Contemporary Friendship Sad

I tie the laces on my sneakers, making double knots and pulling hard to secure them. I reach up and grab my fleece jacket, zipping it halfway up and reaching up the sleeves to pull down the shirt sleeves underneath. I grab my keys off the hall table, open the front door. I take the step down onto my front porch, turn around and lock the door,  placing the key securely in the pocket of my jeans. I take the next three steps down to my driveway and then begin to count. It’s 26 steps to the end of my driveway, where I turn right and take another 136 steps to the corner stop sign. 

As I walk, my pace slow and steady, I hear the Callahan’s dog barking. I don’t need to turn my head to know he’s standing on the couch in their living room, wagging his tail as he stares out the picture window and barks at every person who passes by. At the stop sign, I turn right, seeing the Johnson’s antique car parked covered in their driveway, hearing the thud of the Miller boys bouncing a basketball on a makeshift court outside their home. John Miller shoots from afar and scores and both boys cheer. Their joy seems like something foreign. 

At the end of the road, I see Mrs. Stevens sitting on her front porch, knitting needles in hand. She looks up to watch me walk by, as she does every day, but I move past her. When I reach the park, I can feel the  shift from the concrete of the road to the soft dirt path that leads toward the lake. I am surrounded by large trees and hear the insistent chirping of birds. I walk toward the lake and the same bench I have come to every day since my husband walked away from our marriage 86 days ago. I sit down, staring at the lake, and the houses beyond on the other side. The vastness, the openness and the cool breeze all hit me at once and I breathe, feeling relief hit me for just a moment. 

The breeze picks up and the trees start to sway. A few leaves fly past me, followed by a large white clump. It appears to come from the sky, and lands with a bounce in front of my  bench. It’s a crumpled piece of paper, and I lean over and pick it up. I am intrigued by this intrusion into my unbreakable routine. I place the crumpled ball in my lap and open it,  smoothing out the creases. 

There are just eight words on the page, written in neat cursive. 

Take back your life while you still can

I look up into the tree above, as if to find the source of these words. The branches above me spread out wide, reaching almost to the lake, but seem to hold no clues as to who sent this message. I look back down, re-reading and considering each words, and the insulated life I have built for myself. I work five days a week as an administrative assistant at Becker’s Insurance Agency. I arrive at 8:00 each morning and leave at 4:00 each afternoon. After work, I change and walk to the lake and sit for a while before I go home to eat dinner, watch TV and go to sleep. On Saturdays, like today, I walk to the lake after lunch and sit for an hour or two, staring at the still surface, looking for guidance on what my life means now that my marriage is over and my window to start a family is slowly closing. 

I feel the stirrings of hope as I look at the message. I smooth out the paper further before folding it into quarters and putting it in the pocket of my fleece. I sit for over two hours, gusts of wind whipping through me every few minutes, followed by the stillness. I keep my hand on the paper in my pocket, hoping to absorb the meaning in its words. Once at home, I put the folded message in my bedside table drawer.

On Sunday, I find myself anticipating my walk. But as I do a load of laundry and grocery shop for the week, I try not to give it more importance than it deserves. At 1:30 PM, I get ready to go, locking the door and walking the same route, possibly taking steps in the exact same spots on the pavement as I have all the days before this one. As I sit on the bench, the afternoon sun warm on skin, I look up at the tree, wondering if it will provide any offerings today. But of course, it doesn’t. I’m not sure whether to feel relieved or disappointed.

On Monday morning, as I rummage through my closet, and the same bland pants and blouses I have worn to work for months, my eye catches a red skirt now pushed toward the back. I try it on, noticing it is a bit loose on me. I choose a matching blouse and eye myself in the mirror as if I am looking at a stranger.  I turn to the side, noticing for the first time that not just my face, but my mid-section, has thinned. I open the bathroom drawer and retrieve  my make up bag, long ago abandoned. I pull out just the blush and lip gloss and dab a bit on. My face lights up in the mirror, showing me the hint of a former version of myself. Is this taking my life back? Hardly, but it is a change, maybe the only one I can manage right now. 

