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Victoria

Victoria remembered every detail of the night Irene didn’t come home. She and Valeria, her seventeen-year-old daughter, were seated at the table in the room that served as the kitchen, studio, and living room, having their cafe con leche. Valeria had just wolfed down two conchas, one of them Irene’s.

“What time is it?” asked Victoria.

“Two minutes later than the last time you asked.” Like her older sister, Valeria’s thick, brown hair fell to her waist, framing dark, almond-shaped eyes. But while Irene was slender and tall, Valeria was broad-shouldered, stocky, and square.

“This isn’t a time for jokes. Your sister should have been here an hour ago.”

Valeria brushed cribs from the plaid tablecloth unto her plate. “Maybe the bus broke down.”

“Did she say she had something to do after work?”

“No, Mami, I told you already.”

Victoria picked up her phone and dialed Sr. Luca’s house. She took turns holding the phone in one hand and drying the palm of the other one against her pants. It rang until it went to voicemail, and she hung up. It had been two years since her husband had died of cancer, and she wished for his calming presence. He could fix anything. If he was still alive, he would have picked up Valeria, and they would be watching tv by now.

Valeria boiled water on the gas stove and sat next to her mother, doing homework, while Victoria called back every five minutes. The alarm in her gut grew louder as she struggled to imagine benign reasons Valeria was late. A broken down van, a fender bender, anything that would drive away the weight that was settling in her heart. Almost an hour had passed when Luca finally picked up.

Bueno?” he answered in a heavy accent. “Who is this?”

“Señor Luca? This is Victoria, Irene’s mother. Sorry to bother you.”

“Victoria, of course; what can I do for you?”

“I’m calling about Irene. Is she still there? She hasn’t come home.”

“Irene? She never showed up to work today.”

“Are you sure?” Panic clutched her heart; the alarm was so loud it was hard to think. Her face flushed, and she gripped the table with her free hand. “She left this morning as always. She was going to your house.”

“I leave before she arrives, so I never see her, but I just got home, and the house is a mess. She never showed up.”

Victoria bit her lower lip and squeezed her eyes. This couldn’t be happening to them. Valeria tried to get closer to hear the conversation, but Victoria pushed her away.

“Could you please look around? See if there is any sign she was there. Maybe she got locked in someplace…”

“There’s no place to get locked in here, I assure you, but I will look around and call you if I find anything. Ciao.”

Victoria rose from the table, pulled her sweater hanging from a hook on the door, and put it on. It was black and frayed; a stray yarn dangled from a threadbare spot on the left sleeve. She took her purse and opened the door.

“Where are you going, Mami?”

“To the police.” She needed to do something, or the motor that had started in her gut would overwhelm her and she would explode. The pounding in her ears muffled the cars' horns and the street vendors' cacophony. I have to find my niña. I have to find her before it’s too late; before she’s one of those desaparecidas.

Valeria followed her in silence as they walked the eight blocks to the police station, stepping carefully over the uneven sidewalks and the cobblestones of the narrow streets in downtown Pachuca. The evening vendors, selling tamales and hotdogs, crowded the sidewalks.

Cars crawled through the streets inches away from parents rushing home, dragging a child behind, and teenagers with bags of pan or musical instruments taking their time as they flirted with one another. The usual street sounds were a slap in Victoria’s face as her dread grew with every passing minute and heavy footfall. How can you people just go on like nothing has happened when my daughter is missing? She wanted to yell but pressed her lips instead.

They arrived at the old colonial building downtown and walked into the reception area, where a young officer with a very bushy mustache was talking on the phone. He greeted them by lifting his eyebrows and signaling for them to wait. When he hung up, he bent his fingers at them.

“What brings you in?” he asked. The neon office lights made his skin yellow.

Victoria tried to swallow but couldn’t. She cleared her throat. “My daughter is missing. She left for work in El Chico this morning but never arrived. She is always home by 6 p.m. but hasn’t come back.”

He stared at his screen. “How old is your daughter?

“She’s nineteen.”

The man glanced at her, then looked back at his screen. “Listen, Mami, girls at that age are a little boy crazy, you know? Go home, and I’m sure she’ll turn up.”

“My daughter is not like that! We need help. She must be in danger.”

