To avoid the checkpoint, Rosa Santiago ducked under the branches of an old oak tree and located the path down to the coast. The humid night air stabbed at her lungs and she was sure the soldiers would hear her heart thumping against her ribs as she went. Her body urged her to sit and rest, but that was a luxury she dare not risk. Instead, she lifted the straps of her backpack to enjoy a moment’s respite from the pain in her shoulders and forced herself to continue.

Over the years, they had managed to get thirty-five deserters from the island. Rico would be number thirty six. Not that he was anything like the others. It was the first time she’d been in love with one of them, for starters. And even though she had known his intentions from the beginning, he was still technically the enemy. A whole year of dangerous assignations, of getting to know each other in the shadows while they fumbled in the dark, Rico hiding from his colleagues, Rosa from the entire population. And now it had come to this, she didn’t know how to feel.

Negotiating the steep decline with her loaded backpack down the rain-starved ground proved more tricky than usual. She slipped onto her backside twice as she descended. Almost turned her ankle at the bottom as she stumbled on a rock. Wondered what would become of her if she really injured herself.

She stared at the sky and shook her head. If they managed to smuggle Rico off the island, it would be the end of their relationship. The idea of losing him from her life made her dizzy.

None of it made any sense, but she forced the doubts to the back of her mind and continued. 

“A step at a time,” she whispered and carried on putting one foot in front of the other.

Soon she came to the edge of the woods and left the protection of the trees and found herself in the open. The familiar cool sea air settled her. The smell of salt and marine algae steadied her nerves and the gentle breeze dried the sweat from her hair.

Down below, the harbour dominated the point of the V-shaped bay, protective walls sheltering a handful of boats. It wasn’t like the old days when the locals harvested the waters around the island unchallenged. Now it was only the old-timers who continued working the waves, men who had spent their lives on the water and were too set in their ways to take employment on land.

As she followed the track she remained vigilant, eyes and ears tuned in to warn her of anything out of the ordinary. Other than the clinking of buoys and chains there was nothing.

A dilapidated fisherman’s cottage came into view and she slowed as she approached. Her skin prickled and she focussed all her attention on a tumbled-down shack that stood alone on the fringe of the empty village. It wasn’t the first time she’d done this, but if she wasn’t careful it may well be the last. Perhaps they had cottoned on to what she was doing and set a trap. When she stepped through the doorframe, they could be waiting. It would be the end of everything.

She stopped for a moment and steadied herself. Smelled the familiar whiff of tobacco then saw the faint orange glow of a cigarette in the far corner of the room through the dark rectangular space that had once been a window. All she wanted was to run in and jump into his arms. Instead, she maintained her cool and checked that nothing was untoward. 

“I thought you would never come,” Rico’s voice said as she entered. “They told me ten o’clock.”

“I came when I could. Trust me.”

“Do I have a choice?”

Rosa put her fingers to her lips. Beckoned him to follow. He picked up a duffel bag, took a pull on his smoke and dropped the butt to the ground. 

Reaching the heavy harbour gates, Rosa forced them open, the low whine of the rusty hinges quiet enough to keep their secret. They walked along the cobbled road past boats resting on blocks, stacks of empty boxes and piles of coiled rope until they got to her ex-husband’s shack.

“This it?” the soldier asked.

“What were you expecting?’ Their monthly meetings had usually been in the depths of the jungle where mosquitoes feasted on their blood. Compared to that, this was paradise. ‘A five-star hotel?”

“I guess not.”

“Wait while I get the key.” Rosa slipped her backpack from her shoulders, dropped it to the ground and opened the zip of the outer pocket and fumbled in the dark until she found what she was looking for. She undid the padlock, gathering the chain as it slipped from its position to prevent it from clattering to the ground.

Rico lifted the bar and pushed against the double doors.

“Get in,” Rosa told him. “Quick as you can.”

He chucked his bag against the back wall, picked up Rosa’s pack and went inside. She followed and pulled the doors closed behind her. 

“You have your lighter?”

The soldier pulled a Zippo from his chest pocket, flicked the lid and rolled the wheel. The whiff of petrol momentarily overpowered the shack’s scents of damp rope and fish while a bright halo allowed Rosa to see the face she adored. Dark brown eyes shining behind long lashes. A square jaw and inviting lips. His black quiff curling down the middle of his forehead, one loose strand reaching his brows.

Once again, she suppressed the urge to feel him close and quickly turned her mind to the practicalities. “There’s a candle on the workbench.” She pointed over to where it stood.

