Staff Sergeant Fitzpatrick tried to hold the memory, his eyes moving from the menu to his fiancée, to a rusty freight passing through the outskirts of Marathon, dotted with trailer parks and cement factories, into the Chihuahuan Desert. Overhead, the late-morning sun heated a corrugated tin roof, supported at the corners by twisting columns of mesquite. In the distance the train clicked lazily through a crossroads, bell clanging, the sound of steel on steel taking its time to echo and reach the little café where Fitzpatrick and his fiancée, Sadie, sat at a table on the flagstone veranda.
“I’ll have the chicken enchiladas,” he said.
The waitress nodded at him. He should have gotten a salad, had put on a few pounds since his days playing high school ball, but what the hell. Sadie, more beautiful than he was handsome, remained absorbed in the menu.
“I think I need another minute,” she said. “Sorry.”
After the waitress left, Sadie set down the menu and sighed in exasperation. “I never know what I want. What’s wrong with me?”
“Nothing,” Fitzpatrick said. “Take your time.” He watched her study the selections intently, as if what she ate for lunch today might actually make a difference in the grand scheme, wondering about the contrast between the morbidity with which she regarded this decision, and the spontaneous, joyful proposal she had made a month ago, after only knowing him for the winter.
“Okay.” She folded the menu as the long train receded over the horizon, becoming inaudible. A ratty mockingbird landed nearby and approached their table, turning its head from side to side, strutting with avian confidence. Soon the waitress returned.
“I’ll have a fajita salad and a beer,” Sadie said. “You want a beer?”
“Sure,” Fitzpatrick said. “I’ll have a beer.”
They ate, finished their first round, and ordered another. The waitress popped the tops with an opener from her apron and set the bottles on the table. An SUV, one of the newer, hybrid models, mountain bikes racked in tow, passed on the road and pulled into the dusty lot beside the café. The doors opened and a couple got out. Fitzpatrick chewed his final enchilada and washed it down, observing the approaching twenty-somethings. The driver was a thin guy wearing a large red beard and a stocking cap; his passenger, a woman with pale skin, a bob haircut, and a stud through her nose. They claimed the other table on the veranda. Sadie glanced over while continuing the conversation.
“I’m thinking of hiring my cousin for the photography,” she said. “Or is that a bad idea?”
“Her stuff online was good. Maybe she’ll give us a deal.”
Sadie nodded and made a note in her planner. The waitress arrived to take the newcomers’ order. The mockingbird followed her to the threshold, and she shooed it off when she returned with the drinks.
The tables of sun-bleached wood were large and close. As they drank and talked, Fitzpatrick overheard the guy with the red beard ask after the pierced girl’s brother. What caught his attention was the mention of boot camp.
“I don’t hear from him too much,” the girl said. “He never was much of a writer. They’ve only given them phone time once or twice so far. But yeah, I can tell he’s already turning into a real jarhead. The last letter he wrote, he mostly bragged about how many pushups he can do now.”
There was sarcasm and resignation in her voice, a mix of lament and attack. She sounded like she regretted everything she was saying immediately after saying it. “I hope he doesn’t make it through. For his own sake. Jesus. Dumb kid—some people need saving from themselves.”
Fitzpatrick and Sadie made eye contact. He grinned, a funny half-sneer he sometimes made, then squinted at a far-off point in the desert. With a look of beautiful ferocity, she tilted back her second beer and finished it.
He nodded and got the waitress’s attention. They split the check and walked past the other table to the parking lot. He started his jeep and pulled onto the road. Sadie frowned out the window at the veranda, the transmission eased into second, and they passed out of view of the café. Fitzpatrick turned on the radio. She turned it down.
“I hate that you have to go back there,” she said, “and they get to sit around and play armchair quarterback. Never making one sacrifice for all this.”
“You don’t know that,” he said.
“Whatever. They’re hypocrites.”
“Why are you always taking other people’s sides?”
“Because, you’re being unreasonable. Can you please buckle your seatbelt?”
She scrunched up her face, changed her voice and did her best impersonation of the pierced woman. “Jesus. Stupid kid. Some people need to learn the art of sniping irony. Some people need a Xanax lobotomy. Some need to be spayed or neutered for their own protection.” She dropped the act, reached behind her, and buckled her seatbelt. “I’d rather be unreasonable than a pretentious bitch.”
