Hector found his sister behind a dumpster next to the community pool. Alejandra hid in the shadows against her duffle bag, wrapped in a leopard-spotted blanket that carried the stench of a dead opossum. She was twenty years old, but her withered cheekbones reminded him of their late fifty-year-old mother. She looked up at him through exhausted eyes. He must have appeared unrecognizable to her too. Before he left for Tucson, he had the muscular shoulders and defined torso of a champion swimmer. Now he’d gained so much weight he needed to hide his second chin under his beard.
Three months ago, Alejandra had called him from San Juan Atenco and told him how the cartel murdered their brother. Men dressed in military uniforms wielding AK-47 rifles kidnapped Carlos off the family farm, hogtied him in the city center with his eyes and mouth duct-taped and shot him in the back of the head. Hector wired Alejandra money to flee San Juan Atenco. It had taken him this long to hear from her again. Before she arrived in Tucson he imagined her dead as well, her body abandoned behind a dry shrub in the Sonoran Desert.
Alejandra threw off her blanket and shook against Hector’s bony legs.
“Let’s get you home,” he said.
* * *
The last time Hector had seen Alejandra, she’d ran down the steep dirt trail into La Laguna de Aljojuca, a kilometer-wide crater lake near San Juan Atenco where he practiced swimming every day. Most people wouldn’t swim in La Laguna because local legend told that any man who went too far out would drown. But Hector’s ability to race other swimmers across the dark green lake had become a spectacle for the residents of San Juan Atenco, something to watch after Sunday mass. He tried out for spots in swim clubs; a scout for Mexico’s Olympic team even came to watch him race, but after tryouts they always patted him on his wet shoulder and said, “We’re looking for speed, not endurance.” Still, Hector wouldn’t give up. The community’s support convinced him to leave for the United States where he could live in Tucson with his oldest brother Pedro and pursue his dream of becoming a champion swimmer.
Before he left, Alejandra wanted to swim with him one last time. She pulled her shirt over her excited grin and revealed her developing curves. When their mother had died, Hector promised he would take care of Alejandra. Now that she was becoming a woman, she needed to be sheltered from boys more than ever. He didn’t know if it was the right moment to leave home, but felt confident his brother Carlos would protect her.
After Carlos’s murder, Hector sided with their father’s belief that Alejandra was not safe in Mexico. Even when she arrived in Tucson, he still wasn’t ready to celebrate her homecoming. When he brought Alejandra back to the cramped apartment he shared with his four roommates and brother, the roommates gawked at his sister like she was a suckling pig big enough for them all to share. Hector still saw her as the little girl who shared his bedroom growing up. If one of those roommates took an interest in her—or worse, if she took an interest in them—he imagined Alejandra would end up like one of those girls at the supermarket who put their babies next to their backpacks in the shopping carts.
When Hector cornered her outside the bathroom door after she showered, he asked why she took three months to cross from Mexico. Alejandra gave him a sarcastic shrug and went to lounge in front of the living room TV with Pedro. This wasn’t the sister he remembered. When he lived in San Juan Atenco, she always wanted to hold his hand wherever they walked; when he worked in the family’s cornfields, she never stopped asking his advice about boys or school; when he raced in La Laguna, she screeched words of encouragement to help him reach the finish. Hector had to remember not everyone was as determined to adjust to American life as himself. He imagined she missed their father, who now lived alone on the farm.
In San Juan Atenco Alejandra’s entire life revolved between school and home. Now that she was in the United States, Hector wanted a new world of opportunity to open for her. When he had first shown up on Pedro’s doorstep, he became too busy helping his brother garden to practice swimming. He spent his nights filling out an application to the University of Arizona, where he planned to start his swimming career on the college level, but he mailed in the application without high school transcripts or letters of recommendation. When he received a tiny envelope from the school that regretted to inform him of their decision, he tore up the letter and threw it in the trash. But he let his work ethic make up for his lack of swimming. Every household he gardened belonged to a couple that always raced to work in the morning with a cup of coffee in hand or sauntered out of their front door wearing a tailored suit. Hector saw himself like any other hardworking American.
A week after Alejandra’s arrival, Pedro had them garden on a street near downtown for eight hours in 100 degree heat. Hector put away the lawnmower at the end of the day and sat on the truck beside his roommates who spoke in different colloquial languages he still couldn’t understand. Each of them wiped sweat off their necks. Pit stains soaked their shirts. Endorphins coursed through Hector’s body. He took a breath that felt like his first gasp of hot air after winning a race on the shores of La Laguna.
