As her breathing returned to normal, Susan began to feel cold again. It was time to get moving.
She counted to three hundred as she listened intently for any human-made sounds other than car traffic. At last, telling herself forcefully there was no one around, she worked to stand up.
At least she still had water. She decided she could carry two of the bottles with her -- she didn't see how she could manage more. They might come in very handy later. She took one bottle in each hand behind her. There was nothing else she could use her hands for anyway.
Getting standing was harder than she'd anticipated. The bushes around her were much too yielding to lean back against for leverage. She ended up pressing her head against the ground, still covered in a thin layer of water, rolling onto her knees and rocking her weight back to get onto her feet.
She bit her lip, nearly whimpering in fear as she slowly straightened from a crouch to stand upright. It seemed impossible anyone could see her in the darkness, but for the first time in twenty-four hours there were uninterrupted sightlines between her and any potential witnesses in the surrounding area. She hadn't really thought ahead about how that would hit her. She stood still for several minutes, sweeping her eyes back and forth for any movement that could signal danger.
Getting out of the enclosure was also more work than she'd expected -- it had been easy enough to get into it last night, but she'd had full freedom of movement then. There was a big enough gap between the root systems of two of the bushes on the back side of the enclosure that she could squeeze between them while standing, but a careful effort at moving ahead by hopping nearly sent her over backwards because of branches pressing her legs unevenly from both sides that interfered with her balance. She could only move sideways through the gap by the one-inch baby steps the ankle cuffs allowed her, while twigs, branches, and leaves scraped at her lower legs, until she was through. She continued shuffling until she was out of the water-filled depression in which her bush enclosure was centered, and stopped. For the first time since awakening this morning she was on dry ground.
Free of surrounding encumbrances at last, Susan looked around, deciding where to go. And how to get there. She was way too far from home for baby steps to be practical. Last weekend she had covered some ground by knee-walking but tonight's trip was, again, too far for that -- she would rip all the skin off her knees long before getting home. She knew hopping was going to exhaust her, but there was no other choice.
But the big trouble with hopping was that she could see almost nothing of the ground or surrounding vegetation. She was sure her eyes must be fully dilated by now, but she could barely see more than a hint of hazards such as rocks, uneven ground, bushes, or trees. A tiny amount of moonlight was filtering through the leaves from overhead, but not enough. Behind her, the park itself was much better lit by the moon.
She shivered briefly as the cool breeze stiffened for a moment into a stronger gust. Whatever she decided to do, she knew, she'd better get moving. It was only going to get colder as the night went on.
She hated the idea, but she knew she had to start by getting closer to Stockhouse Boulevard. There were more streetlights along it here than farther out of town where she lived. She should, she decided, be able to stay far enough behind the woods to remain invisible while being able to see where she was going. And she needed to get to the street by going through the park. The danger of being seen in the park, at this time of night, was minimal next to the physical dangers of hopping through terrain full of unseen obstacles.
She could see the trees between herself and the park as black columns blocking the view of the dimly moonlit landscape. Crouching to get a better look at the ground and examining it before each move, she headed, about one hop every five seconds, towards the park.
She stopped, still within the trees, once the ground became adequately visible. She shivered again, this time with sudden fear. It seemed surreal that she was standing here, where she would have been instantly visible to all of the tennis players, joggers, and picnickers who had filled the park all through the day as she lay hidden, up until just an hour ago.
She began hopping parallel to the edge of the woods towards the street.
As soon as she reached the area into which the illumination provided by streetlights spread, she turned to hop parallel to the street, towards home.
Susan's latest fear was that she would collapse before reaching home. She had thought last weekend was exhausting, but now she really knew how it felt to be running on fumes long before the goal was reached.
She knew she hadn't been getting enough sleep. Even Thursday night she had fretted most of the night about talking to Ms. Corcoran about getting the time off in the afternoon, and sleep had only come in bits and pieces since then. She wanted so badly to lie down and close her eyes, but she was sure that she wouldn't be able to wake up before sunrise, leaving her stuck another full day out here. Without food.
