The Memory Keeper, p.3Lisa Stowe
It was late morning but little was open as Cody walked along Bank Street, the gray misty weather contributing to empty streets. At the end of one, a rundown gas station sat against the canyon wall. It was a throw back to a generation long gone, with its individual rounded-top pumps and lack of anything computerized or digital. Seeing lights on, Cody went in, squeezing through narrow aisles and past displays of postcards to reach the counter.
“Help you?” A young man with long wispy black hair and black eyeliner flipped shut a cell phone with a finger circled by a tiny piece of studded black leather.
“Please. Do you happen to know if this gas station was owned by an Italian back in the 1940’s?" Cody unzipped her fleece as the warmth of the room seeped in, put her hands in her jeans pockets, and then shifted to interlacing her fingers behind her back.
“That’s what my boss told me when I got this job a few weeks ago. I just moved from Bozeman so I’m still learning the area. Cool rock climbing routes." The cell phone vibrated with a high pitched sound like an insane mosquito.
“Rock climbing?” Cody asked, shoulders slumping. She couldn’t climb rocks. She wasn’t sure she could hike without a heart attack. She was more of a walking, picnicking sort.
“Oh yeah, man. There’s some real challenging routes, like Tempitchuous. Get it? Tempitchuous?”
“No." The conversation had become an errant child and Cody had no idea how to rein it back in.
“Oh. Well, it’s a 5.10 climb with bitchin’ pitches. The Climb Naked guys named it. Play on words.”
“Climb Naked?” Cody asked.
“Oh man, I don’t walk naked, let along climb. These guys are a club of nudist climbers.”
“Sounds…uncomfortable." Warmth started creeping across her cheekbones.
“No shit, man. Oh, sorry, hope that didn’t offend you. But think about it. Climbing a cliff with no gear and your…well, your, uh, manly parts hanging out there all vulnerable.”
Cody’s warm cheeks ignited and heat spread rapidly, as if her face had become a neon sign shouting embarrassment.
“Anyway, if you’re looking for the Italian that used to own this place he’s probably dead. He’d be an old guy now.”
“I was looking for a hiking trail that’s supposed to be behind his gas station.”
“It’s here. Pretty steep though,” he said, as his cell phone vibrated again and he flipped it open to study the screen.
Cody ignored the apparent doubt in his voice that she could handle a steep hike. She had long ago resigned herself to the fact that her weight would spread out better if she was five foot five instead of five foot none. Her mother had told her many times that weight was genetic and Cody was destined to be just like May. She had accepted that as gospel for so many years it didn’t hurt anymore. Either that or she’d developed pretty thick scar tissue.
“Is the trail head obvious if I go back there?” she asked. “Do I need a trail pass or anything?”
“Yep and nope. But I wouldn’t go up there if I were you.”
“Why is that?” Cody asked, edging for the door.
“Dude, some wild man’s living up there. They’re saying he’s some nut but lots of people have seen him, or heard him, or something.”
“Is he supposed to be violent?” asked Cody, remembering the conversation at the deli. The ranger had said something about a guy living in the woods.
“Who knows?” He shrugged, thumbs busy texting on the cell. “But I sure wouldn’t take no chance.”
“Well, thanks for the advice but I think I’ll go anyway. My grandfather hunted a cougar up that trail once when he was a boy.”
Cody hoped she didn’t sound like she was bragging, but at the same time she wanted to claim the connection, to prove she had a right to be there.
“Yeah? Cool. Not that I’m into hunting. I’m vegan. Except when I go home. Mom makes this killer beef teriyaki. All homemade and man, there’s nothing better. She gave me the recipe but I can’t buy the meat.”
“Really?” Cody said, then paused at the door. “Say, do you know what the gold trees are? The ones that look like they have evergreen needles but are changing color?”
“Sure. Tamaracks, though some call them larches,” he said, lifting his chin in farewell as the insane mosquito in his cell phone diverted him again.
Cody left the man to his call, reaching to pull open the door, but as she did so someone outside propelled it inward. The door slammed against her hand, flexing it backward.
