DARKNESS WAS falling fast. Pete turned toward a rustling sound behind him before hurrying away from it. He was freaking out and he knew it.
He wanted to kill his best friend, Roger, a million times over. “Go out west, see something different—it’ll inspire you.” Roger’s voice in his head was a full octave higher than normal, and Pete wanted to strangle it.
He just wanted to find his way back to the trail or to any sign of humanity. But that wasn’t going to happen. He’d only stepped off the trail because he’d seen an amazing grove of wildflowers. How dangerous could that be? He must have gotten turned around in the damned glen and left it from a different spot than he’d come in. Now he was wandering alone at night in the middle of the wilderness. How stupid could he get?
“Don’t answer that,” he said to an owl calling in the trees above him.
Pete stopped under a large tree, his lungs burning, and held it for support while he caught his breath. He needed to think. But all he could think was that he was going to die and no one would ever find his body. The only people to care would be his editor and his publisher, who would wonder where his next book was. That’s all. Well, and Roger, but if Pete died, he fully intended to haunt the bastard for the rest of his life. Maybe he’d crack open each can of beer in Roger’s fridge so it went flat every time. Or maybe he’d poke him with a stick just when he was starting to fall asleep. Yeah, he liked that idea.
“Take that, you bastard.”
He had checked his phone long ago and found no signal at all. He pulled it out again and saw a single bar. Praying to God, he dialed 911, but the bar disappeared and the call dropped. In the dying light, he looked around, and through a slight clearing in the trees, he spotted a hill and figured he should make for it. He might get a signal up there and then he could call someone. They could send a helicopter and pluck him off the edge of the precipice and just out of reach of a bear who thought he was dinner—okay, this wasn’t one of his book plots. He needed to get his head in the game. In a few minutes, the light would be gone completely, so he slipped off his pack and rummaged inside it. Making the hill before nightfall was out of the question. He guessed he was stuck here for the night.
“Matches, matches….” His fingers curled around a plastic container. “Thank God.” Pete looked around, found some sticks, and pulled them together in the center of a relatively clear area. That should do for him to build a fire. At least he’d have some light and a way to keep warm. He gathered tinder and some smaller sticks, opened the container of matches, struck one, and lit his kindling. The leaves caught, and Pete placed tiny sticks on top, then added a few more until he had a fire going.
“Thank you,” he said, sending his vibes up toward the heavens.
Of course, the universe decided to answer and not in a good way. The sky flashed and thunder rolled over the land around him. Just what he needed.
Pete packed away the matches and continued to feed the flames, hoping the storm would go past him. As he added more sticks, the flames leaped upward enough to let him see the woodland floor around him. Lightning flashed again; the thunder grew louder and the earth vibrated with the roar of sound that died away to a growl.
It took a full second for Pete to remember thunder didn’t growl. He looked up from the flames, across the clearing, and into a set of yellow eyes. That was all he could see until the cat prowled low and closer, catching the light in his thick tawny coat. A cougar. Great, just what he fucking needed. He added more sticks to the fire, then grabbed the end of a burning one, and thrust it at the cat, who seemed bold and probably hungry.
Pete’s first instinct was to run, but the cat would be faster than him and pounce on his back. He had seen enough movies where the stupid kids did just that and one of them ended up as cat food.
He put a stick in the fire and added a second and a third, then pulled flaming pokers from the fire and held them in both hands. He knew it was probably stupid, but it was the only defense he had.
The cat prowled the edge of the clearing, getting closer, mouth open, displaying huge teeth. Pete jumped back and swung as the cat leaped toward him. He missed, but the cat retreated and resumed prowling and stalking him. Pete hoped there weren’t more of them waiting to pounce on his back. He thought big cats like this were solitary hunters. At least he hoped to hell they were.
“Go away. Shoo.” He started yelling and making noise. It was all he could think to do, waving the sticks in his hands to make himself look as big as possible. The cat hunched down, and Pete knew he was coiling his muscles for a strike. He swung both hands as the cat leaped off the ground, propelling himself toward Pete. The hot ends of the sticks connected with the cat’s head, and he heard a searing sound and caught the scent of burning hair. The cat yelped and fell, then bounded off into the woods just as the sky opened up and drenched the area. The leaves of the tree overhead held off the water for a few minutes, but eventually it was too much and water poured through the thick branches.
The fire sputtered and made a valiant effort against the water, but soon it faded out, not hot enough to last. Pete took refuge close to the tree trunk, hoping for some shelter but receiving little. He was soaked through in minutes, cold, shivering, and shaken by the nearby lightning and thunder.
He wasn’t sure what to do at this point. There was no shelter, and the huge tree he was under was a lightning rod in the making. Out of options and luck, he lifted his soaked pack and trudged off in the opposite direction from where the cat had gone, toward the hill he’d seen earlier. He used his phone for light, silently thanking the sales guy at Verizon for talking him into the waterproof model.
After what he guessed was ten minutes or so, the rain settled to a constant drizzle, but at least it wasn’t pounding at his head and face any longer. Pete was still wet and getting colder by the second, though. He had dry clothes in a plastic bag in his pack, but they weren’t going to do him much good unless he could get the hell out of the rain.
