Authors: Pam Withers
“So you're okay with where it is?” Dad presses, again his voice uncharacteristically meek.
With effort, Mother projects confident calm. “Yes, dear, we'll have a grand adventure. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to visit the powder room.”
Our dinners arrive, but Dad is still watching Mother's figure disappear. David swings around to face me. “If
Raul has to come on our race, you tell him to keep his big trap shut about Inca warriors and bloodlines, you hear? It's all bullshit, anyway.”
“Is it?” I say with a defiance that surprises me.
“David has a point,” Dad says, staring at his food like he has lost his appetite. “Mother's sensitive. We just need to be thoughtful. I'm sure you can have a word with Raul, Andreo,” he adds, meeting my eyes meaningfully.
“She's more than sensitive,” David addresses me in a tone that stiffens my back. “She's fragile about this stuff and you know it. We have to protect her.”
“Sensitive. Fragile,” I echo, picking up my knife and fork and tearing into my steak. “Sensitive that I might run away because I'm going back to my country or something? Fragile because being there will make her remember she took me on only because she didn't know she was already expecting a real son?”
Dad, eyes flashing, leaps up and moves to tower over me. His mouth opens, but no words come out. That prompts David to raise his steak knife and jab it toward my chest. “She's the only mother we've got. Don't go hurting her or she might reject you like your last one did.”
Now it's my turn to leap up, fists balled, but Dad's hands come down to clamp on our shoulders. Heedless of stares from nearby diners, he pushes us gently back into our seats and heaves a heavy sigh. “Boys, your mother and I love both of you deeply. I appreciate that you are aware of your mother's weakness and are usually very
thoughtful accordingly. All I ask is that you continue to be so. And, sons, let's not spoil a dinner that is all about celebrating Andreo's impressive win today.”
He returns to his seat just as Mother appears, her makeup perfectly touched up and a studied casualness in her stroll back to the table.
I'm swaddled in a colorful woven blanket and wearing a soft woolen baby hat on my head. I'm tucked between my birth mom and dad in the giant purple hammock that hangs between feathery green trees not unlike weeping willows. A breeze is swaying us gently, gently, and the sky is an open blue. My mom is singing a Spanish lullaby. My dad, so young and dark and handsome, is gazing into my eyes, his own alight with love. I smell coconut oil on his fingertips as they brush my cheek. I raise my chubby little baby arms to himâand he disappears. Vaporizes. Is replaced by the scent of a cigar.
The hammock shifts as my mom turns to look at an approaching stranger. He is tall and fat and faceless; there is only a blur where his eyes, nose and mouth should be. He wears a black hat and a dull gray suit with a thin green tie, and, as my mother scoops me tightly into her arms, my view is of his polished black leather shoes halting in the dirt beside the hammock. I burrow as deep as I
can against my mother's chest, feeling the comforting cadence of her heartbeat. I push my face against the long black braids that spill down from her brown bowler hat, the one that smells pleasantly of wool.
But stronger arms than hers lift me up, up, up. I scream. I squirm in protest. Most of all, I try to twist around to see my mom's face. I need to see my mom's face. Has she given me up, or have I been stolen from her? I'd know if I could just see her face. And if I cry and struggle enough, surely someone will stop this from happening and save me? I open my eyes to see my adoptive mother, younger than I ever remember her, gazing down on me. Her arms are hesitant, her heart beats with an unfamiliar tempo, her eyes reveal a fleck of fear. I thrash, twist and test out the full power of my lungs.
“Andreo! Andreo! Wake up, you howling idiot. You're having your nightmare again! How do you expect anyone around here to sleep?”
Raul is standing near the foot of my bedâwhich is actually the spare bed in his messy bedroom. As I sit up, I recall I'm sleeping over at his house, and it's Friday night. Or more like Saturday morning, judging from the first signs of light through his droopy cotton curtains. We were planning to rise early to go caving.
“Was it the one where she gives you up or the one where you get stolen?” he asks dully, but doesn't wait for a reply. “
, you won't believe what I found on the
Internet when I googled âBolivia' just now. I'm printing it out for you. I was gonna wake you up, but then you started hollering.”
I shift my eyes to the green glow of the computer screen on his chipped desk. High above it, dusty and forgotten, hangs a framed snapshot of his adoptive parents holding him as a baby. They are outside a white-domed building in Bolivia. I take in the whine of his printer, check my watch and leap out of bed.
“Eight o'clock?” I say. “Hey, we should be outta here. Caving, remember?”
“Yeah, yeah.” He points to his backpack, stuffed and ready to go by the door. I realize he's dressed already as I race to pull on my clothes. “But this is an amazing news report. You have to read it.”
“Bring it along. Let's grab some breakfast and hit the trail.” We shoulder our packs and head toward the stairs. His dad appears in a rumpled bathrobe, chin grizzled and holding his head as he stumbles to the bathroom.
“Morning, Mr. Jones,” I say. “Hey, thanks for giving Raul permission to do the race in Bolivia.”
He stares at me and blinks. “Bolivia. Right. Anything for some peace and quiet around here.” And the bathroom door slams shut.
After polishing off bowls of instant oatmeal and toast piled high with jam, we open the back door to a blast of cold air. Our boots scrunch a dusting of November snow as we head up the frozen trail.
“Not supposed to tell you this,” Raul says, “but your loser brother took two tries to get his caving certificate the other weekend. As in, he flunked on his first round. A certain guide told me.”
Raul wants to be a caving guide when he turns eighteen, so he hangs out with a bunch of local instructors.
“You're right, you're not supposed to tell me,” I say, slapping him on the back and smiling.
My buddy pulls the Internet printout from his pants pocket. “Headline is
BLACK-MARKET-BABY RINGLEADER JAILED IN BOLIVIA.”
