Roots

“It was here,” Abigail muttered as she paced back and forth over the clearing.

“You should have seen it, Jesse. The branches were so thick that you couldn’t even see the sky when you sat by the trunk.” She paused, wiped away a tear, and looked up at the sky.

“I left a piece of my soul here,” she whsipered, and sat down in the dirt.

I looked down at my watch. Dusk was beginning to fall around us. A lightning bug flashed to my right, and a mosquito bit into my arm.

“We only have a little longer before it’s too dark to see anything, Abby. Maybe we should just head back,” I said.

She didn’t respond at first–just stared at a blade of grass she twirled in her hand. When she began to speak, her voice trembled with sadness.

“This place was so different a decade ago. I used to come out here all the time by myself in the summer. I always preferred to be alone. There is something about the sound of the forest when you are the only human in earshot. When you are still for a while, the animals begin to trust you. They emerge from their hiding places and walk right by you like you aren’t even there.”

“Except the mosquitoes,” I muttered bitterly.

“Yes, except those.”

She sighed and I sat down next to her, surprised to find the ground hard beneath me. Before I could say anything, she continued.

“One morning, in my early twenties, I came out here with a mission. A man who claimed to love me had given me a necklace with my birthstone in it. I remember thinking it odd since he always forgot my birthday. When he left me, I kept it for weeks, hoping he would return. He didn’t, and with each passing day it became heavier around my neck.

I buried it at the base of my favorite tree with a note for the person who found it that said something like, ‘I hope this necklace brings you joy, because it has only brought me sorrow.’

I left, and life began to move so fast that I forgot to visit again until I saw you sitting in the coffee shop last week. I couldn’t take my eyes off your necklace. I knew I’d seen it before, but I had to be sure.”

My hands instinctively went to my throat and touched the small charm. She turned to me, her eyes searching mine for an explanation.

“The tree isn’t here, Jesse. I left the necklace, and every trace of who I was is gone.”

I took her hands in mine, fighting the urge to cry myself. I did not owe her, an almost perfect stranger, any explanation. Yet, we both spoke the language of heartbreak, and letting go was a choice I could not make for her.

“I’ve only had it a few years,” I began. “It was a gift from a hiking buddy of mine. He always wanted me to go on long hikes and camping trips with him. He couldn’t stay in one place. On his last trip, he decided to spend a few weeks on the Applachian Trail. It was right after the first hurricane of the season, and the trails were damaged in several spots. He wasn’t prepared for that and got lost. They found his body a couple of weeks after he was supposed to check in around Bristol. This is the last thing he gave me.”

I lifted my hands to unclasp the necklace, and passed it to Abigail.

“And as for your tree,” I added, patting the ground, “It may be gone, but the roots are still buried beneath us.”

Abigail’s eyes widened and she placed one hand on the soil next to her, frantically feeling the remaining roots of the missing tree. Then, she threw her arms around me and pressed her face into my shoulder. When she pulled away, the necklace was around my neck once more.

“I’m so glad,” she whispered, “that everything with a past has the opportunity to start again. How blessed are we, Jesse, to witness that?”

We left, hand-in-hand, both stunned to silence. The stars balanced on branches in the night sky as we made our way back to our cars. Crickets sang, fireflies danced, and the heart of the forest continued to beat.

 

(Writing prompt from http://www.thinkwritten.com: Pick a few words from the start of an article in a magazine and write a story or poem about it. This story was written in response to an article in the October 2018 issue of National Geographic (page 26) that began, “A fallen tree in a forest may seem unremarkable…”.)

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Coward’s Play

A preacher once told me that the bible says, “Fear is the absence of love.”*

Maybe that’s why I am so afraid to apologize, to remember, to forget, and to forgive Thomas for what he put me through. Because the truth is, I never really loved Thomas, and I don’t think he ever loved himself. If I could rewrite his obituary now, maybe I’d say that instead of the fluffy nonsense about how he would be missed. No one misses that boy, not even his own mother.

