Though not my first, the decision to work as a lookout at Lognhal Forest for the summer was quite the mistake. I knew this the moment Beth, my oh so lovely wife, shoved me against a tree on our hike up to our assigned station. It shouldn't have surprised me how she would react. Along with our long vacation from society, it would take a three day hike from the closest parking lot to our destination. I purposely kept that tidbit to myself until it was too late to turn back. Silly me. Beth could be reasonable in the worse of situations, but she could only be pushed so far.
"This is it? This is our home for the next three months?" she grumbled behind me. I guessed she was referring to the old fire tower I was leading us to. It stood tall in a small clearing, a wooden structure that consisted of a box held up by thin, long pillars, secured by more wood that crossed up the sides to add support. A set of narrow stairs curled around the tower that led up to a small wraparound porch. Though this whole trip was my own idea, the site of the rickety tower made me doubt its stability and our future safety. Ignoring my trivial fears, I pushed on, glancing back to make sure Beth was following me. Her disappointment in the look of the tower was cause enough for an argument. No point in unknowingly leaving her behind and giving us a reason to fight.
"Many volunteers have come and gone, safe and sound. We'll be fine," I reassured her, holding out a hand to help her over a fallen tree trunk. Looking forward, I kept my voice low as I thought aloud, "They say the tower is the least of our worries…."
Coming to the foot of the stairs, I could almost collapse in relief, the hike up exhausting me of my energy. I could only guess how drained she was. We made our way up the stairs and into the tower, turning on the power. The tower had one square room, no more than 225 square feet with a small stove and some counter space along one wall, a sink with the necessities located in plain sight around it. A desk stood against the wall to the left of the stove and counter, a college-sized twin bed and shelf space on the right wall. An odd round map embedded in a waist tall stool-like table stood in the center of the room. Aside from the furniture, the room lay bare. The sheets sat folded neatly on the bed, not a personal item in sight.
"Is that another tower?"
I turned to Beth in question, wondering what she meant. I looked around the tower, but all the windows were covered. I'll have to uncover those.
"What tower? Ours should be the only one in the immediate area." I noticed she was standing just outside the door, looking off in the distance. Once standing beside her, I studied the forest we had just hiked up and would soon be responsible for. Trees as tall as our tower lined the edges of the small clearing the tower was settled in, giving us the barest slip of the rest of the land. A break in the trees to the west gave way to the view of a moonlit lake. To the south, I could see the tower, high in the mountains, lights on, possibly the perfect vantage point to see most of the forest. I quickly dismissed it, seeing as it was far enough away to count as the lookout for another section of forest, separate from our own. "It's probably the lookout tower for the next stretch of land. We're not in charge of looking over the whole forest, you know. Let's get some sleep. You can take the bed, I'll sleep in the sleeping bag and see about getting another bed tomorrow."
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her unpacking some things and settling down for the night as I pulled out the sleeping bag. It wasn't until we were under our respective sheets, the lights now off, that she finally spoke up again.
"Wyatt? Wake up, Wyatt? Someone radioed in. We've been given our first task of the day."
I kept my breathing steady and my head ducked under the folds of my sleeping bag. I felt like I'd slept for hours, and yet I couldn't bring myself to open my eyes. That hike really took it out of me.
"I know you're awake, idiot. C'mon. This lookout job was your idea. Get that ass into some tight ranger pants so we can get moving."
I felt a harsh kick to my ribs and relented without hesitation. I'm already sore in places I never knew existed. I couldn't take another kick like that, playful or not.
"I'm up, I'm up!" I was dressed within minutes, ready for the day's adventures. "So what's the day's schedule, Lady Beth?"
"Column of smoke east of the tower. The senior lookout says we need to find the source, put it out if possible, and scare away the perpetrators." She went around picking things up and packing them for the hike. Her motions were exasperated, her mouth stuck in a frown, eyebrows furrowed, throwing everything into the pack with unnecessary force. "I was really hoping we could arrest them, kick 'em out, or beat 'em up at the very least. I could use the release. But no, apparently only rangers and police officers can do that, we can only confiscate their shit and tell them off." She turned to me, a smirk on her lips, eyes narrowed with a mischievous arch to her brows. "But we can scare the living crap of them! All in a day's work, of course."
