Latin translation: overcome, defeated.
I stare at the notice taped to my apartment door. I have 72 hours to collect my things and find a new place to live. The air in my lungs sits heavy like lava, searing me with shame before I force it out into the world and continue to sustain my life.
Tearing the notice off the door, I do a quick 180 and knock on the door directly across from my soon-to-be available apartment. The door flies open after one knock.
“My damn burst appendix stole my rent money,” I say to Avery, my best friend, as I push the notice in her face. I shrug, but my shoulders only rise up a fraction of an inch because my muscles are knotted up like fists. “A one-night stay at the hospital — thirty-three thousand dollars. No insurance — homeless.”
With an exaggerated swirl of her hand, Avery gestures for me to enter, her multi-colored peasant silk shirt billowing out dramatically. I walk in and plop down on her couch, eviction notice clutched to my chest. My sight line is momentarily blurred before I blink away the tears. I look up at the ceiling and blink a few more times to clear away the last bit of moisture.
Avery and I became instant friends sitting in adjacent cubicles at work. Rather than move in together and potentially ruin a great relationship, we were lucky to find apartments right across from each other. And now that dream scenario was coming to an end.
Her apartment is exactly like mine, a small studio with a tiny kitchen, nice appliances and brand new carpet. After my almost four-year stint in foster care, cleanliness is truly next to godliness. Most importantly, the apartment is safe, with front desk staff and locked doors that are monitored 24/7. In Boulder, Colorado, safety isn’t cheap.
“We’ll figure out something,” Avery says. She pulls a bottle of 1942 tequila from the cabinet above the fridge, a gift from a wealthy boyfriend of Avery’s who considered himself a connoisseur of good tequila. The tequila lasted a lot longer than the boyfriend. I shake my head ‘no.’ This is anything but a special occasion.
“Ellie, we need its healing powers.”
She grabs two whiskey glasses and places them on the coffee table in front of me. The bottle makes a popping sound as she opens it, accompanied by a strong fragrant woodsy aroma. She pours an inch of liquid into each glass and hands me one. You don’t do shots of 1942 tequila. It’s a sipping tequila, one you savor. The warmth of the syrup-like liquid flows down my throat and burns in my stomach, joining the stress-acid bubbles cowering there. I sputter and gag, then take another sip.
“You need to find a sugar daddy,” Avery says as she contemplates her tequila with great interest.
I snort. I’m not the sugar daddy type. Avery, on the other hand, is. She and I are polar opposites in many ways. Her body resembles the age-old feminine hourglass, while mine is more like an athletic boy. I am a minimalist and like things clean and open; Avery doesn’t. She’s almost six feet tall; I’m closer to five. She has long, blond hair; mine is dark brown and cut short. She is also super innovative, which gets us both in trouble more often than not.
“We need to get creative.” Avery perches next to me on the edge of the couch . She rings the rim of her glass with her finger, deep in thought. “Who wants to give you several thousand dollars to get you out of this predicament?”
“That’s so last season!”
I should have said a leprechaun since we’re only a couple weeks away from St. Patrick’s Day. At this point, those two seem to be my only options and I’m told they’re not real. I take a big sip of tequila, my mouth involuntarily puckering.
“Do you think work would lend me the money?” I do my best to get creative per Avery’s suggestion.
“I don’t think they have a lending program.”
“I could steal it,” I say.
She frowns at my joke.
I sit up and do my best to match her enthusiasm and come up with a plan — anything. “What about Vegas? I could take the measly fifty-three dollars I have in the bank and put it all on twenty-three in roulette. Twenty-three is my lucky number.” I steeple my fingers in front of my face, tapping the tips together as the tequila kicks in. “I did apply to that new reality game show Satori. I could win a million dollars. That is, of course, if they pick me out of the hundreds of thousands of people who applied. I am good at games, especially puzzles.” I wiggle my eyebrows, crazy scientist look complete.
Avery shakes her head, then stares at me through narrowed eyes. “You may have something there.”
“Vegas or Satori?” I finish what’s left in my glass and reach for the bottle to pour in more liquid courage.
I laugh, glad that Avery is seeing the futility of my financial situation. The lump in my throat is hard to avoid, but I push a swallow through.
“I’m serious,” Avery says.
I look at her to confirm that she’s crazy. She smiles somewhat maniacally and, yes, she is serious.
