2017 Tray Ellis
by Tray Ellis at Smashwords
and Design by R. J. Doland
2017 R.J. Doland
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"According to the
information I received from the locals at the diner, the location
should be just off the trail at the big rock." Dr. Gayle Fenwick
reread the scribbled words. She'd jotted the directions down that
morning from the recounting of several people she'd talked to in the
town diner. She and her co-researcher, Dr. Lena Spinney, traveled to
this small town expressly to follow up on an urban legend. Or not so
urban, as the folklore-like tale led them into the woods and up a
That looks like a giant rock to me," said Lena. She pointed at
the hunkering gray stone sitting in the crook of the trail. "Now
right hand turn off the trail, go a couple hundred paces, and it
should be there." Gayle scouted to the side. "Here.
There's a smaller trail. Well-traveled. There are tracks in the snow
a curiosity. Everyone wants to see it."
hope they haven't trampled all over the site." Gayle pulled her
wool hat from her pocket and put it back on her head. In the middle
of February, with fresh snow over the ground, she and Lena strapped
on snowshoes to make this trek, and while the exercise warmed up her
hands and feet and caused heat to escape from her head, her ears
still burned with the cold when she didn't wear the hat for even a
few minutes. She'd spent the walk taking the hat on and off, and
felt slightly cross about the whole thing.
and Lena trudged along the smaller trail for a short distance and
then both gasped as the trail ended in a small open space. Snow
covered the tree limbs and through the small glade, including a
modest mound of earth in the center. At first, Gayle thought the
snow to be continuous, but as she looked more attentively, she
realized that was partly an illusion because the flowers bloomed pure
white. In front of the mound, the snow had melted away. Instead, a
lush patch of small white flowers flourished.
fantastic," Gayle agreed. "I can't believe it's here."
took off her backpack where she'd stowed her camera and other note
taking tools. "We need to get some soil samples," she said.
"But photos first."
leaned against a small tree and stared at the sight. "Flowers in
winter," she said.
spring, summer, and fall. Supposedly," Gayle said. "Ever
blooming. We'll have to come back a few more times to be sure. Do you
recognize the plant?"
crouched down. "Not yet. I need to get closer. Take your photos
first." Lena shook her head. "It's incredible."
is wondrous strange," Gayle agreed.
do you think the story the locals told to explain the phenomena has
any root in truth?" Lena asked. She brought out a sketch book
and began to draw a diagram of the scene, and likenesses of the
scientifically silly," Gayle said. "But who knows?"
She pulled the paper with her scribbles out. "We have the names
of the two men. They still live in the same house, even after twenty
years. Perhaps after we interview them, we can put the rumors to
maybe, we'll find there's some truth in the fiction," said Lena.
"Either way, it's gorgeous."
way," Gayle echoed. She paused in taking the photos, and
stretched out from her spot to touch a petal of the closest flower.
"It is beautiful. A gift from the forest."
Twenty years ago…
"Fine! Go to hell!
See if I care!" Hayden shouted from the threshold of the front
door. He gave the screen door an extra push so it would slam
particularly hard. When it crashed against the frame, a thrill of
satisfaction coursed through Hayden's body, and he stomped away.
late autumn day rustled with the fallen leaves underneath his boots
and smelled of rain coming later. For the moment, it was brightly
sunny and dry, but gloomy clouds off in the far horizon warned of a
soaking rain on its way. Hayden didn't care. He vibrated with too
much anger and energy to worry about getting wet. Being rained on
would be the least of his concerns. At the moment, all he knew was
that he was radiantly pissed at Russ. He backtracked over their
morning's argument and huffed with indignation over each slight and
accusation. Hayden pulled his fair share in the house. He worked
just as many hours as Russ, and he stayed on top of chores as well as
keeping their bills paid and accounts settled. Russ was
power-tripping! Russ was out of his ever-lovin' mind!
stomped to the end of their driveway and looked back at the house.
Damn it, Russ should have been the one to get out, not Hayden. But
he couldn't go back now.
looked left. If he walked that way, he could go into town. A
two-mile distance, it would take less than half an hour to get there,
and Hayden could stop in at a dozen places where he knew people. Or
go and see his parents, who lived just off Main Street. Or his older
brother, who usually listened well and gave good advice.