* * *
An hour later they passed through the gates of Big Bend National Park. The beer buzz from lunch had turned into a mild headache, dry mouth, a general feeling of dehydration. Over the course of the hour Sadie had not let the argument drop, going silent for a while only to begin again with complaints about their narcissistic, callow, ungrateful generation—the worst yet, she claimed. Fitzpatrick agreed people were generally self-centered to the point of being evil—take the Stanford Prison Experiment, for example, or the one where the researchers had little difficulty convincing subjects to administer what they believed were lethal electric shocks to fellow human guinea pigs—in the name of science, of course. But he doubted our nature had been getting much worse over time.
“Look at the Assyrians,” he said. “They used to skin and boil their enemies alive.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“All I’m saying is, it’s not that things aren’t bad now. But at least they’re less brutal.”
Sadie laughed like she felt sorry for him. “And you say this, a twenty-six-year-old about to go fight your second war. Will you at least admit maybe you’re wrong? Maybe things are worse.”
“Maybe. But I’ve only seen what I’ve seen. And I’ve never seen anyone skinned alive.”
She shook her head and watched out the window as the road took a long curve. Thirty miles in the distance, the clustered, towering spires of the Chisos came into view, a fractured volcano rising in a hazy plain. The intermediary landscape was possessed with the stark majesty of vast, empty places. Fitzpatrick found it beautiful but also troubling, a landscape composed mostly of nothing.
They passed through the badlands of the park, the road snaking by sandy washes and ragged arroyos. The car hummed along and blew cool air on them. Ocotillo plants rose from the earth like inverted brooms, growing in clumps alongside the occasional yucca, cousin to the pineapple, fitted with a rosette like a crown of waxy knives. Neither plant was much taller than a person and would provide no shade. It was spring, but even so, crossing this desert in the heat of the day would be a task he would not wish on anyone. There would be no resupply of water for twenty miles. In an earlier time the prospect of the arduous crossing would necessitate a long detour through chains of mountains encircling the plain on either horizon. As it was, the car made the direct route effortless.
* * *
Arriving in the basin a thousand feet above the plain, surrounded by peaks and ridges, they bought iced tea at the general store near the visitor’s center. Leaving the car for a new place lightened the mood, and the earlier argument was dropped. They sat on a bench in front of the store, sipped their drinks and watched a school group dressed in neon being shepherded into an exhibit on desert wildlife. A stuffed mountain lion perpetually snarled through the plate glass behind them. After stretching their legs, they checked in, got the key to their room, and drove around the cul-de-sac, scanning the ring of lodges for their number. They parked nearby and began unloading the car.
“All right, there’s a grill,” Fitzpatrick said.
“I told you there would be.”
In their room they set to work putting away their stuff.
“What do you think about going to the hot springs? Then we could check out Terlingua and get some dinner. It’s a ghost town—a tourist trap, really. But charming in a kitschy sort of way.”
He said that sounded fine, and they dressed in swimsuits, massaged sunscreen into each other’s backs, and took off down the blacktop out of the basin. They descended to the desert floor and followed a gravel road to the trailhead set in a grove of cottonwoods. From there it was a short hike to the river, passing stone buildings abandoned a century before, once a health spa run by a German immigrant until Pancho Villa killed the tourist trade. Tamarisk trees with bright green leaves bobbed in a light wind, and Fitzpatrick remarked on an enormous stand of palms growing in a tight circle. He and Sadie followed the rocky trail, the Rio Grande to their right, a sandstone cliff to their left. The cliff overhung the trail and was dotted near the top by insect-like constructions, the mud nests of an unseen flock of swallows. Before long they reached the hot springs, a single pool twenty feet in diameter, built into the riverbank with stones and cement.
In the pool sat a balding man in his forties, strapping, sunburned, with a gap-tooth. Beside him, his wife, who had a face like Miss America. They drank from a magnum of red wine, raising plastic flutes to lips stained brown and purple. Their two boys, who looked to be identical, blond twins, waded in the river below the pool. Fitzpatrick and Sadie set down their gear, removed T-shirts, and kicked off their shoes.
“Look, Dad, he’s doing it again!” One of the twins pointed at his brother, who had crossed the international boundary and climbed the opposing bank, peering into a dense, jungle-like mass of cane, giant reeds topped with white flowers.
“Boy, get back in that river,” the man called, setting down his drink. “Ranger’ll lock your ass up.” The boy crowed and splashed back into the water, rejoining his brother in the geopolitically liminal shallows. “Shoot,” the man said, shaking his head at Sadie in an indirect, western greeting, a mix of wariness and affection.
