I stood at the window in the therapist’s office, ignoring the doctor behind me. I pulled back the curtain and saw storm clouds outside. A man dashed by, turning up the collar of his overcoat.
“Ready to begin?”
Rain struck the window. A flash of light illuminated the clouds, and thunder rumbled. Tension gripped my chest and I couldn’t breathe. My stomach churned. My pulse quickened.
“Ian, are you okay?”
The sky flared again, and booming thunder rattled the windows. I blinked against the brightness and forced myself to draw a ragged breath, then released the curtain. The fabric had creases where my grip had crushed it.
I turned away from the window, crossed the room, and sat. “Sorry, Doctor Appleton.”
The therapist sat facing me across a low coffee table. Her high-necked sweater and long skirt blended with the subdued decor. Tea steamed in cups on the table, smelling of cinnamon and vanilla. Light music played in the background.
“I like to start off gradually,” she said. “Let’s introduce ourselves and decide if we think this will be a good fit. How are you feeling today?”
I had a headache and a sour taste in my mouth, and my eyes felt grainy. But, I shrugged and said, “Okay, I guess.”
We spoke for twenty minutes, getting to know each other a little. I answered her questions. She took notes. I’m sure my discomfort was obvious. The rain drummed on the walls, punctuated by the occasional crash of thunder. With each lightning strike, I jumped in my seat, growing more and more tense as the storm raged, until I could barely focus on the conversation.
“Not a fan of thunderstorms?” she asked.
I clenched my jaw and shook my head. She jotted something in a notebook.
“Many people dislike them,” she continued. “It’s normal to feel tense when they spring up suddenly.”
“How did you sleep last night?”
“Not great.” I pressed my face into my hands and rubbed my eyes, then sat up straight. “It was a rough night. Bad dreams.”
“What did you dream about?”
I grabbed a tea cup and sipped. The tea had grown cold, but the cinnamon fought the sour taste in my mouth. She waited.
“I... I dreamt that I was lost in the mountains. It’s dark, it’s raining, and I’m alone. My gear is missing. I’m hungry and thirsty and can’t… can’t find the way home.”
The cup rattled against the saucer when I put it down. She wrote more, then waited for me to continue.
“I’ve been having these dreams for a month, but the last few nights were the worst.” I looked away, focusing on the bookshelves and gold-framed degrees behind her, taking a few deep breaths before resuming. “I wander in darkness during a storm, looking for… for a way out, feeling helpless and suffocated and lost until I wake up, drenched in sweat and panting like I just ran up a mountain.”
More scratching of her pen. “What’s happening to bring this out right now?”
I looked down at my hands and spun my wedding ring. “It was a year ago today that Christina…” my breath hitched, and my throat tightened. It took me a moment to finish, “...left me.”
I lifted my head to look at her again. Her expression softened. Concern became compassion and her voice grew warmer. “I’m sorry that today is so painful for you.”
“We used to hike together,” I said. “A lot. We met on a hiking trip, actually. Friends introduced us. We hit it off, dated for about six months, then took the plunge. I haven’t been hiking since things ended.”
A chime rang. She walked to her desk, took out a small pad of paper, and wrote for a moment. She tore off the top page and held it toward me.
“We’re out of time for today, but let’s meet next week and talk again. In the meantime, I’m prescribing a mild sedative to help you sleep.”
I took the prescription slip and pocketed it. It seemed quick to jump from introductions to medication, but I didn’t complain.
“Take it only at home,” she said, “and do not drive or drink alcohol while under its influence.”
“Thanks, doctor. See you next week.” I grabbed my jacket from the hook by the door and swung it on, stepping into the hall as thunder rumbled. I barely noticed the sterile hallway as I left the therapist’s office and hurried up the stairs at the end of the hall into a shabby lobby. Fluorescent lights struggled against the gloom. Two people dripping water hurried in as I dashed past them into the storm.
I ran to my car -- wishing I hadn’t chosen the farthest spot in the lot -- as the downpour soaked through my jacket. I dropped my keys. The storm pounded me as I fished them out of a puddle and jammed the button on the fob three times. I tore the door open and leaped inside, then slammed it shut against the rain. I had no time to catch my breath before I saw a bright flash and felt the car vibrate from the force of the thunder. I started the car and backed out in a rush without looking. The back of the car bucked as I drove up on the curb, but I ignored it as I threw the car into drive and stomped on the gas. The engine roared. My knuckles ached from the intensity of my grip on the wheel. Horns blared as I raced through the streets, ignoring traffic signals and right of way.
