Chapter 1

This week’s Flash Fiction Challenge1667

The ground seemed different when Jack woke up. He didn’t mind sleeping on the floor of the tent unlike his sister Maddy, and so this year, they had only brought one sleeping bag.  Jack was thankful for not having to haul two bulky down sleeping bags on their 13-mile trek the previous day, but having awoken on the rock-hard dirt, he was now having second thoughts, as he clutched his back. The culprit soon revealed itself – a huge rock under Jack’s side of the tent that he somehow failed to notice the night before..

Next to Jack, Maddy stirred in her sleeping bag.  Although they were born minutes apart, Jack was always the big brother to Maddy; lately though it was Maddy who seemed like the older child. During their second year in middle school, Maddy had grown out of her tomboy phase, and no longer had much interest playing sports with Jack and his friends, or reading comic books and playing video games with Jack until the wee hours of the morning. It had been a struggle to convince Maddy to come on the camping trip this year. Their grandmother would have none of Maddy’s excuses, and so here they were, deep in the middle of the woods.

Jack crawled over and unzipped the canvas door. He squinted as he stepped out of the tent, expecting to feel the soft underbrush of the forest floor; he was not prepared for what met him instead.

“Maddy, help!”

***

Madeline heard her brother yell something as she tossed in her sleeping bag. Was it morning already? She felt like she had just fallen asleep; the noise of the forest had been unbearably loud and she was used to the dull roar of the city at night. It was bad enough that she had to sleep out in the middle of the woods, but why did Jack have to wake her up at God-knows what hour. It wasn’t like they had anywhere to be that day and the longer she could put off the hike back to their grandmother’s house, the better. Madeline couldn’t remember when she had grown out of the camping trip. She supposed it was around the time she stopped calling herself Maddy. Maddy was cutesy and juvenile; Madeline was a young woman who wanted to be taken seriously.  It’s why she had stopped going to the comic book store every day after school with Jack. At first, she was happy to go with her brother and buy a few new books. She and Jack had built up a huge collection when they were younger and they often stayed up late into the night acting out their favorite scenes. Then one day a group of the popular girls walked by just as she and Jack were walking out of the store, and that was the end of that. Madeline would wait on a bench across the street for Jack, lest she be caught anywhere near the comic book store.

Madeline heard her brother yell again, as she slowly made her way to the front of the tent. She moved the flap and peered out, but Jack was nowhere in sight.

“Jack?”

“Down here Maddy!” Help!”

Madeline looked down and her eyes widened. What should have been the forest floor was a deep ravine. Jack was dangling at the edge of a cliff; his hands dug into the dirt.

“Jack, what’s going on? Why are we on top of a cliff?”

“I don’t know! You gotta help pull me up! I’m starting to lose my grip!”

Madeline crawled over to the edge. The wind was howling and Madeline saw that their tent was only a few feet from a 50-foot drop. It was a miracle they hadn’t rolled off the cliff during the night. Or whenever they had gotten there.

“Give me your hand!” Jack reached out his right hand, and Madeline grabbed it and pulled as hard as she could. Jack didn’t budge.

“I need your other hand! I can’t pull you up otherwise!”

“If I let go with my other hand, I’ll fall!”

“There’s no other way!”

“Throw me the rope! I saw you packing one yesterday.”

Madeline felt a pit in her stomach.

“I was about to pack it but then Cassie called, so…”

“So I’m about to fall to my death because your friend called? That’s just great!”

“Jack! There’s got to be something else that can help. Hold on!”

Madeline dove back into the tent and frantically deconstructed the large backpack they had brought with them. A toothbrush, some matches, several issues of People Magazine, a can of Spam (Jack’s favorite), nothing she could use. Her eyes turned to the sleeping bag. She wondered why she hadn’t thought of that first.

Madeline had her answer soon, as Jack’s hand slipped through the sleeping bag and he disappeared over the edge of the cliff. She lunged for him, but it was too late.

“Noooooooooo!”

Madeline collapsed in a heap, as tears soon littered the ground.

“Got any other bright ideas?” said a voice.

Madeline looked down. 15 feet below, Jack clung to the side of the cliff with one hand, struggling to grab hold to something with his other hand. She could see clumps of dirt falling away around her brother’s hand.

