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.
The sun rose an hour ago and the temperature were already almost unbearable inside the small vicinity of the tent. Moisture formed on the dark green fabric, as it seemed to everywhere in the rainforest.
Having vacated the tent ten minutes earlier, Toby gave Ellie some much sought after privacy. With one big fumble through her grogginess, she managed to escape her sleeping bag and the blankets on top. She sat up and began stretching her arms above her head in what little space there was in the stuffy tent. Lacklustre, she ended up flopping back down. She lay still for a moment, attempting to convince herself that she really needed to get up. Under lazy eyelashes, she gazed up at the unattractive green of the tent, her eyes narrowed to a dark patch. Sucking in a breath, she bolted up right. Eyes wide as she surveyed a sinister shadow creeping its way along the side of the tent. She inspected it further. It was a big, hairy tarantula! Shuddering, she examined it more carefully and deduced it was no threat to her. It was on the outside of the tent – no need to be alarmed. She blew out a sigh of relief and fought the urge of immaturity to tap the shadow of the spider. The last thing she wanted was for it to scuttle out of sight and pop up again when they needed to pack away the tent!
When she finally graced Toby with her presence his furrowed brow and the look he gave her pinned her to the spot. She looked straight back at him feeling her nerves spike as he studied her figure with watchful eyes. Sensitive to how she looked right now, she was forced to try and stop herself from squirming in discomfort as his gaze moved over her. She knew she didn’t look her best. She could feel it. The constant lack of sleep cast a shadow on her face, an alarming red mound stood out on her cheek, her long hair was matted and damp from the sweat sticking to her face, and even worse - she didn’t dare look down at the sweat patches on her pyjamas she could feel sticking to her skin.
"Morning," she greeted in a raspy voice, unable to ignore his eyes scoping out every nook, cranny, and crevice on her body any longer.
“Have you been taking your anti-malarial tablets?” He sounded like a suspicious parent and it made her jump.
It had been her second most worrying thought after McKenna explained the race and all its dangers to her. She rushed down to her local surgery a day before flying for a prescription of the drugs. They suggested she have a number of shots, but time was of the essence and she barely had time to pack her suitcase with the few items she owned that were climate-appropriate. “Dutifully,” she answered looking right back at him. There was no chance she would forget something so detrimental to her health!
After washing and dressing, Ellie rejoined Toby who, in the middle of making them a scrumptious breakfast consisting of sausage sandwiches, told her to pour some coffee. As she sat by the fire, the smell of sizzling sausages mingled with leafy smell of the ferns that surrounded them. It wasn’t a pleasant scent and Ellie inhaled the strong aroma of black coffee to escape it. With only fifteen minutes left until they needed to leave, she gobbled up breakfast with a fervent need.
“Are we making good progress?” asked Ellie between mouthfuls. They hadn’t seen so much as a glimpse of any of the other contestants, and Ellie was concerned that Toby’s casual pace was setting them back.
“It’s hard to tell at the moment,” he said and polished off his coffee. As he passed her to begin washing the cooking utensils, he patted her on the back. “Think of it as a marathon,” he explained, “we’re saving everything for the last lap.”
In retrospect, it made sense not to rush. Rushing was risky. In the dense jungle terrain the jeep could easily be totalled by an accident caused by recklessness.
They packed up their small camp in moderate silence. Ellie pointed out their unexpected guest who scuttled away from the tent at the attention. “I don’t think he really wanted to come with us to Lima,” Toby joked.
They were back on the road. A relatively inane turn of phrase since there was no road. Shut in the jeep for an hour in silence with the only sounds being the low in-and-out buzz of the local radio which accompanied the hum of the engine and the thud of the tyres hitting tree trunks and other jungle debris. Ellie tried to catch a few extra minutes of sleep. Imagining behind closed eyelids anything except the monotony of the drive helped pass time.
Toby flicked off the radio snatching her attention. "Are you scared of the dark?" He suddenly threw at her. With no hint of a smile on his face, he didn’t appear to be joking.
Her eyes widened as she tried to wake herself up a little more then she side glanced at him. She shook her head in answer to his question. She was in her twenties, why would she be scared of the dark? Was he mocking her?
