Staring out at Arenal Volcano from the picturesque resort she would call home for the next six days, Victoria knew she’d made the right decision. The idea of traveling alone to another country was intimidating at first, but after some encouragement from her family and friends back home in Philadelphia, she decided to embrace it. After all, it was either that or say goodbye to the thousands of dollars she and Michael had poured into the non-refundable vacation package. It wasn’t how she ever envisioned her honeymoon, but knowing what she knew now, the idea of being here with Michael made her skin crawl. She was just glad he’d come clean before the wedding. Divorce seemed like such a headache.
From the walking trail that led her from the reception office, the volcano towered above bungalow 301. The cozy yellow structure was topped with a slated maroon roof and surrounded by lush greenery. Chirping birds and leaves swaying softly in the light breeze were the only sounds she could hear. With a deep breath she filled her lungs with the clean, warm air and her mind with the restorative calm of nature. For the first time since Michael’s confession and the tumultuous chaos that followed, she felt at peace.
Victoria walked along the pebbled path that bridged between the main walking trail and her bungalow. When she inserted her key and opened the front door she was startled to see a young girl, no older than seven or eight, sitting on one of the two beds. The girl looked just as startled to see her and clutched a stuffed bunny that had been laying on the bed beside her.
“Mommy!” the girl called. A young woman emerged from the bathroom, brushing a tumble of brown hair. She looked curiously from her daughter to Victoria, then smiled.
“Hi there, can I help you?” Victoria flushed in embarrassment.
“I’m so sorry. They must have given me the wrong key. I thought this was my room. Is this 301?” Her words were rushed and awkward.
“Yes, this is 301. We just got here. We have this room until next Saturday.”
“Okay, okay, they must have just mixed me up. I’m so sorry again. I’ll just get out of your hair and head back to the front desk to figure this out.” She was already rushing to close the door behind her when the woman called after her.
“Wait, we’ll go with you! Come on, Jenna, you can bring Bunny.”
“Oh, you don’t have to…”
“No, it’s no problem. I’m sure it’s just a little mix up. But, hey, I want to make sure we aren’t the ones in the wrong room!” The woman gave a lighthearted laugh and Victoria was relieved that was so understanding of the intrusion. Victoria herself would have been unnerved knowing that a stranger had been given the keys to her room and could walk in unannounced.
“I’m Heather. And this is Jenna.” Heather shot a bright smile and nudged Jenna, who had now released her death grip on the stuffed animal and was smiling shyly up at Victoria.
As the three of them walked back down the trail toward the reception office, they chatted like old friends. It might have had something to do with her renewed sense of excitement at being in a beautiful new place, but Victoria found herself talking openly and honestly with this woman she’d just met. It also helped that Heather was very chatty and asked a lot of questions. Victoria revealed that she was on what was supposed to be her honeymoon, and that the wedding had been called off after her ex-fiancé admitted just one week before that he had cheated on her. At this, Heather promptly declared him a pig and Jenna agreed he was a gross jerk. Victoria learned that Heather was a single mother to ten-year-old Jenna, and that this was their third time visiting Costa Rica. Heather had friends who had moved to the country over twenty years prior and she fell in love with it. So much so that she was now fluent in Spanish. She insisted she would give Victoria a list of all the places she simply had to go during her stay. Heather and Jenna appeared to be an amazing duo. Upbeat, energetic, and kind. Despite the room confusion, Victoria felt grateful she had met them.
At the front desk Victoria placed her key on the counter before two young men, both beaming in welcome. When she explained that Heather and Jenna had already been given room 301 for the week their smiles drooped, and they began shuffling papers behind the counter frantically. Breaking from the minimal English they knew to converse with English-speaking guests, they began chattering away rapidly in Spanish. employees seemed frazzled. They talked quickly in Spanish, much too rapidly for Victoria to understand with her limited knowledge of the language.
“Shit.” Heather whispered under her breath. Victoria turned to her.
“What is it?”
“They double-booked us.”
Heather interjected between the two men in Spanish. They conversed for several beats, seemingly sorting out how to handle the situation. Then, something in Heather’s face seemed to shift from frustration to excitement.
“Let’s share the room.” She turned to Victoria.
“Yeah! Why not? You’re here alone and we would love to keep you company anyway.” Her eyes searched Victoria’s for a response.
Caught off guard, Victoria shifted her gaze from Heather to the two young men. They were staring back hopefully.
“Come on, it will be fun!” Heather pressed, turning Victoria back to face her.
“Um, is that our only option? Is that what they said?”
“Sounds like it.” Heather responded with a shrug, then turned back to the counter and said something else in Spanish. The young men beamed and gave a thumbs up.
“Wait, wait. What did you say? What’s happening?” Victoria suddenly felt utterly ignorant coming to a Spanish-speaking country without bothering to learn the language. She thought the best way to save herself from more embarrassment, or worse, offending anyone, was to accept the path of least resistance.
“If you’re okay with this idea, Jenna and I certainly are. Right Jen?”
“Sure! It will be like a slumber party!”
Victoria nervously shifted her weight from foot to foot as she quickly considered the situation once more. It didn’t seem there was any other option. And if she had to share a room with a stranger she could do much more than this lovable mother daughter duo. She threw her hands up and exhaled the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding as she smiled back.
“Okay!” Heather jumped and brought Victoria in for a hug. Jenna squealed and bounced up and down. “What an adventure! We are going to make sure you have the best non-honeymoon ever!” They both laughed at that and Victoria allowed her nerves to melt into relief.
