The hour following the incident at the tunnel blurred across Chuck mind. He recalled the harrowing sound of Delando’s gunfire and the spray of blood from the back of Riko Grande’s head splattering across his face.
He recalled the profound sadness at his initial belief that Riko’s men must have shot one or more of his companions. Mr. Casteneda’s demand, that he keep Mirabella safe at all costs, crossed his mind. His stomach wretched at the thought of her possible fate.
Dizzy and barely able to stand, when he caught sight of Mirabella, Pedro, Octavio and Miguel all hugging each other in celebration of their survival, his body relaxed and he lost consciousness.
The rest of the time passed like a dream. Chuck lay blinded on the floor of Riko’s van with dirt and mud wedged under his eyelids. The joyful voices of Octavio, Miguel and Pedro as well as the sweet songbird Spanish of Mirabella filled the stolen vehicle as Delando maneuvered them back toward the city.
They flushed his eyes with water bottles enabling him to focus on the faces of his friends.
The strange man dressed in black trousers and a bloodstained white shirt ordered him out of the van and into the black jeep in the alley.
He recalled bits of the conversation between Delando, Pedro and Mirabella, where they relayed the series of activities from the moment they first encountered Chuck at the hotel through the three quick death-shots at the tunnel.
Delando thanked Mirabella and the four boys and provided a vague explanation that he had to move Chuck out of Reynosa. By then, Chuck had regained much of his wits and asked Delando for a few minutes to speak with the group.
“You have to come with us,” he said to Mirabella and Pedro. “The police will look for you. They have the evidence on the video tapes. You won’t be safe here.”
“I don’t know,” Pedro said. “Our whole lives are here. Our house. My friends.”
“But you know you can’t go back,” Chuck pressed. “They’re probably at your house waiting for you.”
“We can’t go to America with you,” Pedro said. “We don’t belong there. I see that now. Mi papá is gone. We have nothing there. You have your family. We belong here in Reynosa.”
“It’s too risky for you to stay,” said Chuck.
“It’s too dangerous and uncertain for us to leave,” Pedro replied.
“Cómo se dice; autodefensa?” Mirabella asked Pedro. “Diremos la verdad … uh, we say … uh, the truth.”
Miguel interjected excitedly.
“Mr. Casteneda send me a text. He say he go to the hardware store and steal the video tape. They have the same security camera system as him in the hotel. The police and Riko’s men left the store and nobody was watching, so he found the camera and destroyed the tapes. There’s no evidence no more.”
Chuck took Mirabella by the shoulder and walked her out of earshot of the others.
“Come with me,” he said. “You and Pedro. We can go to the United States together. I don’t know how it’ll work, but we’ll figure it out together – you and me, and Pedro.”
He knew she wouldn’t understand his words, but believed she’d interpret his emotions and his intention without difficulty.
“No vamos a America,” Mirabella said with a soft, but firm smile. “Anda tu; You go. Nos quedamos; We stay.”
Chuck took the roll of pesos out of his pocket and handed them to Mirabella. She tried to refuse, but he insisted she take it.
“Have Pedro use it to start his own business,” he said.
“Gracias,” she replied, blushing with self-consciousness for having accepted Chuck’s gift.
“What’ll you do?” he asked. “Where will you go?”
Mirabella strained to understand, but answered in the best English she could.
“We go to hotel,” she said. “Señor Casteneda take care.”
She hugged him, her soft hands wrapping his neck like a silk scarf. She kissed him on the cheek and lingered a brief second before pulling away and clasping her hands across her stomach.
“Goodbye Chuck,” she said.
The drive to Tijuana exposed Chuck to a myriad of beautiful landscapes from the bright sandy desert around Reynosa to the jagged mountains in Chihuahua where they spent their first night, to the lush tropical greens of the west coast near the Pacific Ocean.
Delando asked Chuck about his time in Reynosa and laughed heartily at the series of misfortunes and beatings he received in only four short weeks. In retelling his story, Chuck saw the irony and humor in it and found himself relaxing along the drive with Delando through the pristine and remote wasteland of the Mexican midsection.
“I never even got the cast taken off,” he said, showing Delando the dark, dirty, mangled piece of plaster that clung to his forearm.
Delando took a four-inch hunting knife from his shoulder holster and handed it to Chuck, who used it to cut his arm free from its restraint.
“Jesus, Mr. Domo,” Delando chuckled. “I guess trouble sticks to you like wet plaster.”
Chuck found himself looking back over his shoulder at the landscape as it passed. He knew he should be excited to see his wife, but he couldn’t muster as much enthusiasm as he expected. Instead, he worried about Mirabella and Pedro.
