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Bethany could already feel the rush of cool water through her hair from the shampooing she was going to get at the salon as soon as they escaped the game and went home.  She was going all out: facial, mani-pedi, therapeutic shopping spree.  She’d stop short of a tanning booth—she’d gotten enough sun on the island to power through the next five winters—but her stylist was taking an emergency walk-in if she had to leverage mall gossip to get in.

She snuck a glance at Alex as the group trekked over to Nigel Billingsley.  Getting eaten by rude rhinos was not making her year in revision, not a gold star moment, but she was sorry that Alex might not be there to sign her yearbook.  He was going to be, like, a million years old when he got out, right?  Or would he be the same age he was when he first went in, and his parents were in for a major trip?

“What are you thinking?” Alex asked.

“Hm?”  Now was not the time to fantasize about Alex taking her to prom.  That was better left to post-game flirting when she had her full arsenal at hand: boobs and less facial hair.  “Oh, nothing.  Just wondering how many Insta followers I lost for not posting anything in hours.  Hiatus is death.”

Bewildered looked really good on him.  “I think English has changed a lot in twenty years.”

“Vocabulary words for the day: Cronut, poke, and Tumblr.”

“I think I’m going to need a tutor.”

“Don’t worry.  I’ll catch you up.”

All they had to do was reach out and shake Nigel’s hand to go home.  It should have been simple.  It should have been one shake away from a bubble bath, the best Insta story of her life, and shelving this disaster to the safety of a distant, impossible memory.

“Or if you’d rather not go just yet,” Nigel said, “say yes to enjoy Jumanji’s expansion pack.”

“What?” Bethany asked, puzzled.

Unfortunately, Fridge was in the middle of fighting with Spencer behind them and erupted when asked if he thought they’d return home in their real bodies.  The idea of body swapping again was enough to make Fridge shout, “Yes!  Or I’m damn well suing whatever warlock at Nintendo got us into this mess.  I’m not getting stuck as you, Spencer.  No offense.”

Spencer didn’t have a chance to be offended, because Nigel gave a nod and said, “Great!  Enjoy your extended stay at Jumanji.”

Panic shot through her.  “No!  Wait, that is so not what he meant!”

Fridge balked.  “Hold up, what!”

“Good luck on your bonus level!  Remember, all good things come to those who swim.  You’ll have to get wet if you want to win!”

“That don’t even rhyme!” Fridge roared.

“Nigel!  Wait,” Spencer tried.

They would have had more luck talking to a vine.

Nigel said, “You’ll need to stick together!”

From nowhere, a bronze cuff spun around Bethany’s wrist and clasped shut.  The cuff on the other end of the short chain yanked her sideways as it reached out for Alex and snapped closed around his wrist.  She tumbled off-balance and managed to glimpse magical cuffs snaking around the wrists of the others to lock Martha, Spencer, and Fridge to each other before she and Alex were sucked up into the air in a reverse death fall.  She screamed, and Alex hollered at her side in surprise as they flew up, up, up, up.

The world around them spun, the jungle swirled into deep, indecipherable greens and blues and browns as they were thrown through the air, and the world around them whirled and changed.  Then they were falling.  And screaming.  And falling and screaming.

She hated this part.  Oh my God, she hated this part.  But the thud didn’t come.

They splashed into a body of water and sunk below the surface.

First, cold!

Second, why was nothing ever easy?  It was harder to get out of this game than it was to get out of the mall on Black Friday.  If she could wrestle a discounted dress from a professional shopper with nails filed to clash with swords, she could make it out of this deathtrap.  She and Alex thrashed underwater, wrists bound together and tugging left and right as they both struggled to kick to the surface.  Swimming with jewelry was not ideal.  Swimming with thick bronze cuffs on was flirting with a second way out of the game, but death was not an option.  They were down to one life each.  Neither of them would come tumbling back down from the sky if they drowned down there.

Bethany kicked harder, and they gasped as their heads came up out of the water.

They were definitely still on the island.  Or in a new add-on part of it.  There was jungle on both sides of the stream they were in and a deafening waterfall at their backs.  There was no sign of any of the others.  Wherever they’d been zipped off to, it wasn’t in view.  Far more alarming, there was something in view.  It was scaly and needed a top-notch orthodontist to fix that sharp, crooked smile.

The alligator, sitting fat and hungry in the grass, spotted them in the water with a lazy turn of its big head.  Walking over the pit in the passage where Alex first saved them was not as bad as being so close to one on higher ground.

“Alex!”

“You okay?” he tried yelling over the blare of the waterfall.

“We need to move now!”

The gator stood on stumpy legs and began a slow walk to the water’s edge.  Alex spotted it and gave another shout.  Too close.  Much too close.  Bethany was used to blocking unwanted advances, but there were no unfollow options for hungry magical game creatures that saw you as a snack, and not in a sexy way.

