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We had been married six years and five months that Thanks- giving. I savored the crisp autumn morning from our big bed, enjoying the smells wafting up from the kitchen. Lisa sent our four-year-old up the stairs to wake me for breakfast. When I heard her little slippers scraping across the floorboards, I shut my eyes and “Daddy?” her sweet whisper called inches from my ear, “are you I pretended to snore. As expected, a wet finger went into my ear. I howled in mock shock. Sophie squealed and fled the bedroom. I caught her in the hallway, scooped her up, and threw her over my Downstairs, Lisa accepted my kiss as she peeled a mountain of carrots. I swung Sophie around to give her an upside-down peck.
“You got Daddy out of bed. Good job, sweetie.” “I gave him a wet-willie again,” she giggled and scampered off It was our first attempt at hosting the annual family Thanksgiv- ing in our little Philadelphia suburban home. The event for our clan was a twenty-person affair with five veteran Thanksgiving meal preparers in attendance: two mothers, two grandmothers, and one Lisa looked at me for a split-second between flying carrot wedges. “When you’re dressed, I need you to get me some Cool She projected a calm veneer, but the speed she was chopping things begged otherwise. A Navy Seal team seconds from the start of a mission couldn’t have been more pumped.
“And I’m out of cream cheese, too,” she called.
“How much do you need?” I yelled through the neck of my shirt.“A large box. Get the Philadelphia brand. Your grandmother “Cool Whip and Philadelphia, got it.” “Cider, got it.” I bolted down the stairs two at a time.
“Not the store kind. Go to the cider place on Fagleysville “And hurry back. I need help with the tables and chairs.” I scooped Sophie up, relishing her little arms choking my neck. “Mommy might need your help here. You stay and watch the parade, okay?” A quick kiss and I was off.
The mini-mart had Cool Whip but was out of cream cheese. I drove to a grocery store across town. It was a mob scene inside. Twenty minutes later, I was out the door with my single purchase. It landed in the back seat beside the defrosting Cool Whip. On the way to the cider place, my cell phone buzzed.
“Sorry, the mini-mart didn’t have cream cheese, so I—” “Daddy, the Snoopy balloon is flying away!” It took me a minute to realize Sophie was talking about the Macy’s Parade. “Snoopy got away, huh?” “You should see it. They let go of his strings and he flew way I drove to the cider place. It was an old-fashioned family-run business with a small alcove and a cash box instead of a register. Cider was dispensed from a giant storage tank through a simple garden hose. The lady behind the counter chatted with the customer ahead of me and it was a while before she could fill my order. When she had, I strapped the cider in with the seat belt and pulled out My cell rang again. It was an all-too-familiar voice, but the I was startled by her tone. And confused. What was she doing “Lisa? I’m on my way. The mini-mart was out of cr—” I sped up my already fast pace, then cringed as a police car flew up on my tail. At the last second, he swerved and zoomed past me. I sighed with relief. Probably chasing another speeder.
I reduced the half-hour trip home to eighteen minutes, flying into our development and rushing past the tree-lined streets and 1940’s homes. As I turned onto my cul-de-sac, my heart froze. Reflecting off the windows of the corner house was the tell-tale flashing of red-and-blue emergency lights.
My heart hammered in my chest. Down the street, a half dozen police cars gathered in our front yard. Some had skidded up on the front lawn. An ambulance careened around the corner behind me and roared past, screeching to a halt in front of my driveway.
I left the engine running and ran past a cluster of neighbors. A cop stopped me cold at the edge of the drive. I tried to argue my way past. The EMTs from the ambulance pulled two stretch- ers out and ran up the walk. A man with a badge hanging from his neck intercepted them. A few sentences were exchanged. One of the EMTs glanced at me. His face looked grim. They stepped back, clearly not in a hurry anymore. I argued with the cop to let me through. My family was in there, for God’s sake.
The man with the badge came towards me. “Mr. Wright?” That was when my world came to an end.
My wife and daughter were buried during a sleet storm one week before Christmas. I tried moving back into the house after the police had concluded their investigation and the insurance company had finished cleaning, but I didn’t last long. I kept seeing my wife’s face. My cousin found me weeping in the driveway and took me in for awhile. The hospital gave me new meds and my boss gave me more time off. Guess you don’t know how many friends you have I discovered I had a lot, including an old buddy from the Navy. He called and invited me down to Costa Rica to clear my head. Actually, he called every week, asking if I’d made a decision and promising to send an extraction team if I kept saying no.
“I need you down here,” he’d said.
