by Jessica Khoury


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"Survivor meets James Bond in this page-turning mix of realism and science fiction."
Voice of Youth Advocates

Deep in the Kalahari Desert, a Corpus lab protects a dangerous secret…
But what happens when that secret takes on a life of its own?
When an educational safari goes wrong, five teens find themselves stranded in the Kalahari Desert without a guide. It’s up to Sarah, the daughter of zoologists, to keep them alive and lead them to safety, calling on survival know-how from years of growing up in remote and exotic locales. Battling dehydration, starvation and the pangs of first love, she does her best to hold it together, even as their circumstances grow increasingly desperate.
But soon a terrifying encounter makes Sarah question everything she’s ever known about the natural world. A silver lion, as though made of mercury, makes a vicious, unprovoked attack on the group. After a narrow escape, they uncover the chilling truth behind the lion’s silver sheen: a highly contagious and deadly virus that threatens to ravage the entire area—and eliminate life as they know it.
In this breathtaking new novel by the acclaimed author of Origin and Vitro, Sarah and the others must not only outrun the virus, but its creators, who will stop at nothing to wipe every trace of it.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781595147660
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 01/19/2016
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 175,605
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 12 - 17 Years

About the Author

Jessica Khoury holds a BA in English from Toccoa Falls College. When not writing, she spends her time on the soccer pitch or traveling the world. She lives in Easley, South Carolina, with her husband and two dogs. Jessica is also the author of Origin and Vitro. Follow her on Twitter @jkbibliophile. For more info, visit www.jessicakhoury.com

Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***

The lions were napping on the runway again.

I held up a hand against the blazing African sun and stared at the small silver plane that was just minutes away from touching down. I’d have to move the pride before it landed.

“Theo!” I called. The Bushman was sitting on the hood of the Land Cruiser, and when he looked my way, I pointed at the three lionesses and two cubs sunning themselves on the hard-packed sand. Laughing, he leaned backward and honked the horn of the truck, his way of saying we’d have to chase them off. I nodded and ran back to the Cruiser, tossing my folder of papers in the backseat.

In a moment, I had the engine roaring and we were off, rattling down the runway toward the sleeping lions. They yawned and chuffed at me in a lazy attempt to scare me off, but I bore down on them. I recognized the pride; the lionesses were sisters, used to us rambling around the bush. They barely opened their eyes as the truck trundled up to them.

I stopped the Cruiser, leaving the engine running, and climbed onto the hood. From there, I shouted and waved my arms, to the amusement of the cubs, who rolled and yowled and stretched. At last, their mothers lifted themselves up huffily and ambled off the runway. They were soon lost in the waving golden grass, their tawny coats blending into the dry savanna. Just the black tips of their tails showed, flickering slyly above the foliage, and then those too vanished.

I drove the truck back to the other end of the runway and parked it, then grabbed my folder out of the backseat. The plane was dropping lower in the sky, lining up with the runway.

Theo glanced at me sidelong. He was part Bushman, with the lovely golden skin characteristic of his nomadic ancestors, and though he was older than my father, he was no taller than I was. He had found a praying mantis somewhere, and the insect was crawling over his hands, from one to the other. As soon as it crawled onto one hand, he lifted the other and placed it in front, so that the mantis was continually crawling forward but getting nowhere. Theo could charm any creature that walked, crawled, flew, or slithered.

“You look like you got a toothache, girl,” he said.

“Two weeks,” I murmured, my eyes still on the plane. “What are we going to do with five teenagers from the city for two weeks?”

“You’re a teenager.” He grinned, taking far too much delight in my dismay. “I am sure you will have a grand time.”

“Yeah. A grand old time.” I sank lower in my seat and flipped open the folder, riffling through the documents inside. “I went to school for three months in the States once, did you know that? The kids in my class called me Mowgli and threw bananas at me during lunch.”

“What is the problem? At the end of the day, it was you who ended up with all the bananas.” Theo turned in his seat, and though he was still smiling, his dark eyes were serious. “Tu!um-sa, it will be good for you. You cannot live your whole life with only animals for friends.”

“I can try.” I sighed and shut the folder. “Here they come.”

The plane touched down in a cloud of dust, its silver sides reflecting golden grass and blue sky. It taxied down the short length and then turned, the propeller whipping up a whirlwind of sand. Theo and I got out of the truck and walked toward the plane, and I held my scarf over my mouth and nose to keep from breathing in the dust.

After the engine died and the propeller wound down, the pilot ran around the front of the plane and opened the passenger door. I drew a deep breath and put on what I hoped looked like a welcoming smile.

“And here we go,” I muttered through my teeth.

An Asian boy with a bright red baseball cap cocked sideways over his long, shaggy hair tumbled out of the plane. The pilot, a young Frenchman named Matthieu, was standing at the door and tried to help him out, but the kid ignored him and fell to the ground, where he promptly puked onto the hard-packed sand.

