Cecilia wakes briefly to the sound of the tent’s flap unzipping, and then again to her boyfriend, Cooper, urinating into a bush twenty feet away. The ground presses hard and lumpy beneath the floor of the tent and through the thin insulation of her sleeping bag. Her body feels stiff and somewhat battered after only a single night of roughing it. The tip of her nose and her forehead, the only parts of herself exposed to the air inside the tent, are chilled from the previous night’s plummeted temperatures, and she holds onto the tightness in her own bladder to warm herself.
Cooper has left the tent flap open and through the portal the rising sun peers over the ridge on the far side of lake and begins its slow crawl to illuminate and discomfort her further.
She wears her favorite red hoodie, her face showing through a small, puckered window, jeans and long underwear, and two pairs of socks. Her toes wriggle in an attempt to ready the rest of her body for the moment she’ll inevitably have to leave this cocoon she’s made for herself.
Her mind drifts back to the previous evening when she and Coop laid together inside this tent taking long sips of the faintly sweet, smoky air as their campfire reduced itself to coals. His hand crept toward her and caressed her ineffectually through her layers. His movements were hesitant and she was uncertain of how far he would go in that moment, but she was grateful that he displayed a willingness to touch her despite what had happened. She wanted to show him a measure of kindness, so she turned so that she faced away from him and pulled down her pants and underwear, drawing her knees up as she did so. He bridged the gap between their two sleeping bags and found his way inside her between the sandwich of her thighs. It wasn’t pleasant, but it was about as much as she felt she deserved, and she gripped his hand within her own as he shuddered to a finish within her.
Thinking of this, she knows it would be better rouse herself from the thin fabric walls of the tent and find her own bush to urinate in.
With a nasal sigh, she unzips her sleeping bag and begins to shimmy her way out of it. Her hiking boots are at the foot of her sleeping bag, tucked into the tent’s corner. Even through the double layers of her socks they feel like molded chunks of ice when she slips her feet into them. She makes double knots, a childhood habit following her into adulthood, and stumbles across the threshold into the colder open air outside the tent. For a moment, she bounces on her toes, trying to counteract the chill, and looks around.
Off to her right, Cooper is returning from his morning ablutions, so she heads off to the left.
She finds a line a bushes to act as a privacy screen and she squats down behind them to perform her business. Despite being this far out into the “middle of nowhere” she can’t help but glance around to make sure that no one’s watching. Not that she sees much appeal in watching her balance precariously, her tail-end jutted out as far from the rest of her body as she can manage, attempting to not splash herself with her own urine; but she manages, and she returns to the campsite.
For all the misery it caused them to get this far out into the wilderness of a national park—hiking for miles under heavy packs loaded down with food and gear, all for a single weekend (not even a weekend!; a day-and-a-half, at most!) of camping—it really is quite beautiful. It nearly made her weep as she emerged from the scrim of trees and encountered an aquamarine lake stretching away from a rock-strewn shore. She’d never realized that water could look so blue! Even as they erected their tent and tied their packs into a bundle to hoist into a tree, she couldn’t stop turning to look again and again.
It truly felt like this could be a new start for the two of them.
The lake is bordered on three sides by outcroppings of crags and ridges, seemingly unscalable from a distance. The outcroppings make it appear as if the lake is being held in a tightly-cupped palm. Where they pitched their tent, it would’ve been perched on the fleshy hillock of that palm. Cooper’s there and he’s dipping his hands into the lake’s water, splashing his face with it. Cecilia does the same, loosening the strings on her hood and pushing it back. Little knives of cold dance along her fingers as she dips her hands, then she sends the knives flying into the hollows of her eyes, drawing them sharply across her lips and cheeks.
“Morning,” Coop says in return, not looking at her. She can’t blame him.
“Morning,” she replies. “How’d you sleep?”
He shrugs and squints against the light of the sun, which has risen past the tips of the fingers.
Then he points up and off to the right where a ridge runs parallel to the lake’s abrupt, jagged shore. “That’s where we’re going,” he tells her. “We’ll backtrack a bit and find an opening. There’s a path that’ll take us up the cliff-face. A little bit after noon, we’ll be standing right there at the very top.”
She looks at the ridge, which drops sheerly to shelf about fifty feet below, which drops again into the lake’s blue water. “Oh. And what’s it called again? Redempt-something?”
This, more than anything, feels like a good omen. “Reparation” means fixing her past mistakes, it means earning his forgiveness.
That he would be willing to forgive her feels like a steep hike in of itself, but it’s one she’s willing to make.
