He gripped his cane tighter, arthritis stiff digits curled around the handle. Rhythmically, he swept it side to side across the cracked sidewalk. The cars that sped by over damp, fallen leaves provided further indication of the proper path. A chill breeze wafted the smell of rotting logs and decomposition and his hand pushed further in his pocket to avoid the air’s frosty fingers.
The smell of roadkill penetrated the air.
“How much further, Lena?” he queried, speaking robustly in an attempt to hide his shallow breathing. The coffee shop where he and his wife had spent the better part of the morning, sipping their drinks and conversing, was thirteen blocks behind them, and he wasn’t in the shape he used to be. It was also far enough that he couldn’t picture his surroundings; he hadn’t found a reason to go farther than five blocks from their home for a long time. He had been glad, though, when Lena had told him she had a surprise for him; the whispers in the cafe had been louder than usual. He assumed that the regulars hadn’t been there. Those had stopped whispering about his unfocused gaze and milky pupils long ago. But after so much exertion, his feet were starting to drag like he was a marionette whose puppeteer had become too lazy to hold him up.
The bitter taste of black coffee was still on his tongue.
“Only a few blocks, darling.” Her voice floated to him from ten paces ahead; she was clearly excited enough to be impatient. This was the first time in years that she hadn’t walked on his arm, his slow pace had been hers since their marriage. Twisting the smooth band around his finger, he heard Lena’s steps come to a halt: waiting for him. When he caught up, she linked herself to his right side, gripping his arm tight as a leech latches on to its victim. He shifted the cane to his other hand, ring clicking against thep plastic.
The sound like the sickening crack of a bone rang out as a branch snapped underfoot.
She steered him to the right, off the sidewalk and on what felt and sounded like a forest trail. The cane dragged through the leaves with the swish of a lisp. Or the rustle of a snake. He huddled closer to Lena’s side, the biting air sending him searching for warmth, and the rough terrain leaving him desperate for a guide, but he found only the latter. His cane snagged on a reaching root, roughly wrenching it out of his grasp. Lena giggled and retrieved it for him. He couldn’t see the dirt coating its length, and she didn’t bother to brush it off.
Bruises flowered on his side where she dug her elbow into him, teasingly berating his clumsiness the way a cat teases a mouse it means to eat.
The minutes dragged on, pulling his energy with them, and soon his labored breathing couldn’t be ignored. As he began to ask for a break, Lena announced, “Here!” He poked around the area with his cane, trying to find the surprise like a minesweeper searching for explosives. “Here, honey, let me take that,” she simpered as she plucked his cane from his hand, a hawk grabbing a defenseless mouse. She released his arm. “Just take a step forward.” He took one step, unsteady without a guide or his cane. “One more!”
The grass around his ankles tickled as he moved forward.
Lena placed both hands reassuringly on his back, her mouth lingering by his ear. “Are you ready for your surprise?” Her lips brushed his neck, the feather light touch of darkness. He smiled, confused, but awaiting the promised present. He couldn’t see the steep hill, his precarious position on top of it.
Marion sat with her elbow propped up on the armrest of the chair, a beer nestled in the crook of her arm. The blinds weren’t keeping out the last remnants of the evening sun, but she couldn’t be bothered to get up. Her attention was focused more on her Facebook feed than the blaring television, until the sound of a breaking news alert snagged her gaze. A reporter took center stage. “This just in: the body of Christopher Elbetto, a blind, elderly local, was found at the bottom of Edgerton Crest. Evidence suggests that he fell nearly 10 stories down the slope.”
“Brandon, get in here!” Marion beckoned her husband vigorously from the kitchen and gestured wildly at the screen. “That’s the guy from the coffee place I’ve been telling you about!”
“The nut who talks to himself?” He asked, settling down beside her.
“That’s the one,” she replied. Their eyes were riveted on the screen.
“In a shocking turn of events,” the newscaster continued, “police attempting to contact his wife, Lena Elbetto, received no response. After breaking into their residence of 26 years, they found her body on the bed. Authorities estimate she had been dead for more than a week. Cause of death is unknown at this time.”