About this Story
Four friends' backpacking trip in the Olympic Mountains turns deadly as they quickly discover something in the woods is out to get them.
Four friends' backpacking trip in the Olympic Mountains turns deadly as they quickly discover something in the woods is out to get them.
The SUV barreled along the narrow mountain road, kicking gravel in its wake. On the left, an endless wall of rock stretched to the clouds. On the right, a cliff dropped down a thousand feet. Sasha slurped her Coke and rammed her weatherbeaten sneaker further into the gas pedal, tearing around another tight corner.
“But if I got on an airplane in Philadelphia and flew to Seattle fast enough, I would arrive a few hours earlier, right? I’ve technically gone back in time. So if I kept flying west, I would keep going further back in time! Therefore, time travel is possible.”
Adam leaned forward so Sasha could hear him better, shifting his gangly limbs around the backpack at his feet.
"No, because you aren’t actually going back in time, you’re just jumping timezones! Lupita, you’re the one with the physics degree,” he turned to his petite fiancée next to him in the back seat, “explain it to this peasant.”
Lupita rubbed her eyes and continued staring listlessly out the window, “I’m too carsick to care right now. Just keep your eyes on the road, Sasha.”
“And maybe slow down a little?” Trevor clung to the handle above his door, his ponytail bobbing with the car’s treacherous assault, “We can’t see around these corners and I don’t think this road is wide enough for two–”
Sasha swerved wildly. The air exploded into screams and obscenities. Trevor grabbed for the wheel, desperate to keep them from plummeting off the road to a gruesome end. All was dust and gravel and chaos as the vehicle spun. Then everything went still. The four travelers hardly dared to breathe while the car settled. Adam cautiously leaned towards his window: their right rear tire was dangling over the abyss. He whistled.
“Sasha, very slowly—very carefully—pull forward to the left.”
Ever so slightly, Sasha pried her foot from the brake and inched the car to solid ground.
“Everybody in one piece?”
Lupita piped up, barely loud enough to be heard, “Well I’m not carsick anymore.”
Sasha held her trembling hands out, “I’m…there was a bear cub in the road. We turned a corner and there it was, just in the middle of the road! What was it doing there?!”
Trevor looked down the windshield at the dirt ahead of them.
“Well, it’s not there now. Must have taken off.”
Sasha erupted, “It bounced off the fender like a trampoline and tumbled down the cliff!”
“Geez…” Trevor leaned back, wiping his sweaty hands on his cut-offs.
Sasha wasn’t disturbed by the incident itself. In fact, she was left remarkably unfazed by the whole affair. No, what upset her was how silly she found the image of the cub careening to its death. She loved animals! Hell, she even tried going vegan once a few years back in college! Why did she find this so…funny? She pounded the steering wheel a few times to drive the picture out of her head.
Adam tried to bring the temperature of the car back down, “We’ve got to report this. We should go back to Port Angeles and let somebody know.”
“There’s a ranger cabin at the lake, and it’s usually occupied this time of year,” Trevor offered, “I’ve hiked this trail plenty of times; there will be somebody there.”
Adam awkwardly crossed his legs again and furrowed his brow. Lupita cut in, more assertive this time, “Let’s vote on it. I say we go on to the lake. Our permits are only good for the next three nights, and if we go back we won’t have time to start hiking before nightfall. If Trevor says there’s a ranger at the lake, I say we go on now.”
Both Trevor and Lupita had their hands up. Sasha shakily raised her hand as well.
“I’m fine, just shaken up a bit. Let’s not waste the light.”
Without waiting for Adam to object, she shoved the car into gear and pulled on—more cautiously this time.
“Hold up!” Lupita gasped from the back of the line.
Sasha closed her eyes and leaned against a tree, happy somebody else called the halt. She used to hike with her family as a young teenager but that was about ten years ago, and she was more out of shape now than she liked to admit. Everyone was dripping sweat and gulping air into their lungs…all except Trevor, who impatiently held point a good twenty feet ahead.
“After these switchbacks, we’ve only got another mile,” he glanced up at the sun beating down on their heads, “so at this pace I'd say we'll get there by next week.”
Lupita unclipped her pack and started searching the shrubs on the side of the trail.
