The Hike

by Stephanie Augustine

Angry drums and screeching guitars ripped through her earbuds and into her ears, drowning out all sounds of birds, wind, and her parents' pathetic attempt at conversation. Jazmine ignored the world and focused on her music and her misery.

She hated the outdoors. She hated anything to do with it: walking, canoeing and camping, all of which would be accomplished in this completely boring, time-wasting trip into the middle of nowhere.

Her perfect big brother, Lee was having the time of his life. Just because he was a sophomore in college, he hadn't stopped asking environmental or botanical questions since the moment Dad had informed them all they'd be taking this lousy "vacation." Two years ago, when Jazmine was fifteen, they had taken a real vacation, one with a sunny beach with white sand and turquoise water. A cold, blustery mountain in the middle of October was as far from that dream world as she could get. "Wish I was there now," she muttered grouchily. She powered off the iPod and pulled out the earbuds.

"Hey, I'm going to go ahead, okay?" She had to get away from all the cheeriness of her family.

"Why?" her mom asked.

Jazmine hesitated. "I just want to be alone for a little bit."

Her mother slung her backpack forward and extracted a wrinkled map. "You know where we're going, right? Take this. I don't want you to get lost. It's going to get dark soon."

Jazmine shuddered at the thought of blundering around the mountain in the dark. Who knew what kind of creepy things lived up here… "Mom, I'll be fine. I'll see you at the camp site."

"Well, take the map, please." Her mother sighed, holding the worn paper out for her. Jazmine made no move to grab it.

Up till now, her dad had been quiet. Now, "Jazmine, take the map"

Lee grinned. "Be careful. I heard there's been a report of a black bear, around seven hundred pounds."

Jazmine rolled her eyes and grabbed the paper. "See ya later!" A long while later, she muttered soundlessly, then sped ahead at a jog.

Jazmine couldn't see her parents anymore when her pocket vibrated. It was a message from Danny, her boyfriend of exactly three months, two weeks, and five days. She smiled as she read the words, studded with text hearts. There were seven lines, two words. "Call me!" proclaimed the six letters, among the many symbols. She had to get further ahead before she called; she didn't want her parents butting in on her conversation. Tucking the phone safe in her pocket, she jogged several more minutes; then, for some privacy, she turned off the narrow path, which was starting to look like a deer trail. She walked up a slight incline, winding around pockmarked boulders that studded the ground like fallen meteorites. She slipped her backpack to the ground before it snapped her spine, loosened the laces on her shoes, and pulled her phone back out and pressed the green button.

It rang once. Then a female voice answered, "We're sorry, your call cannot be completed at this time. Please hang up and try again."

Jazmine ended the call indignantly, and glanced at the screen. No reception.

"Well that's just great!" she exclaimed. "Of all the lousy, no-good, rotten luck…" she trailed off speechlessly, and leaned her head against the rock, staring up at bare branches. The air had a noticeable chill now. And the sky was darker than it had been before. She blinked, slowly. Her blond hair had come loose from its ponytail, and she pulled it out the rest of the way. The rock was much more comfortable. Nothing like a good couch though. And this whole place…well, Jazmine could see a kind of beauty in it, in the intense color of the sky, the soft shades of silver, grey and tawny brown tinged with moss green on the trees and rocks. She'd take a mall or movie theater any day, but still, it was different. She wondered if Danny would like it. He said he didn't mind nature. Jazmine wished he could've come. It would be nice to have someone her age, especially Danny.

Danny was laughing with her. Holding her hand, he turned to her, grinning. His lips brushed hers and she smiled briefly, before whirling away. No one was around, watching them. No one to tell them they were too young. It was just the two of them, dancing, bathed in caramel light from the setting sun. Jazmine smiled again, and rested her head against Danny's chest.

A moment later, she opened her eyes, and was greeted by stars. Pretty stars, glittering, like salt, or sugar. Bright stars. Stars? Jazmine jumped to her feet. A fog of panic rolled in and engulfed her. Her heart beat faster and her breaths came short and shallow.

"I didn't fall asleep!" Even as she spoke, her cold, stiff fingers fumbled with the zipper of her backpack, scrambling to find the flashlight. Miraculously, she found it, and switched it on. Yellow light flooded the rocky hillside and she calmed at the sight of it. The panic receded as the light spread.

