The Crack – Rebecca Andem

“Hiking in Scotland. In November.” Jim dug into his ear. He was certain something was crawling in there. “Off-season rates,” he muttered. He studied his finger. Nothing. When he glanced at her, Caroline huddled deeper into her coat. “You do know that hiking is free?”

She didn’t bother to respond. In the failing light, her face was lit by the screen of her phone. She’d been looking for a signal for hours. Jim had tried to explain that although there most likely was a signal, it probably couldn’t dip into the ravine. He was trying to be reassuring, but in truth he had no idea how signals moved in space. Or what signals were actually.

“Gully,” she’d corrected, slanting her teacher’s gaze at him. “A ravine is carved by water.” She shuffled her feet through the sediment of leaves at the bottom of whatever it was they had fallen into. “No water.”

Jim didn’t know if she was right. As far as he knew, the earth had simply cracked open. And they were the fools who slipped through the crack.

That was hours ago. Now they weren’t even talking. The silence had seeped into the gully along with the gloom. Or the gloaming. He knew that word. Evening. Twilight. Dusk. Everything that was supposed to be soft and beautiful threatened them now.

If the highlands didn’t suffer fools, they definitely roused the brave. Jim had never known such a formidable environment. The air was purer than a dream but sharp enough to slap them awake, and under skies glinting like chrome, even the foolish felt brave. Every peak rewarded them with a panorama of moors turning to rust in the autumn chill, then spun them around and offered yet another craggy peak demanding courage and endurance.

Caroline was the avid hiker, but Jim was fit from hours on the treadmill. That afternoon they’d paced each other up the hills, sucking in the cool draughts as their muscles burned. For the first time in months, they were in sync.

It was Caroline who wanted to leave the trail. She was the one who insisted they had plenty of time to retrace their steps, and when they found the ravine – the gully – she was the one who leaned far over the edge to photograph a bird neither of them could name. But Jim, Jim was the one who failed to catch her. Jim was the one who somehow managed to fall with her.

They had tried to escape. They didn’t immediately sit down and surrender. Perhaps an hour was spent clutching at miniscule edges on the rock face. gaining a foot or two and sliding back down, over and over, their hands bloodied and frayed. Hopelessly, they grasped at roots as thin and desiccated as death. They called for help until their voices were as raw as the landscape. They even put Caroline’s high school cheerleading to use and tried to build a human pyramid of two, but when Jim’s twisted ankle wobbled under them, she lost her footing and stepped on his ear. He was pretty sure whatever had taken up residence in his ear had crawled in at that point.

“Jim. Leave it alone.”

Jim pulled his finger out of his ear. Stealthily, he eyed the tip. Nothing.

“Any signal?” he asked.

Caroline sighed.

“I guess you wish you were with some kind of MacGyver right now, somebody who could make a fire by rubbing stones or turn a tree branch into an antenna.” He risked looking at her. “You probably wish you were with anyone but me.”

Caroline lifted her head. In the thickening darkness, the phone spotlighted her face, and Jim could see the flare of her reaction. Anger, bewilderment, consternation. He didn’t know the word.

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

For a second he thought maybe he was wrong. Maybe she did still love him.

“Jim! You pushed me!”

***

Rebecca Andem earned an MFA from the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine. Her short stories have appeared in literary journals such as Upstreet, Hamilton Stone Review, Burrow Press Review, Petrichor Review, and Wilde Magazine. For many years she was a traveling English teacher in China, Vietnam, Thailand, and Russia. Currently, she lives in Tucson, Arizona, where she’s soaking up the sun and dreaming of her next adventure.