From the Land of Genesis: Part III

“From the Land of Genesis: Part III”
Stephen O’Shea

Ryan could hear his wife breathing beside him. He’d spent the afternoon in downtown Colorado Springs, and now he was struggling to fall sleep. He often struggled to sleep, but on this night he didn’t even try. Instead, he waited for his wife to fall asleep so that when he peeled back the covers to leave, she wouldn’t wake up.

On sleepless nights, Ryan would usually work in the garage. He’d work on his ‘98 Ford until he got tired or until morning came, and when he set down his tools he would do so carefully, so that the metal did not cling against the concrete. His torque wrenches were the hardest because they were pure metal and had no rubber handles. Whenever he used a torque wrench, he would grab a towel from the kitchen and set it on the concrete to put the wrenches on. That way he wouldn’t have to worry about waking up Carly.

But Ryan no longer had a car to work on because he had sold his old Ford a few months ago to buy a new F-150. It was a 2014 model and didn’t need as much work as the ’98. Since he had just cleaned it yesterday, Ryan had nothing to do but lift the garage door and, as quietly as he could, drive out of their cul-de-sac home.

Theirs was a nice house in a neighborhood of nice houses. Ryan had been promoted to manager at the mechanic shop several years ago, and after he began dating Carly—who he met clerking for a downtown towing company—he started saving money to place a down payment on a house. This past year, there had been talk between Ryan and Jim, the shop owner, about opening a second location; Carly’s Christmas bonus had been double what it was the year before; and, as the market in Colorado Springs grew, the value of their house rose. They had appraised it four months before and found it worth about thirty-percent more than they had bought it for.

With all of this adding up, Carly decided that Ryan should buy a 2014 F-150. She was secretly embarrassed riding in Ryan’s old ’98 Ford, and she thought that a new truck might pull Ryan out of the garage and into the house more. The new car had leather seats and an automatic transmission that hummed as he drove out of town. Its air-conditioning could hold comfortable temperatures and the V8 engine was enough to press him against the back of his seat whenever he accelerated onto a highway ramp. He was accelerating onto I-25 just now, heading north, and because he hadn’t slept for two nights and was slightly delirious he didn’t think much about where he was going until he reached the outskirts of Denver.

Ryan went driving only to calm his nerves, but he had a half-tank of gas and scenes from the recruitment office were still running through his head. There were mountains were to the left and empty plains to the right, so Ryan cut west onto 470 away from downtown.

He’d always liked the mountains. When Ryan was a boy, a truck came to their house in Dallas and unloaded a bed of bricks for their garden onto the driveway. They piled into a heap and, to Ryan—who’d grown up in the Panhandle—this was as close to a mountain as he’d seen, so he climbed it. When his parents told the story, they said that he was naked and that he cut himself on the way down. They also said that he pushed his younger brother off when he tried to follow. Ryan didn’t remember this, but he’d laugh when they told it. He’d also laugh when they told the story of him biting Kevin on the back. Kevin had finished his first puzzle and everyone was clapping and so Ryan bit him. “Jealous of the attention,” they used to say, and Ryan would laugh because it was funny but also because he felt bad.

Ryan was skirting Denver when he got the urge to call his brother. He wanted to ask him about his work and to laugh about the old times. It was nearly midnight in Dallas, but Ryan suspected that his brother would be at work. He didn’t know exactly what kind of work Kevin did, but he knew that the law firm he worked for in Dallas was famous and dealt with corporations.

Ryan scrolled through his phone and used his Bluetooth device to call Kevin. He heard the ringing around him as he drove with his hands on the steering wheel. The phone rang four times and then it went to voicemail. “Hello, you’ve reached Kevin McDermott, attorney at law. I’m unable—”Ryan hung up the phone and called again. This time it rang twice before the answering machine picked up. “He’s probably trying to sleep,” Ryan thought, and as the recording rolled he tried to think up a message to leave. “Hey little brother,” he wanted to say. “Just calling to check up on you.” But it sounded weird in his head because he hadn’t called to check up on his brother maybe ever, and the last time they had talked, Kevin had asked the “checking-up” questions. Then Ryan remembered that he hadn’t called his brother since he heard that Kevin was to be made partner. His mother had told him over the phone, and while Ryan had meant to call and congratulate his brother, he had forgotten and never did.

