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Unsheltered
By Sita C. Romero


I hunker down in the corner of the lean-to just as the rain starts. With my feet stretched out, my sleeping bag and backpack are inches from the next hiker. Hiking shoes off, shirt changed, and a bowl of re-hydrated freeze-dried pad thai in my belly, I curl into my sleeping bag. The soft snoring a few bodies over reminds me why I prefer my tent. No snoring (except maybe my own), no space limitation, no shelter mice. No people.

I had hoped before the trek started that somehow the air out here would fill my lungs and remind me how to breathe again. Ever since Stone died, it’s like I can’t get enough space. Even out here on the Appalachian Trail, miles and miles spent alone every day, nodding to other hikers, listening to the creek run through the woods, I still feel like I can’t get far enough away.

A hiker appears in the doorway of the already crowded shelter, a pair of hiking poles in one hand. Rain drips down the side of his square jaw. He has the look of an unmanicured thru-hiker, but instead of unwieldy hair and a gnarly beard, his hair is pulled back and he sports a week-old shadow. I’ve seen him before. Maybe we’re bunny-hopping each other on the trail, passing each other by whenever one of us takes a zero day. The hikers closest to the door let him in. The thru-hikers I’ve met so far all have those clichéd hearts-of-gold and everyone in the shelter moves a few inches this way or that to make room for him. The newcomer makes his home beside me.

He sticks out a hand, offering his dirty hikers-shake to me, “Thanks for making room. Origami,” he says, offering me his trail name.

I extend my hand to meet his, pulling it out of my sleeping bag, “Lotus,” I say.

“Nice, how’d you get that one?”

“Grew up in a commune with hippie parents,” I reply.

“Oh.” He drops the flap on his gear bag and looks up. “I thought you were giving me your trail name.”

It isn’t the first time I’ve heard it. Lotus isn’t exactly a common name. “Nope. I don’t have a trail name yet.”

He smiles at me, eyes lighting up. “Oh, fun, so you need one!”

It takes guts to hand out trail names. They stick to you. I’d considered what I wanted in a trail name before coming out here. Something bold. Something original. Something that sums me up in a few words. But with Stone dead, I hardly know what I am anymore. I’m left with a hollow feeling, like one of Grandma Hattie’s famous jewelry pieces missing the gem, a metal claw clutching the air. Clutching at nothing.

Still, I smile at him. “How’d you get yours?”

Origami continues to dig around in his bag. At this distance I notice his hair is pulled back, a buff covering his temples and forehead. Beneath, a cluster of dreadlocks are collected into a band at the base of his neck. I watch him lean over his pack as his hair snakes out and falls in front of his shoulders. I’m mesmerized by the dripping ropes of hair. He comes out of his bag with a paper between his fingers and hands it to me. It looks like the wrapper from a Hershey’s chocolate bar, but it’s shaped like a butterfly.

“Well that’s a new way to handle Leave No Trace,” I say.

He chuckles and flops out his bedroll. “It’s yours,” he says when I try to hand the butterfly back. “You want to stay by the wall?” His eyebrows are raised and drawn in, a look of doubt on his face.

“Sure, why not?”

He shrugs. “I just didn’t think you’d want to be in the path of the shelter mice.”

“In their path?” One more thing I didn’t research enough or know before coming out here.

“Mice tend to follow the walls. It’s the worst place to sleep. Have you not stayed in a shelter yet? Did you start at Springer?”

All the questions make me feel like the noob I am. I’m fierce. I am woman. I’m on the trail thru-hiking the AT alone.

“Honestly, I prefer my tent. But with the pounding rain, I figured the shelter was the better option tonight.”

“You made it pretty far without staying in a shelter. This is my third already. I started at Springer.”

“Me too. The last rain was on my zero day and I went into town at Hiawassee. Have you thru-hiked before?”

“Not all the way. I’ve had a couple of false starts. This time I’m going all the way to Katahdin. You hiking with a bubble?”

