Leah wrung out her hair and tried to shake off the wet as much as possible. She stopped counting the rainstorms that had fallen since making it to Central America. Pennsylvania weather may have sucked, but at least it was somewhat more predictable.
She reached into her pocket for a hair tie but found the locket instead. The inscription, The light in my darkness—D, had faded over the past year. It was the only memento she had taken from her parents’ house, unless the $200 she stole out of her father’s wallet on the night she left counted.
She thought about Daniel a lot. How could she not? His daughter was asleep on her back. His daughter was just as wet from the rain as Leah. Leah prayed she wouldn’t get sick.
Did he ever end up going to college…?
Does he think of me at all anymore…?
Does he wonder if his daughter looks like him…?
She didn’t, and that made Leah happy. If she had to suffer the past year while he was able to live his life exactly the way he had always planned, at least their daughter looked like her.
It was a small consolation as she walked through the jungle, working her way to the beach to start a new life with her daughter, blood dried on the back on her ankles from days of walking, hips sore from having her daughter perched on her back, and blisters on her hands from gripping the machete so tightly, swinging it across to clear her path but also at every single noise that startled her. The scurrying of collared peccaries and coatis made her jump, the literal howling of howler monkeys caused her heart to drop, and even one time a bat flew a foot or two above her head. She was terrified of the snakes and spiders the size of her hand, and although each passing day got easier, her motherly instincts made her pounce at everything within a three-foot radius.
Even the berries had upset her stomach, and she could feel her milk supply waning from the lack of food and water, not to mention seeing it in her daughter, as she stopped gaining weight.
She wanted to be angry with Daniel. Angry for not coming along with her when she told him she was leaving. Angry that he wasn’t willing to spend his life with his girlfriend and soon-to-be-born daughter.
But she wasn’t.
She couldn’t blame him. Being woken up in the middle of the night by your seven-months pregnant girlfriend asking you to run away with her isn’t exactly a decision that can be made spontaneously.
But they had been together for over a year. Didn’t he love her? He had loved her enough to take her on a secret camping trip for her sixteenth birthday. He had loved her enough to share a tent and take a romantic walk in the moonlight to tell her that he loved her.
But he didn’t just tell her, he showed her when he grabbed the nape in her back and brushed her hair off her neck, kissing it oh so tenderly that her knees began to tremble. Carefully peeling off his shirt, he stepped back and ran his eyes up and down Leah’s body, licking his lips like a wolf about to attack his prey. And she had loved him too, running her fingers across his chest and inviting him to continue as she shook her head yes and stepped out of her panties, inching closer and closer until even air couldn’t pass between them. He loved her enough to run his fingers across her thigh, slowly pulling her dress over her head, gently grazing her sides. To take her to the ground and lay her across a blanket to have sex under the stars, the first time for both of them. A little painful, a little awkward, a little short, but perfect for two teenagers madly in love.
Or maybe it wasn’t love at all.
Because it didn’t seem like love when she told him her period hadn’t come when it was supposed to. There was no love in his eyes, only fear. “We need to get rid of it! I’ll take you,” he had said. “I’ll pay. This cannot happen.”
That wasn’t love.
The little girl on her back was love. She was the only person in this whole world Leah truly had. Because when things got hard, when Leah mustered up the strength to call her parents into the kitchen around the table to tell them that she was pregnant, she wasn’t met with love or support, she was abandoned—by everyone.
She proved her love for Daniel by protecting him. She didn’t tell anyone he was the father, although Nora probably figured it out eventually.
Thinking about her sister was hardest of all.
Leah’s spirit was trampled upon for four months with the mandatory confession her parents forced upon her five times a week. The priest quickly became a fixture in the household. She felt worthless being punished with shame, suffering, and repentance. She almost would’ve preferred physical abuse over her parents avoiding her gaze at all costs, only treating her as an unworthy vessel for the miracle of God.
But what was truly hardest of all was losing her sister, her best friend. Seeing her every single day without being able to hear her voice or meet her gaze, or even just having to sit in silence in the same room together, destroyed her at a molecular level. Nora was her other half, and her sister had abandoned her.
Her daughter stirred. She hadn’t cried as much in the past few days as she normally would. She was probably tired from traveling. Or hungry. Leah’s breasts felt lighter, and her daughter was never fully satisfied after nursing. It was like her daughter knew they had nothing, no one, and she was trying to save her strength.
