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By Elizabeth Schambacher

Her name was Anna. A round little woman with a sweet face, she sat twitching with excitement in a window seat on the blue bus grinding along a mountain pass on the road to San Rosario. Periodically she turned away from the grime filtered view of the scenery to beam a smile down the aisle at the other passengers. She breathed in the pine scented air, the diesel fumes of the laboring bus, the alcohol miasma floating from the open mouth of the sleeping Mexican teenager behind her, and was euphoric.

At age 48, Anna was having her first adventure. As recently as a few weeks earlier she'd had little experience with a world beyond the place she was born, where she'd been married for a year and widowed for twenty-five more. She had never heard of San Rosario, but then neither had most people. That changed in the old neighborhood when Father Francisco, the parish priest, announced that a three day, all expense stay at a spa in the Baja California village of San Rosario would be the grand prize for the winner of the annual raffle. The owner of the spa, who was the priest's cousin, had donated the prize in gratitude for a private prayer that presumably had been answered by the Virgin. Father Francisco and the chairman of the fund raising committee were greatly pleased by the gift which meant that all proceeds from the drawing would be clear profit for a change. A record number of tickets had been sold for the chance to experience what the church bulletin informed the faithful was the vacation of a lifetime. As she had done every year, Anna bought a raffle ticket. She never expected to win. If she'd thought about it, she'd have considered she was already collecting her share of luck ­ good health, a tolerable family and monthly checks from her departed husband's social security account.

As it turned out, it was the stub of her ticket that Father Francisco pulled from a fish bowl. It was hard for her to believe. Experiencing even more difficulty in believing, were her sister-in-law, Marie, and Aunt Theresa who both lived with Anna. The day after the drawing the three of them, joined by the next door neighbor lady, were gathered in the kitchen of the house built by Anna's great grandfather back when Los Angeles still wasn't much of a town. Their amazement was occasioned not so much by Anna's winning the prize, as by her decision to actually go to San Rosario.

The sister-in-law, had been shrill. "The whole idea is crazy! You? In Mexico? By yourself? What do you know about Mexico, for God's sake? You've hardly even been to East Los Angeles! What was the Father thinking of to okay such a prize? A spa in Mexico!"

But Anna just smiled. "I already talked on the telephone to the travel company in Sears. The lady told me the bus to Tijuana goes on to San Rosario. I can get on right at the station downtown!" She wiped the dust from an atlas she'd found in the closet and turned the pages to the map of Mexico. Her finger traced a route in Baja California to the small print marking the location of San Rosario. "Here it is," she said with a triumphant glance at her sister-in-law. "This is where I'm going. Right here!"

Marie was not interested and refused to look. "I can just see you in Mexico! You won't understand a word of what anyone says. You don't know thing one about traveling anywhere, let alone some God forsaken place where something terrible could happen to you!" She threw her hands in the air, unaccepting. "My poor brother is turning in his grave."

The neighbor lady who dropped in when she heard about Anna's big win, was nodding to all this. "You want to know what I think? I think you should sell that prize. With the money you could easy get one of them big TVs with the VCR attached."

"You do that," said Aunt Theresa who was up from a nap in her bedroom off the kitchen. She was ninety-five and had cataracts. "Get a big screen. Greenbaum's is having a sale on big TVs. I seen it in the shopping news."

Anna pretended not to hear Aunt Theresa which caused her a moment of guilt. "I'll bring back presents," she promised by way of compensation. "And I'll send lots of post cards." Whenever she talked about the trip she couldn't stop smiling. This further annoyed her sister-in-law who complained under her breath to the room at large that "you'd think she'd won the lottery, for God's sake."

To Anna, the chance of winning the lottery hadn't seemed more remote than the chance to travel. She didn't suppose either would ever happen to her. Before she was married she had dreamed of a honeymoon trip to some place that was different but her husband-to-be, unimaginative for a young man, thought it would be a waste of time and money. He went ahead and rented a cottage at a lakeside amusement park in the San Fernando Valley. They stayed for the week-end, played a lot of bingo and won a stuffed lion and some ceramics, then went back to live in the old neighborhood where both of them had grown up.

