“I just love your house Dee, always have, and these new yellow curtains really finish it off,” Penny said.
“Thanks, it’s quiet and private, and the yellow in the curtains brings in the color from the woods on either side of me,” Dee answered.
Ruby sat at the kitchen table drumming her fingers and pushing the magazines on the table around. Penny sat next to her. Dee was smiling and still looking out the window at the woods.
“You gonna answer that?” Ruby asked.
Penny craned her neck around, looking for the source of the sound. “That a phone?”
Penny shook her head. “Landline. Dee’s the only one I know who still has one.”
“Dee, you have to pick up the phone, not stare at it,” Ruby said.
The blood drained from Dee’s face as she came to the table and sat. “I have caller ID.”
Ruby brushed gray bangs out of her eyes and squinted. “Everyone does. You’re white as a ghost. Did you see a ghost?”
“Yes. No…I don’t know.”
Penny put her coffee cup on the table and leaned forward. “Dee, what’s going on?”
“Go check the caller ID, Penny,” said Dee.
Ruby rolled her eyes, picked up a National Wildlife Foundation Magazine from the table, and started thumbing through it.
Penny rose and went over to look at the caller-ID box. “It’s blank.”
Dee called out, “Press the arrow-up button.”
Penny pressed the button and read out loud, “Tibbitts, 433-7833.”
Penny returned to her chair. “Dee, what’s going on?”
Ruby put the magazine aside. “You mean other than someone named Tibbitts called?”
Penny ignored her and stared at Dee, waiting for an answer.
“I don’t know,” Dee said softly.
Penny turned to Ruby and said, “Dee’s maiden name was Tibbetts.”
“My dad died in a nursing home nine years ago,” Dee said. “The phone number I grew up with was 433-7833. My mother died when I was three, it was always just us two. That’s my dad’s phone number.”
“Are you saying he’s calling from the grave?” asked Ruby. “What do you think he wanted?”
“Ruby!” shouted Penny. “Dee’s upset. Be nice.”
“I couldn’t answer it. I was afraid it might be Dad.”
“Maybe you should take the landline out,” said Penny.
Ruby snickered. “That’s the first sensible thing you’ve said, Penny.”
“I don’t know. I’ve always had a phone on the wall,” Dee said in a soft voice.
“But Dee, we don’t call it, we call your cell,” Penny said. “All I got was telemarketers on the landline, so I cancelled mine five years ago.”
“I’m not sure I even have your landline number,” Ruby said. “Maybe you should call the phone company and get rid of it and find out who has that phone number.”
Dee stood up and stretched to her full height of five feet eleven inches. “I need to be alone right now.”
Dee was shaking as Penny got to her feet. “Come on Ruby, it’s time for us to go. I’ll call you this afternoon, Dee.”
Once outside, Ruby asked Penny, “What do you think she’ll do?”
“I don’t know, but I hope she calls the phone company.”
The following Monday, the coffee group was again at Dee’s house. “I see the phone’s off the wall,” Ruby observed. “Finally came to your senses."
Dee smiled. “Yes, the landline’s gone. The phone company told me the number was spoofed. Telemarketers falsely project local phone numbers to make you think it’s a local call so you answer it.”
“Spoofing, huh?” Penny shook her head. “Just bad luck your old number was chosen.”
As the conversation lulled, Dee’s cellphone ringing in the middle of the table drew everyone’s attention. The screen lit up and the number 433-7833 appeared.
Dee stood and pushed back from the table so quickly her chair fell over. “Oh my God! There it is again!” she shrieked.
“Don’t answer it, Dee,” Ruby said.
They stared at the phone until it stopped ringing.
“Call the phone company again,” Penny insisted. “Use my phone.”
“How’d they get your cell number? Do you get many telemarketers calls on it?” asked Ruby.
Dee started crying. “I’ve never had a telemarketing call on my cellphone. Not many people even have it; I wouldn’t give the number to the landline company, so it can’t be them.”
Penny frowned. “There, there, Dee. We’ll do something.”
“I didn’t sleep last night. That’s three nights in a row. And now this.”
“Call the phone company again,” Ruby said.
Penny woke with a start, halfway between asleep and awake, uncertain of what woke her. The digital clock read 2:43. Then her cellphone rang again.
She answered it when she saw Dee’s name and picture appear. “Dee, everything okay?”
“He talked to me.”