The week is uneventful, one day spilling into the next. At each late afternoon visit to the park, I sit and wait for another message – another sign.  The seven words repeat in my head as if on a loop, as I continue to absorb them, pulling them apart in my mind.  When I reach the park on  Saturday afternoon, I feel acutely aware that it has been a week since the crumpled paper came into my life. I feel a heightened sense of promise. 

After about 20 minutes of trying not to look upward at the rustling trees, another crumpled paper floats down, the wind dropping it just beside the bench. I feel my heart rate speed up as I cautiously reach forward and grab the white paper ball. I open it, smoothing out the page so I can clearly read the eight words written in the same cursive right in the middle:

Every great journey starts with a single step

I read the message over and over, memorizing it before I finally smooth out the paper with my fingers, fold it into quarters and stash in my pocket. I think about the colorful skirts I wore to work a few days this week, and the blush and lip color I applied for the first time in months. A few people in my office complimented me, people who normally look at me with pity in their eyes. Is that taking a single step? Am I meant to take another step this week? 

I decide to leave the park early today, to go home and clean out the clothes my husband left behind in the closet. I sift through the old sweaters and jackets he abandoned when he packed up his suitcases and announced he was moving in with a women I knew to be an associate at his law firm. I open the first few drawers and stuff the old t-shirts and socks he left behind in a large garbage bag. By the time his side of the closet is cleaned out, I have filled three more bags. 

Then I head into the kitchen and open the cabinet, retrieving his favorite coffee mugs. I throw away the half-opened boxes of stale cereal that only he would eat. In the living room, I box up some of his old books, and the gaudy porcelain statuettes his mother gave me. I don’t know why I didn’t trash them the day he left. 

Over the years he worked more and more late evenings, and I supported him, praised him for his ambition, for planning for our future. To think he was with her all those long nights while I sat waiting at home alone. Did he laugh at how naïve I was, never questioning him? I place the four bags of clothes and three boxes of household items in my car and drive them over to the donation center that afternoon. 

The following Saturday, I have to keep myself from racing to the park. The Callahan’s dog barks furiously as I dash past their living room window. I notice the Johnson’s antique car is uncovered, and Mr. Johnson is washing it. He waves to me and I wave back – surprising myself as my hand goes up in greeting. The Miller boys are playing basketball again. As I walk past their driveway the ball rolls in front of me. I give it a kick with my right foot, doing a little skip.  They yell thanks to me as it rolls back toward them. My hand waves again, getting accustomed to the motion. 

At the end of the road, I see Mrs. Stevens sitting out on her front porch. She puts down her knitting needles as I walk past.  “You look lovely today, Maddy. Enjoy your visit to the park.”

I stop for a moment, stunned. Mrs. Stevens and I always used to exchange niceties about the weather and neighborhood gossip. We were even in a book group together several years ago, but it has been so long since we’ve said a word to each other. “Thank you, I will,” I say. The words feel strange in my throat, as I hear myself add “Have a good day.”

 When I reach the park, switching from the concrete of the road to the soft dirt path, the birds greet me, their voices like a song. I sit down on the bench, hoping and praying for just one more message. I know it’s foolish, but still my senses are on high alert, desperate for just one more. I only have to wait for 20 minutes before the white paper blows past me in the wind. I reach out to catch it, just missing, and it lands by my feet. 

I greedily grab it, unwrap it, and smooth out the paper. I read the seven cursive words:

Friendship helps pave the road to healing

As I stare at the words, water drips onto the paper. I look up at the sky to see if it’s raining, but the sun is shining through the tree branches. Then I feel it. Tears running down my cheeks, the first tears I’ve shed in 100 days. And once they start, they flow freely. I hear an anguished noise and realize it is coming from my own throat – a wail that goes on and on, disappearing into the large open space. I should feel embarrassed, but all I feel is relief as my body collapses in on itself.