In time, she might have talked her husband into a trip some place more than thirty miles from home, but one night when he was working the graveyard shift, the plant was leveled by a gas explosion. That took care of a lot of her ideas. It happened right after their first anniversary and everyone remarked it was just as well there were no children for Anna to raise without a man around to help out. But that was years ago and she wasn't thinking about those days when she won her prize. Marie stopped talking to her for a while, but she got over it although she would change the subject or leave the room when anyone mentioned the trip. Anna didn't mind. She bustled importantly about, making lists and phone calls and sorting clothes. It was seldom that she had a decent night's sleep because her mind was full of the trip and she was keyed up.

One morning she took the bus to Sears to buy a suitcase since nobody she knew had one she could borrow. While she was there she talked to the travel lady again and bought a flowered sun dress. Before she came home she stopped at the drug store and the pharmacist told her if she was going to Mexico she should be sure to pack a supply of Imodium D. She spent a lot of time at the kitchen table writing out different lists. She made lists of what to take with her, lists of things she had to do before she left, lists of names and addresses for post cards, and a list for presents. It was part of the excitement. When Marie would make a point of needing the table to roll a pie crust or spread something around, Anna would move down to the far end and gather her stuff together so it took up very little space. Marie would shake her head and sigh, exasperated. Most every day some neighbor dropped in to congratulate Anna for her big win and ask what could they tell her about Mexico. None of them knew San Rosario, so they couldn't tell her anything at all. Two people had relatives in Ensenada but that had nothing to do with it. Now, a few weeks after the drawing, she sat fidgeting and smiling and trying to see out the bus window as the road widened and the outskirts of a village appeared. The driver pulled up in front of a weathered building with a sign over the door that said 'Ristorante.' He announced in Spanish, then in English just for Anna because everyone else was Mexican, that the stop was an hour long so people would have time to buy something and use the toilet. A flurry of activity began at the back of the bus. Anna forgot to worry about leaving her new suitcase unattended on the rack above her seat, and joined the line of passengers filing down the aisle.

The air inside the sprawling wooden building under a corrugated metal roof, was thick with the smell of frying onions and hot grease. The place was blue with smoke and jammed with people. Children of assorted size raced noisily about, shouting, getting in the way, and somewhere in the back a baby screamed in rage. Against one wall a 1940 vintage juke box, flashing a spectrum of gaudy lights, was scratching out a tune Anna recognized as the theme song of the East Los Angeles radio station favored by one of her Mexican neighbors. Two teenage couples, both pasted together, were slow dancing in a corner.

Tables covered with red checked oilcloth took up most of the center floor space in the big room. Several women carrying plates of tortillas and beans were threading between the tables to serve customers. Shelves along one side of the room were stacked with canned goods, household needs, drug store items and cardboard boxes. Crepe paper piņatas dangled from the rafters; a purple cow, a yellow horse, a pink bull, a turquoise sheep. Fascinated by the sounds and the smells, by everything she saw, Anna stood transfixed by the side of the doorway, convinced that she had just entered into the real Mexico, the one known to the natives and to the genuine travelers.

For minutes she lingered at the door, absorbing it all until eagerness to be a part of it drew her into the room. She moved through the crowd, bumping into bodies, beaming when the response to her apologies was a warm smile. She patted the black head of a toddler while the mother nodded with pride interspersed with a lot of Spanish Anna did not understand but smiled and nodded right along anyway. By fits and starts she made her way to the back, pausing to watch the dancers by the juke box who were flustered by the attention and lost the beat of the music until all four collapsed in giggles.

The expanse of rear wall was covered with thumb-tacked drawings, pictures, business cards and announcements in Spanish. About the only thing Anna understood was a poster advising 'Fly United!' underneath a drawing of two seagulls joined together.

