Chapter 4: The Mark of Tachahuatl

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“Are you okay?” Liberty grabbed Al’s arm and pulled him toward her. “What on earth was that?”

“I don’t know.” Al’s face was pale as they looked back at the skeleton. Its strange, jeweled eyes had stopped glowing, and its spear was once again upright. “I guess I shouldn’t have touched it.”

“Maybe it’s electronic?” Liberty gave it a dubious look. There were no wires or electronic nodes that they could see. Just a bunch of dull, dusty bones.

“Maybe,” said Al. “I think we should get out of–” He stopped and stared at Liberty, openmouthed. “Um…there’s something going on with your face.”

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“What are you talking about?” Liberty reached up to feel her face, which felt normal to her. But judging by the expression on Al’s face, it was definitely not normal. It took several hours for them to make their way back to their house, where Liberty made a beeline for the bathroom mirror. When at last she saw her reflection, she let out a scream. Her skin was covered in a bizarre, bright green rash.

“Does it itch or anything?” asked Al, frowning in concern.

“No,” said Liberty. The rash looked odd, but it didn’t itch, or hurt, or anything. It was more like someone had taken a neon green sharpie and drawn circles on her skin. “I feel fine.”

Since it didn’t bother her, she decided to ignore it and let it go away on its own. Al didn’t seem to mind the rash, either. In fact, as the weeks of their mission trip drew to a close, the two were more inseparable than ever. They even began to sneak away from the group of volunteers for stolen moments of bliss together.

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But then the illness struck. Some morning, Liberty could hardly crawl out of bed, so intense were the attacks off nausea.

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“It’s probably from something you ate,” said Al, when the illness lingered. He walked her to the medical cabin, where the volunteer doctor looked her over and agreed with Al’s conclusion.

“Digestive illnesses are not so uncommon among the volunteer workers,” he said. “Be sure to boil your water carefully before drinking it.”

Liberty had another idea. “Could it have anything to do with the rash?”

The doctor had never seen a green rash like hers before. “I thought you’d decorated yourself for fun.” He promised to do some research, but later came up empty-handed. The green rash and nausea may be a symptom of some rare tropical disease.

It was Marta, from the village, who saved the day. “It is the mark of Tachahuatl,” she said. “I know a recipe from my grandmother. I will make it for you, and you will be fine.” She gave Liberty’s hands a reassuring squeeze, then went off to her home. She returned with a glass containing a murky, foul-smelling liquid that looked like pond scum. “Now drink,” she said.

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Liberty tasted a sip, then made a face. The drink tasted like pond scum, too. Then she counted to three, tilted back her head, and drained the glass.

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The effect was immediate. When Liberty looked over the big mirror hanging on thee wall of the cantina, she saw that her skin was once again a smooth cocoa brown. No more green splotches!

“Muchas gracias,” she told Marta.

It wasn’t until the next day that Liberty realized that the disgusting drink had cleared up the rash, but it had done nothing to ease her nausea.

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The doctor must have been right the first time. She must have eaten something that upset her stomach, and would just have to tough it out until it passed.

In the meantime, she enjoyed her good moments as much as possible. She worked hard during her volunteer shifts, then spent time with Al, playing music together and even learning how to dance salsa and rhumba. They no longer strayed into the jungle. Though neither one of them really believed that their encounter with the skeleton guard had anything to do with Liberty’s illness, they decided not to take any more chances.

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Chapter 3: The Map to Paradise

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Liberty never would have believed how much she and Al had in common. Now that he’d finally loosened up around her, they spent plenty of time getting to know each other. Al enjoyed reading, like her, and loved the idea of her becoming a writer. He came from a close-knit family, all of whom were crazy about music, like him. “My dad’s a police officer, but he plays weekend gigs with a bluegrass band,” he said. “He’s the one who taught me how to play guitar.”

“Does he know you’re hoping to become a full-time musician?” Liberty asked.

“Nah, he’d kill me if he found out that I was wasting my shiny, expensive business degree.” He frowned. “He thinks I’m going to look for a nice, stable desk job in a cubicle jungle after I finish my stint in this jungle.”

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During their work days, they slaved away as usual, helping to improve the lives of the natives. On their free days, they sometimes stayed close to home, trying new foods in the village. Al often strummed songs on his guitar as Liberty sang along, or recited literary passages to the music. Other days, they explored the rain forest together, snapping photos of wildlife, examining ancient ruins, and pretending to be expert archaeologists.

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They grew so close, that it felt completely natural when their relationship evolved to another level. When they kissed for the first time, the birds of the rain forest seemed to sing louder than usual, as though cheering for the couple.

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During the nights, there was no longer any arguing over who would sleep where.
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One warm, muggy day, they trekked further away from the village than they had ever ventured before. Marta, one of the village women, had told them about an amazing waterfall, and they were eager to find it. After a few hours of hiking, however, they realized that they must have missed a trail.

