The Beautiful Daughters
It was less a car accident than a struck match.
Adrienne had felt off all day, lopsided and a little dizzy, like the time she had taken the cable car to the top of Gibraltar and nearly fallen off the rock from vertigo. But she had ignored the strange sense of premonition, the feeling that her world was about to change, because Adri didn’t like change. And she didn’t like the madness exploding around her, each scene a snapshot so smudged and surreal she had to wonder if it was all a bad dream. A nightmare. But it wasn’t.
Broken glass. The thick scent of gasoline whipped up by the wind. Two dark slashes on the concrete that marked the place where the truck driver had hit the brakes too late. The road was a menacing swath of sharp edges, and the crowd a riot of colors and fists and dialects Adri didn’t understand. She could taste the musky press of hot skin, the sour-sweet tang of the red dust that churned beneath her feet. It was familiar and foreign, home and away.
She wasn’t afraid until someone reached into the wreckage of the overturned truck and brandished a single bottle that hadn’t been shattered in the rollover. It was an empty Fanta bottle, utterly harmless. Until he smashed it against the upturned bumper and held it, jagged and glittering, like a blade.
The man wasn’t even looking at her. His fist was raised high
above his head where the bottle caught the sun and refracted light like fine crystal. But Adri knew that pretty things could be deadly, and whether or not she was a part of the drama that smoldered around her, she had to get off the street. She had to get Caleb off the street. Adri put her hand out for him, but she clutched at air. Spinning around, she scanned the crowd and caught sight of him in the ditch below the compound.
“They’re shutting the gate!” Caleb called. He looked back at Adri, frozen amid the African Kristallnacht that roiled around her, and shouted something that she couldn’t hear over the sudden rush and roar of the growing mob.
She ran. And thanked the Lord and her father and The North Face for the grace of sturdy boots as glass crunched beneath her feet. Adri had swapped her sandals for boots at the last minute because it was an immunization day, and the children had learned quickly what the needles meant. Sometimes she had to pin them down. She had to scuffle and wrestle and fight. And though it was easily a hundred degrees in the shade, she wore cargo pants, a long-sleeved white shirt, the boots.
The heavy metal gate that guarded the entrance to the compound had been swung into place, but Caleb was already halfway through the pedestrian door. He held it open for Adri, scanning the crowd behind her to see if anyone would try to follow, and when she was close enough to touch, he grabbed her by the elbow and yanked her through. Slammed the gate shut with an iron clang.
Tamba, the security guard, laughed. “It’s an election day,” he said, offering his hands palm up as if he was gifting them with an easy answer to the madness. “We are a passionate people.” His easy smile dispelled the thin fog of her fear, and Adri’s cheeks warmed in embarrassment. West Africa had been her home, her place of chosen exile, for nearly five years and Adri liked to consider herself a local. But every once in a while an unexpected encounter reminded her that she was not. She had run like a child, like a foreigner. It was humiliating.
Even worse, Adri suddenly realized that Caleb was still gripping her arm, his shoulders curled around her protectively as if he intended to shield her from the chaos unfolding behind them. She was tiny inside his arms, so small she felt like she could turn her face into his chest and disappear. It was a dangerous feeling, the sort of longing she couldn’t let herself give in to. Adri went rigid at the warmth of his breath on her neck, and willed herself to remember who he was. Who she was. Even though she tingled in the places where he touched her. “It’s okay,” she murmured, forcing herself to pull away. Caleb’s hand tightened for just a moment before he let go.
Taking a deliberate step back, Adri tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear and tightened her ponytail with a tug. She gave the earnest young security guard a wry smile. “A passionate people. I should know that by now, right?”
“You are a wise woman, Miss Vogt.” Tamba’s eyes sparked like lit coal in the sunlight. “People will get hurt, but it is not . . .” he trailed off, searching. “Intended?”
“Malicious?” Adri offered. “It means they don’t mean to do any harm.”
“Yes.” Tamba grinned. “It is not malicious.”
“Looks malicious to me.” Caleb stood well away from the gate and surveyed the swarm with a critical eye.
