Seeing the occasional twig or branch as she did when she ran late at night, she inevitably felt her heart race and skin tingle as she barely made out the coiled long shape of a rattlesnake just a few strikes ahead of her path. Every time it was just a branch, but every time it frightened her. Sidestepping or sometimes leaping over or around the twig, she would calm down, and laugh at herself. The adrenaline conveniently quickened her pace.
This time, as she darted just to her left, the twig struck at her ankle, and she felt a sharp prick. Her brain said stop, but her body ran faster. Finally she stopped, straining to see the place where she had felt the sharp sting. She saw a slight trickle of blood absorbed into ankle socks. Maybe she had just stepped on a branch, causing it to flip and scratch her.
Most of what she knew about snake bites she had seen in old Westerns as a girl. Some grizzly gunslinger would pull out a bottle of whiskey, take a swig, and drawing a knife bordering on the size of a small sword, cut an X across the bite to suck out the poison. A useless myth, she had read someplace. She could not remain here. In all her years of running, she could not recall encountering another person on this trail at night. She resolved to run a moderate pace back to the house, about 4 miles away. She had been sitting on the trail, lifting her ankle closer to see the marks. She lifted herself up, her muscles already tightening.
Just when she thought she would was hopelessly alone in this remote canyon, she saw a single light on the trail moving rapidly towards her. “Please, please, help me!” she yelled, waving her arms in the air. The boy on the bike was startled, and didn’t slow down, swerving quickly past her. “Shit,” she thought, “I’ve scared him.” “Please, please! she screamed after him. “I’m hurt. I need help. Help me!” She watched the shadow of the boy and bike move beyond her vision, and just when she thought she would see no one again on this trail, the boy returned.
The boy had wonderful full hair. She could see that even in this thick blackness. “Oh Thank you,” she said. I’ve hurt my ankle. I think a rattlesnake has bitten me. I need to get to my house. We need to call for help. She was startled to see the boy pull out his cell phone. Of course, every kid had one, she thought. Every mother worried that her kid might be isolated somewhere, in danger, and need to call. “Crap. No coverage in this canyon,” the boy said. She wanted to tell him to watch his language. She knew his mother would correct him, but she was not his mother.
“Do I know you?” she asked him. He got off his bike and walked over to her. Now she could see that his eyes were large, his checks high, and his complexion creamy white—she wondered if his eyes were blue. Yes, most likely they were blue, like her boy’s had been. “You’re Morgan, aren’t you? You’re Morgan McAllister. I remember you.” The boy looked at her more closely now, but said nothing. “You don’t remember me do you?” she said. “No sorry, he said.” But she remembered him. Her own boy Joshia and this boy had played in Gymboree together 9 years ago. Josiah loved to play, and tried so hard to do everything the other children did. Yes, she remembered this boy, how he crawled, jumped and climbed, while her Josiah was like a clumsy puppy chasing after the big dogs. For a few seconds, she allowed herself the luxury of looking up into the spread of stars that marked the dark dome of midnight sky. A coyote howl broke her gaze. Something, probably bats, darted in shadowed streaks even darker than the night around them.
“What can I do?” the boy asked so sweetly she gasped for a breath. Please, just stay with me until I can get help, she said. Walk with me, until I can call for help. I’m afraid to be alone.”
“Sure,” the boy said.
They walked together, the boy pushing his bike, and she just a bit slower, looking at him from time to time. “Your bike is so reassuring,” she said.
“Do you think you’d run up on that snake if you had a light?” the boy asked her.
“Think he’d a bitten you?” he asked.
“Most likely” she answered. “Sometimes you come up on something and it happens.
A small dark form darted across the path in front of them. She noticed the boy jolted.
“You OK?” she asked, as motherly as she could. “Just a rabbit, I’m sure,” she added.
“No problem,” he said, with too much bravado.
There were no traffic sounds for the wind to carry for miles through the canyon. The air was in places cold and heavy in the low places, and then suddenly they would walk into a pocket of warm air. Things could change just like that. Natural and unnatural at the same time.
She watched him. Would Josiah have been this tall, this muscular? The boy swaggered, a man in ownership of a boy’s bike, a boy filled with unbirthed glories.
“You know,” she said, “these same dark empty spaces are ablaze with yellow mustard grass?”
“Wouldn’t know,” the boy said, “too busy with school and work.”
