Knife Edge

By Dale T. Phillips

"That is one big mountain," said Julie, looking out through the windshield.

"Yup. Almost a mile high," replied Marissa, not taking her eyes from the road as she drove.

"What's 'Katahdin' mean, anyway?"

"I think it means 'mountain.' So if you say Mount Katahdin, the official name, you're saying Mount Mountain."

They both laughed.

Julie studied the shape in the distance. "It kind of rises from the landscape the way Ayers Rock does in Australia."

Marissa glanced at her, and Julie blushed. "No, I haven't been there, obviously. I've only seen it in pictures. But someday."

"Thought your parents didn't want you to travel?"

"They don't. They say the world is a dangerous place. They even made me take a self-defense class before they let me go off to college."

"The best part of an education is learning how to hit a man in the sensitive spots." Marissa laughed, and Julie joined her.

"So did you tell them what you were doing?" Marissa asked.

"I told them I was going up to Maine, so I didn't lie. Of course, I didn't tell them I was climbing a mile-high mountain. They'd have worried."

Marissa glanced to her left. "If those storm clouds don't lift by morning, neither of us is climbing very far. You don't want to get caught up there in bad weather. People have died up there, you know."

"Oh, stop it. You're just trying to scare me."

"If I wanted to do that, I'd tell you about the Knife Edge."

Julie looked at her friend. "Okay, I'll bite. What's that?"

"It's part of the trail up top there, goes from South Peak to Pomola. Thins out at one point, gets only a couple of yards wide, with dropoffs on both sides. Hence the name."

Julie looked at her. "You're not kidding, are you?"

"No," said Marissa. "It's unbelievable, though. The view is incredible."

Julie chewed her lip. "That might be a little too extreme for me."

"No guts, no glory."

"You sound like the rugby team. And you said we'd stick to safe trails."

"Oh, it's safe. As long as you're careful, and the wind's not blowing hard, it's fine. I've been up there four times. It's practically a non-stop parade of hikers. This early in the season, though, and with the weather forecast, we shouldn't see too many people. Just a few days from now, Memorial Day, it's a zoo, and it goes on all Summer and Fall." Marissa looked up at the cloud cover. "Hope the park rangers will let us go up."

"I thought you said it was safe?"

"All depends on the weather. If they don't think it's safe enough, they don't let you go."

"What about those people you said who died?"

"Accidents happen. Hey, you can get killed driving to the supermarket." Marissa shot Julie a look and saw the expression on her face. "Come on, you're not going to wuss out, are you?"

"No, but..."

"Know how many mountains I've climbed? Over two dozen, ones bigger than this, and some of them more than once, like this one. Never had a problem."

"You're the daredevil, not me."

"Gotta start somewhere, kiddo. If you're going to travel the world, you're going to have to get out of your comfort zone."

"I guess," Julie stared at the big mountain.

"This will also be your first exposure to the scourge known as black flies. They'll drive you mad, even with the bug spray. Just cover up as much as possible. Then there's the mud. There'll be a lot of it now."

"I don't want to get your boots all dirty."

"They're hiking boots. They're supposed to get dirty, that's why I let you borrow them. It's half the fun."

"So let's see," Julie said, ticking off items on her fingers. "Flies, mud, wet, a scary, dangerous mountaintop... Why did I let you talk me into this?"

"For adventure. You won't be the same after this."

"Yeah, I might have to kill you if I survive."

They wound their way through the roads of Baxter State Park and stopped at the station to register, paid their camping fee, and received instructions and rules. They continued on to the parking area Marissa had picked out, applied a layer of bug repellent, pulled out their gear, and walked to the camp area reserved for overnighters. There was a couple sitting in front of a lean-to. They waved, and the girls waved back.

Marissa found their own lean-to and they got the gear inside. Marissa set up the camp stove, screwed in the squat propane tank, and told Julie to open the can of stew.

"Where's the can opener?"

Marissa handed Julie a knockoff version of a Swiss Army knife.

Julie looked at it dubiously. "What do I do with this? Stab it?"

Marissa laughed. "Didn't you learn anything in Girl Scouts?"

"Yeah, we learned how to do arts and crafts. We glued pieces of colored macaroni onto construction paper, while the Boy Scouts went camping."

