This story is by Chris Booth and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Static overtook the radio as they hit the tree-lined highways of upstate New York. “I could play a podcast on my phone?” Julie suggested. The zip car they’d rented, an old Honda Civic, didn’t have an aux cord, so they used the cup holders to amplify the sound of ‘Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me.’ They sat in silence, content to let the podcast fill the car.
“We should stop for some groceries,” said Mark, “the cabin has a tiny kitchen we can use.” They took the next exit and found a small mom-and-pop shop and gathered the supplies to make a simple gnocchi and brussel sprout dish, one of their favorites. Mark hovered by the desserts, finally deciding on a small cupcake and a candle, a purchase he hid from Julie.
The cabin was cozy and minimalist, surrounded by trees; the evening sun flowed into the room through the giant glass window on one side. They unloaded the car, and Mark got started on the fire, challenging himself to use only flint and a starter, inspired by episodes of Survivor they’d binged during weekends on the couch. Julie unpacked the groceries and fixed up two old-fashioneds’.
The fire popped as Julie took long pulls from her glass. The soft quiet of the woods relieved the stress, heat, and tension of June in the city. She let out a deep sigh.
“I’m glad we could get away this weekend; we both needed it,” said Mark. Julie silently nodded in agreement, taking another long pull. Mark tilted his head back and marveled at the stars that blanketed the sky. “Look at all that,” he intoned.
“Beautiful,” Julie agreed, barely tilting her head.
He poked the fire while she made them another round inside. Her cheeks felt hot, unsure if it was the fire or the bourbon. She returned and handed Mark the glass. “I noticed the cupcake inside,” Julie said, feeling her cheeks burn hotter.
“Oh, yeah,” he paused mid-sip, unsure how to answer, “I thought it would be nice.” Julie didn’t answer. “I think we need to add another log; it keeps dying too quickly.” He rose and grabbed the poker, desperate to change the subject.
“I can check for a fire guide online,” she said, pulling out her phone.
“No, don’t do that. The whole point of this trip was to disconnect.” He took the phone from her hands; his fingers lingered against hers. She looked up and gave him a small smile before sitting back, her drink cupped in her hands.
They finished their drinks and let the fire die out before retiring to bed. Julie’s eyes were incredibly heavy; she felt Mark behind her, his hands on her hips, a kiss on her cheek. She curled her knees up and turned her head away, giving Mark a short, “goodnight, love you.”
They woke early, and in the haze of groggy hangovers, they drove to a nearby hike. The air was crisp and refreshing, vastly different from the exhaust and garbage that typically assaulted their senses. Eventually, they reached an overlook and set down their packs.
Mark took out two protein bars and passed one to her. They sat silently chewing and looking out over the valley. They’d only passed a few other hikers and had this spot to themselves. Mark slid closer to Julie, putting his arm around her. She looked over at him, the hint of tears forming in her eyes, and kissed him.
They finished their bars and trekked back to the car. Mark found a brewery nearby, so they stopped for a quick lunch as a reward. Julie scrolled through Instagram as they sat at the bar waiting for their sandwiches. Suddenly, she let out an involuntary gasp. She quickly locked the phone and put it face down.
“What?” Mark asked.
“It’s nothing,” she quickly responded.
“Okay, it didn’t seem like nothing,” he replied, softly prodding.
Her voice became low, barely a whisper, “Cathy and Stewart are having a baby.”
Mark was silent; a tension filled the air. Seconds ticked that felt like an eternity. Then, finally, Mark said, “That’s great. My mom told me they’ve been trying for a while.” He paused, then added in a strained voice, “They posted about it today?”
Julie felt her breath become heavy; she wished she’d never picked up her phone, wished she’d abided by Mark’s phone rules more strictly. “They probably just…forgot.” She said, feeling her voice crack at the end. “I’m sorry, I’ll be right back.”
She grabbed her purse and stumbled to the bathroom, desperate to hold herself together.
“Jules, wait…” Mark said, trying to catch her hand.
She was relieved to find the bathroom empty. Shutting the door of the stall, she sat down on the seat of the toilet. It came like a flood; tears poured down her face, sobs racked her chest. She was embarrassed, tormented, a wreck of emotions. She was mad at them, angry at herself, and furious at an erratic, chaotic universe.
After 10 minutes, she found enough control to return to Mark. “Can we please go?” She asked, her voice barely a whisper.
“Of course,” Mark already had the food in to-go bags, anticipating this.
They drove back to the campsite in silence. Julie stared out the window with unseeing eyes, letting the scenery flow over her. She was exhausted—emotionally, physically, mentally. Suddenly Mark’s hand was on her leg. She looked at it, solid and reassuring. The warm, inviting smile he gave her made her heart skip. She felt a pang of the love they’d had for so long.
“Let’s have the cupcake tonight,” she said. She sensed a wave of relief in the air. Mark had suddenly forced the subject they’d silently agreed to ignore all weekend into the open.
“Yes, we should,” he replied. As painful and heartbreaking as it would be, Julie knew they had to acknowledge it, face it if they ever hoped to get past it and build something together again. Mark was calm and stoic outward, but Julie felt the broil of emotions inside him. Aware that he hid it for her benefit.
The sun was setting in the window as they lit the small candle in strained silence. “Jules,” Mark said through a strained voice, “We can fix this.”
“You’ve always been more optimistic than me,” she said, “but I can’t even hold it together for a weekend. It’s not fair to you.”
“I don’t want to lose you too.” He pleaded.
“You know it’s not that simple.”
“Why?” His voice was whisper quiet, “You’ve been pulling away; I’m worried about you.” The trip was an olive branch, a path to life back together, but deep down; she didn’t know if she could get back there.
Mark continued, “We never talk; we just sit on the couch in silence,” she couldn’t look at him, “and you’re barely home.” Tears formed at the edges of his eyes, “We’re two ships passing in the night,” the candle had dwindled.
“I’ve been lying to you.” she began, apprehension in her voice, “late nights at work, the trip to visit my sister — none of it’s true.” She could see the tears intensifying in his eyes, but she pressed on. “I go to hotels by myself. I get a room, and then I sit at the bar until it all starts to wash away.”
She’d pushed him away for the past year, and it was unfair. The distance between them had grown with every unspoken word; it was time to break the silence.
“That house,” her head shook, tears stained her cheeks, “I don’t know how you stand being in that house.”
He took her hands, “You don’t have to do this alone,” he said. Even as she destroyed him, he comforted her, killing her even more.
She jerked away, “Stop it, Mark! Stop acting like it’s okay! It isn’t! It fucking isn’t!” She was sobbing. “Don’t you get it? It’s not just the house; it’s you.”
His face was stunned, “I can’t look at you,” she exhaled, “without seeing him.”
His wounded look tore her in two, “I love you, I do.” She paused, “It’s just not enough.”
He turned away from her, suddenly realizing this was now the anniversary of not one death but two. The hope of a new start crashed down around them as the truths they’d swallowed laid bare.
They cried and held each other, their life together, broken by events out of their control. She couldn’t keep dragging him down into the depths of her depression. But, he still had a chance, and by setting him free, she hoped he could find hope, a fresh start, and a sense of peace—a sense of peace she never could.