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Rated: E · Chapter · Action/Adventure · #2005605
A fast paced race around South America takes one pair off course.
Chapter 5

N.B. Double paragraphed to make it easier to read on screen. Written in British English.

At six-o-clock they both pulled themselves out of comfy beds to the theme of the alarm clock buzzing, or a little after six for Ellie as Toby gave her a few firm shakes before shutting off the alarm. Thirty minutes was barely enough time to check out, but Toby managed to organise their luggage, pick up their laundry, and have the jeep waiting for Ellie outside by the time she handed over the key to the receptionist. He was always telling her that if they wanted to keep ahead of the majority of contestants, who were due to arrive in Lima this morning, then these shock-to-the-system early morning starts were necessary. But it didn’t mean she had to like them.

By eight-o-clock, they neared the outskirts of the city and were travelling into a beautiful sunrise which blurred into the coastline in the distance. From the driver’s seat, Ellie appreciated the break from the green of the jungle and relished the colours on show: the lush blue of the sparkling water, the glint of gold that made up the sandy beach, and the fiery red in the sky which she hadn’t been able to glimpse above the canopy of trees until now. Was that a hint of salt she could smell in the wind too? The breeze seemed to pick up the exotic scent of the sea and palm trees and wafted it straight to her nose just for her to enjoy. It was well worth the early morning. Coastal driving was beautiful. She wasn’t sure when she last enjoyed something so much. So glad she brought the iniquity of the situation up with Toby, a grin broke out from ear-to-ear, satisfied now that she was driving.

To her surprise, Toby instructed her to pull up at a tiny shack-like restaurant. Her puzzled look elicited a reply.

"The protein bar we snacked on for breakfast failed to quash my hunger," he explained.

Through the drive-through he ordered –in absolutely perfect Spanish– something called cebiche. It was a pungent mixture of fish and an array of different vegetables. With her first mouthful she tasted onions, lettuce, and sweetcorn. On the second mouthful, she savoured the yam and allowed the pepper sauce to seep through onto her taste buds. The spicy delicacy caused a tingling sensation on her tongue as she breathed in cool sea air between every bite. In between forkfuls as Toby fed her from the passenger seat, Ellie struck up conversation to help distract herself from the tingling on her tongue caused by the heat of the dish.

“You said you were a doctor,” she started. “Why are you racing around a continent instead of being cooped up in a hospital helping people?” Being a social worker and therefore uneducated about medical careers, she was curious how he was granted the luxury of time off work in a notoriously busy industry. How did he wangle a month or two off work? When she was refused leave, she was left with no choice but to quit. Her life left to fall into complete disarray. But she would worry about that at a later date.

“I made a sentient decision to stay away from hospitals,” he answered as he wiped his mouth with a paper napkin. “I’m happier for it,” he shrugged as though it wasn’t a huge decision.

“What have you got against hospitals?” Accepting another fork of food and, chewing slowly, she listened to his answer.

“I've nothing against hospitals. I'm against being the type of man who is always working –I was a gynaecologist by the way– with zero time for anything else in life. Is that really anyone's idea of a happy life?”

Her gaze faltered from the road as she shot a glance at him. He was stabbing the fork into a piece of fish seeming to ignore her quick glance of disbelief at him. It sounded so...fickle.

Zeroing in on the question, throwing it around in her head, finding she was interested in his logic for making such a radical change in lifestyle. The adage of all work and no play cropped up, but she couldn’t quite bring herself to believe it was one of Toby’s approaches to life. Whatever his reasons, it didn’t paint him in a good light. Deploring responsibility or abhorring commitment, one of those excuses would probably be the underlining issue. “What are you doing in South America?”

“This continent is my latibule," he reputed with a warm smile on his face.

"Latibule," Ellie repeated the word. It wasn't a word she had come across before. Once again she was reminded how much more worldly Toby was compared to her.

"A word used to describe a hiding place," he explained. "Somewhere no-one could find you."

The flash of irritation she felt when he explained such menial things to her was akin to the annoyance she felt when he treated her as a child, but she let it pass this time as he continued telling her what he was doing on the continent.

