Not a review.
Original story; a bit abstract and potentially too long. Please note the spiffy lil copyright at the bottom. 🙂
The Second Station
“There are two things I will carry in my pockets at the end. Oh, my darlin’, you are one of them.”
The phone rang twice. Sarah did not answer. She pushed the chair from the desk and went to her bag propped against the doorframe. Kneeling alongside it, she curled her fingers through its straps and leaned her forehead against the water-stained bedroll. They were wasting their time in hotels. It was better outside in the wind and wet.
“Are you ready?” she called.
“So impatient,” he chided from the bathroom.
She pulled the map from where it was wedged in a side pocket. Unfolding it, she dropped her eyes to the single road stretching north to the end of the earth. It was a popular place for tourists and lovers; a place where the earth passed away countless miles above an unseen and soundless sea. Thin rivers poured over and sank into mist.
“Now you’ll know I’m serious when I say I’d go to the end of the earth for you,” he had teased while they planned their trip and made arrangements to be overseas for a month. They had slept in old hotels and busted houses, under thick trees and beneath the naked sky. The joy dwindled after the second week when he confessed to finding the constant chill insufferable and begged her to leave the barren road for a village. “It’s exhausting,” he had said. “Besides, what are we supposed to do when we get there besides turn around come back?”
“Maybe we could fly off the edge and keep going,” she said.
Δ Δ Δ
A canvas pack with reinforced straps leaned against her chair at the bar. It stood as tall as her seated form and drew his eye from where he stood in the doorway. Its pockets bulged and a rolled sleeping mat was fastened to one side, a pressed tarp to the other. Small containers and pouches hung from the zipper pulls and clips. Watermarks and stains concealed its original color; it was as large as the girl and certainly heavier. She swung her feet and kicked her boots against the underside of the bar. Scraps of mud flaked off with each kick and sank into the spilled beer beneath her stool.
He hesitated before entering. The bar was filthy with close walls and a sagging ceiling. The floor ran downhill to guide weary travelers to their places at the counter. Dark-eyed men with rolled shirtsleeves occupied the tables near the windows and the only open seat was next to her.
He settled in beside her, sneaking a glance at her face while she stared into her beer. She was not pretty; she seemed like she might have been from a distance. Her clothes were worn and patched, stitched with mismatched thread. They had been expensive and fashionable when purchased, but constant use had degraded them to their basic functions of warmth and protection. Mud was slicked up her shins and the elbows of her jacket were dark with grit. He saw her torn fingernails when she raked a hand through her hair; its uneven cut indicated she had chopped it herself with a blunt edge. Is that how he would look after a time? He hoped not.
The bartender rested his hand on the line of glasses below the lip of the counter, “What’ll it be?”
“Whatever she’s having.”
“Whatever she’s drinking. I don’t know,” he turned to her. “What are you drinking?”
“It’s local,” she said without looking up.
“Whatever’s local,” he said and pointed to her glass.
The bartender shrugged and pulled a beer.
He looked at the tar-like substance in his glass and felt disinclined to drink. He had only ordered it so she would look at him, but she had not. “Where are you going?” he asked after a moment.
“Wherever I feel like.”
“Where are you staying?”
“On the road. I have a tent.”
“I’m staying here.”
“I know.” She turned to face him, “I can tell by the way you’re dressed.”
He looked down at his well-cut jacket with its gleaming zippers and buckles. His bags were upstairs in his room at the foot of his bed. Compared to him, everyone was thin and worn. The girl wrapped her hands around her mug and he stared at the stained cloth strips wound around her left wrist and hand.
“How long have you been here?”
“A long time.”
He lifted his glass and cringed when the dark beer touched his lips. It was sour and tasted stale with an undercurrent of burnt bread.
“I know you’re new because you don’t speak the language yet,” she explained.
“I understand it. You heard me order a drink, didn’t you?”
She looked at him. “Mmn-hmn. I’d like a quick bite. Why don’t you order something for us?” She lifted her arm and waved.
The bartender came over reluctantly, not knowing what to expect when he saw the girl smiling at the man. She had been expressionless for hours, hunched over evaporating glasses of beer. “What can I get for you?”
“I’d like a menu,” he said.
“I’d like to see a menu so I can order dinner.”
The bartender stood blankly.
“He’d like a menu to order dinner,” she said.
The bartender handed her a menu without looking at the man.
“We’ll call you back when we’ve decided,” he said slowly.
The bartender glared.
“We need time to decide,” said the girl, “we’ll call you back.”
The bartender left.
“Satisfied?” she asked.
“It takes time, but you’ll pick it up.”
He snapped the menu from her. “Do you have some game with the bartender to screw with the men who bother you?”
“You repeated everything I said and he understood you.”
“I didn’t repeat. I translated.”
He flipped the menu back at her and took another swig of beer before remembering how much it flipped his stomach. He didn’t feel like giving her the satisfaction of leaving. When the bartender returned, he pointed to pictures of the items he wanted and the girl ordered for herself.
“I wasn’t mocking you,” she said. “I was translating. Can you really understand what I am saying?”
“Repeat after me.”
“Repeat after me,” he said drily.
“What’s your name?”
“Hi Luke, I’m Jamie.” She stuck out her hand to play at being serious. “It’s very nice to meet you. Where are you staying?”
“I have a room upstairs. Haven’t we been through this?”
“I’m starting over and this time I’ll be nicer. You can’t help having a rough time with the language at first.”
He sighed and slapped his hands on the bar. He stood, about to leave, but he saw the bartender walking their direction with steaming pots and bowls of rice.
