Swallow by Stephanie A. Vega
Liliana stood between the metal filing cabinet and the cardboard boxes in the dimly lit office, transferring folders as fast as she could, barely scanning the peeling labels as she pulled them out of the drawer in bunches. She recognized one. Instinctively, she leafed through it and landed on a familiar name. With no plan in mind, Liliana tore out the sheet of paper, crumpled it in her hand, and was about to put it in her pocket when she heard them, footsteps raining down the tiled hallway. In a panic, she ripped the sheet into small pieces and stuffed them into her mouth.
By the time the door swung open she had slipped the folder into the box with the others, but she still had paper in her mouth. She chewed and tried to swallow, but her mouth had gone dry.
The cold brick room flooded with bodies—yelling, demanding, pushing forward.
One clear voice cut through, “Señorita Liliana, por favor acompañenos.”
The student opened his palm towards her as if expecting something, maybe expecting her to give something up, maybe just expecting her to take his hand. Her nose itched. She felt the space inside her nostrils shrinking. She stood very still and kept her lips sealed shut. She had not been able to swallow.
“Señorita Liliana, please come with us,” the young man repeated.
The voice sounded familiar but the light was behind him, obscuring his face. All she could make out was the outline of his hair, clean cut and black.
Voices echoed down the hallway, bouncing against the tile floors and up past black wooden beams. The room was cold and humid. The chill had already crept inside Liliana’s thin sweater and she had trouble getting her toes to move.
She wished for a second that she had taken the time to put on socks, different shoes, warmer layers, but it was three o’clock in the morning when she got the call, and a man was waiting on a motorcycle just a few minutes later. She didn’t have a chance to brush her hair, barely washed her face. She threw on the first things she could find—wrinkled grey slacks, a blouse and a cardigan—the clothes she had taken off the night before. No make up. She had climbed onto the motorcycle and held on to the man’s black plastic jacket for dear life. Lit up signs pounded at the darkness all the way to the university, but the streets were empty. Ramshackle buildings drowned in fluorescent advertisements appeared uninhabited. The night was thickly humid and unusually cold.
It was still pitch black outside. The leader of the group with tight black hair and a dark wool sweater asked again, calmly, as if speaking to a child, “Señorita, por favor,” and with his outstretched hand took her elbow and guided her past the crowd of university students crammed in the office towards the equally packed hallway.
The students parted to give them way, and stood flanking the walls of the long brick hallway. Fluorescent lamps attached to the wide beam high above them flickered. All the doors along the hallway were open, with students standing guard.
Liliana tried not to look at the faces around her, tried not to remember their names—not the girl with long braids that cried on her desk after finals, not the young man who she had helped transition into a different faculty, not the woman who had, grateful for help with long lost records, brought Liliana chocolates on Secretary’s Day.
Two doors down, a young man, wide shoulders, open jacket, swung out of the last door saying, “No hay nada, nothing left, they took the boxes before we could—” Javier stopped in front of her. Right in front of her. Face to face. Her neck felt hot; her lips burned. For a second her whole body forgot to shiver. He did not peel back and give way like the others; he blocked her way for just an instant longer than the rest.
“So, now you show your true colors,” he jeered before he let her through.
Liliana carried the full weight of her gaze down to the scraped ceramic tiles of the floor.
Many months ago, when she was still new to this job and so nervous around all these educated university people, Javier had been kind to her. They were about the same age but miles away in every other dimension. He had talked to her as if they were the same.
Liliana looked away from the faces, didn’t want to think of the documents they would find inside. She was not in handcuffs, but she walked with the slow heavy pace of a prisoner, the student’s hand barely guiding her arm.
She wondered if they had also found her friend Ali, if they had taken her too. Ali had arrived with two other assistants in a pickup truck just after she did. They had been filling boxes at the other end of the hall before the students arrived. Maybe Ali had gotten away in the pickup truck with the boxes.
