Sleepless Trail

Sleepless+Trail

Hannah Klippel, Reporter

A Sleepless Trail

Hiking had been a great idea. Kyle was no amateur, he knew to research his location, plot out his path, bring plenty of water, an change of clothes, extra socks, snacks, first aid kit, flashlight, emergency rope, and matches–anything he might need. He was well built for the exercise, blond from the sun, with strong arms and legs from years spent climbing and exploring. He wore his clothes for practicality–not tight, not loose, but breathable. Comfortable. He was prepared for anything.

 

He was not prepared for Ike to tag along, and his only mistake was not checking his cousin’s pack before they set off into the wilderness.

 

So now they were six miles up the sandy trail, surrounded by dense brush and towering conifers, to discover that Ike had run out of water. He’d packed water, at least–in a liter sized Superman thermos much too small for their adventure. And he’d been out for a while and simply opted not to say anything, and now the effects of dehydration were starting to show.

 

“Ky, can’t I please have some of yours?”

 

“I told you, no. And stop calling me that. We’re not nine.”

 

In truth, Kyle had overpacked on water, and he’d relent and share when he felt he had taught his cousin a valuable lesson on leaving your fanboy stuff at home, but for now, he’d let him suffer a while longer.

 

“Come on,” Ike whined. “I’m sure you have some. When are we going to take a break? This pack is heavy, I can’t carry it for much longer.”

 

Kyle stopped. That didn’t sound right. “It’s heavy?” He asked as he turned around. “The only things you were supposed to bring were your water, snacks, and the emergency tent. What…” His stomach sank in dread. “What the hell did you bring?”

 

The way Ike flushed and scuffed his feet across the ground told him far too much. Under a mop of curly dark hair, the freckles across his boyish face darkened obscenely, highlighting the shame shining in water green eyes. Feeling the anger settle deep in his gut, Kyle stomped back down the trail to his cousin and ripped the bag from his shoulders, setting the admittedly heavy obnoxiously yellow colored pack on a flat rock to tear apart its contents.

 

Ike’s snacks stored in his special, limited edition, Superman tin lunch box. The tent, which was not the one Kyle had instructed him to bring, was his cousin’s Superman kid tent from when they were younger. The obsession started when they were four, and had follow Ike ever since. It was hardly big enough to fit one person, let alone two, and forget their bags. The rest of the bag was packed full: Superman sleeping bag, Superman blanket, Superman pillow, Superman plush, several Superman comics, action figures, and mini-figurines; his cousin’s dorky notebook and a whole pouch of pens, binoculars, a camera, a chunky toy flashlight, and a watercolor set.

 

Kyle stared in disbelief. “You have got to be kidding me.”

 

“I wanted to be prepared!” Ike defended.

 

“For what? A sleepover?”

 

“Well, what if we had to spend the night on the mountain?” Ike tried, visibly mustering the confidence to stand against his cousin with clenched, clammy hands that picked at the hem of his shirt. “I can’t sleep without my soft stuff, and I always read before bed. A-and I wanted to document all the cool stuff we saw! And–”

 

Kyle held up the watercolors with a raised eyebrow. “At what point did you think we’d be stopped long enough for you to paint? That would have been lunch, an hour ago.”

 

“Yeah, but that was at the beginning of the trail. We hadn’t seen anything cool yet.”

 

“That was three miles in. Maybe we would have if you had let us go out at six a.m. like I wanted to, so we wouldn’t have to hike through the sun,” Kyle shot back with a groan of frustration. “I hope you realize that in the worst case scenario, if we do have to sleep on the trail, we are going to be out in the open, exposed, and in serious trouble–and you still have no water.”

 

“We will not. I brought the tent!”

 

“Did you actually open the tent before you packed it?”

 

“No, but it looked around the right size.”

 

Kyle debated the benefits of hitting his cousin over the head with a rock around the right size. It would certainly save him this miserable headache, but Auntie would give him hell for it.

 

The two had never been very close. Honestly, Kyle admitted to being a bit of a bully, but he liked his space, and Ike could never understand that. But their mothers were close, almost like sisters, so the boys had spent a lot of time together growing up. Even if that time had mostly been spent tying firecrackers to Ike’s toys.

 

He allowed his cousin an hour to rehydrate with his water, which was more time than they had. When the trip had originally been planned, accounting for their light lunch break and multiple water breaks, they were due down the mountain an hour before noon to have a heavier lunch with their family at the resort near the foot of the massive hill. With their delay, their having to walk through the hottest parts of the day, progress had been slowed. Six miles up the trail. Only four left to go. They’d been hiking five hours. On his own, Kyle would be through by now, enjoying himself beside the resort pool and rewarding his grueling exertion. With Ike?

