Daphne heard the passengers' cries at random intervals. They had taken different paths and cried out Andre's name as loud as they could, but no cry was more powerful and distinct than Tammy's, whose sorrowful intonation could be heard miles away. It was like a lioness in search of her cub.
It was dark and cold in the woods, and the ground was uneven and slippery. Daphne felt awkward jumping over bushes and fallen logs, opening up space through branches. It was like being in a book. She had dreamed about leaving Lavinia and finally living a life that wasn't tied to Abelard's mercurial nature. Strangely, she felt uneasy there.
Despite the way she felt, she had to help find Andre. She felt sick to her stomach just at the thought of him alone in the woods. He was so little and helpless.
They continued walking until Daphne's flash light died. She cursed as she in vain tried to turn it on again. Losing her only source of light gave her a strange sense of abandonment.
A rustling noise to her left was so startling that it felt like all blood had drained from her body. Daphne stood there, frozen, squinting at the bushes. Moonlight went through the tree tops, producing pools of light here and there on the ground, but it wasn't enough to let her see what lurked there.
“Are you Okay?” Ben asked. He was a little behind, and quickly approached Daphne holding his cell phone up. The bluish beam of light reflected on his light blond hair made him look ghostly.
“Did you hear that?” She whispered.
“No. You heard something?” He whispered back, alarmed, and pointed his cell phone's light at a few directions. There were only trees. And a few annoyed owls perched on branches. Their amber eyes reflecting light back in a stern, don't-point-that-thing-at-me look.
“I – I think I did.”
“What was it?” He asked her, still holding his cell phone up.
“I don't know.”
“Whatever it was, I don't think it could have been an animal,” he said after a while. “Maybe one of the passengers was nearby.”
“What makes you say that?”
Without answering her question, Ben turned his cell phone's light off. They were both quiet for a minute. So quiet that they could hear the rhythm of their breathing.
“If it was an animal, it would have attacked us by now,” Ben finally said. “Unless. . .”
His pause scared her. “Unless what?” She asked, anxious.
“Unless it was an inoffensive bunny,” he said in a more jovial manner, and she couldn't help laughing.
Daphne was so inexperienced in taking strolls in the woods, that her imagination was starting to play tricks on her. It had to be a bunny, or some other little, harmless animal.
They were ready to continue looking for Andre, when a sudden, distant cry made them jump back in fear. A human cry.
“The boy?” Ben said under his breath, and his suspicion was enough for them to sprint toward the source of the crying.
The terrain gradually became more, and more steep as they entered deeper in the woods. At first, Daphne and Ben tried to go down on their own, but the ground was so muddy that he lost his balance and slipped. Daphne shrieked and quickly grabbed his hand before he could have fallen, firmly holding on to a tree trunk.
“Are you all right?” She asked him, panting.
“Yeah, I am. Thanks,” he said. Daphne, though, could feel that he was trembling, but forbore mentioning it.
Still holding hands, they continued running down the slope.
The crying restarted and this time it was more audible. There were, also, splashing noises. A rush of adrenaline went through Daphne's body.
“The boy is drowning!” She shouted.
She thought of her own little brothers swimming in the river that crossed the family's grounds, and to imagine that something could happen to them now that she would not be around to watch them play was tormenting. She needed to find Andre, before a tragedy occurred.
Feeling that every inch of her was ready to save the boy, Daphne ran faster than she had ever ran in her life, closely followed by Ben. They ran until they reached the border of a clearing in the woods, where a pearly lake could be seen reflecting the moon. She squinted her eyes to understand what was in the water, and was about to shout Andre's name when Ben released her hand and immediately covered her mouth.
Daphne instinctively struggled, all her nerves emitting alert signals and confused thoughts invading her mind. Daphne could not understand why Ben behaved that way, why he wouldn't let her go save Andre's life.
She grabbed his wrist and tried to pull his hand away from her face, but Ben proved to be stronger than her. She kicked and pushed, but only when he whispered “it's not the boy,” she froze and he finally let go of her.
“I'm really sorry,” he whispered in a mortified manner. “Listen – It's not the boy. Look over there. They are swimming.”
