The river churned, black and thick as tar under the cloak of dusk. A few stars dotted the sky and Cassie Martin looked for Polaris, the one that was supposed to point her back home.Was it at the end of the Little Dipper or the big one? She couldn’t remember as she wound her way along the river, listening to the chilling night sounds surrounding her. She smelled the smoke and heard the popping sounds of roaring campfires, and more than once she wanted to run to one of them - to tell whoever was tending to s’mores that she was lost and afraid, and could they please escort her back to her cabin? But fear kept her along the river. She had secretly watched enough scary movies to know that the woods were full of bad things - bears and werewolves and crazy people, and as long as she stayed to the river, she would find her way back and be okay.
She shouldn’t have been so stupid, she told herself. She knew there was no such thing as a Snipe, but she went along with the hunt because her brother and her best friend Jenn had teased her about being afraid of everything.
“I am not,” she said, fists balled up.
“Then prove it,” Jenn returned. “Come with me and we’ll find a Snipe. We’ll show these boys that girls are better.”
“Yeah, show us you’re better,” Kevin echoed.
Only Kevin’s friend Josh seemed worried, elbowing him in the ribs. “They’re only nine,” Josh reminded him.“So? At nine we were sneaking beer out of dad’s cooler. These girls need to man up. We can’t be around to take care of them forever.”
“We don’t need you anyway,” Cassie said, looping her arm through Jen’s. “Where was that snipe? We’ll find it and bring it back and then I want you to admit that girls are better than boys.”
“If you bring us a Snipe, I promise I’ll admit that girls are better than boys.” Kevin spit into his hand. Cassie spit on hers too, and the siblings shook on it.
The problem was that Jenn had disappeared a few minutes after they had folded into the woods. She said she had to pee behind a tree and had never come out. Now Cassie was alone and disoriented. She remembered that the creek ran behind the cabins, and if she could just follow the creek…
But the stream was swollen this year. “Almost double the normal rain,” her father said. It didn’t trickle - it gushed. And when the sun had disappeared, it looked like a winding sinister serpent, crawling along beside her, ready to eat her up.
Still, it was better than the woods.
“Kevin!” she called out. “Jen! Josh?” Her words were met with a low howling sound, followed by utter silence.
Josh had told her that if she was ever lost, she should find a place and wait that someone would come for her. She spotted a stump near a fork in the river and sat down, looking up at the full summer moon, counting the fireflies that buzzed around her. It would have been beautiful if she weren’t so scared.
“One Mississippi,” she counted slow to take her mind off her fear. “Two Mississippi.”
She heard another howling sound, this one closer. It was quickly followed by another, and then a whole pack of yelps and whines echoed through the trees.
Dad would come. He always came. He’d realize that she was missing and then he’d round everyone up to find her, and Jenn as well.
The howling sounds grew closer and Cassie shivered, wrapping her arms around her chest to shield herself from the night. But when she heard several twigs break just feet away, she knew she wasn’t safe. She bolted from her spot and raced along the river’s edge, watching it churn towards its unseen destination. But the clearing ended and the woods deepened. She spun around, uncertain where to go.
And then she saw them. Not her family, nor the wild dogs whose cries filled the night.
The Shadow People.
They fell from the trees, slithering down the branches and marched towards her.They were more terrible than wild animals or werewolves or even crazy people.
Cassie turned and charged in the opposite direction, screaming as she went.
But her foot hit a sleek stone and she slipped, falling backwards into the raging water.
She went under but managed to grab a branch extending out from the bank, holding on to it for dear life while her feet pulled her downstream. She couldn’t hold long. At any second she would lose her grip and drift away.“Help!” she called, knowing her words were lost to the night. Above her the North Star shone. “Mom, if you can hear me,” she whimpered in desperation. “Please save me.”
A figure emerged from the woods. A boy, not much taller than herself.
“Help!” she called again, choking back icy water. The comic book she’d been reading tore out of her sweater pocket and disappeared.
“Cassie!” It was Josh. He charged right for her, grabbing her hand just as she lost her grip on the branch.He stooped down and pulled her from the river’s maw, then removed his flannel jacket and wrapped it around her shivering body. She hugged him, nearly crying as she rubbed her nose into his chest.
“I love you, Josh,” she whispered.
Suddenly, her father, brother and Jenn appeared, all racing towards them.
“Thank God you’re alright,” her father said, scooping her up in his arms. “You can’t go traipsing off by yourself like that, young lady. You’ve got to learn to be careful. Promise me.”
Behind him, her brother Kevin’s eyes were imploring. If she told about the Snipe hunt, he’d be in big trouble. She nodded. “I promise.”
Her father carried her back to the cabin but it was Josh she watched. He tromped behind them, his eyes as wide as the moon’s.
He had always been her brother’s best friend, but that night he became more.
He became her hero.