[Image Credit: “The Amazon Warrior Before Her Final Battle” by Kazuya Akimoto]
Fire licks at the sky, black with smoke and thunderclouds and marbled with sunset orange. There is a moment of flickering gasoline-scented near-silence, and then the car explodes in a flower of flame. Penelope’s ankle throbs and her arm won’t move and her ears are ringing. Hot sweat stings her eyes, runs down her back. Her whole body feels thick with grease and ash. The road runs back down the mountains into the foothills below, to ranger stations and houses and cities and hospitals, but Penelope limps off to the side of the road, into the forest and the dark, driven by some animal instinct. Her head rings, her vision blurs, her legs fail.
When she wakes, it is night. The rains have passed. Her car only smolders. She is alone. She tries to raise herself up, but her head is throbbing and her left arm still won’t move, so instead she lies there for a while in the mud. Eventually she turns over, sits up, blinks away the dirt, though it doesn’t help. Car’s exploded. Fire. Magnesium in the rain. Fire department? Fire season, unseasonable rain, ended quick. No fire department. Run. No, better stay. Let them come and find you, always stay where you are, in an emergency. No. Who will come? Vacation’s only started. Off the grid, long weekend. No one will come. Morgan. Morgan! She stands, or tries to, but her ankle gives out and she slides back into the mud. Car’s exploded. Fire. Morgan’s gone. She sighs, looks up at the sky. She’s alive. Alive. Alive. Alive.
She sits there for a long time, in the mud and the dark, somewhere in the Sierra Nevada. She can’t do much else for now. Morgan’s gone. If he were alive, he’d have found her, she’d to believe, though she’s not entirely sure if she does. If he’s dead, she doesn’t want to see. The possibility that he’s alive, trapped, struggling in the wreck, briefly crosses her mind. But what could she do, if he was? And he probably isn’t. He would have climbed out, if he was alive. Is it wrong she isn’t more worried? He was a piece of shit, but he was a human being. Or not a piece of shit, exactly. He was… wrong for her. Wrong to her, she repeats to herself, not just for. But he wasn’t wrong as a person, was he? Was there such a thing? Wrong for the thing it is? She stares out at the wreck, traces the plumes of smoke up to the sky. So many stars. In the city they all got choked out. She can move her left shoulder, but not the forearm. Her ankle isn’t broken, but it’s sprained. Cuts and bruises and scrapes aren’t worth mentioning. And the ache, which is only now beginning but will surely get worse. Lucky. Lucky she didn’t die. Lucky she’s here, now, alone in the woods, at the side of the road.
Eventually she manages to stand up, puling herself up the side of a tree with one arm, keeping her weight on her strong leg. The road runs down the mountains into the foothills below, to ranger stations and houses and cities and hospitals, but Penelope limps away into the woods, into the dark, driven by some ineffable impulse. To get away, perhaps. From the car, and Morgan, and the fire and the road. What else could she do? Wait in the mud and go lean and dry and vanish into bones and earth and insects? Water, food, shelter, as she learned in the scouts. To survive another day. To wait for rescue.
Water is the decider, in the end. She follows flecks of green under the long canopies, through oceans of meagre thorny brush. Out from under the shelter of the trees into waves of sunbaked scrubland, ready to be burned away and rise again anew. She walks for a while, nurses her leg for a while. Mops the sweat from her face with her collar until it becomes too crusty even for that. Her lips chap and crack. Her arm aches. It is night again when she finds refuge from the summer heat, following the trickling of a spring-fed creek that hasn’t yet dried up. Somewhere green. She takes shelter between stones, drinks deeply, remembers about parasites and bacteria, and drinks again. For a moment, at the edge of consciousness, she almost thinks about Morgan, and the car, and the road, but then she falls asleep.
