He swept it back and forth, constantly panning across both sides of the road in front of him to prevent another animal from catching him by surprise. He kept his ears perked for the sound of approaching footsteps. More than once, he froze upon hearing the crack of a twig or the rustle of leaves, his hand ready to reach back and grab the bottle of bear spray, but nothing ever emerged from the forest. It’s just the wind, he told himself, feeling like a little kid again, afraid of monsters lurking in the dark.
The temperature had dropped as the breeze picked up. Dressed in nothing but a thin, gray t-shirt and basketball shorts, Nick shivered as his bare skin broke out in goosebumps. He wished he had thought to throw on a pair of long pants and a hoodie while he was back at the cabin. Then he pictured poor Kevin lying unprotected on the cold, damp ground, and he picked up his pace. Moving faster made him warmer as well.
As he jogged down the road, the beam of his flashlight bounced up and down. All of a sudden, he saw a glint of something red in his peripheral vision. He stopped running, his heart hammering in his chest, and turned to his right, pointing his flashlight toward the bushes by the side of the road. He pictured a pair of red eyes glowing between the branches, but if anything had been there before, it was gone now. He saw nothing but leaves.
He aimed his light at the ground, looking for footprints, but he didn’t see any sign of an animal. What he saw instead were two deep ruts in the mud. They looked like tire tracks. When he swept the light across the surface of the road, Nick realized there were matching skid marks on the pavement, as if a vehicle had lost control and run right off the road.
Heart pounding, he turned around and raised his flashlight over his head, shining it straight down into the ditch on the side of the road. His breath caught in his throat when the light reflected off something shiny and red at the bottom. As his eyes adjusted, he realized it was the taillight of a black SUV that was smashed up against the trunk of a tree. It was so far down from the road that Nick never would have noticed it in the dark, if not for his flashlight bouncing off the reflective surface.
He started toward it, following a trail of broken branches and flattened weeds the large vehicle had left in its wake as it crashed through the brush. As he got closer, he recognized it as a Range Rover. His heart came to a standstill as he suddenly realized what had happened to the rest of the group.
“BRIAN! AJ!” he screamed as he raced toward the Range Rover, imagining his brothers trapped inside, badly injured or possibly even dead. “God, please, no!” The interior was totally dark, but when Nick pressed his face against the front window, he saw a shadowy figure slumped in the passenger seat. It was impossible to tell who it was at first, until he shone his flashlight on the person’s face and recognized the features. “AJ!”
AJ’s eyes were closed, and he didn’t open them or move at all when Nick called his name and pounded on the glass with his palm. Fearing the worst, Nick pulled open the driver’s side door and slid inside. “AJ!” he shouted again, grabbing AJ by the shoulder and shaking him. AJ’s head lolled to one side, his chin drooping onto his bare chest. In the ghostly glow of Nick’s flashlight, it looked like he was dead.
“No… no…” Nick shook his head, telling himself it couldn’t be true - AJ was just unconscious; he couldn’t be dead. His skin was still warm to the touch. But it was hard to tell if he was breathing or not; Nick couldn’t hear anything but his own heavy panting. His hands were shaking, making it impossible to hold the flashlight still enough to see if AJ’s chest was rising. He finally pressed his palm flat against the left side of AJ’s chest and held it there until he felt the faint fluttering of a heartbeat.
His relief was short-lived, as he realized AJ’s heart was racing way too fast for someone who was at rest, his breathing so shallow Nick could barely feel his rib cage expand. Something was very wrong. And where was Brian?
Nick shone his light into the back seat, but it was empty. He turned back to AJ and patted the side of his face, lightly at first, then more violently. “AJ!” he shouted. “Wake up, AJ! Where’s Brian?”
AJ let out a low moan, but still didn’t open his eyes. Not sure what to do, Nick looked around again and found AJ’s phone sitting in the cupholder between the two front seats. He checked it for a signal, but like his own phone, it was still out of service range.
As he put AJ’s phone back, Nick’s eyes fell upon a bottle of Vitaminwater. It was only a quarter of the way full, but it would be better than plain water for replacing the electrolytes his body had lost while running. Impulsively, he twisted off the cap and took a big swig. As soon as it hit his tongue, he knew he had made a terrible mistake. The taste was bitter and strangely salty, nothing like the subtle orange flavor he had been expecting. As he spat it back out, gagging and sputtering, he realized he had just drank someone’s urine.
