Except for a few stragglers at the horizon, last night’s rain clouds have blown away. Elena cautiously admits to herself that the day’s persistent sunshine and fresh breeze promise clarity, at least. Her feet beat a steady rhythm as she nears the forest.
She likes to run on the forest’s loop trail because it’s less crowded than some of the newer fitness trails in the area. Most days, she and the deer just about have the place to themselves. The trail is a bit muddy today, and each breath fills her nose with various smells of wetness and decay.
Scenes from the day Jack died run through her mind again, as they have every day – an unwelcome part of her new routine. She can’t shake them, so she lets the memories overtake her. The last time she saw him alive, he said “Bye” and gave her a colorless kiss on the cheek as he left for work. Bye-smooch, boom-bap. She had a slew of meetings with county people that day and didn’t call him. Then he was on the floor inside the back door, motionless: that cold, unavoidable image rolls around in the bottom of her skull like a pale marble. Then the police took some pictures and asked her questions forever. She keeps thinking one of them was named Dullard, but that can’t be right. He was the sharp one, too. The younger one kept looking at her with sorrow in his eyes, and God help her but she just wanted to smack him.
No, she hadn’t moved anything. Yes, she’d opened the back door when she found him, looking for someone to explain it to her. Nobody was out there. No, she didn’t find a note. No, they hadn’t quarreled over anything. No, he wasn’t depressed, as far as she knew. The detective who took over the investigation was more tolerable but no more helpful. The facts, as she summarized them to Elena, were that the pills were Jack’s, nothing was out of place, the only fingerprints in the apartment were theirs and their previous night’s dinner guests’, and he had no known enemies … and the human heart is an eternal mystery. The absence of a note didn’t mean much, she thought.
Two joggers approach from the other direction, interrupting Elena’s reverie. She brings her attention back to the present and the trail in front of her. She’s breathing too fast, so she resumes her regular pattern, and she’s in proper form by the time she passes the couple. The woman is wearing mirrored sunglasses and a sweat-stained grey T-shirt. She doesn’t return Elena’s nod of solidarity, and Elena feels a twinge of annoyance. She thinks cattily, How many miles are you running today?
Her mood lightens when she emerges from the forest trail into full midday sunshine. She feels the familiar burning in her leg muscles, but she rebels at the thought of heading back indoors now, so she shifts into a slower pace and turns toward the longer, northern route back to town. She bares her teeth and chuckles softly, thinking of bugs and windscreens, relishing the wind in her face.
After Elena crosses the railroad tracks in town, a piece of gravel that jumped into her shoe is bedeviling her heel. She stops at a bench to shake it out, and it takes some time for her head and body to adjust to the feeling of standing still. Across the street, she realizes, is Three Monkeys, the bar where Jack and his friends used to play darts every couple of weeks. She recalls that she’s meant to call and thank the bartender there for his kindness after Jack died. He isn’t the only one she’s been putting off, though. As long as I’m here, she thinks, it’d be rude not to go say hello. He is Jack’s old friend.
The chimps illustrated on the sign outside the bar - one covering its ears, one covering its eyes, and one covering its mouth - all look like they're having a grand time. Getting herself through the door is harder than Elena expects. While her eyes adapt to the dim light in the entry, she stops and takes a deep breath to steady herself as she’s ambushed by memories of the few times she came here with Jack. The smells of cigarette smoke and lemons - lemons? - and an oddly pleasant mustiness intensify the feeling.
A young woman in a flowery blouse is eyeing Elena quizzically from the bar. She is bent over a magazine, tapping a pen on the lacquered wood. Elena composes herself, steps forward, and says, “Hello. Is Thomas in?”
The girl replies, “I’ll get ‘im,” and picks up a large knife. She uses it to sweep a fleet of uneven lemon wedges into a tin pan. After another glance at Elena, she disappears through a swinging door behind the far end of the bar.
Alone for the moment, Elena does a few quick stretches. She peeks at the girl’s magazine and reads the headline upside down: “Stuck in a Rut? Five Ways to Shake Up Your Routine.” The first colored box on the page reads Challenge Yourself. She doesn’t bother reading further, and turns to a collection of framed photographs on the wall. They show bar regulars and local celebrities. Elena catches herself scanning the faces for Jack’s, but she doesn’t see him. She’s stuck on a picture of a pro baseball player cheerfully flipping off the photographer when a man’s voice rings out behind her.
“Elena! Is that you?” Thomas stands there, wringing a frayed dishtowel. He gives an appreciative whistle and calls, “Turn the air up, Clo! It’s getting hot in here!”
Mustering a polite smile, Elena says, “Hello, Thomas.”
The avuncular bartender steps toward her with his arms spread. She stiffens in his embrace at first, then relaxes and pats his back lightly.
Thomas releases her and says, “It’s so great to see you.” Elena is frozen for a moment, remembering the similar things she said to sympathetic friends and strangers at Jack’s funeral.
Recovering, she stammers, “I’m – I’m sorry I didn’t call sooner.”
“Not at all! You must have a bunch going on.” He looks at a clock over the bar and says, “Not too early for a cold one, is it? Stout?”
