Saving Verakko: Chapter 1


Nope. Nuh-uh. Nein. Nyet. No way. There was only so much a girl could take. Lily watched as a large alien hefted Alice over his shoulder and sprinted away at an inhuman speed, leaving her and four other furious women screaming at his retreating back.

So far, these aliens had made a crappy first impression. Being snatched out of her own backyard by disgusting, bulbous, purple creatures had been bad enough, but then waking up in a cell and being ignored by even more aliens had been infuriating. What kind of ass-backward place was this where the men felt they could lock up a bunch of women like lab rats? Lily sure as shit didn’t know, because they’d refused to answer any of her questions.

Luckily, she’d only been fuming in her cell for a couple of days before Alice’s soft yet frantic voice had echoed through a speaker in her ceiling and outlined an escape. Lily and the four other women who Alice had freed had managed to find one another and run. They’d made it almost to the exit when their path had been blocked by their abductors.

That was when the crazy, black-eyed alien had appeared. The wild-looking man had helped them fight off their captors and had led them out of the underground prison they’d been trapped in. She’d give him credit for that at least. But then, just as Lily had begun to trust the guy, he’d hoisted Alice over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes and hauled ass. The bastard.

As soon as the man and Alice disappeared from sight, the women began to argue. Lily remained silent and listened, trying to let her reason overcome the icy fear prickling her senses.

“Should we go after her?”

“Are you kidding? Did you see how fast he was?”

“We should run before he comes back.”

“Run where? Back into the bunker from hell? Or down into the forest of death?”

Lily’s ears pricked at the word forest. She scanned the dark tree line to her left and quickly worked through the pros and cons of venturing into the wild. The night air was humid and warm. Hypothermia wouldn’t be likely. Even if it took her longer than expected to start a fire.

It looks like any other forest, she reasoned. Sure, the leaves were a little odd and the colors weren’t quite right and the dense canopy blocked out a surprising amount of the bright light cast by the two moons. But it was basically a forest. And if there was one thing Lily knew for certain, it was that she could survive in a forest. She’d spent a large portion of her life doing just that, after all. Albeit not of her own volition.

A tall woman with dark brown hair the same color as her intelligent eyes shouted, “It’s better in there than it is out here!” She threw her hands up and looked at the other women as if they were crazy. “Are you suggesting we stay here and wait for that guy to come back or worse, more of the assholes who locked us up?” They all stayed silent for a moment, and she gestured to the opened hatch in the ground. “That isn’t a random bunker. That thing was made to imprison people and be hidden. Do you really think we were able to get free without tripping any alarms? Reinforcements are probably on their way right now!”

The hair rose on Lily’s arms, and she glanced around, searching for any evidence of an approaching cavalry. She agreed with the woman wholeheartedly.

Vanessa, a sarcastic raven-haired woman and the only one who’d taken the time to introduce herself during their escape, spoke up. “We’re on an alien planet! You have no idea what kind of crap is waiting in the wild to eat you. You won’t make it a day.”

She might if I went with her.

“How do you know these aliens don’t want to eat you?” the tall woman fired back. “I don’t care what you guys do. I’m going.”

“I’ll go with you,” Lily said calmly, drawing all eyes to her.

Vanessa raised her brows and looked Lily up and down, studying her manicured nails and small stature. “You? You think you can survive out there?”

Lily frowned. She was used to people underestimating her. It didn’t bother her anymore. All that mattered was that she knew what she was capable of. “Probably. We’re not going to thrive. It’ll be tough, but I know enough to survive.” She glanced back into the woods and spoke aloud, more to herself than to the group. “I’m not saying it won’t be hell. We have no tools. No food. No water. We’d have to use primitive techniques, and we wouldn’t even know if the resources we scrounge up are safe until we consume them and see what happens.”

The tall brunette’s eyes were alight with determination. “But…”

As if they shared a mind, both glanced in the direction the alien had disappeared with Alice. Lily muttered what they were each thinking. “But…it might be better than the alternative.”

“We should go now, then. Anyone who wants to join is welcome.”

Lily nodded, and they both began making their way toward the tree line.

