It had been a while since I had the kids all to myself. Andrew gets more alone time with them than I do. My traveling for work leaves me away a few nights most weeks. I'm jealous of the time Andrew gets with them. Doing whatever he wants. Being the sole influencer, keeping the house as tidy as he preferred, or in his case as unkempt as he'd like. I used to appreciate that he scuttled about cleaning up and vacuuming before I got home, but I've grown to resent it. It's like everyone has to get things in tip-top shape for the Queen's arrival. It's me that he makes them clean for. Not because Andrew runs a tight and tidy ship, but because their mean mommy would eventually return and she's the one who insists on a clean house. In other words, my appreciation for the clean house has morphed into resentment for the way in which he gets the job done.
Recently McClain wrote a persuasive essay about his unearthly desire for a Pomsky. A Pomsky is some undoubtedly yappie, mutant dog breed that's a cross between a Siberian Husky and a Pomeranian. They're cute, but we already have Daisy, and Andrew and I agreed that a goofy Golden Retriever was enough for our family. McClain's teacher found the essay he wrote to be so hilarious that she emailed it to me. In it he writes, the only thing standing in the way of my dreams is my mom. Everyone had a good laugh, except me. Somehow everything is always my fault, I play the role of the bad guy, not because I want to, but because Andrew already took the good guy part. My bad guy status elevated to "dream crusher" that day and Andrew was happy to let me take it on. Andrew led McClain on about the damn Pomsky. That's what he does, avoids conflict. He can't bear to tell his fourth-grade son that we aren't getting another dog, but he'll happily let me do it. The dream crusher, the bad guy, aka Mom.
Being the working parent leaves me little alone time with the kids. Of all my closest friends I'm the only one that works. The rest of them, every single one of them, are stay at home moms. Of course when they get free time they want nothing to do with their kids. It immediately becomes mom's night out, wine on the patio, or a weekend getaway. Those are good times, and I need some of that in my life too, but it's not as high on my priority list now as it once was. These days when I have free time I usually want to spend it with my little sweeties. I haven't seen my girlfriends, or my kids, as much since the move.
McClain is now 10, Atlas, 9, and Violet 6. I don't even remember them as babies. When I look back at pictures it's like I'm examining someone else's life. I know I was there, I'm certain they are my children, but I can't quite remember what the hell I was doing back then. I look both younger and older in pictures from a decade ago. Softer around the eyes, cheeks a little more plump, fewer lines creasing the corners of my mouth, yet tired looking, always so very tired. Sleep deprivation is hands down the worst part of parenthood. If it's not listed as an official form of human torture it should be.
This afternoon's adventure is just what I've been craving. Time alone with the kids. No other adults to compromise with. Andrew is going to stay back and work on the house, and I'm going hiking with my sweeties. I'm taking them on an adventure to the top of Sawyer Mountain. We did it once last spring as a family, but the black flies were so bad and the trail too steep and rocky for Violet to manage. We turned back halfway, Andrew having to carry her on his shoulders the entire way down.
We moved to Maine a few years ago. Bought an old farmhouse in desperate need of restoration. We left the uptight, competitive lifestyle of Boston for a more laid back existence in Maine. We had been talking about a simpler life for a long time. I wanted to spend my days reading and writing and Andrew dreamt of a farmstead where he could make furniture and grow vegetables in his garden. Moving to Maine was Andrew's dream come true. As for me...I haven't written since we moved, it's been so long I can't recall the last novel I read, and now I travel weekly back and forth to Boston for work. All so Andrew and the kids can have the life they wanted. I guess The Dream Crusher has no mercy, in this case for herself.
This hike will be medicine for my soul. I love a physical challenge, something that makes you sweat. I used to run with Andrew when we lived in Boston. That was before I commuted over two hours each way to work. I love running, well, I used to love running. I ran in marathons, I ran for fun, I ran because it made me feel great. Andrew still runs, he says he feels great. I think about feeling great, but I only get to do great things on the weekends. I'm only alive on Saturdays and Sundays.
This hike will be challenging for the kids. The route I want to take is 6 miles, which is long for us, but the elevation is what will be the most exhausting. We'll be going straight up the mountainside and that will put us all to the test. The kids and I stuffed my backpack with the essentials and plenty of nonessentials too. I let them throw in a few extra things. We had the room and I was determined not to be the bad guy today. We had plenty of water, snacks, tissues, paper towels, baby wipes for sticky hands, and dog treats for Daisy.
The kids said goodbye to their dad, their little arms wrapping around any available part of his body. Faces snuggled into his chest and thighs. He hugged them back and landed kisses on top of each one's head.
McClain asked one more time, "Are you sure you don't want to come, Dad?"
"No, I'm going to stay here and work on the house buddy, you have fun with Mama, ok," Andrew said.
I gave Andrew a big squeeze and a wet kiss on the mouth. Our family does hellos and goodbyes well. No matter how frustrated or annoyed with one another we are, we always manage a proper hello or goodbye. I like that about us.
"I'll text you when we get out of the woods," I said.
"Ok honey." Andrew said, "If you give me a little notice I will try and have dinner ready for when you guys get back."
"I'll do my best, I'm not sure how good my cell service will be, but I'll try," I say over my shoulder as the kids bound out the door in front of me. Daisy charged ahead, knowing exactly what was about to happen and thrilled to be a part of it.
"Take care of my Daisy girl!" Andrew added.
Sometimes I think he loves that damn dog more than me.
"You know I will," I replied. My eyes were saying something entirely different than my words. "I love you," I added as I closed the door. And I meant it.
