The kid tried to pull free, but I clamped my fingers down tighter, feeling my nails dig into the soft skin of his neck. He released a small yelp of pain. I knew I wasn’t hurting him that bad though, and I could tell he was still able to breathe because he was spouting a long grocery list of curse words at me. Some of them were pretty inventive, and that’s coming from a guy who’s been to many different rehab facilities, places were cursing is like a practiced art.
“Rod, let me fucking go, man,” Skylar gasped, pushing at my forearm and trying to get his fingers underneath mine. The kid’s neck was so thin my hand almost went all the way around. The sensation filled me with guilt, telling me I was practically choking out a baby. The thoughts didn’t stand a chance in the toxic mix of thoughts in my brain. This was no baby, this was an ungrateful little brat who thought he owned the universe and could do whatever he wanted. I knew in time the universe would show him differently and take him down a peg or two, but I thought I could take a few preemptive measures.
“Shut up and listen to me,” I said, trying to keep my voice calm.
“Let me go,” he growled. Spit was forming in the corners of his mouth and his face was turning a little red. Not with the lack of oxygen, but from anger.
“I will when you calm down and listen to me.” He lashed out with a free leg, trying to catch me off guard. I dodged it easily, and tightened my grip once more. He yelped once more. The sun broke through a section of the trees behind me and shone down on Skylar’s face, illuminating the twisted mass of emotion swimming there, as well as the long stretch of the forest floor that lay far behind us like a flat blanket.
“You have a very unhealthy attitude towards the world,” I said. I could hear the words my grade nine councilor had spoken to me all those many years ago. I couldn’t remember the whole speech, but I thought I could give it my best effort. Skylar continued to struggle for freedom, but I wasn’t letting go, and I was much stronger than he was. “If you keep this up, it will only lead you down a path to bad relationships, and bad choices.” That part didn’t sound quite right to me, but it still made sense, I pressed on.
“The world doesn’t owe you anything. It is you that owes the world for having grown up on it and left behind your own mangled footprint on her.” Skylar kicked out again, this nearly caught the sensitive bone of my shin, but I moved away just in time.
“Let me fucking go!” he snarled, reaching up and trying to pry my fingers loose. I could feel his nails digging into the soft flesh of my fingers, but it didn’t loosen my grip. Besides, I’d felt much worse pain in my life.
“You have no consideration for anyone but yourself. You think your life is a movie with you as the lead actor, and everyone else are just extras.” I smiled; the analogy was quite fitting.
He had stopped struggling now and was staring at me as if he were trying to burn a hole through my forehead with his eyes.
“You need to start respecting other people, starting with your grandfather, and you need to lay off on the damn drugs, they aren’t going to get you anywhere.” I continued to hold onto him for a moment longer. His eyes were still boring into me and his face was a deep shade of red beneath his short blonde hair, but he wasn’t struggling any longer.
“Can I let you go now?” I asked him. He nodded his head. “You aren’t going to try and throw an old man off a cliff?” He stared at me for a second before he shook his head. “Okay,” I said, and opened my palm. He took a small step back, hitched his bag up on his shoulders and stepped by me, making his way up the cliff face. I stood in silence, watching him maneuver his way up between rocks and over small patches of bush that had overgrown the small semblance of a trail we were following. He got a little ways up before turning around.
“Don’t try and preach to me again old man,” he said, his face regaining the red hue of anger.
Your blood pressure will be through the roof one day kid, I thought to myself.
“You think you’re all high and mighty because you have a few years on me, but tell me this,” he hitched his bag up on his shoulders again, shuffling his feet as he did so and sending a few small rocks rolling down the path in my direction. “Why should I listen to a guy with arms covered in track marks?” I glanced down at my exposed forearms, a place I usually kept concealed, but in the heat I had totally forgotten. I stared down at them, an uneasiness starting to swirl in my gut, then looked back to the kid.
“Doesn’t look like you took the right path either.” And with that, his punch line delivered, he turned and started walking back up the hill.
I stood there in stunned silence. A few birds fluttered between branches above me, and somewhere off to my left, something small was making its way between fallen logs across the wet leaves. Skylar continued to work his way up the cliff face, his progress was slow and I knew I could catch up if I wanted, but I wasn’t so sure I did anymore. The van and the big brick of coke waiting for me in there seemed more welcoming than ever. It didn’t feel very good to be taken down a peg by a child a quarter your age.
