Even though mud and garbage no longer squeezed up between my toes, my new shoes didn't make carrying the valise easier. They were hard and unforgiving, and my feet seemed to find a new edge inside them at every step. I was happy that Prof stopped us once we got to the edge of the road that headed into the interior. It was paved for only a short way before turning to dirt and mud, then led only to . . . green. For that reason, very few people took it, unless they were cutting down trees or escaping people.
In Gabon, we called the places men live the Outside and the jungle the Inside. Humans weren't supposed to go Inside.
"Now we wait for our ride," Prof said cheerfully, stroking the top of Omar's head.
I thought right then about running away. Now that I was free of Monsieur Tatagani, I could visit every village until I found my mother's family, even though I'd never met them. Maybe they would let me farm a small plot of land. The idea of four walls that gave onto a little garden, of people nearby who cared about me, was so wonderful that it hurt.
But I couldn't abandon Prof. Not yet. My side of our bargain was to split my destiny with this bizarre old man. I had betrayed him last night, and we both knew it, and yet he'd taken another chance on me, even paying my debt. He'd bought me clothes and shoes! I looked down at them proudly, taking in their neatly threaded seams, though they caused me such pain. I would help this professor until he was set up. Then I would leave.
We waited a long time by the side of the road, until Prof hailed a rattling lumber truck. He spoke to the driver for a while, then out came that floppy leather wallet and more traveler's checks. I would have done anything to have even one of those meaningful slips of paper, and he had so many. It nearly set my mind reeling, the scale of it, like I was a beetle and Prof was a mountain.
Within minutes we were sitting in the back of the truck, Prof's belongings mounded around us. The truck had no sides, so we held on to the thick rusty chains that would eventually be used to secure lumber on the return trip. Despite our best efforts, we bounced and swung as the truck rumbled forward.
Omar leaped from one side of the truck bed to the other, excited and squawking, sometimes disappearing under the vehicle to investigate its workings and then returning triumphantly, ranting and baring his teeth.
We faced out the rear. I'd never traveled on a vehicle before, and the wind blowing past felt as thrilling and upsetting as my freedom. I held my hand out over the side, let it be lifted by the too-fast air. Prof leaned against his valise and closed his eyes, the metal briefcase pinned securely between his knees.
"How did you get all that money?" I risked asking.
Prof groggily opened his eyes and looked down at his prized possession, as if surprised to see it there. "This? Nothing worth spending a thought on." Then he changed the subject. "I was advised by my fellow scientists that I would need an assistant. So this has worked out very well. You will be a great help to me, and to science. We will have a life with great purpose! Our mission is to set up camp in a part of the jungle with many chimpanzees. Most of my time will be used to make crucial notes and observations for the National Geographic Society, so I will need you to maintain the camp and help me keep us and the chimps safe. Your payment will be your food and the solution I've provided you for your impossible situation in Franceville. Not that you're in any position to refuse, but do you at least acknowledge my terms?"
A fat mantis whizzed through the air and landed on my arm, and I flicked it off into the hurtling wind. Prof was right. I was in no position to refuse. But he was forcing me into this choice all the same, and because of that, I figured I would feel no guilt when I abandoned him later. For now I nodded. I acknowledged his terms.
Excerpted from Threatened by Eliot Schrefer. Copyright © 2014 by Eliot Schrefer. Excerpted by permission of Scholastic. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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