Liliana was twenty-one and had been working at the National University for over a year. She got the job in the office of the Dean of History through Felicia, a friend of her mothers, who was the assistant to the head of the department.
One morning, shortly after Liliana had turned nineteen, Liliana’s mother and Felicia were drinking máte in the dirt patch behind the house where they rented rooms. The sun was already high and the lone guava tree, skinny and short behind them, did not offer much shade.
“I’m tired,” Felicia said. Felicia was one of the better-off tenants in the house. She had hair dyed blood red and thick long fingernails that looked like weapons, but her smile was warm and comforting.
Liliana’s mother had on the cotton dress she usually wore around the house, one that had lost its original wild foliage print to too many washes and drying in the sun. She drank her máte and listened to her friend.
“You at least have your Liliana, sweet as any creature, joy of your eyes…” Felicia plucked a skinny kitten up from behind her chair, a recent rescue from the alleyway nearby. The tiny animal collapsed into a ball of sleep in Felicia’s hand as she nestled it close to her chest. Liliana’s mother smiled to herself a little but looked away to the bare brick wall.
“The truth is I’m getting too old even for that lazy dean. He hasn’t replaced me yet, but any day some tight young thing will catch his eye and I’m out of a job…”
The women exchanged crude jokes and consolations, but neither really laughed. There was an air of seriousness to it all, an air of life and death, or at least the weight of unreliable food and shelter, as the women passed the tin guampa back and forth.
“I don’t kid myself, I know how these things go, at least I also know the accounting.” Felicia winked an exaggerated wink of fake lashes and day old mascara, “I know all their little secrets.”
They both finally laughed.
The neighbor’s half stray dog begged for food and the two women shoed him off with an old rag and a homemade fan. Liliana waited for him just outside the gate with a day old piece of bread, listening.
“Your Liliana,” continued Felicia. “She’s pretty. And she’s smart…”
Liliana’s mother looked up from her máte.
Felicia knew she could get a small appointment out of the dean, some post nobody cared about. “Say the dean keeps me on the roster for a small amount,” Felicia went on, “and I get a little more coming in, you know, something small but steady, maybe five or six percent, I could place your Liliana…”
A few months later, just before Liliana started her new job at the national university, Felicia pulled her aside near the house and said, “Querida, make the most of it, you’re young now, but the window is short.”
Liliana nodded but didn’t say a word.
“My only advice is this,” continued Felicia, “make the first move, me entendés? Then he doesn’t feel guilty and you feel like you keep some control.”
Felicia ran her fingers through Liliana’s long brown hair, lighter than most, and guided some strands behind the girl’s ear, “He will appreciate that, even after the relationship simmers out, trust me, you keep the job for a good while longer that way.”
Liliana didn’t know what she would find when she was dropped off at the university just after three o’clock in the morning by a stranger her boss had sent. Her boss, the Dean of History, had more files than anyone else in the department and they were kept in metal filing cabinets by Liliana’s desk.
She had seen the news on TV the night before, accusations of corruption, a call to arrest the President of the University, and this time it looked like something might actually come of it. She guessed that if something really happened they might be looking for the kinds of files she had seen in her department—salaries logged for posts that never existed, contracts for underprovided goods, altered examination results, fabricated records, and who knows what else.
When Liliana’s phone rang in the middle of the night, it woke her mother first. The two women shared a room and slept in two small beds side by side. Liliana’s mother saw the name of the caller and gave Liliana a quick shake to make sure she was actually awake before passing over the phone. It was not the first time Liliana had received a late night call from her boss, but this was far too late for him. The conversation was brief. Her boss gave her minimal instructions, nothing in way of explanation. Liliana was to transfer the department files into cardboard boxes and someone would take them away. She assumed the files would be hidden, perhaps even shredded or burned. But that was not her concern. Liliana stared at the screen for a moment after they hung up; the digital clock showed it was barely past three o’clock in the morning.
