by Heather LT
A fast paced race around South America takes one pair off course.
N.B. Double paragraphed to make it easier to read on screen. Written in British English.
The desert plateau land gave way to rocky foothills which then gave way to sparse jungle-like terrain which was perfect off-road practice for Ellie.
“In case of an emergency,” she told Toby to convince him since he seemed so protective of his vehicle. Men and their machinery, she rolled her eyes.
The terrain became denser jungle covered in thick patches of fern intermingled with vines. Finding her arms unaccustomed to being rigid for so long, Ellie struggled to keep control of the steering wheel. It kept jerking out of her grasp, banging her fingers on the parts within the circle. Her fingers and knuckles would end up bruised soon.
Rather than admit she was struggling or let Toby see she wasn’t managing, she grimaced through the remaining jungle with sweaty persistence until finally the terrain thinned out as the tops of high rise buildings came into view, signalling the city was forthcoming.
Cusco was a bustling tourist city, Ellie discovered as she wound down the window to let some fresh air into the jeep. Something they couldn’t do in the jungle for fear of nasty bugs entering. It was smoggy, as these cities tend to be, and loud with the sound hundreds of vehicles crammed onto the congested roads.
The navigation system pinged into action. The monotone woman’s voice instructed her to join a motorway. Having to navigate the alien and congested streets of this city proved challenging and when, with a push of a self-assured finger, Toby muted the woman the task became harder. Before she could protest, he almost immediately began to rattle off what needed to be done: check in with headquarters, fill up the tank, re-stock the water supply, eat, radio DeLuca...
All Ellie wanted to do was get out of the jeep to stretch her legs! Get some distance from him and the jeep! Her hopes of putting just a little more space between man and machine were dashed when Toby announced, due to their tight schedule, they’d only have an hour to get everything done. Their aim was to be in a place called Puerto Maldonado by midnight and it was a gruelling two hundred mile journey through bumpier rainforest.
At last minute, Toby instructed Ellie to pull off of the motorway making her cut off another driver who honked his horn in protest. “A little more warning would be nice next time,” she threw at him. Her heart was still pounding from the near-miss as the jeep cut through blocks of buildings. With a little more consideration than ten minutes earlier, he instructed her to take a left by a corroded concrete cross which was suspended by a rope a metre in the air, and to stop by a warehouse at the end of the road. Its modern structure with gleaming white walls and roofing was a glaring difference amongst the rows of terracotta buildings flanking each side of it. It seemed an odd place to build a warehouse.
“I won’t be long,” Toby said after she parked the jeep.
Still a little frustrated with him, Ellie lay back in the car seat and relished the few minutes alone. There was no right for her to feel frustrated, she knew. She knew also Toby was right when he said it wasn’t worth the risk, at least not worth the risk of hurting himself. To her, her sister was worth the risk. She had no right to endanger Toby though.
A sigh escaped her mouth. Tired eyes began to flutter shut. The effects of the early morning and its subsequent events were finally beginning to show now she was relaxing. Shifting her body upright, she attempted to keep her eyes open. They felt heavy as she stared out of the windscreen at the tarmac. Unable to keep them open, she tilted her head back and pinched the bridge of her nose in an attempt to regain some control of her eyes. When she opened them again, the sight of Toby approaching made her eyes wide open.
True to his word he returned ten minutes later. Ellie popped the boot open when she registered the two large boxes he was carrying towards the jeep. Somewhere between entering the warehouse and returning, Toby had felt the need to remove his shirt. Under the glare of the sunshine, try as she might not to, Ellie watched as sweat glistened on his forehead and shoulders as he walked closer.
Maybe she should help him with the heavy lifting? His arms must be raw with pain. By the time she got out, he was already at the jeep so she sat back down. Nibbling gently at her bottom lip, she began watching him load the boxes into the boot through the wing mirror, appreciating the expanse of muscle on show and concerning herself with the numerous grazes she picked out on his skin. They were from the ghastly fall in the desert. An accident which occurred less than twenty-four hours ago than the weeks it felt like. Every minute spent in the jeep felt like an hour, an hour felt like a day, a day felt like a week, a week felt like a month, a month—she shook her head and blinked hard, running a hand through hair which was greasy with sweat. This was all so discombobulating.
Discombobulating, she thought to herself. It was how Toby had described it would be like when she first met him. A smile tugged at her lips as she thought about his funny way with words.
The slam of the boot distracted her from the wave of disorientation.
The heavy lifting over, Ellie was surprised to see Toby didn't bother putting his shirt back on. Instead he liberally covered himself in sun cream. Her t-shirt was sticking to her like a second skin and a longing to remove it like he had his took hold, but it would hardly be conventional. Or appropriate, she chastised herself. Envious of his small luxury, she leaned forward to turn up the air conditioning in a vain attempt to cool down.
