2021 - Fall - A Winding Path Entry
A Beautiful Path - 1. A Beautiful Path
Inspired by Nur zu Besuch (Only Visiting) by Die Toten Hosen
Die Toten Hosen - Nur zu Besuch (english subtitles) - YouTube
*This is an emotional story and may be difficult for some to read.
It is a beautiful path that unobtrusively leads to you.
Yes, I like it because it seems so bright and friendly.
I jumped and scrambled to my feet. I hadn’t heard the car pull up. “Yeah, that’s me.”
The teenager standing in front of me held up two grease-stained paper bags. At least, I assumed he was a teenager since he was driving. He looked like he was twelve. “I’m with Uber Eats. You ordered Arby’s?”
“Yup. Did they remember the honey mustard sauce? Mark has to have honey mustard sauce with his mozzarella sticks.” I gestured over my shoulder. “I know it’s weird, but the idiot likes ‘em that way.” I could feel Mark rolling his eyes at me.
The kid raised an eyebrow and looked at me strangely. “Dunno. I just deliver the stuff.” He held out the bags. “You gonna take ‘em, or what?”
I was tempted to ‘or what’. “Thanks. I gave you your tip through the app.” I took the bags from him.
“Yep. Got it. Enjoy.” He practically ran to his car and peeled away, tires spitting gravel.
I looked at Mark and shook my head. “If that’s our future, we’re doomed.”
Mark grinned. “You sound like an old man.”
I laughed through the stab of pain in my chest. “Next thing you know, I’ll be chasing the kids off my lawn with a hose. If I can manage without my walker, that is.”
“Well, forty is pretty damn old, you know.”
I clenched my hand around the paper Arby’s bag, then opened it and divvied up our fried chicken sandwiches and curly fries. We both got cheese sauce, and of course, Mark had his mozzarella sticks with honey mustard sauce. “Forty is too damn young,” I whispered.
I dipped a curly fry in the cheese sauce and popped it in my mouth. It tasted like sawdust. “I remember the first time you ordered that weird combo. We were so drunk. I can’t believe they didn’t kick us out of there. I swear we ate their entire stock of sugar packets. How the hell did we ever do all those sugar shots? If I did that now, I’d get diabetes.”
“It was a college town, so I’m sure they were used to students doing all kinds of stupid shit. Like downing sugar packets in one entire gulp. There’s a lot worse things we could have been doing, that’s for sure.”
“Yeah, you got that right.” I sighed and leaned against Mark, shivering with the late-autumn chill. “I miss those days.”
“So do I.”
The sky was an exercise in contrast. Dark storm clouds filled the eastern horizon, while the sunset in the west lit the sky in a stunning display of red, orange, and yellow just above the canopy of the old oaks and maples dotting the landscape. The reddish-orange hue highlighting the puffy clouds was the same color as Mark’s hair. Well, the color it was twenty years ago. Now it was muted with gray.
“Remember when we first met?” I asked.
“Of course I do. We were instant best friends when we bonded over Play Doh and Lincoln Logs in kindergarten.”
“Yeah. The deal was sealed when we found out we lived on the same street, only a few houses away from each other.”
“Yeah, and you didn’t rat me out for eating the Play Doh.”
My body trembled as laughter built within me. “Oh my God, yes! And you liked the red one the best. Like any of them actually tasted any different.”
“How would you know, unless you tasted it, too?”
I held my hand up. “I plead the Fifth.”
Mark snorted. “Yeah. Uh-huh. Thought so.”
“I had to know what I was missing out on. I figured it had to be good if you liked it so much.” I made a face. “Man, was I wrong.”
“Yeah, well you never did have good taste.”
“Very true. Look who I picked for a best friend.” I took a long draw of 7 Up to quench my suddenly dry throat.
“Ah, I guess you had good taste in some things.”
I smiled wistfully. We sat in silence as I nibbled on my Chicken Bacon & Swiss sandwich. I wished we were ten years old again, staying out till the streetlights came on. We spent a lot of time at the local park, climbing the monkey bars and seeing how high we could swing standing on the swings before we fell off. One day, we stayed to watch the sunset, gently swaying next to each other as we talked about the future. It was a rare moment for us since we were generally a couple of wild smartasses. The sky then wasn’t as angry as it was now, but I never got tired of watching the sunset with Mark. It had become a bit of a tradition with us.
Every milestone, we seemed to find ourselves watching the sunset together. Through the pains of growing up, high school and college graduations, getting engaged, then married, then the birth of Mark’s children. And now….
“Remember when you tried to set me up with Allison Cooper in high school? For that stupid winter dance thing. Man, I hated those dances.”
“Yeah, that was a disaster. You didn’t speak to me for over a month. I thought I’d fucked up our friendship for good.”
I shrugged. “Nah. I was pissed but more worried about telling you the truth.”
