Diana Delacruz

Pursuit of the Pudú Deer

Chapter 1

June 199—

Mellehue, Grand Chiloé Island

           Nobody required me to take notes on this visit to Chile, but as soon as I glimpsed Nicolás Serrano on the soccer field, I made plans to dash to Don Carlos’s soup-to-nuts store for a notebook after the game finished. Maybe keeping another journal would anchor me to the ground.

           Or maybe this whole thing was a mistake—I shouldn’t have come back to the Chiloé Islands right now. A mission trip is designed to challenge you, inspire you, not mess up your life. It’s meant to touch your heart, not break it.

           So why was I perched on the edge of my seat in a crowded half-moon of bleachers, with glazed eyes and aching chest? Why was I holding my breath at an inconsequential soccer match in a third-world fishing hamlet? I should have more sense than to harbor even a passing thought about a guy from another world.

           Blame it on raw emotions—after all, I’d just ended one relationship gone sour. But no way did I intend this summer mission project in the backwaters of Chile to morph into some sort of spring break fling. It wasn’t supposed to get complicated.

           But here he was again, the island boy who’d haunted my dreams over the past three years. Now in the flesh in front of me, he raced down the playing field, fleet-footed as a deer, solid and real and more devastatingly handsome than I remembered. All this time, I’d compared every other guy in the world with Nicolás Serrano.

A referee’s whistle screeched. Squeezed onto a bench four rows up in the stands, I craned to see who would make the free kick for the home team. The field blazed a dazzling emerald, streaked with black and white jerseys.

It was almost like a homecoming game, I knew so many of the community players by name—schoolmates from my stint at the town liceo. “Looks like they’ve designated Nicolás,” I said.

“No big surprise there.” My Chilean girlfriend, Miriam Barrientos, elbowed me and winked. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed where your attention is riveted.”

I couldn’t help the blush that slid up my neck. True enough, I could hardly take my eyes off Nicolás since we’d arrived at the stadium, but I’d hoped my singular focus wasn’t so obvious.

           Just what made his memory shine so unrivaled? At eighteen, wasn’t I too old for an adolescent crush? Surely time and distance had blown my obsession out of all rational proportion. Or was he really the most amazing young man I’d ever met? Nicolás, the Dolphin-Boy, my special friend—perhaps the best friend I’d ever had.

I pretended to ignore Miriam’s not-so-subtle teasing. “It’s great to be back here, Miri. Mellehue versus Castro, it’s a Saturday classic—”

One of the opposition players headed off Nicolás’s shot on net. Out of control, the ball blasted toward the bleachers, hurtling right at me. I flung out my arms and trapped it against my chest. Air rushed out of my lungs in a sharp gasp.

I lurched to my feet to toss the ball back onto the field, but in an instant, Nicolás himself bounded up the benches to retrieve it. Our eyes met in mutual recognition, and something more. The throng of people around us blurred into the background of my vision.

Flashing a roguish smile, he tucked the ball under his arm, lifted my hand, and kissed the back of it. “Welcome home to Chiloé, Melissa Travis.”

“Some welcome. I’m stunned.”

He bowed. “I see you’re still on your fútbol toes. Not bad, señorita.” Then he whirled and vaulted back to the ground.

“Well, well.” Miriam leaned back. Even slouching, she was half a head taller than me. “Didn’t take you two long to pick up the conversation where it left off three years ago.”

            I bit my lip and rubbed my breastbone. Gonna have a bruise there. “Guess he hasn’t forgotten me, at least.” I’d fallen irrevocably in love with this last corner of the earth, as they called it, during the seven months I’d spent here before. I’d never be the same again. But though I could never forget Chiloé as long as I lived, my time in Chile probably hadn’t impacted my Chilote friends as much as it had me.

“You think anybody’s forgotten you?” Miriam shook her mane of pencil-lead-straight hair. “Not likely, by the avalanche of greetings this afternoon.”

“It’s just, no one’s written much lately.” Miriam, loyal as an old nanny, had kept up, but I’d hardly heard anything from Nicolás over the past year. We’d corresponded often those first couple of years. His last letter, no more than a note scribbled inside a Christmas card, mentioned his grandmother Luisa’s death, his high school graduation, and his new job with our classmate Delicia’s father. That was all…