In order to stay alive, they have to fall in line behind a guy named Palmer, a skilled American fighter who’s been hiding out here for reasons of his own.
In this excerpt, the group has to cross a crocodile-invested river. I built this scene using two experiences of my own. One, was actually being capsized in the midst of raging rapids in upstate New York — a genuinely frightening experience as I had my little daughter with me at the time and had to hold her up above the surface as the current dragged me under. Luckily, a man on shore tossed me a line and pulled me to safety.
The second experience was an uncomfortably close (though much briefer!) encounter with a crocodile in Kenya. But to make sure the scene was realistic, I emailed a croc expert in Australia and asked him, “Would a crocodile attack in this situation?” He emailed back, “Mate, a crocodile would attack in your bathtub if it had the chance.”
Ever since then, I’ve stopped bathing with the things. Let them wash themselves.
“If We Survive”
The jungle broke off here and then there was a muddy strip of earth and then the water. Beneath a ribbon of open sky winding over the clustered trees, the current snaked down out of the mountains to our left, and snaked away into the forest to our right. I’m not much good at measuring distances, but I guess the river was about as wide at this point as a football ﬁeld is long. And while the water seemed dark here, you could look at the reeds bending over in it and you could see the force of its ﬂow.
I turned to look downriver and I saw where the white water began just at the next bend. Gray shadows of rocks jutted dangerously out of the swirling rushes and eddies. Palmer had said there was a falls after that, but it must’ve been around the curve, out of sight.
“How deep is it?” said Nicki nervously.
“It’ll be close to your waist at the deepest part,” Palmer said, “but it’s the shallowest spot we can reach.”
“The current seems slower up there,” said Jim, lifting his chin to point toward the mountains. “Less likely to knock us over.”
“It’s slower, but it’s deeper in the middle,” Palmer told him. “We’d be over our heads and off our feet and the current would carry us right back here before we got to the far shore.”
“But what happens if we do get knocked over?” said Nicki. Palmer didn’t answer her.
“What happens if we get knocked over or fall?” Nicki insisted.
“Just don’t,” Palmer told her–and he squelched down the muddy bank toward the river’s edge. He started calling instructions to us as we trudged after him. He had to raise his voice over the sound of the rushing water.
“Kid,” he said.
I looked at him. He looped his riﬂe strap over his head so he wouldn’t have to ﬁght to hold on to the weapon in the current. I did the same. Then he turned to the others.
“All right, we’re gonna lock arms. Boy-girl-boy-girl, with me on one end and the kid on the other, Jim in the middle. The guys are heavier and stronger and that’ll keep us all anchored. Face upstream–that way, toward the mountains–but we’re gonna slant our path slightly downstream as we move to absorb some of the pressure. Stay on your feet and keep moving. Let’s go.”
With a soft splash, Palmer stepped into the water. He offered Meredith his arm. She linked her arm in his, and Jim linked up with her. Then Nicki. Then me. Nicki’s arm felt very slender and fragile in mine.
“This is the worst thing that’s ever happened,” Nicki muttered forlornly.
“Yeah,” I said. “Since the last thing that happened.”
Palmer moved out deeper into the river, tugging the rest of us after him. For the ﬁrst few steps, the water only swirled up around his feet. Then, very quickly, it was up to his knees. Meredith sank in after him and Jim, Nicki, and I followed. I felt Nicki shudder beside me as the water came up over the cuffs of her khakis.
“Do you think there’ll be more of those snakes?” she said in a small voice.
“Try not to think about it,” I told her. That’s what I was trying to do–and I really didn’t appreciate her bringing it up.
“Oh, thanks,” said Nicki. “How am I supposed to not think about getting killed by poisonous snakes?”
“Try praying instead.”
“I haven’t stopped praying! That just makes me think about it more.”
“Maybe try some different prayers,” I said. Silent ones, I added to myself.
