Authors: James Michael Rice
Tags: #FICTION / Horror, #FICTION / Thrillers / Suspense
James Michael Rice
This book is a work of fiction. Places, events, and situations in this story are purely fictional. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2014 by James Michael Rice
Originally published as
For Those Who Worship The Sun
, copyright © 2013 by James Michael Rice
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, without written permission from the author.
Cover design by Grafikali Seven
Interior book design by
Author photograph by Eastwater Photography
Edited by Bryony Sutherland and Sharon Honeycutt
ISBN 13 978-1-5027-4587-3
ISBN 10 1-5027-4587-9
Table of Contents
This book is dedicated to the people of Peru, as well as to the many fine folks who devote their lives to researching, preserving, and protecting the rainforest and all its beautiful creatures.
They embraced the darkness and they cursed the light.
As the sun flung itself upon the edge of the world, spilling its dying light across the treetops, they emerged like insects from their nests and slowly picked their way through the trackless jungle. They moved as a single organism, silent as the shadows, ears tuned to the smallest sound, eyes focused only on the ground in front of them. Nothing else mattered but that one step, the next step, as if the world did not exist beyond those few precious inches of terra firma.
Soon the sun disappeared as though forever, leaving only a scarlet smudge across the horizon—like the last remaining evidence of a violent crime—before it too was consumed by the encroaching darkness. A scattering of stars poked holes in the evening sky and the shadows crept in, quickly gathering with confidence beneath the towering canopy. All at once the jungle sprang to life.
Trees stretched toward the heavens, and the tangled undergrowth seemed to crowd in closer, hemming them in on all sides—formidable walls of green that trembled with the susurration of insects, the fluttering of birds. Overhead, the high-arching branches overlapped to form a dense quilt, creating the illusion of a second sky; pitch-black and threaded with the silver light of the moon. As their eyes grew accustomed to this strange deception, they negotiated the treacherous underbrush with care, ever mindful of the hidden dangers that surrounded them. The jungle was teeming with life—most of it beautiful, much of it deadly. It was an accepted risk that a single bite or sting could spell a death sentence for the hapless victim.
Pushing on through the night, they drank water from vines to slake their endless thirst and foraged for Sachamani blossoms and fruit to appease their nagging hunger. It seemed they had always lived this way, or perhaps it was simply easier to believe that this was so. Easier to believe they were anything but human—with hopes and dreams and intricate lives that existed thousands of miles away from here. But the jungle knew nothing of such complexities, for its rules were simple: there were no rules. For each living thing in this savage land—from the smallest sprig to the most cunning predator—every moment was a constant struggle for survival. Here, amongst the whirring insects, squawking birds, and bickering monkeys, humans were stripped of their status quo, reduced to little more than a rare delicacy on the biological menu.
Only Brooke Harlow found herself rejecting this unspoken duplicity, and her mind had begun to wander again. As she walked, she daydreamed about hot showers and cool bed sheets and Wendy’s cheeseburgers—the latter so vivid she could almost feel her teeth sinking into that warm, soft bun, could almost taste the sweetness of ketchup and the tang of pickles on her tongue. Ironically, she had never really cared for fast food, but the mental image of the calorific treat reminded her of the world she had left behind, and it awakened such a painful longing within her that she could think of little else. As her mind sharpened on the imaginary burger, a single tear escaped the corner of her eye and tumbled slowly down her face. Tracing the smooth curve of her cheek, the teardrop dangled precariously from the end of her chin, a tiny jewel sparkling in the moonlight until at last it descended into darkness and the foreign soil beneath her feet.
She wasn’t crying, not yet, though there was a part of her that wished she could. She thought it might actually feel
to cry, to release all the emotions she was holding inside. It was a risky proposition; one she was not willing to take. When it came right down to it, she was afraid. Afraid that once she let out those raw emotions, she would not be able to control them, to rein them back in. Out here, she knew, such a lapse of control could get a person killed—could possibly get all of them killed.
Now a new image swirled before her eyes, one that was far less pleasant than her fast food fantasy. She visualized herself curled into the fetal position on the jungle floor, screaming until her throat was raw, until the screams petered out into a lunatic’s laughter. It occurred to her that she was already treading dangerously close to the edge of her sanity and that it would not take much to push her into the abyss. She could not afford to lose her composure, not now, not here.
Besides, what would Ben and the others think?
With this in mind, she resolved to clear her head, to stay focused on the placement of her feet as the cordon pushed on through the night.
Sometime later, the sky opened and the rains came. An eerie hush fell over the jungle as creatures big and small retreated to their secret hideaways. Only the six nocturnal humans continued to roam, for even as they flirted with starvation and delirium, they knew their only hope of survival was predicated on movement. Little breezes stirred beneath the canopy, shaking the foliage and flinging gusts of rain in every direction. Water pooled in the low-lying areas, and the soil, naturally spongy even during this, the dry season, soon became a kind of sludge; a jelly-like mud that threatened to suck the boots off their feet. With this latest hazard, their progress—already impeded by the dense mats of underbrush—slowed to a near-crawl.
