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Lost To Banting
“Well, did you get the results back yet? I mean, you could have done better than you thought.” Pain and anxiety were hiding in her shaking voice as she sat awkwardly on the bed across from him, her delicate fingers wringing around themselves.
“No, I’m pretty sure I didn’t pass. I didn’t know any of the answers, or even understand half the questions.” He leaned forward, brushing his tanned hands over his wispy brown hair, flattening it to his head. He sounded calm and sure about his answer, and that wasn’t making her happy.
“I don’t understand. You do all your schoolwork. You work hard; you’re smart! They can’t just throw you in with all the idiots out there!” Her heart was beating faster, upset with how he was handling this. She wanted to smack him for not having tried as hard as she thought he could have. How could he do this to her? She curled her knees up to her chest and slowly leaned back up against the cold concrete wall, taking in a much-needed breath of air. Outside she could hear the hard wind whipping against the ugly brick buildings and the shuffle of frozen shoes hurrying to get out of the chapping air. It hadn’t been gloomy all day like this, it had been sunny when school started but as the day went on, dense black puffy clouds started closing in on the city, shielding out all light from the sun.
Dane inched across the bed to be right next to her instead of facing her. He put a reassuring hand on hers, stopping their movement, and she rested her head on his comforting shoulder. “There’s no use worrying about it now. I haven’t gotten any results back. We’ll work it out; you’ll see.”
Jessie started to mumble something to him, but her slurred words turned into slow, steady breaths. He put his hand under her head, his fingers getting lost in her thick mahogany hair, moving it from his shoulder to the feather-filled pillow beside her. She looked cold in her pink pajama pants and small grey t-shirt as he covered her with his sheets and brought in the thick knitted blanket his grandma had gotten him from Mexico while on a business trip a few years earlier. He sat down at his desk and looked out the window. It was a depressing evening. The sun should just now be setting but instead had made its last appearance at eleven o’clock that morning. Jessie looked so calm and beautiful sleeping, finally relieved from all the stress she had to deal with that day. Her parents had left for a weeklong vacation that morning. Jessie hated being in their monstrous house alone, so she would be spending the majority of the nights at Dane’s house, but he didn’t mind. He gave her a kiss on the forehead and walked out to the couch that would be his bed for the next few nights. Tucking himself in for the night, he started thinking about what he was going to do, because even though he still wanted to give Jessie hope, he knew he hadn’t made the grade on the IQ test the previous month. Forced labor was the only thing the government saw in his future, but he only saw Jessie. Somehow he would have to fix that.
Jessie waited inside the café for his arrival. The pricey all-girls work prep school she went to had gotten out early today so teachers could assess students IQ score improvements. She had never had an issue with it. Ever since they started taking practice tests in the fifth grade, she had always scored exceptionally well. Now instead of worrying about her future career options, she was worrying about whether or not Dane was going to be free or put into forced labor. She anxiously awaited his arrival.
Her seat in the corner had a panoramic view of the store while still being hidden away from everyone else. She watched as the couple across from her complacently ate their bagels, glaring at each other when they looked up from their food. They were obviously a couple that had married because they were both successful and would probably have smart kids, not because of any fondness for each other. She hated that the intelligent people did that; she could never marry someone just because he was at the same status as her, not if she didn’t love that person. She turned to look out the glass window behind her, surveying the desolate street; it looked like rain.
Momentarily Dane would walk in the door and give her the good news they both needed desperately; she knew it. The bell attached to the door jingled and Jessie jumped excitedly, expecting to see Dane walking in, but it was just another businessman, neatly clothed in a black suit and cream-colored knit coat. His clean, pale skin showed his higher status, but he scowled the entire time, impatiently grumbling while waiting for his order. No one around here looked happy anymore, not even the free people.
The door jingled a second time, and in walked Dane holding a small, unopened envelope. Her heart jump-started as he sat down at the table. He smiled at her, noticing how the few visible rays of sun lit up her face. “How was school?” He was genuinely interested, but also trying to avoid the envelope.
“Stop stalling and open it!” She knew that he was just as nervous as she was, and she could see it in the way his hands were shaking as he clumsily ripped open the seal.
There was only one paper inside. One measly piece of paper was the deciding factor in whether or not they had a future together, and whether or not he was to be free. She couldn’t take it any longer, “Well, what does it say?” Danes face cringed as he slowly looked up from his letter, and every ounce of hope drained from Jessie’s fragile body. Even before he said it, tears slowly started steaming from her eyes and making splash landings on the tabletop.
“I didn’t make the cutoff. I have to fill out some paperwork and report to Banting on the 27th.”
