This story was inspired by an afternoon outing to a farm here in Boulder on a particularly golden day last fall. I could see the picnic blanket laid out on the grass in the orchard, I could see how grey and skeletal those trees would look in the dead of winter, and I could see her, Artemis, in the midst of it all.
by Gabriel Merithew
“I’m so sorry, sweetheart.”
David sat on the edge of the bed with his hands pressed tightly over his face, his mother’s voice ringing in his ears. Many words of sympathy had been spoken this evening, but those were the only words he’d heard. The flashing red and blue lights had disappeared from his window some time ago and he hadn’t moved since. His world plunged into a deafening silence.
Thin slivers of carpet were all that David could see through his fingers as he peered through them, not exactly sure what to do with his body. He stayed as still as he could, breathing very little. He was waiting for something, though he didn’t know what. His mouth was open and bone dry, but now he closed it and peeled his hands from his face. Tears hadn’t formed in his eyes yet, and he dreaded what might happen when they did. The woman he loved was dead. He knew this, but something was making him immune to the concept.
Millions of unacknowledged thoughts swirled hazily in his mind, Artemis being a constant in each of them. He wanted nothing more than to stay in limbo for a while longer, where things didn’t hurt as much, but he was becoming increasingly exhausted and before long could no longer hold the thoughts at bay. Within seconds everything hit him with the force of a tidal wave. He sank to the floor, doubling over and gasping, then threw up on the carpet.
It was the kind of beautiful autumn afternoon that could make two people fall in love. The brilliant blue sky was dotted with fluffy white clouds, and dancing leafy shadows covered the path. A steady breeze played merrily across David’s face, neither so cold as to require excessive bundling-up, or so warm as to make one forget that the seasons were changing. It was just the right temperature, with a pleasant bite that refreshed the world and awakened the most deep-seated desires in everyone it touched.
David meandered through the orchard with his hands in his pockets, taking in the scenery and catching snatches of conversation from other people exploring the farm. He hadn’t meant to come here today. He didn’t usually visit crowded tourist-attracting farms in the fall, but his writing just wasn’t coming along today, so he decided to go somewhere scenic. Somewhere he could escape the thoughts of his break up with Julie. It now seemed silly to expect a change of location to drive the thoughts from his mind, and he was now finding himself getting steadily more depressed even amidst the soft yellow hues of the orchard.
He missed Julie tremendously. What if he could just set aside his dignity for a while? Maybe throw a veil over his moral compass? Then he could just call her and forgive her for cheating. But no. Even in the fog of lingering infatuation, he knew there was absolutely no ideal outcome if he took that route, but he missed her all the same and wished she was by his side, looking radiant in her favorite flowery dress he liked so much. It had taken him so long to find a girlfriend and now that she was gone, it felt like he was back to square one. So for now he’d just continue his walk through the orchard. If the world granted desires, a beautiful woman would jump out from behind one of the apple-laden trees and confess her love right there under the golden light. David walked on, but no such event happened.
Finishing his lap around the orchard, David returned to the massive barn that served as the hub of activity. Feeling obligated to buy something, he selected a small bottle of fresh apple cider and a craggly apple cider donut and headed for the checkout counter which was located against the far wall. He was hungry and thirsty on top of being depressed – a dangerous combination, and he was finding the babbling crowds to overwhelm his senses, so as he stepped up to the counter he was quite eager to leave as soon as possible so he could be alone. The energetic hustle and bustle around him continued until he saw her. As they locked eyes, his swirling tangled thoughts slowed and went delightfully fuzzy.
She was stunningly beautiful in an understated way. It struck David that beautiful women usually looked out of place, but this girl’s wide smile convinced him that there wasn’t anywhere in the world she couldn’t belong. She stood behind the register wearing a slightly oversized red and black plaid shirt and was currently engaged in polite conversation with someone she recognized and ringing up their bag of apples. Her wavy dirty-blonde hair rippled in the breeze coming in through the barn doors, messy in the sexiest way. The girl handed the customer their bag of apples and looked expectantly at David wearing a kind smile.
“Hello,” She said cheerfully. “What’d you find?”
David stepped up and placed his items on the counter, grinning back at the girl. It felt good to smile again and it struck him how miraculously easy it suddenly was. A picture-perfect life with the exquisite creature before him played out in his mind at a million miles an hour before he had a chance to say anything.
“Hello! Just cider and a doughnut.” He said, now frantically wracking his brain to come up with any strategy that would result in at least getting her name.
“Is this your first time visiting the farm?” She asked, pressing various buttons on the dated-looking register.
“Well, welcome,” She said warmly. “Get a chance to check out the orchard?”
“Yes, so many beautiful colors this time of year.” Suddenly he was talking about the seasonal colors? Time was obviously of the essence. There were people waiting in line behind him and he was talking about the colors. This is going great, he thought to himself sarcastically.
“So gorgeous,” She agreed, nodding so that her hair rippled even more.
Among other things that made him very glad she couldn’t read his thoughts, a pathetically-primitive side of David very much wanted to smell her hair. Focus, he told himself. “I’m David.” He said, trying his best to sound as confident, yet politely conversational as possible. It was a bit sad that this was his best strategy, but it was all he had at the moment, and he needed to act now because the receipt was printing.
“Nice to meet you, David. Arti.” She reached out her hand and David shook it. Her hand was warm and soft, but obviously far from fragile. Her smile seemed to shift a little bit. It was softer now. More honest.
“Short for Artemis?” David asked, his confidence now boosted significantly.
“Most people don’t get it on the first try.”
“Thanks, I think it fits me rather well.” She said, without a hint of shyness in her voice.
David was finding himself drawn to her with increasing intensity. Allured by her seemingly bulletproof confidence that was making him lightheaded. “Definitely! Are you a hunter or something?”
“I don’t kill anything. I only hunt for good vibes. Know what I mean?”
David nodded. “Artemis… Last name?”
“Artemis Finch, goddess of the hunt for good vibes. A definite ring to it!”
Arti grinned appreciatively, then broke eye contact and noticed the growing line. “Hey, I’ve gotta help these people, but feel free to stick around. Actually, why don’t you come back here.”
“As long as no one mistakes me for a cashier,” David said, now absolutely bursting with pride that she wanted him to stay, or at least that was what he’d heard.
“Careful what you wish for buddy. I can put you to work.”
David stepped behind the counter and continued chatting with Arti as she worked, only noticing that time was passing at a surprisingly rapid rate when the orange glow of sunset reached the barn and the temperatures dropped. Amidst the overwhelming joy of infatuation quickly setting in, David caught a glimpse of a future where Artemis was just another one of his exes who refused to talk to him or even willingly cheated on him. This was as likely a scenario as any, but on this perfect evening with endless possibilities, he pushed the image effortlessly from his mind and returned to basking in the glory of his good luck.
Talking with Artemis was effortless. The conversation flowed in a way David had never experienced before with a girl he was so obviously interested in. Once the last of the guests left the barn, he helped her and a few other workers close up shop then walked with her to the parking lot, which was really just the expansive yard in front of the giant white farmhouse.
“Well, it was nice to meet you, David!” Artemis said, initiating a goodbye.
“You too! How long do you think would be appropriate for me to wait before calling you? Two, three minutes?”
“The ball’s in your court…”
David couldn’t help but think that if she came back to his apartment, then he wouldn’t have to decide how long to wait before calling her, but found the strength to exercise his good judgment and didn’t say this aloud. As much as he now wished his time with her wouldn’t end, he certainly didn’t want to ruin the best afternoon he’d had in a long time.
“And just to provide clarity, because I know that look… I don’t see any scenario where I wake up in your bed tomorrow morning.” It was as if she read his mind, and David hoped the light was dim enough to mask his cheeks and ears reddening. “Sorry, buddy.”
“I wasn’t… Well…”
“You’re super easy to read, you know.” She said, looking at him contemplatively, then added, “I’m usually pretty good at reading people.”
“Great,” David said sarcastically.
“And now that you know you have absolutely no hope of seeing me naked this fine evening, we can move on.” Artemis cocked her head and looked at him with curiosity. Her fiery eyes burned into David’s in a deliciously painful way. She moved toward him with her characteristic bold confidence. She looked utterly breathtaking in the evening glow.
“I’m assuming you don’t mind?” She asked, her voice now much softer.
“Mind what?” David asked, his heart now doing a flamboyant gymnastics routine.
“If I kiss you,” Artemis said simply.
“Not at all.”
“Come here then.”
In the days that followed, David learned just how easy it was to fall in love with Artemis Finch.
“Hey, Artemis?” David panted, a tired grin on his face. “I think I love you.”
Artemis was a more seasoned hiker than he was. She didn’t appear to be winded at all, and David got the impression that she was deliberately keeping the pace slow for him. Constantly being behind her and trying to catch up as his legs protested wasn’t all bad though, he thoroughly enjoyed the view.
“Slow down there, lover boy,” Artemis said, looking back at him and grinning without slowing her ascent of the hill.
“I’m pretty fucking slow already,” David stopped and straightened up, clasping his hands behind his head and breathing deeply. “If I was any slower, we might not be moving at all. And how is it that you don’t look tired in the slightest? I know, the goddess of the hunt must need to be in tip-top shape to chase down those good vibes… but this is ridiculous.”
“I’m not talking about your hiking performance. I’m talking about the love thing.” Artemis glanced back and saw that her hiking buddy had succumbed to exhaustion. She turned around and walked back to him, then paused before continuing, “How could you possibly know if you love me? You barely know me.”
“I think you’ll agree that we’ve made significant progress on that front over the past few days,” David said. “Let’s see… I know that your favorite color is the shade of blue that can only be found on the glassy surface of a lake right before sunrise… um, your favorite book is The Alchemist, and your favorite movie is Roman Holiday. Your biggest pet peeve is when someone asks you how you’re doing when it’s obvious they don’t want or expect a response. You are super glad you reconnected with your mom ten years after running away from home. Your ultimate goal in life is to sail solo around the world. You like my soft lips, and right now you’re wondering if you might just love me as well… And taking all of these delightful quirks of yours into account, I know for a fact that I’m in love with Artemis, goddess of the hunt for good vibes, and I look forward to discovering her other quirks… Well? How did I do?”
“Not bad,” Artemis stepped forward and kissed David with smiling lips before turning and continuing up the hill.
“Wait, what does that mean?” David asked, hoisting his backpack a little higher on his shoulders and going after her.
“Would you like a grade? Or are you expecting me to say it back to you?”
“No. No way. Definitely not. I just… Well…”
“Another thing you should know about me is that I don’t say the words ‘I love you’ unless I mean them.” David could hear her smile in her voice.
David froze. “Woah, Woah, Woah. Wait a second. You just said the words.”
