The sun’s reflection shot up from the snow and Brady stumbled, pupils narrowing in the harsh winter glare. He took a sip of water from a bottle in his pocket, swished it in his mouth, and spat it in the snow before squinting up. A man leaning from the helicopter’s door was speaking through a megaphone. Brady couldn’t make any words out. The megaphone got louder, a fuzzy wonking drone dopplering in the swirling air, still unintelligible. His stomach roiled. He pointed at his ears and shook his head. The man with the megaphone disappeared, leaving Brady to shiver in the gusts of the blades until the man pitched something out that fell and landed with a steaming splash in the snow. Brady trudged to the small crater it left. Steaming brown splotches surrounded the object he dug out—a paper coffee cup. He lifted it and saw scrawled on its side:
Shooter at large in park. Last seen headed toward Rainbow falls. Head west back to ranger station. Do not leave park w/out escort.
Brady looked up. The man leaned out of the helicopter again, gave Brady a thumbs up. Brady gave a thumbs up back, his eyes watering in the freezing air under the rotaries. Another coffee cup came tumbling from the chopper, and Brady stepped aside to avoid being hit.
He waved his arms across his body, shaking his head. He would move on, but he wasn’t done running just yet.
nce camp was struck and he finished packing, Brady headed south, away from the mountain, his sloth ceding slowly to a distant sense of urgency. The open, snowed-over plain soon gave way to thick forest, the covered trail perceptible only from the gap in the trees. He figured if he headed into the woods away from the foot of the mountain, the odds of him finding—or being found by—anybody were slim. It was New Year’s Day, and he’d snowshoed out into the backcountry, away from the bonfires and acoustic guitar sing-alongs and the drunken midnight countdowns. Whatever happened with this shooter, Brady assumed it was some idiot revelry gone wrong.
He hiked for an hour and a half, sweating his hangover out into the knit cap pulled low over his brow, before stopping at a densely wooded bend. He brushed the snow off a felled tree and unpacked his stove and percolator. He had a general idea of where he was in the park, but couldn’t be positive; he’d opened his first fifth of vodka before setting camp the night before, so while he knew he was on the southern face of Mt. Farrier and generally east of the first trailhead he’d set off from, he would need to get his bearings.
He would go back in two days. Until then, he was going to catch fish and get drunk and stay lost.
He studied a map while his coffee brewed. He was going to continue east to hit Jawbone Creek. He’d set up camp there and stay for two nights. That was as much plan as he had.
The day had turned bright and clear, but the canopy of snow-covered evergreens kept the trail twilit. Brady sipped his coffee. He was—had been—the accountant for a small chain of gas stations run by his old classmate, Nate. Nate’s family owned dollar junk stores, gas stations, and a few sundry strip malls across the state. He and Brady had started working around the same time, Brady for spending money and Nate in preparation for his ascent to the hand of his father. When Nate was moved to work in the corporate office, Brady stayed on the cash register; when Nate was given run of four stores, he asked Brady if he’d like to keep an eye on the books. Nate was affable, no more condescending than seemed natural, and typically absent.
When Brady had walked into his office the previous day, he found Nate and his father sitting behind his desk. Nate’s father Brady had met several times, but did not know well. The man believed in grave solemnity in the presence or discussion of money, and Brady had never really found the energy for more than apathetic deference in conversation with him. He wore a hat and suspenders and the serious face of a banker foreclosing on a farmer in an old-time movie. Nate looked nervous, squeezed a binder clip between his fingers. It occurred to Brady he ought to start panicking.
“Mr. Brady,” said Nate’s father. “I assume you can guess why we’ve come here today.”
He could, of course. “No, sir, I’m not sure I can.” Suspenders, he thought. Who wears suspenders?
“Why don’t you sit down,” said Nate’s father. Brady did. His pulse rose and his vision tunneled, the flat desktop between the three of them stretching out in front of him. He wondered how long Nate’s father had planned saying why don’t you sit down. “You’re stealing from us, Brady.”
It was true. Still, it surprised Brady to hear it put like that. It had started simply enough, with Brady making company transactions with his personal credit card to keep the cash reward—which Nate would never have minded, even if he’d known. Then Brady began adding his own utilities to company purchase orders, a fraction of the bill one station could run up in a month. Soon he folded in car payments, the occasional grocery trip. His graft blossomed in a piecemeal way, until the station was paying almost all his expenses.
