by Heather LT
A fast paced race around South America takes one pair off course.
N.B. This is not really a chapter as I haven't any in this story. It is only double paragraphed to make it easier to read on screen. Written in British English. Trying to think up a better title.
From the moment she stepped off of the Boeing 747 in Colombia, sweat tickled the back of Ellie’s neck making her feel uncomfortable. By the time she reached the airport her t-shirt was already stuck to her back. She’d drastically underestimated her ability to deal with the change in climate and hadn’t expected Colombia to be so stifling hot in the summer. Summer in England, though comfortable, had been terribly wet. Her excitement of the weather change dissolved without a moment of delay.
The short taxi ride to the headquarters passed with a blur. Ellie noticed nothing in particular as she stared out of the window. Her brain was preoccupied worrying about meeting someone she would be spending an amount of time with in the very near future. Without any accommodation arranged she was unable to change into clean clothes or wash up, their first impression of her would be a sweaty, noticeable nervous mess. Then there was the fact Roary McKenna would be hovering around, looking over her shoulder – could it be much worse?
McKenna scoffed at Ellie as she entered a village-hall-type building filling with a trickling of people. He was the bane of her life as she knew it, the constant headache besieging her since she first learned of him. He was her enemy and now her rival too. Lacking the mental capacity to handle another sparring debate with him, she quickened her pace as she passed him.
A man who introduced himself as a representative of the event pointed her in the direction of where she could find some information. She searched online for information about the challenge, but she didn’t find much. Perusing the table of facts, she learned that Graham Dragoman was the sole organiser and sponsor. The name didn’t mean anything to her. “An exclusive event where racers and followers are encouraged to place bets,” she read in a tone that suggested to people nearby that she wasn’t at all surprised. For such an exclusive event, she wondered how McKenna had involved her in it at such short notice. She looked up at another representative standing on the other side of the desk. “Sounds like a rich man got bored and thought this whole ridiculous event up to cure it,” she smiled before walking away.
A complimentary jug of iced water was thoughtfully set out on the table she sat at and she poured herself a glass. Between diligent sips, she pressed the cool glass to her forehead to nurse the soft pounding of what was becoming bad headache.
What a great way to spend my twenty-eighth birthday, she thought. Exhausted, uneasy, sweaty, and...
A comforting London accent interrupted her self-pity. “You must be the new here. I don’t recognise your face. Contestant or a bookie?”
She glanced up to see a tall, dark haired man grinning down at her.
“Rude of me not to introduce myself,” he took one of his hands out of his pocket for her to shake, “I’m Toby Chalk.”
Her eyes trailed up a taut chest covered in a white cotton fabric to a tousled head of hair and a face she recognised as handsome. He looked straight down at her, his face holding her eyes in a steady gaze. His white-toothed smile was welcoming and set her at ease.
“Ellie Sanderson,” she held out her hand for him to shake, as confident as ever, “reluctant contestant.”
“Wow,” escaped his lips, “you’re a bit far away from home,” her polished British accent was a surprise to him, she noticed.
She offered him a polite smile as he took in her appearance. She became acutely aware of how frizzy her plaited hair was, and how tired her face must look from the long flight, and how her bare legs were blotchy red from the temperature change.
“Are you my partner? I’m supposed to be finding out who is.” Sighing, she had no idea how it worked. Was she supposed to find the organiser of the race and ask? McKenna left her in the dark with procedures. Turn up, had been the only thing he demanded when they arrived in the country.
“I think you’re my stand in,” he said and was kind enough to offer to find out and left her alone with her headache.
When he was out of sight, she glanced around the small meeting room full of participants from the race. Some were already paired off, some were in small groups chatting excitedly about the upcoming challenge, McKenna was smirking at her whenever she caught his eye, and then she saw Toby cutting through the thickening crowd, making his way back over to her.
“Shall we get further acquainted, partner?” he gave her a boyish smile.
This was it then: he was her partner. The person she’d be spending a surplus amount of time with and the man she would have no choice but to trust.
Relief grew as Toby sat down next to her and they began chatting easily about the weather – an in-depth conversation as small talk turned to a discussion about global warming and environmental regulations. As the conversation drove on, Ellie began realising she could do much worse. For example she would have had difficulties communicating with the Spanish gentleman who didn’t speak a lick of English. Or the sandy-haired gentleman who was over enthusiastic with his greetings. Or the woman with the sleek black hair and a permanent scowl.
Officials in sharp black suits interrupted them. They needed her to sign some important insurance documentation. As her inquisitive eyes scanned over key phrased such as “in the event of death” and “I waver any right to”, the thought of accidentally-on-purpose not signing something crossed her mind. But McKenna hovered like a hawk looking over her shoulder the whole time making damn sure that she crossed all of the important Ts and dotted all the essential Is.
