The day began as any other: sunshine, clean air, and a sky the color of the one-year date-a-versary sapphire ring she wore on her right hand. Her work schedule at the hospital varied, meaning that although a Tuesday, she thought of it as her Saturday. She thought of it as chance to disconnect, to take morning time for herself and then run some errands before cleaning her apartment.
Lacing her left bike shoe tightly to accommodate the mild ankle sprain from two weeks earlier, she tugged her ankle sock clear of the shoe while admiring the scars along the sides that interrupted the logo. Don’t call her a street rider; she took to the hills, she bushwhacked on her days off, putting in twenty to thirty miles, climbing and descending a few thousand vertical feet, and winning herself a different awe-inspiring view whenever possible. Her destination was Peregrine Point, a personal challenge that her boyfriend had told her was an unrealistic goal. By the time they’d turned off the lights, both sweating and breathing like they’d run a marathon, they had a ten dollar wager in place that she couldn’t make it up to Peregrine Point.
She smiled as she zipped her keys into the pouch behind the bike’s seat; he’d given her a mini multi-tool on a keychain for Christmas, possibly the most useless gift ever, but one that endeared him to her for that very reason. His impression of her brought out things she didn’t know about herself; it was true that she wasn’t afraid to tackle home projects—she had her father to thank for that—but a multi-tool? Really? She already carried a tire repair kit.
She rode the mountain bike to the trailhead. This was one of the few differences they had: why he wanted to drive the car to then ride bikes seemed absurd to her. Amusing at first, it had become a sore point between them. Each push of the pedal leant her a sense of superiority having left the car behind. Her breathing calmed; she found a rhythm both internally and to the sound of the bike’s smooth mechanics. These solo rides offered a sense of freedom, a meditative few hours where she could remain in the present and leave home and work and even him, behind.
It was there, gasping for air, on the narrow mesa, that she saw the rider. Just a silhouette rounding a bend about a quarter mile up, there and gone. This was where she normally stopped for water and a little rest, but as she slowed down she decided: not today. Water and rest could wait until after the next ascent. And she liked having another rider within sight. It gave her motivation. She would overtake him — and she really hoped it was a man — or kill herself trying.
She coasted through a short dip, the scenery blurring pleasantly past, grasshoppers zinging into the bushes in front of her, before attacking the next rise. She was just cresting the next ascent, feeling for all the world that not only would she make Peregrine Point today — but make it easily — when she heard the skidding of tires, a short yelp, and then the distinctive sound of body and bike making contact with the ground, again and again.
She pushed hard over the rise, and saw a small cloud of dust rising lazily into the air. She rode until she saw a bike tire sticking out of a clump of sagebrush on the slope below her, still spinning, spokes flashing in the sun. Throwing her bike aside, she glissaded down the rocky slope. Brush raked at her arms and legs, but she hardly noticed. She came upon the bike first, then the man, who was laid out on his back next to a cluster or rocks, feet pointing toward her.
He lifted his head. “Oh, hey,” he said, almost idly, as if were a friend who’d been waiting for her in a coffee shop and she was a few minutes late. He was covered in dust and nasty scrape painted his forehead.
She said the first thing that came to her mind. “Why…why aren’t you wearing a helmet?”
He shrugged and gave her a big grin. “I like to live on the edge.”
She noticed he was wearing jeans, black boots, and some sort of concert t-shirt. His bike, its back fork folded almost in half, looked like something you’d buy at Wal-Mart. What in the hell.
She knelt down next to him, her training kicking in. “Can you tell me where it hurts?”
“Oh, everywhere, pretty much,” he said, trying to heave himself into a sitting position. She tried to stop him, but he pushed her hand away and, groaning, he let himself fall back. Looking up at the sky, he said, “I’m fine, really, you can be on your way, lady.”
“I’m going to up to my bike to get my phone,” she told him. “You’re hurt. I’ll be right back.”
He raised his head and gave her a hard look. “Don’t you go calling anyone. Not a soul.”
The tone of his voice, that had seemed helpless and benign, now had been sharpened, topped with her name as a spearpoint. Her boyfriend called her Abby, as did her coworkers at the hospital. Only one person called her Abigail, other than her parents, and he’d been dead for years. She’d watched his body airlifted to a hospital in Durango.
