Excerpt from The Boy Who Said No: An Escape to Freedom
(This excerpt appears about two-thirds into the book. Cuni has been involved in helping Frank escape.)
The night was dark with gathering storm clouds. I studied the sky for a moment, a little concerned with what I saw. I got out of the car and shut the door quietly. As soon as I saw Cuni, he lifted his eyebrows slightly and turned his back on me. I wasn’t alarmed. I knew what he was doing. He whistled softly as a signal for me to follow him. I walked behind him casually, making sure to keep a safe distance.
We walked about a block and a half to an old, run-down bar. A small wooden sign declaring its name dangled from a rusted pipe. It rattled against the brisk wind. Rawness seeped into the air, and a chill whipped my shoulders. There were very few patrons, only three old men smoking cigarettes and sipping beers and a young man drinking jiggers of rum. Cuni nodded for me to follow him through a side door that led to the basement.
We walked down a narrow staircase with cracked plaster walls and holes in the ceiling. Mouse droppings covered an uneven mud floor, and a bare light bulb cast an eerie glow on two boys. Cuni introduced them to me as Joey and Pedro Lopez. Joey was thirteen and Pedro was fifteen, although Joey was bigger and looked slightly older than his brother.
We shook hands, and Cuni made a small joke about us “all being in the same boat.” I wondered what they were doing there before I realized that these frightened boys were to be my traveling companions.
Cuni told me their father had owned the candy factory in Cojimar that Fidel had seized several years before. I remembered Abuelo buying me candy from there when I was a child. It was always a special treat. Once a large and successful business, the building that housed it lay abandoned, its equipment stolen, its windows shattered. Pigeons perched on its windowsills, its sole inhabitants.
After talking for a few minutes, Cuni took us outside to the edge of the water. There was no beach, only sharp ragged rocks that jutted at dangerous angles like giant slabs of Arctic ice, rocks that could slice your feet or cause you to break a leg or to sprain an ankle. It would have been difficult enough to navigate them during the day, but at night it would be an exercise in balance and agility. I hoped the boys were careful enough to make it safely over this rough terrain.
I assumed this was our place of departure, and a boat would be along soon to pick us up. Cuni pointed to a light bobbing on the horizon. It looked like a beacon or lantern of some kind, but I wasn’t sure. Although I didn’t have any equipment with me to measure distance, I reckoned it to be about a mile out.
“Do you see the light in that fishing boat?”
“Yes,” I said, glad that Cuni had told me what it was.
“That boat will take you to a larger one, which will take you into international waters.”
I nodded my understanding. “How long before it comes to pick us up?” I was hoping it would arrive shortly. I was cold and apprehensive and wanted to get started as soon as possible.
“The boat can’t come in here. It’s too rocky,” explained Cuni. “The fisherman doesn’t want to chance wrecking his boat.”
“How do we get to it then?”
“You’ll have to swim.”
“All of us?”
“All of you. I remember you said you were a strong swimmer.”
“I am,” I said, feeling suddenly apprehensive. “But what about the kids?”
“Their father says they can swim. I take him at his word.”
My eyes widened. I looked at the boys in alarm, unsure of what to do. They didn’t look very strong, and I doubted they could make it.
I leaned down to talk to them. “Do you think you can swim that far?” They both nodded yes. The younger boy seemed more certain than his brother. I just shook my head. “You can back out if you want. There’s no shame in it.”
“No, we want to go,” insisted Pedro. He hesitated a moment. “We promised our father.”
“And you, Joey?”
“I go wherever Pedro goes,” he said matter-of-factly. The boys looked at me expectantly. I was surprised at myself for feeling so paternal. They were very charming kids. I was thinking of my own brothers and how they would react in such a situation.
“Okay. You’ll need to swim quietly. No talking or splashing around. You hear?”
The boys nodded. I took off my shoes and instructed the boys to do likewise. They looked very somber. We walked carefully over the rocks and lowered ourselves slowly into the water. It was bracingly cold, and a shiver ran through my body. I looked back to see how the boys were faring. Pedro was up to his waist in the coal-black water, and Joey was close behind him.
I started doing the breaststroke as quietly as I could, and the boys followed suit. We had not removed our clothes, and they weighed heavily upon our bodies. I heard the steady strokes of the boys, and was heartened that they seemed to be good swimmers. Still, the boat was a long way out to sea. About halfway there, the wind picked up and the waves started splashing our faces. I kept a close watch on the boys. None of us said a word. We needed to conserve our energy.
Every so often I heard one of the boys cough. It was a sharp, rasping sound that quickly disappeared into the night air. The sea was choppy and the boys were having difficulty keeping their heads above water. I was trying not to think what would happen if one of them got into trouble.
The boat was getting closer, and I hoped Joey and Pedro would be able to make it. Pedro was struggling and I called to him to keep going. He looked like he could use some encouragement. The fisherman held up a lantern to help us see where to go in the darkness.
