Lost on a Wild Goose Chase

Stefan plodded on, his pack weighing heavy on his back. The mornings on the trail were the worst for him; the longer he walked, the better he felt, other than sore feet. By the end of the day, he was joyful as he set up his tent and cooked his final meal of the day. 

But today felt different. 

A strange sound woke him early, a strange sound that had yet to repeat itself. In that place between wakefulness and sleep, Stefan was unable to identify the sound, and it gnawed at the back of his mind. 

He came upon a footprint on the trail: a bare human footprint, pointing sideways, as though the owner of the foot had raced across the trail, rather than along it. Stefan stopped, and squatted to study the print. 

Fresh, because the dry dust hadn’t crumbled in on itself, or been blown away. Light, because it was quite shallow in the fine dirt. And odd–were those claw marks at the tips of the toes?

Stefan stood up and tried to peer into the woods where whoever had gone. He stared, and just as he was about to give up, a sudden movement. 

“Hello?” he called. 

No answer. 

He took that fateful step off the trail. Stefan knew better, truly he did, but he told himself that he wouldn’t go far, that he wouldn’t lose sight of the trail. 

In less than a minute, he broke that promise. 

Something metallic glinted in a stray shaft of sunlight, and Stefan bent to investigate. It was a key, a shiny gold skeleton key. He picked it up, as unable to resist its brightness as a crow. The key was smooth and warm, almost feeling liquid in his hand. 

He looked up and realized he had no idea where he was in relation to the trail, but the wonder of the golden key helped the briefest twinge of worry fade away into nothing. 

He began walking in the direction he was facing, neither knowing nor caring if it was toward the trail. 

Far behind him, and off to his left, his cell phone vibrated in the dirt of the trail, erasing the footprint as it danced along the ground. 

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