“If you want food,” the American says, turning off the engine, “come inside and eat.”
I’m surprised that we’ve stopped at all, much less to feed me. He walks around to my side of the car and opens the door, likely just to make sure he stays by my side at all times rather than to be gentlemanly. He stands there waiting patiently for me to get out. Finally, I do, just after slipping my bare feet down into my flip-flops in the floorboard.
This place can’t be called a roadside diner; I think it would need a few more tables for that, but there is a place to sit and eat, off in a dark corner near a single black door. I have a microwaved chicken sandwich from the freezer; the American, nothing but black coffee. The two of us look out-of-place here. Both of us obviously with no Spanish genes, in a place that is clearly not a tourist town, him dressed in expensive black slacks and shoes, which were probably shiny at one time but are now covered in a fine layer of dirt. I know I must smell pretty bad. I don’t remember the last time I wore deodorant.
I scarf down half of the chicken sandwich and gulp the bottled water until it’s nearly empty. I learned a long time ago never to drink the water in these parts, that if it isn’t from an unopened bottle, it’ll probably make me sick.
The American sips his coffee gradually, reading the contents of a local newspaper of sorts. If I didn’t know better, we could almost pass for an unconventional married couple having breakfast in any typical American town. Unconventional because I’m only twenty-three, and the American, he’s older than me. Middle to late thirties, maybe. If I didn’t know what he was and I just saw him sitting here one day, like he is now with both feet on the floor and his dress-shirt-covered elbows on the table, I’d find him attractive for an older man. He’s clean cut, though with stubble in a pattern along his face. He has sharp cheekbones and piercing blue-green eyes that seem to contain everything but reveal nothing. And he’s very tall, lean and frightening. I find it notable how he scares me more than Javier ever did, yet without having to say a word. At the same time, I feel like I’m better off with the American than I ever was with the likes of Javier.
At least, for now. That’ll change, I’m sure, when he tries to hand me back over to him.
But I’ll die before I let that happen.
“Are you ever going to tell me your name?” I ask.
He raises his eyes from the newspaper without moving his head.
I can sense immediately that he doesn’t care to tell me, to get that personal with his ‘hostage’, but finally he throws me a bone.
I’m so stunned he even told me that it takes me a second to think of what to say next.
I sip my water.
“Where are you from?” I ask.
It’s worth a try.
“Why don’t you finish your food,” he suggests and peers back down into the paper.
“You know my name. You know where I’m from. Why don’t you humor me, Victor?” The bitterness in my tone wasn’t an accident.
I figure that if he was going to kill me, I’d be dead already, so I’m not really as afraid of him as my conscience is telling me I should be.
He sighs with annoyance and shakes his head subtly.
“I was born in Boston,” he says. “I have a sister. A year younger than me. My mother is somewhere in Budapest. My father, he’s dead. He was my first kill.”
That small ounce of bravery I summoned evaporates right out of my pores. I look carefully to both sides of me, looking for the man behind the counter who sold us the food. He’s on the opposite side of the store, sweeping the floor and not paying a lick of attention to us.
I look back at…Victor, nervously swallowing what’s left of the saliva in my mouth.
“You killed your father?” I have to believe it was for some obvious reason: his father beat his mother, something along those lines.
“Why? How old were you?”
“I think you know enough about me,” he says and takes a sip of his coffee, his long, manicured fingers curled gently around the tiny white Styrofoam cup. “You asked to know more about me and I told you. It was a favor. Not an invitation to ask more questions.”
I wonder why he told me something like that to begin with. Maybe he was just trying to scare me into submission so I’d stop talking altogether.
I stand up from the tiny table. He raises his eyes from the newspaper again.
“I need to use the restroom,” I say.
Setting the newspaper on the table beside his coffee, he stands up to join me. He takes my wrist gently into his hand and I pull it away, shaking my head no. “I can go by myself,” I insist.
“Yes, but I’m going to go with you.”
I cross my arms over my chest and blink with surprise. “You can’t be serious. I’m not using it with you standing there.”
“Then you’re not going to use it.”
My mouth falls open with a spat of air. I look back and forth between him and the door behind him that I’m hoping is a restroom—there are no obvious signs indicating anything. I can detect his annoyance with me, faintly in his face; it makes me feel like I just interrupted his nightly love affair with a glass of wine and classical music.
It doesn’t take me long to understand, really.
“I doubt it’ll be like it is in the movies,” I say. “I try to climb out the window after you make the rookie decision to let me go in alone.” I’m not trying to be mouthy, I’m only stating the obvious. I hope he gets that.
