Authors: Ruta Sepetys
The table stretches the length of the entire dining room. As each course passes, the volume level grows. Twenty faces, illuminated by candles, shift and sway as they talk, creating patterns of light on the plaster ceiling. Summer homes, college alma maters, and who knows whom—each guest chatting, loading their side of the scale.
Ben Stahl, seated next to Daniel, sips his scotch and watches the guests intently. He leans in, his cigarette dangerously close to Daniel’s sleeve.
“All right, newsboy. Give me one word. What do you see here?”
Daniel hesitates, pulling at the noose of his tie.
“Quick, what do you see?”
“Competition,” says Daniel.
“Exactly!” Ben waves in agreement and, in the process, flings ash onto his plate. “A long, dark hallway of fragile egos. Come on, another word.”
Daniel scans the guests. “Wealth?”
“Yeah, wealth, but that’s not exactly on the nose. For accurate reporting you have to find the perfect word. The perfect word captures every subtlety. The perfect word shows true comprehension.”
Ben’s hand punches syllables when he says “perfect word,” launching ash confetti to the tablecloth. Daniel stares at the glowing embers as they burn through the expensive fabric. He desperately wants to capture it on film.
“Are you listening, Matheson?”
“Yes, sorry. The perfect word.”
“Correct. The word here isn’t ‘wealth,’ Matheson. The word is ‘fortune.’ Think on that as you’re taking pictures in Spain.” Ben pushes his chair back. “I need to find a litter box.”
Ben is right. The perfect word is like the perfect camera angle; it expresses the true nature of the situation. Change the camera position slightly and the picture tells tales. Daniel thinks of the photo he took of the nun and the baby. Maybe he should mention it to Ben.
Across the table, Daniel’s mother is seated next to Mrs. Van Dorn. Their faces are animated, but they speak in whispers. His mother suddenly looks into her lap. She inhales deeply.
Daniel recognizes his mother’s wearied look, her bookmark between chapters. She’s trying to hide it from Nick’s mom. He turns to Nick and searches for conversation.
“Do you have any siblings?”
“A sister. She’s in New York. My mom leaves tomorrow to visit her.”
“And your school in Switzerland. What’s that like?”
“Le Rosey? It’s better than a tired boarding school in the States. We spend weekends traveling. Lots to take pictures of. Plenty of visits to Madame Claude off the Champs, you know?”
“No, who’s that?”
Nick laughs. “Do you have a girl back in Dallas?”
“I did,” he says, eyeing his mother to make certain she can’t hear them. “It ended just before graduation.”
“Well, that’s lucky. Now you’re single in Madrid for the summer. Tell your dad you need to rent a car from the hotel. My family’s car is a diplomatic vehicle, so we can’t use that. But with our own car and your connections,” a sly grin spreads across Nick’s face, “we’ll have a big time.”
“Of course. It’s all about connections, cowboy. Your father’s an oil
tycoon, negotiating drilling in Spain. Who do you think is authorizing that deal?”
Daniel nods just slightly.
“That’s right. Franco. Sounds like your father’s an influential fat cat. My dad said the embassy is processing your family’s paperwork for the orphanage deal.”
Daniel looks at Nick.
“Wait, you knew, right?” says Nick.
Daniel nods slowly. “Yeah. Of course.”
Midday noise floats up from the street and through the balcony door of Daniel’s room. Bands of sunshine wash over the chair where he sits with a book.
“You’re the only child, Dan. The family business needs you,” his uncle had told him. But if their only child has no interest in the family business, they wouldn’t adopt another, would they? Daniel laughs. No, that’s ridiculous. Nick misunderstood. How would he know anything, anyway? But it pecks at him. It’s an oil deal, not an orphanage deal. Isn’t it?
A light tapping sounds at the entry to his suite. Daniel leaves his chair and pulls open the door. It’s the girl from the housekeeping staff who was in his room yesterday.
“Buenos días, señor.”
She smiles sweetly. “Your mother has sent for you.”
The blink of gold on her tooth matches the buttons on her sleeves. She is energetic yet graceful, with spirals of pretty, dark hair. He tucks the book under his arm and follows her down the hall.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“Ana,” she says, glancing over her shoulder.
Her eyes are pretty too. He thinks of his camera.
“Something good?” Ana points to the book.
Daniel holds it up and nods.
Slightly Out of Focus
Daniel’s mother sits at the desk, compiling a list on a hotel notepad. “Your father’s meeting has been changed,
. We’re leaving
tonight for Valencia. Would you rather stay here?” Without pausing for an answer, she points to a blouse on the bed and addresses Ana.
“A button fell off. Is there a chance you could mend it?”
