They’d started late. The baby had spit up something, so they waited to see if he was sick, but he wasn’t. So they left anyway but not On the Dot of Six like Dad had said. A lot later.
The van sped down the highway, then rolled along blacktop roads, then crept down a gravel track crowded by dark trees. “It’s not the end of the world if we don’t finish the hike,” Mom said. “If it starts getting dark, we can just turn around.”
Dad didn’t say anything.
Toni sat in the back by the baby, watching him kick at the air. She had a new backpack with her own bottle for water, her own small flashlight, and purple plastic binoculars. She wore a hat, and her face was smeared with sunscreen. She was excited.
Now the van pulled up by a tiny log building. A smiling woman in a ranger hat stuck out her head, took some money, and handed Dad a trail map. Then she glanced at her watch, and her smile faded a little. “Now you be sure to get back before dark,” she said.
“Oh, of course,” said Mom. Her long hair was tied up under a wide-brimmed hat.
“Late start, so that might mean turning back early,” said the ranger.
“Nah, we’ll make it,” said Dad.
“But if we don’t, we’ll turn back,” said Mom. “I mean right? It’s not a competition.”
“That’s the right attitude,” said the ranger. “Ten years ago, when I was new at this job, a family like yours went out on this hike. But they stayed out after night fell, and”–she glanced at Toni, then leaned in and lowered her voice. Mom’s face became a worried frown.
The ranger straightened and smiled uneasily. “Anyway,” she said. “Made a big impression on me. So just make sure to get back before nightfall, all right?”
“Sure,” said Dad. “And if we don’t, we have a flashlight.”
“I’ll leave a light on for you,” the ranger said. She smiled as if she had made a joke. But Toni thought it wasn’t a real smile.
The beginning of the hike was all trees and going down and down for a long time. The air smelled woody, fresh and alive. Dad carried a pack with sandwiches and insect repellant and water; Mom carried the baby on her back.
The next part of the hike was long grass and yellow and pink flowers and a flat trail. Toni liked that. They walked a long time. Then came a bad part of the hike, which was more trees, thicker and older ones, and a trail that went up and up forever.
Toni didn’t like this part, but you Shouldn’t Complain. Once they stopped and ate tuna fish sandwiches.
After a while, their shadows got long, and the birds woke up to dart and sing around them. Mom said, “I wonder if we should turn back.“
“We’re almost there,” said Dad. His eyes were bright. He was looking ahead, and not looking at them.
Mom jogged to catch up with him, bouncing the baby on her back. Toni heard her say, “But remember what the ranger said about . . . ” She couldn’t hear any more.
Dad was wrong, it wasn’t almost, it was a long while yet. In that long while, as they trudged on, Toni watched her parents’ shadows grow spindly-tall and monstrous. Even the baby’s shadow-arms were long and thin, waving on the green and yellow grass.
Finally they came to an enormous lake, gray in the slanting light. “This is it,” said Dad.
“I’m gonna take off my shoes and socks and put my feet in!” said Toni.
Her mother looked hard at her father.
“Ah, I think we need to head back right away, buddy,” Dad said. “The walk took a little longer than I thought. We want to get back before dark.” He looked at her mom, and his look said Sorry. “We should probably head back right now, actually,” he said.
“But I’m hungry,” said Toni.
“Grab an apple and eat it on the way.”
They walked down and down, and they walked flat, till Toni was tired of walking. The shadows went away, and the light turned clear and strange, then dim and dimmer. Then light was hard to see in; then it was almost gone. The birds went away.
When they came into trees again, the light was gone.
Dad switched on his flashlight. “Well, now we’re in for it,” he said, in a voice like a joke. But no one laughed, and after a while he said, “We’re fine, you guys. Come on. It’s the same place we just walked through, only now it’s dark. It’s the exact same place—it wasn’t scary an hour ago.”
But it was scary now. The night had fallen on them, the night held them in its black jaws. Far above, wind rushed through the tops of trees like a long sigh, then went silent. The flashlight played ahead of them, worrying in all the corners of the trail as it ran down and down and down.
At least it isn’t the going up part anymore, Toni thought.
“Toni?” said her mother suddenly.
“Stay right by me,” said Mom. “Hold onto the strap of my pack and don’t let go.”
Toni watched the patch of light running along the ground ahead of them like a ghost.
“Should we sing?” said Mom.
No one answered. The night was like a black wool blanket wrapped all around them.
The ghost-light raced up the path, growing smaller and smaller. “I can’t move that fast with the kids,” said Mom. “Slow down.”
“Hang on,” said Dad. His voice was farther away. “I think I heard something.”
“Don’t go far,” said Mom. “We shouldn’t separate. Remember what the ranger. . . besides, we need the light.”
“Not going far,” said Dad.
“Toni, hold onto that strap,” said her mother.
The light was a small bobbing thing now, a glowing apple far up the path. It moved to the left, played against trees. Dad’s voice: “I just want to see—“
The light went out.
There was silence.
“Honey?” said Mom. Her voice was high. “Anything wrong?”
“Steve?” she called, louder.
Silence, except the night insects, and the sighing, invisible wind.
“Steven!” she shouted.
The backpack strap yanked out of Toni’s hand; she heard steps, running along the dirt. “Mom!” Toni called. She was too afraid to move. The steps stopped. There was a long silence. They listened to each other breathing hard.
