The Hikers: Chapter 1

1

I smiled awkwardly at Jessica as the wind
blew through my hair, making me want to shiver. I kept it from showing by doing
some exaggerated stretches. My grin wasn’t as confident as the one I’d given
her when I’d first picked her up. She seemed about to break up with me, and I
figured I should let her know I knew something was wrong, but also still show
her some affection in case I was reading the situation incorrectly.

“How much further?” she
asked, not returning the smile while avoiding eye contact by looking further up
the trail.

“A couple miles, maybe
more. We should start climbing soon.” The hike had been mostly flat, but I knew
from online that the last several miles were steep. I had been looking forward
to seeing the honeycomb caves and the view from the top, but if she really were
going to end things with me, I’d prefer she did it now and got things over
with. I could always come back some other time when the situation wasn’t so
emotionally charged.

“Let’s get going.” Her
voice was resigned, and I wondered what she was waiting for. Why didn’t she
just go ahead and rip the band-aid off already? 

“As you wish.” Something
caught my attention in the grass. I bent down and picked up a worn leather
wallet. “Suppose I’ll have to find the owner when we get back,” I muttered,
sliding it into my pocket without looking for who it might belong to, something
I probably would have done if I hadn’t already been feeling uncomfortable.

Jessica nodded as she
glanced at me. I smiled, this time forcing myself into a full grin, but she
still didn’t return it, making my insides colder than ice.

I knew that look so
well. I’d seen it a few times before and even remembered giving it to others.

And just when I was
starting to think she and I really had a future. 

I reviewed the morning,
trying to think of what I might have said or done to cause such a shift in her
thinking, but I couldn’t come up with anything.

Things had started out
well enough. When I’d picked her up, she had greeted me with a hug and kiss, as
warm and affectionate as any she had given me during the two months we’d been
together.

At least she hadn’t
asked to go to a public place. It was unlikely anybody out here in the
wilderness would be audience to what I was expecting. We hadn’t seen anyone on
the trail all morning, and I would have assumed we were alone on the path had
it not been for the other car parked at the trailhead.

“Are you ready?”

I could tell by the way she
asked she was no longer enjoying the hike and she was just trying to get
through it. Perhaps she’d been unsure before we’d started but as we’d gone on,
she’d firmed up her decision.

I tried to think of
something I might have said but couldn’t come up with anything. Our
conversation had been pleasant and friendly.

“Yep,” I said, wiping
away the smile and giving her a serious look, racking my brain for anything
that would give me a clue about what she was thinking. “I really think we’re
going to like the view.”

She muttered something I
couldn’t make out as she pushed on ahead, hiking up the trail with a renewed
sense of purpose.

We shortly came to a
bend and began to climb the mountain. It was steeper than I planned on, I
wasn’t as active as I had been two years ago. I needed to lose ten pounds
before I would be comfortable again.

I followed after, giving
her a safe distance so if she were to fall down the steep incline, I’d have a
warning before she hit me.

The climb was strenuous.
I soon found myself distracted by the strain. And if she was determined to
finish this hike, I was glad to have something else to focus on instead of
stewing about what was coming.

Ten minutes later she
stopped and pulled a water bottle out from a pocket on the outside of her
backpack. She unscrewed the lid and took a long pull.

I put the mouthpiece of
my water reservoir to my lips and took a sip.

Even though we’d been
hiking for more than an hour, you wouldn’t know it by looking at her. If I
looked closely, I might have spotted a drop of sweat on her forehead or some
moisture on her neck. I, on the other hand, had sweat forming around my armpits
and on my chest. My back was slick, especially where my pack made contact with
my shoulders and waist.

“This is pointless.” Jessica
put her water bottle away and finally met my eyes. “I’m breaking up with you.”

Even though I’d been
expecting it, her timing took me off guard. Perhaps she had meant to finish the
hike but had become impatient. I studied her and then slowly nodded, giving it
some thought before answering.

“Sure, no problem.”

“That’s it? That’s all
you have to say?”

“I could tell you were
going to do it. No biggie.”

My response surprised
her, but I’d been down this road before and had learned it was best to let
somebody go if that was what they wanted to do. I wouldn’t gain anything by
trying to convince her to stay. I’d only look weak. While I preferred that we
didn’t break up, nothing I could say would change her mind.

“I’m not playing
around.” Jessica’s eyes narrowed. “I’m quite serious.”

“I understand.” When I
saw her skeptical look, I went on. “I’m not saying I’m happy about it, but if
you’ve made up your mind, I’m not going to change it. I know better.”

“Aren’t you curious
why?”

I didn’t answer for
several long moments. The question felt like a trap, and I wasn’t so sure I
wanted to spring it.

“If you feel the need to
tell me I’ll hear you out—”

“Hear you out?” She
frowned. “You have got to be kidding me. Look you’re a nice enough guy—”

A gunshot cut through the late morning air. It came from just up ahead.

Pick up your copy today!

The Hikers: Chapter 1 was originally published on DAN DECKER

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