Ana and Leah Thomson were cousins who had opted to volunteer at a local camp as part of their summer vacation. It was their first time supervising a group of young teenagers. “How hard could it be?” Leah had said penning their names in the school volunteer list. They left the next week with the kids in a school bus and Leah gushed about the experience, all the way to the camp.
“This was the worst decision ever!” said Leah as she pushed herself up from the sleeping bag. Her eyes closed, she tapped the ground beneath in search of her glasses.
Ana, who had spent the entire night fighting mosquitoes, itched the skin on her arm, which further reddened. “We should have brought insect sprays,” she said scrunching her nose in disgust.
Leah found her glasses and squinted as sunlight streamed through the tent. “It’s only 6:00 AM? Why do we have to be up so early?”
Ana, who was already pulling her hands through the jacket sleeves straightened up as the smell of waffles drifted through the air. Her mouth watered. “Get ready Leah. We are late.” She zipped up her boots and headed out of the tent.
Mrs. Hemmingway and Mr. Elliot stood side by side explaining to the other volunteers their tasks for the day. “Look who decided to grace us with their presence. It was your turn to blow the horn today Ms. Leah – or did you just prefer sleeping in and letting us lesser mortals do the job for you?” said Mrs. Hemmingway into her loudspeaker.
Leah’s eyes went wide and she turned to see people staring at her. “I, uh, overslept. I apologise. It won’t happen again.” She picked up her assignment and ran to take her position.
The group huddled near the signpost to be served with bottles of water and snacks. When the class left at dawn to climb a hill, no one had anticipated that it would turn out to be the hottest day of the year. The journey on the Rocky Mountains left everyone gasping for air and soon everyone emptied their bottles and threw it away. Ana came to a halt and looked at the spew of garbage lying among the vegetation. It looks like a dumping ground, she thought shaking her head.
“All right everyone. We stop here for a short break,” said Mrs. Hemmingway. Ana dropped her bag and pulled at her soaked T-shirt, blowing air into her chest. She was glad for bringing her hat and fanned herself with it, dropping onto the burnt grass. The girls tied their hair into buns while the boys pulled off their damp T-shirts to wipe their faces. Ana opened her mouth to explain that they were smearing sweat back onto their face but the need to sleep won over. She closed her eyes and leaned back to rest her head at the curve of a rock.
“There is a tree that has fallen over the river,” said a girl. “Who wants to avoid this whole trek and make it faster to the other side?” A few groaned in pain and waved her off but Ana’s ears perked up. She opened her eyes to find four boys and two girls jump up and rush behind the girl.
“Please stay with the group!” Ana said into the empty space left by the children. She pushed herself up and picked up her bag to chase after them. Blades of the grass cut through her legs and branches scraped her arms as Ana shadowed the group from afar. A distant hissing sound caught her attention. The river must be close by, thought Ana when she smelt the moisture in the air. As she approached the fallen tree, her eyes went wide. Her fingers shook when she took in the view – the hissing sound was now masked by the roar of the river that gushed its way around the boulders, frothing as it crashed at its surface and whirling until it dipped at the end. It fell with force over the edge forming a waterfall, breaking its speed as it hit the ground into a calm lake. Above it lay a wide trunk of a tree with uneven edges and a rough surface. Its roots formed a net and the mud around it crumbled to the ground.
“Oh my god!” murmured Ana as she watched the group haul themselves up to traipse on the trunk.
The smell of burnt wood hit her nostrils as Ana stepped on the roots and pushed herself up. “Stop! Don’t do this. It‘s dangerous!” she said. The girls continued to crawl up the trunk without looking back. Ana took another step and shivered. Her fear of heights had always come in the way of her experiencing adventures like these. She felt dizzy and pulled herself back.
Splash! Ana’s head snapped up. Had someone fallen into the river? Someone shouted out her name and Ana pushed herself up the trunk.
“Help! Natalie can’t swim.” One girl waved towards her as she held onto the branch and trembled.
Ana felt her heart stop for a second. She craned her neck to see Natalie splashing her hands as she bobbed up and down in the water trying to grasp the rocks on her way to the dip.
Ana ran back down the tree to call for help. “A girl is drowning here – we need help!” Her voice echoed in the woods and returned in silence. They had travelled far away from the group. Ana ran back up the tree as the other crawled to the other side of the trunk. They all watch helplessly as Natalie crashed against a boulder and grasped at it, winding her legs around it, steadying herself. Ana knew she should run back to get help but Natalie would not survive. The force of the current was too strong for anyone to hold on that long and Natalie was too close to the dip. The rest of the group screamed and ran towards Natalie but she was too far out of their reach. Ana had to act fast.
“Call for help!” yelled Ana to the group but her voice dimmed against the gush of water. Ana rubbed her forehead and scanned the current. There was a tree branching behind the boulder. Its branch hung close enough for her to tie a rope and pull Natalie up with her. She could then slide down the rope and reach the ground if Natalie clung onto her.
