The last time I heard The Rolling Stones, I was staring down a Mexican gang leader in front of a cartel run drug warehouse in Northeastern New Mexico. I’ll backtrack a bit; we’re moving faster than my fifth grade girlfriend. I’m an EMT in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the capitol of the state and an overall solid place to live. The restaurants aren’t bad, the hospital I work out of is actually quite nice, and I have a pretty cute girlfriend.
My hospital, St. Joseph’s, is kind of in the outskirts of town. We get a lot of calls in the city, but the majority are in the more rural, suburban areas. I’d been paired up with a guy named Niles and we’d been working together for about four months. He was a pretty good EMT; he knew how to handle crises and I hadn’t seen him make a stupid decision yet. We’d had people die on us but we were never at fault.
This whole cartel ordeal started with a call we got for a woman a few miles outside of the city, sixty to sixty-five years old, who was having chest pains. That could mean a lot of things. Best-case scenario, she had severe heartburn. Worst-case, she was about to go into cardiac arrest. Niles and I were a bit wary about leaving the metropolitan area. Normally, it wouldn’t have been a problem at all, but lately the cartel was stepping up their presence, trying to take control of the drug trade in the city.
In the past seven months, three ambulances had already been hijacked and one EMT had been shot in the knee. For some reason, the cartel really wanted ambulances. Some guy back at the hospital had said that it was so that they could transport drugs easily without drawing attention to themselves, but that made no sense to me. After all, ambulances are among the most conspicuous vehicles out there, with their distinct shape and loud flashing lights. I though that it would make one more noticeable, but apparently the cartel thought otherwise.
New Mexico’s countryside is not very lush; there are no streams or trees or green pastures, especially not around Santa Fe. No, everything is orange. People have asked me to describe the color and the closest I can get is that it matches my favorite pair of tangerine shorts. The worst thing though, is the dust. The dust in New Mexico, like everything else, is bright orange and it sticks to you like sand after you get out of the ocean. It gets wherever you’ve been sweating and then forms a thin layer over your entire body. Then, you get even hotter and the orange trails of moisture up and down your face and body look like a crying girl’s mascara.
Niles and I drove to this old lady’s home, keeping our eyes open for any possible threats the entire trip. We saw no one by the time we arrived, but we were pretty spooked. This woman lived in a little old shack off of a dusty road. It was a predominately Mexican barrio, which meant that the cartel had to have some kind of presence. They were a new presence in the state, but they had exploded in size in the aftermath of the recession because they offered loans and cash to anyone who would join. They were New Mexico’s little stimulus package. The problem was that they made all members participate somewhat actively. In order to stay in favor with the leaders, one had to do something violent or profitable for the cartel pretty frequently. We were an easy option to fulfill that requirement.
Neither Niles nor I were particularly stoked to be there, so we hurried along. I was so nervous that halfway to the door, I realized I had forgotten my kit, where I kept all my first aid gear. Normally, Niles and I were supposed to stay together, but I told him just to go ahead so that we could get out of there quicker.
He opened the door and scooted inside. I grabbed my pack and jogged back, only to see Niles with his hands up as four large men stood before him, two with pistols. I froze. We weren’t really trained for this kind of scenario. All they said was that we weren’t supposed to fight back, but to adhere to the demands of whoever was aggressing you as closely as possible. But they don’t teach you how to feel when a three hundred pound Mexican gang-member tackles you to the dusty ground.
The man lifted me to my feet and pushed me up against a wall with Niles. The other men, presumably bodyguards, were going through our pockets for ID and what not. I wiped the dust out of my eyes, no easy task, to reveal a slight man sitting at a desk opposite from us.
“My name is Carlos Cruz.” He had a raspy voice and sounded older than he looked. I was certain that that wasn’t his real name.
“You are ambulance drivers, good men. I am sorry that this will happen to you.” At first, I thought that his English just wasn’t that good, that he was apologizing for us being hijacked. Then, I heard the shot and felt the bluntness of the metal and collapsed like a marathoner crossing the finish line.
