“Path to Empathy” is my story for the 83rd episode of The Word Count Podcast. The theme for this season is Landscapes, and my story is based on the following image named: “The Long Walk.”
Story Inspiration: I wrote this story after hearing two news items. One had to do with an Amber Alert that went off in mid February. Amber Alert is a nation-wide emergency system that disseminates information about a missing person (usually a child). In this particular case, it involved an 11-year-old girl in the Toronto area. The alert went off late in the evening around 11:30PM.
The next morning, I learned that police found the girl’s body—killed by her father.
Not long afterward, a news story emerged about irritated commuters on one of our train systems. The trains were running late as someone had jumped into the tracks.
In both instances, people were annoyed. In the first incident, they were woken up by their cell phones announcing the details of a missing child. In the second, they were delayed getting to their destinations.
These people were inconvenienced.
But … a child died … and someone took their own life.
My disgust at the lack of humanity became the basis for this story.
You can also listen to me reading “Path to Empathy” on episode 83 of R.B. Wood’s podcast.
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I slowed my pace but did not come to a full stop. The sight of the orange sky was breathtaking, but in the cold of the setting sun, it made more sense to continue walking. With another kilometre to go before exiting this part of the Beltway Trail, we could take in the view without standing still.
Hard and fast footsteps behind us made me pause. A muffled Excuse me nudged me closer to the man beside me.
“Thanks,” said an elderly woman as her boots crunched atop the snowy surface past us. “Have a good night.”
“Good night,” we both said. I watched her power walk ahead of us. Directly on her heels was a middle-aged couple with a dog obediently by their side. They also skirted by us, mumbling a quick Thanks as they continued on their way.
Normally, I would be the one impatiently weaving around the slow walkers on this ten-kilometre path. The Beltway Trail connected several midtown neighbourhoods via a mix of woods and ravines. Joggers and cyclists packed the trail in the warmer months to traverse the city from east to west. Even though the cold weather meant less foot traffic, those who lived in the neighbourhood still used the path as an alternative to busy streets. When Joe suggested we go for a hike, I thought he meant somewhere outside the city, a more challenging path with hills and changing terrain. The Beltway was hardly what I would call hiking.
“This is a nice view,” Joe said. “Mind if we stop here for a sec. I’m feeling a bit winded.”
I already knew that before Joe spoke. I looked over my shoulder and saw no one behind us. “It’s getting dark. We should probably try to get to the next intersection.” Joe placed his gloved hands on his hips and hinged forward at the waist. “Are you okay?” I asked.
“A little out of shape, I guess.” When he righted himself, he mimicked a fire-breathing dragon with his erratic breaths. “You walk too fast,” he said in an admonishing tone.
“Really? You think you might need to sit down?” I tried to sound concerned, but my tone came off as annoyed, maybe even judgmental. I mean, we’d only been walking an hour.
Joe waved a dismissive hand at me. “Just give me a sec to catch my breath, will ya?” He unraveled the scarf around his neck, his breathing loud and uneven.
“Sure.” He took several steps away from me, and I turned my back to him. Now, I was annoyed, and not just at Joe—but at myself. I could’ve been at home warm and cozy in my pajamas. Instead, here I was in below freezing temperatures.
Joe coughed loudly and my shoulders inched up to my ears. When he disgorged something from his throat and spat, I swallowed my disgust. I was just about to tell him that we should get going when a thud shook the earth behind me.
The ambulance took close to eight minutes to arrive after I called 9-1-1 and before I tried to perform CPR. Joe had fallen face first, and it took all my strength to roll him on to his back.
The policewoman looked at me with sympathetic eyes as the medics lifted Joe on to the stretcher. Even while seated in the cruiser with a blanket wrapped around me, I was still shivering.
“So, how do you know this man?” the officer asked.
“Umm … He was a first date … You know, a pity date.”
She grimaced with the expression. “I see, what did he tell you about himself?” She looked at the information she had gathered from Joe’s ID.
I hated to sound like I knew so little, but it was the truth. “I only know what he wrote in his profile. Loves the outdoors, hiking, biking, has a zest for life. We spoke for the first time a couple of days ago and didn’t get to talk much today.”
“Because we were walking briskly, or as he said … I was walking too fast for him. He couldn’t walk and talk at the same time.” I almost felt bad for ratting him out, but I didn’t care enough to spare his feelings to a stranger. Besides you can’t spare the feelings of a dead man. “Look officer, he misled me from the start. In person, Joe looked twenty years older with less hair and more weight than the selfies on his dating profile. I felt sorry for him … He wasn’t exactly who he said he was, but I went out with him anyway. I could’ve been home watching Netflix. Dating is brutal … you know what it’s like, right?”
The policewoman put down her notebook and looked me in the eyes. “I’m afraid I don’t know what it’s like,” she said. “A man died tonight. You will have other dating opportunities. He won’t. Think about that.”
She got out of the car and slammed the door.
Your comments, questions are always welcome! More of my stories can be found under Free Reads.