There was a boat a few feet behind them, bobbing in the slowly moving water.  Bethany pointed it out to Alex, and they swam for it.  And kept calm.  And did not shriek and panic-drown as the alligator slipped into the water and disappeared below the surface.  Her heart raced as they reached the little rowboat.  As far as shelters went, she would have preferred a fifty foot yacht to climb into, but any rowboat in a storm.

She got her free hand up on the side and dragged Alex’s wrist up to get her other one high enough to grab at it.  He held onto the side and shoved into her from below at an awkward angle to use his shoulder to help heft her up.  She fell in with about as much grace as Mindi Jenkins at the top of the pyramid right before slipping and taking down a house of cheerleaders, but she’d save grace for the walking lessons she’d give Martha when they all got home and stick to survival, as messy as it took.

Alex fell in right after her, but there wasn’t time to celebrate with the alligator in the water.  Its long tail hovered just above the water as it swam towards their tiny boat.  An inflatable life raft would have felt safer.  They got onto the middle bench and each grabbed an oar.

“We’ve got this,” Bethany assured him.  “Don’t even look at the water.  Just think of it as your sleep-puffy face in the morning pre-makeup and facial massage.  The water isn’t there.  The water will be gone soon, and you’ll be beautiful again.”

“Right.”  Alex followed her lead and didn’t look back to track the progress of their pursuer and place bets on how quickly they’d learn the anatomy of its stomach from the inside out.

They rowed together.  All of her careful years of yoga and running was for nothing in Shelly’s body.  What she wouldn’t have given to be in Bravestone’s body right then.  Also, not in the sexy way.  The Shelly arms were useless!  It was so not fair that Spencer got all the muscle.  By the time they made it across to the other side, her arm had turned to rubber.  Together, they stumbled out of the boat and onto land.

“Wait!  There’s something here.”  She plucked an envelope from the bottom of the boat, and they fled through the trees to put as much distance between them and their new friend as they could while managing the handcuffs and trying to read what was left for them.

It was their mission.

To make it home
and both stay sane
Travel far
and find the plane!

Inside, was a new map.  The topography was different, so the island had changed itself or this pocket of it had been hidden on the other map.

“You were great back there,” Alex said as they navigated the trees, and she studied the map in the breaks of sunlight streaming down from above.

She was surprised to look up and find him watching her with respect in his gaze.  It wasn’t a look she got often.  Usually, boys gave her more of a snide ‘what’s up’ than admiration.

“What do you mean?”

“In the water.  And the boat.  You totally kept your cool.  I thought we were going to be lunch.  I would’ve panicked without you.”  It was a really good thing he hadn’t felt how afraid she’d been on the inside.  He raised his cuffed wrist and gave it a shake.  “We’ve got to keep level heads, right?  We’re in this together.”

Bethany smiled.  She couldn’t have chosen a better teammate for herself.

Soaking wet and coming down from a huge soaring blast of adrenaline, Alex—hair messed up and drenched—looked cuter than ever.  She hoped Shelly could say the same, but without a mirror she would have to trust her confident stride and wink to do the heavy lifting on her own appearance.

Bethany was still trying to get her bearings when her vision went out.  The jungle disappeared, and the world around them transformed into clear blue as they were suddenly engulfed by the sky.  They let loose rising screams like they were tipping over the edge of a roller coaster, but she could still feel the ground beneath her feet.  Alex had disappeared from sight, replaced by clouds and open air, but he was still firm beside her as they clutched at each other’s sides.  The noisy propeller of a little plane started up behind them and slowly came into view.  The pilot was dressed like Seaplane with goggles fixed to her face.

A disembodied voice began to narrate the scene:

“Long before the crisis in Jumanji, Deedee Roame lost her way in a trip around the world.”

“Oh my God!” Bethany calmed somewhat as she realized what was happening.  “It’s a deleted scene thingy!  Backstory for our mission impossible job!”

The plane began doing wide, circling loops in the sky.

“A cut scene?”  Alex was heard but not seen and sounded significantly less panicked when he said, “Oh good.  I thought the game was genre flipping.  I did not want to deal with the science-fiction version of being hunted if they were throwing us into space.  Do people still watch Aliens in your time?”

“That Fassbender movie?”

“What’s a fast bender?”

“Oh, honey, I have so much to teach you.”

“The mystery of the lost pilot spread throughout the world, never solved.  Find Deedee Roame and make it home!”

The plane started smoking and fell into a swirling nosedive.  It zoomed down and crash landed into a field below with a giant puff of kicked up dust and dirt.  Poor Deedee.

The sky dissolved, and the jungle shook back into view all around them.  It was made instantly more obvious how tightly fear had made them clutch at each other, because the sky was replaced by Alex’s face an inch from her own.  That roller coaster pull came back, gravity going out and a drop kicking her heart into high gear, as she blinked.  Alex opened his mouth to speak but jogged himself, let go of her and stepped away quickly enough to jerk the handcuff tying them together.

“Sorry,” he said, flustered.