“Hard to leave now, isn’t it?” she said, following his gaze.
“Thank you,” he said when the bartender arranged the dishes in front of him.
“Thank you,” she translated dutifully.
Luke lifted the cover from the pot and steam flowed out, partially obscuring the dish beneath. It was a stew with large chunks of softened vegetables peering through thick, white sauce. It was too hot to eat. He stirred it and waited for it to cool. “You’re not going to let this speaking thing go, are you?”
“It doesn’t bother me. I can understand you. It’s everyone else you’re bound to bother.”
He smiled. “So where are you from?”
She didn’t answer as soon as he expected. Stirring her vegetables, her face clouded and she seemed confused, dizzy, like she might slide from the stool. He put an arm across her back in case she fell and she started.
“Don’t touch me!” she shouted.
Heads turned around the bar and several men took a step towards her assistance; she waved them away. The bartender grabbed Luke’s hand as it reached for his fork, “Don’t be giving her any trouble. You hear me?”
Luke jerked his head up and down rather than risk being misunderstood.
“It’s fine. Really,” said Jamie quietly. “He asked where I was from.”
“Oh,” the bartender’s face went slack and he patted her hand even as he dug his nails harder into Luke’s wrist, “It’ll come back, Dearie.”
Luke returned to his dinner with a sore wrist, not looking at Jamie as she stared flatly at her food. He worried he would walk into a similar blunder if he spoke again.
“It’s ok,” she said quickly. “I’ve been here for so long that it’s hard to think about where I’m from. If you stay long enough, you realize there isn’t any going back. Doors close and you go from one town to the next until you don’t have to anymore. You’re from the east coast. I can tell that much at least.”
“My accent. Is that why no one understands me?”
“Nah,” she smiled, “but it doesn’t help.”
“If you need a translator, you can travel with me for a little while.”
He looked at her face to read her, but it was smooth and reflective. “I should be ok,” he said finally, “but thanks for the offer.”
“Of course. I’m going to be heading out. I was going to go another few miles and get to the woods.” She climbed down from the bar and began adjusting the straps of her bag. He wondered if she could lift it.
“You’re not feeling run off now that I’ve rejected you?” he asked. He forced his tone to be light and teasing to mask his seriousness. He was sorry to see her go.
She looked up, “What a silly question. You’re the one who needs looking after. I was just trying to be nice.” She unzipped a back pocket and pulled out a phrasebook. “Take this.”
“Fantastic,” he said, “this will teach me to translate English into English? Just what I’ve always needed.” He looked at her, expecting her to laugh, but her face had gone misty again and she swayed as she knelt by the bag. He reached out to steady her, but remembered how she had rebelled against his touch and pulled back. She cocked her head to the side as though listening, but the bar had gone quiet. He glanced at his watch and read 11:21 on its polished face. He chuckled.
She jerked at the sound, “What?”
“Everyone stopped talking at once. Those kinds of silences always happen at either twenty after or twenty before the hour. Just one of those things I heard once, but it’s true. It’s like how they say you’ll live five hours longer if you wear socks to bed.”
“Does that mean you wear socks to bed?” Her voice was soft.
“You might want to start. It gets cold here.” She leaned over and lifted her bag in one smooth motion. It was such a natural gesture that it was unremarkable. She clipped the buckles at her waist and chest and leaned over under the weight. “Be seeing you.”
“See you,” he said.
The next morning found Jamie face-down and shivering. Her body was taut with cold, though she had insulated her tent and zippered an additional liner into her sleeping bag. “It’s getting too cold for this,” she said, standing to stretch. Her tent was large enough for two people; she had previously traveled with someone else. When asked about him, she said he had flown off like a bird. It was the first expression that came to mind when she was pressed for misplaced details. First he left, then she forgot, then it ceased to matter. She scratched her left wrist idly and her fingers slipped beneath the bandages where the skin was healthy and whole.
Opening a line in her tent, she peered out. The fog had crept up and swallowed her tent like a pill and washed it down with the rain. She shivered. The fog was following her. It had not dissipated for months and left the earth spongy and thick. There was little left to grab hold of in the wet world; the slick surfaces of rocks and soaked trees deterred all grasps and leanings. The trees seemed top heavy; the branches were laden with flat leaves and the trunks were anemic with peeling bark. She sighed. The sun had been out in the beginning and they had gone through the woods with her fingers tangled in his; they’d looked at each other and smiled in the uneven light. But the rains came and followed them to the place where the earth went away. Then he flew like a bird. She smiled wanly.
The fog ate all sounds and left her ears filled with an empty ringing. She stood on the edge of the waterproof tarp laid flat beneath her tent. Pulling a cigarette from the slim pack in her pocket, she slipped it between her lips while coaxing a flame from a lighter. She inhaled deeply and held in the smoke, warming herself from within.
Luke stirred in his bed. It was a cheap inn, but the sheets were thick and cozy. The windows rattled faintly in their frames and he wondered how Jamie was faring or whether she’d decided to find a warmer place when the weather turned. He switched on the light and propped himself up to flip through her phrasebook. Its corners had been worn to smooth crescents and dozens of paper tags stuck out from the pages. He opened the cover to find a handwritten note pressed into the binding. He unfolded it. It was a poem filled with kisses and caresses and it made him blush. His eyes skipped from word to word without connecting them. Had it been written for Jamie? Surely not her, with her chopped hair and stooped shoulders. Her pale and clammy skin could not be confused with the soft velvet tongued by the unidentified lover. He turned the paper over, looking for a date or name, “For Sarah,” it read.
