Fiction by Wilson Koewing
Mike dropped Alison off at the Cypress Ranch Trailhead before dawn. There were no other cars in the parking lot. It was early October, and the peaks of the front range were lightly dusted with snow. She gazed at them, frosty and still in the distance and felt a lightness fall upon her.
“Just had to choose a point to point, didn’t you?” Mike grinned.
Alison shrugged, leaning into the open window. “Pick me up in four hours?”
“If you’re lucky!” Mike said, rolling up the window and speeding off.
At the trailhead, Alison stopped to read a bulletin:
Colorado’s deer season begins October 1st. Hunters are present in this area. Hikers are advised to wear bright clothing and not to stray from the trail.
The sign the bulletin was stapled to was riddled with bullet holes.
Alison noted her drab, black outfit and remembered the bright green shell she’d meant to grab before Mike drove away. She briefly considered calling but knew he would only complain about having to double back.
A half mile in, a dozen white-tail deer grazed feet from the trail. Alison held out a hand to touch one and they moved away uniformly. A mile in, the trail opened to a grassy valley that stretched out to the base of a towering mountain. Frost glistened on the tall grass and the edges of the mountain appeared fuzzy in the scattering dawn light. Thin clouds spread out high, snow wasn’t far behind.
Beyond the valley, the trail entered dense forest. In the past, Alison had only visited Cypress Ranch before the leaves had fallen. In the Spring and Summer, the dense foliage made the trail feel like a warm and closed off chute. Now, the trunks of leafless Aspens blurred together. Their closeness made distinguishing distance nearly impossible, but revealed the vastness of the open forest. In the distance, a hunter holding a rifle by his side stood perfectly still. Alison blinked and he disappeared as if sliding behind a tree. She kept her eyes trained to the spot but saw no movement. She couldn’t be certain she’d seen him at all. She continued to watch, straining against her failing depth perception, but saw only trees. Taken aback, she felt her pocket for the Case knife her dad gave her the last time she visited home. Before 2020 happened.
They stood in the garage where he hid for most of her childhood. He placed a cigar box of knives on the work bench. They were all wrapped in cloth. He unwrapped the Case Knife and held it delicately. It was the first time he seemed old to her. The strong hands that led to the strong arms that hugged her as a child were melanoma covered and lightly shaking.
“I know you aren’t interested in knives,” he said.
“That’s not true.”
“My father gave me this when I was your age,” he said. “I imagined giving it to my son…”
He tried to keep a straight face but broke under Alison’s glare.
“C’mon, kid,” he said. “Let’s have a whiskey.”
“It’s ten in the morning.”
“Is it?” he said. “Well, I won’t tell if you don’t.”
The sun was high enough to warm the trail and for a while Alison reached that perfect pace when hiking where everything becomes pure concentration. When the clearest and most profound thoughts wander lazily across the mind. Two miles onto the trail, she was startled by an approaching hiker moving fast. She stood to the side holding her breath as he passed. She’d grown so accustomed to the silence, she found herself uncomfortable, even more, the resemblance he bore to Jacob was uncanny. Jacob, the traveling RN from San Diego who showed up at St. Luke’s a month earlier on a four-month contract. Jacob was a surfer. Tanned. In possession of that affable SoCal demeanor, like he’d never lived through winter. He arrived each shift comically overdressed for the Denver weather.
It wasn’t lost on her that much of Jacob’s appeal was California. Growing up in South Carolina she dreamt of visiting California, but Colorado was the farthest west she’d made it. Mike had spent beach bum summers in L.A. and the Bay and trashed a return visit.
“What do you need to go to California for?” he’d say. “Plenty of Californians right here. They’re taking over Colorado. The last thing I want is to be around more Californians.”
Mike, who proposed at their favorite brewery. He thought that was a romantic gesture. His pride at that left Alison scratching her head in astonishment, as if he’d been brought up to believe the man should propose where he felt most comfortable. To his credit it was high in the mountains, near the tiny town of Marble. Remote. Views of the Maroon Bells. A place you only knew about if you knew about it.
