WE WERE THE ONLY AMERICANS ON THE BUS as it wound along the dirt road under the waterfalls. The windows were open and when the water hit the roof it made a loud drumming and some of it splashed inside. I was sitting by the window and my jeans were getting wet. Kelly sat next to me but we hadn’t spoken since leaving the jungle village to head back toward Baños.
“Are you okay?” I asked, knowing that she wasn’t.
She said nothing and just kept looking out the opposite window at the mist-covered green hills that rose on either side of the narrow river.
I sighed. “I told you that I’m sorry about what I said before.”
She blew bitterly from her lips. “Yeah, sure you are.”
We hadn’t seen any other vehicles since leaving the jungle so I was surprised when the bus suddenly stopped as it came around a curve. Ahead of us all I could see was the back of another bus.
“What’s going on?” she said. “A traffic jam, out here?”
The other passengers started talking in quiet voices. In front of us sat a short woman in an Andean fedora, red and made of rough wool. She wore a brown poncho and was traveling with two small children who had been asleep until the bus stopped. One of them, a girl, woke and peered at me through cloudy brown eyes. Kelly looked at her with a sad smile.
Ten minutes later the buses still hadn’t moved. We heard voices outside. The driver opened the door and got out to look. I followed him.
Stepping around the front of the bus I saw several others in front of ours, all at a standstill on the muddy road. People, mostly men, milled about talking to one another. I walked past the line of buses and the concerned faces in the windows.
Ahead of the first bus I saw the pile of rocks. Hundreds of gray, pumpkin-size boulders were heaped across the width of the road, ten feet high. From the hillside on the right rocks continued to fall; I heard a grinding noise and looked up to see a man operating an earthmover above us, sending boulders tumbling down the slope. They hit the pile with loud cracking sounds, crashing and scattering before coming to rest on the top and sides of the growing mound. To the left of the road a cliff dropped another hundred feet to the river. Some of the falling rocks ricocheted off the pile and flew down toward the water.
I turned and saw Kelly approach me with an anxious face. “What the hell is going on?” she said.
“I think they’re planning to rob everyone in the buses.”
Fear shocked her blue eyes. Another boulder hit the pile and we jumped back.
“I don’t see anyone else here but the passengers and drivers,” she said.
“Other men will come soon.”
“Oh, Christ, Dave, what are we going to do?”
The sun dipped lower in the sky, nearly touching the ridge of the mountains.
“We shouldn’t wait around to be robbed,” I told her. “God knows what else might happen. We could be here all night.”
“Well, what choice do we have?” she said, her arms akimbo. She always expressed fear as anger.
“Let’s go back to the bus, get our backpacks, and climb over the rocks to the other side.”
Her eyes swelled with alarm. “Climb over the rocks? They’re not stable, Dave! They could start rolling again while we’re on top of them. And we’re still another hour from Baños, anyway!”
“Like you said, what choice do we have?”
I turned and started back toward the bus. I heard her footfalls on the damp earth behind me.
A few minutes later we returned to the base of the rockpile with our backpacks. The man in the earthmover continued scooping up boulders and dropping them down the hill, raising dust as they pounded the dirt slope. I looked up at him and whistled, waving my hand. He saw me and stopped. I pointed at the rocks and pantomimed a climbing motion. He nodded his head and held up his hand.
“C’mon. Let’s do this.”
I stepped onto the first rock and fell forward, feeling the sharp edges against my palms and knees as I started to climb on all fours. One of the boulders shifted beneath me. My heart jumped. Without realizing it I began to move up the pile to the right, instead of going straight across. I looked back at Kelly and saw her coming behind me. We were the only ones attempting the climb. The Ecuadorans stared at us in amazement. I tried to block the thoughts but they rushed through my mind anyway—the rocks moving under my weight, pushing me into a hole and crushing me; a rolling boulder bashing Kelly in the head, knocking her down the cliff and into the ravine.
“Why aren’t you moving?” she shouted.
I started crawling over the rocks again. At the top I crouched and then moved sideways down the other side, slipping a little and scraping my leg. But I’d made it. I stood and brushed myself off.
From behind me I heard rocks sliding and smacking together and then Kelly screaming. I looked back and couldn’t see her, just the top of the pile.
The road ahead was wide open. I walked for a while and then hitchhiked back to the town.
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Gregory W. Beaubien’s debut novel is the critically acclaimed psychological thriller
Shadows the Sizes of Cities