A few minutes later, I feel a hand on my shoulder. It feels comforting, but I don’t turn to see who it belongs to.  The hand begins to rub along my shoulder and back, gentle and soothing. “It’s okay, Maddie” says a voice. “Let it out.”

I know that voice – it’s so familiar – and I turn to see Mrs. Stevens. She is holding a small towel in one hand and a bottle of water in the other. “Can I join you?” she asks.

I nod numbly and she sits down beside me, handing me the two items. The towel is warm and damp, and I put my face in it, inhaling the scent of fresh laundry detergent and washing away the tears and grief. Then I open the lid of the cold water bottle and drink half of it in one gulp, an unquenchable thirst taking hold of me. When I’ve had enough I put the near-empty bottle aside. “How did you know?” I ask.

She smiles, staring out over the expanse of the lake before looking back at me. “My husband walked out on me 25 years ago.” 

I turn to her. “I’m so sorry....” 

“I was lost after that. I thought I would never really live again.” A series of emotions flash across her face.

“How did you start – take that first step?” My voice cracks as I speak.

“Very cautiously.” She laughs. “But then over time a little less cautiously. I just looked for signs, for guidance. It can come to you in the oddest ways.” She winks and puts her hand on mine. The feel of it is warm and reassuring. I look into her eyes and see her kindness and compassion. I also see a hint of mischief, and I think of the three messages that seemed to fall from heaven.

“I’m scared,” I realize for the first time.

“Of course you are,” she says. “Anything worth doing in life is at least a little scary. But you don’t have to face this alone.”

I nod, feeling her steady hand and her silent support. I turn to face the lake, which seems to go on forever, and see the whole world laid out in front of me.  All the unknown – and all the possibility. We sit side by side lost in our own thoughts and admire its beauty together.

March 07, 2024 15:04

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Jan Wall
19:02 Mar 14, 2024

I've enjoyed reading your short story, Karen. I like the way you have used the senses to describe the repetition of her life . . . I hear the dog barking . . . I see Mrs Stevens . . . the breeze picks up. Well done a lovely ending too.


Karen Hope
10:31 Mar 15, 2024

I’m so glad all the sensory details worked in the story. I wanted the reader to relate to her repetitive and solitary routine. Thank you so much for reading!


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Julia Rajagopal
00:07 Mar 14, 2024

Nice ending! I really liked the sweet messages and the explanation at the end. The repetitiveness of the first paragraph actually set up the story nicely.


Karen Hope
11:53 Mar 14, 2024

I’m glad that showing the repetition and the monotony of her life worked. Hopefully she’ll be able to break out of the routine with a little help from a friend. Thank you so much for reading!


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Hannah Lynn
02:19 Mar 11, 2024

I really felt for the main character doing her same routine day after day as many of us do. The small message was huge for her, helping her start the changes needed. She had a compassionate friend looking out for her. Nicely done!


Karen Hope
15:04 Mar 11, 2024

You are right that many of us follow routines for different reasons. I hadn’t thought about that! Thank you for reading.


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Trudy Jas
22:41 Mar 07, 2024

Miss Hope, another wonderful, upbeat, hopeful story. Sorry for the pun, just couldn't help myself. Great how you showed the small steps she took. Nothing earth shattering, but significant, just the same. Thank you. one teensy correction. on the second Saturday (the week is uneventful...) she refers to the 1st message as having seven words.


Karen Hope
02:57 Mar 08, 2024

Thank you - as always - for your thoughtful feedback and your keen eye for catching typos. I work in politics, so my stories need to be my outlet for hope. I guess it’s only fitting :). Much appreciated!


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Alexis Araneta
16:33 Mar 07, 2024

Truly enjoyed this, Karen. Glad the messages inspired your protagonist.


Karen Hope
17:29 Mar 07, 2024

Thank you! I think I left her feeling ready to take her life back.


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