I winced and consulted the papers I was carrying, quickly putting a name to our first guest’s greenish face: Joey Xiong. From California. Seventeen years old, Hmong American. Listed Sasquatch as his favorite animal. I hoped his sickness was due to the plane ride and not a sign of something worse. The last thing we needed was flu or malaria in our camp. The nearest hospital was an hour’s flight away.

Next out was a tall, graceful girl with springy dark hair. She paused in the doorway, half bent over, and stared at the spot where Joey had deposited his breakfast. For a moment it seemed as if she would turn around and go back inside the plane, but Matthieu offered a hand and she gingerly stepped down, her expression a mask of disgust. While Joey lurched to his feet, she pointedly stood a few steps away from him and stared in the other direction. Avani Sharma, her profile paper read. Canadian, of Indian and Kenyan heritage. 4.0 GPA. The list of her academic achievements, recorded there for no apparent reason, was long enough to put some college professors to shame.

I let out a little breath, trying to force my thoughts to stay positive, as the next two guests exited the plane: a boy and a girl so entangled with each other that it was hard to see where one ended and the other began. They were both dark haired and pale skinned. They had on khaki from head to toe, but they wore it as if they’d just arrived for a Burberry photo shoot—his shirt was partially unbuttoned, her beige scarf was arranged in a complex knot, and they were both sporting manicured, immaculate hairstyles. There was no denying they were both drop-dead gorgeous and deeply obsessed with each other.

They could only be Miranda Kirk and Kase Rider of Boston, Massachusetts. They had come together and they were both seventeen. Other than that, the profiles they had filled out were scant on information. The space asking why they were here at all—Please state what you hope to gain from this experience—was blank on Miranda’s, while Kase’s form said only wildlife photography portfolio.

They jumped to the ground without taking their arms from around each other, then stood between Avani and Joey, whispering in each other’s ears and regarding the surrounding wilderness with suspicious looks.

Last out of the plane was a boy who must have been, by process of elimination, Sam Quartermain, our final guest: shaggy dark blond hair, a plain white tee tucked messily into his jeans, carrying a tattered Adidas duffel bag. The moment his shoes hit the ground, his head was up and his eyes were wide, scanning the trees around us and finally settling on me.

“Hey!” he called out, the first of them to even acknowledge my presence. “Sarah, right? I’m Sam!”

“Hi, Sam.”

“Mind if I take a picture?” said Kase, pulling out a camera roughly the size of a lawn mower engine.

“Um, no?”

Sweet.” He held up his camera and the shutter clicked. Then Kase cursed and fiddled with the dials. “Crap. Settings are all screwed up.”

Miranda shielded her eyes from the sun as she whipped out her phone, her fingers a blur as they navigated the touch screen. “Ugh! No service? Are you kidding me?”

I suppressed a sigh and nodded to Matthieu. “Salut, Matt. Bon vol?”

He grunted and began unloading the boxes of food and necessities I’d ordered from our supplier in Maun. “Je ne t’envie pas vraiment dans cette situation. C’est aussi amusant qu’un panier de serpents.” I don’t envy you with this lot. They’re about as much fun as a box of snakes.

Easy for him to say. I was the sort of person who, upon arriving at someone’s house on a social visit, ended up making friends with his or her canary instead. I’d take a box of snakes over these five any day. But as Dad was fond of saying, “We must soldier on, eh?”

“Hello, everyone,” I said, clearing my throat. They’re just people. Get it together. “Um, I’m Sarah Carmichael and this is Theo. Welcome to the Kalahari.”

Beside me, Theo flashed his brightest smile and said, “Hello, hello,” in his soft accent. I was glad I’d brought him along to meet the plane, because he immediately began putting everyone at ease, shaking hands, taking Miranda’s and Avani’s bags and pretending they were too heavy for him. Avani smiled a little, but Miranda rolled her eyes. Only Sam and Joey laughed, and Theo gave them a grin and a shrug as if to say, Girls, eh?

“Climb aboard,” I said, waving at the battered green Land Cruiser. “It’ll be a tight fit. You’ll have to hold your bags. We’re about a ten-minute drive from the camp.”

As the group climbed into the Cruiser, I made a quick check of the supplies Matthieu had brought and then left Theo to stand guard over them until I returned with the car to load them up.

The Cruiser choked to life as I turned the key, and the whole thing began vibrating like it was about to fall apart. I heard a little shriek from behind me but couldn’t tell who it was.

“This is Hank,” I shouted over the engine, slapping the dash. “He sounds like a trash compactor, but he’s the only thing that’ll get through this terrain.”

I turned the Cruiser around and rumbled down the track to the camp. The sides were all open and the canvas roof was rolled back, allowing the passengers a 360-degree view of the Kalahari semidesert.