“Dad! It was him. He sounded far away… maybe like he was inside a can or something, but it was him. He called me Dee Anne. No one’s called me that for years. He always did. He sounded tired. He said he was cold.”
“Dee, get a grip. Do you actually believe your dad called you from the grave? Really?”
“He didn’t say much, but it was him.”
“I’m on my way. Stay put.”
The porch light was on when Penny pulled into the driveway. She let herself in and found Dee sitting at the table, dazed.
“You haven’t slept for days, have you?”
Dee shook her head and started crying. “He said, ‘You left me.’ and ‘I need you.’ He said it twice.”
“Oh, Dee, I’m so sorry.”
Dee put her head on the table and Penny patted her back. The silence was shattered by the ringing of Dee’s cellphone.
“Put it on speakerphone,” Penny said.
Dee answered, pushed the speakerphone button said, “Dee Anne, you left me,” said an eerie gravelly voice. “I need you. Come to me… come to me.”
Dee was shaking so badly it took her three tries to hit the end-call button.
“You heard it, too. That was Dad talking to me. Penny, what should I do?”
Penny took a deep breath. “There has to be a logical explanation for this. Let me make some coffee. Want me to call Ruby?”
Ruby arrived dressed in her house coat. She waddled up the steps into the house. “Glad you called me. I don’t know what’s going on but it has to stop. I called the police and all they said was fill out a form.”
Penny straightened and asked, “You called the police?”
“Yeah, it didn’t go anywhere. Dee’s shaking like a leaf. We need to do something. I have some, um, pills left over from my surgery, I could get them.”
“No drugs,” said Penny. “That’s not a solution.”
“Okay, you’ve known her longer than I have.”
“Dee, I’ll stay here with you tonight and tomorrow,” said Penny. You need to rest.”
Ruby drained her coffee and said, “I’ll stay till morning and see what happens. Give me your phone, Dee, so you can rest.”
“No! He might call.”
Penny caught Ruby’s eye and shrugged. “Okay, you can keep your phone, but only if you try to go to sleep.”
Dee walked down the hall and closed her bedroom door. Ruby looked at Penny and shook her head.
“Ruby, what’s there to do? I’m afraid for her safety – she may be dangerous to herself.”
“She just needs some rest and to shut her phone off.”
Penny cocked her head and looked at Ruby.
“Yup, that’s her phone again,” Ruby said.
The same scenario played out every hour on the hour.
Dee emerged and smiled at her two friends sitting at her kitchen table. The kitchen clock flashed 7:30. “Thank you, girls. I slept well. Just what I needed.”
Ruby stood, put her hands on her broad hips, and stared at Dee. “We could hear your phone ring every hour. And we could hear you crying. Don’t lie to us.”
“Ruby!” Penny exclaimed. “Be nice.”
Dee collapsed into a chair. “Ruby’s right. I didn’t sleep. He keeps calling and telling me to come to him.”
Penny rose to comfort her. “You’re going to get through this. We’re here for you.”
“I need to go now,” Ruby said. “But I can come back tonight. Call me, okay?”
“Will do, Ruby. Thanks for being here for Dee,” said Penny.
Dee fell asleep at the table. Penny muted both her and Dee’s cellphones. She moved Dee’s so she would sleep. On the hour, Dee’s muted phone lit up with a call, but Penny just smiled and didn’t answer it.
Dee woke several hours later. “Penny! My phone, it’s missing!”
“It’s right here. You were asleep so I moved it to keep it from being knocked off the table.”
Dee looked at the phone. “Two missed calls? Dad called and you didn’t let me know. He needs me. He might have been telling me where he was and now I’ll never know. You should leave now.”
“I was trying to help, that’s all.”
Dee turned away and said, “You shouldn’t have done that. I’ll be okay the rest of the day and tonight. I don’t want you or Ruby to come over or to call me. Okay?”
“I mean it Penny. Make sure Ruby knows.”
“If that’s the way you want it, okay.”
Ruby called Penny the next day. “I’m concerned about Dee. I had a restless night worrying about her.”
“I slept fine,” Penny replied. “It’ll all work out fine. She’ll get over it.”
But Dee wasn’t getting over it. She answered her phone at 1:00 AM and the voice was back. “Come to me. I’m at the house. Come now. I need you now.”
She was out the door like a shot and into her car.
The lack of sleep had taken a toll on Dee’s decision-making ability. She was driving too fast on the curves in the swamp when she was distracted by her phone ringing.