“Yes,” Brady said. “I guess I am.”
Nate’s father stared at him across the desk. Nate focused his attention on his binder clip. Brady began to feel hostile. They hadn’t missed the money. He knew their profits: just over three million a year from keeping a few junk stores and gas stations—which people couldn’t exactly do without—from going bankrupt. If they raised the price of mid-grade fuel one penny, they’d gross more in a quarter than Brady had taken total.
He realized through his temper that the room had been quiet for a long time.
“We’ve had an audit done,” said Nate’s father. He passed a stack of papers across the desk. There was an enumerated list of purchases, and a few heavy bond sheets of paper with an embossed corporate seal on them. “Twenty-eight thousand dollars,” he said. He almost grinned. “It took some time digging all this up.”
Brady maintained his silence. That number seemed impossible. He’d only ever considered the marginal rate of his misdeeds; it came to him for the first time that the tiny sediments of action had settled into something like concrete guilt in the base of his consciousness.
“Here is our offer,” said Nate’s father, “which I think is more than you deserve.” He looked at Nate, who looked at the binder clip still in his hands. “Repay the sum in ten business days, or face charges. Does that seem fair?”
Brady muttered that it did.
riving home from the office, his indignation had faded into an accelerated numbness. It seemed logical to feel panicked, but he was so wholly clueless as to his next move that he found himself incapable of specific worry. Uncertainty was a kind of anesthetic.
In his living room, he looked around and tried to guess how much his possessions were worth. His sofa, television, and desktop computer might come to two grand, tops. He struggled to think of other options. A loan shark, a stick-up…those were capers from ridiculous movies, or lives less mired in tepid inertia. He realized he was narrating the situation to himself, as if hearing the events might establish a motivation that would lead to a logical plan: “Next, in order to ______, Brady decided to _______.” But twenty-eight thousand dollars.
He loaded his car with his backpacking gear, his only idea to split the difference between clearing his mind and fleeing outright. He went to where people go for such things. He went to the mountain.
s he kept hiking toward Jawbone Creek, the sun began to penetrate the evergreen canopy of the trail. He felt himself sweating hard and was glad to be shedding himself. An hour into the woods, the wilderness opened itself up to him. Here he was, unafraid of being spotted through the thick trees, with nobody to explain himself to. The snow made the forest feel like an expansive plain: the trees rose from the heavy white carpet, their tangling roots invisible, each trunk a lone stave. His own feet obscured in the snow, he felt like one of the trees himself. Viewed at a great enough height, he would look like one, another small, semi-distinct point on the spectral field of white. He was comforted by the thought. He opened his second fifth of vodka and carried it with him in good cheer.
Brady liked to fish. There were a lot of component parts to get right—your cast, your fly, the area you were fishing, and so on. If you weren’t catching anything, there was always something else to try, another possible solution. When Brady reached the creek, he found it running more than he’d guessed it would be. The day had warmed the ice around the bank. A light fog hung above the water, and the far bank was covered with dense rhododendron. He took another swig of vodka and set his pack down beside him to start assembling his rod.
Waders on and rod assembled, Brady tied on a fly, shuffled over to the stream, and stepped in. The cold current pressed his waders tight against his leg while he waded to midstream. It was impossibly, thrillingly quiet. He spotted a little pocket of deep water on the far bank, downstream of a rock that broke the current into swirling riffles. He cast into it and stripped his line in slowly. He focused completely on the line in his fingers, feeling the small tugs of the current as if he were sussing out a message in the pulls.
After Nate’s father had finished the whole ambush the day before, Nate had followed Brady outside. “Brady,” he’d asked hesitantly in the parking lot, “we were, you know, good to you, right?” He seemed genuinely troubled, as if he wanted some kind of benediction from Brady, a confession of deep-seated and permanent corruption that absolved Nate and his father.
“Yeah. Sure,” Brady said impatiently, half crouched into his driver seat.
“I guess that’s good,” Nate said. “I’m just trying to figure out, you know, why…”
“Nate,” Brady said, “let’s just not. I don’t know, okay? There’s no why.”