The officer laughed. “That’s what you all say, but mothers forget what young women are like. Flirting and getting men into trouble.”

Valeria grasped the counter, elbowing Victoria. “Are you kidding me? My sister is missing, and you’re slut shaming her?”

Two officers, seated in a corner, stood up and walked deliberately towards them. The officer behind the desk glared at them. “Would you like me to arrest you?”

“For what? For asking you to do your job?”

Victoria struggled to speak. What was Valeria doing? She grasped her elbow, but Valeria shrugged it free.

“How about for assaulting an officer?” added one of the officers from the corner, his hand on his baton.

Victoria yanked Valeria aside, her heart thumping. “Forgive her, please. She’s just upset about her sister.”

“Listen, Señora. go home and wait for your daughter. She will come back, maybe with a little present.” He mimed caressing a round belly.

“With a girl like that…” growled the corner office, pointing at Valeria, “and then you complain when a man has to put you in your place.”

“Teach her some respect, Señora,” said the third officer, chuckling, “so she won’t run off with the first man she meets.”

They bolted out of the station, the officers’ laughter echoing in her ears. Out on the street, Victoria put one hand on the wall, steadying her, the other on her chest, touching her terror. She couldn’t catch her breath; her lungs refused to expand.

Valeria stood in front of her, about to cry. “Are you alright, Mami?”

“Don’t...you...ever…. do that again!” gasped Victoria, slapping her across the face.

“Mami!” Valeria touched her face, her eyes wide.

Victoria was as surprised as her. She had never hit her daughters but the terror that had seized her was in control. What if she lost Valeria too? “You might think that things have changed, but never forget that women are not safe. Some evil men will kill you and do horrible things to you.”

“But they’re supp—”

“They aren’t going to help us! We need to help ourselves. Come on!”

Victoria started walking, and Valeria hurried to catch up.

Valeria rubbed her cheek. “Where are we going?”

“To see Mrs. Julia.”

“What can she do? She’s just a teacher.”

“People with money have connections and influence. I’m going to ask her for help.”

“Why would you want to owe her anything?”

Victoria stopped. She didn’t have time for this argument that Valeria started every month or so. “This is not the time!”

“This is all her fault anyway!”

“What do you mean? Why would it be her fault?”

“She’s the one who got Irene the job.”

“She was trying to help. We need the money to keep you both in school.”

“I just don’t understand how you can take it.”

Victoria crossed her arms. People walked around them on the narrow sidewalk. “Take what?”

“The way they treat you, treat us.”

“She’s always fair and respectful to us. I don’t know what you mean.”

“Oh, come on, Mami, you know what I mean.”

“No, I don’t.”

“If you call in sick she doesn’t pay you. You have no vacation and she can fire you whenever she wants. She might help you, but she’ll still expect you to clean her house.”

“That is my reality. There are worse things, you know. Right now, all I want is to find your sister.”

“It’s not right.” Valeria sobbed, wiping the tears with her hands. She stomped a foot on the uneven sidewalk like a toddler.

“It may not be right, but I do what I need to do so you and Irene can have a different life. I’m not weak or stupid; I just accept what I can’t change and work for what I can. Stop acting like a toddler.” She pressed her lips tightly into a straight line and walked away, not looking back to see if Valeria was following her. If she kept walking, she’d outrun the grey fog of doom trying to settle on her soul.

That night, she lay fully dressed in bed, her phone in hand; her ears attuned to every sound. Once she’d snuggled, safe in her husband’s arms; now all she had was their wedding photo on the antique dresser. She looked up from her phone and Irene sat at the foot of her bed. The street light fell on her sleek black hair.

“You’re back mi hija!”

Victoria fought the impulse to embrace her; something held her back. It wasn’t fear. “I was worried sick! Where were you?”

Irene stared at the floor, silent.

Victoria slowed her breath. Irene was here to say goodbye. As long as I don’t move or disturb her, I can be with her. If she tried to touch her, she would disappear. A stabbing pain pierced her left breast. I will never hold my daughter again. Barely above a whisper, she hummed a lullaby, refusing to sleep. The next morning, Irene was gone.


Three months later, Irene hadn’t turned up. Julia asked the chief of police for help, but he found nothing. People in El Chico remembered seeing her get off the van, but since it was a daily phenomenon, they couldn’t remember if they had seen her there the day she disappeared or not. Luca and Julia offered a reward for information with no reliable leads.

