This story is by Mark Casper and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
The sun was already beginning to set by the time they hit the trailhead. Jon walked briskly, eager to take advantage of the day. He was sick of driving; he just wanted to be outside and enjoying himself. Laurie trailed behind him.
“Gosh, it’s so beautiful out here,” she said, staring wide-eyed at the green lodgepole pines towering above them.
“I know. Second only to you, babe,” he said without turning around.
“You’re sweet. Best honeymoon ever?”
“Best honeymoon ever.”
They hiked about a mile in before the landscape began to change. The forest gave way to a barren geothermal area covered in yellow dust and rocks. Steam rose in plumes from the heated pools, and the whole place smelled like sulfur.
“Can you believe this? It feels like we’re walking on the moon!” he said.
“Uh, it smells like rotten eggs though.”
“Where are we stopping to eat? I’m starving,” she said.
“Me too. Artist Point. Shouldn’t be too far ahead. Supposed to be one of the best views in the whole park,” he said, trying to hold his breath.
“You sure you know where you’re going? I think we should’ve bought a map. Do you remember all the directions that park ranger gave you?”
“I got us, babe. It’s a basic loop around the South Rim of the canyon. We just follow the trail.”
They hiked across the barren yellow wasteland and back into a tall, green forest. The light continued to fade, and the forest darkened. They chatted for a while pleasantly, but after a time they stopped. Despite the forest’s beauty, something made Jon uneasy. It was the silence. No birds. No wind. As they walked deeper and deeper into the forest, the trees seemed to press in on them when they weren’t looking.
He suddenly realized they also hadn’t seen a soul on the trail besides themselves. Silently, Jon began to wish they were back in the parking lot, safe from the nameless, wordless fear that stalked them between the trees in their minds.
As they rounded a bend, a loud CRACK echoed from the woods to their right. Laurie gave a start. Jon’s heart skipped a beat; he looked up to see a white tail flash amidst the bracken. A deer leaped into the brush and out of sight. He breathed a sigh of relief.
“See? Just a deer,” he said.
“Jesus. That scared me,” said Laurie.
“Wildlife, babe. Isn’t that what we came for?” He tried to say it cheerfully. But it had scared the hell out of him too.
They kept hiking. After another quarter mile they reached a crossing of trails. There was no sign.
“Which way do we go?” she said.
“This way, to the right. I’m sure of it,” he said.
“Are you sure? Babe, the sun is going down. We don’t have a map. Or a light. We can’t get lost.” A hint of panic laced her voice.
“I said I’m sure, Laurie. Trust me. I know what I’m doing,” he lied.
The path led downhill in a steep curve. They hiked for another mile or so, shouldering their packs against the cool air. They didn’t speak. As the light faded, a dread began to settle on them like a dark cloud. Jon tried to push it out of his mind, but it kept forcing its way in. The only sound in the forest was the rustling of their feet on the leaves.
“Jon, I’m scared,” she said quietly. The words were like leaks in a dam.
“Laurie, we’re fine.”
“What if we’re lost? And what about the bears? Aren’t they more active at dusk?”
“Babe, we’re not lost. And we’re not going to see a bear.” But he wasn’t sure of either.
Eventually they reached another crossroads. This time there were signs. To the right, Lily Pond – 1.3 miles. To the left, Clear Lake – 1.8 miles. He knew immediately they’d taken a wrong turn.
“Shit. We need to turn around,” he said.
“What? Are we lost?” This time there was more than a hint of panic in her voice.
“No, we’re fine. We just made a wrong turn.”
“Jon, this in NOT okay. This never should have happened. You should’ve bought a map. You should’ve paid closer attention to the park ranger. Shit, I’m freaking out, Jon. And I’m still starving. We haven’t eaten since breakfast.”
“Look, I’m sorry,” he snapped. “I know where we’re going now. Let’s just get back on the right trail. Once we do that, we’ll find a place to stop and eat.”
As they climbed back up the long, sloping hill, his stomach rumbled with hunger pangs and the sweat clung to his back. They didn’t speak at all now. After a while he heard a soft sniffle from behind him.
“Are you crying? Babe, we’re fine.”