She couldn’t find any air to take in. The world was closing in around her, and she couldn’t see any possible escape. She dropped her head between her knees, attempting to somehow force the air to flow into her lungs. How could this have happened; they were supposed to be together forever! Dane cupped his hands around her face and brought it up so their eyes met. Looking between both of her icy blue eyes, he knew that he could not take the future that was being forced upon him. Jessie was the person he was supposed to be with, whether it be here or as runaways; he couldn’t let them get separated.
“Jessie stop it! Breathe!”
She gasped a few more times, “But how can they… what are you ….what are we going to do?”
The previous night they had both fallen asleep on the worn leather couch, treasuring every moment they had together. The alarm on the TV turned the news on at 6:00 a.m., and the newscaster’s voice jumped from the screen, “Good Morning Kingsville! It’s Friday, October 16, 2021. The weather today is looking gloomier than yesterday with a storm brewing off the coast, calling for an 89% chance of rain…” His voice trailed off as Jessie awoke. She sat up and turned to face the massive flat screen mounted on the steel wall across from the couch.
The news anchor continued, “And today the search continues for the teenagers from Bishop who went missing after being assigned to Dalhousie two months ago. There is a reward for their capture. If you have any information, don’t hesitate to call the police.” The faces of four teenagers flashed on the screen. But to Jessie, they didn’t look like criminals. Their young faces looked radiant in the pictures, probably taken around their seventeenth birthdays. The two girls had sandy blond hair that glided over their shoulders, and their glittery, sincere smiles gave off the image of happiness. Both of the guys looked strong and content. But they hadn’t been seen in weeks. They were the first people to successfully skip out on their life sentence to a labor camp, ever. Jessie started patting Dane’s leg; he had to see this.
“Jessie, it’s 6:15, we have two hours until school starts; go back to sleep.” He finished grumbling and rolled back over, rewrapping himself in his soft fleece blankets.
She smacked his leg harder this time, “No, Dane, look at this!”
She rewound the newscast so he could see the story. His face stayed blank as he followed the story, until he heard that they had been assigned to Dalhousie. It was the labor camp for the next few towns over, just like Banting. His face contorted a little, and he moved his gaze from the screen to Jessie’s eager face. “Jess, why did you show me this?” She repositioned herself on the leather and jumped up onto her knees, giggling with excitement and determination. She couldn’t hold back her smile.
He took one look at her, engulfed by his blue flannel pajamas pants and Cozumel sweatshirt, and instantly knew, “You’re crazy.”
Jumping up and down on the couch she paused for a second and then jumped off to face him, “I have to leave now so I can put this plan together!’
“Jessie, don’t be stupid. The government has told me to report to Banting, I have to go.”
“You cannot just take a life of slavery, because of a test! I wont let you, now I’m running home so we can do this!” Somewhere in the back of her mind she grew anxious, this would mean she had to leave everything she knew and was comfortable with, all her friends and family. She threw her jacket on and dragged him the door. He looked questioning, and she wanted to reassure Dane, and herself, “You know I love you and I’m doing this for you, for us. I’ve been in there and the government can’t throw away your potential, your future because of a score. I’ll pick you up tomorrow at noon” With that, she inched up and kissed him and flew out the door, ready to plot; school was no longer important; she already had her score.
Once, on a school trip, she had seen Banting. Teachers had taken her and all of her prissy sixth grade classmates to show them what they would be in for if they didn’t do their work and become geniuses. Walking through the thick cement outer walls of the compound, she immediately felt anxiety. To the left of the main road was a miniature shantytown. There were tiny shacks strewn around, sheet metal roofs and walls that looked like haphazard collages of metal and cardboard scraps. Some of the fancier shacks were outfitted with uniform cardboard walls. Panning across the landscape, she saw multiple steel buildings, none of which had windows. The guards had informed her that they were going into building #23, a car parts assembly building. As they approached the front entrance, the lead guard pushed in a code and the thick steel door scraped across the ground until it was wide enough for the class to enter.
The walls towered up multiple stories to accommodate the machinery and the floors were concrete, flecked with shiny grey and white particles. There was no natural sunlight, but the plant was flooded with fluorescent lighting. Jessie had to shield her eyes and let them adjust.
From the entrance, they walked through a darker, cramped corridor to what the guard called the “production room”. Again, no windows; everything was steel and concrete. Unlike the entrance area, this room was so loud it pierced the girls’ ears. The sound of the large conveyor belts moving and the materials crashing together on the belts was unbearably loud. Then Jessie saw what she was here for, the slave workers.
