I’m happy on the road. The land stretches like a languid animal, and I find tranquility in its measured length. Outside the car the earth breathes, the ground rising and sinking. Even though I am the one driving, concentrating on the road and the trucks roaring past, it’s like a meditation for me—my mind empties into the open space. I need it before the border. I need to forget there are people. Beyond the farmland that edges up to the road, houses stand sentinel over great swathes of land cut like squares of a quilt. Bright, yellow-eyed windows hint at the people inside, but I can’t see them. Between border crossings, it feels like everyone has disappeared.
“God, there really is nobody out here, huh?” Trace slouches in their seat and props their feet on the dashboard. “I can’t believe you do this every other week.”
“There are a lot of people out here; you just don’t see them from the road. This is farm country. You should see some horses and cows soon, but it’s a lot of cropland. Corn and wheat and soy, mostly.”
“Bo-ring,” Trace singsongs. They take their phone out of their pocket and stare at the screen. “Barely any signal, too. I don’t get how people live out here.”
“It’s quiet. Some people like that.”
“Yeah, I know the types,” Trace scoffs. My grip on the wheel tightens.
Trace is young. Bringing a young person relieves me of some of the physical difficulties of the trip, but saddles me with other, less tangible burdens. The internet and rumors inform their knowledge of these parts of the country—no one makes a regular habit of traveling south anymore, not without a very good reason. It’s too unpredictable. I never travel alone— it’s important for my safety and the safety of our community—but it isn’t just about security or having a second driver. Everyone in the commune takes turns traveling with me. All of our members need to see firsthand why we do what we do.
“Can you please take your feet off the dash? It’s incredibly dangerous. If we had an accident—”
“An accident? On this road?” Trace waves their thin arms in a wide arc, indicating the emptiness. “There’s nothing to hit.”
“Just do it, please.”
Trace sighs. They slide their feet to the floor, leaving two rounded streaks of dusty fine dirt, like the humps of a melting camel, on the dashboard.
“Do you want to review what happens at the border?”
Trace straightens in their seat. “Don’t they just give me the test?”
“They’ll ask you questions before they administer the test. The likelihood is they’ll start with me, because they know me. I think I’ve probably met everyone who works this border at least a hundred times by now. You’ll see me go through it first.” I glance at Trace. I can’t see their face. They stare out the window at the pasture rushing past the car. Cows freckle the distance in clusters of black and white. A single weather-bleached billboard rises in the distance. Frayed at the edges. Something about Super Bowl LXX. I remember the ruckus over it. Last Super Bowl in the state. The NFL buckled under the pressure of the protests.
“I’m really glad I only have to do this once,” Trace mutters. They keep their face to the window, but I see the way they hold their cell phone, the device caged in their hands, their fingers white at the knuckles. I’m worried I didn’t do enough to prepare them, but that isn’t my responsibility. Trace was given a full rundown when they were chosen for the trip. They know the dangers, and how they might be received at the border.
“You only have to do it once, but you might find you want to do it again.” I turn off the air conditioning and crack the window an inch. The soft roar of our momentum enters the truck cab, carrying with it the sweet scent of grass.
“I highly fucking doubt that, Marge.”
• • • •
It started, for me, with a horse. A roan the color of dry, pitted driftwood. Ebony spots dotted her smoky dun body, but her legs were blackest black, as if she had waded through the night sky. A small diamond star shone on her sandy brown head, and her mane and tail grew white at the roots but darkened to ebony at the tips. She looked like pieces from many horses sewn together. I loved her on sight.
I began work at the horse farm when I turned fourteen. It put a little money in my pocket, but I was there for the free rides. There was no money at home for horse-riding lessons. I was glad to be out of my house on the weekends, and to avoid going straight home after school on weekdays, when I worked until supper. I cleaned the stalls and fed the horses, and brushed them down for the night, working their coats to a colorless sheen. The roan was my favorite. I had never worked with horses before and felt timid around them, but she was gentle with me from the start. I would brush her forequarters while standing in front of her so she could rest her head on my shoulder, her hot breath snorting down the back of my shirt, sharp whiskers tickling my neck.
