“Can I get you anything else right now, Victor?” the flight attendant purred. She wore the tight, black ascot and close-fitting, “sexy corporate” suit Victor Barrington personally picked out for his flight crew. All in black, with smoky eye shadow and a long, svelte figure, Rebecca was his favorite flight attendant by far.
“That’ll be all, Rebecca, thank you.” He flashed the slightest wink at her, one that only she could see. She blushed as she turned to walk back to the galley, trying to conceal any trace of a knowing smirk from Victor’s guests.
She had almost passed when the man on the opposite couch abruptly said, “Uh, Rebecca? Another vodka tonic.” He held up his glass, the ice in it barely melted.
The two men had the same sharp nose, the same piercing eyes under handsomely thick eyebrows. They even dressed similarly: dark, tight T-shirts with designer jeans. The brothers both appeared to be in their early thirties, but with a prickly buzz of suspended youth around them. On the couch next to Victor sat a serpentine young woman with sun-kissed, olive skin and jet-black hair that fell down to her exposed midriff. Her intense beauty was made all the more alarming by the youthful smile in her eyes and the innocently nervous joy in the way she turned to look at whomever was talking.
Victor stared blankly at his brother, one arm over the back of his couch. He tossed the folded Ray-Bans in his hand onto the low, cream-colored coffee table between them. He enjoyed how expensive the sunglasses sounded as they hit the surface.
“What time is it, Leo?” he said to his brother, despite the $900 Movado on his own wrist.
Leo was one of those guys who constantly held his cell phone in his hand. He glanced down at it. “3:30.”
“Good, we’ll be there in less than an hour,” he said coolly. “Plenty of time to check in and still be able to hit the beach before sunset.”
The girl beamed at Victor. This was Jessica’s first time on his private jet – any private jet, really. She felt like she had just scored a modeling job with Vogue. In fact, scoring a modeling job with Vogue felt significantly more possible now, being Victor’s girlfriend. Was she his girlfriend yet?
Her mouth exploded, “That’s so cool that you got all those millions for your friend’s movie, Vic. I just know it’s going to be awesome.”
Victor grinned and nodded. Jessica’s earnest enthusiasm pierced his shield of emotional distance, just the tiniest bit. “It’s not only going to be awesome, it’s going to be a hit, I just know it. And the writing is so good, it may even get nominated for awards. They’ve already got at least four A-list actors expressing interest in the lead role. Of course, I can’t tell you who they are…”
“Hey, are they still casting supporting actors? Because I’m available,” said Leo. He quickly shrank. “Just kidding.”
Victor’s face didn’t move. There were only so many times their mother could insist that Victor bring his considerably less successful brother along on one of his “fancy trips” before he finally had to relent. He cleared his throat.
“But yeah, the dude owes me big time. This movie would still be a screenplay under his shitty futon bed if not for the financing I managed to get him through my firm connections. It’s going to transform him from an indie filmmaker into a serious Hollywood director, just like that.” Victor looked at his nails. “Owes me big time,” he repeated.
Jessica pulled herself closer to him and locked her eyes onto his. “That’s so fucking cool,” she almost whispered, her voice barely audible above the deep whoosh of the Challenger 601.
Victor slid his gaze from her face to the glinting jewel stud in her belly button, and back up. She was smiling gamely now, her head tilted slightly to the side, slipping a hand to his knee. Victor glanced over at Leo. Leo coughed and looked down at the carpet.
“Excuse us a minute,” Victor said, and as Rebecca returned with Leo’s drink, Victor led the suddenly quiet Jessica to a private room at the rear of the cabin.
The bed was already out and made. As soon as Victor closed the door behind him, he playfully pushed Jessica onto it. She laughed and bounced on the mattress, pulling herself back against the wall immediately beside the bed, her black hair splayed in a wide fan across her shoulders and chest. Victor lunged into the space between her shins, his heart quickening, Jessica’s cheeks now flushed, her stare turning serious. Through the circular jet windows, the clean, pure sunlight from high above the Caribbean clouds filled the cabin with silken, white gold.
The middle-aged rich people on the dance floor – three couples and two unpartnered men – all clapped and cheered when the song ended. Some held brightly colored frozen drinks, raising the beverages up to salute the band. “Yeah!” roared a forty-five-ish man, one arm haphazardly draped over his grinning wife, the other raised in a fist.