"I love you," Andrew said. And he meant it too.
Summer days in late August can be hot. I'm aware that hot for a New Englander might be laughable to those living in the South, but I've adapted to the cooler temperatures of Maine and if the thermometer passes 75 degrees, I feel hot. As we started, I quickly regretted the timing of this adventure. I wished we had planned for a morning hike instead of an afternoon one. The heat might make the kids cranky and I was not in the mood for cranky kids.
When we arrived the kids tumbled out of the car like a swarm of bees whose nest was hit with a rock. They scrambled this way and that all around the dirt parking lot. Daisy ran up and down several different paths as if she was surveying which was best and reporting back to us. Several trails were splitting off from the parking lot. I was surprised to see that ours was the only car there. I began to wonder if everyone else realized it was too hot and too late in the day to be hiking up mountains, then I remembered that this network of trails had several entry points. I was certain we'd see other people once we got in the woods. Until then, Daisy would be lucky enough to run wild off her leash. Andrew normally takes control of Daisy on our hikes. She's a big dog and she has no manners on her leash. She pulls so hard, it becomes exhausting to control her. The more off the leash time the better.
We set out on the red trail. My little sweeties ran ahead with Daisy and I marveled at how much energy kids and dogs had. I felt inspired by their carefree exuberance and decided maybe I should run too! I jogged about one hundred yards before giving up. My backpack was too heavy, it was too hot, and I was too out of practice. Maybe I'd try going for a run tomorrow, get myself back in shape.
Atlas came darting down the path toward me, followed by McClain and then Violet. Their faces were flush, hair already wet with sweat around the edges.
"Can we have some trail mix?" Atlas asked.
"Trail mix!" I said, "We've only been out here five minutes! You have to wait for the trail mix, but you can have some water."
He ran off, not even bothering to reply. He knew damn well I wasn't going to let them eat trail mix yet. The kids prepared it, one little baggie for each of us, which upon my inspection, turned out to be mostly chocolate chips and mini marshmallows. I let it go, I wasn't going to be the bad guy today.
I whistled for Daisy and she came bursting through some bushes to my left.
"Good girl," I said as I patted her head.
She darted away as quickly as she came. She's never been one for staying on the trail, but I appreciated her responsiveness to my voice, so it didn't bother me too much. She really was a good girl. We got her the same month we moved into the new house, because what makes more sense than getting a puppy when you have a complete mess of a house and a shit ton of work ahead of you! Andrew always wanted a dog, but our landlord in Boston wouldn't allow pets. Andrew insisted we get a puppy as soon as we moved and so we did. I love Daisy. She's a clumsy, slobbering pain in the ass, but I love the way she is with the kids. A few nights ago, I overheard Violet telling Daisy that she was her best friend. Moments like that make the dog hair and muddy paw prints worth it.
We hiked for about an hour, stopping periodically for water breaks. I could tell the kids were tired. I was worried that they might not make it to the summit. I wanted to continue on, I was determined. I prodded them along and kept dangling the trail mix like a carrot on the end of a stick.
"As soon as we find a good place to stop we can eat the trail mix," I said. "Keep going, we'll eat the trail mix soon."
Eventually, they grew tired of my promises.
"Are you ever going to let us have the trail mix?" McClain asked.
"Yes, Mac," I said. "Fine, let's stop now. We can have a rest and a snack."
"And the trail mix?" Violet asked.
"Yes, and the trail mix," I promised, and this time I came through.
We rested on a huge set of boulders covered in moss so green and lush it reminded me of a fairy tale. The cool rocks against my skin were a welcomed reprieve from the heat. I handed everyone their water bottles and little baggie of marshmallows and chocolate chips. Daisy lapped from a small brook that was trickling nearby, before laying down directly in the water. I looked at my babies wondering where the time was going. McClain was getting older, I could see new muscles revealing themselves, his chin sharpening, a slight aging right before my eyes.
Atlas finished his bag of trail mix and started climbing around on the giant boulders.
"Be Careful Atlas, you don't want to break a leg this far away from the car." I said, "I'm not sure I could carry you back!"
"Mama, take my picture," he said as he scrambled to the top of a particularly dangerous section of rock.
I was both scared he would get hurt and proud that he was so brave. I reached in the backpack for my phone and snapped a shot of him, legs spread apart, arms open wide to the sky, making himself look as big as possible.
"Take one of me!" Violet shouted.
And I did. McClain too was on top of a boulder and wanted his picture taken. He was sitting cross-legged, hands resting on knees, fingers pinched in a meditative mudra. I liked his pose.
"Come on guys, my battery is starting to die, I want to get a picture of all of you together," I said.
They squeezed together and locked arms around one another, smiling at the camera. Kids these days are so well trained at getting their picture taken. They've had cell phones in their faces since the moment they were born. I looked down at the photo I took, it was exactly how I wanted to remember this day. McClain looked like a handsome young man, Atlas with his enormous ear to ear smile, and Violet so innocent. I don't know if it's because she is the youngest of the three, but at six years old, I couldn't help but think she was still a baby. My baby.
It was taking longer than I expected to get to the top. The trail was steeper than I anticipated, which was surely slowing us down, but I felt like we should have made it to the summit by now. Violet had been holding my hand for the past 30 minutes and I felt like I was dragging her up the hill most of the time. She was asking when we'd get to the top every few minutes and I wasn't sure she was going to hang in there for this whole adventure. I started to wonder if I'd made a mistake, she's only six, after all, maybe a hike like this is too much for a six-year-old? The boys seemed to have the stamina to keep going, but I was seeing myself carrying a little girl down this mountain if we didn't get to the top soon.
