Wednesday, October 8, 2008

An Excerpt from The New World

-The following is chapter two of my novel, The New World.

The bus to San Pedro was like many that he had ridden while traveling through Mexico; an old, yellow, American school bus, the rules of student conduct still printed in unintelligible English above the driver’s head. The only noticeable differences about the trip were the exceptionally good roads and the lack of livestock. He thought Honduras might turn out to be a nice place after all. It perplexed him though. He had worked with refugees in the States, and many of them had been Honduran. Yet it was nothing like the disaster area he had envisioned. The countryside was fabulously green and made words like lush and fertile spring into his thoughts. Trees crowded beside the road and in the distance. He knew none of their names but loved most the elegant, small-leafed ones that reached higher than the rest and swayed in the wind. If he ignored the bus and all thought of the past, it seemed as if this were paradise.

It occurred to him that people might just be fleeing the overpowering humidity. It made him groggy and when the bus pulled into San Pedro he felt drugged, and a creeping sense of desperation.

He hailed a taxi and told the driver the address, adding, as Shane had instructed him to, that it was a colonia out towards the airport. The enormously fat, brown-skinned man behind the steering wheel raised one eyebrow and grunted. "The airport? One hundred lempiras."

The American did the calculations in his head. That was nearly eight dollars. He knew he was supposed to haggle, but he hated the very idea of arguing over money. One summer, at the Dominican mission in Mexicali, the brothers had enjoyed taking visiting relatives out to the markets to dicker and bargain with the vendors, but he had never done so. He always paid the asked price. It was worth getting taken to avoid haggling. He couldn’t explain his repulsion. He never said so but he believed it offended his sense of honesty. He thought that everything should just have its price and if the price was too high, people shouldn’t buy it. But he had never been popular with the brothers and if he had mentioned an "offense against his honesty" they would have never let him live it down.

Still, he could not afford eight dollars for a taxi ride. Reluctantly he entered the arena.

"Fifty lempiras."

This time it was the driver’s turn to be offended. His hulking frame shuddered as he rocked himself toward the open window and looked up at the gringo with wide, surprised eyes.

"Fifty lempiras! Can’t be done, friend. I have to live, you know." He settled back in his seat, looking out through the windshield shaking his head. They were quiet for a while. The American was still trying to figure out how to respond to this violent display when the taxi driver, apparently thinking that the silence was part of the gringo’s stratagem, spoke again. "Eighty lempiras."

The American heard an ultimatum. Six dollars. It was still too much, but he already felt dirty from the struggle and ready to give in.

"Fine. Let’s go."

Sam’s address was the sixth apartment in a two-story building that contained a total of eight apartments in all. It was dark by the time they arrived but there were streetlights on the dirt road that passed in front of the building’s courtyard and he could see the open fields surrounding the lonely edifice. A half-mile to the East more lights betrayed the presence of residential homes. He was in a Central American suburb. A flickering Pepsi sign loomed over those distant, shadowed houses. A towering water tank stood outlined darkly against the moonrise.

He paid the driver, who drove away suddenly and without a word. The American was left standing before a black, padlocked gate that opened onto the courtyard in front of the apartments, whose windows were illuminated with the glow of televisions.

His stomach churned as it always did before he began something, as it had when he stood in front of the wrought-iron gate outside St. Albert’s Priory in San Francisco to begin his religious training. Since his flight from Tucson everything had been a pause, an interim experience. Even at this moment, still alone, the only witness of his struggle and fears, he could turn around and plunge back into that pause, that journey from one place to another, and let it take him onward or even back home. He calculated that there was just enough money to return if he took the cheap buses through Guatemala and Mexico and fasted much of the way. Perhaps that would be sufficient repentance. Perhaps he could return and honestly try to become the man he had set out to be years ago.

A moment of decision was upon him. A new life or the old one?

He jerked the gate back and forth a few times and shouted "Buenas noches!"

A few people looked out of their lighted windows. Their brown faces were foreign and fathomless in the dusk. He couldn’t tell if they were angry, suspicious or curious. Eventually a young woman emerged from an apartment on the second floor and descended the stairs, keys jangling in her hand.

She entered the circle of light beneath the street lamp by the gate wearing tight-fitting jeans. It amazed him that people could wear pants in this heat. Even at night, stripped to his underwear, he had been uncomfortable. But this was not what dominated his thoughts as she approached, rifling through her keys. He was mostly thinking of how well the jeans fit her and studying the curve of her equally well fitting blouse and the way her shoulder length, black hair was swept over one shoulder.

Reaching the gate she looked up at him through the thin iron bars and smiled. He felt the lightning frustration he had always felt in the seminary when he met an attractive woman and recognized interest in her eyes. This was followed by the realization that he was no longer a Dominican priest-in-training and that it would be a pleasure to reside near a woman like this.

"Hi." She said. "Are you Paul Herlihy?" Her English was startling, clear and American. Her smile was large and inviting. Ample, well-formed lips showcased long, white teeth. They were the best teeth he had seen in Latin America.

"Yuh…yes." He stuttered, placing one open palm between the bars. "Who are you?"

She laughed, taking his hand and shaking it. "I’m Sam, Shane told you about me."

Stunned, Paul thought only about her smooth grip and the lovely the cinnamon skin of her face. Her laugh left something to be desired but, as other men, Paul found certain flaws easy to overlook in favor of others. She opened the gate and locked it quickly behind him.

"It’s not the best neighborhood." She explained. Paul noticed again the faces staring at him, and now at her as well, through their windows. Certainly this was a curious scene. The girl they had thought of as one of theirs chattered away in foreign gibberish to the gawking gringo in the courtyard.

"I thought you were a man." Paul tried to explain. "I mean, I only knew your name, Sam. Shane didn’t tell me you were a woman."

She gaped at him in real shock, then laughed raucously. "That sounds like something Shane would do. Does it bother you?" A concerned look came over her face. "I mean, will you be uncomfortable staying here tonight?"

"Oh, no. I was just………surprised."

"Because I was figuring you’d just stay and take over the lease when I leave in a couple weeks. If you want we can look for a place for you tomorrow, after I show you the school."

"No, it’s fine, it’s fine. I was just surprised, that’s all."

They were silent for a moment. Then Sam looked about, as if at the night. "Well, let’s get inside before the neighbors start complaining. They don’t have any right to, considering all the parties I’ve had to put up with, but hypocrisy is a tradition here."

They ascended the stairs and went into the second apartment, which had a black number six nailed to the door.

"I think the sofa is big enough for you." Sam pointed to a leather couch against the outer wall, beneath the only window in the small front room. There was a kitchenette and two open doorways, one leading to a full bathroom, the other to the bedroom. The living room itself was perhaps ten feet square.

"If it isn’t, you could remove the cushions and sleep on the floor." She stood in the kitchenette, washing cups. "I was in the middle of cleaning up when I heard your rattle. Are you hungry?"
"Uh… no. I’m fine. This is a nice place you’ve got here."

She snorted laughter. "If you like cold tile floors and cockroaches."

Paul glanced at the floor.

"Oh, there not out now. But in the morning, the early morning, when you go in the bathroom, it’s wild with ’em." She put the dishes in a small plastic rack to dry. "Did you want a drink? I’ve got beer and coke. Have a seat."

Paul sat on the couch. He sank in deep, relaxing for the first time in a long time and enjoying the opportunity to speak English again.