“I’ve got it.” He set it going and shifted it around until it was out of the draught.

The room was as it always had been. Bare stone walls and shuttered windows. Two bales of straw on each side of a small round table. A three-legged stool and a metal ladder lying on its side. The workbench with its vice and a scattered assortment of tools under which were stacks of cans containing paint and oil. A sink with a rubber hose attached to the tap. Two pans balanced on the rings of a camping stove. A stained mattress and pillow on the concrete floor. Fishing nets and broken lobster pots piled in a corner awaiting repair. If things had been different, she would have come earlier and dressed it up. Made it cosy and romantic. Only she couldn’t risk Pablo finding out. That would have given everything away.  

“It’s no palace,” Rosa said, opening her rucksack. “But I have a few things to make it more homely.”

“At least I don’t have to share. There’s never any privacy at the barracks. Besides, I don’t imagine I’ll be here long.”

“A week if you’re lucky. Two at the most.” There it was again. The reality of him leaving and that fact that it was her who was making it possible. Not that she could change her mind. Fail, and they would blindfold Rico and use him as target practice.

“I don’t care how long it is as long as I never have to go back.”

 Rosa pulled out two folded blankets and threw them onto the bed. “To keep the bedbugs away.”

“Thanks.” He sat down on the mattress, bouncing on it a couple of times to test it out before springing back to his feet.

“What else do you have?” He patted the space beside him, offering her the chance to get close. As much as she wanted to, she carried on as if he were just another deserter.

“Food.” She set tins of meat and fish onto the floor alongside a loaf of bread and a can of soup. “Toilet paper, matches, soap and a towel.”

“You are very kind.”

“And here are some civilian clothes.  Change into them now so I can take your uniform away and burn it.”

He unbuttoned his shirt, eyes fixed upon Rosa as he worked. He lay it down on one of the bales and stood there in his vest as she admired his solid shoulders and muscular arms. After kicking off his shoes, he unfastened his belt and slipped the catch at the top of his trousers. “You can turn around if you like.” He gave her a lopsided smile and unzipped his fly.

“I thought you were used to having no privacy.”

“It’s not me I’m worried about.”

His trousers fell to his ankles and he stepped out of them, leaving him standing in pristine boxer shorts that were too good a fit to leave room for modesty.

“I see your army is well-equipped,” she said and it was her turn to smile.

“A soldier always has to be ready.” He took a step towards her. She stopped his movements by pushing a pair of jean shorts and a checked shirt into his chest.

“Put these on. And take off your dog tags. There’s no point taking unnecessary risks.” 

He grabbed his tags and chain and pulled until it snapped, then tossed them onto his old shirt. He rubbed at the space where they had been. “I’ve been wearing those for five years. It seems odd not to feel their weight. I guess there will be plenty of things I have to get used to.”

“It’ll be easy, you’ll see.”

She watched Rico dress. The clothes were the right size and suited him well. He was going to make a wonderful civilian.

“Now I have something for you.” He opened his holdall and pulled out a thick roll of cash held tight by two elastic bands. “It’s all there. I won’t be offended if you want to count it.”

Rosa took it, felt its weight and put it down onto the table.

“Now you are a rich woman as well as being a very beautiful one.”

“The beautiful I won’t argue with. The rich will never happen.”

“But there’s enough there to live off for years.”

“The money isn’t mine. It’s for the cause.”


“We split it three ways. The revolution, the strike fund and the orphanage.”

“You’re very generous.”

“It’s necessary.” Without funds, life on the island would be unbearable. “You also have a gun?”


“That’s also part of your contribution.”

“As soon as I step onto the boat and not a moment before. You’re not the only one who doesn’t like to take chances. Which is why I was insistent this had to happen now.”

“I don’t understand.”

Rico sat on a bale and retrieved a pack of cigarettes with a large C marking the brand. He opened the lid and offered one across the table. Rosa shook her head. He took one out and lit it.

“There’s something weird happening in camp. Men are getting sick. The hospital was full when I left, but no one was saying anything about it.”

“People get sick all the time.”

“Not like this. One minute everything’s fine, the next they’re collapsing and being rushed away.”

“You saw them?”

“Well, not exactly. But I know lots who did. And then there were stories from the orderlies.” He took a long pull on his cigarette and blew two streams of smoke from his nostrils. “They were dying in there. One said five, another ten. I tell you, I’ve not seen anything like it before.” 

“Then it’s good you got out when you did.”

“I guess I’m blessed,” he said.

