.
“He is at work, Mija.”
She didn’t watch the tear drop land, didn’t see it hit the center of a blue star on the toe of her canvas shoe.
“Why? Why did he go today?”
“He has no choice. He would lose his job.”
Never again, Elena thought. Never again would she feel shame when she had to speak for her father. If only…if he would just come home. Whistling along the walk outside the apartment. Tugging her pony tail as he came through the door. Stretching out his arms to grab Juan as her mother held the smiling baby out to him.
Elena squeezed her eyes shut tight. She pictured him, so many years ago, his sparkling eyes dancing with energy. He would wave his arms around and spring from foot to foot as he spoke.
“We will go to America,” he would declare. “In America, we won’t fear the scary men anymore, Mija. In America, they have this statue, and on it are the words ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’ We will be safe there.” She believed him then.
She still believed him as they crouched in the sage brush along the banks of the Rio Grande, soaking wet and shivering in the desert heat. Hiding from the men with guns. “Run, Mija,” he whispered. “Just a little faster.”
Elena heard his voice echoing in her mind. She felt her mother’s fingers push her sweat-soaked hair back from her cheek. Baby Juan cooed and beat his fists on her mother’s back. Elena’s mother whispered softly.
“He will come home, Mija. He will be here. We are safe here.”
But they really weren’t, Elena knew. She could hear it in her mother’s voice. She could see it in her eyes. She could feel it in the oppressive silence surrounding the apartment building where everyone was hiding inside.
Before, it was the men with guns and drugs who beat her father and hurt her mother. Now it was the men in uniforms emblazoned with big white letters on the back. They would come, and they would take Baby Juan away and send her and her parents back to the terrifying streets they fled years ago.
She could never run fast enough. Not even in her star-studded canvas shoes.
Image courtesy of Pixabay