At first, Jessica thinks it’s the darkness that her body needs to escape. Their tent’s air pocket of darkness. The forests’ surrounding miles of darkness. She is scrambling away from the darkness. Not the explosions opening wounds into that darkness. Explosions that she is beginning to understand are gunshots. Though her mind has caught up with what her ears are hearing, the rest of her body is a writhing animal, and, in the darkness, she is blind.
“Clay,” she whispers. “You hear that? Clay!”
He grunts. Below the pulsing gun blasts, she hears him swiping things into their backpacks.
Other hikers whimper and trip as bullets rip through their tents’ nylon shells. A zipper opens. A heavy blast, a wet cry. Someone screams until they drop to the sound of a rifle’s heaving, sadistic exhale.
“Clay!” she cries and pushes him. He shushes her. Her hands grasp and claw as the hard cracks of the pistol start up again.
Zippers cricket-chirp open. Feet thud away and mouths move with the meaningless flutter of moth wings. The beat of the pistol shot gives way once more to the scything reports of the rifle. Each time the rifle calls, there is a cry. A choked moan. A crash of a body into the undergrowth.
Oh god, oh god, oh god, goes Jessica’s mouth as her shivering hands go for the tent flap’s zipper. She feels Clay’s fleece instead, and he pulls her down to where he crouches.
She pushes against him, then stops. His beard bristles at her cheek as he says, “It’s the zippers. That’s how he finds them.”
How did he know there was only one shooter?
Clay shoves a headlamp into her hands. “Put it on.”
“He’s got night vision anyhow.”
As she paws furiously at the tent floor’s ripples for her boots, she hears the hand work the bolt between shots and smells the spent powder. The shooter is hunting them like animals loosed from their pens.
“Hurry!” she says, though as he clicks her headlamp on, she sees it’s Clay who stands ready with his knife.
“We’ve got a second,” he says and brings the blade down with a hiss through the side of the tent.
“On three, we’ve got to run. Doesn’t matter where. Just away! Stay low.”
“I know!” she says.
“One, two, three…” And out they charge into the night.
As her limbs blunder through the bracken, her heart seems to throb in her face. Her vision is a purple haze between two palpating walls and her body thunders and wheezes in clumsy zigzags scored by her ragged breathing and the exclamations of rifle fire, that despite her stumble-filled flight, are dimming.
She still hears the gun riving the air, but a more immediate threat assaults her in the form of snags, rasping webs, and thorns that thwart her pell-mell struggle.
The silvery bark of the firtrees conducts star and moonlight. And she has the frantic, skipping light of her headlamp. Yet the night remains a network of roots that seem to grab at her feet, forcing her to eat dirt and curse.
Still, the folk wisdom supposing that without a trail, you go in circles proves untrue. Though unique in their hectic navigation of creek and hillock, they run a similar route. Even after a fall, she rises in an amble up to find she’s still tracking with Clay. He’s not far ahead, having just risen from a fall of his own. Though he doesn’t turn around to check on her, she knows he’s not running as fast as he could, practically sheep-dogging her into following him, his shoulders and hips sauntering at a pace she’s capable of matching. And match it, she does, though each time she falls, she hopes to rise to find he’s vanished. Gone. Lost to her. Finally.
She’s following Clay despite herself. It’s like she’s connected to him by some tether of spirit, woven by their relationship and their current flight primed by shared fear and revulsion of the shooter. The shooter’s an unseen controller of sound and breath who, despite his trigger-tight command of life and death, has not been able to distract her from her nearly three-year quandary: how to get clear of Clayton Kelley Monfort.
The thought disquiets her more now than the continued cracking of the gun, which though still local, has not followed them. Her thought about Clay disquiets her more than the reality that she’s wishing for her father. A wish blossoming in her like the serrations of a hollow point bullet opening against the tissue of its target. A wish opening in her despite the miles and years she’s put between them.
If her father, Blaine, were here, he would know what to do. He would know how to kill him. Yet she wonders who this shooter is. Is it someone like her father? And is she running away from him the same way she ran away from her dad, towards Clay?
Running away, running away. Unwittingly towards Clay.
It’s a familiar feeling.
The place Jess ran away from was Burley, Idaho—a town at the vertex of the Snake River’s parabola between Idaho Falls and Boise. Her father, Blaine, owned Babe’s Outdoor Sports and Shooting Range. Babe as in Paul Bunyan’s blue ox. Not “babe” as in the kind her mother had been. Babe’s was the place where she learned to count a till, work a register, settle a batch, and shoot a gun. Most types of guns.
