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Irene

Irene jumped off the van and waved goodbye to the driver. She walked over the cobblestones that led away from the stop up the road to Luca’s home. The cool air stung her cheeks, and she pulled her wool sweater tightly around her as large drops pelted her head. She looked for the sun hiding between the oyamel and the gray skies. Soon the rainy season would end, bringing frosty mornings and cold blue skies. Montezuma pine and the bright yellow flowers of the gordolobo bushes lined the road to the house as she rushed through the rain.

Maybe one day she would live in a place like this, away from the noise and pollution, and someone would come from town to clean it. She smiled. A social worker would never be able to afford a house like this, but it didn’t matter as long as she had enough and could help people.

A bright red car came bumping down the dirt road. It was her patron. She snickered. Who buys a low sports car and then lives in the forest on a dirt road? But rich people were a mystery to her, this foreigner even more.

The car window buzzed as it slid down, and Luca poked his head out. “Buenos días! Let me give you a lift to the house.”

Irene jumped into the car, glad to be out of the rain, and they quietly rode to his house. She was surprised when he parked the car and came in behind her.

“Are you going to work?”

“I am. I’m going to make some coffee first.”

Irene pulled off the sheets from the bed and loaded them in the washer while Luca was in the kitchen. As she made the bed with clean sheets, Luca walked in and gave her a mug. “Drink this, it’ll warm you up.”

Irene savored the sweet coffee with milk while he watched her jingling his keys. “I’m off to work then. I left your money on the counter.”

Irene went to the kitchen to wash her empty mug. As she washed dishes, the walls shifted and moved. She grabbed the sink; a glass shattered on the stone floor. She turned to get a broom when everything went black.


Irene opened her eyes into the darkness of her blindfold. She tried swallowing, but the oily gag pinned her tongue and dried her mouth. The cords that bound her legs and hands to a chair cut through her skin when she struggled. Where was she? She remembered leaving home for work and then nothing. She should have hugged Mami before leaving! What time was it? It felt late; her mother would be worried. Gasoline, cedar, and humidity surrounded her. She shivered in the cold. A muffled alarm rang through her body, and fear fell over her like ice-cold rain.

Behind her, a door opened. She jerked her head toward the sound. “Help me!” The gag transmuted her cries into muffled grunts. Metal scraped against metal. Someone panted excitedly. “Who’s there?” she tried to say. A rough hand grabbed her throat, squeezing a yelp out of her. It was rough, like latex. She struggled against her bonds as warmth spread from the crotch of her jeans down her thighs. This couldn’t be happening to her.

She tilted her head toward the warm breath scented with garlic. She tried screaming into the cloth, “Please don’t hurt me! I don’t want to die! Please.”

“Be still!”

That voice! It was Luca; she recognized his accent. How could he do this to her? Maybe it was a prank? He knew her! She struggled and shook her head as a fire burned her chest. She was too young! She still had two years to finish her bachelor’s in social work; she had to submit homework tomorrow. This couldn’t be happening to her. What would her mother think? Valeria? She plunged into a timeless pit of pain and terror, falling into a black hole.

Blinding light pierced the darkness of the dusty room with old tires leaning against its walls. A door at the end, partially opened and framed in light, let in the rays that had awoken her. She blinked, no longer blindfolded. Her hands and feet were free. She rose slowly as a female voice beckoned from the light on the other side of the door, “Irene! You’re safe now. Leave this room. You’re free.”

Irene hesitated. Was that her grandmother? That can’t be! She glanced at the floor, the bloodied knives, the torn clothes saturated in crimson, a rivulet of blood snaking from a puddle to drain in the corner. A familiar girl was tied to a chair. Before recognizing herself, she flew out of the room and dissolved into white light.




Luca


Luca smiled and nodded as he listened to his dean drone on and on. He hadn’t heard from Julia, and a nagging voice told him he should worry. Luca caught the dean glancing at the hospital room’s clock,. “You should go home to get some dinner and see your family.”

“Oh, I don’t want to leave you alone, and I just had one of the pastes.” He nodded towards the table, on which sat a brown bag full of pastries filled with meat, potato, and chiles, a gift from a student. Luca smiled when he thought about how the student had made her crush on him obvious and whether he could convince her to meet secretly; women were so trusting…

“...eat them.”

“What?” asked Luca, turning his attention to the dean.