“Two years ago I came to Moose Lake with my family,” she explained, “On the way back, we stopped here when I sat on a hornet’s nest—threw my gear into the bushes.”
She poked the sprigs nervously as if she expected the nest would still be there, “By the time we got back to the car, I noticed that I’d lost my rosary. I was hoping maybe it would still be here.”
Trevor scratched his head, “Two years? Unlikely. Between the weather, critters, other hikers, trail maintenance…that thing is long gone.”
Sasha shot Trevor a reprimanding glare, seeing how long she could stretch out this breather, “Oh let her look. It’s important to her, Trev.”
She playfully fired a squirt from her water bottle at him. Trevor laughed and gathered up what remained of his dignity.
“Take your time, Lupita.”
“No,” Lupita returned to the trail and Adam helped her hoist her pack back up on her back, “it’s not important. Just a little cheapo travel rosary, never even got it blessed. It just felt comfortable in my hand, you know? Like if the trail got rough, I could finger the beads and melt into them as if nothing else existed.”
She shook her head bashfully, like a little girl who had just exposed a personal secret. Trevor shrugged and returned to the trail.
Sasha winked, “I get you, girl. It’s like my charm bracelet.”
“You aren’t wearing a bracelet!” Adam grinned.
Sasha rolled her eyes, “And Lupita isn’t holding a rosary. Sometimes you just outgrow things.”
She dropped to a knee to re-tie her faded sneakers.
"Those things look like they've outlived their mileage," Adam nodded to Sasha's shoes which looked like they were held together by duct tape and prayers.
"You know how difficult it is for me to find comfortable shoes?" she patted her vintage footwear, "Sure they've got a little character, but unlike people, they haven't let me down yet. I'm gonna ride these babies to the grave."
Adam and Lupita squeezed by Sasha and continued into the ravine. Sasha straightened and took a moment to soak in the nature. She loved the forest trails back in town, but you couldn't get seclusion like this there. Nothing for miles but trees and wildlife. They hadn't even met another soul on the trail today, a benefit of coming out in the fall instead of the busy summer season.
The greenery had faded slightly to a deep yellow, but purple flowers still dotted the rocky plains. She shielded her eyes to see farther up the mountain, beyond a patch of evergreens. Something lumbered along a distant ridge, keeping pace with the hikers. A deer? No, too bulky for that. Possibly a moose?
The bear cub dropped its jaw in surprise before bouncing comically off the hood of the car, performing a somersault over the thousand-foot drop.
Sasha angrily shook the image from her head, shouldered her pack, and ran to catch up with her companions.
The lure sank into the lake’s dark depths. Adam slowly reeled the line in, pulled the hook out of the water, and cast again.
Sasha stalked out of the thick bushes that lined the bank behind him.
“How’s the fishing, John Lurie?”
“It’s a guy from an old show. Never mind, obscure reference.”
She took a deep breath, adjusting her plan of attack.
“Say, Adam, I was thinking about the sleeping arrangements, and I was wondering if you could convince Lupita to swap tents with Trevor tonight.”
Adam kept his eye on the line, “That would put me and Lupita together alone in a tent…not to mention you and Trevor.”
He knowingly looked at Sasha from the corner of his eye. She shoved her hands in her pockets and pouted.
“Well you guys are as good as married anyway!” she ribbed him with her elbow, “Besides, with how puritanical you two are, it isn’t like you're going to be doing anything in there anyway.”
Adam pulled the dripping line in and cast again.
“You do whatever you want to do, Sasha, but Lupita and I aren’t comfortable sharing a tent alone together and that’s that. Besides,” he smiled, “I thought you were looking forward to a girl’s night in.”
Sasha buried her sneaker’s toe into the damp gray sand, “Yeah that sounds fun but…I’d like to get to know Trevor a little better too, you know? Just the two of us, alone.”
She hurriedly backtracked when she saw Adam’s disapproving glance, “Oh don’t worry you old prude, we won’t get up to any hanky-panky or whatever you Bible-thumpers call it. I just want to…talk with him. We’ve spent a lot of time together but all I really know is that he likes to hike and doesn’t drink. I want to learn more about him, and yeah–”
She cheekily sidled uncomfortably close to Adam, “–I want a big strong man to snuggle with when it gets cold at night.”