Artemis turned around but continued walking back up the hill. “Shall I say them again?”
“I love you too.” Artemis’s face was turning a visibly deeper shade of pink, but she didn’t break eye contact with him, ever poised with her stunning confidence.
A wide grin spread across David’s face, and he adopted a sports announcer’s voice as he started jogging up the hill. “And it looks like this may be an unlikely victory for everyone’s favorite underdog! He seems to have gotten a massive energy boost! This is like nothing we’ve ever seen before! It’s almost as if a gorgeous woman just told him she loves him! Here he comes, will he overcome all odds and win the prestigious title of hill climb champion?”
“But the competition is fierce!” Artemis began, running after David as he passed her. “If he wants to beat the undefeated hill climb champion to obtain that coveted title, he’ll need more than an energy boost. But nonetheless, this is shaping up to be a race for the history books. The crowd is on their feet! And what’s that they’re chanting? Art-e-mis! Art-e-mis! Art-e-mis!”
Artemis was leaning against a thick tree trunk and faking a massive yawn when David finally crested the hill, huffing and puffing, covered in sweat, but smiling humorously through the pain. “I think… you’re just swell… Artemis Finch.”
“Mmm… Morning,” Artemis mumbled sleepily as she rolled over and wrapped her arms around David.
Heavy rain pattered loudly on the roof and torrents whipped the windows with increasing urgency aided by the gusty winds. It was as if the elements were working together to wake the two not-so-early birds.
“The absolute best of mornings,” David replied in similar sleepy tones as he rolled onto his back. It had been a late night and an absolutely exhausting one too. His parents had behaved exactly the way he knew they would when meeting Artemis, which is to say, in complete disbelief of the entire situation. She was a goddess after all. Okay, the experience had been exhausting, but it had also been hilarious. Honestly well worth it. Blinking away the tiredness, he reached over and pulled Artemis a little closer, still (similar to his parents) in mild disbelief that everything that had happened over the past week hadn’t just been a dream. “I could SO get used to waking up next to you.”
“Ditto. This is pretty awesome, isn’t it?” Artemis said, her head resting on David’s warm chest as it rose and fell with each breath.
David withdrew his arm from under the covers and reached over, slowly running his fingers through her silken hair. He felt so very happy at this moment that a thought occurred to him and he grinned. “Eighteen-year-old me is so jealous of us right now.”
Artemis chuckled to herself, but it quickly escalated to a hearty laugh that seemed to brighten the dimly lit room as the beautiful sound reverberated through it. “When I was eighteen I would sometimes hug my pillow in the morning and pretend it was a guy.”
“No way!” David was now experiencing for the hundredth time that week just how infectious Artemis’ laugh was. He began to laugh as well and her head bounced up and down on his chest as he did so.
“Totally pathetic, I know.”
“You don’t wanna know the stuff I did at eighteen when I imagined a girl in MY bed.”
Artemis laughed harder than ever and after a few seconds, she had to wipe away the resulting tears of hilarity. “You’re right. I don’t.”
When the laughter finally died down, they lay in silence and savored the moment, though not nearly for as long as David would’ve liked. He was dreading a certain question and before long Artemis was asking it. “What time is it?” She said without moving her head from David’s chest.
“Four AM,” He said quickly. “We’re up really early and have a bunch of time to spare.”
“I don’t believe it for a second.”
David groaned. “Fine. One sec.” He reached over and groped around on his nightstand for his phone, glancing at its screen for a brief moment before theatrically tossing it aside. He paused to savor the blissful feeling of Artemis beside him before reluctantly saying, “I’m so fucking late.”
“What time is it?” Arti’s eyes widened. She sat up and grabbed her phone off her nightstand. “Oh fuck! I thought you set an alarm!”
“I prefer lower-tech solutions,” David said, yawning and stretching. “I brought a rooster into the room last night, but my guess is it wandered off. My bad.”
Arti jumped out of bed, grabbed a pillow, and threw it at him. “Get up! You’re more late than I am.”
“Fine, fine.” David got up out of bed, picked up his shoulder bag from the chair, and strode confidently from the room, still completely naked, grinning humorously.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Arti said standing exasperatedly with her hands on her hips. “Get your naked butt in here and put on some clothes. Would you like me to remind you of the nature of this societal norm?”
David slouched back into the bedroom in mock discouragement and threw his bag down onto the chair. “More airflow this way.” He explained as he walked to the closet and selected clothes. “Plus, this look is so IN right now.”
“I’ll say,” Arti responded with a smirk.
“So how did you two get together?”
It was a double date evening and David and Artemis sat across the table from two of Artemis’ friends. She had a bunch of acquaintances and some close friends from school and the double date thing had become something of a recurring event. David found himself dreading them, but at least the food was good. The Bonsai was always busy on Saturday nights and though they’d discussed somewhere a little quieter, David was glad to vote for this particular dive, as he wanted to immerse himself in a bustling environment. To him, it meant that the inevitable awkward pauses at least weren’t silent ones. Many clinks and clatters of utensils on plates could be heard amidst the excitable chatter and smooth jazz emanating out of speakers on the vaulted ceiling. The evening hadn’t been nearly as painful as David had been expecting, but this question told him it was about to take a turn for the worse. He’d been actively avoiding his thoughts on his and Artemis’ relationship for several days now and now he was cornered. At least he could leave the story to Artemis as usual.
“Babe?” Artemis looked at him expectantly and grinned warmly. “I always tell the story. Your turn.”
“Um, well,” David began, taken aback. “We met at the Johnson’s Farm where Artemis worked in the fall. I bought apple cider and an apple cider doughnut from her and we ended up talking all day.”
“That’s so sweet!” It was obvious Artemis’s friend had only asked the question so she could answer it herself, and sure enough, proceeded to launch into an unabridged retelling of how she met her beloved Ryan. It was enough to make David lose his appetite. Rather than look at the excitable chatterbox, he busied himself playing with his almost completely untouched fried rice.
Once the woman had finished her soliloquy and Artemis had replied with just the right amount of polite “aww” noises, she looked over at David who noticed a look of confusion in her eyes that she didn’t bother disguising. He knew that he needed to step up his acting if he wanted to get through the meal with minimal pain and stress, but the past few days had been horribly turbulent and he was now finding that he didn’t have the energy to act like the perfect boyfriend. He needed a different plan.
“How are you feeling?” Artemis inquired, leaning towards him so they could hear each other more clearly amidst the general hubbub. The couple across from them were now engaging in a conversation of their own. Artemis still wore the same confused look.
“Actually I’m not feeling too great.” David began, but then at a concerned look from on her face, he elaborated, “Just tired. Do you mind if I head out? It’s been a long day and I feel like I’m killing the vibe here.”
“Darn, sorry to hear that.” Artemis grabbed her coat. “Yeah, let’s get out of here.”
“No, no. I don’t want to ruin your evening. Stay here. I’m good. All good.”
Artemis looked more confused than ever, but as he maintained eye contact, a look of comprehension began to dawn on her face. Something David had been dreading, but it didn’t matter right now. He just needed to get out. Away from her, away from the couple opposite them, and away from the noise that was triggering a fight or flight mentality.
“Going somewhere?” Ryan said as David stood up.
“The fried rice isn’t quite agreeing with me, I think,” David lied. “I’m gonna head home and get some rest. It was so nice seeing you guys again. Hope to see you again soon!”
“Are you going to walk?” Artemis asked, in disbelief.
“Yep, I’ll see you later,” And without another word or glance at any of them, David grabbed his coat from the chair and strode out of the restaurant, finally acknowledging the depression he’d been ignoring for the past few days.
The full force of the wind hit David as he exited the restaurant and seemed to instantly chill him to the bone. All sound from the restaurant was immediately silenced as the door swung shut and David pulled his collar a little higher and hunched his shoulders, pushing his way into the wind. He hadn’t planned for this. It was surely too cold for any reasonable human to embark on what was sure to be a couple mile walk, but tonight he didn’t mind. The bitter wind whipping his face, while painful, at least did what he’d hoped in helping him to clear his mind a bit.
There was no use trying to ignore it any longer, he felt like shit and had for several days prior. He’d been depressed before – catching his last girlfriend cheating hadn’t done much for his confidence or sense of self-worth – but this time it was different. And now that his mind was open to investigating itself, the first clue as to why was immediately apparent and he was almost surprised at himself. He looked over to his left, the side that Artemis always walked on. She wasn’t by his side tonight. She was back in the restaurant, probably trying to understand why he’d acted so strangely. Tonight was the first night she was not beside him, ever since they’d met those long months ago. It wasn’t as if he didn’t want her at his side, even now, after he’d deliberately ditched her, but now that he was alone, his level of desire to have her next to him made one thing absolutely clear. He’d wanted her next to him far more in the early days of their relationship and her absence right now was almost liberating.
David rounded the corner and began winding his way out of downtown and through the dark residential areas of the city. He thought about those perfect first days with Artemis, as he’d done so many times, the image that always stood out to him, as if burned into his mind, was Artemis standing in the apple orchard. She was smiling at him with the smile he was – or had been – absolutely obsessed with, and her dirty blonde hair was fluttering slightly in the brisk autumn breeze that left rosy patches on her cheeks and made her nose pink. She was wearing the same slightly oversized plaid shirt and tight jeans that she’d worn the day he’d met her. Like an angel she stood there, glowing amidst brilliant yellow light created by the bright afternoon sun streaming through the leaves. But what was strange about this image, an image more vivid than any other he had of his girlfriend, was that she hadn’t been in the orchard that day. She’d been in the barn, where he’d talked with her until the sun dipped below the horizon.
Months had passed since that amazing first day, and the trees around him now were barren and skeletal. Dead-looking ghostly silhouettes in the darkness. He wanted the warmth of the autumn sun on his face again. He wanted to see it make the yellow leaves glow. Artemis wouldn’t look like an angel with skeleton trees behind her, David thought, screwing up his eyes as tears began to form.
Did he still love her? He had to love her. She was perfect… She’d been perfect.
The inky shadows seemed to deepen around him, pulling him in.
When he got back to his apartment, every muscle aching with cold, David saw that Artemis had already left him a voicemail message. It took him a couple of tries to type the correct passcode into his phone, before pressing the notification, then the speaker icon with his numb fingers. After the automated voice had redundantly informed him that he had a new message, he heard Artemis’s concerned voice in his ear.
“Hey, it’s me, just checking in. Hope you’re feeling better. Can you please let me know when you get back to your place? I… Uh, well… Nevermind. I’d just really appreciate it if you’d call me whenever you get this. If you’re still walking I’d be happy to pick you up. Let me know. Love you.”
