The crisp September sky blazed with a blue so rich it was almost tactile, and Rosa was sure its weight would someday make it peel off from the heavens and fall to earth and smother them all, except that the trees, still green for a few more weeks at least, reached up and pushed back, keeping the sky up and the earth down and straining with all their might to keep the two apart.
Rosa leaned back and took in a deep breath, letting the air fill her lungs and push them against her ribs until it almost hurt. The smells were colors, greens and reds and browns, and the cool air the spirits that helped them flow.
The door behind her swung open and the kids came out. About an hour ago the three of them, two young men and a young lady, stumbled out of the woods and came running up to her as if they had never thought they’d see another human again. Rosa had needed to put on the Big Hat to calm them down. She didn’t know why it worked, but the Smokey the Bear hat was reassuring to campers and hikers. It let them know they were safe. The three of them settled down and told their story. Rosa took them into the cabin and let them have some crackers and coffee, and their confused sentences slowed down until they started to make sense.
“She wasn’t there when we woke up,” said the taller of the two men, the one called Chris.
“I thought maybe she’d gone for a walk.” The woman, Becca.
“But that’s not like her at all. She’s the one who least wanted to come here.”
The other man, Mark, was quiet. He was rattled. Rosa had seen that look before.
“We made breakfast,” Chris continued, “then went out looking for her.”
“We didn’t go far,” Becca picked up the thread, “we didn’t make any turns, we just walked. And then we couldn’t find our way back.”
“Those woods can be tricky,” Rosa reassured them. “I’ve gotten lost in them myself. Your friend–what’s her name?”
“Neeta. Very well. Let’s get in my truck and head back to your campsite. We’ll start from there. Neeta’s been gone since morning, but I doubt she’s gotten very far.”
“Park Ranger Vasquez,” Mark spoke. He was hunched over his coffee as if to trap the steam under himself. “I don’t want to go back.”
Rosa told them that they could finish their coffee and crackers while she called the other stations to see if they’d found her. During that time she was sure the other two would convince him to come.
Which they did. Rosa counted three sets of footsteps before she walked over to her truck and motioned for them to follow.
By then Neeta had been walking for more than twelve hours. She was hungry and tired. It had been a few hours since the last time she called out to her friends.
She found it funny that she kept reflexively reaching for her phone, remembering each time only after her hand was in her pocket that she had deliberately left her phone in the car because there was no reception out here anyway. Even funnier was that she never reached for her phone to call somebody. She was always going to check for a map. If she had her phone, though, she wouldn’t need a map, she’d just call for help. “When I get back I’m going to stop calling it a phone,” she thought to herself. She had left her phone, but also her camera, map, travel guide, and flashlight. It just that they were all the same thing. “I’ll just call it my life device from now on.”
What had happened that morning was still unclear to her. They had driven in the day before for a bit of camping. Neeta was not a camper, happy or otherwise, but Becca said it was stupid to come this far and not do any camping, so they rented equipment from the guest house they were staying in and followed signs to the national park. The map showed a small round lake in the center of the woods, and they had made that a vague destination, but once the road stopped–and though the map swore that the road went all the way through, in fact it came to a sudden stop a few miles in–they had to walk, and that meant that they could only go as far as the laziest of them would allow.
About a mile later they found a clearing that had once been a campsite. A small stream ran nearby, and a circle of stones marked where a fire had once been. They set up their tents, the two guys in one-man tents and Becca and Neeta sharing an oversized family tent.
In the middle of the night Neeta realized she was alone. Becca must have snuck off to Mark’s tent. They didn’t need to sneak, of course, but perhaps old habits die hard. Neeta turned over in her sleeping bag and tried to go back to sleep, but couldn’t despite being exhausted. A strange feeling overcame her, a sense that she was being called. She opened her eyes and there was somebody standing in her tent, the size of a man but a different shape entirely. As she watched it knelt down and moved closer to her. She startled, and it was gone. She felt herself wake up from her sleep, and now she was on her back looking up at the tent. A vivid dream but nothing more, except that the feeling she had before was still there, even though the figure was gone.
