Dust swirled around the Jeep in a gray tornado as Tanner’s Cherokee bounded into the gravel parking lot at the end of the long, dirt track. He dropped it into park and waited for the clouds to settle before swinging open the door and stepping into the dry, mountain air. Finally, their vacation had started. He turned in a slow arc taking in the wonder of towering pines and cloudless blue sky. He breathed in deeply the earthy scents of evergreen and the rich forest floor and let the tension of the work week flow out in a slow, relaxing exhalation.

His daughter, Stacy, wriggled free of her safety belt and stared out of the window with a gappy toothed grin. Tanner clicked open the door and she sprang out in excitement. “Let’s go daddy! Let’s go daddy! Let’s goooo!” she shouted, jumping up and down.

Hands on hips, Tanner’s lips curled into a smile as he stared down at her in mock disapproval. Stacy was his and Mary’s only child, and at six years old she was the joy of Tanner’s life. Her thick, red hair bounced on her shoulders as she danced about, her delicate white complexion kissed by just the right number of freckles.

“Hold on kiddo,” Tanner scolded. “You and mom have to put on lotion so you don’t get burned. We’re going to be walking for a long time.”

His wife, Mary, rounded the rear of the Jeep and unzipped her pack. She foraged inside and withdrew an industrial-sized tube of sunscreen. They shared a smile when Stacy spotted the tube and assumed the standard ‘sunscreen application stance’. Arms held wide, legs spread, and chin raised, she waited patiently for Mary to slather her with the creamy white lotion. Mary spread a thin white film across arms and legs and ended with a dot on her nose.

“Hey! Cut it out.” Stacy laughed and swiped away the glop of sunscreen.

As Mary applied the lotion to her own arms, neck, and face, Tanner stood admiring his wife. Just over five feet tall and with flaming red hair and dark green eyes, Tanner was instantly drawn to her when they met ten years ago.

“You know, next time we come out here,” he moved closer and wrapped an arm seductively around her waist, “maybe it could be just you and me. I’ll bring a blanket and some wine. But you’ll need a lot more sunscreen. What with all the skin that will be exposed.”

“In your dreams,” she laughed and hip bumped him away.

Tanner dragged his Jansport pack from the rear seat and slung it over his shoulders. Then he hit the button on the key fob and locked the doors. The Jeep chirped noisily in the hushed air and for the first time, he noticed the oppressive quiet. There were no sounds of birds or breeze, just the scrunch of gravel beneath their feet.

Mary stepped a few paces across the lot and stood studying a dirt covered pickup parked in the corner. “Are there other hikers on the trail?” she asked.

“Could be,” Tanner replied. He marched over to the truck and ran a finger across the dirty hood. It exposed a streak of dark blue paint beneath the thick layer of silt. “Based on the amount of dust, it looks like this one’s been here for days. It probably broke down.”

Tanner checked his water bottles, then shrugged on the pack and followed his wife to the trail head.

“So will it be extra hot because of the drought?” Mary asked.

“No, it hasn’t been much hotter than usual,” Tanner said, “just no rain. The droughts been bad the last couple of years, but this summer has been the worst on record.”

He’d hiked this trail many times, but he had never seen the undergrowth look so scraggly… and dry. “We’ll need to watch out for fires but otherwise, everything will be fine. A wildfire in these dry conditions could be dangerous. But we’ll stay close to the car. Besides, Stacy can’t walk too far.”

“You think we’ll see animals?” Stacy asked.

Tanner squinted into the woods, troubled by the preternatural silence. “I’m sure we will, honey. There are birds, and chipmunks, and elk all around.”

“But where were they?” Mary asked. “Do you think they’re having trouble finding food and water because of the drought?”

“What’s a ‘drought?’” Stacy asked. She looked at him questioningly with her deep, green eyes.

“A drought is when it doesn’t rain enough,” Tanner explained. “And the mountains have been very hot and dry for a long time.”

”It’s caused by climate change, honey,” Mary added. “Too much pollution can make the air stay hot too long.”

Stacy’s brows beetled in confusion but she nodded her assent.

“OK, then. Enough talk,” Tanner said. “Let’s get started.” He looped his thumbs beneath the straps and led them onto the trail.

Stacy rushed past, giggling, as Mary stepped up beside him. They followed the path as it twisted away into the coniferous woods. Soon, the flat path lost itself behind a large boulder. To either side, the underbrush was cut back four or five feet but beyond that, the tangled plants grew thick and wild. To his alarm, Tanner noted that the normally lush leaves were brown edged and brittle.

They hiked three miles along the route when suddenly, Stacy dashed ahead. “When do you think we should stop for lunch?” Mary asked.

Tanner watched his daughter round a tangled deadfall and disappear from sight. He was uncomfortable losing sight of her. Although you heard nightmare stories of cougars grabbing children, he knew it was statistically almost impossible. Yet, there were bears out here. And that abandoned truck.

When Stacy’s frightened squeals echoed through the silent trunks, Tanner’s heart leapt into his throat. He took two running steps along the trail when she sprinted into view and raced back towards them. She skidded to a halt and gripped Tanner’s leg. Breathlessly, she pointed to a tiny figure up the trail.