The automated voice informed him that the message was over and he could either save it or delete it. David paused, his head swimming with everything Artemis had ever said to him. He’d made it a habit of replaying their conversations in his head, but now her voice was different somehow. Feeling the bubble of sanity threatening to burst inside him, he made to press 7 to delete, but his trembling finger pressed 9 instead. The automated voice said “message saved” and he threw the phone onto the couch, unable to distinguish any single emotion he was feeling. They were blurring together and slowly ripping him apart.
He slouched into the bedroom and fell onto the bed, still fully clothed. He expected to lie there awake for hours, but the dizzy swirling of half-realized thoughts racing through his mind lent themselves nicely to dreams, and he slipped into a particularly strange one.
He was back in the orchard with Artemis, and she looked as angelic as always, standing there glowing in her plaid shirt and tight jeans, hair fluttering in the breeze as she smiled at him. But then the image changed slightly, Artemis was gone and in her place was a different woman, and was strikingly beautiful. Then after only a moment, she disappeared to be replaced with another woman, then another, then another. Each smiling warmly at him. Each more beautiful than her predecessor.
Enraptured by his dream, his aching body finally succumbing to exhaustion, David didn’t hear the knock on the door.
David awoke earlier than was normal to find himself wrapped up in a tangle of bed sheets with his neck at a painfully awkward angle. The first few seconds after his eyes opened were perfectly pleasant. It was a new day and the first rays of sunshine were streaming in through the window. In his blissful half-conscious state, he rolled over to look at Artemis, but seeing what had become her side of the bed empty brought reality crashing down. He suddenly felt extremely claustrophobic and thrashed himself free of the sheets, landing squarely on the floor, his breathing ragged. He was not only still clothed in his semi-formal attire from the night before, but he still had his shoes on as well. He stared at the empty bed where Artemis should have been. The energy that had surged through him seemed to dissipate in an instant. He glanced at the clock. It read 9:20, which meant exactly nothing at all to him on a Saturday. He walked slowly and unevenly to the bathroom, stripped off his clothes, and took a shower. The hot water, while soothing, did nothing to wash away the cluttered mess of thoughts and memories in his head that made rationality impossible.
After the shower, he dried off and stepped into the thickest and most comfortable pair of sweatpants he owned. Then after pulling on an oversize Space Invaders t-shirt, he headed for the kitchen. He was in the process of scooping out yesterday’s coffee grounds in preparation for his much-needed morning fix when he got the call.
“Hey,” David said flatly, not sure how to feel or what to think. This morning he seemed to be a different person, a past version of himself, and the person on the other end was a stranger.
“Hey, Babe! How are you feeling?” Artemis sounded cheerful, as if nothing had changed, but was that just an act as well? “Just wanted to check in on you. I came by last night, but you must’ve been asleep.”
He didn’t know what to say. “Thanks for checking in.” This already didn’t sound like him. “I’m just gonna take the day to rest. Still not feeling so hot.”
“Darn! Sorry to hear that,” Her voice had the same concerned tone that it had had the night before when she’d asked him if he intended to walk all the way home by himself. “I’m on my way over now. I’ve got breakfast.”
“No. I’d really prefer to be alone today.” David noticed that he was speaking in a monotone, but couldn’t seem to do anything about it. He felt numb.
There was a long pause, then Artemis said what he knew she’d been wanting to say since the night before. “You can talk to me, you know. I’m here for you.”
“Damn, you sound just like my mom.” The words escaped his mouth without his permission. He was disgusted at himself, but the tremendous weight of negative energy on his shoulders eased slightly now that he was passing some of it onto her.
“You’re really gonna take that angle? Fine, I was just trying to help. And to be honest I understand the need for alone time. Take all the time you need, okay? I’ll be here when you’re ready, but I can’t say the same about these breakfast burritos.”
“Copy that,” David said cooly, then hung up. He proceeded to spend the rest of the day in limbo in front of the TV, not taking in any of the images or sounds it was spewing out at him.
At some point in the late afternoon he fell asleep and didn’t wake up until he heard someone knocking on the door and saw the flashing red and blue lights reflected on the ceiling, then everything went fuzzy for a while.
Later that night, crouched over the vomit-stained carpet, with everything coming back into focus, he was faced with the reality that 1. Artemis was dead, 2. The last time he’d spoken to her he’d insulted her and pushed her away, and 3. He now understood for the first time in his life what it actually meant to love someone, though he’d said those three words a million times.
The morning after Artemis’s death, David opened an empty journal he found on his desk and picked up a pen. He couldn’t remember buying the small leather-bound book, but it was exactly what he needed. He had to get some thoughts out of his brain or it was going to explode all over the bedroom wall.
Three days ago Artemis died. The pain is only getting worse so I’m trying to see if writing a letter helps. Don’t ask me who this letter is to, I have no fucking idea.
The dream has changed since her death. I’m not getting much sleep, but when I do I’m back in the orchard with her. And it’s just her, and she’s smiling at me and in the dreams I smile back because I’m totally oblivious to the fact that she’s not around anymore. It isn’t until I try to touch her that she turns to smoke and I wake up. The ignorance of dreams is blissful, and the drugs help keep them coming, but the longer I stay with her in the orchard, the harder it is to accept that she’s gone. There have been moments when I’ve wished I could stay there with her forever, but she’s like a painting on display and I’m behind the velvet ropes, so it’s a different kind of agony either way.
Mom says the pain passes, but I don’t know how it possibly could, because even if I could suddenly make it dissipate, I can’t imagine the new pain at not having this pain to keep me tied to her. Even now as I write this letter I feel as though I’m holding onto her with all my strength, but I’m growing weaker by the second and I fear my grip may loosen soon, and I’m afraid of what will happen if I lose her memory as well.
Death happens. Accidental, disease, old age, it all happens but rarely to the people we love. I love her so fucking much and I can’t shake the feeling that saying goodbye would have been easier if I could do it in person and also take that opportunity to apologize for being so unbelievably stupid. Of course, I love her. I loved her from the moment she asked me if it was my first time visiting the farm, but there is not a doubt in my mind that I love her now more than ever, and it’s such a cruel joke that I can’t tell her this now.
I thought love was the warm tingly feeling of finding something new. If that was true, then by definition I fell in love with a LOT of girls. But I became too attached to my own ignorant definition of what it meant to love and failed to acknowledge how love can (and should) evolve.
To love someone is to want to help them become the best version of themselves without any fear that they’ll become someone else. I got to meet the best version of Artemis on that first day and at the same time, she met the best version of me. That is the Artemis I fell in love with, and it was easy, so gloriously easily. And there was no fear that I would go on to uncover her flaws, and sure enough, the chinks in her armor were part of her and made her more beautiful still.
But I decided to cling to my false notion of love and when the warm tingly feeling began to just barely subside I got scared that maybe I wasn’t only hurting myself, but also setting myself up to hurt her. The further we were to walk down the path, the deeper we would sink into commitment, and pretty soon it would be too late to turn back and this precious time would be wasted on an empty dream built on blind infatuation.
Now I want nothing more than to run to her and pull her in close and tell her that I’ve finally figured my shit out. I think she would have been proud and I have a feeling, though maybe it’s just wishful thinking, that she would tell me that she loved me too and mean it like she always did. Never once did I tell her I loved her and mean it, even though it was true. So now I’m left with nothing and those last hours that I willingly wasted will haunt me indefinitely. But at least in the dream, I can say ‘I love you’ and mean it. And maybe she’ll hear me.
His hand was shaking so much that at this point that he dropped the pen. The tears were coming thick and fast, but his cheeks had become a river over the past twenty-four hours, and he’d given up on trying to stem the flow after rubbing his eyelids raw. Taking a deep unsteady breath and shaking his hand, he continued. If he was being honest with himself, he had been writing the letter for Artemis all along or at least writing a letter that he would have liked her to read.
Artemis Finch, the woman I love, died in a car crash on her way to my apartment, or at least that’s what my mom and her mom told me. There are so many things that I could’ve done differently that would have most likely resulted in her heart beating for a while longer, but I can’t do any of them now. The only thing I can do is try to capture every memory I have with her in it. So here goes. Working backward.
On the morning of January 22nd, at 9:20, I woke up tangled in the bedsheets fully clothed. I didn’t know it at the time, but this would be Artemis’ last day alive, and I chose to spend it actively avoiding her and pushing her away when she wanted to help me.
Maybe this was going to be too hard. His face was screwed up with barely contained anguish as he found himself wishing that he could go back to that morning. Wishing with all his might. If he could only relive that last day, he wouldn’t waste it.
Then everything went blank and he slipped into peaceful darkness where he was totally weightless.
Much too soon the light returned, getting brighter and brighter. His face felt warm. He opened his eyes to gaze out the window at a clear blue sky. The sun had just risen and he lay there soaking up the soothing beams. Then as if he were suddenly appointed Atlas’s job of holding up the world, the immense weight pressed down on him once more, but with it came the realization that he’d been writing his letter less than a minute before. Was he losing time now? He wriggled himself free of the tangle of blankets to find that he was still fully clothed in the outfit he’d worn to the double date that to him – if he wasn’t going totally insane – had taken place two nights before.
He staggered back into the wall with a stunned expression on his face. He looked at the clock. It read 9:20, the same time he’d woken up on the last day of her life. He’d played out that day on an endless loop in his head ever since he’d gotten the news, and right now it was all too familiar.
“Artemis.” He gasped, a stunned look on his face. For a second he just stood there, breathing hard, wondering what to believe, but it soon became clear that if there was any chance this was more than a dream, it was enough for him. He scooped up his phone and dashed from the room trying to get his trembling fingers to cooperate long enough to pick out Artemis in his contacts list. He pressed call and held it up to his ear, hoping with all his might that she would pick up, even if only in a dream.
“Morning, Babe! Hey, I was gonna make it a surprise, but how would you feel about…”
Without warning, David burst into a fit of uncontrollable sobs. The sound echoed in the empty hallway as he ran towards the elevator with his car keys grasped tightly in his hand. It was her. He clasped his hand over his mouth, but it was too late.
“Ohmygodareyouokay?” Artemis spoke quickly, her tone deeply concerned.
David’s sobs morphed into a kind of half-laughter. Artemis was alive and he was laughing and crying because her voice was exactly as he remembered it and it was beautiful and he missed it so much. He skidded to a halt in front of the elevator and pounded the button. “Yes.” He gasped. The only word he could manage at the moment.
“I’m here, babe. I’m right here. Can you tell me what happened?”
“Yes,” David croaked. “I’m on my way over.”
“Over here?” Artemis asked.
“Yes. Right now.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea? I can come over there. I was going to anyway. Please just wait, okay? I’ll come over there.”