Bethany only smiled.  She would never doubt her wiles again.  Shelly could work it with the best of them.

They built a fire for the night in a small clearing and were happy to find a cracked open crate under some brush.  Following the map towards the area that Bethany figured was where Deedee went down led them to much needed supplies.  There was food inside—not good food, but her belly would stop rumbling—and a blanket stacked on top of a disassembled tent.

Putting that thing together was an actual living nightmare.  Calling out the wrong Miss America winner level of a horror show.  Honestly, the only thing worse than group work was group work while handcuffed together.  She was ready to quit and sleep under threat of mosquito attacks, but Alex was calm and kind and patient.  It chilled her panic over the state of her cuticles.  Would it have killed the Sega people to include a nail file and a clear polish in their emergency kit?  Not really.

“I think that’s it,” Alex said, and she realized he’d distracted her with pop culture questions to make it easier to navigate around her to put the tent together.  Pretty sneaky.

The tent was up, and they’d be safe from bugs if not rabid skunk monsters or whatever wild beasts were native to this place.  She hoped wherever the others were that Fridge was protecting the lost members of their group from anything territorial out there.

“Okay, so,” Alex said as they settled in front of a fire and warmed their hands in front of it.  “Explain Twitter to me again.”

Bethany stretched her legs out, ankles crossed, and leaned back against the log, not upset at all about needing to sit so close to him with their wrists bound.

“Oh, Alex, we’ll totally be mutuals when we get out of here.”

“And that’s a good thing?”

“Totally.  I rarely follow back.  I’m building a base.  You know, because they don’t let you major in being an influencer at college.  You have to build your brand yourself.  Don’t worry.  My followers are super loyal.  I’ll @ you, and you’ll get attention like that.”  She snapped her fingers.

“Cool.”  He tossed another stick on the fire and rested back against the log, shoulder pressed to hers.  “So you’re really popular then?”  He smiled, but it was self-deprecating.  “You probably wouldn’t be friends with someone like me in the real world.”

“Hey,” she protested, because she was so over people making assumptions about the kind of person she was.

Did she need work?  Totally.  Every girl needed to strive to be their best self, but that didn’t mean that her current self wasn’t already awesome and open to others.  She was going to make a real effort to hang with Martha after this and remind herself that people could surprise you and some of the best ones out there came in weird, unpopular packages.

“This is the real world,” she said.  “Or, sort of.  I’m really here.  Buried inside Dr. Whoever.  And you’re really here.  Who cares if you like bad music and have never heard of The Bachelor.  Seriously, though, educate yourself ASAP.”  She touched his leg and tried to rein her heart in when he dropped his gaze to where she was touching him.  “We’re friends.  In here.  Out there.  We’re friends.”

Their eyes met, and even though the pressure in her chest under the weight of his kind smile didn’t feel anywhere near the vicinity of the zone of friendship, it was true for whatever it was worth.  She could feel the warmth of his fingers where they resettled their cuffed hands between each other in the grass.  She thought it was worth a lot.

“You’re pretty cool for a prom queen,” Alex teased.

“Oh my God, don’t jinx it.  I haven’t been crowned yet.”

He laughed, and his eyes crinkled, soft and warmer on her than the fire chasing back the chill of the darkening night.  It was both a blessing and torture that they had to share a tent, two birds with one karmic stone.

Alex was a gentleman and built a little blanket wall between them when they climbed in for the night with the extra one they had.  She would have been insulted at the idea that he didn’t want any accidental touching, but he’d blushed when he laid down and promised to stick to his side.  A happy flutter kicked up in her belly as Bethany also laid down and he carefully drew their other blanket up around her shoulders.

It was pretty lucky being stuck with such a sweetheart.

The back of their hands rested against each other where they rested on their blanket wall, a bright point in the warmth, and she felt a strange bout of contentment in the dangerous world that was doing its best to kill them.

“Good night, Bethany,” he murmured.

She closed her eyes and smiled in the dark tent, feeling abnormally safe for someone on her last life.

“Sweet dreams, Alex.”

****

Bethany took her hat off to fan herself with it on the edge of the cliff they were supposed to navigate and went from pretending she read the map wrong to arguing and refusing to budge when Alex realized she was lying.

“Look, Alex, I’m sorry, but we can’t go down there.  Hello!”  She shook their connected wrists.  “We’ll fall to our, like actual, game over deaths.”

“It’s okay, I have a plan.”

Alex’s plan was collecting vines from the jungle and tying them together to make a rope.  He secured one end to a tree trunk, then tied the vine around her waist and legs in a harness.  He stepped back as much as he could to admire his work and gestured to the knots in her weird Tarzan contraption like he was waiting for applause.

She scoffed.  “You are an insane person.  This isn’t going to work!  I don’t want to drop a hundred feet to my death.  The splat look doesn’t really gain Insta followers.  And my mom said women in our family don’t finish beautifying until we’re forty-five.  I haven’t even peaked yet!”

