“So, you’ve had your own scary encounters too?” Frank asked incredulously. “And yours was mostly red, Anton? And George’s was mostly yellow? And the two we saw were mostly blue and white…”
The poor man looked like he was about to faint. He and his son had been turned around and guided to Rae Lakes just like George. First the weather had gotten worse and stalled their forward progress, and then they had started seeing things watching them from a distance. Frank had been hounded by a blue blur and Jordan had been hounded by a white blur. Neither father nor son had seen much more than an indefinable shape crossing their paths or standing at the edge of their periphery.
The few cursory attempts they had made to track down the creatures were met with failure. That wasn’t too surprising considering their attempts had amounted to shining their flashlights in the direction they thought they had seen something and then sweeping thoroughly through the areas in the opposite direction as they hurriedly retreated.
“How can there be four of these unknown things running around the forest? Wowee, I just can’t wrap my head around it.” Frank placed a hand on either side of his head as if he needed to do so to hold it in place and that would somehow provide clarity to the situation. George and I said nothing in response, even after he dropped his hands and looked to each of us, his eyes blood shot from lack of sleep, one at a time, pleading for an answer. We had no answer to give.
They were both tired, frazzled, and sore, from feeling harassed and harangued for the past few days. Every attempt to turn north and resume their normal route met with a sighting of one of the creatures. Every attempt to head either west or east and quickly exit the mountains met a similar fate. It was only the last two days when they had done nothing but head south that they had any sort of respite. But, they had kept a frantic pace, trying to distance themselves from the colored blurs and their inexperienced bodies were paying the price for their haste.
Jordan fell asleep, leaned against his pack, almost immediately after arriving at the camp and dozed all through his father’s explanations how they had come to show up at the shores of Rae Lakes. Frank finally woke his son when we told him to get his tent set up before the sun went down and to get going on putting their dinner together. There would be plenty of time for us all to chat later.
George and I followed our own advice and went to our own little slices of the campsite to throw together our own dinners and for the next hour we left ourselves to our own devices. Silence ruled the lakes, only broken by the occasional squawking of a blue jay and the splashing of fish jumping for their evening meals. As popular of a camping spot as Rae Lakes was, I also marveled at the number of fish that could be seen just before sun set each day jumping in the lake. The tiny concentric circles ran into each other as they overlapped, and the whole lake came alive with movement. At times, when the feeding was at its highest point, it looked like the sky had opened up and started to rain down with some intensity.
I watched the show from my butterfly chair as I ate my ration of almond chicken. It wasn’t the best of the rehydrated options on its own, but with some hot sauce stirred into it, it transformed into quite the tasty dish. It is amazing how the addition, or subtraction, of one ingredient can completely change a meal from inedible to savory, or vice versa.
On the surface, I’m sure I painted a very tranquil scene: resting comfortably in my chair, enjoying a hot meal, and taking in the expansive scenery that sprawled from horizon to horizon in front of me. Inside, however, my mind was awash in turmoil. What did it mean that we had all been “encouraged” to head towards Rae Lakes? Who were the creatures that were making sure we made it there? Was there some clue we should have picked up on? How we were supposed to act now that we were all together? Were the four of us the end of it, or would more backpackers show up the following day? Where was this going?
These questions tormented me, they fried every circuit in my head as I tried to dissect them and discover the secrets within, as I chased the possible answers around and around and around in my mind. Vicious cycles, trying to answer one question led to the next question which led to a third question which went on and on until it came back around to the first question. There were no answers, only unknowns.
That lack of understanding, that inability to get a grip on the situation and formulate some sort of response, some sort of plan to carry forward and figure out what was going on, played at my fears. Fearing something leads to anger, and anger leads to hatred. I hated not knowing what to do.
One by one, starting with George, followed by Jordan and then Frank a few minutes later, the rest of our little cadre pulled up seats next to me. For a time there was nothing but the beauty of the setting sun across the lake from us, disappearing into the west, casting shadows on some things and illuminating others in brilliant light, before everything began to fade into darkness. The uppermost rim of the valley wall glowed in oranges and purples in final defiance of the oncoming night before those colors faded too and the world was left in shades of gray.
Jordan, surprisingly, was the first to say something. It was the most I’d heard him talk so far, which wasn’t saying much considering he’d slept through the discussions earlier, and hadn’t done much more than mumble under his breath at our previous meeting a few nights before. “There’s nothing to worry about, right? I mean, it seems like we’ve been gathered here, but if it was for a bad reason why wouldn’t they have done what they were doing when we were on our own? Bringing us together just, like, makes us stronger. Strength in numbers, or something like that, right?”
We all agreed, and then a thought struck me and I gave voice to it, “What if that is the point?” When that was met with looks of confusion all around I stumbled through the idea, trying to get out enough of the jumbled thoughts in my head for it to make some sense to the rest of the group.
“Jordan said ‘strength in numbers.’ Why would they intentionally bring us together? It wouldn’t be just to cause us harm because we are stronger now as a unit than we would have been apart. So, perhaps they brought us together to make as stronger, to make us something greater than just the sum of our individual talents. Maybe we are supposed to come together and stay together from here on out.”
There were no arguments with that theory, but they did lead Frank to ask, “But, why? Why would we need to group up and what do they know that we don’t?”
George added his own question to the mix, “Why are we being forced to head south?”
Jordan, not wanting to be left out of the question asking period threw out his own, “Who or what are these creatures anyway?”