Blaine taught her at age 13 how to stand square, slightly forward, arms out. He taught her how to put the beavertail of the gun-butt deep into the meat between her thumb and forefinger. Working with a prop gun made of solid, blue rubber, she improved her grip so that by the time she got her first period, she took her first shot. By her 14th birthday, she could clean, load, and fire a Glock 19. She could get the ten bullets in a neat cluster around the 10-point bullseye of the paper figure, about where a person’s liver would be.
Rifles came next, though because of the recoil she was skittish. To anticipate the kickback, she would seize on the trigger, so all her shots were off. Her dad tried replacing the factory-make with a 2-pound trigger—lighter so she couldn’t anticipate the blast and wouldn’t clench down.
When her shots didn’t improve, Blaine had her go back to the basics, working on her grip and her stance.
“Buttpad in your chest, just below your collar bone. Then you bring it up to your eye and thumb around the neck of the stock. Right there! Good. Remember that, muscles. That’s home,” he said. “Don’t ever leave it.”
Too bad her mom hadn’t taken that advice. She’d left by the time Jess was five for suburban life in Boise. She’d burned out after fifteen years of living with Blaine, his guns, and his store. The place smelled of dusty cedar, heavy rubber, and gunpowder. She could no longer stand his desert rat friends, all prone to conspiracy theories and junk food.
Jess visited her mom’s two-story cookie-cutter house twice a year. They’d go to The Cheesecake Factory and her mom’s new husband—a programmer at Hewlett-Packard—would pepper her with questions, working overtime to sound interested. Everything was neat squares out there: lawns, garages, her mom’s new Element. All of it was so safe, it made life seem abstract and eked out in a petri dish. None of it was hers, and it all reminded her that she and her mother had never been close. Every minute she stayed felt like a slap in the face to the father who raised her, never spoke a bad word about her mother, and always got misty-eyed when Jess left for a visit. Jess always felt her presence in Blaine’s life was a poultice over a mortal wound that could never heal.
But things were changing for Jess. Though she had fulfilled her spunky tomboy role beside her brothers well enough, things in Burley were losing their luster. For one thing, she turned sixteen and started liking boys. She got tired of tugging her hair back into a greasy ponytail while she lugged around the heavy black weapons of war with her dad and his fat friends in their camo-colored baseball hats. Between river rafting trips, she wanted her hands to smell like fresh flowers instead of fireworks.
Her rifle shots were still shit, leading Blaine to suggest the AR-15. Less recoil, less time spent relocating the target. But at school, she’d been taking advanced classes taught by that Maoist the school district hired from Missoula who was sure to undermine their Second Amendment Rights every chance he got, enlisting her in self-righteous, bleeding-heart campaigns.
After the Aurora, Colorado Movie Theater shooting, Jess sat her dad down and asked him to please, for the love of God, stop carrying AR-15s in the store.
“I can’t do that,” Blaine said, looking at the grey hairs coming into his ponytail. “I’m a bolt-action man myself. But that rifle’s a big chunk of my business. Not to mention I’d lose customers who would protest my protest. It’s what busybodies of all persuasions do nowadays.”
“People are dying, Daddy,” she said and showed him the pictures of the people killed. “Who really needs these things? Except to kill people.”
He looked at the pictures and shook his head, “I am so sorry for these people. And their loved ones.”
“Then do something,” she said.
“If sick, lonely losers are going to get it in their heads to kill, then they’re going to kill,” Blaine said. He gave a hard sniff, the way he did when confronting a cold, hard fact of life. “And anyhow, you and I both know how many shots you can get off from a semi-automatic pistol in seconds. Well, ban them too! But then what happens if someone gets elected and starts taxing everything we own, and taking our land? It could be someone from either side, Jess. Right or left. Look at Hitler. Look at Castro. We’ve got to stay armed and dangerous, so the bigshots stay within their bounds. Had more people in that theater been armed, there would have been fewer victims. That shape right there. That rifle. That’s our freedom.”
The fact that Jess, like the rest of the country’s lib-tards, didn’t get it, got her pegged by the locals, not as wild or crazy, but as pityingly average. In a family of smalltown wonders, she was regular. Not like Caleb, who could size up anyone with a blink and could command their respect with a quip. Not like Gil, who trimmed, spliced, and stacked everything in his life into a strict and ordered system. Not like Wyatt, who yodeled even as he aimed and sunk bullet after bullet into the bullseye.
