Trail 5: The River
Natsuki Sano's skin was burned raw where she held tightly onto the rough, hempen cord. Though the sun shone brightly overhead, the cold currents of Racoon River washed around her, numbing her legs. She was waist deep and taking her time crossing to the other bank. The water was rushing so fast she couldn't make out the river bed beneath, and so she kept stumbling and occasionally stubbing her toe on a pointed rock. She held tight to the guide-rope; the flow was very strong, unlike her. Her arms were thin and bony and stuck out like pins from her slight wisp of a body.
Eventually she neared the bank and Darius was there to pull her ashore.
"Its freezing!" he exclaimed, but you could tell from his delighted grin that he was loving it.
Natsuki smiled her thank-you and immediately began to shake herself dry like a dog. Ideally she'd whip her towel out and give her icicle legs a good dry, but there was no time. They were the last group to set out and so had to hurry along their trail to reach the campsite.
Their trail ran alongside Raccoon River, a lesser river divergent from the great Makawee River whose roar could be heard for miles around Mayflower Way. It ran directly to Moon Hill where they would camp that night. However the trail on either bank was invariably interrupted by a steep cliff-face or impassable undergrowth so they always had to cross to the opposite bank, using guide ropes that had already been put in place by previous hikers. And so they continued zigzagging up Raccoon River for hours, freezing, drying and then freezing again. Natsuki hated it.
At least her best friend Hitsumi was here with her, shouting in their native Japanese to keep their spirits up. Both were exchange students from Ueno High School in Tokyo, and were spending six months in the USA to practice their English and gain a better understanding of American culture. What they had discovered so far was both exciting and disheartening. They could talk for hours about the differences between Japanese and American society, and laugh at how alien some things were to them. However to Natsuki, this was also the problem. She had always been alien, even back home in Tokyo.
She was actually born in California, when her father used to have a business position there. They had lived there for a few years and some of Natsuki's earliest memories were of a glowing sun, and sand and the smell of sea salt. When her family were to move back to Japan, Natsuki remembered screaming and refusing to go, and in protest tying herself to her bed post, with a little childish knot that easily came undone. However it didn't take long for her to settle into her quiet, subdued life in Misato, one of the faceless satellite towns of Tokyo.
She never really came to completely understand, or become one with Japanese culture and so always felt a little on the edges. Her father and mother worked so hard and relentlessly, and Natsuki tried to emulate their stringent example at school but even through all her cramming and studying, she sometimes stopped and glimpsed through all her work to see nothing on the other side. She felt claustrophobic in the silent, tense subway journeys around Tokyo, surrounded by many sleepy-eyed businessmen. Once on the train she had to use her phone to make an urgent call to her mother about some school matter, and an older man shouted at her for being disrespectful. She was so ashamed and apologised profusely, inwardly resenting all her fake assuagement and forced pleasantry.
At night she and faithful Hitsumi would wander the hushed, lonesome streets of Misato, or occasionally she would go alone. They would maybe discuss some gossip from school but mostly they'd talk about the future, about how they would flee Misato. Hitsumi wanted to move to Shinjuku or Roppongi district of Tokyo and become a party girl, eventually maybe own her own club. That could be a lucrative business in those areas. Natsuki wanted to get out of Tokyo altogether and go travelling. She was stubbornly occidental and dreamed of Europe or America. She realised that she spent half of her time wishing she was somewhere else, searching for a sense of belonging she lost long ago or never truly had. One time a girl from her Ueno class, Megumi, brought photos of her family trip to Uruguay into school and Natsuki pored over them for hours, looking at the wonders of that strange country far away. She looked at the faces of all the people and wondered what they were like, and how they would never know she existed or know that she had looked at their faces and wondered about them.
When the exchange programme opportunity came along, Natsuki leapt at the chance dragging Hitsumi along with her. She was so excited about returning to USA and joining an American high school. However only a few days into the exchange her intimate fears were realised; she didn't really fit in here either…The kids were boisterous and although friendly (especially some of the girls complemented her on her fashion style), never really completely connected with her. Was that her, a dullard from a different country? Or were these kids actually somewhat uninteresting? She wasn't sure, but she knew her loneliness intensified in America. She wasn't with her family and it was worsened by the fact that the more extroverted Hitsumi was fitting in better than she was.
One day she saw Wesley checking her out in class. Wesley had a bit of a reputation and she knew he had done stuff with at least a few of the other girls in class. He was quite handsome in a boyish way. When she saw Wesley look at her like that, it filled her with a kind of relief. The fact that this American boy could want her in that way, made her feel like a person, like she could fit in. Maybe if he fucked her, she would become real and her grey alien skin would peel away. She had lamely tried to seduce him, once by wearing tight hot pants in school (for which she was scolded by Ms. Mentira) and once at a party, she mumbled a few words to him; he was nice and spoke with her but she later saw him stumbling away with Keeley.
