Before he even reached the top, Garrett knew the scene would be familiar. Not familiar in the sense that he knew it, but in the sense that it would look exactly like it would look no matter which of the nearby slopes they climbed. Hills, pine, dirt, rock, valley, stream. It was late. They were tired. They were stupid and hungry and now, surely, lost. And Steph would blame him, as partly she should, for the hike had been his idea, a little adventure for the new lovers, though she had been the one to say push on once he had said he wanted to turn back, that the trail had disappeared behind them.
Garrett grabbed a tree limb and hoisted himself forward, rushing over the last few yards of the climb and clambering onto the rocks at the top. He wanted time to catch his breath, to pretend he wasn’t tired, to take in what he saw and quell his fear of heights and the panic of being lost amid the endlessly repeating mountains before Steph joined him. But before he could make sense of the indecipherable waves of green hills surrounding him Steph lifted herself up onto the rocks. She stood beside Garrett and did a slow, tense circle to take in what Garrett saw: hills, pine, dirt, rock, valley, stream.
“Now what?” Steph said. Up here snowpack still huddled in sullen, browned piles against the base of leafless trees. “See anything you recognize?”
Garrett raised his eyebrows. “As if I’ve been here before?” he said.
“The trail,” Steph said. “A campfire or something. You know damn well what I mean.”
Garrett considered taking off his pack and resting, but the thought of struggling back into the straps again was too much, and he simply leaned against a bare trunk. Steph stepped past him to the edge of the mountain. It wasn’t a sheer drop, but it was steep enough, with a field of scree not far below. If you slipped off the edge, dying was really the only option.
“Great,” she said, throwing her hands up. “This is just fucking great.”
Years later, Garrett would marvel how stealthily and quickly the thought came to him as Steph lowered her hands and turned her back: that all it would take would be a push. Was it what she said? Her raised arms, the tone in her voice, his own humiliation? Her scream would be brief, her cry swallowed into space. There’d be an inquiry. Doubts. Suspicions. But no one would ever know for sure. He felt disembodied in his terror and imagined this would help keep the guilt away afterward. Time, like the empty space of the awaiting valley, would swallow them both up, the living and the dead.
Garrett pushed off the tree and took a step forward. He had to be firm but not in a panic. If she turned, he couldn’t be seen charging her or she’d know. What a thrill, to have such power over another person, to impose fate on others. To calm his nerves, he was counting his steps even before he knew he was doing so, even before a hawk’s cry sliced a piece of blue from the sky, even before Steph turned and spotted him, before he came as if casually up beside her, swallowing his fear, and said, “Come on, we’ll find a way.” He was counting before he lowered himself off the ledge despite his terror and took her hand and guided her over the first big step, as if in apology; before the rough, thigh-burning descent back into the woods and the newfound chill under the trees; and before the nearly indescribable delight when a clearing among the pines an hour later turned out not only to be the open space of the trail but to include two couples emerging from the leaf-cast shadows, talking gaily, who stopped and chatted as all the hikers did who passed along the way. This was before they fell asleep that night in their tent, each in their own sleeping bag, and through the pale gratitude of moonlight smiled and gripped each other’s hand, as they would sometimes do for years in their bed, through a marriage, the three children, the mortgage, the death of her parents only a month apart and his separated shoulder from the basketball game and their second son’s diabetes, before the daily contentment they both agreed, though neither ever shared, was so much better than the passion that had first led them toward each other’s lives.
Thank God, Garrett told himself, not only that he didn’t do it—would he have? he always wondered—but that she had suspected nothing, that his pace had been exactly right, that there had been nothing unusual at all about the momentum he had been trying to keep as he counted his steps. He sometimes awoke in a sweat at night, horrified at how dark the human heart could be, and he consoled himself knowing that his darkness was no more than a thought, an insubstantial condition far different from the material certainty of an act. He had decided, even after decades of marriage, or perhaps because of decades of marriage, not to tell her of that moment on the mountain, as slowly it receded so deeply into their past, and became ever more inexplicable and impossible to imagine, that he sometimes wondered if it had happened at all. There was no point in Steph knowing, nothing to be gained by his honesty, as he would have gained nothing himself, had he known, when he was stepping toward her on that cliff counting his steps, and she turned around, that for the briefest of moments she wondered if he was going fast enough that, if she grabbed his arm and tugged, with his fear of heights and his fatigue and his heavy backpack and the element of surprise, he might stumble toward the precipice, and with the slightest of pushes, fall head first over the edge onto the rocks below.
Christian Michener is the author of a good number of essays, short stories, and poems in literary journals such as The Kenyon Review, Crazyhorse, Image, Harpur Palate, Harper’s Ferry Review and elsewhere. He is also the author of two books, including a work of literary criticism and a collection of short fiction.