Earth, cold and rocky, pressing against my cheek. Tree roots digging into my body like hardened veins. I open my eyes to an assault of sunlight, wincing at the pain it sends radiating through my skull.
In my ear, panting, presumably what pulled me out of whatever state I was in. Unconsciousness? I don’t want to think about that word or what it means because I don’t know where I am or whose tongue is an inch from my ear—
I turn my head in the direction of shouting. A woman’s voice, annoyed: “Tucker! Get over here!”
I blink until the face of an enormous black Lab, inches from mine, comes into focus. When I prop myself up on my elbows, the dog takes off, barking, running small semicircles in the area around me.
The woman shouts again. “Damn it, Tucker!”
“Help.” My voice scrapes my throat, like I haven’t used it in some time. I lick my lips, find they’re cold as stones.
Footsteps, grinding twigs into the ground. The owner of the voice emerges from a cluster of trees to my right.
“Good Lord.” The woman’s silver hair falls in curls down past her shoulders. Tucker gallops over to her and sits at her feet as she sets aside her hiking poles and digs a Poland Spring from her pack.
She uncaps the bottle of water and hands it to me. “What’s your name?”
“Claire,” I say.
“My name is Sunshine,” the woman says. “Are you alone out here?”
“I don’t know.” I swallow down a knot of dread as my brain orients itself. It’s prom weekend. I don’t know why this is the detail I latch on to, but it’s the one thing I know for sure. “Where are we?”
“Bobcat Mountain,” Sunshine says. I hold the water bottle to my lips, watching Sunshine’s face cloud with concern. Tucker trots over to me, his nose bumping the back of my hand and leaving a trail of doggy nose drool. I lean on my free hand, pushing myself up to get away from him. Pain shoots from my neck to my eyes.
I roll onto my side and gag up the sip of water. Sunshine’s voice cuts through the ringing in my ears. “What hurts?”
“My head.” Hurts is an understatement. My skull is being cleaved in two. I blink away the spots of light clouding my vision to see Sunshine standing up. She brushes some dirt from the knees of her pants. “You could have a serious injury. I’m going to hike to the ranger station to call an ambulance.”
A tsunami of panic rises in me. I don’t know where the ranger station is or how long it will take Sunshine to get there and back. “Please don’t leave me.”
“I promise I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
She’s gone, the crunch of her feet on the trail fading with each passing moment. Tucker nudges my ear with his nose before taking off after Sunshine, and I’m alone again.
I squeeze my eyelids shut until they oscillate with the threat of tears. I don’t know where I am or why I’m alone. I know nothing except for the fact it’s prom weekend.
It’s prom weekend. My nails are scarlet to match my dress, a boat neck with a high-low skirt.
I am not on Fire Island, where I told my parents I was going after prom, and I’m hurt. My parents are going to know both of these things very soon.
I will the last few days into focus in my brain. I see my scarlet dress, which cost an entire paycheck. I was honestly relieved when I returned it to Macy’s Friday morning and thought of the money going back into my checking account.
I turn a trembling hand over; the past forty-eight hours coming back in a steady drip-drip.
It’s prom weekend, but I didn’t go. I never got my nails done; they shouldn’t match the dress I never got to wear.
The cut bisects my right palm, an angry fish gill crusted with blood. It doesn’t hurt, except when I flex my hand.
How did it happen? A pulse of pain radiates from my brain. Too much. Give us a simpler question.
How did I get here?
I’m in knit shorts, a ribbed tank. My go-to gym-class outfit. I don’t remember putting it on, lacing up the sneakers squeezing my throbbing toes. Blisters, probably.
How long have I been here?
I don’t know how much time has passed when Sunshine returns with two men. One is old and in a green uniform, the other young and wearing a blue shirt that says ems. They circle me, murmuring assurances that make my eyes cloud up.
“Can you show us where you’re hurt?”
I raise my bloodied left hand and the EMT produces a first-aid kit from a small duffel bag. While he tears open an alcohol wipe to clean my cut, the ranger says into a walkie-talkie, “Young female, possible head injury. Need to evacuate her.”
“What does that mean?” I sit up, ignoring the sting of the alcohol on my cut.
Sunshine’s hand is on my shoulder. “Claire, it’s okay. You can’t hike back down in your condition.”
The men are gone, out of my line of vision. Tears pool hot in the corners of my eyes. “What are they going to do with me?”
“They’re going to have to carry you down on a stretcher.”
I’m trembling by the time the men are back with the stretcher. While one straps me in, the other lays a foil blanket over me. My stomach dips as I’m lifted from the ground. I close my eyes, the rocking motion pulling me toward sleep.
“Claire,” one of the men says. “We need you to stay awake and answer some questions.”
