Uncontacted by Matt Hlinak

Uncontacted by Matt Hlinak

Georgia leaned against the bar and wiped the sweat from her brow. The grandmotherly bartender hobbled over. Georgia ordered a bottle of water in passable Portuguese. The bartender nodded and handed over a clear one-liter bottle beaded with condensation. Georgia handed her a US dollar.

Obrigado,” said the bartender.

Obrigado,” thanked Georgia in return.

Mas cervesa, por favor,” a loud American voice bellowed from across the bar.

Georgia cringed. Deep in the barely-inhabited rainforest along the Amazon, she managed to run into a stupid American tourist trying to get by on cantina Spanish in Portuguese-speaking Brazil. Georgia was thankful of her dark complexion, hoping she could pass for local and avoid any awkward conversation with her countryman.

She couldn’t help but glance his way. He looked vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t place him. He was a big man with a shaved head, handlebar mustache and heavily sunburned white skin. He wore a black leather vest with nothing underneath it. Snake tattoos encircled his thick biceps. He was definitely not the kind of man she would have met at the university.

Georgia quickly turned away, but not soon enough.

Hola, senorita. Buy you a drink?”

She pretended not to hear him. She took her bottle of water to the umbrella-shaded table farthest away and sat with her back to him.

“Maybe another time,” he shouted.

Where the hell is that guide? she wondered.

She soon had her answer.

Thiago came in wearing a baggy t-shirt and cargo shorts. He was what Brazilians called a cafuzo, the descendant of enslaved Africans and conquered Natives. Though the scrawny boy didn’t look like much, he knew his way around the jungle and was the village’s resident linguist. In addition to Portuguese, he spoke English, Spanish and a couple of Native languages.

He pretended not to see Georgia and instead walked over to the loud American.

“How ‘bout a cerveza, boy? Put some pubes on your sack.”

“No, thank you,” he answered. “The men are ready.”

“Wait a minute!” Georgia leaped to her feet. “Thiago, what’s going on?”

“Oh, so you do speak English,” the loud American said.

Georgia ignored him. “Thiago, I thought we had a deal.”

Thiago stared at his shoes as he spoke. “I’m sorry, Doctor Georgia, but he offered more money.”

“A doctor, eh?” the loud American said, apparently to himself. “No wonder she thinks she’s too good for me.”

Again she ignored him. “How much, Thiago? I really need to go today.”

“He’s paying five hundred dollars US, Doctor Georgia.”

She tugged at her ponytail. Yesterday, Thiago had agreed to take her for fifty. She had already maxed out her grant just getting here. She’d have to dip into her personal savings.

“I can get that much, but it’ll take a few days.”

“Sorry, senorita,” butted in the loud American, “but I need to go today, too, and I got cash on the barrelhead.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but who are you?”

“Well, now I’m a sir.” He laughed. “Really moving up in the world.”

“Forget it.” She turned back to the guide. “Thiago, I—”

“Now hold on there, Doc.” The loud American stood up. A pistol hung from his right hip and a machete from his left. “I’ve always prided myself on being something of a problem-solver. Where you headed?”

Georgia paused. She was an anthropologist who studied indigenous tribes in Central and South America. Her particular focus was on uncontacted peoples—that ever-shrinking population of Natives who remain isolated from “civilization.” One such tribe had been spotted in the rainforest near here. Georgia felt strongly that these people should be allowed to live free from interference if that is their wish. And living in isolation, uncontacted people have had no exposure—and thus no immunity—to the many viruses that swam through this man’s bloodstream. A handshake from him could cause genocide. And this group had already come under attack. Could she trust him?

No. So she asked him where he was going.

“Hmm, you answer a question with a question. You a shrink?”

Georgia shook her head.

“That’s okay. Be mysterious. I like peeling off a woman’s secrets almost as much as her panties.”

“Yuck.” She turned away. “Never mind.”

“Lighten up, Doc. I’m headed about ten klicks downriver.”

That wasn’t far from where the body was found. And if she didn’t hurry, there might be more bullet-ridden bodies floating down the Amazon. Thiago looked up at her hopefully.

“That’s about where I’m headed,” she answered.

