DOUBLE DOWN

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

A sunny Autumn day in Yosemite provides a grim blueprint for death.

DOUBLE DOWN

A Short Story

Nicholas Cochran

 

From where he sat on the tip of rock next to Glacier Point, Ethan had the perspective of a hawk surveying the valley floor. In this particular region of Yosemite, red-tails plied the air trails. Occasionally a lucky birder could conjure a peregrine falcon.The falcons were making a comeback after predators combined to push them into the red zone of endangered species.

When Ethan raised his eyes from the valley view, he immediately spied a trio of red-tail hawks in a state of soaring and screeching. No doubt, as the result of the rarefied atmosphere surrounding him, he surmised the three now wheeling just above him were engaged in a marital dispute. Perhaps the trio was was airing some avian home truths; a reckoning concerning a secret lover. Then again, the  threesome could be an extraordinarily happy couple, trying to unload the tiresome brother-in-law.

For the next twenty minutes, details of the scene two thousand feet below, riveted Ethan. The hawks were getting closer. Their escalating disagreements translated into faster blurring-wing flaps and male screeches. Being one third larger than the male red-tailed hawk, the lone female interjected a scream or two herself. It could be the distaff member of the trio was complaining--or demanding---that one of the birds either leave or stay; or something altogether different; perhaps a slur on the coupling abilities of one—or both of the males.

Ethan caught a black flash between eye blinks. His deep lizard-warning reflex drew his eyes to the object as it tore out of the blinding blaze of the blue October sky, and . . . 'well I’ll be a son-of-a-bitch; that red-tail just got whacked.'

A quick second later, Ethan recognized the assassin; the peregrine falcon. The peregrine is the fastest bird, as well as the fastest member of the animal kingdom. Serious birders have clocked members of this feathery community of killers in a power dive, at over the preposterous speed of over two hundred and forty miles per hour. That staggering speed is over three times faster than a cheetah. One of these speeding thunderbolts took out the husband or the brother-in-law.

Ethan recognized the markings of the stunned female while she rapidly lost elevation in her preternatural instinct to go and see what could be salvaged from the victim.That the remaining male was the husband assured—and relieved—Ethan. Red-tails are monogamous and extremely protective of their spouse.

The male red-tail dropped through the light air and nuzzled up to his wife. They vanished behind a sheer face of reddish rock and a bristlecone pine.  Ethan held the image of their taking leave for a few moments, expecting---well, at least hoping---the couple would return, allowing Ethan to read some  type of reaction to their ‘sudden loss'.

They did not return to Ethan’s ken. Instead, they continued to hop about and beak away at bother-in-law. His final resting place was a quiet spot in the meadow.

Ethan rose and stretched. He felt the autumn sun catch his bare arms and legs. Vaporous curlings of  sweet-smelling smoke arrived from campfire sites below.  His lazy gaze drifted across the three hundred degree skyline; the falls; the rocky cuts; the crags; the domes. While he absorbed the direct rays of the mid-day sun, he inwardly mourned the inevitability of the fading warmth. Within hours, the sun would abandon visitors to the chill of long eerie shadows.

Ethan could not get enough of this panorama; the one below, as well as the ones to his left and to his right, past the point to Half Dome and beyond, to the paling grey serigraph of the Sierras. Now was the hour and time of blazing leaves, clear trails, larger campfires, poetic curlicues of purple smoke.

*

Melissa, Ethan's tall, brunette, twenty-four year old wife, passed on the Glacier Point trip because of elevation queasiness, a mild affliction that rarely took more than a few hours to shake. Ethan felt propelled toward Glacier Point. He could talk of nothing else throughout the final twenty miles to the valley floor, before they checked into their suite at the Ahwhanee. Melissa’s subconscious recorded the odd fact Ethan—some times very abruptly—returned the conversation to the subject of Glacier Point over most of the miles from Santa Barbara.  

