BY DENISE BOYD
Copyright is held by the author.
“CAN’T WE just stay like this?” I ask rolling over in bed.
“Like what?” Philip walks into our bedroom and picks up his watch from the black lacquer dresser. He is dressed for work, heading to his office in a towering building on Bay Street — set to handle other people’s money for the day.
“Here in this apartment. Just the two of us.”
“You know that’s not the plan.” He kisses my forehead.
Wrapping myself in a blanket, I roll out of our low bed and follow him. “I know, but I just got promoted.”
“HR Generalist?” He looks at me amused.
“Don’t be condescending. You know I worked hard for it.”
“You won’t need to work any longer.” He winks at me and adds “Mrs. Robertson.”
“I like my job.”
“You’ll like being my wife too. You are going to the gym today, right?” He wraps his arms around me from behind and kisses my neck. Looking at his watch he pushes away. “I need to go. I won’t be home until late tonight.”
“Again? That’s the third time this week.”
Irritation flashes in his blue eyes as he places his hands on my shoulders. “Rachel, please don’t start.” He releases me, grabbing his phone and keys from our granite countertop.
“Fine,” I say flopping onto the plush couch, staring out at the city through the floor-to-ceiling windows as the door closes.
“You should be thrilled. Why aren’t you thrilled?” My mother has me enclosed in her bony embrace. “George, would you look at this.” Grabbing my hand, she thrusts it toward my father. The two-karat diamond flashes.
He glances up from his crossword, grey hair falling across his forehead. “Humph,” he says — his response to pretty much everything.
“Never mind him.” My mother turns to me, her brown eyes piercing. “When do we meet them?”
My heart stops — the Robertsons and my parents together in the same place. I feel faint. “Sweetie.” My mother is staring at me. “This is exciting. A new life for you, what I’ve always wanted for you.”
His parents call to congratulate us. “Darling,” his mother’s low voice says. “You’re on your way to being one of us now. Of course there will be some paper work for you to sign next weekend. Then we’ll plan the wedding together. I’m so glad you’re understanding. I know how the Robertson men like to have their fun.”
Responding with the appropriate “Yes” or “Thank you” it occurs to me how out of control I feel. I’m not sure I want to stop being Rachel Saunders.
Philip seems relieved when I tell him I’m going to my parent’s for the weekend. “Great. Take your time. Have fun.”
His enthusiasm wanes when I call Sunday afternoon to let him know I’m staying until Tuesday. Hiding in the pantry of the modest ‘60s bungalow I grew up in, I tell him on my cell: “I just want to stay here a little longer.”
“In the boonies?”
“It’s Northern Ontario and it’s beautiful.”
“It’s remote and full of yahoos.”
“I grew up here.”
“And I’ve been working on you.”
“Not funny. I’m going to go for a hike. This is all just—”
“This is all just what?”
“It’s a lot.”
I take a deep breath. “Yes. The proposal, the marriage. I need to think.”
“Seriously. What’s there to think about? This has always been our plan. I need a strong wife, you understand that.”
“Philip, that’s what I’m talking about.” The worn laminate squeaks outside the door. My mother is listening. I lower my voice. “Look, I just want to think about my job and how my new life is going to look.”
He is silent. “Please, Philip. Tell me it’s OK.”
He breathes. “Yes, its fine.” I hear the apartment buzzer through the phone.
“Is someone coming over?”
“It’s no one.” The buzzer sounds again. His shoes click across the hardwood floor. “Look, I’d better sign off. See you when you’re back.”
“I love you,” I say to dead air.
Far removed from the upheaval of my life, I stand in silence and clear air. Only the scurrying of red squirrels running through fallen leaves fill this space. An empty parking lot at the trail head had guaranteed my isolation at this peak. The exertion of the hike to the summit fatigued my legs, sweat trickles down my back.
Looking for a spot to rest, I set my pack next to a stunted pine and lay my jacket on the ground. Settling in on the sun-warmed white quartz, I gaze over the steep drop. Below jagged rocks separate the choppy surface of Georgian Bay. Since discovering this trail during high school, I’ve returned here often to think. Instantly I feel at ease. Maybe some time sitting here will help loosen the knot in my stomach.
The role of a Robertson wife as hostess and mother to the family heirs was mentioned the first time I had dinner with his family. “He could have picked anyone,” his mother told me. “For some reason he settled on you — he’s always had a thing for strays.”