“Daddy! There’s… something… dead… in… the bushes.”

Stacy took several gulps of air as Mary ran a calming hand over her daughter’s head. “Slow down baby, slow down,” Mary cooed.

“And it smells REALLY bad!”

Tanner took a deep breath and whistled it out. “Boy, you had me goin’,” he smiled. “I’m sure it’s nothing. Not uncommon to find a dead deer or opossum along the trail, especially given the dry conditions.”

Tanner busied his daughter with a water bottle and squinted up the trail. “You two stay here,” he said. Mary’s eyes regarded him with concern but she nodded in agreement.

Just a deer or opossum, he reassured himself. Tanner strode up the trail into the sickly-sweet stench of summer rotted flesh. Where the path rounded the knotted deadfall, he spotted the source. The ravaged body of a large dog. The air was alive with the buzz of black flies that crawled and flitted across the carcass. The animal still wore its bright red collar and a nylon leash dangled in the skeletal branches.

It was clear something had fed on the body, as its innards and muscles were scavenged to the bone. Now the maggots feasted on the hanging remains that marinated in the arid, August heat.

Poor creature must have escaped its owners. Gotten lost in the woods, Tanner mused. When its leash got snagged in the dead fall it was all over. In this heat it wouldn’t last two days.

Tanner stood and scanned the woods. A few steps beyond the body, a bright blue tennis shoe lay in the tall grass. Although it was eerily quiet, nothing seemed out of place. “Come on down,” he called to the girls. “But hurry past. It’s a dead dog and it’s pretty stinky.”

Mary and Stacy rushed past. Stacy held her nose dramatically and shot frightened glances towards the spot that Tanner tried to block with his body. When they were well past the body, he jogged up to join them. Yet something tugged at his mind. He was missing a detail about the scene. He turned and stared back towards the carcass.

“You two go on ahead,” he called with a wave. “I’ll be right there.”

“You sure?” Mary asked.

“Yea, I’ll be fine. I just want to check that dog.”

Stacy was already skipping up the path, singing, as Mary turned to follow.

Tanner stepped up to the body and circled the scene slowly. The brush near the carcass was broken and trampled but that could be explained by the scavengers coming to eat. Globs of dried, dark fluid dotted the ground among the fallen needles and tree trunks. Kneeling, he picked up the shoe and examined the dried red speckles on the toe. Then Stacy’s scream broke him from his reverie. The shoe dropped from his fingers and he looked up in surprise. A second panicked cry sent him sprinting along the trail. Ahead, Mary called his name in a gale of anguish, “Taaaaaaaneeer.”

Rounding a large boulder, he found Mary at the edge of the trail staring into the brush. “What happened? Where’s Stacy?” he yelled.

Mary turned, her eyes dark pools of fear. She pointed a shaky finger towards the woods. “An animal! An animal took her! It came from the woods and it took her.”

Tanner dropped his pack and sprinted into the brush. He followed the sound of Stacy’s high pitched cries and thrashing bushes.

“I’m coming, Stacy!” The thorny branches and dry bramble snapped and whipped across his face as he tore through the scrub. “Fight it girl! Fight!”

Tanner chased his daughter’s frantic cries into a clearing. “Stacy!” She was nowhere to be seen. Her screams had ended. He scrambled atop a boulder for a better view. Where was she? He turned this way and that, the slow fingers of panic wending their way around his heart.

“Daddy.” The call was gasping and weak. He glanced to his right and caught a glimpse of creamy white legs before they were dragged behind a tree.

Roaring in rage, Tanner leapt down and crashed into the bushes where he’d seen her disappear. He shoved his way into another clearing and found one of her colorful shoes. He picked it up. It was warm from her foot. His eyes flicked across the trees and rocks. Which way? Where is she?

In frustration, he tore through the thick bramble, shouting her name until he was halted in horror. There, on the ground, lying in a glop of thick black blood, was a tiny white finger.

Tanner gaped in uncomprehending terror. He bent to pick it up and his hand froze. If I pick this up I make it real. This cannot be real, none of this is real. “This can’t be… real!” he shouted. Anguish and impotent fury exploded in his breast, “Staaaaaacy! Where are you?”

Tanner crawled along the ground searching for any signs of where she could have gone. He found nothing. No trail. No trace. Around him he could hear movement in the bushes, but when he followed the sounds fled before him, vanishing into the thicket.

Then, faint and far away, he heard Mary’s cry. He cocked his head towards the sound. He hesitated before pushing further into the brush. He was not ready to surrender his daughter, not ever. Around him, the tall pines gave way to parched, tangled junipers and thorny wild roses. His progress slowed as the branches tugged and snagged.

Again, Mary’s cry echoed through the woods, this time louder. He could make out the words.

“Oh, my God! Tanner! Taaaaanner!”

Maybe Stacy’s back. She must be back. She ran back to her mother. But she’s hurt. There was so much blood. She must be hurt. He turned and sprinted towards the sounds of panic. Shoving through woods, Tanner became disoriented, unsure of his way. Then he heard Mary again. She was no longer calling his name. Now, the calls were screams; intermittent shrieks of gut-wrenching pain that left no question of direction.

