You might wanna close your eyes for this one.
The strong scent of hickory hung in the still air. All around my traveling companions and I, songbirds tittered and sang to one another. Wings beat softly overhead, no doubt imperceptible to my friends, but playing a familiar game to my sensitive eardrums.
In spite of the high noon sun, all was dark for me. The heat bearing down on my sweat-drenched neck provided little light more than a heady glow in terms of visuals. I stopped walking and turned to the sun, feeling its warmth permeating the skin on my face. I hadn't yet grown used to the high altitude in our time spent trekking through the mountain trails.
“You all right, Jesse?” One of the others called from a way forward. It was James.
To make my appearance less disconcerting, I turned to point my sunglass-clad appearance in his direction. One of the others had stopped walking alongside James, while one continued leisurely walking. His steps sounded testy upon the earthy path.
“Yeah, I'm good,” I responded assuredly.
I poked my walking stick forward. Passing from the patch of sunlight, I entered a shady area of the walkway. The trees beside the path reached overhead to rustle branches with one another. Their tiny handshakes spoke a million greetings clear only to my perception.Reaching the two who had waited behind, I avoided several dips and logs in the way of the trail. They hadn't mentioned them in keeping with my requests. I could feel their concerned looks on my graceful legs.
“I'm fine,” I stated with a grin as I stopped before the others. The third had wandered forward evermore. The sound of his travel told me of an oncoming decline.
“So you are,” observed Adrian.
I frowned to realize that my suspicions had been correct. Jeffry had been the one to go ahead.
“Wait up!” James called ahead. Jeffry continued on unabated.
Together again, the three of us walked to meet the downer of the group. James lagged behind at my side while Adrian walked on. Likely thinking I couldn't hear, Jeffry complained in a loud whisper.
“I don't understand why we had to bring him,” he hissed to Adrian. “All he's done is slow us down. He keeps stopping and just,” he paused, “looking at stuff like that.”
Adrian pleaded for me, seemingly annoyed with Jeffry. “Hey, now. Be a little more considerate, Jeff. He's fine, okay? We were both thinking he wouldn't make it past the first lodge, but he's been just fine; just a little slower.”
“Slower?” It sounded like Jeffry choked, trying not to yell. “He's put us a whole day behind already. Some of us have jobs to go back to – we don't have the pleasure of being able to just do this whenever we want. It's a luxury we can't afford – getting behind schedule.”
Adrian didn't respond. I laughed lightly to myself, but quietly enough to ensure that no one but James would hear.
“What are they talking about?” He asked, a smile wavering on his tongue. It's funny the subtleties even just the shape of one's mouth can create in their voice.
“Jeff thinks that I'm slowing us down too much,” I whispered bemusedly. “He says he has a job to get back to, and that he doesn't have the 'luxury' of being late getting back.”
James grumbled. I couldn't tell if he was upset or amused. I decided to drop it, too absorbed by the downhill hike and the termination of the shady grove atop the slight peak.
My entire being was enveloped in a bath of warm light. The heavy pack bearing down on my tired but strong shoulders had little weight presently. I felt alone and at peace, admitting to the others' existence by doing nothing more than occasionally acknowledging their strides.
Up above, an eagle cried out. Small beasts chortled and rustled about in the underbrush several yards from us. A woodpecker hammered away at a high tree. The aroma of a snuffed-out campfire saturated the foot of the hill, its thick smoke lingering in the dead plant matter and the sun-heated rocks of the makeshift campsite.
I smiled and rubbed my itching eyelids. My steady hand lifted up the glasses placed over them, and took great pleasure in its work. Always, I kept my walking stick glued to the ground. Its vibrations told me several feet ahead of time what was coming.
Through the fissures in the earth carved with rainstorms and freezes, I felt their histories. I could hear the changing winds and the seasons gone by. The branches which snapped underfoot and the logs meant to impede progress spoke of the passing times and the forest's annual death and rebirth. A torrent of rustling leaves danced overhead, providing a soundtrack of natural wind chimes to my observations and history-readings.
