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Read the opening of Everest is Hollow —
The trail to Mount Everest hits an important crossroads at 11,000 feet. At this junction, the path to the world’s tallest mountain weaves through a thousand-year-old trading post. Vendor stalls are simple and basic, primitive rock huts or canvas tents, perhaps just a rug spread on the ground. Visitors and locals squeeze through a tangled maze of shops, like an Arab bazaar, jammed with people and merchandise. The market is an exotic mix of timeless ways and the latest technologies. Foil-wrapped energy bars dangle amid yak jerky and silk prayer flags, made by hand in the same way they were crafted when Manhattan was a Dutch colony. American Wave snowsuits hang next to traditional Sherpa garments, unchanged since Genghis Khan conquered Asia.
Eight hundred years after the brutal Khan and his Mongol hordes left, the trading post could still be dangerous, especially for a thirteen year old boy …
Inside the world’s highest marketplace, Trouble darted between tables of gold bracelets and t-shirts, crouching low to hide from his pursuers. He could smell the strange men chasing after him, a weird blend of coriander, body odor and wet leather. They cursed in high-speed grunts, sounding like strangled cats. Their voices grew louder with every moment, frightening him. Trouble’s pulse hammered in his ears with the fury of hummingbird wings vibrating against a microphone.
Yet he continued running, pushing through the packed crowd of tourists and cattle herders, dodging racks of high-tech climbing gear and antique yak saddlebags. There wasn’t a straight path anywhere and Trouble spun through a dizzying maze of furry huts and faded canvas sheltering traders. Worse, none of the ground was level, forcing him to run uphill, then down a narrow trail of steps.
His escape route came to a dead end where an old butcher, tired from a long day of work, was stacking a wall of buffalo steaks, one slab at a time. Each slab was large enough to feed a family of eight for a whole week. Trouble waited impatiently for the bulky man to step away, his thick fingers closing around the next marbled round of meat.
Trouble gestured, urging the butcher to step aside. “Please, I need to get out of here.”
Suspicion pinched the man’s eyes almost shut. “You buying something?”
“Um, sure.” Trouble felt desperate. He tossed a wad of bills on the ground, watching the butcher stoop to pick them up, sharp knife held firm inside a bloody fist. The rotten, sickly sweet smell of blood attracted flies and a red stream clotted on the dry earth.
There was no time to lose. Trouble held his breath to shut out nauseating odors and hurdled a pile of gory flesh, jumping past the butcher.
Running again, his legs felt like heavy stones dragged from the bottom of an old well. Sprinting at 11,000 feet elevation was draining. His lungs burned from inhaling thin air stripped of oxygen. He detoured around an orange canvas tent, pausing to suck fresh air into exhausted lungs. Backpack straps cut into his shoulders, adding to Trouble’s exhaustion. He needed a moment to loosen the straps and rest weary muscles.
Trouble dared a glance at his pursuers. Accustomed to the high altitude and its thin air, they were gaining speed, getting closer. Wearing dark clothes, the men blended into the twilight sky and Trouble didn’t notice they were encircling him. When he tripped and fell, a painful grip squeezed his arms, jerking Trouble to his feet. Men slapped him against a stone building, knocking the air from his lungs.
They pressed him into a wall and tore off his backpack. Emptying every compartment, they ran small flashlights over the tangle of items dumped from Trouble’s pack. Power bars, Kleenex packets, loose coins, a plastic Spiderman, iPod, clothing, nothing seemed to interest them. Finally, the men pinned Trouble against the wall with a choke-hold on his neck. Their breath held the rancid smells of buffalo jerky and chewing tobacco. Yellow teeth and cracked lips shouted questions in a host of foreign languages, but Trouble understood none of what they were saying.
Their leader stepped up, flaunting his cocky attitude and a sharp knife, its thick hunting blade gleaming a razor-like edge. A ski mask covered the man’s face, revealing only arrogant eyes. “Where is it?” he demanded.
