“This is crazy. You know that, right?” Christian says as he slows to a stop at a red light. He glances at Hailey in the passenger seat, her hands clasped together, and her head bent as if in prayer. “June is gone. I miss her too, Hailey, but going back out on that trail isn’t going to bring her back and blaming yourself is only hurting you. She’s dead.” His voice cracks. “You know she’s dead.”
Hailey raises her eyes to the rearview mirror and catches a glimpse of June sitting in the backseat, staring vacantly ahead. Her molding tongue lolls with each bump in the road. “Believe me, I know. Her body is out there in those woods, and I owe it to her to find it. She deserves to be properly buried.”
“We searched for days, Hailey,” he says, his voice going soft. “The police said she could have gotten disoriented and crawled off somewhere, or,” he gulps, “an animal could have dragged her away.”
“I had the spot wrong.”
“The spot on the trail where I said she fell, where everyone searched. I thought I had the right place, but I didn’t.”
Christian lets out a long sigh. “Hailey.”
“If you don’t want to come, just drop me off at the trailhead and wait!” she snaps.
They continue the long drive in silence, and after Christian parks in the empty asphalt lot, he gets out and follows close behind Hailey.
The sun is out in full force, not a cloud in sight. Hailey hasn’t set foot on a hiking trail since June’s disappearance, and her nerves are rattled. No matter what the sky looks like, she knows all too well that a sudden cloudburst can happen out of nowhere.
Christian tries to reason with her as she climbs the trail, but she ignores his efforts. She can’t handle being haunted any longer, and she fears what she might do to herself if this game of hide-and-seek continues. She does not tell Christian that June has joined them on their trek. She already knows he thinks she’s lost her mind.
They come to the spot where the search and rescue team had been deployed. The only reminder of that awful day is a small memorial plaque June’s parents had placed there. It sits in front of the newly installed guard rails, and for a few minutes, Hailey only stares.
The weight of Christian’s hand on her shoulder is both a comfort and a sign of his pity. She will not have that. She turns on her heel and presses onward.
As they walk, Hailey keeps an eye on June, searching for any change in her friend’s demeanor. After another half hour, Hailey sees June come to a stop in her peripheral vision. A shuddering breath escapes her lips, and she slows.
Christian reaches out for her again. “What’s wrong?”
Hailey fixes her eyes on the dirt – on the jagged edge of the trail, the ground now baked through and hard thanks to the recent dry spell.
“It was here.” Her eyes swim with tears and her vision becomes watery and distorted. “I didn’t go far enough. This whole time, it was here!”
She bursts into angry, frustrated tears, and Christian’s arms wrap around her shoulders.
“Hey, you couldn’t have known,” he says, stroking her hair lightly. “It was pouring. It was hard to see. It’s not your fault, Hailey.”
She is in no mood to listen to his attempted words of comfort. June is at the bottom of the hill. Hailey pushes Christian away and rushes down after her.
“Hailey, what the hell?!” Christian calls after her. He stays firmly in his place on the trail. “If you really think June’s body is down there, let’s call someone!”
What he says makes sense, but Hailey has a wrong to right. The biggest mistake of her life must be rectified. June could have been saved if she had only walked a little further that day. Through her tears, she fights against the slimy piles of leaves and undergrowth, following her best friend as she leads the way.
Christian’s voice echoes after her, demanding she return, threatening to call the police and get a proper search team out here. Let him, Hailey thinks. But I have to do this myself.
She follows June until she can no longer see the trail. Something in the back of her mind warns her about the danger she’s putting herself in, but for the moment, she doesn’t care. Only one thing matters. She’s well past the point where June’s freefall came to a stop that day, and she’s not at all surprised when her friend stops beside an unassuming mound of moldy leaves.
June turns and stares at her, her eyes pleading. Her body wavers, shimmering in the light dappling the ground through the cover of leaves.
Hailey swallows hard and drops to her knees. With a deep breath for courage, she begins to scoop the leaves out of the way.
A distant rustling sounds behind her, and Christian’s berating voice soon follows. He must have been lucky enough to have found a signal out here because he says goodbye to someone in a clipped tone and strides to Hailey’s side.
“You really have lost it!” he fumes, all traces of sympathy gone. “What the hell are you thinking coming down here? You could end up like—”
He freezes when Hailey’s silent digging uncovers a bloated hand, covered in rot and fungus. It flops into sight with a sickening squelch.
Wordlessly, Hailey grasps more fistfuls of leaves in her dirty hands and tosses them aside. Christian only watches behind her, stunned into silence.
An arm is exposed, a few patches of hot pink fabric still visible peeking out from layers of caked dirt. The fabric is torn in several places near the upper arm, the work of some large animal’s claws.
Hailey pauses a moment to gather herself before pressing on with her duty. The face she uncovers is bloated with time and excessive moisture. The jaw is missing, and ragged tendrils of flesh are flayed out against the dirt.
Behind her, Christian vomits. She thinks she would too if she hadn’t seen this face so many times already.
Tears flood her eyes once more and spill down her cheeks, cutting through specks of dirt that landed on her face during her frantic digging. Looking up, she scans the surrounding area and finds only Christian standing nearby.
With an audible sob, Hailey takes her best friend’s hand, barely registering the slimy, spongey texture of the long-dead flesh.
“I finally found you,” she says through her tears. “I’m just sorry it took so long.”
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