I had three good reasons for taking the job.
The first one was, of course, that I was unemployed, and this particular fact used to start a number of arguments with my parents every day, to the point that I started to wonder if they would eventually get tired of it and just kick me out.
The second one was my long friendship with Jacobo, and all the years I had known his parents, Mr. Sierra and Mrs. Echeverría. And their house, obviously. It had been Jacobo who had come up with the idea of volunteering me as a candidate for the job, and as I understood it, his parents had accepted without giving it much thought.
The third was that my sedentary lifestyle had started to become boring. There were only so many things I could do at home. Even with the power of the internet within my reach, my list of interests wasn’t particularly extensive, so it all had come down to binge-watching shows or learning useless trivia from long-winded articles on pseudo-intellectual websites.
I had, however, one good reason for not taking the job, and that was my crippling anxiety.
“Crippling”, granted, might be a bit of an overstatement, or so Dr. Magaña would say. But a lifetime of panic attacks and worst-case-scenario mentalities had led me and those who knew me to describe it as such. Medications did help, and so did my once-a-week sessions with Dr. Magaña, but I still disliked and avoided any situation where I was forced out of my comfort zone.
Dr. Magaña heavily influenced the job taking decision. While talking to my mother she said that at this point in my treatment, given my age and my particular set of “skills”, taking this job would be very beneficial for me. My mother immediately called Jacobo’s parents and accepted on my behalf.
When I learned this, I felt a heavy weight form in my chest, and this reluctance also made me feel incredibly guilty. But then, the more I thought about it, I started to see the whole situation in a more positive light. Yeah, this might somehow be good for me. It would be something to do, it would prepare me to move on, and it would potentially keep me from being kicked out of my parent’s house in the long run. Dr. Magaña would be out of the country during the first week of my employment, since she had engaged in some sort of spiritual retreat in the Himalayas or somewhere of the sort, and she would not be able to answer her phone. My good mood wasn’t affected by this fact, and she was proud of me when I told her that I would be fine.
So, that’s how I ended up taking the job to house-sit the Sierra-Echeverría household, in my old hometown of San Felipe, while Jacobo’s family was on vacation. It would be a fifteen-day ordeal, but my tasks didn’t seem overly complicated. At least from the quick read I gave to the e-mail Jacobo sent me a few days prior.
Plus, I would get to drive there in my mom’s old Chevy, and driving was one of the things that my anxiety did not interfere with, oddly enough. So, whenever I got the chance to drive long distances, I enjoyed it a lot.
I remember the drive there, that night.
Nights like that reminded me of the times I spent driving on the highway with my dad. We’d be surrounded by darkness, the stars blinking high above us, the odd light from a remote town shining in the distance. Every now and then the radio static would give way to a random classic 80’s rock station from up in the States, and we would both hum to the music, until it died down again.
My dad has always been a great storyteller, and when I was a kid, during those trips through deserted highways, he would tell his scariest stories. He would tell me about the old lady whose son chopped her finger off after she died, just so that he could sell her ring; and how she came back from the dead to scare the life out of him for being greedy.
He told me about the ghosts that haunted his aunt, and about the nahuales, shaman shape shifters who could turn into any animal they desired and use their powers for whatever they wanted. He frightened me, telling me that Don Pedro, the security guard at his office, was a nahual, given his otherworldly ability to control dogs. I never looked at that man the same after, and always tried to stay on his good side.
After the stories, though, he would often be silent for several minutes before speaking again, and when he did he would talk about deeper topics, things that, maybe, kept him awake at night. Maybe it’s because I am his only son, maybe the night and the quiet and the road made him feel a need to talk about these things, and he felt he could confide in me. He would talk about life, and death, about his family and his relationship with his own father, who had passed away around that time. He would get philosophical and ponder the accuracy of the religious beliefs he had grown up with. He wondered about life’s meaning, and about his place in the world. He would tell me about his childhood, his fights, his victories and his every day in a town and country so different to the ones I knew and know now.
I was a nervous kid, probably an early indicator of what would eventually become my anxiety, and I had been painfully aware of my own mortality from a very early age. Therefore, whenever the conversation would turn to our time on this earth, or to how long we actually got to enjoy living, an uneasy feeling would creep up inside me, like a pit of blackness growing in my stomach. I would want to ask him to stop, please, stop talking about these things that make me so nervous, but I could never find the words. Instead, I would pretend to have fallen asleep. He would eventually notice my silence and my closed eyes, with my head leaning against the window, and he would stop talking, maybe disappointed that he couldn’t actually confide in me, or that I could not hold a quality conversation with him.
And then, there would just be silence, the static on the radio, the darkness around us, and nothing else.
Even though these conversations still took place when I was an adult, it was their presence in my childhood that really marked me; driving alone on the highway always brings back those memories. As an adult the thoughts that used to stir my dad’s philosophical side now plagued me, made me wonder more deeply about my life, trying to find some meaning behind choices, actions and events. It’s a peaceful kind of pondering, on the highway, and spacing out is far too easy when you’re alone, in a car, on a lonely road at night.
Maybe I was spaced out then, pondering a little too hard, being a little too absorbed in my own world when I was too late in noticing the figure running into the road. This made me too late in hitting the brakes, too late in stopping my car before the blunt impact that cracked my right headlight and put a dent in my hood. It was impossibly fast. My head was thrown to the front so hard that I bumped it against the wheel, leaving me disoriented for a couple of seconds. Everything felt disjointed, the night’s silence pressing hard against the buzz in my ears.
I got out of the car, my whole body shaking. The mangled, still mass on the asphalt stopped me from focusing on the damage to my car.
My breathing became faster, and I felt the panic starting to take over me. My first thought was to phone my doctor immediately, to look for advice, but I knew that would be pointless. I thought I would throw up, and somehow, I didn’t. I realized suddenly that I had not hit a person, but rather some sort of big, brown and gray dog. I laughed nervously and looked around. The highway was just as empty as before, just as quiet, just as still. I sat on the non-dented side of the hood and wondered what to do. The initial wave of panic was subsiding, and I started weighing my options.
Staying there much longer was not one of them. Highways at night are not safe.
I also felt bad leaving the corpse there on the road, where it could get run over again, and again, and again, until it fused with the ground and became unrecognizable, like all the roadkill on all the highways in México.
My fingers tapped uneasily on my knee, and I kept on looking around as I thought, looking at the corpse, at my car, at the road. Would my car even start?
I jumped in again and turned the key, and to my relief there was only a little protest, but the machine came back to life. Good old Chevy. No point in turning it back off and risking it changing its mind. I set the gear to reverse and started to back up. My headlights sat fully on the dog. It was a sorry sight, macabre and upsetting, twisted as it was in a growing pool of its own blood.
The guilt came over me faster and stronger than the nausea, and I found myself outside of the vehicle again, opening the trunk.
I had a bunch of old newspapers in there, and after putting my suitcase in the back seat, I started spreading them out until the bottom of the trunk was covered in them. Then I walked to the front of the car, took off my jacket and threw it on the dog. “I must be crazy”, I muttered to myself as I bent down and grabbed the corpse. The animal felt both mushy and rough to the touch; I grimaced, gathered my strength and pulled up as hard as I could.
The body was incredibly light. So much so that I almost fell backwards. Surprised, but in a hurry, I gathered myself and put the dog in the trunk.
I climbed back in the driver’s seat, shifted the gear to first and stepped on the gas, and was relieved to be moving again. A pair of headlights were coming towards me from the other side of the road, and as the other driver passed me, I tried not to look at them.
Just an hour or so more until I reached San Felipe.
That meant an hour or so in which I had to figure out what to do next.