Saturday, March 28, 2015

Short Story: Day Hiker

Sweat dripped off of Archer Steuben’s forehead and fell to the dirt. The wind was still. The sun burned into the back of his neck. He pulled his hat farther down but made sure to keep his eyes covered. He was lost. He shouldn’t have even gone out today. The weatherman probably said something about the heat but he wasn’t listening closely enough to remember. No time to stand around, though. The only way he was going to find his way back was to continue.
A small brown bird flew quickly from a low branch to the ground. He was probably as hungry as Archer was. Why didn’t he pack extra food? He was usually more careful about things like that. He looked up ahead and saw an area crowded with trees and decided to take another break in the shade. He took out his white water bottle and drank. Before he could close it, the bottle slipped out of his hands and began spilling out water. He picked it up before losing too much but there was now a smear of mud on the tip of it. “Perfect.”
Archer wiped off the bottle, put it in his bag, and stood up to look for signs that there was a trail somewhere nearby. There was nothing so he moved on. As he walked, he thought about the previous day’s meeting. The client had told him that they no longer needed him as a consultant. They had found a larger company with more experienced employees. Archer had been in human resources for sixteen years and they didn’t think it was good enough. He asked why they couldn’t have told him on the phone instead of making him fly all the way out there. They said that they had just decided. People were always doing that to him. They never seemed bothered by his disappointment.
The trees were getting shorter and thinner now. He figured there would be something of importance ahead. There was. Several meters away, he could see a dilapidated fence; the paint chipping off. Three horses turned their heads and looked at them. One of them was a foal. Archer slowly approached them, hoping to see a barn or a farmhouse as well. People in Montana were not nice to him so far but maybe the owner would lend him a phone. After all, the only experience he had with people here was with the client.
“Stay away from my animals,” said a man standing behind the horses, evidently trying to fix another part of the fence.
“I was just wondering if I could borrow a phone from you,” Archer explained.
“I thought all you kids had them mobile phones that you can put in your pocket,” said the man.
“I do but I’m not getting a signal,” Archer said.
“I ain’t either. Now, git off my property before I git my scattergun. I know it’s around here somewhere,” the main mumbled the last few words.
Fearing the man would find his gun sooner rather than later, Archer moved back a little bit. “Okay well could you just tell me—?”
“I said git,” the man replied. He spit some sunflower seeds into the grass.
Archer turned around and headed back through the forest. Not much later, he passed out of the woods and into a field of tall grass. The sun was harder on him here but he felt less trapped. Perhaps now he’d be able to see a building or a road. He was right. Far away in the distance, he could see a one lane road slope up on a hill then disappear behind it. What was more exciting was the truck he could see parked on the side. He started running but grew tired and slowed his pace.
The truck was red and dirty. He could see a couple of dents along the side of it. One of the tires looked a little flat. As he got closer, he could see that the hatch was down and two legs were dangling over the edge. His heart beat faster. After all this, he did not want to see a dead body. Archer tip-toed towards it. Before he could see anything more, a little boy with blonde hair and a striped shirt rose from the bed. “Uncle?” the boy asked.
“What is it, boy?” said another voice.
“There’s a stranger,” the boy answered.
The man jerked his legs and sat up, peering at Archer. “Hi there,” he said. Can I help you? The name’s Jack. This is my nephew, Aaron.”
“Do you want some pizza?” the boy asked. “It has mustard in it.”
Archer hated mustard. He had never heard of it on a pizza before. On the other hand, he was so hungry. Maybe he could stomach through it just this once for survival reasons. Maybe not. “I’m not sure. Do you happen to have a cell phone on you, Jack?”
“I don’t have one of those,” Jack said. “Wish I could help.” Jack lay back down on the bed and covered his eyes with his straw hat. Aaron mimicked him.
“Well do you think later you could give me a ride to town or something? I’m kind of lost and out of food,” Archer said.
“My boy offered you some pizza. It’s still hot,” Jack said with a laugh.
“I know. I appreciate that but I would much prefer a ride,” Archer said.
“I can’t help you with that either,” Jack said. “My tire blew out.”
Before Archer could speak, Jack continued, “I don’t know my way to town anyway. We’re not from around here.”