The warm liquid pawing its way across the cold concrete floor towards my face woke me up. The blood surrounded my nose and when I tried to breathe, gurgled into my mouth. I rolled over, spitting, and wiped myself off with my shirt, further soiling the orange-white sleeve. I felt my vital areas for the bullet hole that I’d heard fired so distinctly, yet I came up with nothing. My hair was matted with blood, presumably caused by whatever it was that had knocked me out. I was dazed, probably concussed, and coated in dust, but other than that, fine. I looked over to my right and saw Niles. He’d seen me first, as evidenced by his lifeless gaze straight into my eyes. The shot had hit him in the temple and he was long dead. They probably only shot him because he was taller than me. He was also paler, while I looked almost Colombian. Or maybe it was because he was the one who had the keys. I can’t rationalize for the cartel.
All of a sudden, as if I was waking from a long slumber, I realized my situation. In the middle of a cartel-friendly barrio, a victim of the gangsters, anyone could come kill me and not have to worry about retribution. In fact, they’d probably be rewarded with cash or drugs or whatever. I needed a phone to call the police but they’d obviously taken our phones when they searched us. I couldn’t just go to someone’s house and ask to use their phone; the most important thing was to not be noticed. Suddenly, I heard steps outside and murmurs. I laid back down and coated myself in Niles’s blood. I closed my eyes and stayed like that until it got dark. Surprisingly, no one came into the shack to investigate. Maybe it was strict cartel turf, but we weren’t touched.
Once it got to be dark and cold and quiet, I rose and slunk out the door. Looking over my shoulder every ten seconds, I half walked, half crawled about a mile out into the desert. Once I’d distanced myself enough from the barrio, I walked another mile parallel to the road, making me a tiny speck on the horizon to anyone searching, hardly bigger than a grain of orange dust. Then, I turned and made it to the road. There weren’t too many cars driving by, but after a few minutes I managed to flag down a truck. What that man was thinking, stopping for a blood-soaked man at three-thirty in the morning is beyond me. But stop he did, and he even allowed me to use his cell phone. I assumed that they were searching for Niles and me, we’d been gone for almost sixteen hours, so when the dispatcher answered and heard that I was an EMT in the middle of the desert with a dead partner, she put me through right away.
They sent out the closest squad cars as possible, just to make sure that I was safe, but it still took about twenty minutes for the lights to illuminate the desert darkness. The cars were filled with heavily armored officers, just in case the cartel came back to finish the job. They drove me back into the neighborhood, where the headquarters had been set up. The shack was cordoned off and cops were swarming around. Someone gave me a clean shirt to wear and they tossed the old one into a sealed evidence bag. I heard screeching and saw SWAT trucks pull up behind me. This was odd. Normally SWAT is only used in a really dangerous situation where there’s a hostage or shooting is likely. That didn’t seem to be the case at this point. But they were here and an officer was strapping a Kevlar jacket around my chest and I was being pushed into the truck.
Someone in the neighborhood had tipped off a cop about where the guys from the cartel had gone, about twelve miles north of Santa Fe. They were worried that if we took too long they’d be gone and they wanted to have some kind of medical backup there for the team. Apparently, there wasn’t time to call in an ambulance and my job was just to stay back and take care of anyone who was hurt when it was all done. They also wanted me to be there and identify anyone they captured, just to be sure. It seemed extraordinarily insensitive, considering what I’d just experienced, but I was in no state to argue. Seeing your partner get shot in front of you and faking your death for half a day puts you in a very numb, non-combative state.
The SWAT trucks are built for safety and short distances, without much thought given to comfort. They are designed to stay low to the ground to decrease the possibility of them rolling over. Thus, they do not have the best suspensions. I felt every single bump of those twelve miles and by the time we arrived at the nondescript warehouse that was our destination, I started to think that the body armor I was given was actually for my ass.