Of course, she could chalk her separateness up to the whole gender thing. But even the thought would invoke Blaine’s words:
“The only reason being female can get you down in this world is if you let it.” He gave another hard sniff.
His words could have a straightjacketing claustrophobia to them that fixed you stiller than a pin through the thorax of a dead insect on a corkboard.
But she was still just Jess. Okay at everything. Just okay, in part, Caleb claimed, because she lacked confidence and bothered to question in the first place, her standing in the Machle tribe. She couldn’t just accept the auto-part-smelling den of death their father called a store. Couldn’t just accept her place on the food chain as a canine-sporting predator created to use violence to solve its problems. Couldn’t just accept the fact that bullets were freedom seeds and couldn’t just be happy that they’d been born into a clan that could claim such tools as birthrights.
So ingrained was gun culture to Machle family life that when Jess turned eighteen, her rite of passage wasn’t graduating, which she did with honors, or buying a pack of cigarettes, which she did with reserve. It was the hunt. Her brothers had done it. Now it was her turn.
They geared up and lit out. Ruger had just released the American Predator; Blaine had gifted it to her for her birthday. The thing was made of olive-colored synthetic plastic and looked like a super-sized accessory off an army man toy. And though the guys at Babe’s all chortled about what a lightweight pop gun it was, after miles and miles of hiking through Ponderosa pine in 90-degree heat with the rifle at her chest, it got heavy. Blaine insisted them carry muzzle down for safety purposes. It made her arms burn. Made her want to ditch the gun and hitchhike back to Burley’s burger stand where she’d let a guy buy her a chocolate shake.
On the second day, they found her a buck. They tracked him and set her up at the tree line of his herd’s favorite feeding meadow at the base of a gully. Throughout the day, they fanned out in a wide perimeter, closing him off from other food sources. When he stalked out into the meadow, she could take her shot.
Around sunset, he stepped out from behind a pine tree, upwind at the meadow’s other end. He raised and lowered his head as he chewed; he stopped and started, gingerly moving his feet. With antlers no longer than her hands fully extended, he was a teenager too. From the tip of his pulsing nose to his droopy black tail, he was alive, and from her sideways view of him through her scope, she knew he wanted to stay that way. It wasn’t fair. Cradled in her arms was a finely engineered, mass-produced machine by one of the biggest firearms manufacturers in the country.
As she clicked the safety into the black, the buck lifted his head. His eyes bored into her, heat coming from their dark centers. His nose glistened and flared. With a shake of his head, he gave a snort. Then, just as she was about to click the safety back into dead-red, the buck wheeled around as if possessed, antlers aloft and crashing into the cover of the chaparral.
When she stood up, she saw Blaine standing above her, atop the gulley wall. He stared at her with his grey eyes and gave a sniff.
The next few weeks made her wish she would have capped that buck’s ass. Not because of anything Blaine said. But because of those long looks he kept boring into her. She guessed he was studying her to make sure she was still straight and still his, not a host for Ho Chi Minh’s restless spirit. It was clear to Jessica that she’d passed up her opportunity to prove herself to him and that the rest of her life, if spent in Burley, would involve tiptoeing in Blaine’s sights.
Boise was out of the question. Jess didn’t want to live with her mother and betray her father. She just wanted to get clear of them all and find something of her own where she wouldn’t have to be locked into the false binary of kill or be killed.
So, she looked up a high school girlfriend on Facebook who graduated the year before and was now living in Issaquah—a town somewhere in Western Washington. She punched “Issaquah” into her GPS and left Burley. The blue ox on the marquee of her dad’s gun store shrunk in her rearview mirror until it became a thing of memory.
Compelled by exhaustion and thirst, Jessica plunges into a creek. She tears off her headlamp and throws her face into the stream. Between gasps of sucking at the water’s surface, her eyes gulp in the predawn light glowing off the stream. She drinks until she can no longer taste the back of her throat or hear her heart pumping blood to her head.
She looks up and there is Clay, bankside, drinking from cupped hands, pack unslung, and neatly resting on a tree trunk.
Both are slurping though. No Steri-penning, no Jet-boiling. All know-how-fueled ritual abandoned. Thoughts of likely Giardia contraction are as far as the stars which in her panic-dizzied vision, spin above the jagged teeth of the trees.
She is alive. They are alive. And still together.
She clicks off her headlamp and watches the stream flow down towards the Sol Duc River.
They should be dead.
“What if… Why hasn’t he… He could have…,” she murmurs.
