(Note: This story originally appeared in a literary journal – New Ohio Review – and it is intended for mature readers.)
Derek first smells it while lying in the sun on a rock beside Brice Creek. He rises to his elbow and cranes his neck toward the shifting breeze from the east, feels eyes upon him and imagines a family of campers upwind. Maybe Dad just started a fire for lunch, impressing his wife and daughter, keeping an eye on the half-naked man sprawled on the rocks downstream. Derek remembers his own Rachel starting her first single match A-frame when she was eight or nine, the pride on her face, how she liked camping then. How she looked up to him.
He sees only the unbroken green and brown of the old growth forest, a clear sky and no smoke. The pot must be making him paranoid, the joint he got from Stacy, the girl who deals a few doors down in their apartment complex. Derek closes his eyes and lies down, trying to remember Stacy’s smile when she invited him in. It might have been flirting and it might have been business, her blue eyes bloodshot and offset by a long tangle of hair too black to be natural. Her tight black tank top and cut-off jeans didn’t leave much to the imagination. Weaving barefoot through clothes and magazines, she flopped on a cat-scratched plaid recliner, one skinny white leg draped over the armrest.
“Just a joint?” she asked.
At the time, Derek thought she wanted to sell him more pot. Now he wonders if she’d been offering something else. He shook his head, struck by the Disney art hanging on her wall. If not for the bong and beer bottles crowding the coffee table, the smell of pot and stale hops, he might have been standing in Rachel’s room five years ago.
“I don’t usually sell less than an eighth,” Stacy said, “but I guess I could roll you one. How about five bucks for the regular and ten bucks for the good stuff?”
Derek pulled his eyes away from the Little Mermaid’s smile. “Is the good stuff laced with something?”
“No, it’s just good.” Stacy smiled and bounced her leg on the armrest.
Derek gave her a ten and watched her long, thin fingers roll the joint. They were quick and sure, capped with flaking black nail polish. He thought about inviting her camping, maybe mentioning it and seeing how she responded. But she was a kid, closer to Rachel’s age than his own, and he sat there stupidly until she handed him the joint. He had avoided Minnie Mouse’s eyes on the way out. While he’d hoped the pot would keep him company beside the fire, it only made him numb, but that was something. Plus the whiskey. This morning, fighting another hangover, he finished the roach just to be done with it, smoke curling up through the mesh of his tent. After breakfast he broke camp in a daze, hiked out, drove out, but pulled over beside the creek here, determined to enjoy his Monday off and delay the drive back to Springfield, where tomorrow it’s back to laying tile on bathroom floors.
The woods are silent except for crows that startle from high in the trees, where shifting winds gently shake the Douglas fir. Derek sniffs at the T-shirt he’s been resting his head on and thinks of his breakfast fire, the bacon grease he left in the pan when frying his eggs. The fire had crisped the yolk in seconds and sent liquid shrapnel spitting from the pan, searing the top of his hand when he reached in. The breakfast dance always got a laugh from Rachel when she was younger. When he gave his final bow, she would swoop in to eat whatever mess he served up. Last year, she barely ate anything and didn’t laugh once. The s’mores never made it out of the packaging. As the creek gurgles in the pool below, Derek imagines the grease with no place to settle in his stomach. He rises to all fours with a sudden wave of nausea. Bile mixed with whiskey and chunks of bacon splatters the rock.
Afterwards, Derek rinses his mouth with warm water from his Nalgene bottle. He stands and lifts his face to the sun, rubbing his soft belly, which clenches within. When he turns back to the creek, ready to swim, another wind from the east carries the smell of smoke. His free hand comes to his mouth, teeth gnawing on a dirty fingernail. How fast would a wildfire catch? How far would the smoke travel in the time it took him to leave the ridge and reach the creek? His stomach clamps tighter when he can’t remember checking his fire. He was stoned. He is stoned.
