Excerpt: Into the Caldera

By the time the three emerged from the dense forest that cupped the southern side of the volcano, the skies began to clear. The foreboding clouds moved east with only an occasional lightning flash in the far distance to remind them of the storm they had endured on the drive from the freeway. The sun made an appearance and bore down on them with the heat that had been expected for a late summer day. The tree cover ended abruptly, and nothing but an open field of dirt and rocks lay before them. Scott was the first to pause to remove the extra shirt he had put on at the car.

“Hold up, guys,” he said behind Marc and Jenn, who had positioned herself in the middle of the single file line that weaved through the rocks.

Jenn turned and looked at him, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing…just want to take off this shirt.”

Marc paused at the base of a large pumice rock. He glanced back at Scott but turned to look ahead without saying anything. Scott sat his pack on the ground and shrugged off the long sleeve shirt. He quickly crammed it into a pocket on his pack. Jenn smiled at him and licked her lips through parted teeth.

“Keep going,” she said nodding to the t-shirt he still wore.

Scott chuckled. “I don’t want to embarrass Marc.”

Marc looked back at them and rolled his eyes. “Let’s get going. I’d like to get to the north side before it gets dark so that we can set up camp.”

“Yes, sir!” Jenn mocked standing up straight in front of Marc and giving a soldier’s salute. Marc rolled his eyes again before he turned to climb up onto the rock next to him.

Scott smiled as he slung his pack onto his shoulders and moved forward. Jenn did the same, and the three resumed walking toward the field of rocks cast to the side of the mountain by the eruption in 1980. The dark brown pumice rocks looked like hardened sponges. They were packed together and had nasty jagged edges that caught shoes and loose clothes as the three navigated the field. Scott looked ahead as far as he could see, and the rocks seemed to go on forever. After only a few minutes of moving up and down between the rocks, his breathing became more labored. Sweat dripped down his forehead. The rambling conversation that Jenn had mostly with herself under the dark canopy of trees they had just left ceased. He could hear her breathing from where he climbed. Marc was further ahead, but Scott assumed he was working hard too. The three focused on navigating the rocks as the irregular gaps and sharp edges threatened their exposed ankles and shins.

On one particularly deep divot between the rocks, Scott scraped his shin. “Fuck!” he yelled as he fell back between the rocks. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”

Both Marc and Jenn stopped and turned back to him. “Are you okay?” Marc asked.

Scott grimaced as he held his leg. “Yes, I’m okay. It just stings like a motherfucker.”

“Are you bleeding?” Jenn asked. She seemed a bit eager to see.

Scott took his hand off his leg and looked at his shin. “Not really, it’s just a scrape. Kind of like a paper cut. Superficial but hurts like hell.”

“These rocks are super sharp,” Marc said.

Scott felt annoyed by the obvious, but he released his leg and climbed back up the rock to be on level ground with his companions. “Let’s keep going,” he said taking a step forward. He shook off the pain that lingered in his shin as Marc and Jenn walked past him to continue the hike.

The three hikers continued their meticulous climb over the rocks at the base of Mt. St. Helens. More clouds moved over them blocking the sun, but the clouds were less threatening than the ones that had almost drowned them on the drive to the Sno-Park at the base of the mountain. Scott felt relief from the heat under the clouds as the climb became arduous, not because it was particularly technical but due to the constant up and down movement required to navigate the endless field of boulders. It reminded him of the squat exercises his track coach favored at school. Up and down. Up and down. His thighs ached.

The monotony of the rock field felt magnified by the silence that engulfed them. Marc was always the brooding, silent type. When he and Marc hiked alone, Scott did most of the talking, but Scott wasn’t exactly loquacious. He enjoyed the quiet solitude of hiking in the wilderness. Nevertheless, he also enjoyed the companionship and would force Marc into conversations.

He had only known Jenn for a couple of weeks, and in that time, he had learned that she rarely stopped talking, yet she had only said a few words since they had hiked out of the forest. He didn’t know if it the strenuous act of navigating the rocks had silenced her or if she had finally run out of things to say. She’d certainly said enough on the three-hour drive from Seattle.

