“Hey there, Hollywood!” The bartender was screaming over the music and commotion of the club. “What will it be tonight?”
“Dry martini,” the petite blonde-haired woman called out as she managed to elbow her way through the crowd to the last empty stool at the bar. “Bento, why is it so crowded tonight?”
Twisting her face, her quiet place to drink ruined, she looked over the mayhem feeling exhausted. The heat wafting off all the moving bodies in the deafening music and chatter reminded her of the clubs she used to frequent back home. The place was small, an old building stripped out with only the columns to hold the ceiling up. As for content, the club was bare besides a few fans and the flashing color lights with its sound system and a few crackling speakers. She assumed the jungle environment of this exotic place was to blame for the lack of equipment and their poor condition. Summer was hitting its peak and the occasional tourist had changed into the more frequent mass groups on vacation. Still, she was annoyed as she waited for her friend to reveal why tonight the tourists all packed into the tiny bar for a change.
Bento tipped his head as the large group behind her burst into laughter. “Tourist bachelor party.”
“Figures,” she sighed quelling her nerves with the first sip of her martini.
It was normal for her to indulge in venting to Bento about her tense day. Before she could even thank him for the drink, another customer had pulled him away. Swiveling her bar stool around, she watched the bachelor party antics from afar. She had been in Santarem, Brazil for seven months and was homesick. Here in this superstitious fishing town and tourist hub, she had no friends or family; not even so much as a love interest. Santarem lacked the luxuries of her hometown in Southern California and she felt out of place both culturally and physically. Her sun-kissed peachy skin, strawberry blonde hair, and big hazel eyes stood out among the dark-skinned, dark-haired natives. The occasional tourist didn’t make her feel less unwelcome. Everywhere she travelled, she could feel the constant glare of the locals, and her nickname – Hollywood - added to the sting of not belonging.
Unlike those on vacation, she was there for an internship. Her task was simple; record the size, age, species, and other stats of the local fishermen’s catches from the Amazon River. This meant she spent all day handling fish and cutting out eardrums to determine the ages of all manners of aquatic creatures. Thankfully, they had moved into the dry season and she no longer had to perform her task in torrential downfalls. By the end of each day, all she wanted was a hot shower and a few drinks. After this she cherished the few hours where she didn’t smell of fish. Here in the club was where she allowed herself to relax enough to enjoy Santarem instead of loathing it.
Downing the last of her martini, she spun herself back around to Bento. Catching her hand movements, he finished pouring vodka for his current customer and headed back to her.
“Another?” His smile was sincere and she could see he was just as tired as she was feeling. “Or are you calling it a night, Hollywood?”
“Calling it a night, Ben.” She held her right hand up to show the gauze wrapped around it from where her knife slipped off a fish. “I sort of sliced my hand open today trying to dig an eardrum out of a bicuda.”
“Ouch.” Empathizing with a hiss at the sight of the bandaged hand, he took the money she was handing over. “Good night, and be more careful tomorrow!”
“Night.” She slid off the barstool and began pushing her way through the crowd, aggravated to have to fight her way out.
She was disappointed that she couldn’t hang around like normal. Tonight it would be impossible to unwind with so much partying and yelping exploding around her. Without warning, a hand gripped her arm and she found herself at the mercy of a drunken tourist. He was tall with spiked brown hair, broad-shoulders, and slurred speech. Irritated at the interruption of her attempted exit, she jerked her arm free as she struggled to comprehend what he was saying. He shook his head to clear it and managed to enunciate his words as he continued to block her path to the exit.
“Why don’t you stay and join me?” He asked as he tried to lean over her to scream into her ear, but she was doing her best to keep him at arm’s length. “Come join me and my friends,” he pleaded in a heavy Norwegian accent, “I’m buying.”
“No thanks,” she said as she turned her head away from him. His breath was a mixture of Jägermeister and beer, which was not helping convince her to stay. “I’ve got to work in the morning. Have fun.”
Once more, a firm grip around her arm kept her from leaving. “Wait. What if I don’t see you again?”
“Trust me; it’ll be a while before I leave here.”
