20 – Katherine

It was a short flight from D.C. to Nashville but it was late in the day when she arrived. She knew Chloe wouldn’t want to see her and there was a certain amount of dread in what would be their first meeting in two years. As she rode in the cab to her hotel, she thought back to the first time Chloe had left home five years earlier.

The call had come late at night. The Richmond police had picked her up and because Chloe was so trusting at the time she gave her name to anyone who asked. When her name wasn’t on any missing persons report, they asked for her parents’ names. The located Anders Nielsen who was living in Colorado. Anders called Katherine, who drove to Richmond to bring Chloe home.

*

By the time she checked into her downtown hotel it was after four. The reunion would wait until the next day. She knew her best chance of catching Chloe would be at meal time, so she planned on being at Jericho House at eight o’clock.

She wondered if Chloe would recognize her. The weight Katherine had put on had softened her appearance considerably. She had always worn her hair shoulder length but now wore it just below her ears. She was still learning to adapt to her prosthetic leg and it seemed like everything was harder to do. Her balance wasn’t quite second nature yet and just moving around  required more thought and planning. So when she could simplify, she did. The hair seemed minor but it was a relief not to have to fuss with it as much. It had changed her appearance dramatically.

She wondered, too, what Chloe would look like. The last time she saw her she had dyed her hair blue. It had been ragged, as if cut by dull scissors, and she had been dirty. Despite the pleas of the social workers, she had refused the offers to move into a small apartment that Katherine would have paid for.

*

After that first trip to Richmond, Katherine confiscated the money she had given to Chloe – an attempt to instill a measure of independence – even though she rarely had opportunities to spend it. What Katherine didn’t realize is that Chloe had hidden small stashes throughout her room. So three months later, Chloe took a small pile of bills from a box hidden in her closet and headed for Richmond again.

Once there, she eventually made her way to one of the shelters where she told the staff her name, who ran the same routine and called Katherine, who once again drove to Richmond to pick her up.

The third time, Chloe told the shelter manager that she didn’t want to go home. They still called Katherine, and Katherine again drove to Richmond, but because Chloe was of legal age, and no mental health petition or guardianship was on record, they could not force her to go home with Katherine.

For the first week of Chloe’s third stay in Richmond, she was counseled and urged to go back to her mother. Even Anders, who was in no position to take in his own daughter, tried to talk her into going home to a safer environment.

*

Around six o’clock, Katherine had dinner in her room. When she was home, she seldom ate at such an early hour. She would usually be at the office until at least seven and would sometimes meet clients for dinner. Business trips were pretty much the same, so when she had that rare opportunity for some time to herself, she took advantage.

Solitude was always special to Katherine, but as she sat by the window looking out over the lights of Nashville, she felt lonely. She needed company. Maybe not to talk, but she needed to be around other people. After she finished her dinner, she brushed her hair and touched up her make-up. She wouldn’t need her jacket; she was just going downstairs to the bar for a drink.

Though she was doing better with her artificial leg, she was still learning the subtleties of exerting just the right amount of force to extend the prosthetic to match the extension of her natural leg. Her gate was still a little out of sync which resulted in a very slight limp, as well as a slightly different heal click between the left and the right foot. As she got off the elevator she walked across the ceramic floor, the uneven click-click, click-click of her shoes on the floor drew looks from people in the lobby. She could see them analyzing, trying to figure out just what her disability was. She wanted to stop, pull up her slacks, and show them the black composite stick that took the place of her once-feminine leg.

A couple of months ago she would walk confidently, knowing that she was turning the heads of men and women alike, if for different reasons. She took pleasure in the knowledge that later in their rooms, husbands would deny having looked at her while the wives would express their disdain for such an arrogant woman. Of course it also worked the other way. Some men were threatened by her. They too, would look, then turn away with a smirk instead of a smile. Sometimes women would steal glances, and though she fended off more than a few advances, she preferred to assume the women who stared were wishing they could be more like her.

But now everyone was looking for the wrong reasons. There was no strut in her walk, no swag in her attitude. Before, she would have looked across the room as if she owned the furniture and might very well shoo someone from her favorite table. But now her head dipped forward and her shoulders slumped. Her eyes looked at the floor as she carefully plotted her steps, glancing up occasionally to navigate and search for an empty table. As she stepped into the lounge area, she wasn’t picky. She sat down at the first opportunity, which, as it turned out, was a small booth designed for no more than two.

She settled onto the upholstered bench and as she pulled her leg under the table, she banged it on one of the table legs with a loud clank. A couple of heads turned, and then turned back, without as much as a smile at Katherine.

Her booth was on the perimeter of the lounge and she had a full view of the everyone there. It was the usual mix. Businessmen, some alone, some in clusters of three or four. Same with the women, and although women in corporate settings was far from an anomaly, men still dominated the hotel bar scene. There were also more couples than she usually saw on business trips, but given that she was in Nashville, it wasn’t surprising.

From behind the bar, a young black woman approached her wearing a short apron and a friendly smile. Her hair fell to her shoulders in soft curls. She had the figure of a swimsuit model.

“Hi, honey,” she said. “I’m April. What can I get you?”

Honey? I’m a honey, now?

“We make a really mean Cosmo,” she said.

Katherine never drank anything more girly than a glass of white zinfandel.

“Gin and tonic,” she said.

“Oh,” April said. “You got it.”

Her drink came quickly and as she took the first sip, she realized she hadn’t had a drink since James had visited her in Alexandria. She felt it’s warmth in her stomach and as she took another drink, she hoped the warmth would travel to her head just as quickly.

In the twenty minutes she had been in the lounge, the crowd had grown, with men and women standing elbow to elbow at the bar and almost every table taken. Most were engaged in the game, pretending to listen to loud conversations while they scanned the room for other possibilities. To Katherine’s reckoning, the freedom of being away from the restrictions of expected behavior, both at home and at work, together with dim lighting and the liberating effects of alcohol, served to heighten the natural predilections of men and women. But the unstated truth that most reasonable adults never completely abandoned, was that the fantasy was safer – better – than the reality. So flirting was acceptable, even innuendo, maybe even a clandestine brush of a hand against another, but consummation of the attraction was a dangerous line. Most knew and observed this.

A half hour had passed.

Katherine had never been one to mingle among the barflies, never put herself out on the market, so to speak, by pretending to be one of them. She would sit at a table, often with her laptop, sometimes just a notebook. Glasses on, hair pulled back, business suit.

It would take a while for the process of natural selection to weed out the emotionally immature. The cocky and brash would think long and hard before abandoning the risk of rejection and go for the less intimidating. But inevitably someone would find a reason to talk to her. And those who did had no intention of playing by the rules. They would settle for nothing less than complete knowledge of Katherine Loudendale. Which, ultimately, ended in their rejection.

Forty minutes.

She had finished her second gin and tonic and was ready to leave when it occurred to her that trying to walk on her new leg without complete command of her balance might not be a good idea. When April returned, she asked for a hot tea.

“Hello.”

Katherine looked to her left and saw him smiling at her. He must have taken the last seat in the lounge as April was taking her order.

She smiled in return. “Hi.”

He looked to be in his thirties, with a thick shock of dark hair neatly combed, his face soft and full. He was wearing a short-sleeved dress shirt, always a sign of sartorial immaturity in Katherine’s eyes. His forearms and hands were pudgy and he fumbled with his fingers as he looked out over the lounge, then back at Katherine.

“Pretty crowded here tonight.”

“It is,” Katherine agreed. It was a far cry from the opening gambits to which she was accustomed. But maybe this is where she was now. Overweight. Limping. Second-rate come-ons.

The thought occurred to her that those things were only the cover of the book, that inside, she was still the same Katherine Loudendale, the one that had inspired so many people.

And as she tried to rebuild her own confidence, the recurring truth that had been nagging her since the first interview at GW Hospital crept back into her consciousness. She had done nothing heroic. It had been James. She was glad no one had recognized her. Then again, that had stopped happening weeks ago.

“Are you in town for business?”

He reminded her of James. The old James. The one she threw against a tree. She looked at his hands again. They looked so soft. She wanted to hold them, feel his soft palms and mushy fingers against hers.

“No,” she said. “I’m here to see my daughter.”

“I’m here for a conference,” he said.

“What kind of conference?” She really didn’t care.

“Motion picture. Tennessee Film Office.”

Katherine had been involved in the State of Virginia’s Film Office to promote the state as a film location so it didn’t really surprise her that Tennessee was involved in the same thing.

“What do you do?” she asked.

“Software developer,” he said.

Of course.

“I sell storyboard software.” 

“Really?” Now she was interested. “Which one?”

“Productions Plus.”

“Yeah. We use that sometimes.”

“Are you in the film industry?”

“No. PR and marketing. The Loudendale Agency.” It came out as a professional reflex.

“Loudendale.” He was thinking. It would take him a few seconds.

“You’re not Katherine Loudendale, are you?”

She smiled and waited for the questions about her story.

“I’m Robert Austin,” he said and reached out his hand. It was as soft as she had imagined. “I thought that was you. I’ve been to your Boston office, talked to Charles Loudendale. That’s your father, right?”

“Charlie is my father.”

She wanted to shake his hand again. It reminded her so much of James. That first night together. The innocent intimacy.

“I’ve seen your picture on your website. It’s so good to meet you. Your agency is one of the best.”     

“Thank you, Robert.” No mention of the story. It was a relief not to have to try to live up to the exaggeration.

“So is your daughter in the music business? Being in Nashville and all.”

Katherine leaned back against the bench of the booth. She wondered if Robert would have the same soft, comforting warmth of James. His skin against hers.

“No,” was all she said.

She wanted the conversation to end. She wanted him to take her hand and lead her up to his room where they would sleep together, not in the manner that the expression had come to mean, but in a virtuous and incorrupt pairing of two people in need of a comforting companionship. The thought crossed her mind to take his hand and to lead him to her room. But even before she saw the ring on his finger, she knew that the fantasy of the guileless encounter could not possibly live up to the truths of reality. She looked into Robert Austin’s eyes and saw James staring back at her.  She forced a smile but could only hold it for a second before she had to look away.

“I miss her very much,” she said, forcing herself to change her focus.

“Of course.” He took a step back to allow April to place the cup of tea on Katherine’s table.  “It’s getting late and I have some work to do. I’ll let you be. Hope you have a good time with your daughter.”

And though she was glad he was moving on, she was still disappointed that he hadn’t even tried. There had been no spark, no flirtatious glances, no innuendo. Just confirmation that she was no longer the kind of woman who could kindle a fire.   

She sat alone for several minutes, hoping the tea might change her mood, hoping she might shed the self-pity that was starting to envelope her. But as she walked back to the elevator, knowing people would be watching, noticing her slight limp. It was who she was now. A very flawed person.

*

Katherine arrived at Jericho House at seven fifty-five the next morning, only to learn that Chloe wasn’t there.  She wondered if she had heard she was coming and deliberately avoided her. Stacy, the morning manager assured her that no one had told Chloe anything. She led Katherine to a small dining room where a couple of residents were still picking over dry toast and coffee. She introduced Katherine to Rocky, a feeble older man with bloodshot eyes and a ready smile. He extended his hand and Katherine squeezed it in her practiced, captain-of-industry manner, then immediately loosened her grip when she felt his bony, fragile hand in hers. He looked her in the eyes, then quickly looked away and returned to his toast.

The other resident was Janelle who didn’t look up when introduced to Katherine.

“Jericho House is co-ed?” she asked.

“Ohhhhh, yes,” Rocky answered. He looked up grinning like a kid in grade school. “That’s why I keep coming back.”

“Completely segregated,” Stacy said. “Men will behave a little differently if there are women around. More polite.”        

“Not me!” Rocky said.

“Oh, hush, Rocky,” Stacy said. She looked at Katherine. “He thinks he’s a Casanova.”

“I can see why, with that smile,” Katherine said.

“What I tell you!” Rocky said as he pointed his fork at Stacy. Janelle giggled.

“I guess you’ve tried to get Chloe to come back home with you.”

“Of course,” Katherine said. “But she’s an adult. She makes her own choices.”

Stacy seemed unconvinced.

“We knew social workers in Richmond,” Katherine continued, “who kept an eye out for her. And when she started heading west, they put us in touch with people all along the way to Memphis.

She was there for three years.

“When it looked like she had settled in one place, we tried to get her in an apartment or a group home. I was going to cover the rent and pay somebody to look after her. Without her knowing, of course.  But Chloe refused. She likes being on her own.  She likes sleeping in the wild, as she calls it.”

“Yeah, that sounds like Chloe,” Stacy agreed. “Why Memphis?”

“That’s where Brad McNear lived at the time.”

“They tell me Chloe’s been in Nashville for about a year,” Stacy said.

Katherine agreed. “That’s about the time McNear moved here.”

“I haven’t been here that long myself,” Stacy said, “but I’ve heard that she really likes his music.”

“That started when she was still living at home. She played that one song constantly. I’m not a big country music fan and she played that song over and over and over.”

“There was a day,” Stacy said.

“I beg your pardon?”

“That was the song. There Was a Day.”

“And then she learned to play it on that old keyboard Anders bought for her. I thought it was great, at first, but she was just so…scattered. Sometimes she’d get through the song alright and other times it turned into a bunch of noise.” She shook her head. “Looking back I can see that I wasn’t very supportive.”

“I guess she was in Memphis the last time you saw her.”

Katherine nodded. “It was hard. Very emotional for me. But not for Chloe. She seemed like she didn’t care. She wasn’t angry. Didn’t act resentful. Just acted like she didn’t care one way or another. Her doctor – I guess I should say her former doctor; she hasn’t seen him in years – attributes her ambivalence to her condition.”

“Which is? If you don’t mind me asking.”

“It’s one of those fuzzy diagnoses. Autism spectrum is a possibility. Maybe schizophrenia. Or simple intellectual disability. Maybe a combination of issues.”

“She can be so sweet,” Stacy said. “So caring.”

Rocky and Janelle finished their breakfast and put their paper plates in the trash.

“Are you Chloe’s sister?” Rocky asked.

“Bless you,” Katherine said. “No, she’s my daughter.”

“Chloe’s a sweet girl,” Rocky said, then left the room.        

“How can I find her?” Katherine asked Stacy.

“Good place to start is the Fortieth Street Bridge.”

“A bridge?”

“Under the bridge. It’s an encampment. A lot of the homeless stay there until it gets too cold. Some even then.”     

“Nobody told me about that.”

Stacy shrugged. “Like you, we do the best we can.”

“How far?”

“Just a few blocks. Walking distance.”

“Maybe I should take a cab.”

“Oh, that’s right.” Stacy reached out and touched Katherine’s arm. “They told me you were in an accident or something. Said it was in the news and everything. Guess I missed it.”

“It’s ok. I get around fairly well but I’m still breaking in the new leg. And we’re supposed to meet McNear at his studio at ten. On Seventh Street, I believe. Is that far?”

“Wait. What? You’re meeting Brad McNear?”

“Turns out that he knows Chloe,” Katherine said. “Apparently she started showing up outside his studio.”

“Brad McNear knows Chloe? It’s true? She talks about him all the time but we just figured.” She didn’t finish the thought. “I mean, the residents talk about all kinds of crazy stuff.” She nodded toward the door. “Rocky thinks he’s a boxer. That’s why we call him Rocky.”

“Maybe he was,” Katherine suggested.

“No. Not was. Is. He’ll come in tonight and tell us all about the fight he just won.”

“I guess it’s hard to take what Chloe says at face value.”

“How did you learn about McNear and Chloe knowing each other?”

“He called me.”

“Brad McNear called you? This story just keeps getting better.”

“You don’t know the half of it. Apparently Chloe was in his studio and one of my interviews or something was on TV. Chloe saw me and pointed me out to Brad. But she didn’t say Mom or Mother or anything like that. She called me Katherine.”

“Why would she call you Katherine?”

“Long story. He didn’t think anything of it at the time, but one of his bandmates bought a copy of my book. He picked it up one day and read the cover blurb and something just clicked. With the internet, the rest was easy. He found my number and called last week, told me all about Chloe. Apparently, he’s recorded one of her songs.”

“Chloe?”

“Hard to imagine, I guess.”

“But Chloe doesn’t know you’re in town? Doesn’t know you’re meeting with McNear?”

“No. We were afraid she’d leave.”

“This is amazing.”

“I don’t know about amazing. Brad called because he’s concerned about her long-term well-being. She can’t go on living on the streets. We have to figure out a way for her to come home with me.”

Stacy nodded. “Yeah. She’s a smart kid, but it’s so dangerous out there.”

“Guess I’d better call a cab.”

“No,” Stacy said as she stood from the table. “I’ll get one of our guys to run you down. He can hang around and take you to the studio, too.”

“That’d be great,” Katherine said.

Stacy left the dining room and Katherine walked to the coffee urn on the counter and poured herself a cup, leaned against the counter and took a sip. The bitterness curled the back of her tongue and she set the cup back down on the counter. As she turned to head back out to the lobby of the Jericho House, two men walked through the dining room headed toward the back door. The first man looked her way and smiled. The second man glanced, then looked away. Her legs went weak and she had to grip the counter to keep from falling. He had grown a beard and his hair was long, falling on top of his turtleneck collar. She didn’t see the tattoo, but it was him. She was certain.          


1 – James Brown

The trail was lit brightly by the moon and he knew the first overlook was just ahead and he wondered how magnificent it might be, bathed in that reflected light of the sun a million miles away. So he followed the trail a little farther until the forest opened up and he began to see a dark gray canvas of shapes and shadows and a pale glow tinting the horizon. The trail gave way to slabs of flat granite interspersed with scrubby pines and he walked slowly, not wanting to get too close to the edge of the overlook known as Lindy Point. He looked for a place to sit, to take it all in, to let the cool night air wash over him. A large, flat boulder was two steps away.

He moved forward, then stepped beside the boulder where he would turn and lower himself onto the rock. But what he was sure was solid ground was only darkness and his foot stepped into nothing and then he was falling and the sudden sensation awakened every nerve and muscle as he grasped for something – anything – to break his fall. But there was only smooth rock and as his knee hit the sandstone his fingers found a crevice which did nothing to break his fall and as the rock ripped off the nails of his first three fingers, he fell backwards into the dark night.

2 – Katherine Loudendale

She pushed herself up off the rock into a sitting position. Her head throbbed and she touched her forehead and felt the swelling knot. Moonlight filtered through the trees and she could see the shapes and silhouettes of the forest. She recognized nothing.

Her back, her hips, and her legs ached when she moved. Her throat was parched and she could barely swallow. She reached for the straps of her backpack, but there were no straps. She looked around, patting the rock in the darkness, then forced herself to her feet and looked beyond the flat rock on which she was standing. No sign of anything. No backpack. No water. Nothing. And that’s when she noticed her feet. She was wearing her blue sneakers, not her boots. Which meant she had definitely set up camp. She always packed her sneakers for her weekend getaways to give her feet a break around the campfire. Her left foot was stinging. The canvas of her sneakers was ripped and wet with blood. She sat back down and took off her shoe and peeled off her sock. Across the top of her foot, a long cut.

She took a deep breath. It would come back to her. She just needed a minute to get her bearings. She looked at her wrist to check the time, but her GPS watch was gone, too.

That she would be in the forest made sense. Just another of her backpacking weekends. That she was alone wasn’t a surprise. She liked hiking solo, despite her father’s misgivings about going out by herself. She was forty-three, and though she ran the company he founded, in some matters he still treated her like she was seventeen.

It’s a fine line between calculated risk and just plain reckless, he had said.

But when? She couldn’t remember the last time she had spoken to him. She couldn’t remember what day it was. If she was in the forest, it had to be Saturday. Or maybe Friday. If it had been a particularly stressful week she would sometimes take off early, leaving Christian in charge of the office. For that matter, it could be Thursday.

But in the middle of the forest with no gear? No. That wouldn’t happen.

Everything she would ever need was in her pack. Water. Food. First aid kit. Knife. Matches. Hand-held GPS to back-up her new trekking watch. Pepper spray. Something about the pepper spray. She rubbed the thumb and forefinger of her right hand together, then she held them to her nose. The smell was strong and distinct. She had used the pepper spray.

Maybe a bear. That would make sense. Maybe she had set up camp. A bear wandered in. She used her pepper spray to try to ward him off. But that didn’t explain why she was sitting on a rock in the middle of the woods. Whatever the reason, she knew her camp would be close by. It made sense. She could find it easily by hiking in ever-widening circles.

She put her bloody sock and shoe back on and started walking toward the edge of the darkness that defined her field of vision. She turned to her right and began to walk the imaginary circle in her mind. It didn’t take long for her to see that she was on a slope, the side of the mountain. Her campsite of choice was always a high point, preferably on a ridgeline. She started hiking up the hill. But the woods were thick and she didn’t see the thicket of briars until they were cutting her legs and thorns were piercing her feet. It took her what seemed like half an hour to pull the briars off her shirt and out of her hair and still there were fresh cuts on her legs, arms, and even her face. Once clear of the thicket she knew she had to wait for daylight.

It was a relatively warm night and survival wasn’t going to be an issue and she would only be a little uncomfortable. In the morning she would be able to get her bearings, maybe even hike to the top of the ridge and quickly determine where she was. How she got there was still a mystery.

She hiked down from the briars hoping to find a change in the topography, an ancient slip where the land leveled out a bit and leaves collected on the forest floor. But after a couple of minutes she decided to sacrifice a little comfort for the need to retrace her steps the next day. She found a relatively clear area and pushed aside enough debris to give her a smooth place to lie. She gathered leaves in a higher pile for her head and hoped she wouldn’t need more to serve as a blanket. As experienced as she was in the forest, she didn’t like the idea of covering herself with decaying litter and the critters that come with it. Bad enough that she would be on top of them. When she was satisfied with her bedding, she lay down, one foot atop the other, her arms across her chest. She stared into the darkness, the leaves of the trees moving in shadow above her. Sleep would come slowly.

3 – James Brown

He awoke, at first thinking he was in bed at home. The old home. He was thirteen. His sister asleep in the other room. Mom and Dad still together. But that was twenty-five years ago. That family was long gone.

He was cold. He looked to the right where his window should have been in his Charleston apartment, glowing with light from the streetlight outside. But it wasn’t the streetlight. Moonlight, maybe.

Then he remembered. He was camping. Upward Bound. Weekend retreat.

He was cold. He reached for a blanket and felt around and found nothing. He tried to sit up but pain in his back forced him back down. He closed his eyes and soon he was asleep again.

Half an hour passed before he regained consciousness, and this time, even though he had no illusions of dreaming, he had no sense of where he was or how he had gotten there. He pulled himself into a sitting position, ignoring the pain and stiffness, and by the light of the moon he could see mountains, miles away. He was at the overlook. But something wasn’t right. He was in a thicket on a narrow ledge. No. Not the overlook.

He took note of his injuries. First was his knee. His jeans were ripped and there was a long ugly cut caked in dried blood. A dull ache on the back of his head. His fingers throbbed. He looked at his right hand and saw more dried blood where his fingernails used to be. His tried to hold up his left hand but pain shot through his elbow.

Although everything he saw seemed real, from the bright moon and the mountains to the trauma inflicted on his body, he had no idea what had happened or where he was or why he was sitting on the side of a mountain. He fumbled for his cell phone in his jacket pocket and discovered he wasn’t wearing his jacket.

He stood and looked up at the sheer rock face extending maybe fifty feet above him and knew he couldn’t go up. He looked to his right, and then his left. Either way seemed passable. He turned to the left. His first step was shaky and he reached and steadied himself against the rock. He took two more steps and stopped. With his next step he would have to clear the underbrush with his foot. He swept the vegetation slowly, making sure his footing was good. He reached for the rock again but misjudged the distance and teetered to his right until his hand touched the sandstone. He took a deep breath. He could wait. He should wait. But he had to move. He was alone on the side of a mountain.

He looked ahead. One step. Then another. He was feeling a little better, his head a little clearer. Another step through the brush, but this time his foot failed to find firm ground. Before he knew what was happening he was falling again, this time tumbling down the mountain. He tried to grab at branches and managed to snag a twig but thorns ripped his flesh. As he rolled over rocks and briars, he felt himself going airborne – just long enough for a feeling of weightlessness to register – before he crashed back to the ground, smashing through a sapling. He finally stopped against a massive tree trunk a couple hundred yards farther down the mountain. After a few seconds he opened his eyes, his face planted in the forest floor.

Dazed, he got to his feet and began walking parallel to the contour of the hill, this time going to his right. He could only see moonlight reflected off leaves and the darkness of their shadows. Tree trunks were a combination of black and gray lines. He walked without conscious thought, not even thinking of why he was tromping through the underbrush. He just walked.

Two hours passed, and then he stopped. His legs were weak and his skin felt cold and clammy. He started to fall but staggered toward a tree and managed to remain upright. When he felt his stomach starting to heave he took two deep breaths, hoping to stave off what he knew was inevitable. It worked for a moment, and then it didn’t. He staggered backwards and eased back down to the ground. His heart was pounding. He took another deep breath and closed his eyes.

4 – Katherine Loudendale

It was a restless sleep and Katherine was glad to see the dawn creeping into the forest. She was unsure how many times she awoke or how much sleep she actually got, but she knew it wasn’t nearly enough. She stretched out over her bed of leaves and grimaced at the stiffness of her muscles and joints and tried to work out a kink in her back. As she sat up, a sharp pain cut through her shoulder blades causing her to catch her breath as she went back down. She took a moment to take another breath and slowly pushed herself up, powering through the pain. She sat upright for a few minutes as she thought about her next move.

A grey light was coming to the forest and from the rising sun she determined her compass bearings. She still had no memory of why she was away from her camp or how far from it she was. She would hike up to the ridge and try to find it, but if she were in the general area of her usual overnights, she knew the state park would be in a general southwesterly direction. She’d give herself an hour and then move toward the park, though really, depending on where she actually was, there was a good chance she would miss it.  

A heavy dew had settled in the forest. She looked around and found several fleshy leaves and rolled them together to form a funnel cup. Then she spent twenty minutes going from leaf to leaf knocking the dew off and into her leaf cup until it was about half full. She carefully raised it to her mouth and sipped it slowly. It wasn’t enough to keep her hydrated but it felt good on her parched lips. She repeated the process two more times. She knew she’d eventually come across a stream and but without her filter, she wanted to avoid drinking ground water. As for food, she could easily survive for a few days without eating, and worse case, she could find nuts, berries, and even roots. But surely she’d have made her way out before she resorted to the forest food.

Her one-hour limit turned into two and though she had found a ridge, she saw no sign of her camp, no trail, or anything that indicated that anyone had ever been through the forest. She checked the angle of the rising sun but the higher it rose, the harder it was to get her bearings. If she was off even a little, she would easily miss the park. Or just hike through its forest without even knowing it.

She began walking back down the ridge and after an hour, she came across a clear-running stream. She knelt along its banks, scooped a handful and splashed her face. She wanted a drink. Then she leaned back against a tree and closed her eyes and listened to the stream flowing over the rocks. She was asleep in minutes.

Then a gunshot.

A long war whoop.

She recognized the voice.

Jar.

5 – James

It was the cold that awakened him and though he was shivering and his body ached, his head was clear. He sat up and looked around. Nothing was familiar, but he remembered everything. He had wanted some time to himself and had walked to Lindy Point. He had broken group protocol. Never hike alone. But it hadn’t really been a hike. Just a short ten-minute walk. And then he fell. How, exactly, was still fuzzy. But he had fallen. And how far he had fallen wasn’t clear. And he remembered walking afterward. Walking in the night.

As the sun was just beginning to turn the black sky to grey, he knew it would be at least another hour before anyone noticed him missing. They’d gather for breakfast in the dining hall. They probably wouldn’t notice his absence at first, but as time passed someone would realize that he wasn’t there. They would likely assume he was sleeping in, skipping breakfast. And it wouldn’t be until the first team-building exercise at eight o’clock that they would send someone to the bunkroom for him. After a quick look around the camp they would start to get concerned. Eventually they would start searching in earnest. He had to get back before that happened. He wasn’t the new guy anymore, but he wasn’t that far removed. Not the way to make a good impression.

He stood up. He was missing a shoe. One of his new hiking boots. He had probably lost it in the fall. Or falls. There was a recollection of falling twice. Or maybe it came off after he had started walking.

He had worn a jacket, a windbreaker. It was early fall and summer had lingered. The days were still warm, but the group had been warned about the cold nights in the mountains. Even so, it was only cool when he had slipped out of the bunkroom for his walk to Lindy Point. The windbreaker was all he had needed. But that was gone now, too.  He had a t-shirt under his flannel shirt but that wouldn’t do much to keep him warm. The sole of his shoeless foot ached and burned from a hundred scratches and a dozen bruises from walking barefoot through the forest. He took off his flannel shirt, then his t-shirt, which he wrapped around his foot and tied a knot to hold in place. It wasn’t a shoe but it would give a little protection as he walked. Then he put his flannel shirt back on.

His legs ached. He had been told they would do short hikes, nothing too strenuous, and he had considered trying to get in better shape prior to the retreat, but in the end, he had done nothing. He was at least twenty pounds overweight and his legs were feeling it. He knew it wouldn’t get any better as he continued to find his way back to the group.

But how? Logic said he had to go back up. If he could get back to the top of the mountain, he would likely hit a trail that would lead him back to camp. Might even make it back before breakfast was over.

He looked up. Almost vertical. No way. He’d have to find another path. He’d follow the hillside, traversing upward until he could move up more directly. But which direction? One way would take him closer, the other farther away. East? West? Why not north or south? He hadn’t even looked at a map since he left Charleston. Who looked at maps anyway? He knew the sun rose in the east and set in the west and so the lightening sky at the top of mountain meant he would eventually be hiking toward the east. For what that was worth. And if the sun was rising to his left as he hiked the side of the hill that meant he was heading north. Maybe northeast as he tried to angle upward.

He had been walking for about an hour when he saw another rock face about a hundred yards ahead. Maybe the base of Lindy Point. He fought his way through a dense thicket to the base of the cliff. He looked up, then touched the face of the rock. There were no rock protrusions or footholds that he could use to climb.

There was hardly a ledge at the base of the cliff, then another steep drop. He walked slowly, making his way along the cliff, examining each foothold before fully committing. The face of the cliff changed as he inched along and he began to see trees growing in crevices that he might be able to use to climb. He kept moving, his optimism growing, and when he reached a point where he was ready to try, he looked up.

Though sunlight had started to lift the darkness, he still couldn’t see all the way up. He wasn’t sure there were enough handholds to make the climb. And if he started, he would have to go all the way. He knew he couldn’t risk another fall.

He studied the rock for another ten minutes. As his vision improved, he realized he couldn’t climb it. And even more disheartening, he could see that there were no railings at the top, no sign that this particular rock had been made safe for hikers. It wasn’t Lindy Point.

As bad as his situation was, he knew then that it might be worse than he had first thought. He leaned back against the cliff and slid to the ground. He stared straight ahead as the mist of the morning floated in and around the forest trees, the filtered sunlight painting a beautifully terrifying picture of the world in which he was lost.

There had to be a way out. He’d keep moving northward, inching his way up the mountain. He’d find his way. Or worst case, his co-workers would find him. He started to get back up when he heard a pop in the distance. Very faint. But he knew the sound of a gunshot. Knew that it was a rifle. Knew that it was a 30-06 Winchester. But he didn’t really know that. He was no expert on firearms. In fact, he hadn’t touched a gun in twenty-five years and never would again. The 30-06 was his father’s gun.

6 – Katherine

Jar. Jarhead. Former Marine. Smelled of three days without a shower. And whiskey.

Another guy, too. Floyd. No. Lloyd. The quiet one. Polite.

But it was Jar that haunted her. And then it all came back to her.

She had run into the two of them on the trail. She knew when she met them something wasn’t right. They weren’t carrying packs as they came out of the woods on a side trail. Lloyd had seemed alright, even if he was a little skittish, but Jar was different. He had a look about him. He stared a little too hard when he spoke to her.

“We got a camp back that way,” he had said as he nodded over his shoulder, never taking his eyes off her. “You out here by yourself?”

“Meeting friends,” she had told him. A lie. “And I’m late.”

As they talked she reached behind her and unzipped the pocket that held her pepper spray.

“Friends.” He smiled as he nodded.

“Yeah. We come out here most weekends.”

Lloyd gave her a practiced smile and then turned to Jar.

“Let’s go.”  And then to Katherine, “Enjoy the rest of your day, ma’am.”

After that she had picked up her pace, stopping now and then and going off the trail to see if they might be following. She never saw them again. But as a precaution she had taken her folding knife from her pack and put it in her pocket, along with her pepper spray.

That was yesterday. She should still have her knife and pepper spray, but she reached in her pocket and found it empty.

