Off the Trail
Chapter One ~ Fiction ~ Fantasy
“Off the Trail” keeps pulling me back and calling out to me in the middle of the night. I figured I ought to finally respond by letting it out.
I began this story last January and released it here at Along the Hudson as a three-part serial. The story never felt finished to me, and it’s been in the back of my mind ever since.
Though I’m not participating in NaNo, I’ve focused some of my November writing time on this story. My ultimate plan is for it to coalesce into a novel. I’ve finished an outline and figured out the murky middle. Now I just have to focus.
The cold and the dark are great motivators for this particular story. Call me crazy, but I hope snow is in the forecast.
If you’re curious about how more of the story unfolds, please feel free to check out the previously published parts here (though aspects of the story itself will undoubtedly change as I move forward).
Thanks for reading! I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Do you ever want to get the hell out of town? Away from everyone and everything?
So, we did, just Cormac and me. We took off Friday after school got out—ducked out a few minutes early. We had study hall at the end of the day, so we scratched a couple of handwritten notes that morning and faked our parents’ signatures. They knew we were leaving after school—in fact, they were totally cool with all aspects of our trip—but an extra half hour goes a long way, especially when you’re driving through upstate New York countryside and racing against the dark of winter in early January. Deer are always hanging around near the roadside, and for some reason, they get more and more suicidal the further north you travel on I-87.
Maybe it’s because they know something about the cold and dark that remains a mystery to the rest of us.
Cormac and I had stowed all our skiing and snowboarding gear in the trunk of my Subaru Forester before school began. He “borrowed” a couple of bottles from his dad’s liquor cabinet, too—half a bottle of honey whiskey and an unopened bottle of Crown.
“He won’t even know they’re gone, Robbie,” Cormac said, zipping up the large side pocket of his Adidas duffel bag. “Besides, we’ve got to stay warm somehow, right?’
“Yeah, it’s going to be cold as hell,” I replied, closing the trunk.
“I saw that. Dipping into the negatives overnight, isn’t it?”
“Lucky for you, I brought two flasks.” The kid had been my best friend since first grade, and his face still looked the same. Bright eyes, red cheeks, goofy grin.
Our destination: Gore Mountain. Our mission: carve up as much of it as we could with the time we had.
Gore was nestled north of Lake George in the middle of the Adirondacks—the middle of nowhere. We packed for Saturday but thought we’d throw in some extra clothes in case we wanted to extend our stay to Sunday. A lot of snow was in the forecast for Saturday night, and nothing beat skiing on fresh powder. Lift tickets weren’t cheap by any means, but we wouldn’t have too many more opportunities like this one. Graduation loomed at the end of June—I couldn’t help but envision a guillotine—and life would take Cormac and me in opposite directions.
Once we were off school grounds, we hit 9G North all the way to the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, crossing over the historic Hudson River. Shortly after, we were on the Thruway, on an adventure.
“Let’s fucking go!” Cormac half-shouted as we veered right to stay in the northbound lane toward Albany.
He plugged in his iPhone and put on “Rock and Roll” by Led Zeppelin. We scream-sang as I hit the gas and sped past a family in a minivan. One of the kids in the backseat stuck out his tongue and blew a raspberry at us. Cormac blew one back. After the song ended, the playlist shuffled to “Misty Mountain Hop.”
“Nothing beats this, man,” Cormac said, taking in a deep breath. “Just us and the open road.”
“I needed this.”
“You’re telling me. Between all these winter workouts and training sessions, I feel like I’m starting to get cold feet.”
I put on my blinker and got back in the right-hand lane. “About what?” I shot him a quick look. “Leaving?”
“Yeah—it’s just so far. I mean, I know I really want to go there and everything. It’ll be strange living states away from what I know…from home.”
I held up a hand. “You’re going to Virginia, okay? They’re giving you a full ride, man. To pitch. To throw your eighty-nine-mile-an-hour fastball.”
Cormac smirked. “It’ll be ninety by the time I get there.”
“Not if you keep being a little bitch about everything.” I was only half-joking.
Cormac punched me in the arm. “Look at me, I’m skin and bones.”
“You’ve got to start hitting the weights. Didn’t they send you a training program?”
He waved both my comment and question away. “Come August, I’ll clock in at ninety. You wait.”
“I most certainly will.”
“Can we hold on a minute? I feel like we’re always talking about my money-maker.” He kissed his left bicep in jest. “What the hell’s going on with you and Bella?”
I let out a long sigh. “Oh…I don’t know. It’s a lot. And kind of complicated. You know she wants me to go to Buffalo with her?”
“Yeah, of course I know. But that is still the plan, right? Your plan?”
