McManus said nothing until nightfall when Carmella wouldn’t turn around. Without breaking stride, she cinched a headlamp about her head so that he was then following his lover’s shadow form and a bobbing circle of light that didn’t prevent him from stumbling on the stones embedded in the trail. He was tired. He was hungry. They had stopped conversing a couple of hours ago when he suggested they turn back for their camp.
“You always take things away from me,” she had said and stormed off, fully prepared to leave him alone in the wilderness. He knew that he had to keep his mouth shut.
Now, however, as the grand expanse of the high Sierras' vast granite and pine tree landscape disappeared behind a darkness so black it felt as if he were drowning within it, he asked her,
“When is this going to end?”
This was just like her. Whenever they ventured into the natural world—an activity that was occurring with less frequency as their relationship aged—she was always proving herself to someone inside her head. Any hint of her feminine softness disappeared, and she became more man than him. She would chide him, insult him, tell him that she wished he were more like the other men she had dated who reportedly took her on all manner of thrilling and death-defying expeditions about the West. The trips she loved best, the ones she was always going on about, were the adventures that had ended with her sobbing and broken. If the man she was with had berated her the entire time that was a bonus.
“Find your balls,” she said now over her shoulder.
The path angled with a sharp incline, and his legs burned. A blister had been born, lived and died on his right heel and was now just stinging, raw skin that rubbed against his shoe with every step. His heart rattled not only with the exertion, but also from the familiar rage she reliably lit within him. McManus knew he could never measure against the other men who had tromped through her life nor could he drown out the voice inside her head that was constantly telling her how awful everything was, how much better life was elsewhere and far away. In fact, he was confused about how he even came to be here with her. Yeah, he liked the outdoors just fine, but he saw no reason to kill himself. His appreciation of the natural world was much more aesthetically-driven, and if he could admire the beauty of the West from behind the safety of a large window with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, well, that was perfect.
McManus stumbled and fell to one knee. He cursed the darkness, the trail, her. She didn’t stop. Didn’t even slow down. He was forced to scramble to his feet and trot after her; otherwise, he would have been left to the darkness and to whatever creatures might be hunting within it.
The trail got steeper, somehow. His anger actually helped him catch up to her and push on.
“I’m fine,” he told her, even though she hadn’t inquired.
Then, when it seemed that the trail might never end and that the dark forest might blot them forever from existence, the trail leveled and descended into a small, granite-rimmed valley. The immense pines that had been towering above their ascent, parted now to the full moon, which had been hidden from him in its rising. The moonlight cast a light nearly as bright as day, and everything shone with a miraculous blue-white. When had the moon risen? He had been so focused on keeping up with her, he had missed its brightening presence.
“My God,” Carmella said with an impatient grunt. She groped him, bit him, yanked at his clothes. Soon they were naked, save for their hiking boots. Oh, and Carmella’s headlamp. She hadn’t bothered to remove that, either.
She did things to him that she had only done rarely before and never since. She wouldn’t look at him, wouldn’t kiss or nuzzle. When he spoke her name, seeking some connection amidst the wilderness, she turned away from him, slid him inside her, and showed flexibility he had never seen her exhibit before.
In the midst of their heaving tangle, within the huddle of that slick jousting, she moaned over her shoulder that she could live for all eternity in a place like this. Her bones scattered amidst the cleansed silver forest, these fortresses of granite. This, this was home.