Hailey asked the officers trailing behind her for the time so often, she knew she was being a nuisance. But the trail was long, her marker easy to miss, and all she really had to go on was the amount of time she and June had hiked before she slipped.
The rain continued to crash around her, the wind sending her hair into her eyes with stinging bursts of speed. But Hailey pressed on, and when she got close to where she believed June had fallen, she began to shout her name.
She scanned the trail for her water bottle and searched the edges to find the spot where it had broken off. The ground was so saturated with water that it was nothing but sticky mud, pulling at her shoes and threatening to render her barefoot as she continued the trek. If the situation were reversed, June would not give up on her, and Hailey was determined to find her friend.
A divot in the trail caught Hailey’s eye. It appeared to be just the right size to hold her water bottle, but the rain had likely washed it away in the time she was gone. That could be replaced, though. The trailside was jagged, sinking down over the steep hill, and Hailey waved the rescue team over. She had found it.
Squinting through the heavy rain, she pointed down to the trees where June lay. She couldn’t see her, but Hailey had no doubt she was there. If her leg really was broken, there was no way she could have moved.
As the team began to prepare a safe and slow descent down the slick hillside, Hailey cupped her hands over her mouth and shouted down. “We’re coming, June!”
There was no reply, but this didn’t worry Hailey too much. She could barely hear herself over the rainfall.
She wore a path into the mud with her pacing while she waited. It took a long time for the team to reach the bottom, and Hailey was only able to watch them through a thickening fog thanks to the hi-res safety vests each member wore. The two officers and a paramedic waited with her on the trail, attempting to make small talk. She gave short, mechanical answers and kept her eyes trained solely on the trees.
When the rescue team came back up the hill, their portable stretcher was still rolled-up. Hailey stared at it, the firefighter’s words like a hollow echo in her ears.
“There’s no one down there.”
The doorbell rings and Hailey pulls herself out of bed, wrapping her warm, fleecy robe around her weary body. June is blocking the doorway into the hall, and Hailey takes a deep breath as she passes through her friend. A cold moisture settles onto her exposed flesh as she steps through the threshold.
She makes it down the stairs on stiff legs, ignoring June’s enveloping shadow coming from behind. Christian’s brow is furrowed with worry when Hailey opens the front door.
“What’s going on with you?” he asks as he steps into the entryway. Hailey’s stomach turns when he stops right in the place where June is standing, creating a sickening overlap, like a double exposure on an old filmstrip.
Hailey closes the door and keeps her head down. “Like I said, I need your help.”
“Yeah, but with what?”
“We’re going to find June.”
The weather was deemed too dangerous to continue searching.
Hailey was taken to the police station and, through her tears, gave a full account of what happened up on the trail, starting with the deceiving sun and false weather report, and ending with the trail breaking off under June’s unsuspecting feet.
When the rain cleared the following day, dogs were sent to scope the area. Hailey had a spare key to June’s apartment and was able to provide plenty of items saturated with June’s scent, but the rain had washed away all traces of it in the woods. A search party comprised of volunteers then set out, sweeping the wooded area in a wide arc. There was no trace of the injured young woman.
After a week, the search was called off. June was officially listed as a missing person. Hailey didn’t think she would ever stop crying.
A month later, June appeared on her doorstep.
Continue to Part 6 (the final part).
Sarah McKnight has been writing stories since she could pick up a pencil, and it often got her in trouble during math class. After a brief stint teaching English to unruly middle schoolers in Japan, she decided she wasn’t going to put off her dream of becoming a writer any longer and set to work. With several novels in the making, she hopes to tackle issues such as anxiety, depression, and letting go of the past – with a little humor sprinkled in, too. A St. Louis native, she currently lives in Pennsylvania with her wonderful husband and three cats. Find Sarah at: https://linktr.ee/sarahmcknightwrites