There had been a struggle. She had built a fire and was sitting on a rock going over the weekly account summaries on her tablet. She told her father that her time in the forest was her way of getting away from the business, but that was another lie. She had officially been President of Loudendale Communications for five years, but it had only been about ten months since her father had stepped down as Chairman of the Board, and even as his role in the company diminished, he still cast a long shadow. So she never left the office behind. And as she sat reviewing the reports, she had all but forgotten about Jar and Lloyd.

And then there he was. Standing on the other side of the campfire, bottle to his side, staring, grinning. She had let out a scream.

“Relax. I just stopped by to say hello to my new neighbor.”

“How long have you been here?” The thought that she hadn’t heard him approach unnerved her. Almost as much as the fact that he was standing there now.

He held out the bottle. “Share a drink with me?”

“I want you to go.” She put down her tablet and felt the knife and pepper spray in her pocket. Her pack was about ten yards away, beside her sleeping bag. She had elected to sleep in the open and not pitch her tent.

He walked around the campfire and before she realized what he was doing he was standing between her and her pack.

“Where’re your friends?”

“Look, I don’t mean to be cold, but you really need to leave.”

“Come on, just one drink.” He took another step toward her and wobbled a bit.

“That’s close enough, jarhead.” She pulled the knife from her pocket and opened the blade.

“Not any old jarhead. Special Ops, baby. I tracked the bad guys in the mountains of Afghanistan.” He took a drink from the bottle. “Just like I tracked you.”

“Go back to your camp. To whatever you and Lloyd have going on here. You don’t need any trouble.”

“Call me Warren.”

“Go.”

“Come on, baby. Let’s party.” He stepped closer.

She stood and pointed the knife toward him.

“Put that down before you get hurt.” He took another step and was within arm’s length. “We’re going to do this.”

Katherine raised the knife in front of her and across her body to the left, then lunged forward and slashed down in a wide arc that would have cut Jar from his right shoulder, across his chest, and down his left forearm – had she made contact. Her momentum caused her to lose her balance and she fell slightly toward Jar just as he was reaching for her right hand. He twisted it backward and she had no choice but to let the knife fall to the ground. He turned her around so that her back was toward him and he held her in a chokehold with both arms. She tried to kick backwards, then tried to stomp his toes, but his legs were straddled and again she did nothing but stir the air.

“Come on, honey, I’m just wanting to be sociable and you’re trying to hurt me.” He kissed the side of her face and his beard scraped across her smooth skin. “Let’s just have a little fun.” She smelled the whiskey on his breath. And something on his clothes, a chemical smell. As he spoke, she felt his hot breath on her face.

His hand slid down the front of her knit shirt and any thought she had of talking her way out of the situation left in a cold shiver. She grabbed at his arm and tried to use his higher center of gravity to her advantage. She pulled hard as she bent her knees and tried to flip him over her back.

“Whoa, baby,” he said. “You’re not big enough to try that move.” He picked her up and carried her to her sleeping bag. The ease with which he lifted her terrified her. She was still facing away from him and in one move, he spun her toward him and dropped her onto the sleeping bag. Her back landed on a rock underneath and she let out a cry. Jar fell on top of her, pinning her arms and legs with the sheer weight of his body. He dripped sweat on her face as he tugged at her clothes, making noises that were a gross mix of laughing, grunting, and belching. She felt one of his coarse, hard-edged hands tugging at the buttons on her shorts.

Her face first flushed hot, then ice cold. She knew she was going into shock. Her right hand reached into her pocket and found the pepper spray. She shot a stream in his direction but missed before he knocked it out of her hand.

“You’re resourceful, I’ll give you that.” And then he laughed.

She looked to her right, following the flight of the pepper spray and found a rock within reach and without thinking, smashed it into the side of his head.

“Son-of-a-bitch!” He stopped pulling at her clothes and held the side of his head. Katherine pushed him to one side just enough to slide out from under him. She scrambled to her feet but before she could take a step he grabbed her left leg and started to pull her back down. She kicked him hard in the face with her right foot. She hadn’t thought to kick with the sole of her foot and instead, her toes took the brunt of the impact. She ignored the pain as Jar rocked back slightly, Katherine saw her knife just a few feet from her sleeping bag. She grabbed it and while he was starting to get to his feet, she swung the knife hard, this time making contact as it cut through his shirt and sliced his shoulder. She took another swing but this time missed, and he grabbed her leg and pulled her to him and backhanded her across her face. She fell sideways and dropped the knife. As he was moving toward her, she kicked him square in his face, this time with her heel, as hard as she could. His eyes had been menacing, but to Katherine, they now were terrifying. If her fear before was rape, she now feared for her life. She scrambled to her feet and sprinted into the dark woods.     

Branches scraped her legs as she ran and she tripped several times but managed to keep her balance. Behind her she could hear twigs snapping and heavy breathing as he pursued. Her eyes began adjusting to the darkness and she could make out shapes as she ran. She bound over and around rocks and shrubs and trees. She heard Jar cry out and then heard a thud as he hit the ground. She kept running.

After ten minutes she no longer heard sounds behind her. She stopped to listen but the only sound she heard was her own heavy breathing and the pounding of her heart. She knew she couldn’t stop. She had been fooled by him before. Even drunk, he might be able to track her. She kept going, but slowed to a fast walk, stopping every few minutes to listen.

After an hour she had slowed considerably as the rush of adrenalin subsided. Terror gave way to more rational thought as she realized she had survived the attack, only to consider that she was likely lost in the forest, without her GPS, without a map or compass, and more importantly, without any food or water. The moon was bright in the sky but the forest canopy shielded her view of the stars. Any celestial navigation would have to wait until morning.

And then the crack of branches, the rustle of leaves. Maybe an animal. Probably a deer. But maybe Jar. She took off again, running in the dark. But she was tired and her body was not responding as before. She didn’t see the rock outcropping and her toe caught the edge and she went down face-first on the hard sandstone and she was out.

All of that was the night before. Jar was still around. She had to keep moving.

Her plan was to go downhill, away from the high ground where Jar and Lloyd had made their camp. With no provisions and no equipment, she had to get out of the forest quickly, but given her physical condition she knew it would be difficult.

Two hours passed but it was hard for her to judge time. All she knew was that she’d been moving for a long time. Her feet ached and her legs stung from sweat flowing into the scratches that seemed to multiply by the minute.

The sun should have been bright overhead but after morning the woods seemed to get darker and the wind picked up. She heard the rain before she felt it, heavy drops pelting the tree canopy overhead before they began to filter through the leaves and reach the forest floor.

She hiked all day in the rain, but found no trail or any sign that anyone had ever been there. Along the way she had managed to collect water from the rain and stay hydrated, and late in the afternoon, she came across wild blueberries, and while they wouldn’t do much to meet her need for protein, it helped to just be able to eat something.

The cold rain continued into the evening and she pulled branches from small trees and managed to weave a blanket of sorts and took cover near a rock outcropping that gave her some protection from the worsening weather. She knew it would be a sleepless night. If nothing else, her body would rest and she would find her way out the next morning. Monday morning. She had to get out soon. A cold front was moving in.

She was usually the first one in the office. Christian would try to text her. Getting no response, he would try to call. He wouldn’t text her father until later in the day.

She thought of Chloe. She called her every Sunday night. But not this Sunday night. She wondered if Chloe would worry, or even notice that she hadn’t called. Special needs also meant special ways of dealing with life. She had been thinking about going to Nashville to see how she was doing. Tomorrow she would call, make plans.

Tomorrow. Or Tuesday at the latest.

She closed her eyes and sleep fell upon her.

7 – James

The Winchester 30-06 is a hunter’s rifle. The shot he heard was maybe a couple of miles away, but the sound was so faint he wasn’t sure of the direction. Maybe the next mountain over. At least it meant that he wasn’t completely alone. He could hike down the mountain, then back up again, tracking a sound that wasn’t much more than a ghost. Or he could keep on the same course which he hoped would take him to his group, which by now would be looking for him.

He thought of the mountains and envisioned one continuous ridgeline running from one end to another. Had he given it a little more thought he would have realized that the so-called ridgeline was more of a series of mountain peaks separated by valleys running in a general north-easterly direction. As his instincts drew him back up toward the top of the particular mountain he was traversing, he was, in fact, moving farther away from his camp, farther away from the nearby state park, and farther away from the gunshot that was actually a military issue semi-automatic rifle.

An hour passed, and then another. He still hadn’t reached a discernable peak. There was always more mountain, ever higher, never ending. It didn’t help that he could only see about fifty yards ahead of him. For the first time he understood the expression forest for the trees. It was hard for him to keep going as time passed and he was no closer to his goal, however vague his goal might be. And it was a slow, painful experience. The undergrowth was thick and his path was never straight, always weaving around briars and saplings and boulders and fallen trees, pulling wet spider webs from his face, slipping on leaves and stubbing his bare toes on rocks and falling more times than he would remember as the topography seemed to change with every step. 

But as he slowly rose in elevation, the vegetation thinned and his progress improved. He had been walking for several hours and didn’t notice at first that he was no longer hiking uphill, that the ground before him was relatively level, with only moderate dips and rises. He had to be at the top, but it wasn’t as he expected. There were no spectacular views and the tree canopy was still thick overhead, and most importantly, there was no trail of any kind. He had reached the peak – but so what.

He sat down and leaned against an oak. Or maybe it was a maple. Or an ash. He had no idea. It was just another tree. Another tree. Trees everywhere he looked. All the same. Forever the same.

He had never been so tired. His legs ached. His arms and hands had stiffened. His foot, wrapped in his shoe-shirt, cramped and his toes bent toward him. His jeans were ripped and legs and arms and face were traced with deep scratches. As he sat he felt his entire body tightening and he knew if he didn’t keep moving, it wouldn’t get any easier.

He was thirsty. And hungry. Hungry he couldn’t do much about, but he could look for water. Again he assessed his situation. Without the trail he had hoped to find, there was little reason to stay at the top of the mountain and maybe die of dehydration. He’d go back down and look for water. He’d go back the way he came.

He looked around. Which way had he come? He looked toward the sky but couldn’t see the sun. Not that it would have helped him if he could. This way or that?

That way, he decided as he pushed himself up. That way.

Another hour passed and he was still on level ground. He was glad for the easier hiking but his thirst was building. He needed to find water. The sky began to darken and the air, which had been still and warm, began to stir. Leaves rustled overhead. At first he welcomed the breeze against his perspiring skin but as it picked up he began to chill. He couldn’t see the clouds overhead or the gathering darkness to the west but he knew rain was coming. And another thought occurred to him. He would need to find shelter somewhere, somehow. He picked up his pace, knowing he needed to get off the ridge, back down to the outcroppings and cliffs where he might find a cleft in the rock, a shelter in the storm.

The rain and the wind came. Another hour of hiking and daylight was beginning to fade and he still hadn’t found the sheltering cave he had imagined. He came upon a fallen tree, rotting and covered in moss, but large enough to crawl underneath and find some relief from the constant rain dripping from the trees overhead. He nestled in the leaves and managed to hold in some of his body heat. Darkness fell completely and unlike the clear night before, the cloud cover shielded the light of the moon and he found himself enveloped in total darkness, unlike anything he had experienced before. The thought occurred to him that he might die. In the forest. So fitting. And just.

Years ago he had played in the woods. Not really a forest. Just woods. He and Carolyn. She was ten. He was thirteen. He no longer remembered the good times, chasing squirrels, swinging on grape vines, building a dam in the creek, burying treasures in a coffee can. All he would ever remember was the 30-06 going off and echoing through the woods. It was so sudden and final. She hadn’t screamed, never cried. And everything changed.

Six months later another shot was fired from the Winchester 30-06.

8 – Katherine and James

Morning light brought relief from the restless night. As experienced as Katherine was in the forest, she was not prepared for being lost with no provisions. And as much as she told herself she would survive, she knew this wilderness was vast and even a seasoned backpacker could get hopelessly lost by simply wandering off the trail. And she hadn’t just wandered off the trail, she had run. She had to believe she would find her way out, but there was the gnawing reality that the forest kept the bones of the lost forever.

The rain had stopped but even if the sun came out, she would be wet all day. She was cold and she knew she had to get moving to generate some heat. Jar and Lloyd had likely set up their camp on a ridge, and even if Jar was pursuing her, he wouldn’t likely go too far from the ridge. So her logical move would be to go down off the mountain, maybe find a stream and follow it to a river, which would eventually lead to a town. It might be days of hiking, but if she could get to a river, she would survive.  

And then a rumble of thunder. Still miles away but she would likely have her progress slowed by another storm. The weather in the mountains changed quickly. And if the storm brought a drop in temperature, hypothermia was a real possibility. She picked up her pace.

James was weak and felt a little sick to his stomach, but he wasn’t sure if it was nerves or a lack of food and water. The rain had let up considerably and he pulled himself out from under the log. It was morning, but not by much. He stood and slowly turned, studying the forest in every direction, looking for something that would give him a clue, maybe even subconsciously, telling him which way to go. But it all looked the same. Not even a change in topography. As he looked east, west, north and south – not that he knew which was which – he saw nothing but trees. He looked up, searching the tree canopy, and saw gently waving boughs and the dark grey sky beyond.

In the distance a crow cawed – or maybe it was a hawk – how would he know? Then there was silence. Utter silence. No rustling of leaves, no birds in the distance, just silence. For a moment he thought he had lost his hearing.

“Hello.” The sound of his speaking voice was at once soothing and vexing. That he was so conscious of his own speech disturbed him.

“Hello.”

It gave him chills. He wasn’t sure why, at first, but then he realized he hadn’t heard another voice for what, thirty hours? And he was already talking to himself.

“Well, James. It will be interesting to see if you go completely crazy before you die.”

He looked around hoping to find some berries, maybe mushrooms, something he might try. Nothing. He looked back at the log. He knew there would be bugs and worms. He wondered how hungry he’d have to be before he went that far. There had to be berries out there somewhere. But more importantly he needed water. He chastised himself for not doing more to collect rainwater the night before. He heard thunder in the distance and vowed not to make the same mistake twice.

“Get moving, James.” His voice calmed him and he was glad to comply with the directive. He started walking, direction unknown.

Katherine Loudendale looked up toward the bright spot in the clouds and correctly calculated the time at around two o’clock. Up ahead she could see the forest thinning a little and knew there was some kind of change in topography. As she moved on, she could hear the rushing water of a stream and when she reached the edge of the clearing, she stopped and looked up and down the creek. It wasn’t as large as she had thought; the sound she heard was a small waterfall.

She stepped out onto the rocky bank and saw bushes with a few blackberries that hadn’t been picked over by the birds, as well as many edible perennials. Even if she were in the forest for another week, she could easily survive on a vegetarian diet. There would be roots she could harvest that would give her a more filling meal.

But first she was going to take advantage of the waterfall. She glanced around again, more out of habit than of an actual fear of seeing anyone, then stripped down to just her blue sneakers and waded into the creek and under the rushing water. She expected cold, but the icy water literally took her breath. It was a quick shower and after a couple of minutes she was back in her clothes and sitting on a rock beside the falls.

He had hiked for hours and his pace had slowed to a stagger. He came across a shallow channel with water running less than an inch deep. He laid on his stomach and scooped water in his hands but swallowed more air than water. Still, it was something. An hour later, he came across an actual flowing stream. He easily gathered water and drank more than he should have. His stomach rumbled and he vomited all he had taken in. He lay on his back as the nausea passed, then moved upstream and drank in smaller sips. He let out a long belch but managed to keep the water down. He lay on his back again, closed his eyes and listened to the sound of the water running over the rocks.

He had no idea how much time had passed, but it felt like afternoon. The air had warmed and he knew he had to get moving again. He took another couple of drinks and got to his feet and followed the stream downhill and the sound of rushing water increased. The stream seemed to disappear in a cobble of boulders and as he neared the edge of a drop-off, he heard the rush of the falls below. He made his way slowly around the boulders, working his way down the hill and he saw the water reappear from the side of the hill forming a small waterfall. And then he saw someone, sitting on a rock with their back to the falls.

“Hey!”

He waited for the person – a woman – to turn around but there was no reaction. He had to get closer.

He scrambled over the rocks, making his way toward the falls. The stones in the stream were worn smooth and slick from moss and it was inevitable that he would fall and when he did he went down hard, hitting his elbow on the rocks and banging his already-sore knee. He had managed to keep from hitting his head but had to lie in the stream for a moment while the pain in his arm and knee subsided. He pushed himself up and started again toward the woman on the rock. But she was gone.

He was about ten yards from the falls and yelled again, hoping she was still nearby. Nothing. He jumped to the side of the creek and went up near the falls.

“Hello?” Nothing.

He walked around a large hemlock and behind the falls. He saw her out of the corner of his eye.

She grabbed him by the arm and spun him around, then flung him against the tree. His head snapped back and hit the trunk with a dull thud and he saw a flash of light. He fell face forward onto the soft blanket of forest floor and just before everything went dark he saw her draw back her leg. His eyes closed just as her blue sneaker smashed into his stomach.   

Katherine turned around quickly, ready to fend off Jar. When he wasn’t there, she crept around the tree and back toward the rocks, but saw no one. She looked back at Lloyd lying in a heap at the base of the hemlock. He moaned and started to move. Katherine took a step closer and when he started to roll over, she ran to him and pulled his arm back behind him and planted her knee in the small of his back.

“Don’t try anything or I’ll break your arm.”

“You’re hurting me,” James said.

“That’s right. Where’s Jar?”

“What?”

She pulled hard on his arm and ground her knee in his back. “Don’t screw with me. Tell me where he is or it’s going to get worse.”

“Stop, please stop. You’re breaking my arm. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

There was a whine in his voice that Katherine wouldn’t have expected from Lloyd. She took her other hand and pulled James’ head by his hair until she could see his face.

“Oh, no,” she said. She let up her grip a little and eased off his back. “Who are you?”

“I’m lost.”

“Lost from where?” She let go of his arm and rolled him over on his back.

“What’d you kick me for?”

“What are you doing out here?”

“I told you, I’m lost.”

“How’d you get lost?”

“I fell.”

She looked him over and saw the cuts and bruises and the shirt wrapped around his foot where a shoe should be. She offered her hand.

“You going to kick me again?”

“Sorry. I’ve had a rough time myself. What’s your name?”

“James Brown.”

“Right. And I’m Aretha Franklin.”

“Do you know where we are?”

“We’re in the Mon Forest. Probably.”

“So you know how to get out of here.”

“It’s a big forest, James, or whatever your name is.” Katherine looked around and then back at James. “You don’t strike me as a backpacker. What are you doing out here?”

“I was with my office group. A retreat.”

She stood and again offered her hand. He felt the warmth of her fingers close around his hand and this time felt comforted.

“I went for a walk a couple of nights ago and fell off an overlook.”

“Near here?”

James shook his head. “No. I’ve been walking around for two days now.”

He tried to take a step but lost his balance and reached for her arm to keep from falling.

“Are you ok?”

“I’m not sure. My head hurts.”

“Let me check.”

He bent over and she first saw the scabbed-over bump from his fall onto the rocks. “When did this happen?”

“When I fell off the overlook, I guess. I don’t remember.”

About an inch to the left of the older knot was a new, still-swelling bump. She touched it gently. He pulled away and then turned to face her. “How far are we from a trail?”

“It’s not that easy.”

“Because of Jerry?” he asked.

“Who?”

“The guy you’re hiding from.”

“Jar. And I’m not hiding from him. Not exactly.”

“His name is Jar?”

“Jarhead. Ex-marine.”

James nodded.

Katherine continued. “I don’t know where we are. I don’t know which direction to go to find the trail. And besides, we might run into those guys.”

“Do you have any food?” James asked.

“How long has it been since you’ve eaten?”

“A couple of days, I guess.”

“There’s plenty to eat out here,” she said as she looked across the forest. “Feeling better?”

“I think so,” he said.

He stood a little slouched and as a result was about an inch shorter than she was. He managed a weak smile.

“We need to get moving. If those guys are looking for me, they’ll likely look at all the streams and falls. Kind of a natural gathering place.”

“What if the people from my group are looking for me? Maybe we should wait here for them.”

“Look, James. If you want to wait here, that’s fine. Chances are those guys would leave you alone if they found you. I don’t think they’d apologize if they found me. I’ve got a plan to get out of here. It’ll take a few days, but I guarantee you I’m getting out. If you want to come along, you’re welcome. Or stay here. But decide right now.”

James looked at the falls, then the never-ending woods all around, then back at Katherine, who despite her worn and rough appearance seemed to be a caring person. He brushed his hands on his pants.

“Let’s go,” he said.

They talked little as Katherine led the way and James struggled to keep up. The space that separated them grew and when Katherine could no longer hear James lumbering through the brush, she stopped and let him close the gap, but always kept twenty feet between them. She kept glancing toward the sun as it began to set in the west. After a couple of hours, she came to another stream and stood on the bank as James made his way to her.

“We’ll stop here and rest a little. Take some water. I’ll see if I can find something to eat.”

“How do you do it?” James asked.

“What?”

“How do you keep going? I’m completely exhausted.”

She pointed to the stream. “Get a little water, but not too much. You never know what dead animal is decomposing upstream.” She walked into the water and squatted down and scooped a handful. She smelled, then sipped. “Seems ok, but that doesn’t mean anything.”

“Maybe we should wait.”

“For what? No guarantee that we can find anything else. And you need water to survive.”

He nodded and went over and knelt down beside her and sipped a little.

“Your hands are filthy. You’re not doing yourself any favors by drinking in that grime.”

Katherine stood and stepped out of the creek. “Wash up. It’ll make you feel better. And smell better, too. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” She walked away slowly, a much more deliberate pace than she used when hiking. She shouted back to James without turning around. “And watch out for snakes.” She stopped, bent over and examined the leaves of a sapling, pulled it out by the roots, then kept walking.

James did as he was told and took off his shoe and the shirt wrapped around his foot. His socks were soaked as he peeled them off and put them under the running water and washed them the best he could. He did the same with his shoe-shirt, which was covered in mud and other stains and starting to wear where his foot had formed a sole. He took off his flannel shirt and washed up best he could, but Katherine was wrong. It didn’t make him feel better, it just made him cold. He considered taking off his pants for a more thorough washing but decided it would be better to stay warm. Bathing could wait.

He put his shirt back on and grabbed his clothes and scrambled up to the rocks where she had told him to wait. He spread out his socks and shoe-shirt, hoping they might dry a little. A few minutes later, he saw Katherine hiking back up beside the stream bed, her arms full of branches and small trees.

She spread them out on a rock besides James, then started washing them in the water.

“What do we do with that?” James asked.

“You were expecting a burger and fries?”

“Can we eat that stuff? Don’t we have to cook it or something?”

Katherine looked down at his one hiking shoe. “What happened to the other one?”

“I don’t know. Somewhere along the way I lost it.”

“First time you wore them?” she asked.

“No. I broke them in around the house a little bit before the trip.”

“Ever been backpacking before?”

“No. This would have been my first time.”

“Welcome to the wild.”

“Do you know how to start a fire?”

Katherine laughed. “Starting a fire without matches is a lot harder than what you see in the movies. Next to impossible even in dry conditions. We’re going to have to do the best we can without fire.”

“Where’d you learn all of this?” James asked.

Katherine reached in her pockets and pulled out a a small handfuls of berries and held them briefly under the water. She held one out for James. He took it with his forefinger and thumb, studied it for a moment before he carefully put it in his mouth. He rolled it around with his tongue, trying to determine a taste before he bit into it. When he did, his face scrunched as he fought against the sour juices that made his mouth salivate so much his jaw hurt. It was all he could do to keep from spitting it out.

Katherine laughed. “Not quite ripe.”

James swallowed hard, scrunched his face again and then shook his head. “We’re supposed to eat that?”

Katherine picked up one of the plant stalks she had pulled up and twisted and pulled on the roots until she had several small pieces. “Try this,” she said.

James picked up a root and held it to his nose. “Smells like dirt.” Then he nibbled on the end and worked the fleshy root back in his mouth. “Oh,” he said as he turned his head and spit it out. “That’s so bitter.”

“Don’t waste my food, James.” She handed him another berry. “Try them together.”

He looked skeptical but he put the berry in his mouth and waited until he had chewed off a little more root before he bit down. The bitterness of the root again almost made him spit it out but he forced himself to bite into the berry, then chewed them both together. As the opposites blended in his mouth, his face relaxed a little and as he swallowed the mixture, he smiled.

“Kind of like cranberry salad.

“Happy Thanksgiving.”

9Katherine and James

“We’ll need to get away from the creek before nightfall,” she said. “We’ll go for another hour or so and then bed down.”

James nodded.

Katherine was used to giving orders and it was obvious to her that James was used to following them. As he pulled on his still-damp socks and wrapped his shirt around his foot, she was happy that he was at least compliant. He pulled on his shoe and pushed himself to his feet and stood facing Katherine.

“Which way?”

And that’s when she realized that someone more willing to think creatively, to come up with something Katherine might not have thought about, might be a better survival partner. While she had a plan, she was not at all certain that it was the right plan. Her memory of her GPS map was sketchy; she really didn’t know if her strategy would get her out of the woods in two days or two weeks. And if her navigation was off a little, or if she couldn’t keep up her caloric intake – which was a real possibility – her senses could be compromised and they could be lost for much longer than a couple of weeks. That would mean a death sentence for someone without supplies, or more importantly, fire, especially if the temperature dropped.

It wasn’t likely that anyone was looking for her yet. It wasn’t unusual for her to take extra time when backpacking. Her absence from the office probably wouldn’t be a concern until Tuesday. But James was already missing from his party and they would be looking for him. Probably already have the State Police and volunteers involved. There was a very good chance that if they could find the trail – or any trail – they would be found. She thought about it for a moment.

She really didn’t know where they were. No idea where a trail might be. And then there was Jar. She had to believe he was looking for her. Even so, finding the trail might be the best bet. Having a companion could be enough to dissuade another attack by Jar, even though she knew already that James Brown wouldn’t be much help.

So you want to know which way? So the hell do I.    

“This way.”

Katherine had slowed the pace considerably and while she still led James, he was at least able to keep up. They still didn’t speak. After what seemed an hour, they came across a fairly level section of forest, thick with hemlocks and few rocks and Katherine declared the location their camp for the night. Not that the camp would consist of anything more than a place to lie down.

“Let’s get some branches.” She walked to one of the hemlocks and started tearing off good-sized boughs. James did the same. After about five minutes they had collected a pile about a foot high.

“How much do we need?”

“A little more.”

After another five minutes Katherine started stomping around the ground, kicking small rocks and limbs away until she had established a fairly smooth surface. She dragged the limbs to the spot and started layering them, one on top of the other, making a bed of boughs about six feet square.

James went about ten feet away and started his own preparations, looking for rocks and sticks with his shoed foot.

“What are you doing?” Katherine said.

“Making my bed.”

“This is it,” she said pointing to the pile she had just made. She was gathering the remaining boughs and weaving the branches together to form a sort of woven blanket. “You’re sleeping here.”

James looked at her, then the bed of needles.

“It’s going to get cold tonight. It’s going to be hard enough trying to get some rest so we’re going to share body heat.” She continued weaving the blanket. James didn’t move. “Go get some more of these hemlock branches, then see if you can find some oak leaves or something to lay on top of them. See how good you are at making a pillow.”

James nodded and started tearing at the hemlocks.

“I’m going to see what I can find for us to eat,” Katherine said.

“What about water?”

“I’ll let you know if I find anything. Be back in a few minutes.”

When she returned she was only carrying a small handful of roots and leaves. There were no berries to counteract the bitterness. Still they ate. Unspoken between them was the knowledge that they would have to force themselves to eat what their bodies told them not to if they wanted to survive.

“What’s your story, James Brown?” Katherine asked as they sat on their bed of needles. “Family man?”

“No. Just me.” Then he corrected himself. “Well, there’s my mother, but no. No family of my own. What about you?”

“What kind of work do you do?” she asked.

“I’m an engineer.”

The last rays of sunlight had almost been swallowed by the mountains and the trees and Katherine saw only the dark outline of James, though he was only a few feet from her. It made her uneasy. She reminded herself that she was able to knock him unconscious without much of a fight and he had shown no indication that he had an aggressive bone in his body.

A cool wind filtered through the trees and brought goose bumps to Katherine’s arms. It was going to be colder than she had thought.

“It’s going to be a rough night,” she said.

“Yeah.” She could barely see his head nod.

“Look, we’re in a bad situation. We’re going to have to trust each other.”

She thought she saw him nod again.

“We’re going to have to use each other for warmth. We’ll have to be uncomfortably close.”

“Ok.”

She pictured him sitting there, grinning.

“Get one thing straight. This about survival, nothing else. If you get wandering hands, I’ll snap your fingers like one of those roots you’ve been munching on.”

“Well. Good to know. Because that’s been my plan all along. Get lost. Hike around for a couple of days, get seriously rank, and meet someone at the waterfall.” Then he laughed. 

“What?”

“Just the absurdity of it all. I’m just grateful you found me. I probably would have been dead by morning.”

“Yeah. One night at a time. Here’s what we’re going to do. You’re going to take off your flannel shirt. That’s going to be our blanket. Then put your t-shirt back on. You’ll lie down on the bed with your flannel shirt, and I’ll start getting as much needle-blanket on top as I can. Then hold it down with some larger branches. You’re holding an opening for me the whole time. Then I’ll crawl in and see if we can’t get a little rest.”

“All right.”

“We’ll have to do all of this very carefully.”

“Right.”

By then it was almost completely dark, and though their eyes had adjusted somewhat, James still had to move by feel as he crawled around on the makeshift mattress. Katherine moved likewise and it took ten minutes for both of them to get fully situated.

When she had first crawled in next to James, she was hesitant to make contact but knew she had to. So she inched her way closer as she lay on her back, until their arms touched, then their legs. They lay silently, the only sound the air moving in and out of their lungs. At first she felt nothing; James could have been just another large branch. But gradually his body heat transferred through his shirt and pants to Katherine’s skin. Ever since Anders, Katherine had preferred a lean man with sinewy muscles and smooth, taut skin. But as the unfamiliarity of their forced intimacy wore off, their bodies relaxed. His muscles let go and his body moved ever so slightly against hers. She felt his softness, his thick skin, the layer of fat just underneath. It was comforting.

After a few minutes, James spoke.

“Can I ask you a question?”

She felt the vibrations of his voice transfer through his body and come to rest in her lungs.

“Sure.”

He waited a moment. It was one of those pauses people make when they’re about to lay something heavy on you. She braced and told herself not to overreact.

He spoke again, very softly. “What’s your name?”

She thought back and realized she hadn’t told him who she was. She rationalized that she had more pressing issues – like survival – than social conventions and friendly introductions. Then she remembered that his introduction to her came as a kick to the gut.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Guess I was caught up in…” She didn’t finish the thought. “I’m Katherine. Loudendale.”

James didn’t respond as they both stared up at the darkness of the tree tops and sky.

“When you ran into those guys, were you alone?”

“Yes.” She explained her backpacking experience and how she had been hiking most of her adult life. Many times by herself, without any incidents. She waited for the usual questions and the judgmental comments. Is that wise, most would ask. Shouldn’t you carry a gun? And her favorite, I’d never let my wife/girlfriend/daughter go out like that by herself.

“You’re the boss.”

“The boss?”

“Where you work. You’re the boss, aren’t you?”

“Yeah. I’m the boss.”

“What do you do?”

She told him about The Loudendale Agency. She gave him the elevator speech out of habit.

“Second generation?” he asked.

She wasn’t expecting that at all. The question angered her, for no good rational, logical reason. And yet it did. She resisted the impulse for a smart-ass retort, mainly because there was no good rational, logical reason to act like a smart-ass.

She opted for a polite follow-up question. “So you know our agency?”

“No.”

The anger quickly faded, replaced by curiosity, then a realization that she was about to hear something she really wouldn’t like.

“How did you know?” she asked.

His answer seemed too casual. “Just a guess,” he said.

She knew he was holding back. She knew there was something he had picked up on, but she didn’t know this guy. He had somehow discerned one of her intimacies. She’d rather he had caught her naked.

One of the professional practices that she had learned long ago and that had served her well as the head of her agency was that of restraint. At first she had to constantly remind herself to literally count to ten before reacting. Practice made for habit until the counting was no longer necessary and the pause and moderation of her emotions was normal.

She wanted to push away from him, find some separation and demand how the hell he knew about her father. Instead, she gave him Part Two of her canned presentation: The History of The Loudendale Agency.

She could have been reading from the company website, which, of course, she wrote. She told him that her father founded the firm thirty years ago, after working for one the largest firms in New York.  “Charles wanted to do things differently,” she said. “He wanted to keep his company small, more of a boutique firm that would work with select clients.” As she was speaking, she knew she sounded scripted, but she didn’t care. Professional boundaries would serve her well. James Brown seemed like a bumpkin and his innocence was disarming. But all of that was offset by that one troubling insight. She ended her presentation by talking about the expansions that had occurred since she took over the firm.

