Inés turned a corner on the winding road and almost clipped a tree going sixty miles-per-hour on the curve. Steadily she slowed her pace until she was trekking at half that speed. It was so dark she could only see the few feet that her headlights allowed her.
Growing up, her mother had warned her about this backroad, the miles-long stretches of fields and farmland that led out of their little agricultural town and into the city forty minutes away.
“We don’t take that road,” her mother told her, jutting her chin towards the sign on the main highway. “That’s where the gangs dump bodies. There are no lights, either.” She turned her eyes towards the highway, and murmured, “We don’t take that road. Even in the day, we don’t take that road.”
Her mother said a lot of things. Most of them nonsense, some of them not nonsense, a lot of them hurtful. Her mother said so many things that Inés, grown tired of it, had packed up everything important to her in the middle of the night and left her mother’s house once and for all. Her mother was working a late night shift, and would be none the wiser until morning came. She and her mother were waitresses at the town’s only diner, and Inés had an early morning shift, but she wasn’t going to make it.
From now on she wasn’t going to make any of her shifts. She was going to stay with her friend in the city. She wouldn’t have to listen to her mother tell her that her waist was getting too big or that she was twenty-three, she shouldn’t still have all that teenage acne. It had been nearing 1 a.m. when Inés drove her rickety old white Ford station wagon onto the highway, racing to get out of town, but there had been a four-car accident and what little traffic there was had been stopped. She had seen the sign announcing the backroad and heard her mother’s voice in her head. We don’t take that road. Inés had taken the exit, a surge of adrenaline tingling through her chest.
“Continue straight for twenty miles,” announced her phone’s GPS. Her grip on the steering wheel tightened. She didn’t want to let herself fully think it, but maybe she was in over her head. She had been on this road only once, when her friend’s mother drove them to a birthday party in the city. She had been eleven then, and it had been the middle of the day. Her friend had whispered that this road was home to la Llorona, the weeping woman who had killed her children. Then her friend’s mother had shushed her, and told her not to invite that kind of energy into her life.
“And you’re going to scare your friend,” her friend’s mother had said, and that was that.
Don’t invite that kind of energy into your life, she told herself, and she was starting to zone out, eighteen miles left on this road, when the woman appeared in her headlights.
Inés braked just in time, maybe a foot away from the woman, who was in the dead center of the road. Bathed in the yellow light, her skin was ash white, her hair wild and long and black. She wore a wrinkled white cotton blouse and white cotton slacks, wrinkled like the folds of her aging, sunken face, and she was looking right at Inés with unblinking eyes, the willow trees lining this stretch of road blowing gently in the night breeze.
In all the commotion and the sudden stop, Inés had lurched forward in her seat, hard, her chest colliding with the steering wheel. Her car was too tightly packed for anything to have fallen over, thank goodness, and her mind focused on that fact before it focused on the woman, unmoving in front of her car. She kept the car in drive mode, foot pressed hard on the brake. She stared at the woman, and the woman stared at her. After what felt like forever, the woman slowly lifted her hand.
It took Inés a second to realize that the woman was waving at her. She didn’t wave back, paralyzed in her seat. When the woman started making her way over to Inés’ window, it didn’t occur to Inés to drive away. Her head felt muddled, and as if in a trance, she lowered the window halfway when the woman tapped on it.
With the window open, Inés could see that the woman was crying, her dark eyes bloodshot and tears trinkling down her white cheeks.
“Are you okay, ma’am?” Inés asked.
“I’m sorry if I startled you,” the woman said. Her voice was soft, and low. “I don’t know what to do. My daughter left me here.”
Inés frowned. “She left you here?”
“We had a fight,” said the woman. “She pulled over, and made me get out of the car. I’ve been here for a while.”
“And no one’s driven by?” That didn’t seem right to Inés. Maybe her mother had all sorts of notions about this road, but she knew that not everyone had those notions. To a lot of people, it was just a road.
“No one’s stopped,” the woman said. She gave Inés a watery smile. “I thought if I walked into the middle of the road, I could make someone stop. I was right.”
And more than a little foolish in this deep dark, but Inés didn’t say that.
“Unfortunately,” said Inés, “I can’t offer you a ride. My car’s packed, even the passenger seat.” She wouldn’t want to offer her a ride if she could, but she didn’t say that, either. She was feeling a little lightheaded now, her vision blurring at the edges. When her eyes flickered over to her hands still on the steering wheel, she thought that maybe she was trembling, but she couldn’t be sure.
“That’s all right,” said the woman. “Would you mind just waiting here for a while? I’m sure she’s coming back for me. She’s good, my daughter. We just had a misunderstanding.”
“I guess,” said Inés, “but I’m kind of in a hurry.”
“At this hour?” The woman’s watery smile remained constant. “Where are you rushing at a time like this?”
“I’m going to see a friend,” said Inés, feeling defensive, “in the city.”
“At this hour?” the woman asked, again.
Inés shrugged, and the woman shook her head.
“It’s not my business, I know,” the woman said. “I’m sorry. It’s the mother in me. My daughter is young like you, and I hate to think of her driving on this road alone at night.”
