They had been moving for what seemed like days, but couldn't have been more than a number of hours. Everything seemed to take so long. Murphy was constantly complaining. His back hurt, his shoulders were sore, he was hungry and there wasn't enough food, his feet were cold and soggy. A seemingly endless array of petty trivialities spewed forth from his mouth. Graham wished he would just shut up for a while. He was getting sick of Murphy, and he was fairly sure that the others were too.
There were six of them, Graham, Murphy, Harold and his wife, Susan, and Stephen and his girlfriend, Janice. They had been planning this trip for several months, but now that they were here, they all wished that they were back home. It had been a mistake. That was all too obvious now.
"I need to stop for a minute," Murphy said, "I'm tired, and I need to rest. You guys have been walking way too fast. You're going to burn yourselves out if you don't slow down a bit."
"We can stop when we get to the base of the mountain," Stephen said, looking at his watch, and then up at the darkening sky. Dusk was descending already. The moon was a pale, thin slit far above, in the western sky. Thick, fluffy masses of dark clouds hovered above them, barely visible in the purplish sky.
"How much longer is it going to take?" Murphy moaned.
"We should be there in less than an hour," said Harold, shoving his hands into his pockets to keep them warm. It was late October, but already the cold sting of winter's impending arrival was in the air. Thin patches of snow blanketed the muddy, soggy ground, and the bright, deep reds and oranges of the fall leaves were already withering and dying an abruptly premature death.
Graham looked over at Murphy. The man was like an anchor, holding them all down. Slowing everything down. He was short and heavy-set with dark curly hair that grew in frizzy tufts and protruded awkwardly from his bulbous head like a dark, round bundle of old cotton-candy. Completely out of shape, and totally unprepared for hiking or mountain climbing, or for any other type of physical outdoor activity, for that matter, Murphy was making the trip into an exercise in monotony. Graham needed a drink badly. He felt a tingling sensation in his stomach, and he found that he was constantly tightening his fingers into fists. The withdrawal symptoms were still present. He had been sober for sixth months now. Alcoholism had been consuming him, but finally, after years of drinking he had made the decision to go to an AA meeting and sober up. More for the sake of his pretty, new wife than for anyone else. She had threatened to leave him if he didn't stop drinking. She said that he often became belligerent and abusive when he was drunk, but he didn't see it that way at all. The way he saw it was that she had deserved everything she had gotten. Sure, there had been a few ugly incidents where he had gotten a little rough with Sylvia, but that was all water-under-the-bridge now. He was sober, and life seemed to be back to normal. Or, at least as normal as it could possibly be, considering the circumstances. And now, here he was, out on this hiking trip with these three others. He couldn't say that he honestly liked any of them, although he had known Harold since high school, and he supposed that he considered him an acquaintance. Still, the man could be an annoying son-of-a-bitch at times too.
There weren't many people who didn't irritate Graham. He was not fond of the company of others. Never had been. He had always been quite solitary, a loner who found fulfillment more in his own swirling thoughts, than in the proverbial male camaraderie that appealed to other men. Other people were so foolish. He saw them as distractions. And there was no question that some of them were like deer in the middle of a dirt road who refused to move so that he could proceed onward in life. There was only one way to deal with these deer. You had to run them over. If you didn't they would hold you back for your whole life. That was the way Graham saw it. Some- times violence was necessary. Or, on second thought, not just necessary, but mandatory.
They all came to a stop so that Murphy could rest. Graham eyed the fat man, irritably, watching as he sat down next to the trunk of an old mossy oak tree, reached into his pocket, pulled out a Mars bar, quickly tore off the wrapper, and held it up in front of his face and stared at it gleefully, his tiny, sunken eyes observing it with awe, like some kind of treasure which he had just found. Then, his chubby little fingers raised the chocolate bar up to his mouth and he took a huge bite of it, devouring half in one gulp.
"I'm going to get myself on a diet one of these days," said Murphy, as he chewed with his mouth open, smacking his lips together and making a loud slurping sound, like some kind of wild animal, perhaps a hog, lapping up slop from a trough.
That's exactly what you are, thought Graham, a fat, useless hog.
Susan took a thermos of coffee out of her back-pack, as well as some plastic cups, and offered some to everyone. Graham eyed her as she poured some into his cup. What a pretty little thing she was. Thin. Well-rounded. An athletic body, with wonderful curves, long light-brown hair with streaks of blonde throughout, and hazel eyes. How harold had ever managed to get her was a mystery. Probably it had been his personality that had done it. Harold, although very average in the looks department (with eyes set a bit too closely together and a nose that was slightly crooked) had a way with words. He was a "people person." The kind of guy that made most folks feel comfortable, and at ease as soon as they met him. He was witty, sharp, and good-natured. Plus, there was the fact that he had a really good job as an attorney with a well-respected firm. Still, Graham believed that Susan was out of Harold's league, and at times he fantasized about showing her what it was like to be with a real man.
"So Harold tells me that you've been into hiking for years," Susan said.
Graham nodded, taking a sip of his coffee and closely examining the spectacle of her pretty face. This was the first time he had seen her without makeup on, and she was just as pretty, if not more so, without it. Her skin looked so soft and smooth, without a single blemish or flaw. He imagined what the rest of her body must have been like beneath all of those layers of clothing, and the jacket she was wearing.
"My dad used to take me up into the mountains when I was a kid," said Graham, "We'd go every summer, and he taught me about the importance of having a relationship with nature. He also taught me about the importance of survival skills. A man without survival skills is...well...less than a man. That's what Pops said to me."
"So were you and your father really close?" asked Susan.
Graham shook his head, and took another swig of coffee, wishing he had something else, something stronger, in the cup. Some Jack Daniel's would go down really well right now. "He was a hard-nosed son of a bitch. Used to beat the piss out of me and my brothers on a regular basis. Sometimes we deserved it, and other times he would just do it for his own personal amusement."
