by Brian Kayser
Dead, dry leaves the color of burnt amber crunched under Julie’s shoes. With each step, she ventured further from home. Final remnants of sunlight dipped through the budding trees, illuminating her path along the wide, empty trail. Breathing heavy, eyes down, Julie continued, watching for roots.
“Can you please come with us?” Julie remembered the way the young police officer stood at the doorway, voice cracking, swaying from foot to foot, how his baggy uniform hung from his narrow shoulders.
The trail split in two directions. Julie slowed her jog, stood where the path divided. Mike always pointed to the boulder perched on the hillside, looking like it could roll at any moment. “Remember that rock,” he’d say each time they passed it. Mike always remembered landmarks to placate Julie’s fear that they’d get lost. When he ran by himself, he said he never remembered to look for landmarks. When Julie asked what he’d do if he got lost, he said, “I’d just keep running ‘til I found the path.”
The police officer let Julie ride in the front seat. She sat, hands on her knees, feet tapping. She stared out the window as the car moved. A boy played basketball in a driveway. She craned her neck to watch him dribble, spinning and shooting over an imaginary defender. He missed, then ran after the ball as it bounced off the backstop and onto the grass. Julie knew it was bad, whatever it was, and it had to involve Mike. The passing images took her mind away from whatever she was moving towards. I wish we could drive forever, she thought. Julie thought back to her parents waving goodbye as she pulled out of their driveway, the family station wagon they gave her for graduation bursting with plastic bags full of clothes. She felt a sadness turning off the street she’d grown up on, the corner where she’d waited for the school bus receding behind her. She remembered how her rested on the steering wheel and how she liked the way the diamond engagement ring caught the sunlight. But she also felt the nervous excitement about moving in with Mike. The small house they purchased together was falling apart, but the possible renovations excited Mike almost as much as its location, just down the road from the miles of trails that snaked through the deep woods.
Loud pops echoed in the distance. They sounded hollow, like the air rifles Julie’s brothers used to play with. When she ran the trails with Mike, occasionally they’d see kids decked out in camouflage, hunting squirrels. She continued running. The boulder grew smaller in the distance. Houses sat on the hill to Julie’s left, small, lit boxes. She imagined the clanking of silverware against plates, a family engaging in a variation of the same conversation they had every night. She thought back to her last conversation with Mike, tried to replay it in her head. She told him she was going to the store, did he want anything, and he tore a recipe out of his running magazine. Julie looked at the ingredients. “Quinoa? I don’t even know where I’d find it,” she said. Mike took the recipe back. “Never mind,” he’d said, tying his shoes. “See ya.” The screen door slammed shut, the torn magazine page lay on the couch.
“We’re here,” the police officer said, his first words since driving. He brushed his nose with his finger several times. Julie saw a woman crying on the side of the road, her maroon station wagon’s right side was in the ditch, looking like it could topple with a faint gust of wind. A young girl wearing no expression peered out of the window, both hands pressing against the glass like a prisoner.
“The victim left in an ambulance five minutes ago,” Another officer said. “Going to the hospital off 5th Street.”
It was hard for Julie to see the trail, the roots, the loose branches. The sky burned a deep orange, with shades of Easter-purple blended in. Julie stopped. She pushed against a tree and stretched her calves, the dry, uneven bark rough against her hands. Her eyes stung from sweat. She wiped her forehead with the sleeve of her damp shirt. Mike would keep going, she thought. When they used to do trail runs together, Mike would run one direction until it was almost dark, despite Julie’s complaints. “There’s nothing to worry about,” he’d say. “It’s just nature.” Julie was still scared. She’d stay close to Mike as they’d run home, his breathing slow and steady. His short, quick steps made no sound but for the occasional twig snapping beneath his foot. To calm her, Mike offered to cook her favorite dishes. “I don’t care,” Julie struggled to say between breaths. Mike continued as if she’d requested eggplant parmesan, detailing the steps he’d take to prepare the dish.
They drove to the hospital. “I think it’s this way,” Julie said to the police officer.
“Oh, right,” he said, pulling into a McDonald’s lot to turn around. A van backed out of a parking space. The police officer waited.
“Can’t you flash your sirens? I need to be there.” A sense of urgency rose in Julie’s stomach – a bitter, acidic taste. She wasn’t surprised at the feeling, only that it took so long for her to feel it. Cars pulled to the side of the road as the siren pierced the silence. Julie tried to convince herself that she was a good girlfriend, a good fiancé. I should be feeling more, she thought. More. The word replayed in her head over and over like a scratched record. The hospital came into view. A family crossed the street from the parking garage holding balloons. A patient resting on his IV stand smoked a cigarette near the door.
“Is here okay?” the police officer asked.
“Sure,” Julie said, grateful for fresh air. She ran to the emergency room entrance.
