Nayma’s abuelo was up before the sun, the dim necessary light of his dressing bleeding through the beach towel hung to partition the room, pin-pricks dotting a seascape of balloon-eyed sharks and smiling flounder. Nayma kept her face in her pillow and waited. She knew her abuela was up, too, out on the stoop with a heating pad on her knees. She would be sitting in her chair, extension cord run under the screen, rubbing the nubs of her rosary and saying her prayers. Through the pasteboard walls of the Walhalla Motel, Nayma could hear the human moaning that filled the gaps of whatever cartoon was playing. But it was their fingernails that got to her.

Bullshit starts early, Nayma thought. Or maybe bullshit never stops.

The sound was like a dog scratching itself bald, trying to scratch out its own guts, but was, in fact, the couple next door—the early twenties man and woman and their ghost-like wisp of a daughter, all three brown-toothed and frail—the daughter haunted by malnutrition, the mother and father ravaged by the meth mites crawling in and out of their bones, an itch that signaled the impossible distance from one government check to another.

By the time Nayma got up and left her “bedroom”—you had to think of it like that when a worn-out Little Mermaid towel formed the limit of your privacy—both her grandparents were off to work for the Greaves family and she was left alone in the kitchen to eat her Cocoa-Pebbles and finish the last of her homework for Dr. Agnew’s English IV. She was seventeen and currently first in her senior class. They were reading The Grapes of Wrath and no, the irony wasn’t lost on her. Very little was—with the exception of eight hours of sleep and little more than a passing engagement with the four food groups.

She showered and ate breakfast in the kitchenette: an alcove with a mini-fridge, microwave, and the hot plate they had to keep hidden from the motel’s owner and her crazy son, an Iraq vet who twitched with the same intensity as the couple next door. She spooned cereal and flipped pages. It was quiet next door—the methheads having fallen into some catatonic stupor—and she was grateful for the silence. A few minutes to collect herself before the walk down to the bus stop where she’d ride with two dozen kids half her age, the lone high schooler in a sea of white faces because what kind of senior doesn’t have a car? What kind of senior isn’t riding with her girlfriends or boyfriend or somebody, right?

This kind, she had thought, in the months past when she used to try to riddle out the why of her days.

One cheek against the cool glass while outside grainy darkness gave way to the gathering daylight, back pressed against the torn pleather seat while they rolled past the Hardee’s and the First Methodist Church, and Nayma just sitting there, books in her lap, trying to hear that small still voice that was all: how do you put up with this shit? I mean seriously.

There were other places she could be. Her parents were at home in Irapuato, but home was a tenuous concept. She was born in Florida, a U.S. citizen—her parents and grandfather were not—and had spent far more of her life in the States than in Mexico. Her parents came and went, blowing on the wind of whatever work visa allowed them entry. But for the last two years they had been working at a garment plant in Guanajuato State. It was good work (relatively speaking), at a fair wage (again, in relative terms), and Nayma had the sense that her parents were finished with their cross-border migrations. No more queuing at the US consulate. The forms in triplicate. The hassles from ICE. The rhetoric of hate—build a wall! build a wall!—spouted by the same folks paying you three dollars an hour to pick their tomatoes or change their babies. When she had lasted visited her parents—last summer it had been, two weeks of mosquitoes and long days watching telenovelas wherein she experienced the sort of cosmic boredom that would later haunt her with the sort guilt you smelled in your hair—when she had last visited, she had detected a certain relief in her parents’ eyes, a sort of bounce that glided them around the edges of Nayma’s life. They were done with el Norte.

That her grandmother was a housekeeper and her grandfather a gardener, that they had ascended to these positions from the indentured servitude of migrant labor, that they were meant to be grateful for the condescension and hand-me-down clothes. That her parents had been rounded up by the federal government, held for a week on Red Cross cots in the city gym after INS raided Piedmont Quilting, and subsequently deported with the rest of the three hundred workers Piedmont Quilting had recruited to come in the first place. That she had said goodbye to her parents through a scattering of holes punched in a plexiglass visitation window at the county detention center, that both her mother and father had contorted their bodies in such a way as to hide the zip-ties binding their wrists. All this, all this, mija, would burn off in the fire of her success.

 

As a U.S. citizen, as a brilliant minority student—relatively brilliant, Nayma thought again, glancing now from the graying milk of her Cocoa-Puffs to the papered wall behind which slept the methheads—she would receive some sort of generous scholarship to some sort of prestigious university and from there she would go to law school or medical school. She would spend the rest of her life in New York or Washington D.C.—the capital of the universe—and make money in such ridiculous amounts as to assuage the decades of humiliations suffered by her family. That was her parents’ plan at least. Their daughter would become rich, she would become a blanco by the sheer aggregated weight of her bank account, and there would be no better revenge.

