By Mike Weitz

(From Issue #8)

Dawn broke. 

Light spilled in from the eastern rim of darkness. 

Things began to awaken.

One by one, decade-old vehicles assembled in the lot. The boys were not in any hurry. They sat tight in their cars and kept their music playing. Knees danced antsy jigs. The coach was late.

Marcus Shrader and his younger brother Aaron were the only two in the same vehicle. They did not exchange a word.

Marcus sighed and dialed up the volume. Aaron hunched over his phone, staring for a reply from a girl. 

An old Toyota Camry puttered into the neighboring stall. Marcus waved at its driver to get in with them. Stubbornly, the driver waved back. Marcus threw up his arms. 

“Fine, whatever then,” he mumbled.

Aaron thought about the girl’s top lip, the perfect shape of a bird in high flight. He inhaled deeply, catching imaginary traces of her mint-orange perfume. A distant awakening next to his thigh, and he checked his phone again. 

A sun-faded Monte Carlo slunk into a stall three down from any of the other parked cars. Its operator, Alex Dentwood, threw the shifter into park and flung his seat back.

Coach arrived. The boys watched his pickup bumble into the lot. No one got out of their cars until he did. 

A few moments later, there they were, all reluctantly congregated at the trailhead. Eight young men formidably dressed against the elements. Aaron was the only freshmen on the team and lacked the seasoned sensibility to wear gloves. To compensate, he balled the sleeves of his sweatshirt and breathed into them. It was that kind of cold. The kind that cut across his face and nipped at his ears.

While Coach ran them through it, the boys tried to ignore the milky vapor of their exhales as they stretched and bounced about. The only one who refrained from this activity was Alex. He shifted sluggishly from foot to foot, wiggling his limbs and shaking his head a little, suffering out the kinks.

“All right, then,” Coach rapped in his bumblebee voice. “Easy twelve. Longest run of the year. I’ll see you Shelton at the turn around, make sure on pace.” 

Coach spoke so fast he skipped words. It got Aaron smiling. This late in the season, he knew the reason why. Coach just couldn’t help it. He was all about the run.

“Here we go. Money in the bank, boys.” Coach raised his stopwatch. “Nobody works harder.”

The boys lined up where the pavement broke to limestone dust. Even by this point, they hadn’t exchanged a word. It was just too early, and too damn cold. 

“Stick together now,” Coach instructed. “I don’t want any horseplay, and if one falls back you all do, see? Last thing we needs’ another ’88. Whatsa’ matter Alex?” 

“Nothing,” Alex snapped, correcting his hunch and stepping up to the line. 

 “Right, then. Last one. We do this right, run our best race right here in October. Right boys?” 

The boys grumbled. 

“Somebody got a phone?”

“I do,” said Gary Eckeler, the only senior on the team. He was orderly with a radish face that always seemed to be flexing. 

“Right. Doc’s on call.” Marcus said with a shudder. They called Gary Doc because of one occasion the year before when he had expressed a slight interest in medical school.

“I’ve got mine too,” Aaron said.   

“Shut it, Freshie,” lashed a sophomore, Mitchel Stockly. 

“Boys!” Coach called to order. “Come on, now, on the line. Here we go, money in the bank.” 

He raised his stopwatch again. 

“Set? Go.” 

***

The first mile went by the way life passes; step by step, second by second, and then all at once, it was behind them.

They ran in a rat pack. Alex took point. Stockly, Marcus Shrader, Ray Jones, another sophomore so gangly he appeared malnourished, all covered his flank. Behind that trio, Doc (Gary) Eckeler jogged next to Aaron Shrader. Behind them, Kohana Tahatan, a short Native American boy, kept pace with graceful form. Anchoring the lot, weighing them all down, was the insufferable meat wagon of a runner, Cory Conkler. 

It became clear to everyone before the second mile marker that Conkler could not keep pace. Around that time, Ray broke the silence. 

“Hey, Cockler! Speed up!” 