“I’ll tell you what,” he chewed over his next words carefully, “We’ll keep the sleeping arrangements as is—you girls in one tent, us boys in the other—but,” he smiled playfully, “I’ll play spy for you. Guys open up more honestly to other guys, that’s just science. I’ll see if there’s any dirt to dig up and report back to you in the morning.”
Sasha grinned, “You dog! Okay fine, but after that, I want the whole morning just for me and Trevor undisturbed.”
Adam motioned to the darkening forest with a flourish, “You can have the whole mountain range to yourselves.”
Sasha shivered in the chill of the deepening twilight. She gathered herself together and retreated into the underbrush, leaving Adam to continue failing to catch fish on his own. She smiled to herself. Lupita had been a friend since childhood, and it made sense that she’d get engaged to a man just as uptight as she was, but like Lupita, Adam was too clever for his own good, despite appearances. They will cause a lot of trouble together in the future, and their kids will be absolutely devious. She could play by their rules for one weekend, why not?
Adam sighed. Nothing biting tonight, it was going to be freeze-dried stroganoff for dinner after all. Three more casts and he’ll call it a night.
A haunting mist settled over the lake. The sun was retreating quickly now, casting shadows that melted into each other. The rocks and trees were now little more than paper cut-outs.
One more cast.
Adam stopped reeling in the line to listen for a moment. A deep huffing sound gave off a slight steam off to his left. He turned to peer into the darkness. About fifteen feet off, a bulky mound shifted its weight. A black bear, sitting on the edge of the lake, looking at him.
Adam held his breath. He’d never seen one in person, but it seemed bigger this close than he imagined. When confronted with a bear, you should make yourself up as big as you can and yell at it to scare it off, right? Or was that cougars? Drat, he wished Trevor was here right now.
He slowly brought his line in, hardly daring to move. The furry black shape didn’t give any signs of stirring. Adam hooked his lure to the reel and groped down for his tackle box. In the darkness, he knocked it off its rock, spilling its contents on the rocky bank.
Adam swore under his breath and, without taking his eyes off the bear, reached down to return the tackle to its case. The jar of salmon eggs…the spare fishing line…the lures…that should be everything–
He yelped and crouched in pain when a hook dug into his finger. By the time he thought to cry out for help, the jaws had already come down upon his windpipe.
Trevor pounded on the cabin door and was once again met with silence.
“Yeah, there’s nobody there.”
Lupita shivered and gripped her flannel shirt tighter around her tiny frame, “I thought you said this ranger cabin is staffed in the fall.”
“It is! Well…early fall.” Trevor peeked through the grimy windows, “If business is slow they might leave it a little earlier in the season.”
He glanced over the abandoned campground.
Sasha futilely checked her phone again, “Neither of you still getting any bars?”
They shook their heads.
“You might be lucky enough to get some reception back up the pass, but nothing out here.”
Lupita turned back down the straggly trail that led to the lake’s shore when Sasha gently—yet firmly—gripped her shoulder.
“With Adam out, I don’t think we should split up, especially in this darkness.”
Lupita shook her off, “I’m just going back to the beach. Maybe we missed something. Trevor, can I trade you the flashlight for your lantern?”
“We’ll come with you, Lupita. Let’s all swing by the camp first, in case he’s there waiting for us, then we’ll scour the beach as a group.”
Lupita shot her hand out, “Please Trevor. The lantern.”
Trevor hesitated for a moment, then ruefully surrendered the lantern. He and Sasha watched Lupita’s light flicker and bob as it disappeared into the undergrowth. Sasha shivered and Trever threw an arm around her.
“Back to the camp?”
Sasha nodded and leaned her head on Trevor’s shoulder as the two of them wandered back down the trail. A million “what ifs” flew through her mind. What if she had thought to leave Adam a walkie-talkie? What if she waited to return to camp with him after their talk on the shore? What if he wandered up the wrong path and was now lost in the darkness? What if he was really hurt somewhere?
Sasha shook the idea out of her head. Why was she only assuming the worst? Adam may be a little backward but he wasn’t some incompetent child. He knew how to handle himself. Right now she needed to think of Lupita. Being so small (she looked young for her mid-twenties), Lupita had spent her life fighting to be respected. She took pride in her composure, and never let people see when she was upset.
But Sasha always knew.
