A cynic wakes up in a strange land alongside an intriguing guide in this fantasy romance by Katalina Gamarra, author of BEN & BEATRIZ.
Remember reading Alice in Wonderland or Harry Potter by flashlight under the covers when you were a kid? I loved stories like that because they could sweep me away into an inventive alternate universe. This week’s Heartbeat story delights me for the exact same reason. Katalina Gamarra transports skeptical Marta de Armas to the realm of Atalanta where she meets someone who forces her to question deeply-buried dreams.
In August, Gamarra published her debut novel, Ben & Beatriz, a Latinx retelling of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing set in the early days of the Trump presidency. It was shortlisted for the New England Book Award. Ready to dive into her world?
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“You’re up, Marta!” Dani yells.
“Nooo,” I whine as my best friend pulls me to the fortune teller’s booth. She’s had three Long Island Iced Teas—or was it four? I’ve had so much rosé I can’t remember.
The fortune teller doesn’t look like what I expected. Instead of hippie clothes, she’s wearing a red pantsuit, like if Fleabag went ultra-femme. She blows a bubble with her gum as Dani drags me up to her booth.
“This is Marta, she thinks what you do is bullshit.”
“Dani!” I whisper-yell. I forgot how loose-lipped she is when she’s drunk. This is the last time I am left in charge of a bachelorette party. Just because Dani and I have been besties since pre-K doesn’t overcloud my horrendous ability to plan, well, anything. Which is why we’re spending her bachelorette party night hopping between the two bars in our small town with her high school friends before meandering down the boardwalk we’ve all been coming to since we were kids.
The fortune teller is new, though. Maybe that’s why Dani is forcing us all to get readings.
“Sit on down, babe,” the fortune teller says to me. She asks Dani, who’s giggling madly, to give us a moment alone. She leans in and says, “If I’m honest, I don’t give a shit whether or not you think this is real. I just need to buy cat food.”
I laugh. “Fair enough.”
The fortune teller begins shuffling her tarot cards. Then she fans them out to make a rainbow shape in front of her. “Place your hands on the table, please.”
She lays hers on top of mine. “Is there a question you want to ask? Anything you’d like to know the outcome of?”
My stomach lurches. I think of Dani—and what she hasn’t told her other friends.
“You’re sure?” the fortune teller raises an eyebrow.
I mean, there is the short story shoved in the back of my desk drawer, and the deadline for New Yorker submissions that I’m trying to pretend I don’t care about. And the manuscript buried in my trash folder. And the fact that I’m worried I’ll never fall in love. “Absolutely.”
The fortune teller looks at me for a moment. Then she shrugs and gathers up the cards. “I sense that the cards are not the best mode for the answers you seek,” she says.
I work hard not to roll my eyes. “All right.”
She pulls a crystal ball towards her. I can’t keep from rolling my eyes this time. “You are quite skeptical,” the fortune teller says. Her voice has become deep and dreamy, like she’s Emma Thompson as Professor Trelawny.
“Well, yeah,” I say. “It’s literally impossible to predict the future going on solid information you have about yourself. Let alone on a shiny orb you can purchase on Amazon for $10.99.” But the truth is, I miss when I believed the future was predictable. It’s when I felt like my life was on track.
When I was a kid, adults always cheered on my dream of becoming an author when I grew up. They’d see me spending recess and summer breaks scribbling stories in journals, and say things like, “Wow, only the next Toni Morrison would spend their free time writing instead of playing!”
It never seemed to occur to them that I was writing because making shit up was easier than making friends.
I got through my childhood by reassuring myself it would all be better when I was grown up. I’d become a famous writer, makes millions of dollars, and it wouldn’t matter that no one besides Dani ever wanted to be my friend.
But then I grew up. I started submitting my work to literary agents and all I got were rejections. Which I knew was normal, but…I sort of thought I would be that rare success story of someone who was offered representation immediately. And I’m embarrassed by how disappointed I was to learn that I’m not one in a million.
And maybe if I hadn’t grown up believing that writing was my foretold destiny, it would have stung a bit less.
The fortune teller raises an eyebrow again. “What if I told you that reading the orb is not so much about predicting the future as it is helping guide you along whatever path you choose to follow?”
I shrug. “Less far-fetched. But you don’t know me, so still pretty ridiculous. The only place to truly get guidance is from books or therapy. And neither of those are a few dollars on the boardwalk.” Even I wince. “Sorry,” I add hurriedly. “That was rude.”
