by A. C. Silva
The room in San Carlos was squat and yellow with a big picture window and only one door. It sat sandwiched between two identical rooms, and two more beside those, and more past them, lined up along the freeway. Inside, the faded yellow wallpaper was peeling. The sofa covered a hole in the wall where a previous tenant had kicked through the plaster. Against the opposite wall were two twin beds and a small television, the screen buzzing with bright orange light. SEASONAL FIRE SPARKS IN SAN CARLOS FOREST, the headline read.
A man and a woman sat on the couch, the man hunched toward the television, the woman reclining, stretching her legs. Another man stood by the window, glancing from his cellphone to the arid landscape beyond, back to his phone.
“There it is man, right there!” said the man on the couch. “See? Did you see the arm?”
“I don’t see a thing, T. Move your finger,” said the woman. “There? Is that the tree?”
“No, the dead ugly one. See? Don’t that look like a elbow to you?”
“It went by too fast; I couldn’t see a thing.”
“That’s ‘cause there ain’t nothing to see,” said the man by the window. “Quit your worrying, Big T. It’s not the right tree. And even if it was, it don’t matter. Ramos got the car. We’ll be gone in an hour, should cross the border before sunset.”
“Tell him to hurry, Reg. I don’t think I can take another minute of this heat,” the woman whined.
“A hour’s too long,” Big T agreed. “They could find it in a hour. We shoulda buried it.”
“No,” said Reg. “This way’s best. Fire don’t leave fingerprints or shovels. ‘Sides, the bastard oughtta get used to burning.”
RESIDENTS EVACUATE AS FIRE CLAIMS FIRST HOME, the screen read. Yellow tongues licked the treetops, popping to life under a thin veil of static.
“It’s too hot,” said the woman.
“You’ll get used to it, Sugar,” said Reg. “Just takes time. You gotta learn not to fight it, or you’ll make yourself sick.”
“She’ll learn fast when we in Mexico,” said Big T.
“Now that’s the idea,” said Reg. “Optimism fits you fine, Big T. What’s the first thing you’ll do when we get to Mexico?”
Big T frowned. “Don’t know. I ain’t thought that far.”
Reg clapped him on the back. “That’s why we get on so well, us two. You know exactly when not to think.”
“It’s too hot to think of anything!” Sugar exclaimed.
“Why don’t you go take a nice cold shower, Sugar? We wouldn’t want you to sweat off that pretty face of yours.”
“There’s nothing more miserable than a cold shower,” said Sugar, but she did as she was told.
The fire faded from the screen. A weatherman reported air as still and dry as desert sand. No rain in the forecast—only seven bright yellow suns smiling down on the week ahead, DROUGHT spelled out in thick white letters underneath.
“Ain’t it amazing what folks’ll do to themselves, living like this? I tell you, T, we coulda had any piece of the pie, and we picked the nasty-old dried-up crust.” Big T did not respond. “Don’t you worry, though. I got plans to win us the whole damn pie. Mexico is just the start.”
“Not if they find Mister ‘fore we get there,” said Big T.
“So what if they do?”
“They’ll find us.”
“They won’t. We’re too smart; we covered all our tracks.”
“But what if we forgot something, man?”
“But, if they find Mister—”
“Mister who? You don’t know no Mister, do you? You ain’t never worked for that man. You ain’t never laid eyes on him. You don’t know his folks. You don’t know his girl. You don’t know his business. And that’s exactly what you say if they come asking questions.”
“Yeah, that’s what I say. But Reg, what if they know?”
Reg growled from the pit of his throat. “Sometimes you’re too stupid for your own good, Big T. Once you get to worrying, you’re never getting off it. But you’ll see. Tomorrow, when we wake up in Mexico, you’ll see what a coward you been.”
Reg checked his phone. No word from Ramos. That was just fine. The TV returned to the fire, now an aerial view. It grew rapidly, spreading out from the southwestern quarter of the forest. FIREFIGHTERS RELUCTANT TO WASTE WATER IN DROUGHT, the reporters reported. The flames reached for the sky.
Big T chewed his fat purple lip. “Ramos call yet?” he asked.
“Not yet,” Reg answered.
“He’s just fine.”
“Where’d Sugar go?”
“Still in the shower.”
“It’s been like a hour.”
“Long shower. She okay?”
“'Course she is. You know women.”
The fire licked the screen. Static crackled.
“There’s a window in the bathroom,” said Big T.
“So there is,” said Reg.
“You don’t s’pose she coulda bolted…”
“Bolted? You outta your mind? Where’s she got to go?”
“Mexico, could be.”
“Mexico! Little lady alone in Mexico? How’s she gonna get there without us?”
“Or she could snitch.”
“Sugar ain’t no snitch.”
“She’s just washing her hair or something. She’s fine.”
“Maybe you should check?”
Commercial break. Two for the low-low price of 19.99 plus tax BUT WAIT! Call now for a free 30-day trial of contact your doctor immediately if you experience something, something, something, suicide.
Big T craned his neck, eyes on the bathroom door. “I don’t hear water runnin’, do you?”
“Alright, alright, I’ll check if it’ll cool you off. Relax.”
Sugar was drying her hair with a towel when he came in. “Jesus, Reg, shut the door!”
“She there?” called Big T.
“'Course I’m fine, shut the damn door!” She wrapped the towel around herself, but both men had seen.
“Alright, it’s shut. Big T was just worried about you, is all.”
“He’s too worried.”
