two branches, seven tines

 

    The dog loved her.

    Sure, she took the dog to the vet. Doled out most of the discipline and said she couldn’t eat too much chicken skin. The dog loved her not despite these things but primarily because of them. The dog knew that without Sabrina to take care of her, she would worry constantly about things like who would remember to feed her or pull the burrs out of her ears. So in addition to the default basic canine devotion, she loved Sabrina that much more for all her interference.

    But Sabrina chose to stay behind at the crossroads while Tobias wanted to explore the trail off to the left, at the end of which was a view of the mountain range surrounding them, and no dog worth her salt can possibly resist such an adventure.

    So the dog, whose name was Arrow, and Tobias left Sabrina behind. She waved them off while pulling an energy bar from her bright orange backpack.

    And later, Arrow had more to worry about than she ever imagined possible.

    They weren’t gone but twenty minutes. Sabrina stayed behind because they all knew it was a short hike up and back. Arrow, nearing the crossroads, suddenly bolted as if she’d just remembered Sabrina was even with them and she couldn’t wait to see her.

    “Arrow!”

    Tobias saw the dog slow down, hesitate, but then run even faster after her decision not to listen to him. The main trail at the crossroads was wide and all-terrain vehicles and mountain bikers picked up speed as they approached, despite knowing that two smaller hiker-only trails, one on either side, converged with the main trail. He was close behind Arrow and he couldn’t pick up any worrying sounds, but the Weimaraner tended to be rather myopically focused when a reunion was in the making. 

    Except there wasn’t one.

    When Tobias arrived at the intersection he found Arrow darting about, sniffing the ground. Her movements were wobbly triangles, overlaying one another. Sabrina wasn’t to be seen. Tobias was less concerned than the dog; Sabrina hadn’t stopped to pee once during their three-hour hike, so she was likely off doing so. Despite their next stop being the car at the trailhead, it would be at least an hour before they’d be home.

    Amused, he watched the dog’s frantic movements.

    Until they didn’t decrease.

    And until she didn’t return.

    Tobias imagined asking anyone who wandered by whether they might have seen Sabrina. “Tall, brunette? An orange backpack? Are you sure?”

    But there was no one to ask. No surprise. Twilight was descending even when he’d left her there and now it was nearly dark. Their car might very well be the last one at the trailhead. Neither of them had brought a headlamp because they’d expected to have completed the trail by now.

    Watching the dog, and then trying to calm and console her, his first thoughts were of predators. There were, conceivably, brown bears within the general area and even more likely were mountain cats. Bobcats and cougars. Arrow’s intense focus on whatever she smelled could mean a wild animal. Surely an attack from such a creature would have caused Sabrina to scream, would’ve left some evidence, if not a wounded woman.

    And then he considered other sorts of predators. The more common and often more dangerous kind. They hadn’t crossed paths with many other people on their hike, and his memory judged that everyone they’d encountered had descended before them.

    “Sabrina!”

    As the light dimmed, he climbed the smaller trail, opposite the one he’d taken to the overlook. He went slowly, Arrow glued to his side as if she expected him to suddenly disappear as well. He wasn’t sure how far to go. No further than Sabrina might have gone to find a private spot.

    It was full-on dark by the time he returned to the crossroads. There was no conceivable reason for Sabrina to return up the main trail they’d hiked. Equally, it made no sense that Sabrina would have wandered up the trail he’d taken with Arrow. He went up it, anyway. What if she’d intended to intersect with him, surprise him? What if she’d stepped off that trail to pee and he and Arrow, oblivious, had walked right by her? But then wouldn’t she have returned to the crossroads by now? Even if she’d made it as far as the overlook?

    He returned to the crossroads: silent and empty.

    Tobias felt an urge to leash up Arrow. The dog was looking for Sabrina and wandering further and further away from him. She wouldn’t make eye contact. He feared she might bolt off and also be lost. He would return to the car to find Sabrina but then she would freak out because he’d lost Arrow. But he didn’t have the lead with him. Sabrina carried the only backpack and they’d thrown the leash in at the start of their hike.