Marissa pulled one of the knife blades out, a little curved thing with a shorter hook underneath. She took the can of stew, positioned the blade along the edge of the top, and levered down until the hook tip punched into the can. She then worked the blade backwards with a series of wrist motions, cutting the metal along the edge. She handed the knife to Julie, handle first. "Now you try."

Julie gripped the can with one hand and tried the same motion with the knife, but nothing happened.

"Hold the can this way and place the blade like so," Marissa said. "And now down. That's it."

Julie looked at the tiny cut she'd made in the can top. "That's it? Wouldn't a can opener be easier?"

"More to carry. This knife is a dozen tools in one. You can do anything with it. Besides, builds character to do it the hard way."

"Thanks a lot."

"Don't go all the way around, keep the top attached, and we'll fold it back. Don't cut yourself."

Julie cautiously kept at it, slowly working her way around, and a few minutes later had most of a circle cut. She handed the can to Marissa, and wiped off the curvy blade, where a bit of stew had stuck to it. Marissa scooped the contents of the can into a small pot, and put it to heat on one of the stove burners.

Julie closed the blade and tried to give her back the knife, but Marissa waved her off. "Keep it. You'll need it again. I've got another one at home, and a Leatherman here, with a lot of the same blades, and it's got pliers to boot."

Julie put the knife in the front pocket of her jeans. "I've never owned a knife. My folks would have a heart attack if they knew."

"That's why we're out here, girlfriend. To toughen you up. Next you'll be getting tattoos and riding a motorcycle."

Both girls laughed.

"It's so quiet out here," Julie said. "And the smell. Except for the bug spray, it's like Christmas."

"That's all the trees. Spruce, fir, and pine. There's a lot of other kinds, but the evergreens are the best."

"Think we'll see a moose?"

"I don't know about moose, but there's a big furry animal." Marissa bobbed her head to the right.

"Where? Oh, that guy at the other lean-to?" Julie stole a long glance while pretending to gaze into the trees. "I guess. Not my type."

"Mine, though. He keeps looking over here. Probably working up the courage to come over."

"If he's going to, he better hurry. It's starting to get dark."

"Trust me. He'll come over."

The girls ate their supper and had just enough time to clean up before the gray twilight gave way to darkness. They lit the tiny battery lantern and saw a flashlight beam bobbing toward them.

"Hello ladies." The guy was tall and broad-shouldered, and looked to be in his early twenties, with longish black hair and a well-trimmed beard. He wore jeans and a dark polar fleece jacket.

"Hey there," said Marissa. Julie mumbled her own greeting.

"Think we'll get up in the morning?" Through the shadows, Julie could just make out that he was smiling.

"Up the mountain? Yeah. The weather's going to clear."

"Ah, inside information. Good to know. Which way you going?"

"Taking her up the Knife Edge," said Marissa. "First-timer."

"A virgin, huh?"

Julie felt a flush of embarrassment, and was glad the dark hid her face.

"Don't be a dick." Marissa's voice was sharp.

"Hey, I'm sorry. That's just what we call anyone who hasn't been up yet. Sounds like you're a pro, though. How many times?"

"Four. You?"

"Over a dozen. I like it out here. Names Kevin, by the way."

"Marissa. That's Julie."

"I didn't mean anything before. Sorry if I offended you. People usually just laugh."

"So where are you from, Kevin?"

"Right down the road. Millinocket."

"Local boy, huh? What do you do for work?"

"Drive a pulp truck."

"How about that? Ever get used to these flies?"

"Not during season. Pain in the ass, huh?"

"You can say that again. I've put this stuff on three times already."

"You know, smoke works. Keeps them away."

"We don't smoke."

"Well, if you won't rat me out to the rangers, I've got some weed here that works pretty good."

"You country boys," Marissa shook her head. "Badass outlaw, huh? Okay, fire it up."

"Marissa..." Julie began.

"Gotta live a little, kiddo. And I'll do anything if it keeps these flies away for even a few minutes."

"But we could get kicked out."

"No one will bother us," said Kevin. "The rangers just don't want people doing anything stupid or causing problems. They're more concerned that you carry out everything. You know, leave no trace." Kevin looked at Julie, and once again she blushed in the dark.

Soon there was a bluish tinge to the air as the smell of the pot invaded Julie's senses. She sat on a bunk with Marissa, who held a glowing splinter, while Kevin sat across from them, toking on his own joint.

"Hey, it works," said Marissa. "I haven't been bitten in almost a minute."

