The new novel (in stores Sept. 12) features Fred, Con, Lila, and Max, a group of kids on their way back to England from Manaus when the plane they’re on crashes and the pilot dies upon landing.
For days they survive alone, until Fred finds a map that leads them to a ruined city, and to a secret.
It’s a terrific tale of bravery, survival and friendship. Sound like The Explorer is for you? Check out the excerpt below for a bigger peek at the new book.
Chapter 2: The Green Dark
Fred wondered, as he ran, if he was dead. But, he thought, death would surely be quieter. The roar of the flames and his own blood vibrated through his hands and feet.
The night was black. He tried to heave in breath to shout for help as he ran, but his throat was too dry and ashy to yell. He jabbed his finger in the back of his tongue to summon up spit. “Is anybody there? Help! Fire!” he shouted.
The fire called back in response; a tree behind him sent up a fountain of flames. There was a rumble of thunder. Nothing else replied.
A burning branch cracked, spat red, and fell in a cascade of sparks. Fred leaped away, stumbling backward into the dark and smacking his head against something hard. The branch landed exactly where he’d been standing seconds before. He swallowed the bile that rose in his throat and ran faster.
Something landed on Fred’s chin, and he yelled and ducked, smacking at his face and swerving into a bush; but it was only a raindrop.
The rain came suddenly and hard. It turned the soot and sweat on his hands to something like tar, but it began to quench the fire. Fred slowed his run to a jog, then to a stop. Gasping, choking, he looked back the way he had come.
The little airplane was in the trees. It was smoking, sending up clouds of white and gray into the night sky.
Fred stared around, dizzy and desperate, but he couldn’t see or hear a single human, only the fernlike plants growing around his ankles, and the green trees reaching hundreds of feet up into the sky, and the panicked dive and shriek of birds. He shook his head, hard, trying to banish the shipwreck roar in his ears.
The hair on his arms had singed, and smelled of eggs. He put his hand to his forehead; the hair of his eyebrow had charred, and part of it came away on his fingers. He wiped his eyebrows on his shirt, noticing for the first time that his hands were covered in blood.
Fred looked down at himself. His trouser leg had been ripped all the way up to the pocket, but none of his bones felt broken. There was vicious pain, though, in his back and neck, and it made his arms and legs feel far off and foreign. He picked up a stick and bit down on it; it was what they did during cross-country running at school. It helped, but only an infinitesimal amount.
A voice came suddenly from the dark. “Who’s there? Get away from us!”
Fred spun around. His ears still buzzing, he grabbed a rock from the ground and hurled it in the direction of the voice. He ducked behind a tree and crouched on his haunches, poised to jump or to run.
His heart sounded like a one-man band. He tried not to exhale.
The voice said, “For God’s sake, don’t!”
It was a girl’s voice.
Fred looked out from behind the tree. The light of the moon filtered deep green to the forest floor, casting long-fingered shadows against the trees, and he could see only two bushes, both of them rustling.
“Who is it? Who’s there?” The voice came from the second bush.
Fred squinted through the dark, feeling the hair rise up on his arms.
“Please don’t hurt us,” said the bush. The accent was not British; it was something softer, and definitely a child, not an adult. “Was it you throwing poo?”
Fred looked down at the ground. He had snatched up a piece of years-old, fossilized animal dung.
“Oh,” he said. “Yes.” He was becoming accustomed to the dark. He could see the shine of eyes, peering out from the gray-green gloom of undergrowth. “Are you from the plane? Are you hurt?”
“Yes, we’re hurt! We fell out of the sky!” said one bush, as the other said, “No, not badly.”
“You can come out,” said Fred. “It’s only me here.”
The second bush parted. Fred’s heart gave a great leap. Both the girl and her brother were covered in scratches, in burns, and in ash—which had mixed with sweat and rain and made a kind of paste on their faces—but they were alive. He was not alone. “You survived!” he said.
“Obviously we did,” said the first bush, “or we’d be less talkative, wouldn’t we?” The blond girl stepped out into the driving rain. She stared from Fred to the other two, unsmiling. “I’m Con,” she said. “It’s short for Constantia, but if you call me that, I’ll kill you.”
Fred glanced at the other girl. She smiled nervously, and shrugged. “Right,” he said. “If you say so. I’m Fred.”
“I’m Lila,” said the second girl. She held her brother on her hip. “And this is Max.”
“Hi.” Fred tried to smile, but it made the cuts on his cheek stretch and burn, so he stopped, and made do with a grin that involved only the left half of his face.
Max was at the breathless stage of crying, and he clung to his sister so tightly his fingers were pressing bruises in her skin. She was leaning far over to the other side to hold him up, shaking with the effort. They looked, Fred thought, like a two-headed creature, arms entwined.
“Is your brother badly hurt?” he asked.
Lila patted her brother desperately on the back. “He won’t talk—he’s just crying.”
Con looked back toward the fire and shivered. The flames cast a light on her face. She was, Fred saw, no longer blond. Her hair was gray with soot and brown with blood, and there was a scratch on her shoulder that looked deep.
“Are you all right?” he asked. He wiped rain out of his eyes. “That cut looks bad.”
