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Leaves and twigs crunch under our feet as we snake our way through the forest at sundown the next day. We met at one of the trail parking lots and left the cars there, heading deep into the forest, leaving the trails far behind us. The barely-there crescent moon peeked through the treetops but doesn’t provide much light, so the small beams of our flashlights lit our way. Tripp talked excitedly as we trekked along.
“I’ve been so sure this whole time, that the paper mill has something to do with the Rising. I mean, a factory that uses a ton of chemicals smack in the center of this all just can’t be a coincidence.” He moves his hands more when he talks today than he has in the past. “You just know they are leeching chemicals into the water supply-”
I cut him off before he can go any further, “But even before the Rising, they had to have some sort of safety checks. And the CDC has done a few inspections since then, right?”
“They have, over a dozen times I think. I joined them on one of them.” He grins, proud of that fact. “They wanted to be transparent about what they were doing so when my site started to become popular, they asked me along to report on what I had seen.”
“So, if you know the CDC has already checked them out, and you even participated on the inspections, why are we headed there? And why didn’t we just park in their lot?”
“Because we’re not doing an inspection. I’m just…” he paused, trying to find the words. “I’m just so sure they’re the cause. I just need to find the proof.”
His whole demeanor seemed to have changed in an instant. “And how are we going to find it?”
He stops walking and turns to face me, hands clenched around his flashlight. I match his posture jokingly before realizing he wasn’t playing around. I relax my body. “Well?”
“I’m breaking in to look through their files.”
“You’re what?!” My hand clutches at the strap of my camera bag slung over my shoulder, wringing it tightly. “You can’t do that, you’re going to get caught – you’ll get arrested!”
“It’s a possibility, yes.” He digs into his pocket and pulls out a scrap of paper. “Maggie, you’re going to need this.”
I hesitate before finally taking the paper from his hands. Unfolding it, I see the words “AdminT” and “ISFTT1212” scrawled in his messy handwriting.
“It’s the login for my website, so you can report what happens, if something happens to me and I can’t.” He adjusts the brim of his baseball cap and nods, smiling. “It won’t come to that, but I figured you should have it.”
“Ok… yeah.” I shove the paper into a small side pocket in my camera bag. “Can we get back to the breaking and entering that’s about to happen though?”
“Don’t worry, I thought it through.” He turns away and starts heading toward the paper mill again. “You’re not coming in with me. I don’t mind breaking the law but I won’t have you do it too. I want you there to take some outside shots of me entering and that’s it.”
“I appreciate you saying that,” I sped up to match his pace, “but I’m going in with you.”
We argued the rest of the walk as to whether I was staying outside or going with him. The only thing that broke the argument was the chain link fence surrounding the mill coming into view.
Tripp made quick work of cutting and pulling aside part of the chain fence so we could slip inside.
The massive gray building loomed ahead of us, it’s idle smoke stacks reaching for the inky blue sky. We made our way around the side and to the back of the building until we reached a small shed attached to the building. Behind us we could see the massive dark shadows that were the piles of lumber that would eventually be pulped and pressed and who knows what else.
Tripp shoved his flashlight into his bag and in a hushed whisper explained, “the floor level windows and doors are all alarmed, but I’m going to climb this shed and pry open the second floor window to get in.”
“You mean we are going to…”
He looked as if he was going to argue but gave up and continued in his whisper “Ok, fine.”
“And why are we whispering? We’re doing this at night because you said the place would be empty?”
“No, I said the employees would be gone, but the mill has a security company that does sweeps through the building.”
That revelation should have changed my mind, but his quest for the truth was infectious and I found that I truly didn’t want to stay outside, no matter the risk. It also didn’t matter that I felt the paper mill wasn’t involved somehow, I just needed to see how this ended.
I began to climb the shed, which was difficult since there wasn’t much to hold, but Tripp was able to give me a boost- by using both hands on my hips to help push me up. My face flushed as I scrambled up onto the small rooftop. He was up on the roof effortlessly a few seconds later.
He rested a hand on my shoulder, his concerned gray eyes boring into mine. “Last chance to back out, Mags. If you stay here, you’ll only get a slap on the wrist for trespassing if we’re caught.”
“I’m coming with.” The decision was made and I wasn’t changing my mind now.