Matheson.” Ana moves to inspect the blouse.
“Remind me of your name, dear?”
“It’s Ana,” says Daniel.
“I’m expecting a telegram. Can you see that I’m contacted as soon as it arrives, Ana?”
“Also, I’d like to take a gift to our dinner hosts in Valencia. Is there something lovely I could bring?”
Ana hesitates, thinking. “Perhaps candies from La Violeta? They are quite adored.”
“Could I trouble you to pick up two boxes?”
“Mom, I’m sure she’s very busy,” says Daniel.
“You don’t mind, do you, dear?” Mrs. Matheson scans her list.
“Not at all,” says Ana. “I am assigned to help your family.”
“Wonderful, because my son is looking for a camera shop.”
Daniel gives Ana an apologetic smile. At home in Dallas, his mother’s interaction with their household staff is more relaxed. The people on their estate aren’t employees, they’re family. In Texas, his mother is often described as “elegant Spanish.” But here in Spain, her demeanor suddenly feels brash next to Ana’s gentle sincerity.
As if sensing his unease, Ana quickly offers reassurance. “I often handle errands for guests. I know the owner of the camera shop. I’d be happy to take you,
Mrs. Matheson gives a syrupy sigh and turns in her chair. “
. Is my sweet little boy already a
Daniel rolls his eyes.
“Oh, forgive me, dear. Of course you’re no longer a boy. You and Laura Beth are off to college in the fall.”
No, we’re not. We broke up.
Should he just say it and get it over with? His mom’s reaction can’t be worse than the guilt he’s starting to feel by keeping it a secret.
, but we should hurry,
Matheson. Shops will close soon for lunch,” says Ana.
“Sure, just let me grab my bag,” says Daniel. He’s in a hurry too. The sooner his pictures are developed, the sooner he’ll see if he has a contest entry, a worthwhile story of his own, and—most important—a potential exit from oil.
Ana and Daniel stand in silence, waiting for the elevator to arrive at the seventh floor. Just as he thinks of something to say, the doors open.
Buenos días, señor
,” greets the elevator operator. He waves a white glove to welcome them into the small compartment. His forest-green uniform features the gold Castellana Hilton crest between two rows of shiny brass buttons.
The elevator descends, stopping at the fifth floor. A corpulent, gray-haired gentleman with wire-rimmed glasses enters.
Buenos días, Señor
Lobo!” exclaims Ana. She quickly makes way for the guest, stepping back so far that she’s brushing against Daniel. In the mirrored walls of the elevator, Daniel sees multiple angles of Ana. He lifts his camera and takes a picture.
“Now, that will be a lovely photo, indeed,” says the man, giving Daniel a wink. The doors open and the lobby staff erupts in greeting when the bespectacled guest emerges from the elevator.
“Who is that?” whispers Daniel.
Paco Lobo,” replies Ana. “The hotel’s most cherished guest. He’s been here three years.
Lobo supports two orphan girls and recently adopted an entire village.”
“He adopted a village?” asks Daniel.
“Yes, he adopted the people of Navalperal de Tormes, in the Gredos mountains. He’s very generous and supports them financially.”
Of course. That’s what his parents are doing with the orphanage that Nick mentioned. They support all sorts of charities.
Daniel watches the beloved guest make his way through the lobby. Why would the man live in a hotel rather than a home or an apartment?
Ana signals to a young bellboy, dressed in a uniform similar to the elevator operator’s. A round green hat, like a small drum, sits askew on the left side of his head.
The small boy sprints across the lobby to her side.
Matheson on the seventh floor is expecting an important telegram. When it arrives, deliver it to her directly.”
The boy nods enthusiastically and turns to Daniel.
He points to the image on Daniel’s belt buckle and bursts with excitement. “Tex-has!” He raises his fingers like guns. “Pow! Pow!”
“Yes, Texas,” says Daniel, laughing. “How old are you, Carlitos?”
“Twelve.” He beams, standing at attention. “Bellboys in Spain, we are called
—buttons. Most guests, they call me Buttons,
“All right, then. May I take your picture, Buttons?” The boy obliges, striking a well-practiced pose.
“Carlitos, please tell the front desk that I am on task for the Matheson family,” instructs Ana. Carlitos nods and marches away.
“He is a sweet boy, and very eager,” says Ana.
A female employee appears, carrying a bucket of ice. Her lips are a shock of red against her pale skin and dark hair. Seeing Ana and Daniel, she raises her eyebrows and changes course toward them.
, Lorenza,” says Ana. “Lorenza, this is
Matheson. His family is visiting from Texas.”
