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Teague jotted a couple of notes and then looked up at her interviewee. They had been at it for nearly an hour. The seasoned reported had reserved a two-hour block for the interview but actually counted on it lasting only about 30 minutes. Now, here they were barely scratching the surface of the deep loch of information that Teague wanted to reveal.
The reporter pushed stop on her phone and leaned forward. “Ms. Leigh, how would you like to take a little break? Say five minutes? You can use the restroom, get up and stretch, whatever you want. Sound good?”
Ariel cocked her head, not really needing to take a break, but nodded anyway. The reporter obviously wasn't used to sitting in one place for too long. How could Ariel deny her of the need to take a mental break?
“That'll be fine.” She gave the reporter a soft smile.
Teague nodded in return and then rose to her full height. “I'll be right back. Just going to check my messages real quick. Help yourself to whatever you want.” She smiled and then left the room – the door closing behind her.
Ariel was left to scan the room, yet again. Feeling a bit restless now herself, she got up and walked back to the window. Not able to see the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island anymore, she watched as a grey and red barge slowly made its way down the river. She pulled her cell phone from her pocket and looked at the screen. No messages. No texts. It wasn't like her sister to not check in, especially now that she was suffering from the worst morning sickness ever.
Ariel snickered. “Morning sickness, my ass. It's all morning, noon, and night sickness.” She shook her head in affection. Her sister was a real trooper.
Ariel woke with a start. As she tried to roll over she was quickly reminded not only of her hellish injuries but also of her lack of pain reliever. It had been almost 8 hours since she took her last Norco and Celebrex, and she was certainly in need of both right now.
She slowly rose to a sitting position, allowing her body to adjust to the change in position. She reached for the two bottles, popping each lid off with her thumb, and poured out a few pills from each. The glass of water on the nightstand was from the night before, but would have to do. A little stale water wouldn't hurt, but not taking her pain pills would definitely do her in.
She swallowed both down in one gulp then was startled by the noise coming from down the hallway. She closed her eyes for a moment when she realized it was her sister. She had been home only three days, but already knew too well how bad Tamara's morning sickness was.
Easing herself off the bed, she slowly walked out of her bedroom and down the hall to the master bath. The door was barely cracked but open enough to allow the sounds of heaving and coughing to escape.
“Tam…?” Ariel slowly pushed the door open. “Tam, are you alright?”
The younger sister sniffed back her tears long enough to answer. “Ya. Just counting my blessings.”
Ariel cringed as she heard another wave hit her sister. She rushed in to the bathroom and stood behind Tam, trying in vain to at least hold the poor woman's hair back.
A moment later, Tam sat back on her heels, unsure if she was done. Ariel grabbed a few tissues and handed them to her sister, waiting patiently. When Tam was confident this episode was over, she blew her nose, and flushed the toilet. She then walked over to the sink and washed her mouth out and brushed her teeth. All the while her older sister looked on.
“How long's this supposed to last?” Ariel asked when Tam returned her toothbrush to its holder and dried her mouth on the nearby hand towel.
Tamara turned and leaned against the counter, shrugging. “Not sure. The doctor says it usually lasts through the first trimester. But, some get to enjoy it their whole pregnancy.”
Ariel cringed again, sending out a silent prayer that her sister didn't have to endure this much longer. “Sorry, Sis. Hope this goes away soon.” Ariel wrapped her left arm around her sister, pulling her in for a one-armed hug. When her sister pulled her closer, Ariel gasped.
“Oh, god. Sorry.” Tamara immediately pulled back, feeling horrible for forgetting about her sister's slow-healing injuries. “How are you feeling this morning?”
Ariel managed a smirk. “Like shit.”
Tamara nodded. “A spritely pair, aren't we?”
“Come on. I'll make you breakfast.”
Ariel followed Tam out of the bathroom and down the hall. “What about you?”
“Eh.” Tam entered the kitchen and started pulling out bacon and eggs from the fridge. “I'll try to eat some toast. But, YOU need to eat. Your body's got a lot of healing to do, missy.” Tam shook a stick of butter at her sister.
Ariel propped herself up on a stool next to the counter. “Uh. Whatever you say.” She watched her sister for a minute and then added. “Over medium, by the way.”
Tamara, suddenly feeling a bit like a short order cook, gave her sister a dirty look. “What do I look like?”
Ariel purposely glanced from the bacon frying in the pan to the bread set out to toast and to the eggs ready to cook. “Um. Is this a trick question?” She managed a smirk.
