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Thursday, October 2, 2014

STRANDED, Chapter 19



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.

“Eve?”

“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.”

“What happened?”

“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

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

STRANDED, Chapter 18


Chapter 18

Jake drew in a sharp breath. Crystal, gone? Betty and Eve scrambled to their feet, eyes locked wide in faces drained zombie-white. The crash of a wave against the steep rock cliff slapped into his consciousness. His heart jumped.

Please, no!

He ran to the cliff side.

Two gulls screamed overhead. He fell to his stomach and peered over the edge. The cliff dropped guillotine-sharp to turbulent ocean swells. A line of froth barreled in from the ocean and walloped the cliff, spraying the wave into a geyser of foam. It arched away from the rock and plunged into the murky turbulence.

No one could survive a fall into that.

His chest jerked. No!

His breath came in gasping jolts. He should have taken Crystal with him. Should have thought of the cliff. Should have never, ever left her alone.

“Jake.” Eve’s voice, soft, compelling, reached into the swirling tumult inside his head. “Jake, she may have gone to get water. Remember that last little stream?”

He pulled back from the cliff’s edge, aware of her fingers tight on his right shoulder. He sat up and grabbed her hand. Held it. Latched onto the compassion in her eyes. “I shouldn’t have left her.”

“We all left her. We’re all responsible.” Her voice quivered. She took a deep breath. “And now we’re going to look for her. Where do you want us to begin?”

He released her hand and rose to his feet. What was wrong with him? Of course there were other possibilities. The swirl in his head settled and he swallowed the tight pinch in his throat. “Not alongside the wall. She couldn’t have passed me, or I’d have seen her. Same goes for the jungle. She must have gone to the stream. I’ll go back and look for her.”

“I’m coming with you.” Color returned to Betty’s face. She turned and set off at a fast clip downhill.

“No.” Jake caught up and grabbed her arm. “Please, I want you and Eve to stay together.” His gaze fell on the pile of coconuts shells they used for water. Four shells. Crystal hadn’t gone for water. His stomach clenched. “You and Eve follow the rock wall toward the jungle after all. Maybe she decided to explore a bit. Maybe she slipped by me.”

He took off running, slowing only when the path cut to the edge of the cliff. “Crystal!”  Behind him, Betty’s and Eve’s calls echoed his. Please, God. Help us find her.

At the tiny stream where they’d last stopped for water, he paused long enough to drink. The streambed showed no signs she’d returned, nor did the vegetation give evidence she’d followed the trickle of water inland.

Of course not. This was Cry Baby Crystal. She wouldn’t have gone off by herself. Not far. She had to be near the rock wall.

“J-a-a-ke.” Eve’s shout as he strode up the steep incline halted his steps. She was calling his name—not Crystal’s. He broke into a run, his heart hammering.

When he came into view, she yelled, “We found her!”

Relief burst like a floodlight into darkness. He sped up the hill, wanting to laugh. He’d hug that little girl. Then he’d chew her out but good.

Crystal was not standing with Betty and Eve.

Chest heaving from the run, he scanned the campsite. “Where is she?”

“Here.”

He followed the voice skyward. Crystal’s head and shoulders poked up from the top of the rock wall. His mouth dropped open.

“I’m sorry, Jake.” The corners of Crystal’s eyes and mouth scalloped downward to a quivering chin. “I didn’t mean to scare everybody.” She snuffled and gulped in a whimpering breath. 

“She’s been up there all this time.” Betty’s voice was tight. Hot with anger, hot with tears held back.

He swallowed his own. “Crystal, how’d you get up there?” If he’d stood on his own shoulders, he still wouldn’t have been able to touch the edge.

“Over there.” She pointed to the ocean side of the cliff.

He walked over to the edge. The sheer incline of the precipice jutted upward in irregular protrusions from where he had lain on his stomach to look down at the ocean. He leaned out and peered at the cliff face. She couldn’t mean here. Not where it meant hanging out over the ocean. “Where?”

"I'll show you." Crystal disappeared.

He looked above him in time to see her legs push out from the top of the rock wall. They dangled over the ocean far below her while her bare toes searched for a foothold. His heart shot to his throat.

“Crystal, go back.” It was all he could do not to yell. If he scared her and she let go …

He spied the footholds she must have used. Grabbing a quick breath, he forced calmness into his voice. “I see the stairs you used. You don’t need to show me. Go back to where I first saw you so I can talk to you.”

Her legs withdrew at a snail’s pace onto the top of the wall. A moment later her head and shoulders reappeared where he’d first seen her.

“I’m back.” A grin replaced her former sniffles.

He wanted to shake her. “Do you know how dangerous that was?”

Her smile flattened.

“You could have fallen! Did you think about that?”

She nodded her head. “I took off my sandals so I wouldn’t slip.” The corners of her mouth sank downward.

 “Don’t ever, ever do anything like that again! You could have fallen into the ocean and we’d have never known it. We looked all over for you. You scared us, Crystal. Scared us badly.”

Hiccuped sobs shuddered from her chest.

