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Andrew’s Step

By

Rick Scheideman

 

            Stillness, like gray wool, covers his eyes. He blinks awake, then turns. She sleeps. He would prefer not to wake her. Gently he sits and dangles his legs over the bedside, then stands, and stretches his arms over his head. A crackling in the spine. In the weak light, her hair splays gold against the pillow, her face smooth and clear. Both his feet ache along the arch and the lower back feels stiff as he steps gingerly away. After the bathroom, he stands in white briefs at the open sliding-glass door. Goosebumps rise with the chill. He yawns. A lazy tear wets one cheek and he blots it with the back of his hand. He considers the glistening oval, lifts the hand to smell the salt, and stares outside. Light strengthens from blue-gray to a faint rose, soon the sun. A newborn breeze shivers Andrew.

            He rises early for these summer mornings to walk the foothills on well-worn paths. Two or three times a season he climbs Mount Hayden under a cloudless sky. A strong stirring motivates him, an inarticulate passion beyond any regular exercise regimen. On those mornings the sweet scent of fresh-cut grass compels him to climb. Last night rain fell hard for half-an-hour. Now the musty smell from nearby willows evokes memories of other damp woods. The hills are fecund. Green tumbles thick.

            At sixty-nine years old, aging puzzles Andrew. From time to time, he takes note of his body: a slow pain as he straightens from picking up the newspaper from the sidewalk; a deeper tired before sleep, and now and then a struggle to recall a familiar name. But the change is subtle. He feels, as he always has, himself. His likes and dislikes remain much the same: a distaste of vinegar, mayonnaise, and ruinous texture of nuts in a candy bar. The vibrating thrill of a sailboat burying it’s rail on a close reach and the satisfaction of shared conversation still thrill him.  Perhaps human development simply cycles through the familiar. Rather than the assumed straight path of growth toward a vagary called maturity or success, we simply revisit the same concerns, the same desires, fears, and thoughts that we have known throughout our lives. He surmises as he looks westward, “Maybe I haven’t changed all that much. I still climb mountains.” Bifocals correct his weak eye-muscles in the same way that rapid morning walks replace the once daily hour-long runs. Yet, the view appears the similar. Aging is odd.

            Three cumulus puffs linger near the TV towers on Lookout Mountain. Andrew stares at them unseeing. Then a flutter catches his daydream. Below the apartment’s attached deck, a young cottonwood trembles in the sunrise breeze. After a late spring blizzard, the newly leafed sapling bent close to the ground pressured with soft wet snow. Andrew predicted that the tree would not survive. Undeterred by many such failed forecasts, this morning he determines that the weeklong series of afternoon thunderstorms is over. The humidity is low; today will be perfect. Mount Hayden, rounded and unspectacular, rises close to home, a twenty-minute walk to the trailhead. Most summers Hayden’s desiccated slopes fade to brown before the Fourth of July, but not this year. The wet spring produced an abundant flourish of wildflowers among the grasses. Peering out the right side of the window, Andrew picks up the long northeast ridge of the mountain. But stretching comes first.

Years ago he would have simply pulled on shorts and T-shirt, laced up his shoes, and go—no tedious preliminaries. He ran five to ten miles each day, then, and in tennis shoes. These mornings he will wear running shoes designed by podiatrists for street pounding or high-tech boots for the mountain. But first, stretching accompanied by yawning. A mindless routine touted as necessary for aging muscles and joints, and conducive for daydreaming—a frequent pastime. One final tear-producing yawn, then Andrew gathers to his feet and rummages the daypack from the living room closet. He anticipated the climb last night and pre-packed a sweatshirt, windbreaker, extra socks, leather gloves, and a plastic water bottle purchased his senior year of high school. In one side pocket, he keeps a Swiss-Army knife, matches, moleskin for blisters, and a first-aid kit. In the other, a water bottle. He takes an apple and banana from the refrigerator and then turns the faucet on low to fill the water bottle, hoping not to awaken his wife. With a red baseball hat on his head, Drew tiptoes to the front door, but Lori calls from the bedroom, a giggly moan.

