I couldn’t quite figure out what had brought me to the moment – a road less traveled, a flip of a switch, fate? Yes, good old reliable fate. It was the only explanation, anyway, that managed to place a roadblock in my racing mind while I lifted the last shovelfuls of soil into the ditch.
I’d rolled him in face down – or he happened to land that way – and I was grateful for only having to look at the back of his head. My arms and back throbbed from hours of digging into the earth so I planted the shovel into a patch of grass and sat down for a cigarette. I fumbled for a lighter in the pocket of my jeans and ignited a tiny flame that brought one last spark to the dying afternoon.
I scanned the area, breathing in images of reds and oranges and the hard scent of early autumn that always reminded me of highways at night and the coming of snow. Memories washed over me as I assumed they always do when you lose a loved one, of holidays and one of kissing Charlie in our driveway. I blew them away with the smoke and flicked the butt into the ditch. It landed on his pant leg; I used the shovel to get it off.
Another hour’s worth of packing dirt and he was gone, and I stood looking for my own hands in the dark. I took out the lighter again and gave one last look at where I’d left him.
“Thanks for nothing,” I whispered to no one, and let the flame go out again.
We’d married young, as most did in those days, living off of whims instead of income. Soon after we’d already checked “home” and “baby” off of the list, and I’d grown bored. He worked in a factory, taking in sweat and metal and the whirring of giant machines, telling dirty jokes at lunch; I made batches of iced tea and looked forward to afternoon naps.
Our whims were quickly sealed in concrete. My hair had not yet grayed, but I had already lost the energy to break them free. “Yes dear” “No dear” were the only things that parted my lips with the exception of lullabies and a bottle of vodka in a stray kitchen cabinet. Wake up, feed child, feed husband, clean house, rinse and repeat.
I hadn’t thought much about what would happen after the sun went down, and now I’d found myself in the thick dark of the woods, ten miles from home but much further in the night. The lighter illuminated only my face and the hanging tips of tree branches, so I shoved it back in my pocket and resorted to finding my way as a zombie, arms straight out and stiff, rows of cool bark at my fingertips. I staggered through brush and remnants of a bonfire that crushed aluminum cans and paper plates beneath my feet. I smiled through pitch black. Charlie was packed in deep, the barricade of silence he’d always tried to build finally on his side.
Things got less boring as we grew older; I added heavy layers of powder to my daily makeup routine, and Charlie had become the one wielding a bottle of vodka. He didn’t bother with a cabinet to hide it in, and instead had it by his side as he enjoyed his morning paper. It doubled as mouthwash at night. I made an effort only to stay out of his way, tiptoeing through corners of my own home, cooking dinner and trying hard to disappear into the walls.
My breathing grew shallow as time passed. The darkness grew closer to me and every direction soon looked the same. Mentally I scolded myself for my lack of preparation. Finally I’d had the nerve, finally I’d freed myself, and there I was trapped in the very place I was trying so desperately to rid myself of.
He’d complained loudly about the red sauce I’d used. I told him it was the same brand I always bought – the truth. He hadn’t asked if I’d added something new.
Eventually I gave up on finding direction. I could feel my face grow hot with embarrassment although there was no one there to witness my failure as a first-time criminal. I felt below me for a patch of ground and lowered myself to my knees. I sat still, taking in the night, calm in my new-found glory and the serenity of the unknown draped at my feet.
“At least I’m finally alone,” I whispered.
I had time for one last panicked inhale before his hands were wrapped like vines around my neck and I was flailing like a rag-doll in a dying sliver of moonlight. He smelled like earth, that sweet must after a rainstorm. I thought of the grit on my skin and how my entire life had been a series of exciting beginnings and disappointing ends. I think I smiled as the moon disappeared. I think I thanked him.