I remember the first time I felt it. I was brushing her sides, following the trail of the brush with the flat of my palm, enjoying the velvety nap of her fur. It was late in the day, almost time for me to go home, the sun sinking low in the hills sending blades of gold through the slats of the stable. The day’s heat had settled inside the stalls, baking the mixture of hay and horses into a pungent sweetness. As I moved my hand over her belly, a strange sensation passed over my palm. It felt like when I slept on my side all night and woke in the morning to a dead arm, the exquisite rush of blood flooding back into the limb. I shook out my hand and the feeling subsided. But when I began to brush her again, there it was: a slight tingle as I passed over her side. I rested my hand there and let the pins and needles surface and scatter, unsure of what I was feeling. The roan flicked her tail back and forth and nickered, unperturbed.
I knew so little then.
• • • •
The sun is at its zenith as we approach the border. It hides behind a bank of billowing clouds, their heads blinding white, bellies dark with shadow. I pull up behind the line of waiting vehicles and shift into park, the engine rumbling in protest and gently vibrating the cab. I peer at Trace to see if the shaking has woken them, but they still doze, the hood of their oversized sweatshirt pulled over their eyes so that only their nose and mouth show. I wonder if I should wake them, if they would prefer a little time to prepare before the interrogation, but I hesitate to disturb them, remembering how nervous they seemed a few hours earlier. Their breathing is deep and regular, their mouth slack. I smile at the drool accumulating in the corner of their mouth, a wet spot darkening the edge of their hood.
“Trace,” I whisper, nudging their shoulder. They snort and sit up, the hood still over their eyes.
“Are we here?” they say, pressing the heels of their palms into their eyes. They flip the hood back and open their window. Fresh air, green and crisp but tinged acrid with motor oil, wafts into the cab. They lean out the window, staring at the line of trucks ahead of us. “Can I get out and stretch? Would that look weird?”
“No, I’ll get out with you. If they see me it’ll probably move us through this line faster.”
“Oh, are you, like, their favorite or something?” Trace shoulders out of their hoodie and hops out of the cab, landing nimbly and slamming the door behind them.
“Or something,” I sigh and step down from the cab and onto the asphalt. Trucks and a few small cars line the distance ahead of us. I wave my arms in a wide arc, both a stretch and a signal to the agents I know are making their way from vehicle to vehicle. Something pops in my shoulder and I wince. Years of sitting in the box truck, so many hundreds of hours on the road, are starting to wear on me. A figure wavers on the horizon. It extends a quivering arm that swipes at the air like a windshield wiper. I make my way to the front of the truck and lean against the grille. Trace is wheeling their arms out at their sides, twisting their body left and right.
“Is anyone coming?” Trace asks. They bend at the waist, their long upper body hanging limp, stretching all the way to their toes. I envy their flexibility.
“Any minute now,” I reply, folding my arms over my chest.
“I still don’t get it. Why don’t people just leave? Why live out here and deal with this shit?”
“Like I said. Some people like it out here. And for some, leaving isn’t really an option.”
“Well, what the hell are they going to do if you’re not around anymore?”
What happens if I’m caught, you mean. Trace should just come right out and say it, but they won’t. They’re not that bold, and they’ve never been a part of those dire conversations back home. Maybe after this trip, they will be. I’ve been asked that question a thousand times, and I never have an answer. I leave home knowing I might not come back, that this could all end over the smallest mistake.
A bead of sweat trickles down the back of my neck. Thick heat blankets us, hugging the dark asphalt. Fields of wheat and corn bound the road, green on one side, gold on the other. The air is still, no wind, and beyond the fields lies only the blanched blue of the sky. Trace joins me at the grille and we wait, listening to the tick tick tick of the cooling engine.
“Hello, ladies.” An agent rounds the corner of the truck in front of us and I straighten. Dark aviators hide his eyes, but I recognize Bill—the coarse stubble that rounds his soft jawline, the streaks of white silvering his brown hair. Trace pushes off the grille and steps to the side.
“Hey, Bill,” I say, extending my arm to shake his hand. He takes my hand in his warm grip and shakes it once. “How’s life at the border?”
Bill eyes Trace. They are staring at their sneakers. They grind at the asphalt with their toe as if stubbing out a cigarette. “Life’s good. It’s been real hot around here lately, but I can’t complain. I was hoping you’d be coming through soon.” Bill unzips a pack hanging from his waist and removes a tablet and two cotton swabs sealed in plastic.
“Oh yeah?” I say. “Why’s that?”
“Well, you know I love seeing you, Margie. You never leave me empty handed.” He presses a button on the tablet and the screen brightens awake.
“No sir, I usually don’t,” I say. “Bill, this is my travel partner, Trace. This is Trace’s first time through the border, so I’m counting on you to be kind.” Trace wipes their hands on their pants and extends their arm. Bill takes Trace’s hand and shakes it.