"Mama, there's a dog!" Atlas shouted.
I whistled for Daisy and she came running to me as expected. I pulled her leash from around my neck and clipped it onto her collar. Good girl. I could see a man walking on the trail ahead. He was coming in our direction. We shuffled to the side of the trail to let him pass. He nodded in appreciation and as he went by I asked, "Are we much further from the top?"
"Almost there," he said, "About 10 minutes."
"Thank you!" I said.
I was relieved at this news and found a burst of energy that would carry me the rest of the way. The kids felt it too.
"Just ten more minutes guys!" I said, "We can do it!"
We all set off with a little more pep in our step and hope in our hearts that we were about to conquer this mountain after all.
A few minutes later Atlas shrieked with excitement, "Look!" he said pointing.
"It's a porcupine!" said McClain.
McClain had just finished studying Maine's native animals in school. He liked it so much that we bought him a wilderness survival book that he had been looking at every day, he was becoming very knowledgeable about local wildlife.
I screamed for Daisy, maybe a little louder and more panicked than I should have because the kids all turned back to look and see what was wrong. The last thing I wanted was to be on the top of a mountain dealing with a dog whose face and mouth were full of quills. She came and I clipped her leash on again. We inched a little closer to the porcupine. I wondered out loud if it could shoot its quills at us?
"No Mama, they can't shoot their quills at people," said McClain.
His tone had an error of disdain, and I wasn't too thrilled with it. Not so fast Mac, you are still my child and you must respect me. I thought but said nothing.
We watched the porcupine walk away, the kids excited and bounding once again along the path. I followed them listening to their recounting of the porcupine sighting. There was a debate on who saw it first, who wanted to be the one to tell Andrew when we got home, and what would have happened if Daisy had tried to eat it. I let their little voices carry me along the trail. Listening to them chatter with one another was like listening to a symphony of the most beautiful songbirds in the world. Mothers love to see their children being friends, and however fleeting those tiny moments maybe they are the moments that we live and die for.
We crested up over the edge of a rocky part of the trail and I could see we had done it, we reached the summit! Daisy was near my side, I only had to gesture for her to come closer and she knew I wanted to leash her up. There weren't any other hikers in view, but everything all of a sudden seemed wide open and the cliffs looked too menacing for this clumsy Golden Retriever.
"Guys, be careful, don't go near the edge," I shouted.
Violet turned back skipping toward me, clutching my hand once again.
The view was spectacular. I found myself trying to inhale what my eyes could see. I was shocked at how far I could see and how clear the late afternoon sky looked. I took out my phone to snap a picture. I got one shot, then the battery went completely dead. Stupid phone, I thought. I had been hanging on to an older model for years because it still worked, and I was trying to be frugal, but the battery was shit. I suddenly wished Andrew was here with us. My earlier desire to be alone with the kids felt selfish now.
I wasn't sure what time it was, but I was certain it had taken us longer to hike to the top than I had calculated. I wanted to immediately turn back around and start heading out before it got too late, but I knew the kids needed a break, and how could I make them leave the beauty of this place after just discovering it.
I hooked Daisy's leash to a tree and set my pack down next to her. I opened it up and gathered the picnic blanket and snacks we brought. I laid the blanket out and arranged a neat little meal for the four of us. I wanted our mountain top snack to be special. I poured some water in a dish for Daisy. She lapped it up, then laid down on the corner of our blanket.
The kids explored near the edge of the cliff, closer than made me comfortable. They urged me to come to see. I came to take a look, but as I peered over the side, my stomach instantly flipped, and I had to step back quickly.
"Stay away from the edge," I said, confirming my initial thought that it was a long way down.
The last thing I wanted to see was one of my babies bouncing off a jagged rock face all the way to the bottom of a mountain. Kids were braver than adults. Maybe because they haven't had as many bad experiences to teach them what kind of hurt life can throw at a person.
"Come on, let's have our snack," I said.
Violet had stuffed her favorite teddy bear, Teeny, deep at the bottom of my pack. I didn't realize she had done it, but there she was snuggling Teeny while she nibbled cheese, apple slices, and fists full of cashews. Teeny looked as if he wanted her to share and I wished I could have taken a picture of my girl at that moment. Six was one of my favorite ages. Growing up and becoming independent, but still so much a baby who needs her Mama.
McClain and Atlas ate like marooned sailors devouring the first fish they'd caught since being stranded on an island.
The kids finished, drank more water at my urging, and began to wonder about the mountain top again while I tidied up our picnic. Everything fit neatly in my pack, but thankfully it was a much lighter load now. We would be heading down soon and the rest of the adventure would be smooth sailing from here. I had been feeling uneasy about how long it took us to get to the top and how exhausted the kids were, but everything seemed like it was going to be ok after all. We would be later for dinner then I originally planned, Andrew would have to adjust. He wasn't an awful cook, but I wished he was better at timing his meals. It was almost a given that something would be ready before something else, leaving a cold dish of food sitting on the table long before it's comrades arrived.
I wondered if I complained too much? I would try to be kinder and more patient when I got home. I felt like I could manage things a little better now, fresh air has a way of doing that for me.
My feet and thighs were beginning to ache.
"Ok guys, let's get going," I said, throwing the pack over my shoulders and grabbing Daisy's leash off the branch.
The kids were tumbling over one another on a mossy patch of land nearby, hardly acknowledging my existence.