Neeta turned again in her sleeping bag and her face pressed against dry earth. She sat up quickly and saw she was outside beside her tent. There were no other tents around, and this wasn’t the campsite she had fallen asleep in. Her tent was on a rocky beach, on the edge of a lake. The water was the same purplish blue as the night sky, with the moon and stars reflected on its still water so she couldn’t be sure what was up and what was down. “Guys?” she called out. The only answer came from a bird she must have woken.
Her skin crawled. Barefoot and cold, she went back into her tent, which was as it always was. Becca’s empty sleeping bag was still warm, as if she had just gotten up. Through the screen window she looked out towards the campsite, where the guys’ tent were set up. Mark had a light on, and she could see two silhouettes inside.
And she was sure she was being called. Without fully taking control of herself, Neeta got herself dressed for a hike, stuffed her pockets with energy bars, grabbed a water bottle and walked away. Whenever she tried to ask herself why, her mind would drift away.
Twelve hours later she was still walking, and it was still dark.
“We went down that road,” the one named Chris pointed. “I remember that sign, that’s where we turned.” The sign was a mile marker that had been twisted years ago.
“There used to be another sign behind it,” Rosa told them. “It said ‘Do Not Enter.'” She stopped the truck and got out. The sign was there, face down on the ground. She picked it up and examined it, then propped it up against the twisted mile marker.
“We didn’t do that,” Chris said.
“I know. Looks like a branch fell off a tree and knocked it over. I’ll put it back up later. Let me ask you this, though. Why’d you come over here? The better campsites are by the north entrance, which is closer to town anyway. Why’d you come down here?”
Chris flustered a little. “We didn’t know.”
“We’ve never been camping before,” Becca said. “I mean, not since, like Girl Scouts.”
“I was never a Girl Scout,” Chris stammered. They were kind of adorable, Rosa decided. Becca’s hiking boots were a designer brand, heavy and entirely inappropriate for a real hike unless they planned on walking over lava. When she wasn’t in her own regulation boots–which, like the hat, were more for show than anything else, though both hat and boots served just fine–she preferred sneakers. Comfort matters.
“It looked like this road passed by the lake,” Chris finally explained. “We thought the lake would be a good place to camp. But then the road stopped.”
“The road washed out a long time ago and we never fixed it. We try to discourage people from going to the lake,” Rosa explained.
“Oh, lots of reasons. It’s a migratory stop for Rengell swallows, the only one for hundreds of miles. We tried to make it into a bird sanctuary but Congress said no. They don’t want to protect a bird that isn’t endangered, though if they lost this as a stop they might become endangered, and then the regulations that would follow would actually be worse for everyone. So we just try to keep people away. Without, you know, breaking any rules.”
“Sorry,” Becca said. The truck trundled down the deteriorating road.
“There’s other reasons, too,” Rosa continued. “There’s bears out here. We have a couple of aggressive males that have carved out territory for themselves down here. And then there’s the fact that the woods here are really dense and wild, not like in the northern part of the park. The trails have mostly disappeared, and there aren’t many natural landmarks. People get lost.”
“There’s the lake,” Chris offered.
“Right,” Rosa said drolly. “The lake is… It’s something. I’m guessing this is your car.” She stopped the truck behind the parked Rav4 and they got out, except for Mark, who hesitated at his open door.
“Come on, dummy,” Becca said, offering him a hand. Mark looked past her into the woods.
Chris spoke more firmly. “Let’s go, buddy. We gotta find Neeta. It’s starting to get dark.”
Rosa turned to look at him. Mark didn’t look like the kind to be afraid of the woods. He was a muscular young man, and everything from his face to his clothes suggested confidence and self-possession. Except that right now, and since they had stumbled out of the woods, he had been afraid. Only a little at first, but whatever it was it was getting worse.
“Park Ranger Vasquez,” he said, in his odd and childishly formal way, “you said there’s bears in there?”
She naturally slipped on a matronly tone of voice. “They’re not going to hurt you. We call them Yogi and Boo Boo. And their territories are far from here.”
He wasn’t assuaged. “Is there anything else in there?”
“Like what?” He looked at her with wide eyes and slowly shrugged.
Rosa cocked her head and took a step towards him. She took off her het, too. “Did you see something?”
He looked at her, and at his friends, and then blinked hard, shook his head, and got out of the car. He went to Becca’s side and took her hand. Chris started walking into the woods.
