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An excerpt from The Far Away Brothers by Lauren Markham

Like my brother before me

It’s dangerous enough fleeing El Salvador for the United States without members of your own family hunting you down

That summer night in 2013, before he left El Salvador for the United States, 17-year-old Raúl Flores lay restless, listening to a pack of dogs howling into the dark. The same thing had happened the previous two nights. The town dogs barked now and then, but this seemed different – a prolonged chorus of howls and saw-toothed yips. He felt sure the sounds weren’t made by dogs at all but by prescient spirits, warning of things to come. It was nine days since Ernesto, his identical twin, had left. [All names have been changed.]

The next afternoon Raúl got in a car with his Uncle Erick; his mother; his sister, Maricela; and Maricela’s little daughter, Lupita. In his backpack was a gift that his father had promised would keep him safe: Prayers for El Niño Divino, the Divine Child. They met up with the coyota, Sandra, the Mexican woman who had helped Ernesto escape. Raúl hugged his mother goodbye and looked at her one final time. She was crying. Maricela bounced Lupita on her hip and told her brother to take care of himself.

“I’ll bring them there,” Sandra said, mother to mother. “Don’t worry, I will.”

They got in the car, shut the doors, and the driver shifted into gear.

Ernesto woke up in Sandra’s house – in Las Aguilas, a neighborhood in Mexico City – and Sandra was gone.

Lauren Markham says her Rotary fellowship helped her challenge her perspective. Read her essay or learn more about her book and how to buy it.

“She left,” explained the elder daughter. “Another trip from El Salvador. ” But she’d be back, the girl explained, in a few days, and then she’d take Ernesto to the northern border. She motioned for him to help himself to breakfast.

When Ernesto called home, Maricela picked up. She handed the phone to their father, who said a prayer for him by way of greeting. Ernesto asked to talk to Raúl.

“He’s already gone,” his father explained.

“Gone where?”

His father gave him the news. He’d left that very morning for San Salvador with Uncle Erick. “He’s on his way.”

Ernesto hadn’t expected them to actually send Raúl north – not yet, anyway. His heart had skipped a beat when Raúl told him it might be best if he came, too. The guilt of the situation agitated him: What if Uncle Agustín thinks I’m you? Their uncle was still furious that Ernesto had left. It was tough enough fleeing to the north without members of your own family hunting you down. 

And if something happened to Raúl on the road? He’d been lucky making it this far; sending his double here too seemed to be testing fate.

At the same time, he couldn’t wait to see his brother. They hadn’t even said goodbye.

Sandra was gone, Raúl was gone, but Ernesto didn’t put two and two together until Sandra called his phone. “I’m with your brother,” she said. He let out a sigh of relief.

He didn’t mind being stuck in Sandra’s house for a few more days – there was food, a clean bed, a shower, a TV, and Sandra’s two daughters. He was especially drawn to the elder daughter, Fernanda, with her long, thick hair, dark eyes, and brash confidence. Unfortunately, she had a boyfriend – not that Ernesto thought he stood a chance with her, as a ragamuffin kid from El Salvador. Still, a few more days here wasn’t so bad.

Mexico was hotter than El Salvador, and the heat swelled the house, making everything hazy and slow. Ernesto spent the days wiping sweat from his brow, eating food the daughters made him, and avoiding Sandra’s son, who in any case stayed in his room most of the time, not seeming to do much of anything. On Sunday the kids’ father came over and made breakfast for everyone, making sure to prepare a plate for Ernesto. They didn’t ask him much about himself – they knew better, it seemed, than to pry.

A few days later the phone rang. Fernanda picked it up; it was Sandra. Ernesto, from his spot on the couch, heard Fernanda’s voice go tense.

“What happened? What’s wrong?” he asked. On the other line he could hear the frantic voice of the coyota.

Fernanda didn’t answer him. She hung up the phone and turned around to walk upstairs. He could tell something had gone wrong.

“What happened?” he asked again. She didn’t answer him.

From San Salvador, Sandra directed the driver along the back roads to the Guatemalan border. Like Ernesto, they crossed through an official if remote checkpoint, where an officer waved them through after Sandra showed some papers. (“Just visiting. ”) They continued on into the thicket of Guatemala.

Sandra and the driver chatted like old friends, twisting the radio dial every now and again in search of a good song. Raúl felt embarrassed about his status as cargo; he just stared out the window. It was so quiet, and so little moved on these isolated roads, the darkness outside shrouding the whole world from view. It made him nervous and, despite how tired he was, he couldn’t sleep. “Don’t worry, just relax, ” Sandra said from the front seat. “Nothing’s gonna happen. We’re fine.” They drove on for a while through the blank stillness of the night, and he tried to settle in. Suddenly, Sandra gasped.

