Skip to main content



The Ruins

met Mathias on a day trip to Cozumel. They'd hired a guide to take
them snorkeling over a local wreck, but the buoy marking its
location had broken off in a storm, and the guide was having
difficulty finding it. So they were just swimming about, looking at
nothing in particular. Then Mathias rose toward them from the
depths, like a merman, a scuba tank on his back. He smiled when
they told him their situation, and led them to the wreck. He was
German, dark from the sun, and very tall, with a blond crew cut and
pale blue eyes. He had a tattoo of an eagle on his right forearm,
black with red wings. He let them take turns borrowing his tank so
they could drop down thirty feet and see the wreck up close. He was
friendly in a quiet way, and his English was only slightly
accented, and when they pulled themselves into their guide's boat
to head back to shore, he climbed in, too.

They met the Greeks two nights later, back in Cancun, on the beach
near their hotel. Stacy got drunk and made out with one of them.
Nothing happened beyond that, but the Greeks always seemed to be
turning up afterward, no matter where they went or what they were
doing. None of them spoke Greek, of course, and the Greeks didn't
speak English, so it was mostly smiling and nodding and the
occasional sharing of food or drinks. There were three Greeks ---
in their early twenties, like Mathias and the rest of them --- and
they seemed friendly enough, even if they did appear to be
following them about.

The Greeks not only didn't know English; they couldn't speak
Spanish, either. They'd adopted Spanish names, though, which they
seemed to find very amusing. Pablo and Juan and Don Quixote was how
they introduced themselves, saying the names in their odd accents
and gesturing at their chests. Don Quixote was the one Stacy made
out with. All three looked enough alike, however ---
wide-shouldered and slightly padded, with their dark hair grown
long and tied back in ponytails --- that even Stacy had a hard time
keeping track of who was who. It also seemed possible that they
were trading the names around, that this was part of the joke, so
the one who answered to Pablo on Tuesday would smilingly insist on
Wednesday that he was Juan.

They were visiting Mexico for three weeks. It was August, a foolish
time to travel to the Yucatán. The weather was too hot, too
humid. There were sudden rainstorms nearly every afternoon,
downpours that could flood a street in a matter of seconds. And
with darkness, the mosquitoes arrived, vast humming clouds of them.
In the beginning, Amy complained about all these things, wishing
they'd gone to San Francisco, which had been her idea. But then
Jeff lost his temper, telling her she was ruining it for everyone
else, and she stopped talking about California --- the bright,
brisk days, the trolley cars, the fog rolling in at dusk. It wasn't
really that bad anyway. It was cheap and uncrowded, and she decided
to make the best of it.

There were four of them in all: Amy and Stacy and Jeff and Eric.
Amy and Stacy were best friends. They'd cut their hair boyishly
short for the trip, and they wore matching Panama hats, posing for
photos arm in arm. They looked like sisters --- Amy the fair one,
Stacy the dark --- both of them tiny, barely five feet tall,
birdlike in their thinness. They were sisterly in their behavior,
too, full of whispered secrets, wordless intimacies, knowing

Jeff was Amy's boyfriend; Eric was Stacy's. The boys were friendly
with each other, but not exactly friends. It had been Jeff's idea
to travel to Mexico, a last fling before he and Amy started medical
school in the fall. He'd found a good deal on the Internet: cheap,
impossible to pass up. It would be three lazy weeks on the beach,
lying in the sun, doing nothing. He'd convinced Amy to come with
him, then Amy had convinced Stacy, and Stacy had convinced

Mathias told them that he'd come to Mexico with his younger
brother, Henrich, but Henrich had gone missing. It was a confusing
story, and none of them understood all the details. Whenever they
asked him about it, Mathias became vague and upset. He slipped into
German and waved his hands, and his eyes grew cloudy with the
threat of tears. After awhile, they didn't ask anymore; it felt
impolite to press. Eric believed that drugs were somehow involved,
that Mathias's brother was on the run from the authorities, but
whether these authorities were German, American, or Mexican, he
couldn't say for certain. There'd been a fight, though; they all
agreed upon this. Mathias had argued with his brother, perhaps even
struck him, and then Henrich had disappeared. Mathias was worried,
of course. He was waiting for him to return so that they could fly
back to Germany. Sometimes he seemed confident that Henrich would
eventually reappear and that all would be fine in the end, but
other times he didn't. Mathias was reserved by nature, a listener
rather than a talker, and prone in his present situation to sudden
bouts of gloom. The four of them worked hard to cheer him up. Eric
told funny stories. Stacy did her imitations. Jeff pointed out
interesting sights. And Amy took countless photographs, ordering
everyone to smile.