Had they been arrested? Beaten? Killed?
At a rest stop in Nogales, near the New Mexico border, Chuck borrowed Delando’s phone and spoke with Mr. Casteneda, asking for an update.
“They’re staying here at the hotel,” he explained. “Their house got burned down and they lose all their belongings.”
“Jesus,” Chuck muttered, resisting the urge to ask Delando to take him back.
“But I take care of them,” he said. “They can stay here as long as they want. I gave her the job back. I regret kicking her out of the hotel. I was upset with her. But Riko Grande is dead. They sell off the items from the store and I bought some new power tools for Pedro. He can work in the yard of my house. I asked him to rebuild several pieces of furniture for me and I pay him good money.”
“What about the police?”
“The Policía have no evidence and will not press the charges,” Mr. Casetenda said. “I will keep them safe here with me. I will take care of Mirabella and Pedro for as long as they will have me.”
As Chuck clicked to hang up the phone, a conflicting pang of peaceful happiness for Mirabella competed with a sense of loss or jealousy. Part of him wished he could have been the one to rescue her, care for her, spend his time with her. But that role transferred to Alejandro Casteneda. Instead, he’d have to reconnect with his wife and rejoin his life in the United States.
Only a month apart, his prior life with Stephanie felt like a generation ago. And, despite his constant pep talks to spark energy and anticipation around the reunion, he struggled with another strange feeling; dread.
But, no matter the shaded emotions around his forthcoming connection with Stephanie, when he thought of his three daughters, his heart ached and soared at the prospect of returning to the flow of their lives.
He pictured Britney with her inquisitive, creative, sensitive personality walking at the high school track with him, buzzing about her plans for the future. His mind moved to Ashley, his wild child, always challenging and teasing him with her off-beat ideas and penchant for fun, edgy mischief. Lastly, he thought of his studious and careful youngest daughter, Emily, who scored near perfect grades and worked so hard to make him proud.
The three young women in his life gave him the strength to stop looking back and embrace his uncertain future with confidence and optimism.
He just had to survive that initial, awkward moment with Stephanie as they readjust to each other, like an automatic camera calibrating its focus.
“I’ll take you to San Ysidro tomorrow to start the asylum process,” Delando said as they entered the city limits of Tijuana. Tonight, I’ve arranged for you and your wife to enjoy the honeymoon suite at the beautiful Hotel Lucerna Resort and Spa.”
Delando gave a prodding smile. Chuck faked his.
Stephanie awoke at 4am on Wednesday morning to finish packing for her flight. She ate a bowl of granola in milk with a banana. She grabbed both her phone and Chuck’s as well as her purse. She left Chuck’s wallet with his falsified identification and his illegal passport behind. Etan agreed to pick her up at five, fly with her to San Diego, escort her across the border and bring her to Delando in Tijuana.
She heard four alarm clocks buzz and four bedroom doors creak open. As if Christmas morning arrived six months early, her teenagers descended the stairs in reverse age order.
“We decided to wake up early to wish you luck,” Emily said.
“And thank you,” Ashley continued. “For working so hard to bring Daddy home.”
“We’ll be here, ready to help any way we can,” Britney added.
“That goes for me too,” said Glynis Banks, just above the girls on the staircase. “Whatever you need honey, you can count on us.”
Stephanie melted and thanked the four women on the stairs, hugging each one tightly before noticing the stretch limo taking up their entire driveway.
“I love you girls,” Stephanie said. “And, you too mom.”
“We love you too,” Emily said.
“And, Mom,” Britney touched Stephanie on the shoulder to stop her from leaving. “I’ve decided to apply to UT for early decision. The deadline’s next week. I’m going to do it myself.”
“UT?” Stephanie looked at her, confused. “Early decision?”
“I want to study law,” she said.
“That’s good, honey,” Stephanie’s shoulders shed a few pounds of tension. “Where did this come from all of a sudden?”
“I don’t know mom,” Britney said with a shrug. “I just decided how interesting and exciting it can be. Daddy always said I’d be a good lawyer.”
“I’m glad you’ve figured it out,” Stephanie said, holding up a finger to let the driver know she’d be out shortly. “Call me and we can work on it together. And e-mail me your drafts so I can help edit and wordsmith.”
She gave her oldest daughter another hug and opened the front door to leave. But Ashley interrupted her again.
“And, I want to go to A&M.”
“Texas A&M?” Stephanie asked.
“Yes,” Ashley replied. “They have a military college. I want to do what Mr. Rojas does.”