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.”
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 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…
“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.”