Burden

 Burden

*

I lean forward and readjust Collin’s arms around my neck. Ten years old but he weighs a ton.

“Hang on, buddy.”

We left over three hours ago and, at this pace, I estimate we have another five hours’ hike before we reach the road. We won’t make it before nightfall.

Maybe we should have remained at the tent, waited for someone to come along. No; we could have been there for days.

Loose rocks shift under my feet. Pebbles skitter down the embankment to the lake shore ten feet below.

On the water, the empty rowboat floats a hundred yards from shore, its broken tether dangling like the world’s worst fishing line. The boat drifts along, following me, taunting me. I consider swimming out to it, but know I wouldn’t be able to make it with Collin on my back and don’t want to leave him alone.

“Okay, buddy, I gotta take a break.”

I shift Collin off my back, unhook his hands from around my neck, and set him down on a grassy patch.

His eyes have come open again. Why do they keep doing that? I brush my hand over them, feel his eyelids lower.

I stroke his hair, try to hide the bloody divot where his skull struck the stone.

I never should have sent him up there, to see if he could spot the lost boat. I should have been more aware, more careful, but he’d always been such a good little tree-climber. Like a monkey.

After a moment, I hoist him into position. His limbs are stiff but still flexible, like pipe cleaners. I check the twine linking his wrists at the base of my throat, set my hands under his thighs, and resume our trek.

He seems to grow heavier by the second, but I can’t leave him behind. His mother will want to see him—one last time.