Drew propped himself up on his elbows in his sleeping bag, his dark brown hair standing straight up on one side. “Yeah, that’s his phone in his sleeping bag.” He rubbed his eyes and yawned as he looked up at Sam through squinty eyes. “No, that’s my pack,” he mumbled when Sam reached for the nearest backpack. “That one over there is Ben’s.”
Of course it was. Sam remembered the avalanche airbag from orientation and the sudden, uproarious laughter when Drew snuck up on Ben to discharge it. The balloon popped out and bumped Wesley’s arm while he was drinking hot chocolate, spilling brown, goopy syrup down the front of his yellow jacket. In an instant, Sam watched Wesley’s expression switch from surprise to a mixture of loathing and rage, his eyes morph from large and round to cold and hard. His face had turned a shade darker, like he’d just stepped into the shadows and it reminded her of a horror movie she’d seen where a sweet, innocent child suddenly turned into an evil, possessed being. She remembered feeling uneasy, feeling frightened in a way, not for her own personal safety, but for whatever was going to result from his transformation.
Sam rifled through Ben’s backpack, looking for clues. It seemed to have all the essentials. Food, cooking equipment, emergency gear. What was missing? Snow pants, jacket, gloves, toque. Good. At least he had gone out wearing proper clothes, unlike her. But what had happened? Why hadn’t he returned from his bathroom break yet?
“Was he sick, Drew? Did he eat something bad for dinner?”
“Me and Wesley had the same thing. I’m fine,” Drew mumbled.
Wesley. Of course. So this was it, Sam thought. This was what they were scheming about all along. They were trying to scare her. She let out a sigh of relief, realizing that Ben wasn’t really missing, but then she felt a spark of anger and gave Drew a hard stare. “Is this some kind of joke? Why would he do this? I don’t know exactly what happened between Wesley and my dog, but that dog could barely move when I found him!”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“If he’s pulling some kind of prank with Wesley to get back at me for what happened with my dog… If you’re involved in this too… I knew I should have asked Tom to switch groups.”
“Ben doesn’t pull pranks. He hates them. He’s probably just doing his business,” Drew said closing his eyes, flopping back down into his sleeping bag and pulling the cover to his chin.
“Drew, he’s been out for over an hour and the storm’s getting worse.”
Drew’s eyes popped wide open.
“Wait, what happened again? I’m just supposed to hang out with Drew in his tent and wait?” Penelope followed Sam to Ben’s tent holding her sleeping bag in her arms.
“Shh! Don’t wake the others. We’re heading down at first light,” Sam said in a hushed voice as she threw Penelope’s backpack into Ben’s tent.
“So, what’s going on?” Drew asked.
“I’ll be back.” Sam spun around and walked away.
She heard Penelope climb into the tent and whisper with Drew as she headed out of camp, but just as she reached the outskirts, she heard a different noise — snow crunching behind her. Drew and Penelope had gotten dressed and caught up with her.
“You didn’t actually think we were going to go back to sleep, did you?” Penelope said.
“Dude’s been my best friend since we were four,” Drew added.
Sam gave them a slight nod and kept walking. The pit in her stomach had returned.
“What do you think happened to Ben, Sam?” Penelope asked.
“There was just a single set of footprints going out of camp, but then multiple tracks started back there. And here, something happened here,” Sam said, stopping short of the fallen tree limb.
“What do you mean? What happened? How can you tell?” Penelope asked.
“We have to hurry. We’re losing the tracks,” Sam said, hiking faster.
The trio followed the tracks, climbing over branches, sinking into the soft, deep snow and making slow progress despite their effort.
“Sam,” Drew called out from behind her. “Hey, Sam, wait! Weren’t we just here?”
Sam stared at the tracks in the snow and then at the trees around them. It was true. They had come full circle and were now back near the spot where the large tree limb had fallen. How had this happened? Her mind raced, trying to understand where she had made a mistake in tracking Ben’s prints, but she drew a blank. Nothing was making sense and a feeling of hopelessness started to take root, making her gut twist.
