Autumn of 2040
Our car is humming by the side of a curb, parked maybe fifty yards from the rolling hills where they lay. At least, that’s what I’m supposed to believe. But I can’t fathom it to be true. Inside the vehicle, I’m shaking even as the vents shoot out hot air into the front seats. Outside, it is a frigid autumn afternoon. I’m in the passenger seat, staring out into the green hills, with scattered brown and red leaves dotting the landscape. They’ve been discarded by the mostly bare trees, which are trembling in the wind as much as I am in the comfort of our leather-interior Chevrolet.
Gray headstones pop up intermittently as I scan my vision from left to right through the windshield. When I’m done, I lower my head and tell myself it can’t be true. She extends her hand to my left forearm and squeezes.
“We can go home. This was a bad idea,” she says.
But it was my idea. At least, I think it was. I can’t remember anymore. I continue to stare as clouds gather from the east. I am a long way from that night twenty-five years ago. It wasn’t like this at all. The air was warm as the sun slowly dipped beyond the mountains. It is a vivid image that still burns deep. Here, there is no sun. She speaks again.
“Daniel, let’s go. We’ve had a big day as it is. This is too much.”
Without saying anything, I open the door. Gravel crunches under my boots and wind swirls over my head, making me regret not bringing a hat. I walk around the car and begin my ascent up the hill. She’s right behind me now.
“At least wear this.” She extends to me a crimson fleece cap. I guess I did bring one, after all. The hike up this hill is already wearing me down. That’s what you get when you’re fifty-five years old and in my condition.
Now the earth flattens, but I’m lost. I realize she never told me which direction we were supposed to go. Thick, heavy drops of water fall from the sky, but they come down sporadically, so I think there will be enough time. I look behind. She scoots up faster to reach me, and deep creases between her eyes tell me she’s worried. She points to a white cross in the distance, the two ’o clock position from where we’re standing.
“Over there.” She rubs my back. “You still want to?”
Now there’s thunder booming from where the heavier clouds are rolling in, and I think, maybe I can’t. I can’t do this. If it’s true, if what I’ve been told is true, then I’ve already said goodbye, and I don’t want to do this again. Then my heart hearts, because I fear I’ll be doing this routine a few more times until the day comes where I don’t care to walk up this hill, because I won’t even know why I’m doing it.
“They’re still be here, whenever you do want to visit.”
I nod, shiver and listen to the crows caw and the leaves skim across the field. I make up my mind. I don’t want to be here.
“Let’s go home. Tea and chicken pot pie. How does that sound?”
It sounds good. So we leave.
Back at home, her hands are warm on my shoulders, and this is no surprise. They’ve always been the best part of our relationship. After all, it’s her touch that’s reassured me through everything. Those years we were apart have only made me appreciate what we’ve had in our decades of bliss since that night.
I’ve pulled something out of a drawer in my study. A photograph. It’s of us; the gang, the group, whatever you want to call us. She leans in slightly for a better look. Might be time for another one of those, she says, even though some of us aren’t here anymore.
About that night, that evening twenty-five years ago; it has come up many times in my mind, and what it meant to me, to her, and everyone around us. Everything that happened was so unexpected, I couldn’t begin to process it all. But on that dance floor, nothing had ever felt so right, as we slid across the wooden tiles, holding each other to our song. She placed her hands on me then, and everything was going to be okay.
Now though, decades later, I think: Will it still be enough? When will the time come when she envelops me in her arms and I won’t be able to return the sentiment the same way? We are currently enduring our hardest days, there is no question about that. I feel defeated, but she moves her hands up to my neck and kisses me on the cheek. She won’t let me give in, not yet.
My pot pie is piping hot, and I let it cool on my desk while the thick raindrops splatter our windows. Files filled with important tax data and school business have been neatly stacked. I swipe the wooden surface of my desk and my finger yields no dust. I know I could not have been responsible for this.
“Did you clean all this up?”
“Who else was going to do it?” she replies. And now I look around the room and see my filing cabinets are more organized than I ever remember. There’s a clean smell in the air; that satisfied sense you get when someone’s finished vacuuming and dusting. Something jolts in my brain.
“Weren’t you making tea?” I ask.
“Oh! You got me. I’ll be back.”
But there’s a knock on the door, and I hear her footsteps trail away from the kitchen and make their way to the front door.
“Barb,” my wife says. “You’re here a little early.”
“I know, Jen, I’m sorry. I was running errands and finished earlier than I thought. Do you want me to come back?”
“Oh, no, it’s fine. We’re not doing anything.”
I rise from seat and greet the ladies in the hallway. Next to my wife stands a tall, slender older woman with a long neck and grayish-brown hair pulled tightly back. She has what appears to be a black leather bag slung over her shoulder. She comes toward me slowly and I embrace her in a hug, feeling beads of water on her cheek and neck. It’s Barbara.
