One Step

One Step

by Edward Ashton

“Do you ever think about falling?”

He looks up from his camp stove. She’s sitting at the cliff’s edge, legs dangling, dark hair hanging loose around her face as she leans out to look down into the valley below.

“Not really,” he says. “I tend to stay away from the edges.”

She leans back against her pack, knits her fingers behind her head and closes her eyes.

“I do,” she says. Her voice is softer now, and he has to strain to hear her over the hiss of the gas canister. “Remember Mary’s Rock?”

He nods, though he knows she can’t see him.

“The sun was setting. We’d just gotten to the summit. You were digging around in your pack looking for your phone or something, and I walked over to the edge to see what I could see. The leaves were just coming in on the other side of the gap and the trucks were crawling along Route 211 like bugs on a stick, and I remember thinking that one step was all it would take. Just close my eyes and take one step forward and then…”

The water in the cook pot is beginning to bubble. He opens a package of noodles and dumps them in, puts the lid on the pot and turns down the flame.

“And then what?” he asks.

“Well,” she says. “That’s the problem, isn’t it? I can see myself taking that step. I can see myself falling. But I can’t picture what happens afterward.”

“Really?” He stands, arches his back and rubs his neck with both hands. The sun is low over the summit behind him, and his shadow stretches across the rock and out into the empty space beyond. “I can picture it pretty well.”

“I can’t,” she says. “I mean, here, we know what we have. Take that step, though, and we’re somewhere else. It might be better, right? It might be the best thing there is. But it might be worse, too. And once you take that step, you can’t take it back.”

He looks at her. Her eyes are still closed.

“No,” he says slowly. “I don’t suppose you can.”

He walks across the rock and carefully sits down next to her. His vision swims as he peers out over the thousand-foot drop. She opens one eye, and gives him a half-smile.

“One step,” she says. “You see?”

She sits up. Their shoulders almost touch.

“It might be better,” she says.

He looks down at his hands.

“Just so we’re clear,” he says. “You’re not trying to get me to kill myself, are you?”

She laughs. Her hand slides across the rock until her fingers brush against his. A truck horn sounds, far down the valley. He closes his eyes, and his world shrinks down to the point where they touch. Her shoulder brushes his. He flinches back, then slowly leans against her until their foreheads touch.

“It might be better,” she says again, her voice barely more than a whisper. His stomach lurches and churns, and he could almost believe that he’s falling. And as the wind rises up to brush her hair across his cheek, he finds that she’s right—he has no idea what happens next.

◊ ◊ ◊

Edward Ashton
Edward Ashton’s short fiction has appeared in dozens of venues ranging from Louisiana Literature to Escape Pod. His first novel, Three Days in April, was released by HarperCollins in September, 2015. You can find him online at edward-ashton.squarespace.com.

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