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The Wellspring

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What does a young, depressed, alcoholic woman and a theoretical phenomenon have in common?

Scifi / Drama
Age Rating:

Chapter 1 – Peak

Erica Messier’s Suzuki Katana roared into Baker, NV just as the sun settled into the embrace of the lifeless, snow-streaked bowl of granite on the northern side of Wheeler Peak. It reminded Erica of an orb on the head of a wizard’s staff or a ball of primordial light held by a gray giant. The sun, suffocated by the hand of the giant, had finally relented in its attack upon everything that moved through the vast desert of eastern Nevada. The temperature had sunk below one hundred degrees for the first time since nine AM and the sweat had finally begun to dry on Erica’s body.

The town of Baker, NV existed almost exclusively to serve those who visited Great Basin National Park. The main road was a mile long strip with an RV Park, a couple tiny inns attached to a couple tiny restaurants, a post office, and three gas stations. There was an RV park, a school, a church, and a small community of houses off the main road. The town was so small, the vegetation so sparse and the ground so flat that you could observe the entirety of the town from its outskirts. The town brought to it those who wanted to be as far from civilization as possible, both on a permanent and temporary basis. There’s nothing besides the town of Baker, not even another gas station, for sixty miles in any direction.

At this point in Erica’s life, this was paradise. She’d come here to revel in the freedom and utter lack of contact with humanity that was the norm in eastern Nevada. She’d drunk in the magnificently smooth, beautiful asphalt strip of highway 50 that plunged through vast stretches of flat desert punctuated by desolate mountain cluster after desolate mountain cluster. But as much as she’d enjoyed the journey, she was ready to get off the bike and into a couple stiff drinks, after which she hoped to have a long, dreamless sleep on a soft hotel bed.

She got off the bike and parked it on the gravel outside the small trailer that served as the Stargazer Inn’s office. She asked the tiny, shriveled old woman at the desk if there were any vacancies. The woman blew cigarette smoke out of the side of her mouth and peered up at Erica over the top of her small framed glasses.

“Yes in fact we do” she said in a raspy voice, barely above a whisper though she was obviously exerting some effort to speak. “There’s a couple rooms available in fact, so you can have your choice. If you’d have come here a few months ago in peak season you’d have been shit outta luck all the way up and down this road. You’d have had to camp in the desert.” She snickered to herself.

“I’m glad I came out here when I did then. Any room is fine, whichever is biggest.” Erica put on her most amicable smile for the old woman. “How’s the food and beer next door?”

“Delicious and delicious” the old woman said. “You won’t find a better place east of Reno.”

The old woman handed Erica a set of keys and gave her directions to the room. Erica thanked her and left. She walked the handful of steps between the trailer and her room and shut the door behind her.

As soon as Erica was inside, she peeled off her riding gear and tossed it aside, turned on the air conditioner to its coldest, most aggressive setting, turned on the shower, and stepped under the freezing cold water. She hyperventilated as she got used to the water, letting it wash away the dust, sweat and grime that had accumulated during eight hours of riding in a hundred-and-ten-degree heat. The icy water shocked her mind out of its languid trance. Highway 50 and the Nevada desert had put her into a mental state akin to what the Taoist’s call “Wu Wei” or “No mind”. She hadn’t thought any new thoughts since she’d passed through Austin, which was another small, lonesome desert town on Highway 50. To Erica, that state of Wu Wei was much preferable to the crushing thoughts that had driven her to her strike out into the desert alone like a madwoman. She didn’t quite understand why she’d come all this way, or why she hadn’t resolved to keep going out to the middle of Utah or Colorado or even clear across the country. Somehow, she sensed that this was the right place, and that she could let her thoughts settle here like oil settling to the bottom of the ocean. She needed wide open space. She needed to be alone in wide open space. She wanted to let her thoughts run around as much as they pleased until they tired themselves out. Maybe then they would stop tormenting her. Maybe then she could sleep.

She got out of the shower, toweled off and scowled at the tepid temperature in the room. She stood naked in front of the air conditioning vent next to the shower door, directly across from the bathroom mirror. She checked her reflection. The desert seemed to have sapped the luster from her hazel eyes. Her expression was pained, her posture slumped. Her small, thin frame looked drained of life. Her eyes looked hollow, her mouth bloodless, her skin slightly wrinkled from both the heat and the shower. Her skin was a dull brown pallor, all her usually radiant color sucked into the angry red that surrounded a cornucopia of stitches in her arms and wrists. She was twenty-eight years old, but the woman in the mirror looked much older than that. A strand of something just beyond the realm of perception, a cold hint of a thought, crept slowly into the back of her mind like a key that threatened to re-open pandora’s box. It was accompanied by a sudden feeling of purposeless, un-directed anxiety. She felt a sense of dread. She knew that if she didn’t do anything about it, the panic slowly rising from the dark sea beneath her consciousness would soon become overwhelming. She didn’t want to have a panic attack alone in a hotel room in the middle of the desert. She needed a drink. She dressed quickly, walked over to the mirror and tried to will the life back into her eyes. She put her long black hair up in a pony-tail, straightened her shoulders, and gave the strange woman in the mirror a big, fake smile. Then she walked out the door and across the twenty feet between her room and Kerouac’s.

