This story is by Grace Rankin and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
“So, what do you think?!” Chris glanced at her friend enthusiastically.
Kate wished she would keep her eyes on the road—especially on this pot-holed, dusty excuse for a highway.
Chris laughed. “Scary, huh?”
That was a good word. Ever since Kate had arrived at the Ramon Villeda Morales International Airport in San Pedro Sula last week, she had been terrified. The two-hour, rickety, white-knuckle bus trip to Siguatepeque through the mountains hadn’t helped either.
Spending time with Chris and her fellow teachers at the private school for Honduran elementary students had been nice; Kate could almost forget she was in one of the most dangerous countries in the world when she looked at those smiling, laughing kids. Playing with them and hearing them practice their English warmed Kate’s heart and reminded her why she’d visited in the first place.
“Yeah, pretty terrifying.” She held her long, kinky hair off her sweaty neck, sucking in her breath as Chris swerved to avoid a gaping hole. Just outside Siguatepeque, the road was paved. But now that they were further into the mountains, the tan Honda Civic bounced over every rut in the dirt track.
“Well, just wait till we get to the mission house. It’s not in the safest area—I mean, we’ll be in San Pedro—” Chris said, grinning, “but the house itself is protected. And tomorrow we’ll meet up with Mark and head to Tela!”
Kate nodded as Chris whipped around a switchback and shifted to first gear. Since it was Friday evening, Chris didn’t have school the next day and wanted to show Kate the beautiful Honduran beaches at Tela. She had convinced her cousin Mark, who worked at the mission house and with a local mechanic, to go with them. Anxious to see the ocean, and perhaps also to see Mark after that date back in junior high, Kate anticipated the trip. But to get to the shore, the girls had to spend the night in the Honduran metropolis that was San Pedro Sula.
They came to a stop. Chris put the vehicle in park and sat back. They had halted behind a bus which blocked their entire lane—a typical traffic jam in rural Honduras.
“You’ll want to close your window,” Chris admonished, pushing her own up.
As she spoke, men, women, and children hurried toward the stopped vehicles along the road, tapping the glass and offering their wares for sale. They carried plastic pouches of water, hot cinnamon churros, and baleadas—fluffy, sweet tortillas filled with cheese, beans, and a special white sauce. Kate sat and stared straight ahead, even when the man inches from her smirked and muttered sweet things, as if that would coax her to buy his pouch of cloudy “water”. Self-consciously, she adjusted her cotton blouse and shifted in her seat.
After a while, they were able to move again. Kate was relieved on a number of levels, one of which was the climbing temperature in the car. Even though it was evening and the sun was setting, it was still a warm 92 and rising the closer they got to San Pedro. There, it was easily in the 100s, even at night.
“How long did it take you to get used to—all this?” Kate gestured, indicating the tin-and-cardboard structures clustered along the road. The poverty here was real, so much more tangible than the brief paragraphs she’d read in school. Chris seemed so at home, so natural. Kate wondered if she could ever feel like that, even if she devoted her life to helping the kids here.
Chris thought a moment. “I wouldn’t say I’m used to it. I’ve adapted—I know how to get around. But I don’t think this is the kind of life you want to get used to. You want to help. You want them to see the potential if they worked to make things better. I guess I just look forward. And for now, I use my street sense.”
“I love the kids,” Kate said earnestly. “I think I could do it…for them. But I’m not sure. This place scares me.”
Chris nodded; Kate knew she understood. The men here were notorious for womanizing. Mostly they yelled things and made kissy noises. But sometimes they were bolder—putting a hand on your arm, laying an arm on your shoulder, moving their bodies a little too close for comfort. And then there were the statistics—diseases, robberies, assaults, murders. Honduras didn’t have a very good rap sheet.
But somehow Chris loved it. A genius, she had graduated high school two years early, snagged an Associates degree, and moved here to teach English while Kate was still a senior. She excitedly told Kate about the laid-back culture, the expressive people, and especially the kids, eager to learn, bright eyes and ready smiles.
Kate herself was top of her class. She could attend almost any university she wanted. And here she was, bumping along a dusty road through the jungle-coated mountains, her clothes sticking to her skin with sweat, contemplating leaving home for good and coming—here. What was she thinking?
Finally, the road was smooth. They had reached the paved motorways on the outskirts of San Pedro, the dirt surface becoming a four-lane “highway” as the sun disappeared behind the mountains to their left.
Chris coasted through a yellow light and then there was a loud THUNK. Both girls jumped. “What was that?” Kate gasped. Immediately, Chris put on her hazards and pulled to the side of the road.
“Maybe I hit a branch or something?” She hopped out of the car and walked around the front. She tucked her short, dark hair behind her ear, and the normally wayward locks stayed, held by sweat. Puzzled, she climbed back in. “I didn’t see anything!”
But when she turned the key in the ignition, nothing happened. The girls looked at each other and then at the faint orange glow above the black mountains. Kate was white in the dark of the car. Chris pulled out her phone. “I’m calling Mark,” she explained. “He’ll know the number of a tow place. A safe one,” she added with a shaky laugh. Kate nodded and swallowed. Everything would be okay.
