Lincoln Michel

Cheryl huffed off, which she could do because Paul had a gimpy knee. They were marching through the yellowed leaves of fall. Cheryl thought how sometimes the only way to talk to Paul was to march away in silence.

The trail went all over the place, moving up and down the hills, turning back on itself. Whoever laid out these paths must have been drunk on moonshine.

Cheryl came across an overweight man lying in the middle of the path. His son was sitting on a log, playing a video game on a cell phone.

"Just go around me," the man said, panting.

Were these the same people that Cheryl raced against to get to the shorter line at the grocery store?

She looked the other way as she skirted past. Cheryl had grown up in this town, left, come back, left, and come back again so many times that even seeing the welcome sign made her dizzy.

God, she was thirsty! Why had she left the water bottle with Paul? There was a thin creek worming beside the path. She stopped to splash some water on her face.

Paul materialized around the bend.

"Cheryl!" he said, waving his hands. "You are going the wrong way."

He always had to say something like that.

"Wait. I've got the granola."

Cheryl ran back to the sign post. She took the path with two blue lines painted on the oak tree. Small birds sat in the trees singing songs like bratty children. Cheryl looked straight ahead and tried to forget herself and blend into the woods.

There was something uncanny about the changing mood of the land. One second you were in an enchanted forest, the next you emerged upon a ruinous pile of broken rocks. It was like walking through sets of different Hollywood movies.

Paul would never understand the way you have to impose your will onto the land.

Cheryl passed an elderly couple holding hands. They didn't know which way to move and she ended up ducking beneath and knocking their hands apart.

"Slow down," the old lady mumbled.

Instead, Cheryl descended into the shade of the valley. The trees looked like cancer patients in their yellowing leaves. Tumorous fungi lined the damp trunks.

Here is another thing Cheryl hated: the way Paul dug his knuckles into the dimple of her tailbone when he thrust from behind.

The trail rounded a bend and split into yet two more trails. Cheryl felt sad and tired. She hoped Paul was sadder and even more tired. Maybe they could tire each other out enough that they could shut up and go home and take a hot bath or watch a movie on TV. She could not even remember what Paul had said or what she had thought he had said or even what he had thought she had said that made him say it.

Someone was whimpering behind her. Cheryl turned around and found a woman in a red windbreaker crouched in the leaves. When she turned to Cheryl, her face was pink and wet.

"I followed him here and he did it again!"

"Who are you? And how do you know Paul?" Cheryl demanded.

"I'm not talking about Paul. I'm talking about Eric."

The woman led Cheryl a little way through the woods to a secret swimming hole. Cheryl stood on a boulder to get a better look. The pool's water was black in the shade. On a flat rock beside the water, she could see one bright pink body bouncing up and down on another.

"He said he loved me. Don't words mean anything anymore?"

The woman wiped her face on Cheryl's sweatshirt and tried to hug her. Down on the rock, the couple humped away.

Cheryl was not thinking of Paul when she picked a stick off the ground and tossed it in a blind arc. It spun round down onto the man's clenched buttocks, causing him to yell out and roll off of the other woman. He fell into the swimming hole with a quiet splash.

"Perverts!" the naked woman shouted. She was scrambling for her clothes. "The woods is full of perverts!"

Cheryl felt relief flow through her. She turned and smiled at the woman next to her, her new sister.

"Why did you do that?" the woman said. Her face scrunched up as she stepped backwards.

"I thought that's what you wanted," Cheryl said.

"You have to let me confront things on my own terms!" she said.

The naked woman was running deeper into the woods and the man was staring up at Cheryl and the other woman.

"Hey!" the naked man said to Cheryl, clothes clutched to his crotch. "Aren't you in my yoga class? Charlotte, right?"

Cheryl left them all there shouting and tried to find a path without people. She followed the curve of the valley and then ascended on the far hills. Bright lichens covered everything.

Before there had been Paul there had been Stanley and before Stanley there had been Christopher, Jeremy, Karl, Andy, and Abraham. And there was another horrible line of them waiting in the future, with even worse names like Chet and Camden. She could feel all of them groping at her with endless sweaty palms.

That was not to let the women off the hook, especially not the mothers like Paul's who would back her against the kitchen sink, stab one finger right into her ovary and ask, "When are you going to stop letting these go to waste?"

The sun broke through a fist of clouds.

Cheryl was looking up at the treetops when she felt a stick whack against her shin.

"Shit!" she yelled.

A small girl and her even smaller brother were standing front of her. The boy was whirling a stick around and making zapping noises with his mouth. The girl was staring up at Cheryl was a broken stick in her hand and a pout on her face.

"You broke my wizard stick," the girl sad.

"And you said the s-word," the boy added. He wacked his sister's jacket and said, "Shazam!"

The girl didn't acknowledge her brother. She kept looking at Cheryl and made her eyes start to water.

"Okay, okay," Cheryl said.

She walked off into the woods and tried to rip a thin branch off a sycamore. It clung surprisingly to life. Eventually she just picked an appropriate sized stick off the forest floor, which the girl grabbed without even a thank you.

"You want to see a death fire spell? I'll show you a death fire spell!"

The two run off down the path. Cheryl was feeling tired and leaned against a large tree with dark red leaves.

Maybe Paul could be the end, she thought. She did love Paul during certain hours of certain days. How many hours did you have to love someone to be in love?

She felt something crawling on her neck. Ants were pouring out of the bark.

Cheryl ran up a pathless hill, swinging her arms around to ward of branches and small plants. She thought if she got to the top she would be able to spot Paul.

There was a plastic bag full of Chunky soup cans tied up at the overlook. The large rocks were piled up with deep cracks and Cheryl wondering what kind of beasts or snakes might leap out at her. She climbed to the top of the rocks and looked out across the valleys and toward the shrunken town. Autumn was spreading with crackling yellow and red leaves like the path of a teenage pyromaniac.

There even was a little house ablaze on the side of the hill, smoke worming toward the clouds.

"Jesus!" Cheryl said.

Through breaks in the trees, she could see toy fire trucks racing up the slope.

"My cans!"

"What?" Cheryl said, turning around.

A man covered in dirt and bits of dead leaves was crawling out of a crevice. He crouched on the rocks and reached his hand at her. Where did they keep coming from?

The man was holding out a rusty blade. His face was one giant beard with eyes attached.

"What are you talking about?" she asked.

"My cans," he said, a little sadder now.

She looked over at the sack of canned goods hanging in the grocery bag. The man was inching toward her across the massive rocks.

"I don't want your stupid cans or anything else," she said.

The man made small swipes with the knife.

She pulled the bag off the branch and swung it at the bearded man. It hit him in the knee and he let out a loud growl before tumbling off of the rock.

Cheryl looked down at where the man had fallen and saw bits of blood on the rocks. The sun was beginning to go down, and his body was mostly in shadows. It was very quiet. The man's hands twitched their last twitches. A curious bird watched with a cocked head from the neighboring rock.

"Cheryl!" a voice said down the hill. Of all people, it had to be Paul.

Cheryl gazed down in the crevice where the man had come from. She could lower herself down there with ease; live a new life in the rocks.

Paul was working his way up the hill. Cheryl stood there at the peak.

Another in an unending succession of situations in which she had no interest in learning what it was she was required to do.