A wave surged against William’s calves and ankles, and warm water slopped into his shoes. Wearing socks had been a stupid oversight; now he wouldn’t be able to run at top speed when he escaped from the authorities. He’d get caught and have to invoke his passport and journalistic privilege to avoid more permanent detainment. And, really, that was the point—so said Jonas—to do everything the others did, exactly as they did it, in the spirit of how they existed.
“This is how people die,” said William.
Jonas smiled, slapped William on the back as though they were friends—giving him a small push towards the boat.
William smelled decaying seaweed and what must have been fecal matter. He cursed Jonas, his editor, who had assumed William wished to make a career out of informing comfortable people how others suffered. At the end of this expedition William would either be famous (for a journalist) or dead, a floating body fertilizing the ocean. Jonas would deliver the eulogy at the funeral, probably the same words of celebration he’d used after William had won the award for excellence in field reporting, just a little sadder.
“I guess you don’t need luck,” said Jonas. “I’ll never understand how you cowboy journalists do it.”
William smiled, as though agreeing—I know, I’m awesome—and then turned toward the water as Jonas left him, retracing their steps down the beach back to town. The bobbing canoe was wide enough for three people to sit side by side, long enough for ten rows of people front to back. William was afraid he’d have to row along with the other men, be physical, but then he spotted the motor strapped on the back with rope. He wouldn’t have to do anything except sit and witness.
Later he could research languages—Google translate gave authentic sound samples now—and if nothing sounded close enough to what he was hearing presently he could make something up. His comrades had been from Guinea or Sierra Leone; no one would be able to prove they hadn’t been West Africans. He dug into the breast pocket of his life vest and removed his astronaut pen that would write even when it got wet.
Now find characters, a protagonist.
A woman seated in front of William pulled up an anchor while others pushed. Her calf muscles were well-defined. She was pregnant—one hand on the anchor, the other on her stomach—and William felt shame that the others could tell she’d be better than him at hoisting solid steel. She wore flip-flops and, large belly or not, with those calves she’d probably run faster than him over loose sand. In his waterproof notebook—another fine purchase—William wrote fast runner. There were other women on the boat, but this fast runner was special.
Details, now. More.
The fast runner wore a red headscarf. Others had head scarfs, too, but no one else wore bright red. So smart, thought William. Rescuers would spot her first when they were all floating in the water. It was shameful how little he knew about successful human trafficking.
Everything he’d read indicated the boat would be constructed of forgiving rubber; sturdier ones might be decommissioned fishing trawlers that could take on waves. But no, this was definitely a canoe, the kind you paddled down slow rivers to teach water safety, afterward giggling as the dumb kids splash-swam to shore while the smart ones stood up in the waist-high water.
This western route across the Mediterranean was supposedly the safest. The destination coastline wouldn’t have been visible even if it were daytime, something like forty miles away. Wherever they landed, Jonas would be there. He would follow the chip in William’s cellphone and arrive with a thermos of something alcoholic for a proper toast.
Everything is wrong, thought William. This is how people die.
The Maine Coast Star Magazine, a regional journal with a circulation of five thousand, was supported by a recurring grant from the Maine Arts Council, on which Jonas’s father was a board member. Jonas hadn’t even flinched when William requested a budget of four thousand dollars for his first story, so evidently money wasn’t a problem in Jonas’s editorial world, only content. The Maine reading public devoured William’s first story of harrowing adventure, and then immediately called for more. A glimpse of danger wasn’t enough.
People could have died during the events of that first cover story, too.
A coyote named Alberto Blanco had led William, and four other paying customers from Guatemala City, through a cartel-controlled town called Coban, across the mud-jungle paths into Mexico, in busses and unmarked taxis to the border, across a river with surprisingly strong current with only an inner tube to keep their heads above water. Along the way they’d dodged gunfire from drug gangs disputing village turf, ridden on the top of a train past federales in 4×4 pursuit, and, finally, touched their wet feet in the grey-brown dirt of Texas.
William had been certain someone would critique his story as exploitational or, at the very least, too politically-charged for the Downeast reading public who avoided public talk of sensitive topics like people who spoke foreign languages (other than French). But, no, the reader response was uniformly positive: William’s writing had “opened” the world for one reader, and had simply “Blown AWAY!!!” another. Really? thought William. Had no one in Maine ever been to Mexico? Had no one ever met a real-life Spanish-speaker? Did no one question even a single element of the fantastic voyage?