That afternoon, after unpacking their suitcases, the three of them headed to the resort’s pool area. While Jenna flipped and dove around in the deep end, Victoria and Heather lounged up against the swim-up bar. Sipping on margaritas they quickly got to know one another. Along with the alcohol, relief flooded Victoria’s veins. It almost seemed too good to be true that they were getting along so well, and she told Heather how lucky she felt to have crossed paths with them. Heather smiled warmly at Victoria.
“The way things are turning out I think we all got lucky.”
The next few days seemed to Victoria to float by in a montage of hiking excursions, relaxing poolside, and visits to the natural hot springs down the road. They encountered sloths, monkeys, and birds Victoria had never even heard of before. Jenna delighted in watching Victoria’s first time eating Casado. Heather led them across the hanging bridges within Arenal National Park and Victoria dazzled at the view of the rainforest from above. Within days it had seemed as though the three had known one another for years. Laughing and teasing one another with the ease of old friends. Victoria thought perhaps this stroke of luck that lead to her sharing this trip with the perfect pair of strangers was the universe’s way of balancing the scales after the heartbreak of her failed marriage plans.
On the fifth night they took a taxi to a local restaurant in La Fortuna, a small town just a few miles from their resort. Choosing a seat out on the patio, they were surrounded by the sounds of downtown – the faint mixing of music coming from various establishments, the chatter of a million different conversations, the beeps and honks of cars going every which way. With some persuasion from Heather, Victoria had already finished three cocktails by the end of the meal. They’d been waiting for a dessert menu to arrive when she excused herself to use the restroom. When she wandered back to their table a few minutes later sparkling candles graced the top of a large slice of tres leches cake in the middle of the table. Heather started giggled as soon as she saw Victoria approaching. Jenna sat quietly, unsmiling, which seemed odd to Victoria at first. But the haze of the alcohol and the loudness of Heather’s voice snapped her attention away.
“I told them it’s your birthday and they gave us this cake and free drinks!”
“Oh my gosh, you liar!”
“Shh!” Heather’s eye widened with mock fear as she forced a drink into Victoria’s hand.
“Oh, no, no. I can’t have any more. I’m already drunk! I haven’t drunk like this since college.”
“Oh, come on. You’re in Costa Rica! Live it up, just one night.”
“I don’t know. Do you really want to have to take care of me tonight?”
“Girl, I’ve got you.” Heather insisted, raising her eyebrows in assurance. “I won’t let anything happen to you.” Reluctantly, Victoria accepted the drink.
“Fine, but only because I’ll need something to wash down this delicious cake.”
Victoria woke up to sudden and aggressive urge to vomit. She leapt out of bed just in time to make it to the toilet before it came spilling out of her. The pounding in her head was so violent she had to hold back tears.
“My god. How much did I drink?” She mumbled the question to herself as she scrambled to piece together her memories of the night before. The last thing she could recall with certainty was chasing a mouthful of tres leche cake with some sort of mixed drink. Had she even asked what was in it? Had she had another drink after that? A black hole filled the space where her memory should have been.
After splashing some water on her face and brushing her teeth, she stared into the mirror and shook her head in disbelief. This was not like her at all. She prepared herself for the embarrassment of facing Heather and Jenna, then opened the door.
“Guys, I am so-“ She stopped short. The room was empty. “Guys?”
She looked around the small square room, as if one of them would materialize from the walls. Realizing just how empty the room appeared, her panic set it. Bunny was not laying on their bed as usual. Their suitcases were not leaned up against the far wall as they had been each day before. She glanced back into the bathroom and noticed their toothbrushes were gone. What the hell happened last night?
Victoria quickly got dressed, and walked out the sliding glass door that led to a small patio. She hesitantly repeated their names, quietly at first, then louder, until eventually she was yelling. There was no response. Where were they? Had something happened to them? Had she done something horrible in her blacked-out state to drive them away? Only when she spun around to come back inside did she notice a scrap of paper peeking out from under one of her pillows. She rushed over and nervously picked it up. With a shaky hand and another round of vomit threatening to erupt from her throat, she unfolded it.
I'm sorry Victoria. I tried to tell Mommy no this time, but she wouldn’t listen. She put something in your drink and I didn’t tell you. I hope you forgive me. Love, J (sorry I can’t tell you my real name)
Horrified, re-reading the words that had been hurriedly scrawled in Jenna’s child-like handwriting, Victoria’s brain flooded with even more questions. She reached for her phone, but it was not on the nightstand where she usually kept it at night. Looking around, she didn’t see it anywhere. In fact, she did not see the purse she’d been carrying the night before anywhere either.
The throbbing in her temples intensified and she fought the overwhelming urge to crawl back into bed and pretend this had all been a bad dream. She opened the closet where she’d been keeping her suitcase, and saw her clothing sprawled about as though someone had angrily thrown them out of place. She instinctively moved to check the hidden pocket within the lining of her suitcase, and that’s when the horrible truth hit her. Her passport and drivers license were gone. Her return ticket for her flight home was gone. Heather had taken it all.
An overwhelming feeling of dread weight her shoulders down until she crumbled to the floor. How had she let this happen? How could she have been so stupid? How was she going to explain this to everyone back home? How would she even get in touch with them without her phone? How would she get home? The torrent of unknowns crashed in on her. The situation compounded by the physical torture her body was experiencing left her laying there, in the middle of the floor, tears streaming down her cheeks. She would need to figure out her next move, but first she needed to vomit again.