This must have been their seventh or eighth river crossing and Natsuki was shivering with the cold. Darius splashed the water around him at a screaming Riley, as Hitsumi (whose English had improved greatly) gossiped with Regan behind her. They made it to the river bank and after resuming hiking for a few minutes they turned a bend to come to the foot of a beautiful water fall. Water like liquid crystal spilled down the grey cliff face, singing as it went and scintillating in the late afternoon sun. Above the waterfall were a hill and a plateau – Moon Hill!
They'd reached the campsite, and from the looks of it, were the first ones there!
Whooping they raced to ascend the steep hill beside the water fall. Although it looked like they would be the first team to arrive, there was always still a chance that another group coming from a different direction could swoop in and steal the victory. Morale was high and Hitsumi's laughter pealed like a bell over the valley, as Darius and Riley dashed ahead. Natsuki smiled and tried so hard to be as excited as everyone else, but instead of laughing and cheering, that little voice inside her heart was dreary and exhausted.
A fire raged in the centre of Moon Hill, its flaming tendrils dancing in the night air and reaching to the stars above. Surrounding it sat the entire class of weary hikers, feasting themselves on roasted sausage and burgers, and glugging bottles of coke. Spirits were high and laughter echoed out over Moon Hill, spilling into the forest below.
"Watch it!" Brooke growled as Tristan and Cole wrestled nearby, rolling in the grass, encouraged by the cheers and jeers of the other students. Most had gathered around to watch the spectacle, much to the dismay of Ms. Mentira, who was trying to calm the rowdy group.
Through the billowing smoke of the fire, Spencer gave Darius a furtive wink, which failed to go unnoticed by a curious Rain, lurking in the background.
Further from the spectacle of the wrestling match some of the students huddled around Madison and Taylor as they both retold stories of their odd experiences on their trek.
"A horrible skeleton, with hideous black holes for eyes," told Taylor for the seventh time. With rheumy eyes she looked wistfully into the distance as if she were retelling an old war tale.
"You should have seen this woman," Madison gushed, her eyes huge and her hands and face animated as she retold her story; "some weird forest woman. I bet she is like one of those feral kids and she's been living out in the wilderness for years. She couldn't really speak, only groan."
After many retellings, the description of the unkempt woman who had waylaid Madison's group on their trek had now morphed into some snarling, rabid Bigfoot.
"And now she has our scent!" Keeley squealed incredulously, looking around as her hysteria rippled into the audience.
The kids had told Ms. Mentira of the skeleton they'd come across, and the weird woman in the rock trail, but Mentira had waved both stories away as things insignificant, saying that were behind them now and would not trouble them again, however a few creases on her forehead betrayed her otherwise serene appearance.
Pretty porcelain Cadence approached Ms. Mentira as well, and tugged on her sleeve like how a child would.
"Ms. Mentira, I thought you would return with Jocelyn. Where has she gone? What about Bailey, and Garrett?"
Some of the other kids were listening in too, some realising for the first time that the other kids were still missing.
Ms. Mentira sighed and her harsh features softened a little.
"I am sorry Cadence, I couldn't find them. I am not sure where they have gone, I left a message for them at the last campsite to tell them where we are. Otherwise I have called the local police station and the school. I fear we may have to abandon our hiking trip if they do not turn up tomorrow, and send a search party for them."
The whole class had gone quiet. Some of the classmates were shocked, they suspected Bailey and Garrett were stoned in the woods somewhere and would eventually turn up when they were hungry. Now they were officially missing, with Jocelyn as well. A swelling murmur spread throughout the camp like an incoming wave and soon excited, crazy rumours were forming like sea-foam, some linking the appearance of the strange woman on the rock trail to the missing kids. Ms. Mentira tried best to comfort the class and assure them that all would be well, but the way her voice was trembling did not fill them with confidence.
Brody sat on the rough edge of a fallen tree trunk that lined the outside of the camp. He stubbed out a cigarette and took a swig of cheap bottled beer that Wesley had snuck with him on the hike. He listened to the gossip around the missing students and was intrigued for awhile, but like most things with Brody, the excitement was transient and disappeared into the night air just like dissipating smoke from the fire. He soon fell back into his usual state of boredom. He was afflicted by a particularly severe case of that stultifying ennui that most teenagers experience every so often, though for Brody it was a chronic case. He hadn't quite figured out exactly how to cork that little hole in his chest that kept leaking all his motivation and vigour, leaving behind an apathetic hollow. He was sure he would figure it out soon, but in the meantime was happy enough to continue distracting himself with booze, cigarettes and weed.
"If you want anymore man, just shout me!"