Taking her time, not wanting to miss anything, she continued her circuit of the room. A counter holding souvenir ceramics and a rack of post cards, drew her like a magnet. Her intention was to send a card to everyone she knew so they'd be aware of her travels. While the young girl behind the counter waited and was patient, Anna twirled the postcard stand, choosing and rejecting, changing her mind, until she settled on a dozen cards that pleased her. She dug her wallet out of her purse and sorted through her money. This took her a while because she had a lot of singles and didn't know how many she'd need to pay for the cards. She finally chose a ten dollar bill. "This is American money." she assured the clerk as she handed it over.

The girl put the post cards in a sack and gave Anna pesos in change. Clueless about their value, but willing to accept that she had not been cheated, she stepped aside to make room for a man standing in back of her, apparently waiting to buy something when she finished looking through her money. As she turned away from the counter, a waitress passing by with a stack of dirty plates, said "Senora?" and motioned to a table. Ready to get off her feet, Anna was grateful to sit down. The waitress's next string of Spanish was beyond Anna's grasp of the language but a voice near-by provided a translation. "Do you want something to eat, lady? She wants to know."

She recognized the man who spoke as the customer who'd been at the post card counter. "Would you tell her, no thank you, please?" she said, but the waitress had gone. She was not hungry and in any case, the more important problem was the slight, but warning, call from nature. The facility provided, she had noticed during her exploration, was in the yard outside the building. Through an open back door, she could see people still lined up in front of the wooden shack that apparently served both sexes. She decided she could wait a bit longer.

Since the bus driver had said they'd be here for an hour, she had time to sort through her post cards and maybe write out a few. She spread them in front of her, considering what message would best communicate the exciting time she was having. Lost in thought, she was unaware when she was joined at the table by the man who had spoken to her. She was startled at the sound of a high-pitched laugh. Neither young nor old, wearing a baseball cap and a tee shirt with Los Angeles Dodgers printed on the front, he had taken the chair across from her.

"American?" he said. "You a tourist, lady? You like Mexico?"

Anna gave a nervous cough. Hoping to meet as many people as she could - to give her, as she once heard someone say, a real feeling of the country - she was shy around men. Adding to her discomfort was an instinctive dislike of the man who now shared her table. She did not care for his looks. "I haven't seen much of it," she said.

He reached across the table and picked up her postcards, fanning them as a dealer would a deck of playing cards, stacking them, shuffling, fanning them back again. Anna looked at the dirt caked in the creases of his hands, underneath his nails, and frowned.

He grinned. "If I wanted to, I could work in Las Vegas," he said. "I could be a dealer, if I wanted. You been to Las Vegas, lady?" Without answering Anna scooped up her cards. "You'll wrinkle them," she said, giving him a sharp glance. He shrugged and the high laugh came again.

"How long you going to be in Mexico, lady? You like to take a tour? I can show you around."

"I'm about to leave," Anna said shortly. For the first time she realized that the juke box had been silenced and the lights in the back of the building turned off; the big room, teeming with people when she arrived, had largely cleared out. There was no sign of the waitresses nor of the young girl who had sold her the post cards. In agitation she pushed back her chair and half rose from her seat. Had her bus gone without her? Watching, the man chuckled as though he enjoyed her distress. "You wanted to go to Tijuana, lady? Too bad. The bus left."

Tijuana. The crowd that had been here were passengers heading for Tijuana, not for San Rosario. She gave a shaky sigh of relief and sat down again. Now, as she looked around, she saw the driver of her bus lounging at a table, in front of him an empty plate and a bottle of beer; on the far side of the room she recognized a few of the passengers who were also going to San Rosario. There was no cause for worry. The man across from her grinned. "They're getting ready to close here, lady," he said. "The next bus is the last one. No more busses until tomorrow. Or maybe you stay the night here?" Once more the laugh.

