“Jesus Christ, that’s Enchanted Rock? You want us to climb that thing?” Sarah demands, her voice cracking a little.
Jack glances at his cousin out of the corner of his eye. Fuck, she looks pissed. He wonders if she’s going to start cursing him in Spanish again, like she’d done on the drive up from San Antonio after he’d made one too many jokes about her dying her hair blonde. Jack isn’t fluent in Spanish like she is, but most of the guys at the garage where he works are, and he understands enough to know when his intelligence and the size of his dick are being insulted.
“Hiking, not climbing,” Jack tells her, trying – and probably failing – to sound reassuring. He adjusts the straps of his backpack so they aren’t digging into his shoulders anymore, then checks to make sure he’d remembered to pack extra water bottles. “The part we’re hiking over isn’t steep enough that we need rock climbing gear.”
“When you suggested coming here, I thought we’d be walking around a big boulder with, I don’t know, ancient Indian carvings on it or something, not that,” Sarah snaps, folding her arms across her chest. They’re in the dirt parking lot, half a mile away from the base of the rock formation, but the massive dome of pink granite still towers over them.
“How did you not already know what it was?” Jack asks, because, sure, Enchanted Rock isn’t one of Texas’ major tourist attractions – not like the Alamo or Big Bend National Park are – but it’s still pretty popular. He’s a little surprised that Sarah, a born and bred San Antonian, hadn’t known what it was beforehand. “You did that YMCA father-daughter outdoorsy program, right? I thought camping here was a tradition they had.”
“Maybe it is, but my dad’s got knee problems, remember?” Sarah says, pulling her ponytail through the opening at the back of her baseball cap. “We probably skipped that event and went kayaking instead. Can’t blame him. Enchanted Rock isn’t a rock, it’s a fucking mountain.”
“It’s not that big. It takes less than two hours to get to the top,” Jack says, rolling his eyes. “Besides, aren’t you supposed to be the fitness freak of the family? This should be easy for you,” he adds, partly because Sarah – when she hadn’t been too busy insulting him – had bragged about how often she went to her local gym, but mostly because he knows that she’s competitive as hell. He still has the picture his mother had sent him of Sarah in an orange prom dress, grinning and sporting a rather spectacular black eye she’d gotten after being hit in the face with a field hockey stick during a particularly brutal game.
“I teach kickboxing and go swimming. I am not mountaineer,” Sarah grumbles, typing something on her phone. She wipes the sweat off her forehead with the sleeve of her shirt without looking away from the screen. Gotta love Texas summers; not even noon, and it’s already in the low nineties.
“It’s not a mountain,” Jack insists, but she ignores him, too busy with her phone.
Turning his back to her, Jack braces one foot against the side of his car and tightens the laces of his new hiking boots, feeling the thick insoles shift beneath his weight. The shoes and insoles had been expensive as hell – nearly three hundred dollars in total, even with his ten percent REI membership discount – but none of his other boots are waterproof, and Jack isn’t stupid enough to think England will miraculously experience a dry spell for the two weeks he’ll be doing the Coast to Coast hike in a month’s time.
He can hear Marshall’s excited whines and yips – the same high-pitched, pathetically puppyish noises he makes whenever he sees cows, horses, and other dogs – coming from inside the car, but Jack’s not going to let him out just yet. Not until Marshall has calmed down enough that Jack can clip the leash to his collar without having to wrestle him to the ground first so the idiot won’t run off. In spite all of the training classes they’ve gone to over the years, Marshall still seems to think that ‘come here’ is Jack’s way of saying ‘make me chase you.’ Stupid dog.
“According to the official Enchanted Rock website, it’s the largest isolated rock formation of pink granite in the United States,” Sarah reads aloud, squinting down at her phone. She cups a hand around the screen, shading it so she can see better. “Says here it’s four hundred and twenty five feet tall.”
