Laura bustled around the kitchen, lighting the candles, rearranging the silverware and checking on the roast in the oven. She and Tim were celebrating their third wedding anniversary and she wanted everything to be just right. He was running a little late; he should have been home a while ago. She placed his carefully wrapped present next to his plate and poured the wine.
She heard the car in the driveway and smiled, checking her reflection quickly in the window before running to the door to greet him. She opened the door and that’s when the police officer came and tore her life apart. She stood there, uncomprehending as phrases like, “car accident” and “I’m so sorry” washed over her like a deadly tidal wave, taking with it all her hopes and dreams for the future.
The funeral was a blur. If it hadn’t been for her best friend, Kendra, she wouldn’t have been able to get through it at all. Kendra took care of all the details, and led Laura around, whispering words of encouragement and holding her hand as she walked around in a fog of disbelief and denial. Life without Tim just didn’t seem possible.
For weeks after, she kept expecting him to come through the door, his handsome face smiling as he swept her into his arms like he always did when he came home from work. She found herself picking up her phone to text him, putting on that dress he liked so much, waiting for the flowers that he had sent to the house on a weekly basis. She would wake every morning expecting to see him there and feel the pain of loss all over again when she realized she was alone.
One night she saw his favorite sweatshirt lying on a chair and the reality of it finally hit her. Grief came like a sudden knife to the chest and she felt an aching sorrow she thought she would never recover from. She put on his sweatshirt and cried herself into exhaustion.
She began driving aimlessly every day, just letting her mind wander and always seemed to end up at the edge of the forest. At first, she would just park by the side of the road at the site of the accident. She couldn’t help but imagine him in his car in the driving rain, taking the sharp turn too fast, his beautiful life gone in an instant. Eventually, she left her car and walked over to the tree, running her hand along the missing piece of bark that marked the spot of the collision. She was trying to connect with him. Feel his presence.
People kept telling her that Tim’s spirit was with her always, watching over her with love. They would invariably follow this statement with some personal story of loss and how, in their moment of need, they felt the presence of their loved ones. All said with good intentions, but hearing it angered her. Because the truth was, she felt nothing.
She desperately wanted to feel him. Feel his love. Feel something.
Laura had always been a spiritual person. She used to tell Tim that she believed they were soul mates, that they were constantly reborn and always found each other in every new life. She loved this idea of eternal love. Tim had smiled and said it was a sweet idea but she knew he hadn’t believed it. She wasn’t quite sure what he thought happened after death because he had been very uncomfortable discussing it. He once mentioned that perhaps there was nothing at all, and this had bothered Laura so much that she couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks. It seemed such a sad way to live – to think you never would be reunited with people you had lost, or that our only existence was here and now. She tried to bring it up again but Tim had just changed the subject.
Now she was beginning to think he was right.
Still, she kept returning to the woods almost daily, eventually venturing past the tree and into the woods for walks. She would often come and find a quiet place to sit, closing her eyes, reaching out with her heart, always coming up empty.
Most days she just wandered around exploring, going wherever the wind took her, but one Tuesday morning, she decided to get a trail map. She took one from the wooden box and studied it. She was about to fold it and put it in her pocket when she noticed something strange. Right in the middle of the woods was a grey box marked “Private Property.”
Private property? Smack in the middle of the state forest? Who owns a small square of property in the middle of the state forest? There were many houses abutting the woods, all around the perimeter, but this one was surrounded by trees and no roads. She saw that the green, yellow and red trails all went near the property. Green it is she decided, and headed into the woods.
She walked for a bit and came upon a small path leading off the green trail, with a sign reading, Hikers Welcome. Under this was the word Others with a red X drawn through it. Just Hikers, no others. She assumed they meant cyclists or hunters, but the word others seemed like a strange choice.
She proceeded down the path, which was overgrown from lack of use. Apparently, whoever owned this little square piece of land didn’t come this way often. Not many hikers or others either.
Up ahead she could see a small cabin through the trees. The trail took a sudden turn to the left, away from the cabin, and now she was walking along the side of it. She could hear voices but the trees obscured any real view of the cabin. She felt intrusive, not wanting to disturb the people and their home, and at the same time she felt drawn to it. She stood there staring at it for a few minutes and then moved on.
Before she went home, she drove all around the outside of the forest trying to find the street or driveway that led up to the property, but she could find nothing. Even more curious, when she looked it up on the Internet, she came up empty as well. Google Earth was a bust because trees were in the way, and a search for “private property, Foxboro State Forest” brought no results.
The next morning, she rose uncharacteristically early and headed toward the woods. She had obsessed over the cabin all night long. Her dreams had been filled with mysterious voices and places just beyond her reach. For the first time since Tim’s death, she hadn’t cried herself to sleep.
This time she tried the yellow trail, which led near the front of the house. She turned down a cramped footpath, ignoring the weather-worn sign reading do not enter, private property. She got as close as she dared and hid.
It was a rustic cabin with a porch swing and a small flower garden. The whole place was well taken care of, someone’s labor of love. A tiny sliver of a sunbeam shined down on the roof, adding to the coziness. Every detail of it was perfect. She and Tim had always dreamed of owning a cottage exactly like this, somewhere they could spend their vacations, to relax and get away from the world. He would have loved it here, she thought, and imagined them sitting together on the porch swing.
She looked at her watch and was shocked to see she had been standing there for two hours. That had to be wrong; she must be mistaken about the time she arrived. She turned to leave and then hesitated. She took her phone out of her pocket and took some pictures, feeling guilty at the invasion of privacy. She stood there a few more minutes and then tore herself away.
Back at the car she took out her phone to see the photos. They weren’t there. That’s weird she thought. Maybe I deleted them by accident. She looked in the recently deleted folder but they weren’t there either. They also weren’t in the cloud when she checked on her computer at home. Well, it wasn’t the first time she had messed up taking a picture. There was always tomorrow.
That night she dreamed of the cabin and its welcoming glow. She could hear voices coming from inside the cabin but couldn’t make out what they were saying. She awoke frustrated and anxious to get back to the woods. She headed out the door as soon as her feet hit the floor.
There was one trail left to try. She shivered in the chilly air and grabbed her coat from the backseat and put it on. As she walked, she put her hands in her pockets and her hand closed on a small hard object. She took it out to look at it. It was a spare house key she had made for her parents a couple of days ago. Kendra had convinced her to pick a key with a picture of Snoopy on it, which just seemed silly now. After purchasing the key, Laura had just tossed it in her jacket pocket. If Tim were here, he would be shaking his head. She had a tendency to lose track of everything. He had always scolded her, warned her not to stuff things away because she was bound to lose them. He was the practical, organized one, she was the impulsive mess. “Sorry Tim,” she said and put the key back in her pocket.
This trail circled around the back of the house. She quietly climbed over bushes, past another do not disturb sign. She pushed branches aside and crouched behind a large rock. Now she could see the backyard, which looked just as serene as the front, filled with careful rows of beautiful flowers and a perfectly placed bird bath. Absentmindedly playing with the key in her pocket, she sat transfixed by voices humming their secret conversation and smoke billowing from the tiny chimney. She felt this strong pull in her chest, as if the cabin was extending her an invitation. She rose from behind the rock and stood, gazing with longing, thinking again of Tim.
A sudden movement inside the cabin shook her from her reverie and she quickly retreated back to the trail. Her heart was beating wildly as she left the cabin behind and jogged back to her car. Surely whoever lived there was going to call the police on the weird woman in the bushes. Or would they call the Park Rangers? She wasn’t sure. By the time she reached her car, her anxiety had subsided and she was disappointed she had left so quickly. Maybe the people inside were friendly and looking for company.
They have “do not disturb” signs up all over the place, she argued with herself. Doesn’t seem too friendly to me.
