To The Other Side

an excerpt

Chapter One

Garrett paused in his hike, his warm breath blowing against the cool, misty air. He wet his lips, thirst burning on his tongue. Reaching back to his water bottle, fitted snug in a side compartment of his backpack, he pulled it free and put it to his mouth. He took a long drink, mentally chastising himself for not drinking sooner. By the time thirst hit, it already meant the body was starting to dehydrate.

He'd been on enough wilderness treks to know that. Here, where the air was cool and moisture was all around, the vegetation thick, it and the ground wet with dripping fog, it was easy to forget to drink. His body lost hydration with him hardly realizing it, whereas in the more arid places he'd been, like the Mojave Desert, the very land seemed to steal the moisture from one's body. But here in Washington, the temperate rainforest was more subtle in its dangers.

Garrett lowered the water bottle, slowly scanning the area. Deadly, yes. As all untamed areas were. But also, so breathtaking, and so fragile.

He pushed back the left sleeve of his coat to check the time. Eleven forty-five in the morning. He'd hiked since he broke camp at six thirty, pausing only once in that time for a brief rest. He was pushing himself too hard. He knew that. Desperation, though, tended to give motivation.

Spying a moss-covered downed tree, Garrett moved toward it and shrugged out of his backpack, nearly the same deep green as the moss. He sat on the log, resting his pack between his legs as he unzipped it to pull out his lunch; two granola bars--one formulated for energy and protein--a bag of dried fruit holding apples, cherries, cranberries, apricots, and prunes, a package of beef jerky, and because he had a particular weakness for them, a bag of Peanut M&M's.

He opened the energy and protein granola bar first, taking a bite into it, the grains, oats, and peanuts held together with honey and a peanut butter coating on the underside. His crunching and the crinkle of the wrapper sounded loud and unnatural amidst the mellifluous chirps of unseen songbirds in the green canopy, the tat-tat-tat of a woodpecker tapping against a tree in the distance, the soft drip of moisture falling from a leaf to another below it.

Breathing deep through his nose, Garrett took in the sharp scent of fir trees, like a natural stimulant to his mind and senses. He turned his head slowly, looking around the area. He'd traveled steadily uphill for the past hour, and though the ground had evened out, directly in front of him it sloped down to a ravine. A thin stream traveled through the bottom, weaving around rocks and trees. On the other side of the ravine, it cloned the wildness of the forest around him.

Sunlight streamed through the trees in brilliant gold lines, cutting through mist and shadow. Garrett tipped his head back, and through the green canopy he spotted the patches of blue sky, white clouds drifting through it.

He'd been to and traveled through every type of land imaginable--deserts, plains, mountains--but no matter the beauty of them all, it was the forests he loved most. He supposed he was a bit of a nemophilist that way. Even growing up, every chance he had, he was in the forest, wandering. There was something about being surrounded by the trees rising so high above him that made him feel calm and safe. And in the forest, he was never alone. He was surrounded by the company he preferred much more than his own human race; birds, squirrels, rabbits, and so many other creatures.

He lowered his gaze back to the forest. How could anyone not see the beauty here? How could anyone believe these ancient giants were more valuable as lumber, to be turned into a cheap coffee table, some sheets of paper, a house --when there were already more homes available for sale than people to live in them--rather than what they'd given to the planet for hundreds of years? Life, protection, clean air, things the world and all its inhabitants needed.

The government didn't see it that way. All they saw were the dollars slipped into their pockets by lobbyists from the lumber industry. As he'd learned long ago, protection of lands and its inhabitants, both animal and human, could be bought and sold.

That's where he came in. Eight years ago when he landed a job with the EarthQuest Foundation, he was overjoyed to have found a job where he could use his PhD in Biology with an Environmental Science minor to its fullest for the very reason he'd studied in the field; to protect and learn more about the world. More than once, the organization had sent him into areas threatened to be destroyed, and always he'd come out with evidence of how it was far more valuable to leave the land alone and intact rather than strip it down for manufacturing its resources or putting up the newest trendy housing development.

