By Maria Elsser
Terrible people do terrible things to terrible people.
Gerald glanced over his shoulder and gazed down the forest slope at Janet. Her face was bright red like a boiled lobster shell. Sweat beaded along her brow and clung to the yellowed curls that were frizzing out of her loose bun. Gerald was too far away to hear her, but he could sense Janet puffing, wheezing, grunting. They were halfway up the mountain, Gerald carefully stepping over the exposed twisted knuckles of roots, feeling for soft or slippery parts in the dampened earth. It had rained for two weeks straight, but today it was sunny. Gerald had proclaimed that on the next sunny day, they would go climb Mount Benson.
Janet let out a high-pitched squeal.
“Gerald, wait for me! You promised you would wait for me.”
She wasn’t like this when they fell in love. She was young and lithe and bubbling with energy. Twenty-three years younger than he, Janet was an adventurous little thing in her early twenties, tanned from spending her college fund on seeing the world’s beaches, her body tight and fit, her breasts large and lively. Gerald, already married, with two kids, quickly parted with all those things for her.
He heard the comments people made, that Janet was gold digging, that he was foolish to let his stable, suburban life go.
For God’s sakes, Gerald, just fuck her, don’t marry her.
But Gerald couldn’t help himself. Janet was addictive. Her soft, full lips. The way she trailed her fingertips down his spine. The little sighs she made when she was satisfied.
“Gerald, you’re walking too fast!” Janet said, arriving on the ledge where Gerald stood. Her blue eyes were wild and slightly bloodshot. Her chest heaved up and down and she doubled over, placing her palms on her knees.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” she said, gasping.
“Nonsense, we’re almost there.
“No, we’re not, Gerald. I can’t even see the top.”
“You’re fine, you just need some water.”
Gerald took the plastic H2O tube from his black hydro-pack backpack and thrust it in her unsuspecting mouth. Janet coughed and sputtered, and Gerald fought to hide the grin that curled in the corners of his cheeks.
“Gerald, you’re trying to choke me!”
Janet used to love being choked, and Gerald loved the way his hands looked around her neck. There was one night when they had two bottles of wine, and while they were engaging in a particularly rough bout of sex, Gerald got too excited and choked her so hard she passed out. Janet was gone for a whole minute before she opened her eyes again. She wasn’t angry, but Gerald was absolutely horrified with himself. He ripped off a strip of fabric from his black T-shirt, made a bracelet, and tied it around her wrist.
“What’s this?” Janet asked, her songbird voice thick and heavy from alcohol and lack of oxygen.
“It’s a promise,” Gerald said. “I promise I will keep you safe, and I won’t hurt you, ever.”
“Okay,” Janet murmured, and then rolled over to the side of the bed, vomited, and passed out.
“Gerald, my knees hurt!” Janet reached for his hand. They’d made it up another inclined slope and were getting closer to the top. The terrain was shifting from dirt and trees to sharp jagged rock face. When Janet gripped his fingers, her palm was sweaty, and Gerald had no problem pulling away, but not before he felt the abject piece of crusty fabric that was the bracelet. Janet never took it off. At first, the gesture was cute and adorable, but now, it repulsed him. The bracelet reeked like something rotten, sour and foul, past its prime, frayed and faded. He longed to rip it off her wrist.
Gerald regarded Janet critically while she crawled over the rocks on all fours. Blonde streaked hair — now wiry and unkept. The tight supple body had gone saggy. She was doughy, pale, pink, splotchy. Janet used to smell like vanilla and coconuts, now she smelled like drugstore perfume. She smelled like disappointment.
“Hang in there, my darling, we are so close."
“Gerald my feet are aching.”
“That’s quite alright darling.”
“Gerald I’m having trouble breathing.”
“It’s the thinning air, my love.”
“Gerald, can we just pause and rest for a moment?”
“You bet we can.” Gerald increased his pace.
“Gerald!” Janet’s voice whistled like the wind in his ears. Gerald pretended not to hear her.
“She imagined Gerald passing out due to the thinning air, and carefully rolling him off an edge, his body plummeting to the trees below.”
Janet blinked hard, wiping the mixture of sweat and hot tears from her cheeks. Gerald had promised they would hike together, just like old times, but all Janet was getting was a view of his backside. Gerald, despite being much older, was handsome when they first met. He was thin but strong, well-dressed, and distinguished. Now, he could be the mascot of all the leathery and grey snowbirds wintering in Palm Desert, shriveled from years in the sun like a stick of beef jerky with white wisps of hair.
This had all been a massive mistake. Janet had married him assuming the kept woman lifestyle would suit her perfectly, but in reality, Janet had grown bored. Gerald made sure she didn’t have to work, and in turn, Janet ate. She dined on five course meals and finished them off with cakes topped with Ben and Jerry’s Half-Baked ice-cream. Her love for the outdoors was replaced with waddles around supermarkets. Her boredom grew with her stomach, and the more food she crammed in it, the more she found she needed to satiate her appetite. Janet used to love backpacking and exploring new summits, and Gerald loved that she loved it, because Gerald loved it too. Gerald grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan, but had always fascinated with mountains. Something about the way the peaks stretched to kiss the sky was so magical and beautiful compared to the endlessly boring flatness of the prairies.
Though Gerald was raised by humble wheat farmers, he had dreams as high as the cliff sides he longed to climb. He applied himself rigorously to his studies in high school — and it paid off. Gerald won a scholarship to study medicine at University of Alaska in Anchorage, where his ravenous appetite for mountaineering was finally satiated. Gerald got a scholarship to study medicine, and to give himself some extra money he got a job working as a guide in Denali National Park, the home of the highest mountain in North America. He still carried the Red Swiss Army knife that was issued to him as a guide.