Wesley clamped a hand on his shoulder as he sauntered past.
Wesley was everyone's friend, and was liked by all, but no one could really say exactly who his best friend was. He had a very cute, boyish face and a sleazy little grin-and-wink combination that was endearing yet incredible. He moseyed through camp, slapping backs, nudging shoulders and throwing his head back in laughter. He was in the midst of a very animated story when he accidentally elbowed a passing Nizhoni Fleetfloot, to the guffaws of some classmates.
"Nizhoni, sorry, I…I didn't see you," he stammered, for once caught off-guard and uncool.
"Ha, it's fine, it doesn't hurt," she smiled, rubbing her left breast where he'd struck her.
"Nizhoni, I never got to hear the end of that story about your tribe and Mayflower way," Wesley paused, "maybe I can catch up with you later, and you can finish it?" and then came his oily little grin.
They had both arrived at Moon Hill when Nizhoni was only half way through the story of Mapiya and Powwaw, and so she never had a chance to finish it, in all the excitement of reaching camp.
"That…is not a story to be told just before you go to sleep," Nizhoni gave another cheery smile and made to move away, "I'll tell you another time."
And then she was gone back to her tent.
Wesley watched her go, and checked her sexy ass-swing as she went.
Blake went storming by, shoving past Wesley and shattering his trance.
"He was so fucking scared, he almost went white!" came Tristan's mocking voice, followed by the braying of Cole and Xavier.
Tristan was retelling the story about how scared Blake had seemed when they found the skeleton during their hike, much to the amusement of the other alpha boys.
Blake's nostrils were flaring and his strode to the end of camp (but never out of the reach of firelight), silently raging.
"Cut it out Tristan," Brooke sighed as she watched through grim, bored eyes. If he heard her, Tristan showed no acknowledgement as he continued sniggering.
Natsuki and Hitsumi sat nearby on the grass, enjoying their dryness and the warmth of the fire as they greedily ate some burgers. Natsuki would occasionally snatch little glances at Wesley, who seemed to be visiting everyone in camp apart from her.
"Congratulations!" came Caridad's squeaky voice as she plopped herself down beside Natsuki. "You made it here first, that must've been some good hiking!"
Caridad had doused herself in sweet, fruity perfume. Apparently during her hike along the swamp trail, Juan had stood on a rotten log, went through it and plunged into the stinking mire but not before grabbing Caridad and toppling her over too.
Juan had bathed in the clean waters of Racoon River for an hour but couldn't get the swamp stench out of his nostrils. Natsuki peeped over at him; he was drinking some beer and smoking with Brody behind a log at the back of camp, trying to hide their sinning from Ms Mentira. Behind them Natsuki saw someone moving through the trees, shaded grey by the pale moon light. It appeared to be Catalina, and then a while later, Leonardo followed her.
A short walk into the forest and the darkness was black as pitch, the laughter and shouting from the camp faded into a background hum, and the air was thick with the scent of pine. Leonardo followed Catalina carefully, though he crunched grass and snapped twigs underfoot so he was sure she heard him coming. In camp she had given Leonardo a fixed stare that definitely meant something but he wasn't sure exactly what. Then she marched into the forest and like an automaton he rose and followed her. It was difficult to navigate his way through the dark forest where the trees were narrow and black and there was no obvious trail, but a few steps further he heard a muffled sobbing.
He came across Catalina by a mean, skinny tree which stuck up from the ground like a black needle. She had her face pressed against it, glassy tears rolling down her beautiful, harsh face. She looked at Leonardo but said nothing, and began to dry her eyes.
Leonardo didn't know what to say, he had never seen the usually hard Catalina like this before. He wanted to run over and squeeze Catalina tight, and hold her close to him. He knew from his father's stories that Catalina had some domestic problems with her inebriate father. He realised that this was probably the first time in awhile that she had felt safe, relaxed, out here in the wilderness away from her home. Leonardo took small steps closer, careful as if trying not to frighten her off with any sudden movements.
He came body to body with Catalina, who was breathing hard. His mouth was dry and he kept thinking of all the things he should say. He wanted to tell her he would keep her safe and that all her problems were over now. But how could he tell a lie like that? He knew his words were worthless right now. They stayed like that, for awhile, eyes locked, neither one ready to leave. Catalina moved first, and tilted her face slowly upwards until her lips, wet with tears, met his. Leonardo kissed her gently at first, and then with a deep breath pulled her in tight to his body, crushing their faces together, embracing hungrily. As suddenly as their kiss began, it came to an end. Catalina stepped back, cradling Leonardo's face in her hands like a prize. The moonlight caught in her eyes; gleaming like hidden treasures, newly discovered at the bottom of the world.
