Savannah pulled her shirt over her head, and Gabe couldn’t help but stare as the two triangular Confederate battle flags of her bikini top strained to contain her bulbous breasts. She coolly plucked a pair of sunglasses from her back pocket and offered Gabe a wink before gracefully sliding the temples into place. As she wiggled out of her denim shorts to reveal matching rebel bottoms, Gabe had to literally hold his jaw in place.
After casually tossing her shorts on the sand next to her shirt, Savannah threw herself down onto the beach. Her skin glistened in the sunlight, and a series of blonde locks cascaded down her back. The encroaching waves rolled up to her feet, and Gabe wondered if he was looking at the next Miss Mississippi. He was certain no finer woman had ever sauntered out of Gum Pond.
Gabe wanted to make the most of this misadventure by diving onto the sand next to her, but he remembered his instructions from Yves. Backpedaling toward the rectangular passenger basket, he reached between two cables and opened one of the blast valves. A flame shot upwards through the mouth of the balloon envelope. After a few seconds, Gabe released the valve handle and the flame subsided.
Gabe didn’t know a thing about hot air ballooning, but Yves had insisted Gabe be mindful of the massive balloon. The bright orange envelope towered seventy feet over the beach and swayed gently in a faint breeze. Yves had explained that Gabe needed to periodically open a blast valve to heat the air inside the envelope and keep the balloon inflated.
Gabe redirected his attention to Savannah, who nonchalantly sunned herself. Gabe tugged off his shirt but his jittery movements belied any natural confidence. He dropped himself onto the sand next to her and smiled. She rolled over onto her chest and offered her back to the azure sky.
“Any sign of Yves?” Savannah asked while resting her head on folded arms.
Yves, the pilot of their excursion, had been gone the better part of half an hour.
Gabe looked beyond a hundred yards of sand and rock and toward an emerald and hazel wall of pines. The Bahamian pineyards all looked the same to Gabe, but Yves had believed that he was familiar with this island. When Yves ventured into the pine forest to find help, Peter and Melanie had went with him. That left Gabe and Savannah to tend the balloon.
Peter and Gabe were cousins and had intended to enjoy spring break in the Bahamas with Melanie and Savannah. Peter and Melanie had dated on and off for a few years. Savannah was Melanie’s roommate at Ole Miss. Melanie thought that prudent Gabe might be good for the often wayward Savannah, and Peter generally agreed.
“I can’t say I see him,” Gabe replied.
Savannah clicked her tongue and sighed in response. These sounds were somehow incredibly sensual coming from her, and Gabe realized he was in absolutely no hurry for the others to return.
The hot air balloon excursion had intended to offer the passengers stunning vistas of atolls, lagoons, reefs, and the sea, but unexpected crosswinds and accompanying fog had disoriented Yves. When the bizarre atmospheric phenomenon subsided, Yves demonstrated fine ballooning acumen and put the passenger basket down on the first dry land encountered. The radio inside the passenger basket, which operated without issue before the incident, transmitted only static after landing.
A sudden commotion in the pines caught Gabe’s attention, and, as he turned, an immense flock of colorful birds emerged from the tree line and took to the sky. Savannah rolled back over and propped herself up on her elbows upon hearing the ruckus.
“Birds-of-paradise?” Savannah asked while pointing skyward with a smile.
The birds looked exotic enough to Gabe, so he shrugged and offered Savannah a boyish grin.
“Well, what the hell is their hullabaloo about?” she asked, licking each syllable with a drawl that brought all the sultry beauty of Dixie to mind.
A sudden thumping tremor pulled Gabe from a brief, erotic daydream.
He remembered the instructions Yves had given him and immediately feared that he had neglected the balloon burner in some way. He imagined the balloon completely collapsing or the propane tanks exploding because he failed to be diligent while Yves searched for help.
Rushing to the passenger basket, he again opened the blast valve. The growl of the burner temporarily reassured Gabe, but he quickly realized the balloon was in no way responsible for the tremor. He looked over to the pines and observed Yves, Peter, and Melanie burst from the leafy barrier and stumble onto the sand.
Yves pulled the others to their feet, and the trio started to run toward the balloon.
“Run!” Yves shouted, frantically waving his hands.
“Get to the balloon!” Peter called out, grabbing Melanie by the arm as she started to fall behind.
