This was Alex and Mia's second date. In four minutes time, Alex would sprain his ankle. If he hadn't, he may have gotten to Mia in time to save her.
It was an eventful day for both of them.
As Alex's friend had warned, Mia Yardly was, "a bit outdoorsy". It was a fair warning from one mutual friend to another, and after some leisurely conversation during Alex and Mia's first date (a movie and pizza dinner because Alex was all about classy), he realized how much of an understatement this was.
Mia's free time cycled between kayaking, grueling hikes, and weekend road trips down to Breckenridge. She spent her summers on backpacking adventures and her winters knee-deep in snow. She'd go wherever she could get her fix of the great outdoors, and Alex played along for the time being. Maybe, he admitted in a private corner of his mind, he needed to get off the couch more often.
Even so, there were lines Alex wouldn't cross. When Mia had suggested their second date be an eleven mile hike, he had nearly bailed. Before going to bed that night, Alex spent ten minutes inventing excuses for why he couldn't make it. Then he set his alarm clock for 6:30, certain the early hour would quell any motivation he had to go on Mia's hike.
No luck. Alex awoke strangely energized. Unable to go back to sleep after an hour of restless tossing and turning, he conceded that fate wanted him to go on this date. Maybe this was one of those stories he would tell his grandchildren. Hey, kids! Do you want to hear the one about how I almost stood up your grandmother on a date?
Three hours later and here he was: five miles deep into the woods with his toes frozen numb and cold sweat sticking his undershirt to his back. Though Mia's chosen trail was a little "off the beaten path", Alex kept his objections to himself and found a walking stick. Roots and browning vines overran the trail (did anyone even go down here?). It was a recipe for a sprained ankle, something Alex was unfortunately familiar with, and he would be lucky to finish the hike without getting crippled.
And at the end of mile five, his luck ran out.
He and Mia had reached the dregs of their conversation, and Alex scraped his memory for anything to keep the conversation afloat. His labored breath puffed into little white clouds as he followed her through the trees. "Any pets?" he said.
"I have a turtle," Mia said. She squinted up at the sky, though her attention never left her footing. The path carved between edges of smaller boulders, some mossy and others crumbling. This was not the place to lose one's balance.
There was little else to say, so they moved on. The conversation dragged, and Alex's endurance did too. He had neither the stamina or breath to elaborate on answers, so their conversation became a dull pingpong match of question and answer. Either Mia changed the subject or Alex did but they moved onto movies next. He scraped his walking stick in front of him to check for any holes, and tried his best to keep the conversation going.
"I haven't seen that one yet," Mia said in response to his question about a semi-recent blockbuster. She spoke over her shoulder, having broken ahead to navigate a tricky snare of vines. "Is it on Netflix?"
"I think so," said Alex.
"I'll have to check it out tonight," Mia said. "Or maybe we could watch it together sometime..."
"Yeah. I think—shit!"
Mia spun, hands up.
Alex hadn't meant to swear, but it was all that came out when the tread of his sneaker snagged a stray branch. In a valiant attempt to regain his balance, he threw his leg out in front of him and was rewarded by an excruciating crunch in his ankle. With arms waving and curses flying, he fell forward—hard. He bit back an unmanly cry as even Mia, queen of the outdoors, winced.
"Oof." Mia covered her mouth. "Are you all right?"
The question taunted him. He gritted his teeth into the pain and said, "Yeah. I'm good."
She stepped closer, careful to avoid the branch that had tripped him. "Really?"
Alex heaved onto a nearby rock, cradling his ankle. He rotated it in a tight circle and wiggled his frozen toes. The initial pain was fading but not fast enough. "Yeah... I don't think it's broken."
He massaged the spot, and little knives stabbed up his Achilles. It was a familiar pain: the same stab, the same dull throb when he rotated it. He groaned. Here we go again. This injury had plagued Alex for years, and now the bulk of the pain had faded, he was going to muster his remaining dignity for Mia's sake.
"It's nothing big," he explained. "I broke it playing soccer in high school, and now it always acts up. I just need to take it easy for a bit."
Mia twisted a strand of hair behind her ear as her eyes found his walking stick and backpack, strewn in the dirt behind him. "I mean, if you're hurt, we should probably just head back."
Alex shook his head. He had come too far to quit and turn back. "It's fine. Honestly. You can go on if you'd like. I just need to rest it for a bit."
And have a break from the awkwardness. What do you talk about with someone for eleven miles of hiking? Especially someone you barely know?
Mia pursed her lips. She got the hint. "Okay. If you're sure..."
"It's just another half mile until the turnaround. I'll take pictures when I get there."
It took Alex a second to figure out what she was talking about. Then he remembered the point of this hike. They were going to look at a series of rock formations tucked away in the forest, renowned by Colorado's rock climbing population. People devoted whole guidebooks to cataloguing the boulders in this forest, though Alex doubted any of them had made it this far in.
"How long until you circle back?" Alex said.
No reply. Alex glanced up from his ankle and nearly laughed. Emptiness stood before him. Mia had long gone, leaving him with nothing but himself and the silence. A bird chirped overhead, his remaining companion. Quiet, quiet, quiet.
Alex's thoughts drifted, but the isolation tugged away at his attention. It was an itch, a little spot of discomfort. The more he tried to distract himself, the more the tugging, nagging uneasiness pestered him.