Jazmine forced herself to focus. She had to find the path. Why did she ever walk off it? She would have to walk down the hill. She felt a presence, the blackness, pressing in where the flashlight did not force it away. It was suffocating, threatening, and terrifying – but there, scuffed leaves! That had to be where she'd walked. Jazmine set the backpack on her shoulders again and tightened the laces of her shoes, glaring at the murky darkness. Gripping the flashlight until her fingers were white, she took a few tentative steps, and then ran along the narrow trail, her teeth gnawing her lower lip until she drew blood. After a few minutes, her side was burning and she slowed to a walk, panting. The flashlight flickered.

"Please, no." she said.

The flashlight dimmed.

"No!"

The shadows drew nearer, cold fingers reaching to brush her arms, and her hair stood on end.

The flashlight flickered again.

And then went dark.

Jazmine slapped it against her palm, with no result. She opened the battery slot by feel and switched the batteries to what she thought was the right configuration. But the light was dead and was determined to remain so.

"It's okay. It's gonna be okay. I just have to stay calm. I'm seventeen, I can handle myself. Everyone's probably coming back along the trail looking for me, so all I have to do is keep going forward." Her voice trembled and her hand was shaking as she unzipped the backpack and dumped the useless light. She pulled her cell phone and iPod out of her pocket, and cranked up the music, holding the earbuds in her hands. What had been so powerful before was now a collection of tinny drums and whiny guitars. But still, it was civilization.

She wandered through the woods until her phone read one-thirty in the morning and the iPod went dead.

Something rustled. She dropped the iPod.

A noise in the bushes.

Right behind her.

Jazmine's hands shook as she turned up the brightness of her phone and aimed it at the bushes. The weak, pale light showed nothing.

Then out of nowhere, right at her eye level, great green orbs flashed back at her Jazmine screamed and ran, not even knowing if she was still on the trail, Lee's words a terrible mantra. Black bear…seven hundred pounds. Over and over she heard those words, pounding in time with her beating heart, which almost felt like it would burst in her chest. Her lungs and throat burned. Tears and sweat mixed together on her steaming face.

When she could not take another step, she collapsed to the ground, trembling. She hated the dark. She hated and feared it like nothing else. And the thought of being trapped alone here in the deep, inky blackness was unbearable.

That noise again.

The crunching of leaves.

She lifted her head, holding her phone like a weapon. Slowly, she got to her feet. "Please no, please no. Go away! Leave me alone!" But she could not force her voice to rise above a whisper as she lifted the meager light.

A pair of big glowing eyes confronted her again. But this time she did not scream. "Shoo! Go!" The eyes moved, and stopped reflecting the light so strangely. There was light brown, coarse fur around the eyes. And all over the narrow face. Jazmine's eyes widened as she realized she wasn't looking at a bear. The creature snorted, nostrils flaring. Jazmine giggled. She'd been terrified of a young deer!

The deer took a step back. Jazmine was quiet again. She didn't want to scare the pretty doe. She reached out a hand. The deer stepped back again. "Shhh," said Jazmine. "It's okay, I won't hurt you." She spoke softly. But the deer seemed to regard her skeptically then pranced away down the trail, leaping over a bush in the middle. Jazmine smiled at the creature's beauty and grace. Nature wasn't half bad, come to think of it.

Then Jazmine gasped. Trail? This wasn't the trail. There were no thorn bushes on the hiking trail. How could she have gone the wrong way? She'd never even been on the trail! She must have turned before she'd reached it, when she got up from the rock.

Her breathing was restricted by a lump in her throat as she fought against the tears. She clutched her phone and checked for a signal. But the text remained "Searching for service." She would never find her way back to the actual trail. It was Dad's fault! He'd suggested this stupid thing. "I hope you're happy now!" she shouted at the nearest tree. "You too, Mom, thanks!" There was always a lesson, always an opportunity to learn something useless about a plant. She gritted her teeth. And Lee went along with everything. Perfect honor-roll student, with some wordy major that, to her, meant extra-useless. Lee, who aced the tests and the extra-credit, and offered to help whenever Jazmine struggled. Lee, who had tried to bore Danny to death the first time he'd come over with a lecture quoted word-for-word from his ecology professor. "Yeah, not even you'd be able to find your way out of this puzzle, would you, Lee!" She said savagely to faces on the bark of the tree.

A loud beep distracted her. It was her phone. "No!" she said. Low battery. Jazmine knew from experience that it was about an hour after the first warning that it actually ran out of charge, providing she didn't actually do anything with it – like keep the light shining. It was almost quarter to three in the morning, and a pang of hunger struck her, surprising her. It had been ages since she'd eaten. .

