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The Ground Beneath Her Feet

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“Chloe!” Max screamed through the shadows. “Chloe, where are you?!”

Her voice lost itself amidst the vastness of the pine forest. As Max pressed on, the trees surrounded her like soldiers, penning her in and hiding the way out. Max forced herself to keep walking even as panic knocked at her heart. She had to find her best friend. She had to get back to camp before the afternoon light filtering through the trees dissolved into night.

They had come with their fathers for a weekend camping trip in the wilds just north of Arcadia Bay. They assigned her and Chloe to firewood collection duty, with the explicit warning not to stray too far. But Max, enamored by the autumn trees, had followed a butterfly in hopes of snapping a picture. And like a will-o-wisp, it had led her deep into the belly of the woods.

How long had she been lost in here? Thirty minutes? More? It was hard to tell in this dense forest. She couldn’t believe how this once tranquil landscape could turn so sinister, into a place that could swallow a 10-year-old kid whole and leave no trace. The thick canopy above turned everything around her into dark lines and black pools. Her sneakers crunched too loudly on the yellow-brown duff, each twig snapping like old dry bones. In the dwindling light, every rock and tree and bush looked like it might be concealing something.

She was afraid to stay silent and afraid to make noise—her voice might draw something out the blackness between the trees. A starving grizzly, or maybe something worse. Like that lurking cyclops from her nightmares, the one with the pale glowing eye.

“Chloe! Dad! Anybody! Help!”

Somewhere overhead, a bird cawed in protest. There was no controlling the panic now. Her camera bag beat a harsh rhythm against her leg as she broke into a run. There—hadn’t she passed through that break in the trees earlier? Max pelted towards it. But that sense of familiarity evaporated as the ground sloped sharply upwards.

She tried to catch a glimpse of the sun to figure out which way was north, so her foot missed the sudden drop, hitting the ground at an odd angle. She heard the subtle crack of her ankle an instant before the agony began, and she tumbled down the little hill and straight into a bush. She shrieked as twigs scratched long red lines at her arms and legs; a sharp branch tore the side of her blue shirt.  

“Chloe!” she cried. “Help, please! I’m scared!”

At last, she just lay there, shivering and weeping as she cradled her burning ankle, her face smudged with dirt, her upper half sticking out of the shrub. She imagined herself lost for days in this forest, with nothing for company but the gnawing hunger in her stomach and miles of endless darkness. They would never find her. She would die here, alone and afraid.

Something nudged at her hair. She cried out in alarm, covering her head.

Whatever it was, it wasn’t shy. It bumped gently against her hands and a soft, wet tongue flicked at her scalp. She tilted her head up and peered through her fingers.

The doe stood no more than a foot away, its graceful curving neck bending low towards her, a pair of liquid coal eyes regarding her with frank curiosity. The fading sunlight turned its auburn coat into gold.

Something about its fearlessness dispelled Max’s own terror and awoke wonder in its place. She had never seen such a beautiful animal, never even got the nerve to get this close to one in the wild. But something told her that its presence here meant she had nothing to be afraid of, that she was safe.

The doe inched forward to where Max clutched at her leg, then ran its tongue over her ankle. To her surprise, she felt her muscles loosening, the burning sensation receding into a dull throb. She released her leg as the doe moved back, gazing at her without blinking.

“Did you just…did you do that?”

Max wiped her eyes to get a better look at the animal. She wanted to make sure it wasn’t just some figment of her imagination. Part of her wanted to reach out to touch its face. Another wanted to reach for her camera to take its picture.

Even as her tiny hand inched down to her bag, the doe lifted its head, cocking its ears to something behind it. Leaves crunching, rustling…

“Wait,” said Max. “Don’t go!”

But the doe had spotted something. Favoring Max one more glance, it bounded silently over the shrub and onto the path behind Max. Its hooves left no prints, made no noise on the ground. It had come and gone like smoke in the breeze.

Now Max could hear footsteps. “Hello?” she cried.

More rustling, then a blond, gangly girl erupted from the bushes just ahead of her. “Max!”

“Chloe!”

The girl quickly rushed to where Max lay, kneeling beside her. “Max, thank God—where have you been? I’ve been looking for you for the last twenty minutes. What happened?”

“I’m sorry…I wandered too far, I had no idea. Before I knew it—“

“You got lost,” Chloe sighed. “Maxaroni, sometimes I wonder how you can find your way through your own pajamas.”

“Funny.” Max grimaced. “I hurt my ankle. Could you stop with the jokes and help?”

It took a few minutes work and quite a few more scratches to pluck Max from the shrub. But once they were sitting down, cleaning off the last of the dead leaves from their clothes, Max threw her arms around the taller girl. “Thanks, Chloe. You really saved my ass this time.”

“No biggie. Just subtract it from the number of times you pulled my fat from the fire.” Her hand smoothed Max’s hair. “You must’ve been so scared.”

“I was--at first. But then this doe came, and...oh Chloe, it was the most amazing thing!”

Chloe pulled back to give her a quizzical look.

“It came right up to me and licked my head. It wasn’t scared of me at all! Then it licked my ankle and…it was like magic, Chloe! The pain was almost totally gone! Then it must’ve heard you, ‘cause it bolted straight away. Didn’t you see it?”

“Didn’t see nor hear no magic deer.” Chloe said, canting her head to glance behind Max. “Just you, amigo, sticking out of the bush like a trapped rabbit.”

“You suck!” Max stuck her tongue out at her.

Chloe giggled, then gave her a once-over. “How’s the ankle now?”

Max stared down at her leg, where her ankle was starting to swell. “Hurts a little, but I think it’ll be okay. Oh fudge, Dad’s so not going to be happy about this.”

Chloe was already slinging Max’s arm over her shoulder. “Yep, I’d say you’re in for some painkillers and antiseptic. LOTS of antiseptic. Plus a lecture for going off on your own. Can you walk?”

“With your help. You know the way back?”

Chloe grinned and pulled a sharpened rock from her pocket. “Unlike someone I know, I was smart enough to cut some arrows on the trees.”

Max rolled her eyes. “You’re a genius, Chlo.”

“I know.”

They were lurching forward, down a forest path Max hadn’t noticed before. The sun was starting to set behind the tree line, but Max no longer feared the growing shadows. Not with her best friend beside her, holding her up with strong, sure hands.

“Chloe?”

“Yup?”

“Thanks. Really. I thought I’d be lost in here forever.”

“I’d have found you again, Max. You’re my first mate. Us pirates have to stick together, right?”