In their first three months dating, Janet took Gerald on a new hike every week. Gerald thought it was for the love of his company, and relished the outdoor exploration as a shared interest, a wonderful hobby that would propel them into the future of many happy years mountaineering together. In truth, Janet was testing him. She chose the steepest slopes, waiting for him to double over, clutching at his heart. She imagined Gerald passing out due to the thinning air, and carefully rolling him off an edge, his body plummeting to the trees below. But Gerald rose to every occasion, seeing Janet’s passion of high altitudes as a desire to be on top of the world, just like him. When Janet and Gerald walked through the woods in the rain, Janet closed her eyes and just stood there, and Gerald watched, absolutely in awe of her. He thought she was appreciating the moment, but Janet was simply pretending he wasn’t there.
“Why do I love you so much?” he asked. Janet shook her long blonde curls.
“How do you know everything I love and want so perfectly?” he inquired again. She shrugged and winked at him, skipping off ahead to hide behind a tree. Gerald chased after her.
“I just can’t believe you. I cannot fucking believe you,” his wife said, their three-year-old twins clinging to each of her legs, bawling. “If you’re done with me, fine. I mean, I’ve only cooked, cared for, loved, and birthed your children. I get it.” Her bottom lip trembled a little and she tucked it in her mouth to hide it. Gerald did not meet her eyes. He pushed his suitcase shut.
“It’s better this way,” he said.
“But what about the kids?” she said, barring his path.
“I’ll send you child support.” He pushed past her.
“That’s it, then? You’re just going to walk out? Did this marriage mean nothing to you? Did I mean nothing to you? Did—”
Gerald never heard the end of it because he was already in the car driving to Janet, imagining the oasis of wetness between her thighs, the way she arched her back like a ballerina.
“Gerald, I need to sit down,” Janet said, and plopped herself down on the least sharp looking rock. The trees were now becoming sparse. The incline was steep. Soon, they’d have to climb using their hands and feet, up the cliff face, to reach the summit. Gerald was antsy, but he stood by Janet while she puffed, her cheeks billowing and deflating like the throat of a bullfrog. She touched his ankle, wondering if she could swipe it and send Gerald toppling down the cliff. He jerked his leg away.
“Do you have any snacks?” Janet asked, hoping maybe he would choke on a granola bar.
“Are you sure you need one?”
“Gerald! Just another moment, please,” Janet’s eyes were wide and glossy. Gerald used to love it when she looked at him like this, especially when she was on her knees. It drove him wild. Now, she looked pathetic, and she hadn’t been on her knees in years.
“My darling, it will be dark before we summit, come on! You can do it.”
And with that, Gerald turned, and climbed up the rocks. They were sharp and cool beneath his fingers, slick and slippery from the rain. Even though he was in his seventies, his body was still strong. He pulled himself up and felt a little flutter in his heart when his foot missed its hold. It was exhilarating. He hadn’t hiked for so long. He’d continued working out, but he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been out in nature like this. He inhaled the scent of rain and air and earth and trees and sky and shut his eyes. His Zen was interrupted by a grotesque wail.
Gerald turned and saw that, except for her hands clinging to the cliff ledge, Janet had disappeared.
“Gerald! Help me!”
Gerald could feel the panic in her voice, the terror. His heart fluttered again. He imagined Janet’s body splayed out against the cliff. He imagined her kicking her swollen legs beneath her as she searched for a foothold.
“I’m coming, my love,” he said, and began his painstaking slow descent to where she hung.
“You’re doing just fine."
“I can’t hold on much longer!”
“I’ll be right there."
“Please! Gerald, please!”
One of Janet’s hands slipped, and she grabbed an exposed tree root. The root groaned and slowly loosened from the earth. She wailed something incoherent. From about ten feet away, Gerald paused, and looked out at the view. The whole town was stretched out like a tile mosaic, a beautiful blend of inky greys and blues and browns. Young swallows flew by, hovering on the gusts of wind, and in the distance, he could see the green expanse of the ocean, foamy white caps on the waves.
“Gerald!” Janet’s voice was raw and metallic. She was sobbing, big fat tears rolling down her cheeks. Gerald took six slow paces and looked down at her. Janet’s one hand white knuckling the root, which was nearly completely uprooted. He crouched down beside her. Janet tried to raise her other arm and grasp at him but couldn’t reach high enough.
“There was one night when they had two bottles of wine, and while they were engaging in a particularly rough bought of sex, Gerald got too excited and choked her so hard she passed out.”
“Gerald,” she said, crying. “What are you doing?”
He reached out a hand, stroked her soggy cheek, and gave it a gentle pat. Janet let out a guttural moan. The root creaked and began to tear.
“Oh Janet,” Gerald said. He shrugged off his backpack and pulled out his red Swiss Army knife. He unfolded the blade and tried it against his thumb. It was dull, but it would do the trick. Janet thrashed below him. The root gave way a little more and she gasped. Gerald knelt beside her.
“Did you know,” he said, running the blade along the back of her trembling hand, “that I always hated that bracelet?”
Maria Elsser is an aspiring author residing on Salt Spring Island. She has put her degrees in English Lit and Creative Writing from VIU to excellent use by managing a hardware store. Her favourite activities include running, reading, cooking, consuming too much caffeine, and writing stories about bad things happening to terrible people. Her works have been previously published in The Nav, Portal, The Mitre, and Incline Magazine.