Pedro came from the last house massaging his back, which was sore from ripping weeds out of a client’s yard all day. His ratty moustache matched his disheveled flannel shirt, and he stunk like fertilizer. Lately Pedro made them speed through twice the amount of houses they usually gardened. Most of the roommates decided he was helping them make extra money, but Hector believed Pedro obsessed over work to cope with Carlos’s death. Pedro was closest to Carlos. Growing up, they shared a bed, played on the same baseball team and plotted different ways to tease Hector. Pedro asked Carlos to move north with him many times, but Carlos always refused. While most people in San Juan Atenco longed to go north, Carlos only ever dreamed of raising a family on the farm. Hector wondered if Pedro carried any guilt for never visiting Carlos since he moved to Tucson.
Pedro pulled a wad of cash out of his pocket—the green currency still looked like Monopoly money to Hector—and handed Hector 10 dollars instead of the usual 40.
“Very funny.” Hector extended his hand.
“The rest of your pay goes to our sister,” Pedro said. “The extra food I buy for her doesn’t come cheap.”
Hector stood up in the truck. Ever since Carlos died, he wondered if Pedro resented him because he outlived Pedro’s favorite brother. They were never best friends, but they did everything together since he moved to Tucson. Recently Pedro had become obsessed with saving up to rent a new apartment with an extra bedroom. Before work, he would drive out of the way routes to pass properties with “Space Available” signs on the front lawns. Hector couldn’t blame Pedro for not wanting to live out his days in a one bedroom apartment where one pot of chili stunk up the whole place and six people fought over the bathroom every morning.
“She's your sister too,” Hector said. “She's not eating thirty dollars worth of food.”
“You think I like that I can't let her stay for free?” Pedro held up his hands. “I understand, okay? We just need to cut costs a little longer. We're weeks away from getting that second bedroom.”
Hector sat back down. “I hope so.” He imagined renting a new apartment with Alejandra so he could cut Pedro loose. They’d both find new jobs, then Pedro wouldn’t treat him like a stupid little brother anymore. Growing up, his older brothers would steal off his plate during dinner. They said he was young; he didn’t need all the food his mother put in front of him. As if one chicken drumstick were enough for a growing boy.
* * *
Hector, Pedro and their roommates returned to the apartment. Alejandra sat in the humid living room dressed in a white tank top and shorts that went above her thighs. The other roommates sat around the couch to watch her watch a telenovela on the 10-inch TV. In Mexico she was always too busy staying at a girl friend’s house or taking a weekend trip to the shopping center to ever bother with television. It was all she did in the U.S. for a week.
“Can we talk?” Hector said, turning off the TV.
Alejandra sat up and followed him into the bedroom where he closed the door. She navigated over dirty clothes that littered the floor and stood between two of the three bunk beds.
“You’ve been here a week,” Hector said. “Starting tomorrow, I want you to come work with us until you can find your own job.” He imagined slapping the last rent money into Pedro’s hand and walking out the door for good.
She bit her cheek and looked away. In the past, if she had too much schoolwork to pick corn in the fields, he took over her chores in exchange for her allowance, but she had nothing to haggle with anymore. The life of a gardener didn’t include days off for mourning a brother.
“Didn’t you leave home to escape manual labor?” She raised her eyebrows.
There was a myth about the United States that life was supposed to be easier, but he figured she’d seen them come through the apartment enough times—carrying gardening tools covered in dirt, itching the sun burns on their already dark skin, trying not to sit on the furniture until after their turn to shower—to know the myth wasn’t true.
“Al—” he said. “Would you tell me what’s going on?”
She shook her head.
“You’re in the United States, you have to work.”
“Do you know how the cartel got to Carlos?” she said. “I saw it all from the front window. They drove up to the farm in a white pick-up truck and kidnapped him right out of the corn fields.” She looked at her feet. “The last thing he ever said to me was help.”
“If you helped him, they would’ve kidnapped you too.”
“I don’t want to garden. I don’t want to be anybody’s maid. I want to go home.”
“That’s not happening.” Hector kept his back straight and tried to feel like the authority figure.
“I hate the idea of Pa being alone there. He’s getting too old to work the fields by himself.” Her strained eyes turned red. “Just give me some money so I can buy a bus ticket and take care of him.”
When he lived in San Juan Atenco, he never saw his father have a relationship with Alejandra. Hector couldn’t even remember his father hugging her at their mother’s funeral. She was the only daughter, and Hector figured his father didn’t know how to communicate with a young girl. Maybe after he and Pedro left their father made a stronger attempt to build a relationship with Alejandra. He probably taught her all the secrets of working the fields, the way he once taught Hector.