“Toni.” Mom’s voice, finally. “Do you still have that flashlight?
Toni kneeled down to open her backpack, feeling around blindly inside. By the time she had it in her hand and the pack shrugged back on, the warmth of Mom’s big, safe body was at her side. They found each other’s hands in the dark, and Mom clicked the flashlight on, shone it around. It only made a little egg of light, compared to Dad’s, but it was something.
Together, Mom and Toni and the baby walked a few yards in the darkness, calling for Dad. The toy flashlight ran a dot of light across the trees, then along the ground among the trees, where it picked out bark, a leaf, a black shape, a stone. They walked and called for a long time.
Mom told Toni to wait for a minute with the baby while she walked off the trail. Toni sat on the ground, holding the baby’s soft, drool-wet face by her own, and closed her eyes. “Keep talking,” she said.
“I’m here, it’s fine, I won’t stop talking,” said her mother from the trees.
After a while, Mom came back, with a new, darker silence around her, and put the baby on her back again. Together they walked down the dark trail. “We’re getting help,” said Mom. Her voice came fierce out of the dark above Toni, like she was arguing with someone. “We’re getting help, people with big lights and megaphones, people who know this area, who can help find him.”
Their feet crunched over stones. Even walking down as they were, it was hard to keep up with Mom right now. “Is he dead?” Toni asked.
“Of course he’s not dead,” said her mother sharply. “Why would you say something like that? He probably just twisted his ankle or something.”
“Then why doesn’t he answer us?”
“Are you holding on to that strap? Hold tight. Just hold tight.”
It had been hot in the day, but now the cool wind felt around your sleeves and collar for a place to slip in. Toni felt like her eyes were as wide as they could go, but still she saw nothing at all, unless she looked up and saw stars.
They walked for a long time. “Mama, I’m really tired.”
“Honey, I can’t carry you both.” The sound of her hiking the baby higher on her back, tightening the straps.
Then the flashlight went out.
“It doesn’t matter. It wasn’t enough light to make a difference anyway.”
The cold air felt clammy on Toni’s faces. She zipped up her jacket higher. “Mom. What did the ranger lady say about that other—“
“Oh, nothing. Some old story. Keep up, honey. We’re going to walk a little faster. Are you holding onto the strap?”
Toni was starting to feel confused about up and down, ground and sky. The black trees were closing in around them, with their insect whisperings, with their low, scary night-bird calls.
“Look!” said Mom.
Toni looked. Far ahead, in the black distance, was a tiny glowing light.
“We’re there!” said Mom. She sounded like she might be crying a little. “We’re there, that’s the ranger station, we’re almost there. As long as you have something glowing to walk toward, you’re all right. So we’re all right.”
The baby, who had been so good all day, started crying. But at least that silenced the trees, the birds. They walked toward the glow, hearing only their crunching steps and the baby’s sobs.
Toni’s shoe came loose. She bent down in the dark, feeling for the shoestrings, pulling them tight across her foot.
Abruptly, the baby stopped crying. At that same moment, Toni realized she had let go of the strap.
“Mom?” she said.
First she said it in a small voice. Then she said it louder, in case Mom hadn’t heard.
But there was no answer, only insect whispers and animal breaths and the sighs of trees.
“Mom!” she screamed. She screamed it again. She screamed for her mother, over and over, eyes closed tight, shoe untied, feet planted on rocky dirt she hoped was the path. Toni screamed for her mom until she could only whisper, but she kept whispering, she wouldn’t stop, she whispered against the dark.
She opened her eyes and saw that tiny glow down the path.
As long as you have something glowing to walk toward, you’re all right.
She walked again, blind in the breathing dark.
Getting help. People with big lights and megaphones. I will be the one who saves them.
She looked up between the waving shadows of tree and saw the trail of wild, cold stars. She looked back at the glowing light.
“Mom?” she whispered, over and over. “Mom?”
Or they’ll be there, and they’ll save me. Someone will save someone.
Toni walked toward the light, down and down the sloping trail. Sometimes her path wavered, so that she stumbled against a tree or brush, but then she straightened herself again. Once she stumbled over something soft, too soft for the rough forest, but she didn’t stop to pick it up.
Didn’t stop to find that it was shreds of a baby blanket.
As long as you have a something glowing to walk toward. As long as, as long as.
The cold hand of the wind slipped around her throat. A rock sprang up in front of her foot and she slipped and fell, tumbling down the sloping trail.
Toni sat in the blackness, crying a little, holding her hurt knee, thinking.
The trail was going down. But when they had started the trail, they’d been going down.
So if they were nearly back at the ranger place, the trail should be going up.
So why was the trail going down? she wondered. And if wasn’t the ranger station, who was making that light?
As if in answer, the light grows larger. The light is walking toward her now, brighter, bigger by the second.
And with the light comes a sound, a terrible sound, a sort of gurgling moan, half like a laugh, half like a strangled scream.
Toni’s almost blind again now, not from dark this time, but from the light in her eyes. But before she goes quite blind, she sees something behind the light. Three tall, black figures are coming toward her, elongated as afternoon shadows. The creatures are reaching out towards her with their long, spindly arms, making raspy growls in the back of their throats, gurgling, laughing, strangling back their own excited screams.
Mom, Toni whispers, as the long, thin arms snake towards her.
But then it’s dark again.
And then it’s dark forever.