She was officially out of ideas. Their camping provisions were useless, and the sleeping bag was slowly making its way to what she assumed was the bottom of the ravine, as a fog hid everything below her brother.  She looked around desperately for anything else she could use. The top of the cliff was devoid of trees. She thought she saw some trees aways down, but knew she would never make it back in time.

A cold sweat washed over her as she continued to stare down at her brother. Madeline’s hands began to shake uncontrollably. She clenched them into fists, trying to calm herself, but it was no use. Her brother was going to die and it was all her fault.

Her shaking soon stopped, as she felt something in her right hand. Madeline looked down at her right hand to find it holding the end of a very long rope.

“Great,” she thought. “My brother’s about to die and now I’m hallucinating.”

She looked down again. The rope was still there.

“Here goes nothing.”

Madeline hurled the rope over the cliff. The rope tightened, but she could only celebrate for an instant, as her brother’s counterbalancing weight pulled her toward the edge of the cliff.

“Jack, let go! You’re going to drag me over!”

***

Jack complied and let go of the rope, his other hand still dug into the dirt. He didn’t know where his sister had found it, but at this particular moment, he found himself worrying less about the details and more about how all those years of piano lessons had finally paid off.

Jack saw the rope tighten again. He looked up, but couldn’t see Maddy. He thought he heard her shout something, but the wind was howling and he couldn’t be sure. His hand was starting to go numb. He knew he only had a few more seconds before his grip would give.  He counted down from three.

The rope didn’t fall when he reached one. He took that as a good sign. Jack took a breath and let go of the cliff. Once he was certain he could actually feel his fingers again, he grabbed the rope and began pulling himself up.

Jack was never more glad to see Maddy when he reached the top of the cliff. From the hug she gave him, he assumed the feeling was mutual.

“Jack, I ..”

“It’s ok, it’s ok. I guess you packed that rope after all?”

“That’s the thing, I didn’t! Grandma texted me during our hike yesterday that I had forgotten it!”

Jack gave his sister a puzzled look.

“Anyway, we’ve got bigger problems to deal with than where that rope came from. Where are we? I don’t remember pitching tent on top of a cliff.”

“Yeah, me neither. Do you think someone is playing a practical joke on us?”

“Even if they somehow managed to move our tent in the middle of the night without either of us waking up, there’s nothing but forests for miles and miles.”

“See if you can text Grandma. You had service last night before we went to sleep.”

“Oh yeah! Good idea!”

Maddy ran into the tent to grab her phone.

“What the heck! I know I charged it!”

Jack walked into the tent. Maddy was on the floor, the back of her phone open.

“I brought this spare battery just in case, but it’s not working! It won’t even turn on!”

“Well at least you’ll have to talk to me on the way back instead of texting your friends.”

Maddy punched her brother in the arm.

“Hey, I almost died!”

It took the better part of the morning to reach the bottom of the cliff. The path down offered no insight into where they were and they soon began wandering through the unfamiliar forest. After about an hour, Jack stopped and dropped his backpack.

“Of course! I’m such an idiot!” He reached into the front pocket and pulled out a small metal object.

“I almost didn’t bring it this year, but now I’m really glad I …”

Jack stared down at the compass, waiting for the needle to point north, but it did not stop spinning.

“Stupid thing, something must be loose.” After five more minutes of endless spinning, Jack put the compass away, dejected.

“Ok, we’re officially lost. We should just keep walking the way we were going, we’re bound to reach the edge of the forest sooner or later.” Jack could tell that his plan had not convinced Maddy.

Despite the quiet of the forest, they still didn’t hear the footsteps coming. Jack spotted them first, as a well-shined boot appeared from around the corner ahead. Without thinking, he pushed Maddy into the nearby bushes.

“Jack, what are you doi..”

“Shhh! Don’t say another word!”

Jack’s voice trembled. He looked back at the corner to see two lines of four men marching toward him. They were dressed in long coats, matching hats, and carried long bayonets.  Soldiers. But not any that Jack nor anyone else had seen in hundreds of years. Jack thought about jumping into the bushes, but they had already spotted him.

“I’m glad to see another person! I’ve been lost in the woods for hours!” Jack tried to play it cool, hoping these were friendly soldiers. As they got closer, the grim looks on their faces said otherwise. They stopped only a few feet from him.

“Listen, if you could point me to the nearest road, I’d really appreciate …”

Jack never saw the butt of the bayonet coming as he fell backwards and the world went black.

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