Rachel Blakley Ball lives in Seattle, Washington. Her short story "Woman in a Drawer" won the 2014 Little Bird Writing Contest. She blogs at www.elephantineblog.com.
They could not afford the honeymoon Alicia wanted most — mossy-hilled Ireland or terraced, pastel Cinque Terre — but she managed to find a getaway closer nearby, in Cape Meares, that would still feel far from home. The rental property was just over 300 miles from their apartment, due west, pressed up against the Pacific Ocean. Of all the listings Alicia had scrolled through, it was the nicest one within their budget. It looked clean and well cared for, the knotted wood of the walls polished, the corners of the bedsheets neatly tucked under as in a hotel. In the exterior photos, the cabin was encircled by spruce trees. There wasn’t a neighbor’s house in sight.
“Seems nice, doesn’t it?” she said to Morris, swiveling the laptop toward him. They were seated at the dining table, she with her cup of tea clutched between her thighs — a habit she’d formed after ruining a previous laptop by not being as careful — and he across from her with a book open in front of him that he wasn’t reading. “Look, Morris. There’s a Jacuzzi tub, a hiking trail nearby…”
He was staring out the window at the passing traffic on the street. He turned his head and squinted at the screen as she scrolled through the property photos. “Sure,” he said, before she went through them all. “Go ahead and book it.”
There was a form to fill out at the bottom of the page to confirm availability. She selected the last week of August, then entered Morris’s email instead of her own into the next field; sometimes she neglected to check her account for days. Even when she did get around to checking it, she felt little urgency to reply to those electronic missives, whereas Morris couldn’t stand the feeling of letting an email go unread for more than a few hours. (“How did you ever manage before the internet?” she’d once teased, and he’d said, “Badly.”) It seemed the rest of the world felt like Morris did.
Later, in the middle of dinner, while Alicia was in the kitchen helping herself to more of the Indian takeout Morris had picked up, he called out from the dining table that he’d just received an email about the rental.
“The owner says it’s available,” Morris said. Coming back into the dining room, she saw that he was holding his phone in one hand and his fork in the other, piercing a half-eaten piece of butter chicken, oily and reddish-orange. “You sure you’re okay with this?” he asked, glancing up at her. “We can scrounge up the money somehow, if you really want to go abroad.”
“No,” she said. “You were right. It was a stupid idea.”
“I didn’t say that. I said it makes more sense to go on a trip like that a year or two from now, when we can actually afford it.”
“The cabin will be just fine,” she said, and even if it was out of necessity, she did believe it. Morris was right about the money. Besides, he’d only suggested they postpone the bigger trip, not forgo it entirely. All the waiting and building of anticipation would make it that much more satisfying when the time finally did come. She knew this from other drawn-out yearnings — from her pining after Morris, in particular. She could only imagine how much less satisfying their courtship would have been had he reciprocated her smile the first time she’d tried to get his attention.
. . .
Morris had worked at the insurance agency for a few years already when Alicia was hired. She was drawn to him from the start — to his tall trim figure, his silvery gray eyes, to the way his voice warmed when he said it was a pleasure meeting her. She’d watched him from afar at first, glancing up at him as he passed by her desk on the way to the breakroom or as he soothed the office’s spasmodic copy machine, hunched over it with a surgeon’s focus. After a while, she allowed herself nearer to him, taking, for instance, the same elevator as he did down to the parking garage, with a buffer of oblivious colleagues between them. This was better. But not enough. One day, when she saw him get up from his desk with his coffee cup in hand, she waited a few moments and then rose from her own and followed him into the breakroom. There, they exchanged run-of-the-mill complaints about that morning’s traffic, and each protested, half-heartedly, about the desserts someone kept leaving out with the little sign that read Please, enjoy! Lifting a wedge of chocolate cake out of its container, she said, “I mean, look at this. I know I’ll regret it later, but I can’t help myself.” She wasn’t fishing for a compliment.
But Morris gave her a surprised look. “Are you serious?” he said. “You don’t need to worry about that.”
He suddenly looked agitated, on the edge of saying something else to her. But he didn’t, and then another colleague came in, and the moment was over. Months passed before she glimpsed that look again. At a holiday party, having downed the second half of his eggnog, he pulled her aside and asked if she might like to go out sometime. Or not, if she didn’t want to, he said. No pressure.
