by Jenny Ortiz
My hand moved to my nose to catch the blood before it fell on my grease-stained uniform. Ducking into the bathroom before a customer called me over, I examined my nose in the mirror, but couldn’t see anything. I sniffed a few times; a metallic smell remained in my nostrils. After rolling my neck, and hearing the vertebrae crack, I went back to work.
The pitcher of iced tea felt heavier in my hand; the scraping of forks against plates seemed louder. The booths were filled with people in church clothes, their faces smudged with ketchup, fingers tapping at the rims of their cups as they waited for refills. Three different table jukeboxes were playing heavy metal and Spanish ballads. Truck drivers sat in stools eating full meals of eggs, ham, cheese, and some avocado on the side. Smells of cooking oil and pancake mix permeated the diner.
Jaynus walked in and took a seat in my section, which made me press my lips together. Although his long blond hair covered his eyes, I knew he was looking out the window; I could almost feel the twitch at the corner of his left eye as he watched vigilantly. We were always looking over our shoulders, but this time we were expecting her. There’d been a time when Jaynus and I dreamt that running away would mean the hot sun on our skin, the taste of fresh coffee, waking up in a new city. But then hiding in train cars, jumping over fences, and washing up in the bathrooms of gas stations started wearing us down. We no longer wanted to work long hours while sweat soaked the elastic of our underwear in order to pay for our daily meals and a motel room.
Jaynus had begun staying up at night, studying the Bible and thinking about God. I wasn’t God-fearing; I just wanted a big house and some money to spend. After sex, I’d start falling asleep, and he’d start quoting Scripture. Not that we were having sex as much as we used to—that began to fall apart soon after we got to Puerto Rico. Fugitives, we learned, don’t get much time to sit on the beach and sip margaritas. We avoided places full of Americans and took jobs right outside of Aguadilla; while I waited tables, Jaynus did odds and ends for different construction sites.
I brought him a beer and left him to his thoughts. I’d never intended to be with Jaynus so long, but when you’re fourteen and climbing a fence with barbed wire, you don’t think of doing it by yourself. It’d taken a long time for our thin bodies to fill out again, for the skin of our feet to heal. The taste of grass came back every now and again, making my face grow tight with shame.
Thirteen kids had escaped with us from the government sponsored orphanage. We were two out of four that remained. Three had died in the woods. They’d been weak, their thoughts feverish with their mothers’ voices, the taste of fresh water, the warmth of a clean bed. Struggling to keep them standing, we’d dragged and pulled their bodies over thick tree roots and under dangling branches; before we reached the road, they’d slid off our shoulders. I don’t remember if I cried for them. At one point, Jaynus had pulled at the bark of a dead tree until his nails were broken, leaving the skin underneath raw and exposed. His fingers were swollen the next day, and we feared he might lose one of his hands if we didn’t find some medicine. A few of the girls had kept sniffling, but had I? Asking Jaynus about it would be useless; he refused to remember. He couldn’t even tell me what’d happened the day before.
The rest of us had separated, but slowly the others were found. We were too valuable to be lost. You pump enough drugs into a kid’s arm and there are bound to be good results, or at least a guide to what not to do to the human body. Building heroes is expensive; we were expensive. While we bragged about riding our bikes without handlebars, they could brag about making new antibiotics, leading a nation with one speech, and guiding missiles by satellite. No matter how old we got, how strong our muscles became, we’d always be grubby kids with mud streaking our thin legs and knots in our hair, running away aimlessly in our thin white underwear.
“Mirah, another beer,” Jaynus called out.
Glancing over at him, I was surprised to find Utah sitting across from him. I’d loved Utah. We had escaped with her. The day she left us, I’d stood with her on the train platform. She was shouldering a taped-up duffel bag and looking ahead, her jaw tight and her stern glare focused. She’d refused to answer any of my questions. Men in white vans pulled up just as the train for Manhattan was pulling in. I tried to board with her, but she pushed me away roughly, her hand against the new tattoo I’d gotten—Utah’s name on the flat space between my breasts. She’d watched through the window as Jaynus and I ran from the men. We didn’t stopped until we found a sewer entrance too tight for them to follow us in; we’d stayed for two days underground before we felt safe enough to come out.