“We is from Wyoming,” Aaron said excitedly.
Archer didn’t know what to say. These two appeared to be in a similar situation as he was but they were just sitting there. He was afraid to ask about it so he didn’t. Instead he turned around and left saying, “okay…thanks anyway.”
Archer walked along the road for hours. It had begun to cool a little and become darker. It would be nighttime soon. He would need to find a place for camp and wait until morning. He went back into the woods a few meters and found a nice soft spot on top of some leaves. Nearby, he found some red berries and picked them off to eat. It reminded him of movies where the protagonist always manages to find something edible when it was absolutely necessary.
After he was somewhat full, Archer walked around the area to find sticks for firewood. Surprisingly, there weren’t many sticks on the ground. He ended up having to break some off the trees, knowing that they would be difficult to light. It was getting much colder. The temperature had decreased dramatically in the last half hour. Archer dropped the bundle of sticks on the ground and began setting them up in a teepee. About halfway through the task, he stopped and knocked them over. He didn’t know how to start a fire. He had been taking day hikes all his life but never bothered to learn how to camp overnight. If he made it out of this alive, he’d learn a thing or two so nothing like this would happen to him again. It was getting darker and cooler.
Archer was wrong about wanting to sleep on the layer of leaves. It would be too cold. It was best to build a make-shift tent against a large tree. He stood back up and looked for more sticks; larger ones. This time, it didn’t matter whether they were dead or not. After another fifteen minutes, he had enough. He began working on the shelter. He started by leaning larger branches against the tree and filled in the gaps with smaller ones. He then filled in those gaps with dried leaves; something he had no trouble finding. When he was all finished with the shelter, he crawled under it and pulled in his backpack to use as a pillow. It was even cooler now.
That night, he had a dream. He was standing in a small conference room with a long table that took up most of the space. He could barely squeeze behind the chairs to get to what he figured was his spot at the end. Immediately after sitting down, his boss appeared across from him. What did you think would happen there, Mr. Archer?” she asked.
“My name is Mr. Steuben. My first name is Archer,” he explained.
“What did you think would happen there, Mr. Archer?” she asked again. She sounded like a pre-recording, set to react to particular answers and to repeat when it was the wrong answer.
Archer felt numb. It began in his fingers and toes and then spread over the rest of his body, leaving only his head. “I didn’t think the clients would drop; especially not now that I’ve done so much for them,” he said.
“What did you do?” she asked.
“I’ve been working for them for two years. Their employees are happy. I’m saving them money,” he said.
“What did you actually do?” she asked.
“I made them surveys like always,” he said. “The nurses filled them out and I consulted the employers about how to better the work environment. They did everything I said. It’s cleaner. They have fewer hours if that’s what they want and more if they need it.” Archer was growing angry and becoming more lucid. He was aware that it was a dream but did not leave. It might be useful for him to run this scenario in his head before he goes back to the office in two days and has to explain.
“This was your biggest client,” she said. “In fact it was the company’s biggest client. You cost us a lot.”
That was completely untrue. It was a small hospital in Montana. They had plenty of other clients to worry about. “I’m sorry. I’ll work harder,” he said. “I still think I deserve a raise. I’ve been working at the company for sixteen years. I’m better than anyone else there.”
“I beg to differ. Why just the other day, Mark emailed me a box of cookies,” she said with a smile.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” he said. How can you send someone cookies through a computer? This was getting far too bizarre for him. He needed to find a way out. Archer stood up from the chair and pushed his way back to the door.
“You look lost,” his boss said. “Maybe you’d like some mustard pizza while you wait for the sun to come back up.”
This made Archer feel hungry. He kept going around the table and opened the door that was supposed to lead to the break room. Instead it was another conference room. He turned back and his boss was gone. In her place was the client that dropped him the day before.
“We’re sorry to inform you that your status has been changed to terminated,” the client said with a scowl. “Please press Execute now.”
“What are you talking about?” Archer asked.
“Lower your eyes and look south,” instructed the client.
“Look where? Wait, what?” Archer asked; more confused than he had been out in the real world.