This is Rachel’s fault. She’s probably sitting in her room in Lincoln City, ignoring the ocean through her window and listening to the latest canned pop music or texting her friends. If she was here, Derek wouldn’t have bought the whiskey or knocked on Stacy’s door and bought a joint that got him so high he forgot to put out his fire.
Last week, he drove to Lincoln City unannounced, wanting to surprise Rachel at the skating rink for her birthday party, which she’d posted about on her Facebook page. Derek had to scan the sea of kids several times before recognizing her. He knew she was turning thirteen, of course, but he couldn’t believe how tall she’d grown, how her legs spooled out from a skirt that seemed too short. Her fingertips bloomed red nail polish, and with her braces off she looked more like Nance than ever. When she took a break at the snack bar, Derek tapped her shoulder.
“Dad,” she said, nearly tipping over. “What are you doing here?”
“Happy Birthday,” he said, waving an envelope.
She accepted his quick, awkward hug and skated off to join her friends, who included nearly as many boys as girls. Derek sat by himself, his brother deployed and his parents travelling in their new RV. Not that Nance would have invited them anyway. Her mother eyed him closely from behind those rose-tinted glasses. Her father, who’d once shown up at Derek’s door to collect a late alimony check, wouldn’t look at him at all. And then there was the new husband, George, who wore his shirt tucked in and nodded at everything Nance said. Nance kept her distance from Derek, offering only one brief smile that smacked of pity. He endured the Top 40 music and the decades-old smell of hormones soaked into the worn dayglow carpet. An older deejay leaned forward in his dark booth, flashing the red tip of a cigarette and tracking Rachel and her friends as they circled the rink. Derek lingered, singing along around the cake and watching Rachel open presents, his card and Hollister gift certificate thrown among the others. Toward the end, he waved Rachel over. She circled once and detached from her friends, holding onto the railing and leaning back.
“You haven’t returned my e-mails,” Derek said.
She looked away to watch the skaters. “I’m not really into camping anymore.”
“I thought this year we might head up into the mountains. Maybe try to summit South Sister.”
Her face scrunched up. “I don’t know.” Her friends passed and waved at her. Rachel waved back. “Could Gina come?”
Derek knew how that would go. “I don’t know, Rachel. It’s supposed to be our time out there, you know?”
She twisted her mouth and wouldn’t look him in the eyes. “I don’t know.” He reached for her hand, covering the red nail polish. “Thanks for coming,” she said. Derek didn’t know what to say, but he couldn’t let go of her hand. Rachel looked down at him with a trace of fear in her eyes, as if he was the type of creep she’d been warned about all her life. A boy slowly rolled up, a good-looking kid with an easy smile. Derek let go and prepared to meet him, but Rachel grabbed the boy’s hand and skated away.
“Who was that?” the boy asked.
Derek couldn’t hear if Rachel replied.
He’s been staring into the creek so long his eyes begin to water. When he finally looks up toward where he camped, the trees stand too tall, too close, for any chance of spotting smoke. Derek relaxes with the reprieve but expects the view to open up when he crosses the one-lane bridge down the road. He begins to put on his shirt but pauses from the woodsmoke, the sweetness like cedar barbeque chips. He’s left shirts hanging over his laundry basket for weeks after a trip to enjoy the reminder of wild places. Now he balls the shirt up and slips into his sneakers. His Nissan pickup starts on the second try, spitting gravel as he pulls out. With the AC broken, hot air and dust swirl through the open windows, where Derek spits out slivers of his fingernails.
After two or three miles, he sees the one-lane bridge. His stomach tightens as he taps the brake. For a moment he wonders if he’s going to be sick again, but this knot feels different. Like when he hovered over Nance’s shoulder during the home pregnancy test. He remembers the purple scrunchy in her hair, how it smelled like cigarettes, and a bulb in the bathroom flickering. He will never forget the exhale that escaped her lips and formed the word shit, which he says now at the sight of white smoke rising in the distance. It puffs from the trees like it would from a cigar, the upper reaches fading to grey tendrils that drift on the wind. Derek imagines his campfire at its core. Huge trees, the sappy Douglas fir he leaned his pack against and the fallen cedar he sat on, burning like the sticks he used to start the fire. Blood rushes from his head and leaves him dizzy, knuckles white around the wheel.