"So Wyatt…" Beth kicked a stone as she strolled along ahead of me. I watched as her long chestnut hair swayed in the wind that blew through the trees, waiting for her to continue. "Remember that story you were writing back home? The one about some kind of fantasy underworld or something?"
"Yeah," I answered, whacking a tree branch out of the way before I could hit it, "Didn't you read some of it to your class on their last day?" A mistake on both our parts, her in reading it to impatient tweens and me in letting her.
"When are ya gonna finish it? One of my students actually liked it." She looked over her shoulder, a grin full of mischief gracing her face. I narrowed my eyes at the tone she used.
"You say that as if you're surprised. I put a lot of work into that piece!" I said, pointing my index finger in her direction. She laughed as she turned back around, continuing on.
"Keep telling yourself that, champ. Maybe one day it'll even get publis—Holy hell, it's a cave!" She ran forward, ducking under more branches as she veered even further away from the dirt path we were supposed to be following. Taken off guard, it took a few seconds for me to react and follow her, though I dodged the trees with less grace.
As we came to the so-called cave, I was left a little disappointed. It was a tiny thing, the entrance narrow and closed off with a gate and chains. The amount of trees that surrounded the thing made me question how Beth had even gotten a glimpse of it. It was so far from the designated trails, and yet so close to our tower, it was both a wonder we had even found it and a wonder why it had never been discovered early enough to be marked on any maps. Though the gate had to have come from somewhere.
"That's your cave? That pathetic excuse for a hole?" I said, gesturing to the "cave" she stared into with childish wonder.
"I see something in there. What if it's a bat? Can we keep the little nugget if I catch it?" She looked at me with an expression that was far too innocent. She knew I hate bats.
"Would you forget about the cave? There's a lone bag of chips back at the tower calling my name." I stepped away to show that I wanted to go. She sighed.
Our first new drop-off of supplies arrived today, something I never thought I'd look forward to so much. Who would have thought a few days out in the wilderness was all one needed to desperately miss take-out? The jerky and cans of beans stocked up in the tower were getting old quick. My only complaint had to be the trek up to the supply box. Our tower seemed to be in the dead center of our section of Lognhal Forest, surrounded by trees. The supply box just had to be located up in the mountains, near our superior's tower. Being new to hiking and the like, the path through trees, and the climb up to the supply drop-off were both more than an annoyance. Thankfully the view was worth it.
"It should be just down this drop. Here…tie the rope on this conveniently placed anchor." Beth interrupted my thoughts as we were just coming up to a long drop off to the side of the trek.
The look of exasperation I sent Beth's way couldn't have been more exaggerated. Shrugging her shoulders, she tried to explain herself. "What? The path to the box is long as shit, and this jump is the perfect shortcut. I can completely understand why someone would put an anchor here. Now tie, grip and climb down."
"Fine. But if I die, just know you're not in my will," I said as I tied the rope as securely as possible and started rappelling down. I grinned in triumph at the sound of a huff.
"That's low, babe! If you survive, I'm kicking your ass." I chuckled as I made it past the halfway point, looking up the steep slide to see her flipping me off, an amused smirk gracing her sunset lit face.
When the rope snapped and I found myself falling rapidly down the rest of the steep cliff, the expression wiped off her face in less than a second, her eyes widening in horror and mouth opening in a gasp. I couldn't tell if I screamed, yelled, or just stared up in shock as I watched the distance between us grow and the rope flapped down along with me.
When I stopped moving there was only pain. Intense pain concentrated in my lower back. It creeped its way up to my shoulders just as the breath was forced out of my lungs. I couldn't tell if something was broken or if anything had gotten crushed. The fierce pain left as quick as it came, leaving behind a horrible ache.
"Wyatt! Oh my god, Wyatt!"
"Ugh…okay…I'm okay." I pulled myself up from the ground, hunched over as I surveyed my things. My backpack's straps had torn and all my supplies scattered along the dirt and rocks. My water bottle had rolled off under a boulder, my map and forest guide documents had floated off into the trees, some stuck as high up as about ten feet in the branches. The compass left for us in the tower was cracked and going haywire just inches from my foot. I picked it up just as I heard rustling in the thick bushes weaving between the trees.
