I could hear the cheerful tune of my alarm coming from my phone upstairs. Sometime during the middle of the night, I’d fallen asleep with it in my hands while scrolling through Twitter. I’ll probably find it mixed in with the sheets somewhere.
I set a plastic tray down on the kitchen counter, then loaded up the breakfast of the day. Buttered toast with a thin layer of grape jelly over top. Orange slices. The smell of cinnamon oatmeal made my stomach grumble, but I couldn’t eat yet. That’s everything! Oh, wait a minute! I almost forgot the most important part: tea.
The sound of shuffling upstairs was right on queue. I carried up the tray, each step creaking loudly beneath me, then knocked lightly on the door.
“Come in,” I heard my mother’s groggy voice call out to me. My mom’s favorite color was yellow, and her favorite pattern was floral. The second you walked into her bedroom, that became immediately obvious. Pastel yellow everything, floral sheets and wallpaper. Every piece of furniture in her room looked like it came out of a catalog forty years ago.
“Oh Meg, you didn’t have to do this,” she said, smiling at the breakfast tray I put on the vanity, next to all the bottles of medication she'd have to take after eating. She’d just put on one of her wigs -- the long blonde one with waves just like her hair used to be.
I warmly smiled, placing my hand on hers. “It’s no big deal. If I’m going to go running in the mornings, I might as well make breakfast too!”
She flipped on the tiny television sitting at the corner of her room. I’d offered to buy her a flat-screen but she insisted that the old-fashioned boxy TVs worked just fine. “Looks like rain is coming today,” she said with concern. “Don’t go running for too long.”
“I’ll beat the storm," I said.
“What time will you be back? Joann might be visiting today.” I vaguely knew Joann, an old friend of moms. They used to work together before mom had to quit her job. I didn't know why mom wanted me to be there for that, but I suspected it had something to do with her concern that I didn't talk to people enough.
“Eight?” I took a guess. When I went out running, I tried not to worry about time. Running was the rare moment where I could focus on the present. Some people needed bath bombs and spa days. I needed to push my body to the limit until all my muscles ached.
She took a few bites of her oatmeal. “You’ll eat before you go out, right?”
“I have a breakfast smoothie waiting in the fridge,” I reassured her.
There had been a time where she stayed up many nights anxious that something bad had happened to me. Years ago I considered her to be my biggest enemy. Now she was the closest person to me. I knew above all else that I’d never let her worry about me again.
“Good. All that running means you’ll need to eat more,” she lectured, though her voice edged on teasing. She treated me like I was still a kid, if only to annoy me. “Oh, one more thing. I love you.”
Warmth flooded my heart that I'd only gotten used to in the past two years. Despite how awful I'd been to her, she never stopped caring about me. “Love you too Mom!”
Nothing could beat the beauty of a sunrise. Soft blues and pinks blurred together as the light began to say hello to a new day. You can’t worry about your struggles when you see a sky like that.
My feet hit the sidewalk pavement with a steady rhythm, starting as a slow jog and easing into a run. The scenery changed from our quiet neighborhood to the main part of town. The dark store windows glared at me as I passed them by. The early morning commuters drove past, some even honking their horns at me if they recognized me.
Even though I graduated a year ago, being the star athlete at my high school still made people cheer for me. The local newspaper ran a story about my record speed. I still got a few scholarship offers from colleges all over the state. A few weeks ago a local journalist contacted me, wanting to do a story on where I'd ended up. Of course, I said no. I didn't want everyone talking about my mom's cancer. I knew people would bring it up to me all the time, offering their condolences. I didn't need that and mom certainly didn't either.
Then there'd be those people who'd think I made a mistake. Even my coach got that look in her eyes when she found out I'd decided to stay and take care of mom. I picked up speed, leaving the thought behind. Whatever, doesn’t matter, I made the right choice in the end. No one can argue with that.
Even when I reached the park, I didn’t slow down. Winding trails led up into the mountains and I was determined to pick the longest one.
We moved to Colorado when I was a little girl. Me and mom in a crappy van, a broken radio stuck on 101.9 forever. She’d been frazzled since dad left us. I distinctly remember looking out the window and gasping at the sight of the towering mountains in the distance.
“We’re living there?” I asked, not quite believing it.
“Yep. Sweetie, I promise you it’s going to be great.” Mom had been convinced I was secretly upset about the move, but I honestly had been unphased until that moment.
Everything clicked into place for years and then suddenly it didn’t. The mountains didn’t appease me. Mom annoyed me. My friends and I wanted more than what our boring little town could offer. If the coach didn’t insist I join track, I would have probably ended up in juvie.
The wind began to pick up as I made the ascent upwards. I’d forgotten to take my hair out of braids last night and now several escaped strands of blonde were whipping around my face. I thought about pulling the hood up on my jogging jacket, but the wind would probably just blow it down anyway. I thought that my body heat would have kept me warm enough, but the air was much colder than usual, and my thin sport leggings did nothing to fight off the chill.
Thick boughs arched over the rocky mountain path, blowing tensely from the wind. I could hear the whisper of leaves, but nothing else. No animals. No other joggers on the path. I knew I wouldn’t see many people out that early, but I expected to see at least a dozen on the trails. Maybe the threat of a storm scared them away? The weather channel predicted it wouldn’t happen until noon though.
