The worst part is getting onto the train.
It goes fast, but not so fast a boy Enrique’s age can’t jump aboard one of the freight cars, though few of them try. The trick is to do it on a curve when the trains slow, and never do it in the rain if you can help it. The water makes the metal rungs of the ladders and handholds slick and slippery, and people fall. Sometimes only with bruises and broken pride. But more often underneath, to lose legs, arms, lives.
Once aboard Enrique expects he’ll have to pay the narco men or be thrown off the train. He might be thrown off, anyway. But even if they let him ride, or if he can avoid them until he can get to the next train, staying on is difficult, sleep almost impossible. There are no seats, the only cushions dirty, double-folded cardboard boxes that people bring themselves.
And oh so many people. They crawl along the freight cars, hundreds packed together for protection, a handhold. They clump together for the ride, like ticks on the back of some great monster. They endure wind and rain and searing heat.
They are not all from Chiapas. Most are from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador. They will travel almost two thousand miles from the southern edge of Mexico, a land that does not want them, just to get a chance to enter the U.S., a land that wants them even less. They are people who are running for the hope of a better life, or to escape the destruction of a bad one. They are people looking for work, looking for family, looking for hope.
They are people like Enrique.
It’s a giant train, ponderous, relentless, like a snake through the grass. He knows it has a real name but he doesn’t know what it is. He just calls it what everyone else calls it. Sometimes El Tren De Los Desconocidos, The Train of The Unknowns. Sometimes more accurately, El Tren De La Muerte, The Train of Death. So many die under its wheels.
But most people simply call it La Bestia. The Beast.
Enrique watches the train slow into the curve and gets ready to make his move. It will be a while yet, but it helps to be prepared. He checks his backpack, makes sure his bottle of water is full. He has tortillas in wax paper he got from a woman who sells them from a cart, and a bag of chiclet gum. He has a little money, most of it in his shoe. The rest is in his pocket so when he is inevitably robbed, whoever finds it will hopefully stop looking for more.
The engineers don’t stop anyone and they don’t care if people board, but the closer to the engine the worse the air. All that black diesel smoke makes breathing difficult. It’s a long train, it always is when it gets out of Tapachula near the Guatemalan border, strung together with freight cars from points south, so he will wait until the cars go by and he can get atop one closer to the rear.
Eleven years old and malnourished, Enrique looks nine. He puffs himself up when he’s threatened, but knows it only makes him look like a monkey. He has ridden La Bestia once before up through to the connecting line at Medias Aguas before he found himself beaten and broke, tossed into the back of a pickup to work marijuana fields for the narcos. Luck got him out of their hands. Maybe this time luck will see him all the way to the border.
Not long ago security at the Tapachula trainyard was lax. No one cared that there were migrants climbing the freight cars with all the assurance of ticketed passengers. On his attempt north last year two rail workers even waved at Enrique as they poured the sand into the sprayers that coat the rain-slick tracks to keep the train from sliding.
As the narco violence in Chiapas got worse the cartels got bolder. The worst of them shake down the migrants for cash, rape the women, press the children into service. And where the cartels go, the army is not far behind. La Policía Especializada closed up the train yard to outsiders, drove out the migrants.
So Enrique stands on the side of the train tracks outside of Tapachula with a hundred others waiting for the train to pass far enough that he can grab a handhold and begin his journey.
“First time?” a girl beside him asks, her Spanish holding a strange accent. He startles at her voice. Even with all of the people around, he does his best to keep his distance. People who get too close are people who steal. She’s short, slim, her black hair pulled back in a ponytail. She wears a T-shirt that says “Aparta La Mirada” in big white letters. “Don’t Look At Me.” An odd thing to put on a shirt.
If anything the sheathed machete hanging from her belt makes her stand out, and why anybody wouldn’t look at her is beyond him.
“You’re from the U.S.,” he says.
“Is it that obvious?”
“Yeah.” She’s too clean. She isn’t dressed for the heat and the rain, isn’t wearing a hat. Her leather backpack screams tourist. Beads of water from the damp air coat her hair like tiny jewels, and her mirrored sunglasses are covered in a thin film. She has a windbreaker on over her strange T-shirt, which, though it’s clearly a joke, has him feeling weird when he looks at it, though he doesn’t know why. Enrique has a sudden moment of panicked clarity. She will be killed on this train. She will be beaten, raped, robbed and thrown over the side.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he says. He cranes his neck around to see if there’s anyone obvious that she might be with. “Are you with a man? A brother or a husband?”
“No,” she says, laughing. “Why would I be? And yes, I should be here. I’m taking the train.”