A dry wind blasted my face, pulling my hair out of its messy braid and nearly sucking the wide-brimmed sun hat off my head. All around us, the graceful acacias and stocky Terminalia swayed and rustled, and a lone chanting goshawk cut the air above, hunting for mice in the tall golden grass. Behind us, Matthieu’s plane grunted to life, and moments later I saw him climbing into the sky ahead of us, destined for Maun and his next group of tourists to ferry through the cloudless Botswana sky.

When I looked down again, I realized there was a face hovering beside mine and I jumped, gripping the wheel harder and biting back a curse. It was the one named Joey. His baseball cap was now backward, and a sprig of his black hair sprouted over the Velcro strap.

“I’m Joey,” he said. “Nice wheels. Very rugged. I like a girl who can drive manual. And on the wrong side of the car too.”

In response, I kicked the Cruiser into third gear and gave him a tight smile.

I desperately wished we didn’t have to do this, but my dad’s conservation research needed all the funding it could get, and in return for babysitting four American (and one Canadian) students on a conservation exchange program, we’d receive a research grant from the Song Foundation. We might even be able to buy another vehicle, which we sorely needed. It wasn’t a good idea to be this far out into the Kalahari bush with only one form of transportation readily available, not with the way the terrain around here destroys cars. We’d had a second car, until Mom’s accident.

I turned to Joey and smiled a bit wider. “Have a good flight over?”

“Ugh! Dude, did you see me hurl?” He laughed and elbowed Sam. “You totally shouldn’t have let me eat all those sausages in the airport, man.”

“You guys know each other?” I asked.

“Nah, met on the plane from JFK. Totally bonded though. We did a Die Hard marathon on the flight over, but my man Sam here conked out halfway through number three. Yippee-ki-yay!”

Joey’s chatter continued, most of it blasted away by the wind, but I nodded and pretended to listen as I navigated the Cruiser through the treacherous sand. There’s not a single stone to be found in the Kalahari, just endless deep sand, white in the north and fading to red in the south, the nemesis of every vehicle that attempts to cross it. I’d lost count of how many times Dad, Theo, and I had had to dig this thing out. It was the reason why I had “muscles like a rugby fullback,” according to my dad. He’s from New Zealand, and in his view, everything on the planet can be analogized to rugby.

We startled a pair of tall gray kudu, and they froze in front of the car, their huge dark eyes fixed on the great gray-green monster that had interrupted their grazing. At once, everyone behind me was leaning forward, and I stopped to let them get a better look. Kase’s zoom lens extended over Joey’s shoulder as he snapped a ream of photos. Avani suddenly spoke up, identifying the “two young female kudu, called cows, scientific name Tragelaphus strepsiceros” and rattling off a stream of kudu-related information as deftly as any safari guide.

As the car approached them, the kudu leaped into fluid motion, disappearing into the brush in three steps. They weren’t called the “gray ghosts of the bush” for nothing; despite their size—they stood as tall as horses—they could vanish in moments into the dry vegetation.

The group let out a collective sigh and then they all fell silent, now on high alert for more animal activity, but we reached the camp without seeing anything more exciting than a few sparrows and fork-tailed drongos.

My dad was waiting. He stood with a warm smile and an armful of bottled water, outfitted in his usual khaki gear, rugged and faded like a worn photograph that’s been handled too many times. He looked older than he was, tanned and leathery from spending all his time underneath the suns of a dozen wildernesses, from the Burmese jungles to the Australian outback and now the Kalahari savanna, charting migratory patterns and documenting the myriad ways humans were destroying the natural world. His long graying hair was tied in a ponytail at the back of his head, though a few wispy strands had escaped.

As soon as our guests’ feet touched the ground, my dad introduced himself, his strong Kiwi accent booming across the grass. “Welcome to our little corner of the Kalahari, boys and girls! My name’s Ty Carmichael, and I’m the head researcher here at Camp Acacia.”

You’re the only researcher here, I thought, shaking my head a little.

“Camp Acacia” wasn’t much of a camp. There was my tent, Dad and Theo’s shared one, and then there were the two new ones we’d put up that morning to accommodate the guests—one for boys, one for girls. The tents were large enough. You could stand up straight if you were right in the middle of them, and they kept out rain (for the most part), if not bugs and the occasional snake or wildcat. There was a fire pit in the middle of the camp, surrounded by logs for seating, and a portable shower was set up in the trees nearby. It was about as crude a camp as you could ask for, but it had been my home for the past five years, more or less, and resembled every other camp I’d lived in as my family moved from one remote location to the next.

“Where’s the lodge?” asked Miranda.

Silence fell. We all stared at her. She took off her designer sunglasses and gave my dad a bewildered look through mascara-laced eyelashes, then turned to her boyfriend.

