WARNING: "It's really addicting." -- A Kid's Review
Move over Percy Jackson. Find out what everybody is talking about!
If you loved Harry Potter, if you couldn't get enough of Percy Jackson, if you're wondering what to read after The Mark of Athena -- from, Lars Guignard, the bestselling author of Lethal Circuit, comes the brand new, kids' magic fantasy adventure... GHOST LEOPARD
Imagine you're totally lost in a strange city with no idea where you are and no way home.
Now imagine that elephants and snake charmers start telling you that you've been chosen to save the world.
Would you even believe them?
What would you do?
Zoe Guire isn't sure. Having that elephant talk to her was really weird, and, as a rule, Zoe doesn't do weird. Except the thing is, when Zoe goes along on her mom's business trip to India, things get very weird, very quickly. Soon after she arrives, Zoe finds herself tagging alongside a kid named Zak, lost in a crazy city, with no money and no way home.
And those are the least of Zoe's troubles. Because if she's to believe the scary-looking snake charmer guy sitting in the corner, she and Zak have been chosen -- chosen to protect some kind of mythical animal called the Ghost Leopard from who knows what.
Now, the further they get into the mountains, the more crazily impossible things get. Carpets fly and statues talk and if either Zoe or Zak want to make it back to their parents, or the sixth grade, or anything even close to normal, they're going to have to make some new friends, learn some new tricks, and listen, really listen to that talking elephant. Because if they don't, the world will never be the same again.
Join Zoe and Zak as they journey high into the Himalayas to a place few have been and even fewer have returned to tell about it.
Live life beyond the edge.
The man walked backward through the blizzard. He was high in the mountains and the blowing snow stung his face and eyes, but the man didn’t seem to care. He carried a bow and arrow and looked almost ageless with his tight waxy skin and coal-black eyes. A roar filled the air and the man looked up. He readied an arrow and pulled back on his bow string, his gaze focused up the cliff side. At that moment, the full moon shone brightly through the snow revealing a monstrous, cat-like shadow.
The man took aim, treading a thin line backward along the cliff's edge, trying to get a bead on the shadow. As the man stepped backward, the shadow followed him. The man stepped backward again and, once again, the shadow followed him. Then, without warning, the shadow covered the man in darkness. That’s when the strange part happened. The man’s face tightened even more, his skin stretching beyond the breaking point. His jaw lengthened, jutting outwards. Fangs flared where his teeth had once been and coarse wiry fur grew out across his face. Even his hands changed, yellow claws sprouting from his fingernails. But the most frightening part was his eyes. The man’s coal-black eyes glowed red.
The man, or creature, or whatever it was now, ran a rough black tongue over his lips. Then he took another step back along the cliff side. His foot searched for firm ground, but this time instead of snow his rear foot found ice. He wavered as his foot began to slide, trying to regain his balance, but it was no use. A gust of wind whipped across the mountainside. The man couldn’t stop himself. He tumbled back, over the edge of the cliff. He screamed into the wind as he fell, his cry cut short by a thud, and then there was no sound at all.
That’s when I woke up. The thud was the thud of my head on the side of the rickshaw. I’d been having weird dreams for a while now and I guess that one totally qualified. I’d never even been to the mountains, so I had no idea why I was dreaming about them. I yawned and tried to do a better job of staying awake.
My name is Zoe Guire. I’m eleven years old and at the time of this writing, almost finished the sixth grade. Right now, I’m just writing this down because everything that happened was so very strange that I have to say something about it. I don’t know if I’ll post it as a blog later or what. For now though, just consider this my diary. The stupid thing is, I hate to write. Really loathe it, as in, cannot stand to do it. But when something happens to you like what happened to me, you need to do something. And since there’s only one other person in the world, well let me correct that, since there’s only one other living person in the world that I can actually say this stuff to, and he and I are already talked out, I decided to scribble this down, for his sake as well as mine — you’ve got to stay sane, you know.