“Thanks, everyone, you’ve been great,” said the young lead singer into his microphone, pulling his dreadlocks away from his face. None of the tourists in the seats under the outdoor tent just beyond the dance floor looked at him. “Once again, we’re the Reggae Rampagers and we hope to see you all again tomorrow night!”
“Yeaaaaaaaah!” growled the fist-pumping man again, nearly pulling his wife down with him.
The lead singer looked back at his female bass player and raised his eyebrows, exhausted and soaked with sweat. The other members of the band quietly began breaking down their equipment, the drummer collapsing his set, keyboardist unplugging his gear, bassist setting her instrument on its stand and clicking off her amp.
It was a steady gig for the young Reggae Rampagers – enough, anyway, to sustain them while they “lived the dream” of spending several months a year in a tropical paradise that many people spent thousands to visit. Back home, in Philadelphia, the band was known by a different name, with a completely different sound and far more earnest aspirations. Reggae was just a convenience, with the mixed-race lead singer, Elijah, providing just the right amount of a “Caribbean look” to interest the wealthy patrons of this outdoor bar near the high-end resorts and hotels.
The drummer, a skinny Hispanic kid who looked no older than twenty, sat back down on his stool and wiped the sweat from his face. “This is starting to get old, man,” he said to no one in particular.
Elijah shook his head as he put his microphone in its case. “You’d rather be back in Philly, playing crappy radio covers at dive bars instead?”
“No, I’d rather have a record deal for our original stuff, and a nationwide tour. And groupies.”
“Yeah, and I’d rather be the millionaire owner of those resorts over there, but that ain’t gonna happen,” said the keyboardist. He was a tall, lanky white dude with dirty hair down to his shoulders. “Elijah’s right, Antonio, we got it good here.” He coiled an electrical cord in a loop from his hand to his elbow. “You know what I’m going to do tomorrow? Jump in that beautiful sea, go for a hike in the rainforest, jump in the sea again, then take a nap on the sand until our next show. You know how many people would kill for that life?”
“Amen, Phil, amen,” said Elijah. He looked at the bassist, her stunning, green eyes still shining through the fatigue and the thick, humid night. Even after all these years of knowing her, set against her rich, mocha skin, Angela’s brilliant eyes could still make Elijah’s heart stop.
Angela looked straight at Elijah, biting her lip ambivalently. She turned, crouched down, and opened her case on the stage, gingerly placing her bass guitar in the molded foam.
“Why so quiet, Angela?” Antonio asked her.
Angela cleared her throat, ignoring Antonio’s question. “Hey, I’ve got an idea, guys,” she said as she closed and latched her case. “After tomorrow night’s show, let’s go camping. Haven’t done that in a while.” She stood back up and faced her band mates again. “You know, we could play some of our actual music, maybe try writing some new stuff.”
The others all nodded. “Good idea,” said Elijah. He and Angela locked eyes again and a tired smile crept onto his face. “Could do us all some good.”
“Camping! Love it!” a man yelled from out of nowhere. He stumbled past the stage, red-faced in his pastel-blue polo shirt, pleated khaki shorts, and boat shoes with no socks. “I haven’t gone camping since I was twelve years old!” he loudly slurred at the band. “Do it! Be one with nature!” The man waved his hands with mock mysticism, then he turned his wobbly stare to the darkness beyond the stage. “Fade back into the jungle, little reggae creatures. Fade back into the jungle.” The drunk began to tunelessly sing, swaying side to side, “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight….”
Angela sighed and unplugged her amp.
Leo, Jessica, and Victor mostly relaxed on the beach the rest of the day after they arrived. Tomorrow, however, would be different. Leo planned activities for the entire morning and afternoon. He wasn’t about to fritter away his short time in this spectacular place, and besides, he knew Victor desperately needed to unwind from his ridiculously stressful job and have some serious fun.
First came parasailing. Victor had done that before, but not Leo. Jessica was too afraid. She and Victor mostly ignored Leo as he floated high above the pearly, foaming wake of the speed boat, the rainbow-striped parachute translucent against the bright blue sky. From high above, Leo drank in the full panorama of the tropical bay in which the boat circled: the rocky peninsula, covered in deep-green vegetation; the flawless white sands stretching far out into crystalline waters; the shimmering resort buildings and high-rise hotels along the coast; the rows of sunbathers lying in their perfectly calibrated grid of umbrellas and beach beds. He looked down at the speed boat below and, to his dismay, saw Victor typing on his cell phone and Jessica absently looking out to sea. Time for the next activity.