“Uh . . . Mir . . .” coughed Kase, looking a bit pale.

“You said there would be a lodge,” she replied to him, quite loudly. “You distinctly promised there would be a lodge! The only reason I agreed to come on this—”

“Miranda, listen, I might not have mentioned . . .” Kase reached for her hand.

She slipped her shades back on and folded her arms, resisting his touch.

“Baby, don’t—” Kase kept whispering apologies.

“I’m sorry if there’s been a misunderstanding, mates,” my dad interjected, looking only slightly rattled as he started handing out the waters, “but you’ll soon see that staying in a tent brings you closer to nature than any lodge could. Now, girls will be there in the blue tent, and fellas, you’ll be there in the green. There’s an outdoor shower behind that tree—don’t worry, we’ll put up a privacy screen. We’re close to an old borehole, luckily, so there’s no end to freshwater.” He kept casting anxious looks at Miranda, who glared back at him as if being “closer to nature” was synonymous with “closer to hell.”

Dad’s description of camp life and its scant luxuries continued as I fired up Hank for the return trip to the runway. By the time Theo and I had loaded all the supplies and arrived back at camp, the girls had disappeared into their tent and the guys were beating around in the bushes, Kase busy photographing every leaf and spider within a hundred-foot radius with his massive camera. Dad met us and started unloading boxes before I’d even properly parked.

“God help us,” he said in a low voice as I helped him carry a cooler of meat into my tent, where we kept most of the provisions. Above us, the shadows of the trees danced over the beige canvas, like the reflection of rippling water. “What did we agree to, Sarah? Why are we doing this?”

“Just keep smiling and think of all the fancy equipment you can buy with that grant money.”

Dad groaned. “Your mother would have known what to do with them.”

The blood drained from my face. For a moment, I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. In an instant, frost crackled over my heart. It had been four months, and still the simple mention of her crushed me.

Dad’s hand went to my cheek, the warmth in his rough palm shattering the ice inside me.

“Chin up, love,” he said softly, and he kissed my forehead. “We must soldier on, eh?”

I couldn’t talk about her, not even in passing. Every time her name rose in my throat, I choked on it and fell apart. Dad knew that, and so he didn’t press me but held me to his chest for a moment while I pulled myself together. His rough cargo shirt smelled like all the things familiar to me: gasoline, campfire smoke, the lavender-scented laundry soap I used when I washed our clothes under the pump. I used that scent and his quiet strength to steady myself.

“All right, then?” he asked, stroking my hair, and I nodded. “Good girl. Because I don’t think I can manage this lot without my Sissy Hati.”

Oh, now he was really fishing for a smile, pulling out that old name. When I was three, I’d thought the Bengali term for a baby elephant was Sissy Hati. Close, but not quite the right words. The village we were living in had turned the mispronunciation into a pet name for the little white girl who ran wild through the jungle with their own children, stripped to the waist and without a care in the world.

Another kiss on the top of my head and Dad was gone, striding back to the truck.

It took me a minute to catch my breath, and when I stepped outside again, I saw Sam helping to unload the truck. Kase had disappeared into his tent, and Joey—it took me a moment to locate him—had climbed to the top of an umbrella thorn acacia, which was a remarkable feat considering the two-inch thorns that covered it. I watched him for a moment, incredulous. Sam caught my eye and gave an exaggerated shrug, shaking his head at Joey’s antics.

“You should have seen him on the plane,” he said. “I think the flight attendants were plotting to sedate him.”

I showed Sam where to put the box of muesli he was carrying and held open the tent flap for him to duck inside.

“This your place?” he asked. “Home sweet home.”

He set the box down at the front of the tent with the others; my cot and the sum of my worldly possessions were at the back, behind a wall of boxes and crates. I had a shelf made of crates and boards, and it was cluttered with Bushman artifacts and crafts I’d bought from the children in the village markets. A worn stuffed elephant I’d had since I was three sat on my bed, alongside a stack of Agatha Christie books I was reading through for the third time. The mosquito net draped around the bed was decorated with tiny beads I’d painstakingly sewed on.

I felt a sudden flare of embarrassment at this invasion of my privacy. Everything in my tent suddenly seemed shabby and odd. I moved between him and my “room,” feeling far too exposed.

We didn’t normally get visitors, and though I used to love seeing new faces around to break up the monotony of my remote life, lately it seemed as if every new face I saw only reminded me of the one face I loved most, the one face I would never see again. She would have known what to do with them.

Sam brushed his fingers over a delicate dream catcher hanging from the poles that crossed at the apex of the canvas roof. “Nice place.”

“Thanks. We can handle the rest of the boxes,” I said.

“Nah, I don’t mind.” His smile was easy and quick, like a strike of lightning. He picked up a book from my small folding desk and stared at the cover; it was a copy of Dreams of Afar, the memoir my mom had written about our family’s travels.