“How do you know my name?” She asked as she glanced down at her phone and saw two words that made her feel more alone than she’d been all day: NO SIGNAL. She froze as his eyes, which looked sapphire blue like her ring, turned black.
The man sat up, then stood, dusting himself off, his bones creaking, joints popping. “That was quite a ride we had back then, remember?” He smiled and the stranger’s features changed, became something familiar, someone familiar.
Abby looked at the setting sun on the horizon, her heart racing, as she wondered if she’d been the one who’d taken a hard spill, flipped over her handlebars, her helmeted head careening off boulders and flatrock. Or perhaps she’d skidded through a patch of spineless cacti, dripping with psychoactive alkaloids — that she was tripping, literally and figuratively. How else could he be here? She hadn’t seen her mentor since grad school, since they’d had a torrid affair the summer before graduation. A summer that ended with his lifeless body lying in the high desert, and Abby lying atop his grave in the rain, an hour after the mourners had left, which had included his wife and family. She’d cried tears of loss and tears of guilt and tears of shame.
“Professor Naughton?” Abby asked. She thought about her phone and how she would have signal atop Peregrine Point. She wondered how long it would take at a dead sprint. The thousands of dollars she’d invested in her bike, with carbon and titanium everything, meant nothing now.
The man touched the gash on his forehead, regarded the blood on his fingers, then looked back at her nodding. “You left me,” he said. “Remember? You left me for the coyotes and the crows, the catamounts and the mayflies. You left me because you loved your reputation more than you loved me.”
“I didn’t…” Abby said, her voice trembling, her heart racing. She replayed that day in her mind, images of smiles, kisses, sweet words and wildflowers, then metal and breaking bone, and her riding frantically for help. She’d tried her best. But by the time she reached the parking lot, someone had already found him, someone with a phone, someone who called for help even though all the Mercy Flight paramedics could do was strap the professor’s lifeless body into a litter and signal for him to be hoisted into the air.
He nodded and squinted his black eyes, as though reading her thoughts. He looked into the sky which was darkening, tendrils of crimson and ruddy orange changing into shades of umber and coal. “I remember them taking me away. I remember flying. That was the closest I’d ever get to heaven.”
“I was young,” Abby said, slowly backing away as he stood and stepped in her direction. “I thought I was in love. I was reckless and foolish, but I didn’t leave you, I went for help…”
“And I found help,” the man said, smiling. “Do you remember the scary stories we used to tell the undergrads? The tales we’d spin by the campfire after the sun went down and the stars came out. How we’d all lie on our backs and listen to the wind?”
“But those were just stories,” Abby said. “The pumawha aren’t real.” She felt the tall grass brush her calves, she smelled something burning, like sage, but sweeter. The crickets began chirping, the grasshoppers sang, and then all went silent. That’s when she remembered the name westerners used for desert tricksters. They called them skin-walkers.
“Oh no,” breathed Abby. Her skin crawled, flushed with gooseflesh. What she saw before her was not her love of old. It was the evil spirit that had entered his body, vulnerable and unprotected in death on that awful desert slope. “You’re not him,” she said, scrabbling backward up the hillside, loose rocks rolling wildly under her hands. “Why did you track me?”
She rushed through her mind, trying to remember anything she could about this spirit monster. The pumawha were shape-shifters, able to mimic human and animal form, and also to inhabit the dead. They chose forms that would give them the advantage they wanted. They were impossibly fast. And she couldn’t remember if they could be killed.
“Well, a body has a flavor,” the man-shaped thing licked his lips, “and this one tasted of you. None of the bodies between there and here could satisfy this craving.” Its head tilted, eyes black. “I’ll go back to running wild after this. Nothing else could compare.”
“But where is your, your pack?” Abby shouted, desperately scrambling for a distraction that could help her reach her beautiful bike, just twenty feet above their precarious slope. “Your pack leader? Are they back in Arizona? Do they even know you’re here?”
Even as Abby retreated up the hill, the skin-walker began to shift. The familiar lines of her beloved, so strangely dressed, began to blur and grey. The wide, friendly features of her old professor elongated, widened, and became canine. At the same time its whole form expanded, grotesque and hulking. It was a coyote, but like none she had ever seen. It was as big as a bear.
