Mary Eicher © 2020
All Rights Reserved
Artemis wiped her mouth with the back of a dirty hand. Rivulets of sweat slithered down her back, and heat from hours of exertion roiled off her. The dog-eared map indicated they had four more miles of steep terrain before they would reach the checkpoint. Glancing at a sun already low in the western sky, she folded the paper and shoved the map back into her pack. It would be a struggle to reach Lake Isabella before dark. A momentary breeze rippled her shirt, and she brushed dark, damp bangs from her forehead, savoring the momentary relief. Then, summoning fresh determination, she started up a brush-choked hill.
“Come on, Cab,” Artemis called back to the struggling man behind her. “We’ll get there faster if you get the lead out.”
Ichabod leaned on his walking stick and watched his sister’s long legs settling into an easy stride.
“Shut up, Temmie,” he shot back, annoyed by her effortless advance. “Trekking the Pacific Crest Trail was your idea, not mine. I need a steak, medium rare, and alcohol. You promised me beer, remember?”
Artemis turned and aimed pale-blue eyes at her twin brother. She tossed her long black ponytail and gave him a patronizing smile.
“Come on, Cab. Let’s just get there,” she encouraged him softly. “I need a bath.”
“Yes, you do!” he muttered, stumbling over a patch of loose rocks. She was doing it again, making him feel second best; a feeling that irritated him more than the roughness of the trail. He disliked having to push himself to keep up with her. He slapped at a bug that landed on his neck and stopped to catch his breath. He hated hiking. He hated everything his sister loved about it. He wondered how it was possible for twins to be so utterly different from each other. And why was she always, always better at everything?
An instant later, his head felt as if it was exploding in a cacophony of clanging bells.
“Ah, Jesus H. Christ!” He dropped the walking stick and sank to a knee, pressing hard against his ears with both hands. The discomfort of the trek disappeared as the painful ringing in his head blotted out any other sensation.
Artemis turned to see Ichabod writhing in the dirt. Her heart pounding, she raced back down the trail to see what had happened.
“What the hell, Cab?” she cried as she reached him, panicked at the thought he might be seriously hurt.
Ichabod cautiously released his grip on his head and slumped to a sit. Pale and confused, he leaned against the base of a tree and dug at his ears. Artemis knelt down and hugged him to her chest to check his head for any kind of injury.
“Did you hear that?” he asked, glancing up at her, crystal-blue eyes wide with concern. “What was it?”
“I didn’t hear a thing, except you cursing.” She sat down beside him and tousled his shaggy black curls. “I can’t find anything wrong. Are you having a stroke or something?”
“No, I don’t think so. There was just this really loud noise in my head. Bells. Really, really loud bells. It hurt like hell.” He gave her a slight smile. “It’s over now. I can’t believe you didn’t hear anything. You’re the one who usually hears things. Not me.”
She helped him to his feet and made sure he was steady enough to heft his pack. He pushed her arm away and stiffened his back in a display of competence beyond what he actually felt.
“I’m okay. Come on. Let’s get to Lake Isabella so I can have a beer. You promised me, remember?”
The lake came into view as they crested a final hill. It sparkled in the slanted sunlight, and just seeing it gave the pair a sense of relief. The view before them was mystical. Streaks of pink and yellow from the setting sun reflected off the dark-blue water framed by an endless horizon of verdant hills. They gaped at each other and shared triumphant smiles. Ichabod put his arm around his sister’s waist.
“Okay. Sometimes it’s worth all the trouble,” he admitted. “Now, let’s go get that beer.” He hugged her and added, “You’re buying.”
All that remained was a downhill slope that melted away and they trudged the final half mile along dusty roads until they found the check-in station. An older man in a well-worn MAGA hat welcomed them, had them sign the register, and directed them to a nearby hotel.
Ichabod slung his pack to the floor as soon as he stepped into the room. He stretched stiff muscles and then sank into one of the two narrow beds. Artemis set her pack on the room’s solitary chair and did a leisurely tour of their Spartan quarters. Seeing an enormous bathtub in the otherwise cramped bathroom, she issued a little cry of delight.