"Maybe rock climbing was not the best idea."
A dark shape darted deeper into the forest just as I looked back up the steep rock wall, distracted by my wife's sheepish tone.
"Ya think?" I called back up. Seeing as that was the only rope available, I wasn't about to suggest she use more of it to follow me down. "How about I go get the supplies and you go check out that cache off to the west, near Vale Lake? We can meet back up at the tower later."
"Good idea, you go do that."
"Found another campsite. Morons left beer cans all over the place." The tinny voice sounded from the walkie in my hand. It took some getting used to, but hiking around was actually becoming quite the hobby for me. You wouldn't think so, looking at the maps for this section of Lognhal Forest, but our "territory" wasn't very big. Or maybe it only felt that way after three weeks on the job. And yet, this was the first time I'd found this place. A simple plot of land just on the edges of our section's southern border.
"It's pretty shitty beer, too. Maybe five cases of it."
A classic creek, Chester Creek, curved around the most picturesque leafless tree I ever saw, surrounded by a dry grass meadow. Daffodils and dandelions dotted the grounds, adding color to the dead greenery. The glow from the setting sun warmed the scene in a way that brought me a sense of clichéd peace. Maybe those tree-huggers were on to something.
"They're gone. I've cleaned up their mess. Stomped out the fire…I'm heading back, going through the canyon."
Beth's voice was a soft background noise as I pulled out a cheap camera and took a few quick shots of the meadow and creek combo, trying different angles as I walked around the tree. With each new shot, the scene seemed to become more beautiful, the tree making more and more of an impression on me. I almost wanted to sit down at the base of the tree and contemplate life.
"I found a cave, might be a shortcut back…...I'm also having an affair with Bradley Cooper and we're gonna run away to Sweden together."
"And he's alive! Spacing out there, buddy?"
I raised the radio up to properly respond.
"Sorry. Found a great picnic site. Or campsite should be more appropriate." Picking up my things, I made my way back home for the night, seeing as Beth took care of today's "issue", "Maybe we could spend an afternoon down here sometime. It's nice."
"Maybe…it would be nice to actually enjoy nature for once, you know? We're always either kicking out wannabe arsonists, mapping out the area, or locking ourselves inside the to—"
The pregnant pause made me halt. If she had only fallen, it would make sense that she'd interrupt her own rambling. It definitely didn't sound like she'd fallen.
"Beth? You okay? Jennabeth?"
"Um…where are you, exactly?"
"Just tell me where you are, Wyatt!" Her tone strained with a hint of fear. It spurred me on to get back home as soon as possible.
"About a mile south of the tower, making my way back up the trail. What's wrong, Jennabeth?"
"There's, um…holy mother-frick, Wyatt! There's someone in our tower!" I couldn't have run faster if I tried.
It felt like time dragged on as I pushed past low-hanging branches. Any and all of the natural obstacles around me seemed to clutter together on the path to the tower, the trip back longer and rougher than the hike to that damned tree.
As I came up to the clearing of our tower, I saw a figure moving back and forth in the singular room that was like a home to my wife and me. A deep rage burned into existence within me and all I could imagine was someone taking my wife by surprise. Touching her. Hurting her.
I charged up the steps, taking two at a time. Three at a time. Why were there so many steps?
The door burst open with the force of my momentum. A yelp sounded in the dark room, the sun barely a slip of light in the distance. Something like instinct had me lunging at a slightly outlined form in the blackness. The both of us fell to the floor with a resounding thud, a gust of air blew in my face. Did I knock the air out of them?
"Fuck! Ugh, my shoulder!" a breathless voice groaned near my ear. With effort I rolled off the body beneath me as I realized the identity of my victim. I tried to help her up.
"Shit, Beth, I'm sorry. Are you okay? Your shoulder?" My questions were ignored as she shoved me aside, turned away to the light switch, and flipped it.
My wife stood there, left arm held close to her chest. Our things scattered around her in a chaotic mess similar to the aftermath of a hurricane.
