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Bewildering Stories

Jeffrey Penn May, Where the River Splits



Where the River Splits

Author: Jeffrey Penn May
Publisher: L:ibros International, 2008
Length: 272 pp.
ISBN: 1905988710; 978-1905988716
David and Susan Brooks go on a canoe trip in the Canadian wilderness; it’s a last ditch effort to evaluate their marriage. The trip turns into disaster as their canoe capsizes leaving the couple stranded on opposite sides of the river and each believing the other is dead.

David soon discovers that his wife survived, but satisfied that she is okay, decides not to reveal himself to her. How will she survive? While Susan returns to St. Louis to cope with the loss of her husband, David begins his new life in the Wyoming mountains.

But can anyone really start over?

Chapter One

Arriving at a resort cabin with Wilderness Outfitters carved over the doorway, David Brooks finally relaxed enough to appreciate the cool Canadian air and anticipate the canoe adventure awaiting him and his wife, Susan. They had endured hours of airport lines and security checks, and they managed to be polite to each other through it all. Except, David thought, for their usual disagreement about what was important; in this case, she wanted to visit the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature, and he wanted, as always, to escape into the wilderness. In that respect, the security delays worked in his favor. He had made reservations for a canoe and a ride upriver. They simply did not have time to stop for side trips.

As a tanned young outfitter listed the obligatory warnings and conditions of rental, David only half-listened. Instead, he wondered what being in a canoe for a week would do for them. He’d never been to Canada, but he heard the rivers were so clean you could lift your paddle and let the water drip into your mouth. Standing next to the outfitter’s truck with their canoe strapped on top, he told Susan about the water, but she doubted its reliability, citing studies that indicated otherwise. He stared at her, and said, “Right. Thanks for pointing that out.”

She climbed into the truck, and the young man, wearing what David thought was a pretentious safari hat, drove them over narrowing, unpaved roads, finally ending on a two-track path at the water’s edge. David quickly loaded gear, and stood, waiting impatiently for other instructions, but the outfitter seemed more interested in flirting with Susan than anything else.

“Okay,” David said, “Let’s go.”

He shoved off, into the clear water, map in hand, Susan in the bow. He heard the outfitter yell something about dry conditions but, David thought, must not be that important if the guy almost forgot about it. He paddled with the current, the air smelling of pine, and the sky bright blue, a few white clouds. As they floated around a bend, thick forest engulfed them. The first few hours, David paddled eagerly, and happily, but eventually he got tired, and he wanted Susan to help.

“You having fun?” he asked, trying to sound sincere, but feeling testy.

“Sure,” she responded, “aren’t you?”

“Are you interested in paddling at all?”

“No,” she said, “I just thought I’d let you do all the work.”

For several minutes — felt like hours to David — she sat, not helping, and he paddled harder. Finally, she said, “Are we in a hurry?”

“No . . . no hurry.”

“You hungry?”

David hadn’t thought about it, but it was past lunchtime. He scanned the shore, nothing but thick woods, and he realized that most places were swarming with blackflies. He couldn’t stop just anywhere. After another half-hour, they rounded a bend, and a gray rock came into view, flat and appealing in the sunlight. He paddled up to it, misjudging the current and rammed it, almost tipping over. The current turned them around bumping flush with the rock, and David jumped out, pulling the front of the canoe out of the water.

They sat eating peanuts, raisins, apples, then lay on the warm rock with the sun on their faces. With his wife lying so close, David was hopeful that they would overcome the differences that had seeped into their marriage. They fought often. And when they didn’t, their words were obviously strained, pressure always lurking beneath their careful conversations. He listened to the wind in the pines and thought about other wilderness trips where Susan had difficulty keeping his frenetic pace. She lagged behind, often looking at flowers, while he pushed on, then had to wait for her to catch up.

“This is much better,” he said, a breeze whistling through the tall pine, “You don’t have to worry about keeping up.”

Susan shielded her eyes from the sun. “What’s that mean?”

“Nothing,” he said, thinking that it would take more than a few hours on the river for them to work through their difficulties. “Let’s go,” he said, and started putting the food away.

David climbed in the stern and Susan shoved off. Once on the water, he felt better. Lunch had helped, and the smell of pine and the cool breeze made him feel alive as it always had. He looked ahead to a short set of rapids. Susan paddled as they zipped past boulders, swayed into side currents, and straightened into a calm pool.

“That was fun,” David said, laughing, challenged by the white water, but also wondering if he had overestimated his canoeing experience.

