Title: The Ruins.
Author: Scott Smith.
Genre: Fiction, horror, survival fiction.
Publication Date: 2006.
Summary: Two young couples are on a lazy Mexican vacation—sun-drenched days, wild nights, making friends with fellow tourists. When the brother of one of those friends disappears, they decide to venture into the jungle to look for him. What started out as a fun day trip slowly spirals into a nightmare when they find an ancient ruins site... and the terrifying presence that lurks there.
My rating: 6/10.
♥ Jeff leaned forward to study the map. It was clear to Amy, without anything explicit having been said, that it was his advice Mathias was soliciting. Amy didn't take offense; she was used to this sort of thing. Jeff had something about him that made people trust him, an air of competence and self-confidence. Amy sat back in her seat and watched him smooth the wrinkles from the map with the palm of his hand. Jeff had curly, dark hair, and eyes that changed color with the light. They could be hazel or green or the palest of brown. He wasn't as tall as Mathias, or as broad in the shoulders, but despite this, he somehow seemed to be the larger of the two. He had a gravity to him: he was calm, always calm. Someday, if all went according to plan, Amy imagined that this would be what would make him a good doctor. Or, at the very least, what would make people think of him as a good doctor.
♥ Inside, she was thinking, No, I don't want to go, but she knew she couldn't say this. She complained too much; everyone said so. She was a gloomy person. She didn't have the gift of happiness; somewhere along the way, someone had neglected to give it to her, and now she made everyone else suffer for her lack of it. The jungle would be hot and dirty, its shadowed spaces aswarm with mosquitoes, but she tried not to think of this; she tried to rise above it. Mathias was their friend, wasn't he? He'd loaned them his scuba tank, showed them where to dive. And now he was in need. Amy let this thought gather strength in her mind, a hand pulling shut doors, slamming them in rapid succession, until only one was left open. When Mathias turned toward her, grinning, pleased with Jeff's words, looking for her to echo them, she couldn't help herself: she smiled back at him, nodded.
"Of course," she said.
♥ He told her she didn't have to go, that she could spend the day alone on the beach if she liked, and she just stared at him. They both knew who she was, how she'd rather be with the group, doing something she didn't like, than alone, doing something she enjoyed.
♥ And Stacy's smile at this—so open, so immediate, so loving—changed everything, made the whole day seem possible, even exciting. They were best friends, and they were going on an adventure, a hike through the jungle to see the ruins. They held hands and watched the soap opera. ..they hunched low in their seats, giggling together, each making the other feel better—safer, happier—as the bus pushed its way down the coast through the day's burgeoning heat.
♥ Curious, a little frightened, she'd crept to her door, peeked outside into the hall. Uncle Roger was lying there, very drunk, struggling to pull himself back to his feet. After a few attempts, he gave up. He rolled, shifted with a groan, and managed to arranged his body in something resembling a sitting position, his back against the guest room's door.
That was when he noticed Stacy. He winked at her, smiling, and she opened her door a little farther. Then she crouched there, watching him. What he said next would remain so vivid to her, so unblurred by the limitations of her seven-year-old consciousness, that she was no longer certain if it had actually happened. Its lucidity seemed more dream than memory. "I'm going to tell you something important," he said. "Are you listening?" When she nodded, he wagged an admonishing finger at her. "If you're not careful, you can reach a point where you've made choices without thinking. Without planning. You can end up not living the life you'd meant to. Maybe one you deserve, but not one you intended." Here he wagged his finger again. "Make sure you think," he said. "Make sure you plan."
..She never told her parents about this conversation, yet she'd though of it, off and on, throughout her childhood. She still thought of it now, as an adult, perhaps all the more so. It haunted her, because she sensed the truth in what he'd said, or what she'd dreamed he'd said, and she knew she wasn't a thinker, wasn't a planner, would never be one. It was easy enough to imagine herself trapped in some unanticipated way, through negligence or lassitude. Aging, say, and all alone, in a bathrobe spotted with stains, watching late-night TV with the sound on low while half a dozen cats slept beside her. Or in the suburbs, maybe, marooned in a big house full of echoing rooms, with sore nipples and an infant upstairs, screaming to be fed. This latter image was the one she had in her mind as she sat in the yellow pickup truck, bumping her way down the rutted dirt road, and it made her feel hollow, balloonlike, popable. She pushed it aside, an act of will. It wasn't her life, after all, not now, not yet.
♥ Never attempt to drive across moving water. There were so many rules to remember. No wonder people ended up in places they'd never chosen to be.
It was with this thought—in hindsight, such an appropriately ominous foreshadowing—that she glanced up through the windshield, to discover they'd arrived.
♥ Mathias would find his brother; there'd be some sort of confrontation, an argument in German, raised voices, ultimatums. Eric was looking forward to it. He liked drama, conflict, the rush and tumble of other people's emotions. It wasn't all going to be like this, the drudgery of walking through the heat, his elbow throbbing in time with his heartbeat. Once they found the ruins, the day would shift, take on a new dimension.
♥ It was their own invention; no one else understood it. Even Amy found it annoying. But it was the sort of thing Eric and Stacy were best at: silliness, play. In some deep, not entirely accessible part of his mind, Eric realized that they were two children together, and that someday Stacy was going to grow up, that it was already, in fact, beginning to happen. He didn't think he himself would ever accomplish this; he didn't understand how people did it. He was going to teach children and remain a child forever, while Stacy advanced implacably into adulthood, leaving him behind. He could dream of them getting married someday, but it was just a story he told himself, yet another example of his inherent immaturity. There was a good-bye lurking in their future, a breakup note, a last painful encounter. This was something he tried not to see, something he knew, or suspected he knew, but before which he reflexively closed his eyes.