“Perhaps.” Rosa stood and patted him on the shoulder. “Though you may not think so while you’re staying here. I also have fresh water for you. And a bottle of anisette for when it gets tedious.”

“I’ve been in worse places.”

“I don’t know how you keep going.”

“It helps to picture what you’ll do when you get out of whatever mess it is that you’re in. For example, you know what I’m going to do when I get off this island?” Rico asked. “Shower and a shave and put a tie on. I’ll have the biggest steak I can find alongside a jug of wine, and I’ll dance with anyone who’ll have me.”

Her throat tightened at the thought of him being close to anyone else. She tried to swallow. Couldn’t. “It sounds better than army life.”

“The army’s not so bad.” Rico finished his cigarette and stubbed it out on the ground. “Basic training was actually enjoyable and my first two posts were in cities. Not to mention that the ladies love a man in a uniform.” There it was again. A rush of jealousy that made her want to scratch someone’s face. “I got weekend passes every other week. Those were the days.”

His eyes shone as he spoke and she realised that these were things he had never spoken of before. Had they spent all their time together kissing and making love? All those stolen hours without really getting to know each other’s lives. 

“What went wrong?”

“I’ll tell you if we can open the bottle you mentioned.”

Rosa nodded and went over to her bag to retrieve the anisette and a tin mug. “I’ll take the mug if that’s okay,” she said.

“Be my guest.”

She handed him the bottle. He unscrewed the lid, poured out a double measure and passed it over.

“Salud,” she said.

“May your children be wise and happy.” It was a little late for that. Her eighteen-year-old son didn’t seem to be either of those.

Rico took a healthy swig from the bottle. Rosa only took a sip. One of them had to keep their wits about them, after all. She enjoyed the liquorice tang on her tongue and the slow burn of the alcohol as it went down.  “Where were we?”

“Wondering why I decided to leave. Army life changed when I got here.”

“It was a punishment?”

“Not officially, but everyone knows about Colonel Jorge Barassi. We call him the snake because nobody sees him coming. His job is to toughen us up using whatever methods he chooses. If you can’t take it, he squeezes the life from you.”

“An army relies upon good discipline and obedience.”

“The swing I took at my superior was a one-off.”

“He was a higher rank than you.”

“I was defending my mother’s honour.”

“And there was a price to pay.”

“I’ve paid it back and with interest.” He turned his forearm upwards to show her. “See that?” A row of angry scabbed circles formed a line from his wrist to his elbow. “Barassi was teaching me how to torture a prisoner using a burning cigar. Said it was a lesson I wouldn’t forget.”

As a curandera, Rosa’s instinct to heal was strong. She decided that before she came with more supplies, she would make up a balm to help the healing process. “I guess he was right about that.”

“He wasn’t. As soon as I get to the mainland, he’ll be a distant memory.”


“But that’s enough about me.” Rico looked down at her chest. Rosa assumed he was just gawping at her breasts. She hoped he liked what he saw. “Is that a St Christopher on your chain? I’ve not noticed it before.”

“St Christopher carries a child. This is Lazarus. See the dogs by his feet?”

Miguel took a closer look. “The patron saint of the sick and the poor.”

It pleased Rosa that he knew his bible. “I’m a curandera, remember? I heal people. Lazarus helps me with my work.”

“Do you mind if I touch it? For luck, I mean.”

She smiled, opened a button and loosened her shirt.

He reached out and when his fingers lifted the saint, they brushed her sternum. The tickle of her skin spread like electricity up into her head and down to her toes.

“Thanks for doing this,” he said. “I hope you know how grateful I am.”

“I think I do.” Their heads were close now and they held each other’s gaze in silence. Rosa’s lips wanted to find his, but instead she stood up quickly. “I should be going. There is much to do.”

“At this time of night?”

“I must report that everything is going as planned.” And make sure no one found out about their affair. The fact that Rico was deserting placed them on the same side temporarily, but deep down she knew they would view what she had done as sleeping with the enemy.

“You have superiors?”

“I have equals who like to know what’s happening.” Their organisation had a structure, one they made sure didn’t exclude or exploit.

“When will I see you again?”

“I must lock you in to maintain appearances, but in an emergency, the window will open.” She gestured toward the shuttered window. “And be careful of light and smoke. The supplies you have must last you for two days. All being well, someone will return with more to replenish them.”

“It would be good if that someone was you.”

She would do everything in her power to make sure it was.

Rosa picked up her empty backpack and moved to leave. As she reached the door, Rico’s strong fingers pressed into her arms and turned her towards him. She looked up and lost herself somewhere in the dark pools that were his eyes.       


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