There’d been a band playing, a family band. Two parents, traveling musicians and their son who played the drums. The son, who couldn’t have been more than twelve, seemed distant. She thought way more than she should about his life. Traveling around with two hippy bluegrass playing parents, not afforded the luxury of deciding to do anything else with his time.
Those were, tragically, the thoughts she had when Mike kneeled. Before she realized what was happening, the music stopped, and everyone was waiting.
She said yes.
Four miles in, the clouds fell blanket soft above the tree line. Alison wandered off trail to explore the remnants of a cabin where a family once lived. She’d read the information marker at the trailhead before but couldn’t remember their story. Only a fireplace and two walls remained. She imagined living up there so long ago. The frigid winters. The isolation.
A swirling wind rustled branches and created different cadences against dying leaves. She fell to a knee, hearing ventilated patients in the breeze. Some nights she’d startle awake, unable to breathe after witnessing them panic through her dreams. She sat with her back against the fireplace.
What Mike would never know. Never know. Was that she also said yes to Jacob in a room with a comatose Covid patient three weeks after Jacob arrived. The elderly man was ventilated and unresponsive. Jacob pulled the curtain back, she sat on the hospital bed. Her moans drowned out by the rhythmic sound of the ventilator.
She had every desire to do it again but told him she couldn’t in a broom closet.
Luckily Jacob was traveling, and he’d gone on to Missoula. Possibly Chicago after that. She couldn’t recall, but she lingered around the edges of his social media feeds, peering into his life. Thinking about how she willed the encounter with Jacob into being through so many tiny, delicate brushstrokes that by the time it came to be, it was almost as if she left herself and watched it from a height like an art installment she constructed.
As her breathing calmed, she noticed a foot path into the woods, and tracks that seemed fresh. After a hundred yards, the path fell steeply to a stream. She wandered along the bank. She was ready to turn back when a blue tent across the stream caught her eye. A rifle shot crackled in the distance. She ducked and hurried over to the tent. The campsite was deserted. A fire burnt untended.
The door flap to the tent was closed. A stiff breeze blew, shaking the tent and startling Alison as she reached for the zipper. She fell backwards and let out a muffled scream. She sat for a moment listening and thought she heard footsteps in the distance. Nothing stirred inside the tent, so again she reached for the zipper.
Inside the tent, a sleeping bag and pillow were left behind. In the corner, with a key protruding from it, was an old wooden lock box. Alison opened it. The lockbox contained a formidable arsenal of bullets and a large hunting knife with blood dried on the blade.
Alison climbed out of the tent and zipped the door flap. She toed the fire’s ashes and scanned the woods. A feeling of being watched overcame her and she hurried back to the trail.
Five miles in, snow started to fall.
Once, when she was very young, a neighbor boy asked her to pull up her dress. She made him show her first. He obliged and she felt a power watching, saying nothing until her mother called out from the house, and the neighbor boy ran off. Their large yard fell away to an abandoned lot. Alison crept toward it, feeling her mother’s stare. As she neared the property’s edge, her mother yelled again.
Both parents gazed down as she sat, feet dangling under the kitchen table. She refused to answer when they asked what she was doing and was sent to her room without supper. She sat quietly on the carpet staring at the painting of the sad clown on the wall that she’d always hated.
Later that night, she heard a soft knock. A plate of food rested on the floor. Her father whistled, walking away down the hallway toward the living room where the faint light from the TV bloomed. Her mother asked what he was doing, but Alison couldn’t make out his response.
Snow dropped steady on the trail. The air wasn’t cold enough for it to stick, but it would soon start accumulating. Alison considered texting Jacob something like: If I had it to do over, I would have finished what we started. On a hiking trail in the middle of nowhere. It would be snowing. But she didn’t have service and knew the playing wouldn’t be worth the picking up. Plus, she couldn’t deny loving Mike. He was smart and genuinely disinterested. She approached him. What she loved and hated was how he could be present, but never truly was. He cared only for himself. A survivor. But he’d survived nothing. Perhaps that was why. Maybe he was too stupid to be afraid, but subconsciously everything he did rooted out from terror.
