Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
Water the color of bullfrogs gurgles against my shins as we slog across the Firehole River. Nate swings a rope in an unruly figure eight and bellows a Bigfoot call that sounds like a dying whoopee cushion sputtering out its final serenade.
I zoom in the video camera as he takes a wobbly step toward the riverbank. The smell of pine sap and spicy sagebrush mingles with my SPF 75 and citronella bug spray.
We’ve been in Yellowstone National Park less than twenty-four hours, and we’re already on the hunt for the legendary primate. As an up-and-coming naturalist, I’m skeptical about the big guy’s existence, but humoring Nate is number three on my Yellowstone Vacation Bucket List. Plus, hanging out in the wilds of the park is basically my definition of paradise.
“You getting all this, Mags?” Nate calls over his shoulder. He’s got on dark shades and a few streaks of black paint spread across his freckled cheeks, plus a neon green I BELIEVE T-shirt that pretty much cancels out the camo face paint. “Make sure you get a close-up of the mini grappling hook.”
“Already on it, partner,” I say, giving him a thumbs-up. I’ve recently signed on as the production manager for Nate’s YouTube channel, The Conspiracy Squad. The pay is squat, and the working conditions are questionable. But investigating the unexplained is kinda our thing, though Nate’s tastes run more to the otherworldly than mine. The show’s dedicated to freaky, weird, and potentially made-up happenings. It used to be small potatoes, but ever since a mutated zombie fungus spread through our hometown six weeks ago, The Conspiracy Squad has been getting more attention. Nate’s even had a couple of companies reach out to him looking to sponsor segments, hence the rope and grappling hook. My latest contribution to the show is a segment I’ve dubbed “Maggie’s Minute.” At the end of each episode, I give a few tidbits that offer a scientific explanation for whatever paranormal finding Nate’s reporting on. He even made me some cool intro music. Fans seem to dig it. Though I do get a lot of questions about the Bermuda Triangle and the Lost City of Atlantis. I haven’t come up with good explanations for those just yet. But the world’s full of mysteries. Like sand dunes that make songs that sound like chanting monks or the way birds can find their way home after traveling thousands of miles without ever using a map or GPS.
I record another minute of Nate stomping around and belching out grunts that sound more like indigestion than primate calls. I glance up from the camcorder. “You might wanna go easy on the sound effects if you really want a shot at attracting an elusive species.”
“Lots of Squatchers have tried that route and got diddly to show for it. My strategy is to go in loud and proud. Let the hairy dude know I mean business.” Nate whirls in a dramatic spin, his rope high, like an eleven-year-old mythical beast wrangler.
As I wipe a spray of river water from the camera’s screen, my stomach rumbles and I think about Dad back at the campsite grilling up lunch. This week’s going to be our first chance in a long while to really kick back and spend some time together. He’s promised me a hike this afternoon and marshmallow roasting over the campfire after that—numbers one and two on the bucket list.
Nate suddenly stops gyrating and points to a scattering of evergreens along the riverbank. “Mags,” he hisses. “I think there might really be something out here.”
“It’s probably just a squirrel or a muskrat,” I say, but narrow my eyes and scan the tree line anyway. Lately, disaster has a way of sniffing us out quicker than a gang of mosquitoes on a sticky summer’s night.
Nate edges to the shore. “If my gut’s singing the tune I think it is, this just might be our big breakthrough.”
Nate’s gut is notoriously unpredictable. Especially after half a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheezy Poppers. The sagebrush rustles, and a cloud of dust puffs out. My heart hiccups. I’m not expecting Bigfoot, but Yellowstone’s got a few real-deal hazards. Before we piled into Gramma’s Ford for the fifteen-hundred-mile trip out to visit Dad, I did loads of research. Thermal pools brimming with scalding- hot water. Territorial moose and grumpy bison. Packs of roaming wolves. And the head honcho of the Yellowstone predators, the grizzly.
“Careful, Nate. We don’t want a run-in with a mama bear.”
Nate ignores me and tiptoes closer. “All the urban legends say Bigfoot hangs out near food and water. We’ve got the river, and there’s a load of half-munched berries on the ground.” He pauses and sniffs. “Yeti B.O.”
I skid up to the shore, water slopping out the sides of my sneakers. “Don’t go stirring anything up until I get there!”
“This dude reeks!” Nate pokes his toe into a clump of prickly brush.
I sniff. “I don’t think that’s a Bigfoot. That smells like—”
“Skunk!” Nate scrambles back as a black-and-white tail emerges from the sage.
A skunk is better than a grizzly, but not by much. I shove the video camera into my backpack and thrust my nose into my T-shirt. “Gramma’s gonna kill me if we come back to the campground stinking like skunk rump.”
The tail scoots forward, but no fluffy rodent body follows. Instead, a hulking reptile emerges, skunk tail clasped between its scaly jaws. The lizard swoops toward Nate with a clumsy, swishing trot.
“Get back!” I snatch a branch off the ground. The lizard spits out the skunk’s severed tail but keeps charging our way. A long, yellow tongue with a distinct fork swishes out of its mouth.
“You never told me Yellowstone had baby Godzillas!” Nate backpedals from the beady-eyed giant.
The lizard’s as long as an alligator and has to weigh a few hundred pounds. Stringy saliva drips from its jowls. This thing shouldn’t be here. The Yellowstone guidebook I read on the way up said the park only had one species of lizard. A tiny, bug-eating critter that could fit in the palm of my hand.
This thing is in a whole other league.
Massive. Foul drool. Definitely carnivorous. I wrack my brain trying to remember all the research I did about lizards back when I bought my pet leopard gecko. Only one lizard fits the bill, and it’s native to Indonesia. “It’s a Komodo dragon,” I breathe.
Nate’s eyes go wide, and I can practically hear the conspiracy theories bubbling around in his skull. “Did you just confirm the existence of dragons? Because if you did—” Nate stumbles over the rope’s grappling hook and crashes to the ground, his flip-flop soaring into the air.
I thrust my arm out to Nate. “They don’t breathe fire or fly. But they’re fast and have huge appetites.”
The Komodo dragon whips forward and sinks its slimy teeth into Nate’s sandal.
Nate grips my arm and leaps to his feet. We bolt, abandoning the rope and Nate’s flip-flop.
“How’d that thing get here?” Nate pants as we turn around and slosh back through the river. “Somebody’s pet get loose?”
“Nobody in their right mind would keep a Komodo dragon as a pet. Their bites are loaded with venom that causes their victims to die a slow, gruesome death.”
Nate peers back at where we left the hulking reptile. “Maybe we could save the nature lesson for later, Mags.”
I follow his gaze. A long, dark form swishes into the river after us.
“There’s one more thing,” I call as we break into a watery sprint. “Komodo dragons are fantastic swimmers.”