NaNoWriMo2019 – Where The Wild Things Are

Chapter 1

By Marian Exall
2695 Words

The beast crouched no more than fifteen feet away, yellow eyes, teeth bared in a snarl and dripping slime, its mangy grey coat showing every rib.

Claire froze but her mind was racing. Make a lot of noise? Avoid eye contact? Back away slowly? One by one, she discarded each piece of wilderness lore she remembered. She waited, trapped in a standoff with a creature unlike any she had encountered before. But then this was her first time hiking in the North Cascades. Hiking alone in the North Cascades. 

Back at the Lodge that morning she had shrugged off her friends’ concerns, rejecting their plans to go shopping in the cute little Old West village down the valley and then do some wine-tasting. She knew they meant well when they invited her on this weekend jaunt to the mountains. She was new to Seattle, enticed there by a boyfriend who landed a job with Amazon. When he dumped her, she considered moving home to her parents in Florida, but decided to stay and make a go of it in the Pacific Northwest, show everyone—him—that she was capable of forging a successful life on her own. It was her pride, some might call it her stubbornness, that led her to set off on this solo hike. She told Annie and Tara that she needed to expend some energy, wear herself out, but she also needed a break from their sympathy which was beginning to cloy.

So here she stood with a steep fall of scree to her left, and, on the slope above and to her right, the beast. The trail was narrow and rocky; she had been concentrating on placing her feet, not looking up until she heard the noise: a wet, rasping growl that ended in a yip. Seconds passed that felt like minutes, like hours.

She felt as much as heard the shot as the bullet whined past. A scarlet bloom appeared beneath the beast’s ear. She watched, mesmerized, as the animal slowly crumpled forward, front legs, then rear, collapsing into a heap barely discernable from the stony grey ground. Only when Claire was certain it would not rise again did she turn to see who had fired.

About twenty yards down the trail behind her, a man stood, his hands hanging at his sides, one of them loosely grasping a pistol. He was tall and slim, dressed in khaki pants and a faded flannel shirt. He wore a baseball cap that shaded his face. As she watched, he turned his attention to the gun. When he was satisfied it was secure, he shrugged out of his backpack and placed the gun inside. He started towards her, calling out as he walked.

“You OK? Coyote, a sick one by the look of him, or he wouldn’t be out in daylight. Probably cut loose from the pack; starving as well as sick.”

The man was only feet away now, and Claire could see he was forty-ish, tanned with a couple of days’ beard. There was a goat stitched on the front of his cap.

“You OK?” he asked again.

Claire took a deep breath, the first in what felt like a while.

“Yes. It just took me by surprise. I wasn’t looking . . . Um, thank you. That was quite a shot.”

The man gave an “aw, shucks” kind of shrug, and smiled, showing white but slightly crooked teeth. 

“You hiking over to Pine Lake?”

“Yes, I plan on getting lunch there, then coming back this afternoon.”

“Me too. Mind if I keep you company?”

Not at all! Claire thought. This mountain man was a bit unkempt, but he made a nice change from the metrosexual guys she met in Seattle.  Out loud, she replied: “Sure, but what should we do about this?” She indicated the dead coyote, which now seemed small and unthreatening.

“They’ll take care of it,” the man gestured upwards to the birds already circling, black against the blue October sky. He stuck out a hand. “I’m Joe Priest, by the way.”

“Claire Delgado.” They shook. His hand was dry, rough and strong, as she had anticipated. 

The trail climbed for another half-mile before the ridge, then descended in switchbacks into the welcome shade of the pine forest. As they walked single file on the narrow trail, they exchanged information. Claire explained that her barista job in Seattle was just a placeholder until she landed something in her field: PR and event planning. Joe pieced together a living as a seasonal firefighter and snow-plow operator for the County. 

“I tend bar at the Lodge sometimes, too,” he added.

“Oh, that’s where I’m staying.” Claire realized as soon as she spoke that he’d probably guessed that already.

The trail met a graveled road leading to a couple of weathered houses with tumble-down outbuildings.

“Welcome to Pine Lake,” Joe gestured at the structures.

“But . . . where’s the café?” Claire was confused. On the little tourist map she had picked up at the Lodge, Pine Lake was clearly marked with a crossed knife and fork.

“Mac slaps sandwiches together for through-hikers in the summer, but he’s closed for the winter now. I guess you didn’t bring any food.”

“No, I thought . . .”

“Yeah, the lake is seasonal too: exists in the spring when the snow melts. It’s just a swamp by this time of year. Criminal how the Lodge hands out those chintzy little guides, making out we live in Shangri-la. This is wild country. In another month, you won’t be able to reach Pine Lake except on a snowmobile.”

“Oh. Is there anyone living here now?” Claire asked hesitantly.

Joe laughed. “Sure, Mac and his wife—they’re who I’m here to see— and a couple of old-timers still tough it out year ‘round. Come on, I’m sure Mac can find you something for lunch. You’ll need to start back pretty soon, if you want to reach the Lodge in time for Happy Hour.”

Joe led her to the front door of the larger house and entered without knocking. Inside, the room was dark. When Claire’s eyes adjusted, she saw a table with chairs and a couple of sagging sofas in which, slumped to match, were two shapeless figures with straggling grey hair and beards, both gripping coffee mugs.  They mumbled “Hey” in response to Joe’s greeting.

“Is Mac around?”

Before he received a response, a door at the back of the room opened and another grey beard entered, this one looking a little sprier than the coffee drinkers on the sofa.

“Joe, thank God you’re here! She’s got herself in such a state, and you’re the only one can—” He spotted Claire and shut his mouth abruptly.

“Hi, Mac. This is Claire. We met on the trail. Do you think you could fix her a sandwich before she heads back over?”

“Yeah, yeah. Just give me a moment.” Mac gripped Joe’s arm. “Can you . . .?” He jerked his head towards the door he had come through.

Claire watched in dismay as Joe disappeared into the back room. She turned her brightest P.R. smile on the seated men. “Hi, guys! Is there any coffee left? My name’s Claire, by the way.”

The two looked at one another blankly, as if Claire was speaking a foreign language they hoped the other man might translate. Then the one Claire could only distinguish by his slightly shorter beard and hair said, “I’m Perry, and this is Pig—I mean Paul. Help yourself.” He indicated a drip coffee maker on a side table. Claire looked into the murky depths of the carafe, and decided she could wait for her caffeine fix.

***

Mac followed Joe in and shut the door behind him. The back room was as dim as the front of the house. Joe crossed to the bed against the side wall, and bent over the woman in it. 

“Hey, Greta, got a hug for me?” 

A wet facecloth was spread over the upper part of Greta’s face. She lifted it off to reveal two black eyes and a bloody graze running from her forehead down the bridge of her nose. She looked balefully at Joe without speaking.

“Whoa, darlin’! What happened to you?”

Greta opened her mouth but before she could speak, Mac jumped in.

“She fell, that’s all. Putting the chickens away. It gets dark so early now. She must’ve tripped.”

“No! I didn’t trip! I was pushed! And I know what by!” She lowered her voice to a wheedling tone. “Joe, you know, don’t you? It was the same as before. I felt its breath, the size of it behind me. Then, whoosh, down I go! I didn’t trip!” This last directed at her husband.

Joe held her hand and made soothing noises. 

“Well, you need to see a doctor. Have Mac drive you down to the clinic.”

“And have them all make fun of me, like last time?” Greta gave a bark of bitter laughter. “I know what it was: Bigfoot! You believe me, don’t you, Joe?”

He didn’t reply directly, instead turning to Mac.

“Any news of Matthew?” 

This time Greta interrupted.

“It wasn’t Matthew. You think I wouldn’t know my own son?”

“Matthew’s still in Western State, as far as we know. If they release him, it would only be to prison.” Mac’s face was glum. Their only child had been a problem for years before he was found in a derelict building in Bellingham, incoherent and wearing bloodstained clothing. The blood matched that of a murdered WWU student, and, although Matthew claimed no memory of it, no further search for a perpetrator was conducted. Matthew was found incompetent to stand trial, and sent to the state mental hospital to be housed along with the criminally insane.

“How ‘bout I stay over? I can bed down on the back porch and keep an eye open for, well, whatever’s prowling around out there.” Joe looked from Greta to Mac before he added, “I brought my gun.”

“Thanks, Joe. I’m so glad you’re here.” Greta grasped his hand in both of hers.

“No problem,” Joe smiled. “Now, Mac, go fix that girl something to eat before she tries to call for pizza delivery and finds out there’s no cell phone service out here. Oh, the horror!”

***

Four hours later, on the other side of the mountain, Harold Vandermolen stood behind the Lodge bar looking despondently out at empty tables and chairs. Only five patrons for Happy Hour: those three good-looking girls from Seattle, and the older couple.  A dismal turnout for a Friday night. He mentally reviewed reservations for the rest of the weekend: two more couples arriving tomorrow for one night, then zilch. He decided to call Joe, the weekend bartender, and cancel his shift. He’d manage alone. 

Only two more weeks until the annual November closure, unless he decided to close the Lodge earlier.  He’d open again for the winter season in December, if there was enough snow. When he’d purchased the place six years ago, Christmas through February was the busiest time, but climate change and repeated low-snow years had whittled away at advance bookings. And with the threat of wildfires, the summer reservations were down too. He needed to do something to put the Lodge back on the map, something that didn’t cost any money . . . 

As one of the girls—the dark-haired one with the great tan—stood up and started towards the bar, he made an effort to smooth the frown from his face and stand up straight. A miserable host made for miserable guests. And he could do with more guests like these girls. Besides being lookers, they dressed well and projected sophistication. If they spread the word to their Microsoft millionaire buddies, he might be able to pull through.

“Can we have another round? Charge it to room 10, Claire Delgado.”

“Sure. A Negroni, a Chardonnay and a vodka-tonic, right?” He busied himself with the bottles. “So, did you have a good day?”

“Yeah, I hiked over to Pine Lake. I met a guy who works here: Joe Priest? Is he on duty this weekend?” Claire asked with a sly smile. 

“Um, I’m not sure.” So the ladies liked Joe, he thought. Maybe I need to find another way to economize. “I’ll bring these right over.”

Once he had dispensed the drinks at their table and made sure there was nothing else they required, he headed towards the couple on the other side of the room.

Tara leaned forward and whispered. “It’s so sad. We heard at the winery that only a month after he took over the Lodge, his wife left him!” She gazed at his retreating back. “You can see he’s still devastated.”

Annie frowned and cut her eyes towards Claire to remind Tara of their friend’s own recent abandonment.

“Oh, no! I didn’t mean—I just think it must be hard, running a business on your own . . .”

Claire shrugged and took a sip of her drink.

“Well, he’s gotta be fifty at least. And look at that paunch. If I was married to a sad sack like that I’d leave too.”

“Talking of sad sacks,” With a jerk of her head, Annie indicated the other people across the room.

Tara sniffed. “Well, everyone has a story. You don’t know what burdens those people are carrying.”

Annie suppressed the desire to roll her eyes. Tara thought the best of everyone, and look where it had gotten her: back living at home with her parents in Redmond. Annie was a few years older and lot more cynical. Being a realtor did that, she supposed. She ran a seasoned eye over the room. The Lodge had potential because of its location, but it needed sprucing up. That would take investment, and—looking over as Harold hovered over the other guests—new management. It needed something else, too, to distinguish it from other mountain inns: something unique. She pondered what that might be.

Claire wasn’t paying much attention to her friends. She was thinking about Joe Priest. She had been disappointed when he’d sent her back on her own, opting to stay over at Pine Lake. What was the big attraction about that place? It had given her weird vibes. She had hurried back to the Lodge, breaking into a run past the place where the dead coyote lay, as if it might come back to life and jump out at her. Four or five crows rose from the carcass to scream their displeasure at being disturbed, but when she slowed to look back, they had roosted on their prey again, and the trail was tranquil in the afternoon sunlight. 

Now, after a long hot shower, and with alcohol blurring the edges of her unease, she looked forward to revisiting her adventure when—if—Joe bartended tomorrow. She also wanted to find out how he’d become such a great marksman, and what the goat insignia on his cap meant . . . and when his shift ended. 

Harold’s offer to refresh the couple’s drinks was rebuffed, and he slouched back to his station behind the bar.

“What a dump!” The woman’s attempt at sotto voce followed him across the room. She was thin with sharp features that her expensively styled and highlighted hair failed to soften. She was dressed more for Palm Springs than the North Cascades. “Remind me never to let you book a romantic weekend away again.”

Her husband, plump, pink and perspiring, looked into the bottom of his glass, lost in thought. He was recalling his much-married buddy’s advice: Ray, you’ve got to make Daphne leave you! That way you get out of paying alimony. But you’ve got to be subtle about it. Lay a trail of kindness. A weekend at a second-rate mountain resort in shoulder season was part of the plan, but it was all taking too long. What if she never left? How long could he stand Daphne’s constant complaining? 

“Daphne, love, I’m just popping outside for a smoke,” Ray shuffled to his feet.

His wife responded with a disgusted sound. She hated his smoking, which is why he had not told her he had quit successfully three months ago. The more minor things she had against him the better.

“Better take a jacket; it’s chilly out there,” Harold said as Ray passed on his way towards the door.

It was chilly. A flamboyant sunset played out over the western horizon: peach shading to pink and violet. But within a couple of steps into the trees that surrounded the parking lot, Ray found himself in darkness. He fished in his pocket for his phone, and selected a number stored anonymously in his Contacts as “dentist.”

“Bitsy? Hi . . . mmm, me too. Tell me about your day.” As he listened, Ray’s face relaxed into a smile that took ten years off his age.

By the time Ray returned to the bar, the sunset had faded and stars were appearing. Harold had at last remembered to turn on the background music and was handing out dog-eared dinner menus, lighting a candle at each table as he passed.

***

The nighttime sounds of the forest emerged as the Lodge became dark and silent. Small animals and large scurried or stalked through the trees. A bird swooped, its wing momentarily obliterating a distant constellation. Miles away in the valley, coyotes howled and yipped. A doe started, eyes sweeping around for danger, before she settled again.

The trees breathed in and out; the stars multiplied. To the night-adjusted eye, shadows separated and merged, the hunters and the hunted engaging in their nightly dance of life and death.

Chapter 2

By Pamela Helberg
1652 Words

Joe pulled the creaky old rocking chair closer to Greta’s bedside and settled in, leaning forward to trace the bloody gash with his fingertip. “Now, tell me what happened, G, what actually happened.”

“I swear Joe, I could smell it—the stench, the rot, a beast . . . and not some kid in a costume or some stupid rabid coyote. This, this . . . thing . . . stood on two legs and was a good two feet taller than me, and at least a hundred pounds heavier.” Greta closed her eyes and sighed. “I saw it, Joe. I did.” 

Greta looked defeated and small surrounded by a sea of blankets, her bandaged head nearly lost amongst an array of pillows. Joe fought to keep his voice even. He had known Greta and Mac since he was in kindergarten, when he and Matthew became best friends, inseparable all the way through high school until Matthew left for college.

Joe had chosen to stay in the valley, partly to keep an eye on his own parents who had long ago parted ways. His dad had been the town drunk, spending his days rooted to his barstool at Grumpy’s Goat Shack, the local dive bar, complaining to anyone with an ear about how Joe’s mom had left him and the kid to fend for themselves. He finally had one too many and died of complications from cirrhosis. Joe’s mother waited tables at various local establishments, most recently at the new brew pub which was situated at the far end of town with a lovely view of the river that bisected the community. The work varied with the seasons, so she worked long hours to make sure Joe had what he needed. There wasn’t enough for anything extra, and her absence left Joe on his own, to raise himself. He had worked odd jobs around town as soon as he was old enough to understand that if he wanted a bicycle he would have to figure out a way to earn his own money in order to buy it. He spent many nights with Matthew, Mac, and Greta who always had a place for him. And now, Greta and Mac needed him. More than ever.

“I dunno, G, kinda sounds like Matthew,” Joe said. “Are you certain he’s still locked up at Western State? I mean, with all of the funding cuts over there, maybe he got out early or escaped?” 

Greta sighed again and turned her face to the wall. She had a difficult enough time believing that her only son was a psychopath who had to be locked up, she absolutely refused to believe he would have escaped only to show up like this and attack her, and she knew in her heart that her boy had not killed that university student. A mother knows these things.

Mac stood in the doorframe, out of Greta’s sight, and locked eyes with Joe. They both understood that Greta’s grief over Matthew’s arrest and subsequent schizophrenia diagnosis had deflated the once lively and vibrant woman. In the intervening years, Greta had morphed from an outgoing, friendly, and welcoming “come one, come all” sort to an empty and perpetually sad shell of her former self. She began to hear things and see things that no one else heard or saw. Her grief filled the room, the house, and was beginning to become a force all of its own. 

Joe nodded at Mac but waited until he felt Greta’s hand go slack in his own before he got up to leave the room. 

“I am so sorry, my friend,” he whispered and pulled Mac close in a bear hug. 

“She’s getting worse, Joe,” Mac shook his head. “She has more bad days than good ones lately, and I’m afraid I’m losing her too. I don’t know how to thank you for hiking over today. Sorry we didn’t have much to feed your gal friend.”

Joe chuckled and told Mac about the rabid coyote and rescuing Claire. “Happy to do it, and had I not, I wouldn’t ever have met Claire Delgado, but I probably won’t ever see her again after introducing her to Pig and Perry. What are those lunkheads still hanging around for anyway? Thought they’d be long gone by this time of year. No way they’ll make it out if it snows.”

Before Mac could explain, Greta’s screams ricocheted through the cabin.

***

“Earth to Claire. Earth to Claire!” Tara snapped her fingers in her friend’s face. “Seriously, Claire! Where’d you go?”

“Oh, sorry,” Claire shook her head. She’d been staring at the bar and imagining Joe Priest was dispensing drinks instead of Harold. Joe Priest, shirtless bartender. Joe Priest, gunslinger and slayer of rabid coyotes. Joe Priest . . .  she inhaled sharply. “Did I tell you I almost was attacked by a wild coyote on my hike today?” Claire’s eyes darted between Tara and Annie. “No lie. I was trying to decide if I should run or play dead and all of the sudden, out of nowhere . . . “ She recounted her earlier adventures on the mountain to her wide-eyed audience of two. 

“It was so strange,” she mused. “There was no café and certainly no charm. There wasn’t even a lake. Talk about false advertising.” She cut a daggered side eye across the room to Harold. “I could have died out there. Lucky for me, Joe came to the rescue. He said he works here sometimes. I hope he has a shift before we have to go back to Seattle.”

“Well, I told you not to go alone,” Tara scolded. “You could have stayed with us and enjoyed some wine. We even found the local weed shop, Fresh Greens. Stocked up.” Tara flashed a fat spliff under the table. “Meet me out on the deck for a couple of hits? Then we can find someplace to eat in town.” 

The young women pushed back their chairs and rose in unison. “This place could use a big screen tv or something,” Annie noted as Harold watched more than half of his potential dinner crowd ready to leave. “Sports. Everyone loves a community sports bar. Sportsball would help your cause,” she cocked her head toward Harold. “Ever think of that?”

“Cable sports packages are too expensive,” Harold muttered, as he wiped the already clean bar again, but the trio had already moved out of earshot. “My wife hated sports.”

The Lodge doors had barely closed behind them when Tara lighted up the joint and took a long hit. Out on the deck, frost was already accumulating, making walking treacherous. Stars winked brightly in the still night. 

Claire took a deep pull on the joint and held the smoke in her lungs until she felt floaty. She exhaled deliberately and felt her mood lift. Now that she was a little high, she felt like telling her friends all about her afternoon—Joe Priest, Perry and Pig, Greta and Mac. She wanted to know what Tara and Annie thought about this odd cast of characters. She thought she heard something about a sasquatch. She wanted to know if sightings were common in this area. 

“I’ve got it,” she said, turning purposefully to face her friends. “We’ve got to talk to Harold. I want to help him market the shit out of this place. Seriously, ladies. Tara, you could get out of your parents’ basement, and Annie, you could match us with some investors who could help us find some funds to buy this place or at least become partners with poor Harold. It’s a goldmine, but he is clueless.” Her words tumbled out before she could formulate a coherent plan, but she knew she was on to something. 

Annie and Tara listened, skeptical at first but eventually warmed up to Claire’s proposal:  buy into this second-rate but classic hotel, fix a few things, rebrand it, and market it as The Sasquatch Lodge. 

“We could offer tours, host sasquatch experts and clubs, sell sasquatch swag,” Annie enthused. “Seems like a very retro-hipster sort of trend worth jumping on early. Put all those beard and faux logging outfits to the test. Nothing but red plaid flannel, suspenders, beards and denim as far as the eye can see!” Annie waved her hand across the sky in an arc. “Hipsters for days.” 

“Anything would be better than the likes of these folks,” Claire waggled her thumb in the general direction of Daphne and Ray. “Even sasquatch has better demographics.”

“What do you think happened to them, to their marriage, that they ended up like this, just staring at their phones and not talking? What do you think?” Tara asked her friends. “Did something terrible happen to interrupt their lives?”

“I mean, they’re a lot like my folks,” she answered her own question. “They don’t know anything different, so it’s just simpler to stay together even though they’ve nothing to talk about.”

Tara had moved back in after flunking out her first semester of college and six years later, she was still there, in her old room. In her parents’ basement. 

Claire rolled her eyes at Annie. If only Tara worried more about herself than she did about other people. “Can you focus for two seconds, Tara? Please. We need a plan. We need to come up with a strategy.”

“Well, can we at least go strategize someplace warm? It’s freezing out here,” Annie shivered and pulled her down jacket close around her, hugging herself. “Let’s try the brewery downtown.” 

The young women linked arms and picked their way carefully across the frosty parking lot to Annie’s black Acura. As they drove away from the lodge and toward town, the temperature continued to drop as the moon rose over the valley, bathing the hillsides in its silvery glow. A slight breeze rustled in the treetops, and a shadowy figure lumbered down the trail away from Pine Lake toward town.

Chapter 3

By Linda Lambert
1992 Words

Claire returned to their accommodations—two rooms joined by a shared bathroom, no sound coming from Tara and Annie’s side. How could they be sleeping? Something new is about to be born! She sat down at her computer, Google-prospecting for ideas, panning for information gold to resurrect the lodge. 

Yikes! An FBI file, DNA samples, a Yeti scalp, 19” footprints, and this clincher: two days ago, a fish and game biologist/environmental consultant interviewed by NBC said “Yes! I do believe in Big Foot because I’ve had experiences, including two sightings.”

