The dirt beneath Tom’s feet was uneven, riddled with twisted roots and decaying leaves, and he had to pick each step carefully. Occasional slivers of moonlight pierced the bare branches above, but they didn’t provide enough light to see by, so he swung his flashlight from side to side as he walked. There were other people around him, their own flashlights casting beams of light and creating strange shadows among the trunks. The forest felt crowded with so many, but he paid them no attention. He needed to focus on what he was doing.
He turned his beam of light upwards and scanned the woods in front of him. Nothing. He focused again on walking. Walking felt good. Trenches began to cross his path, small ones at first that he just stepped over. They grew larger as he went, until he was forced to climb into them and struggle up the other side. He occasionally stopped at the tops to peer into the dark ahead of him, but he never saw anything but trees.
Then he heard a voice, his wife’s. What was she doing out there?
“Marge?” he called out. And then she was there next to him, and she had no flashlight. She needed one, needed it more than he did, and so he handed his to her, but she didn’t take it. He tried again, asking her to take it, but all of a sudden he couldn’t seem to move the flashlight. He struggled to reach her with it. She started pushing the flashlight back at him, refusing it, making him keep it. He tried harder, ordering her to take the flashlight, and she told him to stop it. He hit the flashlight, slapped it, tried to knock it away, and then there was a pleading in her voice and he opened his eyes to find her staring down at him as he sat in his chair, yanking on his bum left arm with his right. He stopped and blinked in confusion, stared at his surroundings in a haze, unfocused. Marge was above him, a frown on her wrinkled face, her hand on his left arm protectively, holding it in place.
Tom looked to his left, saw his daughter Beckie sitting on a couch and staring at him. She quickly turned away, then glanced back, said something. He let go. He looked back up at Marge, “I’m awake, babe.” She patted his arm gently.
“Good. You’re okay,” she said, a half-smile on her face. She lingered for a moment, watching him, then turned away and went back to the boxes full of fabric that Beckie had brought over to their house.
He watched her for a while as she sorted through the sheets of cloth by cut and color, then looked down at his left arm. He looked at a blank spot on the far wall. Then Michael said something, standing on the right side of his chair. Tom had forgotten his grandson was there visiting too. He spent a moment trying to figure out what Michael had said, then asked, “What?”
“How are you doing, Grandpa?”
Tom lifted his right arm a couple inches in the air, wiggled his right leg where it rested on the bottom of the recliner. “How’s it look like I’m doing?” he said, barely slurring.
Michael gave him a pained smile. “Looks like you’re doing pretty well.” It seemed as if he was going to say more, but then he sat down on the floor, his back against the wall. He pulled out his phone and began to tap on its screen.
Tom looked around again. His wife was still sorting the fabric. She was holding two pieces in her hands, facing Beckie. She lifted them each in turn. Beckie said something and pointed at the red one in Marge’s left hand, and Marge placed it on the table behind her and the other in a bag on the floor. Tom reached for his cup on the side table, found that it was empty.
Marge turned towards him. “What, honey?”
“Get me a Pepsi.”
“Yes, dear, one moment. Let me finish up what I was doing.”
Tom looked back at Michael, whose head was still down, absorbed in his phone. Tom’s gaze returned to the spot on the wall.
A few minutes later, his line of sight was broken by Marge passing by on her way into the kitchen. He craned his neck to watch her but quickly lost sight. She returned shortly with his cup full of Pepsi, a long bending straw sticking out the top. He grasped it with his right hand and balanced it on his chest to adjust his grip, then took a sip. It was diet again. He knew it was diet, but he knew better than to say anything. Marge believed he thought it was regular. His doctor had probably told her to do so, for the sake of his health. He took a few more sips. He missed regular Pepsi. He set the cup down next to the TV remote on the small table. He wanted to watch a movie.
“Michael, can you put on the Clint Eastwood movie?”
Michael looked up, glanced over at Marge.
“We just got a new DVD the other day. It’s over by the TV,” she said.
“All right, I can do that. Just give me a second.” He looked back down at his phone and started tapping again. Then he climbed to his feet and walked to the TV, started messing with it.
Marge was pulling more fabric out of a box. Beckie was talking to her, gesturing with her hands. It wasn’t worth the effort to listen.
Michael was going through a menu on the TV. He started the movie and sat back down, returned to his phone. Marge and Beckie paid no attention to the movie, continued talking and sorting. He couldn’t hear the movie.
“Michael, turn up the volume. I can’t hear anything,” he said. Michael did so. “A little higher.”
Now Tom could hear it, though Marge and Beckie spoke louder to compensate. He watched the beginning of the movie and recognized some parts, others seemed new, and his eyes drifted open and closed. Clint Eastwood was riding through the desert. The sky behind him was a beautiful shade of blue, the buttes and rolling hills of the background were rocky and orange and magnificent. He had been out west before, seen those sights himself. He had been there with Marge when they were younger, driving through on their way across the country. They had driven for hours without seeing anyone else, nothing but empty terrain and marvelous colors, and they had admired the rock formations and small craggled plants. The sunset was wondrous. He and Marge stopped and climbed onto the hood of their car as it happened, and they watched the few strips of cloud turn purple in the failing light. Darkness overcame them and the desert, and they were there, sitting together and holding hands, until long after the stars of the Milky Way were painted across the dark canvas above them.