The evening breeze coming off the Caribbean Sea was cool, but the air continued to be warm and comfortable. Since the restaurant was only a few blocks away, Tim, Joanna, and the boys decided to walk. Bjorn had moved on to other things by the time that the boys had returned from the park to the condo. Dylan was happy that Bjorn’s hadn’t announced to everyone, including his mom and Tim, that he had been flattened to the ground by the most beautiful girl in the world.

As they approached El Pescado Dorado, the scent in the air was intoxicatingly full of delicious hints of Mexican fare. The smell of chilis, garlic, cumin, and cinnamon mixed with the sea breeze, and both boys attempted to speed the group up. They were already hungry, and the smell made them even hungrier.

The restaurant was a relatively large affair, with huge windows, covering much of the walls, which were opened to allow the air to circulate. The tables and chairs were carved with elaborate tropic scenes of parrots, plants, and fruits, all painted in bright, vibrant colors. It was crowded, but because Tim had reserved a table, they were seated quickly. The boys ordered one of their new favorite drinks, a Sidral Dundet, an apple-flavored soda while the adults ordered traditional margaritas.

The conversation was light and happy. All four of them were smiling and happy. Then Joanna noticed that Dylan seemed a million miles away. He was staring towards the entrance, almost in a trance. “Are you okay, Dylan?”

“Uh, yeah, uh, uh, I’m fine, I mean … uh, I’m good,” replied Dylan. He pulled himself back to together, unable to contain the smile that was spreading on his face.

Joanna and Tim both looked at each other and then to where Dylan had been staring. Tim chuckled, eyeing Dylan with a smile. Joanna blushed just slightly. She immediately realized what that look was on her son’s face. Bjorn had been distracted and was playing with his straw when he realized that everyone at the table had goofy looks on their faces. He was perplexed for a moment, then looked around, and started giggling.

“Hey Dylan, there’s your girlfriend!” he announced in an annoying, sing-song voice.

“Shut up, Bjorn,” Dylan snapped back.

Tim looked at the boys quizzically, inquiring, “Do you actually know her, Dylan? She’s beautiful.”

Bjorn simply couldn’t contain himself any longer. Dylan began to blush and shake his head up and down, knowing he was about to relive this afternoon’s scene in the local park.

Bjorn began to laugh. “She about knocked Dylan’s balls clean to Cuba this afternoon with a soccer ball! My dingwit brother just stood there like an idiot while she pounded that soccer ball. WHAM! Right in the NADS!”

Bjorn fell into another uncontrollable giggle festival. He tried to say more but couldn’t get the words to form because of how he was cracking himself up. Dylan tried to explain what had happened, without sounding like he was some dumb, love-struck, gawking imbecile, but both his mom and Tim were having trouble not cracking up too. Then suddenly the adults stopped laughing, but smiling expressions descend upon their faces.

Dylan turned his head, knowing what he would see. She was standing right there, in a flowing yellow sundress. Her dark hair, slightly wavy, appeared to shimmer and throw off reflections of different colors. With her hands clasped low and slightly drawn up, it seemed like she was a little timid or embarrassed.

Tim began to stand up and gently cleared his throat. Dylan, appreciating the hint, quickly stood to greet her. Joanna’s smile widened. She was happy that Tim was teaching the boys a bit more about proper etiquette and manners. At times, it seemed a tiny bit forced and foreign in today’s world, but watching her son stand and greet this beautiful young woman like a gentleman was genuinely heartwarming.

“Hi Dylan,” Adelita spoke softly, “we met at the park today.”

“Hi, Adelita. Yeah. Uh. Glad to see you again,” he replied, trying desperately not to trip on his own tongue.

“I just, um, well, I wanted to . . .” Before she could finish her thought, Dylan swept his arm towards his mom. “This is my mom, Joanna. And her boyfriend, Tim, and you know my little brother, Bjorn.” The adults made their polite greetings while Bjorn, a little belatedly, rose to his feet to greet Adelita.