Maybe they don’t want a hundred people in their backyard every day. Doesn’t mean I can’t say hello.
That night she dreamed about the cabin again. She was standing on the porch this time, and the voices were louder. She could almost make out what they were saying. She just needed to get closer. She walked slowly toward the front door – then she woke up, heart racing, hand reaching out for an imaginary doorknob. She sat up in the dark, out of breath and frustrated.
The next morning, Laura was bewildered when she opened her front door and saw her mom standing there. Her dad waved from his sedan and drove away.
“Hey, Mom,” she said, staring at her blankly.
“Laura, please tell me you didn’t forget you were going to drive me to my appointment today,” her mother said. “I left you three messages. You didn’t return any of my calls.”
Laura groaned inwardly. She had of course forgotten. She was desperate to get back to the woods. The last thing she wanted to do was drive her mother into Boston and back through hellish traffic. Her mom refused to drive in the city and Laura had promised her weeks ago she would take her.
“No, no I didn't forget,” she lied. Let me just grab my keys.” This was going to take all day, she thought miserably. Her mom certainly would want to go out for lunch and by the time they got back it would be nearly dark, too late to go to the woods. She’d have to wait till tomorrow.
She also knew her mother would be overly cheerful and chatty. She’d been acting that way since Tim’s death, not knowing how else to comfort her daughter. Laura was not in the mood for this.
As predicted, her mom talked nonstop all the way into Boston. She babbled through lunch and the ride home, with Laura nodding in all the right places, replying with an occasional one-word comment. When they finally arrived at her parent’s house at the end of the day, Laura was exhausted from just listening to her. Before getting out of the car, her mother grabbed her hand.
“Thank you for driving me, honey. And you know, if you ever need to talk, you can call me any time, night or day.” She smiled at her.
Laura smiled back and thought that she would rather poke herself in the eye with a fork than call her mom and discuss Tim. She loved her mother with all her heart, but she would just say all the wrong things and make things worse.
“I love you Mom, thanks.” She kissed her cheek. Her dad came out of the house and walked over to the driver’s side. She rolled down her window.
“How you doin’, Punkin?” he asked, his eyebrows furrowed.
She smiled at him. “I’m okay, Daddy.”
‘No, you’re not yet. But you will be. It just sucks doesn’t it.” This last was not a question but a statement of fact. She nodded.
‘Hey, did you ever make that spare key?”
She reached in her pocket but it wasn’t there. Dammit. She must have dropped it when she ran from the cabin yesterday. She could hear Tim say, “I told you so.”
“Sorry, I had one but I lost it. I’ll make another one and drop it off,” she said.
He leaned in and gave her a kiss. “See you later, Punkin. I love you.”
“Love you too, Dad.”
Laura turned off the radio and drove home in blissful silence. She was going to have a well-deserved glass of wine when she got home.
As she pulled up to her house, she could see an Amazon package on the front steps. She didn’t remember ordering anything. Maybe someone sent her a gift. People were constantly dropping off food, flowers, or books, or something else they thought might help. Nothing did of course. She supposed that since they really didn’t know what to say, they just gave presents. It was nice, but for some reason it annoyed the hell out of her, and she was grateful that the gifts were few and far between now. People had gone back to their normal lives as if nothing happened. After all, their world hadn’t fallen apart, just hers.
She picked up the package and brought it in the house, tossing it on the couch. She grabbed a glass of wine and a piece of the lasagna a neighbor had given her, sat down and flipped on the TV to watch Jeopardy. Tim and she had loved watching it together and he had always beaten her to the punch answering questions. He was smarter than her in that way; he seemed to know everything.
Now Laura didn’t even try to answer the questions. There was no fun in it without Tim here. She wondered why she kept watching it without him. Maybe it was another attempt to reach out to him, as if she suddenly expected his voice to whisper in her ear, “What is Hinduism?” or feel his arms around her as they always used to be at seven-thirty p.m.
She finished her dinner, poured herself another half a glass of wine and came back to the couch. It was now Double Jeopardy and the category was famous composers. Aw honey, I would have beaten you for once, she thought. After getting the answer correct (who is Ludwig Van Beethoven?) she finally picked up the package and opened it. She removed the contents and then promptly let it slip through her fingers and drop to the floor.
It was a book about Yosemite. Tim had ordered it four months ago and it had been on backorder. They had been planning to vacation there next year, one last big trip before they started trying to have a baby. She stared at the book on the floor, her eyes filling with tears. Why was the universe so cruel, sending her this terrible reminder of how her life was supposed to be? She picked it up and threw it across the room, collapsed on the couch and sobbed.
When would her grief stop coming to knock the wind out of her like this? Every time she thought she was finally getting better, starting to slowly heal, it came and smacked her in the face. She cried herself to sleep right there in the living room.
She awoke at 3:00 a.m. and sat up, rubbing the crick in her neck. Tim had always thought the couch was so comfy to sleep on, but she hated it. Maybe she should get rid of it and get a new one.
She grabbed her dishes and headed to the kitchen, stepping over the book as she went. She put her stuff in the dishwasher and stood at the sink, looking at her reflection in the window. She was a mess. Of course, Tim would have told her she looked pretty. It didn’t matter what she looked like – no make-up, bed-head hair or puffy eyes - he would always tell her she was beautiful. But now she felt ugly, and nobody was there to tell her she was wrong. She dropped her head and wept again for a few minutes, holding on to the counter for support.
Pulling herself together, she walked through the living room, avoiding the book and made her way upstairs. She crawled right into bed and stared at the ceiling. Grief was exhausting. She was in a constant state of fatigue that no amount of sleep could help, and she wasn’t getting much. She looked at her bedside table. There were some pills her doctor had prescribed to help her sleep. She really didn’t like using them but tonight they were necessary. She opened the bottle and dry swallowed one and lay back on the bed. Sleep found her not too much later.
The trees rattling against her window woke her the next morning. The rain was coming down in a torrent and the branches of the trees were blowing wildly, the skies an ominous shade of grey.
“Dammit,” she said aloud. “Dammit, dammit, dammit!” Another day she could not go to the woods. She felt like she had to get back to the cabin soon or…
Or what? she asked herself. She had no answer for that. All she knew was she had an inexplicable need to return.
She spent the rest of the day in a foul mood, moping around in her pajamas and eating junk food. She kept ignoring the book lying in the middle of the floor, stepping over it a dozen times before she finally picked it up and dumped it in the trash.
Later in the evening, Kendra called to check in on her. After chatting for ten minutes about nothing in particular, Kendra said, “I’m worried about you. You sound terrible.”
“I sound terrible? Like, my voice is hoarse or something?” Laura asked.
“No, you sound like you look terrible,” Kendra said.
Laura laughed out loud. “How can you hear how I look?” She chuckled again. It felt good to laugh.
“You know what I’m trying to say. You don’t sound like yourself. I know you too well. You’re not okay. I’m coming over tomorrow.”
“Uh, I kinda have plans,” Laura stammered. She needed to get back to the cabin.
“What plans? I happen to know that you aren’t working and most of the time you’re either sitting watching TV or you’re walking around those woods.”
“Those are my plans. The woods,” Laura said.
“Fine, then we will both go to the woods. I’d love to see where you go every day.”
“You hate the woods.”
“Yeah, but I love you. I’ll be at your house at, say, nine?” She was not taking no for an answer. “Oh, and I’ll be staying over. See you tomorrow.”
Laura hung up the phone, frustrated. She loved Kendra, but the woods were her private sanctuary. Besides, with her there she couldn’t go visit the cabin. She was sure Kendra would not approve of her stalking the place.
Is that what I’m doing, stalking? she thought. She shook her head. No, I’m just curious that’s all. She decided that she would take them casually past the cabin and not make a big deal out of it. It might be good to see Kendra’s reaction to it.