Harold came over and put his arm around Susan. "So Graham, you think we're doing okay so far? Since it's our first time out here on one of these hikes with you, how would you grade us?"
"You're doing okay. As for him, though...that's another story," Graham said, gesturing at Murphy, who was now working his way through a second Mars bar.
Murphy was a friend of Harold's. A lawyer who been with the firm for more than fifteen years, and had mentored Harold from the time he had started on, fresh out of law school. The two of them got along very well, but he was not surprised that Graham found Murphy's presence irritating. Graham liked so few people, and he had very little patience. The main reason why Harold had called Graham, and asked him to come along on the trip and act as a sort of guide was the fact that he knew these woods like the back of his hand. Sure, he wasn't the most pleasant person to be around, and when he drank he often became quite hostile and violent, but he seemed a lot more at peace and almost subdued, now that he had given up the bottle.
Stephen and Janice joined them. Graham was unimpressed with both of them. She looked like a Cabbage Patch Kids' doll, with her chubby, bloated face and bleached blonde hair. Her boyfriend was tall and wiry, with an athletic build, but he talked as if he knew everything about everything, a real pompous dirt-bag. The pair apparently lived next door to Harold and Susan, and they would get together for little wine-tasting parties and go to museums together, the four of them. What a bunch of silly bullshit. Just a bunch of prissy rich folk who thought they were better than everyone.
"I think Murphy's finding this a bit rough," Stephen said.
Harold nodded and looked at his watch. "We should try and get going again soon, if we're going to reach the mountain and set up camp before it gets completely dark."
After a few more minutes, they moved on, with Graham leading and the rest of them following, Murphy plodding along slowly, behind.
When they reached the base of the mountain they began to set up camp. Stephen and Janice unfolded their tent, as did Harold and Susan. Murphy sat down in front of the fire which Graham had started in a small circle of stones, and held his chubby sausage fingers out before it.
Graham opened up his backpack, removed a long, thin metal grill-cover, and stood it up over the fire. He then proceeded to place the meat of the three wild rabbits which he had shot and skinned earlier that day, on the grill. Murphy watched the meat sizzle, the flames making crackling noises as they warmed the fatty pinkish pieces. "I've never had rabbit meat before," said Murphy, watching Graham intently now, as he turned the meat over with a large hunting knife (still stained with the blood of the dead rabbits). Graham did not respond. He simply kept his eyes on the meat, and the flames, as if his attention was lost entirely, and he was focused on something that none of the others could see. It was an empty, spaced-out stare that made Murphy very uneasy. He had heard about Graham's past, about his drinking, and the mean streak that often erupted within him when he drank. But Harold had told him that the man was completely sober now, and had turned over a new leaf. Alcoholics Anonymous, anger management classes, the whole bit. He had married a pretty young girl, and had resumed his job as an auto mechanic (which he had taken a leave of absence from in order to sort out his problems).
Murphy stood up and brushed the dirt and leaves from his pants, then headed over to his backpack, unfolded his tent, and began to fumble around with it. Harold and Susan helped him with it, and when it was finally up, Murphy clapped his hands together, and said, "What would I do without you two? You know, I've already come to realize that this was a mistake, for me to come on this trip, I mean. I'm just holding you all back. I'm slow, out-of-shape, and not exactly an outdoorsman."
"It's okay, Murph. We're glad to have you along," said Harold, "and you can only benefit by the experience. We all can. Susan and I have never done anything like this before either. That's what makes it fun, and challenging."
Murphy nodded, and patted Harold on the back. He definitely had a way of making people feel accepted and comfortable. Harold was a confident guy, but not confident in a way that even approached arrogance. He was simply comfortable with who he was. He had found peace and contentment in his life, not to mention a woman who was not only beautiful, but extremely intelligent. Murphy had never been married. When he was younger, before he had put on so much weight, he had dated numerous women, but nothing had ever worked out for the long-term. And that was alright, because he had become quite content with his living situation. Like Harold, he made good money, owned a nice condo, drove an expensive sports-car, and was able to eat at all of the best restaurants. He was a damned good lawyer too, all of his peers agreed upon that. He was generally good natured, and got along with most people, yet out here in the wilderness he felt lost. This was not his territory, he felt like an intruder here.
Soon they were all gathered around the fire, eating the dinner of cooked rabbit which Graham had prepared for them. "This tastes surprisingly good, Graham," said Stephen, chewing a piece of the darkened, tender meat. "Where did you learn to cook like this? I never would have guessed we'd be sitting out here eating a gourmet meal like this."
Graham stared off into the fire, his eyes looking lost, travelling somewhere else. "My dad showed me how to kill and skin rabbits when I was a boy. He took me out hunting in this same area, when I was a kid. The meat's best when you don't over-cook it. I prefer it tender. Even a bit bloody. Tastes best that way."
"I'll say! I couldn't get anything as good at any of the restaurants that Janice and I go to, back home." Janice nodded her head in agreement, as she chewed a small piece of the meat.
"So tomorrow morning we're going to start our climb," said Harold, looking up at the massive, monolith of the mountain above them. The dim light from the flames flickered and danced against the old stone, making their faint shadows move and stretch, like some faint, dark apparitions.
"Yup," Graham said. "Let's get an early start in the morning. It's going to be a long day tomorrow. We'll all need our sleep."
They put out the fire and went to their tents. While everyone else found sleep quite easily, Murphy lay awake for hours. He was cold, uncomfortable, and when he heard the distant howling of some wild animal, perhaps a wolf, or a coyote, up in the mountains, he shivered and rolled over. The night was alive, and the wild, screeching October winds whistling their haunting melodies through the branches of the bare trees lent it vitality.