She wasn't even halfway home yet. She felt as though it had been at least an hour since she'd left the park behind, but it was still clearly visible behind her. It wasn't just a matter of how tiring it was to hop. She had to pause after each hop, using the minimal light available to her to plan her next hop, examining the ground ahead of her for bushes she might trip over, trees she might bang into, or sharp protruding rocks that her bare feet might land on. The ground was also still spotted with puddles of standing water of various sizes, which she generally avoided, especially the larger ones, unable to see what was under the surface. And every time a car approached from either direction -- at least their headlights made them easy to spot a long way off -- she had to crouch down behind the nearest sufficiently tall bush and wait until it had gone by. The crouching especially was murder on her thigh muscles. Kneeling would be easier, except it was so much additional work to get back on her feet afterward that crouching seemed preferable. She might change her mind later.
She could only make better time at the cost of greater danger. Closer to the street the light was better, and that was what she needed in order to move faster, but she was well aware that she herself would be more visible. It wasn't just the passing cars. The side of the street she was on had remained undeveloped beyond the park, but on the other side there were occasional houses, some of them with lights on, almost certainly indicating occupants still awake. She didn't think it could be midnight yet, more likely closer to eleven. As she got farther along the street and the clock crept ahead, the cars would become more rare and the houses more sparse, with more of the residents in bed. That would help her move faster later, but now was now. She thought about waiting a few hours, but it was getting too cold to remain motionless for any length of time, and there was, again, that danger of falling asleep.
She was getting very thirsty. At least she could do something about that. She squatted and carefully fell onto her butt, her two water bottles gripped behind her. Sitting on the ground, she screwed the top off one and set it upright, turned on her side and used her elbows to help her get up onto her knees, and knee-walked to the standing bottle, clamped her teeth around it and lifted it up to drink. With a lot of practice, she was getting good at it. She drained about half the bottle. She wanted more, but knew she needed to save it. She capped the bottle, and picked it and the full one up. Rocking her weight back, she got onto her feet again -- and thought for a moment her aching legs weren't going to lift her. She gritted her teeth and overcame the muscle fatigue. She shivered -- the dry, cool air evaporated her sweat quickly -- examined the ground around her, hopped forward, checked the ground again, and hopped again.
Susan could hear the creek before she saw it, which surprised her. She didn't recall it sounding like that before.
With a feeling of deep foreboding, she looked ahead and behind for traffic on the street, and for houses on the other side. It was safer, for the time being, to hop over a little closer to the street to get better light. She wanted to get to the creek quickly to see if what she feared was true.
The immediate area on either side of the creek was lit better by moonlight than the woods, as the forest canopy parted above the creek. Susan hopped to the edge, where the ground dropped off precipitously to the level of the creek. As soon as she could see the creek, she closed her eyes, shook her head, and moaned aloud.
Yesterday there had been a gently sloping shore leading down to the creek, below an embankment in the form of a vertical three-foot drop-off from the surrounding ground level. Now the shore was gone. The water came all the way to the embankment, and had come about a foot up the side of it. And the relatively gentle flow of yesterday had become a headlong rush.
That rainstorm this morning. It had done a lot more than make her unspeakably miserable. She had given some thought to the creek, but not much -- she knew it would have been collecting the rainfall from the surrounding area, but had told herself that surely by this time the level would be back to normal. But she knew now that she hadn't thought the subject through. When the rain had stopped for her this morning, that didn't mean there was no rain anywhere. It had moved on, continuing to fall elsewhere. It might very well have rained for hours, at places farther and farther away, the waters draining into this creek upstream from here -- and all that water had then taken hours to flow back here. It may even have rained for a longer time farther upstream than it had here -- it was possible she herself had only caught the edge of a much more extensive storm. The water level in the creek might actually still be rising.
She saw headlights coming. She hopped away from the street, parallel to the creek, and crouched behind a bush. At least there was enough light here for safe movement.
Susan remembered her crossing yesterday, how the flowing water had tried to take her with it. She hadn't been in any danger, but she'd had to set her knees apart as she walked through it. Knee-walking through the stream was out of the question now -- standing on her knees the water would probably be up to her neck, at least. Even standing upright, it would probably be above her waist, and her only way to move standing up was hopping. She wouldn't hop far, she knew: the flowing water would push her over and carry her with it. And she would have no way out. With her unable to use her hands to grab onto anything stationary -- and from where she stood now she couldn't even see such a handhold anyway -- she would be washed downstream for miles without any way to stop herself. Not that she would need to worry about how to hop all those miles back afterwards. She would have drowned early on.