The closest he’s been to a dangerous fire was freshman year at Lincoln City High School hanging out with his friend Jessie, Jessie’s older brother, and another junior. They set fires to tires in an old junk dump in the woods, and none of them had been prepared for the intensity of the burn, the rank smell, searing heat, and black plume of smoke. They had no plan for putting it out, and all of them scrambled. Jessie threw on a clump of pine needles, which only sparked the blaze. The juniors poured their beers on it. Derek threw dirt. Nothing worked and they fled, returning the following weekend to find a scorched patch of stinking earth. Those were the days, when you could run without worrying about the consequences.
Blood hits Derek’s tongue where he’s torn off a piece of fingernail too close to the skin, the metallic taste like a fishing weight he imagines sinking into his churning stomach. He can’t just sit here on the bridge, considers gunning the gas but instead lifts his foot off the brake and rolls across, parking in a pullout on the other side. He forces himself to breathe, staring at the ferns and the tangle of undergrowth coated in gravel dust. He imagines ash covering everything green for miles around. For a moment he is one of the plants, looking out at the world through a gray haze. He squints through his dirty windshield up at the firs, trunks gnarled and brown like weathered skin, branches rising in a crowd of linked arms. He steps out of the truck and shuts the door quietly, shuffles across the bridge and slumps against the railing. Oval stones on the creek bottom shimmer in the swift-moving water. A trout darts after a passing morsel before settling into a steady swim, tail working against the current.
Derek’s mouth is dry. He will take that dip, just a quick dunk to clear his head. But before he can move, he hears an engine, tires crunching gravel. He sees a flash of pastel green, a Forest Service rig coming his way. The driver brakes. Derek tries to camouflage his nerves with a nod and a smile, surprised to see that the ranger is a woman, blonde and pretty. She pulls over on the far side of the bridge and slams the door behind her, thick arms tan where they extend from the olive-colored uniform, long pants tight over her wide thighs and waist. She would hold her own in a wrestling match, but she is pretty and young, with a girl’s soft features. Her hazel eyes are another story, sizing him up as she approaches. Derek would have preferred a man, might have already popped off a comment, but instead he stands awkward and shirtless with a stupid smile on his face, observing her freckles. Her silence makes him more nervous.
“That’s some smoke,” he says, jerking his head toward the hills behind them.
“On your way out?” she asks.
“Yes, ma’am.” This is how his father taught him to speak to authority figures, how he tried to teach Rachel.
The ranger’s eyes narrow. “See anyone else coming out?”
“Um.” Derek wonders if he should make someone up. “No, ma’am.”
“Had to think about it.”
He laughs. “Yeah. Sorry. A little out of it this morning. Too much whiskey last night.”
She looks around. “Just you?”
His smile fades. “My daughter,” he begins, but looking at her name badge, Emily Something, he loses his train of thought and wonders if she is close to her father, if her father is proud of his daughter in her uniform. “My daughter was supposed to come,” Derek says.
The ranger stares at him, waiting.
“But I’ve lost her,” he says.
Her eyes soften. “How old?”
Derek stares into the distance. “Just thirteen.”
“I’m sorry. Was she sick? An accident?”
Derek realizes her mistake, takes a deep breath and has to gather himself. “It was a long time coming,” he says.
The ranger nods. “Where’d you camp?”
Now he lies, forcing himself to look in her eyes as he describes the swimming hole and his sunbathing spot on the rock.
“So if I was to stop there on my way up, I’d see that your fire’s put out?”
Derek hesitates, looks to the east. “No fire,” he manages, nodding toward the smoke. “Didn’t think we were supposed to.”
When she doesn’t respond, Derek hopes that’s it, she’ll tell him to have a good day and get in her truck. But she stands there, the two of them rooted to the bridge, and he feels her eyes still on him.