She had to feign ignorance on their first date. She had to pretend to not know where he’d previously worked or what his parents did, information that she had either overheard in his conversations with others or which she had found online. For this, she felt slightly deceitful. On the other hand, it wasn’t anything that she wasn’t going to learn about him eventually. Besides, those facts and fragments only told her so much. She may have known where he lived before she ever set foot in his apartment, but the address had only been that — an address. To stand on his front step shivering beneath her pashmina while he unlocked the front door and then to be led into the warm, darkened building was only knowable to her once it was her reality.
She unraveled him further over the course of the months that followed, as much as he would let her. Lying naked in bed, before sleep took hold, she asked him about his childhood, learning the nicknames he’d had as a pudgy child, the reckless things he’d done as a teen. Another night, she learned that insomnia sometimes plagued him. That old photographs embarrassed him. That he often experienced buyer’s remorse, returning clothes and small appliances if he felt any degree of regret at all.
The year continued. One evening, when they were in her living room, drinking heavy-on-the-gin and tonics while they waited for a frozen lasagna to cook, he said that though he had never learned to play a musical instrument, he loved the cello and yearned to take it up. He listed off the pieces of classical music he wanted to learn: Bach’s “Cello Suites,” Vivaldi’s concertos, Chopin’s nocturnes. “Opus nine, number two,” he said. “Or maybe it’s number three? You’d recognize it if you heard it.”
“I look forward to hearing you perform all the opuses,” she said, touching the rim of her glass. “Or is it ‘opi’?”
That was the night he asked her to marry him — drunkenly and, it seemed to her, without previously having planned to do so. But did that really matter? He’d done it, and she’d said yes, of course she would. She didn’t need any time to think it over.
. . .
When it came to the wedding, they agreed on needing nothing fancy. Neither did she care to have a wedding shower or a bachelorette party. She was not that sort of person. When Hadley, a colleague-turned-friend, hinted at throwing her a party, Alicia said it would only embarrass her. The few times in her life when she had witnessed one of those riotously laughing groups of girls, with one of them done up in a telltale feathered boa or sash, she had shuddered at the sight. But Hadley insisted that Alicia let her take her out. Said she couldn’t get married without some sort of a last hurrah, now could she?
One night before the wedding, Hadley took her to Umberto’s, where, according to Hadley, there wasn’t a bad looking waiter in the bunch.
“See what I mean?” Hadley said after they were seated. One young and shyly blinking waiter had delivered waters with slices of lemon to their table, another had come by to recite the specials of the evening. “Cute, no?”
“I guess so,” Alicia said, smiling and shrugging.
“What?” asked Hadley. “You aren’t allowed to look at other men now?”
“It’s more that I don’t want to.”
“Lucky Morris,” Hadley said. “I still can’t believe you two are getting married. I thought, don’t take this the wrong way, but I thought it would just be a fling. Especially since—” Hadley sipped abruptly from her glass. “I’m just glad it worked out.”
“Especially since what?” Alicia asked.
“You said ‘especially since.’ Since what?”
“I didn’t mean to say that.” Hadley’s cheeks flushed. She took another drink, avoiding Alicia’s eyes.
“Spit it out,” Alicia said. “I’m serious.”
Hadley sighed. She asked Alicia if she knew who Charlotte was. You know, she said, the redhead? The one who’d organized that awful company picnic a few years back? No? At any rate, what Hadley had heard — she wouldn’t say from whom — was that back in the day, Morris and Charlotte used to date. Being coworkers, they’d kept quiet about it. But it quickly became serious. So serious they got engaged. And then, just days before the wedding or maybe it was a week before, Hadley couldn’t remember, Morris broke it off.
Alicia could find no adequate words with which to respond. She and Morris had never discussed past relationships. She had tidily avoided the subject, more out of shame than anything else. She’d had a grand total of three boyfriends in her life and in each case had been the one dumped. What benefit would there have been in telling Morris this? She tried to recall whether she’d ever seen him and the redhead together, sitting near each other in a meeting or coming back from lunch together. To picture him involved with another woman caused her temples to ache.
As convincingly as she could, she said, “It’s not true. Someone made that up.” And for the rest of the evening, she tried to put Hadley’s story out of her mind. Yet it taunted her.
She and Morris had agreed to not see each other the day before the wedding, but she called him that evening when she returned to her apartment, imploring him to come over. A while later, in the doorway, she embraced him, pressing her face into the scratchy cotton of his shirt.
