“I swear to god these are Virginia bluebells, Carter,” Fiona said to her friend as she wiped cigarette smoke from her tear ducts. Taking another drag, she kicked one of the drooping blue flowers gently so it flopped the other way. The first signs of spring in Ohio were always the prettiest.
Fiona winced as the morning sun hit her directly in the face. In hindsight, she probably should have dressed better for the occasion. Dressed in worn light blue jeans, black Chuck Taylors, and a black button-down shirt, she faced at least a three-mile hike up to their destination. Between the two of them, they had a pack of cigarettes and a backpack with a shovel, a canteen, food, and rope. In her left hand, she held a box filled with things she’d put off thinking about for an entire year.
“Just a matter of time until the freaking bees come this way,” Fiona said. The only thing she hated more about this trek was bees.
Carter didn’t say a thing, though Fiona didn’t need a response from him to keep talking. It’s been years since they’ve seen each other and she had enough stories about her exploits to fill a novel. Granted, that novel would be disjointed and non-linear but it was enough for Carter to get up to speed.
The two crossed the field of bluebells for a few feet before stopping right in the middle of half-frozen land. Fiona could hear the mud slowly consume her shoes and then gush as she pulled them free. A small chill climbed up her spine as she scanned her surroundings.
“Where the hell is the trail we used to follow? Oh, right,” Fiona said. “Four to the east, then north, you’re a beast.”
Fiona chuckled, as she thought about how stupid that saying was. She and Carter created it with their friends Mario and Winston when they were still in high school. In their junior year, they found a giant hill overlooking their neighborhood. At nights, they’d go up there and smoke weed, talk about their plans for the future, and anything else that came to mind.
“I’ve got money on being a music journalist when I’m older,” Carter rasped as he handed the blunt they made over to Fiona.
“You haven’t written shit though,” She replied.
“I’m gonna start a blog soon.”
“Shoot, at this rate, you may as well just start a newsletter,” Winstons said, taking a deep hit of the blunt. The group laughed as Carter tried to explain himself better.
Banter like this was normal for the group, which was heavily ingrained in hip-hop culture. Every week after school they’d slip into Winston’s basement and listen to Lupe Fiasco, Mac Miller, and Kendrick Lamar while debating their top five artists. When they needed a change of scenery, or Winston’s brother took over the basement, they’d go to the spot and hangout.
To them, it was like a sanctuary away from the world and its pressures.
Now, as Fiona dredged through the muddy grasslands that led up to it with Carter, all she could think about was how much she didn’t want to come back. Not only had she been drug-free for nearly three years, but it was emotionally taxing returning to that spot. Mostly because she hardly spoke with Winston or Mario.
Lately, Fiona has been in a slump. It’s been this way for nearly a year now, and she had no idea how to shake it. It’s not like she’s sad or anything, but it feels like an overwhelming emptiness is eating the center of her gut. She’s tried everything from sex to mindless shopping on Amazon to fill that gap.
“This is a much longer walk than I remember,” she said, taking deeper and deeper breaths.
Eventually, the two reached the end of the field, crossing into a thick forest. Fiona noticed the trees began showing signs of life with little buds sprouting on their branches. The dead branches cracked and snapped under her feet as she moved toward her destination.
Touching the trees as she passed, she tried remembering all of the times she had gotten hurt in here. The first time they explored the woods past the field, she slipped on some leaves and almost fell into a rocky ditch. She was lucky she just sprained her ankle that day. Another instance involved Carter tackling her because she stole his phone to text his crush. She even got dumped in these woods and that hurt almost more than Carter pummeling her.
In the distance, she heard the crack of a branch. Snapping out of her trance, she turned and almost turned white in fear. She’s traveled this path more than a hundred times when she was younger, sometimes alone, and never once did she ever run into a coyote. Yet, there she was staring eye to eye with one.
Frozen in fear, she tried to assess her situation. Carter was on her right, she could reach into her backpack and grab the shovel but that’s a lot of steps. The last time she checked, coyotes were fast bastards. The two began to creep back slowly.
She remembered her father, a wannabe outdoorsman, telling her once that when faced with a coyote that lingers, the best thing to do is haze them. Getting big and being loud was your best shot at surviving an attack. If you turned your back, you could die.
Except, that’s a lot easier said than done.
The coyote moved slowly toward her and then suddenly, worked up at full speed. Fiona tried to make herself big and scream but all she could let out was a yelp. Faster and faster the coyote ran at her.