Enrique doesn’t know how to explain it to her. It’s like trying to tell someone that water is wet or fire is hot. She’s going to get killed. That’s just the way it is. “You should take a real train. For fancy people. Why would you want to get on La Bestia? That’s crazy.”
“You’re getting on the train, aren’t you?” she says.
“But I am a man,” he says. “You will get yourself killed.”
She shrugs. “There are other women taking the train.” She points to a group of five women, their mahogany skin weathered and lined from the years, grabbing hold of ladders and handholds, scrambling up the side of the cars.
“That’s different,” he says, shaking his head. “You’re too fancy.”
“I’ll be fine,” she says. “You need to worry about yourself, Enrique. This next car is a good one.”
Enrique turns to see the tail end of the train coming near. She’s right. This is a good car. Though the top is swarming with people, there’s room for him and the train is slowed enough he should be able to get on without a problem. He jumps for the ladder, snagging it with both hands.
He looks behind him for the girl, but there’s no sign of her. Maybe she decided to not get onto the train after all. It isn’t until he’s up top and sitting on a discarded piece of cardboard between a couple with a crying baby and a man with a scar running through a ruined left eye that it occurs to him.
How did she know his name?
The train rumbles along the tracks, picking up speed. Madrones, ficus, and copperwood trees blur past. Enrique stays low to keep from falling over. His center of gravity is already lower than most on the train, but one slip and his trip’s over before it’s started. As the train heads north, it’s picked up more passengers, and many of them stand simply because there’s no room to sit. So far he hasn’t heard anyone falling, but by nightfall someone is bound to.
As the hours pass the mist burns off and the air is thick with heat and humidity. He passes the time thinking about getting across the border. He has something waiting for him in El Paso. He is going to be a student to a man named Tony Cardno. He knows that’s not normal, certainly not for Guatemalan orphans, but nothing about his brief time talking to Cardno was normal.
He met the man in Tapachula, outside a cantina where Enrique was sharing a meager meal of tortillas and rice with some of the town’s wild dogs. An American, Cardno almost seemed to be looking for Enrique. He bought him dinner and asked many questions about his life. Strange questions, like if he had ever seen things he didn’t think others could see, if he had ever felt like things worked out when there was no way they should have.
At first Enrique thought he was some sort of pervert, but a meal was a meal and he planned on running as soon as he ate, so he stayed and talked. But then he got caught up in the questions and what he thought would take minutes lasted over an hour. Yes, he had seen strange things all his life. His parents had died when he was only a baby but he sometimes saw them late at night when he was rummaging through trashcans for dinner. They always looked sad. And he had to admit that his escape from the narcos at the marijuana farm was very odd. He had snuck past the guards one night, and when he was certain they would catch him he felt a strange twisting in his head and suddenly it was as though none of them could see him. The more Enrique talked, the more excited Cardno became.
And then he asked Enrique about El Cucuy.
Every child hears stories about El Cucuy. It is a nightmare made flesh. It is the thing that hides in the shadows and under the beds. It steals children who have been bad and don’t go to sleep and cracks their bones with its bear-trap teeth. It is a monster with a drawn-out, horse-like face and arms as long as its legs and it scuttles out of the darkness. It has red eyes and hisses the names of its victims, enticing them with candies and promises of games. It is a trickster and a devil.
Cardno nodded at each of these descriptors, and when Enrique was done he asked who had told him stories about El Cucuy that were so specific. His mother? His father? Enrique told him those weren’t from stories.
Before Enrique came across the border into Mexico from Guatemala he had lived in an orphanage in Quetzaltenango. He and thirty other children were shoved into a tiny room on bunkbeds three high. One night one of the older children went missing. Everyone assumed he ran away. But then a week later three more children disappeared, and then another three. The woman who ran the orphanage, who they called Madre Simone, fretted that she was losing children left and right and that the city who paid her to house them all was going to start giving her less money.
And then one night Enrique saw El Cucuy.
He woke to see it snuffling its way through the doorway, all long limbs and shovel-blade teeth. Greasy, stringy hair hung from its bony head, and its flattened slit of a nose flared as it hovered over each sleeping boy or girl to take in their scent. When it saw that Enrique was awake it reared up on its haunches and bared its teeth at him from across the room, and Enrique knew he was going to die that night. Enrique screamed, waking the other children, who all started screaming in response.
El Cucuy recoiled from all the shrieking, scuttled into the hall, and leapt out of the window, shattering the glass. Madre Simone blamed it on gangsters and none of the other children believed Enrique. But he knew what he saw. And he knew it would come back for him. He ran away the next morning.
