My sneakers crunched against dead leaves, smashing twigs and gravel into the moist soil. Rain pelted these hills earlier today and whiffs of moss, decaying trees, and other earthly aromas latched onto the small hair follicles in my nose.
Kaitlynn, my best friend, would be meeting me here soon for a hike through one of the Blue Ridge Parkway's vibrant trails. The beginnings of fall had started appearing around Buena Vista, Virginia, and my favorite feature about this little settlement lay in the transformation of its trees. The colors splashed the canvas of this town with more brilliance than I had ever witnessed anywhere else. And I'd witnessed many places.
I’d lived in seven different states since the first grade. My mom always thought a better job was around the corner—"I promise this place will be better, Brooke, trust me"—but I often felt she was just restless. For some reason, though, she had been able to stay here, in tiny Buena Vista, for two years, earning me the luxury of beholding another one of Mother Nature's plant-life slaughters.
My Mazda chirped, signaling the lock and arming of my car alarm from a press of the small button on my key chain. I pulled my hair up into a tight ponytail, and heard the grind and chomping of tires against the rocks leading up to the trail. Kaitlynn swung her yellow Jeep into the parking spot right next to mine.
"Ready to get our Steve Irwin on?" Kaitlynn asked, bouncing over to me.
I laughed. "We're not wrestling any crocodiles. We're only strolling through the forest to look at the pretty leaves."
"Let's call it the jungle. It sounds cooler if we act like we're about to do something incredibly dangerous. Crikey!" she yelled in a bad Australian accent.
Every Sunday, we attempted to get in a hike before the chilled air became too biting. Buena Vista had just started to get bitter in the mornings and evenings, and the fog had started arriving in the early mornings, as well. Even the rainstorms had been materializing more frequently, hence the remaining precipitation on the foliage today.
I steered Kaitlynn onto my favorite trailhead. I enjoyed this trail more than the others because there were fewer hikers than on those closer to town. Plants weren't trampled, and you could still spot squirrels and the occasional deer close by.
"So, guess what?" I asked Kaitlynn, holding in my excitement. It tingled along my arms, and I thought it would seep out through my pores. "We're going out."
"Oh my gosh! No way? You finally asked him?" Kaitlynn stared at me in surprise.
"Well, not exactly. Jaren IM'ed me on Facebook last night and asked me. But the point is, we're going out on Tuesday!"
We squeed and giggled right there on the trail. I'd crushed on Jaren since we'd moved here, when I started my freshman year at the same high school he attended. Even after two years, my breath still catches in my throat whenever our eyes meet.
Jaren and his ex had broken up over the summer, and Kaitlynn kept prodding me to finally ask him out before someone else took him off the market again. I tended to be shy, and that seemed like such a huge step beyond my occasional flirting with him.
"So, you have to tell me how he asked you out." Kaitlynn relished the details.
"Well, he just started chatting with me, and I told him how I was excited to see the meteor shower on Tuesday. He asked me about it, and then hinted at which lucky guy was taking me up to watch it."
"Nuh-uh?" Kaitlynn giggled. "He's such a brown-noser. But it's cute because he said it to you. Continue," she said, waving her hand as though she couldn't believe she'd interrupted.
We rounded a hill following the trail through a field of trees. "I know! I laughed, too, when he said that. But when I told him I didn't have anyone that I was going with," I gave her a pointed look. She'd gone with me on the past two, so I gave her a pass on this one, and I knew she appreciated the reprieve from sitting out in the cold watching rocks fly however far away at however speeds across the sky. "He asked me if he could take me."
"See! I told you he wanted you."
My cheeks flushed. "I wouldn't go that far. Maybe he just wants to see how big of a fool I can make of myself."
I heard a twig snap and jerked my head to the right. My eyes caught the glint from the eyes of a mountain lion creeping toward us; his ears pulled back, teeth bared. He rose from his crouch and started charging down the mountain straight for us.
Kaitlynn must have spotted it a second after I did because she shrieked. She grabbed my arm and tried pulling me as she ran back to the cars. There was no way we would both make it out of here alive. We had been hiking up the trail for the last ten minutes, and this lion looked fast. It even sped up at the site of Kaitlynn running away.
I planted my feet, and looked the mountain lion square into his charging eyes. Something clicked inside of me, and heat coursed through my veins. My vision intensified, and I could distinguish the areas of down between the lion's coarse fur as his muscles flexed and stretched.