“Pa doesn’t want you there,” Hector said, gripping the side of the bunk bed. “He sent you here to keep you safe.”
“Oh, you’re keeping me safe?” She approached him. “Do you know what it took for me to get here? I crossed the border in a truck with 50 other people. Do you have any idea what it’s like being packed away in a container like a shipment of meat?” He waited for her to tell him, but felt impatient with her inability to give a straight answer.
“You came here because of money I gave you.” He stood over her. She didn’t seem frightened by his tone. Up close, her thin frame made her appear as tall as him. He wondered if she could still wrestle him to the floor like she did on his birthdays.
A draft of the hot summer breeze came through the window and reminded Hector of his days working on the farm with Carlos. Carlos would sometimes disappear deep within the cornfields only to pop up and scare Hector when he least expected it. He wished Carlos hid when the cartel came looking for him. When Carlos wanted to be lost, nobody could find him. Hector refused to think ill of the dead, and all his memories painted Carlos in a saint-like light. Carlos was their father’s dream field worker. He wanted to make the family farm the most successful producer of corn in the city. But his dreams were dead. Hector thought about his own mortality. If he were murdered, his hopes of finding success in the U.S. would die with him.
“Don’t stay up late,” Hector said to Alejandra, opening the bedroom door. “We have ten houses tomorrow.”
“When do you swim?” She sat on her bunk bed.
Hector stopped in the doorway. “I swim on my days off.”
“When are those?”
He walked out the door.
* * *
When Hector woke his sister at 6:00 a.m., she was sleeping with the covers over her head. He pulled off the sheets, and her eyelids peeled open from the dried sweat. After their mother’s death she’d slept with the covers over her head to keep away nightmares. He figured she got over the habit at some point, but now the nightmares were back.
After a breakfast of oatmeal and eggs, Pedro let Alejandra sit in the front seat of his pick-up truck. The ride threw Hector and his roommates around the truck bed for 45 minutes until they passed a sign welcoming them to Casas Adobes, a rich suburb tucked into the base of the sloping Santa Catalina Mountains on the outskirts of Tucson. The nicest houses in San Juan Atenco couldn’t compare to the haciendas they drove past, each one having its own walled-off pool, a large backyard and a satellite dish.
They parked in front of a beige hacienda on Avenida de Posada that blended into the desert surroundings. Hector had never seen the owners, but judging by only one car there couldn’t be more than two people who lived in the house. If he had a job that could afford him this place, he’d bring their father north and never have to worry about his family’s security again.
Hector stood up on the truck and handed equipment down to the others. Their father must have kept Alejandra working hard because she could carry the heavy leaf blower. Hector led her past the cactus-filled dry moat that encircled the house into the backyard. The pool caught his eyes first. The calm water reflected against the bright Arizona sun and swished along the concrete edges.
Alejandra set down the leaf blower and shot him a tempting glance, suggesting they jump in. He hadn’t seen her smile since the last time they swam in La Laguna. He wanted nothing more than to jump into the pool and let the cool water prickle his skin with a thousand bubbles, but he shook his head at her. The first time he ever came with Pedro to garden, his brother said to take all the leaves out of the water. He removed his shirt when Pedro handed him a leaf skimmer and told him gardeners were forbidden to swim in their customers’ pools.
“Alejandra,” Pedro said, stepping into the backyard. “Let me show you how to use the leaf blower.”
“Is it that hard to figure out?” she said.
Alejandra picked up the machine and struggled with the pull cord for a moment, before she yanked it to life. Hector laughed. Pedro hated it when people viewed gardening as anything less than an art. That stupid leaf blower was nothing more than a glorified rake. He lifted the leaf skimmer off a hook on the backyard wall and pulled dead leaves out of the pool that had fallen from the nearby Desert Willow tree. He loved the trickling sound the net made swinging through the water and yearned for the moments when a breeze blew mist into his face. But he cursed the man who invented the leaf skimmer. Without one he could jump into the pool and pull every leaf out by hand. The owners probably never even used the pool, while he had to walk over a mile and hike down a canyon to swim in La Laguna every day.
Once Pedro went to clip the hedges, Alejandra waved the leaf blower across the cement ground like a kid mowing down enemies with a Gatling gun in a videogame. Hector wondered if Carlos heard the firing of the gun that killed him. He remembered getting a phone call from Carlos after the farm had a bad season. Carlos was thinking of joining the army and refused to pay the cartel any more protection fees. The cartel kidnapped him off the farm a few days later. The thought of Carlos’s last moments hung over Hector like the water weight of La Laguna forcing him under.