She was up and ready to go when Kendra’s car pulled up the next morning. She ran out and jumped in the passenger seat.
“Woah, I thought I might have to drag you out of bed. Look at you already to go,” Kendra said.
Laura shrugged. “Like you said, I have nothing else to do. I was stuck in the house all day yesterday. Let’s go.”
“We need to stop at Dunkin’s on the way. I need caffeine.”
Laura didn’t want to stop and get coffee; she wanted to be on the trails already. But she smiled and nodded and even let Kendra buy her an iced coffee and a donut.
They parked and Laura tried to hide her impatience as Kendra slowly finished her coffee and donut, chatting incessantly. After an excruciating twenty minutes, they finally were on the trail. As they got closer to the cabin, Laura forced herself to walk slowly so as not to appear too anxious. Kendra hit her with a barrage of questions – about the forest, about Laura’s parents, and about how she was doing in general. Laura was answering this last question when she came to a halt.
“What’s wrong? Why did we stop?” Kendra looked around. “Did you see a bear or something?”
“Bear? There are no bears here. Don’t be ridiculous,” Laura said, peering through the trees trying to find the cabin.
“Well, what are you looking for then? Hello? Laura?” Kendra gave her a nudge.
“Nothing. Come on, let’s go this way.” She turned down an unmarked path.
“I don’t want to get lost in here. You do know what you’re doing, right?” Kendra followed right behind.
Laura stopped again, completely confused. The cabin should be right here. She must have taken a wrong turn. “Yes, I’m a little turned around that’s all. We need to go that direction.” She headed down a different way, searching for the do not enter signs.
They could have taken them down, she thought. Or maybe I’m in the wrong place.
But she knew she wasn’t. It was as if the cabin had just – disappeared.
That’s insane. Cabins don’t just disappear overnight.
“Lala, you’re acting weird. What’s wrong?” Kendra was squinting at her.
Hearing her childhood nickname put Laura on the verge of telling her everything – about the cabin, the strange effect it had on her, and how it was suddenly missing. She looked back at Kendra. There was no way she could say any of these things, she would sound like a lunatic. She shook her head. “Nothing. I was just thinking about Tim. I don’t want to talk about it,” she said, knowing this would end the conversation.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Maybe we should just head back to the car and go home,” Kendra suggested.
“Sure. We can take a different trail back,” Laura said, taking the trail map from her pocket. According to this, the cabin should be right here. She turned and found the red trail, which was supposed to go around the back of the house. She looked around and pretended to listen to Kendra talk about some guy at church. Where the heck was the cabin? This was crazy.
You're just confused, she told herself. This is a big place. Maybe so, but she still had an uneasy feeling.
“Hey, isn’t this yours?” Kendra said, as she bent over and picked something up from the ground. Laura looked at it and her blood ran cold. It was her Snoopy house key. She tried to keep her hands from shaking as she took it.
“Yes. I must have dropped it two days ago when I was…” she trailed away. What was she going to say – I was spying on the cabin that no longer exists? But this proved it. This was exactly where she had been two days ago, so where was the cabin? It didn’t make any sense.
“What’s wrong?” Kendra asked.
“Nothing. I’m just tired. I haven’t been getting much sleep and it’s taking a toll. Let’s just go home. We can order take out and watch TV.”
In the morning, she sent Kendra off with a promise that she would call if she needed anything, watched her drive off, and then jumped in her own car. She had to get back to the woods and figure out where she went wrong.
As she pulled in the parking lot, she saw the ranger station and got an idea. She headed over and went inside. She walked past the bulletin board and the table of pamphlets to the empty desk and gently tapped the silver bell. A few minutes later, a young park ranger came out of the back office. “Can I help you, miss?”
“Yes, I was wondering if you could tell me about the cabin in the woods,” she said.
“The what?” He looked confused.
“You know, the little cabin in the middle of nowhere. The yellow, green and red trails all go right near it.”
“Do you mean the emergency shelter?”
She shook her head. “No, not that. This is a cabin. People live there.”
“There are a lot of houses along the edge of the park.”
“No, this is in the middle of the woods. There’s a little place on the map marked private property. Here, I’ll show you.” She patted her pockets but remembered her map was at home. “Do you have a trail map?”
“Of course.” He handed her one. She opened it and placed it on the desk and pointed.
“See, it’s right there.”
He looked closely. “Miss, that’s just a bunch of trees. There isn’t a cabin there.” He was regarding her carefully.
She looked down at the map. “Wait, this is wrong. On my map, it says ‘private property’ right there.” She poked the paper repeatedly.
“I’ve never seen a map with that on it. You must have a map from another place, maybe Borderland Park? They do have a house there,” he suggested.
“No! I got the map here. I took it right out of the box outside. Besides, I’ve seen the cabin several times.” She immediately regretted saying these words. He leaned away from her and raised his eyebrows.
“You’ve seen it,” he said flatly. “A cabin in the middle of the woods. Here.”
“You know what, you’re right. I’m just confused. Or maybe it was a dream. I have very vivid dreams.” He was staring at her as if she had three heads. “Thanks for your help.” She turned and hurried out of the building.
She went immediately to the information board next to the main entrance to the park, took a map from the box and looked at it. It was exactly like the one the ranger had shown her. She went to the message board and looked at the large trail map hanging there. Nothing. No little rectangle marked private property. She felt like she was losing her mind.
Maybe lack of sleep was making her hallucinate. That’s comforting, she thought bitterly. Just about as comforting as a magical cabin that only she could see. She walked to the entrance and could see the ranger outside talking to another man. They both glanced her way while they conversed and she turned her back on them.
Great. They think I’m completely nuts. She sighed.
She was about to go home and get some rest (and check her map, who was she kidding) but decided she needed to prove to herself that there was a house, that she didn't imagine it. She walked into the park, speeding up before anyone decided to call the men in the white coats to take her away.
As she got closer to where the cabin should be, she stopped. Heart pounding, she stood still, fighting the urge to turn and run home. Suddenly she wasn't so sure of herself. Mr. Park Ranger had been adamant that there was no such cabin.
Maybe he hasn’t been working here long enough. Maybe that was an old map, she thought.
But the cabin wasn't here yesterday. How could she explain that?
I was obviously in the wrong place.
There were no pictures on her camera.
I just didn’t push the button. I’ve done it before. It’s there. I know it is. I need it to be.
She stood there, heart pounding, unable to move.
What if I never find it again?
Her heart beat even faster and her breath quickened. The cabin had to be there, it had to be. She wanted to go inside. She needed to see what was so compelling it had her thinking about it day and night, frantic to return. She needed it to exist because she loved the way it made her feel, the comfort that it gave her. She needed to go inside because…
“Because, Tim is in there,” she said aloud.
She knew this was the answer. The cabin was waiting for her. Tim was waiting. This thought set her in motion again, and she jogged along the trail with a new determination.
She saw the Hikers only, no others sign and sped up, her adrenaline pumping. She turned to the left, and there it was beside her, and she sighed with relief. She made her way through the bushes and came into the yard, stopping right in front of the cabin. She inhaled sharply as the front door opened and a little old lady stepped out onto the porch.
“‘Hello, Laura. It’s so nice to finally meet you,” the woman said.
She was very short, probably under five feet, and a tad overweight. She had her grey hair in a neat little bun and a huge smile on her face. She was the stereotypical sweet grandmother from every sitcom or movie ever made; she even was wearing an apron as if she had just come from baking cookies.
“How do you know my name,” Laura asked.
“Oh Laura, we all know your name.” The woman clasped her hands to her chest. “We’ve been waiting. Come sit on the porch with me.”