They found an opening in the forest and even though the sun was well above the horizon, David steered them to shore. “This might be the best spot for miles,” he reasoned.

“You would know,” she said.

David looked at her, unsure if she was being sarcastic again. “How would I know? I’ve never been here before, have you?”

“What I meant was, you have the map. That’s all.”

“Right,” he said, remembering a time when their conversation showed nothing but admiration for one another, when camping meant making love in the open air and falling asleep in each other’s arms. Now they were ready to argue about maps; he loved maps and their possibilities, but Susan showed only moderate interest.

As the sky turned dark blue, they sat silently near the coals of their fire, and David wanted his wife back in his arms, like it used to be.

“Next time, we could go to Mexico,” he said, trying to find common ground. He’d been there years ago, but she hadn’t, and she talked about it during the planning of this trip. He added, “I’ve always wanted to climb one of those volcanoes down there.”

Without looking at him, she said, “Not Popocatepetl. It’s had several eruptions recently.” She paused. “It would have to be Ixtaccihuatl.”

David was impressed with her ability to not only remember the names of the volcanoes, but to pronounce them correctly. Didn’t surprise him, though. Susan knew a lot about history. At first her constant need to study the past intrigued him, but now it seemed she used her expertise more like a weapon. Whenever he talked about exploring a new wilderness, she wanted to bog it down with historical baggage. History was about dead people, he thought. He stared into the fire and said, “We should see lots of stars tonight.”

Susan sipped her tea and said, “Stars were always important for navigation.”

David wanted to lie on the cool earth and gaze up at the universe with her holding onto him. It used to be so easy - deep pleasure in her smooth, soft skin, her craving lips and the sheer revelry in their lovemaking. Maybe a little too easy. From the very beginning he felt she was withholding something and whatever it was created a wedge between them, widening with each day. Not that he told her everything, especially about his land in Wyoming, nothing more than a few acres of arid foothills with a shanty perched on a slope. But it was a safe place in his heart, at the base of the Wind River mountains, gray jagged snow-covered peaks. Even though it lay a thousand miles west of their home in St. Louis, just knowing it was there helped him cope with his job, and later, his deteriorating marriage. He had tried to tell her on several occasions, and he’d come close. But she kept drifting away and he held back, never feeling comfortable enough. Maybe on this river, he thought, with much needed luck, he could share Wyoming with her, and what it meant to him.

“I’m tired,” she said.

He was too, but reluctant to crawl into the tent next to her where he would lie awake trying to figure out what to do, while she slept. “What is it?” he asked.


“Why are you being this way?”

“Me? It’s you who leave me behind.”

They’d been over this before, but he hoped for a new resolution. “I know,” he said.

“Know what?”

“That we have our differences.”

“That’s not everything,” she responded.

David knew what she was getting at; she’d complained of it before, that he came home from work irritable, sullen, and she had to put up with his bad mood. Having her bring it up now only made him tense, and threatened his enjoyment of this gorgeous river. As before, David took the offensive and asked about her job, and listened to her typical response.

“There’s nothing wrong with being a secretary in the history department.”

He looked up at the stars and responded, “I never said there was.” But, why didn’t she finish her degree?

“Then why do you always bring it up?”

Because, he thought, she would have to pay the bills, at least for a while. He was told to use up his vacation time, and when he asked why, his boss just stared gloomily and walked away. And now David had to face up to the inevitable. Logically, he understood how he’d come to this point. After five years of verifying new attack systems on warplanes that dropped “smart” bombs and “surgical-strike” rockets, he was transferred to the commercial division. Then the terrorists attacked, and people lost their jobs. But he still felt like a failure, and he hated to fail, probably more than most people.

Stars filled the northern sky. Susan sat a foot away, and it felt like miles. He would have to shout, and she would shout back, and they would get into a horrible argument. Maybe in a few days, it would be easier. Perhaps if he resolved it in his own head, he could talk to Susan. Was their marriage doomed from the start? Were there clues? He sat staring at the coals glowing red, a small molten world where he tried to decipher their past.


(Flashback omitted for this excerpt.)

Chapter Two

By the end of the second day, David thought the camping trip was a mistake. He had wanted them to be together, but the canoe only made things worse. Unable to get out and hike alone ahead of her, he felt trapped, hopelessly enmeshed with her movements. Every time she shifted, he had to react, keep them from capsizing, or hitting a rock, or scraping bottom. Each moment in the wilderness separated them not only from civilization but from each other.

