by Cindy Schneider

She picks up the cup. There is only one. One plate. One fork. The plate spreads out in shards across the cabin floor, knocked off and licked clean by animals. A brown stain makes a perfect circle around the smooth inside of the mug, persisting beyond the time it took for the puddle in the bottom to evaporate. The mug smells of burnt chicory and wood smoke. It speaks of morning after morning of ritual. Of solitude. 

She knows how long this mug has been sitting here. Eight months almost to the day. Half the time between then and now she spent convincing herself this visit could be worthwhile. The other half she spent finding the place. She’d driven the stretch of backroad several times, never sure where to pull over and hike in. In the end, she found the cabin’s clearing over a mile from the road. She fought through dense thickets, smashing into obstinate tree trunks while she checked her compass. Looking for this place, for this isolated life.

The kitchen is small, most of the space consumed by a dented aluminum camp table – the kind Coleman used to make with folding legs and a handle to carry it like a briefcase. Out the dust-veiled window, she pictures him taking the mug to sit on the porch before it gets too hot for warm drinks. He watches the sun play through the thick screen of hemlocks and maples. Pressure builds behind her eyes, across her shoulders. She imagines him right here at the table in this cast-off plastic deck chair, holding the mug, warming his hands as the snow falls. Is he happy? A second chair, tucked neatly under the table’s edge, was probably never used for anything but his feet. She grips the chairback tightly, insisting it give up its secrets. After all the map and compass work, she doesn’t doubt this is the site she’s been looking for, but a sense of futility begins to descend. He left so little behind. No sign of the life before this sparse existence, no sign that he’d ever intended to go back.

She steps to the sink and leans over, the floor’s worn wooden planks complaining. A spoon, with a matching brown stain, perfectly round and scaled down to fit in the little bowl, lies pointing northwest near the drain. So he stirred something into his coffee. She looks around – a sugar canister in the corner. Tin with a tight-fitting lid, it kept everything out but time.

Her mother is right. He didn’t just leave them. He left everything.

Cindy Schneider lives in the Shenandoah Valley. She writes flash fiction and short stories. When she isn’t writing, she is stomping around in the Appalachian wilderness or getting lost in the stacks at a local bookstore.