Ten miles south of Maricao
Carlos Harris’s breath rasped as he stared at the building’s side entrance across the muddy courtyard. The door stood halfway open, a taunt. Or an invitation.
Carlos had scraped his arm raw sliding down from the low-hanging branches of the flowering Maricao tree where he’d camouflaged himself for the past hour, but pain was the least of his problems. Twenty-five yards from him, a stocky U.S. Army soldier patrolled the compound’s gate with an M-16. A shadow hid Carlos from the guard, but for how long?
Fear stole the oxygen from Carlos’s lungs.
He was miles beyond the town, past coffee plantations and bamboo forests, stranded inside the razor fencing of a two-story pale green building battered nearly white by the sun; maybe an old water-treatment plant or sewage facility. The building looked like it should have been empty, except for the mud-caked military truck and three civilian cars parked in a neat row near the main entrance’s glass double doors. The soldier with the thick, sun-browned neck guarding the gate behind him might shoot him on sight.
The building’s side door was midway open, stalled by its rusty hinge. All Carlos had to do was dash fifteen yards to the door and slip in. But his limbs locked as he tried to catch his breath. If he ran for the door, he might not leave here today. At best, he would be arrested. At best.
His father had warned him to let his friend with the governor’s office sort through the confusion over Mami—but how could he wait? His father hadn’t seen the way the coroner’s eyes had shifted away in San Germán, or how the police officer in Maricao had tugged at his earlobe, itching from his own lies. His father hadn’t heard their flimsy evasions at simple questions any son would ask: Where is she? What happened?
If Mami was dead, he would accept it somehow. But did they expect him to swallow the story with no proof? No body? Nothing except her purse to show that she had lived and died? Even if Carlos hadn’t been a reporter for twenty-five years, he couldn’t have walked away.
But Carlos had never expected to make it this far. The driver from town should have spotted him hiding in the back of his cuchifritos lunch truck before he’d begun his drive to the facility at dawn. The army guard should have searched the truck before waving the driver in. Someone should have seen Carlos climb out and run to the tree after the driver parked.
Truly, what kind of security was this?
Carlos was angry at the incompetence, the lies. Angry at himself. In his real life, he would never do something this crazy—this was like something Mami would do. One day, this would all be a grand joke to her.
But he was here now. The truck was long gone, and he didn’t have the ATV he’d nearly killed himself riding on narrow roads the day before, when he’d first come to observe the facility. Carlos could almost hear Mami laughing at him in the rioting birds hidden in the trees. Bees circled him, humming near his ears, but Carlos was too nervous to duck or swat at them.
Carlos, I got the weirdest phone message, Dad had said when he called three days before, waking Carlos and Phoenix from dead sleep in California. Four a.m. Dad had never gotten the time zones straight, but Carlos hadn’t had the chance to lay into him because Dad had repeated the cryptic phone message he’d received from an unidentified woman:
Rosa Castillo is dead. Then, the caller had hung up.
The message would have seemed absurd, except that his father couldn’t reach Mami, and none of her neighbors had seen her in days. Dad was still recovering from hip surgery, so Carlos had flown to Puerto Rico to find her, chasing her ghost like a detective.
Her girlfriends from the gallery in Old San Juan had told him about their hiking trip to El Yunque, and how Mami had stayed behind to take photographs. A park ranger at El Yunque remembered the woman Carlos described: she’d joined a family from Hong Kong on an impromptu trip to Maricao. Sólo se vive una vez, she’d told the park ranger when she changed her plans: “you only live once.” Because that was Mami. No planning. No consideration.
In Maricao, Carlos had finally gotten lucky. Or so he’d thought.
The wild-eyed tourist from Chile had drawn Carlos a map to the facility, afraid to lead him there. The tourist had sworn he’d seen six bodies loaded into a truck from the hacienda, the little hotel, in the middle of the night. The authorities had been dressed in plastic suits from head to toe, as if there had been a radiation leak or a terrorist attack. The man’s worry for the spirited Negrita with silver braids had made him follow the truck into the rain forest.
The stranger had met Mami only twice in the plaza, but he said he’d liked her and urged her to see a doctor when she complained of a stomachache. Then she was gone. And those radiation suits! It was all so suspicious, he’d said, the way the police wouldn’t answer questions, just like Chile under Pinochet. Then the hacienda where the bodies had been found was closed right away, the manager among the missing.
What were they hiding? Fury welled up in Carlos, silencing his fear.
Carlos’s legs were churning before he realized he was running for the propped door, his breathing so loud in his ears that he was sure the guard could hear him. His legs were rubbery, ready to fold, but he bounded up the two concrete steps and peeked inside the open doorway first: he saw a short, narrow hallway, part of an L intersection from the main hall. Three doors on each side, two open, four closed. No soldiers. No one in sight.
