She was sure this was where he had disappeared.
The leaves were all pressed into the ground in that little four-foot radius, and there were some hand prints in the dirt. She picked her head up from examining these pieces of evidence and looked around her, searching for any sign of him. There was nothing – no upturned dirt mounds, no broken twigs, no plants pushed to the side. Nothing.
She panicked. This was where the trail went cold. She couldn’t believe he was gone. There were no more clues to help her find him – this had been her last hope.
She grabbed the lantern off the cold forest floor and stared down at those hand prints and crushed leaves. That was when she saw it – the drop of crimson on the ground. And there was one more right past that one, and another one, and another one. She listened to the sound of the blood rushing to her head, her heart pounding, as she followed the trail. The wind whistled from behind her, as if it was trying to push her in the direction of the spots on the ground. It was so cold, but the bumps on her arm weren’t from the weather.
After what seemed like an hour, the blood trail stopped. She looked up from the last drop to see a truck stopped on a road at the edge of the forest. It’s tailgate was down, and the headlights were on. A man walked in front of one of the lights, and she ducked behind the closest tree, careful not to let him see her. She had no idea whether he was friend or foe.
The man opened up the passenger-side door, and she saw the missing boy get out of the truck. He was alive! He was…smiling? He hugged the older man – whom she assumed was the owner of the truck – and slapped both of his hands on his knees, as if calling to something that was inside the cab. She saw a dog leap down onto the road. It stumbled and whimpered when its paw hit the blacktop, and at that moment, she realized where the blood in the forest had come from. She heaved a sigh of relief and instantly regretted it.
The dog whipped its head around towards the sound coming from the trees and brush of the forest’s edge. “What is it?” the man asked in the first words she had heard him speak the entire time she had been spying. The dog slowly turned its body, nursing a hurt paw. It didn’t walk towards her – it probably would have if it had been in any better shape. “What is it girl?” the man asked the dog again, and the dog barked, signaling with her head towards the forest. “Stay here,” the man said toward the boy.
He grabbed a shotgun from inside the truck’s cab and started walking towards the forest – towards the girl cowering behind a tree. She held her breath, wondering what would happen if he found her.
Was he a friend of the boy’s? That hug she saw had certainly seemed friendly. Why was the boy missing if he had been with one of his friends though? The whole town thought the boy had run away or something – he’d been missing for a week and a half now. But why stay so close to town if you were running away? And why was the dog hurt? Who’s dog was it anyway?
She didn’t have time to answer any of these questions. The man had reached the forest’s edge. In about another two feet, he would be standing right next to her. “I know you’re here,” he whispered. “Right there.” He pointed the gun at the tree she was hiding behind. There was nowhere to run. So she stepped out from the shadows.