EMMA, STEPHEN – August 2027


The Aubrac Plateau, France

“Except the small hut over there, I can’t see anything in this direction,” Emma said.

“That’s because there isn’t much,” Stephen said. “This is one big empty wilderness. I don’t get why you wanted to go out here – and this bloody early.”

Emma didn’t answer but started walking again, feeling the satisfactory grind of pebble-sized stones under her hiking boots. Before them stretched a sea of moorland, peppered with small wiry bushes and boulders and only stopped by distant mountains.

“Provence was better,” Stephen kept complaining. “I think we should figure out where to go next, once we get back to the hotel. I hear there are some nice facilities in Aurillac.”

“There’s also a quarantine,” Emma said and scouted the horizon. None of the paths she could make out felt right.

“Yeah,” Stephen lamented. “Not enough people getting their shots this time either. You’d think they’d have learned their lesson by now.”

“People don’t learn anything easy,” Emma said and turned to look back at him. She tried to remember how she liked him and was attracted to him, especially his sandy hair and tan and those sharp, clever eyes.

But this was one of the times when she had to try really hard. Stephen dialed up the volume of his laments.

“Jesus Christ, Em. We’ve been vacationing this part of the country like vagabonds for almost two weeks. We’re almost out of money and I still haven’t seen Paris, which was the deal, wasn’t it?”

“The water flask,” Emma said. “Give it to me.”

Stephen was baffled. “What are you talking about?”

Emma took it herself from his belt and then threw it to the ground, so the lid popped open and the water ran out.

“What the fuck are you doing?” He quickly kneeled down and took the flask, saving about half of the water. The day was still burning hot, though, like most August days in the highlands of the Massif Central.

Stephen tried to swat one of the many small flies that had come too close to his sweaty face but forgot he had the still-open flask in one hand and accidentally spilled more water.

“Fuck! Now see what you’ve made me do!”

“I didn’t do anything,” Emma said. “You’re the one who said yes to a morning hike, and you keep saying yes to things and then complaining about them. Well, now you have a choice. Go home to the hotel. You should be able to make it with the rest of the water.”

Stephen righted himself. “Emma, I am not going to have this kind of argument again with you. You’re not going to bait me.”

“It’s not an argument,” she said and tightened the clip to her blonde ponytail, getting ready to walk again. “It’s an attempt to get you to stop saying things you don’t mean.”

“Well, I won’t go home. I will go with you.”

“Then you don’t have enough to drink.”

“We can share. Or we can cut the walk shorter.”

“I don’t want to.”

“What’s … out there, anyway?” He waved his hand dismissively at the moorland. “This is like the asshole of Provence.”

“No, this is the Massif Central. It’s a place where people disappear – or try to.”

“You’re talking in riddles and I’m tired. Go on. See if I care.” He turned and began walking back.

Emma felt a sting of regret. She knew she had been a bitch. But she couldn’t help it. This was supposed to be the dream holiday – her first vacation on her own, overseas, and mostly without having to worry about her health or anything like that.

Maybe she was being a bitch because Stephen was being a dick. So she felt she had the right. And where did that leave her now?

She looked around at the lonely moorland spotting a small puddle of water she had not seen before. Otherwise, it was all the same as it had been in the half-hour they had been walking. And if she went on, alone, it would purely be out of spite.

You have to say what you really feel she thought to herself … if not, we might as well stop this right now. All of it.

Then she turned and walked.