Episode XV: All Washed Up
Latakia kicked himself. He should have known there was a waterfall. There’s always a waterfall in these kinds of stories, and Latakia was sending them all straight toward it. He tried to atone with humor.
“I guess we’re all…”
“If you make a single bad joke, I’ll rip off your leg and make that my oar.” Asia’s threats always had a way of making Chris shut up, partially because he was afraid, but mostly because he was trying to decide if he might enjoy having his leg ripped off by her.
“Do you see it?!” Jose couldn’t stop screaming at them. “Do you see the Indian? Tell me you see it!”
“We see it! Shut up already!” Rose had his gun drawn, but he was having enough trouble balancing in the boat while aiming without a crazed Mexican bellowing in his ear.
Gylden, having no room in the small canoe to squeeze off a shot past his partner, was sending his light downriver to see what they had gotten themselves into and if they had any chance of avoiding it.
There were five of them in that one small boat, and that was a lot more than there were ever meant to be in it. That fact dawned first on Asia, as she noticed it was getting easier by the stroke to reach down into the water.
“We’re sinking,” she said to whoever was still paying attention.
“We don’t have enough river to sink,” Gylden called from the back.
They all turned, forgetting about the supposedly-extinct Aztec warrior standing back on dry land, to see exactly how far they were from their demise.
It was about 50 feet.
They were a fourth-and-very-long away from a very long drop, and Latakia would have suggested a Hail Mary pass, but he wasn’t very good with sports metaphors. Besides, he was the hero of this story, and it was about time he did something brave, daring and spectacularly brilliant. He pulled out his machete, but his spirit faded as the rope he was trying to attach to it kept slipping off the end, not that he had any idea what he was going to do with it anyway.
“Well, maybe I could… No, but I… What if…” His mutterings went unnoticed by the others, who were trying their own ideas to save them all, or at least to save themselves. It was a mad scramble with a lot of banging elbows with five desperate people spinning in circles, looking for any inspiration in the sinking boat.
Latakia glanced occasionally at his impending doom. At 25 feet out, he couldn’t see the river at the bottom. He went back to his pondering. At 10 feet out, he couldn’t see the river at the bottom. He returned to his pondering with a little more desperation. At five feet out, he still couldn’t see the river at the bottom. Time was up, and he stared until the angle showed him the floor below. It really was a long way down.
They had reached the edge and run out of time. The only tool Latakia had left to use was his gut. He thought he was best when he didn’t think anyway. With gravity about to do it’s thing, he wrapped an arm around Asia on his left and Jose on his right and pushed off, pulling them into the air and away from the boat and the pounding force of the water.
The whole trip down, Asia savored each moment by smacking Latakia hard. She used a lot of profanity too, even words in languages he had never considered. Jose’s were in Spanish, and Chris knew most of those. He hoped they’d all live to forgive him.
As quickly as the edge of the waterfall arrived, the bottom was sure taking its time. Latakia looked back to barely see the boat passing by them in the dim cavern as it entered the waterfall’s spraying mist. It disappeared into the foam before they heard it splinter onto some unseen rocks. Asia smacked Latakia one more time. He opened his mouth to say something smart-assed, but it immediately filled with water.
All the lights were out again, and Latakia was standing firmly on the ground. The only problem is the ground on which he was standing was at least ten feet below the surface of the water. Jose and Asia kicked off hard from the ground and headed for the air. Latakia hesitated for a second to let their kicking feet pass by his head. By the time he broke through, he was sputtering water in all directions. He emptied all the water from his mouth and then opened his eyes. Asia was glaring at him with a face full of water, a second coating of it that Latakia had her with after she’d wiped the first away.
“You spit in my face!” she yelled at him.
“But I saved your life.”
She let out a groaning scream that was as much frustration as anger, but it was all directed at the man she used to love. Water sprayed and splashed everywhere as she flailed at him. Latakia found he wasn’t thirsty by the time she gave up and they climbed ashore, but he was curious if there was anything in this water that deserved his worry.
A buzzing overhead caught their ears, and all three turned their attention toward the cliff from which they had just fallen, with Jose, still seeing Aztec warriors behind his closed eyelids, staying within an easy leap of shelter.
Of course, Asia’s anger from the river a moment earlier would have been more justified now than the fear they felt, as the whir that accompanied Rose and Gylden up the mountain earlier was now following them down the waterfall and landing softly as a feather on either side of the river.
“You mean you could have just carried us all down with you?” Asia screamed.
“You didn’t ask,” Rose said.
Asia marched right up to him. Glared at him for a long second. And just as she looked like she was about to say something…
Rose never saw it coming. He was standing and dry. And then he was falling. And then he was wet.
Gylden laughed until Jose and Latakia were rolling in the dirt, holding their sides. He laughed until Asia laughed. He laughed until Rose reached up and pulled him into the water too.
