Everything that Lives
It was the early part of spring; the first few weeks where the world could just as easily slip back into winter as turn green and sprout flowers. A dry month had left the grass brown and brittle. In the east, sunrise spilled coral light onto clouds that glided over barren branches like broken fingers along the tree-line.
Gene was tall and thickset. Dark hair spilled over his ears and down his narrow shoulders. If a beard was something a man trimmed and styled, Gene’s face was what happened when a man just stopped shaving. When he moved, he had the look of sagebrush caught in a breeze.
Weekend sojourns in the deep woods were a habit for Gene. Having company was the novelty. A yard behind him, Aggie dragged her feet across the forest floor, scraping parched earth and snapping fallen twigs with every step. With wisps of blond hair leaking from under her red baseball cap, and a soft build beneath her thermal shirt, Aggie had the look of someone in a makeshift disguise.
Gene looked back to see Aggie falling farther behind. “Pick your feet up when you walk. You’ll keep up easier.”
Aggie paused and rubbed her calf muscle. “I’m tightening up. I could use a rest.”
Aggie looked up. “Are we in a hurry?”
“No,” he answered. “I guess we can stop for a bit, if it means you quit dragging your feet and making a racket.”
Aggie repositioned the straps of her backpack against her shoulders. “I didn’t think making noise was a bad idea. I read if they hear you coming, most predators will just move on ahead of you.”
“I wasn’t thinking about that. It just sort of spoils the peace and quiet. Besides, there are not a lot of apex predators in these woods.”
Aggie switched to a quieter step. “Doesn’t need to be a bear or a wolf to be dangerous, you know.”
Gene laughed. “Okay, well if I see any pterodactyl-size sparrows, I’ll holler.”
“Joke if you want, but everything that lives, kills.”
“See a lot of killer tulips?”
Aggie’s eyes widened. “Plants use resources that other plants need to survive.”
“Yeah, well you can stop trampling the ground. I don’t think the grass has it out for you.”
“It’s been too dry. I think the grass is already dead.
“Try not to think so much. You’ll never really get anything out of this if you don’t relax.”
The air kept a chill past sunrise and into late morning. The winds rose, but red-winged blackbirds still sang from swaying branches. Gene smiled as he passed through a thicket of birch trees and considered all he didn’t see. No billboards or neon signs peeking through a clearing, no stretch of interstate to spoil the aesthetic of un-fouled wilderness.
Gene bypassed the birches, placed his backpack on the ground beside a dead shrub, and approached a heartier tree. He took hold of the thickest branch he could reach and tested his weight against it.
Aggie closed the distance between them. “What are you doing?”
“Climbing.” Gene hoisted himself upward. “I want to get a better look.” He slung his midsection over the branch, then his leg. Perched six feet from the ground, he searched for the next branch within reach, then scaled higher.
Aggie stepped back. “What are you looking for?”
Gene shifted his weight. “Nothing, really. I just want to see how far the view stretches.”
“We should probably head back before too long. It’s supposed to rain later.”
Gene gripped the tree trunk and searched for his next move. “Look around you. We’re not allergic to water, and the land needs it.”
“Could be a bit of a storm though. The sky was pretty red earlier. Isn’t there some kind of rhyme about that?”
Gene groaned as he reached for his next purchase. As he widened his stance, his foot fell on the curve of the branch beneath him. The tread of his sneaker lost its hold and Gene fell before he could scream.
Everything happened before Aggie could react. She saw the back of Gene’s head as it struck the tree limb and snapped forward. His leg buckled under his body as he hit the drought-hardened turf to a sound like a bass drum. The fall forced the air from his lungs so that when Aggie reached his side, all she heard was short bursts of air squealing in his throat.
Aggie dropped to her knees and swung her backpack around her shoulder. From a front pocket, she drew her cellphone. It had no reception. “Dammit! Gene, can you hear me? Do you have your phone with you? We need to call for help.”
Gene clutched the back of his head where dark, wet hair clung to his scalp. The leg that suffered the full force of his fall bent outward at an impossible angle. He parted his lips and whispered, “In the car.”
“Can you move?”
Blood seeped through his jeans at the vertex of his leg’s gruesome bend. A deep red stain grew like a gathering cloud. His face twisted around his eyes. “Hurts.”
She couldn’t carry him, and trying would only slow her down. “Your leg is broken, and I’m sure you’ve got a concussion. I don’t want to leave, but I don’t think it’s safe to move you.”
Aggie left her bag beside Gene, rose to her feet, and sprinted back in the direction from which they came. She considered that it had taken them all morning to wander so deep into the woods, and wondered how long it would take her to run back. The undergrowth fanned her legs with each stride as her feet hurled dry dirt and detritus in her wake. Red-winged blackbirds launched themselves from the windswept limbs of birch trees in her path.
The air was milder on her skin, but too much of it, too fast, numbed her throat and burned her lungs. Her muscles tightened and ached, like hot water pooled beneath her skin. She held out her phone, hoping to find a signal faster, then, she could reach the car.
As Aggie’s gait slowed, something struck her left leg. It was blunt, like a blow from a wooden plank, then sharp. She dropped her phone as she extended her arms ahead of herself, fell, and tumbled forward. She felt the twinge of broken skin as she lifted her leggings above her knee. Two thin streaks of blood dribbled down her shin.
Aggie searched the ground for movement, rustling grass blades, or some sign of the thing that had bitten her. She found nothing. A documentary once explained some snakes give warning bites which don’t inject venom, but she had no way of knowing. Gene was well out of sight, as was the bike-path that would lead back to the car. Her cellphone had landed a few feet ahead of her. She crawled to it. It still showed no signal.
Aggie imagined Gene, far behind her, under waves of skeletal trees, so in need of time’s swift passage. He needed her to run, find help, and tell someone where to find him. Running would increase her heart-rate and pump the venom faster through her blood stream. She needed to be slow and calm; he needed her to run and hope. Aggie rose to her feet, breathed deep, and put two fingers to the pulse in her neck, imagined it slower until it did slow.
She looked down at her feet, and checked her pulse again. It steadied. Aggie stepped forward, sliding her shoes past the splintered remains of fallen nests and woody debris. The soles of her shoes scraped dry earth with every measured step.
About the Author
Jim Plath is an author of fiction and poetry. His work has most recently appeared, or is forthcoming in Amarillo Bay, 3Elements Review, San Pedro River Review, The Monarch Review, Lowestoft Chronicle, and War, Literature & the Arts. He is enrolled in the Writer's Workshop at The University of Nebraska at Omaha.