Adventure is overrated.
The cold water bites my legs, and I tremble against the current. I just have to pretend I’m Charles Darwin, sailing off to the Galápagos. Creating a new theory for evolution seems easier than plopping down on the black inner tube, which spins on the waters of Skutz Falls.
“Come on, Jane, this isn’t hard,” my older brother, Duncan, snaps. “Just sit down.”
“But it’s moving!” I say.
“Yes,” he says. “That’s what rivers do.”
“Technically, they flow. A combination of gravity, wind, and geographic land folds causes the water to continuously run downward, unless disrupted by a dam or—”
Duncan grabs me around the waist and pushes me into the tube. I’ve stalled getting in the water so long the tube has heated up to thigh-blistering levels. “No science stuff, remember? Mom said to have fun, not ramble on about gravity and land folds. Okay?”
“Wouldn’t want to embarrass you in front of all your distinguished comrades.” I roll my eyes and wiggle deeper into the hole of my tube.
“You haven’t been outside at all this summer. See that, Dr. Jane?” He points to the sky. “That’s called the sun. It’s there for us to enjoy!”
I would tell him the sun is actually there due to the nebular cloud and condensation theory, but he gives me a stubborn stare.
“And seriously,” he says, “take that T-shirt off. You’ll cook to death.”
I wrap my pink T-shirt tighter around myself. Squeaky laughter breaks over the rush of the river. Duncan’s four friends splash each other and crack beers as they wait for me to get ready. No way will I take it off. Not with them here. One girl stands up from her tube, flaunting a flat abdomen in a floral bikini. Yeah, definitely not taking my shirt off.
Duncan drags my tube over to the rest of the group. The girl tilts her head and gives me a once-over. “So we finally get to meet Duncan’s little sister. I’m Laurel!”
Laurel puts her hands on her hips. “You’re thirteen, right?”
“Uh, I’m seventeen.”
“Oh, awkward!” She laughs. “You gonna join us at VIU?”
“No, I’m going somewhere else.” Like the University of Cambridge…if I get in. My acceptance letter still hasn’t arrived. I want to learn in the same place as the great ones who changed the world: the scientific revolutionist, Newton; the father of nuclear physics, Rutherford; and, of course, Darwin. I should be double-checking what classes I want to take instead of doing some stupid summer ritual with drunk college kids.
“What are we waiting for?” one of the other girls says. “Let’s go!” They jump onto their tubes and paddle into the current.
“Just relax.” Duncan leans toward me, his long, dirty blond hair falling in my face. “Try having fun for once.”
With that, Duncan shoves me into the current of Skutz Falls.
“Don’t let go!” I squeal as the cold water splashes onto my lap.
Duncan belly flops on his tube. “I’m right here,” he sighs. “You’re safe.”
I clutch the sides of the tube with white knuckles. Typical Duncan. Five summers ago, he forced me to learn how to ride a bike and promised not to let go of the seat until I was ready. Of course, he did let go, and I smacked against the cement and scraped my knees. With its corrosive chemicals, scorching Bunsen burners, and scalpels as sharp as green warbler-finches’ beaks, the lab is still safer than the outdoors.
The current is swift but smooth, so I release my vise grip and dip my hand in the cool water. It was a rainy winter, and the river is deeper than I’ve ever seen it. Despite its name, Skutz Falls is not a waterfall at all, just a long stretch of river with steeply descending rapids during the wet months. It’s like a classic Canadian postcard: a dark turquoise ribbon lacing through the forest for almost thirty miles. Douglas firs, western hemlocks, and alder trees tower over us on both sides of the rocky bank.
“How long will this take?”
Duncan rolls over so he lies on his back. “Don’t worry, Janey, you’ll be back in plenty of time to check the mail.”
“Mail doesn’t arrive on Sundays.”
Duncan laughs. “Which is the only reason I got you to leave the house.”
Fact: Duncan doesn’t understand that my whole life depends on that letter.
Fact: Floating down this stupid river gets me nowhere.
Hypothesis: I would be at least a couple hundred pages deeper into Principles and Problems in Physical Chemistry for Biochemists if I wasn’t here.
Experiment: Endure the trials and tribulations of youth before leaving Canada behind to indulge in scientific revolution with the Cambridge scholars.
Duncan paddles to catch up to his friends, but my tube dawdles behind. At least now I won’t have to hear them blather on about Duncan’s band or what party they’re going to. Thin grey clouds wisp across the sky, carrying a chilling mist. I’ll just close my eyes, listen to the river, and not think about the carcinogenic effects of the sun on my pasty skin.
“Hey Jane,” Duncan calls, “come to shore!”
I open my eyes just in time to see the sign as I whizz past: WALK FROM THIS POINT ON.
My heart slams against my chest and I fumble, trying to spin around on my tube. Duncan and his friends stand on the bank, their tubes in hand. In front of me, the water foams on the rocks.
A wave of terror wells up my body as I try to paddle back toward shore. “Duncan!” I scream. “I’m not moving.”
His friends laugh. “Don’t worry about her,” Laurel says. “The rapids are never that bad. She’ll just beat us down the river.”
“Don’t leave me!” I screech. My wild paddling does nothing as my tube sails farther away from the bank. “Duncan!”
“Just get out of the tube and swim,” another girl yells at me. “Come on, silly!”
I look around. The current picks up, and up ahead, white foam bubbles against jagged rocks. Rapids stretch across the river, plunging downward like watery steps. They crash against the rocky bank, splashing five feet in the air. This is my last chance to get to shore. I wiggle out of the tube, hook my arms around it, then plunge my feet in.
My soaked T-shirt pulls me down. I kick in the deep water, but the current steals my movement. I’ll never be able to swim to shore like this. Up ahead, the rapids roar like a beast. I need to get out of the water. I need to be on solid ground. I need to get back on my tube.
A slick rock brushes against my foot and I kick off—pain shudders through the arch of my foot as it digs into a sharp point. I cry out and throw my body over the edge of the tube.
The shore becomes craggy on either side, and I look back. Everyone’s getting farther and farther away as I careen down the river, but Duncan swims toward me. I just have to be brave until he can come get me.
The tube swooshes down a narrow gap between two rocks. A strong wave hits me from behind, and my grip slips.
I scream as my leg snags against a branch. My tube spirals again, bouncing from bank to bank. “Duncan!”
I’m flying too fast. Duncan will never be able to catch me. I try to spot him, but mist and trees and shooting water block my vision. I can’t hear the water anymore, just the blood pumping in my ears.
“Help!” I just need to ride this through, get off the tube and out of the water.
“Duncan!” I cry. I can’t see him, but he must be near. It’ll be okay. He’ll save me.
I flip, tumbling away from the tube, and hit the water like it’s concrete.
Water pounds at my head, my arms, my legs. I fling myself up for air but meet only rock. I open my mouth to scream and water plunges down my throat.
My chest spasms as my body rejects the water inside me. I need air. Everything is pounding, hitting, hurting. My lungs are ready to rip from my chest. I need to get out, I need to breathe.
I hit something hard––a bludgeon to the back of the head. I don’t need breath anymore, or a heartbeat—it’s slowed to almost nothing.
I need to—
Well, I need to do something. I can’t seem to remember quite what it is. I’m warm, and my blood dilutes in the water, forming a giant black opening that sweeps over to devour me.
This is the first chapter of Jane Unwrapped. Learn more here.