I hold out my hand. “This is the only way.”

She bites her lip but then takes the plunge, grasping my hand as the cold water overcomes her. She slaps her hand in front of her mouth to prevent a squeal from coming out.

“Let’s go,” I say, and I immediately start wading against the current.

“But why are we going this way?” she asks.

“To confuse the dogs. If we go up far enough, they won’t be able to tell which way we went.”

“Oh …” Her voice sounds jittery, but I can’t tell if it’s because of the cold or because of the adrenaline shooting through her veins.

I can feel it flow through mine; it’s the only thing keeping me going while I’m suffocating underneath the weight of my experience. But I won’t allow a single inch of that emotional turmoil to burst through to the surface. Not now.

“How far?” she asks.

“Stop complaining,” I reply.

“Will we have clothes there?”

“Stop! Stop asking me! I don’t know!” I yell.

I slip up for one second and glance over my shoulder … and a few flashy lights come into contact with my eyes.

It’s them.

“Run!” I yell at Emmy.

Terror seeps into her eyes as the realization probably hits her that this is the choice she made, and that there’s no way back. Even if she did stop in her tracks, got caught, and went back willingly, they’d probably put her in the suffering hut for ages … or kill her on the spot.

“You want to come? Then run through the water as fast as you can!” I yell, trying to get her to move.

She nods a few times and keeps going, pushing against the waves behind me. I face the full brunt of their force, and it’s hard to stay upright, but sheer will keeps me from going under. I refuse to let this be where I fall. I fucking refuse to die out here in the cold, wet dirt.

I am free, and I will live my life … goddammit.

With a power I’ve never felt before, I push through the chest-high water, one foot in front of the other, not once stopping to look behind me. Even though the hounds are getting closer, it won’t stop me from trying to reach the other side.

Emmy suddenly squeals.

Glancing over my shoulder, I see she’s tripped over a rock and sunk underneath the water. When I stop and reach for her, she’s already being swooshed back.

For a few seconds, I contemplate leaving her and getting the fuck out of here. She’s only going to drag me down with her, and I will not lose my life or my body to these people again.

But what kind of a person would I be if I left someone out here, all alone in the cold water … to die?

That isn’t me. That never was me, and I refuse to become that person. Because that person is what I left behind in that community. That’s where all the monsters live. And I’m not a fucking monster.

So I take a big gulp of air and go under. I swim as fast as I can, taking air in short bursts to see if I can find her. She’s right there, slamming into the rocks on the edge with her mouth barely above water.

I have to help her.

I swim as well as I can with the little energy I have until I reach her, and I grab her hand as tightly as I can. Her eyes are filled with panic as the water sloshes over us while I attempt to grab something, anything, to keep us from being swallowed by the river.

Finally, a big tree root sticking up from the ground comes within reach, and I grasp it with everything I have.

“Fuck!” I growl as I struggle to hold on.

“Natalie!” Emmy gasps, clasping onto me for dear life.

I fight to get us up. “Grab the rocks!”

Her nails scratch along the surface of one of the big rocks just beside the tree, and she manages to grasp a part of a stump to hold. A weight is lifted off my shoulders as I pull myself and her up out of the water.

We’re not far from the place we entered, but it’s enough.

Emmy’s on all fours, coughing and heaving. I extend my hand. “C’mon.”

She swallows and grabs my hand. “I—”

“Don’t talk. Run,” I say, and I drag her along with me until we’re running again.

Even though we’re only wearing underwear, it’s not nearly as cold as the water was. I hope it was enough to thwart the hounds and their handlers.

They’re getting closer than ever, and it puts me on edge.

“There!” Emmy points at something in the distance. “What … is that?”

I look up and block the sun’s rays with my hand. Embedded into the ground lies a long, metallic, wooden trail. Exhilaration bursts out. “A railroad!”

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