“Damn it, AJ!” he gasped, as he dropped the bottle in disgust. “What the fuck?!” At that moment, he was almost glad AJ was too out of it to witness what he’d done. He would never be able to live it down.
As Nick took his own water bottle out of his backpack and drank enough to wash the bad taste out of his mouth, he wondered what to do next. He didn’t want to leave AJ alone, but staying here with him wasn’t going to do any good. Clearly, the situation had gotten desperate if AJ and Brian had resorted to saving their urine. Brian must have gone for help, Nick realized. But had he found it? How long had it been since he’d left? The fact that AJ was still in the SUV suggested they hadn’t made it to the hospital the night before, which meant it had been almost a full day since the accident.
Where was Brian??
Nick had a bad feeling about his friend’s whereabouts. He had an even worse feeling about AJ’s condition, but he knew there was nothing he could do for him here. He had to find a working phone. Find help. Find Brian.
“Hang in there, bro,” he whispered, touching the side of AJ’s face again, softly this time. “I’ll be back.”
Then he climbed out of the Range Rover, closed the door, and scrambled back up to the road. He ran at full speed, racing down the mountain as fast as his legs could carry him. All thoughts of the bear had been cast aside, replaced by the fear that AJ could die if he didn’t call for help fast enough. And in the back of his mind, he couldn’t forget that Kevin was in bad shape, too. Howie was waiting for him. And Brian was still missing.
Nick put on a fresh burst of speed, his arms pumping back and forth as his feet pounded against the pavement. He panted for breath, his chest burning, his heart beating so frantically against his ribs, it felt ready to burst out of him like a caged bird taking flight. But still, he didn’t slow down until he came around a curve and saw a dark shape creeping along the side of the road ahead of him.
At first, he thought it was another animal, and he skidded to an abrupt stop, remembering the bear. His heart thumped in his ears as he raised his flashlight, shining it on the creature. That was when he realized it wasn’t an animal at all. It was human. It was…
Nick rushed to his friend’s side and gasped at what he saw. Brian was barely recognizable, his face bruised and swollen. Nick didn’t know if he could even see out of his two black eyes until he heard Brian croak, “Nick… thank God.” Then he collapsed to the ground.
Nick dropped down next to him and rolled him over onto his back, laying Brian’s head in his lap. “Bri? Come on, bro, stay with me,” he said worriedly, stroking his damp hair. Brian was drenched with sweat and breathing hard, his chest heaving beneath the wifebeater that clung to his body. He was clearly exhausted. By the look of him, he had been crawling on his hands and knees for quite a while - they were badly scraped and covered in dirt and blood, his skin worn away by the rough pavement. Tiny bits of rock were embedded in the torn, raw flesh. Nick took out his bottle of water and poured a little over Brian’s skinned hands and knees, trying to wash out his wounds.
Brian’s eyes fluttered as he came to, blinking up at Nick’s face in confusion. “Nick?” he said hoarsely.
“Hey, bro.” Nick smiled down at him in relief. “You blacked out for a second there. Are you okay?”
Brian shook his head. “AJ…”
“I know,” said Nick, his smile fading. “I found him in the car, maybe fifteen minutes ago. He’s not good. We need to get him some help.”
Brian nodded tiredly. “That’s what I was trying to do. But I busted my ankle in the accident... I can’t put weight on it.”
For the first time, Nick noticed his right foot wrapped in red fabric. “So you crawled this whole way?” he asked, raising his eyebrows. By his estimation, the Range Rover must have wrecked almost two miles up the road. It was quite an impressive feat for Brian to have dragged himself this far down the mountain.
Brian nodded again. Nick helped him sit up and handed him the bottle of water, watching him gulp down the last of it like he was dying of thirst. “Sorry,” said Brian breathlessly as he gave him back the empty bottle. “I hope you have more.”
Nick shook his head, wishing he had brought an extra one. “No… but we’ve gotta be getting close to the next cabin by now, don’t you think? Hopefully we can get a drink there.”
