The Alphabet Challenge: “T” Story No. 3 of 3 — The Trail

This is the 20th round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS(link) post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For this round, it’s the letter “T“.

Readers have two weeks from the date of publication to vote for their favorite story in the current round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on total votes received.

In each round, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.

The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the PG-rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Some readers might find a few of the stories disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, and if so, stop reading and move on.

Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.

Here we go. Presented anonymously, the third of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “T” as submitted by its author.

The Trail

Copyright 2020 — Perry Broxson

(3,400  words – approx. reading time: about 13 minutes based on 265 WPM)

“Hob, honey, you hungry for some of my world-famous mustard-fried chicken?” Bonnie shouted over the bleating TV.

Hob Chesterton, Bonnie’s husband of 45 years, clicked off the boob-tube, got up, shuffled into the kitchen, and grabbed a sizzling wing. “Nope,” he joked, “you never got the hang of fried chicken, Bonnie . . . tastes like ass.”

Bonnie smacked him with a wooden spoon and turned to her work. She didn’t laugh . . . hadn’t laughed since they’d gotten the bad news from Dr. Adams 2 months prior.

Bonnie, it’s Doc Adams. Hob there?

Where else would that ol’ fart be, Westminster Abbey?

Nobody cracks wise like you, Bonnie. Normally I’d join the jokin’, but I’m callin’ in a professional capacity.

Doc, this got something to do with our check-up last month – those tests we took to increase our Life Insurance coverage?

It does, Bonnie. But I’d rather talk to both of you, in person.

Okay, Doc, we’ll be there in 15 minutes.

That was the last day Hob heard Bonnie laugh. When pushed, she replied: “What’s there to laugh about, Hob? The joke’s on us. You put in 37 years in the Army; I did my 33 years teaching fifth-graders. We decided not to have children. We decided to live frugally. We scrimped and saved and finally retired. On the very day that we booked an Alaskan cruise, Doc Adams tells us that you’ve got Stage 4 Colon Cancer and I’ve got Huntington’s disease. So tell me again – what’s so fucking funny, Hob?”

“I just miss it, is all,” he said, sorting through his pills. “Not sure life’s worth living without hearing your laughter.”

***

That was the first time that suicide was ever broached in the Chesterton household, if only obliquely.

“My Aunt Wilma died from Huntington’s,” Bonnie said, rocking on the back porch. “It was the most horrid thing, Hob. You don’t know. You were overseas. I took a hiatus from teaching. I dealt with it – I watched her body wilt, watched her brain rot. She became a mindless, mute monster, Hob. I wrote you letters every day, but I burned them every night. It was so bad. There were times I thought it would be merciful to kill her . . . for her sake . . . and for mine.”

“I’m sorry,” Hob said, patting her hand. “The Army took so much. I missed so much. The good and the bad.”

She accepted his soothing hand. Then she did something unexpected. She hooked his pinky finger with her own and said, “Promise me.”

“Promise you what, Bonnie?”

“Promise me you won’t let me become that rotted monster. Promise me that you will kill me, Hob.”

***

Hob finished a month-long course of chemo. Additionally, he was outfitted with a colostomy bag. His once rocky body was now mushy, sallow, and ashen.

“Want to give it a go, Bon?” he said, pushing aside the shower curtain, brandishing his flaccid penis. “I think Rumpleforeskin has a couple more pumps in him.”

She spat her toothpaste into the sink and shook her head. From the mirror, she watched her frail, hairless husband step out of the tub. For a frightening moment, she didn’t recognize him.

“C’mon,” he said, popping her with a twisted towel. “What’s the worst that could happen? I could give you my cancer and you could give me your dementia?”

“Not funny,” she said. “I laid out your clothes for a walk. Doc Adams said we should exercise. We’re going to hike Enoch Trail.”

He wrapped his skeletal arms around her naked waist and pressed his flesh to hers. “Can we have a picnic?”

