Into the Woods

Fall had arrived in full force as the trees huddled on the edge of the vast pasture that stretched up the terraced hill. A strong wind galloped atop the tall grass waving at the young boy and his friends as they stepped into the field. The wind buffeted them, penetrating the thin coats that clung loosely to their small frames. The bruised sky above them rumbled along, the clouds like slow-moving trains pulling slowly out of the station all at once.

The boy with the copper hair turned to his friends and motioned for them to follow him. The wind muffled his words and tussled his hair, but he yelled to be heard and pushed the hair out of his eyes. Eight legs beat a path to the edge of the woods defying the wind with each step. Their progress halted as the four boys peered into the dense forest before them.

The muted light provided by the cloudy day gave the forest an ominous feel. Trees, once bright and lively in the spring, sat dull and dark with spotty, brown leaves covering their gnarled branches. One tree hunched over the path with its bony fingers lifted in warning. The view gave the boys pause. Shadows lurked on the path and suddenly the feeling that they were not alone slithered down their spines. The copper-haired boy looked back at his friends for reassurance. One boy pulled his knit cap lower on his head. Another clutched his jacket closed. A third swallowed hard. Courage eluded them.

Fearing that he’d appear less than brave, the copper-haired boy stepped onto the path leading into the forest. His red hair provided the only color in the dark, musty passage. Ten steps later, he looked back to confirm that his friends had followed. They had. Clumped together in fear, they beat a path through the woods down to the creek that gurgled around the ancient trees. The wind rattled the trees above them surging in a chatter that was at times deafening. Stray, mostly small limbs, fell upon them as they walked quickly along the path.

As they approached the creek, excitement rose in their throats. The gurgling water fell silent in the boastful wind, but the young boy remembered what it had sounded like in the summer. Long, hot days spent jumping in and out of the water had yielded so much fun. The change of season had turned the water colder, but it still felt refreshing to his hands as he scavenged among the rocks in the creek searching for crayfish.

One boy dropped the bucket they had brought onto the bank of the creek and hopped onto a rock in the middle of the lazy stream. He braced himself against another rock and dug his hands into the cool water. When he found nothing after a moment of searching, he pulled his hand back and shook the numbing cold from his fingers. The boys moved up and down the stream kicking rocks over in the water and splashing around until their shoes were soaked and the knees of their pants bore a waterline. The lower hems of their coats dripped, but none of them seemed to mind. Their singular focus on the hapless crayfish clutched their imagination.

The wind still roared above them as the trees fretted and grazed bony fingers against the heavy clouds. The bucket remained empty as the boy’s enthusiasm for the hunt slowly gave way to cold feet and hands chapped by the gusty wind. The copper-haired boy looked down the winding stream and sighed. Not today. He spoke and his friends looked up. They all stood and hunched over in disappointment as they trudged through the water and up the hill from which they had descended only an hour earlier. None of them said a word as they beat a hasty retreat to the field at the edge of the woods.

The light brightened as they emerged from the path into the woods. The fussy grass mimed an “I told you so” when they paused for a moment at the mouth of the dark path. Disappointment dampened the moment more than the cloudy day. Spring and summer had yielded a hopefulness that the fall had gladly taken away. In unison the boys heaved a deep breath and pushed forward, all silent save for the cajoling wind.

Letting Go

Deception Pass 2015 (134)

This past weekend, I took my family on our annual camping trip. Once again, we went to Deception Pass Park on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound. The park sits on the northwest corner of Whidbey at the foot of an 80-year-old, steel bridge that connects it to Fidalgo Island to the north. This idyllic setting is a great place to relax and get away from the frantic pace of everyday life. I love the hikes and the beautiful views of sunrises behind the bridge and sunsets into the Sound, both of which offer plenty of inspiration.

As a kid I spent most of my time outdoors with my brothers and friends playing in the woods. We explored every inch of the vast wooded area that surrounded our houses. We’d play games that relied most heavily on our imaginations rather than anything of the electronic kind, so it’s a great pleasure to see my own kids running around in the woods playing with nothing but what nature provides them. I hope they are similarly inspired by the overwhelming beauty and the excitement of discovery.

Such surroundings make me appreciate settings in the stories I write. As I walked through the overgrown, verdant paths that encircle the tip of Whidbey Island, I described what I saw in my head, flipping through my catalog of words looking for the right nouns and adjectives to capture my perspective perfectly – well, as perfectly as is reasonably possible because words don’t do the gorgeous Pacific Northwest much justice. My mind wandered lazily down paths that it doesn’t often have the time to explore. Story ideas popped and bloomed. The scenery reinvigorated my senses – exactly what a vacation should do.