But first she had to get to school.

She rinsed her bowl and brushed her teeth, put her phone along with the Joads in her backpack, and stepped into the morning. The night’s thunderstorm seemed to have blown out the last of summer and in the skin-prickling cool it was disturbing to see so many children shivering in short sleeves and shorts. There were ten or so that lived at the Walhalla Motel with their mothers or grandmothers or aunts or some elderly female they may or may not have been related to and they clustered at the edges of body morphology, either fat on Mountain Dew and pixie sticks or emaciated with need, lean as the Hondurans she remembered doing the stoop work in the strawberry fields outside Tampa. That they were cold, that their noses ran, that their hair had been shaved to their skulls (the boys, at least) or matted around forgotten Elsa barrettes or Princess Sophia hair clips (the girls, especially the younger ones) seemed most days like the results of a referendum on human negligence, something to fill her with anger at the world’s injustice. But today it just made her sad.

She stood on the concrete stoop, the motel L-shaped, the rooms opening onto an apron of parking lot. Down by the highway a sign read SOFT BEDS COLOR TV WEEKLY RATES.

“Hey, girl!” she heard a voice call.

The motel office was at her far left, a block building with a pitched roof and a neon vacancy sign, a window A/C and a cupped satellite dish. It was from that direction that the voice came, and she didn’t have to bother looking to see who it was. D.C. was the son of the hateful old woman who owned the motel. He cut the strip of browning grass along the filled-in swimming pool and on two occasions had unclogged their toilet when the septic tank backed up. He was of some indeterminate age—somewhere between thirty and fifty was her best guess—and possibly he was a decent guy trying to do right by his mother and the world and possibly he was an embryonic serial killer running on Zoloft and cognitive behavioral therapy at the V.A. The brim of his Braves ball cap was pulled low and his arms and throat were inked with assault rifles and an unsettlingly precise map of the greater Middle East, complete (she had noted one day as he ran the weed-eater) with a legend denoting capitals, troop movements, and sites of major U.S. battles.

She started across the parking lot toward the bus stop and a moment later the pickup sidled up beside her, rattling and clunking. This was D.C. on his way to work or maybe on his way to get his mamma a gravy biscuit from the Dairy Queen or on his way to any number of the errands and jobs that occupied his days.

“Hey, little girl, you want a ride?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m riding the bus.” She didn’t look at him. She didn’t stop moving. That was her theory: no eye contact and no hesitations. He maintained the grounds at the high school—cut the grass, marked the athletic fields—and his offer of a ride was a near daily occurrence. Without so much as a glance she knew he was hanging from the open window like a happily sloppy dog, meaty arm on the door-panel.

“Well, I’m headed to the same place. You know that don’t you?”

She motioned in the direction of the children gathered ahead of her.

“Why don’t you offer them a ride?” he said.

“Can’t do it. Liability.”

“That’s bullshit.”

“Maybe,” he conceded. “It’s mamma keeps track of the legal stuff.”

“Whatever.”

“What’s that?”

“I said whatever.”

He seemed to consider this for a moment.

“You know I ain’t offering a ride cause I like you,” he said finally.

“Wow. How flattering.”

“I’m asking cause you a human being.”

“I know why you’re asking.”

“Because you a human being and you too old to ride the bus like some ten-year-old.”

“Go away.”

“I mean unless you like the bus. Eighteen wheels and a dozen roses, right?”

“You’re a creep.”

He gave the engine a small rev. “You got too much grit in your shit, girl. You know that? Turning your nose up at people trying to be kind.”

She started to tell him a third time to go away, but then looked up and realized that he already had.

 

She tried to read on the bus, if only to prove she wasn’t lonely. But it was loud and somewhere ahead of her the window was down and a stream of air kept rattling the pages. Finally, she put the book away. She was ahead anyway—there was no rush. What there was, was a bus ride that took seventy-five minutes to cover the four miles to the school. That would be four miles via the direct route, but Nayma guessed they covered a good twenty of back road, stopping at every trailer park or block monolith of Section Eight housing where poor children clustered sleepily by mailboxes and stop signs with their backpacks and dogs. Bullwinkle to Thompson to Tribble—back and forth over the bridges that spanned the wiggle of Cane Creek—East Broad to Sangamo to Torrington Road. The occasional watchful adult, a grandmother behind the screen door, a mother smoking on the stoop. The old men sat in plastic chairs and stared or took great care not to stare, depending, she often thought, on their experiences with the South Carolina Department of Corrections. The bus stopped first at the elementary school where the children bounced off, awake now, and then the middle school where they navigated blindly, faces fixed to the screens of their phones. When the bus pulled out of the middle school parking lot there was no one left but the driver and Nayma. The driver, for his part, seemed to have not the slightest notion she was there. He parked the bus and walked away without a word, earbuds plugged into his head as he lumbered toward his car.

Nayma pushed the door open and crossed from the bus ranks toward the school. She was up near the main doors, and down the gentle slope that eased toward the football stadium she could see people loitering around their cars, talking and flirting and ensuring their collective tardiness. Someone was playing Taylor Swift. Someone was playing Eminem. Her classmates were already self-segregating into their American lives. There were jacked-up pickups with fog lights and boys in Carhartt pants. The girls in Browning jackets of pink camouflage. There were stickers that read MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN and WE HUNT JUST LIKE YOU—ONLY PRETTIER! and FFA jackets from the thrift shop—no one was actually in the FFA—and trucker hats from the rack at the Metromont (MY HUSBAND THINKS FOREPLAY IS TWENTY MINUTES OF BEGGING). Beside them were seven or eight vintage Ford Mustangs—the Stang Gang with their bad skin and BOSE speakers, the bass dropped to some heart-altering thump. They looked underfed and in need of haircuts and she could practically see the crushed Ritalin edging their nostrils. Beside them were the athletes, few in number but easily identifiable by the swish of their warm-up suits. The school’s dozen black kids in football jerseys and Under Armor. Bulky red-headed lineman with arm zits and man-boobs. Cheerleaders with their fuck-me eyes. The rich kids—the lake kids—were in Polos and second-hand Benzs. It was a mark of late teen sophistication: the 90s German engineering, the chatter about diesel versus gas.

There were no brown kids. Or very few, at least.

It hadn’t always been like that. There had been a moment, brief as it was, right before the great INS raid when sixty or seventy kids made a little Mexico out of the right quadrant of the parking lot. They were mostly older than Nayma, and she had watched them congregate and laugh and play the same pop you heard in the D.F. She had watched them go, too, all but a handful deported with their parents, and when they were gone, they were gone. And so too was the world they had made. There was no more gathering. The dozen or so who, like Nayma, stayed in the States had drifted to the edges of existence, a few quietly dropping out, a few quietly graduating or returning to Mexico. All governed by an abiding sense of bereavement, a mourning so softly realized it hadn’t been realized at all. Nayma hadn’t been part of it, but she felt it then, and felt it still. Even knowing what she knew, knowing what she was—the smart girl, the girl with a future—didn’t help. Knowing didn’t make her happy.

That was the thing, maybe.

She could watch them—her classmates, she meant—classify them, dissect them, in her secret heart—her real heart, the one she kept tucked behind what she considered her public heart—she could mock their choices and dismiss their lives as sleepwalking clichés (like her analysis was anything more than an 80s movie replayed on TBS—you could find sharper insight on Wikipedia; these groups had their own sociological studies and trends, they had their own Tumblrs, for god’s sake). She recognized their inherent ridiculousness. But crossing toward the main doors of the school she was also forced to recognize their happiness.

She entered the great stacked, rocked cathedral of the school’s foyer with its trophy case and barely-noticeable metal detectors.

Most days that galled her. Most days it sent her into fantasies of returning to Mexico, but never Mexico as it was. What she dreamed about was some idealized homeland, some creamy rainbow’s end without the roof dogs and fireworks and the women holding posters showing their disappeared sons. In her dreams there were no cartels. There were no beggars or bag ladies with deformed feet or children dehydrating and lost somewhere south of Nogales and then not dehydrating and lost but dehydrated and dead, past tense. There was no room for that. But then there didn’t seem to be any room in her dreams for Nayma either. She was always some ethereal floating thing, a gauze of veils hovering just beyond imagination’s reach, watching.

The bell sounded and the languor of the hall began to fray, kisses, goodbyes, speed-walking to first period. Nayma moved forward at the same inexorable speed. She was the senior assistant to Dr. Agnew’s sophomore English course and that was where she was headed.

Bullshit started early, she thought.

But also, more accurately: bullshit never stopped.

And here was the worst of it: Dr. Agnew had scooched her desk right up against his, like she was his junior partner, his little frizzy-haired sidekick, and together they could survey the vast sea of indifference that was English II at 8:15 in the morning. Maybe that was the worst thing—though admittedly her choices here were legion. For Nayma there was a hierarchy of embarrassment, a sort of great chain of humiliation that she would sometimes finger when Dr. Agnew went on a particularly long and tangential rant about Keats or Sylvia Plath or white shoes after labor day or the way gentlemen no longer wore hats and why is that, Nayma? I’ll tell you, my dear, I’ll give you a hint, it is linked—is it not?—to the decline of moderate political beliefs in the tradition of western enlightenment philosophy which has hitherto stretched from Copernicus and Francis Bacon to LBJ’s Great Society and you, Connie Cayley, I don’t know what you’re laughing about, my dear, no ma’am, I don’t, why if I found myself giggling in peach culottes with a sixty-four quiz average and an apparent inability to comprehend the mere definition of allegory in the work of George Orwell I believe I might be inclined to seek if not sartorial at least ecclesiastical intervention, don’t you agree, Nayma?

