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written by: Jim Bartlett
Marie slips on her favorite wool sweater, then crosses the hall into their home office. Though “office” might be a slight exaggeration, as it’s really nothing more than a tiny room toward the front of the house that was used for who-knows-what by the previous owners. She quietly sneaks up on her husband, Ray, who sits to the front of one of the two large monitors that take up most of his desktop. There are a couple of different windows up on the screen, various colors and graphs and lines, and he’s speaking into a headset, jabber that makes about as much sense to her as the gobbledygook on the displays.
Yet, somehow he feels her coming up from behind – he’s always had that magic – and raises a finger – un momento – while he finishes his call. She gives him a light tap on the shoulder, a smile that he doesn’t see, and slips over to the larger of the two front windows. Outside, the sun’s bright rays filter through the trees and light up the hillside, giving the impression of a warm summer day. But she knows it’s just an illusion, nature’s not so funny version of prestidigitation, as the February air has been crisp, some mornings having such a bite, you’d think it to be a toddler trying out a couple of new teeth.
“You off on your walk?” he finally asks.
“Yeaaaah,” she says wistfully. “I long for the day when you get to come along.”
“One more year, my sweet señora. I have to finish paying for your fancy casa del mar here.”
She smiles and leans over, giving him a quick kiss on the forehead. “If only I had been some computer guru like you, rather than some lowly sixth grade teacher, eh?”
He shakes his head. “You made the right choice, my love. It has worked well for us. Look at where your friends back in San Fernando ended up. And, of course, your sister.” He sighs. “You made the right choice.”
Nodding, she puts on her gloves and takes in a long breath. “I did, didn’t I.” It’s supposed to be a statement, but she can see the look in her husband’s coffee brown eyes, that even he heard the question.
“Do you have your phone...just in case?”
“Yes, Papa.” She shakes her head, blows another kiss, and slips out the front door, the chill making her feel better about deciding to put on the gloves.
At the edge of their graveled driveway, she stops. The last few days she’s chosen to hike the Bird Island Trail, which winds along China Cove’s craggy ledges and hidden sandy beaches. But though from here the trail isn’t much more than a half a mile as the crow flies, to get there she has to drive up Highway 1 and then take the back road to the parking lot.
And she hates driving. Even just a couple of miles.
Which makes her decision easy, and she turns and begins to stroll up their little lane, a sort of asphalt valley lined in Monterey pines and coastal oaks. Winding her way to an undeveloped lot at the peak of a hairpin turn, she cuts between the overgrowth, following a well-worn path to the back of the property and up the slope. It soon intersects with the wider Absolution Trail, one of several that wander the hillside. The incline is soft here, better for her aging knees, and the shrubs and firs and pines thicken as she climbs. And not only in their numbers, but also in the fragrance of their presence, the green of their color, and their reach into the vast blue sky. After several years of drought, the winter rains have returned and the forest breathes new life.
Next to the walk she’s been taking along the ocean, this is her favorite. Both bring deep thought and deep reflection that allow for a restful calm to soak in all the way to her core. It’s then her breathing begins to slow, while the weight on her shoulders falls gently to the wayside.
She soon arrives at a long open stretch of the trail that bends just as it comes to the flattened edge of a bluff, one which allows a breath-stealing view of the mighty Pacific. She stops, gazing in wonder at the grandeur, all the while the ocean sending its regrets that she couldn’t make it today in the form of light breeze filled with a salty mist. She smiles, somewhere inside thanking it for its kindness.
She takes in one last long, deep breath of the wind’s gift, preparing to continue on her way, when a rustle from behind startles her, and she spins around. A young girl, maybe 17, long black hair, not unlike hers – though hers may have a sprinkle of gray here or there – has just emerged from the trees. Her brown skin shines in the sun, her chocolate eyes sparkle. And until she gazes up, startled as well when she notices Marie, those eyes look as though they are both profoundly at peace and yet somehow searching the heavens at the same time.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t even see you standing there,” she says, a smile popping onto her lips. Her Mexican accent is strong, her words almost as if she’s having to make an extra effort to stay with English. But more than anything else, there’s something hauntingly familiar about the young girl. Marie knows, but really doesn’t, and for some reason can’t quite put her finger on it.
“Just enjoying the view,” Marie finally says.
“I saw you the other day, si?”
“Si, you did.” Marie takes a step closer. “But last time we didn’t have a chance to talk. A favorite hike?” She holds out her hand, gesturing back up the rugged trail.
The girl, rather than follow Marie’s point, stares out toward the water for a long silent moment, then turns back to Marie. “Not really. I mostly had some things, you know, going on. My mind was heavy with a choice that I needed to make. I thought maybe I would find my path out here...in the forest. In the trees with the ocean looking on. Or maybe it would even find me. My sister...her friends...” She stops and looks down, shuffling her sneakered feet in the loose dirt.
Marie touches her lightly on the shoulder and smiles as the girl lifts her head to face her. “I know of what you speak. When I was about your age, I fell into some dark shadows, and had to make some tough choices. My neighborhood, my family, my friends, my life, were all spinning out of control. Lots of peer pressure to...to, well, to do things that didn’t feel right, you know?” Marie tilts her head, her mouth taking a slight twist. “But wait, you say, ‘was heavy with a choice,’ as though you have made your decision?”