“Now when am I not kind?” He laughs. “Not to worry, I’ll be quick. You won’t feel a thing.” He laughs again. Trace’s eyes narrow, and I silently pray they don’t say anything. “Trace, may I see your identification please?” Trace pulls a bright blue wallet from their back pocket and tears open the Velcro flap.
“Trace Reynolds, twenty-four years old, sex listed as . . . X.” Bill’s eyes widen over his glasses, flicking from Trace to me, as he punches the information into the tablet. “That’s a first, Marge.” Red splotches stain Trace’s pale neck.
“Yes,” I say, stepping in. “Trace is my travel companion. I’m training them in the business—you know, the usual. They’ll be driving us back home.” I try to keep my face neutral when Bill smirks, his disbelief at the pronoun expressed with a short snort and a quick shake of his head. Better to keep the conversation moving. “It’s a lot for me to make this trip both ways by myself.”
“I hear that, Margie.” Bill returns Trace’s ID without looking at them. Trace pushes the ID back into their wallet. Their fingers tremble, and when they glance at me I give a slight nod of my head and a slow blink, hoping they receive the message. You’re doing fine. Just keep going.
“Now Trace, I have some questions for you. Are you ready?” Bill steps forward and Trace shoots me a look. I wish I hadn’t told them I would likely go first, but there’s nothing for it now.
“Yes sir,” Trace says. No steel in their voice, which I’m grateful for. If anything, their voice sounds softer than usual, as if they’re leaning into their femininity. We never discussed that, but I’m pleased at how quick Trace is on their feet.
“Trace Reynolds, are you sexually active?”
“Trace Reynolds, have you ever been pregnant?”
“Trace Reynolds, are you pregnant at this moment?”
“Good girl,” Bill says. Trace’s face creases into a frown. Bill punches more information into the tablet and then slips it into the pack at his waist. “Now Trace, I will be administering a test. It’s completely painless; we’ll just be taking some saliva from inside your mouth and putting it through this machine.” Bill removes two square devices from his pack. He holds them up to Trace. The larger device has a screen and an open compartment at the back. He slots the smaller device into the open compartment of the other and clicks it into place. Bill opens the plastic and removes the swab.
“Okay Trace, open wide.” Trace inches forward and opens their mouth. Their eyes dart to mine and I hold them in my gaze. Bill grips Trace’s chin with one hand, tilting their head back slightly, and jabs at the inside of their mouth. Their cheek rounds against the tip of the cotton swab and their throat contracts with a swallow, their nose wrinkling. Bill’s face hovers in front of Trace, who never breaks eye contact with me. He breathes heavily as he swipes, and I remember too late a piece of advice I forgot to give: Don’t breathe through your nose during the test unless you want the sour odor of Bill’s coffee breath lingering in your sinuses the rest of the day.
When Bill finally removes the swab, Trace’s shoulders cave, the length of their body shrinking, their mouth falling shut. Bill inserts the swab into a hole in the back of the device. Seconds go by, Trace’s eyes moving from me to the screen of the device, until a loud, low beep sounds. “There you go, not pregnant. You did it. That wasn’t so bad now, was it?” Bill places the used swab in a plastic baggie in his pack. He removes the back compartment of the device and presses a button on its side. Something within the equipment whirrs and Trace’s eyes find me again. Bill notices and laughs. “Nothing to worry about Trace, you’re all done. I’m just resetting the equipment for Margie here. One last thing though.”
“Yes sir,” Trace says, and this time I hear the sibilant sneer in their voice. Bill doesn’t seem to notice.
“This little guy doesn’t lie,” he says, holding up the device and shaking it. “I wish I could say the same for people. Unfortunately, it has trouble detecting pregnancy in the first few weeks. Fortunately, most people have the same trouble, unless of course they planned on becoming pregnant, in which case they may not know for sure but they could certainly guess.” He eyes Trace over his glasses, his wiry brows raised. Trace is motionless, their face neutral. Bill removes the tablet from his pack and turns on the screen.
“One last question for you then. Trace Reynolds, do you understand that should you become pregnant in the state of Texas, or register by test as having been pregnant when you attempt to leave the state of Texas, that you will be remanded into the care of the state for the term of your pregnancy until the baby is born?”
“And you understand that any expenses you may incur during that term are solely your financial responsibility?”