Carlos slipped through the building’s open door, barely nudging it, in case touching would set off an alarm. He was glad it didn’t close behind him, because God knew he might need it again. One of the open rooms was six strides from him, the lights off, so he ran to the doorway just as he heard voices from the wider hall.
He didn’t have time to see if he was alone before he closed the room’s door behind him; the click rang in his ear like a gunshot. He pushed in the lock, another terrifying click. Only then did he whip his head around to see if he’d stumbled into the lion’s den.
But he was alone.
The room was a small office, three drab metal desks without cubicles. The walls were rimmed with wire bookshelves that were mostly empty except for a few piles of papers and paperback manuals. Something white near the window caught Carlos’s eye, and his heart rejoiced: a lab coat was hanging on the desk chair!
Shivering with gratitude, Carlos grabbed the coat and flung it on. It was short at the sleeves, too tight—maybe it was a small woman’s—but it felt like his armor and shield. His lungs opened, allowing him to breathe.
The room smelled dusty, as if it hadn’t been aired out in years. The desks were old and scuffed, but the wire shelving was new. So was the slender tablet computer sitting open at the desk where he’d found the coat. Carlos hadn’t thought to bring gloves—one in a long list in his plan’s oversights—but he tapped the computer screen and prayed for a miracle.
The opening screen flared, bright blue. A username was saved in the top field behind a row of dots, but the password field was blank. He cursed. Had he thought he could type in his mother’s name and find a complete report?
Carlos peeked through the window’s vertical blinds, saw the side of the guard’s checkpoint. The bulky soldier was pacing with his gun slung across his shoulder, bored.
What now? As Carlos panicked, his mind went white, skipping like an old LP.
The desk drawers were bare, emptied long ago. Carlos rifled through the papers and manuals on the wire shelves, but the pages were crammed with unfamiliar symbols. Chinese? No … Korean. A thick manual looked like a medical journal, judging from the photographs of deformities inside, but he couldn’t read a word. Carlos cursed again.
As his adrenaline wore off, he felt wearied by the futility of his plan. What would Phoenix say if she saw him now? His father? His capture would make international headlines. He was transforming into a crazed stranger, and over what? A tourist’s delusion?
Still, Carlos left the sanctuary of the office with the manual under his arm to complete his costume, keeping his face down as he scanned the hallway. It was still empty, but he wouldn’t have time to search every room.
He saw a handwritten sign in bright red at the end of the hall, near the fork. The sign had an arrow pointing to the right, like a trail of bread crumbs. OBSERVATION, the sign read in English. A matching sign was posted on a nearby stairwell door; this time, the arrow pointed up.
Carlos opened the door to the stairwell and found it empty, too, lighted by fluorescent bulbs that flickered and buzzed.
Another sign waited at the door on the second floor, and Carlos opened it without giving himself time to change his mind. Bright lighting assaulted him, and he shielded his eyes with the manual. His reflection stared back at him from a glass panel five yards in front of him that stretched nearly the length of a long, narrow room.
Several voices nearby spoke in a gentle babble. A dozen men and women were huddled to the right of him, at the far end of the room. They stood with their noses close to the glass like students on a class field trip to the aquarium. About half of them wore lab coats like his, but none was dressed like a soldier. None had a gun. One of the men was speaking English with a heavy Asian accent, his voice too low to hear. They were so absorbed, they did not notice him.
Carlos suddenly didn’t care who they were—he cared only what they were looking at.
He took three confident strides to the glass, and his reflection melted from sight as he stared down. Thirty feet below, he saw what looked like a makeshift autopsy room, six rolling metal tables arranged in two uneven rows of three. The space was a giant stage, and he stood in its balcony.
On every table lay a body. Nude. Uncovered. The bodies lay in tight fetal balls, as if they fought the cold even in death. Clenched fists were raised to their faces. Two of the bodies were very small. Children.
“… If it was airborne …” a woman’s voice said, soft as cotton.
“… Within such an isolated infection area …” murmured the man with the Asian accent.
Carlos’s chest quaked. His heart was a boulder ramming his ribs. The room below swayed, and he leaned on the glass to keep his balance. The cryptic call to his father had not been a joke or a lie. The Maricao tourist’s story had not been a paranoid fantasy. His terrible new knowledge guided his eyes … and he saw her.
Her bright white hair, prematurely gray since she’d been in her forties, was braided in ordered cornrows that curled around her ears like a schoolgirl’s.
But everything else was wrong.
Her brown skin had been leached of pigment like the walls outside, chalky and pale. And she had aged twenty years since he’d seen her at Christmas, leathery skin hanging from brittle bones. She looked like a … husk. She might have been a hundred years old. The child in him mouthed her name, his lips pressed to the cold glass.
Carlos Harris knew his mother’s corpse on sight.
© 2011 Tananarive Due