If only I had not turned over the leaf. If only I had not found the hidden treasure beneath. If only. It was too late for “if only” now though and I was in the middle of the dark, cold place. A place I should not have been. A place between one realm and another, living and dead? I gave myself a mental shake and tried to retrace how I came to be here.
Two days ago, I had decided to go on a camping trip, away from chaotic city life and to a place to rejuvenate by infusing myself in nature. I needed something to recharge me. I was burnt out, tired, and on the verge of depression. I found a remote camping area about four hours north of my new home and just south of the Canadian border. It promised a view of fantastic leaf foliage changes, a gorge, and a small river. According to the reviews, it was a secluded place but well worth visiting. It had hiking trails and skiing, though the winter had yet to set in so there would be none of that, and peacefulness with plenty of wildlife.
I remember telling family and friends that I was taking a week off to decompress and they may or may not be able to contact me. That was not a surprise to them as I had been off the grid in the past, taking time to explore different areas and do whatever I wanted. I supplied them with my general plans and promised to be in touch when I could or after I returned.
Friday afternoon, I found myself packed and driving towards the campground. The GPS got me about halfway there. After that, I had to rely on a map due to no satellite or cell phone coverage. I had learned long ago to carry an updated atlas and compass with me for this reason. I had been stranded a couple of times due to no coverage. Still in this day and age of technology those places do exist and that was why few wanted to venture out to this campground.
I had arrived just before dark, filled out the paperwork, and provided payment in the lock box located at the entrance. There were no gates, and you could very well have entered without payment. It was not the first place I had been that was on the “honor system.” Two ruts led into the darkening forest and the jeep bounced its way through with headlights piercing the utter blackness. It was a tight fit and if another vehicle had been coming the opposite way, one of us would have had to either backed up or pulled off road. Thankfully, I had put the jeep into four wheeled drive before entering the little trail.
I could not see beyond the headlights beam since the trees blocked out the moonlight. Occasionally one of the moon’s shafts of light would pierce through, but not much. The trees were packed in fairly tightly and the area heavily wooded with undergrowth. I wondered how the trails would be. I passed several campsites, but none “called to me.” After a couple of miles, the path curved to the left and there was a break in the forest, moonlight glinted off the water of the river. I decided on a site at the river’s edge, half shaded in trees and half opened to the moonlight.
The first night had been incredibly quiet, with only the sound of running water, leaves rustling in the slight breeze, and the occasional hoots from owls out on the hunt. I thought I had heard the howl of coyotes as I was drifting off to sleep, but I could not be sure as the sound was so distant. Getting set-up for the night had been easy. The small two person tent I had for a few years was easy to use and between it, getting the inside ready for sleep, and building a campfire for warmth I had spent thirty minutes total. It was not hard, but I was tired from working and the drive over. No one had been in the area when I arrived and throughout the night, when I was not sleeping, I had not heard anyone else around.
The next morning dawned a beautiful cotton candy shade of pinks and oranges. The temperature was crisp, and the fresh air was refreshing. After dressing, I got the backpack organized for a hike through the forest, ate a quick breakfast of fruit and secured the jeep and belongings. I made my way to the trail head by way of the water’s edge. Soon, I found myself in the midst of the dense forest with sunlight piercing holes through the trees occasionally.
The colorful leaves danced on the breeze to the wind’s music rustling through the forest. Various shades of oranges, reds, and yellows spiraled, waltzed, and finally came to rest on the ground creating a glorious carpet. The sound of the leaves beneath my feet caused me to pause as I looked down at the array of colors. This area was comprised of oak, ash, elm, birch, and aspen trees. The colors of the leaves varied as much as the shapes and sizes.
Occasionally a whirlwind would happen along to cause the leaves to swirl all around me and I would pause to enjoy the moment.
An odd crackle, as if something or someone stepped on a branch or twig interrupted my thoughts. I glanced around, seeing no one, and shrugged it off as a small animal and not another human. On my way to the trailhead, I had not seen another camper in sight or signs of anyone else around.