Cardno listened intently to the story, not interrupting. When Enrique was done he didn’t tell him he was foolish, or that he didn’t believe him. Instead he gave him a very serious look and told him that he had special gifts and that if he wanted to learn how to use them he needed to go north and find him in El Paso. If he could do that, if he could get across the border, Cardno would teach him things he’d never dreamed of.
Then the American made flames appear in his hand and dance along his fingers. Enrique watched in rapt silence as they changed from yellow to red to blue to green, turned into a dancing bear that capered across the man’s hand, disappearing after a flash.
And Enrique knew that he would do whatever it took to get to America.
He pleaded with Cardno to take him back, but he said he wouldn’t. If Enrique wanted to learn he had to show he had what it took to do it. Cardno’s lessons were not for the weak. He told Enrique to find a way, he didn’t care how, and meet him in El Paso.
When Enrique did that he would take him on as a student and teach him everything he needed to know. Cardno got up from the table and left the cantina, Enrique chasing at his heels. The man ignored Enrique’s please. He never ran, never sped up, but suddenly he was far ahead. Then a moment later he was at the end of the street. Then he was gone.
It took almost three weeks for Enrique to find the courage to brave La Bestia again.
Now, on the top of the freight car rattling and shaking along the tracks, with the very real danger that he could die here, he’s suddenly afraid it was all a dream.
“You look tired,” the man says, sitting down next to him. The sun is low in the sky and it shines in Enrique’s eyes such that the man is nothing but a silhouette in the glare. Stupidly, Enrique hasn’t been paying much attention and at some point in the last hour a space has opened up around him. He clutches his backpack tighter to himself. It was just a matter of time before one of the narcos came to collect. Usually there’s more warning. They’ll travel in packs of four or five, wave their guns around. But no one seems to be paying attention to this man.
“I’m fine,” Enrique says. He’s regretting his earlier decision to sit down. There’s no way to get away from danger.
“Good, good,” the man says in a voice like he has marbles in his mouth. As he squints against the glare Enrique can make out the man’s long face and sharp, steep nose. He is wearing jeans, faded from long days in the sun, and a threadbare yellow T-shirt. His blue baseball cap has dark stains. “We’ll be in Arriaga soon. Are you getting off there?”
“Why do you want to know?” Enrique says. Arriaga is a small stop on the route north with little to it save the trainyard. It’s well short of where he needs to switch trains in Lecheria.
“I’m sorry,” the man says. “I’ve frightened you. I didn’t mean to do that.” He looks up and down the train cars. “I ask because I’m worried. There is someone on this train and I think she might be trying to hurt everyone.”
Enrique startles. “Narcos?” he says. Handing all of his money to one of the narcos is one thing, but having them just slaughter everyone on the train is something else. He’s heard stories that bad. People gunned down in a nightclub, gutted and hung from bridges, decapitated heads in duffel bags left in the streets. If the narcos have decided to hit the train they could all be doomed.
“No,” the man says. “Worse.” What could be worse than an army of crazy psycho-killers? “There is a bruja on the train with us.”
A witch? On the train? “So?” Enrique says. His experience of witches is that they heal people with prayers, herbs, and candles burned to the Blessed Virgin. So what if there is one on the train? “She can help pray for anyone who comes down with a cold.”
“This one is not like that,” the man says. “Not that kind of bruja at all. At night her limbs crack and grow and her fingers become like knives. Her face lengthens into a terrible snout full of razor-sharp teeth.” Enrique crosses himself, almost pees his pants right then and there.
“Teeth like a bear-trap,” Enrique says, his voice barely a whisper over the clattering of the train on the tracks. El Cucuy has found him.
“If you do not get off the train the bruja will find you and devour you come nightfall.”
“No,” Enrique says, his voice full of a bravado he doesn’t feel. The monster would not come all the way from Guatemala, would it? Not for him. “It can catch me more easily on the ground than on a moving train. There are too many people here for that. I will not get off.”
The man scowls. “Then watch out for the bruja. She will try to make you trust her.”
“Go tell your stories about some crazy old witch to someone else,” Enrique says. “I’m not getting off at Arriaga.”
“She isn’t old,” the man says. “She looks young. You’ll know her by how out of place she looks. If you see her, don’t talk to her. Find me.”
Enrique waves him off, and the man awkwardly climbs to his feet, mumbling apologies. Enrique watches him scurry away, shaken. He has seen someone exactly like he described.
And she knew his name.
