by Julio Navarrete
“Ya despierta dormilón, se te va a hacer tarde para ir a la escuela.” My eyes flutter open as my mom shakes me from my sleep. The smell of tierra mojada that fills the atmosphere is a sign that it rained last night. Rain in this humid weather means one thing for me; toads. My mom sends me outside to scare the toads away so that we can shower. Armed with a broom, I step out the front door as a warm breeze tosses my hair to the side. The sun has yet to rise so it’s difficult to distinguish the bumpy creatures from the muddy floor. I listen attentively, <ribbit> I spot one next to the stone basin that stores our water supply. It’s eyes glisten in the darkness under the sink. “Shoosh!” I scream at it. Nothing. Standing as far away as possible, I extend the broomstick and tap it on the back. Nothing. Another nudge and it hops forward. I jolt back. The dance between the toad and I continues until I force it to leave.
I take out the trash, take care of my older sister, and scare the toads away. These are my responsibilities since papá left for el norte almost a year ago. The last time I saw him I was outside playing with my toy cars. Dad was carving out makeshift roads on the eroded hillside next to our house for me to play in. Every road he carved added a layer to the elaborate web that ran up and down the hill like veins. Once in a while he would run into a hibernated toad buried within the earth, and I remember thinking how miserable it must be to be buried alive, suffocating. I miss him a lot, but mom says we’re going to visit papá en Los Estados Unidos for Christmas.
That afternoon, mom gives me permission to play with my best friend, Carlos. “¡No te tardes!” warns my mother as I run out of the house. The heat, though nearly unbearable, is never an obstacle to stop us from playing together. Carlos and I are both in second grade. He and his family live by themselves in an unfinished hotel building. The rooms are like empty shells, missing doors and windows. I like spending time with Carlos because, unlike where I live, they have indoor plumbing.
“¡Ya métanse!” demands Carlos’ mother as warm drops of rain fall on our dirt-covered skin. “¿Escuchaste algo?” asks Carlos. “No, ¿y tú?” I reply. “Tampoco,” we lie as we make our way down the hill. The rain keeps coming as if the ocean itself were falling from the sky. The dirt road we walk on quickly turns to mud and the smell of wet dust fills the air. “¿Vamos al río?” suggests Carlos. I follow. Soon enough, the streets disappear, in their place are canals flowing with unrecognizable debris. “¡Hay que jugar a los barcos!” I suggest as I move to take off my leather sandals. Our sandals transform into boats as they float down the canal that conceals the street. Carlos and I chase after them so we can stop our sandals from being swallowed by the river. “¡Córrele que se te va una!” yells Carlos, but I’m too late, I’ve lost my left boat.
We make our way back home as the final drops of rain fall from above. The full moon signals that we’ve been out far too long. “Apúrate que nos van a castigar,” I hurry Carlos. I walk as fast as I can, half barefoot and soaking wet. A symphony of sounds from the countless toads and frogs serenade our walk home. When we finally arrive at Carlos’ house, we find a pleasant surprise; the hotel’s swimming pool has filled with rainwater. “¡Vamos a nadar!” I shout as I sprint toward the pool. “A qué no te atreves a cruzar por allí,” Carlos dares me pointing at the narrow wall that separates the shallow from the deep side of the pool. “A qué sí,” I contradict as I take a step onto the divider. I carefully make my way across, counting every step, controlling every breath. <Splash> I slip into the water like a canon exploding against the earth. My shock soon turns into terror as I feel hundreds of slimy tadpoles and toads rubbing against my body. I jump out of the water screaming at the top of my lungs, “¡quítamelas, quítamelas!” Carlos is too consumed with laughter to listen to a word I’m saying. I run home, screaming like a crazy person. “¿Por qué vienes tan empapado, y qué le pasó a tu chancla?” asks my mother when I get home. “Me atacó un sapo,” I mumble as I make my way to change my clothes and dry off.
That Christmas Eve, as the cool air creeps under my blanket, my mother wakes my sister and I in the middle of the night to begin our long journey to the United States. I’ve never taken a taxi before. I’m so sleepy, I can barely keep my eyes open, but I’m more eager to see los Estados Unidos and papá that I force myself to stay awake. In my head, I imagine what everything will look like; I think of the people on TV who live in fancy houses and drive nice cars. When we finally make it to the bus stop, my mom hands me my backpack. “Aquí viene tu ropa, no se te vaya a perder,” she tells me as she pulls out a stack of bills from a secret pocket she sewed on the inside of my jeans.
Once we’re all on the bus, she tells my sister and I that all of our information is in the secret pocket along with the money. I can tell that this isn’t like the trips we often make to visit grandma, my young mind struggles to understand what is happening, but I follow every word my mother says. Two days on a bus make the seats feel like they’re made from stone. I can barely feel my legs. This is how my grandpa’s horses must feel trapped in a stable. I lay my head on my mom’s lap and fall asleep. When she awakens me, we’re in Tijuana, and it’s time to get off the bus. This is my first time in a motel room. The smell reminds me of the dead rat my mother found behind the stove back home. There is nothing to do. Bored, I begin to count the stains on the walls, one of them resembles the birthmark on my left knee. <Knock! Knock! Knock!> I jump, frightened, when I hear the loud knocks at the door. My mother gathers our things and we leave.
It’s nighttime and my thin sweater does not keep out the freezing cold. We’ve been walking for hours. There’s a rock in my shoe. My tongue feels like sand. ¡Corran! But I can’t run fast enough, I’m only eight and my legs aren’t long enough. ¡Escóndanse! But there’s nowhere to hide, so I throw myself on the ground. My brown skin and dirty clothes blend into the Earth like a camouflaged toad against the mud. In the distance, I see my mother fall to the ground and the urge to run to her overpowers me, but the coyote grabs me. I feel the earth disappear from under my feet as he takes me into his arms. No mires al helicóptero. The coyote says not wanting the glint of my eyes to give us away.
I’m in the back seat of a car now; my mom and sister sit beside to me. A woman lies across the floor of the car. I can see the pain on her beaten face beneath my feet. ¡Abran! A suffocated scream from behind frightens me. I feel the scratches on the back of my seat and burst into tears when I realize there are people in the trunk. I remember the buried toads my dad dug up from the earth the last time I saw him. “Está bien mijo, no llores,” my mother comforts me. ¡Paren! The plea is endless as the scratches turn into kicks and punches. I dig my fingernails into my palms to ease the pain.
When we finally arrive in Los Estados Unidos, I feel the earth begin to spin in the opposite direction. I still can’t believe that we all survived, but papá is nowhere to be found. My mom, my sister and I are crammed in a small house with dozens of other immigrants. We’re instructed to stay away from the windows and low on the floor. That night, I struggle to fall asleep, still trying to cope with what has happened. I wake up soaked and freezing; I’ve wet my clothes, but it doesn’t matter because papá is finally here. He takes us to where he lives; a place called San Jose. I feel like we’ve traveled into the future, everything is so clean and the buildings are so straight. There are no dirt roads that turn into muddy canals, no toads or frogs to serenade our walk home, no maze of dirt roads to play with. I wonder what Carlos is doing. My life in México already feels like a distant dream.