Hey, Sup. How you doin. No tip of the week this week because we have a long chapter to critique, so let’s drive in to this piece. The Problematic Virtue critique, chapter 14:
Brian skulked through the tall grass at the edge of a valley in Rocky Mountain National Park. At this higher altitude, the air had turned crisp and cold and threatened winter. He hunkered down on a knee to regain his bearings and to survey the area. He grabbed a handful of the mushy leaves, squeezing them in-between his fingers. Fortunately for Brian, a recent rain had left the ground wet and so the leaves under his feet did not crunch; they made insignificant shuffling sounds as he moved through them. Silence was the top priority.
Tempted to venture out into the clearing to get a better view of the surroundings, he feared that would leave him too exposed. Best to stay within the trees. Across the clearing, a large moose studied him, the creature’s breath escaping its flared nostrils in plumes of milky vapor. If the animal were closer, he might worry, but he thought himself to be at a safe distance.
Twenty feet to his right lay an open meadow, and twenty feet to his left, the valley ended and began the steep climb to a snow-dusted mountain peak. In-between lay a run of tall trees. Since the meadow was a poor option, he could move left and make his way up a nearby hiking trail to reach higher ground and a chance at better visibility. However, the hiking trail would leave him exposed. He could also try to improve his vantage point by climbing up one of these nearby trees. Tree climbing would be another poor choice because it would be noisy and leave him vulnerable if detected. The best option had to be pushing on through the trees, keeping his eyes and ears open for movement and other telltale signs of his prey. He wore his dark-brown ski jacket, which, in hindsight, was the right play because the dim sky cast the trees in an auburn hue and he blended with them.
“Where are you?” he whispered to the trees.
He inched along through the shuffling leaves, heart pulsing in his chest. He reminded himself to stay vigilant. A loud creaking came from behind him and he whipped around, raising the gun in his hands. As he turned, he slipped and landed on the ground. As he found himself looking up at the trees, he had a vision of Ray towering overhead, half his face covered with a bandage, while holding a pistol inches from Brian’s nose. Ray’s eyes had been icy and full of vehemence.
“Stupid fucking gringo,” Ray had said. “You think you can just show up here in my city and disrespect me? Just take your money and go? You need to show some manners if you want to walk out of here alive.”
Brian blinked and Ray disappeared. The creaking had only been a branch from a dead tree poised to collapse under its weight. Shuddering as he got to his feet, Brian reminded himself that he needed to check behind more often. He continued shuffling through leaf mush.
A twig snapped. Cautious not to turn around too fast this time, he twisted his head to extend his peripheral vision, and then a blip of color darted between two trees, two hundred yards away.
“There you go,” he said.
In a flash, he was up and running towards the blip, keeping a tight grip on the gun while he moved. Something whizzed past his head, and a burst of bright red paint splatted on a nearby tree. The proximity of the shot took him by surprise, and he tumbled forward, but managed to somersault and land on his feet. He realized he had lost his target, so he bent over and raised the sight of the paintball gun to his left eye, hoping to get a better look at the trees ahead. His breathing was too erratic to keep the sight steady, so he lowered it.
Pop pop pop as the foliage around him exploded with red paint.
“Holy crap,” he said as he stumbled backwards. “Where the hell are you?”
He decided to gamble on the trail. He bolted to his left, beginning up the steep slope to a massive overturned tree stump that gave him cover to stop and compose himself. His back against the stump, he raised the paintball marker vertically to minimize his exposure and decided to take another risk and peek over the top of the wooden barrier. Deep breaths. He crept upwards, fully prepared to take one between the eyes if it did not work in his favor. Now he could see the valley below, appearing quiet and still, with no unnatural movement. Then he spotted a flake of blue poking out from behind a tree. The sleeve of a jacket.
“Bingo,” he said. He lowered the marker and centered that jacket sleeve in the sight of the scope. He took in a full breath, and while exhaling, pumped the trigger. Paintballs hit the tree instead, leaving a chorus of bright green splotches, but missing his target. The target leapt away from the tree, but Brian remained faithful that his higher ground would give him the edge. He tracked the blue jacket with the sight as it skittered along, but hesitated to shoot a moving target. His prey zigzagged around the valley in a vain attempt to make himself difficult to hit. Smiling, Brian knew soon enough that the mark would finish his little dance.
The target stopped, dropped to a knee and raised his own paintball gun, trying to find Brian. Brian calmed himself, centered the objective in his sights, and squeezed. The paintball flew through the air down into the valley below, hitting Alex dead on and painting a bright green splat in the middle of his chest. Alex slumped his shoulders, staring at the colorful circle.
Brian jumped up, thrusting the paintball gun above his head. “Yes! That’s what I’m talking bout.” He trotted down into the valley, beaming. Below, Alex sunk to his knees, his lips pressed into a frown.
