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Michael pounded down loose, jagged rocks on a mountain as steep as a playground slide. He maneuvered around huge, gray-pink stones that were scattered along the cliff as if God had thrown them down in handfuls. It rained hard the previous night, and ruts were gouged into the pebbly sand between boulders. The air smelled heavy and earthy. His mind was on Chloe. Damn, why didn’t he say something supportive? Michael strode too close to a deep furrow in the trail, and the ground under his boot gave way. He somersaulted over the edge of a steep drop and landed on his blue rucksack. Michael’s head snapped back like he’d been clocked with a right cross and smacked a sharp stone. He blanked out. When he awoke it was late afternoon. His hair was matted damp, and he had a bump the size of an onion. His legs under kaki shorts were tangled in a thorny bush and ripped bloody like a harpy had gone at them with talons. He tried to move, but pain shot up his spine like a driven nail. The pounding in his skull brought tears to his eyes. He laid back. He was under a tall oak, and the sun tattooed his face with leaf shadows. His sunglasses had flown somewhere. He closed his eyes to the sun’s glare that shot through the branches.
* * *
Michael spotted Chloe walking into class in white short-shorts: legs like sculpted bronze. She was a starting forward. He treated her to a movie, and a burger, and they lingered over glasses of the house red wine.
Chloe sipped from her tumbler. “My coach encourages me to play soccer professionally, and I have the desire, but my father wants me to pursue medicine or law; sports for him are frivolous. When I was a kid my Dad wouldn’t let me ride my bike past the corner of our street like he was afraid some maniac was going to grab me. Anyway my parents have the money and it’s like I’m cocooned in financial bondage.”
They dated, and Michael attended her games. One day he watched Chloe play an entire half through an eyelet in his baseball cap, so he could shut out everything but her.
* * *
Michael’s mouth was sticky. He grasped for his water bottle, but it was crushed under him against a rock. The ground was still wet, and he dipped fingers and brought gritty dampness to his lips. He strained his ears for a distant voice or a footfall above the rustle of the breeze through quivering leaves. Someone will come, he thought. He focused on his breathing. Everything will be okay. Someone will come.
* * *
Michael and Chloe had been together six months. They sipped lattes at an outdoor table of the University coffee shop. Michael had a recruitment brochure spread on the wrought iron table. “After school I’m headed for the Marines. They only take genius-jocks into OCS; you know 4.0 grades and leader of the swim team. But once I’ve done a tour, they’ll accept me at Quantico. Lieutenant Michael Breen. What do you think?”
Chloe made a half smile. Her finger ran along the crease of the booklet. She said, “I’m pregnant.”
Michael’s mouth opened like a baby poised to receive a spoonful of pabulum. He sat back. “When did you find out?”
Chloe took a sip of her non-fat latte and looked away. “Tuesday.”
“You waited to tell me?”
It was his baby, it must be. The world turned for a few minutes.
Chloe poured the remainder of her coffee into the grass. “I have to get to class.”
* * *
He slept fitfully during the night. When the sun cracked the horizon, the water from Michael’s bottle was just a cool spot of earth. How many days can you survive without water? Two? Three? He forgot. His throat felt like shoe leather, and it was hard for him to swallow. He thought of his mother, and his stomach sickened. No one saved her.
The day Michael’s mom and dad sat him down was fused in his brain, and the word “malignant” cracked a cold sweat on his forehead. After the operation and the chemo, the doctors said she was in remission. She bought some hairpieces and kidded that at least she needn’t worry about gray roots, but a few months later they removed her kidney. At the end his father had to give her morphine injections. His mom lapsed into a semi-coma, sometimes she’d cry out. When she was gone, at first Michael was relieved that her suffering was over. But afterwards, he locked himself in the bathroom and cried. Chloe was the only person he told.
* * *
Michael tried to stay awake the second night. Maybe they’re looking for me? He strained his ears. He thought he heard a voice, but no. Michael shivered with a cold that covered him like a shroud. Was this how it would end? He was too young. The words sputtered out. “God help me.” After his mother’s death, he hadn’t talked to God. If he got out of this, he’d marry Chloe. If there were a God, He would allow him to see the baby. Boy or girl, it doesn’t matter. His baby. Michael sobbed. “Chloe, I’m sorry.” His heart started to pound. He screamed, “Help, help.” He couldn’t just lie there. Tears filled his eyes. He shivered uncontrollably. He saw a shadow. “Hey, please, over here.” He bore the pain, and with dead legs he clawed toward the phantom.
* * *
It was the sunglasses. Who leaves a pair of polarized sunglasses on a rock? It got the two hikers looking around, and they spotted the royal blue of Michael’s rucksack under the cliff. They called out, but Michael didn’t move. They needed rigging to get to him. He had dirt in his mouth, and his fingernails were broken and bloody.