Bill hands Trace the tablet and asks them to sign the statement with their finger. “Okay Margie, your turn.” Bill runs through the questions with me, and I pretend not to notice the curl of a smile when I tell him I’m sexually active. I hate giving him the satisfaction of knowing something so personal about me, but it’s not worth it to lie about these things. He grips my chin in his sweaty fingers, tilts my head, and swabs the inside of my cheek. As my eyes water, I think of the dosing syringe we used on the roan when she needed medication. The butapaste was apple flavored, but I knew she hated the stuff.
“Okay ladies, we’re almost done.” Bill zips his equipment into his pack and hitches his thumbs into his belt loops. “You know the drill, Margie. I just need to see any bags you’re carrying, and let’s pop the back of the reefer and take a look around.” Trace turns and climbs into their side of the cab to fetch their backpack and our overnight bags. They swing their backpack toward Bill, who places it on the ground and unzips the front. The truck ahead of us roars to life and drives forward a few car lengths. The line is moving. I grab my purse from the cab and place it on the ground next to Trace’s bag, then make my way to the back of the truck. I unlock the door and roll it upward. Cold air, sugared with the honeyed perfume of fruit, wafts out. I climb into the back and squeeze between the racks, passing my hands over the boxes, searching for the right stamp. The cold gives the sweat that has collected under my arms and down my back a sweet bite.
“Margie, is this tea?” Bill appears at the open doors holding up a plastic bag of sachets. Trace stands behind him, their hands shoved in their pockets, their dark eyebrows knitted in a frown. I grab a box stamped with a red cherry from the interior of the truck and make my way out.
“Oh,” I say, handing Bill the box and climbing down. “Those are new. We figured we’re doing fruit and herbs, why not grow our own flowers too, maybe branch out into teas.” I take the plastic bag from him and open it, removing a sachet and sniffing it. I hold it out to Bill’s face and he leans forward. Trace rolls their eyes.
“Smells like peppermint,” Bill says.
“Good nose,” I say. “Tea goes great with pie.” I drop the tea bag back into the baggie and zip it closed.
“I suppose that’s true,” Bill says, nodding. “You understand I have to ask.” He glances back at Trace and adds, “You could be carrying abortifacients, and that would mean big trouble for you.” Trace’s head is cocked to the side, their face expressionless. Bill looks at the box in his hands and his face breaks into a wide grin. “Oh Margie, you know me and the wife love your sour cherry pie.” He rips the sticker seal and hovers his face over the pie, inhaling its tart aroma.
“I didn’t forget.” I pass the bag of tea to Trace, knowing Bill won’t ask any more questions. They turn and walk back to the front of the truck. Their door slams shut. “So, we good to go?”
Bill closes the box and steps up into the truck. He surveys the shelves of pies, moving boxes to inspect behind them. I know he won’t open any—he never does—but even if he did, there wouldn’t be anything to find. He steps back out with a light hop.
“You’re all set. Nice kid. Little quiet though,” he says, tilting his chin towards the front of the truck. “Look out for her down there. Not everyone is as understanding as me, you know.”
I set my lips into a thin smile, my jaw clenched. “I know it.”
• • • •
It wasn’t long before the roan started showing. Her belly grew round, her movements slow and sluggish. I worried about her condition. She seemed listless. She was resting more, and when she was standing she pawed at the ground with one hoof, shaking her head as if she were swarmed by buzzing gnats.
When I expressed my concern to the owners, they brushed me off. This behavior was normal, they assured me. It was her first pregnancy, but animals know what to do, they said. They know what’s happening to them. And besides, that’s why they had spent so much money purchasing her. She was a true, pure-blood roan—a rare and beautiful horse—and she was destined to sire roans. It’s what she was built for.
I spent extra time with her as the pregnancy progressed. There was no more riding her, but I didn’t care. I stayed late most days, trying to make her feel comfortable, laying thick blankets over her prone body and feeding her sugar cubes and apples. One weekend when she seemed particularly agitated, too often alternating between standing and lying down, as if she couldn’t get comfortable, I decided to stay with her. My mother worked nights at the hospital, and I knew she wouldn’t miss me. I spent the night in her stall, listening to the low groan that rumbled in her throat like a distant foghorn, her nostrils vibrating with the sound. I stroked her belly and wondered at the tingling in my hand growing stronger, more insistent, with each passing day.