“Well, then, I’m sure we can squeeze your skinny little ass into our canoe.” He stuck his hand out. “My name’s Gideon, like the Bible.”

Georgia reluctantly shook it. “Georgia, like the state.”

Gideon flashed his teeth and donned a black cowboy hat. “All right, my little Georgia peach. Vamonos!”

&&&

They churned down the Amazon in a motorized aluminum canoe. Two middle-aged Native men who spoke little Portuguese and no English joined them. One was tall and thin, the other short and broad-shouldered. They spoke softly to each other and ignored their companions. Thiago didn’t bother to introduce them.

“So, Doc, what brings you to paradise?” Gideon asked, gesturing to the bright green canopy hunching over the muddy water.

“Research.”

“Hell, me too.”

“Really?” Georgia eyed the tattooed man. “What kind of research?”

“Herpetology.”

“You study reptiles.”

“Wow, you know what a herpetologist is. Most chicks think I’m an expert in venereal disease.”

She winced at chicks. “You do look like you know a thing or two about venereal disease.”

“I’m going to have to take the Fifth on that one,” he said with a chuckle.

“Who are you working for?”

“I’m an independent scholar.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I don’t work for any university, zoo or museum. I’m self-employed.”

“Then how do you get paid?”

“By being resourceful.”

A pair of river dolphins heading upstream leaped from the water as they passed the boat. The tall Native said something, and the short one laughed. Thiago cracked a smile. Georgia waited for him to translate. The kid made a show of looking off in the distance instead.

“Probably better not to know,” Gideon said with a wink.

“What are you looking for out here?”

“Well, rumor has it that there’s a thirty-foot anaconda swimming around these waters. That would make it the longest snake ever seen by human eyes.”

“And you think you can find it?”

Gideon shrugged. “Maybe. Now, what’s your story, Doc?”

She told him about her work as an anthropologist studying Native peoples, but she didn’t mention the uncontacted tribe she was seeking.

“So of all the jobs in the world, why did you decide to dedicate your life to studying Indians?”

In an act of teenage rebellion, Georgia’s mother had snuck out of the house and spent Saturday night at a party on the Reservation. There she met a handsome boy whose hair reached to his belt. She came home with Georgia in her womb. When Georgia grew old enough to ask who her father was, her grandfather replied, “Some Indian.” Her mother said, “His name was Thomas.” Georgia owed her very existence to her mother’s carelessness, yet it still stung that she’d never bothered to learn her father’s last name. He never knew he had a daughter, and Georgia had no way of ever finding him to tell him.

When it came time to apply for college, Georgia had checked the “Native American/Pacific Islander” box and guessed it probably helped her get into Yale. But though Native blood flowed through her veins, she had never lived as a Native American. Her grandfather was a prosperous Idaho rancher. She looked to most people like a white girl with a tan, especially when she curled her hair. She had faced no poverty, no discrimination, no alienation while growing up. She felt guilty for having checked that box.

So she decided to dedicate her life to helping those who weren’t as lucky. The more she studied, the more she learned that Native people in Latin America had it even worse than the poor souls on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation. And the uncontacted people in the Amazon fared worse than anyone on Earth.

But she didn’t share any of this with Gideon. Instead she said, “It’s a fascinating subject.”

“I can’t argue with that.” He jerked his head to their companions and asked, “So are you studying these two?”

Georgia shook her head. “There’s another group that interests me.”

“They going somewhere?”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m just wondering why you was in such a hurry,” Gideon answered.

“This group might be in some trouble.”

“And you’re gonna swoop in a save them, is that right?”

“I’m not sure if there is anything I can do,” she admitted.

Gideon looked her in the eye, as if scanning her pupils for more answers. Georgia held his gaze. After a few moments, he smoothed out his mustache with both hands before reaching for the handheld camcorder hanging from his neck. Georgia had seen that very gesture before.

“You look familiar to me,” she said. “Have we met?”

“Oh, I think I would have remembered you, little darling.”

“I know I’ve seen your face before.”

He smiled sheepishly. “Maybe you saw me on TV.”

“You’re on TV?”

“I was. My show got canceled.”

“What show was it?”

Monster Seeker.”

“Oh, yeah,” she said with a laugh. “You were looking for a dinosaur in Lake Champlain.”