Tam's eyes narrowed. “If you weren't laid up, you'd be doing this yourself.”
Ariel smiled, hoping Tam's mood would improve the farther along in her pregnancy she got. “I know. And, I'd be more than happy to be fixing you breakfast, too.”
Tamara just rolled her eyes, knowing her sister could hardly boil water. “Fat chance!”
Ariel smiled as she waited for her pills to take effect. Just watching her sister fix breakfast made her sentimental. She reminded her so much of her mother. It was too bad that Tam could barely recollect the woman who gave birth to them both. It was at that time that Ariel squared her jaw and vowed to herself to be there through everything for her sister. She didn't have her mother, but she had Ariel. Regardless of morning sickness or broken bones, Ariel was determined to make this the best experience possible.
Teague Mathews entered the interview room, immediately finding her subject at the window. It seemed to be the woman's favorite spot in the room. Of course, a world traveler like Ms. Leigh wouldn't want to be cooped up for too long.
Teague waited a moment, just observing Ariel. She seemed lost in thought as she watched the boats sailing down the river. At one point, she could see a hint of a smile trace Ariel's profile. The reporter hoped this was as good of a time to interrupt the woman's musings as any.
Teague cleared her throat. “Ms. Leigh?” She held her hand out towards the large couch.
Ariel turned, slightly blushing as if she had just been caught with her hand in the cookie jar. “Oh. Yes. Okay.” She moved towards the couch, immediately wishing she was still looking out the window. “I know it's not the best view in the city, but it's still rather nice.”
Teague nodded. “Fresh eyes.” She gave her visitor a genuine smile, which was returned.
“So,” Teague scanned her brief notes. “You were talking about making your way out of the resort with your husband. It didn't seem to be the best situation to begin with, but the two of you weren't getting along too well.”
Ariel could only half-shrug in acknowledgement.
“But, as I recall, you two were married pretty quickly. Was it love at first sight?”
Ariel briefly chuckled. To say it was love at first sight would be an insult to fans of romance all around the globe. “Uh, no. I can't say it was love at first sight. But, I can say it was more of an….” She paused a second as if trying to find the most appropriate word. “Acknowledgement. I can remember the first time we met as if it just happened. I walked into the sales office for my job interview. I was standing at the receptionist's desk, and off to my right, here he comes. He was wearing a cream suit and looking all the part of the head of the sales office. And, I got this little, I don't know, it was kind of like a little tickle. You know, that feeling you get when you KNOW you've met someone before but you can't place where or when? It was just like that.” She let out a soft snort. “He was so full of himself, too.” She chuckled at the memory. “He later admitted that he felt the same little niggle that I did. And, it was because of that little feeling that he hired me. He was looking for a more seasoned sales rep, not someone as green as me. But, when the universe tickled his fancy, as he'd put it, he couldn't refuse.”
“Is that something that happens a lot?”
“To me?” Ariel pressed her good hand to her chest. “No. I can count on my hand how many times I've felt that way.” She held up three fingers. “My husband. Sydney. And, Reina.”
Teague scanned through her copy points and notes then tapped her pen. “They've all been involved with you in this, haven't they?”
Ariel nodded. “Ya. Each one of them has had a major influence on my life and what I do with it.”
“Okay. So, we have your husband, James. And, we have Sydney, who was one of the co-founders of Memory Hunters. But, who is Reina?”
Ariel looked down at her sling and then at the window. “Reina was a godsend. She helped me and Sydney in Japan. Without her, we wouldn't have been able to accomplish anything.”
Teague jotted down a few words so she would remember to come back to Reina. “But, before you met her, you were working with Sydney. And, Sydney is your co-founder that you met in Sri Lanka. Tell me how you two found each other.”
Ariel smirked. “I already did.”
“What do you mean?”
“Sydney. I already told you how we met. He was the guy trying to keep James and me from killing each other.” Ariel rolled her eyes for effect.
Ariel watched as a couple of men, perhaps in their late twenties or early thirties, approached her tree. The pair was walking casually, but with a set purpose. She didn't doubt that they were coming over because they wanted something.
Ariel glanced at James, who was leaning against the back side of the tree trunk, arms folded across his chest and eyes closed. He was doing his best to try to tune out the situation. She reached around and lightly tapped his arm.
Ariel cleared her throat just as the men reached the shade of her tree.
“Hey.” One of the men reached down to shake her hand. “My name's Michael. This is Kevin.”
