This photo was my first post on this blog. It inspired this little story.
When you’re walking directly behind someone, you cannot see anything else. All you can see is the hair at the nape of their neck and the dark sweat stain where their collar chaffs against the bony knob at the top of their spine. Even so, you can feel when you come close to a precipice – the great expanse of air, the emptiness, the sudden lack of a place to hide.
This was how Quinn felt walking along the edge of the road. Her boyfriend was not paying attention to anything other than the bright white line beneath his feet. Quinn was focused on not stepping into the road or on the backs of his shoes. The road was narrow and there wasn’t much of a shoulder here in the wooded hills on the outskirts of Portland. It was a residential neighborhood, but with mist rising through the trees all around them and no cars on the road, it did not feel like it.
Her boyfriend had fallen silent some time ago. All Quinn could hear was the scuff of the soles of his shoes on the asphalt and the rasp of her jacket sleeve against her side. She gradually became aware of something – something beyond the mist and trees and the black asphalt, or perhaps something that was inside of them, that had been there for a very long time. It made her fingertips tingle. She curled them tightly inside her sleeve. She strained to hear beyond the edge of the road. It was as though an instinctual part of her thought that if she listened hard enough, she would be able to hear the mist curl around the trees and the moment movement broke through.
Quinn grabbed a fistful of her boyfriend’s sweater and dragged them both off the road and onto the dirt. A truck careened around the corner, its engine guttering and whining in quick succession through a rough changing of gears. Then the truck was past, and her boyfriend was stumbling away from her.
“What,” her boyfriend said, stopping a few feet away and looking at her. “What was that for. It was on the other side of the street!”
But Quinn was not looking at him. She was looking at the embankment rising above the side of the road where the truck had been moments before. Ferns and brambles grew between young pine trees. A white deer was watching her from between the slender trees. The mist wove around its antlers and passed through its neck as though it were not there. Far away, an engine revved. The stag bounded away into the forest, leaving a dark afterimage in the mist.
“I was trying to be safe,” Quinn heard herself say. When she looked back her boyfriend, he was crouched over something on the road.
“Should I take it back with us?”
Her gaze dropped to the white line at his feet. The line marking the edge of the road was wider than she had realized, the full width of her foot at least, and very fresh. He was looking at a small branch that lay inside it. It had been painted white along with the road. It had been knocked askew to reveal its own ghost, a branch-shaped print where the black asphalt came through in lines that forked five times .
The tone of her shoe was just touching the end. She carefully lifted her foot and stepped away. “Let’s leave it.”
He looked up at her and grinned. “But it’s out of the line….ment. It’s a pun.”
The feeling of emptiness, of open spaces between the trees, narrowed around her like it was being sucked in at her throat. “It’s getting dark,” she said. She walked off the road, onto the dirt, and away as fast as she could. She did not wait for him to follow her.
Our world and the next one, and the next one after that, walk nose to neck. They all follow the same path, more or less, and come to know most of the same things. Our world has been formed through repetition more than most: by the running of water until it carves a deep groove into the rock, by the repaving of roads, by the repainting of lines. But it is also formed by the sudden twists: the heave of the earth, the meltingly hot summer, the young tree shedding its branches after a heavy rain. It only takes one small thing to be out of alignment, one misstep, for a world to look up and see something it had never before known existed. And in the knowing, it is changed.