She did not. But that didn’t mean she didn’t love the man.

He was the local community college’s lone humanities professor until the local community college lost state funding and evolved into a start-up incubator slash pet-grooming salon with two tanning beds in the back. Now Dr. Agnew was the overeducated, overweight chair of the high school English department. A long-suffering, put-upon Log Cabin Republican who was sarcastic and erudite and slowly losing a war with his diabetes. He was overweight and, though Nayma had never seen him in anything other than a suit and a vintage NIXON ’72 straw boater worn, perhaps, out of a sense of irony so over-developed it had become sincere, quite slovenly: shirt untucked, hair a mess, somehow barely avoiding tripping over his untied Keds as he lumbered into the room leaning on his four-stoppered cane, sighing contentedly, as if the only necessary supplement to truth and beauty was a charge account at Ken’s Thrifty Pharmacy and Medical Supply.

Have you seen this year’s line of Rascal scooters, Nayma? My Lord, they are sleek creations, compact and carbon-neutral. I imagine them conjured in some modernist fever dream of glass and brushed steel, let us say the aerospace industry, headquartered in Orange County, circa 1953, whisking Baptists through the aisles of Walmart, baskets laden with Chinese manufacturing. Why it almost tempts a man to eat his weight in organ meat and simply be done with this bogus charade we collectively describe as walking.

Today they were discussing, or Dr. Agnew was free-associating on, Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus”: “A poem, my children. A sonnet. Fourteen lines following a strict rhyme scheme and structure. Sing it with me. Give me your tired, your poor. Come on, children, we all know it. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” He cupped his ear. “I know you know it, my sweets.”

But if they knew it they were offering no sign. That much was evident from Nayma’s perch at the front of the room. Equally evident was the deep dislike radiating off the face of Stinson Wood, a dislike that appeared on the verge of crackling like sparked dryer-lint into full-blown hate. He was one of the rich lake kids, and, as if to prove it, had the shaggy salon-dyed blonde locks generally associated with Orlando-based boy bands. In a class of tenth graders he was the lone senior, not stupid so much as lazy, entitled into a catatonic stupor he broke only to thumb indifferently through his Facebook newsfeed. But today he was alert, today he was all smirk, all dismissive superiority and all of it aimed at Nayma. She got this, she did because:

A. in case anyone had failed to notice, she was decidedly brown in a decidedly white
world, and Stinson Wood—who appeared to be of Swedish extraction, or perhaps
of something even whiter (an Icelandic Republican from, say, Tennessee?),
should something whiter exist—didn’t exactly come across as someone with what
might be referred to by Dr. Agnew as an open mind bound to an open heart,

And:

B. she was ostensibly Stinson’s peer, yet here she was seated at the front of the
room, occasionally called upon by Dr. Agnew to provide the right answer after
Stinson Wood supplied the wrong, or more likely no, answer.

It was surely both A and B, and just as surely didn’t matter. What mattered was that he was staring at her, staring with a freakish intensity that would have implied amphetamines were it not for his sociological preference for designer drugs filched from his mother’s purse.

Dr. Agnew seemed to catch it too.

“Why Mr. Woods,” he said, “and top of the morning to you, good sir. What a pleasure to find you both diurnal and present. To what do we owe this rare convergence of the twain? Were you, perhaps, musing on the possibility of encountering a mighty woman with a torch? Because I am here to assure you, my son, that the likelihood of such is something just short of none, though I grant you that with some focus and persistence on your part it may yet approach not at all.”

“What?”

“What? A Swedish diphthong and an interesting one—its interest is beyond refute. Though perhaps not terribly illuminative as to our current state.”

“I’m just watching her,” Stinson said.

“And to whom, my child, might you be referring?”

“Her,” he said, and thrust his chin at Nayma. “Chiquita Banana there.”

“You mean Nayma?”

“Whatever her name is.”

“Her name is Nayma. Child, are you slow? Are you of addled mind? Did, perhaps, your mother pass to you some derivative of the coca plant, smoked, perchance, in a glass pipe, while you nestled in her womb? Mr. Wood? Dear Mr. Wood?”

