The Path to Owl River
By Luke Beling -
I told Suzy that the yellowtail were biting, that we couldn't pass up the full moon.
"You just be careful. The other day, I heard about that leopard again. Nikki says he's out there, Sam. There's photos and everything, you know? And tell Fred to bring his gun."
I kissed her on the forehead, hoping she was right. It was like drinking a cold cup of coffee driving past Freddie's house without collecting him. I was surprised to feel a new courage occupy the always-with-me nervous, anxious place in my chest. I drove by slowly, watching Fred throw his kids in the air in his beautiful, manicured yard. A part of me hoped he'd seen me, fishing rod strapped to the roof of my Prius, driving towards the sunset. But I didn't need him to follow, although I would've been equally pleased with his company.
I kept my eyes in the mirror until Freddie's house disappeared. Then, I took comfort in knowing he'd find out one way or the other.
When I parked my Prius at the Owl River trailhead, I noticed a set of descending stairs leading toward the ocean. I set my rod on my tackle box and backpack, then began a gentle jog towards the sea. In ten years, I wondered why I'd never seen these stairs nor thought to watch and listen to the waves break onto the sand.
The moon cast a luminous glow onto the water, making the slow-moving current seem alive and able to put its palm in mine if it so desired.
I gazed until it felt like the ripply surface was peering into my soul. Afraid of what it might see, I returned up the stairs, grabbed my fishing gear, and began on the path toward Owl River.
Entering the tunnel forest of darkness, the screams of monkeys and birds chirping and the likelihood of snakes and scorpions at my feet held my attention. One hand clutched my flashlight, the other my rod. I stopped to ensure there weren't wild animals stalking me, slowly turning my neck and moving my eyes quickly to keep up with the white circling halo. And then, once I confirmed I was safe, Doctor Simpson's words flashed across my mind, resuming the ice-cold pulse of indifference to carry me forward.
Earlier that day, I'd gone in for my yearly check-up. Thirty-eight and maybe a month to live, more if I took it easy and arranged for hospice, he said.
"But I feel great, Doc! Never felt better!"
"I'm sorry, Mr. Silk. But, unfortunately, sometimes the symptoms don't even manifest until...Well... You know."
With Dr. Simpson's words moving my feet, I traversed the first quarter of the trail, the blackest, steepest part.
After that, the path flattened out, following the spine of Ash mountain. Before continuing, Fred would usually lay out his palm and wait for me to hand him his carton of cigarettes and lighter. My tackle box had a special compartment where Fred preferred to store his stash. In case of rain, he'd say, with a grave expression. I'd usually wait for Freddie on a small bench while he insisted on taking this minor yet dangerous detour to observe the bay below from the perched overlook, smoking, dangling his feet off the cliff face.
"C'mon, Sam! It's such a beautiful vantage point. Come steal a drag with me!"
He'd repeat the same line with an expectant tone, suggesting my answer might change.
I'd force my bravest face, lowering the register of my voice. "Cancer, Fred! You ever heard of it?"
"Fine! Then just come and marvel at this view with me! It's incredible!"
It was the only occasion I was grateful for Fred's smoking addiction, any excuse to avoid my fear of heights. "Secondhand smoke, Fred! You ever heard of it!?"
Setting my tackle box and rod on the bench, I wished I'd taken Fred up on one of his thousand offers: one lousy smoke I coughed my way through with burning eyes.
I opened the compartment, grabbed Fred's cigarettes and lighter, then began with stiff legs towards the overlook. Out from under the canopy of thick fern trees, the moon spotlighting my steps offered friendly assurance. The fright I felt from the narrow trail and looking down the steep walls of the cliff face stopped me for a second and almost made me turn around. And then, for some odd reason, I thought of Suzy's upcoming thirtieth birthday and the Alaskan cruise I'd decided against because of budget constraints. I'd book it if I returned home and make sure the tickets were transferrable, I thought. A big flat rock shone in the moonlight, and I could almost see Fred hanging his feet off the edge, watching him blow rings of floating smoke toward the horizon.
Resting on the rock, I understood the conviction and insistence of Fred's pleading. It was exhilarating and profoundly meditative scanning the valley below, discovering what my eyes could find from such a great vantage point. Like dominoes falling, I watched the town's lights flicker and fade until only the moon's silver shine remained. I followed that warmth and watched it dance upon the sea while burning a cigarette. Attempting to discern the rhythm of inhaling and exhaling, procuring that orange glow that marked many a misfit, I didn't mind being one tonight. I coughed, then barked as the poisonous graze of carbon monoxide coursed through my throat and lungs. Before long, I was somewhere near the horizon, oblivious to the laws of gravity. I contemplated lighting another when the ride evened out, but I couldn't trust my feet to stay on the ground. The dark path to Owl River lay in front of me like a father with a hand extended toward his child.
The moon cast its reflective light on my steps until the final patch of fern-clouded forest descended toward the river's mouth. I turned off my flashlight and stood in the darkness, motionless and aware of all the sounds of wild animals and the dirty river throwing herself into the arms of the sea.
