Grief Comes in Two Parts

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic


Grief is full of loss and pain, but it can also be something kinder and full of light; a door to new beginnings. This is a story of a young woman who struggles to rediscover her identity after the
death of a loved one.

Submitted: July 09, 2018

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Submitted: July 09, 2018

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Grief Comes in Two Parts

1

“Grief comes in two parts,” he said while tracing the edge of her index finger. They laid together in bed, her head on his shoulder, legs entwined, hands’ fingertips meeting. He always did this, trailing her hand with his own, leaving behind a map of his fingerprints on her skin.

“How so?” She asked, looking back to see his face. From this angle she could only see his jaw, the straight line of his nose and his green honey eyes, turned upward. The room was dark, and the light coming from the bedside table cast his face in patterns of shadow, making his eyes dance.

“I don’t know,” he looked at her and trailed his finger past her wedding ring and down her hand, her forearm, her bicep, forming invisible blueprints with his fingerprint, and stopped at her shoulder, making lazy circles. “I heard that today and it stuck with me, somehow. I wonder…”

His voice faded as she burrowed closer to him, taking refuge in his warmth, sleep and peace claiming her conscience. She felt his breath tickling her ear as he drew closer, pressing a kiss to her cheek and whispering “Annie, I love yo—“

RIIIIIING

Annie jolted awake from her trance, blinking away the memory.

RIIIIIING

She searched for the telephone with her gaze from her place in the living room’s couch, but couldn’t find it. Where had she left it, the last time she’d used it? When was the last time she’d used it?

RIIIIIING

There it was, on top of the kitchen table, beside the pile of month-old newspapers she hadn’t bothered to read. She went to it and answered the call before it went to voice message.

“Hello?”

“Hello, darling. How are you doing?” Her mother, Tanya, greeted her.

“I’m fine.”

“Are you eating well?” Annie glanced at the half-eaten bowl of pasta she’d tried to eat three hours ago but couldn’t finish. She hadn’t been hungry.

“Yes.” There was silence on the other end of the line, followed by a sigh.

“I just want to make sure you’re fine. After all, you’re starting work tomorrow again, right?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t push yourself too hard, okay? God, I wish I could be there with you but this damn wheelchair keeps me confined here. You know I would be there if I could. No one should go through these things alone.”

“I know.” Annie paused for a moment, then spoke the only thing she thought about all day. “I miss him.”

“I miss Ted, too. But please Annie, take care of yourself.”

“Alright.”

“I love you, honey. Goodbye.”

“Love you, too. Bye.”

She hung up the telephone, putting it back beside the month-old newspapers and looked at her hands. Her wedding ring glinted in the sunlight that streamed in from the kitchen window, mockingly smiling back.

Ted had died a month ago. She could still feel his phantom caresses on her skin sometimes, fingertips tracing invisible lines down her hands and arms. She felt that his fingerprints had not washed off; she didn’t think they ever would. And here she was, Annie Young, already a widow at only twenty-six. She didn’t know if hating God or hating humanity was more appropriate.

Annie looked down at herself, truly seeing for the first time the clothes she hadn’t changed in two days. Her blue-striped pajama pants were terribly wrinkled, her pink shirt had a large stain that smelled suspiciously of yesterday’s instant ramen, and her toe peaked out of a hole from her right sock. Her dark brown hair was greasy and unkempt, coming undone from the careless bun she’d knotted it into. A quick sniff of her armpits confirmed she was in urgent need of a shower.

It wasn’t her fault that she hadn’t changed her clothes in so long, really. She just couldn’t, wouldn’t, go into the room they used to share; not when the sheets, the closet, and the very air still smelled of him. Not when the thought of him brought back a flood of the memories from the past fourteen years they’d spent together, and her chest would feel like it was being carved into itself, and the grief would cascade into her veins, and her exhausted body would not be able to endure the physical pain that losing him brought her.

Not when she was lonely with the knowledge that she was alone, and that no matter what she did, nothing would ever bring him back.