His teasing tone is charming, and she accepts. Thomas nods toward the front of the bar. “Have a seat.” While he pours, Elena chooses a table by the window, half-lit by a thin shaft of sun.
Approaching with two full glasses, Thomas says, “Hey, I saw your name in the paper last week.”
Elena remembers the reporter’s call, but not his question. “Yes … you have to shamble out of the swamp now and then so people remember who you are.”
Thomas settles into the chair across from her. “Well, you look like you’re taking care of yourself.”
“Thanks.” Elena lifts her glass carefully. “I’ve been running. It feels good to sit down. How’s trade?”
Caught in the middle of a sip, Thomas raises his eyebrows. “Not bad, not great …. The place isn’t the same without Jack, though.”
She expected they would talk about him, and though her scalp tingles with surprise at hearing his name spoken, she maintains a natural pose. “You were a true friend to him,” she says sincerely.
“He was to me too. The guys are organizing a memorial tournament for him.” Thomas looks at the darkened opposite wall, where a typed roster of names and scores hangs beside three dart boards. The phone at the bar rings. He turns around and watches it, then turns back to Elena when Clo takes the call.
Elena presses her lips into a smile. While she and Jack were courting, he made a point of bringing her here and presenting her to Thomas one evening. She held her own adequately, but felt slightly humiliated nonetheless. She never told Jack because he was so high on their young love, and the feeling faded into triviality soon afterward.
Thomas is looking at her. “Are you really okay?” he asks confidentially.
She starts to answer the same way she’s answered the same question a dozen times – “Yes, fine – “, then stops herself. She notices how the bright sunlight makes everything look too real to be real: The young trees planted in the median, the sparrows pecking around under them, a moped rider buzzing past … and her own wrist, reflected in the glass. Are you going to lie again?
Elena looks up at Thomas, inhales, and starts over. “Well, no, I guess I’m not. Jack's gone, first off, and that's set in stone, and I don't know when I'm supposed to be at peace with that. Maybe I won't get there at all, hm?" Her voice rises a bit, riding an unexpected flare of anger. "This is a pit that's always going to be there, and every day I'll have to choose whether to tiptoe around it or stare right down into it. So excuse me, everyone, if you catch me on one of those days!"
Thomas looks as though he's out of his depth, but Elena takes a quick drink of the bitter beer and presses on.
"Everyone will say it's natural to have a different outlook, but they don't really expect you to act differently. If you do, it's like you've brought your troubles to their house. So you carry on. I'm not looking for sympathy, just some leeway!" She regards the street again. "I'm a bundle of nerves all the time. I have bad dreams, I'm in therapy, and I try to stay occupied, but I'm not honestly getting anywhere. This morning, I thought the man on CNN was talking to me, like in some science fiction movie! I need to give myself permission to go a bit crazy, but not to go insane.”
Thomas reaches over and grasps her elbow. "Slow down, hon. You're running yourself ragged."
Elena continues, “I’m supposed to be the woman who’s got her whole life together, right? And now I’m supposed to ‘take responsibility for my actions without blaming myself’ – for anything. But I don’t know where the ‘healthy balance’ between them is! Isn’t it a good idea to grab yourself by the bloody neck when you need to?” She sees that she has a choke hold on her glass, and takes another drink. She gathers her courage as she swallows.
With effort, she says, “I don’t think Jack really killed himself.” She locks onto Thomas’ eyes, desperate for him to believe her. “Someone else did.”
He pulls his hand back, and after a few uncertain seconds, he looks down. “Well … things can change so fast.” He moves his hands around clumsily, as though he’s building his theory with mashed potatoes. “You get a phone call … a threat …. Most people have something that could come back to bite ‘em. Even just something they saw, or something they said once ….”
Elena stops his hands with both of hers, more roughly than she intended. “I don’t know his whole history,” she snarls, “but he had an untroubled soul. I looked into his eyes every night. I would know.” She sounds convincing, even while she reminds herself silently that she hadn’t seen Jack for hours before he died. “He was planning for the future!"
“Have you told the police?”
Elena can tell that he’s only humoring her. Impatiently, she says, “I told them when they came! But you give them a likely scenario that mostly fits the facts and an unlikely one that isn’t supported, and see how they close it!”
“I don’t know anyone that ever had a problem with Jack.” He still looks slightly nervous. Clo, who's been taking lunch orders, calls, "Tom!"
Thomas fumbles with something in his lap. He stands, presses a business card into Elena’s hand, and says, “Lunch rush is gonna start. Call me if you need to talk again, okay? There’s my cell number. The door’s always open. It was good seeing you.”
Elena walks through town stiffly, but with poise. She plans to wrap her legs in hot towels later, and maybe turn off her phone and watch a movie. She thinks about the fact that she’ll probably never have all the answers to why and how Jack died. Part of her recognizes the truth in what Thomas said about the past and how suddenly things can change. She knows that a secret can easily lie undiscovered at the bottom of a person’s soul forever. She has one or two of her own.
When Elena is halfway home, the breeze starts blowing harder. She sticks her hands in her pockets and feels Thomas’ card. She pulls it out, looks at it bitterly, and flips it absentmindedly a few times. Then she notices something written on the back. A thrill galvanizes her as she focuses on the message there: