WHEN JAKE HAD TOSSED his gear into the motorhome, he walked Brenda over to the driver’s door of the Subaru. She didn’t look pleased. Her cheeks were flushed.
“Hey, not to worry, okay?” he said, lifting her chin with two fingers.
“Why do you have to take that trail? This is Colorado, Jake. There are trails aplenty. Trail abound!” She raised her arms and let them fall, slapping her hands to her thighs. “Why don’t you go up Long’s? It’s nearby and I bet no hikers have been decapitated up there in the past two weeks.”
“I really wish he hadn’t told you that.”
“I’d heard something about it on the news—once—but I didn’t know it was the Paradox Falls trail. I thought it was near Paradox but not the very same trail.”
“Why don’t you come home with me, Jake, and let Kristen and David get decapitated?”
Brenda gave a mischievous smile as she glanced over at Kristen toting an oversized nylon duffel bag down the steps of the deck, her large, red sunglasses hanging down her tanned, classically sculpted cheeks. Behind her, David was toting an ice chest and trying his damnedest not to trip over his flip flops.
“That wouldn’t be very nice, would it?” Jake remonstrated Brenda. “Friends don’t let friends get decapitated alone, Bren.”
Brenda folded her arms on her breasts and whispered, “She needs a little professional help like I need a hole in my head. The woman doesn’t have an ounce of cellulite anywhere on her fucking body.”
Jake pulled Brenda against his chest and wrapped his arms around her neck, hugging her tightly. “Thanks for the blowjob.”
“Go now, or I’m going to get a hard on, remembering.”
“Oh, you’re going to get a hard on, anyway, you snot.”
He kissed her. She wrapped her arms around his neck and opened her mouth, returning the kiss aggressively. She tugged on his ears almost painfully. She gave him a wry scowl from beneath her brows then turned and climbed into the Subaru, causing the struts to squawk.
“I love you,” Jake said, rubbing his left ear.
“That’s the blowjob talking.”
“Good-bye, Bren!” Kristen said as she hauled the duffel bag toward the motorhome.
“Yeah, bye, Bren!” David called, the ice chest rattling in his brawny arms, flip flops clapping as though in admiration. “Hey, if I was being an asshole, I’m sorry, okay?”
“Okay!” Brenda said with a too-bright smile, and closed the door.
She backed up the Subaru, turned around, and bounced past the Buddha and back across the bridge toward the main highway. Jake felt relieved that she was gone. He felt guilty for feeling relieved.
He wished that Dave would somehow disappear, too. Not really. In many ways Jake felt as close to Dave as to Kristen, maybe closer. But it was a brotherly kind of closeness, which meant there was competition between them. Petty jealousy and rivalry that had followed them through the years though now that Jake had gotten the short end of life’s stick, so to speak, he was the petty one. The jealous one. The one having to harbor the heavy, nagging, knotted up feelings of resentment directed at a man who frankly outclassed him.
Still, Jake loved Dave. Or David. If anything were ever to happen to David, Jake would feel as though one of his arms had been cut off.
Now, watching Brenda’s Subaru disappear through the trees, the engine humming, springs hiccupping, he realized that his animosity didn’t end with David. He felt a little of the same toward Kristen. She belonged to David now, and Jake felt that she ever-so-subtly lorded it over him, her having won David, his best friend from childhood, who was able to supply her with all that she’d ever wanted in terms of material comforts and status.
Jake had to admit to himself that toward Brenda he felt sadness. She’d been the one who’d had to settle for him, a man whose dreams would never come true. At least not in the way he’d first imagined them. And here he was, the odd man out at the beginning of a camping trip—a penniless fool who still lusted after his first true love.
His best friend’s wife.
“She’s quite a gal, Jake.”
Kristen startled him. He turned to see her standing just off his left shoulder, staring off in the direction of where Brenda’s Subaru had disappeared. She smelled of patchouli oil. He could bathe in the smell of her.
“I could shoot David,” she added.
“Who’d drive the motorhome?”
“Hell, no—I’m not driving that fucking grain elevator with wheels!” Jake said as, wrapping an arm around Brenda, they headed for the motorhome whose engine David was loudly revving, flashing the lights on and off.
He honked three times.
“Come on, lovebirds—let’s hit the road before the falls freezes up for the winter!”
The mountains were beautiful—high and rocky and carpeted in the gauzy greens of pines and firs and the lighter greens of aspens. The air blowing through the motorhome’s open windows was rife with the smell of pine resin. The sky arching over the mountains was cobalt blue. As they wound up the canyon road north of Boulder, Jake saw a bald eagle sitting on a green sign announcing NEDERLAND 5 MI.
The creek twisting along the canyon bottom below the highway winked and flashed in the crisp, high-altitude sunlight, the white froth of rapids billowing high and violently around rocks. Jake sat at the dinette, near the driver’s side window, and at times the creek pounding down the steep, rocky canyon between towering, evergreen-clad ridges sounded like a freight train.
Nora Jones was giving melodic hell to some girl named Miriam over the ceiling speakers—a peculiar contrast to the creek and the humming of the thirty-footer’s tires on the curving blacktop, the occasional mosquito whine of a motorcycle passing on the rare broken center line.