The Bluetooth bleeped off and as the silence set in Ryan saw that he was passing through Boulder, Colorado. The drive became steep after the university, winding in a series of switchbacks up the mountainside. It was dark, but the moon was out and Ryan could see the glow of Denver and the barren line of the plains beyond. Snow on the road was being wisped by the wind, and as Ryan climbed higher he started worrying about ice, but it was the end of May and the snowplows would’ve been through for Memorial Day.

By the time Ryan reached Estes Park he could feel the altitude. He had lived in Colorado for fifteen years, now, but the mountain air still felt thin. He had to take deep breaths to get oxygen into his chest, all while he sat without moving in his truck. The strain reminded him of a time that he hyperventilated during a snowball fight with his brother. Afterward, his father had placed a plastic bag around his head to steady his breathing.

Ryan pulled into the Beaver Meadows entrance at Rocky Mountain National Park a half-hour later. There were five kiosks at this entrance, but only one of them was open at 3am on a Wednesday. When Ryan rolled down the window, he felt how much colder it was. The Park Ranger took Ryan’s pass and held it close to his face.

“What brings you out, this time’a night?”
The ranger was friendly. When he smiled, the skin around his eyes pulled back and crinkles formed along the corner of his face.
“Stargazing,” said Ryan. They both knew this wasn’t true, but it didn’t matter.
“Couldn’t get away for Memorial Day?” said the ranger. Ryan held his gaze. “Moon’ll set in a few hours. You might catch a few constellations ‘fore dawn, but it’s not the best fer visibility tonight.”

The man’s face was tan and weathered. His skin scrunched together, measuring Ryan up as he glanced into the bed of his truck. It was a new truck and the bed was clean. When he looked back to Ryan, he raised the gate.

“Trail Ridge Road is open,” he said, handing over the pass. “Just be careful drivin it. Sure to be icy this time a’night.”

The ranger was right. There were several patches of ice along the road, and Ryan had to drive slowly to avoid fishtailing. Walls of snow lined both sides of the road except along the switchbacks, where the edge was sharp and exposed and carved its way into the mountain. After each of these, Ryan would rev his engine to get the truck moving again. It was a heavy truck, with a V8 engine that rumbled every time he accelerated out of a turnout.

Ryan knew there were beautiful views at each of these turnouts, but even with the moon he couldn’t see beyond the glare of his headlights. They reflected back at him and kept his eyes dilated so that at one point he became frustrated and pulled into a scenic turnout. He idled for a moment and turned off his headlights. Then he stepped out of the truck. The cold was enough that he could see it coming out of his mouth. There was no wind, so the steam collecting in the air with each breath. After his eyes adjusted, he could see the mountains outlined by moonlight, the pavement glow behind him.

He got back into his truck and drove for a while with the lights off. He could see the snow and the road clear enough in the moonlight, but before he could reach another switchback, he switched the lights back on. “Can’t be doing that,” he heard himself say. “You’re too old for that, now.”

When he turned the lights back on, he noticed the fuel gauge on his dashboard. The needle hung just below the letter “E.” Ryan flicked the glass with his finger. When he’d hit Denver just a hundred miles back, it had read a half tank. But it was a new truck and Ryan had not anticipated how his new V8 engine would cope with the steepening slope of the mountains.

He’d also no way of knowing how far he had driven down Trail Ridge Road. His phone had no service and there were no mile-markers above the snow to mark the nearest park exit. Ryan decided that he would instead drive into the next campsite and find a park ranger. But as he drove with his foot lightly on the pedal, he began to realize that he might not make it to the next campground.

When his truck finally stuttered to a stop, Ryan was on a slope with very narrow lanes, but he managed to coast to the crest of a short hill. Going with his foot on the brake and both hands gripping the steering wheel, Ryan guided the car toward a switchback at the bottom of the slope. It was hard to control the truck with the engine off. Ryan had to wedge his back against the seat and push his whole weight against the brake for the wheels to slow. Then he tucked the car into a small turnoff where it would be safe from traffic and falling rocks.

Ryan still had no service on his phone, but he knew that if he found a ranger soon and got some gas into his truck, he might be able to get home before Carly woke up. Or else he could drive to an area with reception and call so that she wouldn’t be worried sick. He could even make it to work on time, and go on pretending like he’d never gone into that recruiting office the day before.

But he didn’t go looking for a campsite to find a ranger. He didn’t even get out of his car. He sat there in his seat until the warmth was gone and the battery died, and when he noticed the trailhead sign before him it was already four in the morning. It was the cold that finally pushed him out of his car. The snow beneath his sneakers broke as he stepped out. In his backseat was a jacket that said Jim’s Motor Repair. It had oil stains on the sleeves, but Ryan put it over his coat as an extra layer. Then he put on his boots and a pair of work gloves and walked over to the trailhead sign.