Of course, Stockhouse Boulevard had a bridge over the creek, not thirty feet from where Susan was standing. A well-lit bridge, with streetlights at both ends. Last weekend Susan had hopped across Stockhouse near her apartment building, taking advantage of the darkness at the place where she crossed. On the bridge, she wouldn't have the darkness to hide her, and to cross the bridge she'd have to hop, she estimated, about three times as far as she had in crossing the street. And once she was on the bridge, she'd have no way to duck quickly back into the woods. She'd be exposed, very visible, and hopelessly trapped if a car should approach suddenly.
Not to mention being visible, in a well-lit area, from either of the two houses across the street, adjacent to the creek on either side of it.
Susan began shaking -- from fear, not from cold. She had no way home. She couldn't cross the creek, either by wading through it or using the bridge over it. Suzy hadn't foreseen this. The creek wasn't like it was before.
Susan looked again at those two houses, one of them on her side of the creek, one on the other side, hoping to see some sign that they would not present a danger to her. Each had a large cleared yard that abutted the creek. People in those houses would easily see Susan hopping across the bridge. At the moment, each house had a light on in a front-facing room. It was safe to assume someone was awake in each house -- or more to the point, unsafe to assume no one was.
Susan stood biting her lip, asking herself, What do I do, what do I do?
I've only got two options, she told herself. No, three. No, four.
She could try wading through the creek itself -- without the use of her hands, without being able to separate her feet. She looked at it again, rushing past, impossible for her to stand upright in, waiting to sweep her away and smash her against rocks she couldn't avoid. She shuddered. Cross that one off. Don't even bother thinking about that one again.
She could wait to see whether the flood settled down. She could cross if the water level and speed were the same as it had been yesterday when she'd crossed -- admittedly with no physical handicaps at the time, but she still knew she could make it. But there was no way to tell how long until the overflow spent itself, and there were only a few hours before dawn, when the rising sun would trap her outside for another full day -- and without food, as she had so often reminded herself. Already she was starving, after insufficient food for the last two days. She couldn't imagine adding another full day to that. Susan shook her head. Cross another off.
She could explore the creek in the direction away from the street, looking for another way to cross it. The creek might widen at some point, making it more shallow and probably slowing its flow, but there wasn't really a reason to expect that. The big trouble was that there wouldn't be enough light. Even before the moon set, it would soon be too low in the sky to shine down directly into the area around the creek, with its light blocked by the trees. And moving away from the street meant losing the illumination from the streetlights as well. Without streetlights or moonlight, she would be moving in utter blackness in less than an hour, and even if there was a place she could cross, she'd never see it. She'd have to give up and come back, and that presented its own problems. In total darkness, she could follow the creek to return to here, but only by sound -- and having to stay close to a rushing creek she couldn't see in order to keep her bearings would put her in extreme danger of falling into it. So instead she'd have to simply stop when she lost the light, trapping her in place until morning.
Another option off the list.
And that left only the Stockhouse Boulevard bridge. Breathing hard in fear, Susan looked at the bridge again. As if to emphasize her fears of using that means of crossing the creek, a car passed over it just then, followed about twenty seconds later by another going the opposite direction. Several minutes passed without another, but the sudden traffic reminded her that cars could come whizzing by at any time, and if she was in the middle of the bridge when she spotted one coming, there was nothing she could do, nowhere to go. And there were still those houses, with lighted front windows with a perfect view of the well-lit bridge. The occupants of one or both houses might well be people who habitually left a light burning all night, to discourage burglars. Susan's parents did exactly that. So they might be burning all night, and Susan would have to assume someone was awake in those rooms to see her. Even if all vehicular traffic on Stockhouse were to stop, there were still those windows. And vehicular traffic was not going to stop.
Cross the street bridge off the list.
