“The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window –”
“Come on, you told me that one already!”
“Alright, alright. Well, here’s one that happened to my friend, back when we were in high school. He was on a date with a girl, and they had left the movies. They went for a little drive, and he parked their car on the top of a hill. He turned on the radio for some music, but suddenly, a broadcast cut in to say –”
“That there was a prisoner on the loose with a hook for a hand!” Milena broke in again.
Rob started to sigh, then caught himself. She was getting hard to fool.
“And that didn’t happen to your friend either, did it? You made it all up!”
This time, his sigh was concealed by the crackling of the campfire between them. Rob closed his eyes and tried his best to ignore the annoyance building up inside of him. He had never been the patient type, but it was getting more difficult to ignore.
But these were supposed to be the ‘golden years’ of being a parent, weren’t they? That’s what his friends – the few he still had – kept telling him. Milena was almost twelve. He should have been impressed, even awed, at how smart she was getting, how quickly she was developing into a young woman. Every day should be leaving him more excited to see what she would do or say next.
Rob felt none of that. None at all. Instead, he felt like a bird with clipped wings. It was ironic, wasn’t it? Forests like these used to be what he lived for. They were his home. Vast, unexplored valleys and treacherous peaks. Unknown, beckoning thickets in foreign lands. He had found his truest self in them. It seemed everything that made him something, anything at all, had taken place in woodlands. He even found a woman, the most beautiful one he’d ever known, on a rugged trail in Peru. A kindred soul, as at ease in the brush as he was. And a better parent than he could ever hope to be.
What was he even thinking, bringing Milena out here like this? She was still a child, hardly able to traverse trails like this. Maybe he thought that he could instill his own hunger in her, or catch a glimpse of his late wife in her as he watched Milena on the trails. A desperate bid for connection with his daughter, in the only way a widowed father knows how.
“Yeah. I made it up.”
“I know you did, Dad. Tell me a real one. Didn’t anything scary happen all those times you went camping?”
Camping…Ugh. “Uh, not really, honey. Nothing that makes a good story.”
“Hmph. Mom always told good stories when I wanted them.”
Well, that stung. Mostly because it was true. Jimena had always been the more affable one. Milena had the wherewithal not to make it obvious, but Rob had always known who the favourite parent was. After she died, there was no mistaking that look Milena would give him. In the raw, unfiltered way that children wore their hearts on their sleeves, Rob knew that Milena secretly wished it had been him instead.
And in his grieving, selfish way, he sometimes wished it had been her.
“Alright, alright. I’m getting tired, Millie. How about this: give me some time to think, and I’ll come up with a good story. Maybe one that Mom didn’t tell you.”
Now he had her attention. “She told me everything!”
“Oh, not everything.” Rob couldn’t keep the hollow smile off his face. “There’s one that happened to us right before she found out she was pregnant with you. She wanted to wait until you were older before we told you. It was too scary.”
“I’ll tell you. Just wait until tomorrow night. You’ll see.”
The sky hung overhead, blue as sapphire. The midday sun bore down on them, but they moved through the cover of the thin forest below, shadowed by proud ponderosa pines. Red sand and small rocks crunched lightly under their feet as they walked. There was something a little counterintuitive about a forest in the desert, but Rob found it fascinating. This was his first time in Coconino, and he found himself sorely wishing that he had walked these trails when he was younger, with Jimena. Or better yet, by himself.
“Dad, slow down!” Milena had been badgering him about his pace all morning. He really didn’t mean to get so far ahead of her, but she was just so, so slow. Her slowness almost made him want to run to make up for it. Their next campsite was miles away, and they weren’t going to make it before sundown at this rate.
Rob stopped and turned, frowning. Milena lumbered along, ungainly on the uneven forest floor, nearly tripping a few times. Rob bit his tongue.
While he waited, Rob noticed something just off the trail. In the milieu of shrubs and vegetation struggling to grow in the sand, he saw one he recognized. In the assorted green, there was a striking yellow flower. He ventured over to it, looking at it curiously.
“Dad? Where’d you go?”
Rob ignored her. Bending down, he moved the flower slightly to the side and found what he was looking for. He pulled it off the vine and walked back onto the trail.
Milena was waiting for him. “What’s that?”
“Squash, Millie, what does it look like?” It didn’t look like the squash she was used to seeing, but Rob had seen them a thousand times before. He’d noticed the little green tubes growing all around the valley.
In a swift motion, he dropped it on the ground and came down on it with his hiking boot. The vegetable broke apart, making a small mess on the trail. Bending down to sift through his act of violence, Rob picked a couple of seeds from the squash’s resting places.
Milena looked disgusted. “Ew, no!”
“Fine, more for me.”
“No, Dad!” Milena cried. “That’s dangerous. Mom said never to eat anything on trails!”
