Cami died at 3:08pm, a number I couldn’t reconcile. Multiply the eight and the three by zero and blow it all to hell. Zero always reconciled. That was cheating, and it didn’t make the number good, but it was something. It was better than 3:18.
Angelo, Jaeden, Kaylee and I tried CPR on Cami for twenty minutes, but there was nothing to be done for her. Mitzi didn’t even join us. We all had known Cami was dying. Her leg had been infected and swollen since the day she fell and got a compound fracture. The bone was broken, jutting out of her thigh, bleeding.
Rick had made a tourniquet before he left us, but Cami’s leg just kept getting darker and darker as the days past.
No helicopter came.
“Caroline, stop it,” Kaylee pleaded, with a voice that was raw from sobbing. “I know what you’re doing. Stop it.”
I took my hand from my head and looked at my fingers. There was blood on them, torn scabs under the nails. I put my hands in my shorts pockets to wipe the fingers clean.
“We should go,” Angelo said, his backpack already on. He was tall and fit, with brown skin and a scar on his lower lip. On the first night of the hike he’d said he’d cut it on a barbed wire fence a couple years ago.
“What do we do with Cami?” Kaylee said.
Everyone looked at the blue plastic tarp that covered the body. There was no way to carry her out, no way to make a stretcher. We were in the bottom of the Grand Gulch slot canyon, and no trees grew around here to lend us their branches. And we’d tried to make a stretcher with tent poles when she first fell, back when Rick and the others were still here. There had been no way then, and there was no way now.
“Rick will be back,” Mitzi said, one of the few times she’d spoken since Cami died. She ran her hands through her straight blonde hair, combing out tangles.
“He’s been gone four days,” I said, my fingers finding their way up to my scalp again. “It’s a one-day hike out of here. Twelve miles.”
“Up the hardest, steepest climb we’ve faced yet,” Angelo said, his voice hard and cold. “We planned to do it in two days. Just because Rick and the others said they could do it in one day doesn’t mean they really did.”
“So they take two days,” I said, digging my middle finger into a raw wound on the back left side of my head and feeling the wetness of the blood. It was all hidden in my brown hair. “Two days out, a twenty-minute drive to the ranger station, and search and rescue comes. They’re two days late. We have to assume they’re not coming.”
“But what does that mean?” Angelo said as I pierced my flesh deeper. “They had a fall of their own? They were in a car accident?”
“I don’t know,” I said, louder this time, and I wiped my bloody right hand with my left. My skin was caked with fine red sand. “I don’t know why he’s not here. But we don’t have any more food except for a box of saltine crackers. And there’s no use waiting here with her anymore.” I gestured with my blood-stained fingers toward Cami.
I didn’t want to be in the middle of this argument. Kaylee wanted to stay. Angelo wanted to go. Mitzi and Jaeden were waffling, and I was the last vote. I hated it. If they knew me at all, they’d know I was incapable of making big decisions.
“The birds will get at her.” Kaylee said.
“We wrap her up,” I said.
“Mice will still—”
I shouted. “She’s going to be dead whether she gets nibbled on or not. The question is whether we’re going to sit here with her and wait until we’re too weak to get out of this freaking canyon.”
Mitzi spoke up. “They say when you’re lost in the backcountry you’re supposed to stay in one place, not try to hike out.”
Angelo shook his head. “We’re not lost. We know the way. We have GPS and a map and trail markers.”
It was quiet for a few seconds, which turned into a few awkward minutes. We didn’t know each other outside of this trip. I mean, I went to school with Angelo, but he was a sophomore and I was a senior at Cortez High School. Kaylee was a junior from Dolores, about fifteen miles north of us. Jaeden was from Mancos, twenty miles east. Mitzi was from Cortez, but homeschooled. There had been two more Cortez kids with us—Marie and Bella—but they’d gone with Rick.
Rick. Ranger Rick. I think all the girls had a crush on him. I know I did.
“Caroline,” Kaylee said. “I told you to stop it.”
My hand was back in my hair, an unconscious impulse.