• • • •
It is late afternoon when we roll into the first town. The sun has escaped the clouds and is racing to the horizon. Its light shimmers on storefront windows, the truck reflected in the glass winking back at us as we drive through town.
Trace is silent after the border. I don’t prod them. I’ve grown accustomed to this reaction. It is easier for cismen, who answer the questions and take the test knowing they have nothing real to fear. Trace is young, and the first non-binary person to accompany me. I know they were told what would happen at the border, but nothing really prepares you. We don’t have experiences or exposures like this in our home state. Haven’t for some time now.
We drive into the backlot of a supermarket and Trace pulls out a clipboard from the middle console. They find the name of the supermarket and run their finger across the page, searching for the delivery units.
“This is a normal delivery,” I say, gently prying the clipboard from Trace’s hands. “This supermarket is always a normal delivery. Many of these are, actually.” I flip the page and browse the names. “Do you remember the codes we talked about back at the commune?”
Trace nods their head. “The pie assortments, yes.”
“Only our contacts know the particular combination.”
“Right,” Trace murmurs. “And the combination changes every time.”
“Exactly,” I say, letting the pages fall back into place. I angle the clipboard toward Trace and point to a name. “This location is a potential safehouse, but look at their order.” Trace leans over, brow furrowed.
“Ten cherry, ten apple, ten peach, ten blueberry,” Trace mutters, squinting their eyes. “That’s not the code.”
My finger draws down the page to another name. “This is another potential safehouse.”
“Twelve cherry, six apple, ten peach, six blueberry.” They look at me.
“That’s our first real stop,” I say, sliding the clipboard back into the console.
Trace and I unload the truck for the first supermarket just as the parking lot lights flicker on. We walk in together, pies stacked in our arms. The cold of the supermarket hurts my head after so long in the day’s heat. This part is easy. We make the first drop and then drive the truck to the second, and the third—another large supermarket, and a tiny grocery store. Small deliveries, but the commune takes what it can get. Fresh, organic homemade pies do well everywhere, no matter your politics.
A trio of bells tinkle as we enter the small grocery store. The woman at the counter smiles at Trace, nods at me. She is short and round, her skin craggy and lined like a carved apple doll. An airy nimbus of fluffy white hair rings her head. A moist, woody aroma warms the air—tied sprigs of dried lavender, rosemary, and thyme hang above the counter, tacked above reels of lotto tickets. We lay the pies on the counter and she takes my hand in hers, presses it. I don’t open my hand until we’re back in the truck. A small stack of bills. Not much, but it’s something. Trace arches an eyebrow but says nothing. I don’t tell them I’ve been visiting the store for years. I don’t tell them how many people I’ve helped there, that it doesn’t matter that there was no one there tonight. Our contacts are always generous, passing along what they have to help the next person. Whatever will keep us going.
It is a forty-five minute trek to the next town, and the streets are dark. I let Trace take the wheel. We return to the highway and fall into the regular rhythm of linear driving. The night swallows the countryside and I’m lulled by the steady, metronomic flash of the sodium lamps marking our passage. I doze. There won’t be any real work for me tonight. It’s one of the rules that keeps us and others safe. No work after dark. No reason to have to explain where you’ve been.
The truck slows, turns off the highway. The change in rhythm rouses me. This is a small town. I know it well. It’s after eight and there won’t be anyone on the streets. The buildings are squat, as if pressed low by the enormity of the sky here, which feels denser at night. A one-street town. Everything you need on the single strip of Main Street; where it ends, houses begin. The store lights are off, quaint signs—many wooden, handmade—flipped to CLOSED, hanging in the windows. Café curtains, thin and lacy or frilled, border the windows of the diner and the general store, the quilt shop and the butcher’s. They exude amiability, as if the stores double as homes, and some of them do. Little apartments perch atop the low buildings like loafing cats. I look up through the window at the soft light of the curtained rooms above us, yellow or flickering blue, someone’s reading lamp, another’s television set. I straighten in my seat and point to the end of the street.
“Down at the end, by that corner café, make a right,” I say. “There’s a big lot in the back. Pull in there.” The café’s lights are off, but the icy glow of the pastry display case spills out onto the sidewalk. We turn into the backlot and Trace parks the truck.
“This is where we’re staying?” Trace turns off the ignition and peers out the window. A wooden staircase ascends the dark to a door above the café. A golden coin of light shines onto the landing from the porthole window.
