By Michael Haynes
The trail led Lisa to a clearing at the top of a hill. Winter sunshine lit the beginning of her walk several miles back, but clouds now prevailed and the afternoon was dim. A large flat outcropping of rock arose from the apex of the hill. Lisa perched on its edge, took a drink of water, and removed her ball cap, wiping away a hint of sweat. Closing her eyes for a moment she opened herself to the ambient sounds — a rustle of leaves, some insect chirps.
When she stood up she saw a boy standing at the edge of the clearing. He appeared to be on the cusp of adolescence, but was short for that age. He looked uncomfortable; the t-shirt he wore doubtless would have felt warm enough in the mid-day sun, but it would not have kept away the afternoon chill.
She gave him an acknowledging wave. “Heading back down?”
He nodded. “I was hiking with my brothers. They … we got separated.” He looked ashamed.
“We can walk back together, if you’d like.”
They headed back down the trail. She would go slowly. She remembered what it was like to be the one who got ditched.
The trail led Gary to a clearing at the top of a hill. The early morning sunshine had given way to late-spring clouds as he worked his way upward. As he reached the top he walked around slowly for a few minutes to cool down before sitting on a flat rock. As he sat he framed several possible images through his camera’s viewfinder, but rejected them all without taking a shot. The climb had tired him out more than he had expected; his joints and muscles, which had borne sixty-one years of use, ached warmly. He stretched out, thinking he would close his eyes for just a moment.
He dreamed of a dark place. In his dream hands he held a rough-hewn stone tool. He used this tool to dig and dig. A few snowflakes floated to the dirt surface he was attacking. His thoughts were scrambled with currents of guilt and a sense of compulsion. The dream tool vanished and then he was in oval-shaped tunnels, dark and moist. In the tunnels he was wandering as if lost in a maze. He was hungry and cold.
When he awoke he saw a young woman sitting several yards away.
“I didn’t mean to wake you.”
He smiled. “Well, I didn’t mean to sleep. So we’re even.”
She returned the smile. “Get any good pictures?”
“A few this morning. Nothing had caught my eye up here when I arrived.”
He brought his camera up, and took two quick pictures of her sitting there cross-legged on the grass.
Most of the way down the hill Lisa led the boy; several times she had to help him make an awkward step down. She was glad she had a small flashlight with her in case the way got too dark before they could reach the easier ground below.
They talked about the things that they had in common, mostly music. The band whose shirt he wore had been defunct for nearly all his life, but she had seen them on one of their last concert tours.
“You saw Pink Floyd live? It must’ve been awesome! I’ve seen DVDs of their shows but I bet it was way better in person.” She agreed, and they talked about other bands, some from her generation, some from his.
They were only halfway down by her figuring, and already it was nearly dark. She looked at her watch; the hands were stopped. She held back a curse, realizing as she did that the boy’s older brothers had doubtless uttered worse in his presence. Careful to keep from leaving him behind, she increased their pace slightly.
Within minutes, almost all daylight was gone and Lisa pulled out her flashlight. Without any notice, the young man she was with yelled and broke away from the path, calling out names. In the dimness he was out of her sight almost immediately. She hollered after him, urging him to stop. He didn’t respond. She shone the flashlight into the trees, and could not see him.
“Jerry? Mark?” She heard his yell again, and headed into the woods towards where she thought he must be.
Her feet got tangled several times, and she nearly lost her footing. The flashlight’s beam was inadequate for this sort of task. Something tripped her again and this time she fell. Her palms ached where she caught herself. The flashlight rolled away, and its light failed. She felt around for it. When her fingers closed on it she hurried to relight it.
The boy called out again as she was regaining her feet. She told him to keep talking and stay in one place, and followed the sound of his voice.
The only light was her flashlight. When the boy would stop speaking Lisa reminded him that she needed his voice to find him. She walked carefully over the uneven ground. It felt like an hour to her, but couldn’t really have been that long. Eventually he said he saw her light, and directed her towards him.
A few minutes later she saw him in the light; his face seemed detached above his dark clothing against the background of night. He waved to her, and she moved more quickly, keeping the light trained on him. She was only feet away from him when she felt the ground slip away from her.
She landed hard, and heard something crack even before she registered the pain.
By unspoken agreement Gary and his new acquaintance started back down the hill together. They talked occasionally, but mostly walked in companionable silence. The climb back down was not always easy. Several times she offered her hand to him when they came to a rough spot and his knees were unsteady.
