A short story that appeared in the Stone Canoe Literary Magazine February 2020
Eve popped the little blue pill in her mouth and took a draw of cappuccino, leaving a ring of currant lipstick on the white plastic lid. The hot steam bit her upper lip bringing tears to her eyes. Wet snow flakes splotched the windshield and gray clouds churned the sky. People were milling outside a cannabis shop and she wondered if weed might be more effective. She just had to get through the morning and then everything would be fine. The car clock said 7:30 am; how long before she needed another pill? Ever since Dylan called attention to her habit, she'd started to keep track and the longest lapse had been eight hours.
At 11:55 a.m. she grabbed her bag out of the desk drawer and waved goodbye to her office mates. Next stop: her apartment to pick up the cooler, Lisa, Dylan, then off for their annual trip with friends. A weekend at the edge of one of the parks near Denver. They'd been taking this yearly excursion on Presidents' Day weekend every year since college. Her anticipation sank when she pulled into her driveway at 12:30, checked her cell phone and read Dylan's text: Stuck on a big project. Leave without me. I'll catch a ride with Brittany and Mateo. Meet later
She texted back: You've got to be kidding me. Deleted it, and texted: OK, see you later. Smile emoji. Snowflake.
She lugged the cooler and food into the car and drove to Lisa's apartment, relieved to see her standing outside her door waiting, bundled in a parka, a pair of cross country skis leaning against her arm.
"He's leaving with Brittany and Mateo. Meeting us there."
"That's odd," Lisa said.
"Because Sam told me he's bringing Mateo after they get out of work tonight."
Eve put the car in gear and pulled away from the curb. She didn't want to think about how she had left work early and Dylan didn't. Why his career was more important than hers. Within an hour the Continental Divide broke the horizon.
Her thoughts wandered to work. Would her boss point out Eve's absence in a snarky remark at the next staff meeting? Her pulse quickened and she felt a bead of sweat drip down her neck. She unzipped her coat. "Help me out of this will you?" She gripped the wheel with one hand while jerking her other arm free of a sleeve. A rush of cold air made Eve shiver. Free.
"You all right? You look kind of flushed? Want me to drive?" Lisa said.
"I'm fine. Just got over-heated there for a moment." She shot Lisa a weak smile. "I'm anxious to get there and snow shoe before dusk."
"If we get there before dusk." Lisa was facing the window.
"I need to stop and use the restroom," Eve said.
Staring into the mirror over the sink she debated with herself. It was 2 pm. Her hands were shaking. A piece of hair fell over her face, blinkering one eye. The mirror had a large crack in the upper right- hand corner, black bubbles floated at the edges where the silver backing was wearing thin. In the reflection, the door to the restroom was hanging on rusted hinges.
Tugging at the strand of hair, she concentrated on her breathing. The little blue pill was dissolving in her sweaty palm. Take it now and you'll be settled by the time we get to the cabin and everyone arrives. Then you won't need another until Tuesday. She put one in her mouth, cupped her hand under the faucet to catch some water and slurped down the bitter after-taste.
"You can drive," Eve said, tossing Lisa the keys. She texted Dylan: Who's driving? Lisa said Mateo coming later with Sam.
Every few minutes she checked to see if there was a return text.
"You have bars?" Eve asked.
Lisa shrugged and tossed her phone to Eve.
"Did Sam text you? When is he leaving?" Eve said.
"I haven't heard from him since before we left. What's the matter?"
Eve turned to face the window. "Nothing. I'm just nervous about my job."
By 3 p.m. they were on an old logging road that led to the cabin. After unloading their clothes and gear they tag-teamed the cooler of food and beer. As soon as they emptied the cooler into the fridge, Lisa walked into the living room, flopped down on the couch, lit a joint and gestured with her pointer and thumb fingers, a tendril of smoke lifting in the air, her left brow arched, inviting.
"No thanks," Eve said. Although the pill had taken off the edge, dread was skirting the fringes of her mind. She checked her phone to see if there were any texts from Dylan. "You have bars?"
