Allison’s flight to South America, Houston to Quito, took five and a half hours. Earl’s words played in her head from wheels up to touchdown, “You’re the strongest person there is.”
God, I wish.
“You’ll come back a different person, Allie.”
Allison imagined herself returning home as a long-distance runner, although it was unclear if she was rushing toward something or away from it.
She spent two days touring small Andean villages before flying to Baltra, six hundred miles off the Ecuadorean coast. After a short bus ride to the harbor, Allison boarded a zodiac wearing shimmery yellow flats, a bright sundress, and a wide-brim hat. With seven other passengers, she motored to a hundred-foot catamaran anchored in a cobalt bay.
A teenager, bronzed and smiling, helped passengers aboard, pulling each up a ladder with one hand and giving them a welcoming Agua Loca with the other. Stepping onto the ship’s porch, Allison emptied the small cup in a single gulp.
The boy looked at the canvas alpargatas Allison was wearing, bought while touring Otavalo the previous day, and said, “No zapatos por diez días.” He pointed to his bare feet. “Better for boat.” The crewman took Allison’s backpack to her cabin and showed her how to work the air conditioner and lights before leaving. He returned a few minutes later with another Agua Loca.
“How many guests on board?” she asked when he refused her tip. The crewman splayed ten fingers, and then two. “Only twelve?” He grinned and padded down the hall.
Allison tossed her shoes in the closet and downed the second drink. She noted how good it felt to have moist soles on polished wood. She took a deep breath and fought an urge to run barefoot down the corridor and slide at the end. Holding onto the cabin door frame to keep pace with the swaying boat, she felt lightheaded and sixteen, or maybe prematurely old. Possibly drunk. Likely all three.
Allison’s “Galápagos Island Adventure,” as the brochure called it, officially began with spoon taps on glass. “Attention please.” The naturalist on the Amor, a stocky woman as tanned as the crew, had assembled passengers in the forward lounge for orientation. After a briefing on life vests and evacuation procedures, Reyna told them to leave their cell phones in their cabin and forget about them. “Out among the islands, we will have no telephone or internet for the next ten days.” Everyone clapped.
Reyna pointed to a wall map covered with numbered stickers. Their Galápagos tour would begin the following morning after an early breakfast. Day one was Isla Mosquera. There they would walk among sea lions, pelicans, and flamingos until midday. After returning to the Amor, Chef would have lunch waiting for them in the salon, and the bar would be open on the sundeck. In the afternoon, the ship’s two zodiac pangas would take them to a protected inlet for snorkeling. For those not up to it, kayaking was available.
But first, Reyna said, a toast. “Pachamama is my people’s Mother Earth.” A crewman popped champagne and filled everyone’s glass. Reyna opened a small jar. “The Incas believe Pachamama provides for all life.” She flicked a few drops from the jar onto the floor. “We drink this chicha in her honor.” Reyna poured the remaining jar contents into her champagne glass, raised it, and said, “To the mother of our world.”
The response was a chorus of, “Amen,” “L’Chaim,” “Gom bai,” “Santé,” “Cheers,” and “I’ll drink to that.”
Reyna asked passengers to introduce themselves. Of five couples—three honeymoon pairs and two sets of retirees—three had come from the U.S., one from Europe, and another from Hong Kong. The two lone travelers were American and, coincidentally, from the same town—Houston, Texas.
Allison saw a man about her age sitting on the other side of the lounge staring at her, head tilted as if trying to remember. Reyna teased, “You Tejanos must know each other. Texas is not a small state, yes? I think there must be something very illicit going on between you two.” She made a skeptical face and winked, sending nods and snickers throughout the group. “Could it be that you are aware amor in Spanish means love? This is the boat of love.”
Allison walked over and introduced herself. In over-the-top Texas twang, she said, “Howdy partner” and stuck out her hand. An athletic arm shook it. She noted graying shaggy hair and a sad, sweet smile.
“I’m Dave Wiggs,” he said with no accent. Lifting his right hand as an oath, he continued. “And I swear, I do not know this woman.” Laughter. “But I’m not from Houston, Reyna. I live in Baytown, which is close, but no cigar.” Reyna didn’t understand the analogy.
Allison explained, “That means you don’t win a prize for guessing, Señora.” She released the man’s hand, “Glad to meet you, Dave,” and dramatically winked back at Reyna.
Dinner was served with the ship underway and the sun melting into the horizon. Afterwards, Allison climbed to the sundeck and found a lounge chair. Liquor flowed and her spirits lifted. She donned sunglasses and tipped the brim of her hat to her nose. Allison felt warmth on her torso, salt air tickle her legs, the wind sail through open toes. Under a rhythmic sway, she fell asleep.
And she was five years old.
Dead of night. Wind-driven salt stung her face. A familiar voice said, “Don’t let go of the rail, baby. I’m going to help your mama. Right after that, I’m gonna swim right back to you. Okay?” Waves tickled her toes as she shrieked. The man said, “Don’t cry, baby,” and faded from the water. “I promise I’ll be back.” Distant splashes. Wind drowning out words. Allison never heard her father’s voice again.