Sometimes people are so reckless, they awaken demons just for the entertainment. Thomas was one of those people. He was too young, or too stupid, to know what he was doing. He burned all his bridges on the way to hell, just to feel the warmth.

A few nights before a search party discovered his body in the swamps, he stumbled up onto my front porch. His blonde hair was crusted with dirt, and he was trembling despite the summer heat. His shirt was torn, but that was nothing new. It was unusual, however, for him to be missing a shoe.

I sighed and placed my book on the porch table.

“What did you get into this time, Tommy?” I asked.

His eyes were wild, red, and puffy. He scanned the front yard as though he were a cat, trapped in a corner.

“How long,” he stammered, “How long have I been gone?”

“At least a week this time,” I replied, studying him closer. “The sheriff is looking for you.”

He kept one hand on the railing, and slid down to sit on the top stair, facing out into the darkness. Less annoyed than curious, I moved to sit next to him. When I touched his back, he stiffened. 

“What did you get into this time?” I repeated.

At first, I thought he wasn’t going to answer. Then, he turned his head to look at me. I’d never seen him so frightened. 

“You’re going to think I’m crazy,” he whispered. “Hell, I think I’m crazy.”

“Thomas, you’ve been drinking for days. I smell it all over you. I’m sure you just had some sort of dehydration-induced nightmare. Why don’t you go inside, shower, and then we will talk.”

“There’s no time!” he shouted and stood. “We are in danger, and it has something to do with those damn coyotes I killed last summer. They’re back, and they brought someone, or something, with them.”

“What do you mean ‘they’re back’?” I asked, incredulously. “You said you killed the whole pack. I saw the ones you used for bait strung up in the trees by the pond. I smelled the smoke when you burned the rest of the remains. We may have coyotes again, but come on, Tommy, you know they are not the same ones.”

In the distance, I heard the unmistakable sound of a howl. It was unusual to hear them in broad daylight. I felt chills rush down my spine.

“They are the same ones,” he said, quietly. “I saw their shadows circling by the pond in the twilight. I’d just woken up, thirsty, and reached for my last beer. I heard a rustling sound in the bushes. When I saw their shapes, I grabbed my gun and fired off a few shots. That’s when I heard the laughter.”

He wiped his brow and continued, “I asked the person to show themselves. ‘Come on out,’ I said, ‘unless you’re a coward!’ Then the calmest voice I’ve ever heard replied, ‘I’m no coward, Thomas. I do not run from my mistakes. You, on the other hand, know a little something of running, don’t you?’”

“In the silence, I could only hear the dogs panting and my own heartbeat. Then, the bushes began to move, and a woman came out. At least, I think she was a woman. I couldn’t see her face. She was wearing a mask made of bones. Her hair was long, tangled, and matted with blood. She had a dog on both sides of her, and these fangs that glistened in the moonlight. I could see them from the boat.”

“Thomas, I…”

“No, listen. She said she couldn’t swim, but she invited me to the shore. When I refused, she said she would give me a choice. She called it the ‘Coward’s Play.’ I could pay for the blood I’ve spilled with my life or the life of someone I love. She gave me two nights to think it over. I stayed on the boat until sunrise, and then I came straight here.”

“Thomas, it sounds like you had a hallucination or a bad dream,” I began. “Either way, you need to go see the sheriff to clear up a few things. He had questions about a hit and run on the outskirts of town on the night you went missing. I can’t get you out of this one, kiddo, and neither can some silly ghost story.”

He closed the distance between us, and put his hands on both sides of my face. 

“This is real, momma,” he whispered. “She’s going to come for one of us.”

Sirens echoed just down the road. He bolted up, my frightened rabbit, and looked at me with a mixture of genuine fear and sadness. He said nothing more before he ran off, back to his sanctuary in the woods. 

