“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.
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.