He’s going to catch her. He’s probably watching her right now. Stalking. Waiting for his perfect moment. Patient. She’d seen him, crouched down in the sage about a half-mile back. He disappeared immediately after she spotted him, but she could still feel his presence, the wildlife had scattered, and every hair on her body was standing up, as if a thousand tiny needles were jabbing into her, keeping her hyper-aware of her surroundings. Aili picked up her pace as she walked down the dusty backroad snaking through the woods of northern Wyoming. Looking behind her, into the trees at her sides, at the branches above her head, she could hear everything. Her breathing, the wind through the trees, her curly mess of blond locks brushing her ears, her tennis shoes crunching the gravel beneath her feet. She started to run. The running wouldn’t help. It only made the hunt more enjoyable. Aili had been told as much; she’d been warned.
Why couldn’t she be back at the ranch? she asked herself. Why didn’t she listen? Why was she so stubborn? This was a vacation for the love of God. Why did she insist on running before dawn? She could’ve taken the week off from training for her upcoming half marathon, and made up for it by running twice as much when she got back to Denver. Why didn’t she tell anyone where she was going? They’d never find her corpse. Her flesh would rot into the sand-like dirt between the sagebrush. Perhaps a group of geologists would find her bones, or a family out fossil hunting.
She’d hunted for fossils with her family in these very same woods as a child. It seemed fitting, in a way that she would die here amongst the many memories of what she once had. If she could die among the many wonderful memories she had made with her loved ones; like if the memories were here, maybe her people were with her too. Maybe her mother was walking behind her, telling her to watch where she stepped, because the snakes like to warm themselves on this road in the summer sun. Maybe her younger sister was yammering on about something she’d learned in kindergarten the year before, talking only to annoy her and get the attention of her parents. Maybe her dad was singing some old Neil Young song off key softly in the background. Those were her fondest memories, the ones worth remembering, the ones she wanted to be among at a time like this. The ones that would give her peace as she took her dying breaths. She thought back to the last time she’d seen them, at dinner the previous evening. She had been reluctant to leave her cabin for a meal, reluctant to wake up in the morning to head out on the first trail ride of the day, reluctant to even be here, on vacation with her parents.
She continued to run, watching the sun come up over the ridge, dancing through the trees and onto the road. The light filling the canyon tried to trick her into thinking she was safe now. It tried to tell her that terrible things like this didn’t happen in the light of day. Things like this didn’t happen in scenes this breathtaking. Things like this didn’t happen to girls like her. The sun tried to trick her; she knew the sun was a liar. He didn’t care about the sun, or the light, or the family she had to get back to. He only cared about the chase, about the hunt. He didn’t live inside the fairytale confines of day and night. He only stalked. Waited. Killed.
She should’ve been back in Denver, packing for the Bahamas trip she and some of her sisters had planned for this summer. She was so frustrated! She would’ve given anything to go on that trip with her sorority last night. Now she would give anything just to be able to share another meal with her family, in the ranch dining hall, to look at the faces around her, in that room that smelled faintly of lemon floor cleaner, surrounded by log walls covered in Native American artifacts, under wagon wheel chandeliers. Right now she would give anything to go back and truly enjoy that meal. They were probably still sleeping. They wouldn’t even know where to look. Why didn’t she bring a cell phone? Why was she so reckless?
Aili had always felt so prepared for a situation like this, to be stuck in the wilderness fighting for her life. If she was lucky, she could crawl into some kind of crevice in the rocks, where he couldn’t reach her, and wait for him to get bored. She had a survival kit fully stocked with fire starters, protein bars, a flashlight, a compass, a whistle to scare away wildlife, extra socks, a personal survival blanket, a water purifier etc… She was built for being stranded in the woods for days. That pack accompanied her on an innumerable amount of treks, faithfully waiting to save her should she need a night in shining armor. It could save her from hunger, hypothermia, dehydration and getting lost. It could not save her from her own stupidity, but she could spend a few days out here if it were necessary.
She had to do something. If she knew where he was… If she knew what his plans were… if she could evade him long enough to summit the ridge to her right and escape back into the canyon that held her safe haven. If she could just get back to the wonderful place where the old fashioned men with the ridiculous rifles would take him out; if she could only get back to her cabin where she could lock the door and hide in the closet until he lost track of her. She couldn’t run further into his trap. The canyon was going to begin to narrow. I need some time, she thought I just need to catch my breath, and get a plan together. Aili got her wish. She saw her opportunity to buy some time, and took it. There was a group of large rocks about twenty yards ahead, she escaped into them. Luckily for her there was a spot on the edge facing the hillside that she could just squeeze her five-foot-one, one-hundred-fifteen pound frame into.