"I'm calling this in." Beth wouldn't meet my eyes as she took out her radio, sitting down on the overturned air mattress the local rangers lent us. "Someone raided our tower, Wyatt. Someone knew when we'd be gone and that we'd be coming back."
"Or maybe they saw it empty and just happened to leave before we—"
"Don't try to calm me down, Wyatt," Beth said, grip deadly on her radio. "I'm calling it in, and if this happens again, we're out. I didn't want to come out here in the first place, anyway."
I walked up to her, sat down and took her into my arms.
"We're gonna be fine, Beth. It's just more teenage idiots fucking around because they think they're invincible."
She huffed into the crook of my neck. "You better be right."
It's been four days.
Though nothing's happened, nothing was being done.
Our superior had the same things to say as I did. Somehow that wasn't comforting. Something about the situation had become unsettling. I couldn't explain it, to Beth or myself, but it made me want to follow Beth and request to be relieved and allowed to return home.
"I found something today," her voice called out from behind me.
I turned away from the sink and our dirty dishes to see Beth curled up on the tower's original bed, the air mattress on the floor beside it. Her eyes were unfocused and arms wrapped around her legs. She wore her night clothes despite it being early afternoon, a blanket over her shoulders, and hair limp over her back. If anything, her dulled appearance was enough to make me want to go back home.
"Beth? What did you find?"
"A campsite…it was hard to find, completely out of the way." She pulled at the hem of her pajama pant leg, mind elsewhere. "I had to climb, boy did I have to climb. But I found it. A little nook high enough in the mountain to be hidden in heavy foliage. I'm pretty sure I found it because I've been paranoid and looking for shit like that…not that I knew I'd find anything." She looked up at me with fear in her eyes. "There were documents with notes on our conversations, something about us finding what we shouldn't have. It just rambled on and on, like someone was freaked…I wanna go home, Wyatt."
I was at a loss for words. Someone was listening in on us, suspecting us. Probably the same person who raided our tower.
No. No, no, no. I was not going to put Beth through any more of this. We were going home if it had to be by helicopter.
"We're gonna go home, Jennabeth. You hear me?" I strode across the room to our packs, threw in what wouldn't be needed in the next twenty-four hours. "I'm gonna radio in that we're going home. Whether they like it or not, we're leaving tomorrow."
Hearing nothing of protest or agreement, I turned towards the bed. She sat there, eyes wide. I cleared my throat.
"Is that okay, Beth?"
With eyes shining and a slow nod, she gave me a small smile.
"Can you believe it? They asked that we check out a fire before we leave. Fuckers. All of them," Beth declared as she threw her arms in the air. Though not completely back to her old self, her cursing was a sign that she would be okay. I chuckled as I went around packing what we missed last night.
"I'll do it, Beth. We are running out on them. Might as well do them this last favor." I picked up my travel pack, throwing it on as I ambled towards the door. "Finish up here. I should be back soon."
"Don't get side-tracked, loser. I want to leave beforeI die of old age," she joked as she pushed me out the door. I swatted at her hands and bounced down the steps, a stark contrast to several days ago.
It didn't take long to make it to the abandoned campfire. This one was near Vale Lake, trash scattered along the edge of the water and fire, both a hazard to the wildlife and a fire risk. I took in the clear surface of the lake, the sun high in the sky, and the trees that lined the body of water. As I gathered the clutter and stomped out the fire, I found myself wishfully thinking of what this trip would have been like if none of this had happened. If everything worked out as they did back in the first few weeks here.
I jumped at the sound of my wife's voice coming through the radio. I stared at the radio before I pressed the button to answer.
"Beth? What's wrong?"
The line was quiet. No one answered, not even the sound of someone breathing.
"Beth? Are you there?"
The silence was deafening. The sound of birds singing and leaves rustling died down. I pressed the button again and let go.
Nothing. Not even static.
Something….something happened. And then.
The sound of distress had me running. Fuck the campfire. Fuck the trash.
"Beth! What's happening? Beth!" I shouted into the radio. As I ran, the sound of static burst through the speaker of my walkie. A sharp and head-spinning pitch that had me shaking my head, trying to clear the ringing of bells.