“No, I’m not all right!” Con spat. “We’re lost, in the Amazon jungle, and statistically speaking it’s very likely that we’re going to die.”
“I know.” Fred did not feel he needed reminding. “I meant—”
“So no.” Con’s voice grew thin and high. “I think it would be safe to say that none of us is all right, not at all, not even slightly!”
The bushes rustled. The rain hammered down on Fred’s face.
“We need to find shelter,” he said. “A big tree, or a cave or something that would—”
“No!” Max gave a sudden scream, a yell that was wet with spit and fear.
Fred stepped backward, raising his hands. “Don’t cry! I just thought—” Then his eyes followed Max’s pointing finger.
There, three inches from Fred’s shoe, was a snake.
It was speckled brown and black, patchworked to match the jungle floor, and its head was as big as a fist. For one second nobody breathed. The jungle waited. Then Max let out a second scream that dug deep into the night, and the four of them turned and fled.
The ground was sodden and they ran pell-mell, sending mud up into one another’s eyes, grazing their elbows against trees. Fred ran as if his body were not his own, faster than he’d ever run, his palms stretched ahead of him in the dark. Twice he tripped over a root and scrambled up, spitting earth. The rain blinded them. Shadows flashed past them in the darkness.
There was a yell behind him.
“Please, Max!” said Lila.
Fred turned back, skidding in the mud.
“He won’t run!” Lila bent over her brother in the mud. “And I can’t carry him!”
The little boy lay on his back, weeping up at the sky, his whole body shaking in the driving rain.
“Come on!” Fred bent and heaved Max over his shoulder. The boy was far heavier than he’d expected, and he screamed as Fred lifted him, but Fred grabbed both of Max’s knees and started running, his whole body screaming with pain. He could hear Lila, her feet thumping close behind them.
The stitch in Fred’s side was almost unbearable when he tore out of the trees and into a sudden clearing. He halted, and Max bumped his head against Fred’s spine and yelled. Angrily, he began trying to bite one of Fred’s shoulder blades.
“Please don’t,” said Fred, but he was barely paying attention to the boy on his back. He stared, stunned and breathless, ahead of him.
They stood in the middle of a wide circle of trees, open to the sky and lit by the fat moon. There was a carpet of green moss and grass, and the stars above them were clustered so thickly that the silver outnumbered the night. Fred lowered Max to the ground and stood bent over, his hands on his thighs, panting.
“Did the snake chase us?” said Max.
“No,” gasped Con.
“How do you know?” wailed Max.
Lila dropped to her knees, clutching at her side. “Snakes don’t chase, Maxie. We both know that. I just . . . forgot.”
“We panicked,” said Con. Her voice was bitter. “That’s what happened. See! Look: no snakes. We were stupid. Now we’re even more lost.”
Fred stared around. The ground in the clearing sloped slightly downward, toward a large puddle of water. He crossed over to it, his muscles aching, and sniffed; it smelled of rotting things, but he was feverishly thirsty. He took a tiny sip, and immediately spat it out. “No good,” he said. “It tastes like a dead person’s feet.”
“But I’m thirsty!” said Max.
Fred looked around the clearing, hoping to find water before Max started crying again.
“If you wring out your hair,” he said, “there’ll be water in it.” He tugged his dark hair down over his forehead, and twisted: A few drops fell on his tongue. “It’s better than nothing.”
Max chewed on his hair for a moment, then scrunched his eyes closed. “I’m scared,” he said. It was said without whining: a simple matter of fact. Somehow, Fred thought, it was worse than the tears.
“I know,” Lila said softly. “We all are, Maxie.” She crossed to her brother and pulled him close to her. His small, bony fingers closed over a burn on her wrist, but she did not brush him away. She began to whisper in his ear in Portuguese: something soft, almost a song; a lullaby. Gently she picked the leaves and mud out of the scrapes on Max’s arms and legs.
Fred looked at them. They were both shaking slightly. “All of this will look less bad in the morning,” he said.
“Will it?” said Con. There was bite to the question. “Will it, really?”
“It can’t look much worse,” he said. “Once it’s light, we’ll be able to work out a way to get home.”
Con looked hard at him; there was challenge in the look, and Fred stared unblinking back at her. Her face was all geometry: sharp chin, sharp cheekbones, sharp eyes.
“What now, then?” she said.
“Our mama and papa say—,” began Lila. The mention of her parents made her face crease and convulse, but she swallowed and went on. “They always say: ‘You need to sleep before you think.’ They say: ‘When you’re exhausted, you do stupid things.’ And they’re scientists. So we should sleep.”
Fred found his whole body was aching. “Good. Fine. Let’s sleep.”
He lay down on his side in the wet grass. His clothes were soaked through, but the air was warm. He closed his eyes.
Perhaps, he thought, he would wake up in his bed at school, next to the snoring of his roommates, Jones and Scrase. An ant crawled over his cheek.
“But aren’t we supposed to stay awake in case we die of concussion?” said Con.
“I think if we’d got concussion, we’d be dizzy,” said Lila.
Fred, already half asleep, tried to work out if he was dizzy. The world began to spin away from him.
“If we all die in the night, I’m blaming both of you,” said Con.
It was on that cheering thought that Fred felt himself dropping down, down, away from the jungle and the thick night air, and into sleep.