    He whistled for Arrow who returned to his side with begrudging reluctance. Tobias knew the next logical step - in fact, he should’ve done it twenty minutes ago - was to return to the car. She was almost certainly there, either cold or bored with waiting for him. Arrow wouldn’t leave with him, so he grabbed the dog’s collar and pulled her along, nearly running down the last length of trail. He remembered that Sabrina had the keys and this was a comfort. She’d done it before; returned to car before him, although they’d always discussed that she would do so, given this eventuality or that change in weather.

    Their car was, in fact, the last one in the lot.

    Empty and locked.

 

    They searched throughout the night.

    Tobias and the rangers, then four men from the county sheriff’s office. Dawn brought joggers and cyclists whose bikes began to line up, abandoned for the search. A friend brought a spare key for the car and they locked Arrow inside. She immediately started crying and scratching at the door. The friend took Arrow home while Tobias continued with the search.

    And he still hadn’t eaten anything before Tobias realized that twenty-four hours had passed since he’d left her there, at the crossroads.

    They found nothing of Sabrina. No evidence of her interacting with anyone else. No backpack, no messages on his phone. Getting into the empty car and driving down the canyon without her was the most horrific thing he’d ever done. After every bend in the road he slowed down and pulled over, scouring the darkening hills, seething with spite against something unknown, everything within him telling him to go back.

    Tobias collapsed into bed, encouraging Arrow to join him despite that she’d never been allowed on the furniture. She tensed as if to jump up but looked worried, certain – hoping - Sabrina would come through the door to admonish her at any moment. Arrow either didn’t trust him, or wanted too much for things to be normal, and wouldn’t jump up on the bed. Tobias fell asleep almost immediately but woke up every twenty minutes or so, frantically reaching for his phone, plugged in and charging on the nightstand. Always silent and with nothing new.

   

    The policemen came to their home the next day, interviewed him for hours, while he wanted desperately to rejoin the search. The took her laptop and her day planner, skulked around the house trying to notice things without his noticing them.

    A week later the laptop and day planner were returned to his hands without comment. Sabrina was not.

    That night Tobias sat at the kitchen table, another night of takeout food barely touched, and opened the laptop. He would stay up all night if necessary. Go back through her browser history, check her documents, her electronic calendar. But it wasn’t necessary. He wasn’t sure why the police had retained the laptop for so long, as there was so little information on it, pertinent or otherwise.

    He stood up and reached over to flip off the light, picked up the day planner, and took it with him. Arrow was already in the bedroom, unconscious on the floor on Sabrina’s side of the bed. When they’d first started dating, Tobias had been baffled by Sabrina keeping a day planner. A physical book, when her life was so streamlined and she concurrently kept her appointments on her laptop calendar. After a few months he understood that the day planner was a creative outlet for her, where she would write down quotes from books she was reading, ideas for her design projects, resolutions parsed out to the days and even hours.

    He started leafing through the pages from the beginning of the year. It was in about mid-March that he realized something strange.

    Sabrina was going hiking without him. Brief stints and, oddly, immediately after work. It wasn’t that she never went hiking without him. Sometimes she went with a couple of friends, or their schedules conflicted so she and Arrow would go without him, but he always knew when she was off hiking. Or at least he thought he had.

    And it wasn’t that she wrote, Hike (without Tobias) on the pages on the planner. His first indication was a note she’d made on a Saturday morning, presumably after a hike with him, Two branches, seven tines.

    Then again, the following Tuesday in the hour after work, the same words written again: Two branches, seven tines.

    On Thursday, again after work but the note was different: Almost certainly an elk. Too large for a deer.

    It was as if she were keeping a strict therapy appointment, every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon for several weeks. She never wrote hike, but the repeated time slot and numbers which he eventually guessed to be temperature and time estimations convinced him that Sabrina was visiting the same location twice a week.

    Seemingly to visit the carcass of an elk.

    She researched elks, recording facts about their mating season, their migration patterns, and sketches - one sketch, actually, repeated in varying degrees of detail - of the antlers described in that one entry.

    Tobias couldn’t manage to remember what had happened that Saturday in March. Was he even with her? He didn’t keep activities such as hikes on the calendar on his phone; his calendar was the opposite of Sabrina’s, barely accessed and spotted only occasionally with dentist appointments or concerts. Had he left her then, too? And she’d wandered off and found the elk? Regardless of his lack of recalling another seemingly ordinary Saturday morning hike, he would surely remember if they’d stumbled across an elk carcass together. The trails they commonly hiked were busy, with a high level of forestry maintenance.

