On the Path
by Merideth Grue
Alice wiped her nose for what seemed the tenth time, checking her hand for blood. Though her hand was clean, it took a few minutes to convince herself that her nose was not bleeding.
And that her watch was right.
Dense trees blurred to either side of the path she ran, the thin trunks marking the distance from civilization in dark, triumphant slashes against the green backdrop. She caught a silhouette of a man leaning against a tree ahead and to the left. He too seemed gratefully out-of-place, comfortable in mutual avoidance, so she passed without acknowledgement.
A familiar relief grew with the increasing distance from those she knew. Unwanted or not, she could run. In the back of the park, her secluded place by the pond awaited.
The track took her far from the office. Far from the ever-ticking clock with its twitchy hand and restless clock-watchers. Her pulse actually began to slow despite the physical exertion. Returning to work late once again could put her in the unemployment line, but staying there another minute might put her somewhere much, much worse.
An irritation had ignited in Alice’s mind, and eventually, in her body. The notion had condensed down to a white-hot obsession, setting her face aflame in red.
What had started tentatively enough as “Don’t bother informing me” had escalated into a rather snide “Don’t bother me.” Now, two words echoed still: “Don’t bother.” A fitting slogan for the day, it rang through her like an unanswerable phone, matched in intensity only by the ringing in her head.
The bench near the pond came into view, and Alice’s pace slowed. Her arrival extinguished some of the obsession’s fire. Suppressed rage diminished to smoldering distaste.
She checked the time. In only 41 minutes, her lunch break would end. Dread crept over her at the idea of returning to the source of her stress.
Alice had been excluded on plenty of occasions. But the employee potluck? It was just one shun in a long list. The Christmas party, lottery pool, after-work drinks, even major crises — when everyone banded together — she was often ostracized. The potluck was at work though. Did they think she wouldn’t notice? Closing her eyes, she could still see the mix of reactions at her storming past the three versions of tuna mac that flanked the exit.
Heart pounding in her ears, she sat on the edge of the bench, leaning over the water. The perspiration dampening her skin also cleansed her spirits. The dampness clung to her in the absence of a breeze.
The silence here was deeper than what was audible. Time neglected certain areas. This was one of those spots. Whatever ebbing conduit time carried people along on struck a natural barrier, perhaps the trees surrounding the clearing. Like the wind, the force of time washed against the border, pushing to bring decay and unwelcome thoughts with it.
Alice reeled. Her pulse chugged and stomach churned. Her ringing head in upturned hands, she fought for both air and peace. Embracing her bittersweet solitude, she closed her eyes.
The pressure in her nose remained, but she refused to raise her hand to it again. She was starting to relax.
A bird screeched, startling Alice out of her precarious position on the bench and into the shallow water below. Gulping pond water, and whatever resided within, she broke the surface and began to cry.
Feeling no desire to rejoin the world around her, she thought, It is like being invisible. Like high school. The track team had gotten her through school. Running was the one thing she could do alone and receive encouragement.
”Are you alright?” a man asked from above her.
“Get up,” the man commanded. He stood back, offering no hand. She noticed his height and athletic build. His face gave her the impression of equally hard-earned strength and wisdom.
She winced and climbed to her feet, eying her assessor. Luckily, the pond was very shallow, holding only a couple feet of water at its deepest point. Shivers ran down her as wet clothing replaced the water against her skin.
“Quite the fall,” he said. “How did you manage?”
“Must’ve overestimated my endurance.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I’ll be fine.” She hesitated.
His eyes shifted to examine the trees lining the clearing.
“Thanks,” she offered.
True. Though he stood near, his eyes seemed obscured by shadows somehow.
“Well, since you are grateful. Allow me to help?” He extended a hand that stopped an inch shy of her shoulder and awaited her reply.
“Oh... I...” stammered Alice.
“My apologies.” He withdrew quickly and turned to go. With this, the stinging inside her nose returned full force. She hadn’t noticed it was gone.
She didn’t want him to go. He seemed familiar, like someone ever present and awaiting discovery. Still, she couldn’t place him.
She realized they weren’t alone anymore. The sounds of the strange man’s receding footsteps were replaced by the sounds of other visitors. Alice realized that she didn’t know his name, and had no way to call after him.
A passer-by gave Alice a wide berth without looking up from her magazine.
All right. She could handle this on her own then. Invisibility cloak, on.
A group of rollerblading teens seemed not to notice her drenched person as they approached, but broke into hysterics shortly after passing.
So much for being invisible, she thought. They carried their laughter away with them.
Still, none concerned themselves. Well, not to her soggy face, anyway.
Alice inspected first her clothing, which dripped and clung haphazardly, and then her watch, which indicated there were only 22 minutes remaining of her break. It would take longer than that to get home, unless a bus driver or cabbie let her aboard. Never mind the matter of minutes it would take her to remake herself. She’d run out of time, and she was alone in a crowd.
How had this place gotten so busy? Yet, droves of park visitors seemed content to ignore her.
She slinked toward a young couple. “Do you have a cell phone I could use, either of you?” she nearly whispered.
The young woman, who stood directly facing Alice, furrowed her brow for a moment before turning back to her companion.
Spotting a middle-aged man jogging toward her, Alice forced herself to speak up a little. The man, clad in an electric blue jogging suit, flicked his long bangs out of his eyes without responding.
The park visitors shared a common bond. None bothered.
She trudged toward the park entrance. Ahead, Alice believed she caught a glimpse of her attractive inquisitor. His eyes were focusing on something deep within the trees, but his feet remained planted on the path. It seemed he was poised for something, so she shuffled faster.
