Date Published: 01-17-2022
Publisher: Cecil Press
While trekking across South America, Ellie Bartlett finds a mysterious guidebook that changes the course of her journey—and her life.
Ellie dreams of a life away from the sharp edges of New York City. Away from her creepy boss, shoebox apartment, and nights spent alone eating ice-cream. She’s desperate to find happiness and love.
After losing out on yet another promotion, Ellie quits her job and buys a ticket to South America. Arriving at her hostel as a first-time backpacker, she finds a mysterious guidebook filled with cryptic messages about life and love. Intrigued, Ellie contacts the previous owner, Bella, who wrote her name under the heading THIS BOOK BELONGS TO.
Her email lands in the inbox of Jerry Townsend, an architect and widower living in San Francisco. Jerry is barely keeping his life together as he juggles raising three daughters alone and construction of a museum in memory of his late wife—Bella.
Ellie and Jerry start messaging, sharing their fears, hopes and desires. Following Bella’s advice, Ellie embarks on a six-month solo adventure across South America, and over the course of emails, texts, phone calls and video chats, Ellie and Jerry’s pen-pal friendship develops into something more…
But can you fall in love with someone you’ve never met?
Present Day, 18th July – Mount Roraima, Venezuela
Where do you conquer fear?
Ellie hoped it was twenty yards away, on the edge of a 1200-foot cliff.
It better fricking be there.
Clouds swirled around the table mountain, which rose above the jungle like a block of
unformed clay. Sprawled across its flat top was a landscape belonging to another world—twisted
rock formations, quartz fields and unexplored caves. Off its sides cascaded some of the tallest
waterfalls on our planet.
Ellie sat alone near the northern tip, shivering in a muddy t-shirt and feeling about as
small as the tick she’d scraped off her leg this morning. Nature had a way of doing that to you.
With arms wrapped around her knees to keep out the cold, she stared into the fog that first
greeted her an hour ago. She still couldn’t get her stupid feet to move.
It’d taken four days of grueling trekking to get to this point, in thick jungle, deep mud,
and through a waterfall that tried to wash her away to an early death. Now was the last chance to
face her greatest test. She needed to push herself out of the comfort zone she knew so well. That
she’d lived in for too long.
If only it were that easy.
Ellie’s hair whipped across her neck and her eyes welled with fear. Here she was
fulfilling a dream to visit one of the most unique places on earth, but she couldn’t have imagined
a worse nightmare. She grabbed a stone and tossed it toward the precipice. It tumbled over the
lip and was swallowed by the fog, never to be seen again.
Maybe that’ll be my fate too.
Brushing away a tear, Ellie closed her eyes to visualize her goal: combatting her mortal
fear of heights by standing on the very edge of Mount Roraima—1200 feet above the ground. If
she made it, what would be her reward? Courage? Happiness? Donuts? Surely just a taste of one
would be worth the pain.
A deep breath of crisp air filled her lungs with inspiration. She stood, bracing against the
biting wind. Her nose flared and she took her first tentative steps away from the safety of solid
The clouds circled so fast that supernatural figures seemed to appear, like ghosts from a
horror movie grabbing at her limbs to pull her into the abyss. They parted for a second and she
glimpsed the vista beyond, a valley of emerald rainforest topped by a soaring blue sky. Her heart
leaped, teasing her forward.
“C’mon Ellie. You can do it. You have to do it.”
She felt like a child, but knew it was time to be an adult or this entire journey would be
for nothing. It was time to grow up, goddammit.
Even if it killed her.
Three Weeks Earlier – New York City, USA
The only sign Ellie had of the fiery midsummer sunset over Manhattan was a reflection in
the corner of her computer screen. Trapped amongst rows of empty cubicles that stretched from
wall-to-wall like a factory farm, she tapped on her keyboard with flawless posture.
“Oh, gosh.” Ellie tried not to let on that she’d been startled by Dennis Koslowski, a bald
man in a power suit who’d crept up behind her. “Do you mind?”
“You’re like a scared little kitten.” He sat on her desk as if he owned it. “Why are you
always so jumpy when D.K. comes around?”
“I’m not jumpy. Just busy,” Ellie replied pointedly. She’d long given up trying to
communicate with Dennis the Douchebag, or understand why he referred to himself in the third
“How’s the final draft coming?” he said. “Tomorrow’s the big day.”
“Almost done.” Ellie’s eyes remained fixed on her screen. She didn’t need to be
reminded that the report valuing a potential takeover target was scheduled to be presented to the
C.E.O. and Partners at 9 a.m. It would be the most important moment of her five-year career as a
research analyst at DeWitt Financial Consultants.
“I need it tonight so I can prepare.”
“You’ll have it,” Ellie said. When had she not come through on a deadline? And since
when did Dennis prepare for anything? In fact, what was he doing here so late?