“Ouch!" She pulled her hand to her chest.
The man barely glanced at her as he pushed past a display of baseball hats, knocking it over. Cody backed up against a cooler of bottled water. She recognized him as the same one she’d seen when she first arrived. The one who had touched his hat and made her feel welcome.
“What the hell’s going on, Cell?” he said, slamming his hands down on the counter.
Cody reached for the door. She didn’t want to be inside and near this stranger’s rage.
“I thought you were supposed to be doing something.”
“I am, man, really." The clerk looked over the man’s shoulder at Cody. “It’s cool. Nothing to worry about.”
Cody had the door open and stood in the empty space. “No police?”
“Police? What the hell for?” the man asked. “What have you done now, Cell?”
“Nothing! She doesn’t know you. She probably thinks you’re going to rob the place or something.”
“I’m not going to rob anything. But I am going to get some answers. Aren’t I?”
“Oh man, come on.”
Cody slipped outside and went around the end of the building where she leaned against the stucco wall under the eaves, waiting for her thudding heart to ease. The gas station was run down from the front, and even more so from the back, signs of age and hard use obvious in the piles of rusting metal and bins of crushed aluminum cans. The mist thickened to a soft rain and she watched it fall, listening for sounds from inside. If it got loud in there she would find a phone. But when the quiet continued she left the shelter, heading for the trailhead a few feet away. The cell phone man had been right that it was easy to spot. He’d also been right about the steepness and she was out of breath within moments of entering the twilight of forest shadows.
And her grandfather, nine years old, had tracked a cougar here through deep snow.
“The bounty for a cougar back then was fifty dollars.” His voice echoed in her memory. “And that was a lot of money. So I went out every day, tracking that big cat, up behind this old gas station owned by an Italian. But I kept losing the tracks in this clearing. What I didn’t know was that old cat tracked me back out every time. And the Italian saw the cougar come out at the trailhead a few minutes after me. So one day he waits, and when I come back out, he ups and shoots the cougar and collects the bounty.”
“Did he split it with you?” Cody asked.
“So you never got your money?” Indignation on the part of a little boy now long grown, over an event now long over, surfaced in Cody’s voice.
“Well,” her grandfather said, chuckling low, “I’m not saying I never saw no money out of the deal. Somehow there was a rockslide that broke out all the windows in back of the station. And replacing windows just happened to be my job. Though mainly for one local bordello.”
“A house of ill repute. The madam, Ethel, owned this classy place called the Silver Haven. She was one special lady. Watched out for me when I was growing up.”
“Weren’t you kind of young for hauling windows around?”
“No, Ethel’s windows were Bavarian, lots of tiny squares. Anyway, that rockslide, like I said, broke out the Italian’s windows, and he hired me to replace them. So I made some money out of it. Though not the fifty I’d dreamed of.”
Looking down the steep trail now, Cody could make o
Cody pushed upward, climbing the rocky ground until she was breathless and sweaty in spite of the cool day. Her coat sleeve was wet with rain, but she swiped it across her forehead anyway. And heard voices. Her tenuous connection to Charles dissipated with the intrusion of other hikers. She stood watching movement on the trail above her coalesce into two men, trespassers in her memories.
The ranger from the deli led the way, his hair glowing in the mist like the autumn leaves falling around them. Behind him a short muscular man with dreadlocks, jeans, and camouflage jacket scanned the trees along the trail.
“I’ll talk to the other rangers.” Kelly massaged his jaw with the knuckles of one hand as if he had a toothache. “You know the gossips in town are saying some wild man is living up here in the woods.”
“No problem. Keeps people out of my way.”
“True, but we don’t want people scared off, either. Or locals deciding to go hunting a lunatic.”
The man with Kelly caught sight of Cody and stopped, simply watching her. When Kelly noticed, he followed his companion’s gaze and his easy grin spread out over the previous seriousness.
“Hey, Cody, right? Looking for our local wild man here?”
“No,” she said, overwhelmed again by Kelly’s good will. “My grandfather told me about hiking this trail so I wanted to see it.”
“Grandfather?” the stranger said, stepping around Kelly. “When was he here?”
