Fiction Sample 2 Delsie Cassidy stepped into a primitive stone rotunda, forcing her eyes away from the

desert panorama beneath her just long enough to mind her footing as she entered. Firmin and Andre roamed the hillside excitedly, following old scent trails of wildlife. Rectangular openings in the tiny structure's circular wall provided vistas in each direction. To the south and east far below, labyrinths of cul-de-sac tributaries embellished the lazy arc of Desert Foothills Parkway. To the northwest, the hulking eastern peak of South Mountain towered in the distance, even above her own elevation, separated from her by Telegraph Pass below. Dozens of red lights blinked against the cloudless pastel sky from a linear crop of broadcast antennas at its apex. To the west, the direction onto which the rotunda's entryway opened, the western peak rose within yards of where she stood. Straight north, far beyond the gap between the facing slopes of the eastern and western peaks, Central Avenue stretched away across the dusty floor into the tall buildings of Downtown Phoenix. Cars moved like specks on both sides of the massive ridge. Far below, children played in parks and back yards, cyclists leaned onto handlebars as they raced along the roadsides, joggers and rollerbladers slalomed on serpentine sidewalks. The city was alive with people enjoying the outdoors on this idyllic Sunday afternoon. Yet, none of their sounds reached Delsie's ears. The air stood in place with its earthy aroma. She reached for Rich's hand, placed her own in it, and leaned onto his shoulder affectionately. "It's breathtaking, isn't it?" "Uh-huh," he answered. "We should come up here more often." "Yes, we should. Isn't it amazing how peaceful and quiet it is up here in the midst of four million people?" "I wonder what this little building is here for?", she asked. "I don’t know. It looks like some sort of prehistoric gazebo made from rocks that someone just picked up off the ground and stacked, doesn’t it?" "Do you think it was here before the city? Or, maybe, did the parks department built it?" "I would guess it was already here," said Rich. "Maybe as some sort of sentry post." "Like a fort?" Delsie walked out and began circling it, inspecting it for signs of modern construction, and finding none. Not even mortar to hold the flat rocks of the walls in place. "Not to shoot from. Not if it dates back to the original Indian city. They didn't have guns, of course. I'm not even sure they had arrows until the Europeans came. It was probably just a place to disguise a lookout above the pass, because a person standing here on this cliff would be too conspicuous." They stood side-by-side and considered the structure together, then shrugging, they surrendered to the mystery. A pair of voices echoed along the mountain walls, and just beneath them Delsie saw two hikers in light shorts and sturdy boots ascending the trail. Each carried a canvas water bag on his back to avoid dehydration on the desert mountain. Delsie walked to Saturn and patted his shoulder and neck. She and Rich had led the palominos up the steep Kiwanis Trail to the pass, and then the few hundred yards up to the rotunda. The remainder of the vertical climb appeared sufficiently gentle to ride. She swung her leg across and adjusted herself in the saddle, as Rich did the same atop Baker. She whistled for Fermin and Andre, and motioned for Rich to lead. The party resumed their ascent, the humans on horseback, with German Shepherd escorts, just as the hikers were arriving. Several minutes later they reached a level point on the trail which led perpendicular to the slope they had just climbed, and she looked down on the open-topped rotunda to the right. It

seemed as impossibly far beneath her now as it had seemed impossibly high above the city when she had been standing inside it. Up here the National Trail became more horizontal than vertical, and it coursed along the crooked mountain ridge as though it were the narrow spine of an enormous prehistoric dinosaur. Bare sagebrush, tall seasonal stalks of yucca and ocotillo, enormous growths of wild prickly pear, and towering saguaro scrolled past as they moved westward. At all points along the ridgeline, tartan square roadways measured coordinates across the vast city floor spreading northward beyond the horizon, and the confused paisley patterns of suburban neighborhoods splashed the Ahwatukee Foothills to the south like a Jackson Pollock canvas. Delsie's long blond hair sailed slightly off her shoulders from her brown leather widebrimmed Stetson as Saturn bore her along the trail. Though still within the borders of the fifthlargest city in the US, it occurred to her that they may possibly be at least one to two miles from the nearest humans. One of the largest city parks in the world, South Mountain was eleven miles long and between two and three miles wide at various points, the approximate dimensions of the island of Manhattan in New York. The ridgeline they were now on was as high above the city floor as the roofs of New York's tallest buildings towered above its streets, even when those had been the World Trade Center. Dozens of hikers enjoyed these trails daily at Telegraph Pass and to its east, but very few ventured this far west. Here lived solitude in the middle of the multitude. A smaller trail split away and led a few hundred feet to a level clearing in the sagebrush. They dismounted. Rich lifted a heavy saddlebag from behind Saturn's saddle. From its supple rubber lining, he poured water into two shallow pans for the horses and dogs. Delsie and Rich sat together on a large rock looking westward, with bottles of water and strips of Rich's homemade elk jerky. This far to the west, Ahwatukee was only a thin strip of suburbs, hugging the edge of the foothills. Beyond that, the Sonoran desert spread across ten flat miles to the Gila Range, where the day's sun was descending. The shadow lengthened across the valley and the sky behind the distant mountains ignited into an orange blaze as they watched. Delsie leaned into Rich, and he wrapped her in one arm against him. Firmin and Andre had circled into naps on the dust, and Saturn and Baker waited patiently as the family enjoyed quality time in one another's company. Still, Delsie felt an un-nameable distance in Rich, one which she had begun to sense slowly over several months. Perhaps it was nothing. But, her intuition told her that he was thinking things he could not, or would not, articulate. Whatever it may be, she knew that its antidote was communication. But should she be the one to initiate it? Should she wait until he is ready? Will she be able to know when that time arrives? Will he open the subject himself? Probably not, without prompting from her, she decided. He had once been a prolific communicator. Now, it seemed as though he had drifted from her, somehow. Most disturbingly, he had become physically distant. She wanted to resist reflexively questioning whether he still found her attractive; that seemed too cliché an explanation, and borne from insecurity rather than rationality. In her late thirties, she was still fit, as slim as ever, and she hadn't noticed a decline in the visual attention she seemed to receive from men wherever she went. Maybe it was a normal complacency that should be expected this far into any marriage. Even on calm waters, two un-tethered boats will almost imperceptibly place distance between themselves, until the gap becomes unreachable. Communication is the tether. She must open a dialogue, she decided. But, not now. The matter had already tarnished a breathtaking sunset within her own mind. She would not venture to open what might be an uncomfortable topic with him at such a heavenly moment as this. "Better start back. It'll be dark before we get back to the truck," he said. Fortunately, a swollen orange moon was hovering low over Mesa, and as it rose it helped illuminate their

footing. The dogs led the way back. Coyotes sounded lonesome cries, a reminder that this was wild country, despite its urban perimeter. The coyote were the largest predators in the park. She had never heard of Gila Monsters in the city. There were certainly diamondback rattlers and scorpions in these mountains. She wondered whether a nocturnal coyote would challenge a party of two humans on horseback, and two large dogs. She guessed not, but she was comforted to know that Rich's Glock was in his saddlebag, just in case. They rode past the rotunda to where the pass crossed the road, then hiked down to the parking lot from there. They loaded the horses into the trailer in the darkness and drove home. It had been a beautiful way to end the weekend. Tomorrow would begin another work week. After a soak in the Jacuzzi tub at home, she felt refreshed both mentally and physically, and ready to take on the world for another five days.

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