“Wait!” An older woman rushed over to one of their captors, who was now bound and unconscious, thanks to the black-eyed alien. A small woman who’d been silent through this whole ordeal looked on with wide, terrified eyes as the older woman rifled through his pockets and then patted down his body. Nothing.

The small woman with deep brown corkscrew curls and wide amber eyes hurried over to a discarded metallic weapon. She rushed to Lily with the weapon outstretched as if she wanted her to take it.

Lily eyed the silver object, a cross between a cattle prod and a taser. She wanted to take it. Boy, did she ever. They could use it to protect themselves against predators, and if the crackling spark she’d seen before still worked, she could probably also use it to light a fire. Still, she hesitated. “I would love to take that, really, but…what if more men show up? You won’t have any way to defend yourselves.”

The amber-eyed woman frowned and tapped her own ear, then whispered, “They hurt my ears. I can’t hear you.”

Lily’s mouth tightened. She was injured? Doubts about whether they should be separating gnawed at her but couldn’t overcome the itch to leave. They were so exposed here, and who knew how angry the knocked-out guards would be when they came to. “Come with us,” Lily said to the woman, making sure to exaggerate her words. She must’ve understood, because her eyes shot to the dark trees and she shook her head so vigorously that Lily assumed she too thought they were crazy for wanting to leave.

The white-haired woman joined them while both Vanessa and her soon-to-be travel companion looked on with sour expressions. The small curly-haired woman, only a little taller than Lily herself, shoved the zapper into Lily’s arms and gave her a small terrified smile Lily assumed was meant to be reassuring.

“She’s right,” said the older woman. “You should take it. If more men come, a little shock won’t stop them. You need it more than we do.”

“Thank you,” Lily whispered, eyeing each of the women with a grateful nod. She turned, gave a stubborn-looking Vanessa a nod as well, and jogged down toward the forest, where her new companion was already lingering.

“You guys are insane!” Vanessa called from behind them.

Lily caught up to her new brunette friend, who was currently darting nervous glances around the clearing, and they made their way toward the edge of the forest. Both of them came to an abrupt stop at the tree line as though the dark eeriness of the woods had turned their feet to lead.

Lily’s heart slammed against her chest. I can do this. I can get us through until we come up with another plan. She let out a slow breath, worked to clear her mind, and straightened her spine. I can do this.

The brunette woman peered at her, her mouth curled in a crooked, uncomfortable smile. “I’m not backing out, but I gotta tell you, the extent of my wilderness prowess involves RV camping.”

Lily glanced at the woman and saw barely masked fear peeking through her expression. Lily assumed her face looked the same. “I have some skills. Earth skills. But what I know might not matter in there. I think I can at least keep us alive until we figure out our next move.”

She tried to remain humble about her wilderness training. Truth be told, she could hike into most jungles back home with a machete and elbow grease and live off the land without too much trouble. The miserable annual treks she took with her parents had ensured her skills remained relatively intact but…this was different. Being too cocky would do nothing but land them in hot water down the line if Lily found she couldn’t be the self-sufficient badass she thought she was.

“Good enough for me.” The woman held out her hand. “I’m Alejandra. You can call me Alex.”

“Lily,” she replied and gripped the outstretched hand. She turned back to the woods and stared into the darkness, limbs itching to move even as her mind urged her to turn back. This is gonna be fucking awful.

***

“Motherfu—” Lily stifled a curse as yet another thorn stabbed through the flimsy soles of her flats. They were bright red, snug, and had cute leather ankle straps that chafed. She glared down at them and decided against tearing off the straps. Although painful, they at least kept her shoes from flopping off. The worst possible shoes for a daring escape. Well, maybe not the worst, Lily thought, picturing her favorite pair of strappy, royal-blue stiletto sandals from her closet.

Their trek so far had reminded Lily why she now hated the great outdoors. City sidewalks never tore up her feet. Manicured window boxes didn’t scratch at her face or pull at her hair like these twigs. If she were back in Portland, all she’d have to do to get where she wanted was call an Uber. She wiped the sweat off her forehead with her sleeve. A nice, air-conditioned Uber.

They’d been walking for what felt like hours through the increasingly dark forest, and Lily had begun to doubt herself more and more. Everything was so different. Where she’d expected thick undergrowth, there was only damp moss. It didn’t make sense. The air was heavy and saturated, as it would be if she were cutting through a thick jungle, but their path was clear save for the trees. A crisp, astringent scent hung in the air, undercut with a sweet, minty aroma so unlike the deep, earthy scents of most forests on Earth.

