Jane turned in a full circle, squinting through the dappled light. The trail forked here, in three directions, but she couldn’t see any trail markers on any trees. Frowning, she decided it’d be best to double back and retrace her steps. She marched down the path that led her here, and followed it for at least a quarter hour. Her steps became stomps. Saplings suffered under her boots. Prickers scraped her ankles, left thin red lines raised on pale skin.
She stopped and turned. A panoramic scan of the area revealed no painted trees—just ordinary brown and gray bark. When did she see the last yellow square? Jane walked over to a boulder and perched on it, splaying her feet to balance. She dropped her pack on the dirt between her boots. Her hand dove in to find a map nestled between a bag of homemade trail mix and a BPA-free water bottle.
She spread the wrinkled map over her knees and traced her fingers from the start of the yellow-square trail. Her index finger followed it over topographic rings and alongside a stream. Jane had already passed the stream. She’d crossed it—but the yellow squares on the map did not. She folded the map again, unable to match the previous creases, and stuffed it back into her bag.
Jane continued on, retracing her steps, planning to cross the stream again and continue on the yellow-square path. Only after what felt like an hour of hiking, she didn’t find a stream. Instead, she found a rusted green gate with a sign dangling at one corner that read: No Trespassing. Jane hesitated. She needed help and maybe there was a house up the unpaved road ahead. Two furrows of flattened weeds stretched into the trees. Stones lined each side of the road.
Jane ducked under the gate and walked up the hill in one furrow, then jumped to the other and walked there. Back and forth she went, weaving her way up a steep hill. At the top, there stood a building that was half cabin, half concrete rectangle. The latter looked like barracks. Jane turned and started down the hill, but after a few steps she decided she’d made it this far. She needed help and a house meant a phone.
With a deep breath, she marched up to the door and knocked. There was no answer, but a sedan and a blue pickup truck with a dented chrome bumper sat in the gravel courtyard in front of the barracks side of the house. Jane knocked again. The door opened to reveal a skeletal woman. Her face was sunken and her eyes bulged. Her elbows and knees reminded Jane of a little kid who hadn’t quite grown into her frame.
“Can I help you?” The woman asked, her lips stretching over crooked teeth. One of them was chipped. Behind her, Jane spotted a brown-stained mattress leaning up against the wall.
“Erm, I got lost…I was wondering if you have a phone I could borrow?”
The woman looked Jane up and down. She nodded and opened the door for Jane to enter. When she did, she was almost knocked backward by the stench of cats.
“Watch your step,” the woman said. “We let the cats go where they will.”
Jane wrinkled her nose, grateful the woman was ahead of her and couldn’t see.
“The phone is in the basement.”
Jane thought about leaving. She could outrun this woman, this string-and-bones woman, this wraith. But she didn’t. She hadn’t seen any other houses on this mountain; they were as scarce as yellow squares on tree trunks. The woman led her down a steep and narrow staircase and then down a dark, dank corridor. They passed one of the cats, a sphynx. It rubbed up against Jane’s ankles and that’s when she noticed the briar scratches and wished the cat wouldn’t rub against her legs. She could imagine microbes jumping from the cat into her scratches and swimming up her bloodstream.
“Phone is in here,” the woman opened another door. It was painted bright red, but the paint chipped away to reveal layers of blue and green. Jane paused before entering the room. The door slammed behind her and she heard a lock click. She turned and tried the knob, but it refused to turn. Jane kicked the door, screamed, railed against being locked in a dark, dank room. Fear bubbled up.
She spun around, searching the room, frantic. There was a window on the far side. She crossed the room and tore the moldy curtains away to let the light in. There was no phone—just a pile of logs in one corner. She lifted one of the logs to examine it in the light. There, on the middle of the log, were two yellow squares.
Inspired by Sunday’s writing prompt.