Enrique tells himself that the man is just some nut spreading stories to frighten a kid and that the woman who spoke with him that morning isn’t even on the train. But as night falls he begins to worry. What if the creature that he saw in the orphanage really has tracked him down?
What if he is being hunted?
Not long after sunset the rain starts to fall. Everyone covers themselves in green plastic trashbags with holes torn out for their arms and heads.
The rain isn’t heavy, but it’s strong enough to make walking, or even standing, treacherous. It doesn’t take long before Enrique hears the first scream.
Someone farther up the train has fallen. With only occasional, yellow track lights that barely pierce the gloom he can’t see who it was, but word spreads fast. A man with a leg in a cast. No one knows if he’s okay. How he got up on the train Enrique has no idea, but people are saying that he broke that leg trying to go north on this very train a month ago. He listens for more, but as the night goes on no one else seems to have fallen.
“You really need to work on your situational awareness.”
Enrique jerks awake and a hand darts out to keep him from tumbling over the side. He turns and sees the face of the girl he met that morning. Panic wells up inside him and he freezes, waiting for her face to crack open and snap at him with her terrible teeth. Her sunglasses are gone and he can see her eyes reflected in the track lights flashing by. They don’t look like the eyes of a devil, but then they probably wouldn’t.
“I wasn’t sleeping,” he says, his breathing fast. There is no way to get away except by jumping off the train.
She laughs. “Sure. Whatever. Here. You haven’t eaten anything all day.” She holds out a candy bar but Enrique won’t take it. He’s starving and his mouth waters just seeing it, but he knows El Cucuy’s wiles.
“Oh for fuck sake.” She rolls her eyes and takes a bite. “See? Not poison.”
He takes the candy bar, his eyes never leaving hers and takes a bite. Then another. Before he knows it he has devoured the whole thing. Would El Cucuy actually give him food? He doesn’t think so.
“How did you know my name?” he says.
“Tony. The guy you met in Tapachula,” she says. She pulls out another candy bar from her pocket and unwraps it, handing it to him. “He asked me to check in on you since I was down this way. I’ve been keeping my distance, but I figured you needed something to eat.”
So he wasn’t a dream. He was real and Enrique’s not making this trip, not risking his life, for nothing. Tears well up in his eyes, stream down his face.
“Can you do what he does? Can you make the dancing fire bear?”
She cocks her head, clearly not sure what he’s talking about, and then brightens. “You mean like this?” She holds out her hand and flames dance along her fingers. Though they suggest the shape of a bear, they don’t look nearly as clear as when Cardno did it. “I’m not very good at that. I’m better at other things.”
“You are a bruja,” Enrique says, marveling at the flames. He looks around at the other train riders. No one is paying any attention to them. She’s still wearing the shirt telling people to look away. He points to her chest. “They can’t see you, can they?”
“I am. Name’s Gabriela. And no, they can’t see me. Right now they think you’re just muttering to yourself.”
“Why can I see you?”
“You’re special. I’d have to push more into this shirt than I’d planned for it to work on you. That’s why we want to get you up north. There are people down this way who could teach you how to use what you can do, but most of them are assholes. And god knows we need fewer assholes in the world.”
“I’ll learn to make the fire bear,” he says, his voice full of awe. He looks down at the wrapper of the second candy bar and realizes he’s eaten that one even faster.
She nods. “Tony’ll help you figure out your knack, what you’re good at.”
“That man said you were El Cucuy come back to kill me.” She freezes and for a moment Enrique is worried he’s said the wrong thing, that she’s going to leave and he won’t learn anything.
“The one who warned me about a bruja on the train who wanted to kill us. I thought you were El Cucuy.” He describes the man, his long face, his steep nose. He tells her about his run-in with El Cucuy in the orphanage. With each word the bruja looks more and more concerned. Enrique is becoming frightened. When he’s done she says nothing, her face deep in thought.
Then the screams start.
They’re further down the train. At first Enrique thinks someone else has fallen. But then there’s another scream. And another.
“Shit,” the bruja says. She stands, grabs Enrique’s hand, pulls the machete out of its sheath. The blade glows. People are starting to notice her now. Getting up, edging away from her, but there’s nowhere to go.
“Is it El Cucuy?” Enrique says.
“That’s a word for it,” she says. “There’s more than one of them around and they like to snack on people like you and me. One of them probably had your scent in the orphanage but kept getting the wrong kid. So many of you in one room, I’m not surprised. If this one is coming with all these people and knows I’m here it’s pretty confident. Tried to keep us separate by scaring you. Probably thinks it can eat us both.”
“But you can stop it?” he says.