♥ Eric wished he knew more words like that, wished he could be the sort of teacher who effortlessly used them, his students straining to understand him, learning just through listening, but he knew this wasn't who he'd ever be. He'd be the boy-man, the baseball coach, the one who winked and smiled at his students' pranks, a favorite among them, probably, but not really much of a teacher at all. Not someone from whom they'd ever learn anything important, that is.
♥ "It's gonna be okay," he said again.
"How?" Stacy asked, hating herself for speaking. She knew she shouldn't be asking questions like that. She needed to be quiet and let Eric build this dream for them.
♥ There were two backpacks, one dark green, one black, and he crouched beside the first of them, began to rifle through it, feeling like a thief, an old instinct, from another world entirely, that sense of transgression inherent in handling a stranger's belongings. Dead now, he thought again, summoning the words this time, searching for courage in them, but they didn't make it any better, only turned in into a different sort of violation. The green backpack seemed to belong to a man, the black one to a woman. Other people's clothes: he could smell cigarette smoke on the man's T-shirts, perfume on the woman's. He wondered if they belonged to the woman whom Mathias's brother had met on the beach, the one whose promised presence had drawn them all here—doomed them, perhaps.
♥ The hardest part was the step into open air, wondering if the rope would hold, and for an instant Eric wasn't certain he had the courage for it. But then he realized it wasn't possible not to: the moment he'd pulled the sling over his head, he'd set something into motion, and now there was no way he could stop it.
♥ Jeff felt a flush of pleasure, saying this, a sense of success amid so much failure. They were trapped here on this hill, with little water or food, two of them out of reach down a mine shaft, at least one of them injured, but for a moment, none of it seemed to matter. They had a plan, and the plan made sense, and this gave Jeff a brief burst of energy and optimism, setting them all into motion.
♥ Gary's mother had gone from house to house, passing on her son's possessions to boys who didn't know what to do with them. Boys who lost her son's sweaters and jackets, his baseball mitt and swim goggles, who gave them away or discarded them outright, who buried them in closets and trunks and basements. This was the way death always worked, Eric supposed; the living did everything possible to sweep all evidence of it from sight. Even Gary's closest friends continued forward with their lives, unmarred in any significant way by his absence, climbing from grade to grade, then leaping off into college, forgetting him as they went, remembering instead that photograph of the crumpled plane, the abrupt silence on the soccer fields before its crash.
♥ Stacy stood up, darted into the tent. It was even darker inside than out, but—groping on her hands and knees—she managed to find one of the sleeping bags. She rose with it, intending to hurry back outside and drape it across Pablo's body, then felt a sudden hesitation, the temptation to lie down instead, curl into herself here in this musty stillness, hide. It lasted only an instant, this temptation. Stacy knew it was pointless—there'd be no hiding here—and she pushed past the moment.
♥ She didn't like the rustling sounds. It seemed as if more were happening out there than the wind could account for. Things were moving about; things were creeping closer. Stacy thought of the Mayans, with their bows and arrows, and had to repress the urge to flee, to drop Pablo's hand and sprint across the hilltop, toward Jeff and the others. But this was silly, of course, as silly as he fantasy of hiding in the tent. There was nowhere for her to run. If the sounds were what she feared, then attempting to flee would only prolong her terror, draw out her suffering. Better to end it now, swiftly, with an arrow from the darkness. She sat clenched, waiting for it, listening for the soft twang of the bowstring, while that furtive rustling among the vines continued, but the arrow didn't arrive. Stacy couldn't bear it any longer—the suspense, the anticipation. "Hello?" she called.
Jeff's voice came toward her from across the hilltop: "What?" The windlass had stopped its squeaking.
"Nothing," she yelled. And then, as the windlass resumed its turning, she repeated the word, in a whisper now: "Nothing, nothing, nothing."
Pablo stirred, stared up at her. His hand felt cold to her, oddly damp, like something found rotting in a cellar. He licked his lips. "Nottin?" he said with a rasp.
Stacy nodded, smiled. "That's right," she said. "It's nothing." And then she sat there, waiting for the others to join her, struggling to believe it was true, that it was nothing—the wind, her imagination—that she was pulling monsters out of the night. "It's nothing," she kept whispering. "It's nothing. It's nothing. It's nothing."
♥ She and Eric spent the whole time talking—assiduously—as if they sensed some danger in even the briefest silence. The danger of thinking, Amy supposed, of stopping and assessing where they were, what they were dealing with. She felt as if they were sitting on some perilously high cliff, sensing the earth so far beneath them but trying not to look down and see it. Talking felt safer than thinking, even if they ended up talking about precisely what would've occupied their thoughts, because with talking there was at least the chance for reassurance, for them to bolster and encourage each other in a way that was impossible to do on one's own. And there was the chance to lie, too, if this were necessary. They talked about Eric's knee (it hurt when he put any weight on it, but it had stopped bleeding again, and Amy assured him it was going to be okay). They talked about how thirsty they were and how long their water would last (very thirsty, and only another day or so, though they both agreed that they'd probably be able to catch enough rain to tide them over). They talked about whether the other Greeks would come in the morning (probably, Eric said, and Amy seconded this, though she knew they were only hoping it was true). They talked about the possibility of their signaling a passing plane, or of one of them sneaking past the Mayans in the middle of the night, or of the Mayans simply losing interest at some point, vanishing back into the jungle, leaving the path open for their departure.
The one thing they didn't talk about was Pablo. Pablo and his broken back.
♥ Amy and Eric discussed who should go first, both of them offering this opportunity to the other. Amy insisted that Eric should be the one. He was wounded, after all, and he'd already spent so many hours alone in the hole. She swore she wasn't frightened, said it would only be a minute or two, that she didn't mind at all. But Eric wouldn't hear of it; he refused outright, and, finally, with secret relief—because she was frightened, because she did mind—Amy accepted his decision.