“That’s it?” he asked. “That was your emergency?” He was smiling, but a shade of annoyance gently contorted his face. In the weeks leading up to the wedding, she had noticed an increasing frequency of this expression. It had not concerned her. She was sure it was due to the stress of the wedding. As much as they had pared it down, there were still what felt like a hundred decisions to be made and expenses to pay. They had argued about the price of the flowers, which Morris thought could easily be reduced by half and have the same effect. The bakery’s quote for the wedding cake, too, had bewildered him.
“I needed to see you,” she said. “I needed to ask you…” She trailed off.
“Ask me what?”
“Oh, never mind. It’s silly.”
She shook her head. He insisted again. Quietly, she said, “You’re going to show up tomorrow, right?”
He let out a little laugh; he lightly kissed her forehead. “I’ll see you in the morning,” he said.
“Now get some sleep.”
In the end, they ordered the full quantity of flowers, but opted for a spread of pies in lieu of cake. She barely ate two bites of dessert anyway, spending the majority of their wedding reception chatting with their guests. He mingled with his friends and family, and she with hers. Not until after the night was over did it occur to her how little time she and Morris had actually spent together at their own wedding. On the way home, unpinning her hair in the car, she joked that she was worried he’d run off with his bachelor friends. She’d heard how they’d teased him about his life being over.
“Don’t listen to them,” he said. “They’re idiots.”
“That I already knew,” she said and looked over with a smile. But Morris was busy concentrating on the road. He had trouble seeing at night, something about headlights smearing together or lights becoming too bright. It was an affliction she found both unnerving and unusually charming. Whenever his face was close to hers, she examined the ridges of his eyes, trying to work out how much his view of the world differed from hers.
. . .
It was raining when they headed out for the cabin the morning after the wedding, and that, along with heavy traffic on the interstate, put Morris in a quiet mood. Four hours later, when they reached the coast, it was still raining, though more lightly. From the outside, the cabin, to Alicia’s relief, looked just as it had in the photos online. Inside, too, it was how she had imagined it would be. The rooms were plain but comfortably furnished; there was no television, but there was a tall, well-stocked bookshelf. Ribbons of light overlapped across the floorboards. While Morris brought their bags inside and then disappeared into the bathroom, Alicia went around admiring their temporary home, running her hands over the gleaming wood.
In the kitchen, on the countertop, there was a laminated card pinned beneath a mottled stone. On the card there was a photograph of the cabin owners, followed by text in a curly font that was difficult to read. It didn’t say much, mostly just to please not feed any wildlife and that there was firewood in the shed outside, as well as a path to a private beach at the end of the property. At the bottom of the card, the owners, Laura and Anderson Ellis, wished them a pleasant stay. A rejuvenating stay — that was the word they used. Alicia guessed the wife had written it. “If you need anything,” another line read, squeezed in below their names, “we live a quick five-minute walk away, on Beacon Road, in the first house on the left.”
She heard the toilet flush, the tap of the sink run. Then, Morris’s footsteps crossed the cabin and she heard the consecutive thump of both shoes as he kicked them off by the front door.
“I’m beat,” he said. “Think I’m going to take a nap.”
While he slept, she read an issue of a local magazine cover to cover, mentally noting places they should stop by while they were in the area. On the last page of the magazine, there was a crossword puzzle that someone had started in pencil and then abandoned. She found a pen and settled back into the sofa. When she’d done as much as she could, she set the magazine beside her and sat listening to the silence of the room. It had stopped raining. Outside the cabin, there was sporadic birdsong. She went to the bedroom door and pressed it open as gently as she could — Morris had not closed it all the way, and it creaked as it opened — and took a seat on the bed beside him.
“Morris,” she said quietly, placing a hand on his arm. “Wake up.”
He stirred and mumbled something incoherent. When she squeezed his arm, he moaned and shifted again.
“What is it?” he said, not opening his eyes.
“You’ve been asleep for over an hour. And the weather’s cleared. Let’s go out and explore.”
“Yeah.” He yawned. “Yeah. All right. Give me a minute. I’ll get up.”
She brought her luggage into the bedroom and began unpacking. Morris finally sat up, then got out of bed and stretched. She offered to get him a glass of water, but he said he was fine. He was feeling good, actually, he said. Refreshed. “You mean rejuvenated,” she wanted to say, but the joke would have been lost on him.