Gabe stood momentarily motionless and looked over to Savannah, who was fixated on the spiraling mass of birds in the sky. Gabe noticed the birds seemed to be following a very specific course. The whirling, multihued pattern created by the flock reminded him of the bizarre vortex and fog that had earlier ensnared the balloon and unsettled Yves. Yves had said that he never encountered such a peculiar whirlwind.
For the first time, Gabe found himself seriously questioning where their balloon had landed. He wondered if Savannah was coming to her own conclusions about this island. He opened his mouth to ask her if she had ever heard of the Devil’s Triangle, but this question never had an opportunity to be vocalized.
“Get to the balloon!” Peter shouted again with a voice that was both agonizingly hoarse and distressed.
Gabe was unsure if this was some kind of practical joke, but he observed no expression of pleasure on any of the quickly approaching faces.
“Now!” Yves hollered.
There was another tremor. Gabe suddenly sensed real danger and felt a chill seize his spine.
“Come on!” Gabe yelled, rushing over to Savannah and pulling her from the sand. She momentarily hesitated, reaching down for her clothing.
“Forget that!” Gabe demanded as he pushed Savannah ahead of him.
Gabe and Savannah reached the passenger basket just after the others. Yves picked up the drop line and clamored into the basket first, followed by Peter.
Yves immediately set to opening both blast valves, releasing a twin torrent of flame into the mouth of the envelope, while Peter pulled Melanie and Savannah into the basket.
“Get in!” Peter called to Gabe.
Gabe put both of his hands on one side of the passenger basket and glanced back to the tree line after feeling another tremor.
With a bellowing roar, several of the pines parted, and an enormous, black form strode onto the beach.
Gabe had never seen a bird-of-paradise before and could not have identified one for all the seductive syllables in Dixie.
However, he had seen countless depictions in books and films of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and he really regretted his ability to immediately recognize the beast. Even at this distance, Gabe clearly discerned the monstrous red face of the creature and the surprisingly sleek neck, torso, thighs, and tail. The prehistoric predator owed this glossy appearance to a fine ebony plumage. Gabe was no paleontologist, but the amazingly avian quality of the tyrant lizard was not lost on him.
Gabe suspected the bright orange hot air balloon, rocking slowly on this sandy perch, must look absolutely ridiculous. The Tyrannosaurus spotted the inflated anomaly immediately and charged forward with thunderous steps. Offering another roar, the Mesozoic nightmare revealed dozens of glistening, razor-sharp teeth.
Gabe vaguely recalled a magazine article he once read that described the incisors of a Tyrannosaurus as “lethal bananas”, and this recollection made him shutter.
Peter and Yves pulled Gabe into the basket as the balloon began to slowly lift off the beach. The dinosaur lumbered over the sand with alarming speed.
Yves had hoped that the balloon would reach a height beyond the creature’s reach, but he could see such was unlikely to happen. He pulled the women to the far side of the basket as a splash announced that their pursuer had planted one clawed foot into the sea.
“Hold on!” Yves hollered.
The passenger basket rocked violently. Several pearly chisels penetrated the wicker frame, and the passengers screamed with terror upon realizing the Tyrannosaurus, which had momentarily disappeared from view, held the passenger basket within two enormous jaws. With one violent shake, a quarter of the passenger basket was ripped away. Cables snapped, propane tanks tumbled into the sea, and the entire basket canted to one side.
Wrapping one arm around a cable, Yves freed the fire extinguisher. As the creature again surged forward with gaping jaws, Yves released a torrent of chemical foam into the mouth of the beast. The enormous head of the Tyrannosaurus twisted away, and Yves threw the spent extinguisher toward the terrible crimson face of the monster.
Without hesitating another second, the Tyrannosaurus angrily swung its head toward the basket. The contact briefly launched the basket upward and Peter lost his tenuous hold on a cable. Yves lunged forward in a failed attempt to grab his falling passenger. As Peter tumbled downward into the sea fifteen feet below, the balloon pilot was woefully exposed to the Tyrannosaurus. With one sudden snap, Yves found his outreached arms ensnarled in two colliding rows of bone blades.
As Gabe, Melanie, and Savannah struggled to hold onto his legs, Yves screamed out in agony. The Tyrannosaur torqued its head upward, freeing Yves from his potential saviors and launching his body into the air. The hopeless pilot landed headfirst in the terrible mouth of the dinosaur. Primordial taste buds briefly savored his bloody forearms before the massive jaws closed and serrated teeth sliced through his abdomen.