They set up camp gloomily, not saying any more than absolutely necessary, and had just finished eating when black clouds rolled in to match their mood. Lightning cracked across the dark sky. David ran to the canoe and pulled it up the riverbank while Susan picked up food, clothes, maps and threw them into the tent. When he returned, she was waiting with her wool shirt buttoned up to her neck. He waited for the storm, wanting to feel the torrent, let the downpour soak him.

“The wind’s cold,” she said, turning away and crawling into the tent.

David considered staying outside and waiting for the storm, but slid into the tent next to her. Susan wanted him to zip up the thin, fabric door, keep the rain out, but David left it open, lying on his back with his head resting outside. He wanted to feel the cool, cleansing rain on his face.

The wind blew fiercely, flapping the nylon tent and bending the thick pine forest around them, then came waves of rain spattering their camp. Lightning struck close by, just over the ridge, brilliant jagged flashes followed immediately by deafening thunder. But the downpour never came. He crawled outside and stood, thankful to be free of the tent. Susan gathered dinner plates, carried them to the riverbank, and scrubbed them with sand, almost losing them in the swift current.

The sky cleared, dark evening blue. Their campsite was in a small open area surrounded by the thick parched woods. Through the forest, he noticed a red glow to the North, just beyond a low ridge. Susan set the plates on a rock. “I hope the canoe’s okay,” she said, looking toward the river.

“Why wouldn’t it be?” he responded tersely, then looked at her wide, blue eyes, hair pushed back.

“Must’ve rained upriver,” she said. “The water’s come up a little.”

“It’ll be all right.” He had tied it to a tree. “I’ll check it in a minute.”

The glow on the ridge grew brighter and smoke bled into the night sky like black ink. David imagined trees exploding in white flashes, crackling, red-orange flames devouring the forest. He had seen fire before, from a roadside in California, marveled at the destruction, and felt vaguely worried about the future. Then it had been easy to deny reasons for the rampant wildfires, simple to just drive away and file the memory. But now he couldn’t flee so easily. His car was far down river, and he watched intently.

Susan stood next to him. “Looks like a fire,” she said.

He shrugged. “Yeah, looks like it.” And he wanted to add that they could be in serious trouble soon, but didn’t share his concern. Things were tense enough already between them.

“Are we safe here?”

“Sure we are.” But he knew they couldn’t escape through the thick woods in the dark, and if both shores were in flames, they would have to run the river at night, a treacherous alternative. The rapids had been manageable so far, but with the river rising, they could be interesting. Small animals scurried in the underbrush. A deer bounded into their campsite, then leapt back into the woods.

“We better pack up,” he said, trying to sound in control, but his stomach was in knots and his teeth were clenched.

Susan crossed her arms as if holding onto herself. “It’s bad, isn’t it?”

“Doesn’t hurt to be ready.”

They loaded the canoe, leaving the tent for last, hoping they wouldn’t have to go. But the fire moved in fast, exhaling ash and smoke, swirling along both sides of the river. Another deer, with its hide burning, the smell stinking, jumped at them, then veered off into darkness. A blast of heat surged from the forest.

Susan pulled down the tent and stuffed it into the canoe, while David barked orders, “You get in first. I’ll push off. Listen to me. Hurry up!”

They splashed through the water. She jumped in, the canoe tilting. He pushed off, slid in carefully, and they glided smoothly on the black water. They paddled away from the acrid-smelling blaze, into the cold air on the river. Their campsite receded quickly behind them, consumed by flames lapping along the bank, even the water “burning,” reflecting yellow-red. The river curved back near the fire and a tree fell just behind them, spitting steam, the heat choking them. Susan coughed. He tied a bandanna over his mouth and nose. Their clothes, drenched with perspiration, stuck to their skin. Orange embers floated, borne by the wind, and followed them, as the current pulled them through the bend and down river away from the sooty pall into open, cool air.

Moonlit mist lingered over dead pools, casting a ghostly aura over the river. As they glided swiftly toward huge boulders rising out of the mist, David heard the roaring of white water. He looked to the bow, Susan hunched over, gripping her paddle. As the river lifted them into the luminous white rapids, he shouted, “Left side. Left! Now right.” He tried looking ahead but couldn’t see. They rammed into a boulder, spun around, and shot backwards into a chute, David paddling furiously, guiding them through stern-first. She screamed, hands clutching the canoe and her paddle pressed uselessly across her legs. Working hard, he turned them around, maneuvering in preparation for the next rapids. He knelt on the seat but could only see his wife’s back.