She laughs “Babe, do you really think you’re the first reluctant client forced into this by a drunk bachelorette?”
I laugh too. “Fair enough.”
She stares intensely into the surface of the ball like it’s going to tell her all the world’s secrets.
“Hmmm.” The fortune teller frowns. I wonder if this is part of her gig or if she’s actually seeing something concerning. Then I wonder why I’m worried because I know this is bullshit. “This is unusual,” she says, leaning down and looking harder into the ball. “I’m seeing something I don’t usually see during readings of this kind.”
Don’t ask, don’t get suckered in. “What is it?”
“It’s—” she leans down closer, squinting at the ball. “It’s not so much about the trajectory of your future, it’s—it appears you will gain a special ability for a short period of time. As in, you will be able to use it once.” I wonder if there are scripts fortune tellers use for times like this. I make a mental note to research that after the party. Maybe in the next story I write one of the characters can get a reading or something.
“What kind of power is it?” I ask, because now that I’ve framed this as doing research for a character, I’m invested.
“It’s unclear,” she says. Typical.
She leans closer to the ball just as a cloud passes over us, covering the moon. “Damn,” she says, dropping back into her regular voice so quickly it’s jarring. “I can’t see anything anymore. Damn it, damn it,” She pushes the ball away angrily. “I’m sorry,” she says, catching my eye. “I know that was unprofessional, but I’ve never seen something like that in the ball before. I have half a mind to ask for your number so I can follow up on what kind of power you discover.”
I roll my eyes. What a thinly-veiled way to hit on me. I get up to wrangle Dani and the rest of the bachelorettes back to her friend’s condo.
I thought it was bullshit until I woke up the next morning in a fairy land. Like exactly what I imagined A Midsummer Night’s Dream to look like. I’m lying under a willow tree, the sun shining so brightly it sparkles between the branches. A stream runs peacefully beside me, yet there are no mosquitoes.
All right, no way is this real. I can’t step outside in the summer without reeking of bug spray because mosquitoes seem to view me as their personal buffet. If this were legit, I’d be getting eaten alive. Plus, Dani and her friends are nowhere in sight.
I sit up and see that I’ve been sleeping on a riverbank in a bed of long leaves, as big as banana leaves but except they smell like lavender. Everything here is pastel, like I’m viewing the world through a sparkling Instagram filter. The stream has paths leading up to beds of flowers in shades of pink, purple, and orange, like the colors of sunset come down to Earth. Everything looks so peaceful—until someone appears out of thin air in front of me.
“Welcome to Atalanta!” he cries, as I scream in surprise. “Sorry, sorry!” he says. Confetti bursts around him, but it waves it away when he sees how shocked I am. This part does seem kind of weird for a dream…I don’t usually get scared shitless when I’m sleeping.
And my brain also doesn’t usually conjure up guys this attractive. I heard somewhere that everyone who appears in your dreams is someone you’ve seen at some point in your life whether you remember it or not. But there’s no way I’d forget this guy. He’s tall and lithe, bedecked in a suit of green gauze with yellow flowers sewn along it. His curls are just visible from under the brim of a floral decked bowler hat. He basically looks like if Harry Styles wore Taylor Swift’s dress from the night she won a Grammy for folklore.
“Where have I seen you before?” I ask. Maybe if I ask him, my dream-brain will tell me.
“Well, it’s unlikely you’ve seen me at all. Citizens of Atalanta are only allowed to realm-jump once in their life, and I have yet to use mine.” He takes a step closer. God, he smells like a rose garden. “And you are clearly a realm traveler, which means this will be your first time here in Atalanta! For as long as I can remember, one person has appeared in Atalanta every day right where you just did, but only for twenty-four hours. They’re always gone the next day.”
I’ll play along. “Why? Where do they go?”
“They return to their realm. Travelers come to Atalanta if there’s something important in their life that they’re trying to avoid. They are usually sent by a seer, who senses they will be happier after working through what they’re avoiding. So Atalanta is a twenty-four hour break from reality for them to consider what they need.”
“Yeah, okay.” I roll my eyes. “What’s a seer, some kind of fortune teller?” I laugh. Then I realize what I just said. “Wait, is it a fortune teller?”
“Yes, exactly!” He smiles.
