Three hours to sunrise. We bump through the blackness, fog shrouding the road, deep in the wetlands of Iberá. Gaps in the mist reveal walls of grass on either side as we wind, silently, through a sparsely populated stretch of Argentina’s Corrientes region.
“His name is Rafa. Not Carlos.”
My text bubble freezes…waiting, waiting, sent. Red exclamation point: not delivered. I press again. In the corner of my screen, a new message appears. “No Service.” My boyfriend, still awake back in the US, won’t be getting this new and alarming bit of information.
As we jolt over another mile of dirt road, I note that my mind is strangely calm. I am being kidnapped, yes, but at this point, what could I do? Well, maybe something. I should probably do something.
My mind reels imaginary footage of me, forcing open the truck door and running, running, through the endless fields of high grass out towards the lagoon. Panic sours my tongue and I blot out the image. Better to leave my thoughts blank.
* * * * *
It was dark when I arrived in Mercedes. They said my driver would be there, holding a sign with my name on it. If he wasn’t, call the 24-hour emergency number. My phone’s battery blinked red as it rang; the line beeped to voicemail.
I peered again at my crumpled itinerary. It listed my hotel and a phone number for my Iberá contact, and next to that, a name: “Carlos Pellegrini.” My driver, I assumed.
I typed the digits into my phone and let it ring. No answer. Behind me, a figure shifted beneath the bus station’s dim lights, eyeing me curiously.
“Carlos Pellegrini?” he asked. I nodded. He grunted affirmatively. “I know your driver. I call him.”
He turned a corner out of sight. Minutes ticked by before he returned and gave me a nod. Soon a red truck pulled up and the driver stepped out. He shut the door slowly and took long strides towards me.
“Carlos?” I asked. He hesitated. A tentative nod.
I took in the hulking shoulders, the sharp eyes, the black hair streaked with gray. He seemed uncertain. We shook hands as I waited for him to greet me by name. I smiled, and he flashed his teeth in return.
On the road, my attempts at small talk stalled. “So, you’re Carlos?” I dug again. Unease pooled in my gut as the village lights faded behind us.
“Carlos? No.” His face remained impassive. “I am Rafa.”
* * * * *
We are the only ones on the road. I had gleaned little information from my driver, besides the fact that his name wasn’t Carlos and he knew nothing about me or the travel company in charge of my transfer. Panic thumps between my ribs, cold and strong, and I remember the story I’d stumbled across during my research about two French women murdered in Salta. I glue my eyes to the horizon, praying for daylight, but the sky is still dark as a blindfold.
Rafa slows over every pothole. Each time we brake I wait for the engine to cut, for him to steer us into that high grass. Perhaps others are waiting. Perhaps they have a shack hidden deep in the field, miles from the nearest town – a dump for naïve passengers. We’ve been driving for an hour now. It could be days before I’m found.
“I have a question.” My voice wavers between unnaturally giddy and bluntly interrogational as I rummage through my backpack, crushing papers, notebooks, clothes. I find a spare charger and connect my phone. It still reads “No Service.”
“So,” I continue, “your name is Rafa. But my driver was supposed to be Carlos Pellegrini. So I’m just wondering what happened to him.”
I end on an accusatory note. Rafa turns to me, startled. He drinks in my words, my clenched fists, my crossed limbs.
And he bursts into laughter.
“Carlos–” More laughter, his eyes crinkled up. “Carlos Pellegrini,” he begins again in halting English, “is the town. This is the town I drive you to.” He chuckles, again, wide hands thumping the steering wheel. “Carlos Pellegrini is – is not a person.”
Ah. I see.
As it turns out, Rafa is no criminal. He is, however, a father, a former gaucho, and the owner of my hotel.
His broad shoulders are already becoming looser, smaller. He looks at me, shaking his head. Sympathetically amused. “It is okay. You are safe.” Torn between relief and embarrassment at my absentmindedness, I allow myself a bashful smile. He turns back to the road. “You can sleep now.”
Sleep? Who could sleep? I was going to live!
My terror began to thaw. I watched the mist clear, and as the moon pulsed lower on the horizon I felt the sky open up.
When I remember that night, I remember it from a bird’s eye. I see a red truck and a dirt road and two passengers, silent and stiff. Now the man is laughing. The moon is bright, and slow swells of conversation ripple from the truck. Windows crack. The night tastes sweet and cool. They talk about family. He hands her his phone, and she smiles at the three blond children beaming from the screen. One wears a cowboy hat.
Eventually, the truck does veer into high grass. The engine does cut. We slip out and stand in the middle of the rutted dirt road, heads tilted up.
I gaze, open-mouthed, at the galaxies overhead; the sky is pricked with silver. Words are lost to me, but Rafa aims his at the stars.
“I am very lucky,” he says, gesturing at the cosmos. I nod. So am I.
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Based in the United States, Madeline is an aspiring travel writer whose adventures began in Pamplona, Spain. She has studied writing in the U.S., Dublin, and finally Argentina as a winner of the 2018 World Nomads Travel Writing Scholarship.
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