There were no sounds on the trail now. Julie saw the faint outline of the boulder on the hill. She slowed, looking for her turn, the sharp dogleg. She was tired, lungs burning, but she was scared. Hurry, she’d told herself. She’d never been on the trails this late by herself before, never had to find her way in the darkness. She tried to picture the trail in front of her, searching the archives of her brain for an image, a guide, but uncovered nothing. She wanted to be home, feel the coldness of the empty house, the drawn blinds offering protection from the world. Julie slowed her pace, her feet tentatively tapping the ground like it was aflame, searching for signs of dips and roots.
The police officer rushed her through the waiting room, past the vacant, staring eyes of people leaning back in chairs. Julie hugged herself as she walked through, her eyes fixed on the yellowed tile floor. Stretchers and wheelchairs lined the halls. “Wait here,” the officer said. Julie stood at the end of the hallway as the officer approached a nurse. He leaned in close to her, whispered in her ear as if guarding a secret. The nurse nodded, pointing to a room. The officer walked over with the nurse. “We’ll have to wait here,” he said. “The nurse says it’s going to be all right.” As he said this, the nurse looked to the officer with eyes that seemed to hesitate, a short blink Julie noticed as he said, “All right.”
Diluted light from houses above the trail were Julie’s only guide. Branches that were still for Mike reached out to Julie, scratched her legs. She jumped as a cold sensation cascaded over her shoes, seeped into her socks, penetrated her feet. The stream. She thought she was farther from it. There was a large oak tree with initials scrawled in the bark that Julie missed. She kept moving, her shoes squeaking with each step. The stream meant she was close to the mouth of the trail, one last hill to climb before hitting pavement and sidewalks, hearing children, music playing from the neighborhood pool, sounds of splashing, and the aroma of meat cooking and burning charcoal.
“Please wait here,” the nurse said, placing a hand on Julie’s shoulder. The police officer had left. Before he left he shook Julie’s hand with a firmness she didn’t expect. “It’s going to be all right,” he stammered. “All of this.” He turned and left. “The man in there, is he your husband?” “Not ‘til August,” Julie said. August. A week before she’d been complaining to her mother that August was approaching too fast. There was too much to do, from deciding on and ordering flowers to settling on favors for guests. The day before they’d finally agreed on a DJ but were still arguing over a wedding photographer. Julie wanted the expensive one with the impressive portfolio. Mike was set on a kid just starting out. “C’mon, Jules,” he said. “How bad can someone mess up pictures?” “I’m only getting married once,” Julie replied.
Julie’s shoes stopped squeaking as they met the pavement, the dark trail growing more distant with each step. She struggled to breathe the damp air.
It’d be best if you waited out there, the nurse said. He could be awhile. She gently led Julie through the large automatic doors. Magazines sat untouched on tables. A child cried while the adult held an ice pack against her head. Sweat bubbles dripped down his face and onto his shirt. An older, heavyset woman sat near the door holding her phone close to her face, fingers moving furiously.
A group of shirtless boys, presumably from the high school team, passed Julie, all silent. The one in front waved. Julie managed to nod back. Her pace quickened.
Julie kept watch on the swinging doors leading to the labyrinth of the emergency room, waiting, hoping for the nurse, or better, for Mike, to come out, maybe a slight limp and a bottle of pain pills he’d probably toss in the trash on the way to the car.
The air smelled of fresh lavender, the plants growing in someone’s garden nearby. A warm wind brushed against Julie’s face as she pumped her arms, hoping her legs would follow. A car turned into the neighborhood, the tinny sound of rock music spilling out. Inside, near the pit of her stomach, Julie felt herself scream as she shielded her eyes from the headlights. The car passed, pulling into a driveway, the headlights flickering off. Julie felt herself speed up, the intense burning in her lungs increased, her legs spent. She was a quarter mile from home. A lap on the track from here, she heard Mike say. Julie pictured Mike staring at his GPS watch, their distance calculated to the hundredth of a mile.
She knew it was bad news when the nurse pushed though the double doors. Alone. The nurse tugged at her floral print scrubs as if unbunching a crease. Her hands smoothed over the scrubs like an iron as her pace slowed. She stopped, surveying the waiting room. Julie stayed where she was, hoping the nurse was looking for someone else. She hid behind her magazine, fear expanding in her chest, the words in the article unscrambling to form “M-I-K-E.” “Come with me,” the nurse said.
A dog barked from a leash. The owner nodded in an apologetic manner to Julie. Her eyes burned from sweat, her shirt soaked through, absorbing nothing. She blinked as she entered her neighborhood.
“I’m sorry,” the nurse said. Julie felt like she was in a bad TV drama. She imagined a camera focused on her, the director yelling, “Cut!” and chastising the writer for such a predictable line. Her face was numb, her hands shook. Cold, stale air blasted above her head from the air vent. She wanted to vomit, felt the bile building, the burning sensation. She closed her mouth, placed a hand delicately against her chest and swallowed, forcing back the acid, her throat aflame. She closed her eyes, the burning sensation in her throat growing stronger. Julie felt the nurse’s hand on her back.
Julie collapsed on the lawn; the blades of grass sharp and damp. Her chest heaved. She felt her breathing slow as her back cooled. She stared up at the sky, the stars like ornaments.