“Tibbitts, 433-7833” flashed on the screen. It’s Dad. She took her eyes off the road and reached to the passenger seat to grab her phone.
She looked up and there was a car coming at her, half in her lane. She swerved to the right and went through the guardrail and was airborne before a cedar tree stopped her progress – and her heart.
The driver of the oncoming car smiled and kept on driving.
The funeral was modest and tasteful, just like Dee. Her estate was bequeathed to the National Wildlife Foundation. Her lawyer handled the affairs which were all prearranged with explicit instructions. None of the details were a surprise to Penny, who, after reading them, suggested a lawyer should execute the will.
Penny walked into the real estate agency handling the house sale and offered ten percent over the anticipated selling price of the house and the contents. The offer was accepted immediately. An earnest check was handed over, the papers signed, and it was a done deal.
Thirty days later, the closing went off without a hitch.
Once home, Penny went into action. She called her nephew and said, “Tell them to present the deal.”
Penny sold her newly acquired house for ten times what she paid for it. The house and the woods were the last obstacle to the development. Penny had no idea how her nephew kept it under wraps for so long, but he did and she was now set for life. She never really liked the house anyway.
The empty page stares back at me. I sigh and take a last sip of my tea.
‘Perhaps it is time to give up?’ I ask myself as another story I am writing ends the same. I happily start with the bits and pieces that pop up in my head while the rest of the tale is forming as I go along. And then it all stagnates. The storyline breaks down and I don’t know how to mend it. I can’t make it a real story with a proper beginning and a solid ending. Defeated once more I set aside my laptop and let the sounds of the coffee shop invade my senses again; the soft murmur of the other customers, the tinkling of the cups of tea and coffee. The old fashioned doorbell that rings softly as the door opens.
I notice a man who just walked in. He takes a quick look around, walks over to my table and boldly takes the seat across from me. He gives me a somewhat arrogant look as I just stare at him.
‘Well then,’ he says. ‘Here I am at last. It took me some time, but I finally made it.’
‘I think you hold me for someone else,’ I try to respond politely.
‘I most certainly do not. I know exactly who you are and I also know I arrived just in time.’
‘Who are you?’ I ask.
‘Oh come on my friend, you’ve read this sort of thing a hundred times. You’ve seen the films. Make an educated guess.’
My thoughts immediately form the worst-case scenario of tales where an unknown person just walks into the life of the leading character and starts behaving in this sort of mysterious way.
‘You’re the devil?’ is my stuttered reply.
‘Now, don’t flatter yourself. Try again.’
‘A ghost, then.’
My mind is running through the options. I look across the table and can’t help but notice that even though he has rejected my first guess, he has a smug and devilish smile on his face. He crosses his arms and waits for my next idea.
‘I don’t know. I give up.’
‘So soon? That’s a pity. I really thought you would have more ideas running around in that brain of yours. Especially since you so vehemently insist that you want to be a writer. And not just to anyone who will listen, but to yourself as well.’
‘How do you know that?’ My answer is somewhat heated. I start to dislike this man. His self esteem is irritably high, and his ego big enough to fill the entire coffee house. And on top of it all he seems to know things about me, whereas I have no inkling as to who he might be.
‘Look closer’, he continues. ‘Look into my eyes and tell me who I am.’
He leans forward over the table. His deep brown eyes stare at me intently. And then the realization hits me. He merely laughs at my shocking intake of breath.
He sits back again and gives voice to my thoughts.
‘Yes my friend. You are correct this time. I am you. Or rather, I am the other you.’
My mind is reeling as I come to terms with this idea of which I know to be true somehow. I open my mouth, but no words form. I look at him again, a vain hope inside telling me that I saw incorrectly. That hope is crushed immediately, and before I can rise and flee from this scene he grabs both of my hands and leans in close again. His voice has taken on a hard edge.
‘Now listen to me, friend. Stop lying to yourself. I am who you could have been. I am the version of you that you want you to be. I am free. I have all the time in the world, as long as I keep writing everyday and finish page after page. I am the creative spirit that resides somewhere inside of you. I live the dream. Your dream.’
He lets his words sink in before continuing.
‘I am who you can never be. But you have the potential to be someone even better. You can become a writer. And although you can never be as free of all responsibility as I am, it should not hold you back. Better yet, enjoy all the benefits from it while being a writer on top of that. And stop lying to yourself.’
As I hear these words again I can’t resist the urge to react. ‘What do you mean?’