His lips twitched as if he was about to say something; then he put the book down and moved on.

As he slid past me and back outside, I pulled the papers out of my pocket and scanned his file again. Sam Quartermain, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Age: seventeen. Favorite animal: wolf. His statement for being here simply read Keeping a promise. There wasn’t much else, besides his medical needs (none) and allergies (peanuts).

When I reached the Cruiser, I saw that Dad had stopped unloading the boxes and was occupied with the radio on the dash. The incoming voice, fuzzy with static, could only be from Henrico, the South African warden stationed south of us. He was the only human within communicable distance of our camp, unless we used the heavy, awkward satellite radio that was currently gathering dust in the back of the truck.

Dad’s face was thunderous; whatever Henrico was saying had gotten him unusually riled. My dad was normally as easygoing as they came.

“Theo, what is it?” I asked. The Bushman made a shushing noise. He was also listening in. I stepped closer, trying to overhear Henrico’s words, but at that moment Dad said into the speaker, “I’ll look into it and let you know. Give a call if you hear anything more.” He dropped the radio onto the seat of the car and turned to me, his face flushed.

“Sarah. There are reports of poachers in the area. A white lion’s been spotted just west of here, and Rico thinks they’re after it.” The mere mention of poachers sent my dad into a blind rage. I didn’t know how many times I’d fallen asleep at night listening to him rant about the declining rhino population, the uselessness of antipoaching NGOs, the apathy of the world toward the cause. Only my mom’s death had elicited a stronger emotional response from him.

My heart dropped. “Dad. Dad, no—”

“It might be the same outfit who slaughtered those rhinos up in Chobe last year. They slipped past us once—we can’t let them do it again.” Dad had spent the better part of that month helping Botswana’s antipoaching unit track the poachers, only to lose their trail in the end. The poachers had cut right through the area we’d been researching, and Dad had been angry about it for months, swearing that he wouldn’t let it happen again.

“Dad, please,” I said, leaning into the word, “you promised you wouldn’t do this. Not after—We had a deal, remember? We stay together. Always.”

Dad paused, the crusader’s fire fading from his eyes. “I remember, kiddo. You’re right. But if this is the same crew . . .”

I sighed, seeing the anguish in his eyes. I’d been the one who’d drawn that promise from him, terrified as I was that the past would repeat itself and I would lose him too. But letting the poachers slip away again would wreck him.

“Promise me,” I said slowly, wilting beneath my own sense of guilt, “you won’t get involved. You’ll just find them and send their location to the government. If you don’t see anything by dark, come home, okay?”

Dad’s face relaxed into a grateful smile. “I swear. Cross my heart.” He drew an imaginary X on his chest, then took my shoulders and quickly kissed my forehead. “Thanks, sweetie. I’ll be back tonight. Everything will be fine. It’s just a few hours, and I have the radio. Got yours?”

I tapped the radio clipped to my belt. Dad sighed at my expression of unease. “If you really want me to stay—”

“Just hurry,” I said. “And don’t do anything stupid or heroic, all right?”

His grin did little to soothe the constricting knot of worry in my gut. He climbed into the Cruiser and cranked it. “You can look after these guys for a few hours, honey. You’ll be fine,” he said. Sam stood a short distance away, watching solemnly, and I could see that even from up in his tree, Joey had heard what was happening. The tents behind us opened, and the other three emerged curiously to see what the fuss was about.

Dad leaned out far enough to grip my shoulder. He had that look in his eye, the one that could stop a lion in midcharge. “Love you, Sissy Hati.”

Theo returned with bottles of water, jackets, and my dad’s old shotgun, and he jumped into the passenger seat.

“What? You’re taking Theo?” I grabbed hold of the windowsill, standing on the footstep below the door.

“Hey, now!” said Theo. “Can’t keep me out of the action!”

“He’s the only one who can track them,” said Dad. “We’ll be back before dark, I promise!”

He stomped the gas, forcing me to jump back from the vehicle. Hank seemed to have caught my dad’s anger, chugging like a locomotive. Theo threw me a wide smile and a cheery wave. You’d have thought he was going on a picnic.

“Be careful!” I yelled, but he was already gone, churning up a whirlwind of dust and sand, massive tires crunching over the dry brush as Hank hungrily devoured the land in his path.

Sound travels extraordinarily far in the rolling Kalahari. A minute later, I was standing in the same spot, still hearing the Cruiser’s roar. Then I turned on my heel and froze. Five pairs of eyes stared back at me.

For a moment, my brain went blank and I had no idea what to say or do. Dad was supposed to have taken the group out on a drive to spot the nearby animals while I made a light lunch. That was The Plan. We’d been working on it for days—sectioning these two weeks into carefully premeditated activities designed to give our guests maximum exposure to the gritty, unglamorous face of conservation fieldwork, so that they could return home with their cameras loaded with shots of themselves saving the planet.