 

They’d be lucky to get back down in another five hours, well after nightfall. His scrawny, nervous cousin didn’t have his stamina, and the longer they hiked, the slower he plodded along. Alone, Kyle might have braved hiking in the night, trusting his own sure feet and instincts. Ike’s instincts would end them both down a hill.

 

Staying on the mountain overnight was not an option.

 

But it was the only one he had.

 

Kyle forced himself to stop at the next level clearing they stumbled across, nearly an hour later. He forced Ike to do the same, ignoring the insistence that they could make it back before dark. He knew better than his cousin, and worse: the wind had begun to shift. Years of rock climbing, trail hiking, and cache searching warned him when the air grew denser, and he cursed.

 

A storm.

 

Storms out here were dangerous. The rocks became slick, the dirt unsteady. Rivers burst their banks and flooded, taking anything without roots with it. And it would get cold, too, colder than Ike’s Superman blanket and their tiny tent could protect them from.

 

Kyle hoped they’d get lucky. That they’d only catch the cusp of the storm. He tended to be lucky. He’d been made aware of the chance of rain the day before, but it hadn’t been expected to strike so soon.

 

But the small, petty voice inside him warned that having Ike around was a bad luck charm. With the younger, inexperience clumsy male, anything that could go wrong could be expected to go wrong. Lightning would strike; the tent would collapse; there’d be a fire; their stuff would be swept away in a terrible flood that would take the boys with them; one of them would catch cold and be to ill to travel any further–

 

Ike sneezed.

 

Kyle wished he had salt to throw over his shoulder, but he settled for knocking on a pine trunk and glaring at his cousin as he gathered wood to use for a fire, to keep warm for as long as they could manage. He kept an eye on the gathering clouds, grown closer since he’d spotted them earlier. Thicker. Darker.

 

“Aren’t fires dangerous?” Ike questioned skeptically when Kyle pulled the branches back to the makeshift camp. His cousin had thankfully raised the tent in his absence, their bags gathered by the entrance, and a mere glance confirmed it would indeed be to small for the both of them. “A-and isn’t it illegal to start fires in a National Park?”

 

Kyle growled, irritation pounding an early headache into him. “Yes, they are. Yes, it is. So when animals come in the dead of night and the cold sets in, good luck with your blanket.”

 

“Hey, it was your job to bring the kindling.”

 

Wordlessly, Kyle dug through his pack until he held up a box of matches and a kindling kit. “I have it, but it’s always better to be prepared.”

 

Ike turned away, grumbling sourly. “I was prepared.”

 

“Prepared to die of thirst and exposure along the hiking trail.”

 

“W-well, you’re prepared for like, the zombie apocalypse!”

 

“Better than dying.”

 

“This was your idea.”

 

“I wanted to go by myself.”

 

Ike shut his mouth tightly, and Kyle was thankful for the quiet as he worked to dig a shallow pit and find stone to set the fire in. He knew Ike felt terrible. He should feel terrible. It was Ike’s own fault their trip had gone so wrong, destined to fail from the moment they set out.

 

No matter. They had to make the most of it now, until they could get back to the cabin. Kyle knew his mother was going to freak when they didn’t return by sundown as he’d promised, but it would be nothing compared to Auntie Irene’s hysteria. Never mind that they were both grown men perfectly capable of looking after themselves.

 

A strike of a match lit the kindling aflame, heat searing through pine needles to catch on the wood and bark. That would keep them warm enough for the time being.

 

Kyle looked up from his handiwork to ask Ike what all they might have to eat, only to find the spot his cousin had sat bare, the sun beginning to set over the ridge.

 

“Ike?” He stood slowly, scanning the clearing.

 

He cursed.

 

“Ike!” He roared, letting his voice echo back at him from the trees as he stomped out his fire and snatched up his pack. Silence greeted him as he checked his supplies, the birds and insects startled into tense quiet by his anger. Satisfied with its contents, he zipped up the bag and slung it over his shoulder.

 

Ike was known for wandering off, especially when he was upset. But with nightfall approaching and the coming storm, Kyle hated the thought of him out in the woods alone. A quiet place for Ike to sit and think would be the perfect hunting place for predators. Ground that was steady in the day had unseen roots and pits and stones in the dark. Ike could hurt himself, or become stuck somewhere that Kyle wasn’t sure he could find.