She pried his fingers from her aching arm and managed to slip through the crowd out of reach.
Her day had just gotten worse; her hand throbbed from the cut, her favorite place to unwind was extremely crowded, and now she had a drunken tourist manhandling her. Tears welled up as her bicep stung from where the brute had gripped her; she was sure there was a bruise forming on her arm. Besides the bartender, she hadn’t been able to make any friends since she arrived. The only people willing to befriend her were tourists who would leave a week or two later. She still had three months before the internship would be completed. Portuguese was a language she was struggling to pronounce correctly and attempts at casual conversation were impossible.
She smacked into a wall of wet clothes and flesh; she had been glaring at her feet instead of watching where she was going. Her feet tangled with one another and her balance tipped. A hand gripped hers - right across the slash. A yelp escaped her as the cut stung under the pressure. Sinking slowly to her knees, her tears spilled over. A pale, dark-haired man stared down at her in confusion as he released her hand. Looking up, she was baffled by his awkward presence; he was drenched, his long black hair clung to his head, his clothes soaked and molded to his lean muscular frame, his feet bare.
“Are you alright?” he asked, furrowing his brow. The stranger crouched to her level, his voice soft and sincere. “I was trying to keep you from falling. I’m sorry I failed to notice that your hand was hurt.”
His hand reached for hers gently this time, raising the palm up to his lips. Kissing her palm, his russet-wrapped pupils never broke from her hazel eyes – a burst of brown speckled with flecks of greens. Mesmerized by the stranger, she stood, still confused as to what to say to him. A smile crawled across his face as the silence went on.
“Thank you.” Pulling her hand back, she held it to her chest, the cut no longer throbbing after he had kissed it so gingerly.
“Does it hurt much?” He whispered raising one brow.
“Not anymore.” Looking over the waterlogged man, she could not help but notice the puddle at his feet had reached her flip-flops. “Did you fall in the river?”
Laughter erupted from him, “You could say that.”
She couldn’t help but smile at his reaction. “I’m sorry,” she answered as she shook her head. “I didn’t mean to slam into you like that. It looks like we’re both having a rough day.”
“Would you have a drink with me?” he asked, tilting his head. He looked her over as if studying something he had never seen before. “It’s the least I can do for hurting your hand like that. You should stay and enjoy the celebration with me.”
“Well...” She paused, looking back towards the bar, a sensation of being watched tugging at her instincts.
The drunken tourist still stood glaring at her. Rubbing her arm from where his grip still throbbed, she gasped. He no longer looked belligerent as he glowered at her and the man who stood beside her. His eyes were sharp, resonating with jealousy as they seemed to glow yellow. She turned back to the stranger as her nerves rattled across her body. It seemed to her he had also caught the large man’s glare in their direction. Once more, he creased his forehead, but smirked, not flinching as the two of them exchanged stares. Was he not slurring and intoxicated minutes before her falling? The tourist glared at them, no signs of his previous stumbling. He seemed to have no issue with focusing on them through all the chaos of the club.
“I see, you were leaving due to poor company.” Leaning forward, his lips grazed her ear as locks of his long cold wet hair tapped her shoulder. “I’ll see that he does not follow you out the door. I hope we meet again, Miss Hollywood.”
It was almost as if he could hear their conversation as he flinched at the whisper of poor company. Before she could take in the wet stranger’s words, he had slid past her and into the crowd. Looking back, both the mysterious men had disappeared. The renewed aching in her hand broke her from the sensation of being lost and she made haste to the door. She prayed she could make it the short distance back to her hotel with no more incidents. Wondering over the mysterious drenched man, she concluded he had to be a local from the features in his face and the way he dressed. It seemed she would have noticed him before, but he knew her name so he must have at least heard about her. Regardless, he was kind and not intimidating like the more heavily muscled man who had grabbed her. The image of the drunk’s taut face and gleaming eyes made her skin shiver.
