I wrote several stories in the genre of flash fiction (fewer than a thousand words). This is the second of them to be published, appearing in an anthology by Simone Press Publishing. The setting was inspired by the summers I spent at the Clear Creek Music Festival in Eastern Oregon.
The old Datsun spluttered and bucked, but it made it up the hill and to the end of the road, to the beginning of the trailhead. Marlis got out and surveyed the scene for a minute. There was the granite rock face of the mountain and, just visible to the right, the ledge she remembered. It had been just a year earlier, when Maxine was still alive, that they had climbed the trail together and stopped on the ledge to admire the view. Maxine had said, “Ooooooh, that is so pretty!” Marlis remembered the remark because it was one of the few times in their friendship of over thirty years that Max had expressed a sentimental opinion. She just wasn’t verbal in that way. Maxine may have had a gruff exterior, but behind the façade there was the kind and loyal friend that Marlis loved.
They were both widows of a sort. Marlis’ husband Jack had died of a heart ailment some twenty years before. Max’s husband was still alive, wherever he was, maybe still with the slutty waitress he had run off with, maybe not. Max never mentioned him. The two women were neighbors and liked mostly the same things, especially hiking in the wilds of eastern Oregon.
Marlis was an artist, specializing in landscapes of the local scenery. And there were plenty of subjects to excite her. The view from the ledge of the secluded gully was one she had wanted to paint since that moment with Maxine. Max was gone now, had crossed over to the Great Beyond, embarked on the ultimate hike into the cosmic wilderness. Marlis still missed her friend terribly and had shed copious tears over the loss. Why was life so unfair? Why did a total scumbag like Henry Kissinger still see the sun rise every morning when her dearest friend, her only real friend, had to die and leave her stranded? But life went on. That’s the way it was. Her painting of the gully would be a tribute to her friend.
Marlis eased her paint box over her shoulder, carried an easel in one hand and a camp chair in the other. It would be a strenuous climb to get up to the ledge, a challenge for someone her age, but she could do it. On the way up she thought of Maxine and her illimitable energy. Max, in her brown hiking boots and thick white socks, was always in the lead. Marlis used to admonish her friend not to rush ahead. ‘Wait up, Maxie,’ she would call out, ‘you’re off to the races again!’
Reaching the ledge, she flung her equipment onto the ground and caught her breath. She ignored the pain in her knees. There were at least two hours before the light would begin to fail. She would get back to her car just before the onset of darkness. It was not the smartest thing to be out in the wilderness alone that late in the day, but she had done it before. She knew how to scare off any lurking bobcats. Bears would be another matter. Fortunately, she had never had to deal with the most dangerous critters. She tried not to think about it.
Having long since outgrown the desire to paint imposing dramatic vistas, she sought the out-of-the-way spots, such as this, the places that most hikers barely noticed. Marlis’eyes, as old and worn out as they were, recognized the allure of the unobtrusive. And now, in the late September afternoon, the colors were glowing.
There was no time to lose. She gulped some of the lukewarm water from her canteen, set up her stool and easel, and mixed her colors. She loved painting outside, under the open sky; there was nothing like the pulsating light that caressed the landscape.
She contemplated the composition of what she saw in front of her: the sparse scrub pine that tenaciously clung to the sides the hills, the long since dried grass, and the few hardy shrubs that managed to survive in the gully itself. The dark purple of the shade, the mellow browns and golds of the hills, the rich green of the vegetation excited her imagination. Getting the shadows right–that will be the challenge here, she considered. Every painting was an attempt to express the inexpressible, an exercise doomed to failure. Marlis set to work, immersing herself in the scene. After more than an hour of unbroken concentration she was weary. She stood up to stretch her legs a bit.
It was an almost imperceptible movement of her heel on a stone, a stone that slipped just enough, that caused her to lose her balance. She teetered for a moment, her arms flailing, her brush and palette flying out of her hands. Once set in motion the momentum was inescapable, and Marlis fell over backwards off the ledge, twisting as she hovered in midair for those few seconds. The grace of her fall might have been lovely to watch had her body been headed for a plunge into a cool mountain lake, but it was on unforgiving basalt, jagged, barren and indifferent, that Marlis landed.
When she came to and was able to assess the damage she found that she couldn’t move. Every breath was painful. She was on her back, one leg folded under the other. The daylight was fading fast, leeching the color out of the hills. Soon it would be night, it would turn cold. The stars began to appear and Marlis, drifting in and out of consciousness, gazed up at the heavens with the sense of wonder she had always felt. It might have been an apparition, she couldn’t be sure, but she thought she saw her friend, beckoning to her. As the serenity of the twilight enveloped her, Marlis nearly managed a smile.
It did get cold that night, colder than usual, but Marlis Kennedy never even felt it.