How Prince Marcos had become associated with the tribe was a mystery not fully solved. From what Tiani and Chief Gabor could piece together with Nicholas and Levi, Prince Marcos must have travelled to Tikal sometime after the death of his first wife, Lyla, and met Akna at one of the village trading posts, fell in love and married. They had a son, Emir, and stayed married for the remainder of their lives.
But Akna refused to leave her tribe, and Marcos refused to leave the luxuries of the modern world and his commitment and duties as Crown Prince of Madain Saleh to live in the wilderness. He travelled to visit his wife frequently and left her with over a million dollars when he died, but none of the tribe could read or write so the will was meaningless to them. The fact that they still had the will was a miracle in itself.
Akna and Emir must have understood its importance and impressed upon Emir’s son, Eadrich the necessity of holding onto that envelope, and that importance was passed on to Gabor, who shared the envelope with Tiani.
The envelope came with a legend about a light-skinned people who would come with complicated gadgets so futuristic the people bringing them would seem like gods. In reality, most of what the team of scientists had was basic survival materials: satellite phones, computers, prepackaged food and water, high-end shelters. Other than the LiDAR technology, everything else was equipment the Americans, Mexicans, and Guatemalans took for granted as commonplace.
After a full day of trekking through the dense jungle, followed by hours of being marched at the point of a spear, followed by hours of trying to understand one another, none of them could keep their eyes opened. Thankfully the tents were already in place and people began retiring to their respective places of refuge.
There was an unspoken understanding that the following day would be a day of rest and regrouping, trying to figure out where to go from here. The tribe members still didn’t understand what the team of scientists were doing there and why they wanted to see the temple pyramid. Somehow the team needed to explain the modern technology, the importance of preserving the inscriptions, and to convince them to show the team the rest of the way to the temple now that they were completely off track.
Explaining the team’s desire to study the temple pyramid proved to be more of a challenge then they anticipated. Modern technology included concepts that exceeded the tribal members’ limited understanding. They were warriors, protectors, watchmen, but not scientists. The only experience they’d had with antiquities was that of looters, thieves, destroyers. And they only learned of those through trade with the local villagers.
As far as their trade partners were concerned, the tribe was a small group of nomads who lived in the jungle, subsisting on limited resources. By trading in a variety of locations on opposite sides of the jungle they were able to conceal their vast population.
For hundreds of years looters had yet to discover the existence of this most sacred ancient site. Generations of this tribe had fiercely guarded its location. Because of the spiral of mounds surrounding the central pyramid, anyone wishing to search the area gave up after experiencing a maze of hills and valleys, dense jungle without paths and no obvious ruins in this wilderness.
Looters were correct in that respect. There were no ruins in this part of the wilderness, save this one location in the center of a complex spiral of hidden trails.
The path they had travelled that evening had been newly created in response to the foresters’ invasion in recent weeks. The tribe seemed to inherently understand that the small clearings were intended to be used by someone for a temporary settlement, but they didn’t know who or for what reason. Upon discovering the clearings, the tribe had created their own temporary settlement and laid in wait for the looters, ready to ambush them.
Levi’s ability to communicate in their native tongue had confused them. Most local looters would have spoken Spanish and been far more savage in appearance and stature.
Nicholas thanked his twin for diligently studying his chosen field of linguistics and said goodnight. He collapsed into his bedroll, pulled Becky into his arms, and fell asleep almost immediately.
Without seeking direction from her father, Tiani hurried away and returned from her tent holding an envelope, which she handed to Levi. “Je’ela wáaj u páajtal a xook le ba’ala’?”
“She wants to know if I can read this,” Levi said, taking the envelope. Nicholas and Timothy both peered over Levi’s shoulder.
“It’s in Spanish,” Timothy said. “Most of us should be able to read Spanish.”
“I wonder if she can read the letter.” Levi looked up at her. “Je’ela wáaj u páajtal a xook le ba’ala’?”
“Ma’.” Tiani shook her head.
“Can you speak Spanish?” Levi chuckled, probably realizing he needed to ask her in Yucatec. “Ba’ax je’el u páajtal a t’aan kastláan t’aan?”
“Si, puedo hablar español,” Tiani answered in perfect Spanish.
“She speaks Spanish,” Levi called out to the group with a giant smile on his face. “I wonder if all of them speak Spanish. Ba’ax je’el u páajtal a t’aan kastláan t’aan?” He waved his hand around, pointing to the warriors and the tribal chief.
Tiani again answered in the affirmative, explaining they spoke Spanish when they traded with the local villages.
For the rest of the evening, most everyone conversed in a broken combination of Spanish, Yucatec, and English. Nicholas sensed the team and the tribe relax into the common language with a mutual gratitude to understand one another without the need for a translator.
Eventually they circled back to the strange letter that Tiani had handed Levi. He read aloud to the group in Spanish, then read it again, translating into English to offer clarification for those in the group who were only mildly fluent in Spanish.
“This is a final will and testament,” Levi explained. “I, Prince Marcos Sayid of Mada’in Saleh do hereby bequeath my blessing to my wife, Akna Sayid, and our son, Emir Sayid, along with twenty-three million Mexican pesos, to be held in perpetuity until at which time they should wish to draw from the account.”
“Your little Mayan princess is a millionaire,” Nicholas mumbled. “Probably several times over if it’s been gathering interest for three generations.”
“There’s also information here about the local bank where the funds are being held,” Levi said. “The account is in Flores.”