“Americans?” Ariel smiled at the first English she had heard in days that wasn't uttered with some sort of accent.
Michael shook his head. “Nope, but close. Canadians.”
“Oh. Well, it's nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you, too. Wish it was under better circumstances, though.”
Ariel nodded, but wanted to get to the point of the intrusion of personal space. “So, what's up?”
Michael let out a long breath. “Well, we're thinking we're going to be here for a bit, so we were going to go looking for some fresh water. We thought maybe your companion could help.”
Ariel jerked a thumb in James' direction. “My husband?”
“Ya. We need a few strong people to help carry it out if we find some.”
Ariel bit her bottom lip to stop herself from laughing. James was very much a white-collar worker. His idea of hard labor consisted of carrying a box of folders into his cushy office. “James? They need you to…”
“I heard them! I'm right here, damn it.” James snapped, not moving an inch.
Michael maneuvered so he was more in the shade and closer to the lounging man. “Come on. We need the help.”
“If you think you're going back in there, you're crazy!” He pointed towards the hotel.
“It's the only place anywhere near that had bottled water and juice. If there's a chance we could find some, even a few bottles, it could make a big difference.”
“Mmm. And, you'll have to do it without me.” He waved his hand dismissively towards the intruder.
“But,” Michael started but was interrupted immediately.
“No. I said I'm not going back in there. Get someone else.”
Both men looked at Ariel, who could only shrug in response. Then the pair walked away without another word spoken.
“James. That was rude.”
“Don't care. I ain't going back in there.”
“What if they find some? Are you going to help yourself?”
Ariel blew out a breath. Why would she ever imagine anything else from her husband? Feeling the need to increase the distance between her and James, she stood and stretched out her back. She scrounged around in her luggage until she found her large, floppy sun hat. Promptly she slipped it on her head and then headed over towards the group of trees that still had a half dozen people gathered under it.
She raised her hand in greeting as she approached. The group did little to acknowledge her, obviously lost in decision making.
“We need to send a group out to find him,” the older man stood with his hands on his hips, plainly frustrated.
“We can't risk it. It was probably washed farther away than we thought. Maybe he's still looking for it.”
“Ya. And, maybe he's trapped and drowning.”
“It doesn't matter. If we send anyone out, they could have the same fate. We all need to stay around here. It's the best bet.”
The older man started to pace. He didn't like the feeling of having no control. There had to be something he could do. He glanced over at his wife. “Nancy. You stay here. I'm gonna go find Joe. Anyone else want to go? Follow me.” Without any hesitation he started off in the direction he believed the rented car washed away in. He didn't wait for any other arguments. He didn't wait to see if anyone was going to go along. He just left. And, in his wake were a handful of confused survivors.
Ariel glanced around the group, all were as frustrated as she felt. She looked at the older man's wife just as she rolled her eyes and let out a puff of air. Apparently she knew better than to argue with her husband.
Ariel pursed her lips, took in a lungful of air, waved her left hand in farewell, and then rushed off after the older man.
“Hey. Wait up!” She shouted after the man who had managed to get almost fifty feet away in the moment of Ariel's hesitation.
The older man looked back and gave the woman a nod as he waited for her to close the distance. “Did ya tell your hubby that you're goin' off with me?”
Ariel shook her head. “He'll figure it out.”
The older man rolled his eyes at the young squirt. She couldn't have been married for long but was already giving her husband what for. “I hope he loves you.”
They began walking away from the resort, both trekking in a steady and determined gate. “Why do you say that?”
The older man kept his eyes forward. “When he finds out you're off with me, he's gonna be buggered for sure.”
“Oh.” Ariel let those words rattle through her brain for several paces before she spoke. “I'm Ariel.”
“Can you tell me your name?” When the older man didn't speak right away, Ariel countered, “Or is it a secret?”
Not breaking his stride the man gave the young woman a side glance coupled with a smirk. “The name's Sydney.” He offered his hand for a quick shake.
“Nice to meet you. I'm from the States. You?”
Ariel had no idea where that was. “Umm…?”
“Down under?” Sydney raised an eyebrow. Ariel just shook her head. “Ah. New Zealand. Born and bred.”
Ariel nodded, proud of herself for recognizing the thick accent.
“So, what brings you here?”
“At least you aren't De Facto. I'll give that wet blanket some credit.”
Ariel knew that was supposed to be some sort of complement but wasn't entirely sure. “Huh?”
“You're married, then, eh. You're legal.”
“Oh. Ya. A few months, now.”
