Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Uncharted (Part 1 of 4)

It wasn’t Mason’s fault. We were on a remote stretch of road – some weird detour the highway signs told us to take – when he lost control of his mom’s mini-van, crashed through a guardrail, and sent us soaring down into the ravine.

I got lucky; I was belted into the passenger’s seat. Mason had his window down and we fell through a grove of trees before landing at the bottom on the driver’s side. Let’s just say it wasn’t pretty. In the fragments of moonlight that broke through the thick canopy of leaves, it was hard to tell where the tree began and Mason ended. His body took the brunt of the branches, leaving me with just a few scratches and lifetime of nightmares.

We were all lucky, except for Mason. Connor, Trent, and Luke were strapped in and asleep in the back when it happened. They didn’t even wake up until we’d landed. I was the only one that knew we swerved for no reason. That Mason yelled “No!” before the wheel jerked to the left, taking the car across the center line and over the cliff. It was dark and I’d been zoned out until I heard him shout, but I swear the steering wheel moved by itself, and Mason was fighting to pull it back to the right side of the road when we crashed.

There was no way to untangle what was left of Mason from the tree, but the rest of us crawled out the back of the van to where we stood now, trapped between a dense forest and a sheer rock wall, hundreds of feet below the road. So far down that I couldn’t even make out the edge of the cliff in the dark. A grim thought sent a chill down my spine. Mason was the first to die, but he might not be the last.

Luke paced back and forth near the van, mumbling. He seemed oblivious to the cut on his cheek that oozed blood. Trent and Connor had their cell phones held high.

“Alex, you getting a signal?” Connor asked me.

I slipped my phone out of my pocket and checked. No bars. “Nothing.”

“Damn.” Connor pocketed his phone. “Where are we?”

I shrugged. “No clue. We took a detour a while back and ended up on some two-lane road.”

“Damn.” Connor said again. He kicked a tree limb that had broken off during our fall.

Trent finally put his phone down and turned to me. “So you saw what happened? What was it, a deer or something?”

They all looked at me, even Luke stopped pacing and turned his haunted eyes to me. I didn’t want to tell them nothing happened. That the van drove itself over the edge. I was probably wrong anyway. “Yeah, a deer.”

No one said anything. Trent just shook his head. Luke went back to pacing and Connor kicked the branch again.

“I’m sure once it’s light out someone will see the guardrail we broke through and come find us.” I sounded more sure of myself than I was, a skill I’d learned as team captain.

“I don’t think so.” It was Luke, he’d wandered away from the rest of us, down the narrow path formed by the space between the cliff wall and the edge of the forest.

Connor spoke up. “Don’t be an ass Luke, of course someone will find us.”

“Like they found them?” Luke pointed into the dark. I could just barely make out a shape in the shadows. He started walking toward it, determined. My hands broke into a cold sweat, but I followed.

Behind me I heard Trent ask, “Do you guys smell that?” But I didn’t ask what he meant. I was too busy trying not to freak out.

Luke stopped in front of a hunk of metal that had once been a station wagon. Tall grass grew around it and through the open windows. It’d definitely been here a while.

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Connor said. “Maybe it was too hard to get it out so they left it here.”

Luke’s shoulders sagged. “And left a little kid’s body behind?”

I circled around the car to where Luke stood. Moonlight shone through the windshield, lighting up the interior. A small skeleton, still wearing a blood-stained sundress, lay in a heap in the backseat, a tree branch sticking out of one eye socket. The little bit of hope I’d managed to hold onto was slipping out of my grasp. If rescuers were able to reach the survivors, they wouldn’t have left the little girl behind, would they?

Connor peered into the car. “Damn.”

Without another word, Luke spun on his heel and continued on the same path he’d started. Connor and I followed, praying we wouldn’t find another wreck. One car was a coincidence, but two... I kept replaying the seconds before the crash in my mind. Mason said “No!” and then the wheel jerked to the left, like he was telling someone not to do it.

“What about this one?” Luke’s voice was stretched thin. The haunted look he’d had while he was pacing intensified.

This wreck was an SUV. It didn’t look like it’d been there too long. Inside were four big hiking backpacks and a cooler. A partly mummified body lay on its back a few feet from the wreck, a shirt wrapped around its head like a bandage.

Luke was pacing again. “Where did they all go? Huh?”

I glanced at Connor. Even in the dark I could tell he’d gone pale. He shook his head slowly. “This’s messed up.”

“They probably went into the woods, looking for a way back to the road,” I said.

Connor’s voice got higher with every word he spoke. “And what? They never made it out?”

Something tickled the back of my neck. Alex. I wasn’t sure if I’d actually heard my name out loud, or if it was just in my head. Unless… A burst of adrenaline shot through me. “Where’s Trent?”

Connor and Luke both snapped out of it enough to look back the way we came.

Connor swore. “I thought he was coming with us?”

We all broke into a run, shouting Trent’s name.

The mini-van was exactly the way we left it except, no Trent. I listened past the sound of our panting, hoping to hear Trent yelling back at us, or at least, his footsteps in the brush. There was nothing.

The scent crept in so subtly that at first none of us noticed it. Even when I did, it was more like background noise than anything else. Until Connor asked, “Do you guys smell that?”

And I remembered. “That’s what Trent said.”

We glanced around at each other, suddenly wary. I knew what they were thinking, Is this what lead Trent away? What lead all the others away?

It wasn’t a smell I recognized but somehow it felt familiar. It had a sort of tang, like citrus, and a sort of silkiness, like roses, but it wasn’t either of them. It was the scent of something beautiful, and strange, and... scary. Because I knew in my gut that a scent like that shouldn’t be in the middle of the woods. It was wrong.

Alex. It was a whisper, but not. In my head, but coming from deep in the woods. I knew it. The scent seemed to be moving. Like a body with a tail, there was a cluster where the scent was strongest and it was slowly heading toward the forest. I realized we were all shifting slightly, leaning towards the smell. In the back of my mind, I knew it could be dangerous, but the more I breathed it in, the more I wanted to follow where it lead. It held a promise. Alex. Come with me and everything will be alright.

I took a step toward the woods – there was something glowing in there – and heard Connor and Luke do the same. I wondered if they could see the light too. I took another step and the rest of the world faded, like someone had put it on mute.

From behind me I heard a faint, “What the hell?” I stopped to look back over my shoulder, but was overwhelmed by the scent and that whisper-that-wasn’t-a-whisper. Alex. Come with me, it’s the only way out. Yes. How could I forget? We needed to get help. I turned back to the woods and walked faster.

“Alex! Don’t go in there!” Luke. He sounded panicked.

I had only a second to wonder why before I was enveloped by trees with leaves like tiny hands.

Up next: Part 2 by Anne. Come back next Tuesday to see how the story unfolds!

photo via weheartit.com


L.J. Boldyrev said...

Ooh! Great imagery! This is going to be fun!

Valerie Kemp said...

Thanks Lacey! I can't wait to see what happens next!

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