I can do this, she reasoned with her nerves, I’ve been through tougher character-building events than a race around a jungle with a stranger. Her mind flung clip after clip of memories at her: worse was rushing into a house fire that robbed her of her parents, even worst was braving one thump too many from a respect-shy boyfriend and, worse of all, the nerve rattling experience of meeting McKenna and discovering just what kind of Neanderthal her sister had got herself involved with.
“I wasn’t expecting to be partnered with a woman,” said Toby, whose partner had to pull out last minute because of a nasty broken arm, “so all of the accommodation I’ve booked is shared.”
His statement sprung her from the prison of her memories.
It would probably take him the best part of the rest of the day to change the accommodation. “That’s fine,” she gave him a little smile. Her mind now thinking of a hotel – a hotel where there would be air conditioning, where she could shower! She could just jump and whoop in the air at the thought.
She should have been apprehensive about sharing a hotel room with an almost-stranger and leaving alone with him, but she was relieved to be out of the company of McKenna and his bad attitude – his conceited smirking and mocking smiles, his imperious glares, his constant hovering...
Later after a short taxi ride, a cool shower, and falling asleep on the hotel bed whilst trying to read the local newspaper, Ellie was woken up gently by Toby’s soft shaking of her shoulder. Having had difficulty keeping himself from snoozing out on the balcony, he came inside to order food and then to inform Ellie that food had arrived.
It was the smell of food and the rumbling of her tummy that coaxed her out of her sleepy manner. The grogginess soon cleared up.
For lunch it was coconut rice and chicken. Toby informed her that although the chicken curry wasn't typical Colombian cuisine it complimented the rice that was. It prompted her to think that he was a chef. "And what are these...?" she asked, testing his knowledge, pointing to a small plate of what looked like fried potato. He was as knowledgeable about that Colombian snack too. For dessert, there was a tray full of colourful fruit and they both had their share of guava, mango, apple, and pear.
She had eaten like a woman who didn’t calorie count, contrary to what her slim figure would suggest to men like Toby. No woman could possibly look that good if she ate curry or fried foods; she’d heard it all before.
After lunch Toby took her walking across the Bocagrande Beach where they talked about the gruelling trip ahead that was the Dragoman Challenge.
"If truth be told," Ellie said, "I lost a ridiculous bet and was coerced into doing this challenge."
"You have absolutely zero desire to be here?" asked Toby, although it was clear that he thought he had sussed out the answer. It was her explanation that caught him off guard.
"I lost a bet, plain and simple, and I’m true to my word." She side-glanced at him and noticed he was looking at her intently. Something about this man seemed to involuntarily draw words from her mouth about things she wasn’t planning on telling anyone.
“Tell me about the bet,” Toby said in a flat tone rather than asking.
A short battle warred inside her head. Should she tell him, shouldn’t she tell him? Unable to not say anything, she compromised and gave him the jaded version of her situation. “If I cross the finish line behind him then my sister stays with him.”
Questions flashed across his face. For a much needed distraction, she quickly pulled him towards one of the hotel's snack bars for an ice cold beer before they headed back to their room.
"Mr Chalk, sir," called one of the receptionists as they passed the desk on their way to the elevator, "you have a message."
Ellie summoned the elevator as Toby retrieved the message from the desk. He arrived back at her side just in time for the elevator to ping its arrival.
"It appears our finalisation meeting has been delayed until morning."
The finalisation meeting was where everyone participating in the challenge was given the rules, and where they collected medical and food supplies. Ellie had been dreading it; dreading being in the company of the less than sympathetic Irishman who got her into this situation – McKenna. His disliking of her could make blood curdle, and the same could be said for her dislike of him. She was secretly pleased that the meeting was postponed.
Once back in the hotel room, Toby took a call on the telephone. Reception, knowing that he was a doctor, requested his attention for a medical emergency in the lobby. "I'm a doctor," he explained, "I’m on duty always," he smiled as if he loved his job.
Ellie, who was taking full advantage of being alone in the hotel room, rifled through some of Toby's possessions. She wasn't going to steal anything. She just wanted to get a general idea of who this man was and what she was getting herself into. The prospect of spending a month in his sole custody piqued her apprehension and curiosity.
Fifteen minutes later and she sat on the bed in a huff. She hadn't found anything in his luggage, only clothes and toiletries. There seemed to be no personal items; no passport, no driver’s licence, no photographs of a partner or children, and certainly no personal items of jewellery. The man was a mystery.
