Zip’s left leg was broken. It was purple and lumpy and when he woke the first thing he did was sit up and try to touch it. That’s when we realized he had a broken rib, too, because as fast as he’d sat up, he flapped back down again.
“Oh, fuck,” he said. “My ribs —”
We unzipped his jacket and pulled up his shirt. His chest was a patchwork of bruises.
“My leg,” he said. “Oh, fuck, guys, I’m dead. I’m so fucking dead.”
“You’re going to be fine,” said Li.
“We’re twelve days in,” said Zip. “You can’t get me out.”
“Yes we can.”
“Listen to yourself.”
“You can walk.”
“My leg’s splinters. I can’t fucking walk.”
“We’ll make crutches.”
Zip’s face was drawn tight over his cheekbones. It made me uncomfortable to look at him. I scanned the canopy and tried not to think about what a broken leg meant in the forest. Sometimes even a sprained ankle was enough.
“I’m not letting you die,” said Li.
“Tetris,” said Zip, “you gotta take care of Chomper, okay? Can you promise me that?”
I dug at the grime under my fingernails. I had dirt and dried insect blood everywhere—the corners of my eyes, the creases in my palms, the sweaty crevices in my joints—but it was thickest under my nails.
“I don’t care if I have to carry you over my shoulder the whole way,” I said. “We’re taking you home.”
Zip let his head fall back.
“You’re welcome, by the way,” said Li. “We fought King Kong for you, stud.”
Zip moaned. We gave him ibuprofen capsules.
“You need a splint,” said Li.
“I need a lot of things,” said Zip.
Li and I gathered sticks. We wrapped the leg with bandages, then strapped on the splint.
“Fixed,” I said, and Zip almost smiled.
Night came quickly. I dreamed I was back at my brother’s viewing, the casket open, but instead of Todd it was Zip lying stone-faced inside. A second Zip stood beside me, examining the corpse with an undertaker’s eye.
“Top-notch embalming,” said the living Zip. “Looks like I’m just asleep.”
In the morning Zip’s eyes seemed to have receded back into his skull, and his teeth were clenched together, but he’d regained a bit of his normal cheer.
“If we make it out of here, I’m getting a bright pink cast,” he said.
“That’ll suit you, I think.”
“Women love an injured man. This may turn out to be a net positive.”
He leaned on me as we trudged along. I had to hunch so he could put his arm around my neck. Soon my spine was on fire.
“I’m just glad it was me and not you,” said Zip. “There’s no way I could carry your fat ass.”
“Runt like you? Of course not.”
Not since my earliest expeditions had I felt so vulnerable on the forest floor. If something jumped out at us, I’d have to swing Zip across my shoulders and make a run for it, which in most cases would be an exercise in futility. The pressure on Li was tremendous, too, because she had to keep watch all by herself. But this was Li we were talking about. All day long, she threaded us around ravines, trap doors and sink holes, lithe and sure-footed, a panther with two stumbling cubs in tow.
We pushed hard, but it was like wading through pudding, and after three days we’d only made two days of progress.
“This is going to take forever,” observed Zip as we settled in for the third evening. “We’re going to run out of food.”
“So we skip dinners,” said Li. “Starting tonight. The food will last.”
We slept with our stomachs pinching. In the morning, the breakfast bars and gel packets hardly seemed a meal. I wished for a stack of pancakes and a sheaf of bacon strips. And fast food hash browns, the kind I ate on road trips as a kid. All of it steaming on a shining platter in front of me.
On the fourth day we crossed paths with a herd of pill bugs. We hauled ass into a tree and watched them pass.
Forest pill bugs had the bulk and personality of terrestrial cattle. They grazed on whatever they passed, and wouldn’t hurt you unless you went to spectacular lengths to piss them off. When confronted by a predator, they curled into armored balls and scattered like a handful of flung marbles.
Zip leaned against the trunk with his eyes closed. His face was linen-white and drawn.
I nudged him. “You doing okay?”
Zip remained silent.
“Looks like it’s time for more ibuprofen,” said Li.
“Morphine, please,” said Zip.
“Not yet,” said Li.
Zip looked like he was settling in for a nap. Li scooted closer to me.
“It’s going to get worse,” she whispered in my ear. “Every step he takes, the broken edges are grinding on each other."
She made her hands into fists and rubbed the knuckles against each other.
Her face was grimy and smeared. It was also painfully beautiful. I wanted to cradle her head and put my thumbs on her cheeks and wipe away the dirt. I wanted to kiss her on her tight-pressed lips. She was right there! Zip was half-asleep. I could do it. Lean in and kiss her. I wanted…
I whipped my head away. No. What the fuck was that?