“Screw you,” Conkler whooshed, some ten yards behind. Then, completely indignant, “Seriously though, guys. Can we ease up?” 

“Hell no!” Stockly hissed. He was a canned up ferret of a teenager with bushy eyebrows and cinnamon stubble, who was even shorter than Doc. Words came out of him like puffs of steam. “Panthers don’t slow down. Nobody works harder.” 

“Slow down guys,” Doc reprimanded. “Come on. Gotta stick together.” 

Kohana fell back first. He was the quietest by far. His silence had a way of broadcasting itself.

Following him, they all decelerated to an eight-minute pace. Seconds later, up came Conkler barreling along. His rotund body thundered over his duck-flat feet. One of his shoes was partially untied, strings like Mexican jumping beans. He fell in line next to Kohana. 

The rest of mile two dragged by. Between the third and fourth, Conkler’s breaths became increasingly labored. Soon enough, he started lagging once again. 

“You guys seriously keep going,” he gave up at last. “I’ll be fine.” 

The others looked separate ways. Alex pushed the pace. 

“I’ll stay with him,” Kohana volunteered, tone dipping slightly. As he fell back, the others looked between Doc and Alex for a final decision. 

Neither said a word.

***

On mile four, conversation spurred in the larger group.

“Dude, Stock, I can’t believe Coach is letting us run this trail,” Ray said.

Stockly knew exactly what he was talking about. 

“Dude, that shit ain’t real.” 

“The ‘88 thing? Yeah it is!” Alex fervently cut in. “Seriously. My dad remembers it.” 

“What happened?” Aaron asked, and for once Stockly didn’t pounce. 

“Years ago,” Alex began. “Back in 1988, only two guys on the team made state. These twins. I forget their name.” 

“Dickeys, man,” Ray filled.

“Right—anyway—well, you guys know the story. They went for a run out here same as us and got murked. 

“What?”

“They disappeared, Freshbait!” Stockly hammered. Aaron looked to his brother for support. Marcus was studying the trees. His face was clearly pensive though, and Aaron managed to siphon some love from that.

“My dad remembers it.” Alex repeated. “He was just a kid then, but he said the Feds came in and everything, got the whole town searching. They didn’t find shit though. Not even bones.” 

“…So, what happened?” Aaron asked. 

“Nothing,” Stockly said.

“No, dude, it’s obvious,” said Ray. “They ran off trail and got ate up by some animal. You know, mountain lion.” 

“Okay, Raymond.” 

Stockly and Ray were similar in terms of temperament. Neither had much of one at all. 

“Well?” Ray challenged, “What do you think happened?” 

“I told you. Shit ain’t real.” 

“Yes, it is, dude!” Alex insisted. “I’m telling you, my dad—Doc, Marcus, help me out here. You guys are math-heads. What do you think?” 

As Marcus and Doc were reluctant to discuss, the boys mulled it over listening to the scratchy treading of their feet. 

“I’m pretty sure it is real,” Marcus finally said. 

“It is,” Doc concurred. “You can look it up online. In all likelihood, they probably did get eaten.”

“Could have been something bigger than a lion,” Marcus surmised. “My folks say there’s black bears out here.” 

“Yeah, whatever.” Stockly said bitterly. No one was sure if he was serious or not. 

“Let’s take a quick break up here,” Doc said, surprising them. He was never one to suggest stopping. “Been tryin’ to hold it,” he explained. “But man, I really gotta piss.” 

***

The team took their pit stop in the crook of a straightaway where the trail curved around to the west. By that time, they were deep in the Molgrove forest, a national conservation area the trail passed through on its way to Shelton. 

Sinuous trees hunched over the boys. Autumn leaves crunched beneath them in wind-sewn lines like the ribbon tails of kites.

Aaron unrolled his sleeves and checked his phone again. He lowered it with a set jaw, hating his sudden obsession. 

“What time is it?” Marcus asked. 

“Six-thirty-eight.” 