The first one he heard was strictly auditory; “it sounded like a howler monkey on steroids.”

“The second one my son and I both saw at Avalanche Lake. ‘Look, Dad,’ he said, the first to notice, ‘there they are. Two big ones.’ Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera with me.”

The guy was credible, he was believable. Lots of people had seen Big Foot—they’re just reluctant to talk about them, he’d said.  

I have to tell someone about all this! thought Claire. Tara might not come up with a plan, but she was always sensitive to other people. Tara would listen to her and Claire needed someone to listen. She tiptoed through the bathroom into the adjoining bedroom. Annie was asleep, Tara was reading her Kindle, startled when Claire appeared.

“Tara, can you get up so we can talk? I’m excited.”

“What could be more exciting than the characters in Gone Girl?”

“A lodge telling people the truth and history about Sasquatches and making us money.”

Tara, thinking of the basement apartment she’d be returning to, shut down her Kindle, swung her legs out of bed and stepped into her felt slippers and followed Claire to her room.

“Got a drink for me?” she said. 

“I’ll keep you awake with my words, but how ‘bout a Barefoot Wine Spritzer?” Claire asked, reaching for a can in the tiny fridge. 

Tara settled herself on the couch, shaking off her slippers and tucking her legs beneath her. “Thanks,” she said, taking a sip.

P.R.-aware Claire was purposeful in her enticement of Tara’s interest. She saw Tara as an Everyman, uh, Everywoman, test of her idea. Plus, she might need her to help with the opening event she was thinking about. They’d worked together before on events.

 “Tara, did you know that Sasquatches don’t like M&Ms or Skittles? There’s this forester, he’s seen Sasquatches twice. They spit out candy left for them, so now he has DNA samples, and they’re being tested.”

“Whaaat?! That’s crazy.”

“No, this guy has credentials. He’s worked in forests for over twenty years and he’s had two Sasquatch sightings. He bought an area in Montana called The Vortex. People visit, they feel a weird kind of energy. He walks the grounds, waiting for Sasquatches. It’s real.”

“I dunno, Claire. I don’t think I’m a believer, but go on.”

There was one thing she wouldn’t mention to Tara: that some bears, walking a certain way, put their hind foot over the imprint of their forefoot creating a huge footprint that looked almost human. No, that was too complicated and nobody would believe it anyway. 

“Did you know that the FBI started a file on Big Foot in the 1950s? A Brit named Peter Byrnes sent 15 hairs attached to a piece of skin, imploring them to analyze it. You should see the lab report!  Words like ‘morphological characteristics and medullary structure.’ Boy, the FBI was serious!”

“Was the hair from a Sasquatch?”

“No, the FBI said it was from the deer family, but Byrnes is 93 years old and he insists that Sasquatches are real. He has a picture of himself at a temple where ‘the famous Yeti scalp,’ as he refers to it, is kept.”

“That doesn’t make me want to drink from my Yeti mug.”

“How ‘bout this? The first sighting of Sasquatch footprints was in 1811. Another Brit, David Thompson an explorer.”

“I’ve never heard of him,” yawned Tara. “How do you know all this stuff?”

“Research, baby, tedious and tantalizing research.”

“So, have you heard about the film of a lumbering Sasquatch taken in Bluff Creek, California? People are still examining it. It kinda set off the Sasquatch craze. Honest to goodness footage … “

“Could you call that Big Footage?” interjected Tara.

“Ha, ha. Nice wordplay. You should meet one and make him your B.F., maybe even your B.F.F.” 

“Ha ha, yourself,” Tara paused, “I remember my parents telling me there was a cameo on Big Foot on a show they used to watch, The Six Million Dollar Man.

“See what I mean. There’s so much information and people are still fascinated. Listen, I can see it all now!” 

“Guests will enter the lodge’s refurbished lobby, the walls lined with Big Foot statues, 6 to 15 feet tall, exhibits of big foot castings. There’ll be a huge diorama. Copies of the FBI report, even if it disproves the Bigfoot idea. We’ll have the Warning! Please Do Not Feed the Sasquatchsign from Columbia Falls, Montana. It will be educational and campy,” she said and then rushed on.

“We’ll have pictures of Brynes who, after he immigrated to the U.S. cheated the government out of $75 K, and some quotes from Boris Porshnev, the Soviet scientist who was sure that Sasquatches and their Siberian counterparts could be a remnant of Neanderthals.” 

“Maybe he’s right,” said Tara, her face alight with interest. 

“We’ll have books on display—The Son of Bigfoot, Suburban Sasquatch, Assault of the Sasquatch, all of them already in publication—and we’ll screen that splashy hit Big Foot: The Sighting.

 Now for the close. “If Annie can grab some money, would you like to be one of the employees.” 

“Sure,” Tara said, her basement cubicle filling her vision. “But, I’m tired now. Let me know what Harold says.”

She padded into her room, politely ignoring Annie’s snores.

Claire had another component to her plan: to wow Joe Priest with her ideas. How could he not be!

*  *  *

Joe, wearing a fresh pair of jeans and a Black Watch plaid flannel shirt, kicked dirt off his boots, dirt acquired on his hike from Mac and Greta’s. He kept a set of clothes at their house for times when he needed to help them out. He doffed the cap with the goat insignia—given to him by a former girlfriend who loved his Capricorn sturdiness. Not that he was vain, but women liked his wild hair, uncontained by a cap. And, he hoped to see Claire Delgado during his evening shift. 

All the lights were on as he approached the lodge, a homey, if weathered, two-story cedar structure with four pillars of stone providing fortress-like support. Joe noted the evergreens looming over the roof, unsure whether Harold would have them trimmed back before the inclement weather arrived. Harold, he thought, a kind man, a good man, beset by bad fortune. He deserves a better life.

Striding towards the bar, he looked around. “Hey, Chief, you’ve been busy!  You dusted the bottles, shined up the brass, got the cobwebs off the moose head. Even the broken mirror’s gone—no more bad luck! What got into you?”

Harold grinned. “A local Boy Scout troop is coming for a weekend next month, and some guy named Sean wants to do a…I don’t know…a Write-In, whatever that is. Six rooms. But he’s kind of a cheapskate, asked me to chop off 20 percent and have longer happy hours. Think I should accommodate him?”

“Sure! And tell him he has to tip 20%!”

“One way or another, Joe, you’re gonna get a raise, I promise, and here’s the kicker: One of those three girls staying here, Annie, is a hot-shot real estate agent, and Claire, well, she’s runnin’ over with ideas for making this place go. You know what she said to me?! ‘I want to help you market the shit out of this place.’ She wants to call it The Sasquatch Lodge. Have tours, host experts, sell Sasquatch swag, advertise sightings.”

“Hmm. It’s a good gimmick, but I don’t believe in Sasquatches.”

“I’ve never seen one, but I’m not ruling them out either,” responded Harold.

“Sasquatches, Big Foot, Yeti, the Abominable Snowman, they’re all fictions,” continued Joe. “The Salish language has a word these overgrown, stinky ape-types, se’sxac, but you know how it translates? Wild men! So that’s what I think they are, wild men. Even the encyclopedia calls them ”legendary creatures.’” 

Joe added, “Who knows if they’re real or something that looks real.  But, Chief, I do want your business to take off. And I know it’s going to! I’ll get the bar ready for action now, as I always do, whether we have two customers or twenty.”

Harold’s brow remained unfurrowed. Whether Sasquatches were real or not, optimism surged through him: his business was going to take off. 

*  *  *

When Joe worked at Jonny’s Second Chance Saloon, a popular cowboy bar in an unlikely neighborhood of Seattle, he and all the bartenders he knew always took a shot before work and sucked down energy drinks during breaks. They had to be prepared for crowds of demanding customers, the expected repartee with everyone, and the late-night over-imbibers who wanted “just one more” before Last Call, long after he’d turned off Willie Nelson.

He could have swilled down something at Mac and Greta’s—he was tempted because of Greta’s condition—but managed to shed a habit that could have become a bad one. Anyway, the lodge was low-stress. There were never twenty customers, except that time a National Parks tour bus broke down and forty tourists tramped in to drink multiple IPAs and use the bathrooms until a replacement bus arrived.

He always readied the lodge’s barroom in case the unexpected happened. He took the barstools off the table tops, placed them in symmetrical relationship to one another, and s inserted sprays of leafy branches into Mason jars as centerpieces. Music was important—usually a shuffle of Pandora stations, often Stevie Wonder Radio. He tuned into whatever he thought patrons wanted or requested. Pig and Paul insisted on Nirvana. He obliged, watching them become more animated, emerging from the depressed states of mind that seemed to mash them further into the slumped sofas at Mac and Greta’s.

He cut up limes and lemons, filled the ice bins, and refilled the kegs (a disaster if he had to swap one out when working alone) and the well drink bottles. Well drinks, that’s where they made their money. Bars purchased cheap bottles of booze for $7.00 and sell individual drinks at $5.00 a pop. 

Rarely subject to bad moods, he nevertheless remembered Harold’s warning, “A miserable host made for miserable guests.” He concentrated on having a job, not on his substandard paycheck. Mostly, he was happy with his life, except for the lack of female contact. When Claire comes in, I’ll buy her a drink. Uh oh, better not. Favoritism would be apparent with the other two. Bartenders couldn’t afford to tick off anyone except for customers he had to throw out or trespass.

*  *  *

Outside the lodge, high banked clouds hurried toward the disappearing sun, the landscape darkening with the growling threat of a dirty downpour. So far, only a threat as the sun fought against its opposite.

*  *  *

While Daphne slept, having crawled into bed in angry mood as usual, Ray reclined in their room’s comfortable lounge chair; he was anything but comfortable. He didn’t know what he should say, who he should tell about the video he took. Just as his conversation with Bitsy concluded, he heard a high, discordant, unearthly series of sounds followed by the thud of footsteps and the brush of something heavy against the trees. With his phone still on Video Chat, he recorded a shadowy silhouette, its identity indistinct and blurred in the dimmed atmosphere. 

Chapter 4

By Victoria Doerper
1874 Words

Greta’s screams rent the air. “Good God!” shouted Mac. He slipped past Joe and reached Greta’s room first, caught his toe on the old rag rug and then tripped over a pillow that had fallen from the bed. He lunged forward. Greta screamed again.

“Oh honey, I’m so sorry. It’s just me,” crooned Mac. “Calm down. We’re with you now. Joe and me. You’re safe. Did you have a bad dream again?” He put his hand on Greta’s shoulder, stroking and soothing her as if she were a spooked horse. 

Greta’s breath came in great gasps and she trembled under Mac’s hand. “C’mon now,” Mac whispered. “Tell us what’s scared you so much.” Greta’s breath slowed. She peered up at Mac.

“I heard a loud bang. Didn’t you hear it? And then a terrible snarling. No, it sounded more like screeching. And then a thump at the window. A huge shadow against the curtains. Then the glass rattled so hard I thought it was gonna break. That’s when I screamed.”

Joe reached over Mac’s shoulder and touched Greta’s arm. “How about I go outside and take a look around, G. See if I turn anything up. Might be a coyote. There are some big ones around here. Or could be a bear.” 

“Be careful Joe.”

“It’s alright, G. I’ve got my gun. Don’t worry.”

Joe walked into the living room just as Perry was attempting to dislodge himself from the depths of the sofa cushion. Pig sat at the other end of the sofa, head lolled back, snoring.

“How’s she?” Perry asked. Pig’s head rolled forward onto his chest.

“Scared,” said Joe, “She heard a bang, thought something was trying to break in her window. Mac’s in there trying to calm her down. I told her I’d take a look around outside.”

“I’ll go with you,” Perry said. Joe watched with fascination as Perry swept a scattering of Cheez-Its from his lap, hitched up his threadbare jeans, rubbed his finger over a blob of purple jam on the front of his shirt, licked the jam off his finger, and, as a final touch to his afternoon toilette, brushed crumbs out of his straggly beard. 

“I’ll let Paul sleep,” said Perry. “He was awake most of the night.”

“What do you and Paul do around here anyway?” asked Joe.

“Oh, odd jobs. And we stay around to keep Greta company when Mac’s gotta go take care of business in town.” Some company, thought Joe. Perry continued, “About that bang Greta says she heard. When I was out doing some repair work on that fallin’ down tool shed the other day I seen a fat old raccoon scoutin’ for scraps around the garbage cans back the house. Coulda been a raccoon made that bang. I didn’t hear nothin’ just now, but maybe Greta did.”

 “Maybe,” Joe agreed. “Well, let’s get out and look around.”

Joe asked Perry to check the hen house and the outbuildings. Joe himself took a slow and methodical walk around the house. Aside from unkempt flowerbeds and a rusty trowel, pair of secateurs, and a broken-tined rake that looked as if it had been abandoned in a moment of frustration, he saw nothing unusual. He found the metal garbage cans a few yards from Greta’s bedroom window. One of the lids sat upside down against the wall. In the old days, Mac had been scrupulous about securing the garbage cans, but he’d probably been distracted for some time now with taking care of Greta. Joe picked up the lid and secured it to the can. That done, he studied the ground. Raccoon for sure, but no coyote tracks. Other than that, all he saw were plain old tracks from human shoes. No big deal. 

He walked to the front of the house again and called out to Perry. No response. He shouted again. Nothing. Annoyed, he strolled off toward the outbuildings, but only because he had promised Greta he would. He’d take a quick look and head back to the house. The tool shed looked to be on the verge of collapse. If Perry had been doing repair work here, he wondered what the structure had looked like before he’d started. The hen house looked sturdy enough, and the hens healthy, so that was a good sign. He didn’t smell any lingering stench of Bigfoot like Greta had talked about. What did waft his way in that moment was the scent of soft vanilla from the nearby Ponderosa pines. When they were kids, he and Matt used to play tag under those trees. Matt, the brother he never had. How could he have survived those lonely times without Matt? He could feel a wave of nostalgia beginning to rise up in his chest and shook it off.

One more building to check. He pushed the door open with a creak and glanced inside. Over in the corner he could make out a dark heap of something. He felt the hair rise up on the back of his neck. “Perry?” he whispered. No response. Gun at his side, he slowly stepped into the room. “Perry?” As his eyes grew accustomed to the dim light, the dark heap resolved itself into a pile of balled-up blankets. He walked closer. Thin grey blankets that looked as if they’d come from some cheap motel or dormitory. There were a few cigarette butts scattered around. And a Snickers candy wrapper. Someone had been here recently. There was still the faint smell of cigarette smoke in the air. Could it have been Perry? And where the heck was Perry anyway? 

Up on the slope behind the house, a mama coyote crouched. She’d seen one human, head bent down, slowly making his way up the slope a short while ago. But she didn’t move. She wanted a final look at the one who had killed her son, the one whose scent she had followed to this place. Oh, she had tried so hard to take care of her boy. She knew he was sick. So very sick. And desperate. But she had been powerless to help him. She knew he looked fierce and dangerous, but he was just ill and frightened. He would never have attacked a human. Not ever. She was sure of that. She knew it in her heart. A mother knows these things.  

***

At breakfast, Claire could barely contain herself as she burbled out her research and her ideas about developing The Sasquatch Lodge. After all, Annie hadn’t heard her ideas yet, and Tara might want to hear them again. Claire pushed away her plate of scrambled eggs and bacon (“The Farmer Special”) to make way for a clipboard to which she had affixed pages and pages of notes. Claire was nothing if not organized. Tara sipped on a steaming cup of black tea (no, the lodge did not have any herb tea). Annie had ordered a Bloody Mary, and she alternated sips with bites of syrup-saturated Lumberjack French Toast.

Claire repeated her litany of fascinating Sasquatch information: DNA samples, weird vibes at The Vortex in Montana, FBI files, hair and skin samples, lab reports, Yeti scalp, sightings verified by blurry photos and sworn statements. “And then we find a way to display and merchandise them. People enter the world of Big Foot. The life-sized models and plaster casts of the footprints. Lab reports in glass display cases. We sell copies of books and have videos people can view on a big screen above the bar. And of course, we’ll host experts who offer tours that may result in a sighting.”

Annie sipped and chewed, uncharacteristically quiet. Tara filled the silence. “We love those ideas, don’t we Annie?” Two heads turned to Annie, expectant, waiting for her approval. After all, Annie was the one who would round up the cash. 

“Annie?” asked Claire, “what do you think?”

“C’mon Annie,” Tara gabbled, “aren’t these just fantastic ideas?”

Claire decided to be more specific. Maybe she’d overwhelmed Annie with all of her information. “So, Annie, do you like the idea for the life-sized Big Foots? Or should we call them Sasquatches. That sounds better.”

“I like the sound of Sasquatches,” Tara chimed in. “I mean, Big Foots sounds kinda awkward and boring.”

“You didn’t think it sounded awkward and boring last night.”

“I know, but I was tired.”

“C’mon partners,” Annie finally responded. “Let’s not focus on those dioramas and the display cases yet. We’ve got to come up with something beyond history and woo-woo science. We’ve got to make this FUN!”

Claire looked crestfallen, and Annie quickly added, “But it’s such a great start, Claire! You’ve done so much great work here. Let’s just think how we can liven it up a little.” 

“But Annie,” Claire retorted, a little hurt, “some of these were your ideas. The tours, the Sasquatch experts…”

“Oh, Claire, I know. I’ve just thought about it a little more now. We’ve got to expand our potential market. Some people just wanna have a little fun and they could care less about tours and sightings and Big Feet.” Annie looked thoughtful as she paused to take another sip of her Bloody Mary. “So, try this idea on for size. What if instead of sipping on this Bloody Mary here, I was sipping on something like a “Sasquatch Sunrise?” We’d could give out recipes for themed drinks, keep people thinking about us even after they’ve returned home to their normal, humdrum lives.”

“That sounds good,” said Claire.

Annie picked up her phone. “Let me google something here.” She tapped and scrolled. “Well, OK, there’s already a cocktail called “The Missing Link.” We’ll serve that, but we also create our own version.” She continued tapping. “OMG,” she exclaimed, “Claire, you didn’t tell us that there’s a whole bunch of stuff about Big Foot erotica!”

“Really?” Claire and Tara asked in unison.

“And get this,” Annie continued, “Just last year in Virginia, some Congressman was accused of being a devotee of Big Foot erotica! He even wrote a book about the mating habits of Big Foot!” 

“Oh, come on, Annie! I don’t believe you,” Tara said.

“I’m not kidding,” said Annie, “and listen to this. He said he didn’t really believe in Big Foot but he didn’t want to alienate the Big Foot vote.”

Claire was not amused. “Annie, I don’t see how that helps us. Besides, that’s disgusting.”

“Sorry, Claire. You’re right. That’s so far beyond campy that it’s obscene. But wait, here’s a recent Disney movie about the Missing Link. That might be helpful. A feel-good movie and good family fun.”

Claire had put away her clipboard, but she had no appetite for the Farmer Special. She’d put her ideas out there, and they were good ideas. If Annie couldn’t get behind them, well, then, Claire would figure out how to make this work on her own. Or, maybe, with Joe Priest’s help. 

“I’m going out for a walk,” Claire said. “I need some fresh air to clear my head. Maybe I’ll come up with something FUN for Sasquatch Lodge.” With that, she gathered up clipboard and purse, pushed her chair back, and walked out.

Chapter 5

By Alicia Jamtaas
1452 Words

Joe lifted the pile of blankets, finding nothing more than the stench of tobacco and whiskey. No, there was one more thing, the faint scent of his father’s face soap. So this was where the old man had been bunking before he died. He threw down the blankets. “Damn! The man had money for booze but nothing for Mom.”

“Say what?”

The voice from the door startled Joe enough to make him jump a little. Embarrassed, he swung around to see Perry in the doorway.

“Don’t be sneaking up on a man,” he said.

“Ain’t sneakin’.” Perry stroked his dirty beard and Joe was pretty sure he saw dust motes floating around the wiry hairs. “I know when and how to sneak, and this ain’t the time.”

“And where the hell have you been?” Joe realized he was taking his disappointment about his father out on Perry but he couldn’t stop himself. The man before him conjured too many bad memories of his dad.

“Jeezus, Joe, I went up the hill a ways to see if I could find any Big Foot tracks.” Perry’s grin irritated Joe even more. “Didn’t see nothing ‘cept a coyote about as big as this shack. She skedaddled when she caught sight of me.”

Don’t blame her, Joe thought. “Let’s get on back and ease Greta’s mind. We’ll tell her it was a raccoon and remind Mac to bungee the lids on the trash cans.”

After consoling Greta, or hoping he had, Joe headed for the Lodge to begin set-up for what he hoped was a big afternoon crowd. His mom always said “Hope springs eternal” and the notion had stuck. Still, he knew that if something didn’t happen soon, Harold’s establishment would sink into the annals of history. Joe just hoped it wasn’t the idea of Big Foot that would come to the rescue.

Perry and Paul, who had finally rousted himself off the couch, had followed Joe. Now they were ensconced at a corner table rubbing their eyes and debating whether to order a beer or not. Crazy old dudes, Joe thought, feeling grumpy.

On the other hand, two of his new favorite guests were at the table nearest the bar. Annie’s – is her name Annie?-  plate was empty although still covered with a thick layer of syrup and Tara looked as if she may need a refill of tea. The plate of half-eaten scrambled and never-touched bacon indicated that Claire had been sitting with them earlier. Where did she go? Dang it!

“I have some ideas.” Claire swept into the room, bringing fresh morning air and the scent of lilacs. 

Must be her perfume. Joe smiled to himself. Lilacs were his favorite.

She joined her friends, put her purse and clipboard on the table, and tucked her feet up on the chair. Joe noticed the paper on the clipboard was covered with arrows, and words, little pictures, and scratch-outs.

“We make a playground outside. A giant jungle-gym Big Foot. A slide held up by two Big Foot statues.”

“Sasquatch,” Tara corrected.

Claire glanced at her, “Whatever. A sandbox with Sasquatch footprints buried at the bottom so little kids can feel like archaeologists digging them up. That way entire families will want to come. Like that Great Wolf Lodge in Grand Mound.”

“This is sounding pretty pricey,” Annie said, holding up her empty Blood Mary glass and rattling the ice cubes at Joe.

He put down the bar towel and strode over to get the glass. “More tea, Tara?” he asked while taking the glass from Annie’s hands.

“Please.”

“Anything for you, Claire?”

Claire picked up a slice of cold, limp bacon. “Nope got everything I need.”

Her eyes sparkled with excitement and Joe longed to ask what the ladies were cooking up. But, like a good bartender, he collected Annie’s empty plate and went back behind the bar.