My bubble. At least I understand that – the hiking group that I started with at Springer. “My bubble sort of split up. There weren’t many of us and not everyone took the zero day together. One girl sprained her ankle and left already. You?” The truth is, I didn’t get attached to them and didn’t care when we split. I came out here to be alone.

“I fell behind my bubble. Got sick and took two zeroes in a row but I wasn’t going to leave this time. I stayed in a hostel at Hiawassee and then got back on.”

Hiawassee. That’s where I saw him.

As interesting as Origami may be (I still don’t know his real name), the rain thumping the roof and fatigue of the day’s miles are enough to send me to sleep. But I already have a suspicion a new bubble has formed. A bubble that includes mister creative origami-making, dreadlocked guy.

In the morning, after an oatmeal packet and instant coffee, Origami and I start out on the trail together. A couple other hikers keep pace and within a few days we have a new, naturally formed bubble. Everyone else has a hiking name. Banana Split wears gaudy yellow pants poorly re-seamed in the butt where he tore them on day one and earned his Trail name. As much as I envy that they all have trail names, I don’t want to end up with a name like Banana Split from something stupid like that. HotMama is the oldest in our little bubble and decided to jump on the trail after her youngest kid left for college. She has a bright smile with sad eyes.

I stick close to Origami, noticing all the little quirks about him. If he exchanges more than a nod with someone, he hands out origami. He answers honestly without making me feel like an idiot when I ask him how he cares for his dreadlocks in the woods. We take our first zero day together and he orders a chai at the coffeehouse and tells me a story about drinking it in India one time.

That evening, as I struggle to hang my bear bag, I catch him looking at me with a half-smirk on his thick lips. I stop mid-swing, struggling to get the rope to the right branch.

“Are you amused?” I ask.

“Maybe a little,” he says.

“I don’t see you over here offering to help.”

“I know you wouldn’t let me anyway.”

He’s so frustrating. And right.

But it’s more than that. At dinner, his arm brushes against mine as I pass him the salt. My skin breaks out in goosebumps.

When he hikes behind me, and I think about the way my ass looks in the skin-tight hiking pants I often wear. As dirty as we are from the trail, I think about his sweaty body pressing against mine. Up against a tree. Down in the dirt. Hidden inside my tent, the noises echoing out to the other hikers.

That night Banana Split and HotMama both leave the fire and go to their tents just after sundown. Split has been trying to call me Lasso after the feat of hanging the bear bag, but it doesn’t stick.

In proper hiker etiquette, we keep our voices low as we sit by the fire into the evening. The warmth of the fire and heat between us keeps me planted across from Origami, watching the shadow of flames on his face.

“Why now? What made you decide it was time?” Origami asks.

My stomach flips at the question. Finished with college. Not ready to get a job yet. My carefully crafted answer lies dormant on my lips. I can’t bring myself to give him the rehearsed version.

“My brother died.” It’s the first time I’ve said it out loud. A swell of nausea rolls over me. Tears well but I swallow them back.

“I’m sorry,” he says quietly into the fire, knowing it’s meaningless. Knowing the condolences have all been said.

I don’t elaborate on Stone. “What about you? Nothing so drastic, I hope.”

“Well, I always wanted to hike it and section hiked some. I tried the thru-hike a few times and quit. But there’s a real reason too. Breakup.”

Of course. Freshly dumped. It’s worse than Jeff, the over-the-top mama’s boy who still let his mother do his laundry. Maybe not worse than Steven, the sociopath I dated in college. But still, on the rebound.

“Sorry to hear that.” My words sound hollow.

He shrugs. “Probably for the best. We wanted different things.”

What did Origami want? Had his girlfriend wanted a commitment or to get married? What kind of things warranted dumping him? I know my questions are less about what happened in his past and more about figuring out this guy.

“I see the wheels turning.”

It’s refreshing that he calls me on it. He isn’t a bullshitter.