They swapped seats so he was driving on the more congested streets Cusco offered. Not much later they came to a stop at a petrol station where he served himself. The air was thicker here as it mingled with the odour of fuel. Not a fan of the smell of petroleum, the strong stink she found here was unbearable. Tugging her t-shirt up to cover her mouth and nose, she glanced out of the window to Toby. Sweat dripped down the wall of his broad chest as he stood pumping the fuel into the jeep, seemingly unaffected by the smell. Pulling her gaze away from him only to return it seconds later, she took in his presence.
He stood looking towards the little shop which she guessed was the pay station, swiping glistening beads of sweat from his brow with his free hand. As if he could feel her watching him, his gaze dropped to her. Teasing him, she patted her wrist with her finger to torment him about taking too long. In return, a corner of his mouth tugged into a smile before his gaze flicked away from her.
Nobody can say he isn’t attractive, thought Ellie as she sat back to stare out of the windscreen watching air wobble above the concrete surface in the heat. An attractive older man who kept himself in good shape, she clarified further. If he was in a relationship, his other half was a very lucky woman. Or maybe not... What woman would be happy with him going off on adventures for months every year? The woman would have to have the patience of a saint!
It triggered something in her memory, something which had happened, something— the phone call in Lima jumped out at her. Slapping a hand to her forehead, she couldn’t believe it slipped her mind. Too caught up in the race she forgot to tell Toby about it.
Leaning over the gear stick, resting her elbow on the drivers' seat, she looked out of the window, and called his name.
"What is it?" he called back, busy now replacing the pump on the stand.
“Can you get some crisps?” Every time they stopped at a petrol station she would ask for crisps. They were her favourite snack because they didn’t melt in the heat and kept her going. Through the open window she watched him shake his head.
“Anything else?” he asked with a chuckle.
“When we were at La Pee-quen-na, pea-quan-na,” she struggled to pronounce the name of the hotel in Lima.
“La Pequeña Posada?” offered Toby as he walked up to the window to talk to her.
Ellie nodded. She was terrible with languages. Remembering how miserably she failed French class in school made her less enthusiastic to try and learn any local words.
“You received a phone call,” she told him finally. “It was a woman. I didn’t get a name. She was a bit upset about something. The static was so terrible I couldn’t hear what she was saying.”
His brow furrowed and something ticked along his jaw in a manner which threatened he was not happy. “And you’re only telling me this now because...?”
She opened her mouth to reply, but an overweight attendant with a cartoon-like moustache was calling over to them and waving his arms around.
“He thinks we’re going to drive off,” he sighed. With a deeper frown than when she told him about the phone call, he ran a hand through his messy matted hair. “I better pay him.”
As she watched him walk away into the shop, Ellie shook off his tart question. It was an honest mistake. She didn’t forget on purpose.
When he returned from the shop, he was silent. He dropped the packet of crisps she requested into her lap before clipping in his seatbelt. It wasn’t long before they were pulling into a hotel complex which towered above them making Ellie feel tiny.
As far as she could remember there was no mention of a hotel in their plans. Surely they would be wasting more precious time if they stayed here for the night? She itched to ask him, but with him still not uttering a single word to her she didn’t want to speak to him. Clamping her lips shut, she climbed out of the jeep. It was childish, but it beat making an awkward attempt to start a conversation.
After checking in and being shown to their room, Toby’s plan became clear to her. They were only going to take advantage of the bathroom facilities and the restaurant. With only twenty minutes remaining of the allocated hour, she was conscious of time ticking away. Unless Toby could bend time, there was no way they would have enough time to shower and eat.
When Ellie did a quick check of her watch after her shower, she wasn’t surprised to learn they were nearing fifteen minutes over the hour. After showering –if you can call rubbing a bar of soap over your skin and in your hair showering– and dressing, she headed downstairs to the restaurant to meet Toby. Having taken advantage of the shower first, he was clean and dressed before her. Her eyes sought him out until they found him in a booth beneath a whirling fan and she weaved her way through the tables. Diners, mostly middle-aged couples with women in cotton trousers and sparkly evening tops, glanced her way. The white summer dress which had seen one too many sink washes was faded, the simple black pumps scuffed, and her wet hair fashioned into a plait made her all to conscious of being underdressed. When she pulled out a seat at Toby’s table and sat, she looked down in her lap only to notice grazed knees before looking over her shoulder. Thank God everyone’s stopped staring, she breathed a sigh of relief.
It wasn’t until she looked back at Toby that she realised he was on the phone to DeLuca. She could hear the eccentric tones which were unique to Toby’s friend. Toby was saying something-or-other about letting him use the hotel room because they were leaving soon.