“You must be very good at what you do,” he said.

That was better. More like what she would expect.

“I guess so,” she said. “I love my work.”

She felt his body move as he nodded his head.

“Step-father?”

“What?”

“Your father. You called him Charles. I figured he was your step-father.”

She let out a sound that was half-laugh, half-grunt. “No. He’s my father. I started calling him Charles after my junior year in high school. I worked at the office over the summer and thought if I called him Charles – Charlie, actually – like everybody else, I’d be accepted more readily.”

“Do you still call him Charles?”

“I guess that seems strange, but it works for us.”

Wind whistled through the trees and across their bed, chilling Katherine first, then James. Drops of leftover rain fell from the leaves above and splashed down on their blanket.

“Maybe we should trade places,” James suggested. “I’m bigger and have more insulation. I should be on the windward side.”

“I’m ok,” Katherine answered.

After a couple of minutes the wind subsided, and Katherine’s body relaxed. She hadn’t realized that she had tensed up. Too much wind and she’d have to take James up on his offer.

“How about your family?” she asked. “You mentioned you mother. Your father is out of the picture?”

“He’s dead.”

“Your mother?”

“I don’t see her anymore. She’s an alcoholic. Always high. But it’s understandable.”

They lay there for several minutes without talking. Another breeze blew across and Katherine pulled his shirt up higher over the bottom half of her face, thinking she could capture more warmth, and as she exhaled, her warm, moist breath enveloped her chin and eased down her neck. When she inhaled again, she breathed in his lingering scent. It had been awhile since she had taken in the natural essence of a man, unadorned by perfumed soap or cologne. She felt the muscles in her back soften and gently conform to the undulating contours of the ground below her. Her eyes closed. She started to drift but before sleep enveloped her, she turned slightly on her side, hardly conscious of her own being, and pulled herself close to James, her arm resting on his chest, her hand on his shoulder.

Katherine awoke several times during the night, but each time was like a drunken fog, starting with total disorientation which gradually gave way to partial realization that she had been lost in the woods and was now partnered with a strange man, before her exhausted body pulled her back into a deep, restorative sleep.

It was before dawn when she awoke again for the final time, shivering, the cold of the night finally getting to her. This time there was no ambiguity; she knew her situation without hesitation. And she saw that James was gone.

She reached out across the bed, as she might have done with Anders so many years ago, but all she felt were hemlock needles. She looked into the darkness around her, but her eyes couldn’t penetrate its thickness.

“James?”

Nothing.

Then she heard the heavy crunching of leaves, the sound coming toward her. It had to be James, but she allowed for the possibility that it wasn’t, and remained completely still, even holding her breath as the footsteps closed in. He knelt down beside her and carefully lifted the needle blanket and crawled in beside her. She felt the cold on his arms as he settled in.

“Where were you?” she asked.

“I was, you know.”

“You’re freezing.” She put his flannel shirt over him and pulled herself closer. “You’re shivering.”

“I’m ok.”

They lay together, half sleeping, neither wanting to give up the little bit of warmth they were sharing. Even after dawn began to lighten the sky in the east, they stayed. It wasn’t until the sun rose high enough above the surrounding mountains and began to penetrate the forest that they stirred.

“Why do you come out here by yourself?” James asked.

“We’ve already had this conversation.”

 “Are you married?” he asked.

“Divorced.”

“Children?”

Katherine took in a deep breath and exhaled.

“A daughter,” she said. “Chloe.”

“Does she ever come out here with you?”

Her answer was a barely audible whisper. “I haven’t seen her in a couple of years.”

They were quiet for a moment.

“She’s special needs. She was diagnosed when she was twelve and started getting treatment. The meds would work as long as she would take them. She was never normal, but she was manageable. But after a few months, she would stop taking them. She started running away when she was sixteen. Longer and longer each time. She’s twenty-two now, living in Nashville now. On the street.”

“I’m so sorry.

“Anders and I – that’s her father – tried to bring her back but she wouldn’t come. I know a social worker down there who keeps an eye out for her, but I think I’ve lost her for good.”

“Isn’t there something someone can do to help her?”

“She doesn’t want help. And until she does…”

Again, they didn’t speak as the weight of her story suppressed the conversation.

“Such a pretty name,” James said.

“I liked it because it sounded Scandinavian. Anders is from Norway. Turns out it’s Greek.”

James laughed.

Katherine sat up and patted James twice on his chest. “We need to get moving,” she said. “We’ll feel better once we do.”

James pushed off the branches and sat up. Katherine gave him his flannel shirt and he peeled off his t-shirt and wrapped it once again into a shoe. Katherine began to collect dew in a leaf-cup. It had been a night of high humidity and low temperatures and the leaves were saturated. In a few minutes she had enough for a healthy sip, and after three drinks for herself, she collected four drinks for James. She turned toward the rising sun.

“Ready?”

“Lead the way.”

She started hiking, at first with strong purpose, but then her strides slowed noticeably. She had not yet stopped when James spoke.

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m not sure we’re heading in the right direction.” She turned to face him. “You’ve got people looking for you. The sooner we’re found, the better. I’ve been running from those guys, but odds are, they’re not going to bother us. Especially if the woods are full of rescuers. Maybe we should head toward your people.”

“How do you know where they are?”

Katherine shook her head. “I don’t.

James thought about it, then looked down at his dirty toes sticking out of his shoe-shirt. “How long can we survive out here? Truthfully.”

Katherine looked away as she answered. “Probably a couple of weeks. Maybe less. Depends on how weak we get. Depends on the weather.”

“Which way were you hiking when you started, north or south?” James asked.

“North.”

“How about this? What if we turn south, maybe go for half a day, then turn west. Maybe that would put us closer to where you started.”

Katherine considered this for a moment. She didn’t like the idea of completely backtracking. His logic made sense, in a general way. But the truth was, she was so turned around in her head she didn’t know if it mattered at all. She thought, but didn’t say, that the only way they would survive was if someone found them. She thought the odds of them finding a way out on their own were pretty low.

“Let’s go,” she said, and turned left and started hiking.

10 – James and Katherine

It was around noon when they came upon a stream with a fairly steady flow of water. They had crossed several springs that trickled for a few yards and then disappeared again and they had taken on water every time without ill effect. Though they both were suffering from mild stomach cramps, Katherine attributed it to both hunger and the raw food their systems were not accustomed to digesting. She had guessed that the discomfort would continue down their digestive tracts with predictable results. She had been right.

Even though they ate and drank often, the lack of calories and the loss of fluids were taking a toll. Their pace had slowed considerably; their rest breaks had become more frequent. So the water they had just discovered seemed like an oasis. James sat on a rock and pulled off his shoe and what was left of his shirt-shoe and plunged his feet into the chilly water. Katherine went upstream a little and did the same.

“What’s with the sneakers?” James asked. “Don’t you wear hiking boots?”

“Left camp in kind of a hurry.”

Katherine bent over and splashed water on her face, then took a few sips.

“They’re not much better than your shirt.” She picked one up and looked at it. “Would you believe these are ten years old?” She put the shoe back on the rock. “They were a gift from Chloe. I usually only wear them around camp. Keeps me connected to her.”

James nodded. He didn’t know what to say.

“She’ll come back some day.” Of course he had no idea whether that was true or not and didn’t know how Katherine would take it. It just seemed like she could use some encouragement. He smiled when he said it.

“Thanks, James.” She looked out into the woods, focused on nothing. “I go back and forth all the time. I’ve accepted the fact that she probably won’t come home. That she’s probably leading a lifestyle that doesn’t end well. Drugs. Prostitution. Abuse. I’ll get a call one day. I expect it. I’ll go to Nashville or New Orleans or Los Angeles – wherever she might be living at the time – and I’ll fly out and finally bring her home for good. I’ve tried to prepare myself for that.”

The water trickled in the background.

“And yet,” she said, “I’m still hoping for a different ending.”

“Hope,” James said. “It’s what keeps us going.”

Katherine looked at James. “And what do you hope for?”

James had difficulty expressing himself honestly. Not that he was a liar, but he had become adept at obfuscation, dodging real answers in favor of less embarrassing responses. The truth: he had always failed at relationships, whether they were of the romantic type or simple friendships. James Brown had no real friends and had had only one intimate relationship.

“I just hope we make it out of here,” is what he said.

“Have you ever been married?”

James looked down at his feet. One was relatively clean and white, the other brown from the dirty forest floor and scarred from the scrapes and scratches of every twig and briar he had walked through in two days.

“No,” he said. “Never married.”

“Why not? You seem like a nice enough guy.”

“I have my theories.”

“Ok. Let’s hear them.”

He laughed. “For starters, I’m very average. Average looks, average intelligence, average personality.”

“Nothing wrong with average. It means you’re better off than at least half the other men.”

“Women don’t want average. You have to be above-average in at least one of those areas.”

Katherine thought about it for a moment. “Actually, you may be right.”

“Great.”

“What do you do in your spare time? What do you like to do?”

James didn’t hesitate. “I read.”

“Oh, yeah? What do you read?”

“Anything and everything. Fiction, biographies.”

“Authors?”     

“You don’t believe me?”

“A lot of people say they read.”

“I get it. This is a test. How about Salinger, Wolfe, Steinbeck. I like to read current bestsellers. And then there’s the literary stuff you’ve probably never heard of.”

“Oh. Well.”

“No, I didn’t mean it like that. Most people have never heard of some of the authors I read.”

“Do you write?”

“You mean like stories?” he asked.

“Yeah. Most people who read a lot eventually try their hand at writing.”

“No. I’ve never written anything. I mean in school I wrote essays and stuff like that.”

“You should write. I bet you’d be a good writer.”

James thought about it for a minute. “I wouldn’t know what to write about.”

Katherine bent down over the stream to dip some water in her hands. James couldn’t help but notice her curves. She took a few sips and then splashed water over her face, then more handfuls over her hair. When she sat up, water was dripping down her face, onto her shirt.

“You can write about this,” she said.

James’ mind had gone elsewhere and for a moment his imagination got the best of him and he thought Katherine was being provocative. “What?”

“This quest we’re on. Survival. Turn it into a story.”

“Oh,” he said. “Yeah. Maybe I could.”

The sun had been shining most of the morning but as they talked, they hadn’t noticed the gathering cloud cover until the wind picked up from the west and chilled their skin. In a matter of minutes the day had darkened considerably and what had been a gentle breeze had become stronger.

“That’s not good,” Katherine said.

            “Maybe it’ll blow over,” James said.

“It’s a cold front. I checked the weather before I left. They were predicting it would come through this week. I had planned on being home by now.”

“How cold?”

“Not sure. Colder as the week goes on. A chance of snow.”

The wind whipped through the trees as if to emphasize what she had just said.

“We need to think about what we’re going to do,” Katherine said.

“What do you mean?”

“If we’re out here in freezing weather, especially if it starts to rain or snow, with as little provisions as we have, we’re not going to make it.”

The words made James go numb as he felt the blood rush from his head. He wondered if he looked as pale as he felt.

“Change of plans,” Katherine said. “Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to follow this stream. It should eventually lead to a river. But it’s not a sure thing. Even if we find a river, we could go miles and miles before finding someone. We’re out here in the true wilderness, James. And hiking down a mountain, following a stream, can be treacherous. We’ll likely have to do some scaling down some pretty serious rock faces.”

“But you think it’s our best chance?”

She shrugged. “Who knows. But as we go down, we’ll go down in elevation and it shouldn’t be as cold.”

“That makes sense, too.”

“Well, don’t get your hopes up for a balmy afternoon. It’s still going to be damned cold.”

The wind blew strong again, this time bringing with it small, cold drops of rain.

“Put your shirt on your foot,” Katherine said. “We need to get moving.”

They followed the stream downhill and at first they had little difficulty. The rocks were small and they had no trouble traversing them, and when they came to a section that seemed a little too steep, they veered off to the side and made their way down by a series of switchbacks. It had even seemed to warm a little.

About an hour into their descent Katherine found a patch of wild chokeberry bushes. They ignored the sour taste of the not-quite-ripe fruit and picked the bushes clean. They grazed as if they were animals in the wild. Their lips and fingers became stained with blue juice.          

As Katherine ate the last of the berries, James went on ahead. They had hardly spoken since they had started following the stream; no communication was necessary. He walked slowly, not bothering to look back to see if Katherine was following. Twenty feet ahead became twenty yards, then fifty yards. And then he started to slow as well. He was breathing through his mouth, his lips felt numb and he was a little light-headed. He no longer maneuvered around obstacles, and simply relied on the swinging of his legs to clear his way through scrub and saplings. Twice he fell because he was too tired to step over a limb or a rock. Each time, he pushed himself to his feet, hesitating for a moment the second time, but he kept going. The whole time, he could hear the crunch, crunch, crunch of Katherine behind him. She never spoke, never asked if he was ok, never offered encouragement. He neither enjoyed nor resented the absence of her company, the dearth of human contact. It just was.

“James!”

He tried to stop, but his forward momentum carried him two more. He started to turn back to Katherine when he saw where his next steps would have taken him. The forest had again given way to another rock outcropping. While not a sheer drop, it was steep and rocky enough to have caused serious injury. As he stood staring down the hill he began to feel dizzy. He reached for a tree limb to steady himself but misjudged and missed the tree. He started to fall to his side and took a half-step in the direction of the drop. He was about to go to the ground when he felt Katherine pulling him from behind. They fell backward, James on top of Katherine.

He laid on his back staring up at the clouds through the tree tops as drops of rain fell on his face.

“You’re crushing me.”

Right. Katherine was underneath him. He rolled to his side and then onto his back again. She was also on her back, but her eyes were closed, her breathing seemed peaceful.

“Are you alright?”

She didn’t answer, but nodded.

The rain began falling more steadily and the wind began to pick up. What had started as a refreshing spray on his body was now beginning to chill him.

“Thanks,” he said. “How did you see that?”

“I don’t know.” She opened her eyes.

James sat up and reached to his right and pulled her up to a sitting position.

“We need to find some shelter,” she said. “We can’t keep going in this weather.”

“I don’t know if I could keep going if it was warm and sunny.”

Katherine looked around. “You go to the left, I’ll go to the right. See if you can find anything.”

“What am I looking for?”

“Maybe some rocks we can get under. Or a big log. Anything that might keep us dry.”

“Right.”

James maneuvered around the hill but was careful to stay away from the edge of the cliff. He knew he wouldn’t survive another fall. He found some boulders and crevices that enabled him to scale down the hillside a little. He looked back for Katherine but didn’t see her. The rain was beginning to pelt him even harder and the rocks were getting slick. He scaled down another ten feet and there he found not quite a cave, but a hollowed-out section of rock. It was about five feet tall at the opening and went back another five or six feet. The back of the opening had a ceiling of about four feet. It looked ideal. And dark.

It occurred to James that he couldn’t see clearly and that there might be an animal already staking a claim to the property. Probably not a bear; surely he would be able to see a bear. Maybe something smaller. Maybe a snake. Most certainly spiders.

He foraged for a branch and stood outside the opening, his feet in a ready position to jump away if something charged and rapped the stick on the rocks. Nothing. He stepped closer and rapped again. It seemed to be empty. He stooped down and looked, then got on his hands and knees. Then he noticed that the wind that had been freezing his ears had stopped. And no more rain. He stepped back outside and was immediately enveloped by the worsening weather.

He stepped out away from the rocks and yelled for Katherine. She didn’t answer.

He started back up the rocks and though climbing up was easier than going down, the rocks had become even more slippery. When he got to the top he yelled again.

“James.” She sounded weak. Something was wrong.

He yelled again, then saw her walking toward him, holding her arm. She was in obvious pain and fighting back tears.

“What happened?”

“I slipped going down the rocks. Landed on my elbow. I think I broke it.” 

He looked at her left arm. It was already swollen badly.

“Come on,” he said. “I found a place where we can keep dry.”

He guided her to the rocks, then went ahead and helped ease her down, step by step. The last boulder was large and James jumped down, then turned to help Katherine. She sat on the rock and slid a little, then James reached up and held her hips as she slid slowly, then held her waist, and finally lifted her down gently, holding her tightly as he did. He walked with his arm around her waist to the cave.

“It’s not much, but I call it home.”

Katherine managed a laugh.

“I love what you’ve done with the place.”

He went in ahead of her and leaned against the back wall. Katherine followed on her knees and one hand, trying not to put pressure on her injured arm. Once inside, he carefully pulled her to his chest and wrapped his arms around her. She didn’t resist. She fell asleep as he stroked her hair.

James didn’t know what it was. Maybe the cave was giving up stored heat; maybe it was holding their own body heat, but after about an hour, he actually felt warm. He managed to take off his flannel while barely stirring Katherine. He draped it across her legs and she turned on her side and curled underneath. Then she started shivering.

At first he thought she was just chilled and he pulled the shirt up around her shoulders and tried to cover her as much as he could with his own body. Still she shivered. He caressed her forehead and that’s when he noticed. She had a fever.

She curled up into a ball, trying to get completely under his shirt. He held her even tighter but forgot about her elbow and when he inadvertently moved her arm, she cried out.

“Sorry,” he said.

“I’m hurting,” she said in a whimper from underneath the shirt.

“Yeah, I’m so sorry. I forgot about your arm.”

“No,” she said as she whipped off the shirt.

She looked pale and her face reflected the pain. James was worried.

“My ankle. My ankle hurts.” She pulled her knee up to her chest and started squeezing on her ankle. Though the daylight was fading, James could still see that it was swollen and reddish-blue.

“Did you twist it or something?” he asked. “Maybe when you fell?”

“No,” she said. “I feel bad, James. Something’s not right.”

“Let me take a look.”

He laid her head down gently on the floor of the cave and crawled down to her feet. He tried to lift her ankle as softly as he could but she still cried out.

“Sorry.”

Her legs were scratched and laced with dried blood from all of the branches and brambles she had run through. His legs weren’t any better.

He didn’t notice them at first, thinking they were just two more marks on the outside of her ankle. But her skin was darker around those two marks, and a little more swollen. He looked closer.

“Looks like you might have a snake bite,” he said.

“What?” She sat up and tried to look at her ankle but couldn’t stretch enough to see. “No, way. I would have felt a snake bite.”

“I guess it could be something else. Maybe a spider bite. Well, two spider bites. Sure you didn’t feel anything?”

“I don’t know. After I fell and hurt my arm, I kind of went numb all over.  My legs have been taking a beating. Maybe what I thought was another briar was a snake bite.”

“What should I do?” James asked. “Should I try to suck out the venom?”

Katherine managed a laugh. “You’ve seen too many movies. That doesn’t work and it just increases the chance for infection.”

“What kind of snakes are around here?”

“The bad ones are copperheads and rattlers.”

“You think that’s what it was?”        

“Could be.”

“What should I do?”

“Airlift me to a hospital.”

“Maybe a tourniquet to keep the venom from spreading?”

“There’s nothing you can do. If I got a full bite from a rattler, I’m dead. Probably same with a copperhead. Odds are I didn’t get a full bite, though.”

“So you’ll be ok?”

“Depends.”

“On what?”

“On whether or not I get better.”

“I don’t know what to do,” James said.

“It’s so damn cold.” Katherine curled back into a ball. James put his shirt over her and lay down next to her, his arms wrapped carefully around her.

Katherine turned all night, waking in pain, freezing cold one minute, burning up the next. More often she was cold and shivering. James fell asleep a couple of times, but mostly he was awake, caressing Katherine and trying to keep her comfortable.

Morning crept into the cave, sharing its subdued sunlight stingily. He didn’t notice until once again Katherine tossed off his shirt.

“I’m so thirsty,” she said without opening her eyes.

“I’ll get you some water.”

He found some leaves to collect water from the stream and was surprised when he stepped out of the cave to see the bright sunlight. It was briskly cold but feeling the sun on his skin lifted his spirits. He carried water back to her a dozen times.

“How are you feeling?” he asked.

“Not so good.”

He crawled down to look at her ankle, which he could see much more clearly than he could the night before. The swelling was worse and the discoloration was darker and moving up her leg. He tried to lift her leg so he could see the other side but she let out a soft cry when he touched her.

He had no first-aid experience and no medical knowledge but he knew her condition wasn’t good. He had never been good in emergency situations; he always seemed to freeze up. A couple of years ago he was talking to a co-worker when she suddenly turned pale, closed her eyes, and passed out right in front of him. He saw her weaken, watched her legs buckle, and then collapse in a heap at his feet. He had made no effort to catch her or hold her up, not because he didn’t care, but because his mind wasn’t wired for a rapid response.

As Katherine lay in front of him, shaking, weak, and in so much pain, he had no idea what he should do. He tried to think. What would a doctor do?      

Keep her warm. She still had his flannel shirt over her. Elevate the feet? Maybe that would keep the swelling down. He went outside and found a good-sized rock, then gathered some of the forest humus to put on top of the rock to act as a cushion.

“I’m going to raise your foot,” he said. “It will hurt but we need to get the swelling down.”

He lifted her leg – again she cried out – but he continued and slid the rock and debris underneath, then placed her leg back down on the rock. She was breathing hard and her eyes were closed.

“Your leg’s getting worse,” he said.

She nodded. “Get help.”

He felt so useless. She was going to die. He stroked her hair, trying to give her some comfort.

“Go,” she said.

He didn’t know if she knew what she was saying or if she had lost touch with reality. Did she realize they were lost in the wilderness? Maybe she thought it was the best chance for her survival. For James to go on, probably making better progress without her, then send for help. But James did not have the skills that Katherine had. There was no way he would be able to guide rescuers to where she was.

Maybe she was sending him away so she could die by herself. Katherine Loudendale lived her life alone, by choice, he thought, and now wanted to die alone.

James crawled out of the cave and stood and looked down the rocks. It was not passable. He looked to his right and saw that the sheer rocks went on for some distance. To his left, across the stream, the boulders seemed to have collapsed upon themselves. Beyond, the rocks seemed to be absorbed by the ground. That’s the way he should go. He knelt down and sipped a handful of water.

He went back to the cave and slid his hands under Katherine.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m not leaving you here,” he said. “We’re going to find a way to get out of here.”

As he inched her out of the cave, her cries were at first shrill, then softer, and by the time he had made it to the ledge outside, she had either gotten used to the pain, gone numb, or forced herself to ignore it. He walked to the edge of the stream and set her on one of the larger rocks. He lowered her swollen ankle into the water then put his shirt over her shoulders.

“Oh,” she said with a slight moan, “that feels good.”

“I’m going to get something to eat. Be right back.”

He returned ten minutes later with more berries and roots, similar to what Katherine had harvested the day before. Similar, but he couldn’t be sure they were the same. Calculated risk. Eat and die. Don’t eat and die. Not good odds anyway he looked at it.

They ate for another half-hour and Katherine, while still weak and unable to walk, at least was able to communicate clearly.

“Your best chance is to leave me here, James. Leave me some food. I can get to the water. I can survive for days. You can come back for me.”

James knew it was a lie. It was going to get colder and in her weakened condition, if the snake bite didn’t get her, hypothermia would. He was going to get her out. Or at least he was going to try.

He pointed across the stream. “We’re going that way,” he said.

“I can’t walk.”

“I’ll help you through the hard part.”

“No, James.”

But before she could protest any more, he took off what was left of his shoe-shirt and wore it once again as a shirt. He was cold, but he would have to ignore it. He pulled Katherine up by her waist, pulled her arm over his shoulders, and started to walk across the stream. She hopped on her good foot and whimpered when her swollen ankle swung against his leg or stubbed on a rock. It took them almost an hour to get through the boulders and back on level ground. By then James was sweating.

“Ready to ride?” he asked.

“What?”

He maneuvered in front of her, pulled her good arm around his neck, then reached behind and lifted her behind her knees onto his back. He started walking, taking small slow steps. He didn’t know how long he would be able to carry her. The truth was, he was almost as weak as she was.

But this would be his burden. They may not survive, but he would do this one last good thing, even unto death.

11 – James and Katherine

James walked bent over, carrying Katherine on his back. He occasionally had to hitch her up higher and bend forward a little more to keep her arms around his neck. She never spoke, and James wasn’t sure if she was asleep or even conscious.

He moved slowly focusing on nothing more than his next step, avoiding trees that might brush against Katherine’s swollen ankle, briars that would rip her flesh, and camouflaged rocks that might cause him to lose his balance and send her crashing to the ground.

But he did not stop.

The detritus of the forest floor had shredded the t-shirt wrapped around his foot, and the constant stinging had become a more intense burn as sweat and dirt worked into the cuts that multiplied with every step.

But he did not stop.

Katherine cried out as her ankle, now full of poison and puss, swung against his hip. Or maybe it was her fractured elbow. He wanted to comfort her, wanted to ease her pain.

One hour stretched into two, then three. The sun was high in the sky but it was cold and the wind was picking up and the clouds were again starting to thicken. The air was brisk and his bare foot, his fingers, his nose and his ears were almost numb. Though he had endured his share of misery, he had never been tested physically like this before. He was certain he would fail, knew he would collapse at any moment, and he and Katherine would die quietly, never to be found. But he managed somehow to continue, to persevere despite his discomfort, to keep his legs moving as they became heavier with each step, to ignore his thirst and hunger.

“James,” Katherine whispered, her breath warm on his neck. “I’m thirsty.”

He was afraid to stop. Afraid he might not be able to move again. Afraid that if he paused, even for a few minutes, he’d be tempted to try to shelter. And as cold as it was becoming, he was afraid they would die.

So he did not stop.

But after another two hours, he came to another cliff, dropping off in front of him so steeply that climbing down was impossible. The stream he had been following gathered in a small pool before tumbling over the cliff and splashing down far below. He walked toward the stream and found a flat boulder and eased Katherine down. Her ankle, black and swollen, fell onto the rock but she didn’t make a sound. She lay on her side, virtually lifeless.

He looked around for shelter, something that would protect her from the wind and rain. He found a small cleft in the rocks, only large enough for Katherine, then went about collecting branches and leaves to make her the best bed he could. He carried her to the small cave and tucked his shirt all around her, then went to get water and food.

When he returned he could barely rouse her to take a few sips. The berries he laid beside her. He touched her forehead and was alarmed at the heat she was giving off. He pulled off his boot, then his sock, and took it to the water where he washed it, then brought it still wet and cold, and placed it across her head.

“I’ll be back in a few minutes,” he said. He kissed her cheek.

He looked up at the sun and judged he had a couple of hours before dark. His plan was simple: explore a little, try to find the best way down the mountain, then come back and spend the night with Katherine. And pray.

It had been more than twenty-five years since James Brown had been in a church. They had always gone as a family. The little church on the hill. He remembered the singing, loud and boisterous, the old lady banging piano chords, the preacher yelling the hymns at the twenty or thirty adults as kids like him fidgeted and thought about what the Sunday afternoon might bring. Prayer was a communal activity, all praying at the same time, beseeching a God he didn’t know to cure all their ailments, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, praise the Lord. It scared him.  And then there were the quiet prayers after he killed his sister. And again after his father had died. Prayers of others. Because he knew God – if there was a God – wouldn’t hear his prayers.

But now it was all he had. So he prayed, not for himself, but for Katherine who he knew was more deserving of mercy than he would ever be. So he prayed.

Even with prayer, he knew she probably wouldn’t make it. And if she died, he wouldn’t be far behind. “Please, God, let her live.”

He made it down the rocky cliffs and once again began his mindless step after step after step, ignoring the pain and weariness and mental fatigue. The ground leveled and though he noticed, he had forgotten his purpose, his reason for leaving Katherine alone, and was simply walking again, his head light and dizzy, his eyes watering, his lips numb.

“Please.” It was all he could manage.

Scratches on his leg. A thorn in his foot.

The wind blowing hard. His body shivering.

Then, underfoot, there were no sticks, no rocks, the ground smooth like soft mulch. Then as quickly as the respite came, it was gone. Sticks, thorns, rocks. He had gone maybe fifty feet when he stopped. He turned and looked back, then started retracing his steps.

He stepped out of the underbrush and onto the groomed trail.

His heart raced. A whimper of joy released itself and at once he felt new life. He looked up the trail – north, by reckoning of the setting sun – then down the trail, south. He would go fifteen minutes, he told himself, then head back to Katherine. Tomorrow he would find a way to get her down to the trail.

He took a few steps south. Then he stopped, took what was left of his shoe-shirt and tied it to a tree to mark the spot that would lead him back to Katherine. He started walking, then began a slow jog. The prospect of someone being just over the next little rise, or around the next curve of the trail, was too much. He couldn’t temper his hope with the rational thought he needed to survive. So he ran.

Fifteen minutes passed. Just over the next ridge. Thirty minutes.

And then the last of the evening sun betrayed him, and it was dark.

He looked down the trail, realizing he had gone the wrong way, and turned around to go back to Katherine. And just as quickly as the sun had vanished, so did his hope. As the last of his adrenalin faded from his muscles, the lightness in his head returned and the fatigue that had been building over the last few days could no longer be resisted.

James Brown took two more steps and collapsed in the middle of the trail.

12 – James

He didn’t hear the ATV and though they told him later that he spoke to them as they picked him up from the trail, he didn’t remember. His first memory of his rescue that night was that of being lifted off the back of the ATV and onto a stretcher. He opened his eyes and saw two men he didn’t know carrying him toward a flashing red light where a team of four paramedics lifted him off the stretcher and onto a gurney.

“You’re going to be ok,” one of the paramedics said.

“Katherine,” James said. “What about Katherine?”

“Who?”

“Loudendale.”

“You know about Loudendale?” he asked.

“She’s sick. We have to go get her.”

“Where is she?”

“Let me loose,” James said.

“Just tell us. We’ll find her.”

“I don’t know. I have to show you. Let me loose.”  

The paramedic loosened the straps and helped him sit up.

James looked up to the sky, trying to get his bearings, but the sun was long gone.

“Which way did you bring me out?”

“What do you mean?”

James slid off the gurney and started walking toward the ATV. One of the paramedics grabbed his arm. “You need to get to the hospital,” he said.

James pulled his arm away. “I’m going. I need to show you where.” His gait was unsteady, but direct. The first paramedic grabbed a blanket off the gurney and followed James. He pulled a bottle of water out of a cooler and handed it to him. They climbed into the ATV and the paramedic pulled back onto the trail, followed by two more ATVs with local law enforcement and more paramedics.

They drove for twenty minutes and James didn’t see anything he recognized. Then they came to a small footbridge crossing a stream.

“Stop,” he said. “We’ve gone too far. Turn around.”

They maneuvered the vehicles into a tight circle and as they headed south again, James took a flashlight from a bin in the ATV and shined it on the trees as they drove slowly past.

“What are you looking for?”

“My shoe. Shirt. Shoe-shirt.”

They drove another fifty feet. “There!” James shouted. “There.”

“What? Where?”

“Go straight up. Parallel to the creek. You’ll come to a cliff. She’s at the top. In a small cave.”        

Two deputies and paramedics were already out of sight.

An hour later, they were making their way back down carrying Katherine on a stretcher.

“Is she alive?”

Nobody answered. And then they were gone.

It was over.

The emotions came flooding out of James, and the tears forced themselves violently, in loud, disturbing sobs and uncontrollable spasms. The paramedic held him tight.

13 – James

When James Brown would tell the story years later as an old man, those who heard would not be impressed. It had only been three nights and three days, pretty much the length of a normal camping trip. Almost everyone thought they could go for three days without eating. He had no stories of catching wild game with his bare hands and eating it raw. No, it wasn’t winter, he would tell them. No blinding snow storms, no real danger of frostbite. He didn’t even lose a finger.

*

The night of the rescue the paramedics had asked him if he knew where he was, who was President, and what day it was. He got two out of three, but he thought sure it was Sunday. When they told him it was Monday evening, he said he needed to call the office. It can wait until tomorrow, they had told him. They transported him to Mountain View Hospital in Elkins and after a brief examination, he was admitted overnight for observation.

His boss, Pete Switzer, visited Tuesday afternoon, accompanied by a photographer from The Elkins Herald. Switzer assured him they would cover his work at the office, that he just needed to get better. The Wednesday morning paper featured a picture of Switzer talking to James, smiling at the camera. The photo was picked up by the wire services and carried by most of the state newspapers and featured in on-line editions of national publications.   

*         

Katherine Loudendale had been airlifted to George Washington University Hospital in D.C. James had asked several times about her condition but was told very little.

After a series of tests, including an extensive neurological exam, he was released late Tuesday. Among the diagnoses were mild dehydration, fatigue, and a grade three-concussion. He was advised not to drive or go to work for another week. He made the two-hour trip home by ambulance. Wednesday morning he rented a car and drove to George Washington University Hospital.

