Authors: Pam Withers
“You flailed your tiny arms like you were mad at me,” Mother says, her voice a little choked. “Dad was the only one who could calm you. You went ballistic if I so much as touched you, maybe because you sensed my fear that someone would come to take you back. Eventually, I was afraid of touching you at all. I know I'm still not good at it. It has never meant I don't love you, Andreo.”
“ButÂ â¦Â but I was only a baby. Don't all babies cry?”
“You cried way more than other babies,” Dad asserts. “Even our friends who had kids said so. But we eventually learned to cope with you.”
Mother releases my hand and a pained look comes over her face. “And now you've met her.â¦Â ”
“IÂ â¦Â IÂ â¦”
“I heard what you said, Andreo. It's too late to take it back. And there's no time to discuss it now. The shuttle to the caving event arrives in fifteen minutes. But we will continue this discussion, I promise.” She rises stiffly, like she's drained.
“Andreo and Raul,” Dad's measured voice is saying, “do you want a time-out?”
I picture myself as a little boy, sent to the corner for being bad.
“What I mean is, do you two want us to miss the
shuttle bus to the caving site and stay here until you sort out whatever it is you seem determined to sort out?”
I rankle at his use of “you two” rather than “us” or “our family.”
“No,” I say in a defeated tone.
“Yes,” Raul says at the same time.
Everyone turns to stare at Raul.
“You need to make your decision before the shuttle comes,” Mother says in a firm voice.
“Andreo and David,” Dad says as he follows her to the door, “you've raised points that need to be addressed, along with issues such as stolen documents and pursuing potentially dangerous contacts behind our backs”âhis eyes throw lightning bolts at meâ“but this is neither the time nor the place.”
It's never the time or place with you
. Somehow, I manage not to say that aloud. They walk out of the room, Dad's arm around my mother. My chest is so tight that it feels ready to implode.
“We'll do the caving part,” Raul calls after them, making my parents pause and turn around for a second. “Then we'll let you know.”
I've heard of cults where, when a member breaks a rule, the others turn their backs on him, make him invisible to them. He's forced to leave because he basically no longer exists in their eyes.
I feel I've crossed the same sort of line here. As we squeeze aboard the back of a standing-room-only pickup truckâa vehicle that, judging from the smell, hauled a load of sheep shortly before it was hired to shuttle adventure racers to remote cavesâMother, Dad and David huddle together, talking, their backs to me. I know I should join them, ask forgiveness, but my emotions are so raw and tangled up, I'm unable to. So I push toward the far back corner where Raul is slumped.
From there, I observe my adoptive family. Mother looks like something a steamroller has knocked down and flattened. The one time her dazed eyes meet mine, they reveal the pain of a stabbing victim. I recall with a sinking feeling what she overheard:
Mother can't handle the fact I have another
mother, a real mother.â¦Â I have met my birth mother and she is perfect.â¦Â My real father isn't unknown. And it wasn't my mother's choice to give me away
. My words have just made her worst nightmare come true, knifed her in the heart.
I see David wrap his arms around her. Guilt envelops me. Then there's Dad beside them, silent as stone: an unexploded grenade in a vehicle careening down a super-rutted road. Between my estranged family and me is a sea of fit bodies, excited chatter and the rank odor of unwashed sports clothes.
As we lurch over crater-size potholes that churn up my stomach, I'm reminded that, thanks to David's and my fight, none of us has had breakfast.
I watch scenery flash by. There is little vegetation. Just giant reddish rocks that look like they've fallen from outer space, and grass in sparse patches. On distant hills, I see other trucks full of adventure race teams heading to different sets of caves, some of the more than fifty in Torotoro National Park. Our huge shuddering Isuzu truck makes me feel like I'm in an earthquake. We bounce up and down steep rises, the truck barely clinging to the track as we round bends on overhangs. I'm sure I'm not the only one terrified that our vehicle will plunge over the edge at any moment.
“Have to tell you something, mon,” Raul says.
I'm happy to turn my attention to my friend. “Like where you were this morning? Sneaking off with Maria, I'm guessing?”
“I was tailing you.”
“Someone has got to watch your back.”
I shake my head in disbelief. “And what did you see?”
“Detective Colque had coffee with Dr. A while you were in the clinic.”
“After you and Detective Colque left, as soon as you were out of sight, a navy blue Jeep screeched up to the back door, and a young bearded guy with tattoos on his arms leaped out and half-pushed Vanessa inside.”
I stare at him. “As in, kidnapped her?”
He studies a sheep turd on the floorboards in front of us. “
, probably just some impatient tough giving her a ride. Then I jogged after the truck.” He coughs. “Got a lungful of dust for my effort. It sped out of town and climbed a steep hillâa hill with some caves that Maria and I explored yesterday.”
“I watched it for a while with my binoculars.”
“So that's where the binoculars went,” I say.
“They drove up to a shack. They got out and went inside.”
“So you found out where she's staying. Whoop-de-do.”
“Yeah, okay, so tell me what went down in the clinic.”
I tell him the whole story. He avoids my eyes as I gush about my birth mother. But his head jerks up when I
describe how evasive she was about who his own birth parents are.
“So she knows but won't tell,” he says. His voice reveals both bitterness and hope. “Then we're not done with Torotoro.”
My heart skips a beat. “What are you saying?”
“I'll do the caving part of the adventure race, because that's what I'm all about, and your family can't get through it without me. Then we're splitting from Team Family Dynamics.”
“We?” I can't believe what I'm hearing.