After he took out the last leaf, he put the skimmer back on the wall and massaged his shoulders. His sister stood at the edge of the pool. The rays of light shooting through the ripples in the water glistened behind her head as she fired the leaf blower at nothing. He couldn’t blame her for not enjoying gardening, but he wished she could take some joy in working with her brothers. Ever since she could walk she would follow them into the cornfields. She always wanted to be treated like one of the boys.
Alejandra’s eyes rose to meet his. The corners of her lips curled into a smile. The smile turned into a laugh. She raised the leaf blower and fired at his face. He coughed out the gasoline-powered air and looked down at the dirt smudges covering his shirt. He wanted to curse her for being a brat, but he bit his lip and turned away. When he used to dream of his sister visiting him in Tucson, he imagined owning a hacienda like the one they cleaned and doing laps in the pool every day. He had lived in the United States for four years and couldn’t believe how little he’d accomplished.
* * *
Alejandra came with them to work every day. She would bag dry leaves and pull dead shrubs out of backyards. Even though she worked fast, Hector would always come back to a house to find dirt clods on the grass and weeds that didn’t make it into Alejandra’s trash bag. When she didn’t have a chore she sat on a freshly mowed lawn and looked at Hector with a face that read: anyone can do this job. At least once a day, she’d spray him with the garden hose. “Give me money or I’ll save up and buy my own ticket home,” she would say. He hated the way she drew out the word, Home.
Every day it got hotter. The heat made him think about how his sister had crossed the border in a truck filled with people. He didn’t know what a container full of migrants could do to each other once the ride became too long and the bus became too muggy. Something had changed her. She used to take any advice he gave her about her future, but she refused to accept she needed to live in the U.S. for her own safety. He imagined if he found the truck now, if he lodged open the backdoors, he would find the spirit of the real Alejandra inside, crouching against the back wall, shielding her eyes from the sun.
After a nine-hour day in 110-degree heat, Pedro made chicken quesadillas, corn and black beans in the apartment’s cramped kitchen to reward everybody for a hard week’s work. In the past, everyone cooked for himself. Although Pedro would never admit it, Hector believed he liked to prepare dinner because Carlos used to help cook for the family.
Once the roommates took as much food as they could stack on their plates Hector, Alejandra and Pedro sat at the small kitchen table. Hector devoured the food, even though the corn they grew in San Juan Atenco tasted 10 times better.
Alejandra tapped her fingers on the wood table until Hector looked at her. “If we worked this hard on the farm,” she said, “we could live completely independent of paying for any food or rent.”
“You go back there,” Hector said, chewing his food, “the cartel are gonna be the first people to greet you at the bus station.” His leg shook under the table. He didn’t want to bring up this topic in front of Pedro.
“How do you know anything about the cartel?” Alejandra gestured her hand toward him like she expected him to produce an example. “There’s nothing they can do to me that hasn’t already happened.”
Hector tried not to think about why she took three months to reach Tucson. He wanted to find any man who hurt her and drown him. He massaged his ear, worrying his thoughts could somehow seep out of his head onto the table.
“They can kill you,” he said.
“But I feel so alive here,” Alejandra said with a sarcastic grin that showed black beans in her teeth.
“I know exactly how you feel,” Pedro said, pointing his spoon at Alejandra. “This isn’t what any of us expected when we got to the United States. I’m thirty years old. I thought I’d have a house by now, a couple kids, a wife. Instead I got four dumbasses who can’t spell the word lawnmower.” Pedro pointed back to the living room where the other roommates sat on the couch with the TV light morphing colors over their faces. “But you can’t leave now. You think this is bad?” Pedro said. “You should see where it started. Three times the amount of guys in this place. But once we get that two bedroom apartment, that’s where it’s all gonna turn around.”
Two weeks ago Hector didn’t believe Alejandra survived her journey north. Now he wondered what kind of life she could expect in the United States. Tucson didn’t provide her with anything except hours hunched over in the sun for money that couldn’t pay her share of the rent.
“Hector, how can you not miss Mexico?” Alejandra said. “You never swim anymore.”
Hector kept chewing the chicken even though the taste left his mouth. The entire time he traveled to Tucson, he told himself he would make up for the lack of exercise and bad food by swimming hundreds of laps. By the time they finished gardening 10 houses at the end of each day, he felt too exhausted to practice.
“I can’t let them do to you what they did to Carlos,” Hector said.
Alejandra slammed her hands on the table. Beans spilled off her plate. “Carlos died because he was an idiot.”
“If Carlos was an idiot, then you’re a fool,” Pedro said to Alejandra.
“He didn’t pay the protection fees the cartel imposed, so they killed him.” Alejandra threw her hands in the air. “They’ve never bothered us before, they haven’t bothered Pa yet and I won’t let them bother us again.”
