Lily Lake

A hiking trip goes wrong in “Lily Lake.” 

 

By Susan Fox

Julia wasn’t actually a hiker. Scratch that — she hated hiking. Two years ago, she had never even worn the boots her mother bought her for the week-long Y camp, where she feigned cramps to get out of hiking. Now, the boots felt heavy and stiff. She could barely wiggle her toes. How odd it was, then, to find herself in a car with Alex and Logan, lurching around the bends in the road, with the river fast and rough below them, on their way to climb a mountain. She pressed her boots against the floorboard of the car every time Alex took a turn too fast. She wanted to say, slow down, but didn’t.

“The trusted hiking boots” © Colin Giam https://www.flickr.com/photos/colingiam/490176234/

It was cold that morning. It was more than just a crisp, autumn dawn; there was a harshness to it, a foretelling of winter. Julia turned in her seat to see Logan asleep, impervious to the speed of the car or the twisting road. Her eyelids, lined in black, were closed, her dyed, raven-colored hair had fallen across her face.

This particular hike was a favorite of Alex’s, as he had explained to Julia just last week while they were supposed to be working on their humanities presentation. Julia had been asking Alex questions. She always asked questions; it was easier than talking about herself, and she was surprised by how much people would reveal to her, how trusting they were. How many times had she heard, Don’t tell anyone but…? And with Alex it hadn’t been different. He had been describing his love of the forest, this favorite hike in the Park. “Lily Lake,” he had said. And then, “Do you want to come?”

Julia had been shocked; no, stunned, actually. Alex Martinez. They had been in school together since kindergarten but had never really known each other. He was not like Julia or Logan. In fact, he was all the things Julia wasn’t: an athlete, a good student, someone with a plan.

“You’re easy to talk to,” he told her as she gave him a puzzled look, and then added, almost shyly, “It’s beautiful up there. The aspens are changing.”

How could she have said no?

As the road climbed higher, Julia could feel the cold seeping into the car despite the blasting heat. Alex flipped on the wipers as a fine rain dappled the windshield. Finally, he pulled off into a small parking area. Only one other car was there. Julia spotted someone heading towards the trail with a heavy backpack and a shiny metal canteen. She had not thought to bring a canteen.

As they all climbed out of the car, Logan groaned. “Whose idea was this?” Then she hugged herself and squinted as the rain tapped her face. She was dressed, as always, impractically—more for a statement than a reason. Her usual biker boots might have made more sense than the orange Converse high tops she’d put on. To make matters worse, she wore a thin denim jacket.

Julia shouldn’t have told Logan about Alex’s proposal. She should have known that Logan would invite herself along, and that Julia couldn’t trust herself to say no. OMG! Logan had texted back. Hiking. With. Alex. It was the headline, and it would become her story now, not Julia’s. Nothing was ever just Julia’s story. Julia was the sidekick, the straight woman, the supporting actress: holding Logan’s hair as she puked up peach schnapps she had snuck into the dance in a juice box; apologizing to friends Logan had insulted; sharing her homework with Logan, so she wouldn’t fail, again.

When Alex had picked them up at Julia’s house at an unreasonable seven a.m. that morning, he had asked Logan, “You bring anything warmer?”

Logan had pulled a pair of gloves out of one pocket. “See,” she had said. And then she’d pulled a water bottle from the other. “I’m a regular Eagle Scout.”

The trailhead was nothing more than a black slash between the trees. As they reached the opening, Julia felt the daylight evaporate. In front of them, the pines looked ghostly against the low clouds, and even the aspens were drained of color, their pale yellow leaves scattered across the forest floor.

Alex stopped to sign them in at a wooden box that held the guest book and maps, as well as notes from hikers. Mtn lion tracks, Sun — one said, but it was so faded that Julia assumed it was years old.

