“Sam! Did you pack the cooler already?” I yell. No response. Our little apartment sits quietly on this August evening, and our two cats, Beans and Rasha, stand like statues in the kitchen. I hear our clock tick, one second. Two seconds. I can’t stand the silence. It’s almost three in the afternoon, we should have left an hour ago. What the hell is Sam doing?
I decide to go see for myself. I climb the stairs two steps at a time, and am out of breath by the time I reach the top landing. “Sam!” I wheeze, as I poke my head into her room.
Fuck. Well, fuck.
“Hey, I, I thought I told you I was-” (insert nasty cough here) “sick,” she finishes, only after smearing her sleeve with snot. Sam is covered from head to toe in damp sheets, a cool sweat glistening on her forehead, her eyes red and glossy.
“Oh, no, you poor thing. Shit. Sam, I’m staying, we’re staying. I’m going to take care of you, ok?” I say. I kneel down beside her bed and offer her a tissue.
“No,” she counters. “No, I got you these reservations months ago, you’re not missing your campsite. It’s your birthday present, so please, please, go for me! What would your Dad want?”
I seriously consider going, then shake my head and give her a firm no. Sam resists further. “No Court, please. Take Zoey with you. Jess said she’s already on her way and will take care of me. You both don’t need to stay here and get sick. Go out, have a good couple nights, and take some pics for me.”
I mull this one over in my head. Jessica is Sam’s girlfriend, and it would give the two of them the whole apartment for a couple days. And, I’ve been chomping at the bit to get back to the mountains.
Oh, what the hell.
“Ok, but I'm not leaving this apartment until she gets here, got it?” I say definitively, crossing my arms to prove the point.
“Yes, captain.” Sam raises her hand to the tip of her forehead, making the captain signal, and the sudden gesture sends her into a coughing fit.
“Alrighty sicko, I’m going to finish packing up. And get Zoey ready.”
Zoey is my adorable black lab. She’s still a puppy, and loves being in the woods.
An hour later, Jess arrives and stays by Sam’s side, only leaving the room to make soup or retrieve one of the three different Gatorade flavors she brought.
I finish loading up the car, buckle Zoey in, and head up to say goodbye to Sam and Jessica.
“Hey, so I’ll see you guys Thursday morning, bright and early. If I’m not back by the afternoon, give my phone a call, ok? I got a night shift at The Cove and can’t miss it.”
“Sure thing Court. Hey, be careful out there, and send lots of pictures! I’m talking sunsets and mesmerizing portraits of Zoey in her element,” Sam said.
“Hah, yes, ok. See you two soon. And no funny business in my bed!” I shout as I bound down the stairs. I leap out the front door, slide into my Jeep, blast “Trees” by Twenty One Pilots, put all of the windows down, give Zoey an approving nod, and take off.
There’s still daylight after I’ve set up camp. In August in California, it doesn’t get dark until seven or eight at night, and the drive up to Julian took only 40 minutes, which means, I’ve got time to explore.
This campsite is special for a number of reasons. First, I used to come here with my Dad when I was a kid; it was just our time together, as best buds. When he died a couple years back, I made it a tradition to come here, on my birthday, every year, so we could still celebrate together. Yeah, corny, I know. It’s important to me, though; it’s the happiest place on Earth.
Also, this campsite is home to the best view in So-Cal, where legendary writer Stephen King supposedly came up with the idea for The Body. Just ten feet to the left of my tent is a cliff with a 100-foot drop. Below, a raging river, and to the left, a tall oak tree with long branches that loom over the cliff. Someone has attached a swinging rope to one of the branches.
“Wish you were here, Dad,” I whisper. I walk to the edge of the cliff, stop, and hold onto the dangling, knotted rope. For the first time today, I soak it all in: The towers of trees surrounding me, the distinct smell of pine and wood, the chirps of birds and other small creatures simply living, and, that endless blue sky stretching for miles and miles. And Zoey of course, completely captivated by her new obsession: An absolutely ordinary stick.
“Zeeebs,” I coon. “Let’s go for a bye-bye! You want to go for a bye-bye? Yes? Good girl, Zeebs.” At the mere word “bye-bye,” Zoey’s head cocks to the side, and just a second later, she’s up on all four, sprinting towards me, letting her precious stick fall to the floor. I leash her up and we go for a short hike.
A brilliant pink that fills the evening sky takes my breath away.
I made it.
It took a little longer than I expected to get to the top of this peak, but somehow I managed. Zoey had no trouble at all, and practically pulled me up the hill. Sucking in deep breaths, I place my hands over my head and try to recover.
After taking a few moments to catch my breath, I realize the sunset long ago, and the salmon-pink sky has quickly been replaced with a deep, dark purple. Shit, we better get on our way. “Come on, Zeebs, let’s go.”
We make it back to camp just as the first star appears in the sky. The sun’s light has finally faded into the big blue blanket above. I make sure to tie Zoey up to the nearest tree, then head over to the pit to start a fire. The firepit is probably the best thing about camping, and was always my Dad’s favorite part.