. . .
She suggested they go on a hike. It would be good to get out, stretch their legs, take advantage of the sun and the remaining daylight. Morris agreed. He said he’d noticed an access point for a trail when they’d driven in, and it was walking distance from the cabin.
She filled up a water bottle for each of them and made sure her cellphone was charged, laughing at herself for even checking since she barely used the thing. She put on a light jacket and got her walking shoes out from the plastic bag she’d packed them in. Neither she nor Morris owned real hiking clothes. But this hike, she figured, would be more of a leisurely walk through the woods than the true sort of treks their more outdoorsy colleagues described.
They found the trail and started off at an easy pace. A little ways in, stopping while Morris bent to retie his shoelace, she gazed up at the sunlight rippling through the trees. The branches were still wet from the rain and glistened now in the sun. The air was pleasantly warm. She tried to imagine what it would be like to backpack through Europe, lugging all her belongings with her. She was glad that wouldn’t be the sort of trip they would be taking, how exhausting that would be. No, they would stay in quaint inns and jaunt around in a tiny, charming rental car; they would eat the best meals of their lives at restaurants she had already highlighted and prioritized in her travel books.
Morris started up again and she walked behind him by a couple paces, the path too narrow to comfortably walk side by side. After a few hundred feet, they reached a fork where their path joined up with the main trail. Another hundred feet up, Morris slowed and moved aside on the trail, signaling for Alicia to do the same; a pair of women coming downhill thanked them, and the second woman wished them a pleasant hike.
The path ahead was steeper than Alicia had expected. She had to ask Morris if they could take breaks now and then. During these interludes, she took deep swills from her water bottle. Or she just breathed in as deeply as she could, urging her lungs to take in as much air as possible. During one break, she closed her eyes, too, in a temporary escape. The air smelled of soil and pines and softened bark damp from the rain.
“Ready?” Morris asked, and she opened her eyes — to emerald green, to the filtered light angling down through a lattice of boughs.
They continued to ascend for a long time without speaking. After a while, noticing that the gap between them had widened, she called out, “How much further do you think we should go?”
He was a good twenty feet ahead of her now. “I think there’s a lookout point up here,” he said. “We’re almost there.”
She pressed on, though her legs were throbbing. She distracted herself by wriggling out of her jacket, underneath which she wore a short-sleeved T-shirt, and tied it around her waist. She felt on the verge of exhaustion, though there was some consolation in reminding herself that going back down wouldn’t be nearly as tiring. What wouldn’t be relieved was the growing discomfort in her bladder from drinking the entire contents of the water bottle. Every step she found harder and harder to take, each movement pronouncing the urge more sharply.
She was about to insist that they turn back when she saw that Morris had again moved aside on the path. There were more people coming down — a girl and her father. Morris stopped them to ask something and the man nodded and pointed up the trail. A moment later, when the two hikers passed her, she managed a smile and a hello.
“It’s right up here,” Morris called to her and took off again. She wished she was close enough to grab his arm, close enough to pull him to her face and show him how exhausted she was. But all she could do was continue.
Finally, a clearing in the woods, a wedge of light.
“Oh,” she said, short of breath, when she reached the ledge. “It’s beautiful up here.” The valley before them dipped and rose in waves of woodland. A few lone birds flew in opposite directions in the distance; further off, hazy mountain peaks sloped into the sky.
Morris nodded, saying nothing. They both stood for a minute looking out at the view. At last, he turned and smiled tiredly at her. The back of his shirt was, in patches, darkened with sweat; his forehead was also slick with it. In the unfamiliar light, he looked different to her, not fully like himself.
Perhaps she was delirious. Her bladder throbbed again, reminding her of its fullness. “Oof,” she said. “I shouldn’t have drunk all that water.”
“Well, go if you have to go. Haven’t you ever been camping?”
She peered back into the woods. She didn’t want to have to go here, but the thought of trying to hold it for however long it would take to hike back down was clearly out of the question.
“I’ll be right back,” she said.
She stepped off the path and into the woods. For twenty or thirty feet, what had for the whole hike up appeared dense and enclosed suddenly felt awfully sparse. When she glanced back at Morris — who was standing in the same spot at the clearing, his back turned toward her — it drove her on. She kept imagining him turning and seeing her squatting among the trees, and the thought made her queasy. She kept going, stepping over a fallen tree, ducking under a moss-blanketed branch.
