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The Hike

A lone sedan entered the parking lot of the processing plant and went dark. A tenebrous figure emerged from the shadows, sheathed in tactical garb and gripping an M-4 carbine. He loaded a magazine and charged the weapon.

Inside the plant, the night shift was in full swing. Dozens of employees performed duties when soft popping sounds reverberated throughout the complex beneath the warm hum of industry and personnel. One by one, they fell, bleeding and broken. Some realized the horrifying reality and ran for exits, while others hid under tables and behind partitions, attempting to will away the moment's madness.

The dark figure approached a station near the rear of the building and eyed a frightened girl ducking behind a workbench. He gazed at her longingly amidst the mayhem, then raised his weapon and beat her blind with the butt stock of the gun. A peculiar calm perfused the troubled space as the man walked away, kicking spent casings like sea shells on a tranquil shore. He returned to the outside lot and passed into the shadows, leaving carnage and chaos in his baleful wake.

Jasper Cane wanted to be a better father. He wanted to share the joy in life with his only son Carl, as any father would. Jasper had loved hiking the winding trails of Mount Vern ever since childhood when he had a free run of this magnificent range. He had not explored here in years, and it was certainly good to be back. The fresh, lovely, sweet juniper carried him back to youthful adventures on the mountainside of his childhood home. The morning air was crisp, and the sun angled through the tall, majestic pines casting gold columns across the lush foothills. Jasper trod onward and upward, his backpack secured over his shoulders, his son at his side, and a solid maple walking stick in his grasp.

It had been a tumultuous year of upheaval and change for the Cane family. As he and Carl stalked the mountainside, Jasper felt bewilderment at his life's course. Angela seemed distant and cold. They had been married for twenty years, and this distance was troubling. His son Carl had begun acting out in school, but young teenagers can behave erratically. The most important thing in life is family, no matter what, and Jasper wanted to instill this sentiment in Carl.

He had growing concerns that Carl was slipping away from him. His mother would tell him things that just weren't true. Half-truths and full-on lies were filling Carl's head. Poison thought Jasper. She was poisoning their son against him. I'm a good husband and father, thought Jasper to himself. It was not fair; life was not fair. Perhaps another lesson Carl needed to learn.

Jasper decided to come home and hike the trail because he knew he would find solace there. It was the only place where he could truly reflect on his circumstances and clear his head of all the crooked music that played inside. His muddled thoughts settled amongst the wild grasses swaying in the gentle mountain breeze, only to be stirred again by the redolence of the mountain trail.

"Jasper!" shouted Marie Cane. "Jasper!" Marie was in the backyard of their country home, where she lived with her husband, Alfred. She called out to the forest and beyond, out to the base of Mount Vern, where Jasper, who had just turned seven, had surely run. That boy was always running off to the mountain when Alfred dealt with him in a disciplinarian sense.

The neighbours on either side of the Cane residence had little to do with them, so Marie didn't bother asking them if they had seen Jasper. Besides, she knew where he was — up on those mountain trails, blowing off steam. Perhaps it was for the best. As she turned to go back inside, a neighbour to the east was waving at her.

"Could you please turn that music down?" shouted the neighbour. "I have my little one down for her nap."

"Yes, yes," said Marie, gesticulating derisively. Alfred joined his wife in the yard, tightening his belt and adjusting his shirt.

"Where'd the boy get off to?" asked Alfred.

"He's probably off on those trails," said Marie. "He's quick. I'll give him that. I've got to go turn that music down."

Alfred scanned the mountainous region that Jasper had disappeared into moments before. Then he began to hum a sinister serenade that only he could hear.

There were many changes in Jasper's life over the years, but none came as quickly as in the last six months. The nagging allegations at work, his strained marriage, and his son's challenges at public school had become problematic. Though these issues were prominent, they were not foremost on his mind. He scanned his surroundings and noticed many troubling changes to the landscape he knew as a child. The government lackeys built planks into the trail system that acted as oversized stairs and pressure-treated lumber bordered the trail as far as the eye could see. There were even different coloured ribbons, at duly assigned intersects every hundred feet to indicate your hiking path. Was it not his mountain anymore?

