We found Dr. Alvarez in the turret of an armored vehicle near the center of the base. She grinned bright enough to light up the courtyard when she saw us.
“Evening,” she said. Around us, burly soldiers manned improvised barricades. They hardly seemed to notice our presence, so intently did they peer into the gelatinous darkness.
“Where’s Cooper?” asked Li.
“Down below,” said Dr. Alvarez, clapping a gloved hand on the armored roof.
“I knew we’d find him cowering,” said Li.
“Not cowering,” shouted Cooper, his voice bouncing, muffled and irate, out of the depths of the vehicle. “Someone has to stay back and dispense strategic guidance to our boots on the ground.”
“Positively Patton-esque of you,” said Dr. Alvarez, giving me a wink I couldn’t help but feel was a bit flirtatious. I shifted the unconscious soldier to a better position across my shoulders.
“We need a medic,” I said.
Dr. Alvarez pointed to a nearby tent.
“Incoming,” shouted someone.
Dr. Alvarez took hold of the machine gun and hammered away. Her whole body jittered with the recoil.
“Jesus,” muttered Li, tugging my arm. “She’s not what I expected, I’ll give her that.”
The doctor’s lips pulled back from her teeth in a gleeful predatory sneer. As we headed toward the medical tent, I thought I heard her laughing, although it was hard to tell over the fusillade.
“I think I like her,” I said, looking for a place to lay the injured soldier down.
“I know,” said Li.
“Not like that.”
As a medic rushed over, Li gave me a look that said: Yes, like that.
“Okay, maybe,” I admitted, trying to lower my human cargo as gingerly as possible onto the gurney.
“If it gets you to stop pining after me, I guess I can’t complain.”
The way she said it pissed me off. What kind of friend would taunt you about something like that?
“Was he bit?” snapped the medic.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe? One of them tackled him off a rooftop.”
The medic had wide, round eyes, like a baby’s, and his helmet was a couple sizes too large. The effect was more Pee Wee Herman than grizzled battlefield doctor. He bent over the injured soldier, checking his pulse.
If it gets you to stop pining after me. Christ. She probably derived some sick satisfaction out of rubbing it in. As if the initial rejection didn’t hurt enough.
“He’s dead,” said the medic, waving an orderly over.
I stared at him. All the shit about my crush on Li sure seemed insignificant now. There was an intolerable silent ringing inside my chest. “What?”
“Get out of the way, buddy. He’s gone.”
The orderly wheeled the stretcher away. I thought about how close I’d been to the centipede in our room, the horrible face pressed against the window. Not the closest I’d been to death. Still—very close. That glass couldn’t have been more than a quarter-inch thick.
As a kid I’d been fascinated by multi-legged creatures. Fat spiders perched atop webs in every corner of my garage. The biggest ones lived up in the crevices where the garage door slid into the ceiling. Those only came out at night. Sometimes I’d go out with a flashlight to have a look. They were big enough that I could see them looking back at me. The shiny eyes never blinked, no matter how long we stared at each other.
Sometimes I made it my mission to exterminate them. Sprayed them off their webs with insecticide, watched them crumple up and ricochet off the concrete. Spiders shrank four or fivefold when they died. Shriveled up like they were trying to hide. They never made a sound. Or maybe they made the same sounds that forest spiders did, and their voices were too quiet to hear.
No matter how many I killed, the spiders always came back.
Once, when I was twelve, my dad put his foot in an old sneaker and a brown recluse bit him on the ankle. I was there in the basement when it happened. He swore and slapped at the spider, over and over, pulverizing it with the heel of his hand.
When the brown recluse had been reduced to a leggy smear half on his ankle and half on his palm, my dad took the sneakers upstairs and put them in a garbage bag, then tied it off and dumped it in the trash bin outside. Didn’t say a word the whole time. A few hours later, a vivid red bulls-eye mark had formed on his ankle; he went to the urgent care clinic down the street. I stayed home and scoured the basement with a flashlight and my trusty can of insecticide, knocking over promising hidey-holes.
Someone in the med tent screamed and screamed. I couldn’t think of anything to say to Li, so I walked away.
The night had assumed a ringing silence. In the distance, a few tongues of flame still tickled the sky. The worst of the assault seemed to have passed.