Lisa checked her phone. "Nothing. There's a land line if you need to call someone."
Eve stared at the black phone from another era and wondered if it really worked. "I wouldn't know how to use it," she said.
Lisa giggled. "I think the whole purpose of being here is to be off the grid," she said. She took a long drag, pinched her lips together and held on to a lung full of reefer before exhaling.
Although she had laughed at the land line, the thought of being off the grid made Eve nervous. What if Dylan didn't show up? What if he were trying to reach Eve right now to tell her that and wondering why she wasn't answering his text messages?
"You all right?" Lisa said.
Eve's attention returned to Lisa and she shuddered. "I need to get some fresh air. I'm going to go for a quick hike."
"Don't you think it might be kind of dangerous to hike alone? It's going to get dark soon."
"I'd guess I have at least two hours of daylight. Don't worry."
Lisa shrugged. "I'll wait here for everyone and start making the chili." She tapped out the joint and went to the fridge to root around for ingredients they had just unloaded. She cracked open a beer as Eve closed the door behind her.
Eve zipped up her down coat, tilted her head upward and watched the snowflakes pirouette before landing on her face, clinging to her eyelashes. One melted. The cold stung her eye. She bent down to strap her boots into snowshoes.
Their cabin was the last on the old logging road. From there the road wasn't maintained, remained unplowed, and met up with an array of trails that led to the park about a half- mile from the cabin. A monotony of tall pine trees lined the old road, vestiges of a reforestation project after a clear-cut. As she approached the park perimeter the road narrowed and the trees closed in on her. She passed dense thickets of conifers and patches of open fields where the underbrush poked out of the snow. Straggling branches of deciduous trees trying to reach the light, a few with leaves from last season clinging to their limbs and clattering in the slight breeze. She trudged along with , heavy, steady breath. Almost an hour went by and she hadn't thought of anything at all. She stopped, waited. It was so quiet she could hear the snow settling on the tree, clinging to the needles, creating fluffy white mounds. Taking hold of the branch of a fir, she shook it gently and watched flakes cascade to the ground.
A loud crack in the woods jolted her. She rotated her body, seeking the source, found nothing but a grove of Aspen, and behind that more fir. A cloud of steam escaped her lips, her heart was beating against her down jacket so hard when she pressed her hand over her chest she could feel it through her glove. Waiting a moment to see if the sound came back, her heart faded back to a normal meter. "Anyone there?" she called. She turned around and snow-shoed at a rigorous pace back to the cabin.
Nothing looked the same on the way back. The needles of the trees froze in place as the snow crystalized and blinked in the fading light. Things turned blurry, like an impressionist painting of a winter scene—the understory was shadow, the boundary where the trail met forest was indistinctive. She couldn't shake the feeling there was something putting pressure on her back, instructing her to move along. The bleak sun had long since filtered below the canopy of trees and the sky was a whitewashed canvas streaked with hues of purple. Finally, there was the welcome sight of smoke curling in the air above the chimney of the cabin. She fell backward on the bench by the front door to take off her snowshoes. The window of the cabin was cracked open and she heard Dylan's voice.
The task of unstrapping her boots from the snow shoes calmed her. She searched the blank woods but the ghoulish trees were not giving up any secrets. When she entered the cabin there was a haze of marijuana smoke clinging in the air above where Dylan and Brittany sat playing cards. Lisa was stirring her chili in a pot on the stove. Dylan threw his head back and laughed at something Brittany said, turned toward Eve, and kicked his chair out from under him as he got up to meet her at the door.
"Hey, where've you been? We were getting worried about you," he said. He bent down to kiss her.
His breath prickled her skin. "I went for a quick snow shoe to clear my head," she said. "How was your drive?"
"Not bad," Brittany offered as she rose to refill her wine glass.
Why was it that no matter what Brittany wore it always appeared she was predicting the next fashion trend?
"We left at three. I had to stay to finish something at work and I knew Brittany was leaving around then," Dylan said, his dope-fuddled brown eyes wandering between Eve and Brittany.
