NO VEHICLES BEYOND THIS POINT, the sign read.
It had once been black and yellow, before the rust took over. I stopped the car, killed the engine, and switched off the headlights. I sat there for a few moments, trying to collect my thoughts.
It was just past 5a.m.
Thankfully, I was alone in the secluded lay-by.
The midnight romancers had long since gone home, and the hikers wouldn’t arrive for some time, if at all. It was, after all, November; not the height of the tourist season by any means, but still, people still came out here to walk their dogs through the woods.
Now was as good a time as any.
Pulling myself together, I climbed out of the car and took a final look around. The night was cold, with a hint of frost in the air. The moon was big and bright overhead, when it showed itself through the sparse cloud cover. It would give me enough light to work by.
Opening the boot of the car, I looked down at the plastic-covered body that was lying within. For a moment, grief overcame me. Seconds became minutes as I stood there, lost in my thoughts.
We had had so many happy memories together over the years; so much sadness near the end.
The woods would be a fitting place for her burial. Jenny had always looked forward to coming here. We would go for long walks together, far off the beaten track; go swimming in the lake if the weather got warm enough, or maybe just sit quietly together at the top of the hill looking down at the calm waters.
Yes, I decided. That would be the spot where I would bury her body.
I dragged the plastic-covered remains out of the boot, apologising whenever I bumped or jostled her. It was stupid really. She couldn’t feel anything. She was dead, but still…
Hefting her onto my shoulder, I grunted at her weight. She’d put on a few pounds during the last few months, more than a few it seemed. Shifting the load until I was happy with my burden, I reached for the shovel. I had a long hike ahead of me. It would be dawn by the time I reached the lake.
“We’d better get this over with,” I muttered. This would be our last walk in the woods together, and the idea burned a painful hole in my chest. “Last one to the top of the hill is a loser,” I joked, trying to lighten the mood. It was a phrase I had always said, whenever we took our walks together. I always lost those races. She had always been fleeter of foot than I. It was our little joke.
This time, I would win … or at least draw.
Setting off down the well-worn path, we made our way gradually deeper into the silent woods. After so many years walking the path, I could have done it blindfolded, so the minimal light didn’t bother me.
By the time we reached the lesser used path that led up to our hill, I was out of breath and my thighs were burning. I must have put on a few pounds myself over these last few months. I hadn’t the heart to go hiking without Jenny. It would have been a betrayal to do so. We had stayed in together by the fire, each of us wrapped up in our own pain.
The ground got steeper, the path harder to see. This was our own personal path, made over long years of hiking together. No one else came this way. The hill did its best to discourage idle ramblers. It liked the solitude as much as we did.
Finally, we reached the top, just as the skies were lightening. It promised to be a wonderful winter’s morning once the mist disappeared from the lake.
I lay Jenny down on the damp ground as carefully as I could and paused to look out at the island in the middle of the lake. That would have been a good place to bury her too, but I didn’t have a boat.
Lifting the shovel, I set to work digging her grave.
There was a small clearing, like a bald spot at the top of the hill, so there were no tree roots here to hamper my task. Half an hour later, I had a decent enough grave dug, and carefully I laid Jenny down within her resting place.
I still couldn’t believe she was gone. I’d had months to prepare myself for this, and yet, I was as ill prepared now as I was on the day that the vet had first told me about her condition.
When she had started to struggle to get off her bed in the morning, I had lain down beside her, stroked her to calm her, and wept. She had tried her best to comfort me, licking my face, and nudging into me with her nose, but I was inconsolable.
Wiping away the tears from my eyes, I filled in the hole. My tears returned as quickly as I could wipe them away, but I persevered and finally, Jenny was laid to rest.
I contemplated saying a few words over the mound that would be her new bed, but we were beyond that. Our bond was deeper than mere words.
In the end, I sat down beside her, and together, we watched the sun burn the mist off the lake.