I smile, feeling the heat in my cheeks, but decide to ask anyway. “What did you want?”

“I wanted to be open. Free to explore whomever I feel connected to, drawn to.”

Commitment. I imagine the girl who wanted him all for herself, unwilling to let him wander and follow his lust. “Did she want to get married or just be monogamous?”

“He. And just monogamy. Just.” He emphasizes the last word.

I barely notice because the word he clenches in the middle of my chest, like the cramp I had at the top of Mount Cammerer. Gay? How did I not see it? He was flirting. I scan back through our time together, searching for evidence that it was there all along. But the only thing I come up with is the way he touches my hand. How he fills my water. Wasn’t he looking at my ass? Wasn’t he flirting during my struggle for the bear bag?

Yep, it’s worse than the sociopath. Unavailable in the most basic way. In the I-prefer-the-company-of-men way. I silently chastise myself as soon as the thought comes.

“Thanks for being open and sharing.” I offer feebly.

“Sure,” he says, but he doesn’t talk about it anymore.

That night, alone in my tent, after reviewing all our interactions a third time and still without evidence of his gayness, I fall into a fitful sleep.

Despite my feelings of rejection and confusion, our bubble is solid and we stay together.

“So what’s your real name,” I ask. We sit on a rock at an overlook. The last five miles consisted of a fairly steep hike. My feet are braced by the rock, arms wrapped around my bent legs.

He finishes a bite of beef jerky and looks at me. “It’s not as interesting as Origami. Or Lotus for that matter.”

“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”

His dark brown eyes meet mine. The tension is there again, and I look away, feeling like I’ve crossed a boundary or something.

“It’s Rob.”

I nod and he passes me a piece of jerky.

Rob. He sleeps next to me every time we stop in a shelter, giving me the wall and trying on the name Minnie (as-in mouse). It doesn’t stick. He pitches his tent by mine. He sits next to me at the fire. I can’t stop thinking about how stupid I am for wanting him. But the fact that he’s not into me doesn’t change my feelings overnight.

Another thunderstorm greets us in North Carolina and I’m starting to think I’ll never have a real trail name. We stop in Erwin to see a friend of Split’s, a section hiker who wants to give us a break. And a real bed. Banana Split insists the offer is for the whole bubble.  

Jason, Split’s friend, picks us up from the mountainside, at a trail entrance frequented by day-hikers. He drives a minivan and Banana Split reminds him of the Jeep he used to own and teases him about being a soccer “mom” now. He laughs and accepts the gentle teasing and takes us to his home.

“I thought you’d all like to shower first. And then, there’s a great brewery in town that I think you’ll love.”

Jason’s home looks like a cabin from one of those internet vacation rental websites. It’s an odd cross between kitschy and inviting. On the back of the sofa rests a plaid blanket that reminds me of lumberjack flannel. Their son, who’s probably not yet old enough to play soccer, lies on his belly on the floor with a picture book, flipping pages too fast to be reading. The space where he “reads” contains a sheepskin rug positioned between a miniature wooden kitchen and a wooden playhouse with rainbow silks. I’m grateful to be out of the rain. No matter how kitschy Jason’s house might be.

After showers for everyone, Jason drives us to the brewery, introduces us to the owner and tells his own story of attempting a thru-hike. By this point on the trail, we’ve entertained each other with so many of our own stories, it’s refreshing to hear from someone outside our bubble. But Banana Split can’t help himself after two beers and he entertains everyone with new stories of his carnie family. I can’t tell how much is real or what he’s making up because he never wipes that goofy grin off his face. But everyone is downing their beers and laughing.

By ten o’clock, we are all back at Jason’s, warm around his coffee table, continuing to drink and laugh. His wife, Tessa, is participating too now that their son has gone to bed.

“So then I told him, if he had a twenty I’d teach him the trick,” says Banana Split.

The beer has made me sleepy and I excuse myself. After brushing my teeth and switching into pajamas, I open the bathroom door to find Rob standing there.