"Where's Mateo?" Eve said more accusingly than she intended. Dylan's face went blank. He parted his lips as if to share an insight that was stirring in the back of his mind waiting to come out into the open.
"He's coming later, with Sam." Lisa slurped a mouthful of chili and set the spoon back down and Eve wondered if she planned to use that spoon again to stir the chili.
"Almost ready," Lisa said to the pot on the stove.
"Let's finish this hand," Brittany said, languidly pouring red wine into her glass. Lisa left her position at the stove and sat back down.
"Go ahead," Eve said to Dylan, canting her head toward the card table. "I'm going to take a shower."
She was feeling jumpy and wanted to wash the creepy feeling away. As she turned to shut the door behind her, a view of Brittany slipping her hand on top of Dylan's arm as he went to sit down made her stop short from closing it all the way. Eve's heart skipped a beat. Brittany leaned over and whispered something in Dylan's ear and Lisa shot a look of derision at them from across the table. Before Eve had the chance to close the door entirely, Lisa's eyes locked with hers in a tinge of sympathy.
When Eve came out of the steam-filled bathroom, Dylan was sitting on the edge of the bed, his head in his hands, rubbing his temples. He looked up at her and smiled warmly.
"You ok?" he said. "You looked kind of spooked when you came in."
She clasped the towel around her defensively. "I thought I heard something out there while I was snow shoeing."
His lips curled downward. "It's those meds you're on. Too many make you jumpy."
She reached for her sweatshirt and pants. "I don't want to have this conversation again," she said. Her hands were trembling, when was the last time she took a pill? Was it two o'clock in the bathroom when she and Lisa stopped or did she take one before she went on that snow shoe walk? "I don't rag at you about your smoking. This place reeks of it by the way. My clothes are going to smell."
"At least I'm not addicted," he said.
"Hey." He sat up and wrapped his arms around her. Eve's towel fell away from her body as she clutched her sweatshirt and pants. "I don't want to argue." He rubbed his body against hers and a familiar warmth rose in her. "Let's take a nap," he whispered in her ear.
Eve could swear she saw a flicker of envy in Brittany's eyes when they entered the living room where everyone was seated around the fire, eating bowls of chili smothered in shredded cheddar cheese, sour cream and tortilla chips.
"Boys arrived while you two were busy. Come and eat," Lisa said.
Mateo and Sam gestured to them, spoon in hand. Eve yawned.
Dylan filled two bowls with chili and handed one to Eve. "Thanks." She smiled at him, turned her attention to the bowl. She should feel hungrier than she was at the moment. Dylan watched her stir the chili with her spoon and she made an attempt to enjoy it for his sake because he was always worried she didn't eat enough.
After clearing the bowls, Lisa's boyfriend, Sam, went back to his car and returned toting a card game called Weapons of Mass Seduction.
"You brought that?" Lisa said. She tugged at her turtleneck like it was choking her neck.
Sam bent down and kissed the top of Lisa's head. "Don't worry, I took out all the kinky cards, the ones you don't like."
They grabbed beers and settled in around the coffee table in front of the fireplace as Sam distributed the cards. Eve examined the four cards she was dealt. The idea was to place two in front of her, face down on the table: one stating something she would like Dylan to do for her, the other not as likely. If she wanted, she could use a blank card to write what she wanted or liked most from her partner. Dylan was then supposed to turn one of her cards over and guess if it was the one she most preferred or not.
At first, Eve was nervous about the game but most of the cards were simple requests: have my partner make me breakfast in bed, massage me wherever I want—that sort of thing. Then Mateo turned over one of Brittany's cards, and the mood of the room shifted like the sky had during Eve's snow shoe at dusk. Mateo's face went from jovial to dark and he sat back, thrummed his fingers on the sides of the chair he was sitting in, before standing up abruptly and going for the door. "I need a smoke," he said.
"He needs to quit," Brittany said to the hushed room as he slammed the door behind him. She got up on the pretext of needing another glass of wine though her glass was half-full.