‘You tell yourself every day you want a different life. You want to become a writer. Well, do something about it or resign to the fact that this is your life and start enjoying it more.’
He leans back in his seat, the smug face replaced by a very serious expression. His words echo in my head. The same words I have told myself a thousand times before, but somehow never seriously acted upon. The half formed tales I have written this past year are still nothing more than newer versions of never finished projects that already litter my past. I know he is right, but I have doubts still. I try to explain them. ‘I just don’t know if I am any good. I fear that I will fail miserably. The stories form, I write the scenes, but somehow they do not become a whole. The tales will not finish, and I start on something else. I lack the discipline to complete them. Or even to write at all, sometimes.’
‘Discipline,’ he promptly replies, ’is something you will have to build yourself. But if you want it enough, and I mean really enough, you can find your discipline.’
‘What if I lack the talent?’
‘Maybe you do, but at least give it a try before you start to believe that statement. Haven’t people reacted positively to the parts you let them read? And you best believe you do have stories and tales running around in your head. You even made one up right on the spot.’
I stare at him incredulously as he finishes. ‘I did not.’
‘Yes you did. Just take a look.’ He indicates the laptop I had put aside. Curiously I take a look at the screen. There are words were before there was nothing but an empty page.
‘I didn’t do that’, I start. But as I look back across the table there is nobody there. I stare at the blank wall and empty seat wondering where he could have gone so fast. In my head I try to replay my conversation with him but it is too confusing and after a moment or two I decide it must have been my imagination running wild. I have been dreadfully tired the last few days and maybe I just start seeing things. I come to the conclusion I want to go home, back to my wife who carries our unborn child. Another upcoming responsibility I gladly accept. What did my imagination tell me about that again? Enjoy the benefits of them while being a writer? I guess my imagination can be correct, but still, where to find the time for it all?
I return my empty mug and pay the nice lady behind the counter. She wishes me a good day with an honest smile, a rare thing these days. As I return to the table to collect my laptop I can’t resist the urge to look at the screen again. To my surprise, the words are still there. I sit down and start reading. It starts with a man sitting in a coffee shop, a man who wants to be a writer but is struggling with his stories. Then an unknown person enters and boldly takes the seat across from him.
A few moments later, I leave the coffee shop with a smug smile on my face.
There was a bright, multi-coloured flash accompanied by a deafening bang. All in all a very proper flash and bang. The attending wizards where very pleased with themselves, and rightly so. The following events, however, were less than satisfactory to them all, but for one of them in particular.
The creature they had summoned from the other plane of existence materialised right after the flash and bang and it was a frightening entrance, to say the least. It had clearly had a lot of momentum at the time of its summoning and the speed it had gained was enough to break through the protective circle the wizards had erected to hold the alien entity at bay. With a rumbling scream it broke through the barrier, its two low set but brightly lit eyes blinding the unfortunate wizard that stood directly in its path. The wizard never saw what came at him and, in all fairness, it was better he didn’t.
The torchlight in the large chamber was reflected on the metallic armoured skin of the beast as it hurled itself in the direction of the back wall, crushing the wizard between itself and the aforementioned wall. As it was, this wall appeared to be stronger than the enraged demon and a whole lot stronger than the wizard, who died instantly.
The remaining wizards rained destructive spell after spell at the now immobile beast. Some of them because they had overcome their initial shock and realised that a maddened demon could not be allowed to break free and wreak further havoc, others worked purely out of instinct and fear. Fire, lightning, water and suddenly conjured up walls were unleashed to kill the demon and made a grand spectacle of the whole occasion in the process. In the end even its round shaped paws had stopped their frantic spinning because they had been melted by the fire and lightning, cooled off by the following gush of water and finally crushed by bricks for good measure.
Afterwards, the untimely death of the wizard who had started this summoning business in the first place was properly mourned. His demise was felt to be extremely ironic since it proved that his theories of otherworldly entities and their ritualistic and highly magical passing into this world were, in fact, correct. It was also discovered that he was right about the name of this so-called demon, which was conveniently found etched on the hindquarters of the carcass. It had a proper frightening name, one you could use to scare the children with. It was called ‘Suzuki’.
“Yesterday, June 17th, I gave up refined sugar.” Dana logged the date into her phone.
Here we go again. “And how does that affect me?”