Lorenza nods slowly, staring at Daniel. Her eyes travel south, taking in his jeans and cowboy boots. Her brows flash with interest.
“Bienvenido a Madrid, caballero.”
She grins and saunters away.
Lorenza’s self-confident swing reminds him of Laura Beth. Not worth the whiskey.
Summer heat swells and clings as they exit the building. Bellmen
direct taxis collecting and delivering guests. Porters bustle, balancing stacks of colorful boxes and shiny bags from specialty shops in Madrid. Daniel scans quickly for the guards. They are nowhere in sight.
“Have you worked at the hotel long?” he asks.
“For nearly a year,” Ana says.
“I worked for a family.”
“Oh yeah? Which do you prefer?” asks Daniel.
“Actually, I’d prefer to hear about your camera. It looks very special.” Ana smiles.
Daniel follows Ana through the crowded sidewalks lined with acacia trees, sharing details of his camera. He stops to photograph an old brick archway.
“That is the entrance to the Sorolla Museum,
. You must visit. It’s wonderful.”
They approach a café adorned with brightly painted tiles. A sunburned tourist sits alone at a sidewalk table. He dozes, clutching a glass containing a final sip of wine. As he surrenders to sleep, the glass and remaining liquid tip dangerously close to his pants.
Ana grins and nods quickly.
Just as Daniel snaps the picture, the man opens his eyes, catching them in the act. They hurry away, laughing.
“Think he was drunk or just sleepy?” smiles Daniel.
“Both!” laughs Ana. “But which was the better photo? The sleeping tourist or our faces when he opened his eyes?”
“Great question! Wish we could see the two together. It’s so easy to miss the good shots.” Daniel’s smile retreats as they pass two men in gray uniforms on the corner. They’re holding billy clubs and sour expressions.
“There are also some shots to avoid,
,” says Ana, her voice
dropping in volume. “The police corps in the gray uniforms—
—and of course the Guardia Civil.”
.” He nods. “Are there many Guardia Civil?”
Ana pauses, thinking. “Perhaps forty thousand?”
There’s a clutch to his throat. “Forty thousand?”
“Yes, but you probably won’t see them. They mainly patrol outside the city centers.”
But he has seen them,
the city center. Why were they following the nun with the baby? Somehow, losing his film to them makes him want the picture even more.
Horns hoot and engine radiators bubble through the hot, congested streets.
“How did you discover photography?” asks Ana.
“My art teacher, Mr. Douglas. He convinced me to join the school paper.”
Their conversation continues, alternating naturally between English and Spanish as they walk. Ana listens carefully, the first in a while to show interest in his photography.
“Sorry. I’m rambling about camera stuff,” he says.
“You’re not rambling. I asked,
Leading him down the wide cement stairs to the Metro, Ana explains how to purchase a ticket and which transit line they will take to cross the city. Although the glances aren’t overt, Daniel feels the eyes of the locals. He also feels the eyes of Ana. Is it the jeans, the large belt buckle, or the boots that draw attention?
The Metro is a thrumming underground tube of white tile. Suspended lights illuminate colorful advertisements painted on the arched walls. The platform is clogged with passengers, but orderly. With such well-ordered society, are so many police and guards on the street really necessary?
“That’s our train. Quick, let’s catch this one before it departs.”
Ana pulls Daniel by the sleeve into a throng of people boarding a car. The door closes, sandwiching the passengers together.
Ana grasps the metal handrail overhead. The air inside the car is heavy with heat. As the car jerks forward, Daniel feels a trickle of sweat make its way from his hairline down to his ear. They stand so close a sheet of paper would barely slide between them.
“Is it too hot for you,
?” whispers Ana.
He feels a wisp of her breath on his neck. He tries to wipe his brow. “No. It’s pretty hot in Texas too.”
“Do you have a Metro in Dallas?”
He shakes his head. “We have bus service.”
Daniel thinks of his journalism project. Last year, the Dallas Transit Company announced its buses would be desegregated and the
signs would be removed. But they weren’t. Daniel documented the delay, taking photos and reporting each week to the national headquarters of the Associated Press. He received an A on his project, but his efforts displeased many.
“You have subways in New York City, though,” says Ana, interrupting his thoughts.
The train suddenly sways, jostling the passengers and pressing Ana against him. The feel of her so close, he nearly forgets to reply. “Yes . . . subways in New York.”
“Grand Central is a big station.”
“Oh, you’ve been to New York City?” asks Daniel.
Ana looks up, her nose nearly touching his chin. She shakes her head. “No, I’ve never been to New York. I’ve never left Spain,
.” She pauses, then looks away quickly.
The sudden change in her expression, he can’t place it.
Is it sadness—or is it fear?