As I continued on my way, I would glance occasionally up at the trees towering above before returning my gaze to the leaves along the path. An abundance of fallen debris from trees who had lost the battle with the winds covered as far as the eye could see, even along the path. I noted the area was less maintained and that was fine with me. I liked being out in nature.
During my journey that first full day, I saw hawks, eagles, woodcocks, warblers, and even the elusive Gyrfalcon, or Gyr, as they are more commonly called. I also spotted an abundance of deer tracks. On the return trip, a fox ran several feet in front of me crossing the path so quickly that I was slightly started and laughed after I realized what it was.
That night was uneventful, and I rested peacefully after a quick meal. If I had known what the next day held, I would not have slept a wink.
The second morning, I woke up with no particular thoughts as to where I may go in mind. I glanced at the river and thought about taking the kayak out but changed my mind when I noted the wind had picked up overnight and left it securely tied to the top of the jeep. After a warm breakfast of grits and eggs cooked over the campfire, I decided to layer up and try another trail to the west this time.
The air was crisper on the second day. I made my way in the open sunlight as long as possible before I ventured towards the next trailhead. Walking along the water’s edge in the opposite direction provided the sunlight on my back, warming against the cool air. By the time I reached the trailhead, it was warmer, and the wind had lessened considerably. I entered the forest for the second day in a row, hoping to see more wildlife and explore the area.
Due to the elevation the ground was harder here, rockier, and it was difficult to see tracks. The leaves still carpeted the ground with more falling due to the higher winds earlier. Soon, the branches overhead would be naked. More sunlight was coming through too and the light lit the area well, but I did not see much wildlife and oddly, it seemed quieter here. The trail had all but disappeared beneath the leaves and overgrowth. It was as if the silence had sucked away all sound. I listened for a bird’s call, or rustling of the leaves, or even the crackle of footsteps, but heard nothing.
Something was off, something was not right and yet, I could not place my finger on it. I paused underneath a large tree. A smaller tree had fallen some time ago and created a natural seat. I put the backpack on it and sat a moment, listening to the nothingness. I checked my supplies and reassured myself that I had the knife, pepper spray, and small handgun with me. I ate a protein bar and drank a few sips of water as I studied the surroundings. I pulled out the compass and assured myself I was still headed in the right direction.
As I was packing up to resume the hike, the compass fell to the ground landing on a leaf. The leaf was a maple leaf and not just any maple leaf, but a giant one. I looked around and did not see any maple trees nearby.
That was the moment that changed the whole trip, which changed my life. I digress though. The leaf was out of the norm, enough so that I sat one of my cameras on it to demonstrate how big it was and took a picture with my back-up camera. The entire digital camera and zoom lens fit perfectly on the leaf with room to spare. I was amazed. I never collected items and usually only collected photographs of items, but this leaf seemed to call to me. It was intriguing and I wanted to take it with me. As I was debating whether or not to take it and how I would transport it without damaging it, I picked it up.
My gaze slid over the leaf, and I turned it over. It was an amazing specimen, but so oddly out of place, and where was the tree from which it fell? I glanced around again, as if somehow the tree may have magically appeared. It did not of course, but a feeling of not being alone suddenly enveloped me again and I decided to leave the leaf.
As I bent to place it back as I had found it, I noticed something sticking out from under the leaves that had been beneath the larger one. I brushed the small old leaves aside and gasped when finger bones appeared. I dropped the leaf and began backing away, my mind racing.
My glance swept the area, but I was alone and again, there was absolutely no sound save for the rushing blood in my ears. Crap, I thought, check your phone for service. I fumbled in the backpack for the phone and was not surprised to see there was no service.
I started backtracking towards the camp. At least if I get there, I would be able to go report the skeletal hand. Should I have dug to see if it was a whole body? Should I have checked anything else. Where did I drop that big, out of place leaf? Would I even be able to find it again?
“Get yourself together.” I remember whispering to myself. Even though my heart raced, I retraced my steps and counted each one so I could find the bones again or at least tell someone with authority how far into the trailhead it was. I should have anchored down the large leaf so it would not blow away.
I remember thinking how many things I should have done differently but did not. And if I had, would it had made a difference at all, or would I still be here? Beneath this place, in the cold?
