The tent was so dark inside that at first she wasn't sure she had even opened her eyes. Somewhere in the distance an insect buzzed softly and then faded into the ambient, only to be replaced by a rooster's sharp cry. Shana shivered slightly, and snuggled tighter into her sleeping bag. Two feet from where she lay, the dark shape of her sleeping boyfriend became visible, zipped up in his own thick down sleeping bag. His chest rose gently up and down with the rhythm of his breathing.
"Roger?" she whispered. Three days of hiking over difficult terrain had left him a heavy sleeper. The sound of her voice provoked no reaction. She tried again.
"Roger. Wake up." She touched his shoulder lightly; he stirred, extending one cramped arm in a much-needed stretch. The tent was a typical one for a trek of this length, six by six with a double zip door. Being a good three or four inches taller than the tent was long, he was forced to lie in a loose fetal position with his knees tucked up to his shoulders.
"What's wrong?" he muttered sleepily. "Is it time to go?"
"No, we've still got a bit before the guides come to wake everyone." It was three in the morning and they were scheduled to be at the checkpoint by five thirty, so that they could get most of their hike over with before dawn.
Roger yawned and shifted position, making the bag rustle as he turned around. "Why aren't you asleep then?" By his tone it was clear that he, at least, would rather be.
"I can't sleep." Shana said. "I haven't slept much all night."
"Wow. You're really not going to be a happy camper in," he turned one bleary eye to his watch, "two and a half hours. Should've taken an Advil or something."
"It's not because of the soreness. I'm just too excited." she explained. Roger did not respond. Everyone in the group was excited. After a long week of hiking the so-called Inca Trail, the sight of Macchu Picchu finally awaited them. Shana had dreamed of the city every night, imagining herself looking down hundreds of meters over ancient stone walls, which were still perfect after all these years. Awakening to find herself still in her tent, miles from the city, had been a thoroughly disorienting experience. Ever since she had been a little girl flipping idly through atlases on a rainy day, Shana's dream had been to go to Macchu Picchu.
She laid awake on the hard ground, staring at the ceiling and dreaming of a forest in the clouds. After what seemed like decades a guide finally tapped softly on the tent door, informing its occupants that breakfast was ready. Shana was dressed and packed in eight minutes flat. The other members of their group met her at the breakfast table, a collapsible plastic thing that the porters had lugged up and down the trail. She glanced from person to person, noting that most of them seemed to be anticipating the morning just as much as she was. There was little conversation during breakfast, as everybody focused on eating their lukewarm pancake as fast as possible. Luke, the Australian college student, stuffed his pancake in his mouth and washed it down with some watery instant coffee.
"We're gonna be first to the Sun Gate, right?" he asked. "So we can see the city before anyone else?" Our head guide, Rafael, indicated assent.
"The checkpoint opens on five thirty, so if we can make good time with there then no problem." Rafael's English was generally very good, but he still occasionally mixed up prepositions.
"You know," chimed in the second guide with a proud smile, "Rafa and I always get first when we are together. The other guides are sleepy and slow. Today is wish day too so we will be very fast. Duper super fast." A chuckle ran around the table at his mistake; the man grinned sheepishly and sipped his coca tea.
"What do you mean, 'wish day'?" Roger asked suspiciously.
"It's June 21st." said Rafael, as if that was supposed to mean anything.
"The summer solstice?" said an older French woman hesitantly. Shana couldn't remember her name. The guides nodded in unison.
"Yes. The solstices were very important on the Incas. All of their architecture was built of the seasons. You know Intipunku, right?" Intipunku was the Quechua name for the cliff overlooking Macchu Picchu, and it literally meant 'Sun Gate'. "On summer solstice day the view of the sun from Macchu Picchu is directly over Intipunku. There are two windows with the room of the high priest -- winter solstice, sun shines through one. Summer solstice, another."
"Sure, but what does any of that have to do with wishes?"
Rafael glanced at his fellow guide before responding and grimaced. "There is an old story ... supposedly the first one to see the city in dawn of the summer solstice from the Sun Gate is granted a wish by the god Inti." He waved his hand dismissively. "Some of the porters are very superstitious." Shana listened with rapt attention. The legend only intensified her desire to be first, even though she didn't consider herself a superstitious person. Roger, on the other hand, was making pained faces. He hated anything that could possibly be construed as "mumbo-jumbo".