Kerouac’s was a tiny space with wood-paneled flooring and walls, thick wooden countertops, a few wooden tables, and wooden cases filled with every kind of liquor you can imagine. Besides the modern color and lighting, Erica felt like she had stepped into an old west saloon. Erica thought that Jack Kerouac, one of her favorite authors and the man for whom the bar had been named, would have been delighted with this place. A tiny, quiet space for anybody to enjoy quiet solitude or shoot the shit with locals and travelers, all the while getting completely shit-faced. It was Heaven, in other words. Both for her and the late Jack. She sat down at the bar and a 30ish man with a big bushy red beard sauntered over to her, cleaning a glass as he did. He took her drink order: scotch on the rocks--Erica had decided to ignore the price--and brought it out to her swiftly. She told the barkeep to keep the tab open and sipped at her drink, savoring the smokey taste and warmth that soothed her mind and smoothed out the jagged edges that had formed over the last nine hours.

Sitting to her right was a young, twenty something woman with long red hair. She wore a pair of nose rings in one nostril, black eyeshadow, black jeans and a black shirt. Her eyes were the radiant green of palm trees after a rain storm. Her face was oval shaped and covered in freckles; she reminded Erica of an Irish goddess that had gone goth. To Erica’s left was an old man with a prominent farmer’s tan. His beard was long and white, his face was wizened, and his posture was slumped, but he had a dignified air about him. He wore a plaid shirt, old jeans, and a loose-fitting black beanie. He was drinking a scotch on the rocks, quietly and with an air of meditation. Erica had the fanciful thought that he was Jack Kerouac raised from the dead. Erica struck up a conversation with the young woman, whose name turned out to be Erica as well. They chatted about idle nonsense for a while before Erica brought up the name they shared.

“Erika with a k, though” Erika said, jabbing her index finger into the air to punctuate the “k”.

“Ah, the Viking spelling right, like Erika the Red?” Erica asked.

She chuckled “Yes indeed, famous explorer Erika the Red. But no, it’s actually Eastern European. My parents came over from Poland thirty years ago.”

Erica clucked “Ah, so what brings you out here, Erika with a K?”

“I’m out here with a couple Burner friends, we’ve been out here for a few days actually. We went to Lehman Caves today and are gonna hike to Wheeler Peak tomorrow. What about you?”

Erica finished her first drink and moved on to her second. She decided straight away to abandon any polite lies. If people asked her a question, she’d answer. Chances were she’d never see these people again, so she may as well get it all off her chest while she could. “Well, to be honest, I’m running away from my problems. It got to be too much at home, so I got on my bike this morning, rode eight hours and here I am.”

“And here you are” Erika agreed. “What kind of problems? If you don’t mind my asking.”

Erica shot a quick glance at the old backpacker, who raised his glass and said in a gravelly voice “I’ll plug up my ears if you don’t want me to listen. But I’ve overheard plenty of stories that I’ve never felt comfortable repeating, so don’t worry about me.”

Erica leaned in towards Erika and said in a low voice “My husband left me and took my kid with him. He told me that I’m not fit to be a mother, packed up some clothes, and left this morning.”

There was silence for a moment, and Erica felt the panic surface again. Erika whistled “Wow. That’s some heavy shit, I’m sorry to hear that happened to you.”

“It’s alright. Fucked up thing is that I kind of agree with him.”

“Well, you’re welcome to come along with my friends and I to Wheeler Peak tomorrow. We’d love to have you. I don’t care what your husband says about you or what you may think of yourself, you seem like a good person to me. Besides, you’ve got a great name.” She smiled sweetly.

Erica thought about it a moment. She’d come here to be alone, to have some time and space to collect her thoughts. Maybe it was the alcohol, or maybe it was the crushing gravity of loneliness, but having company, at least for a little while, sounded wonderful.

“Sure. That’d be great, what time do you guys leave tomorrow?”

“6am, bright and early. My friends are the early-bird types, the types that meditate in the morning and exist on nothing but vegetables and water. Hope that’s alright with you.”

Erica raised her glass, and Erika met it with hers “Sure that’s alright. I’m no stranger to hippies, and they put up with you so I imagine they’ll be cool with me.”

Erica and Erika drank together until midnight. After a few drinks the old backpacker, whose name turned out to be Gus, joined in the conversation. Erika invited him along to Wheeler Peak as well and he happily accepted the invitation. Gus explained that he’d hitched to Baker from Dodge City, Kansas, both hopping trains and riding along with long haul truckers. He explained that he was a retired welder who’d owned his own business in San Diego. It was he and his late wife’s dream to travel like 1960s hobos all across the country after they had both retired. Two years ago, however, his wife had died of breast cancer. He had decided to honor her memory by living the dream they had shared. He carried his wife’s ashes everywhere with him. He even showed the little urn to the two women. The three of them swapped stories and clinked glasses. Gus sipped his drinks carefully and slowly throughout the night, while the two women were more brazen with their consumption.

