“Before I die...” I said, coughing up blood, “...I want you to know: you're a big doody pants and your hair smells funny.”
“No YOU smell funny!” Andrea made a mock pout. “And stupid!”
“I smell funny and stupid?” I said, wiping the ketchup off my chin, “How can I smell stupid, stupid?”
“LA LA LA LA LA” Andrea cupped her ears. “THIS GAME IS STUPID YOU'RE STUPID”
”I know you are, but what am – oh hey Carlos, didn't see you standing there.”
Andrea's eyes opened wide and her mouth closed shut. She spun around, blushing. Carlos was not there. I lied.
Andrea glared at me. “Maria, you PUTA!”
“Bad word! You said a–” She tackled me to the ground. “HA HA YOUR CHEEKS WERE LIKE KETCHUP AHHHHH NO PULLING STOP IT OW”
We really were best of friends.
Then, of course, life happens.
Oh, we were close all the way through primary school and secondary school. We made friendship bracelets, we cycled along the beach together, and for our combined 15th birthday party – we have the same birthday! – we got ourselves a pair of internet-connected Friendship Lamps. You know, you turn one lamp on in your house, it turns on automatically in your friend's house, and vice versa? I still had mine in the attic.
But after school, I wanted to go to the Universidad de Panamá, but Andrea wanted to leave. She was sick of living in the same town all her life, so she and Carlos moved to an entirely different continent, on the opposite hemisphere of the Earth! That is, she moved to Colombia, one border over.
“I'll visit you!” turned to “I'll visit you next year!” turned to “We should hang out sometime.” turned to “Hey it's been a while, how've you been?” turned to nothing.
We're all busy, of course. I'm busy working on my postdoc, she's busy raising a son (or was it a daughter?), we're all too, too busy.
One evening, I was trying to write a few more pages for my report on neural maps between the hippocampal area and occipital lobe – a fun Saturday night – but couldn't focus because my light was flickering. After a few frustrated hours of hunting for papers to cite, I realized it wasn't the ceiling light that was flickering, but the ceiling itself. The heck? I turned the room light off, and saw that there was a glow leaking through the planks of my wooden ceiling. It was coming from the attic.
I went up, and found the source: my old Friendship Lamp. A pale-blue glass box, my half of the connection between me and Andrea. Whatever happened to her? Whatever happened to us? Too busy. And now, even this last reminder of her was dying, glitching out, flashing randomly in the dark.
flash flash flash. flaaaaash flaaaaash flaaaaash. flash flash flash.
That's not random. That's an SOS signal.
I whipped out my phone, and loaded up a Morse code chart. My Morse was a bit dusty. Andrea and I learnt Morse code together in Year 7, after we heard the news story of how the Colombian army sent a secret Morse code message through a song on the radio. I signalled back on the glass lamp:
R U THERE PLATYPUS
I used her codename we'd come up with as kids, because I wasn't sure if it was really her. Maybe her daughter (son?) was playing with her Friendship Lamp. If I got my codename back, I'd know it was really Andrea. I waited for a minute. No response. I signalled the message back again. Waited another minute.
I M HERE PEGASUS
I M IN DANGER
CL 10A NO 66B 24 MEDELLIN ANTIOQUIA COLOMBIA
Oh, no no no.
PLZ COME QUICK
I can't do this. I mean, I literally can't do this. Even with the new extension to the Pan-American Highway across the Darién Gap, that's over 15 hours in driving. I had an important meeting with my dissertation advisor the next day. I was busy. Too busy. And besides, did I even really know this person anymore? Was this the same Andrea from my childhood? Was this the same little girl who invited me to play Jenga with her when I was shy and alone at my new school? The same girl who comforted me and ate cocadas with me after that bastard broke my heart? The same girl who I went with on so many adventures, both real and imaginary?
No. It would be stupid, wishful thinking to throw my life off-track for this person. With my heart sunk into my bowels, I signalled back:
ANYTHING FOR AN OLD FRIEND
Sorry I can't make it to our dissertation meeting today. I'm currently on my way to diffuse a hostage situation using only my phone, a wig, and a twelve-year-old lamp. If I don't die, let's circle back on Wednesday? I'm really looking forward to talking with you about fMRI scans!
