“I’m freezing, let’s head back to the car.” I pointed across the field to the interpretive sign along the road where we’d parked. Winter was encroaching. The unshorn grass stood up straight and bone white except where deer paths were scratched out. Caleb and I walked a trail inscribing a green snake into the island’s cliff, hardly wide enough for single file. On one side lay prairie — the parade fields of a two-century old military outpost — on the other, open ocean pummeling rocks to polishing grit a hundred feet below. The view down was disturbingly magnetic.
“It must have been lonely, soldiering here. I mean, this place is remote now, but back then it must have felt like being banished.” Caleb’s words were snatched by wind, then frozen and dashed to the rocks below.
“To think, we came up here to get away,” I said, hunching inward. “Really, let’s go back to cabin. Even my bones are cold.”
“But these guys couldn’t leave,” Caleb continued. “No booze, no women, no war to keep them distracted. No way out. Except for offing yourself, I guess.” The sign at the beginning of the trail, described how the soldiers — stationed on this exposed outcrop to sight an enemy who never arrived — died anyway, by disease, accidents, drunken duels and a surprising number of suicides. Stories told of men in deep winter, their sanity moldered away, who walked across the prairie to the cliffs and simply disappeared. Superstition enveloped the place. And as soon as the immediate threat was past, the army quietly withdrew, leaving an officer’s house and graveyard full of drink and dysentery victims.
“But we can leave. And we have booze. And women.” I bumped him suggestively with my hip and tucked my icy fingers farther up my sleeves.
Caleb draped his arm around me, but it was too little warmth, now that little shivers worked to warm me where my jacket had failed.
“All right, can you survive the trail or you ready to just make a run for it?” he asked.
“Run,” I said. “Running is warm.”
We strode across the knee-high grass, following a sketch of a trail that quickly rubbed itself out. The ground was uneven, marshy in places so it sucked at our shoes, with rises and hollows obscured by grass growing in odd directions. We walked, hauling our knees up to our waists and placing them like storks with each step, laughing.
“The trail would have been easier,” Caleb chided.
“I’m afraid I’m going to step on something, an animal. A snake, maybe. Do you think there are snakes out here?”
“Sssssssssss — ”
Caleb goosed me from behind and I shrieked. I tried to run, to escape his cold fingers slipping beneath my coat, and tripped. My hands thrust out to catch myself and before I even touched ground, I braced for soggy knees, annoying but manageable. I had other jeans to change into.
But my hands touched nothing.
My face struck grass, something with a thistle on it, but my arms extended downward into air, as if the cliff opened up beneath me and I was clinging by the point of my chin. A scream huddled in my head, too frightened to make it out my mouth.
Caleb’s hand pulled me up until I knelt in the mud.
“You fell real hard. You okay?” Caleb knelt in front of me and wiped my cheek with his sleeve.“You’re bleeding,” he said.
“There’s a hole!” I tried to drag him toward me, away from the hole my hands had fallen into.
“Woah, Lauren, there’s nothing there. It’s mud.”
I looked and he was right. Mud, matted grass and a thorny dandelion were all that was there. I could even see my own handprints, where my palms had impressed the ground.
“There was a hole. I felt it. I mean, I didn’t feel anything because it was a hole.” I could visualize it now, it was a man-sized hole, its sides slick with mud that went all the way down. I didn’t know where it went, but I knew it was all the way.
“You must be really cold,” Caleb said, concerned now. “Sometimes hypothermia sufferers hallucinate. Let’s get you to the car and crank the heat, okay?”
He hauled me to my feet and steered me toward the car. My feet squished in my shoes and I felt my own body vibrating in his arms. Maybe I was too cold to be rational, was that possible? Didn’t hypothermics also want to take off all their clothes and fall asleep, or was that just some high school joke? I couldn’t remember.
“Keep going, Laur, we’re almost there. I’m going to warm up the car for you. Can you walk on your own a while?”
He started trotting toward the car and I looked at my hands, white with cold. I turned one then the other. They were clean. No mud, not even beneath my nails.
“Stop,” I said. He was four, then five, steps ahead of me. He was pulling his keys from his pocket as he moved. He was almost to the road.
“Stop,” I yelled. “There are holes. Watch out!” I stood on a high rise of grass and, as if the ground were digesting, I felt a shift beneath my feet. Even the grass tilted.
Caleb called back to me, “Keep moving, you’re almost there.” At least, that was what I figured he’d been planning to say. All he got out was, “Keep mov –.” And he was gone. Like a child down the tunnel slide, like an oyster slurped down the gullet, all the way down.
During the day, Christie Isler teaches ten-year-olds to be brilliant and run the world properly, then writes poetry and short fiction around the edges. To date, she has published several pieces, both poetry and short fiction, in a variety of online journals including Shoots & Vines, The New Flesh, Identity Theory, Infinite Windows, tinfoildresses, Bolts of Silk, Four and Twenty, Every Day Poets and Every Day Fiction. Christie makes her physical home outside of Seattle, Washington and her online home at thetriptakesyou.wordpress.com.