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It’s a few minutes after nine o’clock, and the Flores twins are buckled into the backseat of Wilber’s Toyota, lurching through downtown San Francisco in search of the courthouse. As their older brother brakes and curses his way through the flurry and gridlock of the morning com- mute, the twins’ identical faces press against the windows, hunting for street names and building numbers. They are lost.
Their messy packet of immigration papers states the courthouse ad- dress (100 Montgomery Street) and the time they’ve been ordered to appear: February 19, 2014, at 10:00 a.m. Sharp, they remind themselves. Every appointment in America, they have learned, is expected to be on time, en punto, sharp. A counselor at the Texas detention center had explained this to them, and Wilber has, too. This morning they’d left the apartment with a two-hour window. It’s important to be not just on time, but early, in the Estados Unidos, Wilber said.
“Shit,” he spits from the front seat, as the network of one-ways forces him across Market Street and into the wrong side of downtown. The morning traffic roils and churns around the 4Runner, now stopped in the middle of the intersection.
At twenty-four, Wilber is now, for better or worse, for lack of a better option, his brothers' guardian. "Will you agree to be their legal sponsor?" the woman at the shelter had asked in her Tex-Mex Spanish. Of course he would. He'd signed a paper promising to provide for their basic needs, to feed and clothe them, to enroll them in school, and to get them to court on time.
In his seven years here, he'd become an expert on the United States and its rules. A rule of the landscaping business, for instance: no work, no pay. He'd miss another day of wages today.
New Montgomery! That's the street they've been looking for Montgomery! They drive past strangers in coats and scarves, carrying briefcases, earbuds plugging their ears. The boys are not allowed to use earbuds in class, but Emesto sometimes tries to sneak them in. He likes the way they make him look: cool, indifferent. New Montgomery, New Montgomery, New Montgomery. They reach the end of the street, but the numbers don't seem right. The clock is ticking.
"Maybe New Montgomery and Montgomery aren't the same?" suggests Raul.
THE twins have been dreading this appointment for months, ever since they were picked up out of the Texas desert, their shoes ripped to raggedy flaps, their matching bodies swaying with thirst. They thought for sure they'd be deported right away, back to El Salvador and all that awaited them there.
But they weren't sent back. They were taken to a detention center, where a woman explained to them that, as minors, they'd have a choice: they could opt to go back to El Salvador on their own-impossible-or they could go to court and fight for the right to stay.
Court? In front of a judge? They'd need a lawyer, for starters, and the prospect of obtaining official papers seemed absurd. Why, out of all the so-called illegals like them, like their brother, should they, kids who'd been here only a few months, get papers?
It is 9:06. They have just under an hour. Wilber has plugged the address into his phone's GPS, but the place it directs them to doesn't make sense. It seems to have stopped working altogether. Raul snatches the phone from his twin. "Asshole," Ernesto hisses. Raul hands it back with a shrug.
At seventeen, the twins have never been to a city before-unless you count San Salvador, which they'd been only a few times to visit relatives, or Mexico City, where they were practically shackled to their coyote, hunkered down in the spectral underbelly of the pass-throughs. San Francisco looms like no other place they've ever seen. Raul used to picture these buildings in the quiet nights back home, rising upward like ladders, like possibilities. But now that he's under them, they're just endless, indistinguishable boxes. They make him feel, as most things in the United States of America so far do, small and out of place.
The twins still have the lingering feeling of being chased, of needing to look over their shoulders. Every few nights now, Ernesto wakes up screaming and slick with sweat. He won't talk about it, but Raul knows his brother. As surely as he knows when Ernesto feels like cutting class to go smoke a cigarette, he knows how afraid Ernesto was before he was run out of town. And during that night in the desert weeks later. The road can change a person.
The shelter staff members had explained how court works: the judge will come in, and everyone will stand up. The judge will say the name of each kid with an appointment that day, and the kid should respond presente, here. Last night the boys reviewed what they remembered. Look the judge in the eyes, they reminded each other. In America, their instructors told them, looking down makes you appear disrespectful.
Now the boys' faces are hardening into matching masks of dread. When they get to court, what will they even say to the judge? With no lawyer, no English, no idea what to say on their own behalf, they worry they'll be deported this very day. And then what?