David took a deep rattling breath. “I’m fine. No… I’m great. I’m totally great. I’m *gasp* absolutely fucking fantastic! It’s a beautiful day and I’m on my way to see you. I want to see you so much. I want to see you more than anything in the entire fucking world. I figured it out, Artemis. It took me way too long, but I figured it out. But I have to tell you face to face. Just stay right where you are. Be there in a sec!”
The elevator wouldn’t be fast enough. He dashed to the stairs and descended as quickly as his legs would allow. Emerging in the underground car park, he sprinted to the car and within seconds was screeching out into the stunningly gorgeous winter morning. The hysterical half-sobbing half-laughing was subsiding and a grin was spreading across his face as the tears continued to flow. Somehow he was reliving the same day over again and he was going to see Artemis.
“What’s going on?” Artemis said as she ushered him into the living room and motioned for him to sit down on the sofa. Her face paler than usual and her eyes wide.
David didn’t know where to start. It was all too good to be true. It couldn’t have been more than thirty minutes ago that he’d been puking his guts out on his bedroom floor and then wrote his letter to a dead Artemis, but that was more than twelve hours from now. That technically hadn’t happened yet. His mind worked furiously as he tried to wrap it around the increasingly overwhelming situation.
Artemis sat down beside him. Today she was dressed in a plain white t-shirt and black jeans. His memory of her hadn’t done justice to how amazing she was in person. He’d taken her presence for granted for so long and was now feeling a strong urge to pull her into a hug and never let her go, but he didn’t want her face to become any paler than it already was. He had to tell her first, and there was no getting around the fact that she deserved the truth. He would tell her the truth. He wanted to tell her the truth. But where to start?
David took a shaky breath and opened his mouth. “I…” He paused, feeling quite dizzy all of a sudden. He chose his words carefully. “I’m sorry for walking out on dinner last night. I had a bit of a panic attack and I guess a fight-or-flight thing kicked in.”
“Is that all this is about?” Artemis cocked her head like she always did when she was trying to read someone. She was achingly beautiful even when she was upset, but David wished he could make her smile. He hated that he was the reason her brow was furled in tight ridges.
“Artemis, I love you so much. Please remember that. I went through a challenging time the past couple of days and I want you to know why, but only if you remember that I love you.”
“I know you do.”
“No, you don’t. That’s the thing. I had a panic attack because somehow I convinced myself that I didn’t love you and that I never had… God, I’m really fucking this up. Just bear with me.” David paused and took another deep breath, thinking that he couldn’t have chosen a worse spot to be at a loss for words. Artemis’s expression was unreadable. “I’ve been in lots of relationships in my life and they’ve never lasted more than a couple of weeks. I’m no stranger to infatuation. I become infatuated with girls so easily, but I didn’t know that it was infatuation. I thought it was love.”
“Definitely not love.” Artemis chimed in, in a cautious, metered voice.
“And I know that now. When I met you, to be honest, it felt pretty similar to meeting other girls… except that you happened to be particularly hot.”
“Go on.” Artemis’s eyes were narrowing slightly.
“But obviously our relationship lasted more than just a couple weeks. Artemis, I’ve never gotten this far into a relationship. I had no frame of reference for when the excitement… Isn’t exactly what it used to be. All I mean by that is that my knees don’t start shaking with nervousness when I talk to you anymore. My hands don’t get sweaty when I hold yours. I no longer think about you twenty-four hours a day. I used to do these things, but I don’t anymore, and I thought that was a sign that I didn’t love you. I got scared. I hope you can start to see how fucking stupid I was, and I’m so sorry for ever doubting my love for you.”
Artemis’s expression softened. She seemed to be starting to comprehend his rambling rant. “I thought this might happen.” She said softly, without a hint of malice.
“You… You did?” It was David’s turn to look surprised.
“Yeah. That night we drove up into the mountains and all we talked about was our exes, remember?”
“The way you talked about your exes at first made me think you still had serious feelings for them, but then I realized that you didn’t really know any of them well enough to have those kinds of feelings. You told me that none of your relationships had lasted more than a couple of weeks, but you also told me that you loved your latest ex. It was pretty clear though that you’d never actually been in love. When you told me that, I knew that whenever you fell in love for real – whether it was with me or someone else – you were in for a hell of a ride. I went through the same thing, you know. It totally freaked me out when I realized that when speaking to Josh a few months into our relationship, I didn’t get a belly full of butterflies. It’s normal for some of that infatuation to die off.” Artemis was smiling gently. “There is no doubt in my mind that I did love Josh at one point in time, and I made sure to tell you so if you remember. So I know what I’m talking about. As you know, I don’t love him anymore, but falling out of love isn’t something to live in fear of. I don’t want to live in fear of anything. If things happen, so be it. But for now, I always choose to Carpe the fucking Diem. And you have no idea how glad I am that you still love me because I love you too.”
David felt his insides inflate at these words and his cheeks started to burn, the sensation felt amazing. Kind of like when Artemis had first admitted that she had feelings for him, but so much deeper and more meaningful. This is what love is, he thought, and everything about it is so obvious.
“I’m new to this love thing,” He began, his embarrassment that he was blushing only made the heat in his face intensify. “And I could really use a teacher. You up for it?”
Artemis scoffed. “I’m flattered that you think I have enough of my shit together to be your love coach. But no. But I’d be happy to tackle this challenging journey WITH you. Trial and error.”
“You’re on,” David said, smiling.
He sat there with Artemis, looking into her infinite blue eyes, but the peaceful silence that hung in the room was allowing the fear to take over his mind once again. He heard the sounds of the sirens and saw the flashing red and blue lights. “You died.” He said, softly, the color draining from his face as quickly as it had arrived.
“What?” Artemis said, absently.
“You died three nights ago.”
“I’m sitting right in front of you now, so either I’m a ghost and didn’t realize it, or I’m some other kind of sentient figment of…” Artemis was obviously trying to lighten the mood, but at the look on David’s face, she trailed off. When she spoke again, her voice was softer. “Was this why you were crying? Did you have a nightmare that I died?”
“I don’t think it was a nightmare,” David stared fixedly at his shoes. “I don’t really know how to tell you this, but I think I traveled back in time.”
Artemis didn’t say anything. David took this to mean that she was humoring him and went on.
“For me, it happened over a day ago, for you it obviously hasn’t happened yet,” David looked up and it was clear that Artemis was now thoroughly concerned, though about him or herself he didn’t know. Now that the memory was flooding back, he felt a heavy lump forming in his throat. “I’ve lived this day before. I was super confused about how I felt about you and I pretended – like last night – that I was sick. You called me this morning and offered to come over to check up on me, but I turned you down. I think you thought something was really wrong with me, and later today you decided to check on me anyway… But on the drive over you were… were…”
David hated himself for bursting into tears again. Artemis moved closer and gave him a hug that he returned. He’d been longing to hold her again, and now that their bodies were intertwined, every one of his mental barriers and boundaries collapsed. And it was just him and Artemis, holding each other tightly. A much deeper understanding passing between them. But even as they sat there together, David’s fear of losing her again was entirely overwhelming.
“I’m here,” Artemis said, her calm voice not quite adding up to the furious pounding of her heart pressed against David’s chest.
“I don’t want to lose you again,” David said, his voice muffled by her shoulder. He breathed in her wonderful smell and found some comfort in it.
“You won’t, babe. I’m right here. I can’t imagine how awful the dream must’ve been.”
“It didn’t feel like a dream. But I don’t know anymore.”
“I just made coffee, you want some.” Artemis gave him one last squeeze and untangled herself so that she could look into his face. She smiled at him, then placed a finger under his chin and drew him in for a kiss.
David felt fireworks go off in the pit of his stomach and couldn’t help but smile sadly at her when they broke apart.
Artemis got to her feet and walked over to the pot of coffee sitting on the counter. She poured a mug of it and added a packet of sugar and some almond milk, then brought the steaming mug back into the living room. She set it down on a small bamboo coaster on the coffee table.
“I don’t want to lose you again,” David repeated, wondering what the fuck he was supposed to believe at this point. Did he stick to his belief that he had actually traveled back in time, or could he simply ask her a favor? He decided on the latter. “I know this is gonna sound weird, but can you not drive anywhere today?”
“Because of the dream?”
“I leave tonight for the South Carolina trip in a few hours, remember? I reminded you yesterday.” Artemis’s tone was conversational now, and her concern about him seemed to have eased slightly. David decided that not at a single point during his recount of events had she been concerned for her own well-being.
David did remember now. “Is there any way to at least postpone it?”
“You want me to postpone it?” She looked at him in disbelief.
He’d never had a problem with her acting upon her own free will in the past, but things were different now that he knew he would do anything to keep her safe. It felt like the only thing he could do.
“It would really make me feel better if you didn’t go anywhere tonight.”
“Look babe, it was just a dream and I’m not superstitious. You know I would totally stay with you under different circumstances, but this trip has been in the works for months and I really want to see Gale and Eliza again.”
“Can you look at me?” David asked, and Artemis locked eyes with him, looking bewildered at his behavior. “Can’t you see how freaked out I am about this? Do you think I would try to force you to stay if it didn’t mean a lot to me?” A combination of fear and annoyance was bubbling up in David’s chest. If he didn’t convince her soon, she might be dead in a few short hours.
“Can I do anything for you that’s a little more reasonable than canceling a trip I’ve been looking forward to all year?”
“You don’t understand. Maybe I’m a little bit superstitious. Maybe this is all in my head and I’m a complete fucking lunatic. But I can’t risk losing you again. What if you died tonight?”
“We’re human,” Artemis said simply. “We can die at any time. And that’s totally normal, so we shouldn’t live in fear of the unknown. Unnecessary risks are another thing.”
“This is an unnecessary risk,” David said, his voice rising pleadingly.
“Me driving to the airport and flying across the country. Sure there’s risk there, but it’s not unnecessary,” Artemis looked disbelievingly at him. “Come on, you drove over here just now. Are you saying that that was an unnecessary risk?”
“No, it’s unnecessary for YOU because I saw YOU die. I mean… I didn’t SEE you die, but I had two cops at my door telling me that the woman I loved was crushed to death by a fucking semi!” David was shouting now.
Artemis worked well under pressure unlike him, and seemed to gain full control of herself and looked away from him and out the window. She spoke calmly. “I’m not going to live in fear.”
“Don’t go anywhere today. I’ll buy you another ticket. Just leave tomorrow at least.” David’s voice was quieter now and he was disgusted at himself that he was pleading, but it was his last shot at saving her.
“Since when are you this controlling?”
“I’m not trying to control you. I’m trying to save your life.” David twisted his hands in his lap.
“Right now those are the same thing.” Artemis’s voice was more distant than he’d ever heard, but there was still no detectable malice. “David, I broke up with Josh because he started to control me.”
