She tried again, this time stopping to catch her breath before cupping her hands around her mouth. “Rachel!” She listened in the quiet that followed.
The whisper of a breeze. A branch swaying in the slight wind and rubbing against a neighboring tree.
Elsie took stock. She was standing in the middle of a deep, dense wood, one that had been known to swallow its explorers whole. A quick survey of her body, however, taught her that she was still very much intact. Her feet were cold and her nose felt chapped. Otherwise everything seemed to check out. She looked at her hands. They were red and glistening with melted snow. She blew on them, which seemed to bring some warm feeling back to the tips of her fingers. She didn’t know how long ago she’d dropped the twine, the length of brown string Unthank had instructed her to carry—it seemed like a bit of a blur in her memory. She now questioned whether she’d willfully dropped the twine or if it had simply fallen away from her hand. However, her intent remained clear: She had to find her sister.
“RACHEL!” she hollered again. Still, no answer. She squinted into the distance; a break in the trees allowed a clear view. She walked toward the break and saw, on the other side, a wide meadow amid the woods. In the middle of the clearing was a small white rabbit.
The rabbit paused in its activity—it seemed to be munching on some kind of foraged root—and looked directly at Elsie. She’d seen rabbits at pet stores before, and her friend Karma had a small hutch in her backyard, but there was something about this particular rabbit that struck Elsie as being strange. There was a kind of bright intelligence in its eyes she hadn’t seen before in other animals. It twitched its nose a few times, shook its ears, and hopped away from the girl, toward the edge of the meadow. Before it left Elsie’s view, however, it stopped and looked back at her, as if willing her to follow. Elsie complied.
She wandered after the rabbit in a trance. It seemed her best option at present. She’d already become hopelessly turned around in this labyrinth of trees—therefore, she reasoned, it didn’t really matter what direction she went in. Also, she found it unsettling that the rabbit seemed to keep waiting for her: Anytime she fell too far behind and thought she’d lost its trail, she’d see the rabbit standing by a clutch of ferns, wiggling its nose and looking at her. Once she’d drawn closer, the rabbit would continue moving.
They hadn’t traveled very far before a noise came from the surrounding woods; Elsie held her breath, trying to silence the sound of the blood beating in her ears. The white rabbit had stopped too; its ears perked to listen. The sound came again. It was, distinctly, someone yelling Elsie’s name. The rabbit startled and dove into the underbrush, disappearing from Elsie’s sight.
“Don’t go!” called Elsie. She’d felt strangely compelled to follow the rabbit. She’d intuited that it wanted to show her something.
The voice came again, this time clearer. It was her sister. Elsie stood there for a moment, knee deep in the bracken of the woods, torn between the two aims: the anchor of her sister’s voice, or the strange call of the rabbit’s trail.
“Elsie!” the cry came again.
“Rachel!” yelled Elsie. She turned and ran in the direction of her sister’s voice.
Breaking through a screen of young pines, the two sisters were reunited in a crash of arms and green trench coats. They hugged each other for a long time before finally pulling apart.
“Are you okay?” asked Rachel.
“Yeah,” said Elsie, “I think so.”
Rachel searched her sister’s face. She saw the welts on her cheek, the little pinpricks of blood on her hands. “You’re all scraped up,” she said.
“I was running. I was so scared. I was looking for you.” Elsie found she was trembling wildly.
“It’s okay, sis,” consoled Rachel, straightening Elsie’s hair. It had become wild and tousled in her scramble. Little twigs jutted out here and there like antennae, and Rachel tenderly removed them. “Listen: You’ve got to help me find Goggles.”
“Where is she?”
“I don’t know. She was right behin
d me. We managed to meet up just after she made it in. We had a plan: We were getting ready to look for you. I thought I heard you yelling earlier, so I went walking in that direction, and the next thing I knew Martha was gone. Just disappeared.”
Elsie looked up at her sister. “You’ve got something in your…”
Rachel guessed at what her sister saw. “Ugh,” she said. “That gunk in my nose. I thought I got it all out.” She turned and, holding a finger to one nostril, executed what Elsie’s dad had always called a “farmer blow.” Little bits of brown paste spackled the fronds of a nearby fern.
“C’mon,” Rachel said. “Let’s go find her.”
They stayed close by each other as they searched for their friend, their twin voices echoing each other’s as they hollered the girl’s name to the surrounding trees. They moved slowly, methodically, not wanting to miss a single sound. What if she’d fallen and hurt herself? Elsie imagined Martha lying on the ground, her leg pinned beneath a fallen tree. It gave her the shudders.
“Hey!” came a voice from a nearby stand of dogwoods.
“Martha?” called Rachel.
To Elsie and Rachel’s great relief, the leafless red sticks of the dogwood parted and Martha appeared, goggles perched on her forehead and a green goo dripping down her cheek. “What happened to you guys?” she asked. As she spoke, she absently wormed her finger in her ear canal, trying to clear it of Unthank’s concoction.
“You were right behind me!” exclaimed Rachel. “What happened to you?”
“I thought you’d ditched me,” said Martha. “I kept yelling your name, but you were just gone into the woods. I got totally turned around.”
“Are you okay?” asked Elsie, the image of Martha caught beneath the fallen tree still fresh in her mind.