“I’m an old man, I can’t drink like you two can” he remarked at one point when Erica offered to buy him a shot. At midnight, they said their goodnights and headed off to their separate motel rooms. Erica slumped down on her bed, her head swimming. The night had been good, but in the desert silence she began to feel the gravity of her thoughts pulling her inward towards the leviathan writhing in the dark sea beneath her consciousness. But before that happened, she fell asleep. She slept like the dead.

Bright and early the next morning, around 5am, Erica got up and commenced her standard alcohol recovery procedure. She went about it automatically and efficiently. She filled a glass of water, sat down on the toilet, and drank the glass as she peed. Then she got up, filled the glass again, and took it down in one gulp. Next, she turned on the shower and hopped in right away. The ice-cold water shocked her body and mind awake, and she hyperventilated as she got used to the water. After the shower, she pulled on clothes in layers that could be taken off one by one as the temperature increased during the day. Then she chugged another glass of water for good measure, put on sunglasses and a woolen hat, packed up food and water in a small backpack, and headed next door for coffee and breakfast.

Fifteen minutes later, as she was sipping coffee and nibbling on a bacon and egg sandwich, the others arrived. Erica raised her hand in salutation. Erika with a “K” entered first, sporting a lip ring that Erica didn’t remember seeing the day before. She was followed by a woman and a man that were at the very least related. They looked like one of those facial morph games that you can do online, where you find out what you’d look like as a woman or man. They wore their hair in identical dreadlocks that poked out from beneath identical orange hats. The shape of their bodies was identical as well; both were over six feet tall and rail thin. In fact, Erica was questioning her initial assumption that one was a woman and one was a man. They could’ve both been women, both men, or both something else in between; nothing would’ve surprised her. They, along with Erika, wore canvas jackets over short sleeves, blue jeans and tough-looking boots. Their outfits looked uncomfortable to Erica, who preferred comfort to durability even on tough hikes.

Erika introduced her two friends as Mike and Mallory. They each gave Erica a friendly smile and a strong hug as they were introduced. Then they all sat down at the bar and ordered their own coffees and breakfasts.

“No Gus yet? ” Erika asked.

“Guess not” Erica replied.

Two minutes later, Gus lumbered in, his beard still wet from the shower.

“Speak of the devil.” said Erika. “How’s it going, Gus. Sleep well?”

Gus grumbled something about a lumpy mattress and his back.

“I think we should start callin’ you ‘Grumpy’ Gus? What d’ya think?” said Erika.

Everybody laughed at that and Gus cracked a smile. “Yea yea, let’s everybody gang up on the old man why don’t we? Why don’t you pick on someone in your own demographic?”

That got another laugh out of everybody. Erica and Erika hugged Gus by way of greeting and introduced them to Mike and Mallory, who did likewise.

They all sat down to eat and sip coffee. Nobody seemed to be in much of hurry, which was a relief to Erica, who still needed some time to recover her faculties.

At some point during their meal, Erika began to tell Erica and Gus about their experience in Lehman Caves the day before. She told them about the huge, artificially lit caverns filled with elaborate stalactite and stalagmite structures.

“There was an underground stream too and apparently there’s actual fish living in those streams. The guide we were with told me those fish look like aliens. Maybe they are. I mean we’re in Nevada and it’s well documented that this state is the rest of the galaxy’s preferred landing spot.”

Mike piped up and said:

“I actually got lost trying to follow that stream. There’s a lot of little caverns that aren’t lit and I accidentally wandered into one of them. I freaked out and had to put my phone flashlight on to find my way out, but the cavern seemed to swallow the light. Even with that bright ass flashlight, I couldn’t see further than two feet in front of me. At one point I think I was going around in circles, calling out to the others, and I tripped over something. My phone went clattering to the floor and as I went over to retrieve it, I almost stepped in a giant hole in the ground. I got my phone and lit what I could. There was something odd about the hole. I think it led down to another cavern, but there was a strange weight hovering around it. As I was standing next to it, I almost felt like I was being drawn in, as if the surrounding limestone had suddenly turned into quicksand. It must have just been an illusion, but even the darkness surrounding it had a tangible quality, like the air had turned thick and soupy. It was fucking freaky man.”

There were murmurs of “Jeez” and “oh shit” from Gus and Erica.

“Yea, I have no desire to go back there, but I think it’d be less scary going as a group and exploring the place. I freaked out and ran away, to be honest. Mallory finally heard me calling and she called back. I followed her voice back into the light; you can’t understand how relieved I was. I felt like I had been there for hours but according to the others I’d only been gone a couple minutes.”