Aaron shot a furtive glance at his dark-faced brother who always seemed so much taller, although at 15 and 17 they were about the same height. Suddenly his mind entertained a fantasy where Marcus asked him what was wrong, and he played it off coolly with a slick set of lies. He wished he knew what it would feel like to impress Marcus. 

Ahead of everyone, Alex hawked and spat. He picked out a well-rounded rock on the trail and kicked it, cracking off a tree trunk into a thicket. His gaze lingered on that trunk.

 “Hey guys,” Alex called out. “What’s this?” 

Alex pointed as his boys gathered around him, except for Doc of course, who was still letting it out.

“Some kind of carving,” Marcus observed. 

Ray and Stockly stepped in. The brush was forced back revealing the full inscription of native emblems, as well as a thin snake-trail behind, winding deep into the woods. 

“The fuck?” Alex said with new shrill alacrity. 

“Dude!” Ray exclaimed. “Look!” 

Behind the first, several other trees were engraved with similar inscriptions. The lettering, though sharp and severe, was at the same time slender and seamlessly arced. Its curvature seemed to strike Marcus in particular (for he possessed a decent background in woodworking.) They were so flawless that it appeared more as if the runes were burned into the trees by means of an iron brand. 

“Looks native,” Aaron said. 

“Shut up, Freshie.”

 “No, he’s right,” Marcus backed. “It’s Indian for sure.” Marcus looked at Stockly as if he was a hopeless case. Aaron restrained his adoration. 

“Yeah, man,” Alex agreed. “But like, what—” His words seemed to trip on their way off his lips. 

“Dude!” Ray repeated.

“What, Jonesy?” 

Ray’s voice ratcheted up with excitement. 

“I bet that’s the Dickey’s trail, man! I bet this is how they disappeared! They went down that creepy tribal trail and got got.”

“What?” the boys retorted in unison. 

Ray kept going, unable to contain himself. His mind seemingly too spontaneous for his own good. All it took was one flint spark of discovery to streak his brain with new ideas like a venous flash of lighting in a midnight sky. 

“I’m telling you guys, this is it! We gotta go down there and find ’em.”

“Hell no,” Stockly shot down. “You are bat-shit, Jones.” 

“Seriously?”

“Yeah, seriously. That’s stupid, dude! It’s just a horse trail, probably just leads to some heritage site.”

Ray said nothing. Apparently, that wasn’t enough for Stockly, so he turned his tongue on everyone. 

“You know what? I take it back. It might look Indian, but I ain’t never seen marks like that. I mean, look at ’em. They look wicked, man. It’s a warning if I ever saw one. Like—don’t-tread-holy-groundtype stuff. Or maybe they were carved in by some outlander, tweaking out of his mind. You ever factor that Jonesy? That there’s some crazy backwoods hick in there, waiting for us? Christ, what the hell are we even talking about here? Some goddamn wild corpse chase?”

“Dude. Chill out, Stock.” Alex said, extinguishing him. The others looked to their leader for a verdict. 

That’s all it boiled down to, Aaron anticipated. Whatever Alex says is what we’ll do. 

Doc came bounding back in.

“Let’s keep moving.” he said.

“Dude, Doc, check this out,” someone said.

Doc stepped in cautiously, eyes darting between the boys for signs of foul play. Stockly doubled down. 

“I’m telling you guys, we go down that trail, we are asking for it. Think about every horror movie you’ve even seen.” 

“What?” Doc said. “What the hell are you even—” 

“No, dude!” Ray exclaimed. “I’ve got it! What if it’s like some kind of shrine?” 

“What?”  

“You know, like a sanctuary. Like where the Indians go to kneel and bring offerings. Pray to the sun god or whatever for health and good harvest.”

Stockly scoffed and shook his head. Marcus and Alex shared a chuckle. 

“Very intriguing, Ray,” said Doc. “Now, come on.”  

“No!” Ray asserted. “I mean, the signs might be whatever, but I’m telling you, that is the Dickies trail!” 

