Stories 5
 
 
 
                                                           Trail   of  100  Giants
                                                              
                                                                by Carrie Milford
                                                                              

            The ground shot beneath the tires of the motorcycle, double yellow lines flying and waving in the air swirling around Lauren’s face. She leaned into Mark as he sped up on a straight stretch of canyon road. She could feel the muscles beneath his shoulders against her chest, tense as that time he’d taken the job hauling lumber. Her own muscles seemed intent on strangling themselves beneath her windbreaker. The scene in the living room this morning replayed over and over in her mind, especially the look in Mark’s eyes when she had told him about the night with Dan.

            Mark slowed a bit as a particularly sharp curve of road approached. Sandy colored rocks jutted out from the side of the mountain, looking as if they could settle the argument with one wrong movement of the bike. The path they usually took was coming up soon, maybe another half mile or so. Mark straightened the bike out, checked for fast moving cars in the rearview mirror. Lauren could see his jaw line and one lens of his sunglasses in the side mirror, along with her own blonde hair that shook and creased, pasted itself to her helmet then ripped away again.  Lauren sighed, leaned back a bit and untwisted her hands from around Mark’s stomach, adjusting her sunglasses with one hand while the other rested on his hip. She could see the path now, a few hundred feet in front of her, and she braced herself for the bumps and shocks of rock-littered dirt roads. But the path came and Mark didn’t slow down, just followed the next curve in the road, checking the speedometer and the rearview mirror. Lauren leaned her head over his left shoulder, his good ear, and shouted against the pulse of the wind.

            “You missed the turn.” Mark didn’t respond. Lauren wondered if her words had been absorbed into the wind and the engine or if he simply didn’t hear her voice anymore.

            “Mark?” She put her mouth right to his ear, his helmet cutting into her cheek.

            “Trying something new.” Mark turned his head slightly so Lauren would hear him, then faced forward again.

She couldn’t question him at this speed, with the wind curling in and out of their ears and eating questions and rationalizations, and he knew it. Lauren inhaled deeply and wrapped her arms around his stomach again, glancing to the side and catching a glimpse of the river between trees. Its rapids pounded and sloshed, threw kayakers, rafters, and tubers into twisted positions, as if it were tossing tomatoes into a salad. She liked that the bike was loud enough to drown out its roar.

Lauren faced forward again. She knew that sleeping with Dan was wrong, but she was starting to think telling Mark the truth was worse. She suspected that she had told him for her own selfish reasons, so that she would feel less like pinning herself beneath a rock in the river, the air and anxiety pushed from her lungs in one mammoth motion of the water.

***

             Mark knew conversation was impossible on the motorcycle. That’s why he had suggested a ride. After two hours of emotionally draining revelations and watching Lauren’s tears roll over her cheeks like the rapids of the river behind their house, he had given up any ability to process thoughts and feelings. At least while he was sitting on the chair in the living room. He couldn’t look at her anymore as she buried herself into the couch as if it was a burrow she could take refuge inside, if only she could make herself small enough to be absorbed by the cushions. He had stood up from the chair, asked if she wanted to take the bike out. Lauren swiped the remaining tears from her face with the sleeve of her sweater and said yes without hesitation. Maybe she thought it meant that none of it mattered, that she had slept with someone else, a weekender, no less. Not even a local. Mark wanted to scream, throw things, throw her. But he held it in. He wasn’t raised that way.

Why didn’t he suspect something? It seemed so obvious now.

            He leaned over the handlebars and accelerated, the bike vibrating through his legs and into his torso and arms. He could feel her heat through his jean jacket, the curves of her arms and stomach against his back, and it made him crazy. All he could think about was how her arms must have looked against the Los Angeles tan of Dan’s chest, what she looked like kissing someone who wasn’t him, how he hadn’t realized that this is where their relationship was headed the second he saw her in the grocery store five years ago. He squinted against the setting sun, newly fresh from a late spring rain as it crawled beneath the mountains. The mountains had always seemed like a way to be further from earth, but right now they just made him claustrophobic.