The large window took both of our strength to lift open but eventually lifted enough for us to scramble through. We stood on the metal catwalk that surrounded the entire factory floor. Below us were massive spools of paper, ten feet tall and two times as wide. Beyond the spools were conveyor belts and large machines and vats that contained the necessary paper-making supplies. During the day the factory floor would be bright, noisy, and a flurry of activity, but right now with just the security lights lit, it feels deserted and eerie.
Tripp points across the building, I follow his attention and see a row of office doors, closed, on the opposite wall. We’re halfway around the catwalk when Tripp grabs my arm and pulls me into a crouched position, huddled against the outer wall. It takes a second or two for me to see what he saw. The beam of a security flashlight bouncing around on the factory floor below us. A few seconds later the heavy set body of a pale skinned security guard comes into view.
I start to panic, afraid of getting caught. I look to Tripp and see his gray eyes are wide with excitement. He’s having a blast and here I am starting to hyperventilate. He mouths “it’s ok. Don’t worry” and nods for me to look at the guard again.
The security guard is almost directly below us and because of our higher vantage point I’m able to see that the he isn’t even paying attention to what’s going on around him. His head is down and although the hand with the flashlight is panning back and forth, his attention is focused on his other hand where his cell phone is held, the screen awash with colorful balls. He swipes across his screen frantically and a menagerie of sounds is emitted, like a slot machine in a casino. The guards deep voice drowns them out for a second as he shouts “yes!” Apparently proud of whatever he had just accomplished in his game.
My breathing returns to normal as the guard moves away from us, taking the sounds of his game dinging along with him. We stay hunched along the catwalk a few extra minutes to ensure the guard isn’t going to do a sweep upstairs.
The mill must trust their security team because the office door isn’t locked when we try it. The first office has old looking wood paneling on the walls, a desk in front of it, and filing cabinets along the walls. Each filing cabinet drawer is filled with purchase orders, supply invoices, and monthly expense logs. After several minutes rifling through the paperwork, Tripp signaled to me that we should move on to the next office.
The second office was similar to the first in it’s wood paneling decor and single desk. The only difference we found were the contents of the filing cabinets. Where the last was all financial numbers, these are filled with people. Or, their personnel files more accurately.
Drawer after drawer was filled with files on each employee, their resumes, performance reports, HR complaints, and things of that nature. Tripp didn’t make any motions to move on so we stayed, flipping through files for almost ten minutes. He knew what he was looking for and finally I heard him whisper “here it is!”
The file was for the safety officer at the mill; the person in charge of all the safety checks on the equipment, ensuring the seals on all the chemical vats, and dealing with the environmental protection agency regulations. Tripp flipped angrily through his file, finding nothing out of the ordinary, before stuffing it back into the drawer with a huff.
The door to the third office was locked, which quickly erased Tripp’s frustration and brought back the glint of excitement to his gray eyes. He dug through his bag and pulled out a small tool kit. Using two slim silver tools from the kit, he popped the lock and we slipped inside, silently shutting the door behind us.
This was clearly the office of somebody important. The space is much larger than the other ones, with two large windows flanking a massive, solid wood desk. The wood paneling must have been removed from the walls a long time ago and instead was painted a tasteful off-white. Two leather chairs sit in the corner on the left side of the room, an end table between them turned into a makeshift bar with lowball glasses and decanters full of dark liquors.
Tripp’s attention was focused on the wall to our right. A dark wood lateral filing cabinet sat there, the dim light from the parking lot out front coming in through the windows glints off the polished handles. Tripp knelt in front of it as a person kneels in front of a religious artifact. He tugged on the handles and found each drawer to be locked, which made him feverish. With the same silver tools, he unlocked the drawers, yanking out folder after folder, tearing through them with the voracity that got me worked up too.
I knelt beside him and opened the first folder I could, only to find blueprints for the building we were in. Undeterred, I grabbed the next folder which contained bills of sale on their delivery trucks. It went on that way for the next dozen or so folders I grabbed. Banal paperwork that kept the business running. No EPA warnings, no secret memos about chemical spills, nothing out of the ordinary at all.
Tripp was poring over an environmental impact report he had found and I had just opened a file that contained a map of the surrounding forest when we both froze. Metallic thuds come from outside and they were unmistakable – footsteps on the catwalk. As quietly as possible, we shove the folders into the drawers and looked around for a hiding spot. I realized the map was still in my lap so I stuff it into my camera bag as Tripp pulls me to my feet and towards the front corner of the room. If someone came in, we would be to their left in the darkest corner behind a coat rack.
Hopefully that would be enough to hide us.