“So what? Why the hell would we take it?” 

“Uh, adventure. Discovery. To close the case, man—and not to mention rewards.”

They all looked at Ray like he was on something. They looked at each other, unsure of what to do with him. 

“Seriously!” Ray carried on. “What if we did find their remains? We’d be heroes, man. They’d put us on the news. And I bet the family would pay us like—”

“Like what?” Marcus said. 

“I don’t know! Something! A sack of money or some shit.” 

“Sack of money!” Marcus howled. 

“This is ridiculous,” said Doc. “Come on. Coach is waiting. He’s already gonna know we stopped.” 

He turned to leave. Stockly and Marcus turned with him, but Aaron and Ray waited for Alex. The top runner stood with his back to them, looking after the snake-trail the way a land-dweller looks out to sea. 

Ray grinned. He looked as if he was expecting to receive a lecture but that isn’t what happened. All Alex said was, “Half a mile. Three and a half minutes.” 

“But Coach—” 

“He won’t care. We’ll just say we had to slow down for Conk. By the time we get back, we’ll probably run right into him and Ko, or at least catch up to ’em.” 

“Yes!” Ray cheered. “Come on Doc, it’s fuckin’ adventure time.” 

“I’m telling you guys,” Stockly started. 

“God, quit being a little bitch, dude.” Alex said. “That Dickeys thing was 40 years ago.”

“Yeah, Stock,” Ray chorused. “Quit pussing out. Just look at Freshie. He ain’t scared.” 

Aaron became suddenly aware of his being mentioned but said nothing. He stepped in behind Alex, happy to assume the role of someone braver than Stockly. Aaron grinned at his older brother, and Marcus knew he had no choice.

“All right,” he caved. “Half a mile, Doc. If you think about it, we’re just doing a little extra. Nobody works harder, right?”

Marcus crossed the invisible line of dissidence. Stockly followed suit, looking down and shaking his head. 

It was now everyone versus Doc, and he was livid. His bloodshot eyes were wild and turbulent…and trapped. 

“God, I hate you guys,” he snarled. “Impulsive buncha’ hooligans.” He crossed to their side, but not without letting the rage rush out. “So, what’s the big plan, Alex? We just run until we find something? What do you expect to find? Bones? Really? You said it yourself: it’s been forty years.” 

Now that he’d won, Alex became merciful. He held no grudge against this kid, took no delight in beating him. 

“Look, relax man. I’m just curious. Like I said, half a mile.”

Doc said nothing, smoldering in his shoes. After a few seconds, he turned to the snake-trail and growled, 

“Let’s just get this over with.” 

***

One minute down the trail, the forest began to close in. 

The boys ran in single-file, as the path was much too narrow for even two-abreast. Quietly unnerved, each adolescent peered into the twisting thickets and the crooked web-work of trees as if they were staring into something sentient and impossibly vast. 

Aaron daydreamed in a fatalistic sense about what he would say to the girl if he had to offer any last words. Tucked inside his sleeve, one hand clutched his phone.

With the passing seconds, the woods only thickened. A minute and a half in, trees bent together in a tunnel of tattered wings. Branches locked arms in hammocks above, weaving themselves into a corridor so dense the sky was all but shrouded.

Claustrophobia pressed. Each runner realized he was shoulder-to-shoulder with the woods and the alteration was penetrating.

Aaron squinted. He could have sworn he glimpsed air bending between the trees. He blinked it away and looked up.

There it was again, better recognized as a translucent ovoid shape, a meter wide and two long, hovering above the underbrush. He reached a hand up impulsively, but the shape shrank back and disappeared. 

“Hey. Did you guys—” he started. “Did you just?” 

“Satisfied yet, Alex?” Doc heckled. “This enough adventure for you?” 

“Naw,” Alex returned. “Little further.” 

“I—seriously, you guys,” Aaron stuttered, trying to grasp what his mind had recognized in the trees. “I think I—I just saw something.” 

Stockly snickered behind him. 