But Stinson Wood said nothing. He just stared at Nayma with his lopsided grin, nodding so imperceptibly it was possible she was only imagining it. But she knew she wasn’t. He was entitled. He was privileged. He was exactly the sort of person who hated people like Nayma. The non-white, non-male, non-southern, non-straight, non-whatever it was that Stinson Wood had been declared by the accident of his birth—it still went on, the hate, the bigotry, only it was softer now, it was subtle. It was patronizing and—the look on his face told her—it was smug.

Dr. Agnew was off discussing the poem again. “A woman with a torch,” he was saying, “let’s talk about this image, let’s talk about this French woman standing in the harbor with her copper robe and patrician nose…”

Stinson had gone back to his phone, but every so often he would look at Nayma and wait for her to look back. Then he would smile that smug smile and look away, like he couldn’t believe how ridiculous she was there at the front of the room with her obese mentor (was that what he was?) rambling on about the world’s most irrelevant shit.

She went back to the poem. I lift my lamp beside the golden door! it finished, and she imagined that golden door, that place at which she might finally arrive. Did it exist? The cynical side of her said it did not. But the truth was, she believed in it. By the standards of Walhalla she appeared as un-American as you could get. But she was more American than all of them put together. She was more American than all of them by dint of her belief, and by dint of her arrival, by dint of her parents’ sacrifice. By dint of—

She sensed Stinson’s head snap up with a reptilian quickness. He had the sort of green eyes and pale skin that made her imagine him as cold-blooded in the actual biological sense. He was looking up now, but not at her. He was looking across the room at Lana Rogers, a freshman in sophomore English (whereas Stinson was a senior in sophomore English).

ta
The girl looked up, Lana Rogers. She was cute and brunette and appeared just barely old enough to gain entry to the high school. She sat legs crossed in her tennis skirt, a worried look clouding her face. She had her phone in her lap and her eyes dropped to it: Stinson was texting her. She put the eraser of her pencil in her mouth and slowly lowered one hand to her lap where the phone was hidden. Not that it needed hiding. Dr. Agnew was holding forth at maximum velocity, sweeping hands, grand declarations. The girl texted back. Stinson texted again. The girl looked even more worried.

Then Lana’s phone actually rang.

Dr. Agnew snapped around from the board where he had been busy diagramming the Roman street where Keats had died, but now, but now…

“A cellular call! My, my,” he declared, “who is it that is calling? Who is it that fancies himself or herself so wondrously and spectacularly important to call during a discussion of the world’s unacknowledged legislators?”

Then Nayma realized it wasn’t Lana’s phone, but her phone, the cheap Wal-Mart Asus with its fifteen-dollar SIM card and factory-direct ringtone. She hadn’t bothered silencing it because why should she? No one ever called. But now someone was.

“Nayma?” Dr. Agnew looked as hurt as surprised.

“I’m sorry.”

“Why I don’t—”

She was up out of her desk now, the phone pressed to her stomach as if not so much to mute the sound as to cradle some wound. “Excuse me. Sorry, Dr. Agnew.”

She hurried into the empty hall and flipped open the phone—yes, God, it was a flip-phone—to find her abuelo yammering in a Spanish so frantic Nayma could barely understand her. Then, finally, she did: it was the Greaves woman, the grandmother. She was in the basement. She had fallen. There was blood.

Was she alive?

Yes, she was alive.

“Call the ambulance,” Nayma said. Then she realized she would have to call. She got the address and hung up just as Dr. Agnew lumbered into the hall.

“Nayma,” he was saying, “this is highly peculiar. I think perhaps—”

He stopped when he heard the voice on other end.

“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”

“Oh Lord!” said Dr. Agnew and pirouetted on his four-stoppered cane.

It was like an elephant dancing and Nayma might have applauded had she not been reciting the address. The voice of the operator carried up the block hall.

“Is she breathing?”

(“Breathing!” cried Dr. Agnew.)

“Yes.”

“Is she conscious?”

(“Conscious! Oh Lord!”)

“I don’t know.”

“Please stay on the line, ma’am. Ma’am?”

But she had already slapped the phone shut, louder than she had intended.

“Oh Lord!” Dr. Agnew said, “Child—”

But she cut him off with a look.

“Dr. Agnew,” she said, “I need to borrow your car.”

 

Nayma piloted Dr. Agnew’s Oldsmobile into the parking lot of Oconee Memorial Hospital, her body hung over a giant steering wheel the size of a manhole cover, her butt slid forward over the beaded seat-cover as rough as the corrugated motel roof where she would occasionally hide in plain sight. It was a little like driving a boat—not that she’d ever driven a boat, she had never even been on a boat—but that didn’t stop her from imagining the car as a great yacht that rocked lightly as she turned at the traffic signal and eased nimbly around corners. She was going too fast and couldn’t get the cassette of the Statler Brothers to cut off, but then she was going too slow and accelerated until she could feel the car bouncing on its shocks. She had driven before—she could certainly drive—but never in something this big and never over forty-five miles an hour.

