All That Glitters is Not Gold
Welcome back to another chapter of my story, and many much appreciated thanks to all people that still read this story. I still love this story, yet I am so busy with finishing my master thesis - and right now time is scarce. Sorry about that. Yet, I can't thank all of you enough to still visit the story from time to time. Enjoy the new chapter despite the enormously long wait, nevertheless.
Thanks to CaterinaQC for giving me kick ;-)
Chapter 13: Moving On
Las Aguas, 5.23 A.M.
Like dusk, dawn came almost instantly. At first, it was only a slight shimmer through the bushes, something which could easily be overlooked but grew in intensity by the second. Since the birds, insects, and animals were rarely quiet in the tropics, most of them even more active during the night, a rise in their volumes to announce dawn was futile to await. From an optical illusion, the light turned its colour to a brownish red, engulfing the green shrubbery and softening the outlines of the small rainforest settlement.
It was then that Tommy stumbled down the hut's ladder, with a yawn on his lips and his hair ruffled. Only the embers of yesterday's fire send some warmth towards him and he instinctively snuggled deeper into his sweatshirt as he passed the fireplace and shuffled towards the village's centre, already alive with people going about their daily routine.
Kids were gathering chickens, a woman was shoving along a small sow with at least ten piglets, and a group of men were standing together, each having a cigarette in hands, chatting silently.
For a moment, Tommy stood still and took in his surroundings, as if trying to remember where he was and why he was here, when it all came back to him – the mercury poisoning. The young plastic surgeon was about to head back inside to get another fire going and to boil some water, maybe even prepare breakfast for the others, when a familiar figure made their way towards him. Tommy shook his head and stifled another yawn, "Don't tell me, you've worked through the night, Lil!"
Lily smiled at him as she closed the distance between herself and the still ruffled looking man. He looked extremely young right now, with his hair tousled and himself wrapped into his sweatshirt tightly, yet another sight that caused her to smile harder, "Don't be ridiculous, Tommy." All of his high hopes and believes in her abilities and motivation in honour, but there were times even Lily needed some sleep – especially after a day and night like yesterday. "I was just taking a shower," Lily muttered matter-of-factly and pointed her thumb back towards the village, already seeing Tommy's longing expression following her fingers.
He was nearly sighing the words and Lily's face broke into a huge and playful grin, "God, Tommy – you're just an easy target, you know that, right?" She came closer towards him and bumped his shoulder carefully, as he pouted and sunk deeper into his sweatshirt.
"You're just mean, Lily."
"And you are phantasizing way too much."
"True," he confessed with an amused smile that turned into another yawn, "But why are you up so early? Too much on your mind? The sun isn't even really up, yet."
Lily inhaled some of the humid and yet fairly cool air, as the village around here awoke even more. Her memories travelled back to last night and the reasons she rose from her bed in the wee hours of the morning. Flashes of her and Keeton's heated conversation, their arguments, and their settling kisses came back to her mind and caused her stomach to churn with excitement and insecurity. Yesterday evening, everything had suddenly seemed sure and certain – but with her having the time to think at night, she felt like maybe they had made a mistake to finally act on their feelings for each other. Maybe it was too soon, and most definitely not the right place? But then again, overthinking things is a trait I despise in myself, Lily mused and slightly shook her had, as if to scold herself, "Yeah, you can say that," Lily muttered.
Tommy eyed her up and down and sensed the restlessness oozing from his friend, "You know, I have been known to give excellent advice."
Lily chuckled, feeling grateful for Tommy looking out for her and the feeling of having found a truly great friend down here. "Thanks, Tommy, really!" Her eyes stayed focused on the village and how the light slowly filtered through the trees and started to illuminate the larger parts of the natural clearing. Lily sighed quietly and looked back towards their hut – Zee, Charlie and Ben were still inside.
Ben. How am I supposed to act around him now? Plus, how is he doing to react around me? Indifferent? As if nothing had happened? Or maybe even affectionate? With all the thoughts rushing through Lily's head, she couldn't quite decide how she would like him to react to her? Would it be easier to deal with an indifferent or an affectionate Ben? The thoughts about him brought another sigh to her lips, this time not so quiet.
