The vintage red bat phone on my desk rings and I know before I pick it up, I’m going to be pissed. I bought it to provoke discipline-you know, a direct call to action, but lately the phone is an irritant. Instead of calling me on my cell, when he is going to be late, Steve calls the hot line. He thinks it lessens the blow. Since the law firm lost a partner, all I hear is “gotta keep making those billable hours.” I let it go to the answering machine. This way I have a sliver of a moment to believe it’s an aberrant salesperson trying to sell me a burial plot, which would be more preferred than having to perform my least favorite task, walking Maxi. A click and a whirr and his voice infiltrates the room, “Carol? Carol, pick up.” No surprise. It’s Steve and yes, he’s going to be late. I look at Maxi and sigh.
There is just something strange, downright nasty, about waiting and watching for another living being to defecate. Not to mention having to bag the remnants if Maxi relieves herself on a neighbor’s yard or too close to the park walking path. It keeps mortal matters on one’s mind, and although it might fertilize the ground it does very little for this writer’s imagination. However, for Steve and Maxi, daily morning and evening romps are bounding experiences. For me, it comes down to my thumb on the pressure point at the crease of my wrist to staunch my gag reflex.
Maxi stares at me from the time the hall clock strikes 6:30 p.m. until I get up. After getting bundled up, I grab the leash and, of course, the poop bag in case she decides not to avail himself of the park’s toilet facility. As I open the door, I know she can feel my disgust at the task because I can feel her dissatisfaction at having to walk with me instead of her walking buddy. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I adore it when she snuggles next to me on the couch, in front of a roaring fire. Especially on those nights when I am alone. She is a beautiful Labrador Retriever with a well-groomed chocolate coat, a superior attitude and intellect. I love everything about her except, well you know.
An amber streetlamp near the park entrance only illuminates a few steps into the path leading down to the creek. As I step onto the asphalt walkway, the opaque nothingness ahead makes me realize I forgot the flashlight. Damn! I lightly jerk Maxi’s leash to remind her of what she’s here to do, in hopes she will do it near the entrance. She jerks back, then pulls me further down the path, then into a thicket of bushes. Well, at least I won’t have to pick up any poop.
A few minutes later, I hear movement. Pretty late for a neighbor. Most folks, joggers, bikers, and those with dogs in the community rush right out after getting home from work. I call out, “Hello,” but I receive no response.
The park is a scary place once the sun goes down. In the light of day, you can see the remnants of liqueur bottles, joint stubs and used condoms near bushes and under trees, denoting the park has a very active nightlife. Cautionary tales and current news headlines move around my head as my fear begins to get the better of me. “Maryland housewife found dead in a local park with faithful dog licking at her face.” Why I wonder isn’t Maxi barking her head off. Yeah, I’m marginally freaking out, so I rein her in while readying myself for flight. Quickening my pace, I flee towards the safety of our cul-de-sac, lined with houses. Someone will hear me scream, if trouble is heading my way.
Shoot! I forgot to stick the pocketknife in my coat. I walk faster. I see my house a few yards away, even though at this second it seems a mile or two further. Just as I get to the streetlight, I look over my shoulder and see a woman who looks like Minnie Pearl on steroids. Remember her and her crazy hats? Oh, anyway just goggle her. I start to laugh out loud from relief until I see butterflies flitting around her head. She whispers, “Hello Carol, my name is Stacy.” I stumble backwards at a strong tug from Maxi and at the woman speaking to me without moving her lips.
Swirling colors blend as butterflies circle the top of her brown hair. I look for strings, something tethering them. I see nothing. The woman has a smile as wide as the Jack-O-Lanterns on almost every porch in the neighborhood. She is eerie, as she stands there staring at me like I’m a puzzle to be solved. Her skin is practically translucent. She is wearing an ethereal summer dress without a coat in October. Everything about her is too fragile to believe she is real or sane. I grab the collar of my coat and pull it tighter against the chills this woman is sending through me. I think maybe she’s escaped from a group home for the mentally ill. I think a lot of things as we stand facing each other without a verbal word spoken.
Before I can move away from her, she reaches out to touch my shoulder, while again saying, “Hello Carol.” I jerk back in the same instance a crazy Evel Knievel streaks by me. He laughs as he bikes into absolute blackness with a lighted hat beaming the trail ahead. I look away from him to see the woman is gone.