Zip was dying. This was not the time to entertain adolescent fantasies. Li had made it abundantly clear that she wasn't interested in me. I had to crush that feeling, throw it down a mineshaft and bury it with concrete.
Li waved a hand in front of my face. "Hello?"
Below, the pillbugs stripped the forest floor clean, mouthparts milling industriously.
A few nights later I dreamed myself back to my dad’s house in Indianapolis. I was sipping a glass of lemonade on the porch. Hollywood was there too. He sprawled on a lawn chair with a hat pulled low over his eyes. Only his jaw moved, grinding away at a lump of bubble gum.
The sky hung low and red and empty. No clouds, no sun, just the dull, uniform color of congealing blood.
“You should listen to him, you know,” said Hollywood, chewing his gum.
I peered at the red sky. “Who?”
Then a scorpion began to clamber over the white picket fence, and I wrenched myself awake.
My sleeping bag was sticky with sweat. I tried to chase the nightmare away with memories of home: bright summer days at the court by the public pool, heat radiating pleasantly off the blacktop, the rubber-and-leather smell of the basketball transferring to my palms. Shockingly clean sneakers with soft, fat laces.
Clean shoes sounded amazing. Socks, too. We’d reached the stage of the expedition when rotating between three pairs no longer kept them remotely fresh. Grime had infiltrated every crevice of my body, causing a perpetual, slow-burning itch. I would have traded half my expedition payout for a shower.
Sleep, when it returned, was torn jagged by rapid-fire dreams in which I ran or climbed or flew, fleeing something I was afraid to turn and glimpse.
The next morning was dim and gloomy. Nobody felt like talking. We downed our food bars and continued the trek, obsessively checking our compasses to make sure we were heading as close to due east as possible.
Zip pulled further and further into himself. I dragged him along, and his legs moved, but his mind was miles away. He never asked for painkillers, so we kept an eye on his jaw, and when he clenched it harder than usual we knew it was time to administer another dose.
Around lunch we came across the body of a subway snake. It was rare to see one on the surface. This one must have thrashed furiously when it died, because a wide swath around its corpse was scraped clear of vegetation. Its ridged body curved and rolled out of sight like a levee tracing the edge of a tortuous river. The tip of the tail might have been half a mile away.
The snake’s mouth gaped, a cave bristling with serrated teeth, the heavy jaw dislocated. Jettisoned from the mouth, in a puddle of snake vomit, was the half-digested corpse of a giant blue frog. Even for an animal as large as the snake, the toxin coating the frog’s skin would have proved lethal in minutes.
The three of us stood, transfixed, imagining the snake in motion. Thousands of tons of scales and muscle, rippling in tune. It must have downed a mountain of meat every day. How else could it keep its ravenous bulk satisfied?
“What a shame,” said Li.
Out of nothingness this gigantic creature had grown, a universe of trillions and trillions of cells, over decades, maybe even centuries, and the whole system had collapsed one day because it took a bite out of the wrong frog. Now scavengers would clean it down to the bone. A shining white skeleton would be all that remained, and then the forest would swallow that too.
The snake’s skin swelled and we stumbled back, fearing that breath had returned to its mighty lungs. Instead a centipede burst through the thick hide, sniffing the air with its antennae. Out of the gap poured an odor so foul that my breakfast began to rise up my throat.
“Wonderful,” I said, and spat.
As we turned to leave, skin wriggled all down the side of the snake. The scavengers were already hard at work.
Late one afternoon, as the forest began to dim, we heard a woman scream.
“Don’t go chasing after that, now,” said Li.
I smiled. “I believe that’s the first joke anybody’s told in a week.”
“Face it, guys,” said Zip, quiet and gravelly. “I’m the funny one. Without me you’re boring.”
“Well, yeah,” said Li. “Why do you think we’re trying so hard to save you?”
That night it rained and rained. In the morning Zip moaned and refused to move. We checked his splint and saw that the wrappings were soaked through with blood. As we unwrapped his leg, a sickening smell assaulted us. A spear of bone had punctured the skin of his calf. The whole area was lurid, yellow and red, and humming with infection.
We slathered the wound with antiseptics and bandaged it carefully. While Li put together a stretcher, I managed to get Zip to swallow some antibiotics, along with a few gulps of water.
Off we went, Zip strapped to the stretcher between us, four or five days from shore. If we were lucky, we could make it there in three.