He hesitates, my friend who's usually all bluff. “Yeah,” he says quietly. “I want to know, I want to meet them, but another part of me doesn't want to. They could be
monsters, right? Or they could be nice. Or they could be super pissed I chased them down. But this news story, this new informationâhow can we just ignore it? It's a sign or something.”
I lean back into the hard rock wall. “Don't we have to be, like, eighteen before they let us ask for records?”
“But that's just the point. There are no records if we're black-market babies. And we're heading to Cochabamba for this race. We could poke into it while we're there.” His headlamp seems to be searching my face, which has gone taut. “Without your parents knowing.”
With effort, I unclench my jaw. “Let me think about it, okay? I don't want to talk about it anymore. Let's find this mystery exit you're so sure about.” With that, I plunge back into the shoulder-width passage, inching forward, but I'm so distracted that I neglect to put all five senses on the alert.
Ten minutes after squeezing past the former dead end, it hits me. The air movement, the pinprick of light aheadâand the smell.
, did you just fart?” comes the muffled voice of my caving partner behind me.
I take a deep breath and have to fight a sudden need to vomit. Dead wood rat? Pile of dead wood rats? Something oily and almost overpoweringly rank, yet not the smell of death. I lift my head the three inches that the space will allow me to, my nose wrinkled to close my nostrils. I hold perfectly still, listening, breathing through my mouth, staring ahead.
,” I caution Raul and reach up to flick off my headlamp. Inky blackness. Had I been imagining the light? No way. And the air movement: gone now, totally gone. Like a boulder might have rolled from somewhere to block the exit while we were talking.
Slowly, quietly, I bring my right arm up and twist it back and over my shoulder. I feel around for my trekking pole. With difficulty, I unhook it and bring it in front of my face, where I extend it and shove it ahead of me like a prod.
I move forward again, even though the crawl space is getting more constricted and airless. Anyone else would start backing up. Raul's tug on my left boot indicates that's what he thinks we should do. But my curiosity is fully aroused. There's an opening up there; I can
it, even if I can't see or smell it anymore. And if it's just a stone blocking our way, then my pole, my fists and my determination will clear it.
The farther I advance, the more frantic the tugs on my boot. Raul knows it's not like me to ignore him. He's the better caver. But I'm focused on the blockage. I poke it with my pole tip, then wriggle forward to push it with my gloved hands and finally butt it with the front of my helmet. Whatever it is isn't solid. Whatever I've touched is now moving. The patch of light returnsârevealing an exit to a grand cavern! Then the roaring begins, and the stench flows right through my blocked nostrils to hit me like a sewage backup.
“Bear!” I shriek, and wriggle backward so fast that one of my boots goes right into Raul's face.
“Bear?” Raul shouts, and slides backward so fast you'd think we were on a waterslide, heading feet-first on our stomachs, rather than snaking down a level passageway. Back, back, back we scramble on elbows and knees as the hibernating creature we've disturbed settles into blocking the diminishing pinprick of light.
Fat snowflakes spiraling down through evergreens land on the topographical map I have spread out on a boulder. I lay my compass on the map and memorize the location of the checkpoints. I turn my map and body in the proper direction, eye a ridge ahead and take a bearing.
“Are we lost?” David asks, but the tone isn't hard-edged or accusing. We've both been trying, this Christmas break, not to rile one another.
“Most important aspect of team racing is maintaining harmony,” Dad likes to lecture us. It's an especially tall order when Raul's with us, but today it's just David and me. He and I have been trying to get in perfect shape for the race just two weeks away now, under the close supervision and training regimen of Mother and Dad. Although Raul's parents have been less than interested, they nevertheless managed to come up with the money. Between his parents and mine, we've secured special permission to miss a week and a half of school for
the race and have lined up most of the gear on the race checklists.
“Nope, not lost. We're good,” I say, folding the map, tucking my compass back on its wrist cord and squinting at a set of heavy gray clouds moving our way.
“What happens if you get run over by a bus and I have to play chief navigator?”
“No buses on adventure racecourses,” I joke as we jog toward the ridge.
“But seriously. And what do you do if it's dark?”
“You send a teammate ahead to stand within headlamp view and take a reading on him. And you keep doing that with your teammates, using them as checkpoints to travel the plotted course.”
“Right, I remember now. Figuring so many steps per kilometer.”
“You got it, except they're paces, not steps. You always remember the math part.”
We speed up, and I feel my blood warming.
“Remember our very first race?” David asks as we wind along the frozen dirt road.
“The obstacle course when we were seven,” I reply. “The one where you hauled me to the school playground the night before and made me run it over and over in different ways while you timed me.”
David's laugh is a warm, easygoing one. “Hey, I'm all about using math. But we won the next day, didn't we?”
“Tied for first. And the gold medal wasâ”
“A chocolate coin hung on a red, white and blue ribbon necklace,” he finishes as we laugh together at the memory.
“I wanted to eat it,” I say. “You wanted to wear it, and Mother had to take it away to stop us wrestling each other in the school parking lot.” Of course, Mother ended up ruling that David could wear it a full day before we split it, and by then it was a melted mess. But I don't mention that, or the fact that it was one of the last races where we tied. I have always been faster than my larger, younger “brother,” even if only barely.
We chat amiably, if stiffly, during half an hour's run, me slowly increasing the pace to see if I can wind him. But he seems to have whipped himself into great shape over the past weeksâwhich is good, I have to remind myself.
“You nervous about the Bolivian race?” he asks.