He folded it along its original creases and dug its corner back into the binding where he’d found it. To have read it was to look through a window he shouldn’t have; he felt awkward and uncomfortable. Was it important to Jamie? There was no way to mention or return it without implying he had read it. He tossed the book onto the nightstand. He started to reach for his map before realizing there was no need to check it. There was only one road and he had no choice but to follow it until it forked further inland. Travel was difficult if one did not keep to the road. The woods were dark and thick with brambly undergrowth, all of it saturated and impossible to traverse. It was troublesome to remember the names of foreign cities and towns. The name of his present location was already fuzzy in his mind. On the other side of the curtains and glass, the fog massed and waited.
It was a week before they met again. Jamie had stayed two nights in the woods outside a small town that consisted of twelve houses, an inn, a restaurant, and a general store. If the road hadn’t led her there, she would not have found it. It wasn’t on any of her maps and she struggled to understand its peculiar dialect. It was a weak, whispery version of her first language. She could get by, but she missed her phrasebook. The general store had a small selection of books: romance novels and other trifles. Behind knitting magazines, she found a small paperback phrasebook, a newer edition than the one she’d misplaced.
Jamie carried the book to the register and dug in her pockets for money. Her hands betrayed her and the change slipped between her fingers when she handed it to the clerk. The coins rolled from the counter and onto the floor. Jamie bent to pick up the change that had fallen on her side while the clerk did the same. When they stood, they counted the money between them.
“I’m so sorry,” said Jamie. “I’ve been clumsy lately.”
“It’s ok. How long have you been here?”
Her expression tightened and became fearful, “I don’t know, I really don’t.”
The clerk nodded. “Don’t worry. It’ll come back to you.”
Jamie nodded and looked at him thoughtfully. “Do we know each other?”
The clerk stared back, affecting an expression of contemplation, “No, I can’t say we do. You look a little like my niece, but that’s the closest way I’d know you.”
Jamie’s face relaxed apologetically. “Oh, okay. Sometimes I just get this feeling of déjà vu, you know? I can get confused.”
“Don’t trouble yourself with it, dear. There’s an inn near here. It’s the building to the left of this one. You should stay there for a time if you’re able. It’s important to keep moving, but if you go too far too quickly you’ll get confused.”
“Is that what causes it? I thought I was moving too slowly and that’s what made the fog come in. So I’ve been pushing more and it seems like every day I wake up with less. It’s so hard doing this alone.”
“Did you have someone with you?”
Jamie’s eyes faded and went dim. She stood like an old puppet without strings, supported by the vertical weight of her bag. She paused like she was thinking, or listening. “Yes. He flew like a bird.”
The clerk nodded. “You need to slow down. Stay here a few nights and that will help you come back. You need to remember if you are going to make it through, okay?”
“You can get something to eat across the street. Tell them I sent you and they won’t charge for your dinner.”
“Thank you,” whispered Jamie.
Luke saw Jamie in a corner booth the instant he stepped inside the restaurant. It was a small place, not more than half dozen tables with a line of booths along the far wall. A lamp sat heavily on each table, light leaked from the kitchen. The lamps on the empty tables were unlit, their pull chains swinging gently as if they’d just been touched. Jamie’s bag was shoved awkwardly beneath her table. His expression faded when he saw hers. She was drained and listless. He crossed the room quickly and slid into the booth, opposite her. Her hands rested palm down on the table as her chin drooped and her body held itself unconsciously.
“Jamie,” he whispered. He picked up her right hand and held it. “Jamie?” he repeated. “Are you ok?”
She had no reaction.
He replaced her hand where it had rested on the table and rubbed the creases in his forehead. “You’re scaring me,” he said.
A chill wrapped around his wrist; it was a moment before he recognized it as Jamie’s hand trying to comfort him. He looked up and her eyes went straight through him. They were not the same eyes she’d had last time. There was no laughter. Violet pools surrounded them like she was wearing make-up, but she wasn’t. “Oh Jamie,” he said sadly.
“Oh Luke,” she mimicked.
He stared at her. “What did you get yourself into?”
She looked down at the table and folded her hands. “I don’t know. I’m so confused. It’s the fog that does it, I think. I walk through it and can’t shake the feeling it knows me and is taking pieces from me.” She laughed thinly, “Oh dear, when I put it like that, I just sound like I’ve gotten into a whole lot of crazy.”
“Not really. It has been eerily foggy in the mornings. It’s the time of year.”
“But it isn’t just the mornings. It’s there all the time. It’s—,” her eyes cut to the window where the night was lit with clear, unfiltered moonlight. She rubbed her eyes, “It was there earlier. Did you do that?”
Luke looked at her uncertainly. “How about I order us some coffee?”
“What did you say?”
“How about I order us some coffee?”
“Thought so. You speak funny?”
“Still? No one else seems to have trouble with me anymore.” Luke pulled her phrasebook from his pocket and set it on the table. Jamie stared at it mutely; her face changed.
“Oh!” she exclaimed and put her hand flat on the cover. “I knew I’d left it somewhere. I didn’t realize you had it. Did I leave it at the bar?”
“You loaned it to me,” he said slowly, catching her eyes, “is everything alright?”
“Yea, just details.” She pulled the book to her and flipped the tabs idly.
“Honestly, I haven’t needed it much. It isn’t hard picking up a language when you can already understand it and just have to speak.”
“Do you want your book back? I think you might have left something in it; there were some papers that seemed personal? Did you want them?”
“Probably old notes and stuff. I don’t need them anymore.”
Luke went to the counter to order their coffee. She watched his back while he spoke to the man and waited for their drinks. Sitting back down before her, he nudged a steaming mug in her direction. “Are you going to be ok?”