Annie had come home early from work on that day. Ted usually arrived by 5:30pm, but the time passed by and he did not show up. Her calls to his phone went unanswered, as were the ones she made to the natural reserve, where he worked as a park ranger. Hours later, the police knocked on her door and explained the situation. Some illegal hunters that had been causing trouble lately had entered the reserve, and Ted had been caught in the crossfire while attempting to stop them. Dead. Just like that. Dead. The finality of it had weakened her legs and she had fallen to her knees, turning to the side right before vomiting all over the floor.

She walked back to the couch and curled up against the pillows, covering herself with a thick blanket. The shower could wait until tomorrow. From across the couch, a photo of Ted smiled back at her. He stood next to a waterfall, green honey eyes wide with joy, golden skin and unruly black hair soaked from the waterfall’s spray. Annie had always thought he was like one of those heroes from the Greek legends she so adored. Always daring like Perseus, clever like Orpheus, fearless like Achilles. It was too bad, then, that Greek heroes always died tragic deaths.

-o-

Annie walked past the school soccer field, looking for one of the benches at the edge of the enclosed forest that was part of the campus. She wanted a place to sit down to read the new Encyclopedia of Greek Myths and Constellations she’d gotten as a present for her 12th birthday. What she found, instead, was a boy her age climbing one of the trees, making his way against the cascade of falling autumn leaves. His black hair was disheveled and his hands were covered in dirt, but he was grinning from ear to ear and his green honey eyes sparkled.

“What are you doing?” She called out. What was he be doing outside class at this time? He looked down at himself, as if to confirm his actions, and raised his brows.

“Well, I’m climbing a tree.”

“Yeah, I can see that. But what are you doing outside of class?” The boy snorted and climbed another branch.

“What are you, my teacher? I could ask you the same thing.”

“At least I have permission.” Her teacher had given her the period free for finishing her math classwork early. “Why are you skipping?” He reached higher, then settled down, straddling a branch so that he could lean against the trunk.

“English class is so boring. Why would I want to watch an old lady talk about grammar when I could watch this?” He gestured to the trees around him, and she caught her breath, marveling at the dancing golds, reds, and pinks that showered the air as they fell from the sky.

“It looks even better from up here. Do you want to come? You won’t fall, I promise.” He extended his dirty hand in invitation, and after setting her book down she climbed up and up until she was sitting next to him.

“I’m Ted, by the way. What’s your name?” Subtle freckles dotted the bridge of his nose, and his eyes crinkled when he smiled. She had never met someone this strange before, but something about him reminded her of a Greek hero, like the ones in her Encyclopedia. She didn’t know which one exactly, but definitely not Hercules, he was kind of a douchebag.

“Annie.”

Annie blinked in a haze as she stared at her computer screen, trying to stay focused. She’d zoned out again. It happened to her often in these last six months, as if she’d rather relive her past than live her reality. Sit and blink, that’s all she seemed to be capable of these days.

She permitted herself a soft smile at the memory. Ted had always been a wild spirit, free of any restraint or preoccupation, going where the wind took him. His thirst for life and profound love of nature had never ceased to amaze her, and were, perhaps, what had drawn her to him on that moment under the falling autumn leaves. And yet, to this day she still wondered how their relationship had worked when their personalities were so different. She had always been a scholar at heart, in love with the orderliness of words and mathematics. Where Ted had been adventurous and spontaneous, she was more conserved and organized. In many ways, they had been complete opposites, and unlike what people said, that hadn’t always been a good thing. Annie remembered that fight they’d had in their sophomore year of college. She had double majored in economics and mathematics, while Ted had decided on business administration.

“You’re failing three of your five classes Ted, what are you thinking? Don’t you care?” She paced around his room in desperation while he laid down in bed, his hands nonchalantly behind his head, staring at the ceiling.

“No. They don’t interest me.” He said, as if he was remarking about the weather. Annie wanted to grab him by the neck and shake him into unconsciousness. How could he not care? It was his life, goddamit.

“Why?” she asked, exasperated.

“They’re so boring and I just stop paying attention, and I don’t know…I just don’t think they’re important.”

