John Drake drove down the dirt road, scarcely wide enough to allow for two passing cars. He slowed down at every sign, hoping he would find the name of the turn located on the tattered, coffee-stained road map. After stopping for the fourth time, he pulled over to what once was a rest stop for would-be campers.
His eye caught the glimpse of something fleeing not far in the woods. A young woman, twentyish, wearing a flowing gown, with a ring of flowers on her head, and a light blue ribbon tied around her neck. Her fingers grazed lazily over the autumn leaves on a nearby tree limb above her head. She stopped and looked at him. Her eyes grew intense and seemed to communicate a sad, beckoning message. John swallowed hard. He sat straighter, and ran his finger between his turtleneck collar and his throat.
Why is she staring at me? Is she lost? There are no spring flowers now. Why does she have flowers in her hair?
As compelling as the image was, he forced himself to check the map again. When he looked up in her direction, she was still there, only deeper into the forest.
His hand shook as he grabbed the keys and got out of the car. He stood a moment, watching her, and then walked around the car to the edge of the gravel, where it met an overgrown path. She didn’t move, but seemed to study his form for a few seconds, before she turned and darted into the forest. His steps grew faster and faster till he was at a slow run.
She disappeared out of sight behind a clump of thick-trunked trees.
John stopped and turned in a complete circle. There was no sight of her. Which way had she gone? It had to be that way. Instinct took over as he trudged through the growth of trees and fallen dead tree trunks hosting clusters of mushrooms crossing his path. Still, no sight of her.
Is she in danger? Does she want me to help her in some way?
A small clearing came into view with an old cabin standing in the center. As he drew closer, John saw it was missing some of the planks used to make the walls, and had no door. The hole that must have held a window revealed that the damaged roof allowed a stream of sunlight to fill its interior.
I wonder if she’s in there? Why is she hiding from me?
John hurried to the cabin, then slowed his pace, suddenly apprehensive. He toured the perimeter, careful where he stepped for fear of finding a hole, or some abandoned well. Coming back around to the front, he noticed a pale blue ribbon on the step to the rickety porch. He bent down, picked it up, and rubbed the satin fabric between his fingers. She is real. This ribbon proves it. He peered cautiously into the cabin. Empty. He looked around again, squinting to sharpen his focus. He could see no sign of this mysterious woman. He stashed the souvenir in his pocket. Her image haunted him. He returned to the car and continued to his destination, hoping to find the peace and quiet he sought for his weekend retreat. Dust kicked up as he picked up speed.
Crossroads came into view, with what appeared to be an old general store on one corner. An old brown pickup truck stood under the shade of an enormous oak tree. John pulled into the makeshift parking lot of packed dirt, and grabbed his map before getting out of the car. He stepped onto the old porch and noted a hand-honed wooden rocker. The sound of creaking wood under each footstep announced his arrival before he opened the door.
John stood a moment, searching for someone to assist him. He spotted an older woman behind a rough-hewn wood counter. He noticed a thin gold wedding band on her finger.
“Hi, Ma’am. I’m new in town and need some directions.” He laid the map on the counter, and pointed to his desired target.
The woman leaned over the counter and studied the map. “Nice to meet you,” she said with a slow drawl. “I’m Mabel. My husband, Henry, is in the back.” She pointed over her shoulder. She took a pencil from the gray bun at the back of her head and made an X on the map. “You are here. You go down this road till you get to a Y. Take the right fork, and the next left will take you to the campsite. You should be able to find your way from there. There’s a sign. You can’t miss it.”
A stooped man with a weathered face came from the back and stood next to her. “Don’t drive too fast in these parts. We don’t fancy road kill ‘round here. Critters got a right to live, and we only kill for what we eat. No huntin’ for city sport—not fair to the animals.”
John shifted his weight. He picked up the map. “No chance of that. I’m here for some rest. I only brought a sketch pad and pens.”
“You’re a painter?” the man whom he assumed was Henry, stroked his chin.
“Yes.” John smiled. “Though I only do that for fun. I’m an investment broker.”
Mabel’s jaw set. “One of them that makes money from others—skinnin’ them alive and they don’t feel it until they’re near dirt poor.”
They’re not very friendly here. I better get moving before it’s dark.
He paused at the doorway, and turned back to the older couple. “Do you know of a young woman in her twenties around here? I saw her in the woods—thought she might need help so I stopped the car and tried to find her, but she vanished.”
The couple exchanged knowing glances.
After a moment, Henry stiffened his posture. “Nope. Don’t know of any person like that. Sure you aren’t seein’ things from lack of sleep? Been drivin’ too long?”
“I know what I saw.”
Maybe he’s right. Stress at work and the long hours driving could’ve played tricks with my eyes.
* * *
The stranger left far quicker than he arrived.
Mabel looked up at Henry. “You think he’ll get to where he needs to be?”
“Don’t know. City slickers can be a bit disbelievin’ with all their book learnin’.” He started stocking the fresh shipment of canned green beans from the cardboard box onto the shelf behind them. “We might not see him again. Might end up like the rest.”