***

Perry leaned over to Paul and whispered, “Sounds like them gals is all het up about Sasquatch.”

“Yep.”

“Ought we tell them?”

“Nope.”

Perry was disappointed with Paul’s answer. For over ten years he had wanted to tell someone, anyone, his and Paul’s history. Because, no, they hadn’t always been the town loafers and, yes, they had once had more money than god herself. They’d had well-coiffed wives, big houses, and stables full of Percheron horses, Perry, and Lipizzan horses, Paul. One of them had owned a private jet, Perry couldn’t quite recall who and one a yacht bigger than a Motel 6.

They had flown or sailed far and wide to film, photograph, take molds of tracks, listen to stories and tramp through woods and over ice any time they heard about a sighting of Sasquatch, Big Foot, Yeti, whatever one wanted to call the creature. In their eagerness to be the ones who brought one in alive, they lost everything. 

The friends went all over the world: Bluff Creek, Siberia, Happy Camp, Nepal, Columbia Falls. In fact, they were the two who collected the Sasquatch – they never called the creature Big Foot, too mundane – scalp.  Not able to let it go, they’d removed a piece of hide from the carcass of a roadkill deer and claimed that was the real scalp. Meanwhile they lost everything: wives, houses, horses, planes, and yachts. Thank goodness neither of them had children. Far too busy for that complication. 

Soon the two were hitchhiking far and wide. Few people picked up men in silk suits and Salvatore Ferragamo shoes so they traded them for jeans, flannel shirts, and hiking boots. They learned how to stow away on freighters, and when necessary, find jobs so they could eat, shower and buy new flannel shirts. 

The final blow came when their fathers disowned them for frittering away their inheritances on a pipe dream. Paul and Perry gave up and settled for a big fat nothing-life in Washington State. That was ten years ago to the day. Just to remind them that the creature was still out there, waiting to be found, they’d kept their notebooks filled with the tales they’d been told by Eskimos, Inuits, Makahs, Athabascans and their grandmothers. Three-ring binders full of blurry pictures. Reel-to-reel film footage that was slowly cracking and fading, and the real scalp they’d collected, stored in an airtight bag inside a cedar chest that was locked in a safety box in a bank in Seattle. If only he could remember which one.

Perry’s tongue itched to tell the ladies at the table about his and Paul’s adventures. Thinking of all the lists he’d just made in his mind, he knew the lists in the notebooks were twice as extensive and more detailed. Fearing their research would die with them, he started to hatch a plan to get the information to those gals before it was too late. He scratched his chin. The only thing was, Paul couldn’t find out.

***

Joe wasn’t sure he liked the bits and pieces of conversation he was hearing from the ladies at table #1. Sasquatch, play ground, castings, books. Far too many people had ruined their lives in search of an animal/man that didn’t exist. He mixed two jiggers of vodka into Annie’s drink, almost feeling bad that he expected that to loosen her tongue a bit. He’d make up for it later with free coffee. After pouring tea for Tara he returned to the table. All three women fell silent.

“Here you go.” Joe carefully placed the drinks on the table while trying to steal a glance at the paper on the clipboard. “Claire, you sure you don’t want anything else? Maybe I could heat up the eggs and re-crisp that bacon.”

As he spoke, she slowly covered her scribbling with her purse. Interesting how hard they were trying to keep their plans secret even as they conversed in normal tones that echoed in the room. 

“Nope,” Claire said. “I’m good.”

“Look, Harold hinted that you wanted to turn the Lodge into a tourist attraction. That may be a good thing or it might be the worst idea you ever had.”

He thought of Greta laid up in bed with a knot on her head. She believed in Sasquatch and she was going a little bit loony. Joe would never mention that’s what he thought to either Mac or Greta, he loved them too much, but that was exactly what he thought. Ever since he was a little boy, she had told him tales of the creature, and by the excitement and tone in her voice he knew, even at the age of ten, Greta truly believed the giant beings existed. And that what she believed was a lie.

Chapter 6

By Susan Chase-Foster
1721 Words

Greta’s elder sister by two minutes, Dr. Erika Källenberg-Gustafsson, affectionately dubbed EKG by her surgical team at UBC before “disappearing” into the vast North Cascades was, above all, intuitive. She felt what others did not. Another surgeon had even referred to her as a “Medical Whisperer” because of her ability to correctly sense life threatening conditions requiring surgery in the absence of standard diagnostic information. Erika liked that. 

She liked the sound of “Whisperer” almost as much as forest bathing, her eventually all-consuming passion for hiking through towering firs, cedars and birch trees by herself on her days off. And when she discovered that all creatures of the forest: mammals, birds, insects, trees, and so on, were intuitive, and many—raccoons, coyotes, sasquatches and, curiously, banana slugs—were actually communicating with each other in Lillooet, an indigenous language she’d been dabbling in for years, well, that was a game changer. Erika left her high-paying, prestigious position at the hospital and sold everything unrelated to the forest, including her West End condo and BMW. She purchased basic camping equipment: a tent, rain gear and a gun and so on, and deposited the rest of her money in high-yield stock options that fed directly into her already substantial savings account. Erika never looked back. She belonged under the canopy. 

After young Hunter had been shot to death by a man on the trail to Greta and Mac’s place at Pine Lake, a man who, according to Hunter’s mama, Goldie, looked very much like Joe Priest, Erika felt the unbearable ache in Goldie’s heart. Goldie was devastated by her son’s death, and she was also outraged. Through the trees, or maybe through the intuitive power of her own mind, Erika heard Goldie’s mournful whimpers and yips, “Sqaycw skúza7! Son! Sqaycw skúza7! Son!” and she knew she needed to help her friend.

Erika yelped back, “Us Us Us,” to let Goldie know she was on her way. She zipped her fully-loaded Glock 43 pistol into her black leather doc bag, placed it in a willow basket under a pile of freshly picked chanterelles, then dressed for the long tramp in forest green leggings, a matching singlet and her camo jacket from the military surplus store in Vancouver. Erika pulled on her hiking boots, in which she preferred to trek over roots, rocks and scrabble, plopped her well-tarnished Tilley Wanderer hat on her head, whispered “Xweystúmilhkan“ to Thunder and the children, and climbed through the hollowed-out Douglas fir stump that concealed the entrance to their underground home. She would follow Goldie’s sorrowful sounds wherever they lead, even if it meant encountering some dreadful people from her past.

She tromped like Thunder, well maybe not as fast as he could, though in her sixties Erika was a tall, fit human woman, with a long stride. Plus, she was on a mission. Not one of many words, Thunder had taught her well to stay away from trails, to move as silently as possible through explosions of ferns, skunk cabbage, dense and dark clusters of trees and bush, to hide behind rocks, mounds of windthrow, natural berms and embankments. He taught Erika to avoid open areas, including fields, vegetable gardens, lakes, rivers and streams until moonlight. He advised her to be on the lookout for the family’s stick signs—branches tied into a cone shape, or stacked on top of each other like stone inuksuks—throughout the forest to indicate directions to water, berries, good hunting, how to return home in winter when everything is covered with snow or if she found herself in a whiteout, and especially to be cognizant of trap warnings and humans.  

When Erika reached the edge of the forest bordering Greta and Mac’s house, Goldie’s sorrowful sounds stopped. Yes, I knew it was going to be here, Erika thought, setting her basket on a mossy nurse log under a canopy of pines and the white bones of denuded birch trees. As she bent over to loosen her hiking boots, keeping them on in case she needed to run away from or toward trouble, her Tilley popped off her head, releasing a cascade of silver hair over her face and down onto the yellow blanket of leaves covering the ground. She flipped back her mane, replaced her hat, and after removing the gun from her doc bag, stuffed it between her breasts. There, though not exactly comfortable, she’d be able to grab it fast, like a scalpel, and there was comfort in knowing that. Erika flopped down on the log, and stretched her long legs, which had lately given her a sense that she might be developing age-related arthritis. Her hand instinctively grabbed a stick from the ground and began to tap out the family’s traditional greeting on the log to let Goldie know she’d arrived, but the fear of blowing her cover stopped her. Erika would need to wait quietly for Goldie. From here she could watch Greta and Mac’s front door without being observed. 

Exhausted from her long hike through the forest, but knowing that she was the only one who could safely move about this close in, Erika resisted the urge to tap or nap by softly chanting in Lillooet, the lingua franca she shared with her adopted forest family. 

Máolalus. Raccoon. Nk̓yap. Coyote. Sásq̓ats. Sasquatch. Xweystúmilhkan. I love you. Xweystúmilhkan sásq̓ats.” 

Erika had just closed her eyes when she heard the door open and slam shut. She held her breath as three men started down the gravel road toward the trail to the lodge. One appeared to be in his forties, with a mop of curls framing his face and what appeared to be the lean body and tan of a longtime outdoor adventurer. He glanced briefly in Erika’s direction, but did not seem to see her. Behind him, two lumpy old guys lumbered, with pasty skin, and straggling grey hair and beards. Nobody said a word until one of the old guys shouted, “Jeezus, Greta’s a friggin’ mess!” 

That vulgar voice, that acidic mixture of bullshit, outright lies and unfulfilled promises, turned Erika’s stomach. She had to deep breathe to keep from vomiting. It was Perry, her feckless former frigging husband. What the hell was he doing here?

* * *

While Daphne floated in a melatonin and cannabis-induced stupor that would last, thank God, way past dawn, Ray, from his cushy lounge chair across the room, watched her boney chest rise and fall, rise and fall, each with a snort, or gurgle or gasp. Like serial death rattles! Ray thought. Her face, under a rhinestone studded indigo silk sleep mask, looked skeletal, no, more like someone about to be executed. One could only hope! Ray despised Daphne’s curveless, self-inflicted emaciation, a standard of health she dumped on him daily until he was almost afraid to eat anything but kale salad with lemon juice and a twist of black pepper in her presence. Even for breakfast. She would love that. Then there was the high-end grease she smeared on her face each night “under the plastic surgeon’s orders,” she claimed, and the four designer physio-pillows she needed for her back that Ray had to carry all over the map. And then, once again, her snorts! Wouldn’t one pillow over her face take care of that?

For now, though, Ray had a more important distraction from his own sleep, which would come easy, right there in his chair, once he allowed himself to think about bountiful Bitsy, with her exquisite Venus of Willendorf voluptuosity. Someone to grab onto. Someone to sink into. Not some cranky pile of bones snoring on the edge of a bed in a North Cascades lodge. Ray inched his way out of the chair, tiptoed over to the tiny refrigerator, extracted an IPA, thought better of it and took out two more. He didn’t need a bottle opener; he carried one in his right pants pocket like a holy medal. 

After the first bottle, Ray pulled out his phone. He plugged in earphones and closed his eyes so that he could concentrate on sound alone. He replayed the recording from earlier, once, twice, and again, paying attention to the shrill wails, the high pitched clicks and whistles, the thundering footfalls and the wide sweep of something alive, definitely huge, and possibly clumsy, against the pine branches. Then Ray opened his eyes and drank another bottle of beer as he watched the video. The light was not great and the figure, the very large figure, moved as fast as a bear he’d once seen while fishing on the Copper River in Alaska. It had to be a bear, but what kind bear moved like … like a giant of a man in a bear costume? And the face, though blurred, was snoutless, not at all like a bear face. Ray’s heart drummed so loud he could hear it through the earphones, but he watched the video again, just to be sure he’d seen what he thought he’d seen. He had. 

Ray put on his heaviest coat, found a wool cap and pulled that over his head. It would be cold outdoors at night, up here in the North Cascades. He stuffed the last beer and his phone into his pocket and slipped out the door without waking Daphne from her coma. He would deal with her later.

Outside, even though it was now night, the sky had turned an eerie white, and the air was crazy cold. “It’s only October!” Ray shouted before realizing that the IPA was probably interfering with his executive functioning and he should stifle himself a click. Find a tree to hide under, Dummy! he advised himself, noticing a few snowflakes on his sleeve, and then on his face. That’s when Ray saw that he now stood next to the exact same pines he’d captured in the video. This was where the “whatever” had passed by. He climbed under the tree and opened his last beer. The snow was really coming down hard, and he was getting cold, but Ray was determined. He put his hand in his pocket and wrapped it around his phone. If the creature in his video returned, he would be ready. He would even wait through the night, no matter how long it took. He had nothing to lose. 

Chapter 7

Janet Oakley
1294 Words

Matthew Henderson waited for the buzzer to sound then followed his social worker into the elevator. It had been months, but finally, the courts and hospital staff had decided he could be moved from S-3 (the secure criminal section at Western State Hospital) to F-3 where he would have more freedom. Nothing had really changed. He was still stuck, no friends, no family, no advocates, well Lee Parsons, his social worker, was an advocate. What was even more isolating was that the courts had slapped a no contact order on him and his parents. He was not allowed to have contact with them.

Though the grounds of the state mental hospital were beautiful with a small museum housed in one of the original Army officer bungalows from 1855, the brick buildings scattered throughout the large campus were almost a century old. On the outside, the buildings could have been part of an ivy league college. Its insides were another matter. Each floor was painted in an institutional cream or soft green and constantly filled with noise from patients having psychotic breaks, staff chatting at the check-in counters, the call over the speaker for meals in the small room that served as dining area or pill time at the dispensary. Some people just walked the halls lost in their own worlds. The TV in the rec room added another layer of sound. 

There was no way out from any of the floors without a key. You had to buzzed in after speaking over a monitor. 

In the chaos, Matthew generally kept to himself. I don’t belong here.

Today he was returning from group session and getting settled in his new room. His doctor told him that he was doing well. The new medications were keeping him focused and he was remembering better. Sometimes, though, he didn’t want to. 

“We’re here. F-3,” Parsons said. “Your things were moved while you were in group.” The elevator door opened and they stepped into a tight area blocked by a steel door. Parsons pressed a button next to the door and said his name. A buzzer went off and the door clicked open. 

Matthew walked into his new room. His duffle and some of his belongs were stacked up on a metal framed bed. “Your roommate’s down in art class,” Parsons said. “He’ll be back up for lunch. In meantime, I can introduce you to the staff here. First, I need to check in with another of my clients.”

“I’m fine,” Matthew said. He liked the new room already, though it lacked any character. What he liked were the tall Big Leaf Maple and cedar trees just outside the window. Trees always gave him peace. And here, they reminded him of the place in the North Cascades where he grew up. The big Ponderosa pines behind his parents’ home. Those were the happiest times, exploring the forests behind their simple home. Hanging out with Joe. Matthew wondered if he would ever be able to do that again. 

Mom, he thought. I’m sorry for all the hurt I’ve caused you and Dad. But I didn’t kill that girl. I know for sure. And I think now I can prove it, but who will believe me?

Matthew was sorry for many things. He never told the truth to his parents what happened to him after he started school at Western Washington University. He planned on studies in environmental science and was doing well, but then in his junior year, he began to have issues. He was experiencing unexplained highs and lows which he attributed to uneven hours at an off-campus job and late-night study sessions. To compensate, he had begun to self-medicate with mostly alcohol. 

One night down in Everett, he ended up in jail. It wouldn’t be the only time. After a series of arrests, mostly unruliness and public misconduct, someone came to see him in jail from the mental health services. Knowing Matthew had never been a violent person, the visitor worked out with the courts to get him into the mental health court. He was given a place in a respite home, put on medication for bi-polar and eventually, went back to school part-time. To further his recovery, he went through the Friends program at NAMI and joined AA.

And I never told you, Mom, Dad. I was ashamed about the trouble I caused. Because he never told them about the prior mental evaluation, the additional finding that he was schizophrenic had come as a terrible shock to his parents and frankly, to him. Matthew accepted that he was bio-polar and needed to stay in recovery the rest of his life. He was taught how to recognize signs when he was stressed out and how to deal with it. He knew the medications he was supposed to take. He never heard voices in head. Except for that one time back in the forest around his parents’ home.

Out in the hallway couple of staff members rushed down the hall as a patient was having an issue. Matthew steeled himself against the commotion and walked to the window and his solitude of green. He closed his eyes, willing himself back to the place he loved the most, where he hoped he could find employment with the Forest Service or a state agency as an environmentalist. The green forests and the mountains always soothed him. Now for one night’s mistake, he was here. I never should have gone out with the jerk.

Tyson Boyd was new in the environmental program up at the college. He had transferred in from King County and spent a lot of his time bragging about all the exotic places he had traveled to on internships and family trips. Matthew just saw him as a blowhard, yet he did share the same affection for the North Cascades Matthew had. Had even hiked in all the places that Matthew knew growing up. Matthew grudgingly chatted with him in lab and out on field trips, but socially, he kept a distance from him. Tyson had another thing that Matthew didn’t like: his attitude toward women: Tyson saw them intellectually deficient and easy pickings. 

Matthew never let on to anyone that he lived in a half-way house for those with mental health problems (his parents thought he shared an apartment with fellow students in his program) When he checked in at night, the social worker on night duty would be there to hand out the evenings’ pills. Matthew didn’t mind this. In a few weeks, he was due to get his own apartment run by the mental health agency where he would become an advocate for new people coming into the program. He had been clean and sober for over a year. (This was an important thing as alcohol could mess with his medications.) 

Somehow, Tyson found out where Matthew worked and invited him to go with some others from their environmental program. It would be fun. When Tyson mentioned the names of some of the other students, Matthew decided that he could stick to root beer and join them as there were a couple of girls in the program he liked. When they got to the beer garden, he discovered that he was being used as a cover for a girl that Tyson apparently liked. That’s when everything went blank. 

How the hell did I end up in the derelict house her blood on my clothes? Sometimes Matthew felt so close to the answer. I didn’t kill the girl.

Matthew stared at the trees moving gently in a breeze outside his window, asking them to help him. More importantly, he wished that his old boyhood chum would believe that he was innocent. Tell him I need him. 

Chapter 8

By Amory Peck
1743 Words

Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do.  …Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do…  Owning our story …Tara kept repeating her current mantra silently to herself as she pulled on her second Smartwool sock and reached for her Timberlands.   Annie had already slipped quietly out of their room to meet up with Claire. 

 Breaking her chant, Tara said, “They are probably picking out napkins for the new and improved ‘Sasquatch Lodge’ or rewriting the Happy Hour menu.” She continued in a sputter, “They don’t talk about anything else but the damned lodge, and they sure don’t seem to want to talk with me.  I could help, I have ideas.  I’m as smart as they are.  I’ve been to college … well, to a bit of college … well, okay, I flunked out the first semester, but I had my reasons.”  Tara continued her soliloquy as she grabbed her jacket and scarf.  “I’m out of here to find an attitude readjustment. Owning our story and loving ourselves …”

Tara’s current guru was Dr. Brené Brown.  She’d first discovered Dr. Brown when she read Daring Greatly. She’d read the book’s review on Amazon: “vulnerability is both the core of difficult emotions like fear, grief, and disappointment and the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, empathy, innovation, and creativity.”  Tara had immediately placed a one-click order, and the book appeared at once on her Kindle.  Tara loved books like Gone Girl, with its beautiful, sinister, psychopath main character, but her true passion was for self-help books.  Like the Millennial she was, Tara was committed to making herself the very best she could be.  She was currently working her way through a List of the Twenty-Two Best Self-Help Books to Buy in 2019.  Two of Brené Brown’s books were on that list!  Sticking one of those, Rising Strong, in her backpack, Tara skipped down the stairs to the dining room.

Although the room appeared to be empty, Tara assumed she could still get some breakfast.  

“Morning, there,” said Harold.  “Your friends are already on their way.  You sticking around here today?”

“Thought I might try some hiking.  Wish I had a companion, though. Exploring’s more fun with a friend.”  

“How about her?” said Harold, nodding towards a figure in a dark corner of the room.  Daphne sat in the shadows, partially hidden by a coat rack.  She did not look like a woman interested in hiking, or interested in anything at all. She sat still as still can be, clutching a coffee mug and staring in an unfocused way. 

“Huh? Her?” Remembering more of Dr. Brown’s words, I believe you have to walk through vulnerability to get to courage, she replied, “Sure. Why not.”   

Tara had been curious about Daphne.  For such a well-coiffured, stylishly dressed woman, she appeared so very unhappy. Tara couldn’t resist the opportunity to find out about this mystery woman.

Claire and Annie thought that Tara was snoopy and a bit gossipy.  Tara knew the truth, though.  She knew that she was actually an empath who just “knew” about others.  She could feel the emotions of those around.  In fact, she often felt she was feeling those emotions herself. She intuitively – or, more accurately, empathically – understood where people were coming from.  Most importantly she could not see someone in pain without wanting to help.  She sensed Daphne’s stillness as an agony-filled cry for help.  How could she turn away?

Daphne had been in the restaurant since early morning.  For her, she was dressed casually—wool slacks, a cashmere sweater, with just a modest amount of gold jewelry bedecking her arms, ears, and neck.  Her gaunt features seemed even more pinched than usual, and Tara could, from across the room, feel her deep sadness and frustration.

Daphne grew up in a very large and very poor family.  Her mother and father escaped from the misery of poverty through their church.  The small, non-denominational church believed that happiness came once The Saved arrived in heaven, and that our work on earth was to continually, constantly, fearfully keep oneself fit for heaven.  There were many rules to follow: what to eat, drink, wear.  How to fill your free time (with churchly things, of course).  The harshest rules of all were around courtship, marriage, and sexual relations. Daphne heard over and over about the grave sin of divorce, a guarantee you’d be rejected at the pearly gates.

Daphne had thrown off the lifestyle of the Church of the Precious Lamb and Dove years before.  If they were to see her now, her family wouldn’t recognize the obedient, law-fearing daughter they called Debbie Louise in the svelte, cosmopolitan world-weary Daphne as she had re-named herself.  

Daphne hadn’t run away until she was fifteen, though, and the rules drummed into you as a child are hard to erase.  She remained convinced that she should never, could never get a divorce. The problem was she was deeply unhappy in her marriage to Ray.

“Hi there, I’m Tara,” snapping Daphne from her funk.

“I beg your pardon.  Are you talking to me?” Daphne slurred back.

Tara, in all her enthusiasm and sincerity, with what she hoped would bridge the gap between them chirped back, “My friends have already headed out for the day.  I’m sure they have important things to do.  I’m hungry, haven’t even had my morning cup of tea.  I hate to eat alone, don’t you?  Skooch over, I’ll grab one of these chairs and bring it over.  Whatcha want to order?”

