Crystal dropped her life vest and ran screaming into the gurgling stream. She plopped face down, rolled over, then back again onto her stomach. Mouth wide open, she gulped down the cool water. She’d drink the whole stream, she was so-oh-thirsty.
How long had Jake made them sit on that hot, black rock, waiting, waiting, waiting? If Aunty hadn’t fainted, they’d still be there. C’mon, like Eve said, nobody was on this island. There were no boats, no huts, not even footprints in the sand. Creepy, that’s what this island was.
She sat up and faced the broken rock cliff she’d scampered down ahead of everyone else. Eve and Jake were still winding their way toward the stream. Jake carried Aunty in his arms like she was a big baby. Guilt twisted rubber bands around Crystal’s stomach. She glanced up and down the stream. There ought to be something she could carry water in.
Her shirt. It was stinky with sweat, but it’d be wet and cool. She whipped it off and sloshed it around in the water. By the time she got to the adults, the sun had already dried her naked chest except where her hair touched her shoulders.
She handed the sopping shirt to Jake. He set Betty down and mopped her face and arms and shoulders. “How about a couple of drops on your tongue?” He squeezed the shirt over Betty’s lips, and she opened her mouth.
Her eyes too. “Get your shirt back on!” she croaked. “You’re too old to walk around like that.”
Heat flamed Crystal’s cheeks as Jake and Eve took a gander at her. “No I’m not.” Granny had told her she’d be thirteen before she had to worry about things like that, and she was only eleven. Jake handed her the shirt, and she jerked it on.
Her aunt walked the rest of the way to the stream, with Jake and Eve supporting her on either side just like Eve had been supported when they started out yesterday. Eve had been such a grump, and now it was Aunty’s turn. And Jake, he had freaked out, yelling at her about climbing the wall.
Would telling him she was the best in her gymnastics class help? Probably not. She had liked him until he bawled her out. She sniffed. Had even imagined her dad was like him.
The three adults stopped short of the stream to gaze beyond it. “Look at that cove,” her aunt murmured. “A perfect inlet for boats, maybe even deep enough for ships if the entrance isn’t too narrow.”
“Postcard perfect with that crescent of white sand around it.” Eve’s furrowed brow scrunched her sunburn blisters together. “I can’t imagine why no one lives here.”
Because of what lives in the jungle? Crystal shivered.
She hung back while the others waded into the stream. Really, things were not postcard perfect. On one side of the stream a few scraggly trees and plants grew. On the other side, nothing. Just flat rock until you reached the sand around the cove. And then, in back of the beach, nothing but a field of long, sun-bleached grass slanting uphill toward the distant cone of the volcano. The dry stalks rasped in the breeze as if they were whispering a secret they dared not tell.
Goose bumps popped up on her arms. The island was creepy. Something bad was going to happen if they didn’t get away quick. She scurried to join the adults.
“We’ve got to spend the night here, Jake.” Her aunt stretched out onto her back in the water. The stream pattered over her body and around her face, wagging her white hair.
Eve stretched out too, eyes closed, fingers fluttering water onto her swollen, red face.
“Fine by me.” Jake sat hunched over in the middle of the stream. He’d hardly said anything since they’d looked down on the empty cove.
Was he still mad at her for climbing the wall? The rubber bands tightened again around her stomach.
He stood and ran his hands over his wet hair and face. “We’ve got a few hours of daylight left. I’m going to check out the source of this stream. Anyone else interested?”
Betty shook her head.
“Not until I have immersion foot from head to toe.”
“What about you, Crystal?”
She shrank back. “I don’t like jungles.”
“We’ll turn back the first time you get scared. How about that?”
She was scared now. But would he get mad at her again if she said no? Reluctantly, she nodded her head, hoping he’d see she really didn’t want to go and let her stay.
He pointed to a spot where three green-leaved trees grew next to the stream. “We’ll make camp up there, under those trees.”
Betty lifted her head high enough to glance upstream. “Please, be careful.”
Crystal slogged behind Jake in the stream, past the three trees, up to where the vegetation grew thick and tall along the banks and enclosed them. She looked back. Aunt Betty and Eve were no longer in sight.
Jake stopped. “What do you think a jungle is like?”
She swallowed the landslide cramming her throat. “Scary.”
“Let’s see if you’re right.” He stepped out of the stream into the foliage. “It’s okay to be scared, but it helps you be brave if you know exactly what it is you’re scared of.”
But, she didn’t want to be brave.
“To make sure we know how to get back, we’re going to mark our path.” He snapped a pencil-sized branch and left it hanging. “Come on, you can help.”
She followed him, reaching out and snapping something with every step. They didn’t go far before he stopped again. “What do you think? Could you find your way back to the stream?”
She looked back at the waist-high trail of dangling wood and brightened. “Uh huh.”
“As you get better at it, you won’t have to mark it so often. And when you’re really good at it, I’ll show you how to hide it so no one sees it but you.”
