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Willow Rose

"So, no one is named Rojas on any of the islands?" I asked, sensing myself growing angrier. This lady seemed not to care one iota.

  "I can't find them," she said.

  "Come on. This girl just wants to find her relatives," I said, resigned. "Her family is Bahamian."

  The lady gave Emily a look like she was sizing her up. "Don't look very Bahamian to me," she said with that strong accent most of them had to their English.

  "Yeah, well, of course not. She grew up in Florida," I said.

  "Don't think she's got much Bahamian in that skinny body of hers," the lady said and shook her head. "Bahamians are fat. We like to eat." Then, she laughed and jiggled behind the counter, and I sighed once again. It had been the same everywhere we went. No one seemed to be able to find Emily's family, and they didn't seem to understand the urgency. The idea in itself was an abomination to them. They all lived by that island mentality where you wait till tomorrow to worry about the problems while throwing around annoying sayings like We Bahamians are too blessed to be stressed. It was all very great and Zen-like if you were on vacation. I’m sure the tourist loved the laid-back attitude, and under normal circumstances, I probably would too, but when you wanted something done, it didn't really work.

  I grabbed the paper where I had written Emily's grandparents’ names and gave the lady an annoyed look.

  "Come on, Em. Let's get out of here."

  We walked toward the front door, Emily following close behind me. I put a hand on the glass part of the door and then turned to look at her.

  "I'm sorry. I really thought this would be a lot easier. I mean, there are less than four hundred thousand people in the Bahamas. How hard can it be to find someone?"

  "Just let it go, Jack," she said, and we walked outside into the bright sunlight. "Maybe it was a mistake even to come here."

  Jack? I hated when she called me that. I was her dad. I had never felt like anything else to her, yet she insisted on calling me by my name lately.

  I paused. "A mistake? Is that what you think?"

  She sighed, deeply. "Listen, Jack."

  I cringed.

  "I know you've brought me here because you think this will somehow fix me, that you can fix me or maybe solve me like one of your little mysteries, but I am not broken. I am not yours to fix."

  Emily stared at me, her nostrils flaring. Her words felt like punches to my gut.

  "You don't want to be fixed?"

  Emily answered with an annoyed growl. "You just don't get it, do you?"

  I shook my head. "No. I don't. I really don't."

  She stepped forward. "I am happy, Jack. I am happy the way things are. Being skinny makes me happy. Not eating makes me happy. Getting on the scale and realizing I have lost more weight makes me happy. I like the way I look. I enjoy it. It's all I ever wanted. I hated being fat; I hated looking like a whale in seventh grade. Now, I don't. Now, I look good in my pictures when I post on Instagram. I feel good about myself. I don't want to get better because what you think is better is not my idea of a good life. I am a grown-up now, Jack. I can make my own decisions, and this is it. This is my decision. Call it an eating disorder, call it anorexia, call me crazy; I don't care. This is it, this is me now, Jack. "

  I swallowed. I felt tears appear in my eyes. I never knew it was this bad. Was that why nothing seemed to help with her? Because she wanted this? She liked it? But how was she going to get well then?

  I was at a loss for words.

  Emily took off down the stairs, her skinny stick-like legs poking out of her shorts, making her look like a skeleton. I couldn't believe that she wanted to look like that. Why couldn't she see how terrible it was? How awful she looked? Was that part of the disease? The doctors at the clinic I sent her to said so, but I had never stared into her eyes and seen it like that or even heard her express it this way before.

  It completely startled me, and I felt paralyzed.

  "You coming?" she asked as she reached the rental car in the parking lot. "I'm freezing."

  It's ninety degrees and so humid I can hardly breathe, and you tell me you're freezing?

  A tear escaped my eye and rolled across my cheek. I knew she was constantly freezing these days, but I also knew that it was because her body wasn't functioning properly. It wasn't able to keep itself warm, and soon her organs would begin to give out. They wouldn't be able to sustain what she was doing to herself for much longer.

  I was running out of time.

  "Excuse me?"

  The voice coming from behind me startled me, and I turned around quickly to find a small grey-haired Bahamian woman standing behind me. She was holding a newspaper in her hand and held it out to me.

  "I couldn't help overhearing you in there," she said and pushed the newspaper at me. "Here. This might help."


  Bahamas, July 1977

  She couldn't see anything. When the girl opened her eyes, there was total darkness and, for a few seconds, she completely panicked, thinking she had gone blind.

  She was lying on a mattress of some sort. She could feel it underneath her, and she wondered for a minute if she was back home in her grandmother's house. But then she remembered. She remembered the men, the yelling men. And the boat, the big boat that she spent night after night on, while it made her sick to her stomach as it transported her to a destination foreign to her, but with promises of a better life. At least that was what her grandparents had told her it would be.

  That was before they started to cough. After that, they barely spoke until they didn't even breathe anymore.

  There were about twenty other people there in the bottom of the boat. So many of them laid down and never got up again. The girl watched them while she held her grandmother's limp hand in hers, pleading with her to wake up.

  But she never did. She never made it to dry land. Neither did her grandfather. So, the girl had to leave the boat alone along with the few others who hadn't started to cough yet.