Every morning she got up, Victoria was surprised she’d managed to get through the days. Valeria wanted to talk and begged her to cry and express her grief. But Victoria could not, or did not, know how to explain that what she suppressed was rage and thoughts of murder and retribution. She and her husband had done everything right. They went to mass, didn’t drink or smoke, worked hard, and raised good girls. But God had ripped away her husband in his prime with a painful disease, and now Irene was dead. What had she done to deserve this? What had Irene done? Or the hundreds of girls and women murdered and disappeared.

Her comadre begged every day to come with her to pray and talk to the priest, but Victoria resisted. If there was a God, he didn’t care. The last thing she wanted or would do was listen to a childless priest tell her about God’s plan while senseless violence raged in the world.

On the day of Luca’s accident, Victoria turned the stove off to keep the food from burning. Julia was running late. She dug through the laundry basket, fishing out socks and shirts and folding them into neat little piles when the school called because no one had picked up the boys. Maybe Julia was still at the hospital or Luca’s house. She called the children’s father, who hadn’t heard anything, and agreed to take the boys.

Victoria took the bus home, but something stirred in her. Julia was a responsible and dedicated mother; she was never late to pick them up. When the bus passed the hospital, she jumped off to check on her. But the front desk person said Luca hadn’t had any female visitors. Victoria walked the rest of the way home. This was unusual. Did Julia have an accident on the way to Luca’s house?

Valeria was painting poster boards on the table when she opened the door to the house. Her recently shaved head made her look more like a young boy. Since joining an advocacy center against gender violence, she only wore T-shirts with slogans against femicide.

“I’m making you a sign for the protest, Mami. You need to come it—

“Stop, stop!” Victoria leaned against the wall. The knot in her gut started with Irene’s disappearance, now twisted and burned. She took off her black cardigan and hung it over the back of a chair. Sitting next to Valeria, she placed her cell phone on the table and dialed Julia’s phone. It went to voicemail. Then she tried Luca’s landline with the same result. I’m living the day Irene died again, she thought.

“What’s happening?”

“Julia didn’t pick up her sons.”

Valeria stared at her, chewing the top of a marker. “So?”

“I’m worried about her. I’ll wait ten minutes and call again.”

Valeria busied herself washing the few dishes in the sink. Victoria sat staring straight ahead. Irene had disappeared when going to work for Luca, now Julia. She took the keys to her husband’s old car hanging on a hook by the door.

“You’re driving me to Señor Luca’s house.”

“Why?”

“Because something’s wrong. I know it.”

Valeria threw the dishcloth on the table. “Why do you care about Julia? She doesn’t care about us!”

Victoria’s eyes flashed. “You were the one who told me about gender violence and how we could only stop it together. This is our chance to prevent it!”

“What do you mean? And anyway, I’ve never driven on the highway before.”

Victoria was already walking out the door, knowing Valeria would follow. She wished she’d learn to drive. Her husband tried teaching her when he bought the used car over fifteen years ago. Even though she missed him, she was glad he didn’t have to endure Irene’s death. They got into the battered VW beetle and stopped and started up the hill as Valeria tried the clutch.

Lighting brightened the streets and revealed the sierra between them and El Chico, followed by a deafening roar. Sweat ran down Valeria’s face; her fingers gripped the steering wheel like hanging from a rope out of a burning building. But Valeria was tough like her. Maybe she would find out what happened to her daughter.

“Hurry! Something’s not right.

Valeria switched on the wipers and peered over the steering wheel as the rain bashed the windshield. “Does this have anything to do with Irene?”

“I don’t know, but we’ll find out. Now drive carefully.”

To be continued next week



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Updated: Oct 22

(a short story released weekly)




Part 1

Julia

The phone rang in the dark, startling Julia. She bolted from her pillow, patting the nightstand until she found her cell. Before looking at the time, she went through the list of possible emergencies: her father’s heart, Gabriel, her ex-husband, a drunk and ranting student. The phone glowed 3 a.m. above a number she did not recognize. Please be the wrong number!

“Hello?”

“Señora Romo?”

