Date: Year 14, day 9.
Location: Memphis, Tennessee.
Things I need to worry about today: Getting back across the Mississippi. River monsters?
I was standing on the top of a grassy hill, all alone. I wasn’t in sight of the school, and I didn’t have a buddy with me, which was a violation of rule twelve, so I suspected I was dreaming. Well, there was an easy way to test that hypothesis. I held my arms out and ran down the hill. The wind caught me and lifted me off the ground and I shot across the field, my toes just skimming the tops of the grass. I knew it was only a dream, but I was flying! I was about to try a loop when I started losing altitude and the scene grew fuzzy. Oh, not now! Not when I could fly! I tried to hold on, but everything faded out.
Reluctantly I opened my eyes. I was in the Hotel Memphis. Bright sunlight streamed through the window. I could vaguely remember dragging myself in here last night and collapsing onto the bed. Pippen was sleeping comfortably in the next bed. Well, her head was hanging off the edge, and there was a thin stream of drool sliding out of the corner of her mouth and dripping onto the carpet, but that’s comfortable for Pippen. I slid out of bed and staggered to the bathroom.
On the way back out, I caught sight of myself in the mirror. Yeesh! I had half-healed scratches across my face from wrestling with a snake. A few days ago my hair had been in a braid. Now it was just a tangled mess. I barely looked like a girl. I stopped, stunned. Wait a minute! I was a girl! Other than Pippen, who I knew Conner was not in love with, there were eight other girls in the clan, not seven! Last night when I’d tried to remember any girl Conner had given a dead mouse to, I’d been leaving myself out. But Conner had given me several gifts lately. He’d given me my magic screwdriver pin. He’d given me a roll of duct tape. Duct tape was a pretty serious gift. And he’d given me a knife. Conner had given me a knife! Was my “big brother” in love with me? This was terrible! I didn’t want a sweetie, I wanted a best friend! I had to put a stop to this. I stumbled through the door into the next room where Tan and Conner were pulling down the sleeping bags from the curtain rod where they’d been drying.
“Conner,” I demanded, “you don’t think…I mean, you’re not actually…” But then Conner looked at me with those deep brown eyes, and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t hurt his feelings. “Uh…don’t forget, we’re going to need to pick up two new propane tanks for the creature,” I finished lamely.
After a quick breakfast of canned peaches and maple syrup from the kitchen, we loaded up Arnold. At the third gas station we tried, we found propane tanks in a metal cage out front. Conner pried the cage open, and loaded two full tanks into the Humvee while I topped off the jerry cans and Tan and Pippen got water and food from the gas station store. Now we had enough supplies to get the creature and ourselves to the other side of the Mississippi. We drove to the river and down to the bank to the tree where we’d tied up our makeshift ferry.
The creature was gone.
I ran up to the tree, feeling sick. With the bridges out, the creature was our only way across the river. “Conner, why didn’t you tie it carefully?”
“Hey, I used two half hitches, just like in the Boy Scout Handbook!”
“Are you sure this is the right tree?” Tan asked.
I nodded. “I remember it was the big tree right on the edge of the water. And this is the only big tree on the edge of the water, so unless the trees have moved…”
Tan looked around. “Actually, I think the water moved. It’s a lot lower than before.”
“Hey guys!” called Pippen from further up the bank. “Look what I found!”
It was the creature, still tied to the tree. But it was stranded on land now, twenty feet from the edge of the water.
“Well, that’s a relief,” said Tan. “But now how do we get the creature back into the water, and how do we get the Humvee back on?”
Tan was right; we did have a problem. Getting Arnold onto the creature the first time had been easy because the creature was already floating at the end of the dock and we drove right on. This time was going to be a bit harder. I closed my eyes and went over the pieces of the puzzle. First there was the creature itself. It was a light aluminum platform with black plastic floats underneath. The floats were smooth on the bottom, and the ground was muddy, so we could probably use Arnold to drag the creature down to the water, but then how were we going to get Arnold on board? If we tried to drive on, the creature would just float away. The dock was only a couple of feet high. We might be able to drive Arnold on while the dock was on land, but then what? Wait for the water to rise? I knew the ocean went up and down with the tides, but I didn’t think rivers knew about tides. I just didn’t have all the pieces I needed to solve this puzzle. It was totally cheating, but I opened one eye and looked around.