Clay chews a piece of gum that isn’t there, the way he does when he feels cornered. His eyes are small. His gaze, absent.
She plays alternate scenarios of their getaway, all easily ending in their deaths. The night-visioned shooter could have run them down with his pistol, then returned to finish off their fellow campers. If there are multiple shooters, one could have charged off after them, followed their trail, and mowed them down in seconds.
Clay is taking stock of what he rummaged into his pack in the moments before their flight: compass, a water bottle, a bag of food, map, a pair of pants, one of their bowls with lid-cuttingboard combo, and a spork. And of course, his knife.
“Why? Did he…Did they… Did whoever… Did they let us go?” Jess asks.
“Maybe saving us to hunt,” Clay replies.
A single, distant shot bores into the world of soft, squirming targets.
Jess starts off in the direction they’d been going, through the ferns, upstream. In two strides, Clay’s ahead of her, pinning her again into the spiteful tagalong role of a little sister. Having grown up with three brothers, she’s used to this role and wonders if it’s habit that is keeping her with Clay. Not just the habit of the last three years, but the habit of her life, which seems to her like a mucus-lined throat she’s unable to wriggle out of.
As she follows Clay into the purple-dark of the untrodden forest broken only by his strobing headlamp, she doesn’t ask where they’re going. She knows he doesn’t know and that it doesn’t matter, so long as they keep away from the trails. So long as they can keep the sounds of the gunshots as far away and firecracker-like as possible.
If they use the trails, they’ll be exposed because the shooter can use the trails as he likes, as he’s the only one who’s armed. Clay has come to this conclusion about the trails in a silent second—the same way he understood about the zippers and the headlamps. Clay is thinking neater and more cleanly than her brother Gil now. How is it that he can think so adroitly like this now? This guy who can’t even cook himself a meal. Who can’t buy groceries for a week. Who can’t make, let alone stick to a budget.
Gunfire! They fall forward. Their packs fly off and open. A flush of heat fills her face. It’s an AR-15’s demon sprinkler that huffs and pants now. All knees and elbows, they crawl around a tree, their gear scattering everywhere. Then they wait to find out if they’ve positioned their bodies behind or in front of the tree trunk and the gun.
No ricochets sound. The flurries of fire are far away. Yet, she can imagine the hand tapping the new magazine in with a whack before it strafes again.
“Maybe they got him,” she says.
“More likely he got them,” Clay answers.
Right again. Rangers in Washington State can’t carry firearms, let alone rifles.
They rummage in the ferns for their shit and continue on.
Jess drove her Geo Tracker into Issaquah on fumes. The gunshot carom of her father’s indoor range still echoed in her ears despite the miles she’d put between them. Though Issaquah’s name sounded enchanting, the town itself turned out to be an uppity suburb. The only thing special about it was that neither of her parents lived there. But her friend from high school came through—not only giving her a place to sleep, but also getting her a job at REI. It would only be temporary. Jess planned on it lasting no more than a year. Just so she could make some money. Then, she’d go to Bellevue College for nursing, after which she’d get a job at a sleek Seattle research hospital where she’d meet and marry a surgeon.
Three years later, she was still working at REI and telling herself she had to get clear of Clay.
Clayton Kelley Monfort. Name like an outlaw. Look of a dog who’d just bitten someone. When Jess first saw him on her first day at work, she figured he had a record. He was the furriest man she’d ever seen. Scratchy-looking black hair stretched down both the front and the back of his neck, letting only a little of his dun-colored skin come through. She wanted to touch that skin and do something to turn those sad eyes over. Wanted to no matter how often she told herself not to. Looked at him no matter how she tried to focus on learning the layout of the store. She said yes to the ride into the hills in his raised Isuzu pick-up. She laughed when Clay sent the truck’s ridged tires rumbling down an old logging spur on the backside of Cougar Mountain and a wall of mud splattered her window blind. He told her it was why his truck was white. So it could show the mud better. She said yes again when he invited her out to burgers at Triple X Rootbeer Drive-in. Cried yes, yes, yes so loud beneath him on his futon that she had to tell everyone at work she was hoarse because she’d gone to karaoke with friends she didn’t have.
What could she do? She’d grown up outdoors. She’d been tour-guiding rafting trips for tourists on the Snake River before she was sixteen. Her boyfriends had all been fellow guides mostly like her brothers—scruffy, farmer-tanned risk-takers. Only Clay was better. He seemed somehow more familiar than all of them. Regular. Nothing special. Like her. She felt safe and comfortable around him somehow, maybe because she knew he needed her.