*

That afternoon he was directed to the Intensive Care waiting room. When he checked with the nurses’ station, he was told that because he was not family he wouldn’t be able to see her. Nor would they divulge any information about her condition.

“Is her family here?” he asked.

“Her father is with her now.”

“Anyone else?”

The nurse looked beyond James at the people sitting in the plastic chairs. “Him,” she said nodding toward a thin man in jeans. “Her husband, I think.”

“Husband?” James said, but she had already moved away. He looked back to the waiting room. The man sat with his arms crossed, his head leaning back against the wall with his eyes closed. James walked to the waiting room and sat down beside him.

“Excuse me.”

The man lifted his head and looked at James with sleepy eyes.

“Yeah.”

“Are you here for Katherine Loudendale?”

The man rubbed his face with his hands and straightened from his slouch as he turned to James. “Are you with the firm?”

“No. I’m James Brown.”

“James Brown?”        

He didn’t expect that. He thought his name would be recognized.

“I was with Katherine in the forest.”

“What do you mean?”

“We were lost together.”

“I thought she went out solo.”

“She did.” Then James realized that he didn’t know what had happened. “Are you Katherine’s husband?”

“Not for a long time. I’m Anders Nielsen.”

They shook hands. Anders’ grip was strong, his hand calloused and hard. James was immediately self-conscious of his own hands, wondering if they felt soft or whether the still-healing scars had made his grip a little tougher. He double-squeezed Anders’ hand trying to match his strength.

“So you were hiking with Katherine?” Anders asked, a remnant of his European origins becoming apparent in his accent.

“No, you’re right. She was solo. I was with a group and got separated. You don’t know what happened to Katherine?”

“She was bitten by a snake and became disoriented. Lost her way.”

“Is that what she said?”

“No. We haven’t been able to talk to her. She’s in a medically-induced coma. But she was definitely snake-bitten. Really bad bite.” Anders looked away. “She lost her leg from the knee down.”

James shook his head. “I didn’t know what to do.”

Anders looked puzzled. “What do you mean?”

So James told him everything, starting with his own story. He told him about Jar and Lloyd and their attack on Katherine. He told him about surprising Katherine, but left out the part about her throwing him against the tree. She saved our lives, he said, and described their diet of roots and berries. He tried to keep his emotions in check but struggled when he described discovering her snake bite. In his narrative, twice James came to the point in the story where he might have told Anders about their nights together, how they had built their beds, how they had huddled together just to survive. But he stopped himself from divulging those details. Out of respect for Katherine’s ex-husband. But as those scenes played through in his mind, he realized that it was the first night together that he had felt strong feelings for Katherine. It was their second night together, the night he knew she could die, that he felt love. He choked up briefly, then told Anders how strong she had been as he helped her over the precipice when she could barely walk.

“Sorry,” he said. “Guess I have a lot of stress built up.”

Anders nodded and squeezed his shoulder. “It’s ok, man. It’s ok.”

But James wasn’t sure it was ok. He’d have to sort it out later. He had to get it together in front of Anders.

“Is she getting better?”

Anders shook his head. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s get a cup of coffee.”

They walked down the hall to a coffee station.

“The venom is under control, but she’s got a bad infection. They’re pumping her full of antibiotics and it’s really hard on her system. And she’s got pneumonia in both lungs. She’s in pretty bad shape.”

James poured coffee into a paper cup. “I just wish I could have done more for her.”

“You gave her a chance. That’s all anybody could have done.”

“Do you think you could get me in to see her?”

The nurse – a different one than James had talked to – smiled when Anders approached her, and she didn’t put up much resistance when he told her that James was the one who rescued her and asked if she could let him in. For a moment James thought she relented so readily because of what he did for Katherine. The nurse had barely glanced his direction, and then gave a warm, caring smile to Anders.

The ICU rooms were larger than he had expected and walking down the corridor reminded him of a very sterile hotel floor. Loudendale, K, was written in marker on piece of cardboard under plastic beside the door of ICU #5. When he walked in, he saw Katherine, tubes and wires running from her body to blinking electronics. Her mouth was open and plastic tubing fed oxygen to her nose. She looked pasty white, almost dead, James thought, and though he wanted to look away, he couldn’t. Her hair was pulled back, giving her an even more gaunt look. Underneath the thin cotton blanket he saw the outline of her left foot, poking at the linens. Her right foot was gone.

Then he noticed the man sitting in a chair in the corner. James walked to the side of the Katherine’s bed and the man stood.

“Charlie Loudendale” he said as he shook his hand.

James gave him a very brief summary of how he knew his daughter. Charles Loudendale thanked him as they stared at Katherine.

James repeated the same things he had told Anders, and then there was nothing more to say. In another setting, they might have exchanged pleasantries, talked about business, or even football. The way Katherine had described her father, he was expecting a strong-willed, no-nonsense, Type A personality. But he saw none of that in the ICU. He sat silently, looking at Katherine, his eyes droopy and tinged pink from too many tears. After a few minutes, Anders left the room and the two of them sat together for another hour without a word being spoken.

*

James found a hotel nearby and spent the night and repeated his visit the next morning. She was not getting better, but she wasn’t any worse. Others from her office stopped by but none were allowed into the ICU. In his conversation with Anders he had learned that Katherine’s mother had died the previous year and her father had taken it hard. And now he could lose his daughter.

James couldn’t stay another night and at noon he gave his contact information to Anders, who promised to call that evening with an update. On his last visit in the ICU, he held Katherine’s hand and kissed her cheek.

*

Friday morning he went to the office, entering through the back door with the idea that he could keep to himself and get some work done. It had been the engineering group on the retreat, and they had joined in the search, but he hadn’t seen them since he was rescued. At some point he would make the rounds and thank them and apologize. He had already come up with a reasonable explanation of what he was doing hiking to Lindy Point in the middle of the night. He couldn’t sleep, he would tell them, which was true. Simple insomnia. Except that it wasn’t so simple. It was complicated and they didn’t need to know all the complications. And there was absolutely no one he could talk to about it. How do you talk about something like that? So the sleepless nights were his punishment. His and his alone.

He sat at the desk in his small office. It was just as he had left it, neat stacks of project files, drawings on the drafting board behind him, the walls bare, his diplomas in frames stacked face-down on the top bookshelf. He powered up his computer and browsed the news on the internet. Award-winning executive fights for her life, one headline read. Another: Survival and the will to live. They were all about Katherine Loudendale, successful businesswoman, experienced hiker, lost in the wilderness after being bitten by a deadly copperhead. No mention of an assault. Discovered by another hiker, seemed to be a common line.

“James?”

He swiveled in his chair. “Hey, Kal.”

“Switzer said you wouldn’t be in till next week.”

“I’m fine.”

“What happened, man?”

“Just took a walk and got turned around.”

Two more workers stopped by his door.

“How did you survive?” one of them asked.

He shrugged.

“Did you have any food?”

“Just roots and berries. It’s a pretty good diet.” He patted his stomach. He had lost ten pounds but had since put back four. There were now half a dozen gathered, some peering in from the hallway. Joanne Moore, the accountant with the perpetual smile, stood listening, her face showing anxiety as she listened to his answers. The fact that she wasn’t smiling was a little disconcerting.

“And you found that woman?” one of the architects from the other side of the building asked. “The Loudervale woman?”

“Loudendale. Katherine Loudendale.”

“I was reading about her last night,” Angela, the Marketing Director said. “Oh, that was so awful. She lost her leg. She must be one strong lady to survive all of that.”

“She is,” James said.

“I hate snakes,” a drafter said.

“So sad,” Angela said. “She’s such a good role model for women.”

“Not bad looking either,” the architect added.

“I’m glad you’re ok, James,” Angela said as she turned to leave.

“Yeah,” the architect agreed.

One by one, they wished him well and returned to their Friday morning routines, until only Kal and Joanne remained. Then there was Pete Switzer. Kal went back to his office.

“What are you doing back, Brown?” Switzer asked.

James shrugged. “I’ve got work to do. The longer I’m gone, the more behind I get.”

“You sure you feel up to it?” Switzer sat on the edge of James’ desk.

James looked at Joanne, who was standing behind Switzer, still not smiling, then he nodded. “I’m still a little weak and pretty sore, but I need to get out. I can’t sit around at home.”

“Just don’t overdo it,” he said as he stood. He smiled at Joanne and took a couple of steps down the hall then came back. “How would you feel about a television interview, James?”

He looked at Joanne and for the first time, she smiled. Soft and gentle. She had a reputation as always being up and was one of the more popular people in the office. She kept her blonde hair long, even as others her age started to wear theirs shorter.

James looked at Switzer who was not smiling. “There’s not much of a story to tell, but yeah, if you want me to, sure.”

“A friend at Channel 12 has called a couple of times. She thinks it would be a good.”

“Just let me know when.”

Switzer slapped him on the shoulder and James couldn’t hide the grimace. There were so many sore spots that just about anywhere Switzer could have touched him would have hurt.

“Sorry,” he said. “I’ll let you know.”

And then it was just James and Joanne. It was hard not to like her. She was outgoing and approachable, so seemingly genuine. All of which served to make James a little uncomfortable in her presence. She had never visited his office in the three months he had been with the company.

“Hi, Joanne.”

She picked up the files that were setting in his guest chair and placed them on his desk as she sat down. She leaned forward, her elbows on her knees, her hands clasped together under her chin, her fingers twisting the rings on her fingers.  James could tell she wanted to say something, something important and James was not only sympathetic, but curious. She took a breath but said nothing.

“What is it?” was all he could manage.

“When I was young, maybe twelve or thirteen, I got lost.” She stopped. She sat back in the chair, lowered her hands to her lap and shook her head. “I can’t.”

James said nothing. Joanne said nothing. They both stared at the floor.

“I thought she was going to die,” James said after a minute.

“Who?”

“I’ve only told a couple of people.”

“You mean Loudendale,” Joanne said. “When you found her.”

“She had been assaulted.”

He told her everything. From the moment he first saw her by the waterfall, to getting beat up, to leaving her alone on the rock.

“She would have died if you hadn’t carried her out of there.”

“Probably,” James said.

“Why isn’t any of this in the papers?”

He shrugged. “I’m not the story. I’m not Katherine Loudendale. I’m just a guy who happened to be lost in the woods at the same time.”

James rolled his chair to the other side of the desk, closer to Joanne.

“What happened when you were thirteen?”

“It was a man my father knew.” She looked to the floor again. “He’d come around after work sometimes and he and my father would drink a little and talk. Never anything excessive, just unwinding a little.”

She took a deep breath before continuing.

“It was one day after school. That was when it was still ok for kids to be alone at home. Mom and Dad were at work and I was home watching television. Mom would get home about an hour before Dad did. Dad’s friend, Junior, stopped by. He said something about getting off work early and wanted to wait on my dad. I didn’t pay much attention to what he said and didn’t question why he would be off work and my dad wouldn’t. So I let him inside while I watched television. During one of the commercials I got up to get something to drink. He was sitting on the couch.”

She stopped and stared at the floor. James waited.

“He exposed himself,” she said, “then reached out and grabbed me and pulled me to him. I screamed and managed to break free, but not before he touched me. He ripped my shirt and I ran out of the house, through the back yard, and into the woods.”

James didn’t know what to say, what to do.

“I played in the woods a lot as a kid, and I knew not to go too far, but I just kept running. I was afraid he would follow me so I just kept going. When I was too tired to go any farther I stopped and hid. I hoped my parents would come looking for me and I stayed there for a long time. But when it started to get dark, I got even more scared and decided I needed to find my way home.”

“But you were lost.”

“That was the worst night of my life. I have never been as scared as I was then.”

“I know the feeling.”

“Even now, I have nightmares. About the woods. The sounds, the animals, both real and imaginary, stalking me. And worst of all are the dreams where he finds me.”

“How did you get home?”

“They found me late the next day. I had wandered about five miles from the house. Physically, I was fine. Emotionally, a complete wreck.”

“What happened to Junior?”

“He was helping look for me.”

“Did he go to jail?”

“I couldn’t tell anyone. I was embarrassed and thought it was somehow my fault.”

“Nothing ever happened to him?”

“He died in a car wreck before I graduated from high school. I never told anyone about it. They thought I was just careless and got lost in the woods.”

“You never told anyone?”

“You’re the only one who knows, besides me.”

James leaned back in his chair. “Why are you telling me?”

She reached out and put her hand on his.

“Thanks for listening.” She pulled her hand back. “It brought it all back. You being lost, Katherine Loudendale. Even before you told me what happened to her. I couldn’t suppress it anymore.”

James nodded. It was new territory for him.

“I’d better get back to work,” Joanne said. “Thanks for listening. Maybe we could talk later?”

There was the smile, but it was different. It still brightened her face but her eyes turned down at the corners, as if she hadn’t purged all of those bad feelings from the past. There was sadness.

“Yeah,” James said. “I’d like that.”

*

As the morning wore on, James did very little actual work. Most of his time was spent answering emails and repeating his story to co-workers who missed his first performance. He downplayed his role in saving Katherine Loudendale, which the men in the office took at face value, but judging by their smiles, the women wanted to believe he was more of a hero than he let on.

But he couldn’t stop thinking of Joanne. She wanted to talk more, she had said. So did he. Maybe over lunch. As he walked to the front of the building toward her office he saw through the double glass doors Allison Westfall, news anchor for Channel 12. He ducked inside Joanne’s office just as Westfall stepped inside the office lobby.

“I’m not sure I want to do this,” he said.

Joanne looked past James and could see Westfall waiting at the front desk. “She’s even prettier in person,” she said.

James looked over his shoulder. Joanne was right and that didn’t help him any. “I’m not good in these situations,” he said. “I don’t know what to say.” He sat down in the chair next to Joanne’s desk. She turned to face him as she spoke.

“She’s a pro. She’ll lead you. Just answer her questions and tell her the truth.”

“Everything? Even about Katherine being assaulted?”

“You have to tell everything you know. And you need to talk to the police, too.”

“What about her privacy? What if she doesn’t want it to get out?”

Joanne thought about it. She knew firsthand the stigma that’s associated with a sexual assault. But the men were still out there.

“You really have no choice.”

Outside in the lobby, underneath the shiny brass letters that spelled out Switzer Engineering, Pete Switzer was being interviewed by Allison Westfall. “We’re just glad he’s ok,” he said. “And we’re proud of him. James is quiet and unassuming, but he has a strength about him. Everybody here thinks the world of him.”

James smiled when he heard that. Typical Switzer.

The segment with Switzer wrapped and they called for James over the intercom. They were surprised when he walked out of Joanne’s office.

When he shook Westfall’s hand and saw her face up close, he felt his temperature start to rise. It was bad enough that he was going to have to talk to – what, the entire state? – with a camera staring at him, with Switzer in the background, with everyone else standing around watching, and the stunningly beautiful Allison Westfall asking him questions with that perfect smile. It only took a few seconds for his forehead to work up a sheen of perspiration. It would only take a couple of minutes before the sweat would be running down the back of his neck and he would be dabbing his forehead to try to keep it under control. He had to get away from everyone.

“Can we do this outside, Ms. Westfall?”

“Of course. And please call me Allison.”

They stepped outside and James immediately felt cooler as the breeze chilled his skin.

Allison looked down the tree-lined sidewalk. “Hey, Manuel,” she said to her camera man, “we’ll do a little intro here, then let’s do a walking interview.”

“Sure.”

They shot a little bit of footage in front of the building, with Allison asking the standard questions about his background, what he did, and so on. Then she asked about his camping trip, and how he got separated. By then, James had the answer to that question down pat. He just wanted to walk out to Lindy Point to see the moon. That’s all. Nothing else. In the darkness he must have strayed from the protected overlook. They continued to shoot in front of the office.

“Tell me about finding Katherine Loudendale.”

“Can we do the walking part now?” he asked.

Manuel set up about fifty yards down the sidewalk, zoomed in on Allison and James, and gave the hand signal to begin.

“How is it that you came to find Katherine Loudendale?”

“We kind of found each other.”

“The reports said you found her. Are you saying they got it wrong?”

“I saw her. Then I didn’t. Then she found me.”

Westfall shook her head. “Ok, I’m confused. You said she found you, but you took the search team to where she was. Unconscious, right?”

“When we first met, she was fine. Then there was the snake bite. She got sick and I helped her as much as I could.”

Westfall was starting to piece it together. “Ok,” she said. “Let’s go back to where Katherine found you. You were both lost in the woods?” They started walking again.

“That’s right.”

“What happened when she found you?”

James laughed. “She beat me up.”

14 – Katherine

Katherine Loudendale had stayed in ICU for four days, most of the time heavily sedated. Conversations with her had been limited and vague, but by Thursday they were weaning her off the sedatives and Friday morning she was moved to a general-ward floor. That’s when the inquiries began.

First was the McGraw County Sheriff’s Office and the State Police. A news report out of Charleston had indicated that Loudendale might have been assaulted and if the account was true, there would be an investigation. Katherine provided as much information as she could, including the names Lloyd and Jar, and a fairly good description of each. They agreed with her assumption that Jar was likely an ex-marine. She also made it clear that Jar was the one who assaulted her.

“What about James Brown?” the State Police detective asked.

“If it weren’t for James, I’d likely be dead.”

*

The James Brown story went out across the wire services and would have been completely ignored if not for his name. Even though the James Brown had long since passed, the name recognition was enough for most editors to stop the scroll and scan the story. And while they quickly learned that James Brown was a West Virginia nobody who got lost in the woods, more than a few recognized the Loudendale name. That was enough for an initial inquiry to the Loudendale Agency where it was confirmed that indeed, the president of one of the most successful PR firms in the state was fighting for her life in a D.C. hospital.

The interview requests for Katherine were numerous. Charlie Loudendale had taken the first call and had even granted a brief interview outside the hospital. The requests kept coming. He issued statements on behalf of the family, such as it was. As word got out that she had been moved from the ICU, the interview requests doubled. With Katherine gaining strength and with her doctor’s consent, Charles Loudendale arranged for a press conference for Saturday afternoon, to be followed later with an in-depth interview by Richard Oliverio, the respected News Director Emeritus for America Today.

Charlie opened the news conference by thanking the medical staff at GW Hospital for taking such good care of his daughter. He thanked the paramedics who transported her and the first responders and the search-and-rescue teams that never gave up.  Finally, he thanked his daughter for her fighting spirit and for her will to live.

Katherine sat between her father on her right, and her attending physician, Dr. Robison, on her left. The first questions were easy. How are you feeling? What kind of injuries did you have? When will you be released?  What are your prospects for a full recovery?

And then, Can you walk us through exactly what happened?

So she did. She surprised herself at her ability to recall the details. She strolled through her story, painting the visual of the beauty of the mountains, describing the peaceful solitude that she found in hiking alone, and the confidence she gained from her self-reliance. She had talked for ten minutes and had yet to mention her assault. Most of the reporters had the discipline to jot down notes, even though the press conference was being recorded. Others were so caught up in her story that they simply sat and listened.

“The first time I met them I could sense that something wasn’t right,” she said. The room went quiet. She hadn’t intended to be dramatic. She hadn’t even intended to provide so much detail. But sensing their interest, her instincts told her it was the right thing to do.

She uneasily described her attempt to distance herself from the two men, and the false security she felt when she managed to do just that – until they appeared again. As she started to tell about setting up camp for her second night, her voice started to break. Her father leaned toward her and whispered in her ear.

“We don’t have to do this right now, Katy. You can stop anytime.”

She shook her head. “No, I’m ok. I need to.”

Charlie sat back in his chair but continued to hold her hand.

“He was waiting for me at my camp,” she said. Her voice quivered as she spoke and her eyes filled with tears. Dr. Robison handed her a tissue. “He attacked me.” She took a moment and tried to compose herself. “He tried to…” She didn’t finish the thought, but everyone knew what she meant.

“But I fought back.” She told everything, every detail, the rock to the side of the head, the knife across his chest, the kick to the face. “And that’s when I ran.”

The room was dead quiet.

She felt she needed to justify her carelessness in getting lost. She shook her head. “I ran into the woods. I didn’t have time to orient myself and it was dark. I just ran. I had no idea where I was.”        

She was completely composed again. She continued, describing waking up the next morning, not sure of what had happened. She talked about her experience in hiking and how she developed a strategy for making her way out of the forest.

“What about James Brown?” someone asked from the second row. “He says if it wasn’t for you, he would still be lost.”

She smiled.  “Who knows? He might have stumbled onto one of the trails without me.”

“He said your survival skills made the difference. Can you talk about what you did for food and shelter?”

She described her foraging and their bed of needles, even including their snuggling to keep warm, which brought smiles to the reporters.

“Brown says you beat him up? Did that really happen?”

Charlie looked at his daughter. He hadn’t heard this. Katherine laughed.

“It’s true. He kind of sneaked up on me and I thought he might be one of those guys. So yeah, I roughed him up a bit.” She looked into the television camera covering the press conference. “If you’re watching, James, I’m sorry. Again.” She smiled sheepishly. The room laughed.

“And at what point were you bitten by a snake?”

She took a deep breath and thought about it. “All I remember is that we were walking on the rocks next to a stream. I don’t remember much of anything after that.  The next thing I know I’m waking up in the ICU.”

*

Katherine was alone in her room that afternoon, the window shades open, sunlight streaming in. She had asked for and received some time to herself. Christian, her office manager, had stopped by twice and called several times, which, in the past, would have been what she had wanted. But she finally had to tell him to give her some time. She sat in the chair by the window, looking out, watching clouds float by and birds flit on their way to their next meaningless perch. The banality of it all was comforting.

She had never been one for reflection or contemplation. Her life had always been one challenge after another, and though she had experienced significant setbacks – her divorce from Anders, the conflicts with her father, the death of her mother – her reaction had always been to do more. She was proud of her positive and aggressive attitude.

But what she was feeling now was nothing like that. For the first time, she wasn’t sure. That fighting spirit wasn’t there. She had almost died.

She thought of Chloe.

*

Charlie had brought her a new cell phone and had downloaded all her contact information. She called Christian.

“Hi, Katherine, how are you doing?”

“Actually, I think I’m doing ok.”

“You think?”

“Have you talked to Chloe lately?”

“No, but she’s ok. I talked to the social worker in Memphis last week.”

“Let her know I’m thinking about her.”

*  

She had climbed back into bed – early on she clearly established that she didn’t need help, she could manage just fine on one leg – and was almost asleep when one of the nurses came into her room.

“There’s a gentleman here to see you,” the nurse said. “I told him you weren’t seeing people right now but he said he drove for six hours to get here.”

Katherine shook her head. “No, I’m sorry. Maybe later this evening.”

The nurse smiled. “He said to tell you it’s Mr. Brown.”

“Oh.”

What do you say to someone who may or may not have saved your life? Thank you? Hi, how are you? What was she supposed to feel? They had spent a couple of days together and one of those, she was apparently unconscious. Did he save her or hinder her own efforts to survive? She didn’t know. But, all things considered, she felt an obligation to see him. Thanking him would be the polite thing to do, whether or not it was deserved.

“I should see him,” she told the nurse.

The nurse left and a couple of minutes later she escorted James Brown to the room.

Katherine didn’t recognize him. He was taller than she remembered, slimmer, too. He wore a beard that looked to be several days old, maybe more. She guessed correctly that he probably hadn’t shaved since their rescue. He wore dark jeans and a black sweater underneath a tailored pea coat. Katherine was suddenly aware of her own appearance, aware that she was not wearing make-up, that her hair hadn’t been washed in a couple of days and was pulled back, giving her face that harsh look that she knew wasn’t her best. She pulled the blanket up under her chin.

“James,” she said. She smiled without thinking about it. “You look good.”  He did. He looked better than she remembered, more physically mature. She was immediately conscious that her compliment might have been taken too personally, so she added a disclaimer. “I mean you look like you’re recovering well.”

“It’s so good to see you,” he answered. “You look great.” She could tell by the enthusiasm with which he spoke that he meant it, even though she knew she still looked pale and sickly. He stepped closer and took her hand and squeezed it gently.

She looked down at his hands on hers, surprised at th  warmth she felt. After a moment he let go and rested his hands on the round bed rails by her side.

“How are you feeling?” he asked.

“I’m fine.” She tried to look at him but was having difficulty understanding that this was the same soft, incompetent man she had to show how to eat and drink out on the trail. “I see you got rid of your shoe-shirt,” she said.

“My foot’s still sore,” he said, “but those were really good hiking shoes so I got another pair. Boots this time.” He looked down at the end of the bed and saw only her left foot showing through the bed sheets. “I’m sorry about your leg,” he said. “If we’d been able to find the trail sooner, they might have been able to save it.”

“No, James. It’s better this way. There had been so much tissue damage that I would have been in pain the rest of my life. And with prosthetics these days, I’ll be back on the trail in no time.”

“How do you do it?”

“I don’t.”

“Your attitude. Determination. You’re such a strong person.”

“No.”

“Katherine…” Then he saw the tears. He held her hand as she cried softly.

He stayed with her until evening, and when Charlie returned, he stayed for another hour. Though they spoke very little, his presence was comforting. Charlie talked to her about the office, his upcoming vacation, even about Anders. Katherine engaged just enough in the conversation to comfort her father, but otherwise was content to savor the quiet.

At eight o’clock both Charlie and James said their farewells, each offering a kiss to her cheek. She lay on the bed for another two hours fighting sleep, fearful of the nightmares that had startled her awake every time she had fallen asleep. Running. Always running. Falling and unable to get up. Jar grabbing her leg. Forcing himself on her. Unable to scream. Until about four o’clock that morning. She had somehow learned to scream while she was sleeping. The nurses had rushed in, soothed her, and had given her a sedative. Still the dreams came. And later that morning, another scream.

So at night, she fought. The struggle was futile. Again, in the hours between Saturday night and Sunday morning, she pushed her voice hard as he threw her to the ground, and what started as a low moan from her gut ended in a high-pitched shriek that echoed down the halls.

*

The next morning James was in her room at ten o’clock. Katherine was sitting up in bed, but her eyes were half closed, the thin cotton blanket and sheets rumpled around her legs. She barely turned her head when James walked in.

“Hey.”

She smiled a half smile.

“How are you feeling?” He put the back of his hand to her forehead. “You don’t feel hot.”

“They have doctors here, you know. Plus all this sci-fi equipment,” she said as she nodded to the monitors over her head.

“Have you been able to sleep?”

“Hardly at all. They said they’d give me something to help me tonight.”

“How does the leg feel?”

“It’s gone, remember?”

“I know. I thought you might have some pain from…”

Katherine finished the thought. “From where they cut it off? They call it phantom pain.”

“No, I mean from the infection. How are you feeling physically? How’s the leg, the arm, the body in general?”

“Are you writing a press release?”

James sat down in the chair. A couple of minutes went by before he spoke again.

“I care about you, you know,” he said. Ten minutes went by without a sound other than the soft beeps of the electronics monitoring her condition.

“I’m sorry, James.”

“Don’t worry about it. You’ve been through a lot.”

“Why are you so nice to me?”

“I’m hoping to get lucky.”

She laughed. “I don’t believe that. You were such a gentleman when we were sleeping together out there.”

“How would you know? That second night you were delirious.”

She laughed again. “I wasn’t as far gone as you think. I knew what was going on.”

Again they were quiet, but it was a comfortable, soothing silence.

“I need to get back to Parkersburg,” James said. “Got to get back to work.”

“Thanks for coming to see me,” she said. “You make me feel better.”

“How long will they keep you here?”

“Another day or two, I think. They want to make sure the leg is healing like it’s supposed to. And they want to start some rehab. That’ll be fun.”

“Can I call you when you get out? You know, just to check on you.”

“Sure you’re not trying to take advantage of a one-legged woman?”

“I don’t think you’re the kind of woman who would let someone take advantage of her.”

“Please. Call me. I look forward to it.”

*

Charlie showed up an hour after James had left, a garment bag in hand. With him was a young woman with perfectly-styled hair carrying what looked like an overnight bag.

“What’s going on, Charlie?” Katherine said.

“Katy, this is Mya. She’s a stylist at one of the salons in Georgetown.”

“Mya?”

“We stopped and picked up a few blouses and some jeans,” Charlie said. “You guys can figure out what works best for you.”

“Why?”

“Richard Oliverio is coming this afternoon. Big interview.”

“What? Charlie, I’m not ready for this.”

“That’s why Mya is here. She’ll have you looking like a million bucks in no time.”

 “I need to wash her hair,” Mya said.

“No, I’m not ready. I mean…I’m not…ready. For the interview.”

Charlie looked at Mya and she left the room and closed the door.

“Talk to me.”

“I don’t know how I’m feeling about everything,” she said.

Charlie sat down in the chair beside her bed. “What is it that’s bothering you? Losing your leg? You know how good prosthetics are today. You’ll hardly even notice it.”

“That’s part of it. I know I’ll be able to walk and hike and do everything I’ve always done. But my leg will be gone. I’ll always be a bit of a freak. I was thinking about painting my toenails. And shoes. Do I start buying just one shoe? Maybe I should start wearing a shoe-shirt.”

“You can wear a shoe on your prosthetic,” Charlie said.

“I keep having dreams. Nightmares.”

“I suspect that’s normal. They’ll fade with time.”

“I’ve always had a sense of peace, even when things weren’t going so well.” She took a deep breath. “He took that away from me.” She thought of his hot breath on her neck and cringed.

“You just need some time.”

“I’m going to find him.”

“Katy. The sooner you can let go of this the better off you’ll be. You know that.”

She nodded. But her mind was somewhere else.

Charlie stood and took her hand in his. “Come on, now. Let’s get you fixed up. Oliverio will be here in an hour.”

“An hour? Charlie, what were you thinking?”

“It’ll be good for you. Like therapy. Talk it out.”

“I’m not ready to talk about all of this.”

“He doesn’t care about what you’re feeling.”

“Charlie.”

“Just tell the story. Like you did at the presser. Superficial emotions like they expect. You were scared but determined. That kind of thing.”

“Selfish bastard,” she said.

But he had already stepped out in the hall and invited Mya back in.

“I’ll be out in the waiting room,” Charlie said. “They’ve made a conference room available for the interview. I need to make a couple of calls.”

“He’s such a nice man,” Mya said. “He cares about you so much.”

“He’s a salesman and a charmer.”

“What do you mean?”

“Never mind,” Katherine said.

“We’ve got to get your hair washed.” Mya’s energy was annoying.

*

A half hour later Charlie returned to the room, pleased to see Mya blow-drying Katherine’s hair.

“You’re going to do some make-up, too, right?” he said to Mya.

“No, Charlie,” Katherine said. “I’m going to go in front of the camera looking like the ghost of Richard Nixon.”

“Who?” Mya said.

“I can tell you’re feeling better,” Charlie said. “I like the smart-ass Katherine.”

“Difference is, you can pull it off without alienating everyone.”

“You just have to say it with a smile,” he said. “Listen, I just got off the phone with Larry Spradling, one of the editors at Shelton College Press. They want to do a book about your story.”

“A book? How do you make a couple of days in the woods into a book?”

“It’s a great story, Katy. They’ll weave in some of your backstory, the challenges of running a company with an overbearing father, trying to get out his shadow. A memoir, with the lost-in-the-woods saga as the thread weaving through it all.”

“You think I’m going to talk about all of that? Besides, I don’t have time to write a book.”

“That’s the good part. They’ll assign a ghost writer to do all the hard work. You just need to tell your story and he’ll do the rest.”

“Ghost writer,” Mya said. “That’s the Nixon guy, right?”

*

At two o’clock Charlie wheeled his daughter into Conference Room A, a large space that could easily handle a meeting of at least twenty doctors and administrators. At the far end of the room two chairs had been set up in front of a black backdrop with a small spot providing backlighting and two softbox lights on either side of the setup. There were two cameras, each with their own operator and three more people, one who introduced herself as the producer, the other two being assistants. Along the wall were doctors and others that Katherine recognized as hospital staff. A dour woman in a blue suit Katherine correctly assessed as the hospital Chief of Staff. There were so many faces in the crowd that she didn’t see Richard Oliverio standing in the shadows. When all other introductions were complete, he stepped forward and the room fell quiet, as if the President of the United States had made his presence known.

He took her hand in his and clasped his other hand on top of hers.

“Katherine. It’s so good to meet you.”

He was handsome, his hair was combed just so, and his teeth were perfectly aligned and perfectly white, a fact made so readily apparent by his Hollywood smile. He seemed friendly, genuine and caring – and Katherine couldn’t stand him.

As the head of The Loudendale Agency, she had set up countless interviews for CEOs, mayors and governors, usually with local anchors and the occasional network reporter, if it were a big story. But a network anchor was something new. And being on the wrong side of the camera wasn’t a comfortable feeling. Everything about the interview felt wrong.