She didn’t answer. Her eyes moved from the table, to his mug, up his arm and finally to his face. “You should keep the book. You need it. I can still hear your accent.”
“East coast. I still hear it.”
Luke frowned. “The east coast of where exactly?”
“You don’t remember on your own?”
“Where you’re from.”
“I remember where I’m from. I don’t remember where you say I’m from.”
“If I say you’re from the east coast, then you’re from the east coast.”
“But how can you be sure?”
“I used to study language. It’s what I’m good at.”
“Hmn,” said Luke.
Jamie banged her fist on the table and he spilled his coffee in surprise, “What the hell, Jamie?”
“Stop it,” her voice was hard, “that’s how you get into trouble here. You start to forget, but you’re not supposed to. You have to remember or you can’t get out. If you can’t remember, you— ” she paused, listening. Her face twisted, “I can’t tell you, that’s the point. You can’t be told; you have to figure it out. But doesn’t this seem weird to you?”
“You seem weird to me, my dear,” he said, teasingly.
She rubbed the space between her brows, “This isn’t a joke, Luke. You have no idea how long I have been here with it getting cloudier all the time. I’m fighting to keep together, but there is a part of me that fights to fly to pieces. Think about it. You’re on vacation, right?”
“Yeah, I wanted some time to clear my head so I came out.”
“What are you vacationing from?”
“What do you mean?”
“What’s your job? Tell me the name of the street you live on. What kind of car do you drive?”
Luke pursed his lips. “I’m very relaxed here. All of that is a long way away.”
“You don’t remember. That’s how it starts. The tiny things that wouldn’t have helped you anyway go first. But it doesn’t matter how small they are, because they pull down other things until it all collapses and leaves you with nothing to hold onto.” Jamie rested her head on her crossed arms. “Then you get like me and you’re stuck for years. The people here know me. I have been to all these places before, but I don’t know anyone’s name and even “Jamie” doesn’t sound right. It’s craziness. I can only see it when I see it in other people, and it has hold of you too. You won’t see it until you meet someone like you used to be.”
“You remembered my name just now.”
“Did I? Fog’s gone. Sometimes things get clear for me, but it never lasts.”
Luke nodded slowly. “I’m going up to bed. If this is just a loop, we’re bound to meet again later.”
Jamie watched him leave. “It’s not a loop. I don’t know what it is.”
When Jamie came down for breakfast the following morning, she was told that Luke had left an hour earlier and not left a message.
“That’s ok,” she said. She toyed with a stack of Post-It’s on the edge of the desk before realizing the concierge was staring and left.
Three weeks passed and Jamie was walking under arches made of tree branches when she heard a man’s heavy tread behind her. She slowed instinctively and moved off the path. If he followed, she would run. She cursed the fog that stopped her ears like cotton. His steps kept their rhythm, but their sound changed as they left the wet pavement and crushed the soggy brush beside the road. Without looking, she broke into a run and tightened the straps of her bag to prevent it from bouncing up and down with her movements. Sharp branches snagged her sleeves and her boots crashed down, sliding, as she struggled to gain speed over the marshy ground.
There was a sound behind her like the man had slipped and fallen. “Stop, it’s me!” he cried out.
She kept running.
“Jamie, it’s me, it’s Luke,” he called.
She slowed and turned.
The man sat in a muddy puddle; behind him were the marks where his feet had slid. He looked pathetic and silly with his hair painted to his forehead by the rain and his legs splayed out. His luggage had slipped from his shoulders and was several feet away. She went back to help him. She lifted his bags from their puddles and the water sluiced off in uneven lines. They were starting to look worn.
“Maybe it is a loop,” he said.
“It’s what I said the last time we met.”
“Oh. I think we’re going the same way and there’s only one road.” She handed him his bags as he clambered to his feet. He put the straps over his shoulders.
“Well. I feel uncomfortable because I tried to leave you behind. I left early, remember? I thought I could get ahead, but here I wind up next to you again.”
She looked down at her boots.
“You’re looking better than the last time we met.”
“Am I?” She brushed her hair from her face and lifted her chin.
“Yes. Much. Want to walk to the next town together? It’s only a week out.”
“We might as well.”
They picked their way back to the road, leaning on each other. She laughed every time either of them stumbled and covered her mouth with a nervous hand. He carried her the last few yards when laughter distracted her from keeping her balance. “I can’t believe either of us thought this would be relaxing,” she said.
“Everyone needs to get away.”
She trembled in his arms as he set her down on the road. As he let go, she nearly toppled under the weight of her pack. “Oh god,” she said. “I almost fell in again. I said we were doing this to relax because I thought it was a vacation. I even remembered the plane ride over and the planning nonsense and the time before.”
He stepped back. “You’re going to start on the memory thing again, aren’t you? I don’t want to hear it.”
“It’s not a thing.”
“For Christ’s sake.” He took several long strides and settled into a walking pace that would push her to run if she wanted to keep up.
She ran and caught up. Pulling his arm, she forced him to slow and remain next to her. “You’re mad because you don’t remember and you can’t admit it. It’s ok. I’ve been through that. With the person I was with before—” her eyes blurred. “No, no, this is important; there was someone. We came here together and at first it was a vacation we thought we’d planned, but it began to shift. Things started happening that didn’t make sense. The people working in the towns began treating us differently, like they knew something about us we didn’t. It was subtle, the kind of stuff I told him was just paranoia; he thought someone was watching us all the time and listening to what we said. I thought he was losing it. He counted the people we passed to keep track of whether they were following the road north or walking back down it and he swore that there were more people going north than coming back. Some nights, he said our tent wasn’t where we left it. That we were farther south than where we’d gone to sleep.”
