I awoke to rustling outside my tent. The crunching of footsteps on gravel, twigs and branches snapping. Was that a voice? I lay motionless inside my sleeping bag, heart pounding, listening.
“Help.” A disembodied whisper. Was it right outside? I strained to hear but the throbbing pulse in my head drowned everything else out. I sat up. The atmosphere within the domed tent was wet, ripe with morning breath. The tip of my nose was cold as an icicle.
“Help.” The murmur came a second time, more audible than the last. I was sure it was a child’s voice. My heart skipped a beat. Could it be the voice of the eight year-old, Jessica Crow, who had gone missing from the neighboring Indian Reservation three days ago?
I thought of the drive out to the campgrounds when my friends, Amber, Kate, and I had been listening to the radio report on the status of the missing girl from the Wakina Reservation.
Poor Amber. Once again, she’d cried at the reminder of her third cousin, Jessica, lost and alone in the forest. Everyone in the community, including Amber, had been searching for her night and day but had found nothing. I’d practically dragged Amber along camping, telling her she needed a night off from her worries. It was a hard sell, but she’d finally agreed.
I glanced at where Kate and Amber should have been laying, but their sleeping bags and pillows were missing. The last I’d seen them had been around the bonfire at two in the morning. They could have ended up crashing just about anywhere, and I wasn’t about to go peeking into random tents to find them.
Having fallen asleep in my jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, I slipped on my jacket and shoes, pulled the ponytail holder off my wrist and wrapped my hair into a tight bun. I swallowed hard and took a deep breath. Then, unzipping the door flap of the dome tent, I stuck just my head out.
Nothing was out of place. Empty cooler bottles atop the picnic table, charred wood in the fire-pit, and the car we came in. Every campsite around us was nearly silent. The sounds of late-night make-out sessions, pounding music, and yelling were replaced by the occasional snore.
Using my empathy, I focused on trying to pick up on the emotions of any lucid person around, hoping I would hone in on Jessica’s emotions. Normally, the waking feelings of others hit me like a gale force wind, without my even trying. In fact, it had always felt like a bit of a curse that I was a walking sponge for other people’s pain. But right now, all I felt was…nothing.
The voice had seemed right outside the tent. Could I have imagined it?
I slipped out. A low, white fog blanketed the earth, enveloping the world in silence. The temperature hovered around freezing, way too cold for camping. And last night’s vodka was no longer taking the edge off. I shivered.
After checking around the cars and circling the campsite, I started down the road. Inside the forest, the eerie glow of early morning and the cool fog blanched the world a ghostly white. The moist nip in the air sharpened the scent of pine needles that littered the camp ground. I continued down the road for about ten feet until it led to the mouth of a hiking trail.
Now that I was half-frozen and shivering, the May long weekend at the campgrounds of Greater Slave Lake, North Dakota, seemed like a very stupid idea, even if it was the annual spring kick-off party.
“Help!” the diminutive voice called out again, this time, louder.
The memory of Jessica’s face flashed through my mind when I’d met her last summer; honey-brown eyes and springy hair that always stuck up around her head with static, and her sweet smile, part baby teeth intermixed with adult teeth. She was such a sweet, innocent child. If she had survived this long, she could be dangerously close to death from cold. My heart battered against my chest wall, and I fought off the urge to start running, directionless, into the bush to find her.
The voice had originated from further within the tree-line, I was sure of it. Closer now, yet still far away. I entered the trail and headed straight.
“Jessica?” I called out. No response but the echo of my own voice from the trees around me.
The trail was straight and narrow for well over a hundred feet, the trees like two solid walls of green on either side of me. Then the trail began to snake back and forth until it forked into several side-trails. I stopped to listen.
A dry crackle emerged from the trail to my right, and I immediately followed the sound. This far into the forest it was darker, the only light filtered through evergreens and fog. I looked back. The vapor had closed in behind me, obscuring the pathway like a curtain of white. Shivering transformed into shaking.
Despite running these trails in the early morning numerous times, today it looked different. I cursed under my breath and shoved my hands into my pockets.
“Hello?” I called, my voice immediately diminishing, muffled by the woods. Other than the odd bird chirp and frog croak, the forest was quiet. If the voice really had been Jessica, she would need help and most likely immediate medical attention. I forced myself forward.
The trail wound to and fro, the brush dense, the fog almost material as it clung to the spruce needles. The path grew thin and sparse, barely enough room to place one foot in front of the other, with the way the underbrush encroached on the trail. I stumbled on twigs and logs as branches clawed my cheeks and pulled my hair. I began to trip, reaching out for something to hang onto. I fell, my hand forced into a thorny bush.
Damn it! I stood up and peered at my scraped hand, blood beading out of paper-cut sized scrapes. I’d been out here for at least ten minutes, but still, I heard nothing but the crunch of my feet snapping the twigs underfoot and my breath echoing through my own head. Ready to turn around and head back to my tent, the high-pitched voice rang out once again.
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