Al studied the crudely drawn map Marta had drawn for them. “I think we can find the trail if we circle around this way, he said, leading the way.

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Instead of the trail to the waterfall, however, they discovered a hidden lagoon, with clear green waters that sparkled beneath the blazing sun.

Liberty flashed Al a mischievous grin. Then she slid off her clothes and slipped into the cool waters. “It feels sooo good!” she said. “Come on in!” Al shed his clothes, too, and joined her. They paddled around lazily, drinking in the sunshine and one another’s company.

“We’re like Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden,” Al said.

“It sure feels like paradise.” Liberty said with a laugh. “If I see a talking serpent, I’ll be sure to stay away.”

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After leaving the magical lagoon, they made another surprising discovery. An ancient pyramid, still standing in the middle of the rain forest.

“I don’t see this on Marta’s map,” said Al, puzzled.

“Maybe she doesn’t know about it.” Liberty stared in awe at the vine-covered structure. “Think we should check it out?”

“I don’t know…” Al hesitated. “Maybe we should tell someone about it first.”

“Oh come on. Where’s your sense of adventure?” Liberty forged ahead, with Al close behind. Inside the ruins, it was cool and dark, and smelled dank. Liberty let out a shriek as a colony of bats swirled overhead, their leather wings beating against the air before they flew out into the daylight.

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“Hey look!” Al hurried across the chamber, where a row of skeletons stood, jewels sparkling in their rib cages. Each clutched a spear with a sharpened stone for a blade. As Al studied the skeletons, Liberty noticed other abandoned treasures scattered about the chamber.

“Do you think we’re the first people to discover this stuff?” she asked. “Maybe we shouldn’t touch anyth–”

But it was too late. At that moment, Al grasped one of the skeleton’s spears and gave a tug. The skeleton’s sapphire eyes began to glow.

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Chapter 2: Peaceful, Easy Feeling

The next few days were almost unbearable for Liberty. Not because of the hard work. She was happy to roll up her sleeves and help to dig trenches and lay pipes, happy to work side by side with the Selvadoradan women, learning to pound corn into a coarse flour and mix it with water to make a kind of tortilla. Nor was the setting intolerable, despite the wet, heavy heat and giant mosquitoes that tore at her skin. In fact, she would trade one hundred mosquito bites for having to share a house with Al Gae.

He complained about everything she did. When she scrubbed the tile floors, she left a residue behind. When it was his turn to sleep in the bed, she hadn’t tucked in the sheets tightly enough.

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When she did her best to cook them a meal at the end of a long, grueling day in the sun, he complained that she’d burnt the chicken.

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“It is not burnt!” she insisted. “Dude, what is wrong with you? It’s perfect.”

He tore off a chunk of meat and chewed. “It’s so overcooked, it’s like eating jerky,” he said, his mouth full.

“Fine,” she said. “Then from now on, you can do all the cooking.” And he’d accused her of being a spoiled suburbanite!

“Sorry,” said the mission leader when she’d begged to be reassigned. “Remember, this trip is about getting out of your comfort zone and getting along with all kinds of people.”

Liberty was sure that she’d never get along with Al.

Very early one morning, she was awakened from a fitful sleep on the hard living room futon. Was that music she heard? It was coming from outside. She motioned for Katniss to follow her out into the night. There beneath the trees was Al, strumming a worn guitar and singing softly. His eyes were closed, so he couldn’t see her and Katniss peering at him from behind a clump of bushes. She stayed there for the longest time, listening as his beautiful songs spilled out from his fingertips, mingling with the music of the birds hidden in the canopy.

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After that, she began to soften toward him. There was clearly so much more to Al beneath the surface, more than the grouch who had been attacking her for small, trivial things.

“Hey.” She tapped him on the shoulder at the end of the day. “You want to join me for some food at the cantina?” He eyed her suspiciously but agreed to go. They ordered meat pies that reminded her of pupusas, and for the first time ever, they carried on a civil conversation. She learned that Al’s family lived down south, which explained the slight twang to his voice. She told him how she’d quit her dull data entry job to come volunteer.

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“That was pretty brave of you.” He sounded impressed. “What will you do when you return home?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Write, maybe. I’ve always wanted to write. How about you? What will you do?”

He pressed his lips together, thinking. “I have a degree in Economics. But I don’t know if that’s how I want to spend my life. I was thinking…I might make music instead.”

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“Yeah?” Liberty raised her eyebrows, as though she had no idea he had a musical talent. “Are you any good?”

He shrugged. “I could play a little, if you’d like to hear.”

She smiled. “I’d like that very much.” They went inside the little cantina, where a guitar and microphone sat in a corner of the room. Across the room, locals and volunteers chatted and drank at the bar. Al picked up the dusty guitar and began to strum and sing an old song by the Eagles. Liberty listened for a moment, entranced, then turned on the microphone and joined in.