“I was thinking we could drill down into it together,” he continued, spreading his arms
across her workstation. “Take a look at the charts. Discuss areas for organic growth. D.K. is a
great sounding board.”
“I work better alone.” Ellie hit her keyboard harder. If he really wanted to help he
could’ve offered any time in the last month. But Dennis was the guy in your high school group
project who did nothing then took all the credit, without a smidgen of shame.
“I’m just saying, if you want to spitball cost synergies or pivot opportunities going
forward, D.K.’s your man.”
And if you drop one more buzzword, I’m going to smash this keyboard over your ugly
He opened the jar containing Ellie’s emergency jellybean stash and stuck his fingers
inside. “Don’t forget there’s a promotion up for grabs at the end of this week.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“Do you know who the frontrunner is?”
Curiosity got the better of Ellie and she stopped typing. “Who?”
“Well, if you don’t know, it’s not you.” Dennis shoved a jellybean in his mouth and
flashed a shit-eating grin.
Ellie’s jaw hardened. She needed this promotion. Not just for the juicy pay bump, but to
know spending the best years of her life working her ass off to make other people rich had been
worth it for her too. ‘Ellie Bartlett, Senior Analyst’ had a nice ring to it. It would also put her one
step above Dennis so she wouldn’t have to tolerate his bullshit anymore.
“You know I can help, Ellie. Put in a good word for you with my uncle.”
“I don’t have time to play games.”
“No games. Just an offer. I’m sure we could figure something out.” He winked in
Ellie bristled, but swallowed her disgust. Working in the cold heart of the financial
system was like being stuck in some weird parallel universe where what passed for acceptable
behavior hadn’t caught up with the #MeToo movement. Dennis got away with being a beadyeyed sleazeball because he happened to be the C.E.O.’s nephew, and male of course, which were
the only two ‘advantages’ Ellie couldn’t match.
“I’ve always wondered what your hair looks like down,” he said.
Oh, for Pete’s sake!
It took every ounce of willpower to resist murdering him. “Excuse me,” Ellie forced out,
reaching for one of the neatly-labelled, color-coded, folders above her workspace.
Dennis stared at her before moving. “D.K. has a hot date anyway. Email the report when
you’re done.” He walked off without a goodbye.
Ellie shook off the uncomfortable exchange. A hot shower wouldn’t be enough to remove
the slime, it would take a full chemical delousing. She looked mournfully at her jar of jellybeans,
then poured them into the trash.
Hopefully his hot date gives him herpes.
Gabby McMillan, a chirpy woman with pale skin and striking orange hair, skipped over
to Ellie’s desk. “Let me guess, Dennis is still auditioning for a place on Love Island?”
“So are you coming out for drinks? You’ve been staying late all week and God knows
you could use a break. Especially tonight.”
“I’d love to…” Ellie returned to her screen.
“But you have to work. It’s always the same old story, Ellie. You’re missing out,
y’know.” Gabby paused, emphasizing the point: not just missing out on tonight, but missing out
Ellie was entirely aware of this fact. Being perennially single, there’d been a lot of time
to think about how she’d become a skilled practitioner in relationship avoidance, or as she liked
to call it—pain prevention. She’d never expected a fairytale Prince Charming to sweep her off
her feet, but heck, at this point even the Phantom of the Opera would’ve been an upgrade.
We could live together in the Paris Opera House, ring the bells to start the show and
scare tourists throughout the night. We’d be happy, eating croissants and watching boats sail by
on the Seine. Perhaps we’d even make some rugrats.
“Ellie, if you don’t come out you can’t meet men.” Gabby brought her back to reality.
“And if you can’t meet men, you can’t—”
“I can meet them online.”
“Do you even know what Tinder is?” Gabby raised an eyebrow. “Listen, we’re going to
C.J.’s for beers and wings and we’d love you to come celebrate, even for one drink.”
“I might join you later if I have time.” Ellie avoided eye contact, because it was obvious
she wouldn’t be joining them later.
She waited until her friend had gone before checking her phone. 7 p.m. and three missed
calls from her sister. Alone with only the drone of air-con to keep her company, she took off her
glasses and let out a pained sigh.
Why are you doing this to yourself again?
On your birthday, too.
Juggling a pizza box and bottle of wine, Ellie eventually got her key in the front door.
There was a small package at her feet and she kicked it inside, dumped her bag on the sofa and
everything else on the kitchen bench.
The one-bedroom brownstone was a shoebox, but meticulously kept. Ellie liked to try
and control her environment and had lived this way long enough to believe it was possible.
Unfortunately, she couldn’t control the creaking pipes or view of the brick wall through the
She poured a glass of wine and took a gulp-and-a-half, relishing how it instantly relaxed
The. Best. Part. Of. My. Day.
Slipping off her heels and releasing her hair from its bun, Ellie’s eyes fell to a notepad on
the bench with the heading THINGS TO DO. It included a long list of items, mostly mundane
tasks such as BUY MILK and PAY RENT. She’d drawn cute little boxes next to each one so
they could be ticked off when completed. There was just enough space for two more items.
