Sunday, July 20, 2008

Hindsight of a Friend - Nathaniel Tower

When the tip of the sun’s fiery head finally dipped below the peak of the horizon’s tallest mountain, they began to worry. The explosion of radiant color that bounced off the gleaming white mountaintop, spreading throughout the previously blue sky in all directions beyond what any human eye was capable of seeing, offered them little comfort, if they even noticed at all.

Sending James out to check on the fishing lines they had left out in the early afternoon hadn’t seemed like a bad idea two hours ago. The flowing creek bed had only been a ten minute walk away from the campsite. None of them would have thought to bring a flashlight or compass for such a short journey.

“Do you think we should look for him?” Adam asked while tossing the last of the broken sticks onto the pile they had collected for the fire that would cook the fish James had sought out to retrieve.

After a moment’s hesitation, Evan responded confidently, “Nah. It would end up being one of those things where we leave the campsite to go find him and then he shows up and we’re gone and he gets worried and goes and looks for us and we get back right after that and…” He trailed off, feeling confident that Adam had understood the point.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. Besides, we need to get this fire goin’ for when he gets back with the hoards of fish I’m sure we caught.” Adam rolled his eyes as he spoke the last part, not trusting any of their inexperience in the areas of outdoor survival.

“Those lines were set up perfectly,” Evan defended himself.

“And when was the last time you set up fishing traps?”

“Go to hell. It’s not that hard.”

“Yeah, it’s not that hard if you know what you’re doing. I’m not sure why we didn’t just bring more of our own food.”

“Because that would have defeated part of the purpose of this trip.”

Adam, James and Evan were all twenty-two years old, recent college graduates. They had attended high school together in Vermont where they had been best of friends. Inseparable buddies in spite of their many different interests. Adam was a star football player who attended San Diego State University on a football scholarship until he broke his tailbone in the second game he played. He probably could have made a comeback, but the time off from the game was so refreshing that he wanted to stay away for good. He lasted two years at SDSU before transferring to a community college back in his home town where he earned an associate’s degree. James was a standout trumpet player in his high school’s band, but after spending only three weeks on the marching band at University of Massachusetts, he traded the trumpet in for a pair of drum sticks and tried his luck in several rock bands, none of which ever materialized into much at all. With only a little bit of trouble, he graduated from U Mass in four years, a feat that highly pleased his easily pleased parents. Evan was the brain of the group. He graduated as the valedictorian of the high school class, attended Yale, and graduated near the top of the class there. He was the only of the three to accomplish everything he wanted to in college, and he was the only one continuing his education after this trip was over, with plans to attend medical school at Johns Hopkins.

Somehow, this football star, band geek and book nerd had managed to be best of friends for four years in high school. And although they had gone their separate ways and had varying degrees of success post-graduation, they had always managed to keep in touch at least a little. The occasional emails may not have meant much, but they at least kept the bridge between the three spread-out friends from collapsing.

As time passes, everything tends to erode, just like the mountains that hid the sun eventually would. No matter how sturdy the rock, the rain and wind is just too much for even the most powerful of structures to last forever. And so the boys became men, growing apart in the process, each pursuing his own interest, each finding his own failures. Fortunately, the human relationship is stronger than the dirt of the mountain, although it may not be stronger than the dirt itself.

It had been Evan’s idea to go on this trip, a journey out west shared by three friends of the past, desperately seeking to retain what had long ago decayed. Two months backpacking in the mountains of Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota, seeking the remotest locations where just the three friends would find themselves alone with each other and their memories. Here they would catch up and do some of the things they had never done before. They kept their supplies to a minimum, although James had brought a fair supply of marijuana for the three of them to try, each for the first time, at some point on the trip. That marijuana right now sat atop James’s backpack while the former trumpeter traipsed around the tree-lined lower hills of a deserted stretch of the Rocky Mountains.

Adam sprayed the pile of sticks with a generous offering of lighter fluid before flicking a match atop the mound. Although Evan had wanted to “rough it” as much as possible, Adam wasn’t about to rub two sticks together, so he had brought some of his own supplies for convenience, much to Evan’s dismay.

“If you insist on making our food taste like lighter fluid, could you at least just spray the bottom of the pile instead of the whole thing next time?” Evan reprimanded his muscular friend.

Adam, standing there shirtless, finding it more important to show off that he stayed in shape even after football than to ward of the insects, spat back at his brainy friend, “Sorry for being prepared. Good thing we stuck by most of your rules.” The sarcasm was dripping from his voice into the fire, and the flames seemed to feed off it, rising and dancing as Adam spoke. “You know, if we had brought some nice rations of food like I had suggested, then we wouldn’t be in this whole mess right now.”