♥ Her hand was resting on his stomach, and without really thinking, she slid it down his body, slipping beneath the waistband on his boxers. She touched his penis, tentatively, the sleepy softness of it, let her fingers rest on top of it. She wasn't thinking of sex—she was too tired, too frightened for this to be any sort of motivation. What she was searching for was reassurance. She was fumbling for it, not knowing how to find it, trying this particular route only because she couldn't think of any other. She wanted to make him hard, wanted to jerk him off, wanted to feel his body arch as the sperm spurted out of him. She believed she'd find some comfort in this, some illusory sense of safety.
..She could feel his body relax in the aftermath, could even feel the moment when he fell asleep, the tension easing from his muscles. It was infectious, that abrupt sense of relief, that sudden abatement, like an emptiness sweeping through her, and in the face of it, her fear seemed, if only temporarily, to retreat a step. That was enough, though; it was all she needed. Because in that brief moment—somehow, miraculously—with her hand still clasping Eric's sticky, slackening penis, Stacy, too, slipped into sleep.
♥ "What are you doing?" she whispered.
"Thinking," Jeff answered.
"I'm trying to remember things."
Amy felt a catch at this, a dropping sensation inside her chest, as if she's reached for a light switch in a darkened room and encountered someone's face instead. She remembered visiting her mother's father, an old man with a smoker's cough, as he lay on his deathbed, tubed and monitored, clear fluids dripping into him, dark ones dripping out. Amy was six, maybe seven; she didn't let go of her mother's hand, not once, not even when she was prodded forward to kiss the dying man good-bye on his stubbled cheek.
"What are you doing, Dad?" her mother had asked the old man when they'd first arrived.
And he'd said, "Trying tor remember things."
It was what people did, Amy had decided, as they waited for death; they lay there struggling to remember the details of their lives, all the events that had seemed so impossible to forget while they were being suffered through, the things tasted and smelled and heard, the thoughts that half felt like revelations..
♥ She remembered walking out of a movie once, their second date, how Jeff had reached to slide his arm through hers. It had been raining; they'd shared an umbrella, pressing close together as they walked. He was shier than she would've guessed; even that evening, standing so near, the rain spattering against the taut fabric only inches above their heads, he hadn't dared to kiss her good night. This was still to come, another week or so in the future, and it was nice that way; it gave weight to the other things, the smaller gestures, his arm hooking hers as they stepped out from beneath the brightly lighted marquee onto the rain-slick streets. She almost spoke of it now, but then stopped herself, worried he might not have any memory of the moment, that what had felt so touching to her, so joyous, had been an idle gesture on his part, a response to the inclement weather rather than a timid advance toward her heart.
♥ Amy shifted slightly, her hand slipping free of Jeff's grasp. You weren't supposed to speak the words, but he'd gone and done it anyway, so causally, a man flicking his hand at a fly. If he dies here. Amy felt the need to say something, to assert some other reality—more benign, more hopeful. The Greeks were going to arrive in the morning, she wanted to tell him. By this time tomorrow, they'd all be saved. No one was going to have to drink any urine, any dew. And Pablo wasn't going to die. But she remained silent, and she knew why, too. She was afraid Jeff might contradict her.
♥ She was still smiling—she couldn't stop herself—and she sat staring down at him, feeling each moment closer and closer to tears, but not wanting to cry, desperately not wanting it, wanting to be strong, to make him feel safe, if only because she was with him, because she was his friend, and would've helped him if she could.
♥ Then Mathias reached out, patted her arm again, the cool touch of his fingertips.
"Don't," he said.
He made a wringing motion with his hands. "Twist yourself up. Try to be like an animal. Like a dog. Rest when you have the chance. Eat and drink if there's food and water. Survive each moment. That's all. Henrich—he was impulsive. He mulled over things, and then he lunged at them. He thought too much and too little, all at the same time. We can't be like that."
♥ He felt a jolt of emotion at this thought, missing his father even more than the unattainable shower, missing both his parents, wishing they were here to make things right. He was twenty-two years old; he'd spent nine-tenths of his life as a child, could still reach back and touch the place. It frightened him, in fact, how accessible it was. He knew that being a child now, waiting for someone else to save him, would be as easy a way to die as any other.
♥ He was beginning to grasp what was happening here, the whys and wherefores, the forces at play. Guilt, empathy, mercy: these weren't what this was about. The photo would mean nothing to these men, and Jeff, increasingly, could understand this—even sympathize, perhaps. Half a dozen yards beyond the Mayans, there was a cloud of gnats swirling in the air, hovering over the jungle's edge, as if held back from approaching any nearer by some invisible force. And this, too, made sense to Jeff.
..But no, of course not, it wasn't the birds—and he knew this. Because though he'd yet to understand where the noise had come from last night, he'd already realized that there weren't any birds on the hillside. No birds, no flies, no mosquitoes, no gnats. He bent, picked up another pebble, tossed it into the profusion of vines beside him. Once more, there was that jump of movement, nearly too fast to glimpse, and Jeff knew what it was now—knew what had pulled down his sign, too—and felt almost sickened by the knowledge.
He threw another pebble. This time there was no movement, and that made sense to Jeff, too. It was exactly what he'd expected. If it had kept happening, it would've simply been a reflex, and that wasn't what this was about.
He turned, stared toward the Mayans, who were standing in the center of the cleared ground, watching him, their weapons lowered finally. They seemed slightly bored by what they were seeing, and Jeff supposed he could understand this also. After all, he'd done nothing here that they hadn't witnessed on other occasions. The posting of the sign, the circumnavigation of the hill, the discovery of the bodies, the slowly dawning awareness of what sort of world he'd become trapped in: they'd seen it all before. And not only that, they cold probably guess what was still to come, too, could've told Jeff, if they'd only shared a language, how the approaching days would unfold, how they'd begin and how they'd end. It was with these thoughts in his head that Jeff returned to the trail and began his slow climb up it to tell the others of all he'd discovered.