It was a sight to behold. The streets were full of people, and though most of the political parties had advocated for a peaceful election, the air had shimmered with a live charge for days. When the truck that collected empty bottles from the hundreds of roadside stands had crested a hill and found a small knot of people deep in conversation in the middle of his lane, he couldn’t stop in time. No one had been hit, and the driver had crawled out of his vehicle with nothing more than a scratch on his arm. Adri knew it wasn’t serious, she had examined him herself—though he had only allowed her ministrations after someone recognized her and vouched for her credentials.
Adri wasn’t known by name, she was known by title: The
Nurse. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t their nurse, that she worked for a series of orphanages that spread throughout the capital city and beyond instead of for the tiny local clinic. What mattered was the stethoscope she wore around her neck or tucked in an oversize pocket. The ability to diagnose crypto with a few questions and prescribe boiled water and rest. The Nurse was a miracle worker, whether she believed in her own abilities or not.
The noise and confusion of the accident were still drawing a crowd, and as far as Adri could see in either direction, the highway was completely gridlocked. There were people standing on top of cars, the sharp report of provocative presidential slogans, the sickening knowledge that things could go sideways, whirl out of control in a heartbeat.
Sometimes they did. A slow-burning election battle exploded into violence. A humanitarian crisis ignited global outrage. But, just as often, the flame of revolt burned fast and bright, leaving nothing behind but shards of broken glass on the pavement.
“Stay safe,” Adri said, dragging her attention away from the scene. She gave Tamba an abbreviated form of the traditional handshake. It was the way locals said hello, goodbye. It was second nature to her.
“I will.” He nodded, but it was obvious that he didn’t think there was much to stay safe from. They were, as he said, a passionate people. Loving and loyal and strong. Forgiving. Of themselves and each other. Adri had been the recipient of such small mercies more times than she could ever hope to count. And she knew better than to fear what she didn’t understand. Although sometimes, amid shouts and confusion and sharp edges, it was hard to quiet the voice deep inside her that screamed: run.
“He can’t defend the gate alone,” Caleb said at Adri’s shoulder as they started down the hill, toward the houses and the sea.
“Who, Tamba?” Adri was only half listening. Her heart was slowing to a normal rhythm, but in the aftermath of panic her backpack felt unbearably heavy. She was hot and exhausted and covered in a fine film of sticky dust. She longed for a swim.
“They’ll storm the compound.”
Not breaking stride, Adri glanced toward the gate and took measure of the throng of people beyond the thick bars. She shrugged, choosing to take her cue from Tamba’s cool assessment. It was her job to stay calm, collected. She did it well. “It’s more like a party than an uprising,” she said. “I’ve seen worse. It’ll fizzle out soon enough.”
“Come on, Adri. Don’t act all tough. You were scared back there.”
Adri regretted her earlier lapse of self-control. Weighing her words carefully, she said, “It looks worse than it is. We don’t understand the history and emotions that contribute to a day like this. Elections are a big deal.”
Caleb just stared at her, his steps quick and sure on the uneven road even as he questioned her judgment.
Adri couldn’t quite read him. He wasn’t scared, but there was something simmering just beneath the surface. “We probably should have stayed in the compound,” Adri admitted. It was almost an apology. “But, no harm done.”
“No harm done,” Caleb repeated quietly, his expression blank.
“What? It’s like, five o’clock, and this is the first indication of disorder we’ve seen.” She tipped her chin as if daring him to disagree. “It was a perfectly normal day until ten minutes ago.”
“Normal? Disorder?” He thrust an arm backward and pointed to the melee they had left behind. “You call that disorder?”
Adri stopped abruptly and faced him. Passing the back of her hand across her forehead, she reminded herself that Caleb was new—and an almost-riot in a country fresh from civil war was enough to make her heart skip a beat, too. Caleb had been in West Africa for less than twelve weeks, and the bright-eyed ideology he had carried with him like an oversize suitcase was still being dismantled bit by frustrating bit. She tried to remember her first few months. The spiders and the fire ants, the bites that swelled to the size of small tumors. Malaria medication made
her sick and gave her night terrors that transformed her into an insomniac. The food turned her stomach to water. Adri didn’t mean to, but she thought about the exact moment that baby had died in her arms, the fraction of a second when the feather-light brush of his tiny limbs became deadweight, and he was so simply, so irrevocably gone.
She swallowed hard. “I’m sorry,” she said. “We shouldn’t have left the compound today. My mistake. I wanted to administer the second round of the hep B vaccines on schedule.”