"Guys lets go." A little louder this time.
Kids don't listen. You have to say the same things at least two or three times, increasingly louder and louder to get their attention.
"Guys! Come on!" I shouted.
Finally, they stood. Still giggling, brushing little bits of moss and dried leaves from their clothes and hair.
I walked near the edge to take in the view one last time. I breathed the crisp summer air. I noticed a far off lake shimmering in the sun. I had heard you could see all the way to the ocean from here, but I wasn't sure which way to look or how I would tell the horizon from the water.
As I turned toward the kids, I was startled by a large bird that flew up over the side of the cliff, it was huge, wings flapping so near my face, I could feel the air rushing over my cheeks and dancing through the tiny hairs on my forehead. Daisy saw it too. She leapt at it, yanking me violently toward the edge. She caught herself just before tumbling forward over the mountainside, planting her strong paws firmly down. But it was too late. I stumbled, tripping over the leash until I fell hard to the ground just at the very edge of the drop-off. I managed to cling for a split second, looking back at my three little sweeties, knowing that I was going over. I locked eyes with Atlas as I plummeted off the edge. I dragged Daisy down with me.
Andrew looked at his watch. He wondered how we were doing. It was five-fifteen p.m. I had told him we expected to be done by now. He missed the kids. It's strange how that works. I could see the happy look on his face when we left, how excited he was to be getting some time to himself. That's how most parents feel when they have had enough of their bratty kids. But only a few short hours have to pass before you start thinking of them and missing their smiling faces.
He wasn't worried, just annoyed that I hadn't texted him yet.
"Typical," he grumbled.
He had texted a couple of times, asking if I'd send pictures and if everyone was managing ok. I never saw his messages. The service was so bad and with the phone constantly searching for a signal the battery died quickly. I wished I could explain that to him now.
He made baked ziti for dinner and it was warming in the oven. He was proud of himself. He had decided on something easy, that everyone would enjoy. He knew it could be hot and ready no matter what time we arrived home, maybe I'll even get laid tonight, he thought. Vacuuming might seal the deal, so he decided to quickly run it around the house. The Queen's arrival would be soon.
Atlas realized what was happening first and shrieked out loudly, "Mama!"
I heard him on the way down. I saw the look of terror in his eyes as he saw me fall from view. The look on his face hurt me worse than the blow I took to the shoulder. It shattered instantly as I smashed it upon the jagged rocks. I heard Daisy welp in pain. The leash was still looped tightly around my wrist and as Daisy and I careened down different rocky routes I heard a loud popping noise, immediately followed by a ripping feeling and searing pain coming from my other shoulder. I knew the leash had ripped my arm out of its socket. I could instantly tell it was bad. My head, my legs, everything was abused as we fell off the side of that mountain, Daisy and I linked together on a tortuous journey to the bottom. Then, finally, stillness.
I lay with my eyes closed. I was afraid to open them, I knew things would be bad and I didn't want to look. I heard nothing at first, just the wind blowing through distant treetops, a subtle far away rustling. I heard birds chirping, a crow cawed. Maybe its that fucking dinosaur-bird that knocked me off this cliff, I thought. I heard a wisp of raspy breathing coming from Daisy, then one final exhale. I could tell she was gone. I had to be sure. I slowly opened my eyes and was blinded momentarily by the sun, which was getting lower in the sky. As I blinked the white light from my eyes I saw Daisy's lifeless body only feet away from mine. I gasped. She looked as if her insides were removed, blended up, then stuffed back into a shell of her former body. Nothing was in the right place, her legs twisted and bent so unnaturally, they looked like one of Violet's pipe cleaner creations. Her head had a large gash on it, right above the eye, I could see white bone peeking out from between the matted tufts of golden fur. Blood pooled beneath her. I squeezed my eyes tightly closed and left them that way for a very long time.
They all saw me go down. I had locked eyes with Atlas, but they all understood the horror just the same. McClain came running up to the edge of the cliff, more cautious now then he had been before. Was this what life would be like for them now? A little more measured, more cautious, more fearful. A short time ago I had wished they had some sense in them, and now I would mourn for the loss of their innocence. Never again would my children dance freely on a mountain top.
McClain looked over the edge, he couldn't see me or Daisy. We had fallen far and the rock formations jetting out blocked his view of where we landed.
"Mama!" he shouted, "Mama! Mama!"
Those were the only words that came. Atlas stood frozen, silently staring at where he had last seen his mother, he hadn't moved an inch. It was as if he'd forgotten how to make his body go. Violet wet herself. Pee dribbling out of her shorts, down her skinny legs, soaking the tops of her socks. She began to cry. Big heaves of air in and out, tears rolling heavily down her cheeks dripping on to the front of her shirt.
"Mama" she whimpered over and over and over again.
The far off sound of my son's voice roused me from my trance. I heard him calling for me. I thought it might be Mac, but it was difficult to tell. The wind was louder now, bouncing and echoing off the rocky face of the mountain. I lay there, eyes still closed tight. I was terrified to open them. If my body looked anything like Daisy's I wouldn't be able to bear the sight of it. I heard the buzzing of a fly. Can that be right? How long have I been laying here, I thought. Are flies already coming to scavenge on my dead dog's body? This was a nightmare.
There was something odd about what was going on here. I couldn't quite put my finger on it but knew something was off. I felt a tingling sensation all throughout my body, as I lay motionless, but I didn't feel any pain. I was buzzing all over, but comfortable. Maybe that's what going into shock feels like, I wondered. I slowly opened my eyes and saw myself lying in a mangled heap next to Daisy. There was blood, so much blood. Limbs twisted this way and that. There were flies, the little fuckers. I was startled by the way I looked. Lifeless, stone still...dead.