“Hiking Trail” © Chapendra https://www.flickr.com/photos/chaparral/1501280683/

The trail rose steeply, no gradual warm-up, just a sudden incline. Alex, a cross-country runner (third place at State, Julia remembered him telling her) moved ahead, quick and light. Julia and Logan lumbered behind, struggling to breathe. Julia’s boots were already rubbing at her heels. She hadn’t thought to bring Band-Aids either. The rain came down in a mist, like the fountain in the playground where she and Logan used to go as kids on hot summer days. She put up the hood on the jacket, pulling it around her face.

“Fashionista!” Logan called out behind her. Julia turned around to give her the finger.

Logan had fallen further behind. The trail was filled with stones and tree roots. Logan was reaching out to grab ahold of branches and saplings to steady herself.

Alex waited up ahead where the switchback flattened out. He handed Julia his water bottle. Surprised, she took a sip, feeling the warmth of his lips on it. She tried to hide her heavy breathing, tried to force her voice to sound normal. “Thank you,” she gasped.

The trail was less steep now, but muddier. The rainwater gathered on the pockmarked path, rocks slick under the pine needles. Alongside the trail a stream ran high and fast. At a turn, Julia and Alex sat on a boulder to wait for Logan, shoulders touching. Julia felt Alex’s warmth through her sleeve—he smelled like Ivory soap and Tide, mingled with pleasantly musty sweat. She tore open the bag of M&Ms and poured some into Alex’s hand.

“How far back was she?” Alex asked, his mouth full of chocolate.

Julia shrugged. Logan was doing this on purpose now, lagging behind. She was building the plot of her story. At school on Monday: It was worse than Everest! And those two totally abandoned me! Or a series of selfies of Logan in a mock scream, hair wet, the dark trees behind her. There was no reason for her to fall so far behind, except for maybe her stupid shoes. She was in better shape than Julia. Logan could have been an athlete if she had tried.

Julia would have been happy to keep going, putting more distance between her and Logan, giving her some time alone with Alex. But Alex stood, wiped his hands along his pants, which were made of some kind of special wicking fabric, and said, “We better see how she’s doing.”

They had only just turned the first bend when they saw Logan sitting on the trail, legs thrown out in front of her, arms crossed over her chest. Julia found herself rolling her eyes.

“Are you okay?” Alex called.

“Do I look okay?”

As he reached her, he leaned over and placed his hands under her arms, lifting. It was easy enough to do; Logan was light as a fawn. Julia had the sudden, almost-impulse to push Alex away. She watched Logan allow him to hold her; she watched Logan lean her head into his shoulder, grab his hand. Logan took a few baby steps. Her orange Converse were now brown with mud, the back of her denim jacket soaked through.

“What happened?” It came out more harshly than Julia would have liked.

“I slipped, that’s all.” Logan grimaced. Her make-up had smeared, giving her black eyes.

“Looks like you’re okay,” Julia said. She was the one in pain now. She could feel the raw skin of her heels, wet where the blisters had broken.

“I have to pee,” Logan stated, looking at Julia. “So I’m not that okay.” She turned and stepped off the trail, heading toward a grove of spruce.

“You better go with her,” Alex said to Julia, but she didn’t want to go with Logan, even though she did have to pee. She felt her jaw clench as she tried not to limp, following Logan into the forest. They squatted in the grove, hidden from the trail, although Julia could just make out Alex’s red jacket between the trees.

“Shit,” Logan said, “I just got some on my shoe.” It would have been funny once. Julia might have swung her arm out, smacked Logan, said— “You’re so gross—” and they would have laughed, falling over into the pine needles, the uncontrollable giggles rising in them like sobs.

But Julia didn’t say anything this time because she could tell Logan was annoyed. She hated that she could distinguish Logan’s moods, like she was Logan’s own personal mood ring.

Julia felt something cold land on her cheek as she stood up. Above them, wet flakes were coasting down from the sky, catching in the pine branches. Julia tilted her head back and opened her mouth. It was a ritual of her mother’s. Catch the first flakes on your tongue for luck. She felt the cold tingle, swallowed.