Jack has no idea how she still has service out here; his phone has issues connecting to the internet in his own apartment, let alone in the middle of the Hill Country. Then again, that’s probably because he has yet to replace it after he’d accidentally put it in the washing machine while doing laundry.
“Told you it wasn’t a mountain. Too short.”
“Fine, you win, it’s not technically a mountain,” Sarah huffs, and puts her phone back in the pocket of her shorts. “But it’s still pretty damn big.”
“It’s tiny compared to Uluru,” Jack says before he can help it, and he immediately wants to punch himself in the face for sounding like such a pretentious know-it-all asshole.
“Compared to what?”
“Uluru,” Jack repeats. Sarah stares at him blankly. “It’s the Aboriginal name for Ayers Rock. In Australia,” he adds, just in case, because even though he’s pretty sure she knows what Ayers Rock looks like – it is, after all, one of the most photographed places on the planet – the name itself might be unfamiliar.
“Christ, Jack, only you would know obscure shit like that,” Sarah says, laughing. “Are you still planning that trip to Australia?” Jack nods, and goddamn it, he can feel his ears turning red. “You’ve been talking about it for years. I thought you’d finally gone there.”
“Nope, can’t afford to right now,” Jack says, resolutely not looking at Sarah. He notices that Marshall has finally stopped whining and is actually sitting down instead of scrabbling madly at the door like he’s trying to claw his way out. “Hey, you mind helping me with the dog?”
Sarah nods, and stands behind him as Jack carefully opens the back door of the car. Predictably, Marshall tries to bolt, but Sarah grabs him before he can escape. After a short-lived wrestling session – during which Marshall licks every part of Sarah that he can reach, including her mouth, which is disgusting. Jack has seen Marshall lick his own dick and eat rabbit shit, and like hell does he want that tongue anywhere near his face, but Sarah doesn’t seem to care – she manages to hold him still long enough for Jack to get the leash attached properly.
“Why didn’t I get a cat instead of a dog?” Jack mutters, trying unsuccessfully to brush the loose fur off his shirt as they leave the parking lot. Marshall has the nerve to wag his tail, the bastard.
“If Marshall’s such a hassle, why didn’t you leave him at home?” Sarah asks, following Jack down a dirt trail that he knows from past experience – caving with friends during his brief stint in the Boy Scouts in middle school, and his disastrous first and only attempt at rappelling – will get them to the base of Enchanted Rock.
“I can’t just leave him alone in my apartment all weekend. He’d pee all over the place, and probably chew the couch to pieces,” Jack says.
He tugs sharply on the leash to pull Marshall away from a piece of litter before he can attempt to eat it. Although Marshall’s only half Labrador, he seems to have inherited the breed’s stomach of steel – he’d once eaten an entire plate of brownies and been fine, though everything Jack read had told him that chocolate was fatal to dogs – but Jack won’t take any chances. Vets are fucking expensive.
“So why not put him in kennels?” Sarah asks, neatly sidestepping a cluster of prickly pear cacti growing in the middle of the path. “Or hire a dog-sitter? My roommate from college always did that for her neighbors during the summers, and she earned a ton of money since they were gone so often.”
“I’m not spending seventy dollars at PetSmart just so I don’t have to put up with him for three days. And he’s going to spend enough time there when I’m doing the Coast to Coast,” Jack says, pulling on Marshall’s leash again when the dog stops to sniff a rotting log. “And why would I willingly give someone I don’t know the keys to my apartment? That’s like asking to be robbed. The only better way to get robbed would be if I put up a neon sign by the front door that said ‘free stuff inside: please take everything.’”
“Calm down, asshole, it was just a suggestion,” Sarah says, but she’s smiling. “I’d forgotten what a paranoid bastard you can be.”
“Language!” Jack scolds, half-serious. It’s weird, hearing her swear in English; at least when she’d cursed in Spanish Jack could pretend she was just calling him an idiot.