Ellie picked up a pen and wrote in clear block letters: DO WHAT MAKES YOU
She read the words again, stunned by the radical idea. Then quickly crossed them out.
But that just created a new problem because now her perfect list had been ruined. Ellie wrote an
item on the final line: MAKE A NEW LIST. Then drew a little box next to it.
There was a beep on her phone with a message from Gabby: ‘You need to get here.
Raining men!’ Her friend had sent a photo with Finance Bros she’d met at the bar, all holding up
beers and grinning wildly at the camera. Ellie took another hit of wine.
Dropping onto the sofa, she opened her bag with a gaping yawn and pulled out a laptop
and folder of papers. If she didn’t get this promotion, Ellie wasn’t sure how much longer she
could keep burning the candle at both ends. Lately it’d felt more like a firecracker—about to
Ellie picked up the package she’d kicked across the floor and tore it open. Inside was a
book and birthday card with a picture of a hammock strung between palm trees. She flipped it
open and read the printed quote:
“When you’re old and weary, sitting in your rocking chair, you’ll regret
the things you didn’t try rather than the things you did try. So pull up the
anchor, head away from land, let the wind catch your sails. Travel.
On the other side was a handwritten note:
To my gorgeous sis, Happy 31st Birthday! Posting this because you
never make time to see us. Found it in a box of dad’s old stuff and had
your name inside. Hope one day you let the wind catch your sails. Much
Ellie turned over the book and gasped. It was a thin, faded, novella with a jungle font
title—The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Underneath was a drawing of a flat-topped
mountain with a band of motley adventurers at its base.
Ellie held the book to her chest. Its woody scent transported her back to when she used to
lay in her dad’s lap while he read aloud to her. His deep voice emphasized each word as if the
story were happening that very moment. Often excited, sometimes scared, she’d been enthralled
by the adventures of Malone, Summerlee, Lord Roxton and Professor Challenger, facing danger
at every turn on their trek up Mount Roraima. And she’d often imagined what heroic journeys
she would take after growing up.
Oblivious to her dinner and work, Ellie felt an emptiness rise from the pit of her gut. A
black hole threatening to consume her from the inside out. It was a feeling of lost dreams and
missed opportunities—a life not lived to its fullest. She knew the feeling well, but over time had
become adept at suppressing it. To keep distracted by focusing on her career, binge-watching
trash on Netflix, the rabbit hole of the internet, anything to avoid facing it. But no matter what
she did it was always in the background, haunting her like a shadow.
Now, as the sensation grew more intense than ever, Ellie understood she needed to
exorcise this demon or it would completely consume her potential for happiness. She just wasn’t
Two Weeks Later – Caracas, Venezuela
Bathed in the late-afternoon sun, Ellie stood inside the ageing arrivals terminal of Simon
Bolivar International Airport. She’d spotted a reflection of herself in the automatic doors leading
to the road. Her petite frame was overloaded by a blue backpack strapped on her shoulders and
across her chest hung a small daypack that provided just enough counterweight to stop her
tipping. Besides the wearable luggage, her clean hiking boots and milky-white skin gave away
Ellie’s status as a newly-arrived traveler in a foreign land.
She smiled at the ridiculous image of her carrying such a massive pack like a snail lugged
its shell. But the smile was a nervous one. This ‘backpacker’ was so alien to her life back home
that she felt more than a bit apprehensive—terrified, actually—as a question raced through her
What the fuck am I doing?
Outside, the humid air stuck to Ellie’s skin and she coughed through fumes from the cars
and buses honking past the airport. More than ten men shouted in her direction, “Taxi! Miss, you
need taxi!” It smacked of a demand, not a question, and Ellie felt like a squirrel about to be
devoured by a pack of coyotes.
The first driver to approach took both packs off her before she could protest and threw
them in the trunk of a taxi that’d seen better days. “Please, Miss. Quick, quick,” he urged,
opening the rear door and practically pushing her inside.
Ellie scooted across the splits in the vinyl seat. The stench of stale cigarettes filled her
nostrils. She reached over her shoulder for a seatbelt but was met with nothing. Mental note:
forget that American habit. The vehicle lurched forward before they’d even discussed destination
“Where you go?” the driver asked in scattered English.
“Hostel Caracas Backpackers, please, por favor,” Ellie replied in Spanglish.
“Is the meter working?” Ellie pointed hopefully at the device.
“No meter, no meter.”
“Veinte, twenty, good price.”
“Dólares de Estados Unidos. U.S.A. dollars. Good price. Me gusta U.S.A.”
Ellie bobbed her head reluctantly, suspicious but captive. The taxi swerved across the
highway and she slid all the way to the other side of the seat. If she were never heard from again,
at least C.N.N. would report she’d made it out of the airport. That was something.
