Isabel used the front of her shirt to wipe the paste of sweat, tears and dirt off her face, jammed her wide-brimmed hat back down on top of her head, and stood up, brushing off the seat of her pants. She took one last look at the bodies of her guides, which she’d arranged neatly on the side of the rutted track, their army blankets covering their faces, then turned and walked into the jungle.
Isabel had been a few feet off the track, hidden by a curtain of jungle creepers as she collected samples of an unfamiliar moss she thought might be an undiscovered species. Her guides, by now used to the strange American girl suddenly shouting, “Oooh!” and tripping off into the jungle, chatted as they waited for her on the rutted mockery of a road. Only one of her guides, Jasraj, spoke English, and Isabel herself wasn’t much of a talker, so for the most part they simply followed her along, talking, laughing and singing in Luru. It was liberating; their voices gave her the comfort of knowing she wasn’t alone, and yet they expected nothing of her, no uncomfortable airplane-type small talk, no, “What brings you to Borneo?”
She’d been crouched down in a small gully, carefully digging her sample, and smiling as she listened to them hooting with laughter over something Prasoon said. Suddenly, the laughter had ceased, like someone had cut it off with a knife. Isabel heard Jasraj whisper something.
Then the sound of automatic gunfire shattered the silence, startling a flock of parrots into flight, their alarmed caws and madly flapping wings mixing with the sound of the bullets to make a screaming cacophony frenzied enough to shatter the mind. Isabel threw herself face-down into her moss, pressing herself flat and hoping her khaki-green hiking gear would be enough to hide her.
A second or an hour later, the gunfire stopped. Over the pounding of blood in her ears, she heard four unfamiliar voices in Luru coming from the area where she’d left her guides. Slowly, thankful for the soft cushion of moss which wouldn’t crackle and give her away, Isabel raised her head above the edge of the gully and peered through the green.
Four men, dressed in BDU’s, kicked at the blood-spattered bodies of Isabel’s companions with dusty boots, their rifles slung over their shoulders while they picked carelessly through the dead men’s pockets and backpacks. All four were wearing large duffel-style packs, and a scrap of leopard skin dangled from the opening of the man’s pack nearest to her.
Poachers, Isabel thought. She’d seen poachers before, but only in the towns that bordered the jungles, huddled in seedy bar doorways, their flat gazes making her shudder as they passed over her breasts and further downward before turning away. This was the first time she’d ever encountered them in the jungle, and she was rapidly coming to the conclusion it might be the last.
Miraculously, though, they turned away, stepping over the bodies of her guides and chuckling quietly among themselves. They continued along the track until, finally, the jungle swallowed them up as quickly as it had regurgitated them. Isabel waited for the alarm calls of the surrounding birds and small animals to stop before crawling back to the road.
The lack of food made things difficult, but not impossible; Isabel’s extensive knowledge of jungle plants meant she could probably sustain herself for a good long while. She wouldn’t be dining like a queen, but she wouldn’t starve to death, either. More worrisome was the fact that she was out of bug spray. Before she became a field botanist, Isabel would have laughed at someone being more concerned about bug spray than food. But the numbers of mosquitoes and other blood-sucking insects that swarmed in the rainforest could actually drink enough to make a person anemic, not to mention that being covered in thousands of itchy bug bites would eventually drive a person to near-insanity. And sanity was one thing that Isabel could not afford to lose, not now.
At least I’ve got plenty of iodine tablets, she thought, dropping one into the bottle of water she’d just drawn from the stream. She swished the water around inside the bottle until the tablet dissolved completely, then took a swig, grimacing at the bitter taste. She set the bottle aside and, trying not to think about the kinds of exotic bacteria that could be living in the mud of the stream bank, began smearing gloppy handfuls on her arms. Mud or malaria.
Isabel was spreading the mud across her face, eyes closed, when suddenly it felt as though someone had dropped a small, cold stone into the pit of her stomach. She was being watched. Slowly, she dropped her hands from her face, opened her eyes—and froze.
On the other side of the stream, about ten feet away, a pair of yellow eyes, narrowed in concentration, met her own. Isabel’s mind raced in mad circles around her options—back off slowly, or stay still and hope for the best? Move? Stay?
The cramping of her fatigued muscles finally made the decision for her. Knowing she was making a move that might end her life, Isabel slowly rose from her kneeling position to a low crouch.
The leopard sprang; Isabel leapt backward, but tripped over her pack and sprawled out flat on her back, hitting her head on the ground hard enough to turn the world into a sickening, spinning carnival ride. Her eyes finally focused on the light trickling down through the canopy, the macaques screaming above her. This is the moment, she thought, calmly. This is the end.
Tune in next Friday for another installment!
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