Her skin was still warm from the water, but the color was too pale. She wasn’t breathing.
“I’ll get you back up, Stephanie,” Jason whispered. “They’ll fix you.” Still holding her arm, he pulled her toward shore using the mangled fence as a lifeline. As he did he realized that the fence not only led to shore, but up the side of the canyon itself.
He could see it, a trail of smashed plants along the shore and a line tracing up the canyon wall and into the mists above. Jason hadn’t even dared to hope of finding a way up, but there it was.
He managed to pull Stephanie up onto the shore, and lay her on her back. Her eyes were half open, and it seemed like she was looking at him, but she wouldn’t move. “You’re just scared,” he whispered. “You saw the monsters, and …” He didn’t finish.
Watching her eyes, he moved his head back and forth but her blank gaze didn’t follow.
A dark, sad thought kept coming to him, but he pushed it away. He desperately pretended it wasn’t there. Standing up, he looked carefully at the track of twisted fence. On his own he could probably make his way straight up to the wall of the canyon, but carrying Stephanie? No. It was too much a tangled mess, with cables and rubbery branches wrapped around and strewn here and there. Jason bent down and tried to pick Stephanie up in his arms, but her body was so limp it made it hard. He ended up dragging her along the claw-marked path, making it as far as the junction before seeing another one of the monsters.
This one was smaller than the first, but seemed more alert.
It came down the path from the canyon wall waving its feelers and snorting. Jason saw eyes that looked like black glass imbedded in its head. They seemed to be staring at him, and he gasped in fear and dragged Stephanie back to the spot where he’d hidden from the other one, pulling her through the branches and up against the boulder. The snorting sound followed him, and he saw the feelers enter the tangle of branches and the head poke its way through.
He pulled Stephanie around the rock and beyond, pushing deeper into the tangle. The beast followed, reaching the boulder and pushing it out of the way. The boulder rolled up onto one side and tottered. Jason, struggling to pull the both of them through the tangle of rubbery plants, felt something hit him lightly on the leg and then on his shoulder. He looked up and saw feelers wavering around his head and a large mouth slightly open, easily big enough to swallow both Stephanie and himself at the same time.
“Go away!” Jason shouted at the thing. “Leave us alone!” He swung angrily at the feelers, and managed to connect.
At the same time, the teetering boulder lost its balance and rolled over, landing on one of the creature’s feet. The creature snorted once, then reared up with a loud, huffing grunt, turning back to attack the boulder. Jason watched with a sense of satisfaction, thinking he had scared it off. He heaved a sigh and turned around, then took a hold of Stephanie and resumed pulling her through the tangle.
He found the fence and was able to follow it to the canyon wall. The mist was thick up here, but through it he could see large holes dug into the sandstone and claw marks going straight up the wall. The fence, twisted as it was, made a good ladder, but Jason couldn’t climb and hold onto Stephanie at the same time. He stood with her body crumpled at his feet, wondering what to do.
Somewhere in the foliage behind him he could hear one of the beasts crashing around.
Finally Jason pulled Stephanie’s jacket off of her and used the sleeves to make a sling. He looped it under her arms and over his, then managed to get to his feet. He was wearing Stephanie like a backpack, but it was a heavy backpack. Taking one more determined breath, he started climbing up the twisted, fallen fence.
The crashing and snorting sounds of the beast came closer.
Jason paused in his climbing and looked around, but he could see nothing through the mist. He resumed his climb, going slowly, making sure of his grip. His burden was heavy, and it wasn’t long before he began wondering just how far he’d be able to climb before he gave in to exhaustion.
The snorting sound was right below him. Jason looked down and saw a shadow in the mist, and feelers tapping at the wall just under his feet. It motivated him to climb another several meters, but then he had to stop and hang on. His breath just couldn’t come fast enough, and Stephanie felt twice as heavy. She was pulling him down, trying to make him fall. Jason was starting to get angry about it. Why did she have to go to the canyon? he thought. Why did she make me follow her?
Jason realized he was wasting his strength trying to carry her up the wall. He had to face it, she was dead. She had drowned in the river and there was nothing he could do about it. Hanging there in the mist, he began to cry. He felt so hopeless.
Then the fence moved. The cables in his hands tightened and gave off a peculiar twang, and he and the fence slid down and over a meter. The monster was still below, and it was climbing after him.
From above, he heard voices. Distant, grown-up voices.
“There’s something climbing up the fence,” a man’s voice shouted.
“Another one of those damn things is coming up here!”
Jason yelled out for help as loud as his tired lungs could muster, then he hung there, panting. Once again, he felt the rude tapping of a feeler on his leg, and in annoyance and spite he gave it a kick. The monster gave off a fierce snort.
“Heeeeeelllpppp!” Jason yelled. He tried climbing some, but couldn’t. It took all the effort he had left just to hang on.
“There’s a kid down there!” someone from above was shouting.
“One of the kids is down there!” He heard scrambling sounds, like boots sliding on dirt, and little rocks came tumbling down on him.
“Hang on, kid!” the man’s voice yelled. Another, more distant voice shouted: “We found the kids!”
The monster’s head lunged upwards, huge claws raking at the canyon wall. The feelers were all over Jason now, tapping, prodding. The head moved slowly up and back, nose coming down, so that the mouth was level with Jason’s shoulders. Claws sunk into the sandstone to either side of him. The snorting sounds were very loud, and close together, like the creature was excited.
“Hang on, kid!” came the call again from above. Jason could feel vibrations in the cables, like there was someone making his way leisurely down toward him. The feelers were slapping up against him so hard they were nearly knocking him off. He saw the gaping mouth opening and the long, sharp-looking teeth a meter away, and he couldn’t climb up. Instead, he began climbing down.
The creature leaned forward to bite, but its nose hit the sandstone a half-meter above Jason’s head. It snorted and pulled back. Jason climbed down another few meters. The creature moved its head back and forth in frustration, unable to bend its neck down far enough to reach him.
Jason heard more yelling from above, but couldn’t make sense of the frantic words. He kept looking at the huge mass of the beast’s grey-green belly an arm-length away. There was a horrible scraping sound as the beast’s claws slid over the sandstone – it was lowering its body so that it could reach him. Jason climbed down further.
“Kid!” a voice yelled. “Kid, keep as close to the cliff as you can!” After a moment, there was a series of hard, loud concussions. Claws raked past Jason, digging deep furrows into the cliff wall. When the beast’s head passed it snorted a spray of cold, sticky blood. It fell away into the mist. There was a loud crash below, then angry thrashing. Looking up, Jason could see a pair of boots descending toward him. In a moment he saw the man’s face, and recognized him as one of his neighbors. Hanging from his shoulder by a strap was a smoking rifle.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
It took a moment for Jason to answer. “I can’t climb anymore,” he finally said, his voice full of shame. “She’s too heavy.”
The man eyed Jason and then his burden. His face creased in pain, but he forced a smile. “You made it this far. That’s pretty damn good if you ask me.”
With the man’s help, and the help of others who came down from above, Jason made it out of the canyon and into his mother’s arms. She hugged him eagerly, but he only felt numb. He kept glancing over at Stephanie’s family, feeling pains of guilt and remorse. They were very silent and when they left, Stephanie’s father was carrying her, tears streaking his face.