The Pragmatist by Sian Brighal

Fiction

Baxter had let them down, so Baxter got it. He got it in the head. A solid dry branch. I can still see the dry bark and dead wood exploding outwards like a fragmented halo: perhaps a tooth or two flashed red and white. While he gurgled and twitched, we emptied his pack and shared out the extra rations. We sit and somehow make a decision on where to go based on hints and veiled support: no one wants to be a Baxter. I almost laugh at the preposterous housekeeping as we stuff the empty food wrappers into our packs while ignoring basic funerary pleasantries.

Seven days out and this was survival. War? Disease? No, this is eight—excuse me—six of us, lost and walking through the forests of North America. A hiking trip gone wrong. Baxter was the second—well spotted. Maggie had been the first. Sad that, but she just wouldn’t calm down and be part of the group. At least we’d buried her…or perhaps just hid her. I’m not sure now.

The maps were wrong. That had sparked it off. Somehow, they just didn’t quite tally up with the actual geography. Resentment had crept in at the easy way we’d laughed off the guide. There were trails, and this was their backyard, dude! Getting lost happened to rookies…tourists. I’m the only tourist: a Brit hooking up with some locals. I’m keeping my mouth shut. I see them looking at me, like I’m some kind of bad luck charm.

The first two days had been awe inspiring, basking in the glory of the landscape, feeling the history. We’d all kind of paired up. Funnily enough, I’d ended up with Maggie. She’d been fun. It had been fun. Then the trail had petered out. That’s when it stopped being fun. Amazing how quickly relationships degrade when the chips are down.

Then came the reasoning, the attempt at logic. We couldn’t be far off the trail. Logic had helped for a few days: we’ll see it soon, just a few more hours. Two days of exhausting rationalising had been too much. Maggie had asked for it, really. And bonus! More rations for the rest of us. Odd, but I can’t remember feeling much else…other than the extra foil packets, cool and reassuringly solid, in my hand. It was so much more satisfying than soft hair and warm skin.

When Baxter had proven false, we’d been lost five days. I expect we’re doing okay under the circumstances: two dead in five days. Now he’s gone, we have more rations, and that’s good. They haven’t looked at me funny in a while now. I’m reassured more by the way Susanne is moaning; pretty soon, they’ll get tired of her. Twice, she’s complained about her pack, and her team mentality seems to be slipping. Maybe we should pair up for a bit; now Baxter’s gone, she’s alone.

Day six started off with a scream. Toby had gone for a piss. When he got back, he’d grabbed Michelle by an arm, dragging her out the tent they shared. A few nasty words were thrown around, before he disappeared back inside, chucking clothes out. I watch her shiver in her undies before gathering her things and storming off. Susanne seems to lap it up, as if humiliation were honey. I find it unappealing. When she asks Toby if he needs anything, he tells her to piss off. I idly wonder if her mouth would now taste of sour grapes.

Toby asked for more water. I can understand why he grimaced. Luckily, we have more than enough. Just means it’ll last longer, I guess. We die faster from thirst than hunger. Michelle sent her best wishes he’d suffer. I’ll speak with her later, when the anger morphs into that empty dread we’ve all been ignoring. Chloe and Fergus are still shagging their way through it: tiny, little deaths against the big one. I must admit, I find their enthusiasm a little wearing.

Dinner was rehydrated beef chilli and rice. Michelle overcame vegetarianism and joined me. Perhaps I should stick with Susanne after all; Toby’s been watching me. After dinner, I rinsed out my bowl and looked for Susanne. I needed a pick-me-up. Seems she didn’t like team-playing. Ants are already crawling over her; looks like she went through a month’s supply of Demerol. Well, it killed the pain. When I get back, I lie about knowing where she is; I don’t owe them anything. I hear the shouts later.

Eight days into our current dilemma, and in the pale pre-dawn light, I see Toby furtively striking camp. Michelle is silently stuffing the rutting pair’s rations into her rucksack. I can’t say I’m surprised. I’m left in a quandary. On reflection, I should have expected this. I decide to leave. Michelle and Toby are far more interesting.

Two days into our northerly trek, and Michelle has just sneaked into my tent. Toby’s discomfort has left him pained and vomiting in his sleeping bag. She said she just wants company…comfort as she presses close. Oddly, I oblige, just holding her, stroking the limp, dirty hair.

In the morning, we take Toby’s supplies. I think the infection has spread to his kidneys, based on the fever. He never drank enough. Michelle follows me. She doesn’t ask me where we’re going; I don’t think she cares. It’s better…just the two of us; maybe because it’s a choice between me and utter loneliness. I hadn’t planned this—me and Michelle—but ever the pragmatist, I’ll take it.

Ten days in and I’m done. I have Uni next week. According to my map—yeah, it added a delightful edge to it, knowing how close they were to the right trail—there’s a steep valley coming up…and accidents happen. Shame, really; the bite on her leg is festering and looks promising, but I just can’t hang around in the hopes. This group has been more fascinating than the others.

 

Biography
Sian Brighal currently lives in Germany with her family and is using the break in teaching to delve into flash fiction writing. She can be found on twitter under @sian_ink.

Image: Krill Nechmonya