Sasha grabbed another flashlight as soon as they reached the empty camp,
“I’m going after her, Trev. Lupita shouldn’t be alone right now.”
“Alright, we’ll go together.”
An explosion of light signaled Lupita’s arrival. She stumbled into the camp, sobbing through tortured breaths.
“I…I checked the rocks on the beach…found—oh god—blood…on the ground…”
She dropped Adam’s dented tackle box in the dirt and sobbed uncontrollably into her hands.
Trevor whisked two walkie-talkies out of his pack and tossed one to Sasha. He then scooped up the aluminum pot from dinner and a wooden spoon.
“Take us, Lupita. We stick to a group. If there is something out there, it’ll be frightened of us if we mass together.”
He grabbed Lupita’s shoulders, forcing her watery eyes up, “If he was jumped by something, he likely scared it off when he fought back. If he’s out in these woods, he’s hurt and needs our help. He needs your help, Lupita.”
He grabbed a jacket from his pack and threw it around Lupita. Sasha stood dumbstruck. This was a side of Trevor she’d never seen before. His devil-may-care adventurousness had hardened into command. It was like he threw a switch. For the first time, she realized that she’d never seen him as much more than a playmate, a diversion from all her problems to laugh and have fun with. She enjoyed his company, sure, but she never really respected him.
Seeing Lupita break down made Sasha wonder why she still didn’t feel anything. Was it the adrenaline? Again she remembered the incident with the cub and the old anger bubbled up.
Somewhere, a twig snapped.
The trio stiffened. You could hear a crick bubbling along half a mile away, but no sounds of wildlife. No owls, no scamper of mice, just eerie stillness.
Lupita screamed as an open maw emerged from the shadows, engulfed her shoulder, and hoisted her into the air. Her legs wheeled aimlessly while the teeth clamped down upon her. Trevor stood dumbstruck, taking in the sheer size of the monster in front of him. Black bears were only supposed to grow to six feet or so, but this thing towered at least eight. What law of nature had been broken to sanction this creature’s existence? Shaking off the shock, he jumped into action and scooped up the nearby hiking pole. Within seconds, the ice ax was lodged deep in the monster’s hide.
The bear tossed the tiny woman aside like an abandoned toy and snapped its slobbering jowls at its new opponent. The ax wrenched itself out of Trevor’s hands as the animal brought its full weight down upon his legs. Barely thinking, Sasha grabbed a nearby can of DEET and ignited the spray with her lighter. The flames licked forward, bathing the circle of trees in a crimson glow. The trail of flame singed Trevor’s hair on its path to the creature descending upon him, consuming its snout in hell’s breath.
Roaring in confused pain, the bear stormed off into the ink of night. Before Sasha could attend to Trevor, he barked out, “Check on Lupita!”
Sasha pushed the underbrush away to get to Lupita’s broken body. She startled at the torn, bloody carnage the beast had left behind, but clenched her jaw and bent down to examine her friend.
“Lupita, oh please, Lupita don’t…”
Lupita stirred and Sasha choked back a lump in her throat.
She turned back to Trevor, “She’s alive! Trevor, she's alive but she’s…she doesn’t look good! Help me move her to the tent!”
“No!” Trevor pulled himself up by a nearby branch, “Don’t move her! We’ve got to–”
He stumbled back and swore loudly.
Instantly, Sasha was upon him, “What’s wrong?”
“Damn thing broke my leg when it came down on me. I’m not bitten, but there’s no way I’ll be able to walk on it.”
He reached up and grasped Sasha’s head in his hands. She could feel his hot breath inches away from her face.
“Sasha, Lupita needs medical attention now or she’s going to die. You need to run up the pass until you get cell reception and call for help.”
Anxiety flooded through Sasha, turning her bones to Jell-O. Still no tears.
“Trevor, you need me here. You-you-you can’t move with that leg, and somebody needs to tend to Lupita–”
“Lupita will die if you don’t.”
Anxiety opened the door to anger, “That thing is still out there, Trevor! What if it comes back while I’m gone? What if…what if it comes for me when I’m alone out there in the dark?”
She buried her face in his breast, shuddering yet still there were no tears. Struggling through the pain, Trevor stroked her hair.
