Jen could see Sam and Lachlan’s legs from where she was huddled.
“I don’t see her anywhere,” she heard Lachlan say.
“Me neither,” said Sam. “What should we do?”
“Probably, uh… we should try to find her. She can’t have gone far. She was just here.”
“Unless one of those things took her again.”
“If her flying around and knocking them out of the air a few minutes ago is anything to go by, I’d say she’s more than capable of avoiding that.”
“The abilities don’t work like that,” said Sam. “They’re not reliable. You can’t consciously turn them on. If it worked that way, don’t you think I would have used mine too?”
“Good point.” Lachlan shuffled his feet nervously. “I don’t like how much smaller and smaller our little group is becoming.”
“Me neither. The two of us have to stick together no matter what if we want to survive.”
“Really?” said Lachlan. “Stick together? I was going to suggest we split up, wander off, and succumb to the otherworldly woods, never to be seen again.”
“Do you have to be sarcastic about everything?”
Sam sighed. His feet shifted as he moved to lean against the rock Jen was curled up under.
“My ex-girlfriend is missing in an alien forest. Can you be serious for two seconds?”
“Yeah,” said Lachlan. “Yeah. Sorry.”
“Okay. The first step in the solution of a problem is to identify the problem,” said Sam. “That’s easy. Jen is missing and we don’t know where she is.”
“And step two is to conduct research,” said Lachlan. “Consider all the information about our predicament like we did before. Or in this case, Jen’s predicament.”
“Correct,” said Sam.
Ugh, what a couple of huge nerds. If another creature had taken her, she’d be long gone by the time they finished discussing the problem solving process.
“I’m right here,” she tried to say, but her voice was barely a whisper. She felt so weak.
When she’d reached the bottom of the tree, exhaustion had washed over her, the kind of exhaustion that made her feel like her body was melting into the ground. The dim forest had felt unbearably bright, and the dark hollow beneath the rock had called irresistibly to her until she’d crawled in and curled into a ball.
Her golden spines had curled with her, folding and retracting into her body so as not to cut her.
She had wanted to panic, but she’d been too tired. It was taking all her energy just to will her eyes to stay open.
She heard Lachlan speak again.
“In this case, though, we should try to come to a conclusion as quickly as possible. This could be a time-sensitive problem.”
“Agreed,” said Sam. “So we know Jen was at the bottom of the tree a few minutes ago.”
“Yeah, and we know those creatures are around somewhere. I don’t think they took her again. She would have screamed. There would have been more of a commotion.”
“You’re skipping to the third step, but yeah. Agreed.”
“What is the third step, by the w–no, sorry. There’s no time. Don’t answer that,” said Lachlan. “So either something else took her, or she wandered off on her own.”
“Both of those possibilities have their issues,” said Sam. “We didn’t hear a struggle, and she’d know better than to wander off. The third step is ideation, by the way.”
Who cared what the third step was? She was missing and they were treating it like some kind of dorky science experiment.
If she’d had the energy, she would have been really annoyed.
“I’m right… right here,” she said again.
They didn’t hear her.
She saw Lachlan’s legs move closer to her as he leaned beside Sam against the rock. He was standing right beside her, close enough to her hand that she might be able reach him.
Using all the energy she could muster, she shifted her hand, feeling as though she was dragging it through a thick syrup. It took almost a minute to move her hand the few inches to Lachlan’s leg. She brushed her fingers against his ankle, and he yelped.
Every instinct told her to retract her hand back into the safety of the hollow, but she left it extended.
“Ah! Fuckin’-! Fuck! What the fuck? Something fucking touched my–” he whipped his head down to see what had touched his ankle and broke off his string of panicked f-bombs. “Jen?”
He turned around, crouching down in front of the hollow opening under the rock.
“Jen… hey… are you, uh… alright?”
“No,” she mumbled. “Ob…obviously.”
Sam crouched down next to Lachlan, peering into the dark hollow.
“Jen? What are you doing in there?”
“Are you stuck? Lachlan, do you think if both of us tried, we could lift this rock?”
At the thought of the rock being lifted, she felt a pang of anxiety. She’d be out in the harsh light again, unprotected.
“No. No. Don’t… please. Not stuck.”
“How did you get in there?” said Sam.
“Something’s really wrong with her,” said Sam. “We have to get her out of there and find that responsible adult lady person.”
“Are you referring to Mrs. Sharma?”
“I’m not good with names, okay? But yeah, her.” Sam turned back to Jen. “Can you get out or do you need help?”
Jen didn’t know how to answer the question. She didn’t want to get out. The dark hollow was safe. She was protected.
But she had to think about this rationally. She couldn’t stay in the dark hollow forever. Sam was right. Something was very, very wrong.
“Help,” she said.