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Authors: Jodi Picoult

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BOOK: Wish You Were Here
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Gabriel types something into his phone and then says, “Come with me.” I fall into place beside him, but he is walking so fast I have to jog to keep up. He stops at the hotel I was supposed to stay at. Although I’ve tried to steal its Wi-Fi, as Beatriz suggested, the network hasn’t shown up—likely because the business is shuttered. This time, however, Elena is standing outside the door, waiting with a ring of keys. “Elena,” Gabriel says.
“Gracias por venir aquí
.

She dimples, combing her hands over the long tail of her braid.
“Cualquier cosa por ti, papi,”
she says.

I lean closer and murmur, “Do I want to know—”

“Nope,” Gabriel cuts me off just as Elena loops her arm through his and presses herself up against him. She glances over her shoulder at me and whips her head back to Gabriel so fast her braid smacks against my arm.

Is a hotel with no guests even a hotel? The lobby feels small and stale, until Elena turns on the lights and an overhead fan. She boots up a modem behind the front desk, chattering to Gabriel in Spanish as we wait. She seems to be talking about her tan or a bra or something because she pulls aside the fabric and peers down at her bare shoulder, then sends a blistering smile toward him.

“Um,” I say. “Is it ready?”

She glances at me like she’s forgotten I’m here. When she nods, I find the network on my phone. I dial the memory care facility number I was given and wander off into a small room filled with tables, each wearing a bright cotton tablecloth.

When a face swims into view on my screen, I blink. The person on the other end is nothing more than a set of eyes above a mask, and that’s behind a plastic face shield. She has a paper cap covering her hair, too. “It’s Verna,” the woman says, and she gives a little wave. I recognize her name; she is one of the aides who takes care of the residents there. “We were starting to wonder if you were ever going to call back.”

“Technical difficulties,” I say.

“Well, your mom’s tired and she has a fever, but she’s holding her own.”

She holds up whatever device she’s on and the view changes; from a distance I see my mother sitting on her couch with the television on, just like normal. My heart, which was racing, slows a little.

I let myself wonder, for the first time, what I was so afraid to see. Maybe vulnerability. My mother has been a gale force wind that blows in and out of my life before I can reorient myself. If she were still and silent in a bed, then I would know something is terribly wrong.

“Hi, Hannah,” the aide says. “Can you look over here! Can you give me a little wave?”

My mother turns. She doesn’t wave. “Did you take my camera?” she accuses.

“We’ll find it later,” Verna soothes, although I know my mother does not have a camera in her residence. “I have your daughter here. Can you say hello?”

“No time. We need to jump on the press convoy to the Kurdish village,” my mother says. “If it leaves without us…” She coughs. “Without…” She dissolves into a fit of coughing, and the phone tumbles dizzily before coming to rest on a flat surface. The image goes black; I can still hear my mother hacking away. Then Verna’s masked face reappears. “I have to settle her,” she says, “but we’re taking good care of her. Don’t you worry.”

The line goes dead.

I stare at the blank screen. There really isn’t any way to tell if my mother’s delirious, or if it is just her dementia.

Okay. Well. If she gets worse, they will call our apartment again. And if that happens, Finn will—somehow—update me.

Finn.

Immediately I try to video-chat him, too, making the most of the internet service. But it rings and rings and he doesn’t pick up. I imagine him bent over a patient, feeling the buzzing in his pocket, unable to answer.

My mother has Covid,
I type into a text.
So far she’s stable.

I tried to call you while I still had Wi-Fi but you were probably working.

I wish you were here with me.

I tuck my phone into my pocket and make my way back to the front desk. Everything about Elena’s body language suggests she is trying to pin Gabriel against any wall she can. Everything about Gabriel’s body language resists it. When he sees me, relief washes over his features. “
Gracias,
Elena,” he says. He leans in to give her a quick kiss on the cheek, but she turns at the last minute and presses her mouth against his.


Hasta luego,
Gabriel,” she says.

As soon as we are out the door, he turns to me. “Your mother?”

“She’s sick,” I tell him. “She has a cough.”

His brows pinch together, then smooth. “So, that’s not too bad, right? I bet she was happy to see you.”

She had no idea who I was
. The words are on the tip of my tongue, but instead I ask, “Is Elena your ex?”

