Eagle's Nest, old and anemic, leaned above a rich and diverse canopy like a rotten tooth. Plastic KEEP OUT signs crinkled in the shallow summer air. Dan parked his pale blue Mazda beneath the structure's shadow and stared up into the dark windows of the third level deck. He remembered the summer night he and Crystal Novack watched the sun dip low behind the distant escarpments. Her short hair was licked up on one side and crisp from a day swimming in Big Lake and he twirled a thumb around it, like he was preparing to pull the winning part of a wishbone. Together they laid across the rough planks of wood and explored each other with sloppy gropes.
All around the lookout were dark shrubs and wild cactus, reaching out their giant squid tendrils. Dan pulled the emergency break then trudged with crunching footsteps to the base of the old structure. A zipping brown shadow of a road runner caught his eye for a brief moment. Sweat prickled at his hairline and he paused, waiting for a clunking word truck to scoot on down the steep road. Black exhaust puffed out the exhaust pipe and it was gone in the bend of the hill. Dan's heart steel-toed a dance. He was sinfully seventeen again, but his joints crackled as he lifted his legs over the yellow tape barring the steps to Eagle's Nest.
Quite on accident, decades slipped by Dan since he traveled to this part of the country. The throbbing city clutched onto his spine too tightly. The tumultuous style of urban living sucked away time, spent it as rashly as an addict in a casino. He'd forgotten how the rural places in between jet setting destinations were like molasses: slow, easy, and sweet.
The rot in the planks was obvious and easy to work around as he took the three flights of stairs to the top of Eagle's Nest. Dan leaned into the warm July air and cupped his eyes against the blistering sun. To the left was an engorged lake, so cleverly named Small Lake, as so many things were in the backwoods. To the center and right, sprawling drift fences keeping in place fatted brown cattle. Tiny and undefined like toys, Dan closed one eye, squeezing each between forefinger and thumb. He remembered how he and Crystal Novack stole Tom Landon's paddle boat and went out to the middle of Small Lake, where a patch of mossy dirt rose out of it like an island. They moored themselves for the afternoon and fed each other strawberries dipped in powdered sugar.
“Look at them buzzards,” Crystal whispered when the afternoon grew long and wavering in the heat. “Searching for somethin'.”
“I like 'em. They're beautiful. You know?” He trailed the bitten end of a strawberry across Crystal's belly and licked off the juice.
“How's that?” Her fingers tangled in his dark curls, and he answered around his darting tongue.
“They help us. Clean after us. Don't complain.”
“That makes 'em beautiful? Not talkin' back?”
“No. They know what they are. That's why.”
Decades later and Dan still watched the black buzzards skimming the highest points of the sky. He wondered what Crystal Novack was doing now. Was she married with children? Did she run off to New York to seek her fortune and glory like she'd wanted? Dan ran his fingers around the lookout's railing, smoothed down by the grease of hands year after year.
She was the reason why he decided to take the long way home. He was frightened of seeing her differently than he remembered. Like Eagle's Nest as it was now, pushing its sad features into how it used to be. All the promise and none of the disappointing results.
One day, Dan would wake up and only remember it as a relic. He never wanted that for Crystal. Or worse. She might be delightfully re-imagined into some great success. She might make fun of him now, a brittle token of her past, come back to the country with his tail between his legs. So much for the start-up venture, hey Dan? So much for the expensive education.
Shaking his head, Dan picked his way across the creaking platform and worked his way back down the steps. Pausing on the second landing, he saw that the old horse trail cutting through the caprock and decided to go through it instead of back to the car. There was still a fistful of hours left in the day before he was expected at his parents' home.
He, Tom Landon, and Emry Fitzhough used to take the horse to a small lake, aptly named Hidden Pond. They'd fish, camp beneath the enclosure of cedar trees, and swim naked without worry of being stumbled upon by some rancher.
When they were older, they brought girls in hopes of getting past second base on a third date. In the rainy seasons, a part of the lake would tumble over and spill into the emerald grass, then swirl around more of the red-orange rock and follow the cut-out path over the lip of a small cliff. The boys learned how to climb like wild goats, and Dan wanted to see if the ledge was still there or if it, too, had been worn away with time.
He staggered, no longer accustomed to the uneven landscape, as he marched down the trail. Hidden Pond was deeper in the valley and cloistered by post oaks and wide, twisting cedars. Springs of milkweed brushed against his bare knees and tiny white burs found their way between sock and sneaker. By the time he got down to the small lake, sweat glued his t-shirt to his back. The sun laid its hot fingers along the back of his neck and the crest of his ears.
Unlike Small Lake, the water here was glass-green and so richly dark in pockets that Dan suspected he could swim down-down-down and never reach the bottom. He moved to the shade of one of the trees and put his hands on his hips to gather his breath. Above him the unseen hawk pierced the calm with a warning cry. The weeds and tall grasses shifted, moved by vole or by spiny lizard. Bees darted between Dutch clover and lonely sprigs of Indian Paintbrush.
Dan had forgotten how to look for such things through the stark brightness of the wilds. He inhaled deep, remembering now his age as the aches swept up with him in his stillness.
Once he felt collected, Dan pushed on, searching for the lip of rock where he and his friends climbed, jumped and, regrettably, tossed beer cans into the crevasses of rock. As he followed an uncut trail, pausing only to admire a track of some animal in the red-orange clay, Dan's thoughts drifted back to Crystal Novack. Perhaps she was single and wouldn't make fun of Dan for his failures. If she was living here again, that must mean she failed, too. It was a sad thought but strangely comforting. Safer knowing that Dan wasn't the only one who boomeranged back home despite his best efforts.