The couch was a luxurious item for the apartment. He imagined that it cost more than the small refrigerator that sat on the counter. "I’ll have a beer if you don’t mind."

He tried to repress the thoughts that ran through his head. He wasn’t ashamed of them. He just wanted to think clearly. When he imagined Sam coming over with a beer and sitting beside him on the couch and eventually writhing in his grasp, it made his stomach churn nervously. He was grateful that he hadn’t eaten all day because he was certain that he would have thrown up on the floor.

She came over with two bottles of something called salva vida, handed him one, then sat on a wooden chair that she dragged over from a small, matching table on the other side of the living room. She sat hunched over, like a man, though she was not even remotely masculine.

"I can’t tell you how good it is to hear an American accent." She said smiling. "At the school I speak English all day, but almost everyone there has an accent. Their vocabulary is pretty good but you can’t have a very good conversation when you’re stopping to explain words and phrases every other sentence."

"So the kids aren’t completely bilingual?" Paul had been hired to take over Sam’s job in the fall. She was the English and Literature teacher at Liberty Academy, a private bilingual school, but she was leaving at the end of June.

"Oh, I’d say that by ninth grade most of them are fairly conversational. But you’ll be teaching down to grade seven, and at that level their vocabulary is still pretty restricted."

"How did you end up here?" Paul already knew why she was here from Shane’s letter but he liked to hear a story from its source. Also he wanted to keep her talking. Asking questions would keep him from having to answer them and tonight he did not want to talk about himself.

"I was in the Peace Corps for two years, mostly in the capital." She looked at the floor as she spoke and Paul recognized a habit she had of pushing her silky black hair back behind one ear before tugging at an earring, a small silver hoop. "I heard about this job when my time was running out. I wasn’t ready to leave Honduras yet, so I took it." Her voice had acquired a strange tone.

"How much longer will you be around?"

"Two weeks. Until July first. Graduation is tomorrow, then there will be a week of inventory and a lot of sitting around. A week later, I’ll go."

They finished their beers and talked about their mutual friend, Shane Runkle. Shane was crazy. Paul told Sam about what it was like going to college with Shane. Sam explained how she had met him in Tegucigalpa when he came through a year earlier. Six months ago he had arrived in Brazil. Both of them had received letters from him describing his debauched life there, though Sam’s recollections led Paul to believe that he had received the edited versions of Shane’s adventures. Shane planned on coming back North to visit Paul in December. Paul purposely avoided discussion of his own past, not wanting to lie or tell the truth. Not at the moment. He just wanted to watch Sam push the hair back over her ear and make her earring sway and glint in the lamplight.

Finally, she said good night, rather abruptly, and said that she would wake him at six, after her shower. She shut the door to her room behind her.

Paul didn’t fall asleep for a while. He had been far from home for weeks but now, in the strange city that was supposed to be his new home, two thousand miles from his country, his culture, he felt out of place for the first time. He was not on vacation. And he was not going to be a priest. He was in flight, having exiled himself. And the dull freedom of travel was now punctuated by the memories that had finally caught up to him. He tried to bury himself in ridiculous fantasies about Sam, but always Alba jarred his thoughts. He remembered the odors of that decrepit building that had served as her home, and the stench of their sex.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Anybody Home?

The following is Part I of Joab Richard Hooke's novel Recovery

1

Embedded deep inside the spacecraft, David Chavez could not see the surface of the Moon with his own eyes as he inserted the Percival Lowell into lunar orbit. He sensed it, rather, or even felt it’s gravitic pull, it’s mass, via the stream of data that poured into the node on the back of his neck, which then distributed information to various microscopic bits of metal and silicon which surgeons had implanted years ago during astronaut training and later. They used his body’s own electrical current to power their functions. He had seen the Moon’s surface, though, many times in his life, and couldn’t help smiling as he imagined the pocked plains and stark crags of the lunar mountains passing underneath.

He turned on an outward directed camera with a twitch of his left eye. He was supposed to focus entirely on lunar insertion but he couldn’t resist taking a look at Earth. The crew of the Lowell had pulled the ship off the Solar net two months ago and no one had been able to see Earth, though they knew how it must appear.

With a series of sub-vocal commands Chavez oriented the camera correctly and got his first view of Earth in months. He fought the tightening of his throat which would have initiated a number of unintended ship operations. The entire planet was clouded over. Not as bad as Venus, but horrible nonetheless.

He had known what to expect. But he had hoped, however foolish the hope was, that he would look and see an Earth only partially damaged by the war. Then, with great relief, he would have told Commander White that it had been a mistake to cut themselves off from the net, that the war had not been as cataclysmic as the first reports had indicated. He had imagined an exultant return to Earth, a rowdy swell of reporters and news cameras as he stepped down from the shuttle. Later, he would fly to Madrid, where his father waited with his hands in his pockets and the wizened smile that reminded the younger Chavez of his father years ago and himself as a boy, riding a bike under the gloriously hot sun of Extremadura.

But that dream died without a whimper and Chavez knew that Madrid was gone, as was Badajoz, and whoever lived still among the ruins, if anyone lived at all, had not seen the sun for weeks and would likely never see it again.

Nor could they see or detect the return of the Lowell, though on it’s departure the hours- long fusion burn was visible in the night sky. His father had watched it proudly and told him so the next day, as the craft exited Earthspace and Chavez prepared for submersion in the Tank, where he and most of the crew would float dormant and unconscious for six weeks. They had made a slower, smaller burn for the last few days, and successfully achieved a parking orbit around the Moon. Such a return was one of the less-likely scenarios and one for which they had trained the least. That had turned out for the best. It forced those who were awake to concentrate on the mission specs, and not on the world they had lost.

Chavez considered the silent earth and compared it to the strained silence aboard the Lowell. Most of the crew were still in the tank, in a dreamless sleep. The waking crew, just eight of them now in the empty spaces of the Lowell, walked as if on eggshells, and spoke in hushed tones, like the crew of some submarine in a movie, fearful that dropped cutlery or a careless word might reveal their location to the enemy. But there was no chance that someone might hear Norma Palafox crying in her sleep cell, or that anyone would hear Joseph Mfume’s great wracking sobs as he hid in an empty corner of Storage B, arms wrapped around himself. The sounds created by grief do not carry through empty space so no one could detect the sounds of the Lowell crew as it emotionally disintegrated.

But detection was on everyone’s mind. That was why they had agreed with Commander White two months ago, tethered to Phobos in Mars orbit, as the news of the quickly escalating war reached them, to cut themselves off from the Solar net. Thus they would ensure that, if anyone else still existed, they would not find the Lowell until the crew wanted to be found. So the Lowell’s computers, accustomed to constant updates and patches received through data streams that came in via Artemis base and hundreds of satellites, probes and expeditions throughout the system, had gone offline.

Almost everyone agreed, Chavez reminded himself. Of the twenty-six crew aboard, only three had protested White’s idea. They were left behind at Ares base on the surface of Phobos. It was unlikely that they lived still as the base had not been ready for permanent occupation.

The Lowell’s second orbit would bring it over Artemis base. Offline, there had been no way to know ahead of time if the base still existed. Any advance probes they might have sent ahead had been expended at Mars and they were reduced to simply waiting for line of sight to prove anything. Rumors had developed among the small crew, owing to the dearth of other news, of newer missiles that were able to leave Earth orbit, strike the Moon, elsewhere.

