He’s twenty-five, thirty feet above the wave-hardened sand, his fingers wrapped over a good knob, right hand reaching for another hold. Then the jug hold sheers clean from the sea stack. His left-hand snaps into empty air still clutching the useless cobble.
He is falling. Almost enough time to curse conglomerate rock, but not quite. He slams into hard sand and one jagged boulder. Beach and sky explode into a supernova of pain that stretches out over the Pacific Ocean, then collapses back into a black hole that swallows him.
The tide wakes him, icy water washing his legs. He’s numb from the waist down until he tries to pull away from the cold. Then, pain stabs him like a lance, starting below his left knee and lodging under the top of his skull.
He raises himself on one elbow and the cobbles roll beneath him. There is an extra joint below his knee. He knows the leg is broken, maybe the tibia and fibula both. And the tide keeps coming.
A voice in his head: move or you die.
The voice sets his body in motion. He digs into the cobbles, elbows, and hands, the heel of his uninjured foot, pushing himself backward. The broken leg stretches and pain surges through him. The cobbles grind and roll, fighting him. Inhuman noises rise in his throat, pushing past his clenched teeth.
He makes it ten feet clear of the incoming tide before the pain stops him. His vision blurs, and he fights to maintain consciousness.
Stay awake, stupid. You’re better than this. Assess the situation. It’s ten miles to Rialto Beach. Ten more to the Lake Ozette trailhead. A Tuesday, and late in the season. You haven’t seen a soul all day and the tide is coming in.
You’ve fucked yourself this time.
What was it David always said? When there’s no hope, grab your smokes and start crawling. Wish that scrawny bastard was here right now.
He tries again, dragging himself up the shingle. Then the heel of his broken leg catches on a rock and pulls straight. His head bangs a cobble as blackness takes him.
The world is sideways when he opens his eyes. Sky fills his left eye, and the beach fills his right. His ear is pressed to a cobble. A vast clicking rattles through his brain. The myriad creatures that live beneath the shingle are calling to him in a mysterious language he cannot comprehend.
He smells the puddle of bile before he sees it. Strings of foul stuff drip from his mouth. He spits the vomit away and rolls his head to look up at the empty sky. Short-billed gulls glide past. He hears the keening of an osprey hunting the tide line.
Again, try again. Make it to the sand and you might have a chance.
It goes on forever. Electric pain stabs up from his leg. His breath rasps in his throat. Somehow, he forces his body to keep working.
Then his elbows sink into the soft sand. Three more grunting shoves and he is clear of the shingle. He collapses into the embrace of the beach.
Rest now. This isn’t over.
Another voice, soft and deadly. You could just lie here. The sand is soft. It would be like going to sleep in a warm bed.
Anger courses through him then, the anger that he needs. Give up now and the ravens will take your eyes before full dark. You’re not ready for that, are you?
Overhead he sees the contrail of a jet winging in over the Pacific. Probably heading into SeaTac. Maybe his son is onboard. It’s possible. Doesn’t know where his kid is, so he could be coming from anywhere. From Korea maybe, or Japan. Wherever his mom wandered off to.
He doesn’t deserve to die like this, not before seeing his son again. Sure, he wasn’t the best husband, but she then wasn’t the perfect wife. Not even close. But when it came to the boy, he tried harder than he ever had in his life. Not a perfect dad, but as close as he could be. Then she took the boy.
That’s what brought on the summer of climbing dangerously. Every weekend another nameless spire deep in the Cascades. He stopped telling anyone where he was going, stopped caring if he ever came out again. Survived all of it, every stupid chance he took. And now a barely vertical sea stack has killed him.
No, you’re not ready to die yet. Not while there’s a chance.
He lifts his head. The sun is westering over the Pacific. The breeze carries a chill. North and south, rocky headlands jut into the surf, sealing the beach from the outside and any chance of help. An impenetrable wall of temperate rainforest rises at his back.
This is his world, a narrow two-mile stretch of sand and cobbles. The tent is a long half-mile crawl to the north. He spots it through the salt haze, red nylon glowing in the slanting sun.
Get to the tent, wrap up in your bag, you’ve got a chance. You stay here, hypothermia takes you and that’s the end. Your choice.
The man digs in with his elbows, his hands, with his good leg. He moves and the sand furrows around his body, fighting him, holding him back. He groans at the pain, struggles to control his ragged breathing.
C’mon, you can do this. Dig and push. Dig and push again. Keep pushing until you get there.
Minute by agonizing minute, he disappears up the beach. A drag trail marks his slow progress. The trail grows longer as the man grows smaller, a bit smaller with each tortured thrust of his broken body.
The strange gouges in the sand will baffle the next backpacker who clambers between the headlands when the tide is low. They will wonder what creature made the trail and they will follow it into the salt haze.