“I said, I’m sorry you can’t eat them.”

Julia opened the door as the dean rose from the green vinyl chair; her cheeks flushed from running through the parking lot. Luca sighed in relief, then noticed her worn look and the shock in her eyes; it was a look that excited him when he invariably saw it in his victims. It was the emotional crescendo he worked toward as he tortured. She’s worried about me! The wounded ones were always the easiest, he thought, as he opened his left arm, the healthy one, to her.

“Julia, my love, you’re here! I’ve been worried about you, driving that dangerous highway just for my vanity. Come here!”

He gestured for her to approach him. He ignored the pain in his leg as he smiled, trying to look upbeat. Now that she was here, he could ask for more pain medicine. “What took you so long?”

Julia dropped her purse and his bag on the visitor’s couch and nodded at the dean. “Sorry, Luca, it is storming out there, and you live in a place with no cellphone signal. The power and landlines were out. I kept answering your calls, but we got cut off.

Luca nodded. Wherever he lived, he would find a house in a remote area. Women hated it, especially if they had children because there weren’t any private schools. It kept them from moving in and provided privacy.

`“How are you?” She kissed him on the cheek and stood by his bed.

“Better now that you’re here, although I’ve had excellent company.” He smiled at the dean. “I’ve had visitors from the university all afternoon, a couple of students too. They even have me doing paperwork with my left hand!” Luca winced as he sat up and a bolt of pain shot up his thigh. Julia fluffed up the pillows behind him.

The dean stood at the door. “I am off now that you’re here. Will you be going home when you leave the hospital?”

Luca held up his bandaged hand and tried to look pitiful. He was going to need Julia for the next few months. Once he was healthy, he’d get someone else. He’d move to another city in a year and find another lonely woman, but now he needed her.

“I can’t walk, and I can’t use crutches because of my wrist.”

Julia stood behind his bed and he couldn't see her face.

“Don’t worry. I took care of it. I am taking you to your home, and Señora Victoria and her daughter will care for you. They are moving your bedroom to the living room, so you don’t have to deal with stairs.

Luca relaxed as relief swept over him. He’d be able to rest and heal in his home. Now, he needed something for the unbearable pain that had seized his body.

The Dean frowned. “It’s too isolated and quiet out there; you won’t have any visitors.”

“Exactly what he needs to heal! No visitors the first month!”

Luca’s thigh throbbed. He turned to Julia. “Could you please call the nurse? I need some pain medication.”

Julia nodded. She stared at the Dean. “ He’s going to have a lot of PT. Then maybe a trip home to Italy?”

Lucas wiped the sweat from his brow with his good hand. A dull pounding started in his pelvis, but he managed a half smile. Paid medical leave, women caring for him, and privacy to write; the accident was a blessing. But he needed his meds.

Luca waved to the dean as he closed the door behind him. The daggers dug into his wrist, and a burning rod pulsated in his thigh. He turned to Julia. “Please, the nurse.”

Nausea overcame him as Julia tucked the sheet around him. Why was she taking so long to get the pain meds? His heart raced, and he gasped. “Call the nurse now!”

Julia glared at him. He blinked twice. Searing pain flared the nerves deep in his marrow, messing with his imagination. Julia leaned over, and her breath tickled his ear. “ “Don’t worry; soon, you’ll be home, and we will ensure you get all you deserve.”


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Valeria


After Irene’s disappearance, Valeria walked a different street every day back from her high school, posting Irene’s photo on walls and light poles until she spotted one that said: Ni una menos! Not one less. Join us for a march against femicide in Mexico City. She took out her phone and took a photo, ensuring she had a close-up that included the email address.

The next evening, she walked into an Arts Cafe in downtown Pachuca. Bright lights and colors made the cafe cozy despite the old, colonial building's stone walls and high ceilings. Women of all ages conversed, sipped coffee, and nibbled on cookies.

“Hola!” greeted a pretty girl with purple hair. She smiled and offered her a clipboard to sign in. “Write your email if you want to be on our list.”

Valeria filled out the sheet when a piercing whistle almost made her drop the pen. The room grew silent, and a woman jumped on a chair.

“Thank you all for being here. We didn’t expect so many, and we’re thrilled to have you show up today. You will meet the committee members when we break into small groups, but first, let’s have a moment of silence for all the women who have been victims of femicide.”