“What? Mountain lion?”

“No. Something else. Like—it was like—” But he could not begin to describe it. 

“Uh oh boys, Freshies freakin’ out!” Stockly announced. “Better turn tail before he uhaagh—” 

At that moment, something clapped a hand on Stockly’s vocal chords and cut him off with sharp, violent completion. He’d been running caboose, and just ahead, Aaron heard the high whine of a stick slicing through the air, followed by a vacuous retraction. 

The team skidded to a halt. 

“What the hell?” Alex clamored, pushing his way back through them. “Stock?” 

He was nowhere to be seen. 

“Stock. Come on, dude,” Alex demanded. “Not cool, man.”

The woods radiated with silence. Each runner checked his breathing. Aaron looked all around him. While it was totally silent, somehow it felt at the same time, it was much too loud.

The team scoured the surrounding area. Ray and Doc bent over their prints. Alex and Marcus searched the thickets. Aaron looked up into the canopy.

Marcus confronted his younger brother.

“What did you see?”

Aaron shook his head deliriously. “I—I don’t know, I—some—some kind of mirror or—”

“What?”

“I don’t know, all right?!” 

“Let’s go back,” Doc said.

“Yeah, sure,” Marcus agreed, wary of the trees that were all too close.

“What about Stock?” Ray asked. 

“Forget him.” Alex said. Then, projecting his voice, “You hear me, asshole? If this is your idea of a joke, keep it.” 

“But why would he joke?” Ray said, his voice hoarse and brittle. “How would he joke? He screamed one instant and was gone the next. Stock—he didn’t even want to do this.” 

“Come on!” Doc urged, jogging up ahead. “No more dicking around. Let’s just get the fuaaaagh—

In one instant, Doc was motioning them to follow. In the next, a gnarled crimson tree branch shot into his torso with such jarring force, his body bent sideways in a limp C shape, before the branch rappelled back, ripping him out of reality and into the same refractive oval Aaron had seen hovering over them. 

Nobody moved. 

Nobody breathed.

It was too immediate, too extreme for them to process. Gary Eckeler existed, and then he didn’t and no trace of him remained. The second or so between his being and not being seemed so absurd it had to be a mistake. That couldn’t be what just happened. 

“What…the…what?” Ray stuttered. 

Marcus shook his head and blinked and shook his head again. “No way, man.” 

“Guys,” Alex rasped. “We…just…run!” 

Alex took off at a dead sprint, plowing through the empty space where Doc had just been standing. 

The other three watched for a split second of bewilderment. Then they got with the program. 

The forest stooped. Walnut blurs reeled by. Sprigs twisted out into the path, bony fingers reaching to ensnare. 

Alex only looked ahead of him. Marcus fell in behind, followed by Ray. Aaron tailed, his legs red-hot, mind set aflame.

“Marcus!” he pleaded, whooping in the air. “Marcus, wait!”

Ray bridged the gap to Marcus and attempted to pass. The older boy felt hot breath huffing at his heels. 

“Move!” Ray heaved, but the trail was too narrow. There simply wasn’t room. 

Aaron watched with renewed horror as Ray came up from behind and shoved his older brother into the ditch. 

“No!” Aaron cried out. Marcus hit the ground hard but used his momentum to summersault back onto his feet. He stumbled back onto the trail, wet leaves falling off him as he moved.

“Marcus!” Aaron gasped again. “Are you—”

The hand of hell returned. This time, Aaron discerned the appendage more clearly as that of waxen flesh, leathery and boiled like the scar tissue of a burn wound. 

Marcus did not even scream. 

Cutlass fingers plunged into his abdomen. As Marcus folded over it, the red arm bent around him like a fishhook before elevating his skewered body up into the rift.

Staring up in horror, the last Aaron saw of his older brother was a scant view of his shock-stricken face, mouth gaping, arms reaching, eyes wide as a ghoul’s. Blood droplets fell against his cheeks. 

