"Where did you say that fence was?" Mark pushed his way through a particularly thick piece of undergrowth. "C'mon, Jason, where's your sense of adventure?"
"You mean you don't know."
"Where your sense of adventure is? 'Course not."
"No! Where the *fence* is." Mark looked back at Jason, flashing him a wide grin. It wasn't often that he had Jason at his mercy like this. "We're *exploring*, Jase. How the heck am I supposed to know where the fence is? That's what explorers do. They *discover* things."
"Well, I wanna discover lunch. I'm hungry. How about over on that rock?"
Mark eyed the rock suspiciously. "Maybe we should look for another place. Jeanie says there's snakes over there."
"There aren't any snakes, she just says that to keep us out of the poison ivy," Jason said authoritatively. "Besides, I wanna eat right now."
"Well, alright," Mark said finally. He didn't have quite the cavalier attitude Jason had to Jean's warnings. "But if there's snakes--"
"If you're really worried about the snakes--" Jason began, putting some contempt into his voice.
"I'm *not* worried about the snakes, but I thought of a neat way to get there without walking through the ivy." Mark looked up into the trees, grinning. If he didn't get the topic of conversation off the snakes, he would never live it down.
"Okay, let's see."
"Okay." Mark reached as high as he could and caught hold of the stub of a tree branch. He used it to brace himself as he walked up the trunk and swung his legs into a tree crotch. Then, hands braced firmly, he pushed himself into a sitting position, caught a branch above him and pulled himself upright. "Come on up and I'll show you."
Jason looked at the branch stub, then at Mark, and grinned. He backed up into the bushes, then ran and jumped for the branch Mark was on, pulling himself up by sheer arm force and depositing himself on the branch, knees first. "Go on," he gasped, still grinning.
"Show-off," Mark said. "All right." The two boys circled around the tree, finding purchase for small arms and legs. Then Mark very carefully edged out on one of the branches, balancing as long as he could to make himself look good, then dropping to all fours and inching forward. The branch bent further downward with every move he made, and Jason, watching, felt tension growing in his chest, making it harder to breathe.
Then Mark jumped and grabbed onto a branch from another tree, swung wildly for a second, got purchase with his feet and caught the trunk, hugging it. "You see?" he called. "Now I just have to get onto *this* branch--" he stepped up and down again, onto a limb directly over the target rock-- "and jump down!"
If Mark hadn't proved he could do it, Jason might never have gone near a manuever like that. But anything Mark could do, Jason had to do better. He balanced all the way out, never crouching down, and when he swung onto the next tree he gave himself no time to regain equilibrium before he was clambering onto the final branch and jumping down. As a result, he slammed his knee into the rock. "Owwww!"
"You all right?" Mark asked.
"'Course," Jason lied through clenched teeth, fighting tears. "Just bumped my knee."
"Okay." Mark shrugged the subject off. "Let's eat."
They removed thoroughly mushed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from bags looped on their belts and ate them with all the disgusting noises they weren't permitted to make at home, occasionally slapping at mosquitoes and trying the sound of curse words out on their tongues. Jason stuck a gooey tongue out at Mark, one thing led to another, and soon they were whacking each other with paper bags. At home, they'd have a food fight, but food was much too precious here. Then Jason accidentally knocked the last bit of Mark's sandwich into the ivy.
"Hey!" Mark shouted, and punched him. "Now I have to see if it's all right." He got up and slid down the rock into the ivy.
"It won't be," Jason said with authority. "It's in the dirt, I betcha. I don't even see it."
"Well, I-- aowww!" Mark jerked his left foot up and staggered away. Jason caught a glimpse of something brown slithering in the ivy.
"Mark!" he shouted, standing up on the rock. "Mark, you all right?"
Mark leaned against a tree, holding his ankle. "N-no," he said, his voice shaking badly. His eyes began to fill with brightness. "I-- I think Jeanie was right, I think I got bit by a snake," he said, and for a moment a bit of his usual righteousness returned. "No snakes, huh? So much for listening to *you*, Jason..."
"Get on the path," Jason said. "We gotta get you home." *My fault*, he thought, fear and guilt burning in his mind. *My fault!*
Mark let go his foot and gingerly let it press the ground. His leg seemed to be burning with a cold fire. No, not his leg-- everything was burning, he was floating in cold fire, he could barely feel the outside of his body. He hop-staggered out of the ivy, onto the path, and fell to the ground, staring at the blood seeping through his pant leg. He pulled his sock down and his pant leg up, exposing two little red pools that dripped sideways down his leg. "Oh God," he whispered, in a curiously adult tone of fear.
Jason bounced out of the ivy. "We gotta get you home!" he said, trembling inside.
Mark shook his head. "I-- I think we gotta suck the blood out," he said. He was no longer near tears, or at least not very near, and although his voice was still shaking and terrified, it was far more calm than hysterical.
"Suck the *blood* out?" Jason was the one who was hysterical.
"Yeah. Because of the poison in it." He bent over, trying to reach his leg with his mouth, and failed. "Jason, you have to do it. I can't reach."
"What do I have to do?" Jason asked, kneeling down so fast it looked like collapsing. "Just suck my leg and spit the blood out," Mark said. He leaned his head back, supporting himself on his elbows and slowly sinking down.
"What's that gonna do?" "Jason, just *do* it!
