The forest was silent and still, the hush almost expectant. Like the place was waiting for something to happen.
Jack River shivered as he stood there in the crisp morning air. He zipped up his hooded sweatshirt, and then pressed on through the sprawling spruces and towering pines. Their cold Christmas smell filled his head as they stood untouched by falls orange fingers. The trees scratched at him and scattered needles as he left the trail to push further into the thick undergrowth.
Moments later, Jack stopped again. It was crazy, but he couldn help feeling there was something in the forest, lurking just out of view. Watching him. He looked all around him. Everything remained still.
The silence began to creep Jack out so he crashed on noisily, just so there was something to hear. What a lame idea, he thought as he struggled through a tangle of vines into a clearing. Been watching too many late-night movies. But he looked again for any trace of movement in the trees and bushes, just in case.
e you complaining for? Jack asked himself, crossly. You wanted some space to yourself, remember?
Snatches of conversations came back to him as he walked on.
His mom, pleading. I know you
e sixteen now, Jack, but you can go camping with your friends next year, honey. Just one more family vacation, OK?
His dad was red-faced and scowling. One last family vacation. That was the deal, remember? You know this means a lot to your mom.
His kid brother, Joe. You never want to hang out with me these days, Jack. You
e just no fun anymore.
His buddy Corey, shook his head in sympathy. So your parents are making you go on vacation with them? You sure flunked out there, man.
Finally, himself. This morning. Stomping out of the familys holiday cabin in the Seattle hills. Slamming the door behind him. Seven days stuck here is going to drive me crazy!
Jack felt a twinge of guilt. He knew his mom would be upset again. He knew his dad would be calming her down right now, telling her it was OK. Hed be spouting the usual garbage about Jack being at a difficult age. That one ate at Jack. What was difficult was having no time and space to himself! Hell, at sixteen he should have a little independence!
Right now, his friends would be camping out at Yosemite, having a real vacation. Jack was missing out on that for a week of being the obedient son.
A twig cracked underfoot, sounding like a rifle shot. Jacks heart thudded. He looked quickly around, half-expecting the sound to have brought something out of hiding.
But nothing moved.
The sun began to emerge from behind the billowy clouds overhead. Jack felt its warm touch on his skin. Pushing away his thoughts, he pressed on along a winding path. Somewhere ahead of him a welcome noise whispered into the silence: the rushing and gurgling of fast-running water.
Youll love the river, his father had promised him on the long drive from Denver. I and Gramps used to make camp there when I was a kid. Its some sight.
Jack had just yawned. Sure I will, Dad. A river. Awesome.
Now, as Jack followed the sound, it grew louder and throatier. Finally, it led him into a leafy glade, drenched with sunshine. A sloping shelf of mud led down to the riverbank. White light sparkled in the clear waters speeding past. Jack smiled. OK, Dad, he said to himself. So maybe you were right.
It was a pretty awesome sight. The chill had gone from the air, and the walk had left Jack hot and sweaty. The water looked too good to resist.
But you can go swimming there, his dad had continued. The currents too strong. Drags you down into the rapids. Youd never escape, hed warned.
Jack hesitated, listening to the roar of the water. Now the river had dared break the silence in the forest, he felt more confident. He wouldn swim. But he could try a little wading. It wouldn be so bad in the shallows. Then hed go back to the cabin and tell Dad about how the old river had worked its magic, just as it had on him and Gramps. Dad would be pleased and Mom would forget about all the arguing.
He kicked off his Nikes, stripped off and scrambled down the bank. Maybe hed bring Joe to the river later.
The water was dark up close. Jack drew a sharp breath, and then, keen to get the shock of the cold over with, he splashed quickly into the river.
When he was up to his middle he crouched down, whooping as the water closed over his shoulders. He grinned and shivered. Then he shut his eyes, held his nose, and sank his head beneath the shimmering surface.
It was a shame Joe wasn here, Jack thought. He felt a pang of guilt. Joe was right: Jack hadn had much time for him lately. He and Joe had always played this game whenever they went to the swimming pool. Sinking in the water like stones. Enjoying the weird way sound filtered through the water. Feeling the pressure in their heads. Seeing how long they could hold their breath.
Suddenly Jack heard something. A kind of muffled roaring sound, carried to him by the murky ripples of the river. First, he thought it was just the pressure of his lungs wanting air; the dizzying rush of blood thundering in his temples. But the noise got louder – somehow angry, even threatening.
The clear water began to churn rhythmically around him. Something was approaching.
Jack burst up choking from the surface of the river. He wiped his dark hair back from his eyes, blinking rapidly as he tried to get his bearings.
The roar came again, low and guttural. Terrified, Jack groped blindly for the riverbank, tumbling forward through the water.
Something was wrong – the river was getting deeper, not shallower. At last, his eyes cleared. He was looking into the centre of the river. He twisted his body around to face the bank.
Towering above him on its hind legs, barring his way back to safety, was the massive bulk of a full-grown grizzly bear. Its dark fur was sleek and wet. Heavy brows were knitted over black beady eyes. Its jaws gaped wide open as it bellowed in anger. Huge arms reached out for him. Dagger-like claws scythed the air.
Jack stared around wildly for some kind of escape route. There was none. The bear roared again, powering its heavy frame through the water towards him. Jack panicked and backed away. He mustve disturbed the thing digging its den ready for the winter. Wasn that the kind of thing bears did? He tried to focus, clear his rush of thoughts, but the water was up to his chin now. Only one fact about bears came to mind.
They eat anything.
The creature lunged forward, its huge body bearing down on him. Tom fell backwards at the same moment, as the riverbed gave way beneath him. He launched into an awkward backstroke, splashing his feet up at the bear and shouting to try and scare it off.
The animal watched and snarled, but it didn try to follow Jack out into the water.
Jack felt relief surge through his shivering body. Then he froze mid-stroke as he felt the current coiling around his arms and legs, dragging him away.
The currents too strong, Dad had told him. You would never escape.
Jack cursed himself. The bear had only let him go because it knew these waters better than he did. Bracing himself, Jack launched into a powerful crawl, aiming for the far side of the bank. It was only fifty metres or so.
His arms windmilled until they cramped, but Jack found the bank was getting further away, not nearer. He was being tugged downriver.
Drags you down into the rapids.
Jack saw the huge form of the bear dwindle to a dark speck, and the glade vanish from view entirely. Then his head dipped underwater as the river picked up speed. Frantically, he kicked his legs, trying to keep afloat, but it was impossible to keep upright now. Tree branches dangled temptingly overhead. He bobbed up with arms outstretched, desperately grabbing for one. Wooden needles grazed his fingers but slipped from his grip. The sky spun crazily above him as the water whirled and foamed, dragging him under again and again. Each time Jacks head reached above water he gulped for air.
Then all the breath was slammed from his body as the current swept him into a massive rock. Choking on water, Jack realised the rapids were just getting started. He tumbled past one more huge rock, worn smooth and round. He reached for it clumsily but was going too quickly now to hold on. He was still reaching out for the boulder when he smashed his head against another. The world turned red as blood washed into his eyes. The current was dizzying, he was like a rag doll helpless in the grip of a whirlpool. Head pounding, too weak to resist any longer, Jack felt himself going down for what he was sure would be the last time …
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