He felt he might have disappointed her, the way he disappointed his mother with his sloppy room, and his sloppy thinking. His dad had told him once to please a woman, learn her language. “But in the cool of the night, the smell of sage seems so much more pungent.” He figured she would like that, that word “pungent.”
He looked back at her. She smiled at him. “How is your ankle?” he asked.
“Feels like it might be swelling,” she told him. The boy tried to see the swelling, but in the dark, he could not tell.
“There, on the ridge, is my house.” She pointed, and the house was also dressed in black, no light in a window, for all the boy knew, no windows, just this woman’s word that she lived in that dark silhouette arising from the black ridge into a lighter black of sky behind it. A steep S-shaped path of crushed stone and sand led to the house from the trail below.
“You able to walk the rest of the way?” he asked her. His voice was flat, unsympathetic, hurried. He wanted to go home. It was late.
She saw the way he rested his hand against the side of his hip, the way he re-straddled his bike, and pushed it forward a few inches. She heard how he pushed his few words at her now without concern or grace.
He was sure she would let him go now, but instead she said, “Oh you’ve been so kind. Could you please just help me up the path?”
He got off the bike, and pushed off to the side of the trail, leaving it under a bush. “Oh no, she said, please bring it. I don’t want you to come back down to get it.”
“You push the bike, and I’ll just hold to the other side of it for balance.”
You afraid of falling? He asked.
“Just feeling a little light headed, and the ankle is starting to hurt. The sooner we get up to the house, the better.”
Reaching the ridge and the broad vaulted front porch, she withdrew a key, and pushed open double doors made of steel and frosted opaque glass carved in the pattern of a mountain lion peering from a high ledge. Inside, he was surprised to see toys strung about the floor. “You have grandchildren?” he wanted to ask, but stopped himself. She might be an older mother.
“Quiet, please,” she whispered to him. Josiah is sleeping. I don’t want him to be worried about me. “Your son?” “Yes,” she said. I know he would be very excited to have a friend for company, and I’d never get him back to sleep.”
“My only land line is downstairs, she said, “in the basement.” I really don’t feel like walking down there. May I use your cell phone?”
He handed her the phone. He heard the key tones as she entered the numbers. “A recording,” she said to him, then asked him to retrieve a pen from a nearby desk. The top of the desk was cluttered with photos of the woman, when she was younger, and a little boy. The little boy was very thin, with hair long enough to be a girl’s, blonde, and curly, and eyes that startled him with a blue so pale it reminded him of those Alaskan huskies who saw only a landscape of barren snow.
She took the pen, and wrote down a number, and called it. She waited, and then spoke, explaining what happened. “Yes, swelling. Yes. No. Yes, it is feeling numb,” she was saying. He could see the ankle now. To him, it looked fine, except for a scratch. But he had never seen a snake bite. “Thank you. OK, I’ll get there as soon as possible.” She said, but kept the cell phone.
“The doctor says I need to get into the ER as soon as possible. I’ll need my insurance card, and the keys to the car, and like everything else, they’re downstairs, in my office, in my purse.”
He knew she wanted him to offer to retrieve the purse. He thought of how many ways he could just leave. As fed up as he was, he could not be that big a jerk. “Would you like me to get it for you?”
“Oh please,” she said, her voice having that melodic lift that seemed woven supernaturally into a woman’s vocal cords.
Grimacing, she stood up from the bar stool at the kitchen counter and hobbled over to the door leading to the basement. The boy thought it strange that in an interior mostly of beiges and whites, this door alone was black. The woman unbolted the door. The boy questioned that too, but then remembered the toys. Likely just a safety measure, or maybe she kept her business downstairs, and didn’t want the little boy to get into things.
“The light is just inside to your right,” she told him. When he reached the bottom, he saw the desk, and on the walls around it, still more pictures of the woman, but like those on the upstairs desk, she was clearly younger, and always, in every picture, the same blonde boy playing, or running, or being held by her.
He picked up the purse, and turning to go back up the stairs, and saw that she was standing in front of him. “Josiah will be so happy to know you’re here,” she said. He so seldom has anyone to play with.”
The boy could say nothing. He started to move toward the stairs, but the woman quickly stepped into his path. “Please don’t leave,” she pleaded. Then, speaking to no one, she said, “Josiah, say hello to the young man.”