The question, when she wakes, is how to call for help. How many choices does she have? Her phone is gone. She doesn’t know where she is, precisely, though she could trace her way back to the road if she needed to, following snapped twigs and marks in the dirt. She could light a fire, but who would see it here? Out in the open the scrub would catch and burn the whole mountainside. But surely they wouldn’t forget her. Her friends would notice she was missing in a day or two. Eventually they’d call someone, word would get around, a search party would come after her. She’d go back to the road and wait. Eventually. Mark days and wait for the right time. Bring water with her, somehow. In her shirt and wring it out into her mouth? And if they don’t come? Heal her leg, make her way back, walk down the road, to foothills and ranger stations and houses and cities and hospitals. Then that’s the choice: to be saved soon, or to save herself later. Not really a choice at all. More like a hope. She spends the rest of the day looking for something to eat. It’s hours of scraped fingers and cramped legs and insect bites. She catches two grasshoppers, and picks some berries she learned to spot as a scout. They’re disgusting, but they don’t kill her.
The next day, she pours water into her cuts, though they’re already infected. It can’t hurt, can it? Well, sure it can. Bacteria and parasites and such, remember? But it’s already done. The choice can’t be unmade. Two choices, in fact, since she already drank from the same spring. Then she hunts grasshoppers and goes to sleep, and waits for rescue. She’s been keeping off her ankle, and soon it no longer throbs so readily. She can walk further, crouch lower. Perhaps she’ll catch a rabbit, or perhaps not, since who can catch a rabbit with a stick? Though she’s never exactly tried. Maybe you can just skewer it. Her friends would find her well-fed, thriving in the wilderness, eating cooked rabbit and laughing with birds. And they’d know this place suited her well, and she’d come back when she could, and be alone, and they’d wait for her to return. She doesn’t catch a rabbit, but she finds an old dead one, not yet rotten. She collects some stones and scrub, and makes a little fire. It’s disgusting, but it’s better than grasshoppers, and it doesn’t kill her. She sleeps, and waits, and nobody comes. She waits another day, eating bits of charred rabbit and watching the stars and keeping watch for mountain lions, which she never sees, and hawks, which she sees once. She walks back to the road, her ankle mostly healed, and waits all day at the edge of the woods, looking out at the blackened wreckage of the car, covered in the stink of ash and gasoline, but nobody comes.
It only takes her a couple weeks to learn how to catch a rabbit. The trick is to curve the stick like a boomerang. It makes sense, she figures. A straighter flight and more surface area means more chance to hit the rabbit. Not as funny as a little spear, though. At first she thinks she’ll break its neck, but either she can’t muster up the will to do it or it’s way more difficult than it looks in movies, so she kills it with a rock instead. Hunting requires concentration, more than she ever notices until she’s back to her camp between the stones. It’s not until night comes that she really gets a chance to think about much of anything, and by then she’s too tired to do anything but sleep. It is, she realizes, the least miserable she’s been in a very long time. That’s a terrible thing to think, she says to herself, even though it’s true. You’re dying in the woods, alone, and your friends and family are afraid for you, and looking for you! But of course they haven’t come. They won’t come. Why would they? Why would her mother and father want to talk to her now? After saying what they did, after closing their door on her? They hadn’t called in years. They had, but she hadn’t answered. They hadn’t apologized, they didn’t care. If they loved her, it was a selfishness, a love for what they thought they made. They didn’t love her, not who she was or the outcome of the choices she made. Of course if they found her they’d take her back, for a while, but then there would be questions, and it would be obvious they hadn’t learned a thing, or bothered to try and care at all. And she’d be gone again before they had the chance to ask. What friends would come for her, would come for Morgan? As nice as they were, as guilty as she felt for leaving them behind, she knew they wouldn’t give a shit. They’d laugh when she came back, of course, and ask her where she’d been and then forget all about it when she told them. It wouldn’t matter, except as a half-remembered story they could whip out at parties. “Hey, did you know Penelope once got lost in the woods, and like… nobody came to find her! Fucking horrible, yeah?” Yeah, pretty fucking horrible, yeah. If they wanted to find her, let them come and find her, let them prove it, she would wait and see. That was her choice. If they didn’t, what, she’d die? Not for a while. She’d live here and hunt rabbits and grasshoppers and drink from the spring and find signs in the stars, and when she died she’d die alone and vanish into bones and dust and be eaten by hawks and little insects. Not so different from going back, where she’d sell shit on the internet and fail to pay bills and pay off debts and pay for gas and what? At least when she died here she’d feed birds, not just ooze formaldehyde into cemetery grass. That was her choice, even if it wasn’t really a choice at all.
