The Next One to Fall
By Hilary Davidson
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2012 Hilary Davidson
All rights reserved.
Standing at the edge of the mountain, I imagined what it would feel like to let go. There were thousands of feet between me and the valley of the winding Urubamba River. It was lush and green and oddly inviting. I stared down, feeling an exhilarating combination of anticipation and trepidation tugging at me.
"Say cheese, Tiger Lily."
The voice shoved my dark thoughts aside. "Not another photo." I looked at Jesse. "This is my fourth day in these clothes."
"It's only day two for that shirt. I'm pretty sure you changed yesterday." Jesse tousled my hair. "You're always so glamorous. It's kinda fun to see you roughin' it. Like Ava Gardner in Mogambo — you know, the scene where she tries to feed the baby elephant and gets mud all over her? That's so cute."
For a split second, I pictured the scene, and it almost made me smile. But the memory faded almost instantly, as if it were a relic of another life. I went back to studying the valley. "How high up are we?"
"Eight thousand feet. You breathin' okay, Lil?"
"Not bad. It's easier here than it was in Cusco." I didn't add that I'd felt like death in Cusco. For the past three months, I'd barely slept, unless I knocked myself out with sleeping pills. In Cusco, even the pills hadn't worked. The combination of thin Andean air and shallow breathing left my lungs starving for oxygen, and my body's panicked self-preservation mechanism kicked in every time I lost consciousness. A terrifying jolt of adrenaline would shock me awake, leaving me gasping and bolt upright in bed, as if I'd had a nightmare, though I rarely slept long enough, or deeply enough, for dreams anymore.
"That's 'cause Cusco is over eleven thousand feet above sea level," Jesse said. "We started at the top."
When we arrived in Peru, we'd headed straight to Cusco, the ancient Inca capital, and we'd started hiking the Inca Trail with a group the next day. It had sounded like an exciting plan when Jesse suggested it on the phone. In reality, I'd overestimated my abilities and my resilience. Now that we'd completed the four-day hike, all I could say for the Inca Trail was that it had worn me down to the point where I didn't care to see another moss-covered ruin again. I was so weary, it would only take the slightest gust of wind to knock me over and down and out for good. I wouldn't have cared.
"Hey! You payin' attention to any of this?" Jesse asked suddenly.
"Any of what?"
"That's what I thought! Here I am, tryin' to get you up to speed on Inca architecture, and you're starin' down there like a big magnet's pullin' you in."
"You should go back to the group. I'm such bad company right now." Not sleeping had left me dwelling permanently in twilight, and I couldn't shake myself out of it.
"I'm sorry, Lil. I'm just blabbin'. I know you're not yourself, for plenty of reasons." He didn't mention the obvious one, that my sister's funeral had taken place in January, three months and two days earlier. Instead, he cleared his throat. "I'm to blame for draggin' you here. Thought it would be good for us to spend time together, and to travel. Hell, I thought you'd be writin' stories and I'd be takin' photos to go with 'em. But I rushed you into this trip."
"No you didn't. I wanted to come." I couldn't remember why I'd agreed to do it. Jesse had talked me into it, of that I was certain. My friend could be very persuasive. He'd gone on about how the trip to Peru would pay for itself with work assignments for both of us — me as a writer and Jesse as a photographer — and that was probably true. But the real reason I'd agreed to the trip was that I had nowhere else I wanted to be. After Claudia's funeral, I'd drifted around New York, my hometown, in a daze. Then I'd returned to Spain, where I'd been living for the past year. My Barcelona apartment seemed hopelessly empty — even though I'd already been living there alone — and I felt like an inept ghost stumbling through it and bumping into walls. It had been a relief to go along with Jesse's plan. But I was just as miserable in Peru as I was everywhere else. The awful part was that now I was dragging Jesse down into quicksand with me.
"That's my girl." He put his arm around me, and I rested my head on his shoulder. For a minute, we were both quiet. "You hear that?" Jesse asked.
Straining my ears, I could hear a man speaking English with a local accent. "Now, I will tell you of Emperor Pachacutec, who built Machu Picchu. Did you know conquistadors never discovered the site? Everything is exactly as the emperor left it."
"That's Diego, isn't it?" I said.
"Yeah. Let's just hope he doesn't figure out we went AWOL and skipped out on his group."
Diego had been our guide through our four-day hike along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. He was a sweet man, but he had an unfortunate tendency to make everyone stand in place for an hour at a time while he described the history of a site and the mythology and folklore around it. I got more than enough of that from Jesse.
"He'll be upset when he finds out we're gone."
"But by then, we'll have had the fun of exploring Machu Picchu while it's almost empty," Jesse answered. "Those trainloads of tourists won't start arrivin' for an hour. We got the run of the most beautiful sight on earth. C'mon. Let's get a good head start on everybody else. So long, suckers."