            Mark could feel Lauren’s mounting anxiety with every mile that he drove past the path. Her arms had gotten tighter around him and her breath was hurried as her stomach stretched and retreated against his back. He didn’t care. Let her squirm a bit. Let her feel snakes coil and squeeze her heart, stomach, lungs, just like he felt. Served her right.

            The higher they got, the more angled and sharp the road became. He slowed a bit, rode the bike around a particularly sharp curve and emerged into a cold current. Much like the river or the ocean, there were bursts of air that changed temperature as quickly as a city faucet, cold to warm in three seconds or less. Mark shivered, wishing he had remembered his driving gloves. He could see goose bumps break the smooth surface of Lauren’s hands. She’d be fine. They would hit a warm current again soon. And soon enough they would be to the trail.

***

            Lauren couldn’t get warm after the current struck her. Driving into the cold currents reminded her of the big freezer at the James Store, walking in to get cold beers or frozen packages of meat for the coolers, her hands stuffed into her employee apron as if it actually offered her any protection against the chill. She shivered into her jacket and leaned closer into Mark’s back. She was sure she could feel him flinch as she got closer, but she didn’t care. It was cold and she had pretty good idea it was about to get colder.

            About ten minutes after Mark passed the path turn off, Lauren realized where he must be going. The Trail of 100 Giants. They had gone there on their first date, or was it their second? It was about an hour ride from Kernville, a ride of steadily climbing altitude and dropping temperatures. Giant Sequoias dwarfed everything, from the snaking paths to the chirping birds to the people who brushed their bark as if they had the power to make God real. Their usual path was a distant memory and Lauren resigned herself to the colder temperatures of the higher elevations. But she really didn’t want to see the trees again.

            The trees always made her uncomfortable. Everything about them was larger than life, from the base of their trunks to elephant chunks of bark to palm sized leaves. You couldn’t hope to hug the tree and have your fingers touch. Hell, with some of them, you couldn’t stand on the opposite side of someone else and meet hands. The trees made Lauren feel small and inconsequential, as if they could swallow her and spit her into space, past heaven, without so much as an exhale of effort.

            Mark didn’t know this, of course. There were things Lauren didn’t tell him. She had fashioned an image of herself for Mark, and he liked it. To be honest, Lauren liked it too. In Mark’s eyes she was sweeter, smarter, and better adjusted than she actually was. In reality, she often felt that her skin was a fortress made of thin fibers she wished to break free of, but somehow she was trapped, like a caterpillar in a cocoon. A thin film encased her inside a moist and dark space no bigger than a few square inches and she just wanted to crawl out and walk down the mountain. She hated Kernville, hated that she had grown up here and never left, hated that Mark had seemed exotic five years ago because he was from Lake Isabella. Ha! Just another shitty mountain town, except they had a McDonald’s.

Sleeping with Dan had seemed like a way to crawl out. He was further away from here than Mark. Dan drove down the canyon road at the end of every weekend and went home to someplace with streetlights and big ideas, supermarkets and department stores, real life and civilization. For Dan, Kernville was simply a place to spend weekends mountain biking and hiking, not a sharp-toothed snap trap that held people against their will, squirming and gasping for air.

***

            Mark slowed down a bit to adjust to the curvier portion of the road, right below Johnsondale just past the bridge. They were getting closer to the Trail of 100 Giants and further from Kernville, from that living room. The temperatures had dropped and they were beginning to see snow banks. He was starting to feel something like calm seep through his jacket, the kind of calm that only results after your heart has been drained through a hole in your chest. A calm constructed from losing the ability to feel anymore, a survival instinct. They reached a straight stretch of road and Mark accelerated.

            Mark wished Lauren wasn’t holding on so tight. Her arms were sucking air from his lungs. He used his right hand to push her arms down a bit, to give him some room to breathe, then replaced it on the handlebar. He just needed room, needed time to think. He needed something bigger than himself, than Lauren and their argument. He needed the trees.

