When Koldo Bastarretxea turned eighteen, he received both his license and a job. He became a driver in the first fleet of ambulances to operate out of the hospital in Galdakao, which had opened, coincidentally, only a couple of hours before his birthday. He cruised into his own party in his parents’ apartment with some withered balloons from the reception at the hospital, his employment paperwork, and a certificate from his driving instructor. With his generous lips, and these papers in hand, he kissed both Amaia and her sister on the cheek.
He had known for a long time that he would not go to university, he told them that night, during their first drive together in the ambulance. Luisa sat in the passenger seat next to him, and Amaia perched in the back, on the low cot that she had pushed up against the wall of the cabin. On some later rides she lay down, as though she were the patient, and she listened only to the sound of the vehicle’s motor, and the ribbon of Koldo and Luisa’s conversations as their words bloated and broke up in the breeze.
On that first night Koldo had continued to explain why he wasn’t going to school, but Amaia soon lost the trail of his sentence to the open window. All spring they had been hearing about the cells of insurgents meeting in the deadland between their towns, and by the end of the drive she had fully convinced herself of the most drastic possibility: that Koldo had stayed home to join ETA. It was only later, in their shared bedroom, that Luisa had explained to her that Koldo’s father managed a hat shop in Bilbao, and that Koldo had been planning to take over the business when he turned eighteen. Instead, his father had snubbed him, she said, and passed the whole thing on to Koldo’s younger brother, Iñaki. Jobless, without any other plans, Koldo became an ambulance driver nearly out of necessity.
“It was mean, and totally distasteful,” she said to Amaia that night. “To not even warn him, to one day hire Iñaki to work in the shop, and for Koldo to see them coming home together, both of them in their uniforms.”
They had been getting ready to go to sleep, and Luisa tossed a nightgown at Amaia, though of course she knew that her sister, who had been blind for their whole lives, would not catch it. The nightgown struck Amaia and fell to the floor.
“Sorry,” Luisa said. Her voice softened a little. “Anyway, you get it, right? His dad is kind of a bitch.” Amaia nodded. Behind her, she heard Luisa get into bed.
“Your boobs are getting bigger,” Luisa said as Amaia pulled her nightgown over her head. “Did you know that?” and then she said, “And Koldo is cuter than his brother anyway. I know you might not be able to tell, but he is.”
For a while, Amaia really believed that everyone could not see.
That period lasted until age five, or maybe six, when one afternoon their parents brought them to the thin riverside strip of sand in Kanala, which at that time was famously frequented only by families and nudists. The former took their children there to avoid the cold, turbulent waters of the sea, while the latter preferred it for the relative anonymity it offered, as it was, by lack of those same qualities, a shitty beach. Sitting out on that sand, Luisa had made some comment to Amaia about the sagging breasts of a woman who was lounging several meters away from them. Amaia had snorted, and whispered, “Look at the them,” in agreement, though at the time she understood only vaguely that what Luisa had observed with her eyes, Amaia, with her mind, had merely made up the experience of seeing.
Only later, when Luisa shrieked at the sight of a crab thrashing towards them through the sand, and she began yelling, “Get up Amaia! Don’t you see it,” did Amaia dazedly awaken to her deficit of sight: she saw no creature coming for her. Luisa was still calling out, shrieking from far away, when Amaia heard her mother running back from the shore. She felt her mother collecting her in a pair of long, wet arms, and then her dad’s voice, like always, entered into the conversation a while later. He said something like, “Joder, what were you doing, leaving her alone.” To Amaia, he said, “Mi gordita cieguita”—my fat, blind daughter—while he cupped a hand to the back of her head.
In their shared bedroom, when they returned from the beach, Luisa had climbed onto Amaia’s mattress and crawled over her so that she was sitting on her sister’s two stretched-out legs. She put her face up close to Amaia’s. “You don’t see things,” she said. Amaia shrugged. The incident with the crab had added to her fearful suspicion that Luisa possessed some capability that she did not, but it was annoying to always have your sister telling you things that she claimed were the rigid, unyielding truth.
Amaia thought of the rest of that afternoon, which she had spent discerning whether her knowledge of the things in her vicinity came from her vision or instead from some other clue. She knew what the sand was like because she had held it in her fingers, felt the expansive carpet redistribute itself beneath her as she shifted her bottom around, and felt the separate individual grains as they seeped into her bathing suit and got caught in the folds of her skin. The water, too, she felt she understood, since she’d bathed in it, and even when it was far from her, she heard it draw itself in and out over the dampened sand. She thought again of the big-breasted woman, whom she had looked for later that afternoon.
