Neelie found the trail sign staked a few feet into the brambles. The undergrowth was thick, and she wondered if the Old Spiny Ridge trail had disappeared, a gravel turnaround its only remains. The hiking guide was more than ten years old, after all. Jonathan dragged his fingers across the carved yellow letters on the sign. He rolled and flicked spider silk at the ground, wiped his hand on his shirt. “This is definitely it,” he said.
Her daughter Adria was with her ex, four hours to the east, back home. Probably she was still asleep. She had become a hibernator, lately. Puberty crouched. This was the first time Neelie had been so far away from Adria and for so long. Two whole weeks. She wasn’t the mother of a little kid anymore. Here in the mountains, it was just two of them—Neelie and Jonathan.
Neelie put her wallet and keys and phone in the glove compartment. Jonathan edged the car key off his ring, tucked it into the hidden, finger-sized pocket in the back of his running shorts. They agreed that it was all they needed to take.
The trail began as a dry stream-bed, wide and sandy and full of rocks. They ran single-file, Jonathan in front. He was several paces ahead of her already, gaining speed at a faster rate than she, as usual. Then the trail curved away from the highway and swept upward dramatically, tree roots still wide enough apart to serve as a series of steps. It wasn’t a tree root, though, but a rock that she stumbled over. Her ankle. She called out twice to Jonathan before he stopped and turned.
“Oh, sweetie, oh no,” he said. “Can you walk?”
She pressed her toe into the dirt, and then her heel. Up-down, up-down. She took a step.
“I can feel it when I flex my foot. But I don’t think it’s too bad.” She was still panting from the exertion of running.
Jonathan knelt down and ran two fingers along the outside of her ankle bone. He put a warm hand on her back. It was okay with him to cut the morning short, he said. He could go running by himself after lunch instead. She shook her head.
“You’re sure?” he said.
“I’m fine.” She told him again to go on, that she would hike while he ran. A sore ankle wasn’t the end of the world. Jonathan, she thought, do I really have to plead with you to do the thing you want to do?
And then he was off, a bobbing neon smudge, up another switchback and, she guessed, another and another.
The trees weren’t especially thick along the trail but, as it was July, the branches were crowded with leaves and the greenery closed off the view behind and ahead of her. Was she out of breath again, so soon? She wasn’t even running now. Just hiking. Slowly. Never mind. She didn’t need to walk fast. There was no keeping up with Jonathan now.
That pop anthem had wormed its way into her head again. A song that Adria had played nonstop for weeks in June, after it blared from the auditorium speakers at the fifth-grade performance and graduation ceremony. The chorus: a gathering chant, a convoluted metaphor about building wings, someone taking the wings away, stealing the wings back again, and then the collective narrator flying, at last. Though with an intimation, at the end, of plunging back to earth. It wasn’t a Heartwood School kind of song, that was for sure. Not that Neelie subscribed to the school’s anti–pop-culture pieties. Later, Adria had found a video online that broke the chords down, so she could pick through the song on her guitar. The kid had a great ear. We will take our wings and fly, we’ll never fall out of the sky, something like that. Neelie swatted a gnat away. You’d think I’d know the words by now, she thought.
She grabbed the crotch of a tree branch, levering herself up a two-foot gap in the trail. After that the path evened out for a stretch. She was thinking about Icarus now. The old story must have been the inspiration for the pop song. Grim. Not exactly the moral you want to impart to eleven-year-olds poised to founder in the doldrums of middle school, even if it was an intimate Montessori middle school to which most of the kids were headed. Not Adria, though. Carlo, her ex, had had enough of the Heartwood gang. All that money, the twee groupthink. She conceded the point in the end. Yes, Adria would be fine at the regular middle school, the school she was zoned for. It was Jonathan’s opinion, too—which she had asked for. He was practically Adria’s stepfather at this point and certainly merited a say. Adria would be totally fine. Everyone in agreement.
Neelie was trying to remember the details of the original story, the story of Icarus—was he flying to escape the Minotaur, or to escape his father, or what?—when she tripped again. She hit the ground, found herself spread-eagled across the path. When she lifted her left hand she saw dirt and blood. The skin on her right knee had come away. The gash there stung and so did the heel of her hand, and her eyes. She called for Jonathan but he was far ahead now. Vanished into the green. As she rose, Neelie’s wound diverged into red rivulets, traveling from knee to shin to ankle. She looked away; the sight of all that blood made her woozy.
