Erin tried gently to pull me off the trail. It curved to the right; she wanted to go left. “Let’s go this way, Gary.”
The heavy overcast made it dark for late morning, but I’d have seen another path if it were really there.
We appeared to have the wilderness to ourselves for miles around, including the trail into the parched foothills, to what I thought was our destination. We’d hidden my scooter just in case, so no one would see it from the road, the trail, or the little parking lot.
“This is a perfectly good gravel path,” I said. “We’ll be less likely to meet snakes and other deadly things, if we stay on it.”
She smiled patiently. “Why is that?”
“Because things with claws, fangs, or big teeth know the humans use this path, so they probably avoid it. Unless there’s a bear waiting to steal our picnic basket.”
“I’m not sure it works that way.” She stared at the path, and her face darkened. “I don’t like this path. Too violent.”
I cocked my head and stared at her. “Too violent?”
“Look at all the little gravel,” she said. “You think it got that way on its own?”
“Got what way?” I rumbled. I loved her, weird thoughts and all, but today I was in no mood for crazy.
“All broken up, with sharp corners and rough edges. Imagine the violence required to turn ordinary rocks into this, so they can make a path out of it.”
I’d once heard a rock crusher at fairly close range. The sound was horrific, but it wasn’t from rocks screaming in agony or in fear of a painful death. You had to live to die.
“Besides, this path doesn’t go where we’re going,” she added, almost as an afterthought.
We set off across the reddish ground, through the grayish sagebrush, toward a gap in the brownish foothills.
“You’ve never been here before?” she asked.
“Nope. But you have, I guess.”
“Not for a couple years. But as soon as I could drive, this was my refuge, my escape.”
“A breakup. A bad fight with Mom. A ‘B’ on a test. The usual tragedies.”
Hers was an alien world, where a ‘B’ on a test was a tragedy. But I already knew that. She was smart enough to work full-time at a pharmacy and enjoy it.
“So today it’s our refuge?” I asked.
“Today it’s our escape, for both of us.”
She needed to escape. She’d been sick for a while and having lots of tests, but she’d stubbornly refused to tell me what they were testing for. She didn’t want me to worry about things that might be wrong but weren’t. “I’ll tell you when they find something,” she assured me at least once a week. Meanwhile, she collected more and more doctors.
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I suspected the reason for our hike today was for her to tell me what they’d finally diagnosed. Neither of us had said that in words, but we were adept enough at wordless glances and meaningful pauses that I didn’t feel the need to confirm it. I knew she’d spent the previous afternoon with a team of doctors. I’d called her later, and she hadn’t offered any news, but she hadn’t said there wasn’t any. She’d just said she was tired, and could we go for a picnic out of town tomorrow, at a place she knew?
Today she was as cheerful as I’d seen her in a long time. Not bubbly and perky, but happy in a quiet way. So maybe the news was good.
One of us was due for some good news, and so far this week, none had come to me. I was healthy enough but otherwise a failure – at school, work, life. At knowing what to do next or what I wanted to be, what was left for me that was actually possible.
I knew one thing for sure about my future: I couldn’t bear it if it looked anything like my past. Which it probably would. In the last 48 hours I’d lost my hard-won, dead-end job to a round of layoffs, and I’d been wait-listed for financial aid at my fallback community college, which I couldn’t afford on my own.
I had no family to fall back on. My older brother and sister were both deceased, not recently, of different unnatural causes. Our estranged father was a permanent guest of a government institution in another state, complete with barbed wire and high concrete walls with guard towers. Our mother had died slowly of cancer before I finished high school, and part of me had died slowly too, right there by her bedside.
All there was in my life for the last year and a half was Erin, my job, my hopes for college and eventually some sort of career, and the room I rented in an old house. Now my hopes and my job were gone, Erin was sick, and my savings could keep me in my rented room for only two more months, or three if I didn’t eat much.
If Erin weren’t crowded into a studio apartment with her aunt and two cousins, she’d find room for me, but there wasn’t even room for her.
I’d be back at the public library on Monday morning, waiting in line for a computer, so I could look for work in a city where the humblest, most disgusting job had dozens of overqualified applicants. By Monday afternoon I’d be on the street, going from business to business, looking for cheap day labor under the table.
Last night, in the half-hour before the library closed, I’d come within a single click of ordering a t-shirt I couldn’t afford at some website. “EMBRACE THE SUCK,” it said in tall, bold letters. I was almost ready to do that. Would giving up all hope make my life any worse?
Speaking of suck, I finally asked Erin the big question, when we stopped for her to rest a minute, as our hike between two foothills turned into a gentle climb. “What did the doctors say yesterday? Anything definite?”