Perhaps only Jonas.
The doubt on the editor’s face had been evident when William returned to the office with no receipts to prove his whereabouts. William’s passport had been “lost” in Mexico; he hadn’t needed it to reenter the country anyway.
“Any way of confirming this?” asked Jonas. “Any of it?”
There was not. William hadn’t taken notes. “Alberto” was an alibi used to protect his coyote’s identity. Even describing a single distinguishing attribute of his companions would endanger them as they tried to form lives in America.
“I understand if you can’t run this,” said William. “It’s bigger than you intended. But it was all so impactful, so grand. I can’t see leaving any of it out.”
“Cover story,” said Jonas. “Next issue.”
And after that—after taking home the award for field reporting—William’s piece became an act in need of replication in order to remain in the public focus, something like a scientific experiment that had to be replicated to prove authenticity.
“People immigrate everywhere,” said Jonas. “You could go to China and get in a box sent across the ocean. You could go to Turkey and find a new way in to Europe. We are in line to win some major awards this time. Get yourself trafficked a couple more times and you’ll have enough reportage for a book!”
Water sprayed William’s face at the bottom of each wave. A blue tarp shielded the first two rows of passengers from the water. He’d put that detail in the story. His pen was tucked into his pocket, his notebook elsewhere in one of a dozen khaki cargo folds, but he could remember that idea. This would be a good story, better than Mexico because of such vivid details recorded in his notebook.
Sunlight indicated they were now traveling east and that meant something was wrong. He didn’t see land. Then the engine stopped. After ten minutes he grew restless, fidgety. Someone yelled at him in French, presumably to sit still. The pregnant woman turned and said a single word, unintelligible, but most likely, “Calm.” A rocking canoe endangered everyone. Sensing motion behind him, William turned to see a man pour gasoline from a 2-liter soda bottle into the engine. The empty bottle then went into the sea and William was able to calm himself by watching it float away.
Later, no clouds broke the sunshine, and by midday William’s scalp hurt to touch. It took effort to suction open his dry mouth, and he tasted blood after he pulled his lips apart. Those in the front, still under the tarp, were now doubly protected from the water and sun. The pregnant woman endured the same discomforts as William, but made no little noises of protest. She would be his protagonist, clearly, and yet he had difficulty crafting a narrative. In order to focus, he needed to eat and sleep. He needed to dip a spoon into peanut butter, use his tongue like a muscle, and rest in a space with no external sounds.
“What is your name?” William asked the pregnant woman. “You need a name.” She turned, but didn’t say anything. He repeated the question in French, and still got no response.
The sun set quickly, light to dark in minutes.
A man swore in a language unknown to William—dull sounds communicating surprise and the intention to hurt. The glow-light on William’s wristwatch indicated it was after midnight. The focus of attention for the swearing man was a light in the distance, a flash barely reflecting into the sea, not a lighthouse, not a warning at all. The glowing grew larger, millimeter by millimeter, until tiny silhouettes slinked and bobbed below it. Techno music entered the environment. Someone jumped from the canoe. William sensed this, didn’t actually see it. Another splash touched him. The pregnant woman poked him on the fleshy part of his upper arm, her finger all bone. Others jumped. More water touched him. William failed to sense her purpose in poking him until she scooted her bottom close to the side, lifted her legs over the edge, sat for a second, then slipped down into the water. Her red scarf was invisible in the dark. She could have been far ahead, in the surf, or far below.
William shifted his legs over the side and submerged his feet. He’d been cold and now he was relieved by water warmer than he’d expected, like tea that had been forgotten while reading.
He pulled the cord on his inflatable life vest.
On the beach it looked like people were fighting, and then closer it was just aggressive dancing. Foam bubbles exploded from cannons. If this was intentional, if the canoe traffickers had landed at a foam party on purpose, then it was brilliance, everyone engulfed in bubbles, no way to tell apart tourists from refugees. Such a nice detail.
William searched for the pregnant woman with the red headscarf. She was gone, alive surely, but elsewhere.
Away from the beach, in the alley between resort buildings where the staff dumped liquor bottles, William scribbled in his notebook, attempting to maintain legible penmanship. The woman needed a name in his article. Maria, thought William. Her name is Maria. Of course her real name was not Maria, but perhaps his West-African protagonist had memorized a name to repeat once she arrived on free Spanish soil. Who knew where she’d been two days ago. He guessed Mali. He’d double check the capital of that country, and then make it her home. It was a story of point A to point B, direct and very simple. William could already hear the words in Jonas’s rejection of this new writing: “There’s no connection to people. In Mexico you shared the names of your cousins over a campfire. You convinced Alberto to take a discount for a Guatemalan woman seeking medical treatment in Alabama. You lived with those people.”
