I do not own Lord of the Rings. I do not own any of the characters or locations used in this story. My lack of ownership notwithstanding, this is my story:


"No, Merrie, get in the back seat, dear," Avalon demanded as kindly as she could. Merrie cheerfully stepped on her arm as she scrambled between the front seats to settle in back. Avalon grimaced as she rubbed her arm discreetly. "Ready to go?"

"Ready, Avalon!" Meredith chirped. Avalon looked back to check as the little girl buckled her in.

She bit her lip, wondering if she shouldn't run inside and get a phone book to serve as a booster seat, but she concluded that it might possibly be more dangerous to do so. She threw the car into reverse and made a T-turn so she could drive forward down the long driveway.

Avalon adjusted her mirror so that she could see her the stick-straight blond hair on top of her cousin's head. She made sure her side mirrors made up for the lack of rear view, and pulled straight onto the highway.

It was bright out. Avalon squinted her eyes and wished, not for the first time, that she had prescription sunglasses for the summers. Hell, she thought, she would even settle for clip-ons for her frames. It wasn't the time to stroll down that avenue of thought, though, since she not only had a cousin to drop off at home, she had two brothers whom she was late to pick up from school.

She sped down the highway, sticking to about 6 miles over the speed limit, constantly checking on the unusually quiet girl in the back seat. Between checks, she scanned the open farmland and blocks of trees on either side of the road. After a minute, she hit a pothole.

"Damn," she swore under her breath. The '92 Mercury sedan wasn't in the best shape, it couldn't really take too much rough handling. "Michigan roads..." she grumbled, knowing that the highway was brand new two years ago. She glanced back to make sure the five year old's ears remained virgin, and was surprised to find her drifting off to sleep already. She hit another pothole and grimaced. The car rattled on.

She stole another glanced at Meredith, then looked back at the road. This part of the highway fell steeply away to a hollow on one side, though with a wide shoulder and sturdy double guardrail. Avalon frowned. Were the trees always this close to the road on that side? She hit a short series of potholes, sighing and putting on a little more speed. She noticed that the road was looking especially ragged and cracked. Had something happened?

The trees inched closer to the edge of the highway, so gradually that Avalon was sure she wouldn't have noticed if she hadn't kept taking her eyes off the road. The car started rattling horribly, and she jerked the wheel to the side a little before she realized that she hadn't, in fact, hit the rumble strips, but rather the section of road was almost as broken up as Poor Farm Lane, which could barely be recognized as paved. She looked to pull over to the shoulder when she realized it wasn't there.

The white line at the side of the road was worn almost to oblivion, and the shoulder was near non-existent. Avalon felt a slow-burning panic in the pit of her stomach beginning to form. Ahead was the "school crossing" sign—here, barely visible through rust and grime. She slowed down to take the corner and gasped audibly, slamming on the breaks.

"Avvie! I'm sleepin'!" Meredith scolded sleepily from the back seat.

"Sorry, Merrie," Avalon said soothingly. She slowly put the gas back on, turning hesitantly into the empty parking lot in front of a log bunkhouse that almost, but didn't exactly, resembled the school. She unlatched the door and stepped out, looking over the top of the roof of the car at the derelict building. It was obviously unoccupied. Her thin leather jazz shoes easily felt the thick mat of soft, dead pine needles that covered the lot that couldn't possibly have ever been paved. She took off running across the lawn back to the road, then out to the highway. She stared both ways down it. There was nothing more than a wide dirt path, with tall trees grown over, making it dark like a tunnel despite the early afternoon sun.

She took a few deep breaths.

She wanted to scream, but her throat wouldn't work.

She took another breath, then turned on the ball of her feet and broke into a run to make sure Meredith was still there, the thought having stuck her that, if the road had vanished, maybe she did, too.

She saw the red sedan in the lot, still rumbling, although Meredith's slightly-less-sleepy face was pressed against the window, looking scared.

"Avalon!" she cried, pushing open the door and almost falling out. She ran towards Avalon, who had only slight difficulty lifting her onto her hip to hold tight. "Where are we?"

"I'm not sure, Meredith," Avalon whispered, biting her lip as she looked around. She cradled Meredith's head with her hand, keeping her face buried in the crook of her neck, shielding the younger girl from seeing the unfamiliar setting as best she could. She slipped into the car and looked at the radio. She bit her lip again; she hadn't ever exercised her Technician's license. Still, she knew how to work the two-meter hand held. She picked it out of the cup holder. She turned it on and listened to a few minutes of dead air. Finally...

"Is this band monitored? K8RUR," she said. Meredith squirmed in her lap. "Shush, Merrie, I'm trying to get help," she said. She didn't want to panic and cry "break, break, break!" when she didn't even know what the problem was. "I was lost?" would lose her her license, probably. There was nothing but static. "CQ CQ CQ K8RUR." Nothing. "CQ CQ CQ K8RUR."

After calling a third time, she switched to another local repeater and tried again. She took a few deep breaths. Her dad was ALWAYS monitoring at least one of the repeaters, just in case. It had to be the third one.

"Is this band monitored? K8RUR."

No response. She took a few deep breaths. "CQ CQ CQ K8RUR. I'm a bit lost, if anyone is listening, I'd appreciate some local help."