Instead, there I was in the middle of the Kalahari wilder- ness with no Dad, no Theo, no Hank, and no Plan—with four Americans (and one Canadian) wholly unsuited to this place and this life. I looked at them, they looked at me, and I think we all came to the same realization:

This had been a bad idea.
An hour before dark, I sent them all out to gather firewood. Joey and Sam took off like a shot, eager to explore, and Avani wandered off with a bit less zeal. Miranda promptly sat on one of the logs around the fire pit and began buffing her nails, looking not the least bit ashamed, as if the request to scrounge firewood couldn’t possibly have been directed at her. Kase looked from her to the bush, then settled for something in between, picking up tiny twigs around the tents. I stared at Miranda, who ignored me, then sighed and gave it up.

In minutes, the first three returned with armfuls of wood. In this waterless scrubland it was easy to find dry kindling. They piled the wood by the pit, and I knelt in the sand and began stacking the pieces together, stuffing dry grass beneath them to catch the flame. Kase deposited his handful of twigs beside me, then sat with Miranda, who cuddled against him.

It took one match to light the wood, and it flared up instantly. I’d seen entire stretches of land go up like that—all at once, bone-dry wood almost instantaneously combusting. Bushfires were common out here but still dangerous. Our camp was surrounded by a firebreak, but there had been two or three times when it wasn’t enough, and we’d had to pack up and drive to Ghansi until the fires had passed. Then there would be the fallout—animals my parents had been studying had moved on to find better grazing, and we’d have to move after them, roaming the wilds of central Botswana like the nomadic Bushmen who’d lived there for thousands of years. Even they had gone now, moved on to the towns and cities, and though its edges were being gradually eroded by cattle ranches, this land was still a vast wilderness where nature, not man, reigned supreme.

As the fire settled into a steady, flickering blaze, my five visitors sat around it. They’d all fallen quiet, even Joey. I glanced at each one and found varying levels of worry and discomfort in their eyes. I wondered what had brought each of them here, what they were expecting, and how disappointed they were. According to the schedule, this was the time Dad would start a discussion about conservation and wildlife management, since that was technically what they were here to study. That would be followed by a San dance by Theo, who’d insisted that no visit to the Kalahari was complete without a display of Bushman culture. He’d even got out his traditional outfit made from animal skins, ostrich feathers, and caterpillar cocoons filled with bits of twigs to make them rattle when he danced. My primary job for these two weeks was to cook, clean, and take notes on how it all went for the Song Foundation, which planned on expanding its teen wildlife ambassador program if this trip went well.

Dad had asked me to also be in charge of the “teenybopper fun stuff,” meaning games and what he called a “bush party,” or a night of music, dancing, and talking. I’m pretty sure this was his roundabout way of trying to get me to hang out with kids my own age. He always worried that I didn’t get enough age-appropriate social interaction, despite my insistence that I was just fine, thank-you-very-much. Between him and Theo and the abundant wildlife that found its way around and even into our camp, I had a more than sufficient social life to keep me busy. I barely found time each day to do my schoolwork.

“I’ve got loads of friends, Dad,” I’d said.

“Monkeys,” he returned, “do not count.”

At which I’d poked my tongue out at him and proceeded to split my orange with one of the vervet monkeys who sometimes hung around hoping for scraps.

Reluctantly, I pulled out a wadded paper from my pocket on which I’d scribbled a few halfhearted activities just to appease Dad. Now that I looked at them, they all seemed stupid. But anything was better than sitting in awkward silence. I sighed and picked one at random.

“Want to play a game?” I asked, pitching my voice into a high, bubbly tone.

Their heads lifted, and I was reminded of a row of giant eagle owls by the way they blinked at me.

“Okay,” said Avani uncertainly.

“Wait right here,” I said. I jumped up and ran into the bush, searching for the spot where I’d seen a kudu earlier. After a few minutes of scouting through the underbrush, I found what I was looking for, then stopped by my dad’s tent. I grabbed his canteen of whiskey and poured a small portion into a cup, then returned to the fire.

“I learned this from some kids in a village near Gaborone,” I said. I held out my hand and opened it. They all stood and came over, peering at the contents of my palm.

“Is that . . .” Sam began.

“I think it is,” said Avani, holding a hand over her mouth.

“Kudu droppings!” I said brightly. “So what you do is, you just drop one into the whiskey—that kills any bacteria and also helps with the taste—then you put it in your mouth like this, and—” I demonstrated, popping one of the brown pellets in my mouth, then shooting it out. It sailed an impressive distance, and I was pleased. A yearly dung-spitting champion- ship (the Afrikaners called it Bokdrol Spoeg) was held in South Africa, and I’d seen some of the best contestants do worse.