Holy. Shit. There’s no way the fortune teller from last night could have sent me here. That’s ridiculous. She wasn’t actually Professor Trelawney. I’m dreaming, or I bumped my head when I woke up, or maybe some asshole slipped something into my drink, or—
I reach into my bra for my phone. And that’s when I notice what I’m wearing. My bar-hopping attire from last night is gone, replaced by a filmy pink and green dress. It plunges down my neckline in a way I’m not mad about, to be honest. The straps mimic vines so accurately I wonder if they’re real. I touch them. They are. The skirt flows so airily, it feels like I’m moving through clouds.
“So I was ‘sent here’ because of something I need to work through?” I ask.
“Precisely,” he says. “I’m here to help you work through it. And also to make sure you don’t go crazy, or get lost, or wander down to the area of town where the retired fairies are.”
I can’t wrap my head around this being real. “Are retired fairies something to be scared of?”
“Oh, you have no idea.” He shudders. “They look tiny, but they can pinch you until you have welts.”
“But I’m fine, I don’t have anything to work through,” I say. “God, this is so much more elaborate than my other dreams.”
“Ahh, you think you’re dreaming?” he says. “That’s a very common response.” He pulls out a small scroll from his inside pocket.
“The Dream Debunker List,” he says, showing it to me. At the top it says, “So You Think Atalanta is a Dream?” He starts to read from it, “It’s very natural to think you’re hallucinating. But unfortunately, not believing in the reality of Atalanta means it only wastes time you could be benefiting from this realm. You were sent here on the eve of something important in your life, and the longer you take to address what you’re avoiding, the more likely it is you’ll miss it. You were sent here for a reason, so let’s figure out why together!” The guy refurls the scroll. “So, what’s going on?”
I just stare at him. I don’t like how real that just got. Because there is something incredibly important that I’ll miss—Dani’s doctor’s appointment. You wouldn’t know it based on how much she partied last night, but she’s been growing steadily frail over the past few months, with pains that come and go without warning. Her fiancée and I had to practically bully her into seeing a specialist, and when she finally agreed to, they had a months-long waiting list. Until they got a cancellation a few days ago and could slip her in…which is why she’s going straight from her bachelorette party to a potentially life-altering medical appointment.
And the fact that none of the bridesmaids except me know about it (and given that Dani really can’t handle her liquor, so she’ll probably forget she has the appointment) is why I need to be the one to make sure Dani is awake and dressed and gets there on time.
“Dude, where the hell am I and how do I get back to New Jersey?” I snap.
“You are in Atalanta,” he says patiently. “And you can return to your land after you address what you’re—”
“You mean Atlanta?”
“No, Atalanta. A few stones’ throw from Acadia.”
“No, the realm of Acadia in the land of Illyria, located in the Romulus galaxy.” His smile is comforting like he does this all the time.
“This can’t be happening.” My voice cracks. This might all be fake, but the stakes are too high if it’s not. Dani is the only friend I have—I can’t let my cynicism potentially put her health at risk.
“Okay, fine, I’ll play your little game.” I start walking along the riverbank. The guy is on my heels. “What’s your name?” (Maybe manners are the thing I need to work on.)
“Marta de Armas.” I extend my hand. He stares at it, looking confused. I roll my eyes. “Where I’m from, it’s polite to shake someone’s hand when you meet them.”
Rowan raises an eyebrow. He puts his hand out. I slip mine around his and he shakes it around madly, like there’s a wasp on our fingers that he’s trying to get loose. “Like that?”
“Not quite.” He stops and I pump our arms up and down once. “Like that.”
Rowan tilts his head to the side. “Interesting. One more for the books,” he mumbles to himself, walking back to the willow tree I woke up under. That’s when I see that a pile of notebooks and a typewriter made of seaglass has appeared beneath it. The notebooks are made of pressed florals that somehow also sparkle.
I look down to realize that Rowan is still holding my hand. He probably thinks that’s also part of my customs. It’s been a really long time since I’ve done this with a guy. Rowan’s hand is warm and his fingers fit perfectly around mine. It’s comforting.
He doesn’t let go until we reach the notebooks and typewriter. He gently releases his grip before opening a journal decorated with daisies and lilacs. He holds out his other hand, and a fairy appears out of nowhere. It deposits an honest-to-god live snake into his hand. I open my mouth to scream but when the snake touches Rowan, it transforms into a green-scaled quill. This is some Alice in Wonderland shit.
“So what is it that I need to address?” I ask, snapping my fingers to indicate haste. “I’m rude? I’m afraid of failure? I have no friends? Come on, tell me.”
Rowan tilts his hand to one side. “I don’t have any knowledge of what it is you were sent here to resolve. Was there something the seer asked you that you refused to answer? That’s often why people are sent here.”