He nodded.

“Too bad you didn’t find it. I bet your show wouldn’t have been canceled if you had.”

“Very true.”

“What kind of herpetologist goes chasing after imaginary monsters?”

“Well, I am a tad short in the degree department, Doctor Georgia. I’m more of a skilled amateur.”

“Did you really believe there was a dinosaur in that lake?”

“No, but nobody is going to get a show by saying there’s no such thing as monsters.”

“So what about your thirty-foot anaconda?”

“The odds are long, but not impossible.  There have been some damn big snakes found in this river. And if I do find the biggest, well, I’ll have no trouble landing another show.”

“What about fossils? If there are giant snakes out here, wouldn’t there be some evidence?”

Gideon shook his head. “The rainforest doesn’t make fossils. Something dies out here, the carcass is gone within hours, not days. Even bones dissolve in all this water. You’re the anthropologist, right? I bet you know a hell of a lot more about the Indians who lived in the desert than the jungle. ‘Cause the desert folks leave a record. Who- or whatever lives out here, man, when they’re gone, they’re gone.”

Georgia rubbed her forehead. He was right. The people who lived here were lost to history, even as they still drew breath.

“Same as you,” Gideon continued. “I need a live specimen.”

“Sure, but isn’t it much more likely that you’re wasting your time?”

“How does that make us any different?”

Thiago interjected, “There, Doctor Georgia!” He pointed across the water.

Georgia squinted, but couldn’t see anything. As Thiago motored the boat closer, she saw it, a wooden spear leaning up against a rubber tree. Holes riddled the trunk of the tree. From between the reeds at the base of the tree stuck out two bare feet.

&&&

“Don’t touch anything,” Georgia ordered after the party had come ashore.

The tall Native held a rifle, the short one a machete. They stood back to back, eyes scouring the rainforest for signs of trouble. Thiago followed closely behind as Georgia crept closer to the body. Gideon followed after him, filming the approach with his camcorder.

Through the swarm of flies, Georgia could see the body was that of a teenaged boy. He wore only a thin loincloth. One woven sandal lay by his feet; Georgia couldn’t see the other one. Blood covered the whole left side of the boy’s body. Georgia could see one bullet hole in his neck and another in his ribcage. Thiago whispered a prayer in Portuguese.

Gideon shouldered up beside Geogia, zooming in on the corpse with his camcorder.

“Show some respect,” she said.

“Respect won’t do this boy any good now. But it might do some good to collect evidence of what happened here.”

Georgia couldn’t argue with that. In fact, she pulled out her own handheld to record what they’d found.

“Besides,” Gideon continued, “this footage just made my new show that much more interesting. We not only got the mystery of the giant snake, but also whatever happened to this kid.” The words tumbled from his mouth. “Maybe we can make it seem like poachers were looking for the snake and they shot the kid for some reason. Like the kid knew about the snake but wouldn’t tell them nothing. Ooh, that would be good. People hate poachers.”

Georgia just stared at him.

“What?”

“This boy was murdered, and you’re making up some bullshit story for your stupid show.”

“What difference does it make?” Gideon shot back. “He’s dead no matter what we do. And with all due respect, Miss Marple, do you really think you’re going to solve this mystery?”

Georgia spun away from him to hide the tears welling in her eyes. He was right. She was an anthropologist, not a crime scene investigator. This boy had been shot, that much was clear. But by whom? Why? She would need to call in the Brazilian police, who wouldn’t show up for at least two days. In this scavenger-thick rainforest, there’ll be nothing left of the body by then.

Georgia rubbed the back of her neck. Gideon turned his camera away from the boy. He walked inland about twenty paces, sweeping the camera slowly back and forth to take in the surrounding vegetation.

Then he stopped. “What the hell is that?”

&&&

Their guides remained by the boat while Georgia, Thiago and Gideon tramped through the rainforest. They came to the first stone, the one Gideon had seen. The weathered gray stone stood half-a-head taller than him. Other stones of similar size peeked out from behind the bright green vines and branches of the rainforest. Georgia ran her hand over the stone. Etched into its surface was an image of a snake with wings and a feathered tail.

“I’ve seen this before,” she said. “In Mexico.”   