So here goes. Where was I? In the little yellow and black auto-rickshaw, I think, coughing and sputtering my way through a sea of traffic. It was my first time in an auto-rickshaw and I thought it was pretty cool. In case you’ve never been in one, an auto-rickshaw is basically smaller than a car, but bigger than a bicycle, a sort of motorized tricycle that people ride around in like a taxi. Since it was my first trip to India, I had insisted that my mom and I ride in one of the cool three-wheelers instead of taking a more normal looking car from the airport. The flight from Washington had been long, but there hadn’t been that many people on it, so I’d been able to sprawl out the length of three seats and sleep. Still, obviously I was tired, because I’d been in India for less than half an hour and already I’d dozed off.
Like I said, I’m nearly done with the sixth grade. I guess I’m a bit of a tomboy, meaning I’m not super girly. It might be because I’m tall for my age and bigger than most of the boys I know that I’m like that, I don’t know. I have long legs and arms and my teeth are pretty straight, you know, given that half the kids my age wear braces. I’m fairly physically strong, like I play volleyball and stuff, so I don’t tire out easily or anything like that. My dark brown hair is wavy and long and my eyes are green, though sometimes they look a little blue. Kind of a strange combination, but I didn’t pick it, that’s just how I am. I guess I consider myself fairly outgoing. I mean, I have friends, but none of this stuff really matters, except to give you an idea of who I am. I also need to say right now that I consider myself to be a fairly calm person. That might not seem like a big deal, but trust me, I’m letting you know so that when things start to get really freaky later on, you might at least half believe me.
My mom works for the United States government in the State Department. Her job means she has to travel and lately she’s taken me on a couple of trips to foreign countries. This particular trip came up near the end of the school year and I had begged my mother to let me come. After some discussion, and since we probably wouldn’t be doing that much important stuff in class anyhow, my mother had agreed. It would be educational my mom had said. I thought it would also be fun, but my mom told me she would have to work everyday for the first few days, so I would have to promise to be on my best behavior. I suppose what I’m saying is that I knew going into this whole thing that there would be a lot of time at the beginning of the trip when I would be on my own.
But have you ever noticed that however much you think you know how something is going to turn out, it doesn’t turn out that way at all? Like not even close? This turned out to be one of those times. I thought I was going on a short trip for some quality time with my mom. Instead I ended up questioning every single thing I had been told in my life so far.
The trip to India had something to do with a World Economic Forum which basically meant, as far as I knew, a fancy meeting at a fancy hotel. But so far the India I had seen though the open doors of the rickshaw hadn’t been fancy at all. It had just been crazy traffic and a whole lot of people. Horns blared and exhaust smoke billowed into the sky while entire families rode by on tiny little scooters designed for one person. In the five seconds I’d been there, I could already tell that the place was going to be a crazy experience. Which brings me to the other thing that you need to know about me: I love to take pictures. I love to take pictures so much, that even though I was really tired, I snapped away with my camera for the whole rest of the ride from the airport. Pictures of ox carts and monkeys on the side of the road. Pictures of women walking with giant brass jugs of water on their heads. Pictures of cows on the streets rooting through piles of garbage. Pictures of everything.
The driver pulled off the main road and the screech of the engine died down enough that I could hear myself think. The yellow and black auto-rickshaw thingy had no doors or windows, just an open seat in the back under a little roof so it was pretty noisy and windy and it smelled like exhaust. When the rickshaw slowed and there was less breeze blowing over me, I could actually feel how hot and humid it was. It didn’t take long before I was drenched in sweat. I saw some women in purple and red saris selling big round plates of what looked like candy or fruit on the street.
Saris are the long pieces of fabric that Indian woman wrap around themselves. They’re basically the traditional dress and I think the piece of fabric in the average sari is almost thirty feet long or something, so you can imagine how long it must take to put one on. The other random factoid that I know about saris is that they’re supposed to be mega dangerous to go swimming in because the fabric wraps up around your legs and doesn’t let you move. I know this and all kinds of other stuff about India because in the month before we came I read up on tons of it. I like to be prepared when I can and research stuff as much as possible. I guess I just feel better knowing what’s coming at me, which I suppose is why I was so totally unprepared to deal with what did come at me. I had no idea it was coming at all.