♥ The vine was the reason they were being kept captive here: that was the gist of what Jeff was telling them. The Mayans had cut the clearing around the base of the hill in an attempt to quarantine the plant, sowing the surrounding soil with salt. Jeff's theory was that the vine spread through contact. When they touched it, they picked up its speeds or spores or whatever served as its means of reproduction, and if they were to cross the cleared swath of ground, they'd carry these with them. This was why the Mayans refused to allow them off the hill.
"What about birds?" Mathias asked. "Wouldn't they—"
"There aren't any," Jeff said. "Haven't you noticed? No birds, no insects—nothing alive here but us and the plant."
They all stared about the clearing, as if searching for some refutation of this. "But how would they know to stay away?" Stacy asked. She pictured the Mayans stopping the birds and mosquitoes and flies, just like they'd attempted to stop the six of them, the bald man waving his pistol toward the tiny creatures, shouting at them, keeping them at bay. How, she wondered, could the birds have known to turn aside when she hadn't?
"Evolution," Jeff said. "The ones who've landed on the hillside have died. The ones who've somehow sensed to avoid it have survived."
"All of them?" Amy asked, clearly not believing this.
Jeff shrugged. "Watch." His shirt had plastic buttons on its pockets; he reached up, yanked one off, tossed it out into the vines.
There was a jumping movement, blur of green.
"See how quick it is?" he asked. He seemed oddly pleased, as if proud of the plant's skill. "Imagine if that were a bird. Or a fly. It wouldn't have a chance."
♥ Stacy had heard everything Jeff was saying, but she wasn't following his words, wasn't grasping that he meant them literally. Plants bend toward the light: that was what she was thinking. She even, miraculously, remembered the word for this reflex—a darting glance back toward high school biology, the smell of chalk dust and formaldehyde, sticky bumps of dried gum hanging off the underside of her desk—a little bubble rising toward the surface of her mind, breaking with a popping sound: phototropism. Flowers open in the morning and shut at night; roots reach toward the water. It was weird and creepy and uncanny, but it wasn't the same as thinking.
"That's absurd," Amy said. "Plants don't have brains; they can't think."
"It grows on almost everything, doesn't it? Everything organic?" Jeff gestured at his jeans, the pale green fuzz sprouting there. .."Then why was the rope so clear?" Jeff asked.
"It wasn't. That's the reason it broke. The vine—"
"But why was there any rope left at all? This thing stripped the flesh off Pablo's legs in a single night. Why wouldn't it have eaten the rope clean, too? .. It was a trap."
.."Here," Jeff said. He reached into this pickets, emptied them one after another onto the dirt at his feet. There were four passports, two pairs of glasses, wedding rings, earrings, a necklace. "They're all dead. These are the only things left. These and their bones. And I'm telling you that the vine did this. It killed them. And right now, even as we're speaking, it's planning to kill us, too."
..Jeff started across the clearing, stepped into the surrounding vegetation. Half a dozen strides and he reached one of those odd waist-high mounds. He crouched beside it, began yanking at the vines. ..Jeff reached into the center of the mound, pulled out something vaguely spherelike, held it toward them. Stacy didn't want to see what it was; that was the only explanation she could devise for how long it took her to recognize the object, which was otherwise so instantly identifiable, that smiling Halloween image, that pirate flag flapping from the mast of Jeff's arm, poor Yorick of infinite jest. He was holding a skull toward them. She had to repeat the word inside her head before she could fully adsorb it, believe in it. A skull, a skull, a skull...
Then Jeff waved across the hilltop, and all their heads swiveled in unison to follow the gesture. Those mounds were everywhere, Stacy realized. She started to count them, reached nine, with many more still to number, and flinched away from the task.
"It's killed them all," Jeff said. He strode back toward them, wiping his hands on his pants. "The vine, not the Mayans. One by one, it's killed them all."
♥ He lifted his hand, took the bottle from her. It was the one they'd drunk from the previous afternoon, after their aborted crossing of the muddy field—a different world altogether, peopled by other versions of themselves, untouched and unknowing.
♥ Hate and more hate—Stacy was drowning in it, dropping downward, with no bottom in sight. She hated Pablo for having fallen into the shaft, hated him for his broken back, his fast-approaching death. She hated Eric for his wounded leg, for the vine moving wormlike beneath his skin, for his panic in the face of this. She hated Jeff for his competence, his coldness, for turning so easily to that knife and heated stone. She hated Amy for not stopping him, hated Mathias for his silences, his blank looks, hated herself most of all.
She opened her eyes, glanced about. A handful of minutes had passed, but nothing had changed.
Yes, she hated herself.
She hated herself for not knowing what time it was, or how much longer she'd have to sit here.
She hated herself for having stopped believing that Pablo was going to live.
She hated herself for knowing that the Greeks weren't going to come, not today, not ever.
She tilted back her umbrella, risked a quick look at the sky. Jeff was hoping for rain, she knew, depending on it. He was working to save them; he had plans and schemes and plots, but they all had the same flaw, the same weakness lurking within them—they all involved a degree of hope. And rain didn't come from hope; rain came from clouds, white or gray or the deepest of black—it didn't matter—they had to be there. But the sky above her was a blinding blue, stubbornly so, without a single cloud in sight.
It wasn't going to rain.
