On a warm, sunny day in August, with thrushes singing sweetly overhead, Alex Dawes was running a trap-line. They weren't ordinary traps, and he was hoping to find them all empty.
Alex was of medium height and solid build, with unruly blonde hair that he tried to keep subdued under a battered leather hat. The patches on his shirt, which identified him as an employee of the Forest Service, were stiff and they annoyed him as he hiked along the perimeter of one of his research grids. The Service always gave him new shirts just when the old ones had gotten comfortable. He wore gaiters and a small backpack and carried a walking-stick that he had found on an abandoned beaver dam. The beavers had already done most of the work, and all the stick had needed was a metal tip to keep it from splitting.
His new assignment was better, by far, than his previous one, which had sent him scampering up creeks and down riverbanks in search of an invasive species known as Giant Hogweed. These plants loosely resembled fifteen-foot-tall Queen Anne's Lace, and their sap could cause painful burns by making the skin hypersensitive to ultraviolet light. Unfortunately, that was one search in which he hadn't come up empty-handed.
The next trap on his list came into view as he emerged from a thicket of mountain laurel. The purple, three-sided "sticky traps" measured about two feet long and a foot wide and contained a chemical lure made from walnut extract and manuka tree oil. They were designed to catch Emerald Ash Borer beetles, which were native to Asia. The beetles were small and difficult to detect, and the tiny invaders were beginning to spread across the state at an alarming rate.
Like the others, this trap was hung out of reach of inquisitive animals and nosy people. He untied the end of the twine and lowered the trap so he could inspect it. There were several unfortunate insects inside, but no beetles. The grid appeared to be free of the pests so far.
After returning the trap to its position in the tree, Alex took a pad out of his pocket and made a note. Then he sat on his folded-up jacket and had lunch. When he finished his meal, he leaned back against the tree and allowed his thoughts to drift. Inevitably, they drifted to his birthday, which was a couple of weeks away. It wasn't just his birthday, but his brother's as well; they had been born on the same day, two years apart.
Michael was the older of the pair. He had started his own band, Poison My Control, in high school, and the day after graduation he and his band mates had moved into a crappy little apartment in Pittsburgh so they could be "close to the action."
Following a different path, Alex had gone to college. Biology and ecology were his specialties, and they enabled him to work where he already played: the great outdoors. He lived in a heavily wooded area, about 25 miles west of Pittsburgh, in a small, one-story house that was almost hidden in a grove of black birch. For Alex, city life was simply not an option.
The brothers had made a pact, before going their separate ways, that they would always spend their birthday together. That day was now the only point at which their lives intersected, except for brief phone calls during which Michael usually asked for money. Sometimes it was enough to make Alex wonder which one of them was really the "kid brother."
They took turns visiting each other. Last year, Alex had gone to Pittsburgh to stay with Michael for a couple of days, at the house his brother had recently bought at a tax sale. The sheer mass of all the concrete that surrounded him when he was in the city oppressed his soul, but he was able to endure it, just as he had at college. With good humor he even allowed himself to be cast in the role of the "hick poet" who provided endless amusement for Michael's friends. Against all odds, some of them wound up being Alex's friends, too.
Shivering at the memory of the traffic and the noise, he dug a spiral-bound notebook out of his pack. Alex never went anywhere without one of his notebooks, and many of them were so old they had started to fall apart. They contained poems that he had painstakingly copied from a variety of sources, and they covered a wide range of subjects and moods. Those poems had seen him through some pretty rough times in his life. He turned to a section in the back and found the one he had been thinking of: "Arms Of The Beloved." With his brother in mind, he recited the little poem like a prayer:
Whichever way you, drunken, totter and fall,
on your meandering way Home.
Have no fear, you always land
in the arms of the Beloved.
Unfortunately, when applied to Michael, those four lines were dragged from their highest spiritual sense down to their most literal meaning. Alex knew full well how his "big bro" spent his weekends (and much of the rest of the week), and Michael had, at times, tested his patience to its limits.
No matter which way his brother tottered, however, Alex was always there to catch him.
The day before his brother arrived for their birthday, Alex drove out to Hillman State Park, which was about twenty miles from his house. It was one of his favorite places to hike and ride his bike.
The Park had recently expanded, and its new section had been turned into a campground. Alex had taken a stroll through the new area while it was still closed to the public, and he had picked out his favorite site. Since he knew a couple of the people who worked in the office, he was always able to get a reservation.
