A NOVELLA by Alison Turner
  1  Filtered
2  Overexposed
3  Aberration
4  Refraction
5  Interpretation
  About the Author  |  echapbook.com  |  July 2014 Fiction Issue

4. Refraction

On her second to last day in Bolivia, Jenny stood 13,000 feet high at the top of what everyone called Death Road. She would bike down a narrow, spooling dirt path that sometimes edged over 1,800-foot drops. She hated heights, but according to every other tourist in Bolivia, Death Road was something you had to do. It was like getting your passport stamped.

She had been keeping her eye out for her brother, Dane, who could be up there with another group. He was likely in La Paz already, since they had planned to meet the next night, and it would be as impossible for him to miss the ads as it would be for him to resist the ride. She had sent him an email two days ago to see if he wanted to meet up earlier than planned; If not, she wrote, see you at Travelers Casa. He responded the next evening with Sounds good, see you there! She couldn’t interpret his reply. She wondered what he thought about her wanting to travel without him, and if he would ever tell her.

“Okay, everyone, please, are we ready for the last day of your life?” Jenny’s guide called out. “Just joking, I am joking!” Biking down Death Road required registration with one of many tourist agencies, none of which offered a bike ride, but rather packages including breakfast, transportation, a guide, the rental of safety gear and bike, lunch, a t-shirt boasting of your accomplishment, and a photo DVD of you and your group having the best day of your life. Jenny’s guide was short and muscular with closely cut hair and had asked that everyone call him El Capitán. They were a group of ten: three couples within a decade of Jenny’s age (two Japanese and one German), three Bolivian twelve year-olds, and Jenny.

Half a dozen vans parked in front of theirs, and Jenny saw just as many groups gathered around other guides. Everyone wore the requisite helmet, elbow, wrist, and knee guards, and a jersey advertising the various tour companies. The smallest of the three Bolivian boys in her group was too little for the gear, so that the strappy plastic flapped around his joints like feathers and his jersey bagged like a dress. Their group’s jersey was faded orange with the words I Survived Death Road. It was what their t-shirts would look like after the ride, in cotton.

 “Okay, guys, maybe you know how people have accidents on Death Road,” El Capitán said. The number Jenny had heard most often was 18 cyclists dead since the road opened to tourism in 1998. Even the ride up from La Paz in the van was considered one of the world’s most dangerous. It was built in the 1930s by Paraguayan prisoners, and wooden crosses spiked the edges like a fragmented spine.

The guide grabbed his opposite forearm with each hand and squeezed his muscles. “But guys,” he said, ”No one has ever died with me.”

She’d also heard the road had been named after eight Israelis who went over the edge in a vehicle in 1999. It reminded Jenny of the Peruvians and Japanese at Salar de Uyuni. If so many people vanished in a group, how many wandered or fell away by themselves?

“It is my promise to you that if you do exactly what I say, nothing can go wrong.” El Capitán was saying.

Jenny took a full breath, hearing her yoga instructor count in, two, three. The air was noticeably cleaner than in La Paz, where she had woken up breathing a dull-gray.

“Are you scared, Senorita?” El Capitán asked Jenny. He put his hand on her shoulder, and she wondered if he could feel how cold her body had become, even through the fleece she had zipped over the jersey and elbow pads.

“It’s beautiful here,” she said, and unzipped her backpack pretending to look for something. The guide moved his hand to his own shoulder and massaged a muscle, then turned to the boys and spoke to them in Spanish. The larger two laughed and jiggled the loose helmet of the smallest, whose face was pale. Jenny pictured him falling, his baggy gear ratcheting like broken wings. That morning in La Paz, the woman who dropped him off with the tour wore a business suit and kissed him on both cheeks.

“Okay, now everybody stand close and say I am alive!” El Capitán said, pointing a camera towards them. It clicked before anyone finished the last word.

“Ciao amigos!” The driver said, and accelerated on to the dirt road, leaving them alone at the top of the mountain. The agencies had advertised the roads as ”bikers only,” but now it was clear that excepted each group’s van. This punctured some of the romance for Jenny, but also convinced her that the trail would never be narrow as a balance beam, an image she had conjured in her head on the drive up.

She stepped closer to the edge of the road, letting the group’s chatter soften behind her. A cliff dropped until another loop of the road, thin and red, with white specks of movement that could only be tourist vans. It was so far away that it seemed to waver, as if what a road looked like changed across so much distance. Dane could be down there, hollering and laughing and surviving.

“Vamos!” El Capitán called. ”Everybody say Adios! I’m joking, only joking. Do not forget, please, single line, one behind another.”

The two large boys pushed off on the guide’s tail. The way the bikes were arranged meant that Jenny should have gone next, but when she saw that the smaller boy didn’t follow she pulled back.

The three couples pedaled away, and Jenny and the boy stood still, watching the line grow farther and longer. Because of the identical gear, she could only tell the couples apart from the back by the women’s hair falling out of their helmets: one black ponytail, one thick brown braid, and a nest of black wisps from the woman with a bob.

 Jenny smiled at him, and said ”Go ahead.”