"Lily, you sure you're alright?" The sleepiness had vanished from Tommy face as he eyed her up and down, a little frown forming on his forehead.
Lily faced him and reached for his hand, "It's alright. I'm good, I'm ok."
He raised his eyebrows questioningly.
"Seriously!" She exclaimed with a convincing smile on her face. And indeed, she was. Everything had been said last night – Ben knew what he was in for, he knew what had been on Lily's mind. Whatever would happen from now on was partially out of her hands. She just had to decide which way she would want to go from here, "I have to make up my mind about a few things, before you can tell me your opinion about them."
"Huh," Tommy said and relaxed, "if you say so." He closed his eyes and lingered in the sun, letting the warm rays.
She nodded and felt the first rays of sunlight touching the top of her hair, warming her brunette locks, "Yeah, I say so."
Tommy smiled and cracked an eye open again, "So, have you seen a bakery and coffee bar where you took that shower of yours?"
Lily smiled at him, "Now that you mention it, I did – unfortunately though, they were out of buns, bagels, and caffeine."
"Too bad," Tommy grinned and felt the heat of the uprising sun dispel the last remnants of sleep from his body, "How about we make ourselves some breakfast?"
With a restless night and little sleep, her stomach had been growling occasionally since the early morning hours. So, the thought about finally getting to eat something lightened her mood even further. With an excited face she spluttered out, "You get the fire going and I'll organise us some flour, sugar, eggs, and milk?"
"Pancakes! Great idea, Lily!"
And with that, both headed into their assigned directions.
Half an hour later
The village was bathed in sunlight by now and almost everyone was up, going about their daily business. The temperature climaxed its way up the mercury column and Lily longed for another rain shower just to feel the short-lived results from evaporative cooling on her drying skin. The fire sizzled in the fireplace and she had just finished the dough, as Tommy poured some oil into the cast-iron skillet they had come up with. So far, the morning had been wonderful, even though her night had been a bit 'disturbed'. Totally your own fault, Lily. Really! She scolded herself and relaxed next to the fireplace, as she handed the bowl containing their pancake dough to Tommy. The youthful excitement on his face made her smile, as he spooned the dough into the skillet, "You're totally having more fun than I am!"
His smile widened, "Only slightly!"
She giggled and inhaled deeply, before she brushed some loose strands of her hair back behind her ears. If they weren't on a trip to fight possible mercury poisoning, this morning definitely felt like a camping trip with friends. The scenery was lovely, their makeshift breakfast a possible delight, and the calmness that circulated through her body felt refreshing. Forgotten was the work at the clinic, the stress of learning a new language and getting along with new colleagues and Colombian patients. This day was the first day that actually felt normal to Lily … since a long, long time.
And this relaxed happiness influenced her thoughts, as well. While she got up with worries about Keeton and what their relationship might be like this morning, she was able to brush these thoughts aside now. There will be what will be, Lily, and you can't change that anyway. She felt secured by the fact that she had been able to tell Ben what was on her mind. She had made her standpoint clear, so he knew her rules to the game. And truthfully, that was all she could do.
"¡Por el amor de Dios!"*
Tommy's and Lily's eyes both travelled over to the ladder into the upper room. Charlie, with hair standing up into various directions but eyes huge and focused on the pancake, stood halfway down the ladder.
"El panqueque huele magnÍfico!"* He exclaims and stumbles down the ladder, before plumping down next to Lily, "Can I have the first one?!"
Tommy grinned, flipped the pancake, "Sure."
Charlie's face was covered in a content smile, yet followed by another yawn, "Morning, by the way."
"A good morning to you, too," Lily replied and took a sip of water from her bottle, before she nodded towards the upper room, "What about Keeton and Zee? Are they up yet?"
"If they aren't by now, the smell will definitely help them," Charlie muttered, his eyes still focused on the golden and brown pattern the skillet had left in the pancake, "Works better than any clock."
And he had only finished his sentence as Zee, already looking fresh and relaxed, climbed down the ladder, "¡Buenas dÍas!"* Her dark brown eyes glowed into the round, as Tommy loaded the first pancake onto a small plate and handed it over to Charlie.