Her daughter barely moved. She was so active in Leah’s belly; Leah remembered how it was her daughter’s first kick that triggered her need to leave home.
She had been lying in bed and rolled to her left side. She remembered saying, “I hate you,” out loud to the baby in the darkness. She began spiraling into a hole so deep that even light couldn’t reach for miles and miles.
And then, kick! A little jab had startled her on the right side of her stomach.
That’s when she had realized there was truly a little human inside.
“Oh,” she had gasped and sat up in her bed. The movement of her unborn daughter sent a shock to her brain, a warmth enveloping her entire body. She had turned on the lamp by her bed and lifted her nightshirt, looking down at her twitching bump and said, “You’re really in there.” She wasn’t alone; she wasn’t abandoned. Not by everyone.
Leah touched her baby’s dangling foot.
I still can’t believe you’re out here with me. I couldn’t imagine my life without you. I’d still be trapped in that house.
She had never truly hated her daughter, not when she found out she was pregnant, not when she had to deal with the torture from her family, and not even now as she swung her machete in the jungle.
She had hated how she was being treated; she had hated that her family was making her resent her daughter. There was no way she could be a good mother to her daughter, no way she could truly love her daughter, while being held hostage by her parents, her congregation, her community.
And that kick, that little flutter of movement, changed everything. That was the night she decided to walk to her desk, grab a pen, rip out a sheet of notebook paper, and write a note to her sister.
The sister who she missed, who she would love no matter what, who would make her heart ache and cause her to forget about her hunger, the cold, and the fear of the deafening squawks in the jungle.
That night was the night she folded the note, walked into Nora’s room, fought back tears, kissed her sister on the top of her head, and slowly left the house for the last time.
Leah was convinced she was a better mother to her daughter while trudging through the jungle than she ever could have been in that house.
But was she naive in thinking so?
At home, Leah barely knew herself.
She was just a combination of the roles that were imposed on her. A sister… a daughter… a student… spending her life fitting into the boxes left open for her.
But for the first time, she made a choice, wholly her own, to take on this new role—mother—and this new adventure… all for that little girl on her back.
The jungle taught her that she was strong, that she was motivated, that she was passionate. That she would sacrifice the “comfort” of her parent’s house for happiness, for fulfillment, for love.
“Shit!” Literal shit.
This was an awful idea… How did I think I could do this?
The journey to where she ultimately found herself was hard, each leg more challenging and isolating than the last.
When Leah left Allentown, leaving her home, her family, and Daniel, she fled to New York. Her $200 didn’t get her far; she spent all of it on some food and a train ticket to the city.
But New York was strange. It had a technology she had never heard of, something that hadn’t made its way to Allentown yet. Some injection that was supposed to give an individual access to the internet in their own heads. It was called an AIP, and Leah just couldn’t understand how it worked.
But somehow, everyone knew her. They would stare for a moment, and suddenly, a flash of recognition would appear across their faces. She had never met them, but they judged her as though they had grown up together… like neighbors.
With the AIPs, it seemed like there had come a new form of community separation too, called broods. These broods were like a classification system. Individuals who believed the same things, or had the same upbringing, or something, coexisted in a single brood, avoiding people from other broods. People would just look at one another and decide whether or not to talk to them. Walking through the streets of New York, people seemed to turn away from her. They quickly decided she was not worth talking to.
She just didn’t fit in. A pregnant teenager from a family that shunned what the world stood for didn’t receive a ton of sympathy. Too pregnant for the people who would normally like her, and too… intolerant… for the people who would normally help her.
So, she worked her way south… and then farther south… until the beaches of Central America sounded like the perfect place to find refuge from the world that shunned her.
But getting to those beaches with absolutely no money— well, that was the kind of thing only an invincible teenager was stupid enough to think she could do… with a baby that the sympathetic wife of a less-than-tolerant Mississippi preacher helped her deliver… in a stable, for that matter.
It was scary, but it was also invigorating. And Leah thrived. With each step and swing of the machete, her heart soared because if she had gotten that far, she could do anything.