“Bethany, listen to me.”

Alex took both her hands, and that was cheating!  Her panic quelled in his comforting grasp, and she had to stop looking over the edge at the steep drop (bigger than the one in her calorie intake when she mistook a shadow for cellulite; it was a dark week…) and return his gaze.

“I won’t let you fall.”  He was so friggin' earnest.  Did they mold him after puppies?  Those eyes were unreal.

“God,” she groaned in resignation.  “Okay.  Hard same.  We survived worse, right?  Or… I guess not.  We died from worse and then came back.  Not really an option this time.”

He squeezed her hands.  “Trust me.”

The weird thing was, she did.  She never trusted Noah.  She’d lusted after her ex, searched for his approval, tried to be what he wanted her to be, but that was all such surface stuff.  She’d never in a million years go over the side of a cliff with him.

But Alex wasn’t Noah.

Time moved so differently in the game.  She felt like they’d been trekking through Jumanji together longer than it took her to get ready to film a makeup tutorial video for YouTube.  The trick to growing your channel was all in the lighting.  That and teaching other girls that hotness wasn’t in any one product.  It was a vibe.

So they navigated a fricken, like, mountaintop together, and neither of them died?  She would so be trending if she’d been able to livestream.

The next part should have been easy—give a girl a break—but nope.  They hiked for two days under the glaring sun, cleaned up in a stream while sneaking embarrassed glances at each other, and had an incident with some berries that only didn’t kill them because they found a supply crate with medicine inside.  It did weird things to their digestive systems, but they lived.  And would never speak about what happened behind the porta-bushes.

The next big landmark on the map was a bridge.  Couldn’t have been a Golden Gate replica, oh no.  The thing was narrower than Bethany's old waist and had no guardrail.  The water underneath was full of hungry hippos, and no matter what Hasbro wanted you to believe, they did not look family friendly.

“It’s going to be okay,” Alex said when they studied the map and walked along the side of the cliff long enough to come to terms with the fact that there was no easy way around it.

It was stupid to believe that was true just because Alex said it, but Bethany didn’t need the handcuffs to know he was the best partner she could have asked for to try to survive the game.

“Of course we are,” she agreed.  “Yeah.”

“Yeah?” he prompted, uncertain.  Having pumped her up, it was her turn to return the favor.

“Yes!  Easy peasy.  Together?”  She offered her hand.

“Together.”  Alex clasped her hand in his and nodded with more confidence than he must have felt for her sake, because she was still fifty percent sure that they were going to plummet to a miserable, devoured end.

He motioned for her to wait and stepped out onto the bridge first, testing the plank’s foundation under his weight.  She and Shelly were not in the same weight class, so this was going to be an adventure in discovering what exactly would snap beneath her now.  Alex released a long, steadying breath, and Bethany joined him for a second one.

“Ready?”

“We’ve got this,” she encouraged.  Whether ‘this’ would mean survival or a joint, permanent death, that was yet to be determined.  She chose to be optimistic.  Better to die with hope than with frown lines.

They crept along slower than that nightmare weekend visiting her Nana with dial-up.  She had to disable Tumblr images just to make it to Monday.  See, she told herself, I have survived worse.

The splintered wooden planks groaned under their movements.  The hippos spotted them thirty feet above their ginormous heads and roared.  Who even knew hippos made noises?  She couldn’t remember that intel in that fox song.  What did the hippo say?  Super rude inhospitable sounds, that was what.  Like she wanted to be in its territory?

#no

“Almost there,” Alex whispered.

His hand around hers was constant.  It was security and balance.  Bethany focused on holding on and one step at a time.  He moved, she moved.  Steady.  Careful.

Safe.

Alex made it to the other end but didn’t breathe a sigh of relief until he’d reached back to clasp her elbow and pulled her onto land with him.  Gods and fashion designers were thanked.  Hippos roared, still Hungry Hungry.  They embraced, grateful and happy.  Being alive was even better after you, like, almost weren’t.

"We're alive!" she exclaimed.  "Oh my God, Bear Grylls is quaking."

Alex's confused laughter was thin with exhaustion.

“See?” she goaded.

“Easy peasy,” he agreed.

They trekked on, on the hunt for Deedee Roame’s plane crash and took a while in all the excitement to realize it wasn’t technically necessary to still be holding hands anymore.  Alex let go with a sheepish smile, and Bethany’s chin went up just a little higher.  So maybe there were worse places to vacation.  At least Jumanji had Alex.  She’d take that over Coachella with Noah anytime.

They snacked on berries (the nonpoisonous kind) and hiked through some truly unflat places.  The island really needed to shave off a few hills.  She felt attacked by the amount of climbing involved to get where they were going.  Several times, Alex had to slow down when his arm got tugged too far back from her slow pace.  He stopped so she could take another break when they reached an overturned tree in the field they were in.

Bethany sat down on the log with a guilty wince.  They were never getting out of there at the pace they were going.  She could crab walk faster than this in the real world.

