After my heart attack last year—the doc called it ventricular fibrillation, a fancy name for a reliable old muscle moving to the bad side of the tracks—Barbara wanted the two of us to get in better shape. I saw it in her eyes every time she laid her hand on the spot just below my left shoulder, where the surgeon installed the pacemaker, that little glimmer of sadness and fear, before she blinked and gave me her brave smile.
I got used to the damn thing being in there, though it was unnerving to feel it give me that thump when the old ticker went sideways for a moment, like someone snuck up on me and popped me one. Gave me the shakes the first couple of times, honestly—a tough admission for an old retired longshoreman like me. Barb said it saved my life, and to stop worrying about it.
Anyway, we—mainly me—got to the point where we graduated from five minutes on the treadmill (me; she did half an hour right out of the gate), to walks around our neighborhood, to tackling the local tourist attraction: Parry Mountain. I always called it “Mount Nipple”, because at some point the park service had denuded an area around the peak of trees and cut in a trail, leaving the top looking from a distance like that loveliest of feminine attributes.
We picked a sunny Wednesday, hoping to dodge the worst of the tourists, loaded up our packs with water and snacks, and cold-weather gear—4231 feet high got chilly this time of year—and set out. My wife looked as hot as ever, the most beautiful sixty-two-year-old gal you could imagine, those blue eyes sparkling as we finally did something besides sitting in front of the TV. On our drive up the winding road to the peak, the sunlight strobing through the trees surrounding both sides of the road, autumn leaves blowing off the branches in the breeze, Barb looked at me and said, “This is the best fall ever!”
I loved it when she got excited about things.
When we got out of the car and started walking up the trail towards the peak, climbing the endless stone steps the parks guys had put in, I realized I was holding my breath, just waiting for that pacemaker to give me a punch, but it stayed quiet. We went up and up, stopping a lot to rest and catch our breath, and for Barb to take pictures with her phone of the scenery laid out below us.
I had to admit, for an old beer-guzzling couch potato like me, it was pretty spectacular. The trees far below were draped in their fall colors, reminding me of that old cereal commercial: Raspberry red, lemon yellow, and orange orange. We were so far above the valley that the trees looked like clusters of wildly colored blood cells all congregating on top of some infection. Too dark? Yeah, probably; when we got to the top and stopped to rest, I felt the damn pacemaker give me a clock, and that tends to murk up my mood. Barb looked so happy gazing out over the dish of the valley that I didn’t have the heart to tell her.
Besides, after a minute I was fine, and said let’s head to the top. Barb giggled—a long time since I heard her do that—and off we went.
We made it to the main trail that wound around the pinnacle, and rested again. I could see Barb looking ahead to some steps that looped even higher, and saw in her eyes that she wanted to give it a try.
“Maybe next time,” I said, breathing hard.
She tried to hide her disappointment and give me her “okay, husband” smile, and that made me feel like a shit, so I said, “Why don’t you go have a look, and come back and tell me about it?”
Her pretty lips opened in a big smile, showing me that one crooked tooth I found adorable. She kissed me, and scampered away. The way she looked in her walking tights, it was quite a lusty scamper. Leastways for me.
I watched her until the upper trail took her around a boulder and out of my view, then I turned to look back out over the valley floor. Now the trees looked more like little shrubs, all puffy and crinkled, their trunks hidden beneath their fall finery. The view relaxed me, and for a long minute I just floated there, enjoying my life, instead of worrying I might die if the pacemaker failed.
“Oh shit!” I yelled, spinning and rushing towards the upper trail she had taken.
My heart raced like an old horse escaping from the glue factory, and several times as I climbed those steep stairs I felt the hunk of metal in my chest slam me with a shock to keep my broken-down heart beating. I didn’t care; if Barb had fallen, it wouldn’t matter if I lived.
I got to the top, didn’t see her. The silver dollar in my chest hit me again, and again. Then I looked over the side.
There she was, at least a hundred feet down in the leaves and branches. Not moving.
“Barb!” I yelled.
I felt my world go black as I started over the side. I didn’t care if I fell now. Barb was my world. I had to get to her and save her if I could.
If she could be saved.
I swore at myself, shoving away those awful thoughts. “She is alive. She is!” I said over and over as I scrambled and stumbled down the mountainside. “Goddam it, she is!”
I don’t know how I made it down that steep slope, or how many times I skidded and fell on the slippery leaves and broken limbs. It took a second, or an hour, or a year, but I finally reached her.
My breath caught. One of her legs was draped in a way it should not have been, over a rock the size of my ottoman. Then I saw that her shinbone was broken, the ragged end of it jabbing through the cloth of her pants, white and red and with meat hanging from it. Her left arm was twisted beneath her, and her shoulder looked a lot lower than it should have been.
Her head… Oh god her head. I could only see the back of her head, and it was wet and red and… white. Soft, squishy. What was inside, was outside.
“Barb!” I cried, falling the last ten feet to her side.
Looked down at her.
Now that I was here, I felt helpless. I could see her brain. How could she be alive?
She had to be! I bent, trying to remember all that resuscitation stuff they’d taught us at the job after several of my huskier fellow workers had keeled over with heart attacks of their own. I got closer. I had to see her face, see if she was sleeping, or…
I tripped and fell on my face, but it didn’t hurt, I was so focused on getting to see her face. I had to see her face!
It wasn’t Barb.
It was me.
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