She went back and repeated the modified plea on the other local repeater bands, then tried a few more open frequencies. She was really getting nervous. This was a big Ham community, surely there was someone?

Twenty minutes ago, a tiny flame of panic started to burn slowly in her gut. Each silent band was like a puff of pure oxygen, fueling it and making it grow into a burning vise, clenching her heart and stopping her breath. She now forced a calm face for Meredith's sake, but inside she was desperately wondering what the hell had happened, and if she couldn't fix it somehow. Her brothers would kill her for being late to pick them up, and Meredith's parents would worry. She bit her lip and killed the car engine. She rooted through her purse with one hand, looking for her cell phone. She flipped it open, only to find no signal. She tried to send a text anyway, knowing that they often got through.

"Unable to send message. No signal," she read incredulously under her breath. She ran through an exhaustive list of curse words in her head.

"Meredith, sit down here," she said, directing the girl to the passenger seat. Avalon emptied her purse into the front seat. She took her camera and stepped back from the car, taking a few pictures from all around to document the area. She sat back on the edge of the seat and began gathering things into her nearly bottomless denim purse: her wallet, her notepad, three pens in different colors, an unopened granola bar, an unopened Snickers bar, her brother's magnesium lighter and a knife that she had confiscated before his soccer game the night before, and the extra 2GB memory card from her MP3 player—it wasn't used as music storage, so she'd use it for pictures if she had to document anything else—and she would, nobody would believe that she drove into a non-existent forest. Meredith's Dora the Explorer backpack contained a baggie of apple slices and the sandwich she brought home uneaten from lunch. She located two half-drank bottles of water in the car. She wasn't sure how long they had been there, but desperate times called for desperate measures. She wasn't worried about chemicals leeching into the water at that moment.

"Merrie, we're a bit lost. I'm going to need you to be a big girl and wait patiently, okay?" Avalon said gently. Merideth pouted, but agreed.

"Will you play a game with me?" she asked. Avalon sighed, then opened the glove box. Inside was an old Gameboy. She handed it to Meredith.

"Here, play this game. I need to look in the trunk," she said, popping the boot open with the press of a button. Once she was sure Meredith was occupied, she went around back to look for the emergency kit. Since they lived in Michigan, an emergency kit was essential in the winter months. She found it, and gave a huge sigh of relief as she opened the small yellow duffel bag. She almost laughed out loud. She was safe for a while with this, it contained all the essentials: High-calorie food bars, five ½ gallon bags of water, five emergency bags, with reflective insides for warmth, five airplane-style blankets, five inflatable pillows, a flashlight, a first-aid kit, swiss-army-knife, a roll of duct tape, and a length of lightweight nylon rope, among other things.

Avalon was prepared to scream with delight as she hauled the bag into the body of the car. It was getting dark, and it was kind of chilly in the deep shade of the trees. She tucked one of the airplane blankets around Merideth's shoulders and broke one of the food bars in thirds. Meredith only needed a third of one; they were meant to expand in the stomach to promote the feeling of fullness. Meredeth ate it without question, and returned to her game.

While she was still distracted, Avalon opened the back of the trunk into the car, giving both her and Meredith room to lay down. She spread the emergency bags out like sleeping bags and put chemical heating packet in each. She was personally fascinated by the packs; they were a gel, until you snapped a metal disk in it. Then, they warmed and solidified. Later, if you put them in the refrigerator, they cooled down and became gel again, ready to be re-used. Last year, when they had gone off the road, they had used these same packs to keep warm until someone drove by who could help them, six hours later. The packs would warm the bags so that she and Meridith would be imstantly warm if bad came to worse.

By the time she had everything arranged, and had taken stock of what they had several times over, it was dark around them. Avalon left the car running, so they could have light, but it would only last so long. Avalon had to fight the urge to go out looking for someone, something. But her brother was a boy scout, and if she had learned anything, it was that you stay put when you're lost. They had enough food and water to last them for a few days at least. Any helicopter search should find them, with the lights on in the car...

Avalon gaxed into the falling darkness around the car. Meredith was falling asleep from boredom, and Avalon wasn't inclined to keep her up. She let her rest her head on her arm. Avalon thought about the trees.

The trees were so strange. Where did they come from? How had she taken a wrong turn? It was a straight highway. She wondered if she was going crazy.

Outside, the forest was silent. No birds, squirrels, crickets... It was like it was dead. Avalon was unnerved by the complete stillness. She started hallucinating movements in the trees, rustles where there were none. She rolled up the window, but the steady sound of Meredith's breath did nothing to drown out her imagined horrors. Ghostly pale spots danced before her eyes, floaters in her field of vision, simply from the lack of visual stimulus. She was torn between closing her eyes, and keeping them peeled. One of her biggest fears was faces appearing in windows at night.

Fear kept them still. Fear kept them open. Spots kept hovering around. Sensory deprivation could cause hallucinations, she reminded herself. Avalon didn't think this really counted as 'sensory deprivation,' but it was so pitch black beyond the tiny pool of light in the car that it seemed like the world ended. She watched the spots dance in front of her eyes.

One spot didn't dance. Actually, two were still. Avalon focused on these. Faces congealed from the blank, pale light, looking straight at her from deep in the treeline.

Avalon screamed.