Pausing a moment, she looked back at the building with its single street light flickering as the bouncer kept the entryway free of loiterers. The paint was chipped and weatherworn, and was unremarkable during the day. At night, it was the amount of people flowing in and out, but tonight it was alive, screaming for attention. Locals and tourists alike were mingling outside the door, but there were no signs of the two men she had encountered. Sighing with relief, she regained her confidence in getting home safely.
The light of the hotel felt like instant security as she pushed through the doors. With a half-hearted smile, she waved at the sleepy desk clerk as she walked through the lobby, trying her best not to break into a jog. Her legs couldn’t get her up the stairs fast enough. She stormed into her room, slamming the door behind her. Flipping the latch and locking the knob, a wave of relief washed over her. Laying on her bed, the images of the tall wet-haired gentleman versus the broad-shouldered tourist wavered in her thoughts. Both were handsome, and if she had been back home, chances were she would have spent the rest of the evening with one of them.
Huffing, she rolled to her side, but the shrill call of a bird outside her window made it impossible to sleep. Every time she had finally drifted off, the harsh sound would startle her awake. Frustrated, she covered her head with a pillow; it muted the annoying creature enough to be almost comfortable. Exhaling in slow and steady breaths, she felt herself begin to doze off. Once more, the interruption from the vile feathered creature stayed strong in its goal to keep her awake and on high alert. Another shriek rang out, louder and closer, followed by a ruffling sound coming from her room.
Rolling the pillow off her head, she dared herself to peek. Hissing and cawing erupted in her face. The crow stood staring into her eyes before taking flight. Frantic, she screamed and flailed the pillow around, aiming to hit the dreadful creature. It laughed at her efforts continuing its jarring screams, fluttering just out of her reach every time she tried to shoo it away. Tiring of the game of chase, it went back out the window, only to rest just out of her reach as it continued with its unnerving songs and shouts.
Now she had another reason to dislike this place. There was no air conditioning in the hotel and to close the window would make the heat and humidity in her room even more unbearable. Another shriek from the crow caused her to jump to where she stood.
Flustered, she screamed, “I promise! I’ll give anything you want if you will just stop!”
The bird fell silent. Shocked, she stared into the black eyes of the crow who seemed to whisper it would return to claim this promise.
Morning came too swiftly as the alarm on her phone screamed for her attention. Wiping her hair from her face, she realized she had fallen asleep still wearing last night’s clothes. Agitated, she headed for the bathroom, resentful she would have to clean the gash in her hand. She urged the running water at the sink to warm up as she started to work the tape free. As the layers of gauze unraveled, she saw the fresh blood from when the stranger had gripped her hand. It was frustrating having a cut across the crease of her palm from the knife yesterday. Holding her breath, she eased the dried blood free so she could assess the current state of her wound. As she pressed harder to scrub off the last of the dried blood, she stretched her hand wide, looking at her palm in confusion. Where did her cut go? Nothing was left. Her hand looked no different than normal, without even a mark or tenderness to show where it had been. Stunned, she shut the water off and aimlessly left the bathroom. Sitting on her creaky bed, she looked down at her palm and wondered if stress was playing tricks on her mind.
Another alarm began ringing on her phone, signaling she only had five minutes to get out the door. She would have plenty of time to reflect at the dock while digging through the day’s catch. Rushing so she wouldn’t be late, she threw on her khaki shorts and a thin white blouse over a pink bikini top. It was hot, but the bugs made it necessary to have a long sleeved shirt just in case. Grabbing her satchel, she double-checked the contents; fish smelling leather gloves in a Ziploc baggie, sunglasses, her wide brim sun hat, sunblock, and Mp3 player with headphones. It had been a major mistake to use the knife without the gloves to help her grip the slippery scales of the fish. She wouldn’t make that mistake again.
Scowling, she pulled the offending knife from the back pocket of the jeans she had worn the day before. Her boss had warned her not to go anywhere without it, to keep it within her reach at all times. After her run-in with the yellow-eyed bruiser, she had a strong feeling it was the tourists she had to watch out for. Snatching up her keys, she rushed out the door and through the lobby.