The sign was a triangular slate on a wooden post. Ryan pointed an LED keychain light at it, but the lettering was so worn that he couldn’t make out anything except for a ponderosa pine, and below a word that might’ve read “Campground.” Ryan zipped up his jacket. He would hike the trail to the campground and find the park ranger, there. He imagined himself hiking through the woods in the mountains, and driving home to the sunrise. He walked for a long time. His feet moved beneath him, and his breath came out in stuttered spurts from the altitude. Mountains shimmered in the moonlight and a river trickled somewhere far away.

Ryan had enlisted over a decade ago because he wanted to fight in Afghanistan. “Kabul,” his recruiter told him. “If you go anywhere, you’ll go to Kabul.” He told Ryan about Kabul. He told Ryan that it was a city surrounded by mountains, that it was higher in elevation than Denver and that it wasn’t hot there like people thought it was. He told Ryan about the food and the culture and the vibrant colored robes that the women wore, and he told Ryan about how the people would view him, an American soldier. He told Ryan that he would be their liberator. This gave Ryan an image of himself as a field soldier. This image was shattered the night that George W. Bush appeared on live television and told the world that there were Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. Two months later, Ryan was driving a truck in the desert to invade Baghdad.

It took two hours for Ryan to find a sign that read “Colorado River Trail.” By that time he was thirsty and faint from the walking. He’d reached the ruins of an old ghost town and knew now that the trail would not lead to any campgrounds or park rangers, but he wasn’t concerned about reaching home in time for work anymore. Ryan had forgotten to pack any water.

It took a long time for the thirst to kick in. Cold and exhaustion kept his mind distracted, and when he’d left his home in Colorado Springs six hours before, he hadn’t even thought to bring it. Now the river was a taunting trickle in the darkness and Ryan’s throat hurt.

Ruined foundations from an old ghost town scattered the field before him. A post in the middle read “Lulu City,” and beyond that was a riverside beach where the water became wide and shallow. A stream trickled over stones, pushing against the pebbly shore. Ryan’s boots were waterproof, but he was tired and thirsty and not thinking of the cold, so he underestimated the river’s depth. When he took a step in, the river came past his ankle. It flooded his boots and soaked his socks. Ryan didn’t notice this until after he’d scooped the water with his hands and drank from it. Then his hands and his lips and his feet were cold. He kept drinking until he felt the cold inside of him, and even though he was thirsty he stopped drinking because now he was shivering.

Ryan took a few steps back and sat down on the shore. He stayed like that, hugging his knees to fight the convulsions of his body, but the cold was in his gut and in his lungs and the rocks beneath him were cold. There was another hour before sunrise, and several more before the air would become warm. He had no food or gas. He wasn’t even sure anymore if he knew which direction his car was. Breathing became difficult and his vision blurred. Above him the night was pale and the stars became a shower of mortar. The screeching of it fell down and Ryan began to gasp.

He was running for a bunker, his heart shuddering with every concussion. There was an explosion and he was on his back, panting for air but there was nothing to breath. He felt a pain in his side and thought he might be hit, that his lung had collapsed. Ryan’s vision cut out. There was a man carrying firewood. Trees fell and Ryan shaking, curled up on the rocks. His chest was moving too fast. A man leaned over him, young but weathered. The desert around them seared with heat from the blast.

***
When Ryan woke up, he was lying on the ground before a fire. There was dirt in his hair and on his lips. His elbow throbbed and he could tell that he had been dropped there. His eyes adjusted past the glare to find that they were inside a kind of ruined log-cabin. Behind Ryan the wall was two or three logs high. The other side had no walls. There was a fire, a tent, and a man. The man was young and he was preparing a kettle. Ryan could smell coffee.

“You hyperventilated,” said the man.
Ryan tried to sit but his head was ringing. “Jesus,” he said.
The man placed a flimsy grill over the fire, pinning its legs in the dirt. “The altitude, probably. But you were almost hypothermic.”

He had a strong voice and facial hair, but the hair at his cheek was longer than on his chin and the hair on his head was matted down. He wore jeans that had patches at the knee, and his coat had fur on the inside.

Beside Ryan were his boots, drying by the fire. His socks had been draped across them and his feet were bare. His work jacket, which had been across him like a blanket, was beginning to slip from his shoulders.