“I’d be down to go back there tomorrow with you” Erica said brightly. Mike looked back at her with trepidation. Erika smiled and said “I’m down to go back as well.” She caught Erica in the corner of her smile. Erica blushed. Gus had only heard the last bit of the story after going up and retrieving his breakfast sandwich from the bar, but apparently that had been enough for him to bow out of the proposed adventure. “Yea, you kids enjoy yourselves. I’m too old to be screwing around with serious spelunking. Last thing I need is to get hurt and be unable to extricate myself from said cave. Sitting in a pitch-black cave in agony isn’t how I’d imagined spending my remaining years on this planet.”

Mike and Mallory also indicated that, while the cave had been fascinating, they’d rather both go bald than root around in the dark for the better part of another day.

Erika shrugged “Welp. Suit yourselves. Erica, guess it’s just you and me then.”

Erica smiled through considerable apprehension about what she’d just agreed to.

An hour or so later, the group rolled out in a door-less Wrangler 4x4. Erica had left her Suzuki Katana back at the hotel, hoping and praying--as she always did--that nobody would steal it while she was gone. Erica was feeling good in the early morning light. The introduction of Fall upon the desert was extremely pleasant. The wind was nonexistent, the temperature just right, and the sun was not an enemy. She was still hungover, but the exhilaration of blasting along the single strip of road with the wind through her hair took away any lingering anxiety. Red (Erica’s nickname for Erika with a K) drove and chain-smoked cigarettes in the driver’s seat. The twins passed around a joint that Gus hit a few times while Erica waved off a toke each time it came around to her. The mountains grew bigger and bigger, encircling them in a friendly, if desolate, embrace, blotting out most of the sky by the time they passed the turn off for Lehman Caves and continued to follow the road towards Wheeler Peak. Wheeler Peak Dr was a thin strip of gray asphalt flanked by low sagebrush, gravel and intermittent fir trees. They passed trucks with huge camper attachments coming back down the mountain and Red had to slow down and swerve to let them pass from time to time. They passed Mather Overlook, which gave a view of the foothills, the four main peaks including Wheeler, as well as the desert beyond Great Basin on the western horizon. Then they stopped at Wheeler Peak overlook and took some group pictures with the huge, glacial bowl of Wheeler as a backdrop. A few minutes later they reached the Bristlecone parking lot. The five hikers piled out and began to prepare for the arduous hike in their own unique ways.

The twins moved as one unit, fastening each other’s rucksacks and double checking that they each had enough food, water and clothing. Gus quietly and methodically checked his gear, strapped on a Douli, took up his walking stick and made his way over to the trailhead. Red finished her preparation quickly and walked over to Erica, who was beginning to feel a little sluggish. It was always this way with her hangovers. The day started off fine, she felt great and would say to herself “I guess I’m not getting old after all”. Then, once the caffeine wore off and the sun rose an appreciable amount above the horizon, she’d begin to feel run down and a little anxious. She had no idea how she’d be able to take on a hike like this, but she’d done more with less energy. She knew the key was to ignore the protestations of her body and mind and push through all of it. She’d feel better a few miles up the trail. Red helped her get the rucksack on and gave her shoulders an affectionate squeeze. Erica felt a little thrill go up her spine.

“Feeling a little rough?” Red asked her.

“Yea, life’s a struggle right now.”

“Oh, poor baby” Red said with a mock sympathetic look.

Erica punched her and said “Oh shut up. I’ll live.”

Red cackled and they headed up towards the trail head together. A suspicion struck Erica. Was Red flirting with her? Now that she articulated the thought, Erica was sure of it. In fact, she was sure that Red had been flirting with her since yesterday. She felt a bit thick. She’d been too wrapped up in her own concerns to realize what now seemed obvious. This wholly unexpected and undeniably pleasant realization perked up Erica’s spirits. She liked Red quite a bit and swooned at the prospect of being able to sleep with her. This would definitely need to be explored at some point. The sluggishness left her body and the anxiety left her mind like a shadow chased out by sunlight.

They walked through a pleasant alpine meadow with the twins leading the way, Gus behind them and Erica and Erika bringing up the rear. They passed the turn-off for Stella Lake and began their ascent up the ridgeline. Fir and spruce trees on both sides shaded them from the sun and wind at first. The dirt was packed with early morning moisture that loosed underfoot as the sun rose. The hike started off pleasantly enough and Erica was enjoying herself; the vigorous exercise exorcised the last of her hangover. She and Red stayed together, chatting casually throughout. Gus and the twins joined and separated from the conversation as their pace closed and widened the gap between them and the two women. Everyone seemed to be on more or less equal footing to begin with, though Erica suspected that Red was a much more seasoned hiker than her, and that she was lagging behind to have an excuse to be next to Erica.

The trail got much more difficult as they neared 11,000 feet in elevation. Vibrant life was wrung out before their eyes as they walked up the long elliptical slope. The sagebrush became brittle, the spruce and fir withdrawn, the rocks cold and layered in glacial snow. The temperature dropped, the air became thin, and the wind began to violently whip across the barren landscape.