My stomach drops. “I don’t want to talk about that,” I say automatically.
Rowan raises an eyebrow. “Exactly.”
“UGH.” I jump up and start pacing around the river.
“Would it help if I asked questions?” Rowan asks.
“Sure, fine, whatever.”
“Is it something having to do with your career?”
I stop. “Sort of…like not the one I have, but the one I’d like to have.”
I glare at him. He just looks warmly back. I sigh and sit down next to him. He pats my back comfortingly.
“Uh—I’m—trying to be a writer.”
“Well, I wrote a book and I’m trying to get an agent and that’s gone nowhere. So I wrote a short story that I’m thinking of submitting to a prestigious magazine because maybe that will be faster, but—I don’t know. It’s dumb.”
“I don’t think it’s dumb,” Rowan says, leaning forward. Something flutters in my stomach. Uh-oh.
“You’re following a dream,” Rowan continues. “That’s brave. And given that you’ve already completed multiple projects, it sounds to me like you are a writer.”
“Not really. No one pays me for it.”
“I don’t think that matters,” Rowan says. He takes what looks like a cigarette holder out from his jacket, except at the end is a smoking rose instead of a cigarette. He inhales then sees me staring. “Would you like some rose-adashery?” he asks.
He holds it out to me and I inhale. It doesn’t taste or feel like smoke at all, but like strawberry lemonade. The drink Dani and I always had after school.
“But anyway, money doesn’t define who you are or what you enjoy,” Rowan continues. “Perhaps you don’t write for money yet. But you still write, and therefore you’re a writer.”
More butterflies blossom in my belly. I haven’t told anyone that before because I’m embarrassed. I know I’m supposed to be like, eff capitalism and all that, but I feel ashamed that I don’t make money doing the thing I love. And Rowan’s reassurance is nice.
“Can travelers ever return to Atalanta?” I ask without thinking. Then I blush. I’m just so tired of dating apps, and constantly meeting duds, that it would be really nice to return here and maybe spend more time with Rowan when I don’t have a hugely important deadline.
Then I realize that I’ve just accepted this place is real. Rowan can apparently cut through my cynicism.
He shakes his head. “No…people are never able to return.” Rowan looks at me and says, “Sometimes I wish that weren’t the case.”
I inhale sharply.
“Is there a reason you’re interested in returning?” he asks, his gaze not leaving mine.
I open my mouth but noting comes out. Rowan’s gaze flicks to my mouth. “Yes—but I can’t,” I say quickly. I don’t want to know how good kissing him might feel.
“So I talked to you about my writing fears,” I say to change the subject. “Why haven’t I gone back to my realm?”
“Is there anything else you might need to work through?”
“I mean, my family sucks but that’s not special,” I say. “And I’m a grown-ass adult now so it’s fine.”
“I’m sorry,” Rowan says gently.
“Honestly, it’s fine,” I say hurriedly because no one except Dani has ever had that reaction. None of the people I’ve dated seemed to care, which is why I’ve been single for so long. Given the string of invalidating assholes I’ve gone out with, I need to take a break until I’m comfortable allowing myself to be with someone who makes me feel good — a decision my therapist heartily agreed with.
“I have a really great best friend, so I’m not completely alone,” I say. Then to my horror, tears prick the corners of my eyes.
“What’s the matter?” Rowan asks suddenly, moving closer to me. I look up to see his eyes deep with concern and it makes me cry harder.
“It’s my best friend,” I sob. “Dani—she’s not well. I mean, she might be fine, but she’s been having weird pains and she’s supposed to see a doctor today about it, but I’m here and I’m worried she’s going to miss the appointment, and—”
“Oh, Marta.” Rowan puts an arm around me and I lean into him. He rubs my back which only makes me cry harder. “I’m so sorry you’re going through that.”
“I just can’t lose her,” I sniff and am mortified to see my snot on Rowan’s beautiful outfit. He doesn’t seem to care though. “What if she doesn’t remember that she has the appointment, and I’m not there to remind her, and—”
“It will be okay,” Rowan says emphatically. “The appointment is tomorrow afternoon?”
“Yeah,” I sniff.
“Then let’s get you back,” he says smiling. “I’m here for whatever you need to work through.” Rowan takes my hand. And this time, he doesn’t let go. “How long have you known Dani?”
“Since we were kids. She was the person who showed me what unconditional love is,” I say, trying not to sound depressing. I look up at Rowan and he’s giving me his full attention. He’s not bored, or trying to change the subject, he’s just…listening.