“And excited,” I reply. “But it's not like we're going to do well our first international.”
“I know. Dad says our goal should be to finish and that it'll be excellent experience even if we don't. A week in a warm place. It'll be awesome.” He sticks his tongue out to catch flakes of snow.
“It'll be brutal,” I rule, “but interesting.”
We're in sight of our house now. I scan the driveway for Raul's beat-up Chevy, the one his dad crashed into a tree two weeks ago, luckily injuring nothing but the car. Not there. Instead, I see only Dad's midnight blue Jaguar pulling up.
“Mother and Dad are going to the club tonight. Want to join Raul and me for pizza?” I ask, hoping David has other plans.
“Nope, I'm off to the gym,” he says, veering away and waving. “But nice run, bro. See ya later.”
Definitely not a David word.
“Okay, see ya, bro,” I reply with just a hint of sarcasm.
“Andreo. Good run?” Dad asks, walking into the house with stacks of what look like store-wrapped Christmas presents.
“Yup,” I say. “David kept up.”
“Good man,” Dad says, dumping the packages on the marble kitchen counter and pulling a manila envelope out of his coat pocket.
“Guess what I've got,” he says as he strides over to the large Canadian Rockies oil painting that hangs over our new leather living-room sofa set.
“Passports?” I guess.
“Yes, Raul's too, from his parents. And the flight info. Help me with the painting?” I nod and grab the bottom edge of the frame opposite to the one he's gripping, and we slide it on its hidden railings to reveal the family safe. He hesitates as he lifts his hand to the keypad lock. “Make us some coffee, son?”
I knew he'd find a smooth way to make me turn my back as he punched in the keypad buttons. I've never in my life been allowed to see him or Mother opening that safe. Nor, as far as I know, has David.
“Coffee coming up.” I head to the kitchen.
I hear the creak of the safe's door hinges and turn to watch him stash the passports and Bolivia flight information inside. I also see a plastic bag fall out. Dad dives to retrieve it, only to have his foot accidentally send it shooting across the polished hardwood floor. I walk over and pick it up. When I straighten up, I see his hands extended for it, his eyes avoiding mine.
For some strange reason, instead of handing it over, I reach inside the bag. I pull out a hand-knitted baby cap that is a riot of colors. The pinks, greens, yellows and blues are all but psychedelic in brightness. They march around the tiny bonnet in geometric patterns, the wool as soft as I imagine a baby lamb or llama would feel. Fluffy tassels hang from each side, and a multicolored braid trims the edge. I may know nothing about knitting, but I can tell it's the work of someone very skilled. It can have been created only for a baby, and I don't need to search my father's guilty eyes to know my birth mother knitted it for me.
My birth mother: the taboo subject. Is it because it's taboo that I've spent so much of my life wondering about her? Neither of us speaks as the grandfather clock ticks loudly in the corner of the room.
“Mine?” I finally manage to ask.
“I was wearing it when you,
, got me. And you saved it.”
He nods again.
“But you've never shown it to me before.”
Dad looks around as if checking to see that my mother isn't home. “We were going to give it to you one day.”
A thousand questions pour into my mind like they're being fed through a pressurized fire-hydrant hose.
Did you meet her? What did she look like? Why did she give me away? What about my father? What else in the safe is mine? And why is Mother so uptight about me being adopted? Why is sheâthe word occurs to me for the first timeâalmost
But no words spill out. We're still staring at one another as I realize I've pressed the baby hat to my nose. It smells likeÂ â¦Â wool. What did I expect?
Dad's hands lift again to collect it. A mix of tenderness and sympathy has replaced the guilt in his eyes now. Maybe he's flashing back to his first sight of me as a baby, me wearing it. I shake my head vigorously at him and tuck the cap under my arm, furious at myself for the lock on my tongue, yet fearful that one more word out of me will remove the tenderness in his eyes, will shut down any chance of continuing this conversation someday, will irretrievably alter the loving relationship I have with him.
They're the only family you've got. Don't go hurting them
or they might reject you like your last one did
. A version of David's words, accompanied by a crushing fear I didn't know I had within me, squeezes my brain like the onset of a migraine.
I jump as the metal safe clangs shut. So he's going to
let me keep it. Wordlessly, we slide the picture back into place. I jump again as Raul's voice calls out from the kitchen. “Anyone home? I'm starving for pizza.”
As my friend strolls into the living room, Dad grins at Raul innocently. “Just on my way out, Raul. Meeting Pearl at the club.” He pulls his wallet out of his dress-pants pocket and lays two crisp twenty-dollar bills on the kitchen counter: way more than we need.
“You two enjoy your pizza, and we'll see you later. Just two weeks till the adventure race, boys. Bet you can hardly wait.”
Neither Raul nor I moves to touch the money after the back door slams shut. I notice the coffee Dad asked for is dripping. I pick up the phone to order our usual pizza. By the time I click off, my suspicions about the way Raul is looking at me are too strong to ignore.
“How long have you been in the kitchen?”
“Long enough to see what code he punched in.”
I narrow my eyes and glance involuntarily at the picture.
“Nice hat,” he adds. I jam it into my tracksuit pants pocket and refuse to answer.
“It's yours.” He looks out the window behind him to ensure the Jag is gone. “And there's gotta be more stuff in there that's yours,” he says more forcefully as he marches to the picture. “Help me roll back the picture, Andreo. We need whatever else is in there before we hit Bolivia.”
I hesitate, and turn. “It's actually none of your business.” He's got hold of one corner of the picture frame, and he's struggling to slide it.