Clay didn’t have a record. But his parents did. Throughout his growing up, his mother had been in and out of drug treatment centers, leaving Clay to be raised first by a string of boyfriends, then by foster parents. Though Clay no longer speaks to any of his parental figures, he had visited his father in prison throughout his boyhood, and maybe this nearness to iron bars was what made him have that shady, guilty-conscious look. That and his dark brows. A grandmother he’d never met was Portuguese. Clay never showed his teeth when he smiled, which was almost never. He clammed up around people he didn’t know, especially ones that were friendly and educated like the people Jess wanted to fit in with and occasionally tried to, early on in Issaquah.
While running the gauntlet of classes to qualify for nursing school, she organized after-quarter get-togethers with members of her cohort. Kids who she thought were going somewhere. Kids who seemed rich, smart, and beautiful. But few ever came to her tailgate parties, cookouts, or outdoor movie nights. The more they ignored her, the more intense her desire became to befriend them, and the more she wondered if Clay was to blame for how they had brushed her off.
She wondered if Clay was to blame for her dropping out.
Once, she had re-drawn a textbook diagram of a hand from memory. As she was comparing her version with the original, confirming her near-perfect recall, Clay walked in.
“You going to need to remember all that?” Clay asked. “Just asking because when a guy’s bleeding out and you’ve got nothing but compresses and a few seconds, what use is all that anatomy going to be?”
She’d lit into him. His remarks weren’t helpful. Were they his way of asking for more attention? This saddened and annoyed her. Couldn’t he find something to study? She, for one, wasn’t going to work retail all her life. But he’d slunk off before she could finish.
Things weren’t all bad. Clay’s tastes were simple and easily satisfied. The sex was good—long, slow pressings that pumped her into a frenzy so fierce she thought at times she would firework herself out of existence. “Come on, come on, come on,” he’d say. To himself, maybe. Or to her. As if she was an engine he was trying to turn over. But she’d follow the feeling and after she came, she could come down and settle on his warm, wet pelt of chest hair for as long as she wanted. Which usually was only for a few minutes until she got too hot and sweaty. After she came in from her shower, Clay would be staring at the ceiling, breathing calmly with a blank expression on his face until he’d fall asleep.
At least Clay didn’t talk as much as her dad. And never about guns. Nor did he carry or own. It was only once in a blue moon that he went shooting with buddies from high school. She knew without asking that they shot AR-15s. She worried about Clay getting hurt. It would make it that much harder for her to get out. She didn’t think even the strongest woman could leave an injured guy. Not long after she had this thought, she woke in the night with a realization spiraling down into her through the rifling grooves of her biology. She wanted to quit Clay.
Yet life events kept slamming her out and yanking her back, intertwining her further around him, as if she were a tetherball.
The backpacking trip to Sol Duc had been her idea. A present to him to make nice after a fight. She wonders what he thinks of their current situation and how it’s not such a bad arrangement for him. She didn’t have anything to do now but trudge after him through a wood bewitched by bullets and blood.
A few slow-going hours of bushwhacking later, Jess and Clay crash in a grove of spindly alders. They rest and then start arguing in whispers over the map as the midday sun shines through the sawtooth leaves.
Clay wants to retrace their steps. It’s the one place the shooter likely will not be. Once back at their campsite, they can pick up more supplies—theirs and those of the dead.
But Jess won’t do it. She doesn’t want to see the bodies’ mouths and eyes open like fish out of water. Why not set up a little camp here, she thought, looking around.
“Because,” Clay explains, “We’ve left a trail the shooter can follow.”
Clay says that they need to keep moving, decreasing the chance of intersecting with the shooter’s warpath. Staying put meant surefire death. Clay can’t throw his knife worth shit, and rushing the shooter would only buy her a few seconds. His body won’t do dick against that rifle. Those rifles. However many the shooter has stashed away. There are probably weapons caches hollowed out all over these hills. He’s a planner.
“You don’t just wake up one morning and decide you’re going to go massacre a bunch of backpackers,” Clay says.
He murmurs out his rationales unequivocally as if he’s discussing strategy in a video game. In some ways, this is the certain, confident man Jess has always wanted him to be back in Issaquah, where he hemmed and hawed, hedged, and wavered—his actions betraying his unease.
