stranger than fiction

As my advanced fiction class comes to a close this week, I decided to share with you all one of the short stories I wrote for my final portfolio– a foray into the world of fiction that is slightly out of character for this blog. I got the idea for the story from the student protests that were taking place while I was in Chile this summer, as those of you who followed chilllinchile.tumblr.com might remember. While much of the story is based off of actual events/issues (the july 6, 2011 kiss-in protest, President Piñera’s GANE reform), the story’s main events and characters were entirely invented by me.  I’m going to split it up into several episodes over the next few days so it’s not such a long entry to read at once. Here is part 1, enjoy!

Chilean Winter 

At six o’clock in the evening on the sixth of July, the students’ jaws’ ached and their lips had begun to chap. Some couples had paused to hug or stand close to each other, but thousands of others continued kissing. There was hardly any open space between joined lips and intertwined bodies in the entire Plaza de Armas as the late evening light grew softer, getting caught in the palm trees and not quite reaching the cobblestone below. Stationed all around the perimeter were police officers fully outfitted in dark green uniforms and polished leather knee-high boots, their eyes darting around the plaza and their hands never leaving their guns. But there seemed to be little need for them. Among the crowd, no sudden movements were made, only the rhythmic pulsing of what felt like one long shared kiss.

In the southwest corner of the plaza, nearly on the outskirts of the crowd, Paloma  fiddled nervously with frayed ends of her sleeves while Matias took a few large gulps of water from the bottle he had strapped to his backpack. It was surreal to watch what was going on around them, but it was nothing compared to what it had felt like to finally run her fingers through Matias’ wavy black hair and pull him close to her. He had paused for a drink of water and Paloma worried that the powerful, passionate enchantment that seemed to be resting over the entire city had been broken for them.

Matias finished drinking and cupped his hands around Paloma’s face, smoothing the worry in her cheeks out with his thumb.

“I think it’s really working,” he said. “All of it. I think we might actually be able to do this.” His face seemed to be lit from within, his cheeks rosy and his eyes brighter than usual. Paloma thought of her mother at home, of her brothers, scarcely daring to hope. Her eyes darted around to the police officers nearby, wanting to believe him.

“Besides,” he said, touching his forehead to hers, pulling her attention from the police and back to him, “How else would I have gotten you to kiss me?” And as Matias kissed her then, though the sun had already fallen low behind the Correo Nacional[1], Paloma felt as though the entire plaza were draped in warm, creamy mid-day sun.

A few blocks away at La Moneda[2], Camilo Catalan Madrigal, a member of the president’s personal guard, stood outside a locked door, trying to catch any snippets of conversation going on inside.

“There’s nothing that we can do,” he heard the president say. “They’re not breaking any laws. They’re not destroying anything.”

“This has gone on long enough,” said another voice. “We keep proposing reforms and they keep rejecting them.”

The voices lowered and Camilo leaned his head closer to the door, trying to make out any words but was unable to. The president had ordered him to stand outside the door to prevent anyone from entering until he and the minister of education had finished talking. And though Camilo spent more time with the president on a daily basis than perhaps even the first lady, he was only privy to the information he was able to overhear.

At approximately twenty-three minutes past six, the sunlight began to fade from the plaza altogether. The shadows that had grown long in the advancing twilight now disappeared entirely, replaced by a gentle darkness that covered everything. The temperature had dropped several degrees since the masses had arrived at the Plaza de Armas, and couples pulled closer to each other to take advantage of the body heat. The plaza was almost eerily quiet—people kissed instead of talking, and the policemen lining the outskirts of the crowd looked on in silence.

The shot that rang out then seemed to reverberate endlessly throughout the square, echoing in the ears of everyone within several blocks. Somewhere in the crowd, people had begun to scream, and a small circle formed around a lanky young man clutching a girl with long wavy hair wearing a red knit hat. Blood was dripping from her head, already matting down her silky hair and soaking into her coat. She was dead before most of the crowd realized what had happened.

