I’m so used to the way my brothers shake me awake that it takes three tries before consciousness really sinks in. I know it’s Bhadrak doing the shaking this time, because he’s the oldest and strongest of the four. One more nudge, and I’ll surely tumble to the ground from the high bunk carved into the tunnel wall. I shuffle around, wiping my eyes and trying to flap my hand at him, to show him I don’t need another push. Sleep and dust have caked my lashes with such a thick crust that it takes a while to get them fully open.
“What is it, loser?” I tease, giving Bhadrak a sleepy smile.
He is anything but a loser: tall and athletic, in his prime at twenty-three. His kind, dark eyes beam down at me before he gives my shoulder another playful slap for the jibe.
“It’s your turn under the lamp, little sister,” Bhadrak says. “Go get healthy.”
I wriggle around in the bunk, careful not to smack my head on the earth ceiling of the hollowed-out room in which we live. The family rule states that the littlest and lightest sleeps at the top of each of the two triple-bunkers in our room, which means I’m stuck at the top forever, unless Mumma decides to have another child. Since she has five of us to deal with and it’s been sixteen years since she had me, I don’t think it’s a likely option. The only other way to replace my second-eldest brother, Vinesh, in the middle bunk would be to gain about fifty pounds, but that’s about as likely to happen as me waking up without having to be shoved. When you live in the Underground, weight gain is an absurd fantasy.
Bhadrak leaves me to get into some shoes and presentable over-clothes, but when I reach the living section of our two-room home, I find him pacing back and forth on the stone floor of the pantry space. He hasn’t been up to the surface in nearly a full week and the tension is starting to show. I don’t really know what all the fuss is about; I’ve never been above ground at all. I wrestle past him to get to the plastic boxes on the pantry shelves, rattling each one and looking through their clear sides. Bhadrak sighs.
“You know there’s nothing fresh,” he says.
It’s true, but it hasn’t stopped me hoping that things would have changed by now. Bhadrak is a scavenger, one of the Underground population chosen to go to the surface and bring whatever fresh produce he can find. Since the government has been scouring the area above us for the last six days, he’s been on strict orders to stay below the earth. They are orders that I’m very happy with, despite my rumbling belly. I can’t allow myself to think about the consequences if Bhadrak, or anyone else here, was caught above ground. We have lost too many of our people through carelessness already.
“You’ll be able to go up again soon,” I tell him. “Better safe than sorry.”
It is what our father used to say, and it’s a great pity that he didn’t take his own advice.
“Ooh, I know just to where to get something,” I add, turning on my heel.
My third eldest brother is Mukesh, and he sleeps on the bottom bunk opposite Bhadrak’s. Amid his numerous bedcovers, I fumble around until something rustles at me. With a triumphant smile, I uncover a packet of crackers from his secret stash of extra snacks. As an afterthought, I grab one of his hats and tuck my hair up under it. When I return to the living space, Bhadrak gives me an expectant nod, running one finger along the edge of my baseball hat before he tries to flip it off my head. I recoil just in time with a grin.
“You know Mukesh doesn’t like you borrowing his caps,” he warns.
“Dumbo’s got hats coming out of his huge ears,” I reply. “He can spare me this one.”
We both laugh, but Bhadrak’s sharp eyes are already flying to his watch.
“Go, go!” he says, giving me a push. “Your time slot starts in three minutes!”
I throw myself out of the door to our rooms, pausing only to open my crackers and earn an impatient groan from Bhadrak. The wide corridor outside our living space is peppered with many other doors, which lead to rooms identical to our own. Some such caverns house two or even three families if their numbers are small; we’re lucky to be a group of six and have an allocation to ourselves. I munch the dry snacks as I continue down the well-lit tunnel, heading for the wide, round Atrium at its end.
The population of this section of the Underground is greater than four hundred people, most of whom congregate in the Atrium to socialise, trade goods and visits the health lamps when it’s their turn. The Atrium is a vast expanse that extends three storeys upwards, giving a pleasant feeling of space to our otherwise cramped lives. I climb an iron ladder set into the side of one curving wall, reaching the second floor where the lamp rooms are situated. There are a few people milling around as they await their turns, and a little panic flutters inside me that the attendants might have given my slot to someone else already. If they have, I won’t get a space for at least another week.
As I rush for the door to my usual session room, a hand grabs hold of my trouser leg.