It could be that the universe swung themselves back together after all these years apart and he could invite her out to the big lake and re-enact their afternoon on the tiny island. Strawberries. Kisses. The lonely drifting buzzards that were so wonderful. Or, maybe, he could even bring her here to this secret 'boys only' spot and confess to her that he'd spent a long drunken evening with Tom and Emry concocting the best way to ask her to marry him.
The ring was in his pocket on the week of their graduation. It had been a puny thing with a green stone he'd won at an arcade, but it held the promise of something bigger and wider than any eighteen-year-old could have managed. In the weeks leading up to graduation, it warmed Dan's pockets. He never found the perfect moment to take his knee and vow to Crystal everything she'd ever wanted, even though he wasn't quite sure what those things were. The look of her honey dipped eyes and the small turn of her face was enough to convince Dan that he could find a way to satisfy every want.
Then, right when he'd mustered enough courage to slip the ring around her finger, Crystal announced that she was going to New York with a fashion portfolio and had a flight heading out hours after they tossed their caps. Dan took the blow. He hadn't even known she wanted to design outfits. Couture she called it. So, how could he ask her to marry him when he hadn't realized her interests or that they ran so deep? She asked him to stay in touch and he never did.
Dan found the cliff and the space where they had once crawled into the basin of boulders, but the passing of time covered it with thick tree roots and bird leavings. Were any of these glinting pieces at the bottom the promise ring he angrily tossed in the same moment Crystal's plane lifted from the tarmac? Or were they all bottle caps?
A recent rain pushed a narrow stream over the edge and water shot over the fifteen-foot drop as though determined to fill up the gaps and create another lake. They used to guess that in prehistoric times, this deep carving of earth had filled itself with water and that Hidden Pond was all that remained of a sweet hour when no man laid his hand upon the ground and wrenched all the goodness from it.
Curious to see if he still had the strength to shimmy down, Dan grabbed onto a root and gave it a solid yank. It held him but he felt the soft folds of his stomach remind him again of his age as he scaled down. He landed heavily on his feet and tested his balance again and again as he worked his way around the boulders that were shot up in high angles much like the scales of ancient beast.
“Suck it...office chair...” He laughed at himself, arms spread, and stared at the cliff above him. The waterfall trickled over the lip in a dull shower. How fantastic his limbs felt! A freshness, no, a revival of his spirit moved through him, and he was overcome in the marvel of his body. What a thing it could do! How he took for granted the strength of himself, lost as it had been in a 9 to 5 cubicle.
Rejuvenated, Dan continued his hike and followed the dry creek bed which was now all shoulder tall grass and prickling undergrowth. Occasionally, he happened upon rusted pieces of farming equipment, swept away in a flash flood, or a jutting of flint gray rock covered in blue and green lichen. He kept his head to his feet and cupped his eyes against the sun whenever he looked up to get his bearings. His parents were expecting him for dinner, and he would have to turn back soon if he didn't want to get caught out there in the twilight.
He moved to the left and then to the right, following bits of scattered cacti and oak that he thought somewhat familiar to him in the days of his youth. Then up and up, startled once by a darting rabbit and again by a reptilian slither over the dead leaves. After an hour into the hike that took him first down, then up again and sideways, too, Dan broke through a line of trees and found himself in a wide clearing. The grass was so tall that it bent sideways as if caught in a windstorm. Enormous dragonflies hopped from blade to blade in a silent harmony. He stood, huffing and wiggling his toes against the minute pieces of rock that had worked into his shoes.
Not too far off, the slopping top of Eagle's Nest peaked over the lush canopy. Dan chewed the inside of his cheek, unsure if he should keep hiking in that direction but he couldn't be sure if the forest in front of him would take him directly to the horse trail or if it would trick him into another hour of climbs and turns. The circle of buzzards he'd seen to the east now looked at more of a southern point and he worried that if he kept pushing through, he might lose himself. He was not brave enough to spend the night in a place that crawled with wild boars and bobcats once the sun dipped behind the horizon. So, he reasoned that the best thing to do was retrace his steps.
Had he only gone ten feet in front of him, Dan would have spit himself back onto the horse trail. Instead, he retraced his steps, diverting from his original path ever so slightly. On most occasions, the slight veering to the left of where he entered the clearing wouldn't have mattered. With the recent rain, however, nest and holes shifted and he, with untrained ears, stepped into the path of a cranky rattler. The warning hiss and shake stayed beneath the rocks hidden in the sweeping grasses. Dan thought the sound only the distant waterfall or a gentle breeze coming through the leaves.
The bite came and the wetness filled up his sock before he had a moment to look down and realize what went wrong. He laughed at himself again. How stupid that a naked ankle could wind up being so dangerous. Adrenaline guided him further along the path until it gave out at the dried creek bed. He recognized the twist of metal he'd passed on the way to the clearing. Dan snorted. How cautious he had been around the thing, worried of scrapping a knee, or a hand, and contracting tetanus.
Now his skin swelled unbearably around the tongue of his shoe. His toes were sticky wet and small, arrowed leaves clung to his ankle where the blood gushed most freely. Down he sank. Pressing his sweating back to rock and scrapyard junk. He wondered if he would be found by a rancher or some kids. Or coyotes.
Either way, he would not make it to his parents in time for dinner. He would not see Chrystal Novack and she would not become a relic in his eyes because he would never be so old to remember her as anything beyond that eighteen-year-old girl he so desperately desired.
Dan's large, watering eyes floated skyward to the vultures that shifted their slow cyclone toward him. They glided as black sails against an endless ocean and now looked at him as he always had at them: with a patient understanding of the inevitable.