“It’s your fucking degree, Ted, your fucking life. How can they not be important?” He just shrugged and she felt her chest knotting into pieces, blocking her breath. She had always known that he wasn’t a studious person, but had hoped that coming to college would somehow make him care a bit more. However, that hadn’t changed, it had only worsened, and her hope had gradually crashed down as his level of irresponsibility and mediocrity increased and stagnated. After two years of this, she didn’t know if she could continue accepting something so contrary to her intrinsic values, but thinking of ending their relationship killed her.

She turned away from him, trying to force out the words that would end everything but that refused to come out of her lips.

“Annie, what’s wrong?”

“I want to you to care. I just can’t keep doing this Ted, I”—she didn’t know what to do, because just as she knew that she couldn’t change him, she could not conceive of a world without him. He rose from his bed and came to her, taking her head between his hands and looking into her eyes.

“I can’t be you, Annie.”

“I don’t expect you to be. I don’t want you to be. But this is your life and you have to do something.” He sighed and hugged her to him, playing with the ends of her hair.

“I know, you’re right. But I just can’t see myself working in an 8 to 5 job in an office. It would kill me; you know it would. And I just feel so scared; I don’t feel like I’m good at anything.”

“That’s the thing, you don’t have to work in an office. You’re a business major, you can go into anything you like. But you have to put effort into it, you need to find a balance.”

His green honey eyes had a faraway look as he exhaled. “I don’t want to lose you.”

Ted had been a chance for her to get out of her comfort zone, to reach the chaos that lay beyond the orderliness of numbers and letters. She had become addicted to the adrenaline he instilled in her, to the daily reminder of the excitement of being alive, of feeling alive. The memory made her want to laugh at the irony of it all, for at that moment she had thought that the pain of being without him would be unbearable. Now, she knew that it went beyond anything she had ever thought possible.

After graduating, Ted found a job administering a natural reserve and doubling as a park ranger on some days, where he could work surrounded by the nature he loved, while Annie got a position as an economist in an international company. Annie loved the job she had too, or at least she used to. Now, she could barely focus, and the numbers before her did not interest her. They were only numbers; not the exciting daily mental challenge they used to be. She looked at her watch and then at the paperwork beside her. It would be time to leave soon, and she had gotten almost no work done today. Or yesterday. Or the day before that. She had been demoted already, and knew that if she did not work harder she would be demoted again, or even fired.

She decided that didn’t care.

-o-

A year went by. Her days were a monotonic routine of working, eating, and sleeping; besides that, she watched TV or read with blank eyes, not really seeing what was before her. She could not muster enough energy or enthusiasm to do anything. She was stuck in slow motion. She felt like she was standing before a giant void that would soon swallow her up. All the excitement, all the love for life, all the passion she had guarded in her heart was gone.

Annie grabbed her purse and keys, and exited the house. Mary, her friend since elementary school, had invited her over for dinner today. They had not seen each other in months, and while Annie had no desire to leave her home, she had accepted the invitation to satisfy her friend’s wishes, and because she had no food left in the fridge and would appreciate a free meal.

It was night already, and the stars illuminated the moonless sky. Annie stopped for a moment, looking at the stars that she had not dared to see since Ted died. On nights like these, she and Ted would go stargazing on their backyard, lying down on a thick blanket. They would stay there for hours looking at the sky, and she would tell him the names of the Greek constellations that she knew by heart.

The stars, like everything else, reminded her of him.

Minutes later, she arrived at Mary’s house. Her friend greeted her with a wide smile, and Annie couldn’t help but feel inadequate. She was dressed to perfection in a white skirt, bright red top, and matching leather pumps. Her hands were manicured, her scarlet hair long and glossy, her smile white and splendid. Meanwhile, Annie was dressed in her used jeans, discolored grey Converse, and the button up shirt she’d found at the back of her closet. Mary always made her feel like peasant in front of a queen.

“Annie, love, I’m so glad to see you! Come in, the food is ready. How are you? I haven’t seen you in ages.” Mary enveloped her in a hug and Annie inhaled her expensive Carolina Herrera perfume.