"I don't need any ridiculous myths to motivate me." Rafael continued, half to himself. "The last home of the Incas still takes my breath away every time I see it."
Their group ended up being first to the checkpoint after all, although a different tour group reached it about thirty seconds after they did. Shana waited impatiently while a sleepy-looking government official checked her passport. Rafael and the official exchanged a few words in rapid-fire Spanish while the rest of them listened to a light rain drizzle on the checkpoint roof. Finally he turned to the group. "Alright, let's roll."
The twelve of them practically sprinted up the next hill. They went two by two to prevent anyone from a later group getting by them on the trail. Fifteen minutes into the hike, Roger was red-faced and breathing heavily. Shana left him behind and went to catch up with the guides. When they tired, she passed them too. The scenery around them featured some of Peru's most beautiful plants and animals; she barely glanced at them. Unless the phantom sound of dreaded footsteps manifested behind her, Shana's eyes stayed fixed on her feet and the ground in front of her. Maybe it was her imagination, but the trail that had been described as "a bit of easy up and down" seemed to get more up and less down as time went on. The last stretch of all featured thirty or forty original Inca stone steps that went straight up. She very nearly collapsed at the top.
It didn't matter. She had made it to Intipunku first. All around her stood enormous rectangular stones, laid out in a geometric design. Near the cliff, a row of three stone "doorways" blocked her view. She walked over to the edge on exhausted, shaking legs, her eyes closed tight, expecting to see the most breathtaking view of her life.
All she could see was fog. An oppressive sheet of gray completely covered the sky, blocking out the valley below as if it were never there.
Shana was struck speechless. She had noticed the light rain before without really taking it into account; never had she dreamed that there would be bad weather on today, of all days. It wasn't possible. It wasn't fair. She was forced to put a hand against one of the stone pillars to steady herself. Her legs were shaking for more reasons than one.
She felt Roger put a hand on her shoulder; he must have caught up near the end of their pointless dash. "Shana -- you alright?" He saw the fog. "Aw, man..."
"Yeah," she muttered. The single syllable said all she needed to say. Soon the other members of their group had joined them, including the guides, who had stayed back to help the last person up. Everyone was upset, some more than others.
"You told us it was the goddamn dry season!" Luke swore at Rafael, who put up his hands as if to protect himself from the guy's rage.
"It is the dry season!"
"Then what the fuck is fog doing here? Huh?" Luke was well over six feet tall and muscular. The sight of him towering over the guide, who looked like a child in comparison, was almost frightening. Rafael backed up until he stood right at the cliff, not paying attention to the drop. "I didn't come here to stare at clouds, you worthless, lying--"
Rafael slipped on a patch of wet grass. One of his feet was suddenly planted on nothing but thin air; in a second, he was over the edge, gone too quickly for anyone to save him. His panicked scream lingered a long time in the air before it was finally cut off with a harsh thump. Everyone turned to Luke, who was paler than usual with shock.
"Oh my god," said the French woman. "What do we do?"
The other guide looked over the edge and flinched, turning away at the sight. "You do nothing. I need report trail authorities." he said in a heavily accented voice, made even less understandable by the situation. Somehow he managed to communicate to the tourists that they were not, under any circumstances, to try and go down and help Rafael, and then he tore off back the way they had come as if something was chasing after him.
Roger broke the terrible silence, but it didn't improve the mood.
"So how does it feel to be a murderer?" he said softly, giving Luke a sidelong glance.
"It was an accident!" Luke said defensively. "He fell."
Roger snorted. "Right. Have fun convincing the police."
Ignoring the two of them, Shana turned to look over her shoulder. A diagonal slice of clear sky had appeared while they were distracted. She watched while a few wispy white clouds drifted across the gap. She had to blink a couple times to make sure it wasn't a hallucination; the contrast between pale blue and harsh gray was so jarring.
"Look." Shana pointed at the sky.
Another member of the group, a quiet boy named Sam from England, came up and stood beside her, looking up at the same spot. "Whoa," he said, "maybe we'll get to see Macchu Picchu after all." Sam shook his head. "Poor Rafa. He never got to see it for the last time."
Shana stared fixatedly at the patch of blue, willing it to grow and move closer to the valley. Perversely, the spot of sky began to shrink before her eyes. It was gone within thirty seconds; obscured once more by fog as if it were never there. Shana cursed loudly, something that was wildly out of character for her. "Damn it, sunshine..."
"Inti is playing tricks." Sam said with a sigh.
"I wish we could make him stop somehow," she said wistfully. Sam gave her a funny look, as if she'd taken him more seriously than he intended. Meanwhile, Roger and Luke were still arguing, but this time over whether to follow the guide's hasty instructions.
"We can't just leave him there." Roger yelled, gesturing angrily down the hill.
"Miguel told us to stay." said Luke.
"I don't give a crap what he said! Rafael could be dying down there."
"He's already dead!" Luke's tone of voice rose to a fever pitch.
"And I bet you're real happy about that, huh?"
"You're a lunatic."
"Gonna push me off a cliff too?"
For a second everyone there thought a fight was imminent, but Luke backed down with a final glare and shook his head in disgust. "Do what you want. I don't care."
Sam checked his watch. "I figure we've got about fifteen minutes before the next group comes," he muttered. Once again, Shana willed the sky to change color, but it ignored her. We have to be first, she thought. No, I have to be first. The phrase echoed endlessly inside her head, like a strange sort of mantra. By the time she looked around again, more than half of the group had disappeared down the edge of the mountainside, awkwardly climbing down to the next terrace. The rest were watching them carefully, some shouting encouragement or advice.
A tiny streak of blue appeared at the corner of her vision. Was it her imagination, or did all the clouds look a little bit thinner? Time passed. Was it half a second or a thousand years? A woman was yelling in her ear. She wished whoever it was would be quiet so that she could watch the fog. "Shana. Shana! Are you listening to me?"
"What?" Her voice sounded like it was floating.
"It's Roger. He's tripped or something... well, it looks like he's broken his arm."
Yes, the fog was definitely thinner. A sudden understanding flashed in Shana's eyes, and she smiled happily. "That's nice."
"Did you even hear a single fucking word I said?" The woman glanced at her incredulously. When Shana did not immediately respond, she rolled her eyes and turned to run back to the others. "She's gone catatonic or something--"
When she was a few steps from the edge, Shana stuck out her leg and tripped her. She didn't know at first why she did it; some forgotten impulse compelled her and almost before she could blink, the woman was tumbling over the rocky edge. She had faster reflexes than Rafael had, and one of her hands managed to grip a piece of dirty stone that stuck out at a precarious angle from the ground. However hard she struggled to pull herself up, her inadequate handhold just wouldn't do the job. Shana peered curiously down at her. Is this what you want, Lord Inti? One by one, she peeled the woman's fingers from the rock and let them drop.
After that, it was easy. The faint glow of early morning light glinted in her eyes; by now, more than half the sky had cleared, leaving only the horizon and the valley below still wreathed in clouds. Shana took it as a positive sign. It was working.
Her arms and legs felt like they were moving in slow motion. Luke only got one sentence in before he was sent reeling to his doom. "What was that noise? I heard-" Vera tried to run, but it was useless. With each new sacrifice, the sky cleared further, dwarfing even the enormous pillars of Intipunku beneath a vast expanse of solid blue. Finally, Shana stood alone on the hilltop. More members of her group were farther down the path, but they were hidden in the trees and of no importance. Her dream was about to be realized. She closed her eyes and took a long breath of sweet mountain air, imagining Inti's approving smile.
She heard voices from the way they had arrived. Many voices. More than she could handle by herself. Sam had said fifteen minutes -- had it been that long?
I have to be first.
Shana cast a panicked glance down at the valley. A single misty patch of fog remained; if she squinted, she could see the vague outlines of walls and terraces, but no more than that. Just one more. She could hear their footsteps now. It wouldn't be long before they came around the corner, and then all of this would have been for nothing. There was no time left.
She took a running jump and spread her arms like the wings of the condor. Her final sight was a vision of stone walls shining in the light of the dawn.