What kind of canopies overlapped like this? Lily glared up at the large, round leaves of the trees blocking most of the light. She’d been in forests all over Earth, but she’d never encountered a place like this. All the survival skills in the world would be useless if she couldn’t see what she was doing. Is it time to call it quits?

“Maybe we should stop for the night?” Alex panted behind her.

Lily placed her hand on her hips and turned back, breathing deeply. “I’m worried we’re still too close. If more aliens arrive and the other women tell them where we went, they might come after us.”

Alex leaned against a tree and clutched her side. “We’ve been walking nonstop for hours!”

“Yes, but we’ve been moving at a snail’s pace. You saw how fast that guy ran.” Lily let out a huff and took in their surroundings once again. Rustling from the treetops to her right drew her gaze, but she couldn’t make out much in the dim light. Unease lifted the hair on the back of her neck. They’d need to find shelter soon. “You’re right, though. We can’t keep trying to hike like this. Let’s just go a little farther. We need to gather dry branches and kindling anyway.”

“Okay. Okay. Just give me a minute to catch my breath.” Alex sank to the ground and tilted her head back against a tree. “Where are you from?”

That was always a difficult question for Lily to answer. Her upbringing had been…interesting, to say the least. She wasn’t from anywhere, not really. “Right now, I live in Portland,” she said without elaborating.

“Cool. I’m from SoCal.”

Lily was relieved to see Alex’s breathing slowly become more even. The rough days ahead would be a hundred times harder if she wasn’t in shape. Lily took the pause to sit and catch her own breath. She squinted to her right at an odd vine that appeared frayed at the end.

“Do you think they did a West-Coast grab or something?”

“Could be,” Lily answered, half paying attention. She forced herself not to reach out and inspect the vine until she could examine it in daylight. Might not be a vine at all. She cringed.

“What do you think they want with us?”

“No idea.” To be honest, Lily hadn’t spent too much time thinking about her abduction. Her parents had always trained her to focus on one problem at a time when in a survival situation. Expending mental energy worrying about the past, when she should be keeping her mind focused on their safety, was dangerous. For now, it didn’t matter how or why she’d been taken. What mattered was how they could make it until tomorrow.

In the dim light, Lily witnessed Alex roll her eyes then shift until they were facing each other. “Look, I get that you’re not super chatty, but I’m barely keeping it together here. You realize we’re on another planet, right? And we’re breathing? Not crushed by a difference in this planet’s gravitational pull? These are things I can’t not discuss! If I’m gonna make it, I need someone to talk to.”

Lily gave Alex what she hoped was a sympathetic smile. “Sorry.” She caught the woman’s exasperated look and continued, “Sorry! I just don’t talk a lot. I get stuck in my head.”

It wasn’t that she didn’t like people. She loved people. One of her favorite pastimes was plopping herself onto a picnic blanket and people-watching. She liked to observe, though, not participate. It was the one downside of her otherwise awesome job as a hairdresser. People expected to chat while they spent hours getting their hair done.

Alex let out a deep breath and studied Lily for a moment longer. “It’s okay. I’m just being needy.” She rose and brushed the dirt off her jeans. “Alright, Lily from Portland, what now?”

“Now we cover our tracks so anyone following will lose our trail.”

***

“Here they are,” Alex panted. “Another load of rocks for your perusal, madam.”

Lily cracked a smile and paused her digging as Alex trudged toward her, arms full of stones. They’d been attempting to identify knappable rocks after finding a small stream yesterday and settling into their camp but had yet to find any that fractured well enough to use as a blade. While Lily had been in charge of digging a Dakota fire hole, Alex had been tasked with grunt work.

The stones tumbled from Alex’s arms, and Lily bit her lip, recognizing a few gritty ones she’d already explained wouldn’t work. Poor girl would get that frustrated, defeated look in her eyes again if Lily pointed out she’d hauled some of those heavy stones for no reason.