Atlas shook his head like he was emerging from under the water of a pool, he looked over at Violet. He saw his baby sister whimpering, wet with piss, and more scared than he had ever seen anyone before in his life. He stepped toward her and wrapped his arm around her shoulder.
"It's ok Vi," he said, "everything's going to be ok."
Violet buried her face in his chest and heaved more tears. She was trembling and Atlas wanted her to stop. He felt his own eyes stinging and becoming heavy with salty water, until the tears came billowing out, rolling down his face, and landing in tiny puddles on top of Violet's head.
McClain was screaming now, "Help! Help! Anyone, Help!"
There was a frantic quality to his voice and it scared Atlas, he wasn't sure what was worse, Violet's sobs or Mac's fearful screeching. He needed them both to stop.
Atlas moved closer to the edge of the cliff where McClain was pacing back and forth alternating his screams for his Mama and help from other hikers. Violet stepped along with Atlas, afraid to release her grasp from her big brother's side. Atlas gently pushed away from Violet and got down on his stomach, he wasn't going to take any chances. He inched himself closer to the edge of the mountainside and peer down below.
"Mama!" he called out, "Mama can you hear me?"
No reply came.
McClain was crying now too. "She's gone," he shrieked, "She fell right off the side! Did you see? Did you see that? Daisy's gone too."
"Daisy!" McClain cried out for his dead dog.
There was a shrillness to his voice that could only be described as the pain of a ten-year-old boy who just realized he lost his mom and his dog at the very same moment.
"Maybe she's ok?" said Atlas, "She might be ok, maybe she can't hear us."
Violet lifted her face out of her hands at the thought of this and said, "Do you really think so?"
There was far too much hope in her tiny voice given the circumstances, but that little shred of hope that they all felt at that moment was enough to ease some of their pain. They each clung to it the way they used to cling to their mothers breast as infants. Lingering there, not wanting the sweetness of her milk, or the tenderness in her eyes, to ever go away.
"She could be." said Atlas, "I don't know, I can't see her, but she could be ok."
It was getting late now, they could feel the air cooling as the afternoon turned into evening.
"What should we do?" asked Violet.
The three of them gathered around each other and endured a painful pause as it became obvious they were on their own for now.
McClain finally spoke, "I think we should try heading back down the way we came, we can flag down help when we get to the road."
"We can't leave her!" said Violet.
"We don't even know where she is," McClain said, "she could already be walking out on her own. Maybe she isn't hurt too bad and she is making her way out right now."
"I don't think we should leave." said Atlas, "Mom and Dad always say we should stick together and stay on the trail. If we get lost we should stay exactly where we are."
"We aren't lost!" said McClain.
He was getting frustrated. He wanted to move, he had to move. Staying there was making him feel more anxious by the second.
"I think we need to just start walking back." He said, "We know it's the red trail, we can find our way out."
McClain began to realize he was going to be outvoted, the way his younger brother and sister looked at him.
"Someone will come, Mac. We should stay here. Someone will walk by or come looking for us." pleaded Atlas.
"I don't want to walk back, I can't do it," whined Violet
"Violet is tired and wet, we don't have water, we have nothing. We need to stay here for now," said Atlas.
"Fine," McClain said, realizing he was not going to win. "But I'm going to walk down some of these trails a little bit and call for help. Maybe someone will hear me. You stay here."
"Don't go Mac!" said Violet.
"I'll be right back, I'm just going to shout out for help. Maybe someone will hear me. You stay here with Atlas. I'll be right back." he said.
At that Violet started to cry again. The heat of the summer day was fading and she was quickly becoming cold. Her clothes, wet with the day's sweat, pee, and tears. The temperature swings from day to night could be pretty dramatic in Maine, especially in the mountains. It could easily drop down to forty degrees on a late summer's night in Western Maine. Atlas snuggled his baby sister into his arms and told her over and over again that everything would be ok. They sat on the top of Sawyer Mountain crying together, both hoping that if Atlas said it would be ok enough times it might be true.
It was six-thirty p.m. and Andrew had begun to worry. He knew his family should have been back by now. He also knew that Kate could have decided to go out for ice cream after their hike, or do some other grand gesture to solidify her spot as favorite parent while she had the chance. He kept trying her cell phone, it went straight to voicemail. Maybe the battery died? He thought. He decided if he didn't hear from her by seven he'd go looking for them.
Five minutes later, he couldn't stand it anymore. He shut the oven off, grabbed his keys, and jumped into the car. As he pulled out of the driveway he realized he wasn't exactly sure where to go. He knew they were heading to Sawyer Mountain, but there were several trailheads that led to the summit. They had only been there once before and they were still relatively new to the area. He had to take a guess and start somewhere. He suspected Kate would want to try something different this time, she liked trying new things. She said it kept things interesting. Fuck, Kate, you should have told me where you were parking! He tried to think clearly as he drove.
Atlas and Violet huddled together, they could hear McClain calling for help in the distance. Over and over again, his voice bouncing among the trees. If someone was out there they would surely hear him. He returned a little while later, having walked up and down each of the four trails that emptied to the clearing on top of the mountain.
"There's no one," he said. "People must be heading home. It's getting late."
"What time do you think it is?" asked Atlas.
"I don't know, but it's getting cold and the sun is moving behind us now. I think it's going to get dark soon," said McClain. "I'm worried about Coyotes," he added.
