The truck’s steel skeleton rattled as it moved along the side street, shaking the metal bed and the wall that separated it from the broken road. Hovering in that place between dreams and waking, Nina recognized the noise before panic set in, a panic caused by the shaking ground that would force her from sleep and through the door. Every morning, the same.
For almost a month, Nina woke up in a country where the ground often trembled under her feet. Everyone said it was a good sign. The more the earth shivers, the less likely it is to convulse. The shaking earth always unsettled her.
She wondered what Brynn would say about it. Brynn, whose Kreyòl was always better than Nina’s. Who gathered friends around her with ease. Whose jokes were only funny because of the way she told them.
The last night, Brynn studied the ragged edges of her sun-bleached hair. “We come here to fracture our hearts. So we can put them back together again.”
Nina reached over and flipped the switch on the travel alarm before it went off, then stretched her arms over head. She got up slowly. I hope there’s hot water today, she thought to herself as she turned on the faucet. A stream of cold water trickled loudly onto the gray concrete of the shower floor.
Just as she started to search for the words in Spanish to explain the problem to the handyman, the propane flame of the water heater exploded with a “poof” just outside the bathroom window. Soon, the water ran warm through her hands. Precious water.
The pastor who owned a jeep, the only vehicle in the small town Nina had left behind, loved Brynn like one of his daughters. “I should not have sent her to the meeting,” he confessed. Nina did not know how to respond. What happened to Brynn was not his fault. The pastor did not dwell on his remorse as the needs of the town’s residents were too great. On the eighteenth day, he took Nina in his jeep to the capital to release her from that place.
A trickle of water drizzled down Nina’s body. She slipped along the rough side, her palms against the wall, until she sat down. She grasped her knees and let the water continue to run over her. The large drops slapped against the rough surface of the concrete. Wasteful, but she felt too weak to stand. Her parents’ frantic words came back to her, their surprise, relief, distress wrapped into a few sentences over the crackling cell phone. “You’re safe! Come home!” they called out to her. And she did come home. For a while.
Loud chattering from children on the street filtered in where Nina sat and she got up quickly to shut off the faucet. She shook the water from her hair and wrapped herself in a thin towel, then peeked through the window to see the girls in dark blue uniforms making their way toward the busy intersection.
Nina missed teaching her classes. She missed the girls from a different place who looked up at her and asked her questions she did not want to answer, and giggled as they asked them. She missed their parents who wanted to learn to read and write. She missed all the things that she had once hated, that had made her want to leave—the dust, the insects, the uncomfortable bed, the grinding poverty she could do nothing about. Instead of going home, she came here, to this place of volcanoes and shivering earth. This place of women wearing bright huipiles and dark braids down their back, and men with straps across their foreheads bearing loads of firewood.
A horn beeped and she quickly dressed and stepped outside. “¿Otro grupo?” The driver asked her when he saw her.
“Yes. Another group. Un momento.”
Just as she reached for her bag, her body gave way and she sat down hard on the bed.
Two months ago, Nina said goodbye to Brynn that last morning, wishing that she was the one going to the meeting in the capital and to a comfortable hotel room. Nothing unusual about that day, or Brynn lifting her tanned arms to hand her bag to the man on top of the bus, then turning to wave goodbye.
Once the shaking started that night, the earth continued to tremble eternally. Two small children clung to Nina as all three lay on the soccer field, too afraid to sleep inside. One child lost both her parents and later went to live with her uncle, the other found his mother the next afternoon.
But that night they had no one but Nina who pressed her hands against both of them, comforting them. She calmed herself by concentrating on the band of light over her head, the arc of the Milky Way. See, she told the children. The boy pointed at one particularly bright star. “Etwal.” His voice rasped from the dust.
Seventeen days later, they pulled Brynn’s body out of the rubble of the hotel.
“Are you all right?” The driver stood at the door and looked into the room, but did not come inside.
“Estoy bien.” Nina got up from the bed. “We’re taking the group from the airport to the clinic in Camanchaj.”
“I know.” The driver stood back from the door and let her pass as she walked toward the van, then climbed inside.
On the road to Guatemala City, the driver respected the silence, humming softly under his breath as he drove. Nina busied her mind by checking off all the tasks—the construction supplies purchased, the hostel reservations made, the translators hired. Another group, here for only a week or two. Another group of fractured hearts, to be remade again. For a while, Nina knew that hers would not be alone.