As Sam walked along the trail to the first checkpoint, she looked up from the map and saw the trees swaying and crackling from the wind. The path was sparsely covered with freshly fallen twigs that snapped under the weight of their footsteps and a cloud of awkwardness enveloped the group like a thick fog. Nobody spoke a word. Drew stole glances of Cara, Cara kept her eyes on Wade, Wade glared at Ben and Ben watched Wesley. Sam didn’t have to look at Wesley to know where his attention was. She had caught a glimpse of him staring at her with a look of silent condemnation earlier and could still feel the burn of his scowl on the back of her head.
She buried her face back in the map. The whole route was longer and had more significant elevation gains than past years. Was that what Lorne meant when he said that the Challenge would be tougher this year? Or was there something else he was referring to? Something much more difficult?
“I was hoping we’d be able to see the Northern Lights tonight, but those are are not happy clouds.” Penelope had been walking with her head back, chin pointing to the sky.
“Alright, you gotta focus. You are looking in the wrong direction. The clue is right in front of you.” Drew threw a handful of light, powdery snow at Penelope and pointed to a tree marked with a ribbon and a tiny Canadian flag with the words “Glacier Rescue” written below it. Just beyond the marked tree was an opening to Silver Glow Lake.
“Do you guys want to set up camp next to the lake before tackling the challenge?” Sam suggested, hearing her dad’s voice echo in her head. He repeated the same words on every family camping trip — “Hey, beautiful Shepherd ladies, what do you think about setting up the tent before it gets too dark and we get too tired?” — like it was the first time he had ever suggested the idea. She smiled to herself. Just like Dad. I guess it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if I turned out to be like him, as long as I never start telling corny jokes, she thought.
Wesley responded by ripping the challenge card from the ribbon. “‘Melt enough snow to fill the marked container,’” he read aloud, pointing to a large pot behind the tree, “‘Then find the marked puzzle piece you will need for the next challenges.’ You guys make the water, I’ll find the puzzle piece.”
“I’ll search with you,” Wade said, following Wesley. “Hey, Cara, you can put the tent up and get started on melting the snow, right? Thanks, babe, you’re the best!”
“I am so happy we’re sharing your tent. My pack is super light now, even with the extra goodies I brought,” Penelope said to Sam as she grappled with a pole. She leaned in, nodded in Wesley’s direction and whispered, “At least if he’s here, he can’t be off killing your dog, right?” Sam shook her head. Thinking about Wesley and what he might or might not do was making her stomach turn. It was going to be difficult to spend the rest of the Challenge with him. And his brother. She glanced over at Ben, who had a look on his face that she couldn’t read.
“Whoa! The design turned out amazing,” Drew said as he walked around Ben’s tent. It was black with silver reflective trim and a barely visible logo that looked like an outline of a butterfly with pointed tips. “Super easy to put up too. I’m telling you, bro, we should totally mass produce your stuff and sell it online. My subscribers would love your gear.”
“Yeah, turned out alright,” Ben replied, stepping back from the tent. “But then it wouldn’t be unique.”
“Different colors, bro. Keep yours exclusive and offer other color combos to the public. Real, high-quality Canadian equipment made for serious outdoor enthusiasts. You’ve already got the prototypes, right? Jackets, gloves, pants, what else? Did you design Wesley’s jacket too?”
“His has custom pockets for his phone, extra battery pack and gear. One of the buttons on the chest pocket is fake. It’s actually a peephole so he can record videos on his phone. Keeps his camera from getting wet or dirty.” Ben unpacked his tiny camping stove. “Hey, pass me the container over there, Drew. We should get started with the water.”
“Alright, Benji. Yo, do you mind if I go check out how the puzzle hunters are making out? Can you manage without me for a bit?”
“Sure. Hey, Drew, hang on a sec. Listen, Wes…” Ben’s voice dropped abruptly, like the mute button on a remote had just been pressed. Sam turned her head, pointing one ear in Ben’s direction as she strained to hear what he was saying.
She heard Drew respond, “Yeah. No worries, brother,” before he jogged away, leaving Sam to wonder what Ben had whispered. What was Wesley scheming and how complicit was Ben? And was Drew now involved? The three of them made up half of the members of her group. Sam chewed on her lower lip. How was she going to defend herself against three vengeful boys?
“Okay, something doesn’t seem right here,” Penelope’s amused voice jolted Sam from her thoughts. She turned to see Penelope tugging at the lopsided tent.
“Oops, that pole doesn’t go through there. It goes through this hole here. Now this one goes through here.”
“Thank Goodness. That would have been super awkward.” Penelope laughed and pulled a face that made Sam giggle.