He looked ahead at his two friends as they climbed in front of him. Marc, with his strong calves bulging beneath his shorts quickly scaled one rock after another. Jenn bent over as she climbed up with her rear not far from Scott’s face. His ears flushed red as he stared at her ass. He watched her unfold as she conquered the rock and stood up tall.

Scott took in the whole of the young woman above him. She stood at least 5’10’ with long blonde hair that hung down to the bottom of her shoulder blades. She had her hair in a long ponytail that flopped side to side as she moved. She didn’t have really sizable breasts but she had nice curves. Her hips flared out in the tight shorts that hugged her strong thighs. Scott loved her long, smooth legs. They were shapely and muscular. He could tell she was an athlete.

His observations aroused him, and a bulge formed in his shorts. He quickly shifted himself as he ascended the next rock to avoid the outward appearance of a hard-on. He and Jenn had only been hanging out for a couple of weeks, and they hadn’t even so much as kissed. He couldn’t really explain what their status was, but he was clearly turned on by her, and she seemed to relish the attention.

“Do you guys remember the SAE party at the end of the year?” Jenn asked.

Marc looked back at her and Scott looked at both of them as they paused to consider her question. Marc responded first. “I remember that there was a party but that’s all.” He laughed nervously.

“You don’t remember it at all?” Jenn asked.

“Nope,” Marc replied shaking his head. He continued climbing forward.

“We got pretty wasted at that party,” Scott said. “We’d been drinking for a few hours before the party even started. I barely remember arriving at the SAE house.”

“Really?” Jenn said. “I was there.”

“You were?” Scott said. “I don’t remember seeing you there.”

“I remember both of you.”

“Did we meet you at the party?” Scott asked.

“Yes.”

Scott stopped as the other two slowly scurried ahead of him. “Why didn’t you tell me this before?” he asked Jenn pointedly.

“I thought you remembered,” Jenn replied. She seemed nervous all of a sudden, but Scott ignored it. She paused a moment as Marc climbed ahead of her.

“It was clear I didn’t remember you. You could have reminded me.”

“I didn’t think about it.” Jenn stood in the divot for a moment as Scott climbed up onto the rock behind her. She stared down at him before she turned and climbed up the next rock.

Scott let it go, but something didn’t add up. Jenn wasn’t telling him the whole story. He fell silent as he tried to remember the night of the SAE party, but it was like a blank spot in his memory. He remembered meeting his friend Sachin, who was a member of the fraternity, to go to the party, but everything else faded into the darkness of his drunken memory.

“Do you two always get that drunk at parties?” Jenn asked.

Scott felt offended. “No, we don’t. That’s the only one.”

“Aww, what fun is that? I thought you two were fun,” she replied.

Marc let out a half laugh but kept hiking forward.

“Well, for starters, I’m on the track team. Kind of hard to workout if I’m hungover,” Scott said.

“Then, why’d you join the fraternity?”

“We didn’t. A friend of ours invited us to the SAE party. We’re not members. We don’t have time for a fraternity.”

“You seemed to fit in that night.”

Scott gave Jenn a puzzled look. “We were just blowing off steam after a hard year. That’s all. It’s not something we’d do normally.”

“What do you do ‘normally’?” Jenn asked making air quotes in front of her as she continued to press forward.

“Marc and I are on scholarships and we’re Computer Science majors, so normally, we’re in the computer lab. That’s about as wild as it gets for us.”

Jenn giggled.

“What’s so funny?” Scott asked.

“You two don’t look like computer nerds.”

“How do we look?” Scott asked.

“Well, Marc looks like some kind of mountain man with that beard and long hair, and you look like a skinny high schooler with that baby face.”

“Gee, thanks,” Scott said. Marc just grunted a laugh without even looking back.

“What?” she said opening her palms and shrugging her shoulders. “I’m not being insulting. You look so young, but you’re not nerdy.”

“I’m 19.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Do you want to see my license?”

“Anyone can get a fake ID.”

Scott sighed in mock annoyance.

“So neither of you remember the party?”

Scott looked at Jenn as she turned to face him. “Nope. Sorry. Is there something we should know?”