They were all wet and all laughing and all lying on the dirt like salmon with bad aim, but the moment’s levity was healing a journey’s worth of wounds and scars, the kinds that lie just under the surface. With the temporary joy echoing off the walls, despite the roaring waterfall, their packs felt lighter, their stomachs fuller, their path easier.
Latakia kept laughing in his wet clothes until he reached for his pipe. As he lifted the billiard to his mouth, he felt a dribble of water down his chest and neck and chin.
“Do you think these things are machine washable?” he asked, not expecting an answer.
It’s not like he could have smoked anything anyway. His previously dehydrated Squadron Leader had taken a turn in the opposite direction, with the arrow hole through the tin not keeping a drop of water out, although having it still wrapped in a handkerchief kept most everything except the water outside. Latakia propped the pipe upside down to drain and laid out the tobacco as thinly piled as he could.
Jose, bending a wet cigar of his own, felt the need to sing fall over him, and he opened his mouth to let out whatever was welling inside.
“Well, I pulled out of Pittsburgh, rollin’ down the eastern seaboard.”
Asia rolled her eyes, but he kept singing.
“I got my diesel wound up, and she’s running like never before.”
The soldiers just stared at him, but he took no notice.
“There’s a speed zone ahead a bit, all right; I don’t see a cop in sight.”
Suddenly, his mind drifted back to the Aztecs that had peppered their journey. He imagined them hiding around the next corner, like a police car hidden behind a billboard. His song left him, but luckily Latakia had picked it up.
“Six days on the road and I’m a-gonna make it home…”
The soldiers’ flashlights had been dancing around crevices in the walls of this new cavern, regularly spaced and similarly shaped, almost as if they were planned. At the word home, it struck him.
He finished the song out of obligation, but his voice trailing off drew the others’ attention. They watched as Latakia dripped the river along behind him.
“You two move back,” he called to the soldiers. “Make the beam as wide as possible.”
He could still only see a piece at a time, but the puzzle looked suspiciously like a skyscraper. There were at least a dozen rows of windows going up toward the ceiling and a dozen windows across. A gasp escaped Asia’s lips as she contemplated the implications of this underground, vertical city, but Latakia still favored exploration over deep thought.
He ran from the wall, jumping into and then out of the river, bounding over to the soldiers, grabbing Gylden’s flashlight without a word, and heading immediately back. Before anyone realized what he was doing, Latakia was inside the building. A beam of light escaped on the first floor and disappeared. Then it was on the second floor, the third, the fourth, skipped the fifth to go straight to the sixth, and then vanished as the angle of the building kept them from looking in the windows. The four on the floor stood silently, waiting for an answer to a question they hadn’t bothered to voice. Time became their companion as the moments ticked away, until Jose, stirred by the wait, gave in to his restlessness and started looking for Rose and his flashlight.
“Hey!” a voice cried down from far above them. Latakia turned the flashlight on himself so they could see him. “There’s a few plates and bowls here and there, but these people packed up and left. Hold on, I’ll be down in a minute.”
He was staring straight at his friends, or at least what he thought were his friends in the unsteady glow of a flashlight. With so much distance between them, he couldn’t make out quite what they were doing, but he squinted harder, trying to see better. A small light glowed down on the ground. It could have been a flashlight or a cigarette lighter or a flare, for all Latakia’s depth perception could tell.
Before he could even guess at what was going on, the flame vanished. Latakia returned to his squint only to have his leer met with a brilliant flash of light. He took refuge behind the wall and rubbed his eyes feverishly until the spots disappeared several minutes later. He returned to the window to the Olympic Torch, or at least the Aztec version of it, burning brightly enough to light the whole room. And what a room it was. Besides the skyscraper, Latakia could make out a plumbing system drawing water from the river, several storage buildings, part barn and part silo, and an open building that had to be a food distribution center.
Below, Asia was beaming. After missing the temple for the totems earlier, she had been the one to find the torch and reveal the city. She finally felt like she could have actually been the hero in this story, rather than just a sidekick. She was finally shaking off all the time she spent face-to-face with her books in favor of a less clinical method of study, and she found it suited her well.
Latakia reached the ground, rejoined his friends, and slapped Jose firmly on the back.
“Heck of a find, buddy,” he said, but Jose just shook his head.
“It was me,” Asia spat at him. “I found it. But you wouldn’t know that, because you don’t think I’m smart enough to do this. Maybe I’m not man enough to do this. Maybe…”
“About time you showed up,” Latakia interrupted. “I figured we would have been following you the whole time.”
Asia was pretty sure she should still be mad at him, but she was having trouble switching her motivation, and her anger sputtered.
“So where too,” Latakia asked her, smiling. “You’re the expert.”
She furrowed her brow, thought for a second, and then decided it was time to forget thinking and follow her gut.
“If there’s no treasure here, we need to keep going,” Asia said. “We stick to the river, at least for now. Let’s go.”
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