They all laughed. Julie felt more relaxed, but still turned down the joint whenever Marissa offered it, and her friend didn't press her. Marissa and Kevin talked about camping, and hikes, and of various adventures in the woods. Kevin told tales of whitewater rafting on the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers. Marissa said she had done that once, and loved it. Julie wondered how in her own life she had done so little, while Marissa had done and seen so many things already.

After a time, Marissa yawned and then spoke up. "Okay, Kevin, here's where we bid you goodnight. Thank you for the company, and the bug repellent. I'll remember that for next time."

"Good night. See you ladies in the morning."

Soon thereafter, Julie burrowed deep into her sleeping bag, and drifted off, dreaming of biting bugs.

She awoke to the sound of Marissa cursing. She sat up. "What is it? What's wrong?"

"I went out to pee, and twisted my damn ankle."

"Are you all right?"

"I guess. At least I did it on the way back."

"Let me get the flashlight."

"No, it's okay. Go back to sleep. I'll be fine."

But the morning was a different story. Marissa's ankle had swollen, and hurt if she put pressure on it.

"Sorry, kiddo," she said. "No hiking for me today."

"Well, I'm not going to go without you. I suppose we should just drive back."

"Knock knock," Kevin's voice sounded from outside. "Morning, ladies. Ready to go tackle a mountain? The clouds are gone. You can see all the way up."

"We're not going anywhere," said Marissa. "At least I'm not."

Kevin's head poked around the corner. "What's wrong?"

"Sprained my ankle."

"Aww. That sucks. Does it hurt?"

"Only if I walk on it."

"We're going to pack up," Julie explained. "No point in staying around if we can't go anywhere."

Kevin looked at Marissa. "I can take her up, if you want. You said she'd never been. It'd be a shame to come all this way for nothing. You got anything to read if we leave you behind?"

"As a matter of fact, I do," said Marissa with a grin. "And you wouldn't have any more of that bug repellent, would you?"

Kevin smiled. "I do indeed. Back in a minute."

Julie looked at Marissa. "We were going to go together. I don't want to go up without you."

"I know. I really wanted that. But you can't miss it. The view will be the most amazing thing you've ever seen. Take my camera and get some good shots."

"You'll get bored out of your mind."

"No I won't." Marissa pulled a book from the pack by her bed, and Julie saw the cover.

"Oh, you didn't. You're reading that?"

"What's not to like?" Marissa said. "Hot older millionaire with young chick, shows her the ropes of S&M. Good steamy stuff. I'll read for a while, have some lunch, catch a buzz, maybe take a nap. And you can troop through the mud and come tell me what a good time you had. Maybe if you play your cards right, you can join the mile-high club." She waggled her eyebrows.

"What? Oh my God. You're impossible."

Marissa laughed. "You'll be fine. This is what adventure is."

"My folks would flip if they knew I was out with a strange man."

"Look, normally I wouldn't think this was a good idea. But he lives down the road, and has been here a lot. That means he won't try anything funny, because he probably knows most of the rangers, and they know him. They keep tabs on people. So you just worry about where you step."

Kevin returned, and handed Marissa a pair of joints. "To keep the bugs away."

"Thanks," she replied. "You take care of my girl here."

"Will do." Kevin turned to Julie. "Ready?"

"As I'll ever be." Julie adjusted her little day pack and gave Marissa a quick hug.

"Have fun," Marissa said.

* * *

An hour later, Julie was sweating and struggling, wondering when the fun was going to begin. The mud seemed to suck at her boots, and every step was an effort. Kevin was obviously familiar with the trail and how to walk on it, easily moving along, without Julie's hesitation or missteps. He never got too far ahead, though, stopping to let her catch up, and taking breaks for water and rest when she needed. He hadn't talked much, and Julie chalked it up to the fact he'd probably have preferred to hike with Marissa.

Eventually the trail got less muddy, and easier to traverse. She started getting the hang of where to step. The wind picked up when they got higher, and Julie dug out a fleece jacket from her day pack and put it on over her sweatshirt. They were steadily gaining altitude, and she was enjoying the views. She was in good shape, but still got tired as the day wore on. She wondered how Marissa was faring, back in her sleeping bag with her dirty book.