She glided into the parking lot, fairly sailing over a speed bump while the dashboard hula dancer bobbed wildly and across the bench leather. Dr. Agnew’s papers and books fluttered and slipped. John Donne. Geoffrey Hill. Some ancient coffee table atlas of Olde England. She shoved them all to the side and made for the main entrance, the glass doors sliding open onto the chilly foyer with its potted palms and new carpet. The walls were lined with Purell dispensers and signs explaining the importance of sanitized hands in English and Spanish. She took the elevator to the fifth floor ICU, more or less bouncing on her heels and wringing her bacteria-free hands.

When the doors opened the smell hit her: not so much the sharp of antiseptic as something heavier and more frightening: it smelled here, she realized, like death. Up until that moment she had worried solely about her abuelos, but at that moment she felt her heart lurch for the Greaves woman, alone here with the tubes and wheeled machines and that smell she was starting to recognize as the aftertaste of human shit. She was in her nineties but somehow lived alone. But not anymore, Nayma thought. Not after today.

She found her grandparents in the waiting room, a couple of aged nervous children who fluttered to their feet when they saw Nayma. Her abuela had virtually no English which made her, a woman who was otherwise a workhorse of devotion and faith, pathetically helpless. Her abeulo was fluent in English, educated, smart and sarcastic. Or had been once. He’d been expelled from the tomato fields of Immokalee, Florida, after attempting to organize what were effectively indentured servants. But the process of kicking him out—she suspected it had been more than simply driving her grandparents to the city limits and telling them to beat it—had cracked something in him, or widened a crack that already existed so that these days he was mostly silent. There were no more jokes, no more laughing. He worked. He smoked. He drank one Budweiser every evening in a plastic chair on the indoor-outdoor carpet of the motel stoop.

He had never told her much about Immokalee, but she knew enough to imagine the circumstances of his life there. The town, to the extent that it was anything beyond an encampment of trailers and processing centers, was the hub of the tomato fields, the place from which migrant workers began the trek north, harvesting tomatoes in South Florida and then strawberries in the irrigated fields along the Gulf and then peaches and apples in the Carolinas. It was an eight-month odyssey of endless indentured work. Slave work, if you got down to it. Coyotes slipped the workers through the Sonora Desert on foot and into Florida in the backs of U-Hauls. When they got out they owed fifteen hundred dollars for the transport and went to work paying it back, earning two or three dollars a day while living ten to a trailer in the windless fog of mosquitos and heat and the powdered residue of insecticides so harsh they burned the skin.

Of course you paid for that too, the privilege of the trailer costing, say, ten dollars a week, and transportation to the fields—that was another two bucks. Then, of course, you might one day decide to eat something and there was yet another cost. In the end, it meant not only could you never pay off your debt, you actually wound up in greater debt. Which meant you could very easily spend the rest of your relatively short life never venturing a half-mile beyond the fields. There were periodic raids by ICE or the Department of Justice but none of it added up to anything like justice. At best, you were deported and what was waiting for you there? Work in a textile mill if you were lucky in the way her parents were lucky: making sixty pesos for ten hours of work, sewing collars and fostering arthritis. More likely you would exist at the whim of the cartel. You might be a runner, a look out, a mule. Until, of course, you weren’t. Until, of course, a bullet placed neatly behind your right ear pierced the growing tumor the insecticides had started years prior.

So he drank his beer.

After that, he lay in bed, hands crossed on his chest as if by arranging himself for death he would save a few dollars on the undertaker. Whether he actually slept or not she never knew. She didn’t think he prayed. It was her abuela who prayed. Her abuela who kneeled on her swollen knees before the candle of the Virgin Nayma had gotten her from the “Ethnic” aisle at Ingles. Her abuela who took Nayma to mass at La Luz del Mundo behind Hardee’s.

But now they were both standing, silent, tragic.

She started to speak but something in their faces stopped her. They weren’t staring at her, but past her, and Nayma turned to see Mrs. Greaves carted past, all wires and tubes, somebody’s idea of an art project, or maybe just a bad joke.

 

It was the end of lunch by the time Nayma had dropped her grandparents off at the Greaves’ house and made her way back to school. Nayma had fairly dragged abuela to the elevator. By the time they got to Dr. Agnew’s car her abuela was in tears and Nayma had only gotten a sidelong glance at the Greaves woman—it was all she would allow herself—but even in passing it looked bad. Her tiny self a tent of bones pitched beneath a tangle of tubes and monitors. It didn’t seem fair that she would die like that. But it surely didn’t seem fair to have to go on living.

