by Morgan Read Davidson
When Evie opened her father’s backpack and saw the old leather shaving kit, betrayal gnawed a hole in her chest.
That was the right word: betrayal. Because when she was nine years old and Grandpa Dave died and they were divvying out a life collected in the Balboa bungalow, the only thing she wanted to keep was that shaving kit. She was desperate to smell the leather, and touch the embossing of the snake eating its tail, and remember her grandpa’s warm hands as he showed her how to shave in the chipped mirror. They’d searched everywhere, and her father said maybe the cleaners stole it. Yet here it was, twelve years later, in his backpack right next to the GPS device he'd sent her to grab.
She wiped the rain dripping from her hood onto her nose, and looked up at her father lying in the small dry spot beneath a scraggly oak tree. His eyes were closed, face grey and mouth open as his breath rattled. They’d been on the trail for nearly three hours, shadows plodding along through the dismal drizzle, and she wondered for the umpteenth time why she’d agreed to this stupid hike to Santiago Peak.
Evie turned back to the leather shaving kit in his backpack. Why the hell had he brought it? Her fingers traced the faded embossing of the ouroboros on the flap, the snake eating its tale, and then unsnapping it to look inside, just about shit her pants. In place of the old army straightedge and bristle brush were a syringe, butane lighter, spoon, and baggie of white powder.
“The fuck…” It was definitely heroin. She could almost hear the modulated surf guitar from Pulp Fiction, the classic Tarantino montage of close-ups—a needle attaching to a syringe, the flick of a lighter, heroin bubbling on a bent spoon, needle piercing skin. Fifteen and obsessed with nostalgia, she’d made her father drive her to every L.A. location in the film, could quote it on demand.
Her father certainly wasn’t as cool as John Travolta. Maybe twenty years ago when he still had a full head of wavy surfer hair, but now he was more like Bruce Dern, another Tarantino resurrection, a deflated version of his former self, sallow skin stretched across sharp bones, grey hair sprouting in wisps from under his worn beanie.
“Did you find it?” he murmured from beneath the tree, eyes still closed. Was he high now? Is that why he was walking so slow, why they stopped every half mile to rest?
“Yeah, I found it,” Evie grated between her teeth.
One eye cracked open, but he just wiggled a finger. “Turn it on.”
She could have been shooting her thesis right now, could have been working on sets like all her friends, could have been starting her life instead of pausing everything to care for an old man in the darkest days of radiation and chemo. She could have pushed back against her siblings’ insistence that they were anchored down by kids and careers and mortgages and Teslas. She could have returned to school once the doctor declared he was in remission, could have said no to this stupid hiking trip in the middle of this miserable winter of rain. She could have thrown the shaving kit at him then and screamed, “Why? Why? WHY?!?”
Instead she closed the kit and tucked it into the backpack pocket before turning on the GPS. It admitted a long beep followed by a short one.
“That means it’s connected to the satellite,” he said, pushing himself slowly up. “What’s it say?”
That Mom was right? she wanted to say. That you’re a manipulative asshole?
What she actually said was, “We’ve come two point two miles. And six hundred feet elevation gain.”
He peered into the haze seeping into the rolling hills of the Santa Ana mountains. “What time is it?”
“We’ll have to pick it up if we’ll going to make sunset.” He must have seen the doubt in her face. “All the weather apps say it’ll clear by five.”
He pulled himself up using the oak tree, and for a second she thought he was going to fall and resisted her instinct to help. He motioned for his backpack and she handed it over without making eye contact. Grasping his “wizard’s staff,” as he liked to call the walking stick, he shuffled back onto the dirt road, so slick with mud that even the Jeep couldn’t make it past the Four Corners junction. “Amazing nobody’s out here,” he said over his shoulder, each word a wheezing struggle. “Three million people in Orange County, yet you drive thirty miles and feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere.”
“It’s a Tuesday in February,” Evie said, cinching her hood tighter, “and it’s rained for two weeks straight. No one’s stupid enough to try to go up here.”
“Except us,” he winked. “Because we’re special, kiddo.”
The words ran through her like a shot of whiskey, tightening her chest and loosening her bowels. It had been years since he said that, maybe all the way back to that first year after the divorce, when she felt like just another one of the possessions split up between two houses, a thing passed back and forth between parents. Her siblings were long gone, Peter finishing college in Connecticut, where he’d stay, and Kate entering law school at Stanford. When she refused to
go to gymnastics or ballet or art class Mom had put her in so she’d “stay busy,” it was her father who asked what she wanted to do. And Evie said, “I want to go live in the woods.” She didn’t know what that even meant, but her father had always been a hiker and backpacker and he immediately took her to REI to fit her with top-of-the-line hiking boots. They climbed Mount Baldy that weekend, a brutal eleven-mile hike that gave her blisters the size of quarters and made her clutch his hand in fear as they traversed the steep shale slopes of death. She loved every minute. At the top, looking out over the smoggy LA Basin, she asked him, “How come Peter and Kate don’t like to do this?”