“That’s Quetzalcoatl,” Gideon said. “He was the Aztec storm god.”

“Aztec?” Georgia said. “They never made it further south than Guatemala. Are you sure that’s who this is supposed to be?”

“Pretty sure.” Gideon slipped off his vest and turned around. The tattoo on his back matched the image on the stone. Georgia’s mouth fell open. Thiago squinted at the tattoo.

“Okay, peep show’s over.” Gideon shrugged his vest back on and turned around. “Don’t look all shocked. I’m a herpetologist. We’re all pretty pagan. Every ancient society that ever lived worshipped snakes in some form or another, at least until the Jews came along and started blaming a serpent for ruining the Garden of Eden. A lot of herps are into Set, the Egyptian snake-god, but I’ve always liked ol’ Quetzalcoatl. This is based on a shot glass I picked up in Tijuana.”

“Okay, so we’ve figured out the origin of your tattoo, but that doesn’t explain what an image of an Aztec god is doing this far south. I’m no archaeologist, but this doesn’t look at all recent to me.”

“Me either.” Gideon zoomed in on the image with his camera.

“Have you seen this before?” Georgia asked Thiago.

He shook his head. “The Guarani people in Brazil tell stories about a monster called Mbói Tu’i, the ‘parrot-snake.’ But he is different. Mbói Tu’i has a bird’s head and a snake’s body. This is a snake’s head with feathers on the body.”

“Let’s check out the other ones,” Gideon said.

After some exploration through the thick vegetation, they found nine stones in all. The stones formed a circle with a diameter of around thirty feet. Each one bore the image of Quetzalcoatl.

Vegetation crunched in the distance. Georgia caught a glimpse of human skin before it disappeared inland.

“Did you see that dude?” Gideon asked.

“I don’t know what I saw.”

“It was a dude in a loincloth. Looked just like our friend back there. You want to follow him?”

“No!”

“Easy, Doc, I was just asking. What’re you so afraid of?”

A strange birdcall filled the air, an echoing shriek that silenced the chatter of other birds.

“Disease,” she answered.

“You think he’s got something?”

“Not him. Us. Our bodies are full of viruses that he’s never been exposed to. His people have lived in complete isolation for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. They don’t have the immunities we do.”

“Good to know. I guess we’ll—”

Just then, a gunshot sounded from the shore.

“Trouble at the boat,” said Thiago. “We need to get back—quietly.”

The three moved carefully through the rainforest. Gideon held both his pistol and his machete. As they neared the shore, they saw their two companions pulling the boat away.

Espara ai!” shouted Thiago.

Monstro!” shouted back the shorter man before the boat disappeared upriver.

&&&

The three sat glumly on the shoreline beside the fly-covered corpse.

“Are they going to come back for us?” Georgia asked.

Thiago smiled. “It is not so far to walk. The rainforest will slow us down, but maybe we make it back by sunset.”

Georgia cursed.

“Easy, Doc,” Gideon said. “All we got to do is follow the river, and it’ll take us right back.”

“In the time it will take us to walk to the village, call the police and return, the rainforest will swallow up this body. All evidence will be lost.”

Gideon nodded, then turned to Thiago. “Say, did I hear that boy say ‘monstro’ before he high-tailed it out of here with our boat?”

“Yes, it means—”

“Let me guess . . . monster.”

“That man is superstitious, Mister Gideon. He’s sees blood and doesn’t think gun, he thinks monster.”

“Maybe. Or maybe a thirty-foot anaconda swam by.”

“Jesus Christ,” muttered Georgia.

“What?” Gideon shot back. “You got any other ideas what a monstro might be? Or is just a coincidence that someone spotted a big fucking snake out here right before two good ol’ boys shit their pants and ran home to their mommies?”

“What do you think, Thiago?”

“Those two have lived along the river their whole lives. I don’t think a snake would scare them.”

Gideon scowled. “If your buddies are so brave, then why are we having this little pow-wow? Admit it, you hired a couple of pussies.”

Thiago shook his head. “They may be superstitious, but they aren’t scared of much.”

“A couple of pussies.”

“Enough of this,” Georgia snapped. “What do we do now?”

“We need to start walking,” Thiago said. “It is dangerous to be in the rainforest at night.”