“Drewee? Oooooohhhhh. Mmmmmmm. Now where is my Drewsy? I never got no kisses or nothing. I’m all alone. Where are you Dreweeeee? Don’t you love me anymore? Why aren’t you in her kissing me? Boo hoo hoo.”

 “I’m getting ready to go you silly goose.”

“But I’m in here all alone. No kisses or nothing.

Lori and Drew married two years ago. She is younger by years. He leans over frizzy wisps of blond hair and nuzzles her neck.

                        “Don’t Drew, that tickles. I want kisses, yummy kisses.”

He does too, but he feels torn.

“Don’t go walking today, Drewsy, stay here with me, please? If you go, then I’ll be all alone.”

“I love you, darling-girl. I’ll be back soon. If I don’t go now, I won’t go.”

“Then don’t go!”

“But it’s so beautiful outside and I’d like to get up Hayden.

“If you go up there, you’ll be gone all day.”

“ No, I’ll try to get back right after lunch. Okay?

“No.”

“Roll over now and enjoy sleeping-in.”

“Okay, handsome. Please be careful.”

“I will. I love you.”

“I love you more.”

            A short run up the grassy hill that fronts the apartment brings Andrew to a steep winding sidewalk. He strides into a fast walk. He inhales through his nose and a familiar richness stirs a memory. The first afternoon at Outward Bound, after the patrol instructor had oriented them and then dismissed them until supper, Drew had walked with the other high school boys toward a scattering of tents in a glen of aspens—milk white and scarred with gray welts. Thick as three boys around, the trees mottled the sky through a canopy of quaking leaves. When he entered that grove, the scent of wood, leafmeal, and damp dirt engulfed him, smells and emotions he has never forgotten. And so it is this morning—a sensational moment. Andrew, nearly seventy, with the boy of seventeen still vibrant within him.

Three and four-story houses squat along the hillside, some partially perched on concrete pillars. They are not so much homes but oversized garages with attached entertainment centers. Boats, campers, over-sized pick-up trucks, Jet Skis, jeeps, RVs, skidoos, motorcycles, and riding lawn mowers spill out of the toy-boxes into the driveways with visible affluence. A careening SUV speeds the downgrade with a mother one-handing the cell phone and back-talking to her children.

                        “Buenos dias.”

Andrew greets a wizened Chicano scrapping clotted grass from underneath his mower.

A rusted Chevy pickup overflows with clippings. From the truck radio, a passionate Mexican bolero serenades; trumpets in thirds along with an accordion sing the instrumental interlude.

                        “Buenos dias, senor. A beautiful day, no?”

                        “Very beautiful. Don’t work too hard.”

                        “Gracias, senor.”

            Lawns sit like putting greens, and even during last summer’s drought, those lawns remained an unperturbed oasis. One defensive owner posted a sign that read, “Watered with Well Water.” The rationale of privatization, “It’s my property, my water, I can do what I want.” Even so, the flowerbeds bordering the green please Andrew with the shape of summer. In one yard, five young aspens dance their energetic leaves in the light. Beneath them, saffron poppies give backdrop to the color flashes of blue, yellow, white, and purple pansies.

            At the hilltop, the sidewalk curves to the left toward even larger houses, but Andrew turns right and jogs in zigzagging fashion down the backside of the hill toward a stand of century-old cottonwoods where the serpentine path begins its winding through native grassy slopes that lead to the flanks of Hayden Mountain.

            Meadowlarks arrived eleven days ago—just like that. They boast several melodies, choir composed of robins, meadowlarks, finches, and the squawking percussion of magpies. Between clumps of willows, three doe poke up their heads. Ears twitch, hesitate. Andrew stops and quiets his breath. Moist noses check, decide, and quick as that, their muscular legs bound away. Above, on a hidden limb, a twittering house wren warns all competitors that this maple is her nesting spot. A nuthatch running headfirst down an adjacent tree trunk searches for breakfast. The jackhammer noise of a flicker pounds for a girlfriend. The birds are back.