When they reached Alex, he smiled. “Snow.” He directed his smile towards Logan. “You okay to keep going?”

“I think so, but, I don’t know, maybe we should go back?” Logan let her voice go up at the end, her flirting voice, her girl voice, the one she used to persuade guys to do whatever she wanted.

“The lake’s not far,” Alex said. “A couple more miles, that’s all.”

“A couple more miles?”

“It’ll probably turn back to rain.” Alex’s smile faltered.

Logan crossed her arms in front of her. “Now that’s reassuring.”

“It’s warmer if we keep moving,” Julia offered, although she was also starting to wonder how much longer she could keep up with Alex. But she couldn’t be the first to admit it. She couldn’t let Logan have this over her. “We’ve come all this way—”

Logan interrupted her—”Well, I’m going back then.”

“But we’re almost there,” Alex said.

“Whatever. I don’t care. I’m going back.”

The snowflakes were starting to stick. They dusted the shoulders of Alex’s jacket, and they coated the muddy trail like powdered sugar.

“Can I have the keys?” Logan held out her hand. It was trembling, the nails, like her lips, a purplish-blue.

Alex paused for too long. He patted his pants pocket. Julia knew he didn’t want to give them to her. And who could blame him? She pictured Logan driving off and abandoning them on the snowy mountain.

“Give me the keys,” Logan said.

Alex pulled the keys out of his pocket, held them out, and turned to Julia. “Listen, if you two want to head back, that’s fine. I’ll meet you down there—the lake is just over this next hill.”

“I’m not going back,” Julia said quickly. “I want to see the lake.”

“Like that’s going to impress him,” Logan said under her breath. Alex hesitated, and Logan grabbed the keys from him, spun around, and started back down the trail. Julia and Alex watched her go, her soaked arms held out for balance, her feet in their ridiculous orange Converse, slipping with each step.

 


 

It didn’t stop snowing. It didn’t turn to rain. Julia felt numb as they walked on, the trail steeper again. Her face was cold. She shoved her stiff hands deep into the coat pockets. As long as she kept moving, focusing only on where to put each foot, her thoughts numbed, too.

She and Alex stopped to sip some icy water and eat their sandwiches next to a sign. Lily Lake it said, carved in yellow letters, 1 mile. But it wasn’t just one. It was one there, one back. Two altogether. Too much. Julia thought enviously of Logan. She was no doubt down the mountain and in the car with the seat tilted back, heat and music blasting, eyes closed.

“Um, it doesn’t look like it’s going to clear up,” she said tentatively. The wind blew the snow from the tree branches.

“I think it’s slowing down.” That was the downside to Alex’s optimism; his sense of certainty. He was stubborn, Julia now saw.

“I’m cold,” she stated as clearly as she could because her teeth were starting to chatter. Alex turned around. On his face was something harder; his mouth was set in a frown. “And Logan,” she added quickly. “We should probably get back. She’s waiting for us.”

He held up his arms, shrugged. “Whatever.” It was clear to her that he would only turn around because she insisted. That at school, he might even say something like, I could have done it, but Julia wanted to head back, and roll his eyes.

It was harder going downhill. Julia had to brace herself, straining her knees, the backs of her heels throbbing with pain, the sweat chilling on her skin underneath her damp shirt. Ahead, Alex would occasionally stop and wait until she was in sight, and then continue on. The forest around them was not beautiful anymore. The trees stood too close, stealing the light.

The laces on Julia’s right boot had come undone. She ignored them until she nearly tripped and then had to stop to try to tie them with her frozen fingers. As she stood, something in the forest caught her attention. Something reflective. And was that a figure moving toward her? It was hard to tell in the kaleidoscope of snowflakes. Julia squinted her eyes to focus them. Nothing but trees and snow. She thought of the backpacker she had seen that morning, of his shiny canteen. Up ahead, Alex’s red jacket was growing fainter.

“Hello,” she called out hoarsely. She waited for a moment longer, but no one appeared, and she could hear nothing but the wind cutting through the trees.