“I’m an architect, not an archeologist.” I’d countered.
“That’s why I need you. We found something.” “Can’t tell you over the phone. Get your body down here and It was a bumpy flight over the Gulf of Mexico. I spent a lot of time in the airplane restroom, clutching a picture of Lisa and Sophie, staring at their faces, trying to purge the memories of the trial.“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, as you can see from the enlargement photos, the wife and daughter suf ered multiple stab wounds to the …” The picture slipped from my fingers. I leaned over the little metal sink and silently sobbed my guts out.
Later, the jet taxied to its assigned gate and rolled to a stop. The buildings had been scarred by a recent hurricane. Metal siding had peeled away as if a god had tried to pry his way inside. The flight attendant announced that the jetway had been damaged by the storm and we would have to de-plane by the stairs.
I stepped out and felt the warm sun on my brow. Costa Rica If I could only be transported miraculously back in time. If this was last summer, maybe I could have done things differ- ently—somehow saved my family. Moved to a different house that wouldn’t have been mistaken by a doped-up thief as being empty because the car wasn’t in the driveway.
I pushed the reflection aside and followed the crowd down the first step, squeezing my eyes against the nightmare image disrupting my thoughts. I gripped the rail and sucked in warm tropics, anchor- ing myself with the scent of engine exhaust and moist air. That helped a little. It was a distinct change from frozen Philadelphia.
A long bank of windows stretched across the terminal, framing waiting families who waved to loved ones. White smiles on cof- fee-colored faces, their exuberance was infectious. This trip was an opportunity for me to get away from the firm, hang out with an old friend, slow down and try to rebuild.
I followed the chattering passengers to the ground. A flash of blonde hair in the windows made me freeze. The woman stood rock still behind the crowd, staring at me. My feet turned to lead.
It wasn’t the first time I’d seen her since her death. I’d seen her Christmas Eve hovering in the bathroom mirror.
I couldn’t help myself. I kept staring from the last step.
The passengers pressed forward, and I stumbled to the tarmac. In a daze, I followed the passengers into the terminal. It swarmed with humanity. I’d avoided crowds for a long time. After the funeral, I’d spent Christmas holed up like a hermit in my rav- aged home, eating macaroni from a pot and sleeping on the couch in front of a roaring fire, avoiding the upstairs bedroom.
Krax whistled when he spotted me going through Customs. I was loaded down with bags on both shoulders. He crossed the security boundary, ignored an irritated guard, and gave me a bear I dropped my bags and returned his fierce hug. My best friend, who I hadn’t seen since my wedding. Hair longer and beard strag- glier, but with the same gleam in his deep-set eyes and the same pair of tarnished John Lennon glasses he’d worn since college.
I owed him an apology. “Sorry I kept saying no to your invita- tion. I wasn’t trying to blow you off.” He pshawed. “I was starting to wonder when you’d finally give in.” His eyes filled with concern. “You look like you’ve been run He squeezed my shoulder. “We’ll get through this. You need time, friends, and the perfect change of scenery. We got all three “You always could fly me out of a tight spot.” “Never lost a Seal yet,” he grinned. He shouldered one of my bags. “The salida’s this way. That’s ‘exit.’ You’ll want to brush up on your Spanish. You’re staying longer than two weeks. Nope, don’t start. I’m not taking no for an answer. We’ve been waiting a long time for you to come down here. Need your weird brain to figure out what we found. Hang onto your gear; this ain’t Switzerland. Anything that isn’t guarded disappears fast.” We wove through the crowd of eco tourists, business people, and returning nationals. Never call them locals, I learned.
Mounted on the ceiling, near the flights arriving and departing monitors, a flat screen displayed a well-dressed woman with a per- fect smile and jet black hair. I strained to comprehend her Spanish over the din. Something about an emergency.
Krax focused on the monitor. The woman’s face was replaced by a building collapsing into rubble. His brightened. “What to do We pushed through the exit, back into the blazing sunshine. I heard a loud whistle followed by someone calling Krax’s name. A young man lounging beside a beat-up yellow Land Rover was the source. He had sandy blonde hair with a Dodgers cap riding high. The Rover was wedged up on the lawn between several other cars, under the shade of a knurly tree with a trunk as wide as four men. Krax yelled back in Spanish and beckoned me to follow.