The zip line was next. Surely that would be exciting. Victor had never done it, but he wasn’t about to try. Jessica, feeling guilty for passing up the parasail, agreed to go. She screamed as she flew out over the deep, green ravine, her little body hanging in the oversized harness like a toddler in a play seat. Leo went, too, and it was fun, sure.
“Come on, are you sure you don’t want to go?” he again asked Victor once he had returned from the other side.
“Eh,” Victor said, reading something on his phone.
There were still several hours left in the day. Leo looked at his brother with disbelief. Suddenly, he didn’t envy him anymore.
“Vic, what’s wrong?” Jessica said, stepping close to him and holding his arm around the elbow and bicep.
“Oh, nothing,” he shrugged. “Just not into the zip line thing. Kind of touristy, you know?”
“Well, we are tourists,” Leo snapped.
“Ha, true,” Victor muttered, squinting into the harsh glare of the sun shining off the screen of his phone.
Leo wiped his hand across his jaw. He saw the joy slowly drain from Jessica’s face, her brow furrowed.
Leo tried to think. He suddenly remembered something he had brought with him on the trip, and it gave him an idea. “Let’s do something really wild tonight,” he finally said to Victor.
“Yeah, sure,” Victor absently replied.
“No, really.” Leo looked back at Jessica. Her face had sprung back to life. He continued, “You guys should let me plan tonight. I promise it won’t be predictable like this. It’ll be a genuinely unusual experience. Something you badly need, Vic.”
“OK!” chirped Jessica.
“OK,” mumbled Victor.
The band hadn’t been to their favorite camping spot in weeks. While certainly not untamed, the jungle a few miles from the town and resort area could be unwieldy and difficult to navigate for the uninitiated. As soon as their last show of the week ended, they packed up their equipment as quickly as possible, got their camping gear together, and hiked out to their spot.
They sat around the small fire, the heat and humidity still too intense to get too close to it. Most of the beaches in the area were heavily restricted – for tourists only, and certainly no fires or overnight stays by non-tourists allowed. The jungle, on the other hand, offered a sanctuary from the slick, over-groomed world of sand, sunburned businessmen, and a general hostility to any unsanctioned live music.
Out came the acoustic instruments and hand drums. In the flickering, orange light of the fire, with the churning, loopy sounds of the rainforest surrounding them, they played the music they created from scratch and genuinely loved. Elijah sang not with his phony “Caribbean” accent, but in the rich, true tones of his best singing voice, driven by the soulful pull of lyrics he had written himself, to melodies he and Angela had arranged together.
As she played her guitar, Angela looked at Elijah while he sang. The firelight created deep wells of shadows in the handsome angles of his face, thick dreadlocks hanging down around his shirtless shoulders. He strummed his guitar with a lean, muscular arm, the veins of his dark hand and forearm thick with the vitality of a person who ran barefoot every morning on the blonde, deserted beaches as the low, dawning sun threw a sheet of New World gold across the sleeping bay.
Later, as Antonio and Phil crawled into their tents and the last embers of their fire faded in the pit, Angela sat closer to Elijah and put her arms around him. They sat there in the dark, the thick canopy of trees blocking out the light of stars, the nocturnal noises of the jungle still chattering.
“Are you happy?” she asked.
“Am I happy? Of course I’m happy.”
He turned his head and looked at her. Even in the dimmest light, he could still see the glimmer of her green eyes. “Yeah, really. What do you mean?”
She let go of Elijah and put her arms around her bent knees. “I mean, are you happy doing this forever?”
“Yeah. Could you actually see yourself living this way in, I don’t know, three or four years?”
“Well, sure, why not? Just look how awesome this is.”
Angela lowered her voice to a hush, “You don’t ever hope for something better? Something, maybe, a little more, you know, grown up? Eventually?”
Elijah sighed. “I guess I haven’t really thought of it that way. Living in the moment, you know? Isn’t that what we always wanted to do? Isn’t that what we used to say we should always do until the day we died, never getting caught up in all the dullness and bullshit of ordinary, rat-race life?”
“Yeah, but you don’t think that even this life has gotten ordinary, in its own way? Like, it’s ordinary now, after, what, three years of living here during the season and back home during the off-season? And what do we have to show for it? Where’s this going?”
“What do we have to show for it? Where is this going?” He looked into Angela’s eyes, which now were not sparkling, but glistening. “What are you trying to say, baby?”
