Written by Andrea Ayala

Illustrated by Austin Haynes

To reach America, a young man must face the beast

In the quiet stillness of the night, Hector lies sprawled out on the floor, on a makeshift bed of plastic. The intruding whistle of a train in the distance is slowly waking him up. It is 5 a.m.

Hector is being shaken awake by his friend.

“Get up! We have to get going!”

Hector is confused.

“The train! We’re going to miss it!”

Suddenly, Hector is as awake as ever.

“You told me we were going north by car?”

Hector looks around the barn they had made their home for the last two days; he knows it won’t be long until the family gets back and he will have nowhere else to go. He gets up.

Now he is standing in front of the train. He sees a woman attempt to jump on it. She does not hold on tightly enough and now she is dragging across the rocky ground. This is the first time Hector has seen the beast.

“You have to look for the parts of the train that bend to jump on!” his friend is screaming at him.

Hector is looking at the beast. He is thinking the worst.

When Hernán Cortés first landed on a port off of Honduras in the 1500s, many of the horses he had brought with him drowned before ever reaching land. Because of this the town was named Puerto Caballos, “Port of Horses” in Spanish. Later, residents of the town decided that it was more appropriate to name it after the man who had brought the horses instead. Then they changed the town’s name to Puerto Cortés, after the conquistador. Most residents, however, still call it Puerto Caballos.

Hector Cerrato was born in Puerto Caballos. The change in name of his town never mattered much to him, but he could see why it had been changed: because he for one would never want to be remembered as a drowned horse.

Twenty-six-year-old Hector is a thin man. His dark curls fall neatly around his long face as he sips his coffee in front of his elderly parents and negotiates his first trip away from Puerto Caballos. Ever.

Hector’s parents are sitting side by side in a tattered couch in front of him. The floor below them is cracked, and dust is permeating the room. The ceiling above them already needs another repair. Hector fixed it last week. The walls will fall next, he thinks.

His parents are afraid of La Bestia, that treacherous animal that has run off with the lives of so many of their friends and relatives. They beg their son not to leave.

Hector is very close to his parents, and it is hard to see his parents in distress, to feel their pleading stares. But he knows he has no choice. There is barely enough money for food, his mother needs medical attention, and they need a new house. He’s seen what kinds of houses his neighbors who have gone “up north” have built. Plus, and they could not fully understand, he couldn’t be himself in this country. Honduras, which has the highest murder rate in the world (91 per 100,000) is also one of the most conservative. Growing up a homosexual in his neighborhood has been very difficult for Hector. He recalls losing many friends and job opportunities because of his sexuality. Now that he’s older, it’s becoming dangerous.

He needs this escape. He has to go. Hector promises that he’ll never meet the beast. His mother blesses him with a cross.

In its devilish way, the beast is rocking everybody to sleep: its riders are clinging on desperately, hoping not to fall. Fear is keeping Hector wide awake.

In its devilish way, the beast is rocking everybody to sleep: its riders are clinging desperately to its back, hoping not to fall. But the fear is keeping Hector wide awake.

A young woman whom Hector had briefly spoken to has succumbed to the beast’s deceitful lullaby and finally let go; she is falling in between two railroad cars. Her body splits in two right next to Hector. She told Hector that she was going to Mexico to see her family. Her friends look on in frustration. No funeral will be held for her. Not even a burial. Perhaps the jungle animals will feast on her remains. But the beast doesn’t notice, only snarls. It is pushing on.

The beast stops abruptly. There are gunshots in the air. It’s the Mexican police.

Hector jumps off the safest bend of the train and runs. There are thick bushes and branches; he can barely see his friends in the darkness of the night.

Then: a drop.

He has fallen into a ditch - a common police trick.

Exhausted from running for hours, Hector gives up.

A friend, spotting Hector as he runs, stops.

“Hurry, get out!”

Hector, in tears, tells him that he has no energy left.

His friend responds, “You know this is not where you’re going to stay. You already know you’re coming with me.” He pulls Hector out and they keep on running. They’re looking for the beast.

By now the beast is getting ready to make its escape again. Spotting it, Hector runs quickly behind it, his feet in the air. He doesn’t know where he’s gotten the energy from. By a few seconds, he is able to latch onto the very last leg of the beast, which he shares with two other friends. They are standing up. There is no room to make it to the beast’s spine.

In between dreams, Hector looks out at the jungle. It’s beautiful.

Finally, hunger is taking over the beast riders. Then, like an angelic vision: a piece of fruit from the sky.

People are facing the beast, as if in an attempt to tame it. They are throwing food and blankets to the top of the train. Hector and the rest wave thankfully, “God bless you.”

In a resting point in Mexico City, an elderly woman invites Hector and his friends to stay in her home. The woman, María, provides food and a place to sleep. She opens up her family to Hector. “God has blessed me, it’s time to give back.”

She even lets him make a phone call home. Not knowing whether he will see his mother again, Hector assures her that the car ride has gone just as expected and that they will be up north soon. He doesn’t mention the beast.

María has taken a liking to Hector, who cooks traditional Honduran meals and cleans for her.

“You are like a son,” she says to him. On his last day there, the woman begs Hector not to go back to the beast. “You can live here,” she says. Hector is grateful, but when he went on the beast he did it to make it all the way north. His mother, who is about the woman’s age, needs a home. He has to go back to the beast.

After weeks, they have made it: The U.S.-Mexico border.

It is finally time to leave the beast. Hector jumps off and looks back at it for the last time. The creature that has been his home for so long now whizzes past him without looking back. Always without looking back. Thousands more will ride the beast’s back, but few will make it to where he’s made it alive.

Hector thinks about this as he walks with the rest.

The “coyote” glares at Hector with an animalistic glint in his eyes. He is waiting with the rest of the pack, waiting for a beast rider to bite. He is looking at Hector.

“I have a half-brother up north.”

“Does he have money?”

Hector calls his brother, whom he hasn’t spoken to since he was 10 years old. His brother agrees to pay the bill and the coyote nods. “Come with me.”

The “dog” has herded a small group of people - women, children, a few men and Hector - who are ready to cross. The dog hands each person one McDonald’s hamburger and a gallon of water. “It is up to you to ration it out.” In Guatemala, all Hector ate was rice and beans. In Mexico it was beans and tortillas. Now, it was the McDonald’s hamburger - quick, made to look good, and a fake welcome to America. Even years later, the smell of that McDonald’s hamburger disgusts him.

“We will fit you all, but if the cops come, we will jump out of the car. If you can make it out, you will live.”

The dog leads the group through the desert. Hours later, the heat has become too much for the women. A woman passes out in the rubble. “Either you stay here, or you keep going,” the dog barks at her body. Hector and another man pick up the woman, tie her around their waists and carry her, following the dog.

In a break by the shade, the dog takes one of the women behind a tree and has his way with her. Hector is looking down at his hands in fury.

They have made it.

The dog’s friend comes rolling by in a van.

“We will fit you all, but if the cops come, we will jump out of the car. If you can make it out, you will live.”

The car ride is quiet, and after a long ride in the desert they have made it. They are at a gas station when the dog gives Hector a few coins to call his brother. Hours later, his brother arrives. Hector cries tears of joy at seeing him after so many years.

Years later, memories of the beast, the dog, and the hunger, have scarred but not stalled Hector. He is able to find a steady job. He finds solace in his ability to have a routine, to feel of use, and to finally help his family. Now he has finally saved enough to buy a house.