Suddenly, a large wave caught us off guard and smacked us all square in the face. Joey and I were able to handle it, but Pedro swallowed a mouthful of water. He cried out in fear. He was losing control, flailing his arms, and splashing helplessly against the white-capped waves.
“Hold on, Pedro. I’m coming,” I screamed.
I swam as fast as I could toward Pedro, fighting the turbulent sea. I grabbed him by the hair and wrapped my arm around his chest, doing the sidestroke while I pulled him along. He was choking and sputtering, but luckily he didn’t fight me, a common reaction of a person who’s drowning.
I could barely see Joey in the darkness. He looked afraid. I wiped some water from my eyes. “Tread water for as long as you can,” I hollered. “I’ll come get you soon.”
“I’m okay,” he said. He appeared stronger than I would’ve expected. “Just take care of Pedro.” His voice was thin and tinny and was soon swallowed by the wind.
I swam away slowly, dragging Pedro along with me. I was fighting the waves every stroke of the way. The water was getting rougher, slapping my face and forcing its way up my nose. I worked to blow the water out of my nostrils without using my hands. My calf suddenly cramped, and I fought hard against the pain.
When we got to the boat the fisherman helped pull Pedro out of the water. Pedro moaned, and his legs thumped heavily against the bottom of the boat. He scrambled to right his body. A moment later I heard the pitiful sound of retching. The fisherman held his hand on Pedro’s back to comfort him, while I hung on to the side of the boat for a minute, kneading the muscles in my right leg and catching my breath before swimming back for Joey. I just hoped the wind hadn’t made the water too choppy for me to save him.
I pushed off from the boat with my feet and swam toward the boy who was struggling to stay afloat. “Hurry,” screamed Joey. His voice was ragged and he looked like he had not an ounce of energy left.
“I’m coming,” I said. “Just don’t fight me when I get to you.”
I grabbed Joey around his chest—the way I had his brother. White foam capped the black water. I inched Joey toward the boat. The fisherman had started his small outboard motor and was heading our way. Within a few minutes he was alongside us.
He took the motor out of gear and idled it before lifting Joey out of the water. Pedro helped pull his brother aboard and I waited, holding onto the rail of the boat, exhausted. I lifted my one leg over the side of the boat and pulled myself in. My clothes clung to my body and water ran in rivulets down my hands and feet. My arms and legs ached and my head was pounding. I worked to catch my breath.
The fisherman immediately blew out the lantern, and we sat in silence for a minute, trying to regain our composure. The boys had wrapped their arms around themselves. Their bodies were shaking and their teeth were chattering from cold and fright. The wind whistled and blew a cold drizzle around us. Pedro and Joey huddled close together for warmth. They looked to me for solace, but I had little energy left to give them.
“It’s going to be okay,” I said. “You were both very brave.”
Joey and Pedro glanced up at me and nodded. Joey was blinking, his eyes wide with fright. There was no reason to smile.
The boat was only thirteen feet long, and it took water over its sides with every crashing wave. I looked around, found a pail, and started to bail. Joey stood shakily, grabbed an old rusted coffee can and began bailing beside me. I was very glad for his help.
Without saying a word, the fisherman steered the boat away from land. It slapped against the waves and pitched against the wind, its motor lurching and struggling to keep going. We fought the wind for more than two hours, bailing, battling the waves, and inching our way toward the Straits of Florida.
The boat we met was not much bigger than the one we were on—only twenty-feet long. We made the transfer successfully, and the smaller boat headed back to Cuba. We listened to the hum of its motor as it disappeared into the distance. The wind finally consumed its drone. The evaporation of the sound into the night was eerie.
The boys and I were freezing, and I was afraid we were all suffering from hypothermia. We sat shivering and looking up at lightning, which zigzagged across the moonless sky, revealing fast-moving clouds. The wind had picked up velocity. Thunder boomed its arrival like a large kettledrum. I knew rain would soon follow.
Our clothes were sopping wet, and I wasn’t sure whether we’d be better off with or without them. Pedro’s lips were turning blue. Joey looked terrified. Suddenly, the captain, a big man nicknamed Macho, cut off the motor. We sat in silence, listening to the waves whipping the sides of the boat. We were all only one large wave away from death.
“Why are you stopping?” I asked.
“I’m waiting for the patrol boats to cross.”
At least Macho sounded like he knew what he was doing.
I looked to the horizon and saw the patrol boats in the distance. I remembered Ralph cautioning me that this would be the most dangerous part of the journey. I sucked in my breath in apprehension. I could see a large ship farther out, but it looked very difficult to get to. It was my ticket to Magda, and I longed for its safety and shelter.
Suddenly, the skies opened up and pelted our faces with a stinging rain. The rain came sideways like crystal needles, pounding our shoulders and rocking the boat back and forth. I was afraid we were about to turn over. Joey began to cry and Pedro admonished him to be quiet. Joey bit his lip and stopped sobbing.