“God dammit,” he yelled over the water crashing into rock. “Don’t just sit there.” At least make a suggestion, he thought as his mind raced, which way?

“And do what?” she yelled.

“I don’t care. Paddle!”

The current gripped them and pulled them past a boulder; the canoe turned sideways, the aluminum frame scraping against rock. Susan screamed, “Watch out!” She paddled frantically. They slammed into rock and tilted, the current pounding against the canoe, foam surging to its rim and held there for a moment before dark water poured in. The canoe went under, sucked down by the current, and they were in the river.

Trying to keep his head above water and his feet pointing downstream, he went under, hit something and came up choking and spitting, bobbing. Cold currents dragged him under again and again, as if something were grabbing at his ankles. No, he thought, no, and each time he clawed his way back to the surface, gasping.

Finally, the rapids fanned out into the smooth surface of a large pool and he floated easily in the swirling water. “Susan!” he called but heard nothing in return. Her name echoed in his head, Susan, and he felt sick, his stomach knotting. I need to find her, he thought, twisting his head around, looking for her in the slow, swirling current. Was she on shore, he thought, why doesn’t she answer? The water felt smooth, almost caressing, and for a moment, he imagined that he and his wife were playing, swimming together. All he had to do was find her and touch her in the cleansing water, then everything would be okay. But his teeth started chattering, and he was miserably cold, aching to the bone. Move, he thought, must move now. He swam, not sure which way he was going, knowing only that he had to get out of the river. He swam into black shadows from the forest, then stumbled onto the wooded bank.

David’s head throbbed as he touched the bridge of his nose, the skin loose around a jagged gash, the blood sticky. He used his right hand to steady himself against a tree, but when he applied pressure, his wrist buckled, pain shooting to his fingertips. Holding the hand up close to his face, he could see two fingers protruding unnaturally, pale and crooked in the moonlight. “Damn,” he muttered, then tried to reassure himself, okay, it’s not that bad. Not bad. Could be worse. His clothes smelled like wet charcoal. He tasted blood. But the hot wind was gone, and no animals were scurrying for their lives.

“Susan,” he yelled and scanned the white water above the pool. Nothing. No sign of the canoe. While pushing through the underbrush, branches scraped his arms, and he was unable to see much but the turbulent white of the rapids. He climbed onto a boulder, then onto another, and leaned precariously over the river, searching the far shore. She must have swum to the other side, he thought, not drowned. No, that couldn’t be. She had to be okay. A noise floating above the roar of the rapids could have been his wife screaming for help, couldn’t it? He listened intently. Was it her?

David slid off the boulder and banged his shin on a fallen tree, then lurched forward into sharp branches, slicing skin from his palms. He caught his leg between the branches and fell. Lying flat, his face against the rain soaked pine needles, he fought for breath. Easing his foot free, he crawled out from the jumble of dead limbs. With the white water raging and reverberating around him, he stumbled along the shore, falling into the water again, hands sinking into the bottom, the foul stench of rotting trees bubbling to the surface.

Struggling to his feet, he waded into the moonlit pool. Standing knee-deep in the swirling water, he called, “Susan!”

A small object rolled to the surface. As he moved in deeper, up to his chest, his heart pounded with his love for Susan and the fear she might be gone, the water pressing against him, cold and constricting. He struggled to breathe and the current, even in this pool, pulled hard, again nearly taking him under. He lunged, falling and going under but catching the object before it was swept into the next set of rapids. Frantically splashing back toward the shore, he stood, knowing what it was by the feel of the laces and the sole — one of Susan’s tennis shoes. Looking down river, he thought, the current almost killed me, what chance did she have? Overwhelmed by the gruesome possibilities, he stumbled back, sitting in the shallow water near the shore. He fought to keep back tears, remembering how he had helped her when they crossed streams, her hand in his. He focused on the opposite shore, listening to the rapids blend into the swishing of tall pines in the wind. The moon cast shadows in the forest and the shadows moved like ghouls. Rocks lined the shore — small, round faces sneering at him. Maybe something was lurking in the dark woods.

David looked down at the moonlit water reflecting white and swirling around his legs, then at the looming boulders pounded by the torrent, and he felt light-headed, like he was floating above the forest, unbound from earthly emotion. Suddenly, he shuddered, teeth chattering, and he tried to gain control. The small shoe fell from his hand and he watched it bob in the turbulent water, the current suddenly taking it swiftly toward the rapids, and the boulders.

