Danger in Deep Woods

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"Bingo, Onondaga State Park," Dawn proclaimed in delight as the four of them pedaled by the large brown sign alongside the highway.

"Is it just me, or does that ride seem to get longer each time?" Christy had to ask. The distance from town to the park was no more than five miles, but it had felt an awful lot more than that to her. Her legs already felt tired out.

"Only when it's hot out like this, Christy," Jackie reasoned, "Let's stop by the main office first and see if there's anything we need to know before we start."

"Agreed," Bobbie nodded, "I could probably use a drink after this anyway, as I'm sure you three can too."

They pedaled to the left up the driveway to the brown building that was the main station for the park. Christy was glad to stop as she braked to a stop and dismounted; she needed a breather after so hard a trip. Guiding her bike into the bike rack out front alongside her friends', she followed them inside. "Afternoon, Mr. Hilbert," she greeted the familiar man behind the desk in the ranger uniform.

"Well, good afternoon, girls," he greeted the four of them cordially, "Back for another hike?"

"Yep, this time we're trying the big one," Christy told him proudly. In the back, she noticed a familiar face looking up from the computer he'd been hunched over. Jonathan Hilbert was often in her home room, and she knew he often helped his father in the station. A shy boy with wild sandy hair who tended to always wear pants even when it was hot out like today, he was busy typing out paperwork. Christy often felt a bit sorry for him, given how he was so often alone in class, hard at work. "Hi Jonathan," she greeted him warmly while her friends went to get drinks from the station's water fountain. He looked up and looked back down quickly. "Hi Christy," he said with just a little nervousness in his voice, she thought.

"Warm day, huh?" she leaned over the counter, "We're going to hike the mountain trail today; you ever try it?"

"Uh...once," he definitely seemed nervous for whatever reason, shifting around in his chair.

"Oh, Jon's a little modest; he's gone up there a couple of times," his father grinned at him. Jonathan forced a small smile.

"Um, we checked the weather before we came; do you have only a slight chance of rain too?" Dawn asked the Hilberts.

"Uh," Jonathan typed out some information on the computer, "Yeah, that's what we have. It'll probably take you an hour and forty minutes round trip, so you know."

"Sounds good," Christy nodded, "Anything else we should keep in mind?"

"Just keep alert up there, girls," Mr. Hilbert got surprisingly solemn, "A woman disappeared on the mountain trail about a week ago, and we still haven't found her yet. Probably a bear attack, or she went off the path, but I'd just keep my eyes open if I were you four just in case."

Christy in fact noticed the missing person poster on the wall for a Nancy McCrory, age twenty-eight, last seen near the summit. "We will," she told him, "Thanks for everything, Mr. Hilbert. Have a nice day, Jonathan," she smiled as she waved to him.

"En-Enjoy your hike, Christy," he fumbled out a response, as if being in her presence made him nervous. He quickly hunched back over his computer, but as Christy was leaving with her friends, she saw him glance back up at her through the window. "I think he likes you," Jackie teased her once they were all outside.

"Oh come on!" Christy half-protested, but she was smiling herself.

"No, I think he really does," Dawn nodded, "I've seen that look before, not least of all when Adam Conklin fell head over heels for Jackie here earlier in the eighth grade..."

"Was there ever really any doubt?" Jackie proclaimed grandly.

"All right, all right," Christy interceded, "Bobbie, you've got the map; which way's the trail?"

"Mountain trail's..." Bobbie scanned the map she was holding, "A couple hundred yards to the right, then straight up to the top."

"This certainly seems a lot longer than it said on the sign at the bottom," Christy admitted to Dawn, huffing as they brought up the rear behind their friends, a good way up the mountain by now.

"Agreed," Dawn wiped sweat off her brow. "So," she glanced right at Christy, "Have you ever thought of going out on a formal date with anyone?"

"Maybe," Christy shrugged, "I don't feel rushed though, and please don't rush me. Why? You really think Jonathan and I...?"

"You two need a rest?" Bobbie interceded, looking winded, "Jackie and I are kind of at that point."

"Yeah, that'll be great," Christy eagerly plopped down with her friends on a log alongside the pathway to catch her breath. "So, you think we're halfway yet?" she asked, checking her watch: ten after four, plenty of time before dark.

"Probably," Jackie surmised, "Pretty soon we should reach the top and start back."

The four of them took sips of water and sat silently for a few moments. "Well, better get going again," Bobbie rose back up.

"Actually, Bobbie, I think I'll stay here a couple of minutes longer," Christy told her, "I still feel a little worn down."

"You sure?" the brunette raised an eyebrow.

"Let her rest up a little if she's tired out, Bobbie," Dawn told her. "We won't go too far ahead, Christy; just catch up when you're ready," she said to her best friend.

"I'll be along soon, Dawn," Christy assured her. She took another sip of water from her canteen and wiped sweat off her forehead as the three other girls started off again up the trail; the difficulty of the mountain pathway had tired her out more than expected. She glanced at the forest around her, swatting at a few pesky mosquitoes. The woods definitely looked thicker up at this altitude than they'd been back at the base of the trail so long ago. It was certainly a good thing the trail was well marked, or else...

Then something else caught her attention off to her right. She blinked and stared hard at it. Then, against her judgment, walked over to it and squatted down. "Oh my God..." she whispered numbly, stumbling backwards. But there was no mistaking it-a severed human finger, likely a female's. Nancy McCrory's, she wondered? A glance further into the trees showed an ominous mound underneath the bushes, with fresh dirt. She hesitantly started walking towards it...

When suddenly a low roar could be heard behind her. Gulping, she spun. A large black bear was lumbering towards her, its teeth bared. It suddenly lunged forward, swiping its claws at her. Christy instinctively broke into a run, barreling blindly through the woods. She could hear the bear running hard after her. Somehow she had to ditch it. A thicket lay ahead of her left as she rounded a corner. It would have to do, and she hoped it wouldn't smell her out. She dove under the thicket and held absolutely still just as the bear came running up. It slowed and grunted, then lumbered away, apparently satisfied it had lost its quarry. Christy breathed a huge sigh of relief. She waited until she was sure it wasn't coming back before crawling back out and dusting herself off. She started heading back the way she'd run. That had been close. The quicker she got back to her friends, the...

She stopped and glanced around. No white trail marking on the trees, even though she was sure the trail had been this way. She pressed forward, but after a good ten minutes, there was still no sign of the path. Frowning, she turned left at a large oak. Had she really lost track of direction while running? It just had to be this way!

But another ten minutes later, she came to a stop in a thick patch of woods with no sign of any trail markings at all. Christy looked hard in every direction. Nothing. Nothing at all. Her heart started sinking. She was...she shivered to consider it...lost. And the woods stretched for miles around this area...

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