The heat of the morning sun was brutal as it coaxed the early morning dew into steam, making the air thick with humidity. Snorting, she walked up the rickety dock where the local charters came through. It was much easier to find willing participants for her inspections with the commercial and tourist based anglers who used this particular docking area for their businesses. Another added bonus was someone always spoke broken English or at least seemed more patient with her broken Portuguese. An older native greeted her as she came up to where he was unloading his boat.
“Hollywood!” He exclaimed, chuckling as he held his hands out, presenting his catch which was lying across the wooden planks. “I did good, yes?”
Looking over his aquatic claim, she was impressed to see his best catches since her arrival. He was one of the few locals who enjoyed her presence and allowed her to pick apart the heads of his fish. Normally he came to her with two, maybe three decent sized catfish or piranha. Today he had twelve fish, a mix of bicuda, jacunda, the largest tucunare she had seen yet and a few of his normal species; all were large and plump. The old man danced to see how wide her eyes were as she looked over the numbers and girth.
“How old? Eh?” A smile crossed her face to see him excited for her to do her work. “You check?”
He was imitating the motion she did when digging out an eardrum, so she humored him. “Which one first?”
“This one!” As she assumed, the large tucunare, or Peacock Bass, was of high interest for him, but she was as curious about the fish as he seemed to be.
Squatting down to reach into the bucket of equipment she always had with her, she set to work on recording the information. With each measure and number she gave him, he would shout and clap his hands. A crowd was forming around them as she pulled on her gloves and flicked open the blade of her knife. It made a sickening sound as the metal on the blade scrapped across cartilage and bone where the eardrum hid in the skull of the fish. After much effort, she pulled out an apple core sized piece and dug out the tiny eardrum. Pulling out the old clunker of a microscope she was forced to rely on, she skillfully cut the eardrum to expose the unseen layers that would reveal the fish’s age. The adjustment process to get the view into focus was a pain, but she got a good shot and counted it three times.
Looking up at the old fisherman drunk off the excitement of his catch, she answered his question, “Seventeen years…”
It was awkward writing the number. She knew in current documentation they were marked as ten to fifteen years on average for maximum lifespan. As far as she was aware, this was the oldest tucunare on record. The rushed Portuguese filling the air mimicked the overall excitement. Many of them shook Pedro’s hand and congratulated him for catching the O Pai or Father of Fish. Worried her accuracy would be questioned, she took several pictures of the eardrum before placing it into the vial. It would be lost to some lab who would never release the data for public access, denying her the ability to show the discovery off to her colleagues back in SoCal. After she marked the pertinent information on the label, she moved on to the next fish. Each time she calculated the age of the fish, it was older than the known average. Again, she found herself taking pictures and recounting repeatedly. Pedro was marching from person to person, shaking hands, and puffing out his chest to prove he was truly the elite angler of the town. At least tonight the club would have a good crowd of locals as they ended their day of fishing to celebrate Pedro’s good fortune.
“Ah! Pedro, it seems Rio Rei Boto has given you his blessings this morning!” It was one of the well-known charter boat captains shaking Pedro’s hand, grinning wide as he spoke, “I wish I knew how you got on his good side.”
“A life devoted to the river, my friend.” Removing his cap, Pedro wiped the sweat from his brow as he marveled over his catch. “Thank you, River King Boto.”
“I almost didn’t sm–see you over here with all these fish.” Snorting, it was the condescending tone from the yellow-eyed tourist from the night before approaching her. “Is this what you do for a living? You play with fish heads?”
Goosebumps rippled across her skin, her nerves on edge with his appearance there on the docks. Distracted from her work, she felt the knife slip and stab her index finger. “Ouch!”
Frantic, she pulled her glove off to reveal the deep cut. Digging into her bucket, she ignored his attempt at conversation as she looked for something to wrap it. It seemed like everything she grabbed was covered in fish slime.
“Here!” He started to take off his shirt, his muscled tan chest ginormous in the bright sunlight. Blushing, she dug harder in her bucket as he offered it to her, “Use this!”