Caleb softened a little, and Adri was startled by the dark intensity of his gaze as he studied her. He had flirted with her before, suggesting with the slightest graze of his fingertip that they could be more than coworkers, with a look that could be interpreted a hundred different ways. He was tempting. More than that—there was something about him that was undeniably different, compelling. But Adri worked hard to be aloof with him. With everyone. It was just one of the many ways that she hid in plain sight.
“Apology accepted,” Caleb said. “But, just so I know? What are we going to do if . . . ?” He let the question dangle and a dozen terrifying possibilities spilled from the hint of his suggestion.
“There are contingency plans.” Adri started walking again. “Our night security guard is coming early.”
Caleb narrowed his eyes. “He’s not a security guard. He’s a kid.”
“Samaritan’s Purse has a helicopter.”
“And the UN has Blackhawks,” Caleb said abruptly. He seemed to be comforted by the thought. “They know where we are.”
Adri laughed. “They have bigger fish to fry.”
Caleb didn’t respond.
At the bottom of a long hill they entered the compound proper. The dirt road branched off in three different directions, and squat, block houses cropped up among the cotton trees
and oil palms. Scarlet rhododendrons flanked small porches clustered with sagging lawn chairs, and here and there residents tried to urbanize the jungle with random attempts at domesticity in the form of potted plants. It struck Adri as downright ridiculous. Wasn’t the native flora enough? After five years of living at the very edge of the known world, she still couldn’t get over the fact that she could step out of her front door and pluck sweet, ripe plantains off the tree in her yard.
The compound was a haven in the heart of the capital city, a sprawling village where various NGOs and missionary families had congregated after the civil war ended and it was officially declared safe to return. Adri had never known war. She stepped foot on African soil after the last of the rebels were driven from the bush. To her, the collection of homes, guesthouses, and small office buildings that populated the compound were simply neighborhood and community, and the mélange of humanitarian workers and expats were family. More or less. Adri had found that although many of the volunteers and aid workers in her little corner of Africa were sincere and altruistic in their motives, just as many were running away from something. Or someone. She could relate. They didn’t pry and neither did she.
Adri’s house was a two-bedroom bungalow with a tiny, eat-in kitchen and a bathroom that was perpetually grimy, no matter how much she cleaned it. All inadequacies aside, Adri adored every inch of the six hundred square feet of her home.
She had bunked with other coworkers, board members passing through, friends of friends. It was how things were done when space was at a premium and nothing quite worked out the way you hoped it would. A bigger house was in the works, but funding had dried up, and, for better or worse, Adri’s place was forced into service as home base. Once, when she was hosting the founder, his wife, and teenage son for a single night, Adri had slept in her bathtub, a late-nineteenth-century claw-footed monstrosity that had amazingly found its way to the west coast
of Africa. But living with Caleb had come with a brand-new set of discomforts. The air was alive. Charged.
He had earned his nursing degree after backpacking through Asia and deciding that life was too short to not make a difference. That’s how he introduced himself to her in their first email exchange: “I want to make a difference.” So did Adri, but his admission looked especially ingenuous in type. She liked him more than she wanted to, and bristled at the way he made her feel jaded.
“Are you going for a swim?” Adri asked, fitting her key into the front door. Her back was to the ocean, and although the water was across the road and down a wide, orange beach, she could imagine that the spray licked the back of her neck, her bare arms.
“Tonight?” Caleb sounded surprised. “The fence doesn’t go down the beach, Adri.” They could hear the beat of drums in the distance now, the swell and whoop of voices shouting for something they couldn’t make out and wouldn’t understand even if they could.
“You think we’re safer in the house? They’re cement block walls. A hammer would take them down.”
“You said we were safe.”
“I’m messing with you,” Adri said. She wrenched open the door and held it for him.
Caleb was a year or two older than her twenty-six years, knocking on the door of thirty, but she couldn’t help feeling like the more experienced one. She interpreted his optimism as naïveté, and sometimes doubted the wisdom of the board of the nonprofit she worked for in appointing him her second-in-command. He was confident, enthusiastic, gorgeous. He was wreaking havoc in her carefully ordered world. And yet, Adri knew that pickings had to have been slim. Not many people wanted to live halfway around the world in an unstable country
for little more than room, board, and the unfamiliar, often slightly rancid food they ate.