At a bend in the trail, Alex stood with his arms crossed. “Come on,” he commanded and then didn’t wait for her explanation. She moved as quickly as she could, slipping over the rocks, as Logan had done, longing for the numbness to return.

As they reached the trailhead, Julia spotted the car in the parking lot. She almost cried in relief. The other car was still there as well and both were lightly covered in snow.

Alex banged on the driver’s side door. “Logan!” He wiped the snow off the windshield, peered in then stepped back, looking at Julia. “It’s empty,” he said.

Julia cleared a side window, then the rear. No Logan.

“There’s an extra key underneath the fender,” Alex said angrily. Julia watched him kneel on the wet ground and reach his gloved hands under the car.

Inside, Alex turned the heat up as high as it would go. Julia sat next to him, trying to text with her icy fingers: where the hell are you? She pressed the arrow button, only then remembering there was no service.

“Where’s your friend?” Alex asked, rubbing his hands together, placing them against the vents.

“How should I know?” Julia surprised herself with her sharp reply. She was going to kill Logan for this. Logan was probably hiding, watching them and laughing, about to pop out and make Julia scream.

Alex didn’t have to say anything else; Julia knew what he was thinking. She’s your friend. You invited her.

“Fine,” Julia mumbled. She gathered her strength and reluctantly climbed out.

“Logan,” she yelled. “Logan!” It was so much colder after that little bit of warmth. Julia limped over to the other parked car. Alex came up beside her, helped her wipe the snow off so they could look in. Empty. Alex climbed the trail a little ways, then returned, shaking his head.

“Logan, dammit,” Julia yelled. “We’re freezing!” Sometimes Logan’s drama was entertaining, making simple things like a trip to the grocery store an adventure. But lately, more often than not, the drama was tedious. It was as though Logan were playing at being Logan.

Up the road, down the road. Into the woods behind the parking lot. Back up the trail. They stood together and looked over the edge of the road to the river. “Logan!” they called, in unison, or one by one. They scanned the earth for footprints, but the snow was falling fast, covering even their own tracks. Julia’s jaw was trembling so much, she thought she might be sick. The wind, which had picked up, blew through the trees like an angry whisper.

They returned to the car, the heater feeling weak against the cold.

“Maybe she got a ride,” Alex said.

Julia wouldn’t put it past her, actually. Logan giving them the finger as she hitchhiked her way back home. “Is there a ranger station?” she asked.

He looked at her, those narrowed eyes. “Do you see a ranger station?”

She felt a lump forming in her throat, which she tried to swallow. “Well, no, not here, but nearby? Down the road?”

He shrugged. “There’s a visitor center near the park entrance.”

Of course that’s where Logan had to be. She had gotten a ride, or walked, maybe, and was now flirting with a forest ranger: Do you carry a gun? Can I see it?

As they pulled away from the parking area, Julia kept looking behind her and in the side mirror, just in case Logan jumped out from behind something. But from what? They had searched everywhere. Still, she couldn’t shake the strange feeling that they were leaving Logan behind, that something wasn’t right. She should never have invited Logan—she should have stood up to her, for once.

“first snow falls 002” © Michael W. May https://www.flickr.com/photos/joffi/5224366613/

The road was slippery with freezing snow, the curves once again made her cringe. Julia held her phone up high, trying to catch some kind of signal. Finally an open stretch, and a small bar appeared.

“I got service,” she called out, and Alex pulled the car over. There were no messages from Logan. Julia hit her number in speed dial. Voicemail. She waited while her text sent: where r u?!

Then: This isn’t funny.

A car came up behind them, appearing suddenly, headlights muted through the blowing snow. They watched as it slowly passed them. Julia wondered if it was the same car that had been at the trailhead—the backpacker’s car. But it was hard to tell; she hadn’t looked that closely.

