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A Better Life - by Dani Denatti

The coyote must die.

The thought had scurried into Maria’s mind on the second day of the journey, burrowing deeper after the coyote had followed her into the woods to watch her pee. He’d laughed when she’d begged for privacy, daring her to argue while his hand curled around the knife strapped to his belt. Maria didn’t argue. She’d squatted, she’d peed, and she’d prayed for God to help her reach the border—alive, and untouched.

After the fifth day, she could only pray to reach it alive.

The thought had taken root after that, giving her purpose, giving her a merciful distraction from the horror of what had passed and the fear of what was yet to come. Her prayers became less frequent then, for how could she ask for God’s grace and goodness while her heart thirsted for revenge? She traded her rosaries and psalms for a different sort of invocation, one that played on repeat every minute she spent wedged in the smuggler’s hold of the old box truck. Its rhythm soon matched the uneven tires: coyote must die, coyote must die, coyote must die. Planning his demise let her mind escape each time nausea triggered bouts of dry heaves, each time her limbs cramped so badly that every bump felt like a thousand needles piercing her flesh.

Each time the coyote touched her.

The coyote must die, Maria would think. And the thought brought her comfort.

She wasn’t a violent person—avoiding violence was the very reason Maria had sought the coyote in the first place. Leaving her home, her family, her country … these were decisions Maria never imagined she’d have to make. Why would she? Her country had never been a beacon of peace, but neither was it a war zone. The politicians were corrupt and the politics divisive, but that’d been true long before Maria had been born, and would probably still be true, if not for the floods.

The floods had changed everything.

Entire villages drowned overnight, small towns disappeared in days—and still the rains came. For six straight weeks, the country was pummeled by one superstorm after another. No place was untouched. Scores had fled to higher ground, only to perish in mudslides that swallowed whole mountain towns. When the rains finally ebbed, the country faced a humanitarian crisis unlike anything anyone had seen.

Maria’s town had been decimated, but she and Eduardo naively believed they’d been lucky. They’d spent three days on their roof, watching the water rise past the eaves of the second story. The terror they’d felt then—clinging to each other on slippery shingles, shivering through midnight rains, pretending, for the other’s sake, that their dwindling options wouldn’t all result in death—surely nothing could be worse than that. But they hadn’t realized how fragile the threads holding their society together were. Or how easily they’d fray.

The economy broke, the government crumbled, and chaos reigned. Power shifted from those with money to those with weapons, and bullets became the new currency. Militias roamed the countryside, promising protection. But with zero direction or oversight they were just bands of glorified thugs, terrorizing at will. The floods had washed away whatever decency they’d once had.

It was Eduardo who’d first suggested they leave. Maria had balked—if things were bad, they had a duty to stay and improve them, not run away. Then the militias began fighting each other for territory, and violence spread across the country like flames through dry grass.

Maria relented, and Eduardo made plans to head north, to leave behind everything they knew, everything they’d worked so hard for in the years before the floods.

“What does it matter, if we’re dead?” Eduardo had said. Then he’d placed his hand on her belly, on the tiny life growing within her, and kissed her temple. “We’ll give this one a better life. I promise.”

Had he known those would be his last words to her? Had he suspected the Red Militia would ambush him as he’d walked to town? Had he somehow known Maria would feel bound by the promise he’d made, obligated to fulfill it for him, rather than dying alongside him in the street, as she’d wanted? Perhaps he’d—




Maria jolted, startled by the coyote banging on the cab.

Three knocks.

They had reached the border.

The truck slowed, then stopped. Maria held her breath. She could hear muffled voices but not the words they spoke, just the slow cadence of questions asked and answered. Then the coyote laughed. Rusty hinges squealed in protest, heavy boots stomped across the hollow metal floor of the truck. Maria’s heart beat so hard it echoed in her ears. What if the coyote betrayed her? What if he’d taken everything she had, just to turn her in now?

New fears seized her, but then the voices faded. The truck moved forward. Was that it? Did she dare allow herself to hope?  

It felt like several hours before the truck stopped again. The coyote opened the false panel she’d been hiding behind and pushed her into the dark night.

Legs numb, Maria stumbled forward, nearly tripping over the backpack the coyote tossed in front of her. By the time she picked it up he was gone. As Maria watched his taillights disappear, she mourned the many plans she’d made to wrestle the knife from his belt and return some small portion of the pain he’d inflicted on her.

Maria took a deep breath, filling her lungs with pine-scented air. The time for regret had passed.

She craned her neck to gaze up at the trees, so impossibly tall, so different than the live oaks of her beloved Texas, before the floods of 2028 had stripped them from the landscape. For one brief moment, Maria allowed herself to grieve for the America she had known, and the America she had lost. Then she sank to her knees and prayed that Canada would let her stay.

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