Authors: Jodi Picoult
I paddle around lazily, wary of penguins. I also have the sensation again that I’m being watched.
I’m wearing my underwear, which is basically equivalent to a bikini, but it’s still not the way I’d like to be discovered unawares. Twice, I glance over my shoulder, but even from this distance I can see there’s no one on the dock.
The sound comes from behind me and when I whip around, the spray of water keeps me from seeing anything.
I turn away and it happens again.
But this time when I turn, I’m a foot away from the curious stare of a sea lion.
His eyes are black and soulful, his whiskers bob. Under the water his body looks like one compact, undulating muscle, the tail sweeping powerfully to keep him upright.
One flat platter of a fin breaks the water and he splashes me again.
So I splash him back.
For a moment we just stare at each other. His nose twitches. He slaps his fin on the surface again and sends a shear of water into my face.
I burst out laughing and he does a backward dive, reappearing a few feet away from me. With a grin, I fling myself backward underwater, too. When I come up, pushing the hair out of my face, the sea lion is a foot away. This time, I hold my breath and somersault underwater, opening my eyes beneath the surface to watch him do the same thing.
It’s almost like we’re having a conversation.
Delighted, we play together, mimicking motions. Worn out, I start swimming back to the dock. For a while, the sea lion follows me. We surface underneath the raised wooden dock, breathing hard. He smells of fish.
I slowly stretch out my hand, thinking that maybe he will let me pet him, now that we have established a friendship of sorts. But before I can reach the silk of his wet fur, a drop of blood materializes in the center of my palm.
Shocked, I pull my hand back—Did I cut it on lava? Was it the penguin?—just as a second drop splats into the water, diffusing like dye.
I glance up and realize it’s coming from above the dock.
Scrambling up the slippery steps I see a girl sitting with her back to the post that forms a corner of the dock. She is young, on the cusp of being a teenager. She seems just as surprised to see me as I am to see her, and she immediately yanks down the sleeve of her sweatshirt, but not before I get a glimpse of the ladder rungs of cuts, one still bleeding.
“Are you okay?” I ask, moving toward her, but she hunches up her knees and slips her hands in the pockets of her sweatshirt.
I never self-harmed, but I remember a girl from my high school who did. Her mother was dying of ovarian cancer and once, we were both waiting for the guidance counselor on a bench outside her office. I looked over and saw the girl picking at scars on her forearm that reminded me of the height marks my father made on my bedroom doorframe every year on my birthday to chart my growth. She stopped when she saw me staring.
This girl has black hair in a messy braid, and she isn’t crying. In fact, she looks pissed off to have had her hiding spot trespassed upon. “What are you doing here?” she accuses.
“Swimming,” I say, and my cheeks burn as I remember what I’m wearing, and what I’m not. I grab my borrowed T-shirt from where it sits, under the bench, and pull it over my head.
“It’s closed,” the girl says, and suddenly I realize why she looks familiar: she was the third passenger on the ferry yesterday. The one who was crying.
“Did you hurt yourself?” I ask.
She continues as if I haven’t spoken at all. “The whole island is closed,” she says. “Because of the virus there’s a curfew after two
I look at the sun, slung low in the sky. I begin to understand why the island feels like a ghost town. “I didn’t know,” I say honestly. Then my brows draw together. “If there’s a curfew, what are
She stands up, her hands still buried in her pockets. “I didn’t care,” she says, and she runs down the wooden walkway.
“Wait!” I cry, trying to follow her, but the wood burns the bare soles of my feet and, wincing, I have to stop in a puddle of shadow. By the time I limp back to the dock to put on my jeans and sneakers, the sea lion has disappeared, too.
I am halfway back home before I realize that this mystery girl spoke English.
I hear the shouting before I even reach Abuela’s house. She is standing on the front porch, trying to placate a man who is arguing with her. Every time she touches his arm, trying to calm him down, he releases a torrent of Spanish.
I yell, jogging faster as I watch Abuela bend like a willow under his frustration. “Leave her alone!”
They both turn at the sound of my voice, surprised.
It’s that same guy…again. “You?” I say.
“This is not your business—” he says.