She was, again, no older than six, and so it is difficult to say for certain if she did or didn’t attribute her not finding the woman to the fault of her own eyes. But she did draw her head around, many times, in an innocent extension of hope that the woman might somehow appear to her, a naked Madonna washing up on the shore of her mind.
Back in their bedroom, Luisa told Amaia to close her eyes, and instinctively Amaia did. The flesh lids came down over those wet little balls that she could feel, at times, moving around in her head. “Open them.” Luisa’s breath was warm. “Did anything change?”
Eventually, and with a new sort of embarrassment, Amaia answered, “No.” The room was dark, that she could sense, but “no” was the truth; she could see nothing, not even Luisa’s face before her. She let the lids fall back down, and eventually Luisa pressed her two thumbs over them, and with the most tenderness that she had ever shown toward her sister, Luisa moved around the soft skin that hung over Amaia’s eyes.
At Koldo’s party, everyone milled about and Amaia sat in the armchair that Koldo’s parents had set up for her in the corner of their living room. From time to time, neighbors of theirs would stop by to talk to her, each of them painstakingly articulating their name as though she were at risk of not knowing who they were.
Luisa had abandoned her, unsurprisingly, and over the course of the afternoon Amaia heard her sister’s thin, lace-like laughter unspool itself across the room. She could have left with their parents, who had stayed for a polite hour and then walked the couple of blocks back to their apartment, but Amaia had spent the morning daydreaming, drifting aimlessly through the narrow channels of her own mind until her mother had collected her for Koldo’s party. It was only around other people that she realized that she had been lonely. She surprised her parents by demanding to stay.
“Hey.” Someone had settled onto the arm of her chair. Amaia recognized the voice as Koldo’s. When she didn’t respond immediately he repeated again: “It’s me, Koldo.”
“Your sister and I are going to leave. My ambulance—the ambulance from the hospital—is outside. They let me drive it home.”
“Okay,” she said at the same time that he said, “Do you want to come?”
They both laughed a little. “Do you want to come along for a drive,” he repeated. Then somewhat sheepishly he said, “A short drive. A quick test, you know.”
“A test drive?”
“Yeah, exactly,” he said.
“To test the motor of the car that you drove home?” She heard Koldo shift to make way for passing guests. After a series of muttered thank you’s, he brought his head back down to her level.
“Okay, whatever, Amaia. A regular drive. Are you interested in coming along for a regular drive?”
When she said sure, he told her to meet Luisa outside; he would join them in a few minutes. “She’s already swiped a bottle of Patxaran from the booze table,” he whispered before he walked away.
Down in the foyer, she ran into her sister. “You’re coming?” Luisa called out.
“I was invited.”
“She was, Luisa, calm down,” Koldo called from the top of the stairs, as he closed his apartment door. Out on the street, he led them to his ambulance, where it sat parked against the curb. When they were close enough, Luisa took Amaia’s wrist and pressed her palm to the cabin’s metal siding. Koldo embarked on a description of each of its features.
“I don’t know what horsepower means,” Amaia called out to him, as she felt around the two doors at the rear of the ambulance and the latch that joined them. Koldo was somewhere near the passenger seat, describing the engine to Luisa. “Actually,” Amaia added, “neither does she.”
Koldo came around the ambulance to join her.
“That’s not shocking to me,” Koldo said as he wandered around the side of the ambulance to join her. He unlatched the doors to the cabin. “There’s not too much back there right now. A bed, basic hospital things like thermometers. We hung a stretcher up on the left hand wall the other day, and then there’s some needles and some blood pressure stuff over there.”
A laugh came from just behind Amaia. “You know nothing about medicine.”
“And I know you know nothing about cars,” he replied.
“Please, let’s just drive,” said Amaia. “I’ll get in the back.” She had been unaware that during this exchange, Koldo’s fingertips already lingered over her sister’s waist.
Still, their feelings for each other became clear enough when neither of them refused Amaia’s offer, each of them taking the two seats in front of the ambulance, Luisa sitting by Koldo’s side as he drove. Amaia might have let this wound her if she hadn’t been distracted by the miracle that the cot in the back cabin, where she settled herself with her sister’s help, was not the same bed in which she’d had her lonely morning lounging.
In fact, as the ambulance shuddered over a slew of potholes, the moment converted itself into one of the few in which she felt grateful that she could not see. What a relief that she didn’t have to witness them leave town on the battered roads that fled Lemoa. What a relief to be freed from imagining them traveling down any road, anywhere.