Maria was elsewhere, probably somewhere nearby drying off. How had she disappeared so quickly? Where had all the other boat riders gone to? William had no answers to the most interesting questions. He should have followed Maria more closely off the boat, stayed at her hip as she made her way ashore, jumped with her into the same shadows.
The next morning the buzzing of William’s cellphone woke him. He’d slept under fresh white linens in a cabin on the beach. In bed he held his breath until the phone went quiet after ten rings. Near the door, his salty clothes formed a mound. The receipt for the room was there on the desk beside Jonas’s company credit card and the waterproof notebook.
William stretched over to look at who’d called.
Jonas, of course. Three times. The editor had already tracked him down. It was so easy nowadays to track someone with a cell phone and company credit card.
William imagined what Jonas would say as he struggled to open a celebratory bottle of champagne: “China next. People want to read about China.” Jonas would probably buy a new ticket for William’s next story before they even got back to Maine.
The phone buzzed again. William slipped into the resort robe and left the cabin, the phone still vibrating on the table as he closed the door.
Outside, the white sand had been raked clean of impurities. It must have been some guy’s job to comb the beach. In Maine you had to step around a dozen dead things between the car park and the water line. Maine was better. Ahead the beach rounded away from the seaside resorts. Waves crashed in a cove, and there, not far from the bend, a woman tended a low fire. William squinted his eyes: was she pregnant? William couldn’t be certain, but her headscarf was a familiar shade of red. She placed shrubs into the fire, and William felt the need to show her how to do it better. He could explain how to build a fire without words if necessary, through motions. With some driftwood he’d collected above the shoreline, William approached. She was not pregnant, no, but she could have been one of the other women from the canoe. Perhaps Maria had discarded her headscarf upon reaching land, an act of celebration, and this woman had retrieved it. This woman’s blue dress was dark at the bottom from wetness.
William thought about Maria, about how the pregnant woman had had strong calves, and for a moment he allowed himself to picture the continuation of their intertwined fates. If only they’d spoken a common language, she might have spent the night with him in the seaside cabin. A simple smile on her part might have converted him from observer to actor. He imagined introducing her to Jonas, who would’ve had a comment founded in irony—write the story, he’d say, don’t live it!—and then returning with her home, to Maine, where she would have found more than enough space in his garden apartment that others considered too small, and the day would finally arrive and, yes, of course, he would’ve helped raise the child because he was a good man with honor. Concerned Maine citizens would start an online campaign for such a strong woman; her unborn child would receive multiple scholarships for private education.
Upon seeing William, the woman tending the fire stood as though preparing to fight, not run. William grew excited. He was a danger to her, and it was exciting to be so misjudged; it would be an intellectual challenge to convince this woman that her instincts were wrong. He held the palm of his free hand visible as he dumped his driftwood into the fire. It would rekindle the embers, make her warmer. The fire hissed and steam clouded the air. Smoke followed, and the woman reached past William to wave at the air with violence. Using French, she called William an imbecile. Smoke was bad. Smoke was for a rescue, and here no rescue was needed. William backed away while the woman gathered her things. He didn’t see what she owned, what items she’d brought on her journey, but everything fit into a rolled sweater. Nothing inside the bundle made noise as she walked away, nothing metal, nothing precious. “Wait,” said William. The woman was away quickly. William followed her silhouette down the beach, far away from the resorts, and he respected the ease with which she skated over the wet rocks.
Alone, he poked at the fire.
The beach was nicer in this spot, with unmanicured sand, but nothing so appealing as the rocky coastline of Maine. Seaweed was missing, broken shells and sea glass, signs of nature and life.
William looked over the water he could have died trying to cross and solidified the details he would feed Jonas: after getting in the canoe, they’d crossed the water and landed under the cover of a Spanish seaside rave, with bubble cannons and free shots of vodka. That was the whole story.
The refugees were now somewhere far down the shoreline. He envisioned a short-term future of connecting with the others from the canoe, eating oranges from forbidden orchards, finding work that required no talking, and scratching by, day by day, until he had enough material for a new article. Jonas would like that.
Jonas, Jonas, Jonas.