Rationally, he knows Sarah’s an adult – he’d gone to her college graduation, for fuck’s sake! – but he still catches himself thinking of her as the little girl he’d spent every summer with, the girl who’d refused to wear anything pink and talked endlessly about becoming an Olympic swimmer when she grew up.
“I’m twenty-six, not twelve,” Sarah says, rolling her eyes at him. “Old enough to vote, get drunk, buy porn, and die in a war. I’m pretty sure I can call you an asshole without washing my mouth out with soap.”
They pause to drink from their water bottles at the top of a little gully where scraggly mesquite trees grow around shattered boulders of granite that have sheared off the sides of the main dome. There are people already climbing on it, tiny moving dots of color, like insects crawling over the flank of a half-buried behemoth.
Up close, Enchanted Rock looks even more impressive than it had back in the parking lot. It looms above them like a path to the heavens, and Jack can understand why Native Americans – like the Aboriginal with Uluru – thought it had magical and spiritual powers.
“I cannot believe we’re really going to climb that thing,” says Sarah, looking up at it. “How long did you say it’d take us to get to the top?”
“Not long,” he assures her.
“The website said it was haunted. You’ve been here before, right? Seen any ghosts?” Sarah asks as they make their way down the bank of the gully. She trips over a protruding slab of rock, and has to flail her arms to keep from falling over, which Marshall takes as his cue to try to bolt. Damn dog nearly drags him through the underbrush before Jack can rein him in again.
“Sorry, no ghost sightings,” Jack says once he’s gotten Marshall back under control. “Though I thought I was going to die here once.”
“Really? When?” Sarah asks, the words coming out in a rush. The trail they’re on keeps getting narrower and more crowded with cacti the farther they walk, and she’s already panting a little. Jack, on the other hand, is doing fine, though he can feel the back of his shirt getting damp thanks to his backpack.
Jack points to a little bump protruding from the left side of Enchanted Rock, near the top. “You can’t see it from here, but there’s a rock ledge over there. It’s a great place to go caving and rock climbing, and when I was in high school, I went rappelling over the edge of it.”
“I thought you hated heights. I remember how, when we were kids, you wouldn’t even touch the rope swing over the river, even though me and Trent kept telling you how awesome it was.”
“I still hate heights,” Jack admits, feeling his ears begin to turn red again, and quickly gulps down a mouthful of water from his bottle. He’s not proud of how his heart races and his legs shake whenever he’s too high up, how he always starts cataloguing exactly how he’d die if he fell. But at least being afraid of heights makes sense – falling from too great a distance can very easily kill someone, and humans can’t always land on their feet like cats do – unlike being scared of chickens or round objects. Seriously, who’s scared of round objects?
“So why did you think walking backwards down a rock ledge would miraculously cure you?”
“I was seventeen and stupid, and I thought rappelling would help me get over being afraid.” Jack has to stop to untangle Marshall’s leash from a thorny bush; he shoves Marshall aside so he won’t get licked to death and hisses when the thorns cut into the skin of his hands, some cuts deep enough to draw blood.
“Like exposure therapy,” Sarah guesses, leaning against a mesquite tree and taking long draughts from her water bottle. Her hairline is dark with sweat, and she’s still panting. “How’d you do?”
“I was okay for a while. Halfway down, I lost my footing and slammed into the rock face.”
“Ouch,” Sarah says, wincing in sympathy. “Is that when you thought you going to die?” Jack nods.
“I was convinced the rope had just snapped.” He shudders at the memory. ‘Scared shitless’ didn’t even begin to describe how fucking terrified he’d been – he’d had nightmares about falling for months afterwards. He still has lumps of scar tissue on the tops of his knuckles from where they’d scraped along the rock when the rappelling instructor had eventually given up trying to make Jack stop clinging to the rope and had just lowered him to the ground.
They’ve finally reached the area where the trees and undergrowth thin out, leaving just bare rock under their feet. Looking up, the peak ridiculously far away.