Jazmine sat cross-legged on the ground. She couldn't go anywhere. It would be pointless, considering she didn't even know where she was. Her head drooped to her chest. Then she sat bolt upright. The map! She remembered stuffing it into the backpack when she'd tried to call Danny.

She aimed the dim light at the zipper and almost upended the backpack, hunting for the pamphlet fold-out. There, between the water bottle and sweater! She snatched it up and held the phone inches from the paper, trying to read the lines. She could see the line for the trail, the Southern Scenic Wilderness Hike, but wherever she was, it wasn't a trail that was marked. It was just one of the thousands of deer paths that crisscrossed the mountainside. Her shoulders slumped in disappointment. She stuffed the map back in the pocket of the backpack and her hand brushed against her food. Starving, she ripped open the granola bars and snack pack puddings and ate greedily. Too soon, it was all gone, and she crumpled most of the trash back in to the backpack and zipped it shut. She rested her head against the backpack and stared up at the sky.

She remembered being lost outside when she was five or six. She'd wandered too far from the house, and hadn't been able to find her way back. She was only alone for an hour, but it felt like the entire night. But after that, she could never sleep if it was completely dark. She needed the nightlight that bathed the walls of her room in a soft lavender glow. She missed that light. She needed it with her now.

After several more minutes, her phone finally died. Jazmine pressed the keys frantically. Nothing happened. She closed her eyes, trying to steady her breathing. She had hours to go until the sun rose. Her teeth chattered, and she wrapped her arms around herself to stave off the cold of the frost that had begun to edge her coat and the hem of her jeans. She remembered seeing a sweater when she'd pulled out the map, and she lifted her head up to unzip the backpack and pulled it out, tugging it blindly over her head. She was sorry about her earlier outburst. She wished she could swallow the words.

Then she pictured Mom and Dad and Lee. They probably were looking for her. She had to find them. She couldn't just sit here. The shadows were not so intense now. Or maybe it was her fear that was waning. She stopped and stood still. It was still pressing, but only faintly, fading away. "Ha! You see that! I can beat you!" she challenged the darkness.

She stood and stretched her stiff legs, unable to see except for the branches above, dark lines against the glittering sky. She slung the backpack over her shoulder and thrust the phone back in her pocket. A lot of good it would do now. She stretched her arms in front of her without any real sense of direction. Stumbling along, she managed to avoid the faint gray lines of the trees and the dark blotches of the rocks. She moved slowly, not wanting to twist an ankle. "Dad!" she called. "Mom!" No response. "Lee!" Silence. But she didn't give up. She had to find them. They must be worried sick. Guilt flooded her again for her earlier anger, but she shoved it aside. She had to focus. Her energy was concentrated on that one goal, and the terror she had lived with for so long was vanishing. She would laugh in the face of the bear. Well, maybe not laugh. But not scream, either. Just run really fast.

No running now, though. Her legs burned with fatigue, her feet began to drag, and her pauses grew more frequent. Her eyes were closing, and when she tripped over a tree root she'd seen from five feet away, she knew it was time to stop. She flopped to the ground, and didn't bother taking off the backpack. She didn't even care about the dark anymore. She just needed sleep. She closed her eyes and dreamed of a feather bed and a hot breakfast.

The sun was shining, bright through her eyelids, and Jazmine smiled contentedly at the ordinary Saturday morning. A rock was digging into her back. Rock? How did a rock get into my bed? Then she remembered. Her smile faded, then widened. I conquered it! I won! Her relief was overwhelming. She'd beaten the terror that had haunted her for so long. And as she opened her eyes to soft rays of sunlight bathing the trees and fallen leaves with molten amber, she realized that it had always been the dark. Lee hadn't been afraid, and he loved the outdoors. Jazmine felt she could come to love them too, perhaps not as a scientist, but from the view of an artist. She sat up, rubbing her hands together to warm them from the frost of the October night. She stood, stretched, and yawned. A green spot caught her attention out of the corner of her eye. She could hardly believe it.

She'd walked right past the two tents Mom, Dad, and Lee must have pitched thinking she was going to show up after taking a break off the path. She had – just a bit longer break than they'd anticipated. Jazmine walked into the small camp, just a small pile of cold ashes and two tent canvases. They were probably out looking for her back the way they'd come. Of course, she wouldn't have a chance of finding them without getting lost again. She sat down in front of one of the tents to wait.