This is a story from the short story collection The Secret to a Happy Marriage, which I am releasing today first as a free ebook, leading up to its paperback release. If you enjoy the short story, I only ask that you help me get my little ebook to the #1 spot on Amazon’s unpaid Kindle list by downloading the ebook.
The view from the top almost made it worthwhile.
Both Rachel and Fred were exhausted. The humidity had hit oppressive levels and there had been no breeze going through the forest on the way up. The bug spray hadn’t worked and Rachel could already feel two mosquito bites forming on her arms. And even when Fred was quiet, Rachel swore she could still hear him grumbling — hear him complaining about having to do something like a hike, even though this was how they had met five years earlier — and this is what they did together until it stopped, until a lot of things stopped.
But the view from the top was spectacular. Rachel felt like she was in a storybook, as the trail transformed from dense woods into the rock summit, as it all cleared out and the entire mountain range opened up before them.
Rachel turned to Fred, exclaiming, “See? Remember how this felt?” In return, Fred motioned towards something further down the slab — his way of telling her that there were people around, that it wasn’t time to divulge in such things.
Rachel turned back around and followed Fred’s gaze over to an elderly couple, sitting by one of the ledges, their backpacks and walking sticks behind them.
“Come on down, the water is fine!” the man yelled over his shoulder. The woman looked back and smiled broadly.
Rachel walked closer and stared out at the vista before her. To the right was the edge of a mountain range as it sloped into the valley, the road cutting through it just a little white line at this height. She glanced over to see the old man still looking her way. The old woman looked at her husband, stood up, and stepped closer to Rachel.
“So, where are you guys from!” asked the woman, wiping her hands briskly against her pants.
“Oh, from here, actually,” said Rachel.
“Actually, we’re an hour out,” Fred piped in. “We live in Tacoma.”
Rachel bit her lower lip and kept her eyes on the mountains.
“Oh, well I’d consider that from around here!” said the woman. “My husband and I, we’re from California, but our daughter lives in Seattle. And so we try to make use of the mountains every chance we get! It’s important to do things like hike. Gotta stay active. That’s one thing you’ll learn as you get older: you only have your health. That, and, of course, each other.”
The woman beamed a large smile at her husband, who nodded his head to one side in response. He eventually stood up, but continued facing the view in front of him.
“My husband and I, we love doing things like this,” the lady continued. “You gotta get out, as they say. Last year we were in Yosemite. Have you ever been?”
“Oh, no, not yet,” Rachel replied. “But I’m hoping to, someday.” She glanced over at Fred and took in a deep breath. He had taken off his pack and was kneeling down to open it.
“Oh, you must! It’s beautiful. The falls? Oh goodness…” the woman said. “But, that’s our thing – we go on adventures together. Just my husband and me – especially now that our daughter is all grown up. All we have is each other. Right?”
The man made a noncommittal grunt in response.
The woman took a step towards her husband and rubbed his arm vigorously. He gave a half smile and a brief glance over before looking back at the mountains.
“We actually just celebrated our 42nd wedding anniversary,” said the woman, still next to her husband, hugging his arm close to her.
“Wow. Well, congratulations,” said Rachel.
“And how long have you two been together?”
Rachel pressed her lips together.
“About five years,” she said.
“Oh, you guys are just starting out!” the woman proclaimed. “Married?”
Rachel bit her lip.
“Oh! Well, there’s plenty of time for that!” said the woman. “You want to know the secret to a happy marriage? You gotta get out and do stuff together. Be careful not to work yourself to death! Make sure you do things like these hikes together. And date nights, of course!”
“Definitely. Definitely,” said Rachel, careful with her tone.
“Ah, don’t you think it’s time to head back?” the man asked. “I think you’ve talked this lovely lady’s ear off enough.”
“Oh, you stinker,” said the woman, followed by a hysterical laugh. “Well, we really should get going. It was so lovely meeting you!”
“And you, too,” said Rachel.
The woman turned, picked up her pack, and rubbed her husband’s arm again — a vigorous back-and-forth motion that looked more like she was trying to clean something from his shoulder. The man eyed Rachel and flashed her a smile.
“Well, hopefully we’ll see you on the trails again!” the woman practically shouted.
“Hopefully,” said Rachel, as she watched the couple take the trail back down.
Rachel crouched down where the old couple had been, her forearms on her knees.
“They’ve been together for over 40 years,” she said to Fred, who was seated a stone’s throw from her, eating a candy bar. “And you heard her — the secret is doing stuff together.”
“We do stuff,” Fred muttered.
“No, we don’t,” Rachel replied.
Fred rolled his eyes.
“Whatever,” he said.
Rachel let out a sharp breath. She opened her mouth to say something, but stopped. What use would it be now? She was no longer talking to the man who had captured her heart when she first moved to Washington. The man who made her feel like she could have a fresh start, in love and in life. Who knew who this person was in front of her, in Fred’s clothing, with Fred’s backpack.
She felt like she had been fighting the inevitable for months now. Perhaps they really were doomed. Perhaps it didn’t matter if they went on hikes like they did in the beginning, if she made him repeat all the things they used to do. They could go to all the old restaurants and watch all the old movies… it wasn’t going to reclaim something that had been lost. They weren’t going to relive their magic. They weren’t going to be the couple celebrating their 42nd anniversary and climbing mountains and traveling together. They’ll never be the happy pair telling the younger generation the secrets to a good marriage. And it seemed like Fred was perfectly fine with letting the relationship die. Perhaps she should be, too.
She sighed and opened her pack and pulled out a granola bar. She ate it without tasting anything, watching the expansive world below her.
There was no cell service on the trails, and for that the woman was grateful. It meant she wouldn’t have to hear her husband’s phone go off — the constant dings from his text message alerts, the ones he swore were work-related, but no one at his firm communicated by text.
She had told herself the same thing she did when this happened last year, and the year before that. It’s temporary. It’s a fling. He’ll lose interest. In all the years they’ve been together, he never once left her for a mistress. Not even after their daughter grew up and moved out. Something keeps him in the marriage, and she needs to focus on that.
And he humors her with the hikes and the trips and the dinners out. He could easily be negligent, easily ignore her as he goes about his life. And he does have a busy life. She should focus on that instead of the text messages, the late nights, the sudden business trips…
The woman looked down the trail, at her husband’s back. His clip on the descent was always fast – too fast. She could never keep up, but he refused to slow down. He’d meet her at the trailhead, he would say. She used to hurry to match speeds, but after twisting her ankle a few years back, she stopped trying.
(But, when she twisted her ankle and fell and cried out for him to help, he did stop and turn around and pick her up. He did carry her to the trailhead, even though they still had another mile to go. He looked out for her. And isn’t that what love is — those little moments of devotion, those times when they’ve proved that they weren’t going to leave you stranded alone and in pain?)
Author’s note: if you would like to download the ebook for this collection, simply click this link. The ebook will be free for the next few days, but $2.99 after that. It’s truly as simple as click on this link, scrolling PAST the “Read for Free” button (that’s for Amazon’s subscription service) and clicking on the “Buy Now with One Click”, which should be under a lovely $0.00 price tag for the next few days.
Thank you again for helping an indie author out. The cards are kind of stacked against us, so every bit helps.