He led me away from the ledge. My waterlogged hiking boots squished every time I put a foot down on the stones of the winding pathway. It had poured every day since we'd flown in to Cusco — no surprise, given that it was rainy season in the Andes. But now the sun had burned off the layers of mist and fog that had shrouded Machu Picchu as we'd hiked in through the Sun Gate. We didn't speak for what felt like ages, and then Jesse said, "It's gonna take Diego and everybody else a donkey's age to catch up with us here."
"Where ..." I started to ask, but the question died on my lips. As we'd walked, I'd kept my eyes on the stone pathway, still slick with rainwater. Now that I lifted my eyes, I was breathless again. We were standing on the edge of the Inca city. On our left was a wall of perfectly fitted stone; below us, on my right, were endless layers of terraces, which resembled tiers of an epic cake. Ahead, there were more Inca walls, with triangular stone buildings perched atop them, row after tidy row. In the near distance, I could see another mountain, thin gray fog covering its peak like a veil.
"It's beautiful," I whispered.
"Told you it'd all be worth it, didn't I?" Jesse surveyed the city with satisfaction. "We have it all to ourselves for a little while."
He spoke too soon. A man's voice swept by us, faint but angry. "You lied to me."
"How dare you judge me!" The woman's voice was shrill.
"I was trying to help you."
"Leave me alone! I wish I'd never come back."
Jesse rolled his eyes. "Apparently there's no such thing as peace and quiet 'round here anymore."
"Paradise lost?" I tried to smile. "Was it ever really as good as you remember?"
"First time I came here, we were still in college. I'd never seen anyplace so beautiful. I love the mythology of it, too. How the Spanish looked for it but never found it. How Hiram Bingham was led here by farmers in 1911. Wish I could've seen it then." Jesse squinted, as if imagining the stones overgrown with vegetation. "You know we're standing in an earthquake zone, right? This has been here for five centuries. Nobody can figure how the Incas built the walls, how they made them so perfect." Jesse ran his hand over the stone wall. "You're touching what they made, not a reconstruction of it."
I touched the wall, surprised that it wasn't flat. The Incas hadn't shaved the stones to make them even, and looking at the differently sized and shaped pieces, I couldn't figure out what held them together.
"There's no mortar," Jesse added, as if reading my mind. "I'm not kiddin' about nobody today understanding how they put this together. It's like the biggest jigsaw puzzle on earth."
When I looked at the panorama of the city on the mountaintop, all I could think was how much I wished Claudia could have seen it. My sister had never cared much for travel, and she'd mocked me for flitting from place to place, but this would have impressed even her. My chest constricted when I thought of her, to the point where it sometimes became hard to breathe. It was as if her memory could strangle my heart. Then I heard a short, sharp shriek and felt a jolt of adrenaline crackling through me with the force of electricity.
"Did you hear that?" I asked Jesse.
"Sure did. C'mon, it was from this direction, I think."
We followed the stone path and heard another scream. Both of us rushed to the top of a steep staircase. At the bottom, completely still on the stone landing, was a woman's crumpled body.
Jesse ran down the steps and I followed him, almost tripping on a silver cylinder. There was nothing to grab to steady myself but the wall. Taking a deep, shuddering breath, I looked down and saw that Jesse had almost reached the woman. There was a noise behind me and I turned my head, catching sight of a man at the top of the staircase. His head was covered by a woolly Andean cap with ear flaps and pompoms. He was pale, and his chin had an unruly overgrowth of black beard. In the split second he was there, our eyes met, and then he ran.
"Lily!" Jesse called. I continued down the steps, holding the wall for support. As I got closer, the woman came into focus. Her long red hair cascaded over the cold, wet stone. She was wearing a black satin raincoat and black trousers, but only one foot had a shoe, a black patent wedge heel. The other must have gone over the side of the mountain. Her eyes opened suddenly, shocking me and making me hug the wall even closer. For a moment, I'd thought she was dead, but Jesse was saying, "You're gonna be okay," to her, over and over. Her lips were painted bright red, and they were moving, muttering words I couldn't make out. She was alive, but her skin had a grayish pallor, as if the color of the surrounding stones were seeping into her, and she pressed one hand against her chest.
"I gotta get help," Jesse said. "You stay with her, Lil."
"Please," the woman moaned. "Don't leave me."
My heart trembled. I didn't want to stay with a woman who looked as if she were about to die. "I'll get help," I said.
"You'll get lost, Lil. You stay here, keep her conscious." Jesse ran up the steps, his long legs taking them two at a time. At the top he vanished around the corner without a backward glance.
"Is this what a heart attack feels like?" the woman whispered. "Am I going to die?"
"Just hold on. Jesse's getting help. You're going to be fine."
"He made me drink something. At first, I didn't think it was doing anything but then ..." She closed her eyes and her head drooped to the side.