Cooper must have felt it too, because he’d ventured into the open. He stood beside Dr. Alvarez, scraping at grease spots on his plaid pajama sleeves.
“Nice PJs,” said Li.
“Yes, well,” said Cooper, his frown intensifying, “I didn’t have time to don the proper accoutrements.”
“Accoutrements,” whooped Dr. Alvarez, her cheeks flushed.
“You alright there, Doc?” asked Li.
Dr. Alvarez clapped a hand on Li’s shoulder. “I have never felt better in twenty-eight years.”
“We’ll see how you’re doing once the adrenaline wears off,” I said.
The next morning, Dr. Alvarez could barely keep her nose out of her oatmeal.
“Sorry for all the trouble last night,” said Cooper as he peeled a banana. His suit was a notch or two more disheveled than usual.
“We still heading into the forest today?” asked Li, an eyebrow arched in Dr. Alvarez’s direction.
“Perhaps not,” said Cooper. “We’ll take the afternoon off and get you a good night’s sleep.”
“How do you know the same thing won’t happen again tonight?” I asked.
“If something like that happened every night, there wouldn’t be a base here,” said Cooper.
My sausage patty had grown several tiny human eyes. I pushed my tray away.
“Not hungry?” asked Li.
“Lost my appetite,” I said. The ringing had returned. Please, I thought, not now.
I rubbed my eyes, and when I opened them again, the sausage patty was its normal eyeless self. Even the ringing had receded somewhat. Which felt like a good sign. Maybe I could control it? I made a mental note to confront the next vision head-on, to try and will it out of existence.
“You were a bundle of laughs last night, Doc,” said Li.
“Humpf,” said Dr. Alvarez, yawning into the back of her hand.
“Can tell a lot about somebody by the way they act when their life’s in danger,” said Li, smirking at Cooper.
Cooper cleared his throat and squinted across the room, pushing omelette around his plate.
That afternoon, the three of us—Li, Dr. Alvarez, and me—sat on the roof in lawn chairs and watched the breeze rustle the jungle. Nobody said much. Li read her gigantic book, which she’d salvaged from our room, licking a finger each time she turned a page. I closed my eyes behind dark glasses and savored the warmth of the sun. Soon we’d be back in perpetual dusk.
“What’s the worst thing out there?”
I ignored the question, partly because the heat had lulled me to the brink of sleep, and partly because I wasn’t entirely sure the words had come from Dr. Alvarez and not my own tormented subconscious. Li closed her book, the reams of pages meeting with a thunk.
“You learned all about the forest,” said Li. “Don’t you have your own opinion? Flesh wasps? Lots of people pick the flesh wasps.”
“Well, I didn’t learn everything,” said Dr. Alvarez. “Anyway it’s different in the classroom. You’ve been out there. What are you most scared of?”
I wondered if they thought I was asleep.
“None of the monsters keep me up at night,” said Li, “because when you think about it there’s nothing evil in them. Just a bunch of animals trying to survive.”
“So—nothing scares you?”
“That’s not what I said.”
“Sounded like it to me.”
“I mean, sure, some deaths seem more unpleasant than others, and I want to avoid them. Like getting drained out by a mosquito. Doesn’t sound fun. All the fluid in your body sucked out just like that—bloop. But as long as I use my brain, it’s never going to happen. I’m smarter than the forest. I’m smarter than the mosquitoes and wasps and lizards and snakes. So the only thing that scares me is the chance I might fuck up.”
A breeze passed over, carrying a sweet, leafy smell. When I listened closely I could hear Dr. Alvarez breathing in the chair beside me. I wondered what it would be like to kiss her. Somehow I imagined her lips as softer than the average set of lips. My own lips were chapped, scraped raw. I had an awful habit of biting them, tearing away at loose skin, especially when I was stressed, which these days was most of the time.
Maybe after this expedition I could retire to a villa somewhere with Dr. Alvarez and snog her fluffy soft lips day in and day out. No stress. We could grill steaks in the back yard and toss tennis balls to a cadre of adorable huskies. The word “snog” was just perfect for what I wanted to do to Dr. Alvarez’s lips.
“Actually, there’s one thing that does scare me,” said Li.
“That fucking tablet,” said Li. “Because whatever made that tablet—it isn’t dumb. It might even be smarter than me. It’s smart, and for all we know it’s evil too. And that’s the scariest fucking thing I can imagine.”