27. Bug

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Cowering down, we watched the soldiers' boat stomping its way through the waves at the island's northern shore.

We stood exposed on a flat stretch of bare rock. The nearest shrubs were down at the shore, some two hundred yards away. If we ran, we might barely make it in time before the people on the dinghy were close enough to see us. But the shelter there was scarce and emaciated. The shrubs lacked the bulk to hide us.

"Come, but stay low." On all fours, Farid moved forward and downward.

I followed, mimicking him.

He led us to a crack in the basalt, where a large slab had broken off and slid down, similar to the one that had carried him downhill some days ago. But this one had come to a stop after gliding no more than a few inches, leaving a gap along its upper edge—a long, horizontal crack hardly big enough to squeeze in. It wasn't deep, either.

We both wedged our bodies into it, my head ending up close to the soles of his feet, arms pressed against my sides. My back was flush with the rock's surface on both sides, at best.

I had my head turned towards the shore, but all I could see was the crack's wall, a tiny cliff of broken, porous stone. It was brown, reminiscent of a type of chocolate I had known as a kid. Porous chocolate—in their commercials, they had advertised its ability to swim in milk. I even remembered the taste it had. It was sweet with honey, the kind of cloying sweetness that stuck to your teeth and gums for too long.

The engine's whiny buzz grew louder.

My blouse wasn't as white as it had been on the plane, but it still would glow in the sunshine like a patch of snow on a tropical island, foreign and easy to spot.

A bug crept down the porous chocolate in front of me. Its carapace glistened in a glossy midnight black a hand's width from my nose, and it was more than an inch long.

I hated bugs.

Its abdomen was covered by two curved lids, probably hiding a set of wings, like a rounded coffin with twin doors. The front end was rounded too, armored in smooth chitin, and ending in a head, two antennae, and a pair of spiked mandibles.

The engine's noise stopped.

What were they doing? Did they land? I didn't dare lift my head.

The beetle had reached the bottom of the crack, the rough bed of splintered rock and dirt my cheek was resting against, and it stood still. It perched no more than a hand's width from my hose and gazed at Farid's footwear. It was too close for comfort.

I hated bugs.

I longed to shy it away. But there wasn't room for that. To get a hand to my face, I'd have to turn and to lift my arm. It would be like waving at the people on the boat.

From one moment to the next, the bug went from statue to runner, and it made a dash for the Farid's soles. I tilted my head back to see what it was up to.

It now had its rear end facing me.

I had just time to see a greenish string of stuff oozing from its backside before it made a one-eighty turn.

Now it faced me.

Its face was as black as the rest of it, triangular, with the narrow bottom end carrying its two serrated mandibles. The eyes formed the only color, iridescent domes gleaming in hues of green and blue.

It took a couple of hesitant steps towards me.

"Shhhh," I said.

It stopped and stared, frozen. The only thing still moving were its antennae probing the air.

I pushed my lower lip forward, forming a guiding vent, closed my eyes, and blew.

Please be gone.

When I opened my eyes again, it had moved an inch sideways. It realigned its body to face me.

Faint bristles above its eyes gave it a perpetual, reproachful frown as if it resented my invasion of its crack.

"Beat it," I hissed.

It didn't budge.

What were the people in the dinghy up to? I strained my ears, but all I heard were the birds' cacophony, the faint rustle of the waves, and a repetitive clicking.

The clicking was faint but distinct. Like the ticking of a time bomb. Tick, tick, tick, counting down my last seconds.

The sound was close. I looked at my bug. Its mandibles moved against each other, in synch with the ticks.

The thing was clicking at me.

A challenge? A mating ritual?

I stuck out my tongue.

The dinghy's engine came to life, and someone opened its throttle full blast. It howled angrily.

Then its noise grew fainter.

The bug turned, facing Farid again. Then it ran and disappeared from my view.

It left a green turd where it had stood.

Slowly, I lifted my head and peered over our crack's edge. The shore below us was deserted. The dinghy was gone without a trace.

"You're okay?" Farid asked.

"Kind of." Should I tell him about the bug and how relieved I felt to be rid of it? It would be good to laugh. But then I remembered the orange flames, the greasy smoke, and the smell that came with it. "Let's move."

Our treck took us north, and we soon reached the hill's north-easterly flank, where we had to ascend. When Farid arrived at the top, he stopped and peered over the crest. I joined him.

The valley with the cave was below us, descending from the peak to our right towards the ocean on our left, ending in the precipice that had almost killed both of us.

Beyond it, to the south, the ship moved through the water, advancing at a slow pace along the east shore, towards us.

"They'll see us," I said.

"If they look this way, yes." He nodded. "But only for the first part of our descent into the valley. Ten seconds max."

"Shouldn't we wait until it's dark?" I looked up at the sun. It was around noon.

"It looks like they're heading north," he said. "The further they advance, the more they'll see of the valley."

Pearls of sweat glittered on his forehead. A faint breeze moved one of his curls. He looked at me and raised his eyebrows.

"Let's run, then," I said.

"That's the spirit." A rare grin moved the corners of his mouth. "Keep low. On my count. Three... two... one..."



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