This story is by Cullin Morgan and won an honorable mention in our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Cullin Morgan is a first-time publishing author. He writes magical realism with elements of horror. He lives in Michigan where he is currently working on developing a short story anthology that he hopes to someday publish. He thanks you for reading his work.
When June first started the trail, she’d set herself apart from the other thru-hikers, preferring to travel solo. Now, at the tail end of the season, there were only a few of those thru-hikers left. Some days June didn’t see another human at all. She typically preferred it this way, despite her family’s warnings.
“Don’t walk alone,” they’d said. Her mom’s voice rang in her ears. “You’re a woman, Junie. I know you’re strong, but what if someone takes you, hurts you? Women shouldn’t travel alone; it isn’t safe.” And June boiled inside. Apart from the fact that no one in her social circle could or would hike the 2,190 miles to Katahdin with her, she shouldn’t have to have a buddy. Yes there were risks—she’d read the statistics about women who hike alone—but there were too many things in this life that she “shouldn’t do” because she was a woman. This wasn’t going to be one of those things.
So she bought pepper spray, bear spray—all the sprays—and she bought a knife. Then she laced up her boots, flew to Georgia, Ubered to Springer Mountain and said, “screw the patriarchy.”
Then she met Spec. He really came out of nowhere. June hadn’t seen him with the rest when she first started. She guessed that he’d begun earlier and somehow she must have caught up to him. He was short and skinny, and he wore one of those old external frames with his sleeping bag and pots tied to the metal bars, looking just like a boy scout.
He was a spitfire. At every flat surface (and there weren’t many in Vermont) he would break into a sprint with his full pack and yell over his shoulder, “Come on! Keep up or I’ll leave you behind!” At night when they needed to tie up their food bags, he would climb a tall oak like Spiderman rather than sling his food over like everyone else. He was always like this, full of energy and laughter, and always keeping June on her toes. She was exhausted, but she was excited too.
At first his erratic energy put her on edge, but after a week of hiking together, he’d grown on her. June, to her surprise, had actually started to think of him as a friend. At night they would look at the stars and talk. Sometimes about big things, sometimes about nothing at all. One time Spec had dropped his goofy persona and in earnest confided that he wanted to be the first Asian American to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, that he’d wanted nothing more in all his life. June said she was pretty sure there had been several Asian American thru-hikers already. But he protested.
“No, I’ve read all the records. None of them have been of Asian heritage.”
June had also read all the records, and she knew that wasn’t true, but she didn’t want to break his spirit, so she let it go.
“What about you?” he asked.
“Me?” She looked over at his face glowing from the campfire.
“Why are you here?”
She considered it. Weren’t there so many reasons? No, she thought, just one.
“Because people told me I couldn’t, or that I wouldn’t. And I believed them.” She watched him sit with her answer. He seemed to understand it. “Why do they call you Spec?”
He smiled. “Because I’m flakey.”
“Yeah, you know, like I come and go. For a while I would pop into people’s groups along the trail and then just disappear. Then, later I might see them again. They started calling me the Specter. Because I guess I ‘ghosted’ them.”
“That mean you going to ditch me too?” June gave a pathetic laugh, trying not to sound like she cared.
He looked at her, again in earnest. “I hope not.”
And she could tell that was true. But watching his sad eyes flickering with the last of the flames, something about his response made her uneasy.
In the morning they agreed to stay one more night on the trail and then hike into town for some food that wasn’t granola. They talked dreamily of the food they would get and agreed that no matter the entrée, they would cheers with big tall pints of beer. But by midday something was wrong with Spec. It started slow, like he had lost some of his spunk.
“You okay?” she asked. She’d never once seen him tired.
“Yeah. Just feeling off.”
But he looked anxious, a look that grew in severity as the day went on. For several hours neither of them talked, until suddenly, in the afternoon, he fell to his knees, crying out in pain. June turned quickly, running back to him.
“Did you trip? Is it your ankle?”
“No—aaahhh. It’s—ahhhh—I don’t know. I don’t feel right.” His hands grabbed at the dirt as he hunched on the ground, his head hung and his eyes closed, groaning.
“We should call someone, or—” She looked down at the foot of the closest hills. The town sat in a foggy haze, unaware of the two of them above. “I can run down and get some help.”
“NO!” He burst out. “Please, don’t leave me. Let’s make camp. I’ll feel better in the morning.”
She conceded, reluctant. But this space was not suited for camp, full of rocks and roots and an odd feeling that hung over it. All night she doted on him—made him food, gave him her extra power bar, boiled tea, and dug out some Aspirin from her pack. And though he tried to convince her otherwise, June could tell he wasn’t getting better. Just before they went to sleep, he turned to her and, looking afraid, said:
“June? If I’m not here in the morning . . . go to town without me.”
She rolled her body to face him and said confidently, “Go to sleep, Spec. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Okay,” he whispered.
June woke up alone. Not a sign of Spec was left. His pack, his food sack, his sleeping bag, all gone. Like a good hiker, he left no trace. Not even the space where he had fallen showed any signs of his existence. When June began to worry, she remembered what Spec had said about meeting in town and set off downhill.
The town was quaint. It was a cloudy day and small twinkling lights hung from the trees around the sidewalks. A large clock stood in the town center. June paused at the base of it and stared into its face. She wondered if there was a doctor in town. Maybe Spec had gotten worse and gone to find help on his own. But as the long hand ticked off another minute, she knew where she’d find him.
There was only one bar in town. The smell of fries wafted through the air as June entered, making her sigh with hunger. She searched all the tables and booths, walking up and down the small aisle, but there was no sign of him. She had been sure he would meet her here.
“Excuse me.” She approached the bartender. “Have you seen a shorter, kind of skinny guy here? He’s Chinese; he has a pack kind of like mine?”
The bartender’s face tightened in thought. “Hmm. I see a lot of hikers, so it’s possible, but I’m not sure I’d remember.”
“Sure, yeah, that makes sense,” June replied, visibly discouraged. As she began to leave, the bartender called to her.
“Check that board to the left of the door. Sometimes when hikers miss each other they leave little notes and we put them on that board.”
Clinging to hope, June searched through the post-it notes, the chicken-scratched napkins, the scribbled receipts. No sign of him.
To the left of these, yellowed with age, were missing persons flyers. Some of them had numbers to call fringed at the bottom. June shuddered as she read them. A few were more recent, 2021, 2017, 2013; but the bulk of them were older: the 90s, even the 80s. The oldest was from 1972, a boy named “Wu Hui.” All of them had pictures, but this one was grey and faded. June squinted up at the face and stared deep into his eyes. And then, in a flash, icy clarity shot down the back of her spine. She stepped back, bumping into a group of patrons. “Sorry,” June muttered and stumbled out onto the street.
The picture was grainy, but she knew. A ringing was growing louder in her ears. She realized she had never asked Spec his real name. As she looked out at the thick fog that was rolling in, she knew she never would. The mist unfurled itself like a ghostly beast whose long arms clouded all the spaces she’d walked so far. Where she had walked alone.