“We went that way,” he said, and led the other two in. Rosa watched Mark for a few moments. Whatever was wrong with him was starting to bother her, too. She hoped they would find the lost friend at the camp waiting. Rosa spent all day every day out in these woods, but today, with this freaked out young man, she wanted to make sure she was back home before it got too dark.
Neeta filled her bottle in the creek and drank it all down while she ate an energy bar. The bars might have provided enough calories and vitamins and whatnot, but they tasted like chalk and weren’t especially filling. It was all she had, though. She even remembered her elementary school no littering lessons and kept the empty wrappers in her pocket.
She was doing her best to walk straight, because in her memory the national park was only about fifteen miles across at its widest, and there were towns and roads all around it. There weren’t any marked trails to follow, but it shouldn’t have been possible for her to go this far without bumping into anything or anyone, unless she was going in circles. Even then, though, she should have been able to find the lake by now.
But then again, the sun should have come up by now. Maybe she just didn’t have any concept of the passing of time.
Behind her a tree branch snapped, and she turned quickly. Her eyes had adjusted to the dark as much as they could, and moonlight shot through the tree cover in places like gossamer lances, but basically everything was dark.
“Guys?” she said to the shadows. It was all shadows. Shadows within shadows, a progression from gray to purple to black and thence to a void. Neeta reached into her pocket for her flashlight, remembering again too late that it was still in the car. “Stupid life device,” she mumbled to herself.
One of the shadows moved, a perceptible if indescribable shift in the dark. She remembered the figure that she’d seen or dreamed in her tent, the thing that was like a man but wasn’t, that had leaned forward to look at her. There was something in the shadows, and it was moving. Neeta stood and backed away, and then calmly reassuring herself she turned and walked away.
There was a lake here, she told herself. It wasn’t huge but pretty big. If she just went straight she must either walk towards it or away from it. Either way she could orient herself and get out.
Another branch snapped behind her, and then another. She heard a grunting sound and a heavy breath and surprised herself by hoping that it was a bear or a wolf or something, because it certainly didn’t sound like an animal. It sounded like something awful, and a wolf or bear would be better than whatever could make a sound like that.
The branches snapped faster, then the cascading sounds of the woods being torn open, getting closer, and Neeta ran as fast as she could, risking a twisted ankle or worse as she bounded over fallen trees and piles of rocks, ducking under low branches and twisting around brambles and bushes in the way.
The ground gave way under her. She had reached a slope, unseen in the dark, and was sliding down a chute of leaves and rocks. When she came to a stop she was out of breath and bleeding. She looked up and saw it, whatever it was, standing at the top of the hill, looking around for her. She only got a glimpse, though, before putting her head back on the ground and trying to hold her breath.
She turned her head to the side so she could breathe and there, half-concealed under a bush, she saw a face looking back at her. A recognizably human face, small and female with big brown eyes that darted from Neeta’s face to whatever it was up on the hill. Neeta tried to understand what that face was communicating. Was the thing coming down?
The girl under the bush brought a finger up to her lips and mimed a shush. Neeta stayed still. The girl looked up at the top of the hill, watching, perfectly still. All Neeta could hear what the sound of her own blood pumping in her ears. She wasn’t even breathing, and by now her lungs burned.
All at once the girl under the bush sprang fully to her feet and ran to Neeta. She reached out a hand and grabbed Neeta, who tried to spring up as quickly but failed. The girl leaped straight over her and ran into the shadows on the other side. Neeta dove feet-first behind a bush and whirled around to catch herself before hitting the ground. The girl was beside her, having already rolled herself under a bush. Neeta couldn’t fit, so she pressed herself flat against the dirt and leaves.
The figure–man, creature, monster, whatever–crunched on branches and leaves as it came down the slope, but Neeta heard it stop, grunt loudly, and then turn around.
The two of them stayed frozen until the only sounds left were the sounds of the night, of owls and crickets and wind.
The girl put her finger to her lips again, and then reached out to Neeta, slowly this time. Neeta took her little hand and they stood up. The girl motioned for Neeta to follow, and as quietly as they could they walked down the slope.
“She’s still not here,” Chris said. Mark sat down on a camp chair next to the fire pit. Becca and Chris poked around the site a bit, as if Neeta might be hiding under a pillow.