“Yes. This is one of my oldest friends. Dolores has been helping us for years.” I open the door of the cab and cool air, scented with the sharp citrus of pine, twists in my nostrils. The familiar warmth of garlic runs underneath. Dolores is cooking.
Trace takes our overnight bags, and we climb the stairs. They complain under our weight, bowing with each step. I let myself in and the heat of Dolores’ cooking greets me like an old friend. A pot of sauce bubbles on the stove, curls of delicate steam rising above it. Meatballs crowd in a pan next to it, sizzling an ovation. My stomach grumbles and whines.
“Marjorie, my love!” Dolores throws her arms around me, and I lose myself in her thick brown waves. Her hair is perfumed with hints of thyme and lavender, the musk of sage. “How has it been only two weeks? I’ve missed you so much.”
“Missed you too, D,” I say, releasing her from my grip. She holds tight to my waist and peeks over my shoulder.
“Who is this gorgeous person?”
“This is Trace.” I sidestep Dolores and grab the wooden spoon on the stove, stir the sauce pot, slurp a cautious sip.
“Trace, do you hug? Because I hug,” Dolores says, her arms open. Trace drops our bags to the floor and steps forward. I can see the surge of red creeping up the collar of their tee. A tight-lipped half smile trembles on the corner of their mouth as Dolores envelops them in a hug. The smile unfolds, and I feel a pull in my chest. Dolores conquers all.
Dolores ushers us out of the kitchen and toward the front of her apartment, showing Trace the bathroom, the living room with the fold-out where Trace will sleep, Dolores’s bedroom where she and I will share her queen-size bed. She drags Trace to the front windows and swipes aside a curtain, points to the little free library across the street where she’s donated most of her books, in case Trace wants something to read. She shows Trace the remote control, and they patiently listen to instructions for operating a television, their head thoughtfully cocked, hands tucked in their back pockets. When we sit down to eat in the kitchen and Dolores says grace, her hands tented in prayer, I marvel at Trace’s easy mimicry, their head bowed, their fingers interlocked into a knobby fist. Only Dolores.
After dinner, Trace cleans the kitchen as Dolores moves the coffee table and fixes the fold-out with clean sheets and pillows. I retire to the bathroom to wash up before bed. I hear Dolores explain where the pies should be unloaded tomorrow to keep them fresh for when we leave, then the faint jingle of the café keys changing hands. I’m tired, but relieved to have landed for the night. Tomorrow will be busy. Dolores confides that four people will be coming over the course of the morning and afternoon. It’s a lot, but not unusual.
Dolores is already under the covers when I climb into the creaking bed. She strokes my head until I fall asleep.
• • • •
When the roan gave birth, something ruptured. She hemorrhaged, pouring blood into the broad ligament on either side of her uterus. She trembled, in pain and shock. They stabilized her, put her on fluids, anti-inflammatories, and clotting drugs in the hopes a clot would seal the bleed. It took months for her to recover. They kept her sedated most of the time. Her foal, a dusky gray whip of smoke, was left by her side to calm her. The vets told the owners it would be best if this were her only pregnancy. The likelihood was high this would happen again and next time prove fatal.
I checked on her often when I was working. My mind spun around the months spent witnessing her strange behavior, wondering if she knew something we didn’t, that some part of her agitation was in response to what was to come. I have never been angrier.
As time passed, she recovered. I enjoyed watching her care for her foal. The little colt was spunky and liked to race around the pasture, kicking his matchstick legs and stretching his neck forward as he ran, as if reaching for new limits to his speed. She always kept him in her sightline. If other horses came close to him she would trot between them, her broad body a protective barrier. She was the same with the handlers, but not me. From the beginning, even when she was sick, I was allowed near both of them. I slipped them carrots and grapes and strawberries, nuzzled their scratchy, hot muzzles as they chewed.
It was a year and a half later, as I was brushing her coat, my hand passing over her, that I felt it again. A faint buzzing in my palm as it rested on her belly. I held my hand there, and she looked back at me, her mouth working over some hay. My body flushed with heat. The fluttering under my hand quickened in response. I knew then, somehow, what it was, this prickling sensation under my hand. She wasn’t even showing yet, but I knew. Not again. They were warned. Rage flooded through me.
I’ve never been able to properly explain it. How my eyes went cloudy and my vision blurred. How I focused everything on my hand, on that faint flutter, all of me pressing against it. How I imagined it slowing, growing still, then fading into the distance like the lights of a town as you leave it.
An atomic quiver, winking out.
