It was Jess Walton’s twenty-sixth hour of being stranded in the woods. What she’d hoped would be a relaxing, solitary hike filled with reflection and contemplation had turned into a nightmare when she rolled her ankle at the top of a steep ravine, sending her plummeting over the edge to the banks of the river down below. Emergencies like this were always a possibility when going into the woods alone, but Jess had grown up exploring this very forest (the one behind her grandparents’ house) and she had stopped being careful about where she was going long ago. She’d spent more time here than she’d spent anywhere else.
At least she wasn’t lost; she knew exactly where she was. The banks of this river had provided hours of entertainment for her over the years. From picking fiddleheads in the spring, to fishing for minnows in the summer, to turning over stones looking for snails in the fall, Jess had combed over every inch of this ravine; it kept no secrets from her. It’s just that, she usually took the trail down to the river instead of pitching herself over the edge.
Jess checked her watch. 4:11pm. She remembered checking her watch the day before at 2:02pm, and she was sure that that’d been just minutes before she went down. She didn’t remember much about the fall and she certainly didn’t remember the impact, which was probably for the best. She’d been knocked unconscious as soon as she hit the ground, only coming to again the next morning. Her body ached from her head down to her definitely broken ankle. Thankfully, she’d packed water and extra snacks in her backpack, so at least her pain wasn’t also accompanied by dehydration or the pangs of hunger. She was cursing herself for not having brought her phone, though. In that respect, she had never felt stupider.
There was a time when Jess wouldn’t have been alone in these woods, wouldn’t have found herself stranded at the bottom of a ravine without knowing if anyone was coming to find her. Her twin sister Zoe used to come, too. They’d pick the fiddleheads together, catch the minnows together, count the snails together. Help each other up when they tripped. If Zoe had been there to see Jess fall into the ravine, she would have, with no hesitation, run back to their grandparents’ house to call 911. In that world, Jess would have already been to the hospital, had her broken bones set in casts, and returned home.
But Zoe wasn’t there.
“How could you do this, Zoe! How you could leave me like this!” Jess yelled suddenly, tipping her head back. She directed her anger upward toward a spindly evergreen that was sticking out from the steep ravine wall at a seemingly impossible angle. Jess stared at the tree, wondering how it was holding on and lamenting the fact that it was, at that moment, the only thing watching over her. Alas, the hanging fir had no response. Jess whimpered.
Zoe had died by suicide the year before. Life had always been harder for Zoe than it was for Jess, and Jess knew that it was because Zoe’s brain was just made that way. Some people have a zest for life. Others don’t. Zoe didn’t. Even their trips into the woods together when they were young were always instigated by Jess; Zoe would have been happy to stay inside their grandparents' house all day from the time she woke up until the time she was ready to fall asleep again.
Jess had ventured into the forest the day before to think about Zoe. The woods were where she felt closest to her. That was actually why Jess didn’t have her phone with her; she wanted to keep distractions to an absolute minimum so that she could focus. In the year since Zoe’s death, certain details had already started to escape Jess’ memory: the cadence of her voice, the kind of toothpaste she used, even which hand she wrote with. Was it the left?
One thing that Jess would never forget was the way that Zoe had looked at her when something was going wrong. When Jess would go through breakups, or get poor grades, or when their childhood cat died, Zoe would comfort Jess with everything she had. She would get this look on her face that said I feel all of your pain inside me, too, but I will gladly trade your pain for any happiness that I can muster. Jess could never remember giving that look back to Zoe, and it made her feel incredibly guilty. She also felt guilty because she knew that Zoe would want her to have her phone with her if she went into the woods alone.
“Have you checked down there?” a distant voice asked. Jess detected the faint sound of a dog barking.
“That’s the ravine, yeah?” a second distant voice shot back.
“Yeah,” replied the first.
“Help!” Jess screamed, her voice hoarse from having screamed all morning. “Help! I’m here! Help!”
She kept screaming, laying on her back and hoping that her weak voice was projecting upward, up past the fir tree that that had morphed from being comforting to looking to Jess as if it was going to fall and crush her at any moment. Seriously, how was that thing holding on? Up above, a dog’s snout peeked over the edge of the ravine, and the dog began barking.
“Good boy!” someone yelled. A human’s face poked over beside the dog’s.
“Jess Walton?” they asked.
“Yup,” she yelled back.
“Stay right there!” they said, pulling back out of sight.
Fifteen minutes later, the search and rescue personnel were strapping Jess into a stiff gurney to begin the slow ascent from the bottom of the ravine. From the early assessment by the EMTs, Jess had broken both of the bones in her lower right leg. The EMTs had been able to brace the leg and give her some painkillers to make the move more comfortable. The tree cover was too thick to get in there with a helicopter, so they would just have to carry her out of the woods and back to the ambulance waiting at her grandparents’ house. As they slowly transported her up the steep ravine, Jess looked once again to the dangling fir.
Keep holding on, friend, she thought. I didn’t give up when Zoe left, so neither can you.