“Sorry.  It’s the endurance thing.  I’m better in spurts.  It’s too bad we can’t find anything to cut these cuffs off with.  Then at least you could go on ahead of me without having to deal with my turtle speed.”

“No way,” Alex said through a smile and sat down next to her.  He bumped her shoulder with his.  “I wouldn’t want to do this without you.  I couldn’t do it.”

“Stop!” she said but added, “No seriously, go on.”

Alex chuckled, but did a double take and squinted off in the distance.  There was a person out there.  He was wearing a tragic pair of cargo shorts and holding a shiny gold box.  He waved at them, looked around, spotted them and waved again on a loop.

Bethany gasped.  “Ooh, it’s a CPR or whatever.  One of those fake mannequin people that are part of the game.”

“An NPC, you’re right!”

The break was cut short, but Bethany had a fresh wave of energy from the excitement of seeing someone else.  It was the first time since getting separated from the rest of the group that another human had been around to interact with.

“Hiya!” the guy greeted them with the twentieth wave since he spotted them.  Enough with the waving, already.  “Good afternoon, boys!”

“Um, yeah, no.  Lady,” Bethany corrected.

Cargo Shorts ignored her.  “I’m Bernard Brooks, and I come with a deal for Mr. Seaplane!”

Alex and Bethany traded looks.

“More lives?” Alex asked.

“Better food!” Bethany guessed with far more enthusiasm.

“Freedom!” Bernard said.

“O-M-G, ye—”

Alex slapped a hand over her mouth before she could agree.  She really should have learned her lesson after Fridge got them into this extra level mess to begin with.

“What do we have to do for it?”

“Not ‘we’, only ‘I’, and by ‘I’, I mean ‘you’.”

Bethany made a face.  “Huh?”

“Mr. Seaplane, you may have your freedom.  If you want to go home, all you have to do is take this key!”  He held up the gold box and opened the lid.  Inside, was a tiny bronze key.  “Unlock the cuffs and go home!”

“But we haven’t found the plane yet.”  Alex’s brow furrowed.

“It’s a shortcut!”

“Yay, okay, unlock us!” Bethany urged him.

Alex grabbed the key from the box.  “So all I have to do is unlock us, and just like that we can go home?”

“Not ‘we’, only ‘I’, and by ‘I’, I mean ‘you’.”

Bethany frowned.  “Dude, you already said that.”

“Wait.”  Alex shot her a look.  “So I’ll go home, but… Bethany will still be stuck in the game?”

“Indeed!”

He didn’t have to sound so cheerful about it.  Her heart sank, but she swallowed.  They couldn’t pass up an opportunity like this.  There was no telling when or if they would ever find that plane crash.  It could take weeks or months.  Alex had already been stuck in Jumanji for twenty years.  It wasn’t fair to ask more when there was a gold box with his name on it.

“Do it.”

Alex turned to her, and it sucked that he had to be so cute.  She had way more practice making boys chase her than let her go.

“What?”

“Do it.  Unlock us.  This is your ticket, Alex.  You have to go.  Don’t worry about me.  I have the map.  I’ll keep going, and I’ll be right behind you.”

Confusion clouded his expression.  “No.  Bethany.  I can’t just go.”

“Yes, you can.  It’s super easy.  Just put the key in the lock and give it a little twist.”  She made a swipe for it, but he raised his hand up and out of her reach.  “Alex, just do it.  You’d be crazy to pass up an opportunity like this—”

She made another swipe for it, but he hauled his arm back and threw the key as far away from them as he could.

“Alex!”

It got lost in the grass, but there was a loud beep noise and the key reappeared in the gold box.

Bernard perked back up at the start of his loop.  “Hiya!  Good afternoon, boys!”

Bethany showed him the hand.  “Can you not?”

Alex snapped the lid to the box shut, grabbed her hand, and pulled her away farther down the hill at a pace Shelly wasn’t built to keep up.  She whined and tugged at him to slow down and stop, but Alex plowed forward so that Bernard’s spiel was muffled behind them.

“Think about your family, Alex!  They’ve been waiting for you for longer than I’ve been alive!  You have to, okay?  I’ll find the plane on my own.  I’ll be fine!”

“And what if you’re not?”

He finally stopped and whirled around, eyes wide and scared.  He wanted to go home, she knew he did, desperately.  He wanted to go more than anything, but he wouldn’t.  For her.  Because he thought it was the right thing to do.  Because he was too nice for his own good.

“What about your parents, Bethany?  You told me what happened to mine.  Do you want your parents to go through that if you got stuck here?  For years?  For good?  I know better than anybody that plans don’t always work.  Sometimes things just go wrong.  Or sideways.  What if I went home and you never got out?  I wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for you, for what you did for me.  If you got stuck here for even one year or twenty or your whole life?  I would never forgive myself.  So forget about the box and the key.  The cuffs stay on.  We’ll get out, both of us.  Together.  Alright?”