A waiter hovered by their table. Seeing the empty plates in front of Toby, she did a quick once over of the menu and ordered dinner for herself. It stung a little to think he could have waited for her to join him before eating, but he clearly hadn’t wanted to dine with her.
When the call with DeLuca ended, he finally acknowledged her presence by asking if she minded him making another call at the table.
Why not? You’re already going to enough trouble to disregard me. She shook her head, not protesting. Did she really have the right to protest anyway? Enough was enough with this mood he was in! she wished to yell at him, but her dinner arrived before she let her mouth get carried away with her. With time at the forefront of her mind, she chose a leafy salad accompanied with bread which was quick and simple to eat. Before tucking into her food, she turned over a glass and poured herself some iced water that Toby had the forethought to order for them.
The restaurant was quieter than she expected it to be. Murmured conversations, a few clatters in the kitchen, and –try as she might not to listen in– the sound of Toby’s call was all she could hear as she chomped on salad leaves. At first it started off with a polite tone of voice. "Hello, Andrea" and "how's it going in London?" Then he didn't say anything for long minutes. His eyes defected from the restaurant around him to the empty plate on the table, rubbing his temple. His body shifted and his lips pursed. "What are you snapping about?" and "Ande, don't talk to me like that." To her surprise, Ellie could hear the woman in London yelling. When she heard a long low sigh escape him, she couldn’t help emphasising. A few short seconds later, he disconnected the call after half-yelling a goodbye.
It was Ellie's turn to defect her gaze to her plate. Guilt wrapped around her like a blanket, but she wasn't a hundred percent sure what she was guilty of. She pushed lettuce around her plate, her appetite not being what it should be having not eaten for hours.
“I’m sorry,” he threw her a brief apology.
Assuming it was for over-hearing the brusque conversation, she lifted a shoulder of indifference.
He slinked back into silence. The kind of awkward silence that made Ellie think she was imposing on his thoughts by staying at the table with him. She was about to excuse herself for a bathroom break when he stopped her.
“I never thought to ask before,” he said. “Is there anyone you want to call?”
Her posture relaxed upon hearing the question. She would love to get in touch with her sister if it was at all possible, but McKenna made it clear that she was unreachable. Her heart seemed to sink further in her chest. “No-one,” she answered feeling her emotional wounds pang with pain.
All signs of his earlier dejection disappeared when he sat forward to rest his elbows on the table, inching that little bit closer to her. “No family that might be worried about you?”
Being sent to an orphanage when she was only six years old and having no-one adopt her, her sister was her only family. The tiny clique of friends she had all knew she would be away for the best part of a month and they were not the type of people to worry about her so consumed with their busy city lives as they were. “No-one,” she reiterated with more firmness than was necessary.
They didn’t spend much longer in the restaurant. They shared a couple of bread rolls and rehydrated before setting off. Suspecting the drive to Puerto Maldonado, a city deep within the Amazon rainforest, wasn’t what Toby needed to rid himself of the tension she could see in his bunched up shoulders, she offered to drive but he flat out refused her help. His hands gripped the steering wheel in a white knuckle death grip.
His tension didn’t help her sense of guilt. Was it caused by the phone call he made earlier? If she didn’t forget to tell him about the phone call then whatever was said on the phone to him wouldn’t have been said. The drama could have been avoided.
Finding herself hoping the tension was caused by something more basic, Ellie wondered if he was just nervous as they approached the troublesome Bolivian border. The border and the fact they were closer to a deluge of a tributary of the Amazon River were both things he told her they should worry about. Until now she was too busy concerning herself with him to think of those things.
They arrived in the city an hour earlier than originally planned due to Toby’s ruthless driving. Like a man possessed he sent the jeep ploughing through vegetation and swerving around obstacles. It was just the kind of driving they needed to jump in front of everyone else. It was just the kind of driving which could get them killed too. The thought scattered Ellie’s nerves at the time.
For his driving they were rewarded with an extra hour of sleep. They both needed rest so without wasting time he arranged for them to spend the night in separate wooden cabins with straw thatched roofs. The touristy kind of accommodation designed to give them a “real” sense of life in a jungle. There was nothing real about it, not when there was bricks and mortar only a mile away.
She had experienced real jungle. Real jungle was the murky light and the even murkier waters. The superabundant shades of green blurring together with the only shocks of colour from often deadly plants. The tangle of ferns and moss and vines garlanded with creeping and crawling beings. The suffocating wet heat encouraging mould to grow on clothes dank with sweat. The earthy smell of stale water and green vegetation mingling together.
There were other things too. Other worse things which were part of the real jungle experience. The terrifying pitch black at nightfall, unable to see your hand in front of your face let alone what lurked around you and the realisation you were days –if not weeks– away from help if you became ill or injured, to name a few.