Several times he stopped to take a picture of some sight; each time she waited until he was done then posed for him. They reviewed these pictures together on the camera’s view screen, deleting one where the frozen moment of time caught her mid-blink.
The clouds above remained throughout, but it wasn’t until they had walked for over an hour that the first distant thunderclaps rolled. Neither of them carried an umbrella or other raingear. He tucked his camera into a belt pack; they both quickened their steps.
Gary was surprised when she grabbed his shoulders and stopped him. As thunder again echoed she leaned herself up against him. She reached up to his face and they kissed. He hadn’t been expecting this to happen. Her manner had been mildly flirtatious, but he’d taken it to be all in fun. Though he was young to be a widower, he hadn’t seriously considered getting involved with anyone in these last two years.
A few raindrops began to fall, and they separated. He tried to find something to say, but before he could speak she gave a quick wink and walked off the trail, between the trees, beckoning him to follow.
Gary knew that leaving the trail was unwise, but he followed her into the trees. The rain started to fall faster now; the ground was beginning to get slick. She moved more nimbly than he did, and he had to push himself to keep up with her.
One time she stopped and waited for him to approach. She embraced him, and they kissed again for a moment before she pulled away and moved off, deeper into the woods. This time she broke into a run. He gave chase, and was surprised for the second time in a short while when his left foot struck emptiness, and he pitched forward into a hole. He landed hard with the wind knocked out of him.
Lisa lay there awkwardly for a while. A sound like pebbles rustling came from somewhere around her. She tried to move, but the pain made her stop. The noise stopped — only for a moment. When it resumed it was louder. She took the flashlight and used it to examine as much as she could of her surroundings. The floor had debris including rocks and branches; the walls of the pit had several roughly circular openings.
Another pass of the light illuminated other objects, creamy white in the darkness, scattered here and there, bones lying on the floor. She shouted up to the boy but heard no reply. The only sounds were the scrabbling noises she’d heard before.
Realizing her injuries left her in a precarious position, she looked around for a heavy branch to use to defend herself. The beam of light stuttered across the ground as her panic grew. Once she thought she saw a reflected glint of light when the beam passed over one of the holes in the wall, but when she moved it back she could see nothing there.
She tried again to move, and this time she managed to reorient herself. As she did the light revealed something new. A Pink Floyd t-shirt lay against one wall, a small skull to its side. She held back a scream, but only until she felt something move against her leg.
The first thing Gary was aware of was his camera beside him, the lens smashed. He was able to get to his feet after a few minutes. At first he was glad that she hadn’t fallen too; that thought led to concern as to why she wasn’t calling down to him, trying to ascertain his well-being.
Rain and thunder could still be heard above him, and little light was available where he stood. His eyes took time to adjust. The first thing he could discern was that ground level was at least a dozen feet above his head, probably more. As his surroundings became clearer he saw a scattering of bones. A primal sensation arose from the sight of these remnants, and he yelled up the chimney for assistance. There was no reply but the sound of rain.
He moved to one of the walls to see if there was anything he could do to improve his position. As he got closer, he saw an oval hole in the wall. The shape of the hole unsettled him. He leaned down to examine it more closely. For a moment he saw nothing. Then he saw movement and he backed quickly away.
He realized that the shape of the hole was identical to the shape of the tunnels in his dream back at the top of the hill. Now there were sounds of movement coming from several sides of him. He retreated to the center of the space. One of his feet stepped on something round, and he lost his footing. The round object, a pocket flashlight, was by his face. Beyond it he saw a baseball cap advertising a local restaurant; it matched the one worn by his hiking companion.
And there by one wall was a t-shirt with an image he remembered from a long-ago record album cover. And over there was a small purse and a metal water bottle. All around him were detritus of others’ lives, of their deaths.
The trail led Joshua to a clearing at the top of a hill. He burst into the clearing, long hair streaming behind him, having run the last several hundred yards. Looking up he saw summer thunderheads rolling in from the west, obscuring the late-afternoon sun. He jogged to a large altar-like slab of rock. He leaned against it, catching his breath, readying for the return trip down the hill.
A jagged lightning bolt struck nearby, the thundercrack almost simultaneous to the flash. The sudden light dazzled him, and for a moment all he saw was the afterimage. As his vision cleared he saw that there was another man in the clearing with him. The other man’s hair was going to gray, and he was intent on the workings of a camera that he carried.
The older man chortled triumphantly, and looked up at him. “Got it!”
“The lightning flash. I got a great picture. Come see!”
He joined the man in reviewing the picture. They fell to talking about the weather. Several minutes later, still talking, they started down the hill.