Burlap clouds swept over the pines. It would rain soon. The clouds, tilting to brown, dirtied now in the chaos of the storm and their brush with earth, were also tinged with green. It would be a good storm.
It would be good to Brend, anyway. It was not a blue sky kind of day, and he was not in a blue sky kind of mood. He might not even try to hoof it back to his car to beat the rain. There were worse things than being out in a good, early spring storm, and there was plenty of tree cover along the path. The odds of being hit by lightning were low.
Low enough, anyway. Getting back to his car meant getting in his car, and that meant driving home, and that meant….that meant all that it meant. Brend was not in a hurry.
A vanguard of rain hit like a wave of paratroopers, a soft but stern cadence of drops that shook the branches and their leaves, shaking both. The green on each side of the path burned yellow, some sort of trick of illumination, the sun making so much effort to burn through the cover.
His checked his phone. Still no reception, which was good. He turned it off and slid it back into his back pocket. His mountain man exuberance began to wane when he felt the chill move in, but he only got worried when he realized how far he was from the trailhead and the parking lot. It was his second time to hike the loop, and he had thought there were only a few more bends. Now he wasn’t sure.
Finally, and to Brend’s great relief, the path started to look familiar again. Yes, it wasn’t far now. Maybe a mile, probably less. He was pattering down a long stretch, slightly downhill. He was almost gone, disappeared beyond the bend, when he heard it.
It didn’t land as “Help.” It landed as a guttural moaning almost lost in the wind. He wasn’t sure he had heard anything at all. Until he heard it again. It was a voice, a scared voice, peeling up at the end. The third time, he got a direction.
To his right, the trail was lined by a wall of clay and dirt studded with rocks. Brend scampered up it, cutting his shin on a rock and cursing, but the voice cried out again and, with gritted teeth, he pulled his body over the ledge. He scampered across a clearing and then down a slight incline, into a hollow. Then, all at once, the hollow fell away and he stood on the edge of another cliff, a wall encircling a large stream and a sort of watering hole. He had no idea this was here. In the summer, it would be a hidden gem, perfect for swimming. Now, it looked like some level of Dante’s hell, hemmed on each side by a muddy, gurgling sky.
The voice rang out again, clearer now, crisp. Definitely “Help,” and close. And then he saw her. A flash of pink caught his eye—a bandana that registered not as a thing but as an impulse flashing over his brain, compelling him to run. He was manic, running back and forth until he found a place where he could climb down the cliff without breaking his ankle. Dropping his daypack, he nearly leapt down and was off to the pink and to the voice.
“Hello! Are you okay?” The girl had started crying as soon as she heard him, and now she was smiling.
“Oh, thank God. Thank you so much.”
“Are you okay?”
She was beautiful, and Brend marveled that at such a moment of peril, this thought could even register on his brain. He chastised himself.
“Well…I’ve been better.”
“Oh, shit,” he said.
Her leg was not right. Badly not right. That’s all Brend could tell. Her calf was bruised and her hiking pants were wet. Brend’s mouth opened, his jaw sinking, as he realized it was blood.
“You broke something?”
“Yeah, I guess. Fell from that ridge into the water.”
Brend looked up; it was a forty-foot drop, at least. She was lucky to be alive.
“It hurts when I move. It hurts like… It hurts really bad.”
Brend believed her. It was freezing and she was sweating. “Okay…well….okay. How long have you been her?”
“I don’tknow, I passed out and I hadn’t checked my watch before I fell. Two hours? Three?”
“Okay…okay,” Brend said.
It began to rain.
“Can you carry me?” she asked.
“Yeah, but…I think I’m supposed to go get help.”
“Isn’t that what they say? Go get help and come back.”
“Boy scouts or you know…flight attendants? Put your mask on first? Wait…sorry, I’m just.”
“If you can carry me…I think I need to get to a hospital.”
