Monday, March 31, 199—, 4:33 p.m.
Linnebrink Cottage, Cocotúe, Desertores Island Group, Chile
My conversation with Cristina Linnebrink was going so well, until Cecilia Cárdenas bombed into the kitchen and ruined everything. I could hardly be rude to my new friend’s school colleague, but why, oh Lord, did this blunt firebrand have to drop by the Linnebrinks’ cottage just now?
Almost a year out of Bible college, green missionary in the ever-green islands of southern Chile, I was enjoying my ministry—talking about Jesus—with Cristina. Just Tina, she said. I was kind of excited to speak in English with this girl who shared my American roots despite her current job as a teacher in the last corner of the earth.
I knew Cecilia too, by name and reputation at least. A petite brunette, she was a classic Chilote beauty—and as outspoken as she was outstanding. Somehow, she’d hooked my old classmate, Tito Bahamonde, and towed him away from his God and his faith. My sister and pastor brother-in-law had different hopes for Tito. I was more than a little disappointed myself.
But I never imagined that Cecilia would know me. And know so much. Too much.
“How could I not know you?” she demanded as she plopped down with her cup of tea at Cristina’s rustic table. “Melissa Travis, the missionary’s sister from Mellehue, right? You don’t look a lot alike, but the hair’s a dead give-away. You’re the legendary gringa Nicolás Serrano’s been pining for all these years.”
A loud rushing pulsated through my ears as every drop of blood drained from my face. For a stunned moment, I couldn’t speak. Was that what people thought—that Nicolás had been pining for me? Playing solitaire until I returned to Chile?
It simply wasn’t true.
He’d walked out of my life almost two years ago, without so much as a real good-bye, let alone an explanation. He’d disappeared off the edge of the horizon that day and never looked back. I hadn’t had a phone call or even a Christmas note in all that time, no contact whatsoever. Pining? Hardly.
Finally, aware of Tina’s curious stare, I muttered, “I…I think you’re mistaken about that, Cecilia.”
“Well, I’m just repeating what Tito’s told me. He and Nicolás were close friends once, you know. Look, no offense. I didn’t mean to upset you.” Cecilia’s apology was as straightforward as everything else about her.
“Oh, I…I’m cool.” I probably sounded less sincere.
“Tito’s told me a lot about you, Melissa, and all of it admirable, so I’m not trying to get on your case or anything.”
“But you don’t care for gringos, huh?” A lame joke, but I snatched at any weak thread to salvage the conversation. Any detour to sidestep discussing him. Any patch to cover up the gaping wound in my heart.
“It’s not that. Maybe I’m a bit paranoid because everyone in your Mellehue Bible Church is opposed to our engagement. Tito told me when we first started going together that they all have the notion he should wait forever for some perfect dream girl, like Nicolás.” Cecilia tossed her heavy mass of dark hair. “That’s just absurd.”
I sucked back a wince. “Of course. The dream girl nonsense.” I tipped my face into my tea cup. “And anyway, he’s not waiting…”
Cecilia, Nicolás didn’t wait. Especially not forever.
Monday, April 7, 4:12 p.m.
Launch Ambassador II, Mellehue Dock, Grand Chiloé Island, Chile
When I stepped onto the Ambassador’s wooden deck a week later, I thought I saw a ghost.
On that fall afternoon—at tea time in the Chilean islands of Chiloé—my brother-in-law’s launch slid into a spot along the barnacle-encrusted jetty of its home port of Mellehue. The guys on Cole’s crew, Esteban and young Nathán, hustled around, tying ropes, but I was the first of the women to emerge from the cabin. And there he was.
Nothing vaporous or ethereal about him, true. Nicolás Serrano was as solid and substantial as they came. He just wasn’t supposed to be here. Not in this place, not at this time. But real as life, he jaunted down the long concrete quay toward our launch.
Instead of the jeans and wool sweater I remembered, he now sported the crisp navy and white of a military uniform, but I would have recognized that easy, rolling stride anywhere. His dark hair was cropped short now and his face partly shaded by a visor, but I knew—I surely did—the tilt of that strong bronzed jaw and the set of those shoulders.
A wild, illogical panic seized me. What could he possibly be doing here in Mellehue? These days, Nicolás was a Chilean naval officer posted to the training ship Esmeralda II thousands of kilometers from his island home. His mother, Señora Angélica, had told me just the other day that her son had come home for a brief vacation at Christmas, but she didn’t expect to see him again for a while.
And as I’d explained to Cristina Linnebrink on the island of Cocotúe last week, after that sirena Cecilia so gracelessly dredged up the past: Yes, I was once in love with Nicolás Serrano. Had been. But what did that have to do with present reality?
I hadn’t returned to Chiloé as a missionary with the covert motive of picking up our relationship where it left off five years ago. I’d honestly allowed myself no illusions about the chances of crossing paths with him during the upcoming year of my short term.
I wasn’t prepared to face him right now, to mumble polite platitudes of greeting in front of the whole gawking town. So why, oh why, was he here on the dock, slipping off his emblazoned cap and waving to me with a gold-braided arm, for all the world as if it had been only a week and not years since he’d seen me? It was enough to make my head spin.
Behind me, his sister Valeria squealed, “Nicolás! It’s Nico!”
My heavy canvas bag slipped off my shoulder and dropped with a thump. I bent to heave it up again, but the deck slid beneath my feet. What was so slippery? I felt myself dragged down, crumpling…