I waited for the police car, my eyes following him as it pulled into our driveway. Too old to chase my son, and too young to bury him.

I sometimes wonder if Thomas was more afraid to live than to die. Either way, he was right. The coyotes are back. They howl outside my bedroom window every night. In the end, I guess we all pay for our sins. The thing I fear most now is not knowing which ghost will come for me.

 

 

*1 John 4:19

Fireworks Season

Written for April Words3, theme: Wanderlust.

“In the neon light from his dashboard, his chiseled facial features looked ethereal. It was hard to imagine that he could be manipulative or dangerous. My eyes travelled to his hands as they fidgeted on the steering wheel, and the illusion disappeared. Blood and dirt were caked beneath his short fingernails. I wondered how long it had been there, and turned away quickly as it dawned on me that the blood may not have been his own.

‘Where are we going?’ I asked, a slight tremble in my voice.

‘Why?’ he replied, flashing a smile as his blue eyes turned to meet mine. ‘You got some place else to be?’
Anywhere, I think, but I knew better than to say it out loud.

‘Of course not, Glen,’ I whispered, sliding my hand up his arm. 

‘Good,’ he said, and winked at me. ‘I’ve got a surprise for you. I know Christmas wasn’t the best this year.’

His voice trailed off, and my mind slipped back to our empty duplex, sparsely decorated for the holiday we would not spend together. On Christmas Eve, he left to buy a few final gifts with money he’d somehow acquired despite losing his job a month prior. He kissed me, and left before I could argue. 

He didn’t turn up again until early January. By then, his bags were packed and the locks were changed on the front door. We barely spoke when I let him in to claim them, and he sauntered out like I was just another piece of furniture he’d cast off in an eviction. No explanations, no begging for forgiveness. Just a light switched off.

That was, of course, until that night in June.

I suppose summertime does that to a person. It makes us hit the road looking for fireworks in nostalgic places. Sometimes, when we can’t find them, we have to make our own.

So he showed up around midnight, making all kinds of promises and apologizing for things that I am, to this day, sure were meant for someone other than me. I stood on the porch of our duplex, arms crossed, and unrelenting. 

Finally, he pulled his button up shirt back to reveal a pistol tucked into his jeans and said, ‘Just get in the car.’

And, not knowing what else to do, I did. It was fireworks season, after all.

Thirty minutes in to our rendezvous, his eyes strained as he looked out of the windshield onto the side of the highway. 

‘Pay attention, Char. Look at the trees.’

I followed his gaze to the evergreens that ran along I45. 

‘There!’ he exclaimed and jerked us over to the side of the road. He’d barely stopped the car when he threw open his door and shouted, ‘Come on!’

‘Glen,’ I began, ‘you don’t have to do this.’

He slammed his door and slid over the hood. Then he opened my door and held out his hand. Suddenly, I wasn’t afraid anymore.

‘It isn’t far,’ he said, ‘I promise. You can see it from the road in the daylight.’

We walked in silence for a few minutes, my hand still locked in his, and then he stopped.

‘Can you see it?’ he asked, pointing to a tree a few yards from the road.

I nodded. It was beautiful. Right there on I45, in the middle of June, an evergreen stood out from the rest. It was covered in silver tinsel and dozens of bulbs of all sizes and colors. 

‘That, my queen, is for you. Merry Christmas.’

I don’t remember how long we stood there, my hand in his, as cars raced by behind us. But he took me home in the early hours of morning, kissed my hand on what had been our doorstep, and vanished back into a world where promises are made to be broken and Christmas comes in June.

So you see, Officer, I am afraid I didn’t realize I was trespassing today. These bones are getting old, and I don’t move as fast as I did back then. It’s getting harder to drive on the highway so late at night. But summer is here, and my ghosts are coming out to play in the heat. I’m feeling a little nostalgic. Won’t you give me back my decorations and let a little old lady have one last Christmas in June?”