Brooke was walking on autopilot, still lost in thought, when a hand suddenly clamped over her mouth and pulled her down to the soggy ground. She dropped her spear and flailed wildly, attempting to counteract gravity. Instinct told her to kick and claw and scream, but her assailant had anticipated this response—his other arm snaked around her, thin but strong, pinning hers uselessly against her chest. She could feel the tight cords of his muscles as he held her fast, rendering her helpless.
After a moment, the panic dissipated and she allowed her body to go limp. Sensing her complacency, he relaxed his hold on her, but the hand that covered her mouth remained. It was small and wet and smelled vaguely of the earth.
Ernesto’s voice was barely a whisper, his mouth so close she could feel the stir of his breath against her cheek. Breath that smelled acidic and coppery, like blood.
The smell of fear
, she thought. Ernesto knew the jungle better than any of them, and it unnerved her to think that he of all people was afraid of something—afraid of anything at all, for that matter. She sat without moving, straining her ears to listen but hearing little beyond the beating of her own heart.
Something was moving through the underbrush. She had not noticed it before, would not have noticed it at all were it not for Ernesto and his extraordinary senses. Whatever was out there moved with such calculated patience that she had at first mistaken it for the sound of raindrops plinking down through the foliage. It was only after the thin arms hastily forced her to crouch on the wet ground that she could differentiate the rhythm of the footsteps from the white noise of the rain.
One by one, the others came to a clumsy halt and hunkered down beside her. One of the boys pressed against her, seeking her warmth. Judging by the weight and slender musculature of the body, she was certain it was Cooper. Yes, Cooper. She remembered how he and Janie had fooled around at the bar
(in a different life)
on their first night at the Amazonia Lodge, and the memory touched her heart with an icy finger. She couldn’t really say how she knew it was him. The boys were more or less the same size, each one different in appearance and personality, but their frames were otherwise indistinguishable in the darkness. Even so, she felt fairly certain it was Cooper pressing against her right now, and she would not have minded his warmth were it not for the fact that he was shivering all over—
, she reasoned,
he could be trembling
—so violently that it occurred to her, in a brief moment of panic, that he might be experiencing some kind of seizure. Thankfully, the tremors soon abated, and she could feel the rise and fall of his chest as his lungs labored against the soupy air.
Brooke knew it was probably just wishful thinking, but she thought she could just make out his silhouette in the darkness, crouching a few yards away: the well-defined shape of his shaved head, the aristocratic nose, and strong, square jaw. She even imagined she could see the flash of his ocean-blue eyes as they reflected a sliver of moonlight. Eyes that were at once intelligent, wise, and full of compassion. It was impossible to think of anything bad while looking into those eyes.
Thinking about Ben helped her to focus—anything not to think about Janie. It was much too soon to think about Janie. The rain stopped as abruptly as it had arrived, as though someone had closed the valve on a sprinkler system. One moment there was a hissing torrent, the next, nothing but the tapping of residual raindrops passing through the canopy to the jungle floor. All other noises also seemed to stop, if in fact they had ever really been there at all. Maybe it was just the rain all along? Or an animal—a few of those cute little squirrel monkeys, perhaps? A wild pig? Brooke measured the time by the metronomic tapping of the raindrops. Her silent count reached sixty before her mind began to wander again. Sixty raindrops. Sixty seconds. An eternity wrapped inside a minute.
They waited in darkness, seeing nothing, hearing nothing except the dripping water. A strange stillness settled around them, as though the jungle was holding its breath. After a time, the hand that was cupped around Brooke’s mouth withdrew itself. The stillness gave her pause to think and, though she at first resisted, it allowed her to wonder what had become of Janie. A collage of images flickered through her mind’s eye: Janie at Machu Picchu, laughing as she struck a sexy, defiant pose for the camera, her breasts thrust forward, her hands on her hips. Janie putting back tequila shots at Molly’s, the local dive back in Palo Alto. Janie’s piercing scream as she was dragged away from camp, the scream reaching a shrill crescendo before it was abruptly cut short and Janie Castellano was no more.
Beside her, Cooper was shivering again. She reached down and found his hand. Like a child, his fingers curled instinctively around hers. Her touch seemed to calm him, and the shivering gradually subsided. Several minutes passed, and no one dared to move or speak. Brooke was beginning to think that Ernesto had been wrong for once, that maybe what they’d heard was nothing more than an animal, some critter foraging in the underbrush. Then, as the clouds shifted and the moonlight trickled down through the treetops, Cooper dug his nails into her hand.
“There,” he whispered, pointing.
Brooke followed the direction of his outstretched finger. Just ahead, the underbrush gave way to a small clearing. A furtive movement between the trees caught her attention, and at last she glimpsed what had been stalking them. Were it not for their strange, drunken gait and misshapen heads, she might have mistaken them for humans—one of the lost tribes she had read about on the Internet, perhaps. But no human she had ever seen moved like that…
, she realized. Her mind seized these words and repeated them like a chant:
Not human. Not human. Not human.
Somehow, in a forbidden corner of her mind, she had known this all along.