My back was against the wall and Tripp was as close as he could be without squishing me. I had gotten so used to his gray eyes and he always wore his baseball cap that covered his head wound but the lack of heat radiating from him was a shocking reminder that he was undead. That was something my mom struggled with when Dad first came back, the room temperature body heat.
I pulled my thoughts back to our current problem as the steps got closer. It was probably the guard on an hourly sweep, locked into whatever he was playing on his phone, and would walk on by as he did before.
But of course we aren’t that lucky. The footsteps come to a halt on the opposite side of the wall. The metal doorknob jiggles as a key slips inside and turns.
My heart is pounding so hard I wonder if Tripp can feel it. He frantically scans the room, trying to figure out our next move. The door swings open and a weathered man in his mid-50s enters. He’s taller than Tripp is with salt and pepper hair, broad strong shoulders, and arms that are thicker than a tree trunk. Any thoughts Tripp may have had about overpowering this man probably flew out the window the instant we saw him.
With a flick of the switch, the room floods with a warm light from overhead. The man makes his way towards the desk.
We have only a few seconds until he spots us.
Tripp grabs my arm and pulls me towards the door. I can hear a surprised shout from behind me but I don’t turn around. I follow Tripp’s lead and run as fast as I can along the catwalk, heading back to the open window.
The thudding behind me tells me he’s chasing us. Without looking back, Tripp yells to me “Don’t stop!”
He disappears through the window onto the roof of the shed ahead of me. I practically dive through it right behind him. With no hesitation Tripp leaps off the roof to the ground below. “Come on! Jump!”
The ground looks too far away from up here. But I hear a noise and turn to see the man at the window, his could-be-handsome face is red with anger and he hollers at me again to stop.
Instead, I jump.
Like the graceful person I am, I land on my ankle wrong and tumble to the ground. Yanking on my arm, Tripp helps me up and pulls me back into a run for the hole in the fence he made.
I go through the fence first and as Tripp scrambles through the opening, I hazard a glance at the window. The man is still standing there, fuming quietly watching us slip away.
We run for as long as we are able to in the dark, stumbling over logs and roots in the dark forest. When we finally feel we’re a safe distance and not being followed, we slow our pace to a fast walk.
My chest burns with the effort of running. I wouldn’t say I’m out of shape, but I wouldn’t exactly say I’m in shape either. My breathing is hard and ragged and Tripp’s is equally as loud. I wonder if this is from running or because his brain feels like it should be doing that.
We walk in silence until the yellow of his Jeep is visible in the distance. He lets out a heavy sigh, the first sound he’s made since we escaped.
“I’m sorry we didn’t find anything, Tripp.”
“Yeah,” another long sigh. “Maybe it’s there and we just didn’t have the time to find it? Maybe we should try again after the new moon?”
“He saw us; he knows we were in his files. If there’s even anything worth finding, he’s not going to keep it there anymore, and he’ll probably beef up the security around the place after this.” The forest breaks into the open expanse of the trail’s parking lot. The tiniest sliver of moon hangs in the sky above us. “It’s over.”
His shoulders seem to sag with the realization. “Yeah,” he repeats, sounding totally defeated.
I dig my hand into my bag to fish out my keys and my fingers brush against paper wadded inside. I pull it out and realize it’s the map from the man’s office. “At least we got this nifty map of the forest.”
“Who cares? It’s public knowledge that they bought a large chunk of the forest as nature reserves. I guess they figured since loggers are cutting down forests for their paper, it’ll look good for the environmentalists.” He pulls his keys out of his backpack. “It probably is just a map of what portion they own.”
I unfold the map and smooth it out, laying it on the trunk of my car. Tripp was just about to hop up into his Jeep when I called his name. “Come take a look at this.”
In the middle of the map, deep in the forest, an area is circled in red marker. The word “RESTRICTED” is written beneath it.
His jaw hangs open as he inspects the map. His fingers trace over the word several times before he goes back into his frenzy mode. Out of his bag he digs a small ruler and his GPS. He does several calculations before he acknowledges I’m still standing there.
“There’s no roads anywhere near there that I can see, but we can hike it. It’ll take about three hours if you’re up for it.”
“Now?! No way! It’s pitch black out, by the time we get there it’ll still be pitch black, and it’ll stay pitch black for hours after we get there!” I snatch the map out of his hands. “I’m all for hiking it, but if we’re doing this, we’re doing it the right way.”