Common sense was telling Laura to beware, that she should turn and get out of there. But her heart was swelling with happiness. She was drawn to the cabin, to the porch, to the woman herself and she had never felt so safe in her life. She slowly walked over and they both sat on the front steps.
The woman patted Laura’s knee. “So glad to see you today. It’s been a few days.”
“What’s your name?” Laura asked.
“You can just call me Maggie,” the old woman said.
A murmur of voices could be heard coming from inside the cabin. “Who’s that?” Laura nodded toward the door.
Maggie smiled at her. “They are anxious to see you. Not all of them believed you would come back. But I did.”
“Who are they?”
“You’ll meet them soon enough.”
Laura looked back at the cabin. She could see shadows moving past the window. “Can we go inside?” she asked.
“Not today. You’re not ready for that,” Maggie smiled. “Let’s just sit out here awhile.”
Laura felt a surge of disappointment but tried not to show it. She looked around the yard. “Your cabin is just beautiful.”
“Oh, it’s not mine,” Maggie laughed.
“So you just live here?”
Maggie paused. “Something like that.”
“It’s very peaceful here. I feel…” Laura searched for the right words to say. “I feel uplifted,” she said finally.
Maggie clasped her hands at her chest again. “Wonderful, wonderful. Yes that’s exactly right.”
Muffled laughter came from inside the house. Laura turned her head back toward the window. “Is he in there?” she whispered, barely loud enough for Maggie to hear.
“You know, I think that’s enough for today Laura. Will we see you tomorrow?” Maggie stood up.
“What? No, I just got here,” Laura said, jumping to her feet.
“No dear. It’s been hours. You need to get home before dark.” Maggie patted her shoulder.
Laura looked at her watch. Five o’clock? How was that even possible? She looked back at the smiling Maggie. “I don’t want to leave,” she said quietly.
“We’ll see you tomorrow. I really must get back in. Lots to do. Goodbye, dear!” Maggie waved and disappeared inside the house. Begrudgingly, Laura turned and slowly made her way back to the entrance.
Back home, Laura paced around the living room trying to make sense of it all. How had the woman known her name? Why wouldn’t she let her come inside? Why was her map different from the others? She had, of course, misplaced it. She had torn the house apart trying to find it. She stopped and put her hands over her eyes. She was getting a headache. This was all so crazy.
Or maybe I’m crazy, she thought.
She sighed. If she were going crazy, imagining everything, these daydreams were certainly preferable to her everyday life of being alone, wanting Tim. Today she had felt hopeful, her heart light for the first time since the accident. She didn’t care if she was hallucinating all of it, she was going back.
The next day, the sign had changed. Someone had crossed out the word “Hikers” and written her name, so now it said, “Laura welcome,” no others. She blinked her eyes and shook her head to make sure she was seeing correctly, but there it was. It didn’t make her nervous; in fact, it confirmed that she had made the right decision. She was supposed to be here. She continued towards the house.
There was someone else on the porch today. A young boy, perhaps eleven or twelve, wearing sunglasses, and a dirt-covered, white T-shirt and jeans. His black hair was slicked back in a pompadour, his jeans rolled up at the ankle. He looked as if he had stepped right out of a drive-in movie from the ‘50s. An unlit cigarette hung from his lips.
“Hey, aren’t you kind of young to smoke,” Laura said as she walked toward the porch. “That stuff will kill ya.”
He barked a humourless laugh and pulled his sunglasses down and peered at her. “Don’t flip your lid, it ain’t even lit. Besides, that don’t matter to me.” He pushed his sunglasses back up. “Why you keep hanging around this place anyway? It’s nowheresville.”
Laura struggled to keep a straight face. This kid was too much. “I think you’ve been watching too many greaser flicks.”
“Huh?” He stared at her.
“Never mind. What’s your name?”
“Bobby.” He put the cigarette in his shirt pocket and leaned forward. “Listen lady, you really should split. This ain’t a good place.” He removed his sunglasses. “Honest.” His young face was full of concern.
“It seems pretty nice to me,” Laura said.
He shook his head. “I’m telling you, it ain’t. You should get out while you can.”
“Bobby, I think that’s enough.” A stern middle-aged woman was holding the front door open. “Why don’t you come back inside now?” Bobby jumped up like a startled rabbit and hurried towards the door. With one last glance in Laura’s direction, he entered the house. Laura tried to get a glimpse of the inside but the woman quickly shut the door and came out onto the porch.
Where Maggie was the quintessential gramma, this woman was the classic lonely spinster type. She was the nasty librarian you were terrified of, the matron who could silence a room full of rowdy boys with just one look. She was very tall and skinny and wore the expression of someone who had just eaten something sour. She was wearing a white blouse with a brown skirt below the knee and practical shoes. The cat’s eye reading glasses hanging on a chain around her neck glistened in the sun. She folded her arms over her chest and simply said, “Laura” and gave a thin-lipped smile. Laura assumed she was trying to look friendly, but that smile was anything but.
Laura unconsciously took a step back. “Where’s Maggie?” she asked.
“She won’t be out today.” The woman walked over to the porch swing and sat down, patting the seat next to her in invitation. When Laura didn’t move, the woman said, “Oh come on now, I won’t bite,” and then gave a large toothy grin that seemed to indicate she might in fact do that very thing.
Laura took a step closer. “Are you sure Maggie won’t come out? I’d like to see her.” She looked toward the door hopefully and then back at the woman.
The woman’s smile faltered for a second and then it was bigger than ever. “Maybe after we talk. Come.” She patted the seat again.
Laura cautiously approached her and sat, careful not to get too close. “What’s your name?” she asked.
The woman tilted her head. “Always so interested in that aren’t you,” she said, studying Laura’s face.
“I need to know what to call you.” Laura said and thought, I could just call you Creepy Librarian or Scary Spinster, but I don’t think you’d care for those.
“Yes, I suppose you do. Well then, it’s Rosie.” She smiled her Cheshire Cat grin again.
Laura let out an involuntary laugh and then quickly covered her mouth. Rosie raised her eyebrows. “Did I say something funny?”
Laura regained her composure. “No, no. It’s just…” she hesitated. “You don’t look like a Rosie to me, that’s all.”
“You’re saying the name doesn’t suit me. What name do you suppose would fit my demeanor?” she asked earnestly.
“Um, I don’t know. Maybe Agnes, or Harriet? Something like that,” Laura said. Definitely not Rosie. There is nothing rosy about you.
“Hmm. Interesting. I just thought Rosie sounded pleasant, a nice friendly name. But perhaps I do seem more like a Harriet. Something to think about.” She furrowed her brow.
“Rosie is a lovely name. I didn’t mean to insult you,” Laura said, adding, “I had a grandmother named Rose.”
“Rose. Yes, I do think that’s better. Call me Rose then.” She gave her thin-lipped smile again.
They sat in silence for a few moments and then Laura said, “I don’t hear anyone. Are they still in there?”
“Where else would they be?”
Laura could never get a straight answer from any of these people. “Is he in there?” she blurted out, surprising herself. She held her breath and waited for the reply.
“I think you know the answer to that. I don’t need to tell you,” Rose said finally.
Laura nodded at her, tears leaking down her face. “I want to go inside. Can I go inside?”
“That depends,” Rose said.
Rose stared at her silently again. Laura saw movement in the window behind her and tried to look in, but the curtains were drawn. She could see the shadow of a man standing there, tall and thin. The tears came faster now.
“It depends on you. What are you willing to do in order for that to happen?” Rose asked.
She had barely finished her sentence when Laura whispered, “Anything.”
“Would you be willing to put someone else in danger? Say, a complete stranger?” Rose leaned forward, eyes lit up in anticipation, and for the first time there was a genuine smile on her face.
