The wind was hot, and the sky was endless. In the daylight, it was the only place you could look without the glare from the sand blinding you. In the night, there were a billion stars on which you could wish yourself away.
The fences stopped you, though. Ten feet high, metal mesh topped with razor wire. They’d quit trying after the third kid had to be cut down from the top, the wire still entwined in his flesh. He wasn’t even screaming, just... breathing. Ragged, like an animal that would have chewed off its own leg if it had the strength.
There should have been blood, but the sand drank it up. There was nothing more than a dark spot on the ground. By noon, not even that.
Miguel had only three dreams anymore. In the first, he was walking, walking, walking, unable to stop. He was thirsty. His mother was there. She was there, but he could not see her face, because she walked ahead and never turned around. She whispered to him, but her voice was lost on the wind, that hot wind that drove sand and grit into their eyes as they walked. He knew they had to keep going, to get to America. But he also knew how the dream was going to end. Every time. Walking, ever walking, and then men shouting, and his mother turning to reach for him, but as her arm stretched out, it turned to sand, her body turned to sand, her face, to sand. And she was gone.
In the second, they were back home, and he could smell his abuela’s cooking, the pupusas and tamales making his mouth water (because in dreams, it was not full of dust and sand). His sister Juana was doing her numbers, tongue poking slightly out between her lips as she puzzled at the figures on the page. Miguel had just been shooed out of the kitchen and wanted to play, but Juana scowled at him and told him to go away. There was a crunch of wheels outside, and his heart leapt at the sound of his papa returning. A huge grin on his face, he raced through the kitchen to the front door, where his mama stood in its open silhouette, facing the yard with her arms wide in greeting. Then there were more car sounds, more tires, and the loud popping over and over. His mama was bent double, screaming. A hand fell into view in the doorway, fingers twitching life away, and that was the last time he saw his papa alive at all.
That second dream was a bad one, and he would wake in his cage in the hot night with the north wind trying to blow him out of America. He would be covered in sweat, sometimes shouting, sometimes whimpering, sometimes crying softer than the breeze. If Juana was awake, she would wave weakly to him from a nearby cage. They couldn’t stay together because of rules, something about having boys and girls together that he didn’t understand. So he was in with the bigger boys instead of with his big sister, and they did not hug him or stroke his hair or kiss his head. They would curse him for still crying like a baby, like a woman, and he had learned after the first beating that he should not remind them that they still cried in the dark, just like him.
Sometimes, though, on nights when the north wind was still, Miguel had his third dream. In the dream, he would awaken with a start, and the cage would be empty. The sun was barely in the sky, before the blazing heat of day. The cage doors would be open, and he would stumble out of them. He would hear... laughter. There was no sign of the guards, no sign of anyone. The fence still stood between him and desolate emptiness. But the gate was open, as it never was in the real world. And through the gate... through it was green. If you looked to either side, past the posts of the gate, there was desert. But if you looked through the portal, there was a grassy park, with a gentle rolling hill, and a statue of two men: one with a beard holding a three-pointed spear, and another younger man looking up at him and smiling. He could see children playing by the statue and further into the park. Juana was there, and she waved! Then there would come the voice: warm, kind, gentle.
“Come along, Miguel. It’s time to go. Spit-spot!”
He would turn, and all he could see next to him was a huge umbrella. It smelled of fields and grass and lavender. With a whoosh, it closed, and she was there...
He would wake up then, for real, with the scent of lavender still filling his nostrils. It was always dark after the third dream, with no one else awake, just him, and the whisper of a word on the wind, a strange word he did not understand.
The third dream was the cruelest of them all. On those nights, Miguel did not fall back asleep. He sat up the rest of the night, listening desperately for the wind to change.
One such morning as he sat dozing during the English lessons that they all had to attend, Juana kicked him under the table. He looked up sharply, ready to kick back, but found that all eyes in the class were on him.
“Mi-GUEL,” repeated the teacher, “are you able to spell it, or not?”
“S...” he began, and she nodded at him to continue. “U-P-E... R.” The teacher beamed at him, but he continued with several more letters as she waved him down.
