THE HIKE

Melissa Darcey

ISSUE TEN | SPRING 2018

Though it was early March, the first weekend of hot Southern California weather had arrived, convincing the birds to awake from their slumber and resume their singing lessons; for lizards to return to their sunbathing; and for park rangers to dust off signs warning of rattlesnakes along the rocky trails in the rural hills north of San Diego proper.

“It’s just so animalistic,” he cringed, staring at the carcass of a possum. Its stomach was open-mouthed and splattered slightly off the path at the foot of the trail.

“That’s because it’s an animal, Greg. A dead one. You should know what that looks like.”

“There it is,” he mumbled.

“Yes, pretend like you didn’t want me to hear that,” she snapped back.

A family of five arrived and overtook the wide, flat path that offered scenic views as opposed to craggy passes. The youngest of the children squealed at the sight of the carcass.

“Looks like we’re going this way,” she pointed to the narrower, rockier trail. “We are not about to spend the next few hours around a bunch of shrieking children.”

“I don’t know,” he said, pointing at the map posted on the bulletin board. “It’s seven miles round trip.”

“And?”

Without waiting for an answer she took the lead and headed down the trail.

“Just because Amelia’s gone doesn’t mean you have to go back to hating all children,” he offered. “There are billions of them in the world. You can’t avoid them forever.”

“Your therapist would be so proud. You can parrot her nuggets of wisdom on command.”

“Our therapist,” he reminded her.

Less than five minutes in and he already regretted agreeing to this. Heather would never change. She was stubborn and vindictive. Dr. Shafer may not know this, but he did. How many times would he have to apologize? How could she expect him to keep apologizing for something that was an accident?

He looked down at his watch. 11:52 AM blinked.

He gazed back up at the dirt trail ahead. It was rocky and littered with tall weeds. There was nothing scenic before them or behind them. There was nothing relaxing or tranquil about the whole damn thing. He couldn’t understand how anyone enjoyed hiking, let alone on this trail.

Heather had slowed and was now only a few yards ahead of him.

“No,” she broke the silence. “Your therapist. I’m just there for support.”

“Ha!” he released an abrupt, single syllabic laugh. “You have to be kidding me. You couldn’t be less supportive if you tried.”

She swung around like a rattlesnake, ready to strike. Her nose was pink, her eyes hidden behind the veil of oversized sunglasses, and her mouth pinched. She had turned around so sharply she nearly lost her balance, her right foot slipping off a rock and onto the dirt.

“Are you okay?” he asked, only slightly concerned.

“I’m fine,” she crouched to rub her ankle. “I just need to tie my shoelace. Go on ahead.”

“Good. It’s not like I’m capable of anything. You’ve made that loud and clear.”

He walked passed her, taking the lead.

*

Heather widened her eyes and breathed in deeply through her nose. She would not cry. Not here. Not on this damn trail Dr. Shafer insisted they would enjoy.

“Nature has a wonderful way of healing wounds,” she’d told her during their most recent session last Thursday.

What a load of bullshit, Heather thought. Nothing would heal this wound. She and Greg would be scarred forever, as they should be.

She scanned the cloudless, bright sky. Even wearing sunglasses, she had to squint. The breeze slowed to a stop, and the heat seemed to sizzle from the ground and into her feet.

I’m in an actual hell, she thought.

She and Greg enjoyed the openness and silence of nature but from the comfort of a windowed room. It was what had initially drawn them together in college. They met in a nature photography class, both young sophomore idealists envisioning themselves as National Geographic photojournalists. An hour into their first field trip to Joshua Tree National Park, they both realized they only enjoyed gazing at nature from the lens of someone else’s camera.

They each dropped the class and began dating. She would major in economics, and he in web design. Before long, they would be married and living in the San Diego pseudo-countryside, admiring their sliver of a mountain view from the kitchen window. They’d lived here nearly a decade now but had never considered visiting one of the dozens of trails surrounding them.