There were reasons network anchors rose to their respected positions: drive and determination; an innate ability to ingratiate themselves with the powerbrokers of their industry; and sometimes dumb luck, although luck is usually manufactured and is never really dumb. But more than anything else, they have a natural talent for the job they do. They ooze charisma and are careful to infect everyone they can with their mesmerizing benevolent virus. As the interview began, Katherine Loudendale quickly became a carrier.

Her edgy nervousness subsided and she slipped into professional mode, gliding easily through her story and exchanging smiles with the smooth-talking anchor. She was actually enjoying herself and the thought occurred to her that writing a memoir might be a good idea. A catharsis that could bring her some positive press.

He asked about the snake bite and her thoughts about losing her leg. Her answer was on-script and she assured Oliverio and the rest of the nation that she would persevere and live life as she always had. That’s what everybody wanted to hear. Can’t keep a good woman down.

She was relieved when he asked about James Brown and the focus was on someone else. She gladly and sincerely gave him credit for saving her life, but Oliverio’s smile was patronizing when she spoke of James. She knew what was coming – praise for her strength and grit and other platitudes the media loves to heap on their heroes, deserving or not.

She tried to keep the focus on James and told of his strength and his grit and his selflessness. She leaned back in her chair, thinking she might have changed his perspective on the whole story.

He leaned forward.

“You’ve had a near-death experience,” he said without a trace of a smile. “Many people who have gone through something like you have become more reflective about their lives. They reevaluate what’s important. Maybe look at life’s priorities. How has your experience affected you?”

It was a predictable question and she gave the expected answer. “Of course it has changed me,” she said. “You understand that every day is a gift. You let the little things slide and focus more on friends and family. That’s what’s important.”

She smiled. He smiled.

“I understand you have a daughter you haven’t seen in a while,” Oliverio said. “Chloe, I think is her name.”

This was completely unexpected. Her face tightened in reflex, not enough for anyone to notice but when she reminded herself to relax and go with it, there was still a trace of stress on her face.

“Yes,” she said. “I love Chloe very much. Like so many young people of her generation, she lives her own life, searching for what we all want. Happiness. Contentment.”

“Have you been in contact with her since your ordeal?”

“No.” Her voice was soft. She looked down, then back up to Oliverio. “But I’m sure we’ll talk soon.”

“Thank you for taking the time to tell your story,” Oliverio said. “You certainly are an inspiration. We’re glad to see you doing so well.”

*

As the crew broke down the set she smiled and politely accepted the praise and adoration from everyone in the room, but just below the surface there was turmoil. She had done nothing to deserve the attention. If they should be interviewing anybody, it was James Brown. And she had failed so many people. Her father, her ex-husband, and most of all, Chloe.

For years, Chloe had been her quiet failure. Since her mother’s passing, only Charlie and Anders would talk about her. And other than Christian, her staff at the agency knew not to ask. But Chloe was no longer a secret. She told herself that no one would care about her daughter, that no one would dare bother her, but she felt uneasy. She wished she had never given the interview.

*

The interview aired that evening as the lead feature on the nightly news.

Hundreds of miles away, the interview caught the attention of one man sitting on a bar stool.

“Well, hello, Kate,” he said. He smiled as he touched the still-healing scar on his face.

15 – Chloe

It was a late Saturday evening, which meant absolutely nothing to Chloe Nielsen. Saturday evening was like Sunday evening, or Tuesday evening. No better, no worse.

At seven o’clock there was lingering daylight and in Nashville it was still relatively warm. Chloe preferred the anonymity that the night provided, but she knew there were dangers; that others used the same dark cloak to hide their acts of depravity. It was a lesson she had learned firsthand.

She pulled her two-wheeled shopping cart behind her as she made her way down Seventh Street, past the vacant storefronts, the check-cashing service with its thick, bullet-resistant glass, past the liquor store. There were others who looked like Chloe, the ragged people looking for dope or sex or drink. There were also more than a few, who, like Chloe, never drank, never did drugs, and never provided sex for money.

They were there because they had nowhere else to go, or no one else wanted anything to do with them, or like Chloe, they lived in a world that had little to do with reality. Some she knew, and they acknowledged each other without so much as a nod of the head, but rather with a moment of eye contact. No words were spoken.

On an old wooden bench that served as a bus stop, a man with bloodshot eyes watched Chloe as she approached, then let loose a slurred hey as she walked by. Chloe shook her head and kept walking. At the corner of Washington and Seventh was a three-story brick building, its windows covered in plywood with pictures of musicians plastered all over. Some were old, from another era; others were hip, cool and edgy. The sign over the plywood read Seventh Street Studio.

The front door was locked. The front door was always locked. Chloe knew this and didn’t even try. She turned the corner on Washington Avenue and walked to the rear of the building where the back door faced a small parking lot. Three cars and a red pickup were in the lot.  The red pickup belonged to Brad McNear.

There was an old picnic table tucked in close to the building that was used for lunch breaks, dinner breaks, summer jam sessions and sometimes hard drinking at the end of a day. An empty plastic pop bottle lay sideways at one end. Chloe wheeled her buggy to the table and took out the thin blanket that covered the rest of her possessions and laid it beside the plastic pop bottle. Below the blanket and on top of a layer of spare clothes was a bottle of water that she had refilled dozens of times and an assortment of modest treasures. A brightly-colored ceramic mug, a book of Robert Frost poetry, a collection of CDs that people had given her over the years, and an old, brass, magnetic compass.  Nestled between the side of the buggy and her clothes, always cloaked and out of site, was a keyboard.

Behind the Seventh Street Studio, she felt safe. She pulled out the keyboard, an expensive Yamaha with special effects that she would never use and placed it on the table. She powered it up and began to touch the keys.

She played an E-major chord with her left hand. Then an A. Then a B. Her right hand played a melody. Though her left hand and right hand were precisely coordinated and accurately recreated a song that was popular many years before, they moved methodically, without rhythm, without nuance, without feeling.  She played two verses, then the bridge, then the final verse, while the lyrics sang in her head. When the song was through, she sat silently for a moment, then started softly humming another tune.

She found the notes on the keyboard, her left hand first, then the right hand. A bluesy, jazzy rhythm. A run up and down the keyboard. She continued to hum, but as she played, words and fragmented thoughts escaped as she started to sing. Love. To be with you. To feel your touch. Crying.

She went on for several minutes as the subtleties of the song evolved into haunting beauty. Then even more complexity. But after a couple of minutes, the rhythms started to break down; the chords didn’t quite match up with the tune. Her words had come together to touchingly tell the story of a lost love, but as Chloe played on, the lyrics grew more obtuse. And finally, her music was nothing more than a cacophony of noise and gibberish.

She stopped playing. The music didn’t reconstitute, it didn’t find its natural conclusion. She just stopped playing.

She picked up her bottle of water and took a long drink. The door of the studio opened and she turned to look.

She didn’t know the first two men. Young guys, long hair and skinny, carrying guitar cases.

They hesitated in their steps when they saw her, then moved toward their cars. A woman came out next. Youthful as well, with long red hair and a quick smile that Chloe returned.

“Hi, Genna,” Chloe said.

“Haven’t seen you in a while, Chloe. How are you?”

Chloe looked down. She couldn’t hold the gaze of Genna.

“I don’t know how I am.”

“I just mean are you eating well? You’re not sick or anything like that, right?”

“I ate breakfast at the Union Mission. I had lunch at St. Mark’s.  I suppose I’ll eat supper at Jericho House. And I feel fine.”

Genna nodded and smiled. “Been writing any music?”

“I can’t write music,” Chloe said.

“You might not know how to put it down on paper, but believe me, you write music. Do you have any new songs?”

“Yes. But I don’t remember them.”

The back studio door opened again with a creak.

“Hi, Chloe.” It was Brad McNear.

“Brad,” Chloe said as she turned toward him and smiled.

“I’ll talk to you tomorrow, Genna,” Brad said. “Good session tonight. We’re making progress. Hopefully we can finish up the basic tracks tomorrow night.”

“Looking forward to it,” she said. “See you, Chloe.”

Brad leaned his guitar case against the table and sat down beside Chloe, put his arm around her and kissed her forehead.

“Play some music for me, girl,” he said.

Chloe fidgeted, tilted her head and put her fingers on the keyboard, then dropped them to her side. Again she raised them to the white keys, hesitated, then willed her left hand to play a C chord. Then the F, then the G, then the same tune she had played a few minutes earlier.

“Good, good,” McNear said. “Keep going.” He opened his guitar case and turned around so the Martin rested across his lap. At first he strummed along, playing the same chords as Chloe, but on the second verse, he started playing in the minor key and Chloe followed his lead, taking the song in a different direction. Her fingers loosened a little and as she relaxed, the expression on her face changed ever so slightly. By the end of the second verse, McNear was toying with the rhythm and by the time they hit the break, Chloe had left the song entirely and was hearing new music, her own sweet spot of jazzy blues. McNear reached over and hit the record button on the keyboard and continued to strum his guitar softly.

Chloe was humming, then singing.

You leave me crying.

Crying.

You leave me loving.

Loving.

To feel your arms around me.

To have your love embrace me.

And I would cry no more.

No more.

She started to lose her timing and her pitch was off a little. McNear hummed a little louder, strummed a little stronger, trying to draw out more of her genius. He took over the melody and gave her the freedom to explore. Her eyes were closed and her fingers began to dance up and down the keyboard. Her voice, a mix between a moan and cry, echoed the notes she played in a scat that was all her own. She went on for another couple of minutes before bringing her soaring song back to earth. She ended as she had started. C. F. G. The end.

McNear’s hands were trembling as he fumbled in his pocket for a flash drive.

“Chloe, that was amazing.” He slipped the drive into the keyboard slot and downloaded the music. “Do you care if I make a master of this in the studio tomorrow? I think you have something really special here.”

“I was just playing around,” she said.

“May I?” he asked again.   

Chloe nodded.

“Come on,” he said. “I’ll get you some fried chicken and take you back to Jericho House.”

He dropped Chloe off in front of the shelter. The paper cup of cola was all that was left of her chicken dinner. She waved as he drove off, then walked past the front door without acknowledging the two residents loitering on the front stoop. She continued past the house and another four blocks to the Fortieth Street Bridge. She circled under the bridge to the encampment that was home to about fifteen homeless, mostly men. A small fire burned near the bottom of the embankment but nobody huddled around; it was too warm. Chloe walked to the top of the bank where a piece of cardboard surrounded by a ring of rocks marked her space. She pulled the blanket off the top of her cart and scrunched it up to use as a pillow, and before she lay down, she took out her book of poetry and compass. She could barely read the dial of the compass and though she knew the directions the needle would point, every night she would look to the northeast and think of her mother, and to the west and think of her father. She turned the compass over, but couldn’t see the inscription she knew by heart: So you can always find your way. Mom and Dad. She ran her fingers over the back and felt the smooth ridges of the engraving that years ago were so sharp and clear.

She lay down and opened the Robert Frost volume but again, it was too dark to read.

She had been through the book so often that she knew many of the poems by heart. But the verses ran through her head, disjointed, disconnected. Just random verses from random stanzas from random poems.

The next morning the sun had barely started to chase the shadows from under the bridge but the entire Fortieth Street encampment – save one – was already stirring. A new fire was boiling water which would provide the basis for weak coffee, full of floating grounds and a sheen of something other than water.

Chloe sat with her legs crossed, sipping water from her bottle, and watched the morning scene unfold. Down near the row of bridge piers, a couple of men were bent over another man that Chloe didn’t recognize. They shook his shoulders, gently at first, then more vigorously. When there was no reaction, they rolled him over on his back and rifled through his pockets, taking from his and putting into theirs. Chloe gathered her things and began the ten-block trek to the Union Mission.

When she reached the two-story white block building, she slipped in the side door and stood in line for a serving of powdered eggs, toast, and a small glass of orange juice. She sat at one of the long tables next to two people who were familiar but unknown to her. Before she had finished her eggs, Javier, one of the Union Mission volunteers, brought her a cup of hot tea.

“Good morning, Chloe,” he said.

“Good morning, Mr. Sanchez.”

“Have you been by the Jericho House this morning?”

“No,” she said. “I slept at the bridge last night.”

“That’s so dangerous. I don’t know why you don’t stay at Jericho.”

“I like the night air.”

“Still, it’s –”

“A man died last night.”

“At the bridge? Who?”

“I don’t know. Couldn’t see him.”

“How did he die?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think anybody offed him. I think he just died. Thank you for the tea.”

“You’re welcome.” Javier sat for a moment without speaking, and another woman sat down across from Chloe.

“Hi, honey,” she said. “Mr. Sanchez.”

Chloe nodded, Javier spoke and stood to leave.

“I almost forgot, Chloe. MaryEllen at Jericho said she needed to talk to you. Something about your mother.”

Chloe didn’t respond.

“She’s ok,” Javier continued, “but I think she really wants to talk to you.”

“Katherine,” Chloe said.

“Is that your mother’s name?”

Chloe nodded.

“Well, run by Jericho today, ok?”

Chloe nodded again.

She finished her tea and refilled her water bottle from the drinking fountain at the end of the dining hall, then left the Mission. She headed toward Carnegie Park, where she would spend the morning. She had no intention of returning to Jericho House that day.

*

Just before one, Chloe had made her way to St. Mark’s for a lunch of cold-cut sandwiches and potato chips. Sometimes, usually during the winter months, there was soup and hot chocolate, but most times just flimsy sandwiches and weak iced tea. She saw many of the same faces at all the places of charity. At the far end of the room Father Gil was talking to one of the church secretaries. There were two others whom Chloe did not recognize, which for her was of no significance. She ate her sandwich, oblivious to the glances in her direction from Father Gil.

She paid no attention when Ginger Papadakolus sat down beside her.

“Hi,” Ginger said. “Are you Chloe?”

Chloe glanced toward Father Gil and noticed that one of the people in their huddle was missing. She turned toward Ginger and when she saw what seemed to be perfected beauty she recoiled slightly.

“It’s ok,” Ginger said, showing either a familiarity with Chloe’s reaction or professional nonchalance. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Am I in trouble?” Chloe asked. Her thumb pressed into the soft white bread of her sandwich.  “Is it because of that man that died? I don’t know anything. He’s just dead. Nothing happened. He wasn’t offed.”

“No. Nothing like that. You’re not in any trouble at all.”

Chloe relaxed her grip on her sandwich and took another bite. She stared at the crumbs on her paper plate.

“How long has it been since you’ve talked to your mother, Chloe?” Ginger asked.

Chloe froze for a moment, then took another bite of her sandwich. She didn’t answer. Ginger didn’t press and waited for Chloe to respond.

“Is she dead?” Chloe asked.

“No. She’s fine.”

Chloe nodded.

“I take it you and your mother don’t get along very well.”

Again Chloe didn’t answer.

Ginger shifted in her chair and turned to face Chloe more directly.

“For the longest time, I couldn’t stand my mother,” Ginger said. “I blamed her for her and my father’s divorce. I thought she broke up our family.” It was a complete lie, built on her simple research of Katherine Loudendale’s history, but she guessed that as a young woman already burdened with mental challenges, Chloe might have jumped to a simplistic conclusion.

“Irreconcilable differences,” Chloe said.

“Of course,” Ginger answered.

Chloe nibbled on the crust of the sandwich.

“They tell me you like music.”

“Who tells you that?”

“Father Gil. The people at Jericho House. MaryEllen.”

“Brad says he’s going to put my song on the radio.”

“Who’s Brad?”

“Brad McNear.”

“The Brad McNear? Do you know Brad McNear, Chloe?”

Chloe nodded. “He’s really nice to me.”

“How did you meet Brad McNear?”

She shrugged.

“And he says he’s going to produce your music? So you’re a songwriter.”

“I can’t write.”

“Do you sing?”

Chloe nodded.

“Do you play an instrument?”

“I play my electric piano. Brad got it for me. I had an old one but it broke.”

“That’s quite a story.” Chloe knew that wasn’t a statement to her and didn’t respond. “Would you mind if my videographer shot some video of you singing one of your songs?” She nodded to the group in the back. The videographer reached for his camera.

“No,” Chloe said. She shook her head. “I don’t know you.”

“It’s ok.” Ginger glanced at the videographer and put a hand up to stop him. “Maybe some other time. After you get to know me a little better.”

“Maybe.”

“I really just came here to talk to you about your mother. Have you heard about what happened?”

“Is she ok?” Chloe faced her briefly, then looked away.

“She’s fine. She was hiking in the woods and got lost for a few days.”

“Did she have a compass? I have a compass.” She fished through her cart and pulled out the compass.

“That’s a nice one.”

“Katherine and Daddy got it for me.”

“Katherine? Your mother?”

“Yes. Did she have a compass? Did she get lost because I had her compass?”

“No, honey. She had a compass. But she was attacked by some men and they took her compass.”

“Was she out after dark? It’s dangerous after dark.”

“I’ll tell you all about it,” Ginger said. “Do you think we could go somewhere else to talk?”

Chloe nodded.

“Do you care if we shoot video while we talk?”

She shrugged.

“Maybe Father Gil has a room where we can talk.”

“A room?”

“Yes. Someplace quiet.”

“I like outside,” Chloe said. “Outside.” She was fidgeting.

“Whatever you want to do, honey.”

The cameraman approached, his large, professional camera hanging by a strap from his shoulder.

“No,” Chloe said. She dropped the last of her sandwich on her paper plate. She stood, knocking over her cup of tea. “I have to go,” she said. The metal chair screamed against the tile floor as she pushed it back. She grabbed her cart and started to walk away, not bothering to look back where Father Gil and the church secretary had risen to their feet.

Ginger stood and called out, but Chloe ignored her and left through the double doors at the front of St. Mark’s recreation center.

At first she ran, her cart jumping from side to side every time she hit a bump in the pavement. Heads turned to watch, which made her self-conscious so she slowed to a fast walk, her steps coming quickly. She paid no attention to where she was going, her only objective to put distance between her and the beautifully scary woman at St. Mark’s.

She wondered what she could have done that disappointed Katherine. It had to have something to do with the dead guy. Or maybe it was her music. Katherine had never liked her music. Never.

She looked up and found herself in the center of downtown Nashville. Tall buildings everywhere. People everywhere. Never ending noise: cars and trucks, their engines revving; sirens in the distance; the loud, methodical clicking of crosswalk signals; horns; pigeons cooing and fluttering their wings. Then, from one of the restaurants with tables on the sidewalks, music. Country music. Brad McNear. At first she thought it was live and looked inside, only to see more tables and a bar. No Brad McNear. Only a recording.

She shouldn’t play any more music. It only upset Katherine. Made her love her even less. She kept walking until the music faded in the background of all other noises, and then she walked more. Until the sounds became softer with fewer people and fewer cars. She came to a large street, a boulevard, where the lights told her to stop before crossing. Washington Avenue. She reached in her buggy and found the compass. She turned it in her hand until the floating needle aligned with the fanciful north arrow. Then she turned and headed west on Washington.

By the time she reached Seventh Street she had long ago finished her water. Had she had a watch or otherwise been aware of the time she would have known that she had been walking for more than two hours since leaving St. Marks. She had never approached the Seventh Street Studio from that direction and almost walked on by. The red pickup caught her eye.

She went straight to the back door and tried to open the door, but it was locked. She knocked and waited. Then knocked harder. Then she saw the button on the speaker box and pressed it and waited.    Nothing.

So again she sat at the old picnic table. The plastic water bottle was gone. She took the blanket from her cart to unveil her belongings. The ceramic mug she placed on the table. The compass as well. The book of Robert Frost poetry she set in front of her. In the buggy, where her keyboard was once nestled against two t-shirts, a pair of jeans and extra socks and underwear, was a void.

She sat with her back to the studio door and when the door finally opened, she didn’t turn. When Brad McNear called her name, she didn’t look. Only when he touched her shoulder did she react at all, and then only a slight tilt of the head. She didn’t want him to see her cry.

“What’s wrong, Chloe?” he asked as he sat beside her.

She looked at the ground in the opposite direction. When he put his arm around her and pulled her tight, she sobbed.

“What is it? You can tell me.”

“I’m no good,” she said. “I’m no good.”

“Why do you say that? What happened?”

Chloe stared at the wood grains of the table in front of her. “I threw away my piano.”

“You what?”  He took a deep breath and looked away, hiding his face from Chloe. “Why did you throw it away?”

“Katherine doesn’t like my music.”

“Who’s Katherine?”

“My mother. She doesn’t like my music. She doesn’t like me.”

“I’m sure that’s not true. Why do you think she doesn’t like you?”

“She never has. She doesn’t like Daddy, either.”

“Is that why you left home?”

She nodded. She was no longer crying but was still sniffling. She wiped her nose on her sleeve.

“When was the last time you saw your mother or father?”

“I don’t know. Long time.”

“Then how do you know she doesn’t like your music?”

“She doesn’t. I know, ok. She doesn’t.” For the first time that afternoon she looked at McNear and they locked eyes.

“Ok,” McNear said. “But just because she doesn’t like your music doesn’t mean it’s not good. I’ve been working on your song. Would you like to hear it?”

“My song?”

“The one you wrote yesterday.”

“I can’t write.”

“Yes, you can. You’re a real song writer, Chloe. Come on,” he said as he stood. “I’ll show you.”

They walked to the back door of the studio and McNear swiped a plastic card and the lock released and they went inside. The main area of the first floor was largely unfinished with a worn hardwood floor, old plaster walls, a tin ceiling, and incandescent lights hanging from wires. Chairs and various stools formed a circle around the center of the room where a microphone hung from the ceiling.

“This is our rehearsal space,” he said. “We’ll work out our songs, ironing out the parts and harmonies and so on until we get it right. Then we’ll go into the studio to record.”

He pointed to a smaller room with a glass window. Through the window she could see several microphones and music stands forming a semi-circle in front of an even smaller room with another glass window.

“We record in there,” he said pointing to the larger of the two rooms, “and that’s the control room back there. We’ll do our mixing in there. That’s where I’ve been working on your song.”

He walked her past the recording studio and into the control room. A large sound board sat under the window, along with an array of electronic recording equipment. In the corner, a television was on, its sound muted. He pointed to a swivel chair beside the sound board.

“Have a seat,” he said.

Chloe sat down, her eyes wide. She was afraid to move as McNear put on headphones and began touching buttons.

“Ok,” he said, “this is still not quite where I want it to be, but you’ll get the idea. I added a drum track, a bass line, and even toyed with some horns and strings. The one thing I can’t do is add some additional voice tracks, a little harmony here and there. We’ll do that with live singers.”

He took off his headphones and touched the play button.

Chloe listened to the familiar song, then started moving to the rhythms, humming the tune. McNear’s additions were subtle and did nothing to take away from the raw musicality and genius of Chloe Nielsen. Even though he had mastered the demo, it still took his breath away to hear it full volume through speakers. Chloe seemed unfazed.

“I like that song.”

“That’s you, Chloe. That’s the song you were singing yesterday.”

She stared at McNear, trying to comprehend the implications of what he had said. “My song?” she said, finally.

Before he could answer, Chloe pointed to the television.

“Katherine,” she said.

The interview with Richard Oliverio was just beginning.

16 – Warren Carter

In the Lost Lantern, a biker bar along a two-lane highway in Rockingham, North Carolina, Warren Carter sat on a stool drinking a cheap domestic beer, his second since he arrived fifteen minutes earlier.

“Burger will be right out,” the bartender said.

Carter nodded and took a drink.

A large man with a beard, heavily tattooed and wearing club leathers, sat down beside Carter and faced him directly.

“Where you from, partner?” he said.

“Just passing through,” Carter said. “You don’t need to worry about me.”

“That’s not what I asked you.”

Carter put down his beer and turned to face the man. He glanced toward the back of the bar, where a small group of bikers with the same leathers were gathered around a pool table, watching, some wearing black bandanas. A smaller man with a red bandana leaned back in a booth.

“Look, buddy, I don’t care what you tell your pansy-ass bandana boy over there. Hell, tell him I’m from Key West. But know this. If you guys start something, you are going to pay. I can’t take all of you ragheads, but I’ll make sure to mess you up real good before I go down. How do you fancy living life with one eye?”

The guy with the beard nodded, then looked at the ink on Carter’s neck. Semper Fi.

“Ex-marine?” he said.

“Oorah.” Carter raised his glass, then took another long drink. “Now go talk nice about me to your buddies.”

In the reflection of the mirror behind the bar, he watched as the biker went back toward the pool table and slid into the booth where the guy with the red bandana sat. The game stopped while they picked up the important points of the conversation. The guy with the red bandana showed no reaction, but the others went back to their game and their drinks. Carter sensed that he would at least be able to eat his burger in peace but doubted that he would leave the bar without another conversation. He took another drink and with his left hand, felt the folded knife in his jacket pocket. When he set the glass back down, he reassured himself by slipping his right hand in his other pocket and slid his fingers into the holes of the steel knuckles. Tucked into the back waistband of his jeans and under his denim shirt was a 9mm semi-automatic Sig Sauer.  Of course his new friends would be at least equally armed.

He finished his second beer as the bartender placed the burger and fries in front of him, then reached under the bar for a dirty plastic ketchup bottle.

“Another beer?” he asked.

“No,” Carter said. “diet cola.”

The television in the corner over the collection of liquor bottles had been showing a poker tournament and when it had ended, no one noticed as the broadcast went into the news. As with most biker bars, things didn’t really get going until later in the evening, and no one was there to watch television. So the broadcast was ignored, even when the national news led with a story of the latest conflict in the Middle East. But when the picture of Katherine Loudendale flashed on the screen, Warren Carter noticed. He reached up and touched the tender scar on his face.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said.

After the commercial break, Richard Oliverio began his in-depth interview, now with the network tagline, The Will to Survive: The Katherine Loudendale Story.

Carter stopped eating and watched. He had to know what she was going to say. Oliverio was starting out easy, asking about her trekking background, letting her establish her credentials as more than just a weekend hiker. The list of places she had been was impressive. Costa Rica, South America, all over Europe. Carter couldn’t help but gain some respect for her.

“Burger ok?” the bartender asked.

Carter realized his attention to the interview was conspicuous. The bartender glanced up at the television to see what he was watching.

“Poor little rich girl got lost in the woods,” he said. “Then they make her out to be a hero.”

“Crazy, huh,” Carter said.

“That’s what she gets for going out there by herself. Lucky she didn’t get killed.”

“Yeah.” Carter turned away slightly, hoping the bartender wouldn’t notice the scar. He squirted some ketchup on his fries and started to eat, not watching the interview but still listening to every word. He glanced in the mirror at the bikers shooting pool. They didn’t seem to be paying attention.

“So what happened, Katherine?” Oliverio asked. “You encountered a couple of guys on the trail?”

She went into the story that she had already told at the press conference and to police investigators. “They seemed nice enough when I first met them,” Katherine said. “They had this laid-back air. Kind of the stereotypical beach-bum vibe, even out there in the middle of the forest. Like they could have been from California. That’s why I started calling them the California boys.”

“But they turned out to be anything but California cool,” Oliverio said.

Katherine took a deep breath.  “One of them,” she said.

“Not both?”

“One of the two actually seemed nice. He was respectful.”

“The other one?”

“Just creepy. He had a look in his eyes.”

“The one you refer to as Jar?”

“That’s what his partner called him.”

“Jar?” Oliverio knew the answer to his implied question. He was adept at drawing out a story.

“Short for jarhead. A marine. Ex-marine. He had this tattoo on the side of his neck. Semper Fi.”

“Semper Fidelis,” Oliverio said, then added, “always faithful.”

Carter pulled the shirt collar up higher on his neck as he continued to pretend to ignore the television. He wanted to get out of the bar but he knew he couldn’t draw attention to himself. Besides, nobody else was interested in the story. And even if they suspected that he was the one Katherine Loudendale was talking about, they likely wouldn’t do anything with their suspicions. Biker paranoia to the contrary, he was one of them. Like the bartender said, she had it coming.

“What happened?” Oliverio asked.

So Katherine again told her story, and this time Oliverio was able to coax out even more detail. The interview went on and Carter was relieved when the focus shifted to her survival. He glanced at the screen occasionally and saw her face up close, all clean and fresh, her hair pulled back and accentuating her eyes. Soft eyes, not hard like he had remembered from the forest. Eyes that looked sad.

He had almost finished his hamburger when the story again changed direction and she told what she could remember about breaking her arm, then the snakebite, then her sickness. She didn’t remember fighting for her life. Didn’t remember much about her hero, James Brown, and how he found her and led the rescuers to her.

It was hard not to feel sympathy for her. It was a touching story, even for someone who had been hardened by the slaughter and death of war. Even for someone who had not only fought for his own survival but had to kill others so that he might live.

Though his emotional scars were deep and multiple and would never heal, Warren Carter had survived his battles without so much as a bullet wound. So when he saw that Katherine had lost her leg, when he saw the pain in her eyes, when she cried talking about the inexplicable feelings of gratitude she felt toward James Brown, Warren Carter could no longer hold the façade of bravado that he had constructed and maintained for so many years. At that moment, he knew the truth about himself. He could not do enough penance to make up for the cruelty imbedded in his heart.

Carter had lost his appetite. He pushed the burger away. He put on his jacket and pulled a small clip of bills out of one of the inside pockets. He peeled off a twenty and a ten and put them on the counter.  There were three more pockets inside his jacket, hidden pockets, each with thousands of dollars.

“I understand you have a daughter you haven’t seen for some time,” Oliverio said.

Carter looked up at the television. Katherine looked surprised by the statement.

“I do,” she said, “but I’d rather not talk about her. I need to protect her privacy.”

“She has special needs, doesn’t she?” he pressed.

“Chloe is a special girl,” she said, and Carter could tell the instant she said her name, she had regretted it.

“Well, Chloe has a very special mother,” he said.

Oliverio began to wrap the interview, ending on a properly satisfying sympathetic note. He pitched the broadcast back to the network studio, where the anchor updated the status of the investigation into the so-called California boys.

“Authorities have reported that they have leads in the investigation and hope to have their identities in the near future. We’ll keep you up to date.”

And with that, Carter’s defensive reflexes engaged. He hiked up his jacket collar around his tattoo and turned to leave the bar. He glanced back at the pool table. No one was there.

*

It was twilight when he opened the door and walked toward his motorcycle. He stopped when he saw the biker with the red bandana leaning on his own bike, now parked next to his. There was no sign of the rest of the club but he figured they were close by.

Carter approached his bike and took the helmet off the seat.

“Not wanting any trouble,” he said. “Just passing through.”

“I’m guessing the cops are going to be looking for you before too long.”

Carter didn’t bother to argue. He had misjudged the guy.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“We could always use a little help. We’ve got jobs that need to be done that nobody really likes to do.”

“I bet.”

“You help us, we help you.”

“How’s that?”

“We keep a safe house. You can stay there if you want. For a little while, anyway.”

“That’s mighty nice of you to offer, but I need to keep moving.”

The man with the bandana nodded.

“Yeah,” he said. “I understand. But like I say, the cops are going to be looking for you sooner or later. Might be sooner than you think.”    

“That’s what I figured. Looks like I have no choice.”

“No, jarhead. You always have a choice.”

Carter pulled his cellphone from his jacket pocket and dialed a number. He waited a few seconds before he spoke.

“Yeah. North Carolina. Rockingham. Listen. There’s a little biker club down here trying to put the squeeze on me. Iron Heads. No, don’t do anything. Just wanted you to know, just in case. Rockingham. Later.”

Bandana man laughed. “You expect me to believe that?”

“You always have a choice, Iron Head.” He put the cell phone back in his pocket. “I’m riding out of here and I expect you’ll let me ride. I expect you won’t make any calls. I expect you don’t want your world turned upside down.” He got on his bike and put his helmet on.

“Can’t blame a guy for trying.”

Carter fired up his bike and hit the highway, heading south on Route 19. Five minutes later he took a cross-road east, then north for ten miles, then west. When he was sure he wasn’t being followed, he pulled off the side of the road near the Dan River and got off his bike. He took off his helmet and took in a deep breath of the cool, night air. He pulled his cellphone out and looked at the number he had dialed, his own cell number. Had the biker called his bluff he’d probably be following him to the safe house. He called one more number, his ex-wife in Florida and let it ring only once. That would be enough for the law to think that’s where he was headed. He dropped the phone to the pavement, crushed it with his heel, then picked it up and threw it in the middle of the Dan River. He put his helmet back on, got on his bike and continued west.

On the other side of Charlotte, Carter stopped in a dollar store and bought a disposable smartphone, then found a motel that offered wi-fi. He picked up a bottle of wine at the package store across the street and spent the next hour on the internet learning everything he could about Katherine Loudendale. There was so much news coverage that finding the basic facts about her and her company was easy. Details about her personal life were a little more difficult. Even more difficult was discovering anything about the daughter. But he knew her name, thanks to Richard Oliverio. A search of social media revealed about a dozen Chloe Nielsens.