“Aw, hell,” Gideon responded. “You’re as big a pussy as those bums you hired. We need to find my snake.”

Thiago pursed his lips. Georgia laid a hand on his shoulder. “Thiago is right. We need to get back.”

“Sorry, Doc, but I’m footing the bill for this little adventure. I’m calling the shots. C’mon, boy, let’s go get my monstro.”

Gideon slung his backpack over his shoulder and started walking along the riverbank. Thiago and Georgia did not follow. After a few paces, Gideon glanced back and saw the two standing where he’d left them. His face reddened.

“Boy, get over here. You are going to do what I hired you to do. Even if you are a pussy.”

“Please stop calling me that.”

“’Please stop calling me that,’” Gideon repeated in a whiny voice.

Thiago turned away and spoke softly. “I am going home. Doctor Georgia, would you like to come with me?”

“Yes. Thank you, Thiago.”

“Pussy!” shouted Gideon.

Thiago clenched his fists. Georgia took his arm. “Ignore him.”

“Oh, come on,” Gideon shouted. “I was just kidding. Don’t be like that.”

Georgia and Thiago continued to follow the curve of the river.

“Christ, wait up!”

Thiago sighed and stopped. Georgia squeezed his arm and let go. Gideon jogged through the brush, stumbling twice before reaching them. He bent over panting with his hands on his knees.

“You . . . are . . . missing . . . out . . . on . . . the . . . find . . . of . . . the . . . century.”

“I’m sure we are,” Georgia answered, “but that beats dying out here.”

&&&

Gideon hacked away with his machete, and the other two followed closely behind. No one spoke. After half-an-hour, they stopped to sit on a log and drink what was left in their canteens.

“How much farther?” Georgia asked.

“Maybe we make it back by sunset,” Thiago answered. “Maybe.”

Georgia did not like the idea of spending the night in the wild, especially so near to a murder scene. She stood up. “Then we better get going.”

Thiago rose. Gideon continued to sit on the log. He belched.

“Are you coming?” Georgia asked.

Gideon snorted. “You act like I’m tagging along, when it’s been my ass out front cutting our way through this shit. I’m taking a break, and you two can damn well wait ‘til I’m done.”

“Fine,” Georgia responded. “If you’re tired, I’ll take the machete.”

Gideon laughed. “I’d like to see that.”

Georgia held out her hand.

“After you, Doc.” Gideon handed her the machete and stood up. As Georgia walked away, he whistled. “Oh, the view is much better from back here. Right kid?” He elbowed Thiago.

Thiago looked down at his shoes. “We should go, Mister Gideon.”

“She givin’ you a stiffy?” Gideon teased.

“Shut up,” Georgia snapped. “Just go five minutes without being a pig, please.”

“You know you love it, honey. It’s boring as shit out here with just this little pussy.”

Thiago swung around. “Don’t call me that.”

“Ooh, we got a tough guy. What are you going to do about it, pussy?”

Gideon punctuated the question with a shove. But as his hands reached Thiago’s chest, the boy slapped them away and ducked down to snatch the legs of the big American, pulling them out from underneath him. When the two hit the ground, Gideon tried to bench-press Thiago off of him. As Gideon’s arm straightened, Thiago slid down, clutching the big man’s wrist and pinching his elbow between his knees. Gideon howled in pain as Thiago leaned back, hyperextending the elbow.

“Uncle! Uncle!”

Thiago let go and rolled back up to his feet. Gideon rose slowly, rubbing his elbow. Georgia smothered her smile.

Gideon sized up the boy, half his size, who had just unmanned him. “What the hell was that?”

“Brazilian jiu-jitsu,” Thiago answered.

“Yeah, well this is Texas-fuck-you.” Gideon drew his pistol.

“Stop it.” Georgia stepped in between them, still holding the machete. “You want to die out here? Because that’s what’s going to happen if we don’t work together.”

As if to prove her point, an arrow thudded into the log on which they’d just been sitting. A second arrow whizzed just over Georgia’s head. A third one sank into Gideon’s left bicep.

He howled and shot blindly toward where he thought the arrows had originated.