Eve stared down at the card Brittany had placed in front of her not sure if it was something Brittany favored doing or not. It read: Do it in a restaurant bathroom. Her eyes met Dylan's; his shoulder slumped, his face fell.
How long, Eve wondered, had Brittany and Dylan taken to get here? Had they stopped? Was it Brittany's perfume she smelled on Dylan while they were making love?
"I need some air," Eve said, grabbing her coat off the rack. She opened the cabin door to a black sky. Stars peeked out from behind curtains of clouds as they skittered across the sky. Mateo was leaning against the cabin wall, awash in smoke from his cigarette, a red ember pulsing in the breeze.
"You ok?" Eve said.
"Yes," he said. "I over-reacted. Don't worry. It's nothing."
They listened to the wind passing through the trees and behind that, in the distance, a series of guttural hoots. It was immediately followed by another with a different pattern.
"Great horned owls," Mateo said. "They're looking for mates this time of year."
"Kind of early, isn't it?" Eve said.
"No. They nest early."
"How do you know?"
"I used to come to this park a lot when I was a kid. My dad and I would hunt. I always read the brochures."
"Oh." Eve contemplated whether to trust him. Maybe he knew something she didn't. "I thought I heard something in the woods earlier today while snow shoeing. Like a tree limb snapping, or something like that, then a thud. I figured it was snow sloughing off a tree in one big chunk."
Mateo shrugged and dropped his cigarette onto the ground, putting it out with his boot.
"Could be. Or maybe a moose was out there. If so, be careful. You startle them, they'll run you over. Just barrel right over you with their hooves." He gesticulated in the air.41
Eve laughed. "I think I would have noticed a moose."
"I doubt it was a mountain lion. It would've pounced if you turned your back to it," Mateo said seriously. "But you never know. You shouldn't be hiking alone anyway." He went on to explain what to do if she encountered a mountain lion, then said: "Here." He reached into his coat pocket, retrieved a small canister and handed it to her. "It's mace. In case you do go out alone again. Spray it at a predator's face and it'll back off. Don't worry, I have more in the car."
Eve shuddered thinking about how, while shoeing back to the cabin she had a constant nagging that something was on her tail. Maybe Dylan was right; she over- reacted to everything. What if Matteo told Dylan he had to give her his mace because she was so paranoid? What if he told Brittany and she made fun of her? Maybe she should just give it back to him.
Mateo turned to face her but she couldn't read him in the inky night. "Dylan really does love you," he said. He held the door open to let her slide through first.
It bothered Eve, even hours later when they climbed into bed, that Dylan wasn't feeling contrite about blowing her off earlier that day. "I don't understand why you didn't come with me. You knew I was leaving early with Lisa. You could have done what I did and just told your boss the project could wait. I mean, I did. I left behind a big project you know."
"Could you stop nagging? It's not like I haven't taken off early before to be with you on other occasions. Today was different, that's all."
She pulled the blankets up to her chin and stared at the wood-panelled ceiling, wondering if she'd be able to sleep without getting up in the middle of the night for another pill. Dylan would get mad if he heard her.
"I'm tired. Let's go to sleep and forget about it, ok?" He leaned over and kissed her on the lips.
She reluctantly kissed him back. Trying to forget the look on Brittany's face when Mateo turned over her card that said she liked to have sex in a restaurant bathroom.
"Did you two stop anywhere?" Eve said.
"What? Yes. Of course. We stopped to use a restroom."
"Where? I don't know. Does it matter?"
She turned over and clicked off the light next on the stand. "No."
It was 5 a.m. when her eyes blinked open. She thought she heard a sound outside the window, but it may have just been the wind. Dylan was softly snoring at her side. This happened to her a lot; waking up before she was ready, not able to get back into the deep sleep—the kind where she would dream. She'd toss and turn if she didn't take a pill.
Instead of a pill, she'd read or something. She picked her sweatshirt and pants off the floor and tip- toed out of the room. Better that than wake up to Dylan's inquisition. She wanted to be able to tell him she hadn't taken a pill since yesterday. She wanted him to be happy with her. She drank a large glass of water.
