This story is by Brandon Caudle and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Couldn’t we do this some other time?”
She said nothing, she kept walking.
“Mon cœur, did you hear me? I asked if we could come out here some other time.”
“I heard you.”
“Come on, does this have to happen in the middle of summer? Every year? It’s blazing hot, we haven’t seen any sign of, well…anything…for at least two hours and the reavers are roaming further and further every day.”
“It’s the solstice. I have to come.”
“I know, I know.”
He shifted his pace, taking shorter steps as the incline steepened.
“It’s just, well, wouldn’t it be the same if we came out here during the winter? Or at least when it’s cooler?.”
“You know the answer.”
He stopped and stared at her retreating back. For the umpteenth time that day, he thought of questions he would never ask. Questions with answers that could do nothing but hurt. It was best to just accept this trip, to support her, to be there for her. One day out of every year.
One foot after another, climbing, ascending. His head turned, his eyes surveyed. It was easy to let his mind drift out here, nothing for eyes to fix upon. Just hard-packed sand and rock and anxiety of what lurked just over the horizon. He swept his gaze across the land, stopping on her again, ten meters ahead. On her brown curly hair, her backpack with water bottles on the outside, her survival knife strapped to her waist. She was more than just a partner, a lover, a common-law wife. Together they were safety and security and hope and fulfillment.
Intangible things they needed, now more than ever. Things that provided stability in a world where nothing was taken for granted anymore, a fact underscored throughout the seasons in their community. A community over half a day’s walk behind them. A community with running water and strong, fortified walls and hunters and farmers and doctors and people who could survive if they stuck together. And guns.
An ever-present part of his life now. Of all of their lives. He adjusted the sling on his rifle and continued up the grade after her. She was smart and determined and he was grateful they found each other. He couldn’t imagine the last seven years without her. He wouldn’t ever be able to fill the gaping hole she had deep inside her, the annual pilgrimage met a need for both of them, separate and complementary.
He caught up to her, she had stopped and was sitting on a large rock on the side of the trail. She patted the flat surface beside her and he plopped down, flexing his back and stretching out the last few miles of aches. Every day was a litany of pains now. He pulled his arm over his head, working out the knot in his back muscles, searching for a memory of how it was before.
The word everyone used now. A mark in the timeline of humanity, however imprecise. After a long workday and the communal dinner, a group would always sit and talk around the fires in the middle of town. They would complain and laugh and discuss until finally the conversations drifted to a discussion of when the exact moment had passed.
When life had stopped and the daily struggle for existence took over. He would listen and sip on the ration of ‘shine allotted once a week. Like the others, they now lived without daily reminders and schedules and calendars that existed before time slipped backward into the patterns and habits that had existed for millennia.
She took his hand and squeezed.
“Thank you for…”
The pause lingered and he squeezed back, the rough calluses on both of their hands a comforting feel. Again, something he struggled to recall how hands felt…before.
She took a deep breath.
“For coming up here with me. It means a lot. I know it’s impossible to understand. Why do I keep going back to where it happened, on the day it happened…”
She didn’t say anything for a moment, and he turned his head. Tears streamed down her face. He put his arm around her and held her, side by side. Silently, they sat, the valley stretched out before them, the wind their only companion.
She squeezed his hand again and let go. Opening her backpack, she pulled out a small metal box.
“I’ve been coming up here ever since…”
He waited, patiently, silently.
She choked down a quiet sob and started over.
“I’ve been coming up here every year, it’s my way of holding on. Every year the memory fades more, it’s not like…before, when we had photos and computers and reminders of someone all the time. And it’s never going to be the same again. I tell myself, if I come up here, I won’t forget. He won’t be gone forever. Even though I know he’s gone. I saw it happen.”
He searched her face intently, her tear-streaked cheek, her quivering lip.
“But, no matter how much I try to cling to the memory, it’s not going to change the future. I have to move forward. Not on. Just forward.”
His eyebrows arched. This annual pilgrimage was important to her. And she was important to him. If she took the trip, he took the trip. There was no way he would let her hike all the way out here by herself. The danger was too great. The heat, the distance and most of all, the marauding gangs that patrolled the wasteland she had staggered out of long ago, alone and barely alive.
She opened the metal box and took out a photo he recognized. She and a handsome man smiling at the camera. They had no secrets, yet there were things neither could understand. She gazed at it, the corner of her mouth turning up in a smile. She kissed the glossy, stiff material and put it back in the box, closing the lid with a click.
Taking a deep breath, she patted his thigh and stood up.
“There’s a cave back over here, I checked it out before. When we were here last year. Looks like a good place to bury this.”
He turned and watched her climb over a large boulder. She disappeared into the dark entrance and the wind whipped away the moment of intimacy. He stood and scanned the valley floor, aware of their vulnerability on the open slope. He moved forward, peered at the horizon. A tiny trail of dust rose in the distance, far away yet moving towards them. Instinctively he crouched, calculating angles and distance.
“Hurry,” he called out over his shoulder, “we have to move. We have to go! Now!”
He glanced up at the sun and then back at the oncoming danger. If they pushed hard, with luck they could make it. She scrambled down beside him, her boots slipping on the gravel. Her face was determined. She moved forward, leading the way down.