Alex awoke with a start.
This time she wasn’t struggling to breathe and didn’t feel the strange pressure on her chest. But she was terribly thirsty. Her throat felt dry and swollen like a cotton ball had been stuck back in it. She cleared her throat and swallowed the phlegm. Her lips were gummy, and she could taste her own breath, foul with sleep. She lay awake for a moment as her eyes adjusted to the dim light of the cave.
Lying there, she could make out dark shapes above her as the firelight danced on the ceiling of the cave. She’d fallen asleep next to Tima, but when she rolled over, the girl wasn’t there. At first, she panicked. She sat up, pulled her arms around herself, and scanned the cave.
The fire still flickered but was mostly just coals and popping embers. Peter was awake, sitting near the fire, poking it with a small branch. He’d already seen her, she was pretty sure of that. He seemed to notice everything. Alex spotted Tima sitting away from the other sleeping figures, closer to the darkness of the deeper cave. Alex relaxed. Somewhere in the cave, one of the burros stomped and huffed.
Alex sat there, waiting for the motivation to get up. She had fallen asleep in her wet clothes and realized that she was shivering. Every so often, she could feel a breeze coming from somewhere deeper in the cave, probably a shaft that sucked oxygen from the surface and pulled it through the underground chambers. She swallowed and remembered how thirsty she was.
She stood and stretched. Her whole body ached, even more today than yesterday. She walked over to Peter, stepping over a few sleeping bodies.
Peter acknowledged her with a nod of his head. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just need water. And I thought I’d check on Tima.”
Peter handed Alex a bottle of water. “Have all you want. We’ve got plenty.” He gestured to Tima. “She’s been up for the past hour, crouched over there, muttering something.”
Alex started toward Tima. “Thanks.”
Sound in the cave had a muffled quality to it. Though she could still hear the loud nocturnal insects in the jungle, they were muted and hollow in the stillness of the enclosed space. The crackling of the fire had been the only other sound that Alex had heard. Until now. As she walked closer to Tima, she could hear the girl mumbling.
As she drew closer, she could see that Tima was rocking back and forth and chanting something, a low rhythmic singsong, like a monk. She didn’t recognize the words, but the dialect sounded familiar. Tima had her back to Alex. Her arms were spread out and down, and her palms were extended, like she was praying.
Alex stood directly behind the girl, hoping that her presence there would draw her attention. The girl didn’t turn. “Tima,” she whispered.
Then again, louder this time: “Tima!”
Still, Tima seemed not to hear her. She continued to chant and rock, maybe even a bit faster now.
Alex felt a chill, the wet clothes and the damp air from the caves. She wrapped her arms around herself again. “Tima! It’s Alex.”
The girl stopped rocking, as if she were suddenly frozen in place. Then, slowly, Tima turned to Alex, not with her whole body but just her head. It pivoted on her shoulders like an owl’s head, oddly inhuman and creepy. Tima’s eyes were closed and her mouth shut tight, as if she was holding her breath.
Alex knelt down by her. “Tima, are you okay?”
Tima’s eyes opened slowly, revealing narrow, snake-like pupils. Her mouth looked like it was going to burst, her face red and veiny, feral-looking, and her eyes ready to pop from her face. When she finally opened her mouth, a long burst of air and noise filled the cave.
Alex stumbled backward and fell. Tima pounced on her like a beast, clawing at her legs with unclipped nails that dug into Alex’s skin.
Alex screamed and kicked at Tima, pushing against her with her arms.
“Get back!” a voice shouted. It was Peter. He held a pistol pointed at Tima.
“No!” Alex shouted, “God, no! Put that down. She’s just scared.”
Peter slightly lowered his gun.
Gator snatched Tima off Alex and held her, thrashing and kicking, in his massive arms.
The others moved in behind Peter, watching, blinking with bleary faces. The burros stomped nervously behind them.
Alex touched her legs and found them bleeding from long, deep scratches. She looked toward the fire, where she knew the first aid kit was, and caught sight of Diego. He was shaking his head and walking in circles, mumbling to himself. He wasn’t happy. He stopped and tugged at Skins’ shirt, saying something.
Skins stepped toward Peter. “He says that the girl has a devil, that we must leave.”
“We’re not going anywhere,” Peter said.
Diego pulled his hat on and off and kept walking to the entrance of the cave as if he wanted to run out into the dark jungle. As if anywhere would be safer than the cave. Linc and Gator had both found their weapons and stood at the back of the group, ready. Linc held the video camera in his other hand.
Alex turned back to Tima. Gator had put her on the ground and was pressing her down with a knee to her rib cage. She clawed at the ground and now began chanting again, staring at the darkness of the deep cave.
Alex inched closer until she was a foot from the girl. “Tima, it’s all right.”
The girl pivoted her head to Alex. Her eyes were now mostly white, rolled back up into her sockets. She bared her teeth in a savage smile, breathing in and out in ragged gasps. Alex was struck by the stench of Tima’s breath. She fought the urge to turn away or cough and instead reached out her hand toward the girl.
In a blur of motion, Tima snatched Alex’s arm and bit it, breaking the skin.
Gator grabbed for Tima’s arms, but the girl threw him off as if he were made of paper. She stood up and yanked Alex toward her.
Alex screamed. She was surprised by the girl’s strength and was totally unable to fight back. Though she was scrambling and clawing, Tima’s hold was firm, like an animal’s. Tima tossed Alex in the air, hissing and growling as she did. Alex fell with a thud, sprawled out on the dust.
She turned around to see Tima surrounded. Peter, Gator, and Linc had circled her, guns drawn. In the middle of the circle, Tima stood taller than she had before. Her hands were extended by her sides, fingers dripping with blood, teeth bared, razorlike in the firelight. As the men circled her, she moved and twitched, her head jerking from one man to the next. Then she stopped and seemed to look past them into the darkness of the cave.
She called out, not with her regular voice, but with a screeching, catlike call.
Peter and his men slowly moved closer. Then Peter lifted his hand, as if he was listening for something.
Alex heard it, too.
Coming from behind her, in the shadows of the cave, Alex could hear the sound of chanting, the same singsong chanting she’d heard from Tima. Only now, it seemed to be coming from the cave, too. Her throat squeezed shut in fear. There wasn’t just one voice, but now she was sure she could hear two people chanting in the darkness, barely out of view.
And then another.
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