She knew she was going to die. The feeling persisted, like something pushing out from inside her until it took on a kind of force. The climb had been a mad, nerve-wracking scramble, up from the campground over moss-covered rock and low-lying brush to the top of the escarpment. She’d fought panic all the way. It was only on reaching the top that she paused for breath, her sides heaving.
The drizzle had finally stopped. On any other day, this would have been a dazzling view. The town of Lion’s Head lay in the distance across the bay. A ghostly finger of light slipped through the clouds and slid over the water. Far below, seagulls wheeled over treetops and the broken boulders lying scattered along the shoreline like pieces of an unfinished puzzle. If she fell, she’d be smashed to bits.
The breeze gusted the word away. She checked her cellphone. No signal yet. The logging road was still another twenty minutes up ahead. They should have stayed together.
The promontory gave way to bare rock. A white blaze on a twisted cedar showed where the trail picked up again before disappearing in the woods on the far side. She followed where it led down. Stray branches whipped her cheeks, stones cut her fingers as she grabbed them, passing from handhold to handhold to steady herself, all the while fighting panic.
A sharp turn near the bottom confused her. The blazes seemed to switch back on themselves. Had she come the wrong way? Here the rocks were treacherous, greasy with moss and damp. She was nearly at the bottom when her foot gave way. Instinctively, she reached out and caught a branch. It held for a heart-stopping moment then slid through her grasp as she fought to right herself.
Her back slammed hard, knocking the wind out of her. For a second she lay there, too stunned to move. She tried to cry out, but her lungs refused to draw breath. An ache clutched her chest. Where it had first been cold and numbing, now it was an excruciating burn, a hot knife jabbed between her muscles. Panic overwhelmed her as she gasped for the breath that failed to come. She struggled to rise, but an invisible hand held her firmly down.
Forest stretched in all directions, a dim twilight world. By nightfall the blazes would vanish entirely then the fear would set in for real. She had to get to the car.
She pictured the blue-and-yellow child’s tent, a tiny bubble set beside the larger khaki-coloured one. Jeremy’s favourite bear — a one-eyed, fur-shedding monstrosity that he clung to through thick and thin — had lain just inside the entrance when they woke. She’d cried to see it.
Her voice sounded barely above a whisper. A gnarled root protruded from the dirt. She wrapped her fingers around it, gripping until her knuckles turned pink-white. As a child she’d visited a farm and watched a chick break out of an egg, first one small feathered wing then the other, everything in the world focused on that struggle. Just so, she raised herself now, gripping and pulling, the ache so intense she thought she might black out.
Then, somehow, she was sitting upright. A small miracle. For the moment, it was all she could do. Slowly releasing her grip, she slid to the bottom of the incline and squatted, trying to get her lungs to breathe. Just breathe. Ten minutes went by. At last, when the pain had retreated a little, she fought to get to her feet then headed haltingly for the parking lot.
Five minutes in she had to stop again. The effort was making her light-headed. She leaned against a smooth-skinned tree and lowered herself to the ground, legs stretched out in front. Her chest pounded. She was having a heart attack. She was going to die up here alone. They would find her like this, broken, wretched. Somehow the thought calmed her. It wouldn’t be the worst way to go. The head had always been a sanctuary, a place of peace and respite.
But, no — there was Jeremy to think of. Where the hell was Ashley? Anger shot through her. Get it together, you stupid bitch! If nothing else, she would simply lie here, fighting mosquitoes and black flies till Ashley rallied help. Unless there were marauding bears. Then she wouldn’t stand a chance. The best she could hope for was that they would smell her pain and give her a wide berth. Wolves might not be so cautious. They’d heard them howling the past two nights, coming closer and circling the tents, hating the fire and the smell of people.
She struggled to stand then —
When she came to, her nostrils caught an acrid scent. Wood smoke. It took her a moment to remember where she was. She’d fallen and blacked out. The ache was far worse now, every breath a knife thrust. Gently, she pulled on her collar and looked down. A purple stain spread across her chest under her left breast. A fresh wave of panic backed up in her throat, making her retch. She’d broken a rib … punctured a lung … that was why she couldn’t breathe. The premonition had been real. She was going to die.
A dragonfly buzzed overhead. Its wings shimmered, green and purple iridescence, as sunlight broke through the leaves, lifting the gloom. She sniffed at the air. Unless the woods were on fire, in which case she was clearly doomed, then someone had to be nearby.
She pushed against the tree until she stood upright, her head woozy. The pain wasn’t getting any better. She needed to hurry. The smoke came from up ahead. She simply followed it. Within minutes she reached a wire fence and limped alongside it for a while, but the bush grew thicker again.
She retreated and headed back until she discovered the open field. She pushed down on the wire and hauled herself over one leg at a time, collapsing in a heap on the other side. She fought to stand again then staggered toward the smell.
The farmhouse looked like something out of a fairy tale. Smoke issued from a chimney. The day was warm, so it wasn’t for heat. Someone was cooking. She dragged herself forward, bent over, gasping with each step. An old, grey wagon wheel had been planted in a bed of yellow nasturtiums. A wide porch seemed to invite visitors, despite the secluded surroundings.
“Help!” she cried, her voice faint.
She headed for the house, one arm clutching her chest, the other striving to keep her balance as she stumbled along. Somewhere a dog yelped.
“Please! Is anybody there?”
A door opened. A grizzled man in jeans and red-checkered shirt peered out. He had a long, white beard like a biblical prophet. His expression was stern, as though he disapproved of her. Whether that was because she was trespassing or for the sorry state she was in, she couldn’t tell.
“I’m lost,” she called out, as though it might not be apparent.
She couldn’t make out his reply. He flapped his hands in the direction of the fence, as though telling her to leave. Like hell am I leaving, she thought. Not that she could have even if she’d wanted to.
Sweat fell from her brow and clouded her eyesight. Something rustled in the bushes off to the right. The man disappeared back inside the house. A moment later he returned bearing what looked like a tea towel, waving it furiously. He came toward her with a jarring motion, as though he had to make an effort to swing his hips to get his legs to work, first right then left, like rusty hinges long out of use. He was ominous, a figure in a dream. She opened her mouth to cry out, to say she needed help, but the words wouldn’t come. Sparkles formed at the edge of her vision, waves of tiny lights followed by black clouds. As she fell forward, she wondered if she was about to find herself in far more trouble than she was already in.
Learn more about Jeffrey Round
A former television producer and fashion model, Jeffrey Round is the author of 15 published books, including the Lambda-winning Dan Sharp mystery series. He is also an award-winning filmmaker, poet and musician. His first two books were listed on AfterElton’s 50 Best Gay Books. He lives in Toronto.