“But things always look different in the morning light than they the night before.”
“I know,” said Jamie. “That’s what I said. So he tied bits of rope on tree branches around where we slept and sometimes they weren’t there. I told him this proved nothing. It’s so windy and so rainy all the time here, or maybe the birds and squirrels could have gotten to them. He’d check every clearing we passed for one of his markers to see if we’d come back to where we had been before.”
“Did he ever find one?”
“Were you ever in a town twice?”
Jamie dropped her chin. “That’s not the kind of thing that’s easy to tell. There are so many and they’re so similar. He said if we went back far enough we wouldn’t notice.”
“But the map, Jamie. You can take it to anyone in town and ask where you are.”
“But those are the people who know!” said Jamie, almost crying. “The people working in the towns know what’s going on. You can’t trust them.”
“And you never recognize a turn in the road, some tree, some sign?”
“There’s so much rain. So much fog. You know there are days when you can’t see three feet ahead.”
Luke shook his head. “It sounded crazy and paranoid to you then because it is crazy and paranoid. If he left you because he went nuts, that isn’t something you need to feel guilty about. It wasn’t your fault. Calm down. Do you know where he went?”
“He left. He flew like a bird.”
“What does that mean?”
She dropped his arm and stopped walking; she wandered in a loose circle, playing with the straps of her bag. “I don’t know how he did it. I looked at him like you look at me,” her eyes evaluated him distrustfully. “I know how I must seem: dirty and worn-out, pale and pathetic. I wasn’t always like this.”
He sighed, “I mean the ‘flew like a bird’ nonsense. If you’re trying to help me, there’s no point in being cryptic. What happened to him?”
“I don’t remember. That’s the point. If you don’t keep hold of yourself here, you forget.”
“Jamie, you’re not making sense. What do you think this is if not a vacation?”
She pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes. “I don’t know. I try and think back to where I was before, but it’s so disjointed. If I remember something, I don’t know if it’s something I overheard someone else say, or something I actually did. Luke, I’m so sorry, but I can’t tell anymore—”
“Okay,” he reached out and held her, “Okay, calm down, we’ll sort through this later.”
She nodded and pulled away. She set her bag down and pulled her tarp free of its straps and spread it over the ground. Luke began setting up the tent, watching her from the corner of his eye. She was standing at the edge of the tarp, staring into the trees as though something would burst from them.
“There’s plenty of food in my bag, if you want to share,” she said. I was last in town two days ago and I always buy so much, just in case. But these days, I have to remind myself to be hungry on a regular schedule.”
Luke unzipped the front pocket of her bag and found two bowls with an assortment of eating utensils, loosely padded, rattling around inside a short-handled pot. In the base of the main compartment was a surprisingly large array of dried, packaged meats and soup mixes. He dug through them, reading labels and considering. “Just add water” they said. There was plenty of that in the forest. He could hear a little stream gurgling not more than a few meters away. Jamie had alphabetized the soups. The canned fruits also. Several MREs lined the back panel.
Luke held up a bag of dried minestrone mix. “For someone who believes she isn’t camping, you’re awfully well equipped to do so,” he said, digging out flash heaters and water purification tablets.
“There’s bread too. I know it doesn’t keep, but I buy it anyway.” Jamie picked at the ends of her hair. “I know that I’m camping in practice; you think I don’t notice that I sleep in a tent and cook over a fire? But I know that camping isn’t the reason I’m here. It’s too easy. I can’t shake the feeling that I’m being provided for.”
“How so?” He pulled out her Leatherman and fiddled with it.
“I don’t remember the last time I worried about money, but I don’t remember being wealthy. Something stripped those concerns away because it’s not what I’m here to think about. I don’t get hungry even though I get cold. It’s like my body has been put on pause.”
Luke paused in his rummaging and looked over to her. “Why don’t I get you tucked in for the night. If you’re supposed to be thinking, then there’s nothing wrong with sleeping. It’ll help you wake up with a clearer head and maybe you can figure it out for both of us.”
Jamie nodded, needing the encouragement. She ducked through the door of the tent and Luke followed her with their sleeping bags. He made an elaborate show of laying hers out on the smoothest part of the floor and unzipping the side. Behind him, she unlaced her boots and shucked off her outer layers of clothing and insulation. She slipped past him and into the bag. He zippered the side quickly, like he was performing a magic trick for a child.
“Voila,” he said. “All safe and warm.”
“What’s the name of the next town?”
“I don’t want to say.”
“That’s silly. Look at the map if you don’t know.”
“It has an R in it and I can’t roll my Rs. Foreign names are so tricky. It’s easier to let the locals point me down the road.”
“If you don’t know, just say you don’t know.” Her voice was cross through her tiredness.
“I know, but I don’t want to say it.”
“I promise I won’t be mad. I don’t know the name either.”
Luke smoothed her hair absently and listened to the wind blow around the corners of their tent.
They traveled slowly for four days. Each night, setting up the tent, Jamie shook off the feeling of preparing a place for them both, for them together. For the whole of the fourth day, she had been caustic and sarcastic, troubled by their growing closeness. There was nothing to do except talk and learn one another. When they reached the next town, they shared a room and slept awkwardly on a king sized mattress. Jamie kept her eyes wide in the dark, not wanting to be comforted by his presence. In the silence was the sound of him breathing in sync with her. When she inhaled, he inhaled, and the perfect symmetry of their rhythm led her to sleep.