“No, Miguel. In English we don’t change the endings of words. You were correct, though. ‘Super’. S-U-P-E-R. Very good. Now, Javier, what about ‘worst’?”
Juana squinted at him. “You weren’t changing the word,” she whispered in Spanish. “You were spelling something. What was it?”
“Yo no se,” he yawned. “I don’t know. Just something I heard somewhere...”
At lunchtime, the guards called for Alejandro to come with them. Everyone straightened.
“Do you think his mama and papa have come to get him?” Juana said.
Miguel shrugged. “I don’t know. Probably not. Our mamas and papas don’t love us anymore, that’s what señora West says.”
“Our mama loves us,” hissed Juana, pushing up and away from the table. She leaned over Miguel. “You take that back!”
“But we’re still here!” he wailed. “If mama still loved us, why wouldn’t she come and get us? That’s what they tell us, and they’re right. She doesn’t love us or she would come for us!”
Tears welled up in Juana’s eyes, and she slammed her hands down on the table, causing trays to jump and attracting the attention of two of the guards. “That’s a lie! You take it back!”
“I can’t even remember her face!” Miguel shouted back at her. “She doesn’t love us! I hate her. I hate mama!”
Juana threw herself at Miguel, fingers like claws coming for his eyes, his throat, whatever she could grab. Mid-leap, a guard tackled her down to the table, crushing it and her beneath him as children scrambled back. The other snatched up Miguel in a bear hug, pulling him aloft as both of them screamed in unison, “No fighting! Do not resist!”
Miguel saw his sister crumpled amidst the wreckage of the table as the first guard stood up, loosing a baton from his belt. She stirred weakly, stretching out a hand for Miguel.
The baton came down on her arm with a crack that made Miguel’s throat close up. “No,” he coughed. “No, no, no… yo quiero a mi hermana! I want my sister! I want my sister!”
He struggled and flailed as the guard shouted at him, but he was seven and small, and the man was so big. The other guard still had his baton raised, ready for Juana to move again, and suddenly Miguel had his captor’s arm in his mouth and he tasted blood. There was cursing, shouting, and he was falling, running, scrabbling on all fours to Juana, barely able to see through salty tears.
“Juana!” he cried. “No, no, Juana, I’m sorry! Please, I’m sorry! Please! Please don’t go!”
Then pain blossomed at the base of his skull, and then nothing.
He awoke with his head feeling like it was split open from behind, taped together by a bloody steak. A light was piercing his eyes, first one, then the other, and… maybe a third? How many eyes did he have? Where was he? It smelled like abuela’s medicines.
“… mildly concussed,” a woman said. “He’s damn lucky not to be dead. What were those apes doing, using batons on a kid? Why do they even have them?”
“Some of those kids are pretty big,” came a man’s voice. “They have to defend themselves. There are some-”
“So help me, if you say bad hombres, I will personally see to it that for the next week you are shitting out sandwiches you ate in the first grade, which is where this little boy should be. I’ve got no room for that in my- ah, dammit, he’s awake!”
There was a pinprick in Miguel’s arm, something cold and spiky in his vein, and then there was a whisper on the wind, and then nothing.
When he woke again, it was night, and he was alone. He was in a hospital bed, with crisp white sheets starched like sandpaper. His head ached, and as he tapped the back of it he felt a thick bandage, but less pain than he might have thought. He turned his head experimentally from side to side, and this was no worse than the time he’d fallen out of the tree in abuela’s yard and hit his head on the ground. No fun, but he was okay.
He swung down out of the bed. It was a spartan room: a metal makeshift bed, some medical equipment, a few of those jars with tongue depressors and cotton balls. He pulled a few of these out for amusement, but when he’d gotten to the bottom of the jar he grew bored.
There was a small bottle on the metal table that was now covered in cotton balls. Miguel cocked his head. Had it been there a moment ago? It was old and ornate, with a glass stopper in the top in the shape of a fleur-de-lis. He was sure he would have noticed it.
He looked around. It was dark in the room, and very quiet. He was alone.
Now there was a spoon next to the bottle.
