At the Finish Line
by Hannah Baker
Elin Wickstrom breathed in the crisp mountain air and smiled. Her limbs were aching, and she was sure she did not exactly smell like a flower, but she was one with nature and felt completely at peace. This trail was everything she had hoped it would be. Relaxing, challenging, invigorating, and infuriating. She had started in Georgia, had come on this trail to find peace, to get away from the world. She was at loose ends, and nature had always been her refuge, ever since her first visit to America. She had been born and raised in Uppsala, Sweden, but her mother was American. When her parents separated, she and her two siblings remained in Sweden with their father, and her mother moved back to the United States. Elin visited her mother in North Carolina one summer when she was twelve and instantly fell in love. She had been amazed at the warmth and intensity of the sun, in awe of the mountains and rivers and the rich blue sky. From that moment, she was taken. When time for university came, she applied only to colleges in the States, finally settling on Duke. She moved to Hendersonville, North Carolina, after school and found work in a local theater. Seven years on, she was comfortable enough to ask her boss's permission to hike the Appalachian Trail from beginning to end, and she was respected enough to have her request approved.
Her thirtieth birthday was coming up and she had always wanted to go on a grand adventure as a way of closing off her twenties. Her sister, who lived very near the end of the trail in Maine, had suggested it to her and agreed to meet her at the end of the trail and take her home for a few days. Elin wanted her girlfriend, Chrissie, to go with her, but Chrissie's idea of a "grand adventure" included high-end hotels with pristine linens and European bell boys. They fought briefly over what to do and finally Chrissie agreed to let Elin go on the condition that, after their six-month separation, she would plan their date nights for at least a month. They parted on a good note, hugging and kissing and promising to text whenever possible, but Elin's mind had already turned to the trail while Chrissie still sat in her car, too emotional to drive, wondering what she was supposed to do for half a year without her girl.
Elin was now six months, 1800 miles, and about a thousand selfies into the hike. Somewhere in southern Maine, there were about 200 miles left to the end of the trail, but the hikers tried not to think about that. Instead they thought only of the current day and the progress they had made up to that point. So far, no one had gotten attacked by bears, gotten chronically ill, or fallen off of a mountain. She thought it had been a pretty decent trip thus far. She had not come up with a trail name for herself prior to the hike, unaware that this was a requirement for the Appalachian Trail, so a group of people who happened to be around her most of the time over the months took to calling her Stripes based on her affinity for striped clothing. This name stuck, and soon everyone knew her not as Elin, but as Stripes.
"Hey, Cygnus?" Elin called to the man walking a few feet in front of her. He turned and smiled, inviting her to say whatever she had to say. He was a nice man, somewhere in his mid-twenties, tanned and bearded by the months on the trail. He and Elin had been traveling at a similar pace, and so had been around one another for a good portion of the trail, but they didn't speak much. He didn't seem willing to talk to anyone when they did approach him, and Elin did not like being a nuisance, so she left him alone. The group of people she had been with since the beginning of the trail, however, had all tapered off somehow. Some had quit the trail early, others had only intended to go a small distance, while others simply wanted to go at a more leisurely pace and told Elin to carry on ahead of them. On this particular day, no one else but Cygnus and herself seemed to be around, and she had a pounding headache that had been bothering her all day, so she figured she should reach out to Cygnus.
"Do you have an aspirin? I misplaced mine."
"Of course," Cygnus reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a bottle of aspirin, "I always have it easily accessible."
"Not a problem," Cygnus nodded, then turned to continue walking once Elin gave his medicine back, but Elin stopped him.
"So, have you been enjoying your hike?"
"Yeah. It's gorgeous out here. Colder than I expected," Cygnus said.
"Are you from down south?"
"Atlanta, yeah." Cygnus kept his eyes on the trail, his voice low and reluctant, but he smiled whenever he spoke.
"Do you mind if I walk with you? I've been right behind you for a while now, and I'm starting to feel like a stalker." Elin laughed, but Cyngus didn't.
"You can walk by me. But can we keep the talking to a minimum?"
"Oh. Sure. I just thought, since we're out here, we might as well—"
"Don't take this the wrong way, but I didn't come out here to make friends."
"Oh. That's fine. I didn't either, really. Hey, if there's anything I can do to compensate for the aspirin . . . I have plenty of food. Fruit or snack bars or even some candy if you need a little sugar rush. Or, uh, I think I have some extra scarves if you're really cold. They're kind of girly, but I guess you don't really think about that when you're trying to keep warm."
"Stripes. I'm fine. It was one aspirin, you don't need to compensate. Let's just enjoy the scenery, okay?"
They walked on in silence, each fuming with his and her own thoughts.