“Go ahead, sis,” Ichabod told her, settling on the cot-like bed. “You can bathe first. I’m headed for a bar.” He rolled on his side and hugged a pillow. “In a few minutes.”
Artemis turned on the faucet and ran her fingers through the water, waiting for the stream to reach the proper temperature. She selected jeans and a reasonably clean tank top from her pack, stripped off the clothes she’d worn for three days, and stepped into the tub. Letting the warm water sooth her athletic body, she settled back to reflect on the trip so far.
She lathered a washcloth and drew it along her arms. The image of Cab writhing in pain flashed in her mind, and she drew in a heavy breath. Her brother was young and strong physically. He had recovered within minutes. Whatever had happened, Cab didn’t show any residual effect. She sank lower in the tub until the warm water was just below her chin. She would keep an eye on him, but she willed herself not to give in to needless worry.
Ichabod selected an empty stool at the back of the bar. The evening looked promising. There were already a dozen people, mostly hikers, situated in the quaint, log-cabin-styled lounge sharing tall tales and cold drinks. Country music drifted in the background and a trio of twentysomethings was playing pool at the rear of the room. He ordered a Budweiser and turned his attention to a group of what he assessed to be locals chatting at a nearby table.
“It just hit me like my head was inside a church bell. Five loud clangs and then it miraculously stopped,” a middle-aged woman was explaining with a flushed face. Her companion draped his arm around the back of her chair and nodded.
“Hit me too,” the man corroborated in a quiet drawl. “I called our daughter right after and asked her if she had heard the bells. She told me it near burst her ears. Her kids were still crying it scared them so bad.”
“Well, I didn’t hear it!” sneered a stocky fellow in a fringed vest. He folded his arms across his chest and leaned his chair back until it rested precariously against the wall.
Ichabod picked up his beer and strolled over to the table. “I heard it!” he volunteered with a friendly smile. “My sister and I were trekking just south of here, and I heard the bells ringing. It brought me to my knees for a moment.”
The seated man used his boot to push a chair out for Ichabod and offered a handshake. “The name’s Hank. This here is my wife Irma. We’re in a bit of a quandary here, son. Maybe you can help us out.”
“I think it was the military,” the sole dissenter of the group asserted, his hands grasping the opening of his vest. “They’re always doing tests on us. You’ve seen all that shit in the sky where they’re spraying chemicals. This was probably just another one of them damn tests.”
Ichabod joined the others in a lighthearted chuckle.
“It wouldn’t be a night out at Rooney’s without one of Frank’s conspiracy theories.” Irma cast the newcomer an apologetic smile.
Frank crossed his arms again. “Well, what the hell do you think it was? Nearly everyone on the west side heard it. But the folks farther from the lake didn’t hear a thing. How do you explain that?”
“We can’t, Frank. That’s why we’re discussing it.”
Ichabod scooted his chair closer to the table where he’d set his beer. “My sister didn’t hear it either. She thought I was having a stroke at first.”
Irma sighed. “It didn’t feel like that to me. More like a warning.”
“Yeah.” Ichabod nodded thoughtfully. “It did feel sort of like a warning.”
No one had a better explanation, but they ordered another round of drinks and spent the next hour trying to come up with one. Ichabod finished his second beer, got suggestions for a tasty supper, and then headed back to get his sister.
Freshly scrubbed and dressed in jeans and a yellow tank top, Artemis sat at the room’s tiny table scribbling a list. “I’ve written down everything I think we’ll need. Nothing exotic, so we should be able to get all this here tomorrow.” She turned in her chair and gave her brother a quick once-over. “You look like you feel better, sort of?”
He shrugged. “Just puzzled.” He sat on the edge of the bed and told her about the conversation at the bar.
“A warning about what?” she asked when he got to the group’s speculation. “And why were only some people able to hear it?”