“Too early to have anything to do with what I’m looking for." He waved her off with a dirt engrained hand.
“So what are you looking for then?” Cody asked, feeling a tiny flash of irritation.
He was silent long enough that Cody thought he would ignore her, but finally he shrugged as if shedding her question. “My father spent time up here, too.”
As he moved downhill past Cody she caught a whiff of dirt, pine needles and male sweat and she looked to Kelly, raising an eyebrow.
“I know,” Kelly said, rubbing his jaw again. “He’s different. On a quest, kind of like you. Seems one of those types who just doesn’t like being around people. He’s not breaking any laws, so I guess he’ll be here a while.”
“That won’t bother me,” Cody replied.
Kelly squeezed her shoulder lightly. “Good girl,” he said, his easy grin resurfacing. “Never let ghost stories or wild men keep you out of the woods.”
He headed down the trail after the stranger, and Cody watched until they were out of sight. She brushed her shoulder briefly with cold fingertips, feeling where his hand had been, before walking deeper into the woods. Kelly had touched her casually as if the merest gesture between friends and Cody realized she had been touched by a man who had shown only a relaxed friendliness and no judgment. Twenty three years old and she couldn’t remember if she’d ever had a man do that before. He probably had no idea his trivial gesture had thrown her completely off balance. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, to be thrilled or ashamed.
The trail climbed through tamarack, cedar, and pine, the gold and green needles catching misty rain and releasing plopping drops as Cody pushed to put distance between the two men and her confusion. A creek next to the path rushed downhill effortlessly as she struggled uphill next to it, gasping for air. To distract herself she tried to imagine what it must have been like for a boy, carrying his absent father’s rifle, breaching waves of deep snow under these same trees. And Charles had done that for over a mile. While Cody, whose struggles were with cold and rain and her body’s rebellion against upward movement, only wanted the mile to be over.
She passed through the small clearing before realizing what had happened. It was the subtle change in light that penetrated her self-centered haze of hiking misery. Here evergreens gave way to a stand of tamarack, bright and gold as if she stood in sunshine instead of misty grayness. This grove had obviously been more open in an earlier time, but years were slowly allowing the forest to reclaim what was its own. Here, her grandfather had lost cougar tracks. It was easy to recreate the scene, imagining it as if she had been there.
Her breathing slowed as she waited for something to happen. She didn’t know if she sought some sort of inherited recognition of place, or simply confirmation. The memory of Charles’s story needed something physical to go with it though, so Cody pulled out a small digital camera, snapping a few pictures. She tried to imagine a small boy in snow, tried to find something that would bring her grandfather to this place with her. The rain tap danced on leaves, soaking into ground both she and her grandfather had stood on. And yet she could feel nothing beyond the moment. She realized she had been half hoping for some mystical connection to pop into existence, pointing the way to Charles. Embarrassed by her fanciful weakness, she pocketed the camera.
The quiet cirque was peaceful as Cody crossed it and entered the denser tree line, starting back. In some ways, she could understand what kept Kelly’s wild man up here in his hermit existence. Her social skills were totally inept, too, unless she was at work and could hide within the scripted role of a receptionist. But she longed too much for acceptance to be a hermit. And there was another reason why she could never be one. Who would take care of her mother?
A few feet from the grove, Cody heard a faint snap. She paused, straining to hear over her own breathing but the sound wasn’t repeated. Maybe it had been some wild animal out in the trees. She continued down the trail, wondering if it had been wise to not carry bear spray or something similar, and the vision of stalking cougars pushed her downhill faster.
Quiet descended with her. The breeze remained behind in the high places, and the stillness was as unnatural as her presence in the forest. She had overstayed her welcome, and fought the urge to run.
Cody rounded the corner of a switchback and stumbled, her hand going to the rough bark of a tamarack for the balance and security its substance offered. She was being silly letting an unfamiliar place make her feel like an interloper. Catching her breath, she reluctantly stepped out from the tree.
