The greenery surrounding our campsite is astonishing. The trees, full and green, tower over us as if they are Gods watching us, protecting us. Flowers and brush sweep around our small clearing, adding a dash of bright color against the greens and browns of the trees. The sun shines down on our campsite, almost like it was smiling in our direction. The two tents in the middle sit still and beautiful, a man made contrast to the nature around it. Andy climbs out of the girls tent, hair a mess of static, holding hiking shoes in her hands.
“This forest is going to be perfect for hiking!” She exclaims, sitting on the dirt and pulling on her shoes. “There’s not too many bugs, the paths are well worn so we aren’t scratching our ankles on the tall grass…” She continues her list as she stands up to zip up the tent and check that she has her belongings. Cam walks out from around the corner of a tree with a tall, thick branch in her hand.
“Sorry guys, I had to find a good walking stick. It’s not hiking unless you have a walking stick!” She says as she comes over to join us standing in the middle of the campsite.
“Where’s Noah?” I ask her. “I thought he went with you?”
“He had to take a bathroom break,” Cam says, smirking and rolling her eyes. “Like he does every two seconds.”
As soon as she finishes her sentence, Noah comes stumbling out of the woods. We laugh at him as he trips over a root and nearly falls in to Andy’s arms.
“Hey!” She says, giggling, as he blushes and wipes off his dirty jeans.
“Come on, man, we’ve been waiting for you!” I say jokingly. He smiles an embarrassed smile.
“Let’s get on with it then,” he says, and we all turn towards the path and begin walking. As we surround ourselves with the trees, I notice a little bird singing on a branch.
“Do you guys here that?” I ask them. They nod their heads in wonder and awe as we go deeper and deeper into the forest.
None of us say any words, for fear that we might ruin the natural beauty of the woods with our man made thoughts. I look back and realize that the camp is long gone behind us. Trees are every which way now. The leaves give us the comfort of a blanket, wrapped tightly and protectively around us. There aren’t as many flowers as there were at the campsite, but I notice a gathering of them and pick one. The flower is a bright blue one, with ten petals surrounding the vivid orange center. I turn back and give it to Noah, who laughs as his cheeks turn pink.
“Thanks, man,” he says. We laugh together and keep walking.
Cam and Andy hike a few steps ahead of us, so, of course, they see the sign first.
“Hey, look!” Cam says to us as she pulls back a branch to reveal a sign, painted red with faded white letters. The sign reads:
Do NOT go off the path
“Creepy,” mumbles Andy as we examine it.
“Agreed,” I say. I look down. Near the base of the sign, I notice wilted flowers, the same color blue as the one I gave Noah. I decide not to point it out to my friends, and after looking at the sign for a little longer, we continue on our way down the path.
I feel the sun on my neck and back. Confused, I look up. The canopy of leaves seems to be thinner than before. Still green as ever though. I smile as a butterfly flies around my gaze before disappearing into the trees.
“Did you see that butterfly?” I hear Cam ask Andy.
“Absolutely! It was so pretty!” She says.
“My mom started planting flowers in her front yard so the butterflies would come by her house more often,” Cam says, giggling.
“Well, does it work?”
“Nope!” The girls laugh together as I walk in step with them. Suddenly, Andy looks back to me. Her gaze narrows as she scans the trees.
“Guys, where’s Noah?”
We all turn to look back, now. We don’t see Noah on the path behind us or in the woods. I turn to the trees. Something about them tells me he’s in there. As I take the first step off the path, I remember the sign.
do NOT go off the path
It can’t be dangerous to leave, right?
“Guys, we have to look for him,” I say. “He probably went for a bathroom break.”
“Of course he did,” mumbles Cam, and she and Andy share a glance before following me into the woods.
“Noah! Noooooaaaaah!” We all call for him as we crash through the fallen leaves and the tall grass that scratches at our ankles. I trip over a branch on the ground. When I regain my balance, I see the same wilted blue flowers as earlier. They give the same creepy vibe as the sign.
do NOT go off the path
I step on them for good measure before continuing on my search.
“Noah!” I call again. I’m getting more and more nervous. It’s something about these woods. And I still haven’t found him.
Where have my friends gone?
The question hits me hard. I stop walking to listen and look around. No voices. No sounds. Just the rustling of the leaves.
“BOO!” Andy jumps out from behind a tree and I gasp, falling backwards. She helps me off my butt as I take deep breaths to calm myself down.
“Are you ok?” She says, laughing so hard there’s tears in her eyes.
“God, you scared me,” I say, rubbing my bruised butt with a grimace. After a moment, though, I laugh with her. “I thought you were lost!” I say.
“Speaking of lost,” she says, the laughter dying in her throat. “Where’s Cam?”
“I thought she was with you?” I say.
“Well I thought she was with you.” We both go quiet and look around. There are no birds singing, no crickets chirping. Not even the rustling in the leaves. I look up to see that the sun is hidden by a cloud.
“How are we going to find them then?” I ask. “They could be in totally different places.”
“We’ll split up!” Andy says with enthusiasm.
“I… don’t think that’s such a good idea,” I say worriedly.
“It’ll be fine!” She says. “We’ll meet by the creepy sign in…” she looks at her watch. “Fifteen minutes. Ok?”
Before I can protest, though, she runs off into the trees, calling for Cam and Noah. I sigh. Now, being left alone with the trees and the brown, colorless leaves, I shiver as a cold wind tickles my neck and arms.
“Cam? Noah?” I call into the brush. I walk back in the direction of the path. “Caaaam! Noaaaah!” I call, louder this time. No response. I walk for a few minutes in silence. Not even the sound of Andy’s voice reaches me. I look around.
The grass no longer scratches my ankles. It’s been trampled down. The area is brown and the grass looks like hay. The fallen leaves seem to come in bigger and bigger piles. None of them are the green color that I had been seeing at our beautiful campsite. Suddenly, I feel a burn on my back. The bright sun comes through the skinny branches above me. Startled, I realize there aren’t any leaves on the trees any more. Everything is grey and brown, murky colors. I look back down again. I was sure that the path would be here by now.
do NOT go off the path
The sign, hammered into a tree, startles me from my nervous thoughts. Something about this looks familiar. I glance at the tree the sign is on. Surprised, I see the same bright blue flower I had picked earlier, growing off the side of a branch. The same blue flower. I whirl around. The trees around me tower into the sky, looking down on me. The empty branches seem to shake with imaginary wind.
And then I can see them.
Their frozen faces etched into the bark of the dead trees.