Then he found an old news article. An interview with a younger Katherine Loudendale, and her ex-husband, Anders. Their daughter, eighteen year-old Chloe, had been missing for a week. Then another article, apparently a follow-up, with no photos.  Social workers in Richmond reported that she had shown up at one of the homeless shelters. No more information was provided and he could find no more stories on her.

But for Carter, Richmond was as good a place as any. And if he was lucky, he might even make a new friend.

17 – James and Katherine

After the Oliverio interview Katherine was in demand by all the media and her office was protective of her time. The interview requests had to be prioritized. All of the major networks would be accommodated but only a few of the talk shows. With the departure of the seasoned hosts of years past, the late-night genre had devolved into a comedy circus. Despite their occasional attempts at serious interviews, Katherine’s father strategized that in the long run, they would benefit more by appearing on the kind of shows their clients watched – public television and the more dour cable channel shows. The obvious exception being the Shelley Porter Prime Time Special. With her ratings and devoted audience, that was one sensationalist show they could not pass up.

*

James never thought he’d have such a hard time simply getting in touch with her, but Katherine had changed her cellphone number and he was one of the ones she had forgotten to notify. He finally called her office in D.C. and they took his number and promised to let Katherine know he had called.

*

James was nibbling from a box of raisins when Katherine’s segment on the Shelley Porter show started. In the days after their rescue, he had been so starved for real food that he had gone on a binge that was almost obscene. Burgers, pizzas, ice cream – whenever he had a craving. But one night, in the middle of devouring a bag of microwave popcorn, he had stopped. He dumped the bag in the trash. The ice cream from the freezer, the same. The pop in the refrigerator, he put in a box to take to a homeless shelter the next day. Then candy bars. He had wanted an apple, but there were none in the house. So began his new diet. High protein, low carbs, and fresh fruit. His new snack of choice, raisins.

The interview broke no new ground – just more of the same, although Shelley did probe deeper into Katherine’s personal life. When Shelley invited audience questions, there were the expected queries about how she fought off her attackers, what she ate on the trail, even her bathroom practices. But soon they were asking for her advice on how to face their own challenges and how she felt about being a strong role model.

“Any special man in your life?” a young man asked to the delight of the audience.

They roared when a pretty blonde asked if there was a special woman in her life.

“No,” she answered to both questions.         

After a few more questions, Shelley again took control and leaned toward Katherine, signaling that her next question was serious.

“We haven’t heard much from the man who helped bring you to safety. James Brown. How is he doing?”    

Katherine smiled. “I spoke with James the other day and he is doing very well. I don’t know where I’d be if he hadn’t come along.”

“Your face lit up when I mentioned his name.”

“Did it? Well, I’ll never forget him. He saved my life.”

“Any plans for a reunion?”

 “He stopped by when I was in the hospital, but things have been kind of crazy since I got out.”

“Would you like to see him again?”

The audience needed no encouragement and showed their approval with rousing applause.

Katherine laughed. “Of course I’d like to see him again. I think he’ll be a friend for life.”

It was the perfect end to the segment and as the show faded to commercial.

*

James set the box of raisins on the coffee table and turned off the television. He had reached out to her but hadn’t heard back. If she were sincere she would call him.

He went to the kitchen and poured himself a glass of wine and sat down at the table in front of his laptop. He had produced ten pages so far, a stream-of-consciousness collection of thoughts and emotions that he wanted to get down before the feelings faded. He would be up until midnight, the last hour spent documenting everything he could remember of their first night together, when they were both relatively healthy. He wrote about the discipline he had to summon to resist the temptation to hold her that night, not for warmth, not for romantic intersession, not even for sex – but for the almost-irresistible desire for simple human contact. He put it all down. No feelings were left unexpressed.

When he finally crawled into bed, his eyes wouldn’t close and he lay still for another hour, his hands and fingers intertwined across his stomach, thinking of nothing but Katherine.

*

At work the next day, his celebrity-by-association with Katherine Loudendale again made him the center of attention, but by noon the interest had faded. As the national media had made clear, James Brown was a supporting actor in the high-stakes drama that played out in the forests of West Virginia.

He sat in his office with a cup of coffee, reflecting on his flash of fame. Before – before he got lost in the woods; before he thought he was going to die; before he acted heroically; before he loved Katherine – he might have considered such a fleeting burst of attention disappointing, but now that it had come and gone, he was glad.

He felt calmer, more sure about his circumstances, though nothing had really changed in that regard. And while he hoped that Katherine would call, he knew in spite of the way he felt about her, he would be ok if she didn’t.

It was just before noon when Joanne Moore stopped by.

“Hi, James. Do you have a minute?”

She was seated before he could respond. Her head tilted to her right.

“Didn’t shave today?” she asked.

“What?” He felt the side of his face. “Guess I didn’t.”

“I like it. Kind of a rugged look.”

“Thanks, I guess. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and writing lately. Kind of cuts into my time for other things.”

“You’re different now.”

“I am?”

“You are. The way you look. The way you carry yourself.”

He shrugged. “People change.”

“Who you see in the office every day,” Joanne said, “is not me. The cheerfulness, the bubbly personality. It’s a facade.”

“I find that hard to believe.”

“After,” she said, then paused, not quite knowing how to express herself. “After what happened to me when I was young, I carried around so much guilt. And fear.” She looked down at the floor. “I got really depressed. I just wanted it to go away, but it never did. I got so tired of fighting against my feelings all the time.” She looked back up at James. “I wanted to kill myself.”

“But you got through it,” James said.

“My parents didn’t know everything that had happened. They thought I was just having nightmares about being lost. They didn’t know how bad it was. But they took me to counselors and therapists. I couldn’t tell them my story, either, so I just got worse. Finally I figured out that if I just act happy, they would be happy and everybody would leave me alone.”   

“So your happiness is just an act?”

“Not entirely. I guess over the years I’ve accepted my persona, kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it’s not really me. I’m afraid to express serious thoughts or let anyone see me sad. Or even a little down.”

“Joanne.”

“Yes?”

“You can be sad. I understand.”

Her eyes glazed a little, but before one teardrop escaped, she wiped her finger across her eyelids and stood.

“No, not going to do it,” she said. “I better get back to work.”

James stood and walked to Joanne and opened his arms and pulled her close. She sobbed onto his shoulder, leaving wet mascara stains that he would lie about the rest of the day.

It was close to five when Katherine finally called.

“James.“

He sat up in his chair and smiled when he heard her voice.

How are things going for you?” she asked.

“I’d say my life is pretty much back to normal. How about you?”

There was a hesitation. “I don’t know what normal is anymore.”

“You look good in your interviews. You present yourself well.”     

“That’s what I do.”

“Sure.”

“I need to see you, James. I don’t know why. I just want to see you.”

“Ok.”

“Not, you know, romantically. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea.”

“I understand.”

“You’ll have to spend the night, but no sense going to a hotel. I have a spare bedroom.”

“Ok.”

“I can’t drive, you know.”

“Right. The leg.”

“Not just that. They’re concerned about seizures. I can’t do anything by myself.”

“It’s all right, Katherine. I’ll drive out this weekend.”

“Thank you. I feel so stupid asking you. I probably just need some rest.”

“Probably. Tell me about your day.”

“My day?”

“What time did you wake up?”

They talked for almost an hour. The tension that James heard in her voice when she first called was gone. By the time the conversation had ended, she was speaking more softly than he had ever heard her speak. And while her anxiety concerned him, it was her quiet demeanor that seemed out of character. He hung up the phone, knowing he was going to call her again in the morning. 

*

The next morning before work, he did call, wanting his voice to be the first she heard, but she either had her cell phone turned off or was unable to answer. He left a message and said he would try again later. Just before noon he tried her office but he was told she was in a meeting. That in itself was a relief to James, knowing that she was doing something in the range of normal.

Joanne popped in his office, looking like the Joanne that everyone knew.

“Ready for lunch?”

“We’re going to lunch?”

“Yes, James, you promised. Unless…”

“No. Lunch is fine.”

They went across the street to the cafe, and while they ate, they talked about office gossip, the movies, even the weather. But absolutely no talk about forests or being lost or facades of strength or anything of any real importance.

“How’s the family?” James asked.

She went on about the girls’ high school dramas, their boyfriends, and mentioned her two cats and one dog.

“What about Barrett?” he asked.

“Oh, Barrett’s fine. Always at the office working.”

“Does he know?”

“Of course he doesn’t know.” It was the bubbly Joanne answering. The real Joanne was suppressed.

“You should tell him. He would understand.”

“Our talks have really helped me,” she said, though the smile never left her face. “I think you’re right. I’ve made too much of that incident all these years. So, yes, I should tell him. And I will. Thank you, James.”

But he knew she never would. Her secret would never be spoken of again, and she would go to her grave lying to herself about who she really was.

*

He talked to Katherine once more that week. She was easing into work again, spending some time at the office between physical therapy sessions. She had been fitted with a prosthetic and was learning to walk and train her muscles to behave differently as she stepped. She seemed pleased that he had called, seemed to use the conversation as an opportunity for a break from everything happening around her and to her.

He couldn’t tell if she was interested in him romantically – he had never been very good at that kind of discernment – but there definitely was a connection. Maybe just some kind of survivors’ bond, he told himself. Or maybe she didn’t have a real friend to talk to. It could be that because she had been emotionally and physically exposed to him, there was no pretense of protecting her vulnerability.

Every night James worked on his writing, a floor lamp providing just enough light to see his keyboard. Had he been able to work in complete darkness, he would have. What started as an exercise of recording the facts, quickly evolved into an outpouring of his emotions, and then there was an amalgamation of the two – the facts and emotions – that produced introspection. He found himself reverse-engineering everything that had happened and everything he felt to try to find a cause and effect.

He put it all down, not really knowing whether it made his story any better or any worse.  Better or worse for whom or what, he wasn’t sure. Was he writing for himself or for a potential audience? Maybe both. Either way, he wrote. In just a few days he had produced nearly fifty pages.

The night before he was to leave to see Katherine, he read what would ultimately be the first chapter of his memoir. It started with his walk down the trail in the late evening, looking for a view of the moon. As he read the account, it was as if he was reading about a character in a novel, and the actions of this particular character, this James Brown, didn’t ring true. Why would he just go for a walk in the woods in the middle of the night?

The answer was easy. He was feeling down. He had no real friends at the company. And until Joanne’s recent interest, no one had ever asked him to go to lunch, much less after-work drinks. He had no love life. It was sad existence.

So he went for a walk. Just a walk. Nothing more.

So began the telling of his backstory that would become Chapter Two. He examined his time at work, but kept going further and further back in time. From the beginning. His childhood. The death of his sister. The loss of his father. The constant moving from town to town as his mother looked for work, always starting over in a new school, the difficulty of making new friends at each stop.

When he finally quit at one in the morning, he had written another twenty pages, and more importantly, was beginning to understand himself. At least what he was starting to consider as his former self.

In a lot of ways, the person who fell over the cliff had not survived the fall. Joanne was right. He was different now. There was, for sure, tangible evidence of his change. After having survived the most challenging conditions he had ever faced, he had a new confidence in his physical capabilities. Days after his return home, the aches and pains of his bruises and cuts began to subside, as did the muscle soreness that came from the over-exertion required to stay alive. And when it did, when he could twist his torso and raise his arms without any pain whatsoever, he was surprised to learn that he missed the pain. He missed what it represented. So he had started exercising. The first night he set out to do twenty-five pushups. He only managed thirteen. And that was with rest in between. Fifty sit-ups took him ten minutes. He even did some old-fashioned jumping jacks. The next day, the soreness was back. It was a good feeling.

And his new diet had contributed to the sharpening of the edges of his body. He wasn’t quite lean, but his soft pudginess was diminishing. He first noticed that his pants fit a little looser, and then saw that his polo shirts seemed to be hanging differently. Which led to a trip to the mall for new clothes.

He went to the department store he had always shopped and pulled a couple of pairs of khaki slacks from the rack, one size smaller than usual, and then went to the rack of polo shirts. He flipped through the collection, looking for something a little different. No, a lot different.

He put the khakis back on the rack and left the department store and walked to the second level to the outfitter store. He had never considered himself an outdoorsman, a fact reflected by his reluctance to go on the retreat, but yes, something had changed. It wasn’t obvious to someone who knew James casually, which was just about everyone, but the signs were there for those who would see.

*

At six o’clock Saturday morning James programmed his new GPS for the address in Alexandria, then put the printed directions and an old-fashioned road map in the center console. The night before he had checked his spare tire, gathered a few tools in a shoe box, along with some emergency supplies, and loaded everything in the trunk. On his kitchen table set a small cooler with several bottles of water, bags of trail mix, and a couple of apples and oranges. His suitcase was packed, and though he had planned on staying only Saturday night, he had packed clothes for two extra days, and had included a knit cap, gloves, and a coat heavier than he would need for another two months.

It was almost six-thirty when he had finished his preparations. He took a drink of water and headed out the door for the first recreational run of his life. His planned route would give him a mile, a modest goal, he thought, and for the first four minutes, he felt like he could probably go two. When he reached the halfway point, his legs began to feel tired and he started to wonder if maybe he was pushing his recovery. After six minutes, the rhythm of his steps slowed, the stride shortened.

But he would not stop.

Four blocks from home his foot started to hurt. The shirt-shoe foot. The thought occurred to him that he had a broken bone.

But he would not stop.

With his legs feeling like swollen river logs, he kept moving. If he could carry Katherine, if he could hike unendingly with only one shoe, if he could survive in the woods, he could make the last few blocks.

So he did not stop.

It became his mantra.

*

James arrived in Alexandria just after noon and drove directly to Katherine’s town home in one of the city’s historic districts. He parked in front and after checking the address, he walked up the steps to the front door and rang the bell.

He was surprised at how fast his heart was beating. As he waited, he looked up and down the street that seemed like a scene from a movie. The air was so clean, with just a touch of the fall crispness, and a soft breezed ruffled the leaves of the zelkova trees that hugged the facades of the town homes. He turned around to face the door again just as it was opening.

When he saw her, all of the self-assurance that had manifested itself and embedded in his recovering body fluttered away like the leaves in the trees. He had remembered the Katherine from the trail, the tall, strong, woman, her hair pulled back tight against her face. That Katherine had fine features and kind eyes, but she didn’t smile.  The Katherine at the hospital was much the same. That Katherine was nothing like the Katherine standing in front of him.

She was much shorter than he remembered and her hair was smooth and straight and fell alongside her face. Whereas the other Katherine had an intimidating presence, this Katherine had a genuine smile which made her seem warm and approachable, were it not for her intimidating beauty.

“Katherine.” It was all he could manage. He couldn’t stop staring at her. It took everything he had to keep from showering her with praise that would come across as disturbing. Instead, he said, “You look like you’re recovering well. I like your hair that way.”

“Come in,” she said as she opened the door.

She was leaning on crutches, her jeans hanging loosely from her right leg, and where her foot should be, nothing.

He stepped inside the foyer and Katherine pushed the door closed with a thrust of her hips, which his eyes followed as she started towards her living room. His memory of her in the forest was of an extremely fit woman, but watching her now it was clear that she, too, had dropped a few pounds. Her jeans hung loosely in a way that called attention to her emaciation.

The apartment was the ultimate in tasteful class: nine-foot tray ceilings, a natural stone fireplace, original oils and watercolors on the walls. At the far end of the room was a bar made of cherry wood with marble inlay accents. The furniture was contemporary and the tables and bookcases held just the proper number of magazines and artifacts from her travels around the world.

“Nice place,” James said in a way that revealed his awe.

“Would you like a drink?” she asked as she hopped behind the bar and sat on a stool. James did the same opposite her.

“I wouldn’t say no to a glass of wine.”

“Neither would I,” Katherine said, “even though the doctors say to avoid alcohol for a few weeks.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t.”

“It’s just a little wine,” she said as she filled her glass. She took a sip and then set it on the bar. “Thanks for coming, James.”

“My pleasure.”

She smiled at him, but it wasn’t full and complete, as if she was hiding something, maybe a little melancholia. That’s what he suspected, anyway.

“A toast,” he said, as cheerily as he could muster. She mirrored his expression and sat up a little straighter while she held up her glass to his. They held the pose for a few seconds as James tried to think of something to say. Toasting was a social grace which for him, was totally new.

“Yes?” she said.

“Hang on.” He thought for a moment, then, “to new beginnings.”

“Well that’s a bit cliche, but ok. New beginnings.”

They clinked glass and took a drink.

“Ok,” James said, “let’s see if you can do better.”   

Katherine smiled and tilted her head to one side, apparently enjoying being challenged. She closed her eyes for a few seconds and then opened them and raised her glass.

“Through shadow and light I bear my quest 

In forest deep I find my rest

Till day is done and sun’s set west

And then I know I’m truly blessed.”

She lightly tapped his glass, she drank, but he didn’t.

“And where did that come from?”

“Just made it up.”

“Liar.”

Katherine laughed.

“It’s better than a new beginning,” she said.

“It sounds familiar.”

“Anders taught it to me a long time ago. There are four verses, but I don’t have the kind of mind that can remember that sort of thing. That’s the last verse. I can relate to it. It captures why I love the forest so much.”

18 -Katherine and James

It had been three weeks since Katherine had been outside in the sunlight, the last time being a clearing near the top of the mountain, sunning herself to sleep, not knowing she was being watched. She and James sat at a table on the sidewalk of Ramon’s, a bistro in Alexandria’s Old Town. It was mid-afternoon and there wasn’t much of a crowd. Only two other couples sat outside.

“I get the feeling people are looking at us,” she said.

James looked around. The couple to their right had twice glanced their way.

“I know what you mean.”

Their waitress approached and gave her name – Tonya – and they each ordered a glass of wine. Just before she left, Tonya turned to Katherine.

“I’m sorry, but you look like the woman that was lost in the woods. Has anyone ever told you that?”

“No,” Katherine said. “You’re the first.”

James laughed.

“Have you been following the story?” Tonya asked.

“Well, not really.”

“She’s an amazing woman. She’s led such an incredible life, and then to be able to survive what she went through and come out so strong.  I don’t think I could do that.”

“Sure you could,” Katherine said. “You’d be surprised what you’re capable of.”

“I don’t know,” Tonya said. “I’ll be right back with your drinks.”

“You’re a celebrity,” James said.

“She’s right, you know.” It was the lady from the second table over. She and her husband were both looking at them, smiling. “Your story is so inspiring,” she went on. “You showed us how to face adversity.”

“Thank you,” Katherine said, hoping the exchange was over.

“This wouldn’t be James Brown, would it?”

Katherine looked at James as if to ask if he wanted any part of this. James gave her an almost imperceptible shrug, which the woman noticed.

“Oh my goodness,” she said. “Is this the reunion you talked about in your interview with Shelly Porter?”

“I think she made it more dramatic than it needed to be,” Katherine said. “We just wanted to be able to get together and talk.”       

“It’s so wonderful to see you both.” And then, “Would you mind if I took a picture? My mother adores you and she’d love to see a picture of you two together.”

“James,” Katherine asked, “do you mind?”

“Sure,” he said.

The lady was already up and standing in front of their table. James and Katherine turned to her and smiled.

“No, no, no. Scootch together a little closer. Like you like each other.”

James moved his chair closer to Katherine.

“Come on, put your arm around her. She saved your life for heaven’s sake.”

It was an awkward moment. He moved his arm behind her and as his hand grazed her back it gave her a chill. His hand first rested in the crook of her neck and shoulder and he squeezed her neck as a basketball coach might do to one of his players. It was a strong, unaffectionate gesture, and when she felt his fingers and the palm of his hand warm against her skin, together against the tightness of the muscles in her neck, she experienced a physical relief that was instantly noticeable on her face.

“Are you ok, honey?” the lady asked.

“Fine,” Katherine said, then realized that her smile had faded. Not because she wasn’t happy. She hadn’t felt such a deep contentment in a long time. It was a moment that was greater than a superficial smile, that was so tender that tears would have been more fitting. But being the public relations professional that she was, she manufactured the smile that was expected.

“There we go.”

At the same time, James moved his hand from her neck, apparently deciding the shoulder was a better landing spot. As the lady took the picture, he squeezed her arm, and when she took another one just in case, he squeezed again. While lacking the same effect as the touch on her neck, his sidearm hug was not without its own moment of tender warmth.

The lady looked at her phone. “Perfect,” she said. “Thank you so much. I’ll let you be now. Good luck to both of you.”

As she made her way back to her husband, James caressed Katherine’s arm before pulling away and moving his chair back to its proper position. Almost. Katherine noticed that he was several inches closer than he had been before the photo op.

She leaned in close to James and whispered. “She’s going to sell that photo to the tabloids, you know.”

“What? Really? You think?”

He glanced over at the couple and the woman was working on her phone, no doubt letting all her friends know about the encounter.

“Why are you so cynical?” James asked.

“Why are you so naive?” she replied.

“Which is better?”

Before Katherine could respond, Tonya returned with their drinks and took their order. After she left, James leaned on the table and looked at Katherine.

“Talk to me. Tell me what’s on your mind.”

Katherine stared back, studying, as if trying to find the answer to a vexing riddle.

“This might have been a mistake,” she said.

“Coming here? Do you want to go?”

“No. You might be the mistake.”

“Oh. Care to explain?”

“Not sure I can.”

“Try.”

She hesitated.

“Are you the same man I beat up on the trail?”

He laughed. “Are you the same woman?”

Katherine leaned back and tried to push herself up in her chair but fell to the side a little. “I can’t get used to not having my leg. I keep trying to use it and it throws everything out of kilter.”

“When will you get a prosthetic?”

“I’m using one in rehab, but it will a couple of months before they fit me for a permanent one. The swelling in my stump will need to go down and then it will atrophy a little. They don’t want to do the fitting until my body adjusts to its new situation.”      

“Of course.”

“So, no, I’m not the same woman.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about.”

“It’s all related.”

James was silent for a moment, studying Katherine.

“Your hair,” he said. “It was different out in the forest.”

“You think?”

He ignored her sarcasm. “Yeah. You had it pulled back and it was curlier. It really looks good around your face like that. Is that how you usually wear it?”

“Why are you talking about my hair?”

“What am I supposed to be talking about?”

“You’re annoying,” she said, then reached for her glass of wine.

“And you’re obfuscating.”

“Ooh, look at his big words.”

They sat silently for a few minutes, each gathering their thoughts, each knowing that there were more important things to talk about. James spoke first.

“You know what I like about you?”

“My long, sexy leg?”

“Very funny.”

“So tell me.”

James looked out beyond the sidewalk, across the street, where a street person was pulling a two-wheeled buggy. He stopped by a trash can, rummaged for a moment, then moved on.

“You’re honest with me,” he said.    

“How’s that?”

“After you beat me up, you were just going to leave me.”

“I don’t know.”

“No, you were. I could tell.”

“I was thinking survival first. I’m sorry about that.”

“Don’t be. It was the first sign from you that told me you weren’t going to play games. I knew right then that whatever you told me, whatever you did, was going to be the truth.”          

Katherine nodded. “I’m glad I didn’t leave you. I would have regretted that deeply.”

“Thanks. Even so, it took a while for you to warm to me.”

“Well, in my defense, you were pretty much a useless dip-shit.”

He laughed and shook his head. “I guess that’s true.”

“But here’s the thing, Jimmy.”

“James.”

She rolled her eyes. “There was something about you out there that was comforting. Maybe it was the fact that you weren’t all macho, not a tough guy. You weren’t trying to take charge. You weren’t trying to impress me.”

“I was too scared.”

“Remember that first night?” she said. “We had to huddle together.”

“I really was scared.”

“You were so gentle. And calm.”

“Again, scared.”

“Stop it. I could tell that night that you were a good guy. There’s a vulnerability to you that is rare. And when you let your guard down, I did, too.”

James looked puzzled.

“Up until you got sick,” he said, “I didn’t see anything but a woman in charge.”

“My facade.”

He thought about it. “So if your facade had crumbled, what would I have seen?”

“Me being a little more vulnerable.”

“How so?”

“That first night together, I wanted to feel your arms around me. I wanted you to hold me. Make me know everything was going to be ok.”

James nodded. “Unfortunately, at that time, I was needing the same thing. Honestly, I thought I was going to die out there. But I felt safe with you. As long as I was with you, I knew we would get out.”

“It’s probably a good thing we weren’t honest with each other,” she said.

“I needed you. You needed me.”

“Cheers,” she said, tapping her glass to his.

“What, no poetry?”

Tonya returned with their food and they ate in silence, enjoying the melancholy of the autumn afternoon.

“I’d like to go down by the river,” she said when they had finished. “Will you take me?”

“Sure.”

He followed her directions which led them to one of the parks that spilled down to the waterfront. They walked to a bench along a trail, Katherine on her crutches, where bikers and runners were taking advantage of the beautiful day.

“This is so amazing,” James said.

“I like to run here,” Katherine said. “It’s the Mount Vernon Trail. Eighteen miles long.” Then she remembered. “Guess I’ll be a blade runner now.”

“I ran this morning,” James said.

“Yeah? I wouldn’t have guessed you’re a runner. How many miles?”

“One. Barely.”

“I take it you’re new to running.”

“First time.”

“There you go changing on me. You’re going to lose that soft vulnerability.”

A young couple ran by, he in baggy shorts and a t-shirt, she in tights and a spandex running top.

“They just started dating,” Katherine said.

“Do you know them?”

“No. But I can tell. They’re dressed to impress. She wants to show off her young body. And they’re talking to each other. Once they’ve been together a while, they’ll start listening to their music when they run. Then they’ll stop running together. One of them – or maybe both – will eventually quit completely. It’s not about the running, it’s about the sex.”

“Wow. That’s impressive. And again, your cynicism is showing.”

“You may be right,” she said.

They sat for a few minutes.

“How old were you when you married Anders?” James asked.

“I think that was part of the problem. I was barely twenty.”

“Too young?”

“I was impetuous. I think part of it was rebellion against the parents. They were always so corporate and I wanted a freer life. And then I met Anders.”

“Bad choice?”

“At the time he was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I look back on those first few years as some of my best memories ever.” She smiled.

“So what happened?”

“Anders didn’t have the discipline it takes to be married. I mean, I don’t blame a guy for looking at other women. You guys are wired for that. But you have to have the self-discipline to draw the line. Anders had zero discipline.”

“I see,” James said. “You seem like a very disciplined person.”

“That I am.”

“What about after Anders? Were there other guys?”

“This sounds a little like the third degree, James. Are we at that stage of our relationship where we tell about all our previous affairs?”

“Sorry. It’s not like that. I’m just interested in you as a person. But in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve never had a serious relationship in my life.”

“Never?”

“I’ve dated a little. But I always draw back. Fear of commitment. Fear of getting hurt. Fear of losing someone I care about. I really don’t know.”

Katherine was quiet, taking it in, thinking.

“I think you know.”

“Some day I’ll tell you. But not today.”

He turned to face her.

“What about you?”

Katherine took a deep breath and exhaled.

“When I found out that Anders had girlfriends, I threw him out, of course. That in itself was enough for me to be wary of getting involved with someone else. Then my mother made things worse.”

“Your mother?”

“She thought I was over-reacting. She said I had to give Anders time to grow up. Give him another chance. That’s what she did with Charlie.”

“Your dad?”

Katherine nodded. “He had affairs over the years, but Mom believed he really, truly loved her.”

“If he loved her, he would have honored her.”

“Oh, you naive little boy.”

“Didn’t that hurt your relationship with your father?”

“Absolutely. I thought about leaving the firm. In fact, I took some time off. That’s when I took my first solo backpacking trip. Everybody was trying to tell me how dangerous it was. This was before GPS. But I didn’t care. My life was a wreck and I didn’t care if something happened to me or not.”

“You obviously reached some sort of detente.”

“On that first trip I spent three days in the Smokies. Best thing I ever did. Got away from everybody telling me what I needed to do and just figured it out on my own.”

James nodded.

“I decided that I wasn’t going to let a man determine the course of my life,” Katherine continued. “Not Anders, not my father, no one. I loved the business and didn’t want to give it up.”

“Could you have started another firm?”

“Maybe. But I don’t have my father’s charisma. He has that special quality that draws people. That’s how he built the business. It was a great opportunity to earn my place in what he had built and I didn’t want to throw that away. He’s the one who screwed up, not me. Why should I pay the price?”

“So you stayed.”

“I made him a deal. In the office, we keep everything all business. That’s when I started calling him Charlie. For Mom’s sake, we would feign a true father/daughter relationship.”

“At the hospital, he looked like he really cared for you.”

“He does, for sure. And since Mom died, our relationship has warmed a little. But it’s still hard to forgive.”

“Has he asked for forgiveness?”

“Many times.”

“Do you think he’s sincere?”

“I think he is.”

“Then you need to forgive him.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Katherine saw a man walking down the trail, a backpack on his shoulder. His manner was a little jittery, walking quickly, but glancing around as he did. As he neared their bench his slid the pack off his shoulder and pulled a towel from one of the pockets.

“Oh, man,” he said to James, “your shoes are looking a little tired.”

James and Katherine both looked down at James’ shoes, his new hiking boots that he was just breaking in.

“Let me freshen them up,” the man said as he knelt down in front of James.

“Oh, no thanks,” James said, “they’re fine.”

“Just take me a second.”

James tried to move his feet, but the man managed a few swipes with his towel. Then he stood.

“That’ll be fifty bucks.”

“What?” James said. “I’m not paying you fifty bucks. I didn’t ask you to do anything.”

“Look man, fifty bucks. Don’t stiff me, now.”

“Are you crazy?” Katherine said.

“Fifty bucks. You’re trying my patience.”

Katherine took one of her crutches and swung, trying to hit the guy in the head, but he saw it coming and simply caught it with his hand.

“You better get control of your woman, brother, she’s going to get hurt. Maybe that’s the problem, you don’t show her who’s boss.”

The man looked down the path and nodded. James and Katherine looked up to see two more guys walking toward them.

“Fifty bucks, or my business associates will take it from you.”

James pulled his wallet out of his back pocket and opened it. He tried to pull out two twenties and a ten without exposing the rest of the bills.

“Don’t worry, sir. I’m a businessman, not a thief. I just want what’s due me for services rendered.”

James handed him the bills.

“Thank you, sir,” the man said. “I appreciate your business.”

He and the two other men walked down the trail, then cut up toward the parking lot where they disappeared.

“I can’t believe you gave him money,” Katherine said.

“My hands are shaking.”

“I wouldn’t have given him anything. He’s a punk.”

“Yeah, you were a real force with that crutch. You’re lucky he didn’t use it against you.”

“I guess that wasn’t too smart, was it. Come on. Let’s get out of here,” Katherine said.

“Can we sit here for a minute?” He took a deep breath and exhaled. Then he looked over his shoulder.

A few minutes later they walked back to the car, James scouting for the guy who robbed him. Actually three guys.

“Did you not see the other two?” he asked as they pulled out of the parking lot.

“They weren’t going to do anything. They were just showing off.”

“They weren’t going to do anything to you.”

“Let’s just go back to the house,” Katherine said. “I’m tired.”

James carried in his luggage and Katherine directed him to the upstairs bedroom.

“Second door on the right,” she said. “Mine’s the first door, but I’ve been staying down here since I got out of the hospital. Once I get my legs underneath me – so to speak – I’ll move back up. For now it just makes sense not to risk falling.”

James started up the stairs.

“I’ll put on some coffee,” Katherine said.

She heard him stirring around upstairs, opening and closing doors, and imagined him taking a peek into her room. She couldn’t remember how she had left it; she hadn’t stepped foot inside since she left for her backpacking trip. She was certain she had made the bed. That was one of her disciplines. On the other hand, she had a habit of leaving her night clothes on her bed. But no, James wouldn’t violate her privacy like that. He’d be too scared.

When he came back down she had just poured two cups.

“Black?” she asked.

“Yes, thanks.”

“Grab the cups and I’ll meet you in the living room.”

She eased herself down on the sofa and then pulled up one leg, then the other.

“So good to get off my foot,” she said.

“I get it,” James said as he sat down in a leather chair beside her. “An amputation joke.”

“It’s a sign that I’ve accepted my situation.”

“It’s not like you have a choice. Good coffee.”

They sat for a moment without speaking. It was James who broke the silence.

“Can I ask you something?” he said.

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“Why do you always have to act so tough?”

“Who says I’m acting?”

“No, I get it. You don’t get to where you are without being tough. Running a company isn’t easy. And yeah, when it comes to being physically tough, I can’t think of a woman anywhere who is stronger than you.” He took a drink of his coffee. “Kind of turns me on a little.”

“Oh, great. You’re one of those.”

“No,” he said. “I just admire you so much.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“Who said there was a problem?”

“You did,” she said. “You said I never let my guard down.”

“That’s not what I said.”

“Something to that effect.”