  The girl cried when thinking about it and blinked her eyes, hoping it would make the darkness go away. She had done the same when they had shone flashlights in her face as she walked onto the ramp and off the boat. So many yelling voices, so many foreign men, such strange words emerging from their lips, words she didn't understand.

  And then there was a woman.

  The woman had been standing in the light of a streetlamp, a cigarette in the corner of her mouth, looking down at the girl. Then she had opened the girl's mouth, looked at her teeth, and pulled her shirt up to look at her stomach and back before nodding to the men holding her.

  She had taken her with her. She had let her sit in the back of her truck while the strange landscape whooshed by, and the girl cried and called her grandmother's name into the night.

  "¡Hola?" the girl now said into the darkness.

  But no one answered. A long period of time went by, and the girl's eyes soon got used to the darkness. She realized then that she hadn't gone blind. There was a little bit of light coming from underneath a door at the end of the room, and soon the girl got up from the mattress and walked to it. She put an ear to the heavy wooden door and listened but could hear nothing. She grabbed the handle, but the door was locked. Yet the girl pulled at it while sobbing. She wanted to go back to the boat; she wanted to find her grandparents who were bound to have woken up by now. No one could sleep that long. Not even Uncle Pedro who always slept in when he came to visit at her grandmother's house.

  The girl got tired of pulling at the door, then slid to the floor, feeling so scared and helpless.

  The girl sat on her knees on the cold tiles and cried when suddenly there was a sound coming from the other side of the door. A scraping followed by the sound of hatches being opened.

  The bright light coming from the other side as it was opened almost blinded the girl just as much as the flashlights had when she arrived in this strange country.

  But as her eyes got used to the light, she realized it was the woman who was standing in front of
her, wearing her long white dress. The girl first thought that she had died and gone to heaven and what was standing in front of her was an angel.

  Little did she know at that point, but she had actually landed in hell, and the woman in front of her was the devil.


  Nassau, Bahamas, October 2018

  Back at the hotel room, Emily was lying on the bed watching TV, while I read the article the old woman had given me outside city hall. I kept reading it over and over again, making sure I understood it correctly. I was trying to determine if it was good news or bad news and how to tell Emily about it.

  Emily soon grew tired of the TV and turned it off. She sat up straight and looked at me.

  "So, you found out what it’s all about yet?" she asked.

  I took a deep breath, then leaned forward in the chair, not knowing quite how to tell her about it.

  The room was small but had a nice view of the turquoise ocean and the white beach. When I booked it, I had believed we might be able to spend a few days just hanging out on the beach, maybe even with Emily's newly found relatives, but the way things were going, I feared there would be no time to relax. I was determined not to leave until I had found at least one person who was related to her, even if it meant spending every day of my two-week vacation tracking him or her down. I had promised Emily this since she was a young child and I adopted her when my partner Lisa died. While she was growing up, I kept telling her that one day we'd go and find her family in the Bahamas. Now the girl was nineteen. I know; better late than never, right? So many years had passed. I couldn't believe where all that time had gone. These days I sure missed Lisa and being able to ask her what to do about Emily. I couldn't help wondering how different Emily's life could have been, had I only been able to save Lisa's life that day. It still haunted me senselessly.

  Why her and not me?

  "I’m not sure," I said.

  "What's it about?"

  "It's about a trial a couple of months ago. This woman was convicted of having murdered a sixteen-year-old girl on the Western part of the island. The girl was on her way home from a boyfriend's house when she was attacked and killed. She was found in her family's pool the next morning."

  Emily sat up and shrugged.


  I took a deep breath. "So, her name is Sofia Rojas. As in Valentina Rojas and her husband, Augustin Rojas."

  Emily lifted her eyebrows. "Really? Rojas? That was the name of the girl who was murdered?"

  I shook my head. "The woman who was convicted."

  Emily left the bed and took a chair across from mine. "You think she might be my relative?"

  "It's the only Rojas we’ve come across so far."

  Emily scoffed. "With my luck, she’s probably my relative and probably the only one around here. A murderer, ha. How fitting."

  I put the article down on the small table between us. "She might not be a relative at all."

  Emily took the newspaper. There was a picture of the woman on the cover, taken as she was brought out of the courtroom. It was not a very good one. The woman was covering her face with her arms as she was escorted through the crowd. It was hard to tell what she looked like. Next to it was a big school picture of the blonde girl who had been killed. Emily read the article and bit her lips. Then she put the paper down again. Our eyes met across the room.

  "You think she might be worth a try?" she asked.

  I shrugged. "Anything would be worth a try right about now. I have no other suggestions, do you?"

  She glanced at the photo, then looked back up at me.


  "Okay, what?" I asked.

  She stood up.

  "Okay, we go see her. Tomorrow."

  I rose to my feet too. "That's a deal."

  I looked at my watch. It was getting late. I would have to get up early and make some calls to find out how to get inside the prison.

  "Now, I say we go down to the restaurant and get some dinner. They have grouper tonight."

  Emily sat on the bed and grabbed the remote.

  "You go," she said. "I’m staying here. There's a show I really want to watch. I'll eat later."

  I grabbed the remote as she lifted it with the intention of turning on the TV, so I couldn't protest, the way she always did. I looked into her deep brown eyes that I had loved so much since she was just a young kid.

  "What?" she asked, annoyed.

  I shook my head.

  "You're not fooling me. We had a deal, Emily. When we left, I told you I wanted to see you eat on this trip and, so far, you've hardly eaten anything. You're coming with me. And you're eating something."

  Emily opened her mouth to protest, but I stopped her by lifting my finger. My mom had told me to stop trying to be Emily's friend and act like a dad instead, so this was me trying to act like a dad. I was sick of her excuses and her sneaky ways of trying to get out of eating, making up one silly lie after another.

  "It wasn't a request. It was an order."

  Emily gave me a look, then rolled her eyes, but she still followed me downstairs to the hotel's restaurant. She only had a salad, but I told the waiter to put chicken on it and watched her eat each and every bite, telling her she could go as slowly as she liked, but we weren't leaving till she finished the entire thing. So, she did. Reluctantly and while cursing me under her breath, but she did. She ate it all, and I watched her like a hawk all night, making sure she didn't go to the bathroom and throw it all up. If she did go in there, I listened intently, and she knew I would hear it.

  She was not fooling me anymore.


  Nassau, Bahamas, October 2018

  Her Majesty's Prisons it said on the large green sign outside the tall fence. Behind it was a bunker-like building located outside of Nassau. I had often heard stories about how the prisons in the Bahamas were crowded and held a lot more inmates than they were designed for and that most criminals who came to serve time usually came out a lot more hardcore criminal than when they entered. I had also heard they didn't have separate prisons for women and men and the living conditions were often described as inhumane. Before coming today, I had read an article in a local paper just this morning telling me that there had been several recommendations to build a new prison. Unfortunately, those had not been heard and then the journalist added that It now appears likely that before a new prison is built in The Bahamas, the sky will probably fall and there will be no need for a new prison anymore.

  I showed my ID and badge at the entrance, exploiting the fact that I was a police officer myself, even though I wasn't here on duty. It still worked. The guy behind the glass window looked at it, then at Emily by my side.

  "She's my daughter," I said.

  He gave me a confused glare.

  "Adopted," I added.

  He nodded and smiled widely the way many Bahamians did.

  "I see."

  "We made arrangements to see a prisoner, Sofia Rojas," I added and looked at my watch. I had called earlier this morning and made sure we could see her. To my surprise, it was a lot easier than I had anticipated.

  The guy nodded eagerly and let us in. We were taken to a barren room with only two chairs, which I wasn't sure would be able to hold us and not break. Still, we sat down and waited, Emily tapping her foot nervously on the dirty floor. The stench in the prison was unbearable, and the guard leading us inside had offered us dust masks, but we refused. If the inmates and guards could survive breathing this air for years, maybe even decades, then we could endure it for a few hours. On our way inside, I saw human waste being taken out in large garbage bags; some of it even leaked onto the floor not far from where we were standing. The stench that seemed to cover the entire place wasn't only coming from the waste, but also from the generous applications of raw disinfectants poured on the floor everywhere. These were terrible conditions, not only for the inmates but also the guards. What was worse was the few who were in there who hadn't even been to trial yet. I remember reading abo
ut a guy who had been forgotten in this exact Bahamian prison for nine years, accused of a crime he didn't commit. Illegal immigrants that no one knew what to do about were rotting up in there. It was unbearable to think about.

  The door opened, and two guards showed up, holding a woman between them. She was in chains and didn't look up at us.

  I stood up. The guards let go of her, then one of them left, and the other stood by the door.

  Emily gasped when the woman slowly lifted her head. She had been beaten terribly, and her right eye and cheek were completely swollen.

  "Oh, dear Lord," I said.

  I looked at Emily, wondering if this was too much for her. Maybe I shouldn't have brought her here. I could have come by myself first.

  I gave the woman my chair and helped her sit down. She looked up at me and tried to smile.

  "Are you Sofia Rojas?" I asked and, as her eyes met mine, I was suddenly struck with an overwhelming sadness.

  Her eyes, they were a true copy of my dear friend and partner Lisa's. It was just like looking at Emily's mom again.


  Nassau, Bahamas, October 2018

  Emily stared at Sofia, unable to take her eyes off her. I held my breath, thinking this had to be overwhelming for her, wondering how she would react. Right now, she was sitting in front of a woman who looked exactly like her mother. She was her true spitting image.

  I could hardly believe it.

  "Show her the picture," I said to Emily.

  Cautiously, Emily held out a picture of her and her mother when she was just five-years-old toward Sofia and put it in her hands so she could look at it. Sofia stared at it, her hands shaking. Then she looked up at Emily with her head tilted slightly.

  "This is Emily," I said and pointed at my daughter, then down at the girl in the picture. "And this is her mother, Lisa."

  Sofia looked at the picture, then up at Emily again, a tear escaping her eye. Then she smiled and reached over to touch Emily's cheek.