The sun crept slowly above the horizon, bringing light to another day. Kyla tried in vain to remember the last time she had seen the sun, and she wondered when it would make its next appearance. Rain was in the forecast for the foreseeable future. A vast expanse of rain and fog, wind and chill.
Enjoy this moment, she reminded herself, straightening her back and drawing a contented breath. After all, this moment is the only reality, and, in one way or another, their lives would alter by the time the night fell once more on their little Scottish village.
“We couldnae have picked a better day,” Graeme said, coming up behind Kyla and placing his arms about her. She leaned back into his embrace, thankful for the extra warmth from his embrace, thankful for his company, thankful, on the whole, for him.
“Isn’t it gorgeous?” Kyla said, snapping a photograph of the sunrise with her professional camera. “We lucked out, weather-wise.”
Two years she and Graeme had been together. He was a director at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and she had been hired to photograph the opening night of the spring play. They took things slowly--neither was in their twenties or thirties anymore, and both were dubious about marriage and romance. Kyla had never been married, and had always been content that way. She often felt her young adulthood had been much richer than many of her friends who chose to marry and start families as soon as it was legal. How many of them, really, were happy now?
Kyla looked over at Graeme, who sat on a rock observing the orange-tinged sky, fading slowly to blue as the sun rose higher. A sleepy smile splayed out on his face, his brown eyes lost in some far-away thought. He had an ex-wife with whom he had been on friendly terms until recently, and together they shared two children, now both at university. His ex-wife met and married an American man and relocated to the U.S.A., where Graeme’s son opted to attend university. He had been lonely after that, with few people to talk to. His daughter was a kind, positive young woman, but she was 19 and, like most people her age, had precious little interest in her father’s life, and precious little time for him outside of school holidays.
It was shortly after this upheaval that Graeme met Kyla. Two summers, two Christmases, and two birthdays later, they were still incredibly happy. She met his children and, thankfully, got on well with them. They bought a dog together and, after a year, she moved in with him. Before they knew it, they managed to create their own little family.
A wave of anxiety washed over Kyla when she thought of what they were going to do once they descended Ben Lomond. Satisfied with her photographs, she tucked her camera away and sat beside Graeme. In the hazy morning light, it didn’t look so bad. Maybe she had overreacted in the harsh bathroom light the first time she saw it, and maybe she only imagined the worst after that. She was known for her rather catastrophic thinking, after all. It didn’t take much for panic to set in. Maybe that was it--maybe she should see a doctor. Maybe there was a perfectly innocent reason why the lump was there. Maybe it wasn’t even a lump at all--maybe he simply had swollen glands. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
But maybe not.
“Are you ready?” Graeme whispered, rousing Kyla from her well of thoughts. Graeme appeared serene. No distress marred his handsome features. At least there was that--at least he was bearing up.
“Aye,” Kyla said, reluctant. She rose to her feet, wiping her hands on her jacket. “I wish we could stay here all day,” she said.
“That’d be nice,” Graeme adjusted his backpack straps and zipped up his bright red puffer jacket. “But it wouldnae solve anything, would it?”
“No,” Kyla admitted.
“I’m sure I’m fine,” Graeme squeezed Kyla’s shoulders and kissed her cheek. “But, if we don’t get off this mountain soon, we may freeze to death.”
“Well, we cannae have that, can we?” Kyla forced a smile. She adjusted her hat atop her head and they began their descent. Glancing over her shoulder at the mountaintop, Kyla took a mental snapshot. The top of Ben Lomond would always remain the place where they had their last moment of innocence.
Kyla knew from the doctor’s grim expression that the test was positive, before he said a word. Glancing at Graeme, she could see he was thinking the same thing. His expression remained stoic, but his jaw clenched. Kyla took his hand and he squeezed it as the doctor sat down and said,
“I’m afraid it’s not good news.”