As they approached a steady speed, and the afternoon sloughed its way to night, Amaia wound her fingers tight around the cot’s metal frame. She was the only one of them, that afternoon and on each of the drives that followed, capable of experiencing the ambulance casting off into a vast, formless nothing.
Koldo worked at the hospital until 10 p.m. three days a week. Most nights after his shift he would drive to their apartment and idle until they emerged. It all began as a jest: when Koldo dropped the sisters off after that first night, he joked that they would need to see each other again in order finish their stolen bottle of Patxaran, but after their second or third drive together, the bottle was done, and by then it was clear that he needed no excuse for coming back.
Luisa and Koldo were together. They would flirt in the front part of the cabin, and when Koldo dropped them home at night, Amaia would slide herself out of the back of the ambulance, and from where she waited in the doorframe, she would hear Luisa’s distant laugh pooling behind the rolled-up window. Sometimes they kept her waiting long enough that she took a seat at the bottom of the stairs that led up to their apartment. Once, Luisa, a little drunk, had asked Amaia why she had stared at them while they kissed that night. That was the only time that Amaia ever yelled at her sister for making her wait.
After that, though, they all knew where they stood in relation to one another. Luisa and Koldo kissed freely in the front seat—Amaia could hear them—and she called them “besar burros” whenever she lost control of my own jealousy. Kissing donkeys. Koldo found it hilarious, and so of course Luisa did too.
The ambulance belonged to the hospital, but its first weeks of operation were so disorganized that there was no one, as far as Koldo could tell, keeping track of who drove which vehicle and when. After they let him drive it home from the opening reception he had planned to return it, but when he punched out after his first real night on the job, he couldn’t find anyone who could tell him where to leave it. There were only two other ambulances parked at random, each on opposite sides of the hospital lot. He had wandered the hospital for another hour in search of his supervisor, but half the building was still unfurnished, and in those empty rooms he found no one. Eventually a janitor told him to stop being a bigheaded hero and to just drive the ambulance home. Each time he returned to the hospital after that, he gave less and less thought to leaving the ambulance there, until the vehicle in effect became his, and he became associated with it, and the people who knew him in Lemoa would have been more shocked to one day find him, say, behind the wheel of his father’s old sedan.
“Either way, it doesn’t really matter. I’m the best driver. They love me,” he once said to Amaia and Luisa. “If I ever met my supervisor while I was out driving, before even mentioning the ambulance, he would say to me, ‘Coño! Koldo! Give my regards to your mother, what’s up, what’s new with you man, could you use a fucking smoke?’”
It was late May, on one of their early drives, and the three of them were deep in the empty land of the countryside: Luisa had ordered Koldo to take them far away from town so that she could see the ambulance’s flashing red lights in action. Though the lights were irrelevant to Amaia, she dragged herself out of the back of the cabin, and came around to the side of the road to join Luisa. She slid her head into the space beneath her sister’s jaw, and Luisa, keeping her eyes on the roof of the ambulance, set her chin atop Amaia’s ear. In the front cabin, Koldo fiddled with a set of controls.
When a siren broke out and erupted down the empty street, Amaia seized Luisa, and they both screamed. They didn’t even hear Koldo switch it all off because they had been wailing in high-pitched unison—bellowing in long, protracted undulations—it turned out, to the exact rhythm of the alarm.
“If I run into my supervisor tonight,” Koldo said to them when they had gotten themselves back into the ambulance, “I can at least tell him that I am on duty, following up on a call about two psychotic sisters.”
They’d been together—Luisa and Koldo, and Amaia in the back too—for about a month when Koldo asked if they wanted to spend a weekend at his uncle’s summer flat in Ea. Though Koldo had invited them both, Amaia later asked Luisa if it was okay for her to go. “Don’t be stupid,” Luisa had said. “You’re my sister; of course you’ll come.” They were alone in the kitchen, cleaning up after lunch while their parents retired in front of the TV. Amaia was about to begin washing the stack of dishes piled in the sink when Luisa came over, took her wrist, and gently held a plate between her sister’s fingers until Amaia closed her hand around it. Then Luisa added, “We like having you.”
Amaia felt the hard germ of anger expanding inside of her. If she hadn’t so feared being left at home, she might have said something mean—dangerously mean—back to her sister. She thought briefly about dropping the plate in her hand. Instead, she nodded once, then rinsed it, and allowed Luisa to hand her a new one. She restrained herself from reminding Luisa that she could hold a plate without anyone else’s help.