"What's with the attachment to the torch then?" His quizzical eyes flicked between her and the windscreen.
"I'm half expecting to be attacked by a vicious animal." She smirked at the half-truth. It wasn’t that she was scared of the dark, but it was a daunting experiencing this new dangerous adventure she was on and more so during the night. The torch made her feel safer, more relaxed. It comforted her.
Toby chuckled at her honesty. Or she hoped he was chuckling at that.
“I’ve had a few encounters with some potentially dangerous things in the jungle – not all of them animals,” he told her now.
She watched the muscles in his biceps tense as he braced his arms on the steering wheel to navigate the jeep over a lump of rotting tree trunk. He must have terrible muscle aches she assumed watching his biceps relax again.
“Anacondas are the things you have to worry about most.” Something thudded on the roof distracting him for a split second. “They’re sneaky things,” he said as if he found them the most amusing creatures on the planet. "There was this one night," he seemed to chuckle through most of the sentence as if what he was about to tell her was amusing. "One of those pesky monstrosities managed to slither into our tent."
She failed to see then humorous side to this story. Though she knew she would regret it, she asked anyway. "What happened?"
"It decided it was going to wrap itself around one of my legs." Without deterring his gaze from the windscreen, he removed a hand from the steering wheel to rub it against his left thigh. "I'm quite attached to my legs."
Was that the leg which was assailed by the serpent? wondered Ellie as her eyes, which had followed the movement of his hand, watched him rub his leg.
"The sucker broke my femur in one clean squeeze. That's the thigh bone, by the way."
She rolled her eyes, abhorring that he thought her brainless sometimes.
"I was too overwhelmed by pain to yell out for help and the only thing that saved me was my trusty pocketknife."
On more than one occasion she glimpsed the knife which was always somewhere on his person, either stuffed into a pocket or attached to string around his neck. It was always to hand. She figured he had nightmares of his own to handle.
If telling her of his little escapade with an anaconda wasn't nightmare-material enough, to Ellie's disbelief he blabbered on to make her even more nervous.
"You want to know the worse inhabitants of the jungle?" he asked. There was no time to protest before he reeled off a list in quick succession. "Poison dart frogs. Electric eels - very sneaky. Jaguars, which is what the rifle is for. And piranhas, of course."
"Of course," Ellie repeated. Parting with such information did nothing to endear her more to the jungle. In an anxious state, her mind conjured up the terrible possibilities of what could happen in the dark. She hoped she would survive this.
They reached Lima after long hours of driving and conversing about medical and emergency procedures regarding a run in with any of the potentially dangerous animals from the list he reeled off. Ellie had been envisioning worse case scenarios the whole time – being eaten alive by hungry jaguar whilst she was going about her business was the favourite vision her mind liked to throw at her. As she scratched her chest and shoulders, she thought she’d rather be eaten alive by a big cat then the mosquitoes which seemed to love her body!
Now, as it was so late in the evening, Toby checked them into their hotel. Accompanying him doing all of the boring tasks of checking the jeep’s safety and re-filling the tank hadn’t appealed to her. Instead, she came straight up to their room.
Four walls were white washed, an open window covered by a mosquito net, and an electric fan on the ceiling kept the room cool. It was adorned with the bare necessities: two single beds separated by a shared bedside cabinet, a wardrobe tucked into one of the corners, and an en-suite which had clearly seen better days. At least everything worked though, Ellie smiled as she ran the tap and splashed her face with cold water. She showered and then snuggled into one of the droopy single beds and was just about to drift off into a much-needed sleep when a loud ringing interrupted the silence.
Freezing to the spot, she honed in on the sound before hunting it down. The ringing was coming from Toby's tatty rucksack, like the en-suite it too had seen better days. She fumbled around inside it and pulled out a chunky mobile phone. It was the satellite phone. With hesitation, she answered it. Just in case it's an emergency call, she told herself. “Hello?”
Static crackled ruthlessly in her ear making her pull the phone away, wincing. She returned it to her ear seconds later when she heard a female voice return her greeting. The signal was pretty shocking and she couldn’t make out much of what the woman was saying, but she detected the furious tone and the bursts of angry curse words. She hung up promptly rather than explain who she was and what she was doing with Toby’s satellite phone. The woman was irate about something and Ellie decided she wouldn’t complicate things further for Toby.