“What mess are you talking about? Big deal, James is a little lost. He’ll find his way back. The creek was only ten minutes walk from here. Even a rock star is smart enough to figure out how to find his way back from such a short distance.”

“Did you ever think that maybe he didn’t get lost?”

“Well, he either got lost, ran away, or got eaten by wolves. I haven’t heard any wolves and I don’t think he would run away when there is nowhere to go. So I’m guessing he just got lost. He’ll find his way back.”

“Yeah, cuz there’s plenty a people around to just ask directions.”

“I’m starting to wish we hadn’t invited you on this trip.”

“Good idea. Then you would be sitting here by yourself and James would be lost by himself. And I would be back home scoring with some hot chicks.” Adam flexed his pecs as he spoke, an attempt to intimidate the scrawny genius that sat on a large rock several feet away.

“I bet you would be scoring. Just like all those touchdowns you scored in San Diego.” As Evan spoke, he sat firmly planted on the rock even though he knew an attack was impending.

“I will kick your scrawny bitch ass,” Adam roared as he stepped away from the fire toward Evan, tripping on a stray stick in the process. The burly man landed square on his face in a pile of pine leaves, a sight that forced Evan into a fit of laughter.

While Evan and the fire cackled, Adam rose to his feet, brushed off the needles that clung to his sticky skin, and strutted over to his seated friend.

“Stand up, bitch,” he mumbled through gritted teeth.

Evan ceased his laughing, but the fire still popped mockingly at Adam’s far from graceful fall. Although he was fairly certain that Adam would not lay a hand on him, he was wise enough not to push his luck, and so he shouted up to the towering man, “Maybe we should go look for James. It is getting dark.”

Evan’s words silenced Adam’s attack. Adam nodded in agreement, and Evan rose from the rock.

“We should probably leave our gear here,” Adam stated. “I doubt anything will disturb it, and if James does come back before us, then he would be pretty confused it was all gone.”

“Good thinking,” Evan agreed with subtle tones of insincerity.

As the gloaming began to settle around them, the two boys equipped with flashlights began the trek in the same direction James had a few hours before.

“In hindsight, we probably should have had two people go find the fish and one person stay at the camp,” Evan stated wisely.

“Yeah, well you know what they say about hindsight…”

“It’s always twenty-twenty?”

“No, hindsight is for people too stuck in the past to worry about how to succeed in the future,” Adam quoted verbatim from an old football coach.

“Sounds like the profound words of someone too afraid to look at why they failed,” Evan said with a wink and nudge, obviously referencing Adam’s failed football career.

“You know, I could have made the NFL if I hadn’t gotten hurt,” the former football player retorted defensively.

“Yeah, and I could have made the NFL if I had been born with different genes. But, as they say, hindsight is always twenty-twenty.”

“Maybe we should just focus on finding James,” Adam said quickly, wanting to change the subject away from his failure.

The two walked mostly in silence, no longer wanting to catch up. Around them, as the darkness settled in, the wilderness began to speak in progressively louder and higher tones. They continued on silently, not caring to speak to each other or the wilderness.

When they arrived at the creek bed nearly ten minutes after they had left the camp site, they saw the fishing poles resting untouched. They checked the lines and found they were empty. Dinner would not be filling tonight unless they were lucky enough to catch a small animal on the way back to the camp. Of course there was a bigger concern at the moment. Clearly James had never made it to the creek bed, but they had both seen him walk off in this direction.

“Should we go back and see if he made it back?” Adam said, breaking the silence.

Evan responded with simply a shrug that indicated it couldn’t hurt to go back, so the two turned and began retracing their steps. Clicking on their flashlights, two beams of light emerged in front of them, a precaution that was not quite necessary at the moment, but since they knew the darkness would soon envelope the land around them, they didn’t want to take any chances.

Again they walked in silence, shining their lights ahead of them and swatting away flies and mosquitoes with their free hands. Ten minutes later, they returned to the quickly dying fire of their camp. Everything they had left there remained untouched as well, the bursting bag of marijuana included, and they knew James had not found his way back.

“So what’s the plan now?” Evan asked his friend of inferior intellect.

“I’m open to any suggestions,” Adam replied while thoughtfully stroking his chin as if such an action would pull a brilliant thought out of his head.

“I guess we should just stay here and wait,” Evan said before the silence could even settle in.

“I guess that’s the only thing to do.”

“Should we smoke the weed?” Evan asked half joking, his top lip curling up like it did whenever he was half joking.