“Run!” Thiago grabbed Georgia’s hand and pulled her along as he plunged into the bush. Gideon fired two more shots over his shoulder and then lumbered after them with the arrow sticking out of his arm.

Georgia did not know how long they ran. Branches tore at her face. Logs tripped her. Heat scorched her lungs. She felt near death when they finally collapsed into a clearing, soaked in sweat and blood.

&&&

“Another one.” Thiago motioned to a tall stone etched with the now-familiar image of Quetzalcoatl.

Unlike the first ring of stones, which was obscured by the rainforest, this ring marked the outer edge of clearing. In the center of the clearing stood a towering walking palm tree. Georgia counted nine stones, the same as the in the first ring, and guessed they were similarly spaced.

“You wanna give me a hand with this, Doc?” Gideon held up his arrow-pierced left arm.

“Christ,” Georgia muttered. The arrow had gone clean through, puncturing the tattooed snake that encircled his arm. “I would have expected more blood.”

“Well, it missed the artery,” Gideon answered. “Which is why I’m still standing. But once we pull that puppy out, the blood will start pouring.”

“Pull it out?”

“You see a hospital around here, Doc? You don’t pull it out, I’m going to have to walk around with this thing sticking out of me for a week. And believe it or not, it ain’t too comfortable. So here. “He held up his machete. “Cut the head off so we can pull it out.”

Georgia took a deep breath and started sawing away at the arrow. The thin wood gave way to the sharp machete blade easily enough, but each stroke wiggled the arrow in the wound. Gideon bit down on his lip so hard that blood ran down his chin. He exhaled when the flint arrowhead plopped to the ground.

“Okay, Doc, now you got to—”

Before he could finish, Georgia yanked the arrow through the hole. Gideon cursed loudly and, Georgia thought, poetically. The big man slumped against one of the stones.

The shrieking birdcall again sounded through the rainforest, again silencing the others.

“Thanks, Doc,” he said with a pant.

“Don’t mention it.”

“Believe me, I won’t.”

“Doctor Georgia,” Thiago called from around the tree at the center of the clear. “Come look at this.”

Georgia found him crouching down next to the stilt roots of the walking palm. Three bowling-ball-sized eggs hid within the roots.

“Have you ever seen anything like this?” she asked.

Thiago shook his head.

“This looks like Gideon’s department.”

The big man came over. “What you got here?”

“These look like monstro eggs to me,” Georgia answered. “Did they come from your giant anaconda?”

“Nope.” Gideon hunched down for a closer look.

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because anacondas are ovoviviparous—they give birth to live young.”

“So what could lay eggs this big?”

Gideon squinted at the eggs. “I have no clue.”

The shriek echoed once more, growing closer.

“Is that the mama bird?” Georgia asked.

“We should go,” Thiago said.

“Yes, we should,” she replied.

&&&

The strange shriek followed them as they trudged through the rainforest. Gideon struggled to keep up and, after an hour, pitched forward onto a log. His arms gave out as he tried to push himself back up.

Georgia pulled the bulging pack off of Gideon’s shoulders and marveled at its weight. Thiago turned him over to lean against the log. A glassy sheen covered the herpetologist’s eyes.

“I don’t feel so good, Doc.”

Thiago tugged at Georgia’s arm and whispered, “The arrow was poisoned. He will not make it.”

“I’m not deaf, you little asshole.”

Georgia crouched down beside Gideon. His breaths came short and shallow.

“What should we do?” she asked.

“Put a bullet in my head.”

“I can’t do that.”

“You have to. I’m going to die no matter what. You need to keep going. But if you leave me here like this, a jaguar is not going to wait for me to kick the bucket to start chewing on my ass. So, please, kill me first.”

Georgia stood and rubbed her temples.

“He’s right, Dr. Georgia,” Thiago said. “A jaguar is probably tracking us right now.”

“I can’t.”

“How about you, boy? I bet you’d love to blow my brains out.”

Thiago swallowed. “I—, I—,” he stuttered, “I will do it.”

Georgia laid her hand on his shoulder. “How old are you, Thiago?”

“Fifteen.”

She shook her head. “I’ll do it.”

“I’m fucking touched.” Gideon turned his head and spat. “Now, why don’t we get this—”

A shrill chirping sound interrupted him. Georgia glanced around.