“I think it is,” I interrupt. “What gives you the right to scream at a woman who’s—”
“My grandmother,” he says.
Abuela’s face creases into the soft lines of a thousand wrinkles.
she says, patting his arm. “Gabriel.”
I shake my head. “I’m Diana. Your grandmother very kindly offered me an apartment when my hotel closed down.”
“It’s my apartment,” he says.
Is he kicking me out? Is that why they’re arguing?
apartment,” he repeats, as if I am too slow to understand. “The one you’re currently squatting in.”
“I can pay you,” I say, scrabbling in my jeans pocket for money. I peel off most of what’s left.
Abuela sees the money in my hand and shakes her head, pushing back at my fist. Her grandson—Gabriel—turns slightly, speaking quietly to her.
“Tómalo; no sabes por cuánto tiempo serán las cosas así.”
She nods and flattens her mouth into a thin line. She takes the money from my hand, folding it and tucking it inside her dress pocket.
Abuela responds to Gabriel, her eyes flashing, and for a moment, he has the grace to look embarrassed. “My grandmother,” he says, “wants me to tell you that I moved out a month ago and that she can give the space to anyone she wants.” He narrows his eyes at me. “Why aren’t you
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I can’t quite keep up.
you want me there, or
“There’s a curfew.” His eyes narrow on my wet hair. “You’re dripping. Onto
My God, everything is a personal affront to this man.
Suddenly Gabriel’s face changes.
he swears, as he rushes past me and grabs the shoulders of someone in the street. He looks like he can’t decide whether to hug or throttle them.
I watch as relief wins out in him. His arms circle tightly, and on the porch, Abuela’s eyes fill with tears. She crosses herself.
I don’t know what Gabriel is saying, because he is speaking Spanish. But from this angle, I can see the face of the person he’s embracing. It’s the girl from the dock at Concha de Perla, her sweatshirt still pulled past her wrists, her eyes fixed on mine, silently begging me to keep her secret.
For the next few days, I slip into a routine. In the mornings, I go for runs. I go as far as I can along the beach; I hike past the tortoise breeding center and Concha de Perla; I take paths that lead me into the heart of Isabela and to its cliffed edges. Sometimes I see locals, who nod at me but don’t speak. I am not sure if they are keeping their distance because of the virus, or because I am a foreigner. I watch fishermen leave the pier in Puerto Villamil in little
heading out to catch food for their families.
I wake before the sun and go to sleep before eight, because I can only spend half the day outside. After the two
. curfew, I stay indoors, reading on my Kindle—until I run out of downloaded books. Then I creep onto the postage-stamp yard of sand that abuts the beach, swing in the hammock, and watch Sally Lightfoot crabs scuttle away from the surf.
Abuela brings me a meal sometimes, and it is a nice alternative to the pasta that is my main food group.
I do not see her grandson or the girl.
I start talking to myself, because my voice has gone rusty with disuse. Sometimes I recite poetry I memorized in high school as I walk in the thorny desert of the center of the island:
Had we but world enough, and time; this Coyness, Lady, were no crime.
Sometimes I hum when I wring out my clothes, washed in the sink, and hang them to dry in the hot sun. Sometimes I let the ocean harmonize as I sing into its roar.
Always, I miss Finn.
I still haven’t been able to talk to him, but I have written him postcards every night. I hope to get stamps and mail them, and maybe find a cellphone store in town where they can work out a way for me to text internationally. I also need clothing, because rinsing out my limited supply every night isn’t ideal. The few stores that are still open do not seem to have regular hours, and I keep timing it wrong. While trekking into town, I have seen intermittent signs of life at the pharmacy, a shawarma stand, and a church. I decide that, later today, I will try my luck again in Puerto Villamil.
Before dawn, I go for a run, until my lungs are burning. When I reach a spiky black monolith of lava, I sit down on the sand and watch the stars burn out of the sky, like sparks on a hearth. By the time I walk back home, the tide is coming in. It erases my footprints. When I look back over my shoulder, it’s as if I was never there.