She smiled sweetly, even happily. But if it was happy news, why did she need to escape? Or maybe the escape was for me.
“I’ll tell you all about it when we’re there,” she said.
“Which is when?”
“Soon. Around this next hill, more or less. Then we have to climb.”
We hiked past two signs that might once have said, “Government Property. No Trespassing” – but only parts of a few letters were still visible. The signs didn’t worry her, so I didn’t let them worry me. I had nothing left to lose.
We rounded a bend and a stench stopped us short.
Her nose wrinkled. “Wow, that reeks! Forgot about the gully.”
“Reeks” was a completely inadequate word. It started as a foul, viscous sensation in my nose and mouth. Then it was a sickly finger sliding down my throat. I forced myself not to gag. Something was dead.
We walked a few more steps and saw a gash in the earth, running nearly parallel to the path she could see but I couldn’t. We peered down into it. Three carcasses, probably deer, decomposed among some large rocks, maybe thirty feet down. All three had chunks missing, and one had clearly been there longer than the others. It looked formless and lumpy under its weathered hide. I could only imagine the maggots.
“There’s always something dead down there,” she said. “I don’t know why they fall here, but they do. Something chases them, maybe. Anyway, what a great place to dump a body,” she added with enthusiasm.
I edged us away from the gully. “If that’s what you’re into.”
“Don’t worry. Not my style,” she said with a smirk I hadn’t seen in a while. “Too messy.”
I stared at her for a moment, then glanced up at the birds I instinctively knew were circling. Vultures or hawks, I couldn’t tell. They were blurry against the clouds.
We hiked on, and the stench faded. So did Erin’s invisible trail. Scrub oak clawed at my sweatshirt. Any denser and we couldn’t have made our way around the last hill – but when we did, it was worth it.
She stopped and reached for my hand. “Let’s just look for a minute.”
Across a narrow valley with an even narrower, greenish meadow was a foothill with meager vegetation, maybe 500 feet high at the summit. Near the top was a black stone … something. It was too imposing to have been just the home of some multigenerational family of ancient natives. It seemed to have been a small fortress. A turret had partially crumbled away.
It was like nothing I’d seen in person before. Looking up at it sent shivers down my spine. It belonged to another world, a world beyond ancient, a world beyond life.
“Is this what all the tourist fuss is about? It’s a ruin,” I said.
“The one the trail leads to is more intact,” she said, “And smaller. It’s in the next valley over. I don’t think very many people even know about this one. I never see anyone here. Not even litter.”
I pointed. “Is that where we’re going? Can you make the climb?”
“Yes,” she said. “With your help.”
There were black mounds here and there near the base of the hill, two or three feet across and not more than six inches tall. As we approached, I saw they were black sand, with shards of black rock mixed in.
The only black rock in sight was the fortress, if that’s what it was. None of the native rock around us was even a dark gray. It must have come from somewhere else, when they built it. And how old was it, if stones that had finally tumbled down had since turned to sand where they lay?
We reached the base of the hill and looked up.
“That’s our refuge,” she said. “Our escape. From everything except each other. Let’s rest a minute before we climb.”
We found an ordinary, flat boulder big enough to seat us both. I leaned back, resting my hands on the smooth rock behind me. This way, I didn’t have to crane my neck too badly to see the crumbling structure looming above us, and Erin could almost lie down against my chest.
She collapsed against me, as if to rest every muscle in her body. I watched her for a while, pondering her frailty and her strength. Then I looked around. The overcast was blacker in the distance, and the storm clouds, if that’s what they were, seemed to be passing us by.
Looming storm or not, something was off in this valley. I felt it first, then realized what it was. Erin’s labored breathing was the only sound. Not a rustling leaf, not a breeze, no sounds of insects or birds. It was like in a movie, when some unseen predator, if not death itself, stalks its next victims.
I tried to shake it off by studying the fortress. Stone on stone on stone, I thought. I’d done bricklaying and stonework one summer, but not like this. And not all the stones were on other stones anymore. Some lay intact at the base of what was left of the turret and a wall, having never tumbled to the valley floor and turned to sand.
The black walls themselves might have been there forever. But there must have been a time before teams of workers or slaves began to haul stones up the hill and fit them squarely together.
How many human generations had passed, how many centuries, before the first stones had surrendered and careened down the hill? How long after the last people died did time and weather turn the first stones to sand?
The black outline against the brown hill and gray sky might once have been symmetrical, or at least artful, but now it was ragged. Had it really been a fortress? Had it shielded a beleaguered people, or perhaps an occupying horde, against hailstorms of spears and arrows or advancing waves of swordsmen? Were great battles fought here? How many warriors had killed or been killed where we sat? Or was it more peaceful than that, a prince’s home-away-from-castle? Was the long, narrow valley home to fanfares, summer festivals, and good hunting?