I was amazed at his bravery. Macho struggled with the steering wheel, trying to turn the boat around. The motor was straining and Pedro and Joey clung to each other like Siamese twins, looking forlorn and helpless.
The waves knocked us from side to side and, for a moment, the motor sputtered. Another wave hit us, and Joey was thrown to the side of the boat. He had lost his balance and was about to go over. I lunged for him, grabbed him by the back of his shirt and steadied him until he regained his footing. I turned around and looked at Macho.
“What are you doing?” I screamed.
Macho hollered back against the howling wind. “We’ll never make it. The storm is too bad. I’m taking us back.”
I quickly assessed the situation and knew he was right. The patrol boats crisscrossed every half hour, and we could never make it into international waters in time. We would surely be apprehended. There was no time for escape and no time to wallow in disappointment.
Macho worked to keep the boat from capsizing, while I tried to comfort the boys. I was praying the motor would hold. Otherwise, we would be all lost at sea. The wind whipped the waves to new heights, and they blasted the sides of the boat with such force I feared the wood would crack. The howl of the wind bellowed in fits like a wounded animal caught in a trap.
We clawed our way through the choppy seas for two hours before we spotted the lights of Cojimar. The water calmed considerably and the rain slacked off as we approached the port. We were headed for the coast guard station where the boat would be inspected for escapees like us. Joey and Pedro exchanged frightened looks. They obviously knew the danger we faced.
“You’ll all have to hide,” hollered Macho.
“I know. Where?”
“Put the boys on the side of the boat under the ropes.”
Pedro and Joey scrambled to hide where they were told. They were as quiet as
cats stalking mice.
“You,” said Macho, looking directly at me. “Get under here and don’t make
He pointed to a compartment on the floor, directly under the steering
wheel. I bent down to enter the cramped and foul-smelling space. I wiggled my body to find a comfortable position, but it was no use. I just wanted to be able to curl up without pain. I managed to get into a position where my legs were turned to the side. I was facing upward.
Slits in the floorboards enabled me to see the yellow light from the inspector’s flashlight as he walked back and forth on the deck of the boat, checking for fish and anything else he might find. Macho was doing his best to distract him by talking. Another guard stood on the dock, overseeing the inspection.
“So how’s your family?” asked Macho. I was impressed with his feigned
“Don’t worry about them,” said the inspector. “I want to know how many tunas
you brought me.”
“None this time,” said Macho with a sigh. He chuckled. “Hell, I brought you a
bunch of fish the last time I went out. I must’ve given you enough for a week.”
“Well, a man has to eat,” said the inspector.
“Sorry, it was terrible out there,” said Macho. “I couldn’t even fish for the waves
and the rain.”
“Is that so?” said the guard. “It wasn’t bad here.”
“Take my word for it. It was like a hurricane. Thunder, lightning, the works.”
I could hear the guard walking back and forth as he shot the breeze with
Macho. The hold was full of gasoline, kerosene, and tar that clung to my clothes, my skin and my hair. The fumes were making my eyes water. I was hoping against hope I wouldn’t sneeze. If I did, it would be death—for all of us.
“I’ll tell you what,” said Macho. “I’ll bring you twice the number of tunas next time I’m out. How’s that?”
“All right,” grumbled the guard. “Just make sure I’m on duty when you come in.” He shook hands with Macho and climbed out of the boat to open the way for us to pass.
When we pulled into the dock, Macho took his time cleaning the boat and putting things away, while I remained hidden in the hold. I didn’t know whether he didn’t want to appear to be in a hurry or whether he was waiting for prying eyes to depart. After forty-five minutes, he opened the hatch to let me out. I was covered from head to toe in vile odors and substances. I feared I’d never be able to remove them.
The boys and I walked back to the bar and Macho arranged for the boys’ father to come and pick them up. I found a blanket in the basement and threw it over their shoulders to keep them warm. Pedro was shaking violently, and Joey’s eyes were full of fright. He stood and gave me a hug. I tried to comfort him as well as I could.
The boys’ father arrived to get them. His face was ashen as he scooped them into his arms, telling them that everything was going to be okay. Señor Lopez nodded to me briefly before he left, obviously more concerned about his sons’ welfare than in talking with us. I watched in sympathy as he led his boys down the path.
I was wondering what I would do next when Macho turned to me and said, “You can come back to my house with me for the night. I don’t live far—just up the hill.” It was about three in the morning, and I was glad to have a place nearby to stay.
We walked through the rain to his small cinder-block house that butted up against the street. Three steps lead up to the doorway. It was dank and dark inside, and I could hear the muffled sounds of children sleeping. A light rain pattered the windows and palm fronds lightly whipped the side of the house. I removed my wet clothes, and Macho switched on the light and opened the door to the bathroom. It was small and dimly lit. A rubber duck sat on the ledge of the tub.