The redwoods made him feel that he had much less control over his own largeness than he sometimes thought. No matter how many dumbbells he lifted or pounding rapids he negotiated in his kayak, the trees would always dwarf him. No matter how hard he worked to keep love a living organism and not something crushed and rusted at the bottom of park trashcan, the trees would always win, always be bigger and stronger and more resilient, surviving millions of years, forest fires, and people. That was comforting right now. At least something in the world could last without dying of an ache deep within them.

***

            Lauren sighed and wished for a really warm pocket of air to stop her from shivering. Her teeth were chattering now and she longed for a sweatshirt to wear under her windbreaker. If only Mark had just taken the normal path. As much as Lauren hated the Trail of 100 Giants was as much as she loved their normal trails down by their house. The paths were twisty, winding snakes that slithered up the sides of the mountains without apology or remorse. They were bumpy and lonely and the air smelled different there, fresh, like vegetation and very dry dirt. No matter where you went on the paths, you would eventually run into an adit, and that’s what Lauren loved.

Adits, hollow canals built by harshly imported Chinese labor, pick axed and blasted with dynamite, cruelly smashed holes in the sides of the mountains that had made it possible for mines to strip the mountain of resources, leave it naked and defenseless. Lauren always liked the thought that humans had some control over the mountains, whose towering presence made her motion sick sometimes, despite having grown up around them. She loved coming up on an aqueduct outside an adit, rusted metal and gray concrete, climbing it and feeling that she was somehow connected to the workers who had made it, who hadn’t been afraid to test the mountains’ unfailing enormity.

***

            They had passed the “Trail of 100 Giants- 2 Miles” sign a minute or two ago. Mark squinted, spotted the turn off for the trail’s parking lot a few hundred yards ahead. He clenched his jaw in anticipation of what was to come. He would have to cut the engine, and then there would be nothing between him and a conversation with Lauren but big trees, singing birds, and a dying afternoon.

            He turned off into the dirt parking lot, which was empty except for the bathrooms, some old logs, and a pickup truck. Not surprising. It was late in the afternoon and wasn’t tourist season yet. He turned off the bike and waited to feel Lauren’s weight lift from the back. As she swung her leg over the motorcycle, he had a split second image of restarting the motor, kicking up the stand and speeding back onto the road, Lauren’s blonde hair and black windbreaker placed at the base of retreating trees like moss. He sighed and took his helmet off before climbing off the bike to look at Lauren for the first time in an hour or so. Maybe he could meet her eyes this time.

            Lauren took her helmet off and shook out her long blonde hair, dishwater tendrils that seemed more like Medusa’s snakes than the soft coils of comfort that Mark had run his fingers through so many times. He met her eyes, and the caramel softness he had so often tried to submerge himself in threatened to pull him back. He looked away quickly. She handed him her helmet wordlessly and he snapped the straps together and hung it off the right handlebar, then did the same with his own helmet.

            “Felt like walking?” Lauren stuffed her hands into the pocket of her windbreaker, her face slightly twisted and almost ugly. Or maybe that was just Mark’s sudden filter, anger, which turned Lauren’s features into something resembling a chewed rawhide bone.

            “Yeah, I guess. Just wasn’t feeling the motorcycle trails today. That ok?” He had already turned to walk back through the open gate and across the road to the mulch trail. He didn’t really care what Lauren wanted right then. He just wanted to find some balance, and the trees gave him that.

Lauren trotted to catch up with him, her tennis shoes making thwacking sounds against chips of mulch. They walked a few hundred feet and came upon the first redwood and then they were beneath the canopy, a suddenly accelerated darkness that enveloped Mark’s shoulders. He sighed and inhaled, happy to feel a slight peace snuggled against the bark and weaving between the moss and ferns.

***

Lauren ducked to avoid a low hanging branch from a seedling. Mark sighed again and she realized that she wasn’t the main focus here anymore. Their relationship had taken a backseat. Once again, the trees asserted their dominance.

They needed to talk. All of this silence, all of these unknowns, were sitting on Lauren’s shoulders like the giants the trees were named for. She imagined a large, smelly, unshaven man pressing down on her, drilling her into the path with the weight of her mistake.