In the morning, they left before sunrise and went on through the fog.
Δ Δ Δ
Luke studied her from across the fire. Her smile was coming easier these days and she didn’t look away when meeting his eye. She sat with her palms to the blazing warmth. The fog pressed in tightly and the fire flickered against its wet pressure. Luke scooted closer to the heat and Jamie read his gesture as an attempt to be closer to her. She moved from him and the fire.
“It’s ok,” said Luke. “Come here and get warm.”
“I’m okay. I’m going to bed in a minute.”
“Why are you still afraid of me?” he asked. “Just sit by me and get warm.”
“I am warm,” said Jamie. She stood and walked to their tent slowly, brushing wet dirt from her knees. Luke stood also, silent on the rotting leaves and soft earth, and came up behind her. She spun around when he touched her elbow; her face contorted, “Please don’t touch me,” she said in a small voice.
“I’m not trying anything. Just come sit with me. I like the quiet with you; it puts me at ease.”
“Just for a bit,” he pulled her forward a pace and pointed back at the blazing light in the white haze. It was a singular point of warmth and safety and made all around it distant and surreal. It was the center of everything. She felt ill.
“So much fog. Has it always been like this?”
He stepped back and pulled her into him, one more step; a slow dance toward the fire. Back and back, he went and she followed meekly, staring at the solid orange glow. He read her face and led her by her chill hand to where they had been sitting. She sat next to him and he pulled her close.
She shook and jumped to her feet. Her hands raked the sides of her face and she paced angrily as if she didn’t know where she was.
“Jamie,” he said.
“Don’t call me that. It’s not my name.”
“Of course it’s your name. You’re Jamie and I’m Luke.”
She hopped in a circle like a caged bird. “No, no, no! No, it isn’t. It’s all twisted up and not how it’s supposed to be. The way I was with you now—there was another and it felt like that, but it wasn’t you.” She ran to the tent. Running up behind her, Luke grabbed her shoulders as she passed the fire, “Jamie,” he said.
“Don’t call me that, and don’t you fucking touch me!”
She twisted her upper body from him and pulled to the side. Her feet slid on the soaked leaves and she stumbled. Luke reached for her falling body. She was buckling and sliding, her knees were crashing into the earth as the rest of her pitched forward. Her face fell even with the fire as she put her arms up to cover it. Her elbows scattered embers and ash as they sank in. The burning logs split under her weight and sent up sparks and jets of hot flame.
Jamie screamed, a horrific sound, high and thin. Her body writhed on the ground. Her feet kicked and her fingers clenched around her face as she struggled to roll away. She could not use her arms as that would force her to uncover her face and bury her hands in the embers. She tried to pull her body back with her legs and lower body, but she convulsed with no means to control her movement. Luke clamped his hands around her ankles and dragged her from the flames. The edges of her wool hat glowed with fire and the backs of her hands were black; he could not see her face. He ripped the hat from her head and patted her clothing to dampen the sparks.
She no longer burned. She trembled on the ground and hid her face as she rolled from side to side and shrieked. He pinned her to the ground to stop her rocking, “Stop moving, Jamie. Let me see you. Let me see how bad you’re hurt.”
“No,” she gasped and shook like a drying fish. “No. Don’t look at me. I felt it all over me. Oh God, it hurts.”
He wrapped his fingers around her wrists and lifted them gently, black ash rubbed off on his hands. Her flesh was hot, as if it had consumed the fire into itself and would burn him if he did not let go. Under his touch, her fingers trailed from her face and revealed healthy flesh beneath. There were sooty stripes on her skin where the heat and steam had wafted up between her fingers. He wiped these away. He examined her hands, their palms, and the backs of them. There were no burns. He lifted her body and held her tightly, ignoring her pleas and protests.
“You’re not hurt, Jamie,” he said, in a voice muffled by her hair, “You’re fine; you’re perfect.”
“Oh Christ,” she sobbed miserably. “Oh Christ, oh Christ.”
She woke on her side of the tent. She yawned and sighed and turned in her sleeping bag to hold its warmth a little longer. Sitting upright, the previous night came back. She looked at her hands, still smudged with ash, and raised them to her face. She studied the ridges of her fingertips and across her palms and turned them over to consider the tiny hairs and scars from childhood. There was nothing extraordinary. No blisters, no redness, no charred flesh. She was thankful, but terrified. “I felt it,” she said to the silence and fog, “I felt it burning away.”
She turned to Luke and jumped when she saw his eyes were already on her. He answered, “You weren’t in the fire very long and your body was damp. Maybe being wet protected you. Like how you can put a cigarette out on your tongue or water dances over a hot skillet.”
When he held her that night, she didn’t protest. She was too hot in his arms, but feared he wouldn’t hold her the next night if she pushed him away. Rolling over, she buried her face in his chest. His body twitched and shook as sleep took it. She remained awake until the shadows lessened and light came, bleary-eyed through the fog.
It was becoming more difficult to travel. The road narrowed as the surrounding trees thickened, their trunks strong beneath wet, shiny bark. The lowest branches were out of reach, but blocked the light completely. Now and then, flashes of sunlight came down over the road to provide patches of warmth. Towns and villages were spread farther apart and were populated with harsh dialects that confused them both. Luke adjusted more and more quickly as they went, but Jamie fell silent and would speak to no one except him. Mute, she allowed him to order meals and purchase supplies. She relied on him to book their rooms and for all interactions. By the end of the month, she was his sullen compatriot and moved forward as though something base and mechanical held her by the root. She set up their tent each night in the open space near the road. Luke hoped to meet other travelers, but they never did.