I didn’t answer any of the voiced questions and none of them offered their own. Something Jordan said had once again resonated within me: who.” He asked “who” are the creatures. I had up until that point assumed they were some sort of wild animal, but the fact that they were working in tandem to bring us together, as it appeared they had done, alluded to a higher intelligence, it alluded to them being “whos” instead of “whats.”
“We need to try and capture one of them, or at least get close enough to one to make out what it truly is.” My interjection was met with blank looks. “Easier said than done,” I rounded the statement off with, bringing my hands up in the mock “I give up” gesture.
“How do you propose to do that?” Jordan scoffed. Frank turned towards his son to scold him for being rude but changed his mind and turned back to me and raised his eyebrows. How did I plan on doing that?
I looked to George for any support but he just shrugged his shoulders. All of this was well and truly out of his realm of expertise. Somehow they had all turned to me to be the leader of our newly formed group and were already demanding answers and solutions I wasn’t prepared to give them.
To appease them, I took a shot in the dark and just started talking, “Well, maybe now that we’ve come together will be able to figure out a way to trick them. Maybe one of us could head north, slowly, on the trail while the rest of us head south first, and then turn around and quickly scamper cross-country to try and get ahead of the one that headed north to begin with. If we can get ahead of that person, then maybe we’ll be closer to the creature when it shows up to convince you to turn around?”
Even as the words came out of my mouth I knew there would be problems with it and Jordan was the first to point one of those problems out, “But, once the runners got into the lead, like, wouldn’t their own wardens appear and harass them before the one showed up for the guy on the trail?”
It was a fair question and I had no answer, so I shrugged my shoulders in response.
George then asked, “Getting the timing down for the guy hiking on the trail would be tricky so the others could overtake him at about the same time. Plus we have no idea how far we’d need to go north before they started to show up again.”
Frank said nothing. He seemed lost in a world of his own, staring into space. The trip had devolved and unraveled mighty far from the expectations he had set for the bonding time with his son. I felt sorry for him. I felt sorry for Jordan too. The memories of backpacking with my dad and brother were some of my most cherished memories. I can’t even imagine how different my life would have turned out if I hadn’t experienced those adventures or if something like our current predicament had happened on my first trip out.
Rain, lightning, having to hike extra miles because there was zero space left at the camp we were supposed to stay at? Yes, all those did happen on my first hike with my dad. Weird creatures and the uncanny feeling, which I was more and more certain of the more I thought about it, that we were being herded in one direction? That’s a whole other level of bad.
“Anyone have any other ideas?” I didn’t think they did, but asking was my way of showing that I had at least thought of one and shared it with the group.
Jordan looked away, reserved once more. Frank did nothing. George shook his head, but then tilted it to one side mid shake. I could nearly see the light bulb going off over his head.
“Now that we are together, if we stay together, maybe they’ll let us move on? It was like you said earlier, Anton, we are on this path and we just need to see where it goes, right? Maybe we should pack up tomorrow and head towards the nearest exit. If we head out together maybe they’ll let us go?”
Frank perked up immediately. “Go? As in go home? Wowee. Now that’s an idea I can get behind.”
Jordan said nothing but it was obvious he would follow along with whatever his dad wanted to do.
I liked George’s idea immensely. It got us up and moving, and being pro-active rather than reactionary, and it would test the restrictions that had been placed on our movements previously. Would they let us head west, north, or east as long as we travelled as a unit? It was a question I wanted to know the answer to.
“Sounds like a plan to me.”
We talked for awhile longer, the stars came out for their shift in the sky, the fish settled down in the lake, and a calm surrounded us and our little part of the world. As men of action it was good to have something in the works to test out, something that got us going, something to do. Sitting around and waiting for whatever would come next did not suit us at all.
We debated for a bit on which direction to head. Kearsage Pass and Onion Valley would be the quickest way out but it started out heading south so it might take awhile to see if the creatures were still actively watching us and shaping our behaviors. Cedar Grove, on the western side of the Sierra, was the next quickest exit, and it started by backtracking the way we had all reach Rae Lakes and heading north before turning west, but it was further miles.
In the end we decided to head towards Cedar Grove. It was all downhill, basically, and though the miles were greater in number, they would be easier miles on Frank and Jordan than heading over both Glen and Kearsarge Passes. Plus, we would be heading north to begin with and that might get our little stalkers to show themselves quickly and then we’d at least be able to presume that we were either supposed to wait it out at Rae Lakes for something to happen, more people to show up, or something like that, or we were supposed to head south as a unit.
But, we had to wait for the following day to know for sure what the outcome of our experiment was going to be. As amped up on adrenaline as I was, and with my mind exploding with thought after thought, I figured it would be another restless night. That wasn’t the case. As soon as I slid into my sleeping bag I was out like a light and didn’t stir until the birds woke me the following morning.
Word Count: 2,464
Total Word Count: 45,804
Story progress: I can see the end! That in itself is exciting. The fact that this little exercise actually has succeeded in getting me to write something from start to finish is also exciting. I have at least three half finished projects where I stalled out in the middle and never got motivated to return to them. I’m motivated now though. When I finsih this story I’ll hopefully be able to harness some of that energy and direct it towards some of my other work. I hope so. Starting to mull over potential names for this story… any of my faithful readers have suggestions? (I know that’s hard without knowing how the story ends, but if you’ve got something already, I’d love to hear it.)