Julia checked her backpack to make sure she had everything she needed. Her notebook, pens, sunscreen, Iphone, three bottles of water and the three sandwiches Esperanza made for her, when she told her she would be heading to Whisper Mountain or El Susurro, for its name in Spanish.
Apart from seeing Damian’s mom again, the rest of her Tuesday had gone by uneventful. Damian came home as usual, after dinner, though this time he’d lingered at the kitchen’s entrance, his stare enveloping Julia, like he was trying to decipher something about her. But then that hard and piercing contempt had returned before Damian muttered a goodnight before going to his office.
Before going to bed last night, Julia had sent Danny another email. She’d sent her one before coming down to La Providencia but so far her sister hadn’t replied. Julia supposed her little sister was on break from school and had probably gone on vacation with some friends.
She also wrote to Susan asking her, subtly, about the letter. She spared her boss and friend the gross details, only asking if she could find out who had sent it. Maybe whoever had sent it had delivered it in person; anything would help her to clarify the mystery. As for the psycho driver, Julia decided to put that into the some-jerk-with-nothing-else-to-do category and move on.
The purpose of her excursion today had come up yesterday, when, as she’d been busy writing about the town before dinner, she happened to gaze outside her window and see the volcano and next to it, Whisper Mountain. Its dark outline, a sharp contrast against the pink of the sky, with a brush of orange from the descending sun, which in Julia’s mind, only added to its mystery and enchantment. It came as no surprise Whisper Mountain was the source of some legends told by the people in town.
Glad her tequila experience hadn’t left her with a vampire like aversion to sunlight, she put on her cap and said goodbye to Esperanza. Joaquin had borrowed a truck from someone in town and would take her as close as he could to the mountain. Julia didn’t mind, since she had an urge to feel the place, see everything in detail for her own nostalgia and for the sake of her article as well.
Joaquin joined her by the truck, after he left a couple of people working in the gardens. One man was way up one of the tall palm trees chopping off coconuts while the other one trimmed the bougainvilleas and ficus.
They drove the same road she had when she’d gone out on her run. Julia was glad Joaquin was busy talking about the lemon fields and their progress, for him to notice the shudder that washed over her as she saw the spot where that truck had almost ran her over.
Not long after that, Joaquin turned the truck onto a stretch of dirt road, the colossal view of Whisper Mountain growing even more impressive as they began to get near. Joaquin stopped the truck twenty minutes later and instructed Julia to call him the moment she was finished so he could come and pick her up. Julia waved goodbye and turned to walk the final stretch to get to the mountain.
The path was almost deserted, though Julia couldn’t fight the impulse of turning over her shoulder, expecting to see the same truck driving menacingly behind her. But right up until fields of crops began to flank each side of the path, it had been only her plus a dozen of cows grazing on the other side. All of them had glanced at her passing by, as if considering bothering with her or keep on eating grass. Luckily for Julia they had chosen the second option.
The path had been made by years and years of men dragging their feet along it, it being only a dirt strip that cut through the agave fields on either side, followed by other crops such as corn, tomatoes, potatoes and some lemon trees like the ones Joaquin had shown her. Though there were parts where the vegetation was more desert-like with the prickly pear cactus plus those cactus with the long thick arms reaching up to the sky.
All the while, vultures overflew the area looking for dead cattle and as she started making her way towards the mountain, she saw what the vultures had left: pieces of dried bone and cattle heads, looking papery-like half-buried in the dried path.
The sun was making her sweat profusely and she was already halfway through her first bottle of water. She passed a couple of men working the fields, others busy on tractors, until she spotted one field she knew very well. Raul’s father had a few crops right before reaching the skirts of Whisper Mountain, where it was said the land was richer because of the small creek filled with water that came from inside the mountain.
Julia opened her backpack and took out her Iphone, taking some snapshots of the mountain before continuing on her way. Normally, she would have her camera, but since she hadn’t anticipated staying, her phone would have to do. Her feet crunched on the dry earth and she kept on going until she found the place she wanted. It was in the western side of the mountain, a sort of cave from where the water flowed into the creek. There were enough trees to provide for some needed shade and Julia decided she might as well eat something before doing some more exploring and writing down notes on her notebook.
She ate two sandwiches voraciously. One with avocado and cheese, the other one with leftover fajitas and melted cheese, while she sat on a rock near the cave and listened to the familiar sounds of the wind, the tractors working on other nearby properties and the steady rush of water as it poured out from the mountain.