My three companions traveled wholly unaware to these signs of antiquity, chattering idly to one another. They spoke of secular things, heedless to the natural house in which we traveled. James would occasionally question my condition, ensuring that I was in good health and good spirits. Each time, I would smile and respond agreeably, after which point he would return to the two ahead of us. Consistently, I straggled, breathing into nature as it breathed back into me. I was taking the scenic route.
We walked in this manner for the better part of the day, until the sun had fallen and the heated late-Spring night came to encircle us. Now the glow was gone, and another audience of wildlife had taken to controlling the area. Just as I was beginning to appreciate the changes, my friends called up the idea of a meal, and stopped our progress.
That night, we dined early in the evening on baked beans. Adrian provided the can of food, offering to open it. James and Jeffry built the fire, and once it was completed, I retrieved a medium-sized pot from my pack and set about heating up the food.
Through the meal's preparation, conversation mostly concerned the day's journey.
“Less and less people these past few days,” Adrian observed.
An agreeable hum rose up from all of us.
“I wonder why?” James asked of no one in particular. “This is prime hiking season.”
“Maybe it's how terrible we all smell,” Adrian suggested.
Everyone chuckled idly at this.“Hey, speak for yourself, Adrian,” I said, taking the chance to get in a punch. “Not all of us smell like we haven't bathed since we got here a week ago.”
He laughed at my jibe as I stirred the thick soup of beans. Jeffry didn't take too kindly to my jokes.
“You don't smell so hot yourself,” he prodded from across the crackling fire.
I chuckled and lifted one of my shirt's armpits to my chin. Taking an exaggerated whiff, I scrunched my nose like a rabbit sniffing the air.
“You are correct, sir!” I cheered. This garnered laughter from everyone, including a snide bit from Jeffry himself.
Silently, I finished the duty of cooking while the others continued their idle prattle. Then, taking the stack of bowls from my pack, I measured out portions for all. With great dexterity, I used the spoon to weigh out seamlessly the equal amounts. To double-check my work, I in turn balanced each bowl against one another, finding several to have slightly more or less than the others.
“Come on, now,” James joked loudly. “We're hungry.” The others gave an agreeable shout.
“Hold your horses,” I ordered the lot, laughing all the while.
Soon, the bowls were passed out and emptied. I was, as usual, the last to finish. My teeth and tongue took their time, breaking up each individual bean. This meant that I took spoonfuls of no more than three or four at a time while the others wolfed theirs down.
Before I was half-way through with my meal, the others had placed their bowls by me, and were standing.
“What's up?” I questioned.
“I think we're gonna keep heading on,” Jeffry announced. “We talked about it earlier, and we decided we're not tired enough to stop for the night.”
“All of you?” I asked concernedly. I must have been wrapped up in the world when this conversation had occurred.
“I'll stay behind with you,” James said reassuringly.
“Thanks,” I said, turning to him.
The others were already hoisting their packs over their shoulders. It would seem that they hadn't taken anything out save the now-empty can of beans, which James took note of.
“Come on, now,” he said. “Let's not litter around here.”
“Oh, my bad,” Adrian said, embarrassment in his tone.
The metallic object clanked against its dislodged lid as Adrian retrieved it and placed it in his pack.
“All right,” Jeffry said impatiently. “We'll see you guys up ahead.”
“Just don't go off-trail,” James asked of them.
“Don't worry,” Adrian said. “We'll keep on the trail, and honestly probably won't get too far ahead. You'll catch up with us for sure.”
I nodded. “Be safe, guys. We'll see you in a bit.”
“See ya,” Jeffry offered in way of a farewell, followed by farewells in kind from the others.
Their footsteps receded into the warm night. Our campfire raged on. I needed to finish my meal and to clean the dishes. Slowly and methodically, I chewed each bite as intently as the last. James didn't say much, mostly choosing to comment on the beauty of our surroundings. One thing I liked about him was that he never made a point of saying he wished I could see it.
I had known James for a time. We had become friends back in school, where we spent a lot of time hanging out together. It was never hard for me to click with other people, finding them enjoyable for the most part. The problem was finding other people who didn't treat me with kid gloves. James was one of the only friends I had made who acted this way. Jeffry and Adrian, on the other hand, were friends of James's from high school, and I hadn't met them until this excursion.