I returned to the campsite and stood astonished. The tent was there and the few things I had left inside like the lantern, sleeping bag, and clothes. The food, though, had been stowed in the jeep to prevent it from attracting bears and other wildlife to the campsite. The wood pile had been scattered around the site. The jeep was gone. I spun around in circles looking for it. Like the whirlwinds I had enjoyed on my first day, I spun, and yet I felt no joy, no peace, only panic.
“Calm down.” I whispered to myself. I searched the backpack and found the keys where I had stashed them in the side pocket. I had no other keys to the jeep with me and knew it had been locked before I left the site. Hadn’t it been? Self-doubt began to rear its head. Of course, it had, I argued back.
I took the area map from the backpack and studied it. I looked over the backpack supplies and realized I may have enough protein bars and water to make it into the nearest town. Maybe. The plus side was there was a river and that offered plenty of water and I knew enough about berries and things that were edible in the forest. I did have my knife and gun to hunt with if it came down to that.
With new resolve, I had made my way from the campsite and north towards the nearest town. Unfortunately, this route took me away from any trails and into unknown territory. “It’s all been unknown territory to you.” I muttered to myself.
Periodically I checked my phone only to find I still had no service, and the battery was slowly draining. The power strip and ability to charge it had left with the jeep. I turned it off to conserve power. The sun was starting to fade as I continued through the forest, not sure how long I had been walking or how much further I had to go.
As nightfall came, I found myself wondering if I should stop and rest for a while. Maybe try to sleep? But I knew sleep would be elusive, I was too wired with fear and adrenaline to stop, and I pushed through the forest, through the underbrush, branches and vines snagging at my clothes as if trying to hold me captive in this darkening world.
Was that twig snapping? Did I hear that? I paused in my journey and was suddenly struck with that dreadful feeling that something was not right. Where had the sound gone? Where was the forest sounds of insects, birds, and other animals? Where was the sound of the wind? I could feel it, brushing my face lightly and causing my hair to move, but I could not hear it. In fact, I realized I could not hear anything just like before as if I were in some sort of void.
Am I going crazy? I asked myself. No sound, not even my feet crunching the leaves below. I am, I thought, I am going crazy. I continued walking, but my mind was struggling with how I could hear twigs snap one moment and absolute silence the next. How is that possible? I snapped my fingers. I opened my mouth and screamed. Still, no sound. Puzzled and alarmed I quickened my steps until I was running headlong through the forest.
The pain struck from behind and filled my head, dropping me to my knees. My body fell forward of its own accord, and I moaned. Had I ran into something? Had someone struck me? What had caused this? I thought all those things as the blackness swallowed me up and I lost consciousness.
Pitch black, no backpack, and certainly no sound. I was laying down, in the coldness. Still, the silence scared me more than the weight that was covering my lower body. I was able to open my eyes to slits and could not open them more. My face was sore and felt tight as though it was swollen. Above me stood something I could not name. Not man, but not beast either. It was something in between. It held dirt in his huge claws, because they could not possibly be considered hands, and dumped it over the exposed part of my neck, packing it tightly.
More dirt and It stopped when it noticed my eyes slightly open. It leaned down and peered with its one red eye into my slitted eyes, an inquisitive look as it moved its face mere inches from mine. Acrid smell of wood burning, and rotted meat emitted from the thing’s mouth. I could not scream. I could not move. The thing smiled at me with yellow teeth and a mouth that stretched across its face, almost cutting the head in half.
Slowly, the thing moved its head back and continuing to leer, it placed one claw over my left eye…closing it yet leaving my other eye open. He leaned back on his haunches and picked up more dirt. Before he covered my face, he held the large maple leaf in his other claw. The thing paused a moment, I tried to scream but no sound escaped, it held up the large maple leaf and twirled it in front of my half-opened eye and then darkness descended as layer after layer of dirt covered my face. I could not breathe, and the blackness came in all its glory, cold, dark, silent.
I do not know how long it was before I awakened, but the earth was so cold. The darkness so complete and I still could not move. I was not even breathing. Right before the nothingness overtook me again, I realized that one day someone will find the leaf, pick it up, and find a skeletal hand.