Every worker was wearing a regulation pair of blue coveralls, torn and covered in black smears. The matted black boots they wore thumped along the ground as they walked. Nothing was fluid. Every motion, even those of the conveyor belt, was slow moving and mechanical. The slaves moved as if someone had put glue in their joints and they really had to put effort into every movement, probably the result of sleeping for only five hours a night on metal cushioned with a flap of foam. The only way to distinguish newer slaves from the older ones was how they were moving. The younger ones could move more fluently around the room, but their faces were the same, sunken in and lifeless eyes, overall an apathetic façade. The one person that Jessie caught eyes with still haunted her. He had picked something off the floor, and she’d caught his eye when he looked up. His youthful glow was slowly fading from his glossy, round eyes and round cheeks; unlike the others, she could see a happy past in his brighter skin and relaxed, smooth lips. She couldn’t understand how someone who looked so young could have all of his opportunities taken away by the government because he didn’t test well. Now all she could think of when she saw Dane was the face of the boy at the compound, in pain and hating his life in slavery. She could not, and would not, allow that to be Dane’s reality; they were going to get away.
Jessie had taken all of Friday to plan: doing laundry, packing food, and making phone calls while rain hammered the dusty earth. She had made a call to her Aunt Lindy in McAllen who would give her anything she wanted. She had a summerhouse in Brownsville, right by the border, and Jessie knew it would be vacant, considering it was hurricane season, and, of course, her docile aunt allowed her to take a weekend there, as long as Jessie promised not to take the boat out. Since her parents were still on vacation she could take a car without them noticing, and the Wrangler was begging to be driven. Dane always said a car like that should have a good layer of dirt on it, not clean and waxed like the one sitting in her garage.
She threw her bags in the back of the Wrangler, along with the canvas roof. This Saturday was relatively warm, but dark clouds littered the sky, occasionally letting a few rays of sun peak through. As she rolled out of the driveway, she was filled with adrenaline knowing what was to come for her and Dane. They both were going to leave everything they had known. She knew it was the right thing to do, but she was still nervous; she just couldn’t show it. His house was only a few miles away but today the brush on the side of the highway seemed to be passing by her in slow motion. Soon enough she rolled into Texan suburbia, all the houses looking the same; red brick two stories squeezed in as tight as possible along the street. She did pass a few mansions on the other side of the road, off a bit in the field. They were obviously the houses of those who scored exceptionally high on the exam. Looking at them made Jessie feel sick; those people could have no personality, no drive, but are able to live in luxury because they tested well.
Jessie had planned this well, escaping away to a cottage on the weekend would never be questioned. People, free people, did this all the time. So she didn’t have to hide all the bags in the back of her truck when she pulled into the tight alleyway behind his house, in full view of all the houses on the block.
She was ready for Dane to jump into the Jeep and fly down to Brownsville, but she still had to divulge her plan to him, assuming he would go along with it. Jessie didn’t see any way he would choose to be obedient to the corrupt government. She knew he would come along; he was smart enough to know he could have a better future than as a slave. Dane was already standing in the doorway to the back of the house when she pulled up. When she finished making room for his belongings and finally looked up, he immediately lost all the frustrations he had with her elusive plans and strong will. Her long brown hair was shining in the few rays that peaked through the clouds, and her blue t-shirt perfectly complemented her eyes, even from a distance. In that instant he saw something in her eyes, and he remembered that she was doing this to help him because she loved him and couldn’t stand to see him locked away for the rest of his life. He knew it wasn’t fair, and he was lucky to have someone as headstrong as Jessie to remind him that he didn’t just have to sit there and take it.
Once she caught his eye, she ran up the concrete pathway to the door and bear-hugged him, not wanting to let him go, excited for what was to come.
“I missed you.”
“Jess, you only went home for a day.” He smiled as he embraced her; he loved how sincere all of her feelings were and how open she was about them.
“I know, but I still missed you.” He smelled the same as he always did: musky and cottony, like laundry, at the same time. Jessie loved it; it was Dane.
They moved from the doorway to his small, windowless bedroom, and Jessie sat down on the bed. “What are you waiting for? Pack your stuff!” Jessie was jumping out of her skin with excitement, attempting to sit calmly on his bed.
“Well, I could pack a little faster if you could tell me what I needed.”
“Everything that you use every day, and all your clothes…and possibly a sleeping bag and pillow.”
He had filled a bag with his clothes and pulled out a smaller one and walked around the corner to his bathroom, “Jess, where exactly are we going?”
She could hear him tossing his toiletries into the bag and opening up a cabinet to get a towel. She almost always forgot a towel on trips, but not this time. She had thought of everything, including a few thousand dollars her parents had stashed in the house as an ‘emergency’ fund. “Well, first we’re going to stop in at my Aunt’s cottage in Brownsville.”
