9. Chris Creek

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During our hike to the promised new camping site, Yves almost had to carry barefooted Nita up the rocks. Yet the nurse kept fussing over Bruna and her burns, enquiring if she needed help.

But Bruna just shook her head, making her copper ponytail shudder, and silently moved on.

She wasn't a whiner.

Chris led us into a broad valley, where the dark-leaved bushes stood taller than all of us. A bed of stones meandered along its bottom.

"The creek," Chris said and pointed at it.

Giving the ground a closer look, I saw small puddles of water between the stones. I stooped to dip my fingers into one of them. The liquid felt warm and oily to the touch. A faint smell of rotten eggs hung in the air.

"It may stink, but it's still water," Pamela said.

"Come, you haven't seen the pond yet." He waved at us as he turned and walked uphill along the riverbed.

A gang of birds loitered in the greenery around us—pale gray and red-beaked, the size of emaciated crows—squatting in branches and perching on rocks. Their fretting, high-pitched chant expressed displeasure at our presence.

We reached a small clearing where the stones had formed a natural dam, hardly a foot high, with a dent in the ground behind it. It held a greenish puddle of water, about two or three yards across.

A few bubbles drifted on the pond's still, oily shimmering surface.

"Okay..." Pamela said, studying the small pool with a lopsided grin. "That was Chris Creek, and this here is Chris Pond."

Chris gave her a little bow. Then he held up a hand. "And there's more!"

Pamela sneered. "I can't wait to hear about it."

"Pamela fruits!" With a little flourish, Chris gestured at a plant about twice his height. It stood right next to the pond. Its gnarly trunks ended in nests of sword-shaped, drooping leaves. At its center, each of the nests held a fruit the size of an orange, but green with an irregular, scaly surface. He walked over and plucked one of them. "I don't know if we can eat them. But when you take them apart, they smell good."

"Oh, this might be a pandan," Nita reached out for it. "May I have a look?"

"Sure." He handed the fruit to her.

"They come in different varieties and shapes," she said, turning it in her hands. "Most of them are edible." She pulled the fruit apart, revealing a yellow-orange interior, and sniffed. Then she broke off a piece and nibbled it, chewed, and shrugged. "Yeah, it could be." She handed the fruit to me.

I turned it over and pried a chunk of its fibrous flesh off, and then I handed the rest to Pamela. It was firm to the bite and had a coconutty but refreshing taste. It left a rough, hairy feeling on my tongue, like rhubarb.

Watching the others try, too, I wondered if we were in the process of poisoning ourselves. Wasn't there something unhealthy in aged rhubarb?

"So, what do you think?" Chris spread his arms and looked at Pamela. "Isn't this a fine campsite?"

She eyed the dark greenery and the ill-tempered birds around us, arms crossed, mouth closed.

Chris' hands sank to his sides, and his grin failed. "The co-pilot of the team will have the first pick at a sleeping spot?" He formulated it as a question.

"Okay." She smiled. "Let's give it a try. Thanks, Chris."

His grin returned.


~~~


Our early dinner consisted of brackish water and pandan fruits—if that was indeed what they were. The water was hard to get used to, but the fruits were okay.

While eating, we first discussed the disappearance of the body at the beach. But that led nowhere, and we changed the topic to our normal lives, the lives we had led before we boarded that plane. Before we crashed. And before we were trapped here.

Chris was an attorney, which didn't come as a surprise to me. He said he was the managing partner at a larger firm. When no one asked for details about that, he seemed a little disappointed.

Yves worked as an industrial designer and had been in China for business. His company made kitchenware.

Nita had a green card and a job at a hospital in San Diego. She had been visiting relatives in India.

Farid's occupation involved finances, but he didn't elaborate on the details. He and Bruna and a couple of others had met in Hong Kong. Some of them had been on the plane with us. I'd have liked to hear more, but he didn't volunteer, and I didn't want to push it. Their friends or business acquaintances on the plane all died.

After dinner, I stood at the place where the riverbed ended in a steep, rocky drop towards the beach some ten yards below us. The water lost itself in the stones here, gurgling and draining away into the dark—where it belonged.

Pamela stood at my side.

Two of the birds stood on a rock a stone's throw away, red eyes watching us. They didn't move.

"I wonder how hard it would be to hunt them," I said.

"You hunt one, and I'll cook it." She rubbed her hands.

I searched the ground for a weapon. A stout stick would be useful.

One of the birds squawked, then both of them batted their wings and took off.

"There goes the roast," she said as we watched them glide towards the sea.

At least we had some fruit.

"Chris was quite nice this afternoon," I said.

She shrugged. "The man's learning. It's about time. Our good manners must be rubbing off."

I laughed.

Our former campsite lay below us. The fire we had lit before coming up had gone out. A fine thread of pale smoke was all that remained of it.

She gestured at the fire site. "Do you think anyone has seen that at all?"

I lifted my shoulders. "I don't know. We'll light another one tomorrow, higher up on the southern hill. That'll be visible from all sides of the island. We'll—"

My sentence was cut short by a string of words bellowed in what sounded like French—the pissed off version of the language.

Pamela raised her eyebrows at me. "That'll be Yves."

"We'd better have a look."

When we got back to the pond, Chris sat in the midst of it, rubbing his chin and glowering at the Frenchman, who stood above him, massaging the knuckles of his right hand.

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