She parked the Oldsmobile and headed for the front doors. You could sneak out of the school but you couldn’t sneak in. The building was a well-concealed fortress of alarmed doors and hidden metal detectors and the only way in was through the entrance where, surely, someone would be waiting on her. They would suspend her, they would express their utter bafflement and complete disappointment in her and she could try to explain but, honestly, how? and why? The college applications had all been submitted, the essays written, the recommendations sent. In a few months she would leave Walhalla and never come back. When the time came—when the money came—she would send for her grandparents. She would send for her parents, too, if they would come. The money would make them untouchable. Her U.S. citizenship and a bank account in the high six-digits. That wasn’t wealth—that was protection. That was stability.

It was what she couldn’t explain to the people who would question her in another sixty seconds when she walked through the front doors and confessed to having stolen Dr. Agnew’s car (if she said he had freely handed her the keys he would likely be fired and she wasn’t about to let that happen). Why did you go, Nayma? If there was a family problem, why didn’t you come to us? Why didn’t you let us help you? As if by the mere comingling of their white skin and good intentions they could unravel the tangle of her life. As if skin pigment and evangelical hope would solve her problems. Not a handout, Nayma. (How satisfied they would appear across their shiny desks or behind the ovals of their rimless eyewear.) Not a handout, but a hand up.

Why didn’t you let me help you, Nayma?

Because you can’t, she wanted to say.

Because how could you solve something you couldn’t begin to understand?

Her life was a construction of wildly misaligned but nevertheless moving parts that were labeled individually as money, language, citizenship—or the lack of all three—and to tinker with one, to attempt to explain one, was to risk the others, and at this point, so close to her exit, so close to the end of her sentence at the Walhalla Motel, so near the end of the next door meth mites clawing their open sores, so near the end the creepy D.C. trying to lure her into his pickup, so near the end of so much the last thing she was going to do was take chances.

She put her hand on the front door and took a moment to study herself in the reflection. But it wasn’t her own face that caught her attention, but the face beyond the glass. It was turning. The school receptionist was walking away from the reception desk and into the warren of hallways and offices behind her, and what Nayma realized was that she was being given a chance.

She didn’t delay.

She pulled open the door and shot through, past the metal detector and the sliding second door that was—thank you!—unlocked before the door could even chime her arrival. Behind her she sensed the woman returning—excuse me?—but Nayma was already in the main hall crowded with lunch traffic.

She walked as fast as possible without running. The woman was still behind her. “Excuse me? Miss? Stop please.” But she wasn’t stopping, not now and not ever. She rounded the corner and ducked into the girl’s bathroom—okay, she was stopping now, but this was strategic. She went to the farthest stall, locked the door, and crouched on the closed toilet seat so that her feet wouldn’t show.

She waited and then came down, took a moment to collect herself at the bathroom sink. Splash her face, smooth her clothes. She put her phone on vibrate and took Dr. Agnew’s keys from her pocket. That was all that was left: to return his keys, get to her next class, get through her next class, her next day, week, and so on until she could walk. Where didn’t matter. Just not here.

 

Middle hall was less crowded. She passed the band room and the art rooms and turned right toward the English wing. A few couples were pressed along the walls, blowing little bubbles of privacy out of the otherwise public. Girls with their shampooed hair against the walls, showing their vulnerable throats. The guys were all lean. Elbows and knuckles and bristled hair. Eighteen-year-olds in letterman jackets kissing girls in cheerleading skirts. Resting their sweaty hands on hip bones. No one looked at her. She heard the guys whisper and the girls giggle as she walked past. Giggling in such a way as to let her know how different she was. Giggling to make certain she was cognizant of how ugly and brown and plain. That there was nothing of the strawberry to her, she knew this. No strawberry-blonde hair. No strawberry sun-kissed skin. Never the right shoes or jacket or skirt, never the eyeliner that was oh my God so on point. But there was something that made them giggle: the remarkable extent to which she didn’t belong. Even if she did.

You’re a woman with a torch, Nayma.

She tried not to walk faster.

You can do this, Nayma.

She tried to keep her head level, her eyes straight ahead. She rounded the corner—she was near the gym now, past the groping and giggling—and then heard something. Whispers. But not whispers directed at her. These were people oblivious to her presence. They were arguing. She could tell that much. Two people—a boy and girl. She peeked around the corner.

The hall here was long and dim and off-limits. Along one side were framed portraits of Walhalla athletes who had gone on to play college sports. Point guards and goalies and fast-pitch catchers in jerseys that read Warriors and Tigers and Chanticleers. Along the other side was fencing behind which were large wheeled bins full of everything from shoulder pads to orange traffic cones. The voices, the arguing—it wasn’t louder now so much as more intense—was coming from there.

She shouldn’t stop.

