Lingering at the doorway, Mauricio watched the woman lean forward to retrieve an apple that had fallen from her basket. Dark hair curtained her face, prompting her to put the basket on the grass and tie her hair into a ponytail. She grabbed the apple, tilted her head to examine it, and placed it in the basket. Her skin looked bronze under the afternoon sun, and Mauricio tried not to stare at her bare shoulders. The left spaghetti strap of her sun dress fell down her shoulder as she stood up.
“Have you been admiring my ass the whole time?” asked Elisa, holding the apple basket against her stomach and affecting a dainty stance.
He folded his arms across his chest and winked. “I can’t appreciate my wife’s natural beauty?”
“I can think of a few other things you can do to show your appreciation,” she replied, grinning. “But your family will be here in an hour, and I still haven’t gotten these apples in the saucepan. You know your father will complain if I don’t have his apple empanadas ready.”
As she approached him at the patio doorway, he rested against the frame and smiled. Gazing at him through huge eyes, she closed the space between them and ran her fingers over his head. He shut his eyes, enjoying the sensation of her fingers through his hair.
“You’re going to leave us again,” she said, her tone jarring.
When he opened his eyes, they were standing in a familiar living room with wood-paneled walls. Their old home he’d left many years ago when SPI turned his life upside down.
She glared at him while their youngest daughter, Yara, held on to her pant leg and cried. A strong smell, like something burning, filled his nostrils and he sniffed the air. “Do you smell…are you cooking something?” he asked, looking around. Smoke seeped under the kitchen door and, within moments, shrouded them. The more he breathed in, the more his throat tightened. As he tried to rush toward the kitchen, his feet seemed to move in slow motion compared to the rest of his body.
Coughing and panicking, he turned to Elisa and Yara and reached for them. They stared at him, unaffected by the smoke obscuring his vision of them. Why weren’t they running to safety?
A hand grasped him from behind and shook him, causing the walls of the living room to vibrate as the floor moved beneath his feet. He looked down at the floor, and his eyes widened in fright. The carpet was gone, replaced by wet concrete. As he had so many years ago, he found himself in a windowless room with concrete walls and a steel door. “No, not here again. No, no, no,” he mumbled, his own voice unfamiliar to him.
The hand shook him once more, and the walls and floor vibrated with every shake.
Mauricio turned around, and his heart stopped racing when he met Elisa’s warm gaze. Pale light shined through sheer curtains and illuminated white walls decorated with framed family photographs.
“Mauricio, it was a dream,” said Elisa in a gentle voice, her palm against his chest. “It’s okay.”
Taking a deep breath, he sat up and leaned against the headboard of the bed. “Sorry,” he said, glancing sideways at her. “I thought I was past the nightmares.”
“I thought you were, too. But that’s the third one this week,” she replied. She covered her mouth and yawned. “Is there something bothering you?”
His mind jumped to the chaos that had arrived on Monday after yet another headline of a death related to the H2F, this time in France. He’d told himself that Elisa didn’t need to know about the controversy brewing at his office ever since the first H2F-related death had hit the news two months ago. Rather than answer her question, he reached for his phone on the nightstand. Five minutes after eight o’clock. He hated when he woke up earlier than his alarm, which was set for eight thirty.
There was one missed message, he assumed from Cornelius Remington. It’s not like that man sleeps anyway. Yet when he opened the message, he saw it was from Charlie Ford. ”This whole thing is a shit show, like the SPI debacle all over again. I’ve called an emergency meeting for 10am. Let’s meet ten minutes before,” the message read.
Groaning, Mauricio put the phone on the nightstand and leaned back. He brushed his palm against Elisa’s worried face. No, she didn’t need to know, he reminded himself. “I’m fine,” he said. “Just a little stressed about work stuff but nothing I can’t handle.”
She held his gaze, a look of uncertainty on her face, and nodded. “All right. Don’t forget your oldest daughter’s birthday dinner this evening. She’s inviting her girlfriend.”
“The one who wears all the goth makeup and black nail polish?”
Elisa chuckled. “That one. They just started dating last week, so this dinner is special.”
“Wait…you’re telling me Isabel’s dating a girl now?” he said, sitting up and turning to face Elisa’s amused face. “I’m always the last to find out about stuff, aren’t I?”
Elisa lay across his lap. “These are the benefits of being a stay-at-home mom now. The girls tell me everything.” She paused. “Promise me you’ll take a vacation soon so you can spend more time with us?”
He caressed her hair and smiled. “I promise,” he replied, dreading his morning meeting with Charlie. I’ll take a vacation if they don’t fire me first.