He remained motionless. For a moment, she feared attracting his attention. Perhaps the reprimand at work would not be so bad.
No, she would ask. He seemed her only hope.
“Excuse me.” Her sullen tone undermined her hopefulness.
He turned, and the sun caught his eyes, turning them into prisms of pale gold, bronze and stormy blue. If one could view a sun rising around a dark world, then those eyes would have a match in the universe.
“Yes?” He stood inches from her.
“I’m sorry, but I could use that help after all.”
“You don’t say.”
“I need to change,” she explained while shrugging at her disheveled appearance.
“Ahh.” Her stranger was a pillar of indifference.
“I... I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have assumed.” Alice headed slowly toward the entrance again, and he walked alongside.
“No, you should have.”
She noticed his eyes once more. In the shadow of the trees arching over the path, they had taken on a strange quality. By borrowing the color of their surroundings, it seemed they could drain the world much like a sunset. As they were set ablaze, all else faded. If she looked too long, it seemed she might fade herself.
“I don’t wish to inconvenience,” she began.
“None at all, I assure you.”
“It’s just that my clothes are wet, and—”
“And you believe that you must rush to work.”
Alice stopped in her tracks, and when he noticed, he turned toward her. She met his gaze with a fresh shiver.
He nearly whispered to her, making her doubt what she heard. “You think you’re inconceivable?”
Alice froze. She didn’t remember saying anything like this to the stranger, or to anyone. Instead, it sounded familiar in a way it shouldn’t.
“Are you ready for that help?” he asked.
Alice stared at him. Around midnight the night before, Alice had woken from a dream in which she had been back home with her parents. They had been arguing about money when her name had come up. She had written in her journal:
I am inconceivable to many, but my own mother? She shouldn’t have. She would’ve been happier without me. She could’ve gone back to the clinic. Think of all the time we wasted.
Waking with the book next to her face, she’d merely tossed it aside, entry forgotten.
Alice looked up at the stranger, unsure what to believe. “Don’t bother,” she said finally.
“No one will,” he stated with confidence.
How rude. The time had come to estrange Mr. Strange.
She stomped off, heading down the path further toward the park’s entrance.
Keeping her head down, she brushed a low branch of a tree. Her hair felt moist. For an instant, she touched it, as if it might be bloody.
She heard a favorite song from her childhood playing, “Für Elise,” the song she’d learned on the piano, oddly strummed out in unnaturally choppy violin notes. Before she could investigate the origin, a voice interrupted her puzzlement.
“Mommy. Mommy where are you?” A few feet from the distracted Alice, a small girl stood on the path, searching with tearing eyes and shaking limbs.
As the girl tiptoed in small circles, Alice thought of the stranger with a twinge of nervousness.
“Mom?” The child’s voice was weakening. “Please, Mommy. Where are you? I can’t find you.” Frustration made her words brittle and sharp. They fell like shards into the thick silence around her.
“Are you lost?” Alice asked. She walked slowly toward the girl, hoping not to frighten her more.
The girl turned in a staggering circle and began to wail as only stray offspring can. “Ma-ahm. Maw-me! Please come back. I’m sorry.”
Alice fought the urge to scoop the wailing girl into her arms. So far, her words had provided no comfort. Knowing how it feels to be lost, in this very park at least once before, Alice edged closer.
“Come on, honey. I can help you find your Mommy. Do you remember where you last saw her?” With this, Alice lowered herself to the girl’s height, hoping to ease her fears.
A previously unmatched look of terror entered the girl’s gaze. “No! Mommy!” The unknown girl ran shouting down the path, leaving Alice to do her best impersonation of a puppet with cut strings. When Alice did straighten herself and lift her eyes, the girl had rounded a corner out of sight.
From the short distance ahead, voices of child and mother reunited. The mother reassured the girl and asked if anyone had “bothered” her. Alice could not move. Exhaustion had traded places with a new kind of fatigue.
So she stood, indignant, as a cyclist rode right through her form. Right through.
A feedback blip popped in her ears, and she felt filled with electricity. Looking down, she thought her lower body looked superimposed upon her surroundings, the image faltering between movements. Her outstretched arms were nearly translucent. The faint image broke up below one wrist, creating a crude repetition of her hand in shaky, flickering stripes like a flesh-wrought barcode.
Her appearance caught up to her motion as she expelled a jolted “No.” Her very existence waned for a moment or more. She thought she could smell copper.
The park swam before her, and she collapsed in yet another heap, this time on dry land.
* * *
The stranger cocked his head to the side, scanning her unconscious body. From the moment she hit his radar, during her collapse at the pond, it seemed she’d be trouble. It was always difficult. They’d somewhat recognize him, but not know why. But this one’s attitude, impossible to ignore.
Don’t bother. Really?
Death. That’s what many called him, in their minds. In many languages, one after another, they all knew Death. In one translation, the name means literally “certainty.” Those calling could call him what they pleased. Death calls many, with little use of names.
This woman Alice would take work. She clung to the idea of continuing. Even the part of her brain that had erupted insisted upon its continuance. Why, he could not tell. No more than he could tell why she’d missed so much of her life.
She hadn’t needed to change. She should’ve realized that earlier.
He could afford her patience. Some asked for brevity, while others never got the chance. She could have her period of adjustment. Her effect on the living creatures in the park would be minimal, after all.
Alice’s lips parted slightly and she began to blink.
He looked down into unknowing eyes.
“Are you alright?”
Copyright © 2013 by Merideth Grue