The heat was suffocating. The sweat-soaked sheet stuck to Tom’s bare back when he sat up on the edge of the bed. Across the room the curtains fluttered in the incoming afternoon hot breeze. The broken air conditioner sat on the floor beneath the raised window, still plugged into the wall socket. He wiped sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand, combed his damp hair back with his fingers, and peeled the sheet from his skin as he stood up. The soreness in the soles of his feet shot up through his legs as he walked to the window and stared out at the hills tiered with white and pink houses that glistened in the sun on the Mexico side of Nogales. He ground the grit of Sonoran sand between his teeth.
He leaned on the sill and stuck his head out the window. Dust eddies whirled their way up the dirt road that ran between the scraggly lawns in front of a line of duplexes and the border wall. He started to call out when he saw his six-year-old son, Sean, digging in the dirt with a red plastic shovel at the base of the wall a little ways down the road, but Sherry came into the bedroom. He turned away from the window. She carried his freshly ironed uniform on a hanger in her hand.
“I’m glad you’re out of bed,” she said. “I hate waking you up.” She hung the uniform on a hook on the closet door.
“Sean is digging by the wall again,” he said grumpily. “I’ve already threatened to spank him.”
She pushed past him and stuck her head out the window. “Sean, get away from there or you’re going to get spanked,” she yelled. The boy stood up and rushed across the road. She pulled her head back in and kissed her husband on the cheek. “Maybe I should be the border patrol agent in the family,” she said with a chuckle.
“You wouldn’t like the hours,” he said, giving her a playful tap on the ass.
She sat on the bed. “I hate it when you work nights,” she said.
He sat down next to her and put his arm around her waist. “It’s when we catch most of the illegals trying to cross the border,” he said. He kissed her on the neck. “It’s nice to know I’m missed.”
She wrinkled her nose. “You stink, Tom” she said.
“Just think of my sweat as cologne.” He gently pushed her back on the bed and took her in his arms.
When there was a tap on the opened door, they both quickly sat up. Sean was standing in the doorway holding his plastic shovel and a red plastic pale.
“Are there really space monsters on the other side of the wall?” he asked.
“We told you to stay away from the wall,” his father answered. “They’re not space monsters, they’re aliens, illegal aliens. That’s what we call them if they come across to our side of the wall and they’re not supposed to. Do you understand?”
The boy tapped the shovel against his leg. “I saw that movie about aliens and Carlitos doesn’t look like an alien at all.”
“Who’s Carlitos?” his mother asked.
Sean turned and walked away. His humming slowly dissolved to silence as he went down the stairs.
Stars speckled the clear night sky. Gripping the steering wheel, Tom guided the jeep through the desert scrub, often losing track of the road carved out in the dirt by other border patrol vehicles. The water in the bottle he held between his legs sloshed about noisily. Sweat stains in his uniform spread out beneath his arms and down the middle of his back. The seeming endlessness of the Sonoran Desert spread out in all directions, flat except for tall saguaro cacti that stood like shadowy sentinels in the darkness beyond the jeep’s headlights. He stomped on the brakes when a hare leapt in front of the jeep and froze there. The jeep stalled.
Cliff, his partner sitting in the seat next to him, accidentally dropped his pistol on the floor of the jeep. “Watch where you’re going,” he said. He bent over and picked up his weapon.
“I can’t help what a lousy rabbit does,” he said. “I wish you’d keep that in its holster.”
The hare ran off and disappeared in the dark.
Tom unscrewed the bottle cap and took a long drink, swishing the water around in his mouth before swallowing it. He then took the flashlight from between the seats and shined it in all directions. “I haven’t seen a border marker for a while,” he said.
Cliff laid his pistol beside him on his seat. He opened the glove compartment and took out a compass. The glowing green needle pointed to the south and west. “We’re still on track,” he said. “You know how it is, the border is mostly imaginary out here anyway.”
Tom turned the key in the ignition several times without any response from the motor. “Now what!” he exclaimed. He took off his hat and tossed it in the back seat and then climbed out of the jeep carrying the water bottle and flashlight. His boots sunk in the sand up to his ankles as he walked to the front of the vehicle and raised the hood. He shined the light on the engine that ticked and sizzled from heat. “There’s no steam,” he called out, “so it’s not the radiator.”
Cliff got out of the jeep and joined Tom at the front of it. He twirled his pistol by its trigger guard on the index finger of his left hand. “We’ll just give it a few minutes to rest. We can take a look around.”
“Look around for what?”
“What we’re always looking for.”
Tom shined the light southward illuminating several cacti. The air was still and nothing moved. A coyote’s bark resonated in the distance. “We walked about five miles last night in terrain just like this and all for nothing except to get blisters.”
“Imagine the blisters you’d get walking across this desert,” Cliff said as he put his pistol in the holster, raised his binoculars to his eyes, and scanned the dark landscape.