Amaia later took charge of explaining to their parents that their friend Fidelia had invited them to her apartment for the weekend, because she knew that even though her mother did not know Fidelia’s mother, her mother knew that Fidelia’s parents were both lawyers, and because of this Amaia knew that her mother would never bother to call Fidelia’s house to check up on the girls over the weekend, as she was prone to do with the parents of their other friends.
A few nights before they left for Ea, Luisa, Amaia, and Koldo were out in the ambulance, when Luisa made them pull over to the side of the road so that she could run into the forest and piss. Koldo and Amaia sat alone in the ambulance for a few moments, and then with no warning Koldo said, “You’re very pretty, Amaia.” The sentence seemed to startle them both. Then, quickly, he added, “I’m sorry, I just… wasn’t sure if you knew.”
Amaia, startled, had said nothing, and as they sat there in silence, she began to convince herself that she had made the moment up. She had had to press her hands deep into the cot until she felt the coarse weave of the sheets to be sure that she was really in the ambulance. Eventually she heard rustling clothes—Koldo shifting around in the front seat—and when he spoke next, his voice came from directly in front of her. “Do you want me to tell you what you look like?”
Of course she said yes. Of course she bloomed with simple, guiltless ardor when he put his fingers to her eyebrows and, moving down, traced each feature of her face, describing them to her at times in nearly reverent detail. Of course she didn’t tell him that she and Luisa had come up with this same exercise when they were children; that periodically, from the time that she was six, Luisa had acted as her mirror. Because of Luisa, Amaia had understood what she had looked like her entire life.
Koldo had just reached her lips when they heard Luisa’s footsteps emerging from the forest. He dropped his hands immediately. For the rest of the drive, Amaia pretended that she could still feel their touch lingering in the place where they’d last been, though in truth the sensation had disappeared as soon as he’d removed them.
Several days later, he parked his ambulance around the corner from their apartment, and after parting with their mother, the two sisters piled their weekend bags into the back cabin, and shoved them beneath Amaia’s cot.
In the living room of Koldo’s uncle’s flat, on the Friday night that they arrived, Koldo took a full bottle of Patxaran out of his bag, a copy of the one bottle that Luisa had stolen from his birthday party, and they shared it amongst the three of them. It was Koldo’s first time drinking around them—he had only taken measured, occasional sips when he had been responsible for driving them all home—and that night, once he fully surrendered to the influence of that liquor, his dormant goofiness erupted. Laughter tumbled from his mouth in frequent, uncontrollable surges, and it was not the cool, restrained laughter that Amaia had gotten accustomed to hearing come from the front of the ambulance. This time, it was manic, clownish laughter. It was clumsy and unattractive. He couldn’t even manage to get his sentences out without them imploding. Like a cartoon character he began, “Can you guys even be-lieve how lu-cky we are that it stopped rain—”
He lost it again. He sputtered and made a sound like a fake cry, and then his laughter got muffled, and Amaia sensed that he had pressed his mouth against some fabric, or some other person. Several minutes passed before he was able to collect himself, and to emerge from Luisa’s shoulder.
Instead of asking his uncle’s permission to use the apartment, Koldo had decided to bring them all there in secret, before his uncle arrived. That was how they had ended up at the beach on the first weekend of June when it was still just barely summer. In the week leading up to their trip, bursts of rain had ruptured every day. Out on the sand, the sun did little to cut the chill of the wind as it coasted over their exposed stomachs.
Luisa and Koldo and Amaia had all been sleeping next to each other on the pull out mattress in the flat, and though Amaia was fairly sure that she heard Luisa adjusting herself in Koldo’s arms at night, they had never tried anything more around her. On the second afternoon at the beach, Amaia had been lying on her back, caught up somewhere in her own mind. She was paying no attention at all to Luisa and Koldo, until eventually Luisa came over to her and put her mouth to Amaia’s ear.
“Koldo and I just had sex,” she whispered. Down at the shore, distant waves slapped upon on the sand. “You probably didn’t even realize, did you?”
She was right. Amaia had no idea where Koldo even was.
Later that afternoon, on the drive home, Amaia lay down on the cot, pulled back the starched top sheet, and burrowed into it, even though she had promised Koldo, when they first rode in the ambulance, that she would not.
One Sunday afternoon toward the end of June, Koldo tried to teach Luisa how to drive. Amaia drummed a pattern onto the side of the cabin as he explained the different positions of the gears. Luisa was getting them mostly correct. She always faltered on shifting between the third and forth, but eventually she got comfortable enough for Koldo to suggest that she try driving solo.