Dumbstruck by the sheer force of Tara, Daphne merely nodded and slid the menu across the table to her new tablemate. Several very quiet minutes went by until both mentioned they’d have just toast and tea.  “Toast and tea for two, please,” Tara called to the curious Harold.

Surprisingly, the two women started to open up to one another. From the moment they discovered a shared love of orange marmalade, the conversation began to build.  Encouraged by Tara’s insistent but cheerful questioning, Daphne shared as she hadn’t shared in years.  She even confessed to Tara her as-yet-unsuccessful attempt to make Ray divorce her.

“I could never file for divorce,” Daphne explained.  “That would be a sin. But, if Ray were to divorce me, well – that would be different.  I try and try.  I’ve lost all this weight, so I’m now just skin and bones.  I try to be as unpleasant as possible.  But, to this point, I just can’t drive that man to divorce me. I know he has a sweetie somewhere.  Wish he’d just get on with it, and join up with her.  We’d both be happier.”

Tea and toast with lots of orange marmalade finished, the two new friends decided they both needed to do something to make themselves feel better. What could be better on this mountain crisp day than a walk?  Knowing the slight breakfast wouldn’t fuel them for very long, Tara made a suggestion, “Let’s hike over to Pine Lake.  Claire did it the other day.  She’s not in real good shape.  If she could do it, so can we.  The restaurant isn’t open right now, but the owner, Mac, was willing to put together a sandwich for her.  Bet he would for us, too.”

After a bit of delay while Daphne tried to figure which pair of her definitely not hiking shoes might do, they headed off, Tara in boots from REI, Daphne in a pair of penny loafers.

It was a sunny, crisp day, perfect for time on the trail.  Because they had heard the story of the sick coyote that had frightened Claire, they decided some noise was needed.  They discovered both had been Girl Scouts, and the time passed by with energetic choruses of The Happy Wanderer and The Ash Grove. The sound of Daphne’s clear soprano and Tara’s competent alto harmonizing delighted them both. They reached Pine Lake more quickly than they had imagined.

Mac, a hospitable innkeeper even though there was no inn, was most willing to slap together a couple of sandwiches. He found an unopened bag of chips and served the food with a cold beer.  The two new friends found it the best lunch ever. They were pretty proud of themselves for getting out from under their dark moods earlier, for doing some healthy walking, and for finding a new companion.  “What shall we do next, do you suppose?” queried Daphne.

Suddenly they were startled by sounds of wailing and weeping seeping into the room. It seemed someone, some woman, was in terrible agony.  Tara, the empath, was nearly beside herself as her spirit began to absorb the horrible emotion.

“Please don’t be distressed,” Mac implored.  “That’s my wife, Greta.  She’s not well.  I know it sounds terrible, but there’s nothing you can do.”

“There must be!  We can’t leave her in that terrible state.  Not without trying to help,” they both spoke out.  “What’s troubling her?”

“She’s not well, as I said.  Much of it is because of our son.  He’s in Western State Hospital, you see, accused of murdering a young woman. Greta knows our boy just couldn’t have done that terrible thing and she mourns for him.”

“May we speak with her?”

“Perhaps you could be a good distraction.  Come with me, and thank you for caring,” said Mac as he escorted them to the bedroom. 

The two women stood by Greta’s bedside, horrified by the pain and distress they could see.  In a stumbling voice, the troubled woman shared with the two her deep, deep agony for her son, and her certainty he was innocent.  “Could you help, do you suppose?” she entreated.

Tara and Daphne, without having a clue yet what they might do but determined to do something, promised the stricken woman they would, indeed, help.  Another of Brené Brown’s quotes leapt into Tara’s mind. “DIG deep – get deliberate, inspired, and going.”  That’s what they would do for soul-weary Greta, DIG.

As the two left Pine Lake, burdened by sadness and determined to find a way to bring some healing to Greta, Mother Coyote watched them walk by.  Mother wasn’t skilled at interpreting human language, but she understood completely the agony the grieving mother was feeling. She and that poor soul shared a bond. The coyote also sensed the two other humans cared, and that emotion gave her hope.

Chapter 9

Barbara Govednik
1,950 Words

“Hey, can a girl grab herself a snack? Or is it against health codes to have guests in the kitchen?” Annie was in full charm mode even though dawn had barely broken.  

As a realtor, she could will herself to compliment even the most egregiously decorated home if it meant snagging the listing. The Lodge’s grimy kitchen was testing her skills. Clearly, it was never meant to be seen by guests. 

Her trained eye scanned the room and told her that someone, long ago, had poured serious money into filling the small space with commercial-grade equipment. But all that once-gleaming stainless steel was now dulled by a film of grease and indifference. Random pots, cutlery and dishware littered the stained countertops. One of the stove knobs had gone missing and was replaced by a wad of duct tape. If this was the standard of cleanliness just prior to breakfast service, her presence in the kitchen couldn’t be the space’s worst health code violation. 

Harold jumped at the sound of her voice – well, any voice – in the kitchen at this early hour. He quickly repositioned himself so his body blocked the view of what he was up to at the back counter. That fancy Seattle gal would be appalled if she saw him refilling the artisanal orange marmalade jars with the cheap stuff he bought by the case at Costco.  

 “Oh, good morning…” he searched his brain for her name. Cara? Terry? Amy? He was pretty sure it ended in a vowel, but most girls’ names do.  A better host would be able to remember the names of his guests, especially when there were so few to keep track of, he chided himself.   

“Sorry to startle you,” Annie said. She scanned Harold just as she had the kitchen equipment, double-checking her earlier opinion of him. If you replaced the rumpled sweatshirt with a crisp chef’s jacket, the ancient scuffed hiking boots with proper Dansko kitchen clogs, he might be fit to greet guests. Of course, the halo of epic bedhead would have to go, too, but that would just be a matter of a hot shower and some decent shampoo. All doable. 

“Claire and I are making an early morning of it and we were hoping to grab a bite? I know it’s early. But, please?” 

Charm. Charm. Charm. 

“Sure. Yes. I could whip up a breakfast sandwich and some coffee for you, Claire and your other friend. Amy, is it?” 

“No, it’s Annie, and that’s me. Tara is our other friend, but she’s not joining us just yet. Still sleeping. We didn’t want to disturb her.” 

Actually, Annie didn’t want Tara disturbing her and Claire’s plans which is why she silently crept out their shared room. Tara was their friend and a dear person, but not exactly a go-getter and a little too sensitive for her own good. If this project was going to get off the ground, it needed energy, excitement, investment. It needed the relentless focus that had propelled Annie’s real estate earnings into the stratosphere. Those weren’t qualities Annie associated with Tara. Tara was more likely to slow them down worrying over some insignificant detail like displacing an anthill and chopping down a couple of trees if they needed to expand the parking area. They’d find a role for Tara, just something better suited to someone who was more of a worker bee than the visionary Annie believed herself to be. Maybe Claire could teach her the tricks of the trade of being a barista. 

“Hey, could you make one of those coffees an extra hot oat milk macchiato?” 

No way in hell, Harold thought. There were still some host instincts left in him, after all. He kept his true reply to himself and apologetically pointed to the old drip coffeemaker next to the sink. Later, he’d look up what that drink was and figure out a way to fake it with some Maxwell House and a carton of actual milk from a cow. Maybe fancy coffees in the morning could bring in the profit margin the well drinks brought at Happy Hour. 

“No worries. Two coffees and two sandwiches. And make them to go, please.”  

Annie winked at Harold and took a last sweeping look around. A good power washing and a couple of restaurant-grade espresso machines would turn that space into an actual, functional kitchen. If they kept the menu simple and carefully curated, maybe hired an up-and-coming chef, they could bring in the Bigfoot crowd and the foodies. After all, people flocked to Lummi Island for dinner from all over the country, not just Seattle. But Harold? Her original instincts about him were right. It was weird how he just stood there leaning against the counter instead of springing into action to get her order started. 

She had to admit, Claire was really onto something with this idea of hers. Based on the precariously low number of fellow travelers this weekend, Annie was sure she could negotiate a lowball offer and put the majority of their investment into fixing up the space. The location alone was breathtaking, and that old real estate cliché was a cliché for a reason. It really was all about location, location, location. 

Annie found Claire in the Lodge’s lobby, leaning up against the wall gazing out of the big double doors. 

“The kitchen’s a wreck, but not beyond repair,” Annie reported. 

“Hmm? What?” Claire slowly brought herself back to reality. She’d meant to start snapping cell phone pictures of the Lodge while Annie snagged their breakfast, but found herself distracted when she’d backed up against the wall to get a panorama shot and her face brushed up against Joe Priest. 

Not the actual Joe Priest, of course, but a jacket and scarf that carried his smell was hanging from the coat rack that had been carved from a tree trunk. She rubbed her cheek against the fabric. Until she breathed it in, she wasn’t aware he even had a recognizable scent. But there it was, a mix of pine, wood smoke and a touch of IPA. It conjured an image of the two of them bringing in firewood, starting a fire, snuggling under a blanket together in front of the flames.

She wound Joe’s scarf around her neck, careful to tuck it under her jacket, close to her skin, then took the grease-stained napkin and paper cup from her friend. 

“It snowed overnight and it’s pretty cold out there,” Claire explained. She wanted Annie to think she was interested in staying warm, not marking the scarf with her own scent. “We’ll have to see what shape the trail’s in. I know you want to have a look at the other properties, but we might not be able to make it all the way to Pine Lake.” 

“All the better to have snowmobiles, ATVs and cross-country skis available to rent to our guests!” Annie laughed as they took their first slippery steps toward the trail. Their breath turned into wispy clouds in the cold, still air and snow crystals were starting to do their diamond glint as the sun made its upward climb. 

“This place is so beautiful, so serene,” Claire sighed. She stopped and let her gaze rise up to the heights of the pines surrounding her. She circled in wonder, taking it all in: the clear skies, the sparkling snow coating the pine branches, the warm smell of Joe Priest. “It’s absolutely per…ahhh!” 

Before she could finish her thought, Claire found herself pitched backward, arms windmilling for something, anything to break her fall. Her coffee cup few from her hand and sailed overhead raining its contents all over the pristine snow as she crashed to the ground. 

Annie shuffled to her friend’s side as quickly as the slippery trail would allow. 

“Are you okay? Did you hit your head?” 

Claire laid flat on her back with her arms and legs splayed in perfect snow angel position. She scanned her body for pain and/or blood and finding none tentatively sat up, her heart pounding from the shock of the fall and the cold.

“No, I think I’m okay.” She paused and looked to the space where she’d been standing just a moment before. “My heel must have caught on a log or a root or something and tripped me up.” 

Annie inched her way over to where her friend’s footprints abruptly stopped. Sure enough, a lumpy patch of brown was protruding through the snow. 

“You’re right, Claire. There’s a log right in the middle of the trail.” She brushed off a section of snow to get a better handhold to toss it into the trees so they wouldn’t trip over it on the way back.  She yanked at the log, but its surprising weight made her unable to budge it. She dusted off more snow then froze in horror. 

“Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god.”

What she and Claire assumed was a log turned out to be a single brown hiking boot that gave way to a pair of jeans with someone’s leg and foot still inside them. 

“Call 911,” she shouted to Claire. 

“I said I’m fine. Besides, cell service here is…” 

“Not for you!” Annie’s normally calm, cool and collected voice was climbing octaves with each exclamation. “For this…leg.  

She frantically brushed away more snow and pine branches, uncovering a second leg, a torso, shoulders and the stocking capped head of the paunchy middle-aged guy they’d seen ignoring his wife at the Lodge the night before. At the sight of his blue-tinged face, she leap up and started darting around the trail waving her iPhone overhead trying to connect to a signal. The acrylic tips of her French manicure clattered like Morse code against her iPhone screen as she tried to reach someone, anyone, who could help. 

Claire crouched next to Ray, and reached tentatively toward his wrist to check for a pulse but pulled her hand back with a shudder. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t touch a potentially dead guy who was still clutching his cell phone. 

 “Does he have a pulse? Is he breathing, Claire?” 

“I don’t know!” 

“Put your phone under his nose, like a mirror. Like they do in the movies.” Annie was still doing her cell phone signal dance and tapping frantically.

“The screen shattered when I fell. I can’t tell!” 

She glanced again at Ray’s phone and willed herself to try to grab it with two fingers but the phone wouldn’t budge from his hand. None of her nascent wilderness skills were useful in this kind of emergency. She ran through a mental list of possible actions. What did she know how to do? Play dead? That wasn’t going to help. Especially if he already was. Run away? She could run back to the Lodge for help, but that would leave Annie here by herself and that didn’t seem safe.  Anyone or anything could be responsible for what happened to this guy. Anyone or anything could be watching her and Annie right now. Panic rose in her until all she could do was scream. 

“Help! We need help!” she shouted over and over again. It drowned out a low rustling in the trees that was so close Claire would have fainted from fear if she had heard it. The snap of a twig under shuffling footfalls. The whoosh of a body brushing up against tree branches. The sounds of a slow retreat into the cover of the woods. 

Deeper into the trees, the shrill screams, the tapping and the unmistakable smell of Hunter’s killer was drawing others out of the woods toward the trail, daylight be damned.   

Chapter 10

By Karin Jones
1649 Words

Erika gazed upon her sister’s house with both regret and contempt. She hoped Greta knew their indelible bond as twins was unbroken, that Erika had always been near her sister, even as she refused to engage with a world insensitive and ignorant to the languages of the forest. Erika had come often to see what she’d left behind outside the boundary of her sister’s realm. But within her now stirred a fury that the men surrounding Greta had become increasingly exasperated by the sorrow and fear that shrouded this once magical place. Erika could not realistically remove her sister from the world she’d elected, and which was now failing her. Erika had to protect her chosen family now, the ones who harmonized with the heartbeat of the wilderness, understood the rivers and streams to be the arterials of life, and trees the branching bronchioles which infused their world with oxygen. 

And now Erika had a new problem: Perry. Goddamn Perry, who was supposed to have relinquished his dreams for the bottle and sloth. His obsession had been their undoing. But before she’d severed their marriage, Erika had intuited that Perry was close to his goal, and was suddenly galvanized to dedicate her life to thwarting him and his kind, those who only wanted to exploit what they deemed freakish and elusive for their own fame and enrichment. Seeing Perry with Hunter’s killer made the fur of her neck, despite its sparse and paltry distribution, stand at attention. 

Erika was also struck with a new realization: it wasn’t just Goldie and her kind who would grieve. She felt the specter of death upon them all, more than Goldie’s loss, and possibly Greta’s. Erika sensed a misguided intruder about to abscond with all that mattered. She thought back to Thunder’s recent agitated returns to their underground home, which had introduced both a distance and a cleaving hunger between them. She was still learning the subtext of his lexigrams, even after over a decade together in the forest. Now there was a new restlessness to their lovemaking, as the children slept untroubled, that made Erika feel a reckoning was upon them. Just the night before, Thunder had looked into her eyes as he’d never done before, more intensely than the day they first laid eyes on each other, the glossy thick fur of his face unable to hide the anxiety of his animal soul. Ptinus-em-sút‘to worry by oneself’, was what they were now doing. To Erika, their circumstances were clear to her: Your family is in danger. You must protect them. Xweystúmihkan saśquats.

Erika knew she was the one who had to bridge their worlds, that Thunder would only risk his own safety, life even, if he were to get too close to the realm of human men. Their children could survive without their mother, but not their father. When Erika had left the human world to commune with the vastly richer life of the forest, she had relinquished her dominance over any realm and had accepted that survival depended upon the fitness of every creature to learn from its best teacher. That was Thunder. 

When they had first discovered each other along the small creek which fed Pine Lake, Erika was struck with relief and awe. At last, she had found the object of her feckless husband’s fancy. She had also found her rightful mate. It was on the banks of that creek, with her on one side and Thunder on the other, where Erika instinctively lowered herself in his presence, knelt in the mud, bowed her head and stretched out her arms to indicate her supplication and receptiveness. When she looked up at his face, her Tilly Wanderer hat had tumbled from her head and her then-chestnut mane fell in a cascade across her shoulders. Without releasing her hold of his fascinated stare, in solid adjuration, she rose from the ground and slowly removed her clothes. They stood before each other, naked beasts in the wild, as a gentle spring breeze released its breath upon them. 

Thunder’s nostrils flared. Their mutual arousal slowed time. The wings of birds beat thickly, as though the air had the density of water. The shrill cries of eagle hawks reverberated inside their bodies and the gentle burbling of the stream became a languid roar. Erika trembled, not with fear but with the certainty that she had arrived at the place she was supposed to be. With this creature. When her shudders turned to quaking, she dropped to her hands and knees and proffered her backside, ruddy and swollen, wet with her desire. Thunder crossed the shallow stream in two strides. Then he scooped Erika up in one swift movement, cradled her in his hirsute tree trunk arms and carried her to the soft grass of the bank. When he set her down, Erika moved to offer him her rump again, but Thunder gently, yet firmly, positioned her onto her back so he could look at her. 

And look at her he did. He saw before him a being as formidable as any untamed and cunning animal that roamed the wild. Erika saw a majestic brute at the high tide of his life, over-spilling with vigor and virility. Each dove into the pool of the other, testing out the intersection of heretofore uncrossed channels. Thunder straddled Erika as he struggled to solve this mystery beneath him, even as his body told him exactly what he had to do. He gave in to the urgency of his unconscious evolution, parted her legs with his knees, and lowered himself into her. And with each movement of their combined breath, with frantic fur upon skin, a new ecstasy of the forest was born. 

***

As Perry and Paul followed Joe back to the lodge, Perry debated how to break free from the dead weight of his brother’s life lethargy. Though they had both descended into poverty and obscurity together, Perry was ready to resurrect the trove of credible evidence that Sasquatch was real and living among them. But he no longer wanted to share that glory with his deadbeat brother. Now he saw an opportunity to acquire the wealth, and a restored reputation, that could be his from a transformed tourist site. In putative partnership with these tenacious women, he would bring respectability to himself again, his brother be damned. 

But what he wanted more than adoration for his life’s work, was to win back the heart of his feral former wife, prove to her that his single-mindedness was not neglect, but his misguided attempt to stir within her the same level of fascination for him as he had always held for Erika. His heart ached with regret that his intent had backfired. But he knew she was still out there somewhere, looking for what he had sought. And now he had an opportunity to reel her back and confess his abiding love and, if he must, beg for her return. 

The three men entered the lodge from the back door and strode into the kitchen. Harold was slicing a cucumber, long past its tumescent prime, in preparation for the lunch he was unsure anyone would be eating. 

“Did you see the girls?” Harold asked Joe, concerned that their foray out of doors, without proper snow gear, would sour them to the charms winter brought this alpine locale and unplug their enthusiasm for the fix-it-up project as quickly as they’d turned it on.

“Yep.” said Joe. “Saw them along the east path just as we got here.” Even though Joe was holding a torch for the attentions of Claire, he was more concerned with Greta’s increasing decompensation. “Harold, I can’t stick around today. I’ve got to get into town and consult with someone who might be able to pay Greta a visit. She’s going through something tough. She may need to be medicated.”

“No kidding.” Harold said, putting down the knife and wiping his hands on his dingy apron. “How’s Mac? Do they need my help?”

“Mac’s holding it together, but he’s gettin’ rattled. Somethin’ weird is going on, man. Ever since I shot that damn loco coyote, feels like an avalanche is about to hit this whole drainage.”  

Perry and Paul stood mute, hands in pockets. Only Perry’s eyes had a light on behind them. Paul looked around the kitchen, hoping to spy a box of crackers. 

“I’ll leave these two to help you out if you need it. Guys…” Joe turned to the brothers who raised their four eyebrows in acknowledgement. “Help Harold out with whatever he needs, ok?” The men nodded a single synchronized assent. It was Perry who calculated how he might put Paul to work out of earshot until he could ingratiate himself with Harold, convince the grizzled inn owner that he alone be the consultant this operation needed in order to pass itself off as a genuine curator of the Sasquatch secrets. 

But before any of the men could move upon the trajectory of their intents, screams pierced the air in all directions; first the voice of two, and then two more, non-verbal laments so full of fear and confusion one might assume someone had died or discovered the frozen body of an ambivalent spouse. And further up, beneath the forest canopy, another tandem scream snapped Erika from her memory revelry. Greta and Goldie, together in a mother’s lament set Erika’s heart racing and with it a feeling that the dominos had been triggered. 

“Goddamn you, Thunder!” Erika shouted to the skies. “You were not supposed to leave them!” Erika stuffed the Glock back into her rucksack and wound her silver hair to the top of her steaming head. She pulled the Tilly tightly down below her forehead and, with tears of rage and conviction, strode into the light once more, to face what she only ever wanted to leave behind. 

Chapter 11

By Gregory Macdonald
842 Words

“Help! We need help!”

As Claire and Annie clambered the back stairs of Harold’s Pine Lake Lodge, weak-kneed and frantic, their unintelligible screams coalesced into words.

“Help!”

Put your knife down. Harold did what he had long-ago learned to do after his chef’s knife had rolled off an onion and opened the flesh of his left forefinger, requiring a trip to the emergency room and nine stitches.

The day had begun early with a young, pretty woman – Claire, was that her name? Or was it Annie? – charming her way into his early morning thoughts and walking out of his kitchen a few minutes later with two breakfast sandwiches and takeout cups of filter-brewed Maxwell house coffee. Now at dinner time the drama had resumed as Claire and Annie stumbled back into his kitchen, and he knew he needed to be careful.

“There’s a dead man, a dead man out on the trail.”

Earlier, Joe Priest had left the brothers Perry and Paul in the kitchen to help Harold with whatever, but the two friends of Mac and Greta weren’t ready for anything like this and they just stood still and watched the two women in dismay.

“There’s a dead man.”

Annie leaned forward with her hands on her knees, panting like a runner who had just crossed a finish line.

And In the winter’s twilight not far away, a coyote stood on the stony banks of a river. As she looked upstream at the force and the splash of white water, she felt the river’s passion and opened her heart to the healing power of the forest. Her son was gone, lost to a man with a gun. Her son needed help, and although he looked dangerous as any coyote can, mama coyote knew he would never attack a human. A mother knows these things.

And a few miles away at Mac and Greta’s tired old cabin, Greta tried to let her grief wash over her and subside. She had lost her son Matthew, committed to a mental health hospital. Her son, her only son, a psychopath, locked up and a murder suspect. But Greta knew that her boy had not killed that girl, the university student at Western Washington University in Bellingham. A mother knows these things.