Maxi’s barking and leash pulling, trying to go after the biker. I’m holding her back when my neighbor, Alice, pops up.
“Hey neighbor, Steve working late again tonight?”
I know she is trying to spark some dish after seeing Steve’s car missing so much over the past few months.
“That’s all he does these days, but I’m not complaining since the bills are getting paid, which allows me to write.” I reply, while loosening my grip on Maxi’s leash, just in case he wants something to nosh on-like Alice.
“Well, I thought I’d get a quick walk in before Frank and I settle in for popcorn and a movie. It’s a good night for snuggling don’t you think?”
I choose to ignore her meddling.
“Hey, did you see that kid biking into the park like a bat out of hell?”
“Yeah, that’s Marsha kid. He is totally out of control.”
“Did you see the woman standing with me at the entrance to the park?”
“No, I just saw you jump back in the nick of time before he bowled you over. Was she under the trees or something?”
“Yeah, I guess. Anyway, have a good walk. Tell Frank I said hello.”
“I will. Hope Steve gets home soon.”
She stops her in place walking and off she goes, waddling down the street in that funny way they do that is supposed to make your exercise more rigorous. Whatever.
Putting Maxi’s food and water in his bowls, a slew of questions hit me. How did she know my name? Why was she dressed like that? Am I losing my mind? I stack logs in the fireplace and realize the woman had done me a preemptive kindness. I could have been knocked off my feet with my head crashing onto the pavement if she hadn’t tried to touch me. After lighting the fire, I walk over to the window facing the park entrance. I do this several times during the next hour or so until I doze off on the couch, waiting for Steve and wishing I could talk to my Dad.
I don’t know what time Steve came in, but I wake up alone. There is a note on the kitchen counter letting me know he’d dropped home to shower and change his clothes. He said he didn’t want to wake me up and sorry, but would I take Maxi for his morning walk. The note ended with a smiley face.
After I streak to the bathroom, I pour myself a cup of coffee, then sit at the kitchen table. I must have been sleeping like the dead when he came in or he’d crept around like a mouse afraid of being caught. It’s just too early in the morning to be as mad as I am about Steve slipping in and out, and of course, having to walk Maxi. I call him, but he doesn’t pick up.
Last nights antics don’t come to mind when I open the front door to check the temperature. Stingy sunlight provides enough light to see many of my dog owning neighbors heading for the park. I hate to walk Maxi with a bunch of other dogs tangling leashes and chafing at the bit to get at each other, so, I ignore her nudges against my leg and shush her whining after I close the door.
Maxi lets out a torrent that soaks a pile of leaves off the path midway from the entrance. Lost in my wonderings about the possibilities of Steve and I falling apart and my sanity, I see her. Pulling my wool cap down, I avoid eye contact and proceed at a rapid pace down to the hill
I sit on a bench under a big elm tree near the bank of the creek, then unleash Maxi, so she can find the perfect spot to deliver her morning load. Just as she dips into a thicket, Stacy walks up from a nearby grove of trees and sits beside me.
“Are you staking me out?” I say, determined to put my psyche in check.
“Yes,” she replies as I watch her lips for movement. There is none.
“Because I need you and you need me.”
“I don’t know you, so how can I need you or vice versa. Okay, this is crazy or I’m crazy. And why aren’t your lips moving when you talk?”
“No, you’re not crazy. If you were that would make me crazy too and I’m not. My lips don’t move because we are connected.”
I look at this waif of a woman, then reach out to touch her, believing my hand will pass through her, since this must be an illusion. Her skin is warm to the touch, as if she isn’t outside without a coat on in thirty-degree weather. She smiles and I notice that her eyes are the color of deep amethyst. The butterflies, still swirling around her head, compliment her piercing eyes.
Stacy tells me that we walk the same paths just in different places. She tells me the depression I have slipped into since my father’s death, last year, has drawn her to me. I think, what depression? I thought I’d handled his death well. I had finally started to think about him less each day, since the troubles with my absentee husband and writer’s block had taken center stage. Stacy further tells me that after her initial pull to me, she found herself wanting to continue to journey with me. She explained that she’d learned from my actions and about what she’d done with that knowledge. Apparently, my experiences had infused her reality.