She was sort of impressed he had it in him to be so commanding.  So of course he ruined it by adding, “Uh, please?”

Bethany closed her eyes and lifted her face to the sun.  “Oh, alright.  If you insist on being gallant, who am I to strip you of your cape?”

Relief washed over him.  She doubted he would have changed his mind either way, but Alex was better without confrontation.

“Good.”  The darkness in his expression cleared.  “Then let’s keep going.”

“Fine, but remember that whole endurance thing?  Shelly needs a break, hon.”

He beamed, all too cheerful now that he didn’t have to argue, and lowered himself to the ground.  He tugged on the cuffs playfully, and Bethany let him pull her down beside him.  They sprawled out in tired heaps and made goofy grass angels, turning their heads to stare at each other.  It was probably really weird that she could feel so happy in the middle of an island that wanted to eat them, right?  Wind tossed through Alex’s hair as he smiled at her, and he looked way cuter than a fast bender.

Not being able to take a selfie was actual torture.

****

Bethany shrieked, knee-deep with Alex in a stream.  What she thought was a piranhacuda or whatever brushing her leg was actually just some kind of seaweed, but she shrieked again when Alex spun around to see what was wrong.

“Alex!  Don’t look!”

“Sorry!”  He spun back around.  “You okay?”

“Yes, I’m fine, just don’t look!”

Trekking through the jungle for a couple of weeks had raised their stench level to gnarly.  The supply crate cracked over some rocks had two options: weapons or soap.  Bethany had snatched up the soaps before Alex could try to debate the issue.  Hygiene was its own kind of self-defense.

Trying to strip enough to wash up and stay decent was a challenge.  Fridge and Spencer made it very clear that there was no sneaking peeks, so Bethany honored that unspoken rule.  Mostly.  They were chained together, working with one hand each, and trying to be demure.  If she caught sight of a little extra skin, that was the fault of whatever fashion god she’d offended into smiting her there.  She never should have paired that leopard belt with the zebra print dress.  Teen Vogue was up its own ass; mixed patterns were never okay.

“No peeking!” Alex chastised.

“I’m not!” she protested when she so was.

Alex splashed her over his shoulder.

“Hey!”

Bethany splashed him back.  It was not the time for retaliation.  Like everything in Jumanji, things escalated quickly.  Bethany couldn’t escape, every attempt to do so tugged on the cuffs and pulled Alex back to her.  The war was too far along to stop, and they ended up in a ridiculous blind battle, free hands alternating between covering each other’s eyes and splashing each other in the face.

“Okay!  Uncle!  Uncle!” Bethany screamed, because you had to know when to fold.  Her hand covering her own eyes in surrender.  “You win.”  He was being too quiet.  “Alex… are you looking?”

“No,” he answered too quickly.

She scissored her fingers apart to peek and found him openly staring.

“Alex!”  She splashed him blind, and he erupted into laughter and cowered under her reenergized attack.  He surrendered, hands up and eyes squeezed shut, because he knew when to fold too.

****

They lingered for a long time behind the cover of boulders on a high hill when they finally made it to the spot where Deedee Roame was programmed to crash.  The grass was high, and the plane had seen better days.

“Ew,” Bethany whined when she spotted Deedee in the pilot’s seat through a pair of binoculars.  There wasn’t going to be any resuscitating her.  Full skeleton mode.  Cute hat, though.

“What do you think?” he asked.

The shadow in his expression told her he was having the same doubts.

“Too easy.  No way we had to do all that,” she said and waved adamantly behind them.  “Just to have the plane handed to us in the end?  Yeah right.  It’s a total trick.”

He nodded.  “Some kind of trap.”

Except they didn’t see anything.  No sign of hungry wildlife.  No motorcycle riding CPR people with machetes.  It was too good to be true.  On the other hand, she’d been walking with linked pinkies with Alex for days while they hiked, and that was categorically the same.

They risked it.

Creeping down the hill, they kept to boulders and darted down below the high grass after every quick sprint.  They’d really mastered the art of moving as one.  They totally had to start a synchronized swimming duo or take tap together when they got out of there.

Nothing jumped out at them.  Snakes didn’t coil around their ankles and drag them down.  Mosquitos didn’t swarm down and send Alex on his final farewell.  It really was too easy.  Until it wasn’t.  They got Deedee out of the pilot’s seat with much eww-ing and apologies.  Alex stole the hat off her puny skull and set it on Bethany’s head after she complimented it again.

“Alex, that’s too morbid!”  She adjusted the bill and posed.  “Is it cute?”

He grinned, and the fondness in the way he looked at her applied pressure around her heart.  Those sweetheart looks needed to be tamed or that last life was going to fade from her arm.  They had bigger things to worry about, of course, when they climbed into the plane and it wouldn’t start.

“Not ideal,” Alex deadpanned.

“This is a disaster!” Bethany exclaimed with the emotion it deserved.  “How are we supposed to cover enough of the island to find the others and get out of here without flying?  We’ll be looking forever!”

