Photograph by Tali Kimelman, Story by N J Simmonds
Marcos had seen her type before. Girls like her always sat up at the bar with a whisky, thinking it made them look tough and nonchalant. Like they were used to hanging out in South American drinking joints on their own. She wasn’t fooling anyone.
The girl was wearing thin khaki shorts and expensive suede walking boots, her long dark hair tied in a braid and flicked over one shoulder. They were all the same, these rich kids, dressed like Lara Croft expecting some big adventure in the wilderness.
His friend Luis said they should make money from them, charge for a guided tour of the jungle. Maybe even draw fake marks on the rocks and make out like they were magical symbols. Marcos was a lot of things, his morals being a little looser than most people’s, but he was no liar.
He scooped up a mound of rice, shoved it in his mouth and kept staring at her. Was he making her uncomfortable? He didn’t care. If she couldn’t deal with a guy checking out her smooth legs in shorts that were definitely not made for jungle trekking, then what the hell was she going to do when she faced real danger? Because that was all that was out there – danger, the kind even Marcos didn’t enjoy.
She glanced up from her Ecuadorian travel guide and looked him straight in the eye. He wasn’t expecting that. She put the book face down, making a tiny tent on the table, and lifted her chin up at him.
‘Que?’ she mouthed.
He shrugged with one shoulder and went back to eating his arroz con pollo. Jesus, Tia Rosita couldn’t cook for shit. The rice was soft, the chicken was hard, and none of it was warm. He splashed more aji criollo on his lunch and ignored the eye-roll from his aunt behind the counter. She said his favourite hot sauce masked the taste of every dish she cooked him, he said that was the point.
He looked up at the girl again. What was it with these gringos? English, Dutch, American – all the same, all fixated on that ridiculous book written by that Jo Carter guy. Stories about how the rainforest was magical and possessed the secret to eternal youth.
Damn tourists! A couple of Spanish lessons, a hefty allowance from Mummy and Daddy, time to spare, and they all ended up in his aunt’s bar glancing nervously at Marcos like he too was part of their wild adventure. He meant nothing to girls like her. Not a person, just more exciting, unpredictable scenery.
He pushed his unfinished food away and stuck a cigarette in his mouth.
‘Toma.’ The girl threw a box of matches at Marcos then sat in front of him. ‘Quieres algo? Me estabas mirando.’
He lit a match and took a drag of his cigarette. Her Spanish was good, but she sounded English. Probably thought he was an uneducated villager like everyone else.
‘I speak English,’ he said gruffly, exhaling a thick billow of smoke. ‘And don’t flatter yourself, I wasn’t looking.’
She leaned back in her chair and smiled lazily. Up close she didn’t look as young as other backpackers. Mid-twenties, maybe? His age. Her eyes were green and her fingernails short. Her face was naturally tanned too, like she was used to being out in the sun, although she was wearing mascara. Clearly not that rough and wild. She leaned forward making the front of her shirt gape open. Averting his eyes Marcos took a deep breath - not today, chiquita. He wasn’t going to be one of her holiday stories.
‘I need your help,’ she said.
‘Nah, you don’t.’
He picked up his plate and headed for the kitchen.
The girl grabbed his wrist as he passed by. ‘Please,’ she whispered, looking around furtively. ‘It’s about the lost city.’
Marcos sighed and pulled his arm away. He placed the plate on the counter and joined her back at the table.
‘I don’t know nothing about no lost city,’ he said. ‘But I do know that since that arsehole writer, Jo Carter, made up some shit about treasure and magic in the jungle, I’ve had to move in with my aunt because rent has gone through the roof in my own hometown. You tourists ruin everything.’
‘I’m not a tourist,’ she said, another smile tugging the corner of her full lips. She may be English but perhaps she had some Latina blood in her. Gringos didn’t have lips like hers.
‘Who are you then?’
‘Josefina. Josefina Carter.’
‘Carter? Like the writer?’
‘Exactly like the writer. I am the writer.’
Marcos burst out laughing. His cigarette fell into his lap, making him jump up and flap about.
‘You? You wrote that ridiculous book?’
It was her turn to shrug. ‘Partly. But it was inspired by these,’ she thrust a handful of old creased letters into Marcos’ hands. ‘They were written by my grandfather. He was out here forty-eight years ago.’
Marcos scanned the words on the pages. They spoke of ancient rituals and spiritual powers hidden deep in the rainforest. More bullshit.
‘He came here for work,’ she explained. ‘Left my mum when she was a baby and never returned.’
Marcos raised one eyebrow but didn’t say anything, he knew plenty of men who had done the same.
‘This is him.’ She handed Marcos a photo of a young man leaning against a palm tree.
He placed another cigarette in his mouth. ‘Your grandfather? This photo ain’t forty-eight years old.’
‘That’s right,’ she said. ‘It was taken last month. He’s still alive, and he hasn’t aged.’
‘Impossible,’ Marcos said, leaning forward as she lit his cigarette. She smelled of vanilla and determination.
‘Nothing is impossible.’ She was biting down on her bottom lip. Was she nervous or trying to seduce him? ‘Please help me.’
‘Help you find your grandfather?’
Josefina shook her head. ‘Not find him. Kill him.’
And suddenly, Marcos was no longer scenery.
N J Simmonds writes older YA books full of magic, drama, suspense and lots of kissing. Originally from North London with Spanish parentage, she’s lived all over the world including Australia, Spain and the Netherlands. That’s probably why her characters never keep still – and why London features so heavily in my work.
When she's not writing she is both a public speaker and guest lecturer, as well running her own brand consultancy business. Natali has written articles for various publications and in 2015 co-founded online magazine The Glass House Girls. She lives with her family in The Netherlands. You can follow her here @NJSimmondsTPK
Tali Kimelman has been working as a freelance photographer for 13 years with clients such as Unicef, HBO, Coca-Cola, Nestle, The New York Times, Monocle Magazine and many companies and ad agencies in Uruguay and abroad. Her main work area is advertising but she also shoot portraits, architecture and food.
When working on personal projects she always turns to the wilderness. Her latest project was shot in Arboretum Lussich, in Punta Ballena, Uruguay and is based on the Japanese concept of Shinrin-yoku or "Forest Bathing". This activity consists in taking walks in the forest, concentrating attention on the senses. Working on this project has deepened my connection to the natural world and has also inspired people to visit this place, raising consciousness of the benefits of spending time in nature.
She works mainly in Montevideo, Uruguay but is available to travel the world and you can find her online here @talikimelman