“Take it or leave it,” he says. “If you don’t go now, you might be holding it a while.”
I bite down on the inside of my cheek. “Fine,” I give in and step around and in front of him.
He walks behind me into the restroom. There is one toilet that looks as though it has never once been cleaned in the decades it has been here. Four dirty walls with peeling paint and a burn mark near the tiny window that I doubt I would’ve been able to squeeze through if I had been given the chance to try. The room is so small I can reach out and touch Victor as he stands facing the door with his back to me, his hands folded down in front of him. Feeling only a little embarrassed—unfortunately, peeing in front of a madman isn’t new to me, either—I pull my shorts and panties down and take a seat. When I’m done, I have to drip dry. Toilet paper really is a luxury that Americans take for granted.
As I’m pulling up my clothes, I notice Victor’s shoulders from behind tense up. And then I hear voices as though someone just came inside the store.
Victor reaches around to the back of his pants and slips his hand underneath his shirt, pulling a gun into view, his strong index finger already wrapped around the trigger.
“What is it?” I ask, fearful; already my hands are shaking.
Victor cracks open the door and peers outside, putting up his free hand behind him as if to tell me to be quiet.
Then he turns his head to me briefly and whispers, “Stay here,” and before I can question him, or protest, he disappears out the door and I’m left hiding inside yet another restroom. Only, this one doesn’t have a bathtub to help shield me from flying bullets and I find no comfort in that.
Despite my fears, I can’t stop myself from trying to get a glimpse of what’s going on, so I step up to the door and crack it just like Victor had and press my body against it, looking out. My hot, unsteady breath fills the confined space between the door and my face. I can barely make out the counter where the store owner stands off to the side with the broom still clutched in his old, chubby hands. But I can’t see his face. And I can’t see Victor. Several long anxiety-filled seconds go by and still no gunshots. I take that as a good sign. I notice a figure pass my line of vision, but it’s not Victor. And then another man walks by.
I hear voices in Spanish, though not entirely clear to me from my position behind the door. Something about a car part and a few seconds later, the store owner says he has one, but he’ll have to go around back to get it. I still see no sign of Victor. Did he leave me here? That thought strangely makes me even more afraid and I crack the door open just a little more, trying to get a better visual. At first my misplaced panic of being left alone here makes me second-guess my sanity, but then I realize all over again that despite Victor being an assassin and the fact that I’m being used as leverage in a dangerous game of pay up or die, I’m still a girl all alone in the most dangerous parts of a country that I’m not a native of.
Like it or not, Victor is my only protection until I can get over that border and I’m going to stick with him for as long as I can regardless of my desperate need to get away from him, too.
Finally, I glimpse the faces of both men, relieved that they don’t look at all familiar. I start to believe they are just passing through. Getting a little claustrophobic, I take it upon myself to open the door the rest of the way. I inhale a deep breath to compose myself and then step out of the restroom as casually as any other customer who just got done using the toilet.
Victor is sitting back at our table reading the paper like he was before, when I make it around the corner.
He barely glances at me, enough to let only me know that he is not pleased.
“Are you ready?” I ask in English. “I certainly am. That restroom is disgusting,” I add, feigning displeasure of the facilities with the attitude of a snotty American girl.
I hope I’m convincing enough.
Victor stands up and takes me by the hand rather than the wrist this time, his fingers interlocking with mine. The gesture at first, surprises me. But I soon realize he’s only playing along.
The two customers and the store owner look right at me and somehow I get the feeling that my little tourist act is drawing more attention than deterring it. And maybe it’s because tourists never come to these parts.
Victor squeezes my hand with disapproval.
Seconds later, in a motion seemingly too fast for me to track, the two customers each take a single shot to the head and drop dead in front of me on the floor. I stumble backward into Victor’s chest, covering my ears in a delayed reaction to the suppressed sound of the shots. Victor releases my hand and grabs me around the waist, catching me with one arm, his gun clasped in his other hand.
I hear a door slam on the side of the store and I look up still pressed against Victor, using his body for support, to see the store owner through the glassless window running away to no telling where. Victor pushes me to the side and aims his gun at the man through the window. A single shot takes him down before he gets out of range, his body hitting the ground and dust flying up all around him before being carried off by the wind.
I push my way through the store, over the two bodies and toward Victor, my heart pounding erratically.
“What was that for?!”
He grabs my wrist again and drags me with him back to the bodies. I try pulling away, but his grip is too tight.
“They were harmless,” I say exasperatedly, feeling the tears burning the back of my throat again. “And the owner…what…why did you kill him?!”