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Chapter Four Excerpt From Natalie Stone

                              

Within: The reference to “no think reaction spin with pistol” refers to her earlier Israeli defense training, provided by Mario, , called Krav Maga (in this case with a gun).

POST HIKING

The September morning air has a shivery chill that for Natalie is as sharp and cleansing as a running stream—waking her up, she is certain, to a better life. While she helps to pack up their gear the sun bursts free of a crest, announcing the birth of the day and stirring her heart as it drives streaks of light through the trees, drilling fire into shadows and striking her face like sparks, causing her to squint. If this joyful light had sound, she decides, it would sizzle and snap.

She realizes they had climbed out of their shelter quietly smiling. No talk necessary. But now, somewhat shy, Mario asks, “How’re you feeling?” as if only to hear her put into words, she guesses, what he already knows. Pausing from securing her pack, she looks up at him and feels a sudden urge to kiss him, an impulse that moves beyond affection into the sensual. She then imagines he leans in her direction, and she worries her face might be seen reddening in this light-fractured dark, that he might be sensing her desire. She replies: “I’m good, Mario….” Choosing her words. “Not perfect, you understand…but truly good. Something happened last night… the talk…because of—thanks to you. And this morning, that sun, I’m…” eyes dazzled, blinking, grinning, “really good.” Feeling so good because she knows she loves this generous man.

After a thoughtful pause he replies, “You made me talk, as well. This goes two ways, and I thank you.” As she turns away his following silence seems filled with the unexpressed. She intuits a lingering gaze and wonders if he had felt what she had. The cool air fades the heat in her cheeks from the unexpected sexual stir, which, thankfully, also fades, allowing her to reduce it fully and safely to what, for the moment, passes for affection, fearing she might not be ready for what could have followed. She is wonderfully happy, she knows, being with this man, and while she believes he’s still hiding something from her, to recover her livelier mood she segues away to: “I’m hungry as a bear.” Stirring from his own thoughts: “Oh—right. Okay, me too. But let’s go eat in town.”

They hike to the trailhead and drive a rough path in Natalie’s Jeep to Highway 49, then south to Sierra City where they, two starving escapees from the wild, devour ham and eggs and fries and homemade bread, and steaming coffee. A good journey’s ending before the next beginning, she thinks. Let all journeys be so good.               ************************

After breakfast they return to the cabin and Mario, wanting to check for messages, removes his laptop from his pack and switches on. After several moments he says, “No signal. What the hell? That bird back?” “What bird?” “The Hawk’s nest.” He goes outside, gets the ladder and props it for climbing. Outside, too, Natalie watches him, and guessing she sounds like his mother, tells him, “Be careful.” He tears at the nest woven against his jerry-rigged disk antenna and tosses aside the twigs, the grass remnants, the bits of bone litter, most of which slide off the roof’s edge. Back inside he tells her the cable is frayed, that he’ll get no signal. “Intentional?” she asks. “Damn,” he says without replying. “I have to go back to town for the wi-fi, to check for emails.” He picks up his pack, not yet undone, says,” be back in a jiffy,’ and drives away in her jeep. “Put in some gas,” she yells after him.

Why the pack, she wonders? Then concludes his Glock is inside it, that he takes no chances and carries it at all times; a conclusion undercutting whatever security and good feeling the early morning sun had created. Gives her the creeps, how good feelings can suddenly change to zero, making her feel less energized. Spooked by nothing she can point at, a conflicted Natalie stands perfectly still and stares at the cloudless sky, so flatly blue it appears to lack reality’s dimension. She looks around at the conifers edging the clearing, a painted backdrop. Not a breeze. Nothing stirring. Not an insect. Nothing.

You are hallucinatory weird, Natalie, she tells herself as she listens and thinks, can
nothing exist? Is silence in fact material? Does it hum? Jesus, this—what it’s like to bso totally alone with Nature all of a sudden seeming too enormous, too indifferent, with me as important as a twig. Or like I don’t exist if I’m not observed. Where are the birds? She feels a growing exposure, as if walls fall away.
She shivers, sensing what? A formless uninvited something filling an empty space.
Quit it, you need a caretaker.

