“It’s not healthy for our kids to watch this stuff.”
“It’s just nature.”
“I’m sure your viewers agree that it’s not just nature.”
“Just animals, at the end of the day. And, yes, a few particularly ornery plants.”
“Prairie dogs are nature. Lion cubs are nature. This is different.”
“They put a parental advisory ahead of every episode. Isn’t it your responsibility, as a mother, to keep your children from watching them?”
“You have to draw the line somewhere, Bill. And I’m telling you, these ranger programs are corrupting our youth. My son watched an episode at his friend’s house and peed the bed every night for weeks.”
“I don’t see what’s so funny about that, Bill.”
I sat beside Hollywood in a windowless room. Across the table, Sergeant Rivers doodled on a yellow pad. Stars, tornadoes, a skull and crossbones or two. A man in a suit stood behind him, fiddling with his tie.
“Why are we here?” demanded Hollywood. “You’ve got the bodycam footage.”
“Nobody thinks you did anything wrong,” said the man behind Rivers in a voice as smooth as Vaseline.
Rivers shifted on his tiny chair. “Agent Cooper just needs you to walk him through it one more time.”
There was definitely something going on with Rivers. Frustration? Maybe a sparkle of wry amusement? He’d started drawing a castle. Was working on the parapets.
“We heard screams,” I said.
“What kind of screams?” asked Cooper. “It wasn’t clear from the bodycam audio.”
I shifted. “It sounded like a woman screaming.”
Cooper tilted his head like a puzzled dog. “Douglas, what do you think?”
“Nobody calls me that,” said Hollywood.
“Did you think the screams sounded human?”
“Yeah, I did,” said Hollywood.
“So you chased after them.”
Cooper approached the table with lazy steps, hands buried in his pockets. Even sitting down, Rivers was taller.
“Well, excuse me for thinking somebody needed help,” said Hollywood.
“Two days into the Pacific Forest? Who could it possibly have been?”
“We thought it might be Li,” I said.
“Your fellow recruit, Lindsey Li?”
The hands emerged from Cooper’s pockets and planted themselves on the table.
“You knew her expedition would depart much further down the coast.”
“That didn’t occur to us at the time, sir.”
Cooper’s smile reminded me of the dragon’s. “Tell me about the clearing. What you found.”
“Big pit,” said Hollywood.
“Junior saw something,” said Cooper.
“There was an obelisk,” I said.
“Now we’re getting somewhere.”
“On the other side of the pit. Junior was going to look.”
“Douglas, did you also see the obelisk?”
“Could have been a rock,” said Hollywood.
Agent Cooper pulled out a chair beside Rivers and sat, unbuttoning his jacket. Settling back, he steepled his fingers and peered down his slender nose.
“Tell me more about the obelisk,” he said after a while.
The image in my head was fuzzy. All I could conjure was the blank look on Junior’s face when the scorpion impaled him. As if he expected to wake up from the nightmare at any moment.
“I think there were words on it,” I said.
Cooper threw his head back and laughed, startling Rivers, whose pen snapped. Hollywood nearly knocked me out of my chair trying to dodge the spray of ink.
“Fuck,” said Hollywood.
“Watch the language,” barked Rivers, holding half a pen in each monstrous paw.
Cooper hadn’t taken his eyes off me. “Are you a conspiracy theorist?”
“Hieroglyphic script on mysterious monuments… sounds like the kind of ridiculous fantasy those people trot out to justify their hypotheses about an ancient civilization hidden beneath the trees.”
“I’m not familiar, sir.”
“I think I agree with Douglas. It was probably just a rock.”
“If you say so, sir.”
Cooper leaned close. I examined the doughy folds of his face, his beady little pupils.
“Can I trust you not to spread this ‘obelisk’ story? The nutjobs have enough to work with already. The last thing we need is any more misinformation.”
Hollywood snorted. “Is that what this is about?”
“Of course not,” said Cooper. “This is about the young man, Junior, and the unfortunate circumstances surrounding his death. Can you talk me through the events from your perspective?”
It was a long, silent drive back to training camp. Riding with Rivers was always an ordeal, since his single eye and generally forceful disposition tended to send him careening into lanes already occupied by unsuspecting motorists. He never checked his blind spots, just wrenched the wheel and trusted everyone else to get out of the way.
That night I couldn’t fall asleep, so I tiptoed outside. It was chilly. Clouds of insects swarmed the lights that lined the path to the grapple gun course. I went to the corner of the barracks and climbed the gutter.
Li was already up there, sitting on the edge of the roof.
“Hi,” I said. She didn't respond. I sat beside her. She squinted at something in the darkness across the training field.
“Hollywood said you thought you heard me screaming,” she said.
She shook her head. “Why?”
“It sounded like a girl.”
She winged a shard of brick at a light post below. The bulb shattered.
“If I’d been there, Junior wouldn’t have died,” she said.
I pinched the loose skin on my kneecaps and twisted, hard.
“My dad told me that some things mimic human noises. Screams, shouts, laughter,” she said.
“Never came up in class.”
“Pretty rare, I think. But I would have known.”
“I didn’t want to go. Hollywood went, we followed.”
“You could have stopped him.”
We sat in silence. I went over the scene in my head: Hollywood breaking into a sprint, the slow seconds before he slipped out of sight. Could I have convinced him to come back?
“How do you think they learn those noises?”
“Hmm?” I said.
“The human noises. How do they learn those screams? You think rangers teach them, when they die?”
“Doesn’t explain the laughter, though.”
I shivered. “Cold out here.”
“It doesn’t add up, Tetris. That everything in the forest is just a dumb animal. I don’t buy it.”
I considered telling her about the obelisk. About the person Junior thought he saw. After the talk with Agent Cooper, though, I kept my mouth shut. She wouldn’t believe me anyway.
“Our first couple of weeks,” she said, “Junior was the only one who treated me like a normal person.”
It was too dark to see her face.
“What about me?”
“Oh, come on.”
We watched moths spar with the remaining lamps.
“I want to get some sleep,” she said. “No way Rivers will give us a break tomorrow just because Junior’s gone.”
When she reached the edge of the roof, she paused. Scratched the back of her head and cleared her throat.
"Don't beat yourself up, Tetris," she said. "It wasn't your fault."
After a long and awkward moment, she climbed down the gutter. I stayed up there for a long time, looking at the stars.
“Sorry, Junior,” I said, but my voice sounded flat and cold.