Tanner turned and sprinted. Heedless of the branches and thorns that snapped and bit, he broke free of the woods and onto the trail. The calls stopped.

“Mary! Where are you?” his eyes flitted up and down the dry path, unsure of the way. Above, the bright sun beat down from the cloudless, blue sky. From his left, he heard a sharp growl and a barking snap.

“I’m coming!” he roared and flew towards the sound. As he ran, he noted for the first time that shadowy forms in the bramble ran beside him. They seemed to be paralleling his flight along the trail.

When he rounded the turn, he came upon a scene that shook him to his knees. There, on the ground, was Mary. Or it had to be her. He recognized the pale legs kicking weakly from beneath a pack of animals gathered about her torso.

There were twenty or thirty of the carnivores roaming about. Most were gathered around Mary’s head and body. The gaunt creatures were two feet tall with long brownish fur and the protruding ribs of starvation. Dozens of smaller coyotes slunk here and there around the larger animals whose heads were bent to feeding. As he stared in paralyzed shock, they lifted their bloody muzzles in ones and twos and glared at him with hungry malice. One held in its mouth a strand of red meat which Tanner mistook for sausage before realizing it was intestines.

A tidal wave of madness overtook him and Tanner bellowed in pain. Then he rushed them. Those who didn’t flee he kicked and smashed away. One larger animal spread his paws and stood his ground but Tanner reached down and grabbed its mangy coat. He yanked it from its feet and slammed it into the trunk of a pine. The creature yelped in pain and crumpled to the ground. The others turned and fled into the woods.

He tumbled to his knees beside his wife’s torn body. He stared in confusion, his breath coming in short panicked gasps. Mary’s chest was ripped open, her innards pitched like a derailed roller coaster onto the dusty ground. Thick gore pooled in the dirt and seeped into the knees of his jeans.

He was frozen in disbelief when Mary turned her head. Green eyes fluttered open and considered him with a faraway expression. Then she lifted her hand and placed it on Tanner’s forearm. He flinched away when he saw her mangled grip held him with mangled stubs. “Stacy,” she gurgled through bloody lips.

“I couldn’t find her,” Tanner sobbed. He met her fading gaze. “I couldn’t find her.”

Tanner held her damaged hand and stared into her eyes. It was several heartbeats before he realized she was gone.

Around him, the hungry pack began to close in. Several slunk out of the shadows of trees and onto the trail. Heads down, their eyes glared as they circled. Behind and around him, Tanner spotted dozens of dark forms moving here and there through the thicker woods.

A howl rent the air. It was joined by others. They were all around. A primal dread deeper than any he had known seized him as their yapping cries built to a crescendo. That fear catapulted him to his feet and sent him sprinting down the trail. The one rational spark that he grasped onto was the car. The only hope was to get to the car. To get help.

Ahead, the coyotes on the trail scattered into the woods while behind, they followed at a lopping, unhurried pace. More joined in until the pack ran shoulder to shoulder along the path.

Panting in exhaustion, Tanner risked a look over his shoulder. He did not see the coyote rush in from the side and through his churning legs. With a grunt, he cartwheeled to the ground. He rolled from the trail and slid to a stop in the tall grass.

Immediately, they descended upon him. Jaws flashed and pain exploded in his shoulder, his bicep, his calf as a dozen vicious fangs fought to sink into his flesh. He threw the clinging animals aside and struggled to his feet, but was driven down as a larger beast dove in and snapped its teeth across his Achilles’ tendon. A sudden, hot agony shot up his leg and tumbled him to the ground.

Again the starved predators attacked. With a howl of adrenaline-fueled rage, Tanner flung them aside. Kicking and punching, his blows landed with thudding, deadly effect. Bodies flew. Some hit the ground, immobile, while others yelped and fled into the woods. But for every animal he felled two more snarling faces took their place.

Mad with fear, Tanner kicked open a hole in the savage circle. He dived through the opening and limped off as fast as he could. But there was no escape. This time, they did not falter. This time, they closed ranks. Ears laid back, the snarling circle tightened.

“Help! Help!” Tanner yelled in breathless desperation. His voice fell flat amongst the dry, dusty pines.

When the final attack came, Tanner kicked away the first assault. More followed. Ripping fangs slashed at joint and tendon and brought him to his knees. Tanner punched and raged. He raised himself up but fangs sank deep into his neck and he heard, more than felt, the crackling snap of his spine.

The animals pulled him over and pines began tumbling across his vision. Tanner lay on his back, the majestic trees rising above him like huge, green arrows. Around him, the shaggy brown forms surged and yammered. He heard the ripping and tearing of clothing and flesh but felt no pain.

He tried to move, but the attempt was futile. Eyes wide in disbelief, he watched as the horde snapped and fought over his dark organs. The thick, coppery smell of blood mixed with the scent of pine and dust that filled his panting lungs.

One animal raised his head from the feast and met Tanner’s eyes. It licked the blood from its snout and thin, brown lips parted in an angry growl. A red tongue flicked in and out before lunging and ending Tanner’s silent scream.