She knew she shouldn’t stop. This was a wholly unnecessary detour yet some part of her—there was no use not admitting it—really did believe she was a woman with a torch. Someone put in the world to light the way, to take care of others, be it her parents, grandparents, whoever it was now tucked back among the portable soccer goals and arguing very volubly.

“Stop, please. Please don’t, Stinson.”

Stinson?

Then she knew why she had stopped: because she recognized the voice.

Two quiet steps forward and she recognized the faces. It was Stinson Wood and Lana Rogers, both from English II. Stinson had Lana backed up against the wall just like all the other boys. But unlike all the other girls Lana wasn’t kissing his throat or idly fingering whatever faux-gold chain he hung around his neck. She was pushing her fingers into his smug handsome face. She was begging him to stop.

Nayma had her hands on his jacket before she realized she was even moving. It was the white heat they talked about in books, rage, supernatural strength. The sort of thing that allowed mothers to lift wrecked automobiles off their trapped children. Except it wasn’t a car she was lifting but what turned out to be a kite-thin boy who was mostly hair gel and lip—“Fucking bitch!”—and a cloying cloud of Axe Body spray. She pushed him behind her where he arranged himself, smoothed his hair, his clothes, all the while repeating to her what a fucking bitch she was.

But Nayma registered it as no more than noise.

She had one hand on Lana Rogers’ shoulder, the other extended toward Stinson Wood, palm raised like a crossing guard arresting traffic.

“Are you okay?” Nayma asked.

The girl nodded but said nothing.

Then Stinson grabbed Nayma’s hand and knocked it aside.

“This has nothing to do with you, Chiquita Banana.”

“Leave her alone,” Nayma said.

“Fucking make me, how ‘bout it?”

“Touch her again,” Nayma said, “and I will.” And with that she watched something terrifying take place: she watched his face morph from normal human rage to something approaching a mask of smug—that word again—comprehension. It was a look that said he was suddenly realizing this wasn’t a joke, this fucking Mexican bitch was serious. That she didn’t get it. Yet who the hell was she to interfere with him? Did she not know how this game worked? Then the bafflement was replaced by the sort of cruelty that only comes in very deliberate calibrations.

“I will have your daddy’s ass on the banana boat back to fucking taco-time by sundown,” he said. “You understand that?”

“Don’t touch her again.”

“She wants me to touch her,” he said then, a strange tactic in argument. “Don’t you, Lana?”

They both looked at the girl who said nothing.

“Don’t you?” Stinson said again, but Nayma cut him off.

“Let her speak for herself.”

She couldn’t, or wouldn’t, and this seemed to fuel something deeper in Stinson, some tertiary rage that had thus far remained buried.

“Fuck you both,” he said, straightened his jacket a last time, zipped his open fly, and started down the dark hall. Halfway down he stopped and turned. “When you’re ready to apologize you know where to find me, Lana,” he called. “And you, you fucking illegal bitch. You will suffer for this. I promise you that.”

And then he was gone.

Nayma turned to Lana and was about to speak but then she was gone too, rushing past her, all unsteady legs and bed-headed hair.

Gone up the hall.

Gone around the bend.

Gone, Nayma could only hope, anywhere but back to him.

 

Dr. Agnew’s door was open and thankfully he was not at his desk. She put his keys by a paperweight bust of Evelyn Waugh (where on earth did you buy something like this?), and had started for the cafeteria when she heard him.

“Nayma, my dear.”

It found her like a spotlight, his voice. One of those cartoon moments where the searchlight settles on the bandit escaping prison.

“Dr. Agnew,” she said. “Your keys.”

“Yes?”

“Thank you. I’m sorry about that. They’re on your desk, right there by Mr. Waugh.”

“Mr. Waugh, my dear. As in War.”

“Right there by Mr. War.”

“All right, dear,” he said. “Thank you.”

She was by the door when he spoke again.

“Excuse me, Nayma.”

She stopped but didn’t turn.

“If you ever want to talk about it,” he said, “I’ve told been told I’m a good listener.”

She said nothing.

“I know what it is to need a good listener,” he said. “I also know what it is to be a stranger in a strange land. If that’s not too saccharine a thing to admit. Realizing fully that perhaps it is.”

She stood silent and still. He was moving, walking, but not toward her. He had exited through the backdoor into the materials room and she realized she was alone, and then she realized she was crying and couldn’t stop. Crying for her mother and father and grandparents. For the scared girl in middle hall. Crying for creepy D.C., who was back from the war and lonely. Crying for Dr. Agnew who was simply lonely. And crying for herself. These endless tears. These stupid, stupid tears she felt running down the copper of her robe, beneath her torch, past her book, and over her sandaled feet, these tears gathering in the vast harbor she suddenly realized surrounded her life.

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