I’m not sure what Lisa, the last of my four sisters, had been up to this morning. Probably helping search since she is an avid hiker. She’s spent most of the trip up here glued to her phone texting her boyfriend. He’d had a freelance project that had to be finished – meaning he couldn’t risk an uncertain wifi connection – and had stayed in NYC. I had a suspicion he’d have gotten more done had he come along.
That was probably why she wasn’t now glued to her phone – he actually had to work. Lisa does three things: talks to her boyfriend, studies and walks. She’d sleep on her feet if she could. So where normal people would have had enough hiking for one day, she was now ready to go on the group hike we’d planned.
There really should have been more groaning. We’d all been up since dawn or too close to it, in my case, and on our feet pretty much all morning. But no, not only was there next to no complaint – and I’m not sure we should count Mike’s since he just didn’t want to give Jane and Tina a shot at getting even – everyone seemed to be excited about it. I didn’t want to be the only one griping, so despite a strong preference for an afternoon nap, I was making darn sure Crystal was on my team.
I succeed there – ended up with Kevin, Clifton and Tim to round it out. This was Donna and Marty’s doing – neither of them like just hiking so they had lobbied well before the trip for a scavenger hunt of sorts. We would have three teams, each with a copy of a field guide, and we would have four hours to find ten different types of leaves, one funny looking stick (extra points for the funniest) and assorted other things you can easily find in the woods and not make the park mad at you.
I was feeling tired, not competitive, which was probably why I wasn’t enjoying it as much as the others. Still, it was better than our last family trip when Lisa dragged us halfway up a mountain to see a dried up creek bed.
We found a trail and set off. We had completed most of the list inside of the first thirty minutes – Clifton got all the leaves before we were ten yards down the trail. But the ‘funny looking stick’ was still eluding us. With my parents as judges, I knew what would amuse them most – but the woods weren’t yielding any likely candidates.
It was a nice hike. good company, something entertaining to do – it really wasn’t bad at all. But I still wasn’t really feeling like I should. I kept thinking it was just the tiredness but now my nerves were playing with me. I felt – off. Not uneasy, not like we were being watched, just like things weren’t right.
No one else seemed to have similar feelings. Crystal was absolutely bubbly – that right there made the hike worthwhile. Kevin and Tim were having a good time learning from Clifton about tree sap – I’m just reporting the topic; I wasn’t paying attention to it. I was the only stick in the mud, doing my best not to show it.
We’d been out about two hours when Clifton’s radio buzzed. The ranger’s office was asking him to come back in but didn’t say exactly why. He figured paperwork since he’d helped with some of the organization for the morning’s search parties. Tim decided to accompany him and take our finds back to the lodge – and dragged Kevin with him. God bless that brother of mine.
That left my gorgeous girlfriend alone with me to find a funny looking stick. A well marked trail, a lovely afternoon and a beautiful girl all to myself – NOW I was feeling it!
Walking and talking, we followed the trail. Crystal spotted a fallen tree just off the trail and we found a broken branch that looked like an old couple trying to kiss – but missing. Two branches had grown together and one had died before the tree – at least that’s how Crystal explained the weird formation. We took it – it was honestly the only stick that had struck me as funny all day.
We still had time so we went further down the trail instead of turning back. I was really enjoying myself for the first time. I don’t get to be alone with Crystal like this much – families are that way – so I was in no hurry for it to end.
In the back of my head, something bugged me. That feeling again – something was just not right. But it was way back in the back of my head – even weirdness has a lot to compete with in Crystal. Still, it started to grow. Not right became really not right. Really not right became uneasy.
Lovely splashes of sun through the lush green trees took a somber note for no real reason. Chatting love birds grew quieter in each other’s company but neither knew why. The noisy woodland became eerily, even deathly quiet. Something was wrong.
Crystal and I looked at each other, knowing now that we both were having the same experience. I sense no creature and neither did she, but the forest felt heavy, dark. Something seemed uncanny about the day – the sun was still bright, the breeze still perfect and yet it was as if we’d stepped into another, similar but sinisterly different dimension.
We came to a bend in the trail and went around a large tree growing in that bend. Just past it was a clearing – a tiny glen, Crystal says. Still overshadowed by trees but with no undergrowth to speak of. It did have something in it – you just won’t believe me when I tell you what.
Heck, I don’t believe me and I was looking at the thing.