“Isn’t fire supposed to be good sometimes?” Derek says, glancing at her. “I mean, don’t you let them burn themselves out nowadays?”
She finally looks toward the smoke. “Natural wildfires, maybe, if they’re far enough out, but we haven’t had lightning in weeks.” She turns and steps closer to him, nostrils flaring as she draws in a breath. “But you know, it’s funny you saying you didn’t have a campfire, because I could swear I smell smoke on you.”
Derek doesn’t want to lie anymore. He can come clean and lift this weight, but he doesn’t like people coming at him this way, authority figures or not. “With all due respect, ma’am,” he says. “I smell smoke on you, too.”
She smiles for the first time and says, “One moment, please,” before returning to her truck. Derek hears the static of a CB radio. His body won’t budge, fingers wrapped around the railing, sneakers fastened to the bridge. She walks back carrying a notepad. He wants to imagine her writing down her information in case he thinks of anything, like on a cop show, but he knows better. “Can I have your name, please?” she asks.
“Derek Masterson,” he says. No hesitation. No lie.
She writes it down and he notices the creases of her fingers etched with old dirt, no polish on her fingernails. As she walks toward his truck, Derek remembers his shirt, balled on the passenger seat and reeking of woodsmoke, but she stops short of the Nissan to jot down his license plate number.
“Is there a problem?” Derek asks.
The ranger closes her notepad and walks back to him. “I hope not,” she says, eyes flickering to his thumbnail caught between his teeth. He keeps biting at it, as if finishing an important piece of grooming. “You have a good afternoon, Mr. Masterson.” She begins to turn away but pauses. “And I’m sorry again about your daughter.”
He nods and rips off the bit of nail, and as he watches Emily Something walk back to her truck, he imagines that Rachel really is gone, that he will never see her again. He wants to cry, bang his head into the railing, but he just stands there watching the Forest Service rig rumble away, toward danger. He looks around for a distraction and notices a subtle change in the light, like a filter cast over the afternoon. The smoke dispersing at higher altitudes veils the bright sun where it reaches its apex. In an hour, he guesses, someone could stand on this bridge and look up without squinting at the perfect circle of the sun, sunset-orange beyond the haze. Derek can be home in an hour. He hustles to the Nissan, which starts on the third try.
He focuses on the winding gravel road and fumbles for the Nalgene, drinking the last of the warm water. He speeds up, eager for solid pavement, and a squirrel darts onto the gravel. Derek swerves and barely avoids the ditch.
“Dammit!” he yells, pulling back to center.
The pavement is a relief when it finally arrives. The Nissan settles into a steady hum and dust no longer swirls in the windows. Passing the ranger station, where Smokey upgraded the fire danger to Extreme, Derek remembers how eagerly Rachel built up her fires. He’d let her, but he also taught her how to bring them back down and douse them afterwards. Even last year, she filled the cooking pot with water, without being asked, and drowned the last embers. She would know these perfect conditions for a wildfire: mid-August; no rain for weeks and not a cloud in the sky; wind picking up and gusting in different directions. Two nights ago, the twigs practically pulled the flame from Derek’s match.
He outruns the smoke as he drives, trees flashing by until he approaches the broad opening of daylight that signals the boundary of the national forest. In an instant he passes from the dappled shade of trees to exposed sunlight. The slopes on either side have been clear-cut in a straight line that divides green forest from parched yellow grass dotted with grey stumps. It looks like the land got a shave, these stumps like stubble on an old man’s jaundiced face. Derek checks his three-day growth in the mirror, half expecting grays. His bloodshot eyes make him look like he’s been crying. He turns away, ejecting the Allman Brothers disc he drove in with and replacing it with Slipknot. The music starts pounding, the singer growling.
The first house he passes sells firewood for five dollars a bundle. The next a doublewide trailer with a neat front porch and vegetable garden. The homes spread over acres, some well kept and some infested with meth. Rusting machines and plastic play sets litter the lawns and overgrown yards. A tired American flag droops off a garage; a black POW flag catches a breeze from the top of a young fir. The only person he sees is a toddler in diapers with a stick in his hand and food on his face, eyes following Derek as he passes. Derek wonders if the fire could get this far.