Brend looked up at the sky, pleading with it, with himself, to make the right decision. This wasn’t 127 hours bad, but it wasn’t great. The rain would be cold. He suspected that her bone was protruding out of her leg. He had no medical training, and he didn’t know if she could bleed out or go into some sort of life-threatening shock.
He thought he could carry her, but he wasn’t sure. She wasn’t large, but she wasn’t petite. She was athletic. It depended how much longer the trail was, and he couldn’t remember. A mile? Two miles? Less than a mile? No way to know.
“Okay, I’ll be right back.”
“What?” she asked, and for the first time she looked truly frightened.
He grabbed her hand. “What’s your name?”
“Okay, Sara. I’m Brend. I’ll be right back okay?”
She wouldn’t argue, but she leaned her head back onto the ground and closed her eyes.
“Okay,” she said.
He wrapped his jacket around her. “Okay, good. Be right back, Sara.”
It was just less than a mile, and he ran the whole way. There were four cars still in the lot. His Subaru, and presumably one of the other three was Sara’s. The run took seven minutes followed by one minute frantically looking for keys. Brend absolutely freaked out when he realized his keys were in the jacket. He yelled in a way that shook his body, his arms gesticulating like Dr. Frankenstein as he circled around, his eyes to the heavens, his body soaked by the blistering rain, but instead of yelling, “It’s alive!” he was yelling, “Shit! Shit! Shit!”
But then he remembered: he had transferred his keys to his shorts early in the hike. Cargo shorts. Pockets he had not checked. Breath held, the fateful check. Metal. Yes. Yes!
Car wheels skidding on rocks, wipers and lights on. This was happening. Hang on, Sara.
Brend kept checking for reception. No luck. By the time the bars started showing up, he was in Warrenston. And there was a light on at the police station. Twenty-four minutes after he had left her, Brend was pulling back into the parking lot, in a police cruiser with an ambulance behind them.
The sky was still swirling, but the rain had slackened. A thirty minute storm, common for this time of the year. A lot of punch, not a lot of breath. The sun had set, but the atmosphere was a hall of mirrors, light seeming to come from every side. Not yellow now, but a soft orange that filled the space between the parking lot and the trail—and everywhere else for that matter—in an ethereal mist of light. It was beautiful, and again Brend was surprised his brain would have any space to hold that thought with a dying girl—a potentially dying girl—a mile away.
Brend slammed the car door and began to run before realizing he needed to wait for Officer Paul. There was a family piling into their mini-van, every one drenched.
“What’s going on?” a man said.
“Girl’s hurt on the trail. Did you hear her?”
“Oh, God, is she okay? No, we didn’t hear anything.”
Office Paul was ready, and Brend started to turn and run up the trail, calling out over his shoulder, “I hope so!”
He took five steps and skidded to a stop, his brain processing the image before him as it resolved, literally, out of a mist. A tall figure, lumbering with strain, but strong, confident. An orange wash backlit them. “Them” because he was carrying someone. Carrying Sara.
As they drew near, the man—bearded, barrel-chested, serious—called out, “She needs help!” And Brend, trying to find his tongue, found nothing. Then he saw that Sara was passed out, her head half-resting on the bearded stranger’s back, lolling to the side.
The EMTs swarmed.
Officer Paul got the story from the bearded man, Sam.
Sam who had carried Sara almost a mile on his back in a frigid, driving rain. Sam who, the paper would say two days later, had saved Sara from shock and, potentially, death.
Sam the hero. Sam the man.
Incessant droning. Always noise, even in complete quiet. There was never complete quiet. He had listened to a Podcast about a musician who recorded the noises in office buildings—the ching ching ching of the copier, the staccato water droppings from keyboards, the whir of fans and fist-sized motors (fans, computers, vacuums)—and made symphonies, of a sort, with them.
He started thinking about freeways. How growing up, even in complete quiet, there was never complete quiet. The drone of the freeway a constant cicada, always buzzing. A musician could probably measure it, capture the note, use it in a symphony.
