MAPS by KATE SPARKS

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James catches his toe under a rock the size of a softball and the color of toasted marshmallow. He stumbles and curses. About the ten thousandth time that day, and shit, this one hurt. Ahead of him, the ground bubbles with piles of more of the stuff, like he is scaling the back of a naked and sleeping giant afflicted with raging boils.

“Thank God, thank God,” he hears Sarah sob somewhere to his right. He turns. She is on her knees sweeping at chunks of stone. Her too-long-for-her-age graying hair brushes the dirt with the motion of her hands. She looks like a washerwoman from a fairytale scrubbing the castle’s granite floors. You start reading the story, you think she might be the heroine, the good witch in disguise who puts the arrogant prince in his place or grants three wishes to the imprisoned queen. But it will turn out she is just a bit player, a scene-setting backdrop for whatever adventures and romance the resident swans, and huntsmen, and lithe princesses in emerald-festooned gowns get up to.

And James? Not even in the story. A guy who administers an HMO outside of DC. A guy with three daughters, all of whom, as of four hours ago after a tearful scene outside of one of University of Virginia’s red-brick dorms, are away at college. A guy who has probably broken his left toe. A guy who is more lost than he is going to admit to his wife of twenty-seven years.

He picks his way through the rocks to where Sarah, still kneeling, presses her face close to a faded and creased sheet of paper in the space she’s cleared.

“It’s a map,” she says, “Thank God. It’s a map. We’re not lost.”

“We’re not lost,” James says and touches the Park Service brochure in his pocket. He hasn’t looked at it since they got off the trail about an hour ago. “We’re headed west. It is the way to the car park. We went east along the river down there,” he waves a hand at the place twenty feet further on where the ridgeline crowns and drops through more stones then stubby elms and overgrown wild rhododendron to the St. Mary’s River. At least he thinks it does. They are too far up to hear the babble of water any more. Too far, or it just isn’t there. “We keep going west, follow the sun.”

“Someone left it for us,” says Sarah. “They knew it was easy to get lost. Look, it says we’re here.”

James looks down at the map. It is topographic and the contours swirl like oil on water. Sarah places a chewed nail next to a blotch and smear obscuring the name of some hill, maybe this hill. The mark looks like dried blood. Like someone had a nosebleed while reading the map then tried to wipe it off.

“I don’t think that’s right,” says James and then does pull out his map, holding it above Sarah’s head, squinting at the simple green spaces cut through with red and blue trail marks and cheerful labels: camp here, scenic overlook, fishing lake, swimming hole. He sees nothing like any of it on the smudged swill of lines and arrows and numbers on the map in the dirt below.

“No it is. It’s got to be. There’s a note.” Sarah moves her head, and James sees more blood smears. It has to be blood, too thick for wine, too red for mud. Follow me Rose is scratched in pencil across the bottom of the map, Next to it is an arrow, again in pencil, this time pressed so hard it has torn the paper. The arrow points north to the top of the ridge.

“Do you think she followed?” Sarah says and sniffs, prelude to more crying. James knows she is thinking of their daughter Elise, their youngest and most troubled, the one most likely to need a friendly stranger to point the way home.

“I hope not.” James affects a jovial and confident tone, the one he uses to explain to his board why costs are still up, even after the layoffs. “Because that’s not the way to anywhere but over the cliff. Let’s go.”

He moves west again. He thinks it’s west. Watches the rocks. Sarah sits still with the map.

“I bet Rose got home. A place like this. You’d hear about it if she were lost, still lost,” she says.

“Well it’s not the way,” James says and takes a few more steps, west, almost surely west. Surely the right way.

Sarah stands too. Starts toward him then returns to the map. Pushes the stones back on top with her feet. “I’m going to leave it for the next people. Or maybe Rose. Maybe she hasn’t found it yet.”

He nods and continues toward the setting sun. The walk is slow, through the damn rocks and soon they are turning to boulders that have to be squeezed through or slid down. But he is sure this is right now. He can hear the whoosh of the fast running river to the north. The sound travels in on a wavelet of evening air then melts away. It is the sound of water, to the north. Or perhaps the sound of Sarah, sliding north, sliding down, through the rocks and brush, following someone else’s map, following someone else’s path, for no reason, no good reason at all.

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About the Author: Kate Sparks is a writer, retired Senate staffer, and MFA candidate at Queens University. She lives with her husband and more chickens than either can be bothered to count on their Shenandoah Valley farm. Her short fiction has also appeared in the Citron Review, and she is currently working on a novel about cowboy poetry and an obese pet mortician who loves it. On the rare occasions when she is feeling succinct, Kate can be found at @OnTheFenceWrite.

Story Song: “So Far Away” by Dire Straits

Photo Credit: Elisabeth Clem/Poppy and Pinecone