A walk in the woods can build up an appetite... 1,784 words
|SCREAMS!!! Contest Entry 12/12/19
Theme: Footprints in the snow
Sara stood at the prow of the ferry as it crossed Puget Sound on its way to Kingston. Her long brown hair and down jacket flapped in the winter wind as she closed her eyes and spread her arms in her best Titanic impression. After a moment, her face burned with the cold, and she opened her eyes, catching a glimpse of the Olympic mountains looming above during a break in the clouds. She turned and went back inside the enclosure of the ferry to warm her wind-chilled face.
Sara was a die-hard hiker, having gone on a backpacking trip in the Olympic range every weekend in December. She preferred to go alone, often preferring trees to people for company. Occasionally, she met a kindred spirit on her solo backpacking excursions, but that was much more common in summer than winter. For the past three weekends, however, she had run into another solo hiker on the trail, unusual crowding for this time of year. While she preferred the sound of wind whistling through trees to conversation, it was nice to interact with a person from time to time over the weekend.
As the dock approached, Sara went below decks to her car and waited to drive onto the peninsula. When her car rolled onto land, she made a quick stop for a Friday afternoon food before continuing on. As she drove with a mouthful of sandwich, a news bulletin on the radio caught her attention.
“Olympic peninsula residents are advised to avoid hiking in the park this weekend. There have been three murders this month in Olympic National Park. Though authorities have not disclosed the nature of the deaths, park rangers have stated that manner of death was exactly the same in all three instances. Police had no comment when asked whether this could be the work of a serial killer.”
Sara smiled, knowing she would discard the advice. The trail was her home; she was not going to be deterred from going home by a news bulletin like this. She continued her journey to the trailhead.
As Sara reached Port Angeles, she stopped at Safeway for a supply run. She gathered oatmeal, instant coffee, trail mix, pasta, tuna, three AAA batteries for her dying headlamp, cheese, and just-add-water sauce. When she approached the cheerful cashier, the woman eyed her synthetic clothing and raised an eyebrow.
“Are you planning a hike in the Olympics this weekend?” the cashier asked, her name “Nancy” by the name tag pinned to her garish floral blouse.
“Yes, indeed!” Sara replied.
“Just so you know, there’s a killer on the loose,” said Nancy, her rotund form leaning toward Sara as if sharing a juicy but confidential piece of gossip.
“There is?” Sara replied in feigned concern, already aware and determined not be deterred from her hike.
“Yes. Apparently, the guy’s doing something crazy to the bodies too. There are all sorts of rumors, but the cops aren’t confirming anything because they don’t want to create too much of a scare, I guess… Anyway, you probably want to reschedule your hike for another weekend. I’m sure you don’t want to risk all of that!” Nancy said with a smug look, pulling back to her previous upright position, her secret now shared.
“Maybe not,” said Sara noncommittally. It wasn’t worth an argument with the jovial, plump woman.
Nancy winked at her as she left, which Sara thought was a bit odd, but quickly focused her mind on prepping her pack, finding the trailhead, and reaching a campsite before daylight ran out.
An hour later, she pulled into the Sol Duc Falls trailhead and pulled out her backpack. She hefted it onto her back and began her hike, paced to the rhythmic creaking of her overstuffed pack.
As she gained altitude, the forest’s curtains--hanging Spanish moss from branches--changed to sharp icicles with snowdrift caps. The trail’s damp, overgrown charms gave way to increasingly deep inches of snow. Sara loved it all, the varying climes of the northwest winter. Each layer of elevation brought an entirely new experience.
Sara hadn’t brought snowshoes or skis because the condition report had made it seem unnecessary. Now, however, she was worried the report might be outdated. She set down her pack and fished out her gaiters, putting them on to prevent her socks from becoming too damp if the snow rose above boot level.
Luckily, the depth of the snow didn’t exceed a couple of inches, even as she pressed onward toward her campsite. A crimson band of sky warned of impending darkness, something that came around 4:00 PM during December in this part of the world. As Sara entered the clearing where she planned to camp, darkness was beginning to fall. She looked along the ground for a flat section of ground on which to pitch the tent but noticed something else. Highlighted by the deepening shadows, she saw the first sign of human activity that she had on the whole hike. Fresh footprints made by large boots entered the clearing from the thick woods to the side of the clearing.
