HE WORE A RATTY BASEBALL CAP WITH THE brim pulled low over his eyes, and I couldn’t see much of his face except to tell that he looked exhausted. And angry. I opened my blinds and the window and warm air gushed in.
“Where’s Joseph?” he asked immediately, a note of panic in his voice.
I rubbed my aching forehead. “At a friend’s house, he—”
“He’s not there,” Noah said. “Get dressed. We have to go. Now.”
I tried to arrange my thoughts into a coherent order. The panic hadn’t set in yet. “We should tell my parents if he isn’t—”
“Mara. Listen to me, because I’m only going to say this once.” My mouth went dry, and I licked my lips as I waited for him to finish.
“We’re going to find Joseph. We don’t have much time. I need you to trust me.”
My head felt thick, my brain cloudy with sleep and confusion. I couldn’t form the question I wanted to ask him. Maybe because this wasn’t real. Maybe because I was dreaming.
“Hurry,” Noah said, and I did.
I threw on jeans and a T-shirt, then I glanced at Noah. He was looking away from me, toward the streetlight. His jaw tensed as he chewed on the insides of his cheek. There was something dangerous beneath his expression. Explosive.
When I was ready, I placed my hands on the windowsill and launched myself onto the damp grass outside my bedroom window. I swayed on my feet, off-balance. Noah reached out to steady me for half a second, then hurried ahead. I jogged to catch up with him. It took effort—like the swollen, humid air was pushing back.
Noah had parked in the driveway. He was the only one. Daniel’s car was gone, my father’s car was gone, and my mother’s was missing too. They must have gone out separately.
Noah flung his door open and started it. I’d barely sat down before Noah floored the gas pedal. The acceleration pushed me back against the seat.
“Seat belt,” he said.
I glared at him. When we pulled on to I-75, Noah still hadn’t lit a cigarette, and he was still silent. My stomach curdled. I still felt so sick. But I managed to speak.
“What’s going on?”
He inhaled, then ran a hand over his rough jaw. I noticed then that his lip seemed to have healed in the past few days. I couldn’t see his eyes from this angle at all.
When Noah spoke, his voice was careful. Controlled. “Joseph texted me. His friend canceled and he needed a ride home from school. When I showed up, he wasn’t there.”
“So where is he?”
“I think he’s been taken.”
When I saw Joseph last it was at breakfast this morning. He’d waved his hand in front of my face and I said, I said …
Leave me alone. Oh, God.
Panic coursed through my veins. “Why?” I whispered. This wasn’t happening. This wasn’t happening.
“I don’t know.”
My throat was full of needles. “Who took him?”
“I don’t know.”
I pressed the heels of my palms into my eye sockets. I wanted to claw out my brain. There were two options, here: first, that this wasn’t real. That this was a nightmare. That seemed likely. Second, that this wasn’t a nightmare. That Joseph was really missing. That the last thing I said to him was “leave me alone,” and now, he had.
“How do you know where he is?” I asked Noah, because I had only questions and out of all of them, that was the only one I could voice.
“I don’t know. I’m going where I think he is. He might be there, he might not. That has to be enough for now, all right?”
“We should call the police,” I said numbly, as I reached in my back pocket for my phone.
It wasn’t there.
It wasn’t there because I smashed it against the wall yesterday. Just yesterday. I closed my eyes, reeling as I lost my mind.
Noah’s voice pierced through my free fall. “What would you think if someone told you they thought they might know where a missing child was?”
I would think that person was hiding something.
“They’d ask me questions I couldn’t answer.” I noticed for the first time that there was an edge to his voice. An edge that scared me. “It can’t be the police. It can’t be your parents. It has to be us.”
I leaned forward and put my head between my knees. This felt nothing like a dream. Nothing like a nightmare. It felt real.
Noah’s hand ghosted the column of my neck. “If we don’t find him, we’ll call the police,” he said softly.
My mind was a wasteland. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t think. I simply nodded, then looked up at the clock on his dashboard. One in the morning. We passed some cars as we sped on the highway, but when Noah turned off at an exit after over an hour of driving, the sounds of Miami died away. The few streetlamps we passed bathed the car in a yellowish light. We drove in silence and the lights became less and less frequent. Then they stopped altogether, and there was nothing but highway stretching in front of us, poorly illuminated by our headlights. The yawning darkness curved over us like a tunnel. I glanced over at Noah, my teeth clenched so I wouldn’t cry. Or scream. His expression was grim.
When he finally parked, all I could see was tall grass in front of us, swaying in the hot breeze. No buildings. Nothing.
“Where are we?” I asked softly, my voice almost drowned out by the crickets and cicadas.
“Everglades City,” Noah answered.
“Doesn’t look like much of a city.”
“It borders the park.” Noah turned to me. “You wouldn’t stay here, even if I asked you to.”
It was a statement, not a question but I answered anyway. “No.”
“Even though this is supremely fucking risky.”
“Even though both of us might not—”
Noah’s mouth didn’t finish forming the sentence, but his eyes did. Both of us might not make it, they told me. Some nightmare. Bile rose in my throat.
“And if I—don’t,” Noah said, “do whatever you have to do to wake Joseph. Here,” he said, thrusting his hand into his pocket. “Take my key. Type your address into the GPS. Just keep driving, all right? Then call the police.”
I took Noah’s key ring and shoved it into my back pocket. I tried to keep my voice from trembling. “You’re freaking me out.”
“I know.” Noah moved to get out of the car and I did the same. He stopped me.
The smell of rotting vegetation assaulted my nostrils. Noah faced the sea of grass in front of us and pulled out his flashlight. I noticed then that his cuts were still there; they’d healed somewhat, but the bruise on his cheek made one side of his face look sunken. I shivered.
I was terrified. Of the swamp. Of the possibility that Joseph was actually in it. Of the chance that we might not find him. That he was missing, gone, had left me alone like I’d wanted, and that I would never get him back.
Noah seemed to sense my despair, and he took my face in his hands. “I don’t think anything is going to happen. And we don’t have that far to go, maybe a half kilometer. But remember—key, GPS. Get to the highway and keep going until you see your exit.”
Noah dropped his hands and stepped into the grass. I followed him.
Maybe he knew more than he was sharing with me and maybe he didn’t. Maybe this was a nightmare and maybe it wasn’t. But either way, I was here in some dimension. And if Joseph was here too, I would get him back.
The water soaked through my sneakers immediately. Noah didn’t speak as we trudged through the mud. Something he’d said teased my mind, but it melted into nothingness before I could catch it. And I needed to watch my footing.
Hordes of croaking frogs created a bass rumble all around us. When the gnats weren’t biting me alive, the sawgrass attacked my skin. I itched everywhere, my nerve endings alive with it, my ears filled with buzzing. I was so distracted, so consumed by it that I almost walked straight past Noah.
Into the creek.