James got up from the chair and moved to the sofa. He set his cup of coffee on the table in front of him and rested his hand on her sock-covered foot. Then he gently lifted it with his other hand and started caressing.

Katherine took a deep breath but didn’t say anything.

“You never did tell me about your relationships after Anders,” he said.

“There have been relationships.”

His left hand moved over the top of her foot, his right hand kneaded underneath.

“And?”

“Not much to tell. Everything’s good while it’s just fun and games. Having a good time. But…”

His hand slid to her ankle, then her calf.

“What is it you want to tell me?” he said.

“There have been guys I’ve liked. I don’t know what they expect.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ll give you an example. Rogers. Lawyer, of course. Friend of a friend set us up. We went out for dinner, then a club. A couple of dates like that. The usual.”

James moved his hand along her calf, squeezing and caressing as he did.

“That feels so good,” Katherine said.

“Your muscles are tight.”

She slid down a little lower on the sofa and stretched her lower leg across his lap.

“I guess where I’ve been using my leg for everything.”

“Go on. Roger.”

“Rogers.”

“Right.”

“There was a time or two that he wanted to go out and I couldn’t because of work. So a couple of weeks later, I called and asked him to pick me up at the office for a late dinner. When he stopped by, I gave him a tour of the place.”

James pulled off her sock.

“It intimidated him,” James said.

“Intimidated? My office?”

“Well, not your office. You.”

“No way. The guy was a misogynist.”

“Has that kind of thing happened more than once?” he asked, his hand resting on her leg.

“Don’t stop. It relaxes me.”

James slid his hand along her bare foot, under the leg of her jeans, to the smooth skin of her calf.

“Has it?”

“To some degree or another.”

“You can be a very intimidating woman.”

Katherine didn’t respond.

“Let me tell you about men,” James said.

“This ought to be good.”

“Women think men have it all together. They expect them to be confident and to take charge.”

“Exactly.”

“But most men are wracked with self-doubt. They’re unsure of themselves and have a hard time with rejection.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“We’re taught from an early age that we’re supposed to behave a certain way. So we adapt. Most guys get really good at playing the role. The best, the really macho types that approach a woman with swagger and bravado, have convinced themselves that they are who they pretend to be.”

“That’s some deep psychology, Jimmy boy.”

“It’s the old 80-20 rule. I’d say eighty percent of men don’t have the confidence to handle a woman like you. You’re beautiful, you’re successful, you’re a leader, and you are the take-charge person in the relationship.”      

“You’re so full of it.” She pushed him with her foot, then returned it to his lap.

“When they see how strong you are, they feel even worse about themselves. They’ll look for someone more on their level.”

“And the twenty percent?”

“Of the twenty percent that seem to have enough confidence, eighty percent are just pretenders. Someone like you would see through that. Just a bunch of hot air. More interested in themselves than you.”

“I know a few men like that.”

James was caressing her foot again.

“So what about the twenty percent of the twenty percent?” she asked.

“The few. Anders was one of the few. He was confident in who he was. He knew his strengths, knew his limitations. He knew yours, too. Which is the key to a good relationship.”

“How do you know all of this?”        

“I’m one of the first eighty percent. I’m full of doubt, self-loathing and I totally lack confidence.”

“That’s the guy out on the trail,” Katherine said. “That’s not you.”

“Weird, isn’t it?”

“I’m starting to enjoy it too much. I’ll give you two hours to quit.”

James smiled. He rubbed the top and bottom of her foot with both hands. “Purely therapeutic.”

“You’re not the least bit intimidated by me, are you?  I can tell.”

“I was. Who wouldn’t be intimidated by the person that knocked them out?”

“I still feel bad about that.”

“It changed that first night we slept together,” he said.

“I never knew that phrase could be so innocent.”

“You revealed yourself to me.”

“That doesn’t sound so innocent,” she said.

“I saw that you are vulnerable. You are strong and confident on the outside – and likewise inside – but there are parts of you that are soft and tender.”

James ran his fingers lightly up the sole of her foot.

“That tickles.”

“Something wonderful happened out in the forest,” he said.

“I almost died.”

“You changed me. You gave me no choice. I had to change so that you could live.”

Katherine pulled her foot away, then turned and leaned back into James. He put his arms around her, kissed the top of her head, and held her until they were both asleep.

*

When they awoke the next morning, they were in much the same position. There had been no sexual contact, no exchange of romantic affections, simply a repeating of the intimacy they shared in the forest.

James slipped away and found enough food in the kitchen to put together a decent breakfast. Katherine stirred as soon as the coffee had brewed and helped herself to a cup while he finished scrambling the eggs.

“Hope you didn’t mind,” James said.

“Beats my sticks and berries,” she answered.

He fixed her a plate and set it on the table in front of her, then he joined her and they ate.

“Thanks for last night,” Katherine said, breaking the quiet.

“For what?”

“For not rushing things. But I have to admit, with that foot massage.” She left the rest of the thought unfinished.

James laughed. “I can’t say I wasn’t enjoying it, too.”

“You’re not my type,” Katherine said, though her smile said otherwise.

James was about to respond when Katherine’s telephone interrupted the conversation. It was Anders. James stepped into the living room with his coffee. A few minutes later she joined him.

“Can we go somewhere today?” she said.

“Anyplace special?”

“No. I just want to drive around. Maybe go to the mountains. How much time do you have?”

“Doesn’t matter. I can drive back tonight. Or not.”

“Don’t be careless about your job, James.”

He shrugged. “My job. I’m not sure that’s what I should be doing.”

“Really?”

He sat down on one of the over-stuffed chairs. “I just feel like I should be doing something more meaningful.”

“Like what?”

He took a drink of coffee. “I’ve been writing. About our – what do you call it? Our adventure? Our ordeal?”

“So you want to be a writer?”

“I don’t know. Maybe writing is part of what I do.”

“I’ve been having the same feelings,” Katherine said. “I like what I do, but I’ve been wondering if it’s really me. I started in the business because of Charlie. And it’s been such a great opportunity. But so often I’m forcing myself to be more like Charlie. Outgoing, gregarious. I’m really more of an introvert.”

“Of course you are. That’s why you like time by yourself.”

“And I wonder if I shouldn’t be doing something that helps others. I think about the social workers who are always looking after Chloe.”

“So what do we do?”

“I’m writing a book, too, you know. Well, I’ve got a ghost writer helping me. I need to be done by the end of the month. Publisher wants it out before the story goes cold, as he put it.”

“When you write, it makes you think about things, doesn’t it.”

“And then there’s Anders,” Katherine said.

James didn’t respond.

“He wants to see me.”

“You mean, like see you.”

Katherine nodded.

“How do you feel about that?”

“He says he’s changed. He’s grown.”

“Do you believe him?”

“Doesn’t matter. I’m not interested.”

“Probably a good decision.”

“Can you be ready in a half hour?” Katherine asked.

“No problem,” James said as he stood.

Katherine walked over to him and leaned on her crutches as she touched his arm.

“Need a hand?” he asked.

She turned to walk away, then turned back and leaned in. She wanted to kiss him softly on the lips, but instead moved three inches to her right and kissed his cheek. She knew there was meaning in that minor change of course. And she knew that James would know.

19 – James

It had been five weeks since James had seen Katherine in Alexandria. They had talked on the phone several times but she was behind in her work at the firm and was still trying to juggle her physical therapy with everything else that was going on. They promised each other to get together soon, but finding a mutually acceptable time was almost impossible.

Although his status as a minor celebrity had waned – there were no more interviews, no interest from co-workers, and even Joanne had gone back to managing her façade – James continued his personal transformation. His diet had gone distinctly paleo and he had quickly worked up to running five miles on his lunch hour. He joined a gym and worked out at least twice a week, where, with his ever-tightening physique, he became one of the favorites of the women there.

In the evenings he wrote. He concentrated mainly on his memoir, as he had taken to calling it, but was also working on several short stories. He read everything he could on the craft of writing and quickly learned from his mistakes, and though he didn’t know it, he had evolved into a polished and provocative writer. He was his only reader, his only critic, and he was demanding. Writing – at least writing well – was a challenge. He had gone from throwing down the facts before they were forgotten, to fashioning words and sentences and paragraphs and chapters to achieve a tone that painted the emotions that were so much a part of his experience. It was nothing for him to delete pages of manuscript because he didn’t like the tenor of a particular passage. There was still much work to do when he received the email from Katherine.

“Good news,” she had said. “My book is finished. They’re pushing to get to publication next week while the story is still fresh. We need to get together to celebrate!”

It provoked mixed feelings. He was happy for her, yet jealous and contemptuous, the last emotion the strongest and most regrettable. He knew she had help from a professional writer. He wondered how much writing she actually did. Did she do a rough draft and let him clean it up? Or did he interview her for hours and do all of the writing? It mattered only to his ego, which he placated by telling himself that his book would have an air of authenticity that hers would lack.

That night he worked late, fueled anew by Katherine’s declaration, and immersed himself once again in the world of the dark forest. By morning he had managed a few hours sleep, but awoke satisfied and content. His story was complete, save for a proper introduction and a satisfying epilogue, an ending that would say what it all meant. How his struggle for his life and that of Katherine had changed him. That it had, in fact, changed him was indisputable. The precise nature of that change was less clear.

*

It was a Friday, which meant a casual workday at the office. He skipped the shave so he would have time for a boiled egg and although he had drunk coffee all night long, he wanted more and picked up a cup on his way in. The parking lot at the office was full – unusual for so late in the week – so he parked on the street and entered through the front door. The receptionist gave him a quick smile, then returned to her work. As he passed Joanne’s office, he saw why. Two of the regional Vice Presidents and another woman he didn’t know were talking with Joanne. She didn’t look happy.

As he walked back to his office, everything seemed subdued. There were no coffee klatches, no internet radio. He stuck his head in Kal’s office.

“What’s going on here today? What’s with the suits?”

“Can’t be good,” Kal said.

James went on to his desk and tried to work, but it was obvious it was not going to be a typical work day. A half hour later, he was one of ten summoned to the conference room.

*

“You were right,” James said to Katherine over the phone. “We need to celebrate your book. I’m going to drive down to see you tomorrow.”

“James.”

“I’m coming Katherine.”

“Yes, fine. But you can’t come to my house. I’m having work done.”

“What kind of work?”

“I’m going to live on the first floor permanently, just so I don’t have to negotiate those stairs all the time. So I’m doing a little remodeling.”

“No problem. I’ll pick you up and we’ll go out for the day.”

“Why don’t we meet somewhere?” she said.

“All right. Where do you want to meet? Wait a minute. Can you drive?”

“Yes, I can drive. I have a temporary prosthetic and I’ve had my car modified so I can push the accelerator with my left foot.”

“Really? What about the brake?”

“I have to plan ahead. I just coast to a stop.”

“Funny. Ok, where are we going to meet?”

She thought for a moment and then answered. “Do you know where Jefferson is?”

“In West Virginia? Yeah, Shenandoah County.”

“There’s a film festival there this week. We did all the PR for it. It’d be good for me to check it out.”

“What kind of films?”

“Indies. Foreign. That kind of thing.”

“A hillbilly Cannes.”

“You said it, not me.”

*

They agreed to meet at noon at the Shenandoah County Courthouse. It had been an usually warm autumn and though November had arrived, it had felt more like September, until the Saturday of their reunion. James had checked the forecast and as was his new habit, he came fully prepared for whatever surprise nature might have in store.

He arrived an hour early and instead of parking in front of the courthouse, he drove to the center of Jefferson where he found a surprisingly vibrant arts district. The streets were crowded. Art galleries beckoned patrons with cookies and cider just outside the doors; some offered wine and cheese inside. Shops and restaurants seemed to be doing a brisk business. At the end of the block, a crowd gathered around the Alban Theater waiting for the next showing. Next door, a vacant store had been temporarily converted into a theater-in-the-round where students from Shenandoah College put on their productions.

James walked down the street, his once-new hiking boots now showing a pleasing patina. He jeans were black and he wore a black pea-coat over a brown cable-knit sweater. With his two-day old beard, he looked very much like a college professor, or maybe a film producer. He drew looks from passersby and more than his share of smiles from the coeds.

He enjoyed the time by himself, and despite the circumstances that were now before him, his confidence gave him strength.

He stepped inside the doorway of the converted theater and watched a few minutes of the play. He had no way of knowing the story or its meaning but in the scene he was watching, a man and a woman were having an argument about his insensitivity and her neediness. It was an age-old dilemma, even if modern conventional wisdom had declared such differences archaic stereotypes. And just beneath the surface, of course, was the sexual tension, the attraction they still held for one another despite the maddening clash of desires. As he stood at the door, the actress glanced out across the audience and for a brief moment, she locked eyes with James. He smiled and she looked away.

He walked on down to the Alban and saw that the next showing was a Chinese film with English subtitles. He hoped Katherine wouldn’t be interested. Next to the theater was a coffee shop where he bought an Americano and started back toward the courthouse. He found a bench under a beech tree and waited for Katherine.

It was ten minutes past noon when she pulled up to the courthouse in a white luxury sedan and parked in a space next to the designated handicapped space. She waved when she noticed him on the bench. James walked to the driver side as she rolled down the window.

“Hello, Mr. Brown,” she said. “You’re looking very well.” 

“Thank you, Ms. Loudendale. As are you.” But there was something different. Something about her eyes. They were less piercing, less intimidating.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” she said. “How long have you been here?”

“Just a little bit,” he said as he tried to study her face without appearing to do so. “This is a happening place. Lots going on.”

Her face was softer, not as angular. Her cheeks were a little fuller. He wondered if maybe she was on steroids. Maybe medications related to her leg that caused swelling.

“Are you hungry?” she asked.

“I could eat.”

“Hop in,” she said. “I’ll drive, you navigate.”          

“Somebody moved your accelerator,” James said when he got in the car.

“That’s what you notice?” she asked. “What about my new leg?” She pulled up the leg of her slacks and revealed a small-diameter shaft attached to an artificial foot.

“With your shoes and slacks on I really couldn’t tell. Is that titanium?”

“Aluminum. It’s temporary. I’m still a few weeks away from getting a permanent prosthetic. That will be a carbon-composite.”

“Can you move your foot?”

“No. It reacts to my movement when I walk. Kind of like a heavy-duty spring. But I can’t voluntarily flex my foot, which is the action you need on the accelerator. So I’ve had to train my left foot for driving.”

“So now you’re left-footed.”

“Genius,” she said. “Where to?”

James directed her to a sandwich shop next to the theater that didn’t seem too crowded, though they had to park a block away. James got out and went around to her side to open the door but she was already standing beside the car by the time he got there. She opened the back door and leaned over to get a walking cane and James noticed that she had put on some weight. Not that it was a bad thing, but where before she was lean and muscular, she was starting to show more curves than he remembered. He wondered which Katherine was more representative of who she really was.

“You’re doing well,” James said as they started walking toward the sandwich shop. She had a little hitch in her step but no one would ever know she was absent a lower leg. She looked as if she might be recovering from a sprained ankle.

“I’m getting better,” she said. “And this temporary unit is slipping a little.”

“Still, you have to be pleased.”

“I guess.”

“What’s the problem?”

“I know I’ve made progress, but I don’t know if I’m ever going to get to the point that I can do serious treks like I used to.”

“You’re a strong woman, Katherine. If you can will it, you can do it.”

“I’m not sure I want to.”

They stepped inside the shop and found a table. A pretty coed took their order. She was polite to Katherine but smiled at James a little too much. He tried to act like he didn’t notice but Katherine didn’t let it pass.

“Do you know what’s funny?” she asked.

“Please.”

“I felt sorry for you.”

“You felt sorry?”

“That line you fed me in the forest. Poor little James. Nobody likes me.”

“It wasn’t a line. It was true.”

“Was?”

He leaned in toward Katherine, resting his elbows on the table. “I don’t know what it is, Katherine. Yeah, things have changed. I feel different. I look at things differently.”

“You’ve lost weight. And look at the way you dress. You look like a model for some men’s outdoors magazine.”

“Maybe that’s it.”

“Of course that’s not it,” she said. “There’s a confidence about you now. It’s palpable. It’s very attractive.”

  “I owe you for that. Those first couple of days with you. You refused to give in. You just kept going, doing whatever was necessary to stay alive. And when you went down, I just did what you would have done. That experience, everything that happened, made me realize that no matter what happens, I’ll survive.”

 Katherine nodded. “That’s ironic,” she said.

James didn’t respond and waited for her to fill the void. She never did.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Nothing. I’m fine. Everything’s fine.”

“No, it’s not,” he said. He reached across the table and put his hand on hers. She pulled away.

“Don’t,” she said.

“Come on, Katherine. It’s me, James Brown. The chubby dork you kicked the crap out of in the forest.”

She laughed, but her smile quickly faded. “I’ve been down,” she said. “I can’t seem to shake it.”

The front she had been maintaining disappeared and James saw something. A slight twitch in her upper lip, as if she were trying to decide whether or not to force a smile. Then she looked away. He didn’t sense that she was about to cry or break down but he knew that she had, and that she would again.

“Tell me about it,” he said.

“It’s all wrong. Everything’s wrong.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Anders. My father. The business. Chloe. Everything I touch goes to hell. And now this. I’m lucky I’m alive, but I’ve lost my leg. Everything is wrong.”

“You’re a survivor.”

“I’m pathetic.”

“Come on, Katherine. You know better than that.”

The waitress interrupted the exchange when she brought two wicker baskets, each filled with an overstuffed sandwich and steaming golden-brown fries. The aroma of the food was so strong that it took their minds off the conversation.

“I used to love fries,” James said. “Haven’t had any in weeks.”

“Is that your secret?”

“I’ve cut out carbs. Plus I’m running and working out.”

“Good for you,” Katherine said. “I’ve put back all the weight I lost and then some. And you know what, I don’t care.”

“You’ll get back into it.”

“What’s the point? All that working out. I could be doing something else. Like watching a movie and drinking a beer. Enjoying myself. I’m past the age of staying in shape to attract men, so why bother.”

James saw that he was getting nowhere so he changed the subject and asked about her book.

“Official release is next week,” she said. She perked up a little talking about the promotions that were planned. The signings at bookstores in D.C., and if it went well, New York and Boston. He hoped that her enthusiasm would carry over for the rest of their day together.

They finished lunch and walked next door to the Alban, where Katherine asked to speak to the festival Director, Anya Komorek. They talked for a few minutes and she assured Katherine that the festival was a certain success, which buoyed Katherine’s spirits a little more. And when Anya suggested that she introduce Katherine between showings, it seemed like a good idea. After the audience for the next showing had been seated, Anya took her place at the podium where she was to introduce the next film.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” she said. “Before I tell you about our next feature, I’d like to introduce you to someone special who has inspired all of us with her story of grit, determination and survival. She is the embodiment of the human spirit and the will to survive.”

James watched Katherine, who was smiling through the introduction, but he could still see the sadness in the eyes.

“What a privilege it is to have this extraordinary woman with us today. Would you help me welcome, Katherine Loudendale.”

The applause was loud, if not thunderous, and after several seconds, a couple in the middle of the auditorium rose to their feet, then another, and another, until Katherine was making her way to the stage to a standing ovation.

There were four easy steps from the auditorium floor to the stage where Anya stood, and Katherine climbed the stairs with no problem. But as she cleared the last step her left leg buckled slightly. It was an anomaly that she had lived with all her life and was more of a mild annoyance to her than a physical malady. In the past, when her left leg would give a little, her right and left leg would work in concert, flexing and twitching muscles small and large to compensate and counterbalance so that she would never even miss a step. But now, without half of her right leg to instinctively react and adjust, the slight buckle of her knee threw her off.  The audience gasped as she fell sideways. She extended her cane and reached out her arm, but it was too late. She hit the floor with a dull thud.

Anya rushed to her side as Katherine tried to push herself up, but getting up off the floor was not a maneuver she had practiced with her prosthetic. She tried, but she couldn’t get situated to rise up on her own. James ran up to the stage, pulled her arm over his shoulder, and quickly lifted her to a standing position.  She regained her balance and turned and waved to the audience. Then she walked to the podium to another round of applause.

As he watched, James could see the damage the fall did. Not physically; she seemed fine. And to those who only knew her from afar, it was just another example of the strength and determination of Katherine Loudendale. Yes, she fell. But she got up. Again. What a woman.

But James knew.

Katherine made a self-deprecating joke about her own klutziness, which was funny but completely untrue, then changed the subject by praising Anya, the Film Festival Committee and the Town of Jefferson for bringing such an important cultural event to the people of Shenandoah County. When she finished, James helped her back down the steps, then worked her way to the back of the theater, shaking hands with well-wishers along the way until once again they were out on the sidewalk, alone together.

“Are you ok?” James asked.

“My arm is killing me.”

“Is it the one you broke?”

 “Yes. I probably broke it again.”      

“Do you want to go to a hospital?”

“No. I’ll go to my orthopedist Monday.”

“Maybe we should take you in. Have somebody take a look.”

Her reply was so curt it stifled any response. “I said no.”

They walked to her car without talking. “I’m worried about you,” James said as Katherine pulled onto the street.

“I’ll be ok,” she said. “Just need some rest. I’d better be heading back.”

“Let me come back with you. Keep you company.”

“No. I need to be alone.”

“Why do you fight it? And don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about.”

“I’m the only one I can trust. I know you’re sincere, James, but if I count on you, you’ll end up disappointing me. It’s not your fault. It’s just the way it is.”

“You’re right. I will. And you’ll disappoint me.”

“There you go.”

“But that doesn’t mean I’ll throw away our friendship. I’ll just get up, dust myself off, and walk beside you again.”

“I can’t do that.”

“You can. You just won’t.”

“Where’s your car?” Katherine asked as she pulled in front of the courthouse.

“Just down the street. Sure you don’t want me to follow you home?”

“No,” she said. “I’ve got to get ready for the book signings. But thank, you. Seriously. I’m sorry I’m not a lot of fun right now. You deserve better.”

She leaned to him to kiss his cheek, but James stopped her.

“No,” he said. He raised his hands to either side of her face, held her gently, and kissed her, a long, soft kiss on her lips. When he pulled away, he saw something else. A deeper emotion that maybe he had pulled toward the surface, just a little.

“I want to be there for you, Katherine.”

She didn’t respond, but he didn’t expect her to.

“Please drive carefully,” he said. “I’ll call you when I get back.”

“Thanks, James.”

As he got out of the car and started walking away, she powered down the window.

“Please call,” she said.

“I will.”

*

Two weeks later, James Brown joined his co-workers at the break-room table, cup of coffee in hand. Pete Switzer stood at the back of the room as they waited for the second half-hour of the show to begin. The commercial ended and the trademark golden sunrise of The Shelly Show appeared while the sounds of a Bach aria played in the background.

“It’s on,” somebody said. “Turn it up.”

James held down the volume button as Shelly Porter bantered back and forth with her producer.

“This is it, James,” Kal said as he nudged him with his elbow.

“Quiet,” another voice said.

James forced a smile. He wished he could be watching alone.

“I’m so pleased to have with us again one very special lady. We talked to her a couple of months ago about her brush with death, and now, she has penned a very touching and poignant memoir of her ordeal. In the Forest of the Night has rocketed to the top of the New York Times best-seller list. It’s a gripping story of survival, perseverance, and most importantly, self-discovery. It’s also soon to be a major motion picture.”

The audience applauded as the camera zoomed in on the book Shelly held. The cover featured a photo of her blue sneakers, marred with dirt and very visible drops of blood, lying haphazardly on a carpet of leaves. Although James knew the cover photo was staged, maybe in a photographer’s studio, the scene immediately brought back very real memories. He could still smell the forest.

Shelly Porter smiled into the camera. “Will you please help me welcome author Katherine Loudendale.”

Katherine entered from stage right, wearing a tailored pants-suit, walking without a trace of a limp, smiling and waving to the studio audience. She had put on a few more pounds but still looked stunning. Her smile seemed real and enthusiastic and James studied her for something that would tell him the truth. But all he saw was another grateful celebrity basking in the glow of Shelly Porter.

*

Later that day, James took the last box of personal belongings to his car. He had started packing two weeks ago, when Switzer and the Regional Vice President had announced the downsizing. It was a little sad seeing his workspace so empty, and though he had more friends than he did just a couple of months ago, it really wouldn’t be hard to leave it all behind.

Joanne had never opened up to him again and he felt bad for her that she was again burying her pain. Kal and his wife had invited him to dinner a couple of times and they had become true friends. He knew, however, that their friendship would grow distant, then eventually fade into the background. The only time they would see each other would be when they bump into each other at the mall. It was the natural order of things. Friendships are not formed and sustained by some cosmic gravitational field that attracted like bodies.  This James Brown knew. They happen because of circumstance, because serendipitous proximities force people together. And as the distance increases, the friendship decreases.

It had become all too obvious with Katherine. He wanted more than anything to be with her, but their lives had kept them apart. And even though he was no longer tethered to a specific geographic location, he wouldn’t force the relationship. They still talked several times a week, and occasionally Katherine would admit to missing James, wishing he was there, but as in the past, work and book obligations kept them from spending any time together.

But now he was free to work around her schedule. He already had some interest from other engineering firms but his one-month severance package had given him the opportunity to be selfish with his time. He was determined to spend some of it with Katherine.

When he called her, they spent the first ten minutes talking about the Shelly Porter interview.  She was pleased by her enthusiastic reception and was overwhelmed by the success of her book, which was sure to get a boost from Porter’s endorsement.  Yet there was something in her voice that belied her true feelings. When the conversation came to a natural pause, he extended the silence. It was an invitation for honesty. She accepted.

“I feel like such a fraud,” she said. This time, she didn’t hold back the tears. “I didn’t write the book. I didn’t do anything heroic. I almost died.”

“No, Katherine.”

She sobbed. “I would have died. You’re the hero. I have done nothing.”

“It’s ok.”

“I can’t do this anymore.”

“I’m going to come out to see you,” James said. “I’m coming tomorrow.”

“I’m not going to be here,” she said as she started to regain control of her emotions. “I booked a flight to Tennessee.”

“Tennessee?”

“I’m going to go find Chloe. I have to.”

20 – Chloe

She loved the solitude of the library and often went there to get out of the weather and because it was a Saturday, Chloe could stay a little longer. She didn’t like being downtown that late in the day, but Brad McNear was playing at one of the songwriter clubs on Third Avenue. It would be a hard ticket for anybody else; McNear routinely sold out auditoriums. But before he would tour, he’d polish his new material at a couple of Nashville’s smaller clubs, and tonight it was Willie’s. Most tourists thought it was Willie Nelson’s place when in fact it was Willie Montgomery’s, just another club owner from long ago who had died ten years earlier.

Chloe had two hours before the library would close and she went to her usual place, a table near the newspaper racks across from the reference desk. She wheeled her cart beside the table, took off the blanket, set her brass compass on the table, and took out her book of poetry. She had read the poems so many times that their rhymes and rhythms had shaped not only the songs which seemed to emanate from her spontaneously, but also her everyday speech patterns. She would have been regarded as special and lovely simply on her own natural countenance, but to those who took the time to talk to her, her poetic expression created an aura of special knowledge or prescience. To the extent that they conferred wisdom and understanding upon her, it was unwarranted. But in realm of simple clarity of truth, there was no one like her. For these reasons, Chloe Nielsen attracted people of kind and gentle heart.

“Hi, Chloe.” It was Georgia, one of the librarians. She sat down beside her holding a book which drew Chloe’s eyes. Its binding was old and worn with frayed strings which at one time helped form the cloth that was glued over the cardboard cover. Along the spine in gothic letters that had faded into barely visible shadows was the name of the author: YEATS.

“Hi, Georgie,” Chloe said.

“It’s late for you to be here, isn’t it?”

Chloe nodded, then reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out the pass to the show at Willie’s. She handed it to Georgia.

“Oh. This is to Brad McNear’s show tonight. Where did you get this?”

“Brad gave it to me.”

Georgia leaned back in her chair. Her look was quizzical. “Do you know Brad?”

Chloe nodded. “We play music together sometimes.”

“You play music with Brad McNear.” It wasn’t a question, it was a statement of implied doubt.

“Sometimes. He recorded my song.”

Georgia hesitated. “Are you making up a story, Chloe?”

Georgia had heard Chloe play and sing, but she had never witnessed her genius – only the three-chord cover songs that eventually disintegrated. She had never known that there was more. She gave up her pursuit of the truth.

“Well,” she said, “if you’re going over to Willie’s, be careful. The hustlers will be out trying to take advantage of the tourists. They prey on the vulnerable.”

“I know,” Chloe said.

Georgia looked at the ticket. “The show doesn’t start until eight,” she said. “You’ll have to be out of here by six. Where are you going to go until then?”

Chloe shrugged.

“Have you eaten?”

“I ate lunch at St. Mark’s.”

Georgia thought for a moment, then went to her desk. When she returned, she put a folded twenty-dollar bill into Chloe’s jacket pocket.

“There’s a sandwich shop between here and Willie’s. They’ll make you whatever you want. Get you a cup of coffee, too.”

“Can I have tea instead of coffee?”

“Of course. Just stay there until you can get in the club. They won’t care as long as you buy some food.”

“Ok.”

Georgia smiled, then slid the book in front of Chloe. “I thought you might enjoy this. I know you like poetry. This is William Butler Yeats. One of the great poets of the twentieth century. I’ve had this since I was a child. It means a lot to me. I want you to have it.”

Chloe ran her hand over the worn cover, tracing the edges with her fingers. She opened the book to a random page and felt the yellowed paper. She followed the words with her eyes, her lips moving as she did.

Georgia patted Chloe’s hand. “I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.”

“Thank you, Georgie. I will.”

Georgia went back to her desk; she had work to do before closing. Chloe opened the book of Yeats poetry to page one. She read the half title, the title page, the colophon, the table of contents, and the forward before stopping at the first poem, The Stolen Child. She glanced at the verses that seemed so long, with words that were strange and unknown. She read the first few lines, stopped, and read them again. The meaning wasn’t clear. What was this poem about? A lake, herons, rats? She read more, grasping a phrase here and there but failing to put it together into anything coherent. Until the last line of the first verse.

the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

That, she understood.

She spent the next hour pouring over the book, reading verses and even single lines at random. It wasn’t easy. But there was something in the difficulty that was beguiling. She doubted that she would ever understand it all. She knew she would never stop reading.

It was almost six and Chloe was the only one on the main floor. She looked up at the desk, looking for Georgia. She wanted to thank her again for the book, but she didn’t see her. Chloe packed up her cart, putting her book of Yeats underneath her book of Frost, then covered them both with her thin blanket. She walked around the first floor, looking behind the stacks for Georgia, but there was no one. She started for the double doors at the front of the library and walked by the main desk.

She almost missed it. It was just another book among a dozen others to be re-shelved. But her mind filtered the blur of images so that the one book stood out and caused her to stop and turn around. She took a step back to the desk, and stared, her mouth open.

The elevator door to the right opened and Georgia exited pushing a cart. Chloe didn’t move or otherwise acknowledge her presence.

“What is it Chloe?”

“Katherine,” she answered. “That’s Katherine,” she said as she pointed to the back of the book jacket.

“Yes. Katherine Loudendale. That’s a new bestseller.” She turned the book over, revealing the cover art of the blue sneakers. “In the Forest of the Night. The story of her survival in the forest.”

Chloe turned the book over. “Katherine. My mother.”

“Katherine Loudendale is your mother?”

“Yeah.”

Georgia stared at Chloe. Anyone would have recognized the look as incredulity, but Chloe was oblivious.

“She got lost in the woods,” Chloe said.

“It’s been on the news,” Georgia said. “She was on The Shelley Show.”

“Dad got me a compass so I wouldn’t get lost.”

Georgia put her arm around Chloe. “Do you want me to take you back to the shelter?”

“No, I’m going to go hear Brad McNear.”

“Maybe I should just take you home.”

“I should go.”

“I’m worried about you Chloe,” Georgia said, but she didn’t say why.

“I’m ok, Georgie. I’m not sick that I know of.”

Georgia sighed, then hugged her from the side. “Please be careful. And go to the sandwich shop and get something to eat, ok?”

“I will. Thank you for the book.”

“You’re welcome. Try to get some rest tonight.”

“Miles to go before I rest.”

“Robert Frost,” Georgia said.

*

It was already dark when Chloe left the library and outside, just beyond the granite pavers of the library plaza, were four young men, one leaning on a parking meter, two others sharing a smoke near the corner, and yet another shuffling up and down the sidewalk. They were all street-scruffy with stained jeans and dirty uncombed hair. They were always there, those four, and countless other just like them. It was too early for the streets to become populated with the tourists moving from the restaurants to the clubs, and so at that relatively early hour, they stood out. Later there would be men in polo shirts and khakis with their wives and girlfriends, some in slacks, others in skirts that they thought made them look hip. And the ironic hip, with their trendy clothes and avant-garde hairstyles that they wore to express their individuality, the irony being that the hip kids all looked the same.