Hell, even on the way up here, they had gotten breakfast at a diner. Clay had tossed his truck keys onto the countertop between them. When they’d finished eating, Jess made a playful paw for the keys. Clay’s hand clapped down on them so hard it made her, the waitress, and all the other diners jump. With a shaky hand, he stuffed the keys into his pocket and gave her one of his dark, guilty looks. He’d done something like it before. Once she’d snatched for the remote and he’d wrenched it from her hand. He left her wondering what red-mawed animal waited beneath his silences.
But now in the thick of the wilderness, with the gunshots of an unknown maniac still echoing in their ears, Clay seems relatively calm. Irrevocability has settled over him. In his red fleece, he leans against the lichen-blanched trunk of an alder, studying his map and the compass, and watching how the long shadows stretch in the light. He looks good. She tells him so, though that color makes him a perfect target.
He snorts a laugh out of his nose, knowing if he takes off the fleece, hypothermia might kill him before a full-metal jacket can.
When they arrived at their Port Angeles Airbnb—some guy’s basement— Clay realized he’d left his black fleece on the hook of the door of their apartment back in Issaquah. Jessica felt like ribbing him—the way her brothers would have done with her. But she didn’t dare due to the violence that she’d never seen but sensed simmering beneath his skin like a squib load in a gun’s muzzle.
Not wanting to wait in a line around the ranger’s cabin with a bunch of rubes, they’d gotten there the night before. They got their tags and scored a bear can ahead of time so they could secure their food stashes at night. That gave Clay plenty of time to go get himself another top half. While he was gone, Jessica’s thoughts buzzed around the problems of her relationship. She fantasized about slipping out the door of their Airbnb and hitchhiking her way onto a new life with nothing but her backpack and regret. But what would it mean if she left Clay? What would it say about her? She could see her dad staring at her and giving a sniff. It’d mean she was the quitter he thought she was.
The red fleece was the only thing on the clearance rack. When Clay came back wearing it, all Jessica said was she was happy he’d found something. She stroked his arms and found herself saying that she liked him fluffy and red like this. Like her big red dog.
From the alder’s mossy back, Clay lowers himself and sits down next to her. They don’t hear any more shots. It’s getting late. Fewer hikers entering the area means fewer targets to shoot. The shooter is probably saving his ammo, laying low, waiting for the big assault of Army Rangers that is no doubt on the way.
“We could walk south till we reach Mount Bogachiel,” he says. “If all stays quiet, we can turn northeast and go to Sol Duc where the cavalry will be gathering. Marines maybe. Or Seals. Hopefully both.”
She shakes her head. “I’m tired. Don’t want to move. I just want this to be over. So I can sleep.”
“K. Well, I’m staying too. We can die together.”
There it is! The passive aggression he uses to get his way. She sighs and gets up, telling him she’ll go with him to Bogachiel.
“J-Mac,” he says.
“What?” she huffs.
“South is that way.”
J-Mac. Jessica has hated it since the first time he used it. It sounds like a rapper. Or a truck. Something masculine. She doesn’t want to be J-Mac. She wants to be Jessica.
As they slosh through a swale, she tells Clay to not call her that anymore.
“Sure thing. But then you’ve got to stop calling me Clayboy.”
She hasn’t called him that since they’d first started dating.
While maps, nicknames, and basically every other topic is little more than an invitation to argue, the only safe subject turns out to be the shooter’s identity. They agree to assume there’s only one shooter for the sake of their sanity, though they concede there’s no way to know for sure.
“No silencer on his barrel,” Jessica observes. “He wants to be heard. To scare us.”
“Probably why he popped off all those rounds first,” Clay said. “To get us out of our tents. So he could hunt us. He gets off on the thrill.”
“You sure can think like a sicko.”
“Takes one to know one?”
“I wasn’t saying that.”
Little birds flit in the canopy as the light ambers toward dusk.
“He’s got to be a marksman. To drop all those people with a bolt action.”
“You think he’s ex-military?” she asks.
“Or some laid-off logger who does nothing but shoot all day. I bet he thinks he’s getting revenge on all us yuppy hikers for taking his woods.”
Clay proceeds to spin an elaborate tale of how the shooter’s father was a logger-turned marksman, who, on a lone hunting trip, injured himself and bled to death, leaving the shooter to grow up bitter and vengeful.
Before she can complement Clay on his imagination, he marvels at it himself.
“You know, when I was a boy, I was boss at drawing designs. Logos, cars, motorcycles. Parts for them. You name it.”
Then his dad got sent away. He no longer had anyone to show his drawings to. There just didn’t seem to be any point anymore.
The trees give way to the lavender sky of early evening. At the tree line, they catch sight of Mount Bogachiel’s unimpressive collection of rock stacks and the grassy swaths it wears as a tunic. A waning crescent moon hovers overhead.