“Son of a bitch,” Alex said, “I was sure I had you there. I saw you at that tree stump, but when I brought up the sight, I couldn’t find you. You’re quick with that gun.”
“It’s called a marker. Much to learn, grasshopper, but you did good today,” Brian said, trying to catch his breath. “You made me hunt you all over this place, like you were a step ahead of me the whole time. Normally I don’t have to work so hard. You sure you’ve never done this before?”
Alex shook his head, grinning despite the lime green stain of defeat on his chest. “That was fun. I can’t believe I missed you by that tree.” He tried to spin the marker by its trigger like a six-shooter, but the top-heavy gun slipped out of his fingers. Alex dropped to his knees and jumped up, with the barrel trained at Brian, playing as if he might shoot him point-blank. Another flashback hit Brian. At the bridge, when Brian had been on the ground, Ray kept inching the pistol closer to his face. The hole of the barrel had become a massive black circle, blotting out everything in Brian’s view.
Brian tried to pretend it had not bothered him. “Yeah. Well, you’re a natural. Couple more times out here and you’ll be the one chasing me down.”
Instead of responding to Brian’s compliment, Alex tilted his head and displayed that same mischievous look that Jimmy adopted just before he suggested something fun but stupid. “What,” Brian said, more like a statement than a question. But he already had an idea what Alex was thinking.
“Let’s get stoned,” Alex said. “I know you’ve got some on you. I think we should celebrate.”
Brian considered Alex’s request. Brian did have a couple of joints stowed in a small plastic case, and did not mind sharing, but something about this scene discomforted him. He had known Alex for a short time, and Brian could not remember ever seeing him smoke pot. However, getting stoned also might ease his mind, which had wandered to thoughts of the bridge too often today.
“I don’t know, man,” Brian began, “have you ever smoked weed before?”
“Of course I have,” Alex said. “A bunch of times. I just haven’t found anybody to smoke with in Boulder yet.”
Brian doubted if Alex was telling the truth, and questioned if smoking weed in the middle of a meadow in Rocky Mountain National Park was the smartest idea, but the desire on Alex’s face and Brian’s lack of enthusiasm for confrontation caused him to relent. He removed one of the two joints from the case. About two hundred feet up the trail, a boulder jutting out of the mountain would provide some shelter from prying eyes. He stuck the joint behind his ear and waved Alex towards the rock.
When they reached the shelter, Brian fired it up and took two deep puffs before passing it to Alex. Alex inhaled like smoking a cigarette. Brian then knew Alex had lied, because the kid had no idea how to smoke a joint. Brian immediately regretted allowing this but he could not reverse course now. He had already given his consent.
“No,” Brian said, taking away the joint, “you don’t pull and then inhale like you do with a cigarette. You inhale it straight in, like a vacuum cleaner, then hold it as long as you can.” He demonstrated this for Alex. Three quick hits and Brian already started to buzz, today being the first time he had smoked this week.
Alex took the joint back, and this time inhaled as instructed. He held it in for a few seconds, and then spewed the smoke out in a violent cough. He shook so badly that he labored to pass the joint back to Brian.
“You okay? Kinda harsh, huh?”
Alex tried to speak in between coughs. “Yeah… just… took… in… too… much.”
Brian waited until Alex had settled down before giving the joint back. Alex, red-faced and wheezing, eagerly tried again. This time, he let it out slowly, but without coughing. He steadied himself on the ground, leaned over to spit, and then passed the joint back, now with a smile on his face. They smoked it down until it became a roach, and then Brian ate the little smoldering chunk of burned weed and paper.
“Why do you eat the end-bit? Does eating that get you higher?”
“Maybe, I don’t really know. Just trying not to be wasteful, I guess. Somebody told me once that if you smoke a cigarette after a joint or a bowl, it gets you a little bit higher too,” Brian said as he offered a cigarette to Alex. “I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s just become a habit, kinda. It’s like putting a period on the sentence.”
“That’s beautiful, professor,” Alex scoffed, with a lazy smirk on his face and heavy-lidded eyes.
“You’re baked,” Brian said. Alex just laughed. They smoked their cigarettes in silence for a few minutes, staring down into the valley below, watching the Elk graze and the birds hop from tree branch to tree branch, and the diminutive mountain squirrels advance and retreat, then advance and retreat, hoping to pilfer some food from their backpacks.
Coughing to break the silence, Alex then said, “this girl in my English Comp One class farted yesterday, right in the middle of class. She got up and ran out, and everyone just sat there for a second, staring at each other like they didn’t know if they should pretend it didn’t happen, or what. Then the proff started to laugh, just a little bit, and then everybody was laughing. I mean, she had it coming, right?” Alex giggled, which became a full belly laugh, which became a wheeze for air.
Brian chuckled too. It’s pretty funny.