The hot Mexican sun created a thousand tiny diamond patterns in the sand under Nixie Cameron’s feet. The stench of stale frying oil mixed with the scent of salt and seaweed in the air. The chatter and calls of hundreds of tourists and natives combined in a wild melody of mixed languages flowing up and down the beach.
Nixie absorbed it all happily, as she stopped to wait for her mom. Playa Del Carmen. Better by far than the Disneyland-like resort at Xcaret where they were staying. Her mom had supposedly picked Xcaret because it was a safe place for eleven-year-olds, but it really meant her mom could work in peace. Nearly everyone at Xcaret had children in tow, and wore fancy clothes, but here at Playa, life felt real.
Rich and poor, native and immigrant and tourist, Playa smelled like Mexico and magic. Nixie breathed it all in, trying to fill up her whole being with the moment. This might be her only afternoon here this trip.
Her mom, behind her, had stopped to stare at something on her phone. Huh . . . more interested in the news or her messages than the ocean right there beside them, or all the booths with jewelry and clothes and pottery and people on the other side.
Nixie frowned and walked down to watch a cruise ship plowing through the blue waves toward Cozumel. Maybe after this trip, when the end of the Mayan calendar had come and gone, she would be able to get her mom onto a ship like that. Maybe there wasn’t any work on cruise ships.
The calendar was going to end, and everything was going to go on just like it was. That’s what her mom said, and she should know, since she studied the old Mayans for a living. Nixie wouldn’t mind if some things were different, though. Like maybe world peace and an end to climate change.
Jeez, you’d think she was a little kid, wanting impossible things like that. Easier to just hope for the cruise.
Sea foam lapped her toes; she leaned down and pulled her flip-flops off, holding onto them, remembering to notice the water and the people. A crowd of heavyset dark-skinned women and thin brown children swirled around her. Two little boys knocked her feet out from under her, and she fell down, one shoe falling in the water.
She laughed at the shocked look on their faces. They were cute.
“Nixie!” Her mom sounded like she didn’t see her. Probably not, since she was now sitting on the beach on her butt, surrounded by skinny kids and their mothers’ fat knees.
One of the women near Nixie let loose a string of Spanish too fast for Nixie to follow, but it made the boys who’d knocked her down cringe. Then the woman held out a meaty hand to Nixie, smiling at her.
“Nixie!” Her mom called again.
“Right here.” Nixie took the brown hand. The woman was stronger than she looked, pulling Nixie up easily. One of the small boys held out her flip-flop and she took it.
“Gracias,” Nixie spotted her mom further up the beach, actually past her.
She slipped out from the crowd and jogged to catch up. “I’m here.”
“Stay closer. I almost lost you.”
“You can’t lose me,” Nix said. “You’ve got an app for me.”
Her mom frowned at her, and didn’t bother to acknowledge Nixie’s reference to the GPS chip in her shoulder. “Did you find what you want yet?”
No. I’m trying to spend some time with you, and as soon as I find something to buy, we’ll go back to the hotel and you’ll work again. But she didn’t say that. She wanted a perfect afternoon. “Let’s go back up and look some more.”
For a moment, she thought her mom was about to say they were out of time, but she smiled and took Nixie’s hand, and they plunged back into the crowd.
Women and girls called out offers to plait tiny beaded braids in their hair, and children hawked jewelry. “Missy, missy, real silver.” Young men in black uniforms stalked up one side of the street, pretending to watch for pickpockets.
Nixie tugged her mom into a booth full of straw hats and embroidered shirts and handmade toys. She put a hat on her mom, and her mom put one on her, as they looked into a rectangular mirror someone had taken out of a medicine chest and mounted on the wall with nails. Twins, except for her mom being taller and her golden hair falling straight down her shoulders while Nixie’s floated out in a mass of curls that made her look even skinnier than she was, and made the hat look a little like it belonged on a dwarf.
Her mom cocked her head. “Do you want that one?”
Nixie frowned. “It looks funny. Besides, it’s falling apart.”