Melissa gew up in Silicon Valley, a fact allowing her to  tramp around the good spots in the park, of which there are many. She also hiked extensively. She attempted some  rock climbing---not the sheer climbs like El Capitan or Half Dome, but a panoply of lesser endeavors. She possessed a striking figure, with leg and arm muscles gently rippled over the years. She certainly was not an Amazon; her figure was more that of a healthy hiker.

Melissa could tell immediately the elevation wooziness stopped. When that moment arrived, she dressed and equipped for the Point. She gave a quick comb, grabbed the appropriate sunglasses, locked their suite, and made for the parking lot and their Tesla.

Ethan preferred to stride across the valley floor to catch the four miler up to the Point.

'He probably got there faster than I will.' Melissa smiled while she filled her mind with choice moments of their brief married life. She brimmed with anticipation of the relaxing moments and happiness these four days would bring to all areas of their blissful relationship.

Traffic moved gently along the valley floor in a line of smiling drivers, who were very joyful---and perhaps a bit smug---about their decision to put off the Yosemite vacation until mid-autumn. Flashes of sunbeams ricocheted off chrome and windows all up and down the line, instant reminders the sun was alive and well, beaming upon them; a shining reward for their foresight---as well as their general good characters.

Melissa was mid-pack and passing the spot directly below Glacier Point when something smashed into the roof. It bounced off to her right, spinning over and over before landingand crumpling twenty yards into the meadow. Melissa immediately pulled to the shoulder and ran toward the object. She saw it was a bird, a red-tail hawk. Before she reached the bird, she knew it was dead. It was on its back with its two legs pointed to the big sky. 'Wow! What the hell was that?' Her peripheral vision picked up the dark form of a diving peregrine falcon. It screamed across the road to the meadow. It hovered only a moment over the dead hawk before shooting straight up, faster than a NIKE missile where it vanished in the glare of the sun.

Melissa quickly arrived at the hawk and was about to poke her toe to see if it was only unconscious. She pulled back her foot before touching it, leaving it alone in it’s quiet finality. She turned to go back the car. When she reached the road, two red-tail hawks glided overhead and landed next to the deceased. The female came close to the dead bird, while the male stood back almost two feet behind the female. Melissa knew a lot about red-tails, and here she was watching a peculiarity of the species, which she only read bout or saw on film or in videos. Here was the reality of nature unfolding before her.

When she told Ethan about the event and her encounter with aviation mortality, she said she experienced an extremely peculiar sensation while she was watching the pitiful scene. A welling up of a strong emotional compulsion pushed her thoughts to her brother, David.

*

After Melissa arrived at the Glacier Point parking lot, she walked out to the extreme edge of the viewing area, where she looked for Ethan. She saw him the moment she turned to her left. He appeared to be taller than ever, smiling and vital, his blond hair windblown into odd shapes. He gave her a hearty wave in a type of semaphore motion. She waved back and eased through the visitors to pick up the path to Ethan’s aerie. They met along the trail where they tightly hugged. He kissed her. Hard. They clung together, fiercely troubled by an unknown apprehension, some nagging dread. An icy foreboding chilled them.

*

For no particular reason, as soon as she got a cell signal, Melissa called her brother David.She got his answering machine. She called her mother. Her father answered. He sounded devastated. He was on the verge of crying; or perhaps he was already in tears. Melissa could hear her mother crying loudly in the background. She was wailing the unsettling cry of sudden loss.

Before Melissa could ask what happened, her father said,

"David died in a light plane crash, my darling Melissa. They'd just taken off from San Carlos. Another larger plane hit them from behind---and above. David was a passenger." Melissa and her father cried openly. Her father gasped to breathe, "the San Carlos Director of Air Traffic Control said they didn't pick up the larger, ramming plane before---or after the fatal collision. They never saw it at all---at any time."

Melissa was emitting long deep sobs when she turned to Ethan. Her brows creased. A flat look of horror claimed her face. 

“It happened right around mid-day, Ethan; while you were up at the Point and I was on the road to reach you . . . and that . . .”

 

THE END

 

 
 

 

 


Submitted: February 27, 2016

© Copyright 2021 Nicholas Cochran. All rights reserved.

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