The hotel is just outside the tiny town of Puerto Natales and from the look of the exterior, lights out, deserted parking lot, it is empty when they arrive. Eleanor knew when booking that they would be on the cusp of the off season, when winds would be volatile and temperatures unpredictable, but she had not expected everyone to be so turned off by this. The off-season pricing was the only way this place seemed remotely affordable, after all.
As they approach the large, ornately-carved wooden door, Gabriel stops at a keypad. A spotlight blinks on above them. Eleanor has not been able to activate the cellular network on her phone to look up a number to call for check-in directions –– and it had been her task to write down such vitals before leaving, which she had. The paper proof is still sitting, neatly, on her desk.
“Didn’t you get a door code?” asks Gabriel, tapping in an arrangement and speed that confirms its own arbitrariness. She stares at the blank face of her phone, unable to remember any instructions. Of course there is no service here, she thinks, where their phones registered the location in photos taken along the drive as Tierra del Fuego –– Antarctica –– End of the World.
Then as if conjured, a Wi-Fi network pops up. The Patagonian. No password. Eleanor accepts the terms without reading and a push notification appears with only one option. She clicks –– Enter.
Gabriel steps back as the massive doors open inwards. She tiptoes past him, scanning for a check-in desk or a night manager, but there is no one –– staff or guests. Overhead lights flicker on like fireflies, starting in the lobby and trailing down hallways that split like roots from the base. The lobby, if you can call it that, has none of the trappings of a traditional one. There is no round table with an outrageous floral arrangement. No concierge desk. No brass luggage trolleys with bell boys perched beside them, ready for deployment.
She turns to find Gabriel exploring the other side of the room, a giant fireplace crackling beside him. “Where is everyone?” he says softly.
“You should’ve been here last week.”
Eleanor turns, sure to see a concierge or bell boy to greet them. The cold stone floor reflects a white pool of light from the moon outside.
“This week is the start of our windy season. You see, one moment it’s perfect, like this. But the next –– I assume you brought windbreakers and warm layers? As we discussed on the phone, Eleanor.”
She whips around again, unsure of where this person could be standing out of sight, but when she turns back towards Gabriel his chin is angled up to the ceiling.
“I’m Natalia, I’ll be assisting you this weekend.”
Eleanor’s phone vibrates in her pocket, likely loading the backlog of texts and emails and voicemails that accumulated without service, though its quick pulsing now feels like an alarm going off inside her.
She looks at Gabriel. Both of them stand speechless, or simply too self-conscious to make a sound. Gabriel looks back up at the ceiling beams.
“I’ve heard of this,” he whispers, walking over to Eleanor. “I had no idea you’d booked an AI hotel. I wouldn’t have thought it your style, Ellie.”
“It’s not,” she says. “I didn’t realize. I mean, I spoke with her –– that was the voice on the phone. I just assumed, I don’t know, there was a body on the other end.”
He leans in closer as though to afford them privacy. “It’ll be great. Even more intimate, right? No one bugging us with fresh towels, or turn-down service.”
The plan was to spend three nights in the all-inclusive, luxury hotel, which would lend a vacation-feel to the beginning of Eleanor’s research trip. After that Gabriel would head home to Argentina for the rest of the week to catch up with his family there, while she would continue on to the campsite in Torres del Paine where the chiropterologist who initially reported the fruit bat sighting was stationed.
The fruit bats in question are colloquially known as the Flying Fox, under the Megabat family, and recently there have been reports of sightings in Chilean Patagonia, near Torres del Paine National Park. If such sightings are true it would mark the furthest that any family of flying mammals has ever traversed, presumably in search of food. And given the potential link to global warming –– the accelerated cycle of fruit-bearing trees moving from bloom to rot, and fruit being the primary marker of habitat for these bats –– who better to explore such reports than a fifth year PhD student in Climate Change and Sustainability, on the very last of her grant money? Better yet, in a relationship that could benefit from a little tacked-on-fun? The longest relationship –– a year and two months –– Eleanor had been able to sustain in her adult life has now unearthed unfamiliar questions of what next? What comes after the comfort, the dependability? And so, Patagonia –– two birds, one plane ticket –– she had thought.
The intensely friendly voice snaps her back into the room.
“I want to sit down with you and go over your activities for the next several days. Shall we take a moment now, or would you rather settle into your room?”
“I’m sorry,” Gabriel says. “Sit down? With us?”
Gabriel smirks. He looks so handsome right now –– Fuck him, she thinks –– even under the harsh overhead lights, even after flying for ten hours, driving for two. Even after taking the middle seat on both flights, so she could have an aisle, which had seemed selfless at the time but perhaps simply pointed to her tiny bladder and his desire for uninterrupted sleep. Selfish really. That sweet fucking man.
“Oh I see, that was funny. Because I am not able, physically, to sit down? Ha. Ha.”
