Ella veers and ducks to avoid the thorns but it’s no use: her arms and legs are full of pricks and she is bleeding in at least two spots. The helmet slides down over her left eye, then right, depending on the direction she swerves, but if she dismounts here, she’ll lose yelling distance with Jonas and will never find her way. By mid-July the trail should be well-travelled, the thick summer overgrowth trampled by hikers or cyclists, but this one is not. What seemed like a stroke of luck hours ago – pristine views all to themselves, no congestion on the trails – worries her now. The hair on Ella’s arms glistens and her skin stings where it’s been lashed. Gravel crunches under her tires, her bike chain whirs, but loudest of all are the animate noises: the rhythmic chirp-chirp-chirp from the evening crickets and a persistent low buzz, she’s not sure from what. She tries to kick negative thoughts away with each pedal and un-remember that the area is well-known for its snakes.
The trail leads downward, propelling Ella through the brush at a swift clip. She is going too fast, flying down the mountain. Every muscle taut, she stands to gain more control but she can’t hold the position for more than a minute. Her legs ache with tension and she relieves them with a few evolutions of the wheel. She wills herself to focus on the path ahead and not to think too much. She will not get stuck. The bike shakes and bumps and she grips the handlebars, arms throbbing. “Just remember, the bike knows what to do.” The advice of a friend, the first time she went mountain biking two years ago. But the outings with her women’s riding group are nothing like these technical singles. Trails too narrow to fit more than one rider on the path. Each lurch sends a new wave of adrenaline. She knows she should relax her fingers from the brakes and let the bike do its job – jerk over rocks, glide up the smooth boulders and down the dips – but her brain needs more training, more confidence. The sport is 30 percent technique, 70 percent mental psyche-out: She will not fall. She will not fall.
“Can you wait up?” Ella’s voice croaks and there is no response from up ahead. She flips the lid on her hydration pack – for once it comes off easily – and takes three short swigs to clear her throat. She stops for a moment and tries again, cursing herself for not paying better attention. Now she’s lost sound contact with Jonas; no indication of another rider flying down the trail, only her own heaving breath, the chips and cheeps of the crickets and that incessant buzz. She is hopeless with directions. In her riding group, someone else takes care of navigating.
On their first date – was it only three weeks ago? – Jonas’ face brightened when she mentioned the biking. She’d been on enough dates in her 31 years to know that this was the turning point in the evening, the one that meant there’d be a second. “So awesome,” he said, eyes full of admiration. When he smiled there was something asymmetrical about his mouth, the right side of his bottom lip dipped lower than the left. “I don’t know too many women who are serious bikers.” A misperception she didn’t correct because her heart was doing little somersaults.
“You must’ve done Carmilla lots of times. We should go,” he’d said on their third date, another failed opportunity for her to say, Oh, I’m not serious, probably the worst one in my group. By then she was smitten with Jonas’ crooked grin and rugged looks, which matched the backstory she’d made up about him in her mind. Sure, he was an engineer, but he was from Colorado. Weren’t all guys from there hardy mountain men or lean long-distance trail runners, each one sprung to life from a page of Outside magazine? And nothing like her last two boyfriends, pretentious types she’d sworn off after sitting through hours of discourse on opera and Italian wines. True, teaching Renaissance Studies might lead to a similar conclusion about herself, but she didn’t talk about her field in her free time. In fact, Jonas’ response – “So, like, Leonardo da Vinci? An engineer at heart.” – was perfect (and better than the typical what’s-the-point-of-anyone-learning-that raised eyebrows) because it showed he knew something.
Carmilla Forest was hard-core, but so was Jonas, and she’d assented right away. She dropped a comment she’d overheard about one of the mountain’s steep, technical uphills, as if she knew it from first-hand experience. But also she was thinking – the outing playing into her fantasy of a perfect day with a hunky guy – there have got to be some parts that are relatively flat, some shade for a romantic picnic. A few moments when they’ll sigh, massage their achy muscles, and exchange looks of deep contentment before moving on to other exchanges.
Jonas is at the next clearing, sitting on a boulder, a ring of cypress trees encircling the area. He holds out a plastic bag with dates and almonds. “Hey. Thought I’d lost you. Everything okay?”
Ella wants to cry with relief but she gives him a thumbs up. She is itchy and sore and wants the day to be over. She reprimands herself for not thinking about the actual meaning behind the word “fantasy:” a supposition based on no solid foundation. She’s not cut out for hard-core. Three trails lead away from the clearing. An hour or less of sunlight.
