The last few hundred feet, up to the top, are rocky and steep, but he is used to working hard, moving hard, and he ignores the twinges of pain in aging joints. His well-worn boots scrape against bare granite and small clumps of brown grass, and only occasionally does he have to use a hand to steady himself. The top of the butte is more or less flat, and he makes his way across broken, jutting rocks to the north end, where you can look out across the whole valley, over the city and the countryside, the Coburg hills off to the east and the coast range far to the west. Directly north, the valley opens up into a wide flat fertile expanse, stretching out beyond the horizon. The land is dun and green, tan fields and endless trees, marred only by the occasional splash of color, and he crouches, taking it all in with long breaths of cold air. Today, heavy grey clouds hang across the sky, as they had yesterday, portending of rain but instead denying the valley that catharsis, the deluge that would wash away the thick, dewy, humid feel of the air and stink of ozone. She'd loved this place. They'd come here about every other weekend for nearly thirty years, but he feels as if he can remember every moment. Just as he can remember every moment of the past forty-eight hours, like someone opened up his skull and wrote on his brain with a soldering iron. The look on the ER surgeon's face had been enough, when the older man finally came out to the waiting room.You were a paramedic, the surgeon said. You know how it goes. And he did know, knew from far too many deaths, knew that he'd given far too many people the same look the surgeon was giving him now. He reaches down, pushing up his jacket, reaching to the small of his back. The steel frame of the gun is so cold that he almost drops it at first. He makes himself grab it, feeling the chill burn into his hand, and stands. When he pulls the slide the metallic snap echoes faintly from the rocks behind him. The city is laid out before him. He can pick out his house, the high school, streets and parks and trails and everything. He can see the river, a thin grey line winding across the flats We met there, his mind says, pointing. We kissed over there, he thinks, knuckles white. We fell in love right there, and he flinches at the feel of the barrel against his temple. His thumb twitches, spastically, and the snick of the safety coming off is thunder in his ears. His index finger is curling around the trigger when his ears catch the soft jingling sound. His finger relaxes, just a bit, and then he hears the pounding of paws and something slams into his knees from behind. The gun jerks forward and goes off right in front of his face, a huge blast that wipes everything from his mind for a moment. He sits down abruptly, hard, the pistol falling out of his hand to clatter across the rock. A warm, wet tongue slurps across his cheek, and suddenly he's crying. He blinks a few times, and he can see again, blurrily. Something is running out of his nose; when he wipes his hand across his face it comes away red, and his ears won't stop ringing. Tess is still licking his cheek, her cold nose rubbing across his face. "Oh my god," he says to the spaniel, "Oh jesus, oh shit." He wraps an arm around her, and starts to cry in earnest, the first time he9s really done so in two days. "Oh shit, girl, look what I almost did. Look what I did." And he buries his face in muddy, matted fur, sobbing until it begins, finally, to rain.

Copyright (C) 2000 Garth Melnick