Charlie couldn't wait and grabbed the warm dish with his hands before diving in.
Zee chuckled, "Either he's very hungry or you two make some amazing pancakes!"
"Maybe we should put those two in charge for all breakfasts from now on," The slightly hoarse but deep voice made Lily look up. Ben was standing at the foot of the ladder, pulling down an olive-coloured T-shirt, and one of his smiles played along the lines of his eyes. Her heart quickened immediately, as his eyes seemed to rest only on her, "Good morning," he said, but it seemed like he was only saying it to her, with his eyes steadily fixed on her face.
Charlie just grunted his good morning into the pancake, while Tommy put the next spoons of viscous dough into the hot frying pan.
As visions of last night's heated kiss flashed before her eyes, she just hoped she wasn't blushing. Get a grip, you're too old to blush! "Good morning," she replied and hoped that her voice wouldn't betray her relaxed exterior. Did he always look that good in olive T-shirts?
Zee plopped down next to Tommy, who had become the designated chef for this forest breakfast feast and she eyed his handling the skillet closely.
"Don't worry, Dr. Alvarez, you'll get the next one!" Tommy said, without looking into the Latina's eyes.
"Oh, I didn't ask for the next one."
Tommy looked over his shoulder, "Well, you just weren't asking very loudly."
Ben grinned, "He's right, Zee. Even I could see you looking lecherously at those pancakes!" As the word lecherous left his mouth, Ben's eyes immediately travelled over to Lily. She was wearing a black tank top, accentuating her toned arms, and comfortable linen trousers paired with bare feet that played with the sand. A relaxed aura radiated from her, one of the many traits he admired and longed for in her. Whatever feeling she radiated, Ben felt like it was rubbing of on him, too. And while he had been dreading 'the morning after', he felt confident that indeed it had only pushed them a little further into the right direction. There was no awkwardness between them now, merely a youthful shyness with the remnants of their first kiss still so livid in their minds.
The kiss. Ben swallowed as the image and emotions of last night came back to him with a blow – her teary eyes, her begging, her warmth, her smell, her lips, their kiss, their desperation, their passion, their hunger, their feelings. Something primal stirred in the pit of his stomach and he had to seek her face again.
Lily almost immediately felt his intense stare upon her, looked up, and was met by a tender-faced Ben Keeton. He was watching her with an expression of controlled longing, a sight that warmed Lily's insides at once. What would happen if he will always look at me like that from now on? She gulped but couldn't break their eye contact. With him staring at her so openly, Lily was suddenly sure that he wasn't going to be indifferent towards her – how could he? With his eyes being a mirror to his soul? At least for Lily, they were.
Ben carefully shuffled over to Zee, not breaking the eye contact. He badly wanted to sit next to her, but he knew that her closeness would only torture him more. Sitting next to her would mean that all he had to do to touch her would be a minute stretch of his hand and arm … and then he would only want more.
"Pancake?" Tommy grinned.
And suddenly her eyes were surrounded by a careful, yet promising smile that had Ben inhale another deep breath.
"Dr. Keeton? Do you want the pancake?" Tommy asked and smiled back and forth between Keeton and Lily, not yet grasping the depth of their mum conversation.
"Ah, yes, sure I do, Fuller. Thanks." With another last look towards an amused Lily, he had his first bite and inwardly laughed about himself. When was the last time you were daydreaming about a woman, Ben?
"No problem," Tommy replied and shovelled some more dough into the pan.
An hour later, 7 a.m.
Charlie nibbled on another pancake as he strolled towards the village's assembly hut alongside Tommy. The hut was large building with a roof held up by stilts. One half of it had clay walls, while the other half was build like an airy pavilion with another fireplace in its middle. Right now, they were on their way to meet a few selected locals such as the village's shaman, village elders and the chief.
Although it was only 7 a.m., the air had warmed considerably and Charlie was happy as he realized they were heading for the clay covered part of the large hut. Charlie looked over to Tommy, whose face had a relaxed smile about it. He truly radiated contentment, probably because he was happy about the nice start of today's morning, "Did you bring something to drink?" Charlie asked waiting for Tommy to turn his head towards him.