I paused for a moment or two, trying to think of the best way to frame it. “Let’s just say you’re not the only one getting cold feet.”
“Really, man? What’s going on?”
“I don’t even know if I could tell you if I wanted to.” I shrugged because it was the truth. “I’m not sure if I want to spend four years in Buffalo…and I’m not sure if she’s the one, you know? Maybe there’s a small part of me that wants to see what else is out there—see who else is out there.”
“Robbie, my good man…listen, you don’t have to explain it to me. I totally get it.”
“Oh, you do?” I asked sarcastically. Cormac had always been a bit of a player, and everyone knew it.
“Well, what’s your Plan B, if Plan A is to dump Bella?”
“When did I say I was going to dump her?”
“It was pretty much implied. Besides, there’s no way you’ll want to do the long-distance thing. No fucking way. It never works.”
“It can work, it just takes a bit of a commitment from both sides. You know that word, commitment?”
Cormac scratched his head and gazed out the window in a considered manner. “No, it’s not ringing a bell. Oh, wait a second. I’ve committed to Virginia—does that count?”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “A month and a half is by far the longest commitment you’ve ever made.”
Cormac flexed his throwing arm. “Being a southpaw has its benefits.”
“Since you asked, my Plan B is to work for a year. I don’t know, take a break from school, maybe try some new things. Why the hell would I spend all this money to go study something when I have no idea what I want to do?”
“It’s a valid point, my friend, a valid point.” It was Cormac’s turn to let out a deep breath. “Listen…forget I asked. Let’s leave all this shit behind us for a day or two, alright? It’ll be there when we get back.”
“Now we’re talking,” I said, but I couldn’t help but see Bella’s pleading face – her beautiful, sweet face – in my mind.
I did love the girl, after all.
Most of our drive was uneventful but fun. There were few people I’d choose to be stuck in a car with for over two hours, and Cormac was on the list. There wasn’t much to look at on the Thruway, just the forests that lined it on both sides, all the way north. We talked about girls, the NFL playoffs, and the world at war. After a couple of hours, our exit approached. We took it. It was starting to get dark out as we pulled into a Stewart’s convenience store. Cormac and I both ordered hot meatball subs with mozzarella, and we snagged a few bags of chips, two pints of ice cream, some Gatorade, and a bottle of Canada Dry ginger ale. One thing was certain: we would feast like kings for an evening.
We found our small Air BnB cabin about ten minutes later. It was on some backroad about five miles from Gore Mountain, nestled in a thick pine forest. We pulled up, parked in the poorly plowed driveway, and walked to the front porch. The cold, frigid air took my breath away, and the smell of pine needles seemed to linger in the atmosphere. The porch creaked under our feet, but we managed to find the key under the black bear statue—just as we were instructed. When we opened the front door, it felt nearly as cold inside as it was outside. We could still see our breath as we stepped into the musty mudroom.
“Find the thermostat…I’ll start bringing our stuff in,” I said to Cormac. He gave me a thumbs-up and went into the kitchen with our warm subs in the crook of his arm. At seventy-five bucks for a single night, we weren’t going to find a better deal in a fifty-mile radius.
After I brought in our bags, we texted our parents, as promised. Cell reception was spotty, at best, but our messages eventually went through.
Be safe, love ya, Mom replied. Let us know what time you leave tomorrow.
I thought about texting Bella but thought better of it.
It didn’t take long for the 750-square-foot cabin to get nice and toasty. We thought about making a fire in the woodstove, too, but our meatball subs stole our attention. Cormac pried his open and stacked some sour cream and onion chips inside. I raised an eyebrow as he took a big, crunchy bite.
“You don’t know what you’re missing,” he said, mouth full. “No, seriously.”
I rinsed out two dusty glasses from a kitchen cabinet and opened the bottle of Crown. I poured some in each glass, then topped the drinks off with ginger ale.
“Cheers,” I said to Cormac, raising my drink.
“Cheers, man,” he said back. We clinked our glasses together and took a hearty swallow.
We didn’t know it at the time, but this meal would end up being our last supper together.
On this plane of existence, at least.
Thanks so much for reading my opening chapter to Off the Trail. I really appreciate it!
I would love to receive any feedback or encouragement you can offer.
To all of my Fifties by the Fire friends, let’s meet up this Friday, November 17 at 3:00 PM EST. With Thanksgiving next week, this might be our best opportunity to read and write some fifty-word stories.
Prompt: Write a fifty-word story (fiction, CNF, or poem) that uses the word gather, or any other form of the word (gathers, gathering, etc.).
Happy writing, and have a wonderful week!
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