Again, his tight grip wrapped around her wrist as he pulled her towards him, dragging her from a squatted position to her knees in front of him. She failed to prevent him from manhandling her closer, his strength making her feel like a sheet in the wind. He brought her finger close to his face, getting a good look at it. Furrowing her brow, she swore he sniffed her hand. His yellow eyes seemed far more menacing during the day as she could no longer hear the disgruntle comments from the crowd. These were the eyes of a predator, and teamed with his aggressive actions, he was frightening and animalistic. She could feel the pounding of her heart in her chest like a trapped canary frantic in its cage.
“It’s not horribly deep, but needs to be cleaned.” He ran his tongue across her cut then paused as if he had forgotten where he was. With a sly smile, he wrapped her finger in his shirt. “That should do it until you get to a clinic.”
“YOU LICKED ME.” Her voice boomed into the silence of the stunned crowd. They were as shocked as she was as they waited to see what he would do next.
Whispers erupted among the crowd as she scooted away from him, her hand finding the edge of the dock. She couldn’t go any further without the risk of falling into the river. The man stood, snarling at the crowd. He took a step closer to her, offering his hand. She shook her head in refusal; he gritted his teeth, growling from the rejection. Another step closer, his hand coming closer had her eyes focused on it. Tears were starting to fall from her cheeks as Pedro shouted at the brute in Portuguese. It was malicious slang being shouted from the fisherman, but it did nothing to deter the muscular beast with the amber eyes.
“Look, I know I’m not a very good at coming off as a nice guy,” Huffing, he glared back at the crowd, which fell silent in response to meeting his frustrated stare. “But, it’s my fault you cut yourself again. Let me at least take you to the clinic.”
Knotting her brow, she glanced from Pedro to the brute cornering her. Everyone seemed to be waiting for her reply or walking away. Swallowing, her index finger throbbed as it started to stain his white shirt red; the cut was deep and need stitches once cleaned. She started to wobble to her feet, his grip had released on her wrist as he showed he was capable of being gentle. Every muscle in her body was tense as she nodded to Pedro.
“It’s ok. He can walk me to the clinic.” Quieting her panic, she realized no one here knew how he had treated her at the club last night, which led to her reactions today. “My name’s Katie, what’s yours?”
“Just call me Fen.” There was an excited sparkle in his eyes as he allowed her to lead the way, doing his best to undo the fear he had instilled in her.
As they walked down the dock, she paused as an Amazon River dolphin splashed, clicked, and squealed close to the boats. Stopping in her steps, it seemed as if the dolphin was caught in a fishing net. She had seen them swim by, but in the distance in the deepest part of the river where they could maneuver away from boats coming and going. This one had ventured almost all the way to the dock and again, the fishermen all started speaking in hush Portuguese. Pedro had caught up to her, blocking her stare at the thrashing dolphin.
“Hollywood, Rio Rei Boto is warning you to be cautious.” He warned, ignoring the reddening face of Fen, “He does not come to the docks for just anyone. Please be careful with this man with the eyes of the Lobisomem.”
The walk to the clinic was a silent one. In her head, she was still trying to figure out what Lobisomem meant in Portuguese as they approached the clinic. Fen had made sure to keep his distance after the Boto, or river dolphin, had calmed after Pedro’s warning. It was as if the animal had used the old fisherman as a means to send a silent message, but was it a warning for her or Fen? Either way, it had spared her from an awkward conversation and had created a much needed sense of reserve in Fen’s aggressive interactions. Sighing, she rang the bell outside the door. It was a crude way to run a clinic, but they were short staffed and to waste a medical savvy person to sit at the door seemed illogical. Looking back to Fen, she saw him still staring back to the river. The focus in his amber eyes seemed to be looking at something within it, something human eyes could not see so easily from this distance.
“I’ll leave you alone for today.” His glare was still to the river, but she saw a new sense of tension in his neck and jaw. “But, don’t act so surprised when I come to visit you tomorrow, ok?”
She found herself smiling, “Perhaps we’ve gotten off on a bad foot yet again, Fen. We’ll try again tomorrow to properly meet without the alcohol and without cutting myself.”
A grin came across his lips as he looked to her. “Yes, let us try again tomorrow, Katie.”