He breathed a sigh of relief when Mare Frigoris came into view. Even without telescopic assistance, he could see the undamaged sprawl of Artemis base on the lunar plain. There was now some chance that they were not completely alone.

2

When Mission Commander Charles White saw the lunar landscape via video fed into his right eye, he was reminded of a family trip he had taken as a child.

White had been born in Detroit, but his father had gotten a job in computer technology in Phoenix soon after the birth and moved his wife and baby out there. When Charles was just twelve his grandfather died. All had all flown back to Michigan to attend the funeral.

Detroit shocked the young White. So many other black people! He had felt strangely out of place, though for the first time in his life he blended in. Young as he was, he perceived that, growing up in the Southwest, he was unaware of the culture his parents had known. Detroit was not just a place. It was a way of life.

Still, he had been relieved when returning home. He had looked down and seen the arid lands of Arizona thirty-thousand feet below the airplane. After many hours of Midwestern farmland he was finally seeing something he knew.

He felt the same way seeing the pocked surface of the Moon. It was not home, but it was on the way.

When Chavez relayed a clear view of Artemis base, the commander experienced a second, and stronger, wave of relief. Here was a place he had lived and worked.

For two months, hurtling through the void and cut off from Earth, knowing only that nuclear war had devastated much of the planet, he had feared that he would never see anything he knew ever again. Several times he had imagined orbiting over the base and seeing not the various dome modules that indicated where a tunnel began nor the landing fields, but rather only a new crater and the exposed, blackened warren of Artemis.

Coupled with that relief, though, was a new horror. Chavez sent more video. The Earth appeared in opposition to the Moon. Dirty, white clouds obscured any view of humanity’s birthplace. The planet oppressed with its silence, with its hiddenness. His eyes rested on tise view of Earth and hoped for a break in the clouds to reveal some kind of hint about the state of affairs up there, as if it was just one great stormy day on the planet and the cloud cover was bound to break at any time, letting in the Sun.

But White knew there would be no such respite. It was going to be a cloudy day for a long time.

3

All attempts to hail Artemis base over the radio had failed. There was neither reply nor recognition of receiving the attempt at communication. The base was apparently shut down. White had refused to log on to the net just yet and attempt to contact the base through other means. Having been offline for two months, the ship’s computers might be stunned by a sudden surge of updates and patches. He said he wanted to be able to react fast if something unusual happened. Chavez had pointed out that, if the world really had been destroyed, there might not be too many updates waiting on the net. In fact, it was possible the entire system had broken down, and there was no web out there to which they could log on. But White insisted and would take no chances.

The Bird was designed to function as a shuttle on Mars. Descending, it was meant to use it’s broad wings to slow itself against the thin Martian atmosphere and then glide upon that rare medium of carbon dioxide and assorted trace gases to a landing. Once on the surface, it’s cargo was replaced with fuel and a hollow roar would announce its return to orbit as it cut through the dusty air.

But there was software on board the Lowell for every contingency. One such program involved landing the Martian exploration vehicle on the Moon. The pilots of the Lowell crew had practiced it outside of computer simulation just once previous to the mission. Since the Lowell had turned back for Earth, Chavez had been practicing this scenario with every spare minute.

Chavez had only two passengers on this trip. Dr. Guy Beckham, physician, and Jeremy Singh, one of the Lowell’s three computer engineers (all of whom were called hackers by the rest of the crew). They sat behind Chavez. The nose of the Bird only had space for a single pilot. Since the computer did almost everything, and the pilot merely verified that it was functioning correctly, a co-pilot was something the designers had deemed unnecessary. Anyway, with the entire crew cross-trained in a second skill, there were almost always other pilots available no matter what happened.

“Cleared Plato.” Chavez whispered as the lander skimmed over that northern crater, descending to Artemis base at the edge of Mare Frigoris. The words he spoke were part of the flight plan, one of many verbal exchanges meant to be made between pilot and a hacker at Artemis Control while their respective computers did all the work.

“You’re offline, right?” Beckham asked, voice trembling slightly. Good ears, thought Chavez.

“Don’t worry, doc. Nobody heard me. The mike’s off. I just said it out of habit.”

“Nobody down there to hear you anyway,” Singh chipped in. “Nobody to hear you anywhere,” he added, with less force. The war had apparently begun as a skirmish between his own country, India, and Pakistan. Little news had escaped Earth before they cut themselves off, but one thing was certain: India had been obliterated once China entered the conflict.

Beneath, the dead, white, cratered landscape rolled past at a slower and slower pace, the Bird reversing thrust almost imperceptibly. Mean to use its wings against Martian air, the craft’s lunar landing plan called for a much longer approach, allowing sufficient time to decelerate using it’s weak forward thrusters.

“Is that it?” Singh said, leaning forward.

“Yes.”

“Aren’t we coming in too fast?” Beckham inquired.

“Thrusters go to full in a second.”

They did. There was the sound of their barely audible grunts as they strained against their safety belts more than they had on Mars landings. Artemis base, its surface nodes messily peppering the northern fringe of Mare Frigoris, spread out before them . They were coming in very low. The Bird bled off speed and came to a full stop just inches above the landing zone, painted a whorish red against the pristine, dead soil of the Moon. The craft settled almost silently.

Proper lunar landers had air locks compatible with Artemis base. Lacking such, the three men had to seal their suits, exit out onto the open surface and hop in the familiar lunar gait toward a door prepared for just such an occasion and never actually used. Chavez led the way, but stopped short of the door to let Singh handle the entrance code. Any idiot can enter a code, but if you’ve got a hacker along you might as well let him do it.

Chavez felt a tickle deep in his spine as Singh communicated via one of the implants in his neck to waken the door and open it. All three entered the air lock with no trouble, but each could sense the other’s anticipation. Beckham’s barely restrained fear tasted like a copper penny on the back of Chavez’s tongue. He felt bad for the physician. He was fresh out of the Tank. That would be a good way for him to excuse his flagrant and obvious fear, anyway. A man is lucky he can hide his thoughts. We can’t hide our feelings anymore.

What would they find? This unknowing had set their nerves on edge. Would they be attacked? Would they find the base unoccupied? Would there be signs of a terrible battle among the crew, less one-sided and more divisive than what had happened at Ares?

Chavez couldn’t decide if he hoped the base would be occupied or not. Mixing with other human beings, besides the other twenty-two aboard the Lowell, would be a pleasure. Chavez, like many ‘nauts back from long missions, felt that primitive desire for reunion with known faces, with other members of the tribe. He wanted to talk about meaningless things, eat meals with them. But he was also afraid that these others would bring conflict, would reinforce the strange change that had overtaken their world with stranger behavior.

Soon, standing in the air lock with the exterior door closed, Chavez heard air hissing against the surface of his helmet. When he heard a low tone in his left ear, he emitted the guttural swallowing noise that made his helmet recede into his suit. As always, he was initially overwhelmed by the gunpowder smell of the lunar dust. He immediately heard Singh taking a deep breath to his right. The interior door slowly slid open.

“Well, doc?” Chavez looked at the doctor, who had taken a more cautious breath. Beckham’s eyes had that faraway look that overcame most people when they reviewed data not found on a display screen but rather somewhere in their lower brain, where the content of the air was being analyzed by non-organic entities that beneficially confused their identity with that of Beckham.

