He hovered at the edge of the Student Travel Association tour group. What island were they on now? Somewhere near Fiji, in the South Pacific, volcanic with tropical rain-forest highlands, white beaches, and inhabitants who once were fearsome — ancient but modernized. Ollie caught only some of the village elder’s speech as his attention was distracted by a field behind the Spirit House, waving and bobbing with hundreds of stone heads on poles — a mass of sticks with faces. “Villages are made of families, descended from founding ancestors,” the local chief explained; he was tattooed and pierced but wearing blue-jeans and a t-shirt. “Each household, each member of the household, is protected by an ancestor. And when we die, we are carved into ancestors, too….”
The lesson became lost in a rush of sea-breeze and lush sibilant leaves. Ollie sidled away and wandered into the midst of the stone heads; as he moved, the poles danced and swayed. Smooth agate and jade, tikis stuck like pikes on wooden shafts, each face slightly different, clicking against one another, talking, singing. The polished carvings immediately in front of him collided with a ring and a bounce. He froze in place, embarrassed, hoping no one had seen him, or heard the commotion. He focused on one of the faces as it stopped swinging and froze motionless right in front of his eyes, its sockets dark slits, its nose sharp, its mouth crooked and toothless. No more than ten-inches high, six feet off the ground, it gleamed dully, flashing glints of green, ruby, and amber-gold.
The hanging bridge lurched and creaked as one by one in single file, his companions reached the rocky plateau on the other side of the ravine, and disappeared into the jungle. Ollie hesitated, the last one; he stepped up onto the first weathered plank of the bridge and grasped the ropes, his knuckles going white. Why did I do it? Should I go back? I can go back right now….
He was the quiet, usually invisible guy with the glasses who never wanted trouble. I should put it back. He stepped to the rear, lowered himself down off the bridge; he let go of the ropes, turned half-way around. I can say I made a mistake, I took it by mistake. How do you accidentally take a tiki-head that was tied to a pole?
He shrugged his backpack. He could feel the angular figure, wrapped in a flannel shirt, roll against his shoulder blades. His stomach twisted, sweat spotted his flushed forehead. Go back, no one will notice. But what if they do? Ohio University will suspend me if I’m caught. He spun to face the bridge again, hearing a loud verbal exchange, the noise of boots crashing through vegetation. Oh shit, they’re coming for me. I’m fucked. He clamped his jaws together to get himself under control. He saw the first of his group reappear on the landing at the far end of the rope and plank bridge, then their guide, a Frenchman named Michel, who noticed him and waved vigorously.
Almost at once, it seemed the entire party of twenty materialized, converging on the plateau. Two of their number — a red-haired girl Ollie knew as Emilie and her boyfriend, Alex, both Americans — were being restrained by their arms. A co-ed from Montreal named Henriette approached Michel, a shiny tiki-head outstretched, clutched in her hands. She shouted across to Ollie, “Those idiots tried to steal it!”
Michel looked like he didn’t want to accept the thing, his face puckered with anxiety. “Ollie,” he called over his shoulder, “go back to the village, tell the chief we’re returning. Don’t say anything else.”
Ollie nodded, giving himself an air of innocence and calm. Holy shit, they’ll think Em and Alex took mine, too! “Lucky, lucky, lucky,” he muttered to himself. He quickly found the trail that led back to the Spirit House. In moments he was enclosed by dense, dark vegetation dotted by pungent orange flowers. He slowed, then halted. He couldn’t hear a thing, not the cry of a wild parrot, or the buzz of an insect. There wasn’t a breath of wind. All was quiet, except the sound of his own breathing, the pounding of his blood.
It happened so quickly that Ollie couldn’t register where he was for a few seconds, or what force slugged him in the ribs and sent him flying forward until he was face down, his mouth almost buried in the mossy soil and vines of the jungle floor. He raised his chin, tried to push himself up; his backpack lifted and something hard and heavy smashed against his spine and flattened him once again. He opened his eyes long enough to recognize the ants marching steadily toward his head. He tried to scream.