“Jordan, meet Greg. He’s here from San Luis Obispo under the guise of studying archeology, but we know he’s just here for Greg had the carefree smile of someone who lived in perfect weather. He shook my hand. “Krax told me what you two did “Well, not everything,” Krax inserted. “I left out Paris.” Greg’s smile faded. “Sorry about your loss, man. Can’t imagine I liked him instantly. Then again, anyone who hung out with Krax had to be good. That, or eventually they’d get that way. Krax Greg tossed my gear into the back as I climbed in behind the driver’s seat. Krax rode shotgun. Greg brought the ancient truck to life with a deafening roar. He stomped on the gas and shot off the curb in reverse while I searched for a seat belt. There were none.
The narrow road swarmed with fast-moving cars and dust- covered trucks. They followed so close their bumpers practically touched. As we flew through the outskirts of San Jose, Krax turned “Main road to Quepos is blocked. A landslide from the hur- That didn’t explain the Dramamine, but I took it.
Krax carried on a loud conversation with us in Spanish. I fol- lowed for a while, glad for the practice. Then I fell behind when Dust blew in my face. My window was down because it no longer went up. I watched the scenery zip by as the sun washed over me, the humid air whistling past my face. Emerald green fields fenced in with a neat row of caramel-colored branches flashed by, interrupted by tangled remnants of jungle and secondary forest. The branches forming the fence had leaves all over them.
Greg pointed. “Cool, huh? When a farmer needs to fence some- thing in, he just whacks branches off a tree and shoves them in the ground. They root on the spot, and instant fence.” Concrete-block houses with corrugated metal doors were tucked between the fields, with heavy bars on the windows. Gas stations with open-air mini-marts were packed with people seated on shady ceramic tile patios. Young children ran through the yards, chas- ing chickens and skinny dogs. A roadside stand whipped past, the rough tables piled high with colorful fruit, only half I recognized. Cattle slept under a giant shade tree. A farmhouse was set far back in the middle of a field, surrounded on three sides by a deep porch. Its pink stucco walls were splashed with mud. In front, a man in a white shirt and trousers lounged in a plastic lawn chair, a toddler I quickly looked out the other side of the Rover.
High in the hills were expensive white villas with red tile roofs. Thunderheads crested the ridge. The tallest peaks wore mantles of cottony clouds. The land was magnificent and different from home. Different was helpful. I wavered back to feeling hopeful.
Krax got a call on his cell. He talked rapidly, giving a thumbs- up, as if the person was seated next to him. He snapped the phone shut. “Good news. Laura made progress.” “You mean she got the corner exposed?” Greg asked.
“Yep.” Krax looked back at me. “Change of plans. The Mayans are calling. We’re heading straight to the dig site.” Greg shot a look at him. “Yeah, like it’s even Mayan.” “You found something that isn’t Mayan?” Fatigue from travel- ing and not sleeping for a month sloughed off and I felt a spark of We took a detour somewhere in the mountains. Only a few roads led to the coast and landslides clogged the main route. Most of the traffic opted for the same detour. Cars and trucks funneled onto the small road and pressed forward. Greg swerved to avoid debris in our lane. He jockeyed back just before an oncoming car Everyone seemed to be moving at the fastest speed possible without causing death or dismemberment. A gleaming Mercedes roared past and squeezed in front of us to miss an oncoming eigh- teen-wheeler. Greg stood on the brakes to avoid driving up the Krax chattered as if nothing had happened. We wound steadily through mountain passes flanked on both sides by fields of tattered coffee and banana trees. Jungle fil ed the gaps in between. The road deteriorated as we raced around hairpin turns and teeth-rattling stretches of potholed shoulders clinging to the sides of crumbling cliffs. I should have lost my lunch, but the Dramamine did its job and kept my stomach from offloading.
I dozed off for a minute. My eyelids felt like concrete, and it was almost impossible to force them open. But I needed to, because for some reason, I floated out of my seat.
We landed hard. The Rover’s frame groaned and the shocks bottomed out. Greg kept going straight as drivers honked in an- noyance. Krax looked back and examined the road with a quizzical eye. Then his face brightened. “We didn’t lose anything.” His round glasses were covered with a film of fine dust. He spun back in his seat and stabbed a finger at an intersection we were hurtling through. “Greg, turn! Turn!” Greg stomped on the brakes and spun the wheel. “Sorry, man, The tires squealed in protest. He overshot the intersection, fishtailed around a telephone pole, bounced over the corner of somebody’s parking lot, and accelerated down a dirt road cut into thick jungle. Reddish brown dust billowed through the open win- Krax calmly cleaned his glasses with the front of his T-shirt. “Check this out, buddy. An old growth rainforest.” Sunlight flickered across my eyes, filtered by tall trees. We bounced along a dirt trail wide enough for only one vehicle. The lacy jungle canopy stretched above us.