“I’m fine. How have you been?” Annie walked inside and settled in one of the dining table chairs as Mary brought the food from the kitchen, talking non-stop all the while.

“I’ve never been better. You have to see the discount I just got for the most amazing pair of shoes! Oh, and guess what? Remember Helena and that guy she’s been dating for the past two years? Turns out he’d been cheating on her the whole time and they broke up last week. Ugh, you really can’t trust guys. Selena told me…”

The table was made of mahogany, Annie noted. Red brown lines formed patterns and swirls on the surface of the wood, carving out an infinite labyrinth of minuscule paths. She tried to focus on what Mary was saying, but couldn’t stand the incessant superficial chatter. Maybe that was the reason why she had slowly distanced herself from her friends in high school and gravitated more towards Ted. So she pretended to listen and stared at the expensive porcelain plates before her; Mary was good at having a one-sided conversation anyways.

They sat down to eat while Mary told her about the disastrous date she’d had with a guy she’d met at a concert. The grilled chicken she had cooked was soft and luscious, definitely better than Annie’s own cooking.

“But enough about me, what have you been doing these past months?”

“Nothing much really, just working.”

“And how’s work? Did you get the promotion you were hoping for? Annie wanted to laugh, that had been more than two years ago. It was a miracle she hadn’t been fired at this point.

“No.”

They ate in silence for a while. Annie tried to enjoy her food, but couldn’t ignore the concerned glances Mary kept throwing her way.

“You know, you should go out with us sometime. Selena and Danielle miss you. I miss you. But you always cancel out on us when we make plans. It might even do you good. We can have a ladies’ night out and go dancing, and buy some drinks.  You could loosen up a bit and maybe even meet someone new. I know some guys you could meet.” Mary’s words made her stomach churn.

“No, thanks.”

“I’m worried about you, Annie. You’ve been acting so strange these past months. You barely talk to us, you only leave the house to go to work or buy food. And you look so pale and…frail” Annie shrugged, she’d heard the same words a thousand times already.

“Well, what do you want me to say?”

“Don’t give me that. What happened to your fire?” Mary said angrily, eyes burning with rage and unshed tears. “What happened to you? We have always admired you, you know. You graduated from college with honors, you have your dream job. But now it’s like you’re a ghost, you’re like this fraction of who you once were, just because he’s gone. And I know it is difficult, but Annie, it’s been more than a year and a half since he died. It’s time you moved on.”

Rage built up in Annie’s chest with every word, until she had to fist her hands to keep them from shaking. Because Mary did not understand, she never had. Why are you always with him? You’ve been casting us to the side ever since you started dating him. It’s like if you’re not with him, you stop existing. Your eyes stop shining when you’re not by his side. Why do you like him? You can do better. Why. Why. Why. Mary would never understand the pain of losing someone who you knew better than your own soul.

“You can’t go on like this. Where is the friend that I loved and admired? I thought you were so strong, but for you it’s like you don’t know who to be without him. You don’t have an identity apart from him. You—”

The chair screeched against the floor as Annie stood up and grabbed her purse.

“Annie, wait!”

“Goodbye, Mary.”

She felt the chilly night air like a splash of cold water as she slammed the door behind her, daring Mary to follow her. Stupid Mary, what did she know anyways? What did she care? Annie spotted a cluster of Mary’s ceramic pots and kicked them, shattering several to pieces. Stupid, perfect orchids, she thought, stupid, perfect Mary. She took the splattered orchid in her hands and broke it in half, then proceeded to tear the petals and throw them among the broken pots. “What did those plants ever do to you? Poor orchids,” she imagined Ted saying, his dark brows furrowed in consternation. And then she was hiccupping, fighting against the sobs she had stuck in her chest. Stupid Ted. It was just like him, getting himself killed for being too kind, too nice, too self-deprecating. His hamartia had never been pride, or bravery, or a vulnerable heel, but selflessness. Stupid, stupid, stupid Ted. What was she going to do? What? She looked up at the heavens and the stars and cursed whatever God, creature, or whatever it was that had taken Ted away from her. I hate you. Her thoughts resonated in the cavernous darkness of the night.