Just as Abby crawled back onto the dusty yellow trail, now thrown into shadow, the skin-walker howled. Her throat closed as she sighted her bike, homely and familiar beyond belief. It rested on its side, benign as a child’s tricycle. She was flying down the trail before she even realized she’d touched it.
She didn’t dare look behind her. She just focused on the trail, the sound of the crunch beneath her rushing tires. When she left pavement for dirt earlier that day, it had felt like a door opening. Cobwebs cleared from her mind, everything became focus and breathing. There was nothing more relaxing than beating the crap out of yourself up a hill. Feeling the fine line between pushing yourself, and throwing up, all to get to the top for that coveted view.
This pell-mell descent was a perversion. Like finding a demon at a church’s altar.
Another howl followed her down, the same sound but from farther away. She pulled her bike side to side, up and over the rolling trail as it went around the bend. Maybe she could make it. To her car. To help. She bombed down the trail, reckless as she’d ever been.
Maybe the thing was just giving her a head start. A predator, playing with its prey. And then she realized that the pumawha might really be taking on the attributes of her old love. Because what is a professor who seeks power over a young student, but a beast who seeks to feed itself? And then she began to form a plan. A way she could survive.
She rode swiftly, thinking that as soon as she made it to her car, she would go to Laura. Laura would help her; she would know what to do. They hadn’t spoken in years, but Abby was sure that the moment Laura heard her voice, she would set aside her pain and anger, and she would tell Abby what she needed to know. She understood intuitively that escaping the woods was not enough, that whatever was following her would continue to follow her through her life until—
Until Laura. Until Laura could halt it in its tracks.
It was Laura, after all, who had suffered most all those years ago. Laura whose name had seemed to echo inside the creature’s howl. And, Abby realized now, she had felt Laura’s presence even before she recognized Professor Naughton in the stranger’s face, maybe even before she had seen the stranger at all. Hadn’t Laura been there at the edge of her mind early that morning, when she first started up this path? It was as if Laura had been trying to reach her thoughts for a long time.
Several minutes had now passed without a sound from the creature. So she allowed herself to pause in her flight, to stop and listen, to search the air for threats that might be closer.
A hot breeze stirred the pines, and the July light jittered on the needles. There was a moment of quiet, of calm, and, for the first time, she allowed herself to wonder — A stranger turned lover turned creature, all before her eyes. What if there were more of them?
There was a panic in the leaves then, a panic in the light. Everything around her seemed suddenly deceptive, something other than itself. The deermouse that had skittered along the trail. The stellar jays in the trees. Inside of those harmless creatures — What? More horrible memories. Sinister and thrashing to get out. Memories that could snap awake, alive, with the mere rearrangement of features. Not just the professor. But other people from other times in her life. Other people who had wronged her, or whom she had wronged. She felt them all at once. She felt them in the birds that she could hear, in the insects she couldn’t see. Everywhere. The trail itself seemed to move through her, into her, past her. A little girl she used to taunt — she felt that girl unfurl in a fern. And in the happy screeching of the stellar jays — her brothers, their bright and horrible conniving. Somewhere close by, she couldn’t see it, but she knew: a lizard slept on a rock, but its dreams were those of her poor father, whom she had abandoned slowly and in the most cruel way.
And there was her mother in the snowberries; her first love in the trees. The girl from college who had killed herself — there she was now, somewhere close by, the terrified heart of a rabbit.
Her boyfriend. She felt him tighten around her finger, the very sapphire suddenly alive with his intentions.
And, everywhere, everywhere, even in the rocks themselves, was Laura.
It can’t be real. It can’t. But that thought was somehow even worse than what was right before her. And briefly, against all reason, she hoped to hear the howl again, because running from something horrible and real was easier than standing still inside your mind, throwing your own threats all around you.
Once more, she was flying down the trail. And and in her periphery were the voices of her life, calling, calling. At any moment, the features of the world would crack. Rocks would crumble and unfold into faces. Trunks would split and soften into smiles. Birdsong into taunts and sunlight into weeping.
And the howl — the howl was real! It was there, and it was closer, and it was almost a relief to know exactly what to run from. The professor, the coyote, the bear.