“I’m going to be a patient who’s called you, okay” he said to Luisa. “You’re going to pick me up.”
Luisa giggled. “I think you’ve already picked me up, haven’t you?”
Both Amaia and Koldo rolled their eyes—several years ago, Luisa had taught Amaia to do this, calling it a critical social skill—but Koldo had had his eyes on Luisa, and not on the rearview mirror, and so the moment passed without either of them realizing the way that they mimicked each other. Amaia heard the door slam, and then Koldo’s voice came now from somewhere outside of the ambulance. She slid out of the back and took his spot in the passenger seat.
“Okay,” Amaia heard him begin, and then his voice grew increasingly muffled as he backed away down the road.
Amaia squeezed her sister’s shoulder in solidarity. “Get ready,” Luisa said, but for a while—Amaia couldn’t tell how long—they sat there, totally still. Then all at once the whole ambulance jolted forward and for a few uninterrupted seconds they were accelerating violently, faster than Koldo had ever driven them. When Luisa finally slammed the ambulance to a stop, Koldo’s yells floated to them from down the street.
“Luisa! Goddamn it!” he screamed. His voice was shattered, cut through with heavy breathing. When he finally caught up with the ambulance, he yanked the passenger door open and flung his heaving chest across their laps. Amaia shrieked at the unexpected weight of his torso.
“Sorry, Amaia,” he said, as he pulled himself across both of their laps. Then he flipped over onto his back, so that his head rested on Luisa’s thighs.
“My god, he’s crossing his arms over his chest like he’s a corpse!” Luisa said. “Get up Koldo,” she yelled, and Amaia felt his body flop around atop them as Luisa jabbed at his shoulders. “Get up,” she repeated, “you’re being a fucking weirdo!” After a while, Amaia felt his chest lift, and he took her hand.
“I’m back from my deceased state,” he wheezed, and Luisa snorted, “to remind us all that Amaia would be a damn better driver than her older sister.” Luisa, at that point, was quaking with giggles, but Amaia took Koldo’s hand to her mouth and kissed it gently, then she said very solemnly and without a smile, “Blessed father, here lies Koldo Aitor Bastarretxea.” She paused. The peak of Luisa’s cackle erupted. “May he rest in eternal peace.”
Soon summer came to Lemoa—real summer—and with it the series of summer festivals that seemed to crop up every weekend in a different town. They began in the afternoons with tamer attractions: children stroked bulls in traditional garb through the holes in a fence. Mothers might purchase new strands of chorizo. At night the celebrations grew wild: the sky became scarred with fireworks, the ground with beer, wine, Coke, and trodden streamers. No one seemed to remember which saint they were supposed to be celebrating on any particular night, if they remembered that the festivals were in fact dedicated to saints at all. Amaia’s parents loved to retell the story of the drunken man beside them who they’d once heard proclaim, “Who was that bitch Magdalena, anyway?”
That next year someone fell from a cliff into the sea.
Amaia, knowing all of this, had always been content to stay at home. Luisa would normally stay with her, but that summer, as soon as the season began on the first of July, she and Koldo took to chasing them, leaving the house at 10 p.m., driving from town to town, and not arriving home until five or six the next morning. Sometimes Luisa sidled into bed beside her sister when she returned. Often she woke Amaia, or she intended to wake her, not knowing that most of those nights Amaia lay there sleepless until she heard the ambulance’s motor approach, then pause beneath her window.
One night, Luisa slid into bed next to her and put her wine-scented breath up to Amaia’s ear.
“Amaia,” she said.
“I’m awake. What?”
Luisa gripped her sister’s arm. “Look at me.” Amaia turned her head in Luisa’s direction. Luisa took a deep breath. “I lied to you a while ago. On the beach, at Koldo’s apartment.”
“Oh?” she said.
“We didn’t have sex then.” Luisa paused. “I just…made it up.” She kissed her sister’s shoulder through the cloth of her nightgown. A relief invaded Amaia; the force of it embarrassed her slightly. As the two of them lay there beside each other, she became aware of all the points of contact between them—Luisa’s forehead pressed to her neck, knees curled in to meet her hip—and Amaia hoped fiercely that her sister had not noticed how obviously her whole body had relaxed at the news. After a few minutes, however, Luisa lifted her head and said, “Actually, we just did.”
Eventually, Amaia asked where and Luisa, already turned over so that she faced away from Amaia, answered lazily, “in the ambulance, on the cot.”