She stops counting the days, after that. They’d come or they wouldn’t. She’d die now or die later. She names stars and makes signs in the dust, and travels further from her camp between stones. She hunts rabbits, and follows hawks, and her hair grows long and her hands grow rough. She thinks less often of her parents, of her friends, of Morgan. She stops thinking about her voice and how she holds her arms and who can know and who can’t. She eats little, and worries often about mountain lions, about bears, but she learns to carve clean rabbit sticks with a sharp rock, to do a cartwheel. By the end of July, she’s learned to find birds’ eggs, to carve out little abscesses with a hot stone knife. Another month passes without her saying a word, but she laughs. She laughs more than she had in a year.
When she inhales a black and acrid smoke, the first thing she thinks is that the car is burning. For a half-second she’s back behind the wheel, but when her eyes open she’s alone. The second thing she thinks is that it’s fire season. And then the heat rolls over her. It’s terrifying how much of the scrub catches at once, sunbaked and desolate, roaring like an ocean as it carries the flame forward in a scouring wave. She runs, pounding sure-footed down the mountain, the rising sun at her back piercing golden-eyed through the smoke-black sky. She finds again her home between stones, gathers her little stone knife, her rabbit sticks, and keeps running, leaving the spring to be choked with soot, the foliage to be baked to ash. She runs until the fire is a distant light through the smoke, and collapses, coughing. She is far from where she was, but perhaps no closer to home. There is a waterfall here, all dried out, and a rusted metal drum, overgrown with green vegetation. She curls herself inside, and sleeps.
When she wakes up, she finds a shallow creek and cleans the ash out of her eyes. The fire’s still burning, high up on the mountain. They’d never find her here, she is surprised to find herself thinking. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t come looking. Of course, she could go back more easily now. She’s closer to the edge of the forest, she could return when she’s ready. But she’s no closer to anything she recognizes, and there’s miles of foothills and underbrush between the forest and anything else. Perhaps if there ever was a choice to go back, really, she had made it for good already. Perhaps the fire made it for her. Perhaps she could still go back. But if she knows she won’t, is that any choice at all?
In the year that follows, she learns how to hunt deer with a sharpened stick and crude spear-thrower. She manages to kill only one, and it seemed very sick already, but it’s a start. Soon she leaves the drum behind. She decides she doesn’t need it. After all that time under the stars between stones, she’s happier without something over her head. She wanders for a long time, longer than she’d ever gone without counting time. She learns to climb trees like a squirrel, and run down wounded animals. She hunts more deer, first with her spear, later with her hands. She laughs more often, though she doesn’t quite recognize the sound.
When she sees herself, reflected in the still clear water, she doesn’t quite recognize her face. Somewhere in her mind is a near-alien thought. She could still turn back. She could run down the mountain and die hopeful that things would shake out how she wanted them to. Die hopeful that she’d want things to be different than they are now. But she’d made her choice already, hadn’t she? From the moment she walked away from the smoldering wreckage of her car. Or perhaps this choice too had been made for her, from the moment she was born, from the moment humanity chose to be such absolute shit. Or… not shit, exactly. Wrong. Not wrong at what it was, but wrong for her. Wrong to her. Perhaps this was the only choice she’d ever had. A few minutes later, she grows hungry again, and the thought passes. She never thinks about it again. Today, Penelope is an urban legend in some parts of California. Hikers go looking for her, though none of them ever return. Who knows why?