Nicholas felt compelled to offer a formal greeting to the princess and tell her he was honored to meet her. “Princesa Tiani, me siento honrado de conocerte.”
Others of the team also bowed their head in respect. There were murmurs among the tribesmen. Her elevated status was news to them as well.
“Su Alteza”—Nicholas bowed to the tribal chief addressing him as Your Highness— “Me siento honrado de conocerte.” Nicholas wanted to make the message clear. The American scientists held the Mayan royal family in high esteem. This turn of events could actually go a long way to improving relations between the two groups.
They would use this to their advantage.
After another forty-five minutes of walking parallel to the mounds along an actual path created by the Mayan tribe, they were led into a small tent village not much bigger than the campsites the foresters had created for the team.
The tribe seemed to use similar camouflaging techniques by only clearing as many trees as necessary, leaving the canopy intact. This site didn’t look permanent or that it had been occupied for long. The trees were freshly cut.
Nicholas smelled the food and almost sighed with relief. The quickly lowering sun was a concern if they were going to have shelter before night and that was the most important issue, he reminded Levi. “Ask them if we can set up our tents.”
“Je’el u páajtal k instalar k koonolo’ob ba’atelilo’?” Levi asked the tribal chief’s daughter then pointed to the sun going down. “Ma’ili’ ti’ u ponga le k’iino’.”
“Mi je’ele’.” She held up a hand indicating the team should stay right there and wait for her. Then she lifted her chin and headed straight for the largest tent.
Nicholas reached for Becky’s hand and pulled her close, wishing he could promise everything would be okay, but knowing he couldn’t make such promises.
After a few minutes the chief’s daughter emerged, holding open the tent flap for a large man wearing a similar headdress as his daughter, but much larger. His bare chest and arms were tattooed and muscular.
All the team members straightened their stance, and the warriors stood at attention.
His daughter spoke privately to her father and pointed at their group. Levi took one step forward and the warriors moved in on them.
“Venimos tu Jets’ óolal,” Levi called out to the tribal leader. “Je’el u béeytal k p’áatal ta wéetel le áak’aba’? I asked them if we could stay here tonight and told them we come in peace.”
“Baʼax a kʼáat?” the tribal leader called back. That question seemed to come up a lot this evening. Everyone wanted to know what the others intended.
“We want to sleep here and talk,” Levi said, then translated. “Táak k weenel waye’ ka t’aan.”
“Untie my tent from my backpack,” Nicholas said, turning his back to Levi. “Show them we have shelter.”
Levi quickly did as his brother suggested and held up the tent for the tribe to see. “Yaan k tu’ux u yookoj maaki’.”
The tribal leader crossed the small clearing and stood before Levi, reaching out to touch the sturdy canvas.
“Je’el u páajtal k ts’áik k koonolo’ob Ma’ili’ ti’ u ponga le k’iino’?” Levi asked. “Can we set up our tents before the sun sets?” He pointed to the sun again.
The leader nodded once and took a step back, retreating to stand beside his daughter. The warriors barely relaxed their offensive stance while the team’s site manager, Jonas, started barking out orders.
“Set up your tents similar to how you would have if we were at the prepared campsite,” Jonas said. “Act natural as if this is no big deal. So far, they haven’t been hostile. Let’s keep it that way.”
With very little further communication, the team of exhausted archaeologists set to work preparing their tents in the waning light. As each completed their own tents, they helped each other so that everyone would finish as quickly as possible.
Levi was one of the first to return to the tribal leader and his daughter, allowing Nicholas and Becky to finish setting up his tent. Even from this distance, Nicholas could hear their conversation but didn’t understand a word.
Gradually the team members returned to the clearing and stood close to the campfire where they were given small bowls of meat stew with vegetables and herbs drenched in a heavenly gravy.
Nicholas bypassed the food temporarily and took his place at his brother’s side, still holding Becky’s hand. Timothy, the excavation director, also joined them.
Levi began introductions and told the leaders each of their names. Then he turned to his team. “My friends, may I present Chief Gabor Sayid and his daughter, Tiani Sayid.”
“Sayid?” Nicholas asked. “Are they related to the princes of Madain Saleh?” Nicholas had heard the stories of their uncle’s best friends who had once been heralded as princes in some Middle Eastern nation that no longer existed.
“Marcos Sayid leti’e’ ka’ach in bisabuelo.” The chief lifted his chin with pride.
“Prince Marcos was his great-grandfather,” Levi said with creased brows and a suspicious undertone to his words. “But that doesn’t make sense. He’s too old.”
“Not if he’s referring to Prince Marcos’ grandfather,” Nicholas said. “Benjamin’s father.”
“I thought Benjamin was an only child,” Levi mumbled.
“Apparently there are more branches of the Sayid family tree than we realized,” Nicholas answered his twin. “What an interesting twist to this already confusing day.”
If there was any silver lining that the team hadn’t had time to set up camp before the ambush, it was that they still had their packs safely strapped to their backs. But they were hungry, tired, and most of them needed to use the bathroom. After at least an hour of following the tribal warriors, Becky finally begged Levi to ask them if we could take a break.
“Je’el u páajtal k parar biilankiltej táankab?” Levi asked the chief’s daughter.
“She says there is no bathroom,” Levi told the group. “I’ll ask her if we can just pee behind a tree. Lu’um? Paach junkúul che’?”
“Please.” Becky stepped forward, crossing her legs and holding herself, pleading with her eyes, woman to woman.
The chief’s daughter rolled her eyes. “Ma’alob. Bin.” Her resigned expression was all the translation the team needed.