 

“Ike!” They’d fought about whether or not to go further down the trail. The stubborn fool may be trying to prove he wasn’t totally useless, that he could do things. He wasn’t stupid enough to try going back the long way, the way they’d come, so he would have gone forward.

 

“Isaac Myers, I swear, if you don’t answer me you’ll be limping home!” He tried again, voice sharp with desperation. Darkness was falling quickly, shortening the time he had to search in the day light. Flashlight beams were unreliable, but they’d soon be his only option.

 

Booted feet pounded against the travel-smoothed path. Running was a bad idea, but Kyle moved as quickly as he could down the path. His mind scanned through the nocturnal predators that would be waking soon. The first drop landed on his elbow, and thunder rumbled. The clouds meant no moonlight, no additional help from mother nature, and the rain made the path a concussion waiting to happen.

 

“Ike!”

 

The storm brought in brisk, cold air, all the heat from earlier in the day gone in an instant as though it had never been there. Kyle stopped for only a second to shed his bag and pull off the jacket tied around his waist, pulling them both back on properly in the same movement as he set off. The rain began to torrent, unleashed with a fury as though the sky had broken under its weight.

 

He wasn’t sure how long he searched, cursing, stumbling through the undergrowth. Those curses slowly turned to pleading prayers and fleeting hope as the rain battered him, the wind yanking at his clothes and balance. He slipped twice. Fell once. The fall skinned his palms and covered him in mud, but it also knocked a sense of dread deep into his stomach. It was too dangerous to continue. He had to find shelter.

 

His voice cracked, giving out in the wake of his cousin’s name and the barrage of frustrated screaming. Ike would have hurt himself by now. He could have fallen off the path, slid down a hill. Kyle could have walked a mile, could have walked two. Could have walked right past Ike, unconscious, and not seen him in the dark. A fool’s mission.

 

The best place he could find to rest appeared as a leafy young tree that had fallen against another. Recently, since the leaves were still spring and fresh, and the canopy kept most of the rain off him. He sat against the trunk, his head falling into his hands.

 

A light cut through the darkness, dancing through the rain across the ground at his feet, wielded by a dark, broad, hulking shadow. Kyle jumped to his feet, clutching his flashlight as a weapon, and then it was in his eyes.

 

“Hey there!” A friendly male voice called through the rain, far too cheerful for this weather. He lowered the light, and Kyle’s eyes caught on the axe that swung from his hip. He would have been alarmed, had he not recognized from the wide-brimmed hat with its gleaming label that he was one of the wildland firefighters. A rumble cut through the rain—a helicopter.

 

“You Kyle Bryker?” The fireman asked, rhetorically at best. A crackle came from the radio at his shoulder.

 

When Kyle responded it was gruff, his voice raw from screaming. “Yeah, who’s asking?”

 

“Eli Keener. Your mother called the station. We found your cousin a bit further up the trail a ways, lost.”

 

“Is he okay?”

 

“He’s fine.” Eli laughed. Something dropped from the sky, a harness attached to the helicopter above by a long tether, and he started to fiddle with it. “Scared, scratched, looks like he hurt his hand, but fine. He’s worried about you.”

 

“Me?” Kyle demanded incredulously. “He’s the one that ran off!”

 

“And he’s very sorry,” the man nodded sagely, likely humoring his bad mood. He held out the harness, and Kyle realized there were two of them. “We have to fly out of here. It’s the fastest way down the mountain, and the storm is supposed to get worse. I hope you’re not scared of heights.”

 

“Get me off this rock.”

 

The straps fit snugly across his chest, hips, and thighs, tight as the ropes pulled him up nearly fifty feet. Another of the rescue crew greeted him at the door with a warm blanket and helped him get out of the restraints, leading him to sit down next to a very wet, apologetic Ike. He had his wrist wrapped in a splint, nervously explaining that he’d wandered off to be alone and had slipped and ended up much farther away than he’d wanted to be.

 

Buffeted from noise by the rain, engine, and the spinning blades above them, soaked thoroughly to the core, the only thing Kyle could feel was relief.

 

He silenced Ike with a glare, sitting down heavily and catching hold of his cousin’s arm. “If you ever make me worry like that again,” he threatened, “then I’ll tell Auntie Irene who really broke her Grandad’s vase.”

 

Ike sputtered. “Ky, we almost died!”

 

“But we didn’t, so chill out and get over it. And next time we go hiking, I’m packing the bags.”

 

The rest of the flight was largely uneventful. Sleep pulled at them, the adrenaline and excitement fading, but they stayed awake, dreading their next challenge.

 

Their worried mothers.