He replied, “I guess cause we’re special, kiddo.”
That was the beginning of it all: camping, hiking, fishing, backpacking, peak bagging. She remembered Kate driving down one weekend when they were about to head up to the Kern, and saying, “Oh God, you’re one of them, aren’t you? The divorced dad desperate to show his kid how fun he is?”
Was he shooting up back then? She knew he’d smoked weed when he was her age, but not later, as far as she knew. He liked wine and craft beer, but was not a heavy drinker. No, there would have been signs. This must be recent. Maybe he’d become hooked on the prescriptions, and this was the next step. God, it was like a Dateline special.
She took a deep breath of the wet, funky air, her stomach tightening as if in anticipation of a blow, but right as she was about to ask him, he started coughing, dry, racking like when she came home last Easter and he confessed his diagnosis. She glanced back down the fire road.
“Ben, we should turn around.”
He didn’t answer, hunched over, eyes closed, fingers white on the smoothed grain of his staff. Then he straightened and continued his slow pace up the road.
He kept on plodding, one shaky foot in front of the other.
That did it, made him turn in surprise. By the time she was born, their “happy surprise,” her mother no longer called him “Dad.” Ben will pick you up from school. Go show Ben your drawing. Ben and I aren’t comfortable with you staying the night yet. When she came home from kindergarten crying because her friends made fun of her for calling her dad by his name, he told her, “There are millions of Dads, but just one Ben.” Her mother said that made no sense, but Evie got it, even at six years old. He was Peter and Kate’s dad, but he was her Ben.
“I think we should go back to the Jeep,” Evie said.
“What’s the GPS say? How much further?”
She looked at the screen. “Two miles. But then four and a half back. In the dark.”
“We brought headlamps.”
“What if you can’t go any further?” she said. “I can’t carry you out.”
“See the SOS button? Just push that and Search And Rescue is on the way.”
“Yeah, not really my idea of a good time, Ben.”
“Come on, imagine the cool story you’d get to tell at parties,” he smiled, an impish grin revealing the man in all the pictures, the groovy surfer, the charismatic English professor, the bohemian weekend dad.
“I haven’t been to a party in like nine months.”
The grin fell away, replaced by the sallow mask that was his face now. He seemed to nod, and turned back up the hill. “Well, I bought the insurance. Covers it all: helicopter, transport, everything. Be a shame not to use it.”
You’re being an enabler again, Evie. She could practically hear Kate’s voice, see that punchable know-it-all smirk under the five hundred dollar OC bob. Kate only lived six miles away from Ben, yet not once had she offered to drive him to his appointments, or bring him a meal, or even bring her kids over. “I don’t want to scare them,” she explained, as if it was Ben’s fault he looked like the Crypt Keeper.
“You coming?” he called back.
“Yeah, I’m fucking coming.”
They trudged on in silence for another hour, Evie’s boots so caked with mud they felt like concrete anchors. The nasty spitting rain had stopped and now the clouds were moving east on a chill ocean wind. She hunched her shoulders under her jacket, wishing she’d worn another layer. They came around a corner and the road flattened. She looked at the GPS. This would be the saddle of which Saddleback got its name, the dip between Modjeska and Santiago peaks. The hills opened out to the west where south Orange County sprawled out in a grid of suburban wealth and privilege. She couldn’t see the ocean yet, the haze still too thick.
“Definitely starting to break up,” Ben said, finishing her thought. “Hopefully we’ll get the sun setting.”
“Don’t count on it.”
He shrugged, clinging to his staff. “It’s Santiago I want to bag. Lived here all my life, bagged every peak in the SoCal and the Sierras, yet never been here. Can you believe that?”
“Sometimes we take for granted the things closest to us.”
He looked at her then, and she felt silly. She would’ve been eviscerated in workshop for writing something so cliché. But Ben just nodded slowly.
“Wise beyond your years you are, young Jedi,” he croaked in his best Yoda voice, then hunched over in another coughing fit. She caught him as his legs gave out, easing him down into the wet grass on the side of the road. By the time it eased and he could sip from his water bottle, he looked like the wind might blow him away.
“I rewrote my will,” he said, a hoarse whisper, and at first it didn’t register. His cold hand gripped her wrist, and his watery eyes stared up at her. She was shocked to see how yellow they were. “I rewrote my will,” he said again.
“It’s all going to you. My guitar. My surfboards, my books, the jeep.” She didn’t respond, knowing how he liked his dramatic pauses. “Grandpa’s bungalow.”
“So you’ve always got someplace to go. A home.”
“Peter and Kate will be pissed.”
“So what,” he seemed to cough until she realized it was a chuckle. “They’re fine. More than fine. They got the family vacations, the PTA, the sports, the whole damn show. You got the divorce.”
“And expensive hiking boots,” she half-grinned. “That’s gotta count for something.”