“Si,” the girl says with a beaming grin. “But I had to come here one more time. Just to make sure, really sure.” She crosses her arms, kicks at the dirt again, and gazes out through the trees at the blue of the Pacific. “I never see the ocean back home. Just the streets. There’s something about just seeing it that touches you deep inside, pulls at your heart.”
Marie follows her stare and nods. “It most certainly does. The ocean has a way of soothing your soul. It’s why we came up here.”
“But that wasn’t the only reason...was it.” It’s a statement, rather than a question, and Marie is caught off guard by the sureness in her voice.
Marie nods, puts a hand to her chin. “You are perceptive for someone so young. I knew I saw something in your eyes.” She steps back, rocks her neck until there’s a satisfying but quiet pop, and takes in a deep breath. “I grew up in the Valley, one of those ramshackle apartment buildings near Pacoima. My father was never there, much later I learned he went to prison, and my mama was left to do the best she could. She worked cleaning houses, so, you know, it fell on me to stay watching my little hermanos. That was because my older sister, Yolanda, couldn’t handle it. I think she was only 12 when she ran off and joined a gang. But she’d come back now and again, pushing on me to come along. Be one of them.”
“So you left?” The girl poses it as a question, yet, there’s a sense of knowing in her voice.
“Si. It was when I turned 17...“ She stops, something stirring in her head. 17. What is it about 17? About this girl? Marie looks over at her, ever so quiet as her mind races, searches, as if trying to find a lost piece to a puzzle. But that tiny bit stubbornly remains hidden in the shadows, and she shakes her head. “I’m sorry, what was I saying? Oh, yes...when I turned 17 I just woke up one day and realized I had to get away from my sister and her friends. Even my brothers were mixed up in trouble. So much trouble...” Now it’s Marie’s turn to kick at the dirt, surrender to the pull of the ocean’s breeze. “It was hard to just walk away. To let it go. I was lucky, though, as I had a lifeline. Through it all I had managed to keep decent grades in school, and, I had a really good teacher who helped me keep some sanity. Some focus. But most importantly, she’d helped me get a scholarship to college. USC.”
Marie smiles, remembering how she used to use that expression back in high school. The thought causes her to look over the girl yet again, hoping for one more clue, one more reason for this eerie feeling of déjà vu. But the pieces refuse to fall into place and instead she finds herself only more confused.
She continues on. “I was so inspired by her, by all she did, not just for me, but others like me, I knew I had to become a teacher as well.”
“So you taught around here?”
“No...I met my husband at college and after we married and later graduated, we moved to Oxnard. North. Close to Ventura. I taught there in a magnet school while he worked in computer programming down in Newbury Park.”
“Magnet school?” The girl's eyes narrow, her lips purse. “Like science stuff?”
“No, no,” Marie laughs. “They used to bus the Hispanic, okay, Mexican kids, who weren’t proficient in English to a central campus – well, they liked to call it central, it was really in the barrio.” She stops and chuckles. “Anyway, it was a school where they could be taught by bilingual teachers.”
“So you got to help.”
“I like to think so.”
“I think so, too.” The girl cocks her head ever so slightly. “But you have a question, too, right? Something still a little unsettled?”
“My sister died, my brothers went to prison. I always felt that if I had stayed...”
“What? What could you have done? You’re just feeling a bit guilty because you took the effort and had the heart to make a good life. You found your path...and they never even bothered to look for theirs.”
Marie smiles and nods. “Okay, Miss Smarty. Tell me of your decision. You came back seeking validation, some sort of comfort in the choice you made. Have you found your peace?”
“I have. I found you. And now you can be at paz, ah, peace as well, Marie. Go back to your casa del mar and love that husband of yours who’s been so patient while your brain and heart have stirred.”
She touches her lightly on her arm, and sets off down the trail. Marie, stunned with the girl’s last words, stands breathless for a moment, before finally spinning around to say adiós.
But when she turns, the girl is nowhere to be seen, the calm sea breeze all that crosses the empty path.
“How was your hike?” Ray peeks over his shoulder as Marie steps in the door. “You’ve been gone a while.”
“Si, I have, haven’t I? I decided to go up Absolution...” She stops, giving her head a cock. “Absolution Trail,” she says with a grin. “It was good. I saw that girl again, the one I mentioned seeing the other day.” She slides behind him, wraps an arm around his shoulder, and gives him a kiss on the back of the head.
“Ah...well it seems seeing her when you’re taking a little walk is good for both you and me,” he says with a wink and a smile. “Maybe you’ll see her again next time and I’ll get more of this.”
She gives him a playful tap on the arm. “My poor neglected husband.” She takes a deep sigh, letting her gaze fall out the window. “I’m pretty sure our paths have crossed for the last time. I don’t think I’ll be seeing her anymore.”
“Eh? Why not?”
“My little chica has found what she was looking for.”
Ray’s brows arch, a little furrow showing in his forehead. “She did? And...?”
“It was me.”