She slipped free from his grip. She looked at him fully for the first time. She wanted to scream and leave the bathroom, leave the house, leave the terrestrial plane. Instead, she gathered herself and said, “Mustard-fried chicken and rhubarb pie . . . your favorites. That’ll fatten you up, Hob Chesterton. And maybe Rumpleforeskin, too.”

He leaned in for a kiss and she flinched. “Thank you, Bonnie,” he said, hiding his dejection.

***

Three weeks later, Bonnie hollered: “Have you seen my keys? I’m late for my Doctor’s appointment and I can’t find my dingle-dang keys.”

Hob heard her from the porch and came to help. “Not on the hook?” he asked.

“No,” Bonnie said. “They’re not on the hook.”

“But they’re always on the hook. Mine’s on the hook. Where’s yours?”

Bonnie checked her purse. “My keys are not on the hook, Hob. Quit being a jerk and help me find them. I’m late.”

Hob opened the refrigerator to get juice. “Late? Late for what?”

“My Tuesday 10:00 appointment with Doc Adams.”

Hob pushed the milk aside and reached for the orange juice. There they were – the keys to Bonnie’s Subaru – in the refrigerator. “It’s not Tuesday, dear,” he said gently. “And it’s not 10:00. It’s past noon.”

***

One year later, on the back porch, the Chestertons rocked and talked.

“Last night, after you dozed off, I watched a documentary,” Bonnie said.

“’Bout what?” Hob asked.

She blinked back tears and said, “Dying. Dying with dignity.”

“Suicide?” Hob asked, stopping his rocking chair.

Bonnie nodded. She did more of that, he noticed, now that her words were failing.

Hob squeezed her waggling hand. “No, baby. You’re not there yet. I’m not there yet. The exercise – the long walks on Enoch Trail – it’s working. We’re maintaining. And the experimental drugs are working . . . and Doc Adams says”

“They’re not working,” Bonnie hissed. “Nothing’s working. We’re dying, Hob. We’re dying badly. Doc Adams is a duck.”

“You mean a quack?” he asked.

“Yes, I mean a quack! That’s what I said,” she shouted. “We’re fooling ourselves. We don’t have much time.”

It was true, but Hob’s optimism and military bearing would not abide defeat. “I won’t do it. I won’t allow it. It’s not right, Bonnie. It’s cowardly. It’s sacrilege.”

Bonnie countered his aggression with a macabre confession. “Last week, I had a notion, Hob. The notion was to walk across the cul-de-sac and kill Missy Jernigan’s daughter . . . what’s her name?”

“Phyllis? Little Phyllis?”

“Yes, little Phyllis,” Bonnie said, licking her quivering lips. “I had the notion that if I drank her blood – her young, strong, hot blood – I would be healed.”

“Bonnie,” Hob said, mouth agape. “You didn’t.”

“I did, Hob,” she swore. “I had the notion but I didn’t do it. Didn’t do it this time.”

Hob hooked his pinky around hers and hung his head. “The documentary,” he asked, “how did they end it? How did they kill themselves?”

***

They watched the documentary together that very night. Hob wept as each story played out – each the same – each ending with self-inflicted physician-assisted suicide.

“Do you think Doc Adams would help us?” Bonnie asked.

“I’ve known Doc since he was a dope-smokin’ hippy,” Hob said, and started to laugh. “He performed my vasectomy 40 years ago. We played tennis every Sunday until his Achilles blew out. He’ll do it. Doc will get us what we need.”

Eyes shut, Bonnie smiled and said, “Last week I had another notion, Hob.”

Hob tensed. The last time she used that phrase, it involved the thought crime of child murder.

“I thought we could do it on the trail . . . Enoch Trail. What do you think, Hob?”

He was hungry and said exactly what came to mind: “Can we have a picnic?”

***

There was no mention of suicide, self-termination, or death-with-dignity in the Chesterton household for an entire month. Hob busied himself with details and paperwork. He made checklists of his checklists, as he had done in his military billet, Logistician. Half of their assets would go to Cancer and Dementia causes. The other half would be distributed between his brother, Bonnie’s twin sisters, and cremation expenses. Without Bonnie’s consent, Hob tossed in an Easter egg. There was the plum sum of 20,000 dollars designated to little Phyllis Jernigan’s college fund.