Worse than all of this, when he arrived at the trailhead parking lot, Jasper saw something that had not been there when he was a child. It was a kiosk with a large sign showing the prices for various trail passes. Now they will charge him admission to go hiking on his mountain? With a solid maple walking stick in hand, he approached the kiosk with a different idea.

Jasper took another drink from his bottle and resumed his ascent up the mountainside. When he caught up to Carl, he noticed his son seemed agitated. "Dad, I'm cold," complained Carl, rubbing his forearms with his hands, trying to stave off a shiver.

"That's okay, boy," said Jasper as he wrapped a small blanket around Carl's shoulders. "We're not far from a brook I played in when I was your age, and we can have a little fire and warm up before we head back. Sound good?"

"Sure," said Carl, holding firm the newfound comfort, and they carried on.

Jasper was employed at the processing plant for twenty years, and to think of starting over was almost too much to bear. That girl, Mandy, was his friend, and he didn't mean any harm when he talked to her at her station. And what girl doesn't want to hear a compliment or two about how she carries herself?

The next thing he knew, Human Resources asked him to attend a meeting regarding inappropriate emails to a female co-worker. His colleagues shook their heads and walked away from him every time he tried to approach one.

Jasper's thoughts turned to his wife, Angela. He would have done anything for her, but Angela blamed him for his workplace troubles, and she trusted the Human Resources department over him. Carl was being teased at school because the kids said his father was a pervert and a freak. He got into fights and received a suspension from school. Angela blamed Jasper for all of it; it was always his fault.

Angela and Carl left the family home shortly after the workplace allegations and went to stay at her mother's place in Hyland. Jasper was alone with his thoughts, alone in his newfound misery; Jasper was alone. He recalled the abuse he endured at his father's hands in a basement bedroom as a child. His mother would play chamber music loudly so the neighbours would not hear the cries of an innocent, and with these thoughts, the music would play orchestral in his mind.

It was not traditional music played with horns, strings, and percussion. The music that played in Jasper's head was that of creaking doors and quiet admonitions, loathsome fears, and shameful secrets. It was a malignant melody, off-tune and discordant.

Angela informed Jasper that she would come home to gather some things for her and Carl. She asked him if it would be a problem for them to come over on the weekend so they could pack up their belongings and be on their way. Jasper assured her it would be okay and that he would appreciate the chance to hug Carl and kiss him goodbye. Angela told him he was not saying goodbye to Carl but rather beginning a new and different relationship with his son. Jasper did not believe her, and disturbing thoughts began to fester.

They came to a plateau, and Jasper doffed his backpack and placed it on a bench that would have been more appropriate in a park than on a mountain trail. Carl ducked off the path to explore some plant life just as two hikers, a man, and a woman, came around the bend and into Jasper's field of view. They appeared startled and stopped in their tracks.

"Hello," called out Jasper. "How's the trail up there?"

The two hikers remained silent and stared wide-eyed at the lone figure with the maple walking stick. Jasper noticed an antennae probe jutting outside the pack on the man's shoulders.

"What are you listening to, my friend?" asked Jasper. "That doesn't look like a music box to me."

The two hikers gasped at the query and retreated off the path and into the vegetation. They knew something, and Jasper knew it too. "Hey folks," he said. "Are you having trouble getting through that nasty dogwood? Let me help you with that."

It was mid-day, and Jasper and Carl continued their steady progression up the Mount Vern Trail. There was a whisper below, and they stopped momentarily to listen. They had reached a height beyond the marked trail and thought it odd that others might be as bold. Turning their attention back to the path above, they caught the scent of musk floating on the breeze and heard the familiar flow of the pretty mountain stream from Jasper's childhood jaunts.

He gathered small sticks and twigs and formed a tepee by the stream. He struck a match, lit the kindling, and the fire sputtered to life. Carl tucked in close to the struggling flame and gripped the blanket tightly around him, trapping the warmth within. Jasper thought of his days spent here as a boy and the respite it offered from the awful truth at home, where the crooked music was born and played endlessly inside him.