She and Fitzpatrick eased into the pool. A slight steam came off its surface, smelling of sulfur. Fitzpatrick lay back, submerging all but his buzzed head, which he rested on the side of the pool. He dug his fingers into the soft, black sediment on the bottom, taking up handfuls of the stinking mud and dripping the warmth on his chest. Then he sat up and turned to look over the edge. A cut in the retaining wall funneled the constant outflow of the springs down a little channel, making a waterfall into the Rio Grande. He straddled the wall and climbed over, careful not to slip on rocks overgrown with algae. He sat in the middle of the waterfall and watched the twins play, enjoying the incongruousness of hot and cold, the springs cascading off his back, his feet dangling in the river. Sadie poked her head over the side.
“Dare me to run to Mexico,” he said.
He stood on the mossy rock and took a low dive into a hole near the bank, stroking perpendicular to the current until it became too shallow to swim. He picked his way over the polished rocks onto the Mexican side, stood there for a moment, crossed his arms and looked with ironic pride at Sadie, challenging her to something more. The twins made clucking, whooping noises.
After he swam back to the United States, they gathered their things and hiked to the trailhead. They changed in a facility and made the drive to Terlingua, where they sat on a creaking porch of grey planks and watched the horizon as the sunset overtopped mushrooming thunderheads. Later they ate chicken-fried steak inside someone’s idea of an old-time saloon, while locals played sad country songs. Full of drink and dinner, they made out in the parking lot, pressed against his jeep. By the time they returned to their lodge the moon had risen over the Chisos Basin. Fitzpatrick piloted the car into an empty space. Beside them was the SUV from lunch.
“Look,” he said.
“Great. You sure it’s the same one?”
“Unless someone else has a ‘Born Again Pagan’ bumper sticker.”
* * *
They woke early the next morning and did it again before showering and eating breakfast. He was in great spirits, cooing to her, pinching her ass when she turned her back. They did the dishes together, packed lunch, and headed out. The plan was to hike to the Window. The trail began in the basin near the cul-de-sac of lodges and traversed a steep, exposed slope covered in patches of blind prickly pear and allthorn like living barbed wire. The century plants were Fitzpatrick’s favorite.
“They only bloom once,” Sadie said. She stopped to point out one whose giant stamen had emerged from the center of low-slung agave leaves. Buds like cauliflower sprouted laterally from the upper reaches of the stalk, twenty feet in the air. Sadie explained how after blooming and scattering its seed, the plant browned and died but did not wilt, its fibrous skeleton standing as evidence of a final, reproductive effort, the simultaneous transformations of sex and death. The slope was dotted with any number of these brittle corpses.
Fitzpatrick photographed one of the larger ones from several different angles. Hearing someone approach on the trail, he stopped, and the family from the hot springs, absent the mother, passed going the other way. Fitzpatrick said hello and asked the man if he would mind taking a picture of himself and Sadie. His twin sons running amok, the man finally snapped the picture after fiddling with the camera, and at the same time his boys succeeded in toppling the century plant Fitzpatrick had just photographed. It might have been standing there a decade or more, longer than the boys had been alive, a fact their father pointed out while scolding them as they went on their way. Fitzpatrick felt a short-lived but powerful swell of hate after the dead plant fell, hatred of people, generally, their destructive urges, but kept his mouth shut and channeled it into motion on the descent of the hillside.
They moved fast and had gotten in a good workout by the time the trail leveled-off near the bottom of the basin, running beside a dry creek bed shaded with oak and juniper. The air was still at the bottom. Sadie led. Far above, fang-like peaks were joined by panoramic battlements of igneous rock. Dark stains on the mountainside marked the path of dry waterfalls. Near the trail, a boulder as big as a house had fractured off Emory Peak during the last ice age and tumbled to rest in the lowest point of the basin. The final quarter mile, they walked over the slickrock canyon, the soil eroded to reveal scalloped stone polished to a waxy sheen.
The canyon grew deeper and narrower until they rounded a bend and were confronted with the Window, a rectangular notch in the rim of the basin. Through this aperture one could see fifty miles and a thousand feet down, wind and air.
“Dare you to fly to Mexico,” Sadie said.
Fitzpatrick looked at her.
“Hey,” she said. “Kidding.” She walked closer to the edge. “Isn’t it something?”