"No! Stay awake!" I yelled.
Her eyes opened wide, as if I'd startled her. She stared, as if seeing me for the first time. "Who are you?"
"Lily." I knelt beside her. "What's your name?"
"Trista. Are you really here?"
I looked her over. She was about my height, with long, wavy hair dyed a dark burgundy red. Her body was skinny, even bony, suggesting that her prominent breasts, jutting like twin peaks through a thin T-shirt, might be as fake as her hair color. She could have been my age, thirty, or a little older. "What are you on?" I asked her. "Some kind of drug?"
"Go away." Her eyelids fluttered and shut.
I grabbed her hand and her shoulder, gently shaking both. "You need to stay awake, Trista." Her hand was sticky, and when I looked at it, I saw my own was now red with blood.
"What happened to you?" I tried not to panic. How badly hurt was she? I turned her hand and saw a gash in her palm. There was blood on her wrist, too. I tugged up the sleeve of her black raincoat to see the damage. The red was just a smear that must have come from her hand, but I noticed something else that made me catch my breath.
Track marks. The telltale trail of the junkie ran from her wrist into the crook of her elbow. They didn't look new, but they weren't that old, either. I knew, from long experience with my sister, exactly what scars they left behind, and that some of them never healed.
"What are you on right now?" I asked.
That was obviously a lie. I pulled back a little but she grabbed my wrist, as if suddenly alarmed I really might leave.
"Where's Len?" she whispered. Her nails dug into my wrist.
"Who's Len?" She didn't respond. "Was he the man you were fighting with?" With no one else around, I assumed that this woman was one half of the pair that had been fighting minutes earlier.
Her grip on me tightened. "You heard us fight?" Her eyes were open now, intense and lucid and fixed on mine. She was breathing hard. "What did you hear?"
I'd thought she was out of it, tripping on some drug, but suddenly she seemed wild and predatory, and I wished I'd kept my mouth shut. "He said you lied to him, and you said you wished you'd never come back," I admitted.
"That's it. My friend and I were talking ..." My voice petered out as I watched her face. Her tongue was flicking at the corners of her mouth and her eyes were on the sky.
"Bastard. This is all his fault. He hates me." Her eyes were pale blue, and they seemed watery, as if she were about to cry. But she didn't; she blinked and took a few deep breaths as if girding herself up for something terrible. She grimaced and her eyes took on the hardness of flat stones. For a split second, I was less afraid for her than I was of her. "Doesn't matter. I hate him, too." She gritted her teeth as she spoke.
She was coherent and responsive, I had to keep her talking, but I didn't want to upset her any further. "There was a man at the top of the stairs. He had a Peruvian hat — the kind with the pompoms — and a black beard. Is that him?"
"Yes." Her breathing was ragged, and she let go of my wrist and pressed her hand to her chest again. "This is his way of getting rid of me."
"Rid of you?"
"Always knew I'd die young, but I didn't think it would end like this." She closed her eyes, but she wasn't drifting into unconsciousness. Her face contorted; she was obviously in pain.
"You're going to be okay, Trista. My friend went to get help. He'll be back any minute."
"I can't believe I was ever in love with that bastard. I threw away the best years of my life on him. But don't worry, I'm getting even." Her eyes opened and stared into mine with an urgency that both drew me in and made me want to back away. "Listen to me. Len made me drink something that made me sick. Then he pushed me down the stairs. Tell the police. Promise me."
"If you can't, I will. I promise."
"Don't let him get away with what he's done. If he didn't have daddy's money, Len would be in jail right now. But the money makes him untouchable."
I touched her cheek and the heat of her skin scorched my fingertips. Whether it was from a drug or a fever, she seemed to be burning up, and I could feel the pounding of her rapid heartbeat drumming through her.
"He's already crazy, so it wasn't hard to make him crazier."
Her eyes bulged and her mouth was open as she gasped. Whatever thin oxygen there was at this altitude wasn't enough for her lungs. She desperately needed help. "Maybe you should just rest right now."
Her head moved from side to side. "Do you hear the snakes?"
"The hissing." Her glassy eyes floated to my face again. She was raving now, mentally moving away from me and the mountain and — I hoped — the pain she was in. As long as she kept talking, there was hope. The risk with a concussion — which she had to have — was passing out and never waking up.
"I don't hear them," I said.
"Len said there'd be snakes," she said, panting. "He abandoned me before. After everything I did for him. Then he crawled back, just like Tina said he would."
She was getting agitated again. "I can hear people coming, Trista." There were footsteps, and the rumble of a voice, though still too far away to be distinct. "You're going to be fine."
"No I'm not." Her face twisted. "I'm going to die here."
"You'll be fine, Trista. I promise!" I was desperate to believe it myself. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Next One to Fall by Hilary Davidson. Copyright © 2012 Hilary Davidson. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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