Kyla’s ears rang and her vision blurred. She felt herself nodding along to whatever the doctor was saying, but she felt suddenly far away, perhaps watching a television program. Despite assuming for the past two weeks that something was terribly wrong, having it confirmed felt like a physical blow, like someone had kicked her stomach and knocked the wind out of her. Graeme had thyroid cancer. Kyla hadn’t even known there was such a thing.
They were quiet on the drive home. Graeme drove with the radio off and the windows down, always trying to maintain a grasp on the outside world. The crisp Scottish air filled the car, whipping Kyla’s hair around and causing her to zip up her puffer jacket and put her wool beanie back atop her head.
How can you stand this cold? She wanted to demand. But not now. Now, Graeme needed to do whatever he wanted. He needed to exert some control over his life, in whatever miniscule way he could. Kyla wanted to talk, to ask him how he was feeling and what he was thinking, but she wanted him to be the one to open the discussion.
Back home, Kyla went through the photographs from that morning’s hike, choosing which ones to upload to her website, and which to keep for her private, family-and-friends-only albums. A knock sounded on her office door and Graeme appeared carrying two cups of coffee. He leaned against Kyla’s desk and said,
“If you want to go, I’d understand.”
“If you want to go--”
“I heard you. Graeme, where on earth is this coming from?” Kyla put her camera down and folded her arms, leaning back in her chair to observe her boyfriend.
“I thought we should talk about it. After the news. I don’t want you to feel tied down, so I want you to know it’s okay if you want to leave.”
“Do you want me to leave?”
“No. I’ve never been happier than with you. But I don’t want you to resent me, and I’m afraid that’ll happen if you’re stuck with me.”
“Never,” Kyla placed her hands on his knees. “I could never resent you.”
“You aren’t my nursemaid. You don’t need to take care of me, and I don’t--”
“Hey, listen to me,” Kyla gently grabbed his cheeks. “I am not leaving you. I love you. Okay?”
“Okay,” Graeme said, shoulders relaxing as he smiled. He leaned forward to kiss Kyla.
“After I finish this, I’m thinking of taking a little walk down to Loch Lomond. Care to join?”
“We only went on a five-hour hike this morning!” Graeme laughed incredulously.
“I know, but Loch Lomond isnae far. I only want to clear my mind, and it’s such a lovely evening. The rain’s gonna start tomorrow, and I don’t think it’ll stop until next year or so,” Kyla said. Graeme chuckled.
“Aye, so you’re right. Still, I don’t think I’ll join you. I think I’ll have a wee nap instead. And I guess I need to call the kids.”
“Do you want me to do that?”
“No, no. They should hear it from me. Enjoy your walk.”
“I will. And I’ll pick up some takeaway on the way home, sound good?”
“Aye. The greasier the better,” Graeme winked at Kyla, then left her to her work. She sighed, thinking of all that needed to be done. Mainly, people needed to be informed. His wife and children, his mother and his siblings; her parents, her siblings; all their friends, those they had in common and those they had separately. It would be easiest to send out a group text, flat and emotionless, but that would, of course, be a cop out. This sort of thing required a proper conversation, preferably in person, but more likely over the phone.
She spent another hour working on her photos before heading out for her evening walk. As she ambled along the road, hands shoved deep in her coat pockets, her cell phone vibrated against her gloved hand--Graeme’s son, Callum, was calling.
“Hello?” Kyla answered, attempting to sound cheerful--or, at the very least, not devastated.
“Hi, Kyla. How’re you?” Callum said. Kyla couldn’t tell from his voice whether he had heard the news.
“I’m okay. What’re you up tae?”
“Nothin’ worth mentioning. I just got off the phone with dad.”
“Ah. I suppose he’s told you, then.”
“Aye,” Callum’s voice was small. Kyla felt a surge of pity for the young man, who should have been enjoying himself, taking in the American university experience with his new friends and his girlfriend.
He cleared his throat and said, “I called tae thank you.”
“Thank me? For what?”
“You saved his life. I think that deserves a wee bit of gratitude,” Callum said.