The courthouse is here among these buildings somewhere, but where? One hundred Montgomery, the twins read on the court paper again. Everything sounds the same-Montgomery, Market, New Montgomery, Minna, Mission-crossing and crisscrossing like the tacky, glinting strands of a web. Son of a bitch.
"Fucking," Ernesto says in English, like a noun. He had learned that word, fucking, in school. It sounded more raw than the other swears he'd learned.
Sacramento Street, California Street, more towering stacks of steel and stone. El Salvador didn't have buildings like this-not that they'd seen, anyway. There the streets weren't so clean, and people tended to walk with more vigilance about their surroundings. Graffiti on the walls marked gang territory you could be killed for crossing, and masked po lice patrolled with M-16s and AK-47s. Teenagers like them were posted on corners, texting the bosses any strange comings and goings. In parts of some towns, hardly anyone walked at all. Here in San Francisco it was just coffee cups and commerce-but the foreignness was its own quiet form of terror.
Nine-thirty, nine-thirty-five. The numbers keep shifting on the defunct phone the twins use to keep track of time. Another confused, traffic-laden circuit loops them back to Market Street. The big white clock tower stands resolute against the bay like a cruel joke.
Wilber cranks the heat high. Outside it's cold, and the twins haven't brought anything to wear over their almost-matching blue plaid shirts, their nicest items of clothing. Wilber bought them, like practically every thing they have. Ernesto's is long-sleeved, a tight-fitting faux flannel, while Raul's is a boxier short-sleeve, his collar buttoned all the way to the top. Both boys have tucked the shirts into their skinny jeans, hiked up higher than usual with the help of belts, and they've laced their sneakers tightly, instead of leaving them fashionably loose-tied like the kids at school. They look, accidentally, like twins trying to dress as twins. They've slicked their hair back, and Ernesto has even removed his earrings-the characteristic the teachers at school use to tell them apart. Ernesto scoffed when he saw Raul in the morning. "Copying me," he said.
As ten o'clock approaches, Ernesto blinks rapidly, and Raul breathes heavily through his nostrils, lips pressed into a tight, thin line.
"Shit," says Wilber in English. He's doing his best. "Should we ask somebody?" Raul finally whispers.
Ernesto shoots him a look. Who? Who would we possibly ask? The twins don't speak English, and though Wilber can hold his own, how could he pull over a car in the middle of the downtown rush? If Wilber gets a ticket, the police will have his name. In spite of his seven years here, Wilber feels just as much as his brothers do that immigrant and illegal are painted onto him like a sticky second skin.
"Fucking," says Ernesto. They now have ten minutes. They turn onto Mission and loop back toward Market. We’ve been here before. No, we haven’t. Yes, we have-look, that flower man-we saw him before. True. Silence. On the map they see Montgomery station. If Montgomery station is here, where is the Montgomery Street courthouse? They'll miss
their appointment, they'll be sent home, they'll wind up dead, and what would have been the point of any of it-the journey, the debt, all this wandering?
Ernesto wants to scream at his brother-How long have you lived here?
Can’t you find us this fucking courthouse? But his throat seems to have closed up. He blinks even faster, as if to incarnate something better to see.
At a certain point, you just give up. They boys know it at the exact same moment, as with many things, but Wilber feels it, too: it's that time, the giving-up time. It's an hour past their appointment. It's over.
"Okay," Wilber says. The twins say nothing, just watch out the windows as the throng of people drifts away, and they ascend the on-ramp to the bridge. The highway tugs them above the slate-gray sea like a conveyer belt toward what is now, for now, home. They won't go to school today, probably not tomorrow. It would be too easy for Immigration to find them. But la migra has Wilber's address, too. They should go hide out somewhere, but Wilber is the only person here they really know.
They've been hunted by gangs, by packs of wild coyotes in the desert, by bad spirits, by rumors, by debt, by Ia migra-an easy, two-for-one prey. The twins look up at the sky as they emerge from the Yerba Buena Tunnel, which shoots them out and slings them back into Oakland. They've been chewed up and spit out all over this godforsaken continent, and after all this, just for missing an appointment, they're sure they'll be delivered back to El Salvador for good. But they can't go back.