She drove in silence, trying to keep back the tears that threatened to spill, but instead of going back home, she went to her mother’s house.

Tanya opened the door a few moments after Annie rung the bell, maneuvering her wheelchair to let her daughter inside.

“Is everything alright? I thought you were having dinner with Mary tonight.” Annie bent down and hugged her, burying her face in her mother’s gray-brown hair.

“I did, but I just don’t want to be alone right now.” Tanya returned the embrace and caressed her back. “Let’s go to the living room, okay?”

They went there together, and Annie helped her mother into the couch. She sat next to her and placed her head on the crook of her mother’s neck. Tanya took her hand and soothed her hair.

“What happened, honey?”

Annie didn’t know where to start. She didn’t know how to tell her about the heartbreaking pain that crushed her at every moment, how it was difficult to find something that would make her even remotely happy, how sometimes while sleeping on that huge bed alone she would dream of Ted being alive and then wake up to the nightmare of knowing he was dead.  She didn’t know how to tell her that Mary was right.

“I-I don’t know who I am, I-I don’t know w-who to be without him.” Because when he died, they might as well have buried her next to his coffin. She didn’t know who to be on her own, not after fourteen years of spending almost every day by his side. She had loved him for so long that she’d forgotten who she’d been before she had ever met him.

“Oh, darling. Shhh, it’s alright, cry all you need to. It’s perfectly normal for you to feel this way, after all, you practically grew up together.”

“I don’t know what to do.”

Tanya grabbed her daughter’s face and looked into her deep blue eyes, pressing a kiss to her forehead. “Everything is up to you now. Go create yourself, be whoever you want to be. The possibilities are endless. But no matter what, don’t ever stop loving life, Annie, promise me that. Besides, do you know what comes with grief?” She enveloped Annie into a hug and whispered into her ear. “The remaking of life.”

2

Annie walked down the isle of the dog shelter, looking at the dogs at the other side of the bars. After having that conversation with her mother she’d decided to adopt a dog. She had always wanted one, but Ted had been allergic, so she had never given the possibility any consideration. Until now.

The shelter attendant walked beside her, telling her about the dogs they rescued from the streets and the vaccines she’d have to pay for. She barely heard him over the excited cacophony of yaps and barks.

There were dogs of all colors and sizes, and she looked around, searching for one she liked. Then, she noticed a small caramel colored dog sitting alone next to the cage door. His tongue slumped out of his mouth at a weird angle, almost as if he were biting it, and his eyes were so big that they seemed to be bulging, pupils set in opposite directions. He was the cutest dog she had ever seen.

“What about this one?” She asked the attendant. He opened the door and held him out for her to pet.

“We rescued him about a month ago. He apparently has some type of genetic abnormality that makes him look that way, but other than that, he’s fine.” She caressed the dog’s head and he barked, flapping his tongue uncontrollably. She smiled.

“He’s not the smartest dog out there, that’s for sure. I can show you some more if you want.” He began lowering the dog, but the animal clamped onto her hand with his mouth, holding on to her. He looked at her in a silent plea with those empty, large eyes and lolling tongue that wouldn’t fit into his mouth, and she made her decision.

“There’s no need, I’m taking this dog.”

They arrived home a couple of hours later, after having the dog vaccinated and signing some papers.  “Well, here we are.” The dog sniffed around for a bit, then sat down next to her, tongue slumped. He seemed to be smiling.

“Your name will be Callicrates, just like the ancient Greek architect that designed the Parthenon. He was a genius. I think the name fits you well.”

Annie smiled. She knew that if Ted could be here, he’d be laughing at her.

“Welcome home Callicrates.”

-o-

After a few days it became apparent that the name was simply too long and complicated for the dog to comprehend, so Annie resorted to calling him Cal for short. She fed him before leaving for work, and took him for a walk in the evening.

It was night, and she walked with Callicrates in the streets close to her neighborhood. The stars shined bright in the summer sky, and there was no moon to be seen. She stopped for a moment, admiring their brightness. Annie loved the stars, had loved them before discovering the shapes of the Greek figures they formed in their constellations. They reminded her of little candles that twinkled in and out of existence. And all of a sudden she had the need, the urge to bask in them, to see the shapes they made against the darkness of the universe.

