Katherine "Katie" Macfarlane knew she was lost when she happened upon the same pine tree that she’d walked past twice before. She knew it from the countless other pine trees in the area because she’d marked it in bright red lipstick her second go-around, drawing a clear line around the circumference of its trunk.
She’d gotten separated from her hiking group hours ago when she stopped to rest for a minute, and when she’d gotten back on the trail, it had seemed like the longer she walked in the hopes of catching up to them, the darker it had gotten and the less likely it had seemed that she would be reunited with the group.
Now, with the beam from her flashlight pointed at the mark she’d made on the tree, she had a sinking feeling that it was going to be a long, hard night, and not in a good way. She wondered if anyone from the group would notice she was gone. They were all mostly strangers who had met at the retreat and decided to band together to organize an outdoor activity, and although they'd taken count of themselves when they set off, a few of them hadn't been able to keep up with the group's pace. Every once in a while they'd had people turn around to head back to the resort. Unfortunately, they hadn't exactly kept count of how many stragglers had broken off from the group during the hike, and Katie's only hope was that the two men she'd been chatting with on and off during the trip might notice she was gone.
In the growing darkness of the dense forest, Katie tried to keep her mind clear and herself from devolving into a panic. She had with her in a sling bag; a flashlight, a half bottle of water, a phone with no connection, and a pen and branded notepad from the resort. All she wanted to do was scream, but all she could do was keep walking.
Under the cover of night, the wolf moved silently, observing its prey when it stopped to spontaneously consume leafy meal after leafy meal, and advancing stealthily with it when it resumed its journey across the moss-rich grounds. The mid-sized elk grew skittish as the predator neared. Sensing danger, it glanced sharply about, and seeing nothing of note, it continued on its slow rambling journey.
It was a kindness that the wolf struck quickly, the struggle between predator and prey lasting only a brief moment before the prey gave out and the battle for sustenance was won.
Kaite trudged onwards, unsure of what her next move should be, yet aware that a plan had to be made. She was no longer moving in circles, she knew that because she had made a conscious decision to keep walking a straight path, away from her marked pine tree which she had not come across in a while. At the time she’d made that decision, she’d been sure that it was a good idea, that a break in the trees had to be imminent if she stayed the course, but the further she walked, the denser the trees grew, until she was surrounded by nothing but thick forest. Having now spent close to four hours walking, she’d long since given up on calling out as the last traces of the sun had faded away and the night grew darker. As she stood looking about her and wondering whether to turn back around, she felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand as she got the distinct feeling that she was being watched. The flashlight she held touched on everything close to her as she waved it about, but beyond her immediate surroundings and the closest trees, everything else was a blur of shadows and night. The thought of her beloved pine tree in what she now realized were the sparser parts of the forest, felt like a distant comfort, one much closer to "home."
Shaking off the creeping fear, Katie decided that she would walk the straight path back to her pine and settle there for the night. By her time, it was just after 8pm, still early enough for her hiking buddies to discover her missing and come searching, and if that didn't happen then she would resume her search in the morning. Luckily in the few days she’d been at the resort, there had been daily hiking trips. She figured if she didn't find the resort first, surely the next day’s hiking group would find her.
Turning back around, she’d only taken a few steps when she heard the growling. It came from both sides of her, and as she froze in place the flashlight dropped from her hand, illuminating a part of the forest that revealed the large animal that advanced toward her. From beside her she was sure she felt the air shift as a second animal approached, both trapping her in.
With nothing else to do, and no way to defend herself, and as her life flashed before her eyes, Katie’s scream tore from her lips in a deafening shrill.