And he didn’t know. It had just been so easy. As months went by, it didn’t seem like theft nearly so much as a kind of moral overhead. Brady went on in the rest of his life a decent person, Nate and his father kept making money, and there was plenty room in the universe for this one small imbalance. He began to half believe he’d been caught already and that nobody cared—it was that easy. Once it got to where it was easier to keep going than to stop, there didn’t seem any reason to wean himself. The idea of consequence, of retribution, seemed almost trite or naïve. It was so easy.
He felt a strike on his fly, stripped his line hard to set the hook. The old shock was in him, the electric pull at the end of the line. The trout jumped, a slick of winter-dulled rose helixing above the water before falling fatly back down. Brady lowered his hands through the jump and the fish stayed on the line. The hook was good and on. He reeled his line in slower than he usually would. He would make the fish submit before he reeled it in, hold it thrashing on the hook until it gave in to his pull to be dragged on its side into the net. He felt a pang of guilt at forcing the fish to suffer on the taut line, but the satisfaction of control prevailed. The tug at the end of the line pulled away the bile of memory, and now he was present in the stream, Nate’s pleading, gaping mouth replaced by the mute struggle of the trout. He stopped reeling altogether, pointing his rod toward the thrashing fish but letting it fight, for he knew he had it. He felt blank and victorious and in command of the heaving mass below the surface.
Eventually the fish ran out of fight, and the light waned. As twilight of his second day approached, Brady fried the trout whole in the pan of his stove, mixing in some boxed rice from his pack. Pulling the seared meat off the filament bones, he knew it was only a trivial independence that distanced him from the day before, but he felt panic and shame receding. He was here and the past was past. It had no hold on him. And if he could sit over his stove and keep the previous day from crowding the warmth of the present moment, then the future was still untainted and available to him. He fell asleep content and blank.
e slept late the next morning, the cover of trees and clouds blocking the sun from his tent until well after dawn. The pleasant feeling from the night before hadn’t faded. He dressed and drank his coffee slowly, reveling in his quiet mind. He prepared his rod and waded into the river to pick on the same small eddy where he’d found his fish the night before. His cast was smooth and mechanical, the fly gracefully lolling onto the stream. The clouds began to part, and a ray of sun found the stream and the rhododendron on the other bank.
When he noticed the snowed-over leaves concealed a flash of color, fear spread upward through his veins like cold from the water. The light had dimmed again under the clouds, but he could make out an orange blaze knit cap and a flash of blue below it. He couldn’t move. He wanted to throw himself into the water, to duck and creep away, but stranded in the middle of the stream he saw no sensible action. He’d been seen, of course. For how long?
He locked his knees and stood still—a ridiculous reaction, but he couldn’t wade back to his pack right now. He broke out in a flop sweat. His tongue felt thick and cakey dry. The only thing to do, he thought, was to make it clear he wasn’t a threat. He wouldn’t report anything to anybody, he wasn’t searching—he wasn’t a threat. He watched the man crouched in the branches for another moment. There was nothing else to do. He waved. “Hello,” he yelled, trying not to sound questioning.
There was no response. Brady thought he saw the man shift.
“Hello,” he yelled again. Shadows passed over the leaves of the trees. He had to talk to the man, had to tell him that as far as Brady was concerned, he hadn’t spotted a soul. He thought about walking back to his pack and hearing the shot ring out behind, directly between his shoulder blades.
He began to wade, very slowly, upstream. The man stayed where he was, obscured by the rhododendron. Brady reached the bank and crouched, his hands in front of him. He saw the man’s face—he was young, with close-cut blond hair—and saw he was wearing a blue windbreaker and jeans soaked below the knees from the snow. He saw that the man was dead.
From his vantage point by the stream, Brady couldn’t see a gun, or any obvious wound or blood. He stepped out of the stream and made his way toward the body. The man’s face was blue—snow fallen on his eyelashes had hardened into ice. He was thin, athletic-looking. His sneakers were soaking wet. Tracks half covered by fresh snow led from the creek to where the man lay.
