A weekend gone horribly wrong shapes the future.
| Early morning sun streamed in from the balcony windows that framed the mountain valley below like a piece of art. Sublime at a distance, it was imposing, often treacherous territory, normally overlooked by the majority of vacationers seeking rest and relaxation, in favor of tamer destinations. Now and then, urban dwellers with a lust for adventure found their way to these parts. Reminiscent of moths lured to an eminent flame, they arrive impetuously prepared to conquer the wilderness and attain a restorative attitude gleaned from the clean air and lofty vistas. Just like the flame, the mountain was indifferent to its would-be victims.
The majestic views, promised by the resort's online brochure to soothe the soul, did nothing to mollify the agitation Michael was feeling as he clutched the receiver, waiting anxiously for someone on the other end to answer. Twice he glanced over his shoulder to the bathroom door, reassuring himself that Kaitlyn hadn't emerged. Come on, pick up, pick up, pick up.
"Brasstown Valley Resort, The Ambria Room, may I help you?"
"Yes, hello." Michael kept his voice low. "This is Michael Ranalli in suite 247. I'd like to confirm my reservation for tonight."
"Hello, Mr. Ranalli. Yes, I have it right here: Candlelit table for two by the window. Eight o'clock. Champagne bucket in place upon arrival."
"Fantastic," Michael replied. "What's your special tonight?"
"We are featuring a lovely sea bass, pan seared..."
The bathroom doorknob turned. Michael covered his mouth and whispered, "Thanks! See you at eight," and hastily placed the receiver on its cradle.
"Who was that?" Kaitlyn asked, coming out. Michael's restlessness dissolved at the sight of her. Even in hiking boots and a pony tail, something in her devoted regard had a soothing affect on him.
"Weather info. Only a twenty percent chance of rain this afternoon." He had to look away. "So, ready to go?"
"Just let me make sure I have my camera." Kaitlyn opened her backpack and dug through the disarray before pulling out her Nikon D80. She stared at it, lost in a mental checklist of equipment she usually needed: tripod, telephoto lenses, lights...
Catching herself, she laughed. "Wait, I guess this is all I need." She replaced the camera in the bag, and reached for her cell phone.
"We don't even have a signal up here. Leave that behind," Michael suggested.
"But I can still dial 911 without a signal," she replied.
"What are you going to need 911 for, we're just going hiking?" Michael dismissed the urge to knock on wood. "Give it to me, I'll lock it up with mine."
Kaitlyn handed Michael the phone. Fishing out the hotel key to unlock the bedside table drawer, he said, "Would you grab my pack, it's over there." He waited until she was on the other side of the room before opening the drawer and hastily dropping the phone in beside the small square box he'd hidden there earlier.
Tonight was the night. Months of meticulous planning had brought him, finally, to this day, and Michael's heart raced with anticipation. Before Kaitlyn, he had been living his life chained to a wall of emotional sequestration. In the course of the past two years, the chains were corroding and the wall was crumbling; and he knew it was because Kaitlyn had come into his life. They'd met during a New York shoot for the advertising spot he was overseeing, and Kaitlyn had been the freelance photographer hired for the job. That day, though, marriage had been the furthest notion on his mind. In fact, seeing her for the first time had muddled his thoughts and sent a portentous chill up his spine. Kaitlyn was the spitting image of the woman he'd accidentally killed one night with his car.
A ferocious storm had raged that night. The windshield wipers on high speed had been ineffective against the driving rain, making navigation of the narrow country road arduous. Despite the precarious conditions, he had been pushing the normal speed limit in his haste to get home from college for the weekend. Out of nowhere a woman darted into the road. Like an animal caught in the headlights, her rain drenched face stared at Michael; and for a few agonizing moments that would haunt him every day since, their eyes locked. He hit the brakes but the car slid into her, sending her flying over the hood. She had died instantly.
No charges were filed, but he self-imposed a life sentence of guilt. Though he was told he wasn't responsible for the accident, his culpable conscience denounced him: if he hadn't been driving so fast...
Kaitlyn McKenna was the breath of fresh air that had blown away the repugnant angst of Michael's self-hatred. Her colorful attitude toward life, inherited from her quirky artist parents who had raised her to believe that each lifetime could be reduced to a series of lessons for the soul to learn, convinced him that painful events are Fate's way of teaching us to be stronger in the future. She loved him into believing it, and he'd slowly begun to heal.
Kaitlyn picked up Michael's open backpack. The contents, which included bottled water, a bag of trail mix, a neatly folded map of the area's hiking trails, and some band-aids had been placed in an orderly fashion. "Gorgeous and well-prepared," she said softly as she zipped the enclosure and carried it to the door.
The Brasstown Valley Resort was nestled between the rolling peaks of the North Georgia mountains and just off the famed Appalachian Trail. Michael had spent hours doing internet searches, looking for a remote location boasting rugged hiking terrain, and luxury accommodations. He'd finally found this place, and he commended himself for his faultless planning.