“In college, you wouldn’t let me drive drunk. Now, I won’t let you develop diabetes.” Dana snatched my sprinkle-encrusted double-glazed donut. “And this has more sugar than the donut.” She grabbed my caramel latte. “I won’t even mention the caffeine.”
“Good. Because you gave me that lecture last week.”
Twenty-five years earlier, a leather-clad Dana ran her Suzuki GSX over my Prada tote bag. She apologized by taking me on my first motorcycle ride across campus. The tired cliché that says, opposites attract, formed a lifelong friendship.
“It’s a glorious new day!” Dana jogged in place.
I was blinded by sunlight that reflected off Dana’s snow-white Reeboks. She started speed walking on May 28th and hadn’t stopped.
She pointed to the Ferris wheel in the distance. “We’ll reach Santa Monica Pier by noon.”
“Then can I get a corn dog?”
“No way.” Dana started walking, pumping her arms. “Hot dogs have sodium nitrite.”
I struggled to keep pace. “You mean salt?” A twisted clump of seaweed clung to my heel.
“Fourth of July, 2012, I ate my last dog.” Dana’s voice muffled as the space between us grew.
My sides already ached.
Dana, a recovering drug addict, alcoholic, and chain-smoker, took long vigorous strides like a model for a fitness magazine.
After college, Dana bounced between bad relationships and rehabs. I married a local politician and raised two children. By the time Dana sobered up and settled down, my marriage had crumbled. The kids moved away. I packed on thirty pounds.
Dana rescued a plastic pail for a toddler then bent to tie her shoe. She motioned for me to catch up.
My sagging stomach cast a shadow over my sluggish feet.
With flab-free arms, Dana caught a wayward Frisbee destined for my forehead. “That was close!”
“Another life saved.” I rolled my eyes. “Why don’t you log that into your phone?”
For years, Dana documented her every good deed and healthful habit that resulted from crushing evil vices under her rock-hard will.
Dana dug inside her backpack. “A blow to the head can be deadly.” She pulled out a banana and pointed it like a revolver.
“Right. Death by Frisbee is so common.” I sighed. “And I don’t need your fruit!”
“Natural sugar. You get cranky when you’re hungry.” She wiggled the banana.
“Are you my mother?” A kite scraped my calf as a boy dragged it through the sand. “I’m going home.”
“We just got here.” Dana hoisted the kite into the breeze. Her thick hair frolicked in the wind.
My thin strands tangled. “I need to get back in case—”
“In case Slimeball Sam returns? Or your cat needs company?” Dana laughed.
I had the urge to slap her flawless skin. “You’re cruel.”
“Realistic.” Dana stretched her toned hamstrings. “You can’t live in a fantasy world.”
“If my real life was anything like yours these days, I wouldn’t need to fantasize. Last week the gallery showcased your work and next week you marry Mr. Wonderful.” Lately, I resented how many optimistic turns Dana’s life had taken.
“To get here, I traveled a bumpy road.” Dana’s shoulders slumped. “Still plenty of bumps. I didn’t sell a single piece of pottery and Mr. Wonderful is hardly perfect.”
I snorted. “You didn’t raise kids. My road was filled with potholes.”
“Fine. So your life wasn’t a Hallmark movie. The kids are grown. Time for you to move on.”
“That’s all you ever do!” I kicked sand in Dana’s direction. “You’re addicted to moving on: opening chapters, flipping pages, turning over new and shinier leaves. That’s your latest addiction.”
Dana sat down and brushed sand off her shoes. “And you’re obsessed with your past. I’m not the one sleeping with photo albums and bottles of chardonnay.”
My sugar-starved brain envied a seagull that pecked at a discarded Twinkie wrapper. “At least I have a past worth visiting.”
“That’s true. I’d sooner die than relive my past.” Dana threw the banana at my feet. “Except for the day I met you.”
I tried to lighten the mood. “Here’s a date to add to your crazy list—today, June 18th, the day you forced me to eat fruit instead of fried dough.” I grabbed the banana that landed near a startled crab.
Dana adjusted her sunglasses but didn’t look in my direction. “It was your idea to keep track of anniversaries.”
“I didn’t mean you should record everything! Like the date you stopped chewing pencil erasers. Seriously?”
“It was a real problem. I even swallowed a few.”
“Dana the drama queen.” I untied my shoelaces.
“Speaking of drama, remember when you told everyone in our dorm I’d be dead before my twenty-first birthday?” Dana stroked a smooth black oyster shell. “I proved you wrong.”