I take another blank postcard from the G2 Tours box and sit down on the hammock outside my apartment to finish my latest missive to Finn; then something at the edge of the water catches my eye. In the hazy blue light, rocks look like people and people look like monsters, and I find myself walking closer to get a better look. I am almost at the shoreline before I realize it’s the girl from Concha de Perla, carrying a trash bag. She straightens, as if she can sense me coming up behind her. She is holding a plastic water bottle with Mandarin characters on the label. “It’s not bad enough that the Chinese fishing fleets are poaching,” she says in perfect English. “They have to throw their crap overboard, too.”
She turns to me and jerks her chin along the rest of the beach, where other bottles have washed ashore.
She continues to pick up trash as if it’s perfectly normal for her to be here at the crack of dawn, as if I haven’t seen her cutting herself or being yelled at by Gabriel.
“Does your brother know you’re here?” I ask.
Her wide black eyes blink. “My brother?” she says, and then she huffs a sharp laugh. “He is
my brother. And it doesn’t really matter if he knows or not. It’s an island. How far away could I even get?”
When I was in school and that girl was harming herself, I felt like our paths kept crossing. Probably they had before, too, but I hadn’t been aware. One day, as we passed in the hallway, I stopped her.
You shouldn’t do it,
You could really hurt yourself.
She had laughed at me.
That’s the point.
I watch this girl pick up a few more plastic bottles and jam them into her bag. “You speak English so well.”
She glances at me. “I’m aware.”
“I didn’t mean—” I hesitate, trying to not say something inadvertently offensive. “It’s just nice to have someone to talk to.” I reach down and grab a bottle, holding it out for her bag. “I’m Diana,” I say.
Up close, she seems older than I first thought. Maybe fourteen or fifteen, but petite, with sharp features and bottomless eyes. She is still wearing her sweatshirt, arms pulled low beyond her wrists. There is a school crest over her heart. She seems perfectly content to ignore me, and maybe I should respect that. But I am lonely, and just days ago, I watched her self-harming. Maybe I am not the only one who needs someone to talk to.
I also know, based on our previous interactions, that she is more likely to flee than to confide in me. So I choose my words carefully, like holding out a crust of bread to a bird and wondering if it will dart away, or hop one step closer. “Do you always pick up the trash here?” I ask casually.
“Someone has to,” she says.
I think about that, about all the visitors, like me, who descend on the Galápagos. Economically, I’m sure it’s a boon. But maybe having all the boats and tours suspended for a few weeks isn’t a bad thing. Maybe it gives nature a moment to breathe.
“So,” I say, making conversation. “Is that your school?” I point to my chest, in the same spot where the logo is on her sweatshirt. “Tomás de Berlanga?”
She nods. “It’s on Santa Cruz, but it shut down because of the virus.”
“So that’s where you live?”
She starts walking; I fall into place beside her. “During the school year I live with a family in Santa Cruz,” she says quietly. “
“But this is where you were born?” I guess.
Beatriz turns to me. “I do not belong here.”
Neither do I,
I follow her further down the beach. “So you’re on vacation.”
She snorts. “Yeah. Like
Her barb hits home; as holidays go, this isn’t exactly what I hoped for. “How come you go to school off-island?”
“I’ve been there since I was nine. It’s like a magnet school. My mother enrolled me because it was the best chance of getting me out of Galápagos forever, and because it was the last thing my father wanted.”
It makes me think of my own mother and father. Separate circles that didn’t even overlap to form a Venn diagram where I could nestle into both their spaces.
“He’s your father,” I guess. “Gabriel?”
Beatriz looks at me. “Unfortunately.”
I try to do the math; he seems so young to be her parent. He can’t be much older than I am.
She starts walking away. “Why was he yelling at you?” I ask.
She turns. “Why are you following me?”
“I’m not…” Except, I realize, I am. “I’m sorry. I just…I haven’t had a conversation with anyone in a few days. I don’t speak Spanish.”
“I wasn’t planning on coming here alone. My boyfriend had to back out at the last minute.”
This, she finds intriguing; I can see it in her eyes. “He had to work,” I explain. “He’s a doctor.”
“Why did you stay, then?” she asks. “When you found out the island was closing?”