“Where are we?” asked the client. With that, he slammed his fists on the table and a sharp pain shot through Archer’s chest.
Archer woke up. It was still dark but obviously morning. Half of his shelter had fallen to the ground. One large branch was on top of him. He removed it with a grunt and slid out from under what branches still remained standing. “That was a weird dream,” he said aloud. He didn’t normally talk to himself. Maybe he was going crazy. Maybe he was just dehydrated. He looked down by the small pile of sticks that were the beginnings of a fire. His bottle was still there from the night before when he angrily tossed it down; having just taken the last drop. He needed to find some water.
He continued walking on the road, figuring it was the best way back to town. An hour later, he discovered that he was wrong. Up ahead there was a yellow sign that said “Road Ends”. He couldn’t understand why. What was the point of a road going down here if it didn’t have anywhere to turn off and just stopped like that? Upon a closer look, he could see that it backed into the woods. There was nothing he could do but go back in and hope to meet the road again farther down. He drew a deep breath and sighed before moving on, feeling more and more lost every minute.
As he walked, he thought more about the dream he had the night before. It was peculiar but so realistic. Something like that, without all the shape-shifting and claims of email cookies, could happen. The client that dropped him was not the most important but he was also not insignificant. A few hours passed and Archer had to make several stops to rest. He was no longer sweating and felt even hotter. The trees provided him with less shade than he thought they would. He also kept looking at his own shadow. He felt it was more important that just a shadow; as if he were supposed to use it for something.
Finally, he heard a sound. It was a rumbling up in the distance. Something was moving but not coming toward or going away from him. He mustered up what little energy he had left and sprinted forward. It was a beautiful roaring river. He would have settled for a still and warm lake but this was much better. He fell to his knees and scooped some up in his palms then decided to just shove his face in it.
He was still hungry but at least he was hydrated. Hopefully, there were no diseases in the river. There’s no telling what animals or humans put into it upstream. After a long rest, he stood up and noticed a clearing on the other side. It was a trail. It might not have been the same trail he was walking before but it surely led somewhere. He climbed onto a small boulder and looked around. He could see neither bridges nor any safer points to cross. The water was rolling fairly quickly. He’d have thought that it would be calmer in this heat but assumed it had rained a couple days before he arrived.
“I suppose I only have one choice,” he spoke aloud again. He rolled up his pant legs and took off his shoes and socks. Careful not to slip, he stepped into the water. It was cold. It was colder now that he was hydrated and the heat no longer affected him like it did just a few moments ago. He gasped but did not stop. He was in the middle of the river when he lost his balance and fell. His shoes flew out of his hands and disappeared from sight. The current took him farther down the stream. He could not stop himself as he hit his legs and arms against sharp rocks. The water showed no signs of slowing down either. Archer struggled to take off his backpack which seemed to be more in control of where his body went. He turned around so his head was no longer facing forward. It wouldn’t be as bad if his feet hit something forcefully.
As quickly as it had begun, it was over. Archer found himself clinging to a boulder on the side of the river. He pulled himself up and out and back into safety. He stayed on his back to catch his breath and thank God for his life; automatically reciting Psalm 23 in his head. Then he remembered the shadow. The sun does not just rise in the east. In the Northern Hemisphere, it appears southeast. That means his shadow was always pointing north. With that information, he could find his way back to town. He knocked himself against the head; frustrated that he did not think of that before. He lifted his eyes and looked to the sun. It was like a beacon over his destination.
Archer stood up once again and shook some water off his clothes. He was soaking wet but was warmed by the sun. He delicately walked over the rocks on the bank then walked more briskly on the dirt. They were starting to blister but he didn’t care. He knew that he’d be able to buy new shoes and put some moleskin or duct taped on his soles. He went along the river as far as he could then took one last drink before it veered off deeper into the woods.

Several hours later, Archer reached the road again. It was almost evening again but his clothes were now dry. There was just enough light left so that he could see the silhouettes of small buildings in the distance. He wasn’t certain it was the same town from which he left but he was happy to see it. Archer was now hungry and thirsty again. He was also getting colder. His shoes were gone as well as his belongings but he was no longer lost, at least not physically so. Most importantly, he was alive.

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