“And after we leave the cottage?”
“You’ll just have to wait to see about that part.” A smile slowly crept across her face. There were a lot of places in Texas to hide. Down around the border it was such a vast expanse of empty land, littered with only a few towns here and there. She relaxed and leaned up against the wall behind her, envisioning how perfectly this plan would work out.
After a few more minutes, Dane finished packing his stuff and Jessie picked up his bags to move to the Jeep. Dane did one last sweep around his house, checking to make sure he hadn’t missed anything. He got to his bedroom and paused. He had a feeling he wouldn’t be back here for a while, and he felt a pang of sadness. This was his home; he was comfortable here. Just as that feeling entered his chest, his eyes fell upon the folder holding his test score, and he knew he was ready to leave. Jessie was right; this corrupt government could not destroy his future. Even though he didn’t test well, he was capable of much more than slave labor; he could be a doctor, engineer, something worthwhile. Wherever Jessie was planning to take him, he was ready to go. He grabbed his worn blue zippie, put on his thick grey gym shoes, locked up the house, and walked out to the Jeep.
“I don’t remember it looking this blue last time.” Dane slipped off his shoes, dunking his toes in the chilly liquid. The water of the river was flowing quickly and had an eerily deep blue color to it.
“That’s because last time you were here it was outrageously sunny and it hadn’t rained in months!” Jessie turned and walked up the small hill to the yellow-sided cottage. She put the silver key in and turned it until it clicked. Excitedly, she slid into the back room of the cottage. Plopping down on the floral patterned couch, she watched through the sliding glass doors on the back wall as Dane dipped his toes in the river, next to her aunt’s dock. The water really was nice at this time of the year, the perfect temperature for a swim on an insanely hot Texas day. Memories of splashing around in her polka dot bathing suit, sitting around campfires with her parents roasting marshmallows, they all came rushing back into her mind. She was hit with a sudden urge to cry, realizing that there had been some good times in her past; that this place wasn’t just a reminder of her parents being absent in her childhood, her parents had taken off work sometimes to play with her. Without thinking she picked at the cuticle of her left thumb. A tear rolled along her cheek and plopped onto her thigh. She would miss this place, but she knew deep down that she and Dane had to go. The country had changed too much, the government had taken too much control, and people needed to take a stand; this was going to be her personal protest of the forced labor system.
“Hey Jess,” Dane panted as he ran in from the river, “Where’s the bathroom in this place?”
“Go through that doorway in the kitchen and turn right. It’s at the end of that hallway.”
Dane joggede off towards the kitchen and Jessie went to work. “Okay, I need to make it look like we stayed here.” Jessie talked herself through messing the place up a bit. She walked into the kitchen and splattered some ketchup on two plates, put a small amount of milk into two blue cereal bowls and a few glasses. She laid them all in the stainless steel sink, throwing in a few random forks and spoons. “Hey Dane,” she shouted in the direction of the bathroom, “Can you find me some hand soap?”
“Yeah, sure, just give me a minute.”
She heard him open the wooden cabinets under the sink and pull back the duck covered shower curtain. That’ll make it look real enough, she thought to herself.
He walked back into the kitchen, holding a teardrop shaped soap dispenser, “Found some!” He tossed the bottle towards her.
“Thanks!” She turned on the sink and started washing her hands, making sure that there were plenty of bubbles. “Perfect.” She turned the water off and wiped her hands on the towel, tossing it onto the counter.
“Jess, why are you making a mess?”
“Well we have to be believable don’t we?” She walked out to the floral couch and turned the TV on, threw a DVD in and let the menu pop up. She took a deep breath in, taking in one last look around the room. “Okay, NOW we’re ready to leave.”
“What are you talking about? I thought we were going to stay here for the weekend.” He followed her as she made her way out to the Jeep, making sure to leave the door slightly jarred. He was ready to leave with her but taken back by the change of plans.
When she got to the door of the Jeep she turned around to face Dane, “It’s only 20 minutes to the border. If you want to wait, it’s risky, but I can wait until you’re ready.”
He lifted his shaky hands to grasp hers, panning up from his shoes to her beautiful eyes, “Jess, I’m not gunna lie, I’m really scared. We just so happen to be planning on breaking around ten laws,” a smile spread across his face, “but I want to do this with you. You’ve had the right idea all along, I just have to adjust to the idea of being a criminal, or, well, you know.”
Jessie giggled with excitement; it always gave her a rush when she could see her plans coming together, “Well then if you’re ready, what are we waiting for?”