♥ The flames ought to have stopped that dreadful noise, that sound she recognized yet didn't want to know, and at first this seemed to be the case, but then the noise resumed again, more quietly, and yet in a manner that somehow seemed to envelop her completely. It took Amy a moment to realize that the sound wasn't coming from beneath her any longer; it was all around her now, and above her, too. Jeff was slipping from sight, the fire dying out, the shadows reclaiming him, and as she lifted her eyes to see how much farther she had to climb, a hint of movement caught her gaze, held it fast. It was the plants hanging from the walls of the shaft, paler, most spindly versions of their cousins up above. Their tiny flowers were opening and closing. This was what was making that terrible noise, Amy realized—it was coming so much more softly now, insidiously—the sound she finally had no choice but to recognize, to acknowledge, the sound she also guessed was being echoed all across the hillside.
They're laughing, she thought.
♥ Pablo moaned—it almost sounded like a word, as if he were calling out for something—but when they turned to look, his eyes were still shut, his body motionless. Dreaming, Eric thought, yet he knew immediately that it wasn't so, that it was worse, far worse. It was delirium, the stumble before the fall.
Dreaming, delirium, dying...
♥ He was losing them, he knew. Only twenty-four hours and already they were acting like victims—slope-shouldered, blank-faced. Even Mathias seemed to have retreated somehow, over the course of then morning, grown passive, when Jeff needed him to be active.
..Jeff couldn't think how to respond to this. All the options that presented themselves were unacceptable. He wanted to shout at her, to shake her by her shoulders, slap her across the face, but he knew that nothing good would come from any of this. Everyone seemed insistent on failing him here, on letting him down; they were all so much weaker than he ever would've anticipated. He was simply trying to do the right thing, to save Pablo's life, to save them all, and no one seemed capable of recognizing this, let alone finding the strength within themselves to help him do any of the difficult things that needed to be done.
♥ And it wasn't because of any skill or foresight on her own part that she'd survived. Jeff had saved her. Jeff would save them all, if they'd only let him. They shouldn't be laughing at him.
♥ Eric shook his head, but it didn't matter, because Jeff hardly noticed the gesture. He hadn't paused for a response; no, he just kept talking, knowing he was handling this in the worst possible manner, but no longer able to stop himself, and not wanting to, either, because there was joy in it, too: the relief of speaking, of shouting. The release felt physical, almost sexual in its intensity.
♥ Was she crying? He strained to hear, but the phlegmy rattle of Pablo's breathing obscured all other sounds within the clearing.
Go to her, he said to himself. Do it now. Yet he didn't move. He felt trapped, immobilized. He'd read once how to pick a lock, and he believed that he could do it if he ever needed to. He knew how to break free from the trunk of a car, how to climb out of a well, how to flee a burning building. But none of that helped him here. No, he couldn't think of a way to escape this present situation. He needed Amy to be the one, needed her to be the first to move.
..Go to her, he thought yet again.
And then: You're too hard. We all think you're too hard.
He watched as she hunched low, her hands still pressed to her mouth. She hesitated like that, going silent finally: no more coughing or gagging or choking. For nearly a minute, she didn't move at all. Then, very slowly, she tiled over onto her side in the mud. She lay perfectly still, curled into a fetal position; Jeff assumed she'd fallen back asleep. He knew he was supposed to go help her now, wipe her clean like an infant, guide her back into the tent. But this was her own fault, wasn't it? So why should he be the one to pick up the pieces? He wasn't going to do it. He was going to let her lie there, let he wake at dawn with vomit caked to her face. He could still smell it, and he felt his own stomach turning in response to the stench—not just his stomach but his feelings, too. Anger and disgust and the deepest sort of impatience—they kept him by the little lean-to through the night, watching but not doing. I should check on her, he thought—how many times? A dozen, maybe more. I should make sure she's okay. He didn't do it, though; he sat watching her, thinking the words, recognizing their wisdom, their tightness, but not doing, all night not doing.
..There were stories he could call upon here—false deaths—people pulled pulseless from deep water, blue-lipped, stiff-limbed. There were heart attacks and snakebites and lighting strikes. And choking victims, too—why not? People who ought never to have breathed again, and yet, through some miracle, some physiological quirk, were yanked back into life simply because someone who had no reason to believe, no reason to persist, did so nonetheless, breathing air into a corpse's lungs, pumping blood through a cadaver's heart, resurrecting them—somehow, some way Lazarus-like, from the grip of their too-soon deaths.
"It's too late," Mathias said.
Jeff had learned CPR in a tenth-grade health class. Early sporing in western Massachusetts, flies buzzing and bumping against the big windows, which looked out on the courtyard, with its flagpole, its tiny greenhouse. A short lecture, and then they practiced, the rubber dummy laid out on the linoleum, a female, oddly legless. She'd been given a name, Jeff remembered, but he couldn't recall what it was. Fifteen boys, taking turns with her—there'd been a few halfhearted sexual jokes, which Mr. Kocher frowned into silence. They were all embarrassed, anxious of failure, and trying not to show it. The dummy's lips had tasted of rubbing alcohol. Kneeling beside her head, Jeff had imagined the rescues that might lie in his future. He's pictured his grandmother collapsed on the kitchen floor, his entire family—sister and parents and cousins and uncles and aunts—all of then frozen, helpless, watching her die; and then Jeff would calmly step forward, pushing his way through them so that he could kneel beside her and breathe life back into her body, the simplest of gestures, yet God-like, too. A moment of grace—that was how he'd pictured it—full of serenity and self-assurance.
He exhaled, filling Amy's lungs.
Mathias reached, touched his shoulder. "She's not..."
Go to her, he'd thought—he remembered the words in his head. Sitting in the mud beside Pablo's lean-to, watching her stagger, drop to her knees, her hands at her mouth. Do it now. And why hadn't he?
..My fault: There was no doubt of this, yet Jeff knew her couldn't afford to think on it now, had to resist its pull. Later, he'd have to confront those two words, bear their weight; later, there'd be no escape. But not now.