“SHIT, SHIT, SHIT, SHIT,” She yelled, stumbling back. She swung her backpack around her shoulder and began fumbling to open it. The coyote was within spitting distance as she pulled the collapsible shovel out to fend it off.
Just before she could get ready, she tripped, flinging the backpack, her shovel, and box everywhere. Fiona screamed and curled into a ball, waiting for her bloody death. But when it didn’t come, she grew suspicious and looked around to see what happened. It took her a minute to locate where the soft chomping sounds came from but in the distance, she spotted it.
The coyote hunched itself over three small sandwiches in plastic wrapping. That morning, Fiona anticipated the trek to the spot being a day trip, she packed meals for morning, lunch, and dinner. However, when she got to the field, she lost her appetite. That meant her sandwich, a tuna and egg sandwich, got put on the wayside, cooking in her black backpack for at least an hour.
She could hear the coyote smack its lips at the spoiled food. She turned over and looked at the box, labeled “Carter.” She breathed a sigh of relief when she saw that the lid was still on it and none of his ashes were thrown everywhere on the forest floor. A few minutes later, she could hear the moans of a sick coyote, running off to spend some quality time in the bathroom.
Fiona closed her eyes and began to get up.
“Where the hell were you buddy?” she asked, grabbing Carter’s box and the other items that were flung in the area.
Fiona considered turning back. Surely, after a freaking coyote attack, Carter would understand why their mission couldn’t be completed today. Despite this though, she decided to keep pushing forward. She put this task off long enough, she thought.
“I wish you were here,” she said, limping forward.”Mario and Winston are not going to fucking believe this when I tell them later.”
She kept limping.
“I’m sorry they couldn’t come by the way.”
Fiona’s least favorite part about the hike to the spot was the river they needed to cross to get there. It’s not like it was ever dangerous to cross, it was really small and calm. It was the bridge they used to cross it and the smell that irritated her.
She always wondered if this is what it was like in “Bridge to Terabithia.” Ignoring how it ends, did they ever stop and think about how awful the river smelled? Or how swinging from one end of a river to the other was a horrible idea?
Fiona the book critic, Carter would’ve said.
When she got to the river, her thoughts about the rope swing evaporated. On second thought, bringing your dead friend’s box of ashes to cross a river after a heavy thunderstorm is probably right up there with turning your back to a coyote. The mostly quiet river’s water crashed against the rocks as if it were angry that Fiona dared to cross it.
“Well, fuck,” she said, inching closer to the banks. She picked up a rock and threw it in.
“That is deep Carter,” she said. “Where is it that we normally crossed? Do you remember? Oh..”
An old log, darkened from the rainfall, rested across the fifteen-foot gap to the other side. She walked up to it and ran her fingers on its edge. Her fingers stopped when she felt the engraving of her and her friends’ names on the side of it.
The river, which ran from one end of the city to the other, had several logs, most of which were unstable. To make sure that they could find the right log, they marked it with their names. Despite that, Fiona still hated using it because of the smell and the fact that she was never good at balancing on it.
“Alright, well, here comes my least favorite part Carter,” Fiona said, taking her first step on the log.
Once upon a time, she and Carter would come to the spot after football games on the weekend to smoke weed. Eventually, that evolved into mushrooms and then painkillers. Back then, they had nothing better to do except listen to music and talk shit about other kids at their high school.
One particular Sunday, they decided to take mushrooms on the way to the spot. Carter convinced her it would be like walking through a fairy wonderland. To his credit, it was something like that. That is until they had to cross that damned river and then it felt like…well the ending of “The Bridge to Terabithia.”
She was halfway across the bridge when she lost her motor skills, slipped, and fell into the river. Carter, still high, jumped in after her and got her across the river a few feet from the log. They sat there on the bank, stone-cold sober, watching little mushrooms float calmly down the river in plastic baggies.
“I’m such a shit head,” Fiona said, throwing her head into her hands.
“Yeah…But I’m a shit head too,” he replied, throwing an arm over her to give her comfort. The two sat there for a few minutes until they decided to turn back. It was the last time they visited the spot together.
Now, halfway across, Fiona struggled to maintain her balance. Slowly, she inched her way across as her deep breaths drowned out by the raging waters below. A few more steps and closer to the other edge. It was starting to look like she and Carter were going to make it across until she felt a wrinkle in her nose.