"Too quiet out here," Alex said loudly, if only to fend off the pressing silence. He was used to the comfortable noise of the city: cars skidding through puddles under his apartment window, the upstairs neighbor's TV blaring through the ceiling, and his roommate microwaving Kraft mac 'n cheese at 1:00 am, the smell wafting under the crack in his bedroom door.
As the itching quietness intensified, Alex found himself missing his and Mia's stale conversation. He wanted desperately to hear more about Barnaby the turtle. Anything.
"Screw this," Alex said. Something seemed wrong. He couldn't say what exactly felt off, but the raw stillness of the forest didn't help. He wanted to make some noise, yodel, tap dance in the leaves—whatever it took. Alex's neuroticism was well-documented within his group of friends, and his anxiousness was the butt of many jokes. The problem was, out here all of that felt far, far away. It was enough to make Alex think maybe his nerves were right.
Alex straightened his leg and tested a little weight on his ankle. The dull ache remained, but it was no worse than when he had rolled it out earlier. With both feet now planted in the dirt, all his instincts told him to turn the other way and run.
Alex took a small step backward.
Yes! Go! Run away!
He shook the voices from his head. Alex needed to find Mia first before he could go running back home. She'd understand if he said he wanted to turn around, right? Especially with his ankle?
Yes. She may be peeved, but she wouldn't say no. Alex limped down the trail and scanned the red and brown autumn medley for any glimpse of Mia. With her black sweatshirt and yellow backpack, she would be easy to spot amidst the fall colors. He cleared his throat to call her name.
Then Alex heard it, and the words crumbled away. Voices. There were multiple voices down the trail.
Alarm bells clanged. This trail wasn't a loop; there was one way on, one way off, and in all their hours hiking, Alex and Mia had been alone. Not a single person had passed them. So who else could be—
A high scream sliced through the sharp autumn air.
The breathless cry was choked off quickly as it was uttered, but after talking to Mia for three hours straight, Alex knew her voice better than his own. Her scream broke off into a low, pained gasp, then nothing.
The forest responded with indifferent silence. No echo, no bird's call. Somewhere in the treetops, a branch snapped. A squirrel skittered up the trunk of an oak. Alex stood in the middle of the path, limbs stiff and thoughts spiralling. The dry air choked him. That was Mia screaming, Mia…
Her name punched through the apathy. Alex hobbled forward, cursing through sharp breaths. Was she in trouble? Hurt? Alex didn't know. His curses turned to pained gasps as he limped around the bend. Come on, Alex, come on. What was the worst that could have happened to her? Mia may have stumbled over a branch, twisted her ankle like him. She may have tripped, tumbled down an embankment, if only Alex could—
The trail opened into a wider section, a basin where browning leaves drifted and collected in towering drifts. The trees grew closer to the path, their trunks squeezed together like pencils in a box. Alex stopped, twigs snapping under his feet. A baffling tableau was laid before him.
Mia lay facedown in a brush, her legs sprawled out behind her. She didn't move, even as the wind nipped at her coat. Her brown ponytail lay twisted in the thorned branches of a low-lying bush, and her backpack dangled from one shoulder.
As concerning as that was, Mia wasn't the strangest part of the scene. No, no, no—because there, standing above her, silhouetted against the overcast sky, was one of the most beautiful women Alex had ever seen.
She had warm blonde hair cut short enough to graze her jaw. Her soft, heart shaped face tapered to a delicate chin and a faint frown. Her thin nose sloped down with mathematical precision, and Alex doubted he could have gotten a straighter angle if he used a protractor. Her high cheekbones had an austere symmetry, softened only by the strands of hair that fell over her eyes. The woman could have been a runway model on her off-day.
She would have been perfect, if not for the knife.
A short and wickedly sharp hunting knife was held loosely in the woman's hand. She twirled it absently between her fingers, blood dripping to the ground in long, syrupy strings. The blade was double-sided, and coated from tip to the handle in slick red.
Alex would have turned and ran if his limbs would cooperate, but for now, he was stuck in limbo. Fight or flight? Bullshit. Alex watched the scene unfold as if it were broadcasted to him from another planet. It was akin to seeing the earth from the window of an airplane. It would be bad to fall through that little oval of plastic, to be sucked out into the cold, thin air, but why worry? Just keep watching, fingers and pressed to plexiglass, breath fogging the view. Keep watching.
Movement caught at the edge of Alex's vision. A younger girl—eleven? Twelve?—observed the scene from the shadow of an oak, eyes focused on the woman. Alex hadn't noticed her at first; she blended in. Her lank, dark hair hid half her face, and blunt bangs hung low over her eyes. She stepped further into the shadow and glanced over her shoulder every few seconds. Her hair swished across her back with each turn of her head.
This was the waiting game. There were four players: Alex, Mia, the blonde girl, the young girl. With Mia out of cards, everything was left to the three people who remained. It was someone's move. Someone should go, get this started. The smell of blood hadn't yet reached Alex, but he imagined it did. It crawled down his throat. One of you go, he begged silently.
The girl cleared her throat softly and inched forward. "Emily, I think—"
But whatever the girl had wanted to say, she never finished. Mid-sentence, she turned her head, this time over her other shoulder.
She saw Alex.