That’s what led him to the woods. It wasn’t just the visual beauty, it was the quest for some visceral, naked experience of quiet that confronted you with your mortality, that calmed you even as it frightened you. Real quiet, scary, terrifying quiet, which is at the heart of natural beauty. That’s what he loved. His desktop background was a photo of some barren, open space in Siberia. A stock photo, not his own; he had never been. But he nursed dreams of going. Complete quiet, broken by the rumble of a dilapidated train. The train engine winding down, restoring primeval silence. That’s how he imagined it.
The skies were clear today. But boring, cloudless, so that the already flat suburbs had no texture, no dappled shadow. And it was hot. Brend needed caffeine to stay awake, but the mix of heat without and super-chilled air conditioning and hot coffee within was a nauseating cocktail.
He loosened his tie. Three hours to go. Working in a symphony of whirring notes, unordered, no harmony, buzzing like an orchestra always tuning up and never playing, was Brend awash in dissonance.
After high school, he had taken a trip with his friends, right after graduation. It was his turn to pay for gas, and as his friends went into the store to buy whatever high school grads buy, Brend’s mind drifted. He paid at the pump and sat back in the car. Friends got back in and off they went. Except the gas nozzle was still in the car. He had forgotten to return it to its cradle in the pump.
Loud metallic clang. “What the?” Then he saw it in the rear-view mirror: the nozzle hanging, erect and at attention, from his car, its hose severed from the pump’s hose, which now dangled two feet above the top of the pump. The pump clearly had an emergency cut-off, because no gas leaked from the dangling and disconnected hose. Not a drop. So Brend didn’t freak out.
A girl—the check-out girl—had come outside. Dear God, that was embarrassing. But she was laughing. Thought it was funny. She was cute, too. Seaside-village-tomboy- cute, if that was a thing. She kept laughing with him, completely relaxed. And he relaxed. They both said they had no idea how to re-attach the nozzle.
“But you do work at a gas station,” Brend said.
“Yeah, didn’t cover it in orientation.”
“I think maybe if we just pull this tab out we can put the hose back in…”
As he said it, Brend reached his finger into the pump’s dangling rubber hose, pulling at a metal tab. A stream, a torrent, a river of gasoline exploded from the hose, dousing the girl, missing Brend completely. It was something scripted by The Three Stooges.
A long, awkward silence.
Somewhere, in the distance, a dog barked.
Brend found his breath, whispered, quiet as a church mouse: “Are you okay?”
Cute, tomboyish girl from a seaside village, screaming, irate: “No, I’m not effing okay! I’m covered in effing gasoline!”
She stormed off. Brend watched her go, frozen and impotent. Then she was gone. He got in the car and drove away. His friends looked out the window.
The story surfaced in his mind like some inexorable buoy, never to be buried, always rising whenever he thought of Sara. He thought of her and her memory burned him, and then, like a fraternal twin, the thought of that beautiful, tomboyish girl confronted him and burned him all over again.
They say that we don’t remember anything directly; we remember our memory of it (he had heard that on a Podcast, too). Maybe it had never happened. Maybe it was his friend had left the pump in the car and he was mis-remembering. Maybe she hadn’t yelled “fucking gasoline!,” looking at him like a demented Banshee, a sad mix of contempt and hatred in her voice. Maybe he had imagined it all.
But he had not imagined Sara.
It was fifteen months ago, and he was no longer thinking about it everyday. Not most days, anyway. It was only a fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on how you looked at it) chance that he saw that Sam and Sara were engaged. He was scrolling through Buzzfeed, glancing at headlines, procrastinating and peeking his eyes up periodically to make sure no one was making their way to his cubicle, when he saw the story. Woman engaged to her heroic rescuer. One click and there they were: Sam and Sara, hand in hand, smiling. He couldn’t believe it.
That was a week ago.