In the day, they sunned on the beach, sweating beside one another
on their brightly colored towels. They swam and snorkeled; they got
burned and began to peel. They rode horses, paddled around in
kayaks, played miniature golf. One afternoon, Eric convinced them
all to rent a sailboat, but it turned out he wasn't as adept at
sailing as he'd claimed, and they had to be towed back to the dock.
It was embarrassing, and expensive. At night, they ate seafood and
drank too much beer.

Eric didn't know about Stacy and the Greek. He'd gone to sleep
after dinner, leaving the other three to wander the beach with
Mathias. There'd been a bonfire burning behind one of the
neighboring hotels, a band playing in a gazebo. That was where they
met the Greeks. The Greeks were drinking tequila and clapping in
rhythm with the music. They offered to share the bottle. Stacy sat
next to Don Quixote, and there was much talking, in their mutually
exclusive languages, and much laughter, and the bottle passed back
and forth, everyone wincing at the burning taste of the liquor, and
then Amy turned and found Stacy embracing the Greek. It didn't last
very long. Five minutes of kissing, a shy touch of her left breast,
and the band was finished for the night. Don Quixote wanted her to
go back to his room, but she smiled and shook her head, and it was
over as easily as that.

In the morning, the Greeks laid out their towels alongside Mathias
and the four of them on the beach, and in the afternoon they all
went jet skiing together. You wouldn't have known about the kissing
if you hadn't seen it; the Greeks were very gentlemanly, very
respectful. Eric seemed to like them, too. He was trying to get
them to teach him dirty words in Greek. He was frustrated, though,
because it was hard to tell if the words they were teaching him
were the ones he wanted to learn.

It turned out that Henrich had left a note. Mathias showed it to
Amy and Jeff early one morning, during the second week of their
vacation. It was handwritten, in German, with a shakily drawn map
at the bottom. They couldn't read the note, of course; Mathias had
to translate it for them. There wasn't anything about drugs or the
police --- that was just Eric being Eric, jumping to conclusions,
the more dramatic the better. Henrich had met a girl on the beach.
She'd flown in that morning, was on her way to the interior, where
she'd been hired to work on an archaeological dig. It was at an old
mining camp, maybe a silver mine, maybe emeralds --- Mathias wasn't
certain. Henrich and the girl had spent the day together. He'd
bought her lunch and they'd gone swimming. Then he took her back to
his room, where they showered and had sex. Afterward, she left on a
bus. In the restaurant, over lunch, she'd drawn a map for him on a
napkin, showing him where the dig was. She told him he should come,
too, that they'd be glad for his help. Once she left, Henrich
couldn't stop talking about her. He didn't eat dinner and he
couldn't fall asleep. In the middle of the night, he sat up in bed
and announced to Mathias that he was going to join the dig.

Mathias called him a fool. He'd only just met this girl, they were
in the midst of their vacation, and he didn't know the first thing
about archaeology. Henrich assured him that it was really none of
his business. He wasn't asking for Mathias's permission; he was
merely informing him of his decision. He climbed out of bed and
started to pack. They called each other names, and Henrich threw an
electric razor at Mathias, hitting him on the shoulder. Mathias
rushed him, knocking him over. They rolled around on the hotel room
floor, grappling, grunting obscenities, until Mathias accidentally
head-butted Henrich in the mouth, cutting his lip. Henrich made
much of this, rushing to the bathroom so that he could spit blood
into the sink. Mathias pulled on some clothes and went out to get
him ice, but then ended up going downstairs to the all-night bar by
the pool. It was three in the morning. Mathias felt he needed to
calm down. He drank two beers, one quickly, the other slowly. When
he got back to their room, the note was sitting on his pillow. And
Henrich was gone.

