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Aberrant: Wild Card - [HW #2] The Perfect Sunset [Complete]

z-Matt McShae

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The log twisted under his feet as branches snapped, and what was supposed to be a fun day hiking on Mt. Rainer became a disaster. Matty’s arms spun, the unfamiliar weight of the pack on his back turning his attempt to gain his balance into an exercise in futility. He toppled quickly, and only a last, desperate forward lunge saved him from pitching into the river below. He caught the log under his arms, the length of the wood slamming into his chest with way more force than was necessary.

His short cry of pain was actually a bark of agony, quickly muffled as he realized how precarious his position was. He needed his energy to hold onto the log, not yell. It was a big log, a wide, fat truck common to trees in the area. It had been easy to walk on, once he’d hopped up on it. It was much less easy to hold onto, more like trying to hold his weight on the edge of a building without any footholds.

For a moment, he was hanging, listening to his breath rasping as he tried to gather his strength for the ordeal of pulling himself up again. Then the treacherous branches snapped again and the log shifted further, rolling a little further down the slight incline that was responsible for this mess. Matty tried to crawl his way forward, his fingers scrabbling against the bark. But it rolled faster than he could claw, and he fell into the cold water below.


It was the weekend before classes started, and Matty was excited. He’d seen Mt. Rainier rising over Tacoma since he’d arrived, but he’d never driven out there and gone hiking. He was determined to do so now; there was a camp site where you could see the perfect sunset. The plan was to hike up the trail most of the day Friday, reaching the site at sunset, then come down on Saturday. Some students partied themselves into oblivion on the weekends; that held no allure for him. After his long hike, those parties might look better, but he knew that in the end, he would be happier that he had done this.

The trail was remote enough that he had to hike to the trail, taking a connecting one for over an hour before starting up on the one he wanted. He kept his pace even and steady as he walked, trying to conserve his energy. Within a few more hours, he was tired, far more exhausted than he’d thought he would be. It made him a little embarrassed; he’d believed that he was in better shape than this. But he’d not accounted for how much extra energy the weight on his back took. It was all the supplies he’d need for a night – food, water and a tent – but as the day progressed, he was sure he’d drastically over-packed. Surely he didn’t need to eat six times, did he?

He was vowing he’d start to work out when he found that the bridge was washed out. A nasty wind storm had blown down a tree, taking out the bridge over a steep gorge. Matty leaned over and peered down, cursing softly when he realized this was the end of his trip. And it was the worst place for it; he’d already walked six hours and he was only one from the camp site. If he turned around, he’d be walking back in the dark.

Exasperated and disappointed, he looked back and forth along the gorge. He was in luck; another tree had fallen, spanning the crevice. Once, it had been an old Douglas fir; but once it had died, the wind had easily snapped its trunk and knocked it down. It was wide and flat, and looked stable. He grabbed a leafless branch and put his weight on it, to see if it would shift, but it held firm. Climbing carefully, he clambered up onto the log itself and tested it again. It seemed solid, and he started over it.

Snapping branches heralded the start of the universe saying, ‘I told you so.’ The log twisted under his foot as branches cracked, his arms spun-


The water was cold, but the immediate danger was his backpack. He had just enough presence of mind to swallow a deep gulp of air before he hit the water. He needed it as the weight on his back dragged him down into the deep water. Worse, the rapid water flow jerked him further downstream, away from where he’d fallen, and the known trail.

Struggling, he wiggled madly, his lungs trying to burst. The wet straps slid over his shoulders with agonizing slowness, but they came off. He immediately kicked toward the surface, barely overcoming the weight of his clothing and boots. Matty gulped down some air before he was yanked under again. Desperate, he swam sideways, only to find just the sheer cliff that lined the ravine. He tried to grab the wet rock, but he was yanked sideways before he could get a grip.

A roaring ahead warned him of worse danger, and Matty didn’t try to look. He took a deep gulp of air and prayed it was a small waterfall. It was, only ten feet, but he still was pushed far under water, so far the light went gray behind his eyes.


He came back to his senses on his belly, instinctively pushing himself up a small incline with his elbows and knees. The thick mud stymied his efforts, but the exertion warmed him up a little. The latter was important; the water had been icy and he was shivering already. Once he was clear of the water, he struggled to his feet, the bitter wind making him long to be back in the water, just for some shelter. Rubbing his torso with numb hands, he started to walk. He had to stay moving. He had to get warm.

He followed along the river, knowing that sooner or later the water would lead to a house or road. It was the first lesson on being lost in the woods; water leads to people. This water didn’t cooperate, though; the river wound in and out of rock barriers, forcing him to swing wide around the outcroppings, and once, to unsteadily climb a small rock face to keep following it. Matty promised himself he’d start watching that survival show on the Discovery Channel if he survived this.