He didn't see any other people around as he threaded his way through the maze of campsites. It was a Tuesday, and he had the whole place to himself. After backing into the parking slot, he took all his gear out of the truck. It was an old blue Chevy, and he kept it shined up and in good repair; he refused to sell it even though he'd had plenty of decent offers.
Since there was rain in the forecast, he set the tent up first. He tossed the sleeping bags, pads, and a couple of old pillows into the tent. Then he put the camp stove under the fly next to a box that held pans, silverware, a radio, and other odds and ends.
The next order of business was to cut some wood for a fire. Campers were encouraged not to bring any firewood with them from out of the area, because the Emerald Ash Borers could hitch-hike on it and infest new parts of the forest. Alex always traveled with a cutting permit; his home was heated with wood, and he never waited until the last minute to lay in a supply for the winter. He also thought a fire was more satisfying if he had done the labor himself. On the way in, he had spotted a tree that had fallen near one of the bike paths. He drove back to the path and soon had a good supply of wood for the next two evenings. After stacking it behind the tent, he threw a tarp over it to keep it dry.
With all essential activity out of the way, he took a beer out of his cooler, sat in a folding chair, and took in the scenery. The site he had chosen was near the top of a ridge. It overlooked a broad, shallow valley that had a little creek at the bottom. Clouds were building in the west; and the heavy air, which obscured the horizon, promised rain. If there was a storm, the ridge would be a good place to watch the lightning from.
Two beers put him in the mood for a poem, so he got out his notebook and found one, "Be As The Sky", that he could meditate on while watching the approaching storm:
be as the sky
let the clouds come
let the clouds go
be as the sky
giving to all
be as the sky
be as the sky
be as the sky
Nature imagery always appealed to Alex, especially when he was surrounded by actual nature -- which was as often as possible. He closed his eyes and listened to the rustling leaves.
His reverie was interrupted by the sound of an approaching vehicle. It was Tyler's jeep, one of three vehicles that his friend owned.
Tyler was a stocky fellow with long, dark hair. His broad and deceptively placid face rarely gave any hint of the agile mind behind it. The two of them would often meet and talk about politics, philosophy, and anything else that took their fancy. The only thing that Tyler wouldn't discuss in any detail was his job; he was a professional hacker, and businesses paid him a lot of money to find all the holes in their computer systems and fix them.
Alex got a fire going, and they dragged the picnic table closer to it. The smoke helped to keep the bugs away.
"So, is Michael going to show up tomorrow?" Tyler asked as he piled slices of pizza on paper plates.
With a worried frown, Alex said, "He swore he would, but I'm starting to wonder. I called him last week, and he didn't sound too good. I think he forgot about our birthday."
Tyler shook his head. "He must be mixed up in some bad shit."
"He has been asking for a lot of money lately." Alex took a couple of beers out of the cooler and settled at one end of the table. "Supposedly, they're working on another album."
"What was their last one called?"
Alex smiled wryly. "Hello, My Name Is Spectator. It sold better than their first one, which wasn't hard to do." He lapsed into a thoughtful silence for a few moments, and then he said, "I think he spends too much time on the trappings and not enough on the music. You should see his house. Every room is full of occult and gothic and pseudo-Satanist stuff, and he has candles and mirrors all over the place. It almost looks like a set for a really bad movie."
Tyler stood a piece of wood on end and propped his feet on it. "Does he believe in any of it, or is it just window-dressing?"
"Well, he says the chicks really go for that sort of thing." Alex paused again, and stared into the fire. "The trinkets are mostly for show, but he's absorbed a lot of the attitude. One night I even caught him reading The Satanic Bible. At the time, he was embarrassed that I had seen it, but now he has zero shame about anything. And he's way too free with his money."
"Maybe you should stop sending him money," Tyler suggested, although he knew it was a lost cause.
"He'd just get it from somebody else," Alex said. "At least, if he gets it from me, maybe some scrap of guilt keeps him from squandering it as badly as he would otherwise."
Tyler looked him straight in the eye. "You're being an enabler."
"I know I am," Alex admitted, "but I just feel that I have to look after him. I couldn't cut him off, any more than I could cut my own hand off."
"Yeah, my sister can be a real pain, but I know what you mean," Tyler said sympathetically. "So he doesn't have anything approximating a girlfriend?"