Yet here they were now. She wanted to ask Greg if he remembered the trip to Joshua Tree. He would, of course, and they would laugh about how no one in their class seemed to mind rolling in the dirt for the chance to take what would likely be a moodily lit photograph of a yucca tree. Instead, she continued along the trail in silence.

After a short incline, the trail wrapped around an increasingly rocky mountain. Now heading downhill, their heavy breaths were accented by sharp inhales and exhales that accompanied every footstep. Rather than tiptoe from rock to rock, they dropped each foot to the next rock ahead with force, as if daring their legs to give in to the force and collapse. But their legs never did, and they kept walking, Heather embracing the head rush she felt with each drop.

*

Greg didn’t know why he was on this trail with Heather. It was pointless.

“Don’t you want to try?” Dr. Shafer had questioned him.

“You’re on her side?” he’d snapped back.

“I’m merely asking a question.”

“He doesn’t need to try,” Heather chimed in. “He’s perfectly fine with forgetting Amelia even existed. He just wants to move on. For me to get over it.”

The truth was, he was done trying. Dr. Shafer didn’t know his wife like he did. He couldn’t smile without Heather accusing him of moving on. She would never forgive him. Maybe five years ago, when she wasn’t so damn high-strung and controlling. Maybe before cabinet locks and outlet covers and corner guards. But not now.

“Would you do it for Amelia?” the doctor had asked.

“Don’t,” Heather stopped her.

*

The trail flattened, and rocks gave way to a wider dirt path. Ahead, a clearing of trees sheltered a splintered bench. The trunks and branches were black, scorched from the previous fall’s fires. They collapsed onto the bench an arm’s length away from each other.

“Fuck,” Heather panted, shaking the water bottle. “It’s almost empty already.”

Greg stood back up and walked over to the trail map, protected behind a foggy glass case.

“If we keep going this way, it loops around to the top. We still have another five miles.”

Heather groaned, just as Greg predicted. He looked down at his watch. 2:11 PM. It had taken them over an hour to travel just two miles.

“If we cut through and climb this mountain, I think we can shave off a few of those miles. The parking lot should be just ahead on the other side.”

He knew Heather would never go for that option. She believed in following the rules.

“Depends on how quickly you want to get out of here,” he added. “This way is pretty steep, though.”

“We’ll take the shortcut.”

Any other time, he would have felt triumphant. This time, he was disappointed.

“Or, we can just turn back and give up.”

Heather didn’t speak.

“That’s what we’re doing anyway, right?”

She looked away without responding, shifting her weight on the bench. How had they ended up here on a trail in the wilderness with a few gulps left of water? It was hard to imagine their lives just two years ago—the guest bed replaced with a crib, the room painted a minty green color called Bath Salts, pillows and blankets monogrammed with the letter “A.” That had been their lives just two springs ago.

“It’s not that you can’t forgive me, it’s that you won’t. You refuse,” he pulled at his hair, kneeling in the dirt. “I understand it takes time, but it’s been six months. You think I don’t miss her? I’m not the one who threw out her crib and gave away all of her things.”

*

The worst part about it all was that Heather hadn’t even wanted kids. Kids were never part of their plan.

“I want to live freely, without anything tying us down,” Heather had repeated whenever he broached the topic. The pregnancy had been a mistake neither of them knew could happen. She had been on the Pill. She had a low egg count. Her mother had had difficulties conceiving naturally.

“It’s Fort Knox down there,” he had joked when they found out. “How could this have happened?”

They had considered an abortion and even made an appointment two separate times.

“It feels like it’s for idiot college girls. Not a grown woman,” Heather had complained.

Time made the decision for them. At six months, they had no choice other than to share the news.

“We could always give it up for adoption and say it died in childbirth,” Heather suggested at the eight-month mark. “It’s still not too late to take back control of our lives.”

“I don’t know,” Greg shrugged. He couldn’t tell Heather the truth: that he wanted the child. Up until her pregnancy, it felt as though he had been wearing blinders. Now, there was a new dimension to everything he saw. It was as if he was watching the world for two people instead of just himself.