"Coyotes!" said Violet. Her eyes opened wide. "Do you think there are coyotes out here?" she asked, not wanting to know the answer.
"Of course there are!" said McClain. He was remembering what he learned about the Maine woods and the animals one might find in the night.
"Stop it Mac!" said Atlas, "You don't have to scare her."
Atlas was not interested in being scared either. The thought of coyotes coming out at night made him shiver and once he started he found his body could not stop.
"Besides, someone will come for us. Dad will be looking for us," he said.
"If Daisy were here coyotes wouldn't bother us. Daisy chases everything away." Violet said.
The tears kept coming until she had nothing left, all that remained was her puffy face, and the crystalized rivers of white that stuck to her rosy cheeks.
Andrew decided he would try the trailhead closest to Rickers Village first. There was a sweet little bakery there and he thought Kate might have stopped for fresh cookies or croissants before setting out. That's the kind of thing Kate would do. She made everything special. Maybe she was overcompensating for how much she had to travel, or how little she saw the kids during the week, but she made the weekends magical for them. She planned adventures, she took them out to fancy dinners, she bought warm breads from local bakeries and let the kids tear off big chunks at a time, smothering the pieces in butter or olive oil as they wished.
"Fuckl!" Andrew said as he slammed both hands down on the steering wheel.
The Rickers Village parking lot was empty. Kate's car wasn't there. He shifted into reverse, a little more aggressively than he should have, and whipped the car around the dirt parking lot in one quick move. He sped on to the next lot, dust flying up behind his tires. He looked down at his phone. No calls, no texts. It was seven-fifteen p.m.
I could see them, my little sweeties, sitting together on top of Sawyer Mountain as the sun was setting. I was watching from above. I was gone. I knew that for sure now. There was no pain, just a tingling, a warmth, a knowing. I knew I had died. Right there on that mountainside, I had tumbled to my death, and I knew that my children would never be the same again. I feel like a fool. Who falls off a mountain and plummets to their death, in front of their children, and takes the damn dog with them! I wanted to reach down and wrap my arms tightly around them, tell them everything would be fine, but I knew nothing would ever be fine again.
They were talking to each other, not like before when they were chatting about the porcupine, now it was different. They were scared. I could feel their fear, it rippled through me. I could taste it like metal in my mouth, hear it like a flailing bug stuck in my ear. They were talking about coyotes coming in the night and what would happen if no one finds them. They agreed they would have to stay put, for now, it was too late to try and go back, nearly dark. They were afraid to move about the woods in the dark. If no one came for them, they decided they would walk out as soon as the sun came up. They knew they could find their way easy enough. Mac wished that they had already gone, but it was too late, the night was upon them, and now none of them wanted to leave this spot.
Atlas looked toward the horizon, deep into the inky black night. There were dots of light from houses scattered in the distance and stars twinkling above. The new moon was hardly visible. Darkness cloaked the mountaintop and the surrounding woods. They were cold. Violet was still damp. They all longed for a warm bath and dry clothes. When camping, Andrew would make them change into completely fresh clothes before bed, socks and all. He told them how even a little moisture left on your clothing from throughout the day would freeze you in the night. They understood now. Their sweaty shirts, shorts, and socks clung to them like icy blankets that they wished they could discard. They talked about building a fire, but none of them knew how.
"Didn't you learn about building fires in your dumb book?" Atlas said to McClain.
There was tension between the boys now.
"Yes, but we don't have the supplies to do it," said McClain.
"Isn't that the point of reading a survival book," said Atlas, "so that you can build fires when you don't have any supplies?"
McClain just rolled his eyes. Little brothers didn't understand these things.
Atlas wasn't that much younger than McClain, they were just twelve months and two days apart. Most of the time they were best friends, but occasionally McClain tried to play the big brother card. He was only one grade above Atlas in school but acted as if all the answers to life's important questions were learned in the 4th grade.
The boys sat silently for a while, Violet nestled in between them. Her head was bobbing forward periodically, as it became difficult for her to stay awake. She had been asking for Teeny. She didn't think she could sleep without Teeny. They looked out at the stars and listened to the noises of the woods. The wind was blowing, softly with occasional gusts that sent shivers down each of their backs.
After a while, Atlas spoke quietly, almost in a whisper. "Mac," he asked, "Do you know what kind of bird it was? The one that knocked Mom down."
McClain sat still, no words came. Stupid wilderness survival book is good for nothing, Atlas thought.
Andrew picked up his phone and dialed his friend Shawn as he raced down the road. He and Shawn had become close over the past year. Andrew and Kate had made a few friends since they moved and Shawn and his wife Sarah were the best of them.
Shawn was an ex-Marine and had spent most of his life living in the area. He knew all the trails and hiking spots, the best places to fish, which old-timers allowed you to hunt on their property, and which areas to avoid. He never passed up an opportunity to shoot guns or talk weaponry. Once, when Andrew and Kate discovered that there was a family of skunks living under one of their barns, Shawn showed up with a cross-bow ready to slaughter the lot of them. Shawn was the only person Andrew could think of calling.
Andrew dialed, then almost hung up. Maybe I'm overreacting, calm yourself down, I might be overreacting, he thought. Just before he could end the call, Shawn picked up.
"Hey what's up, man? No one ever calls me," he said.
"Shawn," Andrew said, trying not to seem upset.
He was starting to feel like he may be making a big mistake and acting dramatic about nothing. There had to be a good reason that Kate hadn't called.
