“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.”
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.