There were no ceremonies now. No swordsmen, no slaves. No life at all. Just black walls and rubble. No sound or motion marked the passage of time, as if all the time that ever was or would be had already passed. The thought gave me chills at first, but beyond the chills was a sort of peace.
I’d read the faded informational signs at the parking lot, about the attraction I thought we were visiting, the one with the violent gravel trail. No one was quite sure who built that structure, or when. Geologists said there was no such stone to be found within a hundred miles at least.
Erin stirred, then was still again. She might have been asleep. The hike we’d already taken was a lot for her lately, and I worried about the climb ahead, no matter how determined she was.
She was sick, but I was sick too, in a different way, almost terminally sick of almost everything. I knew it wasn’t quite the same.
“Do you want to get out of town?” she’d asked, and I said I did. “Let’s take your scooter,” she said. “I know just the place, a little off the beaten path.”
No kidding, I thought. I still worried about animals, snakes, poison ivy.
Her arms around me as we rode seemed frail but stubborn. Now I worried about her, and what her doctors might have said about the illness that was gradually stealing her strength. But she’d hinted at good news, so maybe it wasn’t terminal. Maybe it wasn’t even chronic, at least in any catastrophic way. That would be great news. Life without her was not a life I wanted.
I pulled out my phone to check the time. It wasn’t noon yet – and I had no cell service, which was hardly a surprise.
Finally, as my need to move my backside grew urgent, if I ever hoped to walk again, she sat up abruptly. “Let’s get climbing. I’m sure I’ll need to rest a lot.”
She did need to rest a lot. Climbing the 45-degree hill took more than half an hour. When we finally reached the fortress, I judged it was 30 feet high and twice as wide. Someone had carried a lot of stone up the hill.
We found an entryway that was invisible from below. The doorway to a tomb, I thought, and shivered in the warmth of the day. How many people had lived here who weren’t alive anymore? How many had died here? Where were they buried, if they were buried? I banished my thoughts and watched her.
“Just as I remembered,” she said, running her hand across a smooth black stone. “I wonder if anyone has been here since I came last time.” She gave me a sad, wry smile. “I think I might be disappointed if we had to share this place with anyone.”
After we rested again, she led me confidently through rooms and passages and up a stone stairway. It was easy to believe she’d been here a lot. And despite my shivers and chills, there was nothing tangible to suggest it was a tomb.
Gaps in the walls and ceilings, some clearly intentional and some caused by eons of decay, gave us enough natural light to find our way. We saw no trace of mice or any other living creature larger than an insect. There weren’t even any cobwebs. I couldn’t imagine why.
Above us, at the top of the last stairwell, was a hole less than three feet square, through which we could see the sky. I found handholds and pulled myself up through it.
It was the turret we’d seen from below. Some of the wall was still intact. In those places it was a few feet higher than my head, with tapered apertures big enough to aim and shoot an arrow, I thought, if the archers stood on the stone steps in front of the wall. Where a section of the wall had partially crumbled, it didn’t quite come up to my chest.
I lifted Erin up through the hole, then approached the broken wall to look out and down. It was a commanding view of the valley and the hills – and I was squeamish about heights, so I backed away.
She was struggling with a flat, semicircular stone. It was gray, not black, and less than two inches thick. There were two of them, large enough together to cover the hole through which we’d climbed.
“Help me move these over the hole, so we don’t have company up here.”
“Like what? Or who?” I asked, as the first stone began to slide with our combined effort.
“People, bears, wildcats, assorted reptiles and amphibians. You never know.”
The straight sides matched up perfectly, when the stones were both in place.
She nodded with approval. “With the hole covered, I’ll bet this doesn’t even look like a place you can go from down below. I don’t know. Maybe the stairs give it away.”
One of the wide steps below the apertures made a nice seat for both of us. We leaned our backs against the stone wall and rested again.
“When you want to escape from life, you really escape,” I said.
Her eyes were closed. She nodded slowly. “Yeah.”
“What is this place? How did you ever find it, when apparently nobody else knows it’s here?”
“All this land used to be part of the army base. I suppose people think it still is. Dad was stationed here as part of a security force. He found out about it somehow, and when the government shrank the base by a few dozen square miles, he brought me out here a couple of times. The second time, we climbed up here and had a picnic. That was about week before they sent him overseas, about a month before he went MIA and presumed dead.”
A tear rolled down her cheek, and I brushed it away. She opened her eyes and looked into mine for a moment, then closed them again.