Since I was camping, I didn’t write while I was away. Instead, I just let my mind run loose without any constraints – no need to write things down or leave myself a voice memo. I wasn’t worried about losing ideas. Instead, I knew that letting myself go like that would benefit me later. These scenes, feelings, and experiences would likely show up later in my writing. In the future, one of my characters will walk through the verdant paths of some old-growth wooded area and smile with wonder, recoil in fear, or any react in some way that is conducive to the story I’m writing. Stephen King is right – you have to read to get good at writing, but you also have to exercise your senses and relax every once in a while to keep a fresh perspective. I hope my vacation serves me well.

Swim

The door swung open into the dimly-lit room with walls covered in dark paneling. Only a thin beam of sunlight peeked through the heavy curtains. A musty, mildew smell greeted the family that crossed the threshold. The father, a cigarette dangling from his pressed lips, exhaled a cloud of smoke as he bent down to turn on the old, brass lamp. The meek light barely brightened the room. The mother, observing the futility of the lamp, flung open the velvety curtains and sunlight eviscerated the darkness.

The young boy, short and pale with a shock of copper-red hair, followed his parents into the room and immediately jumped on one of the beds. He stood up and smiled before he started bouncing on the squeaky bed. The thick navy blue bed cover bore the imprint of his tiny feet with each bounce.

“You’re gonna get hurt,” his mother admonished. She gave him a hard stare until the smile left his face. The boy stopped and sat down on the edge of the bed sullen and despondent.

He watched his mother busy herself with getting settled into the hotel room. His father reclined in a chair near the window savoring the last of his cigarette. Relaxed after the long drive, he watched his wife and son. The sad look on his son’s face concerned him.

“You want to go swimming?” he asked.

His son’s face brightened as he became animated once again. “Yes!” he yelled. He jumped up on the bed again but only stood up for fear of his mother’s wrath. His mother and father exchanged a look that he didn’t understand, but he could tell his mother was reluctant to go swimming. His dad smiled anyway.

The flurry of activity required to go swimming easily bested the limited patience of a four-year-old. His mother seemed frozen in time as she got dressed in her bathing suit. His father was ready in a matter of minutes. The boy bounded from one side of the room to the other bursting with restless energy. Finally, his mother emerged from the bathroom ready to go.

When they stepped outside, the sun seemed exponentially brighter than it had been through the window of their room. The boy squinted in the bright light. His copper hair, corkscrew curly, rustled in the slight breeze and sparkled like a campfire. His pale skin burned a phosphorus white. Anticipation tugged at him as he held his mother’s hand. She gripped his hand a little tighter as they neared the pool, the smell of chlorine overwhelmed them.

The pool glistened in the bright sunlight as tiny waves rippled across the surface. Despite the heat of the day, few people lounged by the pool. A woman lay on her stomach to their right. Her bathing suit straps were undone and flung to the side. She looked like she was asleep as she didn’t acknowledge the new arrivals to the pool.

The hot concrete that surrounded the pool pricked the young boy’s tender feet. He yelped a little and hopped along until he could pull himself up onto one of the pool chairs. His father laughed.

“Do you want to go in the big pool or the kiddie pool?” his father asked squinting at the boy. His son noticed that his father’s cigarette was gone, a rare sight.

“We’ll go into the kiddie pool,” his mother interjected. They exchanged another look before his father turned and walked to the big pool.

The boy watched as his father stood on the edge before he dove into the water head first. His father disappeared and then re-surfaced with his thick, dark hair plastered to his face.

“The water feels great!” he said from the deep end. His mother smiled and nodded before she took her son to the kiddie pool just a few feet away. Both mother and son tip-toed into the water, which was only two feet deep.

“Be careful. A lot of kids drown in pools every year,” his mother warned.

“Does it feel good?” his dad asked from the edge of the big pool. He looked pointedly at his son who stood hesitantly on the bottom step in the water. His son smiled and shook his head. “Why don’t you let him come in here?”

The mother looked chagrinned. “No, this is good enough.”

“He has to learn to swim someday.”

“We’ll get him lessons.”

“I never took lessons.”

The couple stared at each other without a word. Finally, the father shook his head and dove back under water. Meanwhile, the boy had ventured to the center of the kiddie pool and began splashing and playing in the water. His distrust of the water, a trait he inherited from his mother, had subsided, for the moment at least.

His father emerged from the pool and made a beeline for the pool chair to retrieve a cigarette. He stood there for a moment, water dribbling off his thin, sinewy frame still muscular from a youth spent doing hard labor. The man flicked his lighter and puffed the cigarette to life. His son stared at him and admired him from afar. He loved his father’s strength and admired how easily he took to the water.

His father walked over to the kiddie pool and sat on the edge as he enjoyed his cigarette. “Are you going to get in the water?” he asked his wife.