I had trained in the wilderness years ago, but nothing like this. Moss and orchid-covered branches paraded by very high up. I wanted to take everything in, but as Krax had so aptly professed, The Dramamine pulled me back to sleep. As I drifted off, I worried about the nightmares coming back. I didn’t want to scream in my sleep and freak anyone out. But all I dreamed about were strange fruit and children chasing chickens. What a relief.
A hand gently shook my shoulder. The car was still. I heard birds clacking and whistling to each other deep in the jungle.
“Hey, Jordan, wake up, buddy. We’re here.” I looked out the window and stared into a dense growth of glistening leaves and brown ropy vines. Splashes of red and orange flowers dangled like Chinese fireworks, their blooms serviced by wasps and hummingbirds. The air was hot, thick, and salty.
I followed them through the jungle. It may have been classified as old growth rainforest but I knew otherwise. This land had been many things in the last fifty thousand years: farmland, meadow, desert, ocean floor, searing lava. Only in the last few millennia had Krax carried a machete but only used it a couple of times to hack a stray branch. The trail was well worn. Scrapes on the trees and rocks told me heavy stuff had squeezed through here. Screeches sounded above us. Whatever they were, I couldn’t spot them through the leaves. Then a troop of white-faced monkeys clam- bered out. They jumped up and down, shaking the thin branches Greg laughed. “Us. We’re trespassing.” The males pulled leaves and twigs off the branches and hurled them at us. A litter of debris fell as we passed underneath. A green “That’s poop,” Krax called over his shoulder. “Don’t worry, they’re lousy aims.” He gave me an appraising look. “You’ll need His cell phone rang. He talked in rapid Spanish and snapped it shut. “Laura went into town to get replacement parts for the I was about to ask who Kate was when an unexpected break in the jungle revealed a steep hillside with Brahman cattle grazing through tall grass. The large humps behind their shoulders swayed as they scrambled to give us a wide berth. Some trees had been knocked over. Those still standing dangled splintered branches “The storm was a category three,” Krax said. “By the time it got over the mountains, it had degraded to a category one: winds and rain. Lots of rain.” He pointed uphill with his machete. “Dig’s We headed toward a tarp on tent poles stretched over a rectan- gular pit at the far end of a meadow. An electric fence was strung around on tree-branch fence posts to keep the cattle away. Care- fully marked out lines and piles of sifted soil drew me like a kid at Christmas. Tell-tale signs of a small Mayan settlement protruded from the perfectly flat excavation pit.
I felt the timelessness of this place. I felt their presence, the people who’d called this mountain their home seventeen centuries “Yep, Classic Period. That’s a hearth over there. Found some ceramic figurines and a stone compass bowl.” “No such luck,” he laughed. “It wasn’t turning out to be all that rich of a site. Then the storm came and changed everything.” “So, why are you questioning whether it’s Mayan?” The study area stretched the length of a volleyball court. Far- ther back, I saw signs of heavy erosion. Broken tent poles and bits of old tarp lay in the weeds. We walked past an exploration trench and then descended a twelve-foot ladder. The damage from the storm was very evident. The deeper excavation must have acted like a retention basin, collecting the runoff and concentrating it at “Twelve inches in three hours. Friggin’ Noah’s flood.” The soft ground had eroded into an arroyo almost fifty feet deep. The sides were back-braced with a spider network of timbers. The bottom was a flat mud floor, piled with a jumble of heavy crates. Steps had been cut into the slope to allow access to the bottom.
“The crates washed down there?” I asked.
“Nope, we put them in afterwards to hide the entrance.” Greg took a seat on a crate and pulled out his iPod. “I’ll stay up here and keep an eye out for the girls.” Krax worked a key into a rusted padlock. “We have to keep things camouflaged from looters. Artifacts are a lucrative com- I thought of Lisa and Sophie. We had talked about going to a demonstration dig for kids in Williamsburg when Sophie got a Krax freed the padlock and tugged at the side of a crate. It was I shook the memories free and peered in. Four hardhats, climb- ing ropes, and various tools were stacked around the interior of the spacious crate. In the floor was an open hatch from which protruded “When the storm flooded the dig, a sink hole opened.” I stared down the ladder. Rungs disappeared into nothingness. Krax handed me a hardhat with a headlamp duct-taped to the front. A sly smile spread across his face. “Deep enough.”

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