Chapter One of Rippler

1

NEARLY DROWNED

 

The screaming was the first clue that I’d turned invisible again. Above the steady roar of the river, my teammates shouted: some with paddles flailing, others frozen mid-stroke. I’d never disappeared in front of anyone. Before this, I hadn’t even known if it was real or if I was losing my grip on sanity. But now, surrounded by people who looked terrified, I knew it was real.

Which didn’t exactly comfort me.

It wasn’t until I heard Gwyn shouting about me drowning that I realized no one had actually seen me turn invisible. For a heartbeat, I felt relief—it wasn’t real after all! But then I realized that the fact that people were staring straight at my position, aft, on the back of the raft, and not seeing me confirmed what I feared. My body had vanished.

And now I had an additional problem. If I came solid right now, someone would definitely see it happen. So did I want screaming because I’d drowned or screaming because I’d materialized out of thin air? Did I even know for sure how to get back inside my body?

“Calm down and look for anything orange,” shouted Coach. “That’ll be her helmet or her PFD.”

“Her life vest will save her, right?” Gwyn asked.

“Not from entrapment,” said Will. “We should get to shore. I’ll hold the raft and you can send teams up and down the river to spot her in case she’s trapped.”

“Good thinking,” said Coach. “Paddle for shore!”

My cross country team came to, redirecting the craft which had spun sideways. Coach set his own oar down and reached onto the sloshing floor for the rope tote-bag. Clipping the bag to his life vest, he began removing the coil.

The raft scraped against the graveled shore and everyone piled out.

If they all leave, I can reappear. I hope. It wasn’t like this came with a manual.

“Whoever sees her first, use the whistle on your PFD,” said Coach, pulling swim goggles from a pocket.

Hands flew to life-vests, fumbling for emergency whistles. Coach sent José and Nathan, the team’s fastest runners, scrabbling upstream. Gwyn and Carly ran downriver. Unwinding the safety rope, Coach ran it around a sturdy-looking tree and handed the end off to Will.

“Use it as a belay under your arms,” said Coach. “If you see me with her, down on your butt and dig your heels in.”

Coach adjusted his goggles and then plunged his head under the icy flow.

As soon as Coach was submerged, Will called out in a loud whisper. “Sam! Samantha! Come back now while Coach has his head underwater.” He stared straight at me, or rather through me. How did he know I wasn’t drowning? Could he see me?

“C’mon, Sam!” he called. “You still there?”

He pulled a hand through his messy curls and squinted at the river. He couldn’t see me.

Coach came up for air.

“Anything?” Will shouted to Coach.

Coach shook his head in response and plunged under once again.

Will swore. “Now, Sam! Unless you want the whole cross country team asking questions!”

That decided it: I preferred panic over drowned-Sam to panic over invisible-Sam. But did I know how to get back inside my skin again? I looked at Will’s dark eyes, at the frown shrinking his mouth.

“Oh, God,” said Will, his voice quieter this time. He looked scared.

Beside us, the Merced River roiled through the canyon, indifferent to the fate of those who lived by breath. I had to let Will know I was safe. And then all at once, there I was, my body back solid, thighs stuck on the hard edge of the raft, feet planted on a bar above two inches of puddled water, an oar in my grip.

Will’s face lit up. “Quick!” He reached for my hand, pulling me off the raft. “Take off your helmet.”

“What?” I had questions for him, and none of them involved my helmet.

“I saw you—I know about what you can do,” said Will, undoing the buckle on my orange helmet and hurling it upstream.

Coach’s head re-emerged. The bobbing helmet caught his attention immediately and he swam out for it.

I opened my mouth to ask Will what he’d seen, what it was that he knew, but he began whistling madly, signaling everyone I’d been found.

I grabbed his arm, pulling him around to face me. “What just happened?”

He ignored my question, looking panicked as he ran his eyes over me from head to toe. “Oh, crap! You’re dry.”

He took my other hand, sprang to the river’s edge, and shoved me so that I tumbled backwards into the shallows.

“What do you think you’re doing?” I took water in through my mouth and nose, and then I couldn’t stop coughing long enough to ask my questions.

“You need to look like you fell in,” he said, splashing more icy water on me.