“Dad, get the toilet paper out of my backpack side pocket,” Matt mumbled.
“Mine too.” Becky turned around, offering her pack to Nicholas for easier access. “And come with me. I don’t want to be in the jungle by myself.”
The guys spread out, tucking themselves away for a tiny bit of privacy.
“This is ridiculous,” Becky grumbled. “You warned me this would be primitive camping.”
“Eh, don’t worry about it. Everyone else is thankful you begged. Look, even some of the tribesmen are tucked behind a tree.”
“I’m not going to look!” Becky hissed. “They better not be looking at me, either.”
“I’m standing in between you and them with a death glare,” Nicholas said. “Just finish up. I need to go too.”
When they were all safely back on the trail, Becky handed around her hand sanitizer and they all seemed grateful for that as well.
“Ba’ax le je’ela’?” One of the warriors grabbed the hand sanitizer bottle and sniffed then pulled back with a wrinkled nose. He shoved it back in Becky’s hands.
“It’s hand sanitizer,” Levi said, rubbing his hands together. “To clean your hands. Cho’oik k’aboob.”
The man shook his head and stepped back with his fellow tribesmen.
Before continuing, the team members helped each other reach into their bags for protein bars. Nicholas grabbed a handful of them out of Levi’s pack and handed them to Levi. “Offer some to the men and the girl.” Nicholas made a show of opening the wrapper and taking a bite to show them what the little bars were for.
“Lela’ jaanal,” Levi said, offering the food. Most of the men stayed in their positions but the curious man stepped forward again. He sniffed the bar and took a bite. Then he turned his head and spit the bite onto the ground behind him.
“Ma’ bin jaanal.” He shook his head and handed the bar to the chief’s daughter. She sniffed the protein bar, wrinkled her nose and handed the bar to Levi.
Levi wrapped the bar and gave it to Nicholas. “Will you put this back in my bag? They say it’s not food.” Levi chuckled and took a bite of the one he already had open.
The tribal chief’s daughter pulled aside one of the warriors and spoke quietly to him in their native tongue. He then took off running ahead.
“What did she say?” Nicholas asked.
“I think she told him that their guests were hungry and that he should run ahead to have the tribe prepare a meal for us.” Levi bowed his head to the woman in thanks and spoke softly. “Níib óolal.”
She grunted and flipped her braid as she turned to keep leading the march.
“Feisty little thing,” Levi muttered under his breath and Nicholas chuckled.
“Hope she’s not already married.” Nicholas pushed his brother’s shoulder playfully.
“Shut up.” Levi bit his lips, but a smile shown in his eyes.
If Nicholas thought a beautiful professor was out of his league, Levi had an uphill battle crushing on a Mayan princess.
The second day of trekking through the jungle was both easier and more difficult. Easier because they were able to chop through the brush with machetes. They were less concerned with leaving a visible path from the road now that they were over the first mound of the spiral. More difficult because they were exhausted.
There was little in the way of conversation all day. The only communication was in working together to blaze a trail and carve a path up and over the second mound. They took turns at the point position, but with five machetes between thirteen people, they were able to switch out frequently as their arms tired.
The elation at coming upon their campsite early that evening was subdued. The more quickly they could get their tents erected, the sooner they could climb inside and collapse.
They didn’t get that far.
What started as a few snapping twigs in the periphery of the camp led to the ominous feeling of being surrounded. Instinctively, everyone in the team gathered to the center of the camp and Nicholas wrapped his arms around Becky, a futile attempt to protect her.
Native Mayans were likely nervous about these foreigners invading their land. The team knew this might happen. But knowing something in the abstract and actually experiencing an ambush were very different.
“Hello?” Timothy called out. “Is anyone out there?” There was no noise.
“Máaxech” Levi called out. “Baʼax a kʼáat?”
A beautiful young woman stepped into the clearing, startling everyone. She looked directly at Levi asking, “A t’aan maaya’ex?”
Levi nodded and answered her. “Je’el.”
“What are you saying?” Nicholas asked his brother through clenched teeth. The fact that they were communicating was a good sign.
“I asked what they wanted,” Levi said. “And she asked me if I understood her language. Obviously, I do. She’s confused.”
The woman looked around at the other members of the group then back at Levi and said something else in her native Mayan tongue.
Levi shook his head and answered her then translated his statement into English. “No, I’m the only person here who speaks Yucatec.”
She wore a colorful textile dress, obviously tribal rather than a costume, had her hair pulled back and intricately braided on top and cascading down her back. A small headdress made of ornately carved wood and feathers adorned her head, not large enough to be that of a queen. A princess, maybe? Daughter of a tribal leader perhaps? She was fascinating.
“In k’aaba’ Levi.” Levi put his hand on his chest and then pointed to her, most likely asking her name. “Bix a k’aba?”
Her suspicious gaze darted between Levi and Nicholas, and Levi stepped closer to his twin, moving his hand between the two.
“In suku’un,” Levi said. “My brother. And my friends. In nuup’o’ob” He waved his hand in a sweeping gesture to include the whole group.
“Ba’ax a k’áat?” She turned his words around demanding to know what they wanted.
“She wants to know why we’re here,” Levi said to the group. “We are scientists. Chan científicos. We want to study the temple pyramid. Táak k xook le templo.” He pointed in the direction the team was heading.
A startled expression crossed her face. Her wide eyes darted around the group. “Teche’ ma’ k’a’ana’an wojéeltik tu yo’olal le je’elo.” Angry words spewed forth, loud and fast. Nicholas wondered if Levi could even translate that complicated rant.
