Into the Woods

Jill and I are hiking Tantalus, and as is her wont, Jill’s decided to be a trailblazer.  As we wander farther from the trail, I check my cell phone reception.

“I think they charge you now for rescuing you,” I say,  and if a helicopter’s involved, you pay through the nose.”

Jill laughs as she bounds into the heavy brush.  I don’t know how she does it.  I’ve hiked with her before.  It’s as if she has a built-in compass.  We never get lost, at least not so far, but there’s always a first time.  Each time I go with her, I pray it’s not that first time for us.

“You know how it goes,” she says to me.  “When all else fails, just keep heading downhill.  You’ll get out eventually.”

“What if we stumble into some precarious position where we can’t move?  A high ledge surrounded by loose dirt.  We’d surely go downhill from there.  Like with a bullet.”

Jill doesn’t say anything.  She’s farther ahead now.  It’s hard to keep up with crazy.

The sound fades, then disappears altogether.  I stop, listen hard.

“Jill?” I call out.  “Jill, can you hear me?”

Nothing.

I know her general direction, so I keep plowing along.  Maybe she’s fallen, hurt herself, and can’t respond.  I keep going, my heart pounding a little harder each time I get nearer to what appears to be nothing.  No Jill.  Dammit.

She never carries her phone, afraid she’ll lose it.  How ironic.  Losing yourself or losing your phone.  Is there even a choice there?  I check to make sure I have bars on my phone.  I check the battery, too.  All’s well in that department, but not so good in the missing person one.

Still plodding forward, I stop.  Something is dangling from a tree branch in front of me.  I move closer and see it’s a disk-shaped medallion of some sort, a bright white.  A few steps closer, I can tell it’s a face.  I reach it, take the silver-dollar-sized ceramic piece in my hand and look at the person pictured.

It’s a man’s face maybe, and it seems to be smiling.  But the longer I look at it, the less I see the humor, and the more I see something mysterious.  He has a Mona-Lisa smile.

“Jill?” I yell again, wondering if maybe she hung this as a kind of marker.

No answer again.  Pulling out my trusty Leather Man utility tool, I cut the sugi holding the disk and slip it into my pocket.

Resuming my hunt, I grow a little more desperate.  Should I turn around and call 911?  Should I call 911 and keep going ahead?

When I’m this perplexed, this panicky, I tend to go ADHD, and my mind starts moving in directions I’d never expect.  Thinking about high school, traveling on an airplane, a meal I had at Zippy’s.  When my mind begins to jump like this, there’s no telling how useless it’ll be for accomplishing any task at hand.

I decide not to call in the cavalry just yet.  Downhill.  I’ll just head downhill.

Eventually I see houses.  It’s Pauoa Valley, right below my home sitting on the other side.

I stumble out of the forest and into someone’s backyard.  I can hear the stream running a couple hundred yards away.  Should I go home and then call?

I head down the valley and across to walk up the hill to my house.  The last bus stop in the back of the valley is just ahead.  As I get nearer to it, I can see that there’s someone sitting on the curb waiting for the bus.  But the closer I get, the more I’m sure it’s Jill.

“Jill?” I call to her.

The woman doesn’t respond.

I walk up to her.  She looks up at me, smiling.

“Jill?”  she doesn’t say anything to me.  The smile disappears, replaced by that same kind of smile as on the face on the disk.

I sit down next to her.  “Jill, are you okay?  Say something, can you?”

She pulls her legs up toward her and drops her head on her knees.

“What’s wrong, Jill?”

Finally, “By any chance,” she says, did you run into that white disk hanging from the tree branch?”

“Well, yes, yes I did.  I actually – ”

“Do you know what that means?”

“No, no I don’t,” I say. “I –”

“It means evil’s about.”

“Say what?”

She raises her head and turns to me.  “That thing brings evil with it.”

I didn’t mention, of course, that I had the disk in my pocket.

“Where did you get that idea?” I ask.

“It’s a Korean symbol for evil.  If an enemy places it near you, bad things will happen to you.  The worst is that you will die.”