“You been on honeymoon for that long?” Sydney traipsed through a growth of waist high grass, making sure to watch his footing for snakes and stray animals.
“God, no. We just started our honeymoon a few days ago.” Ariel was careful to match her steps with the man's in front of her. A moment passed before she offered, “He got a really good deal on the trip, but we had to wait until the end of December.”
“Bargain hunter is he?”
Sydney came to a stone outcrop and climbed to the top. Ariel joined him only a few seconds later. He shielded the sun from his eyes with his hand and then scanned the surrounding areas. They were just a hundred yards short of the strand of scrub trees they believed to be holding the washed away vehicles, but there was no sign of the man called Joe.
Ariel looked around from her six foot elevated advantage and was awestruck at the destruction this far inland. Sand and mud coated the lower leaves of all the trees and there were some small pieces of wood debris clinging to some of the branches. Perhaps some of this was from her hotel?
Ariel took a deep breath and let it out. The water left it's mark six to eight feet high nearly a half mile inland. It was amazing that any of them survived the ordeal.
“Hey,” Sydney snapped his fingers near the young woman's face. She had been lost in thought, but he wasn't going to waste time waiting for her to come back to the present. “We need to get going. I think I see something down there.”
Ariel followed the older man's arm as he pointed towards a bunch of trees and bushes off to his right. The grass was thick, making it difficult to see anything that might be captured by the small forest. But, perhaps it was the break in the grass stalks that gave the older man hope.
“See? Just over there.”
Ariel nodded as her eyes fixated on a small area where the tall grass was dimpled. Her heart skipped at the realization that they would be venturing more than a football field off the main road, or what was left of it. “Alright,” she managed to whisper on a long breath.
“Just stay right behind me, eh.”
Ariel swallowed the saliva that had instantaneously pooled at the back of her throat. For some reason, walking off with this older man in the middle of a natural disaster didn't bother her. But, walking off into a sea of tall, swampy grass was firing off all kinds of warning bells in her mind. She vowed to herself to stay close, but as soon as even a hint of something going wrong tickled her nape hairs, she'd be heading for higher ground faster than a starving cheetah chasing a gazelle.
Ariel stayed close to Sydney; the pair moving slowly through the wet, waist-high grass. There was no telling what normally lived in this part of the island, but Sydney was greatly relieved when they finally reached the small clearing by the scrub trees.
“It's a good thing that tsunami made its way through here.”
Ariel moved off to the left of Sydney, making sure she stood in the shade. She removed her floppy hat and ran her fingers through her sweaty hair. “Why's that?”
“This island's full of nasty critters, with legs and without. I think that water ran most of them off. Ain't seen or heard nothing but them birds.” He waved his hand towards the top of the trees.
Ariel nodded, remembering reading about the indigenous reptiles and venomous snakes that populated the island. Luckily they were in the Northern Province during the dry season. That meant most of the creepy crawlies stayed in their burrows and weren't venturing too close to people. But, the tsunami could have washed them out of hiding, just waiting for an unsuspecting human to walk by.
“I don't want to take any chances, though.” Ariel scanned the scrub bushes and tall grass. Everything had a mossy look to it, thanks the invading sea waters. Nothing looked untouched by the waters; a reality that continued to boggle Ariel's mind.
Sydney wiped the sweat from his forehead and wiped the moisture on his faded jeans. “Come on. ‘Nuff lollygagging around. I can see something shiny down there.” He pointed down the line of trees and started walking.
Ariel replaced her hat and ducked under a muddy tree branch to follow Sydney. It wasn't even noon yet but the sun was heating up the land and creating a thick layer of humidity. The moisture in the air was unbearable, even if sitting still in the shade. But, traipsing around in the wilderness was nearly impossible. The pair was making progress only by stopping every five minutes or so to rest. Otherwise, they might have to add heat exhaustion to their growing list of calamities.
“See?” Sydney pointed towards a clump of shrub bushes. If you were just passing by on the half-demolished road you'd never notice the tiny dark-grey object peeking out from behind the bushes. Frankly, even hiking a few yards away made it difficult to see.
“Is that…?” Ariel began but quickly stopped at the sight of Sydney's raised hand.
He paused a couple of seconds then shot over to his left, narrowly missing being flattened by a startled deer.
Ariel screamed as she jumped out of the way, her heart thumping rapidly. “What the hell was that?”
The older man watched the animal bounce away through the tall grass then shook his head. “Dunno. Some kinda antelope, maybe?” He shrugged and then turned his attention back to the bushes. “Come on.” He stepped close to the outer most shrub and grimaced.
