Liliana laid her mother’s journal down on her lap. The breeze was warm and the occasional sound of a locust buzzing made its way through the silence and Liliana suddenly began to remember. She remembered the vineyard and being there with her mother. She was young, maybe three, and they had come to the vineyard to see her grandparents. It was Easter and the locusts were buzzing and decorating the trees with their translucent skins.
Liliana remembered chasing them as they hovered just out her small reach before spotting one, dangling from the side of a low hanging branch. She snatched it up and having no pockets she stuffed the locust into her shirt. It buzzed in desperation, trying to find a way out, but the vibrations tickled her skin and she ran through the yard laughing and wriggling around. And then she caught another one, and then another and by lunchtime she had six locusts buzzing beneath her clothes.
She sat at the kitchen table, a low hum still erupting from the collar of her shirt until her mother asked her what that sound was. A second later one of the locusts managed to escape, flying out of Liliana’s sleeve before dizzying out on the kitchen table. Liliana’s grandmother shook her by the arm until they all fell free. She was furious, swatting Liliana on the backside until she ran crying into her mother’s arms, who was trying to stifle a laugh.
The sound flitted there at the edge of Liliana’s memory. When her mother laughed, she laughed with her whole body, completely uninhibited and unladylike. It was a beautiful and contagious sound. So contagious it could even infect Liliana’s shy and silent father. Liliana crossed her arms, remembering her mother’s warmth and her sweet smelling skin, inhaling the memory until it made her chest ache.
The voice startled her. Liliana closed her mother’s journal and looked up to see Diego’s father leaning on a shovel in front of her. She stood up, wiping the dirt off of her pants.
“Vargas,” he finished for her.
“Mr. Vargas.” Liliana reached out her hand. “I’m Liliana.”
“I know. I’ve seen you runnin’ around with my boy Diego.”
“Yes sir, he’s been showing me around the city.”
It wasn’t a complete lie, but it wasn’t exactly the truth either. The only parts of the city he had actually shown her were the dangerous ones.
Diego’s father looked down, allowing a few of the overhead branches to cast a shadow on his face. He had dark caramel skin, so dark it was almost red, with not one crease or blemish making him look ten years younger than he actually was. His eyes were just like Diego’s too—chameleons that absorbed the color of their surroundings, blinking a pale green, then yellow, before settling into dark honey shade.
“Good. I’m glad he’s helping you.”
“Me too,” Liliana said, trying to cut the uncomfortable silence.
Diego’s father just swayed back and forth, leaning against the shovel. His lips were pursed in anticipation.
“I knew a little of your mother,” he finally said, “Isabella.”
“I mostly just heard how much of a handful she was for your grandparents. I didn’t move on to the property until after she married your father but one of the workers who used to live here said he always used to see her, climbing out of her bedroom window at night and running off to God knows where.”
Liliana was beginning to see that her mother was much more than the handful of memories she had of her and the more she was getting to know this new person, who her mother really was, the more it felt like she was losing her for the first time all over again.
“I bet your father wishes those boards were still up. Just in case there’s more of your mother in you than he realized. Especially since that dance club La Rosa Negra where all us kids used to go to isn’t all that far from here.”
“A dance club…”
Liliana’s mind retreated to that dark corner of the club, to the two-seater booth where her mother used to sit, waiting for Ben.
“Is it off the main road?” Liliana asked.
Diego’s father nodded.
“Follow it all the way downtown and you’ll see it.”
“And you saw her there?”
“A few times, her and that little one Trini. I had forgotten her name until Diego asked me about her the other day. Sorry I wasn’t able to help you find her.”
Liliana tried to shrug off the disappointment. She slid her fingers beneath the cover of the journal and tucked some of the loose pages back into the spine.
Her fingers lingered there on the familiar ribbing as she spoke. “Mr. Vargas, do you remember what happened to Trini’s stepfather?”
“Her stepfather?” he repeated. “I think I saw it in the newspaper. He was run over by a car. He was dead when they found him.”