“What?  So someone just hung it out there in some kind of random way to bring evil to somebody?”

“No,” she says.  “It’s not random.  The person for whom the evil is intended is targeted.  And when he comes across it, that person will unknowingly have evil descend upon him.”

This was kind of creeping me out now, me with the medallion of evil in my pocket.  “Unknowingly?”

“Yes,” she says.  “It will just come.  And once it starts happening, that person must try to get as far away as possible from the medallion.”

I clear my throat. “Jill, how about we go up to my house, get my car, and then head up Tantalus to pick up your car.”

“Okay,” she says, standing up.

“I followed your advice and went downhill,” I say. “I’m glad I ran into you.”

She turns to look at me, and I don’t recognize her.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” she says.

* * *

The next thing I knew, I awoke in a strange room.  It was dark, but light from outside the open door allowed me to gradually figure out I was in a hospital room.

I lay there confused.  What had happened between the time Jill and I began the climb to my house and now?

A nurse came into the room.

“Ah, you’re awake.  Thank goodness.  We were worried about you for a while.”

“Why am I here?” I asked.

“You’ve had a bad fall, Mr. Lee.  You were reported as lost while you were hiking.  It was on the news.  There was a pretty big search for you.  Thank goodness they found you before you ended up in worse condition.”

Stunned, I lay there for a moment trying to make sense of this information.

“My friend,” I said finally, “the woman I was hiking with.  My friend Jill.  Is she okay?”

“Ummm,” said the nurse, “I’m not sure about that.  I don’t know that they mentioned another hiker.”

“Just then someone else walked into the room.”

I recognized him as my old friend Gabriel.

“Gabe, geez, I can’t believe I’m in here.”

“Yeah, me either.  When I couldn’t get you on the phone or by email, I was worried.  I went to your house and figured out no one was there. Finally, I called the police.  They found your car up on Tantalus.  We put two and two together and came up with the scenario of you going off hiking by yourself.  You gotta stop doing that.”

I shook my head.  “But I didn’t go by myself.  I went with Jill.  I always go with Jill.  You know that.”

Gabriel said, “Jill?  Jill who?  I don’t know her.”

“Hey,” I said, “are my clothes here?  The ones I was hiking in?”

“Yes,” said the nurse.  We have them here in this plastic bag.”

“Gabe, can you check the right pocket of my pants.  There’s something in there.”

Gabriel went over and began rummaging in the bag.  He produced what I assumed was the disk and brought it over to me.

“Can you turn on the light?”

The nurse flipped the switch for the light over my head.  I looked at the object, he’d given me.  It was the white ceramic disk.  I turned it over to see the face.  It was there, and now I recognized it.

“So what is it?” asked Gabriel.

“It’s, well, it’s a picture of Jill.  The woman I go hiking with.”

Gabe reached for it.  “Huh,” he said, examining it.  “Yeah, for sure I don’t know who this is.”

“Give me my phone, Gabe.”

He went over and into the bag and brought it to me.  I searched my contacts.  No one named Jill came up.  I did a manual search from A to Z.  No contact for anyone named Jill.  I looked at my recent call list, my voicemail, and my text messages.  Nothing.

I explained the situation to Gabriel and the nurse.  When I’d finished, they looked at each other, both shaking their heads.

“You’ve had a rough day,” said the nurse.  “Why don’t you rest?  Those painkillers can do all kinds of things to your mind and your memory.”

She left, and then Gabriel, switched off the light and said goodbye as well.

I felt it coming on, and I drifted into a fitful sleep.  I was on the trail again, trying to catch up with Jill, the woman with whom I always hiked, always off the beaten path.  And there was the medallion, hanging from the tree branch.

Taking it in my hand, I flipped it around to look at the face.  This time it was clearly Jill’s face again, but it wasn’t smiling.  And it looked nothing like an enigmatic Mona Lisa.

Jill’s face was grinning an evil grin, and I came awake in the dark frightened and in extreme pain.

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