As I headed toward their table now, Utah and Jaynus were in deep conversation. Utah’s fingers pulled at her sleeves; the fabric tightened over her shoulders. Placing the beer between them, I continued to another booth to take an order. Through the loud buzz of voices, I could hear Jaynus telling Utah about the places we’d been, but I couldn’t catch her responses.
Within an hour the rush had died down, and I was able to join them. Jaynus’ face was tense; Utah was crying.
“Who’s she crying for?” My teeth were clenched as I spoke.
“Only reason people cry like that is because their heart’s been broken.” Jaynus’ lips barely moved; his hand cupped his face as if he were deciphering a mathematical equation in his head.
“Expert, huh?” I said to him.
“You tell me.”
His gaze moved away from me towards Utah. Her thin body was slightly hunched; her gold hoops moved every time she wiped her face with the sleeve stretched over her slender, tanned hands. Those hands were still dark, their palms round, like full moons whose edges are tinted red. Although she was small and slouched, everything about Utah felt big, without boundaries.
“Why are you here?” I snapped at her.
“My boyfriend turned me in.”
Utah’s tongue was thick with a coat of saliva, which made her sentence sound fragmented.
“You told him about us?”
“I thought I could trust him.”
“That was a bad move. He did it for the reward money? I can’t believe they’re still offering money for each of us…”
“We’re government property,” Jaynus said, looking down at his hands.
“They used us—they knew they could, because we didn’t have any family—eventually we would’ve died. Don’t tell me you feel sorry for leaving,” I said to Jaynus. Then I turned to Utah. “Wait. Knowing they’re coming for you, you came to us. You’re risking our lives?”
“I didn’t have anywhere to go,” she said between her clenched teeth.
“I didn’t have anywhere to go, either, when you left me,” I snarled.
“Don’t start.” Jaynus looked at me. “We have to get out of here. There’s a bus going to the capitol; we’ll meet up with Ralph. We can stay at his place until we can get a flight.”
“Back to the States? They’ll find us.”
I tried to walk away, but Jaynus grabbed my arm.
“They’ll find us here. How big do you think this island is?”
“Let me finish up my shift. We’ll need the money,” I muttered before walking away from their teary faces. Together they were remaking their memories; I could see them telling themselves that the hunger and the dirt hadn’t been so bad.
The bus ride to the capitol moved into a smooth soft lull, pulling Jaynus into a light sleep; his headphones slipped off his ears. Utah and I remained awake.
“You’re still mad at me,” Utah said.
My eyes moved from Utah to Jaynus, whose hair covered his face. Before stroking his hair, I answered her: “Did you think anything would change between us?”
“You’ve gotten hard.”
“And you’re still weepy.”
We remained silent for several moments.
“And Eli? Have you talked to him?”
She smiled a little nervously.
“He’s dead.” My voice was steady as I stared out the window. In my memories I could see Eli’s sharp bones, his hollow cheeks sticking to his teeth when he spoke. He’d designed the tattoo on my chest, but we’d gone in different directions before he could see it.
“They chased him towards a moving train.”
“There are only three of us left then.” Her voice sounded weary. “They captured the rest. They’re back in the facility.”
I tried to stifle my laugh with my hand, but stained my sleeve instead; my nose was bleeding again.
“At the facility,” said Utah, “they have drugs to stop the nosebleeds.”
“Wads of tissue seem to stop my nosebleeds just fine. “
Jaynus, awake now, squeezed my hand tightly; I opted to remain silent the rest of the way. Utah’s face was blank.
