When she stepped into the room it was dark. Cold. There was ice in her footsteps, like walking on a lake in early spring—thin, tricky. She stood still and watched the room emerge slowly from the dark. First a black shadow, then grey. The vase on the side table stretching, thinning, settling into shape.
Everything was exactly as she had left it. Nothing about her was the same.
The mail was still in both their names. Mr. and Mrs. A dark and formal font on a plain white background, revealing nothing of what was inside. She tossed the pile on the table and sat, silent, bringing up dust from seat cushions that had waited here alone for months in the dark.
They had saved up so long for this trip. Planned every step so carefully. Ash, she’d said, you’re leaving nothing to chance. No space for what if. But he’d just smiled, shook his head. Repeated distances and latitudes from memory. Reminded her to wear in her hiking boots. That blisters would do her in. That band-aids can only fix so much. She would roll her eyes and laugh, knowing it would all work out. Trusting he knew the way.
Now her boots were like weights around her ankles, tying her down. Keeping her stuck. She’d tied them into double knots hours and hours before. Another lifetime. So tight she couldn’t get her fingers between the laces to pry them apart, pull her boots off. Trapped between yesterday and now.
The day they left winter had been closing in. As they sprinted to the taxi she’d looked up, the dark sky threatening but unwilling to let go. The muddy ground still awaiting its bright burial. Just think, he’d said, this year we’ll leave our winter footprints in the dirt.
They’d been hours early for the flight, backpacks bulging yet weightless, slung over their shoulders. Ash bought them coffee, his black, hers a swirl of beige. Like mud long dried on a boot. She’d taken a sip and shivered, thinking of what was to come.
By now the sun had come up and she could see the room in full, felt the strangeness of what had been familiar. Photos she hadn’t thought about in ages. Books she’d once dusted, spines lined by colour, filled with stories she could no longer bear to read.
It was one of her books that had sparked him. Made him sit up, eyes wide with wonder. He’d read her the passage out loud, then again. Descriptions of dark, dusty paths. Walking across a bright emptiness as far as the eye can see. He’d pulled out the map on the next page, traced his finger over the desert. There? she’d asked. Here? His black curls nodding. Yes, yes. Marking notes in the margins, circling campsites and peaks. He’d moved a strand of her hair out of the way, gold between his fingers. Could we? she’d asked. He’d nodded again. We can.
She went to the kitchen, put on the kettle. Desperate for something to do. There was a teabag still in the sink, where they’d left it. But when she picked it up it ripped. Spilled old leaves and bits of paper into the drain. The tag said Summer Sunshine, something they’d steeped that morning to set the mood. But now she reached into the canister for something darker, stronger. Something to fill up the hollow parts.
Her mug was on the shelf, washed but dusty. She ran it under the tap until the kettle boiled. A familiar pierce that pulled her from the shadows where she’d gone to hide. She dropped the tea bag in, tilted the kettle, kept her fingers wrapped around the cup edges until they burned. A white hot brightness that took over everything.
Ash had loved the hiking. The sun that filled the desert. The sweat off his arms sent diamond shards of light into her eyes, so bright she struggled to see. His map was precise, detailed. The desert has a hungry beauty, he’d said. If you’re not prepared, it will eat you alive. She tucked wildflowers behind his ears, watched them fall off as they withered away, scorched. Lost to the sand forever.
At night they settled into sleeping bags, did away with the tent when they could. Watched as stars burst like patches of daylight to fill the black sky, suspended in their cold, dark desert. She’d tried to capture it, left her camera out overnight to collect the pattern. But the morning sun had erased whatever the darkness had left behind.
She sat with her tea in the thin strip of light that cut through the curtain, split the kitchen table in two. Half in brightness, half in dark. Before and after. Her camera sat at the bottom of her backpack, still lying out in the hallway. Battery long dead, lens filled with sand.
She didn’t need to see the last picture she took, of Ash in the morning, halfway through the trip. It was forever burned into her mind. His hair still wet and drying in the sun. Water bottle at his waist, hat in hand. The sky was overcast, grey. A reprieve from the heat that followed from the moment the sun came up. A middle ground. She was restless, tired. Feet hurting in her boots. She’d wanted a break.
Stay here, Ash had said. Stay and rest. I’ll do the peak and come back, OK? She hesitated, not wanting to miss the view from the top. To miss him. But she agreed. Set herself up with a book in the shade, a full flask of water. Dug the half-melted chocolate out from her pack, dark and warm. Go. Go. I’ll be OK, she told him. I’ll be fine. And he’d bent down to kiss her, one last time, lingering. His mouth cool from the water he’d drank. Reluctant to leave, excited to go. I know, Dawn, he said. I know.
It took her a day to circle the peak from the ground, another day to exit the park. They sent in rangers on foot, a helicopter, dogs with noses wet and eager, sniffing between the cracks. Digging through the sand. After a week she went to a hotel, after another she rebooked her ticket home. And now she sat, alone, dark tea cooling in her hand. Blinded by the sun coming in through the window, the early rays giving way to the sharp light of a mid-winter morning.
She dug out the scissors from the kitchen drawer, cut off her laces. Kicked her boots into the corner. Where grief was supposed to be there was only a pause, a waiting. She didn’t know how to exhale. From the corner of her eye she spotted the book—their book. The starting point of their dark adventure. She reached over and opened it to the map, traced her fingers over the paths, stopping at the peak. The height of their trip, the apex, but also the end.
He’d added a note in one corner, before they left. In his careful handwriting. Circled, then circled again. A reminder that every step of the trip, every moment of their journey, was worth the climb.
It’s darkest before the dawn.
Tina Wayland is a freelance copywriter by day and a fiction writer when the stars align. She has had pieces published in such spaces as The Foundling Review, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, carte blanche, and Every Day Fiction. When she’s not trying to hold down the fort, she can be found in some corner of the world or other, probably eating something new.
© 2019, Tina Wayland