Brady had no concept, really, of survival at its basic elements. He knew how to set up a tent when it was already raining, he knew how to build a fire with the shavings from the magnesium block he carried in his pack—the sorts of things you might learn in scouts. But the frank reality of exposure was foreign to him. How long did it take to freeze to death? Dressed like the man was, Brady assumed not very long, but you hear stories all the time.
The gun. When his initial shock faded, Brady stopped over the body. There was, tucked into the man’s waistband, the outline of a pistol. He tried to lift the man’s shirt just enough to grab the gun with his fingertips, but the shirt was frozen stiff, as were the man’s jeans. Brady had to brace a hand against the man’s hip. He gave a tug, and the gun came loose with a sort of separating crack where it had stuck to the frozen denim. The man listed to one side, rigid in his slumped posture, his shirt hiked up to reveal his blue, frozen back above the waist of his jeans. His face was stiff and lean against the ground, eyes still closed. Brady was filled with the sense that the man had been preserved in a state of flight, like a cadaver with a particular condition Brady was supposed to study.
There was no scowl or grimace frozen on the man’s marbled face, no confession of guilt in his features. There would have to be a note, or a photograph—some torn or tear-stained missive that explained his motive. Brady could see a wallet in the man’s back pocket. He stared at the patch of skin above the man’s waistband, marveled that it was still so obviously skin. He might have expected it to lose its familiarity—and it was true that the stark blue veins under its surface lent it a kind of geological coldness—but if he pressed into the skin, it would warm and soften under his fingertips. If it were warmer, it would bruise. He worked his fingers into the man’s pocket and pried the wallet free, staring the whole time at the map of veins.
It was nylon, trifold, navy blue with silver piping. It was frozen, and the Velcro strip made it hard to open. Inside, there was no cash. There was an expired Navy ID card. Nicholas Naylor. Naylor was older than he looked: thirty-eight. Tucked in a pocket behind the cards was a worn, dirty-edged photo of a little boy pushing a toy lawn mower across a brown rug. Two credit cards. One membership card to a bar called the Lighthouse, with a phone number scrawled across the back in pen. An employee swipe card for a grocery store near Bellingham. Nothing else. No lovelorn farewell, no bilious screed or ransom note or any window at all into what might have driven Naylor this far. It was maddening, insufficient.
Brady recalled that people were hunting this man. He had now stumbled into their path. He sat down next to Naylor’s body. “Nicholas,” he said. “It seems we have come to the end.”
He didn’t know exactly what Naylor had done, or who he’d shot, or whether he’d managed to even really shoot anybody. But he knew what came next for Naylor, now that he lay in the deadening snow by the creek. There would be mute horror and awed speculation, a slew of newspaper inquiries into his past. Was it PTSD? Did his father hit him? Naylor was a shooter, and his whole life would now be reorganized around that trajectory, a series of steps on the pathway to this point.
Brady took a drink of his vodka and picked up Naylor’s gun. He felt shamed by its decisiveness, the way its latent power made him thrill to its touch. The gun was inarguable. It was for shooting, and Naylor had become a shooter. Brady was a rounding error, an errant column penciled in the margins of a gas station expense report. A few bills tucked under the register, a grubby little sleight of hand. He couldn’t pull moments from his life to explain how he was here, sitting next to a shooter in the snow. The gun was its own explanation.
Brady took it in his hand. It had a heavy menace, expertly weighted to evoke in the holder a need to feel its bark. To feel its kick, to feel its fat malicious recoil slap against his palm. Its handle had a sort of rough matchbox texture, and Brady imagined a callus forming on the balls of his fingers. His wrapped his hand around the grip, and his finger came to rest on the trigger. Pulling it was an inevitability built into the gun’s design. He did. It was louder than he imagined, and he instinctively turned to check Naylor, to assess his reaction. Naylor remained in the snow, unjudging.
The gun’s boom had shattered the feeling of cloister under the blanketed branches. He had walked into the woods to force some realization on himself, some moment where he might declare: Here I am, Brady, acting as my true and purest self to make peace with my past and claim my future.
He fired the gun again. It was loud as a bough exploding from the ice in its vein. He fired it a third time, and a fourth. They would hear. They would be here soon. He would have to explain himself.
Danny Nowell is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. He has covered the NBA for ESPN.com, and has published fiction, essays, and critical reviews elsewhere.