Alex had been working herself so hard. Harder than Lily had expected from a person unfamiliar with the physical requirements of primitive living. Normally, Lily would’ve never suggested a person expend massive amounts of energy transporting rocks from one place to another, but she needed to build this firepit, and digging in the compacted earth was about as tough as hauling rocks anyway.

The small fire she’d kept going to keep the lurking animals at bay, stave off the chill at night, and boil the water from the stream was great, but they had yet to find a type of wood that didn’t burn incredibly fast. This type of firepit would help it last longer and reduce the amount of smoke rising from their camp, hopefully concealing their location from any aliens who may have attempted to follow them. The early stages of setting up a primitive camp were always tough, even tougher when she didn’t know the materials she was working with. Her growling stomach urged her to move faster, knowing a search for food would be next on the agenda. The few charred alien minnows they’d managed to catch had been underwhelming, to say the least.

“Anything usable?” Alex asked, watching her sort through the collection of rocks. When Lily didn’t immediately answer, Alex plopped down and pulled out a few rocks herself. “I think these ones might be good, yeah?”

Lily’s brows rose in surprise as she examined the proffered rocks. She beamed up at Alex, marveling at how quickly the girl caught on to everything she’d taught her. They’d escaped the bunker two days ago, and during that first night alone together, Lily hadn’t been sure of Alex. She tended to complain a lot, but Lily had soon learned her complaining was just something that made her feel better. A way for her to expel her negative energy and stay motivated. Alex attacked every challenge Lily threw at her with a determination to prove her worth that rivaled Lily’s own.

Alex studied Lily’s proud expression. “Yeah? I did good?”

Lily nodded. “I think you did good. Let’s see.” She raised her hammerstone and struck it against the smooth, lavender stone.

A razor-sharp flake separated from the rock, and Alex leapt up, pumping her fist and dancing around the fire. “Yes. Yes. Yes!” she howled before collapsing on the ground again. She shook her head at Lily. “I was getting really sick of lugging rocks up here.”

Lily bared her teeth in an apologetic wince. “Now that we know what type of rock will work…”

Her grin faded, and she let out a groan. “You magic that into a knife, and I go back to the quarry.” Alex bit the inside of her cheek, breathing deeply, then lifted back onto her feet.

Lily tried to contain her laughter as Alex shuffled away, grumbling and cursing under her breath.

***

“You can’t be serious!” Lily wheezed and clutched her ribs.

Alex was laughing so hard, tears streamed down her face. “Why would I lie? It was terrible. I was in my room, and I thought Ray had come over and used his new key to surprise me, so I got completely naked, not one scrap of clothing, and I put a rose between my teeth like we’d joked about the night before, and…”

They both laughed harder. Lily’s head was pounding.

“Then this big, oozing, purple thing with spikes coming out of its head appeared. And for just a second, I thought it was Ray dressed up like some weird sci-fi monster.”

Lily sipped warm water from the piece of wood she’d hollowed into a bowl. “What did you do?” She handed the bowl to Alex.

“I took a beat and thought about whether I was into Ray enough to deal with his weird fetish, of course! That’s when it sprayed me. Thank God the thing had enough sense to pick up my clothes from the floor after it knocked me out. I’m thinking it’d already gathered other humans and figured out that we normally wear clothes. Could you imagine me running through this place naked?”

Lily erupted in laughter again, reveling in how good it felt. For the past week, they’d been miserable. Using everything she knew, along with some educated guesses and a ton of luck, they’d managed to find a suitable shelter, build a stable fire, and disinfect enough water to not die of dehydration anytime soon. They’d also taken a big risk and started eating red fruits from a nearby tree. Lily had been against it at first, but after days of hiking through dense forest without any food and without any luck catching an animal using one of her snares, she’d conceded the reward outweighed the risk.

She’d been relieved and overjoyed when the fruit had not only proven safe to eat but had also given them a burst of energy, hinting they were much more nutrient dense than she’d initially assumed. They’d still need to find other sources of food at some point, but at least they wouldn’t become malnourished in the meantime.

Eventually their laughter subsided and they sat in amicable silence, bellies full of the tart fruit. The cave alcove they’d set up camp in was warm and cozy from the crackling fire. Lily stared into the bright green flames as Alex used a small stone to etch something onto another perfectly round rock.