Slumped back on the bed, she contemplated who the woman might be and her connection with Toby. Feeling sure it wasn’t his wife because she saw no ring on his finger to suggest he was married, but perhaps it was an ex-wife? An angry ex-wife was very cliché. She yawned, snuggling into the pillow. Whoever the woman was, she’d mention it to Toby when he returned. But when Toby arrived back laden down with groceries, the phone call completely slipped her mind as she rushed to help him.
“Do you want to hear the good news?” asked Toby as he pulled out microwavable tubs of food from a carrier bag. “Headquarters said we are one of the first to reach the city,” he continued before she could answer him.
They ate out of containers and packets on their beds for comfort, sharing foods packed with proteins and carbohydrates to build strength and energy and guzzled water to rehydrate. Ellie wolfing down forkfuls of something with a citrus tang to it, Toby silently studying the battered map of Peru he kept stashed in his rucksack. He mentioned his original planned route was to go straight from Lima to Cusco. A six hundred mile journey through Sacred Valley, but due to the high river levels caused by recent rainstorms he decided it would be safer to follow the road system south than east from Lima to Nazca Desert and then cut through the jungle avoiding all of the major river crossings.
Ellie inwardly groaned at the prospect of more bumpy terrain. If the journey wasn’t dangerous enough, the organisers timed it on the cusp of the rainy season – just for extra excitement. Who were these conscienceless people? What was wrong with them?
The image of Toby’s tense arms sprung to mind, and pangs of self-reproach attacked her consciousness. She wanted more responsibility on this road trip instead of feeling so destitute towards helping to win the race; and to show Toby she wasn’t the child he treated her like on occasion.
“Ellie...” Toby clicked his fingers at her as if he was trying to get her attention for some time. The map, now folded neatly, was discarded on the floor between their beds. “You looked a thousand miles away,” he said now and he wasn’t far wrong. Ellie’s mind was still in the jungle thinking about the strenuous bumpy journey.
“I was thinking,” she began. Sitting up straighter. “It’d be easier on you if I do some of the driving.” He wasn’t immediately taken by the idea; she could tell by the way he tried to keep his face pensive.
“I don’t think that would be a good idea,” he replied, scratching two day old stubble on his jaw. “You don’t have experience driving off-road vehicles never mind actually driving off road.”
She was a fast learner. During her teen years it had taken only one lesson a week for three months to earn her licence. A jeep was hardly too different from a car. There were the same fundamentals: an engine, a steering wheel, gears, and the important accelerator and break. Everything else she could be coached on. “I can do all of the on-road driving,” she suggested. It would be enough to satisfy her for now, she reasoned with herself. She really didn’t want to leave it all to Toby. He’d exhaust himself before they even got near the finish line. “It’s not like I can’t drive...” The driver’s licence stuffed in her suitcase was proof enough.
Slowly, Toby nodded. “Fine,” he smiled softly at her. “But only because I’m too tired to argue with you.” The creases in his face softened and smoothed out.
With negotiations regarding driving duties finished, they decided an early night was necessary and tucked themselves into bed. Ellie’s stomach gurgled as it digested a full tummy and she idly stroked it whilst staring into the darkness thinking about her sister, wondering how she was coping cooped up in McKenna’s big house with only his thugs for company. She shuddered at the thought, and not for the first time her self-hate returned for getting herself into this situation.
“I think you’ll like the desert,” Toby offered his opinion, making her jump out of her thoughts. For a fraction of a moment she forgot she wasn’t alone. “There are these things called the Nazca Lines.”
She flipped from her back to her side to face his bed. The curtains were securely shut so no light could pass through, she couldn’t see anything except thick darkness. “What are they?”
She heard him hum-and-ha as he tried to think up a way to describe them. Eventually he settled for “I’ll show you them.”
The thought was lovely, regarded Ellie. It really was lovely he wanted to share these things with her. It somehow made this whole ordeal a fraction better to go through. Suppressing a sigh, she kicked the blanket she had wrapped around herself down to her ankles, too hot even in her short pyjamas, and attempted to sleep off the black cloud which surrounded her tonight.