We turned off the side street and rolled through an enormous stone gate into a beautifully manicured garden. The place looked like a palace it was so fancy. I swear, almost immediately the blaring horns and exhaust and chaos were behind us. It was totally peaceful as we pulled up to the gleaming glass hotel. I shot a picture as we squeaked to a stop under the porte-cochere, which is the fancy French word for the roof thing out front of a hotel where the cars stop. I know some fancy French words from Madame Brossard’s French class back at school, but that’s not really the point. The point was, the difference between this peaceful tropical landscape and the blaring horns of the street was so extreme that I almost needed to take a minute to recalibrate. It was like we had stepped into a totally different country.
“Is this where we’re staying?” I asked my mom.
“It sure is, Zo,” my mother answered. She called me Zo, without the “e,” a lot of the time. I guess sometimes one syllable is better than two. “There are two pools and a garden too,” she said. “The conference is four days, but we have eight days here, so like I said, for the second half of the trip we’ll be able to go sightseeing. Sound good?”
Sound good? It sounded great. I could already tell without even going in the front door that this place was going to be amazing. “Sounds cool, Mom,” I said.
“Good. Just do me a favor. Listen to me carefully while we’re here, and don’t run off. Do you understand?”
“I get it, Mom.”
Before we go any further, let me tell you a little more about my mom. My mom has long chestnut hair and brown eyes that twinkle when she talks. Her name is Alexa and I think she looks pretty good for someone that old, you know in their mid-thirties. She’s about five feet ten inches tall and exactly the weight she should be, and she has a really cool sense of humor. I smiled and snapped her picture. She had a real glow about her just then, and I wanted a record of it. I was like that. I liked to record moments. You know, to make them last. I hit the shutter one more time for good measure.
“Now, let’s check this place out,” I said.
I jumped out of the auto-rickshaw while my mom paid the driver. There was a beat-up meter that told how much we owed, but I think there might have been some kind of problem with it because there was a lot of back and forth. My mother had gotten some Indian money at the airport, and it took quite a few of the brightly colored bills to settle the fare. The money was called rupees. I didn’t have any of my own yet, but my mom had promised me she'd change my allowance into them once we were settled in.
I pulled my suitcase out of the rickshaw while my mother finished up paying. A big doorman in a red jacket and red turban came to help me, but I politely declined. I prefer to carry my own bag. I don’t like to owe anyone anything. I did, however, after a little bit of sign language to make sure it was OK, take the doorman’s picture. He stared sternly at me, his back stiff and his arms at his sides.
I should tell you that the other part of the reason for all this picture taking was that my school back in Washington, DC, along with a bunch of other schools, was participating in Shutter Shooter magazine’s photography contest. The first-place prize was a field trip to New York City for the whole class, plus a really cool new camera for the lucky winner, and I was pretty sure that I could win it if I tried hard enough. I had already won an art contest last year, but since photography was my new thing, my mom had given me her old camera. It wasn’t new, but it was waterproof and it had a good strap and lens and could easily fit in a pack around my waist. Fanny packs were kind of stupid looking, but surprisingly useful if you wanted to carry a camera around with you. The camera took pretty good pictures too, so I knew I would be able to get some good shots. I was already pretty sure that if the rest of my trip to India was half as good as the ride from the airport, I'd win the thing hands down. There were just so many great photos to take.
I waited for my mom to catch up and led the way inside the giant glass hotel. I guess, given the stone gate, I had expected the place to be old, but it looked brand new. The doorman opened the door for me and I thanked him with a smile. I would have just said thank you, but I wasn’t sure that he spoke English. I knew that some people spoke English here, but not everybody. There are a lot of different languages in India and I was still a little shy to try out the few words of Hindi I had read up on. The correct thing to say, if the doorman had spoken Hindi, was probably namaste. Namaste was kind of like aloha. It was a greeting you could say when you met someone, and when you left them. Still, like I said, I was feeling a bit shy and I had just gotten there, so instead of saying anything, I just smiled.
