Chapter 3: Independent thought

Rhiannon is startled twice upon waking—first by the bright midday sun and then at the realization that she's slept this long. A long commute and strict timelines don't make it easy to sleep in.

When she pulls herself up, the other three are still sleeping comfortably. She recalls that their guide was supposed to have arrived early, but there's no sign of another person having entered.

"I'm not a heavy sleeper. If someone had knocked or come in, I would've heard it." Confused, she decides to wake Caroline first. She goes to the other woman's bedside and lightly shakes her by the shoulder.

"Wha—where am I?" Caroline murmurs blearily.

"Cabin. Wilds tour. Self-discovery. I'm the attractive, snarky woman you met yesterday." Rhiannon grins, trying to get her up to speed.

Caroline's face twists into an easy smile. "Oh yes, how could I forget? Sorry, I'm not a morning person."

"A West Pacific hiking tour's a pretty ambitious undertaking for someone who's not a morning person."

"Yeah, well, YOLO and all that, you know." Rhiannon nods, understanding far too well. "What time is it?"

"I've got no idea. They took our phones, remember? But I think it's at least noon. Maybe?"

"Right, right..." Caroline rubs her cheeks with her palms and then massages over her eyelids with her fingertips before taking a deep breath. "Okay. Okay! I'm awake." She springs out of bed to illustrate her point.

"So I'll admit I'm not familiar with hiking tours, but I thought our guide was supposed to be here early this morning."

"I'll be completely honest with you, Rhiannon—I only skimmed the information pamphlets. Sophia seemed so knowledgeable, I figured I could just follow her lead."

"Ahaha, I bet you were the kind of student who copied her friends' notes the night before the exam."

"Oh no, you caught me." Caroline deadpans.

"No judgment here, that was totally me, too."

The two of them share a laugh and the moment is wrapped in a golden glow. Right now, it feels as if everything might be all right no matter what.

"Mnrgh...?" A strange muffled groan escapes from the general direction of River's bed. "You guys are up early. Did the guide get here already?"

"No, we just got up, too. Nobody else is here."

"What? That's weird." he scratches his head. "Hey, Sophia!"

"ljlksdjflhlksjfldskhfgf whaaaat?"

By the time Sophia finally manages to wake up, a few minutes later, the rest of the group is standing over her bed.

"Jesus! Are you guys trying to scare the life out of me?" she snaps, fully awake suddenly.

"We don't look scary, do we?" River pouts.

"How would you feel if you woke up and a group of tall people were just staring down at you? Lighten up! You all look like the Spanish Inquisition."

"Don't be so dramatic," Rhiannon laughs.

"Yeah, we're not even wearing our red robes yet." Caroline adds.

"Yet?"

"What, you didn't bring your red Inquisition robes? I thought that was standard hiking gear."

"Must've missed the memo."

"A-ny-way! What's going on? Where's our tour guide?" Sophia claps the syllables of "anyway" for emphasis.

"We don't know."

"Well, let's get dressed. Maybe they're waiting outside."

It occurs to Rhiannon that she hadn't even thought of that. Everyone is ready to go within a couple of minutes and then they emerge from the warm shelter of the cabin into the crisp outside air.

In the daylight, the forest dances to life. The sky is the creamy, light blue of freshly painted Easter eggs, with little dots of white clouds. The view makes Rhiannon wish she knew the names of trees. Such ancient things ought to be respected, to be called by name.

"No tour guide. No note or anything, either." River rubs the back of his neck in flustered confusion.

Sophia tries to contact whoever's on the other end of the satellite phone, but there's no answer. The GPS still works fine, tracking her location as she walks around in a large-circumference circle to test it, but it seems there's no one to receive her call.

"What do we do? Should we head back to the hotel?" Rhiannon asks the group. There's a looming feeling of reticence. Everyone had been looking forward to the trip and they've already lost so much time. Even now, the other groups must be deep in the forest, stepping gingerly over fallen branches and learning the history of the Wilds.

"...Why don't we just go?" Sophia suggests after no one else speaks up.

"Go...where?" Caroline sounds suspicious, like she already knows the answer and doesn't particularly wish to hear it materialized.

"On the hike! We have the map, we have the GPS in case something happens."

"Is it safe?" An unsure River looks between Sophia and the other two.

