Toby steals a look up-trail, decides they’re probably never getting to the top of this mountain.
Not because it’s that long a hike—four hours if they didn’t stop?—but because Cin, evidently, is some kind of nature nut. Not that he doesn’t like camping and fishing and all of it himself. He’s out every weekend he can get away.
Cin, though, it’s like she’s never seen a tree, a boulder, even just a wide meadow of grass. She’s stopping to take close-up, carefully framed photos of seedheads, of moss on the sides of trees, of every kind of flower. Worse, she knows the names of a lot of the plants, which means she’s mumbling those names behind Toby, probably just to taste them a little bit longer.
To Toby, the flowers are flowers, the grass is green, and there’s miles to go.
If he’d known Cin was more scientist than day-hiker, then…maybe he doesn’t invite her with, today? It’s not their first sort-of date—more like the third, counting that party?—but it’s the first where it’s just the two of them. And, sure, it’s supposed to be “about” nature, but not about nature, c’mon.
“Oh, oh!” he hears her say for the twentieth time, behind him.
He grimaces where she can’t see, erases that off his face by the time he’s turned around. Cin’s taken a knee in order to get her camera lined up on some columbine—everybody knows columbine. Why does everybody know it? Because it’s freaking everywhere. Which means it’s not exactly picture-worthy. At least so far as Toby is concerned.
“Hey, it usually starts showering once the clouds heat up enough,” he says, thinking he can prompt her with the threat of a drenching.
No such luck.
It’s like she’s in another world. It’s just her and that purple flower.
“There’s a big field of them up about two miles,” Toby lies, looking down their back trail now.
“Almost got it…” Cin says, and snaps her photo, then studies it in the little view screen to be sure.
“Cool?” Toby says, trying to get his mouth to sort of grin the littlest bit. He swore he was never going to become his father, specifically his father standing by the car at all the rest stops of their family vacations, unable to understand why his idiot family is taking so long, but, man. Sometimes the world doesn’t exactly give you a choice.
“Cool,” Cin says, popping back up, ready for the next amazing flower.
It’s about ten steps ahead of where they just were.
“Hey, listen—” Toby says, unable not to at least try to hurry things up, but when he turns this time, Cin’s just standing there with her hands steepled over her open mouth. In shock.
Toby tracks down to what’s got her going, and…
“Um, what?” he has to ask.
Cin nods down like it’s obvious: the columbine by the trail has burst, its petals down on the ground, its delicate stalk still poking up like it thinks maybe this can all still work out.
It and Toby both.
“Wasn’t me,” Toby says, sneaking a look down to his boots just the same, to be sure there’s not a guilty smear of purple there.
“No, of course,” Cin says, and chinpoints off-trail.
Toby squints, looks where she means.
“Hunh,” he says, impressed.
Her scientific eyes, he has to admit, they’re good ones.
There’s a swath of denuded stalks heading back into the darkness of the trees, purple wreckage all on the ground.
“Who would do that?” Cin says, her left hand gripping Toby’s right forearm, up high. That specific touch flashes him to all the weddings he’s been to, where his date, his sister, his aunt, whoever, takes his arm so he can seat them.
“Elk don’t care about flowers,” he says, processing through the first obvious maybe.
Meanwhile, Cin is maybe about to cry, here.
“It looks like it’s on purpose, though,” she says.
“Terrible,” Toby says, and actually means it. But he’s not talking about flowers, so much, but the minutes ticking away on his watch.
And? Maybe he’s thinking of weddings because it’s like a flower girl traipsed past here, right? Some nature wedding. No, no—a deer wedding, yeah.
Toby almost smiles, just manages to swallow it.
“It’s gonna rain on us if we’re not careful,” he says, and brings them around, directs them the right way. Which is up.
He doesn’t look back to see if Cin is looking back at the flower massacre, either.
He doesn’t want to know.
Ten, twelve minutes later, there’s white wreckage on the path: “Alpine Yarrow,” Cin identifies, taking a knee to place the pads of her fingers on the ground by all this white fluff.
This time, off to the right, where the Alpine Yarrow is thick, again there’s a wide swath of destruction where someone or something crashed through.
“Why didn’t they go around?” Cin asks.
Toby considers the question, studies, and she’s right: busting through these flowers does seem pretty willful. Especially when it would have been easier to loop around above, where there’s just grass. And just walking wouldn’t knock all the petals off.
Which, of course, he doesn’t say out loud.
Neither does he tell Cin that who- or whatever was into kicking all that columbine back there, it’s kind of like…it’s kind of like they made a big loop ahead of them, going cross-country instead of switching back on the trail, and this is where they crossed back.
“It’s not elk, look,” Cin says.
Toby takes a knee, looks into the dirt she means, and it’s a boot print, the staggered chevron lugs as distinct as anything.
“Do you have your knife?” Cin asks, standing closer to Toby now.
“We’re not stabbing anybody over flowers,” Toby hears himself tell her.
Her hero, yeah.
You’re doing great, Tobidiot, he tells himself. Fucking wonderful. She’s definitely falling for you now.
“But he’s doing it on purpose,” Cin whispers.
“Let’s just keep moving,” Toby says, and leads them on. But, he has to admit, he’s watching the trees and the scrub closer, now.
Someone’s playing with him and Cin, aren’t they? Out here where the rules are off. Where there’s no witnesses.
And, Cin was right, with her choice of pronoun: going by the size of that print, it probably is a guy.
They can outpace him, though.
Toby’s done this hike in two hours, once, after bombing a mid-term. Whoever it is going cross-country out there, no way can they keep up with that.