All of those times I couldn’t reach the top shelf, and had to put a pillow on the seat to see over the steering wheel are really paying off now. Aili chuckled, reveling in her small victory, assesing her options, she opened her green Nalgene water bottle, and looked inside. Damn it. It was mostly emptied, about eight ounces left sloshing around the bottom. She definitely couldn’t stay there in the rocks long, the temperatures were supposed to get in the nineties today, there was no way she could survive on such a small amount of water until noon, let alone the amount of time it would take him to get bored of having her trapped in these rocks. It’s just what he wanted. She wasn’t going to give him that. He wouldn’t get his way. She had to get up the hillside, but there was no good way up. I’ll just have to be direct, she thought, straight up, no looking back, last chance power drive. She sat there in the rocks, listening for any disturbance in the brush around her hiding place, watching for shadows on the ground where the light showed through the rocks, to see if he was waiting on top of them to continue his pursuit, she listened for his heavy breathing as the edges of the boulder from her hiding place dug into her back, and the musty smell of dirt mixed with the sweat pouring off of every part of her body. If she was going to die; she was going to go out swinging. He wanted a game, she would give him one.
She darted out of the rocks, there was no trail now. No sure place for her feet to land. Aili could barely feel the sage and cacti digging into the skin on her ankles and calves, jutting through the soles of her shoes and in to her feet. She didn’t feel the blood dripping down her nimble legs as she flew across the prarie. Aili was aware of nothing other than the haunting sound of him screaming at her in the distance. This could be the last voice she would hear. He screamed again, she picked up the pace. The top of the ridge was in sight. just a few hundred more yards. If she could get to the top, surely he would accept defeat. He had to be sensible that way, right? Why risk his life for this one hunt? Women ran on that road all of the time. A half a dozen or more of them had probably run past his home by this time. Why did it have to be her? What was special? Why couldn’t he have woken up twenty minutes later, hell, even ten? He would catch up. He was stronger. He was faster. He was smarter.
He watched her from the bottom of the hill. Wondering why they always run. He would catch them. He was built for this. He lived for this. That frantic idiot would only make this more enjoyable. He started to run up the hill, he was relaxed. He could smell her blood mixing with the dust and sage. This was his favorite part. She thinks she’s safe. She thinks I’ll leave her alone. She’s wrong.
Aili had reached the top. She could see the ranch, her cabin, some folks walking to and from the dining room. She saw her family’s car, and the horses hitched to the posts in the corral. She would make it! She picked her way down the steep slope leading to her the haven at the bottom of that hill. She was careful. She wouldn’t fail so close to safety. She just had to make it to the bottom of the hill.
Aili vowed to herself never to be so reckless again, she’d listen to the old groundskeeper at dinner, telling her to be careful where she runs and to watch out for predators on the trails in the mornings, and evenings, she’d always tell someone where she was going, she’d make safety a priority. She made a silent promise to love her family more, to start volunteering, to truly stop and enjoy the beauty in life. She promised these things almost as a bargain to God, that if she could live just another ten minutes, she would make it count. She was going to do better, she was going to stop avoiding going home to visit her family when she was away at school; she was going to make more time for her school work, and stop drinking so much; she was going to kick that asshole to the curb, the one who only “saw a future with her” when he was undressing her. She was going to turn over a new leaf. She was going to do better. She was going to–
He was sprinting now, twenty feet behind her at most. She didn’t know he was there. He watched it happen. She tripped. Her tiny blonde head smashed against the rock. Blood sprayed the dirt, the sage. She didn’t move. She didn’t breathe. It was over. She was dead, or as good as dead anyway. Soon the maggots would invade her body. She would be nothing but a pile of bones within months.They would never have any idea what happened. The cougar turned around, and stalked off.
Aili listened for footsteps, waited for hot breath in her ear to begin the no doubt torturous end to her life. It never came. Hesitantly she turned her head to see the big cat headed up over the ridge. It was nearing eight, she assumed, as the sun started to climb higher in the sky, it was getting hotter by the minute. Great, she thought the hotter it gets, the faster the I’ll lose blood. She was close to the red trail, she deducted from the height of the hill she had crested, and the distance from her to the green grass where the ranch lawn sat. The morning ride would be headed up that trail any minute, if she could make it over there before they did, someone could bring her to a hospital, to her family, she could get a second chance.
Aili tried to stand, and immediately hit the ground again, vomiting, and losing consciousness for what she assumed was several minutes. She wanted so badly to sleep, the sun was so warm, and her head was swimming. She dropped her head, only to be broken from her near slumber by the pool of blood beneath her wetting her face. As she lie there, her head fuzzy, losing blood too rapidly, she realized the importance of making it to the trail in time.