“I’m so scared, Jon. I just—don’t—want—you—to—die,” she wailed between sobs. Tears streamed down her face. She was leaking fear. It was like a contagion. And he was catching it.
“No one’s going to die, Laurie. Don’t be dramatic.”
“No, we’re going to see a bear, and you’re going to die trying to save me.”
“Jesus, Laurie. What the hell is wrong with you?”
“While you were talking to that stupid ranger, I picked up a book in the gift shop called Death in Yellowstone. It’s about all the people in this area who’ve been mauled by bears and torn apart by wolves. And we’re next.”
“Why would you do that to yourself? Look, I need you to calm down. Everything’s fine.”
“Screw you! Everything’s NOT fine!” she screamed. “You’re the one who led us out here without a map or flashlight. And now we’re lost, and we’re going to see a bear, and we’re going to die.”
“Laurie! Get your shit together!” he shouted.
At that moment, a pond came into view as he rounded another bend in the trail. Across the way, not 100 yards from where he stood, a giant brown shape lumbered between the trees, a small cub ambling by its side. Grizzlies.
Jon froze in his tracks, unable to move, heart pounding in his chest. He couldn’t believe it.
“Jon? What is it? Why did you stop?” she asked, her face flushed with fear.
A primal urge rose within him. Every cell in his body screamed at him to flee from the danger. He became an animal, fueled by panic and fear. He turned around and ran, bumping into Laurie so hard she stumbled backwards, tripped on a root, and fell over.
“JON! DON’T LEAVE ME!” She scrambled to her feet and chased after him.
The next thing he knew he was running; running wildly, in panic down the trail. As he ran he pulled his phone out of his pocket and dialed 911. No service. Terror coursed through his body. He was choking on it. I’m going to die out here, he thought. I’m actually going to die. They’re going to turn this whole tragedy into an overly dramatized reenactment on the goddam History Channel.
Jon ran until he couldn’t. He stopped, panting heavily, and took in everything around him. Somehow he’d made it back to the barren, geothermal wasteland. He looked back and saw Laurie running doggedly, trying to catch up. Her face was wild with rage and fear.
“You left me!”she screamed. “You asshole! I know what you saw back there. You left me to die!”
“Will you stop being so hysterical. It was an accident, alright?”
“It was not an accident. You’re a coward. A fucking coward.”
“Will you shut up for one goddam second, Laurie? We’re not in the clear yet. Those things could be following us.”
“And who’s fault is that?”
“Just shut up and follow me.”
Jon starting jogging down the path again. All thought of food or rest had left his mind. His whole body was bent on one purpose: survival. The adrenaline still pumped through his veins, and he ran like he was being chased by a beast in a nightmare.
They retraced their steps down the path they had hiked hours earlier. The sun waned red in the western sky, and the darkness closed in. As he ran, a black thought came into Jon’s head: What if we see another bear on our way back to the parking lot? If we turn around again, we’ll get pinned in the forest. He shuddered at the thought of them enduring a night alone in the wilderness.
He held his breath as they drew closer to the woods’ edge. Every time he rounded a bend or glanced into the darkness between the pines, he expected to see another grizzly. Please God. Please help us live. Help us survive. Please, dear God, don’t let us die out here like animals. We just got married, for Chrissake.
He could hear his wife behind him crying and cursing him between sobs. She was at the end of her rope.
“I never should have married you! If I’d known you were going to lead me out here to die, I never would have married you!”
Jon ignored it, shoving the words out of his mind. Finally, they came out of the woods into a wide, golden meadow. The parking lot was in sight.
“Thank God. We made it, babe,” he said with a heavy sigh. Laurie was silent, but he neither noticed nor cared. The fear receded from his mind back into the forest. With every step he regained a little bit more composure.
When they finally reached their car, Jon collapsed against the side, exhausted and spent. He couldn’t believe what just happened. No one could possibly understand what they’d just gone through—the fear, the death, the rage.
Laurie walked up to the car without looking at him.
“We made it, babe! Can you believe it? We made it.” he said.
Without responding, she got in the passenger seat and slammed the door. Jon got in the car and drove them in silence back to the lodge.
His wife did not look at him nor he at her. Once he reached over and took Laurie’s hand without looking at her and she removed her hand from his.
The next morning, they rose at dawn and left the park.