The water climbed up my jeans as we were speaking. It wasn’t too cold, but the force of it was pretty surprising– almost shocking. It was a steady trembling push, as if some invisible giant had braced himself against the earth and was trying to shove us over with all his might. The deeper it got, the harder it got to ﬁght against it. It seemed about to carry us away–and the slippery rocks and pebbles that kept sliding around under my sneakers on the bottom didn’t make it any easier.
“It’s so strong,” said Nicki.
“Just keep steady,” I said–trying to sound more conﬁdent than I felt. “We’re all locked together. We won’t let you fall.”
“What happens if we do fall? Will we die?”
“Just concentrate on staying steady, Nicki.”
“Why won’t Palmer just tell us what will happen?”
“I guess he wants you to suspend your imagination,” I said.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“It means try not to think about it.”
“Oh, great, that’s what you said be–“Then she slipped. She gave a little cry and I felt her weight on my arm as one of her feet went out from under her. Our human line stopped as Jim and I both bent our arms harder, ﬁghting to hold on to her. I could feel the weight of her dragging us downstream. But she quickly worked her feet back under her. Then she was standing and Jim and I kept her steady. We started edging across again.
Now maybe you’ll pay attention to what you’re doing, I thought, annoyed. Somehow I managed to keep from saying it out loud.
We came out toward the middle of the river. As we got farther from the banks, farther from the trees, we had a wider view upstream. It was a pretty amazing sight, I have to say. The deep-green jungle rose into soft-green jungle hills. The hills rose into steel-blue mountains, their jagged peaks hazy in the rising mist. The ﬁrst clouds of the day were coming in over the high horizon. Their majestic white shapes decorated the pale-blue sky and cast running shadows over the jungle below. A bird cried out and a huge blue heron suddenly winged out of the trees and passed overhead–it looked like a living airplane, something out of a fantasy.
“It’s all so beautiful,” I heard myself say.
“Beautiful?” said Nicki at once. “Yeah, if the snakes don’t bite you or some animal doesn’t eat you or you don’t fall into the water and die.”
“It is beautiful,” said Jim on the other side of her, as we edged even deeper into the water. “It’s a beautiful country. It’s the people who make everything stink.”
The water rose up my legs. I felt the push of the current grow stronger against me and had to focus on keeping steady on my feet. Still, I lifted my eyes to take in the incredible view one more time. I guess, in one way, Jim was right. There was a lot of poverty and violence and cruelty in this country. So without the people, I guess it would all just be beautiful scenery like this. But then, without people, what difference would any of it make? Who would even appreciate how beautiful it was–besides God, I mean.
The water was high now, high on my thighs–higher on the shorter Nicki. She was up to her waist in it. And suddenly, she made a noise–not a scream or anything, just a little trembling gasp of fear–and she stopped moving. My shoulder bumped into her, and a rock went out from under my sneaker. I staggered and nearly fell but managed to sort of squat down and steady myself, ﬁghting back against the water that was pushing against my chest. I straightened, the water splashing down around me. I tried to continue edging along, but Nicki had stopped completely. Our little line came to a standstill.
“Let’s go,” Palmer called harshly. “Keep moving.”
He tried to start off again. Meredith, then Jim went with him. I felt the pull of them. But Nicki just stood there, a dead weight. I couldn’t get around her and she held us all.
“Nicki,” I said. “Let’s go.”
She didn’t even turn to me. She was staring upriver. Her mouth was open. Her face was white. I turned to follow her gaze. I felt the blood drain out of my face, too.
“Oh, please don’t tell me,” I said.
“Come on,” Palmer shouted. “Move it!”
For a second, I was frozen, as frozen as Nicki. I was staring, just as he was. Jim, too–I think he saw us staring and followed our gaze as well and saw what we saw. As we watched, terriﬁed, a massive lizard rose from the banks about ﬁfty yards upstream where the slower water was. It looked once our way. Then it lumbered toward the water.
It was such a frightening sight, it took me a moment to ﬁnd my voice. But then I called up the line to Palmer.
“Probably a crocodile!” Jim called, his voice sounding as unsteady as mine. “Maybe a caiman, although it’s kind of big for one of those.”