When they finally reached the start of the Knife Edge, Julie sucked in her breath. To walk the trail here was to dance on the narrow crest of a mountain, with death on both sides. No guardrails, no safety lines, just a long drop two steps to either side. She felt she could see the entire state of Maine from up here. She forgot how tired she was, and took picture after picture, setting the focus and trying to capture the majestic vistas. There were clouds below her, and the only time she'd seen that before was from an airplane window.

After a long time, her senses had taken it all in. She was satisfied. Eventually she put the camera away and walked over to where Kevin was still taking in the view.

"Thanks for bringing me up here," she said. "I'm glad I saw this."

"Me, too," he said. "I wanted to see it one last time."

"Last time?"

"Kevin has to go away."

Julie frowned at his odd phrasing. "What about your job? You said you drove pulp trucks."

"That ended when they laid everybody off. Now I run a lab, out in the woods. Or at least I did until this last weekend. We had some personnel problems. Things got a little messy."

Julie shivered, as a worm of worry gnawed its way through her mind.

"So now Kevin has to disappear. They'll be looking for him. You know, Canada is up that way," he pointed. "Parts of it aren't so different from here. I think I'll like it."

"I'm going back now," Julie turned to head back.

"No." Kevin moved quickly to grab her, squeezing her in a tight hug, her arms pinned to her sides.

"Let me go. What are you doing?"

"We need a big mystery to keep everyone wondering," he whispered in her ear. "One camper fallen off the mountain, two campers missing. They'll look for days. You know nineteen people have died here in the last fifty years?"

"This isn't funny. You're scaring me."

"You should be scared. But at least it'll be quick. I might have some fun with your friend first."

Julie was finding it hard to breathe, he was holding her so tight. She thought of Marissa, who would not be able to get away, would not know until it was too late. She thought of her parents, who would be shocked and grief-stricken. Then she thought of something else.

The heel of Julie's thick hiking boot cracked back into his shin before she raked it down to stamp on his instep. His grip loosened, and she snapped her head back into his nose, and twisted as she dropped. She was able to break away, and turned to face him from about ten feet away as she tried to catch her breath. He looked outraged, holding a bloody nose and glaring at her. He cursed her.

"What was the point of all that? You can't get away. I'm stronger than you and faster than you, especially going down the mountain. You'll just fall, and I'll get you."

Julie realized he was right. She reached into her pocket and found the knife Marissa had given her. She flipped out the largest blade, which was still just a stub of a thing, and held it before her.

Kevin laughed. "That's not a knife, missy." He reached behind him and pulled out a long, single-edged hunting blade. He held it up. "Now that's a knife."

Julie's heart sank. Even if she could walk backwards down the trail, she couldn't put up much of a defense.

"This can get messy, and terribly, terribly painful for you," Kevin smiled. "As my associates found out. I can hurt you pretty bad before you go. And in the end, it'll all be the same. So I'll tell you what. I'll let you jump. You won't have to suffer."

Julie tried to swallow. She dared not look at the dropoff. She couldn't do it. But this maniac was going to stab and slash her, and then throw her over anyway. She whipped off her fleece jacket.

Kevin looked amused. "That's not much of a parachute."

Julie wrapped the fleece around her left arm and held the tiny knife with her right. She was shaking.

"You got guts, girl, I'll give you that. Let's find out just how much."

Kevin lunged toward her. Julie knew she had nothing to lose. He probably expected her to pull back in fear, so she darted in. She took the blade of the hunting knife on her wrapped arm as she stabbed and slashed at his face. Go for the vulnerable spots, she'd learned in her defense course.

Kevin stumbled back, one hand clapped to his face as he screamed. "My eye! My eye!"

Julie didn't let the moment go, but launched herself at him. She hit him at the hips, and pushed outward with all her might. His feet slipped backward, and then were on nothing at all. His arms windmilled as he fell. For a moment she almost went over herself, but got her balance in time and stepped back. She couldn't watch, and for several minutes, couldn't process through the shock.

But eventually, she realized she was going to live, and got herself moving.

She turned back to the trail that led down the mountain to safety.

Dale T. Phillips is the author of the popular Zack Taylor mystery novels. A SHADOW ON THE WALL (May, 2013) is the third book in the series. He also has a number of short story collections published in book form including CROOKED PATHS, five tales of mystery and crime.

"The Mousetrap" (August, 2011) and "Change of Attitude" (December, 2012) were published in omdb! online.

Copyright 2014 Dale T. Phillips. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!

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