This story is the winner of Campus BluePrint’s first annual creative writing contest, and is also in our print edition out now.
BY HEATHER WILSON
The brother is always the first to wake up in the morning. When he wakes up the mini blinds are not yet white with the glow of morning. His mother is curled up on the couch, still wearing the starched white khakis she wore to work the graveyard shift. His little sister sleeps on a futon in the other room. She snores and kicks at her covers and calls out softly in her sleep. The brother is nineteen, and the sister is only ten. They call her the little one.
He stands in the doorway of the trailer, eating cheerios dry from the box and watching the dogs that run in packs through the trailer park. These dogs are filthy, light-footed scavengers. One ragged looking dog—all bones and greed—roots through the plump black trash bags that line the streets. The ragged dog finds a bag of stale bagels and the other dogs circle round. They bare their teeth at one another and cut savage lunges towards the bagels.
This family lives in Laredo Texas. It is a town emerged of dust, gardens of dust. They live on the outskirts, right on the border between Mexico and America, in a neighborhood called la colonista. Except it is not exactly a neighborhood. You cannot find la colonista on a map. The trailers and shanty houses do not have street addresses. The streets themselves are dirt roads. The water comes from wells, and is not safe till boiled twice. None of the trailers have heat or air-conditioning. In the summer this family puts fans in every window and keeps the door propped open with a cement block. In the winter they insulate the walls with newspaper. They tack blankets over the windows and wear layers on layers. La colonista is not Mexico but just barely America. This family can look out their window and see their old country across one hot flat stretch of land, one thin strip of river. They say, we have not come very far.
The brother does push-ups and sits-ups on the kitchen floor. He is strong and every day a little stronger. When the father returns to la colonista the brother will be strong enough and will look enough a man to quietly tell him to leave. He will not have to say it twice. He will not even have to roll his fingers into a fist. The father will want the little one. He will say, she is my child. The brother will say, she is no more your child than I am.
Now he fries eggs in the cast-iron skillet for him and the little one. He flips the eggs and peppers them black and scrapes them off the pot and onto plates. He looks for bread but the bread is gone. There are tortias thawing on top of the ice box. He heats two up on the burner until they are ringed with golden spirals. The little one wakes up. From the kitchen he watches her watch the dogs fight over bagels. She props open the screen door and sits out on the stoop. She wears red overalls and a white baseball cap colored from the dust.
There is a wooden baseball bat propped up beneath the coat rack. The brother takes this bat and goes outside and beats the bat against the white metal siding of the trailer. The dogs scatter, tails tucked. He tells the little one to go inside, her eggs are getting cold. And, he says, we’ve got an adventure to go on.
What kind of adventure, she asks.
I’m going to take you to see the mountains, he says. Now go eat.
The brother stands out in the sun and smokes a cigarette while the little one eats. The mother wakes up, stands in the doorway tucking her hair into a bun and looking at the brother.
She says, I keep thinking one of these mornings I’m gonna wake up and you’ll be gone.
I wouldn’t leave her, he says, even if I had a way out.
Even when he comes back?
The brother flicks his butt into the weeds where the bent sunflowers grow. Even then, he says.
Are you going somewhere?
Take the little one.
The brother and the little one walk the dirt road into town. The sun is high and white above them. They pass by the children who kneel in a circle shouting and shooting marbles. They pass by the dogs who lay huddled in the shade of a trailer, mouths gaping, tongues hung to the dust. From far away both the dogs and the children look black as silhouettes.
Just beyond la colonista is a pit about four feet deep and twenty feet across. It is usually caked dry. When it rains though, the pit fills up with water, and the water mixes with the dust and thickens to mud. The children of la colonista wade across this lake of mud in their shorts and shirtsleeves. They come out covered in mud, with mud in their pockets and stuck to their legs.
The brother and sister spit into this pit of dust as they go by. The children say it is good luck to spit here as you leave la colonista. To spit is to leave a piece of yourself in la colonista with the ones you love. The brother no longer believes in luck or ceremony. He spits because the sister spits. The little one believes. She plants her feet and spits for her mother, for la colonista.