There was nothing left. That was all of the possibilities. I'm totally trapped here, Susan told herself, as her stomach tied itself in knots. No way to cross the creek tonight. And tomorrow night, the creek would still be there. Maybe by that time the water level would be down. There was no guarantee.
Susan, despairing, looked at the houses again, on opposite sides of the creek. She visualized neighbors from the two houses getting together for a barbecue, for the holiday tomorrow, talking and laughing about the crazy girl who had...
Susan blinked. Neighbors indeed. They probably did know each other, spent some time visiting each other's houses.
When one family visited the other, did they all pile into a car, back out of the driveway, drive across the bridge, a road trip of all of fifteen seconds, and pull into the other's driveway? Did they come on foot, walking across a street bridge with no pedestrian walkway that got busy with traffic every weekday morning and late afternoon?
Or had they, in a neighborly way, constructed a footbridge across the creek?
A moment of intense excitement in Susan gave way to fretting. She couldn't see any such footbridge from here. The creek ran at an angle to the street, approximately parallel to the ravine that ran near her own apartment building, and if there was a footbridge, it would be invisible from here, behind the house on the left. All of Susan's hopes now rested on the use of a footbridge she couldn't be sure existed.
And the danger of even looking for it, let alone using it, presented itself. She would have to cross the street to find the hypothetical footbridge. She had to do that eventually anyway, but she couldn't do it here. There was way too much light, and she'd be crossing into the front yard of one of the houses. She would have to backtrack some distance to an area between streetlights, cross, and come back to the creek. The footbridge, if any, would also probably be visible from one or both houses, and the area around the footbridge would be illuminated in moonlight, at the least. She would probably be visible approaching the footbridge, and perhaps even more visible while crossing the bridge itself.
But there weren't any other choices.
There'd better be a footbridge, she told herself. There is no other possible way I can cross this creek before morning.
Susan wanted badly to rest for a while. Her legs were trembling from fatigue. But she'd stopped too long already, and a much more general shivering from the cold told her she needed to get moving.
She began hopping parallel to the street, away from the creek, very conscious of the fact that, as exhausted as she was and desperate to get home, she was now moving away from that ultimate goal.
Susan thought she had been standing in the woods, looking out at Stockhouse Boulevard, for what must have been an hour. She understood it was probably more in the neighborhood of ten minutes, magnified by her growing discomfort and her fear that time was growing short. She wanted to be ready to start hopping across the instant she thought it was safe, so she couldn't sit on the ground. Standing still, she grew colder, but hopping around to generate body heat made her legs that much more tired. As she had waited, two cars had passed, each one shattering her resolve, requiring her to rebuild it from scratch.
Across the street, there were the two houses on opposite sides of the creek, the nearer one about a hundred feet to her right. To her left, again on the opposite side of the street, was a third house about twice as far from her as the others. She had to stay farther from that one -- there was greater danger of being seen from that one. The moon, still a few hours from setting, cast its light down from that direction, and its soft light would make her more visible from that side as she crossed. There were streetlights on either side of the creek bridge, in front of the houses to her right, but she was far enough from them -- she hoped -- that they were a less significant problem than the moonlight. Crossing here was her only real option -- beyond the house on her left, in the direction towards town from which she'd just come, the houses and streetlights were closer together.
The front windows in the house to her left, the one from which she thought she was most likely to be seen from here, were dark. Those in the houses adjacent to the creek were still lit, but Susan felt safe from them here. Her earlier judgment about moonrise and moonset implied it must be about 1 a.m. now. She would prefer to wait another hour or two, but as inconvenient as the moon was right now, she had a feeling she might need its light later.
The "Go now, go now!" imperative was growing louder in her head, her own self-exhortation that owed nothing to Suzy, as far as Susan knew. There were no human-generated sounds in the vicinity that she could detect, only the chirp of crickets and the riffling of leaves in the slight breeze. She hated that breeze. Intermittent though it was, it made her colder every time it sighed past her.