“The air is good. We knew that.” the doctor added. “But it hasn’t been breathed by many people for a long time.”

“So the place is empty?” Singh asked.

Beckham went far away again. Then, “No. Someone has been here. Maybe more than one. At least recently, if not now.”

“Well,” Chavez announced, “time to see if anybody is home.” He flexed his right shoulder and sent a hailing signal that had to be answered by anyone else in the astronaut corps who hadn’t somehow tampered with their implants.

Singh and Beckham’s systems responded immediately, of course. They each sent back streams of data which Chavez discarded with a flick of his tongue while he tensed and waited for something else. But nothing came.

“Artemis is pretty large,” Beckham said. “And its tunnels are convoluted. There could still be somebody here.”

“Right,” Chavez said, nodding. “Well, let’s get to Control and see if we meet anybody on the way.”

4

Three screens on the Lowell bridge displayed the ‘nauts individual perspectives through their left eyes. White watched them start into the dark tunnel which sloped down into the subterranean lair where most of Artemis base was located, taking advantage of the protection that several cubic meters provided against a surface vacuum that alternated between freezing and boiling temperatures. Suit lights illuminated their descent.

The base had apparently been placed on standby. There were no lights on and remote attempts to turn them on had failed, meaning that they had not only been turned off at Control but that someone had actually cut the connection, either by pulling plug, removing a fuse, or some more drastic action. Yet the ventilation was working. Chavez had reported a faint breeze, and the low rumble of the fans could be heard.

Located near the geographical center of the base, perhaps thirty feet underground, Control was simply a large room filled with computer consoles and much open wall space for displays when necessary. Presently, Chavez stood outside the closed door, Singh and Beckham behind him. Reception became poor. The images began to stick. Chavez’s perspective began to cut out erratically. Singh sent the code that opened the door and it slid open with no resistance. Chavez’s suit pierced the darkness with a narrow cone of light which darted back and forth a few times, causing deformed shadows to dance along the opposite wall. White thought of ancient dancers in fire-lit caves and noted the spike in each man’s biometrics. The pilot lessened the intensity of the light, steadied it.

“Where first, Singh?” White heard Chavez ask, his voice crackling. Singh responded but White could not understand. He saw the men start forward. Chavez’s perspective cut out, but White could still see him through Singh’s eyes. Beckham’s biometrics pierced the danger levels as the man sent hailing signals so fast that he could not have processed any replies even if they had been sent. Singh’s view cut out as he moved deeper into the room, but White saw him turn to Beckham, who lingered near the door, his breathing coming in short, sharp gasps. Singh beckoned with one hand, said something indecipherable. Beyond him Chavez was weaving slowly between computer consoles toward the main station. Beckham took another step. His display went black. It came back to life for a second, showed Singh moving toward Chavez, who stood in the center of the room, shining like a beacon in the darkness. Then a final darkness came and White saw them no more.

5


The lights came on.

Beckham made a startled gurgling noise. Chavez extinguished his suit lights as Singh rose from where he had been genuflecting before the main console.

“Everything is fine,” the Indian hacker said as he took a seat and plugged himself into the computer. “The lights were turned off here purposefully, just as the recycling fans were programmed to stay on. The base was not on standby or damaged. Someone changed the settings from right here.”

They were all silent for a moment as their systems struggled to handle all the data flowing at them. White had apparently logged on to the solar net when the base came back to life. Ship, base and men were suddenly awash in data, systems freezing or sticking with the unusual amount of input. Chavez felt like he had been hit in the head, but there was no pain, only the same stunning effect - his eyes unfocused briefly, his thoughts disintegrated, reformed around the new information pouring into his brain and the memory chips buried in various parts of his nervous system.

A moment later Chavez came back to his senses, though the flood of updates had not stopped nor likely would anytime soon. His system was distancing itself from his thought processes and his motor functions. He saw that Beckham was leaning against the wall, just barely managing to support himself. Singh, wired directly into the computer, was still under the current of the data river. His eyes had glazed over. His hands trembled.

Righting himself, Beckham resumed sending out hailing signals, like a man with a chronic hiccup. Chavez considered telling him to stop, then decided that it was probably keeping the doctor from wigging out completely.

“All right,” the pilot said, to no one in particular as he nodded his head. He thought briefly of all the people in the Tank, floating unconscious in a cold, viscous slime. Like him, they had probably gone to sleep before submersion, thinking that they might never wake up. Soon, they would be down here, feeling the old familiar lunar gravity, glad to be back in Earthspace at least. But, like him, they would all be haunted by that dead planet in the sky.

Singh cleared his throat. He had fought his way up from below the tide. His voice trembled a bit as he spoke. “I am trying to get a definitive read on the whole place for life forms.” He paused again for a few seconds. His fingers began dancing in staccato bursts atop the keyboard, since his system was too overloaded to speak directly to the computer in from of him. He brought up video displays. The screen divided into sections. Singh enlarged the sections one at a time, chose infrared, scrolled through them. Stopped.

“There’s somebody,” he said. “Or something.”

The window he had chosen was marked Garden. Chavez knew it as the section of Artemis base dedicated to experimental botany. A red mass lay still on an otherwise blue-shaded screen.

“Cut the IR,” he told Singh.

It was a person, a human, naked, curled up next to a tree.

“Close-up.” Chavez whispered, as if he didn’t wish to wake one who slept.

Face and body were obscured by the fetal position. Only the back was visible.

“Must be cold,” Beckham said, coming up behind Chavez. He had quit hailing.

“Nah,” Singh added, pointing to the relevant data in the screen. “That room has been kept above room temperature.”

They stared for a little while. The image was poor, and the sleeper neither wakened nor moved.

“Whoever it is,” Singh said, “they’re alive or they wouldn’t show up on the IR.”

“Yes,” Chavez agreed, “but how come we get no response from our hailings?”

“Well,” Singh replied, “it is on the other side of the base. That’s a lot of regolith between us.”

“Hail with the base system, then.”

Singh did. Nothing. They all looked at one another. Chavez broke the silence.

“Singh, stay here and coordinate with White and Lowell and get the base back online. Beckham, you’re a doctor. Come with me.” And he started out the door.

6
The Lowell was going through it’s own throes and fits as it patched back into the solar net. Just as Chavez and Beckham were leaving, White achieved a link with Singh, who explained what was happening.

White acquired video from the hallways of Artemis and watched Chavez and Beckham walk through the base to the arboretum. Singh turned lights on as they advanced, bringing the base back to life.

Their biometrics were good. Beckham continued to hail others, receiving no replies. The pair passed labs and work-stations of various sorts: White recognized a post from which base crew had managed the robots that had once sifted helium-three from the soil and now sat idle, perhaps ruined by their long wait in the lunar cycle of hot and cold. He saw them pass a post from which the water mines were monitored, as well as a lab for numerous experiments on lunar soil and water. They passed a door marked factory and White remembered that somewhere beyond that portal crew-members managed the devices which made bricks from regolith. They passed the infirmary, the rec room. Singh confirmed that the body in the garden was the only person present, but couldn’t explain why the ‘naut’s biosystem wouldn’t answer.

“Maybe it’s not a ‘naut?” Singh suggested, interrupting the coded strings of language he had been using to communicate with White.