"Sure! I might not be able to to tell you much about the rock formations or the trees specifically, but I know lots about hiking." Sophia folds her arms against her chest. "I'm not just saying this to brag... I'm confident that we'll be okay. I'll take care of you guys."

River furrows his brows, looking skeptical about this idea. Caroline and Rhiannon exchange glances, then Caroline slowly nods. "Maybe the guide's just running late and they'll follow us later. I'd hate to lose a whole day of hiking just to go back to the hotel now. We can definitely take it easy, but we should go ahead."

River's face contorts with shock tinged with betrayal, but this lasts for only a moment before it clears up and he hastily agrees. "Yeah, I mean, this is supposed to be sort of a beginner-level hike, anyway. We're discovering ourselves, not doing some kind of boot camp." His nonchalance sounds forced.

"We'll be fine! What do you say, Rhiannon?"

"...Okay. Sure." There's a feeling of adventure in this that's irresistible somehow. Like pioneers off on the wild frontiers, they'll be discovering their own way through the forest.

Sophia's face takes on a more serious countenance as she unfolds her map. The other three crowd around her to look at it. "So we're here." she points at a spot marked with a ➀ with a cabin icon, then traces her finger over a dotted line to the place marked ➁. "This is where we were supposed to be by now. Then this ➂ is where we pitch our tents for the night."

"That doesn't seem too bad," Rhiannon concedes.

"Makes sense the first day would be easier. I heard some people came from overseas to go on this trip. They've gotta have mad jetlag." River says while nodding.

"So why don't we have lunch now, hike to ➁, take a break there, and then hike to ➂?" Caroline suggests.

The group agrees on this and they each crack open a pre-made meal box. It's not restaurant quality, but it's not the freeze-dried astronaut food she was expecting, either. Rhiannon takes the meal into her body without relish, but decides to think of it as the fuel for her hike. That philosophy makes it easier to swallow.

After their meal, the four set off without much fanfare. Sophia is at the head of the pack, map in hand, flanked by River who continually tries and fails to overtake her. This gives Rhiannon and Caroline lots of time to gape in wonder at the scenery around them.

The trail is clearly distinguishable from the foliage. It looks well-used and Rhiannon wonders about all the people who have hiked it before them. What must the Wilds have looked like before man? Untamed, unknowable... She can make out shadows in the trees if she squints that hint at a mystery. But they're not supposed to travel off the path. This is a highly regulated romp through nature. The dichotomy of the experience of wanting to go on an adventure while having that adventure dictated by a neat map and checklist weighs on Rhiannon.

I don't know what I was expecting. I know I don't have the skills to make it out here on my own without guidance. Besides, it's unreal that we're going out without a guide! Isn't that adventure enough? Still, there's a coldness in her chest cavity that feels a lot like disappointment.

Just then, out of the corner of her eye, Rhiannon sees a wisp of light between the trees. "Did you see that?" she nudges Caroline.

"What?"

"That light."

"What light?"

"Uh..." When Rhiannon turns her head, however, it's gone. "I saw a light in the forest."

"It was probably just light filtering down from the treetops."

"But it was kind of small and...round?"

"A firefly, then."

"In October?"

Caroline shrugs. "I wouldn't worry about it."

"I'm not worried, really, just curious."

"Hmm... Well, tell me if you see it again."

Caroline doesn’t exactly sound like she’s holding her breath. ...Maybe she’s right. Rhiannon nods and, having fallen behind in the momentary confusion, the two quicken their pace to keep up with River and Sophia.

At the moment when Rhiannon's calves reach peak burn, the group finally reaches the ➁ spot and she practically collapses to the ground in relief.

"Are you going to be okay the rest of the way?" Sophia asks, peering down at her.

"I hope so. Maybe you guys'll have to carry me down the mountain."

"I wouldn't mind. It'd be a good bicep workout," River says, a devious smile in his eyes.

"Don't spoil her," Sophia teases, but her tone is gentle. Even so, River frowns.

There’s a strange tension between the two of them that Rhiannon wishes would dissipate. Well, it’s pretty much one-sided on River’s part. I wonder if he wants to be the alpha male or something? She hopes that it’s the sort of thing that will improve with time.

They decide to take a break for an hour. Caroline helps Rhiannon stretch and then the two sit on a large boulder overlooking the valley. "It's beautiful, isn't it? Being here makes me feel so calm."

