When they came to the pine trees bracing up against the spine of the ridge, Tom and Laura stopped. They had been walking for what they thought was the past half-hour, judging by the exhaustion of their bodies.
Laura glanced at her phone to check the time. “Crap,” she said.
Tom, bent over and wheezing, asked, “What?”
“We haven’t been out here for more than ten fricking minutes.”
Tom let out a sigh that sounded to Laura more like a drawn-out scream of frustration.
“Hey,” she said, “don’t worry. We can rest here for as long as you want.”
So they waited. Laura scanned the clouds building up in the southeast, clouds that to her from their whiteness seemed like sheets. The forecast had called for rain later in the afternoon, but Laura doubted it would ever come. The clouds continued to climb in the sky, level by level. Their tops turned gray, too. A dark gray.
Tom put his back up against the trunk of one of the pine trees. He reached out to a branch and snatched a few needles from it to play with in his hands. One of the needles stabbed his right palm, and Tom spent a solid minute wincing and wringing his hands while all the same trying to make sure Laura did not see him act like this. Tom did not believe the afternoon would turn out as well as he had hoped.
But this is her idea, her wish, he thought, looking down at Laura, who by now was crouching near the ridge’s edge. This is the way the game of people is played. You score points by doing crap they want to do. Not by doing what you want. Always them. Always. Tom was scowling.
Laura rose. She had sweat smeared over her forehead. “You ready to get going again?” she asked, not turning to face Tom.
“Yeah.” This one word came out as a whisper.
For a moment, Tom considered the precariousness of Laura’s position. From his guesstimate, Tom would say the distance from the ridge to the nearest ground would be a sixty foot drop. More than enough to kill her, he thought. When he was younger, he had done research on the subject. He still had scars from that time.
“What’d you say?” This time, Laura turned to face him.
“Oh. Okay.” Laura strode back onto the trail, her hands swinging at her sides. Tom wondered why she didn’t wipe the sweat from her forehead.
Throwing the bunch of pine needles that had been in his hands back to the ground, Tom hurried to join Laura. Within the first minute of walking again, he felt a stitch searing up through his chest.
“You know,” Laura said, walking a few feet ahead of Tom so that her shadow shaded his head, “they should really put up some guard rails along here.”
“Someone could fall.”
“Yeah. Someone could die.”
“Thanks for reminding me.”
“What?” Laura turned just enough to face Tom, but the awkwardness of her stance made her feet trip over a gnarled root shooting out of one of the pine trees to her right. Laura stumbled backwards, regained her balance for a moment by flailing her arms about, and then grabbed hold of a pine tree’s trunk. In the seconds afterward, she couldn’t stop laughing.
“What’s so funny?” Tom asked, halting before her. “You could’ve–“
“I’m so mad you didn’t have your phone out to record that,” she said. “That was so freaking hilarious.”
“Yeah . . . I mean, didn’t you think so?”
Tom’s lips contorted themselves into a curt smile. “Now that I think about it,” he said. “That was pretty awesome. You should . . . you should do it again. But better.”