“Who is this?” She smoothed her bobbed blond hair with her hand. She shouldn’t have answered! It could be an extortion call so prevalent in Mexico.

“I’m calling from Saint Mary’s hospital. Mr. Luca Donofrio had a car accident, and was just brought in. He asked us to call you.”

“Oh my God! Is he OK?” Julia sprang from bed, turned on the light, and began pacing on the light gray carpet. She kicked her white comforter aside. Her mind raced with questions. What happened? Was he alive? She’d only been dating Luca for a few months, and things were going so well; she couldn’t lose him so soon!

“The doctor is assessing him at the moment. His condition isn’t life-threatening though you should come to the hospital.”

“I can’t. I can’t leave my children alone. I’ll be there after I drop them off at school. Please tell Mr. Donofrio that I’ll be there in the morning and that I’ll inform his dean.”

Julia hung up. She went to the bathroom and, while on the toilet, composed an email to their dean about Luca’s accident; he would have to deal with two absent professors in the morning. She searched her face for wrinkles in the mirror, but there were only a few fine lines in the corner of her eyes that spread out when she smiled. Even ten years older than Gabriel’s girlfriend, she was prettier, her belly flat from the pain and humiliation of his cheating. She gave the mirror her middle finger. “Fuck you!”

Maybe she would marry Luca. They could be a power couple; the only two blond professors at the university. Her colleagues' and friends’ pity would turn into envy as they traveled to Europe during the summers and hosted parties in the winter. Of course, she would insist Luca live in her home and not in his remote cabin in the mountains; her sons needed to be close to good schools.

Back in bed, she tossed and turned like a tortilla on a hot comal until she rolled out and made some coffee. At least I still have my home, she sighed, gazing at the white marble counters and modern steel appliances. She couldn’t afford the mortgage on one income. Her ex, once an engineer, now a struggling artist, lived off his grandmother’s inheritance and, thanks to an expensive lawyer and a shady judge, didn’t pay child support. If she married Luca, they could afford the mortgage and have enough for vacations. She graded English papers until the front door opened and the cleaning lady, Victoria, walked into the kitchen.

“Good morning, Señora Julia.

The short middle-aged woman fidgeted with her thick brown braid. Her face was harder since her daughter had disappeared a few months before. Julia planned to wait a year before letting her go. She felt sorry for Victoria but didn’t want that negativity around her sons. The violence in Mexico was out of hand, and she wanted to keep it away from her family.

Julia poured herself the last of the coffee. “Good morning. El señor Luca had an accident and is in the hospital.”

“I’m sorry, Señora,” replied Victoria, as she washed her hands in the sink before scrambling eggs on the stove. “Do you need me to stay with the boys in the afternoon?”

“Not necessary, thank you. I’ll drop them off at their father’s after we eat. Ugh!” Julia leaned back in her chair and held her head. “I can’t believe my bad luck! Why do these bad things happen?”

Victoria nodded as she cooked. “I hope he’s OK.”

“Me too! I was so lucky to find him! I couldn’t stomach another Mexican macho like my ex-husband.”

“You know they say men are like the mamey fruit; it’s hard to find a good one. I was lucky too.”

“To think my ex told me he felt sorry for me, that no one would want me because I have children. I can’t wait for his twenty-year-old girlfriend to dump him as he dumped me.”

Victoria rolled her eyes. “Hombres!”

Julia went to the window.

The rainy season was ending with torrential downpours and floods. Pachuca was a high, arid city sprawled between the sierras in central Mexico. The narrow gap between the mountain ranges made a natural wind tunnel, with Pachuca sitting right in the middle, subjecting its residents to daily wind gusts. Even though she had initially moved here from Mexico City because of her marriage, she loved her adopted city.

She turned to Victoria. “Please walk the boys to school; I’m going to the hospital.”

“Yes, senora. Does Señor Luca have any family in Mexico?”

“No, no one. His family is in Italy. He just moved here a little over a year ago.”

Julia frowned. Luca was in his early forties, unmarried, and never spoke about family in Italy. He didn’t have many friends either. Poor Luca, all alone! But she’d take care of him. She gave her mug to Victoria and stretched. This was her chance to show Luca they belonged together.

Victoria dried her hands on a bright yellow dish towel. “You go to the hospital. I will take the children to school. Should I pick them up?”