There was a whisper from the woods beyond, and Jasper thought, "We're not alone." Carl remained unaware, however, of any unwelcome presence. They both sat together in silence. Jasper put his arms around Carl and kissed the top of his head. Then he rubbed the boy's arms lovingly, stood, and left him by the growing flame. Jasper walked along the stream's edge away from their encampment, sat in the twilight, and listened to the woodland below. He felt eyes upon him, and he hunkered down.

Police cars attended the Cane residence, responding to emergency calls regarding a domestic situation. Upon arrival, they found thirteen-year-old Jasper Cane standing on the front lawn with a 12-gauge shotgun at his feet and Marie and Alfred Cane dead inside the home.

Jasper's mom had begged for her life as he held her at gunpoint, claiming ignorance of the abuse Jasper had endured, but he remembered. He asked her a simple question before he put her down. "Hey, mom. Who held the camera?"

Jasper was placed in custody and transferred to a psychiatric care facility for the next ten years after the judicial process ran its course. His only complaint to hospital staff was of the musical strains that played incessantly, over and over in his head. After he was released, he moved to the next county and met a girl named Angela.

A motorcade of police and armour advanced along Route 73 and converged at the trailhead parking lot for Mount Vern. An emergency call was placed regarding a vicious assault on the kiosk operator at the trail base.

Authorities found kiosk operator Kevin Gilly beaten to death. The operator was discovered in a grizzly pose, with his neck broken and trail passes stuffed inside his dislocated jaw. The authorities scanned the mountain from below and began staging an armed response at the base.

All night, law enforcement was on the scene of a workplace shooting at the Walton Packing and Processing Plant. There were multiple casualties inside, but it was too early to know the death toll. The perpetrator escaped capture, but witnesses identified the shooter by name. Police tactical units were diverted when the call regarding the kiosk incident occurred. Authorities believed the workplace shooting and the murder of the kiosk operator might be related.

Tactical members began their ascent of the mountain flanked by other uniforms interspersed amongst the trees, creating a horizontal, human curtain that swept up the mountainside with a cold, hard purpose.

The uniforms came upon a ghastly scene by a large rock face several hundred feet up the trail. Two hikers were bloodied and lifeless, beaten to death, and seemingly posed in a manner that mocked decency.

The authorities relentlessly pursued their quarry until they finally spied a lone figure. It was the subject, Jasper Cane, and he was in the crosshairs of justice. He sat by the mountain stream, talking to himself with his head in his hands. There was an assault rifle by his side and fully loaded magazines precariously close to the fire. A bloodied maple walking stick was close by.

Jasper looked up from the flowing stream to the forest canopy above, and in it, he saw the play unfold before him with the all too familiar musical comp whispering on the milieu.

Angela and Carl were laid in the bed motionless, with obvious trauma. Angela's eyes were black, and blood had saturated the sheets below; a dreadful and soured scent hovered in the room. Carl was on his right side in a morbid embrace with his dead mother. The left side of his face shattered with a sheen of blood and tears. His body shivered as he mumbled his last words, "Daddy, I'm cold." Jasper procured a blanket from the closet and wrapped his son in it. Carl held onto the blanket as tightly as his broken limbs would allow, and Jasper kissed the top of his head, rubbed his arms lovingly, and walked away with the devil hand in hand.

Jasper finished packing and placed his fully geared kit bag into the dark sedan. He headed onto the highway toward the processing plant where he once worked: and the music played.

A uniform stretched out on the ground, a long gun trained on the subject, while others took their aim. Jasper heard twigs snapping in the dampness of the eve and felt eyes upon him. He buried his face in his hands and listened to the haunting tones that had plagued him his entire life. Then he took a deep breath and reached for his weapon. The music in his head became staccato, then still, and stolid. His eyes fluttered a crooked rhythm as the percussion slowed, the light dimmed, and the music stopped.


The End

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