Tom poured the last of his water over his head and then shook it from his hair. He leaned against the jeep. “Do you think agents have it easier who work along the northern border?”
“All borders are pretty much the same,” Cliff answered. “It’s a rough business for all of us.”
“And them,” Tom said, making a sweeping gesture with the flashlight. Its ray of light caught a brief movement behind a tall saguaro. He quickly stood. “Did you see that behind that large saguaro?” He swept the area with the flashlight.
Looking through the binoculars, Cliff said, “I don’t see anything.” He lowered the binoculars and walked several feet toward the cactus. There was an abrupt shuffling in the dirt behind the saguaro and then a man bolted from behind it and began to run away from where the agents stood. “Alto, alto,” Cliff yelled as he quickly took his pistol from the holster and aimed it at the man. “Alto,” he shouted again and then fired the pistol. The man fell.
“Damn, Cliff, what have you done?” Tom yelled as he pushed past Cliff and ran toward where the man had fallen. When he got to the spot where the man had been, the man was gone. There were drops of blood in the sand. He shined the flashlight in all directions. “Vulelve, amigo,” he shouted. “Come back,” he repeated in English.
Cliff came up beside him. “I didn’t intend to shoot him,” he said.
“We can’t go blindly looking for him in this dark. I’ll call it in and then we can stick around until a chopper comes looking for him,” Tom said.
Cliff put his pistol in the holster and snapped it shut. “I don’t even know if he was in Mexico or the U.S. when I shot him.”
“Does it matter?” Tom said.
Tom awoke to the feeling of a hot breeze blowing across his sweaty chest. His temples pounded from the tangled memories of frenetic dreams. The curtains blew inward, their hems flapping above the broken air conditioner. The Nogales heat had a way of muffling sound and at that moment it was dead silent beyond the open window. When Sherry came into the room he sat up. “What time is it?” he asked.
“A little after four,” she said. She tossed his cellphone on the bed. “I’ve kept your phone with me because Cliff keeps calling and wanting to talk to you about what happened last night. I told him you’re sleeping but he sounds worried.”
“He’s feeling guilty,” Tom said.
She went to the window and stood with her back to it, allowing the breeze to bathe her. “I’d feel guilty too if I knew there was a man out there somewhere in that desert, probably wounded or worse by a bullet I put in him.”
“As I told you when I got home this morning, they’re still searching for the guy. It’s not totally Cliff’s fault. The man he shot was illegally crossing the border.”
She turned and looked out the window. Sean was digging in his usual spot at the base of the wall. She brushed her hair back from her face, and turned, facing her husband. “I hate to put a leash on Sean, but he keeps crossing that road. He told me last night that he has a friend on the other side of the wall.”
“Yes, Carlitos. He didn’t understand when I told him he couldn’t be a friend with someone on the other side of the wall. He wanted me to take him over there but of course I said that would be impossible.”
“I’ll talk to him,” he said. “While he’s busy with his friend across the border we could make a friend for him.”
“To make Sean happy, can we name his new friend Carlitos?”
“Certainly, or Carla.”
She pulled her blouse over her head and unbuttoned her jeans as she walked to the bed.
When Tom awoke, Sherry’s hair was glued to his shoulder by his sweat. She was sleeping soundly, breathing slow and steady. His mouth was dry and his throat felt parched. The bedroom was almost dark, which surprised him. He glanced out the window and saw the red and purple twilight sky above the hills of Nogales on the other side of the border. He pushed her hair behind her ear. “Wake up, Sherry,” he said in a whispered voice.
She stirred, slowly moving her head, and then opened her eyes. “What time is it?” she asked groggily.
He pulled his arm from under her body and looked at his watch. “Seven,” he said.
She rolled onto her back, and then a moment later, abruptly sat up. “Where’s Sean?”
“He must be downstairs.” He then called out his son’s name, waited for a response, and then shouted it again.
She jumped out of the bed and ran to the window and stuck her head out. Then she screamed.
Tom leapt out of bed and joined her at the window.
The lower half of Sean’s body was sticking out from under a pole in the fence where he had been digging.
Tom and Sherry ran from their bedroom, down the stairs, out of the house, and to where Sean’s body was wedged face-down under the wall, the pole pressing into his back. His plastic shovel lay in the dirt beside his legs. They dug the dirt out from under Sean’s lifeless body with their bare hands and slowly pulled his limp body out. Tom breathed into his son’s mouth and did compressions on his chest, unsuccessfully trying to revive him.
Sherry knelt in the dirt, took her dead son in her arms, and wailed as she rocked back and forth.
Tom pounded on the wall with his fists until the blood from his broken hands ran down the wall.
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 430 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories, Sand, Rain, Heat, The Tales of Talker Knock and 50 Short Stories: The Very Best of Steve Carr, and LGBTQ: 33 Stories, and The Theory of Existence: 50 Short Stories, published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.