I have always considered loneliness a childish pain, and that one should simply grow up and acknowledge the empty space between lives as a part of life itself. Only now that I’m no longer a child do I see its complexity. Only a man is capable of experiencing the higher order emotion. A child would not notice. A child would not care. A child would not cry over a shredded yellow hair ribbon the way I do now. I hold the splitting threads in my fingers, as fine as the strands of her hair, but I keep moving forward. I have to make camp by dark.
The pack weighs heavy on my back, and my breath comes out in thick bursts of fog, chalky white against the encroaching nightfall. The map flutters in the last of the day’s breath as I clench it tightly in my hand, too afraid to open it and get my bearings for fear it will fly away like a bird escaping the cage of my fingers. When the moon trades places with the sun, the breeze will be gone, but so will my light. Yonah would call it the balance of the earth. It gives to one need and takes from the other. I hear her voice even now and I fear I’m going mad, but I would be glad to see her ghost. To see her face once more would be peering through the gates of heaven.
She is certainly dead.
The dying wind heaves its death rattle, blowing my hair forward into my eyes. It has grown even longer since Yonah last tried to cut it, and it is this simple act of my hair in my eyes that brings me to tears. Everything that I am reminds me of her. Every hunt, every sip of water, every time I live through the night, I am reminded of her. She is everywhere, and she is nowhere. She is gone.
I walk on and try to put her from my mind, letting the passing hours take me away from my space of mourning.
Time is a lovely and awful thing. I once believed it to be a construct of man, but now I watch the rising of the moon, how the newborn stars circle above my head as the earth spins on its axis, and I realize this is not man’s invention. It cannot be stopped or frozen no matter how man tries. If I was the craftsman, I could master it, bend it to my will, but I cannot. It does not belong to me.
Time is infinite and finite. There will always be more but never enough. It is stolen from humanity only to be sold back under the guise of a gift and therefore, it is precious and coveted. If offered, one would jump at the chance to buy it back: ten more years or ten more minutes, it doesn’t matter.
Its very nature affords us a great opportunity but also rips it away. It exists to allow us experiences, but in its existing, it threatens not to exist at all. It is there that I miss her.
The Earth keeps turning and time keeps passing and I get further and further from those moments I cherished most, but no matter how I try, I cannot get back. I cannot get back to her, and instead I am stuck in the in-between place- the life I had and the life I will have, but I do not know what life is before me now.
If I learned anything from watching my roommate suffer it was that he suffered quickly. Once the symptoms emerged fully, he was gone within the week. The fever raged within him and his soul vanished before I could do anything about it. I was like a child then, and sometimes I still feel that I am- a child born and bound to the influences around me, influences that were named long before I was: expectation, norm, role, and responsibility. Now I am bound by nothing but earth and sky, a freedom I knew not until this day. No one holds me to the ground but the ground itself and nothing pulls me forward but the gravity of the moon, her light calling to me, tethered to my core and dragging me onward. I shuffle on for no other purpose but to find purpose.
A shudder rolls through me as I think of the borrowed time on which Yonah lived. How did I not recognize the signs? She was burning with fever and I never knew. I’m supposed to be a healer, further evidence the Medical Scholar recruiting system is ill-suited for finding the best and brightest. I had the best and brightest. I traveled with her for nearly two months. She helped me survive in a foreign place, and taught me to hunt, break camp, and bury ashes so we would not be tracked. She saved my life and I forced her to run off into the wilderness on a half-starved horse. At the time, I was trying to return the favor, giving her the best chance of survival, but that was days ago.
A prickling voice asks a dangerous question and I bat it away before it can take root in my heart. What if, it says, what if she’s alive?
I silence the creature in my head and keep pumping my legs forward, already hours off pace, I cannot afford to stop and entertain the possibility. It would cost too much to stop now. I can barely make out the high ground to which I am headed when the voice returns.
She is strong, it tells me. You know how strong she is.