With roughly half of my beans left, I offered them up. Eating so slowly kept me fit, as it ensured that I only ate when I was actually hungry. It meant that I never overate, and was thus always at a comfortable level of fullness. James took the remaining beans and quickly scarfed them down.
As he did this, I took to cleaning the things. A small creek ran by the path for most of the hike, as it did now. It was a few short yards to one side. As I receded from the fire and made for the water with the cookware and a scrub brush, the world grew dim and cold by compare. Alone, I knelt and made to quickly wash and rinse the bowls and pan. A chill ran down my spine in the face of the fire's absence, despite the dry, warm air.
Speedily, I made firm footsteps back to the campsite where James was preparing to gather his bucket for dousing the flame. I sat alone for another moment as he retrieved the water. Hearing those assured sounds of his life – his grunts and heaves – I never actually felt alone. Standing as he returned, I assumed his pack was firmly in place. I grabbed mine and strapped in.
A moment later, James wordlessly poured the water over the fire, extinguishing its aura.
“You ready?” He asked, clicking on a flashlight for his own benefit.
“Let's do it,” I agreed.
We moved on in silence, an unfamiliar dread hovering around us. It hadn't been long since we had parted ways but we couldn't be sure how far ahead our companions were.
I was refreshed from our meal, yet as we entered a valley we soon came upon, an intense fatigue overtook me. James seemed no better off, as he complained of similar symptoms. As we had not yet met up with his friends, we resolved to set up camp for the night, tiredly unrolling our sleeping bags and passing out as soon as our bodies touched the forest floor.
The next morning came almost immediately, the sun rousing us from a heavy but dreamless slumber. We made a quick breakfast of oatmeal and proceed immediately.
“Do you think they've continued forward?” I asked James after a half-hour's time spent walking.
He sighed heavily and admitted, “I'm not sure. They might have been antsy to have the trip over with, or they might have held back. Knowing them, they'll probably wait for a while before they move on.”
I hoped for everyone's safety that we would cross paths again soon. With the diminished numbers of hikers we had come into contact with recently, my mind told itself that something was attacking them. The other part of my mind fighting for control said that the lack of hikers was a blessing, as it meant less danger in the form of humans.
The sense of dread returned as we trekked on. It was as though something was lying in the rushes by the small stream to our right. I knew it was irrational to think that anything more than an idle critter might have been there getting a drink, but still a heavy atmosphere enveloped my body.
The water's continual gurgle was interrupted every few seconds by a soft hum. Whatever awaited and stalked us was trying to be subtle with its breathing pattern. It passed unnoticed by James. After hearing its noises for an hour or two, I halted with James for a noontime lunch.
The spot where we stopped had been the site of a campfire the previous night. I could smell the burnt embers, my shoes scratching at the ground where it must have been. We squatted on the rocks around this outdoor range.
“Do you get the feeling something's watching us?” I asked of him.
“I have had a weird, creeping feeling now that you mention it.” James's voice wavered with uncertainty. I had struck a nerve. His chewing slowed. The breathing by the water stopped.
“But now I don't feel it at all,” he said. Soon after, he began to chuckle loudly. I joined him, still put off by the earlier sensation. Though it had gone just as James said, I worried for its return.
“Look at this,” James spoke once more as we were preparing to carry on.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It's that bean can from last night,” his voice quivered in misunderstanding. “The bean can.”
He shook it about, rattling its top within its otherwise-empty cylinder.
“They must've come this way,” I admitted, wondering why they might have left their trash despite our protests earlier.
Maybe they dropped it in their haste, I thought to myself, trying to drown out the worry growing in me. Another thought struck me in quick succession.
“You think they're all right without the food?” I asked in a sudden panic.
James was taken aback, but remained calm as he could.
“You're right,” he said. “I'm sure they're all right. Probably hungry, but they should be all right.”
The rest of the day was spent in continued walking. We passed several more hikers, and with each encounter, we inquired about our lost friends. Neither of the groups we came across had seen any trace of them. Any comfort that we had taken in the faith of them being up ahead soon evaporated. By the time we were ready to stop for the night, our spirits had grown dim under the ambient light of the million stars above.