“There are lots of weirdos out here, Stripes,” Cygnus said suddenly after half an hour had gone by. “You know you probably shouldn’t be hiking this trail alone.”
“Why, because I’m a woman?” Elin asked.
“Nothing to do with that, don’t try to blow any of that feminist crap in my face. It’s dangerous for anyone,” Cygnus said.
“You’re doing it,” Elin pointed out.
“Well, yeah—but I’ve done it before.”
“Don’t see how that makes a difference. Look, I appreciate your concern, but I’m a grown woman. I can handle myself.”
“That’s right, you’re a Viking,” Cygnus said, “hey, if you’re Swedish, why aren’t you blonde?”
“If you’re American, why aren’t you fat?”
“Touché,” Cygnus chuckled, “Your trail name should be Swedish Fish.”
Elin stopped walking and bent forward, putting her hands on her knees and closing her eyes.
"Was the joke that bad?" Cygnus asked. Elin didn't respond.
"Hey, are you okay?" Cygnus helped Elin take her backpack off then sit down.
"Sorry, I'm feeling lightheaded all the sudden. And nauseous."
"I think I see a shelter coming up. Do you think you can make it there? It isn't far."
"Yeah, I can make it." Cygnus helped Elin stand up and put her backpack back on. "Do you mind if I hold onto you though? I wouldn't, but I'm really dizzy."
"Yeah, that's fine, do what you have to."
The two approached a wooden shelter arm in arm, walking slowly. Elin was slightly hunched over, breathing shakily, muttering apologies to Cygnus, who either didn't hear her or didn't feel the need to respond.
“Looks like it’s just the two of us,” Cygnus said, taking note of the vacant shelter and the lack of any indication of hikers approaching in the distance.
“Good,” Elin said. She lay on the nearest bench.
"Do you need anything? Another aspirin? I don't think I have any stomach medicine. Oh, but I have herbal tea!"
"How are we supposed to make tea? Where are you gonna boil water?"
"I'm magic," Cygnus said, pulling a portable stove out of his backpack.
"Look, you don't have to do all this for me. I know you want to be alone, so you can just go ahead. I'll be fine. I mean, I'll take the tea, because that sounds perfect, but after that, you can go."
"I'm not going anywhere. Unfortunately, we Americans have this really annoying need to help people. I'm gonna stick with you, okay? You can't take any sickness lightly out here, not even a little cold."
"Thank you. And I'm sorry."
"You have nothing to apologize for." Cygnus handed Elin her tea. She sat up so he could sit on the bench beside her. “Can you believe we’ve almost made it to the end? It’s crazy! In the middle there, I’ll admit I felt like it was never going to end, but now we’re in Maine! Far cry from Georgia.” Cygnus dug through his backpack to find an energy bar. As he did so, a plastic bag fell to the ground.
“What is that?” Elin eyed the bag.
“Oh, it’s just a little—”
“Why do you have a bag of dirt in your backpack?”
“It isn’t dirt,” Cygnus said, sounding thoroughly irritated for the first time since Elin had known him, “It’s ashes.”
“Oh. That’s—disturbing,” Elin said.
Cygnus inhaled deeply and observed his hiking partner for a moment. She sat on the bench across from him, her eyes demanding some sort of explanation. Begging to know the story so that she could believe he was not, in fact, one of the weirdos he had just been warning her about.
“Last summer, some buddies and I came out here to hike the whole trail,” Cygnus began, voice serious and somber, “My best friend, Sam, had always wanted to do that, and after he proposed to his girlfriend, us guys decided we would forego a typical bachelor’s party in favor of hiking the Appalachian Trail. We started in Georgia, got as far as Maryland. We went to sleep in a shelter not unlike this one. In the morning, Sam was dead.”
“Oh, no,” Elin closed her eyes.
“Yeah. A spider bit him the day before, and either he didn't know or he didn't think he needed to tell us. I don't know, maybe he thought it was no big deal because it didn't cause him immediate pain, but the doctors say that's what killed him. So, obviously we went right back home to Georgia. He was cremated. I had a dream a few months later that I finished the trail with Sammy, so I decided that’s what I had to do. I packed up his ashes and took him with me,” Cygnus said.
“Wow. How, um, how did you get the ashes? I mean—I’d think his family . . .”
“Yeah, well, he doesn’t have any family to speak of, really. His dad’s long gone and his mom abandoned him when he was a baby. No one knows where she is. His fiancée technically had his ashes, but I didn’t think that was fair. I’d known the guy since we were ten years old, you know? This chick had only known him some five years, and just because they’re bumping uglies she’s entitled to have him on her mantle for the rest of her life? That’s not right,” Cygnus said.
“So, you stole his ashes.”