Trouble couldn’t speak. He had no air in his lungs and the choke hold blocked any breaths. He bobbed his chin, indicating he needed to breathe and couldn’t because they were holding him so tightly.
“Release him,” the leader instructed his men.
No longer pinned against rough bricks, Trouble dropped on the ground, falling to his knees. He gasped for air, his throat raw, stinging with pain from their brutal treatment.
The leader grabbed Trouble by the neck of his jacket and stuck the ski mask in his face. Trouble could feel the man’s breath puffing through thick, cracked lips when he spoke. “You are American. Where is your passport? We need it to contact your family. Your parents will pay money to get you back. They must send us a ransom.”
“I …” Trouble stammered. He heard the heavy tromping of boots from an approaching squad of angry feet. A burst of orders were shouted.
“Soldiers,” the leader hissed. He spat in contempt, releasing his grip on Trouble’s parka.
Bright military flashlights darted along the wall, painting halos around Trouble. For a moment, he felt blinded by a harsh beam. When the glare disappeared, Trouble was alone. His pursuers became ghosts vanishing into the crowd, tearing off their ski masks to blend with vendors and locals.
Soldiers in green fatigues tromped past, their boots clomping on the pavement. One of them saw Trouble and pointed at him, shouting a question to his commander. Luckily, the officer ignored the comment and ordered his soldiers to follow the criminals. Trouble felt grateful the outlaws were being chased, but he knew the army patrol would soon return, frustrated and angry. They’d want to know what happened and he had no good answers to their questions.
He needed to get away, but there was nowhere to hide, no dark crevice to jam himself inside. Quickly, Trouble shoved his belongings in the backpack. He didn’t have time to be careful. Clothing, food, toothpaste and soap were just tossed inside and zipped shut.
A sliver of yellow light ran over his feet. Behind him, a door slowly opened. There was a creak of ancient hinges. “In here,” a boy’s voice hissed. “You’ll be safe inside. Hurry.”
“Trust me,” the boy urged.
But Trouble felt too uneasy to move.
“Look, you have no choice. The soldiers will return any moment. They’ll also want to see your passport.”
There were more orders shouted in a staccato burst of voices. A whistle blew, then tromping boots marched toward him, echoing across the rough stone and dirt alleyways. Trouble was out of time. A hand pinched his sleeve and tugged him toward the door. The tugging on his arm grew harder and he quit resisting its pull. Trouble scooped up his backpack and slid through the open door. He paused, startled by the abrupt change in his environment. With one step, he went from the ancient marketplace into a modern tavern, crowded with human bodies. Trouble’s nose was assaulted by the odor of people sweating from being totally overdressed, wearing insulated jackets and pants in a heated room. Unfamiliar food scents wafted from a kitchen stove lit with propane, throwing grease, spices and hot metal smells in the already thick air.
His eyes adjusted to the dim room and Trouble discovered a place jammed with kids of all ages, most of them locals from the Himalayas. Their dark faces were painted with the eerie glow of flashing PC screens. The PCs had their sound turned up, speakers pumping out kick-boxing games and car engines revving through 3D terrain. Trouble’s ears felt attacked by a hurricane of sound. The blizzard of animation and noise was disorienting. Voices argued and fingers clicked computer mice at high speed, racing to keep pace with a computer-animated rush. It took a moment to realize a hand tugged his sleeve, urging him to move into the crowd.
The hand belonged to a state-of-the-art Sherpa teenager, wearing rip-stop nylon hiking pants. In the current fashion, pockets climbed the legs from ankles to hips. His pants were topped by a fleece pullover, zipper pulled to the chin. The North Face logo decorated the turned-up collar. A New York Yankees baseball cap was fitted backwards over thick black hair, completing the teen’s hip look. Trouble saw a dimpled face with curious eyes gazing at him.
He felt uneasy under the stare. “Who are you?”
“Nuru is my name.” The boy smiled. “You’re lucky to be alive.”
