Excerpt – Vocabulary of Light

Prologue

Present Day
“Murderer!”

Maggie snapped awake, the word reverberating in her memory as if she had just stood over someone and shouted it. She lay without moving for a time, waiting for her heart rate to slow down, while beside her Mike continued to breathe deeply and peacefully.

Eventually she slid from under the covers and made her way to the living room, where she turned on the gas fireplace and pulled a quilt around her shoulders. Gradually her shivering eased.

The dream didn’t come often, not anymore, but there had been a time when it put in an almost nightly appearance. Those times she had spent hours lying stiff and still, staring at the ceiling, or sitting in the warm darkness by the pool.

Mike wandered out of the bedroom, rubbing his eyes. “You okay, love?” He came and sat beside her, and put an arm around her. “Bad dream?”

“Hmm.” She leaned against his shoulder.

“It’s been a while.”

“I thought . . . I hoped it was gone for good. Sorry. I tried not to disturb you.”

“You didn’t. I just woke up and you weren’t there. I expect it’s because you’re worrying about Julie.”

“You’re probably right.”

“She’ll be fine, you know. You were fine, and she will be too.”

Maggie, remembering her daughter’s agitation that morning, hoped he was right.

“Did she now?” he’d said when she’d told him. “About the move to Japan, I expect.”

“How do you know about that?” Maggie had stood back and given her husband of thirty-eight years a searching look. At sixty-two, he still looked very much the same as when they first met, except for the silver that now threaded the dark auburn of his hair, and smile lines that were becoming more pronounced.

He met her gaze with a bland expression. “Stuart and I had lunch on Monday.”

“And you didn’t think to mention it until now?” Maggie felt equal parts exasperation and admiration. Mike usually wasn’t able to keep news like this from her for two minutes, let alone two days.

“He swore me to the strictest father-in-law secrecy oath.”

“And when has that stopped you?”

“Sorry, love. If I’d told you, you would have chewed on it, and pulled Jillian in too, I suspect. But you know they needed to discuss it first, just the two of them. I figured I’d save you the aggravation.”

Maggie almost opened her mouth to remind him that they’d agreed after what happened in Puerto Rico to never leave each other out of the loop again. But this current example couldn’t begin to compare to what Maggie had chosen to conceal all those years ago.

“How was Julie?” Mike asked.

Maggie pictured her usually neat-as-a-pin daughter as she came through the door, hair flying every which way, saying “Mo-om” exactly the way she used to when she was a small girl and something bad happened to her.

“She was pretty upset.”

“Stuart said he’d been expecting this assignment was coming. He’d been dropping hints for months. But now that it’s a reality, he asked my advice about how best to break the news. I told him to keep it private and definitely not involve champagne.”

Maggie had to smile at the memory that summoned, but the lightness lasted only a moment. “He did take your advice, at least. He told her when he got home from work yesterday evening. Unfortunately she had a shift last night, so it might have been better if he’d waited until this morning. As it was, she came here directly from the hospital. Said she just hoped she’d stitched all the right bits back together in the stabbing victim she worked on.”

Mike winced at that the way he always did when reminded Julie had chosen to be a trauma surgeon. “Bet this is bringing back memories,” he said.

He was right about that. The conversation with Julie had catapulted Maggie straight back to that autumn twenty-five years ago.

Chapter One

Glimmer – Luz trémula

Twenty-Five Years Earlier
Mike came through the back door, grabbed Maggie, and swung her around. When he set her down, she realized he had a bottle of champagne clamped in one hand. Not to mention he was home from work three hours early.

“What’s going on?”

“You, my love, are looking at the newest vice president of Lillith Pharmaceuticals.”

“Oh, Mike, how wonderful. Congratulations.” Maggie put her arms around him and kissed him.

He kissed her back, then stepped into the kitchen and began twisting the cork out of the bottle. By the time it emerged with a pop, Maggie had the glasses ready. He poured and lifted his glass to tap hers. She smiled and took a sip.

“And the general-manager-in-waiting of the new plant in Puerto Rico.”

The champagne went down wrong, making Maggie cough and splutter. “The . . . new . . . what?”

Frowning, Mike set his glass down. “You okay, love?”

Maggie, still coughing, held up a finger and nodded. “Ah . . . I thought you said . . . something about Puerto Rico?”

Mike nodded. “I did.”

What Maggie wanted to say was, Well then, it’s Puerto Rico or me. But she was still having difficulty talking, which was perhaps a good thing.

Mike gave her a worried look. “You’re sure you’re okay?”

The truthful answer was, Not really. But what did he expect her to say about their fourth move in fourteen years of marriage?

“I thought John Anderson was the one going to Puerto Rico.”

“That’s what we all thought. You know I would have told you if I’d known this was coming.”