It seemed an eternity ago that she’d been relaxing in her own backyard in Portland, staring into another fire. Only, that fire had been normal and mundane compared to the flickering green flames of the one she’d grown used to building on this planet. It must be some chemical in the wood that does it.

After a good amount of trial and error, they’d finally found a type of wood that burned slowly, allowing the fire to need tending every few hours rather than every few minutes. And as an added bonus, the green fire also had an odd, crisp, minty scent to it. Both Lily and Alex’s morale had been greatly boosted after they’d taken their first smoke baths and gone to sleep smelling fresh and clean.

There’d been a learning curve, but Lily was coming to realize this forest was quite bountiful. The frayed vines she’d noticed on her first night here had turned out to be trees, oddly enough. Instead of dropping seeds, it seemed these trees had saplings that grew downward, then sprouted roots and burrowed into the soil when they were low enough. Lily had marveled at the different stages of tree growth while hiking through the forest their whole first morning here.

Although still much sparser than she’d have expected, she saw in the light of day that there were in fact many types of odd-looking plants growing on the forest floor, but they tended to swarm the bases of the trees. Most plants, in fact, appeared to feed off the trees in some way.

It made sense the more she thought about it, considering the trees had the most access to sunlight. Vines with bright flowers, giant fuzzy fronds, and a plethora of other small greenery engulfed the trunks of the trees as if Mother Nature had gotten a little drunk and generous with her plant life Bedazzler. Even the young saplings, whose roots had not yet touched the ground, had small air plants and flowers attached to their lengths. Winged insects with fuzzy bellies and cheerful dispositions buzzed happily around the trees at all hours of the day and night. Lily enjoyed the lulling sound, while Alex groused about the noise nonstop, always swatting the creatures away, whether they were anywhere near her or not.

The large leaves that dominated the forest canopy were round and sturdy, almost the texture of leather. After examining a few decaying leaves, quickly being covered by bright green moss on the ground, Lily had used a thin sapling as a rope and inched to the canopy high above to gather more.

She pulled some of those leaves over to her now and stared at them, wondering how she could fashion them into shoe covers for her flats. 

“I think it’s time we talk about what comes next,” Alex murmured, interrupting her thoughts. She peered at Lily over the crackling flames. “We’ve been hiding out here for a week now, and there’s been no sign of anyone coming after us.”

They’d avoided having this talk until now, and Lily understood why. She’d avoided thinking about it herself. After they’d traveled far enough into the forest to feel safe, and the adrenaline exacerbating her flight instincts had dwindled, she’d too wondered…Now what?

“You want to leave.” Lily took another gulp of water, stalling. “Where would we go? And how do we know we wouldn’t end up locked in a cell again?”

“Maybe we can find a small city on the outskirts of town that has non-psychopathic aliens.”

Lily chuckled weakly and raised her head to study Alex. She’d been slim a week ago when they’d left. Now, the hollows under her high cheekbones looked more severe than she remembered.

Alex wasn’t lying when she’d said she had no wilderness experience, but the girl was tough. Lily had tried to teach her as much as she could about surviving on her own, in case they got separated. After all, death in a place like this was only a small cut and infection away. Alex complained but never lost focus, not even when the sinister little bugs that nipped at her bare ankles drew blood, or each night while they listened to the sounds of unseen animals shuffling nearby.

“It’s not like I want to spend the rest of my life like this. But at least out here, I’m in charge of my life.” She crossed her arms, resting her elbows on her knees and settling her chin on her forearms. “I agree with you, but…”

Emotion expanded Lily’s chest like a balloon waiting to pop.

Alex crossed over to her and sat down, tilting her head and resting it on Lily’s shoulder. “I’m scared too.”

They sat together like that for a long time, not speaking until finally Lily whispered, “We’ll leave tomorrow.”

***

The next morning, she and Alex groggily gathered their belongings. Lily had lain awake the whole night thinking about the days ahead and what they might find. Judging from the dark circles under her eyes, Alex had done the same.

They set off as the sun started shining light between the dense leaves and had been walking for a few hours when Lily heard the telltale signs of rushing water. She knew from watching the small minnows in the stream that, although odd-looking, fish did exist on this planet. She listened to the loud rush of water and deduced the river must be large enough to hold fully grown fish. She just had to weave a fish basket, and with any luck, they’d finally have some real protein.