    The day planner indicated her visits grew more sporadic. She was watching the elk decompose, jotting down numbers of visible bones, the sorts of insects she recognized on or near the carcass. It seemed butterflies flocked to decaying elk carcasses.

    At 3:14 am, Tobias crawled out of bed to retrieve the laptop and found her search history for elk. He’d skimmed over the history before, looking for any indication of a liaison, communication with a stranger, or even for medical appointments or secret job interviews, any crimson flag.

    He found the searches for much of the results she’d recorded in the day planner - she hadn’t cleared her browser history in months and had made no effort to hide what she’d done. And why should she? Her interest seemed a bit strange and perhaps almost obsessive but he couldn’t see any reason as to why she hadn’t shared it with him. Above all, Sabrina seemed most interested in what seemed to Tobias to be one of the most innocuous and least interesting things about her subject - the number of tines on the elk’s antlers. She researched the growth of antlers in relation to the age of the animal, and reasons as to deformities or other anomalies. Tobias couldn’t see why a particular number of tines on the antlers would be indicative of a deformity but then again, he hadn’t actually seen the animal.

 

    Closing the laptop, he slid off the bed and onto the floor with Arrow. He lay down next to her and asked, “Wanna show me the elk tomorrow, girl?”

    Her lashes and whiskers fluttered but she didn’t open her eyes. He pulled the comforter from the bed and slept beside her anyway. He lay awake for a long time, wondering whether if he’d just allowed Arrow to lead the way that night, she might have lead him to the elk. And to Sabrina?

 

    Arrow awoke long before Tobias did but lay very still, staring at him. He was scowling in his sleep and the first two fingers of his right hand moved opposite from one another, as if they were typing very slowly.

    She wondered what he understood. She wondered why everything still smelled so intensely of Sabrina when Sabrina was gone. She wondered why they came home and ate and slept, when they could be up in the mountains, all day and all night.

    When Tobias woke up, he didn’t even look at her. He stared at the ceiling for several moments before twitching, slightly, then stumbling to his feet. Arrow continued to lay on her side, watching him. He peed and then began stuffing things into a backpack. It seemed only minutes after he’d woken up that they left the house.

 

    He let Arrow off the new leash. Arrow didn’t like the new leash – it seemed to be the only thing that didn’t smell like Sabrina. She bolted away from it and Tobias, sniffing and weaving her way up the main trail.

    It took her some time to realize that Tobias hadn’t followed her, that he stood still in the middle of the trail. She returned to his side, peered up at him.

    “Where’d you go with Sabrina?”

    She stared at him, waiting.

    He stepped around her, took a few steps up the trail. Arrow relaxed, peed, and began sniffing a few feet up the trail to the left.

    Tobias followed her.

    He even followed her into the trees when she wandered off the trail, which he’d never done before. He was clumsy and his actions made her nervous. She started staying on the trail and they made good time. They hiked and they smelled and they drank water from the backpack and they hiked.

    The sun was almost above them when Arrow smelled Sabrina again. Not on Tobias, though his clothes and some parts of his skin smelled like Sabrina. This scent was off to the left, deeper into the mountain. This journey was rote to Arrow now and she followed the scent as she’d always followed Sabrina, off the trail, and Tobias followed.

    Though the smell was old and didn’t bring any new thoughts to Arrow, she picked up speed, wondering why humans were so clumsy when they had only two feet to find places and carry them forward. Tobias crashed after her but stopped before Arrow reached Sabrina’s scent. He stood staring at the remains of the elk, just as Sabrina used to do.

    Arrow had understood the fascination, at first. The carcass had smelled so utterly delicious when they’d first discovered it and she could never understand what Sabrina had been trying to protect her from when she’d hadn’t allowed her to taste, to roll. But after so many months the ever increasing tempting flesh, had been taken by luckier creatures than Arrow and now the bones were common, cold.

    Arrow was far more interested in the source of Sabrina’s scent: the bright backpack. She sat down beside it, attentively, but Tobias crouched down next to the elk. He stared at it for several moments before reaching out a shaking hand to move some bones around.

    She waited. She thought he might come to her, appreciate the backpack as much as she did. The good leash was in there, and some food.

    It wasn’t fresh but she didn’t mind.