A fuzzy, blurry image tried to focus itself on my retinas as my eyelids parted. This image was familiar. Yes, I had seen this image nearly everyday of my life. It was a chunky white popcorn ceiling. But something wasn’t right. I shouldn’t be waking up to this image, not today…
Then I remembered where I had last been.
I shot up in my bed, my eyes fully open, my mind fully conscious and calculating.
The trench, the smell of my own blood, the bear…! I can’t be here! This can’t be real! And my ankle!
I whipped back my sheets to reveal my creamy bare legs. No. This was impossible! My left ankle was completely smooth, and the pain was a mere frightening memory, no longer present in my immediate reality.
My hands flew to my upper arms, but they found nothing—no cuts, no abrasions, no pain, nothing but unblemished flesh.
My mind soaked up as much perceptual information from this moment as it could, trying to make sense of all this. I saw my room with the red walls, the red-sheeted bed I was in, the sunlight seeping through the window and signaling to me that it was morning.
Could I possibly have dreamt the whole thing?
Maybe we didn’t really go to Madera Canyon. Maybe it was all just some horrible nightmare. But it had been so real. The pain was still a clear vice in my head. All the smells and all the sounds, every infinitesimal detail of that very long day.
And there was another thing—I was still wearing the same shirt and shorts from the mountains. I pulled my shirt under my nose. The smell of the mountains, the stream, the trees, still clung to the fabric.
So then…I really had been up there, and the bear, the trench, it was all real. Then how can I be here now, safely in my bed? That bear should have killed me. And my ankle should show at least some sign of that excursion. My arms, too.
But what if my friends had ended up finding me up there? No, that still couldn’t be it. If they had found me, with my injuries, they should have put me in a hospital, and that still wouldn’t explain how my leg and arms just magically healed.
With purpose, I got out of my bed and speed-walked through the hall and into the kitchen. Mom was at the stove, cooking something that smelled really good. It made me realize that I was ravenously hungry. But that could wait.
“Mom,” I said.
She turned around and smiled at me.
“You’re up already,” she said sweetly. “I was going to bring you some breakfast. Are you feeling alright this morning?” There was a hint of concern in her voice, and it only made me more confused.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” Oddly. “What…happened?”
She eyed me curiously. “I was going to ask you the same thing,” she said.
“Huh?” I stammered. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you went up to the mountains with your friends yesterday morning,” she started to explain. “The next thing I know, at ten o’clock at night, there’s a knock on the door. I answer the door and see the oddest thing—a strange man standing at the door with you asleep in his arms.”
“What?” I said, not really a question, just a statement of surprise. “Was it Stephen?”
“I said it was a strange man,” she frowned. “You may think I’m senial, but I wouldn’t forget the face of the guy you’re dating. No, this was someone else. He said he was a forest ranger or something like that.
“I asked him what happened and he said he found you unconscious in the forest up there. He said he had you examined because he thought you might have had a concussion or something, but you were fine. Then, he said, having no numbers to call or any kind of contact information for you, he found your wallet in your pocket and just decided to take you to the address on your I.D.”
Of course, I had my wallet but not my phone. How very convenient. Stupid Crimson!
“Wait, so you mean that the forest ranger actually drove all the way out here just to bring me back home?” I asked, very skeptical.
“He seemed like a really sweet guy,” she said. “Oh, and so good looking. Maybe if you’re lucky he’ll come back here to check on you, and you’ll get to meet him.”
I wasn’t as enthusiastic about this idea as she had expected me to be. I was still completely stumped by all this.
“How did he find me?” I asked, trying to connect the dots that just refused to connect in my thoughts.
“I don’t know,” she said. “He really didn’t say. And I didn’t think to ask. I was just so relieved that you were safe. I never thought in a million years that something like that would happen.
