When Dr. Santiago Ramirez heard the twig snap, his hammer froze in mid-swing. As the thud created from the metal head hitting the iron stake stopped, so did the rustling in the jungle. He strained his eyes and ears, trying to pick up some sound or sight that would identify the source of the noise. He prayed it was just an animal, but whenever he began a project of this magnitude, he became extra alert to the possible dangers that lurked behind every tree, especially when he was responsible for the safety of others.
Santiago glanced at his watch and realized he had to leave soon if he hoped to make it to the airport in time to greet the first student arriving in Mexico. He was always anxious to meet his interns each summer. Some were disappointments--too young, immature, social, or soft to live the life of a field archeologist. But, most of the students renewed his faith in the future. Most were bright, hard working, energetic, and eager. The young people always brought him out of his winter doldrums and made his loneliness disappear, at least for a few months. He knew classroom time was important, but what he really loved was getting dirty, breaking a sweat, and sharing his passion with others.
The jungle remained silent. Santiago debated on whether or not to get his machete and investigate. He wanted to be sure nothing sinister lurked in the shadows, but time was not on his side. He had to finish setting up the tents, drive into Cancún, buy more supplies, pick up his intern at the airport, and make it back to camp before dark. It would be tight, but if he left within the next hour, he was pretty sure that he could make it as long as the bustling tourist traffic didn’t clog the inadequate roadways out of the city.
Santiago grabbed his hammer and resumed pounding the tent stakes into the soft forest litter. The clang of metal on metal resonated through the trees, drowning out the hum of unseen insects. With the tents secured, he finished unloading his Volkswagen to make room for additional supplies and the intern’s luggage. Surveying the area, he decided the camp would have to suffice since his time was running short.
Inside the tent that would serve as their headquarters, Santiago looked in the mirror hanging from the center tent pole. He hadn’t realized that it was so hot or that he had been working so hard, but the reflection didn’t lie. His thick black hair stuck to the sides of his cheeks and dark rings of sweat formed ovals from his armpits to his belt. He bent his head down and took a whiff of himself and recoiled.
He looked at his watch again and saw that he was running out of time, but felt he had to make himself a little more presentable. He had met the young woman that he was picking up at the airport when he spoke at her university. It was a brief encounter and he wondered if she would even remember the introduction, but he couldn’t forget her. Her hand was warm and soft and her dark blue eyes sparkled with excitement when she spoke to him.
When he received her application he was stunned to see that she was just as intelligent and qualified as she was lovely. He took teaching seriously and prided himself on being objective, so he had his colleague reevaluate the applications just to make sure that his judgment hadn’t been clouded by her pretty youthful face.
As Santiago finished his bucket bath and changed into fresh clothes, he felt a little silly. The woman was at least fifteen years his junior, and he knew he would keep any relationship that might develop strictly professional as always, but he couldn’t help wanting to look his best when he met her at the airport.
Santiago dashed out to his car. He paused before getting in, looking in the direction in which he had heard noises earlier. Everything was calm and quiet--too quiet. The jungle was always full of natural noises, so when a hush fell over the trees it always gave him a nervous sensation deep in his gut and he became extra cautious. His instincts told him something wasn’t quite right, but his head reminded him that he was running late and that he might be in the midst of a mid-life crisis, which had to be under control before he reached the airport.
He got into the car and slowly turned it around. As he drove away his eyes kept darting to the review mirror, searching for something to ease his mind, until the tents disappeared from view, swallowed up by the trees and choking vines encroaching on the camp.