“I don’t know who built this place or how long ago. It always feels like there’s no life left here at all, but only until I climb up here and remember Dad. Maybe those memories should feel like death too, but they feel like life to me. You felt it too, right? The lifelessness?”
“I felt it,” I said. “But being up here with you is good. Thanks for telling me about your dad.”
“Thanks for being here with me.” She looked me in the eye. “Escaping with me.”
I hesitated. “Truth is, wherever you are is the only place I’m happy anymore.”
“I could say the same about you,” she whispered.
Another tear tumbled down her cheek, but before I could wipe it away, she pulled my cheek to hers and just held me there until her hand started to shake. She turned and kissed my cheek, then let me go.
“It’s time for our picnic,” she said. “Such as it is.”
She reached for the old-fashioned wicker picnic basket she’d brought from her aunt’s apartment. We’d worked pretty hard to get it here. It had been awkward on the scooter. Then I’d carried it up the hill, so she wouldn’t have to. I’d dropped it once and worried, because I knew there was wine, but she’d assured me it was in a metal thermos, not a bottle.
The entire picnic was three peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – perfect comfort food, she said – the thermos of wine, two plastic cups, and a thick picnic blanket.
At least I thought it was a picnic blanket, but we didn’t use it for that. We sat on the stone step to eat our sandwiches and sip our wine. One sandwich was for her, she said, and two were for me. The wine was maybe the best I’d ever tasted. I wanted to ask how much it cost, but I didn’t.
“Thanks for coming up here with me,” she said. “And helping me. I probably couldn’t have made the climb without you.” She poured us both more wine and held out her plastic cup for a toast. “What shall we drink to? Us? Privacy? Ancient, unknown warriors? Death all around?”
“To your dad,” I said.
She smiled. “Thank you. I like to imagine he’s nearby, when I come here. To my dad.”
We touched our cups together and drank.
“What next?” she asked.
“Your turn to choose.”
She looked at me thoughtfully for a moment.
“To us. The only happy part of life lately.”
“To us,” I said, and we drank.
“Now to the people who lived here,” she said, “long dead and unremembered.”
We touched our cups and drank again.
She poured the last of the wine. “Good, isn’t it?”
“Fantastic,” I said.
“It’s from Spain, a 2013 Tinto, not that I ever heard of it before,” she said seriously. “Do you find it dark and moody? That’s what the guy called it.”
“It kind of matches my mood, so yeah, I guess so.”
“Enough toasts,” she said. “Bottoms up.” I watched her drain her cup, then drained my own.
“Help me spread out the blanket,” she said. “We’ll use our jackets for pillows.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“Not what you’re thinking, I’m afraid.” She turned to me and pouted. “I’m sorry I haven’t felt like doing that for a while.”
I shrugged. I missed it, but I understood sick.
“I just want us to rest while you hold me,” she said. “Is that okay?”
“Perfect,” I said, and I almost meant it.
The blanket was thick and soft enough that lying on the stone was okay. We ended up using both our jackets for my pillow. I lay on my back, and she lay on top of me, her full length on my full length, except I was taller. After a few, languorous kisses, she wriggled a few inches toward my feet and rested her head on my shoulder.
“Hold me as tightly as you dare, please,” she said, and I complied.
“Life pretty much sucks for you lately, doesn’t it?” she asked after a few minutes.
“The last couple of hours, not so much,” I said. “But yeah. Wish I could see a future. Any future. A dumb job I could stick to, or school somewhere.”
“It’s not fair,” she said.
“Doesn’t feel fair,” I said.
“All I know,” she said, “is that I love you. I’ve loved you for a long time. And I know you love me.”
“I do,” I said. “You’re the only part of my life that even feels alive. Does that make sense?”
“All the sense in the world.” Her voice became gruff. “It might be all the sense there is in the world.”
That dark note reminded me to ask my question again. “What did your doctors say?”
She tensed, and I went from half-expecting good news to a cold sweat.
“It’s not good,” she whispered. “Cancer.”
Something cold and familiar gripped my heart. “Where? What kind?”
“We’re actually beyond the point where it matters. It’s already spread, including a bunch of little brain tumors that won’t be little much longer. Mostly inoperable. They took a biopsy from somewhere else, so they know for sure what it is, but the name doesn’t matter. They could try to slow it down a bit with chemo and radiation, but they can’t stop it.”
She shifted slightly. Her head was on my chest. “I told them no chemo and no radiation, and they said they understood. Which tells you something.”
She spoke calmly, but I was in some kind of shock. Then my heart wanted to break. It was a physical pain in my chest. I started to squeeze her more tightly, then didn’t, fearing I’d hurt her. Break her.