“I know, I don’t like it either.”
Sugar hesitated. “You don’t think he’ll tell, do you?”
“Tell who? Who’s he got but us?”
“Well, I don’t know ... and Ramos, you’re sure he’ll come for us?”
“And we’ll go to Mexico?”
She pouted her plump, pink lip. “What’s so great about Mexico, anyway? They say Canada’s awful nice. Nice and cold all year ‘round. Why’s it gotta be Mexico?”
“You know why. Once we cross that border, it don’t matter what you done. It’s not like here, or Canada, or anywhere civilized. People go missing all the time. Sometimes they’re found, sometimes they ain’t. And nobody goes asking questions ‘bout old Mister.”
“I know, but—”
“You know what they got in Mexico?” He wound his arm around her waist, “They got white sand beaches and a big green ocean, and those fruity cocktails with the little umbrellas. And I’ll buy you a little brown house with a dog and a pool.” And little brown pool boys to dry her tears when he would, inevitably, skip town for something with a tinier waist and a better brain.
“Oh Reg, I hope you’re right. But what if something goes wrong?”
His hands held her steady, controlled. “Listen, Sugar, remember your cousin in Dallas?”
“‘Course I do, but she moved out not three weeks back.”
“We were in Dallas to see her this weekend.”
“But she’s not in Dallas—”
“But you forgot. We was on the road fourteen hours, and she wasn’t even home when we got there. I was so mad I could spit, but you calmed me down, ‘cause you have that way about you, and besides, I couldn’t stay mad at you if I tried. So next day we drove on back, and we got that receipt from the gas station to prove it, with the date and time and everything.”
“That’s a fine story, but what about Big T?”
“We left him in San Carlos, of course, ‘bout three-four days ago. Haven’t seen him since.”
“They won’t believe that for one minute if Big T tells.”
“T’s no snitch. And besides, he’s a mean, ugly son-of-a-bitch, twice the size of Mister and black as shit. Our word against his, who would you believe?”
“I don’t know, Reggie. It doesn’t seem right.”
He didn’t like the sound of that. It would be harder to convince the cops without Sugar on his side if it came to that. And God forbid she really did snitch … at least T knew when to shut his mouth and follow orders. But Sugar was sweet as honey, and honest-looking, and fuckable too. One smile and she could have any man on his knees, if only she weren’t too honest to use him.
She pressed herself against him. “Let’s not talk about this anymore. Let’s talk about Mexico. Won’t you tell me more about those white sand beaches?”
“Sure, Sugar. Whatever you want.”
She smiled at him with those big sweet eyes, green as the root of all evil. “Will you hand me my dress, darlin’? It’s too hot in here to stay.”
“You shouldn’t’ a opened the window, Sugar. It’ll let the heat in.”
“The heat’s here already, and I like the breeze. Zip me up now, will you?”
“Ain’t no breeze today, Sugar. Why’s the window wet?”
“Everything’s wet since you came in. You made it all steamy in here.”
But that wasn’t quite right. There was a small puddle on the sill, and on the ground outside, too. As if someone had leaned far out the window, someone with wet hair—
The bathroom door slammed open.
“Christ!” Sugar shrieked.
“They got him, they got him, shit, man, we’re fucked!” Big T was raving.
FIRE CLAIMS FIRST VICTIM, read the TV screen. A soot-stained limb dangled from a covered gurney as it rolled into an ambulance, the lights already flashing.
“Shit, man,” Big T repeated, “we gotta go.” He dove for the door, but Reg was faster.
“Quit it! Ramos’ll be here any minute, and we can’t get nowhere without him, you understand?”
“Man, he shoulda been here by now! He ditched us, or he snitched. But he ain’t coming!”
Somewhere down the freeway, a siren wailed. The television read: IDENTITY UNCONFIRMED.
“Ramos is coming. Nobody is snitching on anybody. T, sit down.”
“Reg? I don’t feel so good,” Sugar whined.
Big T sat. “I’m telling you, we gotta go now.”
“And I’m telling you we need to wait. We’ll cross the border by sundown, and the fire’ll do the rest, body or no body.”
“Oh, oh, I think I’m gonna be sick.”
“It’s the heat, Sugar, that’s all. Have a lie down.”
Reg’s phone buzzed urgently.
“That Ramos?” Big T asked.
Sugar, inching toward the bathroom: “That’s it, I’m gonna hurl—”
“You stay right there, don’t you budge—”
“What’s he say? Why’s he late?”
The sirens grew louder, closer.
“He’s coming, alright? He’s coming,” said Reg, and to Sugar, “Stay right there, girl. Let me see you.”
“He got the papers and shit? Passports?”
“'Course he does, T. Everything is under control.”
A retch, a shuddering sob, and Sugar fell to her knees. Reg knelt beside her, tried to lift her. “It’s the heat, baby. It’s just the heat.” And there’s no escaping the heat.
“I wanna go home,” Sugar sobbed.
“Sure baby, sure,” Reg cooed. “If that’s what you want, I’ll take you home. We’ll go straight home.”
“Ha!” Big T barked, “Bullshit, man. You full o’ shit.”
“Don’t you quit me, T, not now.”
The sirens screamed down the freeway, drawing closer with every pulse: blue-red, blue-red.
“Burn in Hell,” said Big T.
There was a knock at the door.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A. C. Silva is delighted to make her literary debut in Haunted Waters Press. She is a Boston-based writer and activist who earned her B.A. in Written Arts from Bard College.
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