“What do you mean ‘put someone else in danger’? I couldn’t hurt anyone.” Laura leaned away from her and the swing tilted slightly to the left.
Rose waved a hand at her. “Oh no, you wouldn’t have to hurt anyone Laura. You just have to be willing to let them get hurt. In exchange for what you want.”
The man behind the curtain moved slightly. Laura caught her breath. “How badly hurt?” she asked.
Rose was still leaning toward Laura, like a cat about to pounce on a canary. “Just something small to start,” she said.
“It would be a complete stranger?” Laura asked. “And nothing too bad?”
Rose leaned back in satisfaction. “Precisely.”
The man behind the curtain moved away, his shadow disappearing farther into the house.
“Tell me what to do,” she whispered, wiping the tears from her face.
It had been two days since Laura had been given the instructions and now she sat on a rock by the side of the trail, waiting. She was having second thoughts. She didn’t have to actually do anything but it still felt so wrong. She looked over at the branch lying in the middle of the trail, left there by the recent storm. All she had to do was go over and move it and then nothing would happen. But she was afraid if she did that, she would lose her chance to see Tim.
This really was not a big deal, she told herself. A complete stranger. A small injury. She had been assured that this would happen whether she witnessed it or not. The whole point was, armed with the knowledge of what would occur, she had to allow it to happen. She still didn’t understand why, but Rose had made it clear that this was the way to get inside the cabin.
Maybe she’s just messing with me. How can she even know…
The sound of children’s voices made her look to the left. She consulted her watch. Exactly on time. She looked at the branch again. She had a few more seconds to act. The voices were getting closer. She rocked back and forth, debating. She could see the kids through the trees. It was now or never.
She stopped and held her breath, her face grimacing in anticipation. Seconds later, two little girls came sprinting into view and just like Laura had been told, one of them tripped over the branch and went flying forward, landing flat on her face. She lay stunned for a moment and then proceeded to cry. Laura sprang to her feet as two women ran over to help the child.
“Sadie, that was quite a tumble,” one of the women said, holding the girl and examining her leg, which was now bleeding.
Laura took a few steps forward. “Is she okay?”
“Oh, she’s fine,” the woman said, kissing Sadie on the head. “It’s just a little scrape. Nice of you to be concerned.”
“I’m so sorry,” Laura said, trying not to cry.
The woman stood up, still holding Sadie in her arms. “It’s really not a big deal. Besides, it’s not like it’s your fault.” Laura nodded feebly, still fighting back tears. The two women exchanged a look. “Well, have a nice rest of your day,” the one holding Sadie said. Laura nodded again, turned on her heels and left.
She arrived at the cabin anxious and out of breath. A burly man with a thick beard sat on the porch this time. He was wearing a neon orange hunter’s vest over his jeans and flannel shirt. He stared off into the distance, oblivious to her presence.
Isn’t he sweating? Who wears flannel in July?
“Hunting season isn’t for a few months you know,” she called out to him and made her way to the porch.
He seemed startled by her sudden appearance and then chuckled softly. “Mmmm. You sure about that, missy?” He looked her up and down appreciatively. “Damn, you’re fine.”
Laura frowned and said, “Where’s Rose?”
“Rose? You know,” she leaned forward and whispered, “scary librarian lady.”
“Oh you mean Harriet,” he answered.
“Harriet? She changed her name?”
He shrugged and looked at her legs again.
“Hey!” she said. “Do you mind going to get Rose/Harriet, whoever the hell she is? I need to talk to her.” He shrugged again and stood up. Laura suddenly noticed blood stains on the bottom of his pants. “Did you, uh, have some sort of accident?” she pointed to his leg.
He looked down bemusedly. “Nah I’m right as rain, sugar.” He walked over to the door, winked at her once and went inside.
Laura made a face and shook her head. She started to go up the steps but stopped herself. She didn’t think she should go on the porch uninvited. Instead, she folded her arms over her chest and swayed impatiently.
The door opened and out walked Rose/Harriet, still wearing the same clothes she had been in three days ago. Still wearing that fake smile too. She motioned to the porch swing and Laura followed her and they both sat.
“I assume you were successful?” Rose/Harriet said, folding her hands in her lap. ‘How did it feel?”
“Terrible. It felt terrible.” Laura scowled at her. “I still don’t know why I had to do that.”
“To get what you want.”
They stared at each other for a few moments. Finally Laura said, “So now can I go inside?”
“Oh no. There are more events that need to occur before you can do that.”
‘But Rose, you said…”
“It’s Harriet now, dear,” Harriet interrupted.
Laura threw her hands up. “That’s another thing. You changed your name, just like that? Because of something I said?”
“The name is just to make things easier for you. You can call me whatever you like.”
“Ok, then, how about I call you Creepy Lady Who Makes Me Do Terrible Things? Or The Old Maid? Or The Artist Formerly Known as Rose?” Laura said angrily.
The woman squinted at her and her smile disappeared. “I didn’t make you do anything. You did that of your own free will.”
“So why don’t you let me in the cabin then?”
“I told you, there are more steps to be taken. That was just a start. A test if you will.”
“Alright, Harriet,” Laura said mockingly. “What’s next then? I’m all ears.”
A week later Laura sat in her car near the main entrance. She had been here for over an hour, absentmindedly scrolling through Facebook and occasionally looking out the window. A knock on her window made her jump. It was her old friend, Mr. Park Ranger. She rolled the window down.
“Is everything okay, Miss? You’ve been sitting here for quite a while,” he said.
No it’s not okay. In a little while someone is going to be seriously hurt and you’re going to have to call an ambulance.
“Everything’s fine. Just playing on my phone,” she said, waving it at him.
“Well,” he hesitated. “Are you going to get out? It’s just, it’s Saturday and there are a lot of people looking for parking.” He was looking at her carefully.
He still thinks I’m a flake.
“Yes, yes. I was just about to get out and go for a hike. Sorry.” She smiled and rolled up her window. He nodded and walked away still looking at her strangely.
You know what Mr. Park Ranger, you’re right. I am crazy. I don’t have all my marbles, got a screw loose, a few cards short of a full deck. If you only knew.
She got out of the car and looked at her watch. She was cutting it close. Rose/Harriet/whatever had made it clear that she had to actually witness the event. It wasn’t enough to just know about it, she had to watch and do nothing. She jogged into the woods and made her way to the location she had been given.
Ten minutes later she was looking up at some tall boulders. This was the spot. In about five minutes some guy was going to walk across the top of them and fall about thirty feet, shattering his legs. Her heart was beating in her throat and she felt sick. She really wasn’t sure she could go through with this. She knew he was going to fall and could yell out a warning before he came close to the edge, or even go up there and snatch him before he slipped. This was not just a little scrape. This would impact this man’s life for months, even years.
She stood there hugging herself, staring up at the rocks, ready to turn and leave. Tim’s face came into her mind and steeled her resolve. This was the only way to see him again. She still wasn’t sure why, but Creepy Librarian had all the power and those were her rules. She wiped a tear from her eye and took a seat on a nearby stump.
Several hikers passed her as she waited, some nodding hello, some giving her strange looks and a wide berth. She was sure she looked terrified or insane, or both. The alarm on her watch went off, making her jump. She looked up. There he was, the man in the red shirt. She sat paralyzed, watching him looking at his phone while he walked.
It serves him right. He’s not even paying attention, she thought, trying to justify her actions, but it didn’t make her feel any better.
He kept walking, getting closer to the edge and she cringed, closed her eyes and turned her head away. She waited for his yell, the crash of the branches, the loud crack as his bones broke. When she didn’t hear anything, she opened her eyes and thought for a brief second that maybe it wasn’t really going to happen. Good old Rosie was just joking around. She snapped her head back just in time to see him tumble off the side and plummet to the hard ground. His screams of pain were incredible, and she knew she would remember the sound for the rest of her life.