Δ Δ Δ
Jamie fell into the bed. Luke had turned down the lights; most of the inns had dimmers instead of on/off switches. “No sudden moves,” she whispered. Grey moonlight streamed into the bedroom. Jamie stared through the window at the foggy halo around the moon and fought to clear her mind. There had to be a way to think, even when the fog was around. She’d had a memory come back the day before that hadn’t yet dissipated. It became clearer each time she thought about it. She was afraid to think of anything else in case it went away.
“I have a memory sometimes,” she said.
The bed shifted slightly under Luke’s weight. Jamie scooted nearer the window. She wanted to sleep in the same bed without the added intimacy of shared warmth
“What’s your memory?” he said.
“I’m embarrassed of it,” she said, slowly. “I think that’s why it’s stuck in my head. When I was little, I lived near the water, near a little bay with rocks instead of sand along the shoreline. It wasn’t much of a beach, but I liked to ride there on my bike with a friend. We followed a path through the woods that came out along the shore, which was U-shaped, and on the other side of the inlet—would you call it an inlet?—was a little house.”
“You can call it that.” The bed shifted again as he rolled to face her. Her eyes were shut and it seemed less foggy outside.
“The house had a fence that ran from the patio to the water and there was a dog asleep under the patio. My friend called out to it. She loved dogs. Really loved them. Hers was dead. It got sick or was hit by a car or something. She whined all the time and I didn’t like her much. There wasn’t much to her other than the dog thing, you know? Anyway, she kept calling and calling until the dog barked and came down to the waterline. There was always something on the news back then about a kid being mauled by someone’s pet and this dog looked like one of the dogs on television. On the fence, I could see a “Beware of Dog” sign. I got on my bike to leave, but she wouldn’t follow me.
“She whistled and the dog put its front paws into the water. I told her to shut up and she told me to calm down, that it wouldn’t swim across. But the stupid mutt walked into the water until it was deep enough to swim. It swam a third of the way, half of the way, then it was able to put its feet down on our side of the inlet and it slogged its way up to the beach.
“I got on my bike and, by this time, even she was looking a little startled.”
“What was her name?”
“I don’t know. I barely know my own name, you think I know hers? Jesus. Anyway, that’s not the point. She was a really good friend. We spent a lot of time together at school even though I didn’t like her and I suspect she didn’t like me because I had a dog and she was jealous. Oh! I had a dog! I’d forgotten that.”
“Is that also not a point of the story?” Luke’s voice had a smile in it. It didn’t matter to him what she remembered and Jamie realized this with a pang of displeasure.
“We got on our bikes, but we couldn’t gain any momentum because of the rocks. It was a long way back to the road and the dog caught up with her before we reached it. It barked and growled. Bits of saliva flew from its mouth as it snarled. My bike was better on rough ground so as soon as I hit the grassy patch by the road I was fine.
“As scared as I was of the dog, it wasn’t paying much attention to me. I hadn’t provoked it. I knew I could get ahead of her and take a different road back to our neighborhood. If we split up, I wouldn’t have to worry about the dog or the guilt of being able to pedal faster. This dog was enormous, Luke; its head came up past our waists. When she called out for me to turn left, I pretended not to hear and took the left after the street she wanted. From the corner of my eye, I saw the dog follow her. The two streets ran parallel. When I reached the end of the cul de sac, I heard her scream.
“She screamed in this horrible way. I’d never heard anything like it except in movies. I didn’t know what to do. If I’d stayed with her, I could have lobbed rocks at the dog’s head or kicked it down. I couldn’t bear the thought of explaining her grisly injuries to her parents or hearing her recount events to anyone. From guilt, I rode back up the street. When I turned down the street she’d gone with the dog, I could just barely see the two of them at the end. She wasn’t on her bike and the dog was jumping around her. She was still screaming.
“When I got there, she was fine. The dog was jumping around because she was playing with it. I asked her why she had been screaming and she said she’d been afraid the dog would be hit by a car. It was five thirty and there was traffic. I slapped her so hard that I left a red mark on her face.”
Luke didn’t say anything.
“It’s a stupid thing to feel guilty about because nothing bad happened. But the biggest thing I’d ever needed to stand up to was that idiot dog and when I thought it was going to eat me and my friend, my only thought was to outrun the pair of them.”
“How old were you?”
“Nine or ten. I think. Maybe.”
“Oh,” Luke scoffed at her. “You were a kid, you can grow past that.”
“It’s still illuminating. If I didn’t run when I was older, I could have chalked it up to being bigger than the dog. I would have felt more able to fight back. It was an age appropriate test and showed a certain self-interest in my nature. I wanted to be safe and was willing to risk a few scars on my friend for it.”
“Don’t beat yourself up. Fear does that to everyone, it’s called fight or flight. Being a runner does not make you a bad person even if fighters get all the credit.”
Jamie didn’t want to look at him. “I guess.”
Luke tweaked her nose. “No hard feelings, okay. The fog’s coming back. Maybe you won’t remember in the morning.”
“You’re never going to believe me about any of this, are you?”
“What’s to believe?”
Jamie wanted to think he was speaking out of tiredness, the desire to be left alone, but she knew it stemmed from somewhere deeper. From the place that let him understand the revolving languages of their waiting room. There wasn’t anything she could say to him, and for the first time, she didn’t feel like saying anything else about it. After months, she was tired of fighting.
Δ Δ Δ
A week to the day from when she’d fallen silent, Jamie spoke: “We’re going uphill. Have you noticed?”
