They had been out for longer than made sense, and it had been far too long since they’d seen anyone else. This wasn’t remote wilderness they were hiking through––a twenty-minute drive from town to the dirt road, and then maybe another ten to where they’d parked near the trailhead. There should be a lot of people here, especially on a weekend. It was a well-traveled trail, one that Alex had been on several times before, though it was the first time for Jamie. But it had been at least, what—twenty minutes? longer?— since they’d seen another soul. This bothered him some, though he said nothing that might give Jamie cause for concern. They were on a trail, climbing, and they could hear the creek running beside them, so there really wasn’t anything to worry about. Alex liked the rhythm of hiking, liked that nothing more was expected of him than simply to put one foot in front of another. Being here with Jamie just added a new layer.
Higher up the vegetation would thin out, but here the trail cut through a thick forest of juniper and bog birch and chokecherry, of blue spruce and lodgepole pine and Douglas fir. He clicked off the names to himself and felt a degree of satisfaction with each identification, but chose not to impress her with them. The hiking was enough, no conversation required. Still, was Jamie quieter than usual? Was something on her mind?
They had been together for almost a year. They met online, after a dating app had deemed them algorithmically compatible. Their profiles indicated shared interests—outdoorsy things, mostly, things like hiking and camping and skiing. But who didn’t do those things in this part of the country? And even if you didn’t do them, you’d still put them on your profile, because otherwise who out here would want to date you? Also microbrews, concerts at Red Rocks—all pretty standard stuff, clichés of western youth. No “golden sunsets,” thank God, no “dew on the early morning grass.”
What really got to him was her photo—Jamie was knockout gorgeous, with eyes a cerulean blue, light-brown hair with wisps across a freckled forehead, a tattoo winding its way down her bare left shoulder. And in the photo she was laughing, a real laugh, not a just-for-the-camera laugh, like she’d been all posed and then someone surprised her with a joke. And all of this against a backdrop of red stone rising into a sky that matched the color of her eyes. Yet on his way to meet her for the first time, at a brewpub she suggested, doubt crept in––if she was what she seemed to be, then why did she need a dating app?
Jamie had arrived first and commandeered a table for two. She turned to greet him, her face every bit as beautiful as in her photo, but the tattoo that snaked its way over her left shoulder ended below her bicep in a rounded stub where her elbow should have been––she only had half a left arm. The tattoo both distracted Alex and drew his attention to what wasn’t there. He knew he shouldn’t stare, but when you meet somebody with half an arm, it’s hard to put out of your mind that they only have half an arm.
Jamie had decided on a simple blue dress, sleeveless, after taking more time to think about what to wear than was necessary. It wasn’t like he was going to be noticing her dress once he saw her arm. She could have worn a burlap sack and it wouldn’t have made any difference. At least the dress had a scoop neck, which might give him something else to look at.
Alex didn’t gawk, she’d give him that. Some gawked, like the last guy she’d met here. He gawked, excused himself to go to the restroom, and bolted. That was fine with her. If a guy was going to make up his mind about her that fast on the basis of that one thing (or, rather, the absence of that one thing), then fuck him. What really pissed Jamie off was that she had to pay for his beer.
“Go ahead, ask,” she said once she and Alex had settled in.
“What happened to my arm. You know you want to know.”
“Only if you want to tell me,” Alex said.
Oh, Jesus, Jamie thought. He’s going to be one of those.
In the shower before she left her place to go meet him, she had given some thought to which story she ought to tell him. The bear attack? The climbing accident? The birth defect? The shark? She couldn’t decide. She would wait and see what story she felt like trotting out. Though probably not the birth defect.
She settled on the climbing accident. She fell, she said, and broke her arm, badly, and needed surgery to fix it. She said she thought that would be that—give it a couple of months and everything would heal back to normal. But then came infection, sepsis, two more operations, and it got out of control and they had to amputate. This was, in fact, the true story, though it wasn’t her favorite. She liked the one about the shark.
“You have other questions,” she said. He did, like How do you cut your food? or How do you tie your shoes? And, of course, What’s it like when you have sex? Everybody wondered about that, though nobody asked.
“They can wait,” he said, and her slight smile, the barely noticeable upwards pull at the corners of her mouth, suggested that this had been the right thing to say.
The trail leveled off but didn’t go far from the creek. They still hadn’t seen any other people, which was odd, but in a way was just as well. There was Jamie’s arm, which strangers would stare at and then Alex would stare back with his back-off-motherfucker look, a routine neither he nor Jamie looked forward to. They were like a puzzle––you could tell that people who saw them together were trying to figure them out. So it was fine with him that they hadn’t crossed paths with anyone.
“I come from a big family,” she’d said at the brewpub when Alex had asked, one of those first-date, get-to-know-you questions everyone always asked, so she was ready with her answer. “Two brothers and two sisters, so five kids. I wouldn’t necessarily want a family that big, but I’d like to have two kids at least, maybe three.”
They say it’s not a good idea to talk about wanting children on your first date, but Jamie always brought it up. This, more than her missing arm, may have explained why she didn’t have more second dates. But later in the year she would turn thirty, so she thought she should get it out there at the start and no time was wasted. She sipped her beer and looked at him to see his reaction. “You?”
“One stepbrother from my dad’s second marriage,” Alex said. “Other than that, it’s just me.”
“How do you feel about having kids?”