“Eek,” Cara cried out from under a heap of nylon.
“Hang on, Cara!” Sam tapped Penelope’s arm. “We got you.”
“What the heck,” Penelope said. “This thing is bigger and heavier than my house. How is Wade even carrying this in his backpack? I mean, dude is built like a tank, but, seriously. How does this even…? Ben!”
“No, don’t ask him. I think I can—” Sam whispered to Penelope as she pulled out an extraordinarily long pole from the fabric.
“Ben!” Penelope hadn’t heard Sam.
Ben looked up from his seat in front of his stove where he was melting snow for the challenge. “Oh, sorry,” he said as he stood up, flipped his phone shut, stuffed it in his pocket and took a few steps forward. His foot caught on his stove, knocking it over and spilling out all of the water from the pot. “Ah! Shoot! Hang on a sec. I’ll be right there. Lemme just set this up again. Ow! Damn! That’s hot.” He jerked his hand away from the stove.
“Come on, Benjamin. Pull yourself together, now,” Penelope teased.
Ben jogged over, sucking on a burned spot on his finger. “How can I help?”
“This tent is ridiculous,” Penelope said.
“I think this long one goes across through here,” Sam said, pointing to a part of the tent’s ribbing.
“Yeah, looks like,” Ben replied. “You hang on to that end and I’ll work this end. Ow!” Ben let his hand go limp at the wrist and shook it twice, like he was flicking off excess water. “Cara, can you hold on to this part? We’ve got to try to get the pole through this thing somehow.”
Cara tucked in next to Ben, pulling at the tent material while he tried to force the pole to bend into place using one hand. The pole quivered under the force of Ben’s pull until he managed to bend it enough to slide it down a hole, through the ribbing and out the other end. It poked straight up into air while the tent material bunched up strangely.
“I’ve never seen a tent designed like this before. Where the heck did you find this, Cara? Bizarro world?” Ben asked, flashing a grin at the girls and receiving a few giggles in return.
“Wade borrowed it from his uncle, I think.”
“Well, good luck sleeping in this tonight, girl. It’d be a lot easier to build an igloo,” Penelope joked.
Wade’s booming voice cut through the group’s laughter. “Hey! What’s going on?” He stormed across the campsite, an accusatory finger leading his charge. “You! Why you always hitting on my girl, man?”
“What?” Ben asked, his forehead wrinkling as he shot Sam a confused look, as if to ask, “Is this guy nuts?”
“Every time I look, you’re right on top of her.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, man. I’m just trying to help.”
“If you pitched your own tent, none of us would have to do this for you,” Penelope added.
“I didn’t ask you for your help. Cara said she’d take care of it. If she wasn’t so useless, she could do it herself,” Wade said.
“I was trying to. I didn’t ask, they just offered,” Cara explained, her head down, shoulders slumped forward. Within a blink, she seemed suddenly smaller, Sam thought.
“You’re not useless,” Sam said to Cara, hoping to see her regain her composure but not seeing any change. She turned to Wade, her voice firm. “Don’t talk to her like that.”
Wade looked at Sam and curled the right side of his upper lip into a sneer just as a voice screeched out, “Help!”
Sam raced towards the scream with the others following behind. They found Wesley at the bottom of a creek bed. He had lost his footing and slipped down the steep bank and with one hand in a cast, he couldn’t pull himself out, he explained.
“Sorry, bro, I took my eyes off of him for a second,” Drew said to Ben quietly as he handed him the end of a rope Sam had retrieved.
“Hey Wade! Where are you going? It wouldn’t hurt to have a little muscle here to help pull up your fellow teammate,” Penelope said.
“That’s a you problem,” he shouted over his shoulder as he walked back to the campsite.
“Nevermind. We can do this ourselves. Ready? One, two, three, pull,” Sam said, yanking on the rope she had thrown down to Wesley. With the rope wrapped around his waist, he came up easily.
“Are you injured?” Sam asked Wesley.
“Stupid patch of ice. Any of us could have fallen down there. And if anything happens to me, it’s your fault. You’re supposed to be leading this team,” Wesley said, walking away.
“Nice. You’re very welcome,” Penelope said, but Wesley was too far away to hear.
“Look! There it is!” Sam pointed to a tiny ribbon with a little Canadian flag that dangled from a tree branch jutting out over the creek.
“Looking in the wrong direction again,” Drew teased Penelope as he ran to the tree. “Good thing Sam got roped into this.”
“Nice line. Did you harness all the energy from your neurons to come up with that?” Penelope replied.