“Quiet,” Phil grunted from his tent. “Trying to sleep.”
Angela, Elijah, Antonio, and Phil weren’t the only ones with the idea to camp in the jungle that night. Jessica and Victor quickly discovered, with a mixture of intrigue and horror, that this was Leo’s big idea for a “wild” and “unusual” activity. Despite Victor’s protests, Leo was adamant, and Jessica unflinchingly optimistic. The two overcame Victor’s reluctance, and soon, with a couple hours of sunlight still remaining, the three set out into the rainforest with the equipment Leo had purchased in the town while Jessica and Victor got cleaned up in their room.
“I still think you’re fuckin’ nuts, Leo,” said Victor as they put down stakes in a small clearing. “This is supposed to be wild? This is supposed to be exciting? We’re going to get eaten alive by five-inch-long, carnivorous bugs out here.”
“You just wait until we’re finished setting up the tents and everything. I’ve got a surprise for you,” said Leo, sweating as he drove a tent stake into the ground.
Later, just as promised, Leo indeed had a surprise. As darkness fell and their fire crackled before them, he opened his knapsack and pulled something out. It was a glassine baggie, rolled up into a loose tube. When he unfurled it, Victor and Jessica could barely make out a dark substance filling about an inch or so of the bottom. Leo handed it to his brother.
“What the hell is this, pot?” Victor said, squinting at it as he felt the firm, chunky stuff through the baggie.
“Nope, not pot.”
Victor held it up to the light of the fire. It looked like little gray sticks or something.
“Yes, I give up, what is this shit?” He handed the baggie to Jessica.
“Psilocybin,” Leo repeated with a smirk. “Magic mushrooms.”
“Oh come on, man! No, dude, no. That was your plan? Take magic mushrooms in the jungle? Don’t they make you see Indian spirits and shit? No thanks.”
“Too late, Vic, you already agreed.”
“I agreed to no such thing. I did not agree to this, Leo. Give those back to him, Jessica, I’m not messing with that crap.”
Jessica kept inspecting the baggie. She stared at the shriveled stalks and dried, finger nail-sized caps inside with wide, childlike eyes. “I’ve never seen magic mushrooms before!” She looked up at Leo. “Do they really make you see things?”
Leo’s smile widened. “Yup. And they make your body feel… well, just amazing.”
“Really?” She looked back down at the mushrooms. “Come on Vic, let’s try them!”
Victor coughed, “Uh, no. What the hell are you talking about? Have you even done those before? You don’t know how you’re going to react – if you’re going to freak out or whatever.” He stood up and glared at Jessica. “Jesus, I can’t believe we’re actually discussing this! What are you guys nuts?”
Leo was still grinning, wickedly now. “We want to take them, Vic. You can either take them with us or be the one sober person here. And that could be even weirder for you than if you did take them.”
“Come on, Vic!” Jessica cheered.
“Your choice, dude,” said Leo, casually taking the baggie back from Jessica. He opened it and began setting individual stems and caps on his folded leg. Jessica scooted closer to him, watching him count out the funny little things.
Victor started pacing in front of the fire. “Oh, they’re so weird!” he heard Jessica squeak. He kept pacing.
“OK! OK, damn it, OK. I’ll do it. You assholes.”
Leo, being experienced in such things, made sure to apportion what he thought would be just the right amount of mushrooms for Jessica and Victor. Enough to ensure a profound experience, but less than he normally took. After all, they were new to it, and he didn’t want to have to take care of two sick or hysterical people in the jungle, in the middle of the night. As he had told them, it would take a little while for the drug to kick in, but they would know it once it did.
The moment Jessica realized she was feeling the effects, she started giggling uncontrollably at everything she saw or heard – or thought she saw or heard. She pointed to the dark patches in the tree canopy ahead and burst into laughter, then stared, mouth agape, at Leo’s and Victor’s faces before, again, erupting into fits. Just the sort of person you want with you when “shrooming,” Leo thought – very positive and innocently amazed with everything around her. Not a neurotic mess spending his entire trip obsessing about that one day, when he was eleven years old, he severely disappointed Dad by stealing a pack of baseball cards from the Walgreens.
