I'm in Pennsylvania. I've gone twelve-hundred and two miles. It's the second week of June.
I am utterly miserable.
I sit down, dejected, in the tick-infested weeds beside the dirt road that marks this particular pipeline right-of-way. Or whatever it is. If I check my Handbook, it will tell me that this is a "Game lands road." I think of a more accurate, profane description while retrieving a soda from my pack.
That's right, we found trail magic earlier. Someone had left sodas in a creek, just off the trail. I took five: a Coke, a Mountain Dew, and a Birch Beer that I drank right away, plus a Dr. Pepper and another Birch Beer that I saved for later. Eat your heart out, Caveman.
My "friend" Caveman, always denying me what's rightfully mine. Urging me to be "conscientious" and "considerate," to leave some for the others. For the faceless crowd we've left behind. What nonsense.
I had to take them. I deserved them. I needed them. Because I was depressed.
Because you broke up with me.
As I sip my Dr. Pepper, luxuriating in every one of its sumptuous twenty-three flavors, I reminisce about walking home from school with Amber on that fateful Monday afternoon, and of watching Libby drive away in the rain, barely resisting the urge to run after her. I quickly come to the conclusion that this is worse. Or at least more recent.
I knew you had been feeling antsy, and that you weren't entirely content just slumming it with me anymore, doing relatively relaxed 17- and 24-mile days. I knew this because you basically told me as much, if in not so many words. I remember the conversation vividly, as though it had only happened a few hours earlier. Maybe it had.
"I'm just feelin' a little antsy," you had said, grimacing. "It's not that I don't enjoy slummin' it with Merf an' that other dude an' you—I love you, man. You know I do—it's just I like everybody else more. P-Nut an' Hobbes..."
"And the British girls?"
"Yeah," you had sighed. "Sure, them too."
"Well, not so much him. No."
And we both had laughed. Me bitterly. Because I knew it was probably the last, after we had shared so many.
And I'm back in the dust by the road, amidst the buzzing insects, feeling the weight on my back, the sun on my face, and the pain in my ass. Stupid pebbles. I should've picked a better place to sit.
What direction will my life take now? How will I define myself without you? If I'm not walking to be with you, what am I walking for? Why am I even out here? If not for love or friendship, then what?
The forest in front of me shimmers in the heat. And then they emerge. A man and a woman walk towards me out of the haze. The man is tall and muscular; his rakish beard and casually disheveled hair exude the careless confidence of a man who has never once had cause to doubt his devilish good looks. Or his good fortune. The woman is striking, similarly tall and startlingly voluptuous. Clear skinned, vaguely Nordic in stature, she carries herself like some avenging Valkyrie, with a serene look of steely detachment in her eyes but her gait and body language full of an inexplicable violence that sends a cool shiver down my spine. Both are clean and seem in good spirits. They look down on me with a vaguely mirthful curiosity, as if I am so comically insignificant as to be utterly unworthy of their attention, let alone their scorn.
And then they're gone.
"Who the hell was that?" I ask, half to myself.
"Slackpackers," says Caveman.
I practically jump out of my skin. I'd forgotten he was there. I nod absentmindedly.
"I met them yesterday," continues Caveman. "They were hitching a ride by the road on the way up to the 501 Shelter. I think her name is Lightning."
Sounds familiar, but I can't quite place it.
"Slackpackers," I spit, shaking my head. "How I hate them."
"Did you find yourself, like, sexually threatened by him?"
"What? No! Why?"
"It sounded like you were. From your narration," explains Caveman.
"Shut up," I scold. "You're not allowed any meta commentary. Not today."
"Why? 'Cause I'm leaving you?"
"Yes. I'm still hurt."
Caveman sighs. "You shouldn't be threatened by him, M.C. Or anybody, for that matter. You are one handsome devil."
"Don't tease me."
"Come on," Caveman urges. "Let's just try to enjoy these next few hours. It's all we've got left."
"This is wrong," I say. "You were never this prescient in real life."
"But that's the beauty of fiction," says Caveman. "You can fix every wrong."
I begrudgingly concede his point, until I remember. "Hey! What did I say about the fourth wall!"
"The fourth what? What're you talkin' about?" asks Caveman, amused. "I don't even know what that means."
"That's better," I say, cautiously.
"Come on, M.C." urges Caveman again. "We'll go into Port Clinton, stay at the pavilion there. It's free. Maybe we'll order pizza from Pizza Hut, for old time's sake. I'll pay with my credit card over the phone, and you can promise to pay me back when you get some cash, but then again I'm never going to see you after this, so that'll be an empty promise!"
"Yes, it will," I agree.
"And then we can laugh at everybody who didn't get trail magic back there at the sign, and you can write something mean in a shelter log."
"There won't be a shelter log, Caveman. It's a gazebo."
"Okay, well you can think of something really mean to write the next time."
"Maybe. What if nothing pisses me off?"
Caveman laughs. And says nothing. Like I was joking.
"Well?" he asks, after a moment. "What do you say? Is it a plan? The perfect afternoon ever? Or what?"
"It sounds like every other day on the trail," I grumble.
"So? I wouldn't want it any other way."
I want to stay mad at him, but I can't. He offers me his hand. Which I don't take, choosing instead to stumble to my feet the manly way. Because Caveman and I are two burly dudes, who don't ever touch each other for any reason.
"Oh stop," Caveman chides. "Gay panic? Really? That's beneath you."
I let this one slide.
And we head off into town, where we get Pizza Hut, and drink our last remaining sodas. Where we formally meet Lightning and the rest of her group, the Travelling Circus. Where I bond pleasantly with a stray kitten, until someone erroneously warns me the cat has fleas. After which I foolishly ignore it. Eventually Merf and Deitrich and Little Brown arrive, and I let them eat the crust of my large stuffed crust pizza. Because I'm too full to eat anymore. I mean, in the spirit of togetherness.
And then it is the end of our perfect afternoon, our last day together. Caveman and I say goodnight, and goodbye, one final time. Our jubilant reunion cut short. My last tie to my friends gone. He will leave the next morning before dawn. I will remain to face the unknown future alone.