“Andreo, you did great this morning. Standing up to David for once. And telling your parents like it is.”
“Great?” my voice cracks. “I'm in total shit now. They hate me.”
“They don't hate you. They're just in shock. But it's about time. And your family has given us permission to drop out.”
“They have not given us permission to drop out!” I say in a low, urgent voice. “That was their twisted way of making us feel guilty and trying to keep us in line!”
“But we can pretend we have taken it as permission. We can take off. We have to see Vanessa again, don't you think?”
My head sinks into my hands; I'm totally muddled and torn. A part of me wants to elbow my way to my family. A part of me wants to leap out of the moving truck and charge up the hill to see my birth mother again. I picture
her sipping tea in the shack, gently knitting with those long, elegant fingers, reminiscing on our conversation, wishing we'd had more time. And I can only imagine how much Raul wants to press Vanessa about his birth parents' identities.
“Gotta think” is all I say.
Where the truck unloads, there's an army of volunteers directing teams to different cave entrances. We're asked to leave our packs on one table and grab a white helmet with a light attached from another table.
“Remember,” says a race volunteer on a megaphone, “this is not a timed part of the race, but a fun, skill-testing exercise. It's a diversion, a special feature you're all capable of doing because you completed your basic caving certification. When you finish, get your passports stamped and grab lunch from the food table. Then trucks will shuttle you down to where the bike vans wait, since the vans can't make it up to the caves. At the bike vans, you will be allowed to retrieve your bikes in a staggered fashionâaccording to when your team arrived in Torotoro.”
Dad herds us to the cave entrance we've been assigned. Raul finally stops craning his neck to look for Maria and takes over as leader. I fall in place behind Raul; David, Mother and Dad follow us. We switch on our lights and descend slippery steps. Rock walls tower above us until we duck into a tunnel that eventually opens into a huge room. It's like walking into a dinosaur's mouth. Giant pointy teeth growing from both ceiling and floor look
ready to clench us tight. They're stalactites and stalagmites, of course: calcium drippings that have taken more than a thousand years to form. The smell of mud and calcium invades my nostrils.
Farther in, formations start resembling wax sculptures. One looks like a Christmas tree and another like a statue of the Virgin Mary. It's humid and warm, at first a welcome break from the coolness outside. But soon I begin to sweat. No one says a word as Raul leads us down moist tunnels through which trickles of water flow.
Deeper into the cavern we go, a human chain moving through a cavity that doubles as a shallow pond, then breaking out into a high-ceilinged chamber over a brown lagoon. It's now uncomfortably humid, almost like a sauna.
“Thought this was supposed to be fun,” David grumps. “Not my idea of âa special feature.'Â ”
fun, and it's fascinating because blind fish live here,” Raul says, like he's a guide. “Maria told me.”
We direct our headlamps onto the muddy water, but fail to see any sign of life. As we wade through the thigh-high water to the other side, I hope that blind fish don't bite. I also wonder how many times my birth father guided here and whether Vanessa accompanied him sometimes. I picture them wading through the water hand in hand, giggling, tucking into a cavity for a picnic and basking in the wonder and magic.
Raul leads us to a small tunnel on the far side that works its way upward like a wormhole. We're on our
hands and knees, crawling along a passage, when I hear a shout from David.
“I hate this! I'm scared! Have to stop for a minute.”
“Relax, David,” Mother's muffled voice orders from way behind.
“Just keep crawling forward. It will widen in a moment,” Dad adds.
“But I can't breathe!” comes my brother's panicked reply.
“Close your eyes until you calm down, honey,” says Mother.
“Paste yourself to the wall,
,” Raul directs me, and, as we've done dozens of times before, we make like salamanders and do what for most would be impossible: squeeze past one another until I am in the lead and Raul is turned around and head-to-head with David.
“Keep going, Andreo,” commands Raul, and I do, upward toward a hint of light, as I hear Raul speak gently and patiently to my brother to coax him out of his panic.
Emerging from the hole, I'm so blinded by the sun that I feel more than see a volunteer clasp my arm. “Your passport?” she asks.
“My dad's got it; he's coming up behind me in a minute.” Fantastic as the caving was, I'm elated to be back in the fresh air.
“Okay, the line for the food table starts over there,” she says.
I nod, exchange my helmet for my pack and position myself in the food line. I'm thinking about how famished I am when I hear a shout.
Shading my eyes, I glimpse a truck fully loaded with racers who've finished both their caving stint and lunches. As the truck's engine roars to life, I glimpse someone sprinting toward itâRaul. A forest of strong arms reaches out to lift him and his pack over the tailgate as the truck begins moving. Then I hear my name being called from two directions.
Mother, Dad and David are hailing me as they walk from the cave exit toward the food line. But as I swivel my head, I see Raul standing in the truck, waving his arms at me, screaming, “Now, Andreo! Now!”
My feet decide for me. They run toward the truck, then lift off the ground like I'm doing a pole-vault move. The same forest of arms hauls me aboard just as the driver guns it.
“Way to go,
.” Raul slaps me on the back as the swerving truck pitches us into our fellow occupants. I scramble up and stare at the sight of my mother, running with arms outstretched, shouting something over and over, words becoming so faint that I can barely make them out.
“Andreo, Andreo, my son. Don't you know how much I love you?”
Fifteen minutes later, when the truck reaches the bike van, a burly volunteer refuses to release our bikes to us.
“Need your passport and the rest of your team members,” he says. “Then we will inform you of your approved start time.”