“Well, thank you, National Geographic,” I said. “But the thing is: I think it saw us.”
“It did, it did, it did,” said Nicki, her voice ﬁlling with frightened tears.
“Keep moving,” said Palmer. “It probably won’t come down into the faster current. But the sooner we get to shore, the better. It’ll have the advantage over us in the water.”
Well, I have to say, I was looking at this creature as it moved down the bank to the river. It was maybe, I don’t know, ten feet long–as long as two short people end to end. It had thick, stumpy legs like living tree trunks. It had a snout the size of a teacher’s desk and it was a sure bet its mouth was ﬁlled with teeth the size of daggers.
With all due respect for Palmer, my guess was it would have the advantage over us pretty much anywhere. Still, hurrying along seemed like a good idea. Palmer started moving again, tugging the rest of us after him. And now Jim used some force to pull Nicki along and I pushed in on her without giving her a chance to resist. She staggered sideways reluctantly and our line started moving again.
We continued to cross. But all the while, of course, we also continued to watch the crocodile, or whatever it was, as it tromped with a weird slow grace over the mud toward the water’s edge. Another moment, and its huge body knifed into the river without so much as a splash. A ﬂick of its gigantic tail and the dark shape of it curled around and turned in our direction. Then it vanished from sight under the dark water.
I glanced toward the opposite shore. Still ﬁfty yards away at least–about as far from us as the crocodile. I didn’t know how fast crocs were when they came after something, but I was guessing it was pretty fast. I hoped Palmer was right about it staying in the slower water above us because if it came this way, it would be moving downstream, with the current carrying it along.
My heart plunged inside me. If you’ve never been in this particular situation, let me tell you: when it’s a real possibility, the prospect of being eaten alive is very, very hard to stop thinking about. And I guess Nicki felt the same way. Because when the croc submarined out of sight like that, she just panicked.
“No. No. No,” she said, shaking her head–as if she could somehow argue the situation out of existence. She shook her head some more and started to back away from the spot where the crocodile had last appeared.
“Nicki, what are you doing? Stay on course,” I started to say–but I never ﬁnished the sentence. Because Nicki, stepping back, gave a sudden shriek as she slipped on something in the riverbed–and she lost her footing completely. She fell backward, straightening her arms. In an instant, she slipped out of my grasp. She splashed down into the water, her other arm still in the crook of Jim’s elbow–but only just. Jim clamped his arm tight to try to hold her, but the water was dragging her away from him, too.
“Don’t let her go!” I shouted to Jim–and I went after her.
Nicki was off her feet completely, on her back in the water, being pulled downstream hard. One of her hands was up over her head, the other was pincered by the wrist in the crook of Jim’s arm. The water was ﬂowing rapidly over her face so that she had to ﬁght to come up for air. I slogged unsteadily toward her, my movement downstream adding to the force of the river behind me. I felt like I was going to be hurled forward at any moment. The gun strap over my shoulder and head restricted the use of my left arm, but I reached out for Nicki with my right.
“Nicki, grab hold!” I shouted to her.
I heard her sputter as the water rushed over her face again. She gasped up out of it and saw me. She brought her hand down from above her head and reached for mine desperately. I stretched. I touched her ﬁngers. I forced my legs forward another step and another. I wrapped my ﬁngers around her wrist. And then Jim lost hold of her. Nicki’s hand slipped out of the crook of Jim’s elbow. The force of the current carried her downstream quickly–and Nicki carried me. I ﬂew forward, tripped off my feet and splashed face-ﬁrst into the river.
I went under, the water burbling up around me. I had no chance to ﬁght the current now. It forced me along like the wind carrying a feather. I burst up into the air, catching a breath. I heard Nicki start to scream and then choke as the water rushed into her mouth. I still had hold of her wrist. Trying to keep my head up, I craned my neck around and saw her. She was downstream, turning helplessly in the current–and just below her I saw the rapids and the rocks. The rush of the river ﬁlled my ears but I heard shouting.
“Keep moving across!” Palmer barked at the others.