I hunkered down, still gagging, and held up the flat of my palm in a “stop” gesture.

Will quit as José and Nathan scampered down to us; they’d heard the whistle.

Will moved close, helping me up, and whispered loudly in my ear. “You rippled; you vanished. Say you fell in. Unless you’d rather be the six o’clock news.”

I nodded, confused by the fact that Will was taking this so well.

Coach, swinging my helmet from one hand, emerged from the river, intense relief upon his browned face. “Sammy!” He used my childhood name as he wrapped strong, wet arms around me. “I was so worried! What would I have told your dad? Thank God you’re okay.” He released me and stepped back, looking me over. “You are okay, right?”

Glaring at Will, I said, “I’m fine, just a little wet—”

Will interrupted me. “She fell out and lost her helmet, but she’s okay.”

Coach handed the helmet to me as Carly and Gwyn joined us.

The next few minutes were a blur of my teammates hugging me, saying how good it was to see me alive, and arguing over what to do for a near-drowning victim.

 

The trip down the Merced River was Coach’s idea for team-bonding. Our men’s and women’s teams were too small to compete, and Coach had been looking for ways to keep our enthusiasm up and hopefully get us to recruit friends. I’d gotten Gwyn to sign up by telling her about the raft trip.

Now, seeing her turn back every couple of minutes to make sure I was still onboard, I figured she was questioning her decision. But as Coach shouted orders to us through a class four rapid, I heard Gwyn roaring above the river, “Yeah, baby, bring it on!” She swung back to me, black braids flying, during the post-rapid calm to give me a huge thumbs-up.

“Is this the best day ever, or what?” she shouted, grinning ear to ear.

I’d have to go with “or what,” I thought. I gave her the best smile I had in me, but it must not have been very convincing.

“Oh, my God, Sam, I’m such an idiot!” said Gwyn.

Setting her oar down, she leaned back and threw an arm around my neck. “It’s the worst day of my life. It totally sucks and I am completely hating every minute.”

I hugged her back and told her to shut up.

Will, meanwhile, completely stonewalled me. Instead of turning back to speak with me, Will cracked jokes with Nathan and José. Coach announced we could take turns swimming for a couple of miles, and I was about to ask Will to jump out with me when he leaned across the raft and shoved Nathan in, then slipped out after him.

I wanted to hit Will over the head with the paddle. Inside my water-socks, my toes curled and uncurled. I needed answers about what exactly had happened earlier. What had Will seen? Or thought he’d seen? What was wrong with my body? And why did he think ignoring me right now was an option? I frowned at Will as Nathan tried to shove him under the water—impossible with the PFD.

A blistering sun, merciless, created pockets of contrast through the river. The bright-lit ripples and dark undersides of submerged boulders alternately caught my eyes. Above, the canyon narrowed, closing off the sky to a strip of intense blue. Walls of water-carved stone pressed in and the river began to churn once more, furious at confinement. I shuddered in the triple digit heat, feeling in this an echo of my own entrapment, pressed inside a body I didn’t understand and couldn’t control. This was the third time it had happened since school let out two months ago.

Coach called Will and Nathan back in. Will flashed me one tiny smile as he took his position in front of me once more. We lived a mile apart on the same highway just out of Las Abuelitas, and after meeting by accident a few times, we’d started running the two miles to school almost everyday as a warm-up before cross country practice.

But now, when I needed him desperately, I couldn’t get his attention. I thought about just saying out loud, in front of everyone, “Hey, Will, so what was that you said about people vanishing into thin air?” But I didn’t. My own reputation among the kids I’d known all my life was finally on the upswing. I didn’t need to start a whole new round of pointing and staring now that people were finally not talking about eight years ago.

Coach began shouting orders for the next set of rapids, a pair of boat-eating class fours. I jammed my feet farther under the bulging wall of the raft, feeling relieved to have something to do that took all my concentration.

When we reached the pull-out, Coach gave a speech about teamwork and how proud he was that we’d all worked together to prevent a tragedy. It took me a minute to realize I was the prevented-tragedy, and then I felt my face heating up. I mumbled thanks, feeling like a colossal liar. Will reached over and gave my shoulder a friendly squeeze. His smile was sober, appropriate to the solemn moment.

If I was a colossal liar, what did that make Will?