Eventually, she felt she was deep enough in the woods. Her hands moved to her waist and fumbled with the button. She squatted and sighed at the immense relief of it. Laughed, even. Then, straightening herself up and looking into the tree above, she spotted a bird perched on the lowest branch. It hopped toward her, cocking its head one way and then the other. “What?” she said. “Shoo!” At her exclamation, the bird fluttered its indigo feathers and disappeared into the pines.
. . .
Morris was nowhere to be seen when she emerged from the woods. But soon enough, she realized that she’d come out at a different spot along the trail. She had erroneously cut back through the woods at an angle and now stood downhill from where she’d entered. Light streamed across the trail up where the trees were cut away at the lookout point. But when she reached and then turned into the clearing, expecting Morris to be there, there was nothing besides the landscape before her.
“Morris?” she called out aimlessly. No answer. She turned, took a few steps farther up the trail, but didn’t go far before calling out his name again — a call that still went unanswered — and, facing the denser, darker woods ahead, she knew he wouldn’t have continued far without her. She turned back and returned to the lookout. He had stood here when she entered the woods. He had been here and now — where? Should she wait? Should she check again up the trail, going a bit further, despite her intuition? She decided she would give it another few minutes, five at most, and then if he still hadn’t shown up, she would make another decision then.
It gave her a degree of comfort to have a plan. A plan was better than unwinding into panic. Once, when she was a child, her normally punctual father didn’t come home at his normal time in the evening, and as time wore on, her mother began to pace around the kitchen in a frenzy, complaining about all her cooking gone to waste. It was her mode of panic, though Alicia hadn’t been able to recognize it then; she only wondered what was so special about the meatloaf being kept warm in the oven. In the end, there was nothing much to her father’s tardiness. He had gotten a flat tire, and having no spare, it ended up being more trouble to remedy than one would think. But why hadn’t he just called, her mother wanted to know. He said he didn’t think it would take so long. He said he’d lost track of time.
The phone. How could Alicia have forgotten about the phone? She fished it out of the pocket of the jacket slung around her waist and fumbled with the buttons. It rang three, four, five times, then went on to Morris’s voicemail.
Too much time had passed. Wherever he was, it wasn’t here. Maybe he’d gone back to the cabin, though why he would have done that, she couldn’t speculate. Still, that was where she decided she should look for him next.
Descending the slope, as she’d assumed earlier, was far easier than climbing it. Most of her energy went into holding herself back, feeling as if she might tumble down the hill if she didn’t. On her descent, she periodically paused to call out his name, the sound of it becoming more and more strange, like a foreign word. Each attempt was fruitless. She made it all the way back to the cabin without finding Morris, nor running into any other hikers as they had on their way up. She ran to the cabin door. “Morris?” she called, after unlocking it, realizing as soon as she’d done so that she was in possession of their only copy of the key. Still, she checked inside the cabin, looking in the kitchen, the bathroom, and lastly, in the bedroom, where the bedsheets remained rumpled, the pillows tousled.
Her hands were shaking as she exited the cabin. Outside, their car was still there. Water stains had dried on the windshield.
After she allowed herself a moment to catch her breath, she circled the cabin, desperately imagining he might be hiding in the firewood shed or was in the midst of taking trash out to the bins. She could feel the ragged edge of panic now, but there was still a chance she could stave it off. Then she remembered the laminated card on the kitchen counter. The Ellises’ phone number was at the bottom. Using the landline beside the sofa — not her cellphone, just in case Morris called — she dialed the number. When the other end picked up, a man cleared his throat and said, “Hello?”
“Mr. Ellis?” she said.
“Yes?” he said. “Who’s calling?”
“This is Alicia Henderson. My husband and I are staying at your rental cabin. I’m sorry to bother you. It’s just that — oh —”
“Is there something wrong?”
“Yes. I mean, no, not with the cabin. The cabin is lovely. I’m sorry, I’m just a bit flustered. You didn’t happen to hear from my husband, did you? In the last hour or so?”
He paused. “No,” he said.
She told him what had happened. She was embarrassed to say the last part so frankly to a stranger, even over the phone, so she said instead that she “had some business to take care of," immediately feeling like that was no better. But the point she got to quickly enough. Her husband was gone. He was not on the trail, he was not in the cabin, and their car was still parked where they had left it.