Anna said nothing. She wanted to be on board the blue bus which had suddenly acquired the image of familiarity and safety; she wanted to be settled in the window seat that was hers by virtue of the possessions on the luggage rack overhead. Anna thrust her hands in her pockets to conceal their trembling from the sly gaze of the man watching her. She had never doubted her ability to take care of herself, but the ability had seldom been tested and the apprehension stirring in her stomach was strong.

"You married, pretty American lady?"

Anna squirmed, determined not to respond to any attempts at conversation. He stared at her, his eyes narrowed and amused. Again came the high giggle and a murmured "Mamacita!"

The connotation, the leer on his face, was clear. She pushed back her chair, prepared to join the small group of passengers who were also waiting for her bus.

"All you Americans are rich," he said suddenly. He pointed to her watch.

"A nice watch, pretty lady. A hundred American dollars? Two hundred?"

Taken aback by what he was saying, Anna never anticipated the fast lunge across the table; the hand that clamped on her wrist. Frantically she looked about but the place had emptied. The bus driver had left his table and the few passengers who earlier had stood about chatting were gone. When she cried out "Let go of me!" fright had so dried her throat that the sound rose scarcely above a whisper.

The grin widened to show a mouthful of brown teeth. "You got lots of jewelry, lady? What else you got, sexy lady?" He giggled. His fingers stroked her wrist, tightening as she tried again to pull away. With her eyes closed against the sight of the face moving closer toward her, it seemed to Anna that the man in uniform who was suddenly there had materialized out of the air. Instantly her hand was released and her molester yanked to his feet, his arms pinned to his back Hurling a string of Spanish, the new arrival shook the man as though he were made of straw. In heavily accented English, he spoke to Anna: "This one is a robber! He looks for the tourists!"

Anna pressed her hand against her heart, at first unable to say anything at all. "Thank you!" she managed at last. "I was afraid of him!" As she spoke, a plump and comforting arm fell across her shoulders while a soft voice close to her ear murmured, "Miguel will take care of this one, senora! You are all right now."

Trembling with relief, tears ready to spill over, Anna looked up at the woman standing over her. Flawlessly made-up, blue-black hair, ample figure bursting from scarlet silk, she regarded Anna with a sympathetic smile. "My name is Rosa," she said.

Anna breathed in the strong scent of lily-of-the-valley perfume and recited a silent thanks to her guardian angel. Finding strength in the wonder of it all, she gazed at Rosa. "You are so beautiful!" she cried. "Like an angel yourself!" Filled with emotion, she was more than ready to accept some manner of divine intervention to account for her rescue. Rosa gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze. "Miguel and I, we look out for the Americans." The man she called Miguel eyed Anna. "Rosa will take care of you," he said, nodding.

Anna watched in uneasy fascination as Miguel hustled his captive. He gripped the fellow's arms high behind his back to lift him partly off his feet as they rushed through the deserted restaurant to vanish through the back door. As though the removal of her tormentor served as a signal, she put her head down on the table and gave way to a delayed attack of hysterics.

"You are with us now, senora," Rosa said when the storm had run its course.

"We will look out for you."

Anna dabbed at her eyes with the napkin Rosa handed her. "Everything was so nice until that awful man --" Her voice broke and her face crumpled. "I can't believe what happened!" she said. But as acceptance slowly arrived, the dramatic aspects of her experience began to surface. Her thoughts traveled to the warm and homey little house in Los Angeles ­ the three of them at the kitchen table; a pot of coffee, a plate of sweet rolls, Marie and Aunt Theresa listening spellbound as Anna told what had happened to her on the way to San Rosario. She could hear her sister-in-law's 'I told you so! I told you so!' and her lips twitched with the beginnings of a smile. She sat up straighter in her chair.

The reverie was interrupted by Rosa who observed Anna's recovery from the worst of her fright. "You are waiting for the last bus to San Rosario, senora? It is good if you now use the toilet."

Though all too mindful of the message now being telegraphed by her bladder, Anna first looked toward the front door of the restaurant. "But my bus!" she said. "It should be ready to leave by now!"