When Liliana arrived, she found the boxes and transferred folders as fast as she could. Others, some coworkers and a few men she had never seen before, were doing the same all over the building. She was nearly finished with the last metal cabinet when she came across that file, that particular sheet of paper. She instinctively pulled the file and scanned it with her eyes. It was barely legible in the poor light from the single ceiling lamp, the only light Liliana had dared to switch on.
The clean-cut student in a dark blue sweater led Liliana out into the damp pre-dawn darkness filled with the beating of drums and chanting. The whole green was filled with students, or with protesters who just wanted to join in a fight, any fight. She knew the whole world was ready—she was ready; Liliana might have joined in the protest herself had she not gotten the call, had the stranger not been waiting for her outside her gate on an old motorcycle.
They made their way to a large bonfire, one of many fires she could see burning throughout the campus. Someone was making signs with red markers under a dim lamppost. Others were talking to each other, or to cameras or microphones, in speeches, almost songs: “This is theft, pure and simple! These planilleros, these shameless thieves collecting salaries illegally, listed on paper as teachers, as cleaners, as secretaries, and never once showing up to do a job, these are worse than common thieves! They rob our tax money and they rob this country of an education!”
Students stood or sat in makeshift camps, many strumming at guitars or taking pictures with their phones, making flashes of light.
Liliana recognized two others held by students near a bonfire, two older men from maintenance, Don Isidro and Don Pituco. Don Isidro took her same bus home in the evenings.
“Señorita Liliana,” The student holding her arm announced, more for everyone else’s benefit than for hers. “Estamos haciendo vigilia, we are watching over the campus to ensure that evidence is not destroyed. You have been caught actively obstructing a corruption investigation. We will keep you here with us until the police arrive, do you understand?”
Liliana nodded. She wondered how they had all gotten there, how so many people could have arrived so fast. She wondered how many others had been detained by these students in this pre-dawn raid.
“We are here to protect evidence, to make sure records are not erased. We are fed up with the corruption, with the misappropriation of funds, with…” his words were swallowed up by the chanting and the singing and the fraternal sound of bodies rubbing up against each other in the crowd. Wool sweaters and leather jackets. Sneakers and boots.
Liliana stood quietly in the damp cold grass, her heels digging into the soft earth beneath her, lips pressed tight. Her nose began to run, just a slight trickle that barely reached her mouth. She couldn’t sniff it in. She couldn’t swallow.
When she left work last night, the campus green was dark and abandoned as it usually was. A few light posts flickered in the dark. A clear cold night with pale smoky clouds hovering over a washed out moon. Last night, she had wrapped her coat tightly and slid her heels back on before making a run for the bus.
Nobody noticed that Liliana had not spoken. Nobody noticed the thin trickle from her nose. Nobody noticed that her cheeks sucked in as she pressed up her tongue against the saliva-dampened paper, acidic and stale. Nobody noticed as her tongue tried to peel off the oversized paper wafer stuck to her soft palate, to the back of her mouth. Nobody noticed her much, as they chanted and sang and laughed, as they waited for the sun to rise and for the police to finally arrive.
The sheet with Felicia’s appointment, her small salary for teaching a nonexistent class in a far away satellite campus, pressed up against the ceiling of Liliana’s mouth. This small document exposing her neighbor—her mother’s best friend, the only person in this huge mess that Liliana cared to protect—stayed inside her mouth, sealing it shut.
It was late morning when they arrested her. It was almost noon when they finally arrived at the San Lorenzo police station. While they waited to book her, an officer offered Liliana a glass of water. It was noon when she finally swallowed.
Stephanie A. Vega writes stories. Originally from Paraguay, she moved to the United States to study Economics and International Relations. As an NSF Research Fellow she pursued graduate studies at Oxford University, UK, with fieldwork in Latin America. She now lives in Pittsburgh and is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Chatham University. Her fiction has appeared in The Threepenny Review and is forthcoming in The Cossack Review.