The snow had stopped falling and the sky was bleak except for an orange-red glow that was forming in the east. It would be nice to see the sunrise over the trees. It was tricky getting on her shoes in the dim light, but she managed, and set out toward the sun that was breaking through the canopy. The skin on her face and hands shrank from the sting of the arctic cold air. It was the kind of cold that vise-gripped the lungs with each inhale.
Jagged thoughts dissipated as her lungs warmed up and blood pulsed in her head. This is what she really needed to do every morning before work. She should quit her job. But what difference would it make? She'd take a job somewhere else and end up working for another idiot.
The snow was compact from freezing overnight. It crunched and squeaked under her weight. Her shoe's crampons gripped the trail and she was able to move along at a strong clip. Why had she even thought something was going on between Brittany and Dylan? Paranoid, that's why. It was the meds. Dylan was right. She needed to get off them. Find something else to allay her perpetual anxiety. Yoga. Do more yoga. When Dylan turned over one of Eve's cards during the game last night, the one that was blank, Eve was able to write what she wanted on it and she had put, sleeping until noon. Why had Brittany exchanged that funny look with Dylan? Like she had inside information about Eve. Everyone seemed to notice.
Why did Sam bring that damn game anyway? Did he and Lisa have some kind of problem with sex?
A loud noise brought her back to the path she was on and her surroundings. A slight rustling in the trees made her jerk her head in the direction of the noise, focused on a clearing. And there it was in the distance: a mountain lion the color of wet sand. Crouched on top of a boulder. About the distance from her as the length of an in-ground swimming pool. His ears were pressed back, his massive paws were draped over the edge of the rock and his golden-brown eyes were glued on her. It was surreal. The hair on her arms tingled, the nape of her neck prickled. The air was charged with static and if she made the wrong move, she'd be electrified.
What had Mateo said? It was rare to see them? But if you do, don't look away. Don't turn your back on them or run. Make a loud noise.
She raised her arms in the air and shouted as loud as her lungs would allow. It barely registered with the cat. He leaped to the ground, landing on the snow with a soft thud. Her view of him was blocked by the evergreens, but every now and then she could see him slinking through the snow in her direction.
"Get back!" she screamed. She remembered the mace Mateo had given her, pulled it out of her pocket and sprayed in his direction. It hissed in the air but she was nowhere near enough to reach the target. The commotion she made however stopped him for a moment. He sat in quiet contemplation. Blinked. Waited for her next move.
Keeping her gaze locked on him, she lifted her knee, snow shoe in the air, and placed it behind her, followed by the other. He sat. It was if he knew who she was, had followed her to this point, and was waiting to make his next move. Eve continued to step backwards until she had put at least two swimming pools distance between her and the cat. The wind had died. The snow had stopped falling. The beat of her heart kept time.
He waited until she was three swimming pools away and stood up. Snow clung to his chest, he moved sideways, keeping his eyes locked on her and continued to follow from a safe distance in the woods.
The sun was at an angle that made it difficult to decipher the lion from the shadows of the trees. The only difference was the shadows stayed still, the lion kept moving. She began to panic. The snow shimmered like crushed glass.
"Shoo! Get out of here!" Her head was hot and throbbing. She pulled her hat off, waved it in the air. "Stay back!" She pulled out the mace again and sprayed. Instead of being afraid of her, he kept moving, closing the distance between them, which made her jump and trip over herself. The mace fell out of her hands. She had no time to look for it, scrambling upright. And although he was staying clear of the trail, she could see him crouched, half- hidden behind the dense canopy of fir, his tail flicking in the air. She kept a slow but steady backward pace in the snow. When the canopy opened he crouched behind an aspen, but always with steady eyes.
Her thighs and butt burned from the strain of lifting her knees to make clearance for her snow shoes. Beads of sweat trickled down the sides of her face. Her hands were warm, her arm pits wet. Her breath was shallow. She was breathing loudly. "Why are you stalking me?" she screamed. Tears swelled, turning the landscape liquid. She wiped at her eyes with her glove, which only made it worse.
