It was dark out when the group started the second leg of the Challenge. Everyone was limp and groggy, still half-asleep from a partial night’s rest, like little kids being dragged to school in the morning. Everyone, except Sam. She was wide awake. She had always been a light sleeper and thanks to the sounds of winds whistling, twigs cracking, and snow clumps splatting on her tent, she had gotten little rest. Well before her alarm sounded, she had given up on trying to sleep and now she was on the lookout for anything strange, anyone unusual. She had circled the camp a couple of times before they had packed up. With the heavy snowfall, the ground was coated in a thick layer of fresh powder and there were no longer any prints or squashed cigarette butts. Any evidence that anyone had been spying on them had been erased.
Their campsite was just outside of the village, so it was possible that someone could have been out for a late-night walk, Sam reasoned. But why had they stopped beside their camp? Someone out for a quiet walk on the trails would surely seek out the picturesque views along Silver Glow Lake, wouldn’t they? If they wanted to be around people, wouldn’t they walk to the village center? And why did they run away when she had approached? She shuddered. The thought of someone lurking in the darkness sent a chill down her spine.
Sam looked behind her as the group trudged up Black Mountain without speaking. They had agreed on the route to the next checkpoint after little debate — a direct hike up steep terrain that only curved slightly around an impossible cliffside. The group struggled to match her punishing pace, with Wesley trailing behind by a large margin.
Should I stop and take a small break? Let him catch up and rest for a minute? Or maybe if she picked up the pace and the group got too far ahead, he would just give up and go back home, Sam thought. Then she wouldn’t have to deal with him any longer. If she was lucky, Ben and Drew would follow Wesley home. She felt a pinch of guilt and silently berated herself. She could hear the voices of Dad, Mom and Lorne burning in her ears: “The Alpine Survival Challenge is supposed to be fun for everyone and it’s the group leader’s responsibility to make sure everyone on his or her team feels safe, included and respected.” They had said it so many times that the message was pretty much embedded in her DNA. She slowed her pace, but didn’t stop. The next checkpoint was close and they would have a break there.
The image of the flattened cigarette butt flashed in Sam’s mind. Stopping at Checkpoint 2 would also give her a chance to survey the path they had taken and see if anyone was trying to follow them.
“C’mon, Wes, we’re getting close,” Ben called back to encourage his little brother. Large white clouds streamed out of Wesley’s mouth as he gasped and struggled to climb the mountain.
“So, your dad’s new girlfriend is pretty hot, huh?” Drew said to Ben as the two hiked together, well behind the rest of the group. Ben had slowed down to keep Wesley from being too far back by himself.
“Tiffany is okay,” Ben replied. “She’s pretty much like the rest of them.”
“Is she though? I mean, it seems like she’s kinda into you. How is it that she always shows up in the pool or in the gym with us?”
“Maybe she’s into you, Drew.”
“You think?” Drew’s face brightened for a beat. “Naw, bro, she’s always talking to you. Like, what did she mean yesterday morning when she said, ‘Even if I married your dad, we wouldn’t really be related.’ I mean, wouldn’t that make her your step-mom?”
Ben had wondered what Tiffany had meant as well. It wasn’t just what she had said while they were working out in the gym that he thought was strange, either. It was also her barely-there workout outfits, overdone face, babyish voice, grabby hands and constantly fluttering eyelids. And why did she always tilt her head and talk so slowly? She was always bragging about how expensive Jefferson’s latest gift to her was or asking about the value of stuff in the house, like she was going to turn around and hawk it when nobody was looking. She could be really hot if she weren’t so cringy, Ben thought. She seemed so fake. What did Jefferson see in her?
Ben tried to brush it off. “I don’t think she’s very bright, is all. She probably thinks second cousin refers to the cousin after the first one, if she’s counting them all in a lineup.”