Night had fallen when the deathtrap pulled up outside a stucco building in urgent need of
repair. Ellie climbed out, wondering what horrors lay behind the decaying facade.
She struggled to open her moneybelt while the driver dumped her backpack and daypack
on the sidewalk. “Sorry. I haven’t got the hang of this thing yet.” The zip sprung open, breaking
in the process. “Oh, great.” She fumbled for a US$20 note.
The driver snatched it and ran to his taxi, speeding off without a word.
“You’re welcome,” Ellie said, picking up her daypack.
It felt lighter. She ripped it open and saw her iPad was gone.
“Hey, come back!” Ellie ran down the street after the taxi, but it surged away and
disappeared around a corner. “You bastard.” Ellie kicked the ground, but really wanted to kick
herself. How could she be so careless? Her sister had warned to keep her wits about her, at all
times. This was the worst possible start to her trip.
Ellie realized she was standing in the middle of the road. None of the streetlights were on
and a sickly cough jumped out of the shadows. She hurried to her backpack and dragged it inside
The door closed behind her with a miserable groan and Ellie’s doubts were confirmed.
The place was a dump. Paint peeled off the walls, an internal window had been broken, and only
one light bulb worked.
“Hola.” A young man greeted Ellie from behind the reception desk. He grinned through
his scrappy beard.
“Hi, hola…” She was breathless. “Um…a taxi driver just stole my iPad.”
“Yes, sometime that happen.” He seemed unconcerned.
“Do you have a number for the police…so I can call them and get it back?”
“Sorry, but your iPad not come back. Need to say bye-bye.”
Ellie stood in a vacuum of hopelessness while reality sunk in. It wasn’t so much the
device, which was a few years old and password protected, but it contained meticulous planning
for her journey. All gone.
“Hablas Español?” the man asked in a sing-song Venezuelan accent.
“You are American?”
“So you speak American.”
“That’s right,” Ellie managed a smile.
“My name is Benicio. Don’t worry about your iPad. This physical thing come and go but
in Venezuela you can always be happy.” He was so earnest she almost believed him. “You have
“Under Ellie Bartlett.”
He checked his computer. “How much you pay for taxi?”
“Dólares? Gringa price!” he howled.
Ellie half-heartedly chuckled along. “Twenty dollars plus an iPad. I guess I am a gringa
“OK, I have your booking. Here is towel.” Benicio reached under the desk and handed
Ellie a frayed towel that wouldn’t have been out of place in a rag pile. “You are in bed six, dorm
two. Upstairs and go left.”
“Is there a key?”
“No key. We are all friends here.”
Ellie resisted the urge to turn and run, because she had nowhere else to go. “OK…um, I’ll
just head up now.”
This is definitely a different check-in process compared to the hotels I’ve stayed at. I’m
guessing there’s not going to be a complimentary mint on the pillow.
Ellie attempted to pull her backpack up the flight of rickety stairs, but only made it a third
of the way before it slipped from her hand and tumbled back down. Benicio appeared at the
bottom and offered to help.
Each carrying one end like a body bag going into a morgue, they reached the second floor
and headed along a hallway with missing floorboards and unexplained holes in the wall. Benicio
ushered Ellie into the dorm and flicked on the light.
There were four sets of bunk-beds jammed into the room, most with unmade sheets.
Battered backpacks, dirty underwear and random socks littered the floor as if a hurricane had hit.
The weather service must’ve named it Hurricane Stink. The travelers who owned the appalling
mess weren’t around, but Ellie was already forming an image of what they might look like. It
included dreadlocks, nose rings, and hairy armpits.
“You can use these for valuable things.” Benicio waved at a set of lockers by the wall,
some missing doors. “And the bathroom is down the hall.”
Ellie felt the colour drain from her face and took a step backward.
“Todo bien? Everything OK?” he asked.
“Yeah. I’m just…I think I need sleep.”
“First time in dormitorio?”
“You have earplugs?”
Ellie shook her head.
“Maybe you buy them. This is your bed.” Benicio tapped a top bunk, which looked
incredibly high. “OK, buenas noches.”
“Gracias,” Ellie squeaked out before he left.
She made space for her backpack by pushing a pair of cruddy boxer shorts out of the way
with her shoe.
You can deal with this, Ellie. It will be good for you.
There was no ladder to her bed so she grabbed onto the frame and tried to swing herself
up. It didn’t end well. She fell back to the floor with a thud. On a second, more energetic attempt,
Ellie made it up and rested on her tiny piece of rented real estate.
Surveying the chaos below, it was hard not to see it as a pool of sewage that would give
her nightmares about drowning in germs. She took a bottle of anti-bacterial gel from her daypack
and rubbed it over her hands. Just to be safe.
Ellie checked the bed and promptly concluded the sheets weren’t Egyptian cotton. There
was also a fishy yellow stain on the pillow. A heavy sweater? Something else? She flipped it
over. ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ had never worked before, but it better work tonight. She curled
into a ball and shut her eyes tight.