"Why would I?" replied Tommy and grinned down at the boy.
They had just rounded a corner of the hut as they were greeted by a large number of locals plus their fellow friends and colleagues from Villanubla, "Because I'm almost certain I'll get a dry mouth from all the translating I will have to do!"
Tommy grinned and came to a halt right next to Zee, "I'm sure Dr. Alvarez might be able to help you out."
Charlie shrugged and ate the last bit of pancake before rubbing his hands clean on his pair of trousers.
The shaman, a middle aged woman with jet black hair and an old scar on her left eyebrow, as well as the village's chief, an older man with a mighty belly, smiled gratefully at the doctors and motioned for them to enter the hut, "Venido adentro, por favour!"* Replied the shaman over and over again, as Lily was the first to step into the cool interior of the hut.
They weren't even all seated inside as the chief started talking, which caused Charlie to stand up again and translate right away.
"Uhm, he says he's very grateful for us to be here … and for us to help the sick. At first, he wasn't sure if his people were even really sick but over the course of a week he sensed that there was something wrong, especially with the water," Charlie listened to the chief before continuing, "so they started bringing water from another river branch half an hour into the jungle, but the effects were the same."
For Lily, this meant that the river half an hour into the jungle was only yet another branch of the el verdor*. For the villagers it meant only more bad luck, "Do they know that the rivers are most likely connected?"
Charlie cleared his throat and talked to the chief before turning back to Lily, "Yes, they know they are, but they suspected that whatever caused the sickness was only limited to the river close to their settlement."
Ben chuckled bitterly. With a water-soluble form of mercury, something you couldn't even see and something that acted this unspecific and slow, it was nearly impossible – even for them – to get spotted sooner or more directly. "He couldn't know. Hell, even we almost needed a week to call a spade a spade! Fact is, they need another water source, probably another river, well, lake, pond – whatever. But they need to get some clean water soon! Tell him that," said Ben and watched as Charlie translated almost simultaneously.
The shaman, chief and all elders watched in astonishment and worry as the young boy translated the words spoken by the American doctor.
As Charlie finished, Zee shifted in her seat and addressed the local group in fronts of her in Spanish.
Tommy, not as good at the language as the others yet, only got hold of a few brackets here and there. But sitting next to Lily gave him the opportunity to ask for her help, "Pssst, Lil – what did she just say?"
Lily carefully leaned over, "She's telling them that we suspect the water is polluted by mercury. Most likely from an illegal gold mine. She's also asking for their support, questioning them whether they know anything about illegal gold mining around here."
It was that second that the shaman nodded her head vividly, replying "Si, si, si"*, over and over again, confirming Zee's question about the origins of a gold mine someplace along the river.
Zee turned towards her friends, excitement in her voice as she spoke, "She says that there's a gold mine one day up the stream. Her cousin's husband used to work there."
Lily felt excited as well … they were getting closer to the source. Just one day. That was practically nothing.
Ben, hearing the news, sat up straighter and leaned forward, "Well, then tell them three things now. First, they need to search for another source of water. We'll show them our test to detect mercury so they can be sure they have clean water. Secondly, they should send somebody to Villanubla and get some help with all the sick people around here. We can't stay and our medical supplies are insufficient in number. They have to get Otis or Ryan up here to help them. I'll write a note myself. And thirdly, we need a detailed description of where to go looking for that gold mine! Because, as soon as we get that, we'll head into the jungle again."
Everyone was leaving the hut, Tommy and Ben had headed for the make-shift clinic, Zee talked to a couple more locals down by the well, and Charlie ran over to start packing his backpack. After all, they would leave Las Aguas in under two hours to get closer to that infamous mining camp.
Lily stood up in a smooth fashion, brushed her linen trousers down, and headed for the open door. While the inside of the hut was dark and somewhat cool, the opening in the hut's side and the glistening sun made the door look like a path into sheer light. Lily stopped for a moment while her eyes adjusted, as she suddenly felt his presence next to her.