“Got it!” I said. “Conner and Tan, I want you to back Arnold onto the dock. You might need to get some logs and put them along the edge of the dock to help Arnold climb up. Pippen, help me dig the outboard propellor out of the mud and tip the motor up so it’s out of the way.
Soon we had Arnold sitting on the creature again.
“Spiff, but we’re not in the water,” Tan pointed out.
I got out the winch remote and started spooling out the cable. “Conner, feel like a swim?” In answer, Conner removed the crowbar from his belt, then sat down and took his boots off. I spooled out all hundred feet of cable, piling it on the dock in big loops. I passed the cable through a sturdy metal ring on the front end of the dock and handed the hook to Conner. “See that wrecked barge out there in the water? Go hook this to it.”
Conner clipped the hook to the back of his belt and waded out into the water. Soon he was swimming, stroking hard to keep the weight of the steel cable from dragging him down. He climbed onto the barge and had barely enough slack left to snap the cable around a twisted pipe.
I started the Humvee engine and flipped the remote switch and the winch whined, pulling in the cable. We were facing sideways along the bank, but as soon as the cable tightened, the dock lurched and twisted to face the river, shoving the temporary log ramp aside. The ring on the dock groaned from the strain, but it held, and slowly we slid across the muddy ground. Pippen whooped and ran to the front of the dock and struck a dramatic pose like the carving on the front of a ship. We reached the water and slid in with barely a splash. We were floating almost immediately and slowly winched our way over to Conner.
I patted the creature. “Who’s a good unholy mutant construct? You are! Yes you are!”
When we reached the wreck, Conner stepped aboard. Tan set up his lawn chair on the roof of the Humvee again. I left the creature hooked to the wreck so it wouldn’t drift downstream while I tipped the motor back so the propellor was in the water and hooked up one of the two new propane tanks. I lit the vent pipe, touched the jumper cables to the starter, and the motor roared to life.
“Take her out, mister Callahan!” Tan bellowed. “Heave to and raise the mizzenmast!”
Soon we were in deep water and headed back up the river. Pippen came back to where I was running the outboard. “Callie, what if instead of going all the way back up the river, we just cross here, and drive the rest of the way? We can drive a lot faster than we can, uh, boat.”
“True, but we already know this route. As long as we watch out for underwater wrecks, and don’t dangle our little feet in the water, we’re safe. If we take another route, we could run into washed-out roads, wild animals, hordes of zombies. It’s a question of whether we want to face new dangers or ones we already know about.”
She nodded. “I guess so. And we’re not in any hurry. Better to make it back safe.”
I still had the problem of Conner. He always knew how I was feeling, even when I didn’t say anything. Once he realized that I knew he was in love with me, there wasn’t going to be any way I could avoid telling him I didn’t love him back, and that was going to crush the big dorp’s heart. I decided the only way was to avoid Conner entirely. I would not talk to him or let him get close to me until we got home. That would take another four days. I sighed. It was going to be a long trip.
If I hadn’t recognized the names of the towns we passed, I’d have thought we were on a different river now. Sand bars had formed in the middle of the river. The tops of dead boats stuck out of the water. Tan called out directions from his chair up top. He was concentrating so hard he sometimes forgot to do the Captain Ahab voice. It turned out I didn’t have to work very hard to avoid Conner. He leaned up against a Humvee tire, jeans rolled up and feet bare, casting his makeshift fishing line in the river. All he needed was a straw hat and some hay to chew on. Pippen was on the other side, fishing for revenge. She had stuffed one of Tan’s latex gloves with gauze, attached it to the end of a stick, and was dragging the fingertips in the water. In her other hand, she held a thick branch with one of Conner’s knives lashed to the end of it.
A huge barge lay on its side in the water. “Take her to the right, Mister Callahan!” called Tan. “There’s room between the wreck and the sandbar!”
I steered carefully through the gap. The rusty wall of the barge slid past us on the left.
We had just gotten back into open water when Conner yelled, “Hey, I got one!”