Behind Alex, Ray ran heavy-footed, visibly gassed from shoving Marcus.

Aaron sprinted blindly up the woodland throat, fear devoured by rage. With everything inside, he wanted to shove Ray off the trail as well. Feed him to the thing. 

But there was nothing the freshman could do. He wasn’t fast enough to outrun what was happening before it happened again. Even now, as shadows fled and the forest opened up to the adjacent gravel trail, he felt radial impulses fire in the nether regions of his mind, signaling the portal’s return. 

Ray tapered more. Aaron saw him as a diver treading water above a dark, circling shape. It occurred to him that in sacrificing Marcus, Ray’s life had been preserved only another minute at best. 

Up at the finish line, the great portal descended.

Alex skidded to a halt, eyes boxed-in with horror. Ray caught up from behind and braced a hand on his teammate. With one eye closed to the burn of trickling sweat, Ray stared at the phenomenon with the other and slowly shook his head.  

Once again, a crimson arm emerged. It came slowly this time, weightless and fluid like an eel. A moment later, a second arm appeared. The hand of each was coned in the shape of squids in jet propulsion. Back and forth the appendages swayed, unraveling toward the boys. 

“Any ideas, Ray?”

Ray just kept shaking his head. 

Aaron’s legs shut down again as he watched the serpents strike. Ray met his death in disbelief. His appendage reared before striking him head on, plunging into his gut. Same as before, the arm whiplashed back like an amphibian tongue, wrenching in its catch. 

The other arm went for Alex, but he leapt to one side in the nick of time, tangling himself in a hackberry bush.

The arm countered with unnatural speed. It shot downward staking him to the earth. Alex dropped his jaw to scream, but the red fingers pierced his lungs. In the next instant, they stole him away as well. 

Aaron stared. 

The portal hovered in place, waiting for him. This was it. No different from the Dickies, no one would ever know what had truly transpired. 

Unless. 

Aaron unballed his sweatshirt sleeves. He stared at his phone, ignoring the unread text message that had been waiting patiently—a text full of generous emojis. Instead, he focused on the no service icon in the corner of his screen. No way to make a call, but there was still one thing, one way he could make known what happened. 

He pressed his thumb to the icon for the camera app, then tapped record and approached the portal cautiously. 

What do I say? What the hell do I say?

The red arms did not appear, even as he crossed the plane where they had taken his last two teammates. Gulping, he thought of the way an anaconda lies dormant for hours and often days after it feeds. He’d seen that somewhere on TV, could only assume the others were undergoing a similar, faster form of digestion. 

“This,” he rushed out, voice chalked and raspy. “This is…what got us.” 

He lingered on the portal a few more seconds then tapped the red button. No service to send, but at least he had it documented. Now, only one thing left to do. 

Ten meters away, his nerve nearly abandoned him. But this was all he had left. His only hope that anyone might uncover the rampant red horror that had befallen them.

Staring into the portal, his eyes narrowed with rage. Aaron hurled his phone overhead. He cringed in the moments following, expecting a red arm to fire out and obliterate it. But it didn’t. The phone sailed up and down to a clatter on the gravel trail behind. 

Aaron stood panting, staring. He wiped one sleeve across his face, smearing his brother’s blood. 

He looked down for a moment, thinking. Then he pivoted around and ran the other way. 

***

Kohana and Conkler got along well enough. They took their time jogging at Conkler’s comfortable pace, which meant they were barely jogging at all. 

Unlike the others, Kohana didn’t mind Conkler. Something about his vocal incessancy soothed him the same way a white noise machine softens the burden of insomnia. 

As Conkler thumped, Kohana flitted next to him, paying attention with half his mind, letting the other half wander. He nodded at the appropriate times, muttered an acknowledgment when cued. Otherwise, he was content to let Conkler monologue. 

In slow and steady enough time, the conifers multiplied, their limbs reaching closer and closer to the boys as they entered the Molgrove forest. Cool wind slipped between the patchwork. Strewed light filtered in from overhead. 

