There was the smell of the dried pine needles baking in the sun.
The sweet cold water.
The bright sound of the river tumbling down through the canyon.
The clatter of stones shifting under the current.
The piercing blue of the sky.
To be warm again lifted his spirits, and to be in the wilderness, despite everything, spoke to something buried deep in the pit of his soul.
Last night, he’d been too tired to do anything but lie motionless on the stone.
Now, his hunger returned.
He fished the carrots and squashed bread loaf out of his pockets.
* * *
Back on his feet, he scavenged until he found a pine branch in the nearby grove and broke off one end so that its length suited him for a walking stick. Spent several minutes stretching, trying to work the debilitating soreness out of his muscles, but it was a losing battle.
He finally struck off up the canyon at a pace he thought he could maintain, but after ten minutes, the trauma of yesterday’s exertion forced him to slow down.
A half mile felt like five.
With every step, he was relying more and more on his walking stick for support, clinging to it like a lifeline, like his only decent leg.
* * *
By early afternoon, the nature of the canyon had begun to change, the river narrowing until it could only be called a stream, pines shrinking, growing fewer and farther between, and those he encountered were stunted and gnarled, dwarfed victims of punishing winters.
He was having to stop frequently, now resting more than he was walking, and constantly out of breath, his lungs burning with oxygen deprivation the higher he climbed.
* * *
Near dusk, he lay sprawled across a lichen-covered rock beside what was left of the river—a six-foot-wide, fast-moving current that babbled over a bed of colorful stones.
It had been four or five hours since he’d left the alcove, and already the sun was sliding behind the canyon wall on the other side of the stream.
When it disappeared, the temperature plummeted.
He lay there watching the color drain from the sky, curled up against the coming chill, and the grim realization setting in that he wasn’t going to be getting back up.
Turning over onto his side, he tugged the hood over his face.
Shut his eyes.
He was cold, but his clothes were dry, and he was trying to sort through a swarm of thoughts and competing emotions, the exhaustion pushing him toward the edge of delirium, and then suddenly he felt the sun beating down on his hood.
He opened his eyes, sat up.
He was still on that rock beside the stream, only now it was morning, the sun just peeking over the canyon wall at his back.
I slept all night.
He dragged himself over to the stream and drank, the water so cold it made his head ache.
He had a carrot and a few bites of bread, and then struggled onto his feet and took a leak. He felt surprisingly better, the pain in his legs less all-consuming. Almost manageable.
He grabbed his walking stick.
* * *
The canyon walls closed in and the stream dwindled into a trickle before finally disappearing altogether into the spring from which it sourced.
In the absence of running water, the silence was blaring.
Nothing but the clink of rocks under his boots.
The lonely croak of a bird passing overhead.
His own panting.
The walls on either side of him were becoming steeper, and there were no more trees or even shrubs.
Just shattered rock and lichen and sky.
* * *
By midday, Ethan had abandoned his walking stick, reduced now to moving on all fours over the steepest terrain yet. As he worked his way around a bend in the canyon, a new sound crept in over the constant noise of shifting rocks. He leaned against a boulder the size of a compact car, trying to hone in on the noise over his own ragged breathing.
There it was.
A low-decibel hum.
Curiosity pulled him forward, Ethan climbing quickly until he’d cleared the corner, the hum becoming more prominent with every step, his anticipation spiking.
When he finally saw it, a stab of exhilaration coursed through him.
The canyon continued its steep ascent for another mile or two, the cliff walls topped with jagged spires and serrated ridges, an unforgiving cruelty to the landscape that looked almost alien.
Fifty feet upslope, Ethan stared straight at the source of the hum—a twenty-foot-high fence crowned with coils of razor wire that spanned sixty feet across the breadth of the canyon at its most tapered point. Signage on the fence advised:
RISK OF DEATH
RETURN TO WAYWARD PINES
BEYOND THIS POINT YOU WILL DIE
Ethan stopped five feet from the barricade and made a thorough inspection—the fence was constructed of square panels of wire, the side of each square approximately four inches long. In proximity, the hum was even more ominous, giving the fence an authentic, not-to-be-fucked-with vibe.
Ethan caught the scent of rot in the vicinity, and it took him only a moment to spot the origin. A large rodent—probably a marmot—had made the mistake of trying to crawl through one of the squares adjacent to the ground. Looked like it had been microwaved between the wires for eight hours. Charred pitch black. Some poor bird, apparently thinking it had stumbled upon a hassle-free meal, had erred in judgment, attempted to help itself to the critter’s remains, and suffered the same fate.
Ethan glanced up at the canyon walls.
They were sheer, but the handholds, particularly on the right side, looked feasible for someone who was both motivated and had the nerves to handle a little exposure.
Ethan trucked over to the wall and began to climb.
It wasn’t the best rock, and some of the holds felt rotten in his grip, but they were plentiful and spaced closely enough that he didn’t have to put his weight on any one for more than several seconds.
Soon, he was twenty-five feet off the ground, a weightless, tingling sensation in his gut as the electrified razor wire hummed just several feet beneath the soles of his boots.
He traversed a ledge on solid rock, carefully sidestepping as he crossed to the forbidden side of the fence. The height rattled him, but even more, the reality of what he’d just done—this illicit boundary crossing.
A nagging premonition in the back of his mind whispered he’d just willingly placed himself in terrible danger.
* * *
Ethan safely reached the canyon floor and went on, the hum of the electrified fence growing softer as his system kicked into an intensified and disconcerting state of alertness. Same thing had happened to him in Iraq—a heightened level of sensory intake always seemed to hit him in the ramp-up to missions that ultimately went to shit. His palms would start sweating, his pulse rate would accelerate, his sense of hearing, smell, taste, everything ratcheted into overdrive. He’d never told anyone, but when he lost the Black Hawk in Fallujah, he’d known the RPG was coming five seconds before it exploded.