“‘Stole’ is very strong. I don’t intend to keep him. The last thing Sam would want would be to be locked up in some urn morbidly on display in his tiny apartment. I came on this trail to set him free. When we reach the end, I’ll scatter his ashes.”
“And you don’t think his girlfriend will notice he’s missing?” Elin asked.
“Why should she? I didn’t take the urn. I filled it up with the ashes from some newspapers I burnt in the fireplace, anyway. She won’t know the difference.”
“Wow. I can’t decide whether you’re a really sweet friend or an absolute nutcase,” Elin said.
“Maybe a little of both,” Cygnus laughed, “Well, it’s late. We ought to get to sleep, don’t you think?” Cygnus said.
“Yeah, then hopefully we can get an early start tomorrow. Thank you.”
“Good night, Swedish Fish.”
“Good night, Cygnus.”
“I’m sorry about your friend,” Elin offered. It was lame, but it was the best she could do.
It was early the next morning, and she was waiting for Cygnus to finish cleaning up after the instant grits he had made. “And I’m sorry I'm slowing you down here."
“Don’t be. I think I needed someone to break my sullen silence. It's good to talk to someone. By the way, call me Caleb. Enough of this trail name crap. I mean, I’ll still call you Swedish Fish if you prefer, but you can call me Caleb.”
“Swedish Fish isn’t even my trail name!” Elin laughed.
“Well, it’s certainly better than Stripes,” Caleb said.
“Elin. Call me Elin.”
“Nice to meet you, Elin,” Caleb smiled and held out his hand for Elin to shake.
“Nice to meet you, Caleb,” Elin said, “Truce?”
Three days went by before Elin was well enough to resume the hike. In those days, she and Caleb talked about their lives, their favorite foods, books, and movies, what they were most excited to do after they finished the trail, and what they would miss the most about the excursion. Caleb spoke more about Sammy, about how happy he had been in the days leading up to his death, about their college days, about how far away and yet somehow very recent it all seemed. Elin talked about growing up in Sweden, about her older brother who still lived there with a wife and three children, about how she sometimes wished she could go back in time and tell her father that her love for America did not mean she did not love him. She didn't speak about Chrissie.
When they didn't talk, they played cards, and when other hikers came into the shelter for the night or only for a few hours, Elin and Caleb eagerly listened to their stories. At the end of the three days, the two had gone from almost-strangers to friends.
Birds carried on a conversation in the trees above their heads, twigs snapped and leaves crunched under unknown feet. Laughter in the distance, drowned by the sound of a waterfall.The November sun glistened, its soft golden light only reaching the weary hikers in mere trickles, trapped and filtered by heavy trees. The last stretch of the Appalachian Trail was at hand, and the earth spun on as it had every day.
“Do you have a place to stay?” Elin asked, “It’s a long way from Georgia.”
“Oh, well I was just going to get a hotel or something. I hadn’t really thought about it, to be honest. I didn’t entirely believe I’d make it to the end,” Caleb said.
“My sister lives not far from the end of the trail. I’m staying with her for a while. Why don’t you stay with me at her place for a bit? Just a couple of days, so you can clean up and rest up and eat some real food before heading home again.” Elin suggested.
“Oh, I don’t know, I wouldn’t want to impose,” Caleb said.
“Nonsense, I’m inviting you. It won’t bother my sister; she’s filthy rich and has a huge house. She’ll hardly know you’re there. Besides, she loves having visitors.”
“Well, I suppose it’d be nice to take a hot shower, if nothing else. And sleep in a real bed.”
“And not have to pay a hotel fee.”
“Yeah. That’s pretty nice. Thank you, Elin. I’m honored. How do you say ‘thanks’ in Swedish?”
“Tack.” Elin replied.
“Tack? Like a tic-tac?”
“If you wish,” Elin laughed.
“Huh. That’s easier than I expected. Tack, Elin.”
“Du är valkommen.”
“Hej!” Elin’s fair-haired older sister, Lena, stepped out of her car and opened her arms to embrace her sister. Elin and Caleb had reached the end of the Appalachian Trail. As is the case with so many adventures, both hikers were wrought with vast and conflicting emotions ranging from relief to sadness, a desire to get home as soon as possible to the comforts of central heating systems and fireplaces and beds, and a desire to turn right back around and walk the entire trail again.
“Hej!” Elin ran forward and embraced her sister. Caleb stood back and smiled pleasantly as the sisters exchanged gossip half in English and half in Swedish until Elin motioned for him to join them. She introduced him to Lena and the three rode off in the comfort of Lena’s car, the Wickstrom sisters chatting excitedly about everything that had happened in the six months that had separated them and Caleb resting his head against the window in the back seat, drifting in and out of a light sleep, hugging his backpack to his chest as though it were an old friend. He had scattered some of Sam's ashes at the end of the trail, but he saved some of them on the belief that Sam really could see what Caleb was doing somehow. Although they had finished the trail, Caleb considered Lena's home to be the last part of the journey, and so he brought some of Sam's ashes along with him to scatter there so that Sam could be part of the entire trip, from beginning to end.