“We need to keep heading downhill,” Lily called, hefting a bag Alex had weaved that contained their foraged supplies. “If you want to find a town, following the water is probably our best bet.”

They continued walking downhill and talking. Although she’d met Alex a week ago, she felt a strong kinship with the woman that she’d felt with only a few others in her life. They talked about Earth and the foods they wished they had at the moment. Both kept the conversation light and filled with humor to distract from the fear that at any moment they might come across a wandering alien.

They started discussing what a wild alien might look like, and Alex listed off fictional aliens from movies she’d seen. Lily hadn’t seen any of the movies she was describing, and a pestering voice in the back of her mind taunted that she’d likely never get the chance to see any of them now.

“I can’t believe you never saw Alien! I have to be in the right mood to watch sci-fi, but honestly, if it has Sigourney Weaver…I’m in,” Alex called over her shoulder.

A small twinge of annoyance shot through Lily again. Alex, as it turned out, was a movie buff; more than that, she’d been a movie reviewer back on Earth. Lily, on the other hand, hadn’t started watching movies until well into her teens. Unsurprising, considering TVs—and electricity, for that matter—weren’t commonly available in the middle of the jungle. “No, Alex. I haven’t seen Alien or The Shawshank Redemption or Titanic or any of the millions of movies you’ve mentioned so far,” she called back sarcastically.

“Alright. Alright. If we never make it back to Earth, just know I’ll be starring in and directing live-action remakes of all of them so you can truly experience them,” Alex vowed with a crooked grin.

Lily chuckled and slid down a slippery area of the hill before stopping herself. “I’m looking forward to your performances.”

Gradually the “slope” turned into a muddy, rocky descent that required all of their focus to navigate. Lily’s muscles burned, and she could feel the skin on her heels peeling and oozing as her one-size-too-small flats rubbed against the area over and over again. But they’d been on sale and out of my size, she mocked, annoyed with herself for being impulsive enough to have thought they’d be fine once broken in.

The next time they stopped, she’d need to fashion a pad or wrap to protect her heel. Until then, she’d have to ignore the annoying sting and focus on the distant sound of rushing water. The trees had thinned and the cloud-filtered sunlight illuminated their path, but the wet, mossy rock was still slippery and treacherous. One wrong foot placement, and you’d go tumbling down.

Although fit, Alex was obviously not used to traversing this type of terrain. Lily winced in sympathy when her poor friend’s leg slipped and scraped against rock yet again.

“I think we should stop and take a break,” she called down to Alex, who had paused while gripping a rock face in an awkward position.

“But the river sounds so close! No, I’m—” Alex lost her footing and slid the rest of the way down the rock to a patch of mud below. Blood trickled from an abrasion on her cheek.

Drops of water began to fall from the sky, and Lily had to stifle a laugh. From this position, Alex looked so pitiful sitting sprawled in muck and glaring at the sky through squinted eyes.

“Just stay there,” Lily called through her grin. She made her way down the rock face.

When she finally reached the bottom, Alex was back on her feet and glaring. “How did you do that so easily? You aren’t even wearing real shoes, and you’re carrying the bag!”

Lily gave a quick shrug and grinned.

Alex attempted to wipe the dirt off her faded blue shirt but only succeeded in smearing the mud and coating her hands. She held her palms up toward the drizzling rain. The small droplets bounced off the thick clay. “Fucking alien mud,” she cursed under her breath.

They continued forward, their soles growing heavy from the accumulating sticky mud clinging to their heels.

“It sounds like the river must be just up ahead,” Alex said, following a patch of relatively dry ground around a large rock face.

Lily followed behind but stopped to inspect a path of trampled vegetation. This could be a game trail. Hope and anxiety made her pulse quicken. A game trail meant animals that could be trapped and eaten, but it also meant alien fauna. Lily scanned the damp ground, looking for tracks. She’d come across a few tracks over the past week but hadn’t had any luck catching anything.

A piercing shriek rang through the silence, and Lily’s body erupted in pins and needles. She sprinted around the corner to the source of the scream. Her stomach plummeted.