“I’m so sorry, Marta.”
“Yeah, blah, blah, blah, no one gave me enough hugs as a child, poor me.” I laugh like I usually do when I say something as “a joke” that’s too painful to think about any other way. I look up, expecting to see Rowan laughing too. But he’s not
“I’m sad that no one held you enough,” Rowan says quietly. “That shouldn’t have happened.”
“Oh, it’s fine,” I say, trying to sound casual. “Other people have been through much worse.”
“But that doesn’t make your pain insignificant,” Rowan says.
I shrug, saying, “I guess,” because maybe if I pretend that Rowan’s words have little effect on me, they will. I can’t get attached.
We talk about my family for hours. Then we talk about Rowan’s too—how his father greeted travelers from other realms, and so did his grandfather, and his great-grandfather, and there was never any discussion that he might want to do something else.
"But I’ve always loved dancing,” he says around sunset, jumping up suddenly and breaking into a tap routine like he’s Gene Kelly. I laugh and he does too. Being with Rowan is easy, and the more we talk the sadder I am about never being able to see him again.
We keep talking and eventually, I notice that Rowan’s arm has slipped around me. I didn’t realize it before because it feels so natural. I nestle into him and he squeezes me tighter. He smells like flowers and cedar and is more calming than any zen-scented candle ever.
I don’t realize we’ve nodded off until I feel him gently stroking my face and saying my name.
“What?” I mumble sleepily, opening my eyes. Rowan looks pained. I look down and realize why. My arm is starting to vanish.
“Oh,” I say, feeling a confusing mixture of relief and sadness. I need to get back to Dani, I know that. But talking to Rowan is the lightest I’ve felt in years. I don’t know what a future with him might look like—whether it would lead towards romance or a deep friendship—but it still kills me that I’ll never get to find out find out.
"I guess this is goodbye,” I say. Rowan’s face is pained as he watches my disappear. Then his eyes flick to my face. My mouth.
Before I can finish my sentence, Rowan kisses me. His hand cradles my face as his other slides around the small of my back. I gasp because no one’s kissed me like this before. The press of his lips and stroke of his hands are so intentional, like the only thing that matters in this moment is our lips staying connected. I pull him closer and he sighs happily. We keep kissing until I realize I’ve stopped hearing the babbling stream. I open my eyes and almost scream when I realize we’re making out in the Airbnb. In Jersey.
“Oh my god!” I cry. “You—how—we have to get you—” But Rowan just shakes his head, smiling. “What—why—how are you smiling right now, we have to find a way to—”
“I wanted to come,” he says. “Every citizen of Atalanta is granted one realm jump in their lifetime, remember?” he says. “We’re able to leave once for an extended period of time, and at the end of that, we can decide if we want to stay or go back. And…I wanted to see if—if you were the person I might want to—”
I smile as Rowan babbles. “Me…really?”
Now Rowan smiles. “I’ve never talked to someone like that before, especially not someone I’d just met from a different realm. I mean—that has to mean something…right?”
I’m grinning now. “Definitely.”
“Marta?” I hear Dani’s hungover voice from down the hall. I grab my phone from the bedside table and let out a sigh of relief. Plenty of time to get Dani to her appointment.
“Coming!” I call. I take Rowan’s hand. “Do you…want to meet her?”
“Hey, babe,” I say, nudging Dani’s bedroom door open. “So…there’s someone I’d like you to meet.”
Next week on Heartbeat, get ready for a short story from Crystal Wall, an associate editor at Insider.
Follow Heartbeat on Instagram at @storiesbyheartbeat for upcoming behind-the-scenes sneak peeks at Crystal’s story!
Three quick things from Hannah:
Georgia sold her next two books! Most Wonderful, a queer holiday rom-com about three adult siblings, each dealing with their own personal and romantic struggles, who reunite at their larger-than-life mother’s Catskills manor for Christmas, plus another novel that’s yet to be announced. Please join me in congratulating Georgia!!!
The last book I read and loved was Token Black Girl by Danielle Prescod, a memoir of growing up Black in elite white communities, including her years working in fashion. She writes about race, ambition, eating disorders, and family in both heartbreaking and thought-provoking ways.
Does anyone have any book recommendations set in the English countryside? I was just there to visit my sister (who moved to the UK last year) and now I only want to read about sheep, pubs, and Wellies. Please advise.
What did you think of this week’s story? Let us know in the comments below!