She returned home, Cal happily trailing behind her, and went directly to the closet to grab the thick blanket they always used. But she stopped at the door to her backyard, unsure. Ted wasn’t there with her anymore. How could she do this on her own, when they had always done it together? “Ted would want you to be happy,” she whispered to herself. He would want her to enjoy the beauty of the world, just like he always did. Just like they used to do. Cal barked and bumped his head against the door, and she opened it.

Annie settled down on the blanket and Cal lay down beside her. The trees around her backyard framed the night sky, just like a painting.

“Look over there Cal. The zigzags that look like an inverted lightning bolt make up Cassiopeia, who was the queen of Ethiopia. She was a very vain woman, and boasted that she was more beautiful than the Nereids, so as a punishment, Poseidon demanded that her daughter, Andromeda, be sacrificed to a sea monster. Perseus, one of my favorite Greek heroes, saved her in time, and then converted Cassiopeia into stone using Medusa’s head. Those stars over there make up Hercules, who looks like he’s about to club something. He’s one of the most famous heroes, known for completing the twelve impossible tasks after accidentally killing his wife and children. I never really liked him much, though. And the one over there, forming the straight line that curls at the end, is Scorpius. He was a scorpion monster sent by Gaia to kill Orion.”

She looked at Callicrates, who was panting lightly with his tongue to one side, looking at her with one of his eyes, the other set in the opposite direction. She smiled and caressed Cal’s head, looking at the stars again. Annie hoped that wherever Ted was, he could be looking at the stars.

-o-

 

Months went by. Annie walked with Callicrates more frequently and for longer bouts of time. They usually did rounds around the neighborhood, but when this hadn’t been enough for Annie, she started driving them to parks and nearby mountains so that they could hike. She found that walking gave her peace and put her mind at ease, and brought her closer to the nature that Ted had adored. They had used to hike a lot, Ted and her. They would spend at least one weekend a month traversing mountains and national parks, setting camp during the night and keeping warm in front of a fire.

She felt better now. The emptiness and pain were still there, but she could laugh again, could find joy in the things that had only filled her with grief and sadness before. There were still days when she would get lost in her memories, reliving the past again and again, but all it took was Cal bumping his head against her legs or barking at her to bring her back to reality. The dog was attentive to her every action, even if it seemed like his eyes weren’t focused on anything at all.

As time went by, Annie realized that she hated her job. The numbers seemed to taunt her from her computer screen, the meetings put her to sleep, and she spent the majority of her time looking out the window, waiting for the day to end so that she could take Callicrates out for a walk. She had loved her job once, she knew. Had looked forward to it every day, to see what new problems had risen for her to solve. But things changed. Now, she only wished to feel the wind on her hair, smell the humidity of the forest after a rainy day, see the patterns of greens that the sunlight created as it broke though the canopy of leaves, feel the coarse texture of the trees under her fingertips.

Annie stood beside the kitchen sink, trying to figure out how to follow the damn instructions on the recipe book so that she could cook the chicken breast in front of her. She was trying to show Ted that she could cook just as well as he did, and that she did not usually prepare their meals not for a lack of skill, but because he had more time on his hands than she did. Ted sat in the living room couch, having been shooed away from the kitchen after she proclaimed that she could and would prepare dinner without his help. He pretended to read a book while watching her from the corner of his eye, a smirk on his face.

“Are you done?” He said.

“You know I’m not. Just give me some more time to cook this damn chicken.”

“I’m not talking about the food, Annie.” She turned around and looked at him for the first time. He had a serious expression on his face, and his green honey eyes seemed to see deep inside her.

“It’s been a long time already. What are you waiting for?” He asked.