And earlier that day, as Annie and Claire left their friend Tara sleeping in their shared room to embark on a morning hike, Claire had waited in the lobby of the lodge while Annie tried to score some take-out breakfast. Claire lingered over the smell of Joe Priest’s back country jacket and well-worn woolen scarf, hanging where she had hung it the previous evening on the coat rack that had been carved from an old tree trunk. She pulled the scarf and wrapped it around her neck, pushing the ends under her arms and inside her jacket.

The night before, Claire had accepted bartender Joe’s offer of one more drink – a straight up vodka martini – as she bid her friends Tara and Annie adieu when they decided to call it a night and head off to their room.

“So, you and your friends are thinking of buying this place and turning it into the Sasquatch Lodge, or Bigfoot Lodge, or what?”

Declaring the bar closed, Joe had shaken up his own martini, joined Claire at her table, and started a conversation.

Claire, a few sips into her second drink – or was it her third? – launched into her spiel. Joe was attentive, nodding in the right places and laughing when appropriate as their evening progressed. When the cocktails were done, Claire stood and picked up the two glasses.

“Let me help you clean up.”

Their kisses began behind the bar as Joe washed the glassware and handed it to Claire to place on a drying rack. Joe dimmed the lights, and as they left the bar Claire took Joe’s jacket and scarf and hung them on a carved wooden coat rack at the entrance to the restaurant. Then Joe took Claire’s hand and led her down a hallway to his room – number 108, which happened to be next to Claire’s room, 106.

“Shhh, I don’t want to wake my roommates.”

The down comforter on Joe’s bed was so soft and so luxurious and so wonderful to get lost in. It was the perfect time and the perfect place with the perfect man, a stranger, a man who was lean and hard and smelled nothing like her. And Claire, although unprepared, allowed herself to be reckless and fully gratified.

When she left Joe in the middle of the night, Claire was able to sneak next door and into room 106 without waking her roommates. And as she lay in her bed she thought about the past few hours – the surprise of it all, the mutual seduction, the overwhelming power of the intimacy – and how peaceful she felt contemplating the possibility of motherhood. She had been careless, she knew that. She had always wanted to start a family, she knew that, too. What else did mothers know?

Chapter 12

By Laura Rink
1948 Words

Matthew sprawled across his bed reading his dog-eared copy of The Two Towers, the second book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. While his move to F-3 was a good thing, transitions were difficult for him until the unfamiliar became known, until new routines settled into his body, muscle memory taking some of the strain off his mind. Embodied cognition, his therapist called it, the body influencing the mind. In college, when he’d be in the grip of a dark mood, when he couldn’t go to class, couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t read textbooks, Matthew could read his favorite books, books he had read many times before, books that soothed him and made the world appear a little less dark. Tolkien’s books were at the top of the list, especially The Two Towers where the Ents have an important role in the battle against Saruman.

Earlier, as clouds forecast rain outside the window, Matthew had explained the Ents to his roommate Mark, a man somewhat older than Matthew, who was in the hospital because of some kind of psychotic break due to environmental devastation. As far as Matthew could figure out, Mark had been obsessed with saving the planet since he was ten years old and attended the first Earth Day celebration in April 1970. Ten years later, Mark saw that celebrating Mother Earth was not saving her, and he turned to activism, and then to damaging property of fossil fuel corporations. Now he muttered at the newspaper articles about coal and oil companies— “Fiduciary responsibility, my ass!” And in the rec room, each news item about severe weather patterns brought a shouted “Who’s crazy now?” Mark spent most of his time in the art room doing pencil drawings of extinct wildlife and reimagined landscapes where the ice cap wasn’t melting, where the glaciers weren’t receding, where the Amazon rain forest wasn’t on fire.

“The Ents are shepherds of the forest, some of the oldest beings in Middle Earth,” Matthew had begun, ready to explain that whole fantasy world to Mark.

Mark cut him off. “What do they look like?” 

“They resemble the trees they shepherd—beech or oak or chestnut—”

“So Ents are sentient trees?” Mark started pacing around the room. 

“No, they are sentient beings that look out for the trees.” 

“Do you know that trees communicate with each other?” Mark smiled wide at Matthew.

Matthew wasn’t sure what Mark was getting at and didn’t want to upset him, so he just nodded.

“Yes, they do. Though their roots! They share resources with each other, not only with their own kind, with other trees in their neighborhood!”

Mark spoke rapidly of Mother Trees sending nutrients to their own seedlings, sending more or less depending on a sapling’s needs. How trees emit a chemical smell when their forest is under attack. Science, Mark kept exclaiming, scientific studies back this up. We haven’t been paying attention! Well, Mark slowed himself, the indigenous people knew all this, we just Westernized it all away. Mark stared out the window. 

“Hi trees,” he whispered. Then he waved a hand at Matthew. “I gotta go draw,” he said and left the room.

Matthew might not understand everything Mark was saying but he understood his passion—Matthew had been similarly obsessed by trees since childhood. He and Joe had roamed the forest around Matthew’s home, especially in the summer, for hours and hours. They played endless games of tag. They built forts at the base of towering Ponderosa pines, they snuck around tracking squirrels, raccoons, and coyotes, following their tracks from the creeks and streams that flowed down the mountain. But trees communicating? You needed an Ent for that, or his favorite Dr. Seuss character. 

In second grade, for the Halloween carnival at school, Matthew had insisted on being the Lorax. His mom made him a bushy mustache out of an old yellowing feather duster, and bought him brown long johns, which Matthew covered with bits of glued on moss. Matthew made sure everyone knew who he was by repeatedly saying, in a voice he hoped was sharpish and bossy, “I speak for the trees!” Matthew tried to convince Joe to go as a Truffula Tree, but Joe threatened to go as a lumberjack instead. Joe immediately relented when Matthew started to cry, and, in the end, swiped his dad’s Goat Shack hat and declared he was a bartender, putting himself on the opposite side of the bar from his father.

An orderly knocked on the door and then opened it. Seth popped his head in, “Hey, Matthew, you got a visitor. She’s at the end of the hall.” Just as quick, Seth was gone, the door shut again. For a moment Matthew stared at the door.

A visitor.

Joe had visited a few times, at first. But it was a five-hour drive over the mountains and Joe had to borrow Mac’s truck, an unreliable vehicle at best. At those visits, Matthew wasn’t always coherent, his meds were off, he was under a lot of stress. I’m not like you, he kept saying, but I’m a person! I’m a person! He feared he had alienated his best friend. 

She, Seth had said. But it couldn’t be his mother, the no-contact order would keep her away, even if she wanted to see him. Matthew wasn’t sure if she did. He’d said and done a lot of unkind things when he was off his meds and drinking. But now . . .

Matthew set the open book face down on his pillow, rolled off his bed, and looked out the window, at the maples half shed of their golden orange, yellow, and red leaves, at the cedars’ drooping russet undercoats shimmying in a burst of breeze. 

At the end of the hall, below a big picture window that framed a giant cedar tree, seated in one of the two ragged overstuffed chairs, sat a woman probably in her early thirties, black hair pulled back into a pony tail, her narrow face pale, her body dwarfed by a wool coat, her hands holding tight to a green canvas purse. Matthew didn’t know this woman. She rose when he approached, and extended her hand.

“Matthew? I’m Jenna . . . Boyd.” Her voice was a whisper.

Matthew shook her hand briefly. “Yes, I’m Matthew. But I’m not sure who—”

“My brother is . . . Tyson . . . Boyd.”

Matthew slid into a chair, and said the first thing that popped into his mind. “I didn’t know Tyson had a sister. But then I didn’t really know him.”

Jenna sat back down. “I didn’t either, really know him. We’re ten years apart.”

Matthew thought he’d feel anger hearing that name. Tyson had got him to go out that night, Tyson had done . . . what? Tyson had told the cops that last he saw, Matthew and Shannon were walking down one of Bellingham’s brick building-lined alleys, leaving the group to go off on their own. Matthew didn’t remember that part. He remembered Tyson making moves on Shannon in the beer garden. He remembered Shannon’s face, a small smile, annoyed eyes, her head swiveling side to side. Tyson bringing him a beer that Matthew refused to drink, right? But all he felt right now was a numbness in his chest, a refusal to feel anything at all.

“Matthew?” Jenna leaned forward. “I don’t know much about you and my brother and what happened almost twenty years ago. And I’m not here to dredge that up or upset you. In fact, maybe I shouldn’t have come.”

“Something brought you here.” Matthew was curious. Over the years, he’d focused on getting mentally stable and then he’d try to sort out what really happened that night. But his dual diagnosis of bipolar and schizophrenia complicated his therapy and his medication regime. Sometimes medications that worked stop working, or unbearable side effects emerged, and a new medication had to be tried. Sometimes Matthew felt like an endless science experiment. In some small twisted way, he had gotten the help at Western State that, health insurance in America being the shitstorm it is, he might not have had the financial resources to pursue outside of the hospital. But always, he felt he would more stable if he could just get back to the eastern side of the Cascades, if he could just get back home.

Jenna cleared her throat. 

Matthew looked up. “Sorry, I . . . start thinking . . . and then . . .”

“No, don’t you be sorry. I know brother maybe, might have, something to do with you being in here. I mean I don’t know. I just know you two were together that night.” Jenna thrust her hand into her purse. “But that’s not why I’m here. I’m not here to talk about that night.” She pulled out an envelope, her hand shaking. “My brother . . . Tyson . . . he killed himself last week.” 

Matthew felt the numbness grow in his chest. 

“I’m not looking for sympathy—we weren’t close, at all. He’d been out of the country for years. He was visiting our mother, and she invited me over for brunch. When I got there, he still hadn’t come out of the guest room. My mother hadn’t wanted to bother him. He had a temper, sometimes.”

A gust of wind blew hard against the building, the giant cedar outside the window swayed, and the lights along the hallway flickered. Jenna didn’t seem to notice but Matthew did. He stared up at the heavy boughs of the cedar.

“I don’t need to tell you the details. He was dead. And there was a stack of envelopes on the nightstand.” Jenna held out the envelope.

Matthew took it and looked down at boxy printing: Matthew Henderson, Western State Hospital. He turned it over—the flap was sealed.

“My mother wanted to destroy the letters. I gave her the one with her name on it, and took the rest. I’ve been delivering them. It’s the only thing that feels right to me.”

***

After Jenna left, Matthew sat there, staring at his own name on the envelope. Did he want to know what was in the envelope? Could he believe whatever it was that Tyson had to say to him, couldn’t say before now? It could be hurtful lies. It could free Matthew from his alleged connection to Shannon’s murder. 

Matthew stood up and dragged the chair around, sat back and watched the cedar tree sway in the wind, watched the clouds, crowded low and dark with moisture. The cedar limbs rose and fell like a person marching in place. A peculiar and familiar sound came from the tree, and took Matthew back to his last hike around the forest before leaving for college. As he was coming down the slope toward his house, he thought he’d heard something odd. A stray breeze rubbing branches together in a way he’d never heard? Or an animal vocalization he didn’t recognize? Or perhaps only his parents’ voices wafting up the mountain. Or nothing at all—it was all in his head.

***

Greta heard a moaning sound, or was it a low snarl, or a muffled screech? She pulled herself out of bed, parted the linen curtains, and looked out the window. The wind thrashed through the forest, clanging the lids on the trash cans, flapping some shingles on the tool shed, and sending the hens clucking into their house.

A Ponderosa pine looming in the stormy darkness raised its branches. Greta blinked. Was that tree waving to her? Beckoning to her?

Chapter 13

By Heather Lea
1982 Words

Harold, Perry and Paul could together carry the body. 

“Let’s get ‘im ‘round back by the kitchen’s exit door,” Harold panted from exertion. 

This is so messed up!” Claire whispered. She and Annie were hot on the footsteps of the three men. “Why are they moving this guy? Shouldn’t they have left him as is and called the ranger station?”

“Yeah,” Annie agreed. “Hey,” she called softly ahead to the men, “why are we moving a dead body? This never turns out well in movies.”

Harold shushed the girls. Approaching the back of the Lodge, he used one arm to hold up his end of the body, and the other to pry open the wooden kitchen door he’d left ajar. It creaked on old, rusted hinges that needed oiling. Harold ducked his head inside scanning for guests who might be snooping around for snacks. No one was in there. It was the one time Harold was glad for the Lodge’s high vacancy rate.

“Coast is clear,” he said.

Thumping their way through the door, the three men worked to heave themselves and the body through the narrow passage. Claire chanced a look at the man’s face; she remembered seeing him and his cranky wife eating in the Lodge the day before. 

“Let’s get ‘im over here, guys.” Harold headed to the walk-in freezer.

“Seriously? What the hell?” Annie whispered to Claire.

Harold, Paul and Perry lowered the dead man to the freezer’s floor among frozen juice containers and Costco-sized bags of veggies.

“Gonna keep ‘im frozen here ‘til I can figure out what to do,” Harold said, scratching his head. “Can’t have a body smellin’ up the place, can I?” He felt brave and manly with his quick decision-making. Harold wanted to take charge of this situation before Perry and Paul did; he knew only too well what could happen then. Anyway, it was his turn. 

“Should we put him on a blanket or something?” Claire asked, feeling her hiking boots sticking to the freezer’s floor.

Annie burst out laughing then covered her mouth. 

Perry said: “Don’t see much point in that.”

“Let’s get out of here.” Annie grabbed Claire’s arm and headed toward the swinging kitchen door that led out into the dining area.

“Wait,” Harold held up a commanding palm in front of Annie’s face, enjoying being repurposed as the man in charge of a secret mission. Harold was so bored as Lodge host. “Not one of us,” he pointed at the four faces, says anything about this. If asked, I’ll take the blame for moving the body.” He thought he noted a look of admiration pass between Claire and Annie at his last words. Harold’s plan was to tell anyone he was forced to tell, that he moved the body to the freezer alone. This would make him appear strong, he postulated. Harold would tell them the bears were still out and he couldn’t take the chance to attract one, especially not to a dead body. Yes, that would also make him look smart.

***

Tara and Daphne were sitting in the lounge, two glasses of white wine in front of them. Tara was trying to come up with a plan to help Greta.

“That poor woman,” she said. “I want to go break her son—Matthew is it?—out of that place he’s in. Hugging him again would do her wonders.”

Daphne murmured an agreeable reply. She wasn’t big on emotions and physical contact, like hugs, but she was starting to melt over Tara’s endearing personality. She had to catch herself a few times from staring too long at the way the soft lounge light picked up red tones in Tara’s hair. Daphne wondered if Tara had once dyed her auburn tresses, or if she was just lucky to be born with those highlights. Wish I had such coloring, Daphne thought, subconsciously patting her chemical-laden locks. She had a fleeting thought about finding out where Ray was, but decided she didn’t care. The wine was getting to Daphne’s head in the way that she liked. She’d rather be here with Tara, just as Ray would probably rather be with his mistress.

A clambering through the swinging kitchen door stole her attention. Tara’s loud friends approached the table, breaking the mood entirely. Daphne was annoyed.

“Tara, we need to talk to you,” Annie said. She and Claire had their arms linked at the elbows.

“Yeah, not now, guys. I’m having a drink with my new friend here.” Tara gestured to Daphne. 

Harold came out of the kitchen, followed by Perry and Paul. What slobs, Daphne scowled at the old brothers.

“Everything okay here, ladies?” Harold asked. Daphne thought he looked pointedly at Annie and Claire.

“Sure,” Annie shrugged. “We just haven’t seen Tara all day and would like to catch up.” Annie looked at Claire for back-up, but Claire was looking toward the bar, watching Joe make drinks.

***

“I know you’ll hate me after reading this,” Matthew read, “but I didn’t know what else to do that day.”

Tyson’s handwriting was in all caps, not very neat and ran outside the margins. Matthew lay back on the bed in his room and read.

“You probably wonder why I’ve sat here all this time, letting you take the blame. I know you don’t remember; I made sure of that. I didn’t feel bad about it then, but I do now. I can’t live with this anymore. I’m an asshole, which is why I was able to do what I did that night. But even assholes get scared. If I don’t kill myself, those goons will; especially now I’ve written the truth to everyone.”

Matthew was no longer numb. Not to anything. His entire being was on high alert. He felt the steel rods under the mattress push up into his back. He could smell the watered-down coffee from the communal room down the hall. Matthew gripped the folded pages he’d pulled out of the envelope, unable to read fast enough.

I wanted to take her to the mountains, where your parents lived. You said they were away. I thought it would impress her. I wanted her, but she wanted you, I could tell. I needed you to get us to your parents’, but then I wasn’t sure how to get rid of you from that point on. I tried to get you to drink alcohol, so it would mess with your meds and maybe she’d see your bad side, but you kept refusing. We drove over the pass and parked at the lodge. You wanted to say hi to Joe, so we went in and she went to the bathroom. It was really late, after midnight now. Joe was going to hook us up with a room for the night, but I wanted to get to Pine Lake. I insisted and you were getting mad. You said: ‘If you’re going to make me take you guys up there tonight, I need a beer.’ Then you stormed off to find her. I saw my chance. I had a roofie I was saving in case I had her alone and she wasn’t interested. When Joe put your beer down and turned to polish some glasses, I dropped the pill in your beer.”

Matthew had a flash memory of Tyson handing him a beer when he and Shannon returned to the lounge. Rage boiled within him then, but he tamped it down to keep reading.

“We never got to your parent’s place. The roofie made you lethargic and you were behind her and me on the hike. She got scared and refused to go another step, sitting down on the trail. I thought she might perk up if you were with us, so I told her to stay there and I’d run back to find you. She didn’t want me to leave her alone. I told her to stop whining, I’d be back in 5 minutes. But you were farther back than I thought. You stumbled a lot and slowed us down. Waiting for you to catch up at one point close to where I left her, I heard a low growl. I grabbed my flashlight and shone it into the trees. Not ten feet away, I saw a dark… thing.I thought it was a bear because of its dark fur, but it stood on two legs and was crazy tall, like 7 or 8 feet. It was holding her. She had been scalped and was dead. I screamed and ran back to you. I tried to get you to run with me back to the lodge, but you were so disoriented, I gave up and left you behind.”

Matthew devoured the words in front of him. What killed Shannon? 

“I wish I never saw those two goons, but I thought they might help, so I ran toward their headlamps coming up the trail. They looked like brothers. Both pale, with long Harley-Davidson-like beards. I told them what I’d seen, like an idiot, and they looked at each other. One of them said, ‘Take us back where you saw this thing.’ I told them I wasn’t going back, but they pointed to their riffles, suggesting we’d be safe. I took them back up the trail. We ran into you coming down. You could barely stand and were slurring. No one could understand you, lucky for me. One of the brothers stayed with you while me and the other one went up the trail. It was right out of a horror show. All that was left of her was her scalp, laying on the trail like a calling card. The guy I was with flipped his gun around and cocked it, aiming into the trees. I shone my flashlight. Whatever had killed her was long gone. The guy told me not to tell anyone what had happened, or what I thought I’d seen. He aimed his gun at my face, said if I told anyone, him and his brother would kill me. Then he fished a pair of gloves out of his back pocket and picked up her hair or scalp or whatever, and put it in his jacket pocket. I didn’t know why until now. He wanted to leave no trace of her, yeah but he also wanted me to know he was crazy. He wanted me to live in fear until they needed me.”

The paper Matthew held shook so hard, he had a hard time reading.

The brothers and I concocted a story for the rangers that you and she were dating. You’d taken her up to Pine Lake to kill her because you’d found out she was sleeping with me. I told them I had gone looking for her with the help of Perry and Paul after finding them on the trail. They backed my story. It was all easy to believe; you knew the area, plus you were already diagnosed with being schizophrenic and bi-polar. Your biggest mistake was telling me that but I’m going to give you something you can use to get yourself out of all this trouble. You didn’t kill her because you were behind us on the trail. That’s my signed confession. I know sorry doesn’t cut it. I hope this letter helps get you out. You should also know your mom is being regularly fed a hallucinogenic drug. Perry and Paul are too worried she’ll find out the truth and that’ll lead to them covering everything up. Those greedy bastards want the sasquatch all to themselves, and they want to be the first to capture it, or there’s no money in it for them.”

Matthew threw the pages against the wall, flipped his bed upside down and screamed at the cedars outside. An orderly came in and shot him up with a tranquilizer called Rohypnol. In pill form, it’s also known as a roofie.

Chapter 14

By Diane Wood
1690 Words

Yesterday, as they had been making their way back to the lodge from Pine Lake, an ominous feeling came over Tara that something wasn’t right. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but there was definitely something jagged about the energy. 

“I’m beginning to wonder where Ray is,” Daphne said, “I don’t think he came back to his room last night. Not that I care, but where could he have gone? Maybe I just got lucky and he finally left me for his little chickie.” 

“What would you do if he did leave you?” 

“After I visited my lawyer, I’d celebrate for a couple days!” 

Their laughter echoed off the snow-laden trees, shimmering the snow from the branches in a sparkling cascade. The light was beginning to fade as the pregnant sky turned grayish pink the way it does before a snow. 

“Look!” Tara pointed up toward an owl undisturbed by the noisy intrusion; its eyebrows raised and head cocked toward the woods. The women stopped in their tracks and watched the bird watching them. 

“Owls are a spiritual sign that our eyes are opening. They show us things that might stay hidden so we can be open to seeing things in a whole new way.” 

Daphne looked at Tara as if to question what she just said. She liked it but wondered how her new friend knew this stuff. 

“What? I took a Spirit Animal class at Whatcom Community College last year. Let’s keep walking. We want to be back at the lodge before dark.” 

“Yes, and my feet are freezing!” 

As they got closer to the lodge Daphne noticed something shiny in the snow by the big pine tree not far from front steps. Daphne loved shiny anything and couldn’t resist seeing what it was. She turned and walked over to pick it up. Out of curiosity, Tara followed. 

“What ‘re you doing?” Without answering, Daphne reached down, picked up the shiny thing, brushing the snow off. “Oh. This is Ray’s set of keys. He probably doesn’t even know he dropped them. Why did he need his keys out here?” 

Again, a wave of foreboding washed over Tara as she felt Daphne’s energy move from light curiosity to semi-concern. She took Daphne by the hand and nudged her toward the front steps of the Lodge. They walked into the dining room, empty except for the so-called host, Harold. They shook their jackets and stomped the snow off their shoes leaving them at the front door. Daphne looked as if she were daydreaming. 

“Good evening ladies! Here for dinner? Two glasses of wine?” 

They answered in unison. “Absolutely.” 

“Actually, how about a bottle, and two glasses tonight. We’re celebrating a new friendship,” Tara said. “My treat.” 