He managed to walk for half an hour in the direction of the hill, checking his phone for bars as he walked. They came and went very fleetingly, and he hoped like hell if he managed to make it to the top, he’d have a signal. Of course, that was until his phone began to chime at him that his battery was getting low. If he wanted any chance to make a call, he had to conserve what power he had left, so he slipped it back into his pocket after turning it off, plunging him into total, wet, water-sliding-down-his-back, miserable darkness.
There was nothing he could do but find whatever shelter was possible and try to wait out the rain. Pete resigned himself to spending the night out in the open. He fumbled in his pack once again, trying to remember if he had a flashlight. He should have thought about finding it before, but he wasn’t doing so well in the thinking clearly department. Since he hadn’t expected to be out this late or to get lost, he hadn’t brought a flashlight… so that seemed to be out….
Pete closed his eyes as he checked the outer pocket of his bag and found a flat, small, giveaway flashlight he’d received from some conference or other. He pressed the button and the tiny light came on. It wasn’t much, and the rain and gloom swallowed most of its glow, but it was enough to see a few steps ahead and that was all he needed. Pete figured he’d go a little farther and hoped he’d find shelter, because hope was all he had left. He slung his pack onto his back once again and wove around the trees and brush.
He was watching the ground and nearly face-planted into the corner of a structure. It was wooden, rough-hewn, and probably quite old, but Pete didn’t care. As long as it wasn’t a cougar den, he could deal. Slowly Pete made his way around it. His flashlight flickered, and he managed to find the door and push it open, and used the last of his light to take a look around.
It was some sort of old storage building. There wasn’t much inside, but the building seemed solid and dry enough. The back was stacked with sacks from floor to ceiling, and that took up almost half of the structure’s volume. The rest was empty except for some tarps lying on hay.
Pete knew hay meant that someone used this as a barn. But he hoped they wouldn’t mind if he crashed here. He swept the loose hay together with his foot and spread one of the tarps over it to help soften the floor a little. Then Pete dug into his wet pack and pulled out his spare clothes. The plastic bag enclosing them was intact, so he stripped out of his soaked things and dressed quickly. He wrung out his clothes in the open doorway, then closed the door and laid them to dry over a board, knowing the owner would not thank him if he got the hay wet.
Pete pulled out his last bottle of water and a granola bar, ate it and drank half the water, then set the rest aside. How in the hell did he get into these situations? He lay down on the tarp and used another as a blanket. He was still cold, but it helped some. At least he was out of the storm, and he could listen to the rain as it beat on the roof overhead rather than onto his face. He’d had something to eat and drink. For now he was dry and safe enough, and that was all he could hope for. At first light he’d leave his shelter and make for the hill so he could get some reception and hopefully call someone to rescue his sorry butt.
Lightning flashed, illuminating the space through the single small window beside the door. Thunder rolled and wind whipped around his shelter. It sounded as though Mother Nature was letting out all her fury tonight. Pete huddled a little deeper under his tarp blanket, hoping the building remained in one piece.
Pete was weary as hell, but the storm kept him awake. Once it abated, the strange sounds from outside—including the calls and answers of wolves—scared the living hell out of him. The noises weren’t near the barn, but that didn’t mean very much. After the cat and now wolves, Pete would be happy to get the hell out of here and back home to New York, where he could stare at the walls for all he cared. He was never leaving the safety of the city again, writer’s block or not. Writing nothing was better than losing his life and being ripped to shreds by whatever was out there.
More lightning flashed and the thunder shook the barn around him. Small bits of hay floated down from the rafters. Pete wanted to cover his head, but the tarp wasn’t the best-smelling thing he’d encountered. He shook a little and prayed the storm would lessen or move on.
Unfortunately, from the sound of it, the storm seemed content to stay where it was, and more little bits floated down from above as clap after clap of thunder tried to shake his shelter apart. Pete curled into the fetal position, comforting himself as much as possible. He’d been so dumb, thinking he knew what he was doing. Even as the wind rattled the door and whistled outside, he was in much better shape than if he’d still been outside.
“Roger, if I get out of this alive, so help me, I am going to slap you silly the next time I see you. ‘Go out west. Have an adventure. See things. It will spark some ideas for your next book.’ Bastard!” He clenched the tarp as another peal of thunder rattled the building. They were supposed to come on this trip together. But no. Roger managed to get mono, probably from kissing every man in New York. In his raggedy, sick voice, the asshole had urged him to go on his own. The point of this trip was so you could get ideas and stop moping around. It’s a tour of Yellowstone. You’ll meet people and have fun.”
Those words rang hollow now. He had met people and gotten separated from the group. This whole thing was turning into a nightmare, and the least Roger could have done was be here to suffer along with him.
After what felt like hours, the storm moved off and it grew quieter outside. Pete rested his head on the tarp and closed his eyes. If he got a little sleep, it would help him in the morning.
Being out of the weather made Pete relax, and finally, even on the hard floor, he closed his eyes, tried to picture himself at home in his warm, soft, queen-size bed, and eventually dozed off.