" Tentatively, Jason bent his head to the puncture, feeling like a vampire, and tried to suck the blood out. It tasted much like his own blood, salty and interesting, but he realized that it was poison he was sucking out and gagged, the blood in his mouth dribbling out onto Mark's leg and the ground. "You sure this is gonna work?" he asked weakly.
"It works in all the books," Mark said, his voice growing distant and slow. He wanted to rage at Jason-- "This is your fault, now you better get me out of it!" But he was much too tired, and it wouldn't do any good. He didn't even know if the blood-sucking method would work in real life. "Never mind, we'll just go home," he said, as if it would be that easy. He pulled his leg closer to him, and tried to get up. Jason eventually had to haul him up most of the way. The weakness and the pain were making the tears burn his eyes again, and his chest tighten with fear and repressed sobs.
"I'll get you home," Jason said quickly. "Can you walk if I'm holding you like this?" He had his arm looped around Mark's chest and under his armpits, supporting him. Mark stumbled forward a step or two. Each time he put weight on the injured leg, he had to moan. He felt as if his leg were turning into a balloon, and the slightest pressure would pop it. "I-- I'll try," he said.
Jason held Mark up step by lurching step. His own arms had begun to burn with exhaustion, and sweat trickled into his eyes. The sun slanted in through the greenery, turning the world into a senseless kaleidoscope of green and brown. "Mark, which way do we go?"
"I don't know," Mark said weakly, his voice trembling on the edge of tears. "I *can't*-- "
Suddenly he pitched forward, bringing Jason with him into a patch of fallen leaves from last year, musty with mold. Jason pushed up from it,and thought for a terrified second that Mark had just died. But the sob that forced his way past Mark's clenched teeth reassured him even as it frightened him."Mark, are you all right?"
"It hurts too much, I can't-- " Mark cried, his voice and face tense with trying to keep the sob in. "Jason, go on without me. Get Dr. Harry and bring him to me."
"No!" Jason said. "Mark, what if I leave you here and you die? We gotta keep going!" He helped Mark to his feet, hauling with all the strength in his young limbs. "Hang onto me. We gotta get back home together."
Mark was silent then, and stayed that way as they staggered along the path-- the only sound was his agonized breathing. Jason was himself no stranger to agonized breathing-- his arms and legs had turned to lead, supporting Mark's greater weight, and sweat and tears had virtually blinded him. But he refused to give up-- it wasn't simply that he felt guilty that Mark had been bitten in the first place. It was that Mark was his friend, and he would not allow him to die.
Later, Mark stirred slightly, whispered, "I'm not going to make it."
"You are too!" Jason shouted, his voce hoarse from the exertion. "Mark, don't say that. I'm gonna get you home!"
The path seemed to disappear into the thick green trees. Jason sagged, and wondered if he'd taken a wrong turn somewhere. Maybe if he pushed through there, he could get back onto another path quickly. He stepped off the path, through the smallest amount of greenery he saw, half-dragging Mark. The vines and undergrowth pressed against Mark's legs, pulling him back, and Jason kept having to get a new hold. He wished their positions were reversed. Mark was the strong one, the leader. He would know what to do, if it were Jason that was dying.
He had been fooling himself all along. He wasn't as good as Mark. And because of that inadequacy, his best friend was going to die.
Jason kept staggering on, when feeling left his legs and the world lost all meaning, turned into mottled light and dark without significance. He didn't know what direction he was going in and he didn't care anymore. All he knew was that he had to get out of the woods.
Finally a tree root brought him down. He tripped, and he and Mark collapsed together. Jason found that he didn't have the strength to get back up again. *I'm sorry, Mark*, he thought, a bitter wet burning welling up in his eyes. *I can't do it.*
Most of the woods were shadow now, and all the light came glittering from one side. Jason heard the call of a seagull toward the sunlight, smelled a tiny bit of sea air. None of it registered. He had failed.
Mark heard it too, from the cold darkness he was floating in, and it returned him to reality enough to wonder why he wasn't moving anymore. He opened his eyes, a feat that took most of his strength, and saw the moldy leaves and growing things of the ground. He must be very close to death, he realized, and he wanted to tell Jason that it wasn't his fault, that he'd done his best. "Jason?" Mark tried to say, but his tongue wouldn't respond to his commands and so it came out as a weird sound but maybe it didn't matter anyway and Mark's eyes closed again.
Jason struggled up. Mark had said something, he heard it. "Mark?" he asked, and shook his friend. "Mark, can you hear me?" *Please don't be dead, please....*
Mark stirred again, opened his eyes and looked at Jason. "Home," he mumbled.
"We're gonna go home," Jason said, adrenaline giving him the strength he needed to once again lift Mark up. They weren't anywhere near the path, though-- which way to go?
A smile broke like a bubble across his face. The sun was setting in the west. That was the beach. So if he went toward the light, he could get home. He began stumbling eagerly, almost carrying Mark, tripping and getting up and going on.
Princess met them as they staggered out of the woods, onto the beach. "Where were you? What's wrong? We've been looking for you for *hours!* JEANIE, THEY'RE HERE! What's happened to Mark? Oh, no-- "
"Snakebite," Jason gasped. "But-- I got-- him home-- " He stumbled forward and collapsed, letting go of Mark. He was safe now, Mark was safe. Harry would take care of them. They were home.