                        “Good morning.”

Andrew startles.

                        “Hi.”

A thin, wiry woman with flyaway gray hair holds the leash of an equally graying golden retriever. Andrew crosses her shadow as she waits along an intersecting path. He calls over his shoulder.

                        “Have a nice day, ma’am.”

                        “You too.”

            The startle surges adrenaline so that his pace quickens; he tries to settle the pace with three deep breaths. A quarter of a mile later the trail plunges into a ravine where a brook clatters. Willows and cattails tangle the pathway; beneath them coral root wave miniature orchids—white petals flecked with purple. Swale grass stands knee high along the creek. At the bottom, where the spring bubbles the trail turns to muck. He attempts to avoid the slop by stepping on the grass he wipes with his boots. His right foot slips.

                        “Ah, crap!”

Muddy boots irritate him—no traction. Then dry dirt sticks to the mud and forms platform shoes that fling pelts of dirt up his backside. Andrew picks up a stick to pry at the hunks of mud.              “Damn it to hell!”

            The trail contours three-quarters of a mile on a gentle rise toward the northeast shoulder of Hayden; from there the route to the summit ridge will come into view. Drew turns at the grunting sound of a mountain biker not far behind him on the trail. Protected with helmet, elbow and kneepads, and thick gloves, a young man pumps hard up the path. Andrew dreads intrusion. He prefers the solitude of his own company. Once engaged in a conversation, though, he discovers that he enjoys himself. A reluctant partygoer, he is usually the last to leave. Quickly, he scrambles off the trail and up a steep ridge to avoid contact. Continuing on the trail, the biker pedals around the hill and out of sight.

Andrew attacks the steep ridge with an unrelenting pace. Never a daredevil in the mountains, even after Outward Bound, because he lacked the self-confident abandon that others found inside to accomplish frightening routes. As a young man he led rock climbs, yet never quite relinquished the fear, never felt the natural ease that accompanies daring. His gift was stamina; he could endure. With a means beyond explanation, Andrew controlled fatigue, pain, hunger, and even thirst. He would not stop or give-in to fatigue. This gift blossomed, at times, into a noxious flower so that, sometimes, a climbing partner cursed him for it. So there co-existed a tandem in his climbing, fear could hesitate him like a sudden snake at the feet, but endurance fueled his pride hour after hour—as it did now.

            Moving without pause, he locates a rock to push off from, or a clump of turf to edge his boot, and always the inner voice—keep moving. The arduous feels welcome. He rarely looks ahead. His eyes rivet the ground. Not knowing how far he has to go brings both surprise and relief when the goal suddenly appears. Surprise now, he crests the ridge and walks along its meandering path that connects a series of the mountain’s shoulders. Andrew stretches his legs on the downward sections of the ridge, then jogs the inclines. Ahead he sees that the biker waits at the place where the bike path intersects the ridgeline. They meet.

                        “Hey, man, fast pace. You really smoked that hill.”

Drew flusters at compliments; they embarrass him because he craves them.

                        “I guess I ate my Wheaties this morning.”

                        “Well, good going.”

                        “Thanks. Enjoy your ride.”

Andrew lowers his eyes and simultaneously raises his hand in an awkward wave. The younger man passes him with a smile. Drew follows. Not bad for an old man; he flushes.

                        Off to the west, cumulus clouds congregate along the Continental Divide like a lineup of potbellied chefs at a cooking convention. They might congeal and elevate into a storm cell to scour the city, and produce another failed forecast from Andrew. He feels a stirring in his gut; anxiety registers its own weather system. As a boy, his mother would hide with him from thunderstorms inside a Ford sedan safe in the dark garage. Common wisdom held that the rubber tires of an automobile protected its occupants from the sizzle of lightning. Besides, the windowless garage admitted no flashes, though they both startled at the thunderclaps. With a waning flashlight, mother and son played Old Maid and then Fifty-Two-Card-Pickup. The boy giggled at his mother’s fumbling to pick up the cards he had spilled on the car floor. Sometimes he would nap in the backseat under a blanket his grandmother knit.

