Trusting Strangers

 

Janet felt unexpected heat against her face and slowly opened her eyes to find she was on the ground a few feet away from a campfire. A sudden jolt of terror ran up her spine and through her neck; she scampered. The last memory she had was of walking along a trail with her best friend, Julie.

 

Janet was hassling Julie about using the same tattered magenta backpack she used back in high school, they were giggling and reminiscing – then it hit her - the man in the mask. Fragmented visions began to coalesce in her mind as she recalled coming around a bend, a man lunging from behind a tree, her being knocked to the ground with a blow to the head, and watching the man chase Julie off into the forest.

 

Now, she crawled along the ground blindly, kicking up dust with her hands and feet, before she felt many sets of hands on her back and shoulders. She could hear a score of unintelligible words from a shrouded crowd. She whipped her head up to find herself in the center of many shadowy faces, barely visible but for the bouncing glow of the fire.

 

“What the fuck?!” she screamed, her head convulsing in every direction like a cornered animal. Instinctively, she jumped to her feet and began to sprint forward as she yelled out her friend’s name, “Julie!”

 

“Relax,” a voice commanded, rising above the momentary commotion. Janet’s eyes snapped in its direction. A man’s face, faintly lit beneath a dim headlamp, appeared within inches of her nose and two unseen arms gripped both of her shoulders. Her chin retreated into her neck as her entire body stiffened.

 

“We found you on the trail a few hours ago, you were unconscious…” he said, forcing some downward pressure through his palms, trying to sit her on a log directly on the ground behind her. She resisted and went to swipe at his hands when fingertips tightly gripped her biceps from behind. He let go of her shoulders just as she was swept off her feet with a violent tug.

 

“Ah, fuck you!” she screamed as she collapsed onto the log. “Where is my friend?!”

 

Janet’s vision began to adjust; before her, an average looking man, not much taller than herself, with an eccentric smile hiding within his thick handlebar mustache. She began to make out many faces in the crowd around her but could distinguish no expressions.

 

The man tilted his head suspiciously and stared down into her eyes. Hysteria grew inside of her, fed by the blend of emotions and collective silence. Seconds went by, then a minute; her eyebrows furrowed, her lip quivered, her brain began gently convulsing inside of her skull – she was a stew of anger, confusion, and fear. A loud pop came unexpectedly from the fire, making her flinch.

 

The man took a step toward Janet; he was now looming over her, uncomfortably close. The grips on her arms tightened and she winced, it was beginning to hurt. As she turned around to protest, her head was twisted back in the direction of the man’s face.

 

“Look,” he began softly as he took a knee directly at Janet’s feet, “all we did was find you and bring you here - so you should be thanking us that you didn’t become bear food, or worse – and I don’t know anything about any friend of yours…”

 

“One of you did something! Which one of you was the piece of shit that was wearing that fucking mask?!” Janet snarled, bits of spit firing from the corners of her mouth. She moved her eyes from side to side, fearing another move of her head might lead to a more deliberate correction. The man looked down past his knee, bringing his lips down to it with a sigh.

“Alright,” he said, bringing his mouth up to her ear, “we’ve been out here enjoying a camping trip, just relaxing, minding our own business. None of us did anything to your fucking friend. In fact, I’m not so sure I trust you…”

He backed up to his feet, not looking at her anymore, and slowly spun around on his heels. She felt a strange sensation, a tingle, radiating from her forehead as she digested the man’s words. She had only woken up moments ago, but these had easily been the most excruciatingly prolonged moments of her life. Her mouth began to open in response when a balled-up hand towel was suddenly jammed over her tongue – she had been silenced.

“Look, look – really, we don’t want any trouble,” the man continued as Janet was pulled to her feet by the force behind her, “so, for everybody’s safety, we’re just going to tie you to a tree for the night…”

Almost as the words left his mouth, Janet began to struggle, desperately kicking her legs and trying to scream through the cotton. It was hopeless. She was being dragged on the tops of her toes, a few yards beyond the light of the fire, by four women, none of which were wearing headlamps. They may as well have been shadows pulling her along.