Hayden didn't want to talk to anyone. He liked being good and mad,
and the righteous, persecuted emotions roiling around his bloodstream
gave him a heady thrill of energy. He wasn't ready to calm down yet
nor have anyone talk his ear off.
blocks later, he passed the entrance to the trailhead for Bear
Mountain and kept hiking. Even this late in the fall, there would be
hours of daylight. He could make the summit and be back down well
the first ten minutes, Hayden still steamed. He thought about what
Russ said and how he'd responded, and then he looped through the
entire thing again and again. Hayden gravitated to the expression on
Russ' face when he'd started the whole conversation and how it had
just irked Hayden to his core.
thought about that. Why had Russ' expression been so damned annoying?
people thought Russ had the explosive temperament, since he sported
dark auburn hair and that old stereotype never died, but Hayden
harbored the hair-trigger personality. Blond and blue-eyed, Hayden
looked like a bright sunny summer day, but darkness clouded his
emotions. He plumbed the depths of petulance and irritation, and
snapped in an instant. When he got a good snit going, it took a lot
of effort to calm himself down.
he attempted to do now. Hayden rollicked with anger at Russ and his
expectations of responsibility, but deep down, Hayden wanted to let
off all that steam so he could go back home and have a civil
conversation. He loved Russ too much to stay home and embroil them
into a deeper fight, a more painful tirade. So, he'd left and would
stay away until he'd released all this unmanageable outrage.
came to a series of stones in the path forming a natural, though
uneven, staircase and the introspection drifted away. Hayden didn't
want to think about any of that right now. He should focus on hiking
and enjoying the fine autumn day.
hiked this path dozens and dozens of times. The nature path remained
a constant through his life, a place of escape and a powerful source
of tranquility when all else failed. He'd walked it with his parents
as a kid, and he'd walked it in high school with guys he'd wanted to
make time with. During the long days of summer, he and Russ could
make it to the top and back after work with daylight to spare.
Thinking of Russ again brought a heat to Hayden's face.
was still pissed about that stupid argument.
quickened his pace. Lower, the path consisted of packed-in dirt
surrounded by tall trees and brush, except for one length that
traversed an open meadow, a remnant of an abandoned farm. It stayed
that way nearly to the top, where more rocks jutted out and scrub
overtook the trees. What trees survived the wind and harsher
conditions were stunted and twisty, mostly evergreens with brittle
few interesting spots presented along the trail. The first was the
stone staircase, which could be slippery when wet. The second, of
which Hayden currently caught sight, was a hunk of rock known as a
glacial erratic, a stone dropped off by the slow moving field of ice
from thousands of years ago. A little bigger than a car, and a
scrambling climb that provided a lot of fun, the boulder marked the
halfway point. Higher up along the trail were two locations where
hikers piled stones on top of each other into precariously balanced
scowled as he neared the boulder. He'd liked it when he had the trail
to himself. Another man lounged against the erratic, sipping water
from a canteen. He smiled when he saw Hayden and waved.
there," he said. "Nice day for a walk."
said Hayden. He didn't feel polite, but he forced himself to respond.
"Sure is." He kept moving along, but the man pushed away
from the rock and started walking just behind.
here often?" the man asked.
kicked a small stone on the path, and it skittered off into the
undergrowth beside the trail. "Yeah. A lot."
good. I hope you don't mind if I tag along. I'm unfamiliar with this
trail, but it was highly recommended in a guide book. Is the summit
halfway there," Hayden said, and wondered if he should be blunt
and tell the guy to get lost or if he should just ignore him and hope
he left him alone.
annoying hiker looked young and healthy. He wore a plain green
sweatshirt and khaki shorts, and his muscled calves were on display.
Under his baseball cap, also plain green, he had brown hair and eyes
so dark they seemed to swallow up the meager light filtering in
through the bare branches above. Hayden looked away.
slowed his pace, but the man didn't get the hint and slowed down to
match Hayden's stride.
a lot of hikers today. I was waiting for a while before you came
my intrusion, but you seem bothered. Has something upset you?"
turned to glare, but the man's earnest expression curtailed the sharp
words he'd planned. "Yeah," he said. "I got in a fight
with my boyfriend."
so sorry," the guy said, his voice exactly the right shade of
sympathy and understanding. "What were you fighting about?"
just it," Hayden said. "I'm not sure anymore. At first it
was the usual stuff. I left a pile of dishes in the sink last night.
