Last Words

Continued from “No One Left to Speak Out” from the December issue.

 

By Bao Hu Yi

 

All that Teresa could sense was the acrid stench of sweat soaked into the coarse black hood over her head, her own ragged morning breath, and the frigid air whipping along her body. The muffled cries and whimpers of the other prisoners sliding around the bed of the truck filled her ears and her tightly bound wrists ached from behind her back. The cold metal on her bare feet sent shivers through her body. Teresa was in a state of incomprehensible shock

“Oh God!” Amongst the scattered exclamations, the screech of tires on pavement, and sirens throughout the city, her cry made no difference. She heard someone speaking in brittle and rasping Spanish: “Santa Maria, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros, pecadores, ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte…” A man across from Teresa burst out into misplaced laughter before slipping back into hysterical sobs. Teresa tried to see what she could through the dark hood over her head, but even that was a lost cause; all she could make out were light and dark flashes she thought might be office buildings or apartments.

This is a mistake. The thought kept echoing in Teresa’s mind. The truck bounced on, indifferent towards its captives, while she processed the morning’s events. It was like something out of a movie, she realized dully. They had kicked in her door, pointed their guns at her, pushed her to the ground, and arrested her. Like she was a criminal. Teresa had had her fair share of adolescent slip-ups. The closest she had ever come to being arrested was when she’d been in the back seat of a car full of friends on their way home from high school.

Pulled over for a broken taillight, and after smelling pot in the car, the cop had searched everyone. She remembered feeling the unfamiliar sensation of adult distrust when the cop had found a small bag of pot, and interrogated everyone present before giving all of them tickets for possession. Now she vividly remembered the feeling in that moment: Hard, chest-tightening fear. It was the fear of being at the mercy of someone who could do bad things to you without consequence. Then, it had been the fleeting thoughts of a teenager caught red-handed. Now it was intensified, compounded by her confusion: seditious materials? Harboring an illegal immigrant? Terrorism? None of it made sense. She was a good person; she had never done anything to deserve this.

The truck stopped, and Teresa fell into the person next to her. Lying on her side, and unable to stand with her hands behind her back, she labored to right herself. She heard the doors of the truck open and boots scrape the ground. The gate of the truck bed slammed down with ominous finality.

“Alright, everyone on your fucking feet! Out of the truck! Now!”

The suspension of the truck lifted as the load it was supporting leapt out one by one. Still on the floor of the truck bed, a hand suddenly grasped Teresa’s upper arm with a painful grip and yanked her out of the back of the truck. She landed chest-first on cold concrete, knocking the wind out of her body. Stunned and unable to catch her breath, she lay there for a moment until a sharp kick in her side rolled her over. She was pulled to her feet, and led by the arm.

“Move your ass, bitch!”

A hard jerk nearly sent her back to the ground, but she managed to stay on her feet. They crunched through snow so cold it burned the soles of her feet. Then she felt rough concrete again and the man leading her stopped. She could tell they were facing a wall, and heard the other prisoners muffled voices on either side. She stood there, shaking from the cold and sheer terror. The wind blew fiercely through her whole body. Her nose was running under her hood, she could taste it on her upper lip as she hyperventilated, the seconds dragging on forever…

“Get down! On your knees!”

Teresa recognized the voice. It was the man with the clipboard from before. Next she was pushed down onto her knees, so hard her head struck the hard wall in front of her. She felt something wet on her forehead, and thought at first the blow must have cut her. No warm blood ran down her face, but the air had a familiar, slightly coppery scent. A bloodstained wall, she thought. Her hood must have smeared some of it around when her head struck, and that was what she felt on her head: coagulated blood seeping through the black fabric. She suddenly realized what it meant for her and the rest of the prisoners. Mother of God.

The man in the white polo started speaking again. “All right, now. Just like I told you, okay? READY!”

