A week before the fifth anniversary of the day they met, Mia and Oliver trekked to the Black River Forest.
Mia and Oliver. They were not only lovers. They were also best friends and partners in adventure. They had earned their bachelor’s degrees in Computer Science last year and were now preparing themselves to earn master’s degrees in the same field while Mia worked as a Software Developer, and Oliver as a Database Administrator. As fitness freaks, they always managed to maintain their muscular bodies, spending hours in the gym at least five days a week.
For the past five years, they had enjoyed trekking together on hot summer days, through the cool air of spring and even in the icy depths of winter. Today, they wanted to try the rain.
Mia had thought that the noise of thunder roaring overhead as they walked, the wind whooshing through the branches around them, and the rain hammering down onto the trees above would be an adventure, and Oliver had agreed. Already about six hours had passed since they began, and both were soaked to the skin and regretting their decision. They had left their car in a dirt parking lot at the trailhead about fifteen miles back along the path.
Luckily the route was circular. They had four to five miles left to go before the path returned them to where they started.
The couple had their jackets zipped up and hoods drawn over their heads. It was three o’clock now, and their flashlights shone on the path ahead of them in the darkening light. Their backpacks, covered with plastic bags to keep their possessions dry, rubbed their shoulders as they continued walking, holding each other’s hands, following the red ribbon tied on every other tree.
Their senses were at full alert for danger.
The path led even deeper into Black River Forest before it came back out again at the trailhead. Oliver’s heart began throbbing in his chest as the path narrowed, the branches of towering trees hiding the last glimpses of the sky above them. Oliver felt as if he were trapped in a tunnel. There was no sunlight left, dark clouds had hidden the last light of the sun, and the heavy rain was still pounding down.
No other people were in the forest, at least not within Oliver’s eyesight.
“This part of the forest is freaking me out,” said Oliver. His hold on Mia’s hand slightly tightened. “It’s like a tunnel. I wish we could finish this faster.”
“It’s only a few hours until we reach the car now. Are you OK? I haven’t seen you nervous like this before!” said Mia.
“This forest could be beautiful in summer,” said Oliver. He ceased the grasp on her hand. He felt sweaty even though he wasn’t and wiped his face with his palm. “But I’m getting scared now.”
“What are you getting scared of?”
Oliver stopped and looked back at her. She could see his face beneath his hood, pale and drawn, his forehead wrinkled in thought. “As we keep walking into the forest, I remembered that story. That one about . . . the psychopath.”
The lightning bolts flashed in the sky, lighting up the path and their pale faces for a brief moment.
Oliver and Mia startled and swiftly held each other’s hands for a bit; the hair on the back of their necks raised in a chill.
They both looked around.
“I hope the lightning doesn’t hit the trees here,” said Mia.
“According to the weather forecast, the rain was only supposed to be for three hours. But it’s been going on for much longer than that.”
“Do you think it’s going to stop anytime soon?”
“It was supposed to stop hours ago. So hopefully.”
“Alright!” Mia sighed in relief. “Anyway. You were saying something about the psychopath?”
Oliver put his hands on her shoulders and locked his eyes with hers.
“I’m worried for you.”
Mia and Oliver had heard the story before. Apparently, many hikers had gone mysteriously missing from this forest. No one knew what happened to them. Yet, Mia was sure it was only a story. Not every hiker went missing. But now that they were here, the story didn’t seem so silly. Oliver and Mia were eager to return from here alive.
“Don’t worry. Everything will be alright,” said Mia. “Didn’t you see three girls leaving the forest when we were arriving? They were alone, right? Did anything happen to them?”
Oliver stayed quiet. His eyes still locked with Mia’s.
“Hello!” Mia continued, waving her hand near his face to capture his attention. “We saw them alive, making their way out of the forest, chit-chatting, and laughing. And if you are still scared, I have an axe in my backpack.”
“I know that. We always carry an axe when we go on adventures like hiking, but—” Oliver sighed. It seemed like he didn’t want to drag out the topic anymore. He looked around. “Anyway. Forget the psychopath! It’s just a rumor.”
Oliver smiled. “Let’s finish the trekking, have a fun adventure, and get back to the car to get warm. Let’s rock it!”
However, he had dragged the smile to his face, part of him still believing a psychopath could pop up out of nowhere. Mia smiled back at him, giving him a quick kiss on his lips.
They continued on, but only a few steps forward, and . . .
“Stop!” said Oliver, his voice full of panic. “Did you hear that?”
“Was it a girl’s scream?” Mia looked around in alarm, shifting the focus of her flashlight as she looked through the trees.
“Where did it come from?”
They heard it again, this time clearly the high-pitched scream of a woman in fear or pain. In the heavy rainfall, with the wind whooshing and thunder roaring at intervals, they couldn’t tell exactly where it was coming from.
“Let’s go, quickly,” said Oliver. “Don’t risk your life. We need to get out of here. It’s the psychopath!”
“Just a minute ago you said it was a rumor,” said Mia. She glanced at him, then continued scanning the area with her torch, trying to look through the bushes and around the nearby trees. “I need to help this girl.”
“I . . .” Oliver shook his head in disbelief. He knew there was no point in arguing with her. Mia had decided to help the girl, and she would not leave unless she found her, no matter what danger she was putting herself in.
“How could you not help someone? Especially when an animal could be after her, or . . . according to your belief of a psychopath’s existence, maybe a psychopath is after her.”
The scream rang out again, louder this time. It was as if the girl was approaching them. Then came the sound of someone crashing through the branches.
Mia and Oliver turned to the right where the noise was coming from. The girl screamed again. She was close now. They were frozen in fear.
Then an unexpected sound drowned out the girl’s scream. A bear’s roar.
Mia and Oliver looked at each other, their eyes wide in shock.
A tall, skinny girl burst out of the bushes in front of them.
She stopped dead, staring at Oliver and Mia.
Mia scanned her from top to bottom in shock. Wet. Her rain jacket was torn, bruises on her hands, and knees bleeding beneath her jogging pants. Mia realized that she recognized her.
“We saw you leaving with your friends hours ago! What happened?”
The girl’s lips fluttered as if she was about to wail or say something, but before she could, a bear roared so loudly that they could all feel it in their bones.
Oliver jerked in horror.
The girl glanced over her shoulder. “RUN! IT’S A BEAR.” She ran down the path. Oliver and Mia sprinted after her.
Another crash in the bushes made Mia pause and turn around. A bear about seven feet in size, black as the night, came out from the bushes and stood on the path. It looked around, its jaws wide open and fangs clearly visible. It seemed like the bear was infuriated and desperate to end its hunger.
Before the trio could hide somewhere or get far enough away, the bear spotted them.
Mia was frozen in fear.
“It’s seen us!”
Oliver and the tall girl looked back.
“Fuck,” both said in unison.
The trio sprinted up the path, each glancing back as they went. They kept running, and running, and running . . .
In panic, not focusing anymore on the red ribbon on the trees, the trio turned right.
The bear was gaining on them. It was only about three feet away from Oliver.
The bear was so close Oliver could feel its breath on his neck. It swung its huge paw at him, its claws—sharp like knives—bared. Oliver pushed himself forward with a last burst of energy, dodging death by a fraction.
Oliver heard a crash and risked a glance over his shoulder. The bear had fallen; it must have tripped when its swipe at him missed. Oliver powered on, catching up with the girls 150 feet away. With the bear distracted, they ran on, turning left, right, right, left.
They soon heard the bear crashing after them, chasing their smell. But it must have turned the wrong way. They heard it roar in anger.