The fog was finally beginning to thin, but it still shrouded the world that existed in the distance. Trunks of birch trees rose up into the skies, hiding their bare limbs in the gray, as if ashamed of their nakedness. Fallen leaves of red blanketed the sparse forest floor. To Bob, it looked as though they were walking on strawberry cake. Even the steps felt that way, the wet ground yielding to their weight and the soft leaves silencing their sounds. A few paces ahead of him, Susanne walked with her hands stuffed into pockets and her head nestled down into the collar of a thick, gray coat. Its length went down to her knees, but Bob could tell by the way she was walking that she was still very cold. His own hands were in the pockets of his jeans, and one hand gave nervous twists and turns to an inexpensive engagement ring.
She stopped, and so did Bob. Susanne was staring at a small cropping of rocks, an island in the sea of red leaves. It was covered in bright green moss and it gave their scene an unworldly look. Bob turned, rotating fully, to see if the fog had any breaks that revealed the truth of where they were. It didn’t, and for a small moment he pretended they were both somewhere else. Some distant world where money didn’t matter and happiness was the only currency. A world where all you needed was some food in your belly and a warm place to sleep, a place where you shared your deepest thoughts with very special company and none of the petty, superficial problems of the Earth could—
“I’m freezing,” Susanne said, turning to face him. Her cheeks were rosy and her bangs were damp and clinging to her forehead. “I can’t believe you talked me into this. Why did you want to take a walk out here on a day like this?”
The question seized Bob’s nerves and his fingers gripped the ring. A paranoid thought burst through his mind, one where the surprise was known and the whole charade was for naught. His eyes were wide, and Susanne gave him a crossed look. He finally shrugged his shoulders. “Don’t you think it’s neat? With all the fog? And the trees and the leaves on the ground like this, the colors. It’s like we’re on another planet.”
She sighed, hunching forward to try and bury herself further into the jacket. “I don’t want to be on a different planet. I want to be in inside where it’s warm.”
He fiddled with the ring again. His heart was pounding. The moisture permeating his clothing, previously so cold, instantly converted to sweat, and he had the sudden urge to shed his own jacket.
“Bob,” she said with exasperation, “we need to talk.” She came toward him, and Bob saw the bags under her eyes. With her tired figure standing in front of him, the green island of stones in the red sea of leaves lost its charm. I could have proposed right there, he thought. “I don’t know if I can do this anymore,” she said.
“Do what?” he asked.
Her face strained. “You know,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “This.”
His fingers slowed the spinning ring in his pocket as his eyes read her face. The look she gave him pleaded, like a criminal sentenced to death begging for a stay of execution. It begged for mercy, to be spared the events that were coming. Her face begged for an easy exit.
He considered then, to give it up. To let her have what she wanted, to let her be free. The forces of life that were pulling them their separate ways were creating an unbearable strain. Bitterness had supplanted smiles. Shouting replaced laughs. The tie that once bound them had withered away to nothing more than the reluctance of two young lovers not wanting to endure the final break, to acknowledge that their love had faded. An engagement was the last stand of a losing battle, a lost battle. He let the ring fall freely to the bottom of his pocket as a new set of fears gripped his heart, those of giving her up.
“Well,” he said, “if you’re cold, we can go back.”
The strain on her face faded, but it was not relieved. The execution had been stayed, but only for a few days. She looped an arm through his, and they walked together through the fog filled trees and over the red leaves in silence.