Later, the tourists from Indiana and West Virginia and the Carolinas would crowd into the cover-band bars and listen to familiar music by talented but unknown musicians while the hipsters drank over-priced espressos and Americanos and herbal tea in dimly lit coffee houses with paintings on the wall that they would declare brilliant, while lacking any serious knowledge of the arts.

Everyone knew of the singer-songwriter clubs that featured unknown artists playing new songs – not all of them good – but the tourists wanted the familiar and the hipsters were more interested in expressing their individuality among clones of their own kind. That, and the fact that the clubs were located away from the main strip, meant that the crowds were always smaller, but also more respectful and appreciative. Unless, of course, someone like Brad McNear was playing.

But now, in the early evening, there was a whiff of danger. As Chloe walked down the sidewalk to the corner, her reflexes – natural instincts, really – heightened her senses as her grip on the cart tightened and her pace quickened. She passed the man leaning on the meter without incident, but as she neared the smokers, they nudged each other as they eyed her.

“Hey, baby girl,” the smaller of the two said as she approached. “Want to share a drink?”

When Chloe didn’t respond, the larger man said, “Hey, you too good for us? Come on over here girl, have some fun.”

The smaller man reached out and grabbed her arm, but Chloe pulled away and kept walking.

“Come on back here, honey,” he said. “We’ll treat you like a lady.”

“Yeah,” the other guy said. “We’ll smack you up good and then you can do both of us.”

They laughed as Chloe went on. She got to the corner just as the shuffler did. He was talking to himself but when he saw Chloe he stopped, looked her in the eye, then looked back down at the sidewalk and mumbled about people watching him. Chloe crossed the street.

She had another three blocks to go before she got to Willie’s. Along the way were closed shops and a couple of vacant storefronts. She saw no one else until she crossed an alley across the street from a brightly-lit tattoo parlor. It stood in contrast to the darkness in which she had been walking and her eyes were drawn to the scene. Outside, three people stood on the front stoop, two men, one woman in biker leathers. The woman, illuminated by the porch light, was brilliantly beautiful. She had dark black hair that seemed luxurious and her smile was so perfect, her eyes so intense, even from a distance. Chloe thought she could have been a model from a fashion magazine. The woman tossed her head back as she laughed at something one of the men had said.

Chloe was entranced at the woman’s arresting beauty. Not a sensual attraction, but she was drawn to her as she might be drawn to a Monet painting or Robert Frost poem. She was living art.

Behind her, Chloe heard the muffled voice of a young woman. And then a cry.

“No,” the voice said, pleading.

Chloe turned to look down the alley but could see nothing but blackness. She heard the distinct sound of a smack, a hand slapping against skin, followed by a thud. Then a whimper.

When her eyes adjusted to the darkness again, she saw a silhouette bending over something on the ground. “Get up,” a male voice demanded.

“No, please,” a female said. “Help.”

Chloe walked down the alley into the darkness, pulling her cart behind her. As she got closer, she saw it was a man and a woman.

The man yanked the woman up by her hair. She was no more than a teenager.

“Stop it,” Chloe said.

The man turned toward her, still holding the girl’s hair in his hands.

“Get out of here,” he said. “This is none of your business.” He started to drag the girl across the alley.

“No,” Chloe said. “Leave her alone.”

He let go of the handful of hair and the girl’s head dropped to the alley. He walked toward Chloe, who walked toward the girl.

“Are you ok?” she said.

“Please help me,” the girl answered.

“Get out of here,” the man shouted. He took a step toward Chloe. She still couldn’t see his features, and though he was tall, he was thin and moved awkwardly.

“She needs help,” Chloe said. She started to move around him but he grabbed her by the arm and pushed her. She stumbled over her cart and as she fell to ground, her blankets, books and compass spilled from the cart onto the pavement.

“I said it’s none of your business.” The glint of the compass caught his eye.

Chloe crawled over to the girl and helped her to a sitting position. “Are you ok?” she asked.

“Help me.”

“I am helping you. Let’s get out of here.”

They stood together and Chloe picked up her books and blanket and put them back in her cart. Then she saw the man holding her compass.

“That’s mine,” she said.

He laughed. “Get out of here. Take her with you.” He put the compass in his pocket.

“Give it back.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“It’s not yours. I want it back.”

“Let’s get out of here,” the girl said. “It’s not worth it.”

“What else you got in there?” he said as he pulled the blanket off the cart.

“Stop it,” Chloe said as she tried to push him away.

He stumbled to the side, regained his balance, then drew back his hand and swung toward Chloe’s face. She ducked as his closed fist grazed the top of her head. His momentum carried him past her and he stumbled again, then stood and faced her. She still couldn’t see his face but she knew, maybe by the sound of his grunts and the pace of his breathing, that he was full of anger. He squared his stance and when he thrust the heel of his hand toward her, she side-stepped and his punch again missed her. Chloe pulled him by the shoulder and used his own momentum to swing him around and throw him to the ground. His face smacked the pavement and he immediately raised his head as he tried to get up, but the force of the impact caused a delayed reaction and he collapsed back on the asphalt. Chloe jumped on his back and put a knee hard between his shoulder blades, pulled his arm backwards and pinned it against him. He let out a cry.

“I want my compass back.” She reached in his pocket and pulled it out, looked at it, and then slipped into her own pocket. She pushed off his back, stood and stepped over him. She took her cart in one hand and reached out for the girl’s hand and led her out of the alley. As they stepped back into the relative light of the sidewalk, Chloe looked back and saw the man roll over onto his back, holding his head.

“Are you ok?” she asked the girl, still holding her hand.

“I’m ok. Thanks for helping me.”

“You’re welcome. What’s your name?”

“How did you do that?”

“What?”

“Throw him around like that?”

“I learned taekwondo when I was young. Katherine thought it would be good for me.”

“Katherine was right,” she said. “I’m Roxy.”

“Roxy. That’s a nice name. Why was that man trying to hurt you?”

“I owe him some money.”

“Oh. Are you a prostitute?”

Roxy pulled her hand away from Chloe.

“Don’t you judge me. You do what you have to do to survive.”

“I didn’t mean to judge you. Over there,” Chloe said, pointing to the sandwich shop across the street. “We can get something to eat.”

“I’m not into chicks, you know,” Roxy said.

“It’s ok. I have a boyfriend.”

“Why are you being nice to me?”

“You were being hurt.”

“How did you know he didn’t have a gun?”

“I didn’t know.”

They crossed the street and stepped up on the curb in front of Third Street Deli. The entire street was brightly lit and Chloe saw for the first time blood trickling from the corner of Roxy’s mouth. Around her right eye was a dark bruise. Roxy opened the door and they found an empty booth by the window. A waiter approached them and leaned over, his hands resting on the table.

“Look, girls,” he said in a whisper. “I’ll get you some water and let you sit here for a minute but when my boss sees you, he’ll want you to leave. We need to keep the tables open for paying customers.” He glanced over his shoulder, then back at the girls. “I’ll sneak you a couple muffins, ok?”

“We’re paying customers,” Chloe said. “I have money.” She pulled the twenty out of her pocket and put it on the table.

He looked surprised. “Ok. Then what’ll you have, ladies?”

They ordered a couple of sandwiches and colas and over the next forty-five minutes, traded stories, familiar to both of them, different only in the details. Roxy had run away from an abusive step-father and a mother on drugs. She had come from Virginia or West Virginia or Kentucky – Chloe would never remember. At the very least Roxy had passed through those places in the last several months. She had no real plan but thought that Nashville might offer some opportunities that other cities couldn’t, something in the music industry. Chloe told her where she could go for food, and then told her about the Jericho House.

When they had finished their sandwiches, Chloe paid the waiter with the twenty and he returned with ten dollars in change.

“No,” she said, “this isn’t right. Our meal should have been eighteen dollars. Plus your gratuity.”

“It’s a Jonesy discount,” he said, then winked at Chloe.

“Are you Jonesy?”     

“Go on girls. It’s getting late and you shouldn’t be out.”

Outside Chloe gave Roxy a five and told her to go to the bus station down the street and check the schedule. “There should be a bus going cross town, all the way to Jericho House.”

“Aren’t you coming?” Roxy asked.

“I’ll be there later. I’m going to hear Brad McNear.”

“You’re going to a Brad McNear concert?”

“It’s not a concert. He’s just playing in a club down the street.”

“Seriously?”

“Yes.”

“Can you get me in?”

“He only gave me one ticket.”

“Brad McNear gave you a ticket?”

Chloe pulled it from her pocket and showed it to Roxy.

“I have to go,” she said. “I don’t want to be late.”

“Right. Ok,” Roxy said. She stepped toward Chloe and hugged her. “Thanks for everything. I’ll see you later at the shelter.”

*       

A tall man in a white jacket and a cowboy hat stood at the door taking tickets, and when he took Chloe’s he smiled and motioned for a woman standing next to the bar.

“Chloe?” she said as she approached.

Chloe nodded.

“I’m Grace.” Chloe felt awkward shaking her hand but nodded and tried to smile. “Brad has a table for you up front.”

She guided Chloe through the crowd to a small table near the stage.

“Can I get you something to drink?” Grace asked.

“Do you have hot tea?”

“Sure thing.”

A band was already on stage playing and at first Chloe thought she had missed Brad, but then she recognized the red hair of the singer, Genna, and immediately felt at home. The two guitar players she also knew from the Seventh Street Studio. The drummer was unfamiliar. As one of the guitar players started a solo, Genna looked down at Chloe and smiled.

They were playing music Chloe had heard before in the studio but she was surprised at the difference in the sound. She knew the words and was singing along softly, but to Chloe’s ear, Genna was making mistakes. She wasn’t singing exactly the way she did in the recordings. Chloe finally quit and tried to simply listen, but Genna’s improvised phrasing and timing were disquieting. She knew Brad would be perfect. She couldn’t wait to hear him sing Crying in the City.

Chloe had been in love with Brad McNear for six years, from the moment she first heard his signature hit. She was still living with Katherine at the time. It was a soft, whimsical song with a catchy and haunting tune that was easy to learn and never seemed to get old. It didn’t hurt that the song was about loneliness and family and love; everyone derived their own meaning from the lyrics. For Chloe, it was if Brad McNear was singing to her. 

She was seventeen and had just finished the Transitional Program at Deer Lake Special School. Though she interacted well with the teachers and other students, she had no friends outside of school, and in the evenings, her only companionship were books and music. She was never interested in television.

When Chloe was first diagnosed, Katherine started involving her in various activities. There were dance lessons at seven, soccer when she was ten, piano lessons when she was eleven. Though she performed reasonably well, she never really enjoyed any of it. After a year of taekwondo, Katherine quit trying. That’s when she enrolled her at Deer Park. She knew Chloe had to develop some basic survival skills.

After the first year, Chloe had come far enough along that she could spend time by herself, even heating her dinners in the microwave when Katherine had to work late. The more self-sufficient Chloe became, the more Katherine worked.  And the more Katherine worked, the more withdrawn Chloe became.

She would talk to her father every couple of weeks and see him maybe twice a year. He wrote for an outdoor publication and traveled abroad frequently, hiking and writing stories. She never saw her grandparents on her father’s side and Katherine’s father was as busy as Katherine. Katherine’s mother at first was loving and caring, but when it became apparent that Chloe wasn’t normal, nobody seemed to have the time to visit with her.

It was a hot, summer evening several years earlier that Chloe sat on the bed in her upstairs bedroom with the window open. She could hear the sounds of the traffic on the street below, the occasional scream of a police siren. Every now and then a muffled conversation as two people walked down the street. Her radio was playing in the background and as she picked up her new book of Robert Frost poetry, the radio played a melancholy blues riff just as the street outside grew quiet. Chloe put the book on her lap and listened. After a brief pause, she heard his voice for the first time.

There…

He sang the first word of the song and held the note long without vibrato or polish, but it was a voice that could pierce the heart of women. Men, too, though they would contrive other reasons for liking Brad McNear.

There…was a day.

The second line of the song was a surprise.

When I loved you so.

And by then, the song had hooked the listener completely. A story set to music.

It was about lost love, disregard for family, and loneliness. In Chloe’s mind, Brad McNear had neglected his girlfriend, his family, and was desperate for someone new to love.

If there…was a way,

I would love you so.

She loved Brad McNear. He needed her and she needed him.

The lights in the club dimmed and a single spot lit a stool at the front center of the stage as enthusiastic applause broke out. Chloe looked around. And then Brad walked out, dressed in a dark suit and carrying his guitar, and sat on the stool. He smiled, clearly appreciating the fans, then looked at Chloe and winked. When the applause finally died, he began with the familiar,

There…was a day.

Again, the applause was energetic, but quickly subsided. Nobody wanted to miss a note of the song. When he finished, the applause was more refrained, more introspective, as if the audience was self-conscious about applauding something that was so personal to them.

“Thank you,” McNear said. “I know you love that song. So do I.”

“We love you, Brad!” someone from the back yelled.

“I love you, too,” he answered. The rest of his band made their way onstage and picked up their instruments. “Tonight is going to be a very special evening.  In a couple of weeks I’m going out on tour with some new music and I want you folks to be the first to hear my new songs. Tonight is the first time we’re playing them before a live audience. I hope you like them.”

And with that, McNear and his band played through the set. There were a couple of glitches along the way. One song had to be restarted when the guitar player missed the intro. On another, McNear himself forgot the words to one of the verses. All of which simply endeared him to the audience. After an hour, he thanked everyone for coming out and for all the support they had given him through the years.

“I’m going to leave you with a very special song, written by a very special friend.” He looked at Chloe, whose eyes were wide.

“All of us are different,” he continued, “and all of us are the same. We may be different on the outside, and I guess we’re different on the inside, too. But we all want the same thing. We just want to be acknowledged. We want to know that other people appreciate us. And we want to be loved.”

“This is for you, Chloe.”

He began by playing the familiar chord progression. C. F. G. When he transitioned into the minor key, Chloe’s eyes were closed and she was singing along. By the time they had reached the bridge, Chloe was singing loudly in perfect pitch, though no one could hear. By then McNear’s band had joined in and the room was filled with music that was more characteristic of a classical music hall than a Nashville club. He brought the song full circle and Chloe opened her eyes. When McNear softly played the last G chord, the room exploded in applause that lasted for minutes.

*

After the music had ended, Chloe sat at her table while Brad worked his way through the crowd of well-wishers and autograph seekers. He was posing for a photograph for two young women, and when they presented their napkins for autographs, he held up one finger to ask them to wait, and he walked quickly over to Chloe.

“What did you think?” he asked as Chloe stood to meet him. She threw her arms around his waist and he hugged her in return.

“It was wonderful.”

“Did you like your song?”

“Was that my song?”

“You wrote it.”

“I love you, Brad.”

“I love you, too, Chloe. Look, I need to finish up here. I’ll have one of the guys take you back to Jericho.” He started to walk away, then turned back. “We should find you an apartment or something.” He smiled. “I’ll see you around.”

*

Back at Jericho House, Chloe stopped in the commons area of the house where residents were gathered around the television watching a music channel. Chloe wanted to tell everyone about her evening but no one was interested. She made her way to the kitchen where Richard, the night manager, and a couple of residents were just finishing mopping the floor. They listened to her story, mainly because they had no choice.

“Sounds great, Chloe,” Richard said. “I’m happy for you.”

“It was wonderful,” she said.

Chloe started walking toward the bunk room. “Is Roxy here?”

“Who?” Richard asked.

“Roxy. I met her tonight. She was supposed to come by.”

“Haven’t seen her, honey.”

“Maybe she got lost,” Chloe said. “I should have given her my compass.”

20 – Katherine

It was a short flight from D.C. to Nashville but it was late in the day when she arrived. She knew Chloe wouldn’t want to see her and there was a certain amount of dread in what would be their first meeting in two years. As she rode in the cab to her hotel, she thought back to the first time Chloe had left home five years earlier.

The call had come late at night. The Richmond police had picked her up and because Chloe was so trusting at the time she gave her name to anyone who asked. When her name wasn’t on any missing persons report, they asked for her parents’ names. The located Anders Nielsen who was living in Colorado. Anders called Katherine, who drove to Richmond to bring Chloe home.

*

By the time she checked into her downtown hotel it was after four. The reunion would wait until the next day. She knew her best chance of catching Chloe would be at meal time, so she planned on being at Jericho House at eight o’clock.

She wondered if Chloe would recognize her. The weight Katherine had put on had softened her appearance considerably. She had always worn her hair shoulder length but now wore it just below her ears. She was still learning to adapt to her prosthetic leg and it seemed like everything was harder to do. Her balance wasn’t quite second nature yet and just moving around  required more thought and planning. So when she could simplify, she did. The hair seemed minor but it was a relief not to have to fuss with it as much. It had changed her appearance dramatically.

She wondered, too, what Chloe would look like. The last time she saw her she had dyed her hair blue. It had been ragged, as if cut by dull scissors, and she had been dirty. Despite the pleas of the social workers, she had refused the offers to move into a small apartment that Katherine would have paid for.

*

After that first trip to Richmond, Katherine confiscated the money she had given to Chloe – an attempt to instill a measure of independence – even though she rarely had opportunities to spend it. What Katherine didn’t realize is that Chloe had hidden small stashes throughout her room. So three months later, Chloe took a small pile of bills from a box hidden in her closet and headed for Richmond again.

Once there, she eventually made her way to one of the shelters where she told the staff her name, who ran the same routine and called Katherine, who once again drove to Richmond to pick her up.

The third time, Chloe told the shelter manager that she didn’t want to go home. They still called Katherine, and Katherine again drove to Richmond, but because Chloe was of legal age, and no mental health petition or guardianship was on record, they could not force her to go home with Katherine.

For the first week of Chloe’s third stay in Richmond, she was counseled and urged to go back to her mother. Even Anders, who was in no position to take in his own daughter, tried to talk her into going home to a safer environment.

*

Around six o’clock, Katherine had dinner in her room. When she was home, she seldom ate at such an early hour. She would usually be at the office until at least seven and would sometimes meet clients for dinner. Business trips were pretty much the same, so when she had that rare opportunity for some time to herself, she took advantage.

Solitude was always special to Katherine, but as she sat by the window looking out over the lights of Nashville, she felt lonely. She needed company. Maybe not to talk, but she needed to be around other people. After she finished her dinner, she brushed her hair and touched up her make-up. She wouldn’t need her jacket; she was just going downstairs to the bar for a drink.

Though she was doing better with her artificial leg, she was still learning the subtleties of exerting just the right amount of force to extend the prosthetic to match the extension of her natural leg. Her gate was still a little out of sync which resulted in a very slight limp, as well as a slightly different heal click between the left and the right foot. As she got off the elevator she walked across the ceramic floor, the uneven click-click, click-click of her shoes on the floor drew looks from people in the lobby. She could see them analyzing, trying to figure out just what her disability was. She wanted to stop, pull up her slacks, and show them the black composite stick that took the place of her once-feminine leg.

A couple of months ago she would walk confidently, knowing that she was turning the heads of men and women alike, if for different reasons. She took pleasure in the knowledge that later in their rooms, husbands would deny having looked at her while the wives would express their disdain for such an arrogant woman. Of course it also worked the other way. Some men were threatened by her. They too, would look, then turn away with a smirk instead of a smile. Sometimes women would steal glances, and though she fended off more than a few advances, she preferred to assume the women who stared were wishing they could be more like her.

But now everyone was looking for the wrong reasons. There was no strut in her walk, no swag in her attitude. Before, she would have looked across the room as if she owned the furniture and might very well shoo someone from her favorite table. But now her head dipped forward and her shoulders slumped. Her eyes looked at the floor as she carefully plotted her steps, glancing up occasionally to navigate and search for an empty table. As she stepped into the lounge area, she wasn’t picky. She sat down at the first opportunity, which, as it turned out, was a small booth designed for no more than two.

She settled onto the upholstered bench and as she pulled her leg under the table, she banged it on one of the table legs with a loud clank. A couple of heads turned, and then turned back, without as much as a smile at Katherine.

Her booth was on the perimeter of the lounge and she had a full view of the everyone there. It was the usual mix. Businessmen, some alone, some in clusters of three or four. Same with the women, and although women in corporate settings was far from an anomaly, men still dominated the hotel bar scene. There were also more couples than she usually saw on business trips, but given that she was in Nashville, it wasn’t surprising.

From behind the bar, a young black woman approached her wearing a short apron and a friendly smile. Her hair fell to her shoulders in soft curls. She had the figure of a swimsuit model.

“Hi, honey,” she said. “I’m April. What can I get you?”

Honey? I’m a honey, now?

“We make a really mean Cosmo,” she said.

Katherine never drank anything more girly than a glass of white zinfandel.

“Gin and tonic,” she said.

“Oh,” April said. “You got it.”

Her drink came quickly and as she took the first sip, she realized she hadn’t had a drink since James had visited her in Alexandria. She felt it’s warmth in her stomach and as she took another drink, she hoped the warmth would travel to her head just as quickly.

In the twenty minutes she had been in the lounge, the crowd had grown, with men and women standing elbow to elbow at the bar and almost every table taken. Most were engaged in the game, pretending to listen to loud conversations while they scanned the room for other possibilities. To Katherine’s reckoning, the freedom of being away from the restrictions of expected behavior, both at home and at work, together with dim lighting and the liberating effects of alcohol, served to heighten the natural predilections of men and women. But the unstated truth that most reasonable adults never completely abandoned, was that the fantasy was safer – better – than the reality. So flirting was acceptable, even innuendo, maybe even a clandestine brush of a hand against another, but consummation of the attraction was a dangerous line. Most knew and observed this.

A half hour had passed.

Katherine had never been one to mingle among the barflies, never put herself out on the market, so to speak, by pretending to be one of them. She would sit at a table, often with her laptop, sometimes just a notebook. Glasses on, hair pulled back, business suit.

It would take a while for the process of natural selection to weed out the emotionally immature. The cocky and brash would think long and hard before abandoning the risk of rejection and go for the less intimidating. But inevitably someone would find a reason to talk to her. And those who did had no intention of playing by the rules. They would settle for nothing less than complete knowledge of Katherine Loudendale. Which, ultimately, ended in their rejection.

Forty minutes.

She had finished her second gin and tonic and was ready to leave when it occurred to her that trying to walk on her new leg without complete command of her balance might not be a good idea. When April returned, she asked for a hot tea.

“Hello.”

Katherine looked to her left and saw him smiling at her. He must have taken the last seat in the lounge as April was taking her order.

She smiled in return. “Hi.”

He looked to be in his thirties, with a thick shock of dark hair neatly combed, his face soft and full. He was wearing a short-sleeved dress shirt, always a sign of sartorial immaturity in Katherine’s eyes. His forearms and hands were pudgy and he fumbled with his fingers as he looked out over the lounge, then back at Katherine.

“Pretty crowded here tonight.”

“It is,” Katherine agreed. It was a far cry from the opening gambits to which she was accustomed. But maybe this is where she was now. Overweight. Limping. Second-rate come-ons.

The thought occurred to her that those things were only the cover of the book, that inside, she was still the same Katherine Loudendale, the one that had inspired so many people.

And as she tried to rebuild her own confidence, the recurring truth that had been nagging her since the first interview at GW Hospital crept back into her consciousness. She had done nothing heroic. It had been James. She was glad no one had recognized her. Then again, that had stopped happening weeks ago.

“Are you in town for business?”

He reminded her of James. The old James. The one she threw against a tree. She looked at his hands again. They looked so soft. She wanted to hold them, feel his soft palms and mushy fingers against hers.

“No,” she said. “I’m here to see my daughter.”

“I’m here for a conference,” he said.

“What kind of conference?” She really didn’t care.

“Motion picture. Tennessee Film Office.”

Katherine had been involved in the State of Virginia’s Film Office to promote the state as a film location so it didn’t really surprise her that Tennessee was involved in the same thing.

“What do you do?” she asked.

“Software developer,” he said.

Of course.

“I sell storyboard software.” 

“Really?” Now she was interested. “Which one?”

“Productions Plus.”

“Yeah. We use that sometimes.”

“Are you in the film industry?”

“No. PR and marketing. The Loudendale Agency.” It came out as a professional reflex.

“Loudendale.” He was thinking. It would take him a few seconds.

“You’re not Katherine Loudendale, are you?”

She smiled and waited for the questions about her story.

“I’m Robert Austin,” he said and reached out his hand. It was as soft as she had imagined. “I thought that was you. I’ve been to your Boston office, talked to Charles Loudendale. That’s your father, right?”

“Charlie is my father.”

She wanted to shake his hand again. It reminded her so much of James. That first night together. The innocent intimacy.

“I’ve seen your picture on your website. It’s so good to meet you. Your agency is one of the best.”     

“Thank you, Robert.” No mention of the story. It was a relief not to have to try to live up to the exaggeration.

“So is your daughter in the music business? Being in Nashville and all.”

Katherine leaned back against the bench of the booth. She wondered if Robert would have the same soft, comforting warmth of James. His skin against hers.

“No,” was all she said.

She wanted the conversation to end. She wanted him to take her hand and lead her up to his room where they would sleep together, not in the manner that the expression had come to mean, but in a virtuous and incorrupt pairing of two people in need of a comforting companionship. The thought crossed her mind to take his hand and to lead him to her room. But even before she saw the ring on his finger, she knew that the fantasy of the guileless encounter could not possibly live up to the truths of reality. She looked into Robert Austin’s eyes and saw James staring back at her.  She forced a smile but could only hold it for a second before she had to look away.

“I miss her very much,” she said, forcing herself to change her focus.

“Of course.” He took a step back to allow April to place the cup of tea on Katherine’s table.  “It’s getting late and I have some work to do. I’ll let you be. Hope you have a good time with your daughter.”

And though she was glad he was moving on, she was still disappointed that he hadn’t even tried. There had been no spark, no flirtatious glances, no innuendo. Just confirmation that she was no longer the kind of woman who could kindle a fire.   

She sat alone for several minutes, hoping the tea might change her mood, hoping she might shed the self-pity that was starting to envelope her. But as she walked back to the elevator, knowing people would be watching, noticing her slight limp. It was who she was now. A very flawed person.

*

Katherine arrived at Jericho House at seven fifty-five the next morning, only to learn that Chloe wasn’t there.  She wondered if she had heard she was coming and deliberately avoided her. Stacy, the morning manager assured her that no one had told Chloe anything. She led Katherine to a small dining room where a couple of residents were still picking over dry toast and coffee. She introduced Katherine to Rocky, a feeble older man with bloodshot eyes and a ready smile. He extended his hand and Katherine squeezed it in her practiced, captain-of-industry manner, then immediately loosened her grip when she felt his bony, fragile hand in hers. He looked her in the eyes, then quickly looked away and returned to his toast.

The other resident was Janelle who didn’t look up when introduced to Katherine.

“Jericho House is co-ed?” she asked.

“Ohhhhh, yes,” Rocky answered. He looked up grinning like a kid in grade school. “That’s why I keep coming back.”

“Completely segregated,” Stacy said. “Men will behave a little differently if there are women around. More polite.”        

“Not me!” Rocky said.

“Oh, hush, Rocky,” Stacy said. She looked at Katherine. “He thinks he’s a Casanova.”

“I can see why, with that smile,” Katherine said.

“What I tell you!” Rocky said as he pointed his fork at Stacy. Janelle giggled.

“I guess you’ve tried to get Chloe to come back home with you.”

“Of course,” Katherine said. “But she’s an adult. She makes her own choices.”

Stacy seemed unconvinced.

“We knew social workers in Richmond,” Katherine continued, “who kept an eye out for her. And when she started heading west, they put us in touch with people all along the way to Memphis.

She was there for three years.

“When it looked like she had settled in one place, we tried to get her in an apartment or a group home. I was going to cover the rent and pay somebody to look after her. Without her knowing, of course.  But Chloe refused. She likes being on her own.  She likes sleeping in the wild, as she calls it.”

“Yeah, that sounds like Chloe,” Stacy agreed. “Why Memphis?”

“That’s where Brad McNear lived at the time.”

“They tell me Chloe’s been in Nashville for about a year,” Stacy said.

Katherine agreed. “That’s about the time McNear moved here.”

“I haven’t been here that long myself,” Stacy said, “but I’ve heard that she really likes his music.”

“That started when she was still living at home. She played that one song constantly. I’m not a big country music fan and she played that song over and over and over.”

“There was a day,” Stacy said.

“I beg your pardon?”

“That was the song. There Was a Day.”

“And then she learned to play it on that old keyboard Anders bought for her. I thought it was great, at first, but she was just so…scattered. Sometimes she’d get through the song alright and other times it turned into a bunch of noise.” She shook her head. “Looking back I can see that I wasn’t very supportive.”

“I guess she was in Memphis the last time you saw her.”

Katherine nodded. “It was hard. Very emotional for me. But not for Chloe. She seemed like she didn’t care. She wasn’t angry. Didn’t act resentful. Just acted like she didn’t care one way or another. Her doctor – I guess I should say her former doctor; she hasn’t seen him in years – attributes her ambivalence to her condition.”

“Which is? If you don’t mind me asking.”

“It’s one of those fuzzy diagnoses. Autism spectrum is a possibility. Maybe schizophrenia. Or simple intellectual disability. Maybe a combination of issues.”

“She can be so sweet,” Stacy said. “So caring.”

Rocky and Janelle finished their breakfast and put their paper plates in the trash.

“Are you Chloe’s sister?” Rocky asked.

“Bless you,” Katherine said. “No, she’s my daughter.”

“Chloe’s a sweet girl,” Rocky said, then left the room.        

“How can I find her?” Katherine asked Stacy.

“Good place to start is the Fortieth Street Bridge.”

“A bridge?”

“Under the bridge. It’s an encampment. A lot of the homeless stay there until it gets too cold. Some even then.”     

“Nobody told me about that.”

Stacy shrugged. “Like you, we do the best we can.”

“How far?”

“Just a few blocks. Walking distance.”

“Maybe I should take a cab.”

“Oh, that’s right.” Stacy reached out and touched Katherine’s arm. “They told me you were in an accident or something. Said it was in the news and everything. Guess I missed it.”

“It’s ok. I get around fairly well but I’m still breaking in the new leg. And we’re supposed to meet McNear at his studio at ten. On Seventh Street, I believe. Is that far?”

“Wait. What? You’re meeting Brad McNear?”

“Turns out that he knows Chloe,” Katherine said. “Apparently she started showing up outside his studio.”

“Brad McNear knows Chloe? It’s true? She talks about him all the time but we just figured.” She didn’t finish the thought. “I mean, the residents talk about all kinds of crazy stuff.” She nodded toward the door. “Rocky thinks he’s a boxer. That’s why we call him Rocky.”

“Maybe he was,” Katherine suggested.

“No. Not was. Is. He’ll come in tonight and tell us all about the fight he just won.”

“I guess it’s hard to take what Chloe says at face value.”

“How did you learn about McNear and Chloe knowing each other?”

“He called me.”

“Brad McNear called you? This story just keeps getting better.”

“You don’t know the half of it. Apparently Chloe was in his studio and one of my interviews or something was on TV. Chloe saw me and pointed me out to Brad. But she didn’t say Mom or Mother or anything like that. She called me Katherine.”

“Why would she call you Katherine?”

“Long story. He didn’t think anything of it at the time, but one of his bandmates bought a copy of my book. He picked it up one day and read the cover blurb and something just clicked. With the internet, the rest was easy. He found my number and called last week, told me all about Chloe. Apparently, he’s recorded one of her songs.”

“Chloe?”

“Hard to imagine, I guess.”

“But Chloe doesn’t know you’re in town? Doesn’t know you’re meeting with McNear?”

“No. We were afraid she’d leave.”

“This is amazing.”

“I don’t know about amazing. Brad called because he’s concerned about her long-term well-being. She can’t go on living on the streets. We have to figure out a way for her to come home with me.”

Stacy nodded. “Yeah. She’s a smart kid, but it’s so dangerous out there.”

“Guess I’d better call a cab.”

“No,” Stacy said as she stood from the table. “I’ll get one of our guys to run you down. He can hang around and take you to the studio, too.”

“That’d be great,” Katherine said.

Stacy left the dining room and Katherine walked to the coffee urn on the counter and poured herself a cup, leaned against the counter and took a sip. The bitterness curled the back of her tongue and she set the cup back down on the counter. As she turned to head back out to the lobby of the Jericho House, two men walked through the dining room headed toward the back door. The first man looked her way and smiled. The second man glanced, then looked away. Her legs went weak and she had to grip the counter to keep from falling. He had grown a beard and his hair was long, falling on top of his turtleneck collar. She didn’t see the tattoo, but it was him. She was certain.          


copyright 2021, joseph e bird