The hotel was called the Grand Delhi Palace and as soon as I entered the lobby, I couldn’t believe how crazily fancy it was. The place really was like a palace. Outside on the road things had been chaotic and dusty and dirty, but in here the marble and gold floor gleamed. There was a huge atrium. It looked like the ceiling was maybe ten or twelve stories high and there were shiny brass elevators going up the walls. The lobby was so big and tall that there were trees inside growing in giant porcelain pots. There was even an echo in the air because the space was so large. I saw people in all different kinds of clothes walking back and forth. There were people in regular suits like I would see back home in America, but there were also people in Arabian head dresses and people in African clothing. There were even monks in saffron robes. It was like the United Nations in there. There was a restaurant in one corner of the atrium and a long marble front desk on the far wall.
I waited under a tall tree that was planted in a big porcelain pot while my mother lined up at the reception desk. Turned out that waiting under that tree was my first mistake. It kind of set the tone for the rest of the trip, but hey, hindsight is twenty-twenty. I couldn’t resist snapping a few shots while I stood there. I wasn’t as tired now. I guess I’d gotten my second wind or something. I took pictures of the crowd and, when I was done with that, of the beautiful mosaic on the floor. It was going to be a lot of fun being here, I thought to myself, even if I was going to be at the hotel most of the time.
I took another shot of the intricate mosaic on the floor. I was into stuff like that, patterns and colors. I guess that was another reason I liked photography so much. It let you make a souvenir out of everyday life, something you could bring with you, though, when I think about it now, I have to admit that my feelings about photography in general and souvenirs in particular have evolved. But at the time, the blue and green glass embedded in the marble in the shape of a rustling palm was something I wanted a snapshot of. It was so pretty that when I put the viewfinder to my eye, I could swear I actually heard the rustling of the breeze. Of course, I came to my senses. The rustling sound couldn’t be the mosaic, it had to be the tree above me. But I was inside. There was no wind.
“Zoe…” I thought I heard a whispering voice say.
I stood ramrod straight. I could have sworn I had just heard my name. I looked from left to right, but there was nobody standing anywhere near me. Just the tree, and trees didn’t talk.
I heard it again. My full name this time. It sounded like the Ghost of Christmas Past, from that old movie A Christmas Carol. I should probably tell you that I like old movies a lot too, not just YouTube clips but full-on movies. I watch them with my mom. But this was no movie. Whatever was happening, was happening to me. I turned right around, but there was no one there. Just my mother at the reception desk and some bald monks in orange robes maybe fifty feet away. Oh well, it had been a long flight. I probably still had that feeling in my ears from the altitude adjustment when you can’t hear quite right but don’t really know it yet. Besides, I was in India. Who here knew my name? My nearest friend was back home, ten thousand miles away. I snapped a picture of my mom who waved back to me from reception. But then I heard it again: the same rustling in the tree.
“Zoe Guire, I speak to you.”
Had I gone crazy? I was starting to feel uncomfortable. I knew I was tired, but still, I couldn’t be hearing things. Could I? I looked at the tree. It was normal looking. A gray trunk and a lot of leaves. But the voice had come from somewhere around it. Was the tree talking to me? No. That was nuts. Trees didn’t talk. But its trunk was moving ever so slightly. I could see it sway. Maybe there was an earthquake? I didn’t know if they had earthquakes in India. Of course, that wouldn’t account for the talking either.
“I’m pleased to see you here, Zoe.”
I jumped backward, the color draining from my face. To be clear, I didn’t actually see my face, but I’m sure it was pale because I was totally shocked. The leafy, green tree was talking to me. Then it started to move. Its big branches bent, green leaves falling to the floor, and bam! I ducked out of the way as something or someone fell out of the top of the tree, nearly landing on top of me. I couldn’t believe it.
“Zak!” I screamed.