“You’re the architect who does plinth houses, right?”
Allison unclenched fists and opened her eyes in darkness. She lowered her Foster Grants and saw Dave squinting at her, unsure.
“I’ve heard about you.” He was sitting in the next chair, leaning over, the Moon and stars behind him. A table lamp lit his face. He touched a wine glass to his lip.
Allison let out a long sigh as if she had been holding her breath. “Only good things, I hope.” She pulled in her knees and rested her hat on her chest. “And what do you do, Mister Wiggs.”
“I’m an architect, too.”
She sat up, blinked herself fully awake.” Really? In Baytown?” Allison rifled her memory. Something about him was familiar, but what? “David Wiggs…It seems like I should know you. Have we met before? Are you AIA?”
“No, no. I’m registered, but no fancy letters after my name. I don’t think we’ve met.”
Allison saw that her glass, sitting on a side table, had been refilled. She reached for it and said, “What kind of work do you do?”
“Like you, I design housing.”
Her instinct said, Well now, this is getting interesting, which came out, “Crazy, isn’t it? We’re here in the Pacific, two residential architects who don’t know each other from Adam but live within miles, drinking under a starry night. Weird, huh?”
Not weird, according to her inner voice.
Allison and Dave chatted until one in the morning, she and the wine doing most of the talking, him nodding or shaking his head. When the Amor entered deep water, the ship began to heave. Allison staggered down a steep ladder from the sundeck into her cabin, arm-propped by Dave.
Pachamama tells the story of another soul who materialized out of time, equally lonesome but anciently mad, a spirit seeking revenge, not love.
Allison awoke in calm waters at seven AM to the sound of Paul McCartney singing Good Morning, Good Morning over loudspeakers. Dave and the other passengers were already at breakfast when she sat down.
An hour later, Allison was in a panga skimming with jumping dolphins and hovering frigate birds. They made a wet landing on a beach and found Reyna holding court. Dave had arrived in the other zodiac and was shooting photos of wildlife with a small camera mounted on a long pole.
The Amor group passed tourists from other ships, all of them trudging through the soft beach, approaching but not touching squirming land iguanas and sleeping sea lions. Allison took out her camera, but couldn’t find an interesting angle. She moved here and there, each time sinking into the sand. Feet were made for walking, she thought she heard, not for shoes. She took off her sandals and found she could move quickly, naturally. Allison had an urge to shed all her clothes and take off down the beach, but for obvious reasons, didn’t. In another life, you ran native, said the voice. She tossed her sandals in her backpack.
Around ten o’clock they hiked into the hills for birding. By one-thirty in the afternoon the group was back on the Amor, well fed, and getting into bathing suits. On the porch under upside-down kayaks, Reyna said, “Those who want to snorkel, assemble starboard. The crew will help anyone sitting on the port side to kayak.”
An older couple excused themselves, complaining of seasickness. The rest reached into a pile of masks and fins. Allison sat alone on the other side of the ship.
“You won’t join us?” Reyna asked. “We have floats for your arms if you can’t swim.”
Allison wanted to say, I’m not there yet. Instead, she said, “I was on my high school swim team, but I’m better with oars.”
Reyna studied Allison and nodded. She turned to the group and said, “Listen up, everyone. I am a marine animal expert. With me, you will be perfectly safe. But you may see a small reef shark. Do not worry. They are very docile. Don’t bother them and they will not bother you.” Reyna returned to Allison and asked, “Are you sure you won’t join us?”
You face your fear, Allison’s inner voice answered. You always face your fear.
Reyna helped Allison find a wetsuit suitable for a long sinewy shape and flippers to fit narrow feet. Dave, Allison noticed, seemed to have brought his own equipment. “Looks like you’ve done this before.”
“Lot’s of times. Comes with my job.”
Allison raised her eyebrows, but Dave didn’t explain.
“Everyone must have a snorkeling buddy,” Reyna told the group when the panga’s engines quieted. They tied up with the other zodiac midway between the Amor and Isla Mosquera. “I will be snorkeling with you, so if anyone feels insecure, you’re with me.”
Reyna looked at Allison. Allison turned to Dave, who gave her thumbs up. Reyna mimed an epiphany, “Aha! I see that our Tejano strangers have become buddies.” She overemphasized the words, to the delight of the others.
Dave helped Allison strap black flippers to her heels and zipped the back of her neoprene jacket. As he pulled yellow fins from his mesh bag, she pushed hair under a swim cap. He showed her how to inhale and exhale through the air tube and tightened her mask. Then it was over the side.
Allison’s body submerged and then buoyed face down. Watching her legs dangle over fish and rocks, she could not breathe. Her arms would not move. Allison heard nothing but heartbeats flopping under her breastbone. She wanted to die.
Dave lifted her head out of the water. Mask-to-mask, he hummed, the eyes of Texas are upon you.
Allison giggled through her mouthpiece, choked, spit and coughed, and then sucked in fresh air.
