Today’s prompt by Becca Puglisi was to write a story that ended with the line: “I clicked off the safety, swearing that if she showed her face today, my room would be the last one she ever entered.” (I made some slight edits to the line.)
Content warning: trafficking (labor), violence, misogynistic slur
I race home. Running past the houses, proud but in need of care. The sun hitting the back of my neck and threatening to burn or further brown the skin there. I’d left my hat at home, again. Just a few more colorful homes and then there is my door.
The kitchen practically bursts in light when I rush through the door. Mama is making the masa, and I wrap my arms around her and spin her around the air. She laughs and then hits me to put her down.
“I got a job. I got a job in the US. We won’t have any more problems. I am going to take care of you, Mom. Everything is going to be good from now on!”
Mama screams and hugs me, trying to pick me up as best as she could, but I had long outgrown her strength. She tells me that she is going to make a special dinner for me.
She starts asking a million questions. Where am I going? When am I leaving? What will I be doing? How much money will I be making? When will I get to come back home? Can I bring my family?
The work will be hard, field labor, but it’ll be good. I am going to get more than twice as much as I am making here. I leave in a few weeks; they have to work out my papers. But the best part: they gave me money to give to her to cover the fees for mis hermanas’ schooling and to fix the roof so it wouldn’t rain into the house anymore.
“And this is only the beginning. When I am working, I am going to send you everything I can, and in a few months, I am going to get you papers to move to the U.S.”
Mama hugs me again and kisses me all over my face, thanking Jesus for answering her prayers and taking care of her family. She tells me I am a good son, a good man, to take care of my family.
We had been in the back of the truck for two days without getting out. The water and food had run out on day one, because no one expected the trip to last this long. Without much ventilation, just a few holes scattered in the walls, each claimed by a different man, the place reeked of feces and urine and vomit. The heat baked the smell into my skin. It worries me that I am starting not to notice it anymore.
All this a stark contrast to the flight into the States. The seats were plush, and flight attendants (Ms. Gomez taught me the words) served me drinks and food in little plastic cups and plates. I told immigration I was here for a visit with family in Houston, as Ms. Gomez instructed. My papers were taking longer than expected, but Ms. Gomez wanted to get me working as soon as possible and decided sort it all out once I got here.
She took my passport and told me to get on the truck. They would take me to the farm, and once everything was in order, I would start working. She did this all the time, she said, and there was nothing to worry about. I got on the truck.
I scratch at the walls, at first distractedly and then desperately. I need to get off of this truck. I go to bang on the wall, and Mateo catches my arm, shaking his head at me.
“Don’t make noise. We don’t want la migra to hear us.” It feels like we are on a dirt road; unlikely that la migra was anywhere near. But he looks scared, so I drop my arm.
“I need to get out of this truck.”
“Me too. Soon. Soon.” And as if on cue, the truck slows and stops. But instead of the sounds of gassing up, there are shouts in English and sounds of locks being opened.
All of us look away when the sunlight flashes through the now-open door. I don’t care that I can’t see, I rush for the door. The butt of a rifle slams into my gut, and I crumple to the floor of the truck.
“No running, anyone. Move slowly, and get off the truck.” The rest of the men in the truck don’t move. My coughing and dog barks filter through the air. “NOW!” The shuffling of feet. “Despacio.” They slow down.
Ms. Gomez leans down to my ear and tells me to get moving or there will be more punishment. I roll up as best as I can, and holding my stomach to protect it, I follow the other men to the tin building at the other end of a barbed wire enclosure. This is not right. This is not what I was promised.
Ms. Gomez is never going to get my papers, but I am working. The interest on my advance was getting out of hand. Someone threatened Mama y mis hermanas, and she begged me to take care of it. She didn’t have the money. I went to Ms. Gomez, hat in hand, and asked to start working without my papers. She smiled. Of course, she would let me work, but it would have to be off my contract, because I didn’t have my papers. I agreed and told her about the threats. She said she would take care of it.
The pay isn’t what I was promised. They take money for my loan, but also for my food and shelter. I wasn’t supposed to pay for that. Ms. Gomez says that she has to do it this way legally, because I am off contract. I barely have anything to send home to Mama.
The work isn’t bad, but the days are too long. We pick oranges from just after sunrise to after sunset, with barely any time for almuerzo. My arms ache at the end of the day. My pants are getting loose, but that’s okay. I put an orange or two in my pants when the managers (another word from Ms. Gomez) and their guns aren’t looking. I keep them in a little box I made. It cuts down on how much I eat and helps me pad my paycheck.