“I am?” Trouble rubbed his sore neck, massaging pained muscles where they’d choked him.
“Sure. Those guys with ski masks are Maoist guerrillas. They hacked off my uncle’s arms because he was a government official. That’s why I helped you. I hate them for what they did to my uncle.”
“Thanks. I knew they were dangerous.”
“The soldiers chasing them are also a threat. And they’ll be back. The soldiers will want to question you, examine your entry papers.” Nuru gave him a knowing look. “From what I overheard, you don’t want that, right?”
“Um …” Trouble squirmed.
“Well, there’s time to discuss it after we mingle with the crowd, blend in. Here, we’ll swap hats. That’ll disguise you from the soldiers.”
“Wait a minute. You’re wearing a Yankees cap. I’m an American from New York City. Wearing a Yankees baseball hat won’t disguise me.”
“Sure it will. Americans buy wool hats first thing, so they look like authentic trekkers. Sherpa teens trade their wool hats for baseball caps worn by Americans. That’s how I got mine. Pile your hair under my Yankees cap and the soldiers will think you’re local. You’ve got a tan. In this light, it looks like dark skin.”
They traded and Trouble snugged the baseball cap over sandy brown hair that seldom got trimmed in a barber shop. He shrugged. “It’s a start, but we need to do more. The soldiers will still find me.”
“We’ll move into the crowd. Hurry, two guys just left. We can grab their table.” Nuru slid past clumps of teens, glued to their computer screens.
Trouble followed him, ducking under souvenirs hung on ceiling beams by foreign trekkers – climbing helmets with high-intensity headlights, battered compasses, empty canteens, mesh bags with crushed aluminum cans, oxygen masks and a necklace of energy bar wrappers.
“What’s all this gear doing here?” Trouble asked.
“Namche’s the gateway for climbers trying their luck on Mount Everest. It’s the world’s highest peak, you know.” Nuru gave Trouble a smug look.
“Yeah, well, everybody knows that. I meant, like why’d they hang all this stuff from the ceiling?”
Nuru shrugged. “I dunno. Guess it’s to show they were here. Some guys use their knives to write a message, like how far they got up the mountain.” He pointed at their table, engraved by past visitors. The carving read “E.N. made Camp 6 – blizzard, back in 2 yr.”
Trouble wiped goo from his chair and sat down. “This place got a name?”
“The Khumbu Cybercafé. Twenty-four hour fax, scanner, e-mail, Internet. Surf any website. No filters. You just got to wipe your feet before you go inside.” Nuru grinned. “Streets in Khumbu are too narrow for cars. I’m afraid the yak is still our truck. The Cybercafé is on the main drag, so there’s a lot of yaks walking by. They leave their downloads on the street, if you know what I mean.”
Nuru put a grossed-out look on his face and mimicked scraping yak dung off the bottom of his shoes. “Doesn’t stop us from downloading all the MP3 we want.”
Trouble laughed. “Can you download Crunk? I just got into Lil’ Jon. Is there a website with Snap Yo Fingers and Act a Fool?”
“Crunk, huh?” Nuru looked a bit confused. “Don’t know much about Crunk. I can ask around. Somebody will know.” His eyes lit up. “We’ll Google ‘crunk’ and find some cool downloads for you.”
The owner loomed over them, a wide body topped by the bulging face of a croaking frog, his neck swollen like an inflated balloon. “You aren’t gonna surf anything unless you pay last month’s bill, Nuru. And you gotta order some drinks, for you and your … friend.” He gave Trouble a nasty looking over, like the owner decided to hate Trouble before he ever said a word.
Nuru groaned and pulled a wad of bills from his pocket. “Here’s a down payment. We’ll have pearl milk tea, with extra tapioca balls.” Nuru looked at Trouble. “What flavor you want?”
“You have mango?” he asked the proprietor.
“No,” the owner grunted.
“How ’bout coconut?”
