Brenda Cooper

Mayan December – Chapter 3

Alice sat with her fingers curled around a glass of Syrah. Late afternoon sun slanted onto the narrow strip of bar tables surrounded by running water and art deco bridges. Across from her, a small dark-haired woman sat with her hands folded under her chin.
Oriana Russo sipped her white wine. “You are? What did you say? An archastronomer?”
“Archeoastronomer,” Alice corrected. “Archeoastronomy is like the anthropology of astronomy. In my case, I study how the Mayans looked at the stars.”
“Which is . . . ?” Oriana asked, her bobbed hair falling forward across her face as she leaned over the table and took a small handful of over-salted peanuts.
How to explain simply? Alice knew from Oriana’s resume that she had dropped out of college and spent most of her time down here diving. “The stars guided their mythology. The Mayan calendar was devised by knowing the stars and many of the ruins were built to both study and showcase celestial events.”
“You sound like a textbook.”
At least Oriana smiled as she said that. It stung, but she was probably right.
Oriana leaned forward. “But how did the ancient Mayans feel about the stars?”
“Well, they revered them. After all, the story of their gods is written in stars.”
Oriana’s voice dropped almost to a whisper. “I spend time in Mayan villages, and they still see gods and the future in the stars. They’re afraid and excited. They can feel the great tree of life growing in the sky as we speak. They’re living in the time of their myths.” Oriana leaned even closer, disturbing Alice’s sense of personal space. “How do you feel about the stars and the coming line-up?”
Alice opened her mouth, then closed it again and took a sip of wine. “I’m a scientist. I like to watch the stars on dark nights and imagine the stories they would tell me if I didn’t know the science. But I do, and so I don’t feel about them as much as think about them.”
A soft sigh escaped Oriana’s lips, almost disappointment. But she shifted the conversation. “Tell me about Nixie.”
“She’s eleven. She’s . . . she’s a good girl. Bounces between wanting to be a little girl and a teenager.” Best to forestall the question about a father. “She and I live alone. Her father died when Nix was five.”
“Is that hard?” Oriana asked.
She hated that question. “Not so much, not any more. She comes with me most of the time when I travel—she gets her school online. But as she’s getting older, I worry more.”
Oriana smiled sympathetically. “There’s no place safe any more. Not even my home, Italy. Thirty people were killed by a pregnant suicide bomber in Rome yesterday. Can you imagine blowing up your own unborn baby?”
Alice scooted her chair in closer to the table to let a waiter pass, its metal feet screeching on the tile. “That’s not what I mean. I do worry about her safety.” Of course she did. “But she doesn’t have many friends her age; we don’t stay anywhere long. Maybe after this year, when the world goes on and the end of the Mayan calendar is just the beginning of a new year, I’ll take a teaching job and stay in the states for a few years.”
Oriana’s smile was free of judgment. “None of us can read the next year yet. Shall we go and I can meet your Nixie?”
Alice had developed a skill for reading people, after so many years finding guides to take her deep into dangerous jungles. Oriana seemed honest, felt honest. “Let’s introduce you to Nixie.”
Oriana looked pleased. “Thank you.”
“Follow me.” Just over the little bridge, they passed two bright red parrots chained contentedly to large perches. Faux eco-tourism—the jungle chained for visitor’s eyes to feast on—no work required. But she’d chosen this place for Nixie, not herself.
They had to thread through five buildings, past a pool, and up one flight of stairs to reach Alice and Nixie’s room.
Alice opened the door, holding it for Oriana, calling out, “Nixie.”
No answer.
Snake, Nixie’s favorite stuffed toy and traveling companion, lay across the tropical orange bedcover with its green plush head lolling sideways. No sign of Nix. Alice called again, louder. “Nixie. Nix?”
No answer.
“Maybe she went swimming.” Alice led Oriana to the closest pool, and stood with her back to the falling sun, watching herds of children leap into the sparkling chlorine blue water while parents sat and sipped free drinks from the poolside bar. She squinted as each small swimming form emerged from the water.
Nixie wasn’t there.
“How can I recognize her?” Oriana asked.