Natalie turns and re-enters while deciding, no, all she needs is a hot shower. She
gets fresh clothes from her bedroom and as she moves into the bathroom in bare feet she stops. She backs out. Something is different. What? A book? Approximately ten feet
from where she stands, the desk near the bookcase on which she had placed one of
Mario’s books on quantum mechanics, an old edition that she was reading. In the desk’s
drawer there is a dangerous flash drive that Mario has warned her not to open. She
remembers she had set the book at the forward edge, toyed with lining it flush with the
edge as she looked down at it’s cover, reflecting on a passage from inside which read,
“rips in the fabric of spacetime.” Words that had caused her to remember fantasizing
relativity, several weeks earlier, to disappear, escaping as a cluster of atoms forward of
that day, shot through a singularity to a distant star from that particular moment of soul
crushing panic.
When they left for their two-day hike, Mario had walked from the cabin first, and
she following had locked the door. It was locked when they returned. Yet the book has
moved from the edge. Only inches, but it has moved. She thinks of her laptop, remembers Mario has hidden it. There is something, something come to roost, Mario; what is it?
Mario has hidden the rifle in the jeep, she now recalls—armed to the teeth. She
perspires in the absence of actual heat while feeling bare feet taking root in fear of
stirring. Breathing shallowly, looking down, listening, hearing the scratch of a mouse in a
wall while noticing her toenails need cutting. She lifts her gaze and manages to swivel
her head round the cabin, slowly in minor jerks as if her neck had rusted and might,
insane thought, make a sound. She studies what her eyes had already taken in, including
the loft, except for the kitchen door round a corner of the fridge, two feet in, not in sight.
She looks at the furniture as a child might for a hidden playmate, in fear of a fatal scare.
Nothing.
No, not nothing. She feels down to her toes that what remains unseen, does in fact exist; is re-igniting and joining together all of her short life’s terrors, with her body’s reaction moistening itself with sweat as she strives to become the silence itself, moving sideways an inch at a time to reach Mario’s bedroom door. Her stomach unsettles threateningly as it did while crossing the metal catwalk atop the mountain—and yet something has altered deep inside her, bringing to mind that this is not several weeks earlier, this is now, and while she is scared and nauseous, she is not in a panic. Thanks to Mario, is a thought she adds to the other. Still, she complains, your goddamn intuition will drive you nuts, Natalie, you’re too imaginative.

But this actual moment cancels the notion of simple imagination as she wipes the reality of salty sweat from her upper lip with a knuckle, and back-peddles into Mario’s bedroom, resisting the impulse to hide under the bed while recalling: “Up inside a removable corner ceiling panel.” Mario’s casual reference to his nine -millimeter Berretta hidden in his bedroom. She doesn’t remember which corner. Did he say? Scanning the ceiling, which one, which one? Guess, pick one. Oh, Mom. On closer inspection the panel to the left of the window, over the dresser, appears to have a one-sixteenth-of-an-inch space at its farthest end. Let it be right, let it be the one. Her sweat feels chilled and she shivers as she lifts the room’s chair and places it quietly against the dresser, and reaching up she presses four fingers until the panel lifts with a small pop; and this little noise, for her, is equal to a bang! Her stomach doesn’t heave but bile with a yellow-green taste jets up to her windpipe and she covers her mouth to choke as quietly as possible as she teeters on the chair—don’t fall! Mario, why did you leave me? Urgency drives Natalie to jam her hand into the opening, scraping two knuckles bloody, but good guess, she feels it, curls her fingers around the shape of metal, removing it, almost dropping it—sigh of relief, doesn’t. Ohmigod, Uncle Jack has this one. Thankyou, Jack, I love you. She checks whatever stands in for the digital rolodex of her mind and remembers how it works. If she weren’t ill and terror stricken she’d smile at her affection for this dangerous pistol that she’s never fired. An M9 Army standard with a 15 round magazine. Black aluminum and steel smelling of its light coating of oil. She quietly releases the magazine and finds it fully loaded; slides it back without a snap. Then, as it requires effort, she cringes at the metallic noise when she racks the slide to chamber a round. An empty chamber puts you at a disadvantage, Jack had said. She whispers, “Control the recoil. Right thumb high, index extended along frame, 3 fingers up against trigger guard. Left thumb—enough! Got it.”