“You could probably drink me under the table, you know.”

I smile at him, wanting to tug those ropes of hair down to my face and take a bite out of his juicy bottom lip. “Is that a challenge?”

“Not at all. I’m just saying you kept up with the guys tonight. I didn’t know you were such a party girl.”

“Oh, I am the party, mister. Too bad you’ll never know about that.”

I step toward him, expecting him to move aside as I leave the bathroom, but he stays, not budging.

“Is that right?” he asks.

I’m inches from his chest now and have to look up to meet his eyes. He stares at me and I can feel the tension between us coupled with my lack of reservation.

“That’s right,” I breathe. In an instant, I’m on my toes pressing my lips against his. They’re warm and salty and he tastes like Porter and peanuts. At first, I’m just fucking with him. I thought I’d plant one on him for the shock value. But it quickly turns from a joke to a real kiss as his tongue snakes inside my mouth. I reach around the back of his neck and pull him desperately into me, letting my tongue slip into his mouth, releasing him and kissing down his neck. I push against him and he backs up. We continue to kiss as we make our way down the hallway and fall through the doorway to my assigned room for the night. I can’t get my clothes (or his) off fast enough. I’m sober enough to know better and drunk enough to disregard it.

When it’s over, I flop down beside him in the bed, still trying to catch my breath. He puts a hand on my stomach and lightly runs his fingers along my skin.

I turn toward him to try to get a sense of how he’s feeling about all this.

“You okay?” I ask.

“Haven’t been this good in a long time,” he says.

“I mean about…this. About me, you know, being a woman and all.”

He looks confused for a moment, the skin around his eyes tightening. Then a hearty laugh bursts from him.

“What’s so funny?”

But I can’t get an answer from him because he continues the loud guffawing.

“What?”

He wipes a tear from his eyes. I don’t know that he actually laughed enough to produce one or if he just does it for dramatic effect.

“You thought I was gay?”

“What? Of course I did. You’re gay. You just had a breakup with your boyfriend.”

He sits up on his elbows and looks at me. “Did that sex seem like I’m gay?” There is a look of arrogance on his face.

“I mean, I just thought, the way you talked about your ex…”

“Just because I also like men doesn’t mean I’m not into women too. I thought there was something between us, or I never would have come onto you.”

“I kissed you! It was kind of just a joke a first. I mean, I wanted to. But I didn’t think anything was going to happen.”

“Regrets?” he asks.

I sit up and put a hand on his chest. “None.”

He pulls me back down on top of him and kisses me deeply.

On the trail the next day, we hike together as usual. He is the same, but everything is different.

HotMama questions me when we leave the trail for a bathroom break, standing behind a red maple with our respective pee funnels, or she-nis as I’ve dubbed mine. “So you and Origami, huh?”

“Is it obvious?” I ask. “I guess there’s no point in trying to keep it discreet.”

“I think everyone noticed that he didn’t sleep on the couch last night. You and I were the only two with rooms.”

“Oops.”

“Don’t worry about it. You’re both adults.”

But the way she says it I can tell she means “adults” (sort of). I accept that from her; she’s pretty much old enough to be my mom. Hiking with the younger group probably reminds her of her kids. She’s told me more than once how thankful she is that our bubble took her in.

After that, we’re open about it. He stops pitching his own tent at night and instead sleeps in mine. I worry the rest of our bubble might want to break off from us as we fuck our way through the Appalachian Trail. But they stay, taking zero days with us and ignoring the perma-grin we both have.

It’s more than sex though. There’s an intimacy and intensity to our new relationship – a relationship without a label coupled with the intensity of the AT. We’re unwashed for a week at a time, not the way most people start dating. In the six-by-four tent, we have our first argument when a knee connects with a temple. It’s hard to believe we keep up the sex pace of a fresh couple. But by this point, we’ve grown our hiking legs and somehow still have energy at night.

“No rain, no pain, no Maine,” says Banana Split to our bubble in the morning.