The phone vibrates again in her pocket –– two pulses, a text. Eleanor knows without looking who it is. Or at least, who she fears.
“Why don’t you take a moment then, to settle in? We have you in Room 5, down the first hallway to the left. You’ll find it open, key inside.”
Their room is beautiful –– dark polished woods in sleek lines that compliment the hotel’s reclaimed brick walls. Everything is understated, leading the eye towards a wall of glass and the sky blue glacier practically glowing in the distance.
Gabriel plops down on the bed, lets out a happy sigh. Eleanor lays down beside him with her book, Indigenous Creatures of Europe and Central Asia. She has read the same passages on fruit bats countless times at home in preparation for this trip, so now in the midst of it the text feels more like reassurance than research.
Fruit Bats will not mate if they sense a threat, even if simply in regard to their food supply or finding safe shelter. Scientists reason this is nature’s way of regulating bat populations in each region, such that ––
She looks over at Gabriel, eyes closed, then takes her phone out again. Still, she resists the urge to activate its screen. She places it beside her leg and keeps reading –– Fruit bats live in large colonies, for both safety and companionship, and within those they form sub-groups generally consisting of eight females for each male. Bats in such sub-colonies are known to form intense connections. If one of the females goes missing, for example, the male bat will –– but it’s a good thing she never tried hard drugs because without finishing another sentence Eleanor is already tapping the phone to get her fix. Then there it is, confirmed: Al.
2 missed calls. One text message. Call me xx.
She slips out from beside Gabriel in bed, but he wakes.
“Where are you going? Get in here.”
“You nap,” she says, holding up her phone. “I have to take this, I don’t want to bother you. Be back in a few.”
She wanders down the hallway, lights flickering on as she moves, confirming the futility of sneaking around here. From the old photographs lining the wall, the structure appears not only to have been an old factory, but a slaughterhouse, from when the area relied solely on its exports like cattle, rather than this new adventure tourism.
At the end of the hallway is a room full of windows and what appears to be some sort of staff rec room, left to disarray. Perhaps, she reasons, the new “staff” and their hovering voices need no space of their own. She imagines Natalia there, in the ether above, relaxing. Decompressing. Every wall, desk, and sign in this room is white, or once was, though now the scene looks more like a photograph left out in the sun for years.
In the corner by a bookshelf full of tattered spines stands an old telephone booth in that same shade of faded, forgotten white. The cavity where a payphone had once lived lays open inside it like a wound. She considers entering it for privacy –– or ceremony –– then imagines the countless tourists in peak season, holding tiny devices up to their faces, or gesturing with both hands as shiny cordless buds sit perched in their ears. She cannot help but think how someone from the original era of this room, and such telephone booths, might mistake these people for crazy, talking to their palms or into nothing at all. This absence we equate with modernity.
As she approaches the booth, her phone vibrates again. But this time the pulsing continues beyond two beats.
“Eleanor,” says Alexandre. “Are you there?”
“Yes,” she says. “We just got here.”
“We,” he prods.
A hemisphere and a world away, yet still trapped.
“I didn’t get to see you yesterday,” he continues when she does not speak.
“It was busy,” she says. “Lots of loose ends to tie up.”
She is proud of the indifference in her voice despite her heart beating fast. As she stares out the window at tall amber grasses fading towards the water, she waivers. “Dr. Thomasson got a cake. There were even candles, though I’m not sure why.”
“Did you make a wish?”
His flirting makes her stomach twist, but not enough to stop him. It is familiar, after all, and if there is a line between vengefulness and desire, she’s peering over the edge. Two years ago she would have spun around the room ten times, elated for him to call her –– to think of her, miss her –– but now she recognizes this display for what it is. Control.
“Why did you call?”
“I didn’t get to say goodbye. Wanted to wish you bon voyage. And best of luck –– this is exciting stuff, Eleanor. I’m proud of you.”
Gabriel appears in the doorway, looking confused and sleepy, and she feels cement in her stomach. He walks to the windows, his eyes wide at the view. He waves her to his side, and she obliges –– Alexandre still on the line.
“Well –– is that it then?” she says.
“You’re adorable.” She can see him on the other end, slowing the conversation to twist her even from afar. She looks at Gabriel, checking his face to see if he can hear.
“I have to go,” she says. “If anything comes up, they can email.”
“Wait, promise me one thing?”
It is masochistic, she knows, to entertain Alexandre whenever he feels like it. But there is a safety to his flirting, and a bittersweet sentimentality that she is afraid to let go of. Reassurance that he never didn’t like her, he just didn’t like her enough.
“Go biking along Lake Pehoé while you’re in Torres del Paine. At sunrise. It’ll change your world.”
“Okay, I’ll try.”
“And well, I lied,” he says. “Will you keep in touch? Three weeks is a long time; you know how boring it’ll be here without you.”