David deflated entirely. He knew from the way she said this that she had locked him out. He’d failed. There was no chance now. “But you love me.”
“Yes I do – more than anything – so please don’t give me a reason to regret it.” She looked over at him with a sad, but determined look in her eyes. There was a fire there, keeping him at bay.
“I don’t want to control you,” David stood up and walked apprehensively towards her. “I’m sorry. I guess I just don’t know what I would do if I were to lose you again. Come here.”
David pulled her into an embrace. She wrapped her arms around him too, but her body was like a cold statue. She’d shut him out completely.
“Let’s continue this conversation when I get back, okay? Just maybe take some time to figure out if you can trust me. If you can’t, then this might be the end of the road. But I really fucking hope it isn’t.”
And with that, Artemis let go of him and walked into her bedroom, closing the door softly behind her. David stood there for a time, then left her apartment and drove home. It had been going so well, but somehow things were worse now. Far, far worse.
At five o’clock, right as the sun dipped behind the hills to the west, David heard a knock on the door. He’d been expecting it, but it didn’t make it any easier.
Reality swam hazily in front of his eyes for a while. He hugged his mom when she arrived. He took a shower, brushed his teeth, then climbed into bed. Maybe it was all just one big dream and if he just went to sleep in the dream he’d wake up in a world where Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt For Good Vibes was lying next to him. He swapped his pillow for the one that Artemis used when she stayed over and buried his face in it, breathing in her smell. The next thing he knew was the afternoon sun warming his face, which was tearstained from crying in dreams he couldn’t remember. Sleep had cleared his mind slightly and he knew what his options were. He could either stay where he was in an Artemis-less world, or try writing down the time of the morning before and relive a day that had caused him so much pain, not once, but twice.
David considered many things in the torturous hours that followed. He opened the window and looked down. He was on the third floor and the ground looked pretty far away, but the last thing he needed was more pain if he were to survive the jump. Then again, maybe breaking a femur or two would distract him for a while. He scoffed at his stupidity and shook his head, stepping back and closing the window. Dying, while temporarily convenient would deliver a shock to his mother that she didn’t deserve. Sinking back into the sofa, he thought about how unfair it was that a single death caused such a destructive chain reaction.
He also considered letting his mother come over. She’d called him twice, which in all fairness demonstrated significant restraint on her part, and he wondered if it would do any good to talk through his feelings. “Nope,” He said aloud, suddenly feeling quite nauseous. He laid down on the sofa and pressed a pillow over his face. The darkness was pleasant for a few moments, but then a vivid image of Artemis’s crushed body amidst a tangle of twisted metal appeared in front of his eyes, so he removed the pillow and sat up.
It surprised him that the tears, which had been so abundant over the last – fuck, he didn’t know how long it had been – were now mysteriously absent. But it obviously wasn’t an indicator of misery levels. Tears or no tears, he was pretty much maxed out. Maybe he didn’t have any tears left. Shedding every last one for Artemis. He’d tried to convince her to play it safe. He’d begged her to stay. He’d poured his entire fucking heart out on the floor at her feet. And the only difference it made was that this last time she’d either died resenting him for being controlling or hadn’t been thinking about him at all. Absently grabbing a Rubik’s Cube just to have something to do with his hands, he wondered which was worse and felt the ever-present lump in his throat expand.
The hands of the clock had a funny way of speeding up and slowing down arbitrarily as he watched them from the sofa. He solved the Rubik’s Cube once, scrambled it, then solved it again before chucking it at the far wall and springing to his feet. An idea had suddenly popped into his head. A realization that he hadn’t considered before. He didn’t know why he hadn’t, as it seemed so obvious. Without hesitation, he walked back into his bedroom and crossed to his desk in the far corner. He selected that same strange notebook that he still didn’t have any recollection of buying, and flipped through the pages. They were blank. His letter to Artemis was gone, along with the description of the time that he assumed must’ve triggered his time travel.
He sat down in the chair and grabbed a pen. It was completely dark out by the time he finished writing and he was excited that – if everything worked according to plan – he’d see the two greatest light sources in the universe in mere minutes, Artemis Finch and the sun. He read through everything he’d written two more times, taking several deep breaths as his heart beat faster, then scribbled the following in the margin:
January 22nd, at 9:20 AM.
He sat back and stared at the tiny text, not sure what to do next. Would it work? He experienced a horrible sinking feeling. It wasn’t working. He was still here… In reality. Why did he think he could go back in time? Sure, he’d done it before… Or had he.
“Please no,” He pleaded aloud to the quiet bedroom. Nothing was happening. “Please let me see her again. Please. Please. Please. I can do it better this time.”
As if his words were the cue, he began to slip into serene darkness. His last thought before he was engulfed completely by the void was one of pure euphoria. It was working. He was going to see her again, and this time he was going to set things right, even if the outcome was still far from desirable.
David awoke and wriggled free of the tangle of blankets, relieved to find that he was fully clothed in the outfit he’d worn the night of the double date. Recovering quickly from what he supposed could be referred to as “Time Lag”, he swept across the room, pulling off his jacket and unbuttoning his shirt as he did so. He hopped into the shower while the water was still cold and showered as quickly as he could, almost slipping multiple times. He couldn’t allow more than fifteen minutes to get ready. If he had any shot at pulling this off, he needed to stick to the schedule. There was of course the possibility that he could relive this day again if he fucked it up, but he had no idea if his time travel solution would continue to work – it seemed like it almost didn’t this last time – and furthermore, he didn’t fully understand how he’d done it, even after two trips. But what frightened him most was that he didn’t know if he would have the courage to relive it again if things went south again. He shuddered at the thought as all the worst-case scenarios his mind had concocted swam lazily to the surface, but he dismissed them quickly and busied himself with the rest of his top-speed routine.
Glancing at the time on his phone, he saw that he was still on schedule. A wave of relief swept over him but was almost instantly replaced with more anxiety. He didn’t bother with the elevator. Deciding to risk breaking every bone in his body as he flew down the stairs. But luckily he made it to the garage and ran to the car, clutching a paper bag with whatever had looked breakfast-y in his refrigerator. He placed it on the passenger seat and chanced another quick glance at his phone. The time was 9:33. He was ahead of schedule. He grinned. He was feeling hopeful, and this hope gave him the boost he needed. The plan was it was going to work. It had to work. He pulled out of the garage and headed west, towards Artemis’s apartment which was only a few miles away.
He parked in the only empty spot outside Artemis’s apartment complex and grabbed the bag of groceries before heading up the walk to the door. Feeling a rush of gratitude towards Artemis that she’d trusted him enough to give him his own key – another thing he didn’t intend to make her regret – he entered the building and took the elevator. The elevator was much faster than the one in his building. This was on account of her complex being considerably more upscale than his. The doors slid open and he stepped inside, pummeling the number four.
As he’d hoped, there was no music playing when he entered Artemis’s apartment. During the week she had to get up early for her job – not because she had to clock in or anything, that was just the precedent that she set for herself. She was cool that way. Despite being totally freelance and working from home most of the time when she wasn’t meeting clients, she subjected herself to the disciplined torture of early morning productivity. He had to be up early too, but this was because his boss expected impeccable punctuality, especially from the interns – which was the category he fell into. If he had the choice to sleep in, he would. He used the night-owl explanation regularly. Another thing he’d come to expect from Artemis that almost always when she was awake at home, she had music playing. She had a very eclectic taste, and on any particular day, one might hear anything from Imagine Dragons to Billie Holiday coming from her sound system in the living room. And since there wasn’t any music coming from it now, David knew conclusively that she hadn’t woken up yet. Another wave of relief swept over him, only this time it lingered. Envisioning her surprised face when he brought her breakfast in bed was sapping a considerable amount of negative energy from within him. He set down the paper bag on the counter and rolled up his sleeves. Now that the tangled negative emotions that had been plaguing him for days were absent, he allowed himself to settle into a calm melancholy. It was almost like it was the early days, him going out of his way to do something nice for Artemis, and this was exactly the feeling he intended to invoke, because the early days with Artemis had been the best of his life, and if she’d been telling the truth, they’d been some of the best of her life as well. He would base today on those days. If the Goddess Of The Hunt For Good Vibes only had one day left to live, he would do everything in his power to make sure it was a good one. And if tomorrow came and her heart was still beating, he’d live by the same philosophy then as well.
Doing his best to make as little noise as possible, he withdrew a bowl and some measuring cups from underneath the counter and retrieved the pancake mix from the paper bag. He was no culinary wizard or anything and was pleasantly surprised that after just a few minutes, the kitchen was smelling quite wonderful, and he popped a few of the blueberries that he intended to serve alongside the pancakes into his mouth. While the pancakes were on the griddle, he laid out the fruit for the smoothie on the counter. Three bananas, a small box of strawberries, and an identical box of raspberries. He would have to blend them later.
It took considerable willpower to finish making breakfast before going to see Artemis. Much like a dog, he wanted nothing more than for her to praise him for doing a nice thing and pat him affectionately on the head. He hoped very much that he was being a good boy. If he had a tail, he’d wag it.
As David plated three pancakes along with some blueberries and raspberries, he went over the plan one last time in his head. He had memorized it through and through but worried he would forget and break down again at some point during the day. There would be no better way to ruin everything, and today had to be perfect. Holding the plate, he moved towards the bedroom door and was about to grab the handle before realizing that he didn’t have anything to put the plate on. He scanned the room for a suitably flat object and settled on a large atlas. It would do. His heart rate rising with anticipation, he entered the room. The bed was empty.
This strange turn of events was extremely unexpected, and David couldn’t help but feel his heart drop down to his navel as the image of Artemis’s crushed corpse flashed in front of his eyes again. He closed his eyes and shook his head. Artemis was fine. She wouldn’t die until later – and what a comfort that was. This was only a minor setback, but he needed to see her. Every passing second was another second where his final memory of Artemis was of her closing this very door behind her, shutting him out. He could still see the look of sad disappointment on her face.
He didn’t know what to do, so he just stood there awkwardly holding a plate of pancakes balanced on Artemis’s atlas of the world. God, what was he doing? She didn’t need him. She could do so much better, not that she even needed anyone else. She was Artemis, the ultimate one-person dream team. David sat down on the bed and could feel his fragile energy levels draining. If he really wanted her to have the best possible last day of her life, would it be achieved with or without him? Did he really want the answer to these questions?
The sight of her neatly-made bed was unnerving him for some reason, and he was suddenly quite aware that he was in her apartment without her permission. Setting the atlas with the plate on it down on the bed, he picked up his phone and called her. She picked up after one ring.