An old man with wrinkles around his eyes and a potbelly looked over at them. “Ten dollars. Just ten. Authentic Mayan hat.”
Good. That would do it. Sure enough, Nixie’s mom—who knew what real Mayan stuff looked like—pulled the hat off her own head and walked out.
A voice called out after them. “Eight dollars.”
“Come on,” Nixie said. “You can’t blame them for hoping we’re stupid. Let’s go back to town. That’s less like tourist stuff, anyway.” The more expensive booths were there and Nixie had forty dollars in her pocket. That should be enough for something nice, and maybe they would find a store where no one yelled prices at them.
They passed through a crowd of tourists in bathing suits with braided, beaded hair, holding signs about the impending end of the world. Nixie pushed them through as quickly as possible, hoping the signs wouldn’t start her mom off on a tirade about people who didn’t believe a word science said.
No such luck.
“Nothing magical is going to happen.”
Nixie tried a different tactic this time. “It would be nice if it did.”
Her mom stopped, mouth open and eyes widening. She let out a huff of air and pursed her lips.
“Relax, Mom,” Nixie said, leaning in and giving her a hug.
The return hug started out stiff, but calmed into something warm and sweet. “I’m sorry I’m so busy.”
“And stressed out,” Nixie proclaimed. As they walked, she peered squinting down the sunny streets until she found one they hadn’t seen before. It was part of the old town—whitewashed brick and adobe buildings with planters full of blooming birds-of-paradise and spiky aloe vera. The first shop window gleamed with polished silver jewelry full of blue and gold gemstones. The second doorway looked more promising, with painted carved wooden animals in one window and barrettes in the other. The too-sweet scent of copal incense made Nixie wrinkle her nose, but she went in anyway.
An old woman straightened up from the where she had been fixing wooden trains on a shelf near the back. Her flat face and dark eyes gave her away as more like a real Mayan than Spanish, and she was almost as short as Nixie. She looked a lot like the women at a village her mom had taken her to on their last trip down here: thin limbed, with torso and thighs covered by a shapeless off-white dress. Silver chains spilled down the front of her chest, and amber earrings made her look richer than her dress suggested. She waved Nixie and her mom in, spreading her hands to indicate they should look around.
Nixie’s mom grinned widely, and said, “Hello” in English.
“Hel-lo.” The Mayan took a few steps so she stood in the doorway, and watched Nixie and her mom, politely, leaving a few feet of distance between them. Well, good. Already better than the crowded beachside stores.
Nixie peered into the jumble of display cases. Barrettes, jewelry, clay plates with Mayan symbols on them, and leather bookmarks.
She could find something here. She glanced back at her mom in time to see her point at a vase, careful not to touch it. “This looks authentic.”
The woman fingered the silver chains around her neck so they jingled softly against each other. She said, “I buy it yesterday from a man. He give me good price.” She hesitated. “You like?”
Nixie had all of their shopping money. She put her hand into her pocket and fingered the bills, wondering how much her mom wanted the vase.
“I sell it to you for one hundred fifty dollars,” the woman almost whispered.
Nixie took her hand back out of her pocket and returned to perusing the store. The nicest case of all—oak and glass with a lock—stood right up against the corner close to the door. Nearly everything inside glowed with color: beaded necklaces, a shiny brown leather purse with a tree painted on it, a coin purse shaped and colored like a turtle. And behind them all, resting across a raised wooden stand that had clearly been made for it, a thin feather took nearly the whole length of the shelf.
It was the most beautiful feather Nix had ever seen. Maybe it was the most beautiful thing in the whole world.
She knelt in front of the case and swept her gaze along the fine edge of the feather, taking in the iridescent greens, blues, reds and yellows. Perhaps a rainbow had dropped itself onto the bird. Except it really had been made of the colors of the jungle, all the colors of the jungle.
Her mom’s voice seemed to be coming from far away. Her mom’s hand fell onto her shoulder, and Nix immediately felt herself list with the weight of it, as if she had become as light as the feather itself had to be, almost ghostly, while her mom stayed a real woman. She brushed her mom’s hand off.
