Somewhere along the last seven hundred-plus miles, David forgot what it felt like to have an iPhone in his hand.
He’s in the washroom of a diner in a town in the middle of nowhere, pulling out his phone after eating an ambiguously date-like meal with a cute guy who can’t possibly be as into David as he seems, and none of this feels familiar. The phone has been with him the whole time, of course, just a dead brick of emotional support weighing down the bottom of his pack. Now it finally has charge and a signal and David isn’t even scrolling eBay. He’s making a phone call.
This trail really is changing him.
Stevie answers on the fourth ring. “Team Flannel headquarters, this is your captain speaking.”
“Okay, no, we’re not doing that.” David gestures at that out in front of him and trusts she’ll see it even though she can’t. “I know you think you’re very funny, but I only have fifteen minutes.”
“Only fifteen minutes?” There’s typing in the background, so Stevie is either working at the motel front desk or pretending to work at the motel front desk. David’s putting his money on the latter, but there was a time when he wouldn’t have even had to bet. “Are you being held hostage or something? Should I put Alexis on to give you her tips and tricks?”
“First of all, most of her tips and tricks involve calling me. And second of all, no, I’m not being held hostage. It’s just—There’s someone waiting for me.”
Now David’s glad she can’t see him, because he has to squeeze his eyes shut and tilt his head back against the wall (the wall of a public restroom, but it barely registers, that’s how disgusting he’s been for so long) and twist his mouth inward on itself to absorb the full impact of this statement. Patrick is waiting for him. Not just outside the restaurant where he said he’d be when David asked for fifteen minutes to make a phone call, but at the end of every stretch of the trail, at the end of every day since David lost his tent, for weeks now. Patrick’s been there waiting for him.
This is hardly the first time David has spent weeks with someone mostly during the non-daylight hours. He’s had entire relationships live and die between the hours of 2 and 5 am, but those people were never waiting for him. They expected him to show up every night, sure, often greeting him with a “Back again already,” or a “Look who can’t stay away” when he did. Patrick greets him with a grin or a kiss or a mug of something warm, some silent way of saying, “I knew you’d make it.” That’s the difference between someone who expects and someone who waits.
“Someone waiting for you,” Stevie repeats, but it sounds like she’s not grasping the full gravity of the concept. “Huh. And here I thought the whole point of hiking this thing was for you to be on your own.”
“That was the plan, yes, but the plan got—” Blown off a cliff. “—um. Complicated.”
More typing. It occurs to David that this is the first phone conversation he’s ever had with Stevie. Their entire friendship developed across the twenty steps between their doors at the motel, so why would they have ever gone to the trouble? They barely text, even. Their chain is mostly a series of context-free emojis and one-liners as they each battle to get the last word in whatever conversation they just finished having in person. He’s used to bothering her while she’s working. That’s often the entire point of taking those twenty steps, to bother her, but he’s learned to tell when he’s bothering her and when he’s bothering her. He can’t read her silences at this distance.
“So,” he tries. “I got the last box you sent.”
“Yeah, you made it.” She sounds distracted. “How long before you head home?”
“About that?” David squints at himself in the mirror over the sink. “I need you to pack a dozen more boxes for me.”
“A dozen ?” The typing stops. “What, are you hiking all the way back here?”
“I’m going to go another eight hundred miles. On the trail,” he clarifies, as if there was confusion.
“David, why the hell…?”
She doesn’t finish the question, but she doesn’t have to. Eight hundred miles was the absolute maximum distance he over-planned for. Eight hundred total . He left Stevie in Schitt’s Creek with twelve mostly-packed, pre-addressed resupply packages, promising that he would barely need half of them, and now he’s asking for double. He promised to send a postcard once he was ready to quit, and then that never happened.
“I just want to,” he offers.
“You just. Want to,” Stevie repeats. “You just woke up this morning and decided to put yourself through eight hundred more miles of hell and sweat and bugs and mud and exercise and flannel?”
“That is... almost entirely correct, yes,” David answers lightly. He refuses to have second thoughts. He already told Patrick he’s coming, and there’s no way he’s taking it back.
“What’s really going on, David?”
David pulls the phone away from his face and scowls at it. This isn’t fair. How come she can still read him perfectly across the entire continent between them?
“Nothing,” he says into the phone, once he brings it back.
“I’m enjoying the… fresh air.” It’s not as much of a lie as it used to be, is the scary thing.
“Okay! I met this guy—”
She scoffs in his ear. “Of course you did.”
“No, not ‘of course’!” David objects. “He’s not an ‘of course’ kind of guy.”
“What kind of guy is he, then?”
The many, many ways of answering this question crowd for elbow room in David’s mind.
He’s the kind of guy who thinks card games are an effective method of flirting. He’s the kind of guy who’s right about that. He’s the kind of guy who makes me forget where I am when I’m kissing him, even if where I am is in the dirt. He’s the kind of guy who says he loves me and not even as a way to get my clothes off. He’s the kind of guy who says he loves me and means it. I’m pretty sure he means it.
How is he supposed to tell Stevie that he’s afraid of what will happen if he lets this moment go too soon? Somehow, in all his years of dreading breakups, he never imagined he could dread one like this. Not as a humiliating bruise on his ego, or as a violation of his trust, but as a—a true loss. Breaking up with someone hurts more when it’s someone you actually want to keep around, and how could he have known that? Not that there will be a real breakup; this isn’t a real relationship.
How is he supposed to tell Stevie that he’s afraid of what will happen if he holds onto this moment too long?
If she were here she would get it, he’s sure she would, but there’s too much to catch her up on in fifteen minutes.
“He’s the kind of guy who’s going another eight hundred miles on the trail.” David sets his jaw. “And I’m going with him.”
“Okay, and if he jumped off a bridge,” Stevie says dryly, “would you go with him then, too?”
The phrase Absolutely not lands on the tip of David’s tongue, wrinkles his nose like a reflex. It’s what you’re supposed to say, and he is so not a follower, and also ew, unknown water. But then he’s actually picturing it: Patrick standing at the edge of a bridge, looking over his shoulder, sending David one of those smiles that’s equal parts encouragement and dare. He’d probably hold out a hand. Patrick would only jump off a bridge if he knew it was safe. He would only do it if he was sure.
“Well.” David fiddles with a button on his shirt. “We haven’t crossed any bridges yet, so I’ll have to let you know.”
A true silence snaps around them. He can see this one perfectly. Stevie deliberately folding her hands on the desk, lifting her chin, raising an eyebrow. They both know what kind of silence this is. It’s the kind David can’t bear. The kind that will break him down and force him to say what he really means. He spends every day out on the trail with this kind of silence, pushing through it to get to what’s next. Long flat horizon, big blue sky, one foot in front of the other.
“I want to keep going.” He takes a breath. “I know I can do it, Stevie.”
There’s a pause, and David wonders if now she’s trying to picture him. He glances in the mirror and sees unwashed hair, filthy clothes, under-tended skin. Yeah, there’s no way she can do that. She can’t be that good at this. God, he misses her. He misses her, but also he means it when he says he wants to be here. He really means it.
“Okay.” Her voice comes down the line followed by the drag of a drawer opening, the click of a pen. “Tell me what you need.”