? Someone's jailed a baby?”
“No, stupid. Someone who sells babies illegally got caught. In Cochabamba, Bolivia. Right near where our race is going to be.”
“Black babies?” I lower my pack at the cave entrance, strap on my helmet and switch on its headlamp.
“No, Andreo, babies on the black market,” Raul says as we head into the dark. One by one, we grab the anchored rope, attach the aluminum hardware on our harnesses to it and make like we're firemen sliding down a pole. We land lightly in a sculpted cavern. “When rich North Americans can't find a baby to adopt, they head to places like Bolivia. They pay lotsa moneyâit says here fifty thousandâon the black market.”
“Fifty grand?!” My voice echoes as we tramp over the stone floor, ducking under stalactites. My headlamp beam picks up bats flying overhead. “No one would pay
that for me. And they'd pay a whole lot less for you.”
. But listen! This ringâthese criminalsâsold, like, six hundred babies over the past fifteen to twenty years, mostly to Americans and Canadians. Illegally. For the bucks. And now they've been busted. At least, the head honchoâname of Hugo Vargasâwas arrested Friday.”
“So?” We drop to our kneepads and crawl into a moist tunnel, Raul first as usual.
“That could be us,
!” says his muffled voice. “We could be stolen goods!”
The rotten-egg smell of sulfur attacks my nostrils as we enter a bulge in the tunnel. We sit cross-legged and face-to-face in the cramped space. The packs on our backs are pressed against the walls; our heads are touching the ceiling. My beam exposes a bushy-tailed wood rat scurrying from an oversize twiggy nest down the tunnel from which we've come. “First of all, we weren't adopted illegally, Raul. At least I wasn't.”
“Says who?” His voice sounds overloud in this cubbyhole, this last alcove before things get really tight in Dead End Tunnel. “You finally gonna tell me your story, or whatever fib your parents told you? Or do I guess right that your super-uptight mother has never told you anything?”
I sigh and shine my light on a sparkling droplet clinging to the end of a mud-colored stalactite. Even my best friend and fellow adoptee Raul has no idea what a huge hole in my heart exists from not knowing much else about
my birth parents. For as long as I can remember, I've fantasized about finding themâmaybe because I've never felt that I've fit in with my adoptive family. I've never even been sure my adoptive mother loves me. But precisely because I'm so obsessed with the issue, I'm determined to hide it from Raul. Still, maybe it's time to tell him the one stupid story I was given.
“Dad told me I was born in Cochabamba. My birth mom was a teenage beauty queen. She got herself pregnant thanks to some married doctor. Her family didn't want the scandal. The doctorâmy birth fatherâwanted nothing to do with the whole thing.”
That's why I've concocted a dream
a story I like better. Except it keeps turning into a nightmare
“Seriously?” His headlamp beam, frozen on my face, blinds me to his own facial expression.
I nod and glance at the coffin-size opening between slabs of rock that we've promised to tackle today. “That's what Dad told me when I was, like, twelve, and there's no way anyone in my family wants to talk about it, especially my mother, as you bloody well know. I don't want to ask questions. I don't want to get anyone's nose out of joint.” I gesture to the crumpled-up printout sticking out of his pocket. “So stop digging up this shit off the Internet.”
“No effing way.”
I stare at Raul, who I can see now is staring bug-eyed at me. We're still sitting cross-legged in our cramped rotunda, our breaths coming out in pockets of steam. “What?”
“My parents told me the same thing. The beauty queen and doctor line!”
“Did not. You told me a whole different story.”
“Â 'Course I did! No way was I gonna 'fess up to a lame-sounding tale like that. Beauty queen? Sucky.”
I shine my light on a colony of daddy longlegs on the walls. “You're not making that up?”
“You're not making up yours?”
“No.” Sweating and rattled, I turn and enter the space ahead of Raul, wriggling on my stomach, hands ahead of me like I'm swimming. Raul has recently decided this isn't a dead end as the rest of the caving community believes. The reason we're here is that last weekend, he crawled in, reached the end boulder pile, hammered on it with a crowbar until he felt air flow, then shoved a few more stones away. He thinks that we, being smaller and skinnier than adult cavers, can now carry on to what may be a new exit. I'm barely in, though, when hands close over my ankles and Raul jerks me all the way back into our conference room.
“Stop, Andreo. You gotta think about this one. So both our adoptive parents got fed a line. A big sales pitch that some black-market dude thought up. It's perfect, don't you see? This baby's got beauty-queen looks and doctor brains, and no birth parents who are going to ask for it back. The perfect history. Maybe all six hundred babies he collected money for came with the same damn story.”
I lean forward and blow a long breath of steam into Raul's face. “Guess that means the beauty queens in Bolivia keep pretty busy. Or maybe we have the same beauty queen mom and doctor dad, which makes us brothers.” My sarcasm drips with the same ping as the stalactite's droplets.
! Not possible, 'cause I'm way better looking than you, not to mention I was born just four months after you.”
“Drop it, Raul.” I reach out and grab the printout from his pocket, shredding it with my gloved hands right in front of his eyes. “Wood-rat nesting material.”
.” Raul's voice is distressed. “It said in the article that the parents who adopted kids from this baby stealer had no idea.”
I stare at the pieces of paper and feel my shoulders slump. “Even if we
adopted illegally, it wouldn't change anything. Why hurt our parents' feelings?”
“My parents don't have feelings. And yours are way too sensitive. You have to start standing up to them, Andreo. It's your lifeâyour historyâthey're hiding from you. Don't tell me you aren't curious. You with all the nightmares.”
“So what if I'm curious?” I allow, ignoring the rest of his speech. “What about you? You want to find your birth parents if it's possible? You're not scared?”