“How are we going to get her down? Not … over there.” The tears Betty had held back dripped off her chin. Eve’s arm encircled the trembling woman, holding her up as much as comforting her.

“No. I’ll catch her from here.” 

He took a breath of air and cleared his head of the fog of emotions. “Crystal, stop crying and listen to me. Lower yourself over the edge, right where you are. I’ll catch you.”

She hushed and peered through tear-blurred eyes over the wall’s rim. “You’re too far.”

“Look.” He stretched his arms toward her. “Not so far. I’m right here.”

She didn’t move, just stared down at him.

Eve stepped to his side. “I’m here too. I’ll make sure he doesn’t catch you by your hair.”

Crystal giggled. Slowly, ever so slowly, she shifted until her legs stuck out over the wall. “But how are we going to get to that big beach on the other side?”

Jake blinked. “Whoa. What beach? On the other side of this wall?”

“Uh huh. I was looking down on it when I heard you guys calling. There’s a cove and a really big stream and—”

“People?” Jake didn’t breathe. That one factor decided their next move. Either they’d find help getting off the island, or they’d have to repair the boat and island-hop.

“Nope. No people.”

“You’re sure?”

Crystal hesitated. “I didn’t look real hard. I got to the edge just as Eve and Aunt Betty yelled, and I hurried back.”

“Stay there.” He turned to face Eve and Betty. “I’m going up.”

“How?” Betty glanced at the cliff side. “Not …”

“I don’t know how she got around that corner to the first step, but it doesn’t look too bad after that.”

“Please, Jake.” Tears flooded Betty’s eyes. “It’s not worth the risk.”

“If Crystal made it, I’m sure Jake can. Maybe all of us can.” Eve walked to the edge of the cliff. “It does look like a staircase.”

“Noooo,” Betty moaned.

Eve stepped back and Jake positioned himself at the corner, chest flat against the wall, left arm extended back across its surface. There was nothing to hold onto. He reached seaward around the corner and searched with his right hand. His fingers found a hold, a good one. He gripped it.

Below him, a wave crashed against the cliff, darting up at him like a tongue spattering saliva. His heart quaked at the distance. The wave couldn’t begin to touch him, but its violence foretold his fate should he fall.

The first foothold on the precipice required a step up from where he stood. Balancing his weight on his left foot, he extended his right leg and planted his foot on the projection. His jerry-rigged moccasin held.

It was do or die. Plastering himself against the wall, he pushed off from his left foot to his right. Too late he realized he didn’t have enough room for both feet. He teetered. Gripped the wall. Grubbed for a toehold.

Pressure against his left hand stabilized him. Eve peered around the corner. “Gotcha.”

Shoot him if he ever complained about that woman again.

Wiggling his toes, he burrowed his left foot underneath his right until he stood with both feet crunched on the foothold. He raised his right foot to the next stair step.

“Okay, let me go.” A new hold on another projection. Then a step up. Then another. And another. At last he pulled his chest onto the top of the rock wall.

Crystal sat facing him. “I knew you could do it.”

“Don’t you ever do it again, do you understand? The shortcut isn’t worth losing you.”

“But what about Aunt Betty and Eve?”

“We’ll find another way around for them.”

“Jake, here comes Betty,” Eve yelled. “You’d better help her.”

“What?” His heart leaped to his throat. He scrambled to the edge and found Betty clinging to the cliff side. Eve’s arm pressed Betty’s bare feet against the first foothold.

“What are you doing?” His scream sent seagulls whirling toward the ocean.

“Shut up and reach for her.”

Fury percolated to the crown of his head. “She’s too far down!” He extended his arm toward her anyway.

“She’s coming up. Ready, Betty?”

A grunt rasped from Betty’s throat.

“Do you see where to put your foot?” Eve’s voice was calm, reassuring. Exactly as it had been when she’d encouraged him to look for Crystal. “On your right there—up just a little. Put your foot on it. I’ve got you steady here. You won’t slip.”

Step by step, Betty rose toward him.

“One more, atta girl.” He clutched her arms and stabilized her until she climbed high enough for him to haul her over the edge. She sat panting, swallowing in between gasps.

“You okay?” He patted her hand.

She nodded, and he turned to help Eve.

“Don’t need it.” Eve refused his hand and climbed unassisted onto the top of the wall. Betty’s sandals protruded from her shorts’ pockets. “Here you go, Betty. We should have thought to toss our coconut shells up here.”

“The plan was for you and Betty to stay down there,” he said evenly. “If we don’t start working together—”

Eve’s eyebrows shot up. “Working together? Did you share your plan with us?”

“You were on the way up here before I could say anything.”

“We’re not your troops, Jake. We can make our own decisions without your approval.”

He stepped closer, glaring eyeball to glaring eyeball. “That sailor I found was murdered. If anyone is on the other side of this rock, there’s no room for independent decisions.”

She folded her arms across her chest. “Then we’d better go see what’s there and discuss our next move, don’t you think?”

CONTINUED ON THURSDAY-FRIDAY

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