I heard twigs breaking slowly, rhythmically, getting louder with every snap. The leopard, I thought. I wanted at least one chance at catching a fish before being eaten alive. So I grabbed a few pebbles at my feet and threw them in the direction of where I'd heard the twig-snapping. I sprinted the final downhill to Owl River, skidding across the worn-out earth, dust seasoning my lips, shouting, "Don't look back, Sam! Don't you dare look back!"
Out of breath, I flung my rod, tackle box, and backpack onto the rocks as I emerged from the forest, then I jumped into the river, naively hoping that the leopard couldn't swim. I watched the clearing for a minute, only the top of my head above the shimmering brown surface of the water. I thought I saw the trees rustle, rubbed my eyes, then opened them again to see a canopy of motionless leaves and limbs. Some evolutionary fight or flight chemical in the brain, I reasoned, for the just-in-case. I waded to the rocks, tasting the salt on my tongue, then I pulled myself out of the river and began dressing my rod with tackle and bait. I was accustomed to Fred tying everything for me except the swivel. He'd have his line in the water by the time I'd pick up my sinker from the tackle box. "Give me that, Sam, before you hurt somebody with it." Then I'd watch him work his little fingers like Suzy's needles through the winter sweaters she'd knit for me before winter. I'd try to hide my smile from Freddie, so he wouldn't think I relied on him so much. But the way Fred's eyes shone and how his tongue stuck out the side of his mouth, I could see that helping me brought him great satisfaction.
I dropped my line into a deep gulley. I'd only cast into the open ocean two or three times, and on every attempt, my hook got stuck on a barnacle or rock I hadn't seen.
Fred would look at me with the same endearing face he'd wear when offering a smoke. "One of these days, you'll have to venture out of your kiddie pool again, Sam."
I'd peer into the pool, hurrying my words. "I spotted a big fella. Did you see him!"
But Fred never looked, just chuckled to himself, landing his bait safely in the chaos of the churning tide.
To hell with it, I thought. If only Fred could see me now.
I cast into the crashing waves. Instantly, the ocean dragged me forward so fiercely that I had to cement my heels into the black rock to avoid falling into the water.
The sea's incredible power strained my quads as I battled to stay stable. And then I noticed my rod, the tip of it bending like cardboard. "A fish," I shouted in the silver-lit darkness. "I've got a real fish over here!"
Spinning my reel, feeling as though my blood-pumped wrist was going to explode, I heard Fred as if he was standing next to me. Don't fight it. Let the fish tire itself out, then spin that reel like a merry-go-round when it's got nothing left.
I followed Fred's advice, and after an eternity, I reeled in the biggest fish I'd ever caught. The only fish I'd ever caught.
I was too excited to offer myself or the fish to the leopard.
I ran back without stopping for breath or a smoke, both hands clutching to the bottom of my backpack, ensuring the bloody fish wasn't flopping up and down, spraying its guts. I ambled into the parking lot, sucking wind. As I tied my rod to the roof of my car, Suzy's Subaru came screeching in, driver and passenger doors flinging open. "Sam! Thank God! You're okay!" Suzy screamed, sprinting towards me. "When Fred called, I knew you'd gone alone, and I was afraid something awful had happened to you."
"Saw you drive past my house, Sam-O. With your rod on your roof." Fred wore his big smile, walking his long watermelon-under-his-shoulders walk. "Called your lady and asked if you'd met Jesus."
My hands were covered in fish blood and smelled like Wednesday's trash pick-up. I wiped them down my pants, opened my backpack, and pulled out my fish. "Look what I caught. Isn't she beautiful?"
Fred hurried closer while Suzy backed away.
"What a beauty! How'd you snag that bugger!? Bigger than any fish I ever caught!"
"I guess I learned something all these years with you." I helped the fish into Fred's cradled arms and grinned as his knees and back bent to hold the weight of it.
"Dr. Simpson called moments after you left the house, Sammy." Suzy stepped closer.
I'd forgotten about Dr. Simpson. Hearing his name made my body droop like a vacuum cleaner had sucked out my spirit.
"So you know," I said.
My eyes felt sunken as I stared at Suzy. "What did he say?"
"To find you immediately. To tell you that he'd made a terrible mistake on your report. That you're healthy as a May morning."
Fred was still admiring my fish. I kneeled to open my tackle box, grabbed three cigarettes, lit them, and puff-coughed until the orange glow appeared. Then I handed one to each of them and wrapped my arms around their necks, pulling them tight onto the tops of my shoulders.
The smoke made the moon look hazy. I kissed Fred on the cheek and Suzy on the lips, smiling. "What a marvelous night," I said.
South African born, Luke Beling left home at 19. In 2007, he graduated from Campbellsville University with a BA in English. Luke has had several short stories published in journals and magazines, including: Quiet Shorts (2012), Eyelands Flash Fiction (2019), Academy of the Heart and Mind (2021), New Reader Magazine (2021), The Salt Weekly Magazine (2022), and Impspired Magazine (2022). Luke is the director of tennis for a private club on the Big Island of Hawaii and an indie-folk singer-songwriter. You can find him on lukebeling.com and on Twitter @BelingLuke.