Early sun streams through the south-facing kitchen window where Katherine finishes the breakfast dishes. When she looks up from her chore, she notices distant, faint plumes of smoke.
It’s those damn illegals, sneaking over the Mexican border. We haven’t come across their leftover cooking ashes for a few weeks, but Josh still doesn’t like me to wander outside alone. Doesn’t feel it’s safe. And here they are again.
Katherine sighs and wipes her hands on the light grey towel that coordinates with the pink granite countertops. She and Joshua both understand wanting a better life, but the scruffy, unshaven Mexicans in dirty clothes and drawn faces that walk along the unfenced area between their land and the neighbor’s ranch is unsettling. No one bothers them, but occasional glimpses of men and boys, traveling in twos or threes in the distance, make Katherine feel like they’re living on a pedestrian-crossing highway.
She knows Joshua worries because she’s alone during the day. He made her promise to keep all the doors and windows locked, and Katherine’s never to answer the doorbell, which rarely rings anyway since there are few nearby neighbors. Large ceiling fans and swamp coolers circulate the air in most rooms, or closed windows would be stifling. Still, sometimes it’s like being a prisoner in her own home.
She moves to the living room, straightens the yellow cushions on the light blue corduroy sectional couch, and sits. Picking up the assortment of yesterday’s bills, throw-away advertisements from local businesses, and a catalog from the adult school in town, she sighs with boredom. Maybe enrolling in a class would be a good idea.
Leaving the brochure on the side table, Katherine glances up at the picture window in front of her. The daily scene is always the same this time of year: an expansive desert with spots of prickly pears, bunny ears, and saguaro cactuses in odd shapes and varying shades of green. She learned their names on the internet, since they’re so different from the plants she knew in southern Oregon.
From here, the distant mountains look purple. There’s no movement except for a few large buzzards flying overhead. When the cacti are in full bloom, the area is gorgeous. The scene is reminiscent of landscape paintings often seen in local galleries.
Katherine notices movement off to the left. Grabbing her glasses, she distinguishes two small figures. Most migrants stay on the edges of our property, but these seem headed toward the house. She reaches for the binoculars, the ones she uses to follow occasional birds or reptiles, and looks again.
Oh my. It looks like an elderly man and a young girl.
The duo walks slowly. He holds one of the child’s hands, sliding his other arm around her shoulders, and clutches the girl’s left side. About ten years of age, she leans on a large stick and seems to walk with difficulty.
Katherine remembers her younger sister at that age. They played after school outside with other neighborhood kids: hopscotch, jacks, and dodge ball. How did this poor child end up here with this man? Why isn’t she home with other children? Where is her mother? Is she safe?
Katherine’s heard about illegal sex trafficking, but this child is so young. Her heart pounds as the pair continues to walk closer.
If they come here, what should I do? Is it a ruse to trick and rob me? Are there others hiding somewhere?
Katherine, who is only five feet tall, stands on tiptoe to look through the peephole in the door. Close up, the man looks younger, maybe only forty. His skin is dark and deeply wrinkled, his beard scraggly. The girl’s brown hair is caught up in a disheveled bun at the top of her head. Oily bangs hang close to her eyes. Both are wearing dirty, torn jeans. Katherine notices the girl’s threadbare beige t-shirt with the word “adios” in large navy block letters on the front.
What should I do? I’d call Joshua if I could, but he turns off his cell when he’s working construction. It’s too noisy to hear. Do these strangers need something? Should I pretend not to see them?
Trying to breathe more slowly, fear consumes Katherine’s body. When they reach the house, the man helps the child sit on the step, then comes to the door, knocking quickly.
Katherine holds her breath and moves farther away from the window, in case they can see she’s there. She waits.
The knock comes again. Louder, more urgent.
“Por favor,” the man says. “Por favor.”
I think he knows I’m here.
She looks again through the peephole. The man is bent over the girl now, helping stretch both her legs forward, wiping sweat from her forehead. The child slumps against him.
“Por favor,” he yells.
Katherine throws open the front door, but keeps the screen locked.
The man holds onto the youngster. His pleading brown eyes look directly at Katherine. He speaks quickly, loudly, letting out a stream of words in Spanish. She understands little from high school classes long ago. Only the words señora, agua and medico are decipherable to Katherine. Doctor. The child needs a doctor.
“Papa,” the girl whispers. She closes her eyes.
Katherine hurries to the kitchen and brings back a glass of water, throwing open the screen door and handing it to the man. He holds it up to the child’s severely parched lips. The girl takes only a couple of sips, without opening her eyes.
“Medico,” the man repeats with persistence. “Por favor.”
Katherine knows what to do, even if Joshua might be angry. He took the jeep this morning, but the rusty red truck remains in the driveway. It doesn’t always work, but she grabs the keys hanging by the door and runs toward the pickup. The man follows, carrying the child. Together, they climb into the vehicle. Katherine prays when turning the ignition. On the second try, it starts with a grating noise. But it starts. She backs the vehicle down the driveway, turning onto the road to town.
