I heard Stephen honk the horn, so I hefted the twelve packs under both arms and went out to meet him. He got out and opened the trunk for me. It had been decided that, since our only other mode of transportation would have been Robert’s dad’s borrowed junky Miata, Stephen would drive us instead.
We got into his beautiful Corvette, then went to pick up Reina and Robert.
“Now we just have to go to…what’s her name again?” Stephen asked as we were leaving Robert’s house.
“Amber,” I offered.
He nodded, then took a longer, deeper look at me. “Have I told you yet that you look good today?”
“No,” I said, blushing slightly.
“Well, you do.” He smiled and looked back at the road in front of him.
I had dressed for the hike, but also to look appealing at the same time; I was wearing some blue jean shorts, a short red sleeveless shirt, and black sketchers with short black socks.
Amber was waiting in her driveway with coolers full of picnic essentials. Stephen helped her load them into the trunk and we headed south for the mountains.
As I stared out the window and watched the desert zoom past us, I started thinking about my phone conversation with Haley last night. Most of it had been about school and friends and petty problems, but it ended on the same note as every other—with my upcoming trip to New York.
“Crimson, have you even thought about what’s going to happen once you get to his house?” she asked, forever trying to dissuade me. “What do you really expect to happen?”
“I don’t know, Haley,” I had replied. I didn’t want to think about that. The truth was, I had no idea what was going to happen after I came face to face with Nicholae. I could only see a bright and clear path from this moment to Halloween night when I got to his house. Anything past that seemed void, insignificant. I just had to meet him, and I would decide in the moment what to say.
“How can you just jump into this?” she had chided. “You really need to understand that there is a fine line between bravery and foolishness.”
“I know you don’t approve,” I’d said calmly. “But I have to do this. Why are you so worried about it anyway? I’m not asking you to go with me or anything.”
“Crimson, you’re my cousin. You’re the sister I never had. I care about what happens to you…”
“You’re awfully quiet,” Stephen said presently. “What are you thinking about?”
“Lot’s of stuff,” I said evasively. “And I’m enjoying the scenery.”
“Scenery, huh?” he said. “It’s all just cactus and thorny shrubs.” We had driven through Green Valley and were now driving down White House Canyon Road. There were clusters of mesquite trees and prickly pears and jumping cactus for miles all around us.
“I know, but it’s still beautiful,” I sighed, turning back to the window where I saw a large soaring falcon in the distance, scouring for prey.
We slowed down as we came to a single-lane bridge, after which the road rounded toward the south. The scenery subtly changed as the mountains spanned out before us. There were open valleys on both sides that dipped and rose to touch the mountains, which were all various shades of green with naked beige rock formations jutting out awkwardly.
As the road took us into the mountains and in between the hills, the flora changed from desert to forest, the mesquites becoming evergreens, the soil shifting from powdery, rusty orange to brown and gravelly.
We drove to the top of the picnic area, to Mt. Wrightson, and parked at the third parking level. We got out and went in search of a free table. It was a bit past one o’clock now, and the mountains towering on either side of us offered no shade as of yet, allowing the sun to bear down on us with full force through the thin air.
“I found a good table, guys,” Amber called. “Go ahead and bring the stuff over here.”
We emptied the trunk and hauled the contents to the table. We decided to eat lunch first before doing anything else, as we were all starving.
At the end of our lunch, Stephen placed a large oblong bag in the middle of the table. I wasn’t sure how he had gotten it past all of our notice before. He loosened the straps that kept it closed and revealed its contents for us—five long, colorful water guns.
“Boys against girls?” he invited, offering the open bag to us.
Everyone snatched a gun, and the two teams ran into the wash to the right of the parking lot, where a tiny stream still flowed. This game was much too easy though. Everyone was loud and screaming, making themselves easy targets. Stephen and I emptied our guns on each other, and, by the end, we were completely soaked.
We ran together out of the wash, through arrows of water, and up to the bathrooms where we luckily found a roll of paper towels and dried off. We put the roll on the table, then walked back to the edge of the parking lot and sat so that we could watch the war rage below.
It was obvious that neither side was winning, because every one was sodden. But then again it wasn’t about winning, just about having fun.
Suddenly I felt something tickle my leg. I looked down at my ankle and prepared to swat whatever buzzing insect was pestering me. But it wasn’t a gnat or fly or mosquito; it was a spider with eight long spindly legs making its way up my easily punctured leg.
I screamed at the top of lungs, jumping up and down and floundering my leg around until the daddy long leg fell off and disappeared into the ground.
“What’s wrong!?” Stephen asked, startled.
“Spider!!” I yelped.
