An excerpt from a novel in progress.
Her mother’s office had no overhead light, but Lucy knew her way by feel to the desk lamp.
In the shallow center drawer were pens, receipts, an ink cartridge for a long-gone printer that would have made her mother launch into a familiar screed about planned obsolescence. Human beings suffered the same design flaw, she liked to point out: a limited lifespan that pushed them to manufacture their own replacements. Her sister Faith had done so – Travis was living and working with his fisherman father – and Lucy hadn’t. She had no regrets except that being childless had not led, so far, to a free and fabulous life.
She could hear Faith upstairs, out of the shower now and in their mother’s room. The shifting floorboards in there sounded like a bear’s groan rather than the bird squeak of other rooms. It was strange to imagine their mother’s room without Sara in it. Strange, in fact, to imagine a world without Sara in it.
The deep drawer on the right had always been hard to open. It gave way with a screech.
Inside were papers that had to do with the house—mortgage and insurance, bills and contracts. Deeper in were old report cards – funny since Sara thought mainstream education was little more than brainwashing. She’d sent her girls to school only when a friend insisted that otherwise they’d be social pariahs. Under the report cards were sketchbooks. Their mother bought both girls art supplies but only Lucy had kept at it. Flipping through, she thought that she hadn’t been half-bad. She should start up again, maybe illustrate the bug blog she’d set up for her 5th grade science class.
At the bottom of the drawer was a manila envelope, limp with age.
Why did her throat constrict as she looked at the envelope? She knew nothing of its contents, but still, her body reacted as if some animal part of her smelled trouble.
She upended the envelope. Out tumbled a small bundle of letters, tied with a shoelace.
The top letter had been sent to her mother’s address but the name wasn’t Sara’s. The letter was to Lucy, or to who she had once been: Luz Gale. She dropped the packet. The chair screeched as she pushed herself away from the desk.
Lucy had been born Luz. In the standardizing crush of grammar school she opted for something less associated with the immigrants who came to pick lilies and trim marijuana.
Pen-and-ink drawings of vines and tendrils formed a border around the address, curling in around her name as if caressing it. Perforated squares like windows into another world staked out the upper right corner: unfamiliar statesmen, neon fish. The stamps had been cancelled by a smudged circle-within-a-circle that, on closer inspection, read “Correos de Costa Rica.”
The name let loose in Lucy a whoosh of humid air, like steam when you lift the lid of a pot.
She saw the tide rushing in over a rocky coastline, bringing with it green coconuts and broken flip-flops.
Sara let her girls paint the jungle mural in the kitchen after she told them they wouldn’t be going back. It had been a poor substitute for the real thing.
The return address had an illegible name and an address:
de la cruce
500 metros al oeste
izquierda al arbol tourista
hacia el mar
She remembered her Spanish:
From the crossroad
500 meters west
left at the tourist tree (that couldn’t be right)
towards the sea
Then Playa Blanca, Costa Rica.
Playa Blanca was where they’d visited Uncle Gabo. They’d race down the dirt road, Uncle Gabo pumping his arms as if running at top speed but actually letting them win.
Was it Uncle Gabo writing, or maybe Lucy’s friend Bunny, or one of the boys she had a crush on?
She untied the bundle. The envelopes were yellow and brittle. All five were to her. The one at the bottom was postmarked the year they’d stopped going to Costa Rica. The last was from a year ago.
The oldest had no salutation, and consisted of a few short handwritten lines.
Your mother has destroyed everything, it began. We were a family. We still can be.
The next and last sentence was written with such force there were spots where the pen had punched through. I love her so hard I think it has broken me.
The letter was signed with an illegible scrawl, but it had to be Uncle Gabo. One of the many men Sara left in her wake. Pining for her, as men did. As Lucy had. As Lucy still did.
Lucy skipped to the most recent letter.
Whatever your mother told you, take it with a pinch of salt. And know that there is a place for you here. I am speaking literally, there is land and a house for you and the beautiful family I am sure you have by now.
I am sorry for all I didn’t do but I have done this. Even if you don’t want to live here, please come to see your father soon. I am not so young anymore.
Gabriel Mora Soto
She shook her head as of a fly was buzzing her ear. As far as she knew her father was dead. She remembered (or did she picture her mother’s story?) a tall man heaving garbage bags of clothes into the bed of a pickup. His name had not been Gabriel Mora Soto.
Uncle Gabo in Costa Rica was a Gabriel. The letters were almost certainly from him. But the part about him being her father – she shouldn’t take that literally, should she?
In spite of herself, something opened in Lucy at that moment. She imagined a real live father. A smiling man from a warm country where people loved more easily. The picture was sketchy because she didn’t have much to draw on. Memories of friends’ dad – good, bad, and worse – mixed in with rosy scenes from TV and the movies. Happy family porn, she and Faith had dubbed it in their late teens.
But now cynicism fell away. Her heart beat faster, and her eyes filled with warmth. Could it be that just as her mother was taken, a father would be delivered?
Lucy heard movement in the hall. She looked up to see her sister. The hallway light showed Faith in silhouette: a tall, trim figure weighted down with a heavy utility belt. She worked out almost every day; she said she hadn’t been in such good shape since running high school track. Faith had always been impressive. Now she also seemed menacing, in her crisp uniform, the bulge of her oversized flashlight ominous and faintly obscene.
“So you found them,” said Faith.