            Across the way on a steep part of the trail, he notices the biker pushing his bike and slipping every few steps. Andrew considers, “If I run fast on this part of the ridge and then walk the steep part steady, I might catch and pass him.” Always this competitive voice—where did it begin? One Saturday morning early in September, his mother drove to a field near home to register Andrew for football. He was eight. From then fall Sunday mornings in found him cutting out newspaper photos of a quarterback cocked to throw, or a tailback stiffing a tackler, or the melee of wooden goal posts shaken to the ground by victorious fans. His scrapbook comprised colored construction paper bound together with yarn woven through punched holes. Soon, football articles and photographs bulged the pages of his scrapbook. Over the years, the scrapbook grew into four volumes. The boy played little league and then high school football. He does not remember when he discarded the scrapbooks or why; he would enjoy thumbing through them now.

            Among other things, including a concussion and several fractured fingers, those years produced a hunger for praise. Without words to articulate this desire, nonetheless, the boy knew an insatiable need for the kind of adulation he thought possible only through extraordinary performance. More often than not, the outcome of all his effort and discipline brought more disappointment than praise. The boy, and then the man, was an average athlete, clearly not extraordinary. And that normality still rankles Andrew. His convictions assured him that love resulted from success, and success would arrive only through great effort. In the past couple of years, though, he has reconsidered.

            At the top of the hill, the bicyclist hops aboard and pedals out of sight. The urge momentarily revisits Andrew, a compulsion to race. But then he reckons the misery it often makes for him. There can be no rest in winning as small successes press for larger ones, and there is always someone over the shoulder gaining. How does victory stay? Will enough applause make it permanent? Knowing the answer, he slows his walk.

            He stops. A fully racked buck crosses twenty yards in front of him, turns, and considers Andrew. The deer looks away tilting back his head, the rack, in velvet, glowing hazel in the light. A quiver of the ears and he peers again, then saunters. Andrew gives chase and the buck bounds down the slope brimming with strength and speed. He looses sight of the deer except for momentary antler points above clumps of shrubbery. Feeling silly, Andrew stops and climbs back up on to the ridge.  As he walks along, Andrew suddenly breaks into a run, a fast run, as fast as he can. His eyes tear. No competition. No self-consciousness. Just run. Legs stretching. Arms pumping. His breath sucks in deeply. Soon enough the tug of fatigue will come but in this moment, running is all there is.

                        “Ah, ah. Ouch!”

 

He hops on one foot, gingerly touching the other to the ground. His left foot had slammed against a rock. A surprising wave of nausea sweeps his throat. Cheap damnable boots, costly, yes, but poorly made—no protection. He spies a log beneath a few scruffy ponderosas and hobbles toward it. Orange paintbrush bloom in a wide arc around the log. They were the first flowers he identified from the field manual as a Boy Scout. Their splashy spears comfort him. He slings off his pack and sits in their glory leaning against the log. Some wriggling fits his back into a smooth place. Yawning, he stretches. A slender blade of wild grass finds a groove between his teeth, a smell of sage in the air. His breath settles, a small whistle in the nose, hardly any breath at all.

“Stupid cheap boots.”

             These boots are a recent acquisition, touted waterproof, breathable—the latest development, yet a far cry from his old leather boots. In those boots, he could stand with dry feet in a rushing stream. Today, synthetic materials replace leather as well as wool in socks and sweaters too. For all their rhetoric, Andrew has discovered that these fashionable boots do not hold up, fail to grip like Vibram, leak, and they’re expensive—not at all competitive with the boots in Hans’ store.