"Yeah... But I wish I was more in shape."

"You will be by the end, probably."

Rhiannon highly doubts this. "I thought you were like me, but you're not winded at all! Traitor!" she declares before playfully punching Caroline in the arm.

Caroline massages her arm while pretending to pout, but she can’t keep the smile from her face. "I didn't want to be a total potato on the hike, so I started jogging about a week ago. Trust me, once we get to higher altitudes or whatever, you and me'll be in the same boat."

Meanwhile, Sophia is doing yoga by herself. Intrigued, Rhiannon goes up to her. "Did you bring that mat?"

"Yep," Sophia answers with her eyes still closed. "I like doing 10 or 15-minute yoga sessions when I can on the trail. Being outside makes me feel more grounded."

"Do you have to be super flexible to do yoga?"

"Not at all!" Sophia opens her eyes, which glitter with mirth. "Everyone has to start somewhere. You wanna try?"

"Okay."

Sophia scoots over on her mat and makes room for Rhiannon to sit down. She talks Rhiannon through a few basic poses, but those are already enough to get her breathing hard and feeling like her joints are popping out of their sockets. Still, it's a good sort of pain.

"Would you mind if I joined you when you do yoga? I'll just try to copy what you're doing. You don't have to explain everything. I'd hate to pull you out of your own exercise."

"It's totally fine! I love teaching people things and it helps reinforce the poses for me, too. I don't mind at all." Sophia’s casual kindness puts Rhiannon at ease and they both smile at each other.

The hike down to ➂ passes a little more easily and Rhiannon wonders if it's thanks to Sophia's yoga. She isn't a complete wreck when they reach their destination, at any rate, which she decides to count as a win.

"So I'll be real with you guys—I have no idea how to pitch a tent." River announces solemnly once they begin getting their campsite ready.

"Don't worry, we've got Sophia!" Caroline says cheerfully. Over the course of the day, Sophia has more or less become their leader. River’s eyebrow twitches; that doesn’t seem to have been the response he was expecting.

"Yeah, but—but Sophia's pregnant. Is it a good idea for you to be moving around so much?" he frowns, but his flustered sputtering is a poor mask for resentment.

"I'm perfectly okay, thanks." she returns without a hint of malice. “Besides, we’ve already made it this far! Kind of late to be worrying about whether or not I can do it.” River can’t seem to echo Sophia’s positivity, but without support from Rhiannon or Caroline, he’s forced to give up.

With Sophia's direction, they get their tents set up before nightfall. Sophia tries again to hail someone with the satellite phone, but again receives no reply. "Worst case scenario, we might have to do this whole thing alone." Even she looks troubled by that.

"There are so many groups here this week, maybe they just dropped the ball and forgot to assign a guide to us or something." River shrugs.

"I wonder if we can get a partial refund for this... I mean, I'm happy to be hiking anyway, but we paid for a guide and we don't have one." Caroline muses, tilting her head to one side thoughtfully.

"I haven't given up on the guide being here tomorrow. They know exactly where we are," Rhiannon points out.

"Someone's an optimist. Well, I hope they bring us better food if they come here." Caroline says, taking another bite out of her canned food.

"Sadly, hunting is not on my resume or else we could've had fresh rabbit or something." Sophia concedes.

"We’re probably not be allowed to hunt here, anyway." River is quick to say.

"True. Then again, who's around to stop us? Our guide?"

After the remains of dinner are put away, the group says good night to one another and they each shuffle into their tents. Rhiannon lifts her tent flap and is about to crawl inside when she hears a whisper.

"Caroline? Was that you?"

"Hmm?" Caroline sticks her head out of her tent. "Did you say something?"

"No, uh, never mind." Rhiannon answers and Caroline retreats back into her tent.

Then she hears it again, a whisper that makes her skin tingle with anticipation. Rhiannon peers into the forest where the trees are swaying gently to the beat of the wind. As she watches, there is a dim glow of light that flickers in a steady rhythm. It seems to grow as she stares at it, but then it begins to pull back.

"I'm about to do something crazy." Rhiannon mutters to herself. But the light is beckoning and the whisper seems to be calling her name; perhaps it is her true name.

Rhiannon rises from her crouched position and walks off the trail in pursuit of the light.