At the intersection with the highway, he approaches a small white cinderblock building with a faded wooden sign: Up the Creek. An El Camino and dusty Dodge Ram sit in the gravel lot. Derek pulls in but leaves the engine running as he climbs out to have a look at the sky behind him. Far in the distance, he just makes out the hint of a yellowish haze hanging low over the forest. He gets back in the truck and sits there a moment before killing the engine and throwing on his shirt.
The roadhouse is so dark inside that it takes a moment for his eyes to adjust. The flowing waterfall on a plug-in Olympia Beer sign casts a blue glow on the entryway. The air is stale but cool, the only other source of light a small television hung in the corner and tuned to a Formula One race. The two men at the bar drop their muted conversation as they look at Derek. He leaves a stool open between himself and the nearest guy and nods at the bartender walking out from the back. All three of these men are in their fifties or sixties in jeans and long-sleeved shirts, despite the August heat.
“What’ll it be?” asks the bartender, who is missing a bottom tooth.
Derek looks to the others, their eyes on him. The nearest has peeled half the label off his bottle of Miller High Life; the other lifts a can of Pabst. “One of them High Lifes,” Derek says.
“Better check his I.D.,” says Miller, laughing at his own joke.
“Shit,” Derek says.
The bartender and Miller are thin and probably related, with faces like quarter-moon caricatures, sunken eyes and noses with protruding chins and foreheads. Pabst is well built, with a red, bulbous nose and full gray beard stained by chewing tobacco. He wears suspenders and a dirty John Deere cap. Miller leans toward Derek and wrinkles his nose. “You smell like a chimney, son.”
Derek tenses, suddenly unsure why he even came in here. He could leave right away, make up an excuse about leaving his wallet in the truck.
The bartender opens a High Life and thumps it on the bar. “Three bucks.”
Derek digs out a five and sets it down. “Been camping,” he says, briefly glancing at Miller before looking around the room: empty tables and frayed booths, faded posters from beer companies featuring girls in dated bikinis, a stuffed spotted owl toy impaled on a dart board. The air in the room presses close with the residue of old cigarettes and urine drifting from the propped-open men’s room.
“Camping,” Miller says. “Damn, we ain’t been camping all summer, have we, Teddy?”
“Nope,” says the bartender, leaning against the bar and eyeing the race. The sound of the engines reminds Derek of mosquitoes.
“What about you, Frank?”
The big man exhales like air escaping a seat cushion, voice deep when he says, “Not since deer season.”
Derek drinks. The beer could be colder, but he’s glad their attention has shifted.
“Frank’s son, though,” Miller says. “Damn near camped the whole PCH.”
“PCT,” Teddy corrects.
“Pacific Crest Trail. PCH is the highway.”
“Whatever. Crazy son of a bitch started all the way down on the Mexican border with his girlfriend and made it all the way up to Washington. Remember when they came through and we brought ’em down here for that party, Frank?”
“Smelled ten times worse than you, son, and both walking bowlegged like a couple Weeble Wobbles. Got drunker than hell and did fall down, as I recall.”
The men laugh and Derek joins them, lifting his beer but wishing Miller would shut the hell up about the woodsmoke already.
“That’s the last High Life there,” Teddy says. “I’ll get some more.” He slips out the back.
“So what happened?” Derek asks the men. “Were they trying for Canada?”
“I don’t know,” Miller says. “What happened, Frank?”
Air whistles through Frank’s nose. “They aimed to but got on each other’s nerves and broke up. Too much time together, I suppose. The woods are big, but a tent is small.” He finishes his Pabst. “My boy tried to go it alone but quit pretty soon. Came back a man, though.” Frank stands with a wheeze and lumbers to the bathroom.