“No. I will. Please prepare the meal so I can return to the hospital after Gabriel picks up the boys.”

Julia’s phone buzzed as she walked to her bedroom to get ready.

Bueno?”

“Julia, my bella!” said Luca.

“How are you?”

“I’m OK. I’m in pain, but they give me good drugs here.”

Julia walked into her closet and searched through the colorful dresses. “I’m glad you called! I’ve been so worried about you! What happened?”

“I was driving home. Do you know how dark that highway is? I plowed into a pickup truck that didn’t have rear lights. The car’s totaled.”

She pulled out a pair of jeans. “Oh my God! What happened to you?”

“Well, it could be worse…” he chuckled, always the optimist. “I broke my right wrist and my left femur. This morning the surgeon will put a steel rod in my leg and a pin in my wrist. But don’t worry, my bellissima, all my other equipment is working fine.”

“I’ll be there as soon as I can get out of the house.”

“I can’t wait to see you, but I need a favor.”

“Sure, whatever you need.”

“Can you go to my house and bring me some things? I know it’s so far—”

Julia walked to the bathroom. “Of course. What do you need?”

“Thank you, thank you! My glasses, my charger, a toothbrush, some underwear.”

“Anything else?”

“No, no...oh yes! My tablet. My laptop was in the car.”

“Got it.”

“Promise me you’ll be careful driving. Those curves are so dangerous. And can you pick up my final exams from the college too?”

“Of course. I’ll stop at the university first, then go to your house. I won’t see you until the afternoon then. Will you be OK?”

“Yes. Thank you again. I know we’ve only been seeing each other for a few months, but I feel we have something special. Ciao Bella!

Julia hung up, smiling.


Art by Darcy Nili


Early that afternoon, Julia sat on Lucas’ unmade bed, staring at his tablet. The only sound was the pelting rain on the glass doors to the balcony. She touched the screen and was prompted for a pin. His birthday? It didn’t work. She tried his daughter’s birth date because it was the same as her eldest son’s. A pang of guilt struck her. This is wrong! I shouldn’t…but I need to know if he is serious about me. What if he’s seeing someone else?

A video filled the screen. Luca had his back to the camera. He was doing something to a woman. It took her a few moments to understand that he was torturing her. Julia’s gasp froze in her throat. A cold, dark heaviness roiled in the pit of her stomach as she bolted, hands over her mouth, to the bathroom. She vomited into her hands and on the bathroom floor. Kneeling in front of the ceramic toilet, she heaved up the contents of her belly. Exhausted and sobbing, she sank to the floor, her head hanging over the lip of the ceramic toilet, the mess swirling a few seconds before it disappeared.

After a few minutes, Julia stood, swaying and unsteady. She turned to the mirror, her blue eyes bloodshot, her blond hair matted and stringy, limply framing her face, and wiped her lips and chin with toilet paper. Then washed her hands and face.

As she shuffled back to Luca’s bedroom, she looked around nervously. The wind shook the windows, and clouds swarmed in the afternoon sky, turning the house dark and ominous. The cabin-style house was secreted from view, buried deep into the border of El Chico National Park, 33 km from Pachuca. The large wooden-framed windows in the main bedroom overlooked a narrow, elongated valley covered in oyamels and Mexican black oaks. She sat on the bed, picked up the tablet, and forced herself to look at it again. Was it Luca? She dry heaved again and waved her hand at the spots in front of her eyes…Darkness overcame her...

Julia sat up on the grey wool rug and massaged the left side of her head, where a lump was throbbing. She lifted herself onto the bed and waited before standing on weak knees. Curling her shaking hands into fists, she punched her thighs. “Get a grip!”

She walked to the kitchen on wobbly knees and poured herself a glass of water but left it on the counter as she fell to her knees. The cold tile floor dug into her legs as she rocked back and forth, crying. Why? Why had this happened to her? Julia’s anguish was interrupted by the ping-ping of her cell phone. She rose to find her purse and dug out her phone.

Bueno?

“Julia, it’s me, Luca; where are you? My surgery is tomorrow. Julia?”

Julia hung up. I can’t talk to him. What do I do? Oh my god, what do I do?