Erica hadn’t been prepared for a hike like this. She knew the wilderness, or at least she thought she did. She’d lived in Northern California for her entire adult life, and near Vancouver for her entire childhood. She and her husband had back-packed up and down the west coast when they first began dating. But that had been almost eight years ago. Her life had become more sedentary after the birth of their first child, Olivia. Her husband had offered to work while she stayed home and cared for their child. She had happily agreed, figuring that she would use the free time to pursue her writing. While she was pregnant, she’d worked her ass off in intermittent fits of creative frenzy but no matter how hard she worked at it, the finished products always seemed dull and colorless to her. She swam in notebooks filled to the brim with poetry that she never had the confidence to publish. During this tumultuous transition from a life lived on the run to a semi-solipsistic sedentary existence, she traded her hiking boots for slippers and her leather riding jacket for a fuzzy pink bathrobe.

Things didn’t work out the way she had hoped at first. Being the mother of an infant was much more demanding than she had thought it would be. She didn’t sleep a full night for about a year and rarely found time to do any writing. Her husband worked longer and longer hours and Erica spent more and more time inside her own head. After she stopped breastfeeding, she started drinking every day. At first it was a couple glasses of wine alone at the dinner table after she had put Olivia to bed. Then it became a bottle, then two. Then the wine became whisky, and the elegant tulip glasses became layered shot glasses. She wrote some during this time, early on. The alcohol allowed her unadulterated thoughts to spill out onto the page with ease. But the more her alcoholism and depression took over her mind and body, the more she became lethargic towards the act of writing. She withdrew into herself, wrapping herself in a cocoon of alcohol and silence. She only saw her husband late at night, when she was thoroughly inebriated. She began to take her anger and despair out on her husband. She’d hurl accusations of infidelity at him as he walked through the door. She knew now that he’d never cheated on her, but she still hated him for being so absorbed in his work and forgetting about her and Olivia. Only that hadn’t quite been true either. Mark was a good father to Olivia. During the weekends he spent all his time with his daughter. He took her to the park and to the zoo, or he stayed in with her and watched movies or read her stories. Sometimes, Erica would stay with them. But most weekends she would get on her Suzuki and ride off to a small town in the middle of nowhere. She felt guilty for leaving like this, of course, but it was the only time she was able to temporarily reclaim her freedom, the only time she could shuck off her responsibilities and clear her head, and she needed that more than anything else. She’d light off to a distant town and walk into the first bar she saw. She’d make friends with the locals by drinking most of them under the table. The next morning, she’d wake up and go for a long day hike, usually ending with her alone on some desolate mountain top. Maybe she’d camp nearby for the night, or else she’d head back down and repeat the events of the previous night. She always told herself she’d write while off on these trips, but she rarely did. On her way back, she’d tell herself she’d write when she got home. Her husband understood that she needed to get away. For all the problems they’d had in their relationship, he understood who she was as a person and rarely complained when she went off on her trips. But those days when she could get blind drunk, wake up the next morning and go on a grueling hike without a second thought were long behind her.

She struggled up the final push to the summit. Red helped her along the loose gravel near the peak. They made tight zig zags back and forth across the face of the ascent, digging their own switchbacks with their boots. Snow lay in huge rivulets here and there along the slope. Erica didn’t know how long they were on the final slope, but it seemed interminable. She felt like she was trapped in some strange purgatory. Like Sisyphus rolling his boulder up the mountain. Only Erica’s boulder was her two disobedient feet. And she didn’t think Sisyphus ever had to deal with altitude sickness, either. Erica thought that from this perspective, Hades seemed kind when compared to Wheeler Peak.

Finally, they made it to the top. Erica collapsed in a heap and sat with her head between her knees breathing slow, heavy breaths. She could hear Gus yelling at the top of his lungs with pure jubilation. The twins were laughing and cracking jokes, as always, and seemed not to notice that they had just crested a gigantic mountain. Once Erica caught her breath, she lifted her head and looked around. Red was standing silently on the eastern edge of the peak. Erica got up and walked over to her. The view was absolutely breathtaking. To the east, she could see the little town of Baker and beyond that was flat, beautiful desolation. On all sides the landscape looked much the same. Bare, rolling hills and mountains interspersed by barren earth dotted with scrub brush. The light and shadows went through long, dramatic shifts as the sun rose towards its zenith. The land may have looked the same, but it was the sheer size of it that floored Erica. The sheer scale of emptiness was beyond belief. They were well and truly alone up here, more alone than she had ever been. There is peace in this solitude, Erica thought. Though she’d gone on many solo hikes during her travels, she’d never been someplace that was so utterly removed from the rest of humanity. The desert seemed to stretch on forever in every direction. I sought out solitude and room to think, she thought, and it looks like I got both of those in spades up here. But not in this moment, not yet. She remembered her companions. She put her arm around Red, who leaned her head on Erica’s shoulder. They watched the light and shadow dance on the valley floor as the sun succumbed to gravity and began its descent from high noon towards the western horizon.

The hike back down the mountain was much easier for Erica. Her legs felt like jelly, and she had to be careful not to put too much weight on them lest they give out beneath her, but she managed this by taking short, dainty steps down the ridges and slopes. Red had gone ahead with Gus and Mike, but Mallory lagged behind and sidled over to talk to Erica on the way down. Mallory addressed what was most pressing on Erica’s mind, as if it was written on her forehead in permanent marker.

