Bethany House Publishers
The blow came like the torrent below, hard and swift and unexpected. Framed by jungle foliage, a face, the thrust of an arm. Her spine arched. She screamed, jerked, and pinwheeled, then splashed in and went under. Swept up in fluid momentum, her head broke the surface. A shout bounced off the canyon wall. She couldn't turn to place it, couldn't catch the words. Another shout, drowned by an ominous roar.
Realizing the danger, she kicked against the rabid current, but it surged, tipped, and flung her down, down to the pounding base. It drove her into the pool, tumbling and crushing, exploding in percussive blasts like war around her. She hit something hard. Pain seared her head. Her limbs slackened. Darkness.
Ears popping, lungs bursting, she woke with a single thought: Fight! She pulled and kicked, broke free of the tumultuous churn, and propelled herself to the surface, sucking air and choking. The hungry current dragged her from the pool into the rocky channel. She kicked and ducked—not thinking, just guarding herself as she rushed along until the cataract broadened and slowed.
Ahead, she glimpsed a promontory of dark rocks gilded with moss. She pushed toward them, grasped and slipped off the first but caught hold of the next. Pulling herself into the niche, she choked, then settled enough to draw air in through her nose, out through her mouth. The fire in her chest subsided.
Head throbbing, she leaned against the rock and dragged her thick-tread hiking shoes onto the promontory one foot at a time. A haze of gnats wafted by her face, drifting over the water. Her vision blurred and cleared as she clung there in the pooling edge of the river. A brown bird called raucously. Ferns, broad-leafed trees, crescent-leafed trees, vines, and bushes surrounded her.
Something cut into her chest. She reached up and felt the stiff nylon straps of a hydration pack. Hardly thinking, she took hold of the mouthpiece at the end of the water bladder's hose, bit the release, and drew in warm, then icy water. But as she drank, panic gripped her throat. Where was she, and what was she doing there?
* * *
As best he could tell, the waterfall had thrown him back into a sunken lava cave. The roar of the falls resounded inside the walls as he pulled himself over the lip and onto a ledge, using only his arms. Explosive pain shot down his battered and bloody legs. Pieces of his left shin ground together with each infinitesimal shift. His right ankle burned with a different but no less incapacitating throb. Teeth clenched, he rolled to his side, fitting himself into the curve of the cave wall. He lay still, stunned and weak, letting his body recoup, acquainting himself with the points of injury.
He squeezed his brow, rubbing the water from his eyes, and shivered. When Gentry toppled into the water, he'd shouted a warning, but already she was past the point of no return. Not even the strongest swimmer could resist the rushing cataract—as he'd learned. Maybe he shouldn't have gone in for her. There'd been no time to think, to consider, only to react. Seconds before he went over he'd seen her surface in the pool below, but his own plunge was less successful.
He reached down and probed his shin, found the break he'd suspected. Waves of pain kept him from exploring further. Easy, he told himself. Easy. He could only pray Gentry hadn't hit the same rocks. But then, like him, she'd have been channeled into the cave behind the falls, not carried out. Was she there still?
"Gentry!" No way she'd hear him over the echoing roar, but something in him had to cry out. His eardrums were shell-shocked from the din, but he yelled again. "Gentry!"
Sense returned. If Gentry was out there, he couldn't reach her. He'd never pull through the falls. He'd be smashed down again onto the rocks. And if she tried to reach him?
"No. Please, God." Cut and bleeding, pain escalating, he groaned. Her only chance—and his—was for her to get out, to get help. The trail, hardly more than a wild boar path over roots and rocks and clay, was so remote there was no telling how long until anyone might pass by. And it led to the top of the falls. People weren't supposed to go over.
He dropped his head back and expelled his breath. What had happened? Gentry was an experienced hiker, strong and surefooted. But he'd read enough survivor stories—and stories that didn't turn out as well—to know things could simply go wrong.
He closed his eyes. He needed to garner what energy he had, recover from the shock, rest. His bleeding had slowed, the wounds coagulating. The break in his bone could be bleeding into his leg, but he couldn't help that. At this point, he couldn't help anything. He drew a staggered breath and prayed.
* * *
Clouds puffed past overhead, carried swiftly through the sky, but heat blanketed the deep-cut valley where the winds didn't penetrate. Moisture rose from the water and joined the graying gauze that erupted in showers, then passed.
Too woozy to think, she dragged herself ashore. She wanted to stay there, but an indistinct urgency moved her on. Following the water, she pressed her way through the palms and bushes, groping over tangled roots and rocks. She missed her footing and slid back into the river, then scraped her palms and bruised her hip climbing out. Her mind felt like sludge.
The cataract fanned out, plunging abruptly through jagged ridges, the nearest a rocky channel too steep and slippery to attempt. She splashed over and let herself down beside the next channel. Equally steep, the rocky edges of this one were possibly navigable—though not before resting. She drank from the water pack on her back and tried to stop shaking.
After less time than she'd have liked, she started down, turning almost immediately to work down the face like a rugged irregular ladder. Tucking her fingers into a crevice, she was startled by a sharp-faced chameleon-type lizard that skittered over her hand and into the vines that cloaked the ridge on her left. A short way down dangled a large black-and-yellow spider, whose legs went out in diagonal pairs. Again she heard the birds. Around her life teemed, but she felt unutterably alone.