Juanito, another worker, says it isn’t so bad here. The last farm he was at, the manager had to show his power every day and would harass the women and rough up the men. Ms. Gomez doesn’t stand for such things. Good workers get treated well here. I don’t know what he means by treated well.
I miss home. I miss Mama. I only get to talk to her once a month, and Ms. Gomez stays in the room with me. Mama doesn’t say anything, but I think someone is in the room with her too. If this is all this trabajo has to offer, I am not bringing my family here. I just need to figure out how I can get out, get home maybe, or get a different job.
I am jerked awake by yelling outside of the dorms. Then the banging starts. The door is thrown open, and Ms. Gomez screams for all of us to get our asses out of bed and get outside. She pivots and marches out. I peak out the window at the back to check it is clear before throwing my orange peels out, praying no one sees or finds them.
We line up, shoulder to shoulder, sleep drunk and shivering in our boxers and t-shirts. Ms. Gomez practically snarls as she looks at us.
“One of you has been STEALING from the farm. One of you thinks you can take what is NOT YOURS. One of you thinks you are SO CLEVER that you can do this and no one will find out. Well, boys, I found out. And I know which one of you it is. I SAW you do it.”
She walks to her car and pulls out my box and dumps the oranges at her feet. Her managers are watching us. She throws the box at us, and it lands at Juanito’s feet. He jumps away, shaking his head, and saying “No, señora. I am not a thief.”
“I know it’s not you, Juanito. I am giving the person ONE CHANCE. Right now, fess up and take your punishment, or I call the police and have you arrested. And after you spend a LONG TIME in jail, they will deport you and you will NEVER work in the US, ever. So. This is your one chance. I’ll give you a count of five.” She looked right at me. “Cinco, cuatro, tres -”
“It was me.” I hang my head and step forward. “I am the theif. Por favor, don’t tell my mother.”
“Pedro, I am so disappointed in you. Now, come and kneel here.” She looks at the other men as I move to the spot she pointed to. Her voice is now calm, which sends a shiver up my spine and down my arms. “You are all going to watch as I punish him, so you will know that I will. not. stand. for this kind of behavior in my workers.”
Ms. Gomez walks back to her car and pulls out her gun. She opens the chamber and all of the bullets fall into her hand. “Pedro, look. I am not going to kill you; I am only going to punish you. Do you understand?” I say nothing. “DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”
“Pedro, you may close your eyes, if you want, but the rest of you will watch.” I bow my head, grit my teeth, and grip my hands behind my back. I look at her shoes. Red heels on this uneven surface seems like a terrible decision. Raising my head just a little, I see her red nails wrapped around the barrel of the gun. I know what is coming, and I close my eyes.
The first blow slams into my right shoulder where the joint is, and I hear a crack and feel pain burst out. Before I can catalogue what hurts, the next blow runs across my face, turning my head impossibly around. My eyes blink open to see what I think is a tooth spinning away from me. The third blow comes up into my left eye socket and handle catches my nose. She must have twisted the gun in her hand. She slams the handle back across my face, and that is when things go black.
I wake up the next morning, left eye swollen shut and right eye nearly so. My head pounding worse than my worst hangover. My sides hurt, and I can barely get up. I don’t remember blows to my ribs and lift up my shirt. Bruises and cuts roughly matching a ladies’ heel pepper my skin. I groan and lay back down.
“You’re awake. Good. You’ll be fine; I was very careful. Have you learned your lesson?” I grunt assent. “Good. I expect no more mistakes. Now, thieves don’t get days off, Pedro. Get up and get out into the fields. You’ll be carrying the baskets from the trees to the trucks from now on. You have ten minutes get your ass out there; you’re already late.”
I hear the click of her heels and wonder if they are the same red ones. She sets something down on the table next to the bed.
“This should help with the pain. Two now, two at lunch, and I’ll give you more at dinner. Ten minutes.”
My shoulder is still sensitive three months later, and some of the cuts on my sides turned to scars. I should take these as reminders to look after myself, but instead they’ve festered into rage. I let that tiny woman beat me. I let that bitch beat me unconscious in front of the managers and my friends. They all look at me differently now, and I cannot read those looks anymore.
The new job isn’t bad, except the pay is less. It lets me get to know the managers and their habits and ticks. Joe likes to drink in the morning and sober up with a nap. He is always heavily armed, far more than necessary. Paul says it keeps him from getting violent, because he feels secure with all those weapons.
Paul was the only one to say he was sorry for what happened. He didn’t think a few oranges were worth all that pain, but he wasn’t the boss around here and there wasn’t much he could do. I thanked him for the apology, but the rest of it was bullshit. There is always something you can do. Of course, I don’t say that to him.