My voice echoed through the lobby. My mom looked at me. The doorman looked at me. Even the bald monks in the orange robes looked at me. And Zak, who had somehow landed on his feet, bent over, literally rolling on the floor in laughter. I kid you not, he did two full barrel rolls on the floor.
“I got you, I totally got you,” he said laughing. “You thought I was ghost or something.”
“I did not.”
“You did. You should have seen the look on your face. It was hilarious.”
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“What do you mean, what am I doing here? What are you doing here?”
“My mother,” I said succinctly, “is attending the conference.”
“So is my dad,” Zak said.
“Oh, is right,” Zak said. “Are we going to have fun or what?”
OK, time to fill you in. Zak Merril was a boy I knew from my school back home. In the interest of honesty, and since nobody else is reading this, except myself, and maybe you, I should rephrase that. Zak Merril was a super-mega majorly annoying boy I knew from my school back home. Zak was maybe an inch shorter than me with longish, scraggly blonde hair and blue eyes. He was lean and pretty athletic looking, or maybe he only seemed that way because he was always jumping around all over the place like some kind of hyperactive monkey. He was in the sixth grade, but he wasn’t in the same class as me because it was a fairly big school. I knew that Zak's dad sometimes worked with my mom. I had seen them talk together a couple of times before at school functions, but Zak and I had never spent that much time together ourselves. Sure we’d been at the same school for quite a while now and each of us knew who the other one was, but that was about it.
There were reasons we didn’t know each other that well. For one thing, Zak was a boy and I had too many girlfriends to bother hanging out with boys. For another thing, as should be obvious, I thought Zak was a class-A jerk. He was always a bit of a troublemaker and I didn’t like to make trouble or get into trouble. All in all, we just weren’t two people who hung out. I realized in that moment, however, that this was all about to change in a big way. Zak was here and we were a long way from home, which meant that Zak was going to want to hang out with me whether I liked it or not. I could hope he wouldn’t, but if this incident with the tree was any indication, I doubted that he was going to leave me alone. So much for relaxing, I thought. Things were about to get complicated.
“When I saw you coming in the door, I couldn't believe it,” Zak said. “I ran and climbed this tree first thing.”
“Why did you do that?” I asked.
“Because I wanted to freak you out!”
“How did you know I’d be stopping under the tree?”
“I don’t know, people always stand under trees. I just got lucky I guess. You should have seen the look in your eyes. It was so worth it.”
Let me be clear here. I’m a nice person. Even though we weren’t exactly friends, I wanted to be happy to see Zak. I was, after all, a long way from home and it was normal to be happy to see people you knew when you were a long way from home. But I wasn’t happy. I was annoyed. Annoyed that Zak was making an idiot of himself hiding in a tree. Annoyed that he had scared me. Annoyed that I had let myself get scared. Mostly I was annoyed that here we were, in another country, and instead of being just a little bit mature, Zak was rolling around on the floor of this nice hotel. What was the guy’s problem? I was about to ask him as much when my mother stepped over. She walked alongside a man in a blue suit. He was about her age, but a little taller with dirty-blonde hair and a strong chin. He was fairly broad in the shoulders, but a little gangly, kind of like a grown-up Zak. He wasn’t bad looking, I guess. I recognized him right away.
“Zoe, I have a surprise for you. You’ll never guess who — ” My mom turned and saw Zak. “Maybe you will guess. Mr. Merril, my colleague, brought his son Zak along at the last minute. You guys will be able to keep each other company.”
“Great,” I said with a big fake smile on my face.
“Nice to see you, Zoe,” Mr. Merril said.
“Now, let’s go to our room,” my mom said. “You guys can catch up in a little bit.”
I smiled at Zak and said, “Bye.” Then I pulled my roller bag after my mother to the big brass elevator. It was only when I saw the dorky forced smile on my face in the elevator’s shiny brass doors that I finally exhaled. It was going to be a long eight days.