“So basically,” I said, “the object is to see who can shoot them the farthest, and . . .”

My voice died as I took in their expressions. Each one was gaping at me with a mixture of shock and horror. My heart quailed.

“It . . . it’s not gross. See? It’s just grass, really.” I broke apart one of the pellets to demonstrate, but they turned away, making retching noises and cursing. Only Sam was left staring at the droppings in my hand, and then he looked up at me as if he wasn’t sure what language I was speaking.

“Okay,” I said quietly. “So maybe a different game?”

I tossed the droppings back into the grass, and when I turned around, they were all seated at the fire again. Kase, Miranda, and Joey had their smartphones out and were either playing games or listening to music. Avani took out an electronic reading device and was soon absorbed in a book. Their faces were all illuminated by soft blue light that seemed otherworldly out here in the wilderness. Sam was writing in a journal, stopping in between words to chew on the end of his pen.

I stood and watched them for a minute in silence, then tossed out the rest of the whiskey and went to make dinner.

There was still no sign of Dad and Theo. A seed of anxiety had settled in my gut, and now it was growing, a toxic vine that wrapped around my nerves and my heart. Every time he left, even for a little while, a part of me was certain that he wouldn’t return. I even dreamed about it, a regular nightmare that had plagued me since Mom’s death. It was like my subconscious had reasoned that by always expecting the worst, I could somehow blunt the pain before it struck.

The others noticed me haul a stack of pans out of the supply tent and looked over curiously.

“Dinner?” asked Joey hopefully, and I nodded.

“Where’s your dad?” asked Avani.

“He’ll be back by dark,” I said, in a tone far more confident than I felt. The light was already beginning to fade, turning the sky murky gray. “In the meantime, I’ll get some burgers going.”

“Miranda’s vegan,” said Kase. His girlfriend sniffed and gave me a challenging look.

Well, of course she was. “All right. I’ve got beans.”

“Are they organic?” asked Miranda.

“Oh my gawd.” Joey flopped backward off his log, landing with his arms spread in the dust. Miranda gave him a venomous look.

“Yes,” I said. I had no idea if they were organic or not, but honestly, it wasn’t like there was a grocery store down the street.

It didn’t take long to cook up burgers and beans on our portable propane grill. Avani handed me the burger buns and passed the finished ones out on aluminum plates. I wondered if Dad had even stopped to think that he’d driven off with most of our supplies still in the Cruiser. We’d unloaded only the cooler and a few boxes of muesli before he’d taken off. Other than that, our supplies were pretty low.

I stirred up a quick pot of lemonade and served it in tin cups. Having smelled the food, our local vervet monkeys came sauntering into camp. Normally, the monkeys wouldn’t have stayed out here through winter; they would have followed the elephants north to the Okavango Delta after the summer rains were gone. But thanks to our borehole, there was usually a large puddle under the pump, which sustained the monkeys and enabled them to beg at our table year-round.

One of them broke into a loping gallop, and before I could cry out a warning, it scurried up to Miranda and snatched a handful of her beans. Miranda let out a bloodcurdling scream, scaring the monkey witless. It sprang away with a loud shriek, then bucked and flung dirt at Miranda while she scrambled away. Everyone was on their feet now, shouting excitedly. Recognizing a familiar face, the monkey scurried to me and leaped onto my shoulder, sitting with his paws on top of my head and his tail curled around my neck. I reached up and stroked his back to calm him.

“He didn’t hurt you. See?” I held up a piece of bread, which the monkey snatched and gobbled up. In thanks, he began grooming my hair, making me laugh; his tiny fingers tickled. “They’re really quite friendly! You were lucky; they usually don’t let strangers touch them. Do you want to pet him?”

She gaped at me as if I’d been speaking gibberish.

“She could have gotten rabies!” Kase snapped.

“That’s ridiculous! The monkeys aren’t rabid.”

“What is wrong with you?” Miranda sobbed. “It attacked me!”

“No, it just wanted—”

“Leave her alone,” said Kase. “You’re only making it worse.”

Ears burning, I turned and walked away, while the rest of them stared from me to Kase and Miranda as if they were spectators at a Ping-Pong tournament. The offended monkey screeched at them in reproach. When I drew near the edge of camp where the rest of his troop was waiting, he took a flying leap off my shoulders and vanished with them in the bush, with only one backward glance. People who say that animals don’t have emotions have never seen the expression on the face of an insulted monkey.

I took my time washing the dishes under a small pump rigged over the borehole, which was one of the few working ones left in the area and the only reason we were able to stay out in the field for such long periods of time. There is no permanent surface water in the Kalahari, not this far south, and the borehole was our lifeline.

“You’re not going to eat?” asked a voice.