The brother hopes that the children are right.
The father will come south soon. He will want what he left behind and he will promise what they do not have. He will say, nothing that came before was real. He will say, I can get you out of la colonista. The mother will agree, she will think it is best. The brother will say, you are walking into another hell. They will live in some apartment in town and in the evenings the father will sit back in his armchair with a strip of cloth tied tight just above his elbow. He will be the same, an awful man, an awful charming man. The mother and the sister, they will dream of the look of the sunflowers bent against the trailer, they will dream of the dogs and the dust and the hunger and the heat and the cold. Nothing and no one will bring the old world back, not even the brother doing sit-ups in the kitchen, not even the brother with murder in his heart.
They spit and then they go on. The sister runs ahead, looking back at the brother through the dust she kicks up. She asks him, where are we going?
He says only, we are going to see the mountains.
Laredo is as flat as the palm of a hand. In the country there is nothing to mark the horizon but telephone poles. Further south, where there are no telephone poles, it is easy to believe that there is no such thing as movement.
There are no mountains, she says.
You’ll see, he says.
He takes her to the clothes warehouse. This is where the Salvation Army and the Good Will send all of the clothes unsuitable for resale. Jeans without zippers. Shirts stained beyond salvation. Shoes with the tongues cut out. These clothes end piled up in hills and mountains, nearly to the top of the warehouse ceiling fifty feet above. The brother calls it the cotton landfill. People buy these clothes in bulk. They pay 35 cents a pound. What the warehouse cannot sell they compress into cotton blocks and ship to Mexico.
The little one has never seen this place. She stands at the foot of a cotton mountain and looks up in awe. Men and women hike up and down these mountains, sorting and untangling the clothes beneath their feet. They look for things that they can use. Shirts that can be washed and mended, leather coats that can be cut into strips, cloth aprons that can be cut up into dish rags, little shoes to fit a child. All the while the children run in ones and twos up the slopes and then tumble down, doing summersaults till they hit the floor and roll to a stop.
The brother begins the climb. He digs his feet into the cotton slope for traction. He stops ten feet up and calls down to the sister.
El nina, he says.
She follows him. A few times she loses her footing and slips earthward. He grabs her by the wrist and pulls her up onto his shoulders. They reach the top and he sets her down next to him. He looks across the colored hills.
This is it, he says. The mountains. You didn’t believe it, did you?
Yes I believed it, she says.
No you didn’t, you said there are no mountains in Laredo.
Well I believe it now, she says.
If anyone ever tells you there are no mountains in Laredo, you can say, yes there are. You can say you know where there are mountains.
No one will ever tell me there are no mountains because everyone can see Laredo’s flat as a map.
Even if no one says it you’ll still know better.
I don’t see what good that does, she says.
It’s worth something, he says.
The mountain shifts beneath them. The children on the slope yell, landslide, landslide. The brother and sister hold hands, not out of tenderness but to defy the steepness and the instability of the ground beneath them. With his other hand the brother grabs at a tattered pant leg. This is not enough. The pants fly loose and brother and sister are slipping, they are falling, they are carried down the mountain. The little one calls out and the brother takes her other hand and holds her close, so close she can see nothing but the blue and white patchwork of his plaid shirt. The landslide slows, they tumble forward to the concrete floor. The brother stands up and pulls the little one to her feet. She will not let go of his hand. The brother laughs. The little one laughs until she is breathless.
Again, she says.
And again they climb the mountain, and again they tumble down. Again and again, until the little one tires.
As they are leaving the brother sees a man in a jean jacket faded to white at the elbows, a man who looks like the father. He is standing in the shadows near the scales where people weigh what they salvaged. His face is white and worn-looking beneath his beard. He is smoking a cigarette and rocking on his heels. But it is only a moment’s fear for the brother. Then this man who looks like the father walks into the light of the warehouse door and it is not the father, it is some other white man with a beard. And they—the brother and the little one—are together, and safe in their togetherness. For now there will be no end to what they have which is one another.