I gazed at the ocean and drifted back to the day I discovered Dana unconscious on the shower room floor. Since then, how many tears had I shed trying to save Dana from herself? I took off my shoes. Sand fleas swirled around my toes.
Dana showed me her phone. “I did this to satisfy you.”
There was a daily calendar entry for the past three years. The day she graduated from Overeater’s Anonymous, quit cocaine, started volunteering, and stopped gambling.
“No marijuana?” I joked.
“Never tried it.”
How was that possible?
She scrolled through dozens of endings and even more beginnings: August 16th—quit chewing nails. September 21st—start regular manicures.
I shook my head. “Teach me how to kick the habit of craving my old life.”
Dana took my hand. “Go back to school. Take a cooking class. I’m worried about you.”
That’s a switch. I smiled. “I could join Weight Watchers.”
“Whatever floats your boat. Just stop depending on others for your happiness.” Dana drew a heart in the sand then dragged a ragged line through the center.
Her backpack tipped. An unopened pack of Marlboros fell out.
“Are you my mother?” She tossed the cigarettes into her bag. “A keepsake to remind me how far I’ve come on my journey.”
A full bottle of pills rolled onto the sand. I backed away like it was a scorpion. “More souvenirs?”
“I wrestle with demons in my own way.” She grabbed the bottle and zipped her bag.
I pointed at her pack. “That’s not wrestling. That’s babysitting.”
Dana hugged the bag and looked away.
Just then my phone rang. It was my daughter. “Jennifer?” I wandered near the water’s edge. “Me? A grandmother?”
Thirty minutes later I danced back to where I had left my friend, eager to share my news. I scanned the beach. Three cigarette butts formed a triangle in the sand. Dana often disappeared when she got bored. To call her was futile. Recently, she stopped answering her phone; stress relief therapy.
I peeled the banana and shoved half of it into my mouth—a disappointing substitute for a donut. I ground it in to baby food. Dutiful Dana is probably saving a drowning child or administering the Heimlich maneuver. I threw the peel in a fly-infested garbage can.
I sent Dana a text, “Heading home”.
A message from her, sent five minutes before, read, “June 18th. No more saving dates”.
About time. What would she try next? I eased the Volkswagen onto the freeway.
Dana’s usual morning call was late. My coffee cup whirled in the microwave as the newspaper thunked against the front door. Venice Beach made the headlines: Woman’s body found in public restroom. Suspected overdose.
“Welcome to the Peace Corps, and welcome to Guatemala,” was the greeting Taylor received at the airport from Ricardo, the Peace Corp office manager. He hesitated at the exit door as there were throngs of people outside the airport terminal.
“Don’t mind the crowd, hustling is a way of life here, follow me,” said Ricardo. He declined newspapers, shoe shines, taxis, and assistance of all sorts as Taylor followed him through the crowd. At six foot-four, Taylor was a giant in the crowd.
Safely inside the van, Taylor asked, “Is it always like that?” There was no response as the van maneuvered through the crowded streets and somehow avoided the motorcycles threading in and out of lanes. “People drive crazy here.”
Ricardo said “We say TIG – This is Guatemala.”
Sensing Ricardo wasn’t much on small talk, Taylor dozed on and off during the four-hour trip through the mountains to municipality of Quetzaltenango.
The Peace Corp site was an old school building in a nearby village. The bunkroom, offices, and classrooms in the building were small and cluttered.
Taylor ducked under the door frame and entered the bunkroom. The room was sparsely decorated with two curtainless windows.
“Hi, I’m Taylor,” he said to two young women sitting on bunks.
“Hi, Taylor, I’m Ashley and that’s Jordan. We’re from Idaho, where are you from?”
“Oh, are we going to have potato-state problems here?” Ashley asked.
“Not if we agree that Maine has the best-tasting potatoes,” Taylor replied.
All three young people laughed. “I knew we’d be friends as soon as I saw you smile,” Ashley lit up the room when she smiled.
Ashley continued, “We’re all new here. Recently, Guatemala had been politically stable, at least by Guatemalan standards, so the Peace Corp reestablished an office there. The road from Guatemala City to Quetzaltenango was no longer controlled by Rebels; Police corruption had been reduced, but the rural people were still no better off than before. The three talked about their assignments and the areas they would be heading.
“So we won’t be very close to each other?” Taylor asked.
“Jordan and I are in neighboring villages, but you’ll be five hours away. We won’t be able to get together very often,” Ashley said. “But you are in Peter’s area.”