Alison wondered where Jacob had actually landed. She envied the traveling nurses who came and went. She’d been offered the option, but Mike was against it even though he worked in kitchens. She’d even been asked to go to London by a resident medical student she’d met, Lindy, who’d come to the states to get a firsthand look at gunshot wounds, a common thing for people from other countries to do. At the end of the trail was a lone bench. It was another half mile to the parking lot where Mike waited. Beyond the bench, a breathtaking view of the snowcapped Rockies spread west with no end in sight. The vision field simply crumbled into the horizon. This always made Alison wonder what exactly she was inside of.
She checked her phone.
Mike: Running about thirty minutes behind. I’ll be there as soon as I can.
She sat on the bench. Mike was nothing if not dependably undependable. Snowflakes fell, thick and fluffy. Staring out at the vast expanse, Alison’s thoughts turned to her mother. Tears started to burn her eyes. Alison was fourteen when the stage four diagnosis lit their house on fire, and her mother decided to stay inside and forego treatment while Alison and her father begged her to run. She texted Mike.
Alison: Awesome. I’ll be here!
Another gunshot sizzled the air. Much closer than before.
Alison crept toward the shot. She knew a normal person wouldn’t approach gunshots, but she always needed to see how close to the fire she could get before her skin started to burn. The deeper into the woods she moved, the more the surroundings blurred until she’d lost all sense of direction. She searched for a break in the canopy that might indicate a stream or the trail. The snow fell harder, but the wind calmed. She felt a prickle on her neck. Like her mother watching. A bullet sliced by close enough to feel it. She picked a direction and ran. Bark exploded as she passed.
She backed up against a tree, pulled out the Case knife and let loose the blade.
“You’re shooting at a hiker,” she screamed, peering out.
She saw the hunter smile and aim in her direction again.
In the quiet, she could hear the snow land. Another bullet struck bark. She saw the hunter stalking down and ran again.
Her feet grew heavy in the gathering snow. As she ran, her mother again entered her thoughts.
“I don’t want to lose my hair,” her mother had said, choosing to keep her looks and lose everything else.
“I don’t want to lose you,” Alison replied, unable to understand her willingness to give up, to not even try.
Alison zigzagged, glancing up, hoping she wouldn’t run into a tree. An opening in the canopy was visible and she scurried in that direction. The trail and the remains of the old cabin appeared ahead. She ran for it and crouched against the fireplace.
Footsteps crunched against the snow. She crawled over and peeked around the wall. A hiker wandered leisurely up the trail. A woman around the same age as her.
“Hey!” Alison tried to project her voice without being too loud.
The hiker didn’t notice.
“Hey!!” Alison said louder.
The hiker stepped back confused. A bullet struck and feathers floated from the hole in her puffy jacket. Alison tried to scream but could produce no sound. The crunch of boots in snow grew closer. When the hunter couldn’t have been more than a few yards from the trail she sprang out feigning an escape into the woods.
She glanced back. He readied the rifle. Instead of running into the woods she turned and ran straight for him. The ploy worked. Surprised, he backpedaled and tripped, firing into the air. She leapt and held down his arms with her legs. The knife entered his neck and blood gushed onto the fresh snow when she pulled it out. She stood over him as he gasped for air.
Snowflakes landed softly, sizzling on the still hot barrel.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Alison’s father insisted on staying with her and Mike. He slept in a recliner, so their lack of space proved little hindrance. A month later, when the hero talk had fizzled and the media had dissected the motivations of a madman, finding that in this case the loss of a few acres of family land was all it took to make him snap—Alison found herself at the same brewery where Mike proposed. A different band played. It occurred to her, as her glass emptied, that perhaps she would never be where she was supposed to. Mike and her father spoke absently about the wedding, but she wasn’t listening. Her father’s gaze drifted to her, and a knowing look crossed his face, but he said nothing. Alison’s thoughts were elsewhere. She gazed past her glass until it blurred, to a glimpse of forest edge and realized she pined for a break in the calm. For a light breeze to tickle her neck. For the trees to part, revealing a rifle barrel leading a hunter, stepping out into the clearing, and heading straight for them.