“I sure hope so.” She lifts the machete high above her and the glow turns into an intense beacon that lights the entire freight car. She moves toward the screams, yells at everyone on the car to get behind her, or get off the train. Most stare at her in panicked awe.
“We need to get off,” Enrique says. She’s tiny. The machete is almost half her height. There is no way she can defeat El Cucuy.
“Never back down from a fight,” she says. “You don’t have to go looking for it, but when it shows up, deal with it.”
As the screams get louder and closer Enrique can hear new sounds. Growls, the tearing of metal. Then a huge explosion several cars back lights up the night in a blossom of red and yellow. The heat washes over them in an intense wave and the train rocks, tipping almost off the tracks.
That gets people moving all up and down the train. They jump off like lemmings into the darkness, their panicked yells swallowed up by the shrieking of the train’s brakes. Sparks fly up from the tracks as the wheels lock, and Enrique struggles to keep his balance.
There are few things that will stop La Bestia. El Cucuy, apparently, is one of them.
“Why is it doing this?” Enrique yells.
“It wants us to freak out, make a mistake. Doesn’t care who else it hurts. But it doesn’t know who it’s fucking with.” They stand alone on the train as it grinds to a stop. Thick, black smoke swells up from the rear, the flickering of the flames and the glow of the bruja’s machete casting strange shadows.
And out of those shadows steps El Cucuy.
It’s shed whatever human disguise it was wearing and scuttles toward them, its spider-long legs stepping easily over the gaps between cars. It’s like the one Enrique saw in the orphanage, but bigger, with scraggly teeth jutting from a gash of a mouth. Its eyes glow red and Enrique is frozen with fear.
But the bruja is not. She leaps at El Cucuy, which it clearly isn’t expecting, and brings the machete down toward its head. It ducks and the blade bites into its shoulder. It screams and lashes out with an arm, catching her just under her ribs. Enrique hears a crack as something inside her gives way, but she doesn’t cry out.
He thinks she’s going to go over the side of the train, but she wraps one arm around El Cucuy’s arm and hangs on. The bruja calls flames from her fingers and sets its head on fire. It lifts her high into the air and brings her crashing down against the train.
The monster pulls the machete out of its shoulder and tosses it aside. The glowing blade goes dark and skids along the train roof to stop at Enrique’s feet. He stares at it and makes a decision. If he dies tonight, he will not die a coward.
Enrique snatches up the machete. There’s a twisting in his mind when he touches it, like he’s grown a new arm and it’s so much more than just a machete. It is power and death and retribution. He can feel every ounce of anger the bruja has poured into that blade and it mixes with his fear and calls something inside him.
The blade glows again, though duller than before. He almost drops it, the feeling is so powerful, but instead runs toward El Cucuy.
He’s so quick and small the monster doesn’t notice him until he’s shoved the machete hilt-deep into its chest. He expects it to scream, but all it does is wheeze. More than anything it looks surprised. Thick, dark blood wells up around the blade and it staggers, dropping the bruja from its claws. Enrique is still clutching the machete in his hand and it slides easily out of the thing’s body. El Cucuy stumbles, falls on its back, arms and legs slack. It begins to melt into a black slurry, a stink of sulfur filling the air.
Enrique drops the machete and runs to the bruja. She’s conscious, but just barely. “You’re hurt,” he says.
“You don’t say.” She hauls herself to her feet, wincing, and picks up the machete. The glow is gone. “Gonna be a while before anybody shows up. When they do we’ll catch a ride into the next town. Take it from there.”
“I’m just a little rat,” he says. “No one will give us a ride.”
She glares at him. “No,” she snaps. “You don’t say that. You never say that. You’re much more.” He shrinks away from her anger and has the strange thought that maybe some of it isn’t for him.
They clamber down the side of the train, the bruja wincing with each step. She’s hurt, how badly Enrique can’t tell. He’s seen a new world, something so much more than the dancing fire bear. It terrifies him, excites him. He remembers the feeling of power when he picked up the machete, when he slid it into El Cucuy’s chest.
He says nothing until they reach the ground, then asks, “Will it always be like this?”
She takes a hitching breath. “Not always,” she says. Relief washes over him until she says, “but most of the time. You still want to do this?”
He thinks about that. If El Cucuy is out there, what else is out there? Does he want that? And is it any different from how things have been? El Cucuy, Narcos. They’re both dangerous.
“Will I learn how to make the dancing fire bear?”
The bruja smiles at him. “And then some.”
“Then, yes,” he says, pulling himself up as tall as he can go. “I still want to do this.”