I got a peaceful easy feelin’
And I know you won’t let me down
‘Cause I’m already standin’
On the ground

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The other visitors crowded around as they sang, then burst into applause as Al strummed the final note.

“I hope you will come and play for us every night,” said the cantina owner with a heavy Selvadoradan accent. Al gave Liberty a sideways grin. She grinned back. They didn’t argue once for the rest of the night.

 

Chapter 1: Casa de Sorpresas

Everything about Liberty’s life was gray. The dull, cookie-cutter houses in her neighborhood were all painted shades of gray. The sidewalks where she walked her dog, Katniss, every day were hard and gray.

Liberty takes Katniss for a walk

Each morning, she sat in front of a gray computer monitor and performed her work, writing technical documents for the world’s least interesting company. She paid her bills, flossed her teeth, and greeted her neighbors every day, the same gray routine. But she couldn’t shake the overwhelming feeling that her life meant nothing.

Liberty writing

Then one day, she came across an ad posted on the community center bulletin board.

CHANGE YOUR LIFE IN THE AMAZON RAIN FOREST! FIND YOURSELF WHILE MAKING THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE.

Liberty knew that this ad was speaking directly to her. The very next day, she resigned from her job and called the number on the ad. This was it! She was going to the Amazon. Somehow, while lost among all those trees, she was going to find herself.

After her plane landed, she took a bus to a remote location at the edge of the rain forest. From there, a guide led her small group on foot through the thick selvage, all the way to the town of Selvadorada. When she arrived at last, she was exhausted and queasy, and covered from head to toe with itchy mosquito bites.

Selvadorada rain forestSelvadorada rain forest snake

“Thank goodness for all the immunizations I had before I came,” she said to one of the guys in her group. “Just think of all the icky illnesses these mosquitoes probably carry!”

The young man didn’t smile. “Yeah, just think. You could like, die of malaria. Then you wouldn’t get to go back home and shop at the mall with your friends, or send Snapchats.”

Liberty meets the rude guy

Liberty frowned. “Isn’t that a kind of harsh judgment? I mean, you don’t even know me!”

“I know your type. Rich, pampered girls who think they’ll have an adventure with the poor jungle people, all so they can impress their friends with cool selfies. Meanwhile, some of us are here to actually work.”

Liberty and Al arguing

He walked off, leaving Liberty staring after him in disbelief.

His words had taken some of the shine off the beginning of her trip. Even though she knew that none off it was true, it still nagged at her all through orientation. After a lively group meal, introductions, and a tour of the town, the volunteers were given their house assignments.

Liberty had been expecting something primitive. A grass hut, maybe, or a platform tent. She couldn’t believe how cute her assigned cottage was. The walls were bright and cheerful. Colorful quilts and rugs added a homey feel to the humble dwelling. There was even electricity and indoor plumbing, to her surprise.

“I thought we’d have to sleep on the floor and use an outhouse!” she told Katniss. She danced around with glee, her spirits already much lighter than they had been. “We need to name this place. Hmm…I know! How about Casa de Sorpresas?” This house had been a pleasant surprise, after all.

Casa de sorpresas

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Then came the knock on the front door. Liberty rushed to answer it. It must be her assigned housemate.

“Hi!” she said with a wide smile, throwing the door open. Then her smile fell. It was the rude guy. “What are you doing here?”

Al Gae being a crankypants

The guy’s eyes narrowed behind his glasses. “I live here. For the next year, anyway.”

“You’ve got to be kidding!”

“Wish I were.” He stepped inside and dropped his heavy backpack. “Looks like we’re stuck together.”

Liberty groaned. Of all the volunteers in her group, this was her new roomie? Maybe there was someone she could talk to, to trade.

“My name’s Al Gae.”He thrust a hand toward her.

She blinked. “Like….algae?”

“Like algae.”

“Okay. Well, I’m Liberty Sweet. And that’s Katniss.”

He nodded toward Katniss, then headed toward the kitchen. Liberty realized how worn-out she felt. She headed upstairs, where she found another bathroom, and a small bedroom. There was one bed, covered in a lovely hand-sewn quilt.

One bed.

This was so not going to work. It was bad enough that she’d have to share a house with the rudest guy in the rain forest. There was no way she was going to share a bed with him, too. She searched every cabinet and closet in the house, praying for an air mattress or futon, but there was nothing.

Only One Bed

“Flip for it?” Al suggested. “Loser takes the sofa.” He pulled out a coin.

“Tails,” said Liberty. The coin went spinning in the air, then landed in Al’s outstretched hand. Tails.

“Have fun on the sofa.” Liberty couldn’t help but flash Al a smirk as she climbed between the cool, crisp sheets. She’d given this place the right name. Her new home was definitely full of surprises.

Liberty wins the bed