“No.”

He looked at her for a moment and shook his head. “He has to learn how to swim.”

“I know.” Her face resisted any further conversation.

The boy, still playing in the middle of the small pool, splashed his father on a whim. The man looked irritated at first but he returned the favor mostly missing his son and hitting his wife with the bulk of the water. She screamed and turned away. The splashing war continued as she backed up the steps and trotted to the pool chair for her towel. Father and son laughed. Finally, the splashing stopped and the boy joined his father on the edge of the small pool. His father reached over and rustled the boy’s wet hair. They sat there enjoying the moment, another one that the boy would remember long after his childhood ended.

Stung

The little boy breathed in the crisp, cool air of the spring morning. Bulbous dew hung from the long blades of grass at his feet, and the sun pierced the mist that hunched near the ground like a scorned dog. Birds, hidden in the bushes and trees that surrounded him, sang a melodic song, both hopeful and alive. One bird chirped mightily above the rest, emphatic and commanding. Bees buzzed by him, headed to an overgrown garden near the road. The flowers waved and glistened in the supple sunlight as the bees encircled them intoxicated by the pollen.

The boy stood still for a moment observing all that surrounded him. The sunlight struck his fiery red hair revealing flames and twists of curls. He looked at the flower garden and its collection of bees and ignored it for the moment. Something more enticing beckoned him – a sandbox. He hopped and ran in the tall grass toward the object of his affection until both feet landed with a thud in the soft sand.

He dug his fingers into the damp sand enjoying the feel of the tiny grains on his hands as he molded and formed the it to his will. He grabbed a toy bucket, a small, plastic shovel, and an impossibly tiny earth mover as he played, making engine sounds and clicking noises that indicated a boy serious about his work. Meanwhile, the sounds of spring still engulfed him.

A lone car trundled by on the two-lane asphalt road near his house, but he hardly noticed as deep into his play as he was. A slight breeze pricked his skin and rustled his unruly hair. He looked in its direction, blinked slowly, and sighed in content. Life was good in the sandbox.

A few yards away his mother stood at the door to her home behind the screen that kept the bugs out of the house and watched her son as he played. She put a cup of coffee to her lips and sipped. The black coffee steeled her against the chill of the morning, but the sun threatened to over-warm her. She could hear her son making noises as he played and she smiled to herself. Such was the life of a young boy. She stepped back into the house to busy herself with the day’s chores.

A long moment passed as the boy played, but something distracted him from his sand castle. He looked up from his creation and noticed the flower garden again, basking in the glow of the sun. The flowers beckoned him with their vibrant reds and yellows and purples. The bright colors enchanted him. He suddenly wanted to touch them, feel the delicate blooms in his tiny hand.

He stood up in the sand box and dusted the sand from his shirt and shorts being careful not to step on his sand castle. He walked to the flower garden like a boy possessed taking in all the colors at once. One flower, the tallest one in the garden, stood in the center and glowed a velvety red. It reminded him of a cake his mom had baked once, and he remembered how warm and soft it had been when he bit into it. He knew he couldn’t bite the flower, but he wanted to feel it on his own hand, rub it or pet it like he would a dog. He imagined it would feel so soft.

He stood on the edge of the garden and reached for the red, velvety flower. He leaned precariously on the edge as he did so taking care to remember to stay out of the garden as his mom had warned him. He technically wasn’t in the garden as his feet were firmly planted on the edge of the bricks that circumscribed the flowers. He had to stand on his tiptoes to reach the enticing flower. The puffy, red bloom wavered just beyond his finger tips before he made one last stretch and grabbed it in the palm of his pale hand.

The flower felt as he had imagined – buttery soft and delicate. The pleasant odors of the flowers entranced him for the briefest of seconds as he enjoyed the feel of the flower in his hand. Suddenly, a sharp rebuke met his palm. It startled him and sent an arc of pain through his palm and up his arm like he had sliced his hand on a knife or other sharp object. He withdrew his hand quickly and eyed his reddened palm already starting to swell from the bee sting. The pain and the sight of his impaled hand startled him and he let out a wail that punctured the otherwise peaceful morning. Tears flooded his eyes and he squeezed them shut as he screamed in pain.

He turned and ran toward his house holding his hand as if it would fall off should he let go. The drama followed him to his doorstep where his mother bent down and examined his hand. She rubbed it and placated her son with her soothing words. He tried to tell her what happened, but the words were lost in the trauma. She knew, as all mothers do, even without her son’s explanation. He had ignored her warnings about the flower garden. As she tended to her son’s sting, she knew it was a lesson he would not soon forget.