Sam was standing behind me, his hands in his pockets. He’d put on a gray fleece and a raggedy knit cap against the quickly falling temperature.

“I ate while I cooked,” I lied. Truth was, I didn’t have an appetite. My stomach was too full of worry over my dad.

“Don’t you have a radio or something? Some way to reach him?”

I studied Sam thoughtfully, wondering how he had guessed my thoughts. “I tried earlier. He’s either out of range or he turned it off. Or the batteries are dead.” I picked up the stack of clean dishes and turned off the pump. “There could be a hundred reasons for him to still be out there, and ninety-nine of them are nothing to worry about.”

“And the one reason left?”

I started to reply, then found I couldn’t.

“Sarah, should we be worried?” His voice was soft enough that the others couldn’t hear, and I could tell he was already worried but didn’t want to upset the group. He met my gaze, and I was the first to look away.

“The poaching has been getting worse lately,” I said. “The fewer rhinos and elephants there are left, the higher the price of ivory and horn gets on the black market. Which means higher competition to bag the animals.” I set the dishes down again and looked Sam squarely in the eye. “When I say poachers, I don’t mean a few guys with hunting rifles. Selling illegal animal goods is one of the most lucrative crimes in the world. These poachers operate like military strike teams. Tactical gear, assault rifles, helicopters, you name it. They’re often working for terrorist outfits that operate in central and North Africa, and even in the Middle East. The ivory and rhino horn they take goes to fund people like the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. That’s why my dad was so upset. It’s not just that they’re driving species to extinction—they’re sending the money to slavers, warlords, and terrorists.”

Sam’s eyes went wide as he digested this. “And he’s going to take them on by himself?”

“He’ll just get their location, and then he’ll send that to the government.”

Sam nodded.

But I really didn’t know what Dad would do once he found them. In India, he’d chased a pair of poachers for miles through the jungle all by himself. He’d shot up the foliage and raised as much noise as he could to make them think there were a dozen of him. That time, it had worked. But out here? There wasn’t enough ground cover for that kind of approach. If they saw him . . . I swallowed the thought, but it stuck in my mind like a splinter under a fingernail. Once I’d have shared his reckless heroism, even begged to come along.

But that was before Mom.

I carried the dishes past Sam and to the small folding table I had set up by the grill. Sam grabbed the towel on the table and began to dry the dishes, handing them to me so I could stack them in a crate.

“He’s brave,” Sam said. “I’ll give him that.”

“A brave idiot,” I muttered.

Sam’s lips twitched. He rolled up his sleeve in order to reach into the bucket of water for the clean plates, revealing a muscular arm dusted with fine blond hairs. His hands were large, his fingers long—ideal rugby hands, Dad would have said. I realized I was staring a bit long and jerked my gaze away. I reached up to tuck a stray wisp of hair behind my ear, and Sam’s eyes followed the gesture.

“Nice tattoos,” he said. “What do they mean?”

I paused, a plate in my hand, to look at my arm. “This one I got last year. It’s for Bangladesh, where I lived from the time I was three until I was eight.” The stylized Bengal tiger stalked over my left shoulder, teeth bared and claws extended. I tapped the skin behind my left ear, where a spiral was inked in black. “This is a Maori symbol from New Zealand. My dad’s country. It’s called koru and stands for new beginnings.”

“And your mom?”

“She’s from North Carolina. This one is her.” I turned over my left wrist; on the delicate skin, still pink around the edges from the recent inking, was a simple black bee. “She loved bees.” Loved them to death, as it had turned out.

He nodded, looking very serious, then pulled up his sleeve farther to reveal a yellow star inked on the inside of his arm. “That’s for Adam, my older brother,” he said softly, his eyes going distant, and then suddenly he yanked the sleeve down again and grinned. “So when are we going to see lions?” His tone was light and casual. I suspected he was trying to distract me from Dad, and though it wasn’t really working, I appreciated the effort he was making.

“Tomorrow, maybe. There’s a pride not far from here.” I said, my eyes lingering on his arm. I tore them away and dried the last pan. Somewhere out in the bush, an eagle owl let out its first piercing whistle of the night. The nocturnal Kalahari was beginning to wake, and still there was no sign of Dad. “I’m going to try Dad again. I’m sure everything’s fine,” I added.

He didn’t look convinced, and I felt his stare on my back as I hurried to my tent.


Excerpted from "Kalahari"
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Copyright © 2016 Jessica Khoury.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Young Readers Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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“A blend of survival/adventure, sci-fi, and first love, KALAHARI is grounded in the resourceful courage of a girl raised in the African bush. Thrilling, unpredictable, irresistible . . . six teenagers in dire straits, and the suspense never lets up. Readers will flock to Jessica Khoury's masterful prose and storytelling.”
-Will Hobbs, award-winning author of Far North  and Never Say Die

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