Valeria bowed her head. Maybe she should leave. Irene wasn’t dead, just missing.

“And another minute for las desaparecidas.”

The words hit Valeria like a truck. Her lungs emptied in a whoosh, and the room spun. She leaned into the wall, willing herself to calm down. Irene was one of them. She had disappeared too.

“We will be breaking up into work groups to prepare for our march to Mexico City. As you plan, keep our purpose in mind: To bring awareness about femicide to our community. The world must know that ten women are killed in Mexico daily. Around the world, fifty thousand were killed by an intimate partner or family member last year.”

Tears blurred her vision as Valeria searched for the exit. She dashed outside and breathed in the cool air. Someone touched her on the shoulder. She turned to see the girl who had greeted her. She was breathless, her plump cheeks red from running.

“What?”

“I’ve seen you in school. I’m Ana.” She held out her hand.

Valeria peered closely at her face. There was something familiar about her. Suddenly, an image on the web about a mother murdered by her husband popped into her mind. “You’re the one—

“Yeah. I’m the famous one.” She made air quotes over the word famous. “My father murdered my mother. I’m sorry about your sister.”

Valeria looked away and bit her lip. “We’re going to find her. She’s just missing.”

“I know you will! You don’t have to do it alone.”

“Irene isn’t dead!” Valeria hurried away, but Ana followed.

“Did the police help you? We are also fighting to make them accountable.”

Valeria stopped, paused, then turned around. “Do you do anything besides protest?”

“Like what?”

Valeria shrugged. “I don’t know! Maybe try to change the fucked up system?”

Ana sighed. Her eyes shone under the street lights.

It was unfair of Valeria to expect anyone to change the system. “How about providing safe rides to women who work late in Huasca and El Chico?”

Ana smiled. “See? We need someone like you. Join us.”

“But--

“Alone we are powerless but together…” Ana pointed at the cafe.

“What if I find my sister?”

“We need all of us.”

Valeria returned her gaze. They may not accomplish anything but Ana was right; at least she wouldn’t be alone. Her few friends were busy with their lives, and her mother refused to speak about gender violence.

Ana held out her hand, and Valeria took it. Together they went back into the café, where Valeria joined a sign painting committee and listened to stories about femicide and police impunity. When she got home, she shaved her head and told her mother she wouldn’t grow her hair back until they found her sister.

Valeria used her anger to fuel her activism. She spoke about femicide and gender violence at every opportunity, in school papers, during recess, and on any occasion. Her detailed descriptions of violence drove people away until she found unsuspecting persons on the bus or on the volleyball court and launched into her speech. At home, she hounded her mother, reciting stats and numbers of women dead and missing in Mexico and worldwide and how it was worse for trans women. She thrived on energy, but there was a pain in her left side, below her heart, that wouldn’t go away. As if her unexperienced grief had morphed into a malignant oily mass clinging to her left ribs.


Valeria now drove through downtown Pachuca’s maze toward the city's edge. They started up the sierra in the afternoon storm, leaving the agaves and nopales for steep boulders surrounded by Montezuma and oyamel pines. The old, narrow road to El Mineral del Chico hugged the rocky mountain, with steep drops to the rocks below. It was a dangerous drive, known for deadly accidents, but it was faster than crossing town to get to the new highway. She wiped her sweaty palms on her torn jeans, her hands shaking. She wasn’t used to driving in the rain either. She glanced at her mother. Why was she so quiet?

Her mother was a strong woman, overcoming extreme poverty, a life of hard work, and losing her husband to cancer, but Irene’s disappearance changed her. Valeria gripped harder to keep her hand from shaking. It changed all of them. It was like discovering a black hole in your closet that attracted and destroyed everyone. And no one cared! If it weren’t for her mother and the people of the center, she would have no faith left in humanity. Irene was dead; they all knew it but pretended because it was easier than having to accept that there was nothing they could do.

Valeria pushed the memories away and concentrated on driving, slowly taking the curves. Don’t look down; look ahead, she thought as she avoided the steep drops down the rocky mountainside.

“We are almost at the turn. It’s the road before the town.”

The rain turned into a drizzle. Hotel and restaurant billboards lined the road nailed to the white pines. A waterfall poured down the mountain on one side of the road, engorged by the recent rains. Victoria gasped and pointed to a sign. It was a photo of Irene from school. Her dark hair fell over her navy sweater and the white collar contrasted against her brown skin. She smiled shyly.