Her brow furrowed, accentuating the look of worry. “I hope not. All-in-all, he seemed like a nice young man.” She gazed out the window. “He might be back for some fixin’s. Might need some spray for all those bugs in the cabin.”
“Don’t go fussin’.” Henry tossed the empty box to the others in the corner. “What’s meant to be will be. Nothin’ no one can do. If we see him again, then we will. If not, it’s nobody’s business.”
“You’re right.” She patted his hand on the counter. “I fret too much over things that’s none of my concern.”
* * *
John hadn’t slept well. He tossed and turned and couldn’t make out if he slept with one dream blending into the next, of it he spent his entire night looking at the shadows and images formed by the moonlight. The vision of the girl in the woods tormented him.
I know she is real. Why can’t I stop thinking about her? Why did that couple at the store act so odd when I mentioned what I saw?
He slung his legs over the edge of the bed, stood up and gave an expansive stretch and yawn. A well-worn coffeemaker stood on the small dresser along with Styrofoam cups, packets of instant coffee, sugar, and powdered creamer. He filled the coffeepot with water from the bathroom sink then poured the contents into the reservoir. He pressed the “on” button to boil the water.
He checked the wall socket and re-plugged the appliance. Still nothing—not even the faint sound of gurgling water. Damn it! Now I have to go back to that store and find out where people eat around here. Maybe I can buy a new coffeemaker.
John dressed quickly. He checked his pocket and pulled out the ribbon with his keys. He looked at it briefly then stuffed it into his shirt pocket.
The morning sun nearly blinded him, and he grabbed his sunglasses from the glove compartment. The drive seemed much shorter than he recalled yesterday. He didn’t need a map this time. He drove back to the general store as if he had driven this road numerous times before. I was so lost yesterday. Why do I know these roads so well now? Am I still dreaming?
This is weird.
John pulled into the same parking area. He got out and checked the money in his wallet, and hoped he had enough. He wondered if the older couple would accept credit cards.
He opened the door and walked straight to the counter. Mabel swept off dust with an old rag that must have seen better days.
He cleared his throat. “Ma’am, I was here yesterday asking for directions.”
Mabel gave no indication that he was there, nor that she heard him.
Henry came from the back with a large barrel of pickles supported on a hand truck, and un-packed them toward the entry. “I haven’t seen that young broker man—the one askin’ for directions,” he said.
John stepped toward Henry. “Are you blind? I’m standing right here in front of you.”
“Yup,” Mabel replied. “Guess he’s gone for good. Hope he finds out where he’s supposed to be.”
She brushed away a lock of gray hair from her forehead and secured it with a bobby pin from her apron pocket. “Hate to think he’ll get lost.”
John turned to the woman. “Why are you ignoring me? I am here, right in front of you,” He almost yelled, panic rising in his throat.
“Henry, do you think he really saw her in the woods?” Mabel placed her hands on hips.
“Don’t know. Might have.” He chuckled. “It’s not like he had proof—a picture or somethin’.”
John reached into his pocket and retrieved the blue ribbon. He waved it in the air. “Yes, I do have proof! Here it is. Right in my hand.”
Mabel and Henry took no notice.
What is wrong with these people? Are they purposely being rude? I’m from the big city—that means I don’t exist?
In exasperation, John slammed the ribbon down on the counter. It was his only proof that he had seen her and that she was real, but he didn’t care. What he saw and experienced the day before fell back to second place. He felt a new urgency to be somewhere, but didn’t know where that place was located. He headed for his car.
At the door he paused at the sound of Mabel’s voice, and turned around.
“That man was here. Look, Henry. Here’s the ribbon.” She took it from the counter and handed it to her husband.
“I’ll take care of it. Put it with the others.” He shuffled to a box under the far end of the counter.
“I wonder what he thought when we didn’t say a word to him when he was here.”
“I didn’t know he was here—not until that ribbon. Didn’t even feel a breeze.” A small smile curled at her lips. “Guess he hasn’t learned that skill yet.” She watched Henry carefully place the ribbon in the container. “When do you think they’ll find the body?”
“All depends how well that girl hid it.”
John’s mouth gaped open. They are totally nuts. I’ve entered some kind of twilight zone.
His car was gone.
In its place was the young woman in a flowing nightgown with a blue satin ribbon around her neck. Her arm reached out to him.
© 2016 Cynthia B Ainsworthe
Cynthia has longed to be a writer. Life’s circumstances put her dream on hold for most of her life. In 2006, she ventured to write her first novel, Front Row Center, which won the prestigious IPPY Award (Independent Publisher), as well as garnering numerous 5-star reviews, one from known Midwest Book Review. Front Row Center is the first book in the Forbidden Series.
This novel is now being adapted to screen. A script is in development by her and notable Hollywood screenwriter, producer, and director, Scott C. Brown. Remember?, and Forbidden Footsteps are books two and three in the Forbidden Series. She also contributed to the award-winning anthology, The Speed of Dark, compiled by Clayton C. Bye, published by Chase Enterprises Publishing. Cynthia enjoys retirement in Florida caring for her husband and their five poodle-children.