            “I’m sorry.” Lauren wanted to break the ice, but all she could do was apologize, yet again. Her apologies sounded hollow even to her now. This one wilted against Mark’s defenses and was absorbed by the trees, which stood rusty colored and stubborn in wide circles off of the path. Mark didn’t say anything, just kept looking from the trees to the path to the sky and back again. Lauren twisted her fingers together and bit the inside of her lip.

             “I felt trapped. I wanted a way out. I needed…something. I don’t know. That clearly wasn’t it, but it felt like it could be.”

            Lauren had been with Mark long enough to notice the way his shoulders rose slightly, how he raked his right hand through his hair. He still didn’t say anything, but she could feel his emotions gathering like bubbles at the bottom of a pot about to boil.

            “I do love you,” Lauren whispered.

            “Like hell you do, Lauren!” Mark shouted, bubbling over the pot and spilling onto the stove with harsh singing noises. A couple of birds scattered, their wings flapping nervously against the echo of Mark’s voice.

            “Mark…”

            “No. I can take a lot, but telling me you love me, after all of this? Really, Lauren?” Mark was speed walking now, and Lauren practically had to jog to keep up.

            “I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true, you know that…”

            “I don’t know that. You told me you were happy with me, with our life. Now you say you needed something else, wanted out. What’s even real here? What was ever real with you?”

            Lauren stopped walking. Mark walked a few paces ahead then stopped too, turned around and walked back to where she stood.

            “You lied. About all of it. Sex with Dan, that’s one thing,” Mark said, his arms crossed against his chest. “But I’m thinking you’ve been cheating on me since the day we met.”

            “Dan was the only one, just that one time…”

            “I don’t mean sex, Lauren. God, don’t be so literal.”

            His sharp tone sunk into her flesh and drew blood. They had argued before, but they had always remained themselves, had always respected one another. Now Mark was pounding harshness into her like he wielded some sort of emotional sledgehammer.

            “Well what do you mean, then?” Lauren’s own impatience crept into her voice, sinking its claws into her apologetic tone and shredding it bit by bit. Mark was breathing heavily, his blue eyes inflamed against the red of his flushed cheeks. He panted for a few seconds like a dog who had been playing fetch for too long.

            “I mean, you might have been lying to me for years. You might not like kayaking, might hate the motorcycle, might wish I never made that pizza you claim to love. You might never have liked the house I built for you. You might have been saying we’d get married next year but not meant it.” Mark’s eyes darted across Lauren’s face. “You might never have loved me.” She just stood there, staring at a branch to the left of Mark’s shoulder.

            “Well? What do you have to say to that?” Mark uncrossed his arms. His words were still as crisp as the edge of a piece of paper but his voice had quieted, lost some of its spark.

            “Nothing, I guess.” Lauren crossed her own arms and stared at her tennis shoes. The second Mark questioned their whole life together she knew that she did, too.

***

            Mark stared at Lauren as she concentrated on the ground, refusing to meet his gaze, her hair glazing her in a blonde haze like a thin icing. He had said all of these things, questioned her loyalty and her love. But he didn’t really believe them, not really, and the words had tasted of sour milk and rotting tomatoes as they had tumbled from his mouth. He expected her to cry, to deny it, to try to press herself to him, her arms around his neck as she heaved sobs of guilt, remorse. But she just stood there, studying her shoes like they were an oracle.

            “That’s it? Nothing. That’s all you have to say?” Mark felt anger receding and shock and sadness settling in, unwelcome relatives at Christmas that took over your bedroom and ate your food.

            “I guess so.” Lauren still didn’t look up. Mark stared at the curve of her shoulders, the waterfall of hair that covered her face and shoulders. There was nothing left for him to say, to do. This was her mess and she was lying in it, rolling in it like a coyote in road kill.

            Mark shook his head. He started walking back to the entrance of the trail. She might follow, she might not. He didn’t care.

            He broke into a near jog, passing the entrance sign and clearing the road in a few steps. When he reached the motorcycle he turned around. Lauren stood across the street at the edge of the path. A couple sat in the bed of the pickup truck now, drinking out of thermoses and talking. Mark watched Lauren watching him. He waited for her to decide to take the first step toward him. She didn’t. She stayed right where she was.