"Don't worry. You have time. This bus it never goes on schedule. Come. Follow me."

They walked through the empty restaurant, now seeming cavernous, dim and echoing. Chairs were turned upside down and placed on the tables; counters were covered by plastic tarps. The lights had been turned off and only a shaft of late afternoon sun came through the back door left open by Miguel when he hustled his prisoner outside. At the quiet and sense of desertion Anna's unease returned. She thought of her suitcase on the rack above her seat on the blue bus and wondered what she would do if the driver left without her.

"Are you sure about the bus?" she asked Rosa, her voice full of doubt. "Maybe it left already."

Rosa took her arm and led her outside. "It has not come. People are waiting out in front."

With little choice, Anna followed the dirt path to the out-building and was dismayed to see the door was secured with a padlock. Her need accelerated by the promise of relief, she turned a stricken face to Rosa who reached under the eaves and retrieved a key hanging from a nail. "Always it is up there." she said and opened the door. "Go."

Minutes later, filled with blessed relief, Anna stood at a filthy basin washing her hands under a trickle of cold water from the single tap. In the shard of a mirror that remained over the sink, she examined her image, surprised that she had not visibly changed. She felt as though she had become someone else entirely and would never be the same person again. She was able to see little of her reflection, so dim was the light that filtered through the cracks in the roof and the walls. The shack was large enough to hold only a stained toilet minus a seat, and the sink. The cement floor, broken and uneven, was puddled with water and strewn with crumpled wads of tissue, wrappings and cigarette butts. In one corner lay a heap of something Anna did not dare to identify. She wrinkled her nose against the stench of the place, her disgust tempered by the return of physical comfort.

She was filled with gratitude toward Rosa and Miguel, two Samaritans she knew she would remember until her dying day. She resolved to ask Father Francisco to mention in the church bulletin how they had come to the rescue of a member of his flock. As for that terrible man, Anna knew she'd also remember that laugh until her dying day.

As she finished washing her hands, the horn of a bus sounded from the road. Her spirits soared. She dried her hands on her dress and reached for the door handle. The door remained closed. She tried again. On her fourth try, she heard the horn sound again, impatiently this time and anxiety grabbed at her chest. "Rosa! The door is stuck," she shouted. "My bus is here!"

She hammered on the door, her calls to Rosa turning into cries for help from anyone within hearing distance. The horn on the bus sounded twice more, followed by the groan of ancient gears, the noise of wheels spinning on gravel then a gradual fading into silence.

While the light vanished from what was left of the day and the shack grew dark, Anna pounded on the door, fending off a rising panic. She wondered what could have happened to Rosa, sure it was something dreadful and just as sure the blame belonged to that man who could have broken away from: Miguel.

But she could not dwell for long on what had befallen Rosa when the thing she was most afraid of had happened to her. Her guardian angel had not remained at her side and the bus had left without her. Worse, the restaurant was closed until the next day. If no one came she would spend the night in the dark and the wet and the stink of this horrible place. Her fingernails broken from clawing at the splintered wood, her throat raw from shouting, she huddled against the door and cried.

Time passed and she drifted off to doze, to awake and doze again until at last she stirred at the sound of voices outside the door. A man, a woman, speaking in Spanish.

Anna gasped and rose trembling to her feet. With a devout thanks to her guardian angel who had not forgotten her after all, she uttered a final call for help.

In response the padlock clicked. A woman laughed. A man giggled. A whispered, "Rich, sexy American lady!" Another giggle, and the door opened.

Influenced by her father who wrote detective stories, Elizabeth Schambacher made her first sales with whodunits. When the magazine market for fiction began to vanish, she turned to articles, essays and ghost writing but nailed down a regular pay check as copy editor for a Southern California daily newspaper. Right now the business of finding a home for a main stream novel takes a lot of her attention.

Contact Elizabeth Schambacher at betty@eburg.com

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