“Yo, I know what she’s getting at. Maybe she means that you guys don’t actually share genetic material, so it’d be okay if you hooked up. Maybe she’s trying to line you up as a backup, bro, like if things don’t work out between your dad and her. So she’s trying to butter you up. She seems pretty happy at the mansion, maybe even happier when your dad is out of town. Like, she’s way chattier with us when he’s gone and she hardly says anything when he’s around. Dunno. Be super hard to give up the lifestyle, once you’ve gotten used to it, I’ll bet.”
“I don’t know about that, Drew.”
“Would your dad really marry her though? She’s barely older than us. Not that I mind or anything. Makes coming around to your place just a little bit sweeter.”
“Who knows what goes through Jefferson’s head.”
“Why don’t you just ask him?”
“No point. Jefferson doesn’t answer to anyone. Haven’t you noticed that every time you ask him a question, you get a life lesson or a reminder of some rule in response?”
Drew was silent for a minute. “Yeah, you’re right. Hey, do you think she’d consider me as a backup if you’re not into it? I mean, we are like brothers. I practically live at the mansion too.”
Ben clenched his teeth and hiked faster. “C’mon, Drew, let’s get ahead and find the next puzzle piece.”
“What about Wes?”
“We’re not doing him any favors hanging back. He wants to win this challenge more than all of us put together. The faster we finish the checkpoints, the better our time will be.”
The sound of Wesley’s raspy breath grew louder. He let out a huff, exhaling out the words “Wait up, Ben” in almost a whisper, but Ben didn’t respond.
Drew stuffed a second puzzle piece into his bag just as Wesley caught up with the group at Checkpoint 2.
“The next checkpoint is over here,” Sam said, pointing as everyone hovered over the map, the wind howling around them.
“Whoa,” Wade shouted as a strong gust blew a corner of the map out of his hand, making it flap in the wind while Sam battled to hang on to her end.
“If we take this route, we’d probably have to camp at Checkpoint 3 before we hit the next leg,” Sam said. “But if we go straight up through here, we’d save a lot of time. We could probably complete the challenge at Checkpoint 3 and since the next leg after is short, we could make it to Checkpoint 4 near Fool’s Bluff before we camp for the night. It’s way harder, though. See all the elevation gains and losses we’d have?”
“What’d she say?” Wade boomed. Cara pointed to the various checkpoints and routes on the map, but Sam couldn’t hear what she was saying. The wind was picking up force, swirling snow over the map and into their faces.
“So, do you guys want to take the easier or tougher route?” Sam asked.
“We’re going for the win, aren’t we? We go the fastest way,” Wesley hollered, giving an angry glance to everyone around him and receiving nods and shrugs in return.
“Alright, let’s just get out of this area, it seems like it’s funneling all of the wind right through here,” Drew shouted.
The group cleared Checkpoint 3 quickly and by the time they reached the forth checkpoint several hours later, it was dark, stormy and cold.
“You’re on your own tonight,” Ben said as Wesley threw his pack down and headed out to search the area for the challenge puzzle, his headlamp creating an eerie glow through the heavy snowfall.
“Aww, c’mon, Ben.”
“Dude, I didn’t sleep all night with your snoring,” Drew said. “And Wade found the puzzle piece already anyway. Pitch your tent. I’ll prep dinner for us. Then sleep. I am so done.”
Sam heard Wesley say, “You suck, Benja-mean” before she took out her phone and called Lorne. “We’re at Checkpoint 4 on Map 8, Lorne. Just set up camp, but the wind is crazy up here and it’s been snowing hard all day. Do you think we should call it off?”
Lorne’s voice crackled through on the line. “Sorry Sam, we’ve had a few emergencies down here. Been a bit distracted. Granny Givens had a bad fall. A real bad fall,” he explained. “And Preet Singh had a heart attack three minutes after Wendy Stein had a stroke. Can you believe it? We were short on volunteers as it was, but now, well…” Lorne’s voice trailed off. “Anyway, you’re the first to call in at that altitude, Sam. None of the other teams are near as high on the mountain as you are. Let me check the forecast and I’ll get back to you.”
Sam hung up and found two missed text messages from Henry Chow.
“Your dog is doing well. Much stronger, good appetite. Much more energy than earlier this morning. Responding well to meds.” 11:43am.
