“Guilty.” A bang thunders through the large room like a death sentence.
Shock slowly registers on the young man’s face. He starts to rise. “No!!!” He thrashes as men in uniforms rise to catch his arms. “NO!” he screams.
The room is as silent as a funeral. People look away as he is dragged past them, faces drawn and scared.
“NO! Not the Jungle! Please…” His voice is pleading now, but with no hope of escape. As he is shoved towards the doors, his gaze fixes on a young woman. Behind her sit his parents; they cannot bear to see his face, and look away. But the girl watches it all, silent tears flooding down her face.
He has reached the threshold. He reaches a shaking hand out.
The door slams shut.
The ground behind my back is cool. Drowsily, I lift my hand. I… Who am I? I get the dim sense I am in a tunnel. An echo sounds somewhere nearby. It sounds like a foot stubbing a rock.
I open my eyes. Yes; I am in a cavern. The walls are smooth, pitted concrete. A dead but still glowing campfire sits in the corner, spilling smoke into a hole in the ceiling. Bits and pieces are scattered tidily over the floor; a pile of firewood and tinder, a basket dripping fruit juices, carefully wrapped bundles, another basket, this time full of greens. Voices drift down through a tunnel leading out of the space. The echoing, jumbled conversation becomes louder and louder.
Suddenly three people walk out of the passage way. The woman in the lead starts.
She stands quietly watching me. “Is he awake?” She says softly, the room amplifying her voice.
“I think so.” Says the young, wiry man behind her. He has a squint and his tidy face is framed by a pair of cracked but still scholarly glasses.
I blink at them. Who are these people? I sit up slightly, a man in a plain grey shirt and cargo pants. I feel like the cargo pants aren’t my style. I desperately want to smooth out the wrinkle in my shirt, but I don’t dare move.
The third person, a stocky, short man, stays behind as the other two approach me.
“What is his name going to be?” Asks the woman. Her hair is fiery red. “He looks kind of… normal.” She seems disappointed by this.
“He’s a normal man. Nor-man. Norman.” Says wiry.
Red is now a few feet away. “Hey. It’s all right.” She reaches out to feel my forehead.
It’s become hot in the cave. I’m soaked with sweat. It’s begun to run into my eyes. I lift a hand to wipe it away, and nausea hits. I double over and heave. I’m still convulsing as the black begins to creep in. As the world starts spinning around me I feel someone’s hand on my shoulder, reassuring me.
Then I black out.
I drift in and out. Of consciousness? Of dreams? I don’t know which.
Several images haunt me. I cling on to them desperately in my mind, clues to another world, not unfamiliar, not coherent either. A hand, reaching out; someone’s voice, pleading, NO! Tubes, wires, needles in my skin. A harness holding me. A familiar face, a girl crying.
The third man from the cavern throwing a log in a crackling fire, which sends up sparks that burn him away. A blanket.
So many faces, trying to tell me something, pleading, crying, serious.
Red-hair murmuring to me as she pours something cool and sweet down my throat.
I fall under again.
I finally wake.
The fire is crackling next to me, toasting my side even from a few feet away. I open my eyes. Red is busy over the fire. Her back is to me. I watch as she strains something from a pot with a scrap of cloth, and doles it out onto flat pieces of wood. She sets them out, and then turns in my direction, fumbling for something.
“What is your name?” I ask, not sure what to say. It comes out hoarse, from an under-used voice.
She smiles. “You’re awake at last. My name is Scarlett.”
“Who am I?” I ask.
Scarlett is silent for a few seconds. “I don’t know. I don’t know, any more than I knew the same about me when I first arrived here.”
“Am I Norm?”
She laughs. “Yes, if you like that name. I think it fits you.”
“I am Norm.” As I say it I feel an old confidence return to me again. Although a name is not much, it is something.
The sound of footsteps comes thudding down from the tunnel. I sit up. No nausea this time, and no headache, that’s a good sign.
“Two squirrels and a haul of frogs,” The stocky man from before announces. He lays down a wet sack and the squirrels. His face has a streak of drying mud outlining his cheek.
“Norm, this is Fuller.”
Wiry follows behind, quiet.
Fuller starts. He looks at me, solemn and analyzing. Finally he nods, and holds out a hand. I offer mine and he shakes it.
“Norm,” he says, nods again.
Then he takes his food that Scarlett had set out and begins to eat. Scarlett hands me a wooden bowl full of broth and I take it. I drink some even though I don’t feel hungry. It needs salt.
Fuller finishes and leans back with a sigh.
“Welcome to our band.”
Wylan and Scarlett push their plates away too and look expectantly at me.
Feelings of bewilderment and complete loss overwhelm me. I don’t know what to ask first.
“Where am I? What… What am I doing here?”
“You are in the Jungle. We are one of the bands that live here, on the edge of this wilderness, trying our best to survive. We all came from another place, a previous life, that we have no memories of. We are trapped here.”
Fuller pauses to rub his face.
“Your story so far is the same as everyone else’s. None of us came here with any memories. No name, no idea who we are. We go through some sort of shock, and then…” Fuller sighs, pain clouding his face as he looks away. “Norm, the world outside of this cave is vicious. It’s nature with a conscience, intent on killing you.”
“Let’s just hope that that’s not the end of your story.”
He sets his jaw and looks down.
“Welcome to the Wild.”
Scarlett and Wylan each give him a fleeting glance.
There is silence for a while. The satiated fire pops and swirls in the air.
