The Lost One (p. 1)
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Only two of the twenty or so passengers on the truck had thought to bring umbrellas, and Alfonso Arriaga Elvir was not one of them. He had brought nearly everything he owned, stuffed in a large coarse-woven backpack, but he had no umbrella. Normally, he only ventured outside in the rain to work, and hauling plywood and bricks for the squatter homes that made up the pueblos jóvenes around Huancavelica did not leave a hand free to ward off the rain.
Many of the passengers, though, had some sort of woolen poncho to offer a little protection from the drizzle. Most of these had gotten on after the truck left Huancavelica, waiting by the road where it passed their farms to pay the driver and climb aboard in grim silence. Elvir guessed that they were simply making routine trips to the city for provisions, as most carried only the sacks of potatoes or wool that they would sell to the wholesale market, which then supplied the street vendors and legitimate stores. Though Elvir had never lived outside of Huancavelica except for his brief tour of duty in the Titicaca War, he was certain that such trips had grown more and more frequent. The cities were the only places to obtain the fertilizers necessary for the fanners to neutralize the growing deposits of toxins in the soil, or the filters and chemicals necessary to clean the mountain streams.
Of course, despite the indications of the truck's demography, there was hardly anyone left in the rural highlands, Nearly all Peruvians had seen the sense -or the necessity -of leaving behind crippled, money-draining fanns for the hope of success associated with in urban life. Not that this was very much hope. Elvir and his three siblings had been born to an established, though hand-to-mouth poor, street vendor in one of the pueblos jóvenes that huddled around the rich center of the city like hungry men crowding in around a cookfire, its food tempting but too hot to touch Of all the children in his family, only Elvir's brother had risen above the subsistence-levellife of their parents, finding work as a mechanic fixing the trucks-for-hire and buses that crawled through the larger streets.
The truck hit a large stone, knocking Elvir sideways onto a knee that almost gave out. He straightened back up, thinking about the bitter irony in the fact that his gravest physical wound from the Titicaca War had come, in the midst of all the horrors of the ill-fated campaign, from something as trivial and irrelevant as a Bolivian soldier's bullet. Elvir took a sip from a small, and rather expensive (as nearly everything was), plastic bottle of purified water. The sound of the truck's mufflerless engine, shouting out its presence to the tan and gray mountains that it and its kind had ruined, stimulated a thirst reaction developed in the war. He recalled sitting on the salt-encrusted slopes that had once been bathed by the waters of Lake Titicaca, waiting for the trucks to come from Puno with purified water, while around him soldiers flopped like fish stranded by the lake's retreat, spasming themselves to the blue-lipped death that usually came from drinking from the streams that still tried to feed the lake.
Elvir recapped the bottle, saving some against the higher prices that would likely be mandated by Lima's larger population and longer tradition of profit-conscious industry. Tired of studying the wrinkles which had graced his fellow passengers' faces since they got on, he turned to the mountains that lifted the road up toward the high pass. This high in the mountains, where the city smog was thinner and there was less slope above to pass along acid runoff, he could make out swaths of brown grass and the occasional black skeleton hand of a tree.
Elvir wondered if the pass ahead was the last one before Lima. He could ask the driver, who would certainly know after making this trip once a week for years. However, the noise of the engine and Elvir's position next to the tailgate made that impossible. None of the other passengers looked inclined to talk, even if they had looked up at the terrain on some past occaision to note the landmarks of the trip.
Remembering suddenly, he grabbed a creased and beaten-comered brochure from his pocket. He unfolded it, adding more fingerprints to those already embedded in the glossy finish. On the front was a huge sign that Elvir knew signified money. Then there was a slogan -- "Prosperidad, seguridad, libertad" -- Prosperity, security, and freedom. Then there was a stylized sketch of a rocket of some sort, apparently meant to be one of the ships scheduled to take passengers from the Earth to the Colony, somewhere out among the stars. And finally, there was the logo of the American-based Johnson-Stutz Resources Development Co., a diamond and a leaf ringed by the company's name.
EIvir flipped the brochure over . He had had it read to him numerous times, after Johnson-Stutz Resources Development Co. had begun advertising the jobs that would be available on the new, clean world discovered some years ago by the Americans. On the back of the brochure was a map of southern Peru, with an inset of the Lima street plan, showing the major roads that could bring one to Lima and the ship that would bear him away to a new life and a steady employment in the Colony. EIvir tried to recognize the minute curves of the mapped road, to identify them with the sharp bends and switchbacks that the truck had traversed. He soon gave up and shoved the map back in his pocket. He would surely make it on time, regardless of how much more of the journey remained. The ship wouldn't leave for four more days.
Elvir felt a tug at his pack. Spinning around, he saw a boy in his early teens standing behind him With one hand, Elvir groped at his pack, ascertaining that he still had the wallet of money left to him by his brother when the Epidemic wiped out half the population of Huancavelica during Elvir's military service. That money was far more than Elvir, working spot construction jobs and loading produce trucks, had ever had at once, and many times more than any ammount that he had ever been able to save for more than a day. It was going to buy him his ticket to the Colony, to the possibility of building himself a new life.
"What?" sneered the boy, noting Elvir's suspicious gaze.
"Nothing ...," Elvir replied slowly. The boy must have jostled against him as the truck jounced down the road.
"What, you think I was trying to take something?"
Elvir scowled, that having been exactly what he really thought. "No ...," He groped for a better explanation. "I just don't like you bumping into me. Move back."
"Fine." The boy took a token step in the direction of the cab.
Elvir clamped his lips tight. As his wallet was still there and thus he couldn't really accuse the boy outright, he just turned away. He heard a disgusted noise from the boy.
There was another tug at the pack. Elvir turned around again, this time slamming his good knee against the tailgate. Muttering under his breath, he clutched at it as he looked for the boy. He was still there, regarding Elvir with narrowed eyes and a sneering grin. Elvir glared, irritated by the pain of hitting his knee the wrong way.
The truck hit another large stone. Elvir's previously injured knee gave out, pitching him toward the tailgate. Removing his hands from his other knee, he just managed to catch himself, grabbing tightly to the rain-slick metal and keeping one leg barely hooked over the railing.
"Give me a ...," he called to the boy, hooking one elbow over the gate so that he could extend his palm, while groping with his loose foot for the bumper.
"Say you're sorry," replied the boy, making no move to help.
"What?" replied Elvir. Sorry for looking at you when it felt like you were stealing my wallet? Several of the other passengers looked on with interest. This was one more confirmation of why Elvir put little stock in the help of others. He tried to heave himself back into the truck bed. Unfortunately, this succeeded mostly in jostling his heavy pack hard against his shoulders, dislodging one arm and loosening the other hand's grip. The truck's jostling seemed determined to keep him hanging onto the tailgate all the way to Lima. Finding a new handhold, he decided to lower his raised foot to the bumper. He unhooked his ankle. At that moment the truck struck yet another rock, causing is knee to reject the weight he had tentatively applied to it. No longer able to retain his hold on the slippery tailgate, Elvir let himself drop to the cracked pavement of the Huancavelica-Lima road.
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