While the Cretaceous carnivore was busy devouring Yves, Peter landed with a splash that went unnoticed by the colossal theropod. Attempting to quickly gain his footing in the waves, Peter surfaced and hurriedly wiped the saltwater from his eyes.
His vision was restored in time to see the severed legs of the balloon pilot drop into the water in front of him and the huge right foot of the Tyrannosaurus soar over his head. A deluge of seawater rained from the creature’s claws and, as Peter turned to shield himself, he failed to notice the foot begin to drop downward toward him. Three massive claws slashed down his shoulders and chest, forcing his bloodied body down into the dinosaur’s wake.
The balloon and tattered passage basket moved away slowly and had nearly reached a safe height. With a final effort, the Tyrannosaurus rushed forward and snagged the damaged edge of the passenger basket within its jaws. Melanie managed to dive from the basket and into the water, jumping to her feet and splashing away as quickly as possible. Gabe and Savannah remained trapped within the basket and braced themselves opposite the predator’s expansive jaws.
Viciously twisting downward, the dinosaur caused the entire balloon to plummet toward the sea. As the remnant of the passenger basket, Gabe, and Savannah crashed into the waves, the Tyrannosaurus moved to crush the burner supports underfoot. The creature reared back in pain as the propane-fueled flames singed feathers and scorched the largest of three massive, clawed toes.
Although Savannah became briefly entangled in the basket cables, she was able to get to her feet in the chest-deep water. She heard Gabe call out for help and found that he had collided with the burners during the fall. He had suffered some burns and had landed in the water awkwardly, injuring both of his legs. The basket had largely collapsed on top of him, restricting his ability to flee.
Savannah dove into the water and did her best to lift Gabe before the Tyrannosaurus could spot the pair amongst the wreckage of the passenger basket. Fighting against the waves, she was able to get him to his knees so that his head protruded from the water. He gasped and coughed as he struggled to orient himself. He couldn’t help but notice several black feathers floating around him.
The burners hissed and popped as their flames were choked out by the sea. The dying sizzle of the burners captured the attention of the dinosaur. Antagonized by the burning of its foot and the sudden hissing noise, the Tyrannosaurus launched a new assault on the balloon, which was now easily in reach. The teeth of the Tyrannosaurus ripped through the envelope, tearing through several gores of nylon. The balloon immediately collapsed and largely fluttered out of the tyrant’s jaws. The ragged envelope fell onto the sea, covering Savannah and Gabe in an orange shroud.
Savannah and Gabe were initially motionless in the orange glow under the envelope, listening carefully for any movement from the Tyrannosaurus. The sea was becoming choppier, shifting the envelope around slightly. Gabe attempted to stand on his feet but seemed unable to find his balance. Savannah wrapped her arms around Gabe, making sure that he didn’t slip below the waves.
Gabe hoped that the disturbance in the water signaled the departure of the beast. He wondered if the dinosaur had possibly caught sight of Melanie and had gone off in pursuit of the girl. The thought of the Tyrannosaurus rushing away after Melanie conflicted him. He certainly didn’t want to see the poor girl be eaten, but he also wanted to be spared a place on today’s menu. As he mulled these thoughts and tried to ignore the shooting pains in his legs, he sighed.
Savannah pulled him closer, demonstrating a genuinely tender quality he had not observed in her before. She pressed her body into his, and he felt a sense of relief.
“I lost my top in the fall,” she whispered with her distinctive accent and a giggle.
“I think I lost my shorts,” he replied.
Comforted by this moment of levity, he was unable to withhold a low laugh. Savannah responded with a suggestive coo.
This was followed by a low clucking sound from beyond the confines of the shredded envelope.
The noise reminded Gabe particularly of the type of sound made by a chicken.
A very large, hungry chicken.
A considerable shadow passed over the envelope and the cluck was repeated, except now the sound was much closer. There was an inquisitive snort as the envelope was slowly pulled away.
Gabe could see the birds-of-paradise twisting through the cerulean firmament, occasionally disappearing behind the dark shape towering over him. As the menacing form shifted forward, Gabe and Savannah tightly closed their eyes.
“I wish I was in Dixie,” he whispered.