Rabids are afraid of deep or fast-moving water, Kanin had told me in the hospital. No one knows why-it's not like they could drown. Maybe they don't understand why the ground won't hold them up any longer. Or maybe they fear something that is more powerful than they are. But ever since they were created, rabids will not approach deep water. Remember this, for it might save your life one day.
I watched Zeke, carrying the rope, stride through the mud to a thick tree near the riverbank, and hurried over.
"How are we getting across?" I asked Zeke, who was busy winding one end of the rope around the trunk before knotting it tight. He gave me a rueful smile and held up the rest of the coil.
"We hang on for dear life."
"How?" I asked, glancing at the trunk. "The rope is on this side of the river. It won't help us unless it crosses to the other bank."
"Exactly." Zeke sighed and started tying the other end around his waist. I stared at him, alarmed, and he grimaced.
"At least I'm already wet this time." I looked at the foaming, rushing water and shook my head.
"Isn't that a little...dangerous?"
"Exactly." Zeke looked up, meeting my eyes. "Jake can't swim, and I won't ask Darren to take the risk. Or anyone, for that matter. It has to be me."
Before I could answer, he stripped off his boots and jacket, placing them neatly at the top of the rise. Then, with everyone watching, he slipped down the bank, sliding a bit in the mud, and stepped to the edge of the river. A brief pause as he gazed up and down the bank, surveying the current, then plunged into the foaming waters.
The undertow caught him immediately, but he struck out for the far shore, swimming doggedly into the current. I watched his pale form, bobbing along the surface, sometimes getting pulled down. Each time he vanished I bit my cheek and clenched my fists until his head broke the surface once more. He was quite the powerful swimmer, but it was still several tense, breathless moments before he emerged, dripping and panting, on the other side. As the rest of the group cheered, Zeke stumbled over to a tree, tied the rope around the trunk, and then sat down heavily in the mud, apparently exhausted.
He did, however, push himself to his feet as the rest of the group started over, standing at the water's edge to help those who made it across. I hung back, watching, as Ruth crossed first, probably anxious to get over to where Zeke was. After her, Silas and Teresa made their slow, painstaking way across, inching forward, their wrinkled fingers gripping the rope for all they were worth.
Then Darren turned to me.
"Your turn, Allison," he said, holding out a hand. I looked over to where the three kids, Caleb, Bethany and Matthew, stood on the bank, huddled together in the rain.
"What about them?"
"Zeke will be back over to help," Darren replied. "He'll take either Bethany or Caleb across, I'll grab the other one, and Jake will help Matthew. Don't worry, it's not like this is our first crossing. I'll be right behind you." He smiled again and motioned me forward. "Of course, if you need help, I'll be happy to piggyback you to the other side."
"No, thanks." I ignored his hand and made my way down to the rope. "I think I can handle it myself." The water shocked me. Not the temperature-the freezing cold didn't bother me, of course-but the strength of the undertow as it tried sucking me down was impressive. If I'd still been human, one who didn't swim very well, I might add, I might've been concerned.
The water wasn't very deep, only coming up to my chest, but the current fought me every step of the way. Somewhere behind me, Darren shouted to keep going, his voice nearly lost in the roar of the river. I looked back. Shy little Bethany clung to his back with her arms around his neck, eyes squeezed tightly shut.
As I turned to look at them, something big came hurtling toward us over the water-a broken tree trunk, bouncing on the waves. I shouted to Darren, but the tree was moving fast, and my warning came too late. The trunk slammed into him, tearing him away from the rope, and he vanished into the waves. Bethany screamed once before she was pulled under and lost from view.
I didn't think. I just acted. Releasing the line, I dove into the water. The current sucked at me, dragging me along like a rag doll. It resisted my attempts to thrash my way to the surface, tumbling me along the bottom, until it was hard knowing which way was up. For a few moments, I panicked...until I realized the river couldn't hurt me. I didn't breathe; I was in no danger of drowning.
Once I stopped fighting the current, it was much easier.
The river rushed me along, and I scanned the top of the roil-ing waves, searching for Bethany and Darren. I caught a split-second glimpse of a blue dress and lunged in that direction.
It was several long minutes before I could grab the limp, bobbing girl and haul her to me, struggling to keep her pale little face above water. Planting my feet on the river bottom, feeling the current rip at my legs as I braced myself, I struck out for shore.
Staggering up the bank, I lay Bethany on her back and sank down beside her, anxiously studying her face for signs of life. The girl looked wholly drowned; eyes closed, mouth slightly open, blond hair tangled and smeared across her face.
She didn't seem to be breathing. I put an ear to her chest, listening for a heartbeat, bracing myself to hear only a hollow emptiness.
It was there. Faint, but still beating. Still alive.
I sat up, biting my lip as I stared at the motionless girl. I had an inkling of what I was supposed to do; back in the Fringe, I'd watched as a young boy was dragged out of a f looded storm drain. His rescuer had tried to resuscitate him, breathing in his mouth and pumping his chest, while the crowd looked on. Sadly, the boy failed to revive, and his mother had taken home a limp body. I couldn't help but wonder if Bethany would share the same fate.
Well, she certainly will unless you do something, Allison.