Ariel stood to his left and tried to see what the older man obviously saw. But her lack of life experience returned only a glimpse of a tire.
“That's a car, right?” She glanced over to Sydney who nodded.
“Uh. So, are we gonna check it out?”
Sydney cocked his head and then walked towards the far side of the bushes. “Mmm. I don't know. See that?” He gingerly grabbed a nearby branch and extended it towards Ariel. As he pulled a few of the small leaves away from the woody twig, Ariel blanched. The two inch long needles hiding between the leaves would be deterrence enough for just about anyone or anything.
“What are we going to do?”
Sydney swiped the moisture beading up on his forehead and then glanced around the line of trees. The small car appeared to be captured, on its side, by the small group of bushes. There were a couple of tree branches that hovered overhead, but it would be a difficult climb: one wrong move and you'd be skewered.
Ariel followed Sydney's eyes as he contemplated his next move. Before the older man could take a step forward, Ariel darted to the nearest tree.
“Oh, no you don't. You'd be bonkers to try that.”
Ariel grabbed the lowest branch and tried to haul herself up but was unsuccessful. “We need to check it out, right?”
Sydney remained in place with his arms folded across his chest.
“You know that branch isn't going to hold you. Now, come on – give me a lift!”
Sydney was about to tell this young bit that she didn't know anything and that if anyone was going to do anything it was going to be him. And, just as quickly as he opened his mouth to give her a piece of his mind, he shut it. They needed to check out the car. And, the girl just might be able to maneuver over to the car. He let go of his held breath and walked over to Ariel.
As he clasped his hands together and lowered them to upper thigh height, he managed a growl. “Don't be rushing off to play hero. You slip, you might as well count yourself as one of those casualties.”
Ariel gave the short-tempered man a tiny smirk. She didn't think he took orders too often, but admired the fact that he knew when to relinquish control. “My uncle used to always refer to me as a monkey when I was a kid. I loved being in the trees – even made myself a little tree house. I'm sure I'll do fine.” She placed her right foot in Sydney's hands, stepping up at the same as he raised his hands. She had just enough lift to heave herself onto the lowest branch, albeit ungracefully. After nearly launching herself over to the other side, she grabbed and hugged the low branch until she was sure she had her balance.
“I'm good,” Ariel offered her companion, while she debated her best strategy. The lowest branches were solid and only eight to ten feet off the ground. But, the middle branches were thinner and grew off in all directions. If she stood and tried to walk, she'd only have a few feet to hold onto the higher branches. She'd lose her balance quickly after that, she was sure.
She cleared her throat and maneuvered herself into a sitting position. Dangling her feet below the branch, and looking all of about 8 years old, she gave Sydney a huge grin. “You gonna catch me if I fall?”
Sydney rolled his eyes. “Do you intend on doing that?”
Ariel shook her head. “Honestly? I don't want to fall on you, but just in case…can you stay under me?”
Sydney frowned then let out a frustrated sigh when he realized what she planned to do.
Ariel started to slowly walk her way towards the outside of the branch and over the bunch of scrub trees one inch at a time. She was sitting on the branch, extending her left leg and then bringing her right leg over. It seemed to be an incredibly slow process but effective. She didn't lose her balance and was even able to pick up her pace a little after she got used to the movement.
Sydney hovered below her, keeping his arms extended just in case she happened to fall. He knew he wouldn't be able to catch her, but at least he'd be able to break her fall. That is, until she inched closer to the bushes.
A long needle pierced through cotton material, eliciting a loud yelp. “That's it! Little bit, you're on your own.” Sydney growled as he stepped back from the thorny scrub bushes and rubbed his arm.
“You okay?” Ariel paused a moment to watch her companion.
“Ya. Those things burn worse than a poker to your eye.”
Ariel nodded, “I'll keep that in mind.” She looked back to the bushes. She was about a foot and a half away from the front tire of the car. It was sticking up, clear of the back bushes. She could now see the rest of the front of the car, which was riddled with dents. The passenger side of the car had been warped and twisted, either from the car tumbling or from being lashed by the raging waters, or both. Ariel was now wondering what to do.
“I can see the side door, but it's trashed.”
“What about the window? Can you go through it?”
“I don't know. I can't tell.” Ariel started inching along the branch as it slowly bowed with her weight.
“Careful,” Sydney offered as tendrils from the thorny bush reached up and snagged the bottom of Ariel's shoe.