“I think she said we’re not supposed to know about the temple. Their tribe has probably been protecting the temple for generations. I need to let her know we won’t hurt the temple.” Levi paused to breathe, then spoke to her in a soft, placating tone. “Ma’ táan k herir le templo. Táak k paakat le templo.”
“Ma’. Ko’oten ojéeltbil ti in yuum.” She turned around and made a motion to the others who were hiding in the jungle, out of our sight.
“She said, no, and that we need to come and meet her father.” Levi turned to meet Nicholas’ gaze with wide eyes. “I have a feeling we are about to meet the tribal chief.”
“I have a feeling you’re right,” Nicholas said. “Depending on how far away the village is located, this could be a long night.”
As he spoke, dozens of men with curved swords and spears surrounded their camp on all sides.
Nicholas was surprised how quickly he fell asleep, especially lying on the hard jungle floor. Not to mention the distraction of holding in his arms the most tempting and alluring woman his wildest dreams could conjure up. He didn’t stir until Becky stretched and yawned.
“Good morning, sleepyhead.” Her scratchy voice poked through his fog and Nicholas pulled her even closer.
“Stay,” he mumbled. “Few more minutes.” His eyes never opened but a soft smile pulled at the corners of his mouth.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” Becky said, pushing him gently away. “I’ve been waiting for the sun to rise so I wasn’t searching in the dark for that hole in the ground you dug.”
“M—kay.” Nicholas reluctantly allowed his arms to release her from his clutches and Becky scrambled to unzip the tent flaps. He lay there in their makeshift bed and chuckled when she physically moaned with relief from emptying her bladder.
In all his twenty-nine years living on earth he never thought he’d get a kick out of listening to someone else use the toilet, especially when that toilet was a hand-dug latrine in the middle of a Guatemalan jungle.
He also never dreamed of falling in love this hard this fast. His mind wandered back several years to the first time he saw Becky and realized their love story hadn’t happened quickly at all.
Eight years and six months ago he’d walked into the GIS computer lab expecting a kid almost as geeky as himself to act as graduate assistant. When this elegant blonde woman turned around and smiled at him, Nicholas felt his knees go week. He could barely introduce himself he was so tongue tied.
Not only was Becky off-limits as his TA, she was out of his league. Yet she always found a reason to peek over his shoulder and ask him about his work. He never had to fake ignorance on something to request her assistance because she frequently gave him her undivided attention, almost as if she craved his closeness just as he craved hers.
He still craved her closeness.
By the time he’d mulled over the slow burn of their relationship, she returned carrying the roll of toilet paper she kept in her backpack, which she stashed in its designated pocket and grabbed her little bottle of hand sanitizer. As she rubbed the alcohol gel into her palms, Nicholas reached for his own backpack and dug out a pack of gum.
“I refuse to allow my morning breath to deter you from returning to snuggle with me.” He held up the pack of gum with a grin.
“Ooh, I’ll take a piece.” Becky scrambled across the bedroll they’d shared and wiggled her way back inside the sleeping blanket.
The unspoken message for each other in the gray haze of morning was of desire. Although his doctorate was in archaeology, he knew enough anatomy and physiology to remember that men’s testosterone levels were comparatively higher first thing in the morning than at any other time of day.
He ignored the warning in the back of his mind that making out with Becky was a really bad idea. His mind and body were in complete disagreement about the subject.
She was making his commitment to waiting for marriage very difficult. Her hands gripped into his hair and then roamed down his shoulders and chest. When Becky rolled onto her back and pulled Nicholas on top of her, that woke him up. Completely.
“Whoa, babe, we can’t do this!” Nicholas pushed her away gently but firmly, his conscience finally overpowering his body. Barely.
Staring up at the ceiling of the tent, Becky pulled her hair and growled softly. “Please?”
“No, no, no, no, no.” Nicholas scrambled for his shoes, needing to put distance between them before he changed his mind.
“I’m sorry,” Becky whispered. “I didn’t mean to—”
“Babe, you have nothing to apologize about.” Nicholas leaned over and kissed her one more time. “I want you just as much as you want me—probably more—but we need to wait.”
“I know, I know.” She sighed. “I can be patient.”
“Soon, I promise.” He placed one last tiny peck on her lips and reached for the tent zipper.
Dawn had awakened most of the team and the guys were emerging from the cocoons of their tents, sleepy-eyed and yawning. Nicholas tried to sneak away from Becky’s tent without being noticed.
“Well, well, well, what have we here?” Jeremiah, the team’s finds manager clucked his tongue at Nicholas with a knowing smile. “Who wagered they’d cave by day nine? Or would this be day eight, since I’m assuming Nicholas has been in Rebecca’s tent since last night. So, who wagered day eight?”
“We did not do anything last night.” Nicholas held up his hands in surrender to their teasing. “I just didn’t want her to be alone in the jungle.”
“The wager didn’t require proof of a physical relationship, just that you slept in the same tent, which seeing as how you are currently climbing out of her bed as the sun rises, I’m pretty sure we can make a reasonable assumption that you did indeed sleep in Rebecca’s tent.”
“I’m a billionaire,” Nicholas said. “I’m pretty sure I can afford to lose a few dollars on a wager, especially if that means I get to sleep in the arms of the most incredible woman in the world.”
“Wait, you’re a… billionaire?” Jeremiah wasn’t the only member of the team standing dumbfounded with his jaw hanging open.
