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?
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.
“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.”
“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.”