It took me a while to find the trail again, but now I’m back on track, following the white-marked trees and hoping Jason hasn’t given up on me.
This time it’s Boone’s voice, coming from far away. I keep walking. Then I hear the crunching of footsteps right behind me, long, stomping strides. I whirl around.
“Boone!” I say, startled. “God, how did you get here so fast?”
“Get where?” Boone asks.
“Here. Your voice sounded like a mile away.”
“No, I was right behind you. Has anyone found the dog?”
“I don’t think so. Your mom and I got separated….I’m going back to the Bluff, though.”
“Sure, sure,” he says distractedly, looking around for Barkster.
“Do you want you phone back?” I say, holding it out.
“No, keep it,” he says, sighing. “Mom would kill me if something happened and you didn’t have a phone. Then your mom would kill my mom, and then half the family would be dead thanks to you.”
He stares off into the trees as he says this. Then, without another word, he stomps off down the Boundary in the opposite direction. I keep walking. Then I hear his voice yelling something, suddenly sounding really far away. It sounds like…numbers. Seven? Four? What the hell?
“Did you hear me?” His voice is suddenly clear, like he’s right there.
“Um, yes! OK!” I shout, eager to get back to the Bluff and away from my incredibly loud and seemingly inescapable family members.
I’m getting sweatier and sweatier. Did Bibi and I really wander that far off the path? It feels like I’ve been walking for half an hour. I know I can’t get lost if I just follow the white-marked trees. But the sky is getting darker, fading from orange to pink to purple. I’ll be fine as long as I can get to the Bluff before dark, and assuming Jason didn’t get freaked out and totally leave. I’m just mad that the stupid Barkster antics made me late, and now we’ll have missed the most romantic time of the sunset, when the clouds are all gold at the edges and you can see the actual beams of sunlight coming through. I guess darkness is romantic too, but also kind of creepy…
Am I going the wrong way? It feels like I’m going downhill, which I don’t think is right. Unless Bibi and I got really turned around chasing that phantom Barkster, which was probably just a squirrel. Damn it. Then sun’s gone now, so I can barely see the paint splotches on the trees anymore. Now I wish I’d been paying attention all those times when was Boone was rambling about celestial navigation, or how moss only grows on the north side of trees, or maybe the east, I don’t remember. Not that I could even see moss in this darkness.
Maybe it was stupid to walk off by myself like this. I take out Boone’s phone to call Uncle Greg. If someone could just remind me which way the Bluff is, I’ll be fine. I push the button and swipe the screen.
Shit, that’s what Boone was yelling at me, wasn’t it? His freaking passcode. Well, so much for that. For a second I feel really angry, and I kick this tree really hard with my foot.
“Shit, ow!” I hiss, hopping on my other foot. God, calm down, I tell myself. There’s no reason to freak out. The Boundary Trail goes in a circle; it’s literally impossible to get lost as long as you stick to the main path. I wait for my foot to stop throbbing, and then I keep walking.
OK, it’s getting really dark now. How have I not hit the Bluff? Did I pass it? If I haven’t already, I probably will. The darker it gets, the harder it is to see where the side trails fork away from the main path. I could be walking in circles all night.
Suddenly I realize how quiet it is. No footsteps but my own, the cicadas quieting down as night falls. Why isn’t anyone yelling for me anymore? Did they all go home? I can’t believe this. Aunt Bibi would barely let me out of her sight all day and now she’s just left me? I know it’s my own fault for wandering off, but still! Where the hell is everyone?!
I feel a rock in my shoe and pause to fish it out. I lean against one of the white-marked trees, the paint barely visible anymore in the darkness. As my fingers touch the bark, I feel something sticky. Yuck, I think, probably a slug or some other disgusting creature. I wipe my hand on my shorts. It takes a minute for my eyes to adjust in the darkness, and to realize what I’m seeing. It’s a streak of white on the dark denim. It’s the paint from the tree, so fresh and wet it came off on my fingers.
Oh my god. I can’t even describe the sound I just heard. Maybe it was the dog, but it was like no dog sound I’ve ever heard—like a bark, but combined with a scream and a retching cough. Just, like, this hideous sound in the darkness. I want to cover my ears, but what if someone’s behind me and I don’t hear them coming? I wish I could cover my ears and disappear and be born again into a different family where they put a leash on their stupid dog. I’m too scared to move, so I’m just standing here, frozen. And with every second that passes, the darkness settles in deeper around me.
Fuck fuck fuck there it is again. That sound. That really horrible sound. But it seems farther away this time, at least I think it does….I swear, if I hear that sound one more time I will fucking die.