How many times have I cautioned against following trends with your writing? Well, “current events” can be just as tricky.

When I sat down in December 2019 to write the short story that follows, a lot of what was going on in the news was centered on our border with Mexico, and this little scene here just sort of passed through me. I sent it out to maybe a dozen or so literary magazines, all while the news cycle was shifting over to COVID, and anyway, no one I sent it to wanted it and I eventually just gave up on it. But I think it’s pretty good, so what the hell, here it is. I’ll let the world decide if it’s still relevant or any good—at least I can’t reject myself on my own blog!

He’d Come This Far, and Had Nowhere to Go Back To

“I think you really have to just turn around and go back home, son.”

The Mexican kid looked me right in the eyes—they almost never do that. He shook his head.

“So you can understand me?” I asked. “You speak English?”

He blinked once and I took it for a nod.

He was taller than me. Maybe six feet—tall for a Mexican. He didn’t turn around and go back home.

“You just gonna stand there?”

Fucking kid just stared at me.

I bounced the rifle in my hand a little but still didn’t point it at him. If he saw the firearm he sure didn’t seem to give a shit.

“You know I know how to use this,” I said anyway.

The kid was sweating, but not because he was scared. I knew he wasn’t scared. You can tell when someone’s scared—anyone can tell that. He was sweating for the same reason I was. It was hotter than the hubs of Hell out there.

“Fucking hot,” I said out loud.

Was that a nod? Did he nod at that?

“Go ahead, if you want to,” I said, glancing down at the half-empty gallon jug of water in his left hand.

He didn’t take a drink.

“You know you’re just gonna have to turn around and go back home, son,” I said. “Wherever that is.”

He just stared at me.

“What are you… nineteen… twenty?” I asked.

The Mexican kid blinked—maybe just to get the sweat out of his eyes.

“Come on, kid,” I said, eying his jug of water again. I wanted some. “Go on now.”

Fucker just stood there.

“How long you been walkin’, anyway?” I asked, just to get the kid talking.

It didn’t work.

“You from Rio Bravo?” I asked. It was the closest city. “Nuevo Leon, at least? Tamaulipas?”

He didn’t even blink.

“Fuck, son, you okay?” I had to ask.

He blinked and in that one blink he told me he was fine and it was none of my goddamn business where the fuck he was from and if he was thirsty he’d drink his own water whether or not I told him it was okay. His old, dust-brown tennis shoes planted in the sand said he wasn’t going to turn around and go home or anywhere else.

“Shit,” I replied.

My palms left sweat on the rifle grip and I hoped he didn’t see that.

“Holy shit, kid,” I said, and I laughed a little. “Are we havin’ a real life Mexican standoff?”

He blinked. Yes. Sí.

I glanced back at my truck, parked about a quarter mile behind me.

“I could maybe give you a lift back to Rio Bravo,” I said, but even as I said it I wondered, Can I? It would mean crossing south, if I hadn’t already. I’d be the illegal alien then.

I took by his complete silence that he didn’t want a ride into Rio Bravo, or anywhere else. Still, I felt like I had to say, “Well, shit, kid, I ain’t takin’ you into Donna, that’s for sure.”

He glanced up at the sky and I took half a step back and looked up at the sun. Fuck, was I thirsty.

“Look, kid,” I said while I thought about maybe pointing my rifle at him anyway, “it’s not like I can arrest you or anything. I mean, I’m—we’re more like… more on the order of a kind of neighborhood watch, y’know? But…”

But what?

“Shit,” I whispered.

I wasn’t going to shoot that kid. I was never going to shoot any of them.

“I don’t wanna stand out here all day,” I said, because it was the truth. “What is it… three o’clock? Hottest part of the day is still to come.”

He blinked and to me it looked like he said he didn’t care how hot it was going to get. He’d come this far, and had nowhere to go back to.

I tipped the barrel of my rifle to the sand at my feet and said, “Fuck it.”

He took one step forward.

I kept my eyes on him.

“Fucking…” I said. “Don’t sell drugs or rob people and shit. Get a job. Get your papers, yeah? As soon as you can. Legal like.”

He blinked: I will. But maybe: I’ll try.

I looked back at my truck and said, “Fuck.”

He started walking, so I didn’t turn around.

When he passed me, I said, “I can’t give you a ride. Not into Donna.”

He didn’t look at me. I watched him walk, steady, one foot in front of the other, for a dozen yards or so. I looked up at the sun, high in the clear blue sky. I mopped the sweat off my forehead with an equally sweaty forearm then slung the rifle over my shoulder.

“Fuck it,” I said to the kid’s back. “Come on, I can get you as far as Edinburg, but you’ll be on your own from there.”

The kid stopped walking, looked over his shoulder at me, and nodded.

—Philip Athans

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Jane Nash says:

    This is a really encouraging blog post – thank you.

  2. Lyri Ahnam says:

    Thank you for sharing this story. I love the one-sided dialogue and the narrator working out their internal battle. Fabulous. So glad you shared this with us!

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