“We’re not crazy!” the man continued, now shouting in her direction, “we’d be crazy if we didn’t tie you to a tree!”

Janet was being lifted off the ground; placed with her legs outstretched and her back against the trunk. She could only hear the duct tape being ripped and rope hitting the ground as it unraveled. Her limbs contorted to the pressure of the unseen cordage tightening around her and then she couldn’t move. Although she howled and twisted with all her strength, the effort only translated into muffled groans and negligible jolts.

 

“Nowadays - especially nowadays- you have to be extra careful!” the man screamed before regulating his voice to rejoin a simmering conversation, casually chatting and chuckling with the group. The figures finished tying their final knots and joined the dozen or so silhouettes to re-encircle the fire, picking up the festivities as if nothing had happened.

Questions began racing through Janet’s mind: What the fuck did these people do with Julie? Where are my things? What are they going to do with me? Without warning, her face was being licked by what she could only assume was a dog. One of the female figures from around the fire stood up, agitated, and rushed over to pull the dog away.

Janet looked up to where the figure’s eyes should be, there was no movement for a moment. “We’re not going to hurt you,” said a sweet, disembodied voice, “they’re just a little protective, and especially now - with all that’s been going on – I mean, he’s got a point.”

“Just hang in there,” the voice continued, “in the morning, trust me, you’ll be able to go on your way. We have your stuff, your bag, he never lets anybody steal anything, so it’ll be okay, you’ll be fine, I promise…”

The source of the voice swirled to return to the group as the other figures erupted in uproarious laughter at some unheard joke. Janet was in no position to be trusting at this point but was oddly relieved by what she had just heard. Nevertheless, she continued to struggle in silence as the group continued to enjoy their night.

The glow of blue light would intermittently illuminate faces as pictures were taken and text messages were sent. She could see the face of a burly, bearded man come close to the flame as he flipped steaks. Cigarette smoke wafted in her direction, flasks clanked for shots, and the hilarity continued. Janet struggled, wriggled, and writhed, and eventually passed out from exhaustion.

The sun was a weak glow behind a thin sheet of haze when she awoke. Her back was stiff, her legs numb, and the rest of her body generally aching from the prior night’s escape attempts. She could see some movement inside the scattered tents, hearing a distant cough or giggle from time to time. A woman quietly smoked a cigarette as she looked over the cliff toward the horizon.

Janet watched this routine activity unfold, counting on the marginal reassurance she had been given the night before. As she scanned her peripheral, she was surprised to see another figure tied to a tree a few yards from her, mostly obscured by the dawn’s lingering darkness. It was a guy; he too was gagged. From the looks of things, he had fought back against these people and was beaten for it.

By slender rays of light slowly illuminating the forest floor, she could just barely make out a gnarly bruise under his left eye and deep scratches all over his cheeks and arms. He appeared despondent, and desperate, as he looked in Janet’s direction. She wasn’t sure if he could see her.

The two were stuck in place, gagged and bound, forced to watch as their captors nonchalantly broke down their campsite and packed their things away. Having enjoyed their evening, the group did a final site check before leaving, paying absolutely no mind to their prisoners.

 

They made their exit onto a herd path, marching past Janet in a row, disappearing one by one. The man cooking the steaks, the woman smoking the cigarette, the voice, the voice’s dog, and a few others. Finally, the man with the handlebar mustache approached. He tossed a steak knife to the ground, about a foot away from Janet.

“Now listen, with the right amount of effort, you’ll be able to reach that and cut yourself loose,” he said confidently. The captives silently watched from their respective posts as the man stepped out of sight, returning a moment later with a pack in either hand.

“As promised,” he started, “here are your things.” In one hand was Janet’s light blue bag, he tossed it at her feet. Then, he turned and tossed Julie’s magenta backpack, the one she had used back in high school, at the guy's feet.

As Julie’s pack hit the ground, the man snickered – “nice bag.”