“I live in Colombia now, in a tourist town called Santa Catalina. I’m a GP for the tourists, the go-to man for hotels when their guests suffer too much sunshine.” He offered her the fish and her mouth opened to accept the forkful.

Despite sensing he’d rather not talk about it, she couldn’t help but probe further. “What didn’t you like about working with women and babies? Didn’t you find it fulfilling?”

“I love women.” His grin was cheeky.

The double entendre wasn’t missed on her. Ellie rolled her eyes, held back the smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. He was deflecting, distracting from her original question. This time she wouldn’t allow herself to inquire further. It was none of her business.

“How about you?” he asked after a bout of silence. He was stuffing the empty food cartons into a carrier bag. “What is it that you do? What’s your calling?” Now he was tying the bag up, putting it on top of the backseat.

“I’m a social worker.” There was a slight pause for the comment she knew he was about to throw at her.

“Ah... So you love babies and kids alike,” he nodded.

The note of indifference distracted her from the road. Maybe boredom was making her imagine the undercurrent to his statement. “Most of the time.” She smiled at him. Children in care were fragile beings. It was hard to love the most challenging personalities and attitudes, but it didn’t mean she skimped on sympathy or support or defended them any less. God knew she was a terror for her social worker to guide when she was a child.

“You people made my life hell,” he admitted with just a hint of exasperation. He was grinning back at her though which told her he didn’t mean any offence. “Every troubled mother who gave birth in the hospital usually meant there was a social worker around the corner waiting to question me.”

“We do have a reputation for getting up people's noses.”

The navigation system alerted her of a road change coming up and she slowed the jeep as they approached some crossroads. Ninety five miles into their journey along the highway to the Nazca Desert, they reached a national park called Paracas. Their momentum came to a stop as they pulled over for armed officers to check their passports. They were given the all clear after the longest twenty minute wait Ellie had ever endured. The officers lead them to an official-looking building five stories high with tinted windows where they were allowed to check in with headquarters and top up their water supply.

Ellie guzzled down half a bottle of water and poured the remaining cool liquid over her sweaty face to refresh herself. Rather than the humid wet heat of the jungle, this heat was bone-dry. It had the ability to suck moisture out of everything.

"You shouldn't do that in this heat," Toby advised. He was pulling something from his rucksack which he threw towards her.

She caught the bottle in her hand: Factor 50 Sun Cream.

"We're in the desert now." His head tilted up to look at the cloudless sky. "No canopy to protect us from the searing hot sun."

They lathered up in the stuff. He helping her rub the protective cream into the skin on her face, dotting the white liquid on her cheeks before massaging it into her skin. Ellie returned the favour by standing on tip toes to coat the back of his neck and she felt a minuscule shiver rattle through him. Afterwards they clambered back into the jeep and began driving through the park at a decent speed.

It was a welcome change to drive on the smooth, sandy roads of the park and in natural light too, even though Ellie thought her eyes were going to dry out from a mixture of dry heat and concentration. A break from the bumps was doing her spine a world of good though so she refused to complain about the change of climate.

The journey across the desert was speedy. As she drove with appropriate efficiency, Toby spent the majority of the time pointing out animals, mainly birds, and directing her towards fantastic views of the shoreline. He sure knew the lay of the land well.

“How many times have you done this race?” It was something she wondered about on and off.

“I’m a seasoned veteran,” he grinned at her. “This is my tenth race.”

“Tenth!” How did he stomach it? “A decade’s worth of races...” Thinking back to ten years ago, she remembered barely managing to graduate from college. How old would that make him, mid-thirties maybe? He didn’t look like he could be over the age of thirty-five.

The sun was setting as they reached the site of the Nazca Lines. It was a long drive with no stops – not even to top up their sun cream; Toby did his best to rub some onto her face and arms now and again. After pulling over beside a rocky verge which led to bigger rocks, they exited the jeep together, thankful of the cooling air. Ellie was drenched in sweat and longed for the coolness of the night. Her skin was prickly from the heat and her bug bites stung from the sun cream. Toby relinquished three bottles of water for her so she could rehydrate and wash. She wasted no time drenching her face and hair with one bottle as the sun set in the distance. Toby repeated her actions, except he pulled off his shirt first before drenching his bare chest and shoulders leaving streaks of sun cream over his skin.