“We’ve had a good life,” Bonnie said on the back porch.

Hob was not sure if it was a statement or question. For tens of seconds, he stared at her. Her once signature auburn hair was now wild, white, Einsteinian. Her once yoga-toned body was now afflicted with ticks and tremors and spasms.

“Any regrets?” Hob asked. “I mean, aside from marrying me instead of Billy Quigley. That bastard has more Ford dealerships than Carter has liver spots.”

“Carter?” she asked.

“Jimmy Carter,” he said. “Remember? The peanut-farming president with the big goofy grin? It was our first vote.”

She said nothing. It was a thing she did now: Ask a question and not respond when he answered. Hob knew that it was time.

“Bonnie,” he said, grasping her hand and interlocking their fingers. “Do you think you could rustle up a batch of mustard-fried chicken tomorrow?”

For many empty beats, she said nothing. Then, she giggled. “The kind that tastes like ass?”

“Yes,” Hob said, overjoyed by her joke. “And rhubarb pie.”

She turned to him and looked fully into his face. “Is tomorrow Picnic Day, Hob?”

He squeezed pinkies and said, “Yes, Bonnie. I think it is.”

***

Hob drove to the trailhead of Enoch Park. He helped Bonnie out of the car, despite his waning strength. They bore little resemblance to the youthful hikers and bikers that availed themselves of the trails. Aside from their age and infirmities, Hob and Bonnie were dressed formally: He in his oversized Army-issued dress-blues uniform; she in her favorite tea-length cotton dress, the one with a sunflower print.

“Can’t forget this,” Hob said, reaching into the backseat for the picnic basket. “And this,” he added, patting the corked bottle in his coat pocket.

“The poison,” Bonnie said, her eyes spinning independently.

“Phenobarbital,” Hob offered, preferring the pharmacological designation. “Doc Adams risked his career for this stuff.”

Hand in hand, the old couple began their final walk on Enoch Trail. It was a beautiful day. The afternoon sunshine infused their cooling bodies with warmth and energy. For the first mile, the trail ran parallel to a stream. As always, they stopped and pondered the abandoned beaver dams.

“All that work,” Hob said, as he always said. “I mean, they worked so hard . . . and for what?”

Bonnie shook her head and tried to reply. No discernable words came.

Hob suggested, “It’s like a metaphor, Bon. Don’t you think? You work and you work and you work . . . and then you’re gone.”

The left side of Bonnie’s mouth turned upward. She smiled with her eyes as Hob wiped drool from her chin with his handkerchief.

“Miles to go,” he said. “Let’s see if we can make it to Miner’s Meadow. That’d be a lovely place to . . . .” He stalled.

“For – for – a picnic,” Bonnie stammered. They nodded and continued the journey.

Runners smiled at them without breaking pace. Bikers gave them a wide berth. Fellow walkers chatted while wrangling dogs on leashes. The long walk seemed short, given their pleasant interactions with fellow travelers.

Around a bend, a young man on a mountain bike emerged. He waved as he passed.

“Did you see that guy on the bike?” Hob asked, stopping in his tracks. Not waiting for a reply, he said, “He looked like somebody . . . somebody I used to know.”

Bonnie looked inquisitively at her husband.

Hob snapped his fingers. “Tuttle. He looked just like Captain Tuttle. We lost him in Afghanistan – Christ, must be 19 years ago. Spitting image of Tuttle.”

She squeezed his hand and pulled him along, eager for the end.

***

“We made it,” Hob said, spreading a small blanket. “Miner’s Meadow. It’s beautiful. The flowers match your dress, Bonnie. Sunflowers. It’s like they knew you were coming.”

Bonnie bent and pretended to smell the flowers – her sense of smell cruelly ruined by the disease. “Help me sit,” she asked. “I want to prepare our meal – our last supper. I want it to be good. I want to be a good wife.”