Victor spent the first hour or so of the experience just staring at Leo and Jessica, his mouth clenched in a crazed, bemused grin. Leo talked the entire time, about who knows what, while Jessica giggled uncontrollably. Victor found it absolutely impossible to focus on what Leo was saying. Instead, he could only see the way Leo’s mouth insanely jerked around like bad clay animation in the dim firelight, and he could only hear a string of deranged noises that sounded not like language, but like a person confidently faking a language.
The next thing he knew, a completely incomprehensible amount of time later, he was standing at the edge of the small clearing, glaring intensely into the black depths of the jungle. His skin felt like it was slicked with a cold, oily sweat, and yet it also seemed dry to the touch. A fluttery nervousness was growing in his gut. Was that hunger? Should he eat something? Was it nausea? Should he be concerned?
Was his heart racing? He put his fingers to his neck to check his pulse. The technique seemed morbidly clinical, reminding him of death. Should he go to the hospital? Did he need to go to the hospital, right this instant? Was that a fast pulse? It seemed so fast, but he had no mental framework to judge speed, and his attempts to count beats per ten seconds were sabotaged by the incessant wiggling of the glowing hands of his watch.
Shouldn’t he be in a hospital right now? What was happening with his heart?
Don’t panic. You can’t panic, he told himself, but the thought of trying to suppress panic only made him panic. The absurd sounds of the jungle around him surged louder, seeming to draw menacingly nearer to him. The noises felt so close, and were getting closer – would they soon be inside him?
Victor looked down at his arms. They were bare, so luridly bare, sticking out from this embarrassingly tight designer T-shirt. What the hell was he wearing? He must look like such an idiot, such a fake in this. He noticed his glinting Movado watch, clamped tightly onto his wrist like a shackle. Like a time shackle. Look at this thing. So embarrassing. Who did he think he was? Doesn’t make sense.
He looked more carefully at the watch. Unmistakably, vividly human. In its design, its curves, angles, and perfectly engineered components, he could feel the psychic imprint. He could smell the fragrance of the thoughts of all the people who made it. They were with him there in the jungle dark, manifesting through the medium of that watch.
He looked down at his $400 Armani “street” shoes. He wore his Armani shoes to go camping? Again, in the ridiculously deliberate design of the shoes, he felt the presence of every human, every miserable, payrolled person involved in the task of creating them for his benefit.
He quickly surmised that this would be the case with every man-made thing he ever laid eyes on for the rest of his life. The sight of the objects would tether to him the burdens, angst, and psychic stench of everyone involved in their invention. There was no way around this, and it would last forever. The only thing free of the corruption of humanity was nature. Of course. The trees. The dirt. The sky. This jungle, nakedly and somberly standing around him. Judging him.
Victor fixated on the trees in front of him. He could barely make out their form. Their thin bark crawled and fluttered, and quickly his own skin began imitating the undulating motion. Was the bark really doing that right now? He stepped closer – or what he thought was closer. Was he five feet or fifty yards from the tree? He reached out a hand. It was colossal. A Green Giant hand, filled with veins and tendons the size of nautical ropes.
He closed his eyes. He knew he would have to feel the bark. He would have to feel the bark rather than see it, in order to pull himself from the ghostly clutches of human civilization. The bark crumbled loosely in his hand. He could pick it off easily, but when he let it go, it seemed to fall back into the tree. He would have to eat some, make it part of him, make its purity and goodness a part of him. It was tough and chewy, its taste bitter and pungent. That was good. It would have to be bitter and pungent. The bark – the ancient jungle bark – it was medicine. Like in that one movie.
He opened his eyes again as he chewed. In his left hand was a baggy, his right hand reaching inside. A baggy? The baggy of Leo’s mushrooms? He felt the stems with his fingers, then felt them in his mouth and tasted their familiar bitterness. Victor’s mouth went crooked with revulsion and he spit out the remaining mushrooms. How long had he been holding them? How many had he eaten? Oh my God.
Victor’s heart began to pound again, so fiercely he could feel it throbbing in his neck. His breath became shallow, and a slick of sweat oozed from the skin of his forehead. Even now, in his earnest, yearning attempts to commune with the trees and their healing bark, he had been betrayed by the monkey-trickery of humanity. The baggy had made its way from Leo to him, carrying the mushrooms with it. Even at the edge of camp, Leo’s devilishness, like the devilishness of all people, followed the vain scent of Victor’s clothes and ambushed him there, right on the cusp of freedom.