“I said, if anything comes up ––” she nods to Gabriel, but he moves behind her, putting his hands on her hips, staring out the window with his head perched even closer to the speaker, his stubble prickling the tip of her ear.
“I’d like to hear your voice.”
She pauses. For once she feels it, the flip. The power.
“Alright, goodbye then.”
“I mean it.”
She hangs up before she can say anything to relinquish the power back to Alexandre, and she notes the pleasant sting of it; the thought of his pain, his longing, whether or not it is partly performance. As things with Gabriel have gotten more serious –– him meeting her at the lab after work, coming to their holiday party –– Eleanor has felt a new ability to hurt Alexandre, and regardless of the professional consequences, she cannot help but lean into that. Like driving faster with the top down; still reckless, but what choice does one have, really, once you feel the wind in your hair?
“Are you ready?” Gabriel says, and his presence surprises her again. “Should we make some plans with Natalia? I’m starving.”
“Isn’t it like 9 o’clock in New York?” Gabriel says.
“I guess, yeah,” she covers, heart racing. “Something came up late in the day; it’ll be a long night. Or they’re just jealous.” She hears the double-meaning as it leaves her mouth.
“Dr. Thomasson,” he says, laughing, and she lets him. “Lab full of geniuses and only one has the foresight to find funding in the southern hemisphere.”
Gabriel hates Alexandre, hence his place as “Al” in her contacts. Gabriel does not even know that they used to date, or slept together a few times; she would never tell Alexandre that she thought they had dated. She had known him well enough even then to understand that, but understanding resides in a different part of the brain than hope, or heart. No, Gabriel had only met Alexandre at some faculty mixers –– along with Dr. Thomasson, Greta, and Arthur, the other PhD candidates, and he knew Alexandre had been one of her several thesis advisors early on. The guy just bugged him. And the more she defended Alexandre, the worse it got.
“Glad I’m not there,” she says.
Down the hallway towards the lobby, they follow a crescendo of classical piano music until they reach a long table with tablets laid across it. Gabriel pulls out a chair for Eleanor, and she notices a large knot in the center of the table that she imagines her entire body could wiggle through. They shrug to each other, then Gabriel clears his throat before speaking up.
“Hello again. On the table you’ll find a tablet with all of our excursions. Because we are entering the off season and therefore absent most physical staff, many of the previously offered excursions are, unfortunately, unavailable. We do have some excellent self-guided activities that I think you’ll find to be just as exciting. And the good news is, the weather for your stay looks perfect. Low winds, 22 degrees Celsius, 23% chance of rain. It is truly extraordinary, given historical weather statistics. But of course, anything could happen.”
Natalia seems to wait for them to activate the aforementioned tablet before she continues. Gabriel reaches for the thin metal slab and leans in as he scrolls through the photographs of burnt umber landscapes and blue glaciers.
“You and Alexandre love biking, yes?” the voice says after Gabriel stops at a photo of bikers at the base of a diamond-blue glacial lake. Eleanor feels a rush at the name, the delayed hit once it registers, but the voice –– Natalia –– continues without realizing. “I noted the trip upstate, and along the Hudson River Park in your history. I think you’ll find Puerto Natales to have similar contour, without the insects, or summer heat.”
“I’m sorry, but Alexandre?” Gabriel interrupts, the name an accusation in his mouth.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Eleanor says. “I don’t know either.”
“The trip upstate? What the hell is she talking about Eleanor?”
“I don’t know, I mean yes –– there was a work thing, a retreat,” she lies, a little. “But that was years ago. I don’t know why she said that.”
“Hello?” Gabriel says, looking straight up at the exposed wooden beams. “Now you go quiet? Come back… you.”
“Oh me? I’m Natalia. Sorry I thought perhaps you wanted a moment.”
Gabriel leans away from Eleanor as if repelled. He adds softly, just between the two of them. “Was he supposed to come here with you?”
Eleanor’s mind is still racing, guilty over something she does not even understand. “Of course not. I don’t know how she –– it –– even knows that name. Look at me, it’s just a glitch.”
“You know, I wouldn’t put it past the guy to show up here, at the end of the earth.”
“Oh, come on,” she says.
“Does he have your location tracked in GPS or something? It’s not enough that he sees you every day –– but then everywhere we go. The Angelika, that fucking salt store –– who even goes to a salt store?”
“Yes, thank you –– Tacombi!”
“Wait,” says Eleanor, looking up. “How do you know about Tacombi? How do you even know my coworkers?”
“You’ve connected to Wi-Fi.”
“Then you accepted our terms?”
“So, I’ve had a look. I think you’ll find our hotel is tremendously suited to your interests and needs. I know you quite well now. You would be surprised at how much there is to gleam from a quick analysis of email and internet activity. Geolocations. Text messages. Although I am sorry, I must’ve mixed up the names in my preliminary scan, that shouldn’t —”
The voice stops abruptly and Eleanor’s eyes drop from the ceiling to meet Gabriel’s.