“No!” he yelled. “Susan,” he called again, but again no response. “Susan.”

He imagined his wife underwater, frantically swimming to the surface. Maybe she made it to the other side, but hit her head on something. That’s why she didn’t respond to his calls. Or maybe, she just couldn’t hear him above the noise of the rapids. Lightning flashed overhead, followed by a crack and rumble, then a hard, cold gust, chilling him. He looked to the far shore one last time, the pointed outline of treetops against the dark sky lit by lightning. Was that her? If Susan were alive, he thought, she must be on the other side. He turned into the forest, thrashing his way through the thick woods, determined to find a way across the river.

Warmed by the pumping of his blood, he slogged through the forest in a heavy downpour, the stale smell of rain-soaked ash lingering on his clothes. Had he fled an inferno only to fight his way through this freezing muck? He followed the river, his mind fixed on a vivid image of their map — a footbridge, down river. When he made it to the bridge, there would be a trail also, the trail leading to a town.

David thought about Susan, pulled deep into the cold water and how she hated the cold. He remembered when they first met, the way her body fit next to his and the soothing warmth of their bed, thick blankets, with cool winds blowing over them from the open windows. David scowled, his jaw tight, remembering their arguments. But he loved her. And he felt guilty. He should have worked harder at solving their problems, the way he did on the warplanes when his business degree left him unprepared for complex engineering jargon. He earned promotions and raises by memorizing what he could and nodding in approval at the right moments. Had he worked that hard on his marriage? The job was lost. Was he now losing his wife? Or had he already lost her? Don’t feel anything, he thought. That’s best. Emotions were a weakness, and now they could be fatal.

The lightning split the sky and heavy rain glistened like jewels falling out of the blackness. He hiked through the forest, following the bank, remembering trips into the mountains before he met Susan, often alone, the sinking feeling at the end, standing at the trail head, a parking lot full of cars, the pleasure of the climb giving way to the dread of having to return.

Now, fighting for survival in the wilderness, he felt confident, strong, sure that Susan would be all right. When he found her, she would be banged up maybe, but otherwise okay. He had to think she would be okay, unable to bear any other conclusion, the image of his wife returning easily, her soft, curving cheeks, her smile. But suddenly gloomy images replaced the good, Susan being hurling through the darkness, mutilated by the sharp rock. He slowed, staggered, and nearly crumpled to the ground. “No,” he said. “You’re okay, Susan. You must be.” He leaned against a tree, his body cooling rapidly, thinking, I must analyze . . . and re-analyze. . . . And move, he thought, and keep moving, because that was the only way to survive.

By morning, nausea and fatigue overwhelmed him, but he did not stop. He couldn’t. He had to press on. The rain eased to a drizzle as he thrashed through the thick woods, black flies landing on his arms and leaving red welts, blood, as if they were chewing into his flesh. Once, in Maine, while hunting with his father, he had killed a moose that was fleeing the marsh during blackfly season. His father had jokingly thanked God for the flies that drove the moose into the sights of David’s rifle; David could see it fall, and the spurting blood, while his father marveled at the shot and praised him for the beautiful kill. Then later, they ate moose, washing it down with beer, and making jokes about women, his mother complaining when they tracked dirt and specks of blood onto the carpet. He let his thoughts linger on the moose for quite some time until he became aware that he was thinking about the moose and not Susan. Her absence from his thoughts unnerved him. Must focus, can’t waver. Need to keep believing she is alive.

The sun broke through the clouds and was shining in his eyes when he struggled over a rise and came upon the bridge, and the trail out. Unimpeded by underbrush, he hiked over the footbridge and crossed the river. He knelt on the opposite bank, cupped his hands and drank from the river, remembering his conversation with Susan. Yes, he thought, I am right, you can drink the water. But he also now wished he were standing next to her, alive, in a museum. Museum, he thought sarcastically, of man and nature?

The town was ten miles further. If he backtracked along the river, searching for his wife, it would take him at least a day, maybe two, struggling through the dense underbrush. Then another day or so just to make it to the town.

With this realization, his legs felt heavy as lead, and he staggered into the forest, slumping to the ground and settling into a bed of pine needles. Hungry and aching, he passed into a delirious half-sleep. In a dream, he saw Susan rolling in the current, her body emerging, glistening water dripping from the apparition, then he saw himself drowning, water filling his lungs. He woke in a panic, unable to breathe, his battered nose clogged with mucus and dried blood. Holding one finger at a time over each nostril, he blew them clear. He rubbed his face and head, careful to avoid his wounds, trying to block any thought about the pain continually throbbing to the surface. He sat, thinking about her.

