Lily had been moving for about an hour before the well-worn track ahead of her branched off to smaller paths to the sides; the hikers ahead of her didn’t seem to be expressing a preference, so she just kept going straight. Soon thereafter, the path entered a pine forest, and she walked across a thick carpet of needles in the cool shade. When a pine needle jabbed the sole of her foot, Lily realized that she was wearing the same outfit that she had on when Harte had administered the Visulex -- jeans, a light top, and sandals. Most of the other hikers she had seen were wearing at least sneakers, if not hiking boots; she felt underdressed for a long walk in the woods, especially when the wind began to pick up.
She turned around and headed back along the path, but after several minutes she hadn’t emerged into the sunlight. Lily didn’t think that she had missed a turn; the main path had seemed straight, and she’d avoided the branches she’d seen along the way. The strange peacefulness that she had been feeling faded at thought that she might be lost; she took a deep breath of the forest air and tried to force herself to relax. There was no point working herself into a panic by getting upset every time something strange happened here.
Another hiker wearing a polar fleece passed by her, headed in the direction the meadow lay. He certainly didn’t seem worried; he gave her a cheery little wave, and she gave a cursory nod back. Then, a moment later, she ran to catch up with him.
The hiker kept moving, but slowed a bit as Lily fell in beside him.
“Are you headed towards the meadow?” she asked.
“The meadow’s back the other way,” the hiker said, pointing a thumb in the direction Lily had originally been walking. “Can’t get there from here.”
“Right,” she said. “You know, you’re the only person I’ve seen headed in this direction so far.”
“Miss, this is the only way you can go in the forest. Never known anyone to try going the other way.” And Lily saw that the others on the path were now all traveling the same direction as she and the hiker were moving.
The hiker started moving faster. “If you’ll excuse me, I should really pick up the pace a bit. Long way to go, you know,” he said, and he moved off ahead of her. A few minutes later, he took one of the branching paths off of the main path, and disappeared from sight.
Lily kept moving, hoping that the path would eventually lead her out from under the canopy and into the warm sun.
Instead, she began to sense a grade under her feet, an upward slope. She couldn’t see the path rising, or dropping away behind her; yet, she found herself beginning to perspire, and her calves beginning to burn. The unseen slope slowly increased with each step.
She turned around and retraced her steps...and still felt as if she were climbing upwards.
This must be it, Lily thought. Grandpa said he walked uphill both ways to and from school when he was a kid. Looks like I’ve found the hill.
Most of the other hikers had not slowed their pace at all, not even seeming to notice the change. Here and there, though, she saw other people lagging behind on the path. The stragglers were, like her, inappropriately dressed for the forest. One or two were in pajamas.
Then the wind turned to ice. The path turned to rocky scree on the side of a mountain, and she was exposed to a sky thick with mackerel clouds. The slope became steeper, and there were no branches off of the path. Lily wrapped her arms around herself for warmth and fought her way upward, trying to ignore the groans and sobs from the others who were struggling.
And yet, other hikers strolled right past as if the path were as flat as it looked, smiling as if they were still walking through the meadow. As they passed, they voiced trite words of encouragement.
“Keep going! You can do it!”
“Oh, come on, this is the easy part!”
Lily’s face flushed with rage even as she tucked her frozen fingers deeper under her arms. She bit back a retort. Won’t give them the satisfaction, she thought. She forced her way onward.
Snow began to fall.
Soon, she had no choice but to use her hands. The path became so steep that she was no longer walking it, but climbing it on all fours. Finally, she was stretched out on the path, unable to move farther. She watched the feet of the other hikers stepping around her as if she were a fallen log. She looked down, or back, or whatever the direction was; her eyes told her that she was lying flat on the ground, but her inner ear told her she was clinging to a sheer face by toe and finger holds.
So much for the path, Lily thought. I can’t beat this. It’ll just keep curving up until I’m trying to hang from the ceiling – and then what? Fall off into the sky? Her eyes began to tear in the howling wind. How am I supposed to beat a world that makes no sense?
* * *
[Go to Chapter 13.3]