When she was done, Julia put her trash back inside her backpack. She began to walk alongside the skirts of the mountain. She’d heard of people climbing all the way to the top but Julia knew those who had, had brought especial equipment with them. She and her friends had often made the attempt of climbing a few rocks before realizing it would be nearly impossible to reach the top unprepared.
It took her almost an hour, in between taking more photos and just staring out at the horizon, before she went back to the spot where she’d sat before and took out her notebook. Julia began to write about the legends that had been born out of this place. One of them was about a Princess who had climbed the top of the mountain after discovering her one true love had betrayed her. Esperanza had told her this legend when she was little.
According to the story, the Princess had finally jumped off the mountain, burdened with heartbreak. People from La Providencia liked to say they could sometimes hear the cries of the Princess at night near Whisper Mountain.
Julia wrote as part of her notes:
I suppose whenever there’s a mountain there is someone who jumps off the top. At least she got a good workout before taking her own life. Though heartbreak sometimes drowns you whole, you come to think the only way to stop the pain is by ceasing to exist completely……
She stopped, alarmed by the how much of something she rather not think about, she was revealing in those lines. Turning the page, she began writing about the second legend, one her friends and she had tried to prove real many times:
The second legend talks about a secret civilization that lives inside the mountain itself. This was born because some locals swore they saw lemons, mangos, even apples come out from inside the mountain, floating on the water that ended up on the creek. They said that if you came during the changing of the seasons, you could hear the sounds of music and laughter coming from inside the mountain. Even now, I strain to hear any sound of people whispering, and I’m expecting to see some lemons and mangos floating out on the creek…
Not that she or her friends had ever witnessed such a thing, not even during the many times they came with Raul to his father’s lands. Nor had they heard any signs of life apart from their own during the many nights they had camped out here. Their friends had been the few people her father hadn’t frowned upon, so Julia had had no trouble in staying with them for an entire night away from home. Well, that was until her father had learned that Damian was invited too, after he and Julia had started seeing each other.
They would drive up in Raul’s and Felix’s trucks, well their fathers’; here her friends had learned to drive since the age of thirteen. They would divide themselves, the girls in one truck bed and the guys in the other, their sleeping bags, tons of junk food and sometimes the stolen beer either Raul or Felix would get from their homes.
Julia couldn’t wait each year for summer to come. She had had friends back in New York, but none with which she could be herself with. None that shared such simple stuff such as gazing up at the starlit sky at night, while she made up some story about the woman who had jumped off from Whisper Mountain or about the secret society living inside the mountain.
No one would die in any of those stories, Julia recalled, not even the Princess who, in Julia’s tales, decided not to jump and instead joined a group of warriors and became a fighter for her people. The outcome was always the same. She would meet some foreign Prince and fall in love, her heart restored and her soul freed from the demons of her past pain.
Julia wrote some more until her hand ached. She realized she’d been writing for almost an hour. It was almost four in the afternoon. Julia decided it was time to head back. She gathered her things and was about to start walking, when she glimpsed a truck driving her way from the path she’d taken before, leaving a haze of dirt on its trail.
Her blood stilled in her veins and she felt a cold sweat run down her back. As it neared, the truck looked familiar. The same tinted windows, even the same make and model, though she couldn’t make out the color as the one on this truck was hidden under a coat of dust.
The panic was starting to bubble up inside her. Julia began to search her surroundings, looking for an escape. Her only option was to run into Raul’s property and ask for help should the driver decide to finally get off the car and do whatever he hadn’t the other day, on the side of the road.
The truck stopped a few yards away from her. The door swung open and Julia’s mind became inundated with horrific scenarios of being chased down by whoever would come from the inside. She braced herself to start running as fast as she her rubber legs would allow.
The driver waved at her and though he was only wearing a pair of sunglasses, something about him had Julia hesitating a few seconds before she heard her name being called by Raul himself. The relief washed down over her, leaving her tensed up body weak, the adrenaline that had already began to course through her making her shiver before she could wave back.
“Hey! What are you doing here?” Raul walked over to her, as Julia was still rooted to her spot, still expecting Raul to pull out an axe or a gun and chase after her.
“I…….I’m doing some research.” Julia said in a hoarse voice.
“Research? Don’t tell me you’re finally going to kill the lady from the mountain?”
“Ha, ha, very funny.” She poked him on the ribs and relaxed when Raul grinned back at her.
God, what the hell was wrong with her? Was she now going to suspect everyone who talked to her? He was her friend for God’s sake.
“If you wanted to come, you could’ve called me. I would’ve saved you the long walk.”