“A mane of blonde hair, tall for her age, thin, but strong.” She glanced down at her phone and touched the tracking app to bring up Nixie’s GPS signal. It didn’t show. Dammit. She speed dialed Nixie’s cell phone. No answer; straight to voicemail. “Come on, I can find her. She’s chipped.”
“Really?” Oriana blurted out. “Like a dog?”
“Like a kid who travels with me into the bush. I intend to find her if the drug cartels get her.”
Back in the room, Alice tapped her feet as the laptop booted up. At home, she could always follow Nixie with her phone, but here the wireless cloud was damned unreliable. The screen brightened, throwing light across the cluttered desk. Alice tapped to get Nixie’s location.
No response.
She imagined her daughter kidnapped, in a taxi or broken-down bus heading down the highway, and forced herself to picture something simpler. Nixie had just come to look for her, and something in one of the little resort shops caught her eye. Or Nixie had gotten hungry. The resort was all-inclusive. Food ran free for the taking everywhere. Maybe she went to build a sandcastle at the tiny beach.
The map began to fill in on the screen, starting with their current location and fanning out. Alice’s blinking golden light took the center of the screen.
Still no blinking blue location light for Nixie.
Alice’s heart sped up as the map began to redraw, searching further a field for the girl’s locator. “That can’t be.”
The screen redrew again, its edges too far now for Nixie to have gone in anything except an airplane.
“Could her chip be broken?” Oriana asked. “Or the software?”
Alice shook her head. “We just had it checked last week when we got our shots updated at home.”
“Well, it must be broken or you would see it, right? Even if—something happened to her—the chip would still work.”
“Unless someone destroyed it.” There hadn’t been any time. She’d only been gone an hour.
Her own location light– a bright dot that looked three-dimensional – blinked insistently at her as she searched again for Nixie’s beacon.
It wasn’t there.
She’d let the apparent safety of the resort lull her into a sense of security.
She pushed the reboot button and glared at the screen as it crawled to sleep and then clawed back to life.
“She didn’t leave a note?”
“Probably not.” Alice looked around anyway, her hand shaking. Nixie almost never left, but if she did, well, she knew Alice could find her. Why leave a note when she was chipped?
The locator finished coming back up and showed exactly the same results, scanning ever wider until the whole world filled the screen and Nixie wasn’t in it.
Oriana spoke into Alice’s stunned silence. “What does she like to do?”
“There’s ruins on the grounds. She’s interested in those.”
“Should we look?” Oriana prodded.
Alice bit her lip. She’d become too damned dependent on the chip. “Of course.”
They sped down the steps and crossed the expanse of white concrete lining the pool, Alice still squinting at swimmers, hoping Nix would materialize.
Oriana asked, “Does she run away often?”
“No. Never.” Alice shook her head. Run away? “She goes places. I mean, I work. So sometimes she goes to the community park or over to a neighbor’s house. At home, she can text or call me or I can see her leave on my phone or computer, track her.”
“Is it legal to chip a person?”
“Sure. It’s not usual, but I have a friend in the industry. With the world the way it is and me bringing Nix here, it made sense. We’ve gotten used to it. It’s so . . . strange not to see her beacon.” Naked. It felt naked. “So she leaves, but I’m sure she didn’t run away.”
They reached the end of the pool patio and started down a manicured path toward the closest ruin. A small temple: two stories with tall, narrow steps and a compact top just a few feet across, with a stone doorway right at the crown. Dusk bathed the gray cobblestones under their feet with orange light. It hurried Alice even more, pushing her like weight instead of light. What if Nix had fallen and it got dark and they couldn’t find her?
She called, “Nixie! Ni-ixie!” She raced up the steps, looking down for a small body, fallen on the other side. Nothing. Oriana raced around the outside, bending down to look under bushes.
They shook their heads at each other, jogging side by side. The path forked and Alice pointed right, words tumbling out fast. “I’ll go this way. Go left, call her name. She won’t come to you; she’s not supposed to go to strangers. She’s got golden hair and a red top. If you think you see her, tell her that her mom needs her. Tell her to go toward the pool.”
Alice’s breath sped up and her blood raced through her veins, hot and worried.