***

The president of Chile woke each morning at six and watched the news while drinking his morning tea. He liked goat’s cheese on his bread, not the bland yellow kind that most people ate for breakfast. He was partial to the goat cheese that was produced in the north, up near Andacollo, and so it was flown in each week for him. He took his breakfast in a room on the top floor of La Moneda, and afterwards would occasionally step out onto the balcony that overlooked the Plaza Los Heroes, staring at the streets from above, the people below mere pinpricks in his vision. Camilo knew all of this because he had been on the president’s service since he’d taken office and was well accustomed to his routines. The president was a man with very certain tastes that tended toward the expensive, the rare, the luxurious. Prior to election he had been, after all, an extremely successful businessman.

On the morning of July 6, Camilo stood several feet behind the president’s chair and watched the news over his shoulder. On TVN, Chile’s national television station, a few stories about the unusually strong rains in the north and footage from the funeral of an actress’s child preceded a breaking news bulletin about a student protest planned for later in the day. It was rumored to be peaceful, but the newscasters didn’t seem to have the details. A journalist on the street was interviewing Sofia Vallejo, the female president of the Confederation of Chilean Student Federations. Behind her was a sign that read “MR. PRESIDENT—STUDENTS ARE NOT COINS.”  Sofia was not only well spoken and a charismatic leader, but also happened to be exceptionally beautiful, with wavy brown hair tucked under a red knit hat, almond-shaped hazel eyes and a silver nose ring that gave her just the edge she needed to be taken seriously as a leftist student leader.

“What are the CONFECH’s thoughts on the reform proposed by the president yesterday?” the reporter asked Sofia and her co-president Emiliano Contreras, the student representative from the Universidad Católica de Chile. The president had proposed a revised education plan entitled GANE[3][4]the day before, but it was not at all what the students had been asking for. Thinking about things from a purely financial standpoint had seemed to be the president’s predilection from the beginning, and this new policy was no different.

Camilo had always felt a little badly for Emiliano—he was given far less credit and attention than Sofia was in the media, and to add insult to injury, he was just slightly shorter than she was.

“What we are asking for is equal access to education for all Chileans who seek it out, regardless of their socioeconomic standing. Basing admission to universities is based on money over merit will have a gravely detrimental effect on the future of this nation. Access to education should be a right, not a privilege.”

Emiliano nodded in agreement. “If the government supported public universities in a more substantial way, they wouldn’t need to rely on tuition as their primary source of funding. Annual costs could be lowered, allowing students that previously couldn’t afford it to access higher education and better themselves as citizens of Chile.”

“The negative effects of leaving the system as is are more serious than the government is willing to realize,” Sofia continued, “Our generation is the future of this country, and if thousands of qualified students are unable to receive the education they deserve solely based on financial issues, what will that mean for Chile twenty years from now? We will not stop until the future of our country is secured—until the system is changed.”

Camilo couldn’t help but agree with the two of them—though by the nature of his position he was not allowed to say so. He had three kids in school and money was extremely tight—education reform and reduced tuition would have been an incredible stroke of good fortune for him and his family.

Sofia, Emiliano and the students began chanting on screen, loudly enough that the president finally took notice of the news program.

“For the love of God, not again,” he muttered, his head in his hands. “I have too much to deal with right now without a bunch of bratty adolescents throwing tantrums all over the city.”

Camilo had found over the years that the more he pretended to be invisible, the more the president would say around him, seeming to forget that he was not alone in the room.  At that moment the president’s secretary entered, holding her hand to cover a cell phone.

“Mr. President? It’s Sebastien Lemaire on the phone. He wants to talk about the inauguration of his company’s vineyard in Valle del Elqui next week.”

The president turned away from the television to take the phone. He seemed to have perked up considerably.


[1] Historical national post office

[2] Home of the president (Chilean “White House”)

[3] Great National Agreement of Education (acronym gah-nay means “WIN” in Spanish)

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