The guide wanted to tell the group of Americans to shut up. Of course they weren't seeing any animals: their constant complaining was driving them away. Only the birds remained, and even they seemed skittish. He was just a guide, however, so he said nothing.
He glanced back at Henderson and decided it was time for another break. They'd had to stop every twenty minutes so that the rich man could run into the brush and move his bowels, and now the guide was worried Henderson might be overexerting himself.
It wasn't that Henderson was grossly fat, but he was definitely large and clearly struggling to keep pace with the rest of the group. The tall man, who was Henderson's bodyguard, and the three women, though, were all in good shape. The women, in particular, all looked embarrassingly athletic and young, twenty or thirty years younger than Henderson. It was obvious the heat was getting to him. His face was red and he kept mopping at his forehead with a damp handkerchief. Henderson was older than the women, but looked too young for a heart attack. Still, the guide thought, it wouldn't hurt to keep him well hydrated.
The day wasn't any hotter than normal, but even though the group had come directly from Machu Picchu, they didn't seem to understand that they were still at elevation. They weren't actually inside Manú National Park, which they didn't seem to understand either. The guide could have explained that they were technically allowed only in the larger biosphere area, and that the park itself was reserved for researchers, staff, and the indigenous Machiguenga, but all it would have done was disappoint them even more than they already were.
"Any chance we'll see a lion, Miggie?" one of the women asked him.
The woman next to her swung off her backpack and dropped it on the ground. "For God's sake, Tina," the woman said, shaking her head so that her hair swung around her face and her shoulders. "We're in Peru, not Africa. You're going to make Miggie think that Americans are idiots. There aren't any lions in Peru. We could see a jaguar, though."
The guide had introduced himself as Miguel, but they had immediately taken to calling him Miggie, as if Miguel were just a suggestion. While he did not think all Americans were idiots – when he wasn't leading expeditions of tourists on "eco treks," he often worked with the scientists inside the park, most of them from American universities – he was beginning to think that, despite the presence of Henderson, who was by all accounts a genius, this particular group seemed to have more idiots than normal. They were not going to see a lion, and no matter what the woman said, they weren't going to see a jaguar, either. Miguel had been working here for the tour company for nearly three years, and even he'd never seen a jaguar. Not that he was truly an expert. He had been born and raised in Lima, and the only reason he was there, instead of back in the city of more than eight million, was a girl. They'd gone to university together, and when she landed a plum job as a research assistant, he managed to squirm his way into helping out inside the park occasionally.
He watched the Americans take water or little bars wrapped in plastic out of their backpacks, and then he walked a few paces farther down the path.
He was made nervous today by the jungle.
It was unsettling how quiet it was aside from the nattering of the group behind him. They had been complaining about the lack of animals, and if he had been honest with them – and he hadn't, because that was not what a guide was paid to be – he would have told the group that he was bothered by it as well. Usually they would have seen more animals than they could have asked for: sloths, capybara, brocket, monkeys. God, they loved the monkeys. The tourists could never get enough monkeys. And insects, of course. They were usually everywhere, and when all else failed to keep the tourists entertained, Miguel, who had never been scared of spiders, would often pick one up on the end of a branch and surprise one of the women in the group with it. He loved the way they shrieked when he brought it close for them to see, and the way the men tried to pretend as though the spider didn't bother them.
Behind Tina, he saw Henderson bending over and grabbing at his gut. The man may have been very rich – Miguel had not recognized Henderson the man, though he had certainly heard of Henderson's company; the researchers all did their work on Henderson Tech's small silver computers – but he did not seem particularly special. He'd been complaining the entire morning. He complained about the roads, about the lack of access to the Internet at the lodge, about the food.
"You okay, boss?" The bodyguard was ignoring the three women, who were still arguing with one another about where it was exactly that lions lived.
"My gut is killing me," Henderson said. "That meat from last night. I've got to take a shit. Again." He looked up at Miguel, and the guide motioned with his thumb for Henderson to head off the path.