Turning the opposite way, I started to make my way back down the cliff. Arthur had been right, the kid really was an ungrateful little brat, an ungrateful brat with a drug problem at that.
It’s just little weed, I told myself as I placed a hand down on a rather large rock, feeling the warmth it had absorbed from the sun and dropping down a step.
Sure, but remind us how you got started? Normally, the thought would have stalled me in my place, but now, after what Skylar had said, I ignored it and continued to make my way down the cliff.
Fuck the kid, he could find the stupid case on his own.
A part of me knew all along that I would eventually turn around and start after Skylar again. It was just a matter of enough guilty thoughts running through my brain to make me come to the decision. Sober minds are a really convincing thing, usually I would shut him up with drugs, or booze if no drugs were present, but currently both were absent so I would have to deal.
You can help him.
This was the thought that finally did it for me. I wasn’t happy about the decision. Announcing my change in direction to the surrounding forest with a loud drop of the f-bomb.
The kid reminded me to much of myself to ignore it. I took in a deep breath, keeping my eyes closed to avoid any sight of him and sucked in the fresh forest air. If there is anything better to clear a head with I don’t know what it is. I took another, trying to ease the anger that was stiffening my muscles and turning my stomach like a pair of hands with a strong grip.
I opened my eyes, but instead of looking up the hill where I would see Skylar and his ridiculously large pack, I turned my eyes straight up. The sun was right above me. It shone down through the canopy turning the leaves to black shadows as fine as lace. A strong wind, one too high for me to feel, rustled through the leaves above. I watched as a few broke free from their branch holdings and started tumbling toward me like black snowflakes. I attempted to catch one, but it took a lazy spin and dodged my hand.
If someone had helped me at his age would I be appreciative now? Of course I would be.
How would I have reacted at the time? In response to this I could only laugh.
I started back up the cliff.
It didn’t take me long to catch up with the kid. His pack must have weighed nearly a ton, and he was sweating like a Greek in a bathhouse when I finally pulled up beside him. He ignored my presence walking beside him and continued trudging with his head down. His breathing was coming in harsh gasps and his face was red with the effort.
“You don’t slow down you’re going to join the very limited number of people who have had heart attacks before the age of 30,” I said, stepping around a rather large rock and scooting my way in front of him. I thought this might slow him down, but despite the fact I was standing in front of him, he didn’t stop.
“Just slow down and talk to me, kid,” I said, walking backward now and tossing the occasional glance over my shoulder to make sure I didn’t catch an ankle on a rock.
“Nothing to talk about,” he said. He hitched his bag and stepped forward, I continued walking backward. Sweat was dripping off his face and dark splotches had formed under his arms.
“There is,” I said, grunting as my heel struck a rock and almost sent me sprawling. “Just wait and let me talk. Please.” I’m not sure if it was because I asked nicely, or because he was just too tired to continue, but Skylar stopped and dropped his pack into the dirt. It threatened to roll back down the hill, and I moved to grab it once again. Skylar caught it before I could bend down.
“What do you want Rod?” he asked. Staring up at me. From my level on the hill, I was looking down on him and I didn’t like that. I stepped down to join him and sat down on a nearby boulder. It was warm from the sun. After taking a long drink from my water bottle I spoke.
“I want to apologize,” I said, looking at him. His eyes were fixed on me; any sign of the weed he’d smoked earlier had evaporated with the smoke. I noted that there were no marks on his neck. “As you saw I’ve had my own problems with drugs,” I pulled back my sleeve, which I had immediately rolled back down earlier, and showed him my marked arms. “So, when I saw you so casually abusing them, jealous anger was my immediate response, and I’m sorry.” My own honesty surprised me, and I couldn’t ignore the light feeling inside my stomach after the apology had left my system. It was a great feeling.
Skylar looked away from me, first in the direction of the bottom of the hill, then towards the top. I wondered how I would have reacted to an adult speaking to me in this way. As an adult was I even supposed to speak to a child in this way? God, parents have it tough.
“It’s okay,” Skylar said. He looked down at his hands. For the first time I noticed the camera he had clutched there.
For fuck’s sake, I thought. Anger immediately flooded in, but I bit it back. Let the kid film whatever he wanted. It’s not like the world was going to see the damn thing. I couldn’t help but shake my head and smile.
“Resilient little bastard,” I said. He looked up at me with surprise.