She took a few steps forward and stood behind a tree. What had sounded like crying noises was, in reality, laughter. Daphne noticed two figures swimming in the lake side by side. She could hardly understand their silhouettes, but she was certain those were a man and a woman. Their bodies glistened in the moonlight and made them look like mythological figures, water elementals celebrating the full moon and enchanting Daphne's eyes. They laughed in their embrace, and their laughter offended her.
Daphne's face and neck burned with shame. Feeling increasingly disgusted, she abruptly stepped back, accidentally bumping into Ben. That unexpected physical contact made Daphne push him away. She could not see him well, now that his cell phone was off, but the faint moon glow was enough to let her notice that his expression was very surprised.
“I'm so sorry,” he said and raised his hand as if to show he wasn't a threat to her.
Daphne's heart was racing and she felt a little queasy.
“Please, can we go back to the bus?” She asked in a weak voice.
That adventure was over. She couldn't endure it any longer.
Ben nodded and they promptly left the woods. They were silent on the way back to the bus. Daphne rummaged in her mind for good excuses to say to Ben, but all apologies got stuck in her throat. She could tell that Ben was, who now and then opened his mouth and closed it again as if trying to find the best words, desperately looking for ways to approach her. All his attempts, though, were in vain, since Daphne strategically pretended to be looking away when he seemed ready to speak.
When they finally reached the road, they noticed that the other bus – very bright and packed with passengers – had already arrived and was parked behind their broken bus, which now had the lights off. The recently arrived bus driver was talking with Mr. Calisto.
The second Mr. Calisto saw them, he anxiously stood up in expectation to see Andre Molina. When he noticed the boy wasn't with them, he sighed audibly.
“No signs of the boy?” He asked gloomily. Daphne could not tell, though, whether his melancholy came from Andre's disappearance or from his anxiety at having the other bus driver looking impatient next to him.
“No, sorry,” Ben said. “The others are still looking for him,” he added.
Daphne went straight to her belongings and took a water bottle from her backpack. She drank water vigorously, inventing an inexistent thirst in order to calm her nerves. She hoped Ben would have understood that she needed some time on her own, but the moment she turned on her heel she almost bumped against him.
“May I talk with you?” He asked hesitantly.
“Um – Sure.”
“I – I really don't know what I've done. Have I done something wrong? I'm really sorry if I offended you.”
“No, you didn't offend me,” she said.
Daphne rubbed her forehead feeling impatient with herself. She didn't know why, but seeing that couple swimming together had awaken in her something she didn't recognize. Something she could barely describe. She could only feel it, and she felt repulsed by it. It scared her.
“So, what happened?” Ben asked anxiously. “I'm sorry, but I still think I've offended you somehow. Was it because I covered your mouth? I'm sorry if that was too abrupt. I'm sorry if I hurt you. But it was the only way at that moment to keep you from getting the attention of those people swimming.”
“I know,” Daphne said carelessly. All she wanted was to be alone. “I forgot something on the bus,” she lied, and slipped away from him.
She hopped on the bus just in time to let the first tear escape. She walked to the back of the bus painfully trying to restrain her feelings; but, as soon as she sat in the back, a wave of destructive thoughts crushed any hopes she had of staying in control of herself. Daphne, sitting in the dark, wept.
What was I thinking? I shouldn't have left. Chris and Kyle will end up dying if I don't go back. How am I going to survive here, alone? Dad was right. There's nothing here for me. And. . . and that boy. . . he'll think I'm stupid for behaving like a prude. I should go back home. But I can't. I'm not done with my book. I need to write this book. Then. . . But. . . What if I can't write? I couldn't write it at home. . .
“You're such an idiot,” she sobbed, and aggressively tried to wipe off the tears with the back of her hands.
“Why are you crying?” A little voice coming from the neighboring seats on the left asked her.
Daphne gasped, caught off guard. For a second, she thought of Ben. But the voice was too juvenile. Ben, on the other hand, had a distinct deep tone that made him sound older than the 18-year-old he was.
“Why are you crying?” The voice asked again. He leaned forward in his seat. Like a beacon in the sky, the moonlight lit up his face. The boy blinked, sleepy, and his youthful features showed genuine concern and kind support.
Daphne's heart skipped a beat.
“Andre?” She asked anxiously.
“Yes,” he said and yawned, his round face gaining multiple dimples.
“We've been looking for you!” She said.