How much time had passed since they separated? Probably only fifteen minutes. Not long. They had agreed beforehand that there was no need to make it all the way to the end of the trail. But now that Jonathan was running ahead without Neelie to slow him down, he might be more ambitious. Yes, he would. He wasn’t showy about these things, of course—that wasn’t Jonathan. The goal reached was for him alone to savor, not to wear like a badge. It was only for him.
Old Spiny Ridge was climbing, another switchback. Not tripping took all of Neelie’s concentration. Jesus, I’ve been injured, she thought. It’s true, I said I was fine. But it could be a sprained ankle. It might be. Who knows? Her ankle ached, and her knee, and her hand. Her chest ached, too, in the place where she carried her sense of incipient disaster.
All at once she wished that it was Adria with her on the trail. Not Jonathan. Adria would have outpaced her too, of course. A pair of long calves striding ahead, black soccer shorts swishing, pony tail swinging. And Adria would turn back pouting, hook her arm in Neelie’s. “Poor Mom. Poor slow, old Mom,” she’d probably say, drawling out the words in a kind of song, stroking Neelie’s arm theatrically, milking the tease for all it was worth. Neelie laughed suddenly, imagining.
The sound of her voice startled her. A woman’s solitary voice. What an idiot I am, she thought. Now there’s no hiding. Out here on an unknown trail at dawn, a limping woman, bloodied. Adria, she thought, will you remember me? If I die now, out here in the woods, alone. You’re only eleven, Adria. Eleven for only three months now. What would Carlo tell Adria? Neelie raped, murdered, out on Old Spiny Ridge. Anger caught her by the throat. She yelled Jonathan’s name again, listened to the echo. What’s wrong with me? she thought. Calm down.
The trail forked: one path snaked sharply to the left, up toward what seemed to be the spiny ridge the trail was named for; the other path continued straight ahead, through thickening trees. Was this a loop? There were no blazes, no signs. No Jonathan. Decision time. Yes: I’ll climb to the left. There seemed to be some sort of clearing up the way. She figured she could see pretty far along the trail once she got there.
She crested the hill, and then it was too late to pretend she didn’t see them up by the burned-out fire ring. The young man and woman. Or that they didn’t see her.
The guy, wiry and jean-clad, glanced two fingers off his brow in salute when Neelie stepped into the clearing. His t-shirt was blazingly white, as if it had just come out of a plastic package. The woman—a girl, practically, Neelie saw now—sat, hunched over, rawboned and glowing with sunburn. She was long-legged and pointy-elbowed, like a teenage boy who had grown five inches in a month.
The guy saw Neelie’s leg and whistled. “Looks like you got hurt,” he said.
Neelie smiled and waved her palms, but there was no denying it. “Yeah,” she said. “I fell.” The words caught in her throat, saying them out loud like that. Don’t cry, she told herself. Don’t cry.
“Well, you got yourself up here, didn’t you.” He crossed his arms, his biceps tensing. He seemed to be suppressing a grin. “You call for help yet?”
She didn’t want to admit she didn’t have a phone on her. The girl still hadn’t said a word, sitting there in the dirt. Her brittle yellow hair was pulled so tight from her forehead that her eyebrows were frozen in perpetual surprise. She had pinched her lips together and was slowly shaking her head, like she was having an angry conversation with someone, in her mind.
The thought struck Neelie: if Jonathan had taken the left fork, they would have seen him going past. She opened her mouth to ask and the guy raised an inquiring eyebrow. She closed her mouth again. Mentioning Jonathan now was surely a mistake. Like opening a chained door a crack and then slamming it shut—they’d sense she was afraid. If they had seen Jonathan, then they knew she wasn’t alone, and that was good. And if they hadn’t seen him, would they take her for a liar, pretending her knight in shining armor was charging along the path to her rescue? Something else occurred to her now. What if Jonathan, too, had gotten hurt, somewhere on the trail? Heart attack. Bear. No, don’t be crazy. Where was he? She shifted her weight and crossed her arms over her stomach, hoping to mask the tremor in her legs, her hands.
The guy reached into his back pocket and produced a silver flask. He unscrewed the top and held it out to Neelie.