And there, ahead of her, the car.
She let her bike fall to the pavement. She tripped over it in her panic, skinned her knee, stumbled to the door and unlocked it. She got inside, slammed the door and felt relief in the quiet of the car.
She knew where Laura lived. And she turned the key, and began her journey toward her.
Wasn’t the return trip always faster? Didn’t it always work that way? So, why was it taking so damn long to get back down the mountain? Switchbacking down the steep grade into the basin, Abby slowed at every corner, yet still her tires protested at each turn, struggling for purchase. For all Abby knew, Laura had relocated years ago. Who knew if she had the same phone number after all these years? And what if — in the unlikely event she was able to reach Laura — her old friend was unable to help her? A cold hand gripped her heart at the thought that she might have to face all this alone.
About four miles down the mountain, Abby finally located a signal, and scrolled through her contacts, one eye on the road. Jesus, when did she collect so many contacts? McMillan, Nadler, Nelson, Lindstrom, Laura. Abby pressed dial, her eyes cycling between the rearview mirror, and the road in front of her.
It was not the voice of Laura Lindstrom. Not even close.
“You know, there’s a little hot spot around mile marker seven,” said Professor Naughton, pleased with himself. “You might have bought yourself a good ten minutes if you’d been paying attention. Not that it would have made a difference.”
“Why are you doing this?” she said. “Why is this happening?”
“Oh, make no mistake, Abigail,” said Professor Naughton. “You’re doing this, not me, not anybody else. It was you who contacted me.”
“What are you?”
“You know what I am.”
“Okay,” said Abby. “This is bullshit. You’re just talking in circles. I’m hanging up.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” said Professor Naughton.
“Yeah, well you’re not me, no matter what you say.”
Abby hung up the phone, which began vibrating almost immediately. She picked it up in spite of herself.
“I must have lost you there around that last corner,” said Professor Naughton.
“No, I hung up.”
“Ah, well, anyway,” said Professor Naughton. “I’ve got somebody here who’s really eager to speak to you. You may not recognize her voice right off, that’s because — well, I’ll let her explain it.”
There was a brief pause as the phone changed hands. Then a voice.
“Abby? Is that you?”
Abby stopped breathing.
Though it had been years since they’d last spoken, she knew it was Laura. Abby was called back to her early twenties by that pleading inflection — the voice that could only be Laura’s. She thought now of the mornings in Laura’s kitchen, eating croissant crumbs off each other’s plates, Abby’s textbook pushed aside for a later hour. The rowdy dinners with Laura’s young children — Professor Naughton’s children, too, of course. And that final stand-off, in the doorway to Abby and Professor Naughton’s home, when Laura’s expression had hardened and she had told Abby never to come back. She’d shut the door before Abby could offer a word of explanation, or apology.
“Laura,” she said. “Thank God. Are you all right?”
“So you’re on your way over now, too? I guess I could have warned you this would happen. But something made me wish I was wrong — I wished I was imagining that my dear sweet husband was haunting me from the dead. It started with a cheap mountain bike showing up on my porch every Tuesday morning. Then one day, there he was, balanced on its seat. Anyway, we can talk more in person. I’ll tell you as much as I know, and I’ll leave the rest to him.”
“I’ll turn back. I can come another time — I’d love to come another time. I think of you often, I’ve never forgiven myself. I’ll call soon, I promise.”
Abby hung up. Her hands trembled against the wheel. She gripped it harder. Her teeth began to chatter. The car was suddenly cold, like when a storm cloud covers the spring sun. She reached the intersection near her home and let herself take a deep breath. One left turn and she’d be there. On the corner, the windows of In-N-Out Burger glowed with fluorescent insistence. Abby watched as a family of four found a table and settled into their seats. How she longed for that sort of easy existence right now — how she longed for a normal day.
When she turned back to the road, she saw the light had changed. But her car was veering into the right lane. She turned the wheel with all her might. It was no use — her car began to drive itself. Now blasts of cold air shot out from the car’s vents, even as she turned the dials for the heat. She banged on the wheel as the car made an easy path down the avenue, weaving in and out of traffic at an unhurried pace. How could this be happening? As she approached another red light, she fought against the wheel one more time. Its resistance was impressive, like arm-wrestling with an ogre.