“Do you think Jeffry and Adrian are all right?” I asked, repeating my earlier sentiment sadly over another supper of beans on two sides of a campfire. Adrian and Jeffry may have had most of the campfire building supplies, but I always made a habit of carrying a flint and steel necklace of my own on my outdoor journeys. James had helped to collect kindling and small bits of firewood. Together, we'd cobbled together a modest but intense fire for ourselves.
“Yeah, I think they'll be fine,” James said, trying to hide the concern leaking into his voice. “They probably made a lot of headway today. I mean, the can was way out of place, remember?”
I nodded, basking in the glow of the fire. This night was cooler than the previous. A cold front must have rolled in.
We were both unhinged slightly by the lack of other evidence for their progress, deciding pull up our sleeping bags closer than normal. Saying goodnight, we let the fire burn itself out.
In moments, I heard James's heavy breathing. Just after, I heard the low hum against the babble of the brook nearby. My heart raced, and my sleeping bag became a heat sack. I felt trapped within it. It was set to be my coffin, I was sure, and my coffin trapped the body heat I exuded, multiplying it into a thousand blistering suns. My bare skin grew sticky, adhering to the bag's outer shell of polyester. The thing sounded to be coming closer every hour, every minute, every second – I couldn't be certain how much time was passing. I shuddered though I fought desperately to remain as still as humanly possible. It was taxing work, but for the sake of myself and my friend, alone in the world and abandoned to nature's whims and wishes, I forged on.
At one point, my parched lips – licked dry with too much fear and a lack of proper moisture – attempted of their own volition to whisper a response to the awkward hum-laughter of the unseen assailant laying siege to our campsite. Try as my lips may have, my tongue undid their difficult work and refused to utter more than a choked-off syllable like the repeated groans of an animal dreaming in deep slumber. I could not call out to James, and though the night grew dark with the creature stalking ever closer, his veritable corpse refused to stir.
In the next instant, a brilliant glow shone through the canopies up above. I had fallen asleep, and was immediately sent into a flurry of kicks and spasms. My mind sputtered as my mouth lagged moments behind. Once my limbs had decided they were in proper order to have me upright, I collected myself and called out to James.
There was no answer.
I crawled on hands and knees, groping for his sleeping bag and finding nothing where I remembered it to be. Across the lukewarm remains of the dormant fire I continued, hoping to find some remnant of my deserter of a partner. My best efforts did no good, however, turning up nothing. No sleeping bag, no back pack.
“James!” I cried at the top of my lungs.
Crawling awkwardly back to my spot, I collected my things with jittery vibrations. Grasping my cane, I brought myself up to my feet and hoisted my backpack into place.
“James!” I called again. I could feel my voice reverberating in my chest and echoing back from the trees lining the plot of land. Still there was no answer but the continual sense of those morbid eyes glancing me up and down with each passing second.
I looked to the sky and took note of the early sun's position. Tired hands rubbed a soft face. I hadn't slept enough the previous night, but I couldn't recall what had awakened me. Pointing my cane in the proper direction, I continued down my path.
“The nearest ranger station shouldn't be too far,” I thought aloud. “Besides, chances are I'll meet someone on the road.”
Walking was good for the spirit. As I moved through the morning until noontime, the feeling of a watcher dissipated. My consistent apprehensions about losing my friends never left, but at least they were lessened with my observations.
The birds were quieter this morning. Their playful banter could be heard further away, but it seemed that wherever I trod, they would vanish or lock themselves up in their silent nests. The screams of cicadas remained to keep my idle ears occupied. Perhaps, I thought, they are too dumb to flee.
A fragrance of flowers welled up in the grassy outcropping at the peak of a hill where I elected to stop my travel for lunch. I had skipped breakfast, and my stomach was now threatening me, a razor's edge held close to my abdomen in the form of hunger.
“I couldn't have done anything,” I reassured myself quietly. “The best I can do is get to the station and have them form a search party. They'll understand.”