She sneezed so loud, it scared the eyesight back into Stevie Wonder. Losing her balance, she wobbled to her left and then to her right, making sure to keep Carter close. Her Chuck Taylors shifted slightly under her but she was still standing. Fiona felt like a gymnast, standing on the balance beam after performing a complicated move.
She only fell into the river after locking eyes with a coyote watching her from the other end of the bank. Her body made a loud splash as she hit the water like a sack of rocks.
“OH FUCK, CARTER HOLD ON,” Fiona screamed. Carter bobbed and weaved as he avoided rocks ten feet from where she fell.
Without hesitation, she dove into the water and began swimming to him as fast as she could. Three years on the high school swim team doesn’t go away once you stop. Like riding a bicycle, she extended her arm and propelled herself forward. As she raised her head for air, she searched for Carter.
The river’s current grew faster the further down it she got. Admittedly she didn’t know what was down this far. She didn’t care though, even as the hidden rocks and twigs scraped against her body while she tried to get her friend.
She could hear the sound of water rushing over rocks grow louder and louder. Suddenly, she realized that there must have been a waterfall somewhere near. Fiona’s mind raced as she struggled to find any sign of her friend.
What if he went off the falls, raced through her mind.
“CARTER, CARTER, WHERE ARE YOU?”
Minutes felt like hours until Fiona spotted a dark wooden back, caught on a rock just before a small waterfall. Half exhausted, she dove once more into the water and swam as hard she could to catch him. Fighting back vomit, she grabbed her friend and swam him to shore.
Silent, the two sat there trying to recreate what just happened. Once again, Fiona was not able to cross that damn bridge without something happening. Catching her breath, she noticed the coyote looking at them. This time, it was on the other side of the bank.
How can everyone but me cross this fucking river? She thought.
“Alright Carter, let’s get to the spot.”
After all of that, the walk to their hangout spot seemed like a breeze. After another mile of walking through wildflowers and tall grass, she made it with her friend. She stood there, looking at the area they spent their nights and weekends and got to work.
Getting on both knees, she started digging. She cringed and flinched as her nails removed pebbles, rocks, and roots until it got deep enough. Taking a deep breath, she looked around her to make sure her hole was good enough. She decided it was and grabbed Carter.
“Not sure why you wanted to rest here Carter, but,” she put him into the hole and buried him.
Fiona sat next to the mound that now held her late friend. She rested her palms behind her and admired the sunset for a few minutes before sitting back up. Taking a deep breath, she pulled a pack of cigarettes out of her coat and lit one of them.
“I’m sorry this took so long Carter,” she said. “Lately I’ve… I should have answered you when you called me that night.”
Fiona started to tear up, but she fought it back. During the last year of his life, Carter was battling PTSD and had been calling her twice every week. Sometimes they’d talk for hours, sometimes they’d only last for a minute. Fiona always tried to make time for him but when she was promoted to senior editor at her magazine, she could barely keep up with its demands.
As a result, some things in her life got put on the back burner, including Carter. A day before they found him dead in his apartment, he tried calling her three times. Each time, she let it ring or hit ignore.
She wished she had known what was going through his head. Why he decided to buy so much oxycontin when just a few weeks prior, he told her that he was getting clean. She wished she knew why she ignored him.
It was a pointless wish, she knew she couldn’t blame herself for what happened. Still, she did it anyway. At his funeral, his mother hugged her and told her how much she meant to him, which of course made the feeling worse.
Before the funeral ended, she handed her a box of his ashes.
“I don’t understand why he wanted to be cremated and put into this box but he said you would get it,” she handed her the box and a letter explaining how he wanted to be buried at the spot.
Now that she fulfilled his wish. She had to admit that she started to feel something again. It wasn’t much, but it wasn’t the emptiness that had plagued her for so long. She finished her cigarette and put it out beside her.
“I wish you could see this sunset buddy,” Fiona said. “I think about you every day.”
She took a deep breath and got up from her spot, patting dirt from her butt. She knew she had to go, she didn’t bring a flashlight and now it was going to be a race against the sun. Still, she had reservations about leaving Carter out here, even though this is what he wanted. Eventually, she broke her inner struggle and decided it was time to let go.
“Goodbye Carter,” she said.
The walk to her car was long and rough, the river had calmed by the time she returned to it and of course, she nearly fell in the forest. When she finally got back to the car, she finally cried for her friend. She couldn’t help it, after a year of what felt like infinite nothing, she was starting to feel things.
Even if it was just sadness, she welcomed it.