Adelita smiled at Bjorn and whispered to Dylan, but not quietly enough so that everyone heard, “Your little brother is sooo cute.”

It was Bjorn’s turn to blush, but always the comedian, he quickly commented, “That was a helluva shot this afternoon. Dylan’s still walking funny and bowlegged!”

Before Dylan could tell his brother to shut up, Joanna piped in, “Bjorn, we need to go wash our hands before dinner.” She turned to Adelita, declaring, “It was wonderful to meet you. I hope we see you again soon.” She then scooted Bjorn towards the restrooms.

“I’m so, so sorry about this afternoon,” Adelita offered, turning to gaze into the teenage boy’s eyes. As much as he was taken with her, she was feeling just as intensely towards him.

“I think I need to go to the bar to check out the tequila selection,” Tim explained, as he gave Dylan a quick wink and headed towards the bar.

Dylan looked back towards Adelita but really didn’t know what to say. He was entirely at ease yet completely terrified, standing there with her. Adelita was struggling to try to get a conversation going, hoping that it would tame the butterflies going wild in her stomach. All at once, they both noticed the growing commotion near the bathrooms.

An obviously drunk tourist was waving his finger at Joanna and Bjorn. He appeared to be having trouble standing, and it was apparent that he was mad at Bjorn and Joanna. Bjorn’s face was clenched in rage, and his hands balled into fists.

“You little punk! Don’t even try to tell me to leave her alone!” The drunk man’s words were slurred and angry. “She wants to come home with me, and I’m taking her!”

All of a sudden, it felt like the building trembled. It was an eerie and frightening feeling. A huge vase, filled with a gigantic plant, rattled and fell off the shelf above the man. It came crashing down on his head, and he toppled unconscious to the floor.

Activity burst throughout the restaurant, and Dylan began moving towards his mom. He saw Tim push through the crowd and signal towards the entrance. Tim scooped up Bjorn, grabbed Joanna’s hand, and headed towards the door. Dylan was only a few paces behind, and when he got outside, Bjorn was nearly hysterical. He was crying and kept repeating, “It followed me! It followed me!” Within a few moments, Joanna had calmed the boy, but he was visibly shaken.

The manager came out the door a few minutes later, looking very upset and apologizing over and over. Tim pulled him aside, and they launched into an intense conversation. Neither seemed exactly sure of what had happened, but the manager was reassuring Tim that it was all the drunken man’s fault. Some patrons had seen him grab Joanna roughly, so Bjorn had pushed him away and tried to pull his mom to safety. Bjorn was a hero, and the manager assured Tim that the drunken patron would be arrested.

Adelita came out of the restaurant, with a slightly older couple. Dylan knew at once that they were her parents. It just made sense. The Asian man was handsome, tall, lean, and dressed impeccably. He was holding his wife’s hand. She was elegant and moved gracefully. Her long hair and high cheekbones were very similar to Adelita’s. He could see the resemblance at once. Dylan wasn’t sure if she was Hispanic or maybe Spanish, or even Greek. They were both very kind and concerned with what had happened. Bjorn was still rattled. He held his mom’s hand and kept himself very close to her. Adelita’s father managed to bring a bit of comfort to the boy with his praise of the boy’s bravery.

Bjorn just wanted to go back to the condo, and Tim and Joanna decided that was the best plan. Adelita’s parents offered to have Dylan stay. Perhaps, the two teenagers could even get their own table for dinner. The manager, who was talking with the police, overheard and interjected that he would be honored for them to stay and that dinner would be his treat. Dylan was torn. His little brother was so shaken up, and Dylan was often the one to care for him. Both his mom and Tim urged him to stay, and, after a few moments, he decided that he would. Adelita gently placed her hand on Dylan’s elbow as a happy smile spread across her face.