Her body shook as she walked up the tree and crouched down on the rough edges. She pulled out the rope from her bag and motioned to the others at the group. One tall boy looked up and tapped the others. She pointed at the tree behind Natalie and threw one end of the rope to him. He caught it and ran in the direction. Ana harnessed the string and tied one end to the trunk of the tree before securing the latch onto her belt. She had learnt the use of this equipment during a rock climbing session arranged by the school. They had stayed in Ana’s bag ever since and she had forgotten all about it until now.
The boys had now tied the other end of the rope to the tree behind Natalie and one of them was crawling up the branch hanging above her to secure the string. Ana took a deep breath. She was not allowed to rescue anyone – the team at the base camp had not vetted her. Ana knew she could get into trouble for this but a life was at stake and what good was any of the training if she did not use it? Her legs shook and beads of sweat formed on her head as flashes of water getting into her lungs came to mind. Those memories from her childhood still haunted her when she had almost drowned while vacationing with her family. The smell of burnt oil and the rumble of engines of the rescue boats that pulled her out were still fresh in her mind. It made her sick even now when she remembered the smell of disinfectants used in the hospital where she was treated for a week.
A chill crept up her spine and Ana trembled. She took a step back and turned to see if anyone had found them. There was no one there but her. Ana closed her eyes and opened. She crouched lower, holding onto the rope that was tied to the tree and she jumped. As her legs lifted off the base of the trunk, Ana felt the air hit her face and her body felt weightless as she zipped across the wire. Flashes of foliage passed by her in seconds like reels in a film. Ana hefted her legs against the force of the wind and curled it around the string. The rope sagged at her weight and her speed slowed. Ana released her fingers from the string and let herself swing while her legs supported her from above. The damp smell of the river deepened as Ana reached Natalie.
“Give me your hand,” she said, extending her arm. Natalie looked at her with trembling lips and tears in her eyes. She lifted her arms and Ana grasped her hand pulling her up. A wave crashed at the base of the rock, knocking Natalie’s off the rock. She slid and hit herself on the boulder and her body went limp swinging with the current, pulling Ana with her. The rope sagged lower, swaying close to the river.
Ana pinched her eyes closed as pain shot up her arms like they would rip apart and she loosened her hold on instinct. No sooner, did Natalie slip from her grasp, strong arms circled her waist and a male voice sounded close to her ear. “Let her go,” he said while another man pulled Natalie from her. Ana felt herself crash onto hard muscles and inhaled a musky scent as coarse hands held her tight. She winced at a pinch in her ankles. The rescue team pulled at the strings that coiled around her legs. They cut the rope loose with scissors and released her.
Ana pushed herself up.
“Are you okay?” someone asked as she took in her surroundings.
She looked up to find the blades of a helicopter rotating above her and the pilot holding his thumbs up to the men who had saved them. Ana nodded to the team and thanked them, clutching the basket as it was lowered to the ground. The crowd cheered them on but their voices were muffled by the chopping sound of the helicopter.
A medical team came barging towards them and dragged her away to a corner where a woman crouched in front of her and flashed a light in her eyes.
“How do you feel? Can you say something?” she asked.
Ana coughed and heaved. “I’ m alive,” Ana said in a hoarse voice lying on her back as the medical team checked her for injuries. Her back felt like blades had gone through them and she winced at the pain shooting through her legs. Another team of doctors laid Natalie on a stretcher and checked her wrist for a pulse.
“Is she okay?” Ana asked the woman who was now checking her leg for bruises.
“She hasn’t gained consciousness. They are giving her CPR. She will be all right,” said the woman with a smile.
Ana felt her eyes burn as she watched Natalie lie unmoving while the team tried to resuscitate her back to life. Everyone held their breath and time seemed to crawl while the team used their machines to increase her heartbeat. A few second later, they got a pulse. Her breathing came back to normal and everyone clapped. The girls stood, crying as they hugged one other and gave way for the medical team to carry Natalie away on the stretcher.
Wet sand stuck to her hair as Ana sat up and pulled a towel around her. Leah ran towards her and embraced her in a hug. “We heard the shouts and sent the rescue team over. Why did you go up there on your own?”
Ana shook her head and folded her arms to her chest. “I called out many times but no one came. She could have died.”
Mrs. Hemmingway approached her with a huff. “Ana, I think we need to have a talk.”
Leah raised an eyebrow before getting up. “I’ll meet you later,” she said heading off to where everyone surrounded Natalie.
“Ana, you were not trained to pull that stunt. You not only jeopardised the life of that poor girl but yours as well and we could have been held responsible for two lives. ” Ana opened her mouth to speak but Mrs. Hemmingway held her finger to her lips. “For that, we release you from this camp. Please go back and collect your things. Your services are no longer required.” Mrs. Hemmingway marched back to the group leaving Ana gaping. Ana stood for a minute unmoving. Had they fired her for saving a life? A moment passed while she watched the team lift Natalie to a sitting position. That was when Ana understood the true meaning of experience. She had not only saved a life today but also lost her fear of heights. This experience truly did mean something to her and in her opinion, this was indeed the best vacation ever.