At first it was hard to look at her because of the constant movement of the butterflies, but eventually they left my focus as she reviewed the last year of my life. The details stunned me into silence as she filled my mind with her revelations and discoveries, especially about Steve, my Dad and me. Whatever was happening was really happening, even if I couldn’t rationally explain it. I willingly suspended my belief.
Stacey’s right, I find myself thinking. I had decided that I wouldn’t interfere with my husband’s work or whatever he was doing that kept him away from home so much. After all, it was a tradeoff that allowed me time to writ, even though I wasn’t writing. It only bothered me when I had to take out Maxi. Okay, that’s a lie, but a lie I decided to live with. In other words, I turned a deaf ear to our life together and just life in general. Getting older, facing white pages waiting to be filled and premonition of rejection letters were enough to deal with without thinking about what Steve was really doing on those late nights that sometimes turned into early mornings. My stories had turned sallow and my spirit, one of constant doubting.
Stacy informed me she’d took my experiences and went the other way. She said she saw the loneliness I was refusing to face. Not wanting that in her life, she started to question herself based on the darkness floating around in my head. She thought it was funny how I thought death was the end and that the death of someone so close and so loved was a cause to live as stagnate as a dry creek needing rain. She was in my head as if she owned it. Her apparent powers prompted me to finally ask where she’d come from.
“So, where are you from? People you love don’t die where you’re from?
“No, they transition to the next level.”
“What is the next level?”
“We do not know, just like you.” We only know that we miss them, but we also know they visit us to allay our spirits.”
“You get visits from the dead? Sounds like a hokey séance scene from a movie.”
“They are all around when we are at our lowest and at our highest moments,” she smiles and the colors of the butterflies magnifies into a brilliant mosaic.
I look down at the reason for my park adventure. Maxi is lying in the grass next to me sleeping like a baby. This is not the norm, none of it is. As I turn back to Stacy, one of the butterflies breaks from the swarming pack and lands on my shoulder.
“Okay, are you an angel?”
“No, I am your sister. We walk the same path, just in a different space. I almost lost my husband and family when my child died. I lost my way. I lost the essence of what life was about. I lost myself in a wasteland that pulled me deeper and deeper each time I felt the imagined pulse of my lost child beating against my chest. It was in that place that I heard you. I drew myself to you and our journey began. I cried with you at every loving memory you had of your father. I felt your defeat at not being able to connect with your husband or anyone else. And I felt your pain at not being able to write it down. You brought me out of the wasteland because of our shared pain. It was an re-awakening to the fact, I was not alone. When I emerged, the butterflies came to me.”
Maxi jumps up to chase after a squirrel. I fussed at Maxi before I turn back to look at Stacy. She is still there, dripping of peace and sunshine. Then the thought hit me. Why is she here, now? Just to tell me it all turns out fine in the end or something as simple as I am here for you. Turns out it was just that simple.
“I am here for you. Sometimes that is all we need to hear to turn a corner. I still have my husband and my other children. We still live in the same house. I still get upset when he is late and when the children don’t eat their vegetables. But I know now that life goes on even if I cannot see it. I feel it. The butterflies remind me that there is always an ever after. I want you to be renewed knowing that.
“So, you are an angel?”
“Again, no Carol, we are journeyers whose purpose is to learn and enjoy the journey without fear or worry about the destination.”
“And if I turn this corner will butterflies circle my head?”
“Maybe, but no one will see them but you and I,” she laughs, and the wind stirs with the scent of lilacs.
We walk to the park entrance with Maxi keeping pace. She waves to me as I put the key in the front door. I wave back. This becomes our daily ritual.
It’s three months later, a lot has happened I think as I feed Maxi before sitting down at my desk. Yes, I am writing again. My husband’s big project, whatever it was, is over. We spend most evenings by the fireside watching movies, telling jokes, laughing and connecting. He is still confounded about why I decided I wanted to take out Maxi’s for her morning walks. I tell him it has become my time to commune with myself. I don’t tell him about Stacy. I don’t tell him we compare the size, arrangement and variety of butterflies circling our heads. I just let him read my stories.