Chris was silent for a long time, waiting. On the fifteenth ring, she hung up. She shook her head at Kate. The girls sat quietly for a moment. Who could they call? Even if Mark had answered, they couldn’t leave the car here. They would have to wait for a tow truck. And not just any tow truck; it would only be safe to get a recommendation from someone they trusted.
Kate opened her door for air flow, but quickly shut it again at the lack of visibility on the dark street. Both girls locked their doors. And sweated.
“I think I have the number for the mission house,” Chris muttered, searching her recent phone calls. “Yes!” She dialed, then waited for an answer.
“Hello? Oh yes! Hi, Mr. Baker, this is Chris. Chris Long. Yes, Kate and I are…here…in San Pedro…the problem is, our car broke down…yes. We need the number for a tow place. I tried to reach Mark, but he didn’t pick up. Oh, still at work. Ok, thank you. Yes, I’ll wait.” She covered the end of her phone and explained to Kate, “He’s the mission director. He’s getting a number for us.” Kate’s fingers still gripped the door handle, but her legs slowed their shaking.
“Yes, I’m still here. Kate, can you take this number?” Kate pulled out her phone and typed in the number Chris repeated. “Thank you. Yes, thank you so much! Hopefully we will see you soon. Bye.” Chris sighed. “Whew! Now we’re getting somewhere.” She punched in the number and put the phone to her ear. “Ah, Buena noches.”
Kate’s Spanish was not strong, but she could read facial expressions, and Chris’s did not look good. “Ah, no…” she said doubtfully, looking out at the road. “No, lo siento, no…ok…adios.” She glanced at Kate. Now her face was white. “They don’t know where we are. And I can’t give them a street name. There are no street names here!”
It was fully dark now. To their left were the mountains, some telephone wires, and the traffic darting by around them. To their right the ground sloped down to low, wooden buildings, vacant and silent. “There are no landmarks,” Chris said, wiping her forehead. She craned her neck to check behind them at the intersection. “Oh, don’t look now,” she murmured, her voice tense. “We have company.”
Kate had to peek. She thought she was as scared as she could be. But the group approaching the car made her heart drop to her stomach. Seven or eight men ambled along the sidewalk toward them, their loud voices carrying across the stifling night air. Both girls pressed the lock buttons on their doors even though they were already secured. They looked straight ahead as the men came abreast of the car, holding perfectly still, willing them to pass by.
They didn’t, however. “Oooo,” one of them crowed, grinning. “Hey ba-by!”
“Bee-yoo-ti-ful woman!” another sang, tapping on Kate’s window.
“Love you, ba-by!”
“The only phrases they know in English,” Chris said, trying to be light. But her voice trembled.
The men started speaking excitedly in Spanish, their phrases punctuated by the occasional “beautiful woman” and “baby”. One of them hopped onto the hood and lounged there, staring at them through the windshield. His teeth glinted in the feeble, flickering, yellow light of the streetlamp nearby. Something else glimmered from his belt. A gun! Another leaned against the side view mirror next to Kate. He whipped out a knife and began to pick at his nails with it, glancing at her from time to time.
Kate grabbed Chris’s arm as the gang settled into comfortable positions around the car, talking noisily with each other. Chris pulled out her phone with her free hand and was about to redial Mr. Baker’s number.
Upon seeing this, the men grew agitated and began yelling. She quickly put it down. Several tears rolled down Kate’s cheeks, but she tried to force herself to think. What could they do?
Then one of the men yanked at the door handle. When it would not open, he laughed and pulled harder. A couple others gathered around and started chanting something in Spanish.
“Not the gun,” Chris whispered in horror.
Eyes gleaming, the man took the weapon from his belt and fingered it, staring at the lock on Kate’s door. Shaking, she turned toward Chris and shut her eyes.
But instead of the gunshot they expected, the girls heard shouting. There was a loud rumbling noise behind them, and several voices. Kate dared to open her eyes and saw the gang backing away from the car, at first slowly, and then at a run. Amazed, she turned to see a tow truck slowly pulling around in front of them. When it stopped, two men jumped out, a native Honduran and a North American.
“Mark!” the girls screamed, fumbling to open the doors. They quickly exited the sauna their car had become and ran to him, laughing joyfully. “How are you here?!”
He embraced them, then started to speak. “Mr. Baker called my boss and asked what we were up to. He explained that you’d called, and that you were coming from Siguatepeque. I knew Chris would take the road I showed her before, so I followed that till I saw you. Looks like we got here just in time.” He gazed soberly at the girls. His eyes rested on Kate. “Hey,” he said.
“Hi.” She stared at him, unable to think of a thing to say to this friend she hadn’t seen in half a decade. Then she turned to Chris. “This settles it,” she said firmly. “I can’t go back home to a normal life now. I’m needed here. Those kids need me.”
Chris squeezed her hand. And Mark smiled broadly.