I pulled my hat back on. It was a wide-brimmed blue-and-white striped sun hat that looked completely out of place among all the other backpackers. The inside was stained with small smears of blood.
I moved over to Kaylee and sat down next to her. We were all in the shade, but it was still hot, as though all the heat on the mesa above us poured down off the cliffs, into the bottom of the canyon.
Kaylee wore red t-shirt with “GAP” in big white letters, but it was thoroughly worn out—she must have had it for years, or maybe it was a hand-me-down.
“Tell me,” I said, trying to get her to open up for the fiftieth time. “What do you think we should do?” We’d all introduced ourselves at the beginning of the first day, in the dark of 5:00am, at the small ranger station at the mouth of Kane Canyon. Kaylee was a smiling, bubbly girl with chin-length, curly, blond hair and perfect eyebrows. She’d told us, there in the dark, that she loved everything about the Ancestral Puebloans and that she’d been to Grand Gulch twice before. She’d never explained why she was missing the pinkie and ring fingers on her right hand, or the scar running up her arm. I didn’t ask.
“I don’t want to be the deciding vote,” I said.
“What do you mean?” Kaylee asked.
“Jaeden and Angelo think we should leave. Mitzi and you think we should stay. I don’t want to be the one that makes the decision.”
Sitting beside her now, I reached into a pocket on my backpack and pulled out a medicine bottle. I poured three of the pills into my hand and downed them with a swig from my nearly-empty water bottle. I needed to go refill it at the creek.
“How many of those are you supposed to take?” she asked, her voice no longer sharp, but careful.
“Three a day,” I said. “Breakfast, dinner, bedtime. But sometimes I take them as needed.”
She pulled out her green Nalgene water bottle and took a drink. “You took five yesterday. I’ve been counting.”
I shrugged. “I’m desensitized. The same thing happened with Xanax—after a while it just didn’t do the trick anymore. This is Klonopin.”
“Is there anything in your medicine bag that would have helped Cami?”
“No,” I said, tucking my pills away again next to five other bottles. “It’s all for my brain. Anti-depressants. Anti-psychotics.”
I looked over to where Cami lay. Two of the giant horseflies that had been plaguing us this entire trip were on her face. More were on the makeshift bandages we’d wrapped her leg with.
“I take Prozac,” Kaylee said, with a forced smile.
People had a tendency to tell me about their own mental state when they saw mine. I didn’t know if it was an effort to relate to me, or to try to make me feel less insecure. Either way, it didn’t help.
“Here’s what I think,” Angelo said, talking slowly. “She’s dead. There’s no point in staying here, except to protect her body from coyotes, or something like that. Right?”
“Isn’t that important?” Kaylee asked.
“We’re almost out of food,” I said, nodding toward Angelo. “If no one shows up we’re going to be starving by tomorrow, and then how are we going to hike out?”
Kaylee rubbed her scar with her good hand. “What if someone comes?”
“They’re late,” Angelo said sharply. “They’re two days late. That means something. I don’t know what, but it means that something is really wrong.”
“Maybe it means they’re just about to get here,” I offered.
“If they’re helicoptering in, we’ll hear the helicopter come. If they’re hiking in, we’ll pass them while we’re hiking out. Either way, the point is that there’s no reason for us to stay here anymore. We’re not helping ourselves, and we’re not helping Cami.”
Mitzi spoke up. “We’re helping Cami. Do you think her family wants her body to get mangled by animals?”
Angelo was sitting cross-legged near Cami’s head. Mitzi was next to him, leaning back against a boulder. She was stick-thin, and I stared at her for a long moment wishing I looked like that. Slender.
This was stupid. Cami was dead. I knew my decision.
“We have no food,” I said. “Either we eat what we have while we hike out, or we eat it all today and starve.”
“Rick will get here,” Kaylee said.
“He’s not here,” I insisted.
“He’ll get here.”
“When?” I said, and jumped to my feet.