“I don’t know if I can make it,” said Brian, staring down the dark, winding road. “You go on and get help. I’ll wait here.”
“Yeah right, like I’d leave you lying on the side of a road in the middle of nowhere,” Nick replied, remembering the bear. “You’re coming with me. I’ll carry you if I have to.”
“Don’t be stupid. I’ll just slow you down.”
“Dude, I’m not leaving you here.” Nick was adamant. He had already been forced to leave both Kevin and AJ behind; he wasn’t about to leave Brian, too. “Come on, get up.” He grabbed Brian under the arms and helped him stand on his good foot. “Put your arm over my shoulders,” he said, as he positioned himself on Brian’s right side. He wrapped his own arm around Brian’s back, supporting some of his weight as he hopped along on his left leg. “There you go. I’ve got you.”
But Brian was too weak to make it more than a few feet this way. “I can’t,” he whispered, clinging to Nick as he wobbled on one leg. Nick could feel his whole body trembling and worried he was on the verge of collapsing again.
“Then I’ll carry you.” Nick sank into a squat. “Come on. Climb on my back.”
The faintest of smiles twitched at the corners of Brian’s cracked lips as he looked down at Nick in disbelief. “You gonna give me a piggyback ride, bro?”
“You bet,” said Nick, smiling back. “Saddle up, partner.”
“I’m gonna break your back,” Brian warned.
“No you won’t. You barely weigh more than my four-year-old.”
Brian snorted. “Whatever you say. I just hope you’ve got a good chiropractor, ‘cause you’re gonna need it after this.” Reluctantly, he hooked his right leg over Nick’s hip, wrapped his arms around Nick’s neck, and climbed up onto his back. He was heavier than Nick remembered, especially compared to Odin, but Nick tried not to show any signs of strain as he struggled to stand up. He rose slowly to his full height, holding onto Brian’s legs. “You okay?” Brian asked him.
“Yeah,” Nick grunted. “I’m good. Here… you hold the flashlight.” He handed it back, and Brian aimed it at road ahead as they continued along it, hoping to see the lights of another cabin around the next curve.
Carrying Brian on his back, Nick couldn’t keep running like he had before, but he was grateful for the company. “Where are the other guys?” Brian wanted to know, so Nick filled him in on everything that had happened since he’d gotten up that morning. Brian was horrified to hear of his cousin’s accident, but Nick found that talking about Kevin took his mind off his own fatigue and motivated him to move faster.
“So what happened to you and AJ?” he asked as he walked onward. “How’d you end up in the ditch?”
“We almost hit a moose!” Brian exclaimed. “That girl at the tree farm was right - it just wandered out into the middle of the road.”
Nick felt his eyes widen. “Damn, for real?”
“Yeah, it was huge! I slammed on the brakes and tried to swerve around it at the same time, but the road was wet, and I lost control.”
“Wow… you’re lucky you guys weren’t hurt worse,” said Nick, hitching Brian higher over his hips.
“That’s what we said. I just hope AJ’ll be okay…”
“He will be, once we get him to the hospital. He’ll have surgery, take some antibiotics, and be fine in a few days.” He had been trying to reassure Brian, but hearing himself say the words out loud made Nick feel a little better, too. He knew Brian put his faith in the hands of God, but Nick believed in the power of modern medicine to heal almost any affliction. “We just have to find a way to call an ambulance.”
He reached around Brian to retrieve his phone from his back pocket, hoping he had gotten them within range of a cell tower, but there were still no bars on its screen. He tried dialing 911 anyway, to no avail. “Still out of service,” he said with a sigh, stuffing the phone back in his pocket.
He felt Brian rooting around behind him, the flashlight bobbing up and down as he fished out his own phone. “My battery’s about dead,” Brian said after a few seconds, “and I don’t have a signal either.”
“We’ve gotta be getting close,” Nick said again. His back ached, his legs felt like two lead weights, and his feet were killing him, but the hope of seeing a house up ahead kept him plodding forward.
Silence fell between them as the fatigue set in again, both of them focused only on finding help for their friends. It was Brian who broke it by saying, “Y’know, it sounds weird to say, but this feels a little like the Christmas story.”