“So, we should probably keep on going. Which way?” Until now she’s kept up the pretense. All she remembers is that at least one trail stays on the ridge until the next range, which won’t get them off the mountain before dark. Oh, the stupidity! Why hadn’t she brought a map?
“Um, I’m not sure.”
His eyes narrow to peer at her. Sweaty, red-faced, still trying to catch her breath. “You haven’t been here before, have you?”
She shakes her head. “Sorry. I didn’t think—”
He whistles and looks up at the darkening sky, and stands on the boulder to get a better view. She can’t tell if he’s disgusted with her incompetence or if he’s trying to puzzle their way out of here.
“I should have brought a map.” She wouldn’t blame him for being annoyed with her.
He shrugs and spits a date pit on the ground. “Nah. Maps are for pussies.” There’s a flicker in his eyes as he gazes at her. “Alright. You asked for it.” He is smiling.
“What?” She emits a nervous laugh.
He thumps his chest. “Self-reliance lesson.”
Jonas explains: whenever he goes into the wilderness, part of the adventure is to navigate by the sun, by the trees, by his internal compass. She’s impressed; if she’d known this before she might have kept her panic levels down. “I told you I was a tracker in the army, right?”
“Israeli. I learned field navigation from the Bedouins.” Of course. Her mother and Aunt Judy will love him. There will be time later to get the whole story. Why he’d gone, what it was like, why he hadn’t stayed.
“You should know this stuff, anyhow. Everyone should.” He gives her a five-minute lesson on using the sun for navigation, on tricks for picking up a trail, and on which berries are okay to eat. He picks a trail and climbs back on his bike. He repeats: “Self-reliance, that’s the key.”
She nods, an eager student. “Like Emerson.”
He shrugs. “Whatever. Follow me and try to keep up, okay? We’ve still got a lot of ground to cover to get back to the car.”
“Got it.” Emboldened by the lesson, Ella is confident. Jonas’ bravado, it seems, has rubbed off on her. She can do this.
This new trail is less overgrown, and they start off at an easy pace. Each time she navigates a technical patch – soaring over a jutting boulder, coasting through a gravelly dip – she feels like a rock star. The mossy air is sweet, the scent of shimmering pines, one she’s loved since summer camp.
And while she is daydreaming about her first kisses in the camp grove – whatever happened to Kip Rosen and Jake Feldstein and the rest of those goofy, bookishly cute boys from bunk 51? – the trail takes a turn. Here the descent is steeper, the way forward rockier. She rides with a light grip on the brakes, trying to find a moderate speed: too fast and she’ll skid, too slow and she’ll topple over from imbalance. Jonas has gotten ahead again and she calls out that she’s going to take this part slow.
The best advice she’d gotten for mountain biking – from the slight, sinewy instructor who’d come with her group a few times – was to keep a forward gaze. “Make sure you’re always looking ahead a few feet, not right down in front of you. This way you can anticipate where to steer and how to adjust your position or gears.” She pushes every other thought out of her mind and repeats the mantra. Look forward, look ahead. Excellent guidance for almost every aspect of life, despite her inability to follow it.
A faint whistle tells her she’s fallen far behind. A mere 15 minutes ago she and Jonas had practiced this bird call, but now Ella can’t remember if it means right, left or straight. “Wait up!” she says. She stops for a minute to catch her breath. If only she’d thought to bring a whistle. So many ways she has not planned ahead, a constant refrain of her mother. My little scatterbrain, her father used to say. And more than once she’d RSVP’d to an event and failed to show up, everyone afterwards giving her knowing smiles and joking, classic Ella. Much as she hates to admit it, reverse psychology works on her: part of what drove her to finish the Ph.D. was to prove she could make a plan and stick to it. The celebrated professor she’d sought out as her advisor ended up being a total blowhard, but she’d persisted.
Self-reliance, self-reliance, the words pound in Ella’s head with each crush of gravel. She rolls over a discarded snakeskin, adding to her jumpiness. At last the trail evens out and seems manageable for her to rest her calves by sitting. She pedals and pedals, no sound in front of her. She reminds herself that she’d agreed to this outing; despite a bit of trepidation, she’d been a willing participant in the preparations. She’d been walking around for days with that hopeful, beginning-of-relationship stomach flutter: after so many years of attending friends’ weddings, could he be The One?