“Been a while since I’ve seen Erika as happy as she is around you. She really likes you. Hope you’ve realized that by now.”

Erica felt a little thrill go through her body. The feeling was akin to how she had felt in high school after finding out that her crush had feelings for her as well. Though a little embarrassed by the immaturity of it, some secret corner of her being positively reveled in this feeling. It made her feel eight years younger; it was refreshing. She turned pink. Mallory noticed.

“Ah, so you have realized. “Good. You two were cute the whole way up the mountain.”

“Thanks.” Erica said sheepishly. “She’s available then? I didn’t want to make any presumptions before I make a move.”

“She is. For now.” said Mallory.

“What does that mean?” Asked Erica.

Mallory was silent for a moment, composing the thoughts in her head. “She has a complicated relationship with this guy. They’ve been on and off again for the last five years or so. Right now, they’re off. And honestly, I hope they stay that way. They’re not and have never been good for one another. She’s happy enough around us, but that’s more in spite of their relationship rather than because of it. I want her to find somebody that makes her happy. So does Mike, we talk about it a lot.” She turned toward Erica “I know we’ve only just met you and I fear I might be putting you under too much pressure by saying all of this, but you’re the first person in a very long time that she seems to have this air of easy happiness around. Even around Mike and I she usually seems somewhat guarded, standoffish perhaps, to someone who doesn’t know her. We’ve just known her so long that we know she doesn’t mean it personally. She shows love and affection in her own way.”

They stayed silent for a while. Then Erica spoke “I really appreciate you letting me know all this, Mallory. I do like her a lot. And I understand about complicated relationships. I just got out of one myself.”

Mallory laughed lightly, then said “Oh. Boyfriend?”

“Husband. I’m in the process of becoming a childless divorcee.” She hammed up the “ey” in “divorcee” like a European aristocrat at a dinner party, trying to add some levity to her depressing story.

“I’m really sorry to hear that. If you don’t mind me asking, what happened between you guys? You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”

“No no, it’s okay. Actually, Erika and Gus already know most of this story. I told them last night when we were all hanging out at Kerouac’s” said Erica in a matter-of-fact tone. “To put it simply, I happened. I fucked everything up. Bad.” Erica told Mallory about her weekend trips to the middle of nowhere, her alcoholism, her depression. She told Mallory about the fight that had finally ended things. It had only been a few weeks ago, but it felt like another lifetime.

It had been daytime, around noon, and Erica had been very, very drunk. She remembered noticing that the leaves had just begun to change their colors. The sun had been shining through their kitchen window. It had been a perfect early fall day in Grass Valley, a small town in the tranquil foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Her husband had taken little Olivia for the day. They had gone to a fall festival in the next town over. Erica had begun drinking bright and early. She’d put whiskey in her coffee and sat on their porch, thinking about nothing, enjoying the peace and quiet. She’d gone through half a bottle of Wild Turkey when she heard footsteps and then the delighted shrieks of Olivia. Erica checked her watch, saw that it was noon, and a thrill of panic lit up her spine. They were home much too early. She took a deep breath, put on a brave face, and went out to meet them.

“Hi baby girl!” she said over-enthusiastically. Little Olivia had run full speed into Erica’s arms. While she was in Erica’s arms, the girl had sniffed the air and said “Mommy, you smell like alcohol.”

Erica paused the story there and said to Mallory “Even though she was four years old, she knew the word alcohol. She didn’t pronounce it right. It came out sounding like alc-oo-haw, but she knew. That’s how bad it had gotten.” Mallory put her hand on Erica’s shoulder sympathetically and gestured for her to continue.

Her husband, Mark, had told Olivia to go to her room. As soon as the door closed, he turned toward Erica with an icy stare. He pointed towards the backdoor and whispered. “Outside. Now. We need to talk and I don’t want her to hear any of what I have to say.”

Erica had followed him outside. Once safely out of earshot, Mark had laid into her. All these years he had kept silent about her being drunk while taking care of Olivia. He hadn’t said a word when she drove Olivia to preschool drunk, or when she when she passed out in a heap on the kitchen floor three nights a week, or when she took her weekend trips. He laid into her, not because of the booze itself, but because she was absent from their lives. Even when she was there, he said, she wasn’t really there. She escaped at every opportunity. She didn’t care to be a part of their lives, and he was tired of hoping that it would ever change. “It’s clear to me that you don’t want to be here” he had said. “I’m tired of subjecting Olivia to the vicissitudes of your whims. She has no stability and she barely has a mother. I don’t want my daughter growing up with you as a role model. I don’t want her to grow up to be as fucked up as you are. I’m leaving tonight and I’m taking Olivia with me.”