At his word, she felt and heard one of the men standing behind them produce a handgun. When the metallic sound of a round being chambered as he cocked his weapon back reached Teresa’s ears, the world slowed to a crawl. Her senses were in tune with that which was around her: the continued protestations of innocence from the prisoners, the smell of cold air and smoke mingling, the sensation of sweat dripping down the nape of her neck. She felt, saw, and heard everything. Tears rolled down Teresa’s face silently. This is it, she thought. Everything has come to this. It’s not fair! I’m too young to die! To die like this! Oh God please save me please!

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Others too had realized what was in store for them as well. They struggled and cried out for forgiveness, but the only response the received was laughter and silence.

“AIM!”

Teresa heard the gentle swish of fabric and her heart sank into her stomach. Without seeing, she sensed that there was now a pistol mere inches from the back of her head. There was nothing she could do to stop it now. She hoped it would be over quickly, that she wouldn’t suffer. Her pulse had skyrocketed and she could scarcely catch a full breath. She thought she might die of a heart attack before the executioners could do their jobs.

“Okay, one at a time: FIRE!”

There was a sharp bark off to her left and an unmistakable thud on the ground from the first body falling. A woman screamed an impossibly high scream, and a man objected before being struck by one of the guards. A second later, the man in the white polo repeated his order and another gunshot sounded; another thud, and again the bodies were dragged away. Like a metronome, every other second his order was steadily given and carried out. Closer down the line until the shots were loud as life itself. Teresa’s bladder emptied, and she felt the itchy warmth of her own urine spread around her groin. By now she was openly sobbing, words incomprehensible to all but herself. It was her turn now, she realized as she heard the body to her left being dragged away. She held her breath and waited for those words, the last words she’d ever hear in this life:

“FIRE!”

The sound was so close and so loud she heard nothing but ringing in her ears. The light from the blast had blinded her vision, and the last thing Teresa felt was a pain in the back of her neck sharper than any she’d ever felt before.

***

The restaurant had been open for nearly an hour and a half, but there were no customers in its seats. The staff was crowded around the bar rail quietly talking about what they were seeing on the televisions above the neatly organized bottles of liquor. Most of those present were the hospitality staff: servers, and hosts, but the two front-of-house managers were hurriedly talking with the head chef. Only two chefs had arrived, and not one of the prep cooks or bussers were to be found. So in the absence of work, they continued to whisper.

“Jesus, can you believe this is happening? I heard they’ve arrested all the Dems in Congress,” said an older female server named Kathy. Another server, Bailey asked, “What for?”

“Inciting a rebellion or something.”

“Are you serious?” The pretty girl’s blue eyes were filled with fear. “They’ve been ruining this country for years! It’s about time we locked them up!” Henry Dean was an infuriatingly unpleasant man, who frequently volunteered unasked for opinions.

“Henry, shut your mouth! Can you change it to CNN?”

“CNN is off the air, I don’t think we’re getting anything but Fox News now…”

Of course that’s the only station on the air, Anthony thought. It’s the only one they can control. He stood with his arms crossed across his chest, his gaze moving from one T.V. to the other every few minutes. A few moments later, the GM, Ken, walked up and shut both televisions off. As the crowd grumbled and began to protest, he held up his hand and started speaking.

“All right, eyes up here guys. We’ll get right to it: Today’s events notwithstanding, we are short almost all of our kitchen staff. We are also without any bussers. We just got off the phone with corporate and they’ve agreed to close the store to business for the time being. You’re all free to go…” With subdued smiles and a few quiet cheers, they turned to leave. Ken held up another hand. “…but don’t leave just yet. We are planning to be back open as soon as it is possible, and so corporate has given us the okay to offer anyone who would like to stay and help with prep and unload truck-“

“What truck?” Said one of the other servers, Danny. “Didn’t you see the news? It’s martial law, nobody’s supposed to be doing anything out there.”