“Don’t panic.”  Alex gave her knee a reassuring squeeze.  “I’ll fix it.”

While he worked on that with limited tools under the blazing sun, Bethany alternated between fanning him with her hat and trying to make sense of what he was doing to the engine.  He talked her through it when he noticed her interest, and it should have been really boring—she bribed her way through shop class with smiles and exaggerated cluelessness—but Alex’s voice was calming in the overheated afternoon.  The Seaplane ASMR channel she planned to set up was going to get him YouTube famous, like, so fast.  If anyone deserved to sell out, monetize and get rich, it was him.

He straightened and wiped the sweat off his brow with his sleeve.  “We’re just lucky it’s the engine, because I’m not sure I could do anything if we were dealing with severe structural damage to the actual—”

A swell of affection took over common sense, drowned out the danger of Jumanji and narrowed the island to Alex with his soft eyes and comforting, protective presence.  Shelly might have been on in age, but borrowing his brain didn’t give her any better impulse control.  Bethany reached out and cupped his cheek, leaning in and pressing dry lips (she needed moisturizer and gloss, stat) to his soft ones.  It was a total G-rated, Disney approved, closed mouth and no-tongue peck and done deal, but a spike of sweet holy regret shot through her worse than the time she’d sent a swimsuit shot to Noah to try to save their relationship.  He wasn’t worth her bikini pics.

She pulled back, looked at the handcuffs keeping her from bolting, up to the shock on Alex’s face, back to the handcuffs.  God.  It was not worth having two arms if this was the cost of having both.  Confidence was usually her thing, but she wasn’t working with her full arsenal at the moment.

“I am so sorry.  Like, I don’t even know what came over me.  Too much sun.  And I’m, like, having a reaction to all the carbs I’ve been eating here.  I’m probably allergic!”

His jaw wasn’t hanging open anymore.  That was something.

“If you want to muzzle me with that dirty rag, I’ll totally understand so—”

Her hand lurched up as Alex moved close, cupped her face in both hands, and kissed her more insistently.  Bethany’s eyebrows shot up.  Ooh, PG, and Disney was on the fence about it.  She tilted into it, knees weak and back pressed against the plane.  Alex was tentative but sure, and her hand at his waist curled loosely as he learned through each gentle pass of his lips over hers and erased her doubt.

He pulled back slightly, and the shared breath between them was charged with the pull to lean back in.

Surprise quirked her lips.

“Yeah?”  She wasn’t quite sure what she was asking, but Alex nodded once, certain.

“I see you,” he said in the hush that followed.

His forehead bumped hers, careful, sweet.  A happy leap sent poor Shelly’s heart into overdrive, and Bethany hoped he didn’t have any kind of condition.  Alex’s eyes soft and warm on her like that were just the spark to wreak havoc on a weak heart.  Probably a good thing he’d made hers feel stronger than ever through cold nights huddled close and long days weaved through with laughter and conversation.  Alex Vreeke, 90’s metalhead, was kind of epic.

A muffled rumble in the air made her ears perk up.  At first, she thought he’d done something to the plane to get the engine to start up again, but the noise was coming from the distance and it wasn’t from one source but a collective.  There it was.  The trick-trap.

“Motorcycle dudes!”

Alex’s eyes widened, and he apologized shortly as he yanked her sideways by accident in his rush to get back to work on the engine.  It was now or never.  Either they flew out, or they were toast, and if there was anything Bethany had learned from her time in Jumanji, it was that nothing good ever came from bread.

“Oh God, they’re here!” Bethany shouted as she leaned out as far as she could without disturbing Alex’s hand movement to see around the plane.  She squinted as the first motorcycle barreled over the top of the hill and sped towards them.  “Hey, wait.  Alex!  Oh my gosh, it’s them!  Alex, it’s the guys!”

“Bad guys?” he asked, face bent over his work space in nervous concentration.

“Our guys!”

Spencer was awkwardly driving a motorcycle with Martha flush against his back where she was chained to him, and Fridge was in a sidecar, his arm stretched out to the other two where he was cuffed up too.  Bethany wanted to applaud their grand, roaring entrance but had to make do with flailing to keep from slowing Alex down.  Far less exciting and more in the realm of wearing the same dress as another girl at prom, blinding panic, were the dozen evil dudes chasing after their friends, and consequently, straight at them.

“Also, yeah, lots of highly trained UPS killers, so you might want to hurry if possible!”

“NPC.”

“Oh my God, they could be HBO people, who cares—just hurry!”

The killer guys were dots in the distance but would be on them in minutes.

“Bethany!”  Martha tried to hop off the bike as Bravestone brought it to a perfect stop alongside the plane, but she got tangled up with the cuffs and almost took both boys down with her.  “You’re alive!”

“Yeah, I bet against that,” Fridge admitted.  “Really thought you were dead.  I lost money on that, thanks a lot.”