“Ha, and then a few minutes after the guy left and I had you settled in bed, Reina called. She was so freaked out, talking a hundred miles a minute, saying that you got lost and that they couldn’t find you. She really sounded like she was going to have a nervous breakdown.” Yup, that sounded like Reina. “I told her that you were home and safe and that she could come by and see you tomorrow. So they’ll probably all be over here today. Oh, here, your pancakes are done. I thought you might like to have some fresh, hot food when you woke up.”
She put the pancakes on a plate and set them on the table for me.
I couldn’t decide which was stronger, the need to clarify all this confusion or my hunger. My body decided for me and I sat at the table and gobbled up the pancake stack.
So…someone had found me up there. And they had been compassionate enough to bring me to my house…? I wondered why they didn’t just call the police and let them sort it out. But then again, I wouldn’t have wanted to wake up in a police station. That would have been an even greater shock. Perhaps whoever it was just figured it would be easier this way for everyone involved, and it was. But what kind of person would pick up an unconscious girl in the middle of the forest and drive her miles and miles away to deliver her home? People don’t do things like that.
And that still didn’t explain what happened to all my injuries. If the guy found me and I was fine, then how did I get that way? And how did I manage to escape the bear’s wrath while unconscious? I was missing some vital piece of the puzzle here…unless maybe, just maybe, when I fell I hit my head and just imagined the rest. It was farfetched, but it was the only thing that would make sense.
After the pancakes came some bacon and eggs, and I wanted all of it. I couldn’t believe I was this hungry. One would think I had been lost for days instead of hours.
When I had eaten enough, I went into the living room and turned on the TV. I sat on the couch and rested my left ankle on my right knee. Curiously, I rubbed the even skin around it, the places where the cuts should be. I flexed my foot, bending this way and that. It felt perfectly fine.
Suddenly, there was a loud banging on the door, then, without waiting for a formal answer, my friends opened the door. Reina, Amber, Robert and Stephen burst into the living room and whipped their heads around until they found me on the couch. Then they erupted in relieved sighs and rushed toward me.
“Oh my God, what happened to you!?” Reina asked the first of a rush of questions just like it.
“Guys, guys, calm down,” I said loudly. “One at a time.”
“What happened?” Stephen asked.
“I don’t really know,” I said. I knew I shouldn’t tell them everything as I remembered it, but what should I tell them? “I was following a little trail off the wash and I slipped and fell into a trench. I don’t remember anything after that.”
“B—wh—how’d you get home?” Amber asked.
“I guess some forest ranger found me and brought me back here.” As I said it to them, it sounded even stranger than when I had heard it from Mom.
“Are you okay, though?” Stephen asked.
Before I knew what was going on, he pulled me into his hard chest, wrapping his firm arms around my narrow shoulders.
“I’m so glad,” he said, still holding me. “We looked for you all night.”
“Yeah, Stephen would have gotten lost looking for you if we hadn’t stopped him,” Robert said.
“And Reina was about to lose her mind,” Amber added.
Reina blushed and nodded meekly.
Once Stephen let go of me, Reina scooted next to me and draped her thin, frail arms lovingly around me.
“Thanks guys,” I said. “It was stupid wandering up that far alone. I just never thought I would trip like that.” I wanted to change the subject, and I remembered what made me fall in the first place. “Oh, but you guys won’t believe all that I saw. I got this close to a real live deer!”
“Really? That’s awesome!” Amber said. “I wish I had seen some wild life.”
“Did you ever see that bear or mountain lion?” Stephen joked, referring to our conversation from earlier yesterday.
The question struck my heart with panic as I remembered that vicious roar.
I caught myself before the others could notice my reaction. “You guys should probably go, I’m still kind of tired,” I said. “But I’ll see you guys at school.”
They bought it, hugged me again, and left. Stephen was reluctant to go. He probably would have stayed longer if he weren’t the others’ ride home. He was the last one out of the house, and he stood in the doorway for a moment, a strange, intense look in his yellow-green eyes. Then he closed the door and they were gone, and I was left with my troublesome, perplexing ruminations once more.