“We didn’t figure that part out.” He grinned. “I’ll take a shower and then we can go eat. They said a place up the street has great spare ribs. Sound good to you?”
“Sounds like heaven,” she sighed.
The moon was rising above the mountains when they left for the restaurant. They gazed at the clear sky abundant with stars and joked about how comfortable it felt to be back in civilization. The meal was as good as promised, and they cleaned their plates and ordered dessert. People were still buzzing about the strange noise only about half of them had actually experienced but everyone had heard about. Artemis smiled at some of the odd theories as she eavesdropped on conversations. Ichabod was content to let the matter slide into the past. He was feeling like his old self, and that was the most important thing; that and the Dutch apple pie.
“You know what’s funny?” Ichabod asked when they settled back in their room. “You’re usually the one with all the psychic woo-woo stuff.”
She made a face. “Woo-woo stuff?”
Her brother stretched out on the bed, letting his feet trail off the bottom. “Forget it, Temmie. I know you hate to talk about your many peculiarities.”
He grinned. He had been the one to hear the strange bells, not her. In an odd way it pleased him to have bested her.
“What?” she asked, seeing the smug look on his handsome face.
He shrugged but continued grinning. “You just don’t seem so formidable for once.”
They spent the next two days visiting tourist traps, eating fresh food, and gathering their strength for the coming week. The air was warm, and spring was preening on the surrounding hills. Artemis ran around buying supplies, packing and repacking their equipment. But Ichabod preferred to rest for a while before shouldering the forty-pound pack and returning to what he considered a forced march. He purchased a secondhand book that piqued his interest and settled down in their room, leaving preparations for the rest of their trek to his sister.
On the afternoon of their third day at Lake Isabella, Artemis felt she had seen it all and searched for something new to occupy her perpetual restlessness.
“I’m thinking of taking a rowboat out on the lake. It’s a little cool for swimming today, but I love the water,” she announced as they munched through a hearty lunch.
“I’m going to stay on dry land,” Ichabod replied. “The lake’s great to look at, but I’m more of a landlubber. You were the seafarer in a previous life, not me.”
His sister smiled. “That’s probably true. That’s why I picked a hike instead of a cruise, just for you.” She had that “I always take care of you” look on her pretty face and Ichabod had no option but to act appreciative.
“You made the right choice,” he assured her, puffing out his chest to conceal the small fib. “I was most likely a mountain man or something.”
“Uh-uh.” She shook her head. “Cab, you’re a city slicker, not the mountain-man type.”
He frowned. “Well, I’m a man, and I think mountains are nice from a distance.”
“Exactly! Listen, since you’re staying here in town, would you be able to get a few more things for us? We always run out of snack bars and trail mix.”
“Sure. No problem. You go have some fun alone time. We will be joined at the hiking boot for the next week.” He picked up the bill and walked to the cashier with her. “Try not to miss me too much.”
The rowboat had seen better days. It smelled of fish and mold, but it was seaworthy, and the lake was smooth as glass. Artemis picked a fetching looking spot on the opposite shore and started rowing. A light breeze rippled the surface of the lake and blew her hair away from her face as she rowed. She breathed in the moist air, and peace sank deeply into her being. Reaching the center of the lake, she hauled in the oars and closed her eyes. The world was alive with sounds carried on the wind. Birds chirped and whistled, and the leaves danced along the limbs of tall trees. The water massaged the wooden slats of the little boat, making soft slapping sounds. She felt the sun warm on her face and sighed. It was good to be alive.
From somewhere in the distance came a hum. Closing her eyes, she focused on the new sound. It approached swiftly, and the hum grew into a roar that sputtered like a ragged cough. Opening her eyes, she turned toward the sound in the eastern sky. A commuter plane cleared the tops of trees near the destination she’d selected. The plane banked heavily to one side, and a wing clipped the topmost branch of a pine tree as it emerged from the woods and flew over the lake. It headed straight for her and then over her, sinking as it approached the little town.