The team had a very strict protocol when it came to dismounting. It was nothing like what they show in the movies, where they just jump out and smack each other on the helmets, all the while yelling out random colors and directions. No, each member had a specific role and place that they were supposed to be. There were two trucks of ten and me, which made twenty-one. The other truck arrived first and I watched the guys scramble out and take cover behind the truck or lie prone on the ground, their black uniforms providing a contrast against the orange being illuminated by the similarly colored rays of the rising sun.
Our truck pulled in with a screech and nine of the SWAT jumped out. Each of them had a different job. One guy carried the explosives, while another had a battering ram and so on. One guy stayed with me to provide protection. We hadn’t talked much, it was a pretty tense drive, but he seemed serious. No surprise there. Slowly, the two teams merged into one and began to move into offensive positions. They set explosives on the huge steel door and advanced purposefully until they had all disappeared. My guy, I’m pretty sure his name was Derek, looked around, scanning for any possible enemies or coyotes, I don’t know.
I had thought the SWAT team was all exciting, but they’re actually quite deliberate. They have to check every single room and closet as they advance to make sure that no one can hide and then sneak out. I got bored of just waiting and went back in the truck to wait. I was twiddling my thumbs like I was in the waiting room for the dentist when I heard gunshots from inside the building. I shot out of the truck but Derek just motioned for me to stay put. It must have been routine. I went back into the truck and sat down, picking at my shirt. I heard more gunshots, then one louder than the rest. I jumped up. Derek was in a heap on the ground, his legs splayed, blood slowly trickling from his temple, the same place where Niles had been shot. Standing over him was my old friend Carlos, pointing a still-smoking gun right at my forehead.
You know the expression ‘time stopped?’ That wasn’t the case here at all. Everything went at the same speed as normal. The heat waves still shimmered as they had before, blood spread at the same, agonizingly slow rate, the wind shook the cacti as it had for thousands of years before. The only difference was that there was a gun in my face. I guess that some things were different.
Just like when I had seen Niles’s body for the first time, I was paralyzed by fear, but this time I had no intention of doing anything, not even moving. Fighting back didn’t even cross my mind. The scene was becoming increasingly surreal. Everything seemed to blur together, the blackness of the truck and the redness of the blood forming a Dali-like image. I’d never taken mushrooms, but this was what I imagined it would be like. I started to feel calm, serene almost, and closed my eyes. If this was how I was going to end, I wanted to choose when I saw black.
Then it rang. She’s Like a Rainbow by The Rolling Stones, my ringtone, going off at possibly the most inopportune time. Or maybe the most opportune. But the biggest surprise wasn’t the sound, but that I still had my phone. It was in my back pocket. I guess that I had been so sure that they had taken it from me that I didn’t even bother to search. It defied logic, but I couldn’t think of any other explanation. Carlos still had the gun aimed at me, but the expression on his face had shifted from violent to quizzical.
I slowly maneuvered my hand to my pocket and undid the Velcro. I lifted the phone up to my ear and answered.
“Hey, it’s me. Where have you been? I feel like I haven’t seen you in days.” It was my girlfriend Nancy. I could see Carlos starting to get agitated again.
“Whatever. Can I pick up Indian for dinner tonight?” She knew I hated Indian, I’d told her a hundred times, but she never stopped trying.
“Sure.” At least she’d have something positive to remember me by. When they found out I died, she could say that I was such a selfless man, that even to my last moments, I thought of others.
“Really?” Why couldn’t she just take it and be done? She’d gotten what she wanted, but I should have known. This was what she always did. I said she could get her stupid pita bread or whatever and she just needs to double check. It’s almost as if she’s rubbing it in my face. Well, fuck her.
“Yeah. I have to go. Bye.”
“Wait, one more thing-”
I hung up. That was enough of that. Time to get back to the task at hand. I looked at Carlos.
Carlos just stared at me. We remained like that for a while, the wind kicking up the orange dust around his legs, drops of sweat gingerly tumbling down my face as we stood still, like cacti, waiting for something to happen.
Julian Gerson, Age 16, Grade 11, The Dalton School, Gold Key