“Oh, that little thing,” he said. “It’s just a daddy long leg. It can’t actually bite you. What are you so afraid of?”
I calmed myself down and sat back on the wall.
“I’m okay with seeing one crawling on a rock, or spinning its way up a tree, but when one actually gets on me, I just can’t handle it!”
He tried in vain to hide his laughter from me.
“I’m sure you’d do the same thing if you found a spider on you,” I pouted.
He raised an eyebrow. “I might have been surprised, but I would have just flicked it off and stepped on it,” he said. “I’m really not afraid of spiders, or any bugs. Now if I saw a bear or bobcat up here, that would scare me.”
“As big as you are, I bet you could take’em,” I joked.
“Sure,” he laughed.
The others came up the hill toward us, dripping.
“Anyone want to join us on a hike?” I asked them as they were patting themselves dry.
The five of us went back down to the wash and took the trail that went west into the forest. We walked around for about a half hour until Amber had to go to the bathroom.
“We should play some cards,” Robert suggested. “I’m kinda tired of walking.”
“Yea that sounds fun,” Reina said.
“Actually, I think I want to go back into the wash, maybe follow it up to see the source of the stream,” I said. “There’s supposed to be a waterfall higher up. Do you wanna come with me, Stephen?” I asked.
“No, I think I’ll stay here and play cards, get to know your friends,” he said. “Just don’t get lost.”
I put my hands on my hips. “Yeah, right.”
“Hurry back, Crim,” Reina added as I got up from the table. “Amber and I are gonna set up for s’mores.”
“Alright, I won’t be long” I reassured her.
I left the lot and went down into the wash again. It was cooler now, and the woods were much clearer in the gray-blue light of the sky, under the shade of the mountain. The water that flowed eternally down the wash was whispering a chimerical song.
For the first time here, without the distraction of Stephen, I felt like I was at peace. I could smell all the wonderful scents of the trees and flowers, of the water and even the moss. I could hear crickets chirping and little critters scurrying in the trees.
I followed the source of the stream up the wash, up the southern part of the woody mountains, until the water flow came to curious stillness at the top of the stream. I was stumped. The water just disappeared right here. How on earth was it flowing farther down if the water at this point was still, unless there was an underground stream feeding into it somewhere.
This sucks! I wanted to see that waterfall. And I definitely was not ready to head back yet. I reached into my pocket for my phone to check the time, but it wasn’t there. I must have left it in my bag—not the smartest thing to have done. Oh well, I’ll keep going and just turn back when it starts to get dark. I might still find that waterfall yet.
I continued forward, delighting in the crunch of the leaves under my feet. There were a lot more spiders now, scurrying across the rocks as I stepped on them, some even jumping from rock to rock. This was way more spiders than I ever wanted to see in my entire life, and hopefully they would be the last.
I heard a rustling to my right, and, startled, automatically turned to see what it was. A squirrel was scuttling up a tree. I had never seen a squirrel up close before. I ran up to the tree to see it, but it was much faster than me and raced up to the top.
Then I saw something a few meters behind the tree that I wouldn’t have seen if the squirrel hadn’t called my attention. There was an ascending rock formation that divided into the western wall of the wash. It had the shape of an inverted triangle all the way up through the hill it cut into, the flattened slabs meeting at opposite slopes, creating sharp angles. It looked as though it was another outlet for water, another little stream that fed into the wash.
It looked dangerous and arduous to climb. It appealed to me—I wanted to climb it, to conquer it, and see where it led.
I ambled across the wash and stopped before the shelving crag. After taking a deep breath, I lifted one foot onto the first slab and began to climb. It was surprisingly easy after that first step. If I kept a quick momentum and didn’t stop between steps, gravity didn’t pull on me much and my feet didn’t have a chance to slip. It was kind of like walking up a natural staircase, where each step was slanted and inverted slightly. Once I got to more leveled ground, I looked back at what I had just successfully climbed. Wow, it would be so much harder going back down than it was going up! But that would be a fun challenge, though.
I turned forward again and looked at the narrow beck ahead of me. It had leveled off so much more now as I had reached the top of the hill. I brushed my hair back behind my ear and excitedly followed the earthly trail of the rivulet.
If there was this little extension up at this height, then it, too, must also meet the source of the stream, even if the water wasn’t currently flowing here. This would certainly lead me to that waterfall.
I looked up at the sky through the canopy of the trees, and it was still that pretty blue. But the shadow of the western mountains was covering more ground; the sun would be setting soon, and as soon as it started to get dark, I would have to head back no matter what.