Our hotel room was huge and luxurious with a view of the dusty, dirty city beyond a row of towering palms. Normally I’d be all over the place checking everything out, but I was preoccupied. I wasn’t looking in the little fridge, or examining the soaps and shampoos, or even trying out the giant bath tub. I was thinking about Zak. Why did he have to show up? Everything was going to be different now.
“It’s going to be fun for you with Zak here,” my mother said. “Now I’m not going to have to worry about you getting bored while I’m in the conference all day.”
I nodded at my mother. She was always a little worried about me, whether it was me getting bored or me getting home safely on the bus. Overprotective I think they call it. That and she made me work really hard at school. But I guess I thought that, in the end, those were good things. Really, I loved my mom and wouldn’t change a thing about her, except maybe the fact that she worked too much.
As far as my dad went, I had never known him. I just knew that my mom had adopted me when I was a baby, and so far, these eleven or so years we’d had together had been great. There had been some stuff lately, stuff that I knew my mom wanted to discuss with me and that I wanted to discuss with her. Some important stuff about my adoption, but all in all, little bumps in the road aside, things had always been good between us. I worked hard at school and I tried not to bother my mom with too much kid stuff, like problems I was having with my friends and things like that. In return, as long as I was safe about it, my mom pretty well let me do the things I liked. In regard to Zak, however, I had to say something. Zak was here in India with us and that was what it was. But I didn’t think that meant that we had to be together the whole time. It was one thing not to be rude, but totally another to hang out constantly. On this particular point, I thought I had better set my mother straight.
“Look, Mom, I know you work with Zak's dad, and that’s cool and all, but just because Zak and I are in the same grade at the same school, doesn’t mean we’re friends.”
“Are you and Zak having a problem?” my mother asked.
“Well, no,” I said.
“Well, what’s wrong then?” my mom asked.
“I just, I don’t know, I thought this trip was going to be just you and me.”
My mother looked at me and smiled. Then she wrapped her arms around me and hugged me. I felt like an enormous doofus right then and there.
“We’re going to have time together, honey, I promise,” she said. “But Zak's going through a rough patch right now. His mom and dad just split up. It would be great if you could spend some time with him. Who knows, you guys might even have fun.”
I knew that she was right like she almost always was. I might not have liked it, but I was thinking all about me and not about Zak at all.
“OK, Mom,” I said.
She kissed me on the forehead. “Now what’s it going to be? Explore the hotel or a nap before lunch? My first panel isn’t for another two hours.”
I smiled. Even though I felt a little tired, I knew I was too excited to sleep. “Explore,” I said. “Obviously.”
“OK then. Let’s explore.”
My mom grabbed me by the hand and we headed out the door.
Like I said before, the hotel was the fanciest place I had ever been to. Way fancier than anything I’d ever seen back home. There were lush carpets in the corridors and doormen with red turbans standing at every elevator to push the buttons for you. There were fresh-smelling cut flowers in vases everywhere. And there really were two pools. One of the pools was rectangular with an elephant designed from shiny, brightly colored tiles on the bottom. It wasn’t a regular elephant though. It was a mosaic of the Hindu god, Ganesha. Ganesha was an elephant-headed god with a bunch of arms. He looked very wise, sitting there cross-legged in the blue water at the bottom of the pool. I remembered that he was supposed to be the bringer of good luck.
The other pool was giant and round with a mosaic of what looked like a monkey with five heads and ten arms on the bottom. I thought that the five-headed monkey might be Hanuman, another important Hindu god. I think he was a general who led an army and was super strong and loyal and things like that. I wasn’t totally up on this stuff because, just like the Greeks, the Hindus had a bunch of old gods and it was super hard to remember what each of them did. There was Brahma the creator of stuff, Vishnu the preserver of stuff, Shiva the destroyer of stuff, and oh, about three hundred and thirty million others, including of course Ganesha and this Hanuman, both of whom were relaxing there at the bottom of the swimming pools. All the Hindu god stuff made my head spin, so I’d kind of skimmed that chapter in my reading. I’d told myself I’d look into it more if the issue became pressing.