She wanted to glance over her shoulder to see how far she was from the cabin, but as the trail widened she guessed she was getting closer to the logging road. The cat never left her sight, nor did he venture away from the safety of the woods. As the trail widened, it put more space between them. Her throat was raw from screaming, her legs wobbly. She hadn't eaten anything since last night, and she was thirsty.
For a moment she lost sight of him and thought to turn her back and make a run for it. But then there he was, sitting upright, his sinewy legs and chest glistening in the sun. His lion eyes fastened on her, curious, not threatening. What was her next move? He wanted her to slip up, to fall backwards and not get back up so he could lunge at her. He was patient. He would wait for an opportune time. He could reach her in a matter of seconds if she fell, so agile in the deep snow. She had seen him leaping through the stuff as if it were nothing. He didn't need snow shoes to conquer the trail. He had those paws. His large pink tongue broke free from his lips and swiped his nostrils.
He had no cares but to eat and sleep, and if she was to be his next meal ticket, he had to use his skill to take her down. Which meant taking advantage of her weakness. How long did she think she could last before her legs gave out from under her? Each backward step she took, her thighs sizzled with pain.
Water, she needed water. She'd been sweating so much she had lost a lot of water. And salt. Without losing sight of him, she dropped to her knees, slowly scooping up some snow, placing it in her mouth. It melted quickly. He crouched, lowered his head, twitched his tail.
"My God, you're beautiful," she whispered. His ears pricked upward. That was not a good sign. Another quick gulp of snow and she got back up. It had been a brief reprieve from the pain and she braced herself for the hot iron that burned her muscles when she lifted her snow shoe and stepped backwards. "Stay away!" Her voice was ragged.
The sun had cleared the tops of the trees and she guessed it was gaining on 9 a.m. She'd been out here for at least three hours. Why hadn't anyone come looking for her? She had left too early that's why. None of them would have been up before eight. They probably figured she had taken a short hike and would be back for breakfast.
Everything was trembling, her arms, her legs, her feet, her mouth. And still, he followed. Finally, the path opened up, she must be close to the cabin. The woods were quite a distance from the path now, and Eve caught glimpses of his sandy coat against the dark fir trees. The sun's reflection off the snow made her eyes water.
She hit a rock and fell backwards. Her elbows slammed into the snow and knees shot up in the air, pulling at her quadriceps like a branding iron.
"Shit!" she cried. "You there?" She scrambled back up. The snow muffled any sound. In the open it was breezy, and the wind hit her face and converted sweat into ice. She put her hat back on. There was nothing. No sounds coming from the woods, no eyes peering out from the trees.
Limping backward, her snow shoe hit gravel—the plowed part of the road. She gave one more furtive glance out to the woods, bent over and undid the straps. Light-footed after hours of dragging the snow shoes, her muscles surged with relief. Cautiously, she kept walking backwards until she reached her car. Then she turned around, half-ran, half-tumbled to the cabin and collapsed on a bench. Her heart throbbed as the realization hit: she'd survived the encounter.
The window was still cracked open, allowing her to overhear Lisa, say, "No really. Do you think Eve would go out alone again after she got spooked like
that?" and Dylan reply, "Probably. She doesn't sleep well if she hasn't had her pill. Walking clears her head. She tells me that all the time."
"Yeah, well if that's the case, why did she look like she'd seen a ghost yesterday when she got back from her snow shoe?" Brittany said.
The old Eve would have strained to hear more. The old Eve's heart would be racing with anxiety about what everyone thought of her. The swoosh of the door to the cabin opening muffled any more chatter. Mateo coming outside for a smoke.
"Eve." His eyes went wide.
Eve's breathing returned to normal. It had been over eight hours since she'd taken her little blue pill yet calm enveloped her. Unconcerned
Sheila Myers is an award winning author and Professor at a small college in Upstate NY. She enjoys writing, swimming in lakes, and walking in nature. Not always in that order.