TANGLED ROOTS OF MANGROVE TREES SANK unseen into the black liquid, and on the opposite side, grass stretched in front of us for infinity. A sliver of moon hung in the sky, but I had never seen so many stars in my life. I could just make out the faint outline of a building close by in the darkness. Noah faced the body of still water.
“We need to cross it,” he said.
It did not take a genius to figure out what that meant. Alligators. And snakes. But really, they could have been lurking in the distance between Noah’s car and where we stood all along. So why not cross the creek? No problem.
Noah skimmed his flashlight over the surface of the water. It reflected the beam; we could see nothing beneath it. The creek was maybe thirty feet wide across, and I couldn’t tell how far it extended in each direction. The grass turned to reeds and the reeds turned to roots, obscuring my view.
Noah faced me. “You can swim?”
“All right. Follow me, but not until I’m across. And don’t splash.”
He walked down the steep bank and I heard him break the surface of the water. Noah carried the flashlight in his right hand and walked a good length before he had to swim. But then, he was easily six feet tall. I wouldn’t make it that far. My stomach clenched in fear for both of us, and my throat was tight with anxiety.
When I heard Noah pull himself up out of the water, my knees almost buckled with relief. He shined his flashlight up, illuminating his face in a freaky glow. He nodded, and I descended.
I slipped and slid on the bank of the creek. My feet sank into the weedy water until they hit mud. It was oddly cool, despite the steamy temperature of the air. The water reached my knees. I took a step. Then my thighs. Another step. My ribs. The surface tickled the underwire of my bra. I waded cautiously, my feet tangling in the weeds at the bottom. Noah pointed his flashlight at the water ahead of me, careful to avoid my eyes. It was brown and murky under the beam, but I swallowed my disgust and kept moving, waiting for the bottom to drop out from underneath me.
“Don’t move,” Noah said.
His flashlight skimmed the surface of the water around me. The alligators appeared out of nowhere.
My heartbeat pounded in my ears as I noticed several disembodied points of light floating in the darkness on either side of me. One pair of eyes. Three. Seven. I lost count.
I was paralyzed; I couldn’t go forward but I couldn’t go back. I looked up at Noah. He was about fifteen feet away, but the water between us might as well have been an ocean.
“I’m going to get back in,” he said. “To distract them.”
“No!” I whispered. I didn’t know why I felt like I had to be quiet.
“I have to. There are too many, and we have no time.”
I knew I shouldn’t have, but I tore my eyes from Noah’s shadow and looked around me. They were everywhere.
“You have to get Joseph,” I said desperately.
Noah took a step toward the bank of the creek.
He slid down over the edge. The beam of light bounced on the water and I heard him splash. When he held the flashlight steady, several pairs of eyes disappeared. Then they reappeared. Much, much closer.
“Noah, get out!”
“Mara, go!” Noah splashed in the water, staying close to the bank but moving away from me.
I watched the alligators swim toward him, but some of the eyes stayed with me. He was making it worse, the idiot. Soon both of us would be trapped, and my brother would be alone.
I felt one of them approach before I saw it. A wide, prehistoric snout appeared three feet in front of me. I could make out the outline of its leathery head. I was trapped and panicked but there was something else, too.
My brother was missing, alone, and more frightened than I was. He had no one else to help him, no one but us. And it looked like we might not get the chance. Noah was the only one who knew where to look, and he was going to get himself killed.
Something savage stirred inside me as the black eyes stared me down. Big, black doll’s eyes. I hated them. I would kill them.
I didn’t have time to wonder where the hell that thought came from because something changed. A low, barely perceptible rumble shook the water and I heard a splash off to my left. I whirled around, dizzy with the rush of violence, but there was nothing there. My eyes darted back to where the closest animal had been. It was gone. I followed the circle of light as Noah scanned the beam over the water. There were fewer pairs of eyes; I could count them now. Five pairs. Four. One. They all slipped away, into the darkness.
“Go!” I shouted to Noah, and I pulled up my feet to swim the rest of the way. I heard Noah propel himself out of the water. I thrashed in the murk, getting caught at one point in weeds, but I didn’t stop. At the bank, my hands slid over tangled roots and I couldn’t get purchase. Noah reached down and I grabbed his hand. He pulled me up, my legs scrambling against the earth. When I was out, I let go of his hand and fell to my knees, coughing.
“You,” I sputtered, “are an idiot.”