Harold might have even been smiling as he walked over to their table with their wine. How are you gals doing today? Did you enjoy your hike?” 

Daphne asked, “Have you seen my husband Ray around lately?” 

The hair stood up on Harold’s back. He hoped he wasn’t blushing, but it felt like it. 

“Now that you mention it, I don’t believe I have,” he stammered. “Could he have driven into town?” 

Daphne held up the keys. “Not without his these, which I just found outside.” 

Harold turned to walk back to the kitchen. “If I see him, I’ll let you know you’re looking for him.” 

As soon as the swinging doors swung shut, he grabbed his cellphone out of his shirt pocket and dialed Joe. “We’ve got a problem. That guy’s scarecrow wife is asking around about her husband. Inevitably it was just a matter of time before she noticed he was gone even though they don’t seem to spend any time together. We’ve got to do something. We need to talk after your shift tonight. Plan on it. Maybe we’ll need to get rid of her, too.”

*** 

Back at the table with the only two customers so far this evening, Daphne began to wonder about what was going on with Ray; why he’s not around. She didn’t want to call him, but she wanted to know what was going on. She borrowed Tara’s phone. Ray wouldn’t know that number. Maybe it was something as simple as his chickie driving up here and them making their great escape. That would explain his car still being in the parking lot. Daphne dialed his number and the call went straight to voicemail. 

“Hey, girlfriend, a penny for your thoughts.” 

“Oh, I’m just daydreaming about what’s going to happen if Ray’s gone for good. Hoping he left with the chickie.” 

“Want to talk about it?” 

“Maybe a little bit. Do you mind? I just need to process my thoughts a bit.” 

“Nope. I’m here for you. What are friends for?” 

“Okay, well, first of all, if he’s gone-gone, and files for divorce, I’m free of him. And the church won’t excommunicate me and I’ll still get into heaven.”

Tara’s face puckered. “Wow, you believe all that stuff?” 

Daphne answered, “Well, it doesn’t hurt to have all my bases covered. It’s better than the other thoughts I’ve had of suicide or murder. The church doesn’t condone them either but doesn’t speak against it. Then I’ve even thought about murder/suicide, but I don’t want me gone, just Ray. But they’re all so messy. You know? And then I’d have to come up with the perfect murder, and get away with it. Maybe leave the country.” 

Tara wasn’t sure if it was the wine talking, probably, or Daphne had been seriously thinking these thoughts. She’s certainly deeper than I’d imagined. Guess desperate times actually do call for desperate measures – and wine, as I always say. 

The front door flew open, letting in a blast of frigid air. Harold looked up from his perch at the bar. Annie and Claire bounded in, shaking off the snow, and boots and jackets. They spotted Tara and Daphne at the far end of the dining room. 

“Hey girls, come join us!” Tara yelled, waving at them. 

Claire and Daphne pulled a couple chairs up to the table. Tara could sense Daphne’s anxiety at being with strangers. 

“In case you haven’t met yet, Daphne, these are my two best friends in the whole wide world, Claire, and Annie,” she said motioning toward them. “Girls, this is my new bestie, Daphne.”

They all made eye contact and muttered their hellos and nice-to-meet-yous.
 
Harold, elated to have another sale coming in, sauntered over from his stool at the bar, and took their orders for another bottle of wine and two more glasses.
 
“So, Tara, honey, remember when you were too busy with your new bestie and didn’t have time to have a conversation with us? We seriously need to have this conversation with you. Now.” Claire looked serious. But in a good way. 

“Okay, but Daphne stays, too.” 

“I don’t need to intrude,” Daphne interjected, starting to stand up. 

“Okay if you stay. Cat’s out of the bag anyway.” 

Annie started the conversation. “Well, you know that Harold is hoping to sell the lodge. And we’ve become increasingly interested in finding funding and purchasing it. Claire’s idea is taking root and we’ve been brainstorming and running around and making contacts and writing a business plan and looking for potential funders, and so on.” 

“I want to help, you guys, but you don’t seem to want my input,” Tara said. “I feel it in my bones, you’d rather have me out of the way.” 

“Your bones are wrong this time,” Claire answered. “We’re just taking the ball and running with it because we’re so excited and up. We want you to be one of the partners. No question.” 

“How would you like to help us make calendars of tasks we need to accomplish our vision? Be our project manager? You’re good at that, the down to earth stuff. How about it?” Annie added. 

“That’s it? I could do that in a heartbeat!” 

“Well, that and help us find the funding. We’ll all be beating the bushes for that.” 

Tara exclaimed. “Of course, I’m in!” 

Annie said, “Well, that’s all for now. I’m beat. We can talk more tomorrow, Okay? So nice to meet you, Daphne. Goodnight!” 

“That’s all ditto for me. Goodnight,” Claire chimed in as she grabbed the bottle of wine and two glasses. Without knowing if Daphne had gotten the news about Ray – or not – neither one of them had wanted to bring it up. 

*** 

“Your friends seem nice,” Daphne said. And full of energy.” 

“That they are – both of them – are both.” Tara giggled. “So, Daph, I want to continue the conversation we were having before they so rudely interrupted us, if that’s okay with you.” Tara was getting buzzed on the wine; just the way she liked it. She sensed Daphne was feeling the same. 

“Well, as I was saying, the best thing would be that I wouldn’t have to stress over Ray divorcing me. I’d be free of him. Any assets they had were in Ray’s name, but I’d inherit them if he died, unless he’s been transferring them into chickie’s name. But then there’s the community property thing, that could help with some of the assets. If he dies before me, I’ll at least have money from the insurance policy I bought a couple years ago that he actually signed after he got sick. I think he still liked me then. The best part is that it’s a double indemnity policy that pays double if it’s an accidental death If it all works out, I want to invest in the Lodge with you and the girls.” 

Tara reached over and took Daphne’s hand in hers. Daphne looked in Tara’s eyes and put her other hand on top of Tara’s. 

“Daph, I know we don’t know each other very well, but I’m so sorry you’re having to go through all this. Just know I’m here for you.” 

Daphne slid out of her chair still holding Tara’s hand in hers. 

“Why don’t you sleep in my room tonight? I could use the company.” 

Chapter 15

By Mary Lou Haberman
1248 Words

Tara didn’t hesitate. She knew her deepest purpose was to give balm to those that hurt. Being an empath usually isn’t easy; but, here, and now, she settled peacefully into the role. She held her gaze on Daphne for, what felt like eternity, shook her head in wonder as she heard a voice whisper from somewhere, “owning our story and loving ourselves through the process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do”. 

“OK, sure. I’ll just go get my PJs and toothbrush. Meetcha there in about 15?”

“Yes, Daphne sighed. “that would be wonderful”. Are you sure you don’t mind?”

Tara, winked, put on a fake frown, and teased, “Mind? Are you kidding? Hey girl, you’ve got me for a friend without end now, so get used to it!” Then she rose from the chair and tripped on that shoestring that never stayed tied. 

“Shit”. She teetered, then fell forward toward Daphne. With outstretched arms, she caught herself on Daphne’s chair and despite trying not to be, there they were, face to face. Daphne’s mouth fell open, she looked startled, and then they both started laughing. Tara returned to standing and wondered why she felt nervous, not about Daphne – Daphne was special. Something just isn’t right. 

(Later that night, Tara and Daphne would giggle as they recalled what had happened. Tara would tell Daphne how sweet her breath is, and Daphne would tell Tara how soft her lips are and, from there, from there,  they would learn about each other the way friends sometimes do. In the morning, over tea and marmalade, Daphne would tell Tara about the rules against sex her church had forced upon her. Tara would listen and tell Daphne; sex is one thing for sure. But, love is another thing. And Daphne would sigh, smile, and tenderly touch Tara’s fingers.)

Pushing herself off the chair to standing, Tara hitched up her jeans and swiped a wisp of hair that had fallen into her eye. Daphne stood up and gently brushed Tara’s cheek. 

“I’m glad you’re ok.”

“Thanks”. I’m glad I didn’t squash you!”

Daphne sighed again. She was too tired to think anymore about anything and just glad that Tara was ok. She was mostly pleased that Tara seemed to understand her and noticed that thoughts about Ray had vanished. She felt an unfamiliar relief. 

Tara skipped to the stairs and took them two at a time. She was happy her pals weren’t in the room when she gathered up her things. What they don’t know won’t hurt them. They think they have me all figured out. Well, they don’t. Annie will always be an opportunist and Claire is all about that guy who, is easy enough on the eyes, but has an odd, other-worldly odor. Well, no one’s perfect and everyone is good at heart, right? Some people are just more sensitive than others. Yeah, me for sure, and, I’m beginning to think Daphne is sensitive too. In fact, I believe Daphne owns her story. But, she has a way to go toward loving herself. Tara thought about Brene’ Brown, smiled and finished her thoughts wondering what the brave thing Daphne will do.

After Tara left, Daphne scooted her chair close to the double-paned window. Must be very inefficient to have floor to ceiling windows like this, but, who cares? I like the view. At least this dump has one thing going for it. 

She crossed her legs and leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees and her chin on her bony hands. Her feet rested close to the floor vents and she felt blanketed by the warm air rising up her legs. 

Well, she thought, I’ve come a long way from being the cellulite poster girl for thunder thighs to be able to cross my legs like this. I just hope Ray thinks I’m too skinny and flies away with that must-be-birdbrained chickie. He’ll probably be mean to her too. And I hope she gets tired of cleaning up the hairy soap scum he leaves in the shower. God! How could anyone leave so much scum in the shower? Ray could. Only Ray, rotten to the core, could leave his scum for someone else to clean up. In fact, he’d probably get a kick out of watching her bend over to clean it. I hope he’s disappointed that she has enough sense to kneel at the tub to save her back like I did.  

She let herself slide from the disgust and revolt such images evoked into a welcoming reverie. Her eyelids, even though heavy laden with make-up, almost closed all the way down. Through the slit left, she thought she saw something in the clearing there out there in the forest. She shook her head. Nothing there. The wine was taking a toll on her brain, that’s all. But she couldn’t help looking again.

No. She blinked. Nothing. She blinked again. No, it was nothing. And she suddenly felt vulnerable. 

Daphne uncrossed her legs, stretched them out in front of her, bent at the waist and stretched her arms out until her fingers touched her toes. She had a painful memory of how Ray would bend her over and….She stopped the thought right there. At least now I can touch my toes without being pushed. Taking a deep breath, she raised her hands above her head, whipped her wrists in circles, clasped her hands together and stretched them toward the walls like a newly hatched bird spreading its wings. 

She breathed in, enjoyed waves of relief, resumed her previous position, And re-focused her gaze. Although it was unlike her to wax philosophical, she pondered what mysteries hid between the snowflakes. 

Then, more curious than she’d ever been in her life, she saw a large shimmering creature on the porch. It looked like the owl she and Tara had seen earlier in the day. How could that be? Owls live in trees, don’t they? Why would that owl be on the porch? Maybe it’s sick or something. The owl sat with the confidence of royalty. Daphne thought Its ebony eyes were the size of the shooter marbles she and her brother played within the closet when they were little, and she suddenly felt safe and protected.

Mesmerized, she leaned her nose on the chilly glass and squinted, even though squinting was sure to make wrinkles. Who cares, she thought,  wrinkles be damned. I’m feeling pretty just the way I am.

 There’s something near that owl. She shivered. And, as if on cue, the owl’s gaze landed on something shiny and rectangular sticking out from a mound of snow on the porch. Was that Ray’s phone? No, I’m just seeing things. Time for bed. She stood up, cursing the stiffness that had crept into her joints, and hobbled to the room where she hoped Tara had come to stay.

***

Ericka stopped to get her bearings and consider her options. She let herself listen for guidance from the winged ones who could see what she could not. She thanked the trees for delivering a warm breeze despite the oppressive cold. She’d learned to trust whatever the trees sent her and her heartbeat in rhythm with the earth. “Now,” she murmured to herself, “I bathe in this breeze” and, with reverence, she inhaled the breeze, the breath of all the forest sentient beings. Then, Erika prepared herself to do what every mother knows she might have to do someday.

Chapter 16

By Lula Flann
2664 Words

She sought perspective. Erika put one foot against the young hemlock’s furrowed bark, grasped the tree with one arm and wrapped her other arm around its trunk. Alternating limbs as she steadily gained altitude, using her throw bag and free climbing steadily, she barely paused until she reached the sticky upper canopy. Sixty wasn’t too old to climb trees, and sixty wasn’t too old to calculate the long list of what every mother knows she might be called upon to do. Scraping off a piece of cadmium, she shaved it into bite-size bits before beginning her meditative chaw.  

She was a swaying monkey bridge between the worlds of civilization and the natural queendom. Not many were bold enough to cross as there was plenty of“common logic” that begged people to remain on their side of reality.  It wasn’t just her own litter of young pups in the cave that made this list of motherly knowing grow longer every year. It was her deepening connection to the world around her. Let her count the ways.

She tugged off her cap and picked needles from it, swinging her cape of hair around wide, sinewy shoulders. 

One: Mothers must be ever prepared to slay dragons, be that the scaly, fire-breathing beasts of the past or the resource-hungry beasts of the present.

Two: Mothers must be ever prepared to provide succor to weaker creatures. If not one’s own young, then the ones who weren’t your own so that your own could learn by emulation what it takes for the world to thrive and survive. 

Three: Bring your whole game, whether that game is the operating theater, the wiles of survival or the will to connect with the larger universe. These days, Erika sought ever to heed nature’s soughs of primacy and nature’s needs in every whistle of wind. Her tribe was still her tribe; her baby sister (that two-minute separation bound them forever), she still considered her charge.  Just because Greta saw things, heard things, felt things that no one else did, hardly meant she was mad. Far from it. Erika had requested that Thunder keep a close eye on her sibling, but she had to admit, the creature lacked nuance. Greta wound up being traumatized by Thunder’s good intentions. Now she would watch out for her sister herself, along with her kits, along with the quaking alpine larch and the rainbow-dressed huckleberry meadows.   

Erika would miss this great and glorious world when she went. She’d miss the drenching heat that she and the Wild Thing brought to their bed.  At the thought, her own guffaw nearly startled her off the vibrating bough. She’d suddenly recalled what had brought her to the woods that first time. She was so sick of Perry’s incessant traipsing after “Sasquatch” that she’d done her own research and stumbled upon some Big Foot erotica. Those accounts read like UFO survivor stories. So overblown, reason dictated the tales couldn’t be real.  And yet, Perry had been bone dry in bed ever since he’d been chasing the beast. And there was something in the erotica that more than whetted her – interest. She set out to see for herself and found out the lurid accounts didn’t touch the half of it. Thunder was an animal, and that in turn, revealed Erika’s own inner animal. That made her hero’s journey consummately worth taking.

Erika smiled as she settled her cap back over her silver locks and inhaled, completely filling her lungs. What was that scent?  Paqem. That was a Spring flower, not one that belonged in this season. She again breathed in. Gone now. Like life, transitory. Nature being nature, a decade with Thunder had birthed a nest of young ones. True, Thunder was the more important one to lead the way after she’d passed. She was at ease with that knowledge. As well as with the knowledge that, while she drew breath and her dear ones knew need, she would scale the heights, burrow into the deeps, dance across tumbling waters, bare her pointed teeth, sharp-edged mind and steely glock, without hesitation.

***

Harold hung a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the kitchen door. Buttoning up his flannel shirt and shrugging into his tatty down vest, he strode into the walk-in freezer while snapping on latex gloves. Ignoring the fresh body that lay atop stacks of Costco frozen veg, he put his shoulder to the large metal rolling rack. The rack had obscured a series of long boxes labeled, “Garzas Meat Processing.” Over the stenciled company name, Harold had scrawled, “Whole Goat – Quinceneara Party of 200.” He figured that would keep any pilferers from thinking they could grab an easy meal by poking through his freezer when he wasn’t around.

Prying up the box lid, the wood creaked like a stand of Doug Firs during a blow down. He couldn’t be sure the racket might not be heard out in the restaurant. “Damn.” He swore as he sliced through his glove and drew blood. He didn’t know how much more empty the lodge could get. All he had now were the 5 registered guests, one of whom was currently making his home a few feet away, under pounds of icy peas and beans. 

He’d gotten the idea about the Quinceneara a couple seasons back when an old friend, who’d also ended up in the hospitality trade, had to cancel a big party that had been booked for months. “Look,” his buddy Troy had panted, sounding for all the world like he was going to drop dead from panic right there on the phone. “The Health Department has temporarily shut me down and if I don’t come through for these people, I’ll never be able to open my doors in this town again. I’ll give you the entire check for the party, pay to get everyone up to the lodge – that way my competitors down here won’t know I’m being hassled on this end – you put everybody up and do a good job, it will be a PR coup for you.”

Harold didn’t like the sound of “PR coup” as he had little respect for people who spent their lives dreaming up ways to get the unsuspecting to believe things that bore little relation to the truth. He did like the idea of beefing up his cover. Occupancy had been so low for so long, people were starting to suspect his heart might not really be in his work. An added bonus was that he’d ended up with these two oversized crates, once met for whole goats, now used for other purposes.

He tore off the damaged latex glove and pulled another out of his pocket. He admitted to himself that he was well and truly out of practice. Back in his Forensics Lab days, he never would have made a rookie mistake like slicing his glove open. The stakes were too high back then. Today, he reached into the box and hauled out one of two plastic-wrapped corpses. Crusty and rimed with frost, the plastic nearly broke beneath his fingers.

“Miserable hosts make for miserable guests,” Harold intoned as he heaved the body up onto an empty shelf. These slabs of human flesh hadn’t actually been his guests, but he was miserable all the same. That beer gut of his had to go. He was getting too much one-on-one time alone with his IPA tap. “But,” he grumbled to himself and his chilly companions, he couldn’t just put every single body in his deep freeze. He’d needed to bide his time. 

It’s not that the forest ever ran short of bodies – there were the weekend warriors who would occasionally expire at his doorstep after having biked up 5000 feet without having adequately trained. There were the suicides who decided that a National Park would be just the place to meet their maker. There were the citified hikers who decided they only needed a liter of water for a sweltering day out and back or no jacket on a day when the mountain decided to turn treacherous. But those weren’t the bodies Harold was interested in. His freezer was the repository for quarry of that most elusive wild thing, Big Foot. 

He grabbed a ping-pong from his pocket and bounced it against the chest of the nearest cadaver. Jumping to his right, Harold snatched the rebounding ball before slamming it across the freezer to the opposite wall.  The white sphere caromed off into a corner and nearly died, but not before Harold plucked it up again. “Damn. I may not be as fit as I once was, but my reflexes still ain’t half bad.” Harold had perfected this little ping-pong game not only to keep himself warm during his time in the freezer but also because he found it was unmatched as a thinking exercise.

“It’s not like I’ve got anybody else worthwhile to talk to.” He reasoned as he dove for the ball again, this time smashing into a stack of ice cream tubs. “Perry and Paul, loathsome, lazy pieces of shite that they are, can’t be bothered to tell me if they’re any closer to tracking down the Foot. They just use me to warehouse the goods and expect me to do the science bit once we have enough bodies for a standardized sample.” He smacked the ball again and caught it absently in his left hand. “They don’t appreciate the dicey position I’m in.” 

For example. He constantly had to suffer the dubious ideas of those wanting to bring tourist trade his way. Those fools Annie and Claire weren’t the first to come up with the brilliant idea of merchandising Big Foot. Between the two of them, they were about as bright as a 40-watt bulb. Most people who moved to the mountains did it because they didn’t want to have any more to do with humanity than required. 

He agreed with them. He was just a pretender to their community, but he really didn’t need the extra eyes on his activities. His nearest neighbors on both sides of the lodge expected the county to pay for infrastructure like roads and wireless but raised hell if taxes went up. When regulations intervened in their lives, they suddenly discovered civic engagement. If rural citizens suspected public relations plots that might bring any more visitors to their pristine vistas than they absolutely needed to make it to the next bread-and-butter summer, residents would not be pleased. Tourists were a vile economic necessity, but nothing to actually embrace. 

Luckily, Harold had sussed out that Annie had no intention of bankrolling the BF operation. He believed that, while Claire might believe she had the winning strategies on Twitter and Tik-Tok, the only thing driving her beating heart was a feminine biological clock.

Harold moaned, emitting an enormous cloud of warm belly air into the freezer. He rolled the frigid body back into its rightful place – right next to its icicled companion. He couldn’t do the slicing and dicing yet. He did feel better just having looked at his stores, knowing the day would come. He wouldn’t always have to pretend that he was a cook in a grimy kitchen, a smart-but-not-too smart innkeeper with no guests to keep. He was a forensic specialist, by God, and critical to finding out the truth about the monstrosity that roamed the woods. 

***

Like Brene said, “Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be; embrace who you are.” Tara wasn’t fooled about what Annie and Claire thought of her. They looked at her dropping out of college, living at home with her unhappy parents, still having the same Redmond address that she’d had for most of her life, as failure. Brene had helped her see that much of society’s talk about independence remained rooted in being “independent” while being monochromatically and relentlessly like everyone else. 

Tara liked having her own time to think. She liked that she could still learn things from her mom, like how to unravel old sweaters to knit new ones or that her dad appreciated her hanging out with him while they figured out walking and bussing routes that would take them on any errand anywhere. Brene had helped her “own” not being cool. It hadn’t been cool when her folks set up her at the Saturday Market as the only busking, fiddle-playing 5thgrader in her peer group. It hadn’t been cool when she was the one bussing tables at off-sight meetings for the Microsoft dads of her friends.  She’d overcome through having less new in a land where new cell phones, new computers and new technology ruled. She was just fine about being home with her imperfect parents in their imperfect 70s split-level. She felt fine about person-powering herself past the glass and timber behemoths that now littered her neighborhood. She felt fine. She was fine.

Tara also knew she wasn’t going to tie herself to any soul-killing, project management BS bone that Annie had tossed her. She’d say, “Yes! Sure!” to get her pals off her back for the rest of the weekend. She knew them well enough to know the next minute would have them floating off to another scheme. Then Tara would be left alone to do as she chose. She was embracing who she was, not who Claire and Annie thought she was supposed to be.

Brushing crumbs off her bosom, she wished she and Daphne were still in bed.  Earlier that morning, muffin crumbs had been summarily licked away, clearing turf from cleavage to navel. Tara was gratified that Daphne’s appetite had returned, even though Ray was still MIA. Eventually, the lovers had tumbled out of bed and assessed next steps.

