It would have required very little effort of the imagination for Gale to believe she and Deb were in Hell. The darkness surrounding them seemed alive, so thick as to be palpable; it rendered all the more horrific the sounds that wafted through the cramped trees, magnified by the dead air. Her eyes and lungs burned from smoke and the taste of
blood filled her mouth with every breath. Yes, Gale felt quite certain. Hell must be very similar to this.
“Hey, Doc,” Deb said, straddling the tree limb next to her. “I’m really sorry about your friend.”
“Yeah,” Gale replied.
With no better options, they had looked to the trees for shelter, finding one large and strong enough to offer them some degree of protection, climbing as high as they dared. Gale had no idea how long they had been there. Time had no meaning in Hell.
“At least it was quick, you know?” Deb said. “She wouldn’t have suffered.”
“I’m no doctor, of course,” Deb continued. “But she looked pretty bad to me. Her wounds, I mean. I don’t think she would have made it, anyway.” She paused. “At least, the way it happened, it was quick.”
“You already said that,” Gale said.
“Yeah. Sorry. I know it’s no consolation. That’s just how I’ve always been. I try to break everything down, be logical.”
“There’s nothing logical about any of this,” Gale said.
With time the sounds of gunfire, the screams, the flames, the occasional discharge of a tank so loud it caused the tree to vibrate, had all dissipated, reaching them now only in sporadic echoes. The silence that replaced the tumult seemed somehow more terrible, more oppressive.
“So what do you think happened?” Deb asked.
“What do you mean?”
“You know, what happened to cause all that?”
“I don’t know,” Gale said.
“Something biological, you think?” Deb asked. “A virus?”
“It all happened so fast,” Gale said. “Too fast.”
“You think maybe it was some kind of nerve gas? Maybe somebody drugged the water supply?”
“I don’t know what happened,” Gale said.
“There has to be some rational explanation. There has to be.”
Deb readjusted herself on the tree limb, her back wedged against the trunk. “You know, I never killed anybody before tonight.” She hesitated. “I guess there really is a first time for everything.” She chuckled, a bitter sound without warmth.
“You didn’t have any choice,” Gale said. “It was self-defense.”
“Sure,” Deb said. “But that doesn’t make it feel any different.” Deb sniffed, wiping away an unseen tear. “God, what I’d give for a cigarette.”
Gale propped against the limb in a leaning position. She lay her cheek on her shoulder. “We should never have come here.”
“No shit,” Deb said.
“Sanura and me,” Gale said.
“Gee, thanks.” Deb tried to sound lighter, offered a fake smile that Gale couldn’t have seen anyway.
“That’s not what I meant,” Gale said. “It’s just that it’s not my fault you’re here.”
“Blame that one on my asshole boss,” Deb said.
“It was my idea for Sanura and me to come here together,” Gale said. “Sanura even tried to talk me out of it. She grew up in Africa. She knew what to expect.”
“Go easy on yourself, Doc,” Deb said. “Altruism isn’t such a bad fault to have.”
“Sanura wouldn’t be dead now if it weren’t for me.”
“Come on,” Deb said. “You were both doctors. You have that whole ‘moral obligation’ to help the suffering, right? That whole ‘Hippocratic Oath’ thing.”
Gale shook her head. “You want to know something, Deb?” she said. “You want to know why I wanted to come here, really? Because it looks great on a resume.”
“Well,” Deb said. “You were still helping people, right?”
“Yeah, sure. Doctors Without Borders won the Nobel Peace Prize. But I bet none of them did it just so they could get a fast pass to the big league.”
“Nothing wrong with wanting to be successful,” Deb said. “We all gotta eat, right?”
Gale was crying now. Again. “You want to know the real kicker?” she asked. “My parents are loaded. I’m loaded. I never had to worry about the money. It was all…” She
choked. “It was all about my goddamn ego.”
Deb could reach Gale’s ankle from her position, and she patted it. “Come on,
“I’m hollow,” Gale said. “I’m plastic. A spoiled rich brat on an ego trip. You can’t get more fake than that.”
“If that were the case,” Deb said, squeezing Gale’s ankle. “You wouldn’t be hurting so bad right now.”
Deb’s words cut as deep as a razor, allowing the wound to bleed clean. Gale buried her face against the tree bark and sobbed.
“I know, kid,” Deb said. “You go on and cry.”
And then her grip on Gale’s ankle tightened. She sucked in a frightened breath.
“What is it?” Gale looked up.
A low growl, then the same keen whine, culminating in a shriek.
“You bastard,” Deb muttered.
Below the tree, they could hear something moving, see two malevolent eyes blazing like highway reflectors as the thing moved back and forth, staring up at them.
“It came back,” Deb said.
“Shoot it!” Gale exclaimed.
Deb raised the AK-47 from where it lay across her legs, placing the stock to her shoulder. She hesitated. They could hear the leopard beneath them. They heard a scuffing sound, something being dragged across the grass and gravel.
“It’s after the body!” Gale said. “Father Sullivan!”
The leopard growled as though taunting them. They heard the rustle of bushes as it bounded away into the night with its trophy.
“Why didn’t you shoot?” Gale demanded.
“I couldn’t get a decent shot,” Deb said. “And I don’t know how much ammo this thing holds.”
“You think it’ll come back?” Gale asked.
“It knows we’re here,” Deb said. “And it seems to like the taste of people.”
Gale stared into the dark. “I hope it comes back,” she said. “I want to kill it.”
“My gut tells me you’ll get your chance, Doc,” Deb said. “If it doesn’t kill us first.”