Luz lifted her tiny hand from the grey acrylic floor, aged with grime and dried gum. She reached forward and pushed off with her knees. She reached again. She wanted to go, to feel the world move around her. She moved, and laughed, and looked up at Eva.
A new kind of joy surged through Eva as she smiled back. She shoved a broken space heater out of Luz’s path and squatted between the bunks, arms around her own bone-thin legs.
The neurons in Luz’s cerebellum also reached, extending axons—nerve fibers, long silvery threads of sheathed impulse conductors—to contact other cells. Forming white matter in her brain.
“Get that baby off the floor!” Jackie bellowed. “You people need to watch your kids so nobody gets hurt.”
Eva reached for Luz under the guard’s glare, gently lifting her soft body and standing up, the blood rushing to her brain. She leaned against a top bunk to steady herself. Luz wailed, her round face reddening as her mouth gaped into a square and her eyes squeezed shut. Tears dampened Eva’s chest through her worn-out cotton shirt.
Eva’s mind fell back into awareness of the room around her, the door locked from the hall. Her thoughts looped into the usual monotonous tic of wondering whether she’d be granted asylum, wondering when she and Luz would be released from the detention facility. Were they even still in Texas? The first day, she asked for a map but got a smirk that stung like a slap. Tools of navigation were contraband. So she didn’t know what this place would be called if it weren’t Texas, and how far she was from her brother.
But in all this not knowing, Eva bore hope—that Luz would never know the drug gangs from Los Angeles that took over their town in Honduras after most of the farmers lost their land to the coffee company. That Luz would never know she was conceived by rape in the town’s jail, where the police were as bad as the gangs.
Jackie couldn’t understand how that woman had crossed the border again with her infant. It had been chipped already, along with its mother. Radio-frequency identification. The RFID chip led ICE right to them, and they were detained immediately. But how had they crossed? They must have been running from something demonic, but that wasn’t Jackie’s job to know. They didn’t belong here.
Those protesters had said the same thing, but about this place, not the country. “Don’t put kids in prison,” their sloppy handwritten signs had nagged at her from the sidewalk outside the security gate as she left to go home one day. That was after the detainees refused food for a week—a hunger strike—demanding to be released. Jackie had started looking for a new job during that mess. One that would pay off her old medical debt, at least with overtime. If she stayed, she’d have to keep disciplining these illegal children—and their mothers. A classroom and jungle gym were under construction, but the whole place would still be on lockdown.
Jackie tried to get outside at lunchtime. Usually that was impossible. All the security procedures, the chip in her uniform. Today she was stuck in the grey lunchroom, with its acrid stale meat stink from the microwaves. She heated up leftovers from the casserole she’d baked over the weekend, her sister Theresa’s recipe. Its creamy texture calmed her as she chewed, staring past her coworkers at the door to the hall.
What had Theresa said that last time Jackie complained about the job? “Come live with me. The kids are five, three, and zero years old. And with Jimmy gone, my whole paycheck goes to childcare.” Theresa probably knew, without Jackie saying, that she still wanted children but had gotten tired of the careless violence of the men she met in her line of work. At least Jackie considered her career to be a notch above Theresa’s—manager of a convenience store. But what did pride mean when you turned 40 all alone?
She’d left the state prison after they ignored her request to be transferred to minimum security. This family detention facility was supposed to be more “civil,” but it still needed her skills and experience. Like breaking up unauthorized gatherings—a major security risk. The first rule of safety was absolute control. At the state prison, she’d heard the male inmates talking about writing a petition asking for more exercise time. They tried huddling together in the cold concrete yard to come up with the words for it, debating and compromising as if they were the House of Representatives, the condensation of winter breath mingling between their hard, earnest faces. Jackie had to call the special operations response team to get that sorted out. Thirty guards in riot gear with giant transparent shields, clouds of orange pepper spray burning the inmates’ eyes and pinching them shut so the team could handcuff the ringleaders and put them in the hole.
But this job with the women and children was worse, in a way she hadn’t expected.
An illegal’s still an illegal, even if it’s a baby, Jackie reminded herself, rinsing her plastic food container in the sink, its grease slick on her fingers. We attract the rejects of every fucked-up country south of the border.
Carrying Luz and bouncing her on her hip, Eva talked to the other women, each in her own bunk with her children, reading or watching TV. When not at the chow hall, or outside in the dirt square they called the yard for an hour each afternoon, the families were ordered to stay in their bunks. But today, Eva needed help. Luz needed to crawl. Eva visited each bunk in turn, pitching an idea to the mothers, asking what they thought of it.
Rosario and Berta were still in the hole, locked in separate isolation rooms because they had started the hunger strike. They hadn’t let Eva go on strike with them, so her milk stayed strong, despite the bland meals.
Luisa had been kept in isolation overnight with her 6-year-old, not knowing when they would get out. The light was off and the toilet reeked in the darkness of the cramped cell, her son crying in her arms. Luisa sang to him all night, songs from her village in the mountains, starting with the first one again when she’d sung all she knew.
“I don’t want to risk being sent to the hole again, Eva,” she whispered now from her top bunk. “But if we can’t let them play, how will they grow?”
Back on duty, Jackie walked her rounds, not noticing the motions of her body, her feet thudding and flexing. Stuck, even as she moved through space, not feeling the world. Her hand idly slapped the pepper spray canister at her belt.
Dread surged through her as she saw the women sitting circled on the floor, forming a space maybe ten feet across. Children played inside the circle. They held hands, jumped, laughed. And beside them, that baby crawled toward its mother.
Jackie froze. Neurons in her cerebral cortex fired off, sending nerve impulses down old pathways, well worn by years of work and training. Response team, handcuffs, the hole. But still she stood silent and motionless.
The women kept their eyes on their kids, protectively scooting closer together as Jackie watched them. Except one young mother, who stared across the circle at Jackie with wide, unwavering eyes.
Jackie looked away, scorched by the life in the woman’s gaze.