“Well, our estate is worth over a billion.” Nicholas waved a finger back and forth between himself and the tent where Levi still slept. “Just because we shared a couple of strands of DNA our parents say we have to split the inheritance. I’m older so I really should get more than half.”
“I’m smarter,” Levi called from inside the tent. There was a flurry of activity inside as Levi made his way to the door and unzipped the tent flap. “I’m sure by the time we retire I will have invested more wisely, and my net worth will be greater.”
“My net worth is already greater from the simple luxury of sleeping in the arms of the woman I love.”
“And the rest of us are going to puke up our breakfast from the gooey love fest vibe you got going on,” Jeremiah said.
“No puking up breakfast,” Timothy called out. “We need to hold onto all the energy we can if we’re going to finish this trek before sundown. Now let’s pack up these tents, clean up your campsites and get going.” As excavation director, he was in charge. His little speech spurred them all into action and within 45 minutes the team was on their way.
Click here if you've forgotten what happened in Chapters One-Eleven!
The distance up and over the first mound was almost a full day’s walk. Instead of chopping down saplings and shrubs with machetes to make the trek easier—as they would do once over the first mound—they held branches out of the way for each other, creating as little trace of their path as possible to be visible from the road.
They relied heavily on GPS coordinates and compasses to maintain the correct heading, depending on faith and intuition as much as possible. Trusting that their field guide, a local man they called James, would know the proper techniques for navigating the jungles of Guatemala, the team followed his lead.
As part of their advance training, they’d all received basic cartography skills, beyond what any of them had learned in the computer lab. On this exploration, they weren’t just creating their own path, they were creating a map that could someday be used by others to reach this same sacred site.
The slope of the mound was gradual, almost to the point of being invisible to the eye but was obvious on the legs. By the time they reached the apex there was very little relief because they were too exhausted to be excited.
Gradually they made their way down the other side of the mound, the only evidence of the slope coming from the subtle difference in the ache of their legs.
Lunch had consisted of protein bars eaten on the move with the promise that their campsite would allow a tiny fire to warm up some premade meals and a few downed trees as logs to sit together as a group.
By late afternoon, the grumbling had turned to humor, especially after Becky started planning the trip to the spa that awaited them at the bottom of the hill.
“I sure hope the hot tub is ready when we get there.”
“It’s too hot for that tonight,” Tim answered her. “Maybe the pool will be open though.”
“But my sore muscles need the hot tub,” Becky whined playfully. “That or a massage. Hey, which one of you guys is trained as a masseuse?”
Levi was the first to jump on that opportunity. “Nicholas graduated top ten in his massage therapy class.”
“Really?” Becky turned to look at Nicholas. “I would have thought he was better than that. At least top five or top two.”
“You know this from experience?” the site manager, Jonas, asked. “Maybe we should all get in line when we’re done setting up our tents.”
“Very funny,” Nicholas said, winking at Becky and wishing he could fulfil her need for a complete rub down at the end of the evening. He wished he could fulfil her need for a lot of things at the end of the evening. He’d settle for helping set up her tent and dig her own private latrine far on the other side of the camp, away from the guys.
Now that he was in love with Becky, her comfort and security was almost paramount above his own. Anything he could do for her, he would. As independent as Becky wanted to portray herself, there was a soft heart underneath, and a vulnerability in her eyes when she spoke of her dreams for the future. He wanted to wave a magic wand and help make those dreams into their own two-person reality.
“Keep your eyes peeled for the campsite,” James called out. As field guide, he was paying close attention to the compass and GPS coordinates. “The foresters may have done such a good job with camouflage we might walk right past and miss it.”
“What are we looking for exactly?” Becky asked. Although she was the only person who hadn’t been on an exploration before, she was not the only one experiencing this extreme travel.
All other expeditions Nicholas and his brother had been a part of were at well-known and settled camps, where tents and cabins were already available. This was extreme wilderness survival.
“Remember those photographs we looked at a few days ago?” James asked. “The foresters took images of each camp site so we would know them when we saw them.”
“We looked at thousands of photographs this week," Becky said. "Remind me about some specifics.”
“From this viewpoint, we’re looking for pockets that seem to have fewer trees than the surrounding areas,” James told her. “Once we arrive, there should be obvious patches cleared of trees and shrubs large enough to fit a tent, and not much else.”
Nicholas saw the location about the same time several other people did and a general excitement embodied their renewed enthusiasm as team members pointed and said, “Over there,” and, “That’s got to be it.”
The team’s excitement was squashed upon arriving at the prepared campsite when they discovered there was barely enough room to fit the tents. Because of the need to maintain the integrity of the tree canopy, the foresters had cut as few trees as possible.
They got to work immediately setting up tents as best they could, helping each other out as much as possible to make quick work of the task. Rain threatened the evening, so they opted out of building a fire, choosing instead to prepare for an early retreat into shelter and a healthy dinner of MREs.
Nicholas and Levi set up their tent as close to Becky’s as possible in hopes she wouldn’t feel as alone. Most of the team had zipped themselves into their two-man tents already but Nicholas couldn’t bring himself to leave Becky.
“Nick,” Levi hissed from inside their tent. “Come here.”
“What?” Nicholas peered through the mesh tent flap where his brother lay on his back with his favorite Mayan codex in his hands taking advantage of the waning light to study a book he probably had memorized.
“Get in here and grab your bedroll and backpack and take them over to Becky’s tent. Nobody’s going to think less of you for comforting her on a stormy night.”
