Cassie lifted her head and placed her hand on the folded jacket she was using as a pillow. The metal zipper where her cheek had pressed against was hot. All around her, the floor of the cave was cold and damp, but her body heat had warmed the soil. How much higher would her temperature go?
After she became ill weeks ago, her mom and dad had stuck the thermometer under her tongue every hour, it seemed. One would read the display, show it to the other, and they’d both grimace. Then, with furrowed brows, they’d force smiles, and one would tell her she was doing better, followed by the other nodding in agreement, saying, “Cass, all you need is some rest,” or something like that.
One hundred and three degrees. That was the last reading Cassie remembered them telling her. Or had she overheard them whispering to each other. Or had her mom told that to her dad in the upstairs bedroom while Cassie was on the couch in the living room. As her fever had worsened, her hearing had improved.
Cassie heard the beat of her dad’s heart. He was lying next to her, half covered with a plastic garbage bag. His heart was now racing. It told her he was awake. Pretending to be asleep, she had listened as the rhythmic lub-dub had slowed and his breathing became deeper, and she had wished he would drift asleep. Then a thought or dream had startled him and his heart once again started galloping.
Had Dad relived his conversation with Emerson? The man on the radio who was holding mom captive had given him an ultimatum. Trade her, Cassie, for her mother, Eve. Swap child for an adult, but not just any child. Cassie had watched as Dad brought the radio to his lips and paused a long time, ready to respond to Emerson. Cassie's throat had been thick with fear. Then Dad had cursed silently and turned the radio off.
The cave was silent except for the ringing hum of crickets in the tall grass outside.
The voices were getting louder, but nobody else could hear them.
Cassie opened one eye a crack. Her dad was on his back, the radio wedged under his arm, locked between his elbow and ribcage. Moonlight through the cave’s mouth provided just enough light for her to see that his eyes were closed.
She shut her eyes and wondered why she considered him her dad. The question startled her and she jerked her arm so violently that she nearly hit him, which would have revved up his heart rate. Then he might never have fallen asleep. Then what?
Cassie used to think about her parents all the time. What was a mother? What was a father? She had known forever that Eve and Jared were not her mom and dad, and yet they were her parents. She had never understood why she had stopped asking herself those questions. Maybe it was because she loved them and they loved her and that was enough.
She breathed in slowly and exhaled a silent whistle between cracked lips. The fever was swelling her tongue and parching her lips. It was causing her to think about certain things again and it was agitating the voices. The fever was pushing her toward the splash of pale green on the horizon.
Her dad’s heart rate dropped suddenly and leveled out. She opened her eyes and used her nose as a fixed point to measure the steady rise and fall of his chest. She had to act before his next nightmare kicked in, before Emerson’s threat echoed in his mind again.
Cassie reached her arm out and held her hand above the radio until her arm was shaking. She pulled her arm back and sat up. The blood pounding in her ears was muting both the crickets outside and the chorus of voices inside. At ABC, they had taught her many survival tricks, but the saying she liked the most was this: “Hunt like a wolf, survive like a fox.” She had to plan for the worst.
Dad had piled up branches at the cave entrance. He had told her it was to make the cave warmer, but she knew it was to slow down an intruder long enough for him to take aim with his gun.
The branches would slow her down, too. If she awakened him by accident, it would be impossible for her to race to the mouth, clear away the blockage, and escape into the night. He’d grab her first. She’d blame her behavior on a nightmare, and he would believe her. He would hug and comfort her, and keep her in his sight, but then Cassie would have to find a way to do the unthinkable to one of the people she loved most.
Cassie’s stomach dropped as she eyed the pistol within easy reach.
She flushed all thoughts from her mind and then tiptoed like a fox. She carefully and as quietly as possible took apart the barricade. Straight ahead, an overgrown lawn led to a pine grove which turned into dense forest, all of it covered by a veil of pale moonlight. She’d slept and foraged in those woods before, pretending she was alone, when really an instructor was following her every move, ready to assist if she had got into trouble. Cassie had cried out in fear every time and the instructor came running. Now she had to make her way through the frightening dark forest to reach the light that was pulling her.
Cassie shivered when her dad mumbled. She held her breath and exhaled a sigh of relief when he remained quiet.
She moved close to him and went down on one knee. She could ease the radio from the crook of his arm, or she could rip it and run. Wanting to get far away from the cave before he awoke, Cassie reached out and as her hand was hovering above his chest, she felt her heart stop. Her fingertips were glowing. She gulped and the sound that came from her throat was a soft croak.
Her dad’s eyes shot open.
Cassie grabbed the radio and jerked it from his grasp. For a millionth of a second, they made eye contact, neither moving.
She turned and raced out of the cave.
“Cassie,” he shouted.
She tripped in the grass and sprawled out in the icy dew, the radio firmly in her grasp. She was halfway to the pine grove when her dad emerged from the cave. “Cassie,” he kept shouting.
Sprinting through the tall grass, she didn’t dare look back, fearing she might trip again. She could hear him thrashing through the grass as she was dodging pine trees. She heard him huffing and huffing and branches slapping against his body as she was enduring the pain of branches slapping her face. He had stopped calling her name, perhaps because his lungs were burning the same as hers.
As she went deeper into the forest, the trees were taller and the branches above screened the moonlight. Soon it was impossible to see where she was going, and she ran with both arms extended in front of her.
“Cassie. Cassie. Cassie.”
He had stopped. He was far back, so she slowed because it was safer, but she wanted to keep moving.
Now she could barely hear her dad, but still she kept moving.
Finally, she stopped and doubled over, trying to catch her breath. She took small steps and her toe struck something hard. With her hands, she identified the object as a large tree that had toppled. Survive like a fox, but hide like a rabbit.
She crawled on her knees until she was under a tent of the fallen tree’s branches. She was alone in the woods with the voices in her head and the radio.
She turned on the radio, brought it to her lips, and pressed the button. “Hello.”
“Identify yourself.” The gruff reply crackled immediately.
Cassie recognized the voice. Emerson.
“Who is this?”
“I want to speak to my mom.”
“Cassie?” Emerson blurted.
“I want to speak to my mom.”
“Cassie, where are you?” Emerson asked. “You have to tell. Where are you?”
As Emerson spoke, Cassie listened. Behind and between and around his words, she heard her voice. Cassie heard her mom crying out, gasping. Then Emerson said, “Here she is.”
Cassie’s heart pounded as she brought the radio close to her ear.
“Cassie, it’s mom.”
“Mom, I’m coming,” she said and turned off the radio.