Outside the pools there was a lush garden with brightly colored parrots in an outdoor aviary, and a badminton court, and even a giant trampoline. I was pretty sure I'd have fun out here while my mother was working in the conference rooms. There was just so much to do. I'd loaded my tablet with books to read, one of which was a guide to Delhi, the Indian city where we were. I figured if I planned everything out, we wouldn’t have to waste any time figuring out where to go once the conference was over.
My mom and I ate at one of the hotel’s two restaurants. I had a non-spicy red chicken curry with a cool smoothie sort of drink called a lassi. I had been a little worried that I wouldn’t like Indian food, but so far it had been pretty good. I was on the lookout, but we didn’t see Zak the whole time we were eating or wandering around. He was probably sleeping off his jet lag, I thought.
After lunch, my mom changed her clothes for a panel she had to attend. I went with her into the huge conference room. There was a big sign that said “World Economic Forum.” I wasn’t sure exactly what the specifics of the conference were, but I knew a whole bunch of people from different countries were getting together to talk about money and jobs and how to make the world a better place and that kind of thing. I also knew that a lot of people would be talking because of the number of bottles of water and microphones at the long front table where the panelists sat. I was proud to see my mom’s seat there with her name tag on it: Ms. Alexa Guire, and the subheading: Policy.
When people started to file into the conference room to take seats, I kissed my mom goodbye and headed out. I thought I'd shoot some pictures of the parrots in the garden first. Another thing I loved about photography was that you never knew which picture you took was going to be that golden shot — the one that really turned out great. I didn’t think that I was ready for a nap, so I thought that after the pictures maybe I’d go for a swim. Of course, right outside the conference room I met Zak.
Zak leaned against the wall outside the big gleaming conference room doors where everybody was going in. He was going to be hard to shake. The hotel was big, but Zak had already found me. Then, of course, I remembered what I had said to my mom about being be nice to him.
“Hey, Zak,” I said.
“Yeah. How did you know?”
“Bathing suit,” Zak said, pointing to the suit I forgot I was holding in my hand.
“Oh,” I said. “Yeah, I’m going to check out the pool.” I thought about it, remembering my promise. “Wanna come?”
“Last one there buys the ice cream!” Zak called out as he took off through the lobby.
The pool was totally refreshing. We chose the rectangular one with Ganesha at the bottom of it, closest to the aviary. Exotic birds chirped and squawked as we swam.
“Cannonball!” Zak screamed as he ran off the pool deck and splashed down.
I preferred a more subtle approach as I lay there floating quietly on my back in the warm water, taking in the sun. The air was fragrant with the smells of tropical fruit and the outside world seemed to float by like I was in a dream. I guess Zak got out of the pool, because the next thing I saw was what looked like his bouncing head. It went up and then down, up and then down, his blonde, scraggly hair lifting in the breeze. What was he doing? I turned and swam to the side of the pool. There it was: the answer to the bouncing. Zak had somehow pushed the trampoline onto the pool deck. He bounced up, higher than I had seen him go the last time, and then flew right off the trampoline into the pool.
There was a huge splash and he came up for air, a giant smile on his face.
“You can’t do that,” I said.
“Why not?” Zak asked.
“Because. I don’t know.” I thought about it and I really didn’t know. It wasn’t like there was anybody else at the pool. We weren’t bothering anyone.
“So what’s the big deal?”
“Nothing, I guess.” I didn’t see the point in arguing. I was feeling pretty relaxed.
“You want to try it? You can get some wicked air.”
“Nah, I’m just chilling.”
“You can chill later.”
“Or I can relax now.”
“Relaxing is for sissies.”
I could see I wasn’t going to be able to shut him up. Jumping in now would be easier than listening to Zak prattle on about what a chicken I was for four days.
“Why not?” I finally said.
I pulled myself out of the pool. If you put a trampoline beside a swimming pool, it’s a no-brainer that eventually somebody is going to pull it onto the pool deck. What harm was there in jumping off of it, I asked myself? I thought I’d do one swan dive into the pool to satisfy Zak and take a nap. The jet lag was starting to creep up on me.