Nick frowned in confusion, wondering what part he was talking about. No one had shot their eye out with a Red Ryder BB gun or stuck their tongue to a flag pole. Maybe he was thinking of the kids running frantically to school and back, trying to avoid the bullies, just as Nick had been running up and down this road, trying to avoid the bear.
Thankfully, before he could respond, Brian continued, “I mean, here we are, traveling on foot, trying to get to Bethlehem…”
That was when Nick realized he was talking about the Christmas story in the Bible, not the movie called A Christmas Story. “Oh… right! So that would make you Mary, in your delicate condition.” He snickered as he boosted Brian higher on his back. “And I’d be Joseph.”
“Technically, I think you’d be the donkey,” joked Brian.
“Heeeeee-haw!” Nick brayed, throwing back his head. It felt good to laugh - and to forget, for just a moment, what they were doing there. But the moment didn’t last long, as he was quickly reminded of Kevin and AJ. He lowered his head and hurried onward.
He had only walked a few more paces when he heard a high-pitched howl. It sent shivers down his spine. He froze, his heart skipping a beat. “What the hell was that?”
“Coyote,” Brian said quietly. “AJ and I heard them last night, too.”
Of course it was a coyote. Nick should have known that; coyotes were native to the desert where he lived. On a quiet night, he could occasionally hear them howling outside the walls of his gated community. He had never felt frightened of them until now. But there were no walls to hide behind in these woods, no fences to protect him from the predatory wild animals that lurked among the trees.
“I shouldn’t have made that noise,” he said, looking around nervously. “Do coyotes eat donkeys?”
Brian chuckled. “I doubt it. Donkeys are bigger; I bet they could kick a coyote’s ass. Besides, you didn’t sound that much like an actual donkey, dude. Don’t worry about it.”
Still haunted by his encounter with the bear, Nick couldn’t help but worry. “I got a bottle of bear repellant in my backpack. Think it’ll work on coyotes, too?”
“No clue,” replied Brian. “Relax, Nick - I bet it’s not even close. Sound carries in the mountains. It could be miles away from us.”
Nick hoped Brian was right, but he remained on high alert as they continued on down the road.
Finally, by the faint glow of the flashlight, his eyes picked out the dark silhouette of a small dwelling tucked into the trees on the right side of the road. As he approached it, Nick saw the Trump sign in the front yard and realized it was the same hovel Kevin had teased Brian about on the drive up to the cabin. That seemed like a lifetime ago, though it had only been a few days.
“Thank God,” Brian breathed in his ear, and Nick agreed. He had never felt so happy to see the phrase “Make America Great Again!” For the first time, it represented hope and humanity, rather than hatred and horror. He hurried toward it.
The house itself was dark and quiet. “Doesn’t look like anyone’s home,” said Brian uncertainly, as Nick cut across the sloping lawn. He could feel dew soaking into the sides of his sneakers as they flattened the overgrown grass, wearing down a footpath.
“The power’s probably out, like it is back at our cabin,” he replied, picking his way through a thick patch of weeds. “Or maybe they went to bed. Let’s knock and pray someone answers.”
Brian aimed the flashlight at the sagging front porch, but a few feet from it, Nick tripped over something hidden in the tall grass. He heard a loud clatter as it caught him across both shins, causing him to stumble. The flashlight flew out of Brian’s hand as he was thrust forward; it hit the ground with a thump and immediately went out.
“Damn,” Nick swore, but managed to regain his balance.
“You okay?” Brian asked shakily.
“Yeah…” Nick bent down, rubbing his shins, and realized he had nearly fallen over some sort of fence made of empty beer cans hanging from a length of clothesline rope that had been staked into the ground. “What the hell?” he muttered, squinting at it in the dark.
Before he could find the flashlight to get a better look, the front door of the house burst open. “You best get the hell outta here if you know what’s good for you!” he heard a deep, angry voice shout. “Go on! Shoo!”
Straightening up, Nick opened his mouth to respond, but his words were drowned out by a loud blast. He saw a brief flash of light, felt a burning pain in his chest, and heard a hoarse scream come from Brian, as he fell backwards without knowing what had hit him.