“I hardly saved his life.”
“You did! Dad said so himself. Said he hadn’t been feeling poorly, and if it wasnae for ye tellin’ him to go to the doctor, he wouldnae have gone.”
“Your father said I saved his life?” Kyla stopped walking.
“Aye. Says it’s advanced, but there’s still a good chance he can get better.”
“That’s right. The doctors are fairly optimistic,” Kyla resumed her walk.
“And that’s down tae you, that they caught it when they did. So that’s it, that’s why I’m calling. I know my dad and I have our differences like anyone else, but I love him. And I don’t know what I would’ve done if--if things had gone differently,” Callum cleared his throat. “Anyway, that’s it. Just thanks.”
“Thank you for calling, Cal. It’s dead sweet of you. Will you be coming home for the Christmas holiday?”
“I think I will. I should probably start lookin’ at flights, now ye mention it,” Callum said, emitting a chuckle.
“You should, indeed!” Kyla laughed. She and Callum exchanged a few pleasantries before saying goodbye. Kyla returned her phone to her pocket, a soft, sad smile on her face as she did so.
Morning and night were her favorite times to walk. All was quiet, people were huddled away from the chill, from the darkness. But Kyla relished both of those things. It kept the fair-weather folks away, and gave her a peacefulness that was well-nigh impossible to achieve during the day. Closing her coat around her, she walked to Loch Lomond, misty and mysterious as it always was. She sat at the water’s edge and gazed out at the loch, wondering vaguely about the celtic stories of monsters and ghosts lurking in these parts, passed down from generation to generation. Ahead of her, looming like a darkened giant in the distance, was Ben Lomond, keeping quiet watch over the town. Twelve hours ago, they were there, on the mountaintop. Twelve hours ago, their lives had still been wrapped in ignorant bliss.
Kyla sighed heavily, watching her breath escape from her mouth. No matter how old she became, she still enjoyed the sight of her breath in cold weather. She had, perhaps, grown jaded about holidays, and had an aversion to the blatant commercialism of that modernity brought to them, but she couldn’t deny the magic of changing seasons, and winter was her favorite.
On the loch, the moonlight rippled as wind brushed its way through. Countless times, Kyla and Graeme spent evenings side by side in this spot, talking about anything and everything or nothing at all, satisfied merely to be in one another’s presence. Kyla wrapped her arms around her knees and dragged her knees to her chest. Gently rocking side to side, she hummed to herself the traditional song she had loved all her life, one her mother used to sing to her as a wain:
The wee bird may sing and the wild flowers spring
And in sunshine the waters are sleeping:
The broken heart will ken nae second spring again
And the world does not know how we’re grieving
O ye’ll take the high road and I’ll take the low road
And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye
But me and my true love will never meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond
She brushed the tears from her eyes, feeling foolish and selfish for crying. Sometimes, beauty was such that it could break a person’s heart. This was true for the reflection of the moon on the murky old loch. For that beauty held within it an immense sadness, a distinct feeling of all that had been lost to the vagaries of time and death and the world spinning on its axis. The preciousness of life seemed to shine out from the moon’s reflection, the loch and the surrounding mountains reminding Kyla of the simple truth: We all--we mountains, water, and moon--were here long before you first drew breath, and we’ll all stand here long before you’ve gone. Your life on this planet is only a blip. Make it worthwhile.
She would propose. She would sit down with Graeme in front of the fire, snuggled together on the couch beneath their favorite tartan blanket (it’s the Spence family tartan, or so says the internet, anyway), enjoying apple cider or hot chocolate, and Kyla would offer to spend the rest of her life with him, if he so desired. Contrary to what he seemed to think, the diagnosis did not make Kyla feel pressured to stay with him, or guilty at the prospect of leaving him. Rather, it made her realise the extent of her love for him, and how much she wanted to stay by his side through all of it. She smiled at the reflection of the moon, and the whole world seemed to smile back at her.