“Maybe she’s dead,” he muttered. After all, he had barely survived; she might not have. She loved the outdoors but often struggled through it, at least at his pace. He should have shared the map, and he might have, he reasoned, if their arguments hadn’t gotten in the way. He stared at the sunlight filtering through the dense forest, exhausted at the mere thought of going back to look for Susan. She’s gone, he thought, then rubbed his face. No, he thought, he had to survive, emotions now . . . will only . . . “No,” he cried, howling in the wilderness, his body shuddering as he fought to keep back the tears, feeling like a child lost in the woods, alone.

That strange floating feeling returned, like he was above the forest looking down at himself. It disturbed him, thinking that he was dying as well. No, he thought, he would survive. He had to. Recovering, he thought about what happened, how things could have been different with just a small change here or there, wanting to go back and relive it, do it right. They should have taken the rapids before camping, but he had decided to stop for just one more effort, he thought, to reconnect with her. In hindsight, they should have gone on, and ended the trip as early as possible, then . . . divorce? What happened? He thought about when they first met, before they were married, before their relationship died like lightning bugs left in a jar to suffocate. Had she ever loved him? But he couldn’t go back and do it over and, in the end, they capsized.

He could barely see the trail through the brush. He needed to push on, use the daylight. Get to the trail, he thought, and go fast. But he was too tired and decided to take a short nap, regain some strength, easier to sleep in the warmth of daylight. Just for a few minutes.

David was lying on his back when he woke, opening his eyes, but not moving, birds chirping and fluttering from branch to branch, sunlight casting long shadows. He was unwilling to move and face the pain. Nose must be broken, he thought, and pushed at it carefully. His whole body hurt. While preparing himself for the agony of getting up, he heard something moving in the forest behind him. Slowly turning his head, he peered out from the brush.

On the other side of the footbridge, a hiker emerged from the forest, dragging one leg stiffly along. David tried to get up, but his legs throbbed and his lower body felt numb. Am I paralyzed? He couldn’t move. He pounded on his legs, then looked at the person who now fell onto the path, long wet hair slapping against her face. She leaned against the bridge post, then wearily looked up and down the path. David tasted the blood on his chapped lips, and exhaled, trying to clear his throat, feeling like he’d swallowed pine needles. Move, he thought, grabbing his leg, then looking up in time to see the hiker struggle to her knees and peer into the woods. Susan? He watched her turn away and stagger down the path, away from the town, deeper into the forest. He opened his dry, parched mouth — that’s the wrong way — but no sound came out, and Susan vanished. No, he thought, that was not her. I’m hallucinating. But then he thought, she must’ve recovered gear from the canoe. While he had slept, she must’ve kept on, probably delirious, out of her mind. If that was her. How could it be? His heart was beating fast. Get up. Do something. What’s wrong with my legs? He punched one leg, feeling it tingle, then worked on the other, suddenly feeling an excruciating pain in his back. He twisted around, reached behind him and felt a sharp rock in the pine needles. I’ll be okay, able to walk, just wait, the nerves will come back. He pushed and massaged his legs until the blood pumped into his legs like hydraulic fluid lowering a jet’s landing gear.

Rolling onto his knees, he struggled to his feet, and almost blacked out, taking two wobbly steps. He leaned against a tree, forced another step, legs heavy as lead, and started hiking, following the hiker deeper into the wilderness. Was it Susan? He hadn’t really gotten that good a look at her. Did it matter, he thought. Whoever it was, she was in trouble. But so was he. Had to be her, he thought.

As he warmed, his pace quickened. Where was she? How could she be that far ahead of him? Had she stumbled off the path somewhere? Had he passed her by? He turned around and hiked the other direction, but then stopped. Was he going the wrong way now? He sat and leaned against a tree, his heavy legs sticking out into the path. He stared at his crooked fingers. He needed to think. Maybe he should head for the town, get help. But Susan could be dead by the time he returned. But if he kept searching for her, he could also die. What was the point of that? But wouldn’t leaving her now be murder? The woods were peaceful now, the light from the descending sun filtering through the trees and glistening on damp ground. Get up, he told himself. Just the thought of failing to save her made him sick. He would rather die than fail.