The streets were filled with cars the color of rust and dirty silver. Belanova was playing somewhere from one of the boutiques. We passed hot dog venders; the smell of melted cheese and ground beef made my mouth water. Tourists in white linen pants stepped past small children pulling at dirty fur-matted dogs on rope leashes. Utah’s husky voice was lighter now. She pointed at clothing stores and absentmindedly sang songs.
“Here we are,” Jaynus said.
Ralph greeted us with cold beers and greasy tortillas. We grabbed the food greedily. Ralph’s living room smelled damp; the black line of mold on the wall reminded me of the cell in which we’d been placed. One cell for twenty children; no windows, no toilet. A leaky roof. Fights that led to small hands ripping weakly at dirty hair as we pushed one another aside in order to catch the brown water falling from the ceiling. The smell of one little girl’s infected mouth on my face as she tried to grab food from my hands.
I shivered. Of course they’d want to capture us: we were ugly. Were Utah and Jaynus really thinking about it?
They’d promised to return us to our lives. To return us to big backyards, the games we played with our friends, the bedtime stories our parents had read to us. They told us they’d even bring our parents to visit.
We’d been so focused on our parents’ weepy eyes that it’d taken us a long time to realize they wore the same white uniforms as the scientists. That our parents stopped crying and began taking notes. That’s when we figured it out: even our happy childhoods were an experiment. We’d be the new humans, better than any soldier, loyal and strong. We’d been made to win wars. A great soldier didn’t just have special abilities; he or she also had memories of a great family, something we could fight for. We’d been given a taste of happiness—then medication, three times a day, so we’d be willing to protect our memory of that happiness, though it had never been real in the first place.
After eating, Utah walked over to the bookshelf. My eyes moved from her legs to her collarbone and mouth.
“Did anyone follow you?” Ralph patted my back.
“No.” I gulped down my beer.
Ralph had been the security guard at the facility who’d “accidently” left our cell door unlocked. He’d also left two loaves of fresh bread on the table with a steak knife beside them. It wasn’t until we met again in Puerto Rico that we’d understood the reason he’d helped us; the scientists had planned to take in Ralph’s own children. They’d wanted to see if they could use civilians instead of children born and raised in labs. The moment Ralph helped us the government saw him as an accomplice, a thief that needed to be disposed of.
“What time’s our flight?”
“Six in the morning,” said Ralph, waving the plane ticket at me.
“Go talk to Jaynus,” I said.
Ralph heaved himself onto a stool and began talking with Jaynus in a low voice over the new identification we’d ordered—passports, driver’s licenses, birth certificates, even a baptismal certificate for Jaynus. I followed Utah, who’d made her way towards the backyard. Ralph’s colorful shirts hung low on the clothes lines; floral dresses and ripped jeans stood between Utah and me. A few droplets of rain fell onto the dry dirt. Utah wiped the water from her face, although more drops settled on her like transparent freckles. My instinct told me to kiss her, to feel her tongue between my teeth, the taste of her saliva mixed with rain. But I stood still.
“You’d think a girl could trust her boyfriend. I thought he’d protect me. Instead he turned me in for cash,” she said.
“You should forget him.”
“It’s not that easy.”
“If he left you, he isn’t sitting around thinking about you. You should forget him, like he did you.”
“Simple reasoning. Simple and stupid,” she spit out.
“Why—because I didn’t forget about you? I should’ve. You left, and you didn’t stop to think about me.”
“I did think about you! What I did at the train station, I did for your own good. You were getting sick. You needed to be taken care of, and I couldn’t do it.”
“There was no reason I had to go back. There still isn’t.”
“You’re getting worse. You know it. You saw Eli getting sick. You saw how he was suffering. He should’ve gone back. He might’ve lived.”
“Don’t act like you know what happened to Eli. Don’t act like you care about us.”
“I care about all of us. And I remember when we were happy, how we used to laugh—”
“I guess they were running tests on me during the laughter portion of our imprisonment,” I said bitterly.
“Remember when you used to tell stories?”
“I was delirious from all the drugs they fed us. I had to think in fairy tales. If I didn’t, the hardness of the floor, the cold walls… all of it would’ve killed me.”