“With a conscience…” I echo.
Wylan speaks. “The forest changes overnight. There are trees where there wasn’t before. Monstrous beasts that seem to be intent on coming after you. It- It’s almost like the jungle is alive. Like it has a mind that is trying to foil you, outwit you, and keep you on your feet. It’s…” He trails off, shivering, with his pupils focusing on the dancing shadows on the wall.
“At least you’re not alone.” Scarlett says.
I feel terribly lonely. I’m missing something. I have the sudden urge to just curl up with a book, and let it take me away from here. What is this place? Why am I here?
I jerk up, realizing that I was almost asleep. I try to stop my eyelids from falling, but I can’t. I find myself leaning back against the wall, away from the slumbering flames. It has grown dark in the cave. Almost no light comes from the tunnel, and the light from the fire is reduced to a dim glow.
“I’ll take first watch.” Fuller’s voice echoes.
My eyelids droop, and before I know it I’m asleep.
Fuller is shaking my shoulder. I open my eyes, the cave unfocused from sleep.
“Norm. Get up.”
I blink enough that I can see his face staring down at me, his jaw set grimly.
“We have to get out before the fish stop biting. Grab a bite to eat and then we have to go.”
I moan, but manage to drag myself awake. A piece of dried meat is thrust at me and we head out. The tunnel is spacious, almost wide enough for two people to walk side by side.
The light blinds me as we scramble out of the tunnel mouth. What I see when my eyes are adjusted astonishes me. A vast blue dome spreads out above our heads. Its rim follows a gently curving wall of cliffs spreading out on either side. I can’t tell how big it is, but it must be colossal.
I can’t tell, because of the jungle. It is a forbidding battlement of vines and branches. One or two of the trees tower above the rest, and are so tall it seems like they are being smothered by the synthetic blue dome.
“Let’s go.” Says Scarlett as she comes out behind me. A basket is thrown carelessly across her back and her hair is wrenched into a tight knot.
Scarlett and Wylan head out, but Fuller grabs my shoulder. “Norm. This place is no walk in the park. If you don’t fear it and watch every step, you might not realize you’re dead until it’s too late. Don’t wander off, stay by us. Don’t take any risks. You got that?” His voice is grim.
I nod, wondering on his implications.
Shouldering his way past a tree, he disappears ahead of me. I pause for several seconds before following.
They quickly find the path in the cool darkness. The trail is well used at first, but then after ten minutes or so of walking we turn onto a smaller animal path, disappearing and reappearing like a specter ahead of us. There is something haunting and fearful about the way that the trees fade away in the morning mist.
We arrive at a low, dark lake. My clothes are plastered with sweat and my face is smeared with dead bugs. Lily pads choke the pond, and every now and then a ripple spreads out on the still surface.
Fuller, Scarlett and Wylan are already hard at work. They have begun setting up a fishing line that hangs from an overhead tree. They always have an eye on the water and the jungle behind them.
Fuller hoists himself onto another out-jetting tree. “Come on up,” He calls down to me.
I clamber up the tree, slow. I’m nervous of falling. It’s as big around as I am, and I use a branch for balance. Fuller is already sitting down, and he hands me a fishing pole. I sit down, feet dangling over the edge, clutching this contraption which is nothing more than a stick with string and a hook.
Fuller shows me how to lower it into the water. Then we wait. It takes only a minute or so for something to bite. I raise the rod up, and Fuller starts heaving the string up. A gleaming fish comes thrashing up to the surface. It spins in midair for a moment, and then Fuller reaches down for it, bashes it once against the side of a tree.
“And that’s how you catch a fish.” He says. We work all morning, and catch several strings of small fish. I find it distasteful to kill them, and at first try not to dirty my hands on their smooth sides. But then I see Fuller glancing at my dainty handwork and I don’t bother after that. I hope I’m not the type of person that blushes. Wylan is gathering tubers in the marshy ground, keeping a careful eye on the big fishing line. Scarlett is a little farther off.
Then it happens. The line goes taut. It’s much farther out and the water is deeper than the branch I’ve been using and the other end, quivering, is tied around a tree. Wylan gives a shout and dives for the rope. Fuller vaults from the branch and scrambles for it too. The whole line is jerking about.
The both of them start heaving at the line. I get down and help too, but probably not that much. Slowly we haul the line out, fighting for every centimeter. We probably spend a half hour until we see the glittering shadow under the surface. My arms are on fire. It breaks the surface, and this fish is huge. It is maybe the length of my arm, not including the tailfin, and its shimmering black scales are sleek with the water streaming off of it. We fight to hold this dancing monstrosity above the surface until he quiets down.
Scarlett has heard the struggle and is watching with her basket of tubers.
Finally Fuller lets go of the rope. He scans the water carefully as he grabs his spear and wades in. Making barely a ripple in the water, he leans out from the drop off towards the fish. Beyond him it is dark and blue.
Out of the corner of my eye I see a shadow lunge towards him.
Fuller whips around and falls out of the way in time, but I still am alarmed to see a small burst of red under the water. He surfaces.
The reptilian creature is massive. It resembles a creature I remember vaguely, extinct, savage. An alligator. Its back is like a chest of green jewels. Its red eyes are fierce and alien.
Fuller backs away, brandishing his spear. Wylan shouts and comes crashing into the water, spear in hand. There is a splash as our fish falls.
Suddenly I see other black shapes moving towards them under the water.
Scarlett screams. “Fuller!! GET OUT!”