“So walk me through what happened,” Rosa said, crouching down next to the fire pit. It wasn’t well-made. They were lucky they didn’t set the woods on fire.
Chris explained first. “So we ate and hung out, but we were tired from setting up the tents and stuff so we went to bed early.”
“We thought in the morning we’d get up and hike around the lake,” Becca said. Rosa looked at Becca’s ridiculous boots. From here, all the way around the lake, it was maybe ten miles. Unlikely that she would enjoy it in those shoes.
“So everyone went to bed? Was anybody drinking? Drugs?” They all looked at her. “Listen, guys, I don’t care, I just need to know if she wandered away drunk or high.”
Becca answered. “We had some beers, but Neeta doesn’t drink. That was all.”
“Okay,” Rosa said. “So you woke up and she was gone already?”
“Actually,” Becca said, “Chris found out first. I, uh, was in Mark’s tent.” Mark’s tent was tiny, the kind that professionals use when scaling mountains, almost exactly big enough for one person. Rosa was puzzled for a moment, given that the bigger tent could sleep four easily, but it didn’t actually matter where anybody slept, and she certainly didn’t care.
“We’re kind of a secret,” Becca said sheepishly. Before Rosa could wave her off, she continued. “My parents are basically super racist–“
“They aren’t racist,” Mark defended.
“They’re my parents, I can say they’re racist. Anyway, they don’t approve, and Neeta, you know, she talks a lot.”
“Fair enough,” Rosa sighed. “So Chris, you found her in the morning.”
“Her tent was open, so I peeked in to offer her coffee and she wasn’t there. Her hiking boots were gone, and a bunch of energy bars, so I figured she went hiking.”
“So we all went to look for her.”
“We split up.”
There the story stopped. Rosa had been poking around the campsite when they stopped talking. She looked up with an arched eyebrow. “And then?”
Becca sighed. “We all got lost.”
Chris continued. “Like, I could hear everyone calling her name, and then suddenly I couldn’t. It was real weird.”
“And how long were you lost for?”
They all looked at each other. Mark used his heel to scrape at the ground, exposing the hard earth under the loose topsoil.
“A while,” Becca finally offered. “I was starting to panic when I bumped into Chris, and then a little while later Mark came running at us.”
“I thought he was an animal attacking,” Chris laughed. “I was about to hit him with a stick.”
Rosa turned to Mark. “Why were you running, Mark?” But he only shrugged. She gave him some time to offer a better answer but he instead looked down to the little ditch he was making with his heel.
Chris finished the story. “We all ran together, and then we were out of the woods and saw you.”
“So we’re all caught up then,” Rosa said as she stood up. “Your friend went this way,” she said, pointing at footprints that led away from the tent. The prints were from a woman’s shoe, and not Becca’s boots. “Let’s stick together. Splitting up isn’t a good idea out here. If we can’t find her in an hour we’ll turn around and get more help.”
The little girl led Neeta to a spot where a couple of logs had fallen onto each other, making something like a shelter. She ducked to fit in; Neeta nearly had to crawl.
“You shouldn’t be out right now,” she said in a papery whisper.
“What’s your name?” Neeta asked. Her voice was still too loud. The girl winced at the sound. She looked to be about ten years old.
“Yesenia. Where are you from?”
Neeta answered honestly. “Vermont.” The girl looked skeptical, so she elaborated. “My parents are from Pakistan.” The girl still looked unconvinced. “Where are you from?”
“Oklahoma,” she deadpanned, and then stared. It was a bit disconcerting. Her eyes were huge, her face small. Her black hair was tied back in a pony tail, and though she was very thin she still had baby fat on her cheeks, and probably would for her whole life.
“What was that thing?” Neeta asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Is this where you live?” Yesenia didn’t respond. “How long have you been here?”
Yesenia didn’t acknowledge the question. “It’s getting dark. You can’t go out at night. That’s when he comes.”
“Why were you out?”
“I thought you were someone else.”
Neeta looked around at the spot under the logs. There was a small stash of berries and nuts, and a Hello Kitty water bottle that had seen better days. Yesenia had a small pink backpack that she was smeared with mud, probably on purpose. It was half-buried under a piece of bark.
“How long have you been here?” Neeta asked. Yesenia shook her head.
“Speak softer. He hears everything.”
