If Rob hadn’t been there, Jennifer would never have spotted the trail. She stopped to get her breath, and shivered as a stray breeze raised goosebumps on her skin.
“How much farther is it?” she asked.
“Not far. It’s worth it, I promise.”
“Then why aren’t there any signs, pointing out where these picto-things are?”
“Pictographs,” said Rob patiently. “And I don’t know,” he added. “People don’t seem to like talking about them much. This whole valley has kind of a . . . reputation.”
“I can see why. Gives me the creeps.” Jennifer jumped as a bird shrilled not far above her head, to be answered by another further away. She shivered again. “Hope they really are worth it.”
She had to admit, a minute later, that they were. The cliff had been almost invisible through the trees until they were at its base, and the mass of rock, stretching to the right and left and far above, would have been impressive in its own right. Jennifer felt giddy, trying to see the top, and dropped her eyes to the pictographs.
The rusty orange-brown designs were daubed, seemingly at random, along the lower reaches of the cliff. She could make out figures of people, and what looked like deer, and birds. Most of the paintings were small, but one, of a large bird with wings outspread, dominated the others. She stared at it.
“What’s that?” she asked, pointing to a mark above its left wing.
Rob squinted. “Looks like an arrow,” he said finally. “Maybe it shows a hunting scene.”
“I don’t think they’d have wanted to hunt that,” said Jennifer.
“Why’d you say that?”
“I don’t know,” replied Jennifer. Her voice sounded strained. “I just . . . I don’t like it. I don’t like this place. Can we go back?”
“Yeah, sure. I just want to take a couple of pictures.”
“Go ahead. I’ll wait in the car.” She turned and started back down the trail. “Don’t be too long,” she threw back over her shoulder.
Rob shook his head. “Women,” he muttered under his breath, taking the camera from round his neck. A bird screeched again as he focused on its painted counterpart; then he jerked his head back with a start.
The arrow was gone.
He lowered the camera and looked again. No, it wasn’t there. He approached the cliff, and touched the rocky surface as if to make sure. His fingers grazed the painted bird as he did so, and for a moment he felt dizzy and sick. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
When he opened them, everything seemed . . . different. The tree branches still swayed in the breeze, but they made no noise, and the chatter of birds that had acted as a background chorus had fallen silent. Not a sound disturbed the scene, and he felt for a moment as if he had fallen out of time.
Pictures were suddenly the last thing on his mind. He turned and started back down the trail, which seemed rockier, less distinct than it had on the way up. Twice he almost lost his footing, branches clawing at him, as he made his way back to the clearing, the road, Jennifer, the car. . . .
The car was gone.
Rob stopped, his mind racing through possible explanations, refusing to consider that Jennifer had driven off. She couldn’t have, he’d have heard her, she wouldn’t have left him there, stranded. . . .
And then he realized that it was not just the car that had vanished. The road, too, was gone, or at least diminished, now little more than a rough track. He tried to make sense of it. Had he come down a different trail? Found another road (but what other roads were there, up here)? Come out at the wrong spot?
He stood, questions without answers chasing themselves round in his head, then jumped as a sound – the only sound in that vast expanse of trees – came to his ears. It was a loud flapping noise, oddly dull, as of something far above him coming closer, the sound muffled by the branches that hid it from sight.
Rob knew, with perfect clarity, that he did not want to see what was making the sound. He turned and fled in the only direction he could: back up the trail, towards the cliff.
He did not stop until he reached the base, where he stood, panting, like a cornered animal. The sound was drawing nearer, and instinctively he drew back as far as he could, as if he could somehow hide in the rock. His hand, groping blindly behind him, brushed the painted bird once more.
Again that feeling of sickness washed over him, and he closed his eyes, uttering a small cry as a sound, loud and harsh, echoed around him. In his dazed state it took him a moment to identify it.
A car horn.
Rob opened his eyes, as the normal sounds of the forest crept round him once more. He turned to the cliff face, and saw that the arrow was once more where it should be. Far above him a bird cried.
Making sure not to touch the painting, he backed away, then turned and made his way down the trail as quickly as he could. Jennifer, sitting in the passenger seat of the car, called to him as he emerged from the trees.
“What took you so long? Please, let’s go. You’ll laugh at me, but I really don’t like this place at all. . . .”