Soon the streets were both familiar and alien to her — the bigleaf maples towered overhead, ten years of new growth shading her car and clouding her memory. The sidewalks were busy with children playing, chasing after each other on scooters and bicycles. For a moment, she thought she might see Laura and Professor Naughton’s children — but then she remembered they’d be grown by now, and would she even recognize them as gangling teenagers?
And then the car was pulling into the driveway, which looked as it always had. A bed of zinnias still lined the walkway up to Laura’s house. Abby shivered even as the car turned itself off. She opened the driver’s side door — this, finally, a decision she made for herself. She walked to the door she’d last seen slammed in her face. And for some reason — shame? A throwback to her frequent childhood humiliations? — she twisted the sapphire ring from her finger and slipped it into the back zipper pocket of her bike shorts. She rang the doorbell.
At first, there was no answer, though there was a low moaning Abby could hear in the faint middle distance behind that door. She put both palms to the red-painted wood, and could feel a humming, and a warmth. She leaned gently into the door, and her whole body felt a generous ease, a comfort, a familiarity and affection. The moan rose and quavered, shivered through her. She closed her eyes and let the door wrap her, hold her, as it seemed to be pressing back into Abby, whispering now.
“Abigail,” It was Professor Naughton’s sonorous voice, the low and soothing voice he’d use mornings as they woke and held each other gently, as one . “You’ve made it. We’ve been waiting all these years.”
“I know,” Abby whispered back, her eyes still shut, a pulsing joy seeping into her. “I’ve been away so very long.”
“Come in,” he whispered, as the door gave way, swinging easy into the front hallway.
Abby stumbled a little and pushed back from the door, but the warmth and comfort remained within her. She opened her eyes. Stepped slowly into the hallway, smelling fresh baked bread, coffee, the musk of the Professor’s cologne. Around her everything was the same — the overstuffed couch, the framed antique maps of Madagascar, the Arctic Circle, Patagonia, Sicily. All those places the Professor told her stories of as they sat here in this living room, on this Turkish throw rug, in this same soft amber light, drinking wine, and imagining. All those places he’d said he would one day take her.
Everything from all those years ago, it remained. The hutch filled with old pocket watches. The teak and brass barometer. The claw-footed dining room table. The smell of leather and polished wood.
“Years, Abigail,” she heard from the kitchen, as the light shifted, brightened into the clear white light of morning. Out the back windows, birdsong emerged, and a light dew carpeted the lawn. “But you’ve finally made it back here. Are you ready for breakfast, love?”
Abby looked down, saw she had on her old Converse tennis shoes, and her favorite blue socks with the Cheshire Cat stitched across each ankle. Her mother had given her these socks the day she left for college. Abby felt at her chest where now her years-gone high school sweatshirt now draped. She touched at the white cotton shorts at her hips, reached into the pockets and pulled out a small envelope with three hearts sketched across the front beneath her name and the Professor’s.
She thought to open the envelope, but she already knew what the short neatly-scripted letter would say. That this was it. This was their last morning. That he loved her, he cherished her, but he also loved Laura, and he had to consider the life he’d established, his reputation on campus, the future, the larger scope of who they were in this world. This letter had sat in a drawer by her bedside for many years now. This letter was the only thing she had kept, all this time, and she had read it so many times the stationery was thin and frayed and the envelope wrinkled, smudged with oil.
“What’s taking you so long, little one?” the Professor said in that coy voice that always made Abby smile and touch her face with a kind of wonder.
She walked toward the kitchen, saying, “It’s that morning, isn’t it? The last morning.”
The Professor stood at the counter in his blue robe and fleece-lined slippers. His dark, just-grey hair mussed just the way she always liked to see it. He poured her a cup of coffee, stepping towards Abby, nodding.
“Yes,” he said, smiling, handing over the cup. “You haven’t killed me yet.”
“All that’s coming,” she said, holding the cup with both hands, feeling that same warmth as before and a slow joy in knowing what would happen.
“I was thinking,” he said. “I was thinking we should go out to the desert today. It’s so lovely this time of year.”
“What about Laura? I thought…”
“Laura won’t be home until tonight,” he said. “Besides, this is your day. You finally get to take something back.”