Daphne had insisted that Tara wait at the lodge in case Ray returned while she was out searching for him. Daphne would scour the perimeter of the lodge property, looking for him wherever she could find a cell signal. Daphne’s strategy was based on the presumption that wherever Ray had gone, it was likely to be someplace where he could contact his own sweet thing. Tara thought there were probably worse approaches to finding a missing husband. Some part of her also thought that Daphne’s job of embracing her own self would be considerably less complicated if Ray just stayed lost.

Peering through the paned windows for a sign of Daphne, Tara squinted at the petite figure coming up the path. The woman was no one Tara had seen at the Lodge during the weekend, but as the woman drew nearer, Tara herself leaned closer to the glass. A recollection stirred inside her brain.  As the walker bent down to retrieve something from the leaf-laden trail, Tara placed the approaching face with the memory. 

“My God! What are the chances?” What had Brene said about luck? That those who give us a feeling of belonging make us feel very lucky. So it was that Tara felt lucky once again, to see a face that had been out of her life for so long. The one semester Tara had spent in college had been brutal, and it happened that her roommate Jenna Boyd, had been her one lifeline. Jenna encouraged Tara to go back home if that was what she needed, helped her pack essentials in the middle of that last tear-soaked night, settled up accounts after Tara had moved back to Redmond. 

As a result, Tara had become the woman she was, helper to many. Just this weekend she was helping Daphne move on to the next chapter in her life, plotting about how to get Greta back on her feet, encouraging Annie and Claire in their Big Foot dreams. She gave because she’d once received. 

Now it was Jenna who stood ready to receive a welcome as she brushed off the retrieved phone and extended it to the waiting hand.  It was Jenna, who walked straight through the door that Tara held for her, open wide.

Chapter 17

By Kate Miller
1953 Words

Erika knew now, after listening deeply to the surrounding trees, that what she needed to do to save Greta from her sorrow turned nightmare, and more importantly, to save the very forest that was Thunder’s home and her children’s future, was to find a way to spring her nephew Matthew from Western State Hospital. Then she could reunite him with his mother and with his spiritual older brother, Thunder.

Oh, she had a plan for sure, but what troubled her the most was that in order to free Matthew she needed Thunder’s help, asking of him something she never imagined she would. She had to ask him to reveal himself to the world on purpose, if only for a brief time.

The reason Thunder and his kind had managed to remain invisible through the centuries was their special power to shapeshift into different animal forms, to appear to be Bear, Wolf, or Coyote. Humans who thought they had glimpsed an unnaturally large and hairy apelike man, blinked again and saw they were mistaken by light and shadow, seeing only the retreating back of a more common predator like Grizzly or Mountain Lion.

Erika knew that the best way she could break Matthew out of a secure ward at Western State was to create the biggest, baddest, and most bold distraction ever, a very real Sasquatch sighting on the grounds of the hospital.

She would need transportation to Western State, luckily Mac had a big old truck he used to haul supplies from town. Everyone living here in the forest left their vehicles unlocked and their keys in the starter, ready for a quick escape in case of fire or earthquake or old volcanoes come to life. It had been a long time since Erika drove any vehicle, but she had spent 50 years living in the outside world driving everything from Volkswagens to BMWs. If she could get Thunder to curl up in the windowless cab on the back of Mac’s truck, she could drive down to Western State no problem. Then, as Thunder raced around the hospital at dawn in his full Sasquatch glory, she would run into the ward F-3 and retrieve Matthew. As soon as everyone was back in the truck, she would bring them both home while explaining the dire situation to her nephew. If anyone stopped them, Thunder promised he would take the shape of a German Shepherd, though it might be a pretty big German Shephard, assuring Erika that no-one would want to mess with them!

Both Goldie and Thunder, while he was in disguise, had shadowed the girls on their hikes and heard their plans to buy the lodge, turning it into a hot tourist spot by changing its name to the Sasquatch Lodge and selling all sorts of myths and misinformation about Thunder’s clan. There would be numerous new trails built for people with horses and llamas during the summer months and snowmobiles during the winter, everyone searching for Sasquatch while invading the safety and quiet of the North Cascade wilderness. Trees would be cut, rivers and streams would be polluted, and the real Sasquatches, along with much of the other denizens of the forest, would be seriously endangered. And that was not something Thunder, Goldie, and Erika could allow to happen without a fight.

Last night, as the three friends sat outside Thunder and Erika’s home while the pups played inside, Thunder had wisely concluded that they all needed to “státalhlec” for “snek’wnúk’wa7” the “srepráp”, to “keep standing up” for their “friends” the “trees”. Without action, the future looked bleak to them all.

Just recently they had all heard hopeful news through the forest’s reliable grapevine-the Internet-like system of tree roots and mycelium that connected the forest world below their feet-that their southern neighbors, the Snoqualmie tribe, had purchased the Salish Lodge and 45 acres of land surrounding Snoqualmie Falls. The tribe planned to protect the sacred falls and land around it from further development. This purchase had effectively stopped the previous owners from building hotels, convention centers, and even housing on sacred lands. Everyone knew how much Matthew loved his home here, as much as Goldie, Thunder, and Erika. As a former Environmental Studies major with dreams to become a forest ranger, he could make a difference here. Maybe, with Matthew’s help, this ragged band of forest citizens could find a way to halt the development of a Sasquatch disaster here in the North Cascades.

Early this morning Erika pulled her old, ragged but warm coat from the very rear of their abode, putting it on over her camo clothes, even though it was covered with long black hairs and reeked (comfortably she thought) of wet wooly animal. She also dragged out the red dress and blond wig she had used in the very beginning when she went into nearby towns for supplies, back before Thunder taught her all she needed to know about surviving in the wilds.

Now, standing in front of Greta’s house, she let out a big sigh and steeled herself for action. None of the boys were around, Mac off to help Joe with something at the lodge and Perry and Paul cutting firewood for the lodge’s big central fireplace. She could hear Greta’s moans and cries, they tugged at her heart, but knew there was no time to waste as they still had a long drive to the State hospital south of Tacoma.

She threw back her head and opened her mouth, sending out a clear bark-like call. A very large German Shephard with a luxurious black and russet coat came bounding out of the deep woods behind her. Together they crept silently down the hill. As Erika swung the back of the truck open, Thunder lifted his shaggy head, his golden eyes catching hers. He gave a short yip, leapt inside, in the darkness of the windowless space she saw him in all his true and glorious shape, pulling an old ripped blue tarp over the bulk of his body.

Shapeshifting requires much energy. Though he could switch back and forth quickly he couldn’t sustain a different shape for long. What had managed to save his clan from discovery was just as much their amazing speed and enormous strides as their shape-shifting talent, helping them disappear into the depths of the forests.

Erika jumped into the driver’s seat, reached out and turned the key. The motor sputtered a few times, finally rattling to life, grumpy but ready to go. She turned the truck around, heading down the bumpy mountain road at breakneck speed.

Back at the lodge, Tara, Annie, Claire, and their new friend, Jenna, huddled around a table in the empty dining hall after lunch. Tara held up the phone as they all leaned in closer, watching the short video for the umpteenth time. Jenna had cleaned the broken glass from the phone’s screen, it was just on one corner so they could still see most of the video Ray had recorded from the porch of the lodge. The visual quality was terrible: the light was low, Ray’s hands must have been shaking like crazy, and they could barely hear over the loud huffing and puffing that must have been Ray’s breathing in the background. But it did appear like a rather large animal was thrashing through the trees, further into the woods that surrounded the lodge’s porch. Branches swayed wildly and there were eerie wails and clicks fading into the distance before the video abruptly ended. But what exactly was this? What did it mean? Was this what they all thought it was? And if so, what should they do next? Visions of future fortune and fame flared in their respective brains.

Erika drove all night, reaching the grounds of the hospital around breakfast time. Morning mist was burning off the grass and the beautiful open lawns and gardens of the hospital were glistening with dew. Too bad the residents never got outside to appreciate it! Erika parked just outside the gates and opened the back of the truck. Her big handsome hunk of a lover, again in Shephard form, leapt out onto the ground and leaned lovingly against Erika, nearly bowling her over with his weight.

Matthew had just gotten back to his room after breakfast. He appreciated that on this new ward he could leave the dining room as soon as he was ready, there was much more freedom to move around than his old floor. He went over to the window to admire the view and say good morning to his friends, the trees. As he looked at the cedars waving gracefully in the slight breeze, he saw an elderly woman with a very large dog step out of the woods and look right up at him. The tall woman, dressed in a long dirty coat and hiking boots, raised her hand and waved at him, while the dog, an enormous German Shephard, threw back his head, looking for all the world like a wolf about to howl.

But instead of wolf song or even a dog bark, Matthew heard a voice in his head. It was a lovely deep comforting voice that spoke to him in a language he hadn’t heard since childhood. It was his own magic language that he heard in his head when he was alone in the forest, the secret language he had taught to his best friend Joe. He was so young then; he believed the trees and the raccoons and the coyotes all talked to him. He even believed in the Sasquatch, he had seen them moving through the forest often and one of them even spoke to him. This was the voice he recognized in his head now. Had his craziness come back after so long? He hadn’t had his morning meds yet, so his mind didn’t feel muddled. Indeed, Matthew felt surprisingly awake and clear-headed. He understood the words he heard, the welcome from Thunder and the wave from his aunt Erika, whom he hadn’t seen in years. The news that they were here to rescue him, to finally take him home. The soothing voice told him to stay in his room, no matter what happened, until Erika came to get him, and to put on the disguise she brought and follow her out of the building and sneak out through the woods. Mac’s old truck would be there, and Thunder would join them shortly. Matthew blinked his eyes in amazement and looked down again, but the woman and dog were gone.

Matthew sat down heavily on his cot. He felt for Tyson’s letter, folded up small, stuffed in his front left pants pocket where he kept it all the time, retrieving it only on washing day and hiding it under his mattress until he put on clean pants.

What the hell was happening? Rescue, like a prison breakout? Aunt Erika? And his childhood imaginary friend come to life? Because that’s what Joe told him when he got older, that Sasquatch was not real, that the voices in his head were because he was crazy, part of his illnesses, not real at all. So, Matthew had stopped listening. Stopped listening to the trees, to the streams, to the snow and the rain, but most of all to the voice of his imaginary Sasquatch friend.

Matthew’s thoughts came abruptly back to the present. He became aware of the commotion all around him; staff yelling, fire alarms going off, patients shouting and crying, and in the background the eeriest spine-chilling wailing howls he had ever heard. Or maybe, he pondered, he had heard them before.

Chapter 18

By Sky Hedman
1930 words

Matthew heard footsteps running in the hall behind him, felt the change in air pressure as someone pulled the door to his room closed. The fire alarm, which seconds before had been piercing his head, blasting his ears and making his heart scream, became more distant. He swiveled away from the window and ran to the door, confirming his instincts: he was locked in. The sound of all the doors on the hall slamming shut left his heart pounding. Matthew panicked and wrestled with the knob with all his strength, but the lock held firm. He ran back to his third-floor window, pressing on the window frame and searching for a way to open it. The plate-glass window was heavy. Matthew used all his might to pound it with his fists, hoping it would shatter, without success.

Matthew looked around the room for something heavy to break the glass, but the institutional room had been stripped of all useful objects for such an idea: the beds were bolted to the floor, as were the small dressers and the single chair with the brown stains on the upholstery. Matthew considered using his head as a human bowling ball to break the window. His mind was filled with the sound of his aunt’s words, powerful language that reminded him of times when he was happy and loved. Where did she go?  How could he get to her? That howling, how welcome the sounds were to him. “How long has it been?” he asked himself.

Opening his throat and expanding his chest, Matthew raised his arms into the air. He threw back his head and answered the howl that he had heard outside on the lawn. This was his moment, his time, he will be with his people again, no matter what it took.

Searching for a way out, he remembered the karate kicks that he had learned from a book that he and Joe had borrowed from the library. They had practiced lots of them, trying to imitate the pictures, kicking the air and kicking the woodpile and kicking the trees and kicking each other. The sidekick was the most powerful. He had been confined at Western for so long that his muscles had grown soft as his dark hair had begun to recede. In protest of everything, he had let his wavy hair grow until now it brushed his collar. His bushy eyebrows had sprung a cowlick.

It had been a long time, but he had to try. His muscles remembered the moves. Crouching sideways and slightly away from the window, he unleashed his storehouse of fury, a force that he had been trying to tame for the last few years. He had convinced himself of his own guilt and tried hard to meet the expectations of his doctors, his social workers, the night staff, the stream of people who had come and gone while he had been at Western state. His hope remained to be released to go back to his mountain home. He had witnessed violent patients tied up in straitjackets or pinned to the floor. In the face of overwhelming odds, he had chosen to silence the fire within. But now, something rose in his gut, some power fueled his legs, and he sprang from his crouch with a loud cry, one leg and sneakered foot extending through the glass pane and into the outside air. The glass exploded from its frame like a Saturday morning cartoon and disappeared from Matthew’s view. He heard it crash onto the walk three floors below.

Matthew recoiled from the shattered glass left on the window sill, surprised by his success. The fresh air tickled his face. He listened for the sound of running feet that he expected would be coming to tackle him, but no one came. What he heard instead were police sirens and patients pounding on walls, as well as lots of shouts coming from the end of the hall in the day room. A large dog was barking somewhere. Matthew went back to the window, now open to the outside, and carefully considered his possibilities. The side of the old building was brick. Looking down from this height at the concrete walkway made him queasy. None of his powers, no amount of fury, would shield him from broken bones if he tried to jump out the window, he knew. He had no rope; they wouldn’t even let him wear shoes with laces.

A rustling in the trees caught his attention. Straight out from his window was a massive Western red cedar, xepá:y, an old tree so full that it blocked the sunlight all afternoon. The tree likely pre-dated the hospital by centuries, and Matthew had wondered how many lives the cedar had seen come and go. The cedar softened the view of the tall chain-link fence around the lawn and hosted birds that teased Matthew’s soul with the possibility of freedom. The tree, the birds, the sky had been his comfort and companion in this lonely journey.

Matthew noticed motion. Something was moving up the trunk of the red cedar. Matthew peered through the thick layer of russet boughs to focus on the dark mass, expecting to see a squirrel but instead seeing something much larger. It moved like a human, using arms to grasp the trunk and legs to step up higher and higher, but the being climbed so effortlessly that Matthew felt the tree was lifting the climber up. Branches appeared when the dark mass needed a handhold, and supported the climber’s weight even as it moved onto a slender branch and inched away from the trunk. The climber blended into the foliage. It stopped climbing when it reached his height, and only then turned to reveal its face.

She was familiar. Her face resembled his mother’s. It had the same hawkish nose, the same bushy eyebrows, that strong jaw. But her face was weathered and wrinkled, and her hair was silver. Her black eyes held a power that his mother never had, an intensity that he locked on despite the thirty feet that separated him from her position in the tree. His aunt! Aunt Erika! “Help me!” he wanted to shout, but bit his lip instead, somehow frozen in place with amazement in every cell. She was too far away for him to reach her, but somehow the wind coming through the open window seemed to like a bridge between her and him.

Matthew heard words forming in his head. Someone was telling him to jump. He closed his eyes, afraid of this voice. Could he trust it? Was it his illness? Whose voice was it?

When he opened his eyes, a force lured him to step closer to the window. Defying logic, the voice urged him again. He involuntarily lifted himself on the broad concrete window sill, cutting the palm of his left hand as he crawled over the broken glass. His legs moved and he found himself perched in the empty window, more outside than inside of the building. More shouting was coming from down the hall. He heard barking from below to his right. He tried to ignore this inner voice. It had gotten him in trouble before. What should he do? His limbs began to move as if he were a puppet, and when he was crouched with his full weight on the sill, he felt a crow spirit enter his body. He could fly, he realized. He didn’t need to jump. He could fly high in the sky, circle over the institution, follow the wind currents, and land far from here, in the Ponderosa pines where he played in his youth.

Euphoric, Matthew reached out his left hand, then stretched both arms as far as they would go, fully powered by the thrill of being crow, seeing the landscape from a new vantage point, unafraid of the heights because his wings would keep him aloft. One last time fixing his eyes on his aunt, he nodded to her, then he extended his wings and stepped out into space.

Where he had expected the miracle of flight, what he felt instead was the unstoppable force of gravity pulling him to earth. The air was rushing by him as he tumbled out the window. The figure in the tree watched his descent, motionless. Matthew unleashed a soulful cry and curled up his legs. He fell freely through space, knowing that his miserable life would have no redemption. The sidewalk was rushing toward him, and in his heart, he held his mother’s heartbreak. He braced himself for pain and death.

The arms that caught him were hairy. Matthew was stunned into silence. He registered the strength and size of this embrace. He was still alive, his legs held under the crook of his knees with one massive arm, his back supported by the other. He smelled that dirty dog scent from his childhood. His head rested against a chest so big that he felt like a small boy again, a child cradled by love from the strongest living being he knew. The heart he felt pounding was not his but was the heart of the one who now held him close. A being he remembered now, the one his mother had warned him against but he knew to be a friend. Xweystúmilhkan, Sásq̓ats.

***

Joe had offered to check on Greta while Mac hitched a ride into town to report his stolen truck. Her eyes were closed, and he thought she was sleeping, but her hands clenched the covers, belying her angst. Joe sat in the single chair next to her bed.

The walls of the room held only a few photographs, now fading into monochrome and curling at the edges. Nearest to her was a framed photo on a small table covered with a yellowing embroidered cloth. Propped up among the used Kleenex, scratched eyeglasses, pill bottles and a half-empty glass of water, was the photo from many years ago. A much younger version of Greta was standing next to a pre-balding Mac, his arm around her waist, her hands resting on the shoulders of her young son. She was looking at Mac with a peaceful and trusting face. They posed in front of the Ponderosa pine that had seen so much life come and go around it. It was already mature when Joe and Matthew used it as a fort.

Joe rose to leave the room. “Matthew,” Greta called.

“Its Joe, here, Greta,” Joe said as he turned back towards her. “Matthew’s not here.”

“Matthew, where’s Matthew?” she asked, turning her head and struggling to free her arm from the covers.

Joe didn’t answer.

Greta continued, trying to sit up. “Is Matthew here?” She saw only Joe and relaxed back into the bed. “I was dreaming about my son. I heard him calling me. He said he was coming home.”

“I wish he were here too,” Joe said, then added softly, “just go on back to sleep, Greta. Everything’s OK. Mac will be home soon and we’ll all have dinner together.”

Joe reached for Greta’s hand. Greta’s watery eyes blinked slowly and then closed. Her raspy breath slowed.

Joe noticed a small medicine bottle on the floor under her bed and reached to pick it up. The label was hard to read in the soft light, and he absently made space for it on the table. The label caught his eye. Lysergic acid diethylamide. LSD. The handwritten name on the label was Perry’s.

Chapter 19

By Carol McMillan
1755 Words

Afternoon sun glistened across pristine snow that filled the clearing where Goldie held her body tensely coiled, ears straining forward. She leapt straight upwards, landing with an open mouth that snapped shut around a plump mouse she’d heard scurrying through its tunnel beneath the snow. Satisfied, since it was her third small rodent catch of the day, Goldie gulped it down and licked the melting wetness around her muzzle.

The rumble of an approaching automobile jerked her attention toward the invasive strip of stinking blackness that led toward the lodge. The lodge! Intent on her mouse hunting, Goldie hadn’t realized she’d come so close. She let out an inadvertent whine as she slunk after her shadow into larger ones cast across the snow by the giant ponderosas. The sense of wrongness that encased the lodge like a bubble now poured through her consciousness. How could she have been so distracted as not to have felt it! More than just the odor of unfeeling humans who couldn’t speak her language, a deep, penetrating wrongness chilled her blood. Something dead lay inside the lodge that should be out decaying in the forest. When Hunter had been killed, she felt his spirit rejoin with the Unity of the forest, and, slowly, the molecules that made up his body physically did the same, merging with the duff beneath the canopy of branches to nourish the lives that continued there, both plants and animals. Something lay inside the lodge whose spirit had long ago left its body, but whose body was being kept from its rightful return to the forest.

Goldie stifled another whine as she saw the lodge door open. A woman emerged from the stinking machine, she hurried up the steps to wrap her forelegs around another who had opened the door. As they retreated inside the building and closed the opening in the wall again, Goldie hunkered down. Having satisfied her morning’s hunger, she decided to feel around the bubble of wrongness to see what she might find out. Calming her anxious nerves took longer than she imagined it should, but eventually, Goldie steeled herself and sent her intuitive mind into the building. She started again at her discovery of what seemed to be inside: more than one! Several empty bodies whose lives had been taken from them lay somewhere inside, being kept from their rightful ending, kept from physically merging with the cycle of forest life. The painful disruption of the Natural Order of Things felt too much for Goldie. Just as she turned to escape the trauma of that place, four female humans emerged from the building. Buttoning the artificial skins humans always to put on their bodies, the women stamped through the snow, heading up the trail toward the home of the mother-whose-son-was-missing. Goldie decided to follow, slinking along, unseen behind the chattering females.

***

“I still can’t believe it’s you!” Tara gave Jenna another quick hug, matching her strides along the trail. Considering what had just happened with Daphne – who was napping in her room, trying not to be anxious about where Ray had gone – Tara momentarily wondered what could have happened between her and Jenna if she’d been more open to possibilities all those years ago.

Jenna returned Tara’s squeeze with equal enthusiasm. “I know, I know. It’s been way too long! But that video! What do you think it was? Was it really a susquatch or whatever they’re called?”

“Sasquatch. Yes, I think so! What else could it have been?” Tara felt excited at the thought. The video from Ray’s phone might be the proof people needed.     

“Oh, come on, you two,” Annie scoffed, “it was too blurry to need any mythical creatures as an explanation!”

“Tara, you sound convinced now,” Claire’s voice carried a note of disapproval, exaggerating Tara’s inconsistency. “Have you changed your mind? I thought you were a non-believer!”

