Scott did as Wendy instructed and was pleased that they were not seen or heard. The hill and its thick stand of trees were an effective barrier to his concerns and almost as good as a wall from his position. They still closed the doors of the tan vehicle quietly after getting out of it, and the eeriness of the place became most apparent to them then. There was no wind, and he looked up into the sky, largely obscured by competing branches, and saw a low dismal overcast. A dense fog had lifted from the surrounding countryside earlier in the day, and it seemed to linger in the darkest parts of the forest, as if trying with limited ability to hide.
Wendy whispered loudly and signaled him to follow her, and he eagerly did up the adjacent steep incline. She slipped to her knees near the top of it in front of other trees and remarked, "Be careful. This stuff is still wet enough to fool a mountain goat."
"Sure," he said, "only these aren't mountains. They're drumlins mostly."
He helped her up and to the narrow top of the crest. "I said drumlins. They are hills that formed when the glacier slid southward over this region about twenty-five thousand years ago. They're all over the area actually. You see how this one we're on trails off gradually ahead and is steep here?"
"Yeah, and we went up and down a lot to get here too: up a hundred feet, down a hundred feet or abouts, and so on. It gets boring after awhile."
Now, you know what the bottom of the ice sheet looked like on a large scale. Incredible, isn't it?"
"Guess I learn something new every day after all, but how do you explain that long rounded hill that snakes its way across the county south of here?"
"That's an esker, of course."
She made a funny face, smiled, and replied, "Ha! I thought you'd say a giant earthworm path. Parts of it are in other places around here, you know?"
"I know, sweetness. It marks exact locations where the glacier paused during its advance or retreat to leave a deposit of sorts."
"That seems convincing enough. Let's go in this direction for a few minutes," she said, pointing away from the two vacated vehicles in the distance. "Then, we'll take a breather if we don't find that path I mentioned last night. It shouldn't be too much further on though."
"Are you still sure you know where it is?"
"Quite. We'll be coming along its opposite way from our location now. Can you accept that?"
He held an arm out and allowed her to pass by him, to take the lead. Their trek soon turned out to be longer than they thought but not any more difficult over the more wrinkled landscape. Much broken rocks and fallen debris was slowly crossed at the bottom of each V-shaped ravine, and large granite boulders frequently were seen and passed on higher slopes. Each small dell was different, but all were beautiful and serene, like the final remnants of the original forest habitat around them.
Both generally tended to avoid the occasional patches of "tree-trapped" fog, but when one was encountered, it felt surprisingly warm, like a leftover exhalation of some large sylvan beast. At many other times, the mist was seen clinging to the wider trunks of trees, which made them seem as if they were slowly breathing. In fact, the tall pines were wet and colder; it intrigued them more and more nevertheless, until a sudden rustling sound very close-by caused alarm.
Wendy inhaled loud and stopped fast upon seeing a few fern fronds move near her feet, and Scott slid on the spongy loose incline to inevitably bump into her. To catch his balance and assure hers, he wrapped his arms tight around her torso from behind and said, "Sorry about this, dear. Now, you really are born to be hugged . . . according to your T-shirt logo anyway."
"C'mon, Scott," she whined. "This . . . could be serious."
"I know that. I'm watching. So, stay still. Okay?"
It was not serious. A squirrel darted across their path, and both of them breathed a collective sigh of relief. He released her, and they proceeded on to eventually cross a gurgling brook as wide as a sidewalk. Even that meager task did not go as perfectly as intended, and he showed visible disgust on his face and clenched his fists after one of his feet slipped off and algae-coated rock to get wet -- totally. She helped him along shortly thenafter -- up the next steep slope in zigzag fashion to attest to her better physical condition, but her grew more stubborn to confirm a decline of patience.
When they reached the top of the next ridge, he stopped to scan the area with her, regained his breath fully, and said, "You're going to get us lost. Your few minutes of time that you said were needed at most to reach the spot have turned out to be almost an hour now."
"What a shame, but don't worry, Cuddles. That terrible example of a road we were on breaks off in three directions just beyond the place where your uninvited friends were parked. One of the branches curves below us further on some and joins to an unpaved county road in better condition. That's where Celeste was lying," she explained.
"But that junction is still a number of miles off. You'll have to carry me."
Wendy shook her head while smiling and replied, "Don't be silly. The next slope downward is much less steep, and there's a clearing ahead just on the other side of these trees. Think you can make it?"
"I reckon I have to now. I just didn't think the hike would take this long. That's all."
"My job was pretty boring earlier today. I guess that's why I'm pretty spiffed up now," she said. "What were you doing throughout the morning?"
"Putting in time at the public library mostly. Last night, my Dad showed me an old newspaper about a rash of murders that took place in the area over twenty years ago and told me they tend to occur in cycles of about twenty-two years. So, I did some research."
"So, what did you find?" she said and adjusted some of her dark hair.
"Just pretty much what he said to me. All of the victims were discovered in the same hideous condition, except Celeste, and many were never found at all for some reason. The records there went back into 1892 on this, and he seemed quite uneasy about our coming out here. He said it's about due to happen again."
"That's real nice to know, but we're not the only ones out here either. Isn't there supposed to be safety in numbers?"
"Usually, but not always."
"Well, let's go then, Cuddles. What are you waiting there for, something special?" she replied and promptly turned around.
Scott saw a hint of mischief on her face, and she giggled and began running when he started after her. "Cuddles, huh? I'll show you what kind of guy I really am, honey."
Continued to Pt. 3.