The missive my parents had me memorize every time we went somewhere we could get separated runs through my head.
When they ask my address and I tell them it’s 32 Carmen Road, Brookport, the ranger asks, “Where is that?”
“Long Island, right?” the EMT says.
“Yeah.” I swallow against the nausea swirling in me.
“You’re a long way from home,” the older guy says, and for some reason this is the thing that finally makes me cry.
We are at the bottom of the mountain, at the parking lot, which I only know because the ranger announces we’re at the bottom of the mountain.
I’m loaded into the back of an ambulance, and the last thing I see before the doors shut in my face is Sunshine, frowning.
When the doors open again, I ask why we’ve stopped.
“We’re at Sunfish Creek Hospital,” the EMT says, pulling out the ramp and guiding my stretcher down it.
“Did someone call my parents?” I murmur.
The EMT frowns, pushing my stretcher toward the hospital entrance. “You gave us their number on the ride over. You don’t remember me telling you they’re on their way?”
I had an entire conversation I can’t remember. It’s unsettling, but not as much as the fact my parents are coming here. I said we were going to Fire Island, which is a short ferry ride from home, and not to my best friend Kat’s grandmother’s lake house in Sunfish Creek, three hours away, in the Catskill Mountains. I didn’t lie because they would have said no; I lied because Kat’s parents definitely would have said no.
Kat. I would not have gone hiking on that mountain without Kat—
“Where are they?” I’m shivering, despite the blanket.
“Where are who, Claire?”
“My friends. Kat and Jesse.” The EMTs roll me through the hospital entrance; I’m not sure they’ve even heard me over the sounds of radios blipping, a siren behind us at the curb.
We stop in a white hallway, beneath a sign reading triage area. The older EMT grips my wrists with two fingers, counts my pulse. “You were hiking with friends?”
I close my eyes, reach back in my memory. There is nothing but Sunshine’s face in mine, knitted up with concern. Kat, at the lake house last night, stowing hot dogs in the fridge. For tomorrow.
“We were supposed to go camping,” I say as the EMT clips some sort of meter over my finger. “But I don’t remember how we got to the mountain.”
“Try to breathe,” the EMT says, frowning as the contraption on my finger beeps. “Your heart rate is high.”
I close my eyes. It’s startling, how long it’s been since I’ve felt pure, undiluted fear like this. I feel like I’m five years old again, wading through the crowd at the county fair, and I’ve lost my grip on my mother’s hand.
“Will someone find them?” I ask.
“I’m going to call the ranger station right now and have them send someone up to the campsite.” The EMT pats my shoulder. “It’ll be okay. You’re gonna be okay.”
It’s not until he disappears behind the sliding doors that I realize he’s not coming back. His job here is done; he’s off to rescue the next moron who got lost in the woods.
My stretcher begins to roll again. An orderly wheels me through the emergency room doors, past stretchers docked in every corner and along the walls, occupied by moaning bodies. A spindly woman is handcuffed to the railing of hers, despite her being unconscious. Somewhere in the distance, a man yells that he’s shit himself.
As the orderly guides my stretcher behind a curtain, a woman in scrubs trots over to me and plops a plastic-wrapped gown at my feet. “You’ll need to change into this.”
The orderly disappears; the nurse draws the curtain and turns her attention to the cart she dragged over behind her. “Name and date of birth?”
I rattle off the information she needs and she types it into the machine on the cart; she prints a plastic ID bracelet and fastens it around my wrist, her eyes never meeting mine. My bladder is going to burst any second.
“Where’s the bathroom?” I ask.
“Paramedics said you may have a head injury,” she says. “You can’t be going to the bathroom alone. I’ll get an aide to bring you a bedpan.”
Horror washes through me. “I have to pee right here?”
“Sure do. We need a urine sample anyway. The gown ties in the back.” The nurse whisks away.
I peek around the curtain. A man in a hospital gown plods past me, toting an IV drip behind him, a cup of pee in his other hand.
I glance in the opposite direction, where my nurse is now bent over a computer.
The ache in my abdomen is so bad I’m sweating. Another five minutes and I’ll probably piss myself.
Screw it. I get out of bed and make a right—the direction the man with the pee-cup came from. There’s a bathroom at the end of the row of curtains. I duck in, wriggle my shorts down, and plop on the toilet. The relief is so great I could cry.
I hobble over to the sink, plunge my hands below the tap. The water that swirls the drain is reddish pink. Trembling, I turn my palms up, but all that’s left is a streak of dried blood extending from my thumb all the way up my forearm on my left hand.
The sight in the mirror over the sink startles me. I don’t recognize that girl, her sunburned cheeks, the scrape on her forehead.
Who are you? I think. What happened to you?