“What did it say?”

Victoria turned around, looking at the sign. “It said the town wants her back alive—

Her voice cracked, and Valeria looked ahead. She swallowed, blinking the tears back. They stared at the road in silence.

Victoria pointed. “Turn here.”

Valeria turned into a wooded dirt road that snaked past ejidos, common land. Disgust filled her mouth. Luca, a foreigner, had probably bought the land illegally. The house loomed behind a grove of pine trees. She’d never met him, but she hated him. She parked between Julia’s car and a sedan she did not recognize. The front door of the cabin-style home hung open, and screams rang out. Was that Irene? Was she being attacked? Fire surged through Valeria, and she dashed into the house.

A man bent over the large staircase, dragging a woman by the foot. She was trying to twist away from him, clawing the stairs. Cold disappointment flooded Valeria when she saw the blond hair. Stupid to think it was Irene!

Victoria came up behind her and raised the metal cane she used to lock the car’s steering wheel, bringing it down with a thump on the man’s upper back. He fell, and when he tried to get up, Valeria jumped on him. He bucked underneath her; she couldn’t hold on for long.

“Watch out! He has a gun!” said Victoria as she landed a blow on the back of his head. He went limp, and Julia crawled from under him, sobbing hysterically. Valeria flipped the man over. It was the chief of police that had helped look for Irene.

Julia scrambled partway up the stairs like a crab.

Valeria stared at her mother. Who was this angry monster? “What the fuck?”

Victoria dropped the cane and looked at Julia. “Tell me! Where’s my niña? Did he do anything to Irene?”

But Julia was hyperventilating and pointing at Norberto. Victoria kneeled in front of her and held her shoulders. “Tell me! He can’t hurt you anymore. Tell me.” She waited, then began to shake her, yelling. “Tell me!”

“Mami, stop!”

Victoria looked up sharply, still holding Julia’s shoulders. There was something different in her eyes. Valeria shuddered.

“Stop, Mami; she can’t speak. Let her catch her breath. What is going on?” Valeria stood up and surveyed the stairway. She tucked her shaking hands under her armpits to avoid joining Julia’s hysterics. Her mother had just killed a man! Maybe this was a nightmare; she would wake up with Irene in the bed next to her. She squeezed her eyes three times and shook her head.

Valeria helped Julia up. She swayed and dug her fingers into Valeria’s arm. Her lip was swollen and bloody. “Make sure he’s dead! He tried to kill me!”

“He’s dead, I swear.” Valeria put an arm around Julia’s shoulder. The center’s training on how to help victims of trauma came flooding back. She took deep breaths. “You're safe now. Tell us what happened.”

“He knew! He knew Luca killed Irene and made a video. He was going to kill me too.”

“Luca killed Irene?” Something released inside of her. Like a river’s raging waters unleashed all at once, relief at finally knowing what happened to Irene and a wave of intense pain washed over her. She glared at Julia to avoid looking at her mother.

Julia nodded. She shook, still huffing.

Victoria stood up. Expressionless. Her face was cold; as if she already knew. “Show me the video.”

“I don’t think you should see it. It is horrific and—”

“Show me!” bellowed Victoria.

Valeria got in between them. “Mami, please, you don’t have to see that. It will scar you—

But Victoria walked around her and went up to the main bedroom, and Valeria and Julia followed. Julia pointed to the tablet on the unmade bed and sat in an armchair. Valeria picked it up, but her knees couldn’t hold her up. She collapsed on the floor at her mother’s feet.

Victoria sat on the floor next to her and took the device. “Show me how to watch it, then make us some tea. I don’t want you to see this.”

“Mami, I have seen so many tortured and murdered bodies since I joined the advocacy group. You shouldn’t watch it.”

“I brought her into the world; I have a right to see how she left it. You may have seen many murdered women, but you don’t want the last memory of your sister to be this. This is the only way I can be—

Her voice cracked, but Victoria’s face didn’t change, as if she was wearing a stone mask. “I wasn’t with her when she was suffering and dying; I will be with her now. Make us some tea. Señora Julia, go clean yourself up.”