“What happened with John?”

He gave her a wry look. “The official word is he has health issues. The unofficial is that his wife refused to move.”

“Oh. That works, does it?”

“Yes, but I’m afraid it’s what’s known as a career-limiting move.”

“Did you accept the position?”

“Of course not. I said it was a huge surprise, which it certainly was, and that I needed to talk it over with you.”

“But you just said it would be career limiting to turn it down.”

“And it would be. No question. But if you absolutely hate the idea . . .” He sighed.

“But you don’t. Hate it, that is.” Examining her husband, Maggie could see that was true, and her heart sank.

“Since I didn’t think it was a possibility, I didn’t waste any time thinking about it. But now, yeah, the idea is kind of exciting.”

It wasn’t exciting for Maggie, though. “When do we get to settle somewhere for more than five minutes, Mike?”

“The assignment is for five years.”

“And then another move.” Maggie struggled to sound something other than aggrieved. It was, after all, the arrangement she’d agreed to—Mike had accepted full responsibility for the family finances, so his career was the one that took precedence. Maggie, who had to make do on the career front, was free to take any position she wished without being concerned about what it paid. She could also choose not to work.

But that decision to put Mike’s career first, although an obviously reasonable one when she made it, hadn’t been so appealing in practice. It was something that never occurred to Maggie when she decided to go to graduate school—that getting a PhD would limit instead of expand her career opportunities, and that marrying Mike and having two PhDs in a family would be even more limiting.

“What about Julie and Jillian,” she said. “Have you thought about them?” Julie was in second grade, Jillian in pre-school.

Maggie, whose family had moved often, hated moving, and she didn’t want it for her girls. And Mike knew that.

“Of course I have. I think it will be a terrific experience for them to live in a different culture and learn another language. And this is the perfect time for that, while they’re so young.”

“But what about my career? Do you seriously think my editor is going to keep me on to write a column for the Boston Globe while I’m living in Puerto Rico?”

“I don’t see why not. It’s a science column, not local news. All you need is access to a good library.”

“Will I have that?”

“Hmm. Should be no problem.” He rubbed his forehead, frowning, then his expression cleared. “The University of Puerto Rico has a medical school, so they’ll have a library. I’ll see what I have to do to arrange for you to use it.”

Maggie suspected the question of the availability of a Puerto Rican library containing medical and scientific journals hadn’t crossed Mike’s mind until that moment, but he got points for a quick recovery.

“The company will pay for us to visit, you know. We can go down, check everything out, make sure you’ll have what you need—”

“And then we move anyway.”

“I’m afraid that’s the plan.”

Maggie sighed. If only this promotion had come up six months ago, she might have more easily bought into another move, because she had been finding Boston a difficult place to feel at home. Part of her unsettled feeling had been due to her inability to find any sort of a position that utilized her training and expertise.

But now, just as she was finally settled with a job she found challenging and enjoyable, Mike was proposing yet another move, to a place that while it might be high on a vacation list, wasn’t somewhere she’d particularly like to live.

Worse, despite Mike’s optimism, she wasn’t at all certain her editor would go along with her continuing to write her column while she was living in Puerto Rico. Much easier for him to simply replace her with one of the many under- and unemployed scientists floating around Boston.

At the memory of how difficult it had been to find that position, exhaustion washed over her. Up until the editor called with an offer, no one had been even the least bit impressed with her credentials—a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Kansas, a postdoctoral research position at Walter Reese Hospital in Chicago, and an adjunct professorship at a small college in Hartford.

There had come a day during her lengthy and fruitless job search that if one more person had said to her, “Honey, everybody wants to teach at Harvard,” she might have actually burst a major blood vessel and bled all over that person’s desk.

During that entire frustrating time of following up on leads that never panned out because she was “overqualified” and of getting excited about first interviews that never turned into second ones because “that budget line has fallen through,” she’d found herself envying not only Mike but the girls as well.

The three of them took off every morning with places to go and things to do, Mike to work and Julie and Jillian to school, leaving Maggie sitting alone at the kitchen table in her bathrobe, drinking another cup of coffee, the whole day stretched out in front of her like a blank slate.

The idea of writing about science had dawned on her only gradually after she noticed the science articles published by the Boston Globe always focused on something reported in either Science or Nature. The two journals were fine in their way, but there were a lot of exciting discoveries in other journals that the Globe’s science writer obviously never looked at.

I can do better than this, Maggie had thought more than once after reading a column that reported on something she had just read about in the unabridged form.

When she’d finally said it out loud, Mike’s response had been typical. “So, why don’t you?”

“The articles are written by a staff writer. Probably they aren’t interested in an outsider. Besides, I bet it doesn’t pay anything.” Maggie had no idea where all the excuses were coming from.