“My mother would hate it, too,” said Inés, and the woman’s brows raised up a bit.
“Your mother doesn’t know you’re out here right now?”
“I’m an adult,” Inés said, and the woman nodded slowly.
“Of course,” said the woman. “You are. So is my daughter. She’s so grown now, my daughter. But a mother is always going to think that she knows best.”
Inés looked at her hands again, but it felt wrong to look away from the woman for too long. When she looked back, there was that constant smile.
“My mother definitely thinks she does,” said Inés, feeling weak. She let out a breathy sigh, and it left fog on the part of the car window she hadn’t let all the way down. Her frown grew deeper in response to the woman’s watery smile, and she said, “Ma’am, can I maybe call someone for you? I really need to get going.”
“No one would answer,” said the woman, and Inés shook her head.
“I’m sure there has to be someone,” said Inés.
“Just my daughter,” said the woman, “but I’m sure she’s coming back. Mija, I didn’t catch your name.”
The Spanish term of endearment took Inés by surprise. She didn’t know why. Her mother was a pale Mexican, too. It was Inés that had turned out as dark brown as the father she knew only in a handful of pictures.
“I’m Inés,” said Inés, and the woman didn’t offer her name in return.
“Thank you, Inés,” said the woman, “for waiting with me.”
“Just for a few more minutes,” said Inés, but it came out weakly. She added, “There are some houses further back on this road. Can’t you see if anyone else can help you?”
“I need to stay here,” said the woman, “so that my daughter can find me when she comes back for me.”
Inés nodded. “I’m sorry I can’t do more.”
“It’s just so nice to not be alone,” the woman said. “I’ve been alone for so long.”
Inés didn’t know what to say. So she didn’t say anything, just kept her wary eyes on the woman’s wrinkled face and tapped at her steering wheel. She could hear the engine of her car humming, and crickets outside. She heard the leaves of the willows that enveloped this part of the road brushing against each other. The cold night air came in through the open window, and made her skin rise in goosebumps. Finally she cleared her throat, and said, “Ma’am, I need to get going.”
“Won’t you stay just a little longer?” the woman said, her eyes welling up with more tears. “It’s so good not to be alone.”
Inés shifted in her seat, and said, “I think you should walk to one of those houses further back, ma’am. I think you should call someone to pick you up. The police, maybe.”
“And if my daughter comes back?”
“Respectfully, ma’am,” Inés said, “it’s possible that she may not be coming back.”
The woman nodded, her face shiny and wet.
“She told me she hated me,” said the woman, voice low. Inés had to strain to hear her words. “She told me I had ruined her life, and that she wished she had been born to a different mother. My good daughter, telling me such hateful things. Can you imagine that?”
Inés felt cold, and didn’t say anything. She had fantasized often enough about saying such things to her mother. In her daydreams she had screamed them at the top of her lungs, and made her mother hurt the way her mother made Inés hurt. But she would never dare say them. She wasn’t brave enough. Never had been. Tonight was the bravest night of her life.
“I’ve always wanted what’s best for my daughter,” said the woman. “I’ve never done anything that wasn’t in her best interest. I’ve looked out for her. I’ve kept her safe from the world. That’s all a mother wants.”
Inés thought about her mother’s fits of rage, her mother’s insistence that any of Inés’ moods were personally victimizing her. Her mother’s cold shoulder, how she claimed that Inés was wasting her life away. How she lived the same life as her mother, had been stuck in it for years, and how her mother resented her for never going further than she had gone. How Inés could ruin her mother’s day with so much as a smile that wasn’t wide enough for her liking, and the screaming and crying that would ensue.
“For her to have left you here,” Inés said, “you must have done something pretty terrible.”
And the woman—the woman smiled, right through her tears.
“Do you know what my daughter did when she pulled over, Inés?” Now the woman’s smile had gone bigger, and her bloodshot eyes were blown wide. She raised her hands and started gripping at her throat, and Inés gasped to see that there was blood pouring out from a gash in the skin there.
“She pulled over,” the woman said, “and she slit my throat, and she left me here to die. My good daughter did that to me. My own good daughter. Would you do that to your mother, Inés?”
Whatever words Inés may have had were caught in her throat. The word justice rang through her mind. More than that—it sang. Justice, justice, justice. Without being fully aware of it she had raised her own hands to grasp at her own throat. Now the woman had thrown her head and bleeding throat back, and she was wailing, wailing into the empty night, and Inés was shaking and couldn’t look away from the woman, and then a car horn blaring broke her out of the trance.
She blinked, and looked into her rearview mirror. There was a large red truck behind her. She couldn’t see the driver well, but it looked like a man. After a few seconds of silence, the car horn blared again. When she looked to her side, the woman, moments ago standing there wailing, was gone. Inés stared at the empty space, then looked forward and jerked her foot off the brake. Her car jumped back to life, and she resumed her trek down the dark road.
Seconds later, Inés drove by the woman again, blood all over her white clothes. But there was another car behind her now, and if the driver could see the woman, he chose not to stop. This time, Inés did not stop either.