Miguel jumped back. He looked around again. He looked under the table. When he came back up, his name was on the bottle, written in neat handwriting on a piece of ribbon tied to the neck!
He swallowed nervously and gingerly rubbed the back of his head. Yep, still hurt. Had he really been hit that hard? This was the strangest game he had ever played, and he was fairly certain that he was playing it by himself.
He picked up the bottle. Nothing on the back. The stopper was beautiful, but otherwise just a stopper.
There was a word etched on the bottom. It went around the circumference of the bottom of the bottle, and it was so long, it took Miguel a few tries to work out where it began and ended.
He stopped. He knew this word. This was the word from his dreams.
Was he dreaming now? He pinched himself - ow! He tapped the back of his head. Ow more!
He didn't think he was dreaming.
He pulled out the stopper, poured a dark red liquid onto the spoon, and carefully maneuvered it into his mouth.
Strawberries. It was strawberries. Not strawberry flavor, though he liked that very much also. It was strawberries. The kind that he at with his mother, both of them smiling and laughing last summer while the sun was high and his sister was at school--
His mother. He could remember her face. Her smile. How she stroked his hair, and kissed his head. He could remember her face.
Then he remembered Juana.
He crashed through the door, expecting to find another room with his sister in it, but this was the camp, not a hospital, and most of the tent-buildings only had one or two rooms at all. He was outside. It was still dark, but the sun was just threatening to peek up over the horizon. The camp was eerily quiet, just the sound of his bare feet on the sand, and a cool breeze hissing over his toes.
He cocked his head. A cool breeze? In this place? It smelled different, too, and he turned into it, feeling it caress his face. He smiled without meaning to, and it wasn’t until he opened his eyes that he realized he had closed them.
He wasn’t facing north, whence the winds always came. He was facing a different direction. The wind had changed.
“El viento solano,” he murmured. An east wind.
Then he heard the shouting. Men's voices - the guards. He froze. Then he pulled himself back into the doorway he'd just come out of, trying to stay out of sight.
"Who? Which ones?"
"They... all of them!"
Miguel paled. The other kids were gone? Part of him thrilled at their escape, as much as it confused him. But where was Juana? Was she still mad at him for what he'd said about mama? Had she left him here? He cast his gaze frantically about. The camp was just... empty. Voices on the wind.
Then there were shouts. Then there was gunfire. Then there were screams.
Miguel swallowed hard. Something bad was happening out there. He knew from his papa's twitching fingers that nothing good ever came when men shot guns.
But where was Juana? He looked back into the room where he'd woken up, to the table with the medicine that tasted of strawberries. He remembered his mother's face. He remembered. He had his mother's face.
And he had the word.
He took a step forward, out into the night of bad things, to look for his sister.
Out in the camp, it sounded like a warzone, but whatever side the guards were on, they were losing. As Miguel tried to slink along the sides of buildings, heading toward the cages where the children slept, he saw shapes moving through the dawn, some the size of grown men, some much larger. They moved... wrong. Unnaturally. As if they didn't quite know how.
As Miguel turned the corner to the place where the cages were, he saw a guard backing through the next intersecting space between buildings. As he came into view, Miguel saw the pistol in his hand, but it wasn't pointed at something, exactly, and it definitely wasn't shooting. It was trembling.
Miguel froze. The man had him dead to rights if he turned, but all his attention was focused on something that was around the corner from Miguel. Judging by the way the man was looking up, he was looking at something very, very large.
A giant paw reached into view, and Miguel clapped his hand over his mouth lest he scream as it grabbed the man and dragged him back from whence he came. The man didn't yell, either, just whimpered something that sounded like "Mr. Binky?" and then vanished from sight.
Miguel blinked. The paw had been massive, and the thing that it belonged to... it must be the size of a house!
And it was a teddy bear.
There was no question. It hadn't been the limb of a real animal. It was plush. Stuffed. With features sewn on in threads as thick as a rope. Miguel wasn't sure exactly how it had even grabbed the man, since it didn't really have any fingers, but it had covered him up and then he was just... gone.
Was he? Was he gone? The sounds of fighting and screaming were coming slowly now. Had... had the teddy bears gotten them all? Had they gotten Juana?
