It was all because of the squeal of the windshield wiper. Not even the rumbling racket it made as it stammered back along the pane. No, that wasn’t even so bad.But the squeal on the way down—shrill, insistent, ble-eeee-ak. Who could stand that shit?
The stop was routine—he’d grown used to the particular way they burned his coffee there, the taste of yuca or potato in his tequeños, deep fried in recycled oil. Who could blame management? I’d do the same thing, if I were them. What he couldn’t do, though, was face the road, face the rain, face his windshield wiper on his own.
Just the thought of it left him squirming, fighting the sort of tingle that raced down his teeth when something solid rubbed against the underside of his toenails, when a metal fork slid on a plate. So he’d looked round, yuca-flavored tequeño in hand, and he’d seen the helpless shape of that tall, scrawny, blond backpacker by the bar, and Qué hubo, musiú? Where are you heading?
After the second bottle of cold beer he confessed he would normally not do this. There’s too many stories around here: la llorona, la sayona, el alma en pena—they’re all legends of spirits who take the shape of a woman to take the lives of men. I don’t believe in all that güevona’a, but it’s still best to be on the safe side. And were there no such legends about men? I don’t think so, not that I know of, anyway, and besides, you aren’t a spirit, are you? The backpacker looked at him puzzled, as if he didn’t fully understand the meaning of his words, as if he didn’t know what to say—so he said nothing. Come on, let’s grab another one for the road and get the hell out of here before I change my mind: I need to get to Carora before the break of dawn.
The rain had stopped but the squeal of the windshield wiper—long since static—remained vivid in his mind, ringing in his ear, so he couldn’t stop talking to his newfound companion, not for a second. The scrawny foreigner sipped his beer in silence, impassive, neck stiffened, looking straight at the road. He hadn’t picked up much of a travelling partner, he thought, as the gringo barely mumbled monosyllabic answers to his admittedly trivial questions. Just a bit of chitchat, that was all he was after, just someone to help him fill the vacuum left by the chilling squeal that still perturbed him somewhere in the back of his mind. But the gringo offered nothing at all.
And then, when it seemed things couldn’t get any worse, he saw the unmistakable flickering lights of a roadblock in the distance. That moment, he wished he hadn’t picked up the useless hitchhiker but he also knew it was too late to turn back. Just pretend you’re asleep, ok? He drove slowly—too slowly?—up to the barricade, becoming conscious again of the ringing inside his ears—still distant, but obnoxious, almost unbearable. Caballero, where are you heading? And his answer—to visit my cousin, his wife, in Carora—seemed to catch the guard by surprise. He took a long look in the direction of the passenger seat and—pull to the roadside, please. Fuck!
In the stillness of the night he sensed the squeal whistling like a gentle breeze above the trees around him. They were about to search his car—I hope we don’t find any surprises there. Just my pana’s backpack, he said confidently, but the guard steupsed, rolled his eyes, looked up to the heavens and You think this is funny? He thought to say something relevant but his mind was stifled by a whistle that might or might not be coming from his windshield wiper. Suddenly, one of the guards produced the gringo’s backpack. I told you, that belongs to my pana, but when he pointed towards the passenger seat there was no one there. His knees buckled, his legs shook, he felt the blood run away from his face. The last thing he saw was the boot of the Guardia Nacional toppling the open backpack on its side. As a pile of human bones spilled out of the bundle the breeze picked up above the trees and a piercing—though distant—whistle sieved through the leaves, rooting every last one of them to the spot.
This short-short story was commissioned by Akashic and published on their website on August 27 2015.