Mama glanced up, not pausing in her frantic scramble. Tears streaked her lined face, and Adelita started. Mama never cried. “We must leave.”
“Where are we going?”
Mama threw a bundle of clothes into the bag and turned to face her. Her eyes shone unnaturally bright.
A crash sounded as the door flew open, and Mama screamed. Abuelo and Abuela rushed in, and she heaved a sobbing sigh of relief and collapsed in their arms. Adelita felt dread curdling in the pit of her stomach.
“What’s happening?” she asked tremulously, intending the words to come out loud and strong. Instead her voice scraped painfully across her vocal chords and came out a harsh whisper. Abuelo came and lifted her into the air.
“Why, you and Abuela and I are going on a vacation!” he boomed. “We just told your mama, and she packed for you.”
Adelita looked at Mama’s tearstained face in suspicion. Mama sucked in a deep breath and offered her a wavering smile. “I’m just sad that I’m going to be away from you. I can’t go with you, instead I’m going to stay in a fancy hotel. It’ll be fun, mi florita. I’m sorry I worried you.”
“What about Papa?” Adelita asked. Abuelo glanced at Mama.
“Your papa is going to stay with your mother.”
Adelita nodded slowly. “Okay.”
Abuela lifted the bag and they started for the door.
“We’re going now?” Adelita asked.
“Yes,” Abuelo replied. “We have to catch the train.”
“A train!” Adelita gasped in amazement. She’d never been on a train, they couldn’t afford something like that.
“Wait.” She scrambled out of Abuelo’s arms and ran to her mother. Her mother reached out and pulled her painfully tight, causing Adelita to give a squeak of surprise.
“I’ll see you soon, mi florita,” Mama whispered. “I love you so much.”
Adelita returned her mother's embrace.
“I wish you were coming, Mama,” she said. Her mother kissed the top of her head and pushed her towards her abuelos.
They hurried out of the house, Adelita holding tight to Abuelo’s hand. A train whistle blew, and Adelita gaped at the sheer size of the locomotive before her. Steam blew from pipes, spreading a mist over the crowd of people. Abuelo swept Adelita up onto his shoulders as they got on board.
“Where are we going, Abuelo?” Adelita questioned as they sat on faded plush seats.
“It’s a surprise,” Abuelo replied. “You’ll see when we get there.”
Two weeks later, Adelita wanted to go home. She lay curled on a bare dusty mattress in a dark room. At first there had been wonders, bright cities and clean white hotels, food that she’d never seen before, flavor bursting in her mouth and colors swirling before her eyes. And the baths, the endless supply of fluffy towels and fancy beads that softened her skin and smelled like flowers. But slowly the towels and soaps had disappeared, replaced by dirt and tiny bathrooms, then no bathrooms at all. Big beds she sank into turned to rickety frames and dirty mattresses.
She poked her abuela. “I want to go home,” she whispered.
“We can’t,” said Abuela wearily. “We haven't gotten to where we’re going yet.”
“Where are we going?” Adelita felt hot tears of frustration rise. She was freezing, her clothes were ragged, and she shuddered as cockroaches crawled over her bare legs under the thin blanket.
Abuela glanced at Abuelo, and he sighed. “We’re going to America, Adelita.”
Adelita’s breath froze in her chest. America? She'd heard stories about it: the towering skyscrapers of gleaming glass and metal, rolling hills with lush green forests and rivers threading among the trees, thundering waterfalls, food beyond her wildest imagination, a place full of magic and freedom. Papa had talked about it so many times she felt she could touch the vivid images he conjured up if she stretched her fingers out.
Then it hit her.
“But, Mama and Papa,” she said, faltering. She stared at her hands, missing the pain that flashed across Abuelo’s rugged face.
“Mama wanted you to be safe,” he rumbled gently. “She knew that more people crossing the border meant more risk of being caught.”
“Safe from what?”
Abeolo paused, searching for words. “There were bad people who wanted to hurt our family. They were coming after me.”
Abuela took a wavering breath. “They hurt your Papa.”
Adelita’s hands shook. “Hurt him?” Her voice was small.
“He's in heaven now, Adelita,” Abuelo said, and she froze. Stared at nothing. There was a rushing, a sound far away, or maybe inside her head, heavy breathing she realized was her own. Her chest tingled, head buzzed, she felt light and strange, couldn't move.
“She's in shock,” Abuela whispered. Abuelo held her while she breathed, breathed, and stared at nothing.
Abuela let out a muffled moan and staggered. Adelita numbly walked on, the bare bottoms of her little feet burned and blistered so badly they resembled raw meat. She squinted through the wavering heat into the distance, but only saw an endless expanse of sand.
“How long-” she tried to say, but it was agony to speak. Her throat was too parched. Abuelo glanced at her.
“We've been walking in the desert for three weeks,” he said hoarsely, trying to smile. “We'll be there soon. You're a brave girl.”
Abuela suddenly fell to the ground, and Abuelo rushed over to her. Adelita watched, frightened, as he placed his fingers to her neck and shook his head slowly. Her eyes reflected the relentless sun in an eerie way, and Adelita was glad when he pushed her eyelids down.
“Leave her and keep moving,” someone ordered, and Adelita glanced up at the other members of the group they traveled with. They were all as in pain as she was, with dirty clothes and burned feet.
Abuelo kissed Abuela’s forehead and stood with difficulty. As the pitiful group continued onward, Adelita felt something in her chest break. She missed her mother, she missed her home, and the fantasy of America seemed beyond her grasp. Her eyes burned, but she was too dehydrated to produce tears. She did not glance back at her abuela. She wasn’t the first body they'd left lying in the sand, and she wouldn't be the last.
Adelita’s feet dragged, her muscles screaming in protest. She felt pulsing through the ground and lifted her head to see a train in the distance.
“Go!” someone shouted. The group began running towards the train and Adelita went with them, confused.
“We have to jump on the train!” Abuelo yelled over the din. Adelita’s eyes widened in fear.
“Abuelo-” she began to protest, then shrank back in horror as people began to desperately hurl themselves onto the train. Many missed, and fell beneath the wheels. Blood painted the sand and shrieks filled the air. A young pregnant woman collapsed on the ground before Adelita, her legs torn off. Adelita sobbed and turned her face into Abuelo’s filthy shirt.
“I don't wanna die, I don't wanna die, no, no no-”
Abuelo placed his fingers to his lips and Adelita nodded halfheartedly. They hid in the sparse bushes and darkness, waiting for the border guards to move.
It was their 3rd attempt to cross, and Adelita fervently hoped they wouldn't be caught this time. Before, they'd been placed in a detention center: a filthy place with leering guards and weary people just like her, running from a half life towards the dream of America.
Abuelo tapped her shoulder harshly, their signal, and they bolted from their hiding place. Her blood pounding in her ears, heart in her throat, Adelita threw herself across the border and they ran, stumbling and weak, until they reached a town.
The twinkling lights greeted her as they stood on a grassy hill overlooking a collection of pretty houses. Adelita gazed at them, entranced, and Abuelo swept her into his trembling arms and laughed.
“We did it!”
Phantom tears rose behind her eyes and she smiled, lips splitting. She ignored the pain and clutched her abuelo tight. They'd done it. They'd made it to America.
They'd made it home.