"I was wondering when I'd get the time to speak to you … alone."
Her head shot to the left side. Ben was leaning against the hut casually, his eyes fixed on her again. A careful smile crept up her lips, "It's kind of a hard thing to ever be alone when you're part of a hunting party, Ben."
His face turned into a soft smile and his upper body straightened in order to lean a little closer. She still had that invisible pull, a certain kind of gravitation that Ben just couldn't resist, "You got a point there."
Lily felt her heart rate quicken and the corners of her mouth wrinkled into an amused smile, "Yet you managed it." Without really thinking about it, her body had turned towards him.
"Yet I did," She was standing only a few inches away. So little distance that Ben could easily extend his arm to touch her bare shoulders. Her skin was cool and inviting, a welcome exception from the scorching sun and the humid forest.
Lily could see his chest moving and she remembered last night and their closeness, and suddenly she longed for a replay, "Now, you've got what you wanted."
"Not just yet," He almost whispered and closed the distance between their lips.
It was a soft and careful kiss – nothing compared to the passionate release they felt last night, but yet of another and as important quality. It was considerate and sweet. It was a good morning to yesterday's good bye. Ben's right hand wandered up to her soft neck, while his left found its way to the small of her back. Lily aligned herself to him completely, placed one hand on his broad chest and snuggled even closer as the other hand wrapped itself around his waist. They weren't in a hurry, nothing seemed desperate, and so they took their time to linger in the moment.
As they parted from each other, Ben smiled openly at the woman in front of him, "Actually, I just wanted to talk to you about … last night."
Lily felt like she was glowing from the inside. Not only had she just shared another kiss with Ben, but it had been a kiss with a promise for more. For a future and a solution for both of them. Almost too bad that our hormones get in the way to really clear the air, she mused, but only almost, "Seems like we're not good at talking to each other."
His grin widened and both hands pulled her closer around the waist. As he already had suspected, her light-heartedness rubbed off on him, "Well, as far as I'm concerned, we're just using a different language."
"Maybe you're right."
Ben inhaled deeply, couldn't ignore her brilliant eyes, the feel of her toned body close to his, and he had just started to lean in to steal yet another kiss from her, as a loud "BEN, WHERE ARE YOU?" hollered over to them. It was Zee's voice, one that didn't sound urgent, yet couldn't be ignored either. Ben exhaled a little frustrated. How was he supposed to get rid of this enormous tension he felt whenever he was near Lily, "Damn it," he muttered and his forehead found Lily's.
Lily couldn't know it, but Ben felt exactly like her. As she saw him leaning in for another kiss, she had closed her eyes in anticipation. But Zee calling out for him had brought a sudden ending to their time together, "It sucks being the boss, right?!" She teased carefully and lingered in the moment, of him standing tall over her, having her in his arms.
He chuckled looked down into her eyes and kissed her lips briefly, "You have no idea."
Lily beamed at him again, suddenly afraid her heart would do double flips inside her chest, as he stroked the side of her face tenderly.
"Can we definitely get back to this later?!" He asked with a suppressed desperation in his voice.
"Please," Lily replied and with another, more thorough kiss, Ben was gone. Lily sighed happily. Why now? In the middle of the jungle? She wished herself back to the clinic, to her normal life here in Colombia … and for the search of this polluted gold mine to be over. The thoughts about Ben seemed to occupy her whole mind – and she knew that this wasn't the best condition for setting out into the jungle again.
Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed it. Leave a comment, if you like. Please excuse any vocab, spelling, grammar and punctuation mistakes.
Take care, K.
* Spanish translations and additional info in Chapter 13:
¡Por el amor de Dios! – "For the love of God!" Charlie uses this sentence as he wakes up to the smell of pancakes.
El panqueque huele magnÍfico! - "The pancake smells wonderful!" Also Charlie's words as he comments on the wonderful smelling pancakes.
¡Buenas dÍas! - "Good day"
Venido adentro, por favour! – "Come in, please!" The shaman wants the doctors to enter the assembly hut.
el verdor - "The green one", referring to the polluted river.
Si, si, si – "yes, yes, yes"