“Elena was one night of extremely poor decision making,” Gabriel says. “I don’t have very good luck with relationships.”

“Well, I’m ninety-nine percent sure my boyfriend was going to propose to me here on our vacation, so there’s that.”

He winces. “You win.”

“More like both of us lose,” I correct.

Gabriel misses the turn to Abuela’s, heading further into town toward the docks.

I say, “Far be it from me to tell you you’re going the wrong way, but…”

“I know. I just thought…maybe you didn’t want to spend today worrying about your mother.” We stop on the pier, near a string of small pangas, the little metal boats fishermen use.

“What about Beatriz?”

“I already texted her. My grandmother is watching her.” He shields his eyes, looking up at me. “I
did
promise I’d show you my island.” He steps into a boat and holds out his hand so I can follow.

“Where are we going?”

“The lava
túneles,
” Gabriel says. “They’re on the western side of the island, about forty-five minutes out.”

“We’ll break curfew.”

He scrabbles for a key under the plank seat and turns over the engine. Then he glances up, one side of his mouth quirked. “That’s not all. Where we’re going is closed even to locals,” he says. “What is it you
americanos
say? Go big or go home.”

I laugh. But I think:
I wish
.


Fishing, Gabriel tells me, is dangerous here.

He expertly moves the panga he has borrowed from a friend beneath delicate lava arches formed by volcanoes. We weave through the formations like thread through needles, the tide edging us precipitously close to the narrow walls of rock. Columns rise from the water, capped by land bridges with cacti and scrub growing over them. For some, the connector has already crumbled into the sea.

“Fishermen can catch bluefin tuna,
blanquillo,
cod, swordfish. But I had friends who headed out, and never came back,” he says. “Riptides…they’re unpredictable. If your engine fails for some reason, you can get caught in one that moves three meters per second.”

“So you mean…they died?” I ask.

He nods. “Like I told you,” he says. “Dangerous.” He navigates through the steampunk maze of risen rock. “Look, over there, on the
aa
lava.”

“The what?”

He points. “The spiky rock,” he explains. “
Pahoehoe
lava is the other kind—the stuff that looks like it’s melting.” I follow his finger to see two blue-footed boobies. They face each other, bowing formally to the left and then to the right and back again, twin metronomes. Then they attack each other with their beaks in a frenzy of nips and clacks. “They’re going to kill each other,” I say.

“Actually, they’re going to mate,” Gabriel says.

“Not if he keeps
that
up,” I murmur.

He laughs. “That guy’s a pro. The older the bird, the bluer the feet. This isn’t his first shoot-out.”

It takes me a moment. “Rodeo,” I correct, grinning. I watch him hop out of the boat and drag it onto the beach. “I know Beatriz learned in school, but how come you speak English so well?”

“I had to for my job,” he says. He reaches under the seat again and tosses me a snorkel and mask. “You know how to use these, yes?”

I nod. “But I’m not wearing a bathing suit.”

Gabriel shrugs, kicks off his flip-flops, and wades into the water fully dressed. It laps at his hips, his waist, and then he dives forward, surfacing with a shake of his shaggy hair. He fits his own snorkel and mask to his forehead. “Coward,” he says, and he splashes me.

The water is a dizzy mirror of the sky, the sand like sugar under my feet. It feels strange having my shorts float around my legs and my shirt plastered to my body, but I get used to the sensation as I tread water. Gabriel dives a few feet away and a moment later I feel him tug at my ankle.
“Vamos,”
he says, and when he ducks beneath the surface this time, I follow.

The undersea world explodes with color and texture—bright anemone jewels, runnels of coral, wispy fronds of seagrass. For a little while we follow a sea lion that keeps playfully slapping Gabriel with its tail. Gabriel squeezes my hand, pointing out a sea turtle rhythmically sawing through the water. A moment later, in front of my mask floats a bright pink sea horse, a question mark with a trumpet nose and translucent skin.

Gabriel surfaces, pulling me with him. “Hold your breath,” he says, and still grasping me, he kicks us powerfully to the seafloor, where a rocky promontory juts, polka-dotted with sea stars and a ripple of octopus. Gabriel twists until we are hovering in front of a small crevice in the boulder. Inside I see two small silver triangles. Eyes? I swim closer for a better look. But when I do, one moves, and I realize I am staring at the white-tipped fins of sleeping reef sharks.