The note was three-quarters of a page long, though it seemed
shorter when Mathias read it out loud in English. It occurred to
Amy that Mathias might be skipping some of the passages, preferring
to keep them private, but it didn't matter --- she and Jeff got the
gist of it. Henrich said that Mathias often seemed to mistake being
a brother with being a parent. He forgave him for this, yet he
still couldn't accept it. Mathias might call him a fool, but he
believed it was possible he'd met the love of his life that
morning, and he'd never be able to forgive himself --- or Mathias,
for that matter --- if he let this opportunity slip past without
pursuing it. He'd try to be back by their departure date, though he
couldn't guarantee this. He hoped Mathias would manage to have fun
on his own while he was gone. If Mathias grew lonely, he could
always come and join them at the dig; it was only a half day's
drive to the west. The map at the bottom of the note --- a
hand-drawn copy of the one the girl had sketched on the napkin for
Henrich --- showed him how to get there.

As Amy listened to Mathias tell his story and then struggle to
translate his brother's note, she gradually began to realize that
he was asking for their advice. They were sitting on the veranda of
their hotel. A breakfast buffet was offered here every morning:
eggs and pancakes and French toast, juice and coffee and tea, an
immense pile of fresh fruit. A short flight of stairs led to the
beach. Seagulls hovered overhead, begging for scraps of food,
shitting on the umbrellas above the tables. Amy could hear the
steady sighing of the surf, could see the occasional jogger
shuffling past, an elderly couple searching for shells, a trio of
hotel employees raking the sand. It was very early, just after
seven. Mathias had awakened them, calling from the house phone
downstairs. Stacy and Eric were still asleep.

Jeff leaned forward to study the map. It was clear to Amy, without
anything explicit having been said, that it was his advice Mathias
was soliciting. Amy didn't take offense; she was used to this sort
of thing. Jeff had something about him that made people trust him,
an air of competence and self-confidence. Amy sat back in her seat
and watched him smooth the wrinkles from the map with the palm of
his hand. Jeff had curly, dark hair, and eyes that changed color
with the light. They could be hazel or green or the palest of
brown. He wasn't as tall as Mathias, or as broad in the shoulders,
but despite this, he somehow seemed to be the larger of the two. He
had a gravity to him: he was calm, always calm. Someday, if all
went according to plan, Amy imagined that this would be what would
make him a good doctor. Or, at the very least, what would make
people think of him as a good doctor.

Mathias's leg was jiggling, his knee jumping up and down. It was
Wednesday morning. He and his brother were scheduled to fly home on
Friday afternoon. "I go," he said. "I get him. I take him home.

Jeff glanced up from the map. "You'd be back this evening?" he

Mathias shrugged, waved at the note. He only knew what his brother
had written.

Amy recognized some of the towns on the map --- Tizimín,
Valladolid, Cobá --- names she'd seen in their guidebook. She
hadn't really read the book; she'd only looked at the pictures. She
remembered a ruined hacienda on the Tizimín page, a street
lined with whitewashed buildings for Valladolid, a gigantic stone
face buried in vines for Cobá. Mathias's map had an X drawn
somewhere vaguely west of Cobá. This was where the dig was.
You rode a bus from Cancún to Cobá, where you hired a
taxi, which took you eleven miles farther west. Then there was a
path leading away from the road, two miles long, that you had to
hike. If you came to the Mayan village, you'd gone too far.

Watching Jeff examine the map, she could guess what he was
thinking. It had nothing to do with Mathias or his brother. He was
thinking of the jungle, of the ruins there, and what it might be
like to explore them. They'd talked vaguely of doing this when
they'd first arrived: how they could hire a car, a local guide, and
see whatever there was to be seen. But it was so hot; the idea of
trudging through the jungle to take pictures of giant flowers or
lizards or crumbling stone walls seemed less and less attractive
the more they discussed it. So they stayed on the beach. But now?
The morning was deceptively cool, with a breeze coming in off the
water; she knew that it must be hard for Jeff to remember how humid
the day would ultimately become. Yes, it was easy enough for her to
guess what he was thinking: why shouldn't it be fun? They
were slipping into a torpor, with all the sun and the food and the
drinking. A little adventure like this might be just the thing to
wake them up.

Excerpted from THE RUINS © Copyright 2011 by Scott Smith.
Reprinted with permission by Knopf, a division of Random House,
Inc. All rights reserved.

The Ruins
by by Scott Smith

  • Genres: Fiction, Horror, Thriller
  • Mass Market Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 030727828X
  • ISBN-13: 9780307278289