I had climbed dozens of giant trees in Myanmar, collecting samples for Nick the botanist—payback for guiding us to the base of Hkakabo Razi.
"You want company?" Josh asked.
"You're welcome to tag along, but I'm going to fast climb."
"I'm sure it will be difficult," Josh said, sarcastically. "But I'll give it my best."
I grinned. "It's harder than you think."
We started up on opposite sides of the same tree. Josh was with me for the first hundred feet, but then I blew ahead of him. It's easy to pick the wrong route. I'd lost a dozen tree races against Alessia and Ethan. And I was lucky in my tree pick. The top was a good forty feet above the canopy, which stretched to the north for as far as I could see without any visible gaps or signs of civilization. We still might have to return to the cave and eat pika snacks.
"Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pikas. A peck of pickled pikas Peter Piper picked. If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pikas, where's the peck of pickled pikas Peter Piper picked?"
"What did you say?" Josh joined me on my swaying perch, sweating and scratched.
"Nothing," I answered, a little embarrassed. I hadn't realized I was talking to myself, which was happening more and more lately. It was disconcerting.
"The climb was harder than I thought," Josh said, out of breath, giving me a bye on my slip of the tongue. "I had to detour around a big snake. Slowed me down. What do you see?"
I scanned the canopy with my binoculars. "Smoke," I said. At least, I was pretty sure it was smoke. It's hard to tell the difference between smoke and mist in the rainforest. I handed the binoculars to Josh and pulled out my compass. "North by northwest. Maybe a mile away."
"I see it," Josh said.
"It could be a village, or maybe a camp."
"Or a forest fire," Josh added.
"That too, but I think we should check it out."
"Let's do it."
WE BATTLED THE TANGLE for another two hours with little progress, but I didn't give up. The feeling I'd had earlier wasn't nearly as strong, but there was still a tingle that if I kept going I would find Zopa. I took a couple more machete swipes and stumbled into a small clearing with a well-trodden trail running through the middle of it.
"Boot prints," Yash said. "Fresh."
I wasn't sure how fresh they were, but there were a lot of them headed in every direction. I wished Ethan were with us. He'd know exactly how old the boot prints were, how many people had made them, and which way they had gone.
"Hunters," Yogi said. He was standing at the edge of the clearing, looking down at something.
It turned out to be a stinking pile of guts and bones, covered by about two billion insects, which swarmed us as we approached. We backed away quickly and the insects settled back down on their feast.
"What was it?" I asked.
"Takin," Yash answered.
"What's that?" I asked.
"Takins are some kind of antelope," Josh said. "But they look like a small musk ox. I've had takin stew a couple of times. It's a little gamey, but tasty. Hunters get a pretty good price for the skins. Probably because takins are only found in godforsaken places like this."
Jack had not joined us to look at the guts. He was sitting on the ground leaning against a tree with his backpack still strapped on like a tipped-over turtle. He looked like he had taken a shower in his clothes. His face was florid and pock-marked with nasty bites and scratches. If we didn't get to a village or road soon, we were going to be dragging him through the forest on a litter. I wished I had some of that goop Nick had concocted for bites and stings. Jack was out of water. I gave him some of mine, then helped him to his feet. He wobbled.
"Are you going to be okay?"
Jack shook his head. "I don't know what's the matter with me."
I had an idea of what it might be. "Are you taking anti-malarial pills?"
"I was, but I ran out before we got to Myanmar. You think that's my problem?"
"I don't know, but you're kind of acting like Alessia did when she came down with it." I didn't mention that Alessia had been taking her pills and came down with it anyway.
I dug my pills out of my pack and gave him a couple. I didn't know if it would help, but I didn't think it would hurt. If nothing else they might act like a placebo and make him feel better.
This excerpt ends on page 15 of the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book Not Another Love Song by Olivia Wildenstein.