WE EXPLODED INTO FLIGHT, OUR FEET beating down the muck beneath us. The grass whipped my arms, and the air stung my nostrils. We reached the creek and I turned on the flashlight, skimming the surface of the water. It was clear, but I knew that didn’t mean much.
“I’ll go first,” I said to the water. Almost daring the alligators to come back.
I sank down into the creek. Noah slid Joseph off of his shoulders and followed, careful to keep my brother’s head above the surface. He tugged Joseph’s body under his arm as he swam.
Somewhere in the middle, I felt something brush my leg. Something large. I bit back a scream and kept moving. Nothing followed us.
Noah lifted my brother up for me to grab and I managed to hold him, barely, as my shoulder howled in agony. Noah pulled himself up the bank, took Joseph from me, lifted him again, and we ran.
When we reached Noah’s car, he unloaded Joseph into the backseat first, then climbed in. I almost collapsed inside, suddenly shivering from the wet clothes pasted to my skin. Noah turned on the heat full blast, stomped on the gas pedal and drove like a lunatic until we were safely on I-75.
The sky was still dark. The steady thrum of the pavement underneath the tires threatened to lull me to sleep, despite the excruciating pain in my shoulder. It hung wrong no matter how I settled into the seat. When Noah placed his arm around me, curling his fingers around my neck, I cried out. Noah’s eyes went wide with concern.
“My shoulder,” I said, wincing. I looked behind me in the backseat. Joseph still hadn’t stirred.
Noah drove with his knees as his hands skimmed my collarbone, then my shoulder. He explored it with his dirt-caked fingers, and I bit my tongue to keep from screaming.
“It’s dislocated,” he said quietly.
“How do you know?”
“It’s hanging wrong. Can’t you feel it?”
I would have shrugged, but, yeah.
“You’re going to have to go to the hospital,” Noah said.
I closed my eyes. Faceless people appeared in the darkness, crowding my bed, pushing me down. Needles and tubes tugged at my skin. I shook my head fiercely. “No. No hospitals.”
“It has to be placed back into the socket.” Noah worked his fingers into my muscles and I choked back a sob. He drew back his hand. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“I know,” I said through the tears. “It’s not that. I hate hospitals.” I started to tremble, remembering the smell. The needles. And then I let out a nervous laugh because I’d almost been eaten by giant reptiles but somehow, needles were scarier.
Noah ran a hand over his jaw. “I can put it back in,” he said in a hollow voice.
I turned in my seat and then choked back the ensuing pain. “Really? Noah, seriously?”
His face darkened, but he nodded.
“That would be—please do it?”
“It’s going to hurt. Like, you have no idea how badly it’s going to hurt.”
“I don’t care,” I said, breathless. “It would hurt just as much in a hospital.”
“Not necessarily. They could give you something,” Noah said. “For the pain.”
“I can’t go to the hospital. I can’t. Please do it, Noah? Please?”
Noah’s eyes flicked to the clock on the dashboard, and then he checked the rearview mirror. He sighed and turned off the highway. When we pulled into a dark, empty parking lot, I checked the backseat. Joseph was still out.
“Come on,” Noah said, as he got out of the car. I followed, and he locked it behind us. We walked a short distance before Noah stopped under a tangle of trees behind a strip mall.
He closed his eyes, and I noticed that his hands were balled into fists. The muscles in his forearms flexed. He shot me a dark look.
“Come here,” he said.
I walked over to him.
I took another step, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid. My heart pounded in my chest.
Noah sighed and crossed the remaining distance between us, then stood, his chest against my back. I felt the length of his body pressed tightly behind mine and I shivered. From standing outside in my wet clothes or the feel of him behind me, I didn’t know.
He circled one arm around my chest, aligned with my collarbone, and snaked the other beneath my arm so that his hands were almost touching.
“Hold very still,” he whispered. I nodded, silent.
“Right then. One.” He spoke softly into my ear, tickling me. I could feel my heart beating against his forearm.
“Wait!” I said, panicking. “What if I scream?”
And then my left side ignited in pain. White-hot sparks exploded behind my eyes and I felt my knees buckle, but never felt the ground beneath me. I saw nothing but blackness, deep and impenetrable, as I floated away.
I woke up when I felt the car turn wide on the pavement. I looked up just as we passed under the sign for our exit.
“What happened?” I mumbled. My wet hair had stiffened in the artificial air, caked with filth. It crunched behind my head.
“I put your shoulder back in,” Noah said, staring at the brightening road ahead of us. “And you fainted.”
I rubbed my eyes. The pain in my shoulder had simmered to a dull, throbbing ache. I glanced at the clock. Almost six in the morning. If this was real, my parents would be awake soon.
Joseph already was.
“Joseph!” I said.
He smiled at me. “Hey, Mara.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Just tired a little.”
“I guess I just fell into the ditch by the soccer field where you guys found me,” he said.
I cast a furtive glance at Noah. He met my eyes, and gave a slight shake of his head. How could he possibly think Joseph would buy that?
“It’s weird, I don’t even remember going there. How did you guys find me, anyway?”
Noah rubbed his forehead with his filthy palm. “Lucky guess,” he said, avoiding my stare.