Philip chalked her words up to too much sherry. I believed him, convincing myself we would be different from his parents. I liked living in our new condo with its modern finishes. Most days I liked us. Leaving Philip now would be starting over. Having just enough money to scrape by. My childhood repeated. Am I brave enough to leave?
My thoughts are interrupted by the sound of a boot scuffing on the rocks, a stranger standing next to me. I hadn’t heard him approach and am irritated at the intrusion. His dreadlocks obscure half his face. What I can see is covered in sparse patches of facial hair and a grin. Startled, I sit up.
“Mind if I join you?” He asks not waiting for a reply before plunking himself down. The smell of patchouli wafts from his worn clothes.
“I’m really not up for talking right now.”
“Oh.” His face is dejected. “I’ll move on.”
“Thanks,” I say.
“I get it. Just wanted to chat.” He returns to a large traveller-style backpack 10 feet from where I’m sitting.
He must have started his trek after me, I hadn’t noticed him when I arrived here. I settle myself back into my jacket and he sits next to his beaten up backpack in a cross legged position, closes his eyes and begins a series of om’s.
Irritated I ask, “Do you mind?”
“Just trying to get my inner Zen,” he says, standing again. “Maybe you’d like to join me.”
“I’m good, thanks.” I stand, picking up my jacket. Thinking will be impossible now.
“But you just got here.”
So he was up here when I arrived. “And I’m leaving.”
“And you are?”
My mother’s insistence on politeness kicks in. Before I can think not to I respond “Rachel” pops out of my mouth and I groan inwardly.
“Rachel, why did you come here?”
“I just needed to think.
“Me too! That’s why I love this place,” he says as if we have reached an epiphany together. “What are you thinking about?”
Indulging him, I say, “My life’s direction.”
His eyes grow big. “Cool.” After a pause he asks: “Do you want to know why I’m here?
“Sure,” I say, patience eroding as I gather my stuff heading to the trail.
“I came here to die.”
Jesus, I think to myself. “Oh.”
“You interrupted me.”
“That’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
“Yeah. Whatever.” Placing his hand over his mouth, he disappears into thought and steps toward to me.
“Look, I’m heading down,” I say. “I’ll call someone to help you.”
“I’m good here.”
“Seriously, no cell service up here.” I continue to walk toward the trail.
His voice is small. “Don’t leave me.”
“It’s just you remind me of her — my mother.”
“Yes, but she’s dead. Cancer. Only two weeks ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” A wave of sympathy washes over me. I soften. “Look, why don’t we find someone for you to talk to. Family, friends?”
“There is no one. My father left when I was three and I have no family.”
“Look, I need to go.” A voice whispers inside my head — leave.
“Please.” His eyes desperate.
My empathy takes over. Ignoring the voice, I say: “I’ll stay for five minutes.”
The sun darts behind a cloud and the temperature drops. I pull my scarf from my bag and wrap it around me. Carl sits on a large rock. “She just wanted me to be happy. Although her definition of happy was a steady job, house and wife. I didn’t want that. I wanted to explore and be free.”
He tells me how he travelled around the world first working on the sailboat of a lawyer helping him sail from Labrador to the Caribbean. Carl worked 12-hour shifts with three others in exchange for accommodations. He worked as a farm hand in New Zealand — again being paid room and board in exchange for labour. Through working relationships, he lived in various parts of the world. When he wasn’t working, he managed to see and experience different cultures.
He had mailed letters and postcards to his mother regularly but because he had no fixed address it was difficult for anyone to contact him. By the time he received notice of his mother’s declining health, she had already passed away. He missed her funeral, he tells me, wiping his eyes with his shirt sleeve. I can see the remorse and feel the grief in his words. “I let her down and I wasn’t there.”
“She knew you loved her.” I’m trying to be reassuring knowing nothing of loss. My parents are alive and my biggest problem is deciding if I’m going marry a millionaire. “You can’t blame yourself.”
“What?” he asks
“Cancer is an awful disease.”
“Oh right . . . cancer.”
I pick up my pack. “I’m heading down.”
He gazes into the distance and disappears far from where he sits. “Her name was Theresa and she smelled like vanilla.”
I continue toward the trail.
“Wait! Maybe I’ll come with you on the way down. I just don’t feel like being alone,” he says.
Walking behind me, Carl carries his backpack, its contents occasionally banging against each other echoing with a metallic ting. He must be carrying those metal camping pots, I think as we begin our descent.
He talks incessantly telling me about his mother singing to the radio and dancing with him as a child. “Sounds like you had a wonderful mother and a happy childhood,” I say.