“C’mere,” he said.
Neelie paused, unsure. No telling what was in there. She scolded herself: I don’t have to be polite. I don’t have to do his bidding. She shook her head no.
“I’m not offering you refreshments.” He worked his jaw. “C’mere and sit down.”
The girl darted blue, bloodshot eyes at Neelie and away again. “He doesn’t bite,” she snapped.
The guy gestured to the rocky dirt beside the fire ring. Neelie looked at him, and then at the girl, who once again wasn’t paying any attention; she was picking at a scab above her elbow. The girl muttered something to herself, Neelie couldn’t catch the words.
The guy shook the flask at Neelie and pointed at the ground again. “Come here,” he said.
What else was there to do? Neelie limped over. Bending her knees to sit down hurt so badly, she whimpered.
“Stubborn,” said the guy. “Stubborn.” He crouched down next to Neelie and cupped the back of her thigh with one hand. His palm was warm. With the other hand, he lifted the flask and tilted it to her battered knee, just enough to show Neelie what he planned to do. He was watching her face, to make sure she understood. Gold flecked his dark eyes; his lashes were ridiculously long. He grinned to see Neelie notice that he was handsome, and she looked down, her heart jittering. She gulped.
“Ready?” he said.
Her mouth began to water, like she was going to throw up. She closed her eyes and braced herself for the sting. She could almost hear the alcohol sizzle when it hit the wound. The guy probably expected her to cry out, but she bit her lip and didn’t make a sound. She felt something flutter against her knee and when she opened her eyes again he was shirtless—a screaming, blazing skull, no less, inked on one pec—dabbing at the edges of the wound with the hem of his white t-shirt.
The girl had moved closer and Neelie caught a look of naked curiosity on her face, a child’s watchfulness. How old was she? Sixteen, maybe. Then the guy looked up at the girl and her face closed again, sullen and disdainful.
He turned back to Neelie. “You a mom?”
“What?” Neelie didn’t think she had heard him right.
“Don’t,” said the girl, suddenly. Prickly. Then she was pleading. “Just don’t. Please, Den. Denny.” She stood just behind him now, holding her arms at the elbows, looking like she was going to cry. “I want to go. I don’t feel good. Take me home.”
“Can’t I ask a question?” He stood up, brawny and livid. “It’s just a simple question I’m asking this lady here. She’s got nowhere to go. No harm in engaging in some polite conversation after doing her a favor. Is there.”
Neelie closed her mouth up tight, waiting. The guy—Denny—slid the flask back into his pocket and dusted his veiny hands on his jeans. The girl, meanwhile, had wedged herself face-first against the closest tree trunk. She was moaning quietly, hiding her face in the crook of her elbow. Denny craned his head back, watching her.
He’s distracted, Neelie thought. Run. Run now. But she found she couldn’t move. She was weary. So this is fate, she thought. There she was, on the ground, rust-colored gin dripping down her kneecap. Defenseless. She wished the girl would turn around and look at her, at least. A witness to whatever was to come.
“I said, are you a mom.” Denny had turned back to Neelie and spoke to her now, slowly and purposefully, taunting. “You got kids?”
“I am a mom,” said Neelie, at last. “I am.” There was no reason to lie to him. She grasped for a thread of logic. You wouldn’t ask someone if they were a mom if you were about to kill them. Would you? “I’ve got a little girl. Just turned five,” she added. Younger seemed better. More innocent. A victimless lie.
“I’m not a fuckhead,” he said, too loud, to the air. “I know it’s not easy. But it’s worth it, huh. I bet it’s worth it.”
“Oh yes. It’s worth it.” False cheer nudged her voice upward. She still didn’t understand but she was playing along. She wanted to get it over with, whatever it was he had in mind.
He nodded and cleared his throat deliberately, composing himself. “You hear that, Val? You listening?”
Neelie saw Val’s spidery white hand clutch at the bark of the tree trunk. And then she heard it: the gagging, the dull patter of vomit on leaves. It came in three brief waves.
And then Denny was beside Val at the tree. He put his hand on Val’s neck, stroked it. He was whispering to her. Val turned and leaned back against the tree and closed her eyes.