The next morning, Elin and Caleb woke up before the sunrise and went for a walk along the harbor outside of Lena’s home. Both had had grand plans the previous night to eat a hearty supper and enjoy a long, deep sleep well into the morning. Both could not eat half of what Lena had prepared for them, and both were unable to sleep past four AM.
They sat on the hood of Lena’s car with hats and scarves and mugs of hot coffee, watching as the world slowly came to life.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to life indoors,” Elin commented.
“Same here,” Caleb said, “I may have to permanently set up shop in one of the sheds along the trail.”
“I’ll come with you,” Elin said.
“So, what’s next for you?” Caleb asked.
“I’m taking part in a production of My Fair Lady at a theater in Hendersonville. That’s in North Carolina.”
“I think I’ve been, yeah. Is that the town with all the little goat statues on the sidewalks?”
“Yeah, but they’re bears now,” Elin said, “Anyway, the troupe I work with is worthy of Broadway.”
“So, you’re an actress?”
“No. Director. Well, assistant director, but I should have my own project soon. Hopefully next season.”
“Yeah. What about you? What do you do when you’re not hiking across the country with your best friend’s ashes?”
“I have no idea, to be honest. I got my masters in philosophy last year, and I’ve been taking some time off since then, trying to figure out—”
“What the hell to do with a master in philosophy?” Elin suggested.
“Pretty much, yeah.” Caleb hung his head and laughed. “I think I’d like to be a travel journalist.”
“That might be fun.” Elin nodded.
“Yeah. I love exploring. Sam and I actually had this plan to go around the world together. We managed to make it to Mexico once, but that’s as far as we ever got. Anyway, I’ll probably go back to school—”
“I know, I’m the eternal student,” Caleb said.
“Nothing wrong with that. We’re all eternal students, really,” Elin shrugged, then grinned, “Little philosophy for you there.”
“Thanks for that,” Caleb said, then, as an afterthought, “Would you maybe like to go to dinner sometime?”
“As a friend, sure,” Elin replied.
“Oh. I was actually thinking as more than a friend, but—”
“You certainly move fast, don’t you?”
“What do you mean?”
“You would barely speak to me just a few weeks ago, and suddenly you’re into me? I think the bed and the real coffee are getting to you,” Elin laughed.
“I always liked you. At least I think I did. I just didn't know how to show it,” Caleb said.
“Well. I happen to think you’re a much better man than you’d have people believe. But I can’t go out with you. I don’t play for your team,” Elin said.
“What, you’re a Republican? That’s all right, we can make it work—”
“I’m a lesbian!” Elin laughed, “I’ve been in a very serious relationship for three years now."
“Oh. Well. Guess you’re not a Republican, then.”
“Caleb! You can’t be serious for one minute, can you?”
“I can be, but where’s the fun in it?” Caleb sipped the last of his coffee and admired the sun coming up over the harbor. "How come you never mentioned her before? Your girlfriend."
"I don't know. I guess she never came up. To be honest, I'm not sure we'll be together much longer. She's a good friend, but we're so different. We want completely different things. I actually wanted her to come on the hike with me, but she can hardly stand to go out in the backyard for five minutes, let alone be in the woods for six months. I think I've been fooling myself for our entire relationship. I want us to work. But we don't."
"Three years is an awful long time to fool yourself."
"Yeah, well, I fooled myself for twelve years with the silly notion that my parents would fall back in love and we'd all be a happy family again. I only stopped believing that when dad died. If there's one thing in this world I'm good at, it's living a lie. But I'm not gonna do that anymore. At least, I'll try to stop."
"Sometimes it's tough to call your own bullshit. But I have faith in you."
“Take a good look, buddy,” Caleb held up the plastic bag containing Sam’s ashes, “I think this is the place. We made it to the end.”
Caleb casually opened the bag as one would a bag of chips, reached in for a pinch of ashes, held them in the palm of his hand for a moment before tossing them up and allowing the wind to carry them away over the glossy, orange-tinted harbor. Caleb watched the ashes flitter in the air until he could no longer see them, then he tipped the remainder of the bag toward Elin. Cautiously, reverently, she took the remaining ashes and scattered them into the wind.
“Take it easy, Sammy,” Caleb said. A flock of birds flew overhead, their chirping the only sound in the otherwise silent harbor. “See you at the finish line, man.”