The morning wind swirled down cool and soft from the mountains, shaking the tops of the short pines on the foothills, stirring the dust at Ignacio’s feet and raising his hopes. He leaned back against the car, black and sleek, borrowed from his brother, and fingered the coins in his pocket. Tipping his sunglasses over his eyes, he squinted until the drab landscape disappeared; he thought of the ocean hundreds of miles away. He could almost smell the sea in his son’s hair, see the waves slosh black and silver against the bow of the boat, feel the thump of big fish like good luck under the hull.

Ahead of him, the young woman he’d driven here to his father’s village stood at a small firepit, head bent toward the old woman, though neither spoke the language of the other. The canopy above them sagged and rippled in the wind. It would be useless in the mid-day heat, though it was hard to believe now in the cool air. Ignacio fetched the young woman’s sweater from the back of the car and strode toward her, smiling and waving the thin garment on the wind. She shrugged it over her slight shoulders and thanked him. As she reached to take the pestle from the old woman’s hand, her arm as smooth and spare as the old woman’s was rough and thick, Ignacio knew he’d done a good thing in bringing the American couple here. There was satisfaction in that. And in the handsome sum they paid him to guide them through the Mixteca while they researched their book, a kind of travelog tied to the regional specialties they were only now, with his help, beginning to understand. 

The young woman pressed the pestle with too much force. It slipped from her grip and fell into the molcajete, stone scraping against stone. The old woman winced but leaned toward her, murmuring an instruction in the old language. 

“If this sauce tastes as good as it is painful to make,” the young woman said, looking up at Ignacio with cool gray eyes, “it’s going to make us all famous.” She stood and scraped the contents of the molcajete into the pot suspended over the fire. Then she dabbed the mixture with her finger and raised it to her lips, letting out an appreciative sigh as she sank back onto a worn bench. “Yep. Famous.” 

The old woman laughed politely and shook her head. She understood the young woman well enough to know the young woman intended to take things from her—recipes, methods, stored-up secrets—without offering her any real credit. Maybe she welcomed the money or was flattered by the attention, or maybe she felt inexplicably that the couple would bring good luck. Ignacio himself did, even as a fat white spider crept from a groove in the bench. It paused inches from the young woman’s bare thigh and raised a tiny leg as though testing the direction of the wind. With a swift arc of his open hand, Ignacio swept it to the ground.

She understood the young woman well enough to know the young woman intended to take things from her—recipes, methods, stored-up secrets—without offering her any real credit.

“I saw that,” said the young woman without looking up. 

“Just looking out for you. Earning my keep.”

The young woman smiled. “You take good care of us.”

Months earlier, he’d first met the couple when they’d taken the bus he drove in the afternoons. At the time, they’d already been in Oaxaca for two months with plans to stay another four. He’d impressed them with his smooth tourist English, his gentle teasing manner. And they’d confided in him, complaining that their driver, old and grim, had smoked incessantly and laughed only at his own jokes. The man had refused to take them to the Mixteca Alta because, he’d said, the winding terrain made him queasy and he didn’t speak any of the old languages. Worst of all, he’d shown no interest in Oaxacan cuisine. “Kind of a problem if you’re tooling around with food writers, don’t you think?” the young man had said. “But he sure perks up at the mention of mezcal.” The young man had a dry laugh like a cough, rattling and unpredictable. 

 Before he’d thought through the idea, Igancio made the couple an offer: he’d use his weekends to drive them to the Alta villages, including this one, where his father had grown up. He promised to introduce them to Mixtec grandmothers who made dishes and sauces far superior to any produced by the fancy chefs in the city. And they’d believed him, though the idea made his brother laugh later when Ignacio asked to borrow the car. Benito had nearly tipped off his barstool then, as if the whole idea were a joke at the couple’s expense. Why tell Benito in the first place, his wife Ana had asked. What good ever came from his involvement? But she knew as well as Ignacio that there was no one else.