Alex was hanging over a ledge, scraping at the mud for purchase. Without any roots to cling to, she was slipping away quickly. Lily dove, gripping Alex’s wrists just as she was about to fall. She held on with both hands and pulled, digging her elbows into the thick mud. Through gritted teeth, she said, “What the hell happened?”

“The ground gave out under me!” Alex kicked at the wall of dirt before her, trying to find a foothold, but she only managed to pull Lily through the mud until her head hung over the edge and Alex was dangling from her wrists. Tremors wracked Lily’s body, and her mind blanked for an instant as if wanting to retreat.

She tried to lift Alex’s weight, but the ground was too slippery. The earth below her torso sagged. They were going to fall. The weight of Alex was slowly dragging Lily over the edge, and she had nothing to brace against. She forced herself to calm and assess the situation like her mother had taught her.

Alex’s eyes were wide and panicked. “Don’t let go!”

Lily turned her focus to the river below and swallowed. Rapids. “Alex, look at me.” Alex’s wide eyes kept searching around her for something to grab onto. “Alex!” Lily shouted, drawing her attention. “I need you to listen carefully.”

Alex nodded, and tears leaked from her brown eyes.

Lily tried to keep her voice even and calm, but it trembled all the same. “We’re going in the river. There’s no way out of it.”

Alex released a quick sob but kept listening.

“When we hit the water, you need to flip on your back and float. Make sure your feet point downstream. Do you understand? If we get separated, don’t wait for me. Remember what I taught you and find a town. Keep heading downriver.” The ground below them dropped a few feet, and Lily yelled, “Don’t try to stand up or swim! If you go under, try to float on your back until you surface again! I won’t let go of you! Don’t—”

Before she could finish, the ground gave out and they were falling.

After they hit the water, everything was a blur. The ice-cold rapids sucked them under and buffeted them around. Lily managed to keep hold of Alex’s hand for longer than she’d have thought, but then they were rammed into a boulder and Alex was wrenched away from her. The sudden lightness on her shoulder told her she’d lost her bag as well. Lily stifled the urge to kick upward and instead rolled until her body was flat. Eventually she felt air on her face and gulped in a deep breath before being sucked under again. Each time she surfaced, she tried to tilt her head and look for Alex.

At last she spotted her a little farther upstream, floating on her back. Relief made Lily cry out just as she was sucked back under. When she emerged again, she lifted her head a fraction and spotted a large downed tree jutting into the river about half a mile downstream right after a relatively calm stretch of river.

Each time her face emerged above water, she screamed and pointed at the tree, hoping Alex would understand. Once the menacing undertow of the rapids lessened, she turned on her belly and swam across the current, positioning her body in the path of the tree. Chancing a glance over her shoulder, she saw Alex was doing the same. They might make it through this, after all.

As the tree drew near and the current picked up speed again, she braced for impact. Her feet hit first, sending shockwaves through her ankles and shins. Instead of being caught by the trunk, her body was dragged underneath it. She thrashed her arms, reaching out for any limbs she could grasp before the current swept her away, and clutched a sapling vine. She pulled on the vine until she surfaced again, then flipped onto her stomach and dragged her body halfway out of the water and onto a tangle of branches still clinging to the trunk.

She turned her head just in time to see Alex coming toward her. “Grab anything you can!” she screamed over the roaring sound of the rapids.

Lily’s stomach flipped when she realized Alex hadn’t swum far enough over to catch the tree. She scrambled as fast as she could up onto the trunk itself and shimmied toward the jagged edge sticking out into the river.

Alex managed to grab a single branch hanging from the tip of the tree, but the current was dragging her back toward the middle of the river. Lily crawled up the trunk as fast as she could; the broken nubs of lost branches cut into her inner thighs, but she barely felt the sting. All she could think about was the despair and sheer terror in Alex’s eyes. When Lily reached the edge of the trunk, she stretched her arm toward Alex as far as it would go. Alex kicked and thrashed against the current, trying to get closer, but it was no use.

The branch cracked near the base. Lily stretched, cantilevering herself over the rushing water toward the branch, just out of reach. She saw the moment Alex understood. Her eyes hardened like they had on the first night at the edge of the forest. Just before the branch broke off completely, she rolled onto her back.

“No!” Lily’s scream rose above the roar of the river as Alex’s dark brown hair disappeared under a swell.

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