2009 Short-Story Contest: First Place Winner
First-place winner: "The Trip to Goodbye"
Published: January 1, 2010
Christopher rolled three pairs of hiking shorts and put them in the blue stuff sack with the rest of his clothes. He put the stuff sack in his backpack, closed the top flap and tightened the drawstrings. He slung the pack over one shoulder and carried it down the stairs to the garage. He walked around to the back of the Explorer and set the pack in the cargo bay with the rest of his gear. He closed the truck's cargo door and went back upstairs.
* * *
"Hi Sara, this is Lucy."
"Hi Luce. What's up?"
"Not too much. I was wondering if you talked to Chris about looking in on his cat while he's away? I can't do it this time; I won't be back from San Francisco until next week."
"Yeah. He came by after work and dropped off the key to his apartment."
"Did he seem okay?"
"Yeah, he seemed fine. We talked for a couple of minutes and he said he'd give me a call when he got back."
"Why? Hasn't he been feeling well?"
"No, I mean, yeah, he's been feeling okay, it's nothing like that. It's just that the last time we were together, the Sunday before I flew out here, he seemed sort of distant or sad or something. I don't know; maybe it's just me."
"Why don't you give him a call and talk to him about it?"
"That's a good idea. I'll give him a call after I get back from dinner - which reminds me, the team is waiting for me downstairs. I better get going. Thanks Sara. See ya."
* * *
Christopher went into the laundry room and took a can of cat food down off the shelf. Savory Salmon, the can said. Yum. He carried it into the kitchen and opened it over the sink. Seamus suddenly materialized between his legs, chattering away. He scooped the kitty pâté out onto a plate and set it down next to the laundry room door, out of the way.
He took a steak out of the refrigerator and laid it on a plate. He took a bag of frozen French fries out of the freezer, poured the contents onto a cookie sheet and stuck it in the oven at 475°. He carried the steak out onto the porch and set it down next to the grill. He turned the gas on, punched the starter button and waited for the flame to fire up. When it was ready, he tossed the steak on and stood there for a moment watching it sizzle. He was hungry and the food smelled good as it began to cook.
* * *
I got over there and I couldn't find Seamus anywhere. I smelled something strong coming from downstairs and when I got down there, that's when I found Chris. I was frantic and sort of lost track of time at that point. I remember that I found Seamus curled up in his lap. He and that cat were inseparable. He used to call him Famous Seamus. Remember that? Well, there they were. Chris had his seatbelt on and his arm out the window. It looked like he was cruisin' down the highway, his truck loaded with all that mountain gear of his and the cat napping in his lap. I went upstairs and then back downstairs a couple of times, almost like I forgot what I saw as soon as I got upstairs and needed to see it again to get it into my head. I finally got it together enough to call 911 and they had me open the garage door while I waited on the police and an ambulance. I just sat there on the stairs and cried until they came. I don't know; it's just so confusing. He seemed fine that night. He said he'd call when he got back.
* * *
After eating his dinner, Christopher washed the dishes and left them to dry in the drainer. He sat down in the lazy boy with Seamus purring in his lap and closed his eyes, laying his head back against the soft cushions and letting his body relax. He half thought, half dreamed about the time he and Lucy were hiking along Wind River and had stopped to watch two elk cows graze in a meadow when a big bull came down into the water from their right and began bugling at the cows. He could feel a sense of peace come over him, as if he were there right now, standing along the river. He had always felt that this wild place was his home; the place from which he had come and the place to which he was going.
The ringing of the telephone brought him out of his reverie. He thought about answering it but decided not to. He picked his keys up off the table, turned off the lights in the apartment and walked down the stairs to the garage, closing the door behind him.
* * *
We all went up to Estes to spread Chris' ashes in the Big Thompson like he asked. There's a spot up near the Beaver Meadows entrance to the park where the river makes a long smooth bend around a wide meadow. It's back in there a bit and I really didn't dress for it, although I did find a pair of tennis shoes in the car. I drove up in the old dodge wagon. Chris used to love to ride around town in that old thing, so I thought, what the heck, why not just haul his ashes up there in it.
Lucy and Tommy walked up the trail with me. Tommy looked like he'd been up for a week. He kept saying that he'd planned to go with Chris on this trip and he'd had to cancel and he couldn't forgive himself. He just knew it wouldn't have happened if he'd been there. I've never seem him so upset. He just couldn't get himself calmed down.
Chris's brother was there. I think only a couple of us had met him before. He's a big shot with some company or other back East. He didn't say much to anybody other than Tommy. I think he knew him from back when they were in school. He just stood there in his dark wool overcoat with his hat in his hand. I think he was just in total shock like the rest of us.
Luce was a mess. After everyone settled down and gathered round the river bank, she read one of Chris' poems, the one called A Part of Me, the one about the wolf. She broke down two or three times and could barely get through it. It's just been terrible for her.
When she finished, I handed her the urn and stepped down from the bank onto a large flat boulder that ran out into the river. Lucy handed the urn down to me with both hands. It was a smallish brass vase with a lid and a round knob on top. I pulled the lid off and handed it back to her. I walked out to the edge of the boulder and looked down at the icy water rushing by.
I took hold of the thing with both hands and spun in a half circle from left to right and back again, flinging his ashes out in a high arc. They floated in the air and then down into the water, circled some rocks, bobbing up and down and around, then seemed to pick up speed as the current carried them off to vanish downstream. I shook the last of his ashes out into the river and climbed back up on the bank. I put my arm around Lucy and pulled her close. We all stood there for quite a while, watching the water swirl by and taking in the remarkable beauty all around us. Regardless of what we might say or think of Chris and what he did or did not do, we could all see why he wanted to be left here, a part of these mountains forever.
* * *
Eventually the truck ran out of gas. It sputtered a few times and then choked to a stop. The garage became almost instantly still, the hum of the motor replaced by the intermittent pinging and creaking of hot metal as it cooled. After a while even those sounds became faint and disappeared into the quiet autumn night.
--Posted Jan. 1, 2010