 Ignacio rubbed his arms now as though it were the wind that bothered him. The old woman was explaining how to finish the sauce, squinting and stirring a forefinger in the air. Behind them, the young woman’s husband stooped to aim a large camera at children who shrieked and darted from his attention. The ribbons in the girls’ dark hair trailed behind them in the rising light. The young man dropped down on one knee to take a picture of a small girl playing in the dust with a thin-ribbed mongrel. She wrestled with the animal, tugging the end of a soiled rag. Ignacio tossed the core of his apple and the dog dashed after it, wrecking the shot. The young man stood and frowned at Ignacio, lifting a knee to snap the tripod at its joint. 

Ignacio removed his sunglasses and wiped them on the tail of his shirt. “People don’t want to see pictures of dogs next to pictures of food.” 

 “A fair point. But that one was for me. And Kate. To remind us of the kids here—the best part of the trip.” The young man smiled tightly and fastened the Velcro straps around the legs of the tripod. As he bent to pack his gear, he looked to Ignacio like a big, sulking boy, except for the tiny bald patch at the back of his head, the creep of middle age where he couldn’t see it. 

Ignacio knew this young man would never understand why he couldn’t let the girl be captured like that, her beauty obscured by dust and filth. Nor could Ignacio entirely explain it himself, the responsibility he felt to protect her. It had something to do, he suspected, with what had happened to his son. Months earlier, the boy had lain in the hospital bed in the city, his little body gray and swollen with the poison of a scorpion.

If Ignacio were another man, a weaker one, he might have allowed his son to die this way. In the hospital, his own father had waited until Ana, distraught but undaunted, left the room to find a doctor. Then he laid a hand on the boy’s cool forehead and whispered as though offering an endearment, “There’s nothing more to be done.” But his father had been wrong. There was always more to be done. And so Ignacio spent ten thousand pesos each day the boy was in the hospital, all he’d saved in five years of driving tourists. Everything he’d set aside for the move to Puerto Angel, where he himself had grown up good and strong and lucky. All of it went to the doctors and the nurses to ensure they didn’t rush past his son on their way to bigger crises and more important patients. No one was more important than his boy, Ignacio told them—a boy with a scar below his eye from when he’d fallen from the crook of a tree, a boy who slid down in the pew during Sunday mass to kick the feet in front of him, a boy Ignacio had promised to teach to swim and to run a boat someday. He’d given up a lifetime of savings to prove it, savings he only now had a chance to make back. 

“Time to move,” he called to the couple now, clapping the heels of his hands together. “If we want to get there on time. Two hours and they lock all the doors.” The young woman leaned forward and muttered something to the old woman, who slapped at the hem of her dress and smiled. What joke could the young woman possibly have made, in her stilted school-book Spanish, that the old woman would have understood? 

“You’re not making fun of me, are you, Señora?” Ignacio tapped his watch and held it to his ear.

“I was explaining—trying to explain—what a wet blanket is. You know, manta mojada. It’s an idiom. It means we were just starting to have a good time here.” But her eyes were bright and grateful as he began to gather her things—notebooks, dried herbs, a tiny wooden horse from one of the little girls. Ignacio knew her well enough to know she was restless and ready to move on. 

“You don’t have what you need? I find you the best black molé in the world —the real thing—not the tar they serve in the city. I introduce you to mezcaleros who’ve been making the stuff for generations. And you complain when I say it’s time to do some sightseeing?” He clucked his tongue and stooped to kiss the old woman’s withered cheek. “And now here’s a word for you: Desagradecido. It means ‘ungrateful.’” The old woman’s mouth dropped open in shock at the way he’d spoken to his client. But Ignacio knew better. He talked to the young woman exactly the way she wanted him to. 

Take us to the ruins,” the young woman whispered as he held the car door for her. Inside, the air was already hot and close, thick with the smell of overripe fruit in the trunk.

“Forget the ruins,” said her husband, sliding in beside her. “Take us to church.”

“Whatever you’d like. It’s my job to make you happy. And if churches make you happy….” The young man laughed and hooked his arm out the open window, drumming his fingertips on the car roof. His shirt rose, exposing a shiny blue money belt strapped across his waist. 

