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The Paths We Take #37: Cold World   

Nov 13, 2018






When my feet hit the rock below, I felt like I’d landed in a different world. I peered over the ledge into the darkness below and took in deep breath of the chilled night air. I’d found a colder world, but it was a free world. The freedom of the moment was shattered by the crack of a gunshot.

I bolted towards the trees as another shot cut the silence. When I hit the tree line, a pair of hands grabbed my arm and pulled me behind a large boulder that protruded from the frozen earth. I shoved myself free, but the man jumped back and held his hands up in surrender. I’d seen his eyes before, and then I realized it was the eyes of the stranger from Nancy’s the day I was taken.

He threw off his backpack and removed a black ball of fabric. He unrolled it and handed the parka to me, but I caught him staring at my mangled foot and then at the bare one. I slung the parka on and zipped it up.

“The gunshots,” the stranger whispered as he peered around the rock.

“From inside,” I gasped.

The parka fell just above my knees, but the chilled air bit at the skin on my uncovered legs and foot. I didn’t care

. . . I was leaving.

He put his gloved hand on mine and we turned back towards the trees, but Gramps stood in front of us. Before I realized what was happening, the stranger stepped in front of me with a gun aimed at Gramps’ chest. I could hear the muffled yells in the background. The sound of my heartbeat exploded as Gramps looked at the stranger and then at me with a grin.

“You better go,” Gramps said as he turned around and started trudging back towards the cabin. I thought I might miss him. He’d become a kind of twisted friend in a nightmare that would haunt me forever.

The stranger sprinted deeper into the woods. Every step stung as I followed. The terrain grew steeper and the pine needles and downed branches turned into rocks and icy patches of frozen snow as we went higher. The stranger carried a small flashlight that he would use to light up the area for a fraction of a second and then let it go dark in a blink. I tried to keep the image in my head as I ran, but the pain in my foot turned my run into a leaping kind of limp, like an injured gazelle fleeing for the last few seconds of life.

The stranger was almost out of my sight before he spun around and noticed that I was at least two hundred feet behind him. He sprinted back to me and gazed at the blood-soaked pillow-cases that I’d used as bandages for my foot.

“I can try to carry you,” he said as he put an arm under my shoulder blades and the other under the back of my knees.

“No . . . I’ll be fine. Let’s just go,” I said. “I just want to go.”

The path up cut through the rocks and wound its way to the top of the mountain. As we advanced further, the path disappeared into a sea of pines and giant slabs of quartzite that looked like patches of ice in the moonlight. I used my hands to pull myself up between the large slabs of rock that littered the hillside.

The voices behind us grew louder, but as they got closer,

I realized that it was just one voice — a raging, violent voice.

“Claire! You whore bitch . . . If you don’t freeze to death first, I’m going to rip your head off . . . You worthless slut.”

The stranger grabbed my hand and helped me climb on top of a rock ledge that looked down on the hillside. I could see flashes of light bouncing between the rocks and the trees. The yelling stopped, and the silence of the night would betray us if the leaves crunched beneath our feet or a twig snapped under our weight.

I lay on the rock . . . watching . . . listening . . . waiting. The only thing I could feel was the dull sting of my body freezing. I looked over, and my stranger was gone. I slid over to the back edge of the boulder and felt around the leaves and twigs until my hand ran across the top of sharp edge. The rock was small enough to grasp in my hand, but it had a jagged point where it had broken off from a larger stone. It was the only weapon I had.

The rustle of leaves somewhere below broke the silence. I crawled to the edge and looked down, but I couldn’t see anything. The shadows of the trees played tricks on my eyes, and I jumped when I saw a figure. But what I thought were arms, were just branches of a small maple tree. I didn’t see what was behind me.

I gasped for air as I felt myself being lifted from the surface of the rock by my hair. My scalp screamed as I was pulled to my knees and then to my feet. I grabbed behind me with my left hand and felt a rough fist balled around my hair. The rock was still in my right hand. I flung my right arm behind me. I connected with skin and bone and blood.

“Bitch!” Marks screamed out as I felt his hand release my hair. I turned around as he stumbled backwards, grabbing his right cheek. A stream of black poured from his face.