Jenn didn’t respond. She just turned and climbed ahead. Scott stared ahead at her butt as she scurried up the rock. He remembered his hard on and his mind drifted to other thoughts. A deep-seated desire throbbed in his head. He tried to shake the thoughts, but each time she bent over in front of him to climb the next rock, he couldn’t help himself.

The clouds had finally moved east and left open a fading blue sky as the sun began to descend. They only had a couple of hours before it set and they were still maneuvering among the rocks. Scott could tell by the profile of the mountain that they had made progress, but it felt like they were climbing over the same rocks over and over again. As the shadows started to grow longer and the fractured north side of St. Helens came into a better view, the rock field faded into a sandy landscape. The three hikers paused to sip from their water bottles.

“That was insane,” Scott said as he looked back at the field of rocks. “I’m glad we’re not coming back this way.”

“There are more on the other side,” Jenn said nonchalantly.

“How do you know?”

“I’ve hiked this before.”

“You have?”

“Yes. I’m from Longview just up the freeway. This was practically my backyard.”

“Why didn’t you say so?”

“I dunno.”

Scott narrowed his eyes at her but smiled. “Is there anything else I should know about you?”

“There are many things you should know about me,” she teased.

Scott laughed. Marc smiled but rolled his eyes at the banter between his best friend and the girl between them.

“If you’re going to be my boyfriend, there’s a lot you need to know,” Jenn added.

Scott paused and smiled nervously. He didn’t know what to say, so he took a long swig from his water bottle.

Marc looked up at the sky and turned to survey the route ahead of them. “We should get moving if we’re going to set up camp further north,” he said.

Scott and Jenn agreed verbally and fell in behind Marc as he climbed up a hill on the trail. The three fell into a single-file line again and remained largely silent. Scott couldn’t shake the idea of being Jenn’s boyfriend. He had hoped for as much, but he felt it unlikely. He watched her walk in front of him and his imagination consumed him.

The rugged trail dipped into a valley between two large rocks and then went vertical. Marc stopped at the top of the trail and surveyed the path. Scott and Jenn paused behind him.

Marc turned to Jenn. “Do you think you can jump across that?”

Jenn looked past him and smiled. “Yep. Of course.”

Marc didn’t seem convinced. “It’s probably four or five feet and you have that pack on your back.” He nodded to her shoulder.

Jenn seemed annoyed by his questioning of her ability. “I jump all the time on the court. I think I can handle this.”

“This isn’t volleyball,” Scott interjected.

“I know that, silly,” Jenn replied.

“Why don’t you go first?” Marc suggested to Jenn.

“Do you want me to hold your pack?” Scott asked.

Jenn smirked. “No, I’ve got this.” She stepped back a few feet and then ran toward the gap. She bolted upward and landed gracefully on the other side of the gap seemingly without effort. Her feet scuttled up some dust that looked like smoke. The late day sun had dried out the rocks already. “I told you.” She crossed her arms and smiled as if she had just defied gravity.

Marc looked surprised, but he turned to Scott and said, “You go ahead.”

Scott backed up and adjusted his pack before he took off running toward the gap. He flew up in the air, but his pack felt like it was pulling him into the gap. He panicked briefly before his feet landed on the crusty rocks and he braced himself on his palms as the force of the pack and his body pushed him to the earth. He stumbled a little as he got up but he was firmly on the other side.

“That was some jump,” Jenn said sarcastically.

“I’m a runner, not a long jumper.”

“I see that.”

Jenn and Scott turned toward Marc on the other side. He backed up further than either of them had. His thick legs pounded the dirt beneath him as he ran somewhat slowly toward the gap. He thrust himself into the air toward the two onlookers, but he didn’t get enough distance to clear the gap. Scott watched him bound up toward him and then disappear beneath the edge of the rock almost in a cartoonish slow motion.

“Marc!” Scott yelled as he ran toward the edge as his friend disappeared from view. He heard Marc thrashing around as he tried to grab anything on this side of the gap to prevent himself from falling. The scrabble of loose rock and the pounding of flesh and bone against rock ended with a solid thud and a loud grunt.

Scott, with Jenn at his back, stopped at the edge of the rock and peered into the gap. Marc lay motionless ten feet below in the gap between the rocks. The shadows prevented him from seeing his friend clearly. “Marc!”

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