My quick break ended without so much as a cleaning session for my dishes. Instead, I placed my things in their proper places and stepped heavily down the slope of the hill's other side. At the base, a rush of water had grown to an immense roar. I approached what sounded to be a river crossing my path with caution.
“Wait,” an unfamiliar voice rasped from behind me.
“Who's there?” I asked, back muscles going rigid with alertness.
“Just another traveler, friend.” The voice sounded off, as though it belonged to someone who had suffered larynx cancer and instead spoke through a electrolarynx.
“Where'd you come from?” I queried them suspiciously.
“I just came upon you from behind,” the voice explained, drawing closer to my backside. “I saw your walking stick and sunglasses. You're blind, aren't you?”
I nodded and turned to face the person. “Yes, I am. Why do you ask?”
My grip tightened on the cane in case there was a scuffle with this potentially unruly person trying to take advantage of me.
“The river you're about to cross – it has a very thin bridge, and it's offset from the path's center,” the person explained. “I thought perhaps I could assist you in crossing.”
I relaxed slightly, but not enough so as to drop my guard.“Thanks,” I said. “I'd appreciate the help.”
The newcomer came now to my side. I could feel his breath on my shoulder.
“Here,” he offered. “Take my arm.”
I pawed at the air, gripping what felt like an over-cooked piece of chicken at first. It turned out to be the man's forearm, and I recoiled. Sucking air in through my teeth, I apologized sincerely.
“I'm so sorry,” I said.“It's okay,” the man said humorlessly. “Hold on whenever you feel comfortable.”
I nodded and once again lightly gripped that oddly-textured limb. He moved slowly forward, pulling me behind him. Soon, we were passing over the immensely powerful sound of water storming just underneath us. The river was no less than three yards in width. It emanated a scent of freshness and purity. This made me feel good enough to ask the man a question once we had passed.
“Could you tell me why your skin is this way?” I asked.
“I had an accident,” the man said plainly. “I was burned. I'd offer a hand, but they're in worse condition, believe it or not.”
I recoiled and let his forearm go, trying to seem casual in the action, but no doubt coming off as frantic. We continued forward without any hesitation to traveling in unison.
“And you?” He asked without context.
“Excuse me?” I asked in turn.
“Your eyes,” he said. “Why do they not work properly?”
Gliding quickly over the rough dirt path, I bobbed my head in time with our steps. The man's feet almost didn't make a sound.
“I had an accident myself,” I explained without hesitation. “Haven't seen since then.”
“And your name?” He asked quickly thereafter.
“Jesse,” I answered. “Nice to meet you, uh...”
“Wendy,” he said. “Nice to make your acquaintance as well.”
“Odd name for a man, don't you think,” I chuckled.
“It's a nickname,” he said. “And isn't Jesse just as feminine?”
“Touche,” I laughed louder, dropping the subject.
We continued on like this together for the rest of the day, mostly in silence. I felt the need to conserve my energy as much as possible, and the mere presence of another person was enough to ease my tensed nerves. It was enough to eliminate the sensation of pursuit, and that God-awful humming-laughter that had followed James and I along our route. Unfortunately, this was replaced by my companion's odd stench. He smelled as though the burning accident of which he spoke had only recently occurred. It was similar to rotting or over-charred meat, but fresher somehow. Out of politeness, I held my tongue and placed a bandana in traditional bandit fashion over my nose and around my neck. This was enough to block the strange smell for the most part.
Around dusk, we encountered a pair of travelers heading in the opposite direction. They approached with heavy breath, their steps stilted and laggard. When I knew them to be within earshot, I called out to them.
“Hey there,” I beckoned, stopping my progress across the relatively flat land.
“Hello,” a woman said In moments, she and her traveling partner had reached our location.
“Say, can I ask you a question?” I asked abruptly.
“Sure thing,” the woman said. “What's up?”
The labored breathing next to her suggested a man, likely of the same age as the woman. I thought to myself that they were likely spouses.
“How far ahead is the next ranger's station?” I waved one hand in the direction from which they had come.
They were silent. I heard their mouths swivel to face one another. Likely, they were glancing back and forth to one another.
“Maybe five...ten miles?” The man said in a questioning tone.I gestured positively to this response. It would be too far for the night, as the light was rapidly dissipating. The next morning would then see the end of my journey.