He wasn’t sure how long he trudged on, but it was dark and he still hadn't found any human habitations. Cursing softly and still damp – and cold, couldn’t forget the cold – he found a pine tree with branches close to the ground. He snapped branches and formed a rough shelter against the wind. A few more snapped branches made enough cover to let him fall asleep.

The morning found him stiff from his tumbles of yesterday and frozen stiff. It took ten minutes of walking around and hopping in one spot to start to feel somewhat warm. Worse than that was the hunger; he hadn’t eaten since lunch yesterday, and he could feel the lack of substance in his muscles. He filled his stomach with water, knowing that the river was probably somewhat safe to drink; if he didn’t make it to civilization, it wouldn’t matter anyway. Having drowned his pinched stomach for now, he started walking again, following the stream.

Matty only walked twenty minutes before he heard a now-familiar noise. Grumbling to himself, he pushed on as the waterfall’s roar grew in his perception. But he didn’t groan until he saw that it went right over a ravine, falling more than thirty feet. He sidled up to the edge and, holding his sore, abused ribs, assessed the likelihood of climbing down. After a moment of staring, he decided that the odds of getting to the bottom were very good if he didn’t concern himself with his condition upon reaching the bottom. If he wanted to be alive when he got there, however, he should find another way to get down the cliff.

He spent the rest of the morning finding a place where the cliffs dipped to meet the land, then worked his way back to the river. By noon, he was warm, so warm he had to strip off his jacket. The late heat wave soon had him sweating and even more miserable. He hated this entire diversion; not only did it eat time, but he got eaten by the gnats and bugs that had come out to enjoy the warm air. He had passed beyond hunger, and was just dizzy and light-headed. He’d tried to look for some food, but his vision swam and he had a hard time focusing on anything.

When he reached the river again, the temperature seemed to drop. It was probably just the water vapor in the air, but he welcomed it. Matty stretched out on his belly on a rock and filled his stomach with glacial melt again, drinking until he was full. Pausing, he stared into the sparkling water, enjoying not moving and the cooled air that came off the river.

A small, silver fish drifted to a stop right below his nose, and Matty instinctively snatched at it. He knew it was impossible, but he still slapped the water in frustration when dinner easily darted away. “Wouldn’t want sushi anyway,” he muttered, which was a lie. He’d eat anything right now.

Sighing, he pushed off the rock, pausing to let his head stop spinning. When it didn’t, he just sank back into the rock and pillowed his head on his arms. He felt good right now, other than being so hollow he was sure his stomach was touching his backbone. He kept his eyes closed, listening to the sounds of life and nature around. Exhausted, sore, he drifted into sleep.


Red light burned through his unconscious, and the pain in his eyes was echoed by the grumble from his gut. Slowly, Matt opened his eyes and found himself staring at the most beautiful sunset he’d ever seen. The setting sun was reflected on the river, and the trees framed the glowing sun, casting them into intricate shadows. Golds, reds and oranges burned so bright that it was like the sky is on fire.

Matty pushed himself up, sitting on the warm rock. A strange sense of peace came over him and he smiled a little as he watched the glorious vista before him. It was everything he’d been looking for when he’d come here yesterday. Serene, he watched the golden orb slip away.

He should have been upset, or finding shelter for the night. But he didn’t move; he just sat there. His body cried for food, but he just fed his soul, letting his spirit be refreshed by the awe-inspiring beauty before him. And the knowledge that it wasn’t fake or a set on a movie, that this scene occurred because he’d fallen, and walked and struggled to get to this exact spot, at this exact time, when these exact conditions were in the sky, filled him with a sense of faith. He couldn’t have named what that faith was in, except perhaps the idea that everything had come together as it should.

As the last rays of the sun began to fade and the glow started to leach out of the sky, Matt heard another human voice. “Hey!” Turning, he saw a man in a park ranger suit trotting toward him. “Hey, man, are you Matthew McShae?”

Matty blinked and then nodded. “Yeah,” he said, his voice a bit hoarse.

“Thank god! We’ve been looking for you since your backpack was found. Are you ok?” The park ranger was genuine, but his concern seemed to be a remote emotion to Matty. And somehow, he wasn’t surprised that he’d been found now. He’d seen his sunset, he’d seared it into his memory, and he could go home now.

“A bit hungry,” he admitted.

“Yeah, I’m sure.” A granola bar was pressed into his hand, but Matty didn’t open it immediately. Hunger was a distant thing at the moment; he was aware of the ranger calling over the walkie talkie for someone to come and get them. He’d be home soon, but for how, he just sat and finished watching the perfect sunset.

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