“Let me guess, tonight’s the night you would win the bet?”
“Screw the bet. I don’t want my future sister-in-law sleeping by herself in the middle of a jungle.”
That was all the prompting Nicholas needed to unzip the tent he was supposed to share with his twin brother, grab his things and brazenly move them all into his girlfriend’s tent.
“Does this count as sleeping together?” Becky whispered in the dark, tucked in Nicholas’ protective arms. “Have we officially lost the wager?”
“I lost that wager the first time I looked into your blue eyes.” Nicholas kissed the top of her head and relished this moment. Abandoning his preplanned accommodations in favor of sleeping in Becky’s tent had been the best choice he’d made in years, maybe his lifetime. “Do you mind losing the wager?”
“No. I’m just glad you’re here.” She snuggled closer.
“Me too. I wouldn’t have been able to sleep knowing you were over here by yourself.”
“What about Levi? He’s by himself.”
“He and I have slept in the jungle before. This is your first time.”
“There’s a first time for everything.” Becky’s statement had open-ended insinuations and a hint of innuendo.
“And some things are worth waiting for until the moment is right,” Nicholas said definitively, not wanting either of them to let their imaginations wander.
“I look forward to the day when the moment is right.” Becky sighed.
“Me too.” Nicholas pulled her closer. “Now, let’s get some sleep. We’ve got a long trek over another grueling mound again tomorrow.”
“Turn around is fair play,” Preston said. His sadistic grin confirmed his statement. He was going to torture me this afternoon. “If you’re going to be a real cheerleader, you have to learn to do a back handspring.”
“Whoever said I wanted to be a real cheerleader,” I asked.
“You did!” most of the cheerleaders said, almost in unison. Great. I was in trouble.
“My body doesn’t bend like that.” I shook my head and folded my arms across my chest.
“Don’t worry. We’ll start off with some easy stuff, and once you build up flexibility—and you will if I have anything to say about it—then we’ll try some more difficult moves.” Preston was using my own words against me.
“Great.” I sighed. “Bring it on.”
“First things first. You need to stretch your legs.” Without hesitation, Preston lowered into the splits, and my body cringed just thinking about my legs spreading in those directions.
I lumbered down to the grass and tried to mimic his stance. My knees wouldn’t go all the way to the ground and my hamstrings were screaming at me. Giggles erupted from the girls, and I gritted my teeth. “What next?”
“Next you need to stretch your wrists. You don’t want to hurt your wrists when you land hard.” Preston bent his wrists all the way back and added weight by leaning forward. “Also, roll your ankles around in circles. They’re going to take some impact when you land.”
That I could handle. Or so I thought. My ankles didn’t move in circles the way his did. So far, I was failing this lesson.
“Next you’re going to learn to do a back limber, so you feel the shape your body will experience when you do your back handspring. You can’t be scared to leap backwards”
“I’m not scared of anything.” I gulped.
“You will be,” Preston said in his best Yoda impression.
“Can I just stop you for a minute?”
He put his hand on his hip. “Make it quick.”
“Can I just offer a sincere apology for the way I treated you a few weeks ago?”
“Flattery will get you nowhere, young man. Now get off the grass, and let’s get you into a backbend.”
“That sounds painful,” I grumbled, hoisting myself off the ground. Looking right at Emma I said, “Can you call my chiropractor and schedule me an appointment for about an hour from now.”
Emma giggled. “How about if I just give you a back massage an hour from now?”
“I like that idea even better.” I leaned closer for a quick kiss.
“No PDA at cheer practice,” Coach Briggs chastised us. “Get back to work.
“Sorry, Coach.” I stepped away from Emma and stood obediently in front of the man who was trying to put me in the hospital.
“Can you do a backbend?” Preston asked.
Easy. I could handle that. Leaning forward, I braced my hands on the grass and thrust my legs into the air, standing as straight as I could and then walking forward on my hands to maintain balance.
“Okay, good. Now I want you to dive forward into a handstand.” Demonstrating the move, Preston dove forward onto his hands and then from an upside-down position, kept supplying instructions. “This gives your wrists the feeling of landing quickly on them.”
I did as he asked and soon we were both walking on our hands. “I’d race you, but I don’t like losing.”
“Which you would.” Preston lowered his feet out in front of him and landed on his feet in a perfect backbend.
I tried to mimic his move but wound up doing more of a backbend-slash-front whip. In whatever way I managed to get there, I was standing on my feet again and that was a step in the right direction.
“That actually wasn’t half bad,” Preston said, now also in a standing position. “We have to work with your strengths. Have you ever tried to do a backflip?”
“Yeah, I learned how on out trampoline.” I stretched my wrists after the beating I’d just given them. “We have one in our backyard.” I waved my finger back and forth between Emma and me, indicating the trampoline belonged to both of us. I couldn’t remember which one of us owned the trampoline.
“I love how you guys use the collective when talking about your backyard,” Preston said. “As if you’re brother and sister.”
Emma and I looked at each other with scrutiny, and she answered him. “You’d have to see our backyard to understand. Everything is sort of in the middle, between our two houses. Plus, I’m pretty sure our parents gave us that trampoline as a joint birthday present when we were, like, six years old.”
“I vote we move practice to their backyard for the afternoon,” Serena said.
“Great idea,” Bella echoed.
“I agree,” Carli said.
“Not today,” I said. “Football practice starts in fifteen minutes. Plus we should probably give our parents a heads-up before we just bring twelve extra friends home.”