“Mom said a lot of things. I know what these are, sweetie, don’t worry.”
“What if you get sick? There’s no one out here, you could die!”
“I won’t die.” He put the seeds in his mouth and chewed. Just as bitter as he remembered. They really weren’t worth the effort. But it gave him a feeling that he couldn’t quite place. Like something he used to know. Freedom, maybe?
That feeling quickly faded as the day dragged on. Milena scolded him relentlessly about what he did, said she was scared for him, now.
Oh, so now you don’t want to be scared? Rob couldn’t help thinking it, unfair as it was. He hadn’t even considered what story he was going to tell her that night. He was fibbing last night, promising a story that really didn’t exist. He had planned to think of one while on the trail that day, but he was having trouble focusing. Something kept distracting him.
“How much further?” Milena groaned.
“A little further, Millie.”
“Can we take a break?”
“Five more minutes.”
“You already said that!”
“Four.” Maybe that time in Seattle when we almost got caught in the forest fire?
“Can we just walk a little slower?”
Or when that mountain lion was stalking us in British Columbia? Probably the most scared I’ve ever been. Jimena, too…
“Dad, wait up!” She was lagging behind him again. “My boot’s untied.”
Something dawned on him. It was one of those thoughts that gets entertained for about a split second before it gets driven back down by a flood of morality. But, he reasoned, it’ll scare her half to death, that’s for sure…
He quickened his pace a little, not looking back.
“Wait! Daddy, wait!”
What the hell is wrong with me? I can’t do this. He stopped, turned around. Milena was some ways behind, stumbling desperately after him.
“Alright,” he called. “But hurry up.”
A little later, they came to a more heavily forested area wrapped around a steep mesa. The trees now blocked most of the sunlight above, though it was already midafternoon by Rob’s judgment. And they were nowhere near the campsite. Milena had stuck pretty close to him since the shoe tying incident, but hadn’t quit complaining.
“Let’s take a break, Millie.”
“Finally!” She threw up her hands, triumphant. “We’ve been walking forever.”
“A few hours, maybe.”
“I’m exhausted. Let’s just camp here tonight,” she muttered, unzipping her backpack and pulling out a bottle of water.
“It’s not safe here. Can’t make a fire in this area, either.” Rob was looking off into the forests longingly.
“Who cares! We haven’t seen a single other person since we got here. No one would know.”
“I’m not going to start a forest fire.”
“Just a small campfire! Mom would say yes!”
“Milena, enough,” Rob said sharply.
“Hmph.” She muttered something else under her breath. Rob didn’t catch it, but he could guess, and it stung all the same. The accident was over a year ago, but it still replayed in his mind at the slightest provocation. Turn the wheel half a second later, and he and Jimena would have been childless. Half a second earlier, and they were all in a funeral plot. But he turned it when he did, and it seemed like this family was still just as dead.
“Hey, what’s that?” Rob heard Milena say from behind him. Turning back, he saw a small creature, scaled and flat, with a reddish-brown hide. It was eyeing them in the middle of the trail. Rob had seen them in Mexico before.
“The elusive earless lizard,” he said mysteriously. “I didn’t know they lived out here.”
“It’s cute!” Milena was suddenly full of energy again. “I’m going to catch it!”
Rob chuckled. “Good luck.”
But Milena was not to be deterred. Dropping her backpack, she took off towards the reptile. It sprung away, easily faster than her, but stopped further down the trail. To Rob’s surprise, it didn’t break off into the foliage, but stayed on the sandy trail.
“You won’t run from me!” Milena was still chasing after it, oblivious. She was almost around the bend.
A strange feeling came over Rob. It had been sitting in him for a little while, growing slowly, but now it bloomed fully. A perfect opportunity.
“Alright, let’s see if this spooks you a little.” Slinging his backpack again, he started off the other way, walking briskly. After a minute, Rob looked back again. She was out of sight.
Just a couple of minutes, and then he would turn back for her. Not enough to really let her get lost, but enough to shut her up for a bit. Just a couple minutes.
He kept walking. If anything, he went faster. Despite the backpack on his shoulders, he felt lighter than a feather. Unburdened. Free.
Just a couple minutes, right?
Well…maybe a few more wouldn’t hurt.
It was as if a great weight had been not only lifted from him, but vaporized in front of his very eyes. Suddenly, inexplicably, he was running on the trail, almost hysterical. Gone, gone, gone.
Every step he took felt a little more natural, like a caterpillar slowly breaking out of its chrysalis. He eventually slowed down, but didn’t stop. Rob couldn’t help himself. The emotions welled up in him, then poured out of him like wine. His feet pulled him forward, unhesitating, along the trail.
