Mountain Refuge

By: Sarah Varland

ONE

Summer Dawson was alone on a mountain when she heard the first out-of-place sound, felt the first inklings that something might be wrong, that danger might be close.

She’d been running uphill, relishing the burning in her legs and lungs that reminded her that she was alive, when something rustling in the bushes made her pause and listen.

Summer had stilled immediately and stood now, listening to the sounds she’d grown up with. The Alaskan mountain was full of life, even at ten o’clock at night as daylight was starting to fade. She should have started this run hours earlier, and usually did. Her busy schedule working at the lodge didn’t leave a lot of time for training, but mountain running was important to her, her outlet, her dream she didn’t like to talk about.

A dream she’d mostly given up on.

But still, she ran the mountains because it was what she’d always done.

Today’s run, like every Tuesday, was supposed to be up Hope Mountain, across Lupine Pass, then down Cook Mountain, where her sister, Kate, would be waiting for her. From there, they’d drive back to Summer’s car at the Hope Mountain Trailhead. Neither would talk about why Summer trained so hard when she didn’t compete anymore, not even at nearby Mount Marathon, but they did the same routine every week. Like clockwork.

Until now. A shiver ran through her, followed by goose bumps down her bare arms. She untied the jacket she always wore around her waist, put it on and hoped it was just the cold and the later-than-usual night that had her spooked. Much as she tried though, Summer couldn’t deny that something about the rustle in the bushes had her on edge. Her hand went to the bear spray attached to the belt she always wore when she ran. The Kenai Peninsula was known for its large brown bears. Summer had seen more than one in her time in the woods but never too close. So far she’d escaped any encounters like that.

Hesitantly she moved forward again slowly, not wanting to run lest she awaken a bear’s predatory instinct if one did have her in its line of vision.

Then she heard nothing. Just the normal sounds. She exhaled, picked up her pace slightly and removed her hand from the bear spray.

And then something had her, from behind, hands on her arms, rough, pulling, jerking her off the trail. She heard a faint jingle, like car keys on a key chain maybe. That was the sound she’d heard earlier—that’s why she’d been spooked. She opened her mouth and screamed, but the deep humorless laughter behind her reminded her how futile it was. This wasn’t a well-used trail except on weekends. No one would hear her screams.

“There’s no use fighting. You’re going to die today.”

Summer tensed her arms, tried to wrestle out of his grip, but he was too strong, even as he released her with one arm and then threw the other one all the way across her to pull her up against him, his hand heavy, her heart thudding in her chest.

Dying wasn’t an option. Not for Summer. Not when for the last three years she felt like she’d barely lived. She’d gone through the motions, fulfilled obligations, even climbed mountains…

But she hadn’t really lived. She wasn’t ready yet, wasn’t done.

No. Dying was not an option. She stilled slightly, hoping she could lull him into complacency, somehow trick him into loosening his grip so she could escape. Instead he held her against him even tighter, drew a knife with the other hand—he was left-handed, she should remember that—and ran it slowly up her arm. There was nothing remarkable about the knife except that it was large, four or five inches. Shiny. Sharp against her skin as he pressed just hard enough to leave the smallest of scratches.

“This is how it begins.”

Something in the words sickened her, terrified her. Please, God. She didn’t remember the last time she’d prayed. For now that was all she could muster.

Noise in the bushes startled them both. She felt her captor shift and assumed he was looking at the noise. She moved her head like she was too, but lowered her chin in the process. Took a breath and slammed her head back as hard as she could.

He yelled in pain, and when he loosened his grip slightly, she rammed an elbow into his ribs.

And then she was free.

Summer didn’t stop to look back to see if he was pursuing—she just started running. She was free, she was alive and she had another chance to live like it.

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