He grunted in agreement and sat down, catching his breath, leaning against the canyon wall to unpack lunch. The slickrock was cool and pleasant to the touch, and the view was amazing, but as he ate he kept imagining a wall of water bearing down on them through the narrow canyon, descending past the low-point boulder in a rush of flash flood, ending in a column of whitewater jetting through the Window like a colossal rainspout. The fall would be long and terrifying. He ate his sandwich and tried not to look bothered; it was a stupid thought. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
* * *
That evening they fired up the grill in front of their lodge. In a cooler they’d brought steaks, beer, and the makings of potato salad. Fitzpatrick cracked a beer after washing his hands of the rub he had patted into the meat: olive oil, black pepper, and truffle salt. He was lighting the charcoal when the SUV pulled into a nearby space. The man with the red beard smiled graciously and approached the grill. His female companion went the opposite way and disappeared inside their room. Fitzpatrick didn’t realize it, but he was scowling nervously. The man nodded at the burning coals and introduced himself as Vern.
“Richard.” Fitzpatrick extended his hand, and the two shook. “I think we crossed paths in Marathon, the other day.”
“Right, right. Small world. But I guess most people who stop there are headed here. How many are you cooking for?”
“Two,” Fitzpatrick said.
“You mind if we share the grill? Doesn’t look like there’s another one nearby. We can contribute coals.”
* * *
Vern took a sip of the beer Fitzpatrick had given him and slid his spatula under a soy burger, laying it on the grill opposite steaks that sizzled and dripped trails of liquid flame. He did the same with a ground beef patty for his girlfriend, Liz, who sat watching from the steps to their lodge.
“Smells great,” he said. Liz rose and ambled over to mix herself another drink from the bottles of bourbon and Coke sweating on a nearby picnic table. The sun had just finished setting. An aircraft moved overhead in twilight, blinking near Mars above the rim of the basin.
“Good stars tonight,” Fitzpatrick said.
Liz agreed and moved beside Vern at the grill. Sadie came out of the lodge holding a battery-powered lantern which she set on the picnic table, taking up the beer she’d left, shooting a glance at Fitzpatrick. He could tell she wasn’t happy about sharing the space, although nothing had been said. He finished his third of the evening, crumpled the empty can, and tossed it in the bin chained to the grill. Watery blood began to rise from the tops of the steaks, and he flipped them.
“Those look good,” Liz said, frowning a little. “We should’ve done steak.”
* * *
The Milky Way stretched across the black sky like a smear of bioluminescence. Empty plates and beer cans littered the picnic table where the two couples sat and watched moths feverishly batter the cool blue lantern. The level in the bourbon bottle had dropped by half, accelerating its decline after Fitzpatrick switched from beer at Liz’s invitation. Sadie sat between them. She had not said much over the course of the evening. The talk ranged from the idiosyncrasies of Texans to the best brand of mobile phone, to favorite books and movies, to how much they all looked forward to trips like these. Lately it had died down and they drank silently, watching the stars and listening to the wind in the desert, the dark flutter of bats preying overhead.
* * *
In addition to her brother in the marines, Liz had a father who was retired navy. She’d guessed Fitzpatrick was military by the security decal on his windshield: “DOD,” a bar code, a serial number. Then came the usual questions—where had he been stationed, for how long, and what was it like?
Then, “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?”
Fitzpatrick said no, drawing the word out in polite cautiousness, beginning to guess what might be coming. He experienced a twinge of déjà vu; something like this had happened several times before, but never with such a casual acquaintance. Blame the booze. He crunched an ice cube between his teeth and resigned himself to being a natural curiosity.
“Did you ever, you know… kill anyone?” she said. “Over there.”
Sadie let out an incredulous hiss.
“Yeah,” Vern said, rising to his feet. “I don’t really—”
“It’s okay,” Fitzpatrick said. “I don’t mind.”
* * *
He awoke the next morning trying to piece together the fight that had erupted after he and Sadie had left the picnic table for their lodge. She had wanted to know why he had answered that horrible woman—he’d never even told her that. Fitzpatrick said she had never asked and he would tell her whatever she wanted to know.
“I don’t need to know the details,” she said, shutting and locking the bedroom door. He asked her to open it but she wouldn’t. Soon he heard her running a bath, and was too tired to carry it any further. That was about how it had gone.
The morning light shining through the kitchen blinds hurt his eyes, and he itched himself, worn springs sighing below his bulk as he shifted on the unfamiliar sofa. A blanket lay mussed around the cushions. It hadn’t been there before; during the night she must have come out of the bedroom to cover him. He wondered why she didn’t want to know, whether he had done wrong by answering.