As I drove out of town, the rain diminished and the thunder grew distant. I focused on the road, breathing deeply and regularly, gradually calming down as the weather improved. I pulled myself together enough to fill the prescription at a drive-through pharmacy.
Fifteen minutes later, I pulled onto my street. Turning into my driveway, I saw my neighbor with her dog, a wide umbrella shielding them from rain that had dwindled to a sprinkle. She called my name and walked up the driveway as her dachshund waddled behind her. I lowered my car window as the garage door trundled open.
“Ian,” she said, “such rain we’ve had today! It must be a fright to drive through. You must have had something very important to do.” She peered over the rims of her glasses and brushed strands of gray hair from her face.
“A doctor’s appointment.”
“You must keep up your health, of course. We all must.” She scooped up her dog, cradling him with one arm and kissing his head. “This is why I am walking Schnitzel, even if he does not like to get his little paws wet.” She nuzzled the dog and made comforting noises. “But you must go inside and dry your wet hair, not sit here and talk to an old woman.”
As if on cue, a few heavy raindrops pinged the car.
“One thing I must tell you first,” she continued. “Sarah has come to visit. She has such a busy schedule, but she has made time to visit her mother. You must come and have tea with us. Once you have cleaned up?”
I hesitated. That was all the opening she needed.
“I see you thinking of a polite way to say ‘No.’ You must come. Tea and cookies. And then you take Sarah to dinner tonight. She very much enjoyed the last time.”
Sarah and I had been on two dates in recent months, but nothing serious had come of it. She traveled for work frequently, and my heart wasn’t in it. “Sarah is lovely, Mrs. Edelson,” I said. “But, I’m still not ready to date.”
“Ian, you have been alone in that house for a year. A young man must have someone in his life. You must come and have tea with us.” She wasn’t going to let it go, so I nodded. “Excellent! I will see you in one hour.” She walked away, nuzzling Schnitzel.
I drove into the garage and waited as the door closed, the space transforming into a dark cave. The light bulb on the garage door opener was out. I’d meant to replace it, but I was glad for the darkness. I sat there and just breathed, letting the last vestiges of the storm-induced panic drain away, until the discomfort of my wet clothes motivated me to get out of the car.
The other garage bay held a mini-SUV coated in a layer of dust that had accumulated from disuse. I walked slowly past it, stopping to lay my hand on a rear brake light for a moment. It was the only clean spot on the car, wiped clear by my habitual touches. I imagined I felt the car running, and I wished for the times we’d pack it with gear and head out for a hiking weekend, singing together to one of our favorite road trip tunes.
I bowed my head and held back tears, then took a deep breath and squared my shoulders, pulling my hand reluctantly from the car. I crossed the garage and went into the house, leaving a wet trail on the tile floor as I went into the kitchen.
The room smelled of alcohol. I’d left a cocktail glass in a puddle of whiskey, a half-empty bottle standing next to it. I pulled the stopper and tipped the bottle, pouring a generous amount into the glass. I lifted it to my lips and breathed in deeply through my nose, feeling the vapors in my nasal passages before drinking. A mellow warmth spread through my chest as I poured myself a second, then carried it to the sliding door and looked across the back yard.
Christina’s favorite tree stood there, a majestic elm that towered over the yard, its crown shielding a wood bench at its base. She built that bench. Carved our initials into it like we were in middle school. We would sit there together and talk, dreaming of the future. We’d lean back-to-back and rant about our days at work. We’d sit quietly and read, transported to different worlds, but together. When we couldn’t be out in the wilds, we’d be there, on that bench.
I unlatched the sliding door, opened it, and stepped onto the patio. Intermittent rain struck my face as I crossed to the elm and sat on the bench. I ran my fingers across the “CM + IH” carved into one corner, the wood worn smooth. I slugged back the whiskey, felt the warmth fortify me against the chill of the rising wind, and set down the glass.
I sat there in Christina’s favorite spot, minutes passing as the weather turned for the worse. Surrounded by flowers she planted, I felt memories resurface. Her laughter as she’d dance in the rain. Her seriousness as we’d discuss plans for the future. Her scream as she... I tried to push that memory away, but there was no stopping it.