They always carried too much money, these Americans. Ignacio had known it without their telling him, had sensed it even before the first time he’d seen the young man stash the extra pack deep in the trunk of the car or pat his waist when he thought no one was looking. He and the young woman doled it out in big bills to the chefs and restaurateurs, the cooks and grandmothers Ignacio found to talk to them. The couple’s generosity was capricious, admirable, and dangerous. As was the way the young man boasted of relying on his “gut.” It wasn’t his gut that had so far kept them safe. It was the people Ignacio paid to take care of them. They’d been lucky in hiring Ignacio, as Benito was fond of pointing out, but they might not always be so fortunate.

The car lurched and bounced over a hole in the narrow road, and Ignacio steadied the wheel. Not for the first time, Ignacio regretted sharing certain stories about the couple with his brother. But stories were all he had to offer in his exchange for the car he drove now, one in a fleet of expensive cars his brother tended for rich men, a business that didn’t entirely account for Benito’s new wealth. Benito loved stories about tourists, especially when there was a principle at stake. And with Americans, there was always a principle at stake. 

Ignacio would have to find a way to warn the young woman and her husband to be more careful. Without changing everything. 

In the backseat, the young woman sipped a soft drink and flipped through Ignacio’s maps. “The best part,” she said to no one in particular, “is that none of the big guns have spent any real time here. Not in a while anyway. And not like this. I mean, can you imagine one of them doing a chapter on bootleg mezcal?” The young woman laughed, but the young man stayed quiet beside her. He leaned hard against the door, though Ignacio had warned him not to. The landscape that bumped past was jagged and bleak, row after row of thin reedy pines on one side, a steep drop-off to nothing on the other. For this of all things, Ignacio felt responsible. He wished the trip to the ruins were a prettier one. He wanted to show them only the best. 

The church Ignacio found for the couple did not disappoint them. It rose high on the hill, massive and baroque and crumbling, perilously unrestored, the perfect subject for the sorts of shots the young man liked to take. After he’d captured the ruin of it from every angle, he and the young woman followed Ignacio up a steep path that wound past the ancient retaining walls to the cemetery. There, the young woman found a spot for them on the grass and covered it with a bright blanket she’d bought from one of the city markets. The place she chose lay inside a corner of the crumbling wall, shaded by tall trees with arms that swung out leafy and luxurious above them. The three of them ate sandwiches with thick slices of ham while looking down on a fertile valley that shimmered in emeralds and golds. Beyond the valley rose a crown of the same pine-covered mountains they’d left that morning. They were beautiful to Ignacio only after he’d left them. Up close, they looked treacherous and hostile, too rugged to allow any man to pass. Ignacio sat up on the blanket and felt the light breeze that carried the smell of honeysuckle over the scent of something loamy and fetid underneath. 

When they’d finished eating, the young woman pulled a bottle of wine and three plastic glasses from her backpack. “Ta-da!” she said, hoisting the bottle and pumping it in the air. “I sneaked this out of the hotel the other night. A little premature, I know. But it already feels like we have something to celebrate here.” 

The couple took turns toasting their forthcoming book and each other, and then the young woman pulled her pale hair over one shoulder and looked at Ignacio the way women sometimes did. “You know this book would never have happened without you,” she said, as though she were accusing him of something. She reached across the blanket to fill Ignacio’s glass until wine splashed over the rim onto his fingers—wine he’d taste but never finish. Not while he was on the clock and with a long drive home ahead of him. “I don’t want to embarrass you, but I mean it,” the young woman was saying. “Without you, we never would have known that village of your dad’s existed. We’d be stuck driving around the city. Going to the same old tired places. Or crawling around from one hole in the wall to another, probably with nothing to show for it but another boring recipe. Another chapter on tequila.” 

“She’s right, you know. We owe you. Possibly even more than the sum we’ve already paid you.” The young man smiled, but Ignacio heard the warning in his words. 