“You’ve got to be kidding.” I turn fully toward her, glass in hand, and glare at her. “And who would I steal from?” I have done this before, let myself get drawn into one of Avery’s crazy schemes. They always seem so sane at the time but tend to end in disaster.
“You could ‘borrow’ from work,” she says, completely offhand. “It would be easy.”
“How would that be easy?” I snort, spitting on her in the process. I gently wipe the moisture from her sleeve.
She shrugs and passes me a napkin. “You’re the assistant to the Controller. You have all the information and access you need.”
“Are you insane? I could lose my job. I would lose my job! That would get me even deeper into trouble, like not even the deep end of the pool. I’d be in the deep end of the ocean! The dark, endless, freezing cold depths.” I shiver at the thought and put my glass down on the coffee table a little too roughly. The liquid mimics the ocean I just described.
Avery smiles again and takes a dainty sip from her glass, pinky finger up. “Seriously.” She pats my thigh. “You have that restricted fund you told me about, the one with tons of money in it that no one touches.”
Avery works in the finance department with me. She’s an accounts payable agent, while I am a lowly assistant — though I am an executive one, which gives me a little more clout. We are both pretty much at the bottom of the food chain. But I do have access to accounts.
Am I really considering this? There’s no way I could get away with it. Unless …
The restricted accounts have donated money deposited into them for specific things like the construction of a new building or use in a particular program within the company. In non-profit organizations, these accounts are set up so the company can only spend the money on the items the donor specifically designates.
The fund Avery is referring to is a restricted account for a program on hold since the benefactor became ill. That was at least six months ago. No one really looks at the account, except to confirm the balance on a monthly report. And that someone is me – on a report I run. This fund contains more than a million dollars sitting idle with only myself paying attention. The only time my boss sees anything about this account is on that report, or if any transaction exceeds one hundred thousand dollars.
My whole body feels electrified. The heat crawls up and spreads over my face like wildfire. I swallow hard.
“You could take out the money today. It’s the first of the month; monthly reports were run yesterday. You could find a way to put back the money before the end of the month and no one would be the wiser. It would keep you off the streets … or my couch.”
My stomach sinks even further. Freeloading makes me gag more than tequila. “Someone would see the withdrawal and deposit transactions, but I could explain that as an accounting error,” I say.
We both sit quietly, me with my hands clenched together in my lap, knuckles white. Avery sits with a shit-eating grin; she gets that look when she is in full-on ‘creativity’ mode.
I blink several times and the fire in my belly turns cold; the lava and alcohol coagulate into rock. I can’t steal. I don’t have the guts. Even if I could get away with it, I know my parents would turn in their graves many times over.
“I can’t.” I stand, a little unsteady from drinking so quickly. “I’ll have to figure out another way.”
Avery stands with me, puts down her glass and grabs my arm, pulling me toward the door.
“We’re going downstairs to talk with the building manager. He likes me. I can convince him to give you another week.”
I stumble along to the elevator. She pounds her fist on the down button. This isn’t going to work, but I cannot stop the tide of Avery when she’s on a mission.
As the elevator door opens on the first floor, a high-pitched scream echoes through the lobby. The scene before us is a nightmare come to life. Mateo, our two-year-old neighbor, is being pulled from his mom, Sofia. Two uniformed men with the large I.C.E. letters emblazoned on their backs are harassing them.
I have never heard Mateo cry before. His cry is primal, like an animal in the night — one that doesn’t have long to live. He is the sweetest, most innocent child. His laughter fills my heart so full it’s like the sun shines from his soul. And now his tiny hands are grasping at the space between himself and his mother, who is forcefully being held back from him. Her face is tortured — lips trembling, tears streaming down her face, terror in her eyes.
“Please, don’t take my baby!” Sofia sobs.
Avery and I stand frozen just outside the elevator. A cursory glance around the lobby tells me no one else is in the room.
“What are you doing?” I yell. On pure instinct, I launch myself at the man holding Mateo. The large man easily swats me away and I stumble to the ground.
Avery, a little calmer with less tequila and desperation in her system, approaches the man holding Sofia’s arms behind her back. “Officer.”
The man looks at Avery, then over to his partner. Mateo is still sobbing. They exchange a glance that sends a message I can’t decipher.