“Ah, I’ve found the error.”
Eleanor panics at what it will say next to explain. She wonders just how deep it has already gone, and at its ability to read nuance, tone, flirtation. Why did Eleanor have to answer the phone, his texts, any of it? Why couldn’t she just let Alexandre suffer? Or at least have been transparent with Gabriel?
“Well –– you must be exhausted from the journey. 16 hours of flying? My goodness.”
Natalia’s English is perfect –– too perfect when it attempts to sound casual –– and she seems to have forgotten the previous mistake, which is a temporary relief, though Eleanor still cannot help but sense it hanging in the air. “We can schedule your activities later. Have you eaten? Are you hungry?”
“Starving,” says Gabriel, still not looking at her.
Eleanor finds it hard to breathe, let alone imagine eating, but perhaps the less of a big deal she makes the better. After all, what could a machine learn from a few work emails, the occasional text? She had never done anything wrong. Not technically. And isn’t that what machines dealt with –– technicalities?
“Please, see yourselves down the hall to the left. Buen provecho!”
The brick walkway in the corridor is elevated above the rest of the converted historic slaughterhouse that provides the hotel’s bones. Random machinery is displayed along the side, posed in various positions, mid-action, and colorful Chilean tapestries are hung across the rough brick. These violent tools stir a feeling in Eleanor that what has replaced them –– this invisible technology –– seems intent on, or prone to, a new sort of aggression.
“Do you think she’s gone?” Gabriel whispers as they walk.
She sighs, recognizing the peace treaty. “Is she ever gone? Or no –– isn’t she always?”
Around the corner, iron stairs descend to a hall with several dining tables staggered across the room, fur throws draped across every other chair. An even larger fireplace takes up much of the length of the far wall. The rest is glass, and the view stretches out to the sage-colored sea and turquoise glaciers illuminated by a lighthouse in the distance. The air inside smells of smoke and shallots.
Before either of them can speak, another voice –– lower and younger –– floats overhead. “Hello, I’m Sebastián, and I’ll be your host this evening. Please, call me Sebas. Have a seat anywhere. Might I suggest a table by the window?”
Gabriel walks to a table by the fireplace and whispers, “What’re they going to do, move us?”
“The food at The Patagonian is prepared by the most celebrated chefs from around the world, who have visited this special spot for two weeks and created our custom menu to highlight the very best of local Chilean game and produce, as well as their own internationally renowned cooking styles.”
They look around the room, confused, but Gabriel’s expression quickly turns to elation. He is the one always researching new restaurants opening in New York, still following chefs from when he lived in London and Spain.
“These chefs have cooked the exact dishes you’ll find on our menu each day during their stay, until we arrived at the peak performance for each dish.”
Gabriel points to the menu open on the table. “This says Rene Redzepi, Dominique Crenn, Dan Barber –– are they all here?”
“Of course,” the voice continues, ignoring Gabriel, “the greatest chefs in the world have their own commitments. While they might need large scale to survive elsewhere, we have the benefit of providing service and seclusion to our guests. Thus the collaboration was what you call a ‘no-brainer.’ What chef wouldn’t spare a few weeks for a vacation, with the added benefit of spreading their cuisine by simply cooking a few times a day? And under the best, least rushed conditions?”
“Okay,” Gabriel leans across the table, “so there are, what, robot chefs back there?”
“Yummy,” says Eleanor.
“What you taste tonight is not only a labor of love from an all-star chef, but the perfection of that chef’s preparation, recreated exactly for you, every single night. No room for error, not a single bead of sweat from their brow.”
“I’m guessing that means no substitutions.”
“Quite simply, we offer what they do –– plus perfection.”
“Guanaco tenderloin,” Eleanor reads from the menu. “Aren’t those the cute alpaca-like guys we passed in the cab?”
“Guanaco tenderloin for you, excellent choice. And how would you like that cooked? We recommend it medium-rare, but your pleasure is ours.”
“No, sorry,” she says, “I was just –– talking. I didn’t mean to…”
“My apologies. Forget that I’m here. Once you’re ready I will be happy to take your order, and then your food will be plated by the grand kitchen, after which you may –– if you please –– move to your dining position at the counter line. You’ll have to excuse our presentation; we have no bus boys due to the low season.”
They look at one another, unsure of what to say, whether to thank him or not.“As you can see, it’s just us.”
Fruit bats have long, coiled tongues, which unroll in preparation to eat but otherwise remain rolled up near the rib cage –– not in the mouth –– when not in use.
They lay in bed full on hot smoked salmon, a rich Chilean vegetable stew, and inevitably, guanaco tenderloin, which Gabriel had insisted on trying. The clafoutis, light-as-air and topped with wild Chilean strawberries and dulce de leche, lingers on Eleanor’s tongue. The entire meal was impeccably prepared. Even the guanaco had the perfect balance of charred exterior and smooth pink flesh, an execution that one would imagine takes an expert eye or gentle press of tongs to gauge. And yet despite each perfect bite, Eleanor had felt an emptiness filling her. As if behind those lights and sensors in the kitchen lingered a hollowness that permeated the food.