She could have prevented this. She clapped a hand over her mouth to keep from screaming herself.
People came running from all directions to help him. She stood staring at the drama unfolding before her, trying to block out his screams, trying not to see his leg bones sticking out of his skin. She had to get out of there. She turned and fled, heading straight for the cabin.
Laura crashed through the trees and ran into the front yard. The porch was empty. Just as she was deciding whether she should knock, the door opened and a young woman walked out. She was dressed very peculiarly, with a long skirt that seemed to be made out of wool, and a long-sleeved, high-neck shirt. She was a tiny wisp of a thing and looked like she would run and hide at the slightest provocation. In fact, when she noticed Laura, she gathered up her long skirt and scuttled back into the cabin before Laura could even say a word.
How many people live in this damn place?
She crossed the yard and sat on the steps. After a few minutes, she heard the door open again behind her. Without turning around she said, “Hey Harriet.”
“So is that what you’ve decided on then? Harriet?” She walked over and stood at the top of the stairs. Laura could see the tips of her shoes out of the corner of her eye.
“Sure, whatever,” Laura said, still staring straight ahead. “I don’t really care at this point.”
“Well then, tell me all about it. I’m anxious to know the details,” Harriet said.
Laura sprang to her feet and turned on her. “You want the details? Fine. I just watched a man fall thirty feet and break both his legs. I heard them snap, actually heard them snap like twigs. He screamed so loud.” She paused, gasping for breath as she started to sob. “So loud…There was blood… I could have stopped it. I could have…” She buried her face in her hands, unable to speak.
Harriet let her cry for a few minutes and then softly said, “Now I think you’re ready for the final step. Yes, you’re ready.”
Laura lowered her hands and her mouth dropped open. She shook her head and said, “Final step? There’s more you want me to do? That wasn’t enough for you? I just let a man possibly get paralyzed…”
“He won’t be,” Harriet interrupted.
Laura continued as if she hadn’t heard her. “And that isn’t enough for you? What do you want me to do next, let somebody die?”
There was a long silence as they stood on the porch staring at each other. Laura’s eyes widened and she took a few steps backwards.
“That’s it, isn’t it? You expect me to let someone die?” Laura held her hands up as if she was going to shove the woman right off the porch. “You’re completely insane, you know that? You really expect me to let some stranger die?”
There was a silence and then Harriet spoke. “No.”
Muffled conversation could be heard from inside the cabin as the two of them stood quietly gazing at each other.
Laura narrowed her eyes at her. “Wait, wait a minute. Not a stranger. Someone I know.” When Harriet didn’t answer, Laura took a few steps forward and stood right in front of her, their noses practically touching. “You really are a crazy bitch if you think that I could do that. No way. Go to hell!”
“Suit yourself,” Harriet said softly. Laura stormed down the steps and across the yard. She was almost at the trail when Harriet called out to her.
“Tim wanted me to give you a message.”
Laura stopped and slowly turned around. “What did you say?”
“I said, Tim wanted me to give you a message.”
“He said to tell you that you were right.”
“About what?” Laura’s voice shook.
“About what happens after. You were right, it isn’t the end. And you will find each other again.” She was smiling that thin-lipped smile again.
Laura could feel the tears coming and her lip quivered as she tried to stay composed. She walked back over to the house, looking at the door. The desire to go inside was unbearable. To be able to see him, talk to him, maybe even hold him, even for just one last time.
As if reading her mind, Harriet said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to see him now, and not have to wait?”
Laura slowly walked up the steps and stood next to her. “I’m curious, who was it? Whose death was I supposed to allow?”
“Does it matter? You said there was no way you could do it. You sounded pretty adamant.”
“That nice girl who was with you a few weeks ago. She found your key for you. What was her name again?”
“Kendra!” Laura said, incredulous. “She’s my best friend! I lost my husband and now you want me to lose my best friend too?”
“But you haven’t lost him, Laura. He’s right here. You can have him back. You can see him every day, as much as you like.”
Laura shook her head. “No. She is my best friend. I love her, I couldn’t do that. Even if…”
“Even if you could be with Tim?” Harriet opened the door and Laura could see someone standing in the dark. He took a few steps forward and she knew it was him, recognizing him instantly even in shadows. Her heart stopped.
“Laura?” he called out. She took a step towards him but Harriet quickly shut the door.
“Consider it, Laura. It would be simple.”
Tears were flowing down Laura’s face. “I can’t. I can’t murder my best friend.”
“It isn’t murder, dear.” Harriet patted her arm. ‘Not really. You don’t have to do anything. Just like before.”
“Why?” Laura whispered.
“That’s the way it works. I don’t make the rules.”
Laura closed her eyes. “Please, just let me see him. Please.”
“One more step. That’s all you need to do,” Harriet said.
Harriet took her hand and led her to the swing. “Let me tell you how easy it will be.”
It rained the next day, just as Harriet told Laura it would. She stood at her window for a long time watching the water drip down the glass, holding her phone by her side. Her wedding album sat open on her bed, surrounded by piles of photos of her and Tim together. Her eyes were red-rimmed from crying and she had bags under them due to lack of sleep. She hadn’t even changed out of her clothes from the day before, nor had she eaten. Kendra would have told her that she looked like death on a cracker.
She walked back to the bed and picked up a picture. The “Tim and Laura of a happier time” smiled up at her, their whole future ahead of them. She closed her eyes and slowly exhaled, dropping the photo back on the bed. She raised her phone and dialed. Kendra picked up on the first ring.
“Hey Lala. Everything okay?”
Laura looked down at her wedding album and said, “Yes. Are you free tomorrow?”
That night, Laura managed to get a bit of sleep, thanks to the little bottle next to her bed, but she was up and ready to go several hours before Kendra was supposed to show up. She paced back and forth in her living room, unable to stay still. She couldn’t believe she was actually considering this. Next to Tim, Kendra was her best friend in the world, had been since childhood. They had been through so much together, travelled all over the place, always had each other’s backs. How could she do this to someone who loved her so much?
“Wouldn’t it be nice to see him now, and not wait until after?” These words ran through her mind on a loop. This was all for Tim, so they could be together again because she couldn’t live with the loss any longer.
“But you haven’t lost him, Laura. He’s right here. You can have him back. You can see him every day, as much as you like.”
Laura sank down on the couch with her head in her hands. She was still sitting there when the doorbell rang. Her stomach lurched. She stared at the door, almost hoping Kendra would give up and go away. The doorbell rang again. “Lala? You up?” Kendra called out.
Laura hurried to the door and pulled it open. Kendra stood there with two iced coffees. “Hey, you okay? What’s wrong?”
Now that they were face to face, Laura realized she could not go through with it. She suddenly felt sick to her stomach.
“Ken, I’m sorry, I think I’m going to be sick. Maybe I caught a bug or something.” Laura’s hands were shaking so much she was making the door rattle. “I’m sorry. I just need to be alone, lie down. I don’t want you to catch it. I’ll call you later.” She slammed the door shut before Kendra could respond, ran to the bathroom and vomited.
After rinsing her mouth in the sink, she stood with her head down, hands holding on to the sides. Another wave of nausea came and went. She splashed water on her face and looked at herself in the mirror. Good lord, she was a hot mess. She shook her head and turned away.
It was over. She had to get back to the cabin one last time, just to say her goodbyes. Then she would never set foot in the forest again.
She drove way too fast over to the woods, somehow avoiding getting a speeding ticket and wasted no time getting on the trail. She was moving along the trail at a clip when she tripped on her shoelace. She dusted herself off and bent to tie it when she heard Kendra’s voice. “Laura! Wait up!”