“Palmer!” shouted Meredith. “You can’t just leave them behind.”
“Do what I tell you!” he shouted back–and I hoped she would, because I knew there was nothing Palmer and the others could do to help us now. Nicki and I were caught in the current. We were on our own.
The river spun us round. I caught glimpses of the ﬁrst rapids coming close, coming fast, the jagged edges of the rocks jutting out of them. There was nothing I could grab hold of, nothing I could do to stop us. Nicki went under and came up again, spitting water. The current was tossing her around like a rag doll. Scared I might lose my grip on her, I pulled her to me. Wrapped my arm around her waist. Held her fast against me. This way, at least, we’d hit the rocks together and maybe I could take the worst of it on my shoulder or back. She tried to scream again in my arms, but again the water overwhelmed her–overwhelmed us both. We went under. I held on to her with my left arm and fought toward the surface with the other.
The water was dark–just swirling green and dirt all around me. I wasn’t even sure I was heading toward the surface. Then I broke out and saw the light and gulped the air. And I looked downstream. I realized at once that I had no chance of protecting Nicki–any more than I could protect myself.
We had come around a small bend. I could see the rapids clearly now.They stretched out before us: boiling white water swirling, rising, spitting over the tops of boulders. As a wave of water lifted me up, I caught a glimpse of the river beyond them–and I saw the falls. It was a gauntlet of roaring, seething, frothing foam with sharp rocks rising from the chaos like a dragon’s teeth–and then a sharp drop out of sight.
Once we hit that, we’d be battered to death, the two of us. There was no doubt in my mind. But frankly, I didn’t think we were going to live long enough to die that way. Because just then, we sank down into the ﬁrst swirling whirlpool of white water. I clasped Nicki as securely as I could as I was spun full around sharply and then ﬂung up to the surface.
Gasping for breath, I looked downstream. I saw we had entered a smooth black, rapid ﬂow that was pulling us inexorably toward another sucking drop of white foam from which two sharp rocks jabbed up into the air. The rocks were close together, no more than two feet apart–they stood like a sort of gateway. And I could see exactly what was going to happen when we hit them. First, we’d suffer the impact–the shock of the blow–then we’d be pulled quickly into that gap between them into the length of foaming, speeding waves beyond. After that, it was all a tumbling rush of whitewater. There’d be no stopping our progress until we went over the falls.
I had maybe ﬁve seconds before we hit–time enough for the full situation to ﬂash through my mind. Five seconds– and then four . . .And then I had an idea. There was no time to think it through, no time even to wonder if it would really work. I just acted in the little time I had left. I shifted Nicki and clamped her tight against me with my right arm. With my left hand, I grabbed hold of my riﬂe. I stripped the strap up over my head as we rushed and spun through the black water toward the two rocks.
Already, the rocks were on us, a second away. I turned in the water, turned upstream with Nicki held in front of me so that my body would hit the rocks ﬁrst, taking the worst of the impact for her. I stretched out my left hand, holding the riﬂe in front of us. We hit the rock. It was a blow, all right. It caught me right in the soft spot on the side of my back. I made a noise like “oof!” and the breath was forced out of me. The shock stopped our progress for an instant–and in the next instant, we were sucked into the little gap between the rocks–sucked down toward the last stretch of rapids.
The water turned us. I was helpless to stop it. It sucked Nicki through the gap ﬁrst.
“Will!” she shrieked.
I went through right after her, still clasping her tight. And still holding that riﬂe out in my left hand–holding it out to my side now, upstream, making sure it was the last thing to come through the rocks, making sure it was stretched out lengthwise across that narrow gap. The riﬂe struck the rocks. And stuck–it was wedged across the small space, unable to pass through.The AK-47 machine gun was close to three feet long– longer than the gap between the rocks was wide by nearly a foot. I think if we had hit any harder, it would have rattled through–the weapon might even have just shattered, just come apart in my hands. But that ﬁrst impact of my body on the rocks had slowed us. The gun didn’t hit all that hard. It stayed together, and I had time to maneuver it so it was securely braced against the rocks on both ends.
