After a while my eyelids started getting heavy and I could no longer keep track of what Dr. Alvarez was saying. My mind would wander away mid-sentence, and when it returned she’d be firing off incomprehensible multisyllabic words.
Dr. Alvarez caught me yawning. “You going to let these kids sleep?”
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “C’mon, I’ll show you to your room.”
“You’re not letting us go?” asked Li.
“It’s not like that,” said Cooper. “We’ve got something to discuss tomorrow. We could put you up in a hotel, but there are perfectly comfortable accommodations within the facility.”
Perfectly comfortable accommodations turned out to be a cold concrete room with two cots and a yellowing bathroom.
“This is going to earn you a one-star review onTripGuide,” said Li.
“Very funny,” said Cooper. “There’s a call button on the wall if you need anything. I’ll send fresh clothes down. Soap and toiletries are in the bathroom.”
“Dibs on the first shower,” said Li. I winced. The floor would be a muddy mess by the time I got my turn.
“Do you give this tour to all the rangers?” I asked.
Cooper paused in the doorway. “You think this happens to everybody?”
“Finding spooky shit? Happened to me twice already.”
“Not to inflate your already cumbersome ego by implying that you’re special, but this is a once-in-a-decade occurrence. The vast majority of rangers go their entire career without finding anything.”
I tried to read his face, but as usual it was illegible behind bland corporate geniality.
“Get the clothes,” said Li. “If you need me, I’ll be checking the shower for cameras.”
After Cooper left, I followed her into the bathroom, where she was scouring the ceiling.
“Nope,” she said. “Probably bugs in the vents, though.”
“Do you believe him?”
“That nobody ever finds anything in the forest?”
She balanced on the rim of the tub, examining the rings holding up the shower curtain.
“Isn’t it weird, then? That I found it twice?”
She laughed. “What do you want me to say? You’re the chosen one?”
“It just creeps me out, is all.”
Li hopped down and put a hand on my shoulder.
“Look,” she said, “we have no reason to think they’re being honest. They’re putting on an act, all this buddy-buddy shit, trying to make us feel like part of their fucked-up team. I’m not buying it.”
After a few seconds withering in her raptor gaze, I nodded.
“That’s what I’m worried about right now,” said Li. “That and Zip. Fuck the tablet. I don’t care anymore. I just want to know that we’re getting out of here, and that Zip’s alive.”
While she showered I had another crisis of willpower, imagining her stripped bare, the hot water steaming off her skin. I thought about going to the door, asking—did she mind if I joined her?
When she finally emerged, wrapped in a towel, her legs clean and wet and exposed, something must have shown in my expression.
“What?” she said.
I planted my eyes on her face. “Umm.”
“Oh. I get it.”
“Nothing,” I said. “Sorry. No. I mean, no. Not that.”
“Am I going to be safe sleeping in the same room as you?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
She laughed. “Your turn, bud. Believe I used up all the hot water.”
She hadn’t, of course. It was like a hotel: you could stay in there for hours and the heat would never fade. I closed my eyes and let my skin turn red. The first shower after an expedition, I always cranked the heat up until it hurt, because the dirt and toxins of the forest had worked their way deep into my pores. I had to roast myself, all the grime and dead skin peeling away, and emerge like a molting lizard with a fresh new exterior.
Li was already asleep when I finished. Her eyes were closed, her mouth ajar. For a minute or two I stood there looking at her. Then I shook myself and finished toweling off.
I was unconscious within seconds of slipping under the covers.
In the middle of the night I heard a noise and woke up. Li wasn’t in her bed. Her empty sheets were pulled aside, tangled. Light trickled around the edges of the bathroom door. The fan whined insistently.
“You alright in there?” I called.
Nothing. I waited a few seconds. Still no response. She probably couldn’t hear me over the fan.
Back in my apartment, I sometimes spent nights staring at the dark rectangle of my bedroom doorway, imagining what’d I’d do if someone—something?—glided into view. Something tall. Something even darker than the black rectangle out of which it emerged, except for a glistening mouth. The fear made no sense. But maybe that was the problem: to make a rational judgment about the safety of your surroundings, you needed sensory data, which darkness denied.
When I listened closely, I thought I heard a tapping sound. I held my breath and inclined my head, trying to locate the source. It was probably a pipe, or something to do with the air conditioning. I had noises like this back in my apartment complex. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep.
Tap. Tap tap. Tap tap tap.
The bathroom door slammed open, and I sat up to look. It was Junior, eyes a coruscant black, with blood positively gushing from his mouth. The blood came between his teeth in a torrent, spreading across the floor in sticky waves, and I knew that it would fill the room and drown me.
“Tetris,” said Junior through the rush of blood. “Do you understand now? Do you understand, Tetris?”
“Understand what?” I shouted, standing as the sticky red tide rose, lapping at the edges of my cot. “Understand what?”
I looked down and saw that the blood had vanished. The room was dark, the bathroom still. Li sat in bed, rubbing her eye with a fist.
“What the fuck, dude?”
“Sorry,” I said, lying back down. “Just a nightmare.”
I curled up under the sheets, heart jackhammering away.
“I’ve never heard you talk in your sleep,” said Li.
“Hmm,” I mumbled.
“That better not become a habit,” she said. “You can’t shout like that in the forest.”
“Guess I’ll be duct taping my mouth,” I said.
“Guess so,” said Li, and rolled to face the wall.