He began to push: one... two... three... four... five.
.."Mathias?" Stacy said, sounding scared. "Is she..."
Babies pulled from trash cans, old women found slumped int their nightgowns, hikers dug out of snowbanks—the main thing was not to give up, not to make assumptions, to act without hesitation, and pray for that miracle, that quirk, that sudden gasp of air.
Stacy took a single step forward. "You mean—"
.."Shut up," Jeff said, his voice very quiet. "All right?"
She didn't answer, was too startled. Briefly, she felt the urge to scream, to lash out at him, strike him, but then it passed. Everything seemed to collapse in its wake. Her fatigue was back suddenly, and her fear, too. She reached, took Amy's hand. It was cool to the touch, slightly damp. If it had squeezed back, Stacy would've shrieked, and it was this realization more than anything else that finally, unequivocally, brought the truth home.
Dead, Stacy thought. She's dead.
"No more talking," Jeff said. "Can you do that? Just be here with me—with her—and not say another word?"
Stacy kept gripping Amy's hand. Somehow this made things easier. She nodded.
And so that was what they did. They remained there together, one on either side of Amy's body, waiting, not speaking, while the earth began its slow tilt toward dawn.
♥ Two and a half slices of orange, a small handful of peels. If there'd been five of them still, there'd only be two segments apiece. That Amy's absence could be measured in such a paltry manner, half a slice of orange, seemed terribly sad to Eric.
♥ There was something they could do, of course, a resource at their disposal, but Jeff doubted the others would accept it. Unpalatable was the word that came to mind, actually—They'll find it unpalatable—and, even in his present extremity, he saw the humor in this.
.."Shouldn't we, you know..." Stacy pointed at Amy's body.
Jeff turned to her, startled. Despite himself, he felt a strange mix of hope and relief. She's going to say it for me. "What?" he asked.
"You know..." She pointed again.
Jeff waited her out, wanting her to be the one, not him. Why did it always have to be him? He sat watching her, willing her to speak, to say the words.
But she failed him. "I guess... I don't know..." She shrugged. "Bury her or something?"
No, that wasn't it, was it? That missed the point entirely. It would have to be him; he'd been a fool to imagine any other possibility. He inclined his head, as if nodding, though it wasn't a nod at all. "Well, that's the thing," he said. "Sort of. The thing we need to talk about."
The others were silent. No one was going to help him here, he realized; no one but him had made the leap. Like cows, he thought, examining their faces. Perhaps the orange had been a bad idea—maybe he should've waited, should've spoken at the height of their hunger, with the smell of bread in the air, or meat.
"I think we're okay," he began. "Waterwise, I mean. I think we can count on the rain coming often enough to keep us alive. We can maybe sew a big pouch even, out of the nylon." He waved across the clearing, toward the scraps from the blue tent. The others followed his gesture, stared for a moment, then turned back to him.
Like sheep, he thought. He was waiting for the right words to arrive, but they weren't coming.
Stacy shifted, reached, picked up Amy's hand again, held it in her own, as if for reassurance.
There were no right words, of course.
..Stacy was the one who broke it finally, turning to Jeff. "You'd really do it?"
"People have. Castaways, and—"
"I'm asking if you would. If you could eat her."
Jeff thought for a moment. "I don't know." It was the truth: he didn't.
Stacy looked appalled. "You don't know?"
He shook his head.
"How can you say that?"
"Because I don't know what it feels like to starve. I don't know what choices I'd make in the face of it. All I know is that if it's a possibility, if it's something we can even agree to conceive of, then we have to take certain steps now, right now; before much time passes."
We'd have to figure out a way to preserve it."
Jeff sighed. This was going exactly as he'd anticipated, a disaster. "What do you want me to say?"
"How about her?"
Jeff felt a tug of anger at this, without warning, a righteous sort of fury, and he liked the sensation. It was reassuring; it made him feel he was doing the right thing after all. "You really think that's still her?" he asked. "You really think that has the slightest thing to do with Amy anymore? That's an object now, Stacy. An it. Something without movement, without life. Something we can either rationally choose to use to help us survive here, or—irrationally, sentimentally, stupidly—decide to let rot, let the vine eat into yet another pile of bones. That's a choice we have to make. Consciously—we have to decide what happens to this body. Because don't trick yourself: Flinching away from it, deciding not to think about it, that's a choice, too. You can see that, can't you?"
Stacy didn't answer. She wasn't looking at him.
"All I'm saying is, whatever our decision might be, let's make it with open eyes." Jeff knew that he should just let it go, that he'd already said too much, pushed too hard, but he'd come this far, and he couldn't stop himself. "In a purely physical sense, it's meat. That's what's lying there."
Stacy gave him a look of loathing. "What the fuck is the matter with you? Are you even upset? She's dead, Jeff. Understand? Dead."
It took effort to keep his voice from rising to match her own, yet somehow he managed it. He wanted to reach forward, to touch her, but he knew that she'd recoil from him. He wanted both of them to calm down. "Do you honestly think Amy would care? Would you care if it were you?"
♥ Stacy could see Amy's face through the opening; it had already taken on a noticeable puffiness, a faintly greenish tinge. Her eyes had drifted open once again. In the past, Stacy knew, they used to rest coins upon people's eyes. Or did they put coins in the mouth, to pay the ferryman? Stacy wasn't certain; she'd never bothered to pay attention to details like that, and was always regretting it, the half knowing, which felt worse than not knowing at all, the constant sense that she had things partly right, but not right enough to make a difference. Coins on the eyes seemed silly, though. Because wouldn't they fall off as the casket was carried to the graveyard, jostled and tiled, then lowered into its hole? The corpses would lie beneath that weight of dirt for all eternity, open-eyed, with a pair of coins resting uselessly on the wooden planks beside them.