The motel room was plain; a bed, a toilet, an old TV. The peeling wall paper was bleached by years of sunlight. The toilet was cracked and dirty, and didn't function the best; it had finally rebelled after years of swallowing everyone's waste and would occasionally regurgitate its contents onto the tiled floor when flushed too forcefully.
Verity leaned out the first story window, staring at the big fat moon. The air had cooled now, and was still, her puffs of smoke drifted lazily into the night. She wondered what it was about this place that made her feel so unsettled. Was it the look of the town? A backwater redneck enclave miles from anywhere else. There were shops with faded signposts and letters above them, half rotted away. The place felt outdated, like it was built up in the fifties and then just forgotten about. Except a few people were left behind…The local people looked strange, their clothes were old and faded and far from fashionable. They cast her strange, wary glances. Unsmiling, lined old faces with flat eyes. The fact that there was no mobile phone signal was like a validation of her isolation.
She realised why she felt so unsettled…it was because she felt like she was unwanted, a trespasser in a strange land. These insular people had a little community here and she had landed in the middle of it. She would be glad to get this assignment over and done with…Talk with the locals, research some old newspapers (she had noticed a somewhat neglected library on the outskirts of town when she had come through) and maybe get some quotes off the local police or firemen…
Verity was tired. She stubbed her cigarette into the near-empty can of coke on the window sill, and heard a satisfying little fizzle as it went out. She shut the window, undressed and collapsed into bed. Why was driving so exhausting when all you do is sit? She ruminated again about how shit this job was, how lonely she felt in this weird town and how she wanted to be back in the city. If she hadn't have been fired, maybe right now she'd be networking at one of those cheesy cocktail parties she so often used to frequent. As she fell asleep, the clinking of glasses against the backdrop of pointless chatter echoed in her ears and on into her restless dreams.
Riley Swann put a finger to her tongue and scraped along it. It was rough like sandpaper. She groaned and slowly opened one sticky eye. She was so dry. She transitioned slowly from sleep back into the real world, gradually becoming aware of all the sounds around her; soft snoring from Regan in the sleeping bag next to her, the crackling of a dying fire outside her tent and the creaking of boughs tossed by the gentle morning wind.
And she became more aware of the hot sting in her throat, and her mouth dry like bones and tasting just as unpleasant.
She felt around hectically in the dark, searching for a bottle, a flask, a can, anything with fluid, but all in vain. She gave Regan a little shake; "Regan," she whispered, "Regan, do you have any water."
Regan groaned inaudibly then with one somnolent arm, flung a bottle at Riley, smacking her in the face. But Riley didn't mind!
She unscrewed it frantically and put her thirsty, cracked lips to the bottle, however only a drop or two flowed forth. Riley was so disappointed she felt so could cry, but she thought it wiser to conserve her tears. She was so comfortable in her little sleeping bag cocoon, and spent a long time deliberating whether she would be better comfortable and dry, or thirst-quenched and cold. In the end, her thirst won out and so with great determination she wriggled free of her bedding, unzipped the tent and stepped outside.
She had left a bottle of water near her walking boots beside the tent; she snatched it up and immediately began taking long, hard draughts. It was the sweetest thing she had ever tasted.
Then something on the other side of camp caught her eye; a tall, sinewy figure, hulking and silhouetted against the white of the moon, with thin wiry wisps of hair coming from an otherwise bald head. She tried to see his face but it was so dark, dark, drinking in the black around it and she couldn't make out any detail.
"Hello…? Who's that?"
And as soon as she heard her own tremulous voice, she was hit by a pang of terror that almost brought her to her knees, her throat was suddenly dry again, and she felt all the water she drank was going to come out into her pants.
That isn't a person
An instinct told her it wasn't a person; it was a creature, a monster, skulking through the camp at night. Is this the thing that happened to Jocelyn, Bailey and Garrett? The figure was still and unmoving, almost like an otherworldly statue. And for a second Riley felt like her tired eyes may have been playing tricks on her. And then its head snapped around, and Riley saw beady, watery-grey dots in an otherwise black face.
Those are his eyes... And he sees me.
A guttural shriek came tearing up from her belly like vomit, foul and burning as it came. All reasonable functioning shut down, electricity ceased to flow through her higher circuits, logic and rationale collapsed as Riley was taken over by a primitive and autonomic control remembered only by blood and bone. She shrieked and shook, her heart boomed and blood frothed and surged in her ears so all she could hear was buzzing. She couldn't move or think and felt only an animal, wild fear.
And the creature shot across camp, a black bullet, with a speed it should not know. A long, slender outstretched limb came slashing down like a sword and Riley's head exploded like a peach hit by a hammer, spraying brain, gore and eyes all over her tent wall with a wet slap. Her dying shriek had been like an alert siren over Moon Hill and within seconds the whole camp descended into rampant chaos...