New chapters of the serial novel, Pestilence: Journey Through The Woods, will be posted each Thursday. Subscribe to have new chapters delivered to your mailbox.
If you are new to the story, I suggest starting at Chapter 1.
Meagan lowered her backpack to the ground and placed her walking sticks beside it. She shrugged off her winter coat and rolled it tight. Opening the top of the pack, she stuffed the jacket under the bedroll and secured the top of the pack. Her long-sleeve shirt and thermal undershirt provided plenty of insulation in the mild weather. After days of harsh winter cold, the air felt downright warm in comparison.
The bright sun hung in the apex of the sky, casting its warmth over the mountain ridges. The overhead branches dripped melting snow to the forest floor. As Cooper predicted the day before, the trail refroze overnight into a hard pack, but dissolved to a slushy, muddy mixture as the day progressed.
Meagan stood with her hands on her hips and stretched her back, twisting her head until she felt a satisfying pop. After two days of rest, she resented the cumbersome weight of the backpack.
As the group broke camp in the late morning, she settled into the back of the pack, comfortable seeing the group ahead without them monitoring her every move. She walked slow enough to put space between her and Andrea, creating the illusion of strolling carefree alone through the forest. The world wasn’t ending; she was just enjoying the solitude of a hike in the mountains.
From her vantage point, she watched the others hiking the trail in front of her – first Andrea with Travis just a step ahead and then Cooper far in the distance.
Eager to complete their journey to the ranger’s station, the younger boy claimed the lead as they left the camp, not that anyone argued. He sped down the trail and disappeared around bends, but stopped and waited impatiently as they caught up, his feet shuffling from side to side. As Travis approached, he loosened his backpack for a break, but Cooper would set off down the trail. Andrea would tighten Travis’ pack and push him to keep marching. They could break at the ranger’s station.
Travis’ head hung low as he scraped his boots along the ground, trudging down the trail. He left Mike reluctantly in the shelter that morning, protesting that the group should wait days before moving out. Cooper patiently but persistently refused, dogging Travis to eat and to pack his backpack. Powerless to resist, Travis complied with the commands.
With breakfast complete, Cooper stood and held Travis’ backpack, waiting for the older boy to slip it on. Travis grumbled again, but his complaints lacked anger – or emotion of any kind. Despite his disagreement, he accepted the decision to leave and allowed Cooper to strap the pack on his back.
Andrea watched the exchanges between the boys, but kept any thoughts to herself. She never relented on her promise to go to the ranger’s station, hiking behind Travis to prevent him from stopping. She uttered simple encouragements to keep him plodding down the trail but remained silent otherwise.
Meagan avoided the group tension by lagging on the trail, maintaining a distance between her and the others. Andrea’s tales the previous day of the outside world depressed her, but the good weather buoyed her spirits. Moving provided energy and hope. The exercise – just doing something rather than waiting – rewarded her spirits.
She could still see Cooper far ahead on the trail, so she paused to enjoy the view. The trail had broken free from the trees and ran along the rocky top of a ridge, providing a stunning view for miles. Rows and rows of forested mountains stretched into the distance, glimmering in the bright sunlight. Unlike the haze of a summer day, the winter air was crisp and clear.
“Come on, Meagan, let’s go.” Cooper’s voice sailed through the air, startling her from her reverie. She looked down the trail and nodded, signal enough for Cooper to turn and resume hiking.
She lifted her pack from the ground and settled it on her shoulders. The waist belt hung unfastened as she bent over and scooped up both walking sticks in her left hand.
As she stood, a red-tailed hawk sailed across the trail and distracted her. Because of the gap between her and the others, only Meagan saw him, effortlessly floating in the updrafts of air. She marveled at his grace and beauty as she shifted the backpack and took a step forward.
Distracted by the bird, she did not watch her footing. The toe of her boot caught a loose rock, shifting her weight forward.
In her studies in college, a professor discussed the causes of plane crashes. While a single incident might be the precipitating event, it rarely was the sole cause. A simple mistake caught quickly and corrected solved the overall problem before disaster struck. Even if the mistake was huge – birds being sucked into and killing both engines upon takeoff – planes were designed to fly despite problems and pilots were trained to overcome the challenges. Captain Sully Sullenberger proved that by guiding a powerless flight into the Hudson River, saving the lives of everyone onboard. But as he pointed out, every member of the crew did their jobs as trained. No other mistakes were made.
But sometimes a second mistake compounds the error of the first mistake increasing the risk. If caught early, a pilot could overcome a second mistake – but not if a third and fourth created further cascading errors. A series of unfortunate events – rarely a single event – caused a plane crash.
Avianca Flight 52 ran into severe weather upon its approach to Kennedy Airport in New York. Air Traffic Control ordered them into multiple holding patterns and the plane ran low on fuel. They communicated the problem to their controller, but failed to confirm that subsequent controllers received the information. During the first landing attempt, they aborted due to weather. The pilot and co-pilot questioned each other whether the controllers understood their fuel situation, but neither asked the controllers. They never declared a fuel emergency. And they ran out of fuel. Seventy-three people died.
Officially, lack of fuel caused the crash. But did it really? A series of events and mistakes precipitated the accident, any one of which would have resulted in a different – and better – outcome if handled differently.
Watching the hawk rather than where she was stepping was a mistake, but it didn’t cause Meagan’s disaster. Sure, she wouldn’t have tripped over that rock if she had been paying attention, but anyone who has ever hiked has tripped over a rock. You stumble, catch yourself, laugh, and hike on down the trail.
But Meagan’s next mistake made things worse – much worse. She tried to plant one of the walking sticks into the ground for balance, but was still holding both in a single hand. If she had shifted one into each hand before walking, she would have recovered from the stumble.
Instead, just as the first stick contacted the ground, the second, held loosely in the same hand, crossed in front of her legs and tripped her. Already off balance, the second stick sent her stumbling off the trail.
And then another mistake took over. She never fastened the waist belt on her back pack. The heavy pack clung to her body with just the two shoulder straps – plenty of support when walking down the trail, but the bag swung sideways with her body as she fought to regain her balance. She could not overcome the shift in weight which propelled her toward the edge of the ridge.
Fighting for stability, she tried to ignore the steep drop. Pebbles bounced and clacked down the hill, bouncing off boulders and fallen trees. The pack pulled her forward, but she fought to regain footing. She slammed her foot down hard, trying desperately to stay upright.
She might still have made it, despite all the things that went wrong, if not for the ice. The sun worked on the trail surface, heating the rocks and melting the snow. But a thick layer of powder covered the edge of the trail, not allowing the sun to remove the ice underneath. Her boot struck a sheet of ice and refused to grip. She lost her balance.
Then – and only then – did she scream. A high-pitched shrill of terror. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Andrea turn fifty yards down the trail, too far away to help.
Meagan focused over the edge of the trail, down the hill. The jagged rocks. The broken tree stumps. Her body tipped over the edge and she twirled her arms to stop, but too much had gone wrong. A simple distraction. A few small mistakes. Some unfortunate conditions. None a disaster by themselves, but a lethal combination.
Meagan tumbled headfirst over the edge of the mountain, her screams silenced.