No casket for Amy—no coins, either. Nothing to pay the ferryman.
♥ The vine had eaten Amy's flesh in half a day. So why shouldn't it inflict something similar upon him? All it would have to do was make its way to his heart, he supposed, and then—what? Slowly squeeze it, still its beating? Thinking this, Eric became conscious of his pulse, of the fact—both banal and profound all at once—that it would stop someday, whether here or somewhere else, and that when it did, he'd stop, too. These beats sounding faintly in his head—they were finite, there was a limit to them, and each contraction of his heart brought him that much closer to the end. He was thinking, irrationally, that if he could only slow his pulse, he might manage to live longer, to stretch out his allotted heartbeats—add a day, maybe two, or even a week—was probing at the illogic of this, when the vine fell silent.
♥ It was absurd, but he didn't want the vine to know he was crying. He had the instinct to hide himself, as if he feared the plant might find some pleasure in his suffering. He wept but didn't sob, restricting himself to a furtive sort of gasping. He kept his head bowed the entire time. When he finally managed to quiet, he rose back to his feet, using his shirtsleeve to wipe clean the dampness, the snot. His legs felt shaky, his chest strangely hollow, but he could sense that he was stronger for the purging, and calmer, too. Still grief-stricken—how could he not be?—still guilt-ridden and bereft, but steadier nonetheless.
♥ "You'd think they'd just kill us," he said.
Mathias paused in his eating, turned to look at him.
"It takes so much effort, sitting here like this. Why not just slaughter us from the start and be done with it?"
"Maybe they feel it would be a sin," Mathias said.
"But they're killing us by keeping us here, aren't they? And if we tried to leave, they wouldn't hesitate to shoot us."
"That's self-defense, though, isn't it? From their perspective? Not murder."
Murder, Jeff thought. Was that what was happening here? Had Amy been murdered? And if so, by whom? The Mayans? The vine? Himself? "How long do you think it's been going on?" he asked.
Jeff waved about them, at the hillside, the cleared ground. "The vine. Where do you think it came from?"
Mathias started in on the banana's skin, frowning slightly, thinking. Jeff waited while he chewed. There was a trio of large black birds shifting about in the trees above the Mayans' tarp. Crows, Jeff guessed. Carrion birds, drawn by the smell of Pablo or Amy, but too wise to venture any nearer. Mathias swallowed, wiped his mouth with his hand. "The mine, I guess," he said. "Don't you think? Someone must've dug it up."
"But how did they contain it? How did they have time to seal off the hill? Because they would've had to hack down all this jungle, plow the dirt with salt. Think how long that must've taken." He shook his head—it didn't seem possible.
"Maybe you're wrong about them," Mathias said. "Maybe it isn't about quarantining the vine. Maybe they know how to kill it but choose not to."
"Maybe it would just keep coming back. And this is a way of holding it at bay, confining it. A sort of truce they've stumbled upon."
"But if ti's not about quarantining it, why won't they let us leave?"
"Maybe it's just a taboo they have among themselves, passed down through the generations, a way of ensuring that the vine never escaped its bounds. If you step into it, you can't come back. And then, when outsiders started to arrive, they simply applied the taboo to them, too." He thought about this for a moment, staring off toward the Mayans. "Or it could even be religious, right? They see the hill as sacred. And once you step on it, you can't leave. Maybe we're some sort of sacrifice."
♥ "I'm just trying to finds a way through this," Jeff said. He could hear how peevish he sounded, and he disliked himself for it.
Mathias didn't seem to notice, though. "Maybe there isn't a way," he said. "Maybe all we can do is wait and hope and endure for as long as we're able. The food will run out. Our bodies will fail. And the vine will do whatever it's going to do."
Jeff sat for a moment, examining Mathias's face. Like the rest of them, he looked shockingly depleted. The skin on his nose and forehead was beginning to peel; there was a gummy paste clinging to the corners of his mouth. His eyes were shadowed. But within this deterioration there nonetheless appeared to be some remaining reservoir of strength, which no one else, including Jeff, seemed to possess. He looked calmer than the rest of them, oddly composed, and it suddenly struck Jeff how little he actually knew about the German. He'd grown up in Munich; he'd gotten his tattoo during a brief service in the army; he was studying to become an engineer. And that was all. Mathias was generally so silent, so retiring; it was easy to convince yourself that you knew what he was thinking. But now, talking with him at such length for the first time, Jeff felt as if the German were changing moment by moment before his eyes—revealing himself—and he was proving to be far more forceful than Jeff ever would've guessed: steadier, more mature. Jeff felt small beside him, vaguely childish.
♥ "It had a myth of theirs, a creation myth. That's all I remember."
"Of the world?"
Jeff shook his head. "Of people."
Jeff spent a few seconds thinking back, pulling the story into order. "There were some false starts. The gods tried to use mud first, and the people they fashioned out of it talked but made no sense—they couldn't turn their heads, and they dissolved in the rain. So the gods tried to use wood. But the wooden people were bad—their minds were empty; they ignored the gods. So the whole world attacked them. The stones from their hearths shot out at their faces, their cooking pots beat them, and their knives stabbed then. Some of the wooden people fled off to the trees and became monkeys, but the others were all killed. ..The gods used corn—white corn and yellow corn. And water. And they made four men out of this who were perfect. Too perfect, actually, because the gods became frightened. They were worried that these creatures knew too much, that they'd have no need for gods, so they blew on them and clouded their minds. And these things of corn and water and blurred thoughts—they were the first men."
♥ "We didn't see any monkeys," Mathias said. "Coming here though the jungle." This seemed to sadden him. "I would've liked that, wouldn't you? To have seen some monkeys?"
There was such an air of resignation to this statement, of looking back at something now forever unattainable, that it made Jeff nervous. He spoke without thinking, startling himself. "I don't want to die here."