“I know. I'm trying.” Ariel inched along a little more until she thought she might be able to drop down. “I'm gonna try it.” She looked back towards Sydney. “If I don't….”
“You'll be fine.” The older man interrupted. “Just do it. Don't think it through or you'll think your way into the hospital!” Irritation sounded in his voice, the lack of control getting the better of him.
Ariel nodded and swung her feet a few times before she let out a big breath. Then, in one swift motion, she twisted around and placed her hands on the branch and slowly lowered her feet to the top of the front tire, only a yard below her. The tire rotated a bit before it snagged on part of the dented fender and stopped. The weathered metal creaked with the newly added weight, but didn't shift at all. Ariel let go of the branch and held her arms out, hoping to keep her balance.
“You alive?” Ariel heard her companion's voice through the thicket of thorns. She couldn't help but smirk.
“Yep. I don't have any knew holes, either!”
“Good! Now, can you get in and see if the sat phone is in there?”
“You sure this is that guy's car?” Ariel heard a laugh. “Is that a yes or a no?”
“I have no idea!”
“Shit.” Ariel closed her eyes, wondering what the hell she was doing.
“Oh, go on. The car's white. Joe said his rental was white.”
“Sydney, the car's tan.”
“Oh.” Sydney's voice was low, almost unnoticeable. “Well, you're there. Might as well make the most of it.”
Ariel sent out a whisper on the wind, “Please let me get through this in one piece so I can strangle that old man!” She clenched her fists a few times and then shifted her weight, preparing to descend along the side of the car.
Sydney paced along the edge of the bushes. The leaves were so thick, he couldn't see in if his life depended on it. So, all he had to rely on was his sense of hearing, which was the best. After a few seconds of virtual silence, he couldn't stand it any longer. “You still there?”
“Ya. Just deciding the best way to strangle you when I get out of here.”
A smile slowly cracked the kiwi's face. “I bet you are!” The young woman was quickly finding a soft spot in Sydney's heart. She reminded him of his daughter. She was in her late teens and trying to finish up school. And, she was the only person on Earth who didn't take Sydney's shit.
Ariel's left foot slid down until it caught on the door handle. Her hands held on to the front fender like a vice. When she felt her foot find solid metal, she slowly eased the rest of her body down. Now able to look in the car, she was thankful she hadn't been in it when it was washed away. Mud, sand, and other debris practically filled the cavity. If a person had been in the car, they certainly would have perished. She shook away a cold chill and then lowered herself closer to the beat in passenger door.
“This is nasty! I don't know if there's anything in here!” Ariel yelled so Sydney could hear her.
“Just look around a bit then we'll try to get you out of there.”
Ariel hadn't thought of how she was going to get out. She didn't want to think that far ahead. Her first and most important priority was to find that phone. A lot of people were counting on it.
She flattened her body down along the tan metal a peered inside. All of the glass windows were either shattered or altogether missing. The upholstery was ripped and torn; yellow pieces of foam peaked out from globs of mud. She stretched a little more to try to get a better look in the vehicle but stopped when she heard the metal moan with the change in weight. She paused a few seconds and then lifted herself up and slowly lowered her feet into the vehicle.
Immediately, the mud sucked her in like a vacuum. Expecting a thick concoction of mud and debris, Ariel was surprised to find herself quickly sinking through a thin, watery soup.
“You okay?” Sydney snapped at the loud splash and subsequent surprised squawk from the young woman.
“Uh. Well. I, uh, guess so.” She lifted her head up to the passenger side's window to make her voice heard. The watery mess was nearly waist-high. And, considering she was now in what would be the front of the sedan, but standing up straight, she was disoriented to say the least.
“Keep talking to me so I know you're alright!” Sydney yelled through the bushes.
“Eh. I'll try.” Ariel hollered back. She waited just a second before she started to look around. The glove compartment was above the water, so she opened it. Inside were a pair of sunglasses, some brochures, and two blue passports. Ariel grabbed those and skimmed their details. Both originated from South Africa, but more importantly, one had a name of Joseph Whitherly. “I found some passports.” Ariel yelled. “One is for Joseph Whitherly. Is that our guy?”
Sydney wiped the sweat from his brow, smiling. “That be him!”