“But she can’t hunt to feed herself or make shelter to stay warm. She could survive anything, but even she can’t overcome the elements if she’s sick. She either starved or frozen and that’s all there is.”
Why are you lying to yourself, Andy?
“I’m just being realistic.”
That’s also a lie. Why?
“Because it hurts too much to think of the truth.”
And what is the truth?
“I let her go. She could still be alive out there somewhere, cold, and struggling. What if she needs me, and I abandoned her?”
What would that say about you?
“I- I don’t know.”
Yes, you do. No one knows you like I do. What is it you’re afraid to say?
I don’t answer. I do not wish to hear the truth on my lips, so instead I drop the pack where I stand and retrace my steps as best I know how.
I run through the dark, pine forest, over stumps and rocks and through shallow riverbeds, splashing my last good pair of pants and only shoes through frigid water, kept unfrozen only by the forceful current running through it. The icy air pierces my lungs but I don’t stop. I have to find her. If there is any possibility she is still alive, I have to find her.
“Yonah!” I call out, even though I’m still miles away. We went in opposite directions over two days ago, and I have no way of knowing how far she made it.
If, the prickling voice haunts again. If she made it.
The voice has a name: Doubt. It exists for no other reason than to make me question my actions, not myself because it is myself. Whether my thoughts are pure or not, it questions them, bringing them into the glaring light for all to see, naked and ashamed. It is made up of the pieces of me I fear most, the wretched things that will be left when all else is stripped away. As I run to her, I chase and search for the only one who can build up the better parts of me so that I don’t have to see what’s really at my core. It is entirely selfish, I know this, but I am too afraid of what will become of me if I stop.
Without the weight of the pack, I nearly triple my distance in the same hour. The cold air has numbed my legs so I cannot feel the flesh being rubbed raw or the sores burning into the soles of my feet through my sodden hiking boots. At last, I begin to recognize the small patches of meadow and the grouping of trees where we found the horse. I pray the son of a bitch carried her as far as he could, died, gave her food, and provided shelter in his warm, hollow carcass.
My eyes blur as the chafing air blows into my eyes. I blink out the dust and dirt, but don’t stop, not even sure if I am on the right path, I call out and wait.
I stop and hold my heaving breath, listening with all my might for the slightest sound on the wind. I hear a low pitched note and turn with a leap in my chest but it’s just an owl.
“Yonah!” I call again, huffing and holding my breath. “Where are you?”
The dribbling currents are not far out of earshot, and I know she would not stray from water. I cut through the suffocating forest, ignoring the fire in my muscles. I break through the tree line and stare across a river ten feet wide, its current humming and strong. I check the creek bed, hoping to find her resting there, pulling off her boots or setting up camp for the night, but the voice returns.
You’re lying again. We both know you’re looking for her body. You’ll be lucky to find even that.
I take another look at the rushing current and open up my heart to Doubt swelling within me, growing louder by the second. As weak as she was, she could have been easily swept away or pulled under.
What are you even doing out here?
“Yonah, where are you?” I cry out one last time, but my words turn to sobs as I realize I have lost her forever.
I am forced to confront the terrible truth. I am not a good person. The man staring back at me in the surface of the river is a shameful being, filled with cowardice and regrets too many to name, a distorted reflection of a once respectable person. This mark on my soul weighs down upon me, pulling me into myself like a vanishing star until I cease to exist. How can I escape that which is myself? My own destruction?
The blade of punishment is accurate but not swift and I feel its lingering pain. This is the second death: separation. Eternal loneliness.
H.G. REED is an avid reader and writer of new adult fiction, and currently serves as co-founder and organizer of her local writing group. She was voted by her peers as a recipient of two creative writing awards for short stories, but also enjoys writing freelance articles through various forums. Her current novel is the product of day hikes, self exploration, and lots of caffeine. She resides in Macon, Georgia with her husband and dog, Max.