“My mom could probably pick up a bunch of subs on her way home from work tomorrow,” Emma suggested.
“And my mom’s always looking for an excuse to make her homemade cookies.” I nodded.
“I’ll bring a bag of chips,” Carli said.
“I can get a bunch of water bottles or Powerade or something,” Bella added.
“What about paper plates and cups and napkins? Who wants to bring those?” Coach asked.
Within five minutes, we had a potluck planned for the following afternoon. Practicing back handsprings and backflips on a trampoline sounded way less painful—and frightening—than throwing myself backwards onto the grass of the football field and hoping I didn’t break my neck.
“Okay, ladies—and gentleman.” I nodded to Preston. “I need to get to football practice, where my team has already begun stretching without me.”
I hitched my thumb in the direction of the fifty-yard-line, where the guys were lining up already in their pads and helmets.
“Thank you again for moving your practice a half hour earlier so I could join you,” I said, taking a step away. “I’ll tell my football coach I won’t be here tomorrow, and my mom that she needs to make cookies.” I turned to Emma. “See you in about an hour.”
I leaned closer to her and gave her one last kiss, ignoring the rule about avoiding PDA.
“Sorry, Coach.” I gave her my most innocent smile while backing away from the group. Then I pointed at Emma. “I’m holding you to that back massage this afternoon.”
“You didn’t even do a backflip yet,” Emma argued, folding her arms across her chest.
Just for fun, I bent my knees and threw my arms and body backward into a nearly perfect back tuck. Landing, I grinned at my team. “Now I did.”
“Hey! You’ve been holding out on us.” Preston put both hands on his hips. “All this time you could do backflips?”
“You didn’t ask me if I could do a back tuck; you asked me if I could do a backbend. Which, I can almost guarantee I’ll never be able to do. But I’ve never done a back handspring.” I pointed at Preston. “And that’s what you’re going to teach me how to do tomorrow afternoon.” I turned around and jogged over to my football team, a confidence in my step.
“Did you know he could do that?” Preston asked Emma as I was leaving.
“Yeah…” Emma had a smile in her voice. I chuckled and kept jogging.
“I can only be over here for half of practice. I promised my football coach I’d get my pads on and run some plays with them.”
Underlying message was this little rally gripe session couldn’t last long. But the girls needed a chance to shoot daggers at me before we could get past the hostility.
“I’ve explained the whole story to Preston and Emma, but you girls deserve to know the truth.”
“We know most of the story,” Bella said. “Derek told us.”
“Half the school told us,” Serena mumbled. “Every football player in every class yesterday made it clear you didn’t mean that the way it sounded.”
“We forgive you,” Carli said. “We want to get past this just as much as you do.”
“Change of subject,” Coach Briggs said. “How is your football coach handling your involvement with the cheerleaders?”
“Coach Bryant’s not happy about me splitting my time. But I think he’d rather have half of me than me leave his team completely and join with you. He doesn’t want to lose his best wide receiver. Gotta give you guys something to cheer for on Friday nights.”
“What about basketball season? Have you thought that far ahead?”
“Yep.” I nodded. She was asking a loaded question. There was no way I could divide my time between the two sports. Basketball games were twice a week and cheer competitions were almost every weekend.
“And?” Coach Briggs and the cheer team waited with raised eyebrows. My heart raced. What should I say?
“On the last day of football season, I’m officially… a cheerleader.”
“Yes!” There was a collective excitement among the team.
Emma jumped into my arms and pressed a kiss to my lips.
“Gee, if I’d known it was that easy to get you to kiss me, I would have announced that weeks ago.”
“Oh, shut up.” Emma pushed me playfully. “You can barely stop kissing me.”
“True story.” I grabbed her around the waist and, with a quick bounce, had her on my shoulders, where she belonged. “Okay, we’ve now cut our practice time in half. Let’s get some stunts organized so I can get onto the field and pretend to be a football player for a little while.”
“You’re a really good football player.” Coach Briggs patted me on the arm. “Or we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
“Thanks, Coach.” I held out my hand in a sweeping gesture and said, “Your team, Coach.” Just like a football captain. I wondered if they were starting to think of me as their cheer captain. Probably not far from the truth.
“Okay, Preston and Doug in the back with your flyers. Bases, get in position. You all know what to do. Let’s go.” Coach Briggs clapped her hands to wake everyone up, and we all fell into place.
If someone had told me six months ago that I would be on the sidelines as a cheerleader, I would have laughed. Now, I knew I was where I was meant to be.
“What did Doug want to talk to Preston about?” Serena asked as we watched the two guys walking down the hall toward their first classes. “Doug said he wanted to talk to Preston alone.”
“He probably wanted to apologize for saying he didn’t care about Preston or the cheerleaders,” I said.
Doug and Preston walked slowly, in deep conversation, their heads close together.
“I thought the football players said Doug was defending Preston at the time he said that.” Serena creased her brow. “I’m confused.”
“In order to understand what happened Monday afternoon, you have to understand what happened Friday night during halftime,” I said. “The football players were teasing Doug about his relationship with Preston, telling him he should have put on a cheerleading skirt and go perform the halftime show with his boyfriend. They asked Doug if he was taking Preston to the homecoming dance.”
“Is he?” Serena raised her eyebrows.
“No…” Why was I even hesitating?
“I don’t know,” Serena teased. “They look pretty snuggly down there.”