I'd left wet laundry in the machine. But then we started arguing, and
we seemed to keep fighting just for the sake of fighting."
Hayden shook his head. "I think sometimes he likes to point out
like he doesn't deserve you," the man said.
words hung in the air for a long moment, and Hayden thought about
them. He liked the way they sounded, they fed into his indignation
and it felt good. "Thanks," he said.
the way, my name is Greige."
real pleasure to meet you, Hayden." Greige smiled. "What
say we get to the top of this and see the view."
Hayden turned his attention back to the path. The entire hike, from
bottom to top and back again, usually took about four hours. They had
a little less than an hour to go before they'd reach the top.
stopped talking after that, and Hayden realized he missed the
conversation. Greige sounded like he understood about arguments and
having a bad day, or being in a lousy mood. Also, he was easy to hike
with. He walked at Hayden's pace, never faster or slower, and stayed
a respectful distance behind.
they passed the two small towers of stones, Greige touched his
fingertips to the top stones and murmured something Hayden couldn't
hear. Greige didn't restart the conversation. Hayden couldn't think
of anything to say, so he stayed silent. A smidgeon of anger from his
argument with Russ still burned like an ember, and Hayden sank back
they crested the last portion of the path and reached the top. The
surface consisted of thin patches of dirt and moss over rock painted
with centuries of lichen. Bear Mountain was a pretentious title since
the hill didn't quite make the stature of a mountain.
found a view not obscured by the scrubby trees, and he spent a few
minutes enjoying the space and distance. The gray clouds loomed
closer, but the entire view still put the world into perspective.
Everything seemed smaller as part of the whole world, and the glory
of nature spread out as far as he could see. A few roads twined
across the landscape, and he could see a handful of houses, all tiny
at this distance.
the top, after the long walk, he felt a sense of ease and peace he
hadn't earlier. His churlishness at Russ subsided, the last ember of
resentment finally burning out. Hayden keyed up too much, and perhaps
he'd been a bit of a jerk. A sense of gratitude at Russ for putting
up with Hayden's baloney drifted into his mind, and he was a little
embarrassed at his flare up.
better?" Greige asked. He pulled out his water bottle and sipped
at it as he also gazed out at the vista.
I am." Part of the reason Hayden dashed out of the house was to
go for a long walk to calm down his fiery temperament. He took a deep
breath and let it out slowly. He was ready to head down and face
Russ again, and make things right. "I'm going down."
Greige stared out at the horizon. "Looks like the storm is
coming in faster than expected. Feels like a cold one, too."
Greige didn't look like he'd tag along again, but then at the last
moment, he turned and trotted to catch up with Hayden. "Hope you
don't mind if I accompany you."
return trip started quietly. Neither Hayden nor Greige spoke. Only
the sound of their footsteps in the crunching leaves filled the air
as they made their way back down the path. A few minutes after
leaving the summit, Hayden felt a splash of wetness on his face. He
waited, paying attention to his skin, and felt another few drops.
starting to rain," Hayden said. He'd left the house with regular
sneakers on, not hiking boots, and only the jeans and flannel shirt
he'd worn in the house. The sneakers were adequate for dry weather,
but descending in wet conditions could be tricky. The path would get
muddy, and the areas with rocks and stone would become slick. The
flannel shirt and jeans had been enough protection against the brisk
temperature while he kept moving, but if he got wet, he'd be bitterly
cold very quickly. "We should hurry before it gets too
slippery." He transitioned from his previous casual saunter to a
trot. They had descended about halfway, and he expected to see the
glacial erratic boulder at any moment.
just rain," said Greige from behind him. "Hail."
pellets of ice sprinkled over Hayden. He held up his arm and watched
the particles bounce off. "That's better than rain," he
said. "We won't get wet." Then he realized the pelting
hurt, and the wind kicked up into freezing gusts. Hayden's thin
flannel shirt did little to protect him from the barrage. More
stormed down, and the hail increased in size. The dust-sized specks
ramped up in diameter to that of peas. Each one stung, and the
ferocity of the storm still grew.
getting bigger!" Greige covered his head with one arm. "I
know where there's shelter. We can wait out the worst of it. Follow
me!" He burst past Hayden and motioned forward, to the side of
bombardment continued and Hayden sprinted to keep up with Greige.