Except, this time, the forest was being reluctant in giving up her secrets.

Already, the Olympic National Park and Forest region had proven time after time that it possessed irreplaceable and priceless biodiversity. That's why the region had become protected in the first place. Since this part of the forest was on the border of the National Park, one would think making it part of the park and protecting it would be the most logical and natural course of action.

But for those sitting in Washington D.C. as opposed to Washington State, what did it matter to them? They did nothing but look at a map and see a large area of greenery. Surely, shaving off a chunk here and there couldn't cause that much damage. The animals could move deeper into the forest and they'd be fine. He knew that was exactly what the bureaucrats thought. Idiots.

This wasn't the first time he'd been in a tough spot trying to gather proof to show those who tried their hardest not to see how precious an ecosystem was. He'd always managed before. He would again. He'd already given up his search in the areas people frequented, and hiked deep into the wilds, where there were no paths to guide him. It was here, hidden deep from human eyes, he was sure to find the treasure that would save this area. What he needed was a plant or animal the public could put their support behind.

It was another thing he'd learned; finding a certain plant growing in an area that either had such beauty in the wild, people couldn't bear its loss, or perhaps had medicinal properties, helped get the masses on his side. Same as if he could discover a species of bird or animal that people wanted to protect, the more rare, cute, or beautiful, the better. He believed all species of living things, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and more, deserved protection, but for conservation to happen, it needed "ambassadors" everyone could get attached to.

These forests were filled with amazing flora and fauna, but most of it was already known. He needed to find what hadn't been discovered.

Garrett sighed and wadded up his granola bar wrapper, tucking it into the trash pouch of his pack. Finding what wasn't already known...far easier said than done. He knew there was no shortage of mysteries in the world waiting to be found. The finding, though, that was the trick.

He looked down at his remaining lunch and went for the Peanut M&Ms. He popped a red one in his mouth, rolling it around with his tongue as he contemplated the situation. Placing his hands on the log behind him, he leaned back and turned his gaze up to the trees again. He spoke to them, to the land, to all that was around him.

"I know you don't want to give up your secrets, but I need you to give me just one if I'm going to be able to save you."

He'd spoken quietly, but his voice sounded loud, a soft echo following it. The birds fell silent. He was sure this deep in the forest, a human voice was a strange and unfamiliar thing.

He closed his eyes, listening as the noises of nature picked up again. A new sound came to his ears, a soft buzzing hum, like a bee or a hummingbird....

A hummingbird. If he could find a rare or previously unknown species of hummingbird, that could be what he needed. All types of hummingbirds were some of the most beloved species of bird.

Garrett opened his eyes, and before he could move his head, a flash of shimmering green zipped across his field of vision, the humming loud in its wake. He snapped his head to follow the tiny creature's flight, tugging his camera out of his pack. He saw the green dot darting in halting starts and stops around a cluster of wildflowers.

Moving slowly, Garrett shifted himself into a better position, drawing closer toward his target. He raised his camera, hitting the zoom to get a better look and hopefully identify the species of hummingbird to see if this tiny creature could be the savior of the forest. As it flew into full view, his breath caught in a soft gasp, his body and mind froze in disbelief.

It wasn't a hummingbird. It was a...dragon?

As the word passed through his mind, Garrett instantly tried to dismiss it. No. This creature couldn't be a dragon. For one, dragons were massive, all smoke and fire. For another, they didn't exist! They were myths, fantasy, fairytales, and daydreams.

But, hadn't he seen the discovery of enough plants and animals to never say something didn't exist?

Garrett blinked, as if the action would dispel the little creature back into the fairytale it must've come from. But it was still there, hovering, wings moving so fast they were a blur, a long tongue extending out and dipping into the flower drinking nectar.

Rational thought pushed aside his shock. Whatever this animal was, he needed pictures. He started snapping shots, the click of his camera and buzzing of wings filling his ears.