Ken’s hand rose again, and the servers quieted down. “Our truck was on the road when it happened, but we’ve been told it is on the way now. They’re gonna unload, and get out of here as soon as possible. According to what I’m hearing from Homeland Security, people will be allowed to move freely before 7pm under certain restrictions. After that you are on your own. Like I was saying, we’ve been authorized to offer anyone who wants to stay and help $16 an hour, in cash. And that’s until we return to a normal schedule or stated otherwise.”

At this, several ears perked up: since the restaurant would be closed for the day, for many of the servers this was the only chance to recoup what was turning into a loss. They’d certainly not be able to get a better deal anywhere else in the midst of a national emergency. Anthony decided that it was probably better to be here making money, than to be on the road during martial law, no matter the circumstances. Others decided to take their chances and left. He quickly volunteered and was assigned to prep work.

There, Anthony was reminded why he had always worked the front-of-house; he was hopeless in the kitchen. He was attempting to chop onions with another server and one of the young hosts, his eyes watering as he clumsily handled the knife in his gloved hand. All of his pieces were of different sizes and thickness, and he was starting to get frustrated. Remember how much you’re getting paid, he told himself.

After an hour preparing food, the door to the loading dock swung open, and a harried man in jeans, a hoodie, and a knit hat pushed a handcart stacked with boxes into the kitchen, followed by one of the cooks pushing a second dolly. Anthony stopped what he was doing and watched as the man and the cook spoke for a moment. While the rest of the staff began ferrying boxes into the walk in, Anthony stepped outside for a smoke as he always did when a truck arrived. Walking out into the cold air, Anthony felt his pockets for his pack, fumbling in the gloves he was wearing. As he swore to himself, he noticed another man smoking by the open rear door of the semi-truck idling on the loading dock. Walking up, he said, “Hey, man. You got a smoke?”

The man eyed him up and down, thinking for a moment before responding,

“Sure. It’s a menthol, I hope that’s no trouble.”

Anthony froze, only for a split second and almost forgot what he was supposed to say next. The man was older, probably in his 40s or 50s, with a day’s growth of white whiskers on his pocked face. He removed a pack of Wild Horse menthols from his coat and took one out of the pack.

“No trouble at all. My uncle Carlos smoked Kools his whole life.” He took the cigarette and put it his mouth. He tried to slide his lighter out of his pocket, but it was stuck on something, he couldn’t quite get it out. The man produced his own lighter and lit the cigarette dangling from Anthony’s lips. They stood together, silently regarding the other while the smoke swirled between them. Anthony’s heart had begun to beat so hard he swore he could hear it in his ears. The harshness of the man’s cheap cigarettes stung his throat, made him feel hot under his jacket.

The two men each tossed their cigarettes on the shared ground between them. The truck was empty, except for one box near the edge of the open door. The driver came out of the back of the restaurant and made a beeline for the cab, saying, “C’mon Shreve, let’s get the hell home.”

The man, Shreve, turned back to the truck and hefted the last box out of the truck. As he took it, the older man held fast for a moment. Looking directly in his eyes, he spoke again:

“These tomatillos are bruised. You should take a look as soon as possible, if you want to save them.” Anthony nodded, and understood the carefully phrased message. He had prepared for this moment for over a year, but now that it was here he was terrified. He carried the box into the restaurant, balancing it on his hip as he maneuvered the door to the walk-in cooler open.

What if I get caught? he thought to himself. Glancing at the package in his hands, he realized it was too late to worry about it now. Setting the box down, he opened it up and saw indeed that the green tomatillos were squished on the top. That’s a nice touch. He quickly looked around, making sure no one was watching him. Anthony reached into the box under the damaged and soft tomatillos and felt around for something he knew would be there. And sure enough, his gloved hands closed around a hard object. He pulled it out. In his hand was a Ziploc bag containing a burner cell phone, some cash, and a handwritten note. He quickly stuffed the items down the front of his pants and stripped off the thin plastic gloves. On his way out the door, Ken stopped and tried to ask where he was going. Anthony never replied. He just got into his car and left.

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