"Hey look, sorry to bother you, I don't even know why I called, but Kate and the kids went hiking this afternoon and they were supposed to be back around five. I haven't heard from her all day and she isn't answering my calls or texts." Andrew said.
It was like he was speaking each word individually with great care, playing the role of laid back Dad casually sharing mundane facts with a friend.
"Shit man!" Shawn said, "Do you know where they went?"
"Sawyer Mountain," said Andrew. "But I don't know what lot she parked at, I was just at the Ricker's lot and her car wasn't there. I'm about to pull into the Limington lot now, gonna check here."
Shawn spoke next, "Oh man, what do you think happened to..."
He was cut off before he could finish his thought.
"Fuck! Her car is here," said Andrew.
The call ended abruptly, leaving Shawn on the other end of the line realizing something may have gone terribly wrong on Sawyer Mountain today.
Andrew flung himself from the car nearly before it was in park.
He started shouting for his wife, "Kate! Kate! Kate!"
He heard nothing but silence. He looked frantically in the dusky night, almost completely dark now. He saw several trails leading into the woods. He felt a sourness rising from deep inside his gut, he felt like he was going to vomit. He planted his hands on his knees, his head hung loosely between his legs, breathing, thinking. Maybe one of the kids got hurt? Maybe they're lost? Maybe they stopped because it was getting dark? Maybe someone took them from the parking lot? Thoughts flooded his mind, he could not think of one good reason that Kate's car was here and his family was not. He sprung up, having tamped down the urge to puke, ready to find his family. He went to his car and rummaged around in the glove box, the center console, under the seats. He wasn't exactly sure what he was looking for. Maybe something to help him find his way? His hand seized something jammed in between the back seats. It was a small makeup box that Violet once carried with her everywhere. It had been sandwiched between two seats in Andrew's car for who knows how long. Andrew opened it, a set of lights on either side of a mirror illuminated the inside of the car. This will do, he thought. He slammed the door shut and started running down one of the trails, the makeup box just barely lighting his way.
"Kate! Mac! Atlas! Violet! Daisy!" he shouted their names and ran.
Violet was sleeping now. Her head lay on McClain's lap, Atlas draped over the top of her, Mac's ten-year-old arms wrapping around them both. The boys were trying to keep her little body from shivering in the night. McClain was silently crying. Atlas felt the occasional jerking breath deep in his brother's chest and he knew. It made him cry too and soon they were both jerking and heaving as gently and quietly as they could manage, trying not to wake Violet. She stirred as her brother's sobs and sniffles could no longer be contained and before long, the three kids were huddled together balling and crying out for their mother. Something had broken in each of them. They clung to one another as if the tightness of their hugs could somehow make them whole again. There was a rustling in the leaves behind them. There was a distant howl in the night.
I watched my children. Motherless and alone. The minutes turned to hours. I was coming and going now, wanting to stay with them forever, but unsure if I could. As I looked over them shivering helplessly in the cool night, I felt warmth and joy coming from some distant place. It was beckoning me. I didn't want to leave, but occasionally I couldn't resist the urge to turn toward the warm glow and when I did I felt myself drifting a little further away. I'd turn back quickly, searching once again. I'd spot them and feel relieved that I was still here and they were still together, but each time I looked away I was a little more gone from the Earth and I knew it wouldn't be long until I never saw them again.
Andrew ran wildly through the woods. He mostly stayed on the trail, trying to use Violet's pathetic makeup box as a flashlight. It was enough to see a few inches in front of him, not much more. He tripped on a root and fell hard to the ground. A rock cutting his knee open wide, he could feel the warmth of blood edging down the front of his shin. It's nothing, he thought. He didn't take the time to look, got to his feet, and kept running.
Andrew came to a fork in the trail. He could faintly see that one trail looked like it was turning back down the slope and the other maintained its gradual incline. It was so hard to tell in the dark of night with nothing but a six-year-old's makeup mirror to light the way.
"Fuck!" he screamed. "Kate!"
He had been running up the green trail. He only just realized this now as he glanced over and saw a green marker nailed to a tree beside him. He had to make a choice. The green trail seemed to be looping back down. His current path was now intersecting with the red trail, which seemed to be headed up the mountain. He felt his chest tighten. A panic attack was coming on. He realized now, after running in the woods for --- Had it been over an hour? He had no idea. --- that he didn't know which way he should be going. He didn't know where his wife and kids were, he didn't know where Daisy was. The tightness in his chest twisted harder, pressing against his lungs when he thought of Daisy. What was Daisy doing right now? He thought. Andrew imagined Daisy as the great protector, she would never allow something bad to happen to Kate or the kids. Daisy would figure it out, she would know what to do, how to save them, to fend off a criminal, or a wild animal.
"She's not fucking Lassie," Andrew said out loud.
Hearing his own voice snapped him back into action and he started running up the red trail now. His breathing became rhythmic, he pumped his arms and moved his body like the athlete that he was. He stopped every few moments and called out for his family. He knew they were here, he felt it. "Kate! Mac! Atlas! Violet! Daisy!", he shouted. Then ran on, seeking, being drawn by instincts, a powerful knowing that they were near. A similar instinctual knowing to the one which revealed the whereabouts of Kate and Daisy's dead bodies to the flies.
"Did you hear that?" McClain said.
"No. What was it?" asked Atlas.
"Shhhh, listen" McClain was whispering now. "Do you hear it?" He asked again.