I kick backward so fast that I create a wall of bubbles. Without looking to see if Gabriel is following, I swim as hard and as fast as I can back to shore. When I crawl onto the sand and rip off my snorkel, he’s right behind me. “That was,” I gasp, “a fucking
shark
.”

“Not the kind that would kill you.” He laughs. “I mean, maybe just a good bite.”

“Jesus Christ,” I say, and I flop onto my back on the sand.

A moment later, Gabriel sits down next to me. He is breathing hard, too. He pulls off his soaked shirt and throws it to the side in a soggy ball. When he lies back, the sun glints off the medallion he wears.

“What is that?” I ask. “Your necklace.”

“Pirate treasure,” he tells me.

When I look at him dubiously, he shrugs. “In the sixteen and seventeen hundreds, pirates used the canal between Isabela and Fernandina Island to hide from the Spaniards after raiding their galleons. Back then, this was a place where you could disappear.”

Still,
I think.

“The pirates knew the galleons went from Peru to Panama, and after they stole the gold, they hid it on Isabela.” He raises a brow. “They also nearly hunted the land tortoise population to extinction, and they left behind donkeys, goats, and rats. But that wasn’t nearly as interesting to a seven-year-old boy who was digging for buried treasure.”

I come up on an elbow, invested.

“It was back in 1995 on Estero Beach—that’s near El Muro de las Lágrimas. Two sailboats showed up, full of Frenchmen who were exploring Isabela, digging for treasure. I helped them for a few days—or at least I thought I did, I was probably more of a nuisance—and they found a chest. I helped them dig it out.”

My eyes fall on his medallion. “And that was inside it?”

“I have no idea what was inside it.” He laughs. “They took it away, still sealed. But they gave this to me as thanks. For all I know, it came from inside a cereal box.”

I smack him on the shoulder. He grabs my hand to stop me from swatting him again, but he doesn’t let go. Instead, he squeezes it, and looks me in the eye. “Speaking of thank-yous,” Gabriel says, “Beatriz—”

“Is a great kid,” I interrupt.

He releases me, and seems to be carefully choosing his words. “When she would come home from school, there was always a wall between us. Every time I thought about knocking it down, every time I got close enough, I could feel so much heat on the other side—like a fire, you know. If you think there’s a fire on the other side of a door, you don’t rush in, because with even more oxygen, the flames are going to consume everything.” He draws a line in the sand between us. “This past week, I don’t feel as much heat.”

“She’s angry,” I admit softly. “She was ripped out of her comfort zone. It’s not fair, and it’s not her fault. When you can’t see light at the end of the tunnel, it’s hard to remember to keep going.”

“I know,” Gabriel says. “I’ve tried to do things like this with her—distract her, you know, by taking her around the island? But she only goes through the motions, like it’s a chore.” He rubs his forehead. “For years, she lived with her mother, and God knows what Luz said about me. And then she was at school. And then when the virus hit, she called me, begging to come home.”

Clearly, I misunderstood. “I thought she
had
to come home,” I say.

“She’s spent school vacations with her host family before—almost all of them,” Gabriel says. “I don’t know, maybe she was worried about the virus? Whatever it was, it was a gift. I was just happy she wanted to come back. I thought if we spent time together, she’d figure out that I wasn’t actually a monster.” He smiles a little. “I wish I could do what you do so easily.”

“Talk to her?”

“Make her like me.” He pulls a face. “That sounds pathetic.”

I shake my head. “When you lose something that matters, you grieve,” I say carefully. “Right now, Beatriz thinks she’s lost her mom, her friends, her future.” I hesitate. “So maybe there’s a reason she keeps you at a distance. You can’t grieve something if you don’t let yourself get close enough to care.”

His gaze snaps to mine—this seed of doubt is the absolution I can offer: the chance to think that Beatriz’s aloofness might not be because she hates him, but the opposite.

Suddenly a marine iguana runs right between us, making me shriek and scurry backward. Gabriel laughs at me as the big lizard crawls with surprising speed into the water, bobbing a few times before it dives under the surface. “Why aren’t those things as afraid of me as I am of them?” I mutter.

BOOK: Wish You Were Here
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