Authors: Pam Withers
I shove the papers back into their plastic sheath and bury it deep in my pack. Maria stands and wanders a short distance away.
“David, Andreo and Raul, get some rest now, okay?” Mother points to the sleeping tarp and heads toward it. David stands awkwardly, shooting poison-dart eyes at Raul and me.
“Guys,” Maria calls to the three of us, “come see this cool boulder over here.” Her dad's and uncles' heads rise to watch us.
“You bet,” Raul says, instantly by her sideâbut taking care not to stand too close, given the alert eyes of the bouncer-type uncles.
“Interesting,” David says, joining us and stooping down to peer at a crevice in the boulder that resembles a dwarf's doorway.
“Who can squeeze through it?” Maria challenges us with a smile, dropping to her knees and arching her head back like a limbo dancer to pass through it gracefully.
Raul, master caver that he is, grins, contorts himself like a pretzel and eases through it as if he has done so a million times before.
I drop to all fours and squeeze through, nowhere near as smoothly as Raul.
David hesitates. “What if I get stuck?”
“You won't!” Maria encourages him. “Your chest will fit if youÂ â¦” She trails off as he blushes deep red.
Right, she has noticed your chest size, bro. That totally means she's in love with you. NOT, you maniac
David stands tall, puffs out his chest and moves toward the gap, making a show of visually measuring it.
“Attaway,” Maria's father calls out. “Get 'im stuck solid. Then we'll beat 'em for sure.”
David drops to his knees, tucks his elbows in, ducks his head and proceeds into the gap. Sure enough, he seems to get stuck. Maria flits to the opposite side to encourage him. Raul and I move around to watch from that angle too.
“I'm stuckâtotally, totally stuck,” he cries out, but there's something about his tone that seems wrong.
Maria, concern all over her face, offers him her hand. “You can do it, David. I know you can.”
“Of course I can,” he says, grinning, taking her hand and brushing his lips to her fingertips before leaping up to stand beside her. Maria backs away, startled and clearly distressed.
. The bouncers may have had their view blocked, but Raul saw it.
“Hey!” He moves in and fists fly. My best friend and brother tumble to the ground, rolling this way and that.
They spin close to the bank. I hold my breath, then watch it happen as if in slow motion.
Raul goes right into the water.
” David shouts, echoed by a clang as he lands half in and half out of our canoe.
One of David's knees goes into Dad's gut.
What the hell?” Dad mumbles as he wakes and flails about so much that the canoe begins to rock.
Uh-oh. It's going to tip
, I think as Raul swims to shore.
More splashing as the canoe upsets, spilling both David and Dadânot to mention our loose gearâinto the water.
” A crowd has gathered, laughing, pointing, clapping. Mother springs up, rubbing her eyes as if hoping she's dreaming. Then she and I are elbow-to-elbow, bent over to pull Dad and David out.
Dad and Raul turn the canoe upright, fetch the paddles and gear and bail out the canoe. We regroup and endure Mother and Dad's inevitable lecture: “â¦Â Â making a spectacle of our teamÂ â¦Â if you want to be groundedÂ â¦Â serious family discussion about fightingÂ â¦Â most important aspect of team racing is maintaining harmony.”
“There go Maria and team,” I whisper to Raul as we look out past the little island. He nods slowly, face glum. They're powering away, Maria huddled in the center, eyes cast our way like a subdued prisoner.
“We'll pass them, 'cause we're faster,” he whispers back.
“And you know Mother and Dad will go way around them, even if it adds five minutes on to our race time,” I reply evenly.
“Raul, you're in my canoe,” Mother orders. “David, you're in Dad and Andreo's.”
“Nice eye, David.” Dad tries to lighten things up. “It's going to turn some very interesting colors before we
reach Torotoro. Andreo and I will paddle first while you rest up.”
“Catch us if you can,” Raul says with a hint of satisfaction on his face.
,” David mutters, laying himself full-length between Dad and me and pulling a wet T-shirt over his face.
As we work the paddles, I'm a little surprised at the effort it's taking to stay close to Mother and Raul. It seems my friend is paddling at a pace sure to impress his canoe-mate, maybe even take her mind off what he has done to her favorite son.
“The bike vans,” I call out when the far end of the lake comes into sight.
“Yup, a quick transition, team. Ready?” Mother says.
As our canoes nose into the bank, we jump out, backpacks already on. We sprint to our waiting bikes as volunteers take over the boats.
I breathe in the smells of the verdant valley in which we've landed.
“Onward, team!” Dad calls as we lift our sore bottoms into bike saddles and wheel at high speed along a cobbled road hemmed by vegetable and fruit patches. Later, when the vans seem to magically appear again, it's time to dismount, hand our bikes over to the volunteers and continue on foot.
“Lunar landing,” Raul comments as we take in a moonscape of reddish sandstone.
“Yeah, reminds me of the Badlands of South Dakota,” Dad agrees.
“They could shoot Wild West movies here,” David ruminates.
Indeed, I can easily imagine bandits on horses, waiting behind wind-sculpted rock formations.
Raul points to a craggy tower. “That's, like, a couple of stories high.”
“It's cool,” I say, but I'm impatient. I stick my head between Dad and David as they pore over the map. Though David has stopped asking to play navigator, I've noticed he lurks close when Dad and I have conversations and sometimes asks pertinent questionsâintelligent ones, if I were forced to admit it. “We can make Torotoro by dark if we really push it, everyone,” I say.
“You're right, Andreo,” Mother says as Dad nods approvingly. Dad tucks the map into his pocket and we move faster.
Dry, steep creek beds snake torturously, breaking up any clear path like a maze, forcing us to retreat almost as often as we press ever southward.