“But we were happy. You and me.”
Utah held out her hand and I took it. Her fingers were warm and slightly calloused. There was a scar on her wrist from the barbed wire that had nipped her as we jumped over the fence.
There’d been about six children already in the cell by the time I arrived. Every night Utah slept with her hand over my chest. Our sweat collected in a small pool and ran down my collarbone and my shoulder. With Utah, sleep had been like a layering of heat. Like slipping off the earth and falling into the sun. No matter how hot it got, I wanted to stay with her. Sleep had been easy at the facility; after a day of injections and experiments, sleep was encouraged. It was after we escaped that sleep became the enemy.
“I won’t leave you again.” Utah smiled weakly before kissing me. Her hands moved from my face to my waist. I pulled away slowly.
“I thought you wanted me…“ she continued, trying to hold on to me.
“I do. I’m just anxious about escaping. I can’t be intimate if I don’t feel safe.”
“You will be, soon.”
“I know,” I said as I turned away from her and went inside.
While the rest packed and planned the next steps of our escape, I slept. My thoughts drifted, images passing as if in a movie: Jaynus sitting in the pink-cushioned booth at the diner, sweat ringing the collar of his shirt. Eli chewing a piece of moldy bread. The sound of Utah’s bare feet on the floor, her limbs cutting the air around her like the hands of a samurai.
My eyes opened. The room was dark apart from the security light seeping through the slits of the metal blinds. Swallowing hard, I lifted my head off my sweaty arm and listened for noises. Jaynus and Ralph were still talking in hoarse whispers; someone was walking around barefoot. I sighed.
“Are you awake?” Utah stood with the door open.
“Yeah. How much longer?”
“Not long.” Utah sucked in her breath saying, “I like when it grows dark and cold. When the cold sets in, I crawl under the covers and fall into dreams that always begin right before they end.”
“I remember the other kids,” I said. “That one little boy who died soon after we got to the facility. His dad came to see him, and he sneered at him, like he was mad that he hadn’t been stronger. When we asked him why he wasn’t crying, the dad said something like, why grieve for a test-tube baby?”
After a pause, I added: “I don’t dream, Utah. I just remember.”
“I don’t see the difference.”
“You wouldn’t,” I said quietly. “I wish I were you.”
“What do you mean?” Utah placed her hand on my chest.
Pushing her away, I said, “It’s as if you were never starved. Bad stuff happened to us, Utah! And when we thought we’d be safe, we were hurt even more. Even after we left the facility… Look at us. We’re like rats avoiding the exterminator.”
“It wasn’t that bad. Some of us were getting stronger.”
“And those were the ones who stopped being human. Don’t you remember how their skin smelled? As if it was burning. And what did they do? They sat in a corner eating uncooked rice ’til they died.”
The drugs they’d given us had been designed to make us stronger; after each treatment, our abilities were supposed to be enhanced. Some of us became faster, or could see better in the dark. Others rejected the drug every time, till their bodies slowly decayed. Regardless of the results we watched all of them slowly burn from the inside, knowing we couldn’t help them.
“We didn’t have to look over our shoulders all the time.”
“Why look over your shoulder when you know what’s going to happen—when you’re only gonna get hurt?”
“We should go back and turn ourselves in,” she insisted.
“Are you insane? Anyway, if you liked it so much, why did you even leave?”
“Because all of you wanted to go, and I didn’t want to be left behind.”
I kicked the sheets aside and got up.
“You come here as if you missed me. As if you and I can be something again,” I said. “You’re only here to save yourself. I’m not as stupid as I used to be.”
I picked up my things and walked into the next room. Ralph was sitting on his stool.
“Want something to eat?“ he asked. “There’s an egg sandwich and milk on the counter.”
“Where are you going?” said Jaynus to me, though his eyes were on Utah.
“I don’t know. Maybe Ponce. I’m not staying with her any more. She’s going to betray us,” I said.