Coming up the trail was the wild man. Cody, caught short by his appearance, jumped when he fell to one knee. Fully expecting him to stand back up embarrassed, she waited awkwardly for him to laugh his clumsiness off. Instead, he crumpled to the ground.
“Hey!” Cody ran forward. “Are you okay?”
Struggling, he managed to partially rise before collapsing again. Scared now, Cody bent over him.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, words leaving her mouth seconds before her brain registered what she saw. “Oh god,” she said, hands shaking violently. “You’re bleeding!”
It wasn’t just that he was bleeding. It was more like he was emptying. A large fist sized hole opened up his back, with a smaller hole in his chest where blood pulsed through, soaking his clothes, seeping thickly down to mix with earth and rain. His voice was heavy liquid.
“Get help,” Cody said for him, standing. She’d have to run for the gas station. Why hadn’t she purchased a cell phone before leaving, like she had debated doing?
“No,” he said, grasping her ankle with red fingers. “Get…away.”
“Don’t talk,” Cody said, not sure why. It seemed to be what people always said in emergencies.
She stripped off her coat, jerked it off her hands where the damp material clung, and draped it over him, as much to keep him warm as to hide the obscenity his chest had become. “I’m going for help. Hang on." More clichés and she realized the phrases slipped in when there was nothing else one could do.
Cody sprinted down hill, rounded a corner, and stopped so abruptly her momentum carried her to the gro
He wasn’t covered in blood. Maybe he’d just knocked himself out or something. Maybe he’d wake up and know what to do, would tell her he’d take care of everything. But when she reached for him, she saw the small hole in the center of his back.
Terror flooded through her, wiping out all emotion, until she was as silent and empty as the woods around her, a wild animal gone into hiding. No, not completely gone. Some thoughts were still present. She knew with a heightened certainty, that someone stood in the green light of the woods, watching her through the mist. Had someone tracked these two just like the long dead cougar had hunted her grandfather?
Shaking, afraid to look over her shoulder, she reached for Kelly, feeling for a pulse in his neck, even though she wasn’t sure she was in the right spot. The odd flaccid feel of his skin, the stillness of the hand stretched out, told her she wouldn’t find any sign of life. She fumbled around his uniform belt until she located the radio. Never having used one before, she turned what looked like the appropriate knob.
“Hello?” she said into plastic and electronics, with no real belief her voice would carry across distance to help. “If anyone can hear this, two people have been shot. One is still alive, but I think…” her insides were waking up, coming back to life, reacting with nausea and uncontrollable tremors. “Oh god, I think Kelly’s dead. Please come quickly. Please help me. I don’t know what to do.” Dropping the radio, she gagged, cold hands pressed against colder lips.
“State your position,” a female voice crackled loudly over the radio.
Grabbing it up with fumbling fingers, she hit the same button as before. “A trail behind an old gas station at the end of town. We can’t be too far up the path." She paused, thoughts plummeting around in her brain, screaming for her to do something. “Should I come down and lead you in?”
“Are you in a safe position? Is the shooter visible?”
“I think it’s safe. I don’t see anyone else." She felt someone near, but knew the words would sound crazy.
“Then stay where you are,” said the woman. “Stay with the radio. We’ll be there in minutes.”
Minutes. Help. People to take over, to save the stranger, to take control. Cody sat, wrapping arms around her knees, hugging them to contain the quaking. She dropped her head, eyes closed against death, and never heard help arrive, until a hand touched her hair and a voice spoke.
“Are you hurt?”
Jumping violently at the sudden contact, she looked up, catching a brief glance of a ranger uniform and blond hair, before focusing on the man’s green eyes.
“Are you hurt?” he asked again.
Trembling so hard she bit her tongue, she simply shook her head.
“The one still alive?”
“Up the trail,” she managed to shudder out. “Not far.”
He straightened, leaving her at a run, and someone else dropped a wool blanket over her shoulders. The previously silent woods were full of sounds as people swarmed, radios crackled, voices overlapped. Help had arrived. But as Cody watched the tall ranger come back down the trail, shaking his head and gesturing, she knew it had come too late.
The Memory Keeper by Lisa Stowe / Mystery & Detective have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on40 votes