A Moment in Time

A slight, spring breeze ruffled the thin curtains that covered the high, rectangular window in the bedroom. The faint light of the early morning squinted in the darkness revealing a sleeping, young boy who lay half-covered in his small bed. The chill nudged him awake and he reached for the edge of his blanket, pulling it up to his neck without opening his eyes. He rolled over onto his left side and then onto his stomach. He tasted the stale fabric of his pillow, smacked his dry mouth, and slowly opened his heavy eyelids.

Half awake, he peered at the dark, paneled wall next to his bed as his eyes adjusted to the faint light. He kicked his feet beneath the blanket and took a deep breath. From the down the hallway outside his bedroom, he heard music playing, faint and indecipherable. The succulent smell of bacon cooking wafted into his room along with the other smells of morning. His mother must be up, he thought, as he swung his tiny legs over the side of the bed and rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

For a brief moment, he sat on the edge of his bed donned in his summer pajamas – a thin shirt and a pair of loose-fitting shorts. He rubbed his face and ran his tiny, pale fingers through the twisted, curly mass of copper hair that shot like flames from his head. He slid off the bed and dug his toes into the golden shag carpet that covered his bedroom floor and most of the tiny trailer in which he lived. The carpet tickled his feet, but he liked the way it felt when he rubbed his feet on it. Sometimes, he’d scrape his feet along the carpet and shock himself when he touched the door knob on his bedroom door.

He shuffle-stepped to his door and peered down the long, dark hallway momentarily frightened by the darkness. The door to his parents’ bedroom stood ajar, but darkness swallowed that room, too, He instinctively knew his parents were up. He could smell his mom’s cooking and hear the faint sounds of parents carefully enjoying the solitude of a sleeping child – hushed words, soft steps across the floor, and restrained laughter.

Taking a deep breath, he stepped into the dark hallway and hurried toward the light at the end. Visions of monsters and other creatures of the darkness quickened his step, but he stopped short just inside the kitchen to take in the happenings on this morning. His mom stood at the stove, her back turned to him, stirring a pan of succulent gravy and scrambling a batch of eggs. Bacon sizzled on the griddle, and biscuits rose in the stove. The boy inhaled the smells of homemade breakfast and his mouth watered. He sighed contentedly and his mother turned toward the noise.

Seeing her only child standing there, she smiled broadly and closed the gap between them enveloping him in a hug. Her soft robe bunched and encased the young boy’s head as she pulled him into her. His vision went white for a moment and all he could breathe was the floral detergent scent from her robe. She gave him one last squeeze and kissed the top of his head. The boy caught his breath and then smiled basking in the warmth of her love before he wandered into the living room to find his dad.

His dad hunched over a console record player that stood along one wall of the living room. He didn’t notice his son at first as he fussed with the turntable in the belly of the console. He adjusted the record and carefully placed the needle on it before he stepped back to see if the song he wanted would play. He stared wistfully at the record as it turned, so focused that he didn’t see the little boy watching him.

Gauzy, sheer curtains hung over the window above the console filtering the early morning sunlight as it struck the man, brightening his young face. The little boy thought his dad glowed, but he failed to notice the slight stoop of a long night’s work. His dad simply wanted to relax a little after the night shift before he wandered down the hall for some sleep only to repeat the routine yet again the next night.

The music started to play and its sweet melody filled the living room. The dad stepped back a little and rubbed his hand through his thick, wavy hair. He wore a white t-shirt that bustled at the chest and arms, a powerful countenance that spoke of the work he did with his hands every night. His dark, blue jeans hung from his thin waist and splayed out above bare feet that dug into the golden shag carpet. Like his son, he enjoyed the feel of the carpet on his toes.

The man turned and saw his young son now, staring at him adoringly. He smiled and waved for him to join him. The little boy ran to his father and hugged his leg, and the man patted his head before he picked him up into his arms. He kissed the boy’s cheek, and the boy giggled at the tickle of the man’s mustache. They sat on the couch together to listen to the song that played.

The song started out slow and gradually rose until it reached the chorus. As the chorus played, the man sang along with his son leaning into him. The little boy felt the warmth of his dad next to him and inhaled the smells of a good night’s work – sweat, aftershave, and cigarette smoke – a sweet mix that he would forever associate with his father. He loved it when his dad sang along to the songs he played. Even at such a young age, he knew people sang when they were happy, and he loved it when his dad was happy.

His dad put his arm around him and hugged him a little closer, and the little boy lay his head on his dad’s broad chest. He could hear him breathing, and when the chorus came around again and his dad sang, the little boy listened to the echo of his dad’s voice in his chest. He loved the way it sounded. It made him feel close to his dad. At that very moment, he understood how much he loved him, and it made him happy. He didn’t want that moment to end. He wanted to sit there with his dad all day while he played his beloved records repeatedly, but such moments weren’t meant to last.