The trail got tougher as he got further around the mesa, but it didn’t perturb him. He stumbled a few times on the rocky outcrops, even dashed his hand on a sharp rock and left a bloody imprint, but he did not falter. It was like coming home. Or that he had always been home, but he had finally managed to shake the imposter living in it.
He arrived at the campsite just as the sun was beginning to sink beneath the treetops. Still energized, he wasted no time setting up camp. The tent was pitched, a firepit was dug, and his garbage was squared away in under twenty minutes. He hummed to himself the entire time.
It was now that Rob realized just how hungry he was. Peering into his backpack, however, he found most of the energy bars and dehydrated meals unappetizing. Looking back up, he quickly realized that there was an easy solution. He’d done his research on the valley before coming – what experienced hiker wouldn’t? – and had a good idea of what plants were edible. A little cavalier, sure, but it wasn’t the only reckless thing he’d done that day.
Venturing a small distance from the campsite, Rob began foraging in the underbrush. It was pretty simple – stay away from all of the mushrooms and most of the flowers. Better safe than sorry when it came to berries. Lots of wild mustard and amaranth around though, and those were fine. Easy to spot, too. While he collected, his thoughts drifted.
Milena. How far was she from him now? Far enough that she’d never get to him, especially after the trail got so tenuous. Even if he wanted to, he wouldn’t be able to get back there in time. She was as good as gone.
Oddly, what bothered him was that it didn’t bother him. Instead, his mind was focused only on the future. He reached deeper into the brush for more palatable plants. It was an accident, he thought. Out of my control. We got separated after a black bear came out on the trail with her cubs. I tried to ward it off, but it gave chase. I managed to get away, but by the time I returned to the area, Milena was gone. I’ve been looking for her ever since. Did that make sense? Did he even buy his own story? Rob wasn’t really sure, but he had plenty of time to figure it out. They weren’t even expected back for another couple of days. He would wander around for a while, pretend he got lost searching for her, then report her missing. They wouldn’t find her in time. Rob’s injured hand brushed against a syrupy, white flower next to some amaranth. She has a little food and water, but no idea what she’s doing. Can I fake injuries from a bear?
Satisfied with his collection, Rob returned to the campsite and cleaned off some of the dirt from the plants with some water. Then, along with a pack of jerky, he ate like a king. That night, he watched the stars, swimming in front of his eyes like anglers in a black sea. Unfettered by light pollution, or pointless questions. He almost cried.
Sleep came easily to him that night, but it did not stay. Rob came awake suddenly, instantly feeling that something was wrong. Trusting his instincts, he listened, hoping to discern what had woken him.
He heard nothing, not even the sounds of the night. And that terrified him. The only time a forest went silent was when a predator was nearby.
Rob tried to sit up, but it was like gravity had tripled. The world spun, and he came back down again, a sack of bricks weighed on his chest. He was sweating bullets, too. What was going on?
With a mighty effort, he managed to get himself back up, breathing heavily. Adrenaline coursed through him as he listened even harder, but there was nothing to be heard.
And then, so softly, the patter of something hitting the ground, quiet but approaching quickly. Suddenly it transformed into heavy beating, picking up speed as it neared. Almost deafening. Rob fumbled around in the dark. Where was his hunting knife? He wasn’t going to go without a fight.
Just as his fingers closed around the handle, the thumping stopped. Rob froze. Was it just outside?
He sat like that for half an hour, unflinching, unblinking, as the sounds of the forest slowly resumed in his ears. Insects buzzing, owls hooting. No sinister creature tore his tent down and devoured him. No demon ripped through the opening and dragged his soul to the underworld.
What had that been? A night terror? It had been more than twenty years since he’d had one of those. Slowly he loosened his grip on the knife, but kept it close by his side as he dropped back down into his soaked sleeping bag.
He was not sure if he slept at all for the rest of the night. Every time he thought he was drifting off again, a jolt of electricity arced through his limbs, bringing him crashing back to reality. It was maddening. A few times, he cried out in anguish. The forest momentarily hushed at his outbursts, but always came back louder than before.
The morning was a little better. Once the sun came up and he started walking, yellow sand crunching underfoot, the world seemed a lot less hostile. He felt almost silly about everything he did last night. He was used to being alone in the woods at night. Why had that been any different?
Rob tried to rationalize it to himself. I probably ate a little too many mustard seeds last night, I’ll admit that. And I walked nearly the entire day yesterday, right? My body just isn’t used to it. I’ll get better.
By afternoon, he wasn’t really believing that anymore. That is, assuming it was afternoon. The cloudy day left the sun drifting in and out of cloud cover, and Rob found it hard to tell time when it was out of sight. He would be walking down a straight, level trail as it disappeared. Then he would blink, and the sun was coming out again, illuminating a completely different path. More than once, he found himself stumbling down a decline that seemed impossibly long. He had no idea how he got there, or where he was.