Hob helped her. “Bonnie, I hope,” he started. “I hope you don’t doubt it.”

Opening the wicker basket, she looked into his sunken eyes. She wanted to break his gaze but couldn’t. They were soul mates in life, soul mates in death.

“You have always been a good wife, Bonnie Chesterton,” he said. “Not just good . . . the goodest.”

She tried to laugh but could only manage tears.

Their intimacy was shattered when a young woman breached the tree-line and called to them. “Hey, you want some berries?”

Hob and Bonnie watched as the woman, outfitted with bird-watching apparel and equipment, approached them with a scarf filled with red and blueberries. “I picked them from the bank of Shepard’s Pond, a mile east of here. I’ve eaten all I can. They’d make a nice addition to your picnic. Here.”

The woman spilled the berries into the basket, smiled, and strode boldly back into the forest.

“That was weird,” Hob said. He pinched a berry between his fingers and examined it. “Think it’s safe, Bon?”

Bonnie did not respond. Her face had paled and her expression was a mixture of fright and fondness.

“Considering what we’re about to do,” Hob said, “guess there’s no downside. Red or blue, that’s the only question.” He popped it into his mouth and raved: “So darned delicious. Bonnie, you have to try”–

He noticed Bonnie’s wrought expression. “What’s wrong, dear?”

Bonnie struggled with her tongue. Finally, she spoke: “That woman . . . she looked like my father.”

“Mother?” Hob asked. “She looked like your mother?”

Bonnie nodded. “Yes. Mother. She watched birds.”

“Oh,” Hob said, “that’s a great memory. I’m sorry I never met her. She died young . . . was it a drowning?  I should remember; you’ve told me before. She drowned in a lake” –

“Pond,” Bonnie corrected. “Shepard’s Pond . . . in Iowa.”

***

Between bites of mustard chicken and pie and berries, Hob and Bonnie cuddled one another. Hob regaled her with their personal history, starting with their first date, ending with the current situation. “You’re my Juliette,” he finished, opening the corked bottle of phenobarbital.

“You’re my Romeo,” she replied, holding out her half-full wine glass.

He poured the elixir into her glass, then into his. “The sun is going down,” he said. They crossed their arms at the elbows, each sipping from the other’s glass.

“Romantic,” Bonnie said, touching the medals on his chest.

“I wish,” Hob said, “we could do it all again. I don’t think I’d change anything – but it would be nice to have the option.”

Bonnie held up a single, shaky finger.

“What, dear?”

“One . . . one thing . . . I’d change,” she said haltingly.

He leaned in close, because her voice was faint and quavering. “Too late for secrets. Tell me, Bon.”

She struggled to speak, but her throat closed. Instead, she pantomimed the act of a mother cradling a baby to her bosom.

Hob nodded in agreement. Then, they drank deeply, ensuring maximum lethality. “Shouldn’t be more than a half-hour,” Hob said. “Would you like to lie down here, on the blanket, and just wait?”

“No,” Bonnie said, emphatic.

“Then what, dear?”

“Walk,” she said, attempting to rise.

Hob helped her up. “Are you having second thoughts, Bonnie?”

She shook her head and started walking. Hob followed. Bravely, she entering the tree-line where the young woman had emerged. Within minutes, they came upon a new trail. A crude marker, nailed to a pine tree, read: Happy Trail.

“Never seen this trail,” Hob said. “Where do you think it leads?”

Bonnie shook her head and forged onward, headlong, racing against time.

The trail appeared impassible, overgrown and foreboding. Yet every step found even ground. It was as if the brambles and thickets yielded to their journey, welcoming them into their sanctum. Birds trilled and insects chirped and the evening breeze soughed through the swaying leaves.

“Do you feel it?” Bonnie said, her voice clear.

“Feel what, Bonnie?”

She showed him her steady hands. “Strength,” she said.

Something was happening, Hob acknowledged. The chronic, clawing pains in his bowels had eased. He credited the phenobarbital. But something else – something not so easily explained – was happening. His dress-blue uniform seemed to be shrinking, conforming to his frame. No, he realized, it was him. His body was growing, inflating, filling the sagging suit.