“Lets go my little delinquent!” He pulled her up into his arms and spun around twice, making sure her feet came off the ground; he wanted her to feel exactly how he felt now. He stopped spinning and lifted her over the door into her seat, kissing her on the cheek before running to his side of the car. She had gotten Dane to believe fully in her plan, now she just needed to get over her fears of leaving what she knew behind.
Within fifteen minutes of driving down winding dirt roads, they could finally see the large, crumbling cement wall. Before they were born the government had built a wall that stretched across the entire US-Mexico border to help with all the immigrants. But since the labor laws had been enacted, anyone who couldn’t speak fluent English or had no special college degree wouldn’t even think about coming into the country; no longer was it the “land of opportunity”. The wall was actually going to be helpful for them, since it had been assembled, the government stopped sending people to patrol the border, all Dane and Jessie had to do was find a break in the wall large enough to fit the Jeep through.
“If I remember correctly, there’s a break to the right of the old highway.”
“Well then we need to cut across this chunk of land.”
Jessie turned the car to face where the highway used to be. No one traveled out of the country by car anymore, so the roads in the south were pretty much useless.
“Jess! Over there, look, I see an opening!” Dane pointed over the left, directing Jessie to a spot in the wall that looked as if someone had taken a slice out of. Either side of the opening was littered with a small mountain of rubble, but the space between the two walls was just enough to fit an average size vehicle through.
Right before the opening Jessie stopped the car and grabbed Dane’s hand, “I’m so proud that you made the decision to come with me.”
“Jess, there is nothing I would rather do than run away with you. You’ve always had my best interest in mind, and I know this is going to work out for the best.”
She stared into his comforting eyes and found what she needed to get over her past. Yes, there had been good times, but it was all superficial; none of it was good for anything but fun. Now, with Dane, she was doing something that mattered, something that could help change other people’s futures. “Okay, lets go!” She couldn’t help but grin, feeling her smile almost reaching to her ears.
As they passed through the wall into Mexico, they were both overcome with a feeling of relief. Dane exhaled, his shoulders relaxing down, unable to control his giddiness. Here, he had a future that didn’t include a metal shack to call home or an endless workweek.
Half an hour later they pulled into a small coastal town, filled with colorful houses and sounds of Spanish music. She slowed the car as they came into the main area.
“What are we doing?”
“Just wait, it’s a surprise. You didn’t think I was done with them when we left the cottage did you?” She smiled at him, with a glimmer of mischief in her eyes. Jessie put the car and park and walked up to a man standing outside a small turquoise hut. Dane watched from the car, anxious to see what Jessie was doing. She dug through her pocket and handed the man a wad of cash, and in return the small dark man hand her a set of keys pointing her towards the west.
“What are the keys for?”
“Just shut up and wait will you!” She turned the car keys and waited for the engine to rumble before pulling away from the parking spot, driving on a small path towards the ocean. They came up on a small brush, filled with green, flowery bushes and palm trees. She stopped the car again and ran around to Danes door. “Okay, get out and then cover your eyes, for real, no peeking!”
“Is this the part where you kill me?”
She put her hands on her hips too excited to wait for him, “Just do it!” She watched him cover his eyes before grabbing his hands and leading him around the brush. “Okay, well, this is it!”
He opened his eyes to find a beautiful little cottage with Jessie standing next to it smiling uncontrollably, hands tugging at her shirt waiting for a response from him. “Jess, this is…its amazing.” He walked behind her as she unlocked the door, escorting him into their humble abode. Glass floor tiles that sparkled all different colors in the light lead them into the main living area, complete with a small kitchen, two red couches, and a table. Behind the couches a large glass door lead out to the beach, their private beach.
Jessie stopped by the door to outside and paused, “We’re just renting for now, so if you don’t like it…”
He walked up to her, grabbed her hand and walked out to the beach, “Jess, it’s perfect, absolutely perfect.” And he meant it. There was nothing to remind him of Banting or his doomed future back home. Their toes were being splashed by small waves cresting on the shore. He pulled Jessie in closer, “This is going to sound cheesy, but you have actually saved my life.”
She smiled timidly at him, strands of her hair blowing around her face. “And I know you can do better than that stupid test score. I figure we can get new passports sometime so we can go back and visit, you know, so we could see our families so they know we aren’t dead.”
He lifted her up and kissed her softly, “That sounds perfect.” He looked around the beach as the sun was setting. They were safe here, no forced labor, no scary controlling government. Dane could have a future filled with what he wanted, and Jessie could spend the rest of her life with the person she loved, and they could both live free.