I had to clear my throat.
“It was July, and hot as hell,” I began. “We pulled into one of the lots and climbed out of the car. We had water and a little food, sunblock—everything we thought we’d need for a few hours. The sun was overhead and we hiked up this beautiful trail with high rock walls on either side. After a while we reached a flat point where we could either finish the loop or continue on toward a larger trail to see more of the canyon. Of course, being twenty at the time, we kept going.”
Ziggy looked at Will and rolled her eyes with a little laugh. “Of course you did.”
“It was breathtaking,” I said, “with hoodoos and spires just off in the distance. It was like looking at a fortress that had sprouted right from the ground, made entirely of red rock. But it was also fucking hot. And by this point the sun had moved to the other side of the sky and we still had a hell of a hike back. We stopped to rest a couple times along the way and had drained all of our water. We were starting to get tired, too, and without water we were getting a little nuts. We were young and fit, but we’d been hiking for hours in the blazing heat by that time. I’ll spare you the misery of it, but trust me, it was awful—”
“It was nearly dark by the time we got back to the car,” I continued. “We both sprinted to the drinking fountains and drank our weight in water. We used the bathroom and cleaned up a bit, feeling like we’d somehow cheated death,” I said with a laugh. “And then dragged ourselves back to the car.”
“Why do I feel a ‘but’ coming up somewhere?” Ruby said.
“But,” Will continued, “we got back to the car, I reached into my pocket for the keys, and they were nowhere to be found.”
“We were still so relieved we made it back alive,” Will said, “that we were able to be calm about it, mentally retracing our steps. We’d stopped for a drink at a few points along the trail, I’d taken my ChapStick out, my camera, but those places were at least a mile away. We took a flashlight from our pack, walked out to the first point we knew we’d stopped, and then realized we couldn’t retrace our entire hike again. We walked back to the parking lot—”
“—and since neither of us were proficient at breaking into a car or hot-wiring—” I started.
“We were stuck,” Will finished. “Neither of us bothered with cell phones back then, and there was no pay phone nearby. We had to wait for someone to find us, or for the sun to come up. But it was getting colder by the minute, and have you seen the spiders that live in the desert? I finally gave up and used a rock to break the back window and unlock the car.”
“Who was the big spoon?” Ruby asked, and Will tossed a couple of M&M’s at her.
“The next morning we climbed out and had a look around,” I told them. “I’d walked to the back of the car and for some reason looked down. There were the keys. On the ground, where they must have fallen when we got out before the hike.”
“You’re joking,” Pippa said, expression thrilled. “They were there the whole time?”
“Must have been,” I agreed. “We just didn’t see them in the dark.”
She shook her head at me, an amused light in her eyes, before she turned back to the window.
We fell into a companionable silence then, and I was surprised by how easy it all felt. How easy it was to be sitting here, next to Pippa and surrounded by our friends, like our adventure on the plane was something that had happened to two other people. She was sweet and funny, adventurous and a little wild, but also thoughtful and self-aware.
I don’t know what I expected, whether it was for her to have the same assumption I had—that we’d been coupled up by default—but she wasn’t climbing into my lap. She wasn’t desperate for my attention. She wasn’t pushy.
She was just here, on a holiday, getting away from a shitty situation back home.
And this entire time I’d been so focused on my own life, my own lack-of-situation back home, that I hadn’t given a thought to how much she might need this. I’d just assumed she would be the same drunken woman I’d met on the plane—something to bear on this trip. A game with which I needed to play along.
Instead, she was self-assured and unobtrusive.
“Are you glad you came?” I asked her.
She didn’t even turn around to look at me. “I’m so glad I came. I’m so glad to be away from home for a while. I needed this.”
I’d just nodded off when I felt the van slow.
Pippa had fallen asleep, too. The space between us had disappeared somewhere around the last toll road, and she now slept on my shoulder, her breath warm in my ear, her body a comforting presence at my side. I straightened, adjusting my sunglasses where they’d slipped down my nose, and steadied her back against the seat.
Looking out the window, I saw we were parked in front of a large white multistory Victorian inn, surrounded by lush gardens and a fountain happily gurgling near the front entrance. A sign out front told me we’d arrived at the Jedediah Hawkins Inn.
Large stands of trees stood on either side of the building, their leaves flaming in fall colors against the blue sky.
Will and Ziggs were climbing out, and Niall was busy waking Ruby, which left me to rouse Pippa. I reached across my body with my free arm, the one that wasn’t pinned by her gentle weight, and touched her hand.