They were to sleep in the car tonight, he told her. “The temperature plummets and it’s awful.”

It sounds just like something I need, Ellie thought to herself. A so-far-unquenchable craving for coolness consumed her: ice cubes, ice lollies, ice cream, ice packs, snow, winter weather in Britain, the brisk water cascading from a waterfall! Taking in her surroundings, the desert looked bleak and parched. It almost made her want to share her bottled water with the sundried sand.

In what little daylight was left, they made a fire from brittle twigs Toby kept somewhere in the boot and ate dinner whilst animals came to life. Mother Nature put on a shadow show for them as nocturnal animals scuttled across the desert plane and flew against the twilight backdrop.

“This is beautiful,” gasped Ellie. In the dim of the night her wide-eyed expression was lost. Taking one last look at the last sliver of light along the horizon, she shivered against the nippy air that cooled her skin, and climbed back into the jeep to put an end to the day.

The following morning, Toby's alarm buzzed an hour earlier than was necessary. The sun hadn’t even risen in the clear sky. The earlier than normal awakening was so Toby could show her the Nazca Lines from a secret view point he found on one of his previous journeys. It involved a moderate fifteen minute climb up a steep rocky verge.

The nippy night air was still brisk so Ellie dressed in a pair of dingy white leggings, a vest top, and the only jacket she brought with her. Now she tied the laces on her walking boots. They were a spur-of-the-moment purchase at the airport for the trip and she hadn’t a clue whether or not they’d come in handy. At least they would get some use.

“We’re going up there?” Ellie nodded to the silhouette of a small mountainous peak they had parked at the foot of.

“A nice invigorating walk will wake you up.” He rubbed his hands together as if to fight off the nippy breeze.

Ellie hopped off of the seat and closed the jeep door behind her. Coffee would suffice to wake me up, she thought as a yawn broke free. Sandy dust blew straight into her mouth and the bitterness of dirt danced on her taste buds. She swallowed the taste away not wanting to spit.

They set off together up the mountainside along a very narrow path made up of loose stones. Ellie lost her footing on more than one occasion and found herself grabbing hold of Toby to balance herself. Treacherous would have been a better adjective than invigorating, she stifled, scowling at his back.

“Are you sure this is safe?” Her voice strained as she used a boulder to pull herself up a steep step as they neared the top. The biting breeze nipped at her chest as her unzipped jacket fluttered open, she snapped it shut with her hands then quickly zipped it up. Tugging at the zip which caught on her vest top, she stumbled over a jagged rock and lost her footing. Her foot gave way under loose gravel, propelling her forwards whilst sliding in what seemed like slow motion back down the rough track.

Toby must have heard her yelp because he spun around and grabbed her arm to stop her from sliding further. He patiently helped her up. As he shifted his weight to his back foot, the gravel loosened beneath him and tumbled down the mountain slope. Gravity pulled the weight of his body down and he missed grabbing hold of a boulder by an inch or two. Quick as a flash his body disappeared over the edge.

“Toby!” Ellie called his name. Her heart thundered into overtime. Scrambling to get on her feet, the gravel crumbled further underfoot. Abandoning all hope of walking, she crawled on hands and knees to the edge, blocking out rough jagged stones painfully digging into her skin, and peered over the edge.

The first rays of sunlight erupted into the horizon and lit up the mountainside. The dark rock turned to orange-gold making the shadow of Toby’s body stand out. She glimpsed his swinging legs, but wasn’t able to see the rest of him. Was he clinging on to something?

Ellie!” he called, and she almost jumped at the urgency in his voice.

His hand slapped onto the edge of craggy rock, the sound echoing in the silence, and she watched, distraught, as he fumbled around for something to grab hold of. Stretching, she captured his hand in hers and was able to guide it to the rock's far edge. With one swift movement he swung from rock to rock, legs dangling precariously over the edge as sweaty hands clung to rough ridges. He exhaled the breath he must have been holding in for long seconds.

