Allie checked her watch as she adjusted her scarf more snugly around her neck. She knew it was 2:30 AM, give or take, because she had been waking up before two in the morning for some time now. Her daily routine had her at one or another hiking trailhead every morning. Today, it was Colby Mountain, one of her favorites—a nice steep start from the trailhead, up to a series of long switchbacks, followed by a meandering traverse during which she could catch her breath in time for a rocky, tough ascent to the summit, 3 miles and one hour away if she jogged the traverse.
She snapped on her headlamp and slung her backpack over her shoulders and attacked the slope feeling the sweet ache in her thighs and calves. She moved smoothly through the dark accustomed to negotiating the twists in the trails and the rocky footpaths in the flat light cast by the lamp.
She felt happily alone on the mountain as she inhaled the scent of the earth and the chaparral that surrounded her. She was unlikely to meet another hiker on the way up and had become practiced at switching off her light and melting into the darkness if she saw anyone approaching her.
As much as she had become accustomed to avoiding people, she relished her contact with the wildlife. Her light caught the eyes of a roadrunner that froze on the trail as she approached and then fled into the brush. The eyes of birds looked like sparks in the trees when she happened upon them. Once last week, she froze when she saw the glow of large amber eyes just twenty yards ahead of her on the trail, a bobcat or mountain lion. She approached slowly, curious and unafraid, but the animal slid off into hiding, wary of the light.
By the time she crested the switchbacks she was in a good rhythm and could feel the sweat begin to run down her face and her torso even in the cold morning air. She stripped off her scarf and her sweater, comfortable now in her shorts and long-sleeved t-shirt.
She began to jog easily over the flat traverse but was brought up short by a warning rattle coming from the dense brush to her left. She stopped and picked up a broken branch that had been kicked aside and gently lifted the twigs that hid the rattler. She knew that with the cold, the snake would be sluggish and not anxious to attack. She got close enough to make out the diamond-shaped pattern on her back and the reddish color of her skin.
“Hey,” she said softly, “sorry to bother you girl. I’ve never met a red diamond before. You’re a beauty.”
The snake’s head pulled back and settled into a fold of skin as if comforted by her soft words as Allie gently lowered the twigs and tossed the branch aside. She checked her watch again and realized she’d need to push herself to get to the top within the hour. She jogged hard for the rest of the straight-away and stopped just long enough for a long swig of water before tackling the final rocky stretch cresting the isolated summit, enjoying her racing pulse and the full sweat that streamed down her upper body.
She sat on a flat rock, pulling her sweater back on and grabbing a couple of power bars and her water bottle. As she rested, she checked her smart watch once again. The digital readout showed her that she had lost four minutes on the trail somewhere, not summitting in her usual one-hour flat, and that today was April 3, 2022. Her heart rate was already back down to 94 bpm and it was a brisk 48 degrees out. She didn’t used to be so obsessed by time and numbers, but the pandemic had changed that for her.
When it first had struck and she had to spend all of her time at home, she felt paralyzed and helpless. As the months went on though, she found some comfort in breaking down her day into hour-long segments. She found she could do eight hours of work in only five hours. Figuring she would get at least eight hours of sleep a night, she just had to plan for 11 hours. Reading, television, emails, Facetime, social media, food prep and meals, all just rotated through and around her work hours. After a while, it all started seemed normal until the insomnia fucked it all up.
The anxiety that built up over time brought with it chronic insomnia. She began to wake after only a few hours of sleep, leaving her body restless and her mind full of spiders. It was then that she had become a nocturnal hiker. She hadn’t expected it to become habitual, but the sleeplessness was unrelenting, and after a while her body craved the release that exertion brought and the hard, physical activity calmed her mind.
This routine had also allowed her to avoid contact with people. Even when the authorities assured the public that the virus had been eradicated, she found it impossible to go back to being in crowded spaces. Her graphic design firm had discovered it was cheaper and more efficient to have everyone work from home so she no longer had to spend time with her work colleagues. She continued to order food on-line or do take out and limited her time in public spaces to no more than two hours a day.
Time’s up, she thought. She allowed herself just a fifteen-minute break at the top. She was ready for the easy walk down the mountain and back to her car. With the time she’d make up going downhill she should be at the coffee shop right when it opened at 5 AM. She liked to have her coffee on the patio there and enjoy the sunrise and the endorphin rush she got from the hike. God, she thought, I hope Tariq isn’t working the drive thru. He can be such an asshole.
One hour and five minutes later, she was the first car in line at the coffee shop.
“Hey, Allie, how you doing this morning?” came the voice over the speaker.
“Can I get a large, black coffee with no room, please?”
“Oh, sorry Allie. We’re all out of black coffee this morning. Can I get you a mocha frappuccino or maybe a nice chamomile tea?”
“Goddam it, Tariq. Will you just get me my fucking coffee?”
“Of course, Allie. Anything you want. I’ll see you at the window.”
She drove forward and just wished he would let her be anonymous for once–just one more drone on her way to work.
“Hi Allie,” said Tariq, who always managed to look fresh and cheerful even though he’d been working since an hour before the shop opened. “Thank God! We did have some black coffee brewed, but hey, guess what.”
“Tariq, will you please just give me my coffee?”
“You see, this nice man saw you drive up and offered to pay for your coffee, but he said that I had to come out and bring it to you personally at the table where you always sit. So, I said OK. I hope it’s all right with you.”
“You,” she said, giving him the death stare, “are just impossible. I’m going to report you for harassing me.”
“I understand, Allie. I’ll see you out at your table in just a minute.”
She gave up and drove around the shop, parked, and settled into her favorite chair at a table in the corner of the patio, fuming at Tariq’s ridiculous efforts to engage with her.
Seconds later he backed out of the shop carrying not one, but two cups of coffee and sat down with them as if he had been invited. He was tall, and good looking, Middle Eastern maybe. She guessed he was probably ten years older than her 25 years. She tried to keep up her sense of fury, her sense of intrusion as he sat down, but the guy was just so goddam nice, it was hard not to like him. He passed her a cup of hot coffee and a chocolate croissant wrapped in a paper bag.
“Tariq, why do you do this? You know I like to be left alone. I sit out here in the dark and the cold for a reason.”
“I assumed it was because you really reek from that crazy hike you take every morning. And I’m just on my break so I thought I’d sit outside too. Can you be alone while I’m sitting here taking my break? I like the view of the sunrise from here.”
“You know, I dread seeing you every day,” she said with resignation as she pulled the croissant from the bag and bit into it, suddenly hungry.
“I know,” he said as he sipped on his coffee and looked out at the horizon. “It’s going to be a pretty one this morning. Now quit bothering me, so you can be alone, with me here with you for now.”
Exactly six feet apart from each other, they sat and drank coffee and watched the sunrise without saying another word.