“Excuse me, young man…”
Young man? I turn with a glower to find a sweet old lady beaming up at me. I’m not that tall myself, so the sight of her tiny frame placates me a little in being mistaken for a guy. Instead of correcting her, I pull off Mukesh’s hat, letting my long, black hair trail down around my face. The lady’s wrinkled brow expands, pushing her eyes out like those of old potato.
“Oh dear girl, I’m so sorry!” she soothes. “I’m a little turned around today, forgive me.”
I stuff the rest of the crackers into my grey trouser pocket, keenly aware that I’m definitely late for my lamp time now.
“Was there something I could help you with?” I ask the old lady hurriedly.
She looks me over. “No, no,” she croons, “you’re not who I was looking for. Sorry dear.”
She was looking for a boy, and she thought she’d found him. When I finally get into the lamp room, the attendant glares at me with crossed arms, but says nothing as he turns on the machinery and leaves me to it. I slip off my trousers and t-shirt in the bright space, walking across the room in my underwear to a camp bed set-up under a huge, golden light. I lie down under the lamp and try to relax, letting its heat permeate my skin. I’m not likely to burn with my skin such a deep shade of brown, but I still have to remind myself not to fall asleep here when I shut my eyes.
As it turns out, that’s not much of a problem, since the old lady’s mistake keeps taunting my mind. It’s not my fault that I have to wear the hand-me-down clothes of my four brothers; if I could be in something cuter than a baggy old t-shirt and trousers, I would be. It’s not as though there’s a dressmaker’s handy when you’re living twenty feet below the ground. And Mukesh’s baseball caps are handy because they keep the dust and dirt of the earth ceiling from falling into my hair all the time. It was my clothes that made the old lady mistake my gender, nothing more.
An uncomfortable shiver passes through me as I lie beneath the rays of light. I’m supposed to be soaking up the vitamins from this simulated sun, but all I can think of is the truth beyond the lies I’m telling myself. Even if I was dressed as a girl, I’d still be flat-chested and have no curve in my hips. Even when my hair is uncovered, there are still some people who look at me twice because they’re unsure whether to say ‘sir’ or ‘miss’ when they address me. Even my voice is lower than any of the other girls I know, and I’ve picked up too many bad habits living in a room full of boys all my life. Mumma used to tell me not to worry, that I’d grow into my womanly shape when I got older. Since I turned sixteen, she’s stopped saying that and, believe me, I noticed when she did.
I let out a sigh as a low buzzing tells me it’s time to turn over and get some vitamin light on my back. I lie with my face flat against the camp bed, pleased that no-one I know was around to see my embarrassing encounter. It suddenly strikes me as strange that the old lady would be walking around on the lamp corridor in the first place; elderly survivors in the Underground usually have light treatment delivered to them by our small supply of medical staff. Everything gets fetched and carried for them and they live in their own accommodations on the opposite side of the Atrium. How did a little wrinkled thing like her even get up the ladder to the second floor?
I’m more confused than ever by the time my dose of light, heat and vitamins is up, but I dress quickly and try to turn my mind to thoughts of dinner. It’s going to be something dry and boring like rice and bread again, but at least it means I get to sit down with all my family and have a good laugh. Mumma and my youngest brother Pranjal will bring our food back from the communal kitchen, so we can eat at home in privacy tonight. If I hurry, I can be back in time to have the first scoop of hot rice, my privilege as the baby of the group. When I make the return journey from the lamp rooms to my home, the old lady who was waiting outside is nowhere in sight. I reason that perhaps she has found the young man that she was looking for.
The steam that greets me when I return to our rooms fills me with relief that I’m not late for dinner. The low-pitched chatter buzzing in the living quarters lets me know the family is assembled and, as the steam clears, a hand reaches up and rips the baseball cap from my head. Mukesh’s wide chipmunk cheeks are puffed in agitation as he dusts off his precious hat, looking at me as though I’ve damaged it just by wearing it out for an hour. When he turns his back, I pull my ears to make them stick out like his, earning a laugh from Vinesh and Pranjal where they sit on the floor.
“Come on baby sis,” Vinesh says, patting a cushion beside him. “You don’t want to miss the stunning array of bloaty carbs Mumma’s got on offer tonight.”
“I heard that you cheeky ape!”