“How long was I out?” said Ryan.
“Fifteen minutes. Not long.”
Ryan felt his toes. They were still cold. “You carried me here, made a fire—”
“I was already making a fire.”
Ryan watched him place the kettle onto his makeshift grill.
“That’s how I found you,” he said. “I was gathering wood for the fire.”
“Oh,” said Ryan.

The younger man poked at the fire with a stick and glowing flakes shot up. Above them, the night peeled back a violet haze. To the east was a line of orange, broken by the ridgeline. Carly would be awake, soon.

“You’re a veteran,” said the man.
Ryan nodded. “How’d you know?”
“Your driver’s license.” Ryan reached for his wallet and the man said, “I didn’t take your money.”

Ryan’s hand fell back to his side. He looked at the young man across from him. His boots were Army. There was a bayonet looped onto his belt, as well. An army combat knife.

“Iraq,” said Ryan. “The invasion. You?”
“Afghanistan.”
Ryan nodded. He wanted to ask when, but he supposed it would’ve been recent. He looked about mid-twenties in the firelight.
“What’s your name?” Ryan asked.
“Doesn’t matter.”
“No, I suppose it doesn’t,” he said. “But it’s something to call you. Something besides ‘Kid.’”
“Mark.”
Ryan nodded. “Okay,” he said. “I’m Ryan.”

The coffee percolated and Mark used a rag to grab its handle. “I only have one mug,” he said. He poured half of the coffee into his mug and the rest into a bowl. He handed the bowl to Ryan. He didn’t apologize or offer him the cup. Instead, he moved with his mug and sat down across from Ryan. The hairs of Mark’s moustache grated against the cup when he sipped.

“I don’t suppose you have any sugar,” said Ryan, pulling his legs beneath him. His body was stiff and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d sat cross-legged.

Mark didn’t answer. Instead he said, “You’re from Colorado Springs. Hiking up here in the middle of the night.”
“I was driving. Ran out of gas a few miles back.”
“Driving here, in the middle of the night?”
“I couldn’t sleep.”

Mark pulled out a pan out from his backpack. It was dirty and charred on the bottom. He placed it over the grill and pulled out a plastic Tupperware container. He used his combat knife to carve a glob of grease. It sizzled when it hit the pan.

“Not a lot of people drive through the mountains when they’re trying to fall asleep.”
“That’s true,” said Ryan. He stared into the brown murk of his coffee, let the warmth of it wash over him. “I went to a recruitment office, yesterday.”
Mark’s face tightened. “What the fuck’d you do that for?”

Ryan was silent. The answer now was the same it had been two days earlier, at a Memorial Day barbeque: it was because Terry, their gunner, had slumped to the floor of their Humvee with a bullet through his neck, but it was also because of the smoke circles, early mornings in the chow hall and afternoons at the motor pool. Ryan thought about New Years, when Marty snuck a case of Bud onto base and spewed all over his boots after his third can. The four of them had sat in the dirt afterward, already drunk when the flare went up. All of Iraq turned red for five, maybe ten seconds. Ryan thought about that flare and how simple the world had been then, but that story was too hard to tell so when he looked at Mark he said, “Near the end of our tour, we got stationed at an outpost on the road to Basra. It was a pile of rocks, really. Hesco walls, tents for sleeping. In the morning I’d wake up to the sunrise and make coffee with my sergeant over a fire.” Ryan watched the flames as he spoke. “I guess you just miss it, sometimes.”

Mark tightened his face. He was cracking a pair of eggs over the fire and he had to lift the pan off of the grill when the grease popped.

“You think that,” said Ryan, the bowl of coffee steaming over him. “But wait until you have a nine-to-five.”
“Fuck that. I don’t need a desk job and I ain’t going back to that shithole.”
“I said the same, ten years ago.”

Mark was breaking the yolk with his spatula on the pan. “Yeah,” he said. “But you went to Iraq. You were part of the invasion.” Mark said this like it was a privilege. “Take it from me. There ain’t nothin left in that place worth fighting for.”

Ryan thought about this. The coffee in his bowl was cool enough to sip now, but he held it before his face without drinking. “I guess it doesn’t matter,” he said. “The recruiter from the other day, the one at the office after Memorial Day, he said that it was their busiest time of the year.” Ryan looked up. “That he’d already met his quota. That I was too old.”

The spatula halted and, for a moment, Mark held it above the pan in perfect stillness.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Kabul,” said Ryan. “But it doesn’t matter. Iraq, Afghanistan. Maybe I was lucky.”