            Mark placed her helmet on the ground next to the bike and snapped on his own. He swung his leg over the bike and turned the key in the ignition, pressing the electric starter and kicking the stand up as the engine roared to life. He increased the throttle and eased out the clutch, edging his way out of the parking space. As he turned back onto the road he caught one final look at Lauren in his peripheral vision. Her black windbreaker fluttered in the breeze and she tucked a rogue strand of hair behind her ear. He drove out of the parking lot.

Mark watched the trees disappear in his rearview mirror, tall and muscular and framed in golden sunset light, immensely beautiful. They were the kind of beautiful that only exists in sepia toned memories tucked behind candid photos of ruined Thanksgiving turkeys and spilled orange juice, memories that exist simply to create a world we want to wake up for.

 

Bio: Carrie Milford is a senior in the University of Pittsburgh's Creative Writing Program. She grew up in Pittsburgh, but has lived in California, Washington, D.C., and London. Her work has appeared in Amarillo Bay.
 

 

 

 

Ginger and Carbolic

   by  Aradhana Choudhuri
 

 

    Do you know how hard it is to be a wizard nowadays? It took me an hour, and three trips to the sidewalk, just to summon a taxi. The first two times I hobbled back to the house right quick when the streetcar rounded the corner, spilling electricity everywhere. The third time the lady from next-door saw me peering down the street and made a call from her cellophone. I had to be properly grateful too.

 

    There was nothing to be done for the shoes, black and pointed; couldn’t very well go out and buy another pair when these had so much wear left to them. And the shops would be full of that dreadful din, whirr-whirr-whirr on the register and the credit card machines. No, the shoes were fine.

 

    The driver ignored me completely. I didn’t ask for conversation, but a ‘hello ma’am, nice day’ would have been welcome. Really shouldn’t have come out today, but I'm the only family that girl has. The meter wasn’t working as he let me off. Big surprise. I’m a wizard after all.

 

    In deference to my age the young usher led me right through the line-up and into the auditorium, giving me such a sweet smile as he helped me to my seat. Luck to you and yours. My magic coiled around him like birthday streamers of blue and gold. It had taken. Good. Always hard to tell with these ethnic folks, if the spell would work. Surrounded by the smell of ginger and carbolic, I sat back, satisfied.
 

    The Dean was talking, pointing at the gibberish on the big screen behind him. I pulled out my spectacles and stared most carefully, but if anything the problem got worse, the letters scrambling about like circus clowns. Out of nowhere, an angry buzzing almost made me jump out of my skin; another cellophone! Startling a wizard is always unlucky. Half an hour later, a fat cockroach with a tiny bitten-apple appliqué on its back crawled out of a man’s pocket and buzz-buzz-buzzed its way into the gap between carpet and floor.


    Susan Gerrard, Bachelors of Science. With Honours. My fingers shook as I reached into my purse, pulled out a faded paper drawing of a butterfly. The crayons had been held in a three-year-old fist, and the lines wavered all over the page. Can I have a butterfly like yours, gramma? Please? I had said to her that the butterfly only comes if you learn well and became a wizard. And she did try so very hard, breaking her heart over spells she couldn’t understand till her father took her away and enrolled her at the polytechnic.

 

    I touched a finger to my tongue, then wet the paper with it. Flutter. Flutter. Flutter. And then there was a butterfly, six feet big, shedding streamers of blue and gold and the scent of ginger and carbolic. It swooped and fluttered its way to the stage in the front. People were gasping and pointing, but Susan stood transfixed, delight blooming on her face. I never told her the other part of it – that even if you’re not a wizard, sometimes the butterfly comes anyway.

 

 

Bio: Aradhana is an aerospace engineer from Toronto, Canada. Having just started her first (real) job in the space sector, she is looking for literary representation for her first novel written under an unpronounceable pseudonym. Her writing is slated to appear in Arc Poetry and Flashdot magazine.