“Maybe Ben’s back at camp,” Penelope suggested as she sat down and tried to catch her breath.
This has to be a joke. Please, let this be a joke, Sam hoped, feeling a burst of frustration and the heat from it rise to her cheeks. “This isn’t funny, Drew. Why are you guys doing this? What’s the point?”
“There’s no joke, Sam, I swear. I don’t know where Ben is,” Drew said, but she had already turned her back to him. She headed back to camp, trekking as quickly as she could through the deep snow, the pit in her stomach growing larger.
Please, please be hiding in someone’s tent, Sam prayed. She arrived back at the campsite and saw that the entrance to Ben’s tent was half open, with messy sleeping bags and half-filled backpacks spilling out. But no Ben. She unzipped Wesley’s tent quietly and peeked inside. Wesley was snoring loudly, all alone. A peek inside Wade and Cara’s tent confirmed Drew’s story. This was no joke. It was time to call Lorne.
Sam’s frustration transformed into despair and she could feel her chest tightening, squeezing her heart down into the giant pit in her stomach. She brushed snow off of a large rock, sat down and buried her head in her hands. What had happened to Ben? Where was he?
“Wesley, Cara, Wade, wake up,” Sam announced loudly. Three heads poked out from their tents. “Pack up. The Challenge has been cancelled. We’re heading down now.” She rubbed the glass on her watch and kicked at the snow around her, anxious to get moving. It was 2:30am and Sam had a new plan.
Ryder Conway poured boiling water into a mug and watched as it swirled with the powder from a packet of ultra strength nighttime flu medication, like a vortex from a tornado. Mesmerized by the movement, he dipped his finger into the mixture to stir it further and yanked his hand back abruptly, sucking on his scalded finger tip. Smart move, bonehead, he muttered to himself. He picked up the box of generic powder packages and counted six, which made this his fourth cup. Next time, don’t cheap out on meds, he thought. He had napped throughout the day, but he was having trouble sleeping through the night and hoped the drinks would help.
He took a spoon from the kitchen drawer, but before he could use it, five violent sneezes erupted from his body causing him to keel over. The pain in his throat was sharp, like he’d swallowed razor blades and every time he coughed or sneezed, the blades ripped into his flesh. But the ache in his rib cage lingered longer. His ribs throbbed from the intensity of his sneezes for minutes after each episode.
Ryder carried his mug back to bed, plodding slowly down the hall as hot liquid splashed onto the floor. Carefully placing his cup on his bedside table, he popped a few more extra-strength pills in his mouth, crawled under his thick comforter and let out a long moan. Just kill me now, he thought.
After three more vicious sneezes, Ryder picked up his phone. He had received a text message from Lorne. A callout to search for a lost hiker from the Challenge, Benjamin Black, who went missing near Fool’s Bluff on Black Mountain. Departure times from the base at 5:30am and 11:00am, weather permitting.
The 11:00am departure was probably because most of the Glacier Rescue volunteers who weren’t sick would be coming down from the mountain at sunrise around 8am, Ryder reasoned. The first departure time was for those who weren’t on the mountain already, those who would probably be saving the kid’s life, because even a few hours could make all the difference in the world. There wouldn’t be many of them though, so they needed every able body they could get to help with the search. But it wasn’t just anybody they hoped to find. Lorne had identified the person in need of rescue and Ryder knew the reason why.
He closed his eyes and took a few seconds to relax into the comfort of his bed. After hours of tossing and turning, adjusting and re-adjusting, everything finally felt perfect; the soft pillow under his head, the warmth of his heavy blankets on top of him, his left nostril which had cleared just enough so he could close his mouth and still breathe.
With a single huff, Ryder opened his eyes, peeled the duvet off of him, sat up in bed and pulled on his long johns. The meeting was still a couple of hours away, but he would need all that time to get himself up and ready to help.