Adri hadn’t known what she was getting herself into when she signed the contract fresh from college. She just wanted to get away. And Africa was as far away as she could imagine. The plan was to run and keep running—staying hadn’t really been an option, but the kids at the orphanages she served turned out to be a pure addiction. Adri loved them simply. Fiercely. They made Africa home.
“Can I say something off the record?” Caleb said. He didn’t move to step into the house, but stood in the grass just off the cement slab that served as a front step. He blurted, “Sometimes I hate it here.”
She didn’t know what to say. He had been her faithful sidekick for weeks, his enthusiasm a veneer that seemed impenetrably thick, slathered on with a heavy hand. Caleb had never once given her the impression that life in Africa struck him as anything other than a grand adventure. But here was something real; the riot had scratched the surface. Beneath was the flush of sincerity, something as heady and masculine as the scent of his skin before a swim. It tested the safe borders of their roommate/coworker relationship. The intimacy of it made Adri white-knuckle the edge of the door.
Caleb ran his hands over his head, his eyes widening at the prickle of the buzz cut Adri had given him only a couple of days before. His hair had been camel-colored and just a little curly, but when he finally begged her to get rid of it for him, the cut had revealed dark roots that accented his jawline and sun-bright blue eyes. He was beautiful in a rugged, unexpected way, and that only made him more likable. Adri didn’t want to like him.
“I don’t mean that,” Caleb said, dropping his hands to his sides. “I don’t hate it here.”
“Yes, you do. At least, a little.” She almost said, We all do. But that was a terrible lie. And also the truth. Adri let the door fall
shut behind her and tossed her pack onto the grass. “I shouldn’t have teased you. We shouldn’t have gone out today, and I shouldn’t have teased you.”
Caleb looked up at the door frame of the house, the tile roof, and the crumbling breezeway blocks of the two front windows. His jaw hardened almost imperceptibly. “What if I want to go back?”
He certainly wouldn’t be the first. “Why?”
“Maybe I can’t cut it here. The schedule, the mosquitos, the sickness, the poverty. The kids. They break my heart, Adri. What are we doing? We’re not their parents, but that’s what they need. I feel like I’m drowning sometimes. It’s too much. We can’t help everyone, and I wonder if we’re helping anyone at all.”
It was true, everything he said was true, but it felt like an attack all the same. She bristled, wanting to fight. But just as quickly as her anger had flared, it fizzled out and died. “Fine,” Adri sighed. “Whatever. I’m sure the board will want to hear from you before you make any travel arrangements, but this is hardly a prison. You’re free to go.” She indicated the door with an outstretched hand, inviting him to go inside and pack, to pretend that his third-world hiatus was nothing more than an inkblot on the predictable map of his life.
He was embarrassed when he swept past. His head was down and he wouldn’t look at her. But just over the threshold, Caleb stopped and turned back. Stared her straight in the eye, boldly and without an ounce of guile. “You don’t have to stay here, either, you know. You’re not a prisoner.”
The sun was beating against Adri’s auburn hair and sending little rivulets of sweat down the side of her face. But his words were a slap of ice water. Cold and so startling that for a moment she couldn’t breathe.
He must have sensed that he’d struck a nerve. “You could go home, Adrienne. You could come with me.”
Caleb’s eyes betrayed him. She had assumed that he was
after nothing more than a tropical fling, a no-strings-attached affair that he’d casually forget the moment he decided to shoulder his backpack and abandon her little corner of Africa in search of the next big thrill. She figured his tattoos lacked meaning and his Médicins Sans Frontières poster-boy persona were affectations. But standing across from him in the slanting light, Adri could almost believe that his offer was something more. Maybe he was something more.
You could come with me.
As if she could just leave it all behind and start over. As if she could be the girl she had been all those years ago, those years before she crossed an ocean and became a person that she didn’t recognize when she looked in the mirror. As if he could offer her the sort of new beginning that she had stopped dreaming about long ago. As if.
If there was anything Adri knew, it was that some things could not be undone.
“Go pack your stuff,” Adri said, turning away toward the ocean and the sunburned sand and the dark sliver of an impossibly thin fishing boat beyond the breakers. “I’m never going back.”
And inside a zippered pocket of her cargo pants, her cell phone began to ring.