Joseph looked directly at me, even as he spoke to Noah. “I don’t even remember texting you to pick me up. I must have hit my head pretty hard.”
That must have been the companion lie to the one Noah told about the soccer field. And I could tell by Joseph’s stare that he didn’t believe either one. And yet he seemed to be playing along.
So I did too. “Does it hurt?” I asked my brother.
“A little. And my stomach feels kind of sick. What should I tell Mom?”
Noah stared straight ahead, waiting for me to make the call. And it was obvious what Joseph was asking—whether he should out me and Noah. Whether he should trust us. Because I knew that if Joseph did tell our parents the lie Noah told him, my mother would lose it. Absolutely.
And she would ask questions. Questions Noah said he couldn’t answer.
I looked behind the seat at my little brother. He was dirty, but fine. Skeptical, but not worried. Not scared. But if I told him the truth about what had happened—that someone, a stranger, had taken him and tied him up and locked him in a shed in the middle of the swamp—what would that do to him? What would he look like then? A memory returned of his ashen, downcast face in the hospital waiting room after I burned my arm, of his body slumped and stiff and small in the waiting room chair. This would be worse. I could think of few things more traumatic than being kidnapped, and I knew from experience just how hard it would be to come back from something like that. If he even could.
But if I didn’t tell Joseph, I could not tell my mother. Not after my arm. Not after the pills. She would never believe me.
So I decided. I looked at Joseph in the rearview mirror. “I don’t think we should mention it. Mom will freak out, I mean—freak out. She might be too scared to let you play soccer any more, you know?” Guilt flared inside of me at the lies, but the truth could break Joseph, and I wouldn’t be the one to do it to him. “And Dad will probably sue the school or something. Maybe just use the pool shower outside, get into bed, and I’ll tell her you didn’t feel well last night and asked me to come pick you up?”
Joseph nodded in the backseat. “Okay,” he said evenly. He didn’t even question me; he trusted me that much. My throat tightened.
Noah pulled onto our street. “This is your stop,” he said to Joseph. My brother got out of the car after Noah shifted it into park. I followed suit before Noah could open the door.
Joseph walked to the driver’s side window and reached in. He shook Noah’s hand. “Thanks,” my brother said, flashing a dimpled grin at Noah before heading to our house.
I leaned down to the open passenger window, and said, “We’ll talk later?”
Noah paused, staring straight ahead. “Yes.”
But we didn’t get the chance.
I met up with Joseph back at the house. All three cars were in the driveway now. Joseph showered outside, then we crept in through my bedroom window so as not to wake anyone. My brother was smiley, and tiptoed down the hallway with exaggerated steps like it was a game. He closed his bedroom door and, presumably, went to bed.
I had no idea what he thought, what he was thinking about all this, or why he let me off so easily. But I ached with exhaustion and couldn’t begin to work through it. I peeled off my clothes and turned on my shower, but found that I couldn’t even stand. I sank down under the stream of water, shivering despite the heat. My eyes were blank, vacant as I stared at the tile. I didn’t feel sick. I wasn’t tired.
I was lost.
When the water ran cold, I got up, threw on a green T-shirt and striped pajama bottoms, and went to the family room, hoping the television could dull the droning non-thoughts in my brain. I sank into the leather couch and turned on the TV. I scrolled through the guide but saw little besides infomercials, while the news hummed in the background.
“Locals reported a massive fish kill this morning in Everglades City.”
My ears pricked at the mention of Everglades City. I closed the guide, my eyes and ears riveted to the plastic-looking anchorwoman as she spoke.
“Biologists called out to the scene are saying it’s most likely due to oxygen depletion in the water. A startling number of alligator corpses are thought to be the culprit.” The video switched to a freckled, blond woman in khaki shorts with a microphone pointed at her bandana-covered mouth. She stood in front of an eerily familiar looking body of murky water; the camera panned in on the white-bellied, dead alligators floating in it, surrounded by hundreds of fish. “An abundance of decomposing matter in the water soaks up a large amount of oxygen, killing off fish in the area in a matter of hours. Of course, in this case, whatever killed the alligators could have killed the fish. A chicken and the egg puzzle, if you will.”
The anchor-mannequin spoke again: “The possibility of illegal dumping of hazardous waste is being investigated as well. Herpetologists at the Metro Zoo are expected to do necropsies on the animals over the next couple of days, and we’ll be sure to report the results right here. In the meantime, tourists might want to steer clear of the area,” she said, holding her nose.
“You aren’t kidding, Marge. That has got to stink! And now over to Bob for the weather.”
My arm shook as I held out the remote and turned the television off. I stood, swaying on alien feet, as I made my way to the kitchen sink for some water. I pulled a cup from the cabinet and stood at the counter, my mind reeling.
The place they showed on camera didn’t look exactly the same.
But I was there in the middle of the night; surely it would look different in the daytime.
But maybe it was somewhere else entirely. Even if it wasn’t, maybe something had poisoned the water.
Or maybe I hadn’t been there at all.
I filled the plastic cup and brought the water to my lips. I accidentally caught my reflection in the dark kitchen window.
I looked like the ghost of a stranger.
Something was happening to me.
I heaved the plastic cup at the dark glass and watched my reflection blur away.