“Oh, shit,” Gideon swore.

“What?”

“It hatched.”

“What hatched?”

Gideon pointed to his backpack. It chirped again.

“You took one of the eggs?”

“I’ve never seen anything like it, Doc.” Gideon spat again. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime find.”

Georgia shook her head. “That’s why the mama has been following us.” As if to punctuate her statement, the shriek sounded again. It was almost upon them.

She crouched down and unzipped Gideon’s backpack. A mucous-covered snake’s head peeked through a crack in the egg. Georgia tumbled backward. The little head pushed its way out. Its tiny, pink tongue flicked out to taste the air. Then its jaws spread wide, and out came the chirps.

The great shriek deafened from above.

The little snake slithered out of the hole in its egg, revealing a foot-long body covered in slick white down. Two tiny wings extended for a moment before folding back up against the lean body. The baby coiled itself into a ball and let out another round of wide-mouthed chirps.

The canopy overhead burst open as the mother came into view, shrieking with fury. The great serpent’s tail coiled around the trunk of a rubber tree while the wings—honest-to-goodness-wings covered in feathers bright as passion fruit—beat slowly to hold the hissing head aloft.

“Quetzalcoatl,” whispered Gideon. “I don’t believe it.”

Then the mother struck, a flash of golden feathers and curving fangs thrusting from a suddenly enormous mouth. Georgia barely had time to shut her eyes before the creature devoured her. She heard the whoosh of the serpent crashing through the tree branches, and then felt two hands on her back, shoving hard, and Georgia tumbled to the ground.

Her eyes opened. The mother reared up, its jaws clamped down on Thiago’s arms, the rest of the boy dangling from its lips. She snapped her head up and opened her jaws, and Thiago disappeared inside with one last scream. She snapped back to her perch in the canopy, a great bulge in her throat marking the end of the brave young man who had just given his life to save Georgia’s. The mother coiled her body for another strike.

Gideon drew his pistol. “Run, dummy.”

Georgia ran. She heard the gun fire, she heard the mother screech, she heard Gideon curse. Then quiet settled on the rainforest. She didn’t look back.

&&&

Georgia couldn’t guess how long she’d run before she tripped, spraining her ankle and collapsing against a stump. Scratches covered every bit of exposed skin. Blood mixed with sweat ran into her eyes, turning the green jungle red. She gasped for breath, searching for the canteen she must have dropped in her escape. She tried to vomit, but nothing would come up.

What the hell happened? she wondered.

She no longer heard the shrieking of the mother or the chirps of her baby. But she must have run far enough away from the monstro that the other creatures of the rainforest felt safe enough to resume their cacophony. She leaned against a stump, catching her breath and massaging her rapidly-swelling ankle. It’s been hard enough making it this far, she thought, what chance do I have with a bad foot? She found a stick about long enough to serve as a crutch and tried to use it to stand. It snapped in half, and down she fell.

“Fuck.”

Another stick snapped somewhere nearby. Georgia glanced around.

A Native man wearing only a loincloth and wielding a drawn bow approached her. Four boys of about the same age as the body she’d found followed behind him. Georgia closed her eyes, waiting for the poisoned arrow, for revenge for the body they’d found, for revenge for the box she’d checked on her Yale application. The arrow, the vengeance, never came.

Instead the man wiped the blood from her cheek.

“No,” she whimpered as ten thousand years of viruses to which she’d been born immune swam from her blood to this man’s sweaty palm.

He wiped the blood on his chest and then, as if to make it all certain, he wiped the back of his hand across his nose.

“No,” Georgia whimpered again.

The man said something in his language and led his four young comrades away, not knowing that Georgia’s blood was a far stronger poison than that which coated their arrows.

Georgia slowly rose to her feet. She found another stick, tested its strength, and then used it to limp to the banks of the river. An enormous anaconda—maybe thirty feet long?—slithered slowly among the ripples of the Amazon. At Georgia’s approach, the snake turned its head in her direction, tasted the air with its long, forked tongue, and then disappeared beneath the surface of the murky river.

Monstro, whispered Georgia. She fell to her knees and slurped several mouthfuls of brown water before continuing on to the village.

THE END

Copyright Matt Hlinak 2019

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