A beer commercial on the television features hot young bodies jumping into a swimming pool. Derek barely remembers the last woman he slept with, maybe six months ago. He doesn’t know her name, never learned much about her, just traveling on business. She bought all the drinks at the bar and took him back to the Red Lion, where he snuck out at first light. She snored and looked as big as a man under the covers. Derek takes another swig.
“What about you?” Miller asks, winking up at the television screen. In a commercial for men’s body spray, a handful of beautiful young women throw themselves at a surprised guy, their arms and legs wrapping him up. “Where’s your girl?”
Derek squeezes the glass bottle and thinks of Stacy with her sleepy eyes, her long white leg bouncing against the couch. “Home,” he says, but as soon as the lie leaves him, he thinks of the girl he has lost. Rachel not much younger than the girls Miller ogles on the television. He recognizes that look, like the eyes in the darkened deejay booth tracking Rachel around the rink in her short skirt.
“Nice,” says Miller. He leans over to Derek and whispers, “How’s she keep her pussy shaved?”
The bottle squirts from Derek’s grip as he elbows Miller back, which isn’t enough. He wants to smash the bottle in Miller’s face. But the bottle is rolling away, so Derek clenches his fist and drives it into the older man’s jaw, which pops out of place. Miller slumps against the bar with a moan, nearly falling off his stool. Derek hears the flush of a toilet, the clink of bottles behind the bar.
He flees as calmly as possible, letting the door slap shut behind him as he squints into the bright day and sprints to his truck. The Nissan coughs to life on the second try, Slipknot blaring, and Derek attacks the straight line of the highway for a solid minute. Both hands grip the wheel, new pain in his right hand, and he lets the tears come. He feels like the blubbering kid on the playground after his first fight.
He checks his phone for messages. Not a word from Rachel since her birthday party. His mind drifts back to the morning of her first birthday. It had been a hard twenty months with Nance. They were young and resentful, exhausted and broke. They rarely had sex and when they did it was angry, their bodies pushing against each other. Nance wanted people over for a birthday party; Derek wanted to go out on Jessie’s boat to fish the albacore running up the coast. “We’ll have tuna for weeks,” he argued.
Rachel cried and struggled as Nance changed her diaper in the murky dawn light. “She’s only gonna turn one once, Derek.”
“Do it then. I’ll be back in time for cake.”
“So I’ll just plan everything and do everything.” Nance bundled the dirty diaper in one hand and tried to corral Rachel with the other. “Just like I always do. When’s the last time you even changed a diaper?” Rachel’s crying ratcheted up a notch as she made a break for it, crawling across the futon.
“I told you,” Derek said, leaning against the wall. “The smell makes me gag.”
“Gag on this!” Nance hurled the dirty diaper at his head. Derek ducked and saw the diaper flop to the floor, leaving a rust-colored splotch where it hit the wall. He stared at his wife, her eyes smoldering, and Rachel stopped crying, as surprised as Derek. He should have quietly cleaned up the smelly mess. Instead, he walked out. They needed the tuna.
On the exit leading to his apartment, he sees a dead animal in the middle of the road, a raccoon or possum. He’s often thought there are two kinds of people in the world, those who look at roadkill and those who don’t. He manages to avoid running it over without looking. At the first stoplight, he turns down the Slipknot. The relentless aggression has left him feeling like a punching bag. He just wants to hide in his apartment, drink water from a cool shower and nap in his bedroom with the shades drawn. He’s about to turn into his complex when his limbs crackle like power lines. A black-and-white police cruiser sits in front of the manager’s office.
Derek hardly pauses to note that his apartment door is closed. He nearly runs a stop sign as his mind races through the possibilities, from Miller’s broken jaw to the forest fire, jail time at worst and public shame at best, his name and photo in the Register-Guard and everyone talking about the idiot who started the Brice Creek fire. When he thinks of jail he thinks of the roadhouse, cinderblocks and perverts, big men wheezing beneath heavy beards. Jail time becomes a prison sentence when he imagines the fire blowing up, firefighters dying, charges of involuntary manslaughter. Derek closes his eyes at the next stop sign and forces himself to breathe. More likely he will be saddled with enormous fines that will take years to pay off, maybe the rest of his life, and just when he got off the alimony hook. At least the alimony had connected him to Rachel.