“Did Sofia do something wrong?” Avery asks ever-so-politely. Her effervescent charm shines through her golden eyes.
“She’s an illegal, and a criminal, which is the one-two punch in getting deported,” he says. His hands are gripping Sofia’s wrists so tight purple marks are already forming on her dusty brown skin.
“A criminal?” I snort.
The man stares down his nose at me, which isn’t hard since I’m still sitting on the floor. I pull myself up and dust off my pants. I step closer to him, puffing out my chest. He’s about ten inches taller than my five-foot-two frame. Some of the air in my chest deflates.
“Shoplifting,” he says.
Avery and I balk in unison, then look at Sofia. She shakes her head no.
“This is a nice apartment building for an illegal,” the other officer says. Mateo is limp now, lying on the floor with the officer gripping his wrist. “We suspect you’re doing more than shoplifting.”
“That’s ludicrous,” Avery chimes in. “Sofia works three jobs to give her son a safe and clean environment.”
ICE Man One turns to Avery. “Is that so?”
“What happens to Mateo if Sofia’s deported?” I ask.
“He’ll go to a family member who’s a citizen,” says ICE Man One.
“I don’t have any other family here,” Sofia says, her voice soft with defeat.
“Mateo was born in the US,” I say.
“Then he’ll be put into the system.”
My stomach drops out and my hackles come up.
The first time I met Sofia was in this very lobby. She was standing in a puddle holding her extended belly, bewilderment in her eyes. Labor had come three weeks early and she wasn’t prepared. My survivor instincts kicked in and I grabbed a towel from behind the front desk, whipped out my phone, and requested an Uber. The rest is history. Mateo was born six hours later. I was with Sofia the whole time, breathing with her, holding her hand. I actually watched Mateo be born and was allowed to cut the umbilical cord. I still don’t know anything about his father — Sofia won’t discuss him. But I know Mateo; he’s part mine.
No way will I allow Mateo to be put in the system that ate me up and spit me out. No fricken way.
“Come on.” Avery puts the charm on full blast. “There’s got to be something we can do to change your minds.”
The men communicate through their eyes again. I sense they’ve had this conversation before.
“Ten thousand would take her off the list — for a while,” ICE Man One says.
Avery’s eyes flare and then she catches herself. She cocks her head to the side and contemplates the man.
“I don’t have that kind of money,” Sofia says. She closes her eyes and drops her chin to her chest.
Mateo is now fully on the floor, scrunched up into a ball. Only his eyes move. The ICE officer in charge of him has stepped in front of him, the heel of his shoe pressed down on the stuffed dog Mateo carries with him everywhere.
Mateo looks up at me from the floor. My heart seizes, the oxygen frozen just as Mateo is frozen. Unnatural for a two-year-old boy to be so still. His terror will only get worse if he’s taken.
There are times in life when you know your path without a doubt. I step forward. “I can get the money.”
Avery and Sofia look at me like I’ve lost my mind. They don’t realize that I’m actually saner now than I’ve ever been in my life. I will do anything to keep Mateo from having even a remote chance of experiencing the tortuous years I had.
“I can get ten thousand dollars in my account today, but it may take a day or two to clear.” My shoulders are back, chin out.
“If you change your mind and decide to bring in another form of law enforcement it will go even worse for your little boy here,” ICE Man One says. His grip on Sofia lessens a little, his thirst for money overtaking his thirst for power over a weaker opponent.
ICE Man Two steps away from Mateo who instantly scrambles up and runs to his mom. He grabs on to her leg with his whole body. Her hands are still being held by ICE Man One, but the contact seeps into her and the color comes back to her face.
“We’ll need proof you have the funds,” ICE Man Two says, his breath in my face.
“Give me five minutes upstairs and I can show you.” I look to Avery. I’m pretty sure she knows how I’m going to get the money.
“Do it here in front of us.”
“I need a computer.”
ICE Man Two moves to a large black backpack sitting in one of the lobby chairs and pulls out a MacBook Air. Well, isn’t that convenient.
He whips it open and holds it for me — my very own personal standing desk.
“Are you sure, Ellie?” Avery asks.
I nod and quickly type in my company web address on the already-open search engine. I log in the same way I do almost every day. The computer does not know that I am not logging on to do my job, but to steal ten thousand dollars. My fingers freeze as I hesitate for just a second, then speed up as I access the account. Again, like any other day. I hit the transfer button within the million-dollar restricted fund — except I don’t know my checking account number by heart.