Yet, the further up I went, the darker the sky got. Through the tangled branches above me, I could see that the beautiful sunrise had been drowned out by gray clouds. I remembered the promise I made myself: don’t make mom worry. I need to turn back. I hadn’t gotten too far up the trail, so getting back down wouldn’t be difficult.
Droplets began to make their way through the trees. They dabbled my pink jacket, seeping through the thin fabric. I won’t tell mom that I went to the park. She’d just get mad if she knew I risked it when the weather was forecasted to be that bad. I began making up excuses to tell her.
The trail kept going, twisting and turning in directions I didn’t remember taking. After what felt like an hour, the first thought of panic hit me. Did I somehow take a wrong turn? The trails were known to connect at certain points. I’m still heading downwards though. Surely I would have hit an exit by now.
So caught up in my thoughts, I didn’t notice the mangled root jutting out in the middle of the path. My shoe caught it, jerking my leg back as the rest of my body moved forward. The world began to rush by in a blur, then impact. I felt my bones shudder as my body tumbled downward. I could hear the cracking of foliage as I tore through it.
My body finally stopped, but I didn’t dare move. I tested my fingers first, bending them slightly. Then my arms. They ached but were obviously not broken. I twisted my head back and forth, testing my neck. Thank god, I’m not paralyzed. That was the last thing my mom needed in her life. I rolled over onto my back and opened my eyes.
A black sky, dark as night, looked down upon me. The sight of it sent a shiver of unexplainable fear down my back. Beside me, the warmth of a roaring fire graced my cold skin.
“Hello?” A voice stammered out.
I sat up and rubbed my arms. They might not be broken, but they still hurt like hell.
The source of the voice became evident by the only other person there. A nerdy looking guy sat at the fire, holding his knees tightly against his chest. His eyes were wide, a hint of fear hiding behind his thick-rimmed glasses. I can’t blame him. I’d be pretty startled if a rando came rolling into my campsite too.
“I am so, so sorry,” I said, quickly pulling myself off the ground. “I was trying to get home before the storm started, and I guess I wasn’t watching my step carefully enough. Um, do you know if this is the Goat Cliff trail? Or the Fern Hollow?”
“Uh, what?” He still had the same panicked expression.
“I know it can only be one of those two. I’m not sure how I even got lost in the first place. I’ve traveled all the trails around here like a hundred times… Except, now that I think of it, I don’t actually remember this campsite being here,” I frowned. Did they add this clearing here recently? I feel like I would have noticed they were doing that though.
He looked at me like I was some kind of alien. “I don’t… I don’t know,” he finally answered, then looked back at the fire. “I don’t know where I am. I’m lost.”
“Oh!” That would explain his odd behavior. Aw, poor guy. “Hey, it happens all the time around here. I can get you out of here. If you need help why didn’t you just say so!”
I thought that might calm him down a bit, but he only gave me a blank stare. “I’ve been stuck here for hours.” He shivered despite being so close to the fire. “I tried to hike out, but then I just ended up here again.”
“It’s easy to get turned around in the woods,” I said, nodding my head.
“That’s what I thought. But when it happened again, and again, and again…” His voice trailed off. Another shiver. He’s delusional. Maybe high? As I got closer to him, I noticed an intense smell of alcohol.
To me, that was the sign that I needed to get out of there. “Listen, I’m going to go get help,” I stated slowly as I backed away. “You stay here, and I promise I’ll send them right over to you. What’s your name? I want to make sure they know who to look for.”
Please don’t ask to come with me. Please don’t ask- “Dwight Fairfield.” A sigh of relief escaped me before I could help myself. He didn’t see to notice. He totally looks like someone who’d be called Dwight.
“Cool, well, see ya!” I awkwardly waved, then dashed back into the woods. Okay, if I just keep heading down… There was no more down, however. The woods around me had suddenly gone flat. I moved a few feet inward, fighting against branches and vines that tried to hold me back. Yet, there was no incline. Okay, so I reached the bottom, I guess. I might be close to the parking lot actually.
The black sky did nothing to help illuminate the way. I found myself tripping in the dark, scratching up my hands as I grabbed onto anything that could help me stand. The sounds of crunching leaves beneath my feet seemed far too loud. It’s too loud because it’s the only sound in the entire woods. I stopped in my tracks. The chirping insects I expected weren’t there. The animals who normally make the woods come alive seemed non-existent. I could only hear my breathing.
Whatever, no big, I’m sure there’s some reason I’m not thinking of. I forced myself to move forward despite the sense of unease that had settled inside me. Lo and behold, a few minutes of walking and I could see light glistening from beyond.
I walked as fast as I could, wishing I could run but fearing I might trip again. I burst out of the treeline and into the light.
Dwight looked up at me, completely unsurprised but still holding the same nervous expression. “Yeah, that’s what happened to me too,” he said, wrapping his arms around his knees again. That’s not possible. I broke out into a sprint, shoving my way back into the forest, only to again be spat right back out to the fire. I have to get home. This doesn’t make sense. No matter what direction I tried, it led back to the same place. The campfire no longer seemed welcoming. I have to get home to mom, she needs me! I lost count of how many tries before finally collapsing to the ground, out of breath. Dwight leaned his head down on his knees, mumbling something unintelligible. The firelight flickered and crackled as if mocking me.