In the middle of one of those nights in the heat of the summer, when Amaia was perpetually being left at home, she woke up and felt the surface of Luisa’s bed to find that her sister was still out. Amaia returned to her own bed, and attempted to put herself back to sleep, but after another hour or two of tossing around, she got up, and for no reason other than habit, she got herself dressed, and put on her shoes. She went over to Luisa’s bed and patted it one more time, just to be sure. It was silly to have expected her there, when of course at that hour she would instead be next to Koldo in the ambulance, the two of them winding along some mountain road in between parties. Then for a moment her mind swerved out of her own control and she could not escape the thought of another driver turning the bend on the mangled ambulance; the sad irony of discovering, inside, their lifeless bodies.
She realized only when she was descending the stairs to the street, after having left their apartment still preoccupied with the passing vision of the ambulance, that going for a walk alone at night—something that she had never done before—was, for her, its own kind of rebellion. And rather than the faint but uncontrollable jealousy that she’d so often felt toward her sister that summer, she felt a sort of solidarity.
She had just reached the foyer when she heard her sister whisper “Amaia.” It was one of those theatrical whispers that seemed out of place in real life. “What are you doing?”
“I was just going for a walk.”
“Do you know what time it is?”
“No,” said Amaia. “You know that I can’t tell on my own.”
“But you know that it’s very late, right? We just got home.”
“It’s dark. I’m not dumb, Luisa.”
From outside the foyer, Koldo’s voice called to them, “Amaia, is that you?”
“Yes it’s me,” she yelled back. The sense of solidarity was gone. This time she couldn’t withhold the resentment from her voice. Koldo, in response, laughed his restrained, self-aware laugh.
“We’ve missed you.” Amaia turned toward Luisa, who just said “Yeah.”
“Come back,” Koldo called. “I’ll pick you both up. Tomorrow? Okay?”
“Okay,” Amaia said. Luisa grabbed hold of Amaia’s arm, as though to drag her up to the apartment, and so in defiance, Amaia called louder “OKAY, KOLDO.” She was poised to yell out “I’VE MISSED YOU TOO” but Luisa, being easy to crack, was already undone with laughter. They left Koldo at the curb with no goodbye, and climbed the stairs, each attempting to quiet the other’s cackles and their own.
In the spirit of their first expedition, they began pilfering a bottle of liquor from their parents’ kitchens and taking it out only when they were parked far away from town on one of the unlit country roads that had now become familiar.
Amaia continued to ride on the cot, but she spent her first ride back in the cabin convincing herself that Koldo must have changed the sheets since the night that he and Luisa had spent there several weeks ago. On one of their early rides he had told her that he hadn’t yet taken a single person to the hospital since it had opened. “This whole ambulance is in pristine condition,” he had bragged. She shuddered at the memory of him stating, “as though it has never been touched.”
There was at least one point of obvious progress that had been made since Amaia had last joined them: Koldo had discovered how to turn on the red emergency lights without setting the siren off along with it. Now, as soon as they made it far enough outside of town, Koldo parked and then they all soundlessly withdrew from the ambulance and reassembled beneath its muted glow. Somehow the feeling had welled up amongst the three of them that they were an inseparable trio, mistakenly parted.
Several nights into this new tradition, Luisa, Koldo and Amaia sat outside the illuminated ambulance, playing their own erratic version of Would You Rather. At times they adhered to the rules, and began their questions with “Would you rather,” but more often they deviated from the original game entirely.
“If you could have any feature of a cat, what would it be?” Amaia had meant it as a serious question, but it came out like a joke.
“You’re kidding,” Luisa said.
“Not at all.”
“Physical features?” Koldo asked.
“What else do you think ‘features’ refers to?” said Luisa.
“I don’t know, spiritual features?” Amaia said. “I don’t care, you decide.”
“Hm, okay.” Amaia could hear Koldo click his tongue while he thought. Eventually he said, “I would want to live as though I had nine lives.”
Luisa said, “So you want nine lives.”
“No, I want to feel as though I have nine lives. It’s different.”
“It’s a spiritual feature of a cat.”
“I don’t see why you wouldn’t just wish for nine lives–”
“We’re not wishing,” said Amaia. “It’s not a wishing game.”
“She’s right,” Koldo said. “It’s about making a mental change–”
“A spiritual change,” she added.
“Spiritual!” Koldo repeated, his pronunciation beginning to slur just slightly. “It’s about changing what’s in your head, and…” They waited as he groped for the end of his sentence, “in your soul.” Amaia had lost track of where the bottle was until she heard Koldo swallow emphatically after he spoke.