“Um,” the proprietor growled and spun around, leaving them.
“Guess he knows what flavor you want,” Trouble commented.
“Yeah, I always have the same thing,” Nuru laughed.
“Purple yam bubble tea.”
“That’s pretty exotic.”
Nuru shrugged. “Not as exotic as getting to the Himalayas without a passport. How’d you do that?”
“It’s a trade secret.” Trouble hesitated.
“Oh, I save your life and you don’t tell me how you got here. Nice thing.”
“OK, um …”
“Well?” Nuru leaned over and cupped his head in his hands, prepared for a long story.
Trouble squirmed in his chair, reluctant to answer the question.
“Come on,” Nuru urged. He twisted a green plastic wristband, stretching it with his fingers. Impatient, he bounced his knee against his palm like a basketball player dribbling along the court. “You can tell me. I can keep a secret.”
“You can? You won’t tell anybody?” Trouble rocked back in his chair. His eyes ran around the room, looking everywhere except at Nuru’s face.
Nuru leaned over the table, pressing on Trouble with insistent body language. “Go on. Tell me. I wanna know.”
“OK.” Trouble exhaled a long slow breath. “It’s like this …”
“Yeah?” Nuru shoveled his hands, acting like he could pry words out of Trouble’s mouth.
“Well …um. I flew here.”
“I knew that.” Nuru acted disgusted. “How did you get on the plane? I mean without a passport.”
“I didn’t go the normal way. I wasn’t exactly a passenger.”
Nuru got excited. “You were a stowaway? Where’d you hide? You would’ve froze to death in a wheel-well where they store landing gear. Did somebody sneak you in?”
“No.” Trouble felt indignant. “I paid to be shipped.”
Nuru’s eyes got wide. “Shipped?” he asked in amazement. “Like a package?”
“Yeah. Air cargo.”
“You gotta be kidding. What’s the real story?”
“Air cargo,” Trouble repeated.
“Yeah, like someone overnighted you to Nepal. I’m sure.”
“Bleerio overnighted me, to be exact. I don’t have a credit card to buy a plane ticket, but my parents have an account to ship large crates by air cargo service, so I used it. Sometimes it pays to have parents in the antique business. People expect you to ship crates all over the world. Room for a backpack, bottled water, some Power bars. Gets cold, though. Cargo planes aren’t heated like passenger jets.”
“You’re serious, aren’t you?” Nuru pulled off the wool cap and ran fingers through his thick black hair like a comb. He stared at Trouble in disbelief. “Really serious?”
It was Nuru’s turn to say, “Wow.” He cocked his head. “How old are you anyway?”
“Thirteen last week,” Trouble answered.
“Yeah. Well, I was thirteen a month ago,” Nuru bragged. “What’s your name, huh?”
“I know that, but what’s your name?”
“Trouble – really.”
“Uh, like, what’s it short for? You know, what’s your real name?”
“That’s it. My name is Trouble. My parents had this uneasy feeling about me, right from the beginning.”
“Yeah, well, so why aren’t your parents with you, Trouble? You didn’t come to the Himalayas all alone.”
Trouble countered, “Where are your parents? You didn’t come to the Khumbu Cybercafé alone, did you?”
“Hey, it’s my country. I just traveled a few days by yak. What’s your excuse? I mean, you came here from New York City. Visiting Namche Bazaar isn’t exactly like taking the subway to Greenwich Village. So, why aren’t you with your parents?”
“You sure want to know a lot.” Trouble acted evasive. He twirled a grungy spoon in his hand and realized the place setting probably never got washed, just wiped with a rag. He dropped the spoon and it clanked on the table.
Nuru rolled his eyes. “How are we gonna be friends if we don’t get to know each other?”
“Who says we’re friends?”
“Ouch.” The Sherpa teen recoiled from the comment, shoving his chair away from the table as though he were going to get up and leave.