“We’ll have breakfast and then we’ll head out right after,” he says.
It’s a light breakfast consisting of granola bars, peaches, and filtered water. It barely makes her feel full at all, but he tells her it’s for the best because she won’t feel sluggish and slow them down.
“Besides, we’ll carry a bag of trail-mix to give ourselves added fuel.”
They begin by retracing their steps back into the line of trees bordering the west side of the lake. He heads her on a southward slant to locate the gap by which they can mount the outcroppings’ southern face, then double back and upward to their intended destination. Thankfully, the upward path is wide enough that she doesn’t feel in danger of slipping and falling—but it is steep—and as they rise above the tops of the trees she’s presented with a whole new, breathtaking view.
A leafy, wooden sea stretches out toward the north face and she exclaims, “Oh my god!” before pausing to take out her phone.
Coop tenses. “I thought I said—” he begins to shout, but cuts himself short. He calms himself. “I thought I said not to bring your phone. This time is supposed to be just for the two of us, remember?”
“Yeah…but….” He’s trying to make his face look as neutral as possible, but his eyes still burn. The phone hovers out in front of her, the camera app open and the screen filled with the view before them. She drops her gaze from his own. “Sorry. I was worried we might get lost. I wanted to be able call for help if that happened. I shouldn’t have brought it. You said.”
She’s fucked up, she knows. All of this, only to fuck up before he’s truly forgiven her. Her stomach hurts and she’s sort of glad there wasn’t much to eat at breakfast. He’ll probably make them turn around, pack up the tent. He’ll march her out, back to his truck parked on the edge of a gravel road running a mile into the national park, never to return, never to get another second-chance.
“Sorry,” she says again.
He sighs. “Take it.”
“Take the picture. You might as well.”
She swings the phone’s camera toward him. “Do you want to be in it?” But he puts both hands up in front of his face.
“I don’t want my picture taken right now,” he tells her.
“Okay.” She snaps the picture. “I want to post it to Instagram. Is that alright?”
“I don’t think you’ll get enough signal this far out.”
She looks at her bars. “Yeah, you’re probably right.”
“Can we get going now?” he tries not to snap.
“Okay.” It’s a nip, really, she reasons.
They keep going up and up and up. She sees the aquamarine expanse of the lake spreading out before her again, far below her now. It appears even more beautiful this high up and the water’s clean and clear enough that she can see the north and east side outcroppings reflected in its surface. They’re so far above the canopy of trees that the wind has picked up and, due to the sweat lining her body from the hike, it chills her immediately and causes her to shiver.
“Will it get any warmer than this?” she asks.
“Probably.” He looks at her. “You cold?”
“Yeah.” And, as stupid as it is for her to think so, some part of her believes that he’s about to put an arm around her and pull her close, but it doesn’t happen.
He goes, “Mmm,” and faces forward again.
She’s already apologized many times over. Even so, there’s a part of her that wonders if it might make a difference to say “sorry” one more time.
It was a mistake. In retrospect, she sees that she acted without thinking things through first. He’d accused her of cheating so many times that some dark, twisted part of her wanted to prove him right finally. Did it make it any less terrible that she needed to get herself really drunk first? Was it any better that she remembered very little of the actual act, just a slow “coming-to” the morning after?
It was awful how her friends, the ones who still spoke to her anyway, congratulated her for doing it.
There was even a brief moment when she felt proud of doing it as well.
But that feeling slipped away as soon as she saw the look on Coop’s face when she told him. She’d never seen someone whom she could describe as looking “crestfallen”, but, in that moment, that’s how he looked. All of his features, all the various parts of his body—his shoulders, his lips, his cheeks, his hair—sunk to the floor perceptibly. He looked so defeated. She’d defeated him, utterly.
He didn’t cry, not in front of her. He didn’t speak. He just left, leaving her standing there in the kitchen of her apartment so that she felt like the worst person in the world.
Nothing but dark days followed, nothing but pain. Days in which she didn’t eat, didn’t sleep, felt her self-disgust begin to ooze from her pores and prick the corners of her eyes. She began to smell like something crammed into the corner of her closet, left there to rot for years and years. Cooper blocked her number, blocked her from viewing any of his social medias. He made sure she couldn’t make any kind of contact that wouldn’t require her to get out of bed, shower, and dress to make her way across town to the cramped three-bedroom house he shared with two other guys.
Thoughts of suicide drifted through her mind. She had no energy to act upon them, so she resigned herself to waiting for a slow, miserable death.