She was aware of her thirst, on top of everything else. She had gone longer than she should without drinking, after all her exertion. She still held one full water bottle and one partly filled. She considered finishing off the part-filled one, which would not only refresh her but also relieve her of having to carry that bottle any longer, but the process of getting a drink was so elaborate -- dropping to her knees, uncapping the bottle and setting it upright carefully behind her, then dropping to lie on the ground, clamping her teeth around the neck of the bottle and lifting and tilting it with her mouth -- that it took some determination to do it, and the process of getting back upright so strenuous as to worry her about her ability to do it in her exhausted, muscle-fatigued state. And she recognized the wish for a drink as one more way of putting off the terrifying prospect of the street-crossing. It had been scary enough doing it last weekend, and that had been in a less busy, less well-lit area. She promised herself a drink after she'd crossed.
She looked left and right one more time, for any sight of a car in the distance, or sound that would indicate that one might be about to turn one of the corners of the side streets onto Stockhouse. Finally, biting her lip, squeezing her eyes shut for a moment to concentrate on providing herself the mental impetus, she hopped forward into the street.
She was appalled by how loud the repeated thumping of her feet hitting the pavement seemed. She nearly turned around to hop back to the safety of the trees, but reminded herself forcefully this was her only way of getting home.
Her breath caught in her throat as she saw, to her left, a glow telling her a car, exactly as she had feared, was approaching Stockhouse from a side street. Again she nearly turned around, but at this point she was nearly at the halfway point in her crossing. But the break in her rhythm of hopping interfered with her balance, and in her concentration on recovering it the fingers of her right hand, curled around the neck of the partly-filled water bottle, lost their grip. As the bottle slipped downward she instinctively tried to close both hands around it, saw her mistake an instant too late, and lost her hold on the full bottle as well, both of the bottles hitting the pavement a split-second apart. The instinct to reach for them before they fell away nearly caused her to pitch over to the side and go sprawling full-length on the pavement, and she battled with all her concentration to maintain her balance -- if she fell now, with a car already approaching, she knew she would never have time to get back on her feet before it arrived.
She righted herself at last. With no way to pick the bottles up other than dropping to her knees in the middle of the street, and with the glow brightening to her left, she suppressed a squeal of frustration and resumed hopping. She saw a light come on in the window of the house on the left -- they must have heard the bottles hit, she screamed to herself, they heard it! -- and she leaned farther forward, her hopping barely under control. By the time the glowing headlights to her left became visible as the car reached Stockhouse, she was across, onto the dirt, leaning too far ahead to keep her balance. She went tumbling in the dirt, and wriggled several feet farther ahead until she was past the front line of trees.
She watched from the ground as the car turned in the direction towards her onto Stockhouse. She rolled quickly, farther behind the trees, twisting afterward to look again at the newly-lit house to watch for any movement. The car passed. As she waited, her heart pounding, unable to breathe, she saw the window in the house darken a few minutes later. Apparently whoever had heard the sound of the bottles dropping had not reached the window in time to see any movement.
Susan lay still, her heart only very gradually slowing, nearly crying from mingled relief and lingering terror. She looked back into the street, and could make out her two bottles lying there, almost exactly in the middle of the street. She couldn't possibly retrieve them without spending a far longer time in the street than she just had, since she had no way to pick them up without sitting on the pavement. They might as well not exist.
She was far more conscious of her thirst, now that she couldn't do anything about it. Most frustrating of all, she could hear the murmuring of flowing water from the nearby creek, yet that water was just as inaccessible as the bottles were. She could get to the creek quickly, at the price of risking exposure, but the water itself was out of her reach other than by diving into it, and its rapid flow, and her inability to use her hands, still presented that deadly risk of being swept away helplessly until she drowned.
She might, she thought, drink from one of the puddles on the ground. It was too dark to see any from where she lay. There might not even be any left. They had been fewer and smaller as she had traveled this far from the park, and by now the water may have all been absorbed back into the ground.
With no way to satisfy her thirst, she worked to put it out of her mind. Finding a way home was the priority.
And the only way, she moaned to herself, was to cross the footbridge that may not exist.
Time, like the creek water, was flowing past quickly. As she had so many times before, she rolled onto her front side, pressed her head against the ground to lift the middle of her body until she was up on her knees, and rocked back to her feet, at first in a squat and then, almost beyond the strength remaining in her leg muscles, rising to an upright position. She began hopping among the trees towards that nearer house.