“Thank you,” I said politely. “And one more question?”
“Shoot,” the man said, seeming to take control of the conversation for their side.
“Have you by chance seen a pair of men about my age walking this way? Or, for that matter, a single man about my age?” I tried not to let the returning worry overtake me as I awaited their response.
Their gradually easing breaths pivoted side to side. I knew their answer before they spoke.
“Can't say we've seen anyone going this way, mister,” the man said. “We've been walking all day, and haven't seen a single other soul.”
“Thanks,” I mumbled sorrowfully to them as much as myself.
“No problem,” the man said. “But if you don't mind, we ought to get on with our walk. We've got another half-mile, and it'll be dark soon.”
They began to walk away. The man took the opportunity to slap me on the back.
“Be careful out there,” he said with a sense of camaraderie.
“Yeah, we will,” I said without moving. “You, too.”
I began to walk, slowly this time. Knowing that the night would be unavoidable at this point, I didn't feel as pressing a need to continue as far as before.
Trudging forward, we soon arrived at the peak of another shallow hill. Here, I pulled my pack down and took stock of what I needed for dinner and sleeping arrangements. It was then that I realized how quiet Wendy had been.
“You okay?” I abruptly asked.
“Oh, I'm fine,” the unpleasant voice responded from a short distance. It was coming toward me.
A clatter of wood sounded at my feet.
“I was out collecting kindling for a moment there,” he continued. “Sorry to have wandered off. You seemed deep in thought.”
“Oh, it's all right,” I said, trying to be as pleasant as possible.
Together, we built a small pile of sticks, and struck a flame in its center. We then placed the larger sticks which Wendy had gathered atop the pile to get the thing really roaring. I recalled the unwashed dishes and scraped out the residue flecking their bases with my chipped fingernails. Once this was done, I poured one of the last few cans of beans into the pot and placed it over the fire.
Offering Wendy some of my spoils, he politely declined, insisting instead on cooking what he said was rabbit meat that he had hunted earlier. He offered me some of this in kind, which I also refused. As I stirred my beans and he roasted his meat, I tried to stir up conversation.
“Not much of a people person, are you?” I asked nonchalantly.
“What do you mean?” Wendy buzzed from across the way.
“You didn't say a word to those other hikers,” I said. “It was almost like you weren't even there.”
I felt Wendy shake his head. “No, you could say I'm not too fond of interacting with people like that. I'm not much of a 'people person', as you put it.”
The way his tone almost mocked mine was uncomfortable, so I took to discussing the natural life of the area instead.
To my surprise, Wendy was quite the wealth of knowledge on the entire mountain range. He told me that he had been hiking this path his entire life, since his parents first took him here as a child. According to him, he could have walked the entire range blindfolded. We spoke intently about how it changed given the seasons, and all of the years since his youth. We spoke of the various species of flora and fauna, and their interactions with one another. By the time I was growing weary, stretching and yawning into my sleeping bag, I felt that I had made a fast friend.
That night, I dreamed of the couple we had passed on the road earlier. I floated near them as they were stalked by the thing that had followed James and I earlier. Its humming laughter maniacally trailed behind them while they chattered together, completely unaware of the thing's presence. I wanted to scream out for them, but my voice wouldn't come. I was held back behind an invisible wall. My mind yelled for their safety, and it was in futility, as the laughing creature erupted from a bed of foliage.
It tackled the man, who fell with a solid thud to the ground. A soft squishing sound could be heard. It was taking chunks out of his neck. The man was dead before he hit the ground, but the cackling creature giggled and gurgled as it slurped down the raw meat and blood.
His spouse or girlfriend turned to behold the terrible scene, but she was too late. The thing leapt from the man's corpse and onto the soon-to-be-corpse of the poor, poor woman. She let out a scream, and I bolted upright.
Rubbing a tired hand against my ear, I couldn't be certain, but it seemed as though the scream had carried over into my waking life. The trail was dark, the fire having died earlier.
“Wendy?” I asked, shaking and afraid.