“I’m sorry, I still don’t see the difference,” Luisa said. Koldo passed the bottle to Amaia.
“Okay,” he began. He was obviously drunk. “It’s about…”
“No. Well, I don’t know…it’s kind of hard to say–”
“It’s about fear,” Amaia yelled out then. “How could you not get it, Luisa? It’s so simple. It’s about having tons of lives. It’s about not worrying that you’re going to leave the planet at any second. It’s about being able to live with no fear.”
She waited for a response. Eventually, Luisa said, “Okay, Amaia.”
“It’s your turn.” Luisa sounded subdued. “Which ‘feature of a cat’ would you adopt?”
Amaia wondered for a moment if she should say what she really wanted to, but at that moment she felt warm, and with whatever stolen cooking liquor they had been drinking, almost weightless. And for the first time she felt completely comfortable in the presence of Koldo and her sister. And so she told the truth.
“Fine,” she said. “Their eyes.”
After Amaia’s response, they all sat alone together in the dark. Amaia felt Luisa draw her palms back and forth across her shoulders. She was relieved that she hadn’t lied.
That moment of intimacy between the three of them lasted only several minutes before it was ruptured by a concert of nearby shots. Instinctively, Amaia reached for Luisa, but Luisa was already up on her feet, pulling Amaia around the side of the ambulance with her. From the same direction—which Amaia immediately recognized as the forest by the side of the road—came a series of muffled, far off shouts, then the sound of a horde of men retreating. Someone screamed something. Then there came an audible howl: “Hijos de la gran puta.”
Not one of them moved. Amaia dug her fingers into her sister’s arm. Finally, after some moments of silence came the slow rise of a communal moan. At first, it seemed like a unified sound, but as it continued Amaia began to make out strains of distinct voices and the chaos of different tenors entering and leaving the accumulation. What she had thought at first was one man seemed instead to be many. A moment later a couple of branches crackled, and then brush began rustling beneath a pair of feet. When the man finally emerged from the forest, Luisa yelped at the sight of his body.
“Cabrón, can you tell me,” he asked Koldo, “if that’s really an ambulance that you have there.”
Koldo snapped to attention, like the dutiful hospital worker that he’d once been trained to be. “Fuck,” he said. “Yes! Yes, oh my God.” He treaded into the brush to meet the man. “This is my ambulance. Please, get in.” Amaia listened to him guide the man around to the ambulance’s back doors. As Koldo hoisted him into the back he said quietly to the man, “Can I ask…who are you?”
“Who am I?” The man laughed weakly. “No one’s business, not theirs,” he paused. “Not even yours, my friend. Please, take me to the hospital.”
A new round of splitting twigs came from the trees, and the sounds of another person stumbling through the brush, but this time, just when he hit the pavement and his footsteps dropped off, the crackling started up again, and someone else emerged. They continued like that, and so Amaia, in her own way, experienced what Luisa and Koldo saw before them: a constant stream of bodies bleeding from the mouth of the forest.
As they battled low-hanging branches, some of them spewed half-hearted curses, and some muttered rapid, troubled prayers. At the very end of the caravan, someone just repeated holy names: Jesus, God, and Mary, Mother Mary, Kind Virgin Mary, Mary Our Mother, Mary, Mary, Our Virgin Hope. On arriving at this last incantation, he took Amaia’s hands into his and whispered, “Bless you.”
When he let go of her hands, Amaia called out, “Brother–” because that was how she had heard religious people address each other–“what happened to you?”
His voice came back to her from far away—he had already climbed into the back of the ambulance—and he said, “Hija, you heard what happened to me.” She heard Koldo shutting the doors and struggling to secure the back latch. Then he rushed past them to get into the ambulance.
“Wait,” Luisa yelled after him. “Where will Amaia sit?”
She followed him to the door of the driver’s seat. “I don’t know,” Koldo said. He already had the door open, his hand on the steering wheel, poised to hoist himself in. “The back is packed. Haven’t you seen? They’re all sitting on top of each other.” He got quiet. “Did you hear them? I don’t want to put your sister in there.”
“Well she can’t walk home,” Luisa said. “You know she can’t see.”
“I’ll walk home,” Amaia called out. “I want to walk.” She had been trailing their voices, and she kept a hand to the cabin as she edged toward them. For a moment Koldo watched her groping futilely along the ambulance’s metal sides. Then he said “Jesus Christ.” He grabbed Amaia’s wrist and dragged her around to the passenger seat, where he placed her foot on the cabin floor and raised her up by her waist.