Mathias gave him half a smile. "I don't want to die anywhere."
♥ "Are you a Christian?" he asked.
Mathias appeared amused by the question. He offered him that same half smile. "I was baptized one."
"But do you believe?"
The German shook his head, without hesitation.
"So what does dying mean to you?"
"Nothing. The end." Mathias cocked his head, looked at Jeff. "And you?"
"I don't know," Jeff said. "It sounds stupid, but I've never really thought about it. Not in a real way." It was true. Jeff had been raised an Episcopalian, yet in an absentminded manner; it had simply been one more duty of his childhood, no different than mowing the lawn, or taking piano lessons. Safely off at college, he'd stopped going to services. He was young, healthy, sheltered; death had held no sway over his thoughts.
Mathias gave a soft laugh, shook his head. "Poor Jeff."
"Always so desperate to be prepared." He reached out, gave Jeff's knee a pat. "It will be whatever it is, no? Nothing, something—our believing one thing or another will matter not at all in the end."
♥ Beneath the aroma of the food and campfire, Jeff could smell his own body. Stale sweat, with something worse lurking within it, some hint of Pablo's stench clinging to him, his urine and shit, his rotting flesh. Jeff thought about that bar of soap in the clearing outside the tent, readied for the rain's arrival. He tried to imagine what it would feel like to lather and scrub and rinse, but hew couldn't bring himself to believe that it would have any impact, couldn't imagine that he would ever be cleansed of this foulness. Because it didn't feel merely like a physical sensation. No, the corruption seemed to run far deeper, as if what he reeked of was not simply sweat and urine and shit but also failure. He'd actually thought that he could keep them alive here; he'd believed that he was smarter and more disciplined than the others, and that these traits alone might save them. He was a fool, though; he could see that now. He'd been a fool to cut off Pablo's legs. All he'd managed to do was prolong the Greek's suffering. And he'd been a fool—worse than a fool, so much worse—to sit there pouting while, fifteen feet away from him, Amy had choked to death. Even if, through some miracle, he managed to leave this place alive, he couldn't see how he'd ever be able to survive that memory.
♥ He'd fashioned a sort of poncho for himself, using a large plastic garbage bag, from which he'd torn holes for his head and arms. Jeff could remember making a similar garment once, on a camping trip, when he and his fellow Boy Scouts had been caught unexpectedly in a two-day rainstorm. As they'd made their way home, they'd been forced to ford a river. It was the same one they'd crossed on their hike into the woods, a week earlier, but it had risen dramatically since they'd last glimpsed it. The current was fast, chest-deep, very cold. Jeff had stripped to his underwear, floundered across with a rope slung over his shoulder. He'd tied it to a tree so that the others could follow, holding on to it for support. He could remember how daring he'd believed himself to be for attempting this feat—a hero of sorts—and he felt slightly embarrassed by the recollection. It came to him now that he'd spent his entire life playing at one thing or another, always pretending that it was more than a game. But that was all it had ever been, of course.
♥ Round and round he went like this, tilting first in one direction, then the other, while the rain fell upon him and the darkness continued to deepen. In the end—despite his hunger, his fatigue, his anticipatory sense of failure—it was Jeff's upbringing that finally triumphed, his New England roots asserting themselves in all their asceticism, that deep Puritan reflex always to choose the more arduous of any two fates.
♥ Stacy turned, stared toward the three Mayans. They had a way of watching her without ever meeting her gaze. She assumed this was something they'd consciously learned to do. A trick to make their duty here less arduous on themselves. It seemed to her that it would have to be much harder to kill someone once you'd looked them in the eyes.
♥ "I can't, Eric."
"Please..." He had her hand, the knife; he was pressing them together. "Please..."
It was over, Stacy knew—Eric's life. All he had left here was torment. He wanted her help, was desperate for it. And to ignore his pleading, to sit back and let him suffer his way slowly into death, simply because she was too squeamish, too terrified to do what so clearly needed to be done, couldn't this be seen as a sort of sin? She had it in her power to ease his distress, yet she was choosing not to. So, in some way, wasn't she responsible for his agony?
Who am I? she was thinking once again. Am I still me?
"Where?" she asked.
He took her hand, the one with the knife in it, brought it to his chest. "Here..." He set the tip of the blade so that it was resting next to his sternum. "Just... push..."
It would've been so easy to pull the knife away, toss it aside, and Stacy was telling her body to do this, ordering it into motion. But it wasn't listening, it wasn't moving.
"Please..." Eric whispered.
She closed her eyes. Am I still me?
And then she did it: she leaned forward, shoving down upon the knife with all her weight.
..He was trying to speak, trying to say Thank you and I'm sorry and I love you, but the words weren't coming.
They'd gone to a roadside zoo in Cancún one afternoon, as a lark. It had held no more than a dozen animals, one of which was labeled a zebra, though it was clearly a donkey, with black stripes painted on its hide. Some of the stripes had drip marks. While the four of them stood staring at it, the animal had suddenly braced its legs and peed, a tremendous torrent. Amy and Stacy had both collapsed into giggles. For some reason, this was what came to Eric now—the donkey relieving itself, the girls grabbing at each other, the sound of their laughter.
Thank you, he was still struggling to say. I'm sorry. I love you.
And the pain was slowly easing... everything was... moving farther away... father away... farther away...
♥ She thought about the approaching darkness, pictured herself once more alone in the tent, listening to whatever noises the night might offer, and she knew she didn't have a choice.
She thought briefly about praying—for what, forgiveness?—only to realize she had no one to pray to. She didn't believe in God. All her life she'd been saying that, instinctively, unthinkingly, but now, for the first time—about to do what she was about to do—she could look inside and claim the words with total assurance. She didn't believe.
She started with her left arm.