He thought about the story he didn’t tell them after answering Liz’s question with a simple “yes.” He didn’t volunteer any more than that, and neither Liz nor any of the others had the balls or the desire to ask further. The party had broken up soon after. But if they would’ve asked, he would’ve told. Told them of another morning patrol on a four-lane highway north of Baghdad, every klick of it by now familiar. His platoon clearing the road for a supply convoy due in a few hours. They drove slowly past donkey carts laden with plastic jugs of gasoline, crumbling tenements painted blue and white, rocky fields dotted with squatters’ shacks of mud sculpted over empty tins of vegetable oil. Through a palm grove and across an irrigation canal smelling of sewage, and they came upon a man walking the side of the road, trailing an AK-47, its barrel dragging in the dust.
The man was not wearing any uniform and went barefoot, dressed in brown slacks and a collared shirt left half-untucked, yellow stains in the armpits. He paid no attention to the grating rumble of vehicles suddenly trailing him. The barrel of his rifle clattered over the dusty asphalt in a snaking trail. Fitzpatrick got on the platoon net and ordered the other two trucks to block the road while he and his wingman followed at a distance. He switched up to battalion, reported their location, a sit-rep, and asked for guidance. The order came down to disarm the Iraqi.
They halted and dismounted, all but the drivers, and the two gunners who watched down their sights as the trucks crept along.
“Tell him to stop,” Fitzpatrick said to the interpreter.
Abdul-Azeem, tall and thin, shouted with gusto over the noise of traffic slowing to gawk in the opposite lanes: “Oguff!”
The man with the rifle continued down the shoulder of the highway, his back to them. He began to babble a stream of Arabic which Fitzpatrick could not understand, but which struck him as different from the cadences he had become familiar with after five months in country.
“What’s he saying?” he asked.
“He is crazy,” Abdul-Azeem said, his tone disinterested in the way of someone who’s seen it all and wants you to know he’s not afraid, not even of this. “Maybe he is drunk. Whatever. What he says is shit.”
“Can you understand anything?”
The interpreter listened for a moment as they trailed at a cautious distance. Fitzpatrick kept his rifle low and ready, buttstock in his shoulder, the muzzle pointed at the ground between them.
“He is talking to God,” Abdul-Azeem said. “Asking for forgiveness, but it is not the way a Muslim should pray. It is a… what is it, the opposite?”
“Yes,” he said. “Blastphemy.”
“Tell him again to stop,” Fitzpatrick said.
The interpreter uttered more threats, and this time the man did stop. He knelt and touched his head to the ground benevolently. He did not release hold of the rifle. Then, in one deliberate motion, he spun and began to lift it. Barely hesitating, Fitzpatrick shot him twice in the gut.
The man bled in the humvee as they sped to the aid station. Until very near the end he cried vigorously. The gunner lost it and began to kick at him and shout for him to shut the hell up. Fitzpatrick turned in his seat as much as his body armor would allow and said he would court martial him if he didn’t stop, and the gunner cursed some more but stopped. The medic rode along and did what he could, starting an IV, applying pressure, but the suicide-by-cop—how Fitzpatrick had come to think of the man over the years—went into shock. When they dragged his corpse from the truck his olive skin was grey and his pupils dilated, frozen open in fear at the moment of death.
* * *
That morning it was like the argument had never happened. They didn’t speak of it, though an undercurrent of tension lingered in their conciliatory lovemaking, in the overeager way they clung to each other. Afterwards they showered and dressed, and he cooked bacon and egg sandwiches. It was the final day of the trip, and though neither was feeling great, they decided it would be a shame to let the opportunity go, and they went ahead with their plan to hike the Lost Mine Trail. Sadie studied the guidebook at the dining table.
“Listen to this,” she said, reading aloud. “‘Supposedly, at certain times of the year, the rising sun shines on Lost Mine Peak, marking the entrance to a rich mine developed by the old Spaniards.’”
“There’s no gold in them hills,” Fitzpatrick said, bringing their sandwiches and glasses of orange juice to the table. “The Spanish found out the hard way.”
“This is why it’s a legend. Anyway, it’s supposed to have some of the park’s best views.”
They ate, drank coffee and water to ease their headaches, and packed a lunch for the trail. On the way out of the lodge they ran into Vern and Liz loading their SUV.
“You guys outta here?” Fitzpatrick asked.
“Back to the grind, brother,” Vern said.