The phone pinged once more, shaking her out of her fractured thoughts. It was the same number. Julia silenced the phone and flung it into her bag. When the landline rang, she jumped.

I need to get out of here! Should she take the tablet to the police station? Maybe she shouldn’t remove evidence; they said that on television. She browsed her contacts on her phone and found Norberto, the chief of police in Pachuca and Luca’s friend. Norberto would be crushed to learn what his friend had done, but he could keep her out of this. A shiver ran down her spine. She had slept with a murderer! What would Gabriel say? Her mother? Her friends?

Julia called Norberto’s cell and left a message in a shaky voice. “This is Julia. I am at Luca’s house and need to talk to you about an urgent matter. I found something horrible. I… Please don’t tell anyone. I will wait here until you call. Please, it is urgent.”

Julia paced. What to do? She couldn’t be associated with this! She glanced at her watch. Three hours until she had to pick up the boys. Julia went to the living room, putting distance between herself and the tablet, and tripped over Luca’s gym bag. She sat on the leather couch, surveying the dark stone fireplace. How could she have fallen for a murderer? They’d met at the university where they both taught. She had still been smarting from her husband’s cheating when the new professor had wooed her persistently, driving her to Mexico City on the weekends to the theater, opera, and good restaurants. I thought we had a future! How could I be so blind?

Julia thought back to the last few months with Luca, searching her memory for signs and clues. Still, he had never shown inappropriate actions toward her or any other women. Memories of his cruelty and bullying in bed had been shoved away, stored with her shameful secrets in the hope they would disappear. Luca proclaimed himself a feminist, an enlightened modern man. He had been very supportive and helpful when they were looking for Irene, trying to look innocent. She froze. Could he be involved in Irene’s disappearance?

Julia forced herself back to the bed and the tablet. She found three videos and hit fast-forward repeatedly, pausing only to try making out the features of the tortured figures. One of them resembled Irene’s photo from the posters, but it was hard to tell.

A car stopped in front of the house. Julia rushed downstairs and opened the front door to the police chief. She reached out for Norberto’s hand and pulled him into the house.

“Thank you, thank you, I cannot..., I’m...this is terrible, thank you.” Standing in front of the staircase, she wrapped her arms around her chest. Now that he was here, she felt herself letting go, her whole body shaking, the words refusing to form in her mouth.

“What did you find?”

Tears burst from her eyes. “It’s horrible.”

Norberto took her by the shoulders. He was stocky and almost the same height as Julia; his hazel eyes level with hers. “Take a deep breath. I need you to tell me everything.”

“Luca is in the hospital. He had an accident. I came to pick up his things and found a video of him killing women!”

“Luca is in the hospital?”

“He had a car accident. I came for his stuff and found…” She glanced at the stairs.

“Who else have you told?”

“No one; why? I just…”

Norberto glared at her. “Where is the video?” He leaned into her, his fingers digging into her shoulders.

Julia backed away, and the banister dug into her back. What was he doing? Why was he acting this way?

“You’re hurting me.”

“Pendeja! You couldn’t leave it alone! You had to snoop, didn’t you? You never learned your place!” He pulled out the gun from his belt and pointed it at Julia. “Get me the tablet!”

“Please. I don’t understand.” A warm wet stain spread down the inside of her jeans because suddenly, she did.

Norberto’s face flushed red; his eyes grew wild with anger and something else. “What else did you find? Photos? I told Luca not to film them, idiot!”

The room spun. “You knew!”

Norberto licked his lips. “If you stupid women would only learn to mind your own business and not interfere. Now, I don’t have much choice. I’m going to have to kill you.”

“Please, no, I have children. I don’t want anyone to know either.” She glanced over his shoulder, through the open door into the woods, looking for an escape. She was alone, and no one would hear her screams.

“You should’ve thought about that before fucking around with a strange man.”

Her heart pounded in her ears. “You don’t have to kill me; I won’t say anything.”

“I have no choice, guera.”

“Why?”

He smiled and waved the gun in the air. “Because I can. But first, you must clean up that piss because I will have some fun with you. Maybe I’ll film it and show it to Luca.”

She turned and tried to run, but Norberto lunged, his full weight slamming her into the stairs, pinning her. She tried to claw her way up and away from him as desperate animal sounds came from inside her. She was going to die.



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