“Joaquin gave me a ride half way here. And I needed the air and the walk. With all the food Esperanza has been feeding me, I’m sure I’ll have to pay more for the extra weight when I go back.”
“Yeah, right.” Raul snorted. “If only you’ll finally look human again. I heard New York is tough but I didn’t know it was that tough. What is there a law that you can’t eat? That first day when we saw you…..well let’s just say we were wondering if you remembered what food was like.”
“Cut it out. I just get caught up in my work. But don’t worry, I promise to take care of myself.”
“You better. If you’re going to come back each summer like you used to, you need to be healthy.”
They quieted, both of them still wondering if one day the people from inside the mountain would let their presence be known. They smiled at each other, knowing why they’d stopped talking. Raul hooked an arm around her shoulder and they walked back to his truck. Raul had always treated her like a sister, he was sweet and he made her laugh.
She enjoyed the feel of him next to her, another of the things she’d missed from her long absence. Raul had always made her feel secure, cared for and like she could tell him anything, much like with Sonia. Raul was a guy who offered wise advise or simply listened when you needed to vent out and God knew Julia had done a lot of that when things with her parents had started to go downhill.
Raul told her he had come to check up on some paperwork his father had asked him to. Julia asked. “So how’s it working for your dad?”
“With my dad.” Raul corrected her. “We’re partners now. And it is great. We have more cattle, pigs, and all this land. Actually, we have been meeting with Damian about…..” Raul saw the way she wrinkled her face at the mention of Damian, so he simply waved a hand before him and said. “Never mind. It’s boring, business and not the conversation to be had on such a beautiful day.”
Julia expressed her gratitude by squeezing his hand, and gave him a heartfelt grin.
“It is spectacular. I forgot how everything here is heightened, the colors, the smells, the heat.”
“The booze. Damn, I swear I thought my head was going to explode the next day after Sonia’s.”
“Yeah, tell me about it.”
“Hey, if you’re not in so much of a hurry I can give you a lift back home. I’ll be twenty minutes tops. You can see me in action, being responsible and all.”
“Sure, I’ll like that.”
Several hours later, Raul was dropping her off. Julia had called Joaquin to tell him Raul had invited her to an early dinner with his family. The dinner had involved kids running around, Raul’s wife mocking her husband’s state the day after Sonia’s and one of the twins curious about the woman who had joined them for dinner, by pulling at her long hair.
Raul had feigned offense when both his wife and Julia had expressed their gratitude he hadn’t chosen a career in singing, to which Raul had countered back by mocking Julia’s choice of karaoke song. Then they all had burst out laughing when he mentioned she probably had some Hannah Montana songs as well, to which Julia had only creased her brows while he admitted the twins liked the show and had the CD. Gone were his days, he’d complained, of metal rock.
Julia waved at him as he drove away, all the while thinking how her friends’ lives had changed during this period of time she’d been busy making it as a writer. They all had moved on, their lives had evolved and though the same camaraderie and trust remained between all of them, as people, they had changed.
Raul, the ladies’ man, had become a devoted father and husband. Felix, the carefree, let’s-party- everyday-guy had done the same. Sonia and Madgalena had both found men to settle down with and Julia knew it was only a matter of time before either of them started making beautiful babies.
She lifted the small chain, opened the gate and walked inside. After closing it again, Julia dragged her sweaty and sticky self across the gravel path, considering her own life and the person she’d become. Apart from her books, what else had changed in her life? Yeah, she’d defied her father and had stood up for her dream. But Julia had to admit, as her feet left two trails along the path, that in what mattered the most like a steady relationship, friends, family, Julia had remained stuck. Or worse, behind.
After Damian, she hadn’t considered seeing someone seriously. Though she dated a few guys Susan had arranged blind dates with, she always ended up walking out, because she couldn’t feel that connection she had once felt with Damian. As for friends, someone who dedicated her time to her work, writing, traveling and going to the gym, there was just no time for them, not that she sought to make it.
However, as she had spent time again with Raul and the gang, Julia knew that she wouldn’t find the same anywhere else. And as for family, well, if she hadn’t given a serious relationship a shot, then family was out of the question. Plus, the disaster with her own family had left her certain that she might just stay away from it all, as she did with love, in order to spare herself the pain.
Julia’s eyes were immediately drawn to the upper window from Damian’s room. The wings inside her stomach fluttered. She felt the truth weigh down on her shoulders like the house itself had landed on her. As much as she had tried to keep her distance from him, act cool and aloof around him, the kiss at the pool had proved one thing: she wasn’t over Damian Solis by a long shot, no matter how he had trampled over her heart ten years ago.