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Dani liked to hike. She especially liked to hike in weather that deterred other hikers. She sought out the wind, rain, and snow with the same vigor softer people did sixty-five degrees and sunny. So she took that afternoon off work and headed into the mountains, the summits all shrouded in mist, the sky a sheet of rolled metal. Driving up the winding fire roads, Dani watched the signal on her phone go from 4G down to just a scrolling bar proclaiming NO SERVICE.

The parking lot at her chosen trailhead was unusually crowded, considering the weather. A white van sat next to the turn off the road, its cab empty. A faded yellow car was backed up to the sign for the trailhead, its engine running. Dani parked next to it, got out, and retrieved her pack from the back seat. There was a woman sitting in the yellow car, staring out at the road. She didn't move when Dani slammed her door shut.

The hike took all afternoon, and by the time Dani returned to the parking lot the dim daylight was draining away. The van was gone, but the yellow car was still there. The engine was off but it's hazard lights were on now, and she could hear the slow clicks that accompanied each blink. The car's driver side door was open wide, almost touching the side of Dani's car. On the window and door, Dani could see smears of something.

She took a few tentative steps towards the car. In the fading light it seemed like blood. Perhaps it had been like that before, and she just hadn't noticed. But then where was the woman? Dani looked through the car's rear windows and saw only a heap of clothes in the backseat. She went for her phone, remembered the lack of service, and then instead reached into one of the pack's side pockets and removed a tiny satellite phone. The most important feature of this phone was the nickel sized SOS button on its side. She had never pressed it before. Her finger traced the raised letters on the button, unsure.

What if the person the van belonged to had abducted the woman? Dani was sure this thought's strength and immediacy was entirely the result of the true crime binge she was on. She was filling her time with books and movies and shows all about the worst things people can do to one another. Not all vans are bad, she reasoned, just some vans. Her parents had a van and all they ever did with it was take their dog to the park. But what if this van was some vans? What if, as she stood here debating, that poor woman was being tortured in the back of that van? She prodded the SOS button again.

What if it wasn't blood at all, what if it was rust or paint and the woman she had seen was just hiking? Maybe the woman was careless, or the old car's door didn't latch. Dani wasn't even sure what would happen if she pushed the SOS button. Who did it call, the police? Some kind of wilderness rescue? What if she pushed the button and then the woman reappeared unharmed? Dani took her finger off the button.

What if it was an animal? There were bears out here, there were rumors of mountain lions. Although Dani thought an animal attack would result in more blood, not just the small splatter on the glass and the trickle down the door. Her mind wandered towards other creatures, a parade of Sasquatch, Batsquatch, other squatches. Irrational, but the thought lurked there regardless. But an animal attack didn't explain why those hazards were on. Finger back on the button.

Dani thought she saw something move then, just on the edge of her vision. She whirled around and almost pressed the SOS. A little disgusted with herself she set the sat phone down on the hood of her car and turned to face the woods. Of course something moved. She wasn't the only thing out here, and as the minutes pulled toward dusk the night creatures were beginning to stir. She hated when people came out to the woods and expected it to be sterile. Dani was smarter than that, more experienced. She was not going to summon help because of rustling leaves.

Continuing in this rational state she considered the door again. She took out her phone and snapped a few pictures of what she was now sure was blood, then took a picture of the license plate. She would drive down to where there was service and call the police, explain what she had seen, and see what they said. Satisfied with her plan Dani went to retrieve the sat phone from the hood of the car.

It was gone.

It wasn't gone she told herself, it had just fallen. The sat phone was plastic, the car hood was angled, it had slipped off. She used the light on her phone to search around the front of the car. Nothing. Nothing on either side. Nothing in the brush at the edge of the lot. Just nothing.

Then more movement to Dani's right.

Then to her left.

She reached back into her pocket and came out with her knife, snapped the blade out, swept the surrounding woods with light. From behind her, the sound of crunching gravel. Spinning towards the noise her phone slipped, fell, bounced under the yellow car. She was there, crouched down reaching, when the crunching noise resumed. Finally grasping the phone she swept the light up and looked. A pair of eyes looked back.


Image of Through the Woods


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