White said nothing in reply. At first, he had intended to scorn the suggestion. No one got into space without implants anymore. And one couldn’t just hitch a ride to the moon or hide in the cargo bay of a passenger shuttle. No, either the body was that of a ‘naut, or...what?

Chavez and Beckham had reached the door to the garden. White watched them stand silently for a moment.

7

Chavez spoke to Singh.

“Don’t turn anything on that isn’t already functioning.”

“Not a problem,” Singh replied. “Air pressure is equalized with the corridor. Temperature is perfect, and you won’t need lights since the Sun doesn’t go down for a few days.”

Through the door, made mostly of clear duraplastic, Chavez could see the truth of this. The garden was roofed with imitation glass that permitted varying types of the Sun’s light to penetrate. At the moment, rays of sun light fell down across the various plants which the botanical crew experimented with. Dominating the entire chamber was the dwarf pine, which had been so successful that the designers had quickly found it necessary to alter the height of the ceiling. In the shade of it’s evergreen boughs, at the base of the tree, a person lay curled up, back to the door.

When Chavez was ready, Singh signaled for the door to open. It was noticeably thick as it receded into the jamb and Chavez recalled that this was the most dangerous room on the base, since it was so close to the surface. It had been holed once, some years ago, by a tiny particle but, besides scaring the whole base with alarms, there had been little real damage. The ceiling had sealed itself quickly, leaving two botanists trapped behind the heavy door, which would not open until the ceiling healed a few minutes later.

Warm, fragrant air enveloped the two men. Each heard the other inhale the suddenly delicious atmosphere. In all of the artificial environments inhabited by man in space or under the sea, it was possible to emulate many odors, both pleasant and unpleasant. Rarely were they treated to the unmistakably authentic aroma of a garden in summer as they were now. Memories of Earth stunned the two men briefly, just as the sudden influx of data had recently stunned their biosystems.

It was Chavez who moved first, even eagerly, into the spacious chamber, into the perfectly filtered sunlight.

And as he did, the figure beneath the tree stirred and stood. Chavez stopped, as did Beckham, who had managed only a few steps.

She was completely naked, a woman in late-middle age. Wild, unkempt gray hair framed a haggard face. She looked older than a ‘naut should. There were plenty of older ‘nauts in space, many retired, but implants delayed many signs of age and it was rumored that age alone could not kill any of them, as their biosystems constantly screened blood and nervous system for abnormalities that might signify cancer or oncoming heart problems. Wear and tear of exercise was ameliorated by constant treatment.

Unlike most female ‘nauts that Chavez knew, she didn’t have breast implants. Her dugs hung low, stretched even by lunar gravity, each like a lone onion in a sack, dangling. They were streaked with blood.

She stretched her bloody hands towards them and mumbled something.

Beckham whispered, “Holy shit,” and hailed the woman once, getting no reply.

8

Just then, Singh barked into White’s ear.

“We’re not alone! We’re not alone! I just finished checking on the existing servers! They’re all over!”

White kept one eye on the drama unfolding at the Garden, where the blood-streaked woman had fallen to her knees, and then onto her face, while he asked Singh to be more specific.
Singh related the names of various servers. Most of them were orbital, but some were Earthbound.

“Singh.” White interrupted the excited hacker. “Don’t contact any of them.”

After a long pause, Singh replied, “What?”

White could see Beckham and Chavez carrying the woman away. Singh was too busy with White to route video from another camera to White, so they effectively disappeared for the moment.

“Don’t contact anyone. And now that we’re online they can see us. But I don’t want you to respond to anyone that tries to contact us, neither via the base or the Lowell.”

A few seconds of silence was enough to convince White that Singh was reluctant.

“Look,” White continued, “we don’t know anything about what’s going on down there. We don’t know who is in charge of anything. We don’t know if someone might want to blow us to hell.”

“Why would they want to do that?”

“Singh, I repeat, we don’t know anything. We don’t know where the hell everyone at this base is. We just found a bloody woman with no biosystem. Just give me twenty-four hours before we respond.”

More silence. White pulled out the burning question that had haunted him as he piloted the Lowell across millions of miles through the vacuum of space.

“What is someone down there can hit Artemis? What if the crew deserted under threat?”

Silence.

“Give me, give us, twenty-four hours. Then we can announce ourselves. Until then, it’s enough that they know someone is here.”

Singh was still silent and White was about to make a further plea when he finally responded, “Okay. We talk to them tomorrow.”

“Good,” White replied. “Now give me video of Chavez and Beckham.”

9

They carried her into the infirmary, using their suit lights until Singh finally turned the lights on.

“Her name’s Rachel Thompson. She’s a Canadian botanist.” Beckham said as they laid her down on the first available bed. Chavez remembered how Beckham had been the first to go to the woman, how he had taken one of her bloodstained hands in his own. Chavez had, in the excitement, thought this a sudden expression of Beckham’s bedside manner he had not seen before. Now he remembered the dots implanted beneath the physician’s epidermis which could analyze blood, saliva and sweat on contact.

“What’s wrong with her?”

“She’s suffered some blood loss.” The doctor replied as he withdrew a handcuff from his side of the bed and latched it onto Thompson’s wrist before moving around to Chavez’s side to do the same. “Other than that I can’t say yet.”

“Is that really necessary?” Chavez asked, standing back as Beckham finished chaining her up.

“She’s wasn’t coherent. I’m not taking the chance of losing her.” Beckham said as he walked away, toward a small office and supply room attached to the infirmary.

Chavez shrugged, acknowledging the logic. “She did try to hurt herself.”

“No, she didn’t.” Beckham said, coming back with a black bag. “There was blood from two others on her. I suspect they did this to her. I don’t see how a person could actually do this to themself.”
Chavez shook his head, gave a nervous look at the door, half-expecting to see two bloody specters standing there. “Wait. Two others? Did what?”

Beckham, removing the tools of his trade from the bag, gestured toward her neck with his head. “That. Someone removed her implants. Virtually her entire biosystem.”

Chavez reeled. That was why they couldn’t hail her.

“But...why?”

Beckham ignored him, concentrating on his patient.

A moment later, White chirped in his ear. “Chavez. Looks like everything is secure with you. Leave the good doctor with his patient and Singh firing up the computers. Get the Bird ready and come back to Lowell. I’m coming down.”

10

When White came down several hours later, he sent Chavez to get some rest and then went to see the only surviving member of the Artemis crew with his own eyes.

Beckham met White outside the infirmary.

“She’s unconscious.” He said, barely noticing White and apparently distracted by some interior data flow specific to managing the infirmary.

“Can I see her?”

“Of course.” Beckham made way for White.

She lay quiescent, hair combed and parted, hands at her sides, detained by cuffs that appeared little more than bracelets. A blanket was pulled up over her breasts. Doctor and Commander stood on opposite sides of the dormant woman.

Since being brought into the infirmary, Thompson had spoken only three times. White has replayed each instance numerous times while waiting for Chavez to return for him.

The first utterance had been unintelligible, as she suddenly woke and pulled at her restraints, screaming weakly. In the video, Beckham could be seen startling and bolting from the room as her torso shot to fully erect in the bed. Then she had collapsed. Beckham had returned to give her a mild sedative, probably frightened to shock her fragile system. Already by then the doctor had begun an IV with her own stored blood from the infirmary refrigerator.