“Who’s Peter,” Taylor asked.
“He’s a legend. You haven’t heard about him?”
“Is he a Peace Corp volunteer?”
“Sit down on that bed. Jordan tells the story better than me.”
Jordan slid to the edge of her bunk, brushed a wisp of blond hair from her forehead, and began. “Peter was volunteer in the '80swhen the Peace Corp was last here. It was a time of political unrest. He was riding on a Chicken Bus from Quetzaltenango to Chimaltenango when Rebels stopped the bus and robbed everyone. They took Peter to hold for ransom. Back then, the Rebels controlled the roads beyond Chimaltenango and collected “tolls” from everyone one the road. It wasn’t a nice time.”
“Is it better now? I mean, with the Rebels,” Taylor asked.
“Oh yes, the Rebels are fairly quiet now. When they do get active, the police fear them. For the most part, it’s the police you have to worry about.”
“Don’t worry, Taylor, she’s joking,” said Ashley.
“Anyway,” Jordan continued, “they had him for weeks. His foster parents in the States refused to send any money. The police did less. The Rebels cut the tip of his little finger off his left-hand and delivered it to the Peace Corp office. Eventually, an elder from the village where he was assigned went to the Rebels and got him released. Peter went back to his village to continue his work and ignored demands that he return to the Peace Corp office. He fell in love with the oldest daughter of the village elder, married her, and has been there ever since, raising a family.
“They cut off his finger?” asked Taylor.
“Part of it.”
“Ashley! You wouldn’t want any part of your finger cut off, would you?” asked Jordan.
“Lights out in fifteen minutes – we need to hit the bunks,” Ashley said. “Grab any empty bunk. Ricardo is serious about lights out.”
“It was great meeting you two girls and I hope we can catch up again, at least over the holidays. I shove off tomorrow.” Taylor smiled, he liked making new friends.
The next morning, Taylor rose and left before the girls woke up. The slow drive over the mountain roads allowed him to soak in the scenery. Valleys, volcanos, crops and villages seamlessly morphed from one to another. Taylor was sure this was where he was meant to be.
The air was thin enough in Quetzaltenango at 7,600 feet, but his village was 1,000 feet higher yet. It would take him a while to acclimate to the thin air.
Taylor’s Spanish improved during his first two weeks and he started picking up some Mam from his host family. Progress on the drinking water project was slow as it was planting time. The village needed to have the crops in the ground before the start of the rainy season. Tilling the fertile red soil with a large hoe and planting fava bean in the high altitude was hard work, but it connected him with the people in the village.
Finally, the bean planting was done and people in the village needed a break.
Taylor was gathered with his host family on benches outside the home. “¿Puedo ir contigo a la ciudad?” asked Taylor.
“Yes, you can come to the city with us, Taylor. Your Spanish is getting very good,” said Manuel, the father of his host family.
Manuel and his sons piled into the cab while Taylor climbed into the bed of the battered old Toyota pickup. Manuel accelerated the truck once they hit the main road to Quetzaltenango. Taylor smiled when the air rushed through his long hair and remembered the same exhilaration from his high school days in Maine.
“Cold drink stop,” said Manuel, as he and his two boys piled out of the truck cab.
Lounging in the truck bed, basking in the sun, Taylor was startled awake by a gruff voice.
“Policía. Tienes que venir conmigo.”
“I’m not going with you; I’ve done nothing wrong.”
Two of the men dressed in police uniforms drew their weapons while a third smashed Taylor over the head with a baton.
The three dragged the unconscious Taylor out of the truck bed and into a waiting van and drove off. The entire episode was over in less than two minutes.
A few minutes later, Manuel and his boys came out from the store. They called around and looked in the bathroom, but there was no trace of Taylor. Manuel called the police from the store.
The news spread around the village. Some of the men went to contact Rebels to plead for Taylor’s release. A young, long-haired six-foot four-inch American male would be hard to hide in the native Mayan villages where the milk chocolate-colored men were rarely taller than five foot four.
The next day, Ricardo showed up with the police at Manuel’s house and questioned the family about the abduction. No one had seen or heard anything in or outside of the store where they stopped for a cold drink.
After several repeats of the same questions, the police officer said, “Well, we haven’t heard from the kidnapers.”
“So what are you doing here?” asked Manuel. “Go find him.”