They don’t talk much after that, both of them focusing on where they’re putting their feet and regulating their breathing. At first, Sarah tries to stay ahead of Jack, but as they climb higher, she drops back until they’re hiking side by side, with Marshall corralled between them.
It’s impossible to hike to the top of Enchanted Rock without stopping to remember how to breathe properly, and it takes them the better part of an hour to get halfway up the dome, which gets steeper and steeper the higher they go. At one point, they have to scramble over a particularly steep bit on their hands and feet, which makes Marshall drop into a ‘come play with me’ bow and prance around like an idiot, barking excitedly, tail wagging madly.
Jack spends most of his time concentrating on not falling over. He’s hiked here before, and knows the area pretty well, but that doesn’t mean he’s not afraid, or that he’s not already wondering how badly he’ll get hurt if he looses his balance and goes tumbling down the side of the rock.
When he’s hiking, the rest of the world drops away, as though nothing exists outside the sound of his own breathing, the steady drumbeat of his heart and the burning in his muscles. But whenever they stop to catch their breath, he realizes how high up they are and fear washes through him.
Finally, they reach the summit, the rock leveling out beneath them. It’s not flat at the top, but bumpy, the surface pitted with shallow pools of mint green lichen and crevices where small, stubbly cacti are growing.
“Why did I agree to this?” Sarah groans, breathing heavily. Wincing, she lowers herself onto the ground, and has to shove Marshall away when he immediately tries to crawl into her lap. Stupid dog can’t seem to understand that lapdogs don’t usually weigh ninety pounds. “How the fuck does anyone enjoy doing this?”
“It’s fun,” Jack says, sitting next to her. He’s tired and his legs are trembling from the exercise, but it doesn’t feel like his lungs are about to die. Sarah, on the other hand, is flushed and wheezing, and when she takes off her baseball cap, her hair is wet with sweat.
“Sadist,” Sarah manages to say around a mouthful of water, dribbling some on to the front of her shirt. “This isn’t fun, it’s work. My legs are so shaky I don’t think I can even stand up right now.”
“It’s fun,” Jack repeats, pouring some water into a collapsible bowl for Marshall. He roots around in his backpack until he finds the protein bars he’d packed, and tosses one over to Sarah, who snatches it up and is almost done eating it by the time Jack’s opened his.
“So, when are you leaving for England?” Sarah eventually asks, after they’ve sat there for a while, eating and drinking, looking out at the Hill Country stretching out around the and watching people at the base who are just beginning the long climb to the top.
“Just under a month. My flight to Birmingham is on the first of July.”
“How long will you be there? I know you’re doing that walk, the Coast Trail, or whatever it’s called, but are you going over just for that?”
“It’s called Coast to Coast,” Jack tells her. He’s been planning this trip for the past two years; he’d originally planned to visit Australia, but then realized he couldn’t afford to take that much time off work and book Marshall into PetSmart’s kennels for that long. “I’ll be over there for eighteen days. Fourteen days hiking, with two days before and after to recover, so, yeah, just over there for the walk.”
“Fourteen days?” Sarah shakes her head. “I know you love hiking, but that’s insane.”
“It’s only two hundred miles,” Jack says, shrugging. “If I was really insane, I’d do the Appalachian Trail. That’s more than two thousand miles long.”
“Crazy man,” Sarah says, but she’s grinning. “So will you be in the north or the south of the country? If you’re anywhere near London, I spent my sophomore year of college over there and know some great places you could visit.”
“Nope, not even close to London. I’ll be in the far north, almost in Scotland.”
“But why are you going to England to hike?” Sarah asks as they get to their feet and begin the slow descent down the other side of Enchanted Rock. “There must be good places to go hiking in the US. And then you wouldn’t have to deal with jetlag.”
“It’s different in England. Over here, you’ve got a choice of either day-hikes that only take a few hours, or backpacking and camping for longer walks,” Jack says. “But for the Coast to Coast, and a few other trails, you can book your entire hike through a company, and they’ll book you in to hotels or bed and breakfast’s along the path and drive your luggage to wherever you’re staying at night.”