I lunged towards him with the rock again, but he plunged his foot forward before I could stop myself. The air deserted my lungs when my back collided with the rigid surface, and the rock flew out of my hand and disappeared over the edge.

Marks was standing over me. The moonlight glinted off the metal barrel of the pistol as he held it inches from my face. He snatched a fistful of my hair and pulled me to my knees. He brushed the barrel against my lips as I started to scream.

“Shhh . . . You’re ruining the moment—,” he whispered.

Light poured over us. Marks held his hand up to his face and pointed the pistol towards the beam and started firing. He moved back towards me with every shot, almost stomping me as he continued his barrage of fire.

The firing stopped for a second. The light was still blinding us. Then, a single shot cracked in the darkness, and Marks stumbled backwards. He was inches from the ledge. He clutched his chest with his free hand as blood started to pour out through his fingers. I pulled myself up and charged at Marks, and when my hands smashed into his bloody chest, he disappeared into the darkness.

His body lay about thirty feet down . . . It was over. I looked down from the ledge and the tears began to warm my face. The stranger appeared beside me. He didn’t say anything. He knelt and put my arm over his shoulder and helped me to stand. I leaned against him as he pulled the flashlight free from where he’d wedged it between two pine branches.

We made our way to the top and then down the serpentine path on the other side. When we arrived at a fire tower, a man with a bandaged arm exited the driver’s seat of a Ford Explorer and opened the rear passenger door. The stranger helped me inside, and then the driver shut the door and took his seat behind the wheel.

“You two okay?” the driver asked as we pulled out of the fire tower lot and onto the road.

“Her foot looks really bad,” the stranger said.

I looked down and saw that the makeshift bandages were torn and crusted with brown, red, and black stains. The stranger took off his coat and draped it over my legs. The heat coming up from the floor felt like a burn on my skin. I closed my eyes and knew that it was okay to breathe again.

“We’ll have someone look at it when we get to Philly. They can take a look at my arm too,” the driver stated. “You think anyone followed you?”

“No,” the stranger replied.

I looked at the stranger who risked his life for me and wondered why. What were you doing at Nancy’s? That is what I wanted to ask him, but I felt it in my gut that he didn’t have anything to do with what happened to me. I didn’t know if I even wanted things to make sense.

“There were shots fired when I got there. I don’t think Michael will be meeting us in Philly.”

I watched the driver in the rearview mirror. He was agape and didn’t respond. He just nodded in acknowledgement to the stranger. I knew the stranger was right. Michael had given his life for me, and I was to blame for his death.

I felt like I had killed Michael myself. I used him. I wanted to escape, but I knew that we would never have anything besides a friendship outside of Donnelly’s cabin. I sunk back in my seat and wished that I could just disappear. I thought about opening the door and hurling myself out, taking my chances on my own if I survived. I turned my head towards the window as I struggled to keep the tears from coming.

“Things are going to get messy now. The murder of a senator’s son will put everyone on edge. There will be attempts to cover up what happened at Donnelly’s. We’re going to have to be very careful with what we share with the Feds,” the driver said. “Claire, I’m Detective Townsend with the Red Pines Police Department by the way. I wish I could say this was all over for you, but it’s complicated. It’s complicated for both of you.”

“Marks is dead,” the stranger announced. “I’m sure that doesn’t help things.”

Detective Townsend’s blank stare in the rearview mirror made my heart sink further into my chest. I wanted this all to be over. I needed this all to be over.

The mountain roads gave way to the highway as we made our way towards Philadelphia. The stranger looked at me and gave a half-smile. His eyes were on me, but I could tell he was searching for answers. It was the same way he looked at me in the park, and the same way he stared at me at Nancy’s. There was an intangible connection between us.

“I’m Luke. Probably should’ve let you know that earlier,” the stranger said as he offered me his hand. I felt like I knew him in a way. His eyes told me that he was just as lost as I was. It was the same look that I saw in the mirror. When he went to take his hand away from mine, I held onto it. Letting it go felt like I would be letting myself go. We both needed something more — vindication.

© Josiah A. Miller 2018. All Rights Reserved.