Long Road Home

Standing there, clutching Alejandro’s hand along the western edge of Albuquerque, I told myself if I’d squint enough, the bullet holes lodged in the wall could’ve been anything. As dust stung my eyes, light scattered my vision and framed the blackened holes in front of us.

The holes could’ve blurred into smudges of black sunflowers. They could’ve been pieces of charcoal striking paper, leaving jagged pieces. They could’ve been black irises gazing back into us.

They could’ve been anything but the truth.

Above us, a blood-orange sun sank into volcano silhouettes, spilling black across the landscape. Ale’s hand reached delicately to the punctured wall inches away from his face. He traced the edges of the bullet hole, and I was almost afraid that he’d fall into it. I tugged his elbow back, feeling a hole opening up in my chest.

“I don’t get it, Bri,” he murmured. “I was running with Chile… you know how she is.” I nodded, picturing the pile of fluff fighting against a leash.

Below our feet, crumbling wall scattered along tumbleweeds and lined the cracked sidewalk. I crunched them underneath my boot. “What did you do?”

He glanced down the stretch of road where it veered left, curtailing his neighborhood by a huddle of adobe apartments. He pointed to it, laughing. “I just ran. We were open targets,” he said, eyes scanning rooftops. “I think she knew, though…she stuck right by me.”

“See those apartments? I had to hide between them for half an hour. I think it was a beat-up white truck.” He knotted his eyebrows. “They were just idling downhill, watching me.” His face crumpled for the first time since we’d come here. From where he stood. the bullet hole lined up perfectly, feet away from where it happened.

“Why would someone do that? Do you think it was…”

“I don’t know. I don’t wanna believe something like that could happen here.”

As I stared across open desert and he stared at the crumbling wall, we both understood. It only happened three days ago, August third. A man walked into an El Paso Wal-Mart, training his aim on families gearing up for back-to-school. Mothers were armed with carts with new backpacks, markers, glue, and notebooks. Children toddled closely, reading supply lists and complaining about summer’s end. Tax-free weekend meant more shoppers, more bullets, more targets. Back then, the headlines were miles away, existing only as cautionary tales told before wading through crowds.

Now, headlines became bullets spraying their way toward him. It wasn’t just a reporter bouncing her voice across a teleprompter. It was in the way truck tires peeled off, casting dust into a cover before rumbling away. It was in the way he’d run harder than he ever had, straining against a body webbed in pain. It was in the way he’d called me, heart in his throat as he gasped someone shot at me, I’m okay.

We didn’t, or couldn’t, know. Standing on the edge of town, we waved in the wind like paper targets lost in a shooting range and I finally realized the weight of domestic terrorism in a way that cracked open spaces in me. It didn’t have to be men from El Paso gunning down families, but it didn’t matter anymore. The fear was instilled in us already.

To people like them, that was enough.

His hand pressed against my face, wiping away tears. When I met his gaze, I still saw specks of brown and gold, but they carried the weight of bullet shells within them.

“Let’s get home.”

Over the next week, he’d brought up the idea of meeting him along historical checkpoints if he couldn’t come back. Bracing myself, I’d looked up tickets to Chihuahua, googled images of gunmetal fencing running along the southern edges. It was a mismatched patchwork of barbed wire along cracked desert. They bled like rows of razor blades jagging into the ocean, where only the waves danced freely from one side to the other. Militarized officers brandished guns between mothers and children, wives and husbands cradling toddlers outstretched for more than this.

I slammed the laptop down and Alejandro glanced at me, startled.

“No,” I gritted through my teeth, cracking the silence.

“Wait, what?”

“I can’t do this. No.”

“Well… it might not be forever.”

“What if it is? You have to try. You said yourself, America is all you’ve known.”

“You don’t get it Bri,” he choked, “you don’t understand having to grow up constantly told you don’t belong, to go home. To listen to strangers talking about us without ever knowing who they’re speaking to.” His mouth hardened into a thin line.

“If they really want me gone, if they’re willing to put us in cages…” he whispered, voice splintering. “I don’t think I want to come back.”

He burrowed his face in my neck and his shoulders sagged under invisible weight.

“You could come if you want. My family knows you write. You could see my relatives and where we come from. Do you remember what my mom said to you?”

I pictured his mother’s smile and red ponytail, eyes lighting up when I’d told her my major. See Bri, don’t have kids. It was always his father’s dream to write, you could see our family, listen to our stories and write them.

I remembered faintly, surprised she reacted positively. In the embarrassment, I swallowed more posole as she gushed over the idea of seeing her family. All at once, images wafted through me; of his life reduced to a suitcase, bullet holes vibrating past, headlines springing to life, long twists of a black wall coiling through desert, glaring assault rifles marching like tiny, black ants.

“Bri,” he repeated. “would you come with me?”

I didn’t have to say it, because he already knew.

“I’d follow you anywhere,” I promised. A smile stretched across his face, and he closed his eyes. “Tu eres mi hogar,” he murmured.

You are my home.

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