“Where are your parents?” Yesenia shrugged.
The girl sat with her knees up to her chest and ate a few nuts. How long had she been here to figure out what was edible and what wasn’t? Neeta had a few more energy bars. She offered one to the girl, and Yesenia lunged for it, her face beaming. She unwrapped it greedily, smiled, and took a bite and stopped smiling. Even compared to nuts and berries the energy bar was not pleasant. Neeta felt bad. Yesenia had probably expected a candy bar.
“What do we do now?” Neeta asked, unwrapping her own unpleasant energy bar. Yesenia shrugged. “When will it be morning?”
“In a few hours.”
“It’s been dark for a long time.”
The girl nodded. “It’s always dark. It’s one of the tricks he does. He hides the sun. But if you’re paying attention you can tell when it’s day. That’s when you can go out.”
“The Harache Indians used to call this forest Palhuanl, which depending on how you translate it means ‘The Sacred Lake’ or ‘The Waters of the Dead.'” Rosa told the story while they walked. “The Spanish called it Lago Escondido. The lake was on the only map the Spanish drew of the area, but for years everyone assumed it was the mapmaker’s little joke because nobody ever saw any lake here at all. When the Americans took over they called the whole thing Hidden Forest, and made no mention of the lake. And then the airport opened in town in 1946, and someone saw the lake from the air. And so now it’s back on the map, Lago Escondido. Though on some maps you’ll see Escondido Lake, which just seems silly to me.”
“How come it was so hard to find?” Becca asked.
“I don’t know,” Rosa answered. “Probably not that many people tried. But there’s some big mineral deposits under the soil, it tends to mess up compasses. People get lost here all the time. It’s really only for experienced hikers. There’s no facilities south of the lake, to discourage newbies.” Becca and Chris both blushed a little. Mark, big tough guy that he was, wouldn’t let go of Becca’s hand.
“Have you been to the lake?” Chris asked. “Is it even real?”
Rosa laughed. “Yes, it’s real. If you know how to get there. You just have to be good at keeping your bearings. And stay out of the way of the birds. It’s actually quite pretty, has a sort of mystical vibe to it. The water is typically very still, and it reflects really nicely.”
“Park Ranger Vasquez–“
“You can just call me Rosa.”
Mark stammered, then began again. “Park Ranger Rosa…” He trailed off and weighed that. Didn’t feel right. “Ma’am, why did they called it the Dead Lake?”
“‘Waters of the Dead,'” she corrected. “Or the Sacred Lake. I don’t know why, exactly. The last of the Harache died out more than twenty years ago, and anyway they were relocated far from here a long time before that. But that’s a different depressing story. The legend I was told once, and I don’t know if it’s original or the guy just made it up, but the Harache believed that they came from the lake originally, that it was the gateway that led to their heaven or something. It was protected by their god, whose job it was to bring the dead to the lake, and to bring new lives from the afterworld back to this one, and to keep everybody else out.”
They walked on for a bit, sometimes shouting out for Neeta, never doing anything more than startling little creatures.
“Much better documented,” Rosa continued, because she was kind of having fun messing with Mark, “are various stories from the Spanish era about these woods. The Spanish went to war with the Harache in the early 1800s, and the Harache had a habit of escaping into this forest. Spanish troops that followed them in had unusual casualty rates, including entire units that were never seen again. The Harache gained a reputation for being cannibals, though of course that was nonsense. The survivors, though, told some fantastic tales of man-eating monsters in the woods, of trails that changed direction at will, of nights that never ended.”
“Why do you think they said all that?” Becca asked.
“Look around. These woods are spooky. Even by the standards of the 1800s this is primitive wilderness. A Spanish soldier coming here from one of the cities would be just as disoriented as, well, you. And you’re not even being attacked by desperate and clever Harache. This was a time where myths and superstition were taken at face value, and the unexplained was allowed to remain unexplained. They must have just freaked out.” Everyone looked over at Mark, who pretended not to notice.
“Beautiful, though, isn’t it? I can see why the Harache would have thought of it as a gateway to heaven.”
Mark hesitated as he spoke. “Park Ranger–Rosa, people who get lost here, they get found again, right?”