Alex shook his head. "No, he goes through women faster than I go through pens, but he's been that way since high school. He stole a couple of girls from me, and he enjoyed it and went out of his way to do it. Can you believe he even called me his starter kit?"
Tyler almost inhaled an anchovy as he burst out laughing. "Starter kit! Man, that needs another beer!" He dug one out of the cooler and handed it to Alex.
They talked some more, and drank some more, and around midnight the storm that had been brewing all day finally arrived. The sudden downpour caught them by surprise, and they ran for the tent and dived into their sleeping bags. The two inebriated philosophers made a heroic attempt to keep their conversation going, but a few minutes later they dozed off to the sound of the rain drumming on the canvas.
Tyler left around seven the next morning. His task for the day was to patch up a certain stockbroker's trading programs, which had recently been tied up by a bored teenager from Harrisburg. It would be lucrative, if he could do it, and he rarely failed. He took two aspirin, wished Alex a happy birthday, and tore down the road in his jeep. He still has a heavy foot, Alex thought as he stared at the ruts the jeep had left in the muddy road.
The rain had stopped during the night, and the sun tentatively broke through the remaining clouds. Droplets of water fell from the leaves when the wind stirred them. Alex sat at the damp picnic table and had cold pizza for breakfast, followed by a mug of tea. Then he dug his radio out of the box and tuned it to one of the weather stations. The forecast was "sunny and highs in the seventies". It sounded like a perfect day for biking. The trails would be sloppy until the sun worked on them for a bit, so he sat and read a book while everything dried out.
Science fiction had appealed to him since he was a boy, and he loved to play with new ideas. The story he was reading was about a geologist who found an alien device in a coal mine and used it to bring prehistoric animals into the world. He tried to become lost in the plot, such as it was, but a question kept presenting itself in the back of his mind: Is Michael going to show up? His brother always called to let him know he was on his way, but Alex hadn't heard from him in over a week. He kept glancing at his watch and listening for the sound of Michael's car. It was a hideous green Mustang, and it was loud enough to scare all the wildlife right out of the park. Alex had never asked, but in his opinion it had to be a custom job; no sane automaker would paint a car that color unless it were already sold. It was Michael's pride and joy, so Alex kept his comments to himself. Mostly.
When he could no longer sit still, he went for a ride on his bike. The Park now spread over 4,000 acres, and it was crisscrossed by a maze of hiking and biking trails. He knew most of the trails by heart, and he proceeded to give himself a good workout.
A few more campers had begun to drift in. He stopped at each site to say hello and make sure that nobody had smuggled in firewood. Alex tended to make friends easily; with his gentle demeanor and boyish grin, it was difficult not to like him. He shared in their cookouts, dispensed advice about the area, and even allowed himself to be dragged into a game of Canasta.
His phone refused to ring, however, and by late afternoon he was getting worried. It was beginning to look as if Michael had finally discarded the last, tenuous link to the sibling he had once shared everything with. Alex tried two different phone numbers, but there was no answer at either one. Then it occurred to him that his brother might have turned his phone off and forgotten to turn it back on, which tended to happen when he was hung over. Patience was not one of Michael's virtues, and if he was waiting at the camp . . .
Alex rode back to see if he was there, but the truck was still parked by itself, and there were no fresh tracks. He sagged into his chair, exhausted from all his activity. Michael could be anywhere, and there was no way to reach him short of driving to all his haunts and hoping he would turn up. And Alex just wasn't in the mood for a wild goose chase all over the city. It was going to be the first birthday that he had spent without his brother.
Parched from all his riding, he made some tea and carried his mug over to a rock where he would have a good view of the sunset. A few minutes later, a flock of chickadees invaded his camp, looking for crumbs. The presence of the tiny, feathered acrobats cheered him up and turned his thoughts in a positive direction. After all, he'd had plenty of sunshine and fresh air and exercise, and he'd made some new friends. Now he had a front-row seat for the final show of the day. How much better could life get?
He climbed down off the rock and went to get his notebook out of his pack. Returning to his perch, he leafed through the notebook until he found a poem, "No Walls Here", that perfectly summed up his day:
Today I found myself walking
on the hands of God.
In God's hands,
there are no walls,
there are no borders,
there are no fences,
there are no boundaries.
Can you live like that?
Alex sipped his tea as he watched the sun go down. He couldn't live any other way.
To be continued ...