She thought back to her own luggage. It was more or less the same. Full of clothing and toiletries. She hadn't any photographs with her or any jewellery, only her passport and driver’s licence as forms of identification.
When Toby arrived back in the room, Ellie was out on the balcony enjoying the Caribbean sun and the view of the sea.
"I've been invited to dinner tonight with a couple of mates of mine who are doing the challenge too. You're welcome to come with me," Toby called to her as he pulled off his shirt to put on a clean fresh one, "How about it?"
"Yeah," Ellie turned around to look at him through the open balcony door, "that sounds great."
She allowed Toby the first use of the shared en-suite bathroom, as to not overdress or under dress she wanted to see what he was wearing to dinner this evening. His attire was smart casual so she put on a summer dress and a pair of flats.
Las Chivas was the name of the restaurant that they were dining in. It was a light and airy place with tiny glass tables and large chairs. Latin music played softly in the background and the rush of a nearby fountain could be heard over the hum of conversation. The smell of roasted meat wafted from the kitchen to Ellie’s nose making her instantly hungry despite having indulged in a large meal earlier.
After introductions were made, Ellie found herself being seated elbow-to-elbow between Toby and his friend, Orlando DeLuca, a local to Cartagena. Meaty foods of steak and burgers were quickly ordered along with numerous bottles of beers. Loud conversation erupted from the men at the table. They talked about past experiences, shared stories about what had become of past contestants, and joked about each others' physical condition. Each and every one of them smiling and laughing, Ellie noted. She was a fish out of water. Her lack of passion for the Dragoman Challenge made her feel like an imposter.
"Who do you think is going to win this year?" asked Orlando in a thick Spanish accent that was alien to Ellie’s ears. It was clearly an important question as all eyes turned to her.
"Isn't it obvious?" Ellie found herself saying. "We're going to win it."
The table erupted into laughter. DeLuca patted her on her back and complimented her confidence with a quick Spanish phrase she didn’t comprehend. Toby nodded at her.
Dinner was over in just a short hour and a half. Everyone wanted to get an early night for the start of the trip tomorrow. “The early bird catches the worm,” said DeLuca cheerily.
After dinner, they walked to their shared room together.
"Were you serious about us winning the challenge?" Toby asked as they rode the elevator together.
For the first time since she met him, she took the time to properly study him. His face was defined with a slightly pointed chin and a sturdy jaw line. His dark eyes, almond in shape, sat below trim eyebrows that seemed to either arch with amusement or furrow with concern whenever he looked at her. He often kept his mouth closed in a thin, straight line as though he wasn't going to allow any words to pass through his lips. Dark brown in colour and lightened by strands of sun-bleached hair, his hair was tousled from his constant hand combing.
Maybe it was the way he patiently waited for an answer or the long wait for the elevator that brought an answer from her, she wasn’t sure. When she told him about McKenna and how much she would enjoy bragging if she won the race. “I think he thinks I’ll back out,” she said with an edge of confidence giving the impression that the thought was ridiculous.
“I meant to ask you earlier...” He ran a hand through his hair as he contemplated whether or not it was any of his business. “How did the bet ever come around?”
The elevator arrived at their floor, the doors slid open, and they stepped out together in unison.
She could see something was troubling him, that he found it hard to get his head around the bizarre situation she found herself in. “I told you it was a ridiculous bet,” she sighed.
“Even though it would mean me dropping out of the race,” he said as he walked beside her to their room, “I’m obligated to ask if you really want to go ahead with this...” he seemed to pause on purpose before spitting out the word, “bet.”
Yes, call the whole thing off! Her mind screamed at her, but she remained silent, hugging her body as they walked along the corridor.
“It isn’t for the faint hearted,” he told her now. Assuming her silence as contemplation for pulling out - not inaccurate either, Ellie noticed. “Constantly on the road for days without seeing anyone, with help being miles away, without the conveniences of hospitals or—”
“I know what it entails,” she halted as they reached the door. His tone wasn’t cared for much by here. “I’m not going to change my mind on the premise that we might happen upon an accident.”
“How did you get involved with a dangerous man like McKenna?”
His question fell on deaf ears as she watched him slip the key out of his pocket and slip it into the lock. With his sudden change of tack surprising her, she clamped her lips shut. They pushed through the door where Ellie began pottering around hoping she would throw Toby off of the conversation. He was as stubborn as she.
Roary McKenna, he told her, was not a man who was challenged lightly. He further explained how he had come to know all about McKenna's dealings and wagers. It was a ghastly story of greed and violence that made Ellie's stomach turn over in disgust.
She laid in bed unable to sleep that night as she relayed Toby's words over and over again in her mind. "When he's around, make sure you stick by me," he said, "I don't want to have you disappearing in the jungle."