"Dammit," I muttered, gently prying open the girl's mouth, pinching her nose shut. "I have no idea what I'm doing here," I warned her, before lowering my mouth to hers. I had to remember to take a deep breath, drawing air into myself, before releasing it slowly past the girl's lips.
I did this five or six times, breathing for the girl, feeling her stomach expand and contract with each breath. Bethany remained limp, unresponsive. I wondered if I shouldn't shove on her chest, as I'd seen the man do with the boy, but decided against it. I still didn't know my own strength, and the last thing I wanted to do was snap a rib by mistake. It made my stomach crawl just thinking about it.
By the seventh breath, I was about to admit defeat, when Bethany suddenly choked, gagged and started coughing, expelling river water from her mouth and nose. Relieved, I drew back as she struggled upright, bent over and vomited water and mud into the grass.
Shivering, she looked up at me, her small body tense.
"Relax," I told her, recalling all the wide-eyed, fearful looks she'd given me whenever I walked by. Ruth's doing, probably.
"You fell into the river, but you're safe now. When you're up for it, we can go find the others-"
Bethany lunged forward, throwing her arms around my neck, burying her face in my shoulder. I froze for a second, startled and uncomfortable, not knowing what to do.
She sniff led, mumbling something incoherent, and pressed closer against me, snuggling in. And her little neck was suddenly right there, inches from my cheek. We were all alone out here; no Zeke, no Ruth, no Jebbadiah Crosse to find us.
It would be so easy, to turn my head...to...
Stop that. I closed my mouth, feeling fangs slip back into my gums, and gently freed myself from the girl's arms. "Let's get back to the group," I said, standing up. "They're probably looking for us."
I hoped. Or had Jebbadiah already given us up for dead and moved on?
Gazing at the foaming river, I winced. I hope Darren made it out okay, I thought, trudging along the bank with Bethany close behind. There's nothing I can do for him now.
It was a long, muddy walk back up the river. The current had carried us quite a ways, farther than I'd first thought.
Bethany whimpered and sniff led a bit, especially when having to walk through deep mud, but I refused to piggyback her through the wet spots, so she eventually sucked it up and trailed doggedly after me.
The rain had finally let up, and dawn was fast approaching when I at last spotted a figure, walking down the bank toward us. It walked with a sense of purpose, scanning the bank and the edge of the water, and spotted me almost at the same time I saw it. As we drew closer to each other, I blinked in surprise. It wasn't Zeke, as I was expecting, or Ruth or even Darren.
It was Jeb.
Bethany suddenly broke away from me, half running, half stumbling toward Jebbadiah who, shockingly, bent down and lifted her in his arms. I watched in amazement as he spoke to her quietly, smoothing back her hair, and wondered if this was perhaps Jeb's long-lost twin brother. The one who wasn't a heartless bastard.
Bethany suddenly pointed back at me, and I stiffened as Jeb's steely gaze turned in my direction. Putting the girl down, he approached, his impassive face giving no hints to what he was thinking.
"I commend you for your bravery, Allison," he said when he was a few feet away, and I blinked, shocked for the second time that night. "I don't know how or why you did it, but you saved one of our own, and I will not forget that.
Thank you." He paused and said, very seriously, "Perhaps I was wrong about you."
"What about Darren?" I asked, not sure if I should trust this unexpected change toward me. "Are there people looking for him? Is he all right?"
"Darren is fine," Jeb replied, no change in his expression.
"He managed to grab the trunk when he surfaced, and we were able to pull him to shore when it became lodged between two rocks downstream. We had almost given up hope with you and Bethany." He paused and looked down at the girl, a soft, almost grandfatherly look crossing his face. "You are both very lucky, indeed."
Abruptly, he straightened, brisk and businesslike again.
"Come," he ordered. "Dawn is approaching, and we must get back to camp. This delay was unfortunate, and I wish to have an early start tomorrow night. Let us go, quickly." We followed Jeb back to camp, where Bethany was greeted with hugs and tears of relief, and a few smiles and nods were thrown my way. Teresa even took my hand in both of hers and squeezed with her withered fingers, murmuring how I was a godsend and they were so thankful that I had joined the family. Embarrassed, I excused myself and retreated to the edge of the camp, setting up my tent per normal. When I'd finished, I straightened and turned around, and nearly ran into Zeke.
"Whoops." Zeke put out both hands to steady us. For a half second, we were face-to-face, so close I could see the rings of silver around his pupils, hear the pulse at his throat.
The Hunger stirred, and I clamped down on it, hard.
"Sorry," he apologized, taking a step back. His clothes and hair were still slightly damp, and he smelled faintly of the river. "I...just wanted to make sure you were all right," he said and ran his fingers through his bangs, shoving them back. "Are you all right? No broken bones, no hidden concussions? No fish swimming around in your lungs?" I smiled at him tiredly. "There might be a minnow or two, but I'm sure I'll cough them up before tomorrow," I said, and he chuckled. My stomach squirmed weirdly at that laugh, and I eased back toward my tent. "I think I'm done for the night, though. Something about near-death experiences always wears me out." I faked a yawn, covering my mouth just in case fangs were showing. "See you tomorrow, Zeke." He reached for me before I could turn, taking a strand of my wet hair, running it lightly through his fingers. I froze, my stomach in knots, the Hunger stirring curiously at this newest development.