By Shera Hill

We lost the trail long ago. The path is dusty and overgrown. 

I worry about ticks. 

Keri Anne bounces ahead of me. Her hair’s still dark at forty plus, and as far as I can tell, she doesn’t color it. She wears a neon lime activewear jacket over a floral print hippie skirt, flipflops on her feet. Trust my former best friend to dress inappropriately no matter what the occasion. Trust her to not question why I called after all these years, and to suggest a hike, like we were both still college kids with dreams of backpacking the Appalachian Trail.

My water bottle’s almost empty, and what was supposed to be an hour-long trek has turned into a purgatory nightmare.

I need to pee. Do I have a tissue in my pocket? And even if I can find a bush to squat behind and not hit my Nikes, my knees aren’t that good anymore—can I straighten up again without toppling over? Will there be enough leaves and soil to bury the tissue? I picture myself like my cat, Scooter, madly clawing the dirt.

Keri Anne glances over her shoulder, gleaming smile still in place.

“I’m sure this loops back to the main trail. I hiked it with Ryan when he was little.”

“How old is Ryan now?” I call as she stretches the distance between us.

“He turns twenty-five next month.” Her little yipping laugh. “Can you believe it?”

She never caught irony.

“Hard to believe!” I yell and try to speed up. 

She got pregnant with Ryan at twenty. The surprise twenty-first birthday party I’d planned for my fiancée never took place. Instead, I gave back his ring. 

Rising above the endless scrub brush I see a stand of coastal oaks.

“Pitstop!” I yell, using our old code word, and tear through the bushes to the trees, scan for a spot without spikey leaves, buzzing insects and foliage enough for cover. 

Keri Anne shouts, “This sunset is just too beautiful!”

Sunset? It’ll be dark soon—we’ll be stranded!

My zipper sticks, my jacket skims the ground, my phone’s about to fall out of my pocket, and stinging nettles graze my butt. 

I envision the struggle to find a signal on this god-forsaken hilltop to phone 911—humiliating images of park rangers smirking as they rescue us.

I manage to miss my shoes. My knees creak like the tin man’s as I straighten up. Half a tissue peeks from the soil despite my best dirt kicking efforts. Screw it. And screw my therapist for suggesting this whole encounter. I blunder out of the bushes, only snagging my jeans once.

Keri Anne motions me over. I tamp down my anger, my panic, and gather my forces to inform her I’m making the call.

The sky stops me—an explosion of burning magenta and gold, combed silk clouds edged with sun—but even more glorious is the parking lot directly below us, the trail opening out into it in a short downhill hop.

Keri Anne turns to me. “You know he left years ago,” she says softly.

So here it is—the conversation I was supposed to start, only now I don’t want it. 

“Ancient history. I got over it.”

She shakes her head. “No. Neither one of us ever did.”

I gaze into the magenta sky. 

Okay. Okay.

The sun’s halo flickers on the back of my eyes. “I’m starving,” I say, and start down the trail to the parking lot. “Maurie’s?”

She laughs, but responds on cue, “Best Pizza in Town.”

I say, “Whoever gets there first—save the table.”

                                                                  *   *   *

Shera Hill grew up in California and has written short stories, poetry, and novels, since she was a child. A retired library branch manager, she has published fiction and poetry in such journals as the First Literary Review – East, Everyday Fiction, and Ancient Paths Online.

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