New York City, USA
“OK, OK, shut up,” Ellie implored, finding her phone on the floor and shutting off the
alarm. It took a few seconds to blink her eyes awake. She’d fallen asleep on the sofa, and the last
thing in her fuzzy memory was emailing the report to her team in anticipation of the 9 a.m.
Ellie sat up, pushing away the mop of hair that flopped over her face. Something jabbed
into her hip. The Lost World book. A dream from last night surged back into her head. In it she’d
seen Mount Roraima with her own eyes. Climbed to the summit with her own feet. Soaked her
soul in the mysterious aura of the ancient mountain.
She shook the dream away. It was just that—a fantasy.
Still disoriented and desperately needing coffee, Ellie walked out of the subway and into
Manhattan’s bustling financial district. The sidewalk was crowded with hundreds of
businesspeople dressed in black, blue or gray. Harsh shadows made it look even more monotone.
Ellie shielded her eyes. The straight lines of the city struck her as severe and she had a burning
desire to break away from all the planned roads and square buildings. To leave the tedious
routine of city life and go somewhere with fewer hard edges.
At the start of her career, Ellie had enjoyed working in the Big Apple, with all the
excitement and status that brought. And she loved how proud her mom and dad had been when
she landed a job here. But now all she saw were grim faces lost in their own worlds but living the
same lives: balancing in heels, adjusting ties, fudging numbers to meet quarterly targets, plotting
to slit their best friend’s throat to get ahead.
Nope, it’d never felt like home. To be honest, Ellie didn’t know where home was
In the middle of this washed-out scene, a splash of color appeared. A man and woman,
barely out of their teens, strolled by with large red backpacks. Wearing jeans and t-shirts, they
moved at half the speed of everyone else. They bought a pretzel to share from a food cart and,
unlike the office workers sidestepping them, smiled and laughed freely.
“Bonza? Nobody uses that word anymore,” the tanned woman said in a thick Australian
“I’m bringin’ it back. It’s bonza, mate!” the man replied with a mouthful of pretzel and
equally strong Aussie twang.
“You’re a dickhead,” she laughed. “So whatcha wanna do today?”
“Dunno. How about we hang in Central Park? Just chill.”
“Sounds bonza. You got a map?”
“Na, let’s head this way tho’. She’ll be ‘right.”
Ellie stared at the pair, backpacks happily bobbing up-and-down as they continued to
their next unplanned adventure. Her eavesdropping had been brief but enlightening, because
everything about them screamed one word.
It was impossible to concentrate, and she still hadn’t found coffee. The pages spitting out
of the printer put Ellie in a trance only broken by Gabby describing her latest sexual conquest in
far too much detail. Oral? On a first date? What about STIs? And Ebola?
Ellie excused herself, making her way through the cubicles to the conference room.
Every time she took this walk it reminded her of the morning last December when she got called
into a meeting to be told she’d been passed over for yet another promotion. The guy who got it
couldn’t even program Excel.
Get it together, Ellie. Today’s your shot.
You’re going to impress the boss, make the firm a ton of money, and get that damn
Ellie pushed her shoulders back, lengthened her stride, and rounded the corner to the
She stopped in her tracks. Through the floor-to-ceiling windows she could see Dennis
standing at the head of the table, presenting to the C.E.O. and a dozen Partners. On the screen
behind him was the report. Her report.
Ellie’s chest caved in. She struggled for air. Checked her phone. 8.45 a.m. Why had the
meeting started early? It must be a mistake. A pre-meeting meeting. They were waiting for her to
arrive and take over. Yes, that was it. After all, she knew the report better than anyone. Hell,
Dennis had trouble counting. So why did he look so confident up there?
She grabbed the handle and pushed inside. A round of applause filled the room. For a
second Ellie thought it might be for her entrance, then realized the Partners were applauding
Dennis. He basked in the glory, grinning like a thief who’d just gotten away with the diamonds.
It dawned on her that the meeting wasn’t starting—it had ended.
The C.E.O., sharing his nephew’s bald genes, stood and shook Dennis’ hand. “Fantastic
work. Very thorough. I knew you’d come through.”
Ellie’s jaw dropped. She caught Dennis’ eye and he winked back.
The C.E.O. quietened everyone with his hands. “OK folks, I was going to announce this
on Friday but don’t see any reason to delay. I’m pleased to say that our new Senior Analyst will
More applause. And handshaking. And backslapping.
Ellie felt like she was going to black out. She steadied herself on a chair as the conference
room emptied. “What’s going on?”
“D.K. killed it, that’s what’s going on,” Dennis replied, gathering his papers.
“We were supposed to start at nine.”
“It got changed.”
“Why didn’t you message me?”
He didn’t answer.
“Why didn’t you message me?!” Ellie demanded to know.
Dennis shrugged. “My phone died.”
There was a wash of silence as Ellie processed his lie.