After an interval of silence, he said, “I can come over and help look for him. Would that help? I could search the trail and you could stay at the cabin. Or we could search the trail together.
Maybe he wandered into the woods.”
“But why would he do that?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s just a thought.”
She looked out the window at the unchanging view. “Yes,” she said. “Please come, if it’s not too much trouble.”
. . .
He arrived on foot in five minutes, just as the card had advertised. But the photograph on the card had been taken several years before; now his face was wider, his waist more prominent. He told her to call him Anderson. None of that Mr. Ellis nonsense. They stood together at the start of the trail, him squinting up into the woods. “You said you went all the way up to the lookout?” he asked. She nodded. He asked what her husband was wearing. He asked whether he had any medical conditions. He received each answer with a nod, a hand cupped over his chin. “And his name is Morris, you said?”
“Well, I guess we aren’t doing any good just standing around here. Let’s head up.”
She followed him as she had followed Morris. They covered the distance at a slower pace than she and Morris had, Anderson stopping every so often to survey the woods around them. Daylight was beginning to wane; she silently begged for it to last longer. Just for today. When they reached the ledge, Anderson asked her to stay put while he went on ahead for a little ways. When she protested, he shook his head. “It gets real steep once you get around the bend up there,” he said. “I’m sure you’re capable, but I’d just feel better if you wait here while I take a look.”
Before, looking for Morris on her own, she had not ventured far enough to explore the area Anderson was describing and hearing of the precipitous change in the trail, a scenario played out in her head of an impatient Morris going up there, losing his footing and falling, tumbling down the side of the cliff.
Or the same scenario could have occurred here at the lookout. What if he had gone closer to the edge for a better view, had slipped, had called for her, but she had not heard him, being so far back in the woods? She had not even considered the possibility.
“Ma’am?” Anderson had returned without her realizing it. “I didn’t see anything up there,” he said. “I think we should head back down.”
“Could you…” she started to ask, but had to stop.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Could you look over the edge,” she said, quickly, getting it all out in a rushed breath. “Over there.”
He moved toward the edge of the lookout and peered over, taking his time to scan the landscape below. He shook his head.
“No,” he said. “That’s not what happened. Let’s go down.”
. . .
“Do you think I should call the police?” she asked, once they reached the cabin. She felt weak with nausea. “Would you? If you were in my position?”
“It wouldn’t hurt,” he said. And then, when she said nothing in return, “Would you like me to stay?”
She shook her head. She glanced toward the road he had come from. “Please tell your wife I’m sorry.”
“Tell her I’m sorry for wasting your time,” she said. “I saw the photo of the two of you on the card.”
“Oh,” he said, suddenly understanding. “No, I’ve been meaning to change that. It’s just me now.”
She looked away. “I’m sorry,” she said.
There seemed to be nothing left to say after that. He turned and started up the driveway, the gravel biting into his footsteps. Then she was taking a step in the same direction, calling out for him to wait. Could he stay, actually? Just for a little longer? Just while she phoned the police station.
“I can stay,” he said. He looked neither pleased nor displeased by her request. As slowly as he’d left, he came back and gestured with a subtle turning of his wrist for her to enter the cabin before him.
He took a seat at the dining table, and she on the sofa. Several times she glanced at the phone on the side table but couldn’t lift her hand to pick it up. Making the call was too irreversible. She felt Anderson’s gaze on her and expected, when he began to speak, to hear him say that he needed to leave after all. But his tone was conversational. Curious. He asked about her life with Morris: How had they met? How long had they been married? He apologized when she explained that this was, in fact, their honeymoon; he hadn’t realized.
“Why would you have?” she asked.
“I thought maybe you had written it in the notes when you made the reservation. People do that sometimes, but I don’t always catch it.”
“Well, we didn’t,” she said.
He hesitated, hoping, maybe, that she was settled enough now to make the phone call. She remained frozen. So he began to speak about his wife — tentatively, at first, then with growing ease, seeing how it calmed her. He and his wife had gotten married young — he was twenty, she was nineteen — and they had raised two children in the house he still lived in. Before his wife died, she’d been an active member of the local ornithological society and an amateur potter. A stubborn woman with idealistic beliefs, he said, smiling. Both of their children were grown now, and one had a son of his own.
“Do they live nearby?” she asked.
“Not in the state. But they visit as much as they can. Especially now that — well.”