“I can smell the flowers,” Bonnie said, plucking a clutch of daisies and pressing them to her nose.

Hob watched her and marveled at the berry-colored blush in her cheeks. Her rheumy eyes now shined and her crooked lips straightened and plumped.

“What’s happening?” Hob asked.

Bonnie pulled him along. “We have to keep walking, Hob. Keep walking the trail.”

They did. Even as the last rays of light dimmed, the couple marched onward. Darkness, like a companion, accompanied them, guiding them despite their lack of sight. Hob found that he was having trouble keeping up with his galloping wife. Bonnie tugged at him, pulling him, willing him toward a destination that she recognized, but he could only imagine.

“How are you moving so fast?” Hob called.

“How are you moving so slow?” she replied, and then laughed so loudly that nocturnal faunae startled and scurried.

They were sprinting now. Both of them, at a breakneck pace, through a sentient forest, along a living trail. The night sky cheered them on, rooting for their race, praising their fearless, final dash.

And then Bonnie stopped.

“Bonnie,” Hob cried, crashing into his wife’s firm body. They both fell into a heap, onto the forest floor. “Why did you stop?”

“Look,” she said, helping him up. The moon reflected its light onto another sign. “It’s two arrows,” she said.

“Pointing to two different trails,” he finished. Revealed in the silvery moonlight was the fork in Happy Trail.

“Left or right?” Bonnie said.

“East or west?” Hob echoed.

“Which path do we take?” they asked in unison.

They stood for many minutes, pondering the quandary. “Is this where we split up?” Bonnie finally asked.

Hob was shocked. He shouted the word NO. Then he grabbed her and held her. Surprisingly, their hot bodies responded to the embrace. Hob caressed her, then pressed his loins to hers. Their breath quickened and their muscles strained and their passions flamed.

They made love there, at the crossroads, pleading with Time, pledging eternal oaths to one another. Exhausted, they collapsed into slumber. Hours later, morning broke. The sun nudged them, impatient with their indolence.

“Look at you,” Hob said, seeing his bride naked, beautiful, youthful . . . as if born again. A Juliette, to his Romeo; an Eve, to his Adam.

“And you,” she said, poking his firm pectorals, caressing his rippled abs.

“Is this heaven?” Hob asked.

“I don’t know,” she answered. “The drug . . . maybe we’re hallucinating. Maybe Doc Adams dosed us with LSD as a joke.”

Hob looked down at his increasing penis. “Rumpleforeskin is definitely tripping balls.”

They both laughed and danced and nourished themselves with honeysuckles and berries, drinking dew from cupped leaves. They thanked the earth and prayed to the elements, unashamed pagans, naked and newly made, sinless and simple, raw and wild.

When they could revel no more, they turned their worship toward one another. Their vigor sapped, they collapsed. “It’s time,” Bonnie said.

“Time,” Hob repeated.

“Time,” she affirmed.

Hob recalled a snatch of Pink Floyd lyric. “Time is gone, the song is over. Thought I’d something more to say.”

“It’s time to choose our path,” Bonnie said. “Time to resolve regrets.”

Hob sat up. “Why? We could stay here, in the forest. Our choice could be to not choose.”

Bonnie leaned forward and kissed him fully on the mouth. Without speaking, she stood up and looked down at him. Her auburn hair was tangled and adorned with wildflowers. Her green eyes shined with maternal determination. She smiled at him and turned toward the twin trails. She hesitated for only a second. In that brief time, she put her hands on her lower abdomen and caressed her womb.

“Bonnie,” Hob said. “Wait.”

She did not wait. She took the first of infinite steps onto the trail that pointed east.

And Hob followed.

The End Beginning

If you’ve already read the other two stories and are ready to vote, click HERE(Link) and you’ll be taken to the voting poll.

If you’ve not read the other two stories, they can be found at the following links:

Thomas’s Promise (link)

Trust (link)

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