Dinner was like a dream for the young couple. While the circumstances weren’t necessarily “traditional,” it was still both of their first dates at a nice restaurant, eating at their own table. They found many commonalities. Both loved soccer, but Dylan had moved on to other sports in high school and admitted he was never even close to as good as she was. They were both 15, loved some of the same TV shows, disliked chemistry class, and also shared a desire to skydive, which none of the parents would allow. Adelita’s father owned a company that had property around the world in various resort communities. They were living here because the company was building a new hotel.

Living in Playa del Carmen had one other benefit for Adelita. Her mother’s sister lived here with her uncle, Hector Morozea. He was a scuba diving instructor and guide. They decided that it would be fun to have Uncle Hector take the two of them on a dive.

When Dylan returned to the condo, his mom was curled up in Tim’s arms on the couch. It was apparent that she had been crying. Joanna, pulling herself up, asked how the rest of Dylan’s evening was. Of course, it had been like a dream, better than he had ever expected. Both adults expressed how happy they were for Dylan and were pleased that his evening had gone so well. They told him that Bjorn had eventually calmed down and was already asleep. They had come back to the condo and had a quiet dinner.

“I told Tim about Tennessee,” Joanna confided to Dylan.

“Snotty, self-righteous, small towns aren’t always the American dream,” Tim asserted, with a very compassionate voice.

Joanna and the boys had moved to the small town, to live with her mother, as the grandmother’s age was beginning to weigh heavily. It had seemed so idealistic, at first. It was small-town America, with good schools, a five-block-long downtown, and friendly people that all seemed to know each other.

Then the trouble had started. In some ways, it was a bit unreal. No one really believed in ghosts or the supernatural, but strange events began to happen in their home. A toy would go flying across a room. A book would fall off a bookshelf, seemingly of its own accord. The house seemed to shake at times, rattling dishes and pictures on the wall.

Joanna had been lost, at first, on what to do. She didn’t want to seem crazy, but she eventually confided in the wife of the minister of the church that they occasionally attended. The woman had been compassionate, and in many ways she and Joanna became friends. In truth, she really didn’t believe Joanna, at least in the beginning. Then one day she while she was visiting, the television remote fell off the table and rolled across the floor, right in front of her.

Soon afterward, the rumors began. It was subtle, at first. There would be a strange look from someone in the grocery store, or a car would drive past the house more slowly than usual. Then it began to grow. Joanna overheard that her mother’s house might be haunted by a demon or a poltergeist. Some of the boys’ friends didn’t come over to the house anymore and even began avoiding them at school. It was uncomfortable, and the family started to feel isolated.

Of course, there were a few compassionate people. They tried to be kind, but it was always from a distance. In a town like that one, conformity and having a place to belong were important. No one was comfortable being seen as bucking the social norms or the prevailing perceptions of those who were the most vocal in town. Sometimes, Joanna would wonder if any of these kinder folks were trying to talk sense into those who had come to the judgment that the devil had invaded her house on Oak Street. She knew better. It would be easier for her to move away and let the rumors die down, but her mother had become very ill. She had to hold on.

Sadly, within a few weeks, Joanna’s mother passed away from a heart attack. It was apparently evidence enough for the minister’s wife to decide that an exorcism was in order. She showed up on a Saturday morning to piously let Joanna know that her husband and a few elders would be coming by to rid the house of the evil spirits.

She and Joanna were standing in the living room arguing when Bjorn walked in on them. The woman tried to reassure Bjorn that the house would soon be rid of the evil poltergeist. Joanna demanded that the woman leave and not to bother coming back. At that moment, a picture fell off the wall. Even though it was a few feet from the woman, it landed at her feet, cutting her legs in many places. She left in a hurry, blathering on about Satan and demons and unclean spirits.

Things got even worse after the woman wrote an article in the church newspaper about the devil moving into a local home. Even the tiny local paper picked up the story and ran an article. It was more than anyone should have to take. Joanna moved the boys to Denver, and they severed contact with everyone they knew in Tennessee.

• • •

Chapter 24 Chapter 26