The path narrowed, slightly downhill, the direction that offered the least resistance, his legs thudding on the path as he kept a slow, steady pace. He hiked into a small clearing, long grass stirring gently in cool wind, dark blue wild flowers, and a cabin. David tried to yell, but it came out as a hoarse whisper. A faint yellow light glowed in the window, a curl of smoke from the stovepipe barely visible against the darkening sky. Shadows crept across the front porch, the sun a red ball pierced by the tall pines, the air cooling rapidly. Had she come this way, to this cabin? If she had not deviated from the trail, then she must be inside. He yelled, his voice stronger but still hoarse. No answer. Blackflies swirled around his face, a few landing to suck more blood, red welts rising.

David crept onto the porch, the planks creaking. When he tapped on the front door, it opened. Inside, a black potbelly stove burned near a plank bed where he found his wife lying motionless, on her back, arm jutting out stiffly, knotted hair covering her face. He collapsed in relief, sitting on the dirty cabin floor, leaning against her, exhaling, touching her. He pushed her arm onto the bunk. She felt cold. He leaned close, felt her pulse, and listened to her faint breathing. Yes, she was alive.

A cold gust swept through the open door, swirled around the cabin, and rattled the vent on the stove. David stirred the dwindling fire and it crackled reassuringly. Carefully, he lifted hair from her face, now softly visible in the firelight. Lingering over her, David touched her cheek, the smoky smell of the cabin inviting, but also unnerving, like the forest fire. He stood, feeling wobbly, and looked for more wood. The cabin was small, one room. He found a table, with a bottle of tequila, almost empty, and next to it a box of bullets, and a few empty shells, the brass shells shiny in the diminishing light. He looked around for a gun, but didn’t see one. Looks like a public use cabin, he thought, rustic, he’d seen plenty of them. They were cheap, and hunters often rented them. But the tequila bothered him. Not that he didn’t drink, but he recalled when he was a teenager, his father warning him against alcohol and hunting. Of course he didn’t listen and his friend almost shot him, buckshot whizzing past his head. They laughed about it then, but David never forgot it.

The flames from the potbelly stove went out, and the cabin felt cold. David looked at his wife, then opened the door and stepped outside, looking for firewood. There wasn’t any on the porch, so he circled the cabin, finding only twigs. He headed into the forest, but the ground nearby was depleted of good firewood. He had to go much further than he wanted to, eventually finding a fallen tree, dead branches jutting through thick brush. He grabbed a branch, his injured fingers swollen and unable to grasp anything, but he tried, and pulled hard. A branch snapped off in his hands, stinging. David suddenly realized how exhausted he was, taking deep breaths. He needed more wood and was ready try again, when he heard something, at first unclear, but quickly becoming discernable — twigs snapping, the clanking of a metal cup against a backpack. He stood still, listening, gripping the branch like a club, and thinking about the tequila and the bullets. Any normal person would help them, he thought. “Susan,” he whispered, and started to run back toward the cabin, thrashing through the brush, then stopped. Wait, he thought. Don’t make noise. He stepped carefully, crouched down just before the clearing, and listened again.

A looming, shadowy figure of a man approached the cabin and stopped, the resulting silence abrupt. The man dropped a pack, equipment clanking, and cautiously stepped onto the porch, then inside, emerging a few moments later with a lantern, and peering out into the descending night. David could see him clearly — leather boots, army fatigues, red flannel shirt, thick beard, and long tangled hair. The man hoisted his pack, turned to have another look around, then went back inside.

From the brush, David crawled to the side window and peeked in. The man immediately grabbed the tequila and drank it like water, straight from the bottle, then pulled it away from his mouth, staring at his bunk. He knelt carefully over Susan, gently pushing her shoulder. She moaned, but did not wake. The man touched a small puddle on the floor, blood dripping from Susan’s leg; he unbuckled a sheath from his ankle and pulled out a knife, wide blade glistening in the firelight, and thick handle wrapped with black tape. He set the knife down, then stood quickly and headed for the door.

David ducked beneath the window and retreated into the underbrush. Hide, he thought, buy some time, come up with a plan. The man stepped outside, gripping a rifle, then receded into the shadows of the porch. David froze, thinking, the bastard must be paranoid, half-animal, six senses. He waited, listing his options —yell out, beg for help. Run away? I’m an idiot, he thought, why not just go to the door and ask for my wife? But he felt sure that the tequila-guzzling, longhaired man in fatigues was dangerous. David held his branch like a club and started to circle the cabin, thinking he would attack from the other side. Save Susan. But after only two cautious steps, the man emerged again and shouldered the rifle.