“Young lady,” he said with a grin, turning to Janet as he started toward the herd path, “would you mind giving this guy here a cut once you get yourself free…”

One Step Ahead

“How is it up there today?” Dave asked the friendly stranger who had suddenly appeared from the darkness about halfway up. The stranger had camped up top the night prior and was heading out before sunrise. He advised it wasn’t too windy, not too cold, and they wouldn’t be in the clouds, all to Dave’s relief.

“The view better be as good as you say it is when we get up there Dave,” Leon warned unconvincingly. They had been at this for a while now – so many steps, so many feet – and yet it was complete darkness the whole way up that they couldn’t see a thing around them aside from the next step ahead.

“It will be Leon, it will be…” Dave said both reassuringly and dismissively as he just kept on moving along, upward. Now and then he would use his hands as braces on his knees to keep himself moving. He knew if this was rough for himself, then it was twice as hard on Leon.

The two men moved along, mostly in silence, by the beam of dual flashlights and a handful of small glowsticks on their packs. Every so often, Leon would let out an alien, anguished sound, either a whimper or a groan. Whether this was meant to indicate actual pain or just to act as an audible reminder of his regret for coming out, Dave was unsure.

“I know it’ll be worth it once I get up there,” Leon said acceptingly, seemingly to himself. After all, he had already come this far. Plus, even though he hadn’t come out on one of Dave’s adventures in long enough to feel extremely rusty, he was well aware of the satisfaction he’d feel once he was atop this behemoth, enjoying the grandeur of some 360-degree views.

“It’s a little over 1300 feet, best vantage point around here for quite a distance,” Dave said without turning around, not expecting a response and not getting one. He just kept moving along, upward; sometimes he would bounce ahead a bit and wait, shining his light down after a minute or so to see Leon’s exhausted frame coming around the bend. Neither man would speak at these moments – Dave would nod and flash a thumbs up, Leon would force a smile and flash an uninspired thumb back.

 

“You think you’ll be ready for another break soon?” asked Leon. It took him longer to ask for rest between breaks than last time; Dave was fairly impressed. By his calculations, they had already gone about 900 feet, so they only had a little over 400 feet left to go. Like the rest of this route though, it was straight up.

“Let’s go another 100 feet up or so,” Dave said and ran ahead. When he estimated that he had gone that far, he placed his flashlight down, took off his pack, and retrieved a bag of beef jerky that he had brought along. As expected, Leon came around the bend a short time later.

“Oh man, this is rough on the joints,” said Leon as he sat down alongside Dave, inviting himself to some jerky by pointing his stubby finger toward the opened bag. Dave angled the bag in his direction and Leon flashed his light inside to pick out a few good pieces.

The two men sat there in the darkness for a few minutes, intermittently making small talk and chewing on cured meat, before Dave pulled himself to his feet and slipped his pack onto his back. Leon took a deep breath and followed suit.

“We’re almost there, buddy,” said Dave as he looked up and pointed his light toward the sky, “look, you can see where we’re going, it’s not far.” Leon tilted his head back and squinted his eyes, a deep breath and a few muffled comments of self-inspiration were his concurrence.

They now moved in unison like a pair of cadets, continuing to climb. The small spotlights in front of them appeared to bounce off one another when they weren’t coalescing. As they got closer, Dave could sense relief in the rhythm of Leon’s steps, and the accompanying humming, coming up behind him.

Dave darted a few steps ahead and waited at the precipice of the peak. He had been there before and had seen the sweeping views that were now just mere feet away, but it was Leon’s first visit. The grind the two men endured was about to be paid off.

“Are you ready Leon?” Dave asked as he turned to his friend, a restrained smirk appearing on his face, “prepare to have your mind blown…”

“I was ready days ago when you described it to me,” started Leon as he took his last few steps toward Dave, “I was even more ready when we arrived here, even more still when I had already dragged my ass half the way up here.”

Dave chuckled and shook his head lightheartedly as he turned off his flashlight, spun around, and pressed his weight against the push bar. Sunlight violently flooded the stairwell as Leon and Dave stepped out onto the roof, 85 stories in the air.