There was no answer to my cry. I shivered and curled into the fetal position. Tired and scared, I tried desperately to fall asleep. That way, if I died, at least it would be in peace. What felt like hours stretched out until dawn. Somewhere along the way, my body collapsed into a short-lived coma.
As when I fell asleep, I awoke in a haphazard manner, unsure where the sleep ended and the reality began. Here, I found Wendy wide awake. He stunk of rotten meat.
I was unsure what to do, and settled on pretending to sleep until I could gather my thoughts. Wendy, however, knew better.
“Did you sleep well?” He asked.
Ashamed to have been found out, I responded while I collected myself and prepared for the final leg of the journey.
“I did, thank you,” I lied, wondering how well I did so. “And you?”
“Oh, I slept just fine,” Wendy said as though offended by me not assuming this fact.
It then occurred to me that Wendy traveled without the jingle of a bag or so much as a satchel. I was too frightened to ask about his disappearance the prior night, but allowed this thought to instead come out in the form of a question.
“Do you have a place to put your things?” I asked as we began to walk.
“No,” he admitted. “I don't carry anything but a knife for hunting. I prefer to do things more naturally. As a child, my parents brought crutches for these trips, but as I've grown up, I've preferred the additional hardships presented with less helpful items.”
I nodded agreeably. “That's respectable.”
“Thank you.” The way he delivered this, it sounded like Wendy was telling me a known fact rather than offering thanks.
The rest of the journey concluded without a single encounter with another living soul. Wendy and I spoke, as we had previously, of the lays of the land and everything that existed therein. The way he commented on things, it almost sounded like he had lived here since birth. It was as though he had been born and raised in the wild.
We approached the ranger's outpost just before noon. Wendy assisted me to the door, and then sought to continue along on his own.
“Thank you so much for your help, Wendy,” I said, gripping my cane in both hands and wagging it toward him as though an extension of a hand in a thankful gesture.
“Don't mention it, friend,” Wendy said, his uncomfortable voice being almost normal to me at this point. “I've helped you perhaps more than you'll ever understand, but there's no need to thank me for my pity.”
With this perplexing statement, Wendy took his leave. I wasn't sure whether to be offended or glad. Shrugging and just happy to be at the outpost, I banged several times on the thick wooden door. A series of distant footsteps grew gradually closer. The door swung open before me, and a hefty-sounding man of the country stepped forth.
“Well I'll be damned,” he wondered aloud. For a moment, my hopes rose. Had my friends arrived ahead of me and told the rangers about me? Unfortunately for me, the actual reasoning behind the statement sent a ripple down the flesh atop my spine.
“You're the first person's come by here in damn near a week,” he announced without my solicitation. “Come on in, please.”
He stepped out of the way. I could feel a rush of air-conditioning from inside filling the pocket his body had occupied a moment prior. I took his invitation and moved through this pocket. The ranger shut the door behind us and led the way into the outpost.
In a moment, we were in the man's office. I sat in front of his desk, while he sat on the other side. A small fan rotated this way and that, offering a low hum to the room. I cradled a cup of piping-hot coffee between my thighs.
“I'm amazed someone's even been by,” the ranger said, again with that untraceable wonderment in his voice.
“Why do you say that, sir?” I asked meekly. I was terrified of what he was about to say.
“Truth is,” he began, “ain't a single person's come through here in a few days. I saw a couple go the other way last night, but ain't no one actually stopped in. All the other outposts between here and the side of the trail you came from – they've all been reporting the same thing, one after the other, for a few days at a time.”
“What do you think would be causing that?” I asked. “You see, I was with three other people, and they all kind of...disappeared. I was hoping they might be here.”
The man was silent.
“Please don't think I did anything to them, sir. I fell asleep two nights in a row, and all three were gone after the second. Then, this other guy came along, and he was with me until I got here.
The ranger cut in. “This other fellow, what was he like?” His voice shook, which made me uncomfortable.
“Well,” I mulled it over, weighing my words and nervously sipping my coffee. It burned my tongue with its sickly-sweet bitterness. Black with sugar. It tasted good to have something other than water.