She lurched to her feet in the rowboat, causing it to sway precariously. Her mouth opened to warn Ichabod, but her scream was absorbed by an enormous explosion as the aircraft slammed into the structures at the front end of the town. A white-hot shockwave knocked her to the floor of the boat, and an enormous fireball rose, consuming a swath of wooden buildings, their hotel among them. Smoke and ash rained down on the beach and rolled toward her across the lake.
“Ichabod!” she screamed as she dove into the water and swam with adrenalized strength toward the devastation.
Inland Airline flight 92 had carried thirty-two passengers and a crew of four. Their body parts were mingled with those of the sixty-six people on the ground who had died when the plane plunged into the edge of Lake Isabella’s sleepy little town. Somewhere in the mess of burnt buildings and twisted metal was what was left of Ichabod.
Artemis sat huddled in a blanket on the sand watching the rescue workers proceed with their gruesome tasks. Small fires still flared, and the air stank of aircraft fuel and burned bodies. Grief stabbed at her with a thousand swords. She couldn’t cry anymore; she couldn’t even move. She could only watch. The plane had hit almost on top of the hotel, leaving utter devastation in every direction. Artemis felt as if it had targeted Ichabod. In her mind, fate had thrown a missile and erased her brother from her life.
The man in the red MAGA cap walked up and held out a Styrofoam cup. “I don’t know if coffee is the best idea at this hour, but you need something. Here, please…Artemis, isn’t it?”
She raised her head. He was a bear of a man, fiftyish and scruffy looking. Graying brown hair stuck out from the sides of the cap, and a huge mustache traveled nearly to his ears. Behind the stash, his face was a mask of sympathy and soot, only his kind brown eyes roused her to respond.
“People call me Temmie.”
“Artemis is the Greek goddess of the hunt.” He chuckled self-consciously as she took the cup. “I have a lot of time to read.” He bent down and settled beside her on the sand. “Listen, Temmie, I’ve called for a van to take the surviving hikers to Bakersfield in the morning. It’s the nearest city with any real travel options. Do you need help arranging a trip home?”
She shook her head. She hadn’t really thought about going home. She wanted to stay and wait for Cab’s remains. She didn’t want to leave him in this awful place.
The man gave her a gentle smile. “It might take a long time before the remains are identified and released. Is there someone I can call for you?”
“No, thank you.” Her attention was drawn to an ambulance passing by without its siren. There wasn’t anyone to contact. Their parents had died years ago and friends weren’t expecting them back for several weeks. The real reason she wasn’t ready to contact anyone was that she knew she couldn’t bring herself to say the words.
“I have a daughter about your age,” the man said, clearly hoping to distract her. “She has no interest in the PCT. I myself have completed it twice; once in my forties and then again three years ago. I see a lot of people who think they’ll sashay through the trek. They don’t get far. I figured you and your brother were among the few who could complete the trail. You’re strong and resourceful. I could tell just by watching the way you two conducted yourselves.”
Artemis rubbed the back of her neck and sighed at the weight crushing down on her. She was exhausted, and the air had turned chilly since the sun set. She wondered for a moment where she could find another room for the night. Patting her jeans pocket, she realized she’d left her wallet along with everything else in the hotel.
She turned to the man beside her and stammered about borrowing a few dollars.
“I’ve got about eighty dollars on me.” He stood and reached into his trousers. “There’s a fund being set up, and I should have more soon. Will this get you through a day or two?”
“Thank you.” Artemis clutched the bills in her hand and gave him a grateful look. “If you give me your address, I’ll return this to you as soon as I can.”
“Don’t worry about the money. I won’t miss it.” Taking her by the arm, he gently coaxed her to her feet where he pulled her into a bear hug and held her for a long moment. “Listen, Temmie, if you need anything, anything at all, you just let me know.”
He took her to the home of a resident who, like many, had offered to temporarily house the survivors. They showed her to a small room with orange walls and a matching cover on a fat single bed. Sleeping off and on, she dreamed colorless dreams of Cab disappearing in clouds of smoke down a long, gray road leading nowhere.