“No, Erin, no!” I groaned.
“I know, right?”
“How long?” I asked after a minute. My voice shook.
“Not long at all. At least there’s that.”
“How long did they say?”
“Maybe a month, two. Shorter might actually be better.”
“I don’t know what to say.” It didn’t seem right to say my life was over, when she’d just told me hers was.
She didn’t say anything either. For a while I remembered my mom’s last months. Eventually, between the new grief and the old memories, I did know what to say. “If I can’t stop you from dying, I won’t let you die alone.”
“They say the end will be ugly.”
“Mom’s was. But I’ll be at your side, like I was with her. Where I belong. Every possible minute.”
“You know what?” she asked. “I knew you’d say that. Thank you.”
I took a deep breath, then another. Her weight on my chest wasn’t enough to make that difficult.
“How am I supposed to live without you?” I asked. “I was going to marry you, when I got a decent job.” Another deep breath.
“I was going to marry you,” she said, her voice finally trembling.
“After you go I’ll die of grief,” I said, feeling like it was probably true. “That happens, you know.”
“I knew you’d say that too. Thank you.”
“Sorry if I sound selfish,” I said.
We held each other in silence for a while. Then I said, “Terrible news is exhausting. I’m not sure I could hike down the mountain right now, especially helping you. I mean, I know we’ll have gravity on our side, but …”
She carefully rolled off me, then sat where she could caress my face.
“I feel it too. There’s something else I need to tell you. Please don’t hate me.”
“I could hate the whole world, but not you.”
She stroked my cheek – but haltingly, nervously. “There’s one thing in my life I can still control, and that’s not for very much longer.”
I heard her breathe and breathe and breathe. Then her voice was calm again, and somehow I knew before she said it. I knew why we were here.
“I came up here to die,” she said. “You won’t have to help me down.”
I sat up but almost didn’t make it. I was that weak from the news. “How? And don’t think I’m going to leave your body up here for the vultures.”
“Hey, it might as well do some good for something. I won’t be using it anymore.”
“Sorry,” she said. “To answer your question, poison. Doesn’t matter what kind. Only that it’s gentle.”
“I … What … ?”
“I don’t want to die alone,” she murmured.
I started to stand but couldn’t. “This is crazy. I won’t let you die here.” My words sounded right, but my heart was uncertain. She wanted to die. She was ready to die. And if she didn’t die today, she would soon.
I conceded. “If it has to be here and now, I’m with you.”
“Thank you.” She sighed deeply. “I thought you might want to join me.”
“I’m not dying here,” I said weakly. “Even if I want to.”
Even if joining her was a future I could imagine, while it lasted. The only possible future left to me that had her in it.
“I’ve made the arrangements. I even left a nice note. This is the perfect place, my escape. Now it’s our escape. It’s where I feel closest to my dad. And it’s just us. No distractions. All the worries here died centuries ago. It’s as peaceful as the grave.”
“I didn’t come up here to die,” I protested.
She looked at me for a long moment. “I think you did.”
“Will you poison me too?” I should have sounded angry, but I just sounded tired. I should have felt fear at the thought, not mild curiosity.
She hesitated, then met my lips for a long, gentle kiss.
“I already did,” she said. “I killed both of us.”
“How?” Then it dawned on me. “In the wine?”
“I thought it was just really good wine.”
“It was superb wine. I spent half of next month’s grocery money on that bottle.”
In a burst of mental energy, I thought of sliding the stones back from the exit and trying to escape, but I wouldn’t have the strength. And really, I didn’t see the point, when I could stay with her for the rest of our lives and be done. I stared weakly. Her eyes seemed to be clouding over.
“Honey, do you mind very much?” she mumbled. “If you do, I‘m really sorry. I thought maybe you wouldn’t. I thought maybe you’d rather go together.”
I thought as clearly as I could. It still seemed like I should resist dying, but I couldn’t think of any reasons why. She was right. This was the perfect place for our escape. The perfect time, because there was nothing left, nothing else I could do to help her or make her happy.
“Do you?” she whispered. “Mind?”
“It’s a good idea,” I said.
“You mean it?”
“I love you. I can’t live without you. I don’t want to try. I don’t mind.”
“Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. I love you too.”
I nodded. It felt like slow motion, and I wasn’t sure my head actually moved.
“Could we lie down now?” she asked. She sounded exhausted.
She helped me, then lay across my chest.
“Thank you,” she murmured.
I used the last of my strength on three slurred syllables. “You’re welcome.”
I thought I heard her whisper a word or two, but it was so faint that I couldn’t understand.
Perhaps it was only a breath.
From the Author
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