“Your dog is gone. Will check animal control and let you know.” 4:24pm.
Sam let out a gasp and stared at her phone. She felt her stomach drop, like she’d just had the wind knocked out of her. She read the messages over and over again, hoping that she had somehow misread them.
“Sam,” Penelope said, like it was the third time she had called her.
“Noodles, here.” Penelope held out a bowl. Sam shook her head and showed Penelope her text messages.
Penelope looked at the phone and frowned. “Well, there’s nothing you can do about it from here. Eat. You starving to death is not going to help anyone. Finish it all, or you’ll regret it later.” When Sam didn’t immediately reach for the food, Penelope thrust the bowl closer. “Girlfriend, don’t think I won’t add beans to my noodles, and I will not hold back tonight.”
Sam forced a smile and took the bowl.
“Chew and swallow, girl. I’m not moving until you finish the last noodle,” Penelope said. “So, Drew said he heard you on the phone. Are they really going to call off the Challenge now?”
“Maybe. We’ll get a call if it’s off. Let’s just clean up and turn in. The wind seems to be picking up again.”
Sam had already dozed off when her phone beeped — a text message from Lorne calling off the Challenge — the storm had picked up momentum and arrived earlier than expected. They were to spend the night on the mountain and head down first thing in the morning, he advised.
Once again wide awake while everyone else slept, Sam lay in her sleeping bag listening to the wind, the trees and the snow, just as she had the night before. And sure enough, just like the night before, she began to think about emptying her bladder. She tried to ignore it, but the harder she tried, the fuller her bladder felt. She crawled out of her tent and looked around. All she could see through her headlight was snow falling.
There was no way anyone would be wandering around their camp tonight, Sam thought. But then she saw fresh footprints. She traced them back to Ben and Drew’s tent. The front entryway had not been zipped up completely and she realized that Ben or Drew must have stepped out too. As she left camp, she walked in a different direction from the prints. She didn’t want to walk in on anyone doing their business, and she didn’t want any witnesses while she took care of hers.
When Sam returned to camp, she noticed that, other than her own footprints, there was still only one set of prints leading out of the campsite. That’s strange, she thought. Whoever had left hadn’t yet returned and boys were usually quicker than girls. She peeked into Ben’s tent. Drew was snoring lightly while Ben’s sleeping bag was empty, half folded open with an iPhone lying inside.
Sam shivered as she paced to stay warm beside Ben’s tent. Her light remained fixed in the direction of the footprints, except to check her watch or blow warm air into her bare hands. She wondered if she was being silly to worry, but the longer she waited, the more she could feel a pit in her stomach forming. She stared into the darkness and waited, nervously chewing on a hangnail. After fifteen minutes, she followed the footprints.
“Ben,” she whispered. The footprints led deeper into the trees. “Ben!” Wind whipped through the evergreens. Small branches unable to resist the force snapped off and fell to the ground. Sam continued. “Ben!” She looked down. Multiple footprints now replaced the single set of prints she had followed out of camp. They went on as far as she could see, but a little further ahead there was something odd. A patch of disturbed snow. What had happened here? As she surveyed the scene, something caught her eye. Her headlight reflected off an object in the snow.
Sam picked up a white neck warmer with a small reflective butterfly symbol — the same logo Ben had on his custom-made tent. It wasn’t covered in much snow, so it couldn’t have been dropped that long ago, she thought. Her hands shook as she brushed snow off of it and put it on. She had gone out in her long underwear thinking it would be a short trip out of the tent and now her teeth chattered as she wrapped her arms around herself, trying to stay warm.
Another squall cracked a large branch off a tree and the limb came crashing to the ground on top of the tracks in front of Sam. Her heart jumped and she let out a little shriek in surprise.
The storm was slowly erasing the footprints in the snow. She wouldn’t be able to follow them much longer, but she wasn’t prepared to track them now. Without her outer layer of clothes, any gear or supplies, she couldn’t continue.
“BEN,” Sam screamed as loudly as she could.
Ben was gone.
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