Jonas would keep sending him on expeditions. What drastic excuse could William create for Jonas to stop sending his award-winning reporter into the field? Perhaps William could confess how the particulars of the Mexico piece weren’t just fuzzy, but fabricated. There was no ride on a train top, for instance, only knowledge that people did that kind of thing.
William would be demoted for inventing facts, would toil in the editorial section of the magazine, perhaps, but at least he’d still have a job.
But if that wasn’t good enough, if Jonas had no problem with fuzzy facts, William could explain further how the people in the Mexico article were composite characters, not real, per se, but the collected impressions of everyone William had encountered, their opinions, fears and actions, all rolled into four characters. It was easier to write that way, otherwise there would have been a hundred thousand words.
And if that still wasn’t good enough, if Jonas didn’t have a problem with reporters inventing people and their words, then William could also admit that Alberto Blanco was not a real man, but more like the embodiment of all the advice William had picked up along the way—a spirit force, one might say, protecting and directing William on his path through Central America—a total piece of fiction.
And if Jonas still did nothing—no punishment, no outrage—William could then shut everything down by confessing the full, intense truth: every aspect of the Mexico piece, the people and places, quoted thoughts, dramas and resolutions—everything—had all been complete inventions. Netflix documentaries had taught William all he needed to know about the hardships of immigration. Archived BBC news reports had identified routes of arrival and departure used by drug traffickers. And you could learn a ton about people in other countries by looking at photos, not tourist pictures, no, but ones from a Facebook profile belonging to a friend of a friend who’d once done Habitat for Humanity in a village outside Guatemala City.
A confession like that would surely stop Jonas from sending his reporter on any more life-threatening missions.
Was news fabrication a crime? No it was not. The reporting award hadn’t come with any money. A simple retraction on the editorial page would be sufficient to make everything go away. William would be able to get past this—that was the important thing to remember.
“Ho, there!” screamed a voice advancing down the beach. “Ho!”
A resort guard appeared from around a rocky corner. “No fire,” he said in English, pointing at the collection of scorched twigs by William’s feet. “I arrest you.” The guard’s shirt was white, with a gold patch embroidered on the breast to appear like a police badge. The label on the other side of his chest was the same as the logo on William’s robe—a nautical compass below the resort’s name.
This guard wasn’t a police officer, no, but he could still be depicted as law enforcement in William’s article. It would be so easy to run over this beach, so smooth, no rocks like in Maine. William dug his toes into the sand. Now was the time to run, if he was going to run.
“Is it illegal for patrons of the resort to build fires?” William asked. “I didn’t know.” “Only illegal people do it,” said the guard.
As the guard kicked sand over the fire, William took off in a sprint, back toward the cabins, his bathrobe flapping in the air current.
“Ho!” said the guard, not chasing.
As William ran he focused on the story he’d write, on the notes he would scribble in his waterproof notebook before they left him completely.
William looked over his shoulder, and stopped running. He coughed, struggled for his breath, and then began walking leisurely back to his cabin with his hands on his waist as he watched the guard walk back to the main resort, no longer interested in William or the fire.
Inside the cabin, William sat on the bed, still in his robe. The waterproof notebook still had plenty of unused sheets.
A night on the beach; a small campfire, careful to avoid smoke; a morning foot chase from authorities over a beach with no shells.
So many wonderful, true details.
But what about Maria?
She was safe now, in Spain, that was the important thing, and he couldn’t jeopardize the safety of that woman or her baby by giving away too many details about her relocation to Europe. The readers would just have to trust William, again. The last line of his piece would be something like, “And she disappeared from my view down the shore over rocks, moving with a graceful confidence over the slippery stones that she’d learned years before while scavenging the beaches outside [Mali’s capital]. I’m not at liberty to say where she went next; that’s not my story to tell.”
William’s phone buzzed on the table next to the bed. He picked it up.
And while he spoke to his editor, the pregnant woman appeared clearly in William’s thoughts: his real memories of her about to jell with what he would now tell Jonas—the hard lines of her calf muscles, her bony finger like a tool, and how, the very moment she’d hit the water, she’d become expertly invisible.
A. A. Weiss is the author of Lenin’s Asylum (Everytime Press, 2018). His essays and short stories have appeared in BOAAT, Moon City Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and Zone 3, among other places, and twice earned special mention in the Pushcart Prize Anthology. He is a recipient of grants from the Bronx Council on the Arts and the Maryland State Arts Council. Visit his website at www.aaweiss.com