I held the riﬂe with one hand and kept my other arm wrapped around Nicki–and the riﬂe held us both in place.It all happened so fast, it took me a moment before I realized–realized with amazement–that my idea had actually worked. We were held there, just above those ﬁnal rapids, just above the falls.
Breathless, I looked around to get a sense of our situation.The water continued to rush over us, to pull at us and sometimes drag us under, but we had stopped moving downstream. In fact, we were in a place where the rocks gave us some shelter from the pounding of the current. As long as I kept hold of the riﬂe–and Nicki–and as long as the riﬂe stayed wedged in the rocks, we would be safe. At least that’s what I thought. Until I saw the crocodile.
It surfaced upstream where the white water began. As I gasped up out of the current, I caught the black ﬂash of its head peeking out above the water. So much for it staying upstream. It was looking straight at us, coming right toward us. There was no question about what it was going to do.It was an awful moment–awful. Even standing before the ﬁring squad hadn’t felt as bad as this. The ﬁring squad– that was just death, you know. A few seconds of fear, maybe an instant of pain and it would have been over. But to have this creature tear us apart, to have it devour us: to me, that was a nightmare of horror.
The croc took one look at us and disappeared again under the water. It was heading toward the rapid black ﬂow that had just carried us into the rocks. Now the same ﬂow would carry the crocodile to the place where we were trapped. The beast was now gone from sight–but unfortunately, before it went under, Nicki caught a glimpse of it, too. I had seen her hysterical before. I had heard her crying and pleading as the ﬁring squad forced us to the wall. But this was beyond that. She just went crazy now. She just started screaming. Like the girls in the horror movies, you know: just one deafening, high-pitched shriek after another–wordless shrieks and then my name.
She’d get cut off as the river doused her and dragged her under, and then bob to the surface again, screaming and screaming.
“Will! Will! Will!”
I held tight to the riﬂe to stay in place, to stay above water. I swallowed hard. My spit tasted like copper. That was the taste of fear, I realized. I was sick with fear. But I knew what I had to do. Nicki was ﬂailing in my arms, twisting and thrashing, trying to escape my grip, trying to get away from the invisible, onrushing crocodile. But that was no good. If she’d broken out of my grip, she would have been swept immediately into the rapids and over the falls to her death. I had to use all my strength to hold on to her. But I did. And I forced her around me, forced her up to the riﬂe.
“Will! No! No!” she screamed, as I pressed her up against the wedged riﬂe.
“Nicki!” I shouted–shouted as loud and forcefully as I could over the rushing noise of the water. I sank under. I pulled myself up. Gasped for air.
“Grab hold of it! Grab hold of the gun! Grab hold!”
She wouldn’t stop shrieking. She wouldn’t stop ﬂailing.
“Let go of me!Let go of me! It’s coming! Let go!”
“Take hold of the riﬂe! I’ll protect you!” I shouted. Her scream became babbling words interrupted by gulps and gasps.
“You can’t . . . You can’t . . .”
Confused–terriﬁed beyond rational thought–she did what I said. She put her hands on the riﬂe between the rocks. She gripped it. And I, still holding the riﬂe myself, let go of her and ducked under the water. It was hard to ﬁght the current, but my grip on the riﬂe gave me a little leverage, and I only had to maneuver myself a few inches upstream. Then I splashed to the surface–and now I was in front of the riﬂe, held in place by it, while Nicki held on to it behind me.
“Will!” she sobbed. “Will!”
The water drove into my face. Gripping the riﬂe, I fought my way out of it.
“Just hold on,” I gasped. “You’ll be all right.” I wasn’t shouting anymore. I didn’t have the strength–I was too scared. I didn’t even know if she could hear me over the white water. I was staring in the direction I’d last seen the crocodile. I couldn’t see it now, but I knew it was still coming–I knew it was almost there, almost on top of me. I just hoped it wouldn’t take both of us. I just hoped that one of us would be enough.