“Holy shit...” Leon took small steps over to the ledge, rested his arms in front of him, and laid his chin on his forearms to take in the scene. The former Central Park resembled a jungle, tentacles of which were creeping out to smother and choke the endless array of empty, crumbling structures surrounding it.

“Crazy to think, the last time I was here was March,” Dave reminisced, “2111.”

One Step Ahead

Keep Up

Rebecca strolled up to the group of strangers with a reserved smile. “Hi, my name is Rebecca!” she said as she waved politely and blankly inhaled a round of introductions. She had never gone out with a group before but had hiked quite a bit on her own and she was excited to enjoy the experience with others for a change.

Although she considered herself shy, she found herself chatting with members of the group as they kicked off their 20-mile route. For many hours she hustled just behind the others, but at around the 15-mile mark she found more and more distance coming between her and the next person ahead.

Rebecca began to take intermittent breaks for labored breaths and the distance began to grow wider. The younger woman in front didn’t miss a step as she twisted her neck to share a look of restrained concern. “Go ahead,” Rebecca shouted, “I’ll meet you at the next view!”

Rebecca lurched forward, her hands on her knees, head titled, her eyes on the other members of the group as they appeared to be sucked up the trail, into the trees, by an invisible tide. Even with a little time taken to relax and regain her composure, she figured she could jog, maybe even run, and catch up with them in no time.

She stood upright, her breaths becoming more regular, and brought her clammy hands to her hips. A solid gust of autumn wind darted up the trail sending her hair in spastic directions around her face as she zipped up her fleece to her chin and took a quick glance at the sky succumbing to twilight.

Her eyes focused on a square patch of blue paint on the tree next to her. She took one more deep breath in through her nose, her chest expanding, and let it out through her mouth. Ready to go. Her right foot lifted and immediately came down on a patch of leaves that sent it sliding. The left foot went straight up in the air. Rebecca’s forehead slammed straight into the ground.

When she finally came to, she pulled herself up to her feet and rubbed a patch of dried blood on her forehead. Even that slightest touch sent a sharp pain to the back of her head causing her to clench her face and squint her eyes.

Between her slowly separating eyelids, the trail ahead came into focus. She couldn’t recall where her group had gone in her last fleeting memory before the fall. Her eyes scanned the landscape. The sun had drifted below the horizon and the night was in the process of sweeping out any last bits of remaining light.

 

She pulled her headlamp from her pocket and pressed the button. A beam of light emerged and swept through the forest; countless shadows cast upon themselves like a house of mirrors, creating an endless array of frightening figures.

It took a few more moments and confused glances before she began to slowly stroll along, guided by her lamp. She brought her face close to edge of the trail to inspect the trunks; there were no blue blazes painted on the bark, in fact, no blazes at all.

How is that possible? She inspected herself on either side to see if the possibility existed that she rolled down to her current location, but both sides were thick walls of trees. Is it possible that I stumbled here after I fell and don’t remember?

In just those few moments, night had overtaken the forest. Rebecca felt a touch of fear working through her system, but she trusted her sense of direction and decided to continue moving ahead. Eventually, she assumed, she would run into another trail from which she could navigate back to civilization.

She took a single step and was surprised by a violent rustle coming from somewhere behind her. She spun around and swung the headlamp from its elastic band in the direction of the sound. The small circle of light bounced wildly off the ground, to the trees, and back to the ground, before she caught it in her palm and pointed it assertively toward the noise. She moved the light from side to side, but the corridor was quiet and still.

She sucked in some air through her nose and turned back around. Just outside the edge of her spotlight, she thought she glimpsed the silhouette of a tall figure lifting a sinewy leg into the undefined brush about 30 yards away. The branches swayed and the leaves rustled in its wake. Her boots scuffed the ground, her feet planting themselves like anvils, as the air she sucked through her nose escaped in a strained whine.

She became numb. The small bumps that now appeared up and down her arms were hypersensitive as she stood motionless in the cool abyss. For minutes that felt much longer, she remained statuesque, waiting for some undefined indication that it was safe to move on. It remained silent and still and the bulb in her headlamp flickered once before the spotlight diminished in size.