“I need to get my checking account number,” I say to no one in particular. I open another window and access my bank account, then copy and paste the number back into the transfer screen. I type in ten thousand dollars: 1-0-0-0-0-0. This is all way too easy. Shouldn’t it be more difficult … becoming a felon?
The ‘Complete Transaction’ button blinks at me. I look at Mateo, who is still hanging on for dear life, his eyes scrunched up tight. I hit the button without another thought.
“Okay, done. Now what?” I turn the computer to ICE Man Two, who sees the ‘transaction complete’ notice. He motions me to toggle to my banking account page. When I click on it the page refreshes and we can now see a pending deposit for … one hundred thousand dollars! I squint at the number and my throat closes. What? No! What did I do?
I’m choking for air now, blinking at the numbers on the screen. The screen tells me the shocking truth; I transferred one hundred thousand dollars, not ten thousand. ICE Man Two sees it as well.
He looks over to his buddy. “She transferred over one hundred grand.”
ICE Man One’s eyes narrow and he takes a step toward us. He looks at the screen. “Well, isn’t that nice.”
“No, you don’t understand, it was a typo. I can’t take that much. I need to transfer it back. When it’s over one hundred thousand, my boss gets an email.” I scramble for the laptop, but ICE Man Two slams it shut and pulls it away.
“The price just went up.”
“I’ll need more time. That amount of money will not clear into my bank for three to five business days.” My words run into each other. “I’ll give you twenty thousand dollars if Sofia is free and clear for good, no coming back to hassle her again, and we need a week to get it to you. And then you …”
A dense silence fills the room. Greed is a thick emotion; so is fear.
“You’ve just bought yourself a week,” ICE Man One says, obviously the leader of the two. “Someone will be by a week from today to secure the funds.” He turns to Sofia. “We know where you live.”
He lets go of Sofia who reaches down and pulls Mateo into her arms, crushing his tiny body to her chest. She takes a tentative step away from the officer.
The lead extortionist approaches me; his face looms over mine. I can see a hair coming out of a mole that sits right next to his left nostril; it’s not a good look. “If you try to turn us in or don’t hand over the money — all of it! — we will make not only these two illegals’ lives a living hell, but yours, too. You know we can, and we will.” His breath is minty, in a stale, old-man kind of way. “Do you understand?”
My spine is ramrod straight as I look him directly in the eye. “I understand.”
He nods his head to his partner in crime who is now packing up his laptop and slinging the backpack over his shoulder. They leave without another word.
Jesus! My whole body is on red alert. The adrenaline surge slowly comes down from its high arc, making my head spin. I need to sit down.
A memory of foster care comes rushing in as my adrenals settle. The foster dad at one of my earlier homes was a police officer. At first, I thought it was cool — and safe. But I learned quickly that he was a bully and the only reason he became a cop was so he could bully people as a profession. I can still feel his breath on my face when he picked me up by the collar of my shirt and threw me against a cement wall. My transgression? I stood in front of one of the younger kids he was about to smack — open-handed, mind you — his hand was the size of a dinner plate. Same adrenaline, different day.
“Ellie,” Sofia sobs. She starts to come toward me just as the lobby door smashes open. Three black-clad muscle-bound men charge through the door. What the hell? My body goes directly to Defcon 1 again, adrenaline surging inside my heart muscles and pumping through my nervous system.
“Ellie Walker?” one asks.
Is this a sting? Do these men partner with ICE to catch those desperate enough to bribe the government?
“Are you Ellie Walker?”
I look to Avery and Sofia. Both of their facial expressions mirror mine, eyes wide and mouths open.
“Are you Ellie Walker?” the man shouts again. Behind him and the two other assailants is another with a camera propped on his shoulder. Oh crap, the entire conversation was videotaped. This will not look good in a court of law.
“Yes.” My answer gets stuck in my throat.
The one closest to me is on me in a flash. He grabs my arms behind my back and synchs some sort of wire around my wrists to secure my hands. My fight or flight instinct comes back online, and my whole body goes berserk. The muscle man holds me tight and a cover is thrown over my face. He lifts me like a tiny piece of trash and throws me over his shoulder.
Overcome, defeated … evicted.
Back to top