Later, as Chavez ascended from the Moon and White waited, the commander had watched as she stirred in her bed, coming in and out of a semi-conscious state. Singh had turned the microphones up to their maximum level and Beckham’s footsteps in the infirmary sounded like thunder claps. Suddenly, unprovoked, Thompson said very clearly, “Lunar soil is essentially like that of Earth but devoid of moisture and air.” The she had lapsed back into unconsciousness.

Finally, as White and two others strapped into their seats behind Chavez, she had come fully conscious for a few minutes and White, watching via the video Singh fed him constantly, had goaded Beckham into quizzing her before she drifted away again. She had said enough to give White a general idea of what had happened.

She had said nothing since.

“Is this a coma?” White asked.

“No,” Beckham replied quickly. “She was simply exhausted and suffering from blood loss. I’m not sure what caused the...odd reaction to our presence, other than the trauma.”

The trauma. White thought. Perhaps that would be a good name for everything that had happened. Instead of World War III, or the Holocaust, they could all call it The Trauma.

“Well, I brought Madar down.” White said, meaning the priest who had also acted as psychiatrist and back-up physician on the mission. “Maybe he will be able to bring her out of it He came out of the Tank after you, though, so he’ll need some more time to recover.”

He noticed the woman’s hands, how clean they were. He gestured toward her neck.

“Can I see...?”

“Of course, but please, allow me.” Beckham reached down and pulled the hair away from the left side of her neck, revealing a heavy bandage, which he began to remove.

An ugly gouge in her neck oozed blood. It looked like something had chewed her neck. She had become undetectable but damn near died doing it.

“The tools were in here.” The doctor gestured toward the cabinets, then began to replace the bandage. “She couldn’t have done it all herself. She must have been assisted by one of the others.”

11

Chavez didn’t use one of the many available crew quarters for his rest period. Instead, he returned to the Garden.

After opening the door he was once again awash in the aroma of Earth, such a stark contrast to the gunpowder reek to which he had not yet become accustomed in the rest of the base. Chavez knew almost nothing about botany, didn’t know the names of any flowers besides roses and lilies, and had no vocabulary to describe the layered redolence of the air he inhaled. But he knew that it was good.

He stepped forward and let the door shut behind him. It was not a large chamber by Earthly standards, but for a lifelong space veteran like Chavez it was huge.

The Garden produced little food for the base. That was done at Hydroponics, a chamber of similar size not far away. But it was not pleasant like the Garden. It had been a very business-like set-up - rack upon rack of food crops embedded in rock wool under grow lights - before the war. Now, it was untended, in disarray and not at all welcoming.

The Garden was also unkempt. Many plots had been set aside for various projects and they all grew, or didn’t, adjacent to one another. But there was no failed attempt at functionality, here, to depress anyone. It had been a place of hope and still was. The tree, springing from the once dead soil toward the hopeless, dark vacuum, inspired and assured everyone who saw it.

Moving forward, Chavez found a small clear plot of land near the central tree. Two shallow mounds lay side by side. According to Beckham’s analyses, they were Nigel Gibson, an English hydrologist, and Serafina Odiaka, a Nigerian pilot. Their blood had been on Thompson’s hands. Presumably they had died trying to remove their biosystems, but there would be autopsies to make sure when the doctor had time.

It was possible that there had been others besides these two, but Singh had run extensive checks and found no other living thing in the base. The hacker had also determined that all but one of the shuttles located at the base had been taken in the hours immediately following the war’s onset. They still didn’t know why these three, at least, had stayed. They also didn’t know if anyone had tried to trek overland to one of the normally-unoccupied satellite bases. Chavez expected that White would have some interesting exploratory work for him to do after he rested.

With that thought, the pilot sat down before reclining beneath the evergreen boughs. A series of facial tics and a sub-vocal command began a biosystem shut down. A great sense of enervation suddenly rushed into his sensory interface, having been kept at bay by special software that aided his adrenalin glands. He closed his eyes and dreamed.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

All That is Seen and Unseen

In August, Peter took me out to Anapra in the brown Toyota, a battered pickup that looked like something buried in the desert a thousand years ago and only recently excavated. I braced myself in the passenger seat while he drove over the broken, cratered road. It had been a dry summer and dust clouded the view. Occasional rains packed it down but it always rose back into the air, choking and blinding. We had rolled up the windows in preparation and were sweating profusely because the AC didn’t work.

I first saw Anapra the day I arrived in El Paso. The previous summer I had come from Arizona in a Greyhound bus that roared along Interstate 10 until it reached the city limits and slowed, allowing me to take in the desolate view. To the right, West of El Paso, the town of Santa Teresa sat lonely and quiet on the desert floor. Directly ahead, Juarez, mother of my strange destiny, awaited me. Ahead and to the left, El Paso del Norte was not sure if it was America, Mexico or Texas. All around were low, brown barren hills that couldn’t have cared less about which country they resided in.

The I-10 closely parallels the border as it approaches downtown El Paso and turns eastward. Anapra lays between this multi-million dollar testament to America’s technological advancement and the naked cliff faces opposite in Mexico. Cristo Rey, the giant white crucifix that sits atop a hill in El Paso, can be seen from a distance of many miles, and from this promontory a crucified Jesus looks out over creation.

The full name of the area is Puerta Anapra. It is not a town unto itself but rather a colonia of Juarez. Ciudad Juarez is divided into colonias the way an American city might be divided into zip codes. Except Anapra had not been planned by the city fathers; people just built there, raising homes on the desert floor or carving them out of the sides of low hills. The land occupying this space before the recent settlement must have been as barren and lifeless as the Moon. In the corner of God’s eye, it had become a squatter colony.

I saw the result of this sudden sprawl from my moving vantage point on the bus. The view lasted only seconds and I was grateful when I was carried out of Anapra’s sight and into the slow-beating heart of El Paso.

A week later Peter took me and a few other volunteers on our first trip to Anapra. He drove and talked endlessly about the border and the plight of immigrants throughout history, starting with Abraham and Israel. The other new guys and I, for a variety of motives, had decided to come live in shelters on both sides of the border, working for free. Most had been like me, kids fresh out of college and wanting to do anything besides go back to school or get a job. Some were religious, some were leftists. We sat in the back of Peter’s van joking about Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace to take our minds off the poverty and misery we were seeing. The immense shantytown, built on desert sand and into the sides of barren hills, was a stark, undeniable reminder of our own mortality. When you grow up surrounded by food, computers, designer clothing, excellent housing and movie screen television, you never know the eternal enemies of the race: hunger, weather, violence, madness. To see others afflicted by these things suggests a common destiny. Yes, they will die out here, but you will die someplace else.

We tried to listen to Peter’s lecture while our minds browsed memories of home and middle-class security, wondering if we would stay. One of the others left the next day without saying a word to anyone. I was the only one left by the following summer. For reasons mysterious even to myself, I remained.

I had subsequently been out to Anapra a number of times but not since early July, when I went to the fiesta patronal of the small church that served the area. Nothing had changed. It was just as hot, just as disturbingly impoverished, and I still had the diarrhea I’d gotten from eating tacos made with spoiled meat. A year had gone by but I still got weak and feverish once a month for several days at a time.