            Years ago, located east from the Capitol on Colfax Avenue around the corner from East High School, Hans did more than sell mountain boots.  The burly Austrian stood tall, broad at the shoulders, and narrow at the hips. His thick hair cascaded to the collar. He spoke roughly and with a German accent.

“Take the boots. Lace them up good and tight, yah? Now go to the mountain. Did you lace them good? Now, try them on the mountain to be right.”

A chunk of granite lay on the shop floor. Next to the rock was a wooden bench. On top of it sat a cardboard box filled with socks in many sizes. Andrew shed his white tube socks and pulled on a pair of thick wool ones. Whether the boy came in for lightweight klettershoes for rock climbing or a stout pair of mountaineering boots, Hans insisted on the mountain. The boots must be tested on that piece of rock under the master’s watchful eye. Andrew always felt nervous at the prospect. The shop smelled of leather and Sno-Seal, and the walls boomed with Hans’s bass voice.

“So, young man, what do you think? These are the best boots from the Alps. I bring only the very best, yah? And Hans makes them even better.”

            And he did. After Andrew made his choice, Hans stitched two additional rows of heavy thread to strengthen the seams where the upper leather met the lower; he sewed reinforcements along the welt to strengthen the place where the sole fastened. One pair of boots Andrew bought from Hans endured three resoles before the leather stiffened to the point where he could no longer force them on his feet—seven years and many mountain tops in those boots.

            Hans was as inspiring as he was imposing. The Austrian’s face flushed with energy and his voice was full of expertise. In time, the boy learned to enjoy the humor in Hans’ flashing eyes; eventually he discerned kindness beneath the bombast. Swinging open the bell-tinkling door each season became a favorite ritual. When Andrew left the shop, both his heart and his feet knew pleasure.

            On Andrew’s last visit, the “Open” sign hung in the middle of the glass door, but when he tried it, the door was locked. Dust motes flitted through the sunlight inside when he cupped his hands against the window. Empty. He never learned the reason, but favored the prospect that Hans went back home to his Alps.

At his rest on the mountain, two black ants vie for Andrew’s knee as they cross back and forth several times. One crawls on his shorts toward his belly where his T-shirt pulled up. Dark hair curls over Drew’s belly. The ant rummages in the labyrinth hopeful for a morsel or a home. Tickling overcomes science and he brushes off the ant. Andrew wonders about the whereabouts of other ant just as he feels a tickling under his leg at the cuff of his shorts and jumps to his feet swatting. Time to get a move-on. The toe feels fine.

            After an hour, he reaches the summit ridge.  He lingers a moment on a level outcropping of rock. The sweep of Denver pushes north to the Wyoming border and south toward Colorado Springs. Feeling hungry, he looks skyward and turns to check the high mountains behind him—heavy clouds, but no storm. Nearby, a pile of boulders looks suitable for a lunch break. Inside the pack, he rummages for the fruit and the water bottle. When he fumbles beneath the sweatshirt it makes a crinkling sound. Out comes a brown paper bag neatly folded three times at the top. Lori delights in surprises. He discovers there a sandwich of coarse bread, slices of cheddar cheese moistened with mustard, and stuffed with sprouts, lettuce, and two tomatoes. He barely manages the bundle with both hands. There is even more at the bottom of the pack. One plastic container holds green olives and dill pickle spears, the other is crammed with celery, carrots, and radishes. A giant chocolate chip cookie strains a baggie. He takes a long drink of water and then eats.