“You’re willing to bet your life on that?” Hector hovered over his seat.
“Do you know how much your brother spent to bring you here?” Pedro said, looking like he wanted to throw his bowl of beans at Alejandra’s face. “If I knew you were such an ungrateful little bitch I never would’ve told him to waste his money.”
“I know,” Alejandra said. She closed her eyes and took a breath. “Hector, I am so sorry you spent all your money for me to come here.” She cupped her hands on the table. “But I don’t want to get stuck cleaning pools for the next 40 years. I want to take my chances in Mexico so I can be with Pa.”
Hector looked in her eyes and made himself believe she was right. He wished his mother never trusted him to protect Alejandra. He had betrayed his mother’s trust when he left his sister for the United States and he’d betray it again when he let her go back to Mexico. Maybe that was why he was the best swimmer. When he was out in the middle of the water he only had to worry about himself.
* * *
Hector went into the bedroom and divided his sister’s clothes from the cluttered piles of dirty shirts and underwear covering the floor. Pedro hid the car keys because he refused to drive Alejandra to the bus depot, so Hector took his sister to the Sun Tran at the street corner. He sat in the back of the bus and counted the outdoor swimming pools that went past the bus’s smudged windows. Each pool reminded him of the task he could still achieve. When he got back to the apartment later, he would tell Pedro he could only work part time and enroll in the nearest community college that had a swim team.
When they arrived at the bus depot, he led Alejandra inside. His eyes adjusted to the bright florescent lights that reflected off the linoleum floor. He passed a crowd of 30 travelers to reach the counter and bought a ticket to an 8:09 p.m. bus bound for Nogales.
“Do you know how to get from Nogales back home?” Hector said. He sat next to Alejandra on leather waiting chairs.
“I switch buses at the capital.” She leaned forward and smiled like she was about to return home from a long vacation. He stuffed 40 dollars in her backpack he once received as a tip. If Carlos were here, Hector would ask if he thought letting Alejandra go home was a smart idea. His brother would probably take Alejandra all the way to San Juan Atenco just because he swore to Hector he’d keep her safe.
Through the back picture window, a bus pulled in front of the depot.
“All passengers for bus 211 to Nogales,” the ticket lady said through the intercom, “please report to the platform.”
The people waiting in the terminal gathered their things and trudged toward the exit door. Hector stayed seated and wished he really were going home. He could be diving back into La Laguna in a week’s time, and all the struggle of the last four years would wash away in an instant. He slung on his sister’s duffle bag and they walked out to the platform.
His sister gave him a long hug goodbye. He couldn’t believe this was the little girl he once took care of, reading her stories those late nights after their mother died.
“When you come to visit one day, we’ll swim in La Laguna again.” Alejandra kissed him goodbye. “I promise you I’ll stay safe.” She slipped out of his reach and walked toward the bus.
“I love you,” he said. He wasn’t sure if she heard him. Her head bobbed with each step she took on the concrete. He dreamed the next time he saw her would be the day he would compete in the Olympics. He’d buy a special front row seat so she could cheer for him on the sidelines. Alejandra stepped onto the bus and then she was gone, swallowed by the swarm of passengers stepping on behind her.
After the bus pulled away, Hector wandered down a street lit by fluorescent bulbs from the overhead freeway. The night air made his skin prickle. He had no desire to go home yet. With no people to distract him, memories of Carlos raced through his mind. When they were kids, Carlos once took food off Hector’s plate, only to return it after dinner. It was all a show for Pedro and their older cousins. Hector hoped that by letting Alejandra go home, it would mean Carlos didn’t die in vain defending their farm.
The road led him toward the wet smell of chlorine. Following the scent, he turned down an unlit street to a park with an outdoor swimming pool. Moonlight glistened over the calm water. Even with the nearby freeway, he still heard little waves swishing along the poolside. There were no cars or people in the area. He grabbed onto the steel gate and hoisted himself over the wall. Even though the pool was significantly smaller than La Laguna, he vowed to practice swimming every day and hoped one day he could get back to the point where he left off.
He yanked off his clothes and stood at the edge of the water in his underwear. With a deep breath, he leaped off the platform and dove into the pool. The coldness hit his hands, sent a shock up his spine and closed around his feet. He swam with the urgency of a fish returned to the sea. Salvation was just out of reach every week he cleaned pools in Casas Adobes, but now it had arrived. After pushing himself through 20 laps, he caught his breath against the side of the pool. He half expected Alejandra to be sitting in a sun chair smiling down at him. But when he wiped the water from his eyes, nobody was there.