They walk across the field in silence, their shirts damp in the late afternoon sun. The dried stalks of the tall grass scratch their bare legs and snap under their boots. Her stride is naturally longer than his, but she matches her pace.
“It’s hot out here,” he says.
“Not as bad as it was last month.”
At the edge of the field, a faded trail marker painted on the trunk of an oak points the way. It is shady and cool under the canopy that is finally beginning to thin, exhausted by the long-extended summer.
The footpath is well-used and packed hard.
“Let’s stop here for a minute and cool down,” he says. He slips his pack off and sits down at the base of the tree with the trail marker. He takes off his baseball cap and runs his fingers through his hair, trying to cool his head.
“Hey, let me do that,” she says. She kneels before him and slides her fingers through his hair. “Especially now that it’s finally growing out.”
“And this is my job,” he says. He takes her flushed cheeks in his hands and draws her near as he leans forward and kisses her lips. “Have you got any food left?”
She laughs and says, “Let me see.” She pulls off her pack, sets it down in front of her, and opens the top flap. “I have two yogurts and an apple.”
“Are either of the yogurts strawberry or peach?”
“Sorry, just two raspberries.”
“Can I have the apple then?”
“Sure. I guess I know what not to get next time.” She closes the pack and slides up next to him against the tree. “You don’t like yogurt?”
“I had some for lunch,” he says
“Yes, but do you like it?”
“It’s hard to tell with you sometimes,” she says. She peels the top off a yogurt container. “You’re too polite.”
He opens his pack and pulls out a plastic water bottle and hands it to her. They eat in silence for a few minutes, taking turns sipping the water.
“How much longer will this last?” he asks.
“What do you mean?” she says. Her forehead wrinkles and she looks at him earnestly.
“The summer,” he says quickly.
“Oh. Usually, by this time, the leaves have begun to turn.” She scrapes the last bits of raspberry yogurt out of the container and runs the plastic spoon over her tongue. “I thought you were talking about the war.”
“Let’s leave that alone for today,” he says.
She pulls out a plastic bag, puts the empty container and spoon in it and then drops them back into her pack. She leans back and slides closer to him. “Do you mind?” she says.
“I’m pretty sweaty,” he says. He tosses his apple core across the trail into the brush.
“I don’t mind. As long as you’re back in one piece.”
“More or less,” he says. “We should probably get going,” he says. “We won’t get back before dark.” He smiles. “We took too long for lunch.”
“Next time, we’ll just eat.”
He turns and kneels in front of her and kisses her. “Even better,” she says.
They climb up the low rise in the shade and then follow the trail down the other side. Their feet slide in the damp, loosely packed earth and carefully step over exposed roots. At the bottom, they reach the stream. The break in the trees lets the sun reach down to the water, and it shimmers in silver and gold. The stream is running low and it takes only two steps to cross. Along the sides of the trickle, where the water ran in spring, the mud has turned rock-hard from baking in the sun all summer. He cautiously steps across and then holds her as she quickly skips from rock to rock.
On the other side, they begin the final uphill climb to the overlook. The trail winds back and forth up the hill. The air is filled with the scent of the pines, and the bed of dried pine needles is soft under their feet. There are sections of the trail that pass over large outcrops of granite. As they get higher, the trees are farther apart, and soon they are in the sun again. They stop several times to sip some water. She pulls off her dark blue New York baseball cap and wipes her brow with her sleeve and then carefully puts it back on her head with the peak always facing forward.
The sun is low when they finally reach the top. They walk across the rocky plateau. There are a few scattered fir trees here, struggling to survive with their roots fighting the rock, and their crowns battling the weather.
As they approach the edge, the river comes into view. It winds through the forest below them from the north. It takes a sharp turn to the west, almost reversing itself, and then turns back to the east and resumes its way south. A two-lane highway follows on the eastern bank, passes into some trees when the river turns away and re-emerges from the forest when the river turns back and rejoins it.
“When are you leaving?” he asks.
“My unit reports the day after tomorrow,” she says.
“Do you want me to drive you?”
“No,” she says. “You don’t need to go anymore. My brother will take me. It’s better if you stay here.”
They sit together at the edge of the cliff, watching the red sun touching the tops of the mountains in Pennsylvania. His arm is around her, and her head leans on his shoulder. Her hand rests hopefully on her flat stomach. In the stillness, they can hear the faint sound of a distant, unseen, airliner, and the whine of a tractor-trailer pulling south along the river. They hold on to what’s left of September.
© Fred Bubbers
Fred Bubbers’ short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Cantaraville, The Loch Raven Review, The Oregon Literary Review, Static Movement, Green Silk Journal, Word Riot, The Angler, and Seeker Magazine. He received his B.A. in English from The State University of New York at Albany in 1982 and holds a Masters of Fine Arts in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.