She clawed rapidly through the dirt, dragging her body behind her. If she couldn’t walk to the trail, she’d crawl. She looked down at the corral, checking to see how much time she had. The other guests were mounting their horses, it would be just minutes now before they began the ascent to the top of the red trail, Aili had to pick up her pace. She stood again, this time making it several yards before collapsing. They were leaving the corral now, the horses moseying their way up the trail, and through the gate. She would never make it. Within the next five minutes they’d be to her elevation. The cuts on her hands, and legs were starting to catch fire with pain, her skull throbbed from the deep wound on her forehead now caked with clay. The adrenaline was beginning to wear off, it wouldn’t be long until her body would give up. She came to terms with the fact that she physically could not move another inch. The pain consuming the entirety of her small body lying there in the vast expanse of sage, and cacti, and dirt was taking over. She finally relaxed, and let herself start to drift off. Her mind took her back to a scene with her little sister from only months before, after Aili had reluctantly picked her up from school when her mother called her frantically, having been tied up at work, and couldn’t. Funny, she couldn’t even remember what they were fighting about now.
“Thank God I’m never going to be like you,” Ruthie said with enough venom in her voice to kill a small elephant. “All you care about is that stupid sorority, and keeping your perfect figure, and perfect boyfriend, and perfect life void of your family. You haven’t been home in months, and you live right down the road. You know I saw mom crying the other day, looking at old pictures of you. Even she knows what a piece of trash you’ve become.”
Little did her sister know, her life was far from perfect. She’d been basically flunking out of her classes, her ‘perfect boyfriend’ had been cheating on her with one of her ‘stupid sorority’ sisters for months, and her ‘perfect figure’ was the only thing she really had going for her at this point. She couldn’t face her parents after the failure she had become, Aili was a lot of things, but she wasn’t a liar. She couldn’t go home, and tell her parents everything was fine, and sit around a dinner table talking about the weather, and what a darling blouse the pianist at church wore the previous Sunday. She had no life among her family. Her experience of clawing through the dirt to survive began long before she made the decision to go running that morning against plenty of warning, without telling anyone where she was going.
Now, thinking of Ruthie, she was haunted by the thoughts of her little sister never having looked up to her. Is that the legacy I’m going to leave? She couldn’t go out like this, there had to be a way to fix things with her family, with her baby sister. When she finally did die, the least she could want out of life was for that little girl to admire her. How was she supposed to get through high school, pick out a dress for her first prom, go through her first break up, go off to college, without Aili there? Whether Ruthie thought her older sister was a piece of trash or not, damn it, she still had to be there for her. She had to do this one thing right.
Gathering all of the strength she had left, she let out a blood curdling scream of her own, easily matching the ferocity of the cougar’s. She looked up to see horses spooking off the trail in all directions. They had heard her! Spencer, the wrangler on that ride, looked in her direction, and dismounted his horse.
“What the hell?’ he asked, and started her way.
She screamed again, the sound of another person’s voice fueling her desperate cries for help.
“Here!! I’m over here!’ she yelled, as she tried again to stand, gritting her teeth from the pain.
“Someone get over here and sit with her while I ride down for help!” Spencer yelled as he ran over to catch Aili from falling back to the blood soaked earth beneath her. “It’s okay now, I’ve got ya.”
She collapsed onto him, finally letting the agony overtake her will to stay conscious.
She woke up days later in the hospital to see her little sister sitting in the chair next to the bed holding her hand.
“Hey there,” ruthie said, turning to gesture to her parents, who were out in the hallway talking to the doctor. “I’ve been right here, I never left.” she said, tears falling from her eyes. “Let me just get mom and dad, they’ve been worried sick.”
“H-hold on, they’ll be back soon enough. Could you just sit with me for a second? I don’t want to have to explain what happened just yet.”
“Uhh, okay.” Ruthie said, “they made me promise to get them right away though! Dad’s gonna be pissed if he knows you’ve been awake and I didn’t alert him immediately.”
“You remember that day in the car a few months back, when I was picking you up from school, and you said you never wanted to be anything like me?” Aili began.
“Oh my God.. Aili, you know I didn’t mean it! I was just so mad, and I missed you so much. I was so jealous of you, you always get to do whatever you want. I want to be exactly like you! You’re so fearless, always doing something exciting–”
“Don’t you dare, ever, be like me.” said Aili through a flood of tears, and an aching, tight throat. “All I do is make mistakes, you’re going to make your life so much better than mine, you’ve just got to give it some time, don’t be in such a rush to grow up. Just promise you’ll let me make it all up to you, kay? I’ll be around more, I swear! Every Sunday for pancakes, no matter how old they get.”
“Okay.. jeez, you must have hit your head REAL hard. If I knew all it would take to get you to be nice to me was falling down a mountain, I’d have followed you on one of your dumb hikes, and pushed you down a long time ago.”
Aili’s parents soon entered the room, scolding Ruthie for not retrieving them immediately. Ruthie smirked at Aili with an ever-smug ‘I told you so’ look. She explained the situation to her parents, and they responded with the to be expected speech about her being more careful, but them being thankful she was okay. Briefly forgetting about Aili’s frail condition, they all sat in her hospital room, eating Jell-o and laughing about memories from the ranch in year’s passed. Aili shared her hospital bed with her baby sister, and they felt like a family again. No looking back, last chance power drive. she thought with a smile. Changing her life was now or never, and she’d be damned if she didn’t choose now.