One. Julia was calculating. How long had it been since Danny ran? How many days, weeks, months since he'd shoved past the morning man with the warped plastic tray and the brown plantains, forced his way through the shed's metal door, across the yard, and over the hedge of purple flowers? The men still opened the door then to bring food, instead of sliding it through the bars. It was lifetimes ago. It was uncountable. From where she sat on the hard mud floor, Julia could see only a tiny square of blue sky through their one small window, high in the metal door. In the afternoon the square would turn gray, meaning it must be spring again, and plummeting rain would deafen them under their metal roof, and Grace would cover her ears.
Two. Grace was sleeping again, stretched limply across Julia's lap—so Julia lengthened her back against the wall of the shed and stretched her neck to get a look at Danny's hedge. Across the yard and over the hedge of purple flowers he had gone, while she and Grace, who was even smaller then, had watched from the door, stunned, hands still reaching to accept the tray that was no longer being held out to them. And without a thought, the man had pulled a gun from the waist of his ragged jeans and shot Danny clean through his dirty shirt. Even now, Julia could still hear her husband's emaciated body drop as if it were heavy, and feel Grace's tiny hand go limp in her own.
Three. A week's vacation at New Year's, last-minute, on Danny's bonus. She laughed to hear those words now, even in her head. A whole week in the gilded bubble of the resort, marking days only by how many snorkeling lessons they had left. And then the last day had come, and the taxi had come to bring them to the airport, and the driver had turned down a dusty dead end, and two other men were waiting there with a pick-up truck and some duct tape.
Four. The night before he ran, Danny hadn't slept. He was sitting, one leg jiggling, looking at her, when Julia woke up. He said it had been a hundred days, exactly—they'd been here a hundred days without reply from his company. They were holding firm on their policy against ransoming employees—a policy he had agreed with all the way up to the day when he found himself on a payphone by the side of the road, his wife and daughter taped up in the back of a pick-up.
Five. Julia burrowed her fingers into the warm nest of Grace's tangled hair. For the last few days, she hadn't been eating, and instead curled herself limply between Julia's shoulder and hip, and slept. Every now and then, she scratched at her lice-bitten skin without waking. A hundred days seemed like nothing to Julia now. An embarrassment. Danny never had any patience. But without him, she had lost track of what they were waiting for now, what exactly was for ransom. The men had never once brought her to the pay phone. What could she say?
Six. She could remember the sound of the body hitting the ground, but hardly the sound of the shot, though she must have heard them both from behind the metal door. Had Danny even asked them to follow? She couldn't remember. She had only looked up in time to see a small red spot in the small of his back, dead-center, and then heard him fall, and felt the blood drain from her own limbs as she imagined the rest of him pouring out of his front.
Seven. Outside her window, the hedge was in bloom again. If hedges could be trusted, she had outlasted Danny's hundred days by two comings of spring.
Eight. Four men came and went, in trucks, and had tense conversations on the cement-slab porch of the cement-block house that her small metal shed must have belonged to. The smallest was called Lucho, and he was her favorite. He didn't shove moldy tortillas and slimy half-mangos through the bars at them, and didn't urinate off the porch on hot days when he knew the scent would reach her. On certain mornings, as long as none of the others was around, Lucho came from the house and crossed the yard, unbolted the door, and carried in warm rice, in a bowl. Then he hovered, smelling of warm beer, and waited for them to begin eating before he backed out, gently bolting the door behind him. Julia had learned to tell his footfalls from the others', and looked forward to seeing his soft old boots and sweat-stained Texas Rangers cap on the mornings when he came to the door. At night, she could stand and see his silhouette from the shed's tiny window, settling into his creaking chair on the porch, rolling and then smoking cigarette after cigarette, and she slept better knowing a good man was looking after them.
Nine. Heat radiated from the center of Julia's arm. When she opened her eyes, she recoiled from the bloodshot blue eyes, filthy blond hair, and pink, shining face pushed right up close to her own. Grace's hand was tight on her elbow, burning with fever. Mama, Grace said. Let's go. The voice was from another life, high-pitched and clean, and Julia covered her ears. She didn't realize how long it had been since either of them had spoken. But the hand tugged now even more forcibly, and this time the small jaw was pushed forward, the tiny blonde brows low and fixed. Grace wrapped her filthy hands around Julia's face, and with hot, rotting breath, said Mami. Vamos. Julia put her hand over the girl's mouth, whispering fiercely everything she knew about being brave and patient and not causing trouble. She pulled her in and squeezed the fever tight, balling it up, knowing that if you hold something long enough and with enough force, you can almost always break it.
Ten. Julia had noticed long ago that time didn't pass normally in the shed. She couldn't count days anymore the way Danny had. It was too hard to tell the difference between a minute and ten, or four hours or six months or twenty-seven. There were only the four cement walls and the clay floor to count, again and again, and the metal roof, and the nighttime sounds of animal feet crossing it, hunting or being hunted, and the loop of miniscule moments and endlessness, and more darkness, more waiting, more heat.
Eleven. The fever fed. Julia woke to a hot twitching at her center. Like labor, but with a smell. Burning from the inside out. She blinked and pushed the girl's hair back off her wet cheeks and kissed them, and tasted urgency, for the first time she could remember. She unwrapped herself, left Grace in a ball, and pushed herself up against their window to get a look at the house. Cigarettes. Lucho's creaking chair. Across the yard, she tried to whisper, Lo siento. Lucho, but no sound came out of her. She cleared her throat and said loudly this time, Help, fever, now, and heard her own voice as if she were a stranger.