Rosa smiled at him. “Yes, Mark. They’re usually just a little bit away from where they were last seen. But sometimes people do get completely lost. There was a family, maybe six or seven years ago. Mom, Dad, two girls. It’s actually how I got transferred to this post; they needed someone who spoke good Spanish. The mom came into the station saying she’d lost her family, and she didn’t speak any English, her kids always translated for her.”
“What happened?” Chris asked.
“I don’t know. She didn’t really make any sense. Said a bad man had come for them; we don’t really have crime out here, except drunk college kids during Spring Break–no offense. So we searched for a week, combed the whole park from the air and the ground, never found a trace of any of them.”
“How old were the kids?” Becca asked.
“I don’t remember. The older girl was a teenager, the little one maybe ten. I figure they all probably drowned. The lake is deeper than it looks. But who knows.”
“How long do you plan on staying here?”
“Do you have any food?”
She pointed to the nuts and berries.
“This is crazy.” Neeta stood up. “There’s a city of 200,000 people not twenty miles from here. There’s a gas station just outside the park gate, I know. And there’s roads everywhere, I saw them.” Lesson learned: never leave your life device.
Yesenia reached her hand out and pulled Neeta back down. “Please.”
Her eyes were so wide, her face so serious, that a chill passed through Neeta and she sat down. It was crazy, but she remembered whatever it was that had followed her, and she stopped.
“How did you end up here?” she asked the girl.
Yesenia looked at her backpack and water bottle and then up at the sky before answering. “I came with my family. Dad wanted to go camping, he said he did it all the time when he was a kid and he wanted to take me and Maria before Maria got too old to enjoy it. And then in the night he came.”
She grew distant then. After a while she wiped away a tear. Neeta wasn’t sure what to do. Should she give the girl a hug or something? She had zero experience with children.
“We were too loud. He came.” She weighed her words carefully. “He ate them. My dad. And then Maria. I ran. He chased my mom.”
It was probably the first time she’d said those words out loud. Neeta shuddered, and Yesenia fought back tears. They both stopped suddenly, though, when they heard the voices.
“Neeta!” A bright streak of white flashed through the night. “Neeta!” The light focused on a tree like a small moon come to earth. “Neeta!”
Yesenia nearly panicked. She threw her hands over Neeta’s lips and mouthed: “Don’t say anything.”
“Park Ranger Vasquez,” Mark couldn’t help himself. “What did the Mom say she saw?”
“What do you mean?”
“That family that disappeared. You said the mom made no sense. What did she see?”
Rosa passed the flashlight into the ravine. The trail was spotty at its best but now it seemed to have stopped completely. It was also now too dark to see much. The night had fallen much more suddenly than she had expected. Perhaps there were clouds she couldn’t see. It shouldn’t be this dark this early.
“We’re going to have to turn around. When we get back to the station I’ll contact the police and the other stations, and we’ll get a proper search party assembled.”
“Please, Park Ranger Vasquez, do you remember what she said she saw?” He asked her as she swept the flashlight over the trees one last time.
“She was upset, Mark, she made no sense. You, though, have been acting strange all day. Do you mind telling me what happened when you were out today? Why were you running?”
He swallowed hard.
“I…” His eyes watered. Everyone stopped. Rosa kept waving the flashlight around while he spoke. “I just walked. And there was like a little path I was following, only when I turned around the path wasn’t there anymore, it had turned. And I thought I was being crazy so I put a mark on a tree, and when I turned around that mark had moved, and the path was gone, too. And I started to run and I saw a big tree up ahead, it had fallen over and it was real big so I thought I could get up on it and look out and maybe see a little more, and from there I could see the lake. And I saw something go to the lake. It was like a monster. Like a person but bigger, and when he got to the lake he turned around, and it had giant teeth and no eyes, and it showed me its teeth and I turned and ran.”
They were silent for a bit.
“Mark,” Becca began, still holding his hands, “it’s okay. The woods are scary.”
“It wasn’t that, it wasn’t just how he looked, it was how the air felt, how everything…” Only Rosa heard the crunching of leaves and sticks on the ground. The other two were listening to Mark. Not that Mark was listening to anything. His eyes drifted upwards and grew wider. “It was like that.” His voice dropped as he said it, as if his whole self had given way under a tremendous weight. Becca followed his gaze and got a clear view. Rosa was still waving the flashlight around, and Chris had turned to walk back to the truck.
it was as he described, fanged and eyeless. Two arms as big as trunks reached out and took Chris, and in one quick gesture ripped him in half. Chris’s scream was bloodcurdling, and the spray of hot blood on her face made Becca scream, too. The monster threw half of Chris’s body, the one with his head attached, into the ravine. Coincidentally or not, it landed with a sick thud in front of Neeta. Yesenia’s hands weren’t enough to stop her from screaming.