Derek finds himself back on a major avenue and surrounded again by people, anonymous for the moment. At a stop light he stares at a poster in the window of a travel agency, a couple holding hands on a deserted beach. Anonymous. A horn honks behind him, a voice bellows, and as Derek squeezes the wheel, his right hand tingling from the punch, an idea takes shape. He imagines calling Rachel to ask what she thinks, but she wouldn’t understand, like her mother couldn’t understand about the tuna.
He first stops at the bank, giddy with his new secret, but in the sterile, air-conditioned branch, he knows anyone within ten feet can smell his woodsmoke and soupy armpits. The young teller stalls and checks with her manager. The digital wall clock reads 2:48, just enough of an afternoon left. At 2:49, Derek glimpses a security camera and quickly looks away. At 2:50, he considers leaving, just walking out and forgetting the whole thing, but that might be even more suspicious. It isn’t until 2:52 that the teller finally returns and counts out a thousand dollars cash, ten crisp Benjamins fitting neatly in the palm of his hand, leaving seven hundred in his account. It’s more money than he’s ever seen, and the giddiness returns.
After gassing up and chugging a cold Gatorade, Derek stops at Cabela’s and loads a shopping cart: new backpack; collapsible fishing pole and small, stocked tackle box; fillet knife and small cutting board; another knife for cleaning game; fire starter kit; first aid kit; new water purifier; maps and guidebook; a book called Wild Edible Plants of Western North America; a box of bullets. He stops at Fred Meyer for essentials and a few days’ worth of food. He hasn’t eaten since breakfast, and though his stomach is a greasy knot, he forces down a pre-made turkey sandwich as he swings back by his apartment complex. The police cruiser is gone. For the first time, he considers that they came for Stacy, imagining her long fingers dangling from handcuffs.
He pauses outside her door, no sound inside. His apartment seems undisturbed. He can almost pretend he never left, that he just got back from a trip to the store. He collapses on his bed and stares up at the white ceiling, wondering if he has overreacted. Blank walls surround him. He’s lived here for years without putting anything up.
He hops off the bed, won’t take much, only what will fit in his new pack. He surveys the apartment, surprised by how easy it will be to leave behind. From frames on the bookshelf he removes three photos: with his brother and parents at Disneyland; with Rachel at Waldo Lake, both laughing as they poke each other waiting for the timer; and Rachel’s school portrait from last year, lips closed to hide her braces. He pulls a small safe from under his bed, emptying it of the Glock 19, loaded cartridge, extra bullets, and important papers. From his old gear stash in the closet he removes a green army poncho, long johns, and a fifty-foot length of unopened nylon cordage, adding a handful of clean T-shirts from his dresser. He spots the Bible his grandmother gave him on the bookshelf, reads her inscription inside the front cover (To Derek – Be good – Grandma Collins) and pushes that into his pack as well.
In the shower, dirty water spirals down the drain, grit clinging to the creases of his skin. Sticky sap in his palm looks like a birthmark and carries the sharp bite of evergreen. In the bathroom mirror, his rosy cheeks glow from the sun, his eyes no longer bloodshot. He tries to imagine them peering out through shaggy hair, a full beard covering his face.
Derek dresses and shoulders his backpack, checks the parking lot before leaving. Outside Stacy’s apartment, he hears the muffled beat of rap music. He pauses and finally knocks. She answers with sleepy eyes and a smile that probably could have used braces, though something charming would have been lost.
“Come in,” she says, weaving to her recliner. Derek thinks she is listening to Jay-Z. “How’d that work out for you?” she asks, yawning and blinking open her blue eyes.
“Good,” Derek says, closing the door behind him. “A little too good.”
“Want some of the regular?” she asks.
“No. Thanks. I was just wondering if you noticed the cop car out there today?”