“This book bears the mark of you,” said the young woman. “The spirit of you. At least I hope it does.” 

“The spirit of me?” Ignacio laughed to cover his discomfort. He wanted no part of whatever game they seemed to be playing. He swept his hand toward the gravestones beyond them. “I think you’d better explain what you mean.”

“What I mean,” the young woman leaned toward him with tipsy seriousness, “is that we set out to write a book on the region—the real Oaxaca— the one balanced between two worlds. The old world and the new one. The prosperous one and the one that’s still struggling. I think we just might pull that off now. I think it’s going to be just what we wanted. Classic but young and edgy and adventurous, too. Just like you.” 

Ignacio opened his mouth to say something light and gracious that nonetheless conveyed that he’d understood the condescension in the couple’s words. But the young woman was no longer paying attention. She was twisting the lens cap off her husband’s camera. She stood up, wobbling slightly with the weight of the instrument and the effect of the wine. “Why don’t you walk over there where there’s a little more shade? Right next to that poor man’s resting place there.” She pointed to a marble headstone that jutted blunt and thick from the uneven ground. 

“There must be a million other things you could take pictures of,” said Ignacio, but he rose and moved tentatively in the direction of the headstone. What choice did he have but to comply? Resisting would only have pointed out the awkwardness of the moment. 

“Good. Now lean back, fold your arms in that way you do.” 

“Hey, give that back.” The young man’s voice was weary and amused in a way that suggested they’d both behaved like this before. As if they were re-telling an old joke for a new audience. “It’s a dangerous piece of equipment. In the wrong hands, I mean.”

“I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but it’s not that hard. I’ve certainly seen you do it enough.” The young woman raised a long leg to rest her foot on a shorter headstone for balance. Overhead, a hawk swooped and rose in the cloudless sky. “Besides, I want all the credit for the cover shot.” She pressed the button, and the flash in Ignacio’s eyes was brilliant and stunning. He shut his eyes against it, momentarily disoriented. And when he opened them again, he could see nothing but the line where the sea met the air on the horizon, as though there were no land at all, only water and sky. 

You can’t do that.” The young man’s form was dark and sharp-edged when it came back into focus. He sat on the wall with one leg up and the other dangling over. With his thumb and forefinger, he plucked some morsel from a bag and tossed it into his mouth. “You can’t promise that sort of thing. We don’t make those decisions. Ignacio, my friend, you should know that it’s just the booze talking.” 

The young woman continued to snap pictures. “Look at this composition. The expression on his face. The old church. The ring of mountains in the background. It’s perfect.” 

 “That’s not up to you. So don’t pretend that it is.” The young man slid down from the wall and walked toward his wife, speaking in hushed tones just loud enough for Ignacio to hear. “Look, I’m just saying, don’t get his hopes up. Don’t build him up and disappoint him. It’s what you do, you know. And it’s not fair.” 

“What’s not fair,” said Ignacio, “is that I won’t be having a nice dinner with my family tonight if we don’t get packed up and start heading back into town.” He began to collect the garbage—the empty bottle and the aluminum foil from the sandwiches, the soiled napkins and plastic glasses. 

The ride back to the city was long and quiet. The three of them spoke to each other only when necessary. The young woman pretended to be absorbed with her notebooks. The young man bunched his sweater against the window and feigned sleep. Ignacio pretended that the drive, which stretched out smooth and monotonous after they’d left the hills, required his utmost concentration. 

“All you have to do is call, ‘Nacio. Dial the number once before you’re halfway home and hang up.” Benito droned on that night after Ana left the room to start the dishes, Estefan scrambling after her to play with a pot of sudsy water while his mother worked. Ignacio leaned back from the table and shook his head while his older brother spoke. But he didn’t interrupt Benito. “I’ll wait for you at the turn-off by the quarry. I’ve got a job out there anyway, so I’ll be there no matter what,” Benito said, as though offering to do Ignacio a favor instead of the other way around. “Slow down a bit when you get there so I can catch up. Pretend to tune the radio, maybe. Turn it to that station all the tourists like, the one that plays the accordion racket. I’ll take care of the rest. Just do what you have been, brother. Be a good driver, and take care of them. Show them the best stuff tomorrow night. The mezcal with the fat worms. None of that powdered stuff, ok? The real thing.” Benito smiled then—a dimpled, sheepish grin entirely at odds with what he had to say. “I’m telling you, I’m just going to scare them a little. Give them a good story. Something they can brag about later. Maybe put it in their book.”