Trouble apologized. “Sorry. That was rude. I’ve been through a lot. What’d you wanna know again?”
“Kids don’t go to foreign countries alone. Why aren’t you with your parents?”
“Because I haven’t seen them for two years.” Trouble made a quarter-turn in his chair, facing away from Nuru. Talking about this was hard for him, but he felt his friend deserved an explanation. “My parents are archeologists. My dad went on an expedition and didn’t return.”
“What about your mom?”
“My mother went looking for Dad. She hasn’t come home either.”
“Have you heard from them?”
Nervous, Trouble crimped the bill on the New York Yankees cap he was wearing.
Nuru grimaced at having his favorite baseball cap deformed.
Nuru sighed, “Oh well, nothing you can do about it now.” He cocked an accusing eye, cranking on the guilt. “About your parents?”
“Haven’t heard from them, no phone call or anything. Last correspondence I got from Mom was postmarked here. That’s why I came to the Himalayas looking for her. I can’t just sit around.”
“Did both your parents come to Nepal?”
“I don’t know if my father came here. But mom sent me a package from this area. I thought that was kind of weird. She usually sends things from Siberia.”
“Siberia? Like in Russia?” Nuru removed the yak hair cap he’d gotten from Trouble. The wool itched his scalp.
Trouble nodded. “Mom is always on a dig in Siberia. She specializes in uncovering kurgans, Scythian burial mounds.”
“Oh, well, that’s good. Um, what’s a Scythian?”
“Mom told me Scythians were savage warriors. They scraped all the flesh from their victims’ skulls and used them as drinking cups.” Trouble knew that image would gross out Nuru.
“Yuk,” was his reaction to drinking from a dead human’s head. “How’d your parents meet if your mother was always in Siberia, digging up old skulls?”
“My parents met in Siberia. Mom was working a tomb and robbers attacked her, trying to steal gold artifacts she’d collected. My dad’s also an archeologist. He was digging nearby and helped scare off the robbers.”
“What do your parents do with all the gold they find?”
“Most of it goes to the Russian government, for display in museums. They get to keep a few of the artifacts, as payment for their help in finding kurgans and digging up treasures. What my parents keep goes to our antique store in New York, for sale to private collectors. We have all kinds of stuff they’ve found over the years, on their expeditions.”
“Bizarre. If I found gold, I wouldn’t put it in a store. I’d trade it at the Namche Bazaar for cool discs and DVD’s, get me some really hot shoes and the latest trekking jacket.”
The owner interrupted them, slopping drinks on the table, a pair of glasses with tapioca marbles jumbled at the bottom of Chinese tea. The purple and white drinks looked thick as smoothies, but had a pungent odor, as if sprinkled with untold spices. “You want something to eat?” the owner grunted. “Got a special tonight on alu acchar and gundruk. Fresh and hot.”
“Gundruk?” Nuru complained. “Who’d want that? The stuff’s four days old. You were serving it when I first got here, last week. By now, it smells like the inside of a shoe.”
“You don’t like what I serve? Then pay your bill and leave. You can’t pay? I’ll take your computer.” The owner put a massive hand on the laptop display and squeezed, distorting the screen.
Nuru started to panic and his face twisted in fear. “Ah, no, don’t hurt my laptop.”
“Oh?” The owner smiled and squeezed the computer a little harder. “You have money to pay me this time?”
“Sure, um, just let me explain …” But Nuru didn’t get a chance to finish his appeal.
The café’s back door slammed open with a crash. Men in camo fatigues and heavy boots stood in the doorway, poking automatic rifles into the room. They radiated impatience and hostility. Trouble felt the heat of ugly stares on the back of his head and saw their images reflected in the tea glasses. Their sinewy bodies seemed taut as bungee cords stretched to the point of snapping. Pairs of restless eyes darted around the room, searching, watching for danger like rats daring a nighttime food hunt. Instantly, every PC was slapped shut and went mute. All conversation died. It felt quiet as a church . . .
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