The five scattered along the single road into town seemed a gruff caravan of The Rapture. Three on horseback each carried lantern and pistol. One rode a vicious looking four-wheeler, headlight blinding any in its path, and dragging behind it a makeshift truck bed carrying a single massive water tank. The fifth man hung off the back of that tank and waved his lantern wildly, yipping and crowing at the rear of the group. As do cuckoos moments before the hour, so too did the people of El Hueso lay in wait just behind their doors. As the yipping and growl of the four-wheeler’s engine began to ring through the dirt roads of their home, those birds popped forth from every door and cheered on their strange parade.
Elena and Fausto listened to the salutes echoing back at them, and studied each other’s faces, and fastened their fingers.
“What if they don’t care?” Elena asked.
“They will. It’s their child, too.”
“So am I. They don’t care about that anymore .”
Fausto forbade his fear emerge, and smiled at his love, and gently moved his hand across her face, hovering over her eyes a moment, feeling the soft tip of her nose bump against his palm.
“I would prefer to die,” Elena added from behind Fausto’s touch. They sat a moment longer, then rose, wordless, and walked together in the direction of the cheers and applause which crescendoed now into the nighttime jungle sounds of victorious beasts bearing down upon a fresh kill.
In the road at the center of town they congregated, candles in hands, as the five lapped the block, fire bursting into the black sky above them. The vehicle with water tank came to a stop, the nucleus amid the rings of town folk staring desirous and joyful. Elena and Fausto fell in between the candle-lit faces of neighbors and cousins, and watched alongside, making believe for a moment they could stay unseen in the crowd.
“If you need it tonight, go to José,” yelled one on horseback to the horde, “they come at dawn for the exchange.”
His horse stamped and spun, and a handful of figures made their way toward the man on the four-wheeler, outreaching buckets, pots, and vessels of varying propriety. José Pumped from the tank into whatever they handed him, and one by one they scurried as territorial rodents back to their holes.
The crowd thinned, except the five, and also a group of men who lingered nearby, tightening their circle until it was impossible to know their true number. Elena’s face was awash with firelight, watching the men across the road, watching José pump the water, watching the joyful rats grasp their rations with desperation and greed. Fausto squeezed her hand and released it, crossing the road, joining the huddle of boots and hats which made up some rickety congress. He split their congregation and inserted himself amid it. They listened, and shook heads, and looked one at a time across to Elena who was stony Joan of Arc in the fire’s gaze.
Across the road one elder from the huddle barked at Elena, “It’s an honor!” before Fausto could embrace him back into their circle. A hand rested on Elena’s shoulder as she watched the men discuss her fate. Turning slightly she saw Abuelita standing behind her, and in the woman’s free hand, a jug brimming with water.
“Please, Abuela,” Elena whispered into the darkness. There was no softening, only the crackling in her ears, so she shook free from the touch, walked a few steps in the direction opposite the fire and people, then ran. Her body moved with a magmatic agenda separate from logic, but the desire for that town and its fire to grow small overtook her and whisked her, breathlessly, away. Jerky progress was made, without a single look back, and though the wind cooled, Elena’s face flushed with heat. The air tickled her exposed skin and she ran, feeling the light of town diminish behind her.
Then the glow was back, and nearer. She did not turn, but felt it catching up to her. She ran faster, pushing against the wind, but it was useless. Hooves sounded and light shot her figure against the gravel before her, and though it started huge, her shape shrunk down until it was only the outline of an eighteen year old girl, and finally she stopped running and stood, gasping for breath.
The man on horseback dismounted. Elena heard his boots hit rock one at a time, but she didn’t look at him even as his silhouette met hers, and his hand closed about her wrist, leading her back to his horse. She mounted it without argument and the two rode back, watching the lights of El Hueso grow. She laid her tired head against his enemy shoulder, and her eyes felt heavy.
Rewound, she was again in the road, dropped off and met by Fausto, Abuelita and the other men, then led by them to a nearby house where light toasted every window. She kicked her shoes on the steps to the door, dirt having gathered during her run, and Fausto held her around both shoulders, guiding her into the house. Inside, the former huddle of men was spread thick across the far side of the living room. The door shut behind them, and everyone stood.
“Will you listen to her?” Fausto addressed the group. Men’s heads shook. Abuelita lingered by the door, the jug in her arms.
“Speak,” Fausto urged Elena. She looked finally at the faces of the men around her.
“I won’t go,” she said gently.
“You will kill your people!” shouted one man, jutting his chin up as if gathering spit. Fausto shifted, looking nervously at Elena while silencing the men with his arm.
“Speak,” he whispered in her ear.
“I… Fausto has told you,” she trailed off. The men threw arms up in outrage. One, with single scarred, milky eye, left the house, brushing Elena on his way out. The door whipped shut and some calm was restored by the noise.
“I have,” said Fausto, “I have told you. I beg- we beg you.”
Sosimo lurked against the wall, eyeing Elena. Two others were having a whisper argument, wielding hats. The fluorescent light buzzed as the midday sun, and Elena felt trapped as ever beneath it.
“She must go,” said Eduardo, who alone sat.
“Tío!” cried Fausto.
“You only think of yourself,” Eduardo said, looking down at his arthritic fingers.
“There is no choice. Where will the water come from? It’s for the survival of this town.”
“Elena was born to this town. This baby- my baby- is your flesh!”
“We have no choice, Fausto,” Eduardo brayed, then put the back of his hand to his forehead regretfully. Silence seared.
Fausto lifted Elena in his arms like a child. Turning to the closed door, he looked at Abuelita who after a moment opened it for them. They crossed the threshold in reverse, back into the safety of the cool night. Elena studied his face, strong and tight, then closed her eyes and lay back in his arms, safe for a moment. In the dark he took them to a red pickup truck up on blocks behind a nest of houses. He opened the passenger door and climbed in, Elena still in his arms. He surrounded her tiny, limp body, and whispered love words in her ear, and there they sat and awaited the morning.