Mumma shouts at him across the slim space between the living area and the kitchen. She is enveloped by a cloud of steam, but her smile shines through it at me as sweat beads her brow. I almost dash over to help her dish up the meal but another movement stops me. Someone else is following behind her, carrying the bowls. It takes me a moment to absorb the petite frame and wrinkled brow, but when I lock eyes with the stranger, I realise she’s the same old lady that I ran into back on the lamp level.
“I’m so sorry Mrs Ghosh,” Mumma says to the lady. “My boys are trouble when they all get together. But my daughter is much more agreeable, as you’ll see.”
I want to ask Mumma who this woman is and why she is joining us for dinner but, after my mother’s compliment on my excellent manners, it seems like a rude thing to do. I wonder if that’s exactly whys she said it as I cross the room to join Vinesh on the floor. Pranjal is small and skinny like me – you would hardly think he’s a full year older – and I think we must look odd sitting either side of a stocky, muscular guy like Vinesh. He slings a strong arm around my neck, pulling me in to muss my hair with the knuckles of his other hand. I squeal playfully for a moment, but stop abruptly when I see Mumma glaring at me over the top of Mrs Ghosh’s tiny head.
“Can we have some peace to eat please?” Mumma asks, quiet but firm as always.
The four of us lean in to receive our rice bowls, mine steaming the hottest of all. We bow our heads respectfully as the older women settle to join us for the meal. Mukesh chews thoughtfully on his first spoonful before he suddenly asks the question that’s on my mind.
“So why is Mrs Ghosh here for dinner and not Bhadrak?”
He says it with a mouthful of rice, and sticky white particles come flying from his lips, exploding in all directions. Mumma is not best pleased, but she clears her throat and answers him with elegance all the same.
“Bhadrak was called to the security council about some issue or other,” she explains, “and Mrs Ghosh has travelled here from a neighbouring tunnel. We’re offering her our hospitality, so chew your food properly and take off that hat.”
Mukesh does as he’s told, mumbling bitterly, but the old woman holds out her hand with a throaty chuckle.
“Please Bandhula, you mustn’t make such a fuss,” she says with a strange, off-putting grin. “Boys will be boys, after all.”
I don’t think I’m imagining the fact that she looks at me when she says this. For one horrible moment, I think that she’s about to tell the tale of my embarrassing identity crisis earlier on. Mercifully, she starts to eat her rice instead, but I can’t shake the feeling that her presence in our home gives me. Something bad prickles the thin hairs on my arms as I tug at the sleeves of my shirt, feeling colder by the moment despite the hot food in my belly. When I look down into the empty centre of the space between us all, I’m sure I can feel Mrs Ghosh’s beady eyes fixed on the top of my head.
“Excuse me, Mrs Ghosh,” Vinesh says with a thoughtful hitch in his tone. “Did you say you came to us from another section of the Underground?”
The old woman shifts her cross-legged frame and I freeze, disturbed by the sight of something black and shiny clinging to her ankle.
“That’s right dear boy,” I hear her say.
“Did you come in by a connecting tunnel?” Vinesh continues.
Ghosh shifts again, giving me a better view of the device strapped just above her shoe. The box is about the size of a packet of matches, but it’s made of pure black plastic, save for one cube where a tiny red light flashes out every few seconds.
“No my dear,” Mrs Ghosh answers. “I came in overland.”
“What?” I say, suddenly looking up. “How?”
“That’s not your business,” Mumma snaps, clearly outraged at our prying. “How dare you lot ask Mrs Ghosh such personal-”
Her next words are drowned out by the blast of a siren. It blares so loud that I feel as though a needle’s pierced my ears. In the midst of the emergency alarm, movement starts all around me. Vinesh pulls me to my feet and Pranjal struggles to get up swiftly on his other side. The door to our room flies open with a clang and my eyes are suddenly on Bhadrak’s face, flushed and wide-eyed in panic. He bursts into the living space, finding me first amid the chaos. There’s a pang of sudden sorrow between us, like he’s apologizing for something I have yet to discover is wrong.
“We’ve been infiltrated!” he shouts, his voice strained and teary. “The soldiers are pulling people up! We’ve got to run before we get arrested!”
This is the nightmare we all share in the dark of the Underground, the day when the government above will find the rebels in hiding, those who declined to live by its new laws. I feel as though my heart has stopped, yet every sinew in me is also screaming with the urge to run. From what and to where, I cannot imagine; I can only trust that Bhadrak will guide us all to safety.