I walked over to the trampoline, the hot sun already drying my back.
“Double flip, double flip, double flip,” Zak chanted.
He sure was annoying. Obviously this whole trip wasn’t even going to be close to relaxing. I lifted myself up onto the round trampoline and began to bounce. The black mesh was hot on my feet, I didn’t know how many bounces I’d be able to last. The good thing was that Zak had pulled the trampoline within a foot of the pool. One good forward bounce and I’d be in the deep end. But that wasn’t all I wanted to do. I kind of felt like Zak was testing me, trying to show me who was boss. Not in a mean way, but in an I-don’t-know-how-cool-you-are kind of way. Now, normally, this isn’t something I would let bother me. Especially with a kid who wasn’t even my actual friend, like Zak. But in this case, I saw some value to showing him what I could do. If only so that he would lay off me for a while.
So I decided to go big. I jumped up once on the trampoline feeling the taut bounce beneath my feet. I hadn’t been on one since about six months ago in gym, but I still remembered how to more or less stay centered on the thing. I twirled my arms and landed right in the center of it, sinking way down into the black mesh before I popped up again. This time I got a little higher and was actually able to see over the walls of the hotel garden. Mostly I saw the dusty city around us, some birds circling in the air. They looked like vultures or buzzards, but I wasn’t sure, and before I could take a closer look, I was falling back down again.
This was it, my third bounce was coming up. Zak chanted from the pool. “Go, go, go.”
There was no one else around, so I wasn’t worried about getting into trouble for jumping on the trampoline so near the pool, but I was a little nervous. I’d have to push off at an angle this time if I wanted to be going in the right direction for my dive. My feet landed on the hot black mesh and I pushed off with my toes. I felt myself going up, up, up, but instead of looking around this time, I concentrated on the pool below me. Zak had a big goofy grin on. I could tell that he was impressed. I was practically flying through the air like a speeding missile. There was no way I was going to land back on the trampoline so I started to concentrate on my dive. I tucked my head down and put my arms out in front of me. I didn’t want to dive too deeply and end up hitting my head on the elephant at the bottom of the pool.
I was perfectly aligned with the center of the pool. It was no double flip, but it was going to be a perfect swan dive. I saw Zak’s face before I hit the water. He was definitely impressed. Hopefully, impressed enough to leave me in peace. I closed my eyes as I hit the surface, but then opened them again as I sliced though the clear water at the bottom of the pool. It had been a good dive. I thought that I would order a lassi when I got out of the pool and maybe take a short nap. I was expecting Zak to shout whoo hoo, or awesome, or something like that. What I wasn’t expecting was to have the elephant at the bottom of the pool speak to me.
I know it sounds crazy, but I heard it clear as day as I swam over the mosaic elephant god at the bottom of the pool. I would say that I saw his lips move too, but I wasn’t ready to admit that to myself, not yet. But I had definitely heard it. I heard the mosaic elephant god say, “Welcome to India, Zoe Guire.”
Then I think he winked at me. He was mosaic, a drawing in tile, so I knew it was impossible for him to wink, but I think I saw it just the same. One big blue eye shut, just for a second. I must have blinked because when I looked again, both elephant eyes were open and I was headed back to the surface. I came up for air and took a long breath.
“Wicked. Wicked dive,” Zak cheered. “I want to see that again!”
I didn't respond, but just swam to the side of the pool and pulled myself out of the water. I had to be tired I told myself. Dead tired and imagining things. Just like the tree hadn’t been talking to me, the elephant probably wasn’t either. I grabbed my towel and lay down on a partially shaded lounge chair, closing my eyes. I’d take a nap, a short nap, and I’d be myself again. After all, it had been a long flight. I was probably just dreaming. Because what other explanation was there? Mosaic elephant gods didn’t whisper greetings to strangers from the bottom of swimming pools. That was totally nuts. Or so I thought then.