Now he smiled too, a glimmer of the old Ben beneath the pallor. “It does, doesn’t it?”
She used his staff to scrape the mud from his boots while he leaned on her. It was 4:35 PM, and they still had a mile and half to go, and so she gave him her arm and walked beside him. Up ahead a narrow trail branched off to the left from dirt road. She hesitated, and then said, “This is the hiker’s trail to the peak. We’ll cut off half the distance.”
He just nodded, and so they veered onto the trail. But she realized her mistake twenty minutes along. Unlike the road this trail was steeper and slicker with a small rivulet running down the middle, and their pace was excruciatingly slow, Ben’s hand a claw digging into her arm, his mouth open and moving as he gasped for each breath.
“We gotta head back,” she said, but he shook his head, unable to even answer, only gripping her arm tighter, and it was like they were back on Baldy, and he was telling her, “Just a little further, kiddo, we’re almost there.”
The clouds overhead were indeed breaking up, and as they reached a sort of landing where the scrub was clear, they could see blue sky off over the ocean and the rays of the sun cutting through the clouds like golden spears.
“I think,” Ben gasped, “this is—the end of the line—kiddo.”
She looked up, where the tall radio towers marked the summit of the peak above them. Failure settled into her gut like a hard rock, but she helped her dad sit down and joined him, ignoring the wet seeping through her pants. “I’m sorry we didn’t make it.”
“We did. This is what I wanted. This view.”
They sat in silence, gazing over Orange County. It looked washed clean.
“There were times,” he said, speaking slowly, taking careful breaths, “when I hated this place. Hated the NIMBYs, the overpopulation, the carving up of the hills for crap luxury homes, the gated communities, the HOAs. Hated the traffic. I dreamed of moving to Oregon, or Washington, some place in the country where we could hike and camp and fish without having to fight our way out of the city.” His hand closed over hers, and she was surprised by the heat in it.
“But where else can you find this, eh, kiddo? I’ve surfed at sunrise and by lunch was skiing down Big Bear. We had Lebanese for breakfast at sea level and now we’re watching the sunset at five thousand feet.” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “It was a good home.”
Something twitched in her stomach, and her throat felt suddenly parched. On the horizon the clouds broke like a curtain, and there was the sun descending toward the sea. “You know,” she blurted out, “it’s kind of fucked up you had Grandpa’s shaving kit this whole time.”
He nodded. “Yeah, it is. I was a selfish prick. Still am.”
“And…?” she said. “The heroin?” She pulled her hand from his grip and turned to look at him, her gaze so intent that he was forced to meet it. “If you’re in pain, you should tell me, not sneak around. What the fuck am I doing here if you won’t let me help you?”
“This isn’t something you can help with, Evie.”
It sucked her breath away, a paralysis of the lungs she hadn’t felt since her parents sat her down at the kitchen table and told her, over pancakes, that they were divorcing. “Where—where is it?”
A wave of heat rolled up through her body, prickling her skin and leaving her cold. She clutched herself, shivering, noticed he was shivering too. “This is a hell of place to tell me that, Ben.”
“It really is.”
The impish grin was back, and she wanted to slap it from his face, make him be serious just one goddamn time because she couldn’t pretend anymore. She turned away, blinking rapidly. The parted curtain on the horizon glowed in gauzy orange and yellow and blue, yet directly above them the sky was a thick, black blanket. She could see her breath now.
“Well, shit,” Evie said, pulling out the GPS. “Now we’re definitely going to need Search and Rescue.”
“Not yet, kiddo. Not yet. Can you pass me Grandpa’s kit?”
Her heart pounded in her ears and she moved as if under water, unzipping the backpack and handing him the leather kit. She didn’t let go when he tried to take it, once again forcing him to look at her.
Something light and cold and wet landed on her hand, a perfect crystalline flake. Another landed on his beanie, and another on the leather kit, and then all around them snow fluttered down, glistening golden in the rays of the descending sun.
“Would you look at that?” Ben whispered.
She couldn’t stop the blurring of her eyes then and dropped her head to his shoulder, like she used to do as a kid when they would watch the sunset from camp. He still smelled the same, like musty paperbacks and faded Ben Gay. He still held her the same, too. Slowly she released the shaving kit.
“It’s okay, kiddo,” he murmured. “You don’t have to stay. You can go back, call from the Jeep. Everything is taken care of.”
She breathed him in, feeling the beat of his heart through his thin body. “I’ll stay. I want to be here when the sun sets.”
Morgan Read Davidson is the Director of Creative Writing at Chapman University, won a Nichol Fellowship in Screenwriting, and is currently completing a novel set in Dark Age Britain about two sisters separated by war. His most recent short fiction has appeared in Alt Hist, Jelly Bucket, and Fly Away Journal. He spends his free time hiking the rugged High Sierras and joining his daughters in their imaginative worlds of dragons, fairies, and warrior princesses.