Ignacio pushed his chair back briskly from the table, but Benito reached out and rested a hand on his arm. They won’t ever think of you, I promise. To them, it’ll seem like the cost of doing business. The kind of thing that happens out here on the highways. To people in expensive cars.” 

“And what if it doesn’t work? What if they don’t do what you want?”

“They will. They always do. People like that.” 

Ignacio shook off his brother’s grip then pressed the palms of his hands to his eyes. But hadn’t he expected all of this when he told Benito? “That’s enough,” he said. “I don’t want to hear any more.”

“You can have everything you want, you know. That little charter boat—a lease on one, anyhow, until you can buy your own. That life on the water you’ve always planned.” Benito gathered the dirty dishes in front of him and scraped the leftovers, the tiny bones and flecks of rice, onto a single plate. You don’t have to decide right now. If you don’t call, alright. Nothing will change. You can keep driving tourists around until you’re bent over. Like an old tree. And your friends will go home with no story to tell. Missing the most interesting part of the trip.” Benito shook his head. “I’m telling you, brother, they owe you. You deserve this. After everything you’ve done for them. And everything you’ve been through this year.” 

“I’m telling you, brother, they owe you. You deserve this. After everything you’ve done for them. And everything you’ve been through this year.” 

Ignacio shook his head and folded his hands in his lap. His fingers were smooth and strong now. Yet it was not hard to imagine them knobby and wrinkled, still steadying a thick steering wheel. But it wasn’t just the grim prospect of growing old so far away from the sea that bothered him. It was the thought of the young man, one leg swung over the cemetery wall, accusing him of being ecstatic at the thought of his picture on a glorified cookbook. 

It wasn’t until his brother stopped talking that Ignacio realized the sounds of clanking dishes in the kitchen had stopped. Ana was listening. What would she think of him now? He felt ashamed at having even listened to the idea. 

Estefan tumbled into the room and climbed into his uncle’s lap. Benito nuzzled the boy’s neck. “You’re a better man than I am, little brother. You do the right thing. Always.” 

That night, neither Ignacio nor his wife could fall asleep. At midnight, Ana sat up in bed and rose to open the window wider. She sat balanced on the sill, combing her long hair with her fingers. A man passing beneath on the street cleared his throat, and in the distance, a truck rattled over loose grating. 

“It’s not like they can’t afford it,” Ana said suddenly, as though continuing some longer conversation. She returned to the bed and lay on her side to face him then, her smile delicate and miserable in the near dark. She traced the contours of his face with her fingers and rested her hand on his chest. “They probably have insurance for this kind of thing, right? I bet they do. People like that—they always have insurance. Just in case. And if all Benito does is give them a good scare…” 

“There’s no such thing.” He pushed her hand away and turned over, stung by her sudden deference to Benito, a man she’d never trusted. More than anything else, Ignacio had always counted on his wife’s resolve, though it was hardly fair, he knew. What had happened to Estefan, and to their savings, had changed them both. “There’s no such thing as a good scare, Ana. And no one is going to do anything to them on my watch.”

But his wife’s words unsettled him, opened a door he thought was shut tight and let in a tiny crack of light. For a long time afterward, he lay awake. When he turned back toward his wife and curved himself around her to show he forgave her, she stiffened in his arms and rolled away from his embrace. 

He slept fitfully and woke early the next morning. The day was bright and fair, uncorrupted by the faint haze that usually hung over the city until noon. Before he left for work, Ignacio drank two cups of Ana’s coffee and flipped through the newspaper with his son, lingering over the advertisements for boats and yachts. 