“¡Dios! ” the driver whispered. They had come to a roadblock where a large black truck pulled out in front of them, and an officer in uniform motioned for their car to come to a stop. In the back of the truck were about 10 men, all in uniforms and each clasping a machine gun.

An officer approached the car and bent over to talk into the window. “We’re anti-narcotic officers,” he said. “We need you to come with us.”

Raúl stiffened. He didn’t think they had drugs in the car, but he had no passport, and he assumed they would know from his accent that he was from El Salvador.

The driver shifted their car into gear, and they followed the truck off the main road into a dim thicket with little light, no houses, and no traffic.

The same officer approached again, a photograph in hand. He held it up to Raúl’s face. “Yep,” he said, nodding, and flipped it around. “This is you, right?”

It was the photo of him, Maricela, and Ernesto wearing their dressiest clothing and grave expressions at their ninth-grade graduation.

“Get out,” the man ordered.

Raúl stepped out of the backseat, trembling. One of the officers grabbed him and threw him down, pressing his face into the ground with his boot. Raúl could hardly breathe. “Your uncle hired us,” the man said, then bore down his boot even harder.

They weren’t police at all but henchmen of his Uncle Agustín. Or maybe they were both? The paranoia in Central America and Mexico is vast, but so are the criminal networks that inspire it – truth and fear caught up in a tangled dance.

The men ordered Raúl to pull off his shoes and strip off his pants and shirt. They yanked out his shoelaces and tied his wrists behind his back, facedown in the dirt, and did the same to the driver. Two men took Sandra away into the darkness. Raúl could hear her crescendoing screams, the shouts and grunts of the two men, the driver’s frenzied prayers, and the wicked pounding of his own heart.

“Please,” the driver pleaded. One of the men cracked him so hard across the head with a metal pipe that Raúl thought for sure the driver would end up dead.

The men shook their guns toward Raúl and laughed.

This is where I die, he thought.

“Where’s the money?” the officer asked. Raúl had brought an additional $2,000 or so – something they either knew for sure, or assumed, because migrants always traveled with cash. Sandra was holding on to it. They rummaged through her stuff and found the cash.

“Please?” Sandra said. “Leave us just a little, to get out of here?” Raúl was shocked she’d dare to ask, but they threw a few bills her way.

As quickly and mysteriously as they had appeared, the men retreated into their cars, and the cars retreated toward the main road and into the night. It was now just the three voyagers again, far from anything, their money gone, and, they noticed, the wheels of their car now missing. Sandra put her clothes back on, wiped her face, and then untied Raúl and the driver.

“Are you OK?” Raúl asked her.

She just handed him his clothes. Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, the driver kept saying. Sandra and Raúl said nothing. Raúl pulled his clothes back on. With their shoelaces now broken, their shoes flopped open as they trudged into the forest. They spent the night there, none of them sleeping much. Raúl knew it was sheer luck that he wasn’t dead.

He guessed Agustín had been tipped off about him leaving and intercepted them along Uncle Erick’s escape route to El Norte. Or perhaps Erick, who had arranged the escape of Raúl and Ernesto and many others, was trying to rip their family off of a bit more cash? Maybe it was the usual migrant profiteering, people taking advantage of those out on the road, knowing that they were almost certain not to report these episodes to the police. But then why the mention of his uncle? And the photo? He was certain that the attack was Agustín’s handiwork, to teach the family a lesson: I’m boss, I’m in charge – run as far as you will, and I’ll find you.

The next morning, when the sun had risen enough to light the wooded area where they’d hidden, they took stock. All three looked as if they’d already spent months outside, their clothes dirty and their faces streaked with mud. The car was ruined, but the cellphone worked. The driver, they decided, would stay behind with the car, but Raúl and Sandra would press on. They walked to the road, Raúl’s shoes barely staying on. Sandra called her daughter. “A bunch of gangsters caught us,” she said, her voice tight. “Don’t worry, we’re OK. We’ll take the bus. We’ll be there soon.”

It took two days to work their way north on buses, with not enough cash for anything but the tickets, not even food. Sandra soothed Raúl. “Don’t worry, ” she said, “we’re on our way, we’re OK, we’ll be there soon. ” She had fully collected herself, pushing onward as if nothing had happened. Raúl wondered if maybe this wasn’t the first time she’d been attacked. He was jumpy, every loud noise triggering a jolt through his brain. He tried to fall asleep. As they moved from the outskirts into the thicker traffic of Mexico City, he sat up at attention. Ernesto was somewhere in this massive maze, waiting.

When Raúl showed up at the door of the house in Las Aguilas, he was dirty and shaking, his clothes practically falling off in scraps. Ernesto grabbed Raúl and began, uncharacteristically, to cry. As if they’d swapped identities, Raúl just stood there, showing no emotion.

