I’ve followed Chuck Wendig’s blog at http://www.terribleminds.com for a couple of years now, and I’ve enjoyed reading what people come up with for his Friday Flash Fiction Challenges. I don’t write much flash fiction, but when I saw the great title in Chuck’s list, I decided to rework a backstory segment I had to cut from a longer piece. It was hard to keep it at ~1500 words, but it was fun trying!
A late afternoon breeze scattered leaves across the forest floor, and carried with it the inviting scent of a campfire smoke. Next to an old Trapper’s cabin, a loud, crackling snap sent shooting sparks towards the sky and a two-year-old squealed with delight. Chubby fingers reached out to grab a fallen marshmallow, but her father chuckled and scooped her into his arms before she could eat it.
“Oh no, not that one! It’s all dirty.” He said and kissed her cheek.
She felt her face turn white-hot red and she wailed. A startled squirrel jumped from one tree to another to get away, and it brought a shower of fluffy debris spiraling down on her head.
With a deep, baritone laugh, her father plucked leaves and twigs from her hair and sat beside the fire, placing her on his lap. Little Katherine sniffled while he slid another marshmallow onto a long, charred stick and held it over the flames, as soft cooing calls echoed from the direction of the lake.
“Do you hear that?” He whispered.
She did, and it sounded like a bird. She gazed up at the trees painted gold by the fire’s dancing light.
“No, sweeting. They’re calling from over there.” He pointed to a path leading through the forest. “That’s the call of the Loons. They’re very special creatures…masters of both land and water, and they don’t sing for just anyone.” He smiled and tapped a fingertip to her nose. “This means they like us. They’re giving us a precious gift, their song of eternal, soulful peace. Come, I’ll show you.”
Together they walked towards to the lake and she laughed every time her father grabbed her arms to swing her over the boulders and tree roots that shared their path. They arrived at the water’s edge just in time to see a family of Loons surface and swim in tight formation before disappearing again. Katherine giggled and splashed her hands in the cold water, distorting her reflection that shimmered on the surface.
The wind picked up and her father crouched down, pulling her close. “Shhh,” he said, and pointed to a ripple on the surface. “Look, see there? They’ve returned to their world under water, but if we stay very, very quiet, they might come back and sing for us again.”
“Why do you have to marry that woman, Dad? Don’t you love me anymore?”
“Sweetheart, you know I love you more than anything in the whole wide world. That doesn’t mean I can’t love her too.”
“What if Mom comes back? You loved her, you told me so.”
“Yes, I did. Of course I did. She loved us too, but remember how I told you it wasn’t anyone’s fault? She’s sick, and I don’t think it’s good for you to keep hoping for something that can never be.”
“What if that woman doesn’t like me?”
“Impossible. Your stepmother will love you as much as I do. How can she not?”
“Where is it?” Katherine shouted to no one as she followed the familiar forest trail. The full moon provided just enough light to look for the old Trapper’s cabin, the one that marked the path down to the Lake. It was cold, colder than she expected. She shivered and kept walking, shoving one hand in her pocket. With the other, she grabbed the lapels of her raincoat, clenching the smooth fabric so tight the skin around her knuckles burned. It was almost midnight and she’d been walking for over an hour—she should have reached it by now.
No, she should be studying for finals. It had been her father’s dream that she be the first in the family to earn a degree.
“Daddy, I’m sorry that I didn’t get the scholarship. I tried, but…”
He’d taken her for dinner at an expensive French restaurant, to celebrate her first week of college.
“Don’t be silly. I’ve been saving for this day since you were born and I’m so proud of you.”
“Yeah, but SHE’s not happy. She wanted that Mediterranean cruise, and now it’s my fault you can’t afford to go.”
“No, you misunderstood. She—”
Katherine cut him off. “She’s been telling lies about me again, hasn’t she? You’re the only person in the whole wide world that I love. How can you believe her?”
Her father put down his fork, and stared at the table. His shoulders sank as though broken by an invisible weight, and his voice was quieter when he said, “I thought you said you’d been taking your medication.”
“You’re calling me a liar? I can’t believe this, Daddy. SHE blames me for losing out on a fancy vacation and I’m the bad one? I’m the who needs a shrink?”
“No, I’m sorry. We don’t have to do this, sweetheart. Please.”
“What? Do what?” She seethed with a sputtering whisper. “Point out you married a gold digger bitch who hates me? Maybe YOU should see a shrink, so he can explain that SHE’s the reason I ran away and found shooting up preferable to spending one more minute living in HER hell.”
“Shhh…I’m sorry. You’re right…shhh…you’re right. I know you had a hard time and I wish I could go back and make it better.”
At least he no longer tried to argue it was Katherine’s fault she never gave her stepmother a chance. Every time he took that witch’s side, it stabbed her heart with the white-hot knife of betrayal. No, NO. He wouldn’t do that. She took a deep breath and clenched both fists until her nails dug into the flesh while she counted to ten. “Okay, then we just won’t talk about her anymore. Ever. agreed?”
“Agreed. Now, let’s go shopping after dinner. How about we get you one of those fancy new laptop computers?”
“And some new clothes? Oh, and what about a car! Then I wouldn’t have to take the bus, and…”
Her father laughed, the hearty baritone sound that always made her feel like his special little girl. “We’ll see, sweetheart. We’ll see.”
If only he’d never bought that horrible car. If only the greedy step-bitch had prevented it like Katherine expected her to, everything would be fine like it was before—but now it wasn’t and never would be again.
Icy winds drove a heavy mist deeper through the forest, where it curled around the cedar trees like phantoms. A sudden gust forced a sharp intake of breath, but she pressed forward—the forest was the only home she had now.
From the time she learned to walk, she’d hiked those woods with her father every September, just the two of them. He knew every dip, every rock, every twist and turn along the maze of hidden footpaths, but he couldn’t help her now—he was dead.
Hot tears stung at a cut on her lips pressed tight to hold onto the pain. It was her fault that he was gone, and it was her fault that he was taken away by a smoldering, twisted pile of red and chrome wrapped around a pole. It was her fault because he’d been on his way home from the car lot with a surprise for his only child.
“Katherine, I want you to consider checking into the hospital again. Just for a little while.” Dr. Bowman didn’t look up from the notes he was taking.
The last time, it had been her father signing the papers to have her committed. He’d done it out of love, but she hadn’t understood that until years later. “Do I have to?”
The doctor looked up now, and studied her for a few seconds before answering. “Your father would want you to. He always wanted what was best for you, and so do I.”
Manipulative bastard…it wouldn’t help, not this time and he knew it.
The trees thinned into a clearing, and she saw the withered branches of her favorite oak tree, drowning under a bramble thicket’s twisted vines—another casualty of Destiny’s malice.
Tears flowed faster and she picked up the pace, and then—finally—she heard them. The Loons. They were calling, speaking to her as they always did through their special song.
The exposed roots of a giant, rotting Pacific cedar at the forest’s edge reached out with crooked hands desperate to snatch her back, but she laughed at them. They couldn’t stop her—they couldn’t even make her stumble.
When she reached the grassy hill leading down to the lake, she ran. At the shoreline, pale rays of moonlight had drawn an incandescent path and she followed it. A new, softer gust of wind blurred her reflection shimmering on the surface, and when a heavy blanket of frozen needles enveloped her body, it made her smile—its embrace held the promise she would be with her father again, forever.
Silvery puffs of warm breath vanished as she slipped beneath the surface, and she knew the Loons would come to guide her home. Katherine merged with the last silent ripple that faded into the darkness, and at that moment she heard it—her song of soulful peace.