“I can see how much you miss her.”
“Yes. But we had a wonderful marriage,” he said. “I always knew we…” Then his eyes moved away from her, shifting to the cabin window. She immediately turned to look, too, and saw the taxi coming up the driveway.
. . .
Afterward, it was the story Morris told whenever he had a bit too much to drink at dinner parties: the great drama that had inaugurated their marriage. Even a dozen years later, on a night when the kids were in bed and the neighbors were over, she found Morris telling the old tale again, for somehow the topic of their wedding had come up, and the neighbors, of all people, hadn’t heard the story before. As usual, Morris spent only the briefest amount of time on the hike itself. For his purpose, it was simply a means to get to the moment after Alicia went into the woods — to the moment when he heard an unmistakable cry of distress.
“At first I thought it had to be Alicia,” he said. “Until I noticed someone rushing up the trail, waving me down.”
He recognized her only once she was near enough. It was the girl they’d seen on the trail before reaching the lookout. She was near hysterical. Her father had tripped over a rock. He was badly hurt, she said. He wasn’t even able to sit up. Morris tried explaining to her that he was waiting for his wife, but the girl, frantic as she was, begged for him to help her.
He offered to call for an ambulance. But, digging his hands into his pockets, he realized he’d left his phone in the cabin, plugged in to charge the battery. He called out for Alicia and took a few steps into the woods, but saw no sign of her. The girl continued to plead with him, taking hold of his arm. After one more failed attempt at getting a response from his wife, he submitted to the girl, figuring that when Alicia did emerge from the woods, she would be smart enough to either stay put and wait for him to come back or would come find him.
When he and the girl reached her father, Morris found the man lying motionless on his back, his legs jutting out into the trail and his upper half lying in the weeds. Blood glistened from a gash on the side of his head. “Annie?” the man kept saying. “Annie, you’re going to be late for school.” The girl — Annie, presumably — said that she’d tried to help him up but couldn’t, and even if she had been able to get her father down to the car, she didn’t know how to drive; she was only fourteen. Morris, alarmed at the sight of the bloody wound and the man’s nonsensical speech, agreed that they needed to get him to a hospital right away. He slung the man’s arm around his shoulder and guided him down the trail, heaving the man’s weight against his own. Where the trail forked, they took the left path, which led to the main trailhead and a small parking lot.
The girl was no calmer once they reached the emergency room. “Please,” she said, looking at him despairingly, “don’t leave.” During the hour they waited for her father to be seen, Morris tried multiple times to call Alicia from a hospital phone but couldn’t get her number right. Without his cellphone, he could only remember four of the digits. After a while, knowing it was useless, he returned to his seat by the girl and didn’t get up again until her father was discharged.
The man had suffered a concussion and needed a few stitches, but in the grand scheme of things, he would be fine. Father and daughter were reunited, and Morris took a taxi back to the cabin.
Now, more than a decade later, Morris lifted his wine glass to his lips, then set it back down and said, as he did at the culmination of every retelling of this story, “It should come as no surprise that we haven’t been hiking since.” Their guests for the evening laughed. They made, as people always did, various obvious remarks. How lucky it was that Morris had been there. How scared Alicia must have been.
She touched her mouth with a napkin. She asked if anyone cared for more wine or another bite of dessert. Oh, their neighbors said, glancing at each other, we should actually get going soon, shouldn’t we? In their minds, Alicia was sure, they were still imagining the woods, the crying girl, and herself, squatting among the pines. They’d laugh about it later, talking about the evening as they readied themselves for bed. Well, she couldn’t blame them. Wasn’t that one of the pleasures of married life? To be able to say to each other, we might have our own funny things, but at least we’re not like that?
The neighbors left, making vague promises to have them over soon. Alicia cleared the table, folding up the stained napkins and then bringing the emptied wine glasses into the kitchen to scrub them clean. Morris came in while the water was running. His hand touching her arm startled her.
“I’m going to bed,” he said. “You okay?”
“Yes, fine,” she said. “Just tidying things up first.”
After the glasses were cleaned and set upside down in the drain board, after she dried her hands and rehung the towel, she stood in the quiet house, looking through the smudged glass of the kitchen window at the silhouette of trees against the night sky. A moment was all she needed. Then she went upstairs, to the warm bed, navigating the room by the light of the lamp that Morris had left on for her.