I put my hands on my hips and looked off at Jaeden, who was sitting by himself about fifty yards away. I wondered if he was praying. I had been. Ever since Rick left, I was praying for Cami, for me, for Grandma back home. I had a thought worm its way into my brain that Grandma would get the news that we were left in the canyon and have a heart attack and die. I imagined it over and over, and even now it was drilling down through my skull.
“Stop it,” Kaylee said. “Your head. Stop it.”
I pulled my hand out of my hair and looked at the blood on my fingertips.
“I’m going to go talk to Jaeden,” I said, rubbing my fingers together, the blood drying or coagulating, or whatever it was doing. In a moment it was just more grime on my fingers.
I yearned for a shower.
Kaylee gave a weak smile. “Give him a kiss for me.” We’d been teasing each other all week about Jaeden, but lately it had become a thin veneer covering up our feelings—a placeholder for pleasantries. It was easier to joke than to face reality.
I nodded to her. “No freaking out while I’m gone.”
She laughed grimly. “Coming from you?”
I stopped to grab my hat, which was sitting next to Angelo. Our eyes met. “I’ll be back.”
“We need to go.”
“I know it.”
Jaeden was fifty yards away, in a wider part of the canyon where the sun hit him. He was sitting on a rock, holding a long tamarisk stem in his hand, like a fishing pole.
“Hey Jae,” I called as I walked over to him and then crouched down. Jaeden was handsome, with a wide face that almost always wore a smile. He wasn’t as athletic as Angelo, but he was lean and had the rough hands of someone who worked outdoors. He was reading a book.
“You know,” he said, shaking his head and then looking up at the sky, “This was my fault.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“I was the one who started climbing the rock face.”
“Cami is a better climber than you,” I said, quieter. “You were just messing around—you never got higher than ten feet. And you weren’t the only one climbing. Angelo and I were climbing, too. Cami’s the one who climbed thirty feet and then couldn’t get back down.”
My fingers went to my head to scratch at the sores, but the hat reminded me not to, and I stuffed my hand into the pocket of my jeans.
“But I was first. I gave her the idea.”
“Jaeden,” I said. “I’m crazy. You’re not crazy. And even I can see that this wasn’t your fault.”
“You’re not crazy.”
“You haven’t known me very long.”
“Have you made up your mind yet?”
I shook my head. “Kinda. I don’t know.”
“By not making a decision you’re choosing to stay here.” He stood up and ran both his hands through his hair. “The real question is: where the hell is Rick?”
I just nodded. We’d been through all the arguments a dozen times today. I knew that I was the deciding vote, but I was terrified of the responsibility. I wanted out. Let one of them take the lead and just tell me what was right.
“I swear,” he continued, “my parents are going to have a fit about this. There will be lawyers and police and everything.”
“Mitzi’s dad is a lawyer,” I said. “She’s been talking about that—about getting him involved. But I don’t know if Rick is really at fault.” I liked Rick. He was a genuinely nice guy. I mean, I’d only known him for a week, but he seemed, well, nice. Whatever kept him away surely couldn’t be his fault, could it?
I reached into my pocket and pulled out a smooth round stone, about the size of a pea. I put it in my mouth. My dentist didn’t like this habit, but my psychiatrist encouraged it. It was a kind of security blanket. It calmed me down. It did a better job than Xanax; I was getting desensitized to medicine.
“Caroline,” Jaeden said, removing his glasses and closing his book. “You’re smarter than this. I can tell. You know what’s going on. Go back and tell the others.”
I let out a long slow breath, and tugged at my hat. I wanted to find a sore and make it bleed.
Jaeden was right. I knew my answer. I just didn’t want to face it. Ever since I’d been the deciding vote, starting yesterday, the others were viewing my inability to make a decision as the slow and judicious method of a leader.
I nodded for a moment, and then jerked my head.
“Fine,” I said. “Follow me.”
If I screwed this up, all of their lives were in my hands, and that thought sat in my chest and festered, sending ripples of anxiety and discomfort throughout my arms and legs. My brain—well, that was just a mess.