Tripp opens his mouth to complain but I cut him off. “We’re not hiking these woods in the middle of the night. It doesn’t make sense. We’ll meet back here first thing tomorrow and hike there. It’ll be light out so I can get plenty of photos of whatever is in this restricted area. And we’ll still have plenty of time to hike back to get you to the CDC containment center for sundown.”
His eyes dart to the map in my hands. “But -“
“No we can’t. I’m hanging on to the map overnight. Go home. Get some sleep. We’ll meet back here at 6:30. That way we don’t accidentally walk into a sleeping bear or something.” I tuck the map back into my bag.
He chuckles, apparently accepting his fate that there’s no way we’re going on that hike right now. “Ok, first thing tomorrow morning. We’re going to finally find the truth.” His smile lights his whole face.
A tingling sensation builds in my stomach and I decide to be bold. I stand on my toes and press my lips against his, lingering against their coolness for a few seconds before pulling away. His smile is now lopsided, a combination of shock and joy.
I know my face is completely red, so I quickly say “See you tomorrow morning.” I hop in my car and pull away, watching in the rear view mirror as he does a touchdown celebration style dance before climbing into his Jeep.
The next morning, I turn into the same lot and see he’s already parked and double checking his pack. When he sees my car, he salutes me with a cup of coffee and stands there with a smile. We exchange the coffee for the map, which he studies for a few more minutes while I sip my coffee.
“Ok, so I’ve plugged the coordinates into the GPS. My estimate was right, it should take us about three hours to get there.” He slings his backpack up onto his shoulders. “You ready?”
I follow suit, strapping on the back I had packed earlier with everything I could possibly need on the hike: water, snacks, dry socks, books on local vegetation, and of course my camera equipment. “Yep! Let’s do this!”
We hike side by side on the trail for a half hour or so before consulting the GPS and heading off-trail for the remainder of the hike. Once we get off trail, Tripp speaks up.
“So… you kissed me.”
My stomach folds itself into knots, then unties, and folds again. “Yep, I did.”
“Lets do that again sometime,” he says with a smile that I can hear. He slips his hand into mine and we hike on. We take several rest breaks as we go, making sure to hydrate and grab a snack when needed. We also use the time to repeat the kiss from the night before. Each time we kiss, the cool temperature of his lips takes me off guard.
Tripp takes one last look at the GPS to confirm we’re going in the right direction. “It looks like we’re almost there.” He puts the GPS away and takes my hand again as we walk.
“What do you think we’re going to find?”
He’s silent for a few seconds, thinking, before he finally quips, “an alien landing site.”
I roll my eyes and laugh, happier than I’ve felt in a very long time.
It’s almost a half hour later when we spot it. An old stone wall in the distance. With a quick check of the GPS, Tripp nods to confirm that’s what we’re looking for.
The wall looks incredibly old but doesn’t appear to be falling apart or in ruins. It stands chest high and goes on with no breaks or gates as far as we can see. From where we are, it looks as if there’s nothing inside the wall but more forest.
“Here, give me your bag, I’ll toss them over, then I’ll help you over.” He’s already got his bag off his shoulders and over the wall by the time I shrug my pack off.
“Careful, my camera equipment is in there.”
He hops on his belly on top of the wall and reaches to set my bag down as gently as he can. Then he jumps back down and reaches for my waist. “Your turn.”
The feeling that builds in my stomach isn’t excitement at his touch this time. It’s dread. From the moment the wall came into view, I’ve had the uncontrollable urge to turn and run. Run as far and as fast as my legs can take me.
But I don’t. We’ve come this far and it would disappoint him too much if we didn’t search every inch inside this stone wall. So he gives me the boost I need to get to the top of the wall. I swing my legs over and hop down to the soft forest floor on the other side. The feeling of dread deepens even though there’s nothing I can see but more trees. I grab my pack and slip it back on over my shoulders.
“So, which way do you want to go?” I ask.
I watch his gray eyes scan the empty forest ahead of us, somewhat disappointed at what he sees. “This way, I guess.”
I’m fixing the twisted strap on my bag as he starts to walk. He takes a few steps and wobbles on his feet. I rush up behind him to help support him but before I can get to him, my vision goes hazy, as if I opened my eyes underwater.
I gasp for breath, unable to bring air into my lungs. My nails scratch at my throat, trying to claw it open for air. The ground rushes up to meet my face as I collapse. The last thing I can see through the haze is the shape of Tripp falling down a few feet away.
Continue to The Final Chapter
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