We all watched as Eric, Harold, Frank, and Jim returned the way we had come. Harold and Frank walked on either side of Eric while Jim brought up the rear. I wondered if Harold had been annoyed that I had jumped to Eric’s aid, but if I had bothered him there was little I could do about it. I would do it again. I had limited medical training, but it was at the disposal of anybody who ever needed it.
Sharon gave us only a moment. “Back to it everybody. Eric is going to be fine. It’s just a scratch, nothing more.”
“Yeah, but what did that?” Max asked, looking around as if expecting to be attacked at any moment.
Eric had not pointed out where the attack had come from so I approached the most likely place and looked for tracks but found nothing. I made a slow circuit around the spot where we found Eric and similarly saw nothing of interest.
“Where was he attacked?” I asked.
“No way to know now,” Sharon said in answer to Max’s question. She then looked at me. “I did not see it. I just heard him screaming… and went to his aid.”
There had been something in her tone that made me think she had been about to say “screaming like a little boy,” but apparently, she had thought better of it.
She left. Bill followed a moment later and others in our group did as well.
“She is a cold one,” Sandy whispered from beside me.
I nodded as I watched Sharon disappear into the undergrowth.
“You should have seen her face when I found her with Eric. She was annoyed.”
“Uh, pardon me,” Sandy said, “I did not mean for my bleeding leg to get in the way of your plans.”
“Are you surprised?”
Sandy shook her head.
I dismissed the attack as a fluke thing, but I could not help wonder what had caused such a strange wound.
We spent most days traipsing through the rich undergrowth, following trails when they existed or using machetes to make our own when they did not. We had been here for weeks without serious injury. Dehydration was our most real enemy, despite all the rain. I had soon learned it was difficult to carry all the water I needed during such excursions. I had a three-liter water bladder but was always stuffing extra water bottles in the side pockets of my overstuffed pack.
Even though I had barely used my other supplies, I just could not imagine traipsing through the jungle without things like a rope, lighter, and other essential gear. My machete was momentarily stowed inside my bag because I was tired of cleaning off the rainwater, I would pull it out after the storm.
I had probably dropped ten pounds in the last two months and was on track to go another five. I did not mind the weight loss, but I was ready to go home.
Just three more weeks until I return to airconditioned labs. I never have to see the jungle again.
This internship was the last requirement before graduation. I would be working full time for Genizyz shortly after that.
It doesn’t matter where I go, I will always find people like Sharon.
While Sharon was something of an optimist, always positive that just around the corner we were going to discover a new species, she was also opportunistic, clinging to every scrap of control she could. She was desperately trying to make a name for herself by bringing back a substantial find.
Something Genizyz could exploit for profit.
I did not care as long as I graduated.
I thought it unlikely we would return with a commercially viable discovery. Sharon had high hopes that a new species of miniature moth we had found was going to secure funding to return to this section of the rainforest but I doubted it. The moth had no unique properties and was plain ugly.
We needed something that sizzled with possibility.
“I think you’re Sharon’s favorite,” Sandy said from behind. I did not need to look back to see her smirk because it was evident from her tone. She had been teasing me about Sharon more frequently because she could tell it got under my skin. I suspected she did this to subtly convey she was not interested.
“Don’t tell the others,” I said in a conspiratorial voice, “but we have been hooking up when nobody is around.” I just played along rather than let it disturb me. “She wants to make Bill jealous.”
Sandy’s laugh was muffled by the rain. “At least there is something you like about this trip. A little late-night action is enough to cheer anybody up.”
“If only,” I muttered under my breath.
I stepped in a mud puddle and sank up to my ankle.
“Great,” I said, pulling my foot out of the squelching mud while wondering what new and interesting creature I would find on my foot the next time we stopped for a break.
Maybe it will be a slug nobody has discovered. I will let Sharon claim credit and we can call it the Sharon Slug.
“You’re supposed to step over,” Sandy said lightly as she hopped across the same spot. “At least you don’t have a severe cut on your leg.”
I stamped my boot and did not respond.
We hiked until noon, the energetic and enigmatic Sharon leading the way, forcing herself to stop every so often to wait for the rest of us to catch up. Once we did she was off again after only a minute or two, practically running as if to make up for the lost time dealing with Erik’s wound.
“Is it wrong to hope a jaguar mistakes her for a deer?” I whispered to Sandy at the next stop after Sharon had left us behind again. That earned a punch that stung, but it was, however, mitigated by a smile that crept up her face.
“Say that louder,” Sandy said, “I dare you.”
I shook my head as I gulped down some water and tore the plastic from a sausage. It was sopping wet by the time I took my first bite.