“Shit, I knew it before you did. Allison was just a test.”
“I know. But we didn’t know how to communicate back then. Good thing we got better at it.”
“Definitely. Otherwise, I would have never set you up with Adam and, eventually, Noah.”
“Oh wow… Adam! Now there’s a blast from the past. He was such a blue-eyed, blond-haired ball of adorable awkwardness. Perfect for a first boyfriend.” I inhaled, then exhaled slowly. “I thought we’d be together forever. Two years during high school, then one semester at different colleges. I didn’t believe all the naysayers telling us the long-distance thing was a relationship killer. Turned out they were right. I was so devastated at the time, but if we hadn’t broken up, I never would have met Noah.”
“Good thing you had me, then. It was nice being a few hours away from home. Far enough away to be independent, yet close enough to be with family when we needed to.”
“How about that time we got shit-faced and duct-taped Napoleon in his room?” I grinned.
“How could I forget? I can’t believe he actually pissed himself.”
“Who came up with that nickname, anyway?”
“George, I think.”
“Oh, yeah!” I laughed. “Giving Eric a nickname the polar opposite of what he looked like was genius. And he should have known better than to get that drunk in front of us. He was totally fair game. That duct tape prank was legend! He looked like a freaking fly caught in a spiderweb! I almost pissed myself laughing at the way he struggled to get out of the door. It was worth getting written up and having to clean up the mess.”
“Who’d have thought we’d graduate and become productive members of society?”
“We’re productive members of society? Speak for yourself!”
“Eat your stupid cheese sticks, asshat.” I smiled. “You know, I’m still amazed every time I think about how we got jobs in the same town. I know you turned down that offer in California to take the job here.”
“You knew about that? You never said anything.”
“What could I say? I would have never asked you to do that. I don’t think I ever told you how much it meant to me, though. I know it was your dream job.”
“It wasn’t really. I made the right choice since I stayed with the company for almost twenty years. Besides, I needed my best friend. And if I had gone to California, I never would have met Tammy. And Joey and Becky never would have been born.”
I wiped my eyes. I loved my two godchildren as if they were my own. “We’ve had it pretty good, haven’t we?”
“I won the lottery when I met Tammy. You didn’t too badly yourself, either. Noah’s a great guy.”
I nodded, clenching my jaw. “Yeah, he is.”
“I know you too well. What’s going on?”
I ran my hand through my hair. “Noah thinks I’m spending too much time with you.”
“He’s right, you know.”
I scowled. “Whose side are you on? Traitor.”
I shivered again as a cool breeze blew past, almost taking my napkins with it. I stuffed them inside the paper bag.
“It’s going to storm tonight. You should go home.”
I shook my head. “No.”
“You can’t stay here.”
“The hell I can’t. I won’t leave you, Mark.”
Lightning flashed, followed by a low rumble of thunder about twenty seconds later. A gust of wind blew the container holding Mark’s cheese sticks over.
“Cory, you can’t stay here. A nasty storm is moving in. It’s not safe.” The voice was deeper than Mark’s and sounded tired and laced with pain.
Listen to him, the wind whispered.
I shook my head. “No.”
“You’ve been out here for days. It’s time to come home.”
Noah stepped toward me, but I backed away, closer to Mark. “I can’t leave him.”
Another flash of lightning and thunder rumbled, this time a bit louder. My stomach churned, threatening to spill the few bites of sandwich and cheesy fries I’d manage to choke down.
“He was my friend, too, Cor. You’re not the only one grieving. I need you, too.” Noah ran his hand through his dusty-blond hair, making it stand on end. Normally, I found it sexy when he did that, but now I wanted him to leave and take reality with him.
Noah held out his hand. “C’mon, Babe. Please. Come home.”
I shook my head and sat cross-legged with my back against Mark’s headstone. “No. I’m not ready.”
“God, you’re so fucking stubborn, you know that?”
“You married me.” For a minute, I thought Noah was going to smile, but instead he gave me his famous stink-eye. “Seriously, though. I need time and space. Mark and I have gone through everything together. I can’t abandon him now.”
“You’re not abandoning him. It’s going to be dark soon, with severe thunderstorms. And it’s going to get cold. Leaving you out here freaking hurts.” Noah’s cheek bulged as he clenched his jaw.
“I’ll be fine. I’m not leaving. I mean it. I can’t. I just…can’t.”
Noah exhaled sharply and slumped his shoulders. “I’ll be in the car in the parking lot if you need me.” He turned and started walking slowly away, then paused and looked back at me. “I love you, Cory.”
“I love you, too.”
I leaned my head back against the black-flecked, gray marble behind me as my husband headed to his car. My soul had been ripped in half when Mark died. I felt hollow, empty, and drained. I knew Noah was hurting, too, but I didn’t have the strength to do anything about it.