Jaeden and I walked back to the others, to the site where Cami lay on the makeshift stretcher built from tent poles and windbreakers. Mitzi was painting her nails, which seemed wrong to me—both because we were sitting next to a dead woman, and also because a backpacking trip is supposedly “roughing it”—but of the five of us, she was the one I knew the least about so I didn’t say anything. I sat down next to her, the acerbic smell of nail polish remover reminding me of being home, getting ready for a date, or church, or the prom.
Everyone gathered, without me having to ask. We all knew what we had to do.
“I’m out of medicine,” I said to the group. I tapped my head, indicating my ill brain and said, “I do a lot of counting. So, a couple of numbers. First, Rick said he would be getting back here 48 hours ago. He was going to climb out Bullet Canyon, get help, and get back here. The top of Bullet is seven and a half miles, but the map says it’s ‘strenuous’. Even so, if it took Rick two days, then they’ve had two days to get help and get back down here.”
Kaylee stood up. “They must have run into trouble. Maybe someone fell on the way out.”
“Something’s stopped them,” Mitzi said, still staring at her nails as she meticulously painted each one. “But they have to show up soon.”
“We can’t just leave Cami here,” Kaylee said, folding her arms. It was less an act of defiance as a nervous need to do something with her hands.
“No,” I said. “We have to leave her. Like I said, I’m almost out of meds. I didn’t bring full bottles, just the plastic week-long pill boxes. I’m going to run out, and I’m going to start getting withdrawals. Kaylee, think of how bad it is if you miss your Prozac. If I miss my anti-psychotic I’m a shaking miserable mess. And I’ve only got two doses left of it, including tonight.”
“I only have two doses of Prozac left,” she said quietly.
The group was quiet. Angelo laid back onto the sandstone and stared at the sky. Mitzi screwed the lid back on the bottle of nail polish.
“So, I guess the point is that I vote we leave,” I said, “We need to get home to our pill bottles. Nothing can help Cami now.”
“Coyotes,” Mitzi said.
I shook my head. “We can stop coyotes, but we can’t stop flies and maggots.”
Jaeden sighed. “Caroline.”
He shrugged and turned around. “Nothing.”
“Kaylee,” I said, “and Mitzi. It can’t wait any longer. If we leave right now we can get a few miles in before the sun goes down.”
Mitzi looked up at me and our eyes met. I didn’t want this to be about me and my medicine. It was about keeping the rest of us alive and getting help. But if listening to my problems was the only way to convince them, I’d take that route.
“Fine,” she said, looking away. “Let’s go.”
Kaylee started to cry, but turned away.
One by one, reluctantly, everyone began packing to leave. There wasn’t much of a mess. We only had our backpacks and a few personal items—Mitzi had her nail stuff, Jaeden had his copy of In Search of the Old Ones, required reading for the trip. Kaylee just had an old brass compass. Angelo was all packed already.
“Then where do we put Cami?” Mitzi asked.
Jaeden stood up and walked to the body. “We can put her in a sleeping bag, and wrap that in the blue tarp. That would still leave us with one tent.”
Mitzi frowned. “Can. . .Can five fit in a tent?”
“I can sleep outside,” Jaeden said. “Angelo and I can give the tent to you girls. How’s that?”
“That’s fine,” Angelo said. “Okay with me.”
Angelo fetched the tarp, and Kaylee and I knelt beside Cami, unzipping the sleeping bag all the way. Her limp body was hard to move, despite her small size. Standing, Cami was barely five feet tall, but it eventually took Angelo’s help and the three of us working together to get her into the bag. We zipped it all the way up, and then folded over the opening at the top. We then laid the tarp beside her and rolled her into it like a burrito.
When we were done, Mitzi asked if she could take one of my Klonopin.
“I’m almost out. And you don’t want to see me if I don’t have it.”
Angelo spoke. “How did they ever let someone like you on a trip like this?”
The hairs on the back of my neck bristled. “Someone like me?”
“You know—you’ve been talking about taking anti-psychotic medicine. You talk about it all, like it’s no big deal.”