No, no, no. There were no stars visible in the sky; no moonlight coming through the canopy. She pressed the button twice. After the first click she was plunged into complete, absolute darkness. A moment of the simplest horror. It gave her an undeserved feeling of assurance when weak rays shot back on to illuminate the path for just a few feet in front of her.

I just need to keep going. She convinced herself to overcome the crippling trepidation and began moving along in a straight line, relying on her weak light. She cleared just a few feet when, without warning, the unnatural sound of multiple sets of feet pounding on packed earth arose from behind, coming right at her.

 

Instinctually, she began to run. Her light bouncing again as she pulled herself forward with each frantic, hurried step. She couldn’t find the courage to turn around. The heavy steps were getting closer and closer to her plopping heels before the clamor dissolved into the forest around her like a whipping wind. It was quiet and still again, too still. Rebecca now had the sense of hundreds of eyes on her and the bumps on her arms doubled in size.

She continued running, running toward the unknown, as the headlamp began to flicker again. Her eyes blinked rapidly with bewilderment and she slapped the headlamp against her palm in vain as it flickered one last time. She jammed it into one pocket and wriggled her fingers into the other to pull out her phone. It wasn’t there.

 

Now, Rebecca sprinted wildly, deeper and deeper, further and further, making no discernible progress. She turned her head to each of the four walls of black around her, breathing heavily, and dropped to her knees. Her eyes were shut tightly, her head throbbing, and she began to sob loudly.

 

Beyond her whimpers, she could make out the sound of steps beginning to transition from the forest onto the trail just feet away, closing in on her. The void grew noisy with echoes of twigs snapping and rocks being kicked along by whatever was approaching. Then, she could hear heavy breathing. Then, she could feel it on her neck from just inches away.

BEEP…BEEP…BEEP… Rebecca opened her eyes, turned on her side lamp, and stretched her toes beneath her comforter. Another nightmare. There were still phantom sounds, but that was to be expected. After a few moments, she tossed the damp blanket across her feet and slid her soles down to the carpet below.

I won’t let myself fall behind. She was excited to be meeting a group later in the morning for a long, grueling hike. Rebecca picked up the remote and turned her TV on as she made her way to the kitchen to make some coffee. She continued up the hall and walked into the bathroom. She flipped the light on, stood in front of the mirror, looked up at her face, and began to unwrap the thick bandage around her forehead. Not again.

 

Ideal Conditions

The door of the Porta Potty snapped back, sliding across Henry’s shoulder as his foot transitioned from the dirty plastic floor to the dusty ground below. The sky was a marble of blue and white; the sunlight appeared through the clouds in scattered, shifting patterns, overtaking the shadows only to be overtaken itself.

The day could be called ideal, although Henry would claim to enjoy getting out more when it was raining. Of course, because then he wouldn’t have to see other people.

A car sped by, kicking dust up beneath its wheels, beyond which Henry’s eyes focused on a torn plastic bag and bits of trash strewn through the dry grass underneath a weathered wooden kiosk. He threw his arms up and rolled his eyes as he pulled his phone from a fanny pack tightly fastened around his waist.

His camera struggled to focus as his two fingers spread awkwardly across the glass to zoom closer to the trash. Snap! Suddenly, both hands were tightly gripping the phone, his thumbs racing back and forth, tapping on the device.

I wish nature would just GET A CHANCE! I wish HUMANS weren’t around to destroy everything, what a better life it would be! #givenatureachance

He spiced up the photo of the trash alongside the road with a few filters and the inkling of a proud, contemptuous smirk began to spread across his face as it posted to Instagram. He straightened the rim of his hat around his skull, painstakingly extended each of the trekking poles hanging from his wrists, and began to slowly cross the road.

This place was generally busy on the weekends, but today was a weekday in the first few days of the summer and there were only a scant 6 cars along the side of the road, a road which could sometimes find over 200 cars jammed awkwardly along its shoulder. “Six too many,” he thought, “don’t these people have jobs?”