• • • •
I wake to the rich scent of roasting coffee, the sounds of Trace and Dolores laughing—the first a subdued chortle, the joy locked in their throat, the second a wide open braying that bounces heartily off the walls. I hear the sizzling drop of bacon as it hits the pan, and I change into my clothes. My stomach turns. I’m hungry but also not. Maybe it’s nerves. I’ve never been able to fully rid myself of them.
The morning sun has cast the apartment in amber and we soak in the glow over breakfast, arms crisscrossing the table to pass scrambled eggs, toast, jam, and hot pastries. Trace’s face is alight with a newness—as if they were freshly scrubbed, worries exfoliated like old skin, polished as a tumbled stone. I try to enjoy it while I can. Dolores is good at filling souls, fueling us for what’s to come.
Trace cleans the kitchen again and puts a kettle on. I sit on the fold-out in the living room, sipping coffee. When the knock comes at the door, I take a deep breath in and hold it.
She is tall, solid. Her eyes are wide and full, but they droop with fatigue, puce crescents cradling her deep brown eyes. She smiles at Dolores, who embraces her. Dolores places one hand on the back of her head, and I know without asking that Dolores knows her—this isn’t someone who found us through the standard channels. This is someone from town, someone who lives on these streets, who comes to the café for Dolores’s dry danishes and hot coffee. She sees Trace, and her smile teeters. Trace leans over the kitchen table, extending their hand, and the girl shakes it, nodding, her lips pressed thin. Dolores slips an arm around her waist and leads her into the living room, whispering something in her ear.
“Marjorie, this is Nia,” Dolores says.
“Hello, Nia.” I rise from the couch and motion for her to sit. “How are you feeling today?”
“Nervous,” she says, sitting down. “A little nauseous, I guess. I don’t quite understand how all this works, but Dolores—” She glances at Dolores, who sits in a chair opposite the couch. “She said I shouldn’t worry.”
“You shouldn’t,” I say. The shrill keen of the tea kettle rises from the kitchen, as if the kettle is finding its voice, but Trace removes it from the heat before it reaches its full pitch.
“So, like . . . what do you want to know?” she asks.
“Whatever you want to tell me, but I don’t need to know anything.” She glances again at Dolores, her hands fidgeting in her lap. Her nails are bitten to the quick. Flecks of dried blood dot her cuticles. “I know why you’re here. That’s enough.”
“I’m going to school. On a scholarship. I leave in the fall. I—I couldn’t leave if—they won’t let me . . . ” she trails off, tears welling in her wide eyes. “I’m not ready. I don’t want to stay here. I can’t do it.” Dolores reaches for a box of tissues, passes them to Nia. She presses one to her face, hiding in it.
“Nia is one of the smartest girls I know,” Dolores says. “Top of her class.”
“Not that smart,” she sighs. “I got myself into this mess, didn’t I?”
“It’s not about whether or not you’re smart, Nia,” Trace says. They enter the room carrying a cup of hot tea. The cool scent of peppermint fills the room. “I’m smart. Marge would probably say I’m too smart.” They set the tea on the table in front of Nia and take a seat opposite Dolores, smirking at me.
“I would, yes.”
“That didn’t stop it from happening to me,” Trace says, the words rushing out, each word clipped a little short. “But I don’t live down here, so I didn’t have to feel stupid about it.” Trace leans forward, resting their forearms on their knees and contemplates Nia. “Have you ever been out of Texas?” Nia shakes her head, a question perched between her brows.
“This is the first time I’ve left home since I was a kid. It’s . . . ” Trace leans back in their seat and raises their arms, lacing their hands together to rest on top of their head. They stare at a space above Nia’s head, out the windows onto Main Street. “I grew up in a town like this. Just like this. Up north, though, so . . . different rules, I guess.” For a moment, a younger Trace appears. I don’t think Nia and Dolores notice, but I do. Their eyes soften, a smile plays in the corner of their lips, and I can see them, racing down a street just like the one outside, heading straight toward themselves. Completely fearless.
“Don’t let living here make you feel stupid about this.” Trace’s gaze drops down to Nia. Nia nods, sniffling, and crushes the tissue in her fist.
“Okay,” she says, “Okay.”
• • • •
We find an easy rhythm. I take care of Nia, a young mother named Anne, an older woman named Sophia, and finally a young girl, Candace. None are very far along. Trace hands them mugs of peppermint tea laced with some natural calmatives and analgesics—valerian, ashwagandha, willow bark—to help them relax. I tell them to close their eyes. I place my hand on their stomachs, searching for the familiar quiver. I imagine it slowing, its movements inhibited, like an object flowing in a current of water as the temperature drops and ice begins to form. It jitters and then diminishes until I can’t feel it anymore.
