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The Death Zone – Chapter 11.8

Tommy had also risen early that morning, intent on catching Brig before he reached Everest. When he had arrived at the hotel the evening before, he could barely see straight from the pain in his head. He would have liked to have arranged for a driver then, but it was all he could do just to get himself checked in. But as he got out of bed, the first thing he noticed was the absence of pain. He moved his head back and forth, and side to side, and was delighted to feel nothing. It was going to be a great day, Tommy decided.

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At 5 a.m. the hotel lobby was deserted. Even the hotel’s front desk stood vacant. Tommy yelled out for service. A moment later, a young man with bed head and sleep in his eyes stood up from behind the desk. Service was still hit or miss in this part of China, but Tommy knew how to get the young man’s attention. Before a word was said, Tommy laid  ¥1000 yuan down in front of the boy.

“I need somebody to drive me to Everest Base Camp.”

The young man stared at the money, trying to wake up and make sense of his good fortune. He wasn’t entirely sure that this wasn’t a dream. “Okay,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “But it’s early and….”

Before the boy could tell him how long it would take, Tommy had placed another ¥1000 yuan down on the desk.

“And I need him here in an hour.”

The boy smiled widely, nodded that he understood, and began to collect the cash. Tommy quickly and forcefully placed his left hand over the money. Gauze covered the stump of his severed finger.

“When you get me the driver. One hour.”

Seventy-three minutes later, the young man ran into the lobby from outside the hotel looking cold but happy and announced that Tommy’s driver had arrived. Looking at his watch, then back at the boy, he made sure that the boy noticed his gesture. Tommy stood and withdrew the ¥2000 renminbi from his pocket, holding it out in front, between him and the boy. He counted out nineteen of the bills and put them back into his pocket, handing the boy the remaining ¥100 bill.

“He’s late.”

The boy’s face fell realizing that he would have to postpone his plans for early retirement. ¥100 renminbi was still a lot of money to the young boy, Tommy reasoned, and it would be a good lesson for him.

“You’re welcome.”

The boy wasn’t pleased, said something angry in the local dialect, and ran back out the lobby doors. Tommy followed. Exiting the hotel Tommy’s senses were attacked by extremes. It was bitter cold. The exhaust from his idling ride was being blown directly in his direction. The storm had already dumped several inches of snow on Shigatse and was still falling. The bright yellow truck stood out starkly against the white background. The boy, standing in front of the vehicle was speaking animatedly to a short, balding man that Tommy assumed was the truck’s driver. Tommy walked over to the pair. The young boy seethed and pointed angrily at Tommy as he approached.

“Good morning. You must be my driver,” Tommy interrupted.

“Not so fast.” The driver said, between puffs on his morning cigarette, “I understand you have cheated my young friend here.”

“Sir. We had an agreement. I specifically told the boy that I needed the car in an hour. You arrived ten minutes past the deadline. I am in a race to catch a friend of mine, who is already on the road and getting well ahead of us. I am trying to beat him to Everest Base Camp, and every second counts.” Tommy looked down at the boy, who sneered back at him. “I knew my request would be difficult, which is why I offered such a large reward. Which I would have paid. As it is, I still gave him ¥100 yuan, which is probably more than he makes in a week.”

The driver said something to the boy in the local dialect, who was still upset.

“He’s not happy. So I’m not happy.”

The driver took another drag on his cigarette and stood his ground.

Tommy withdrew ¥500 yuan and handed it to the boy. He wasn’t entirely appeased, but it was a step in the right direction. Tommy then handed the driver ¥1000.

“And I’ll give you ¥2000 more if we catch my friend before nightfall.”

Tommy’s ride was a jacked up Ford Raptor with metal studs poking out of four oversized tires. A snow plow was attached to the monster truck’s front bumper. Tommy’s confidence soared. He thought he might now have a realistic chance of catching Brig. The truck’s driver, an overtly happy Tibetan, named Pema, chain-smoked and spoke with a machine-gun like tempo. Unfortunately, Pema spoke mostly in the local dialect that Tommy couldn’t understand.

 Tommy recalibrated his earlier prediction, (It was probably going to be just a good day), and settled into the passenger seat.

The Raptor made an unusual clicking noise as the studs in its tires hit the bare cement of the hotel’s covered entry, and then went eerily quiet as the tires reached the new snow that had fallen on the road during the night. Pema punched the accelerator as soon as all four tires cleared the hotel’s concrete driveway, pinning Tommy’s head against the headrest. The truck’s rear-end fish-tailed slightly and then rocketed forward as the spikes grabbed the ice beneath the new snow.

Pema whooped and laughed, impressing himself with his driving skill and the truck’s power. Tommy smiled unconvincingly, but it was enough to encourage Pema, who increased the speed to a point that Tommy found uncomfortable. He motioned with his hand for Pema to slow down. Pema laughed but eased off the gas.

“I thought you were in a race.”

“I am, but I get disqualified if I die,” Tommy responded, feeling the early signs of the headache he thought he had gotten rid of.

Tommy estimated that he was within twenty kilometers of Brig. Even if he didn’t overtake Brig on the road, Tommy knew that he was bound to catch up with him eventually as there was only one road that leads to EBC.

After Shigatse, the highway became steep, with what seemed like hundreds of switchbacks and hairpin turns. Tommy had started the day headache free, but with every cigarette Pema consumed and every foot the truck climbed, the pain in his head grew worse. He choked down more pills and again motioned for Pema to slow down. Pema laughed, saying something that Tommy imagined was something like, “Don’t be such a pussy!” The clouds outside had grown too thick to see how high they had climbed, but Tommy sensed that it would be a long drop if they slid off the side. The longest tire studs in the world wouldn’t be able to save them then.

A few hours later, the storm had intensified, causing even Pema to stop talking and concentrate on the road. It was warm in the Raptor’s cab, and Tommy had dozed off, not noticing the look of concern that had developed on Pema’s face. The truck’s tires still got good traction, but Pema struggled to see the road in the near white-out conditions. Tommy jerked awake as Pema yanked the steering wheel hard to the right, avoiding a massive boulder which was nearly as large as the truck. The vehicle’s air bags deployed as the blade of the truck’s snow plow cut through the ice and snow and into the hillside that ran along the highway.

Although Tommy didn’t feel fortunate at the time of impact, he was. Had Pema yanked the steering wheel to the left, the truck would have vaulted unimpeded off the cliff on the left side of the road. Tommy and Pema would most certainly have been killed. As fate would have it, Tommy was alive and pushing the truck’s airbag away from his face as Pema jumped out to assess the damage. They hadn’t been going very fast, and there didn’t appear to be any significant harm done, at least to the body. However, when Pema climbed back into the truck and turned the ignition, nothing happened. The beast was dead.

This cannot be happening, Tommy thought to himself as he rubbed his temples. His headache had returned, and it had gone nuclear. Tommy realized that his chances of reaching Brig had fallen to somewhere between zero and one percent, What a shitty day this turned out to be.

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