A couple years ago, when they finally extended the Pan-American Highway across the 100 km of marshland between Panama and Colombia, I thought about visiting Andrea. Then I thought, honestly, if I couldn't be bothered to fly across the border for her, I wouldn't drive across the border for her, either. Then I thought nothing about it, for two years, until my Friendship Lamp started flashing in the attic.
Thankfully, self-driving cars are now common, so I was able to safely communicate with Andrea while my car made the 15-hour trek. After connecting the lamp to my phone's WiFi hotspot, the first question I asked her was:
WTF WTF WTF WTF WTF
She knew how to read between my lines. Over the course of several hours, lots of Morse code typos, and many hand cramps, I learnt the following:
Carlos had taken their son hostage, in their own house. Andrea was in the attic. Carlos did not know Andrea was in the attic. She did not have her phone, which was why I was the only person she could reach through this lamp, and why we couldn't switch to a less painful method of communication.
Her son's name was Samuel. I never knew that.
Andrea could overhear Carlos yelling at their son downstairs. From what she gathered: Carlos thought Andrea was sleeping with some other man, and that she was currently at his place. Carlos was waiting at home for Andrea to return so he could kill her. Carlos had a gun. This was why we couldn't call the cops, either – Carlos promised Samuel that if his mother called the policía, he would "put your little bastard head against mine, point this gun so it aims through both of us, feel the trigger, and squeeze."
I told her Samuel was a beautiful name.
We spent the rest of my drive coming up with a plan to get Carlos out of the house, which would give Andrea time to get her son and get out. I looked up maps on my phone to find a wig store, pick a rendezvous point, and form a getaway plan. What with the secret plans, the Morse code messages, and the highway lights zipping past my window on a dark, star-less night, this almost felt like fun.
Until Andrea reminded me:
MARIA WE COULD DIE
I didn't know how to reply. So she continued:
U R NOT PEGASUS
I M NOT PLATYPUS
THIS IS NOT ONE OF OUR KID ADVENTURES
THIS IS REAL
R U SURE U STILL WANT TO DO THIS
And for a moment, I wasn't.
I FORGIVE U IF U NEED TO BACK OUT
Only a moment, though. I responded with the same message I'd signalled over and over, to the point where I was sure she was already sick of it, and if we were here in person, I'm sure she'd tackle me to the ground, pull my hair, and tell me how stupid I was. I signalled:
I LOVE YOU
My car started crossing the Darién Gap between Panama and Colombia. I rolled down the window, stuck my head out, and took a deep breath of air. It smelled like wet marsh and burnt tires. I had never felt more alive than in that moment.
Pegasus to Platypus, do you read me? Roger.
Platypus to Pegasus, it's not "Roger", it's "Over". Over.
Pegasus to Platypus, what do you want to do when you're older? Over.
Platypus to Pegasus, what do YOU want to do when you're older? Over.
Pegasus to Platypus, I asked first. Over.
Platypus to Pegasus, that WAS my answer. I want to do the same thing as you! Over.
Pegasus to Platypus, that's not fair! I want to do the same thing as you too! Over.
Platypus to Pegasus, what do you NOT want to do when you're older? Over.
Pegasus to Platypus, become a boring adult. Over.
Platypus to Pegasus, lol same. Over.
Pegasus to Platypus, did you just SAY "lol"? Over.
Platypus to Pegasus, hey, what happens if a guy using a walkie-talkie is named Roger? Must be confusing. Over.
Pegasus to Platypus, lol. Over.
I walked down the sidewalk, wearing a long brown wig, a standard housewife dress, and a standard housewife tote bag. So this was what playing dress-up as a boring adult was like.
I kept my eyes on the house numbers, and my mind off my racing heart. 18... 20... 22... Here it was: 24. It didn't take long for me to be sure this was their house.
“THERE you are, you filthy PUTA.” A fat, balding man was at the door. Wow, Carlos really let himself go. “Andrea, get the hell in already!”