Miguel swallowed hard, and crept to where the man had been. He slowly peeked an eye - just one eye - around the corner, uncertain of what he would see or whether his mind would allow him to see it.
Nothing. The alleyway was empty. There was no bear, no man, nothing at all except sand and the east wind.
A hand grabbed him from behind and spun him around, fingers entwining in his shirt. He looked up into the panicked face of one of the guards.
"You..." the guard spat, and Miguel saw the bandages covering up a bite mark on his arm. "It figures. At least you're real." Talking into a microphone clipped to his shoulder, he said, "I've got one of the kids, one of the fighters from today. Rendezvous in the courtyard by the main gate."
"Ten four," came the reply. "I got another one of 'em. Meet you there."
Miguel struggled and tried to pull away, but the man yanked him off-balance and dragged him down the alley and through the empty streets of the camp. The attack seemed to have stopped, or at least, the gunfire had. Even with the guard sweeping corners with his pistol, checking for danger, it didn't take long for the guard to dump Miguel's squirming form into the dust next to Javier.
"That's it," he growled. "That's the only one I was able to find. They rest of 'em, just... poof!"
"Are we it?" asked the other guard, eyes wide. "Did anybody else make it? What were those things?"
"I don't know," the first guard said. "But if they were coming for us, springing these little bastards... maybe they can tell us."
The men turned on Miguel and Javier.
"Well?" growled the one with the bandages. "What's going on here?"
He reached forward and picked up Miguel by the lapels of his shirt, pulling him up off of his feet and very close to his face. When he spoke, spittle flecked Miguel's face.
"Where are your friends, eh? Who's doing this? The cartels? Who gives a shit about you, anyway? Who?!? What have you got to say for yourself?"
Miguel looked into his eyes, and saw the fear and desperation there. He understood fear. He had known so much of it in his little life. But now he also knew something about how to beat the fear. He did have something to say. With his little feet dangling in the air, with a crazed man who had clubbed him into unconsciousness at the edge of his wits and threatening him, Miguel answered.
The east wind blew.
There was a terrific gust, and the man dropped Miguel, letting him go with one hand to shield his eyes with the other. Miguel bent his head down and did likewise as the grit and the sand peppered him, just like in his first dream.
But this was not his first dream. Now he remembered his mother's face. And now...
The umbrella snapped shut with a little click, and the wind stopped. The woman standing there took a moment to secure it, and then hung it demurely in the crook of her right elbow, the duck face on the hook nestling into her. Her skin was the color of hot chocolate, and her face had an ageless smoothness that just dared you to suggest that the years had been kind to her. She had a red hat with a round top and a short brim, with a flower tucked into it; her hair was pulled back into an orderly bun behind her head. A large gray travel bag hung from her fingers. She wore a plain blue sari, wrapped modestly around both shoulders. The straightness of her posture would have made a soldier cry.
"Excuse me," she began with a smile, her accent aristocratic and British. "I am here for the children. (Javier, close your mouth. We are not a codfish.) I am afraid we can't linger. Spit-spot!"
The man with his fingers still dug into Miguel's shirt had his gun on her in a second, as did his comrade. “Who the fuck are you?”
“Tsk. Language, Phillip. My name is Mari Poppins,” she beamed. “I am practically perfect in every way. But I have heard it said that I have little patience for rudeness and impertinence. Please allow Miguel to join me; we have a very busy day ahead of us."
Heedless of the guns pointed at her, Mari stretched out her hand toward Miguel. The look in her eye was of absolute and calming surety. Miguel knew one thing for sure in that moment: he would leave this place with his hand in hers.
"Like hell," snarled Phillip the guard. "There's some really weird shit going on tonight, and nobody is going anywhere until we get those kids back. Now I know your name... but who are you? What are you doing here?"
Her outstretched hand didn't move a muscle, nor did her lips, but the corners of her eyes flattened and hardened into a look that was almost predatory. Miguel thought it was the look you would see if you looked into the face of a mother mountain lion whose cub you were holding by the scruff of its neck.