“She wants what’s best for us, Mirah.”
I pulled at his jaw, so our eyes met. “You want to go back, too?”
“I think it would be best.”
“We owe them nothing! Our escape was their mistake. If we were so valuable, then they should have kept a better eye on us.”
“The world doesn’t work like that. God doesn’t work through mistakes,” Jaynus said, his voice not as steady as it had been.
“Who said anything about God?”
“Maybe we made the mistake when we left. We were born to help our fellow human beings, but we got scared and ran from our calling. And now we’re being given a chance to redeem ourselves. We could be like Job—”
“Stop right there. I don’t need you to preach at me. I’d rather be in a drug stupor than hear about miracles.”
“Your body is shutting down. We have to go back,” Jaynus said as he grabbed my arm.
I pulled away.
“Simple cuts and scrapes I get at the construction sites aren’t healing. They’re festering. I need… we need medication.”
“That’s not why you want to go back,” I said to him. “You’re a real idiot to think God’s setting all of this up for your redemption! No one is going to forgive you. Utah’s the one setting this up. Setting us up. She just wants an audience for her ballet recitals.”
When we were in the facility, she’d bragged about being a ballet dancer. She’d twirl for hours around us, doing her stretches, believing if they’d let her go she could be a real ballerina. Her dirty shirt, so big it reached her ankles, would flap as she danced. The guards laughed at her.
“We’ll be a family again,“ said Utah. “They said if we complete the program, we’ll get to be a family again. And we won’t have to go to war until we’re ready. They promised if I helped them get everyone back, we’d be safe, and we’d never have to be afraid.“
“I should’ve stayed with Eli.” I backed away from them.
“Eli’s dead. And we will be too, if we keep running. We’ve lied and cheated ever since we left the facility. We belong to them!” Jaynus shouted.
I ran out the door. The sidewalks were vacant. A white van pulled up at the door; I felt Utah’s hands around my shoulders. As I tried to jerk away, Jaynus gripped my arm. No tears, no fists. I tried to suck in breath after breath, but my body wouldn’t react. I felt like a pencil being rolled between two hands quickly, without thought or reason.
“For a moment I thought you were from the facility,” I said to the driver, my voice shaky, pulling away from Jaynus. His grasp on me had gone limp as soon as he saw Eli get out of the van.
“You said he was dead.” Utah moved towards Jaynus.
“I don’t understand what’s going on,” Jaynus said.
“Your plans aren’t working the way you wanted?” I said. “As soon as you told me Utah was coming, I knew what the two of you were planning. So I called Eli.”
“But you said he was dead,” Utah whispered again.
“She’s like a broken record,” Eli said, a cigarette between his lips.
“We knew you were selling us out. Eli’s been in hiding.”
“It’s time to go, Mirah,” Eli called out as he and Ralph got into the van.
“We were supposed to be a family now…”
“That’s what I’d thought at the train station.” I kissed Utah on the mouth and went to do the same to Jaynus, but he jerked away from me.
“You’re doing the same thing to me Utah did to you.”
“No, I’m not. You want to go back. I don’t. I’m doing what’s best for all of us,” I said before getting into the van.
Through the rearview mirror, I saw them holding hands. I didn’t want to imagine what they’d look like at the facility, so I looked at them until their tightly gripped hands and their blank faces were visible even after we turned the corner. I looked ahead at the winding roads that would turn into the tarmacs of the airport, wondering how long before the end.
JENNY ORTIZ is a writer living and teaching in New York. When she was a little girl, Jenny wanted to be a gun-slinging drifter, much like a Clint Eastwood character. She ended up (happily) graduating from Adelphi University with an MFA in Creative Writing and is currently working at St. John’s University and LaGuardia Community College. When she is not teaching or writing, Jenny can be found hanging out in IHOP with her friends, discussing music, video games, or Avatar: Last Airbender. When at home, she enjoys reading Haruki Murakami or listening to podcasts from the New Yorker. Follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/jnylynn.