“We make a great team. Well done, shorty.” He moved to punch her shoulder.
She batted his hand away. “Don’t touch me.”
“Hey, calm down. You’re acting crazy.”
“You stole my fucking job!” She was surprised by her outburst.
Dennis leaned in close and his eyes narrowed. “Don’t be so naive, Ellie. It was always
Ellie stiffened. Opened her mouth. Closed her mouth. Her heart beat so fast her cheeks
flushed. She felt sweat running down her back.
“C’mon, don’t look so pissed, we’ll still be working together. I’m your new boss,”
Dennis said, his grin dripping with grease.
Ellie ran out. Down the hall to the bathroom. Pushed inside a stall—and puked.
She flushed and slammed the toilet seat closed and sat in disbelief. Her eyes grew hot
with tears. It made her blood boil that not only was she more competent than him, but five years
of forced smiles at all the filthy jokes told by the boy’s club at DeWitt Financial Consultants
counted for nothing. Ellie had been raised to believe hard work would always be rewarded, but
now everything she’d sacrificed suddenly seemed worthless.
What have I been doing with my life?!
She slammed a fist into the wall.
Head held high, Ellie marched down the hallway. Washing her face and fixing her clothes
had restored some confidence, and helped her figure out what came next.
Dennis was the center of attention at his cubicle, getting fist-bumps and bro-hugs from
colleagues, and doing some idiotic handshake that belonged in middle school. “Hey, Ellie. Come
out with us tonight to celebrate,” he said.
She walked straight past him while giving him the mental middle finger.
“Y’know, you could at least smile.” Dennis high-fived and whooped some more.
Ellie took a long breath, slowly turned around, and gave him the actual middle finger. “I
The cocky grin slid off Dennis’ face. His colleagues fell quiet behind him. “You…can’t
“I can do whatever I want,” Ellie said. Her mind miraculously cleared, the way it always
does when you choose a path that restores your own power. She straightened her spine, turned on
her heel, and left without waiting for a response. The sound of Dennis’ silence played like
glorious background music.
I did it.
I really did it!
Adrenaline surged through Ellie’s body and her steps morphed into energetic strides. A
genuine smile spread from ear-to-ear for the first time in years. Reaching her cubicle, she took
her purse then went to grab her laptop bag. Wait. She wouldn’t need it anymore. In fact, there
was nothing here she wanted. She looked around at all the order in her world, then left, without
Ellie could only imagine all the incredible ways this decision would change her life.
Ellie sat bolt upright. Sunlight crept through the curtains, but the roar of a traveler
snoring like a grizzly bear was the clue she’d just spent her first night in a hostel. And lived to
tell the tale!
She swung her legs over the bunk. Her feet didn’t reach the floor and she accidentally
stepped on someone’s nose. Luckily, the man rolled over into his feral dreadlocks to keep
snoozing. Ellie had to jump the last foot.
Towel and toiletries kit in hand, she tiptoed down the hallway to the bathroom. The door
had both male and female figures painted on it.
Unisex bathroom. Awesome. That always ends well.
Ellie cautiously pushed inside and her skin crawled. There was no natural light, making
the beige tiles look even further past their use-by date and breeding a blackish mold. Then the
smell hit her like a porta-potty had dropped on her head. A ghastly mix of fungus and poop. Ellie
gagged into the basin before noticing it was littered with pubic hair.
What the hell…?
She steeled herself and pulled back the shower curtain. The recess was a concrete shell
with only one tap—cold. And instead of a drain cover there was a cavernous hole that threatened
to suck its victims into a grubby void.
Just when Ellie thought things couldn’t get any worse, a cockroach scurried out of the
hole. It lingered for a moment as if to tell her she didn’t belong here, then dove back into the
drain. Ellie let out a horrified sob.
Desperate to pee, she turned to the toilet. The seat was cracked in half and someone had
left an epic deposit. That explained the smell. A notice on the wall instructed: ‘Do not flush
paper. Throw in trash.’ The overflowing bin hadn’t been emptied in a week. That also explained
the smell. Ellie grabbed the last sheet of paper and flushed the handle. At least something
Surrounded by grime and bugs and other people’s butt wipes, Ellie shut her eyes. “It’s all
part of the adventure,” she reassured herself.
And it’s why I brought enough hand sanitizer to disinfect a hospital ward.
Ellie bounded down the stairs to reception, daypack slung over her shoulder. She was
thrilled about surviving the bathroom, but even more so about her first day in a new country.
Well, thrilled and freaking out.
“Buenos días, Benicio.”
“Cómo estás, Ellie? How are you?” He took a sip of coffee and turned down the folksy
“I need some help. Do you have a map of Caracas?”
“Sí. We have un mapa.” Benicio searched behind his desk. He flipped over piles of paper
but was clearly having trouble finding one. “Do you know where you want to go?”