“I’m afraid running isn’t an option,” says a shrill, amused voice that carries above the alarms.
The old woman who calls herself Mrs Ghosh is on her feet. In her hands, there is a gun. She gives me that creepy smile that makes my insides squirm, then turns to Bhadrak with a practised grace. She fires her handgun before the word ‘no’ can even cross my lips, then she takes off running and vanishes out into the corridor. In the same moment that she passes Bhadrak, he crumples to the ground, his face a picture of anger and shock. Something within me breaks and a wild unstoppable shaking fills my every muscle.
Bhadrak’s shirt is already starting to soak up the blood.
Mumma’s trying to tell us to give Bhadrak some air, but all I can do is clamber towards him as the sirens continue to blast out. He starts to splutter when Vinesh runs out to find help, trying to shake his head as if he wants to stop him going. My eldest brother, my protector, reaches out a hand and tugs hard at my t-shirt, the one that used to be his about a decade ago. His brown eyes are brimming with water, so wide that they glisten like pools of darkening fear. I can hardly stand the sight of his face when he’s in so much pain, but the force of his grip tells me that I have to be beside him, as close as he wants to pull me.
“There’s a tunnel at the top of the Atrium, in the Guard’s Office,” he breathes, gasping between every other word. “You take the keys from my pocket. And the cutters. Wire cutters in my pocket.” He stops to cough once more, but this time drops of blood form on his lip. “When you get up to the surface, head to the fences and cut your way out. Run, my sister. Run.”
Shock has me in its grip. The emergency alarms died somewhere during Bhadrak’s words, but I didn’t even hear them halt. He’s dying. My brother, who lies here holding onto my arm, is dying right in front of my eyes. I stumble back a little as Mumma suddenly forces her slender hand into Bhadrak’s pockets, seeking out the key and the cutters that he described. She forces them into my hands, which are shaking so hard I can barely keep a grip on the tools. Bhadrak puts one hand on mine and the shaking worsens, tears stinging the whole of my face as they threaten to burst into sobs.
“You heard him!” Mumma shouts. She grabs my chin and forces my face to hers. “You’re the fastest of us all! Go to the tunnel, open it up and cut the fence on the surface for the rest of us to follow!”
“But…” I stammer, looking between her and Bhadrak. His expression is one of unthinkable agony as he strains to push me away from his side.
His yell turns into a mournful cry as Mukesh and Pranjal pull me to my feet, throwing me out of the door and into the madness beyond it. The whole of our section of the Underground is running for its life. I’m immediately swept into the flood of people heading out of the accommodation corridor towards the Atrium. I want to tell someone else about the key, let another person run up to open our escape route, so I can return to Bhadrak and find out if Vinesh got him a doctor, but no-one will stop to listen in this chaos. All I can do is do as I’ve been told, and pray that the section will all escape from the soldier threat.
At first I don’t see any soldiers, but as the Atrium draws nearer, there’s a sound piercing the air every few moments that fills my heart with dread. Gunshots. Single shots, like the one that’s killing my brother even now, are ringing out from all directions, causing screams and cries wherever they hit. There aren’t many of the soldiers, clad in all-black fatigues, but there are enough to send my community into a wild fracas. Some of the bravest are trying to wrestle the guns from the hands of the government-trained thugs; others are attempting to run back against the tide of people who are flooding the Atrium in their desperate quest to escape to the surface.
Perhaps for the first time in my life, I thank the powers that be that I am short, skinny and entirely unremarkable to look at. I pass like a shadow through the crowd without catching any soldier’s eye, keeping low and struggling along until I reach the ladders that lead to the higher levels. People are at their wildest here, even pulling one another off the ladder so that they might be the first to reach safety, but I leap onto the back of a tall guy who’s just lost the struggle to get onto the structure. My quick hands and even quicker feet help me to scurry up the rungs like a rat, before anyone can so much as grab my ankle. The higher I climb, the louder my heart beats in my ears.
A shot to my right deafens me, such a shock that I could almost have let go of the rungs and fallen back into the clamouring mass. I see the scattering soil beside my head where the bullet smashes into the earth wall and climb on, terrified and desperate to be out of the range of whoever has spotted me from below. I’ve never done the whole ladder of the Atrium in one go, right up to the top floor where the security and medical departments are housed, but now my body burns as I scramble off the rails and onto the top-most corridor. I glance around, petrified by the sight of yet more soldiers streaming in from my right, using cables and wires to lower themselves into the Atrium. Below me, the people of the Underground are starting to rise up the ladders, looking for the hope of escape.