Twelve. The front legs of the chair hit the slab. Backlit, a figure approached the shed and seconds later, a face pressed against the bars. Not Lucho. It was one of the bigger ones. Sweaty, with large yellow teeth crowded to the front of his mouth. Danny's morning man. Julia leapt away from the door so quickly that she fell, and scrambled backward to cover Grace's body with her own. The man slid a gun through the bars, smiled, and said, Pum. Julia heard his steps retreat, then the familiar creak of Lucho's chair.
Thirteen. She had cried a lot during the first few months here, while they were still keeping track. Then, she'd stopped. Now, she wept and the tears burned in her dry sockets. She said Ayuda, but no one came, and she wanted Lucho to come and save them, and she hated Danny for leaving them here with this stranger, for leaving them at all.
Fourteen. She could feel the infection moving through Grace, burning everything in its path, approaching faster than the sun. There would be no waiting until morning. But there would also be no mercy from tonight's man. He would offer them nothing. The fever would leave them nothing. It had to be tonight.
Fifteen. She whispered to Grace and kissed her, pushed her flat against the front wall of the shed on the far side of the door, then pressed herself against the same wall on the near side. Neither could be seen from the window, so if the man wanted quiet, he would have to open the door. Then, knowing that the way things had been was about to end, one way or the other, she said goodbye to all of it, and started to scream. The pounding of feet, the slide of the bolt, and Danny's man came in, as planned. Held her against the wall, and beat her until she crumpled to the ground, then straddled her and beat her again. When he left, he bolted the door, crossed the yard, and went into the house.
Sixteen. Julia lay curled in the dark. Even the crickets were silent. She re-lived the nights she had left Grace alone in the dark at home. She waited the way Grace had so often waited, when she and Danny had hosted parties, to see whether she would remember to come upstairs to say good night. Waited and waited, just to feel her mother's wine-flushed cheek against hers. Julia waited in the dark for a long time, not stirring — but not until the crickets had reached peak pitch again did she hear the bolt slide away and the door push open a crack.
Seventeen. Good girl. Grace slid in from the outside, put her hot hands on Julia's beaten face, said Mama, you did it, and laid down on the floor to face her. Julia ran the backs of her fingers down Grace's sunken cheek and let them rest there in the dark, trying to remember those nights, the sugary smell of a little girl's hands and the soft flannel of the nightgown she once had, the stuffed bear whose name she couldn't remember. She squeezed her eyes tight and pulled Grace to her for just a second, wincing when the hot head nestled under her already-swelling jaw. And when she was ready, she rolled away, and pulled the little arms over her shoulders, the way she had when Grace was little, before she got bigger and only Danny could carry her, and then bigger still and was able to keep up on her own. Thin and beaten, Julia's body felt divorced from the rest of her now, and strangely strong as she sat up and then stood with Grace wrapped around her back. She felt sinewy and dull, liberated by the lack of sensation, as if she could walk forever.
Eighteen. She walked as quickly as she could manage, pushing her bare feet forward, one after another, across the yard and along the inside border of the hedge, along which she ran her hand, into which it released its pregnant blossoms. And then to a gate, and out along ungridded country roads that seemed to wind endlessly into one another.
Nineteen. Danny had a beard when he ran. He'd never had one at home but this was how she remembered him now, on his last day, wild and dirty and running furious with hope, and will, and anger, and refusing to bend. The first day was harder for Julia to remember. It was foggy now and less frantic. Far away, like something that just happened, or had been waiting to happen, or was meant to happen all along: one minute in a taxi; the next, the three of them bumping along in the back of sweet Lucho's truck, on their way here, along this very road, under a cloudless sky.
Twenty. Soaked with sweat, Grace's body burned through Julia's shirt as they walked, rubbing the places where she gripped its limp arms and wrapped its small, leaden legs around her waist. She didn't know how far it would be, but told herself there must be a town nearby, and possibly a doctor, since the men's trucks had all come and gone along this route. But nothing had appeared.
Twenty-one. Just before dawn, Grace moaned, low and quiet, and Julia stopped walking to lay her down and get a look at her in the dim approaching light. Sweat burned through her wet hair, and dust from the road clung to her small face like a mask. The ground was cool, so Julia scraped some clay and rubbed it on Grace's skin to bring her temperature down. And when Grace started to tremble, Julia thought it was a good thing, a sign the fever had broken.
Twenty-two. Night here was long, without streetlights or flickering windows. Sickness was not thermometers or fluffing pillows. And death was real but bloodless as a small red spot in the back of a shirt, and a fall you can't see, and a body unseen on the other side of a flowered hedge. But ransom. Ransom wrapped its arms around you tight and squeezed you, and squeezed you, and whispered patience in your ear until you forgot, or forgave, or became something numb and harmless. Until freedom meant wanting to stay.
Twenty-three. Somewhere in the blue part of morning, Julia laid down next to Grace, long and straight, for a length of time she could no longer measure, and cried, and whispered Lo siento in her ear. And when the horizon began to glow, she rolled onto all fours and dug into the packed clay until her fingers bled, and buried Grace and the purple flowers away from the road.
Twenty-four. When the sun finally looked her in the eye, she stood. She didn't think of their old home much anymore, but tried to summon it now as she walked: how clean and cool it was there, with its fresh sheets and medicine cabinets and telephones — but she found it comfortless, and in spite of herself, she let her mind drift to their shed instead. In through the open door, laying their bodies down and sleeping. Lucho coming home to find them both returned. And proud like a father, like a husband, telling them they could stay.
's work has appeared in The Kenyon Review Online, New England Review, Witness, Hobart, Monkeybicycle, Corium, Literary Orphans
and others. She lives outside of Chicago and is currently assembling her first collection of short stories.