Finally, another clearing, an impossible opening, no bigger than her bedroom. Four different trail options, but no Jonas. Fuck. “Jonas?” She calls out, then yells. “Which way?”
No answer. Sweat licks her eyes and she blinks several times to clear her vision. She starts to panic and then tells herself to stop being ridiculous. He wouldn’t really leave her to navigate on her own. Or would he? She clears her throat, gathers her strength and yells as loud as she can. Minutes tick by, and her panic swells into denial, the surreal feeling that she’s watching herself: a character in one of those person-alone-out-in-nature books. As a reader, she’s a fan of the genre, admiring their bravery and resourcefulness, attributes no one would ever think to describe her. This can’t be happening to me.
There’s a sound of movement in the brushwood to her left – a small animal? Ella calls Jonas’ name again, knowing she’ll be met with silence. The twinkle in his eye comes back to her now, and his comments about what every person should know: The measure of a man is how he maneuvers the rocky paths in life. Yada, yada, yada. WTF?? Was he seriously going to leave her here to navigate off of this mountain by herself? The lines of what will be a screaming match play out in her mind. Her, yelling and cursing. Him, trying to look innocent, saying he was sure she was into the survival thing.
The trees are too tall to get a clear picture of anything, but in between the branches she glimpses the sun making its descent. The area is fragrant with pine cones. Four trails lay ahead of her, but she can’t tell if any one of them was recently traversed. If she chooses correctly, it’s probably not more than an hour or two to the parking lot. “Self-reliance” is going off like a mantra in her head. She will have to guess her way out of this.
A thin layer of dust and sweat covers every inch of her body. From the hazy dusk comes a messed-up clarity: the whole outing is a test. “I’m back here!” she yells one last time. “Here I am!” The famous words spill out and would be laughable if she wasn’t so terrified. But she’s no Abraham and no angel of God is coming to save her.
Think, think, think. Try not to hyperventilate.
Jonas is not coming back for her. Ella’s fear that she’ll never get better at judging characters is a stone she carries around inside, surfacing at moments like this. But survival mode kicks in now, and with one mighty rationalization she casts the stone back to its hiding place: she has had better sense than some people. She hasn’t made a colossal mistake like various friends, two already divorced and one more clearly miserable in her marriage.
She tells herself that a resourceful person would check her supplies and weigh the pros and cons of her situation. Okay. She’s got plenty of water, three granola bars and a sandwich, a windbreaker, spare inner tube, pocket knife, bug repellant, and a spare charger for her phone. Her muscles are screaming for a rest. She will get off this mountain.
But not tonight.
The evening is supposed to be temperate. She’ll make a bed for herself of pine needles, the hydration pack as her pillow and her jacket as her cover, and sleep until morning. There aren’t any bears in the area, and Carmilla isn’t that remote. Jonas may come searching for her at some point, or call in the park rangers. Slowly she unlatches the lid of her pack and takes a long refreshing pull at the water. The sweet, clear liquid revives her in spirit and in body. She slicks the repellant over her arms, her legs, the pricks of the thorns have faded into tiny scratches, less irksome now. She will live to tell about it; her friends will be incredulous, shake their heads and say classic Ella, but no, she’ll argue, this proves she’s not inept, not always a scatterbrain.
For the first time today, she is calm enough to take in the scenery. Carmilla is quite beautiful. Tiny orange and black butterflies flutter past, and she inhales the sweet scents of cypress. Ella walks her bike down the trail that leads towards the setting sun. If she’s lucky she’ll catch an unfettered view from the ridge, and make her bed off to the side, where the dense trees will make it difficult for Jonas or anyone else to find her. She will match him in ruggedness. Show off her self-reliance. Ten minutes ago, she fantasized about throwing her helmet at him. But now she’s unsure. When – if? – she sees him again, she’ll decide: hold him with taut arms and thank him for forcing her to tackle something unimaginable? Or more likely: brush him off as if he’s nothing more than a tiny prickle in her path.
Julie Zuckerman hails from Connecticut but moved to Israel 23 years ago, where she works in high tech marketing and lives with her husband and four children. Her stories have appeared in?Salt Hill, Sick Lit Magazine, Sixfold,descant, 34thParallel, The MacGuffin, Red Wheelbarrow, The Dalhousie Review,?and?American Athenaeum,?among others. She is working on a collection of linked stories and a novel about a Jewish-Arab women’s mountain biking group. When she’s not writing, she can be found running, biking, or baking. Twitter: @jbzuckerman