Fitzpatrick made a joke about his grinding hangover, which did a little to ease the awkwardness of the morning after. Liz came forward and said goodbye; she needed to go inside and finish with her suitcase. She waved to Sadie and shook Fitzpatrick’s hand, touching his shoulder.
“Thank you for your service,” she said.
He never knew what to say when people did it like this, ghoulish and self-absolving.
“Don’t thank me, thank my recruiter.”
* * *
They left the trailhead and ascended a rocky path through a forest of juniper, oak and piñon pine. At about a mile the path reached a saddle above a canyon. They stopped to take in the view, looking far into Mexico. Casa Grande Peak stood to the southwest like a rotten molar, its jagged sides dropping sharply into fields of scree and talus broken by patches of clinging scrub. Gradations in brown and red revealed the location of past rockslides, the forces conspiring to shape this frozen landscape. They didn’t speak. It was strange. This place was once the bottom of a great ocean.
After the saddle the going became steeper. They climbed a series of switchbacks maintained by terraces of split logs. The last few switchbacks were very steep, treacherous sections made of steps carved in the rock. Fitzpatrick followed, breathing heavily, struggling to keep up. The portion of his shirt covered by the pack was damp with perspiration but the sweat evaporated from uncovered skin before he could feel it. Finally the switchbacks ended and they emerged above the treeline to the flat rock of the ridge, exposed more than a mile above sea level. The wind, which had been a mere breeze in the canyon below, became much stronger, and at times he had to hold one hand to his head to keep a particularly forceful gust from lifting the brim of his canvas hat and carrying it off. The last half-mile to the top sloped gently on the broad ridgeline, the way marked by cairns. Sadie, confident and energized, practically skipped over the pitted rock. Fitzpatrick chose his steps more judiciously. She stopped and turned to see where he was.
“Come on, slowpoke!” she teased, calling over the wind. “We’re close.”
He hurried over the last bit and came to the end of what could be reached on foot, a shelf of rock jutting out of the mountain. At the far end of the shelf, the rock sloped up and curled into a formation like the lip of a toboggan. Sadie headed for it.
“Watch out,” he said. “It’s a straight drop on the other side. Five hundred feet.”
A feeling which had started in him when they’d emerged above the treeline grew much more intense, the sensation of being ineluctably drawn to the edge, moving without moving. He felt unsteady on his feet though they were planted firmly at shoulder width. He did not shift an inch but felt himself rotating, spinning through the cosmos at a million miles an hour on a dozen different axes. The wind buffeted him on all sides, bursting and flurrying unexpectedly, the intimation of an unknown gravity that could exert itself fully and wipe him off the face of the mountain. His head spun. Sadie reached the elevated lip of the outcropping, grasped it with hands stretched overhead, took a toehold, boosted herself up, her head craned over the edge, looking down. Then she inched higher.
“Hey!” Fitzpatrick shouted. The muscles in her shoulders jumped, and she slid back, her sneakers rasping on the rock. He was embarrassed and turned away, but she caught the look in his eyes.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m feeling… it’s a funny feeling. Vertigo, maybe.”
“I guess we should go down.”
He nodded, knowing she was disappointed not to spend more time at the top.
On the return trip they walked hand in hand over the ridgeline until they hit the switchbacks and it became impractical. Then they went single file but remained close, descending into scrubby juniper. In the shade a brace of jays with blue-gray breasts sidestepped in an antagonistic mating dance, holding wings aloft and bristling in a display of false size. Locked in ritual, they paid no attention to the people watching.
The saddle was flat with stones convenient for sitting. They decided to stop there to eat. He dropped his pack, unzipped it, and rummaged through packages of food. Sadie scrambled to the top of a boulder and stood with hands on hips.
“It’s just gorgeous,” she said. “Look, you can see the Window.”
“Down there, the bottom of that cut.”
She climbed down from the boulder. He handed her lunch, and they ate and talked. He took a drink of water and breathed deeply, smelling ozone clean and sharp. The vertigo, or whatever it was, had dissipated after they’d descended the ridge, by this time fading to a memory of itself, the ghost of a premonition. He didn’t ask, didn’t want another argument so soon, but couldn’t help thinking maybe some part of her was hoping for the worst, if that could be the nature of the attraction. He tried to put the worry out of mind and follow her plans for the future, turning his face to bask in the sun. Far below, blooming creosote covered the plain in eerie yellow points. It was spring and nearly perfect weather.