I? It’s been only a few days, but I can barely remember. Because I thought it was the adventurous thing to do?
“If I had anywhere else to go, I would,” Beatriz says.
She laughs, but it’s bitter. “I hate Isabela. Plus, my father expects me to live in a half-finished shack on our farm.”
?” I say, my surprise slipping out.
“He used to be a tour guide, but not anymore.”
because he was so unpleasant to his clientele.
“My grandfather owned the business, but when he died, my father closed it down. He used to live in the apartment you’re in, but he moved to the highlands, to a place without water or electricity or internet—”
“Internet? There’s internet on this island?” I hold up the postcard I am still clutching. “I can’t send email, and I haven’t been able to call my boyfriend, either…so I was writing him. But I can’t buy stamps…and I don’t even know if there’s still mail service…”
Beatriz holds out her hand. “Give me your phone.” I hold it out, and she taps through the settings. “The hotel has Wi-Fi.” She nods toward a building in the distance. “I put in their password—but it shits out more often than it works, and if they’re closed, they probably turned off the modem. If you still can’t connect, you could try getting a SIM card in town.”
I take back my phone, and Beatriz reaches for another bottle. A rogue wave soaks her arm, and she pushes her sleeve up before she remembers the red weals left by the razor blade. Immediately, she claps her palm over them, and juts her chin up as if daring me to comment.
“Thank you,” I say carefully. “For talking to me.”
“If you wanted to, you know, talk…again…” My eyes flicker to her arm. “Well, I’m not going anywhere in the near future.”
Her face shutters. “I’m good,” she says, yanking down the wet fabric. She looks at the postcard, still in my hand. “I could mail it for you.”
She shrugs. “We have stamps. I don’t know about the post office, but fishermen are allowed off-island to deliver what they catch, so maybe they’re taking mail to Santa Cruz.”
“That would be…” I smile at her. “That would be amazing.”
“No big deal. Well. Gotta go check in with the warden.”
When I glance up, I realize we have walked all the way to town.
“Your father?” I clarify.
“Tanto monta, monta tanto,”
I wonder if the reason Gabriel is keeping such a tight rein on Beatriz is because he knows she’s cutting. I wonder if he isn’t angry, but desperate.
“Could you stay with your mom instead?” I blurt out.
Beatriz shakes her head. “She’s been gone since I was ten.”
Heat rushes to my face. “I’m so sorry,” I murmur.
She laughs. “She’s not dead. She’s on a Nat Geo tour ship in Baja, fucking her boyfriend. Good riddance.” Without saying another word, Beatriz slings the bag over her shoulder and walks down the middle of the main street, scattering startled iguanas in her wake.
The proprietor of Sonny’s Sunnies speaks English and sells more than sunglasses and sarongs. She also sells T-shirts and neon-bright bikinis and SD cards for cameras and, yes, SIM cards for international calling—although there are none in stock at the moment. I can’t believe my continued streak of bad luck. She’s right there where Beatriz said I’d find her, on the main street of Puerto Villamil, just before noon. The door is wide open and Sonny is sitting behind the cash register, fanning herself with a magazine. She is round everywhere—her face, her arms, her swollen belly—and she peers at me over an embroidered mask.
“Tienes que usar una mascarilla,”
she says, and I just stare at her. The only word I understand in her sentence sounds like eye makeup, and I’m not wearing any.
no habla español,
” I stammer, and her eyes light up.
“Oh,” she says, “you’re the
.” She points to her face. “You need a mask.”
I glance around the store. “I need more than that,” I tell her, making a small pile on the counter—Galápagos tees, two pairs of shorts, a sweatshirt, a bikini, a face mask made of cloth with little chili peppers printed on it. I add a guidebook with a map of Isabela. When I show her my phone, she shows me a SIM card that will let me make local calls on a local network, which I buy even though I can’t imagine who I’ll be calling or texting locally. No, she tells me, she doesn’t sell stamps.
Finally, I pull out a credit card. “Do you know where there’s an ATM on the island?”
“Oh,” she says, putting my card in one of those old machines that create a carbon copy of it. “There’s no ATM.”
“Not even at the bank?”