She woke up panting for breath in the middle of the night, reaching out to the side to find Ted, only to remember he was gone. Two years after his death she still hadn’t gotten used to this, and the pain hit her like a punch to the gut, flowing through every pore of her body and impeding her from breathing. She curled into a ball, making herself as small as possible, trying to steady herself by feeling the silky texture of the sheets between her fingers while tears welled in her eyes. Beside her, Callicrates woke up and whined, then sat down against her abdomen. He clamped her hand with his mouth, tongue flapping to one side, lending her his support in the only way he could. She hugged him to her, caressing his smooth caramel fur for what seemed like hours, until she was once again lost in sleep.

-o-

Annie quit her job. She did so with an air of finality, not worried about what would happen next. She had enough savings to live by for a couple of years if she chose to. Whether she had loved her job or hated it, she had been paid well. But for now, all she wanted to do was walk, and she had a special place in mind. It was a hike in the mountains about a five-hour drive from where she lived, and one that would take her a couple of days to complete. Ted and her had always wanted to do it, but never gotten the chance. So she made the necessary preparations; packed her backpack and tent, and bought canned food and some snacks to take along.

“Pack your bags, Cal. We’re going hiking.”

She drove with the radio on and windows down, Callicrates strapped on to the seat beside her. He barked as the cars passed by, but mostly sat there panting peacefully, taking in the wind with his open mouth.

She parked her car at the start of the trail, and strapped her bag and tent to her back. They were at the foot of the mountain, and it was her intention to get to the peak. She knew from the research she had done with Ted years ago that the view was supposed to be magnificent.

They walked for hours uphill without a break, mostly following the trail. She rarely saw another human being; it was only her and Cal there, making their way up the mountain. The higher up they went, the more remote it became. She talked to the dog from time to time, telling him about Ted, and her mother, and even about Mary, Selena, and Danielle. Callicrates mostly stayed by her side, sometimes running off to chase a squirrel or bird. They made camp before sunset. Cal helped her carry some dry sticks, and in no time she had a fire going and the tent set. She fed the dog some treats and ate a sandwich, staying close to the fire. The night was cold, and the moon peeked from between the branches of the trees high above. They sat in silence, listening to the night sounds as the fire burned and crackled.

When Annie woke up the next day, it was raining. The raindrops resonated against the roof of her tent in a hushed pat-pat-pat and sailed downwards, leaving behind a wet trail. She broke camp and continued walking uphill with Callicrates, just like they had the day before. The rain did not bother her at all, she loved how it washed the world in new sounds and smells, cleansing everything in its way.

The rain stopped by mid-afternoon, but when it was time for her to prepare the camp, she couldn’t find a single dry piece of wood to make a fire with. She was about to resign herself to a miserable, wet, cold night when Callicrates barked and ran away, losing himself in the foliage.

“Cal! Come back!” She hoisted her bag into her back once more and ran after him, tripping over the loose sticks and plants. Soon, she had left the trail far behind.

“Callicrates stop! Come back!”

After about five minutes of desperate running, she found Callicrates in front of a small house, being petted by an old man wearing a flannel shirt and hiking pants. Annie was shocked, how could there be a house in the middle of nowhere, near the top of a mountain, kilometers away from the closest road? The man noticed her and waved in greeting.

“Hello! This is your dog, I presume.”

Annie walked closer to the house with caution until she was in front of the doorstep; she wasn’t taking any risks here. The house really was small, made out of a dark wood that blended with the surroundings. It seemed like it was a part of the habitat around it, just as indigenous as the trees and plants next to it. If Cal hadn’t run all the way here, she would have never known the house existed.

“Yes, sorry to bother you. He ran away from the trail for no reason, but we should be on our way.” She said, and then spoke to the dog. “Cal, come here!” He stayed right were he was, content to be petted by the man, his tongue lolling to the side in a way that was reserved only for when she scratched him behind the ears. Who was this stranger?

“It’s no bother at all. It’s been a terribly rainy day, hasn’t it? You can come inside and have a warm drink, if you want.” The man noticed her reticence and smiled sympathetically. “I know this all seems suspicious, but I promise you, I won’t do you or your dog any harm. As strange as it might be to believe, I’m just a man living in the woods in his old age. There is nothing to fear. I live alone, so I would appreciate the company even if it is just for a few minutes.”