“He was a bit taller than me, I'd say, judging by where he stood when he spoke to me. And I only touched him once, but his arm was burnt or scarred. He said he had been in a fire-related accident. His voice was weird, too. It sounded like those electric voice boxes you get when you have larynx cancer from smoking.”
Again, the man was silent. The weight of his breath increased.
“That's all I could tell about him, to be honest.” I wasn't sure what to say.
“Where'd this fellow go?” He asked, before adding, “He got a name, this fellow?” The ranger's demeanor was darkening. His grimness extended to me, forcing me to answer as quickly as possible.
“Wendy,” I said. “And I think he was going to travel on the path some more. He led me here, and kept on.”
The man laughed a dark laugh. “Sick bastard,” he said. He sounded to be on the verge of tears.
I felt the blood drain from my face. “Sick bastard?”
“This fellow might be something of a local legend, let's just say.” The ranger seemed put off, but as though he were trying to hide it with a sick humor. “Have you ever heard of a wendigo?”
I shook my head. “I've heard the name, but can't say I know anything for what it is.” I was worried about what was going to come out of his mouth next.
“A wendigo's a native legend,” he began, speaking slowly. It sounded like he was trying not to break down. “It shows up in a lot of cultures around this area, and up into Canada. It's an overly-tall demon or warped man, see? It's enormously powerful, even though it's emaciated from extreme hunger. And it feasts on the flesh of people – particularly those who have done wrong or who were stupid enough to wander into its territory. Problem is, once a wendigo gets a taste for flesh on any given occasion, it'll keep up that hunger and eat whatever it can get its hands on.”
“So you think this guy,” I trailed off, finding it difficult to believe what he was saying.
“No less than a dozen people have disappeared in the past week,” the man said simply. The shakiness in his voice continued.. “I don't know what to think, to be honest. Nothing like this has happened since I took this post ten years ago. We've evacuated everyone we've been able to find, but they tell me I've got to stay up here to make sure no one else gets hurt. Confidentially speaking, son, I don't think I can go back out there, given what you just told me.”
I shook, sipping at my precariously-handled coffee.
“The only thing I don't get,” he continued, leaning forward over his desk, “is why this thing wouldn't have taken you. Maybe pity?”
He was close enough now that I could smell his sickly breath. It made me gag, so I drowned my nose in the air pocket of the small mug provided me. From there, my voice reverberated deeply.
“Pity?” I asked. “Why would something so powerful pity someone like me?”
The man leaned back again and sounded as though he were thinking deeply on the matter.
“I'm not sure,” he said. “Maybe because of your condition. They say wendigoes have very poor eyesight, with their eyeballs sunken deeply into the recesses of their sockets. Perhaps it took pity from empathy.”
“But that would be humanizing a monster,” I protested with a light laugh.
“Maybe Wendy wasn't quite a monster,” he conjectured. You could tell from his voice that he was getting wrapped up further into his narrative. His cabin fever was showing. A week alone in the woods would likely do that to a person, which made me all the more anxious to get out of there.
His implication had unsettled me to the point where I felt unwilling to speak for a while. He either observed me or wandered in his own thoughts, as he allowed me this solitude until I ended it of my own volition. Trying to shake the dark thoughts from my mind, I spoke quietly.
“Could I please use your phone to call someone?” I asked. “I think I'd like to get a ride home now.”
The ranger's grumble caught me by surprise. He was upset.
“You're gonna leave me alone here, son?” His tone was one of anger more than anything.
“Sir,” I said, voice quivering, “I'm not sure what I can do for you, but I think that I've been given a second chance for one reason or another, and I'd like to take advantage of that.”
I could feel his eyes glaring down at me from his high chair across the desktop. “Sure thing, son,” he said disappointedly.
He tossed a wired telephone at me, receiver and all. It surprised me, causing my arms to rise in one swift motion. Scalding-hot coffee flew all over me and the surrounding carpet. The ranger grumbled angrily once more. I could hear a dial tone coming from the dislodged telephone in my lap.
From somewhere outside and to the right of the building, a humming laughter lurched slowly toward the office. My eyes grew wide, and I froze at the sound no doubt imperceptible to the ranger. He didn't speak to me, and I sat still, unsure which doom laid before me might be worse.