Updated: Oct 22, 2022
(a short story released weekly)
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!
“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.
“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.”
“No, no...oh yes! My tablet. My laptop was in the car.”
“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.
“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.”
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.