“Me an’ Jake are gonna get high!” Kristen proclaimed, pulling a baggy down from a small, rectangular cupboard near the ceiling. “Aren’t we, squirrel?”
“Hey, not fair!” David said, staring through the mirror in the sun visor hanging down over the driver’s side of the windshield. He was still smoking the stogie.
“Why isn’t it fair?” Kristen said, plopping down on the cushioned dinette seat across from Jake, her back to David. She was smiling, teasing. Her light blue eyes flashed in the sunlight pushing through the window. It glinted on the highlights in her silky honey-blond hair.
“Because I’m driving.”
“It doesn’t agree with you, anyway.” As she filled a small, stainless steel pipe with chopped marijuana from the baggy, Kristen glanced at Jake. “He always gets philosophical when he’s high. He acts like it’s real profound stuff—like he’s spouting Camus or Schopenhauer or somebody, before Camus or Schopenhauer spouted it, of course—but it’s actually the most hackneyed stuff you ever heard. In fact, you probably have heard it...back in seventh grade.”
“I heard that!” David called.
“You two think you’re so fucking smart!”
“I tell you—we get shed of the girls for a few days, and he starts talking like he's a character in a Quentin Tarantino movie.”
“Honey?” he called again, grinning into the sun visor mirror—all white teeth and white-framed sunglasses.
Kirsten batted her eyes. “Yes, honey?”
“I love you!”
“What’s not to love, honey?”
“Bitch!” David flipped her off, smiling. He puffed the stogie.
“Right back at ya, honeybunch!” Kristen winked at Jake. “I hope all that stuff about the murders didn’t scare Brenda too badly.”
“She’ll be fine.” Jake accepted the pipe and scratched a green plastic Bic lighter to life over the bowl. He touched the flame to the marijuana, and drew the smoke deep into his lungs.
“Looks like you two are doing fine, eh?” Kristen asked.
Jake blew out the smoke, coughing a little. Brenda didn’t approve of him smoking, even after it had become legal in Colorado. They couldn’t afford it. Besides, high, he frittered away too much time. So he wasn’t used to it though he’d smoked plenty in high school and college. He liked the instant heady languor the smoke filled him with, however. The endless depth it gave the world though in time that depth got to be way too deep and filled with far too many possibilities, too many angles at looking at things. All of them profound.
“What do you mean?” he asked Kristen, chuckling for no reason except that the pot edged everything in a wry humor.
Kristen lit up, inhaled and said while letting only a little smoke out between her pink, bee-stung lips at a time, “You were late getting here...and you two looked a little sheepish.”
“Ha!” David said into the sun visor mirror.
“I was right!” David said.
“Yep, you called it, dearest.” Kristen repacked the pipe and offered it to Jake, who waved it off. “Jake, is she...?”
“Is she what?” Jake asked.
Kristen took another hit from the pipe, and blew the smoke out in a thin, blew cloud that smelled of fresh-cut hay. “Is she jealous of me?”
“Honey, I can’t hear above Nora Jones and the wheel noise,” David yelled. He flipped a switch, and Nora Jones’s crooning stopped abruptly. “Can you speak a little louder? I don’t want to feel entirely left out up here!”
“Okay—sorry, hon,” Kristen said, turning sideways on the dinette seat and crossing her legs. “I asked Jake if Brenda was jealous of me.”
David frowned into the mirror. “Jealous of you? Why would she be jealous of you? Bren’s hot!”
Kristen turned to Jake but spoke loudly enough for David to hear above the tires. “I don’t know—I’m just asking.”
“I don’t know—maybe a little.”
“What’d he say?” David yelled.
Kristen turned squarely to Jake and rolled her eyes, dismissing David. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
She reached across the table and wrapped her hand around Jake’s wrist. “I hope it doesn’t cause problems between you two. Or us four. I really wish she could have come on the hike. I like Brenda. A lot. I’d really like us all to be friends. But if she’s feeling uncomfortable about things from our past...a relationship that occurred so long ago that I can hardly even remember the details anymore...well, that’s a problem I think we should all sit down and discuss.”
Brenda canted her head, frowning, probing Jake with her frank, blue-eyed gaze. “Don’t you?”
Jake wasn’t sure if it was the pot or the topic, but he was starting to feel a little depressed. He wished the subject had never come up. He was grateful when David yelled into the mirror, “Hey give me a hit of that. I can drive fine under the influence of a little Mary Jane. In fact, I straighten up at the wheel!”
He smiled with all those teeth again.
“Okay,” Kristen said. “But just a little one!”
“Just a little one!” David yelled, glancing over his shoulder. “Where’ve you heard that before, Ernest Hemingway?” He winked at Jake.
“Not from me—that’s for sure!” Kristen yelled, giving Jake a furtive glance and laughing as she filled the pipe.
“Hey, I thought you couldn’t remember the details!” David yelled, frowning indignantly into the mirror.
“Hey, I thought you couldn’t hear above the road noise!” Kristen retorted, handing Dave the pipe.