“What can I do?” Ellie asked as she bit down her jumpy nerves. She was wide-eyed and alert now - adrenaline replacing initial shock. Should she return to the jeep and radio for help? That would take a sizeable amount of time and Toby could slip by the time she returned. Her heart thudding in her ears as she clasped Toby’s arms with her hands as if she’d be strong enough to hold his weight if his hands slipped.

“Don’t panic,” he said to her pale face through gritted teeth. It was clear he was having a hard time not panicking himself. “I need you to help pull me up.” Under the grip of her hands she could feel his arms shaking as he struggled to hold on, his muscles tensing and relaxing. “Put a foot on that boulder there,” he instructed with an air of calm that would have amazed her if she wasn’t so terrified. “On the count of three,” his voice strained, “I’m going to wedge my foot against the rock,” he groaned, beads of sweat forming on his forehead, “and you’re going to pull me by my arms.”

Ellie nodded. She got into the position he instructed and awaited the dreaded countdown. What if she wasn’t strong enough to help pull him up?

“One...” breathed Toby.

What if he slipped right out of her hands and he...? Her hands tightened on him as she shook her head to dispel her negative thoughts.

“Two...” A beat passed. “Three!”

They cried out in exertion. Toby pushed up whilst Ellie pulled. Her biceps bulged as she used every bit of energy she possessed to help his body scurry over the edge to safety.

He almost collapsed on top of her slumped body, but she managed to help him onto his back by tugging on his rucksack, both of them breathing heavy. Her body shook, relief mixed with shock clamped her to the spot, and try as she might she couldn’t stop tears from rolling down her cheeks. She wiped them away with the back of a dirty hand.

Regardless of what just happened, the sun continued to rise casting its orange glow across the desert and lighting up their sweaty faces. The breeze ceased. The air thickened. Neither of them moved until the sun rid the land of every trace of night. They both watched with a silent appreciation until Toby stood up and dusted sand stuck to his sweaty clothes from himself before helping Ellie to her feet, his eyes scanned her face.

Knowing he was taking in the colour of her cheeks which she felt burning and the smudges of dirt on her hands, she wondered if he could tell how much effort it took her to stand on her shaky legs. It was almost unrealistic how calm and collected he seemed now, acting like nothing had happened as he finished leading the last metre to the top.

At the top of the mountain, the view of the desert plains was as far as the eye could see; only an occasional rocky outbreak broke the magnificent vastness spread out before them. Shaky legs forced them to sink onto a flat rock where they attempted to enjoy the view on show. Ellie, welcoming the rest, was thankful for the opportunity to regain some equilibrium.

Closely looking at the landscape, a map appeared before their eyes. "Are those the Nazca Lines you were telling me about? What are they for?" asked Ellie, a little astonished.

"Nobody really knows," Toby began explaining, "some people believe that the Nazca people created them to be seen by their gods in the sky; some other people believe the lines were intended to act as a kind of observatory to point to places on the distant horizon; and someone else even believes that the lines are runways of an ancient airfield that was used by extraterrestrials mistaken by the natives to be their gods."

"What do you believe them to be, Toby?" she inclined her head towards him, taking a bite of the sweet cereal bar he took out of his rucksack and thrust in her direction, insisting it’d make her feel better.

"The most logical explanation to me is that they are directions of places on the horizon, routes even. Forged so that travellers wouldn't get lost out here."

She chomped down the cereal bar, sympathising with long lost travellers crossing the harsh terrain without the aid of an engine.

Plumes of dust in the distance brought them to their feet. They would have company soon.

"Ok," Toby stood up and stretched his arms above his head flinching enough for her to notice it. "I don’t know about you, but I could really use a strong coffee."

Ellie mumbled something in return. Dragging her eyes from him, fixating them on the vehicle heading their way she wondered who it was? She found herself hoping it wasn’t a fellow contestant.