The Guard’s Office is the place where a watchman always sits to stop this kind of thing from happening. It is off to my left, in a part of the top level that has yet to be infiltrated by soldiers, so I quickly dash across the dark space, hoping that my enemies are too busy descending into the madness below to see me. The key and the cutters are heavy in my trouser pocket, bashing against my leg with every footfall that I take. When I reach the door marked for the watchman, I smash through it shoulder-first, letting it swing wide as I look around everywhere for the tunnel door that I’m supposed to unlock.
The body of the guard that should have been on duty stares at me with vacant eyes. Blood still pours from his throat even though he must have been dead for the whole time that the soldiers have been filtering in. My stomach feels like it’s turning inside out as I suddenly lurch forward and vomit all over the floor, retching until I can hardly breathe. I clutch at my chest, horrified by the heavy, wet tips of my long hair as they catch in the pool of sick before me. I throw them back over my shoulder, calming my heart and trying desperately to stick to Bhadrak’s plan.
Fumbling in my pocket for the key, I find the door in the top corner of the ceiling. A stack of cabinets serves as a staircase to reach it, so I scramble to the top of them and put my shaking hands to the best use I can. The sounds of gunfire and shouting outside are getting louder and, now and then, I see a figure dart past the office door, so fast I can’t tell if they’re friend or foe. When the key turns the right way, the door to the tunnel comes swinging down, leaving me staring up into an earthy shaft with no sign of light ahead. I put the key back into my pocket and gulp down a few breaths.
The tunnel leads to the surface. I was born in the Underground four years after the rebels began hiding there and I’ve never set foot above the earth in all that time. I’ve seen pictures in books, and drawings on the walls of scavengers, like Bhadrak, who have been up there in order to bring us the things we need. Now, it’s my turn to be the one who’s needed. I have to follow this tunnel and cut the fence above ground, no matter what stands in my way. I stare into the darkness ahead again, a cavalcade of horrible thoughts entering my mind. It’s possible that there are more soldiers waiting at the other end of this tunnel. It’s possible that no-one else below is going to get out, even if I do clear the way. It’s possible that Bhadrak is already dead.
I snap my head down to the door of the office, where a soldier stands with a gun in his hand. His face is covered by a balaclava that leaves only a pale strip of skin visible around his eyes. They shine like sapphires; his expression is surprisingly young, and he looks as confused as I feel. He could have just shot me without shouting to get my attention. He didn’t. And it’s his mistake for me to take advantage of.
I shoot up the tunnel and scratch my way through like a rat, my skinny frame fitting through the curves and narrow parts with ease. I almost smile at Bhadrak’s ingenuity for knowing I’d be the best person to do this task, but the memory of his watery eyes and the blood on his lips stops any joy from entering my mind. The guard with his throat cut follows the sight of my brother in my memory and I force myself to switch it all off. All that matters is reaching the surface and cutting the fence.
Endless minutes pass as I gasp and struggle, but finally I bump my head on something solid and non-earthy above. Panicked by the sudden end of the tunnel, I wedge myself against the earth and reach up, palms flat against the blockage. I push hard, wrists straining, until at last the panel overhead gives way. A rush of freezing cold air knocks the breath out of my lungs and, as I poke my head out of the tunnel, a realisation comes to mind. The cold air is wind. For the first time in my life, I’m feeling what surface people call ‘the weather’.
The wonder is short-lived as I look out into this new world, finding the whole place as black as the tunnel I’ve come from. There are no lights anywhere and it’s hard to make out the size of the place I’ve surfaced in; all I can catch is the outline of the fence Bhadrak mentioned, some three feet ahead of me. Shielding my face against the wind, I climb out of the tunnel and keep low to the ground, crossing the empty space until I collide with the fence itself. The metal feels like ice against my hands as I cling to it, reaching around for the wire cutters in my pocket.