“No. And you can’t use a credit card there to get cash.”
I look at the minuscule amount of money I have left, after paying Abuela—thirty-three dollars. Minus ferry fare returning to Santa Cruz…as I do the math, my heart starts pounding. What if my cash supply doesn’t last me for another week and a half?
My panic attack is interrupted by the jingle of the bell on the door. In walks another woman in a mask, carrying a toddler. He squirms in her arms, calling out to the shop owner until he is set down on the floor and races toward her, clinging to her leg like a mollusk. She swings him onto her hip.
The woman who carried in the little boy unleashes a torrent of words I cannot understand and then she seems to notice me.
She looks familiar, but I can’t figure out why until she snaps toward the proprietor, and her long, black braid whips behind her. The woman from my hotel, whose name tag read Elena. Who told me they were closed.
“You are still here?” she says.
“I’m staying with…Abuela,” I reply. That means
I know. I’m embarrassed to not know her real name.
Elena scoffs, throws up her hands, and slams out of the store.
“You’re staying in Gabriel Fernandez’s old place?” the shop owner asks, and when I nod, she laughs. “Elena’s just pissed because
wanted to be the one sleeping in his bed.”
I feel my cheeks heat. “I’m not…I don’t…” I shake my head. “I have a boyfriend at home.”
“Okay,” she says, shrugging.
From: [email protected]
I keep checking my phone to see if you’ve texted. I know it isn’t your fault, but I wish I knew for sure you are okay. Plus, I need some good news.
This virus is like a storm that just won’t ease up. You know on some rational level that it can’t stay like this forever. Except, it does. And gets worse.
The easy-to-diagnose Covid patient has fever, chest pain, a cough, a loss of smell and a metallic taste in their mouth, hypoxia, and fear.
The ones that aren’t as obvious arrive with abdominal pain and vomiting.
The ones you get Covid from have no symptoms and go to the ER because they cut their hands slicing a bagel.
My attending said we should assume everyone in the hospital has Covid.
He’s pretty much right.
But weirdly, the ER isn’t very busy. No one’s just
anymore, they’re too scared. You never know if the guy with the broken leg sitting next to you in the ER is Covid-positive and asymptomatic. God forbid you cough, even if you have a common cold. You’ll be looked at like you’re a terrorist.
Since no one wants to risk coming to the hospital, most of the patients arrive by ambulance, coming only when they’re unable to breathe.
I’ve been assigned to one of the Covid ICUs. It’s loud AF. There are beeps and alarms that go off any time a vital sign changes. The ventilator makes a noise every time it breathes for a patient. But there are no visitors. It’s weird for there to be no crying wives or family members holding a patient’s hand.
Oh, and every day, treatment changes. Today we’re giving hydroxychloroquine. Tomorrow: whoops, no, we’re not. Today we’re trying remdesivir, but antibiotics are out. One attending is pushing Lipitor, because it lowers inflammation. Another’s trying Lasix, used for heart failure patients, to help remove fluid from around Covid lungs. Some docs think ibuprofen is doing more harm than good, although no one knows why, so they’re giving Tylenol for fever instead. Everyone wants to know if convalescent plasma helps, but we don’t have enough of it to know.
When I’m not with a patient, I’m reading studies to see what other docs are doing in other places, and what clinical trials are available. It’s like we’re throwing shit at a wall to see if anything sticks.
Today, I had a patient who was bleeding through her lungs. Normally, we’d give a thousand milligrams of steroids to stop the hemorrhage, but my attending was waffling, because based on previous flu studies, we’re worried that steroids might make Covid worse. I kept watching him wrestle with a course of action, and all I could think was: does it matter, if she’s dead either way?
But I didn’t say anything. I left the room and did my rounds, listening to lungs that couldn’t push air and hearts that barely were beating, checking vitals and fluid status, hoping that the patients I was checking on could ride out the virus before we run out of beds. There is a thousand-bed Navy ship being sent to NYC but it won’t get here till April; and based on estimates, the hospitals in the city will max out of beds in 45 days.
It’s only been a week.
I decided I’m not listening to the news anymore, because I’m basically living it.
God, I wish you were here.