Sandra went straight to the kitchen and prepared some food, as if it were any regular day. When the meal was ready, she called the boys in and went to clean herself up. Ernesto set a plate down in front of his brother: scrambled eggs, spicy sausage, and those thin cat-tongue tortillas.

Raúl ate slowly and hardly at all. Between labored bites, he told his twin what had happened. “It was Agustín,” he said.

“How do you know?”

“They had a photo. The one from graduation.”

Ernesto was silent for a while. It was his fault: He was the one Agustín wanted. He teared up again. He’d always taken care of his brother – he was the elder, after all, even if only by 12 minutes – and now he’d failed.

“Here,” he offered softly. He gave his one change of clothes to Raúl.

They spent another few days in Las Aguilas while Raúl and the coyota got their energy back.

“You guys look exactly the same!” Fernanda said. Now that her mom was back safely, she didn’t seem worried about what had happened: occupational hazard, for one, and her mom herself had brushed it off, as though they’d simply hit bad weather or had an unhappy accident.

“No we don’t!” they said in unison.

Seeing that it annoyed them, Fernanda teased them about how alike they looked for the rest of their stay. Raúl could see that Ernesto had a crush on Fernanda, for which he didn’t blame him. But he was too tired to think about love.

After a few days, they hopped a northbound bus with Sandra to Reynosa: the final border.

They traveled 15 hours due north out of the city and through northern Mexico, where the scenery moved from fecund green to desert. Raúl silently prayed for no more bad encounters, while Ernesto looked steely-eyed out the window, braced for disaster – the one he felt he deserved, after what had happened to his twin.

As they entered Reynosa, they both noticed how poor it looked: not rural poor, like their home, La Colonia, and not city poor, like San Salvador, but somewhere in between. The air was riddled with fine dust, and children ran along the crumbling roadside without shoes. Houses and businesses jostled for space. This was the border zone: the last stop, the final crossing point into the United States.

The bus wove its way through the outskirts and into the city center, the roads thickening with the sludge of traffic. Raúl could see Texas from here, right there across the bridge. Its proximity seemed ridiculous.

Luckily, the twins didn’t know about any of Reynosa’s particular dangers. To them, all of Mexico was a threat.

Sandra walked with them to a small garage with some mattresses on the floor and a card table. A few migrants, mostly young men and a few teenagers like them, were already inside.

Sandra wouldn’t be crossing with them, but she’d wait in Reynosa until she heard they were safely on the other side. She gave them a hug. “Don’t worry” – she motioned to the safe house floor – “you’ll be just fine.”

But she made sure they still had her number “just in case.” She gave them a pen and instructed them both to write it in the lining of their pants. Then she said goodbye.

Ernesto and Raúl claimed an empty mattress and lay there all day. Their fellow travelers intimidated them – who knew what they were running from? Every so often more migrants were let into the safe house, and then the door was promptly shut and latched. By nightfall, more than 20 people were packed into the little garage. They had food, at least. One lady cooked in a small outdoor kitchen, and periodically someone called on one or two of the migrants to carry in plates: eggs, tortillas, beans. For two more days, the twins lay on their mattress, languishing in the heat, waiting to be told it was time to move.

The single bathroom was upstairs. A faucet jutted out from a tiled area where you could bathe, using a few flimsy bits of soap. The second day Raúl went upstairs to take a shower, leaving Ernesto in the packed room.

“Help me out back?” one of the coyotes asked him, the guy who, by his firm temperament and imposing stature, appeared to be the boss.

Ernesto obliged, jumping to his feet and following the man outside toward the kitchen.

Twenty minutes later Raúl returned downstairs, cleaned up, but Ernesto was gone. After a while he walked back in through the door, ash-white. Ernesto settled down onto the mattress in the fetal position and, despite the heat, pulled a sheet up over his head.

Raúl tried to get his attention. “What? What happened?” But Ernesto wouldn’t look at him, and Raúl shrugged it off. Ernesto stayed silent for the rest of the night and through the morning, only the slight up-and-down motions of his chest beneath the sheet signaling to Raúl that he was alive.

“Tonight,” one of the coyotes announced the third afternoon. They’d cross tonight. The atmosphere in the room shifted instantly: People reshuffled the items in their small bags and sat alert, mentally preparing for the next gust north.

Around midnight, the coyotes marched the group of about 20 migrants down to the Rio Grande. The men pulled the first of two inflatable rafts from the bushes and pumped it up with quick huffs. The twins watched the raft’s silhouette rise. On the other side, just as they’d been told, was the United States of America. The coyote ordered the first group to board the raft. “Get in,” he said. Raúl and Ernesto stepped aboard, their weight sinking the soft bottom into the water. They could make out their own dark shapes against the river. The coyote pushed off, and they were afloat, adrift, on their way. 

Adapted from The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life
Copyright © 2017 by Lauren Markham
Published by Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC