Stop at Guadalajara

Submitted for Contest #37 in response to: Write a story about a valuable object that goes missing.... view prompt

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Submitted on 04/18/2020

Categories: Mystery

I had that pocket watch with me all the way from Guatemala City, over to Panajachel on Lake Atitlan, down to Antigua, and up the dirt roads through the jungles to Lake Flores, hitchhiking with the Gonzalez sisters all the way. The watch was gold—well, gold-filled, whatever that means, and it looked like it was worth some money. All through Guatemala, the men who picked us up suggested, only half-jokingly that I let them have the watch and it was clear as they looked at the girls, it wasn’t only the watch they were interested in. Elicia understood that and burned holes right through their heads with her volcanic eyes. Her sister Chita was no pushover, but she never had a chance to show it standing as she did in the shadow of her younger, more powerful sister.


I pretended to myself and to the men that I didn’t notice the non-joking half of their suggestions and consistently declined. After Flores, a large pickup piled high with bags of rice stopped to pick us up. Two men stepped out of the truck, both with those straw cowboy hats which are a good idea in the heat of the Northern Lowlands of Guatemala. The thin man had a bushy mustache that covered his lip. A huge paunch hung over the belt of the other man. They suggested the two girls could snuggle in between the two of them in the cab and they could stuff me in the back with the bags of rice. I considered climbing in until the one with the paunch said I'd have to squat down in the back corner of the truck bed so he could pull the tarp over me and the rice to keep everything safe. Then, he eyed the gold chain hanging down from my watch and suggested I let him keep it in the cab so it wouldn't get banged around in the back of the truck. I shook my head, "No, I don't think so. It'll be safe right here with me."


"Give it to me,” he said, “I’ll give you a fair price.” There was no half-joking in his voice, or in his eyes.


Elicia could hear from where she sat in the cab. The passenger door suddenly burst open and she jumped to the dirt shoulder of the road and ran to the back of the truck. "He's not getting in the truck. We are not getting in the truck. We are not interested in you, we're not interested in a ride. Forget about us, forget about the watch. Drive your truck, we are not going with you."


The fat man stared at her. She stared back with her coal-black eyes. You couldn't mess with Elicia. There was no give. He looked at me, he looked down at my watch chain, looked back at Elicia, then shouted over to his partner, "Vamanos,” and the truck dipped down on the driver’s side as he climbed in. The tires left little puffs of dust on the dry dirt of the road as they drove off. 


The rest of the trip took only took another couple of hours in a Toyota pickup driven by three teenagers stuffed into the cab of the small truck. We climbed into the back with no misgivings except that there was a rifle hanging in the back of the cab clearly visible through the rear window. We drove for about an hour before, without warning, the driver slammed on the brakes and grabbed the rifle from the rack.  My adrenaline went into overdrive as the doors to the cab flew open and the boys jumped out and raced into the woods.  We heard two shots ring out and after a pause, another, then silence. Ten minutes later, the boys came back, piled into the cab, put the gun back on the rack and got the truck back in gear.


Once we got to Tikal we actually did lose something, but it was not my gold watch. After a day of exploring the temple ruins, we hand-washed our sweat-soaked T-shirts and, in Elicia's case, her bikini-top, in a basin kindly provided by the management of the campground we were staying in and hung them on a line strung between two trees behind our tent. When we got up in the morning, Elicia’s bikini top was missing. She was determined to search the entire five hundred-some square kilometers of the park for the thief, but the camp manager was able to calm her down a bit, suggesting it might have been a small animal. They were known to snatch such things from time to time. Elicia didn’t buy it and it put a serious dent in her mood for the rest of the day, but she gave up the hunt and we resumed exploring the ruins. Fortunately, Elicia’s bikini top was the worst of our losses during our travels through her beautiful country.


Mexico was not so lucky for me. I had to say goodbye to the Gonzales sisters in the capital City. They were heading back to Guatemala after a brief tour of Mexico City and I was on my way back to the States to see my sister in San Diego. With the Gonzales sisters at my side I’d felt courageous hitchhiking through Guatemala, but I wasn’t so confident about hitchhiking through the couple thousand kilometers of Mexico to the US border on my own, so I used most of the money I had left to buy a bus ticket to Tijuana. As it turned out, sticking with hitchhiking might have been a better option.


The sisters saw me off at Terminal Central del Norte and I took my window seat and watched the cityscape of Mexico City turn to flat, nearly treeless countryside, cacti and whatever you call those plants they make tequila from bordering the road. The bus station in Guadalajara was where I ran into trouble. 


“A donde va?” a voice from behind me asked. The bus had pulled into the station to let off and take on passengers. I climbed down and went into the station for the usual reasons, but I was also hungry. I stood where there was a red line painted on the floor from wall to wall of the station and hanging from the ceiling was a large sign with a drawing of a hand and the word “ALTO!” The side of the line where I was standing had no food stalls or anything else besides toilets. On the other side I could see and smell taco stands and other delights. I thought if I answered the man standing just behind my right shoulder, I might be able to ask him about getting across that line for food, so I turned to him and said, “Tijuana.”


He immediately grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me towards him, kneeing me in the groin. Two other men ran in from the shadows and yanked me by the hair and arms to a small room in the back of the station. A woman followed us in. There was a large table surrounded by chairs filling the room. They shoved me down in a chair at the far end of the table.


The guy who first grabbed me began interrogating me. My Spanish was not great, but I gathered he was asking why I ‘resisted arrest’. I managed to say in my tortured Spanish that I thought they were banditos. He flipped a vinyl ID holder out of his shirt pocket, flashed it my way, and slipped it back into his pocket. I could only repeat that they looked like banditos to me. He told me to empty my pockets onto the table. I dug my wallet and some coins out and put them on the table.


“El reloj,” he said, glancing at my watch pocket. By now I knew what that meant. I unhooked the clasp and pulled it out and put it with my other things on the table. He nodded and then looked at one of the other men and said something. That man, the one who had pulled me by the hair, left the room and when he came back, a young boy  was dragging my backpack across the floor behind him. He hefted it onto the table and the guy with the plastic ID tipped it up and dumped everything on the table shaking it to make sure everything fell out.


Gradually, my confusion about why this was happening to me gave way to the realization they assumed I had drugs on me and I would be an easy arrest for them. My hair was long and I had on the same jeans and T-shirt I’d worn for six weeks through Guatemala, so I suppose I looked the part. I could have told them my drug-taking days were behind me, but I didn’t think they would take it on faith. Anyway, I began to have the suspicion they were going to ‘find’ drugs whether there were any in my pack or not.


Then things began to change. The woman was the first to leave. She hadn’t said anything the whole time, she hadn’t touched me or any of the things on the table, so that didn’t seem strange. The men continued to stand around the table pawning through my underwear and socks, my toothbrush and notebooks and then one of the men, the one who had pulled my hair, left the room. I didn’t dare look directly at them, but the room became progressively quieter till the last two men went out together.


I waited for them to come back. Ten minutes, maybe fifteen went by and I started to wonder if they were ever coming back. My bus was out there waiting, at least I hopped it was. Other than some spare change and a dollar or two, that bus ticket was all I had. If the bus left without me, I would be in trouble. I was in a tight spot anyway, because bus or no bus, if they did come back I was worried they would take me from this room to a different room with bars on it where I might end up staying until I found some way to come up with some money to pay my way out. 


I wasn't sure what to do, but the bus was on my mind. I looked at my things, I looked at the door which they’d left open. Then I started putting the things back in my pack. I didn’t know if this would be considered an escape attempt; I was just putting things back in my pack. After everything was back, a feeling started to creep over me. Not the feeling they might come back and arrest me—that was there, but also something else. I lowered my pack to the floor and looked at the bare table and then I knew what it was. My watch was missing. 


I got my pack back up on the table and pulled everything out.  I patted down the pockets of my jeans and shirt. I unrolled my socks and flipped through the pages of my notebook, ridiculous as that was. It wasn’t there. I searched the empty pockets of the pack. I stuffed my hands into all the pockets of the jeans I was wearing and into my shirt pocket. I put each thing back into the pack one-by-one, squeezing and shaking each item until everything was in. I put the pack back on the floor again and stared at the empty table. My watch was not there. I tried to will it to be there. I looked under the table. I pulled out the chairs. I sat back down and stared at the table. The watch was still missing. I could see that with my eyes. My brain could process it in an abstract way, but I kept trying to make it be there. Gradually the understanding that it was missing became less abstract until I was able to force myself to accept that it wasn’t there anymore, forever.


I forgot about being dragged off to jail. I grabbed the top loop of my pack and dragged it across the floor of the station the way the boy had done and looked out at the busses. Mine was still there. I stuffed my pack back into the open baggage compartment and climbed up the stairs. My seat by the window on the right of the bus was still open. I groaned a bit as I lowered myself onto the seat. I felt sick to my stomach and aching from the knee to the groin and on top of that, in that spot over the anterior superior iliac spine on my right side, a piece of me was missing.

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