“That’s my problem. All my notes were on my iPad.” Ellie was still angry at herself for
not being more careful with it. “I think the historic district would be a good place to start but,
yeah, I’m not sure how to get there.”
“We don’t have a map.” Benicio’s shoulders slumped.
“How about a WiFi password? I could download a map onto my phone.”
“Internet not working. This is problem in Venezuela.”
“OK…then maybe you could just point me in the right direction?”
“No, no,” he warned with a raised finger. “It is not safe to walk if you don’t know where
to go. I will call you a taxi—”
“No taxi,” Ellie insisted. Not after last night’s disaster. “I’m not usually like this,” she
continued, twisting her lip in embarrassment. “I would usually have a backup plan but I was so
stressed out by leaving that I didn’t think to print a hardcopy of all my notes and highlight
everything in different colours and—well I figured my iPad would be my guidebook.” She
finally took a breath.
Benicio’s face lit up. “We have a guidebook!”
He took a few steps past Ellie to a bookcase. A sign above it read BOOK EXCHANGE.
All the books were used, some had been passed along many times given the condition of their
spines, and they were in a variety of languages: English, Spanish, German, French. There were
even a couple in Hebrew and Japanese. Benicio searched until he found the one he wanted, a
slightly worn Unique Planet: South America On A Budget with a photo of Machu Picchu on its
cover. He passed it to Ellie with a satisfied grin.
“Wow, thank you,” Ellie said, rubbing a light coating of dust off it. “Oh, I have one to
exchange.” Ellie opened her daypack and pulled out a book titled How To Avoid Getting Killed
in South America. “My sister gave me this, but I don’t plan on needing it.”
The phone rang and Benicio excused himself.
Ellie opened the Unique Planet and turned to the chapter on Venezuela. She found a map
of Caracas, which had various landmarks circled in blue pen. There was also handwriting in the
Her curiosity sparked, Ellie flicked through the other chapters and saw there were
detailed notes for nearly all the countries in South America. There was barely a page that hadn’t
been written on—advice about adventure activities, places to visit off the tourist trail, and places
to avoid. Some comments were warnings (‘Be careful, pickpockets here’), others were
recommendations (‘Watch a sunset in Huacachina, you won’t be disappointed’), or funny oneliners (‘Bed bugs biting. Check in at own peril!’). There were also cryptic messages such as ‘You
made the right choice. Only she who walks knows her way.’
The notes had been written in a variety of colors but all the same neat cursive script,
which Ellie figured belonged to a female. It was obvious a lot of work had gone into annotating
the guidebook and Ellie felt fortunate for stumbling across it.
She did wonder though, who had gone to all this effort?
San Francisco, USA
“Breakfast!” Jerry shouted in the general direction of the second story. No response.
“Pancakes!” he tried again, and immediately heard feet scrambling down the stairs and along the
Always works like a charm.
Jerry’s six-foot four-inch frame, smartly dressed in a pressed white shirt tucked into tan
chino pants, towered over the benchtop while he sliced bananas into bowls of cereal. At thirtyeight years-old, he had dark eyes and wavy black hair that showed no signs of retreat—though
his family were trying their best.
“Pancakes!” seven year-old Mia screamed as she ran into the kitchen. Her sister, twelve
year-old Andrea, followed closely behind, putting Mia’s hair into pigtails. “Wait, where are the
“Dad was joking,” Andrea explained. “Again.”
“Sorry honey, but I had to get you girls down here somehow or you’d never be ready for
school. We’re trying to arrive on time this week, remember?”
Mia scrunched up her face. “I’m not hungry.” Unlike their Caucasian father, the two girls
had olive skin with round faces and brown eyes.
“You were hungry for pancakes.”
“I lost my appetite when my dad lied to me.” She crossed her arms for maximum effect.
Oh boy, it was going to be one of those days.
“Don’t be so dramatic,” Jerry said, carrying the bowls to the table. “You know you can’t
concentrate at school without food in your tummy.” Summer had well and truly arrived by the
second week of July and the renovated Victorian in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood glowed
with natural light.
“OK, you’re done.” Andrea gave Mia’s hair a tug and sat to start breakfast. After glaring
at Jerry while he read the newspaper, Mia grudgingly took a seat but still refused to eat.
“Did I hear someone say ‘pancakes?’” Another girl joined her family in the kitchen. It
was seventeen year-old, going on twenty-one, Yasmina. She was as beautiful as she was tall,
with large eyes and dark hair that fell to her waist.
“Dad lied,” Mia explained.
“He lied to us about Santa Claus for years so it’s no surprise really.”
“I’m still angry about the Santa Claus thing.”
“Can we not make this another pick-on-dad day, please?” Jerry said. For the love of God,
please. “Besides, it’s time for our weekly global affairs challenge.”
The children groaned. “Must we do this every Monday? It’s too early.”
“The planet doesn’t stop turning just because you’re tired, Yas. Best answer gets to
choose takeout on Saturday. Let’s see what is happening…” Jerry flicked through the paper.