They sat motionless together, ears straining, reaching deep into the woods. They both held their breath for what seemed like minutes, but no sound came. They exhaled and were resettling themselves with Violet rolling over in their laps when Atlas put his hand up, a gesture indicating that they should be still and listen again. A faint call came from far in the distance.
"You heard that, right?" asked McClain.
"Yes, yes, I heard it," said Atlas eagerly.
They listened. They couldn't make out the words, but they could tell it was a person. Someone was calling for them.
"Violet, wake up!" said Atlas. He gently rolled her off his and Mac's legs. "Wake up Vi, someone is coming!"
The boys were already on their feet, Violet shaking off the sleep, readjusting to where she was and what was going on.
"HELP! WE'RE HERE! HELP US!" shouted McClain. He had his hands cupped around his mouth and was yelling as loud as he could.
Atlas joined in, "HELP! HELP! SOMEONE HELP!" He was turning in all directions, not sure which way to direct his plea.
They tried screaming for help earlier. Up and down the trails that led from the summit of the mountain, off over the edge into the open air. No one heard them, no one replied.
McClain raised his hand this time, silencing his brother and sister. All three listening to the night sounds. This time they were certain, it was someone calling their names. "Is it Mama?" asked Violet. The boys knew it wasn't their mother, they had each come to the conclusion that their mother was gone. She had died when she fell off the side of Sawyer Mountain, she wasn't coming back. It would take Violet longer to understand. She saw her mother go over the edge, plain and clear, but how does a six-year-old make sense of that. How does a cartoonish blunder on her favorite show end in laughs, and a mother falling mean she's dead?
"I think it's Dad!" squealed Atlas.
They all started shouting now, as loudly as they could. Their voices careening down the trail and stinging Andrew directly in the heart. He felt them, and now he could hear them! He ran faster than before, sprinting toward his family. He stumbled over rocks and logs but kept moving at a pace only a father seeking to find all he ever loved could move. He called for them while he ran, he screamed for them, he dropped the makeup box and ran and ran and ran.
Andrew burst into the clearing with a force so powerful that the energy of his body, his longing, could be felt immediately by his children despite the darkness. He ran to them, dropping to his knees, not even noticing the stones that were now grinding into his open wound. As he embraced his children he realized his entire body was soaked, his hair his clothes, all soaked. Sweat, tears, blood. The kids collapsed in his arms. In all their short lives, they had never felt so happy and so sad at the same time.
"Where's Mama?" Andrew asked. Extending his arms out to look in their eyes, but not daring to let go. The children didn't speak, not one of them could manage to make words in their mouths.
"Where is Mama?" Andrew said, "Where's Daisy?"
Violet pointed to the edge of the mountain, to the spot she last saw her mother and her best friend. Andrews' eyes tracked to where her tiny finger indicated. In the darkness, in the confusion, it didn't make sense. He half expected to see Kate standing there, Daisy wagging her tail wildly at the sight of him. He was unclear...until he wasn't. He looked back at the boys this time.
"What Happened? Where is she?" He asked.
He felt the tightening in his chest return, it was unbearable, he couldn't fight it, he was slipping away. He heard the sound of a helicopter, looked above to see a large light scanning the woods off in the distance. He collapsed hard to his bottom, legs splaying out front, chest, and head hanging heavy. He saw the searchlight above, coming closer, his vision was closing in, he knew he would be out soon. He heard his oldest son speak.
"Dad, she fell off the edge, Daisy too. We think...we think they are…"
Those were the words Andrew heard as he fainted to the ground.
I stayed above that mountain for as long as I could. I watched as help arrived. Shawn had called the police when he got to the parking lot and saw Andrew's and my cars both abandoned there. The Maine Forest Service search and rescue team was deployed and within the hour they were hovering above Sawyer Mountain. The helicopter spotted Andrew and the kids shortly after the search began. People came next, bounding up the trails on machinery and with supplies. My family was evacuated on the backs of four-wheelers and taken to the Maine Medical Center for evaluation. Andrew and all three kids were deemed healthy and released the next morning.
The search and rescue became a search and recovery mission for me. Daisy and I were discovered late in the afternoon on the following day. It didn't take long, the kids were able to explain to the police exactly what had happened. The young man that came upon us first was only 23 years old. It had been his first search and recovery mission. They all knew we'd likely be dead when they found us. I watched him from above. He vomited when he discovered our bodies.
I waited for Andrew and the kids to return to the top of Sawyer Mountain. They never did. But other hikers and adventure seekers came and went. The parks committee installed a split rail fence along the edge of the cliff, Andrew demanded it and they were happy to oblige. I watched the hikers looking out over the horizon, marveling at the view, just like I once had. Some of them knew about my accident. Sometimes I'd hear them talking. How sad it was, how scared those poor children must have been, how their father was a hero, and how lucky they were to have a Dad like him to raise them. Sometimes they talked about me. Some speculated that I committed suicide. Some acted like I was irresponsible for falling off a cliff in front of my kids like I planned it. Others were more upset about Daisy than anything else. I guess that's just the way people are, no one really knows the truth unless they've lived that truth.
I don't know how long I stayed there, waiting for my family to return. It was difficult to understand time now. I suppose they may have come, to the place I last held my children and kissed the tops of their sun-soaked heads. If they had, I missed them. There were long stretches that I was there keeping an eye out, and even longer stretches when I was turned away, moving toward the warmth and joy that was calling me home. Eventually, I had drifted so far away from the top of Sawyer Mountain that I decided maybe it was best to be gone from that place for good. So I said goodbye, to whom I wasn't sure, and I went to find Daisy.