The creature had a long neck and tail, a reptilian head, wings and four tiny clawed feet on four tiny legs. It looked exactly how he'd imagine a dragon, albeit with a gentler air. It moved like a hummingbird, like it was some strange hybrid. But how could that be possible? Of course, how could he doubt it when he was looking right at it? Maybe it wasn't a dragon. Maybe it was some new species of flying lizard. A voice queried from the back of his mind, wasn't that exactly what a dragon was supposed to be?

From seemingly out of nowhere, a second dragon appeared, bright ruby red, and dove at the first. The first zipped away from the flower after its red fellow dragon. With the flick of a switch on his camera, Garrett changed from snapping pictures to recording a video of the two creatures circling each other in a playful airborne dance. A soft laugh slipped from his throat.

Both dragons paused, hovering in place, tiny heads swinging around. The green one shot toward him.

Garrett pulled back, fearing that at its speed, it would crash into his camera. He realized how much control it had when it stopped inches away, its head tipping back and forth in obvious curiosity at him and his camera.

As his camera beeped that the video time was over, Garrett didn't press to record more. Instead, he lowered his camera, in awe of the little dragon hovering before his eyes.

The red dragon darted by. The green lingered a second longer, then zoomed after the red.

Garrett gazed after their path toward the ravine, and for a second time, shock jolted him. While he'd watched the dragons, another creature had watched him. A bear stood on the other side of the ravine, its coat brilliant white against the greens and browns of the forest.

Garrett scrambled to his feet, his heart pounding fast. He moved toward the edge of the ridge, his gaze riveted on the bear. His voice left him in a whisper. "A spirit bear. But one's never been spotted in this area before."

After what he'd witnessed with the hummingbird-like dragons, the last thing he was going to doubt was that a spirit bear could exist in the region. There were black bears in the area, and that's what a spirit bear, or Kermode bear, was; a black bear who because of a recessive gene, had white fur. Most resided in British Columbia, and in particular, an area called the Great Bear Rainforest. Highly cherished by the people of the First Nations, no games were played when it came to protecting the bears.

And now, here he stood looking at one. He could rationalize the existence of a spirit bear far more than he could explain the little dragons. After all, it was proven genetically. Very, very rare, but the proof was known and documented. Plus, British Columbia wasn't so far away. Over the years, strains of the bears that were native there could've worked their way down into Washington.

His mind reeled in amazement. First the dragons. Now a spirit bear. All at once, the forest had opened up to share her secrets.

Garrett stepped closer to the ravine's edge, lifting his camera to see the bear through the zoomed lens. It stood quiet, regarding him with calm brown eyes.

Garrett inched as close to the slope's edge as he dared, laying a hand on a thin tree for balance. He hit a button on the camera to record a video of the bear, speaking to it as if the bear could hear and understand his words from across the ravine. "I'm going to do all I can to save your home. I won't let--"

The soft ground caved under his weight.

His fingernails scraped along the bark of the tree in a last effort to save himself, but it was too late. His body pulled him down. Tumbling, tossing, bouncing off the earth, crashing through brush, Garrett could do nothing to stop himself. Falling, falling, falling. His speed increased with the steep incline.

His fall ended with a crash, all the momentum he'd gained tumbling down the slope throwing him into the shallow stream. He landed on his back, the force driving the air from his lungs. The back of his head bounced off a rock. Clinging to consciousness, he fought to bring air into his body. As he filled his lungs, pain shot through his left side, and he didn't have to move to know he had more injuries.

Icy water seeped through his clothes. He could feel a dark wave in his mind trying to pull him under. In his wonder of the beauty the forest had to offer, he'd forgotten the first and foremost rule of being in the wild; to always respect it. He'd thought the forest was finally sharing her secrets, but it seemed she wanted to keep them, after all. Above him, the sunlight illuminated the leaves, like verdant jewels. He held onto the image as long as he could before he fell into blackness.