With his hands covering his head and face, he ran blindly, keeping
his attention focused on the ground so he wouldn't trip on a root or
a hole. Branches whipped at his body, and thorns tore at his sleeves
and the hems of his pants. They left the well-worn trail and plunged
off to the side, and Hayden lost his sense of direction.
Greige shouted. "We can wait it out here."
couldn't quite see what Greige meant, but he dashed in behind him.
The air changed from cold and damp to warm and smelling of dirt.
Something slammed shut behind him and Hayden pulled up short.
is this?" he asked. Greige had brought him to a small room of
some sort, with earthen walls and ceiling. Roots dangled out, as if
the area had been recently dug. Dimly lit from a few small holes
poked into the sides of the earthen crypt, Hayden could see across
the entire space. Uneasy, Hayden stepped back. He felt for the door
but couldn't even find the seams. "Greige?"
the scant light, Greige looked different. His arms stretched long
and thin, and his fingers branched out, more root-like than
finger-like. His skin turned mottled green and brown, and his eyes
burned with an uncanny darkness. "Welcome to my home,"
Greige said, and even his voice had changed. Instead of the honey
warm empathy Hayden expected, Greige's tone had grown cold. "This
is my domain. My land! You came here to pollute it with your hate.
You've always come here with your anger and your passions."
Hayden put his back against the wall of dirt and rubbed his hands
behind him, seeking the entrance and hopefully his exit. "I
shook his head, and his lank hair swished across his face. "So
many come here to do the same. Take a walk through nature, you think.
Release all that pent up dark energy into my lands, into my friends,
the trees and rocks. The life that grows here, that thrives here.
There is enough sunshine and warmth in the summer that your fury can
be absorbed. And in the winter, we are all asleep, and your turmoil
cannot sink in. But now? Now?" Greige barred his teeth, and
they looked bleached white and sharp. "We are raw. We are tired
from growing, and ready to sleep. And all you do is come here and
sow discord and pain. No more. No more from you."
didn't mean to," Hayden said, attempting to placate the
dangerous man. He couldn't quite make sense of the words, though he
understood the precariousness of his situation. "I didn't know."
He half turned, keeping a wary eye on Greige, and scrabbled at the
wall. He'd come in through here. There had to be a way to get back
out. Fear stabbed at him, and he pushed it away, holding it at bay.
He couldn't let himself panic. He didn't know who or what Greige
might be, but Hayden needed his wits. "I won't do it again. You
just have to tell me. I'll never do it again, I promise."
know you'll never do it again," Greige said. He leaned back
against the earthen wall and spread his arms and legs, sinking into
the dirt. His arms and legs stretched out, growing in length and
size, wrapping around the perimeter of the pit. The entire space
became alive with the writhing of roots. "When you've stopped
breathing, you'll stop leaching into my lands. Stop hurting my
space grew smaller, tighter, and Hayden realized Greige meant to
suffocate him, to bury him alive. "Greige, stop, please! I
apologized! I said I was sorry!" Hayden stumbled forward.
is not enough, and it's far too late." Greige closed his eyes
and sank into the dirt, vanishing except for the tendrils of roots
with which he'd encircled the room.
a moment, fear threatened to overwhelm Hayden, but then the familiar
spark of anger bloomed all through him. If he had to fight his way
out, then he would.
rushed to the small holes in the wall through which light and cold
air streamed, and he pushed his fingers through and dug at the wall.
The earth moved against him, crushing him, burying him. The dampness
of it pressed against his clothes, soaking through and chilling his
skin and sinking deep into his muscles. Infinite coldness waited for
him, buried beneath this sodden grave, and the fear of this fate
spurred Hayden to scramble harder against it.
flooded through him, and Hayden gasped for air and clawed against the
crumbling, shifting dirt. As soil built around him, he thought of
Russ and felt incalculable sadness. He loved Russ. The anger and
argument had been temporary and about the inconsequential drudgeries
of life. Would Russ ever find him, his body? Know that he hadn't
stormed off forever on purpose?
punched into the wall of dirt in front of him and felt his hand break
through into air. Elation lasted a moment, and then fear flared as
the dirt pulled him back in. He punched again, desperate and fighting
against hopelessness, and this time felt his hand grabbed on the
other side. Someone clutched at him and pulled, yanking him out. For
a moment his shoulders strained and his joints ached at the pressure
exerted, but then something released, and the dirt tumbled down as if
it had always been soft, loose, sandy soil and not as thick and
treacherous as clay. Hayden fell free.