“Hey, where are you?” Artemis asked, speaking first. If it was his first time hearing her voice, he would’ve thought her tone was completely neutral, upbeat even. But he’d known and loved her for a long time now – he’d actually known and loved her longer than she’d known and loved him if he factored in the time travel. But listening to her now, he noticed the concerned, slightly apprehensive edge to her voice that he hadn’t heard since he walked out on dinner on that last double date. It took him a second to process that for her, that was the last time she’d seen him. Time travel was weird. He tried not to think that he was once again, actively fucking up the whole situation.
“I’m actually over at your place,” David said, wondering if she would be mad at him.
“What’re you doing over there? Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, completely. Why?”
“Well, I’m over at your place. I thought I’d come over and make sure you got home last night and that you weren’t a David-sicle on the side of the road somewhere. It was fucking cold last night. Why the heck did you want to walk home in the freezing cold if you weren’t feeling well?”
David was smiling. In addition to the selfish warm-fuzzy feeling he got knowing she’d been worried about him, it was also so unbelievably great to hear her voice again, especially when she wasn’t upset with him. But nevertheless, he still felt the need to write the wrongs from his first foray back in time. “Cause I’m a fucking idiot.” He said. “Sorry I left like that. I’m just fine and I’m feeling better now. Thanks for wanting to check up on me.”
“Of course, babe,” Artemis said, the edge of concern in her voice waning. “You stay there, I’ll be over in a bit. I’ve got breakfast.”
“You made breakfast?” David asked, feeling a little jealous that this might dampen her admiration of his valiant culinary attempts for her benefit.
“I bought breakfast. I was gonna surprise you, but obviously, you’re not here. By the way, you should really make your bed in the morning. And, uh… I hope you don’t mind, but I went ahead and made it myself. Maybe you could learn a thing or two from my exemplary bed-making technique, huh?”
“Thanks,” David laughed. “I’ll be sure to inspect it and take notes when I get home.”
“You do that. Okay, see you in a bit.” She made a kissing noise that made David’s heart melt and then hung up.
That was what he loved about Artemis, every time he talked to her – whenever he wasn’t acting like a ridiculous groveling douche, that is – she had a way of making him feel special. Today he wanted nothing more than to have a similar impact on her somehow. To be the one to make her feel special.
He didn’t want to think about the last phases of the plan anymore.
Fifteen minutes later, the lock clicked and Artemis walked in. She was wearing a beige fleece jacket, a pair of three-quarter length forest-green cargo pants, and a smile that seemed to introduce new and more vivid colors into the world. It was as if she’d prepared for the day’s first order of business, even though David hadn’t told her yet. Looking at her, he couldn’t help feeling like he’d known and loved her his whole life. Everything about her seemed so familiar and her smiling presence set his mind at ease.
“You made breakfast too?!” Artemis said, pointing at the pancake and fruit-laden countertop with the hand that wasn’t holding a full paper bag of her own.
“Yep, I was trying to surprise you as well,” David said. Getting up from the couch he hugged and kissed her, finding it quite hard to break apart in a timely fashion. “I didn’t check to see if you were actually here. I just went ahead and made breakfast, then realized your bed was empty. It looks great by the way.”
“No, your bed.”
Artemis laughed and set down her bag on the table. “Thanks. Yours can look like that too, you know. Actually, it does right now.”
“Exactly. So why do I need to go to the trouble? You’ve got me covered.” The pun was out of his mouth before he could stop it, he cringed inwardly, but Artemis laughed again and it wasn’t so bad. David’s stomach chose this moment to rumble loudly. “So which breakfast do we eat?”
“Both,” Artemis said, conclusively. “I’ve had to carry these breakfast burritos around all morning and the smell has been torture. Come on, let’s eat. Um, why are there two backpacks on the table?”
“We’re going hiking today.” David wasn’t used to planning their outings. That was usually Artemis’s job, and for a moment, he considered whether she’d even want to go hiking. He’d been trying to be proactive and decisive. Two things he struggled with that Artemis hadn’t been shy to point out.
“We are? Where exactly, because I do need to be at the airport by five. I haven’t even packed yet.” Artemis looked skeptical.
David hadn’t considered this last point and tried not to think about the high probability that she wouldn’t make it to the airport. As much as he tried to hold these thoughts back, a part of him couldn’t help but want to try to warn her again, but that tactic hadn’t gone well. “I’ll help you pack after breakfast. We can pack at lightning speed if we work together. Besides the packing though – which to be honest, I didn’t consider – I have the whole day planned out to the T, and I assure you it doesn’t include you being late for the airport.”
“Cool. Cool. Um, why are you suddenly planning stuff? I mean… it’s great and I can’t wait to hear what the agenda is. It’s just unexpected.” Artemis smiled nervously.
“Oh, come on. I make plans all the time,” David said defiantly.
“Like?” Artemis folded her arms.
“Like… Gosh, my brain has concocted so many ingenious plans that it’s hard to pinpoint any one of them. Can I get back to you on that later?”
“Har, har. So what is your plan for today? I’d hazard a guess at wild adventure, but I don’t want to get my hopes up.”
“Ah! Well, if m’lady would join me for a muli-breakfast feast, I will disclose the day’s first order of business. I just hope you’re ready to have the… the best day of your life.” David meant it, and though his tone was cheerful, his voice cracked as he said it. He hoped Artemis hadn’t noticed.
Over their heaping plates of multi-breakfast, David told Artemis where they were going hiking, but wouldn’t tell her what they’d be doing afterward. He also informed her that she wasn’t allowed to look in the backpacks yet. Artemis seemed to be warming to the mysterious nature of his plan and didn’t object. The only alteration she made was to task David with cleaning up from breakfast while she packed her things.
After Artemis had everything packed for her trip and the kitchen was clean, David looked over to see her holding one of the backpacks with a surprised look on her face.
“What the heck did you pack in here? I think your collection of pet rocks might be best left here. They came from the mountains. They know what they’re all about. Do they really need to see them again?”
“For the record, there are no rocks in there, and I assure you everything that IS in there is absolutely essential for our adventures.”
“Fine, I’ll take your word for it. But if my back breaks, you’re carrying me down a mountain. Got that?”
“Got it.” David smiled.
They shouldered their heavy bags, and each grabbed one of Artemis’s full suitcases and together they descended the elevator and walked through the double doors into the warm sunlight. They climbed into David’s Honda Element and Artemis took on AUX duty. They sang along to song after song as they drove out of the city and up into the mountains. Luckily Artemis had good music taste.
It was midmorning and the plan had already been derailed in places, but as David looked over at Artemis belting out Piano Man and playing an invisible piano on the dashboard, he laughed out loud and couldn’t help but think that everything was going perfectly. He could’ve stayed in that moment forever and been just fine.
The trailhead was only about twenty minutes outside the city and even though it was a Saturday, the traffic was minimal. They wound along the valley floor until they reached a turnoff that looked little more than a driveway, sandwiched by thick forest on either side. The road wasn’t paved and the ruts made the car bounce as they navigated four switchbacks then entered a small parking lot next to a sign with a large trail map on it. There were only three other cars parked in the lot and David pulled in between two of them underneath a particularly prickly looking pine.
“Trying to win back the Hill Climb Champion title, are we?” Artemis asked, looking over at him and grinning.
“Something like that,” David said, grinning back. He’d picked this hiking spot for a reason since it was on this trail that they’d first confessed their love for one another – he didn’t think about how when he’d said it, while truthful, the words had still taken on a different meaning.
“You’re on.” She held out her hand in a mock formal manner.
David shook it, but instead of letting go once the handshake was over, he pulled her in for a kiss. He leaned in towards her, then let her come the rest of the way. Their lips touched and he couldn’t help but try to commit the incredible feeling to memory. For the thousandth time, he was caught off guard by how soft and sweet her lips were. After a few blissful moments, he reluctantly broke away and said in an eager voice. “Shall we?”
Artemis nodded curtly. “We shall!”
They walked briskly in silence for a time, following the weaving path through the trees, listening to the crunch of loose rocks and the soft thud of hiking boots on the hard-packed earth. It was nearly winter now, and though there was no snow on the ground, their breath left clouds of vapor swirling behind them. Realizing something, David was the first to break the silence. “I used to feel awkward when we would hang out and neither of us could think of anything to say.” He said.
“Yeah, me too,” Artemis said in a thoughtful, far-away voice. “But I never ran out of things to say, I just didn’t want to be the one talking all the time. And most of the time all I could think to talk about was myself and I figured that would get annoying. I used to be that person, but I really didn’t want to be that person with you.”
“I felt the same way. Funny how we’re conditioned to want to talk about ourselves. Don’t get me wrong, there’s certainly a time for that and honestly, I love listening to you talk about what’s going on with you, but…” David trailed off. “I guess I didn’t realize it until now, but the silence doesn’t feel awkward anymore. It’s actually kind of nice.”
“It is,” Artemis said, smiling sweetly. “I think that’s how you know you love someone when silence brings the same fulfillment as talking.”
“Right! It doesn’t matter whether there’s talking or not, all that seems to matter is being physically near the person you love, especially when her name is Artemis and her lips are wonderfully soft and smell like raspberry lip-balm.”
Artemis looked back at him with a ponderous expression on her face and paused, then said matter-of-factly. “It’s positively revolting how much I love you.”
And even though the silence fell once again after these words, there was nothing left hanging in the air. David felt this proved their point. He jogged the few feet ahead until he was right next to her and grabbed her hand and squeezed it gently, she squeezed back. Holding hands made hiking a bit more difficult, especially on the narrow trail, but it was worth it.
It was midday now and the sun was at its highest point in the sky – directly overhead – and helped warm their rosy cheeks and noses. Thin golden rays cascaded in through the trees and the greens and browns around them seemed to take on a mysterious glow that reminded David of the orchard. They’d be seeing it soon, but he could wait. Now was the time to enjoy the moment. He had no idea how many moments he had left in his life – he could theoretically die at any second, but there was comfort in the unknown. Artemis’s lifespan was unknown to her.
After fifteen minutes, they emerged from the forest and onto a vast sweeping hillside painted yellow in the sun and covered with thin stiff grasses, scattered rocks the size of watermelons, and small stubby cacti. The summit was in sight now and in the sunlight, the trail took on a distinctive much-brighter yellow hue of its own.
Ever eager to hear Artemis laugh, David had an idea. He adopted a tone of awe and said slowly, “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore…”
“Oh my goodness!” Artemis exclaimed excitedly, immediately catching on. “It’s totally a yellow brick road!”
“Wellll…” They said in unison, then began to sing. “WE’RE OFF TO SEE THE WIZARD, THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ! WE HEAR HE IS A WIZ OF A WIZ, IF EVER A WIZ THERE WAS!”