Rosa fumbled with her flashlight while the creature took Becca in one arm and Mark in the other. The creature howled and it was as if the sky itself, that rich blue fabric that hung overhead, was being torn off the ceiling. Mark’s scream stopped first. The creature then swung Becca around, in doing so knocking Rosa into the ravine.
When she reached the bottom she saw two human figures running away. Rosa gathered herself quickly, and leaving the flashlight on the ground where it fell she ran off after them. Behind her the thing, whatever it was, let out its howl.
Yesenia knew the woods and knew its tricks. Up ahead there was a wall of forest debris. Fallen trees, rock formations, and thick undergrowth formed a barrier that would trap them while they climbed over it. Yesenia took Neeta’s hand and plunged headfirst into the thickest tree trunk. Neeta let out a yelp as she expected it to hit her, but instead the tree gave way and they were on the other side.
Yesenia took a sharp turn where the ravine sloped upwards more gently, and she and Neeta began to scramble up. Behind them they heard rustling sounds, and Yesenia stopped and looked for a place to hide.
“Let’s go!” Neeta insisted. The rustling sound stopped, and then moved in their direction again. They ran.
“Wait!” Rosa called out to them. They ignored her and kept running, but she kept for them to stop. Both Yesenia and Neeta realized that as long as she kept shouting she was putting them all in danger. Yesenia ducked behind a stump and Neeta motioned for Rosa to be quiet before hiding herself.
It took over a minute for Rosa to reach them. She crouched down beside them.
“You’re Neeta,” she said. What did she normally say? My name is Ranger Vasquez, I’m here to help you. Something like that. This time was anything but normal. “What is happening?”
Yesenia shushed her. She had come out of her hiding spot earlier because she thought she was being rescued. Now she was with two loud grown-ups who were going to get her killed. She angrily reminded herself of her rule: never go out after dusk.
Rosa looked at the girl and her jaw went slack. “You’re the Garcia girl…but, how?” She looked exactly like her picture, the one on the posters that had fallen away years ago. She was thinner but hadn’t aged a day. How was that possible? “You’ve been gone seven years.”
Yesenia blinked. She’d been here two, maybe three months at the most.
Neeta whispered. “You have to be quiet. That’s what she says. Listen to her.”
Yesenia had hiding spots all over the woods. They were hard to find sometimes, but she was always sure she could find one when needed. Had she really been doing this seven years? Impossible.
Yesenia whispered so softly Rosa could only barely hear. “Stay low, and don’t make any noise. And remember that he plays tricks with the land, but if you look carefully you can see through it.”
“What is he?” Rosa asked.
The girl couldn’t answer. She didn’t need to. Rosa had seen it.
Yesenia looked around for the beast, and then without warning bolted. There was a rocky overhand nearby, if she could only find it. It was big enough for the three of them. She ran low, sometimes with her hands on the ground, and the other two followed. Although they were going in the same direction as before, somehow they were going downhill and not up. It was all so disorienting. She remembered the Spanish legends, of the paths that changed direction. Now she understood.
Yesenia understood, too, that her new companions were still too loud, too big. They were going to get her killed if they didn’t get to the rocks.
Up ahead there was a drop, all but invisible. Yesenia let herself slide down, but the other two weren’t as quick and went tumbling head over foot. Loudly. The beast roared.
“My leg!” Neeta cried. She put her weight on it and the pain was sharp.
“Can you walk?” Rosa asked her.
“He’s here,” Yesenia said.
Coming closer, at any rate. Being in pain beat being dead. Neeta found the strength to run.
The overhang was up ahead. Yesenia was about to dive under it when the beast appeared on top. She screeched to a halt and he reached down and grabbed her. Yesenia screamed.
Rosa moved quickly. She unholstered her gun and fired at the beast but it barely registered. Neeta lunged for the girl, grabbing her foot and momentarily throwing the beast off balance. Rosa jumped on both and together they wrestled the child away from the monster.