Mark looked like he might say something, like it was on the tip of his tongue if he could only find the words. Then he shook his head and said, “Fuck it.” He turned back to his food. “There ain’t nothin back there for me.”

Mark took the pan off the fire and put it on the ground. He used the spatula to pick up an egg and balanced it there with the steam coming off of it.

They sat in silence for a while. Ryan sipped from his bowl. The coffee was bitter and burnt, but the warmth and the smell of it gave him chills. It felt odd that just moments before he had hyperventilated and might’ve become hypothermic. The thought was uncomfortable, so he looked across at Mark and said, “What about you. What’re you running from?”

Ryan gestured to the ruins around them. Etched into one of the logs was the phrase, “Fuck the police,” and half-buried next to him was a crushed can of Coca-Cola.

“Running?” said Mark. “Who said I was running?” Ryan didn’t reply, and Mark shook his head. “I ain’t running, man.”
“Okay,” said Ryan. “So why are you here.”
Mark laughed. “That’s a long story.”
Ryan opened his arms. “Well,” he said. “Nobody’s making you tell it. But I’m in no rush to get back to my truck.”

Mark sighed. “Sure, but it’s not like I’m gonna walk there with you.” He said this and then flinched. “Look, I’ve been roadtripping for a few months, now—working and camping to save money—but I ran out of cash after Yellowstone and had to sell my car. I hitchhiked from Salt Lake to here and now I’m gonna take the Colorado down to Mexico.” He glanced at the river where he’d found Ryan. “All of the way to Baja California.”

“That right?” said Ryan, smiling.

“Sure, that’s right.”
“You’re gonna hike to Mexico.”
“I’ll raft it once the river gets deep ‘nough. Fish for food, camp the riverbanks. Not like I’m the first to do it.”
“And the Grand Canyon?” said Ryan. “The Hoover Dam. What’re you gonna do there?”
“Keep goin, I reckon.”

Ryan laughed. He liked Mark. He liked Mark and he liked his spirit. He made Ryan think about his own plans for after the war. This made him quiet, but after a while the smell of fried egg taunted his stomach and he had to ask Mark for a bite. Mark gave him the second egg whole. It was still in the pan and he had no utensils, so Ryan had to wait for it to cool so that he could eat it with his fingers.

“I’m just a few miles down the trail,” said Ryan. “Let’s get me some gas and then I can take you into town. Get you some gear. I’ll drive you all of the way to Grand Junction, if you like.”
Mark took a bite of his egg from the spatula. He had to breathe in and out to cool the egg. “Nah,” he said. “That’d defeat the point.”
Ryan was surprised. He wanted to ask Mark what the point was—he wanted to repay him—but Mark was busy eating and Ryan’s own egg was steaming in the pan before him.
“What about you,” said Mark. “What’re you gonna do now that you can’t enlist?”

Ryan shrugged. He knew the answer was to go home, to open up a second repair shop and start a family. But he couldn’t say that. Not here. Not eating eggs with his bare hands and the mountains all around them. “Montana,” he said.
“That right?”

Ryan pinched the egg with his fingers. It was dirty from the grease in the pan, and the yoke wasn’t fully cooked. “Upper Rockies,” he said, biting it at the edge. “Cabin in the woods. Maybe I’ll do some mechanical work on the side. You know, small-time stuff for the locals.” He said this, and after he said it he could see himself there. The vision was so real, it was like he could pull it out of the earth and hold it there with the grease in his hands.

Above them the sky was white. A curtain of dawn had pulled back the violet sky and now the sun was about to breach the mountains. It would’ve risen on the other side of that ridgeline long ago, and as Ryan waited for it to come he thought of how it would’ve been morning in the north, in Montana, an hour before. It’d be high above the Atlantic, now—and in Europe, as well—and a few hours from setting in Iraq. Ryan thought about how the sun set in the States at the same time it rose in Iraq. “The Land of Genesis,” he said out loud. He pulled his knees up and felt the dirt on his feet. His toes ground together with the sand between them, digging into the earth. He took another bite of his egg. The yolk broke from its core and dribbled down his chin, onto the pan.

Issue number: 
1.1
Author biography: 

Stephen O’Shea is a Texan author finishing a PhD in creative writing at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. His current project is a collection of short stories based upon the narratives of combat veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He's been published by American and Scottish literary magazines, earned honorable mention in Glimmer Train's Short Story Award for New Writers, was awarded runner-up to Moniack Mhor's "New Author" award, and recently received The Gillian Purvis Award for New Writing. Stephen also teaches first and second year creative writing workshops at the University of Strathclyde.