Happiness marshmallowed in her chest. She followed Jake several steps before snapping a branch, waited a few more steps before snapping another. A map, that’s what she was creating. A map with invisible roads only she could see. She and Jake. Her heart thrummed. Maybe her daddy was like Jake after all.
Then, as if she’d walked through a door, the world changed. The air seeped damp and muggy into her lungs. Shadows merged into a spooky wall of darkness as layer upon layer of leaves far above her shut out the sun.
Hoots and screeches rained down from the dark clouds of leaves. “Jake!”
He halted. “When your eyes have adjusted, tell me what you see.”
Her heart thumped so hard she could barely breathe. “Trees,” she squeaked. She wasn’t going to cry. She wasn’t.
“They look like big, wooden tepees, some of them, don’t they? They’re called triangular buttress roots.” He stepped next to her and pointed at the treetops. “Up there is what’s called the canopy layer.”
She craned her neck to peer at the trees looming tall as skyscrapers above them.
“The crowns of the trees crowd against each other and form a big awning that pretty much keeps the weather out. Makes it like a big hothouse down here.”
“You mean zoo!” She put her fingers in her ears, and Jake laughed.
“That’s mainly the monkeys and birds that live up there. They’ve got their own little world in the canopy.”
Dead leaves polka-dotted with tiny, green plants lay in a thin carpet on the forest floor. Walking between the trees was easy. “Where are all the jungle plants? It’s not like this in the movies.” She grabbed a huge vine hanging from the canopy and swung on it.
“Surprised, huh? They can’t grow inside the rain forest. Only at the edge, where they get sunlight.” He stood, hands on his hips, smiling at her. “So what do you think, not so scary after all?”
He’d done this for her? Happiness jammed her heart so hard against her lungs she could hardly breathe. Nobody but Aunt Betty did nice things for her. It was always hush up, be still, find something to do from everybody else. Especially Grandma and Grandpa.
She let go of the vine and dropped to her feet. “I like it.” Maybe not the jungle so much, but definitely Jake.
“Let’s see how you do finding your way back to the stream.”
She led the way, spotting the broken branches way too easily. Next time she’d space them farther apart. Her heart skipped a beat. Next time? Hoots and howls and screeches from the canopy prickled her skin into a thousand goose bumps. “What about gorillas and … animals like that?”
“You thinking of Tarzan?”
Her cheeks burned. “Yes.”
“That was in Africa. No gorillas here in the Philippines. No lions or tigers. Probably nothing bigger than a monkey on this island.”
“What about the swamp? You said—”
I was thinking of snakes and crocs. Reptiles you wouldn’t want to snuggle up to.”
She giggled at his silliness. A question she’d wanted to ask ever since she’d seen him with his shirt off popped into her mind. “You were in a jungle …”
“In Viet Nam. During the war.”
“Is that where you got those three scars? The round ones?”
“Bullet holes, yep.”
“We were defending a bridge the enemy wanted to destroy. They wanted to stop us from getting supplies to our troops. Fortunately the bullets hit me on the right instead of on the left where my heart is.”
“What did you do?”
“A buddy bandaged me up to stop the bleeding. The bullets went right through me, so I didn’t need anyone to dig them out.”
“So you just had to lie there and wait till they could get you to a hospital?”
“No lying around, kiddo. I was in charge of the men. My duty was to see that they were okay and doing what they should be doing. We needed to protect that bridge, and that’s what we did.”
She sucked in her bottom lip and chewed on it. He’d been brave in a scary situation. Could she be brave on a scary island? Maybe … with Jake next to her.
Sunlight seeped through and the vegetation became a tangle again. They arrived at the stream and doused their sweat and bug bites. Before they started out again, she broke off one of the dangling branches and set it afloat down the stream. Would Aunt Betty know it was from her?
The water moved faster the farther upstream they waded. When the stream entered the rain forest, even though her heart pounded in her ears she found comfort in its familiarity. The rain forest was a hot house with skyscraper trees and a canopy zoo. Nothing bigger than a monkey. Not like the swamp with snakes and crocs.
Was that a log halfway in the stream? She swallowed. “Jake, would there be crocs here?”
“Too shallow. They need to submerge to eat their prey.”
Had her dad been in a jungle? Maybe gone to Viet Nam and been a hero like Jake? Her mom had been a hippy, Granny said. Hippies had protested the war. But maybe she’d met a soldier and admired his bravery.
The dark cloud that hid in her heart rolled out from cover. Why hadn’t her mom left at least some kind of clue as to who her baby’s daddy was? Just because her mom didn’t like her own dad didn’t mean Crystal and her father wouldn’t love each other.
“What do we have here?” Jake stopped, and Crystal bumped into him.
She shoved away her black cloud and peered around him. A triangle of light lay ahead. Out of it echoed a faint, steady roar.
CONTINUED ON FRIDAY