“So sorry for surviving,” Bethany replied sarcastically.

“It’s fine, I guess, but you owe me twenty bucks to cover the cost of that survival.”

Bethany scoffed but was distracted hugging Martha when the trio reached them.

“So your mission was to find the plane too?”  From the opposite side of the island, looked like.

“Sort of,” Martha explained.  “We had to find some kind of mechanical thing.”

Alex’s head popped up from his work.  “Mechanical thing?  What does it look like?”

Fridge rummaged in his backpack and pulled it out.

“That’s the part I need to fix the plane!”  Alex lit up with delight.

“What do you need?” Spencer asked, or rather, smoldered.  She and Martha exchanged a discreet pointed look.

“Time,” Alex said as he took the part from Fridge.

“We’re on it,” Spencer promised.

Fridge groaned as he was pulled back around with the other two.

“I am over this monkey-in-the-middle dance fighting gig,” he complained as the three of them set off at a run to face off with the approaching riders.  He yanked helplessly on his cuffed wrist as he struggled to keep up and was mostly pulled along.  “I want out!”

Bethany cringed and shrunk away as they went into full Ruby Roundhouse and Bravestone mode with the riders.  Fridge was not kidding.  That was not a job she would apply for.  He screamed and thrashed about as the others tugged him this way and that as they fought and had to get creative to block strikes and go on the offensive.  It was like a dance almost.  A really pretty, insanely violent dance.

“How are we looking, Alex?” she asked, nervous.

He met her eyes for one serious moment and promised, “I’m going to get you out of here.  All of us.”

“I know you will.”

She pat his shoulder encouragingly as he got back to it and tried not to distract him as she cheerleaded for the others.  Spencer did a truly impressive mass hit with a boomerang that would totally get him on a varsity Frisbee team.

“I got it!” Alex shouted and ushered her to the door.

“Guys, let’s go!  We’re good!” she called out to the others.

Another boomerang trick, a glass-shattering scream from Fridge, and the trio was running back for the plane.  Alex helped Bethany up and awkwardly scramble into the co-pilot chair and climbed up after her.  He got to work getting the plane going, and Bethany was so excited about getting the heck out of there that she didn’t even care that her arm was stupidly flailing about while he hurried through the process.

The others fell, slid and tried again to scramble into the cramped space in the back.

“Is anyone else exhausted?” Martha huffed, out of breath.

Bethany twisted to shoot her a knowing look.  “Girl, I know.  You and me, couples massages this weekend.  I have a coupon.”

Then the plane was rolling.  She thought the shake below was coming from its runway crawl over the grass, but looked out the window to see the real culprit.

“Oh hell no,” Fridge snapped at the massive stampede charging for them down the hill.  “Are those gorillas?!  Hell no!  We need to get our asses in the air.  Right now, Vreeke!  Ain’t nobody throwing me to the gorillas, Spencer, you hear me?  I will pop you upside the head, I mean it!”

There was no need for a human sacrifice.  The plane rolled forward another dozen feet, a chest beating stampede at their backs, and lifted up, up, and away.  That climb of escape was better than getting a hundred likes five minutes after posting.  The cheers doubled in volume as raised fists and high-fives were suddenly free as the cuffs linking the groups faded around their wrists and dissolved into nothing.

Bethany’s arm felt bizarrely light once freed.  She massaged her wrist and glimpsed the others doing the same.  They evened out with the clouds and soared forward.  The island grew small beneath them but didn’t go away.  There was still one more thing left to do.

“Come on, guys,” Spencer said, “you know what we have to do.”

Call out its name.

“About damn time.”  Fridge shouted, “Jumanji!”

Martha closed her eyes and smiled.  “Jumanji!”

Spencer sunk back against the seat, drained and grateful.  “Jumanji!”

Bethany turned to Alex, and the tether between them went taut.  They made it.  They were going home, and there was so much more holding them together than handcuffs.  Alex reached across the console and reclaimed the hand that had been tied to his for weeks.  His fingers threaded through hers, and the first tingles of magic began coursing through her as one by one the others vanished from the game, went home, were free.

“Together?” Alex asked.

“Always,” she agreed.

Hands held tight, they soared through the sky and let go of all the fear and hardships of this place, only kept I Spy on steep hikes, thumb wars after lunch, celebrity gossip from her time, his drumming on supply crates to show her his music, laughter in a darkened tent, and the way he saw her even when she wasn’t herself.  She wouldn’t come back for Spring Break, but it was a trip for the memory books.

“Jumanji!” they called in unison.

Magic rose up like the first snow of winter, cold and new and exciting.  Her skin tingled, and the world began to fade.  Being stuck in the game wasn’t time lost after all but something much more valuable gained.  Her spirit vibrated with the buzz of energy embracing them, but inside the electric cold was the warmth of his grip on her hand.  Alex’s pretty smile was the last thing Bethany took with her before magic rushed through her like the best sugar high of her life and carried her home.