Sam’s group hiked down the mountain in the pitch black with the light from their headlamps illuminating their way. Luckily, the most direct route to the village from Checkpoint 4 was neither long nor difficult. Still, Sam hiked quickly, glancing at her watch every few minutes. There was no time to lose.
“What was that thing about threes in the wild?” Penelope asked.
“A person can survive for three minutes without oxygen or in frigid water, three hours without shelter in harsh environments, three days without water and three weeks without food,” Sam replied.
“If Ben fell or got buried in snow, he wouldn’t have had a chance,” Drew said. His gaze settled on Ben’s avalanche airbag which he was carrying on his chest.
Sam had had the same thought earlier, but she didn’t want to respond to Drew. She didn’t dare tell anyone what she thought might have happened. And how she was responsible. Unless… maybe she wasn’t. “Hey, were you guys drinking or doing drugs?” It was a longshot, but worth asking, and for a brief second she let herself hope it wasn’t her fault.
“No way! We had mac and cheese for dinner and then we passed out. I mean, c’mon, we’d been hiking all day.” Drew rubbed his neck. “But what if something extreme happened? Like a cougar?”
“Shhh, Drew! Not so loud. Wesley might hear you,” Penelope said, glancing over her shoulder at the rest of the group lagging behind. “And he doesn’t have his tent, water bottle or food either. Drew’s carrying those in his bag right now. But you know, he is a Black. His clothing is probably top quality.”
“He still doesn’t have shelter … and the conditions on the mountain are definitely harsh,” Drew said, his forehead creased with worry.
The trio fell silent and Sam increased her pace. She didn’t know how much time she had, but she knew she had to hurry. She had to find Ben fast, to help him and to save him. He was her responsibility when he went missing; she was the leader of the group. But it was more than that. It was the possibility that it was her mistake that had caused Ben’s disappearance. No, it wasn’t just a possibility. The more she thought about it, the more confident she was that it was a fact. Ben was gone because of her.
Sam mulled it over and over in her mind. Their camp at Checkpoint 4 was near Fool’s Bluff. The same area Sam was in when she had found her dog. The same area where she had been putting up avalanche hazard barriers. As hard as Sam tried to think back, she couldn’t recall whether she had completed her task before being distracted by Wesley. If Ben had become disoriented, he could have easily ended up there. After all, his footprints pointed in that direction and it made sense that he would walk downhill from the point where he had dropped his neck warmer. So, if Ben had wandered down into the avalanche hazard zone because there was no barrier to stop him… Yes, it was definitely her fault. This was her mess and she had to clean it up before anyone found out.
What would people say if she didn’t find Ben? She imagined what life would be like once everyone knew and felt the noodles she’d had for dinner roiling her stomach, threatening to come back up. Dad already hates me and can’t stand to be around me. Everyone else is going to hate me too. She’d be kicked out of Glacier Rescue for sure. “Sorry, Sam. Y’know, you’re a liability now and we need people we can count on, eh,” Lorne would say. He’d try to be nice about it, of course, but he wouldn’t be able to look at her. Nobody would. She’d walk along the Ice Bridge and all eyes would look away in disgust. Stay away from her, they’d think, she killed two people. But, as horrible as it would feel, she would understand. Because Sam knew she wouldn’t want to, she wouldn’t even be able to look in the mirror if the worst was to happen to Ben. No. That couldn’t happen. She wouldn’t let it. She’d rather die on the mountain looking for Ben than come back down without him.
Sam dropped her group off at the community center and after briefing Lorne to make sure that he had all the information he needed for the callout to other rescue members, she made her move. She had been planning her next steps the entire hike down the mountain. She knew it wouldn’t be easy. There would be a lot of questions, from a lot of people. Her dad, other members of the police, the Black family, even the members of her group. It didn’t matter. She would answer questions when Ben was safe or she wouldn’t be around to answer any questions at all. Ever.
Sam surveyed her surroundings, taking note of what everyone was doing, who they were talking to and which way they were facing. And then she did it. Quickly and quietly, she slipped out into the cold and started hiking back up the mountain. It had been over three hours since Ben went missing.
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