Her arms shook as she stretched down for a hold. The cliff dropped away below. The water broke loose and fell, casting her in mist and slickening the rocks she clung to. Her breath came sharp and shallow as waves of dizziness took hold. She pressed herself to the wall, letting it pass, making it. Maybe there was a different way down, but she didn't have the strength to climb back up and find it.
She inched her foot down, dug in the toe of the hiker, then forced her other foot to release. The bad stretch wasn't too long. She could make it. She had to. She moved her hand, clawed a jut in the rock, then eased down. A slender white bird winged over the falls with a dipping motion that rolled her stomach.
She pressed her face to the stone and waited it out. Clouds parted and the sun caressed her. With her thigh quivering, she groped for a foothold, found a good-sized step, and lowered herself. She could do it. She would.
She reached level ground, staggered into a small clearing beside the stream, and dropped to her knees beside a boulder. Her head felt as though someone had opened it up and filled it with sand. She laid it on her arms. Maybe she'd just ... rest....
A sudden burst of birdsong penetrated her stupor. She drew in the scent of earth and water and rank foliage. Opening her eyes produced a grinding headache. She reached up and felt the top of her scalp, swollen, tender, and crusted under the hair. What... ?
Green folds of land rose steeply all around her, leaves and blooms just tinged with dawning light. She turned slowly, holding her head between her hands, and found the source of the mist wafting over her. A lacy spread of falls tumbled down a jagged cliff, forming streams that flowed past the rock where she'd hunched ... all night?
In addition to scrapes and bruises, welts on her arms raised up and itched where something had fed on her. She groped up from her knees, brushed the wet, reddish brown leaves off her pants, and stood. Dizzy, she waited for the hazy vision to pass—or not. She rubbed her temples. Where was she? Why had she spent the night in a jungle?
Her parched throat grated. Automatically she reached for the water tube that dangled beside her cheek and took a cool drink. She squeezed the clasps and unfastened the straps across her chest and waist, then, grimacing, worked the pack off her shoulders. Every muscle griped.
She sat down on the rock and laid the pack across her legs. The main pocket held a stick of turkey jerky, a PowerBar, and a trail mix of mostly raw nuts and seeds with enough M&Ms to make it worth it. She found a packet of medicated Band-Aids in the small zippered pouch, and she used them on her left elbow and wrist and applied a layer of sunscreen to her arms and face from the tube in the side pocket. Whatever she was doing, she'd come prepared. But by the throbbing in her head, something had gone wrong.
She tore open the PowerBar and bit into the stiff, semisweet staple. Chewing made her temples throb and killed her hunger. She wanted to lie back down on the damp ground, but something told her she had to keep moving. She didn't know how long or how far. Or which direction for that matter.
She searched the steep slopes to the tops of their ridges, then dropped her gaze back to the valley floor, where the river's voice reminded her: Follow the water. Water runs down. Water leads out.
She slipped the pack back on, fitting it snugly enough to her back that in her daze she'd hardly noticed it was there. With the thin-stalked palms higher than her head, she decided to walk in the shallow edge of the stream. Her canvas hikers were made for water, but the going was slow on the slippery rocks. She gave it up and pressed through where the shorter, thigh-high ferns had taken over beneath the overarching branches of trees.
Ragged clouds overhead dropped misty rain, filling her nostrils with an ozone-rich scent. She kept moving, driven by a need beyond thought. Her vision grew wavy, her balance askew. She stumbled on, the water's voice her only constant. When fatigue demanded, she rested but moved again when she was able.
The sun came out and warmed the air to a mild sauna and brought a fresh chorus of birdsong. She tore a yellowish fruit from a branch, ripped open the peel and sucked out the juice and pulp. She nibbled from her pack. Sometime in the afternoon, she threw up.
The sun was setting when she staggered into a wide, lush, verdant-smelling expanse. She stumbled onto the level ground as at the unexpected end of a staircase. Thorns and branches had torn through her lightweight pants; scrapes and scratches stung her arms and legs. None of that mattered if this valley was what it looked like.
Righting herself, she started across ground patched with watery plots of a broad-leafed, red-stemmed plant. The paths between the paddies were raised and dry, but by the time she'd traversed the plots she was more crawling than walking. As twilight deepened, she staggered into a yard and grabbed hold of a low stone bench.
With the culmination of effort, she slumped to her knees. Her joints felt near to separating. She was aware of her skin. Fatigue weighted her head until it rested on the edge of the bench. Her ears thrummed like a hive, and she thought she might faint.
Then a golden light spread over the fragrant yard. The sound of a door opening. Footsteps on the soft, mossy ground and a voice, not unlike the birds whose conversations had filled the hidden spaces of the forest throughout the day. "Hello?"
No strength to answer.
"Hey." The hand on her shoulder was gentle. "Are you all right?"
Her sand-filled head refused to nod.
"Here, sit." The woman helped her onto the bench. "I'm Monica."
Raising her eyes, she searched Monica's heart-shaped face, looked into the dove gray eyes and registered nothing familiar.
"Can you tell me your name?"
Soaked and shaking, she parted her lips. Her mind groped, but with panic rising in her throat, she whispered, "I don't know."
Freefall by Kristen Heitzmann
Copyright © 2006; ISBN 0764228293
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.