Luisa called out Koldo’s name while Amaia settled herself into the ambulance, and Koldo hurried back to the driver’s side. He flipped on the siren and that familiar throbbing sound tumbled around them as he said to Luisa, his tone suddenly cool, level, “You can see that there’s no room for you. Amaia cannot walk home, okay?” It was better that Amaia could not see her sister’s face when Koldo said, “You will.”
Luisa was still calling his name when they pulled out onto the road, made a careful three-point-turn, and fled.
On the drive to the hospital, Koldo began to whimper, though he sounded not like the men lying restless in the back cabin, but instead like a mewing calf, or like his neighbor’s wounded dog, whose chewed-up testicles, after losing a fight with some other Lemoan hounds, had become the shame of the whole block. Every so often, he repeated, “My God, oh my God.”
There, from the front seat, housed in the intimate brain of the ambulance, Koldo’s voice sounded exponentially nearer than it had from the back cabin. Amaia could hear each of the noises that escaped him. They entered her ears easily, and he seemed unbearably close. As they drove, the sense of gravity peeled away from her, and she felt, filtering through her limbs, an extension of that same dizziness that she had experienced when Luisa first tried to teach her how to roll her eyes. Her sister’s instructions had been poor and imprecise, and so instead of tracing an arc with them, Amaia had accidentally rolled them all the way back into her head. Caught between the inside of herself and the outer world, she had felt her whole skull radiate with a sort of painful, feverish warmth. Beside Koldo, the feeling revived itself in every part of her body.
When the ambulance finally slowed to a stop, Koldo told Amaia that they had made it to the hospital, and that he would be back. She listened to him unlatch the doors to the cabin, and to the men’s moans floating out of the ambulance and away. While she waited for him, she was reminded of the nights when Koldo and Luisa first got together that would end with her waiting alone on the steps to their apartment. She had sat there while they messed around in the two front seats, and when she realized that they were the same front seats where she was now sitting, the desire bloomed again behind her eyes.
After what felt like an infinite stretch of time, the door opened and Koldo slid into the driver’s seat.
“How are they?”
“Not great,” he said.
“Do you think they’ll all be fine though?”
He hesitated. “I think whoever comes out of that hospital is going to be a different version of themselves.” The ambulance was silent for a moment as Koldo sat looking up at the half-lit building. He started the motor. “Fine, maybe. But different.”
“Do you wonder why they stopped shooting?” Amaia asked him then.
“What do you mean?”
“Why they didn’t shoot those guys until they were all the way dead,” she said. “It’s kind of weird, isn’t it?”
She felt Koldo turn out of the hospital parking lot.
“Yeah, I guess it is weird,” he said absentmindedly, but then his voice hardened and he said, “Jesus, Amaia. I think they came close enough.”
Later, when Koldo pulled up beside Luisa on the outer edges of their town, maintaining, pathetically, that he hadn’t truly abandoned her, she had said nearly the exact same thing: “Maybe you didn’t—but don’t you think you came close enough?”
As soon as they left the hospital parking lot, the ambulance merged seamlessly onto the deserted road that ran between Galdakao and Lemoa. Amaia was quiet. Koldo’s comment had injured her briefly, but it hadn’t been enough to dim the memory of the last time that they had been together in the empty ambulance, when he had traced every feature of her face. With the men finally gone from the back cabin, she savored each of these new moments alone. Amaia only realized that Koldo had been speeding when the right half of the ambulance dropped off the side of the road. As it clamored back onto even ground, the whole cabin rattled. Koldo slapped the dashboard and said, “It’s impossible to see anything through this goddamn fog.”
Yes, Amaia thought, succumbing to a small swell of sympathy for him, it’s impossible to see anything. And then, sitting there beside Koldo as he tore towards their town, and towards Luisa, Amaia halfheartedly ran over the few attempts at conversation that she had rehearsed while she sat out in the parking lot, waiting for him; the short portions of sentences that she had planned to speak to him before she got out of the ambulance at the end of the drive; the jumbled collection of words that she hoped might somehow make Koldo consider, instead of her sister, kissing her.
After a while the ambulance made a series of short turns, indicating that they had reached Lemoa. Though Koldo could have allowed Amaia to stay there beside him as he searched for her sister, he drove her straight to her parents’ apartment instead. When they arrived, he told her that she was home. He was cold, purposefully, and Amaia felt, for the first time, like one of his patients. Still, she had lingered briefly before getting out, hoping that Koldo might say something else. But he was silent, and in the end there was nothing special about the few short moments that they shared in the ambulance, in front of her house.