In the shelter of the trees, Jess and Clay eat a hiker’s supper of trail mix and strips of jerky. They eat in nibbles to make it last. There’s only a quarter bag left.
They agree to sleep, back-to-back in the shadow of Mt. Bogachiel, shooter be damned. Clay has his knife ready. When they wake up—if they wake up— they’ll decide how to proceed. Neither wants to go up to the ridge along High Divide, where they’d be exposed. If the shooter’s still at large, he could pick them off like marmots. It makes sense then to follow the edge of the trees east to Heart Lake Basin where they will be able to listen and see what’s going on. But in the open, they need a plan for where to run if they take any fire. Clay returns to his back-track idea. Jessica wants to keep heading east in retreat to Cat Basin.
“It’s the most remote place in the Seven Lakes,” she argues. “There are caves in the hillsides. We could hole up and wait it out. If it’s a sheer number of people he wants to kill, he’s not going to follow us there.”
“Hunger could get us first,” Clay says, shaking their near-empty bag of food.
They agree to sleep on it.
She has two dreams. One dream is of the hand diagram she had studied. The bones: the phalanges, the carpal. They are tightening into a fist. The other dream she has is of her face, eyes wide and iridescent in the crosshairs of the shooter’s night-vision scope. She wakes up just before he makes her skull explode.
She hears Clay’s regular breathing and what could be an owl. She can get clear now, she thinks. She’s going to do it. Slip away now. Into the darkness. At least she’d be free of him. In just another second, she will do it, she says to herself as she slips back into sleep.
From their vantage point at the edge of a scarp to the south, Heart Lake looks like its name—an upside-down heart shape drawn by a toddler. At the north end, the point of the heart bleeds out in a slow rivulet that becomes the Sol Duc River. The wind chills them and blows the morning fog down with the waters toward the valley.
They creep down, following the fog into the cold, glacier-scooped cauldron of the basin. In their downward creep, their boot heels catch on stones, sending them downward in rainmaker noises. As the fog dissipates, they see the trail descending in steps toward a valley floor pocked with dark lakes, ashy shores, and snowy berms. They keep boulders and trees between them and whatever lies beneath.
Halfway down, Clay stops.
“Now what?” she asks.
The sun comes out and lines the ridge with silver, getting in their eyes, turning the mountainous terrain behind them into a shapeless mass.
After what must have been a half hour, they decide to proceed.
The shot comes like a crack in the earth. Jessica hears a rock behind her split as she slides. She somersaults behind a rotten log. Wood sprays to her left as a bullet tears through. She crawls to a copse of trees that sprawl into forest cover, up the valley’s eastern wall. She looks behind for Clay, but he’s nowhere to be seen.
She thinks the shot came from a glade of firs, over a rock scramble. But she can’t be sure. There’s the sound of scramble somewhere. Clay? Another earth-splitting shot reverberates up and through the world. Then silence.
She runs. When she reaches the trees, curses escape her in jumbled bursts, half-English, half the language of rage.
She wanders. She has nothing with her. The rifle cracks the skies open and punctures flesh. Screams carry through the air and up to her ears like spirits writhing in an inferno. The thunderous rage of the gun fills the world, louder and more persistent than any storm she can remember on the plains of the Snake River. Yet she stops flinching. The blood ceases flashing to her face. She starts feeling the gashes in her skin that the rocks tore open. She gets hungry despite never wanting to eat again.
Where was Clay? she wonders. She remembers that last image of him. His nose pointed to the ground, his sideways look. His inscrutable ex-con face hidden in his black, scratchy pelt.
Helicopter blades hum overhead. Rifle-shot punches through aluminum and a wheeling chaos chops at the air until an atonal crunch of metal sends everything silent.
Through her directionless stagger, gnarled trees crowd her. Tall, dark, uncaring scavengers of the spirit, the trees watch her hopeless sojourn and hear her thoughts, which burble out in back ward fits. Her father’s speeches, Clay’s complaints, his theories about the shooter, her fantasies about killing him with nothing but what she has: her fingernails.
Of course she’s never questioned the shooter’s gender. Neither had Clay. The shooter has to be a man. What woman would do this? Unless surrounded by admirers or doting wives or drinking buddies, men turn toxic. Women bereft of love or success, just die, exacting no revenge, leaving no manifestos or kill counts.