“What happened to the woman who tore down a mountain road at 60 miles an hour without fear for her life? You nearly scared me into a coma then! Let’s just say this is me returning the favor.”
She laughed despite herself, and pulled away, “You jerk.”
“Besides,” he continued, “You barbecued that bear pretty good. I don’t think it’s coming back, and if it does,” he brandished the can of bug spray, “we know how to take care of it, right? As for you–”
He removed a blue wristband with the inscription 1 Year and slapped it on her wrist.
“–you’ll have what little strength I’ve got left to help you.”
She squeezed him briefly despite his grunt of discomfort, then gathered up the lantern and jogged up the trail.
Still, the tears didn’t come.
Even in the dark, it was faster going up the trail than it was coming down. Uninhibited by the weight of a backpack, Sasha now sprang up the trail. The swaying light of the lantern threw unearthly shadows from every root and boulder. She only had what, two miles to go? After the first five minutes of jogging, the fear melted into determination. She swung the lantern in one hand while watching her cell phone in the other. She just needed one bar to show itself.
The rock that caught her sneaker must have been jagged because it tore the rubber off the toe. Sasha swore as she stumbled forward, crushing the lantern out beneath her weight. Her whole world was wheeling stars, empty shapes, and tearing brambles for a second or two, before she settled in a dry thicket.
She tested her limbs—please oh please may nothing be out of place. Left leg moves alright. Right leg is a little sore but she can move it just fine. Right arm is good (hand still grasping the cell phone). Left arm–
She felt her left hand touch something smooth hanging from a splintered branch. Her fingers searched further until they grasped a string of beads terminating in a wooden cross. Lupita’s rosary!
Sasha sucked her breath in. Something was quickly lumbering up the trail, not ten feet away. Not daring to move her head, Sasha strained to see through the darkness. She could hear that unmistakable snuffling as the injured bear trotted up the same path she had just been taking. Sasha gripped the cross, its corners drawing blood as she squeezed them into her palm. When the bear passed her hiding spot, the ice ax still sticking out of it whacked her knee, and she stifled a yelp.
The bear half turned, pricking its ears. She could see its burnt snout rasping, silhouetted against the stars as it tried to catch her scent. Closer, closer, it backtracked towards her…
A frightened marmot bolted near Sasha’s head, foolishly running across the predator’s path. The bear reared back in surprise, shook itself, then continued up the trail.
Sasha counted the minutes, paralyzed in her hiding spot. She jumped when her cell phone buzzed in her hand. She slowly brought the screen up to her face and breathed a sigh of relief: one bar.
Sasha was caressing Trevor’s head while a paramedic attended to his broken leg. Outside the tent, she heard the whir of a rescue helicopter and the hubbub of the rescue team.
“On a scale of 1-10, how’s the pain?”
Trevor grimly smiled, “Well it’s not as bad as that time I fractured my clavicle, so I’m going to go with a 7.”
“It’d be a lot lower if I administered something to take the edge off.”
“Thanks but I’d rather not. You do your thing, doc.”
Sasha shook her head and looked down at the milestone wristband he had handed her. There was still so much about Trevor that remained a mystery, but with his leg out of commission they’d have plenty of time to really catch up on each other. She kissed his forehead, “I’m going to check on Lupita before they lift her out.”
She paused before exiting the tent, “I’ll be back in a sec.”
Trevor flashed her rueful smile with his thumbs up.
The paramedics had already moved Lupita to the stretcher, and two of them were currently strapping her down while a third hooked her up to the chopper. Lupita seemed barely conscious and sickly pale. Sasha threw a questioning look at one of the paramedics.
“She’s in rough shape, but it's not as bad as it looks,” he responded, “she’ll live.”
Another member of the rescue party hailed from the trees fifty feet away.
“We found him!”
“How’s he look?”
The team member solemnly shook his head. Sasha blinked and turned back to Lupita. She pulled the rosary out of her pocket and placed it in Lupita’s hand. Lupita didn’t open her eyes, but her fingers curled knowingly around the beads.
Sasha was barely aware of the paramedic who pulled her aside to inspect her for injuries. Her eyes were glued to the chopper, the wind from its propellers blowing her hair into her face. She watched the stretcher lift into the air, illuminated by the rescue lights, while it pulled Lupita to safety.
Sasha lowered her head and wept.