part 3

Since the call from Sebastien Lemaire earlier in the day, the president had run a few miles on the treadmill to maintain his figure, made a few more phone calls about the vineyards in Valle del Elqui, eaten a generous lunch, taken a nap, and played with his dogs. Not once had he left La Moneda or even looked out the window to see the masses of young people streaming toward the Plaza de Armas. And not just local students either—Camilo had seen on the news on the television in the kitchen that there were reports of hundreds of students coming in from Los Andes, San Pedro, and other surrounding areas. And even though by now every major television channel in the country was broadcasting live coverage of the scene in the plaza de Armas, the president still didn’t seem to be paying attention.

“What do they want me to do?” he said on the phone to one of his advisors while Camilo stood silently in the background. “I spent weeks working on GANE to appease them. But they’re still not happy. They’re petulant children who are never going to be happy until we give them everything for free. And that’s not good business.”

He hung up the phone, rubbing his forehead and squeezing his eyes shut in exasperation.

“Camilo,” the president said to him, turning to look at him for the first time all day, “I have a very important meeting with the minister of education now and it is of the utmost importance that we are not disturbed. We will be speaking in the breakfast room so to assure that we will not be overheard, but I need you to patrol the corridor to make absolutely sure there is no one on the floor. Do we understand each other?”

Camilo nodded. The president always phrased things like this, “Do we understand each other?” despite the fact that any understanding was only ever one-sided.

When the president and the minister of education were locked safely behind the door, Camilo began to pace up and down the hallway, rhythmically and absentmindedly, his thoughts straying into the breakfast room and out onto the Plaza de Armas.  He was in his mid-forties but still a formidable man to behold—tall for a Chilean and still retaining the heft of his younger years. He had been hired for his sheer size and military training, but he was not just a piece of meat guarding a door—he thought about things, about lots of things, about the things that even the president didn’t want to think about. The demonstrations had been largely peaceful so far, with little need for actual police intervention. The president’s unwillingness to compromise had not been dissented with violence, and the president had not grown so enraged at the disobedience of the nation’s youth that he had felt the need to take extreme measures to quell them—but Camilo felt like it was only a matter of time. Already the colectivo[1] drivers and many of the unionized workers had followed the students’ lead and were going on strike. If neither side would budge, if no one was going to give in—people were not going to stay peaceful forever.  They would turn to more radical methods, more upheaval would ensue. And once that had begun it would send the country into a kind of anarchy he knew nobody was ready for. Camilo had been born into a Chile colored by the ruthlessness of Pinochet, and though he had been only 8 during the golpe[2] of 1973, he remembered enough to be worried.

“…last straw,” he heard the minister of education say through the door.

“…no other choice…”

Camilo wondered to himself if this might signal the president’s final consenting to change the education policy. Perhaps it really had gone on long enough. He lingered in front of the door, hoping to hear more. He could tell by the muffled volume that the two men were discussing things at the table in the corner of the room, away from the door and away from the window.

“…up in the tower of the cathedral..”

“…red hat…”

“I’m confident…won’t miss.”

And with stunning realization, Camilo understood. At that moment the lock of the door clicked open and the president and the minister of education walked out into the hallway just as Camilo was trying to nonchalantly distance himself from the door.

Camilo watched as the two men shook hands and the minister of education took off at a brisk walk down the corridor toward the elevator.

“Camilo?” the president asked, not taking his eyes of his phone. “Can you bring up my dinner from the kitchen, please? And make sure the meat is cooked properly this time. It was barely edible last night.”

Camilo wordlessly moved to the staircase and began descending the stairs rapidly, his mind racing. There were some things that went beyond money, that went beyond his job, that went beyond remaining silent. There was a young life at stake and no matter what it would mean for his job he was not going to be invisible this time. As he jumped down stairs two at a time, he quickly dialed his wife. After several rings it went straight to voicemail, and struggling to keep an even breath, Camilo left her a message.

“Mi vida, I can’t explain everything right now but I have just overheard the president planning to assassinate Sofia Vallejo. I’m going to try to warn non-military police and stop if I can. I will do my best to save her and try to keep myself safe. Te amo demasiado, negra. Tell Javi, Benja and Paloma I love them too. Cuídate.”

***

In the Plaza de Armas built-up energy was beginning to buzz through the crowd, an almost invisible electricity crackling between bodies. Paloma had watched from her perch on Matias’ shoulders as Sofia Vallejo gave the crowd a rousing speech reiterating their purpose, encouraging students of all ages to stay strong and remain on strike, and serving up some choice words for GANE.

“And so tonight we would like to continue to peacefully protest the current system and the president’s proposal in a new way, a way that will demonstrate our passion for education.” Sofia Vallejo emphasized the word “passion” and gave an uncharacteristic giggle afterwards, looking over at Emiliano Contreras. “Tonight, we protest with a kiss.” She stepped toward Emiliano and began kissing him, holding his face with one hand and waving the other in an upward motion at the crowd to incite their participation. Cheers and whoops erupted throughout the plaza as people began reaching for each other.

Paloma watched as Sofia took Emiliano’s hand and descended the steps of the cathedral into the crowd, until soon all that could be seen of her was her red knit hat, bobbing through the sea of brown and black hair.

Paloma felt Matias bending down to let her off his shoulders, and she realized with a pang of dismay that this was the moment when he would set her down and reach for Valentina in order to share his passion for education. Her feet hit the cobblestone below and she shuffled off his shoulders awkwardly, stumbling backwards a bit before he reached out his hand to steady her. Somehow, though, back on the ground after being in the air, Paloma’s skin was still tingling, her stomach still filled with butterflies— the electricity of being up above the crowd was impossible to shake.

She could see Valentina out of the corner of her eye, edging her way toward Matias. But then Paloma felt him pulling her chin up toward him so that their faces were nearly touching. With a goofy smile that seemed to herald a comment of the same nature, Matias touched his forehead to Paloma’s, whose pulse skyrocketed.

“You know what? I’m very, very passionate about education.” They laughed into each other, and it didn’t just feel like one kiss, but a thousand kisses, the kisses of the entire city concentrated into theirs.

Camilo erupted through a service entrance of La Moneda, sprinting as hard as his legs could carry him the few blocks to the Plaza de Armas. He was in good shape for his age, but the cold air scratched his lungs and the urgency seemed to make his whole body go weak, causing him to wheeze for breath. As he got closer the crowd began to thicken, and his progress slowed. He searched for a municipal police officer, but all of the guards around the plaza seemed to be outfitted in military uniform. Camilo could hardly breathe, his eyes darting around desperately. He felt helpless.

Paloma shivered, from the advancing chill of the evening, or the thrill of kissing, or perhaps both. Matias noticed, pulling back from her momentarily.

“Are you cold? Here, take this,” he said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a red knit hat.


[1] kind of shared taxi

[2] coup

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