She collapses and dozes off singing “Carolina in My Mind,” a song Blaine sang to her when he would tuck her in. “Gone, I’ll be gone. I’m gone… Say nice things about me. I’m gone,” Blaine would sing. Then he’d sniff one of his prodigious sniffs not, she realizes now, out of indignance, but to keep back the tears of the private pain he hid behind his mustache, his gospel of gun safety, his hunting rifles. All armor he thought could protect him against the disappointingly complicated and cruel world.
She wakes with red columbine dangling overhead. The sun descends, flagging into the enormous black failure of night. And she just lays there, pawing at the star-shaped flowers like a house cat. She shivers her way through the dark hours, bugs crawling over her, a doe passing by.
Her eyes snap open. She stands. Her eyes see the sun glinting off an undulant surface. Drawn by the water, she comes out of the trees to the shores of a lake. She laps at the water, staring at its murky bottom interlaid with the red and wild eyes of her reflection.
On her knees, she pops snowberry puffs into her dry mouth and stomachs the sour Oregon grape that will probably give her a belly ache. She hears a hurried zipper and a buckle jingle. Motion from the ridge catches her eye. What she sees makes her mouth hang open until the berries fall out to stain her shirt.
Just below one of the clefts in the rock on the slope of a switchback, a dark figure is raising a rifle at her. A flash of red and a scramble of rocks and feet skittering down and another figure wrenches the rifleman backward. It happens before he can react. Before she can blink. It’s Clay. Clay has torn out from the cleft in the rock and pulled the shooter backward, sending him reeling down onto the altar the trail has become. One of them shouts. Clay falls upon him with high ground advantage and fury. The sun catches on Clay’s knife sending it shimmering like a tear in reality before he plunges it down into the shooter. As he plunges the blade down, again and again, his other hand and legs are grappling against the shooter’s weak efforts to swing the long barrel in Clay’s direction. It doesn’t matter. The horrible tune of the knife’s wet wrenchings in and out has sent the shooter’s trigger finger limp as a lullaby. The rifle now rests cold and still on the ground.
Clay is catching his breath and shaking, both hands holding the knife hilt-deep into the body. There’s blood on both sides of his face, running into his beard like the dye of a bygone anointing. He’s looking right at her, eyes barrel-round with intent. His red fleece…Her big red dog.
Though she tries to not look at the shooter’s body, she sees how Clay has manhandled the guy’s torso into a killing floor like the one below a botched field dressing of a deer. Shreds of gore curl out from the red-soaked disaster. Instead, she looks at the cleft in the ridge. One of many. Clay hid there in that womb of rock. She smells feces and urine. Clay caught that asshole doing his business and lunged, catching the moment in his hands, releasing in an instant everything he’d ever pushed down, hidden, bottled up. As if he’d been made for just such an action.
Each bone in her aching body becomes a lightning rod frozen with an electric fear. All the designs he used to make… What design could come from him now?
He’s grasping at the rifle. He clutches it fiercely in his arms like a beloved hunting dog mortally wounded in a hail of friendly fire. She hears the chlock chlock as he tears the bolt back and rams it forward. He wedges the butt of the rifle into the meaty home base of his chest. In the same place Blaine taught her. Home…Don’t ever leave it. Clay’s hands tremble at first, then calm until the rifle is an appendage barreling out of him.
“Come on up here,” he says just above a whisper.
She doesn’t move. She can’t imagine putting her arms around him any more than she can imagine ever picking up a gun again.
“Don’t be scared, J-Mac.”
It’s a good vantage point. With a cliff wall behind him, he’s got a 180-degree sweep of the ridge above and valley below. He’s got his eyes through the shooter’s tricked-out scope and is scanning the tree cover. He takes his eyes off sight and looks down at her. “Get up here! There could be another one.”
“Clay,” she says. Her throat is a swamp her voice has to push through. “Put the gun down.”
“There’s another shooter. At least one. Maybe more. We could be in the crosshairs right now!”
“The… the cavalry,” Jessica says, heaving out the words.
“We can wait it out up here. Just like you said.”
“They could be on their way,” she says. But there’s nothing. No scuffing of a heavy-booted battalion. No helicopter reinforcement. No lasers crisscrossing down-valley. Just silence behind, above, and all around them.
“Get up here,” he says sternly. “Come on.”
“Put it down,” she says, even as she feels herself backing away.
“Come…onnnnn,” he says through his teeth.
Branches and ferns fold over her.
“Come on!” His shout echoes through the cave of his throat and reverberates through the caves of the cliff behind him leering at her like a skull. “Come on!”