I couldn’t see Noah’s expression in the darkness, but I heard him inhale. “Impossible,” he whispered.
I drew myself up. “What?” I asked when I’d caught my breath.
He ignored me. “We have to go.” His clothes clung to his body and his hair stood on end as he roughed his hands through it. His baseball cap was gone. Noah started walking ahead and I followed, splashing through the wet reeds. When we reached a long stretch of grass, he took off at a run. I did the same. The mud sucked at my shoes and I panted from the exertion. Pain stabbed me under my ribs and I gasped for breath. I almost collapsed when Noah stopped in front of a small concrete shed. Noah’s eyes scanned the darkness. I saw the outline of a large building far off in the distance and a cabin about forty feet away.
Noah looked at me, his face uncertain. “Which should we check first?”
My heart surged at the thought that Joseph could be so close, that we’d almost reached him. “Here,” I said, indicating the shed. I pushed past Noah and tried to turn the knob of the door, but it was locked.
I felt Noah’s hand on my shoulder and followed his eyes up to a tiny window beneath the overhang of the roof. It was basement sized; there was no way he would fit. I might not fit. The walls were smooth; there was nothing to step on to propel me up.
“Lift me,” I said to him without hesitation. Noah laced his fingers together. He glanced back once, right before I stepped into his hands. I balanced myself on his shoulders before standing fully. As soon as I could, I grabbed the sill to steady myself. It was grimy, but there was a small point of light inside. There were tools propped up against the wall, a small generator, a few blankets on the ground and then—Joseph. He was on the floor in a corner. Slumped.
I had to choke back the swell of emotions; relief mixed with terror. “He’s in there,” I whispered to Noah as I pushed on the glass. But was he okay? The window stuck, and I mumbled a prayer to any gods that might be listening to let the thing open, just let it open.
It did. I reached my arms through and wiggled the rest of my body in. I crashed to the floor headfirst and landed on my shoulder. A bubble of hot pain exploded in my side and I clenched my teeth to keep from screaming.
I opened my eyes. Joseph hadn’t moved.
I was wild with terror. I winced as I stood but gave no thought to my shoulder as I rushed over to my little brother. He looked like he was sleeping there, nestled in a pile of blankets. I inched closer, terrified that when I touched him he would be cold.
He was breathing, and normally. Flooded with relief, I shook him. His head lolled to one side.
“Joseph,” I said. “Joseph, wake up!”
I threw a light blanket off of him and saw that his feet were bound and his arms were tied in front of him. My head swam but I slapped my eyes into focus. I scanned the room, looking for something to cut the plastic twist ties on Joseph’s wrists and ankles. I didn’t see anything.
“Noah,” I called out. “Tell me you brought a pocket knife?”
He didn’t answer, but I heard the clatter of metal as it hit the tilted glass window. And bounced back outside. I heard Noah utter a string of expletives before the knife clattered against the window again. This time, it fell to the ground inside the building. I picked it up, unfolded it, and started sawing.
My fingers were raw by the time I cut through the ties on Joseph’s hands, and they were numb when I finished working on his feet. I finally had the chance to look him over. He was still in his school clothes; khaki pants and a striped polo shirt. They were clean. He didn’t look hurt.
“Mara!” I heard Noah’s voice calling me on the other side of the wall. “Mara, hurry.”
I tried to lift Joseph up but pain knifed through my shoulder. A strangled sob escaped my throat.
“What happened?” Noah asked. His voice was frantic.
“I hurt my shoulder when I fell. Joseph won’t wake up and I can’t lift him through the window.”
“What about the door? Can you unlock it from the inside?”
And I’m an idiot. I hurried to the front of the concrete room. I turned the lock, opened the door. Noah stood on the other side of it, scaring the hell out of me.
“Guess that’s a yes,” Noah said.
My heart pounded as Noah walked over to Joseph and held him up under his shoulder. My brother was completely limp.
“What’s wrong with him?”
“He’s unconscious, but there’s no sign of bruises or anything. He seems fine.”
“How are we going to—”
Noah withdrew his flashlight from his back pocket and tossed it at me. Then, he hoisted Joseph over his shoulders, grasping behind his knee with one hand and his wrist with the other. He walked to the door like it was nothing and opened it. “Good thing he’s a skinny bastard.”
I let out a nervous laugh as we walked through, just before the beam of car headlights washed over the three of us.
Noah’s eyes met mine. “Run.”