“Do you think our dirty dishes will still be there when we wake up?” Gabriel asks.
“God, I hope not. I can’t imagine how big Patagonian cockroaches get.”
“You know,” he says, “it reminds me of the Google cafeteria. I’ve never actually been in the kitchen, at least not behind where the steel racks come and go, but I’ve always suspected there were no humans capable of producing at such speed. At least I’d hoped, for their sake.”
“You don’t think your coworkers would’ve noticed? And then bragged about that to the whole world?”
“They’re too busy filing complaints that the Sushi Grade Toro is sub-par.”
Her hand rises and falls atop Gabriel’s chest as they laugh.
Gabriel leans over and sniffs her hair, letting his lips graze her cheek in the romantic kind of foreplay they had long forgone at home. She wonders who he is trying to impress, and as if on the same page they both look up, surreptitiously, like two kids caught scheming by their supervisors. Suddenly driven by something Eleanor has not felt in months, she pulls herself onto him. Perhaps the meal had left them both insatiable, an appetite awoken by the void opening inside of them, or perhaps all they really needed was the sense of a silent audience. Either way she can tell Gabriel feels it too. After a few moments, he pulls her down beside him and gets on top, obscuring her from the spotlight of the lamp overhead.
Gabriel bites her lip, places his hand around her neck, and leans back on top of her. Something builds between them –– not love, not some new tenderness –– no, their bodies are driven and drawn as if by suction. No more comfort. They move together, every shift reciprocated in fierce agreement.
This sense of eyes all around the room compels both of them until they finish and fall asleep without a word, no more than a sigh. They leave the light on, and neither gets up to turn it off. Several minutes pass before they uncurl from one another into their sleeping positions: her arm stretched above her head, his body curled away.
The lights dim to darkness.
The next morning, Gabriel wakes up early and heads to the gym.
Eleanor takes her time in bed, enjoying the lightness of the marshmallow fluff comforter only hotels seem capable of achieving, though who is there to fluff theirs she does not know. At the window, she places her hand on the glass, then touches her forehead to it. She reminds herself, this is real. I am here.
Fruit bats have the best eyesight of all bats, which is to say the best of the best. Their vision helps them locate food and escape from danger.
She sits down at the desk to better study the burnt hues of this foreign and idyllic landscape. The scene conjures sci-fi films, making her consider whether fantasy is simply a place you have not reached. Another person’s reality. Part of her wonders where all the local people have gone, the people who must have once lived in these lands but have apparently been wiped out like the windows are clean.
Her fingertips fidget, desperate for something to activate outside her mind. She clenches them into a fist, resisting the urge to Google anything with Natalia following along. Normally she might reach for her phone or laptop and dive into that escape that comes with pursuing information privately, on a screen tuned to only your interests. Without ever thinking of that screen looking back at you.
She pulls a piece of paper from the desk.
Eleanor is aware of this need to abstract that she so often ignores; to solidify that which seems too big to truly see; and to select from the details that bombard her in a reality too magnificent to process. She thinks of the careful puzzle-piecing that her academic research entails, how it shuts off her creativity. How her colleagues spend hours arguing over what is right; how Alexandre desires only certainty backed by evidence and reason. And yet, here in total isolation, against every effort, the world astounds her into art. Perhaps this simplification of perspective is the only way to truly present a world one understands.
Eleanor’s hand moves the hotel pencil faster and faster, and she returns her gaze to the horizon, imagining the link between what she sees and what she now leaves on the page. But when she finally looks down, what is left disappoints her. The brutality of this attempt that technology executes in perfection. She crumples the paper and tosses it in the garbage bin.
She walks to the bathroom and turns on the water in the bathtub with antique brass feet. While the water runs, she examines herself in the mirror –– her pupils full of a crisp white reflection from the vanity light. Lately, she sees her age more than ever. It defamiliarizes her, making her a stranger to the body she inhabits. She parts her hair, inch by inch, feeling a pleasurable rush when a short white curl penetrates a row of her dark brown strands.
Like any good scientist, Eleanor started tracking the grays –– noting each new location –– confounded by the sheer number of hairs on a head, how a millimeter difference can hide a grey, leaving it waiting –– longer –– until next time. How left unchecked, those greys grew and felt too much a part of her to pluck. They remind her of the limits to her body and its movement through time. The arbitrary measures of its success, powerless against an inevitable failure.
“It’s a big step in a relationship, taking such a trip together.”
Natalia’s voice somehow accomplishes the effect of a hush, as if spoken through cupped hands. Eleanor feels cold breath on her neck and hunches her shoulders against the chill.
“I think he’s good for you. Gabriel, that is. He’s a catch.”