Surely he had eaten a lethal dose. Victor hyperventilated, his eyes rolling with the dry fleshiness of a lizard’s. He threw down the baggy. His only hope was to get further away from the camp. Into the rainforest he plunged, parting the vegetation with his gigantic hands. Again he noticed his Movado watch, clinging to his wrist like a wildlife tag. He heard the thousand voices of its creation and delivery, babbling all at once, loudly announcing his alien presence to the jungle. With ferocious disgust, he unclasped the watch from his wrist and hurled it into the darkness, his pace quickening now.
The shirt, too – this malignant, squeezing hand of fabric around his torso – it could not stay. He pulled on it, but it only strengthened its grip, sticking to him. Faster he walked. Get this thing off! With a desperate grunt, he yanked on the bottom and opened a lethal tear. Off it came, in one, long rip up the center, not a moment too soon.
Quickly, he realized that every last trace of man-made material, with its venal whispers of civilization, had to be jettisoned to the loam so he could be free. Seconds later, he was completely nude.
Victor walked as briskly as he could, stiffly trying not to run, his racing heart impelling his stride faster and faster from the campsite. The kaleidoscope of trees and vegetation around him scrambled and flexed, diving down in front of him, then splashing up and… away.
He blinked and squinted at the sudden parting of the trees, now seeing the great dome of black-blue sky. Could this be freedom? He could hear the mighty roar of infinity. Surging forward, beckoned by the watery smell of escape, he willed himself into the open expanse, finally away from the clinging, gravitational grasp of the treacherousness behind him. Victor left the ground, his feet no longer anchored to the Earth, flailing and kicking in space. Down, down he plummeted, naked as the moment he was born, into the roaring river below.
Elijah awoke with a start. He was having some kind of nightmare, but already he couldn’t remember what it was about. Great, he thought, now he’s awake enough to feel how much he needed to take a leak.
He gently picked Angela’s arm off his chest and set it beside her as she slept. Her face was so perfectly still, so paralyzingly beautiful. He quietly unzipped the tent and stepped outside in his underwear. Remembering a cardinal rule of camping, he walked into the jungle, a good distance away from the tents.
As he peed, he meditated sleepily on the sound of the rushing river just over the nearby embankment. Such a simple, perfect sound, the way that it rumbled with constant steadiness and, at the same time, slight variations. In his half-awake state, he contemplated every part and frequency of the sound, from the deepest roar to the highest-pitch churning and foam. And the faint sound of a man screaming. A man screaming?
Elijah’s eyes flew open, instantly awake. Did he really hear that? In the river? Without hesitation, he ran to the smooth embankment and slid down with bare feet. There, not too far from the river’s edge, he could see a man flailing madly in the current.
He jumped into the water, more sure of his purpose than confident in his swimming. The timing had been perfect; he was able to reach the man just as he was about to pass swiftly by, surely to be carried beyond reach after that. Elijah grabbed the man any way he could, and without any idea whether he was doing it properly, he paddled them both back to the bank.
Phil and Antonio could barely conceal their laughter. “He was just bobbing in the river, totally naked like that?” Phil said through his fingers.
Elijah didn’t smile. He was covering the wet, shaking man in a blanket as they sat by the extinguished fire. Angela just gawked, still groggy from having just been woken up.
“He wasn’t bobbing in the river, he was flailing around helplessly. He could have drowned,” said Elijah.
“If you hadn’t rescued him, you stud?” joked Antonio.
“What’s his name?” said Phil. “Hey, dude, what’s your name?”
“He hasn’t spoken a word to me, won’t answer my questions,” Elijah said. “It’s like he’s catatonic.”
Angela studied the stranger’s blank face. “Fucking weird,” she mumbled.
The man turned his head and gave her a huge, goofy grin.
“Hey! What happened to you, man?” she asked him, but his smile faded and he slowly turned away, vacantly staring at the ground again.
Angela looked at Elijah and shook her head. Elijah spoke up, “He obviously came from up the river, probably from our side of it, judging from how close to the bank he was. Who knows how far up the river.”
“Couldn’t be that far,” Phil said.
“Who knows,” Elijah repeated. “He’s got to be on some kind of drug. Doesn’t look crazy or homeless, or whatever.” He suddenly realized how dumb that sounded. “We should just get him back to the town. He probably has people he knows who are there or will be there soon to look for him or report that he’s missing.”
The late-night hike back to the town was miserable, and the strange man’s condition didn’t improve at all as they walked. Elijah had an extra pair of cargo shorts and a tie-dye shirt for him to wear. Phil supplied the flip-flops. Slowly, they led him along the tiny path, like a mute pack animal. Occasionally, he tried to scamper off into the forest, but Elijah was able to catch him and escort him back each time.