Erica had protested. She’d cried, she’d screamed, she’d begged Mark to give her another chance. She proposed solution after solution but Mark rejected each and every one. “I’m tired of trying” he had said. “We’ve tried everything. Me working less, you going back to work. We’ve done counseling and you’ve been to therapy yourself. I love you, I always will. But I don’t want to keep waiting. Our daughter is getting older now; she’ll be in school next year. She’s more important to me than you are. I’m sorry, but I can’t let you fuck her up anymore. This isn’t good for her. And it’s not good for me either.” They’d talked quietly for a few more minutes. Then Mark had packed some things for him and Olivia, and Erica had hugged her daughter one last time. Olivia had told her not to cry, that everything would be okay. But Erica broke down as she set the girl down and watched her walk out the door. Olivia’s little hand waved out the window as they drove away.

“You have to understand” Erica said to Mallory “That wasn’t the first time we’d had a fight like that. That wasn’t the first time he’d threatened to leave. He stayed a lot longer than he should have. He gave me a million chances to turn things around, but I never did.”

Erica sighed. She’d rehearsed that story during the ride from Grass Valley to Baker. It was all true of course, but it left out one crucial event that came before. She doubted that anyone would look at her as human if she told them why and how the rift between her and her daughter would remain forever unbridged.

Mallory, to Erica’s surprise, responded sympathetically. “I just hope it turns out okay for you. Your past is your past, everybody’s got one.”

Not everyone has one like mine, Erica thought.

She noticed Red was waiting on a rock in the distance, while Mike and Gus continued on ahead. “I think that’s my cue.” said Mallory. She hugged Erica, mouthed “good luck”, and smiled at her before setting off at a jog to catch up with Mike and Gus.

“Hey you” Erica said as Red jumped down off the rock and took up a place at Erica’s right.

“Hey you yourself” Red responded.

“Feeling better, C?” Red asked Erica.

Erica chuckled “so now I’m C? What’s that stand for? Cunt?”

Red thought about it for a moment. “That was my initial thought, but I’m more inclined towards ‘Cool, now I’ve got a nickname that I don’t really want as well’“.

“Kinda clunky don’t you think? Doesn’t really roll off the tongue, does it?”

Red shrugged. “At least it doesn’t conjure up images of Red Foreman from That 70s Show.”

“True, true. I didn’t even think about that to be honest. But now that I have...” Erica squinted one eye and put her thumb and index fingers together like a picture frame “I must say, the resemblance is uncanny.”

Red shoved Erica playfully. “You must be feeling better or you wouldn’t be this much of an asshole.”

They walked together in amiable silence for a while, both looking over at one another and smiling every so often. Erica took in everything about that moment. She savored it, making sure to remember every detail. This was something she’d learned from her therapist some years back. “Always remember to appreciate the good moments, no matter how small or fleeting they are.” He had said. “When you get your next depressive episode, you’ll be able to use those good memories as protection from negative thoughts. Get enough of these thoughts together and you’ll have a nice happy place built of happy memories, like a bed of clouds with sheets of satin.” Admittedly, her therapist was Bob Ross with a medical degree, but he’d helped her get on with the business of living at times when she felt like she couldn’t. She hadn’t succeeded in constructing a fully functioning “happy place” yet, but she was working on it.

The metaphor her therapist had used brought her thoughts back to her surprisingly soft hotel bed. And with that thought came thoughts of how she could ask Red to join her in that bed. Erica liked Red a lot, and the conversation with Mallory had taken some of the pressure off. All she had to do now was not screw it up.

As they were coming down the final ridge that led to Stella Lake, Erica brought up the slightly diminished elephant in the room.

“So, don’t be mad at her, but Mallory told me you just broke up with your boyfriend?” She said it as casually as she could, making it into a question to suggest that Mallory hadn’t gone into too much detail. If Red wanted to talk about it, Erica would be happy to listen. And if not, well, she was okay with that too. Erica had been an open, drunken book last night. Red hadn’t, and that was alright. But Erica wanted to hear from Red whether or not there were any boundaries and where they were. She didn’t want to ruin two relationships in as many weeks.

“I’ll tell you over drinks tonight, okay?”

“Sure, okay” Erica replied.

“I will tell you this, though. You don’t have anything to worry about. I like you. I plan on sleeping with you tonight. As long as you want to, obviously.”

Erica was taken aback by the blunt statement. Red had said it matter-of-factly, like she was commenting on the weather. Between this and her frank conversation with Mallory, Erica was beginning to realize that blunt honesty was a cardinal rule of this tight knit group of friends. Erica attempted to respond to Red, tripping over her words as she did so.

“I do want to. I want you, too. Sleep with you. I mean.” Erica said, cutting Red off mid-sentence. “Uh...sorry” she laughed awkwardly. “I’m not used to anyone being that honest with me. It’s refreshing.”

Red looked at her out of the corner of her eye, a faint smile touching the corner of her mouth. Then in one fluid motion she turned, grabbed Erica by the arm and kissed her. Erica was startled at first, and then she leaned into it. Then it was over and they were walking down the ridge again, only this time with flushed cheeks and a feeling of whimsical happiness between them. The others hadn’t turned around, so they probably hadn’t noticed. If they had, she was sure they’d have started whooping or clapping.