“I don’t think so,” Adam replied, either not noticing the top lip curling or not remembering what it meant. He did not seem to be in good humor at the moment.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. It’ll just make us hungrier anyway.”

“I guess we better eat some of the food we brought,” Adam said hesitantly, obviously feeling guilty that they could eat at least something while James was undoubtedly starving. “What did we bring?”

“Well, we pretty much just have chips. Do you want Cheetos or Doritos?”

“Are you telling me that on a two month camping trip that all you brought was fucking chips?”

“Seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“Well, the only good idea I can think of at this time is not having ever gone on this stupid trip in the first place,” Adam sneered, obviously forgetting the conversation about hindsight they had discussed before.

Adam’s comment left the boys silent again other than the sound of crunching chips that escaped their chomping mouths. The darkness had completely engulfed the area, the only light available coming from the fire. Although the stars appeared abundantly, they were too far away to offer any light upon the tree-lined slope of the mountain.

After nearly thirty minutes of human silence, a snapping twig behind the seated boys caused them to jump. “Hello?” they both instantly called in unison, both unsure whether they were calling out to James or to some vicious attacking animal.

The only response to their questioning salutation was the chirping of insects and the gentle pop of the nearly vanquished fire. Evan switched on his flashlight, the beam immediately illuminating a small triangular area in the direction of the twig snap. All he could see was trees and darkness. Defeated, he turned off the flashlight and went back to his silent motionlessness.

“Do you think James will ever come back?” Adam asked fearfully, his pitch nearly matching the insects’.

“No, probably not,” Evan responded nonchalantly.

Evan’s tone startled Adam. “What makes you say that?”

“Well, remember how we were talking about hindsight on the way to the creek bed?”

Adam wished he could see Evan as he spoke, but the fire was too dim and his flashlight had rolled out of reach when he kicked it after the twig snapped.

“Well, in hindsight, you guys probably shouldn’t have crossed me back in high school.”

For a moment, Adam stared blankly at where he believed his friend’s face was in the darkness, trying to decipher the words, trying to remember when exactly he had crossed Evan. Finally, it occurred to him that Evan was referring to the time when they were seniors in high school when he and James had told Evan’s first girlfriend that he was gay and had a small dick, which in high school had been reason enough for her to break up with him at the unfortunate and awkward timing just after he had told her he loved her.

Assuming that Evan was just joking around, Adam said through an awkward laugh, “Well, you know hindsight is twenty-twenty.”

“Well, you’re right, and in hindsight, maybe I shouldn’t have killed James while you were out collecting twigs, but I did, and now I guess I have to kill you, too.”

Adam’s first instinct was to run away into the darkness from Evan, chancing that the maniac would be able to find and catch him. Of course he had no idea what weapon Evan would use, but he figured he would be an unprotected quarterback swarmed by speedy linebackers here. He quickly rose from the log where he had been seated and turned to run only to find his path blocked. The surprising force of the stationary body in his pathway sent him again sprawling to the ground, this time landing on that formerly broken tailbone. Instantly, he thought about how it was impossible that Evan could have blocked the way so quickly, but that thought soon subsided as he focused on how he was about to die without ever really fulfilling any of his dreams. Tears began to flow from his eyes, tears he hadn’t cried since he had to give up football.

“I’m sorry Evan, I’m sorry,” the burly man repeated pathetically from the ground.

“Say goodbye, bitch,” the voice above him whispered sinisterly right before the flashlight shone its bright beam directly into his eyes that were already blinded with salty tears.

Adam tried to scurry away from the light, but his body was frozen in fear, rendering him just a dumb deer trapped in the headlights. “Please don’t kill me,” he sobbed.

Suddenly, his sobs were drowned out by evil cackling that seemed to echo all around him, and he tried to open his eyes to take one last look at his friend, but the tears and light left his vision too blurry to decipher the image before him.

“Now this is what I call bonding,” a voice behind Adam said through laughs.

“Yeah, this is the kind of stuff I missed without you guys,” the voice in front of him said.

“Should we help him up now?” the voice behind him, which he now realized belonged to Evan, asked.

“Nah, let the pussy lie there on his butt, just like he did at San Diego State,” the mysterious voice of the returned James said.

BIO: Nathaniel Tower is a writer of fiction and teacher of English. He lives in St. Louis, MO with his wife. He is the editor of an online literary magazine, Bartleby-Snopes.


Joe said...

Excellent story. I was pulled into the woods along with the main characters and felt their isolation and panic. Well-written and superbly executed from beginning to the end. Great twist at the end.

Matthew said...

Nice story. I agree with definitely feel like you're there, and you can really feel Adam's panic.