“Cop car?” Stacy is at the window with surprising speed. “No. What’s going on?”
“Not sure,” Derek says. There is an awkward moment, Stacy looking from him back out the window, and Derek wondering why he is here. “You wanna come over to my place for a minute?”
She eyes him.
“Not like that,” he says. “I might be leaving and giving away some stuff and I thought you might want first crack at it.”
“What did you do?” she asks. “The cops are after you?”
He shakes his head. “Just come have a look.”
She pulls her head from the curtains and smiles. “Somehow I can’t imagine the cops after you.” She points and follows him to his apartment, lingering at the door when he unlocks it and enters.
“Whatever you want,” he says.
“Whatever I want? Like the TV? Stereo?”
“Sure,” he says. “I’ll leave it open. Just wait a day or two, and if you don’t hear from me, it’s yours.”
“What did you do?” she asks. She steps inside and crouches in front of his CDs and video games.
“Nothing. It’s a family emergency.”
“Bullshit,” she says, smiling as she stands to face him. “And you gotta want something. A few joints? Let’s smoke one before you leave.”
His legs feel unsteady. He imagines going back to her apartment, where a joint might lead, maybe staying there a day or two.
“I think I started something,” he says. “Something I can’t undo.”
Her eyes widen. “You think you started something?”
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure.”
“But not positive.”
“Then you didn’t do it.” She smiles.
He hears tinkling music like a wind-up ballerina, and Stacy pulls a phone from her pocket. Derek tries to place the tune.
“I gotta take this,” she says. Lifting the phone with a new smile, she says, “Where the fuck have you been?”
Derek imagines a guy on the other end, a kid her age looking to score a bag.
Stacy laughs and says, “Whatever.” She starts walking toward the door. “Whatever!” she says, her tone playful.
He waits for her to look back at him with a private wink or a raised finger, but she walks out the door laughing. Her shadow ripples across his curtains as she returns to her apartment, and in the silence she leaves behind, Derek replays the familiar ballerina ringtone in his head: “When You Wish Upon a Star.”
He sits on his couch to wait, staring at an old dent in the drywell where he threw his Xbox controller, understanding that there is nothing to wait for.
He gets up, shoulders his pack, but doesn’t check the parking lot this time. Part of him wishes the cop car were back. He breathes deeply: no smoke. He leaves his door unlocked and slips by Stacey’s apartment on his way down to his truck, which starts on the first try.
As he drives, tempted again to call Rachel, he runs through his plan: head east on Highway 126, back toward the smoke but north of Brice Creek, follow the open valley of the lower McKenzie River through pastureland and rolling hills, wind along the river and climb through Douglas fir. At the Obsidian Trailhead, his backpack will be too heavy, but he’ll lighten his load along the way, climb the trail and find an isolated campsite beside a stream, no fire tonight. In the morning he’ll continue up to the intersection of the Pacific Crest Trail in the shadow of the Three Sisters, turn left and walk toward Canada or right and walk toward Mexico, let the woods have their justice on him, either eat him alive or spit him out a new man.
A stray dog on the shoulder of the highway snaps Derek back, a wiry mutt with its nose in a fast food bag. Derek lifts his foot off the accelerator, checks his mirrors but is boxed in. The dog follows the bag’s momentum onto the highway and into Derek’s lane. Derek slams the brake and the horn, bracing himself as the Nissan skids.
Nothing happens. The dog must have scooted out just in time. The car that was behind Derek passes on the left, an older woman gripping the wheel, her eyes locked on the road. Derek relaxes his own grip, finds the accelerator and straightens out the Nissan. He checks his mirrors while settling back into traffic, no sign of the dog behind him.
He gets his bearings and realizes he’s been driving west the whole time, not east toward the mountains as he intended. He doesn’t even remember doing it. This is how he drives to work every day, so maybe that was it. Muscle memory. Or maybe something more. Here comes an exit. He can swing off and stick with his plan, or give up all this craziness and return to his apartment. But he keeps driving west, toward the ocean. Toward Rachel.