They spent the afternoon at Stella Lake, which was more of a Stella Pond at this time of year. The water was shallow and clear, the vegetation sparse and withered. Late October used to be the peak of the dry season. By November, the rains would come and nourish the parched earth. But now, the dry season was almost year-round. California had been in a constant drought for decades, and the problem was only magnified out here in the high Nevada desert. Good thing hardly anyone lived out here, or they’d be in the same perpetual struggle for water that plagued California.

Sitting on the edge of Stella Pond, Erica’s thoughts were quickly losing the lustrous sheen bestowed upon them by Red’s sudden kiss. The dark turn was just as sudden and unexpected as had been Red’s kiss; she had lost her footing on the tranquil meadow of happiness and was now tumbling slowly down a dark mine shaft of despondency. Erica watched the pines waving in the wind. She wondered how anything could survive in this extreme environment for very long. These trees were used to drought, wind, cold and extreme heat. They were tough, tougher than anything on the planet. Erica imagined herself as one of these pines, stoically bearing the lonely burden of living, year after year, in an environment that abhorred all life. She wished silently that she could become as strong and proud as these pines, able to withstand anything life threw at her. But right now, sitting on the edge of Stella Pond, she was feeling weak, willowy, and fragile, like a tumbleweed that would blow apart in the slightest breeze. She felt the life being drained out of her at the painfully slow pace of water being drained out of a lake beneath the unrelenting desert sun. The happiness she’d felt when Red had kissed her had lasted only a moment, maybe two. It seemed to Erica that one moment she had been light on her feet, coasting easily down the final ridge with a smile on her face, and the next she was sitting by the lake, smoking a cigarette by herself, withdrawn. She had been unaware that even while she was descending the ridge full of joy and life, an insipid undercurrent of despair had been working its way to the forefront of her mind with the subtle grace of a snake suffocating a rodent. It twisted her thoughts into bastardized versions of themselves, creating shame where a few moments before there’d been joy. Why did she get to experience happiness when she had caused so much pain to those she loved? She didn’t deserve any of the serendipitous encounters of the past few days. She felt worthless, wrung out and lifeless beneath the hot sun.

She wondered if Olivia missed her. She wondered if Olivia’s grief at losing her mother compared in any way to the crushing weight of loss and guilt and numbness that lay atop Erica’s heart like rubble after an earthquake. Little Olivia probably didn’t understand all of that quite yet. She probably thought her mom had gone for one of her weekend trips and would be back in a few days. It might take weeks for reality to set in. After that, it would be too late for her to grieve openly. The decreasing proximity to her trauma would allow the experience to burrow into the dark recesses of her unconscious mind. The loss of her mother would lie dormant, insidious, lurking beneath the threshold of everyday experience. She’d grow up broken in ways she would not discover until adulthood. She had no doubt that Mark would take care of Olivia. He was and always would be a great Dad. But broken homes, especially ones that break at such a young age, screw kids up. Erica would know, she was born in one. Her Mom had been an alcoholic too, and she had left when Erica was about the same age as Olivia. Erica picked up a blade of grass and let it blow away in the wind, silently hoping that Olivia would somehow break the cycle of suffering that had plagued the last two generations of Messier women.

Her melancholy reverie was interrupted by splashing and shouting. Mike, Mallory and Red had all gone headlong into the freezing water and were urging Gus and Erica to do the same. Gus edged his way into the water with trepidation. “I didn’t think my nuts could get any more shriveled than they already are but I’m being proven wrong with every step!“. The group’s raucous laughter echoed around the valley, and Erica felt herself smiling. The group shouted to Erica, urging her to get in the water. She got up with a sigh, raised her hands obligingly, stripped down to her underwear (which drew whistles from Red) and raced into the water to join them. The water froze her to the bone, but it did help snap her back to the present. She hyperventilated and set out swimming for the opposite end, which wasn’t very far, and then back. When she was done, she felt much better. The cold, clean mountain water had a purifying effect on her. It made her feel lighter, as if it had cleared some of the rubble away from her heart. She remembered many mornings just like this. Her weekend trips and long hikes had sometimes ended with her camping near an alpine lake, which she’d use as a shower in the morning. The frigid water had the added benefit of instantly nixing her hangover and jolting her awake more forcefully than the strongest coffee could. For this reason, she’d come to view mountain lakes and streams and ponds as something akin to sacred. Like the River Jordan in the Bible, they were a place for one to shuck off the weight and excess that had built up in the process off living. Erica put her thoughts of Olivia and Mark aside and swam over to Red, who took her in her arms. They huddled close together, closer still when Red discovered how warm Erica was after her swim. They hung out at the lake for another hour or two, talking about anything, talking about nothing. The sun had begun to set when they got back to Red’s Jeep and drove back towards town.

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María Cecilia: Buena historia, si bien no está descubriendo el hilo negro si ha mantenido mi interés, lectura fácil de digerir y yo la recomendaría para adultos jovenes

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