Chris Hartley, a tall, slim man, took a two-week vacation to escape his repetitive schedule. He drove his Honda sedan to a rented cabin in the Azusa, California forest recreation area. Buster, his black Scottish Terrier, rode in the front seat.
Chris had searched for a female companion for five years after his wife died, but his lifestyle did not match those of the women he had met. He wished he could share the beauty of the forest with a lover.
He parked at the side of the secluded cabin close to a bubbling, frothing river that cascaded nearby.
Early the next day, Chris saw a man repairing the front door of the nearby café. Flesh gathered in rolls on the back of the man’s neck, and his cheekbones jutted from his wide face.
“Good morning,” Chris said.
“Mornin’,” replied Mike Shea, the owner of Smokey’s Coffeehouse.
“Always something to take care of.”
“Yup.” Mike fitted a hinge and reached for a screwdriver.
Chris entered the clean, warm café and smelled fried bacon and onions. He nodded at a seated man and woman and chose a corner table.
A waitress, wearing tight black jeans, took his order. Chris liked the way her platinum blond hair was pulled into a high ponytail, with a few flimsy strands on the back of her neck.
She returned with a chorizo burrito and coffee.
“My name is Chris.”
“I’m Jennifer, co-owner with my husband, Mike. You here alone?”
“No. I’m with Buster, my terrier.”
Jennifer lingered at the table. “What’s your job?”
“I’m an engineer in Los Angeles.”
“You enjoy your work?”
“Yes, but I’m looking forward to my vacation here.”
“Watch out for rattlers,” she said. “It’s mating season.”
“I heard that grizzlies used to live in these mountains.”
“No more. But we got mountain lions.”
After breakfast, Chris purchased Belgian chocolate brownies and banana bread to take to his cabin.
The next day, Chris ate breakfast in the café at the same corner table. His eyes lingered over Jennifer’s tight-fitting T-shirt that emphasized her heavy breasts. Her smile broadened when she talked to customers.
He remained seated until the other customers left.
Jennifer refilled Chris’s coffee cup.
“Do you like living here?” he asked.
“After 12 years it’s getting old,” she said while rubbing the muscles at the back of her neck. “Long hours and ain’t much to show for it. And drunk campers can be a pain.”
“We bought this place when we were newly married. I enjoyed being in this wilderness. But now… I miss living in a town.”
“What do you miss about it?”
“I love to dance. All kinds: ballroom, line, square.”
“I bet you’re a good dancer,” Chris said. “At a nightclub on Santa Monica Boulevard, I’m known as, ‘Kumbaya King.’” His black eyes shone with a hint of mischief.
Chris and Jennifer exchanged a long, bold look. He saw her blush and his cheeks reddened.
“Mike don’t take me to town for Saturday night dances. Won’t let me go on my own. Since we moved here, he’s often gloomy. Drinks too much. I can’t stand the stink of his beer-breath at night.”
Chris’s thoughts whirled like leaves in a spring river, and his hesitation dissolved.
“Jennifer, you sure are a beautiful lady.”
Her face hinted delight, and she took a deep breath.
“Sometime…,” he said in a low voice, “sometime I’d like to take you dancing.”
Jennifer shrugged. “That ain’t gonna happen, mister.”
Chris continued conversations daily with Jennifer after everyone else had left the café. When they parted he looked forward to their next meeting.
Jennifer told him about her failed first marriage. He let her know his wife had died from breast cancer and how his parents had been killed in a car accident when he was a teenager.
Towards the end of Chris’s second week, as he sat in the café after breakfast, he said, “Jennifer, I only have a couple more days here. I’ll miss you.”
Jennifer sat opposite Chris, her green eyes widening with questions. She leaned forward, and he smelled her shampooed hair and fragrant body lotion.
Her face flushed. “What’ll I do when you’re gone? I’m lonely a lot.”
“I love to be with you, to look at you. You’re a sweetheart.”
They sank into a tense silence.
He cleared his throat. “Come and visit me in my cabin.”
She clenched her fists, her nails digging into her palms. “Chris, are you crazy?” She shrank back. “How can I? No, no.”
He looked at her with pleading eyes.
Jennifer licked her lips. “Oh, Chris. I’m afraid.”
He squeezed her warm hand.
“If only… if only I could–”
“Listen, Jennifer. He’ll get sozzled this evening as usual. Come to my cabin at midnight.”
She glanced outside to make sure no one was coming towards the café. Bringing her lips lightly to his, she lingered for a few seconds, then pushed him away and puckered her brow. “You might be disappointed with me.”
She stared at him. “Okay.”
“I’ll meet you at midnight at your cabin. Get outta here now before Mike walks in.”
Chris returned to his cabin as the sun’s rays burst through the tops of the pine trees. His heart beat rapidly, and he straightened his shoulders, anticipating their first sexual meeting. He pictured the world that lay before Jennifer and him as lovers.
Buster greeted Chris at the cabin door.
Chris patted Buster’s head and said in a cheerful voice, “She’ll join us, my faithful friend. Just like I told you.”
At ten that morning, Mike went outside to get wood for the kitchen stove. When he returned he threw down his load and said to Jennifer, “Just killed a rattler by the woodpile.”
“What kind this time?”
“Diamondback. Chopped his neck clean.”
Jennifer shuddered and continued to prepare a casserole.
They ate their evening meal in sour silence.
After dinner, he sat in the living room drinking beer in front of the television. She washed the dishes and watched the purple-violet sunset through the kitchen window.
Late that evening, Mike finished his twelfth beer and burped. He heaved himself to his feet, waited a minute then stumbled to the bathroom. Afterwards, he staggered towards his bedroom and bumped into the doorpost. He spun around, flopped onto his bed and lay motionless.
Jennifer lay fully dressed in her bedroom, listening. She looked at the clock. Almost 11:30. She waited fifteen minutes and then crept outside, melting into the darkness.
The mist held the soft perfume of pine trees, and a brisk, moaning wind arose.
Jennifer crouched thirty yards from the house to scout for unusual activity. A hissing noise, like a cat’s sound when confronted by a dog, caused her heart to beat fast.
Was that the sound of cicadas buzzing? Or wind rustling dry leaves? Or a snake?
She remained motionless as she heard a rattle close to her left side, no to her right, perhaps behind her. What if she guessed wrong and moved in the wrong direction? She remained in a squat.
Suddenly, Jennifer felt needle-like stings. A Mojave green rattlesnake’s fangs had pierced her wrist. Acute pain darted through her arm.
She screamed, “Mike, help me. I’m hurt.”
Mike turned on his bed, barely aware.
“Drunk fool! Help me, you asshole!”
Buster’s body tensed when he heard Jennifer’s scream. He pulled his ears back and whined.
“Those drunken campers are fighting again,” Chris said. He paced the cabin. “Jennifer will be here soon.”
Buster opened his eyes wide and wagged his tail.
Waves of nausea hit Jennifer. Her swelling hand and arm hurt as if they would burst. White-faced, her bloated lips grew bright red and her vision blurred.
She staggered with a racing heart towards her cabin, and her legs crumpled. She tried to stand but fell to her knees. Her throat constricted, and she gasped for breath. Sweating heavily, she fought to stay conscious. Her muscles trembled with spasms, and she coughed and vomited.
“Mike,” Jennifer gasped. “Mike… I’m scared.”
Jennifer dragged herself forward then lay motionless.
The eastern sky changed from black to gray.
Bruises and blisters formed on Jennifer’s hand and forearm that had grown to three times their normal size. Her vacant eyes remained open, her right arm extended towards the front door of her cabin.