After 20 steps or so he was facing the kiosk, the toe of his running shoe rubbing against the grainy white plastic that once shelled the now scattered detritus. His finger swiped against the glass again and a map appeared on the screen. “Alrighty, let’s go,” he muttered, elongating the oh in his go.

There would be a steep incline before his path would level out and just one more climb before what promised to be an amazing view and a fire tower. He knew he ran the risk of running into other people at a popular place like this, but it was a risk he was willing to take.

Now, there was nothing but the agonizing sound of shuffling feet being dragged over dust and shifting rocks, the occasional crunching of leaves and twigs, and Henry’s maladroit commentary.

He could see the trees, their leaves bouncing gently, on either side through his peripheral, but he was absorbing the experience mostly through the screen held in front of his face.

“And I think this is going to be maybe 3 miles, or maybe 4, I don’t know…” plop, crunch, plop “…no more like 4 miles, 4 and a half miles…” plop, plop, crunch, plop “…oh, and look at this now…”

Up ahead, making their way toward him, was a group of 4 – two men and two women in their mid-20’s – bouncing quickly down the steep descent. Henry shook his head and glanced up at them, their laughter and exalted conversation irked him.

With an elongated inhale he dramatically stepped further into the brush than was necessary to make way. “I go out the woods for peace and quiet! I don’t need all this…”

“Hi!” the first guy said, smiling politely and nodding, as the others followed close behind “enjoy your day!”

Henry didn’t say a word to them, he just watched them, dust kicking in their wake, as they grew smaller and smaller among the leaves and branches now obstructing their figures.

He turned back in the direction he had been moving. “And that’s why I hate coming out here when it’s nice out…” he said as his index finger tapped the glass again, stopping his video.

...

After much strained shuffling, he found himself sitting on a small boulder taking long, heavy breaths, sipping water from a tube lurking over his shoulder. He was reading a blog post, discovering that the trail he was walking on was originally carved out by people in the late 1700’s. He tapped some more; the map was back on his screen.

There wasn’t much more distance to cover and he could see the top of the fire tower protruding through the tops of the trees. He took a deep breath before pushing off the rock, his pants riding up his thighs, his pack scraping loudly on the rock. 

 

As he dragged his feet towards the tower, it bobbed above the tree line until it disappeared from his sight as he descended. His eyes were bouncing between the map on his screen and the packed earth leading back upward ahead of him. “Alright, fire tower in 5…4…3…2…”

Henry readied his camera and pulled himself up the last few feet, he lifted the camera and his eyes in unison to what should have been a clearing, the tower, and a picnic table, usually occupied by a few others who made the trip up. The screen displayed only a wall of trees in front of him.

He incredulously furrowed his brow and lowered his phone, staring ahead for a moment, his eyes reaffirming his screen. He swiped his finger, banishing his camera, and the map reappeared. The green dot, which was meant to be Henry, was hovering over the red dot, which should have been the fire tower. “How is that possible? I was just looking at…”

With a sigh, he turned back around toward the trail. Panic immediately set in as he lifted his head. The trail was gone. In its place were more trees, their multitude of leaves chuckling at him. His eyes darted to the phone again, he suddenly had no service, no internet.

His eyes wide, he jerked back and forth, twisting his head in every direction, tearing his hat off. With each turn, the leaves grew denser and denser. He violently shook his hands, his trekking poles falling to the roots below. Within seconds he was screaming for help. “Anyone! Hello! Is anybody there?! Hello! Please!”

Henry plodded through the increasingly dense forest, tripping over roots and branches, in the direction he believed he parked the car, for what felt like hours. Screaming the entire way, his throat sore, in hopes his call would catch another human ear. It never did and it never would again.

Eventually, he collapsed against a trunk, weeping hysterically. “I should have hit a road, the river, a trail, hours ago!” He titled his head up to an opening in the ceiling of foliage above. A storm cloud rolled in to cap it; heavy rain began to pour down. “Ideal...” murmured Henry sullenly.

 

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