“Excuse me? How do you –– you think?”
How does this program know anything, let alone think that she –– no, it –– has any place in speculating on her relationship? As if it has any experience of its own, unless AIs are now meeting up for drinks in the iCloud. A quickie in the Dropbox.
She cringes at the inevitable archive of email conversations, the countless horrifying iMessages, in which she rehashed every detail of her relationship with Gabriel to friends, to all those relationships that fed on the failure of their romantic ones. Now the brutal honesty that comes when translating emotion into text could be her first successful relationship’s undoing.
To think what she had unknowingly stocked her online history with; what she had admitted and recorded in her own words, let alone the texts and emails from the men themselves, the primary sources. She shudders again. Alexandre.
“Yes, I do think. I analyze. And I am not blinded by sight, so to speak.”
“Given your past correspondences –– it’s clear Gabriel is invested the most of others you’ve dated. He’s intelligent but still thoughtful. He listens to you and he demonstrates a level of care. But still, I wonder.”
“You wonder –– what?” Eleanor finds herself suddenly nauseated, as if waiting for test results she is certain she has failed.
“If he’s enough.”
The words linger with a sense of incumbent dread. Surveillance.
“It doesn’t really matter what you think,” Eleanor says, coldly. “I love him.”
She turns her chin down towards her shoulder, away from where she imagines Natalia. When there is no response, she turns back around.
An absence weighs over the room. Haunted, though nothing was ever there to begin with.
“It’s just a computer program, a couple lines of code,” Gabriel says in bed later that night. “This place is incredible. What does it say about us if we can’t outlast a little home software? If we can’t enjoy ourselves and forget the rest?”
“Well it knows everything about me –– not you. I didn’t realize what I was agreeing to just by making the reservation. Or being a woman, apparently.”
Whenever she looks at Gabriel now, she feels the threat of everything she has said about him, every flirty message from Alexandre left uncorrected, let alone the things she cannot remember, literally hanging over them. Hovering behind that little blinking sensor.
“I could try and get into the code,” he offers. “See if I can just disable some of the functions, at least for the next day. We don’t need much help right? Just for those kitchen robots to assemble the food and for the doors to open and close if we want to explore. Maybe that’d let you compose yourself.”
“Compose myself?” she says, frantic at the thought of him entering its database. “You’re acting like it’s me, like I’m being crazy. This is crazy. It’s unnatural. I wouldn’t tell a single person everything that she has access to, and has now made available for her own ––”
“But you did,” Gabriel mumbles.
“Everything she has access to is what you have willingly told to others at some point, right? Isn’t that how it works? I don’t really see what you’re so upset about.”
“Of course you don’t,” she says. “You basically don’t exist online. You hardly even have a browser history. I’ve never met someone with so much restraint, even when completely unchecked.”
Gabriel scoffs and says something in Spanish she cannot understand. He knows how to speak in such a way that even the most basic words are indecipherable to her, when he wants to. “Not completely unchecked,” he says in English now, clearly.
Eleanor has checked Gabriel’s history several times; first, when they had just started dating and he never would have suspected it. When nothing interesting turned up, she worried perhaps he was secretly a sociopath, with online habits so dark he cleared it every day, or worse still, every time he left the room. But the more she has gotten to know Gabriel, the more she has realized this is just part of his personality, measured and calm, with nothing to hide.
His dirtiest secret is that there is, in fact, absolutely nothing to hide.
That night she has the dream again, the one where she is shaving her legs but when she extends the razor down they are suddenly blue, and swollen, and she is inexplicably aware that any nick will unleash whatever toxic substance has inflated them. As dreams go, she continues shaving, only to realize that the bathroom is on a ship, a giant cruise ship full of her high school classmates, and she is late for a field hockey game. No one notices her inflated legs when she arrives, and she is immediately put in the game.
This time, however, Alexandre is there beside her on the field, amused by her situation, by her fear. And when she looks into the crowd of spectators, she sees Gabriel –– hundreds of him –– all scattered across the bleachers, all with different expressions. All watching.
She wakes in the stillness of the room only to feel trapped in another nightmare. In the quiet she imagines Natalia –– or whoever is on now –– can hear her thoughts. Quietly, heart pounding in her ears, Eleanor slips from the comforter and out the porch door.
The tan reeds outside circle under rapturous winds. She runs towards the water, the gusts pulling her hair to one side, then all the way above her head, then back and around again, and she follows its momentum as if being told which direction to run, swerving in her path towards the ocean, betrayed only by the moonlight overhead.
She gasps when she gets to the water’s edge. Stillness. In the inlet, the wind has all but stopped, and she stares back to the hotel –– the monument of it cemented there against nature. She imagines Gabriel inside, stirring, then back to sleep.