"In cave…I saw him….he's coming…" a soft voice came through the static, my ears strained to hear yet whined with pain. My legs burned with every step, the wind whipped at my face and arms in my sprint to the canyon.
I came to the cave. It had been closed off, but now the gate was open, the lock thrown off to the side. The narrow entrance had left me unimpressed back then, had given me no sense of dread as its stark darkness did now. My wife was in there. And that asshole was there with her.
I rushed in, squeezed through the entrance and stumbled. I pulled out a flashlight from my pack and lit up the cave.
"Beth?" I called out. My voice echoed back to me, the tight walls of the entrance opening up to a large space that broke off into multiple pathways. I heard rocks falling and someone moan down a pathway to my right. My only lead, I followed it.
I traveled deep into the cave, leaned away from sharp edges in the stone walls, felt a wet substance drip down onto me. I planned on turning back when the light of my flashlight caught a glimpse of something in the distance. A shirt?
I came upon a figure sitting on the edge of what looked like a drop. The figure had its back to me, long chestnut hair flowed down over a deep maroon flannel. A very familiar flannel.
She didn't move or even react to my voice in any way. A chill fell over me.
Was she…was she dead?
I plodded forward, reaching out for her shoulder.
"Jennabeth?" I pulled at her shoulder, the one I had almost dislocated what felt like years ago, and tried to turn her around.
The body fell over, slightly turned over just enough so I could see her face. A rush of relief was followed by a sense of dread.
It wasn't…it wasn't….
My hand reached out for my camera, in hopes of taking a shot of her body, evidence of her passing and her location. I could bring it in to the police, start an investigation into this poor soul's identity and cause of death.
I felt short of breath, having been scared out of my wits, horrified, but so happy this wasn't my Beth.
As my finger pressed down on the shutter release, a force was applied to my back and sent me forward just as a flash lit the dark cavern. For a second time, I fell, time slowed. In a second of clarity, I twisted in midair the best I could.
It hurts! Pain. So much….
I gasped, only to want to scream.
The distance sound of my wife's voice made me open my eyes, eyes I'd closed in pain. I looked up and saw a dark figure standing near the body I'd found. My flashlight, left behind on the ledge when I'd fallen, shined off to the side, the light glinted off something in his hand.
I tried to get up, tried to yell, kick, scream.
Beth, please no.
I pushed off my arms, only to fall. My arm. My fucking arm.
My voice was weak, but a whimper when I needed to roar.
My lung. I think my rib. My rib.
"Where are yo—" The object in his hand sliced through the air. It happened so fast, yet seemed to go in slow motion.
My scream came out almost strangled, a sound filled with despair and wrenching pain. A red so dark and thick splattered over the dark figure. The object, a classic axe, stuck out of the abdomen of my wife. My Beth.
She was frozen, mouth open, leaned over from the force of the blow.
She fell over.
Tears spilled over my cheeks as I pushed up on my good arm. I cried out as I pulled myself up against the cliff wall, my chest a flooding of pain. Despite the pain, I pulled myself up with my one good arm, putting my legs to work.
I needed to see. She had to be okay. Beth had to be okay.
I don't know how, I don't care how, but I made it. I was inches away. Inches from the very ledge I had been shoved off. I looked up, only to see my worst nightmare.
Beth's head hung over the edge, her face turned right towards me. Her eyes, barely open, already looked dead. Drops of her blood slipped down her slack open mouth, dripped right on my forehead. My I choked on my cries as I tried to look away. I gripped onto the ledge and turned away.
Right into the barrel of a gun.
My eyes followed the hand and arm that held it. A man kneeled over the ledge. He was dressed in rags, rips in the fabric and dirt practically rubbed in. His hair a bird's nest to match the crazed gleam in his eyes that shouted that he was beyond help.
"You couldn't….found it. You couldn't just leave. I didn't…I'm sorry."
Hearing him, the incoherent nature to his words. I felt the blood drip down the side of my face. My wife's blood. In that moment, I realized there was no going back. I made one mistake too many.
I'm sorry, Beth.
And I watched him pull the trigger.