He should send them a wedding present. A pink bandana or some hiking pants. No, an emergency siren, or a trail map. A picture of him with the EMTs. A picture of Sam and Sara with his face photo-shopped onto Sam’s body. “It could have been me!” She probably wouldn’t think that was funny. He wondered if he would be invited to the wedding. Maybe she had gotten his information somehow? Maybe Office Paul had given it to her? He should look her up; he could probably find her on Facebook. Woman ditches her rescuer for the man who almost rescued her.
“What the? Why am I thinking about this?”
Brend looked out the window, at the cloudless blue. He got back to work.
The office symphony began to wind down, lights being turned off, streetlamps turning on, pinpoints of light beginning to pierce the sky as the sun set. Brend made his way to meet his friend Gary at Tiny Tim’s.
“I like this place,” Gary said as they saw down, pints in hand.
“I do, too, but I mean, seriously, who names their bar after a…”
“It’s a gastro-pub.”
“It’s not a bar, it’s a gastro-pub.”
“There’s a huge difference.”
“Between a bar and a gastro-pub?”
“Okay, whatever. Who names their gastro-pub after a character that no one thinks about except maybe in December?”
“I don’t know, man, it’s a weird name. Food’s bomb, though.”
“Where did you get that?”
“They say it in California.”
“Like, ‘that’s the bomb? Isn’t that about a decade old?’”
“No, they still say it, but they just say ‘bomb.’”
“And how do you know this?”
“I read an article about it on Buzzfeed.”
Brend winced, involuntarily. Gary missed it, thankfully, and kept talking.
The sun set, the moon rose, and they sat there, finishing round one. Gary bought round two. Brend found he had no idea why he was talking about whatever he was talking about.
“I find myself often putting quotation marks around things I really do believe. It’s like I believe it, but I also have to make fun of it. I have to make fun of it because black and whites are just too easy to adopt, I feel like a dope.”
“Rope a dope, you know, like…wait, who was that? Muhammad Ali?”
“Oh. Yeah. What does that have to do with what I was saying?”
“No, I hear you bro, I hear you. It just made me think of that rope-a-dope punch.”
Brend looked past Gary, who was winding up his arm in the air as if preparing to punch, and that’s when he saw her. She was sitting by the bar, by herself, without a drink, checking her watch. Mahogany hair. Gorgeous. Drop. Dead. Gorgeous.
“Alright broski, I’ve got to pack it in.” Gary stood, grabbed his jacket. “Thanks for the brewski.” Gary fake punched, Ali-esque, and Brend flinched.
“Yeah, alright, bro, see you when you get back. Have a good trip.”
Brend laughed, “Yeah, knock ‘em dead. Don’t let the old ladies pinch your ass.”
“See you, pal.”
Brend watched Gary go so he could look again. She was still there and still gorgeous. And still alone. He sighed and got out his book. Nothing like sitting in a bar—a gastro-pub—by yourself, reading for the evening. But it was not too depressing because the server kept re-filling his bar mix and it was the kind with wasabi peas. Not a bad way to spend the night. He did not notice when the gorgeous woman with the mahogany hair took a seat at the table beside him, and he was startled ten minutes later when he shut his book, sighed, and looked up to see her, in all of her beauty, right next to him. She was reading her own book, a paperback Moby Dick. She looked up and smiled at him. His breath caught. She looked down again.
Without thinking, Brend jumped.
“Not exactly a page turner, is it?”
“Hmm?” she said looking up. “Oh, yeah,” she laughed. “Well, I’m getting into it. What are you reading?”
“Oh, Charles Simic,” he said, flipping the cover towards her.
“Hm. Never read his poetry. You like it?”
“It’s okay. I like the poems I can understand, which is not very many. Two so far, I think. I’m forty pages in.”
She laughed. “You don’t find many people reading poetry these days. Quite highbrow.”