She’d stopped speaking abruptly, which unfortunately gave Mike an opening to say exactly what she’d expected him to say. “And none of that is worth two cents as a reason not to give it a shot, and you know it, hon.”

She could almost mouth the words along with him. Lip-synching. No one had warned her she’d reach a point in her marriage when she would, almost without exception, know what her husband was going to say. Except maybe that bit about moving to Puerto Rico. That wasn’t something she could have predicted.

Eventually she’d decided she might as well try writing a column. Nothing else was working. Besides, what did she have to lose besides a few more illusions about herself and her ability?

Three days after she hand-delivered two sample columns to the office of the managing editor of the Globe, the editor called and offered her work as a freelancer. In the beginning, he’d wanted only two columns a month, and the payments were enough to treat Mike and the girls to lunch at McDonald’s and a movie. But recently he’d upped that request to four, and he’d begun the process of syndicating her column to other papers. Already editors of the Fort Worth and San Diego papers had expressed an interest. Things were finally looking up for Maggie.

Now this.

She pulled in a breath and gave her husband a direct look. “You do know you need to sell me on this, because if you don’t, I’ll make your life miserable.”

Mike pulled her to her feet and into his arms. “The only time you ever managed to make me miserable, Maggie Chase, was when you were dating what’s-his-name. The one with the ears.”

 

  ~ ~ ~

After the announcement about the move to Puerto Rico, Mike began whistling in the shower again. The first time he did it, Maggie realized it was one of the things that had gone away when he stopped enjoying his job after Art Blondell took over the Boston division. And Mike looked better—more bright-eyed or something. He was smiling more too, and he walked with a lighter step.

He came home carrying brochures and books about Puerto Rico and talking enthusiastically about their visit, planned for the first week of December. Maggie’s only hope was that once he saw the place, he would decide the position in Puerto Rico was even less appealing than his current one in Boston, career-limiting move or not. It was a hope she was still clinging to as they boarded their flight to San Juan.

It had been more of a challenge than usual getting to the airport that morning. Wouldn’t you just know it, Maggie thought when she’d looked out the window to find three inches of new snow. At least their street had been cleared, but that meant there was a pile of slush blocking the end of the driveway.

Mike just grinned. “Don’t you think that makes it the perfect day to fly off to the Caribbean? I know I do.” He put on his coat and went out, whistling, to shovel the driveway. Meanwhile, Maggie got Julie and Jillian up and ready for school.

Thank goodness they’d taken the girls’ things over to their friend’s house, where they would be staying, the night before, but there were still the good-byes to cope with.

“I want to go with you and Daddy,” Jillian said, her eyes welling as Maggie helped her with her coat.

“I know you do, pumpkin,” Maggie said, buttoning Jillian up and then pulling her into a hug. “But you know how much fun you always have at Andrea’s house.”

Jillian pulled back, her lip pooching out. “Andrea is Julie’s friend.”

“And yours as well.” Maggie looked Jillian in the eye. “Remember, you have to think very hard about what you want for your special treat when we get home. Okay?”

“O . . . kay.”

Maggie straightened to find Julie watching the two of them, her coat on but not yet buttoned, and a worried expression on her face. “Are we going to have to move again?”

“Probably.” Maggie always tried to avoid lying to the girls.

“I don’t want to move.” Julie stamped her foot and glared at Maggie, mirroring the feelings Maggie was working to suppress.

“I know, I understand. I do. But right now, all we’re doing is visiting.”

“You have to tell Daddy for me. Promise?”

Maggie sighed and nodded. She knew it wouldn’t help to tell Julie she’d already expressed opposition to the move, and that neither of them had any real choice in the matter. “Just remember, sweetie, that no matter what happens, the important thing is we’ll all be together.”

Given her own frustration, it was a struggle to keep the words calm and loving. And mature. She finished buttoning Julie’s coat, something the little girl usually insisted on doing herself. Julie continued to look mutinous, and Maggie hoped she wouldn’t take her bad mood out on Andrea.

Worried but trying to hide it, she gave each girl a final hug and then watched with a catch in her heart as they slogged to the end of the driveway where Mike lifted them, one at a time, over the piled-up snow onto the waiting school bus.

She and Mike were picked up a few minutes later, three and a half hours before their flight. They still barely made it to the airport in time. Mike remained cheerful through the whole ordeal, while Maggie struggled to overcome the urge to act like Julie and stamp her foot in frustration.

 

~ ~ ~

Someone had told Mike it was best to sit on the right side of the plane, and Maggie discovered why when four hours after takeoff she looked up from her book to see the green outline of an island off the wing.

Mike leaned over her. “There it is, love. Puerto Rico.” He trilled the two Rs.