They swung their connected hands and skipped theatrically through the field, following the winding yellow path. They laughed as they sang – without caring how stupid they must’ve looked – and as they finished the first two lines, Artemis pointed at David expectantly. “IF EVER, OH EVER, A WIZ THERE WAS…” He pointed at Artemis.
“THE WIZARD OF OZ IS ONE BECAUSE,” Sang Artemis.
David chimed in. “BECAUSE, BECAUSE, BECAUSE, BECAUSE, BECAUSE… BECAUSE OF THE WONDERFUL THINGS HE DOES!”
They burst into fits of childish laughter and Artemis’s laughter was as he remembered – the loudest and the snortiest. A laugh that, to David, was just about the best thing in the world.
They slowed to a brisk walk once more, and once they’d stopped laughing, adjusted their backpacks and made their way up towards the summit. Before long they entered another wooded area. The trees were noticeably a bit shorter and more gnarled now and the ground was rockier and they had to be extra careful to watch out for loose rocks so as not to twist an ankle.
David was a bit relieved when they crested the final hill as Artemis had yet to mention the Hill Climb Championship. She had dragged him along on many hikes in and around the city since they first got together and while he was certainly in better shape now because of that, he was still much more winded than she was. Together, they swung their heavy backpacks onto a waist-height boulder and sat down on it themselves.
After they caught their breath and admired the rolling hills below.
“Am I allowed to see what I’ve been carrying that’s so damn heavy?” Artemis asked, hoisting her backpack up onto her lap.
“Oh, right,” David rummaged around in his backpack and pulled out a camping hammock along with two red hammock straps. He stood up and scanned the hilltop for two suitable trees from which to hang it. “These trees look strong enough to support both of us in a hammock, right?”
“Hey, you brought hammocks! Wait… A hammock?” Artemis inquired skeptically.
“We can both fit in a single hammock,” David said with a little defiance. He pointed over to two close-by trees. “Right over there! I’m gonna go set this up. You’re free to look in the backpacks now, by the way.”
As David walked toward the two trees, he waited for the inevitable outburst, and sure enough, a loud “What the fuck!” came from behind him. He grinned because he was still anticipating a more positive reaction from her when she would soon realize what they were for.
“You made me carry books?!” Artemis shouted in his direction. “I’ve been carrying a fucking library on my back! Why the… Wait… Are these MY books?”
“Yep,” David said, raising his voice so she could hear him and stifling a laugh. He didn’t turn around and instead fastened the first strap around one of the trees. “I’m actually kind of surprised you didn’t notice your mostly empty favorite-books bookshelf.”
“Why did you pack my books?” Artemis’s voice was now drawing nearer, and as David fastened the second strap, he heard two soft thuds as the backpacks fell to the ground behind him.
He turned around to see Artemis looking expectantly at him with her hands on her hips. She wasn’t smiling. For a second his confidence was shaken, but he regained his composure quickly and conveyed his point in a very roundabout way, “I thought it might be fun to go through your favorite books while hammocking, because you’re always sharing your favorite passages from your favorite books with me and now we can both go through them and find cool parts and read them aloud, and I know you’ve probably read these ten times each, but I think I’ve only read a couple of them and now we can go through them together and I can learn more about your favorite books and your favorite passages from them and…”
Without warning, Artemis threw her arms around him. “Shut up. That was actually a really nice thing to do. And though my back may be sore, thank you.” She said. David could feel her breath on his ear and his vision went a bit fuzzy for a second.
“You’re welcome,” David said, smiling weakly and hugging her back. Hugging Artemis Finch was another of life’s great pleasures, but he couldn’t help wondering which time he hugged her today would be his last.
“Hold up. Here’s a good one,” Artemis said from behind a heavily worn copy of The Alchemist.
David looked up from How To Win Friends And Influence People. He and Artemis were scrunched up right next to each other in the hammock, laying in opposite directions as a gusty afternoon breeze blew across the hilltop and rustled the needles of the evergreens.
“Let me guess it has the words ‘Personal’ and ‘Legend’ in it.”
“Just listen,” Artemis shifted her weight and sat up awkwardly in the hammock without taking her eyes off the page. Her messy hair was dancing in the wind as it crested the hilltop. “This is the crystal merchant talking to Santiago… ‘You have been a real blessing to me. Today I understand something I didn’t see before: Every blessing ignored becomes a curse. I don’t want anything else in life. But you are forcing me to look at wealth and at horizons I have never known. Now that I have seen them, and now that I see how immense my possibilities are, I’m going to feel worse than I did before you arrived. Because I know the things I should be able to accomplish, and I don’t want to do so.’”
A silence followed the reciting of the passage and Artemis lowered the book. Her eyes were still turned down toward the page, but she seemed to be looking through it. David mulled the passage over in his mind. It made perfect sense, he thought. Ignorance is bliss.
He could remember a time as a young boy when he had no concept of using the present to build a better future for himself. If he found ways to have fun throughout any given day at that age, at the end of the day he’d feel fulfilled. He’d feel happy. But things changed when his curious mind was unleashed on the world. Given the opportunity, he allowed it to roam freely, quickly learning that it tended to return with ideas. Ideas that to some would be considered dangerous because they always manage to illuminate possibilities. But to others, these ideas were the stepping stones required to pursue Personal Legends. David was very much of the second mold. But as he ran over the passage in his mind, exploring the impact of realized versus unrealized potential, one terrifying thought blocked all others: Artemis – like him – was in the process of searching for her Personal Legend. He could tell from the first time he saw her at the Johnson Farm that she had a fire in her belly that would drive her to greatness. But for some fucked-up reason, her search was destined to be cut short, while he was free to continue his pursuit. Even worse than that though, there was a possibility that he could still save her. But if his suspicions were to be confirmed that he had no control over her death, maybe blissful ignorance was the short-term solution. Artemis had been clear that she wouldn’t bow to superstition, though by now it certainly felt a hell of a lot more than that, and he should respect her path because after all it was made up of her own stepping stones that would’ve eventually led her to find her treasure. Maybe it was for the best that she did not know she would never get a chance to find it. David felt a heavy pressure on his chest as if earth’s gravity had just increased twofold. His breaths were coming quicker now. He willed himself not to break. Not now.
“Damn, that hits hard,” Artemis’s voice seemed to echo as if she were speaking to him from the other side of a cave. “I used to wonder what I’d choose if given a choice, you know. Joy in ignorance or fulfillment in chasing the beautiful unknown.”
David felt something large well up inside him at these words, then spill over the surface. He lifted his book back in front of his face as a soft sob escaped. He disguised it with a cough and tried to regain composure as quickly as possible, wondering if Artemis had heard him lose control for that one second. He blinked the tears away furiously and cleared his throat, speaking in the steadiest possible voice from behind his book. “Which did you choose?”
“You know damn well which one I’d choose. Chasing the future and everything it could hold! There’s no possibility of anyone who’s glimpsed true happiness to voluntarily go back to a time when it was watered down by ignorance. Sure, if I was in that ignorant state right now, I wouldn’t want to do anything to compromise that easy happiness, but I’m not. I’m right here – smack-dab in the middle of fucking reality where the possibilities are endless. So the idea of going back terrifies me… But I don’t let that fear cripple me. I use it as fuel to keep pursuing my Personal Legend… just like Santiago.”
“The pursuit of happiness.”
“Exactly!” Artemis said, snapping the book shut. “True fucking happiness. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“I used to think you were my Personal Legend,” David said in a soft voice.
“I used to think the same thing the first time I fell in love,” Artemis said, laying back down in the hammock and looking up at the rustling pine needles swaying in the breeze.
David ran his sweatshirt sleeve over the tears on his cheeks and lowered his book, setting it aside. This time he was the one to sit up. “Just because we aren’t each other’s treasure, doesn’t mean we can’t support each other in our own journeys.”
But even as he said this, he wondered if he was supporting or crippling the goddess before him.
They began their return hike at 2:00 in the afternoon and reached the trailhead parking lot by 2:30. Technically they were still on schedule, but as the day went on, the less David felt this mattered. Artemis was still in high spirits and eagerly went over the itinerary for her upcoming South Carolina trip on the drive back into the city. If there weren’t other, more pressing things plaguing his mind, David might’ve actually been a bit jealous. It sounded like a fun vacation.
Artemis pretty much carried the conversation and was still going strong as they drove into the city twenty minutes later. David had to work extra hard to keep the fog from his mind and instead of zoning out, he clung to her every word. At one point he even became so invested in what she was saying that the weight on his chest seemed to lift. But as soon as he noticed this welcome break on his mind and body, it pressed down on him once more.
The traffic was heavier now in the city. Rows and rows of shiny cars gleaming in the afternoon sun, and flocks of excessively bundled-up people lined the streets, all seemingly heading towards the downtown shops or the creek that snaked through the city. But despite the chill, they looked happy. Each wearing an expression of satisfaction that comes from living in the moment. Artemis had fallen silent and was looking out the window and observing the people responsible for creating the hustle and bustle of the city. David observed them too and wondered whether these people were aware of Personal Legends. Did they realize just how staggeringly, mind-numbingly vast life’s possibilities were, or were stuck in their own blissfully ignorant worlds where happiness and fulfillment could simply be obtained by a day out on the town?
His train of thought screeched to a halt as Artemis spoke up again. “We still have some time before I need to be at the airport, is there more to this plan of yours or are we just heading home?”
David tried and failed to smile, so he stared straight ahead at the road. “I do have one more thing planned… Over at the Johnson Farm.”
“You’re full of surprises today, aren’t-cha?” Artemis said brightly. She didn’t inquire further.
The sky, which had been nearly cloudless all day, was now dotted with dark clouds that seemed to be expanding. And now that the sun could only be seen for seconds at a time as the clouds moved below it, the world was becoming darker, and David knew it was the darkness that would steal Artemis away from him. He wished the clouds would go away.
The Johnson Farm was on the opposite side of the city and as they drove, the apartment complexes turned into houses that were increasingly larger and further apart. On this side of town, the landscape was much more level and they passed many farms, each with large white houses amidst vast hayfields, ominous and ghostly in the flat light. But eventually, they reached the Johnson Farm. It was tucked away on three sides by a cluster of majestic pines, and on the fourth, the apple orchard they knew was there but wasn’t visible from the road.
The Johnson Farm was easily one of the most picturesque farms in the area because it had to be. Much work, both inside the Johnson family and out, had gone into maintaining the property in the kind of immaculate way that was a bit unbecoming of a farm, all for the benefit of tourists. David’s first impression of the manicured lawns, the neatly trimmed bushes, and the stout white farmhouse with its many polished windows had been like stepping into a postcard photo. And though its characteristics were uncommon for most farms, he didn’t mind that he wasn’t getting a particularly “authentic” experience, in fact, he preferred it that way.