“My name is Mari Poppins,” she repeated. "I care for children who require my attention. And if you do not, this very second, release that boy from you filthy grasp, you will learn who I am.”
Phillip the guard swallowed. He looked around. One of the buildings was on fire. All of his prisoners and his fellow guards were gone, save the ones here in front of him right now. This woman had just appeared with the wind.
And she did not look like she was fucking around.
He let go of Miguel's shirt. His gun arm went slack.
Miguel picked himself up, and with Javier trailing slightly behind, he tottered over to the woman. Her smile regained its warmth, and she crouched down and took his hand into hers. Her skin was cool and soft.
"Hello, Miguel. I'm so glad you called out to me. We have quite a lot to do, you know. There are many children here to attend to. Will you help me get them back to their mamas and papas?"
He nodded slowly. He didn't want to ask what was really in his heart, so he said, "Juana?"
Mari's smile grew again. "Looking forward to seeing you, I am very sure. She took her medicine quite nicely, and is enjoying the park. Shall we join her?"
She stood up, turning to the gate. Behind her, Phillip the guard stammered out something that wanted to be a command. "N- now hold on, lady. You can't just..."
She paused, but did not look at him. "Can't? Oh, Phillip. Anything can happen, if you let it. Will you?"
Phillip looked over at the other guard, only to find himself alone. "Wh... what happened to Darnell?"
"I rather suspect it was Rumples, that hungry little scamp," Mari grinned, winking down to Miguel. "Forgotten toys often have quite a lot to discuss with the children who promised to love them best and forever. I expect you'll see Darnell again once he's had a chance to make things right."
Mari reached into her bag, and with a precise movement withdrew a charcoal pencil. "Miguel," she said, "the gate here is such an ugly thing. Can you please improve upon it?"
She pressed the pencil into Miguel's hand, gently encouraging him toward the main gate. The camp was surrounded by wire mesh walls, but the gate was a slab of steel that was easily eight feet high. It would have taken a grownup to open, and Mari was not a large woman. Miguel was a small kid, and Javier wasn't much bigger. Could the three of them open it? he wondered.
But that wasn't what Mari had asked of him. She wanted him to "improve upon" the door. What did that even mean? He looked back at her, but she just nodded at him.
What would make the gate better? Miguel's lips tightened in concentration. What did he know of gates and doorways? Racking his brain, there was only one doorway. His mama stood in its open silhouette, facing the yard with her arms wide in greeting...
Gingerly, he traced the outline of a woman, her arms outstretched. It got harder when the tears came, and he messed it up a little bit. The woman wasn't like his memory of his mama: she was facing in, her arms wide in greeting to the person on the inside.
"Miguel?" came a voice. The sweetest voice. "Miguel?"
"Mama?" he croaked, throat tight.
She tackled him, straight out of her outline on the door. He was borne back, and up, and in, and in, and in, and in... she stroked his hair as she soaked it with tears, she kissed his head and kept running her hands over his face, saying his name over and over and over and crushing him into her embrace and then staring at him in wild disbelief, babbling incoherently and whispering his name and singing to him and hugging him all over again.
It might have gone on forever. Miguel hoped that it would.
When his mama finally pulled back, he saw his sister over her shoulder. She stood in the portal framed by the gate, and behind her stretched a green park with two statues, with the sounds of children playing and of mamas and papas clinging to their children so tight that they might never let them go. Juana waved and smiled.
"You were spelling something," she smiled.
"Si," Miguel agreed. "It's a hard word."
"Quite atrocious," agreed Mari from behind. "Not everyone who needs it, can hear it. And many of those who can, they lose it when they need it most. It's not my best work."
"It's practically perfect," Miguel replied. "Where do we go now?"
Mari smiled gently at him. "I'm afraid that not everything will be easy. You have a good deal of work to do. But for right now... how would you feel about a nice game of 'A Walk in the Park'? It's one of my personal favorites."
Mari took his hand. His mother slid her hands into his and Juana's. They stepped through the gate, into a green place where anything can happen.
The wind changed. A south wind.
A man named Phillip, who used to be a guard over a camp for children and who now guarded only the desert... he closed his eyes. There was a scent of strawberries.