Wednesday, August 27, 2008

La Frontera

This is an odd one - I was (well, actually am) in a writing contest with a very odd prompt. We had to write 1500 words based on this photo of an old van:
Anyways, that's what today's post is - more of Triumphant Sun will be coming later in the week, I think, but it needs editing so it'll have to wait.

La Frontera

Hijo de la puta!” swears Ezequiel as the van swerves tightly around a hulking cactus. In the seat next to him, Hector grits his teeth and guns the engine harder, 6 cylinders screaming in dry protest. The spiralling cone of dust remains in the rear-view mirror, dogging them at a distance as it has for the past 2 hours, a tiny black dot at its center.

Why don't they make up their chingado minds?” Ezequiel spits out the window through the gap in his teeth. “How long is this shit going to last, cabron? What's with the fucking Border Patrol?”

No patrol,” says Hector. “Police never take this long. Anyways, remember what Arturo said?”

Si, si. But maybe they got the wrong sergeant. Maybe just sold us down the river, you know?”

No. El Gallito, for sure.”

Ezequiel sucks in a long breath and fixes his eyes on the rearview again. It hangs at a queer angle, reflecting his own bloodshot grey eyes and thin, mahogany face back at him. He unconsciously fingers the jagged scar running down his chin from the left ear. He fishes a battered cigarette from a crumpled packet in his jeans and lights it with quivering hands.

What's back there, anyways?”
“You want to know? Go look,” snaps Hector. “And light me one of those, man.” Hector holds out his hand to receive the cigarette.

They hurtle forwards and the desert gleams around them like old brass under the sun's burning disc. The endless pounding of the tires gives a repetitive quality to the minutes, flowing by slow as molasses. Scrub and brush dot the flatness of the sands, and occasionally a bird starts from the ground in front of the van with the swiftness of a gunshot. The two men remain silent, smoking grimly and staring straight forward, avoiding the oppressive presence of the dust cloud behind them, edging ever closer.

Ezequiel finally breaks the tension. “You know what they say El Gallito does...”
“Shut up.” Hector slams his hand on the dashboard. His voice cracks with tension and dryness, and he fumbles under the seat for a bottle of water to soothe his cracked lips. Ezequiel twists the top of the canteen off for his friend and watches in silence as he drinks. He takes only a brief sip when Hector hands it to him.

The shock comes brutally and without warning. The van lists to the right and the wheels dig into the sand, spinning in a fury of sparks and shredded rubber. Hector grimly fights the steering as it fishtails deeper and deeper into the ground, the gearbox tearing itself apart as the axles grind against the burning desert. Ezequiel slams into the door and hurtles on to the sand, his shoulder plowing down and wrenching painfully backwards. The van slides to a halt, the spine of its chassis broken by the impact. Black grease slithers onto the dirt.

Hector leans out of his door and vomits noisily. Ezequiel drags himself backwards and leans against the black metal of the van. It burns to the touch from endless exposure to the sun. He gingerly rotates the shoulder and sighs with palpable relief, the first time he has felt this that day. The crash did not dislocate the joint. He stands and squints into the distance, head still ringing from smashing on the earth. Their pursuer has slowed, circling too far to be made out clearly in the shimmering heat haze.

While Hector voids his stomach, Ezequiel slides under the vehicle. Oil drips onto his face as he fumbles with a long package wrapped in cloth and tied to the steel crossbeams. He rolls back out into the afternoon sun. He carefully lays out the cloth on the ground and runs his hands down the gleaming but pitted steel of the rifle, tracing his fingers along the wood of the stock, splintered in places from the force of the impact, raising it to his shoulder and peering down the sights, checking the straight length of the barrel.

Hector stumbles around to the other side of the van and slumps against the shattered wheel.

You think that will help?” he mutters sullenly, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

Ezequiel stares down at him. Hector's pale face looks almost white from his sickness, and the heavy muscles of his body seem collapsed and defeated in his dejection. He turns away and searches through the chaos of the glove compartment and emerges with a handful of shells. His hands move like automatons as he carefully slots them into the breech of the rifle.

The pursuer in the distance circles closer, a shark waiting for its prey to grow tired. He can see now that it is a black truck, hulking with menace and cruising easily across the rough ground. Ezequiel kneels down and raises the rifle to his shoulder. His vision narrows down the iron sights, contracting to a tight circle as he carefully leads the front end of his target. He holds his breath tightly, body tight like a steel spring, and then fires. The rifle roars and bucks, the truck swerves to the left and with a practiced motion he digs in his feet and rams the bolt down, bringing another shell into the chamber, firing and reloading three times. Men pile out of the truck as it skids to a halt, steam rising from the engine.

Ezquiel quickly ducks back down next to Hector as bullets zip back towards them, rattling like steel raindrops against the side of the van. “I think I took one of their tires, maybe the radiator.”

Give me one of those chingado cigarettes.”

They light the last two cigarettes and Hector inhales greedily, sucking smoke into his lungs. He peers around the fender and ducks back as more bullets slam into the ground, kicking up puffs of sand.

Six, maybe seven. Mierda.

Ezequiel leans around the other side and snaps off another quick shot. A strangled cry fills the desert air. “That's one.”

Can you do that five more times?”

He sneaks a look over the hood of the van and crashes back down as more bullets fly by in a hail of automatic fire. “No.”
The two men sit silently for a while, smoke drifting in lazy curlicues above them. Occasionally, the van rocks under the impact of sprayed bullets, the harsh metallic sound of screaming metal echoing around them.

Puerco pibil,” says Hector


Puerco pibil. My wife was cooking in it when we left. I didn't have time to eat, but I was going to when we returned.”
Ezquiel grins lopsidedly. “Would you call her and like to tell her you're going to be late?”
Hector stares at the other man for a moment. “
Si, I would.”

Well, you could go over ask them if you could use their phone. See what they say.”

You are a strange little man. You know that, cabron?”
“What can you do, eh?”

They lapse back into their wordless state. High above them in the crystal sky, the black silhouettes of vultures wheel and turn. The desert is strangely silent. Hector leans forward and grabs the disjointed remains of the side mirror and tilts it carefully around the edge of van.

I think they're trying to fix the truck,” he says.

To leave?”

Hector shoots him a look. “What do you think?”

Listen, Hector. Do you have that revolver? The one that Arturo gave you?”

Hector pulls it from beneath his shirt and lays it on his lap, ugly and snub-nosed. “It's no good. This for for shooting maricons in a bar, not this out here in the open. Maybe if they walk up and knock, or something.”
Si. It's not for them.”

You mean...”

I have three bullets. Maybe we get one, two, but then nothing. I'm not letting them take me back to El Gallito. So one of us has to do it. Do both.”

Hector runs his hands over the revolver. “Which one?”
I don't know. You have a coin.”
Hector fishes in his pockets. “You know what, I'll do it. I always wanted to shoot you anyways.”

Chinga tu mujer.”
“She wouldn't. She says you look like a rabbit.”

Ezequiel shrugs and pulls a rosary from his pocket, distractedly running the cheap wooden beads through his fingers.

You believe in that mierda, man?” Hector looks incredulous.

Not really. But, you know. What's the worse that can happen?”
The two men sit back as the sun sinks lower in the sky. The metal of the engine pings as it cools, a weirdly melodic sound like a music box falling slowly out of tune. The last lines of smoke spiral away into the fading light and in the far, far distance a desert owl lets off a mournful call. Hector hums a few snatches of a Mexican song as the two men wait, watching the shadow of the van slink longer and longer across the landscape before them.

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