“C’mon,” Toby hisses back to Cin, and she evidently—finally—hears the urgency in his voice, and keeps up.
Twenty minutes later they jump a doe with her spotted fawn. The fawn grabs onto the trail they’re using with its tiny hooves, but the mom’s already smoking away.
“Go,” Toby barks to the fawn, and, on spindly legs, it does.
“Was it them?” Cin says, and Toby gets what she’s saying, stops where the fawn left the trail.
The grass isn’t even folded down from its passage.
Cin doesn’t say anything.
Ten more minutes, and there are—or, were—some flowers that even Toby has to admit were more than likely pretty beautiful, before they got kicked to nothing.
“Fairy Trumpet,” Cin says, on both knees now, the red tubular petals or whatever trailing from her fingers.
This is a thick stand of them, the kind Toby thinks he might have even stopped to wonder at, had he been alone.
And now there’s a body-wide trail through them.
Whoever this is, they’re not turning sideways, stepping through. They’re kicking wide and purposeful. They’re maybe even turning their hiking boots sideways, to plow more flower heads into oblivion.
“Why would—why would…?” Cin’s saying.
Toby shakes his head, has no idea.
“Clouding up,” he says, though.
Hours earlier than usual, too.
Toby swallows, the sound loud in his ears.
This willful flower destruction, it’s coming from the left, going to the right now. Meaning, at least, it’s only one person, anyway. One fast person, on some kind of sick mission.
Toby palms his knife. Cin looks from it to him, and her eyes are brimming with tears.
“Just in case,” he says.
“It’s good I don’t have one,” she says with a little smile, and Toby grins too, has to look away.
He can actually like her, he thinks. He really can. He’ll stop at every stupid flower if she wants, next time. Maybe he’ll even learn some of their names.
“There’s a shed near the top,” he says. He’s heard it called the Stabbin’ Cabin, because of all the sex that’s supposed to go on in there during the afternoon showers, but, really, honestly, he just wants to sit the rain out in there, stay at least a little bit dry.
The first drops are cold and heavy.
He should have brought ponchos for them. His father would have, he knows.
Except—again—he’s not his father.
That doesn’t mean he’s not seeing him in his head, though, standing by the car at one rest stop or another.
He even remembers once, coming back from the river he’d promised not to let his brother fall into—oops—that there’d been a moment, coming over the rise by the picnic tables, when he’d stuttered to a stop, because there were two of his father, both of them standing by their similar cars, the doors open, each man tapping the face of his upheld watch.
Used to, Toby would wonder what would have happened if he’d gotten into the wrong car that day. Who he would be now. If he would have even noticed it, at first.
Maybe he wouldn’t be so stupid now, anyway.
He turns around to Cin and she’s got her shoulders up by her ears, her elbows drawn in—in addition to the rain, the wind’s coming cold too, like it does at elevation.
Toby shucks his pullover, hands it to her. She refuses, of course, but he insists, and finally she wraps herself in it, and they’re moving faster now, huddled together.
“How far?” Cin asks.
“Just up here,” Toby says.
But then they’re walking through a field he’s never seen before, he’s pretty sure. Or maybe it just looks different in the storm, he tells himself.
That’s got to be it.
“Coneflower,” Cin intones reverently, slowing her pace.
Toby’s slowed too, doesn’t get this.
“Do they even grow at this elevation?” he asks.
Cin, instead of answering, steps out into the clear path that’s been kicked, from right to left—coming from the right, heading up the mountain to the left, where the heavy timber is.
She lets his pullover fall behind her, and Toby cues into the fist her right hand’s balled into.
“Who would do this,” she says.
It’s not a question.
She flashes her eyes back to him, her teeth set, and then, trusting that he’s with her, she sets off in this wake of destruction, her footsteps on the bed of pedals making so little sound that it’s almost like she was never even here.
Minutes later, Toby’s still standing in the same place.
The rain that was coming, it never quite came.
The wind’s died down.
“Cin?” he calls out.
He swallows again, his eyes heating up.
“Cin,” he says again, quieter. Just for himself.
She didn’t even tell her roommate where she was going, he knows. Or who she was going with.
And—and it’s not like they’re dating, right?
Toby looks down the way she took, through the yellow flowers, and then he looks down to the knife he’s still holding.
There’s no blood on it. Nothing like that.
Still—his father, at that rest stop, right? When Toby, at eleven years old, could have gone to either car, and gotten in, gone to wherever?
Maybe he did go with the wrong family, he thinks.
Either that or—or the real him, the other him, the one that should have been, he’s still out there.
Toby, this Toby, kneels down to collect the pullover Cin left behind, and, under it—he can’t look away fast enough—is another of those footprints.
Not wanting to know but having to know, he presses his boot down beside it, steps away slowly.
Exactly the same.
Toby breathes in deep, his skin flushing, his vision blurring, and he steps back into the fragrant yellow, crushing even more of the “Coneflower.”
It doesn’t matter, though, he tells himself.
Flowers don’t feel it when you crush them. When you kick them. They’re just things, like so much else.
And he should have checked the weather, he shouldn’t have come hiking today at all. He shouldn’t have come—as far as anybody knows, or will ever know—hiking alone.
He closes his eyes, holds them shut in something like apology but not quite apology, more like unfocused regret, regret for something that wasn’t even really his fault, and when he turns, and also for the rest of his life, he sees, very distant, himself, stepping behind the nearest tall thing, and in his head there’s just the sound of a rushing river, louder and louder.
© 2022 Stephen Graham Jones