“What?” His eyes were wide and looked ten years younger than the rest of him. I pointed at the camera.
“Didn’t I already tell you about that damn thing.” He studied the camera in his hand as if it were the first time he’d seen it there.
“Oh yeah,” he moved to turn it off. “Sorry.” I held out a hand.
“Don’t worry about it, film all you want.” He looked up at me again.
“Yes.” I said.
“Yes,” he repeated.
“So you’re gonna co-star?” he asked. Studying his face, I tried to tell if he was serious, or just joking with me. I couldn’t tell.
“Well, I thought about it,” Skylar began, lifting his camera, and starting to motion a lot with his hands. I leaned back as to not get hit. “I figured the film would be pretty monotonous if it was just me running through the woods with a camera for an hour and a half, you know what I mean?”
“So, with you here, now we’ve got another character, we’ve got conflict we’ve got action. It’s all good.” The excitement in his voice surprised me and I could only laugh.
“It’s all a movie,” I said.
“Nothing, why don’t we just get going?”
“For sure.” Skylar jumped up and snatched his bag from the ground with energy levels I would never see again in my life. I lifted the small satchel I’d brought and placed it over my shoulder. From the brief spell of sitting down my muscles had started to relax and were now protesting at the fact they were being forced to work again.
“Onward.” Skylar said, and started to plod his way back up the hill.
We reached the top of the cliff shortly after, and I was surprised to see that the daylight was starting to leak from the sky.
“Holy shit, how long have we been walking for?” I asked, bending to place my hands on my knees, catching my breath. Skylar, standing near the cliff’s edge, pulled a cell from his pocket.
“Shit, no service,” he said. “Well, after you found me this morning and we got done talking to that ranger and everything it was nearly 3, and we must have been walking up that hill for nearly four hours.”
“Jesus,” I gasped.
“But look at this,” Skylar said, “fucking amazing.”
It looked as though all of Algonquin Park was stretched out below us. Despite the stitch burning in my side I stood up straight to take it in. Pebbles crunched beneath my boots as I stepped closer to the edge. Covering the earths rounded curves and ridges was a blanket of trees. A lake, as flat and calm as glass glowed blue amongst them. Dripped into it, like olive oil into water, were small islands covered in trees. Topping the vista was the sky, connected to the ridges of trees on the horizon like a puzzle piece.
While Skylar walked around with his camera, heeding my warnings to stay away from the edge of the cliff, I sat down on a rock and ate the last of the peanuts I’d brought along in a small tin. The view was nothing short of spectacular, and I did nothing but take it in. Absorbing it the way a person absorbs the heat from the sun.
Skylar joined me shortly after doing a few rounds, and placed the camera down on the rock in front of us with a click. He plopped down beside me, dropping his pack at his feet. He reached for the front pocket of his bag.
“Be careful what you pull out of there,” I said, pointing a finger at him.
“Don’t worry, gramps,” he said, waving a hand at me. “It’s not what you think.” He opened the pocket and pulled out a granola bar wrapped in aluminum packaging. He held one out to me. I took it gladly, the peanuts being only enough to wake up my appetite.
“So what are we going to do?” I asked him. He stared out over the trees for a minute. I marveled at how young he was. Being my age, and the habits I’d developed, spending time around youth was not something I was accustomed to. It was kind of eerie.
“Well, what do you think?” he asked.
“Well,” I looked up at the sky. “I judge we’ve got about two hours of daylight left.”
“How can you tell?” Skylar asked. I looked over at him, then angled my head behind us, and turned on the rock I was sitting on. I pointed through the trees.
“It’s just a guess, a rough estimate if you ever need to know, but you see the sun there,” he squinted through the trees, where the sun was glowing like a light bulb behind bars.
“Yeah,” he said.
“And you can see the horizon as well.” Through the trees, from our high altitude, I could see the tops of the trees lower down on the forest floor and where they seemed to drop off the earth a few kilometers away. The trees standing closest to us obscured all this, but one could manage.
“Yes,” he said.
“Hold your hand up like this,” I held up my hand up so I had my palm sideways with my fingers stacked upon one another. Skylar did the same. “And if you close one eye and place your index finger beneath the sun, however many fingers can fit between the sun and the horizon is how many hours of daylight you have left.”
“Really?” Skylar asked. “Is that for real?” I shrugged.
