***Somewhere in Baja California, Mexico***
Daniella heard Sofia’s cries, but she could not stop now to console her younger sister. She had all that she could do to shield Mateo from the worst of the destruction. Of course, the fancy hotels, condominiums, and homes near the beach were virtually unscathed. People could simply climb a floor or two to safety. They would have been built to withstand the earthquake as well. Even if they lost power, there would be food for those rich people.
But everywhere else they walked was a different story. Even the middle-class neighborhoods were in chaos. Many of the homes had been destroyed or severely damaged. Of course, they were well past the worse hit areas, like the barrio they had called home for the last year.
Home? Daniella wasn’t certain what that was anymore. Not since the night of the fiesta to celebrate Hector’s new position. Even before that, she had not felt truly a part of the man’s familia. He had made sure of that. Of course, her step-father never saw her mother as anything other than a political connection and breeder either.
Ten miles, actually more like twelve or thirteen. That was the distance to the US border. What then? Sure the man could probably talk his way across. But what about them? What was to stop him from just leaving them there? Would that be any worse than any of the other places they had been for the past almost four years?
Except this time, it was just her. She was now responsible for Mateo and Sofia. No Mama. No Abuela. No Hector. No fancy private school. Just her and two children. Because while Sofia should be old enough to help out, in some ways, her sister was more dependent than her baby brother. She was barely twenty years old and had sole responsibility for two other lives. If she allowed herself to dwell on it, Daniella would be overwhelmed.
They had traveled inland at first. That had been the worst. Stepping over the debris of what had once been people’s lives. And occasionally, what had once been people. She had tried at first to shield Mateo from that reality. But there was just too much death and destruction all around them. And if the rumors about all the strange things happening in the world were true, then it was probably futile to attempt to protect anyone from the carnage.
Maybe she had simply become inured to it all? From the moment she heard the rapid-fire of those automatic weapons, her innocence was stripped away. Her hands had been bathed in the blood of the man who had never even attempted to be a father to her. She had nursed her injured mother for two years. Then her ailing Abuela.
All while working almost any job, she could find to put food in their mouths. Occasionally even resorting to stealing food when she couldn’t find work. There was only one line that she had not crossed. Her Abuela had made sure of that. But how knew what was to come? Yes, she had long ago made the choice that if, or perhaps when, it became necessary, she would trade her virginity for their lives.
“¿Cuánto tiempo más?” Mateo’s face was streaked with dirt, and who knew what else. But those dark eyes shone up at her.
Daniella’s throat tightened as the enormity of it all hit her. This child was utterly dependent on her now. In the midst of the world falling apart around them. This time not just their once safe and insulated little existence but the whole fucking world. Or at least it seemed that way.
“Another couple of hours, buddy. Do you want to ride my back for a bit?” The man’s deep voice sounded from behind them.
Did she dare to stop to reassure her brother? They had been walking since late last night. Probably a bit after midnight, but she could not be sure. The sun was beginning to peak up over her right shoulder. That meant they were on the right path. But there was little doubt of that. They had paralleled highway 1D most of the way. Of course, they were not alone. The highway was backed up with vehicles of those trying to escape the chaos. People were beginning to abandon their cars and, like them, make the journey on foot.
Her brother shook his head, raising a bit of a dust cloud. Not that such things mattered right now. “I can make it,” Mateo insisted as the man passed something to him. The boy unscrewed the cap and lifted a bottle of soda to his mouth.
They had picked up as much as they could carry along the way. Food and drink mostly. Sometimes money or other valuables. It bothered her, as it always did to take other people’s things, but it was unlikely the owners would need them this time. They slowed a bit as the man opened another bottle, this time water, and passed it to Sofia. Her sister did not even look at him or say anything as she drank.
Sofia lacked resilience. Was that because she had been old enough to remember all the things and people they had lost that night? Or was it some weakness that she had inherited from Hector? Daniella had done her best to accommodate Sofia’s particular needs. Asking as little as possible from her sister and picking up the slack herself. But could she afford to continue that?
Her sister handed the bottle back to the man, and he passed it to her. Their eyes met, “So what’s your plan?”
“The American side is Border Field State Park. The only thing between the US and Mexico at that point is a wooden fence that extends out far enough into the Pacific that only the strongest swimmers would dare attempt a crossing. And those are usually met with federal agents.”
He looked at her brother and then Sofia, who was once again leaning heavily against him. “I’ve surfed that area many times and know it well. I’ll swim you one at a time across.”
“What about the border patrol? You’re counting on them not being around?”
“I think they’ll have their hands full, but if not, then I’m going to use my one call to my big brother. Brent will get us out of it. I trust him.”
Daniella choked back the knot in her throat. The one person she could trust and rely on like that was gone now too. It was just her…and her younger sister and brother. She needed to make the right choice. For them.
There was loads wrong with his plan. Swimming and surfing were two different, admittedly related, things. But add to that the weight of another person. Mateo would be easy as long as he did not panic and start fighting. The man was lean but muscular. He could probably manage Sofia. But he’d assuredly be tired by the time he came back for her. “I’ll swim it myself.”
He shook his head, “It’s too big a risk. If you get caught in the current and pulled out to sea, it’ll be harder for me to go after you than it will be to swim with you holding onto my back. Trust me, I know this area well.”
But Daniella couldn’t remember the last time she had trusted anyone other than her Abuela. On some level, she had not even trusted Maria Elena Cortez-Espinoza. Her mother was weak in her own way, perhaps even more so than Hector De León. After all, she had been taken in by the man’s lies.
Then once they were married, she had not been strong enough to protect her daughter from his abuse. Yes, most of it was verbal. The way Hector always made it known Daniella was not his child was the least of it. Of course, there had been a few times when discipline crossed the line into abuse, and she had not been able to sit down for days from the bruises left on her legs and bottom from the man’s cane.
No, trusting a man, any man did not come naturally for Daniella. But right now, with her brother and sister depending on her, and no plan to survive this latest disaster to befall her familia, she wasn’t sure she had any other choice. At least for now. She would keep her eyes and ears open. If a better option presented itself, she’d take it.