He hesitated, then lied. “I haven’t thought a whole lot about it,” he said. In fact, he’d thought enough about it to know exactly where he stood. Alex didn’t want kids. Sometimes he would tell himself that this was because of the sorry state the world was in—what with global warming and other problems he had a harder time articulating. But the truth was he just couldn’t see himself going to all the trouble. “I like kids okay, I guess,” he said. Another lie, and she could tell. She let the subject drop.
They took a break, sitting on some flat rocks just off the trail, drinking water and grazing from a bag of trail mix he’d brought. “I’m pregnant,” she said. Alex stopped mid-bite.
“How…?” he said. They’d been careful.
“It happens,” Jamie said, with no more emotion than if she were commenting on the weather. She shrugged and tossed a handful of trail mix into her mouth. To Alex the action seemed weaponized, performed with calculated nonchalance.
He took the bait. “What are you going to do?” he asked.
“Start throwing up, I guess.” Jamie stood, slipped her arm and a half through the straps on her backpack, and headed off up the trail.
On that first date they called an Uber to take them home. When it stopped at Jamie’s apartment, Alex waited to see if she would ask him in. She didn’t.
“I had a good time,” she said, sounding to him like she was reading from a manual of what to say at the end of first dates that weren’t likely to lead to second dates. But Alex wanted to see her again. She was different, almost exotic. He felt a little thrill when he called to ask her out a second time and she said yes.
After their third date—less an actual date than just a walk around a lake in a park near where she lived—she invited him to stay. Her arm proved to be no handicap at all.
The trail ascended sharply and narrowed as the forest closed in on them, forcing them to push aside tree branches. Neither of them spoke as they climbed, either because they were out of breath—the trail had gotten steeper, and they were now above nine thousand feet—or because neither of them knew what to say after what Jamie had said. Both wondered what the other was thinking. Tree roots and jutting rocks offered reliable purchase as they made their way, though they had to scramble in a few spots. They didn’t see the concrete slab until they almost walked headfirst into it. Behind it was a pool of water, the slab containing the pool and forcing the creek off to their left, where they could hear it trill its way down the hillside. “The Spruce Creek diversion,” Alex said, the place familiar, the structure confirming that they were where they were supposed to be. He felt a little less disoriented—impregnating Jamie and being lost was more than he could handle.
“Water?” he asked, holding out his Nalgene, trying to steer things back toward normal.
“No thanks.” Jamie hoisted herself up with a one-armed hop and sat on top of the slab.
“We turn here,” he said, pointing up the trail. It forked left and right, and he pointed to the right. He drank from the water bottle.
“Look, Jamie…” he said, wanting to talk about it. She stopped him.
“Alex. It’s not yours.”
“The baby. It’s not yours. So you can stop worrying about what to do about it.”
But she was off, hopping down from the concrete slab and heading up the trail to the right.
He followed, paying little attention to the trail or to Jamie up ahead of him, trying as he hiked to sort out the thoughts that swirled in his mind, which really came down to one thought—Whose, then?
The trail would go up some more, then level off and come to a fire road that would take them back to the car, or they could retrace their path back down the trail. Or at least that’s how he remembered it. The fire road would be all dirt and rocks, and not much to look at, but it would be quicker. He figured that’s the way they would go, that neither of them would have any great desire to prolong their adventure. He checked his watch. The hike was already taking a lot longer than it should. He looked up ahead, but couldn’t see Jamie. This wasn’t all that surprising—the trail switchbacked as it climbed, and with all the back and forth it wasn’t unusual to lose sight of the person you were with, even if you weren’t that far apart.
He thought about her arm, which now evolved into a liability, a flaw, a deformity. He wondered if this was why she wanted children, because a part of her was missing, and having a baby would make her feel whole again.
The switchbacks stopped and the trail went more or less straight up. Alex kept looking up ahead, expecting to catch a glimpse of her.
Eventually the trail leveled and the forest thinned, with more blue sky between the tree branches. He figured he was near the top. And there she was, sitting on a tree stump off to the side of the trail. She’d taken off her right boot and sock.
“I fell,” she said. “I think I sprained my ankle.”
Alex looked at her ankle—red and a little swollen, but not too bad. If she hadn’t told him she’d sprained it he wouldn’t have guessed. “Can you walk?” he said.
“I think so.”
“Put the boot back on, and tie it tight. It’ll keep the swelling down.”
He watched as with her one hand she pulled her sock and hiking boot back onto her bare foot. She had a fresh scrape on her knee, and a thin trail of blood trickled from it.
“Can you?” she said, holding her boot laces and looking up at him. “Please?” She wanted him to tie it.
It’s not yours, she’d said. Whose, then, and whoever he was, did he know she was pregnant with his baby? Did Jamie herself even know who the father was? What if she was lying? What if the baby really was his? What if she wasn’t even pregnant? What if she had two perfectly fine arms, and this was all an illusion, some trick of the light?
Asking him to tie her boot laces was a small thing, but it felt like a test, one he wasn’t sure how to pass, or if he wanted to.
He looked away, stepped past her, and kept hiking up the trail.
Later, she caught up to him. The trail was maddening—it didn’t level out, didn’t intersect with the fire road, it just kept going up. Alex stopped, and stood there looking up at the trees with his hands on his hips, trying to figure out where he’d gone wrong. He heard her coming up behind him. If she was limping, he didn’t notice. It wasn’t altogether clear to him if he had stopped to wait for her, or he was just trying to figure out what to do next, or if there was a lot of difference between those two things.
“I think we’re lost,” he said.
— end —