I make a point of looking at the fence as I begin to cut away at it. I’ve spent so long in small rooms and confined spaces that I don’t want to know what expanse I’m in right now. The Atrium is the biggest open space I’ve ever been in, and even that is an overwhelming sight when it’s empty. And it had a ceiling. I know by the presence of weather that there is no ceiling above me now. I can’t stand the idea of nothing overhead to protect me, so I curl myself into a ball against the fence and keep cutting, until there’s a hole big enough for me to pass through. I stop, wondering if I should make the hole bigger, but a sudden noise makes me turn my head.
“Breach on the perimeter!”
The light that appears is blinding after so long in the dark. It pierces my eyes, and I have to cover my face for a moment to adjust to the sudden pain, shoving the wire cutters back into my pocket before the spotlight can see the evidence of what I’ve done. I turn away from the brightness, huge white circles of light clouding my vision, and feel my way through the gap I’ve created. It’s snug even for me, but the sound of crashing footfalls not far off spurs me on. I stagger to my feet and start running blindly, hoping that these surface soldiers aren’t armed like the ones raiding the Atrium below.
As I run, my vision starts to return, blurred but readjusting to the newly-lit path ahead of me. I’m running on a mixture of grass and dirt with the spotlight pouring down, illuminating my every move for the soldiers behind to see. A quick backward glance tells me they’re struggling to pull open the hole in the tall fence so that they can pursue me. None of them seem to have weapons ready to aim. I’m not sure that I can outrun them, but getting caught isn’t an option either. Panic and fear threaten to capture me once more but I run on, catching sight of a change in the landscape ahead.
My picture books when I was a child told me that R was for River. The river here isn’t the sparkling blue snake-stream I once pored over in books: it’s a wild, raging waterway that cascades off into a dark batch of trees. This is the river that our water comes from in the Underground; the one that my father always said might give way and flood our home someday. A lot of people laughed at his wild ideas, me included, but now I thank my luck that my father was nothing short of a madman. He was the one who filled up the water tank to its maximum and taught me to swim, just in case the river ever came pouring in.
I look back at the soldiers again, just in time to see them breaking through the fence. The first few are starting to make their run towards me. There’s a good amount of distance between us as I keep on bolting forward, a smile of pure relief bursting onto my face. They won’t expect me to know how to swim. I turn my head back to the sight of my watery salvation, hoping that my strength holds out enough to let the raging river carry me downstream, and far from the soldier’s growing threat. The water is faster than all of us, its black surface glistening where the spotlight is starting to reach its banks. Hope at last.
Until my foot snags on something below. I fall, twisting rapidly as I roll onto my side on the hard earth, my face scratching over something sharp as I try to rise again. When I stop rolling, I’m facing back towards the soldiers who are dashing straight at me. Their voices come back into audible range as they shout to one another and point straight ahead. I have minutes before they’ll be upon me and, as I try to rise again, I find my foot isn’t the only thing that snagged. The spotlight helps me make out the curl of barbed wire right beside my head, the curl that’s tangled up within my long, black hair.
Every moment that I struggle brings the soldiers closer, my roots pulling against the wire as I realise there’s no way to untangle myself from its grip. I almost give in, heaving out a sobbing breath, until I feel the hardness of the wire cutters under my leg. I fumble wildly in my pocket to get them loose and raise them to my head, wincing as I begin to chop away at the clumps of hair that are caught nearest the wire. Every snip gives me more relief as I start to be able to move my head away from the wire, and away from the soldiers who are nearing at an alarming pace.
The second the last strands of hair are free I race away, half-crawling until I am up on my feet again. The wire cutters are still in my grip as I streak down the bank towards the river, every muscle in my body aching, my face stinging from the wire’s sharp edges The wind sends a chill over my sweat-drenched skin. When I leap from the bank, I don’t even look where I’m landing; the overwhelming cool of the water takes everything away. For just one moment I am under the surface again, in a place where the noise of war and government and soldiers is drowned out by natural walls. I almost wish I could stay below, but the fire in my lungs tells me to push back up into the world once more.
When I surface, the speeding water has already carried me far from the soldiers, their faint cursing telling me that they’re not planning to follow. Their spotlight can no longer reach me, veiling the course ahead with darkness that will hide me from their eyes. I bob in the current, overwhelmed by its mighty swell, but manage to stay afloat as the river shifts its way into the dark forest ahead. As it enters the trees, the raging water breaks off into a few sub-streams, leaving me in the central course as it begins to smooth out, taking me farther and farther from everything I have known. It is only then that I start to fear where the river will take me next.