“Is that the one, Papá?” Estefan tapped the picture of a used blue Boston Whaler—a Dauntless. 

“If it’s the one you like. That’s the one we’ll have someday.” 

Ana shook her head. “Don’t promise.” But he could tell from the way she looked at him, the way she hesitated, that she hoped he would. 

He would tell them the truth, he decided. It was the simplest thing, he said to himself as he brought the car around that evening. He would pick them up from their hotel and take them to the restaurant he’d chosen for them in the mountain town. He would explain to them that he didn’t want his picture in their book. Not on the shiny jacket or anywhere else. He’d refuse to take any credit at all for helping them. What he wanted instead was money. Enough to start his life over, to take his wife and his son far away from the city and its rattling streets, all these dusty vehicles bound by the land. Far from his brother—a man whose help he needed, but a man who took pleasure in corrupting him and would surely do the same thing to his son one day. All he needed was enough to get started, he would explain to them—enough to cover a down payment on a boat, a license, a couple months for moorage until the business took off. 

That night, after they’d had dinner and met with the chef, Ignacio told them he needed to talk. The hour was late, and the restaurant was empty except for the three of them. He bought them a round of drinks—a fine mezcal he hoped would remind them of their trips to the mountains and his own indispensability. It was important, he told them. The young man put his hand on the back of his wife’s chair, suddenly interested in what Ignacio had to say. He was the kind of man who relished a crisis, Ignacio knew. A man who would enjoy this crack in Ignacio’s professional exterior. 

Ignacio surveyed the golden interior of the restaurant, its thick draperies, dark corners, and scratched wood. It was a décor for tourists—imperial and prepossessing, ornate and shabby at once. “What I want to ask you for, friends,” he began, then stopped himself and cleared his throat. Why had he used that word—friends—when he knew it raised the couple’s hackles as much as it did his own? 

“What I’ve come to ask you for is fairness. What I deserve. A small fraction of what your book will bring in. But more than you’ve paid me so far.” He smiled at them, but they didn’t return the expression. Mirrored looks of skepticism and worry flashed across their thin faces. They didn’t so much as glance at each other, nor did they need to, united as they were in their suspicion and foregone refusal, as their silence now confirmed. “And the reason I ask—the reason I feel I can—is that I know you. I know you to be good people. Kind and generous and fair. Some of the best I’ve ever met.” Hearing the fulsome rise in his own voice, he began to panic. It sounded so different from the way he’d rehearsed it in the car. “I know you’ll understand when I explain how bad things are for me and my family.”

But in that moment, he could no longer ask for the simplest thing. So instead, he began to tell them the story of Estefan and his illness as though the events were unfolding then. He told them of the scorpion and the stay in the hospital as though it had happened days earlier. The sum it cost each day to keep his son alive. When he’d finished, his mouth was dry, and his upper lip was damp. The glow of the chandelier above them was no longer elegant but hot and gaudy. The rich smells of garlic and cumin from the kitchen were stifling. 

“That’s awful. Really awful.” The young woman brushed tiny crumbs from the table into her open hand. “I can’t imagine. I can’t think of what you must be going through. I don’t know how you could have kept this from us. If I were you, I wouldn’t be able to function. Or to stop talking about it.” She threw the crumbs to the floor and looked directly at him now, her gray eyes suddenly dark with anger and accusation. “We’ll do whatever we can to help. If you’d like us to speak to the doctors—to the medical staff there—we’d be happy to give them a call.”

“We’ll give you some more money, of course,” said the young man, turning away from the reproving glance of his wife. “We owe you that much. You’ve been an excellent guide–”

The young woman laid a hand on her husband’s arm and squeezed, a gesture of restraint, not encouragement, Ignacio could tell. “We can’t,” she said. “Unfortunately, we can’t offer you any more than we agreed. We have an advance for the book, of course. But it’s not much. Not enough. The rest all depends on how it sells. And that’s all speculation at this point. A long shot. Contrary to how it might seem, we get by job to job. Same as you.” 

