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by Rita H. Rowe
She walked up the path, the chill of the closing winter making her clutch her yellow tattered anorak around her. The wood in the basket was still wet from the morning dew and she was working out how she could create the fire quickly. There were still some burning embers in the fireplace when she had set out, but she had been out for a very long time, more than two hours, she had estimated, much longer than she had expected to be. It was just that the deer, a baby sambar, had come so close to her, she had almost touched it.
The peace she had felt had been so overwhelming, she wanted to savour it for as long as possible. It had been a long time since she had felt that way, so she sat on the cold ground near the stream and watched as the fawn lapped at the water, oblivious to her presence. She was kicking herself for not filling up the woodpile the evening before because she had been so tired, but as she watched the animal, so wild and so tame, so carefree, she felt envious of this beautiful creature but was glad she had this chance to be so close to it. As she watched mesmerised, the deer turned its head and looked at her. She held her breath, afraid it would get spooked by her presence, but after a few seconds, it turned its head toward the stream and continued lapping. Not wanting to disturb it, she sat still until the deer turned its head, looked at her again and wandered slowly away.
She looked at her wrist, a reflex she had not ridden herself of yet, and realising she wasn’t wearing a watch, looked at the sky, which was barely visible through the heavy fog. She had lost track of time again and she frowned, realising that this was happening far too often. She got up, the cold air hitting her without warning and she shivered. Looking in the basket, she saw a few sticks and decided she would collect some along the way — just enough to warm herself and make some breakfast, or lunch, with no idea of how much time had passed — and then she would go out again and get some more. She hoped it would get warmer, but it was not looking too likely.
She began to hurry, holding the basket in one hand and pulling the anorak together with the other. In the distance, she could see small puffs of smoke rise from the chimney and she smiled — the wood in the fireplace had lasted longer than she had hoped. She quickened her pace; almost danced through the brambles that led to the back door.
That’s when she saw it. The mug on the windowsill.
She froze and the familiar fear bolted through her. Still clutching the basket, she put her other hand to her mouth, letting go of the anorak, which slid slowly off her shoulders. Staring at the foggy window, she tried to reason with herself. She could have put it there herself, a lingering habit from days past, where she would make herself a cup of coffee, stare out of the window and dream of a better life, an escape.
Escape. Escape meant freedom, but with it came fear, paranoia and above all, loneliness. Leaving him was the hardest thing to do because she still loved him. But her mind was ravaged and she knew if she didn’t leave, he would take her into his world with him and there, she knew she was doomed.
Her friends had never seen the problem, they could never see past his charm and money, and even when she tried to talk about him, they brushed it off, calling her spoilt and ungrateful. She was on her own. So, when it was time, she knew she was alone. And alone she had been, for the past three years. Her life was simple now, living in a small rented farmhouse, fifteen kilometres from the town of Omeo, where the nearest neighbour was two kilometres away.
Friendly people they were, the townsfolk, but they asked so many questions. She would smile and answer in monosyllables, hoping she wasn’t coming off as rude. But mostly, they left her alone whenever she came to town for supplies and when she was ready to submit something to her publisher. She always wished he could read the articles she wrote and know they were hers. He would have been so proud, would have shown them to his friends, proudly proclaiming the talents of his wife. But he could, would, never know. She had been careful about that.
She had been careful about everything and her escape had been successful. Holed up in the woods, she spent most of her time writing on her old laptop. When she was ready to submit her writing, she would drive up to town in her rusty blue ute and use the internet there. She never looked him up, as tempted as she was because she knew she would be vulnerable if she did.
At night, she would clack on the laptop until she found herself nodding off. She wouldn’t go to bed earlier than that because she knew where her thoughts would lead and she knew the temptation may be too strong to ignore. So, most nights she would spend on the couch till sleep was unavoidable and there she would stay until the light of the early dawn would pierce through the trees and into her window, rousing her from her sleep to begin yet another day alone.
Now, standing in the middle of the path, staring at the window, she willed herself to move, but she still stood frozen, mesmerised by the silhouette of the mug that she saw was steaming up the windowpane.
She heard a voice, a female voice that sounded familiar, and then another, male this time and she screwed up her face, trying to decipher what they were saying. Then there was another and yet another, these ones unfamiliar, but they were all trying to say things at once and she fell to her knees, dropping the basket and clasping her head. She shut her eyes tightly, but that only seemed to amplify the voices.
There were images too now, blood, so much blood, and his face, his face spattered with pieces of white and red, looking up at her in confusion. His mouth was open and he was trying to say something, but when he opened his mouth, all that came out of it was red spit bubbles. Then his eyes stopped looking into hers and his face was still.
The voices stopped and she slowly opened her eyes. Raising her head and looking toward the chimney, she saw no smoke. She looked to the window again and screwed her eyes trying to focus. It wasn’t him; it wasn’t his mug. There was no mug. He would never drink coffee with her — or anyone again. He was in the ground. She had put him there.
Realisation set in and as she screamed, she passed out.
Please visit Rita on her blog: https://www.ritahrowe.com/