And then the baby arrived.

“I guess we’ll keep her,” Heather said coolly, rocking the newborn in her arms against the stiff hospital robes.

“Okay,” was all Greg could say. He couldn’t tell if Heather was glaring or holding back a smile. But then the smile came, and it never left so long as Amelia was in the room.

*

Heather hadn’t smiled in six months, and this hike wasn’t helping.

Several minutes passed and Greg was still kneeling on the dirt, frozen as if he were a statue waiting for Heather to bring him back to life.

“Why did you leave her? I told you not to, and you did it anyway,” Heather finally spoke.

“I forgot the stupid bath toy. She was crying and screaming, and I couldn’t get her to stop. I was only supposed to be gone two seconds. You act like I wasn’t ever careful with her, but I was. You just treated her like a glass doll.”

Heather’s eyes teared up.

“I told you a million times what happened, but you don’t seem to believe me. Of all the stories we’ve told, why would I lie about that?”

Heather was sure it had all been a cruel trick, and this hike was the big finale. It was something her mother would say was meant to teach her a lesson. She had brought a child into the world in a hostile womb; a body that was counting down the days until it could finally be free again.

“I will make this up to you,” she remembered whispering into the newborn’s ear.

She would never forget the immediate guilt she felt when she first held Amelia. And now she would never be able to fix it. She wasn’t usually superstitious, but she couldn’t help but feel she had brought a child into the world with a dark cloud hanging over her head. It was foreshadowing. It was the gun on the wall in Act 1; only it was Greg who would be the one to fire it in Act 3.

*

“You refuse to answer me on this. Every time, you shut me down,” Greg continued, forcing Heather back to reality.

“Because,” she shouted. “She shouldn’t have died in such a pointless way.”

“Pointless?”

“Our daughter died because her father was an idiot. You let her drown.”

“So you’re traumatized, and I’m doing just fine? You’re not the one who woke up to an overflowing bathtub with your infant at the bottom.”

He’d tripped on the bath rug and knocked himself out just long enough for his daughter to drown. Greg thought it was an accident, but she knew it wasn’t. It was punishment from some higher power for not initially wanting Amelia.

Heather jumped up from the bench and started up the mountain Greg had suggested as an alternate route. Following behind her, he immediately realized he’d made a mistake suggesting this route. The mountain was much steeper and taller than it had looked just a few feet away. She picked up speed, grabbing at the rocks around her for support. She lowered her body and resembled a wild cat, clawing and scrambling to escape a rising flood nipping at her heels.

“Would you slow down?” Greg shouted.

He was panting, incapable of catching up to Heather who was now several yards ahead. He knew she had to be tired and it was only a matter of time before she would have to rest. She was almost to the top but he wasn’t sure if the mountain flattened and led to the parking lot or simply led to more mountains. He hadn’t thought about this when he’d first suggested this route. He never believed she would agree to it.

She gasped for air when she reached the top. She hadn’t realized she had been holding her breath for the last few climbs. Arms against her thighs for support, she bent over and listened to her heart pounding. Looking up, she saw that their ascent to the top hadn’t led to one of the trail paths or the parking lot.

She peered into the distance. If she continued straight, she would have to descend this mountain and climb again toward the right to reach one of the trails. She could turn around and go back the way they came. Left would take her in the wrong direction, and right was too steep to descend easily.

She could hear Greg making his way up the mountain. She looked ahead. He would expect her to go this way. He would follow and eventually catch up. They would walk back to the car and drive home. She cringed at the thought. She refused to turn back and face him, which meant she was forced to go right or left.

When he reached the top, she wasn’t there waiting for him.

“Heather?”

He peered ahead and then around in circles, hoping to spot her white shirt waving in the wind, surrendering.

Melissa Darcey is a writer based in San Diego. Her work has been featured in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Columbia Journal, The Rumpus, Gravel, Extract(s), and elsewhere.

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