They had walked together for five weeks and four days, eight hours, twenty-five minutes.
Seemed as if all they had ever done was walk, him leading the way, her following, a little resentful she couldn’t take the lead, and sending up a prayer of thanks she didn’t have to. And now, he’d left her standing in the blinding morning light, beside the bridge that would take them to the next town. He’d walked away, round the bend, on the way to the hills.
The first time they met at a cafe, she’d felt a spark somewhere inside her clothes, her stomach. He’d felt it too. She saw it in his eyes. But they didn’t refer to it, except later, in the most roundabout of ways like when he asked about the way rain-soaked earth smelled, and what it reminded her of. She told him it depended, and when he asked on what, she pretended to fall asleep.
They talked about Socrates in the beginning, and the death of Camus. How the large hadron collider would bring on the end of the world, of wars and refugees. Over days, the talk became about what rations to buy. She paid for bars of chocolate she couldn’t eat because weeks of roadside water had ruined her stomach. After a while, each bar seemed like a brick inside her backpack.
He made plans, drew lines on maps by torchlight, lying inside the tent. She’d pitched that tent, while he’d sat on a nearby rock slapping mosquito repellent on his neck and arms. She worked so she didn’t have to watch him. She wanted to watch him all the time, each flex of his shin as he walked, the way his perfect, round butt fitted his shorts. So she kept her eyes to the ground instead, and her hands busy. Her body hurt, but she didn’t give in.
Now, she stood at the crossroads, watching the way he’d gone, shallow slopes that would lead to steeper ones. He had no time for this, he’d said when she spoke of backache, asked for a day of rest.
She could follow him, catch up. Say sorry yet again for a tantrum she hadn’t thrown. Spend more nights waiting for him to touch her, on his terms, the way he stopped by at the red light areas they’d crossed in the shanty towns on their way. Relieves tension, he’d said, to nothing and no one in particular, when he came back from one of those jaunts.
She took a step, and stopped.
When backpacking, you meet people, make and pay debts. She flinched as the straps of her backpack settled on her sore shoulders. She would walk.
Each day, you wake up and you walk, putting one foot after the other, he used to say. You make your own way.
Her back cramped, but she took one step, then another, away from him, towards the lighted bridge.
Damyanti’s short fiction has been commended at the Bath Flash Fiction Award and her novel-in-progress longlisted for the Mslexia Novel Competition. She’s published at Bluestem, Griffith Review, Lunch Ticket, among others. Her work is anthologised by publishers in the USA, Malaysia and Singapore, and nominated for the Pushcart and Best of Net.