His hands on his hips, the Big Kahuna surveyed the scene. The river. The sluggish, mud-colored water. The foggy steam, curling and licking up around our boots and coalescing at the midpoint of the waters. And then he looked at me, the prime victim, and I gulped.
"Get in, Fisher."
"But, sir- I'll get swept away, I'll-"
Uncompromisingly, the Big Kahuna tossed an inner tube at me. It smacked wetly to a halt at my feet, neon-yellow, dirty, and flimsy-looking. "Get in, Fisher," he repeated.
I held my ground, knowing that I wouldn't be standing on it much longer. "Sir, that's for the crime-scene technicians to do, and I-"
He pinched his eyes shut, and then he was wrestling the cheap floatie over my head and down to my midsection, strangling me with brightly-colored rubber. When it had assumed the position of an uncomfortable, ridiculous-looking belt, he gave it a decisive whack. I grunted. "Get in the water," he said, cocking his head, "or be thrown in the water."
Obediently, I got in the water. The algae soaked through my pants immediately and splashed up around my midsection. Miserably I turned puppy-dog eyes towards the looming shape of the Big Kahuna standing on the bank above me, in reaching distance. Spitefully I thought of snatching at the cuff of his pants and pulling him in with me, but I discarded that as an act of certain death. "Can't we wait for the crime-scene technicians?" I begged.
His only response was to place his boot on my chest and shove. It was supposed to be a friendly get-going push- or, at least, I hoped that that was his intention- but I flailed my arms all over the place like an idiot, and then I was tumbling through the air and then, one tailbone-bruising crash later, was sitting in the now chest-high waters, soaked to the bone. "Get going," the Big Kahuna ordered, completely unfazed by my kicked-puppy-dog state. "Or drown. I don't care. Alive or dead, that body floats back over here."
It would have been completely fitting if I had started bawling, but I struggled bedraggedly to my feet and sloshed through the ever-deepening brine. "I don't like this," I called back to the bank, without looking. "I don't like it at ALL."
Something like a laugh caught my ear, and I scowled. Lifting my utterly soggy feet from their watery prison and shoving them back in again without even a few seconds of mercy was torture. The fog was worse over here- it swirled about my midsection and my head, and I could barely see two feet in front of me. Even making out the neon-yellow band of safety around my waist was a challenge. Mournfully I reflected upon the constant fear that a low-hanging branch would appear suddenly from the steam and impale me, putting my hands out ineffectively in front of me, waving through the curtain of murk. I was- seemingly- alone.
Seemingly, though. Suddenly all my brain could focus on was all the places for alligators and crocodiles and twenty-foot anacondas to hide, and, through the steam and gloom and murk, there were a lot of them. Was that a snake wriggling its way past my water-soaked shin? Was that a vine, coiled around that silhouette of a branch, or a deadly cobra?
"Sir?" I said loudly, struggling to tug my baton out from under the band of safety. The branch was thisclose to my head, and I knew that the vine was really a long, dangerously thin, vine-colored alligator. Frantically, I prayed for teleportation skills.
Something like a voice drifted past me on the definitely snake-induced breeze. "Sir?" I repeated, wrestling ineffectively with the water-slick handle of my baton. My voice withered and died at the sheer force of the haze, surely not reaching the opposite bank. How far away was the closest shore now? A thousand miles? A million?
Maybe thirty feet, I decided.
Swish, slosh. Swish, slosh. Moving forward. Every movement carrying an extremely high chance that he'd step on a deadly snake. Calling out, intermittently, and receiving only a vague, blurry response. Sloshing and trudging and moving. Almost peeing my pants at a decisively snake-looking ripple. Wishing to be anywhere else.
Until my feet slipped out from under me and I was treading water and gasping in horrifying amounts of yuck-tastic water, the holy band of safety keeping me afloat. Frantically I backpedaled, expecting an alligator's beady red eyes to fix on mine any time now. The heel of my boots brushed the bottom of the river again and I was back where I started, panting, staring at the pool that certainly housed the creature-dom of death. Just to be safe, I retreated a step more, dribbling a constant stream of spit. I could still taste the algae.
So. This was happening. Trapped, with a pool of certain murder in front of me and a very violence-inclined Big Kahuna behind me, where safety lay. What was it that he said- 'if you drown, float that body back without you?' Something like that. Some people might think it was bluster, but, really, he meant it.
I poked a toe forth into the pool of evil creatures and waited. When it didn't get bitten off after two seconds, my foot went in, and then my shin. Needles of dear-god-i'm-gonna-be-eaten prickled up and down my arms as my kneecaps cleared the boundary line. Cautiously I phtooed a line of spittle onto the surface of the deeper waters. It floated serenely, not being devoured in the slightest, and so cautiously I stuck an entire leg in, waiting to die.
"F-SHER-" kssh, kssh- "I'M G-ING MY MATCHES READY, AND IF THAT BODY ISN'T OVER HERE IN THE NEXT FIVE M-NS I AM G-NG TO D-P THESE BARRELS OF OIL NTO THE RI-ER AND SET IT ON F-E. HURRY UP. THIS ISN'T THE TIME F-R TIPTOEING, AND I'M GETTING-" A final burst of feedback blurred his words into nothingness, and the fog coalesced itself into its impenetrable-barrier-of-sound-self, grumbling about how that loud, staticky voice had ruined everything they'd worked for for all this time of undisturbed creepy, murky river-silence. I, meanwhile, was floating entirely BEYOND the barrier of peace versus certain death- his stupid bullhorn, WHY IN THE WORLD WAS HE BEING TRUSTED WITH A BULLHORN, had startled me so badly that I'd tumbled, in a mess of pinwheeling arms and legs, into the area of murder. But I wasn't dead yet, and I could practically hear him ordering a hapless me-replacement to uncap the barrels of oil, so I frantically churned my way forward, my idiotically thrashing legs kicking up swarms of mud and silt that obscured the bottom even further.
The prickly needles of dread weren't quite so annoyingly prickly after a few minutes, especially because now my feet were touching the bottom and I was lurching drunkenly onto land, literally tumbling onto the ground, the inner tube of safety and glory letting out a faint wheeze as it absorbed the impact, and I was too immersed in swearing to never touch a river again that I didn't notice the tickle on the top of my head until a pink tassel dangled down into my field of vision.
Yelping, I jumped back, and then practically keeled over and died right there, because hanging from that tree branch was not a fifty-year-old Caucasian male who fell in the river after being startled by a spider-monkey. It was a little girl. In a princess costume. And she had beautiful milk-chocolate skin and long, flowing curls and a perfect cupid's bow.
And then I was scrambling backwards and swim-sprinting across the river without a thought, because there was no way that I was dealing with this devil-child again. No, thank you. No, sir.