“I’m not really here, you know,” Mark said.
“Yes, you are,” I replied. “We’ve been together since kindergarten. We’ve faced every single major life event together. How can I let you face this one alone?” Cold drops of water fell on my forearms. “Don’t cry…I don’t think I can stand it if you cry.”
“I’m not crying, dipshit. It’s raining. Seriously. Go to Noah. This is nuts.”
Rage roiled within me as the storm broke, drenching me in a matter of seconds. Flashes of lighting were followed almost immediately by deafening thunderclaps. I surged to my feet, stumbling as I forced my numb legs to move before they were ready. I stepped on Mark’s cheese sticks in the process. I reached down and grabbed them, then threw them as hard as I could.
“I’m nuts? Are you fucking kidding me? You leave me like this, and I’m the one who’s nuts?” I shouted.
“It was my time.”
I laughed, overcome with hysterics. “Oh, that’s a fucking load of shit! You were forty years old! It was supposed to be routine surgery! They do thousands of these a day! What the fucking, crap-fuck shit? I didn’t even go the fucking hospital because it was ROUTINE!” I paced in a circle around Mark’s grave. “I wasn’t there for you when you needed me the most! And then….” My breath came in heaving gasps. I felt like my heart was going to pound out of my chest, like the thing in the Alien movies.
I fell to my knees, right into a puddle. “You betrayed me! You lied to me! We made an oath to be friends for life. We’re blood brothers! Friends for LIFE! That means eighty… ninety… a hundred fucking years! Not stupid goddamn, motherfucking forty!”
“I’m sorry. I sure as fuck didn’t plan on dying from a pulmonary embolism. I had plans, too, you know. There’s so much shit I won’t get to do now. Like see the kids grow up, have grandkids. Fuck. I actually wanted to be a grandpa. And our trip to Europe. Fuck, we kept coming up with excuse after excuse as to why we couldn’t, and now we can’t.”
I sobbed uncontrollably as rain cascaded down my face. “How could you leave me? How the hell am I supposed to go on?”
“Remember what I told you after you and Adam broke up?”
“I thought my whole world was ending. It was nothing like this, though. Fuck. When I got the phone call that you’d—” I made a strangled sound, the words stopping in my throat. “I felt like I’d been punched in the gut.” I gasped for breath as my body tensed and tried to deal with the onslaught of my emotions. The cold from the soaking wet earth seeped into my bones, and I started shaking uncontrollably.
“Bad things happen in life. There’s no way to change that. We need the bad to appreciate the good. The memories will always be there, and the hurt will fade. The good will outweigh the bad again someday. The sun may set on one thing, but it will rise on another, maybe better, thing. Life will go on.”
I sat on the back of my legs, and my shoulders slumped.
Life will go on.
I got over Adam.
I would never get over the loss of Mark. How could I possibly go on?
I stared ahead but didn’t see anything beyond the curtain of rain cascading down my face.
“How can I go on without you?” I whispered.
I flinched as a small tree branch full of crimson maple leaves smacked me right in the face. Shit, that stung! I picked it up, ready to fling it away from me, then started laughing. I doubled over onto my side, clutching the branch. I rolled over onto my back and raised the leafy stick high. “Really, Mark? I’m not a fucking raccoon!”
“What the hell are you doing?” Noah took the stick from my hand and tossed it aside.
I sat up, smiling, and scooted over so I could rest my back against Mark’s gravestone. “Did I ever tell you the story about when Mark and I went camping and the raccoons kept stealing our marshmallows?”
Noah shook his head and sat next to me. He put his arm around me and drew me close. I laid my head against his shoulder. “We chased them with sticks, but they didn’t give a shit. Eventually, we had to go into the cabin and make our s’mores on the gas stove. Have you ever tasted marshmallows roasted on a gas burner? They taste like gas.”
“I bet.” Noah brushed my wet hair out of my eyes. “I seriously can’t stand seeing you out here like this. Can we please at least go to the car if you won’t go home?”
Life will go on.
I sighed, exhaling a shuddering breath. Accepting Mark’s death didn’t mean I was abandoning him. Or would forget him.
I nodded. “On one condition.”
“We stay and watch the sunrise with Mark one more time.”
Noah kissed my temple and squeezed my hand. “You got it.” He paused. “Are you okay?”
I shook my head. “No. But I think I will be.”
We both stood as the rain lessened. The moon lightened the clouds enough for us to see the gravel path leading toward Noah’s car. My foot kicked something as I stepped forward. I leaned down and picked up a packet of honey mustard sauce and set it on top of Mark’s stone.
This story is dedicated to Cory, Mark, Noah, and all those who are gone too young. Thank you to Aditus and Cole Matthews for helping make this story better. Thank you for reading and walking this path with me. This story was not easy to write.
2021 - Fall - A Winding Path Entry
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