David ran thinking the bastard was going to shoot, the bullet would hit him in the back, tear through his heart. But he heard nothing. Only his own thrashing as he ran far into the woods, suddenly tripping, sprawling into the brush, hitting the ground hard and blacking out.

As he regained consciousness, he tried to recall what had happened. His head pounded from the back of his neck through to his already-cut face. Stars were glittering across the big sky. He tried to stand but felt too wobbly. Crawling through the underbrush, he found his club, and used it to push himself up onto his feet. He lurched, then staggered recklessly toward the dark cabin. He stumbled onto the porch, pushed the door open and lunged inside ready to fight. Like he should have done before, he thought. Wind rattled the windows, shadows moved with the wind, and wood planks groaned. Standing with chest heaving, trying to catch his breath, the emptiness of the cabin slowly settled on him like the end of a three-day drunk. His arms shook, the cold gripping him. He opened the stove door and held his hands over the warming coals, then noticed a torn piece of brown paper pushed onto a nail, a note with heavy handed, uneven print. “Had to go. Woman hurt. You go without me this time.”

David stepped back outside. “Susan?” he called. Nothing but strange yelping in the distance. Maybe coyotes. Then wind. He had failed miserably. He had miscalculated the danger running the river, failed to stop her from going in the wrong direction on the path, and worst yet, failed to save her at the cabin, misjudging the situation, and letting a strange man carry her to safety.

While sitting on the porch, he stared into the dark woods. Now what should he do? Drag his stiff, aching body back inside? Sleep by the fire, and wait? For what? Some hunter to rescue him? He’d rather the hunter shoot him. That would be a just fate, wouldn’t it?

The moon rose brightly over trees, and David watched the black shadows slice across the clearing. The silhouette of one tall tree jutting up into the moonlit sky like a warplane taking off, straight up. He recalled his unwanted transfer to commercial airlines, and thought his own marriage seemed to mirror the ensuing economic deterioration.

A breeze stirred the trees and the shadows moved. Was that someone? He stood and walked into the clearing. “Who’s there?” he called. No answer. He looked back at the cold, confining cabin, then at the moonlit path, and he started hiking. As long as he kept moving, he didn’t feel so bad.

Susan would be okay, he thought, wishing he could go back, before they were married, and . . . then he recalled Savgren’s odd comment at the wedding. He stopped, standing in the middle of the path, staring at the sky, the moon falling to the west, and the stars brightening. Doesn’t work out, you can always . . . What? Leap into another universe? Not possible, he thought. At least not literally. But what about an alternate reality? Each movement, each choice he made now, would determine his reality, the future possibilities unfolding before him. No, he thought, shaking his head, rubbing his face, feeling outside his own body.

Had the man seen him? Had Susan? If either had, he’d be with them now, wouldn’t he? Didn’t matter. He could choose to emerge from the forest, and return to his old life. Then what? Let his wife, a woman who clearly lacked ambition, who would rather study the irreversible past than explore future possibilities, let her take the lead? Cling to her for financial support while he waited in unemployment lines? Even if he found a job, wouldn’t they fall into the same trap, with him working hard and coming home to a wife who apparently didn’t love him? Escape, he thought, flee his miserable life and go to Wyoming, where he had felt at peace before. That possibility made him feel lightheaded, unburdened, floating like before, but without any fear. Free. If he just disappeared, they would search the river for his body, not Susan’s. Eventually, they would conclude that he had drowned. Or they might think he had died trying to save Susan, that he was some sort of hero instead of a pathetic failure.

“No,” he said, then looked around at the dark forest, as if someone would hear him. “Hello,” he yelled, hearing a slight echo. Or was that in my head? Am I talking to myself, or my alternate self? Theoretically, there were infinite possibilities, he reasoned. Just like Savgren had said. Couldn’t he just choose one of those alternatives? Who would care, really? His wife. Yes, maybe, at first, but then she would realize that she was better off without him. No more arguments. Family? Maybe. But, living in a different city, they had rarely communicated. They would get over it. Why not choose a new life? He shivered, and his whole body ached with the cold. Had to move, he thought.

By the time he’d made it back to the bridge, he was suffering from exposure, fatigue, his body no longer generating enough heat. He needed food. If he stopped to sleep, or to rest, he would risk hypothermia. He scoffed at the paradoxical idea of freezing fast, his body temperature shifting so suddenly, the cold coming in on him so fast that it freezes his core, stops his heart in mid-beat. Speed created heat, not cold. With the town only a few miles further, David ran, feeling more like an escaped convict than a free man.

Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey Penn May

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