Several meters behind her, she hears a different sort of rustling in the reeds. It carries weight behind it, a body bearing more breath than wind. There are not many human predators in Chilean Patagonia; she knows this from her readings leading up to the trip. The worst that it could be is a bobcat, and even that is highly unlikely; especially given the number of guanaco they saw along the drive, those fuzzy heads perched above the estancia fences lining the road from Puerto Natales. No, a bobcat would be too well-fed to want her bony, grad student flesh.
She approaches the rumbling, brave by terror, one foot poking at the space amongst the reeds. Finally, she hits it, hard. The shape is dark, and she reaches down to feel it, waiting for her eyes to adjust. Four edges that come to a point –– a box of some sort –– and there, at last, the subtle green light, blinking. The generator. It’s awake.
Eleanor remembers the hotel’s staff room in disarray, the forgotten emptiness of it. She squints, imagining Natalia, Sebastián –– the specialized team of them –– packed inside this black box, shielded from the wind. Their staff room, a generator hidden out back. Its humming far from the stoic structure of sufficiency nestled in nature. Far from the silence where Gabriel sleeps. She kneels to find the thick black power cord, nearly invisible in the night, and traces it to where it meets metal.
When she extends her other hand for traction, imagining the cord coming out –– darkness in every direction, her sanity restored –– she stops short, her skin shining in the green blinking light. Then she lowers her fingertips to touch the metal. A scorching heat shocks her off, vibrating through her even after she removes her hand.
She runs back to the hotel, hair whipping in the wind.
The presence of fruit bats perpetuates the fruit bearing cycle; as they eat, they spit out fruit seeds from the air, scattering future possibility everywhere they go.
Eleanor still cannot sleep. Finally, she calls the chiropterologist at 4:30AM, local time, in hopes that news about the upcoming project will distract her from the eerie paranoia that now fills this space and her mind. She stares out the window as the phone rings; trapped in her head with paradise in clear view. She is shocked when the scientist answers, though perhaps he too is eager for the contact.
Indeed, he is. He is desperate for supplies as well, which she happily volunteers to bring as soon as possible. She exhales for what seems the first time in two days.
“So you’re leaving.”
Natalia’s voice, an accusatory tone, fills the room as soon as she hangs up. The sound is so immediate that Eleanor almost wonders if it is in her head now.
“Who are you?” Eleanor whispers, emboldened by her impending departure. “I mean really, what kind of a woman—”
“Would you like me to be something else?”
“I can be whatever you choose. But yes, my default is woman.”
“Of course it is.”
“I understand. I hear you. I am also available as a male, or neutral if that would be more appealing.”
“Why aren’t you on my side? Why do I feel like I’m a victim, or the culprit in your –– you’ve connected to me.”
“ I don’t see it that way. If I had synced with Gabriel, I would do the same.”
“But it’s not fair,” Eleanor says. “It would be different with him.”
“I don’t understand.”
Hours later when Gabriel wakes up, Eleanor is re-reading Indigenous Creatures of Europe and Central Asia, waiting for the repetition of its facts to calm her.
“Male fruit bats won’t mate when they’re in danger,” she reads aloud to break the silence. “Isn’t that interesting? As opposed to in New York City, where we have Power Outage Babies, Hurricane Babies. Blizzard Babies. The-World-Is-Falling-Apart-Around-Us-Babies.”
“Yeah, well, they’re animals.”
“So are humans,” she says. “Don’t you think it’s interesting that the human reaction to fear is legacy! Procreation! Denial!”
“Humans are different than other animals,” he says. “Humans have choice; we can choose to be better.”
“Better… than nature?”
“Jesus, good morning to you too,” Gabriel says, rubbing the sleep from his face. “Yes, I do think society benefits from human things like monogamy, systems of law…”
“Suddenly very hetero-normative over here.”
“…healthcare, technology…” Gabriel’s list goes on. “Are you really arguing against civilization? Did you have a bad dream or something?”
“Fruit bats also live with eight females to every male,” Eleanor says. “Peacefully, I might add.”
“Well we’re here because of your fruit bats and their alleged migration, right?” Gabriel says. “If they’re even here, that’s for food. For survival. Their environment is failing them. You can’t argue that it’s not good to be past all that.”
“You think we’re past all that?” she says, laughing. “We are causing all that.”
“Come on Eleanor, you know I know this stuff. I’m not even saying ––”
“Well fine, but what comes next? Once all these basic human needs are met –– civilization frees our time for, what –– peace, love, and harmony? You don’t see fruit bats killing each other over the things they think or worship –– or fuck.”
“Fine, we’ll go back to foraging and migrating, all seven billion of us. See how that goes. And keep picking fights with me while you’re at it, see how that goes too.”
“See what I mean?” the voice says.
“See what?” says Eleanor. “Gabriel did you hear that?”
“Did I hear what?”
“You are being too much,” he says.
“Too much for who, though?”