“Again?” I ask. “Is it enough for a zero day or can we hike it?”

“I’d put on my rain pants if I were you. Unfortunately, this is all I have.” He points to his bright yellow lap where he’s sitting manspread by the fire.

There’s a reason “no rain, no pain, no Maine” is a trail colloquialism. There’s only about seven months to hike it without special winter gear. If we can’t work with the rain, we’ll never make it to Katahdin.

“Fine,” I say, hearing the frustration in my voice. I stand, wanting to douse the fire and go, but instead retreat to my gear and dig for my rain pants.

Rob walks up behind me, sliding his hands along my hips as he wraps his arms around me. “You upset because we can’t get freaky tonight?”

It melts my irritation and I spin in his arms, a half-smile parting my lips. “You know it.”

“It’s okay. I’ll teach you a new origami fold. It’ll be fine.”

“I know. I’m just irritable today. I wanted to make more ground.”

“We can skip our zero day this week if you want to make up for it?” he offers.

“I don’t think our bubble will go for it. What about Banana Split and HotMama?”

“You can talk them into it. Aren’t you supposed to be an excellent cult leader by now?”

“It’s not a cult, it’s a commune,” I say. “Or rather an intentional community. Commune is sort of outdated now.”

“Either way,” he winks. “I think you could talk them into it.”

That evening in the shelter, HotMama shucks off her rain pants and calls me over to look at her calf. The left one is red and swollen. I put two fingers on the tender spot, and it’s warm.

“This does not look good. How much pain are you in?” I ask. “Guys, come look at this,” I wave over Rob and Banana Split to look at her calf.

“It hurts pretty good. I took some ibuprofen earlier. I thought I maybe pulled a muscle or somethin,” she says. Even after all this time together her way of speaking strikes me. She’s been in Atlanta her whole life and I find her accent combined with her level of education to be endearing.

Banana Split and Rob make it over to her and a look of sadness comes over Rob’s face. Banana Split’s eyes widen. “That’s messed up,” he says.

“No shit. I think we need to get her off the trail,” I say.

“Take a couple zero days?” she asks.

Rob shakes his head. “No. This looks like a blood clot. My uncle had a bad one. This needs to be looked at.”

“I can take her,” I say. “Can you walk?”

“I stumbled the last bit. But I think it’s gotten worse. I wish I could ice it and see.”

Rob shakes his head. “We’ll carry you if we have to. But you need to get off the trail tonight. Blood clots can be serious.”

Banana Split is two glasses into the moonshine and his words blur together as he offers to help. “I can carry her too.”

“You stay here,” says Rob. “We can take her. I’ve got her if you can get her gear.”

I strap her Zpacks onto my back and admire again the lightweight choice she made for her gear. I switch off airplane mode to find that I have a bit of battery life still hanging on from my last charge. “I’ll get shuttle service.”

After three phone calls and a shuttle ride, we arrive in the emergency room. I learn HotMama’s real name, but she will always be HotMama to me. The ER confirms it’s a clot, and we give a tearful goodbye to her.

“It won’t be the same without you.”

“You better get your tail back on the trail. Don’t let those boys get to Katahdin without you. Ya hear?”

I nod, wiping a tear from my face. “Send us a text when you get out of here. Keep me updated.”

“If you tell me where ya are I might do better and send you a drop. Now get on. I made it as far as these old legs are going to go. I’ll be fine.”

Our bubble is down to three. That night in the shelter, I curl against the wall in the space where I’ve left my pack.

“You’ve gone a long time on this trail without a trail name,” says Rob.

“I know.” I roll toward him. “Banana Split still alternates between calling me Patchouli, Lasso and TripAdvisor.”

“I think I finally figured you out.”

“Oh?”

“I don’t think you have a trail name because you’re holding back. It’s like we don’t really know you, yet. I mean, you hang your own bear bag and won’t let anyone help you. But you sleep by the wall in the path of the mice track. You came up here because your brother died – so you’re in mourning, but instead of crying and being depressed, you feel like you have something to prove – maybe just to yourself, but it’s there nonetheless. Am I getting it right?”