Luke stopped walking and struck an agitated pose. “You’re silent for a week and that’s all you have to say for yourself, that ‘we’re going uphill’?”
“What do you want me to say? I feel sick all the time and we might as well be going in circles for how fast we’re getting out of here.”
“You’re the one leading us in circles.”
“I said we ‘might as well be going in circles.’ This is why I don’t talk to you, you don’t hear me.”
“I hear you.”
“You don’t understand me.”
“I understand you.”
“No, you don’t!” she shouted before she realized she was shouting. “If you understand them, all those people in all those towns, you don’t understand me. You’re the same as them and I’m not. It’s like last time, except I was the one who understood when he couldn’t. He was angry with me like I’m angry with you.”
“So you’re going to fly like a bird then?”
Her face twisted as she struggled to think of something to say. She turned and walked faster up the road.
The rising sun burned off the mist as they climbed higher to meet it. The trees dripped, their moisture no longer held in by the fog. Luke followed Jamie incuriously, frowning at the foliage and counting the miles until his next soft bed and conversation. Jamie shouted directions periodically: which parts of the ground were too weak for standing and which rocks were slick, but her voice was foreign. He heard the rhythm of her words, but they slid apart in his mind and the meaning dropped through.
As Jamie drifted from Luke, she drifted from the world. Things became simpler. Her mind inhabited a sterile space of memory and evaluation. She had been a liar with a violent streak. She’d been restless, rootless, and clinging to single events like life rafts. There was a memory of riding in a convertible in the rain and feeling invincible. She’d lifted her arms to splash them through water that didn’t fall in the car. But other things remained distant. The people in her mind’s eye grew old, aged, became frail while she remained the same girl of twenty-four years. She felt as though she could be given all the interactions of her memory to do again, and she would do them correctly, making no mistakes. No one would hurt because of her. She would be a rock. But each time she thought this and felt these feelings within her breast, she would look over her shoulder and see Luke blundering up the trail. Her patience had run out with him and, in acknowledging this, she knew she lacked the grace of her imaginings. She was still incomplete, climbing higher each day, and tired.
On what was to be her last day, she lifted her eyes and saw the road had ended. The trees fell back before a clearing. The dirt road grew into soft grass at the edge of a precipice. There were a few clouds in the sky that went past where the earth stopped.
Jamie unzipped her coat and let it fall. She plucked off her hat and dropped her bag to the ground. It was warm here. She stood at the edge and looked over; rocks stuck out from the cliff face and formed indecipherable patterns as they descended ever lower. Here and there, small roots and vines straggled upward, the last traces of the forest. There was no other side. The clouds suggested a continuation of space, but there was no more land. When Jamie looked across to where the opposite side would have been, it hurt her eyes. All that blue emptiness, the blue emptiness of an endless sky and an ocean too far below to be seen.
Luke stood next to her, feigning boredom. “Is this all there is?” he asked.
A grin split her face for the first time in weeks. “Yes,” she said. She stripped off layers until she stood in a stained cotton undershirt, a thinning scarf wound loosely around her neck. She watched bands of sunlight climb her arms as the rushing clouds changed the angles of the light. Mud caked her legs and, though her boots were heavy, they did not sink into the dry ground as they had in the mud. She stood on top of it all, luminous, swaying gently as though she might leap, nimble and deer-like, from the edge, “I’m going to jump.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“But that’s the point — to let go.”
Luke looked over the side. “But there’s nothing down there.”
“Don’t you get tired of carrying everything around with you all the time? You have to let go of it to move on.”
He grabbed her arm. “What’s next isn’t death. Come with me and get some rest. Maybe there’s a hospital, someone for you to talk to about this.”
Jamie looked at Luke’s hand on her arm. It was tanner than she would have expected. Protective and fatherly. Nearly kind. She saw that his eyes were red-rimmed and his skin unevenly colored from the harsh wind. “I don’t want to stay here anymore just because you can’t get out,” her voice was thick. “I’ve done my time in that forest. I’m sorry, Luke.”
She jumped back so suddenly that he lost his grip on her arm. In the instant before she fell, Luke cried out and caught the end of her scarf. It snapped tight around her neck. She hung just over the edge of the earth, dangling calmly in the wind.
“Give me your hand,” he shouted.
Jamie let her arms go slack at her sides.
He reached down, but her body was slipping. The two tangled coils of the scarf around her neck were not enough to support her weight and she was sliding lower. Lying flat on his stomach with his arms stretched down into the gulf, he could just reach the top of her head, her face; he stretched and could reach her throat. He caught the other end of the scarf with his free hand. His heavy pack balanced him, but even so, he couldn’t hold his position. “Jamie, I can’t pull you up.” He dug the toes of his boots into the ground.
She lifted her hands and dug her fingers under the scarf to loosen it. She gasped and her voice was rough, “Let me go, Luke.”
She put her arms back down at her sides. Untroubled by the scarf pressing into her windpipe, tightening with each of his frantic grasps.
“Stay with me.” His voice was weak, pleading. He couldn’t stand the sound.
Jamie sent her thoughts from Luke and his desire to keep her for himself—to save her from the cliff she had approached again and again without recognizing as the exit.
“Let me go,” she thought.
And he did.
She fell miles through open air as her mind swallowed every action and inaction of her life. When she was full to overflowing, she let the memories drop from her mind. She shot out, away from the cliff face, soaring over whatever ground there was at great speed.
Luke looked down with disbelieving eyes until the clouds slowed and he felt rain in the air. The fog rolled to him, seeping from the porous tree line. Picking up his bags and hers, he followed the road down the hill in search of a place to rest.
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