Maggie continued to watch as they flew along the coast, losing altitude. It was so darned green, and the water curling in against the several beaches they passed was a lovely turquoise. Not a snowdrift in sight. A real sucker punch.

When they exited the plane, the warm air hit Maggie in the face, and she stopped inside the terminal to remove her coat. She knew it would be warm, but it really wasn’t fair for it to be this warm.

There she’d been this morning, snowed in with a cold wind whistling around the house, and this afternoon she was in this new world that was warm and bright and . . . noisy, Maggie decided as they entered the baggage claim.

The noise was coming from what looked like hundreds of people pushing up against the windows and doors. Guards stood at the exits, holding the crowds back as they leaned into the openings, gesticulating and calling out incomprehensible things in Spanish.

Mike leaned in so Maggie could hear him. “Guy who’s meeting us, Rafael, told me it would likely be a mob scene. But not to worry. He’ll be where we can see him when we come out.”

“I hope so. It looks more like a riot than a reception committee.”

They claimed their luggage, and as they walked unmolested through the narrow opening cleared by the ropes the guards had put up, Maggie had never felt more alien. She glanced quickly at the faces surrounding them. They were various shades of brown from light tan to very dark, almost invariably accompanied by dark eyes and dark hair. Quite handsome, really, most of them. But foreign.

And the language they were speaking. Completely incomprehensible to Maggie, who had taken only two years of high school Spanish, more years ago than she wanted to think about.

As they cleared the crowd, a young man approached them. “Señor Chase?”

.”

Soy Rafael Hernandez. Bienvenido a Puerto Rico. Welcome to Puerto Rico.”

Gracias, Rafael. Mucho gusto. Mi esposa, Maggie.”

When did Mike start speaking Spanish? Maggie extended a hand to Rafael and gave him a smile she suspected looked a little sick.

“Nice to meet you,” she said.

Rafael took the bag Maggie was carrying and led the way across a traffic island to a car in which another man was sitting. The other man got out and was introduced, but didn’t seem to speak any English. He put the suitcases in the trunk, and they all got in the car. The man who didn’t speak English drove while Rafael turned to face them. Maggie let Mike handle the conversation. She was much more interested in looking at the scenery.

Leaving the airport, they turned right onto a multi-lane street full of small cars. Their driver drove very fast, even though the road was in terrible shape with potholes and cracked edges that he expertly avoided.

Maggie looked over to the right and saw several tall modern buildings that had to be on the beach, but alongside the street they were on, there was a decidedly less attractive housing area. It was comprised of several dozen two-story cement houses, set randomly about on a barren slab of earth. Kids and dogs were scattered amongst the houses, which were badly in need of fresh paint.

As a matter of fact, the whole area needed a power wash followed by paint, Maggie decided, looking out the other side of the car at a row of cement buildings that apparently housed small businesses. Most of the buildings were white, or had been at one time, with bands of color around doors and roofs—blues, greens, and pinks. But the whole effect was spoiled by grime, piles of refuse in the gutters, and faded, peeling paint. Even the Christmas decorations looked tatty. And everywhere Maggie looked, she saw metal bars—on windows, doors, and around carports.

Maggie sighed. Only five minutes in and so far Puerto Rico seemed to be at least two of the things she disliked the most. Noisy and dirty. Not that downtown Boston was either serene or pristine, but it wasn’t nearly as grimy as San Juan.

Before these impressions had time to fully register, they turned onto a small side street where they were surrounded by much more attractive buildings, shaded by large trees with delicate leaves. She glanced at Mike. He had a grin on his face as he responded to something Rafael was saying. It certainly didn’t look like the noise and grime had registered with him.

“What do you think, Maggie?”

“Sorry, I wasn’t listening.”

“You want to go directly to the hotel? Or should we swing by the plant first?”

Surely he must be kidding. Could this be the same man who’d settled into his seat on the plane saying he was sure glad they were arriving too late to visit the plant today? That shoveling the driveway on top of his recently overloaded schedule had left him looking forward to some time off.

But maybe he didn’t want to admit that to Rafael. Maybe she was supposed to be the one to say she was tired. And she was, as a matter of fact, having not slept well the night before. “I’m pretty bushed, Mike. The hotel sounds like a plan.”

“Tell you what. We can drop you off. You take a nap, a swim, whatever, and Rafi and I can go to the plant.”

Rafi? When did that happen? Maggie looked at her husband in surprise. He smiled back at her, looking like a kid on Christmas morning who just knew he was going to get the bike he was hoping for. Unease curled into Maggie’s gut. He couldn’t be serious. Surely not now that he’d seen it. How could he possibly want to live here?

But all she said was, “Fine,” resigning herself to the probability that the next five days would be even more difficult than she expected.

 

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