alien by Gemma L. Rapp


Red leather shoes with pinprick flowers sprinkled across the toes—that is what I can remember. The memories aren’t real, of course. I was only two years old. Maybe I’ve merely seen old photographs or recalled my big sister’s hand-me-downs. But deep-burgundy Mary Janes are the only thing I remember about my life being knocked five thousand miles off axis. 

All I have are snippets of stories I’ve heard over the years—tales that don’t quite make sense and never address why they came. There were generic explanations that included the platitude, “To give you a better life.” But they weren’t running from any particular hardship, poverty, or persecution. And the future they gave us was nothing short of tragic. 

The earliest traumas are lost in the subconscious, and the past anxieties live just under my solar plexus, bubbling up from time to time. There is a distinct break between the knowing and the not knowing. It’s an innocence and normality I never had a chance to realize. From the moment my feet touched down on American soil, my age protected me from culpability. For a little while, it was also a shield against the truth. 

The warnings were cryptic; the consequences, loud. It was the early ’90s, when I was a sweet, shy, solidly built eight-year-old in the third grade. If you would have asked me my favorite color, I would have told you it was yellow not because of its aesthetic but because no one I knew ever chose it, and I didn’t want it to feel left out. I craved little more than hugs and I had an easy smile accompanied by twin dimples. A smile that could be wiped away as quickly as it had come. 

When my father shouted for me, I stumbled into the room, terrified. Nothing good ever came from when he called. 

“Listen, I’m not being funny now. You mustn’t tell anyone where you were born.”

I wondered why I would. 

“We aren’t supposed to be here. Your mother and I were told it would be easier to take care of everything from this end, but nothing has worked out.” 

My thumb rested in my mouth, and my free hand twirled the end of my ponytail. I was scared but also enticed by the story being laid out before me, as if I were watching a horror movie. 

He continued. “No one wants us here, and there’s nothing to go back to. I want you girls to understand that we would have nothing.” 

I felt confused, but I knew better than to ask any questions. The intensity caused bile to swell in my throat. 

“You’ve got to stay out of trouble. We’re called ‘illegal aliens,’ and they will deport us—take us away—if they find us.” His eyebrows bounced and pulled together at the bridge of his strong nose. His jaw muscle throbbed through his gaunt cheek. He was mad. 

How had I done anything wrong? Who were ‘they’? Who hated me so much? I didn’t want to go anywhere. The lecture continued, and I learned that police, teachers, and even friends were all avenues that could lead to deportation.

My father gestured to a neighbor’s house, where we played frequently. “Her, across the road. If she knew and told the wrong people, they would come for us. It happens all the time. They’d kick in the door, and we’d have only an hour to pack. They would hold us in jail, and within twenty-four hours, we’d be on a plane.” 

My kid brain had limited capacity and quickly drew up a list: be good, don’t tell, scary men are coming to get me. Later, I would find out these claims were not entirely true, but the damage had been done. 

Raids became my incubus. In my nightmares, I was a fighter. When they came for me in my dreams, I would kick, scream, and bite into the arms that would grab for me. I wanted so badly to stay, just stay. I became obsessed with the idea of home. Webs of worry wove themselves in my head, and my world collapsed into the what-ifs. 
Before sleep could envelop me, nerves would twist and pull at my stomach. Did the scary men find out today? Were they actually coming? Thus began round one of a nightly macabre game of figuring out what I would take with me. I would imagine a tiny suitcase that my mother would undoubtedly fill with practical items and leave hardly any room for the things I deemed important. While I carefully selected which stuffed animals were most loved, I would mentally fold and smash them to fit into my make-believe bag. As soon as I made the decision, I would instantly regret it and begin round two.  

Almost twenty-five years have passed since the knowing began. I open my closet to toss in the cognac boots I had slid off as I walked through the door. Shelves of shoes that survived thrift store donations sit waiting, all with love tucked inside of their soles. The shiny sandals I wore to prom. The brown wedges that stood beside my best friend on her wedding day. The blushed heels that walked across the stage to receive a degree I earned against all odds. The things that had carried me through life.

Over the years, I’ve found myself caught in many political firestorms. None have ever burned as hot as the one now. The distress once the sun sets is still strong, yet now I worry about the decisions I have made. I wonder how I will catch up to my peers and about the potential that has been wasted. Still, all I want is to be able to stay home. It’s where my memories are, where my soul is, and where I have always kicked off my shoes at the end of a long day. 

Gemma is a 30-something who resides in Washington state. She enjoys writing both short fiction and non-fiction and hopes to complete her novel some day. Previous publications include pieces found in the M Review, WOW-Women on Writing and Papers: Stories by Undocumented Youth. She is an advocate for mental health and truly believes everyone should receive the help they need and deserve. She can be reached on Facebook @