            Brushing crumbs from his lap, Andrew shifts his rear end that had begun to numb. He draws a cheroot, smashed in its cellophane wrapped box, from the top pocket of the pack along with a plastic match case with a screw-on top. He has carried that case forever. After several tries—who knows how old they are? —a match flares and the cigar circles white smoke from his mouth. Smoking a pipe or cigar grew also grew into climbing ritual. Andrew and Ronnie Joe, a frequent climbing companion, would take their ease on a mountain peak, peruse the view, and light up. When a climb became particularly frightful, the tobacco (or the idea of it) emotionally steadied him; created an interlude, a space for peace. There was a pitfall, however. For example, in the middle of a difficult pitch on, Hallet Peak, he smoked two cigarettes in a row at a belay point. The tobacco brought cramps and the absolute necessity to relieve himself then and there. This turned out to be a complex feat considering the cramped conditions, the need to clean with the available sparse flora, and the courtesy of covering his doings with rocks for the sake of his soon arriving climbing partner.

            Similarly, the current cigar brings a familiar wooziness. He hasn’t inhaled even a quarter of it before he snuffs it under his boot. He concludes, as he has many times before, the he enjoys the thought of cigar more than the reality. His stomach rumbles perilously as he folds the lunch sack and attempts to stuff it inside an empty side pocket, but a bulge in the bottom keeps the sack more outside than in. He draws out a squat plastic bottle filled with grape juice. He yells.

                        “I love you, Lori!”

Then he stretches his legs and rolls to his side with his head lying across on one arm. Forgetful of storms, Andrew drifts in satisfaction.

            His eyes open without a squint. No sun. Dead quiet No breeze across his ears. The air smells wet. He sits up rubbing his eyes and then stands to rid the stiffness from his sitting. Toward the west, where the peaks should clamor skyward, a sooty blob of cloud obscures them. Overhead, a thunderhead rises like a voluptuous city. Towers compete for grandeur; steeples vie with turrets and parapets of sweeping curves. Spires, bridges, and balconies tumble one atop of the other, higher and higher. Sunlight guilds the topmost edge. In the massive center of the cloud, the elegant detail vanishes into uniform charcoal except where streaks of white indicate violent hail.      

Quickly, he flings the pack over his shoulder and plunges down through juniper bushes and pinion pine. His boots find their rhythm skimming on top of the scree like a skier. The first drops are not a prelude, but golf ball-sized hail. A flash and crack of lightening surge his flight; Andrew leaps downward feeling both fear and pleasure. He veers toward a clump of scrub oak surrounding a single cottonwood. Behind the tree, a cliff rises forty feet. At the bottom, where the rock bulges, a cave opens. He faces outward and scoots back to find the driest place. Hail changes to wind-driven rain. With shut lids and clasped ears, Andrew calms himself with deep breaths. A bolt strikes close. He starts and thumps his head against the rock ceiling. Colorado is the lightning capital of America. He recalls that people rarely survive a direct hit.

            God feels uncertain to Andrew. As a child, his Mom and Dad deposited him at the Presbyterian Church for Sunday school. The building was a massive stone structure with flecks of mica glistening in the sun. Inside, endless varnished hallways and concrete stairs led to rooms of various sizes. As a boy, he was, at first, confused by the labyrinth, and then later by the words. But the Catholics frightened him even more. A classmate in fifth-grade wore a silver medal around his neck. Danny explained to Andrew that St. Christopher protected him from knee-scrapping skids when he rounded a sandy street corner on his bicycle or from a car accident when his Dad drove too fast in the snow. After recess, Danny produced a picture from his back pocket, a color picture of Jesus, his heart dripping drops of blood.

            Andrew remembers how the oak doors of the cathedral sagged on their steel hinges. He leaned back gripping the handle and pulled with all his might. When the door opened a boy’s width, he ducked inside. The darkness gradually gave way to a thin light seeping through stain glass. The marble floor squished from his sneakers. He crept into the sanctuary. Row after row of shiny wooden benches descended toward a high place. There a table cloaked in white linen towered behind a short fence that had cushions on the floor all around it. Off to the right, candles flickered in rows that reminded him of apples in open boxes at the market.

            The immensity hushed the traffic outside the doors. Andrew tiptoed halfway down the broad aisle. His mouth slipped open. Jesus stood against an enormous cross on the wall. Scarlet scratches trickled down his forehead; his wan body twisted on the wood. A hole in Jesus’ side dripped red just like Danny’s picture. Andrew stood transfixed.

