In the cool morning John and Sarah hoist backpacks loaded with food and gear and hike up the trail. She leads, he follows. In the wilderness he will propose, will finally tame her elusiveness and bond them forever.
They follow a river canyon shaded by oak and bay. In the afternoon they reach a tributary creek, set up camp on a sandbar, and bushwhack to a hot spring. A man is there, lean and tan and grizzled, clearly long for the wilderness.
“Afternoon,” John says.
The man nods, eyeing Sarah a little too closely.
They say goodbye and hike to a waterfall cascading into a redwood grotto. They enjoy the cool mist for awhile. But John spots the man watching from behind a tree. John nudges Sarah. They hike into the forest, circle back to the hot spring, and slide into the water.
A few minutes later the man reappears and leers at Sarah. She shifts under the gaze.
“Hey,” John says. “Get lost.”
The man continues to ogle. John moves toward him. The man scurries away.
Sarah frowns, tension in her face. “What’s with that guy?”
“Just some troll.”
“What’s he want?”
She shakes her head.
“Don’t worry,” John says, scanning the forest. “He won’t bother you again.”
In the evening they build a fire and cook dinner beside the river. The sun sets, and summer twilight lingers long and slow. A red-tailed hawk screeches in the distance, eerie and wild.
Darkness envelops the canyon. John considers proposing. The ambience is perfect yet the recent weird events taint the occasion. But it’s now or never.
As John digs in his pack for the ring, shrubs rustle nearby. He shines the flashlight and spots a skunk waddling through the blackberry. He relaxes and follows it with the light until something stops him cold: human feet. He raises the beam. The man’s face squints into the light. Sarah screams. John fumbles the flashlight. By the time he recovers and gives chase, the man is gone.
John returns to camp. “We’re leaving first thing in the morning. This has gone from creepy to dangerous.”
“I know. But this place is so … intense. Raw.”
“I’m just not ready to go home,” Sarah says. “There’s so much freedom out here. No rules. It’s so wild. Isn’t that why we’re here?”
“We’re leaving in the morning.”
John falls into a fitful sleep. When he wakes sometime later, Sarah’s gone. He panics, grabs the flashlight, and searches camp. No sign of her. Heart thudding he scrambles through the darkness toward a glow near the hot spring. He reaches it and sees them in the firelight.
She appears to be struggling, but he quickly realizes she’s the aggressor, straddling the man and pinning him against the rock. There’s pleasure in her moans, piercing and wild. Like the screeching hawk from earlier.
John stands in shock. Can’t believe she chose this. He hesitates for a minute, then returns to camp, gets in his sleeping bag, and stares into the darkness. Numb. Baffled.
Sarah slinks back and crawls into her bag. John pretends to sleep. At dawn she starts breakfast. He wants to question her, but can’t comprehend what she’s done.
“I’m going for a hike,” he says.
She doesn’t ask where. He sneaks into the forest and watches her. She waits a minute, glances around, and hikes upstream. He follows.
At the hot spring she embraces the man. John fills with rage. He returns to camp. Her wild animal screams echo in the distance, louder than before, more urgent and primal and frantic. Unable to stand it, John hikes up the tributary and sits by the waterfall. The cascading water muffles her screams.
As he studies the wilderness he realizes that society is just a masquerade for human darkness, a thin veneer. Stripped down we’re all animals: kill, eat, breed.
John pulls a knife from his pack and fingers the blade. He wants to sink it into human flesh. For a moment the animal instinct rages through him: kill, eat, breed.
But reason returns. Ingrained. John puts the knife away.
He’ll go home, where animal instinct is constrained by the protocols and comfortable lies of society. He returns to camp, packs his gear, and prepares to leave. But he can’t resist one more look. Maybe she’s come to her senses, maybe there’s still a chance …
At the hot spring he finds them sprawled, intertwined, covered in blood. The man’s head is severed. Her face is gone. Bloody mountain lion tracks cover the granite. The fetid odor of carcass fills the air. Turkey vultures soar overhead.
John stares silent and fixated as a distant hawk screeches and the river rushes and the waterfall pounds and the earth turns, endless, unconstrained.
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