The warmth and light of the Visitor’s Center hit Julia like a smothering blanket—too comforting, making her wish that they were back in the car, all of them, heading home. Along one wall was a diorama of a mountain stream: a stuffed beaver outside its dam, long, sharp teeth exposed. On the rocky shoreline, a stiff marmot rested on a boulder. In the next scene, a dead-eyed elk, its mouth permanently open, bugled silently.

A ranger appeared from a room in the back, looking surprised. “Can I help you?”

“Has a girl come in here?” Julia’s voice came out high-pitched and breathy.

The ranger looked at them, placing his hands on his hips. No gun. “Haven’t seen anyone in here since this morning.”

Alex grabbed Julia by the arm, led her to an alcove where the bathrooms were. “Call her house,” he instructed, and it took Julia a moment to remember the phone number, the number that she had known all her life, that she had memorized when they were just little kids, six or seven. It bothered Julia that she couldn’t remember exactly when she learned that number.

“Yes,” Sue Ann was saying, “yes?”

“It’s Julia.”

“Julia?”

“Is Logan there? I need to talk to her.”

“She’s not with you?”

“Um, no, not right now.”

Silence. “Don’t tell me she lied to me again.”

“No, I mean…she’s not with me, but she was. We just thought maybe she was home.”

Another pause. “Where are you?”

“In the mountains.”

“Julia, what’s going on?” Her voice rose. Logan’s mother was someone who didn’t usually pay much attention, not to Logan, not to Julia, but when she did, it was all out of proportion, blown up too far and too fast, like a helium balloon.

“Nothing. I’m sure it’s fine. I gotta go, but I’ll call back. It’s nothing really.”

The ranger was watching them. He had moved from the reception desk and was now inching closer, which made Julia want to run. She often felt this way around adults—like she had done something wrong.

“Kids?” the ranger said. She hated being called a kid, especially by this guy who didn’t look that much older. “Someone’s missing?”

The story was long, longer than Julia thought it should be, as the ranger kept asking questions and taking notes. “How far up the trail? What time was it? What was she wearing? What color are her eyes?”

“Her eyes?”

“Yes,” he said looking up. “I just need all the details.”

“They’re brown.”

Alex sat in a chair underneath the elk. “She probably got a ride,” he said, as though continuing a conversation with himself. Of course, Julia thought. Of course Logan had gotten a ride. She wasn’t texting or calling back because she was pissed, even though it was Julia who should be angry. In fact, this might be the end of the friendship, at least for a while. And that would be fine. When this was all over, Julia could be properly furious. She looked forward to it, in fact. To a long-held grudge, to an I-can’t-believe-you-did-that-to-us confrontation.

“She seems like someone who would do this,” she heard Alex say.

“Do what?”

“You know, get a ride with some stranger.” He said it derisively, as in we all know that kind of girl; as in, we all know Logan Doherty and what she is willing to do.

Julia felt her face heat up. “You don’t even know her.”

Alex shook his head, looked away. “I just meant, she’s, you know, friendly. You know.”

“I don’t know,” Julia said then. “I really don’t know.”

In the bathroom, she locked the door behind her, took three ragged breaths. She looked in the mirror for the first time since leaving the house that morning. Her mascara had smeared under one eye. Her skin was flushed, as if it had been scraped raw. Her hair was matted against her head, the ponytail losing strands. She looked terrible. But not as terrible as she felt.

In the Visitor Center, it seemed like a long time before another ranger appeared, but the clock on the wall said it was only twenty minutes. The sheriff came after that. There were conversations Julia didn’t quite grasp. It was like that game she and Logan used to play in the city pool. They would sink to the bottom, cross-legged and speak to each other, trying to guess the words from the muffled sounds. Even yelling didn’t work. When they were out of breath, they would burst to the surface, laughing at how much they had misunderstood each other.

She was asked again and again to describe the clothes Logan was wearing as though there was more to say about them: wet denim, orange Converse streaked with mud. They gave Alex a map and asked him to point out where they had last seen her. But it was impossible to tell. It could have been anywhere along the trail. It was like a math problem that Julia couldn’t figure out, and the timer was running as she tried to sort through the different calculations and possibilities.