And so, here she was, ears pointed to the noises of anything that could see her daughter as possible prey, eyes sharp to the world around her to find anything that could satiate even a fraction of the hunger she felt, and a nose that she thought was tricking her as roasting meat filled her nostrils.
She sniffed the air and wondered if the hunger made her hallucinate, but with every step, the smell became more potent. The rise of smoke stopped her in her tracks. The lack of movement caused her daughter to stir, so she started walking toward the smoke, quicker, until she was met with the crackle of a fire. She hid herself behind a tree and peeked over to see a man, possibly her father’s age, standing over a rabbit rotating on the fire.
“Caminas como un elefante,” the man said without looking up.
Leah looked around but didn’t see anyone.
Was he talking to me?
He grabbed the stick holding the rabbit and pointed it at her, meeting her gaze. “¿Quieres conejo?”
She hesitantly stepped out from behind the tree and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish.”
He turned away from her and reached for a large fork. He pulled the rabbit off its stick and split the meat into two. He walked into a small dwelling that looked like something he may have fashioned together and came out holding another plate and put half of the rabbit onto it. He held it out to her.
“You want to feed that baby, you need to feed yourself first.”
She tentatively walked toward him. His eyes were gentle, meeting her gaze just enough not to intimidate her. Clothes, possibly out of burlap, gently hung off his body but didn’t hide his lean muscles. The rabbit didn’t stand a chance.
“I can hold your baby while you eat,” he said, and she immediately stopped and put her arms behind her back, touching her daughter. “Okay,” he said, putting her plate down on a small table and taking a step backward.
She inched toward the food and sat down, scooting the seat closer to the fire in an attempt to dry off. The man retreated to his dwelling with his half of the rabbit, and Leah ate hers so quickly it only aggravated her already upset stomach.
He came back out with a wooden cup and a bucket of water. “You can drink this; it’s boiled,” he said.
She dipped the cup and gulped the water, her stomach instantly settling.
“Why are you helping me?” she asked.
“Would you like me to tell you to leave?”
“No.” She didn’t know why, but she found comfort in his company.
“Okay.” He sat next to her.
She slowly peeled her daughter off of her back and handed her to him.
He pulled her close to his chest. “Niña perfecta,” he said, smiling into her eyes.
“Her name is Nora.” The only part of her old life she wanted to remember. Even though Nora may have disappeared when she needed her most, she still loved her sister, more than she could explain, and she missed her with her whole heart.
“I am Amos.”
“Thank you for showing me so much kindness.”
“I have been here for a long time. Each day made me lonelier and lonelier. I am grateful you found my rabbit.” He smiled at Leah.
“How long have you been here?”
“I lose count. Maybe twenty years? Maybe fifty years?” He pet Nora’s cheek with his thumb.
“Do you know where we are?”
“Costa Rica,” she responded.
“Yes,” he laughed. “There used to be people all over the country, but the temperatures rose and with it brought disaster. It brought fire, it brought eruptions, it brought flood, and people started to leave. There are not many people across Costa Rica anymore. They either went up,” he pointed north, “or down,” he pointed south. “But I could not leave. We are standing in Monteverde, and this was my home, where I had everything and where I lost everything.”
Nora started crying. Leah reached for the baby and lifted her shirt. Once Nora latched on, Leah said, “What do you mean?”
“My village used to be so big. There were so many people, so many families, so many children. But as I grew, the village shrank. Children became sick from the heat, so families left. By the time I was about eighteen years old, there were only a few families left, including mine, of course. It was a particularly hot evening. The sky crashed, and light illuminated our sky almost immediately. This was nothing new. Thunder and lightning happen all the time. Even without rain. My parents went to sleep, but I stayed out, listening to yowls of ocelots in heat.”
He looked to the side and smiled.
“Have you ever heard the sound of an ocelot in heat?” he asked.
“No… I can’t say I have.” She shifted in her seat and darted her eyes to the jungle floor. She felt the heat behind her cheeks and couldn’t help but let a little smile creep across one side of her mouth.
“It starts with a grumbling, like the engine of an old car. But when she’s found her prey, her mate, it’s a yowl that echoes through the night. To me, it’s a beautiful sound, the sound of life being created. But the yowls were muffled by the thunder that night. And a crack shook the ground. I heard screams behind me, and when I turned, the house where my parents slept had leapt into flames. The door was blocked.