Hayden? Can you speak?"
gasped in air and shook his head to clear the crumbles of dirt from
his eyes. "Russ?" The ground beneath his body was cold, and
past Russ he could see the branches of the trees coated in ice. The
freezing rain and hardened hail had ceased, leaving icy traces of its
man, Hayden, what happened?" Russ looked awful. His eyes were
wild, patent panic mixed with relief and bewilderment obvious above
the rest of it. "You've been gone for hours. The weather got
bad, and no one knew where you were. Are you okay? Tell me you're
okay," Hayden croaked out, and then wrapped his arms around Russ
and kissed him. After a moment of surprise, Russ kissed him back,
his lips warm, soft, and familiar. The scent of must and earth fled
from Hayden to be replaced by the familiar smell of Russ. He tasted
good and smelled of home and safety.
kissed more insistently. He was too cold, too nearly numb with
distress and relief, to do anything more, but this kiss meant
everything. They pressed into each other, as close as skin and wet
clothing allowed, in the mire and muck of the glade they made for
themselves with their bodies. The previous argument dissolved into
nothing. There was only Russ, and Hayden's deep, burning, abiding
love for this man. Passion flared through Hayden, a promise of
lovemaking to come later and an assurance of a lifetime to be spent
together, and the way Russ kissed back, Hayden knew both would be
kiss faded until they were left gazing at each other. Russ looked
pleased, with a sleepy, soft smile on his lips and heavily lidded
eyes. Hayden felt as if he glowed with an inner fire of love that
filled his body, pulsating out from his core and into his limbs and
beyond. A sense of satisfaction and calmness flowed over Hayden.
said, "How did you find me?" and it meant more than just
that. It contained "I love you" and "You came looking
for me" and "I am not alone."
answered, "I thought you'd come to the trail, and I saw a scrap
of fabric off to the side." It contained "I love you"
and "I've paid attention to who you are" and "You are
worth everything to me."
you," Hayden said, and those words covered a multitude of
reasons for being thankful.
go home," Russ said. "A hot shower, some hotter coffee, and
you can tell me what's happened." He clasped Hayden in his arms,
and Hayden hugged back. "And never do this again," Russ
got to their feet, and walked a few yards away. Hayden looked back
at the scene where he'd almost met a terrible fate.
Amphitheater-like, trees ringed the perimeter around the mostly flat
space. A mound rose in the center, covered in delicate ferns, with a
spot of raw earth on the side, breaking the symmetry. Mud, crushed
vegetation, and a scuffle of leaves indicated where they'd lain. The
only thing left untouched and alive among the area of destruction was
a single small flower, white and delicate. Hayden turned to go.
walk back to the main trail took less than a minute and Hayden peered
back again. Branches and bramble closed in quickly, obscuring all
view of the previous location, and he couldn't fathom how Russ had
managed to follow him there. Russ noticed him looking and reached for
intuition told me where you were," he said. "And this."
He pulled a patch of flannel fabric from his pocket.
his free hand, Hayden felt his shirt, and looked over his filthy,
saturated clothing. He realized the piece of material had been his
left breast pocket, ripped free from over his heart. "Of
course," he said, and they continued on the trail, headed for
Tray Ellis grew up
across from an empty field where she spun a lot of imaginary
adventures, helping to prepare her for a lifetime of writing. When
she isn't writing, she keeps busy by hiking, cooking, baking, and
being too busy to keep her home in any semblance of order. Currently
she tries to find a balance between the logical way she thinks and
the flights of fancy that she often daydreams about. Mostly, the
daydreams are winning.
Come visit Tray at any
of the following social media locations:
stories by Tray Ellis
Thank you for
reading! In addition to some free stories published at my on-line
blogs and journals, here are some other stories available at your
favorite ebook retailer that you may also enjoy::
How Sweetly the
Operation Wild Thumb,
included in the Simmer Anthology
Never Waste a Good Left
Turn, included in the Random Acts of Kindness Anthology
Pouring a Brick
The Way to a
Fisherman's Heart, included in the Snow on the Roof Anthology