“First,” I said, taking the stone out of my mouth and slipping it back into my pocket. “’Someone like me’ isn’t a thing. You can’t just put me in a box. Second, I talk about it because it helps other people deal with me. I’m being open for your sakes.”
“I didn’t call you a freak,” he said. “I didn’t even call you crazy, though that’s probably closer.”
“Excuse me?” I said.
Kaylee jumped in. “Angelo, leave it alone. Caroline, calm down.”
“I’m not crazy,” I said.
“I know you’re not,” Kaylee said.
Angelo didn’t back down. “I’m not so sure.”
“Look,” I said. “I’m mentally ill. I’m high-functioning. I go to school and drive a car and have a job. You’ve gone to school with me since elementary school. You would know if I was crazy.”
“You miss classes all the time because you’re sick. And what about that thing in Biology last year?”
I held up my hands. “I’m not talking about this.” Why was he bringing this up? I didn’t need more anxiety right now.
Angelo took a step toward me. “You’re acting like you’re in charge here—like we should listen to you because you know what’s right. But you don’t. That’s all I’m saying. You’re not in charge.”
“I’m not in charge. I’m just the swing vote.”
Jaeden stepped in between me and Angelo. “Calm down.”
“You don’t know, Jaeden,” Angelo said. “You weren’t in the class when she freaked out. I was there. I saw it all, and I’m not going to follow her lead.”
Jaeden started to speak, but I interrupted. “I’ve never said I was in charge.”
Kaylee came over beside me and put her hand on my arm, as if she was trying to break up a fist fight.
“What happened?” Mitzi asked. “In the biology class?”
Angelo turned to her, gesturing wildly. “She started to talk to someone who wasn’t there. She kept saying ‘Be quiet, Marlin. Be quiet,’ disrupting the class while we were taking a test. I remember that part: she was talking to someone named Marlin, like the Miami Marlins.”
“Like the dad in ‘Finding Nemo’?” Mitzi asked.
He nodded. “But there was no Marlin in our class. When the teacher came over to her, Caroline blew up out of her seat and pushed the teacher with both hands, knocking him down. They had to call the police.”
“Shut up, Angelo,” I said, trying not to think about it. I’d spent the last year in therapy. We’d talked through it again and again. I was on anti-psychotics. “I’m over it. I’m done. I don’t hear those voices anymore. I’m on medicine.”
“The police?” Mitzi asked Angelo. “What did they do?”
“They took her away,” he said. “I don’t know what happened then. I heard she was in the psych ward.”
“Southwest Memorial doesn’t even have a psych ward,” I said, shaking Kaylee off my arm.
“Maybe you want to tell us, then,” Angelo said.
I closed my eyes, feeling the panic welling up inside me. It felt like it was running through my veins, pumping adrenaline and putting me in Fight or Flight Mode. Flight, definitely. I just wanted to get away. My heart was pounding so much that I wondered if everyone else could see it.
I couldn’t breathe.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I said. “It doesn’t matter. That was a long time ago.”
Kaylee squeezed my arm. “It doesn’t matter, you guys. Leave her alone.”
“Who’s Marlin?” Mitzi asked.
Jaeden jumped in. “We’re still all agreed it’s time to go, right? Let’s just go.” He turned to me. “Maybe we can make a deal. Everyone leaves here and we go for help, and you maybe tell us what’s going on with you. Could that be a deal?”
My face felt hot, and I just wanted to get out of there. I nodded to Jaeden, and then looked away. Why did they need to know? Why did anyone need to know? It was between me and my grandma and my doctor. No one else needed to hear about this. I’d spent the last year trying to get over what happened, to come to terms with it, and now a couple of angry people were demanding to know. And why?
I hoisted up my forty-pound pack, and slung it over my shoulders. I didn’t look at anyone as I adjusted the straps and clipped the belt around me.
The boys carried Cami’s wrapped body to a high spot against the cliff where a flash flood wouldn’t get it. And then we strapped our packs back on and used as much daylight as we had left to start getting out of Grand Gulch.