Ariel let out a whoop and then started to put the passports in her pants pockets. The capris pants she put on after the tsunami were lightweight and perfect for the humid weather. But, big pockets they were not. She opened her shirt and slipped the two small books into the right side of her bikini top, hoping they would stay put. Then she started to look around more. She couldn't see or feel anything else up front, so she focused her attention towards the back seat. The muddy water was not conducive to seeing any of its contents, so she would have to feel around. She reached towards the back and waved her hands through the dark soup. She didn't hit anything.
“I'm gonna move to the back! There isn't anything else up front!”
“Be careful!” Sydney yelled in return.
“Easy for him to say,” she mumbled as she tried to find solid footing to lift her over the driver's seat. Holding on to the small headrest, she slowly spun herself around between to the two seats. The water was a little deeper in the back of the car, coming up to her rib cage. But, she managed to ease into the back of the car without disturbing too much of the muddy mixture.
Keeping most of her weight on the headrest, she reached down and tried to feel around for any bags, luggage, or anything that might feel important. Her right hand ran down the bench seat finding much of nothing. She closed her eyes and tried to extend her hand even further all the while trying to keep as much of her body out of the murky water.
In an instant, her hand slipped, catapulting her into the water with a loud splash. She fought to find her footing as panic raced through her veins; her arms flapping and splashing through the water to find something to grasp. She felt her toe brush up against something. Thinking it was part of the backseat, she pushed against it, sending her up out of the water enough to cling to the passenger's dangling seat. But, as she did that she felt something crack. Gasping for air she could feel more than hear the car moan in response to the rapid shifting of weight.
Upon hearing a loud splash and then shifting of metal, Sydney was beside himself. He kept calling to Ariel, but she didn't answer. He was just about to risk launching himself through the thicket of thorns when he heard the young woman gasping.
“Ariel! Ariel, girl, answer me. Are you alright?”
Ariel coughed out some vile water, leaving a gritty feeling in her mouth. Just as she took in a lungful of air to answer him, she heard a loud crack. Water began rushing down through her legs, practically pulling her from her precarious perch. All she could do was scream and hold tight to the headrest, totally confused about what was happening.
Sydney raced left and then right around the stand of brush. He didn't know what to do, but he was adamant about finding a thin area of thorns so he could help the woman who he possibly sent to her death . “Ariel! Hold on! Ariel!”
He raced around to the front side of the bushes only to be stopped in his tracks at the sight before him.
Ariel leaned forward to grab her water bottle, taking a few swallows. Teague Mathews sat on the edge of her seat, literally. Ariel set the bottle back on the table and grinned.
“So?” Teague asked. “What happened?”
Ariel shook her head in her own disbelief of her memory. “I guess it could have been really bad. But, luck was on my side that day.” Ariel jerked her head to the left and then the right, extricating three cracks from the back of her neck. She gave the reporter one of those half-embarrassed-half-pleased looks then continued.
“When I slipped, I landed on the back window. It was probably cracked before. But, when I stepped on it, I guess that was enough to break it loose. The water rushed out, and I guess it was the force or the slope or…God. I don't know. But, the car tilted and slid back from the bushes far enough for me to get out. I thought Sydney was going to pass out! He just stood there with this weird look on his face. He hardly even budged when I kicked out the rest of the back window and crawled out.” Ariel smirked still proud of surviving that event without even a scratch.
“So, you found the car. Did you find the phone?”
Ariel nodded. “Like I said, luck was on our side. The phone was in a bag in the back. I would've never found it if the water didn't drain out.”
Teague returned the adventurer's smile. She didn't think she'd have it in her to climb into that car, let alone go digging through the mud with only a slight chance of finding what you were looking for. “Guess that's why I'm a reporter,” she mused to herself.
“Good. So, it seems that luck really was on your side. What happened when you got back to the resort?”
Ariel's face darkened slightly. She cocked her head and then gave a small shrug. “Joe was actually back there. He couldn't find the car and had walked back.” She quirked a little grin at the reporter. “You should've seen his face when I pulled out his muddy passport. Of course it was ruined. But, seeing his face when I pulled that thing from my chest was hysterical!”
Teague rested her jaw on an upturned hand. “Best intentions….”
Ariel nodded, “Ya. But, it worked out. Joe was smart enough to keep the sat phone in its case. So, it was a little damp when we pulled it out, but it still worked. We were all able to call home and let everyone know we were alright. And, we got word out that we needed help to get us out of there.”
“How long did it take to get you out?”
Ariel blew out a short sigh. She looked at the ceiling, as if it held the answer. “Um, it took almost two days.”
“So, you ended up being stranded? Even with the phone?”