Up ahead Rosa saw a glimmer of light. She grabbed Yesenia and Neeta and ran towards it. When Yesenia saw it she began to pull back. “Not that way!”
“Not that way!”
Through the trees the source of the light became clear: moonlight reflecting of the lake.
Rosa knew the shape of the lake. Wherever they appeared it would only take her a second to figure out where she was, and how to get to the nearest ranger station.
Yesenia tried to pull away, and Neeta’s leg was finally giving way. Behind them the trees snapped closer. Rosa grabbed them both harder and dragged them through the woods into the clearing to Lago Escondido.
This wasn’t the lake she knew. In the day it was a small and lovely oval lake. This was enormous and serpentine, and huge waves rippled across the water without crashing onto the shore. From its center rose an impossible structure, a series of terraced pyramids topped with ethereal flames. Around each fire, looking down at the the stunned trio on the beach, there were people. Rosa recognized their outfits from drawings. They were Harache, tens of thousand of them.
The trees behind them fell and the beast entered, letting out a roar. Rosa pulled the other two closer to her. The beast didn’t approach, he just roared. Behind them the waters undulated and they watched as they parted, creating a causeway that led to the temple.
Neeta felt a tugging inside her and recognized it as the voice or feeling that had called her in the night, that had compelled her to get dressed and go into the woods. At the top of the tallest pyramid a man pointed at them. Summoning them.
Yesenia had come to the lake once. It was a mistake she had vowed never to repeat. The city there belonged to the dead, and though she knew none of the legends and couldn’t understand anything there, she knew that they were trapped, and were angry.
Rosa looked down the open causeway. On the far side a group of Harache were performing some ceremony, dancing in a circle. They had something that they hoisted and began to pass. She realized they were forming a human chain to pass whatever it was up the pyramids.
Neeta recognized what it was. It was Chris, and they were passing him up the pyramid. Further up, she could see another body, probably Becca’s. Which meant that the body at the top was Chris’s. It was far away but now that she knew what she was looking at she could see what was happening. They took his body and placed it in one of the flames, which grew briefly brighter. And at the bottom of the pyramid, at the opposite end of the path through the water, the people cheered, and one of them began walking across the causeway.
Becca’s body reached the flames shortly, and after doing the same to her, another cheer rose and another person began walking towards them. After Chris, a third did the same.
The beast stood at attention, ready to pounce but more prepared to keep Rosa, Neeta, and Yesenia from escaping. The first of the figures, a man, made it across the water. Without acknowledging them he passed them. His face was ancient, but with each step it grew softer and younger, and as he entered into the woods he disappeared.
The second figure was a woman, and the third a man. Like the first, their faces changed before they simply vanished into the night.
Now, at last, the beast made a move towards them. The people in the city cheered as he drew closer. Her heart racing, Rosa put herself between the monster and the other two. They backed away from him. The crowd cheered more. The beast took another step.
“The sun’s almost up!” Yesenia said. “Don’t let him get you, he doesn’t have time!”
It was pitch black except for the city behind them, and it had only been a short while since sunset. Rosa put the girl’s words out of her mind.
Yesenia had been through many days and nights in the woods. If you looked carefully, she knew, you could see through the tricks. The sun was starting to rise. It didn’t matter if they couldn’t see it. It was happening anyway.
The cheering on the pyramids stopped, and the beast took a step away. He roared in frustration, and then the waters began to fill back in and the city began to fade. The beast roared again, and then walked into the water, leaving them on the beach.
“They can only come out at night,” Yesenia said.
Rosa very slowly sank down to the ground. Neeta did the same.
“What do we do now?”
Rosa tried to remember the legends. She only read them once, when she was first assigned here. What had the Spanish done, besides avoid this place?
“We have to hide,” Yesenia said. “You never know how long a day will last. And now he knows we’re here. He’ll come back tomorrow.”
Rosa stood and took Yesenia’s hand. She didn’t have any answers, but the girl had survived here on her own for a long time. They weren’t the first to go into this forest and get lost. Others had made it back out. Rosa looked down at both of them and without saying anything she promised that she would lead them out of here, somehow. With that, she led them quietly back into the woods, away from the waters of the dead.