We did not rest long, Sharon had long since disappeared down the path.
Come and get it guys, I thought, hoping a jaguar hunted nearby.
A normal person might have moved slower in the rain, but Sharon seemed to increase her speed.
When the rain finally let up shortly after one in the afternoon, it felt like the only dry part of me was a tiny spot on the small of my back. The rain had leaked in through my open hood and down my shirt. The poncho made my temperature increase until I felt like I was walking through a muggy greenhouse.
“Time for a break slow pokes,” Sharon said when we caught up to her. She wore a smile that betrayed an enthusiasm I doubted I would ever feel about anything.
I took off my poncho and set my pack down on a rock to keep it from getting muddy. The pack itself was water repellent but it would not have held up to the downpour we had just waded through.
My poncho was drenched and my pantlegs were caked with mud to my knee and wet to my thigh. Sandy stopped beside me and leaned her pack against my own.
“Did you ever think it would be this muddy?”
I grunted and shook off my poncho as best I could before rolling it up and strapping it to my pack. After that I swapped out my socks, putting the wet ones in a plastic bag before stuffing them back in my pack.
“It’s funny,” Sandy said from beside me while doing the same. “I never appreciated dry socks before, it’s the little things, you know?”
I nodded. “If only I did not have to put them right back into muddy boots.”
“All right, people. Ready?” Sharon was as buoyant and bouncy as ever. She had also changed into a dry top that seemed to act as a catalyst. I would have thought a fifty-year-old woman would have had less energy than me, but she gave most of us who were half her age a run for our money.
“Come on guys,” Sharon said, “pick up those feet! We are almost there.”
I held out a hand and pointed up the hill while looking at Sandy. “After you.”
The members of our group seemed revitalized by the rest and we made better time. The sun occasionally poked through the dark canopy above but even though it was early afternoon I doubted we would make it back to our basecamp by dark.
A movement drew my eye, but when I looked it was gone, the bush shook at the creature’s passing.
“Did you see that?” Sandy asked excitedly.
“It looked like a lizard, a large one.”
She smiled when I looked at her, letting me know she was making fun of Sharon and our current expedition.
Half an hour later we were at the top of a hill and there was a rare opening in the undergrowth that allowed me to see a green valley below.
It was majestic.
I forgot my wet clothes, my muddy shoes, and took in the vista. It was only enhanced when Sandy glanced back.
As I followed I noticed something from the corner of my eye but when I looked there was nothing there. Not even moving branches this time.
“The rain is giving me hallucinations,” I muttered. The temperature of the valley dropped several degrees as we descended. I welcomed the change but it also felt cold.
“Step lightly,” Sandy said.
I saw what she meant a moment later.
A dead anteater lay in the path, ravaged by many different mouths. Its glassy eyed stare and torn abdomen made me look around, afraid there might really be a jaguar in the area.
Would one hunt a human? I wondered, looking into the wide expanse of green and thinking of what I had seen disappearing earlier.
I studied the anteater and wondered when it had died. The creatures of the rainforest were good about helping along the decomposition so it could not have been long.
What’s that on its legs?
I stooped to examine the carcass. Most of what I had first taken as bites turned out to be sores. They were bleeding, oozing sores.
I stepped back from the animal and caught up to the others, hoping that whatever had made the animal sick could not transfer to humans. A few minutes later we stopped in a clearing I recognized as manmade.
We had arrived at our destination.
“Form teams of two,” Sharon said, “and spread out.”
I only payed attention with half an ear as I pulled out a dry shirt and swapped it for the wet one. A breeze touched my bare skin, making me want to shiver, but it was an urge I suppressed. The dry cotton felt good and I was glad to be half as wet as before.
“Vince,” Sharon said to me, “you stay with Sandy to watch the gear.”
I nodded. It was no surprise, Sharon didn’t think much of my field skills, but neither did I. Sandy did not look happy but managed a tiny smile to show that it was not being saddled with me that made her disgruntled.
As the others disappeared I pulled out a small folding stool from my pack and set it out, motioning for Sandy to sit. I would not have done this for anybody else.
I pulled out my poncho and plopped on the ground before she had a chance to protest. Her ears were a smidge red as she sat but she mumbled a thank you.
We waited in silence with our notebooks. Once I was certain Sharon and the others were gone, I took out a novel. Sandy started to work in her book, I knew from past experience she was either writing her thoughts or making a sketch.
She was not much of an artist but was better than me.
A rustling sound on the edge of the clearing drew our attention.
A small lizard emerged.
It cocked its head to the side and chirped. I had never seen anything like it except in a museum.
It appeared to be a living dinosaur.