"Mr. Miller? Would you like a minute? If you can't answer now, I can always—"
"No," I said, the sheets of my hospital bed gripped tight in my hand. "I need. I need to say this." I looked away from the detective that sat beside me, the senior lookout of Lognhal Forest stood behind him near the door.
"Take your time, Mr. Miller." He reclined in his sit, a notepad innocently rested on the knee of his crossed over leg. I stared at his hands as he gently tapped on the notepad, calm and casual, comfortable and relaxed. Everything I wasn't.
As I thought about what I had to say, what I needed to say, my mind would flash through those last few moments. The blank stare of my wife's eyes haunted me, seemed to mock me as I recovered. There was no gleam of mischief, no twinkle of excitement, or softening of eyes. Just blood and nothingness. She…she's—
"She's dead because of me." I took in a deep breath. "I never should have taken this job. She didn't even want to come," I said, my voice growing heavy with grief. "In our last days there, we had suspicions. Someone raided out tower, ransacked the place…I convinced her to stay longer, that it could just be troublemakers. But after she found a campsite, one that had—she said she found documents. That someone had written down our conversations, was following us. We wanted out."
"Someone was recording your conversations?" the detective asked, an eyebrow raised in disbelief. I could see he wasn't going to take my words to heart, not now. But he needed to know.
"Yes. I called out that we were going to leave. That we couldn't stay. But on the last day, the next day, we were asked to do one final job." My head dropped into my hands before I wiped at my face, trying to catch my breath and hold back the hysteria I felt building up. "I agreed. Left Beth to finish packing—"
"And Beth is…" the detective trailed off, picking up his notepad, finally.
"My wife. Beth is my wife. I left her, at the tower. I—I was finishing up. The fire was stomped and I picked everything up. And then she called in. On the radio. She just called my name, didn't respond to me. Then she finally just said something about seeing him, in the cave." I held up a hand as I saw the detective about to interrupt. I could only hold myself together for so long, I needed to get this out. "She said he was coming. I thought—I thought she meant she was in the cave and that he was coming. It didn't even cross my mind that there had been a gate. That she couldn't be in there." I pressed the heel of the hand of my good arm into my eyes, taking shallow breaths as I continued, "She must of saw me from the tower. Like she saw him. I had gone in, trying to fine her. I didn't. I found a dead body. Before I could turn back, he pushed me. He pushed me over a ledge in the cave. That's how I broke my arm, my ribs. She had run in after me and he was there waiting. At the top. He swung an axe at her, and she was down. She was down." I shuddered, feeling the tears flow down my cheeks.
"Then where is her body, Mr. Miller? Her body wasn't with you when we found you." The detective asked, narrowing his eyes at me.
I could feel my head tilt in confusion. "She should be in the cave. I said she was still in the cave when I got in touch with authorities. They said they would take care of it."
"There was no body, Mr. Miller. Not your wife's, or this mysterious other dead body. In fact, there was no sign of another person until the next lookout tower, aside from you. Where's the man you said attacked you, Mr. Miller?"
I froze. What? No, what?
"He ran. He tried to shot me! Psycho didn't even have the gun loaded!" I felt my heart pounding away, my lungs expanding with each breath that ripped out of me. "He just ran and I wanted to get help! My arm was broken, my ribs hurt like a fucker! I couldn't even drag her out! I thought they'd find her if I told the police. They should have found her!" I had no control over myself as I felt my face grow warm and screamed. Guards were making their way in as the heart monitor went haywire.
"Mr. Miller! Calm down, Mr. Miller." The detective's voice was a whisper compared to the pounding of my heart in my own ears.
"They should have found her! They should have found her!" I shoved at the hands that reached for me, ignoring the pain in my broken arm. A nurse squeezed through the heavy set men, a syringe in hand. I thrashed, knowing what would come. What had been coming since I had first woken up in this god-forsaken place.
"No! No! Beth! Help me, Beth!" Two pairs of hands held me down as the syringe came closer.
She pressed it into my arm.
Tears burned as they fell down my face.
My head grew heavy.
The glare I threw the detective's way couldn't have been half as intimidating as I had been hoping for.
"Beth…I'm sorry Beth…"
Originally Posted: April 11, 2016
Recently Revised: June 18, 2016
Inspired by the game "Firewatch"