We make our way through exposed pink and grey granite to dirt packed trails of the deciduous forest, trees barren waiting for the approaching winter.
He continues to speak in spite of my silence. His vulnerability is magnetic, luring me into conversation. “Her happiness vanished when they showed up.” I can’t see his face as we speak, but pain echoes in his words.
“Who showed up?” I press on through switchbacks, the narrow path weaving upward then eventually down again.
“I called them monsters. But there was only one, Josh.”
“Josh was Jim’s son.”
“And Jim is?”
He tells me about a man his mother began dating when he turned eight. She fell in love and at first Carl wasn’t the slightest bit jealous because his mother was still his mother and she was happy. Jim took care of her, fixed her car and bought her flowers. But then Jim moved in to their apartment with only two bedrooms. Along with Jim he brought a guitar and his son Josh, who was two years older than Carl. His mom and Jim bought bunk beds and Carl had a roommate.
“Josh was horrible.”
“Kids can be mean.”
“He would pinch me when they weren’t looking. That’s how it started. Pinching. Then punching, leaving bruises where no one would see.”
I look over my shoulder at Carl. He is staring straight at me, his face hard. “I’m sorry that happened,” I say.
“Josh had something wrong with him, you know — and Jim was a trucker. He left Josh with me and my mom.”
Carl continues telling me how Josh moved on to tormenting his mother physically whenever Jim wasn’t around. He started by putting tacks in her shoes. Eventually she learned to check her shoes after a few painful starts to the day. His harassment grew into threats and holes punched in walls. Eventually she kicked him out but not until after a big fight with Jim over it.
The wind moves through the trees, stirring the leaves into mini tornados. The smell of earthy decay stirs. Turning to check on Carl, he mentions his mother’s pain from the tacks again. This time I hear a lift in his voice.
I step on a loose rock and skid a few feet down the dirt path. Carl grabs me, pulling me upright. I shake free from his grip. “You really do remind me of her,” he says, leaning close again, inhaling, “and you smell like her.”
He grabs my ponytail, holding it to his nose. “Like cookies on a rainy day.”
My throat tightens as I pull away. “Its getting late. I need to move a little faster than the speed you’re hiking.”
“Hey, I saved you from falling.”
Pretending not to hear, I pick up the pace.
“Wait,” He says.
“You’re fine.” I need cell reception and to be away from Carl.
Stupid Rachel, always so trusting, I chide myself. Just like with Philip. My quick pace is making my footsteps clumsy. Slipping on rocks and bracing myself by grasping trees, I hear Carl closing in behind me. The contents of his pack creating a thump, thump as he approaches. “Hey, you are really moving. Why so quick?” He tugs my sleeve.
Pulling my arm back, I say, “It’s getting late and I have a long drive.”
“Wouldn’t want to keep that fiancé waiting. Wonder what he’d think if he knew you were up here with me?” he says.
“How did you know …?”
“That rock on your finger. So what would he say, if he knew about me?”
“He’d trust me.”
“Sure you all say that — assuming our trust.”
The sound of crunching leaves fills the space accompanied by my heavy breathing.
“You know, I’ve learned what hurts you once can turn out to be something magnificent.”
“Can we just hike?”
Ignoring me, he says: “My mother, she was my first. They say you never forget your first. I certainly didn’t.”
My scalp prickles.
“Well, she wasn’t my first, first, but my first female. Technically, Josh was the first. I have to say I like the fairer sex. Your screams have a different pitch.”
I start to run, quick little steps.
“Ohhhh,” comes his voice from behind me. “you are like her.” Carl matches my faster pace. “My mother showed me that I have a special gift. One that I was ready to walk away from . . . until I saw you.”
I begin to sprint.
“Run, run as fast as you can.” He laughs.
Tripping on a root I stumble. Gathering myself, I regain my stride, but Carl is closer. We’re both running down down a leaf-covered hill. Tree roots and rocks, all hazards waiting to trip us both up. “Come on,” he says, “Isn’t this fun?”
A hidden rock takes my feet from under me. I fall to my knees. Skidding to a stop I feel my skin scrape against the ground as my pants tear. Carl stops beside me. Gasping for breath, I shriek: “What is wrong with you!”
He smiles, twisting his neck from side to side as though he is trying to crack it. “It’s good to be back. I thought they were on to me, but the reward is so worth it.”
Looking up at him, I stand slowly. He reaches his hand to help. I ignore it.