It’s a direct shot, but where should I take them? To my doctor? Probably not. Or the clinic?
She makes a split-second decision and heads to the hospital. The fear is different now. Not for her safety, but for the girl slumped next to the father.
“Gracias,” says the man. “Muchas gracias.” Holding the child tightly, he adds, “Pedro,” and points to the child, “Maria.”
Katherine puts a hand to her chest. “Katherine.”
“Katherine,” the man repeats with a heavy accent. He nods. “Catalina.”
Nothing more is said during the ten miles to town, but she drives faster than usual.
Following the signs to the hospital, the woman turns left into a space designated for “Emergency Patients Only.” Pedro jumps out and begins sliding the girl to the edge of the seat. Katherine helps, placing Maria’s legs onto the asphalt. The two adults walk on opposite sides of the child, supporting her. When the automatic doors open, they sit her on the nearest chair, and Katherine races to the front window.
“Please help us. The child can’t walk. She’s fading. They only speak Spanish. I don’t know what’s wrong.”
The emergency room is almost empty, but two orderlies appear, pushing a wheelchair. The men help Maria into the seat and head for a door behind the counter. Pedro begins to follow, but one of the men yells “no” and points to the office window where Katherine stands.
“Papa,” moans Maria, now holding her stomach, clearly in pain. Pedro leans down and speaks softly and urgently in Spanish. “Si,” she nods. The orderlies back the chair through the inner doors.
“Ma’am,” the receptionist calls out. “Please. You need to fill out these forms.”
“I know nothing,” says Katherine. Pedro stands at the counter beside her. “They’re strangers. They just showed up at my front door.”
“Do they have insurance?”
“I don’t know.”
“What’s her name?”
“Maria. This is the father, Pedro. That’s all I know.”
The receptionist sighs, then picks up the phone. “Spanish. We need someone who speaks Spanish. ER.” She turns to Katherine and Pedro. “Wait over there,” she says, pointing to the empty rows of chairs.
Pedro sits next to Katherine, quietly, except for again repeating: “Gracias, Catalina. Muchas gracias.”
They wait, staring straight ahead as the clock on the wall ticks slowly, without news.
Suddenly the doors fling open and a young nurse calls out: “Pedro?”
The duo jumps up. Conversation is fast, in Spanish. Katherine watches Pedro’s face for clues, wishing she understood what was being said. Pedro nods.
The R.N. turns toward her. “Maria’s pretty dehydrated, but she’ll be OK. I’ll bring her father back in a few minutes. We’re giving her fluids, but it’ll be a while before she’s ready to leave.”
“I don’t think they know anyone here. They just crossed from Mexico. Where will they go?” Katherine asks.
“There are churches that will make sleeping arrangements and provide food. Pedro says he has family in Arizona. They’ll send bus tickets for them. Don’t worry,” the nurse says. “This happens a lot. We’ll call people in town who will take care of them. They’re tired, but they’ll be fine. You did a good thing. This could have been a lot more serious.” The R.N. smiles at Katherine, then at Pedro.
“Muchas gracias,” he says quietly to both women, as the nurse walks away.
Katherine rummages through her purse and finds a twenty-dollar bill.
“For you,” she says.
“No.” He shakes his head.
“Por Maria,” she says, pressing the money toward him.
“No,” he repeats. “Gracias.”
Pedro holds out his hand, as if to shake hers. She reaches toward him. He hesitates but pulls her forward for a hug. Despite odors of sweat and dirt, Katherine feels overwhelming compassion, a connection, and doesn’t want to let go. She slips the money into his pocket before moving away.
It’s time to leave. There’s no point in staying longer. They’ll be okay now.
Katherine moves slowly toward the door.
“Adios,” she says, waving good-bye.
Pedro raises his hand in response.
On the way home, driving slower this time and thinking about the excitement of the day, Katherine turns on the radio. A song she doesn’t recognize plays, but the country music twang is familiar, and she attempts to sing along. Glancing in the mirror, noticing her disheveled red hair and slightly smeared eye makeup, she laughs about the unkempt looks that stare back.
Pulling into the driveway, Katherine takes the keys out of the ignition, walks to the front door, and inserts them into the lock.
Josh will be home soon. It’s almost dinner time. Maybe I’ll reheat the chicken we had last night. He never minds leftovers. I’m not sure how much to tell him about my adventures today. He might understand, but he worries too much about me.
Her eyes glance at the adult school’s schedule on the small, laminated table. She realizes instantly what to do.
If I’m going to live in this community, it’s time to learn Spanish.
She feels different, stronger, humming softly while entering the kitchen to begin preparations for their evening meal.