“Ya. We stayed near the resort, but didn't dare go in. A couple of guys were able to get some bottles of water from the kitchen, but that was it. We had some fresh water, but nothing to eat until we got into town. That was the next day.”
“So, what was that like? Sleeping there next to all of that wreckage?”
Ariel's gaze grew distant. “You know, in some weird way, my childhood prepared me for it. Even though the two events were so different. In so many ways, they were so much alike. Like the sounds and smells. I don't think anyone got more than a half hour of sleep here and there. The hotel kept creaking and whining. And, every so often, I'd swear that I could hear someone moan or call out for help. But, nobody did anything. We couldn't.” There was a brief pause, and then she whispered. “It was difficult to get through.”
Ariel looked at the reporter as if she had suddenly grown a second head. “Are you kidding? I don't think a single person could live through that and NOT have nightmares. To this day, they haunt me. And, if by chance I can get a little respite from them, they come back with a vengeance. Every time I go to a new sight, they're with me. Those sights and sounds are relived time and time again. But, the worst of it is when my dreams fill with that putrid scent. That smell that seems to be everywhere. It creeps and crawls through the tiniest of cracks and permeates everything. That smell of death and those around you who are slowly dying.” Ariel's voice slowly trailed off as she surrendered to the memories and abandoned her desire to explain them.
Teague knew all too well what Ariel was trying to express. She had been around the world reporting flare-ups in terrorism and weather tragedies. Of course, the worst for her was the destruction of the World Trade Center a decade ago. She had been new to New York and new to national reporting. Her family's wealth gave her an international view of the world, but nothing could have prepared her for the lingering smell of scorched dust and timeworn death.
“I know what you mean,” Teague quietly offered. “Anytime I get a whiff of something like that, I'm immediately back to a particular time and place. I can't help it. I just have to avoid certain areas or try to block my brain.”
Ariel glanced at the reporter, for the first time feeling as if there was a common ground between them; a kindred spirit of sorts. They had both been exposed to different kinds of struggles and different kinds of experiences that will forever impact each of their lives.
She let out a small breath. “So, you know?”
Teague allowed a small nod.
“It was hard. There is so much that I wish I could have done during that whole time. So many things I wish I could go back and change.”
“I think I would have been more vocal about trying to get people to find survivors. I mean, at first, people were trying. But, after finding so many bodies, nobody wanted to look anymore.”
“Were there a lot of casualties at your resort?”
“Of course. Most of the staff was washed away. I know a couple lived through it by holding on to a tree. One of them nearly died, though. His back and hips were crushed by something being swept away by the water as he was holding on. He claimed that God filled him with the strength to hold on.”
“Do you believe that?”
“I believe that God was there that day. I don't believe that he created the tsunami. But, I do believe he was there to save as many as he could.”
Teague jotted a few notes down then looked back at Ariel. “So, do you consider yourself a religious person?”
Ariel took in a deep breath and slowly released it. “Religious? No. But, it's hard to ignore my life experiences and those of others. Some things are just unexplainable. Through all of the chaos and pain, there is always something that hints at a plan, you know? Something greater than what we are going through at the moment.”
A soft humming swirled around Ariel's head, slowing growing louder as it approached her right ear. She quickly slapped at the side of her head, hoping to smash the opportunistic blood-sucker. She kept her eyes closed, exhaustion infiltrating every muscle in her body, but let out an aggravated growl when she heard the mosquito continue to fly around her head.
She opened her eyes, swiping in vain at the bug, and was quickly elated at the sight of visitors.
What looked to be a military troop transfer truck slowly trudged down the washed out road towards the demolished resort. The morning sun had made itself known an hour ago before it was enclosed in a low wall of clouds. The lack of direct sunlight had given the small band of survivors a second chance at getting some sleep. No one was willing to venture too far from the hotel.
Ariel nudged her husband, who was lightly snoring behind her. They were both sitting on top of their luggage, leaning against a tree. Insects washed from their normal homes were swarming everywhere, so sitting or lying on bare ground was ludicrous.
“James!” Ariel whispered loudly.
“James. It's a truck. Someone's coming.” Ariel was hoping this was a rescue, but in this part of the world anything could happen. Worst case scenarios had been discussed the evening before by all of the tourists. It was possible that the tsunami had decimated the island's military and the rebels could seize the opportunity to take over. If that were the case, tourists could be taken hostage or worse. Even with those what-ifs playing in her mind, Ariel couldn't force herself to run and hide. She just sat there and watched as the truck slowly approached.
(Continued in Part 5)
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