This story is by Rock Martin and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I can still hear her voice each morning, in that space between dreaming and living. Her soft, uplifting tone, eternally optimistic. Life is what you make of it.
My lips curl into a modest smile. A fleeting flicker of happiness, as if everything had been wiped clean overnight and I’d forgotten, desperately welcoming the briefest reprieve.
It’s just a second or two, before the day comes, that imminent deluge of reality enveloping me in a violent rush of water. The immense force of a breaking wave, crashing, again and again. Grinding my soul into fine sand, suspended in the churning sea.
Day after day, never-ending.
She’d be disappointed in what I’d become.
It was quick, as these things tend to go. After nine years of happily ever after, she was gone five short weeks later. That was three years ago.
Time is a clever beast. The seconds tick away, one by one. So benign. So predictable. When it first happens, it feels so close, your previous life, like a ship leaving a dock. Close enough to reach out and grab, as if you can pull it back. As if you have a choice in the matter. But it continues to drift away, getting smaller, harder to discern. Eventually, it’s a dimly lit object floating on the horizon. Turning away, you find nothing but the dark emptiness of the world she left behind, a perpetual blackness, so you hold tight to that light.
The faint sound of rustling on the front porch permeated the bedroom, a welcome interruption to my misery. He was here again, for the third time in as many days. I’ve offered no food or shelter, hoping he’d move on. It turns out he was more committed to his cause than I was to mine. I peeled myself off the mattress, threw on some clothes, and joined my wayward friend to savor what remained of the morning.
He was a blend of black, white, and brown, spotted in some areas, solid in others. He had two perky ears and a wide, lopsided smile. A little dusty with a few dried clumps of dirt clinging to his short hair, in good spirits, nonetheless.
He proudly sported an old, frayed, green collar, held together by a few strands of fabric. Two silver pendants dangled and swayed back and forth, catching a glint of the July sun as they rotated, inviting my inspection. Moirai County, license number D3218213.
“That’s quite a hike for a little guy like you. The whole way across town.”
We sat together, listening to the chaotic orchestra of the city, both having wandered off the path, far from where we thought we should be. He was quiet company, content to observe the inhabitants of this strange world from the confines of my porch, tongue hanging in a slow pant. Charming enough to oblige my services.
It took only a few phone calls to connect with the licensing authority of Moirai County.
“I have a lost dog, licensed in your county. Number D3218213. Black, white and brown, I’m guessing Australian Cattle Dog mix.”
“Chance?” the voice responded.
“Chance. We got the call a few days ago. He’s missing. Matches the description perfectly. But that number. We’ll have to get that fixed.”
“What do you mean, fixed?”
“We haven’t used those in years. I’m surprised there’s still any of them out there. If you can bring him down, we’ll get him back to his family.”
It was 36 miles, or about 90 minutes of city driving, from one side of town to the other. I loaded Chance into the passenger seat and we set off.
The scenery rushed past as the sound of the road rumbled under my tires, but that number captured my attention. D3218213. It somehow occupied the desolate expanse of my subconscious that rarely strayed from her memory.
We arrived and I squeezed into a parking spot next to a bus stop, the only such accommodation in view.
It was a short walk to our destination, where Chance was received with open arms and twisted, knowing smiles. It was clear that he’d pulled this type of stunt before. No matter, I’d done my good deed and my drab existence awaited my return. Turning, I headed back.
The squealing of brakes caught my attention and I looked up in time to see a bus at the stop, blocking my quick exit. A crowd of passengers began filing out of a clear glass bus shelter with a black metal roof and bold white letters identifying it as stop D32.
My eyes widened, the fog in my brain abruptly lifting as I stiffened. I blinked, trying to recalibrate, convinced that it was a mirage. When I looked back the number remained.
The bus driver released the air brake as my brain scrambled for an answer.
A few feet away was my car, along with countless more days of watching that now tiny object continue to drift away until it disappears forever. It was time for me to take a chance.
Loose change was jingling in my hand even as the bus doors closed, the engine roaring back to life. I sprinted as fast as I could, not knowing my destination, but flagging down the driver before he could pull away. My pulse pounded from my hands to my feet as I leaped through the open doors. The bus lurched forward as I headed to the back, lightheaded and with tingling skin, searching for the next clue. A large map of the bus route hung above the windows with all stops listed. With laser focus, I ticked them off one by one until I came to stop 18.
D3218213. This was it.
Sitting down and leaning my head back, I closed my eyes and peered out again at the fading memories of my past. The merest bit of sunlight began to break over the distant cliffs behind me, threatening to chase the dark shroud I’ve come to know too well.
Eventually, the bus arrived at stop 18 and my feet landed on the sidewalk. Directly in front of me stood a red brick townhouse, with peeling white paint and a brick staircase. Its numbers read 325.
I marched down the street, searching for 213. Driven by a hunger I didn’t fully understand, my feet sprung off the sidewalk with each step. Butterflies that I thought were long dead began fluttering again in my belly.
The numbers declined. 310, 297, 283… 224, 219, 216.
The houses ended, opening to a park turned community garden. I jogged past to the next house.
The signs had been so clear, had made so much sense. Where was 213? Maybe I’d read them wrong, maybe this was all just a bootless errand.
Sweat began to run down the bridge of my nose as I leaned over to catch my breath. I had no answers. Perhaps I was a fool for thinking this would lead somewhere in the first place.
I tried to untangle my jumbled thoughts, while the sweet, gentle scent of the garden floated on the soft breeze.
The garden. That had to be it.
I crept toward the garden, assessing where to enter. The delicate fragrance of roses, white lavenders, and lilies tickled my nose.
Entering, I studied the profuse greenery, organized in long rows, well-kept and charming. From the outside it appeared strangely devoid of activity for such a delightful summer day. I pressed on.
The first rows were beds of daylilies, coneflowers, and black-eyed susans, followed by dahlias and hydrangeas. The blooming flowers spread out, claiming their space in a spectacular display of foliage, while the soft sounds of bees, hummingbirds, and passerines coalesced into an inspirative consonance.
I neared the far end of the garden and turned into one of the last rows only to find a young woman. The July heat stuck to her, her red bandana doing its best to keep it out of her eyes. Not knowing what else to do, I just stood there and watched as she planted a series of petunias. Her curly black hair bounced as she labored and reflected the afternoon light that filtered through the trees. It was stunning.
She looked up at me and beamed and, for a moment, I couldn’t look away. Her bright smile and adorable dimples lit up her face, and those deep brown eyes, gentle and comfortable, met mine and held my gaze, her freckles coloring her features in just the right way. She was beautiful. I stood motionless for a moment, eyes wide and mouth open in disbelief.
“Isn’t it something how good this place makes you feel? It’s so lively.”, she said.
“Yes. It’s life. It’s what you make of it.”
She smiled back, all radiance and sunshine.
The time had come for me to make something of it.