Miguel watched him disappear into the trees and then turned to look ahead again. The tour company kept the path well enough maintained that it was easy to move tourists along when there wasn't somebody like Henderson who needed to keep stopping. They'd bulldozed a strip and then tasked the guides with staying on the path so that nobody would get lost. As with any other human encroachment in the rain forest, the jungle was trying to reclaim the trail, so the company ran the machine out every few weeks. For the most part, the path made Miguel's work much easier. He could look ahead and see clear to where they would be going for close to a hundred meters. It also meant there was a break in the canopy, and when he looked up he could see the blue sky. There wasn't a cloud anywhere, and for a moment Miguel wished he were on a beach instead of leading this group of Americans.
A bird flew over the breach in the canopy. The guide watched it for a second and was about to turn back to the group to see if Henderson had made it back from his bathroom break when he realized something was wrong with the bird. It was flapping its wings frantically, moving erratically. The bird was struggling to stay in the air. But there was something more. The guide wished he had a pair of binoculars, because the bird's feathers looked wrong. They looked like they were rippling, like there was –
The bird fell from the sky. It stopped struggling and simply plummeted.
Miguel shivered. The women were still chattering behind him, but there were no other animal sounds in the jungle. Even the birds were quiet. He listened more closely, and then he heard something. A rhythmic pounding. Leaves crunching. He'd just about figured out what it was when a man burst around the bend in the path. Even from a hundred meters away, it was clear something was wrong. The man saw Miguel and screamed at him, but Miguel couldn't make out the words. Then the man glanced at the path behind him, and as he did so, he tripped, falling heavily.
It looked to Miguel like a black river rushed up behind him. The man had only managed to get to his knees before the dark mass rolled over and around him.
Miguel took a few steps backward, but he found that he didn't want to turn away. The black river stayed on top of the man, roiling and building, as if it were dammed by something. There was a lumpy movement, the man underneath still struggling. And then the lump collapsed. The black water splashed out to cover the path. From where Miguel was standing, it looked like the man had simply disappeared.
And then the blackness started streaming toward him, covering the path and moving quickly, almost as fast as a man could run. Miguel knew he should be running, but there was something hypnotic in the quietness of the water. It didn't roar like a river. If anything, it seemed to absorb sound. All he could hear was a whisper, a skittering, like a small patter of rain. The way the river moved was beautiful in its own way, pulsing and, at certain points, splitting and braiding into separate streams before rejoining a few paces later. As it got closer, Miguel took another step back, but by the time he realized it wasn't actually a river, that it wasn't water of any kind, it was too late.
Excerpted from The Hatching. Copyright © 2016 Ezekiel Boone. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, a Penguin Random House Company. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
Q&A with Ezekiel Boone
Ezekiel Boone is the pseudonym of a Canadian writer Alexi Zentner, the author of Touch and The Lobster Kings.
Where did the idea for The Hatching come from?
I grew up reading thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, you name it, and one day I asked myself if there was a reason why a fear of spiders was so common. Was there something buried deep in our evolutionary history that made being scared of spiders a survival instinct? A few nights later, I woke up screaming from a nightmare, swatting at imagined spiders, and I had an answer to the question of, "Why are we afraid of spiders?" I also had a killer idea for a series.
The name on the cover is Ezekiel Boone, but you've published a couple of literary novels under your real name. What made you decide to adopt a false identity for The Hatching?
Using a false identity was a joint decision with my agent and my editors, and was done to be fair to readers. My real name isn't a secret, but we didn't want to trick readers and have them come in expecting one type of book and getting another. Ezekiel Boone's books, starting with The Hatching series, are meant to be big, sprawling, smart, entertaining books that are fun above all else; the literary novels written under my real name, Alexi Zentner, are certainly a little more quiet.
While this excerpt doesn't say what the "black river" is, it's no spoiler to reveal we're talking about spiders. Terrible, monstrous spiders. Do you suffer from arachnophobia?
I'm absolutely terrified of spiders. Writing this series has helped stop my spider nightmares, but it's also meant a continuous stream of people telling me horrible spider stories and sending me videos and GIFs. One of my biggest fears now is that I'm going to have to do some sort of publicity photo shoot with actual spiders.