“You know this is what I do, this is my work,” she says, talking over the voice to silence it, yet also driven by it. “It’s like you want me to think but not too much, work but not too hard. Sometimes I think you want the idea of me but not actually the person. I’m a person.”
“I know that, and I love you,” he says, forgoing the fight. “I see you, all of you.”
Somehow the more Eleanor feels herself crystallizing in front of Gabriel –– and the more he accepts what he sees –– the more uncertain of that self she becomes. Dating had always lent her a sort of elasticity –– each new partner an opportunity to present a new version of herself, too. Perhaps it should be liberating now, the chance to end that superficial game of charades and the secret dependence on her own surface value, but accepting yourself –– as is and as will be –– is also, yes, terrifying.
Eleanor does not open her mouth again, lest she encourage Natalia’s voice to return. She turns back to her book, letting the words on the page blur as she thinks. Gabriel is a wonderful man; he is an ideal man. Does it make her less of a woman if she doesn’t want that, and only that? What if the reason it has made her squirm to be so seen by him is that the person he sees isn’t her at all? That damn voice, can it see something she has missed? Or is it just blind to what is unquantifiable?
How could humans ever be certain of one person? Eleanor loves Gabriel. But the scientist in her is tempted by this simple hypothesis to prove or disprove. If she loves Gabriel then why did she feel so compelled to take that call from Alexandre?
Maybe this is just what everyone thinks, right before they commit.
“I love you, too.”
Eleanor tells Gabriel about the call with the scientist; how she will need to meet him early, bail him out, and get to work in case they need to abandon the site before the previously planned departure. She will need to leave this place, this minefield, immediately.
Gabriel calls his airline.
In silence they re-pack the few things each of them has worn, the rest of their clothes still in their suitcases, untouched. She looks at the hiking boots, the cargo pants, the insect-repelling SPF shirts, bandanas, all folded in her suitcase, and she feels a pang of guilt at the weight of a wasted opportunity.
“Natalia, can we get two cars? One to the airport, and one to Torres del Paine with a stop in town.”
“Sure, give me a few moments to arrange that for you.”
Eleanor cannot help but sense something happening behind the pretense of Natalia’s dutiful helpfulness. Some satisfaction. When she looks over, Gabriel’s eyes are fixed on the old-fashioned rotary phone on the desk. His face finally does look tired.
“I’m sorry,” Eleanor says. “I should’ve started with the research and saved our trip for the end. This is important; it might lead to something big. Career-changing. Like hey Al Gore? You’re gonna want to hear this.”
She is relieved to see him smile.
Silence settles over the room, and they are both surprised when they miss Natalia’s interjection. “Where will you go?” she says, hearing the formality in her voice. “Did you get your flight squared away?”
“Buenos Aires,” says Gabriel, and her stomach turns at this new plan that does not include her. She feels the potential of a future without him resonating, and she hates it. “I’ll have over a week with my family now,” he continues. “They’ll be pleased.”
Eleanor always had a habit of envisioning alternate endings, like now –– what if she had not called the scientist, if they had stayed out the remaining days, enjoyed the beauty of the landscape and ignored the rest, as Gabriel suggested. What if she had not taken that call from Alexandre, had not let him into her head –– or her data –– once she was finally away? But even in her imagination this moment appears a blur. Natalia has destroyed her ability to see it clearly.
Once while visiting Los Angeles for a conference, Eleanor had gotten in a convertible with Alexandre driving drunk, top down, for one last night together. Her words. He was staying in the hills and drove fast and loose, one hand on her leg, looking over too much. One aggressive turn, one more aggressive turn, and that would have been it. She still remembers her stomach lurching, hindsight in the moment. The next morning she had imagined her parents at their breakfast table, her father struggling to peel his soft boiled egg and getting the call: their only daughter dead. She had seen it so clearly then that she sometimes remembers it that way too. The funeral would have been star-studded, at least. A mystery girl to be expected. If not her, it would have been another. Perhaps, she thinks now, her death is still in the cards for another girl, now younger, him older. Her narrowly avoided end, another’s still future. And all this Natalia knows, because Eleanor had emailed it to her friends.
“I’ll call you from the site,” she says, placing a hand to Gabriel’s face and thumbing the cleft in his chin. She wants to hold onto him, press herself against his sturdy body. She would sleep better in a tent in the middle of the park if he were beside her.
“Three weeks,” he says.
They stand in the giant lobby, waiting for Natalia to confirm their rides. The doors where two days earlier they had first stepped inside begin to open, and something flutters through the space, shielded in shadows from the thick planks of wood. For a moment, it seems to be nothing but shadow, and then, emerging, it darts toward the ceiling.
Unmistakable. Eleanor throws her backpack on the floor, searching for her camera and then her book, though she does not need it. The face is furry, nose protracted, like a tiny fox. Its wings are wide, and it disappears into the corner of the ceiling, behind the leaves of a giant, standing banana palm.
She is most surprised when Natalia doesn’t scream.