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Cheryl tried to think about home, about Antonio — but her calming thoughts were disrupted by angry shouts and sobs from the front of the line. Cheryl stepped to the edge of the queue to gain a better vantage just as her eager compatriot at the front of the line, the nameless chelita, tears streaming down her face, fell back as if seeking refuge in the crowd. There was more shouting and then, instead of passing to the arrival area, the girl was herded into the other room, a large figure in army fatigues securing her by the elbow. The door closed with a loud bang. A nervous hush passed over the crowd. Even the children stopped fussing as if sensing the fear pulsing through their parents’ veins.
Cheryl nervously twisted a Kleenex in her pocket and felt a trickle of sweat race down her spine. “Stay calm,” she told herself. She was getting closer to the front, closer — until finally she saw what awaited her.
An obese immigration officer leaned back in his chair, arrogance spewing from him like bad breath as he demanded passports from the trembling arrivals. His greasy hair glistened in the harsh overhead light while his stone face gave him a cold, rigid appearance. His uniform, tight as a stretched hide, looked like it would rip open at any moment. Cheryl thought he looked like a giant poisonous frog, his bulk overflowing the sides of his chair. The cold metal table before him was bare except for a few ink stamps arranged by size and colour. To his right was the large black binder, guarded by two expressionless soldiers. Cheryl began to feel her lunch turn to acid in her stomach. The officer seized each passenger’s passport and, opening the ominous binder, turned its pages. The arrivals shifted anxiously as each awaited their fate.
Cheryl reached the front at last and forced a rehearsed smile as she handed her document to the officer. Her heart began to pound and she felt her pale face begin to flush.
“Buenas tardes, señorita,” he grunted. “What bring you to El Salvador?” he questioned, switching to heavily accented Spanglish upon seeing her passport.
Despite the many rehearsals, Cheryl’s mind went blank. She couldn’t tell the truth, that she was a human rights activist there to expose the atrocities committed by the military dictatorship. “I am here to visit friends for the holidays,” she finally responded.
Something in her practised response caught his attention. He raised his heavy eyebrows and seemed to look right through her. Again he lowered his gaze to the passport. Someone behind Cheryl coughed. The two soldiers shifted. Cheryl held her breath.
“Who are these friends?” he asked, watching her with piercing hollow eyes, apparently sensing and enjoying her unease.
“Some friends I met last year. They are going to meet me at the Hotel American Guest House,” she blurted, too quickly this time.
The space between them thickened with tension as he carefully opened the black binder and turned the heavy typed pages. Appearing disappointed but determined, he returned next to examining her passport until his fingers came to rest on the page that contained her emergency contact information.
“Who is Antonio Gonzalez?”