After I have a good blaze going, I finally sit down. My legs ache and my back hurts, so it feels good to finally rest. I take a moment to look around the campground. I don’t see another fire (let alone a single light) through the thicket of trees, and the campsite is practically pitch black now. Well, my birthday has fallen on a Tuesday, not typically a popular camping night.
I don’t realize how hungry I am until Zoey makes a small cry. She must be starving, it’s way past her dinner time. At the same moment, my own stomach gives and grumbles as loudly as an earthquake.
I head over to the cooler, and that’s when I see the first note.
It’s small, square and on a piece of black-colored cardstock. The sentence on the front is unmistakenly clear: Truth or Dare? The words are written in a child-like scrawl, and for a moment I think the wind must have carried the note this way. But then I see it has been taped to the handle of the cooler. My cooler. I reach for the note and open it:
Truth: Is it true you drive a white 2018 Jeep Cherokee?
I’m completely dazed. I stand still for God knows how long, chills running down my spine. I hear a branch snap behind me and spin around on my heels. Nothing but darkness. I look back at the note. Who wrote this? Maybe Sam, as a birthday trick? Surely it’s Sam, who else would know the make and model of my new car.
“Haha Sam, very funny!” I yell, out into the woods. Silence answers me back.
Zoey starts to growl, and she stands and stares behind me, at--- my car.
I turn and see the lights inside my car are on. I know I didn’t leave them on. I didn't, right? Well, I can’t leave them on now, or they’ll burn my car battery.
Slowly, I walk over to the Jeep. The driver’s door is closed, but the car is unlocked. When I open the door, I don’t see my car keys anywhere. I reach to turn off the lights, and that’s when I see the second note of the night taped to the rearview mirror. This has to be Sam.
On the front are the same words, Truth or Dare?
With shaking hands, I unfold the card and read:
Dare: I dare you to come back.
My stomach drops. I look out the car dashboard and see that my fire is out. No flames, not even a single ember glowing. There’s only complete darkness.
I reach for my phone in my back pocket and begin to dial Sam. No signal. I try 911, and still, no signal. Quickly, I close the driver’s door and I’m about to press the lock button and shut myself in the car, when a horrifying thought washes over me: Zoey.
I can’t leave Zoey.
Be brave. I have to be brave. Even without a signal, my phone flashlight still works. Timidly, I open the car door and let one leg out, then the other. My campground is only a few stretches away, if I can just get Zoey and get back to the car…
I begin the longest walk of my life, moving forward in complete and utter darkness. I can only see a few feet ahead of me. The camera light casts unwanted shadows, and I begin to lose sight of where I’m walking.
I stop dead in my tracks. My heart is pounding out of my chest, and I try to remember which direction I heard the “snap” from. I spin quickly to the right, then to left, then somewhere in between, and there, only a couple yards away, I spot my cooler and the firepit. I break into a full-out sprint and make my way to the tree Zoey is tied to. Only when I get there, all that is left is her leash.
And a small black note.
I feel tears start to pool in my eyes, and I almost scream. Zoey! God fucking dammit, where is Zoey? I don’t want to open the note, but I know I have to. I reach down, my body fully shaking, and read that same child-like scrawl on the front, for the third time tonight: Truth or Dare?
I flip open the card:
Truth: Is it true you’re all alone now?
This time, I can’t hold back my scream. I let out a blood-curdling shriek that hurts my own ears. I feel heat rise to my neck, then flood my cheeks. I’m about to turn and run back to the Jeep when a small tap brushes my shoulder.
I spin around and fall to the ground, immediately, my knees buckling.
There, in front of me, is someone. They’re dressed in jeans and a black hoodie, and wearing a Mickey Mouse mask. One of the eye holes is missing in the mask, and I can see its real eye.
It winks at me.
I stand still. We stare at each other, for what seems like hours, until Mickey walks over, slowly, and holds out something in his hand. I look, and see it’s another note.
He holds it out for me, and when I don’t grab it, he drops it into my lap, then takes a couple steps back.
“Why are you doing this?” I plead.
Mickey says nothing, and only stands there, waiting for me to open the note.
On the front, like all the others, it reads: Truth or Dare?
I start to cry now, deep, guttural sobs, and ask Mickey to please let me go. He shakes his head quickly twice, his plastic mouth curved in a wicked grin.
I open the note.
Dare: I dare you to jump.
Jump? I look back at Mickey. With one hand he’s pointing behind me, to the tree on the edge of the cliff with the rope. In his other hand, he holds a long, 10-inch butcher's knife.
I don’t move. I can’t form any thoughts, I just stare at the silver blade, my phone light casting a sinister glow.
Suddenly, Mickey races towards me, then passes me, and finally jumps onto the rope with one swift movement. He sings up and over the ledge, then comes right back. When his feet return to solid ground, he motions for me to come over, to do the same.
Deep within, I know I should run. I know I should scream like bloody murder and run the opposite way.
But I don’t.
Instead, I walk slowly over and approach the dangling rope. I grip the knot, tightly with both hands, and peer down. The river is a long way below, and I can feel the cool mountain air on my cheeks. I look back over my shoulder at Mickey, and he gives me a wave.
I take a deep breath, step back, and swing into the open darkness.