I remained standing on the sidewalk, silent.
“Awwwww sweetie I'm sorry you know I didn't mean it like that.” Carlos said. “I just love you so much, that's why I get too much fire in my blood sometimes. Why don't you come in and we'll talk about it?”
I stood still. Behind Carlos, I saw Samuel trembling in the corner, crying soundlessly.
“Andrea?” Carlos took a step out the door. I ran away.
“ANDREA YOU FUCKING WHORE.” Carlos chased after me, leaving the door wide open.
I'd planned out the most random-seeming path. Left. Left. Right. Left. Right. Right. Right. I threw my wig away at the first dumpster I saw. Thankfully, I got some sleep while my car drove me to the rendezvous point, so my body was awake and my mind was alert. At another dumpster, I tore off my dress – I was wearing my old clothes underneath – and grabbed into my tote bag for my hat, sunglasses, and jacket: my second disguise.
I walked down another pre-planned path to our rendezvous point. My thoughts were racing faster than my heart. I was thinking: please be there please be there please be–
They were there. Andrea, mi vieja amiga, and her beautiful little boy.
It was only then I realized: this was the first time I saw Andrea in person in years. I had nothing planned to say. Neither did she.
And that was okay.
“Quick,” I said, grabbing more clothes from the bag, “put these on. I forgot to ask Samuel's size. Hope it fits.”
“It's perfect, Maria.” She was just as dumbstruck as me. “Thank you. I didn't bring my phone. Carlos put one of those tracking apps on there.”
“Son of a...” I looked at the kid. “...female dog. What did you bring, then?”
“Passport, offspring, and, oh, this:” She held up a small glass box. Her Friendship Lamp.
I couldn't help but laugh. “What the–? Why?”
“Sentimental value,” she smiled.
Then we just stood there for a while. Everyone around us was either rushing down the sidewalk, faces in their phones, or sitting at an outdoors coffeehouse table, faces in their laptops. Nobody was chatting with another human being, unless it was for studying, work, or ordering a café grande con leche de soja. Yet here we were, two old friends, both our lives actually at stake, taking the time to make stupid, useless, wonderful small talk.
Eventually, Samuel started crying again. Poor kid.
“Alright,” I said. “Let's get to my car.” We shuffled down the block.
“I just realized,” Andrea said, “my lamp's glowing. That must mean it's connected to someone's WiFi. Did you not change your phone's hotspot name & password after all these years?”
I blushed. “Guess not...”
We got to the car. Andrea noticed first. “Oh, shit.”
Carlos was standing there, gun in hand.
Andrea moved Samuel behind her. I remained standing by her side.
“So,” Carlos said, “I was chasing after who I thought was the love of my life, fire of my loins, the sweet lying whore I'd said my wedding vows to at the altar, when I ran past this car, and noticed this inside.”
He held up my Friendship Lamp up to his scowling face. I'd left my car unlocked with engine running, for a quicker escape. I figured I had much more to worry about than getting a lamp stolen.
“I couldn't help but notice it looked quite similar to the one my honey has,” Carlos said, “and then that's when I realized, oh yeah, that's the lamp she got with that ugly, skinny nerd-bitch back in Panama!”
Samuel dug his trembling hands and face into Andrea's back.
“You see why I don't let my girl hang out with other women? Always gives her crazy ideas.” Carlos looked at Andrea. “Pumpkin, why don't we go home? You've had a stressful day. You're not thinking clearly.”
She said nothing. Carlos kept my lamp held at eye-level in one hand, and kept his gun in the other.
“Come on, smoochy-kins,” Carlos said, “aren't you going to say anything?”
Then Andrea tapped her lamp thrice, causing my lamp to send a flash flash flash directly into Carlos's eyes. He dropped it, and it shattered right on his toes. Message received.
“MOTHERFU–” Bang. Carlos fired a shot. The crowd around us started screaming. We ran directly into the crowd, hoping to lose ourselves in it. In hindsight, it was a selfish move, because that could have made Carlos shoot into the crowd. Which he did.