The women wince. They feel a pinch. A weight pulls at their core. Pain marked by the pressure of collapse dulls their other senses, then comes the bittersweet release of cramps. I wipe the sweat from their faces, say nothing when their fingernails embed themselves in the flesh of my arms. I take on whatever pain I can. I wish I could take it all; the tea can only do so much. We couldn’t safely cross the border if it did any more.
They rest. Some drift to sleep. There are a few hours between appointments, a necessary break for all of us. My arms grow heavy and full. My hands ache. Dolores massages me from my shoulders to my fingers, squeezing and kneading the muscles as she works her way down. Trace watches her, and, soon, they have one arm, Dolores the other. Dolores shows them how to be gentler around my fingers, which prickle and flare with spikes of sharp pain. I suck in air when they press them, the sensation like an ice floe cracking in my blood.
When the women wake, we give them sanitary pads, tell them to take time off from work if they can, if it’s relevant. I tell Candace to tell her mother she has bad cramps and can’t go to school on Monday. She nods her head and then grabs me, pressing her face to my chest, soaking my shirt with her tears. It takes all I have not to cry with her.
I am spent. Dolores leads me to bed when Candace leaves, and I fall into it. She knows there’s nothing left in me. From somewhere between sleep and waking pots and pans clatter, water rushes in the sink, and last night’s leftovers, garlicky and sweet, rise back to life. I think I hear Trace gasp, a muffled sob, but by then I’m lost to the black of sleep.
• • • •
We leave Dolores in the morning. She packs us egg sandwiches and hugs me so tight I cough, then laugh. Trace grips Dolores, and a rush of warmth fills my chest. I know without asking that Trace will do this again. I’ve watched so many people undergo this experience. No one goes home the same, but Trace seems different in a way I haven’t seen before. We tell the assistants to leave themselves at home, but I’m not sure if that’s right. It feels like Trace found a part of themselves here. I don’t think anything could stop them from traveling with me now. The heat in my chest rises, and a familiar twinge tickles my nostrils. I turn my blurry eyes to the door before either of them notice.
I’m still tired, too tired to drive. Trace knows this without asking. They pull the keys from my fingers, shoulder my bag and ready the truck. They reloaded the pies into the van at some point, probably when I was asleep.
Dolores stands on the stair’s platform in the blue dusk of the early morning and waves us away. I wave goodbye, and Trace punches three short beeps on the horn as we leave the lot. I pull the clipboard from the console. Three supermarkets in the next town over.
“It’s about an hour to the first one,” Trace says, opening their window. The cab, muggy and hot, flushes with clean morning air, grassy and cool. I breathe it in. “The one after that is another hour or so. They’re both normal stops, though.”
“I see that,” I murmur.
“I’m guessing that third one is another safehouse.”
“It is,” I say. I glance at the list, flipping the page.
“We staying there?”
“No, just stopping in. We have an appointment for early afternoon. Only one, though. Then it’s off to the next town.” I trace my finger down the page, looking at the names. “One more regular stop, about two hours, then a safehouse. We’ll spend the night.”
“I can’t believe you do this every other week,” Trace mumbles.
“Yes, you said that.”
“No, I mean . . . ” Trace squints at the road. They sigh.
“There are so many people out here. There’s no end to it.”
“So . . . why bother?”
“No,” they say. “I get it. I just don’t know how long we can go on like this.” Trace looks to me, but it’s my turn to avoid their gaze. I know the thing Trace won’t say. I could have an endless list of assistants, but who else can do what I do? We’re always one stop away from the last stop, one safe house away from being discovered. What happens to all these people if I’m not around?
“Never mind,” Trace says. “Let’s listen to some music.” They turn on the radio, search for a station, settle on something pop-y. I don’t recognize the song.
I sink into my seat and close my eyes, angling my face to the window. The sun shines warm on it, colors my vision a fiery orange. Back on the road, I can feel my mind drifting, emptying into the open spaces. The music carries in and out, a tidal sound competing with the wind whipping through Trace’s window. I fold my hands over my stomach, settling in for the ride. Something small and faint flickers there, something that’s barely anything at all. I move my hands away. There are so many miles ahead of us. A long way to go before home.