Waiting for Help to Arrive

by Amanda Kabak

At two o’clock that afternoon, Herbert was downsized out of his job, and at four fifteen, he was running the trails in Middlesex Fells harder than a winter of inactivity really allowed. His heart throbbed, his lungs ached, and his legs weren’t screaming now but surely would be later.

A zip of cold lurked within the softening spring air, and he felt it dig into the bottom of each breath while he lurched along the root-and-rock strewn paths. The trees were just beginning to bud, and he could see through their branches to the brown leaves of undergrowth and ground cover. If he weren’t so woefully out of shape, this would have been a perfect day to strike out off the beaten paths he knew so well, dodge white birch and maple, skirt boulders deposited by glaciers so long ago, and lose himself in the woods.

Being lost in the woods would perhaps be for the best, but Herbert lacked the courage that getting lost would require, the possibility of a wrong step that would leave him tumbling down a hill to a broken leg or neck. No, Herbert was a careful trail runner, studying the paths and his footing and never distracted by the sweet air and the music of water in a nearby stream.

Life happened to Herbert just like gravity happened to that water. For years, he lazed along between gentle banks, accumulating the sediments of life: a job, marriage, two children. He rode a slow current toward the sea of retirement and eventual death, steered more by the environment than his own volition, but long before the sea came the rapids. As if his wife had it penciled in her date book, she’d called a meeting with him January second to lay down the edict of their immediate separation and impending divorce, leaving him too stunned even to protest, proving her beleaguered point of his essential and infuriating lassitude.

The lawyers, the house, and the kids, who he couldn’t think about without first swirling in a vortex of helpless anger and sharp sadness, pummeled him. And then, when he’d gotten almost used to the headlong fury of change, this termination pushed him over the falls. When coherent thought returned, it brought with it the idea of the Fells, a run where no one knew where he was, maybe not even himself. He imagined a fleet race through ripping branches and across boulders and fallen trees. He imagined feeling the freedom of a bird and dissolving into the spring breeze.

In fact, it was more plodding, gasping torture, but the struggle was at least a tangible one. He ran, then walked, then stumbled into a run again over roots and rocks, across deep ruts in the path from winter runoff, feeling the sun beat on him through the chill, the sweat on his back cold in long, shaded stretches. For two or three seconds at a time, he could forget the dark one-bedroom apartment he was renting, or the humiliation of packing up his things at work, or even the slog ahead toward the rest of his life that now stretched before him like a foreign riverscape harboring unknown hazards.

Midway up a hill, he stopped and leaned against a tree, gasping for breath and waiting for the gray haze to clear from his eyes. While his heart’s pounding receded from his ears, something in his peripheral vision made him look down the side of the hill. At first, he couldn’t identify what had snagged his attention, but then he saw it. Something pale against the leaves. He stepped to the edge of the trail and squinted. A body. A woman.

He was sliding down to her before he’d made any such decision, having no idea what propelled him forward with such urgency. She was so naked, lying on her back and exposed to the elements, her face bloodied, her arms and legs laced with lacerations. Her eyes were closed, and Herbert was afraid to touch her.

Still, his fingers pressed at her throat in search of a pulse then he put his ear first to her nose then her naked breast listening for life. Her breath was as faint as her heartbeat, and Herbert jumped up and looked around, a cry for help stuck in his throat. No one was around to hear it. He patted down his shorts and shirt, searching for the cell phone his wife had always made him carry, but he’d left it in the car in his effort to misplace himself for a while.

He looked back and forth between the woman and the hill while the memory of the trail between them and his phone unspooled in his mind.

“I’ll be back,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”

He scrambled up the hill and barreled down the trail. He leapt over rocks and thin streams and pushed up inclines and careened down descents. Breath seared in his chest, and he wheezed like an asthmatic, but he kept going. He tore around a corner and slipped, slamming his knee on the ground so hard he had to push back a wave of nausea before he could get up and continue. But he continued, did not falter into a walk though he thought he might spit up a lung. The naked woman squeezed his chest, making it even harder to breathe, but he continued.

He fell again when he broke into the bright sunshine of the Sheepsfold clearing, knowing by the people and dogs on the field that he didn’t have to make it across and to the car, that he’d done something right and good if he could just remember exactly where she lay, hopefully still breathing.

An agony of waiting followed the 9-1-1 call. Although Herbert finally caught his breath, a deep ache remained in his lungs, and his knee swelled up to a knobby cantaloupe and all but refused to bend. He grew cold and panicked while they waited, having not found anyone in the small group who knew the trails. How was he going to lead the EMTs to her if he couldn’t walk?

People tried to help him, but he didn’t need help, she did. When he heard the distant wail of a siren, he got to his feet and ground his teeth against the pain. He could do it. He could get them to her even if he felt lightheaded and stiff and sore all over.

Along with the ambulance came a park ranger and a police cruiser, and Herbert was partway across the field, urging them on while they were still pulling bags and a stretcher from the ambulance.

“Hurry,” he yelled. “I can show you where she is.”

They were a small army of rough breathing and whispered curses. His knee was full of glass, and he began a lurching limp-hop but didn’t let himself slow.

“This way,” he said. “It’s not far.”

And then they were there, and she was there, exactly as naked and broken as he’d left her, and the EMTs picked their way down to her and started their work.

One of them said, “She’s alive.”

Herbert sank to the ground. Tears moistened his eyes, congestion filled his nose. He heard crackling radios and the snap and crinkle of plastic pulled away from IV needles and bandages. The universe shrank down to these sounds and the pulsing horror that used to be his knee.

After an eternity, the EMTs and the park ranger appeared from the hillside, easing a stretcher along with them that bore the woman, now nearly unrecognizable in a neck brace and under a gray blanket. He tried to get up, but his knee wouldn’t hold him.

One of the EMTs said, “Stay here. Another ambulance is on the way for you.”

“But I’m—”

“Stay here. They won’t be long.”

“Where’re you taking her?”

“The same place you’re going: Winchester Hospital.”

Then they were gone, the ranger promising to return with the other team of EMTs. Herbert could hear them hustling away down the path in a different direction from the Sheepsfold, toward a closer access road, their footsteps and voices fading until he heard them only in his memory, ghosts within the whistle of wind through bare branches.

He closed his eyes against the pain of his knee and felt adrenaline leak from his body into the hard dirt. He grew soft with exhaustion and something very much like disappointment, and for the first time since he glimpsed the woman, he thought of his life beyond this moment, not Winchester Hospital and the police and seeing this day through, but beyond all that to his empty apartment, to the long climb back to who he’d always thought he was, a climb that would make this afternoon’s effort look like nothing in comparison.

He opened his eyes wide to the spring forest and waited for help to arrive.

Amanda Kabak holds an MFA from Pacific University, and her stories have been found in Perceptions Magazine, Temenos Journal, and other print and online periodicals. When not writing fiction, she cranks out software code and battles Chicago’s legendary wind chill along Lake Michigan.