“How are you today?”
“Okay,” I reply.
“Did you guys make the visit?” She seems tentative to ask that question. My wife Jennifer shakes her head.
“We did, but we didn’t follow through. It was too much.” I nod in agreement with her.
We sit down on the couch and loveseat in the living room, and soon we all have tea, courtesy of Jen. The women talk of school business, and classes, and who might be the new people in charge. They act like I’m not there. It’s okay: I can barely understand them. Barbara glances my way, and then she asks about our doctor’s visit.
“Not good.” Jennifer says. “Dr. Lee told us the meds are doing their best, but it’s been almost eighteen months since we began the big one, and Daniel isn’t responding the way everyone had hoped. We should still expect his condition to worsen.”
“I was afraid of that,” says Barbara. “Christ, still no cure after all these years.” She turns to me, leans in with laser focus, the kind I always remember her having. “Danny, hey. I’m sorry about today. Do you still want to talk?”
I take a deep breath and rub my eyes. We’ve been doing this for what seems like an eternity. At first, after the diagnosis, I loved the idea. It was fun to tell my story to Barbara and have her transcribe the events in her own special way. But now, as the days wear on, I feel like how a cancer patient after several rounds of chemotherapy. I just want all of this to go away. I’m so tired, and weak, and talking to Barbara is draining on me.
“You don’t have to,” she says. That’s the second time today a woman has told me I don’t have to do something, and that riles me up a little bit, because I don’t want to be told what to do, or what not to do. It’s my choice.
“This can be our last meeting.” She steals a look at Jennifer, who is jiggling her teacup with her right hand. I know she’ll let me do whatever I choose.
“I think I’m okay for one more time,” I say.
Barbara slowly nods her head and reaches in her bag and pulls out a digital recorder and a notebook. Time has had a way of changing how people learn, act and communicate, but Barb was always old school when it came to her profession. This is how she’s always done it, and this is how she’ll always do it.
Jennifer goes back to my study and retrieves my pot pie, now much more sufficient for eating. She asks Barb for any food requests. It is declined. Jen says she’s going to go putz around the house, and I laugh, because who says “putz” anymore?
“Did we even say ‘putz’ when we were young?”
“I don’t think so,” Barbara says. “It wouldn’t have been a very dope thing to say.”
“Oh gosh, what are the kids saying these days at school?”
“Dan, if I told you I’d end breaking my recorder with anger, so I better not.” We share another laugh, and then she gets down to business. She holds the black recorder, her thumb over a certain button, ready to go.
“Your story is almost done, but today seems like a crucial one to include. You didn’t receive the news you were looking for at the doctor’s, and you ended up leaving the cemetery prematurely. I know this is tough, Dan, but if you can, take me through what exactly happened and how you’re feeling.”
So I do, and it’s hard, and I start to tear up, but Barb holds it together. She and Erin were always the strongest ones in our group. She says our meeting here might be best put at the end of the story, as a way to circle back around, and I’ve never been one to disagree with Barbara. After our interview, Jen reenters. The sky is only partly cloudy now as twilight takes effect in our cozy town. Barbara has a lot of work to do and doesn’t want to take any more of our time, but Jen is incredulous at that notion. We’re lifelong friends, after all, and have been coworkers for years.
“It’s all slipping away,” she replies.
“Don’t say that,” says Jen.
“I know. I’m sorry. You know I’ll always be here for you guys.” She punches around her bag, and I figure she’s feeling for her car keys. “Here, I almost forgot.” She pulls out a thick stack of papers held together with gold prongs. It looks like a manuscript.
“This is a draft of the story so far. I’ll add in today’s events when I’m done. And I still want to talk to you, Jen. But here,” she hands it over to my wife. “Call it a sneak peek.”
Barb is gone, and Jen and I return to the living room with the nearby lamp lights on. I ask her if she’s ready for this. She shrugs. I think she’s nervous, and I am, too. But what are we going to do, not read it? We know it’ll be good. We know Barb will do me justice … us justice. We read the preface, which makes me smile, and before I get to the first chapter, I can’t help but think of the special time it all came together. The year was 2015. The heartbreaking events of that summer set me on a course I had never dreamed of. I ached leaving everything behind, but it had to done. A few months later on a warm autumn night I found myself on the steps of a banquet hall, ready for a final goodbye to my second family. I had promised someone I would at least make a small appearance before I left town. But as I climbed the marble steps, I had a change of heart, and one of my great lessons in life is that hearts can change, even quickly. My journey up to that moment had taken more out of me than I ever thought possible. And so, my past life needed to stay where it belonged. This was the day I left.
I could not have imagined what happened after.