Got it, but she is suddenly feeling unreal, feels her mind drifting, that she is losing it and her heart is flipping this way and that. She knows her need to hide is irrational since there is no place to do that, but she wants to hide, to disappear, yet she can’t, can only stand still, and that’s irrational, too. Heft the gun, Jack had said. Make this Jack’s. Feel its realness. She presses the pistol hard against her brow, then bangs it twice, abrading the skin until it hurts her into reality. Okay, now move. With the dupe of her uncle’s pistol in hand, she focuses on him to tap into his resolve as she takes it off safety. Remaining barefoot, she slips from the room. A two-handed grip forward of her body as she moves to the fridge, pistol raised from sight as she peeks round at the door, at the hole in the door’s glass panel, big enough to reach through to the lock, the obvious break-in. Jesus, why no alarm, Mario?

Maybe the intruder’s gone…maybe not. Don’t think, only react, Mario had said. Krav Maga with a gun. Slightly irrational, she knows, but it comforts her. The door doesn’t squeak as she slips through, pistol extended, left, right, the pistol leading her eyes, not the reverse; to snap off a shot almost before the mind can react. She moves to the right toward the front of the cabin. Her bare feet step onto gravel. Ooo, shit! She trembles and her hands shake, which infuriates her, that he’ll have to be really big to hit him square, yet she doesn’t panic. Nothing, no one in sight. Fuck, she has to pee. Checking the terrain, gun leading, turning right at the corner of the porch. You are nuts, Natalie. There’s nothing! Except—she feels her entire life, back to front, ripping through a pinhole of time in one half second as she hears from behind her, a voice, not Mario’s—soft and downright congenial as an old friend, yet shocking as the voice of a raging monster, when it says, “Hello Natalie,” and her no-think-reaction spin with pistol extended arrives a fraction late as a single shot that seems to blast a hole in the world is fired as her spin completes itself, with the primal beat of a second separating her from death as her on-auto finger fires its round, abrading the temple of the bloodied stranger she sees collapsing to the ground— how? Finding her answer in the peripheral apparition approaching from her left, which draws her still-extended pistol swinging in the direction of this other, until the figure of Mario Del Campo takes shape in her crazed, hot-wired for chaos brain. Mario hurries up to her and quickly checks the body for a pulse before placing his rifle on the ground. Then, while grasping the barrel of her pistol, he inserts his finger behind the trigger to prevent another round from being fired, as Natalie, her eyes fixed on his and just managing belief, says, “Mario? You’re here?” With his eyes never leaving hers he replies simply, “I am here, Natalie,” as he uncurls her rigid grip, one finger at a time and relieves her of the pistol. He then tells her, “He’s a pro. I saw him come from behind the cabin, and shot first, but you had him square, Grav Maga. You are really something, Kiddo.”

Having thought herself deserted, seeing he is really Mario, she tilts his way with abandon and allows herself to be fully embraced, feels herself absorbing, becoming one with him, her jack hammered heart slowing, remaining this way for perhaps a minute in a state of relief that feels like bliss. When she finally backs away she girds herself to stare down at the dead man on the ground, an image that shreds what remains of bliss. The man dressed for hiking with a pack on his back, his knife, a switchblade, inches from his outstretched hand. Green eyes staring into an abyss. Average build with graying hair. Ordinary. Another human being. The man driving the Range Rover, she is certain, when she was jogging. The skin of his temple ripped by her round, with blood pouring from his ravaged neck from Mario’s shot, lying here in death that’s ugly and real as rape. Does he have a mother who loves him? A human being who tried to fucking stick her with a knife. Flesh and blood, the real deal with eyes of glass.

Three kills for Mario. What the fuck. She is alive but death is a cape that covers her world. Why? How did she get from there to here—non-dead in this purgatory place? “Come away, Natalie,” this Mario she knows she loves, says to her. Yet she doesn’t speak of love: “This is the man who slowed to look me over, on Highway 49.” Looking at the body: “Ah…I see…. He hiked in, left his car someplace. Wish I knew where…. But it can’t be helped.”

“I’m glad it was you who killed him, not me,” she tells him as her eyes moisten into angry tears. She turns and walks fast toward the woods, just past the gravel that has scraped and bruised the soles of her feet, where she bends and vomits up her breakfast onto the weedy ground. She then rushes past him for the cabin, for the bathroom, fearing the urine she’s been holding will wet her pants.

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