While Conkler complained about the uselessness of dieting, Kohana breathed deeply through his nose. He was growing tired of the run. Not physically, just bored.

“You know what I mean, Ko? Hey, can I call you Ko?” The permission seemed very important.

“Sure.” Kohana said. Suddenly Conkler looked taken aback.

“I mean look, I’m not blind. I know everybody does, but like—I mean—has anyone ever asked you?” He wanted to start framing things up like it was the world against the two of them. 

“No, I—It’s fine, dude,” Kohana stammered.

“You sure?” 

“Yeah.” 

“Ok, man. I’m just saying, I’ll call you whatever. I’m not like one of those freakin’—you know—dudes who label everyone their own nicknames and stuff. That shit’s annoying.” 

“Yeah,” Kohana agreed. It reoccurred to him that the poor boy had not even the faintest idea of how to conduct himself. 

Conkler droned on and Kohana tuned him out entirely. Such forced communication left a cold kiss on him. He retreated into a comforting thought. 

It was his grandmother quilted up in her ceremonial apparel. He imagined her hunching over the stove, tending to a pot of her famous chili. His grandmother never wore her regalia unless they were attending a reunion, but he often imagined her in them, because that’s who she was to him. She was Matta, the one who had raised him on the importance of culture and family. She’d even gone so far as to teach him the language of their tribe.  

Kohana smiled. He opened his mouth and could almost taste Serrano peppers in the wind. 

The two hustled around the bend of a straightaway. Kohana’s hunger expounded. He looked at the melting colors in the trees, attempting to take his mind off it. 

 “I’m just saying, dudes have different body types, you know? I mean, I try my hardest every freakin’ race, but it’s just—” Conkler cut himself off and attempted to make eye contact.

Kohana squinted at the path ahead, triggering Conkler into apologetics. 

“I mean, look dude. I’m not trying to piss you off. Am I being annoying? You can just tell me and I’ll shut up. Like, seriously, no offense taken. God, I wish people would just tell me sometimes. But no, everybody’s so bottled up and PC these days—not you though, Ko. I mean you’re like quiet in a cool way. I mean, it’s not like you’re the cool kid or whatever, I’m just saying—”

“What’s that?”

“Huh? What?”

“Up there on the trail.”  

They hustled over to it and stood above the phone with the awkwardness of two strangers staring down at a lost child. 

“Yikes,” Conkler said, scooping it up. “Someone musta’ dropped it.”

“Who?” Kohana asked. “Can you tell?”

“Hell no, bro. I can’t access without the password. Must be Doc’s or the Freshie’s. They’re the only ones who brought ’em, right?” 

“I think so.” 

 “It’s gotta be. Ain’t seen no one else on the trail and it can’t have been here long. But like, how the hell do you lose a phone? Think you’d feel or hear it, right?”

“Hmm.” Kohana started looking around and stopped just as quickly. 

“Well, maybe not though,” Conkler said, thumbing a film of powder off the screen. “I mean, with that many guys, I guess their feet could—hey what are you—what the hell’s that?” 

Conkler joined Kohana on the edge of the trail overlooking the signs and the snake-trail.  

“Uhm, ok.” Conkler leveled. “Now, I’m freakin’ out. Look at those, man. Like some voodoo shit.”

“No,” Kohana said. 

“What?” 

“I can read them,” he said quietly. “They’re all written in Toccän.”

“What?”

“The language of my tribe.” 

“Oh shit. No way. Really?”

Kohana said nothing. 

“Well, come on man. What do they say?”

“We should go.” 

“What? No, come on dude. What if—come on, don’t shell up, just tell me, man!”

Reluctantly, Kohana pointed to the signs one by one. 

“Salvation in sacrifice. Oppressed by white man. Sheltered by the hand.” 

For the first time that Kohana could recall, Conkler was speechless.  

“And that one,” Kohana faltered. “That one says Lair of Rodimalec: Red Hand of Eternal Wrath.”

End.

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