“Torotoro,” Dad mumbles an hour later in the near-dark as we spot a church steeple.
I stare, and somehow my exhaustion converts to elation. My birth mother's hometown.
“Tomorrow's a full day off,” Mother says with a relief that we all feel. “Hot shower and bed tonight. Let's move it, team.”
The bed is lumpy, the showers down the hall are out of hot water, and noise filters through the thin walls of our hotel room. But I've never slept so well or been so happy to have a bed as in Torotoro.
Sun has been streaming through the smudged windows for hours by the time I force my eyelids open. A day off: the very idea is awesome. And then I remember my mission.
I sit up in bed and stare across the room at David, snoring and spread-eagled in his boxers on his too-small hotel bed. His sheet is in a heap on the worn wooden floor; his eye is a ripe black-and-blue. Still sleeping soundly. Good. Raul's bed is empty, and it doesn't take me long to find his note: “Gone caving.”
Why am I not surprised? No need to guess with whom
Pulling on clothes as fast as I can, I shoulder my pack and scurry past Mother and Dad's closed door. The stairs creak as I hurry down them. At the reception desk, I
grab a map of the village and figure out directions to the address Maria has given me.
“I'll let my grandma know you're coming,” Maria had said, and lucky for us, she'd managed to find a race volunteer willing to leave the phone message for her.
My feet tap out a rhythm on the rough pavement as I pass the windows of adobe houses. Inside, children in crisp school uniforms are eating their breakfasts. I smile at old women sweeping the sidewalks with straw brooms and men chewing coca leaves and joking in Quechuan while they wait in line for a truck to carry them to work. The smells of dust, fresh fruit and straw hats drift my way as vendors arrange fruit, fabric and other displays for sale.
The squeak of a piece of chalk makes me turn my head to see a pretty young woman writing the day's menu on a blackboard outside a cafÃ©. Something Maria said about small, poor villages in Bolivia comes to mind: “They cannot live without smiling.”
At the Internet cafÃ©, after dashing in to determine that there's nothing from Detective Colque, I shoot him a few lines:
We're in Torotoro for two days: a day off, then the caving. I've learned that this is where my birth mother grew up, and I'm asking around.
I may also try to see the doctor, in case he's my birth father. Any luck with information on
Raul's family or on where my birth mother has ended up?
My fingers are crossed that the detective can help Raul, not just me. Ten minutes later, I hesitate before an adobe house with an old wooden door facing the main road.
It takes a lot of courage to lift my hand.
I'm bowled back when a smiling, matronly woman in a white blouse and long skirt throws the door wide open. She raises her arms in greeting. “Andreo Gutierrez, yes? I Maria's grandma, Olive de los Angeles. I so please to meet you!”
My body freezes for a second. I've never been called by the name on my birth certificate, and I also wasn't expecting her to speak English.
Of course! Maria's father is Australian. So the grandma has had time and a reason to learn our language
“Come in, come in, come in!” she says, waving me inside. “I make Arani bread, local specialty, and coca tea, from our famosa coca leaves. A neighbor who knew your mother more than me comes soon.”
My race-stiffened legs shuffle in as I glance nervously behind me for no good reason; it's not like my adoptive parents would be hanging about at this end of town.
There are few rooms in the house, a large vegetable garden out back. She ushers me into a central room that seems to serve as dining and living room combined. The scent of freshly cut irises rises from a vase in the
center of a table covered by a tablecloth featuring colorful Andean folk designs.
“Is good you explore your Bolivian roots,” Grandma de los Angeles says. “Maria phone message say so. And this raceâis crazy sport my sons and Maria's father do. But gives you kids appetite, yes?” With this, she offers a plate of bread straight from the oven. My stomach rumbles.
, thank you,” I say, overwhelmed by her warmth and enthusiasm toward a total stranger. I sink my teeth into the soft bread and my taste buds dance all over the cheese flavor.
“Maria say tomorrow is caving part? Will be her favorite. She know all the caves around here very well. No can keep her nose out of them. Why this interest in dark, dangerous places?”
She pours us tea, seats herself on a faded sofa and draws a small white kitten into her lap. It eyes me lazily as it stretches and flicks its tail back and forth.
“Never knew well your mother. Knew her parents, God rest their souls. Little Vanessa was quiet girl, always did what told. She pretty. Win beauty contest once, like my Maria. Her parents so proud.”
“Proud,” I repeat dumbly, not knowing what else to say.
“And I remember when they throw her out of their home. We could all guess why. Oh yes, so sad. They hand her sack with her clothes. Lock door, ignore her crying. The poor dear. She was only seventeen.” The cat
settles into a small, furry ball and purrs under the grandmother's stroking.
“Did she, does sheÂ â¦Â have sisters or brothers here?” I ask.
“Oh, she have two older sisters, but even if still lived here, they slam their doors so hard in your face that your nose go flat. Their own marriage chances were hurt by herÂ â¦Â scandal. They move away.”
“I see. And my birth father?”
. Only your mother knows that.”
, are there any doctors in Torotoro?”
“Oh dear, you are sick?”
“No, no, but my brother has a bad blister that maybe needs looking at,” I lie.
. Well, is just one doctor hereâhas been in town twenty years. Nice man. Clinic is beside his house.” She gives me directions.
I'm racking my brain for more questions when there's a loud knock.
, is Ardillita, my neighbor.”
“Ardillita?” I echo nervously, sitting up straight.
“Hello, Mrs. de los Angeles. We're here!” comes a high, lighthearted voice in Spanish from the doorway. “Juan Pedro is off work so he has come with me, along with our three youngestâcouldn't leave them home. I knew you wouldn't mind.”