“Maybe, my grandfather taught me that trick years ago.” I looked at the cell phone clutched in his hand. “I’m sure that thing could tell you a much more accurate time.”
“If it had service,” Skylar said, looking a the phone and dropping it into the top pocket of his bag. “It’s just a really, really, expensive clock now.” I nodded.
“Anyways,” I continued, “we could either head back, and spend a night on the cliff side, or stay here, and try and find your case in the morning. Either way you spin it, I think we’re spending another night in the woods.”
“Wicked!” Skylar said. Jumping to his feet. “I’ll get the tent.” The kid was up and moving in a flash, unzipping a side pocket of his bag which appeared to open up to the rest of the bag because Skylar’s entire arm disappeared into it. When it came back out he was holding a small canvas bag no bigger than a shoebox.
“It’s a two man,” he said.
“Why did you bring a two man tent with you?” I asked.
“Well, I didn’t want to cram into a one-man with that thing,” he said, pointing to his pack. “Now though I think the bag can stay outside, it already spent one night out there, what’s another one?”
“You’re just lucky you put the rain protector on it before you decided to leave it there,” I said. He nodded. A dark look had come over his face.
“I think you’ll be a little warmer in that thing tonight,” I told him, “and dryer.”
“No doubt,” he said. He started to pull things out of the small bag and before I knew it, he had a small tent set up, a simple thing with only two poles but it looked thick enough to keep out of the rain and would be much warmer than sleeping on the rock face.
“Good work, kid,” I said.
“Want to get a fire going?” he asked.
“Sure thing.” I set off into the woods as the sunlight faded away. As I gathered small pieces of kindling, my mind drifted to the van again. I pushed the thought away though, and for the first time regretted the cowardly nature of what I had planned for my trip up here.
Once I had the fire going I sat back. My stomach released a series of grumbling remarks. I patted my gut, as if trying to ease the hunger there.
“Hungry?” Skylar asked, laughing.
“Starving.” I said.
“Why didn’t you say so?” He got up before I could say anything more and when he returned he held a plastic grocery bag that looked to be near bursting. Inside were individually wrapped sandwiches of all kinds, chocolate bars, a few bags of chips, and lining the bottom were apples, oranges and a couple bananas.
“My mom goes a little overboard sometimes,” he said. A little colour was starting to creep into his face. I laughed.
“Well thank you, Mom!” I exclaimed. I waited for Skylar to grab what he wanted then took the first sandwich my hands fell on. It turned out to be turkey and swiss with honey mustard. “How long did your mother think you were staying out here for?” He laughed.
“I told her only a couple nights.”
“And this is what she packs?” I marveled. “Lucky kid.” He shrugged.
Once I’d eaten another sandwich along with a bag of chips and a banana, I released a loud belch and washed it down with a few swigs of water from my bottle.
“Thanks, Skylar,” I said.
“No problem.” A half eaten sandwich sat in front of him, along with a bag of chips that barely looked touched.
“You okay, kid?” I asked. He shrugged again.
“What is it?” His face was downcast, and he was studying his hands again. The camera sat where he left it on the rock, but it was turned toward the two of us now. I thought maybe this was something he didn’t want on camera. I didn’t move though.
“Just scared,” Skylar said. I was shocked. It washed over me in a wave, the kid’s emotions were all over the place and it made me tired just thinking about it.
“Scared of what?” I asked, looking around us. “Is this not the right place?”
“No, it’s the right place,” he said. “It’s just that.” He pointed a finger behind him where the tent stood. A dark dome of shadow.
“No, not the tent you ass, the cliff, the crack in the cliff.”
“What crack?” Skylar stood up and made his way around the tent, I stood and followed. In the dimness he had disappeared for a moment, as my eyes adjusted I saw his shadowed form standing near the edge of the trees. He was looking down at something.
Stepping up beside him, I halted and looked down to see our toes edging against a black crevice. It snaked its way from the cliffs’s edge to our right and cut in about ten meters into the forest. It was nearly a meter wide.
“The case is down there?” I asked. Skylar nodded.
“So what’s the issue?” I asked. Looking down, trying to squint my eyes and see what, if anything, could be seen in the crack. I saw nothing though. Skylar kicked a patch of pine needles near his toe and they disappeared over the edge and into the blackness. He looked over at me, and in the light of the new moon I could see how pale his face was.
“I’m afraid of heights,” he said.