She was hiking along the trail, uphill with her pack on, and she saw that guy again. The one doing trail maintenance. The one who, on being spotted last time she hiked through with Rachel and Seth, said, “You weren’t supposed to see this,” and continued meticulously picking at the trail with an axe. Like he was an elf in the woods who overslept and needed to get the job done. The next time they saw him, he was heaving rocks off the trail. She knew it was the same guy. Despite the uniform, he kept a shiny ponytail down his back. Shiny from grease or sweat or both. Plus, his face was distinct. It was unusually pointed. That time as they approached him, she wondered if he’d use the same line on everyone, and not remembering he’d seen them the previous week, would repeat. His repetition his doom, his punishment, in limbo. But, instead, he looked up and said, lugging one particularly large and insect-ridden boulder off the trail, “I do this for fun.”
The kids were scrambling around like a swarm of bees and one of them shrieked, “IS THAT DEVIL’S CLUB” at a menacing-looking bush. She looked at the bush for a moment, and being from West Virginia, had never heard of the plant called devil’s club, endemic to the pacific northwest. As she gazed into the foliage, she tried to imagine a lot of devils getting together with a common interest, possibly reading or writing, or maybe a dance club. Jacob came behind her and said, “Yes, it is. Don’t touch it,” he warned. The primordial-looking plant has yellow spines that break off easily and splinter the hands of curious children. Jacob, more familiar with the flora and fauna, was their guide.
They couldn’t find camping other than an RV parking lot on a small island off the puget sound. They paid for the large parking space and among the mastodons with wheels, they pitched two tents on the concrete. The carnival, which happened to be next door, lit up at dark, and they remembered it was the 4th of July. It was too perfect with the fireworks and the people walking around with cotton candy. They’d have an alpine start the next morning, but it was worth staying up for some elephant ears. They walked along the beach, eating, watching, anticipating the climb.
Days later, when she returns from the trip, and Jacob is dead, they will put it like this: “He was rock climbing and he fell and died,” and people will gasp and say “Oh, god, that’s awful,” and then, “Well, he died doing what he loved.” The way they will imagine it, she decided, was exactly like this: He was rock climbing, then he fell, then he died: just three easy steps. The sequence quick and easy. Grotesque, but instant. That isn’t how it’ll happen, though. There’s more to the moment. There is a step between rock climbing and dying that no one will ever know how to talk about, a moment in between, up in the air, hanging, crying, never even thinking about sleep.
Like the way she thinks of her sister’s suicide. She thinks, she ate a bunch of pills to kill herself, three bottles of them. Like it happened that simply. But when you have that many pills, they don’t even fit in one fist, and you can’t fit them all into your mouth at the same time. How long did it take her to put each one in? Did she try to put as many into her mouth as she could, like the marshmallow game? Did she chew them up, or take them with water like you’re supposed to?
Katie Quinnelly is a climbing instructor in Shepherdstown, WV. Her work has appeared in the Anthology of Appalachian Writers Volume IX, Occulum, Moja Gear, and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine. She regularly reads her poetry to unwilling listeners in local bars.