We’d been on Mount Washington that day. A storm blew in suddenly as we climbed a difficult stretch, dark clouds pouring over the mountain, bringing high wind and cold rain. The storm parked on top of us as we climbed, and the rain turned to sleet. Ice-slicked stones became treacherous. Fingers numb, feet slipping, I felt the mountain shake as lightning flashed and thunder boomed, while a surge of wind pounded down the slope into our faces. My grip slipped and nearly gave way, but it held at the last moment. I heard a scrape, a grunt, and then a cry below me as Christina fought the wind, struggled to hold the slope, and failed.
I will never forget how she screamed as she fell. Nor will I forget the crunching sound as she landed among the rocks and her scream cut short.
I climbed down to her with reckless speed, nearly falling several times. Her left leg was twisted at an unnatural angle, and bone protruded from her left forearm. The blood staining the hood of her sweatshirt indicated a head injury, so I was afraid to move her. She was still breathing, though. With no phone signal, I couldn’t call for help. I broke out an emergency beacon and lit it, then laid the emergency blanket and my coat over her to keep her warm.
The storm moved on. Rescue workers responding to the beacon helped us off the mountain. Christina never regained consciousness, and she died a few days later. Of the days that followed, I mostly remember being completely unable to tie my necktie for the funeral, and empty whiskey bottles.
I returned to myself on the bench, with wind and rain blowing as they had that day on the mountain. My chest heaved as I sobbed. Christina’s elm stood over me, its leaves shaking in the storm, the branches swaying in the wind, but protecting the bench from the worst of the weather.
Heedless of the rain, I opened my phone and looked through photos. Some were of us in Paris or London on a rare city vacation, some were of Christina being goofy around the house, but most were in natural settings: forests we’d hiked and mountains we’d climbed.
I stopped on a favorite, a shot of her leaning over a railing, gazing triumphantly at the walls of the Grand Canyon as they glowed in the sunset light. We’d battled bone-deep fatigue, aching feet, and cramping legs climbing out after days in the Canyon’s depths. Christina’s drive got us out. She focused on just reaching the next turn, just climbing the next stretch, chanting the words we’d seen on the signs: “Down is optional, up is mandatory.”
I ached from a year spent without her. A year spent watching TV alone, avoiding family and friends, eating tasteless microwaved food, and working long days because I had no reason to stop. A year spent going through the motions, existing, rather than living.
I pulled out the prescription I’d filled on the way home. I tore open the paper bag to get at the translucent brown bottle, the pills rattling as it rolled in my hand. The cocktail glass beside me glittered dully in the gloom. I had whiskey in the house and pills right here in my hand. The doctor had called them a mild sedative, but if I washed down the entire bottle with a few glasses of whiskey, I was sure they’d get the job done. It would be so easy to just drift off, forever.
I stared at the bottle in my hand until it was the only thing I saw, my arm aching from the weight. So heavy, for such a small thing.
I closed my eyes to shut out the bottle’s hypnotic presence, and with the deftness of long practice I tapped my phone’s screen several times. A moment later, I heard Christina’s voice as the phone played the last voice message she’d ever left me.
“Hey babe, I’m just calling to say that I’m sorry about this morning. I didn’t sleep so great, and I was late for work, so I didn’t handle the conversation well. That doesn’t excuse it, and I’m sorry it took me all day to get over it. I’m on my way home now, and I am really looking forward to this weekend. Let’s just get away from everything for a couple days and worry about it on Monday. No matter what else happens, we’ve got each other, and that means we can work through anything. One step at a time. I love you.”
We didn’t have each other any more, but she was still helping me work through things. I jammed the pill bottle and phone back into my pockets, snatched up the cocktail glass, and strode across the grass. I returned to the house, where I stood dripping on the kitchen floor, adding to the disarray. I had a lot to put back in order.
My phone rang. It was Mrs. Edelson. “Fifteen minutes, Ian. You must come!”
I took a deep breath to steady my voice. Looking out the kitchen window, I imagined Christina standing beneath the elm, dancing in the rain, laughing. She paused, turned to me, smiled, and blew me a kiss.
Down is optional, up is mandatory. Just reach the next turn.
“Okay, Mrs. Edelson,” I answered. “I’ll see you both soon.”
About the Creator
Roger Alix-Gaudreau is earning his MFA in Creative Writing from SNHU and has published books for multiple roleplaying games. Between epic fantasy projects, he and his wife plan their next trip to a country filled with castles.