Laura stood up in a panic. Kendra was jogging toward her, panting and holding her side. “God girl, couldn’t you hear me calling you? I can’t believe you made me run. You know I don’t run for anybody.”
“What the hell are you doing here? You can’t be here! You need to leave!” Laura grabbed her arm and started pulling her back towards the entrance.
“Hey, let me catch my breath for god’s sake.” Kendra shook her arm loose and put her hands on her knees, still gasping for air.
“Why are you here?” Laura said.
“I got halfway home and I just felt like something was wrong with you, like really wrong. So I drove back to your house and your car was gone. I figured you came here. What is going on with you, Laura? Please talk to me.”
“Sure, let’s talk. Just not here. Let’s go out to breakfast. We can go to that place you like, Petunia’s.” Laura dragged her friend by the arm again.
“Okay, but I refuse to run. We can take our time,” Kendra said.
Laura did not relax until they were at the restaurant eating their pancakes. Kendra was watching her carefully while she ate. “So, are you going to tell me what’s up with you or what?”
Laura swallowed her food and took a long sip of her coffee. Kendra raised her eyebrows and tapped her finger on the table impatiently.
“It’s not a big deal,” Laura said finally. “It’s just Tim. I’m having a hard time with it that’s all. Some days I’m okay and then other days, it just hits me that he’s really gone. That I’m never going to see him again.”
Kendra took her hand. “You’ll see each other again. I know it would be nice to see him now, but you just have to wait.”
All the blood drained from Laura’s face. She knew Kendra was a devout Catholic and was just talking about heaven, but to hear Rosie’s words echoed this way was chilling.
“I know you believe that, Ken. I wish I could. I used to believe it. I don’t know what I think now.”
“Maybe you could come to mass with me sometime,” Kendra said.
Laura smiled. “Maybe.” But she knew going to church was not going to help her deal with this crazy lady in the woods, who, if she was being honest with herself, probably didn’t even exist in the first place.
They finished their meal and wandered through the gift shop, which was filled with handmade lotions and soaps, assorted knickknacks and for some strange reason, a collection of rosary beads and prayer cards. Kendra insisted on paying and went to the register while Laura flipped through the prayer cards, looking for words of wisdom. Finding none, she walked outside and waited.
“I’m fine, Ken, I swear,” Laura said as they walked back to their cars. “I’m going to go home and just put on my pajamas and rest. I’m exhausted.”
Kendra studied her face carefully. “You call me if you need anything, and I mean anything. I don’t care if it’s two a.m.” She gave Laura a hug and handed her a bag. “Here, I bought you something.”
Laura reached inside and pulled out a pretty set of rosary beads, with a heavy silver cross attached.
“I know you’re not Catholic, but I thought you might find it soothing somehow. I don’t know.” She shrugged. “Maybe it was a dumb idea.”
“No, no. Not dumb at all. It’s very sweet, thank you.” Laura put the beads in her pocket and hugged her again. “I’ll see you soon.” Kendra turned and walked to her car. Suddenly Laura called out to her. “Kendra?” Kendra stopped and looked at her. “I love you,” Laura said.
Kendra smiled. “Love you too, Lala. See ya later.” Laura watched her friend drive away, thinking how blessed she was to have her.
I don’t want to lose her. I can’t lose her.
The next day, Laura stood leaning against her car in the parking lot at the woods, trying to muster up enough courage to go to the cabin. She promised herself that this was the last time. She just had to say her goodbyes, and tell Rose/Harriet that she had to find someone else to play her twisted game.
Two elderly ladies got out of the car next to her, chatting loudly. “Come on now, Verna. You were already fifteen minutes late picking me up. Let’s not waste any more time.”
“Alright alright, calm down,” the one named Verna said. “Oh wait, I forgot something.” She went back inside her car.
Laura smiled. That will be me and Kendra in fifty years.
“Okay, I’m ready,” Verna said.
“Hold on,” her friend said. “Make sure you have everything. Do you want me to hold your keys?”
Yup, that’s me and Kendra for sure. Laura stifled a laugh.
“Sure,” Verna said as she put on a bright orange reflective vest and handed her keys over.
“What the hell is that thing you’re wearing?” her friend said.
“A vest. I have one for you too if you want it,” Verna said.
“I’m not wearing that. You look ridiculous.”
“It’s so hunters don’t shoot me,” Verna said.
“It’s not hunting season yet,” Laura told them.
“See!” her friend said. “You don’t need it. Now take it off.”
“No. I don’t want to get shot.” Verna folded her arms. Her friend shook her head at Laura as if to say, do you see what I have to deal with here? The two ladies turned away from Laura and headed toward the trails.
“You’re ridiculous,” her friend said as they walked away.
“Who knows how many people have died in these woods?” Verna said.
Laura watched them walk into the woods for a few moments and then turned and went inside the ranger station. She hurried over to the desk and banged on the bell several times. Finally, Mr. Park Ranger came out.
“Oh, hello again,” he said, smiling at her as if she was a dementia patient.
“I have a question for you,” Laura said.
“Sure. Happy to help.”
Laura took a deep breath and said, “How many people have died in these woods?”
Mr. Park Ranger raised his eyebrows. “I’m sorry?” He seemed alarmed by the question.
“How many people have died here?” she repeated.
“Um, well a few years ago an old lady had a heart attack on one of the trails. She was a sweet woman, used to bring us cookies. Very sad.”
“But I haven’t been working here long. That’s all I can remember. Nobody has died here since.”
“That’s not true,” Laura said. “My husband’s car went off the road and hit a tree and he passed away three months ago.”
He looked uncomfortable. “Oh, yeah, I forgot about that, I’m so sorry. I didn’t think of that as in the woods, although I guess technically it was. I didn’t realize that was your husband.” He shifted back and forth and looked down at the desk. “Anyway, I can’t help you any more than that. Like I said, I haven’t been working here that long.”
“Well I have. What can I help you with, young lady?” an older gentleman with a booming voice walked out of the back office. He was maybe seventy, with weather-worn skin and a friendly smile. His eyes twinkled. “Names Roger. I’ve been here almost fifty years. I know everything about the place. These youngins, they still got a lot to learn.” He slapped young Mr. Park Ranger on the back.
“She wants to know how many people died here,” the young man said.
“Does she now?” Roger raised his eyebrows. “There’s a question I don’t get every day.”
“Can you tell me?” Laura asked.
“Let me think. There was a young boy back in the fifties, he got lost here when I was just a kid. It was big news. He was out here for three days before they found him. What was his name? That’s right, Bobby. I tell you, every kid in my school knew about Bobby Defray. A cautionary tale. Don’t go wandering the woods alone at night.” He closed his eyes and shook his head, lost in the memory.
“Anyone else?” Laura asked, though she thought she already knew the answer.
“Sure, there was that idiot who shot himself with his own rifle back in the ‘80s. Drunk as a skunk, hunting all by himself. Shot himself right in the foot and bled to death trying to find his way out. Damn fool.” Roger clicked his tongue.
“I told her about Maggie.” Mr. Park Ranger said.
“Ah, sweet old Maggie. There was that poor young man who crashed his car a few months ago, but that’s about it, I guess.” Roger said. “Far back as I remember anyway. Although I’m sure way, way back when this was farmland, people might’ve died out here but even I’m not that old.”
Yes, at least one young lady died way, way back, I can tell you that, Laura thought.
“This used to be farmland?” she asked.
“Yeah believe it or not. This rocky soil! You can still see some of the walls that marked people’s property lines. But then eventually people moved and the state planted trees and voila!” Roger swung his hand with a flourish. “This beautiful place.”
Laura nodded at him. ‘Thanks so much,” she said and turned to go.
“Young lady?” Roger called after her. She turned back and looked at him. “I’m just wondering why you asked such a curious question?”