I suddenly froze, altering my breathing to make it as silent and undetectable as possible—a deer was absently grazing on the grass. It was so breathtaking! It was a beautiful golden brown, with black spots on its back and a puff of white at its tail. I couldn’t see the head because it only had its rear to me.
This might be my one and only chance to get close to one of Mother Nature’s more beautiful creations. I slowly and gently lifted my left foot and placed it silently on the ground before me. Then my right, then my left, then my right. I was so close now, and it still hadn’t heard me. But what was I going to do now?
I didn’t have a chance to think about the answer to that question. I felt the familiar scratching in my nose and knew that, no matter how hard I tried to hold it back, it would still come.
I sneezed loudly, reluctantly, and the deer immediately dashed off until it was out of sight.
Damn! Stupid Mother Nature and her wicked sense of humor.
I sneezed again, forever unable to sneeze less than twice in a row, and was pushed backward with the force of it. But there was no earth to catch the heel of my foot when I stepped back. Gravity had me now, and it was angrily yanking me down a trench that I had not seen before, for it was well hidden by a young tree.
When I landed, I felt sharp pains in various places.
The first I was aware of was my arms, which had been cut by the prickly branches of the tree as I first started to fall. I examined them and there were deep scratches on both my upper arms, and one on my right elbow.
The next pain that I became aware of was my butt and lower back, which had smashed onto the jutting rocks down here.
I looked in front of me and saw that this trench opened up to a new stream, whose source was coming from an opening in the bottom of the trench just behind me. I could feel the water soaking into my jean shorts now.
It wouldn’t be hard to find my way back from here. I just had to find a way to climb back up to the hill and then follow the beck back down to the wash. I was definitely done with explorations.
I stood up.
That’s when I felt the third and worst pain of them all. My left ankle panged in agony and it wouldn’t move when I tried to lift it! I looked down at my foot, and it was stuck crookedly between two sharp rocks, which were already cutting into my skin.
I gingerly bent over and tried to maneuver it out between the rocks, but that only made it cut deeper. I couldn’t keep the moan behind my lips. I tried again and again to free my screaming ankle, but all my attempts even to alleviate the pain just made it worse. If I kept doing this, I might risk permanent damage, and this pain already seemed too much to bear. It was clear that I could not do this by myself.
“Help!!!” I yelled as loud as I could. “Somebody help me!”
I had no idea if anyone could hear me from here. I tried to picture in my head just how far I was from the picnic site, and I couldn’t imagine my voice carrying that far.
I eased myself back into a sitting position and continued to yell and bellow for help.
I looked up at the sky, which was darkening from crystal blue to azure. Surely the others should know something was wrong by now. Yes, they would come looking for me. And if I kept yelling, they might hear me. But I had gone so far off the trail, they might never look for me here. No, can’t think like that. They had to find me.
The pain in my ankle turned into a constant rhythmic throb. My blood was dripping out of the cuts and into the water, trailing down and blending into the stream. The smell was already bringing mosquitoes. I just hoped that it wouldn’t bring anything bigger.
I tried calling out every few minutes, but my throat constricted and dried as the tears welled up. It was getting really dark now, and soon I wouldn’t be able to see anything. Why did I leave my phone behind? Why did I even venture off at all? Damn my curiosity!
I started shivering with the growing darkness, partly from the cold and partly from my terror. I called out one more time, already hopeless. I had no way of knowing how much time had passed. The sky was completely black now, save for the partial moon in the center and the hundreds of millions of stars that sprinkled the night. It was cold and quiet, and every noise made me flinch, which only caused me pain.
Nobody was going to find me, not tonight at least. If the others had gone off looking for me, they hadn’t thought to look in this direction. After all, what sensible person would? My only hope was to get through the night and pray for rescue in the morning.
So I sat in silence, resting my head on my knees and trying to relax. It didn’t last long, though, for a new sound intruded on my panic; it was the sound of splashing water. It started a few feet away, slowly coming closer. I kept my widened eyes glued to the stream at the opening of the trench, not breathing for what might be coming around the corner.
A black nose peeked around the corner just above the surface of the stream. Then a paw landed on the shallow water, a large furry black paw easily the size of my head. The nose slowly came farther out from the corner, revealing more of the enormous animal that was following my scent. Its black eyes found me crouched into the trench, and the bear fully brought itself into my view.
The bear moved its paw forward, and I jerked and squeaked in fear. At the sound of my fright, the bear opened its long mouth, revealed its white teeth that shown in the darkness and let out a harrowing, guttural roar. All the blood in my body rushed to my head at once, and I suddenly became swallowed by an unconscious pitch-blackness that had absolutely nothing to do with the night.