And just like that, they were on the trail, carving their way through the desert scrub, the late-fall sun warming the back of Abby’s neck on either side of her braid. She’d stopped wearing her hair like that after college, worried it made her look young. The weight of it on her back made her heart ache for the woman she was back then.
Ribbons of heat rose from the ochre sand, just as she remembered. Abby looked down and found herself pedaling the sky-blue hard-tail she’d ridden that day for the very last time. The brakes still squealed on the downhills. The derailleur still skipped when she down-shifted. Just as she remembered.
Ahead of her, leading the way as always, the Professor rode his famous bike. A 1977 Breezer older than she was. It looked exactly as she remembered, too, except for one startling thing: It was white. All white. The frame. The tires. Even the chain. Albino white, as if it had been converted to grayscale in Photoshop. On it, the Professor rode in full color.
“Look there,” said the Professor, nodding up at the horizon. “Peregrine Point.
Abby squinted up at the peak, the tallest on the jagged ridgeline. It seemed like it might snag the cirrus clouds feathered against a sapphire sky.
“I’d love to take you there one day,” he said over his shoulder.
One day. One day. One day. The future was always one day away. In sight, but too far to reach today. Like Peregrine Point. The sight of it made Abby’s heart ache with hope. She imagined the day she’d be strong enough to reach it.
But that day, they had chosen another trail. Occam’s Razor was not a beginner trail. A sinuous ribbon of singletrack, it traced the folds of a hillside as steep as a black-diamond ski slope. Abby trained her eyes on the trail ahead, just over Professor Naughton’s shoulder. She fought the urge to look down and right, where the hillside fell off precipitously. Somewhere below, too far to see was the rocky streambed of Coyote Gulch.
As the trail intersected with Falcon Ridge, the Professor turned right, starting the steep descent down Occam’s Razor. But Abby’s bike went left. She fought it, but the same force that commandeered her steering wheel was now pulling her up, up, up along Falcon Ridge. Up toward Peregrine Point.
Abby’s heart rate spiked. The autumn sun fell fast. She didn’t have food, or a jacket, or a light. Her water bottle was nearly empty. And yet, she couldn’t stop climbing. The pitch steepened. Her legs burned. She was alone, climbing into a deepening sky.
Time melts away in the pain cave. At a certain point, the pain grows dull and familiar, a trusted companion that will never abandon you. “Learning to suffer is a skill,” her father had told Abby before he died. “Learn to be uncomfortable.”
She embraced it, now, leaning into the pain that had shifted from her body to her heart. She thought of the pain she had inflicted on Laura, the guilt she had carried, buried like a stone in a backpack, for years. Now each each pedal stroke was a penance, carrying her ever closer to the place where she knew, even before seeing it, she could look down upon the backs of raptors and things would finally make sense.
The sky was bleeding with sunset as the last rise came into view. It was steep — the steepest and rockiest pitch of the trail — and Abby’s legs felt like lead. She stood on the pedals and hammered. Then — snap! — the chain broke, the pedals went slack beneath her. She threw her bike and felt herself tumbling backwards, rag-dolling toward the precipitous cliff she had ridden by seconds before. She heard a crunch of bone, felt a sharp pain in her shoulder.
This is it, she thought, in a moment of preternatural calm. I’m going to die in the gulch. Just like him.
As she braced herself for the free-fall, she thudded something that arrested her fall. She heard a shrill yelp, felt fur against her sweaty skin. The obstacle moved, and she was looking into the glistening black eyes of a coyote. The world faded to black.
She awoke to the thunder of helicopter blades and a blast of wind. Fading in and out of consciousness, she felt herself packaged, lifted, and carried by shadows with steady voices.
“Why weren’t you wearing a helmet?” one of the shadows said.
“I…I was…” she murmured, dazed and disoriented. “It must have come off in the crash.”
The next day, in the hospital, her boyfriend, more relieved than angry, chided her gently about going for Peregrine Point.
“What were you thinking?” he said, smiling down at her.
“I don’t remember,” she said.
“The paramedics asked me to give you these,” he said, handing her a plastic bag filled with her broken helmet, glasses, and torn bike clothes they had cut away in the ER. Through the thin plastic, she saw it and froze:
A broken white bicycle chain.
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