The trip down the mountain was less dramatic. Ellie still stumbled on loose ground and Toby still reached out for her, but they reached the foot of the mountain less scathed.

Ellie blew out a sigh of relief. Her legs wanted to give way beside the remnants of last night’s fire, but when she looked over at Toby she became less aware of herself and more aware of him. Leaning against the jeep, his back to her and his head bowed, his boyish bravado lost. Much like his clothing, his collection of grazes on his arms was grubby with sand and dust.

“Toby...” Her few tentative footsteps in his direction drew his gaze. “I’ll get the coffee, shall I?”

“There’s a bottle of whisky back there somewhere too.” He didn’t have to say another word.

After splashing his coffee with a drop or two of alcohol she insisted he too ate a sugary cereal bar. Not entirely useless after all, a smiled tugged at her lips. She knew he gave her the cereal bar to help cope with the shock of the incident and he needed something to help him. Some painkillers wouldn't go amiss too. Lord knew the muscles in her arms were aching so his must be painful after holding on so long.

“For someone who has always taken part in this race, you’re not as competitive as I originally thought.” Her attempt to distract them both from the incident of what just happened was less than subtle.

"Winning or losing isn't so important to me," he replied in an almost flat tone.

With her hip leaning against the jeep, she studied him. He was looking towards the narrow pathway they descended only ten minutes earlier, half eaten cereal bar in one hand and the tin cup containing his coffee hugged to his chest.

"Winners need to be reckless," he begrudgingly admitting seconds later.

How did he come to realise that? She nibbled her bottom lip as she thought about it, wondering what he must have experienced over the years in these dangerous races.

"It's more about the journey for me," he sipped from the tin cup. "But winning is a fantastic bonus."

The grin on his face now told her whatever plagued him was pushed aside; buried somewhere in his mind, like her sister was in hers. It was easier to do what needed to be done without thinking of the people involved. That's probably what got you into this situation, she thought.

"This is the type of race that can't be rushed," he reiterated now probably because of her long silence. "Like I said before, it's a marathon. If we sprint we will tire ourselves out and become exhausted. Trust me when I say it's not enjoyable."

The rumble of the approaching vehicle caught their attention. The nearer it approached the clearer it was that the vehicle they spotted earlier was a fellow contestant. The lead they created was diminishing. They needed to get a move on. Every hour counted.

Toby was kicking sand onto the ashes of the fire when the rush of tyres grew ever louder in the silence. A blur of sky-blue whirled around them. Toby instinctively blocked Ellie from the wave of sand kicked up by the terrorising vehicle. Jeers in a familiar Irish accent erupted over the noise before the vehicle tore away from them.

“He’s such a—” she coughed violently, doubling over. Dry mouthed from inhaling dust, Ellie found it difficult to speak.

“Less talk, more driving.” Toby patted her back.

They rushed to the jeep to discover it was covered in sand and dust. Toby ran a finger over the dirty windscreen through the half-inch of dust. Visibility would be a struggle if they didn’t clean it.

“Catching up with McKenna isn’t worth the risk of a crash in the jungle,” Toby warned as Ellie, regardless of the dirty windscreen, climbed into the driver’s seat and turned over the engine. He raced around and opened the door, struggled with her for the keys, eventually yanking them away from her and tucking them into his back pocket.

“Toby!” Ellie bit. She was climbing out of the jeep now and stalking towards him.

“The sooner we clean the windscreen, the faster we can get a move on.”

Ellie kicked at the sand beneath her feet, cursed under her breath. With his expedition up the mountainside, she had let Toby distract her from the real issue at the heart of this race – winning! They shouldn’t be waking up extra early to take in the sights, they should be waking up extra early to gain ground and make a lead!

Retrieving a towel from the back of the jeep, Ellie began to rub it against the windscreen with more effort than necessary. It was dry sand she was removing, not dry oil.

Toby was busy cleaning the wing-mirrors, bent at the waist and staring at her from across the bonnet. She was aware the whole time of his gaze. Those sharp eyes didn’t miss a trick so she made sure not to look back at him.
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