Peter had called me an hour before and told me why I had to go with him. I’d been sitting, sweating, in the office at Casa Maria, one of Peter’s Juarez shelters, going over the schedule for the last week of August, when he called. He reminded me that the previous summer I had attended a free course about documenting human rights abuses committed by the border patrol. I remembered, sitting there and feeling as empty as a discarded beer bottle, how fervent I’d been at the time I was trained, only beginning to think that I, too, might someday burn out like so many other volunteers I knew. I had been positively anxious for the border patrol to kick someone’s ass so that I could write it up. But I never got a chance. Either the border patrol wasn’t abusing anyone or the people being abused weren’t talking.

"I need your assistance." Peter had said, speaking to me from the dingy office of his decrepit house in downtown El Paso where he lived alone. He spoke in a cold, formal voice, as if he didn’t know me very well. Maybe after seventeen years of being the border saint it was easier not to know any of the transients you met, be they volunteer or refugee.

"That’s what I’m here for." I was drawing up the work schedule as we talked, but focusing neither on that nor on the conversation.

"I just got a call from Rita Melendez." Rita was a woman with four children who inexplicably made a living in Anapra. The organization had been in touch with her for a few years in order to have a contact in Anapra.

"How’d Rita call you?" I asked, somewhat more attentive now. I knew that neither Rita nor any of her neighbors had phones.

"She had to take a bus into town."

That morning a neighbor had told Rita that a man who tried to cross over into the States the night before had been brutally beaten not far from Anapra. He had been taken in by someone just a few blocks away.

"But Rita hasn’t seen the man?"

"No, and I’m aware that this could be a wild goose chase, but I want to act on it. I’d like for you and I to go out there and try to document the event."

I had forgotten almost everything involved in creating such documentation. But I couldn’t bear admitting that to Peter so I agreed to go. A part of me was hoping the poor bastard would die of his injuries before we got there and save me the embarrassment.

As Peter and I entered Anapra proper I recalled the disgust I had felt at my first view. This was the grimmest, lowest level of poverty I had ever seen. Houses were made out of anything their owners could get their hands on: wooden pallets, styrofoam, cement blocks, plastic bags, plywood. Most homes were a combination of this garbage. The floors were usually dirt, packed down by the treading feet of the occupants. There was no running water.

Some residents used car batteries as a temporary energy source. If not, electricity was pirated from nearby electrical poles. Every now and then some poor bastard got electrocuted trying to hook up his house so that his family could listen to the radio, watch TV or run some other rare appliance they might be lucky enough to have. The dirt roads were girded by the tangled cables that ran from these poles to people’s shacks.

As the Toyota struggled through sand, rocks, and clouds of dust to the top of a hill, I looked out over that human disaster and felt pity and empathy rising up out of the junkyard of my soul. I felt compassion for the man I was supposed to interview and hated feeling it. Not for the first time I wondered if I had been wise to volunteer for another year in this slow hell of other people’s suffering.

We stopped at Rita’s ramshackle home. If I had wanted to find out how Rita eked by I could’ve done so, but I never got around to asking. She was one of those unbelievable examples of human fortitude and mercy. The year before I arrived in El Paso, with my college smile and my duffel bag, Rita took in an old man, abandoned by his own children, to live in her home. As if supporting her children on virtually nothing hadn’t been difficult enough, Rita had taken in an old gimp that did nothing but consume and whine. Volunteers tended to speak of her as the soul of charity, but I thought she was nuts.

Her house was made mostly of cement block, which was nice for the area. The dwelling had a low ceiling and a back room made from wooden pallets and semi-transparent plastic sheets. There was a faint smell of wood smoke in the dusty air. By the time we had stepped out, two of Rita’s three boys had come running out of the shack and were babbling something faster than I could understand. Peter contorted his face and listened intently.

Rita, short and brown with a pretty face for her thirty-some tough years, came out as the boys rattled on, probably having long past disbursed any important information and now simply repeating or rephrasing it. Peter was too polite to interrupt. I looked inquisitively at their mother. She smiled, showing a rare mouth with only one missing tooth, and explained quickly.
"Don Luis esta mal. Necesitamos llevarlo al doctor."

Don Luis, the old boy Rita had taken in, was sick and needed to see a doctor. Secretly, I felt good for Rita. If Don Luis died she’d have one less mouth to feed and a slightly better shot at survival. It sounds heartless, but you haven’t seen how she and her kids lived. You haven’t watched those barefoot boys play with sticks and rocks while, a few miles away, American children whined if their parents didn’t buy them new shoes or more video games once a month.

We crowded into her home and stood against the walls. The living room, to the right of the entrance, was small, perhaps ten feet by eight. There was a small, fold-up card table standing uncertainly in the middle of this space, surrounded by a green, plastic patio chair, an actual wooden chair and two milk crates stacked one atop the other. Don Luis occupied the patio chair, arms dangling at his sides, head bowed as if in prayer. On another milk crate sat a battered TV. It showed little more than static.

Rita chattered and Peter nodded, repeating a few times that he would help her.

"What’s wrong with him?" I asked Rita.

"We found him on the floor when we came back from the store." There was a market just a block from her house. "He was shaking and moaning."

I had seen things like this before in the shelters; old men and women, trembling uncontrollably, having fits, shouting incoherently. They might go on like that for weeks, months, or years before dying. In the States such a case would have been diagnosed and treated, someone would have done something for them. In Mexico, they just suffered on the margins of society. Then they died. Until now Don Luis had been a burden, but he had been lucid and ambulatory. I was slowly realizing that things really could get worse for Rita and her children, after thinking for so long that it couldn’t be any worse than it was.

Peter, Rita and I lifted him simultaneously. "Aah…aah…aah." He moaned, exhaling noxious breath. I held Don Luis’s shoulders. His head lolled against my chest. With his eyes closed and his mouth hanging open, the old man resembled an infant. As close as I was, I could smell that he had shit himself a little, just like a baby would do. But another look at that weather-beaten, wrinkled, slack flesh around his eyes and I saw the death in him. Don Luis forever became the personification of Death for me, even though he did not die that day. When my mother was dying of cancer two years later, I sat at her bedside in the hospital and remembered Don Luis. I imagined the old man coming for her, reeking of shit and moaning "aah…aah…aah" as he stumbled down the hallways, shutting the eyes of the dying with a trembling hand.

We staggered outside like a confused, six-legged juggernaut. With a quick flash of his hand Peter cracked open the passenger side door and pushed it wide open with his body. We put Don Luis in the middle of the seat and Rita hopped in to support him. I got out of there quick, just in case whatever the old man had was catching. I had known volunteers who got tuberculosis during their stay. In a year I had managed to avoid that and certainly wasn’t going to risk getting anything worse.

As Peter and Rita tried to decide whether to take him to the clinic or the General Hospital, I couldn’t help but look northward to America. A few hundred yards from Rita’s house, the only thing separating Mexico and her northern neighbor was a low dirt berm. One could easily step over it. I thought of running for it just to see what would happen. It looked so easy. Of course, one could easily pick out the border patrol trucks stationed at regular intervals. They were the real border; magnificent, gasoline-powered, steel machines that vigorously pursued anything that tried to penetrate our defenses. The dirt berm was only a symbol.

But with the trucks so still it was easy to imagine that they were asleep, that one could bolt across the border and into the promised land and hide before the guardians awoke. I tried to imagine having that temptation all the time. From his perch above all the misery, Christ also seemed to contemplate this temptation.

