He walked at her side in silence for forty minutes or so—twenty in, and twenty back out. The chairs they left rocking on the porch bored grooves into the wood of the deck where he’d been carving his name, not theirs. They’d left their friends writhing on the couch, groping and rubbing the rough fabric of the clothing that sheathed their hungry bodies enough to keep it all somehow still chaste. A war movie flashed blue and red out the cabin windows into the night. I’ll bring the knife along, just in case, he’d said. He would be a doctor in a few years, or he wouldn’t.
He slowed when they’d gone far enough, and she slowed too, and they turned in tandem and flicked off the flashlights. The fear and yearning they’d dropped like breadcrumbs along the trail called them back to normalcy. They’d agreed to study the trail on the way out, to pay close attention, to count their steps, so that when they’d gone far enough, they could make it back in the dark. She wrapped sweaty palms around his upper arm and held on, pulling, slowing. She inhaled sharply but did not speak. It was risk without consequence, a calculated pressing of the line without crossing it. He led her out.
Night-hiking was a thing they did once a week with the kids, the older ones. So they could all practice listening. Footsteps, breathing, the shrill and loopy feeding cry of a screech owl. So the kids would just shut up for one damn minute and acknowledge a world bigger than whatever shitty little thing they were talking about. But he loved those kids. He really did. When he was leading, he liked to end his night-hikes up on the soccer field at the top of the hill, past the tree she’d backed a van into one night. It was a long hike up, and above the low hum of vegetation, the rising call of the bugs that left their papery skins clinging to tree trunks, the tinny jingle-bell song of baby toads near the pond, the occasional lonesome whoosh of a car on the road that paralleled the field somewhere beyond the trees, there, above all that, the kids would all hear themselves breathing. The heavy rise and fall of hot breath, lungs expanding and deflating, hearts beating, the copper penny scent of sweaty kids in summer. Here in the soccer field at the top of the hill, the little bugs hung and flashed, and everyone knew they’d ascended up into the stars or that heaven had finally fallen down around them.
She was lying in the grass, looking up at the sky. Her skin barely glowed in the pale sheen of the stars infinities away. He heard the rise and fall of her breath, not labored, but faster than resting state. Maybe excited. Maybe just too self-aware. The moon itself—just a piece of old Earth, another life, watched over them, looking down with pity, like the god man carves from himself. Like the woman god carved from man.
He wanted to take the knife and slide it down across her T-shirt, right through the Lycra band that held the soft roundness of her bound up. He wanted to dip it into her sweat and the chlorine smell of her tanned skin, to splay it back like filleting a fish and keep going. Through the brittle bone cage that held her heart so close he couldn’t hear its beating. To lay it out in the open, there beneath the stars, stuttering and shuddering in the night to say there. There it is what it means to be living eternity is here and now.