Even now, in the middle of the offseason, with the overflow parking lots that were really just sections of lawn, the farm was still beautiful, but like any great memory, the sight of it, grey and gloomy, brought a chilly feeling that had nothing to do with the temperature. Or at least that was how David felt as he took it in. Artemis was observing their surroundings too, but she had a serene look on her face. A look that either indicated natural peace of mind or a turbulent mind expertly controlled. David had seen this look before, but he could never tell what lay beneath the surface. Seeing her this way brought him back to reality, but the clouds were still closing in. Artemis’s corpse crushed amidst a tangle of plastic and metal swam to the forefront of his mind once again. If Artemis hadn’t been sitting beside him just now, he would’ve covered his face and cried. He wondered if he’d actually gotten any sleep in the last few days amidst the mental turmoil of time travel.
David left the car running for several moments once he’d pulled into a suitable parking spot as he tried desperately to round up his swirling thoughts, many of which were vivid images of a car crash he’d never seen. If he could just usher these thoughts towards the back of his mind where he could discipline them, the proceedings would be so much easier. At the sound of Artemis unbuckling her seatbelt, David snapped out of his stupor and turned off the engine. Artemis could sense things. He needed to pull himself together.
“Did you check with the Johnson’s?” Artemis asked, her voice conveying the same eerie of serenity that her expression did. Her’s sounded like the peaceful voice of someone living in the moment, of someone who didn’t have negative thoughts swirling out of control and clogging the mind. David hoped with all his heart that this was true, as that was exactly how he wanted her to feel, but only because that state of mind was when she was at her happiest.
“Yeah, I’m actually on pretty good terms with them now,” David said in a surprisingly upbeat voice that didn’t quite sound like him.
“Really?” There was no doubt about it now. Artemis could sense that something was wrong.
“At first I only reached out to them to set up your surprise, but they recognized me from when I helped wrap things up the day I met you and they’re actually really nice people.”
“Yeah, they are,” Artemis nodded, then asked. “Do I get to see what the surprise is?”
“Yes,” David said, flexing his cheek muscles in what he hoped was a smile. “Let’s go check it out.”
Even as he said this, all he could think about was how he hadn’t planned how exactly he might say goodbye. The dark clouds were bearing down, ever closer to obscuring all light from the world. It was as if Artemis was his lantern, keeping the clouds at bay. He checked his watch and it read 3:05. He only had an hour and twenty-five minutes, and the tiny second hand seemed to be making its rounds at triple speed.
Though he wasn’t as skilled at reading people as Artemis, he could tell that she was shutting herself off: Preemptive damage control? David didn’t know. No matter what was going on in her mind as David walked next to her down the dirt road, his stride in sync with hers, he couldn’t help but feel guilty, as if he were personally luring her toward death, while cheerfully disguising it as a fun surprise. David’s field of vision seemed to be going grey around the edges as if the clouds in his mind were solidifying into a dark tunnel that was swallowing him as he walked deeper. A terrible part of him believed there was no light at the end of this tunnel.
Get yourself together! He told himself silently, and with many deep breaths, forced himself to believe that the dark tunnel was only the entrance to a labyrinth of endless possibilities. Anything could happen within, but he had the power to decide which route to take.
As they rounded the corner and the orchard came into view, he had a strengthening suspicion Artemis knew exactly how he felt and was at this moment trying frantically to piece things together before his darkness covered everything and the world crumbled around them. He’d been doing so well all day and this was no time to collapse in defeat. He had to go on, for her sake.
Using every ounce of strength he possessed, he mastered his mind, and the cracks in reality sealed themselves. Everything was going to be fine. Artemis was right beside him. Anything that would happen later would happen later, and he would tackle it then. Right now he was living in the moment. After all, they were just two explorers searching with a fiery passion for their Personal Legends within the labyrinth of life. Time had no meaning, there was only now.
The sight of Johnson Farm orchard was not as David had imagined it in his rose-tinted dreams of romantic grandeur. The trees were completely leafless and looked skeletal, casting dull tangled shadows that made the ground look as though it were covered with ghostly serpents. The sight of the orchard was testing him, but he would not give in. He held his head high and walked purposefully forward. He felt Artemis grab his hand and he looked over at her and gave her a reassuring smile. As long as they were together, nothing would suffocate their flames. Artemis returned the smile and suddenly looked more confident herself. Immediately sensing the change within him, now that David had mastered his mind, hers it seemed was put at ease.
David looked down to see a glowing light emanating from where their hands met. It was moving outward. Growing and expanding rapidly. Their united strength was too much for the darkness. The golden orb soon encompassed them both and when it touched the ground beneath their feet, the dead grass turned a luscious green as it came back to life. As they watched in awe, the orb kept expanding until it touched the ends of the tree branches, which sprouted lovely yellow, green, and red leaves. There were tiny white buds forming along the branches too, and in a span of seconds, tiny apples appeared and grew large and ripe before their eyes, weighing the branches down.
“Wow!” Artemis breathed, as they walked through the blooming orchard.
“How are we doing this?” David asked in amazement.
“WE’RE doing this?” Artemis asked in disbelief.
David breathed in the wonderfully earthy smell of autumn and felt wonderful energy flow through him. “I wanted it to be perfect,” David whispered to himself.
“It’s perfect,” David said, simply. “Look!”
Up ahead, a thick red embroidered blanket was spread out on the ground, and on top of it, a woven picnic basket. With every step toward the picnic spot, the air seemed to grow warmer. It was as if they were swimming through autumn. The golden light had a comforting weight, and tiny insects and particles of pollen were floating aimlessly through the space around them.
David heard a sharp exhalation of breath beside him and looked over at Artemis who was wearing her signature smile. She chuckled again, then began to laugh, and the wonderful sound harmonized elegantly with the many noises of nature. Feeling the infectious effect of her laughter permeating his soul, David couldn’t help but laugh also and he held Artemis’s hand a little tighter.
When they reached the red embroidered blanket, Artemis made to withdraw her hand from his. The orchard flickered around them and suddenly feeling quite scared, David didn’t let go.
“It’s okay,” Artemis said in a far-away voice. “Trust me.”
“I do trust you, it’s just…”
“I’m right here,” Artemis said, slowly reaching over and placing her other hand on top of their intertwined fingers.
“You have to let go,” Artemis said, dreamily. “You can’t hold onto me forever. You’ve seen what we can do together,” She gestured around at the vibrant colors of autumn. “But you have the power to do this alone too.”
“But I don’t want to be alone. I want to be with you.” David’s voice was soft, but there was confidence behind it.
Artemis responded with a smile and with her free hand began to gently pry his hand from hers.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” David asked.
“You trust me, remember?” Artemis said, in her faraway voice.
“Yes,” David said, without hesitation. “Always.”
He closed his eyes tight and loosened his grip. He felt his fingers slide away as Artemis withdrew her hand, but he didn’t move his hand from where he’d last felt hers, savoring the lingering feeling of her warm skin.
He didn’t want to open his eyes, but he trusted Artemis. Even if the beautiful orchard was gone when he opened his eyes, he’d still have her beside him. “I’m right here.” These words reverberated around him. He trusted them. Slowly, with great inner strength, he opened his eyes.
Everything was as he’d left it. Artemis was still seated beside him, already removing a bottle of wine from the basket. And autumn was still there too, all around him. He felt his aching muscles relax. There was nothing to be afraid of.
They removed the rest of the delicious-looking feast from the basket and laid it out on the blanket without another word spoken. Once everything was set up, they laid down on their sides and gazed into each other’s eyes as they ate. David savored every moment, every bite, every little swooping sensation that coursed through him as he stared into Artemis’s infinite brown eyes. This was enough. This was perfect. Better than he could’ve dreamed.
But all too soon Artemis was getting to her feet.
“It’s time for me to go,” She said, her voice echoing as if she were speaking to him from the other side of a large cave.
“Can’t you stay awhile longer?” David asked, also getting to his feet and reaching out to her, arms spread wide.
“If it were up to me, then yes,” Artemis said, smiling at him sweetly. She moved forward and drew him in for a hug.
David felt like he was melting in her embrace. “Why isn’t it up to you?” He asked, his voice quieter than he’d intended.
“I honestly don’t know,” Artemis responded with a sigh. She moved away and held him at arm’s length, then paused before saying. “As much as you want me, you don’t need me. Can you please remember that?”
Something inside him made arguing seem an unnecessary waste of time. And as much as he hated hearing these words, he knew them to be true. He nodded.
Then something happened that nothing could’ve prepared him for. Tears began leaking out of Artemis’s eyes as they stood there amidst the brilliance of autumn. David’s heart did a painful somersault. He’d never known her to cry. For so long she’d been a steadfast beacon of impenetrable strength. Someone he drew strength from. His eyes were now filling with tears as well and they fell onto his cheeks as the lump in his throat became painful. Now, the only thing keeping him from breaking down completely was what he saw behind the tears in Artemis’s eyes. The fire was still there. He should’ve known there was no way to extinguish it.
Artemis smiled through the tears and David knew how hard she must’ve been working to keep from breaking down as well. Even now, as they clung to every last second together as the tears fell freely, David felt immense gratitude towards Artemis, and the feeling helped keep the smile on his face.
“I’m assuming you don’t mind?” Artemis asked, her voice soft but steady.
“Mind what?” David asked, his smile broadening at the recreation of this most glorious memory.
“If I kiss you,” Artemis said.
“Not at all.” David choked back a sob.
“Come here then.”
They shared one last kiss in the orchard that afternoon, with that perfect sphere of autumn around them. David could’ve stayed there forever with Artemis in his arms, but let her go willingly when she broke away. Without another word, he watched her go and smiled sadly when she turned around for one last look at him. In that last look, a million unspoken words flowed between them. Everything that could possibly be said, was said. And shortly after this final exchange, Artemis disappeared into the golden light.
In his bedroom, David sat upright in his chair with the notebook lying open before him upon the desk, David pulled out his phone and navigated to a specific voicemail message. This was the message he’d nearly deleted before but was now his last link to her.
“Hey, it’s me, just checking in. Hope you’re feeling better. Can you please let me know when you get back to your place? I… Uh, well… Nevermind. I’d just really appreciate it if you’d call me whenever you get this. If you’re still walking I’d be happy to pick you up. Let me know. Love you.”
“Love you too, Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt for Good Vibes,” David whispered to the empty room.
He listened to the message several times, savoring the sound of her voice as every word was carved painfully into his heart. But he was now finding himself at a crossroads. He couldn’t sit here and listen to the message forever and continue pretending.
With a deep shuddering breath, he hovered his finger over the number ‘7’.
It was more difficult than anything he’d ever done.
The shrill electronic voice cut through the silence. “Message deleted.”