Friday, January 4, 2013

Border by C Wait

James and Angela trek through the jungle to reach the border, but a dangerous animal roams this land; by C Wait.

They pushed for the border, two days straight, and the heat was stifling. James felt it resting on his skin, sinking and twisting inside him. Back in El Salvador the locals told him this was the most dangerous kind of heat. It followed a man with purpose. With intent.

He and Angela both shouldered heavy canvas packs. They trekked through tall ferns and roots, rocks and mud. The soil was moist. Heat lingered above it, like the air above a fire pit and it felt just as hot.

There was an animal stalking their tracks. Angela noticed it, too. Her eyes flicked over her shoulder every time a branch would snap and the jungle fell silent in response. They could hear the animal's movements with the wind. Its loud, throaty growl carried along on the breeze and the smell of heated fur, stinking jowls, was a pungent marker of its pace.

James's head pounded. His breaths magnified in his ears as they stumbled through dense overgrowth, straining forward but not yet ready to run.

"It's closing in on us."

"The river's not much further. Up there..."

His voice fell away when he saw them: bodies. Two, a man and a woman it seemed, but it was hard to tell because of how they'd been ripped apart. Bright red blood, arterial blood, lay like a sheen of paint on their muddled carcasses. A tuft of auburn hair lay in the grass nearby. So much like Angela's...

"We're in big cat territory," she said. "Maybe a panther or a jaguar."

"Have we come this way before?"

"No. It's impossible -"

"I think we have. Look at that tree."

Angela shook her head. The sweat was thick on her forehead as she squinted into the undergrowth. "I've never gotten off track before. It's not possible."

The movements of the animal behind them grew steadily closer.

It huffed and sniffed. Sometimes there came a faint wailing, but it was hard to distinguish above the wind. The darkness magnified around them as the night grew, and James's ears pricked to every movement. It was behind them. Close - within several feet.

Angela found a small smattering of boulders on the side of a small hill and they ducked in between them.

The huffing was wet and rasping. Closer now. It sounded like it was right on top of them, above and below them, from all around them in the clearing. James stilled. The sounds prickled the sweat that dried on the back of his neck. Where was it? Why couldn't he see the damn thing? The locals had warned him not to cross the border on foot but never said why.

They waited.

Out here not even the stars were visible through the jungle canopy. It grew so cold they could see their breath misting in the air.

Right as James felt himself dozing off, there was a movement in the bushes to his right. Angela stiffened next to him and raised her hunting rifle in her hands.

"Wait," he whispered.

They froze and in the darkness the outline of a massive feline became distinguishable amongst the ferns. The jungle around them fell silent. It was just them and it, as it prowled forward on four legs, snapping twigs as it stalked. James could hear it breathing. A large wet nose with thick, wet breaths.

It was the wetness that bothered him the most. Because the wetness could've been anything. Sweat, saliva, blood, urine, mucous. It could've come from the entrails of the people before them - their intestines and stomachs sloshing around, coating the nose and teeth of the beast.

Just as it was about to pounce, James caught sight of a single glittering eye in the darkness. Angela let a shot lose on it and the noise cracked the night in half. The creature fell to the ground in front of them, head dangling to the side.

A jaguar. Three hundred pounds with a sleek, black hide that shone clear with sweat.

"Jesus," Angela breathed. "He's huge."

They both stood a moment, staring. Mosquitoes dug at their skin, fluttering around their eyes but neither of them moved.

Finally Angela stepped forward.

She flicked open her knife and sliced open the animal's belly. A smell like sweat and salt and the meat of partially digested animals jumped out at them. James held the lone flashlight steady on her. "Ange, what are you doing?"

"The bladder."

Her hands moved deftly across pink skin, peeling back layers of muscle by its hind legs.

"If you want to get any sleep at all tonight, we need to mark our territory."

Her hands moved with ease, like she was autopsying a body in a surgery room. James felt his stomach lurching. His back was stiff, body tense, and slowly his gaze began to wander up to the animal's one remaining eye. It was open and seemed to glow in the darkness. Like it was still alive. Like it was watching him.

Angela stood. She held a purple sac up in her hands, blood on her fingers and the smell was something that crawled up inside him, that stuck there. He tasted the smell and it lingered on his tongue.

His hands were still shaking as he dragged the carcass to the river a few feet ahead and dumped it in. When he turned around, Angela was next to him. She washed the blood off in the murky water, then used a peppermint leaf to scrub at her skin.

"Good shot, huh," she said.

"You didn't have to cut it open."

"James -"

"It's bad luck. It's..."

The air was heavy with insects and he could hear monkeys howling in the treetops just beyond the riverbed. How far until the border? His muscles ached from the hours of walking and the back of his neck was sticky with sweat. He expelled a sigh and his ribs burned.

She touched his hand. "Try to get some rest. Okay?"

James nodded but deep down he knew he couldn't. Because it felt like if he went to sleep that he'd never wake up again.

His stomach tightened as he looked up at the canopy of trees above them. Up there, deep in the leaves and entwined branches, a single, glimmering eye shone back at him.

3 comments:

  1. this is outstanding.
    brilliantly descriptive,
    tension building

    first class!

    michael mccarthy

    ReplyDelete
  2. Believable, beginning to end.

    Not a word wasted.

    Arthur D.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Excellent sensory detail. Tension never let up, and the end leaves you wondering if they will make it.

    ReplyDelete