“Sweet deal,” Sarah says, pausing to take off her hat so she can retie her ponytail. “Sounds awesome, except for, you know, all the hiking. But why’s it called the Coast to Coast?”
“Because you literally go from one coast to the other, west to east,” Jack explains, grinning. “You walk across the narrowest part of England, starting off in a place called St. Bee’s on the Irish Sea, and going east until you get to Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Sea.”
“Sounds like too much work, if you ask me,” Sarah says, easing herself over a lip of rock. Instead of following her, Jack walks parallel to it until he finds a spot where Marshall can actually jump down from it without breaking anything.
They spent the next few hours exploring the system of caves that burrow into the back of Enchanted Rock at the bottom, then wander aimlessly along one of the many trails.
By the time they leave, it’s almost four in the afternoon, and a new wave of hikers is arriving as Jack and Sarah make their way back to the parking lot. Marshall is exhausted, so getting him into the back of the car is surprisingly easy, and both the dog and Sarah sleep for most of the drive back to San Antonio.
San Antonio’s River Walk is one of the city’s top tourist attractions, second only to the Alamo. Jack thinks this is further proof that humanity as a whole is moronic. Why would he want to wander around a tiny limestone fort he’d learned about in middle school when he could be down by the river, laughing at the tipsy college kids trying to push each other into the water?
It’s not like he doesn’t know how important the stupid thing was during the Texas Revolution. He does, thanks to the mandatory year of Texas history he’d had in sixth grade; most of the time, Jack only vaguely remembers where Vermont is on a map – it’s next to either New York or Maine, he knows that much – but ask him about William B. Travis or Samuel ‘One-Ball’ Houston, and he can still recite their fucking biographies. Good job, Texas Board of Education.
Besides, thanks to Marshall, Jack wasn’t even allowed near the Alamo, which Sarah had insisted they look at before going down to the River Walk. He’d gotten within ten feet of it when a guard had come up to him and said that dogs aren’t allowed near the Alamo. As if Jack would let Marshall piss on a historic landmark.
“You totally would,” says Sarah, taking another sip of her margarita. They’re sitting out on the patio of a Mexican restaurant that, according to Sarah’s boyfriend, has the best fajitas in town, and so far, Jack’s only complaint is that people keep interrupting them to ask if they can pet Marshall, who’s flopped out under the table.
“Would not,” Jack insists. “I’d probably get fined. Or arrested.” Sarah laughs, and throws a tortilla chip at him; it bounces off Jack’s nose, and Marshall wakes up long enough to eat it before a pigeon can steal it.
“We need to do this more often,” Sarah says. “We’ll have to get together once you get back from England. I’m not waiting another decade before tracking you down again.” Jack nods.
An hour later, after finishing their meal and wandering down the River Walk, Jack drives Sarah back to her apartment. When they finally part ways – standing next to Jack’s car, the engine still going, in the middle of the parking lot in front of her building – Sarah throws her arms around his neck and mutters threats of breaking into his apartment if he doesn’t call her the day he gets back to America into his ear. Jack holds her close and laughs, because knowing Sarah, she’d actually do it.
He drives back to Houston with Marshall asleep on the back seat and NPR on low volume. He and Sarah had spent most of the day together, and – unlike everyone else in the family that Jack’s met up with – Sarah hadn’t once asked about Trent.
Sure, she’d talked about him a little, but that had been it. It had been great, knowing that he didn’t have to wait for the other shoe to drop, for Trent to somehow come up in the conversation so Jack could suddenly start making excuses to change the subject. He wonders if Sarah had deliberately avoided talking about Trent, or if she just hadn’t wanted to bring up bad memories, and eventually decides he doesn’t really care.
Before going to bed that night, Jack adds a calendar event in his phone, set for the day he gets back from England. Call Sarah.