But then she got on with her life. She didn’t deserve to, she knew that, but some part of her decided to start eating again, to wash the self-disgust out of her eyes, to dress in cleaner clothes, to appear somewhat okay, and just…get on with things.
“How often do you come out here?” she asks.
“Whenever I feel like I need to get away from things. Whenever I feel like I just need to be alone. To think.”
“So…you came out here…to think…after?”
“What? Oh, yeah. I came out here. It helped clear some things up for me.”
He’d told her that he wanted to give them another try. He wanted to try to move past it and be able to forgive her for what she had done. But he wasn’t ready to do that just yet. He said he needed them to spend some time together first, being not quite girlfriend-and-boyfriend, just the two of them, away from everyone and everything.
“I’m glad,” she says, and she means it.
She loses her footing for a second and feels the ground beneath her give way a little bit. The high edge of the path grows a little bit closer and her head spins with fear and vertigo. In that very instant, she’s sure that she’s going over the side and falling through the chasm into to the rough, uncaring arms of the trees.
“Woah!” Coop cries out, and grabs her hand, steadying her. “Careful! Almost lost you before we got to the top!” And there, just for a second, a smile appears on his face. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” she says breathlessly. “Yeah, thank you,” and she smiles back at him, and she feels so, so very happy.
Best thing of all, he doesn’t let go of her hand until they reach the top, some hours later.
“Here we are,” he announces flatly, “Reparation Ridge.”
“Oh my god! It’s even more beautiful than I thought it would be!”
The aquamarine lake looks more like a puddle from this vantage. The long wall of crags and ridges is like a knee-high embankment. The sun hangs at the highest point in the sky and it has become so warm that she’s taken her hoodie off, which he’s taken from her and holds like a plush animal in his arms.
“I want a picture!” she exclaims.
She pulls her phone out and opens the front-facing camera. She sees a big smile spread across her face in the screen, as her thumb hovers over the digital shutter button.
“Don’t smile,” Cooper says. “Don’t smile if you don’t feel like smiling. Not if you really aren’t happy.”
But am happy!, she wants to tell him, though she knows that she shouldn’t be.
The smile drops from her face and he gives her a slight nod of approval as she clicks the shutter. The image on the phone’s screen freezes for just a moment and she sees herself standing before the most beautiful view with the most dead-eyed look on her face.
“Okay,” she says quietly to herself as she begins to put her phone away, turning from him so that he won’t see her start to cry. “It really is very beauti—”
There’s a hollow, fleshy thud as something hits her in the middle of the back and she goes caterwauling over the ridge’s edge. From down on the lake’s shore it looked like a sheer drop almost all the way down, but she bounces and flails against jutting knuckles of rock again and again. Her fingers shred to bloody nubs as she tries desperately to cling to each one of them. Her body tenses from the battering and she can’t get a breath in edgewise for the relentless barrage.
She comes to a halt, finally, on the shelf far below. She’s still alive, still conscious, but it takes minutes for her breathing to deepen enough for her to cry out to Coop for help. There’s no part of her body that she’s capable of moving without agonizing pain. Then a tiny speck flies out over the edge above her and tumbles through the air, receiving the same battering that she’s just experienced. It takes a hard knock on one of the knuckles and its centrifugal force carries it off past the lip of the shelf which might’ve halted it. It’s her phone, the screen shattered like a sheet of ice and the corners mangled and split open, absolutely useless. Then it’s gone.
She can feel that something has ruptured inside her and it mixes with the mucus and tears pooling at the back of her throat. She can’t cry out any longer.
Later, much later—hours—if she were able to turn her head then she might see that the fire has been built up again down at their campsite. There’s the flickering shape of Cooper sitting and staring at the dancing flames. His phone is out before him and he has Cecilia’s red hoodie pressed to his face, breathing in her scent again and again. He has Instagram open and he’s scrolling through his former girlfriend’s feed. Two pictures have been posted just today. The first, caption-less, is an undulating sea of treetops stretching away for some distance, unremarkable. The second is an emotionless selfie, far above a very blue lake cupped by a line of outcroppings, with the caption, ‘Goodbye’.
The second post has gotten many concerned comments already. People offer comfort to the obviously troubled young woman and beg her not to do anything rash. The comments have been coming in for hours now, with no response from Cecilia. Cooper considers trying to reach as well. Perhaps he could be the one to get through to her, but he thinks better of it.
Instead, he puts his phone back into his pocket and stares out past the halo of light surrounding the fire, which darkens everything that falls outside its ring, and he’s just able to make out the moon’s waxing face reflected in the lake’s gray surface.