The pair floated among schools of tropical orange, silver, and yellow. Up ahead, Reyna pointed out large sea turtles paddling near the ocean floor. Drifting with the current, she saw a stingray sleeping on a sand bed and crabs around its tail. A sea lion scooted by. Then another. Now a penguin. Allison’s breathing steadied as her heart rate dropped. Space and time slowed.
She dived with Dave to follow a turtle. The sea grew dark. Dave suddenly pulled in front of Allison and rotated one-eighty. He looked like an eagle, she thought—white head, black body, gold flippers as talons. Dave made a quick U-turn and put his palm on his head, a Mohican haircut of fingers.
Allison thought he was making fun of her until he flew over her, yellow fins streaking from view. Still looking forward, Allison saw other snorkelers turn and stare. To her right, Reyna was pointing to the surface.
Someone squeezed Allison’s arm from behind, hard. It was Dave, and he also motioned up.
That was over too quickly, Allison thought. But I faced my fears. She surfaced and dog-paddled with Dave to the panga. Their dive began under boundless blue. Now the sky was gray with low clouds. They’d been in the water for more than two hours.
When everyone was in the zodiacs and masks off, Reyna asked, “Did you all see the orca following Allison?”
Pain shot through Allison’s stomach more visceral than the bends. “Say what? A killer whale was following…me?”
“Yes. It got very close,” Reyna said. “Dave spotted it and made the warning sign.”
Allison felt cold and began shivering.
“He swam to the orca and tapped its nose with his selfie stick. The orca swam away.”
The Chinese couple spoke to each other in rapid Mandarin. The wife asked Reyna, “How can fish so big sneak up so quiet?”
“They’re good at that. It’s how predators hunt, from behind. But we never see orcas in this inlet. They travel in pods between the islands. If this one was swimming among snorkelers here, it means it was hungry, or maybe confused.” Reyna forced a grin at Allison. “Try not to look so much like a tasty sea lion, my Texas friend.”
Allison turned to Dave. “Exactly how close was it?” He spaced his hands about two feet apart.
“Oh, God.” Allison felt dizzy.
“I have a great shot of teeth, eyes, and your flippers. Wanna see?”
Allison’s pulse quickened. “Hell no.”
Reyna exchanged positions with the Chinese woman sitting alongside Dave. “Show me your photos, please.” The naturalist looked at Dave’s GoPro screen and switched back and forth between images of a shiny black dorsal fin and a glossy head. “Hmm, this is unusual. She has heterochromia.”
“How do you know it was female?” someone asked. “And what does heterochrome mean?”
“Heterochromia means the whale has two different color eyes.” Reyna passed Dave’s GoPro around the zodiac. “Take a look. One eye is dark black, and one is light blue. I know it is female because her dorsal fin is small. She may be pregnant or not feeling well, which could be why she left her pod. Maybe she is hungry to feed her baby.”
On the sundeck after dinner, Allison drank more than usual. Without much thought, she took off her cover-up tee and climbed into the hot tub in her swimsuit. When Dave joined her, she motioned the bartender to bring a pitcher of Agua Loca.
“Tell me something about yourself, Mister Dave Wiggs. I need to know more about the guy who allegedly saved my butt. Literally.”
“Ain’t much to know. The orca probably was just curious. Guess they’re like sharks in that way, attracted to moving arms and legs. I thought I could lure it away with my yellow flippers. When it wouldn’t budge, I bumped its nose, that’s all.” Dave moved closer and lowered his voice. “You likely would have survived the first bite. Most of you, anyway.”
Allison’s head did a little shudder and her eyes went wide. “I want to know about you, Mister Wiggs, not the damn fish.”
It took Allison pouring as much alcohol into Dave as she was consuming, but he finally opened up. He had graduated from the University of Houston with a Bachelors, not a Masters like her degree. Dave was a sole practitioner, did contract work for other firms, traveled a lot, and specialized in housing. He had won no design awards and was reluctant to talk about his buildings. When Allison asked why spending time underwater was part of an architect’s job, he changed the subject and droned on about mountain climbing.
Perhaps the guy was uncomfortable around women, Allison considered. Or maybe around women architects. Or just successful woman architects. Or simply woman architects more successful than him? It wouldn’t be the first time, she was reminded. That shyness could be cloaking another Alejandro, another closet egotist. What kind of fool would want to climb into that bed again?
Dave said he’d had a series of girlfriends but never married. She talked about her ex.
“Do you miss having children?” Allison said she was just curious, but knew it was her inner voice asking.
“I miss that every day. And you?”
At forty years old, the point was academic, Allison told him. She paused a beat before asking, “What would you have done if you’d had a child?”
“I’d have flown her to the highest mountain and shown her the world.”
Perhaps you think too much, Allison told herself.
By the time the Moon was overhead again, Allison was in Dave’s cabin, rocking to the steady pulse of marine engines. She wanted to talk after he fell asleep, but her voice wouldn’t let her. We face our fear, it reminded. We always face our fear.
To be continued…
This is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Part 1 of the series is here.