Eventually Peter decided to take Don Luis to the General Hospital. This was a tough decision, since the General Hospital was known for taking off a leg when you needed a kidney removed and vice versa.

"I’ll go with Don Luis." Rita announced. "Veronica will be here in a few minutes. She can show you the way." She spoke the last words to me. Veronica was Rita’s sixteen-year-old daughter. She visited the house occasionally and I had seen her on most of his trips to Anapra.

Rita left her two boys with me. The three of us watched the truck kick up dust as it pulled away, then we went inside to escape the Sun.

Inside was little better. The enclosed darkness of Rita’s dwelling offered no more than an almost imperceptibly cooler environment and brought her family’s stark poverty far too close.

The kitchen was a small space to the left of the front door. Over one corner a mesh bag hung from a nail in the ceiling. The idea was to keep the mice and the bugs out. An onion weighed the bag down. I thought of a man with one testicle. A hot plate sat on the ground below, next to a small tank of propane gas. A wooden stand, holding a few dishes and cups, and a water basin were in the other corner. Rita’s family took baths by filling up the basin with cool water and then pouring in a pot of the boiling kind. That much water was hard to come by so they bathed infrequently and all in the same water, one after the other.

The boys babbled, excited to have one of the gringos in their home. Soon I understood that they wanted to play soccer, futbol, with me. I agreed on the condition that I had to leave as soon as Veronica arrived to show me the injured man that I was supposed to interview.

"Hokay!" They shouted before running out the door. They ran right into their eldest sister, Veronica, who immediately began to scold them in vicious Spanish.

When I walked out she stopped right in the middle of a particularly foul phrase and smiled.
"Ay, que verguenza." She batted her eyes. "Perdoname." She was thin and dark-skinned with jet-black hair and blacker eyes.

"Esta bien. No hay problema." I responded. I told her about what had happened and why they had left me behind, waiting for her.

"Si!" She began, nodding her head vigorously. "Yo se donde esta!" She reached out to take my wrist and pulled me along. I made sure our hands parted as we began our trek.
"Vayanse!" She hissed, turning back to the boys who had started to follow. They scampered back inside the house and let us depart.

"Como esta todo en la casa?" She asked demurely when we came to the end of the street. How is everything in the house? She referred to Casa Maria.

"Bien. Bien."

She turned left and I followed. The conversation carried on, touching on benign subject matter like the house and the weather, until it lamely died a minute later when we reached the house we were looking for.

It was not much different from Rita’s house, perhaps in slightly worse condition but the same size. It had no front door. Instead, there was a heavy blanket hanging across the single doorway. Windows were also curtained with blankets. There was no noise from inside.

"Oye!" Veronica called from a few yards away. "Oye!"

I stood beside her, listening to the distant sound of cars roaring over the interstate, listening to the more intimate sounds of our feet on the sand, the susurration of our breath. The other myriad noises of Anapra were filtered out as we stood there, waiting for a dead man to respond.

After a minute, Veronica spoke to me.

"Aqui es donde me dijeron." Here is where they told me.

I shrugged and asked her if it would be okay to go in, or could we get hurt trying that? Veronica assured me that if she went in front, calling out, we would be okay.

Thus we approached the shack, Veronica in front, announcing the purpose of our visit as we precariously covered the short distance between the gate and the front door. Soon we stopped again, before the curtained doorway, listening. Veronica looked at me, shrugged her shoulders, and pushed aside the blanket. Holy of Holies, I thought as I stepped through the doorway, following Veronica into the cool darkness of the dead man’s abode.

Dark it was, but not quiet. Flies buzzed and hummed in the unlit room. I was used to flies swarming all over me, taking whatever sustenance they could from my sweat, but these flies paid me no attention. There was a more attractive dish set for them. The bloody remnant of a person lay on the dirt floor.

With the curtain slightly open it was possible to make out some of the former man’s features. He was dark-skinned, moreno as they say in Spanish. He was small, with black hair. His eyes were, mercifully, shut, so his eye color was not verifiable but I had a pretty good idea of what they would have looked like. The man was probably from Guatemala, an indian from the mountains. I could tell where someone was from just by their appearance. His eyes would have been black. His voice would have been high-pitched, his Spanish fast and mingled with indian terms that made it nearly unintelligible to me. He must have recently died because I detected only the faint odor of unwashed skin, rather than the stench of rotting flesh.

While I was still staring down at the dead man’s face, Veronica turned and threw her arms around me. She whispered hoarsely, "Llevame de aqui!" Take me away from here.

In the moments the embrace endured, while I inhaled her strange mixture of pleasant girl-scents and repulsive body-odor, I wondered what she meant. Was she asking me to take her out of the shack, or out of Anapra?

I pushed her away slowly. She jutted her face forward and up, into mine, her full lips grappling my own. I pulled her back and returned the kiss, hands running up and down her body, underneath her shirt, rasping against her back. She used her arms to force my face against her own. Our teeth clacked together painfully. I slipped her shirt up over her breasts. Her torso, slender and brown, was unbelievably smooth.

Then I became aware of the smell, an awful reek. It was sweat, dirt, blood and the stench of her sex all at once. I remembered the corpse and Don Luis and suddenly wanted to vomit. I pushed her away, against the concrete wall, and stepped outside into the clear sunlight.

I stood there and listened to the sounds of Anapra and the distant sound of America. I heard Veronica crying inside the house, just a few feet away; easy to comfort there in the darkness with the dead.

I stepped through the gate and onto the street.

I waited at Rita’s house and played reluctantly with the boys, kicking around a half-deflated soccer ball that appeared to be older than Peter’s Toyota.

I thought about something Peter had told me and the other new volunteers the day after we arrived. He’d said that we needed to understand that that we did not become volunteers to help poor people. We did it for ourselves. I can remember thinking it was a bunch of shit and feeling a little insulted. I had come to help poor people even if he didn’t think so. After a few months, though, I realized that he was right. In all the emotional turmoil I experienced in those early days I cried on several occasions. But I never cried for the miserable, downtrodden people I met. I cried because I was afraid that the same misery could occur to me someday, that reality was a relentless tide of events that could not be stopped by wishful thinking. I cried because no one else would cry if I ended up on the street, hungry and cold. I cried for myself.

Standing there at dusk in Anapra, I played soccer with Rita’s boys and understood that Veronica, too, cried for herself and not for the dead man. But just as no one could do anything to assuage my sorrows, I could do nothing to alleviate hers. We were two different worlds and the distance between us was not navigable.

Veronica had not returned when Peter and Rita came back with Don Luis, who was conscious but weak, just after sunset. There had been no room at the General Hospital and they had given up waiting there. In the meantime, Don Luis had recovered somewhat. Peter promised to come in the morning and take him back to the hospital.

I told Peter that we had not found the victim and that Veronica had stayed out trying to find him. Peter resigned himself to trying again the next day and I was grateful when we got in the truck and drove away.

Peter called the next day and informed me that Veronica had found the man dead. The whole thing was being investigated by the federales and I could forget about documenting it.
"Keep me informed." I replied dully.

I had two days coming to me. I planned on going over to El Paso to take a shower. Then I was going to go to the library and read magazines in the air-conditioned basement before eating a hamburger and drinking some beer in a clean bar. I was going to be a good American and forget about Rita, about Veronica, about Don Luis and the dead man, about a whole world out there just dying to live.