“I’m writing a book,” she said.
“Really? Well, be sure to thank me in the credits.” He beamed at her.
“Sure thing,” she said and left.
Laura stood outside the ranger station, mind reeling, trying to make sense of everything. She needed to confront Harriet. Then she would leave the cabin and never return to the woods again.
She ran onto the trail. She saw Verna and friend along the way, waving at them as she passed. She rushed along the familiar twists and turns, arriving at the cabin in record time.
The porch was empty and the cabin quiet. No matter, she knew the bitch would come out. She walked up to the steps and put her hands on her hips. Her phone buzzed. She took it out of her pocket, saw that Kendra was calling and let the call go to voicemail. The door opened and Crazy Librarian walked out.
“Hey, Edna,” Laura said.
“Edna?” she looked confused.
“Yeah, why the hell not? I figured we’d give that one a test drive. What d'ya think?” Laura said.
“Hmm. No. I don’t like that at all. Not Edna.” She shook her head.
“Okay, Edna it is then.” Laura climbed up the porch and stood next to her, hands still on her hips. Her phone buzzed again. She put it on silent and shoved it back in her pocket.
The woman studied her carefully. “You’re unusually confident this morning. Surprising, seeing as you failed miserably yesterday.” She folded her arms over her chest. “You didn’t do what I asked.”
“No I didn’t. But you knew I would never let Kendra die. That’s not what you really wanted, is it? What do you want, Edna?” Laura asked.
“I think you know.”
“I want to hear you say it.”
There was a pause and then she answered, “I want you to kill yourself.”
Laura nodded, “Yes, I thought it would be something like that. I know that the only way into that cabin is if I die. But I’m not going to do that. Sorry to disappoint.”
“Then why are you here?”
“To say goodbye. Not to you, to him. And then I’m never coming back.”
Edna smirked at her. “Now we both know that isn’t true. You’re drawn here. This place calls to you. He calls to you.”
Laura closed her eyes. “It’s not really him calling to me. I don't know what it is, but it isn’t Tim. He wouldn’t want me to kill myself. He wouldn’t want me to die. I know that.” She opened her eyes and took a step toward her. “So I’m leaving and you’ll never see me again.”
Edna threw her head back and laughed. “Oh, Laura, you will kill yourself. It’s the only way to save your friend, what is her name again? Kendra.”
“No, I know you only have control over things in the woods and she’s not here,” Laura said.
“But she is here. As we speak, she is on the trails, looking for you.”
Laura looked around through the trees, half expecting Kendra to walk into the clearing. “Why? She never comes here without me. She can’t be here. You’re lying.”
“She is worried about you because she can’t find you. She’s been calling you for the last hour and you haven’t answered.”
The hairs on Laura’s neck were standing on end as she fished her phone out of her pocket. Twenty missed calls from Kendra, a dozen texts and several voicemails. The last text read, “That’s it. I’m coming to the woods to find you.”
“She knew you would probably be here, and when she saw your car in the parking lot, she went into the ranger station and asked about you. Naturally when she heard about your very strange conversation, she was alarmed. She’s downright panicked by now, running along the trails, calling your name. We both know she has a bad ankle, and some of the trails are still quite slippery from the storm the other day. It will be such a shame when she slips and hits her head.”
Laura frantically tried to call Kendra back but it went straight to voicemail.
“Funny how those things don’t always work here. Too many trees I think. Besides, it’s too late. She’s too far into the woods. There is only one way to save her.”
“Why? Why does someone have to die at all? Just stop it from happening, I know you can do that,” Laura said.
“Oh, I don’t control the deaths, not really. They do. They tell me when someone is going to come here, and I just get to keep the souls as prizes, if you will.”
“So then, I can’t do anything about Kendra dying, is that what you’re saying?”
“No, you can save her. They just want a body. They don’t really care who it is. And yesterday they were supposed to get one and you denied them. They were quite upset with you, so I’m sure they would take you as a substitute, no questions asked.”
“Why? Why do you want me so badly? You arranged for me to find this place, didn’t you? Why?” Laura's tears streamed down her face.
Edna’s face lit up. “Well, I’ve never had a set, you see. Wouldn’t it be wonderful? Two lovers, together forever. Delightful! And I could feel how badly you wanted it, how much you both truly love each other. Yes, it will be terrifically sad. So what shall it be? An eternity here with your soul mate, or another funeral to attend?”
Laura felt defeated. She couldn’t let Kendra die; it would be entirely her fault. “How?” she whispered.
“There.” Edna pointed at a pretty purple plant in the garden. “Deadly nightshade. Extremely poisonous. I would hurry, you are running out of time. Plus, Tim is so anxious to see you.”
Laura felt the familiar tug on her heart, the yearning to see Tim again. She walked over to the nightshade and picked it up. Would it be so bad really? She would be with Tim forever this way. It was almost poetic.
“Come on, my dear, time is ticking.” The woman was leaning forward eagerly, fingers twitching.
Laura realized she was still clutching her cell phone, holding it so tightly that her fingers were numb. She put it in her pocket and it hit something hard. She felt the object and paused, thinking. She looked at the woman and walked up the steps. They stood facing each other. Laura swallowed hard and let the nightshade drop at their feet.
A look of surprise crossed Edna’s face and she glanced down at the flowers. Laura seized the rosary beads from her pocket and slammed the silver cross directly onto the woman’s chest. For a split second, Laura thought nothing was going to happen and then it began to burn into her skin. The woman staggered back, gasping and trying to remove the cross. Laura jumped off the porch to get away from her.
Edna suddenly stood straight up, her arms flying out to the side, her head thrown back. A fiery yellow light began to shine from her eyes, mouth and nose, and even her fingertips. There was a horrible high-pitched sound, and Laura threw her arms over her face as the woman exploded into nothingness. The rosary beads blasted everywhere, knocking Laura off her feet.
An ethereal white glow was coming from the cabin and whirling clouds of light floated up, trapped souls finally set free. Through her tears, Laura could see Tim standing there on the porch, and for the first time she truly felt his presence, his love and knew it was real.
“I told you there was something after,” she whispered. “I’ll see you again.” Tim’s spirit lingered for a moment and then he joined the others in the beautiful white light. After a moment, they were gone.
“Laura?” Kendra’s voice came through the trees.
“Ken! I’m right here.” Laura stood up and turned toward the sound.
Kendra walked into the clearing. “What the hell, Lala? I called you like fifty times.” She looked furious.
“I’m sorry, I had my phone on mute. How did you find me here?” Laura said.
“Well, I tried a dozen other places first. But this is where you brought me that time we found your key, remember?”
“I remember. I’m just amazed you found your way here. You’re not exactly a girl scout.”
Kendra scowled at her. “I just traipsed all over these damned woods trying to find you. My ankle is killing me. I nearly slipped and killed myself more than once.”
Laura winced. “Well, you found me. Now let’s get out of here.”
Kendra’s expression softened. “Lala, what is going on with you? Are you okay?”
“I am. Really. Now let’s go home.”
“Hey, isn’t that the rosary I bought you?” Kendra pointed to the beads scattered across the ground.
“Oh, yeah. They broke. Sorry about that. But they really did help me.”
“Really? I’m glad.” Kendra looked around the clearing. “But what the hell did you do to them? Seriously, dude, I don’t think you understand what a rosary is for.”
Laura laughed. “Let’s just say, they helped me see the light.” She grabbed her friend’s hand. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Wait, am I gonna have to come back here and drag you out again? Cuz you’re killing me here,” Kendra said.
Laura looked back to the cabin. There was nothing there but trees. She shook her head. “No, I guarantee, I’m finished here. Come on.”
“Seriously though. What the hell did you do to that rosary?” Kendra asked as they slowly walked away and out of the woods for the last time.