Bang. The bullet pierced through some guy's hand while he was holding his café grande. The barista was already calling the police. “I'LL KILL YOU AND YOUR DYKE FRIEND, YOU CUNTS.” Bang. He fired another shot. This one went through my jacket, missing my sides by an inch.
We kept pushing through the crowd. Police sirens were approaching. “Wait. No no no!” Andrea turned around. “Sammy! Where's Sammy!” Her kid was gone. “SAMMY!” She ran back towards the gunfire. After zero seconds of hesitation, I ran after her.
When I got back onto the street, I didn't hear any more gunfire. I thought that was a good sign. It was not. Carlos had the gun pressed against Samuel's temple. Andrea was pleading in front of them. The poor kid was wetting himself.
“You have THIRTY SECONDS to say goodbye to your child, sweetheart!”
“No please god Carlos no! He's our child, don't–”
“IS he, lovie-pie? OUR child? Not that son-of-a-bitch Santiago?”
“Santi– what, the mailman? Jesus, Carlos!”
“Jesús?! It's his kid? Damn it, I knew that sneaky bastard was too friendly with y–”
“Carlos. The cops are coming. You haven't killed anyone yet.”
I snuck around them. The police sirens were nearing. I could see the cars now. Carlos didn't.
“You can stop! They won't hang you if you don't kill anyone! Just stop!”
“First of all, cinnamon bun, Colombia abolished the death penalty in 1910. Second of all, this is ALL. YOUR. FAULT.” He emphasized each word by digging the barrel of his pistol into Samuel's head.
“Hey pencil-dick!” I yelled from behind Carlos. He turned around, saw something flying towards him, and instinctively lifted his gun-holding arm up to stop it. He failed. Andrea's lamp broke right on his face.
All his rage now focused on me, he absent-mindedly let go of Samuel, who ran into Andrea's arms. She held him tightly. Carlos wiped the blood off his forehead, and took aim at me. I looked at Andrea. She looked at me. There was no longer any need for Morse code or walkie-talkies or even the three words. Her look said everything.
I closed my eyes.
I took one last breath.
I was still breathing?
I opened my eyes.
I saw Carlos on the road, sans half his head. A policewoman put away her rifle, and asked me if I was okay. I checked my body, almost as if it was too good to be true. Which it was: it turned out the bullet that went through my jacket and missed my sides by an inch did not miss my sides at all.
“Oh.” I said, and fell to the floor.
“Mommy...” sweet little Samuel asked, “...what's the WiFi password?”
Andrea was about to reply, when I piped up from my hospital bed, “Actually, Sam? You can use my phone's WiFi hotspot. The name is Pegasus and the password is–”
“Nevermind I found an open one!” Samuel scurried away with his iPad to play Telltale's The Walking Dead. Andrea let him.
“A bit young to be playing that, don't you think?” I asked.
“He just watched his father die, Maria.”
“Did his father die?”
“Okay, you got me. It was the mailman.” Classic Andrea.
She stood in silence for a while, afraid to ask the question I knew she was thinking, so I answered it for her.
“I don't have long, Andrea. They said one month.”
“Fuck.” Her eyes were getting wet.
“Andrea. Come closer. Before I leave, I... I need you to know something...”
She kneeled next to me, voice shaking. “What is it, Maria?”
“You're a big doody pants... and your hair still smells funny.”
Andrea blinked. I grinned.
“One month! That's when I'm being discharged!”
“THAT WAS NOT FUCKING FUNNY.” Andrea shook my body. “THAT WAS NOT... not...” She dropped her head into my bosom, tears now fully flowing. We just laid there. We listened to the rhythm of each others' breaths, to the wall clock's steady march, to the symphony of the sparrows outside our window. We were happy.
Half an hour later, I finally spoke: “Sorry I broke your lamp.”
“We don't need the lamps anymore.”
“Roger that. Over.”
“Are you busy next month? I could visit you in Panama.”
Busy? Busy. Too busy. My dissertation advisor is probably just dying to tell me about the latest advances in biostatistics. I'm busy, she's busy, we're all too busy. So I told her:
“Nope, not busy. No plans at all, Platypus. I'm free. I'm finally free.”