They were kids. Practically kids. A hothead and his knocked-up, teenaged girlfriend. Neelie burned with shame, watching them, to have been so afraid. But they had forgotten her entirely. Then Val was tugging at Denny, pulling him after her as he spoke urgently in her ear, and they were both scudding down the rocks, away from the fire circle, away from Neelie.
“Your shirt,” Neelie called. She held it up, waving it like a flag, its hem edged with brown blooms of her own blood. But they were gone.
* * *
The kids were beautiful, up on the stage. The parade of gods and goddesses and legendary beasts in handsewn finery. Ragnar, Durga, Anansi, Izanami; each in turn stepped forward and sing-songed a rhyming verse in introduction. This was Heartwood at its best. Even Carlo had admitted that.
“I guard the gate of Hades with three heads/I’ll let you in but not back out, if you are dead.”
Adria had chosen to be Cerberus. A hound of hell? Really? But there had been no point in trying to dissuade her. Adria and Ms. Barlow, the art teacher, had worked together on the headdress after school for weeks. Now Adria was wearing a hood with bristly ears; two small felt dogs’ heads hung from either side of the hood. Her freckled nose shone under the lights.
Neelie had sat on a folding chair and clapped and clapped, Carlo on her left, Jonathan on her right. No rancor. What exemplary adults they were. It had all worked out. And Adria as Cerberus: of course. Nothing ever ruffled Adria in the slightest.
After the performance, Adria stood next to Ms. Barlow, popsicle dripping onto the brown felt of her costume. Ms. Barlow had her arm around Adria, squeezing Adria’s shoulder. Nodding to Neelie, and then giving a little shake of her head, as if to say to Neelie: this kid, this wonderful kid, can you believe this kid? And Adria leaned into her teacher’s shoulder. Adria rested her head there, on Ms. Barlow’s arm. Like it was they who were mother and daughter.
Neelie stood opposite the two of them, Adria and Ms. Barlow, while Jonathan rubbed the small of Neelie’s back, beside her.
* * *
Maybe moving will warm me up again, she thought, teeth chattering. It’s the shock and the cooling sweat. She lurched and stumbled as the trail dipped down the rock ledge, but she didn’t fall.
She balled her fists, Denny’s soiled shirt in one hand, pressing her bruised flesh. Why not admit it to herself? She hadn’t wanted to be away from Adria for a whole two weeks. A long weekend would have been more than enough. Jonathan always got to do exactly what he wanted—didn’t he? Fuck you, Jonathan, she thought. You left me here. On the trail. By myself. You always do exactly what you want.
She tore her way through a stretch of overgrown laurel and, emerging into a mossy hollow, plunked herself down at the base of a massive oak. She put her head on her knees. Why not cry? Not that she had a choice. Tears and sweat and snot ran down Neelie’s nose into her mouth; her eyes swam; blood and dirt mottled her right shin. Because everything was so blurry it took a second to understand what she was seeing.
Jonathan. Jonathan, running up the path to her, his arms slicing the air, back and forth in perfect time, like pendulums.
“Neelie,” he called, shock blooming once he got close enough to see her face, her leg. “What happened?”
Her legs shook, standing up; her whole body shook. He’s back, she thought, he isn’t dead. That’s something. I’m not dead either. She realized she was still clutching Denny’s shirt. She tossed it at Jonathan’s shins, and it slumped onto his shoes like a deflated balloon. He looked down, puzzled.
“Nothing happened. Not a fucking thing.”
Jonathan recoiled, the volume and fury a surprise. She found she couldn’t look him in the face. He reached for her.
The ground sloped down and down toward the trailhead. She ran faster than she’d ever run before. As if a wild dog were chasing her, a cougar, a tiger. Bounding, racing over rocks and roots, forgetting her ankle and her knee, not stumbling once.
She could run after all. Sprained and bloodied. She could run and cry and laugh at the same time, even. It’s funny, Adrie, isn’t it? she thought.
And then Neelie saw her. A smaller Adria on a different summer trail, years ago. Adria, stopping the length of one baleful stare before bulleting away. The first time cutting words had been shouted at Neelie from such a small mouth. I hate you.
She ran and ran now, Jonathan far behind. The longer she ran the more weightless she became. The honeyed light shimmered in the clearing ahead, in the direction of the gravel lot. She understood, suddenly, that she would get there first. It was funny, wasn’t it? That she would be freed. That she would be freed whether or not she wanted to be.