The man had kind eyes, Annie noted. They were light brown, with crinkles around them, as if he spent a lot of time smiling. They had a depth that spoke of warmth and wisdom. His hair was a dark gray, and his jaw and chin were shrouded in a short beard.

“Alright, I could use something warm to drink.” He smiled and opened the door to the house, inviting her inside.

“I’m glad. Please, come in.”

She and Cal stepped inside the house, and she marveled at how cozy and nice it was. The man handed her a glass filled with hot apple cider, and gave Callicrates a bowl with water.

“Are you hiking all the way to the peak?” He asked.

“Yes.”

“That’s quite the hike you’re doing. You’re almost there, though.”

“I love to walk,” she said. “My husband and I had always wanted to reach the peak, so I’m doing it now.”

“Is your husband waiting for you in the trail?” He asked. She hesitated for a moment.

“No, he died two years ago. It’s just Cal and me.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, and meant it. “I had a son once. He died, too.”

“I’m sorry about that.”

“It’s okay, it all happened a very long time ago.”

She sipped her drink, enjoying the feeling of the warmth as it traveled down her body. Outside, it began to rain again. She looked out the window, watching as the drops fell from the sky, and sighed. It seemed like she would definitely have to spend the night in the cold rain.

“What’s your name, sir?”

The man smiled. “I guess you can call me Jev. What’s yours?”

“Annie.”

“Well Annie, this is just an offer, but you can stay here tonight. The sky is darkening already, and it looks like it’s not going to stop raining. As small as this house is, I do have an extra bedroom you can use.”

The man instilled in her a peacefulness and calmness she hadn’t felt in a long time. She didn’t know exactly why that was, but she knew deep down that she could trust him. And besides, Callicrates liked him. “Thank you so much. I will, if it isn’t a problem.”

“It is not a problem at all. I have dinner ready, if you would like to have some.”

They ate together, mostly in silence, breaking the stillness from time to time in polite conversation. Some time later, Annie retired for the night. She laid down in the small bed with Cal at her side, and closed her eyes. The moonlight streamed from the window, painting the room silver as she fell into a deep and peaceful slumber.

She woke up at noon the next day after the best sleep she’d had in ages. Cal sat next to the bed, waiting for her to let him out of the room. She dressed and packed her things to leave; she had already abused this man’s hospitality too much.

Annie found Jev sitting down on the doorstep, looking at the trees beyond.

“Good afternoon,” she said. “Sorry for sleeping in so late.”

“Hello, Annie. Don’t worry, I’m glad you had a good rest.”

“Thank you so much for everything. I should get going if I want to make it to the peak today.”

“Actually, I want to go with you, if you don’t mind. I haven’t been there in a while and would like to see the view again, before I leave this place.”

“You’re leaving this house?”

“Yes, sadly. I am needed elsewhere.”

“Then please, come with me. I don’t mind at all.”

After a quick lunch, they set out, following Jev, who knew a better path than the trail Annie had been walking in. They walked for hours, and Annie was amazed by this man who, as old as he appeared to be, hiked uphill in the foliage without any sign of fatigue.

“We’re almost there,” Jev said. It was turning dark already, the beginnings of twilight showing hints of purple and red in the horizon. Annie picked up her pace, excited to reach the peak. She could not explain it, but suddenly she knew there was something for her there, something she needed to see, to find. Soon, they reached a place where the mountain plateaued, leaving a clear view of the horizon and the earth below. She saw the land from there, and the air was knocked out of her at the beauty that she encountered. The world was showered in the golds, reds, and pinks from the sunset, and the first stars blinked in the sky.

“I am sorry about Ted, I really am. I know it’s been hard for you.” Jev said.

It was silence and sound, stillness and motion, nothing and everything all at once as she watched the microcosm around her. It was the world, and everything beyond. She thought back to the first moment she met Ted, and the joy, the immensity she had felt at the beauty of the world. She thought of her grief, and her loss, and her pain. She thought of her mother. She thought of herself, and all she could choose to be, and all that was yet to come. She thought of life.

“Goodbye, child.” Jev said.

And at that moment, she knew.  

 


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