The line on Conner’s paddle twanged as it snapped tight. Whatever he’d caught, it was big! Being careful not to grab the line with his hands, he rolled it around the shaft of the paddle. Bit by bit, he pulled in something that thrashed and kicked up water. I stopped the boat, and Pippen tied us to the barge so we wouldn’t drift downstream. Conner leaned over the side with a hunting knife in his hand. In one swift motion, he swept his knife through the water and lifted a huge flopping fish onto the deck. It was four feet long, but almost half that length was a bizarre nose shaped like a paddle handle. The fish had a gigantic mouth but no teeth. It hadn’t swallowed the bait; the hook had snagged its tail. Tan climbed down for a closer look.
“Any idea what this is?” Conner asked Tan.
He nodded knowingly. “It’s a monster.”
“I wonder what monster tastes like?” asked Pippen.
Monster tasted a lot like rabbit.
After lunch, the first propane tank felt very light, so I switched to the second one, and steered us up the river again. I fiddled with the propane mixture, trying to look really involved, so Conner wouldn’t try to talk to me. This stupid love thing was mucking up what used to be a perfect friendship!
Finally in late afternoon, we rounded the final bend in the river, and we could see it: the shortened boat dock where our river trip had started. The pile of drifted junk was still there, including the houseboat where we’d spent the night. I was relieved to see it again, since it meant our dangerous river journey was over. Now we just had a prairie full of wolves, bear-infested mountains, a landslide, and the deadly desert to get through. I slung my backpack.
“I’m going to try to steer us right up to the dock,” I said. “Get the rope out and see if you can tie us up.”
Conner stood on the front edge, rope in hand and boots slung around his neck. Suddenly the outboard motor coughed and died. We started to drift back downstream. Without the motor, I had no way to steer. “What’s the matter?” I asked the creature. “Why did you stop?”
The creature made a sputtering noise from its vent pipe, then the flame popped and went out. I understood immediately. The second propane tank was empty! It had taken us longer to go upstream than downstream. I was struggling to switch back to the first propane tank when Tan yelled out, “Mister Cala…Callie! Wreck in the water!”
I turned and saw the telltale metal beams sticking up a few inches above the surface. There was nothing I could do. We hit sideways, and I heard our plastic floats crunch. Tan tumbled off his chair and crashed to the deck. The water kept pushing us, but we were stuck on the wreck. The creature started to tip.
“Balance the boat!” I screamed.
It was too late. In sickening slow motion, the upstream edge of the creature dipped under the water and the side against the wreck rose. Tan and Pippen and Conner slid into the water. I wrapped my arms around the outboard motor. Arnold clung to the deck as the boat tipped further and further. Finally the angle was too much for even the mighty Humvee, and Arnold slid into the river with a gigantic splash.
The creature, freed from the weight, shot upward, yanking the motor out of my hands, and I fell into the muddy water. I struggled back to the surface, whipping my head to clear the wet hair from my eyes. The creature drifted downstream, upside-down. Tan clung to an empty jerry can, blood streaming from a gash on his forehead. Conner was treading water. He kicked hard and lifted himself up in the water, looking around for Pippen. I saw her near me, doggy paddling and trying desperately to keep her head above the water.
“Conner!” I yelled. “Save the shut-off! I’ll get Pippen!”
Conner took several deep breaths then dove beneath the surface. I swam to Pippen and grabbed the back of her shirt. Tan looked dazed. “Tan! This way!” I yelled, and struck out for the shore.
Pippen weighed a ton. Swimming with one arm and kicking hard, I was barely able to keep her head above water.
“Here!” Tan shouted, shoving the jerry can at me.
We managed to pull Pippen’s arms over the can. Then Tan and I held onto the can, and together we kicked our way toward the shore.
My feet hit something and I realized we’d gotten to shallow water. Tan and I stood up and dragged a coughing Pippen along with us until we collapsed on the bank. Tan looked around. “Where’s Conner?”
I pointed back toward the river. “Saving the shut-off factor!” I gasped.
Tan squinted at the unbroken surface of the river. “How long?”
I knew the answer. With all my heart I wished I didn’t know, but I couldn’t shut off the timer in my head. “Ninety seconds,” I said.