“Ooh. That strings? No, that burns! Get it? Rope burn?” Drew said with a big smile, his eyebrows raised like he was waiting to hear a celebratory ba-dum-tss drum sting. Penelope responded with an unimpressed, chin-tucked-in headshake. “Alright, alright. Nevermind. Anyway, we’re going to need your brains to figure this puzzle out.”
Drew passed the puzzle piece around camp as they melted snow for the container. It was a small wooden box that seemed to be a part of something larger. The card inside the attached sandwich bag read:
And now you have discovered me
This deep and dark true mystery
All clues collect if you can see
The way to get a precious key.
Sam watched the group guess at what it meant, how the box would fit and whether it held some secret message inside. She listened to their laughter and wondered how she ended up sharing a campsite with people she hardly knew. She didn’t even know Cara’s or Wade’s names before today, or that they all went to the same school and were in the same grade. The pair kept mostly to themselves, although Cara looked as though she wanted to join the main conversation at times. But Wade was always there, blocking her view, pulling her away, putting his arm around her in a way that seemed to swallow her up whole.
Drew was making another video. Was it live? Sam thought she heard him say that. Penelope, Ben and Wesley were laughing in the background as Drew, in his usual on-screen animated and charismatic way, talked into his phone.
The last time that Sam had gone camping was late last summer, just weeks before the shooting. Fifteen minutes after they had started their hike, her dad had realized that he had forgotten his water bottle in the car. Then, after hiking back to retrieve it, he discovered that he had locked his keys in the car. They had continued with their trip, but after her mom had teased him about it, he spent the night sharing stories about all the silly things her mom had done on their adventures together. Even the stories they had retold multiple times made them laugh until tears streamed down their faces.
Sam felt a strong ache in her heart as she watched the group of strangers enjoying themselves around her. She was right beside them, but she felt separated from them by time and distance, as though they were a cast of characters on TV.
The pain in her chest sharpened as she thought about her family. Mom was gone. She reminded herself of that fact constantly, like she needed the agony from it to remind herself that she was still alive. And that she hated herself for it, for being able to breathe when her mom no longer could. But what about Dad? Where was he all the time? What was he doing? He was forgetful, but had he forgotten that he still had a daughter? Or maybe having her for a daughter was something he was trying to forget. Sam stared at the flame coming from her stove. Its heat seemed to intensify the pain and anger inside her, just as much as it made the water in front of her bubble and boil.
“That’s it, we’re done,” Sam said, dumping her pot of water into the overflowing container. “Make sure you fill your bottles and have enough water for the leg tomorrow.”
“Alright, I’m beat,” Drew announced.
“Ben, can I sleep in your tent tonight?” Wesley asked.
“That’s why you set up your tent as soon as you get to camp, Wes. Drew, we have to leave our bags out so Wesley can squeeze in.”
“I call the right side,” Drew said as he threw his bag out of the tent.
“I’m on the left. You’re in the middle, Ben,” Wesley called out, running to the tent ahead of Ben. Ben looked around camp and sighed.
Inside Sam’s tent, Penelope whispered, “Night, Sam.” She rolled over and the sound of a tiny question-mark fart filled the tent. They lay in silence until Sam heard Penelope fighting to stifle a laugh. Sam felt the weight of her thoughts lift as she looked over at Penelope and tittered. Penelope lost her battle, which resulted in a snort. “Sorry. Shouldn’t have had beans,” she whispered. The girls giggled and another toot escaped, making them laugh harder.
Minutes after their laughter died down, Sam could hear the soft purr of Penelope sleeping. She felt a dull pain in her pelvis and realized that her bladder was full. As she climbed out of her tent, she strapped on her headlight and heard a rustling noise behind a cluster of trees. She glanced over. An odd shape lurked in the dark. Sam turned her light on and the beam fell on an isolated group of branches moving. She froze. Was it wind? An animal? Should she grab a trekking pole? Maybe wake Penelope? Sam approached the cluster of trees slowly. Large flakes were now falling from the sky and the campsite was deathly silent. The snow on the ground squeaked under her boots, each step seemingly louder and creakier, like a door from a haunted house slowly closing by itself. The sound of her breathing seemed louder too, so she held her breath as she crept forward. Sqeeeeeeak. She had to exhale and, her blood pumping, she took a few quick breaths before moving again. Creeeeeeeeak. The sound seemed to echo through the campsite. By the time she reached the trees, the branches were still again. She peeked around the cluster. Nothing. Except, there was something. Sam looked down and saw a cigarette butt on the ground. It was flattened and sat on top of a patch of packed snow. Someone had been standing there watching them.
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