“So that’s how he died? From the impact?”
“Probably. That’s not what people were saying around town at the time but you know how people like to talk.”
“What did they say?”
“Said that wife of his finally got tired of his shit and done away with him.”
“They said she killed him?”
“Well, it just seemed a little suspicious that he would just pass out right there in the middle of the road. It was obvious he had been drinking; everyone knew he was a drunk, but…I don’t know. There’s no way that woman could have moved him that far. He was a big son of a bitch.”
“Did the police ever question her?”
“I’m not sure. But it was never ruled a homicide. The truck that hit him was speeding and the driver nearly cut him in half. It was pretty obvious what killed him if he hadn’t already been dead before he got there. But like I said, there was no way she could have moved him. It was all just a bunch of gossip.”
Liliana glanced down at her fingers, pulsing and numb where she had been pressing them between the journal’s spine. They were right. Someone had dragged Trini’s stepfather out into the middle of that dirt road. But it hadn’t been Trini’s mother who had done it, it had been Liliana’s.
She replayed her mother’s recollection, every terse line and cold word, wading through them as they swelled with reality. She had known he was dead, had read about Trini’s guilt, and yet Liliana would not allow herself to make that leap, to put his blood on her mother’s hands, on the mother she had only ever seen as a victim.
But she couldn’t read her mother’s words as if they were fiction anymore like all of the other books she had ever read. These weren’t the remnants of someone else’s imagination that she was consuming but a life.
And then, as if he could see the betrayal twisting behind Liliana’s eyes, Diego’s father said, “Your mother, she may have been a little wild. But she was a good person.”
He pulled the shovel from the ground and then stood there a moment as if he had more to say. Liliana’s eyes pleaded with him to continue.
“Diego,” he started, “he’s good too. I hope you will be a good friend to him.”
His tone was serious and it took Liliana off guard.
“Of course,” she said, unsure of what exactly he needed to hear from her, or what exactly he was trying to say to her.
“There was something else,” he said. “I don’t know how much Diego has said…about me.” He stared at the ground. “It’s true. I have my demons and I know he’s the one who really…suffers. But I’m not a monster. I love my son.”
He burned down General Calvo’s house, I said to Trini. I couldn’t stop thinking about that little girl. Her face so swollen with grief and tears and then Trini, almost smiling at the fact that Adrian wasn’t seeing someone else after all. I grabbed her shoulders and shook her until she started to wince. Listen to me, I said, he killed people.
Then the tears finally started coming but even then I think it was just because I had hurt her, not because Adrian had murdered almost an entire family, left them to burn, and in the middle of daylight. What a goddamn idiot, I thought. But then she stopped, waves cutting the sand around her feet, and said, but so have we. Her words, mingled with a weary child-like cadence, startled me. But I didn’t show it. Instead I said, it’s different. It’s all I could say. And then I walked away, leaving her and her revelation sinking in the tide.
This morning I could hear Papá doing something down in the basement. It was early so I brought him coffee and was surprised when I saw that he had cleared out the entire space. I could finally see the floor. What are you going to put down here, I asked him. Us, he said, there was an attack at the pink house, it’s starting. You really think we’ll have to hide down here, I asked, we’re so far from the city. I don’t know, but just to be safe I wanted to get it ready, he said.
Adrian wasn’t in my first class again but my professor finally showed up. He came in late and he looked like he had been sweating. He was mumbling something to himself, like a list, and when he finally addressed the class he was practically whispering. He closed the door and pulled the shade down over the small window. You have to get rid of your books, he said. We stared at him in silence, confused. Burn them, he said. At that point we all began to fully absorb his terror. He told us the military was sending over a general to take over the University and that they were going to get rid of all materials that could be considered subversive.
This meant there would be no more Psychology, Sociology, Arts, Science, or Journalism programs. Any students belonging to any clubs having to do with those subjects could be taken in for questioning. Questioning for what, somebody asked. Our professor pulled a piece of cloth from his jacket pocket and started to wipe his face. Many of your fellow University students have apparently been working with the Montoneros and the ERP, he said, and the junta won’t stop until every single rebel has been arrested.
He finally dismissed us and he said it would be for the last time. Our program had obviously been suspended and no one knew when it would be re-instated or if it ever would. He reminded us again to get rid of our books and anything else that may seem free-thinking or rebellious. Walking down the halls, everyone’s faces looked the same, drained and heavy. I walked outside and military vehicles were parked on the grass, in front of doorways, and lined against the street.
I cut through the bushes instead of walking along the sidewalk and kept my head down. Someone grabbed me from behind and pulled me into a small alcove. Before I even had time to scream I realized it was Adrian. He had his hand over my mouth and was telling me to be quiet. I struggled and tried to pry his arms away from me. I unhinged my jaw and dug my teeth into his palm. He growled and cursed and finally let go. What the hell, he said, you knew it was me. I don’t care who you are, don’t ever put your hands on me again, I said. He held his hands up in surrender. Ok, ok, he said, I just need to talk to you. What, I snapped at him.
I suddenly realized how dangerous it would be if I was found with him. If they found his stupid gold armband and me standing next to him, talking to him, it would all be over, it wouldn’t matter what I said. What the hell is wrong with you, I said, why are you wearing that thing out in public. He looked down. It’s a part of the initiation, he said, I’m in the walking target phase. What does that mean, I asked him. It meant that he had to wear the armband in plain sight to prove he was willing to defend the cause and the ERP no matter what.
It was a part of the initiation process yes, but what Adrian didn’t know, what I heard on the bus just half an hour later, was that the ERP was using their recruits wearing armbands to draw out the enemy in an attempt to exterminate them in smaller numbers. And if a few recruits were killed every now and then…well that didn’t matter much to the ERP as long as they were making ground with the junta. Is that why you burned down General Calvo’s house, in the middle of the day, I spit at him. Hey, he snapped back, I’m not the enemy in all of this, I came to talk to you for a reason, to help you. Help me, what are you talking about, I said. One of my guys found out something I think you should know, he said. I started to inhale and I tried so hard not to, but I just started laughing at him. Your guys, I said. He grabbed my shoulders, the way I had grabbed Trini to try to shake some sense into her. Damn it Isabella, he said, this is real fucking shit. Ok, I said, I’m sorry, go ahead. For some sick reason the military is adding Jews to the list of people on their target list. I thought you would want to know, so you could tell Ben, he said.
My mouth went dry and I started to get that stabbing pain in my throat like I do when I’m trying not to cry. I opened my mouth but nothing came out except for a tiny string of my hot breath, escaping like fog into the chill air. I’m sorry, he said. Why, I croaked. We have a few theories, he said, but none of them make any sense. I told him to tell me but he shook his head. Will you see him tonight, he asked. I nodded and he started to leave. Wait, I said. He turned on his heel and kept one eye on the soldiers patrolling the campus and the other on me. What, he whispered. I took a deep breath. I don’t give a shit what you do in your free time, who you kill, or how many houses you burn down, I said, but Trini is my sister and if anything happens to her and I find out it was because of you, I swear to God, I will fucking kill you, got it.
When I got home from school Manuel and his brother Raul were there. Manuel had run into my father in town and when he’d mentioned that he was doing some work on the basement, getting it ready just in case, Manuel, looking for every possible opportunity to kiss my father’s ass, asked him if he needed any help. Raul was his usual pleasant self. As soon as I walked in I could feel his eyes on me and their sting still lingered even after I had gone up to my room and shut the door. I always feel guilty around Manuel.
We were best friends all through grade school. We even tried dating once. At first it felt natural; it was innocent and good. But then one day I was walking home from school and I stopped by Trini’s house to visit her. She had been sick that day so I brought her homework to her and stayed for a little while to cure her boredom and to make sure her mother was taking proper care of her. She actually was for once, and she sent me home with a cup of soup to prove it.
By the time I started walking home from Trini’s it was already dark. I heard a truck coming up the road. They drove passed me and I thought they were going to keep going but then they stopped not far ahead and just idled there. Someone was poking their head out of the window and calling for me. I couldn’t tell who it was at first, it was getting too dark but as I got closer I could see that it was Joe, one of Manuel and Raul’s friends. Hey Manuel asked me to come pick you up, he said. Another voice came from inside the cab. I recognized it as Raul’s. He told me Manuel had asked them to come by my house and see if I would come and see him.
I looked down the road at the vineyard. The lights were all on at the house; it was still early so I decided to go with them. Ok, I said, but I can’t stay long. Manuel lives closer to town but his family owns a large stretch of land where they keep horses and cattle. The far edge of their property is only an hour’s walk from the vineyard. I could see that we were reaching the outskirts of the property and the house was lit up and glowing in the distance. The truck turned into an opening in the fence. We were headed for the barn and away from the house.
Why are we going over here, I said. Joe glanced at Raul but he just stared straight ahead, not looking at Joe, not looking at either of us. I clutched tight to my bag. The truck pulled to a stop and both doors flew open. Raul walked to the barn and Joe grabbed my arm and pulled me outside. What the fuck, I said trying to steady my voice. Joe put his hand on the back of my head and led me inside the barn. It was dark but once my eyes adjusted I could see Raul leaning against one of the wooden beams.
Raul what are you doing, I said, where’s Manuel. He stayed completely silent. Joe pushed me against the wall and started to run his hands down my arms and over my hips. He reached for the button on my jeans. His mouth was in the crook of my neck and I could smell the sweet tinge of alcohol on his breath. I started to scream and I managed to swing back my left foot and kick in Joe’s knee. He reached for it and I twisted my shoulders out of his grasp but his body still had me pinned to the wall so I screamed again and a second later Raul’s hand was over my mouth. Shut up you stupid bitch, he said. He pressed his mouth to my ear. Now, if you don’t cooperate, he said, I’m going to have to tell Manuel about what just happened; how Joe had his hands all over you, and you let him, you fucking slut. I bit into the thin skin between his thumb and pointer finger. My teeth broke through his flesh and he howled.
I heard the sound of dried grass and twigs crackling underneath someone’s boots. A small light was shining far off in the distance on the other side of the door. Fuck, Joe said. I reached for my bag, and started to run for the door. Raul grabbed me and I started to scream again. The footsteps moved closer. I reached inside my bag and silently pulled the plastic lid off of the cup of soup. Steam rose and singed my fingertips. I took a step away from the door. Good girl, Raul said. He loosened his grip and I threw the steaming liquid into his face. His hands flew up, reaching for his scalded skin and I ran. I ran all the way to the edge of the property and then down the desolate dirt road back to the vineyard, cutting through trees, cleaved to the shadows.
The next day after school Manuel walked up to me and asked if we could talk in private. I followed him to an empty table and we sat down. Is something going on with you and Joe, he asked me. I gritted my teeth and I felt like I was going to vomit. Did you really just ask me that question, I said. I heard something, he said, look I have a right to know. He started to yell but then stopped himself. Did you see him, he said. I stayed silent. I couldn’t speak. I felt that if I opened my mouth I would be opening all of me—my memory, my shame, my anger. Something did happen, I finally said. Manuel slammed his fists down on the table and turned his face away from me. What, he spit. I stood up and he tried to grab my arm.
The presence of his hand gripping my forearm turned everything black. I lost control and suddenly the palm of my hand was sliding across his face. The imprint of my fingers glowed red against his skin. You’re right, I said, something did happen. I looked him straight in the eye. Joe tried to force himself on me and you’re brother…your brother helped him do it. I walked away and he didn’t follow me. He just sat there.
He never confronted Raul about what I had said. He just let it go and he let me go and I haven’t forgiven him for that. It’s obvious that he hasn’t forgiven himself either which is why he’s always hanging around; trying to remind me that he is good. But the truth is it will never matter how hard he tries. He chose Raul. He will always choose Raul. The brother who took the brunt of their father’s fury by default because of his age, the brother whose body was their buffer, their sacrificial lamb and the brother who wields those scars like a crown of thorns. Though when I look at him, at the way those rippling scars have changed his face and his hands, still rising from his skin with the same indignation he’s managed to sustain himself on, it’s not a hero I see but a monster.
He hadn’t noticed it in the soft red glow of the sunset as he was leading her into the truck, but inside, just inches away from her, he could see that Liliana’s eyes were swollen, tiny red freckles spreading out from them bridge of her nose and along her cheeks.
“Are you okay?” he said.
Liliana pulled her shirtsleeve over her fingertips and wiped her nose, turning her face from him. Diego leaned forward instinctively, closing the space between them for just a second before he changed his mind and sat back.
“If you don’t want to go tonight, I can take you tomorrow,” he said.
She shook her head and Diego waited a moment before starting the engine.
“Are you sure?” he said, reaching out to her with every invisible part of himself. His hand was desperately trying to will itself to slide across the seat between them and rest on Liliana’s skin. But it wouldn’t budge.
“I’m fine,” Liliana said, “really. Let’s go.”
Neither of them said another word until they finally stopped at a building just off the main road. There were large semi-trucks parked along the back and a faint orange light streaming from inside slid through the hinges, outlining the doorway. The bar looked like the carcass of some wild beast, all bare bones and grey; thrown in a heap on the side of the road. The door swung open and two shadows came tumbling down the front steps, their loud assault on the night cut by gunshots and dry voices. Liliana’s fingernails dug into the foam of her seat.
“We’re going in there?”
Diego looked at her with playful concern. “We’re not in the states,” he said, “we’re in Argentina, the wild.”
Her eyes feigned fierceness for a moment before slipping back to a placid cautiousness and Diego tried to hide his smile. The man holding the rifle was Louis Paz. He was the father of Diego’s best friend, Marcos, and he was shooting blanks.
Diego stepped out of the truck and Liliana slid out behind him, the wind catching the door and slamming it shut. Liliana jumped and Diego was surprised at how quickly her boldness had evaporated. A cold wind bit at Diego through his clothes as he made out the dark swirling outline of a thunderstorm. The wind pulled at them, uninhibited and suddenly Diego’s fingers were hooked around Liliana’s wrist, pulses warm and erratic against each other as he led her up the steps of the bar and out of the cold.
“Diego Montoya Vargas, where the hell you been?”
A tall and stringy guy in a t-shirt splattered with grease stains jumped down from the bar.
“You came to play or what?” he said.
Then he spotted Liliana, shuddering and shielded behind Diego’s shoulder.
“I guess you don’t really need to,” he laughed.
“Liliana, this is Marcos.”
Marcos took Liliana by the hand and led her through the crowd of high school dropouts and unconscious truck drivers.
“So you guys on some kind of date? I hate to tell you this but my friend Diego is,”
“Is what?” Diego smirked.
“So you mean I’m not an asshole,” Diego huffed.
“No, but you’re a dick. So where’d you find this one?”
Diego ignored Marcos. “We came to see if we could talk to Drigo.”
“Drigo? What the hell for?”
Diego scanned the crowded bar. “It’s busy tonight,” he said. “Can we talk in the back?”
Marcos led them behind the bar and into the kitchen. The space was narrow but Marco’s father Louis had still managed to fit a green plastic card table near a low window. Someone was sitting on the windowsill facing the glass and when he heard their footsteps he slipped outside through a heavy metal door. Louis, all 300 pounds of him, was straddling an old wooden stool and shuffling a deck of cards. His shotgun was leaning against the wall in front of him.
“Found some tourists.” Marcos’ voice swelled in the small space.
“Better not be more of those potheads from the University,” Louis said as he turned to face them.
When he saw Diego he laughed, sticking out his hand, But when Diego stepped forward, reaching for it, the man yanked on his arm, spinning him around until he had him in a headlock. Marcos laughed and Louis loosened his grip just long enough to sprawl Diego, stomach first, over his knee.
“You owe me forty bucks you piece of shit.”
Then he pushed Diego back onto his feet before stumbling over to a closet. When he came back he handed Diego a guitar.
Louis, Marcos, and Liliana squeezed behind the bar as Diego dragged his feet toward a bar stool at the far end of the room.
“I thought he didn’t play in public,” Liliana said.
“Oh you mean because of Andrés?” Marcos asked.
“He doesn’t exactly get out much. Did Diego tell you his parents were musicians? They used to play all over town, even played here a couple of times, before Marina left and Andrés went crazy.” Marcos popped the top off a beer and pulled it to his lips. “That’s how Diego and I met. When we were small enough we used to crawl underneath the bar stools and look up girl’s skirts.”
Marcos pinched his bottom lip and sent a sharp whistle in Diego’s direction before taking another drink of his beer.
“People, they miss Andrés and Marina, they love when Diego plays for them because it’s almost like old times. In exchange for the trip down memory lane, nobody mentions it to his dad.”
Diego sat down and hiked his feet up against the legs of the stool. He pulled the strap over his shoulder and plucked a few strings.
“Shit, you couldn’t at least tune it for me?” he called out over the crowd.
“You’re the expert,” Marcos yelled.
Diego’s gaze drifted toward the ceiling as one hand plucked each string and the other methodically twisted the silver tuning pegs, coaxing out the perfect sound. Satisfied, he let his hand fall across every string before nodding at Marcos and Louis.
“Alright, this is for the cock suckers at the bar,” he yelled.
Marcos clapped and gave him the finger. Then Diego started to play and suddenly his strumming was accompanied by the sound of chair legs scraping across the floor as people turned to face him. The drunken ones started clapping and a few started to yell, tossing their heads back, rolling and clicking their tongues. The notes began to swell, picking up speed and Diego drummed along the wooden face of the guitar with his knuckles.
He was hunched over, his arms pumping out each note and rocking the stool off its hind legs. It looked as if he might fall over but every time the stool seemed like it was about to fly out from underneath him, the wooden legs would slam back down into the floor in perfect rhythm. Everyone in the bar was sitting at an angle, shoulders rolled forward, elbows slung over knees—their bodies stretched out towards the music and their eyes, already glazed by alcohol, made them seem like they were in some kind of trance.
Marcos and Louis abandoned Liliana behind the bar and carried shiny aluminum tip jars through the crowd of people, the sound of coins bouncing off the metal bottom catching Diego’s attention, enticing his fingers toward an even more complicated melody. They hung there between music and mysticism—every note trapped in the low end as the people watching held their breath.
Their rumbling slowed, cut only by a few drunken wails and sporadic clapping. Diego put one foot on the ground to steady himself, the rubber sole of his boot gripping him against the concrete floor. His lids were drawn, eyes behind them dancing as he wielded each note like the fine end of a brush, leading the cante to fruition.
Then he opened his eyes, fingers lingering as they descended over every steel string—the vibrations casted off into silence, and then he collapsed, slumping into his seat, sweat trailing down his forearm and onto the worn wood.
In the kitchen, Diego followed Marcos to the storage closet to grab some extra chairs, Liliana close on his heels until they reached the door.
“So, really, man what’s the deal with her?” Marcos whispered when they were inside and out of her earshot.
Diego quickly glanced over his shoulder. “Boss’ daughter.”
“Ahuh,” Marcos huffed, “you sure that’s it?”
“It’s work. That’s it.”
“Well she’s hot and she’s got that whole American accent thing going on. You mind if I…”
“Go to hell Marcos.”
Marcos laughed and slapped Diego on the shoulder. “I knew it,” Marcos said as he handed Diego a stack of chairs. “Just work my ass,” he mumbled.
They unfolded the chairs around a small card table where Louis was already pouring the contents of the tip jars across the plastic surface and counting the money. Mixed in with the cash and coins were a few cigarette butts and some used napkins. Something dark and lacy spilled out from the jar. Marcos lightly pinched the fabric between his pointer finger and his thumb.
“What the hell, man, you don’t even have to buy them dinner and you still get them out of their…”
“You know what? I think I’ll let you keep those,” Diego cut him off.
But Marcos didn’t seem to hear Diego’s quip. He was peering out of the dust-covered window, looking for the faint red glow of a cigarette butt.
“Zalo out there again?” Marcos asked Louis.
Louis nodded and turned to Diego. “He’s been doing that lately, goes outside like he’s about to light up a cigarette and then just keeps walking until he can’t see the lights anymore.”
Louis patted one of the empty chairs, motioning for Diego to sit down.
“He’ll be back, just leave that door unlocked, Marcos.”
Marcos jiggled the handle, testing it, before he sat down.
“They’re looking for Drigo,” he said nodding toward Liliana.
“Liliana’s looking for some people who knew her mom,” Diego said. “One of them was in the ERP. Drigo was the only person I could think of who might know something about that.”
“The ERP? What are you two working for the devil or something?” Louis looked at Liliana. “You some kind of grim reaper?”
Liliana’s face flushed with a pale vacancy and Louis laughed.
“You might be right, man. To find a ghost I guess you’d have to be a ghost. Drigo will know.”
“So where is he?”
“Not here? Where’d he go? I thought he was always here.”
“He is always here. Calm down, he just went into town for some stuff for the bar. He should be back in an hour.”
“Do you want to wait?”
Diego turned to Liliana and she nodded.
“What about Zalo?”
Louis and Marcos groaned in unison.
“Zalo…he hasn’t been doing too good.”
“Yeah, he’s always been creepy as shit but it’s like he’s getting worse,” Marcos added as he peered out of the window again.
“What’s wrong with him?” Liliana spoke up.
The only sound that filled the tiny space was the buzz from the porch light outside. Louis shook his head.
“What’s not wrong with him?” Marcos said with a weak laugh.
“Towards the end of the war, there were a lot more women and young girls disappearing for no reason,” Diego started warily. “Zalo’s niece was one of them. There was talk that they were being sold.”
“Like prostitution?” Liliana asked.
“Zalo found out where one of the ‘sorting houses’ was,” Louis added, “where they decided which girls were going where. It was in a big abandoned warehouse just outside the city and below the warehouse was one of their clubs. The front of the club was just like a regular bar but when clients would come in they would bring the girls out for them to see and then they’d pick one to take to one of the other rooms. Zalo found out there were even a few musicians who played there and that’s when he applied for a job.”
“He pretended to be blind so that there would be no reason to suspect him of spying,” Diego said. “He even went so far as to change the physical appearance of his eyes. I have no idea what he did to them, or how, but he fooled all of them and they hired him. He would wear dark sunglasses every night while he played that way his eyes could wander all around the room looking for girls who had been taken. Family members of the disappeared would give him photos of their daughters and sisters and nieces and he would memorize their faces so that if he saw them at the club he could let the families know that they were still alive.”
“What happened when he recognized some of them at the club? Did he help them escape?”
“Well he would tell the families and since every girl at the club was for sale, for the right price, the families had the chance to buy them back. A male relative would take the money to the club and pretend he just wanted to buy his own personal prostitute and if he had enough money there was a chance that he could buy back whoever had been taken.”
“That’s amazing. How many people did he save doing that?”
“I don’t know.”
“I can’t imagine what kind of fucked up shit he saw when he was there,” Marcos cut in, “and all of the times that he had to just sit by and watch, otherwise they would have killed him too and then he wouldn’t have been able to help anyone else. With all of that on his conscious it’s no wonder he can never sleep.”
At that moment Zalo’s silhouette passed by the window, his dark frame slinking inside as they all fell silent. Diego could sense the moment Liliana saw his eyes for the first time and he heard the breath she had been taking catch inside her throat. She stiffened.
His eyes were small like an animal’s and the raw skin around them was dark, flushes of red carved along his lash line. His pupils were black and bleeding into the irises, the white’s of his eyes dull and grey. It wasn’t until he blinked that you could be certain there was any life in them. Zalo seemed to feel the heat of Liliana’s eyes on him and something like a wince cut between his teeth as if he had been burned. When he finally met her gaze, Diego watched as something strange flashed across his expression, as if her face had shaken him loose, as if it had triggered something dark inside of him. Louis was speaking to him but it was as if he couldn’t hear them. His lips, shaking, began to pull in air, but before he could form any words, Louis had him by one of his shoulders and was shaking him.
“What the hell Zalo, you look like you seen a fuckin’ ghost.”
Zalo rubbed his palms on his knees and tried to huff out a reassuring laugh. He blamed his moment of mental absence on his lack of sleep before moving to sit down across from Liliana and Diego.
She turned away from him and Diego could feel her knees pushing into the side of his thigh. When he felt her skin sliding across his pant leg, his fingers crept toward her but instead of touching her he balled up his fists and tried to get the conversation back on track.
“She’s looking for someone,” Diego said, motioning to Liliana, “some people who knew her mother.”
“Who was your mother?” Zalo suddenly said.
“Isabella Ruiz Serrano. She was killed in the war.”
“So you’re not looking for her?”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t, Zalo,” Diego stopped him.
“What is he talking about?” Liliana said.
“Nothing. I’m just some kind of fucking lunatic. Haven’t they told you already?” Zalo stood and kicked his chair out of the way before heading out into the bar.
“Who are you looking for?” Louis said, his voice low and apologetic.
“Trinidad Suarez and Adrian Monroe,” Liliana said.
“Trinidad…Trinidad, you mean Trini?” Louis asked.
“So you know her,” Diego said.
“I knew her. That was back when the ERP was trying to lay down a spot. The Montoneros had The Mill and the rabbit houses and the ERP wanted their own hang out for making their bombs and hit lists and shit. They tried to meet here for a while but that wasn’t going to happen. But I remember her. There weren’t many young girls runnin’ around with those guys but she was always with some stick of a thing, tall and greasy. Hardly a man at all.”
“What happened to them? Do you know?”
“Who Trini and that guy? Probably went underground. They all had to after a while.”
“Underground…” Liliana cut in.
“Yeah, you know, into hiding. They had to spread out, too, so that the junta couldn’t track their numbers.”
A steel door at the far side of the kitchen swung open and a man wheeled in a stack of cardboard boxes on a dolly.
“There’s Drigo,” Marcos said and waved him over.
Drigo was a tall man with a long thin face. His cheekbones jutted out from beneath his wrinkled skin and his large eyes were sunken into deep plum sockets. He was wearing a long black raincoat that glistened like it was made of oil.
“Drigo,” Marcos said, “got a minute?”
Drigo shook his coat over the sink and laid it on the counter.
“You got a chair or am I gonna have to pull up a tree stump,” he said looking at everyone on their makeshift seats.
“Take mine,” Marcos said.
“This is Liliana, a friend of Diego’s. She’s looking for someone, an old ERP member. Name’s Adrian Monroe. He had a girlfriend named Trini. You know ‘em?”
Drigo pulled a cigarette from his pocket and pursed it between his lips. He glanced up at the ceiling.
“Monroe,” he said quietly to himself. “Monroe, yeah I know him. Not much of him to know anymore. Went a little off the edge after the war.”
“Do you know if he’s still alive,” Liliana said.
“Barely.” The word floated out, trapped in the smoke from Drigo’s cigarette.
“Vines. Somewhere on Vines. I think in those apartments.”