Sara’s eyes followed the tracks to their source, peering into the forest where the tracks began, but there was no trail there, just darkness and trees. That was odd, she thought. It was difficult terrain for off-trail hiking. Maybe the person was searching for firewood? In the damp northwest winter, however, a fire would be next to impossible to start. Campfires were probably not allowed here regardless, not that that always stopped everyone.
If it were someone searching for firewood, where had the tracks gone? She didn’t see a tent in the clearing. She followed the prints into the clearing and along the side. At a stream, she lost them. The person must have followed the melted edges of the stream, avoiding any further prints. Maybe the person needed the stream for direction?
She wasn’t sure, but she decided that it was a mystery that would have to wait. It was almost dark now, and it was much easier to setup camp with some light. She looked up at the thick blanket of clouds above and sighed. There would be no help from moonlight on this night.
She quickly found an area of flat ground, pulled her tiny one-person tent from her pack, and set about putting it up. She couldn’t manage to get the stakes in the cold, partially frozen ground, so she found a couple of logs and rocks around the edges of the clearing. Placing them around her tent, she tied off the tent’s fly to them, hoping it would hold if a gale arose in the night.
The wind picked up as Sara blew up her sleeping pad and slid it into the tent, pulling her sleeping bag out of its stuff bag to spreading it on top.
Whap! Whap! Whap!
The windward wall of the tent slapped inward against her as she leaned into the nylon shelter to spread the foot of her sleeping bag to the edge of her pad. Of course, it would have to be windy on a night when she couldn’t even tie down the tent properly!
Oh well, such trials and tribulations were worth it for the gorgeous sunrise she would rise to in the morning. She smiled at the thought of the perfect mountain dawn.
She setup her stove, taking care to block the wind with her nylon-encased torso, managing to get the stove to light. She filled her pot in the stream and placed it on the stove, bringing it to a quick boil. She dumped in the pasta, and sauce mix, becoming hungry suddenly with the sight of the food.
The pasta al dente, she turned off the stove, placed the cheese on top, and stirred with her spork. She took a bite of the hearty mix, then sat back to enjoy the warmth that radiated from her stomach, comfort in the frigid night. Too bad this food wouldn’t sate her true hunger. She would need her strength, though, for the following day.
Sara finished her meal, brushed her teeth, and climbed into the tent, tired enough to sleep in spite of the incessant staccato percussion of the tent wall in the stiff wind.
In the morning, she awoke to a voice.
“Well, hello there,” it said. Sara’s heartbeat quickened and her eyes widened. Was this voice from the owner of the tracks in the snow?
She hurried out of her nylon cocoon and unzipped the tent.
Standing before Sara was a huge man, burly and built, he wore an ancient down vest over lumberjack flannel, appropriate for the stocking-capped man with a bushy black beard. He looked like a lumberjack.
“Howdy, I’m Mike,” he said in a booming voice. “Pleasure to meet ya.”
As Sara put on her shoes, he offered a huge mitt. She took it. He pulled her, effortlessly, to her feet. She gave the large man a beatific smile. She was glad he was here.
“I’m Sara. Likewise,” she said.
“I think I saw your tracks last night. Where did you camp?” she said.
“Oh, I usually find out-of-the-way places. I like it better that way,” Mike said with an affable grin.
“I see,” said Sara. “Are you here with anyone else?”
“Nope, just me. I like the solitude sometimes,” he said.
Sara eyed Mike appraisingly. He would do, she decided.
Faster than Mike could widen his eyes, Sara drew a knife and leapt toward the large man. She drove the blade into his chest, pounding it between his ribs with her palm. She rode him to the ground, her eyes warm and unconcerned, as if she were asking him the weather. Mike couldn’t manage words with the blade in his chest, but his eyes questioned her.
“Why?” they said.
Sara smiled warmly, and informed him in a matter-of-fact tone.
“I was hungry,” she said, with a nonchalant shrug.
Sara began to saw a circle around Mike’s heart as it beat, gasps of pain escaping the large man’s lips. As life left his eyes and his head tilted to the snow, she pulled the heart free of his chest.
Sara sat down on a nearby log in the clearing, Mike’s heart in her hand, and took a large bite of the bloody thing. As crimson liquid dribbled down her chin, she watched the sunrise over the jagged mountains with a satisfied joy. Finishing the bite, she leaned back, her shoulders relaxing. Her belly warm with the hot, delicious meal, she sighed. For another week, her hunger was sated in the beautiful, crisp air of a mountain morning.