Doug and Preston had stopped halfway down the hall and faced each other in deep conversation. They clasped each other’s hands and then Doug pulled Preston into a full hug. A hug? They almost looked as if they were going to lean forward and kiss each other. What the heck?
Why was I feeling jealous that my boyfriend was hugging a guy? If he was hugging a girl, my jealousy would be justified. But a guy? Unless the rumors were true…
What if the reason Doug never asked me out all these years was because he didn’t like girls? The guys had accused him of only dating me to overcompensate and hide that he was gay. Like if he kisses me or holds my hand, people won’t question that.
He sure didn’t seem gay when we were making out at the movies, or lying on his bed last night. Nah, the rumors couldn’t possibly be true.
“Anyway, so on Monday afternoon the guys were telling Doug the reason he made a big show of introducing Preston to everyone was because he was Doug’s boyfriend.”
“Even though Doug was holding your hand at the time?” Serena raised her eyebrows. “And Preston had his arms around me?”
“Again, they thought he was overcompensating to hide the fact that he was gay.”
“Is he gay?” Serena asked.
“No!” Exasperation pulled at the back of my mind. “He asked me to marry him yesterday!”
“Are you guys engaged?” Serena’s juvenile excitement was obvious.
“No, I mean, sorta, I mean, we talk about it, but we don’t have a ring or anything.”
“He couldn’t possibly be gay, then, right?” Serena said.
“Right.” I hope.
“But that still doesn’t explain why he said he didn’t care about Preston.”
“After they had this big apology-slash-I-forgive-you conversation, Doug said something like, ‘I don’t care about anything else; let’s just play football.’ And that’s what we heard when he said, ‘I don’t care about Preston or the cheerleaders.’ Does that make sense?”
“Yeah, I guess that makes sense,” Serena said.
Doug and Preston must have arrived at Doug’s classroom because they smiled and gave each other a fist bump. Then Doug was gone.
I brushed aside my nerves and jealousy and said goodbye to Serena. Class started in three minutes, and I didn’t want to be late.
“Hey, Preston. Can I talk with you?” I glanced around the group of cheerleaders in the foyer by the gym. “Alone.” That word in itself spoke volumes to the gawkers.
“I guess.” He flung his backpack over his shoulder and nodded for me to lead the way.
We took off down the hall away from several cliques of our peers where they congregated before school Wednesday morning. “Emma and I had a good talk last night.”
“She has accepted my apology, but I feel that I owe you an even bigger apology.”
“Please, Preston. This is hard enough for me. I’m not good with this kind of stuff.”
“Fine, I’ll hear you out.” He lifted his chin in the air.
“You need to know what happened Friday night to understand what happened Monday afternoon.”
“The reason I left the locker room at halftime was because the guys were being jerks, saying that the only reason I was hanging out with the cheerleaders was because I had a crush on you.”
“That’s why I got mad and left. But then Monday afternoon they laid into me again, saying the only reason I introduced you to everyone was because you were my boyfriend.” I stopped to see if he had a response to that but kept walking. “They also said the only reason I was dating Emma was to hide the fact that I was gay.”
“Are you gay?” he asked, not in the mean way the football players had. I knew Preston would accept me just the way I was if I had been. He was just that type of guy.
“After telling them they were the biggest bunch of jerks I’ve ever met, I told them that two guys can be friends without being in a romantic relationship. Just like a guy and a girl can be friends without being together. Shoot, girls have sleepovers and snuggle in bed together, and no one accuses them of being gay.”
Preston chuckled, knowing I was right.
“Anyway, then they laid into me about sleeping with Emma, which I’m not.” I emphasized my point, not wanting to spread any rumors. “I told them they were just as much of jerks for teasing me about being a virgin as they were jerks for teasing me about being gay.”
“Right?” Preston turned to me with exaggerated agreement. “I mean, seriously, who would want to admit they were gay or a virgin if people tease them?”
“That’s what I said!” I stopped him in the middle of the hallway. We were far enough away from any other people that I wasn’t too worried anyone would hear our conversation, but I knew we had an audience from up and down the hall all the way to the foyer. I didn’t glance in that direction and gave Preston my full attention. “Anyway, they apologized. We had one of those kumbaya moments where everyone came together in a group hug—not literally, but you know what I mean—and I told them I didn’t care about all the rest of the rumors. Let’s just play football. But that’s not the way you and the cheerleaders heard me.”
“Definitely not.” He folded his arms across his chest, defensive again. “Maybe if we had known the rest of the story, we wouldn’t have gotten as mad.”
“You had every right to get mad,” I said. “But I’m going to find a way to make it up to you guys. I’m just not sure how.”
“Well, you can start by helping us get ready for our competition that’s coming up in less than three weeks.”
“That I can do.” I held out my hand to shake. “Friends again?”
“Definitely!” He grabbed my hand in a guy-type handshake, like how the wrestler had done two days ago that was almost a half hug.
I pulled him into a full hug, and he laughed.
“You try to kiss me, and I’m gonna slap your face, young man.” Preston pushed me away playfully.
“I promise I won’t try to kiss you.” I nudged his shoulder as we continued down the hall toward our first classes. “Emma might get jealous.”
“Serena too,” Preston said, blushing.
“Really?” I raised my eyebrows, confused.
“Hey, you told me to make her fall in love with me. Guess we took your assignment a little too seriously.”
“I guess so.” I stopped in front of my calculus classroom and held out my hand for a fist bump. “See ya at practice.”
Preston bumped my fist and continued down the hall. “See ya.”
“Serena,” I mumbled, watching him saunter away. “Interesting.”
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