She was gorgeous, she had an incredible smile, she was reading Moby Dick, and she knew Charles Simic was a poet. And with the wasabi off his pallet, he caught the smell of flowers. Or lavender, maybe.
“Well, I guess I never got over my angsty teenage phase. Reading great poetry, writing bad poetry. Although, I guess Robert Frost was never very angsty. I should have been reading underground Czech poets or something.”
Underground Czech poets? What the hell does that mean?
“Oh, no, you’ve got it. Grunge artist. Emo in disguise, well done.”
Brend laughed. Who IS this woman?
It took Brend about five seconds before he realized he hadn’t said anything and couldn’t think of anything to say.
“You meeting a friend?”
“Well, I was, but she just texted me that she got the day wrong, so I thought I’d read and have a drink before I left. Would be sort of anti-climatic to get all dressed up and leave, you know? What would Bob Cratchit say?”
He laughed out loud and almost launched into his Tiny Tim tirade, but just laughed instead.
“Yeah. And the nuts are good, too.”
“The barnuts. Delicious.”
“Oh, yeah. Haven’t tried them.”
“I like Wasabi.”
Dear God, man.
"Very cosmopolitan,” she said.
Was she wanting to read again? Should he let her read again?
“Well, I’ll let you read,” he said.
“Enjoy not understanding your poetry.”
Brend laughed. “You, too. Enjoy your whale, I mean.”
“Thanks.” She turned back to her book with a smile.
That smile. This woman!
A quarter hour passed. Half an hour. He should go. There were reports to do. He was tired. And he should say something to her before he left. Get her name. Ask for her number. He would stand and say something to her. His heart was palpitating. But he would say something, right? Something that was kind and smart, but he wouldn’t try too hard, either.
Then he was standing. He was standing and not saying anything.
She looked up. “Good night,” she smiled.
“Good night,” he said, trying to smile as he squeezed past her table. And then he was walking towards the door. And then he was outside, in crisp air and the blue light of Tiny Tim’s neon cane, which buzzed with the sound of some great, sick insect. Never complete quiet, anywhere.
And then he was turning, walking back down the stairs, opening the door, walking back towards her. She looked up and smiled, puzzled.
“I just wanted to say...and I don’t usually do this sort of things, that’s the thing, but. I just wanted to say, this may be superficial, but you are one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen, and you are intelligent and pleasant and…I would love to share a meal or coffee with you. Would you like to do that sometime?”
Rough in the air, but he had stuck the landing. He exhaled. Imperceptibly, he hoped. He felt a confident smile propping up the corner of his lips.
But then he saw it coming. He saw it like a pilot sees the Red Baron zooming in from 2 o’clock high. Saw it like a chicken sees the ax beginning its down-stroke. Saw it like he saw Sam coming out of a mist, carrying Sara on his back.
“Oh, that is so…that’s really sweet. But no, thank you, I…” she just shook her head, offering not even the succoring, if false, I just got out of a relationship or I’m a lesbian or I’m on trial for murder, so…confusing time right now. Instead, she said, “I’m not really interested in…that…right now.”
That was vague, especially from a woman who had used “quite highbrow” as a sentence. And it was jarring. But it was clear. Not interested. The end.
“Would you be interested later?” he almost said, but then he just smiled and said, “I get it, well, thanks. Good night.”
“Good night,” she smiled again.
Up the steps he went again and into the neon shower from Tiny Tim’s cane, the night warm all around him.
Brend got into his car, felt the frame rumble as the engine brrrred to life. Never complete quiet, anywhere. Not for long.
Down the street, onto the access road, onto the freeway, and Brend, driving beneath a sky where little points of lights were cracking the darkness, smiled. Smiled and laughed.
Smiled, laughed, and stomped his feet. There he was: smiling, flying, floating down the freeway.
The car whirred beneath him. A musician could name the note. It was a Bb flat, perhaps. Part of a symphony. And the noise and the night and the triumph were perfect.