"I'll be in to check on you in the morning." It was the only thing Toby said to Ellie when they arrived in the city. There were no talks of what their planned route was from now on and no goodnight. Not that she cared much, Ellie told herself as she tucked into her dinner of rice and fish brought to her by a local woman. After she ate, she changed into her pyjamas and climbed onto a wooden ledge which passed for a bed, and let herself fall asleep until the small hours of the morning when Toby rapped on the door to her cabin.
Scrambling to her feet from the ledge, catching her leg on the edge and nicking her skin in the process, she trundled to the door. Flicking off the flimsy latch, it swung open. Struck dumb as she was hit by the thick humid air invading her lungs, she suppressed a gasp.
"Sleep well?" he asked with his usual easy smile. Not a single trace of his bad mood from the previous day lingered on his face. Amazing what a good night’s sleep could do. Not that she knew what one of those was...
With a dry throat, she grumbled a response. Feeling un-rested, she wanted some more sleep to rid herself of stinging red eyes and achy limbs. Would there ever be enough sleep in the night to recuperate from the long drives? She really doubted it.
He informed her there was a makeshift shower located at the back of the cabin which she could use to wash. That was when she noticed his damp hair and gleaming teeth, obviously he’d been awake for a while. Thankful he let her sleep in a little longer than him, she nodded and smiled.
Moments later she found the inventive shower. A grin irrupted on her face. Ingenuity in the jungle always amused her. The shower was made from hollowed logs tied together by pieces of vine. Cool rain water from the very top of the canopy of trees flowed from the logs to the ground without any disturbance.
Ellie pulled off her pyjamas and stood directly under the steady stream of water in just her underwear – she wasn’t entirely sure how private this area was. The water felt ice cool as it sluiced over her sweaty skin. She soaped her body in suds and then washed her hair with more panache than ever before. It was these moments in the jungle which she adored and which she would remember. With her spirits lifted, she grabbed her towel and exited the shower.
Her renewed sense of enthusiasm for the race dwindled as the morning progressed. The shower proved to be futile. The clammy heat locked around her body as though she was a mummy wrapped in layers and layers of thick cloth. Fully dressed in fresh clothing, she wondered why she bothered as she mopped her brow of sweat with the back of her hand. Spraying herself with an extra douse of deodorant, she walked out of the cabin with her heavy rucksack on her back in search of Toby.
When she found him, he was having a standoff-ish conversation with McKenna who apparently arrived in the city that morning and who wasn't best pleased to see they arrived ahead of him. For all of his state-of-the-art technology, he was surprised to be losing the race to Toby.
Attempting to split the pair up was ineffective. McKenna’s attention switched to her and it resulted in him man-handling her away from Toby and warning her that she was walking on very thin ice with him. "Just remember I can make things difficult for you," he snarled at her.
"There’s nothing you can do to stop me beating you in this race," she bit back, glaring at him.
Along with the leering sneer on his face, his usual flinty grey eyes hardened to dark granite and his ever tightening grip on her threatened otherwise.
Raging, she pulled herself away from him and stalked towards the jeep in angry silence. Tears prickled her eyes as she remembered her sister. She missed her more each day that passed. For McKenna to threaten to make things more difficult for her was obscene.
With little time to recover before the inevitable and dreaded river crossing, Ellie pushed away her emotions. She refused to allow the shake in her hands or the nausea in her stomach or the tightness in her throat to be a distraction. Toby needed her full attention.
A group of locals crowded around Toby who stood beside the wooden structure engulfed by water. The wooden bridge was built for use when the water levels were low. Due to a group of rainstorms in the previous days, the water level had risen substantially and had come up over the floor of the bridge so that it was ankle deep. Toby’s main concern was the force of the flow of the river would slowly push the jeep over the edge of the bridge and into the river itself. It took them the best part of an hour to chain the jeep to tree trunks at the back and front of the vehicle as a safety measure.
Ellie, after wading through the torrent of river, was waiting by the tree they were using at the front of the jeep. The satellite phone clutched to her chest ready to call for emergency help in case an actual emergency occurred. She was on bated breath as the jeep crawled across the bridge.
With a bit of luck and some precision driving, Toby managed to cross the river’s murky, brown, clay-like water with considerable ease. Releasing a breath, she could hardly believe it. Without wasting a second of time, they reeled in the chains and Ellie popped into the jeep high-fiving Toby for his good driving.
Now they were on their way through thicker jungle terrain to Puerto Velho. It was going to be a long and laborious journey which would take the best part of two days.
"McKenna will be hot on our heels," Toby told Ellie as they bumped their way over old tree stumps. "He'll want to get to Velho before us."
"But we're going from A to B with no twists or turns so we should stay ahead of him, right?"
"In theory, yes," he glanced at her. "But for the most part he's following the Bolivia-Brazil border which means he can cover a lot more ground than we can in the first leg of the journey."
Nothing was ever easy...