They brought him to the police station. After explaining as much as he could, Elijah offered to stay at the station in case he was needed for anything else. Having seen Elijah and the Reggae Rampagers many times in the past few years, the officer instead told them to go home and get some rest, he’d call them if he needed anything. Once the band kids left, the officer checked the couch to see how the catatonic man was doing. He was out cold. The officer let him sleep, quietly filling out paperwork as the pale light of dawn crept in through his office window.
A few hours later, just as predicted, Leo and Jessica arrived at the police station. Their clothes were a disaster, and they clearly hadn’t slept at all. They reunited with Victor, who told them, with a terse mixture of anger, humiliation, and relief, what had happened to him. The three of them had more or less come down from the mushrooms, sharing very few words after Victor told his story, all just ready to get back home. Victor occasionally tried to catch his brother with a resentful glare, but every time, Leo refused to look him in the eye. Yes, they were going to have a little chat once they got back to L.A.
“Did Victor’s rescuers demand a reward or anything?” Leo asked the officer at the station.
“Nope. They just asked if they’d be needed for any additional statements. Do you want me to call them? I have their numbers. They work in the town.”
Another aching wave of embarrassment came over Victor. He didn’t know how much more he could take right then. “You know what, officer? Can you just tell them that they have my undying gratitude?” Saying that made Victor feel awful. “Here, just—” he felt his empty back pocket and remembered that the shorts he was wearing weren’t his, and his wallet – with his cash and business cards – was in the shorts he threw off in the jungle.
He grabbed a pen and pad from the officer’s desk and scribbled his name and email address on it. “Just tell them to email me. I’ve got a lot of money, and I’ll happily wire them some as a reward. Please tell them?”
The three sat in grim silence on Victor’s jet as it prepared for takeoff, all gazing out the windows instead of at each other. Leo attempted a smile, but it came across as a smirk instead. Someone had to lighten this mood. “Hey, man, aren’t you going to change out of those clothes before we take off? You look funny in a tie-dye.”
Victor looked down at the shirt and sighed. It felt vaguely damp and reeked of body odor. “Screw it,” he said, gazing vacantly out the window at the line of palm trees along the runway. “Maybe it’s time for a change of style anyway.”
“Ha!” said Leo, “I guess if anyone can get away with it, it’s you.”
Victor looked over at Jessica. She was looking right back at him. “Vic, I’m so sorry,” she said, the deep sadness and exhaustion in her face having completely overcome its natural cheeriness.
“Yeah, Vic, we’re so sorry, man,” Leo joined in. “Hey, look, it’s over, right? You survived! Soon, you’ll be back to your awesome life, and what a story you have to tell now. And hey, how cool is it going to be to watch them film that movie you helped finance, then watch it become a box office hit? Great things—”
“Hey, Leo?” Victor interrupted.
“Either stop talking or find your own plane home.”
Victor eased back in his custom leather chair as his Challenger 601 approached the takeoff runway. For the first time, he noticed something square and bulky in one of the big side pockets of the cargo shorts he’d been given to wear. He reached inside. It was a CD case, something he hadn’t seen in a long time. The cover art on the insert was low-budget: a simple photograph of the band standing in front of a jail cell, all dressed in old-timey, black-and-white-striped prisoner’s jumpsuits. Three not-bad-looking guys and a very cute girl. Above them, their name: “The Escape Artists.”
Victor pushed the attendant button on the console above him. Rebecca was there within ten seconds. “What can I get you, Victor?”
He opened the case, popped out the CD, and handed it to her. “Put this on.”
“Of course,” she said and carried the CD to the galley.
The first track started as the jet began to surge to takeoff speed. The music cascaded over them warmly, the vocals clear and rich – powerful medicine for Victor’s ragged body and soul. “Wow, who is this?” said Jessica, the light returning to her eyes.
“Nobody you’ve ever heard of,” said Victor. He thought about the note he left at the station with his name and email address, how small and stupid it seemed to him now. On the back side of the CD case, he found the band’s email address and phone number. The jet began to lift off, still an invigorating feeling even after all these times. As he put the CD case back in his big pocket and smiled to himself, he reflected on that favor his friend owed him, the palm trees and luxurious white sands shrinking away below, finally disappearing behind the clouds.