For too long, the Flores twins have been dodging what now feels inevitable. In the jinxed maze of their lives, at the age of seventeen, they may have reached a dead end.
Enter the examination room in San Salvador’s Instituto de Medicina Legal, where a masked doctor cuts into a new corpse. The ammonia fumes burn your eyes. After determining the cause of death, he’ll slide the body back into the freezer until someone comes to identify the remains. If no one comes, which sometimes happens—it’s too far, or the family doesn’t have the money, or the deceased doesn’t have a family, or the circumstances of the murder are such that it’s best for the next of kin to lie low—the body will be incinerated. But any corpse in San Salvador that has gone undiscovered long enough, decomposing in a cornfield, say, or cast into the dump, is taken to the Department of Forensic Anthropology.
In contrast to the courtyard, the anthropology room is antiseptic, all right angles and order. Metal examination tables gleam; file boxes are stacked atop the counters and tables and floor. Like puzzle masters, the forensic anthropologists turn over the con- tents of each and fit the pieces together to figure how a human being turned into a box of bones.
Some of the skeletons are old and weather worn, turning the color of rust; they look as though they would flake at a touch. These bones were exhumed from the site of the 1981 massacre of El Mozote during El Salvador’s civil war, when government troops stormed a suspected guerrilla haven and slaughtered more than nine hundred men, women, and children. Some they killed with guns and machetes; others they corralled into the town church, then set it on fire. This skeleton here, laid out on the butcher paper, strewn with bits of the El Mozote soil mixed with the dust of his own bones, was a man "in his thirties," one anthropologist estimated. "A farmer, most likely."
The bones on the neighboring table, sturdier and whiter and in far fewer pieces, are from a newer war, a war more elusive and harder to track: the gang war.
"This one here came from a clandestine grave in San Salvador."
A pit behind a San Salvador slum. She'd been a young woman they estimated about seventeen, killed within the last year. Based on markings inside her pelvis, she'd once given birth. In the front of the skull, just above where the girl might have tweezed her brows or dusted a shimmer of shadow, was a splintered hole.
"A heavy object," the anthropologist says, running her fingers along the breach.
"Last week a man came in with thirty-seven bullets," recalled a morgue administrator. "Thirty-seven! Can you imagine?"
They cut a neat rectangle out of the young mother's femur for DNA.
It's hard to know who the particular killers in this new war are. Most homicides-especially the mass graves, like the one from which the young mother was pulled-are known to be the work of the gangs. Yet around 95 percent of crimes in the North ern Triangle go uncharged. To report a mass grave or denounce a gang member for murder carries a near-certain death sentence for the accuser and often for his or her family, too. So people keep quiet; the bodies pile up.
At the front gate of the morgue, a woman is quietly crying, shoulders quaking as she presses a tissue beneath an eye. She leans into a young man, her son perhaps, who wears a stiff expression behind aviator sunglasses. The armed guards notice, then look away.
A different woman enters the gate. "I'm here to register a disappeared?" she says, like a question. She signs her name in the tattered logbook, and the guard points where to go with one hand, holding his gun with the other.
If your local police haven't found the person you're looking for, you go to the morgue to make another report. The Instituto de Medicina Legal staff affixes the photograph to a wall, along with many others. They hang beneath a plastic cover so clean it reflects the onlooker, a flickering superimposition against the black and white faces of adults and children arranged by date last seen. THESE PHOTOGRAPHS WILL BE KEPT ON THIS BILLBOARD FOR TWO MONTHS, DEPENDING ON SPACE, the sign explains. It is late July; April's disappeared have just been taken down.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR ATTENTION, the sign concludes.
A police truck pulls into the compound, and two officers, clad in boots and balaclavas, hop out and escort a scowling young man, no more than sixteen or seventeen. His hair is gelled into spikes, and he sports low-sagging shorts, barely laced high-top sneakers, and a bright red T-shirt. The police move him roughly toward one of the doors.
"A gangster," someone says after he passes.
"They get a psychological evaluation here," the guard explains, "before going to jail."
The courts are so backed up that this young man could be in jail for weeks, months, even years before a trial. Thus he, too, becomes one of San Salvador's missing.