I keep weapons now under my bed, mostly strong, fallen branches I whittle into points . The knife I have isn’t much good for anything else, except peeling oranges. I work on it at night and drop the shavings in the orchard, sort of like that Shawshank Redemption movie. I am not planning an escape, though. I just want insurance.
As I am bringing another basket to the truck, a crack and scream echoes at us from the other side of the orchard. Someone fell. Joe is half gone, so Paul gets on his horse and heads toward the noise.
“Pedrro, you aren’ gonna do nuthin’ stupid agin, riii?” He’s slurring. He usually isn’t this drunk.
“No, señor. Never again.”
“Good. You keep a’eye out fa me, k?”
“Yes, señor.” Joe is passes out. I snap at his ears and get no reaction. He has four guns with him, just laying there. Before I can change my mind, I grab one, check that the safety is on, and tie it to my ankle. I walk around to make sure it doesn’t show and doesn’t change my walk. I pick up a basket full of oranges and check again. It’s pretty hidden, and if someone notices, I have the gun already.
I look around and listen carefully. Paul is not heading back yet. I rustle through Joe’s bag and take a smoke and one of his matchbooks. I haven’t had a smoke since I got to the US. Going to save this for later, a special occasion maybe.
I walk a little taller, but not too tall, the rest of the day.
A few weeks later, the sun is so hot for the tenth day in a row, even the managers can’t take it. After the third worker nearly fainted off a ladder, Joe and Paul agree to take the executive decision to give everyone an extended break for lunch. Paul checks in with Ms. Gomez, just be sure, and Joe goes to get more water. Everyone eats in near silence; breathing makes you sweat. This area really needs rain.
I finish my sandwich and toss out the paper it was wrapped in. I start wandering. This is a good enough opportunity for a smoke break.
“Where’re you going, Pedro?”
“Just for a walk, señor. I want to stretch my legs and find a breeze.”
“Okay. Just don’t go to far. If I yell for you, you should hear me.”
I amble away until I am out of eye- and ear-shot and then run toward the far side of the orchard. Sweat streams down my back. The sun is so strong, it will dry before I get back to the group. My breath gets short, and I have to slow down. But it is okay. This is far enough.
I take the cigarette and matches out of the pocket I sewed in the lining of my pants. I place the cigarette between my lips and light the match. I inhale that first drag as I flick my wrist to put out the match. Everything is automatic. The nicotine pours through my veins, and I am suddenly, pleasantly light-headed. It has been forever since a cigarette did that to me. I pull on the stick again and practice making smoke rings on the exhale. The girls always love that trick.
I hear a voice as I finish my smoke, yelling. Probably my name. I yell back, “Coming!” as loud as I can, but I know I sound far away. I flick the stick away and take off running back to the managers, yelling that I am coming and hoping the sweat will hide the stench of smoke. The yelling stops as I get close, and when I break out of the orchard, I see everyone staring above the trees behind me.
Black smoke rises in the distance, and I swear a litany of curses. Paul walks up, and he smells it on me.
“Were you smoking over there?” I say nothing. Joe is on the phone calling the fire department. The other workers grab axes and shovels and head out to make as much of a fire break as possible. I start to go with them, but Paul grabs my shoulder and shakes his head at me. He points to the truck, and I go sit in the back and watch as the smoke gets denser, blacker, closer.
Ms. Gomez arrives just after the fire department, and she is horrified and tears run down her face. “This is my life. Please, just please.” The other workers sit next to truck, downing what seems like gallons of water. They glare at me. Fewer trees, less work, less pay. Plus the furnace they just had to work in.
It takes hours, but the fire is eventually killed. A quarter of the orchard lost. Paul signals for everyone else to get in the truck and drives us back. Joe stays behind to explain to Ms. Gomez what happened. I see the rage fill her body as we pull onto the road.
Paul gets a call on the way back, and when we arrive, he has everyone else go into the dining hall and sends me to the dorms. Which is just fine with me.
I go to my bed and pull the head of the mattress to me. The sharpened branches clatter to the ground, but I ignore them. I have better insurance. That useless knife cuts through my stitches, and I reach into the guts and feel around. My fingers brush the barrel, and then my hand grips the handle and pull out the gun. I sit on the mattress and take a deep breath.
I stand up when I hear Ms. Gomez’ car park next to the door. She revs her engine three times, making her car growl. I focus on my breath to keep my senses in control. Her car door opens and slams shut. Her heels click click to the door. The rusted knob creaks as she turns it. I click off the safety, swearing that if she shows her face, my room will be the last one she ever enters.