Later that evening, several village men came to Manuel’s home. Manuel and his sons stepped outside and closed the door. This did not concern his wife.
“The Rebels don’t have the boy. But they will look for him.”
Manuel’s oldest son asked, “If the Rebels, don’t have him, who does?”
“Policía. Militar,” was the response from one of the village men.
“I thought that was all over. You mean it’s not?” his son asked.
No one answered.
“He is not going to have a very good night.” Manuel said what everyone knew. He and his boys went inside and the men departed.
Deep in the woods at a small camp, Taylor wasn’t having a good night. He put pressure on the side of his head and stopped the bleeding. He hoped his arm should stop throbbing soon. One beating convinced him that shouting or trying to escape was not a good idea. That, and being handcuffed to an iron hook imbedded in a large stone.
Taylor rattled the handcuffs and asked, “But you are police, why are you doing this?”
Taylor looked around the camp and saw three men, several tents, a small cooking fire, and some rudimentary utensils. Okay, this was included in his Peace Corp training: engage them in conversation, assess the situation, get their empathy. Stay calm.
“I’m hungry. Can I get something to eat?”
Still no answer.
“I would like to pray; may I borrow someone’s Bible? You do have a Bible here at camp, don’t you?”
“Uh, how nice. Someone to talk to. Hi amigo, I’m Taylor. I’m a Peace Corp volunteer working on bringing fresh water to villages. I sorta skipped lunch and would appreciate a tortilla or anything really.”
“Jose, give him something to shut him up,” the leader said.
As he was handed a small stack of tortillas, he said, “Gracias, Jose. How long you think we’ll be out here?”
“I’m not supposed to talk to you.”
“Well, you’re talking to me now, so what’s the harm? Thank you for the tortillas. We’ll talk more later.”
As he ate, Taylor closed his eyes to concentrate on what he could hear of the conversations around the cooking fire.
“No one has come forward with a reward offer for his return.”
“Captain said he visited his village and nothing happened.”
“He’s asleep, relax.”
Taylor woke with the daylight and the noise of cooking. He tried to engage José in conversation. Two captors left and one stayed for the day. But all three were there overnight. This rotating shift was repeated for a week with little variation.
But the opposite was happening at Taylor’s village. The men with Rebel contacts scoured the countryside to no avail. Men from neighboring villages were recruited and expanded the search. Communication was rudimentary and slow, yet effective.
When the Ricardo stopped by without the police, Manuel assured him people were looking for Taylor. As long as there was no offer of reward from the US, Taylor would be okay. Kidnappers want money and will wait for word of a reward being offered. They don’t contact officials asking for ransom.
“We have many looking for Taylor. We will find him.”
When Ricardo drove away, Manuel turned to his oldest son and said, “Spread the word, make the search wider.”
Three days later, a small group of men gathered in the dark outside Manuel’s home. After discussion, they departed and Manuel went inside.
“It is done,” Manuel told his sons. “Taylor will be back in few days. Mention this to no one.”
Five men from a neighboring village packed for a trip into the woods and left the next morning. Before nightfall, the five men were in position surrounding the camp where Taylor was being held.
Something was different. He could sense it. A presence. Taylor grew up in the Maine woods. He did not fear it.
Breakfast routine was the same as it had been for days. Eggs, beans, tortillas, bickering among the captors. Now it had intensified as apparently, no one was asking about him. After the meal, the routine continued when two of the captors left.
Taylor was quietly observant that morning. Minutes after the two captors disappeared, he heard two small yelps followed by gurgling sounds. The remaining captor either didn’t hear or chose to ignore the sounds.
The remaining captor looked up when three men suddenly appeared wielding machetes.
The tallest, the leader, said, “Tecla.”
The captor handed him a key with shaking hands. The leader pointed to the woods and the captor took off.
Taylor winced when he heard a yelp and gurgling sounds from the woods.
Two men covered in blood spatter appeared from the woods. The leader handed one of them the key, and he unlocked the handcuffs.
Taylor didn’t recognize the men.
“Uh, thanks, guys.”
There was no response from the five men as they headed in the direction opposite of what the captors took.
“What direction do I go?” Taylor asked.
The leader turned and pointed into the woods with his right arm. As the leader turned back, Taylor noticed his left hand was missing the tip of the little finger.
TIG — This is Guatemala.
Ndaba Sibanda is a Zimbabwean-born writer. He hails from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe`s second largest city. He is one of the most prolific poets to emerge from that Southern African country.