Ignacio nodded, though he didn’t believe the young woman any more than she’d believed him. They sat together in the livid silence of their mutual suspicion. 

“I thought it wouldn’t hurt to ask,” he said quietly. But it did hurt, of course. A show of neediness changed everything. 

 “There must be something else we can do.” The young man stared at Ignacio with his watery blue eyes always on the verge of bloodshot, and Ignacio could see that he’d been wrong about him. He was a good man. A man who knew Ignacio was lying but who still wanted to help because he understood something about desperation and recognized that at least that part of Ignacio’s story was real. But his sympathy didn’t change the fact that Ignacio hated him. Nor that Ignacio would never move his family away from here. Never make a life in Puerto Angel. His boy would never learn to swim. Never learn to run a boat. 

But his sympathy didn’t change the fact that Ignacio hated him. Nor that Ignacio would never move his family away from here. Never make a life in Puerto Angel. His boy would never learn to swim. Never learn to run a boat.

“In the morning, I’ll send instructions,” the young man continued. “We’ll have a check cut for you, Ignacio. For an additional amount. Not much more, but more than we agreed to. And if you can think of anything else we can do, well, let us know.” 

“We’ll release you, of course. From your agreement with us. It goes without saying that we’ll let you off the hook right away.” The crisp formality of the young woman’s words stung him then, her voice stripped of the warm admiration Ignacio had taken so much pleasure in the past few weeks. “You need to tend to your family now. Family is the most important thing.” She bent down to collect her purse then pushed back forcefully from the table, and her husband followed suit, their chairs scraping along the tiled floors as they stood. They would catch a cab back to their hotel, the young woman said, as she shrugged into the sweater held out to her by the young man, suddenly tender and solicitous beside her. “We can fend for ourselves.”

“Let me take you,” said Ignacio. “I insist on it. The hotel is on the way to the hospital, and you’ll never find another driver this late. Not all the way out here. It’s the least I can do. Please. Let me at least see you home safely tonight.” The two of them hesitated, the young man shifting from foot to foot, the young woman rummaging through her handbag. But their discomfort was no longer of concern to Ignacio. 

“Alright,” said the young man at last. The young woman shook her head and retrieved a small mirror and lipstick from her handbag. She managed a broad, stiff smile as she poked her head in the kitchen and quickly thanked the chef, a large red-faced man whom Ignacio had known from grammar school. 

Ignacio held the car door for the young woman and closed it gently behind her as he always did. This time, however, she didn’t thank him. He slid behind the wheel and triggered the locks, the sound of them staccato and final. In the rearview mirror, he watched the young man and his wife exchange a look of anxious irritation as if to say to the other, “you’re overreacting.” 

As Ignacio drove down the mountain road and merged onto the lonely highway, the young woman and her husband grew still and quiet behind him, holding hands and staring out their opposite windows into the dark. Halfway to the hotel, Ignacio quietly pulled out his phone and set it on the passenger seat beside him, imagined dialing his brother’s number. “Ana,” he’d say gently, cradling the phone against his ear. “Cariño. I’m on my way back.” He ran his fingers over the smooth plastic edge and glanced back at the couple in the rearview mirror. Asleep now and slumped against each other in the middle of the seat, they looked small and forlorn, like children. Ignacio leaned over and shoved the phone as far into the depths of the glove compartment as he could. He softly closed the door. Then he rolled the windows up against the mountain air, which had run from cool to cold. 

“Life on the Water” by Margaret Lent and the artwork titled Take us to the Ruins by Danielle Tran appeared in Issue 42 of Berkeley Fiction Review.

Margaret Lent lives in the Bay Area with her husband, two children, and two giant dogs.  She is currently at work on her first novel.  

Danielle Tran is an undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, studying English and (if she’s feeling spicy) Classics. When not drawing or writing, Danielle can be found listening to the Kung Fu Panda 2 soundtrack on repeat. She is a life-long Bay Area resident.

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