“What is it, Nix?”
She licked her lips and flicked her eyes to the Mayan. “May I please see the feather?”
The woman gave Nix a sharp glance and started to shake her head. Then she stopped, and looked at Nixie—really looked at her, as if she were seeing her for the first time.
Nix looked back, stilled by the woman’s intense gaze. It felt like being looked into, instead of being looked at.
The old woman shivered once, and then smiled, exposing crooked yellow teeth. She made a gesture with her hands, telling Nixie to give her room.
Nixie stepped back, watching the woman use a small key tied around her wrist with yellow thread to open the case. She knelt and took the feather out carefully, using both hands. Nixie instinctively knelt at her height and held out her own hands, spread a foot apart, ready to accept the feather.
The woman laid it across Nixie’s palms.
A wall of cotton fell between Nixie’s ears and the honking horns and calls of people that had been coming in through the open door. But if her hearing had dulled, her vision had sharpened, so the tiny fronds that made up the feather were visible, nearly all of them elegant and perfectly formed.
She didn’t know how long she held the feather, but when she looked up the Mayan woman watched her closely, a slight smile warming one side of her mouth.
“It’s the . . . it’s so pretty,” Nixie whispered.
The woman smiled at her, and she looked a tiny bit more beautiful too. Not as pretty as the feather, but Nixie’s sharper vision picked out flecks of gold and silver in her dark pupils.
They looked at each other for three breaths, neither of them moving or blinking. Nixie almost felt as if she had been given the feather, but surely, that wasn’t right. “H . . . how much?” she stammered.
The woman stood and shook her head, mute. She looked as stunned as Nixie felt.
Nixie’s mother’s voice intruded. “It’s a quetzal feather. She can’t sell it. It’s endangered.”
The woman’s gaze shifted to Nixie’s mom, her eyes hardening. She bit her lower lip.
A pair of young women dressed in sarongs and bathing suit tops walked in, giggling at something one of them had just said. They smelled like salt and sweat and liquor, temporarily overwhelming the copal, then mixing badly with it. A car door slammed outside.
The woman stood and took the feather from Nixie, glancing at her mom. “It is just to look at.” She replaced it swiftly—but still carefully—in the case, locked the case, and turned toward the two young women. “Greetings.”
Nixie took her mom’s hand and led her out of the store, not looking at her. In the door, she stopped to look back at the feather. The old Mayan was watching her, looking inexplicably sad.
Nix wished there was some way to tell the woman she understood.
Out on the street, the sounds of Playa—which had been so enchanting before—seemed to scrape at her ears and her head hurt. “Let’s go home, mom.”
“But I thought you wanted to find a souvenir?”
Nixie shook her head. “Not any more. I’m tired.”
“Are you sure?”
If she couldn’t have the feather, she didn’t want anything. “It’s okay Mom. If the vase was a hundred and fifty, forty wouldn’t have bought the feather.”
“She shouldn’t have even had that feather. No quetzal birds have been seen here for decades, maybe longer. They left the lowlands a long time ago.”
Nixie was sure the woman was supposed to have the feather, and even more, that Nixie was supposed to get the feather. It had been meant for her.
“You don’t believe me, do you?” her mom asked.
“Well, it’s almost time to go anyway. I’m supposed to meet that woman—Oriana—and interview her about watching you.”
“Great Mom, we stay in a babysitter hotel, and then you need a babysitter on top of that.”
“I love you and I want to keep you safe.”
I want to have adventures. You could use some too.
I am a writer, public speaker, and a futurist. I’m interested in how new technologies might change us and our world, particularly for the better.
I’m excited about my most recent book series, a duology called “Ruby’s Song” which includes the books The Creative Fire and The Diamond Deep, both published by Pyr. I’m also doing a non-fiction blog series, Backing into Eden, which comes out roughly twice a month and explores ways to care for the world, now and in the future.