There was a phone call to her parents. Her mother silent, and her father saying: “Where are you? Where are you?”

The snow fell outside the glass door. Her parents arrived with Sue Ann. Alex’s parents were out or not answering, or something Julia didn’t quite catch.

Sue Ann held a Styrofoam cup of coffee and cried. She asked them the same questions, the ones that Julia was tired of answering: “Where? When?”

Two men and a woman from the local fire department appeared, along with a dog that looked at Julia passively with its tongue hanging out. Someone was telling them that if this was a prank, they would be in a lot of trouble. “Fined,” someone said. “Charges brought.”

“It’s not our fault,” Alex said, his voice cracking. “She left. I gave her the keys. She just left.”

Was that what had happened? Had Logan said anything more to them on that snowy trail? She had grabbed the keys from Alex’s hand, had shoved them in her pocket. Had she said, “Thank you?” Had she said, “See you later?”

And then? Had she met up with the backpacker? Left with him (Julia decided it was probably a him) in the car, laughing as they drove past on the snowy road? She imagined Logan sitting at Starbucks, her hands wrapped around a vanilla latte, complaining to the backpacker about her friends.

Julia’s father stood in front of Alex, burly in his weekend clothes, his flannel shirt and Carhartts, not so unlike his weekday clothes. A knit hat was pushed up on his head in a way that made him look like a vagrant. Her mother wore nothing but a cardigan over a sweatshirt and yoga pants. She had rain boots on, Julia only just noticed. Really mom?— she wanted to say— Rain boots?


Her father asked Alex, “You okay to drive?”

“Yes,” Alex said quietly.

“We’ll follow behind you,” her father said. He looked at Julia. “You’ll ride with us.” As though she would have argued.

Sue Ann remained on a bench next to the marmot, the same cup in her hand, staring out the window. They left her there.

The road down the canyon was dark and slick. Alex drove slowly, much more slowly than before, no doubt because they were behind him. Julia was grateful that her parents were quiet. What sometimes bothered her about them–their uncertainty about what to say to her–was now a gift.

The snow turned to rain as they descended, and then it was late September again. It was another time and place, as they were spit out of the canyon onto the flat, high plains, and then into the shocking lights of town. The familiar neighborhoods looked strange and new. Alex turned into his, a nicer development than theirs. He didn’t honk or wave, and neither did they.

“You need a hot bath,” her mother said, taking Julia’s wet coat, not even complaining as she walked across the carpeting to her bedroom wearing her muddy boots.

In the bathroom, Julia undressed, which was difficult with such numb, trembling fingers. She climbed into the hot water, sank down, felt the sharp sting of her open blisters. She stayed there as long as she could, refilling the water as it drained, until the hot ran out. It was only after she toweled off and put on the pajama pants and sweater her mother had left for her that she cried, sitting on the toilet seat, her face buried in the damp towel.

What Julia liked to recall in the weeks and months ahead–during the police interviews, or while watching the reporters gathered outside the school like hungry cats, or when seeing Sue Ann, her face hollow and red-eyed–was that night. Her mother made them a big pot of tea, with added milk and sugar; then she and Julia sat on the couch, wrapped in blankets her mother had pulled out of the linen closet. Julia curled against her mother while her mother held her. Together, they watched movies, one after another, whatever they could find that was funny or silly. They sipped the tea her mother kept brewing until the dawn broke, when the sun reflected off the wet streets, and the phone began to ring.

 


Susan Fox has published short stories in Glimmer Train, Confrontation, Alaska Quarterly Review, Cimarron Review, and other journals. She was the owner of an independent bookstore for several years and currently teaches creative writing. Originally from Colorado, where she once made it halfway up Long’s Peak, she now lives in upstate New York with her husband and three cats in a very old house.

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  1. Jill Bixel says:

    I love your exploration of the worst possible thing coming true and the build of intensity!

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