I consider for a moment how Rob has put a finger inside my wound. “Maybe. But I don’t see how it translates into a trail name.” Maybe I’m raw from losing HotMama but I can’t see where he’s going with this.

“You’re a cool chick, you know that? And now that we’re close, I’m just wondering why you haven’t opened up more.”

More? I already told him Stone died. But as he digs into the wound, I imagine him like a child, persistently plucking at a scab, forcing it away from the healed edges, prying at it until the bleeding begins.

“What do you want me to say?” My tone is pleading at first but then picks up speed. “That I’m here because my brother overdosed?” Heat rises in my chest. “That I found him dead in a hotel room with a needle still in his veins? Does that make you feel better? You feel closer to me now?” The words spill out and with them tears, but I can’t stop them from coming. I sit up, throwing my bedroll aside. “You want to hear about how I left my brother alone in New Orleans to get laid and how I think he would still be alive today if I hadn’t made that mistake?”

I stand up and exit the shelter, leaving my sleeping bag on the floor, my pack in the corner. Faces turn up at me as I stomp through the sea of bodies. Rain pounds on the roof and I don’t care, I open the door and go out into it. It’s a cool rain and it assaults my whole body, pelting my dry pajamas and slicking back my disheveled hair. I open my arms and let the rain soak me through. I came out here to get away. But there’s no way to get away from the truth.

When my shirt is suctioned to my body, clutching to me like a second skin, and I’m becoming numb to the rain, a light emerges from the shelter. For a brief moment, there is a silhouette, framed in the doorway before Rob steps into the rain.

“I was not trying to trigger you,” Rob says. “I just want to know you. I wanted you to know I see you and I can be here for you.”

“What about what I wanted? I just wanted to get away from it. I want to stop seeing Stone lying dead every time I close my eyes. I want my brother back.”

“I know.” He looks into me with his deep brown eyes, holding me in place with his gaze. He lets the rain soak him through. “But he’s not coming back.”

He says the words with a finality that I am not expecting. It feels like a kick in the throat.

“You’re going to have to move on because you have a life when you get off this trail. When this is over, you’ll go back and have to live it without him.”

I want just five minutes to hear his voice and laughter one more time. I never forget that he’s dead, but somehow, that arrives after I’ve thought of something to tell him.

“I’ve never done that before.”

“You’ll have to stop blaming yourself if you’re going to be able to move on.”

I see the image of Stone, lying flat on the hotel bed, needle in his vein. “I don’t know how to.”

Rob folds me into him, pressing against my rain-soaked body, arms so snug around me, like I could collapse and he would hold me in place forever. The rain has become syncopated, as if it can’t decide if it wants to keep on or let up.

He leans down to me, his breath on my ear and neck as he speaks. “I know this is crazy, and we were just having fun. But there’s something here, Lotus. When we get off this trail, I want to know you. In real life.”

I nod, my face rubbing against his wet shirt.

He pulls back from the embrace and squeezes me on the upper arms. “A fresh start?”

I look at him through my blur of tears. “I’ll try.”

The rain has slackened. Maybe we are between clouds or maybe it has cleared for now.

“So, trail name?” he asks. “Too soon?” The disarming smile reappears.

“Okay, what’ve you got?” I give my best effort at being a good sport, mostly I’m relieved to change the subject.

“Tell me what you think.” He breaks into the boyish grin of his.

“This is what I say fits you: Atlas. You take on the weight of the world and bear it as if it’s your own. I want to help you carry it. But I accept that it is yours to move. What do you say?”

“Atlas. I like it." 
Sita Romero received an MFA in fiction from Queens University of Charlotte. Her stories have been published with Third Flatiron and Transmundane Press. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband, kids, two dogs, and over 250 board gameswww.sitacromero.com.