And that was the truly terrifying part. Without his sense of direction, he was becoming paranoid. Was he still on the right trail? Better yet, was he even on a trail? Sometimes it seemed as if the pines were closing in on him like toothed arches, and plants seemed to slither around his ankles. He could be going in the exact opposite direction he was hoping to go. And every step in the wrong direction could be a step towards Milena. Or worse yet, Milena’s body.
And the sounds. It was as if the entire forest had taken root in the shimmering greenery around him, screaming at him as loud as they could. He began to shout back at times, but caught himself quickly. There was no telling how many dangers he could attract by doing one. One danger unquestionably worse than the others.
He dared not stop, though. Rob was convinced that stopping would mean death. Something was just on his tail, following closely, tracking the footprints he left. Rob removed his boots, hoping he could mask his trail. But now he was leaving even more of a scent, wasn’t he? He couldn’t win. And every time he looked over his shoulder, the world changed colour, something hooted off in the distance, and he instinctively broke into a run. Nothing ever caught him, but it never lost him, either.
At one point, Rob faded out again. When he came to, he was lying in a small patch of unspeakably beautiful white flowers, looking up at the setting sun. He had reopened the cut on his hand and tarnished a few of the flowers with the blood, and he wept at his own sin. Eventually, he picked himself up from the grove, leaving his backpack and tent behind, and stumbled back into the bush.
Running. He had been running now for longer than he could remember. His body seemed simultaneously burning but frigid, weightless but sluggish. His vision swam as he burst through a small clearing, the waning moon illuminating obsidian shadows swirling about him. This world was a tomb, filling with an invisible liquid that he could not float in.
Questions of where he was going, and what he was escaping from, were long gone. The time for those had passed. He existed only in the present, crashing blindly through the brush, knife drawn, swinging wildly. He fell once, and when he arose, there were gashes on his arm, jagged and ugly like claw marks.
“Jimena!” he called, tears in his eyes, pupils dilated. He had heard her voice, an angel watching from above, looking down at him like a helpless child. He reached out blindly, hoping for skin, for the touch of another human, but only found rough tree bark and white flowers. Endless acres of gleaming, blooming flowers. He could not avoid them.
“Rob!” he heard her call, and his heart skipped a beat. “This way!”
He took off in the direction of her voice, desperate to catch her, to sink into her, to feel anything other than the bottomless emptiness he’d spent the past year in. His entire body ached, leaking like a sieve, but he could not stop. The forest was now little more than shaded drags and blurs in his vision, and he careened off trees and stumbled over cliffs as he went. A primal feeling in him was rising up, threatening to turn him inside out.
But then, there was something in his vision that separated itself from the darkness. Somewhere just beyond, a flicker of flight. Rob didn’t believe his eyes, but the closer he came to it, the surer of it he was. A fire. No. A candle, flickering behind the window of a cabin, nestled in the deepest point of the forest. Something completely unlike the rest of the park, surely out of place – and yet, Rob felt no hesitation. This was refuge from the forest. It was safety, no matter what was dwelling within its walls.
He tripped on a root and landed hard, cutting himself again with the knife. Flinging it away, he crawled now, clothes in tatters, towards the cabin, his heart working in overdrive. He reached the door and, with all the strength left in him, threw it open and collapsed onto the floor of the cabin.
All was silent. Not like last night when he was stalked by that unseen creature. No, this was even more complete. There was no sound anywhere in the world, other than Rob’s heavy breathing as he lay there, staring up at the ceiling.
His paranoia slowly abated as his heart rate returned to normal. His racing thoughts disappeared. His body ceased its role as a torture chamber. He didn’t even feel the pain. Whatever had gripped him, it was over.
Ever so slowly, Rob turned his head. In the little light cast by the candle, a figure was kneeling next to him.
She embraced him, head buried in his arm, and he did his best to return it. His chest burned. After everything he had experienced, he could not be certain. But his rational mind, squared away for so long, told him that this was the one thing he could be sure was not his imagination.
He pulled back to look at her. She had a white flower in her hair. “I left you, Millie. I’m so sorry. I couldn’t outrun it. I had no choice.”
“I’m hard to fool,” she whispered in his ear. He shivered.
“You’re like your mother.” In the fading light of the candle, Rob couldn’t see a difference between them.
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“Alright.” His vision was now little more than black and yellow smudges.
“You tried to run away. But you couldn’t hide forever.”
“I don’t know where I went.”
“Somewhere you thought I’d never find you.”
“What now?” It was pitch black. Only their voices remained.
“Wait for someone to find us.”
“When will that happen?”
“It’s going to be a long time.”
“Do we have enough food?”
“Don’t worry about that.”
“What do we do until then?”
“Tell me a story?”