The lion and I connected on an intellectual level: predator versus predator. Only I knew, and I deemed the lion knew as well, that I outranked him as the more fearsome predator. How I recognized this, or how I discerned the lion realized this, I couldn't fathom. I had never been hunting before, so this instinct didn't come from a belief that man ruled supreme on the food chain. And this moment felt different somehow. It wasn't man versus beast; it was beast versus beast.
"Stop!" I commanded.
The lion skid to a halt five feet in front of me. He stared into my eyes, his ears perked back, fangs exposed in a snarl and hackles raised, but he didn't move a centimeter closer.
I towered over him, my pulse pounding at the sides of my neck, my shoulders rising and falling with my deep breathes. My gaze pierced him, welding his toes and the pads of his feet into the ground. Somehow, I had been able to force my command over him, and when I told him to stop, I never considered that he would deny my order.
The nerves along my scalp tingled with the sensation that the lion yearned to attack me, but he couldn't. The only thing holding him back was my decree that he shouldn't. My beast had prevailed as the most dominant among us.
As soon as fear clawed up my spine at the realization of looking at myself as a beast, I yelled, "Leave!" before he could translate my hesitance and continue his attack.
He hissed, spun around, and ran up the side of the hill, tail flogging behind him. I studied him, ensuring that he wouldn't change his mind and come back.
Kaitlynn rushed up behind me. "Brooke, let's go!" she pleaded, voice shaking. I stood there, just to make absolutely sure. We had some distance to run before we'd get back to our vehicles, and I wasn't going to take any chances on being stuck in that lion's jaws.
The creature was almost out of the small clearing and about to enter into the thick forest when a man stepped out from between two spruce trees. The lion rubbed his fawn pelt against the man's leg like a house cat and purred. My hypersensitive hearing digested the happy rumble cascading down the hill.
The man loomed, just outside the shadows, in a dark trench coat, smiling. His malignant stare reached my eyes, and his smirk grew by spades.
Kaitlynn yanked on my sleeve. "Brooke, please," she begged, "can we just get out of here now?"
I loitered, eyes locked on this man who I was sure had just sicced that mountain lion on us. The way he pulled the corner of his lip up in a sneer suggested that he found pleasure in the way things ended with the lion. And it wasn't because we were safe, either; it had to do with something else about the situation.
"Brooke! Now. It's gone. I'm leaving." Kaitlynn released me. Her sneakers thumped along the trail away from me—indicating she really had left—and I jerked out of my trance. The man and the lion turned; his long jacket snapped with his movement, and they fell away into the shadows.
I trembled as I recalled the leer on his face. My blood began to cool, and I spun around to follow after Kaitlynn.
"Kaitlynn! Wait." I reached her quickly, considering she left before me.
"Let's just get out of here," she said, refusing to slow down.
"That guy sent that mountain lion after us."
"What guy?" Kaitlynn's eyebrows furrowed in confusion.
"You didn't see that guy standing by the tree line at the top of the hill? The lion stroked up against his leg like a house cat."
"I didn't see any guy. As soon as that mountain lion was gone, I was ready to get out of there," Kaitlynn said without slowing down. "It could explain why there was a mountain lion in Virginia, though."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"We don't have mountain lions in Virginia. It must have been his pet or something. Maybe he called it back, and that's why it ran off."
"No," I said, puzzled. "It was a wild mountain lion. It was definitely feral, and he sent it after us. But why?"
Kaitlynn released a nervous laugh. "Yeah, that sure explains why a wild cat stopped mid-attack. My explanation makes more sense."
We neared the trailhead, and Kaitlynn pulled her keys out of her pocket and hit the disarm button, causing her Jeep to chirp up ahead.
When the cars were in sight, Kaitlynn slowed and came toward me with her arms out for a hug. "I'm so glad you're okay. I'll call you later tonight." She turned toward her Jeep.
"Me too. Talk to you later."
Kaitlynn threw the Jeep in reverse. When she put it in drive and hit the gas, rocks and debris flew up from the tires.
I sat down in the driver's seat of my car, but before I closed the door, I heard a guttural growl from the distance. It sounded similar to the mountain lion.
A shiver ran up my spine, causing my shoulders to spasm and my head to jerk. I escaped as fast as my old Mazda's four-cylinder engine could carry me.
Copyright © 2011 Angeline Kace