“I got you with my mom didn’t I?” He’s grinning. “When you thought I was a suicidal orphan. That got you right here.” He taps the centre of his chest.
My feet freeze.
“After my mother there was Jessica, Beth, Nancy, so many, everywhere I travelled.” Blood pounds in my ears, my mouth is dry. “I was going to end it. I have my tools and reminders here.” He gestures to his backpack. “And then you appeared — like a gift. A sign that my work isn’t finished.”
RUN! The voice in my head screams. The instant I turn he grabs my hair yanking my head back. My feet leave the ground and I land hard on the earth. Struggling to get up, I kick and punch, screaming. Laughing Carl releases my hair, spinning me to face him he pins both my arms to my sides. “This is going to be fun.”
He is so strong, squeezing so tightly I can’t breathe. I stop struggling and look around. We’re at a lookout point partway down the trail. Hikers often stop here for lunch or a rest — a view of the lake and a sheer drop on the left, the trail veering on the right. “Look, people know I’m here. If I’m not home soon or call they’ll be looking.”
“People love you. How nice.” Face to face, I see his front tooth is chipped. The smell of his body odour mixed in with the patchouli scent floods me. “But we’re going to have a party.”
He releases my arms, sliding his hands to my face. “Doesn’t that sound fun?” My heart hammers inside my chest.
Calloused palms force my head to nod. “Yes, Carl.”
Stepping back, he lets go of my face and smiles. “That’s a good girl.”
Closing his eyes, he inhales deeply “This is my favourite part — the anticipation.”
Sensing opportunity, I shove him as hard as I can. He is caught off guard. Falling backward, his mouth opens — frozen in surprise. The weight of his pack pulls him down. Not looking back, I run. One turn, two turns, three. Stumbling over rocks, get to the car. I have my pack, my phone. Transport trucks are audible on the highway.
“Rachel!” I hear him call.
I can see my car. Reaching for my bag I pull out my keys. Time moves in slow motion. Adrenaline coursing thought my veins, I open the door, climb in and click the lock. Hands shaking it takes three tries to get my key in the ignition. Then bang! I scream. Carl is pressed against my passenger window. His hands smear mud mixed with blood across the glass. A gash splits his forehead, blood freely pouring down his face. “Wait!” his yell muffled through the glass.
Turning the key, the engine catches. I throw the car into gear and stomp on the gas peddle. Gravel sprays behind me. I watch him fall as my car pulls away. Not looking for traffic, I pull onto the highway. An air horn from a transport blasts. Looking in my rear view mirror I see the grill of a tractor trailer behind me. Accelerating, I watch it disappear. Three more blasts sound in the distance followed by screeching tires.
My breath coming out in short gasps, I hit the emergency button on my phone. “911 — police, fire or ambulance.”
Darkness has set in when I leave the police station. An officer has offered numerous rides or to call someone but I just want to be alone. I’m armed with trauma brochures and the promise of follow up phone calls.
Exhaustion fills me as I sink into the driver seat. I hit autodial on my cell, Philip answers, sounding irritated. Without waiting for me to say hello, he says, “I’m in a meeting. Can’t talk. I’ll see you in the morning.” Click.
Waking to sunlight streaming across my bed and the morning news on the TV from the kitchen, I slowly stretch. Philip walks out of the shower, still damp, towel around his waist. Leaning over to kiss my forehead he says, “Did you do enough thinking yesterday?”
Standing gingerly and grabbing my robe, I say, “I think so. I didn’t hear you come in.” I pad barefoot to the kitchen.
“You were out like a light. Must have been all of that fresh air.” Philip’s voice drifts from the bedroom.
Pouring myself a cup of coffee, I am distracted by the TV. A female reporter is standing on a North Ontario highway. “An accident yesterday involving a young man and a transport truck. A police investigation is underway.”
“Rachel.” Philip walks into the kitchen, his perfectly gelled hair shining as he adjusts his watch. “You have a scratch on your cheek.”
I turn back toward our bedroom.
“I guess the yokels got to you over the weekend.” Laughing at his own joke he continues. “So tonight, I have that client meeting until five and then I’m at the art centre until . . .” his voice trails off.
Poking his head into the bedroom he says, “So I probably won’t see you until tomorrow. But don’t forget this weekend we’re expected up at the lake house and then there’s the engagement dinner to plan with my mother’s consultant . . .” I tune his voice out.
I slip his ring off my finger.
“Rachel?” He yells from the kitchen. “I’m leaving for work.”
The door clicks shut as I place his ring on the night stand. I’m more than brave enough.