They agreed, even though they were all caught up in the moment, that climbing down wasn’t a good idea in the dark. Snow was falling more heavily, and they needed their tracks to find their way home. Although none of them really wanted to, they had to start the walk back to East. Concerned that their footprints might be covered up before the next morning, Cassidy ripped pieces of paper from the photos she had printed and stuck them on branches as they walked. Finding white pieces of paper wouldn’t be easy, but at least it was some sort of trail.
They walked back in silence, aside from the crunching snow beneath their feet. Simon led the way, with his flashlight. Cassidy let her mind wander. It made sense now that Gemma’s family hadn’t been able to find her. She’d fallen, and probably been buried in snow, and she had been running in the wrong direction. Cassidy brushed the tears from her eyes before they could freeze on her cheeks.
Even when they got back to Hallie’s house, they were subdued. There was nothing to say about their discovery that made it any easier to think about. They drank some hot chocolate to warm up, and then all went to bed.
The next morning Hallie was bursting with energy again. By the time Simon and Cassidy went downstairs, she had already packed a backpack with water bottles, snacks, and everything else she thought they might need, including a small folding shovel. She added her larger snow shovel to take along, as well. She slid bowls of cereal in front of Cassidy and Simon and gave them both tea, which she had poured into three of her surprisingly large collection of travel mugs. Then, less than half an hour after Cassidy had woken up, they were outside again.
It was a beautiful day, and the fresh snow from overnight sparkled in the sunlight. They hiked to the forest, and without much trouble found the first clearing. Within the forest, the trees had helped protect their tracks from much of the snowfall, although they looked more like blurry indents than actual footprints. In the few places where the trees narrowed out and the tracks were gone, there were Cassidy’s scraps of paper to help guide them.
In the daylight, the sudden drop was obvious. It was a bluff, overlooking a ravine that might have been a bit of a river during the snowmelt in the spring. The land rose up again on the other side, and looked exactly the same—a thick forest of trees. In the dark, with the dark forest ahead of them, it had been nearly impossible to see that there was a ravine in the middle.
Cassidy climbed down first, a little farther along the bluff where it wasn’t so steep. It was slippery, but she carefully moved from sapling to a large root to a fallen tree to another sapling, making sure to always be holding something sturdy in case she slipped. Hallie, unbalanced by the backpack, came down right behind Simon, who was ready to catch her at any moment. When they were all safely at the bottom, they made their way back along the ravine to the sudden drop.
Cassidy knew they were in the right place when she kicked the flashlight. She picked it up to see that it still dimly lit, and turned it off before passing it to Hallie. “OK,” she said, with a steadying breath. “This is where we need to look.”
There was a log nearby, wedged diagonally across the ravine, and Hallie hung the backpack on one of its branches, and then she pulled out various things. The mugs and water bottles she lined up on the log for easy access, and she unfolded the small shovel.
With the larger snow shovel, Simon got to work clearing as much snow as possible from the area. Cassidy couldn’t help with that, so she took pictures of the area, and studied a map Hallie had found, trying to guess at their location based on the topography around them. She noticed that Simon seemed to be doing all right, holding the shovel in the middle of the day. Perhaps this was because he wasn’t putting any thought into it at all.
When he had cleared as much as he could with the unwieldly big shovel, Hallie got to work with the smaller one. Cassidy tucked away her map and helped by scooping snow out of Hallie’s way with her arms. It was tiring work. They took turns with both shovels, and took breaks to have a drink and eat some of the granola bars Hallie had packed. They cleared the snow until they had hit the ground, and continued to expand their cleared area. By noon, the bright sun and hard work had warmed them all up enough that they had shed their coats.
When they stopped for a lunch break, Cassidy pulled out the map to inspect again. Hallie had made sandwiches, which by this time were a little squished but they were all so hungry that they didn’t mind. Cassidy ate hers while eyeing the map, and the area around them, thoughtfully. Hallie and Simon were talking about ghosts in general, and she was half listening to them when she had an idea.
“In the spring, this ravine probably floods,” she said. “If Gemma fell here, she was probably covered in snow and frozen until spring. And then…” It was hard to talk about an actual person like this, “when the snow melted, the water might have moved her body.” She pointed in the direction the water would flow, and not too far away from them there was a sharp curve in the ravine. A mess of logs and sticks had collected there, and were poking up from the snow. “She might have been caught, there.”
Hallie groaned. “You’re right.”
Simon took another large bite of his sandwich. “We’ll find her,” he said confidently.
His confidence was comforting. They were already exhausted but they finished eating and got back to work. The larger shovel was almost useless with all the branches and logs in the way, so they resorted to using the small shovel and their hands. Hallie dug, and Cassidy worked to free sticks from the ice and frozen ground so that Simon could hoist them out of the way. Hallie gave her a pocket knife with a saw piece to get through the pieces she couldn’t break free.
This work was harder in a different way, but they made good progress. After about an hour of this, Cassidy stood up to get some leverage on a particularly stubborn stick, when she slipped, and her foot fell in between two logs. The other two looked over at her in alarm.
“I’m fine,” Cassidy assured them, and she tugged on her foot only to find that her boot was being pinched between the logs. “OK. I’m stuck,” she corrected.
Simon and Hallie stopped working to come help her. They grabbed either side of the log and lifted it, so that Cassidy could slide her foot out. Once she was free, they started to lower the log. Something caught Cassidy’s eye and she gasped.
“No, wait!” Cassidy said urgently. “I think I…“ and she trailed off, as she plunged her arm into the hole.
“Cassidy, this is really heavy,” Simon said with a grunt. “And you can’t exactly rely on my ability to hold it up.”
With her body blocking the light, Cassidy couldn’t see what she was sure she had seen before. She pulled her phone from her sweater pocket, and turned on the flashlight. Underneath the logs, there was no snow. Instead, there was dirt and sticks, and then the pale thing that had caught Cassidy’s eye.
A skull, half buried in the frozen mud.
“Cassidy,” Simon said, with real concern in his voice. And Cassidy realized that if he faltered, and the log slipped through his hands, it would crush her shoulder.
She moved out of the way before saying. “I found her.”
Immediately they focused their efforts on the large log. Hallie shoveled snow away from it while Cassidy and Simon broke off all the branches that were attached to it, but were tangled with the rest of the mess. When it was free, they lifted and shoved the log out of the way as best they could, so Gemma’s skull sat in the sunlight.
They worked for the rest of the day, gingerly digging up bones and gently wrapping them in the towels Hallie had packed into her backpack. Cassidy took pictures every time they found one, just to keep some sort of record. They found bones they recognized, and others they didn’t. They were certainly still missing pieces when it started to get dark, and reluctantly they packed up their operation to go home.
“We’ll be back tomorrow,” Cassidy told the empty ravine, as dark began to settle around them. Just in case Gemma was listening.