                        “What can I do for you, son?”

Andrew gasped. A large bearded man—a man clad in black—walked toward him, his shoes clicking on the marble. A ring of white circled his neck. Andrew sprang for the doors, ricocheted on the first try, tried again, slamming down on the metal bar.

                        “Don’t be afraid.”

The voice echoed then stopped when the door slammed shut.

            Andrew smiles and listens as thunder grumbles long and low; the storm sweeps southeast and in its wake sunlight creates steam on the glistening rocks. Andrew scoots out of the cave. Heading home would be the wise course of action. Still, that may be it, no more storms today. He crawls out of the cave and stands. With the fingers of both hands against his lower back, he stretches and looks toward where the summit continues to beckon—a mere twenty-minute hike away. Weariness will fade tonight in a hot soak, bath oil, candles, a book, and Lori. Andrew heads toward the top.

            His heart quickens on these high places, even an unremarkable mountain like Hayden. The final strain to gain any summit rewards the effort. With each step, a mass of mountain falls away, and suddenly, all is horizon. No matter how many times he has climbed, the top always surprises him. Today is no different; his pleasure is full as he takes the last step on to the summit. Storms materialize with astonishing suddenness, but Drew hopes he has time to enjoy it here. While fresh clouds scud along the Continental Divide, nothing suggests the immediate violence. He sits on a flat rock, unties his boots, he tugs out one foot, and then the other. Off come the wool socks. A breeze cools his sweaty feet; the red spot of a corn irritates the top both big toes and each heel raises a blister. Hans would scowl.

            Looking down the vista, Andrew picks out the houses that lead to the trail. No doubt, the old Chicano has driven to the dump or, perhaps, crammed in one more lawn’s clippings. After lunch, the wispy lady naps with the dog curled on a braided rug beside her bed. And what of the mountain biker? Probably showered by now and sprinkling granola on his yogurt.

The sun cuts flat. Andrew hears humming. The metal rings holding the straps of his pack vibrate with static electricity; his hair stands up. Down—get down now! He stands.

Flash! Andrew slams to the ground.

 Smells mix and swirl in his nose: wet—muddy—woody, acrid. As Andrew stirs, he senses water running under his backside. He shivers. Slowly his eyes open to patches of blue. Rolling on his side, he pushes up and sits. Mud streaks his hands. Every muscle aches.

                        “God.”

Twisted and misshapen, the metal rings on the pack are fused to the melted nylon straps. He is incredulous, empty of emotion. He feels his arms and legs, belly and chest. No blood—would lightning cauterize?

            Dusk prowls the valley lurking below toward Hayden Mountain. Soon, city lights will prick the swelling shade. Andrew gathers himself and begins to wobble toward the main trail, an easy way down. His thoughts are scattered like the white fluff from the cottonwood trees.

            On the deck, Lori grips the wooden rail of the balcony with both hands. Like an air-traffic controller, she talks down her wayward pilot.

“Come on now. You’re almost home. Don’t get cocky. Pay attention to what you’re doing. Don’t be running now, just keep moving along. I got you, so come to me.”

Several times she flashes the porch light and then leaves it off so she can see.

            Emerging from the trees at the trailhead, Andrew jogs painfully across the street to the sidewalk that leads home. His weariness amazes him. She recognizes him at once, even though his figure is a vague silhouette. Their embrace is long.

 Late in the night, the sputter of sprinklers begins a nightly chorus. The noise recalls Andrew from the repeated memories of the day. He inclines his head toward Lori. She sleeps with one hand behind her head, her breath draws quietly. A pale green sheet outlines her hip. One bare foot wiggles free to cool in the night air.

            Drew stretches his left leg against the tightening muscles. In slow circles, he rotates one ankle at a time, each crack in the same place. This exhaustion nourishes him. He smiles gazing up at the ceiling flocked like clouds.

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