They made their way to the head of the trail in high spirits. " 'White rectangular blazes mark the trail over the entire 2100 miles from Georgia to Maine,'" Michael read from the trail map. " 'Turns are marked with double blazes and side trails and approaches use blue.' " Michael stopped. Kaitlyn was no longer walking beside him. Turning, he spotted her heading off the path into the woods.
"Kait, honey, you're not supposed to leave the trail. Hon?" Kaitlyn put her finger to her lips and looked back into the woods. A moment later she rejoined him.
"I thought I heard an animal, but it must have gotten scared and scurried off." Her flushed cheeks glowed with excitement.
"You never know what could be hiding in these woods, babe. There are snakes and bears living up here with the bunnies and squirrels." The concern in Michael's eyes endeared and amused her.
Kaitlyn's suppressed smile lingered in her eyes. "Tag! You're it!" she suddenly shouted, taking off down the trail.
Kaitlyn's playfulness infected Michael, and they made their way through the quiet woods, talking and joking. By noontime, they had hiked into Sosebee Cove, a remote nook protected by a wall of rock and ablaze with the colors of flourishing springtime bloomers.
"Do you hear water?" Kaitlyn asked.
Michael consulted the map. "It looks like DeSoto Falls is about a quarter mile from here." He looked to the left. "There, see that tree with the blue blaze on it? That trail will take us to it."
Ten minutes later they were heading down the side trail. It was harder to follow than the first one. The woods were thick with forbidding underbrush. The din of rushing water grew louder with each step, until its source came into view.
Melted snow from higher elevations had swelled the river to twice its normal size. Above them, raging water rushed over a promontory and crashed in billows of roiling white foam fifteen feet below. The noise was deafening. Kaitlyn pulled her camera from her pack and began snapping pictures. The air was much cooler here, and after a few minutes they turned to go.
"God! It's beautiful here," Kaitlyn sighed when they could hear each other again. Then, she sucked in her breath.
Following her gaze, he saw the brightly colored butterfly she had spotted. She raised the camera to her eye as it settled on a trillium bush. No sooner had she focused the lens than the butterfly took flight again. Kaitlyn stepped off the path in pursuit of it.
Closer and closer to the river, the insect flitted from one blossom to the next. Finally, it alit on a branch at the water's edge. Looking through the lens of the camera, Kaitlyn edged closer. Michael called out, "That's close enough, Kait," but his voice was lost to the river. As she snapped the picture, her foot slipped on the moist embankment. She let out a high-pitched yelp that never made it to Michael's ears. All he saw was one of Kaitlyn's arms shoot out awkwardly before she disappeared below the bank.
Michael sprang into action even before his mind had time to process what had happened. He sprinted toward the river, ploughing through branches that tore at his face, shouting Kaitlyn's name. She was nowhere to be seen. He searched the white water churning with the vengeance of a stampede of beasts, mirroring the panic coursing through his body. Suddenly, Kaitlyn's head broke the surface of the water several yards away. There was an outcropping of rock visible further downstream, and Michael bolted for it.
"Swim for me!" he shouted as he ran, never taking his eyes off her. He threw himself onto the rock's edge, yelling, "Kaitlyn! Grab my hand!" He was flat on his stomach, reaching as far out over the water as he could manage, as the fast-paced current carried Kaitlyn toward him.
Terror was etched in every furrow of her contorted face. She could see Michael's hand but she was powerless over the current dictating her trajectory. The river slammed her like a rag doll against a rock, pitching her violently under the water. When she resurfaced moments later, she was heading straight for Michael.
Kaitlyn was floating impotently past Michael, but she managed to stretch her hand out. With astonishing timing, Michael heaved his weight forward and caught her firmly around the wrist. She dangled heavily there, her frightened eyes locked with his. The nightmare from years ago was brutally triggered, and fear threatened to rob him of brawn and confidence. He forced the old memory out of his mind and his resolution stoked his strength. "I've got you, baby! I've got you!" he gasped. Fighting the current and the water-logged weight of her pack, he struggled to pull her in. It wasn't until he got his hand around the back of her belt, that he realized he had denied the arrogating river of its quarry.
Kaitlyn sat on the rock in a state of shock. Sobs racked Michael's body as he pulled his shirt off, and then pulled Kaitlyn's listless arms out of her soaking sweatshirt and replaced it with his own. Michael was powerless to stop the flow of tears that should have been shed years before. Finally, his composure returned enough to help her to her feet, and he half-carried her back to the resort.
Hours later, while Kaitlyn slept, Michael sat on the balcony in quiet contemplation. The mountains were shrouded in night, and Michael felt dauntless in their presence. A candle flickered in a hurricane glass set on a table between two untouched plates from the Ambria Room. In the morning, he would give Kaitlyn the ring. He relinquished all plans of romantic pageantry, the thought of them now seemed absurdly unnecessary. Saving someone's life binds you to them forever; and in a sense, today Kaitlyn had saved him for the second time. Out of the darkness, a moth flitted into view. It bobbed toward the irresistible flame. Michael watched it for a minute, then lifted himself out of the chair, blew out the candle, and went to join Kaitlyn. The moth disappeared back into the night.