“Here we go. ‘Devastating rains have lashed Guatemala, causing flash flooding around the
historic city of Antigua. Thousands of people have been dislocated and roads, schools, and
hospitals washed away. Guatemala has appealed for international assistance to deal with the
crisis.’ OK girls, what should we do?”
“What does ‘dis-lo-cat-ed’ mean?” Mia said it syllable-by-syllable to make sure she got it
“It means people’s houses have been destroyed and they have nowhere to live.”
“Then we should build them new ones!” she suggested enthusiastically.
“A very good idea.”
“The most important thing is to make sure people have safe drinking water and medicine
because there might be an outbreak of disease,” Andrea said, always keen to contribute. “So we
should immediately send bottled water, drugs, and also tents so they have a place to sleep. In the
future we could help by sending engineers to stop the flooding from happening again.”
“Excellent suggestions. Do you have anything to say?” Jerry looked over the paper at
“I’m not playing.”
“They won’t be able to go to school, will they?” Mia asked.
“Not for a while.”
“Is it?” Yasmina slurped her juice.
“I like school,” Mia declared with all the eagerness of a second grader. “I think we should
build them new schools so they can learn to be engineers and then we won’t have to send any
“It looks like we have a winner.” Jerry and Mia high-fived. She beamed and finally
tucked into her breakfast.
“Oh, Dad.” Andrea rolled her eyes.
“What? She made a good point.” Navigating the power-dynamics of three daughters
meant that he lost, in some way, every day.
Jerry’s eyes darted between the road and mirrors as he drove his SUV through peak-hour
traffic. “What about your homework? Did you finish reading The Odyssey?”
“Yeah,” Yasmina replied, tapping on her phone like her life depended on it. She sat up
front next to her dad, while Mia was in a booster seat in the back with Andrea.
“What did you think about the ending?”
“Dad, can’t you see I’m busy here?”
“Did you actually finish it?”
She kept playing with her phone.
“Jesus, Yasmina. The Odyssey is an important piece of literature. You have an essay on it
“How do you know that?”
“I signed up to Mrs. Pearson’s website.”
“I hate that bitch.”
“Hey!” Jerry shot her a glance. “Don’t be disrespectful.”
“Odysseus was disrespectful. He shouldn’t have left Penelope at home all those years.”
“Well, I’m glad you got that far into it. But the language you use around your sisters is
important. We’ve talked about this before.” Too many times.
Andrea and Mia leaned forward to listen to the argument unfolding up front.
“Whatever. I didn’t see the point of reading the whole thing. It’s a stupid story anyway.”
Jerry sighed. “Besides it being one of the oldest stories in human history, and a classic
tale about a man on a journey against all odds back to the woman he loves, the point is you have
an assessment on it. And if you haven’t read it, how will you be able to write anything
“I read the online summary. I just can’t remember the ending right now.”
“Oh, that’s great.” Jerry’s voice rose ominously. “It’s not just about writing an essay, you
know. It’s about critical thinking. Developing the skills to analyze a question and come up with a
solution. And you practice that in school because when you get out into the real world that’s
what you have to do every day.”
Yasmina mocked her dad’s advice by mouthing her lips as he spoke.
“Your mother would be so disappointed in you.”
She stopped playing with her phone, and the girls in the back stopped giggling.
There was a long silence until Jerry pulled the car to the curb outside their school. “A kiss
for Dad, please girls.”
Andrea and Mia kissed Jerry on the cheek. Yasmina jumped straight out to greet a group
of friends standing nearby.
Jerry opened the window and called out, “A kiss for Dad, please Yas!”
She stopped dead and turned around. “Dad,” she gasped through clenched teeth.
“Do you want me to say it again? A kiss—”
“OK!” Yasmina ran back to the car and reluctantly pecked him on the cheek. “I’m going
to kill you.”
“Yas, I know things are tough. But your mom and I didn’t raise you to be lazy.”
“I know, OK. It’s just… I know.” She nodded faintly before joining her friends.
“Love you, Stardust!” Jerry shouted as he drove off. In his rear-view mirror, Yasmina
fumed while her friends collapsed in hysterics.
If he couldn’t win, at least he was going to have fun losing.
About the Author
Nick Levy loves traveling and writing to understand the world and our place in it. An award-winning scriptwriter and novelist, he has lived in dozens of countries, including Australia, the USA, Singapore, Mexico, Peru and Thailand. His passion for adventure has taken him from the highlands of Scotland to the coral reefs of Belize, and from the pyramids of Egypt to the tea plantations of Sri Lanka. With degrees in English, History and Education, he has taught in schools on three continents. His writing, directing and producing work in movies has crossed the genres of comedy, drama, thriller and action. Inspired by his parents’ love of travel, film and books, he enjoys taking readers on a journey of discovery so they can appreciate our incredible planet and its fascinating inhabitants.