By Robert Balentine, Jr.
Blood splashed a crimson puddle onto the tile floor. Anabeth’s ears rang. In the tiny gas station bathroom, the gunshot echoed like the voice of God, booming down to Moses on the mountaintop. But she was no prophet. Not even a believer, though she felt like praying now.
She fished in the dead man’s pocket for the van keys and tossed them to the barefoot Mexican girl cowering in the corner. “¿Habla inglés?”
The girl nodded.
“Let everyone else out of the van,” Anabeth said.
The girl padded out the door, her soles slapping the dirty black-and-white checkerboard tiles.
Anabeth knew what the man was and what he carried. This was coyote country. People only came through a nowhere town in southwest Texas for two reasons: either they were hiding something or they were hiding from something.
A black sprinter van with painted-over windows rested alongside the pump labeled “3” in bright red. A chrome padlock secured the vehicle’s rear doors from the outside.
“Twenty dollars on pump three.” The indistinct dialect of the border country burnished the man’s voice. His skin was tanned, but most definitely white. He slid a bill onto the counter.
A shoeless teenage girl placed the pump nozzle into the van’s tank before walking toward the gas station entrance. Her black hair was pulled up into a bun, one stray lock falling over her right eye. She brushed a strand from her face revealing a fresh bruise, contusive blues and violets highlighted by the sun’s unceasing desert assault.
Once inside, the girl closed her eyes and inhaled.
The man barked something in Spanish, too fast for Anabeth’s pidgin high school Español.
The girl dropped her gaze to her feet, and muttered, “baño.”
Anabeth laid a cowbell attached to a key on the counter.
The man beckoned the girl.
She extended a thin hand to take the key, flinching when he pointed to where the bathroom hid behind rows of processed foods and cases of cheap beer.
Anabeth lowered her head, her own reason for hiding looming large in her memories.
She daydreamed about her old life sometimes. Finishing her degree as a graphic designer and opening her own firm. Watching fireworks over the Seine with her husband. The way she’d felt, just a girl, so long ago. She still doodled designs on receipts or napkins, but always threw them in the trash. She slid the twenty into the till and flipped the start switch on the gas pump, her leg bumping against the gun holster beneath the counter.
The coyote filled a plastic bag with bottles of water and junk food. He sat the sack on the counter and grabbed another, making his way over to what Anabeth called the “single man’s aisle.” He stuffed boxes of generic condoms and pregnancy tests into the bag, filling it to overflowing.
The girl emerged from the bathroom and grabbed a sports drink from the cooler. By the time she reached the counter, only half the liquid remained. She set the bottle down by the register, and it shuffled gently, scarlet sugar water waves sloshing back and forth.
The coyote grabbed the bottle and pointed the half-finished sports drink at the girl, screaming at her in Spanish. Still yelling, he threw the bottle at her, and she ducked. With a sneer frozen on his face, he glanced at the bags on the counter, then back at the girl. Snatching a box of condoms, he grabbed the girl’s arm and shoved her towards the bathroom.
She pleaded with him in Spanish, “lo siento, lo siento, lo siento!”
The bathroom door slammed, shaking the walls, and Anabeth jumped.
Her hands traced the cheekbones her husband had smashed and the eye socket he’d crushed. The blind spot in her vision made changing lanes problematic. She followed the curves of her body, each hesitation marking the timeline of her marriage. The fractured humerus, the dislocated finger where her wedding band had once rested. Her fingertips made their way across the metal plates along her ribcage, down to her abdomen, coming to rest just above her hips. She remembered the punch, the blood, the ultrasound, and the cold, stainless steel stirrups of the gynecologist’s office. She clenched her fists, her right hand closing on the revolver’s grip.
The bathroom door crashed open, knob burying itself in the drywall.
“¿Qué chingados?” The man turned, his erection bulbous and throbbing.
The girl crouched behind the toilet, underwear torn and a trickle of blood running down her legs. Tears cut rivulets through the dirt on her cheeks.
Anabeth stepped into the bathroom, raised the revolver and fired, painting the wall with blood and entrails.
As the final gunshot echoed, the coyote fell in a heap, motionless.
The gun clicked several times on empty chambers before Anabeth stopped pulling the trigger.
When the girls were safely inside, Anabeth allowed them to eat or drink whatever they wanted. A dozen girls, all of them about the age of Anabeth’s daughter would have been. They huddled together for comfort as sirens rang in the distance.
“It’s okay,” Anabeth said. “The police will take us home. All of us.”
She opened the revolver’s cylinder and spun it, watching the outside world through the blur of the empty chambers. She snapped the cylinder shut with a flick of her wrist and set the gun on the floor, kicking it toward the store entrance.
It wouldn’t be long now. The police would take her fingerprints and discover the warrant. But she’d finally get a chance to explain why she killed her abuser. She wrapped one arm around the girl she’d saved, and they held one another, an occasional sniff the only punctuation above the hum of the coolers.
For better or worse, it was time to go home.