He looked at the ground and his helmet flopped over his forehead. He waddled with the bike between his legs, then got onto the seat. Jenny waited for him to straighten his tires and pick up speed, then stayed twenty feet behind, directly in line with his wheels. The others followed a line farther to the left, closer to the solid rock wall with the soft cover of vines and plants.

Vans went down this road, Jenny thought. Skinny bike tires should have plenty of room from the drop off. If only the kid rode closer to the wall.

She wanted to see his face, but worried that if she came up on him he’d spook and jerk over the edge. He was about to go around a corner, and then the line of sight between them was severed by a rock wall.

 A loud, brassy honk came from behind and a white van rumbled past her so fast that she couldn’t finish reading the green logo on the side: Dying something Road. The driver didn’t know there was a boy up there, on the right instead of the left, just around the corner. She stood with the bike between her legs and whipped both arms as hard as she could, yelling ”Slow! Un chico! Stop!” Dust buried the van before she saw it turn.

Her stomach clenched and cold flooded through her and the sweat from before felt like frost on her temples and under her arms. She heard honks ahead and then nothing. Why do people do these things, she thought, when they could be at home with their worried mothers. They could be at lunch with insouciant brothers.

She stared at the empty air before the turn and the time felt long and irresponsible, as if she were waiting for all of this to go away. She stood up straight, and pedaled.

The van parked slant-wise across the curve, slashing the road in two. She got off the bike and pushed it to the safe side of the van. Now she could read the full logo in green: Dying to Try Death Road. The driver’s door hung open like a broken part and when she pushed around the front of the hood she saw a man, the driver, with the same slogan across his back, looking over the cliff, and the abysmal space below tilted over the safe, hard wall on the other side of the road. She had to throw up.

She let her bike fall on the road. Heat swirled from her brain into her face and she closed her eyes to let it correct. She put one hand on the rock wall; it was slimy and soft and when she opened her eyes it was covered in pale green leaves that shook like a mirage. Then tea and bread and membrillo jelly came up and out.

“Señora?” a voice said.

She spat, and swallowed acrid remainder. The driver spoke again, looking at the van as if he were talking to it. A head popped up from behind the hood, a head of a boy so short that Jenny could see only his eyes and a round forehead out of a helmet slid back like a melting scoop of ice cream. The boy spoke back to the driver and as he came closer Jenny saw that he had a white bandage held sloppily over his left knee, and a thin line of blood pasted down his leg. She wanted to hug him.

She turned back to the wall and took off her bag, careful not to look at the ground. She must have brought gum.

“Señora, it is time to go to your group, more will come,” the driver said. He sat in his van with the door still open. “You and him are in the group with Luis, no? With big,” he said, and pretended to grab giant biceps.

“Yes,” she said, and laughed despite the burning in her chest. She looked at the boy, who straddled his bike and faced down the road.

“If you are scared you can get in here,” the driver said. “It is no problem.”

“No, I’m fine,” she said. She bit into the gum and felt the mint coat her mouth. She put her arm through the last strap of her backpack and said, “Todo bien?” to the boy, pointing to his leg.

“Si!” he said, and smiled larger than he’d done all day. One of his front teeth was shorter than the other, and crooked, probably how Dane’s teeth would look if he hadn’t had braces. When she thought of what she’d done, demanding to travel apart from her brother, she felt the same drop in her chest as when the van honked around the corner and she couldn’t see the boy. What if the trip in Bolivia pushed Dane and her as far away as these cliffs dropped; what if all that space made them blurry, wavering strangers.

The boy pedaled fast, and in a few moments she heard honking from behind and moved to the left just before the boy ahead of her did the same. When the van passed, a skinny hand hailed out the window and flicked twice.

Thirty yards ahead, their group in orange scattered like dropped paint on the road. Someone waved when Jenny and the boy got close, and the orange patches condensed and moved ahead. They must have been waiting. The boy pumped hard and re-aligned with his friends. The steepest part was behind them, and bikers swerved from one side of the road to the other or rode without hands. Jenny lingered slow and calm in the back, alone. She missed having the kid to follow.

When the ride was over, Jenny sat against a rock with her knees pulled to her chest while the group waded in a river. They waited for lunch, and she watched bushes and plants move from hidden animals.

 “So lucky,” El Capitan said. He examined the leaves of a plant near where she sat. “Look, come see,” he said, waving her up. She obeyed, and stood on the other side of the plant from him. It was taller than she was, and had leaves thin enough to see their veins. They splayed upwards and out, as if asking for sun. El Capitan bent a leaf down from its stem until it snapped. He broke off another leaf, put it in his mouth, and sifted through the branches. “Everyone must try coca,” he said, handing her one.

Jenny pushed her gum into its wrapper and held the plant in her hand. It could fix her nausea and the headache that would come. Maybe it would help her make sense of the trip. She put the leaf in her mouth delicately, like testing to see if cheese had gone bad. She chewed and it tasted as it had smelled from so many people all week, like heat and hay and dirt. It warmed her mouth with the flavor of the sun on a wooden fence and the dryness of brown grass. Dane must have done Death Road. She wondered what his t-shirt said. She would get a size L for him, I Survived Death Road, in orange. Seeing him wear it would be like both of them understanding what happened.

  © Alison Turner, 2014

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