Valeria left to make tea. She was two people, one that boiled water and searched for chamomile while caring for her mother; another howling in anger and pain as images of Irene flashed on and off. “I’m so sorry, Irene. I love you. I hope you didn’t suffer too much.” Oh my God! How would they go on?

She brought the tea to her mother. Victoria was staring ahead; a void had swallowed her light, leaving her an empty shell. They looked at the tablet on the bed like a poisonous snake.

Victoria cleared her throat. “Can you check to see if there are more videos?”

Valeria nodded, picked up the tablet, and clicked on the video folder. There were three more. She fast-forwarded through them but still saw enough to make her gag. Norberto, Luca, and two other men she didn’t know had tortured at least three other women. “There is a folder here with three more videos. All of them have a man or men torturing and killing women.”

Julia walked out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel. “Can someone get me my yoga bag from my car so I can change?”

When Valeria returned, her mother and Julia stood with the king-sized bed between them. Flushed and glaring at each other.

“We need to call the police, and your mother refuses!”

Victoria put her hands on her hips. “No police.”

Valeria handed her the bag. “I agree.”

“But we can’t let Luca get away with it, and you killed the chief of police! We can call the Federales or Mexico City police.”

Valeria glared at her, not caring anymore that Julia was also a victim. “How do you know they aren’t in it too? Do you want to see the other videos? There are at least two more men involved.”

Valeria picked up the tablet and offered it to Julia, who backed away with her hands in front of her.

“I saw them!”

Victoria took the tablet and shoved it into her hands as Julia pressed her back against the bathroom door. “How much did you know? Did you know he was doing this?”

“Of course not! How can you even say that? Norberto was going to kill me too!”

“Did you suspect anything?”

“No! We just met in August when classes started. We only saw each other when the kids were with their father.”

Valeria’s mind was whirling. “So nobody knows who he is or where he came from?”

“I guess. He moved here from Italy less than a year ago.”

“Does he have any family in Mexico or close friends?”

“I don’t think so. Norberto was the only one and many acquaintances from the university.”

Valeria walked to the window and looked over the craggy, steep hillsides blanketed in dark green pines with monstrous boulders peaking among them like islands in a roiling black-green ocean. Femicide was rampant in Mexico, the home being the most dangerous place for women. But Irene’s murderers were serial killers. Maybe they could stop them with the help of the center?

Victoria sat on the bed and rubbed her face with her hands. “Did you recognize the place where he was torturing Irene?”

Julia, now free, took out black yoga pants and moved into the bathroom, leaving the door open. “I think it’s in the detached garage next to the house.” She walked out of the bathroom in yoga pants and an aqua shirt, dark from the drops that fell from her blond ponytail. “We need to call someone in authority. Maybe the governor?”

Victoria sighed. “The Chief of police was involved in this. Do you think he was the only one? Governors murder their wives and get away with it too.

Valeria nodded and glared at Julia. “What policeman can you trust if the chief is crooked? Norberto tried to kill you, an upper-class woman. What the fuck do you think they’re going to do to us now that we know?”

Julia glanced from Valeria to Victoria, then slumped her shoulders. “I won’t say anything if you leave me out of this.”

Valeria watched her give in. She softened her tone. “Señora Julia, the police are not going to help us. Women are nothing to them; we are expendable; yes, even you, Señora.

Victoria nodded. “We cannot trust them to help when they want to cover it up.”

“I won’t have anything to do with your plans.”

Victoria stood up and looked Julia in the eye. “I just watched my daughter tortured and murdered. It's taking every effort I can muster to hold myself together, to not throw myself off those cliffs,” she said, glancing out the window. “Please, let me take care of him and find my daughter’s body—

A sob escaped Valeria, and she bit her hand, blinking tears away.

“Let me find and bury her and then take care of the others involved. For Irene’s sake.”

Julia wiped a tear from her eye. “What do you want me to do?”

Valeria picked up Luca’s half-packed bag and handed it to Julia. “Just stick to the story: You called Norberto to tell him about Luca’s accident and never heard back. We'll roll the car over the last cliff. With luck, it will be weeks before it’s discovered. The good policeman who met his end driving too quickly over the curves…”

“But I can’t go back and pretend nothing—”

“My mother just saved your fucking life!”

“You’re the one who asked Irene to work for Luca. You owe us. You owe her. You will pretend,” said Victoria. “You will do it for Irene and me.”


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