“I never said I thought they were mythical!” Tara bristled at Annie and Claire’s superior attitudes. They’d both been acting a bit strange since they’d come back from their walk the day before, like they shared a secret she wasn’t privy to. “As a matter of fact, when I was a little bit stoned the other day, I remembered that my aunt went to a conference once at Eastern Washington University, like in the 1980s. I’d forgotten all about it. I just haven’t really thought much about sasquatches for years. They were cryptozoologists, at the meeting she went to, scientists who study animals that native peoples say are real but that western science hasn’t found yet. I even remember the name of the guy she said hosted it, Grover Krantz. It was such a funny name, like he should have been on Sesame Street or something. He was a biological anthropologist and he believed Sasquatches and Yetis are real and he had tons and tons of evidence. I remember it all because she was so excited and she talked and talked about it. There were huge apes that lived in China and Siberia forever and ever and ever. I don’t remember what they were called, but something like ‘giantapithes’. No, that’s not quite right, but scientists have found lots of teeth from them. They lived for about a zillion years and there could still be some alive today. That’s what those cryptozoologists think anyway!” Tara felt excited to have scientific knowledge that Claire didn’t know about. She wanted to tell them everything she remembered. She knew she was babbling, but they had a long walk ahead. Tara plunged on, trying to recall what had interested her most. “My aunt said that she was having breakfast one morning in the café by her motel and these three guys who were lumberjacks or something, you know, dressed in red plaid shirts like they do, and they obviously worked in the woods and they were talking about one of the men who they’d all heard give a presentation at the conference the day before. The guy had said he’d seen a bigfoot and he worked for the forest service or something and that he got all this publicity and then the forest service told him to stop talking about it and he wouldn’t and so they fired him and now he’s spent his whole life trying to prove they’re real. So, anyway, these three lumberjack guys were talking and one of them said, ‘If you hadn’t seen one, then why in the world would ANYONE ever say they had?’ and then they all kinda nodded their heads and looked down and my aunt said that right then she KNEW they all had seen one and they hated the fact that they had! Probably their friends all told them they were crazy. My aunt said that overhearing the men’s conversation convinced her bigfoots are real, more than all the casts of footprints and analyzed hair sample and poo samples and everything else the scientists had for evidence.” Tara stopped. She was surprised and pleased to see that the others were listening with interest to her long story. “And someone asked Grover Krantz, ‘Don’t you think that a lot of these tracks were made by people who put on fake feet?’ And Krantz answered, ‘Of course they are, but we only need one footprint to be real, don’t we?’ My aunt said that really made her think!”

Tara breathlessly ended her soliloquy just as they reached Mac and
Greta’s cabin, giving Annie and Claire no time for the rebuttals that Tara expected. But when Joe opened the door in response to their knock, Claire clearly was no longer thinking about sasquatches or anything else. Tara watched Claire’s usually serious eyes melt into Joe’s ear-to-ear grin when he saw her there. The way those two were looking at each other made Tara wonder just what was going on between them! Annie and Jenna didn’t seem to notice the obviously sexual energy surrounding Joe and Claire. Annie was stamping snow off her boots, while Jenna was reaching into her purse for something. A concerned look had clouded Jenna’s face.

“You’re Joe? Matt’s best friend?” Jenna clutched an envelope too tightly, wrinkling it slightly.

“Yes, that’s me,” Joe seemed to struggle to pull his eyes away from Claire and turn his attention to Jenna, “But I don’t really know how close Matt and me are anymore. You know about his troubles?”

“I do, and that’s why I’m here. Are Matt’s parents here too?”

Joe’s smile slid from his face. “His dad’s out, and his mom’s not doing too well.”

“I have something for them. I’ve come a long way to deliver it. Do you think I could see his mom? What’s her name — Greta?”

Joe nodded, then stepped into Greta’s room. He scooped the pill bottle with the LSD tablets off the table where he’d set it down and stuffed it into the pocket of his denim jacket. Greta moaned softly.

“They’re coming! They’re coming,” she whispered. Seeing Joe, Greta struggled to sit up in bed. “Matt and others who can speak with the forest! They’re coming. Joe, they’re on their way here. I know it!” The elder’s eyes shone with certainty.

“Greta, now don’t excite yourself. You just rest back down. There’s someone here to see you. Says she’s got something to give you. But I don’t want you to get too excited now. Do you think you’re up to seeing a visitor?”

“Yes, yes. I feel her. She’s a good one. But, Joe, it’s Matt! I know he’s on his way here!”

 Joe gave up trying to convince Greta to relax. He plumped her pillows and helped her scoot back on the bed to sit up for her visitor. “I’ll show her in, Greta, but try not to get your hopes up too much about Matt, OK?”

He walked back to the women. “She’ll see you, but she’s a bit over-excited. Maybe you could try not to upset her any more than she already is.” Joe’s words were unnecessary since the conversation easily had been heard from the other room.

“I think she’ll really like what I’ve got for her. But I’ll be gentle, I promise.” Jenna followed Joe to Greta’s bedside, sitting down on the rocking chair he gestured her to.

“Hello, Greta. I’m Jenna. I have a letter for you.”

The old woman held Jenna’s proffered hand in both of hers. Looking directly into her eyes she commented, “I know you do, and I know it’s very, very good news.”

Chapter 20

Heidi Beierle
1693 Words

“Where are we going?” Matthew hadn’t asked any questions when Thunder carried him into the woods or a short while later when Erika picked the two of them up in a rattlecan truck at the edge of the woods or when she insisted, before he got in the passenger side of the truck, he put on a stinky red dress and blonde wig.

“Home.” Erika was intent on her driving and didn’t look at him. It was snowing, and the road was striped with white untouched snow and dirty gray lumps of ice and slush. It had been ten years since she had even been in a car, and she was unsure of her driving skills, especially in slick conditions.

Matthew leaned over and looked at the gas gauge. Aunt Erika had become feral since he’d last seen her, and a danky wet dog odor sliced through the mildew envelope he’d been in since putting on the dress and wig. He sat upright, preferring the spores in his nose to Erika’s stink. Home could be anywhere. Matthew wasn’t sure where they were, but judging from the evergreens and rocky cliffs bordering one side of the two-lane road and a river on the other, he knew they were not traveling north on I-5. “Are we going to walk?” He shivered with the thought.

Erika kept her eyes on the road, her hands at ten and two on the steering wheel. But her brow furrowed, the side of her mouth pointed down, and her lips wavered.

Matthew could tell she was trying to interpret his question. It was the wrong question to have asked. “I mean, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen each other. Like 20 years.”

“Or so.”

“All I’m saying is, I don’t know what your story is, and I don’t need to know it. I get that you and Thunder are good. Fuck, he saved me from killing myself.” Matthew interrupted himself by bursting into tears.

“Oh Matthew,” Erika cooed and put a hand on his shoulder. She could immediately sense his emotionality, how he didn’t know if he could trust his own thoughts and feelings. “I can feel how scared you must have been on the window ledge.”

Matthew was soothed by Erika’s touch.

Xweystúmilhkan,” she said.

Matthew went limp hearing the secret language from his childhood. Erika seemed to draw some of the fright of that moment on the window ledge out of him. It wasn’t his burden alone. He stopped crying and Erika returned her hand to the steering wheel, eyes on the road.

“Wow. What did you just do?”

“There’s plenty of time to unwind that. We have a long drive ahead of us.”

“Ah, yes, speaking of the long drive. We’re not going to be driving much longer unless we get some gas soon. Had you noticed?” Matthew pointed at the gas gauge. “Should I be looking for a gas station or vehicles we could siphon gas from?”

Erika startled and looked at the gas gauge. The needle was at the bottom of the scale. The truck jerked and wobbled. Erika shot her eyes back on the road. Her hands crimped the steering wheel, but she was scared in a way she’d never felt before. The truck rocked and fish-tailed.

Matthew pressed his hands against the dashboard, a bubble of bile at the back of his throat.

The truck slid diagonally across the centerline. Erika turned the wheel, and the truck wound into a spin. “Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit.” Erika blurted as one of the tires gained traction on the road and torqued their momentum. The back of the truck whipped around and hit the end of a guardrail.

For a moment, Matthew felt that same euphoric feeling of the crow spirit entering his body as he had on the window ledge. He lifted up into it, stretching his arms wide. He darted between trees and jumped from branches. He felt his stomach in his mouth as he dove head-first down a rocky cliff and, with a drop of his elbows and spread of his tail, pulled up before hitting water. He flapped and soared. He cawed. From far off, he heard the caw of another crow, an urgent wail that prickled his skin. He landed on a treetop, listening. The wind whispered, “Xweystúmilhkan, Sásq’ats.” A coyote howled in response.

Matthew jumped from the treetop and glided to the earth. When he touched down, the scents of the forest entered his nose like old friends – needle duff, rotting wood, mushroom spores. He lifted his head to smell the air, and tasted a faint finger of vanilla from a Ponderosa pine. A voice in the wind said, “tsípunsa.” The word meant ‘roothouse.’ It was a place to go to heal, a chamber within the network of tree roots and mycelium that transferred energy and nutrients to the beings who entered.

“I hear you,” Matthew said. As soon as the words left his mouth, he felt himself cradled in a warm nest. Drowsy. He squatted down over his feet and tucked his beak beneath a wing.

* * *

“Noooooooooooooooo!” Greta screamed.

Jenna shrank in the rocking chair. She thought for sure Mrs. Henderson would have been thrilled with the information in the letter. She’d been with Tyson when he wrote it. Edited it actually.

Joe burst into the room, “What’s going on?” He was still partially erect although shrinking fast. He and Claire had been making out by the trashcans where a powerful animalistic instinct had seized them.

“Something’s happened,” Greta wailed.

“What are you talking about?” Joe asked then looked at Jenna. “I thought you said you would be gentle.”

“I was,” Jenna said, wide-eyed.

“Matt.” Greta sobbed. “And…. Oh my god. Joe! The others who can speak with the forest….”

“Take a deep breath, Greta. I’m here.” He took her hand.

“Matt’s ok.” Greta took a shuddering sigh. “One of them took him to a roothouse.” She paused again to breathe. “But the other,” she hiccupped, “one.” Her chin and lower lip quivered. “Is. Dead!”

* * *

Two state patrol officers clomped up the lodge steps and took their time kicking the snow off their boots before entering. Perry and Paul were collapsed in the armchairs in front of a feeble fire.

“What can we do ya for, ossifers?” Paul asked in an uncharacteristic display of hospitality. Harold had been in the walk-in freezer off and on throughout the day, leaving the beer tap unattended for long periods of time. Paul had made the most of the opportunity.

“Is there a Mac Henderson here?”

Paul looked at Perry. “Nope. No Mac,” Paul said. “This here’s Perry,” Paul pointed, “and I’m Bigfoot. I mean Beer. Shit. Call me…. What’s my name?” He looked at Perry. “Paul!” He thumped the chair arm. “Call me Paul.”

“We’re looking for Mac Henderson in regard to a missing vehicle report. We have some information, and this was the address listed.”

“Haven’t seen him all day,” Perry offered. “We could go look for him.”

“Don’t bother yourselves,” the other officer said. “You look mighty comfy right where you are. If you happen to see him, have him give us a call.” The officer handed a business card to Perry.

The officers went back outside and stood in front of their vehicle.

The sound of a man coughing made them look down the driveway. A man in a black coat and a gray stocking hat worked his way up the steep incline.

“Evening,” the first officer said, touching the brim of his hat.

The man looked up, puzzlement on his face. “Tell me you’re here about a missing vehicle.”

“Mac Henderson?”

“Yeah.” He was annoyed. It had taken him all day to hitchhike to town to file the report and get back.

“We have some news for you that might not be easy to hear,” the first officer said. He opened the back door of his vehicle. “Would you like to sit? Looks like you’ve had a long day.”

Mac looked around for other options but saw how generous the officer was being by offering a dry place. “Ok.” He sat facing the officers.

“Your vehicle was found down by the Cowlitz River, near Packwood. An unidentified woman was driving and appears to have lost control of the vehicle in the snowy and icy conditions. The vehicle exited the roadway.”

“What do you mean by ‘unidentified?’”

“Well sir, she had no license or any other identifying materials with her.”

“Did anyone ask her who she was?”

“They couldn’t, sir. She was dead.”

Mac sat back not sure what to make of what he was hearing. How could his truck have gotten all the way to Packwood?

“There’s more.”

Mac looked at the officers.

“She wasn’t alone. Earlier this morning, there was a breach at Western State, and your son went missing. His blood was on the dashboard in the truck and on a red dress that was a few yards away from where the truck came to a stop.”

“What?” Mac caught the doorframe of the officers’ vehicle to keep from falling on the seat. His head was spinning. “What about my son?”

“He’s missing, sir. All authorities have been alerted.”

“Holy Hell. Is that all?”

“Well, there was something a bit strange. Bear tracks. Headed away from the red dress. Like the bear was standing upright. The tracks led to a sizeable Doug fir and disappeared.”

Mac stood up, surprising the officers. “Thank you gentlemen. I’ve had more than enough for one day. If you’ll please excuse me, it’s high time I get home. My wife hasn’t been doing very well, and I need to tend to her. As far as my vehicle goes, it sounds like I need to file an insurance claim.”

“Yes, sir. The vehicle was totaled.”

“Good evening to you.” Mac started toward the trail.

“Excuse me sir.” The second officer ran after him.

Mac turned to face him.

“Where are you going?”

“My house is up at Pine Lake. Any other questions?”

“No sir. Have a good night.”

CHAPTER 21

By MARY LOU HABERMAN
1500 Words

Harold continued to smack the ball around. He imagined himself playing air hockey or being the poster boy for the Ice Hockey Hellions, a team he pretended to own and coach as well! He pulled in his belly, hitched up his pants, and puffed up with pride as he imagined himself the stellar forensic scientist accepting next year’s Nobel Prize for biology. The one and only “Sasquatch Scientist.” Although he sensed the floor tremble, imagined it to be the crowd stamping their admiration when he stepped to accept the prize. A split second after imagining that, he watched the heavy box cleverly labeled “Whole Goat – Quinceneara Party of 200” teeter and fall toward him in slow motion. 

Trying to avoid being crushed, he moved toward the freezer door, lost his balance, and, as he was dropping to the floor, his right leg flew out from under him. He twisted to his left and reached to prevent contact with the frigid floor. The energy of the twist thrust his left leg under his hip. He felt a muscle tear and screamed, “shit” as he landed on his hip. The heavy box trapped him to the floor when it landed on his foot. Despite the searing pain, he tried to get up and couldn’t. He was beginning to shiver. “God no, not here in the freezer.” His terror grew when he felt, then saw, Ray’s body lying next to him. He started to scream, “Help!, help me!, I’m in here. It’s Harold, I’m in here. Someone, help.” Goldie felt no mercy and the wind picked up.

*****

Daphne rolled over in the soft bed and breathed deeply into the awake state she used to dread. But today, like yesterday when she woke next to Tara, she felt strangely peaceful. At the bathroom sink, she brushed her teeth, and when swallowing noticed her throat was scratchy. Taking another drink, “darn,” her throat was sore – beyond scratchy.

I must have a cold coming on – probably from not wearing my hat yesterday. I should be used to the windy cold by now.  Better to head it off at the pass than let it get to me – especially after all I’ve been through with Ray. I want to be well; I want to feel good; I deserve to feel good – just like Tara said. Daphne smiled when she thought of sweet, sincere Tara and her joyful cheerleading ways.

I suppose it would be good to gargle with salt water. But first, coffee, coffee, coffee! She giggled, did a quick breakdance step and broke into song,  “I can’t be meeeee without coffeeeeeee!” Wow, it’s been too long since I did anything that silly.

She slipped into her maroon, cashmere pullover sweater and pulled on the thick wool socks Tara had given her. She sat on the edge of the bed, stretched her arms toward the corners of the room, circled her wrists, leaned over with a cleansing sigh, rose up,  stretched again, took another deep breath, and exhaled with a happy hum.

Oh, she chuckled, about that coffee. If I was anywhere else, I’d probably ring for room service, but not here – where it’s all DIY. She was surprised to feel that DIY was A-OK and shuffled to the top of the stairs.

Hoping Harold had either made afternoon coffee or that there was some left over from the morning, she called out, “you hoo” and, feeling silly, she yoo-hood again. It’s awfully quiet down there. I wonder where everyone is.

Daphne tiptoed down the stairs, in case others were napping, and meandered into the kitchen. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee’s what I need. Harold was not around, so she made a cup of strong pour over and retreated to the living room. The big fireplace surely was something this place had going for it. She was surprised at that thought, remembering what a dump she thought the lodge was when she’d first gotten there.

She leaned into the soft leather couch, pulled her knees to her chest, and cuddled under the feather tick throw. The coffee cup warmed her hands and she was, she thought, in heaven.

Starting to doze off, she felt the couch tremble.  “That’s odd,” she said to herself and then thought nothing of it. Then, it happened again, and she rolled her eyes and raised her eyebrows at the same time which was her automatic response to a  surprise.  In doing so, she thought she saw a slight sway in the chandelier over the piano in the corner and then a glass paperweight rolled off the mantel. Daphne’s genetic survival instincts kicked into gear when she felt the couch lurch under her and saw the chandelier swaying as if doing a slow waltz.  She was terrified. The couch pitched her off and she found herself splayed on the floor like a woman in heat. Her head hurt and she was sweating.

She laid there until she was sure the shaking was over and raised herself to sitting. She screamed for Tara and heard nothing. Scared, she sat still, wondering what would happen next. Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god. She rolled to her knees, and, for the first time in years, she prayed to be saved. Please, save me. Save me again. She crawled on the floor to the door hoping all the time it was a knock that she had heard on the door.

******

Grover Kranz loved walking the path around Steilacoom Lake. Ever since he retired, it gave him a chance to be still with his thoughts. He was struggling to come to grips with the reality of the cancer diagnosis and his good friend, Pat, a hospice nurse, had recommended he think about what he wanted to do, what was most important for him to complete, wrap up, or in any way finish within the next few months. He had had no problem answering those questions for himself. Sasquatch. Sasquatch. I know in my bones that the Sasquatch are real, and I don’t know what it is, but something keeps telling me they are in danger.

In the evening, he sat at dinner with his friends who worked at Western State Hospital and overheard them talking about the person who had escaped. The young man was from up north somewhere near a place called Pine Lake and was in the hospital being treated for psychosis. Grover learned the young man had told another patient his beliefs about trees -that they communicated with him and such. To his surprise, Grover was immediately interested and asked out loud, “I wish I could help find him.”  Someone at the table told him if the guy wasn’t found, a search party would go up north in a few days  – in case the guy had decided to go home.

After all, if the guy communicated with trees, he probably is the sort that’s aware of other mysteries of the land. One thing Grover believed was that the forests up there especially, were places where Sasquatch had been spotted and he believed they were not mere animals, but something else he just couldn’t put his finger on.

On a hunch, Grover, convinced that Sasquatch was real and now strongly sensing they were in danger, gathered up his gear and drove the long distance toward Pine Lake. He thought he knew where it was but got lost. He’d noticed a lodge on the road and decided to stop there for instructions.

When he arrived, he knocked on the door, and as he was knocking, felt the tell-tale tremor of an earthquake. “Damn.”  He continued to knock and was surprised when a beautiful woman answered the door.

“Oh, I’m so glad to see you,” she panted. “Come in Come in. What’s going on? Is this an earthquake? Are we going to die?”

“Yes and no, my dear.” His smile revealed glossy white teeth and Daphne saw his eyes twinkle with wisdom.  “It’s a common sort of quake around here, and no, it’s unlikely we’ll die at this time.  Relieved, she took another deep breath all the while appreciating the man’s dark hair and bushy beard.

“I’m so glad you’re here. Let me get you some coffee. ”

“Thanks, but I’ll pass on the coffee.” He extended his hand, “I’m Grover Krantz.”

“I’m looking for a place called Pine Lake. There might be someone there who needs some help.”

Daphne, disappointed he hadn’t come as a visitor to the lodge, said, “Oh, how kind of you. I wish I could tell you where it is, but I’m just visiting here. I’ll see if I can find Harold – he’s the owner and I’m sure he’d know. I’m not sure – I think Harold might be back in the kitchen. That man comes and goes and  has a way of disappearing and re-appearing – kinda like a ghost.”

Goldie felt the earth grumble again and knew the time was coming. She let the others know.

CHAPTER 22

by Judy Shantz
2472 words

Goldie had named him Sky. He had come sniffing around her pack four seasons ago and she was wary at first. He was not like any of the other males who had started to show an interest in her.

Unlike the adults of her pack, Sky had no gold in his coloring. He was big and his dark grey ruff shaded slowly to the white of his underbelly. But most arresting were his eyes. They were the color of the lake when the first thin skin of ice forms, an almost translucent blue-grey, speaking of exotic sires in distant packs and distant generations.  Goldie would be watching the leaden sky blending into the early snow and suddenly Sky would appear out of it – as though that sky had given him birth. He would be her mate when her first estrus came.

Her litter was whelped in a hollow cedar log and all that day Sky had circled the log, sniffing and yipping, doing little sideways dance steps and just generally saying, in coyote talk, “Here, have a cigar.”

Hunter was the third born and from the beginning looked more lupine, like his father. He was the first to venture out on fat little puppy legs, trying to keep up with Sky. He was quick and fearless and dangerously inquisitive. More than once Sky had to nip at the pup’s muzzle and try to teach him caution.

But Sky had never been comfortable living close to humans with their bad smells and noisy contraptions. When summer came and the pups were weaned he wandered north, deep into the forest where his siblings still hunted. He would be back to claim Goldie when the snow came again.

***

Joe sat with Greta and Jenna talking in quiet tones about Tyson’s letter. Greta didn’t want to read it until Mac got back but she clung to Jenna’s hand as though it was a lifeline to her son.

Jenna said, “I know some of this story from what my brother wrote, but how could they have convicted Matt if they never found the body?”

“Oh, it was easy,” answered Joe. “He had been pretty messed up for a while. When they found him he was raving and semi-conscious. He had drugs in his system. And alcohol.”

“And he had so much history,” added Greta, surprising herself with her ability to discuss it with this girl. “There had been so much delinquency and violence. We had to call the police several times.”

“Plus,” added Joe, “there were streaks of the girl’s blood, sticky with bits of her hair, down one sleeve of Matt’s jacket.”

Greta shuddered involuntarily and Jenna squeezed her hand more tightly.

***

Mac pushed open his front door, lowering his head and stomping the fresh snow off his boots in one, well-practiced move. But instead of encountering Paul and Perry embedded in the old sofas, he saw the three young tourists from the lodge. His first reaction was ‘no, not today – I simply cannot play the host and make sandwiches for these girls. They’ll have to go back to the lodge hungry. There should plenty of food in Harold’s pantry and freezer.’

Tara and Annie both started talking at once, trying to tell Mac about Jenna and the letter while Claire hunched in the corner with an angry scowl on her face. Mac just nodded to them and, still wearing his woolen coat and watch cap, went through the bedroom door and closed it behind him.

“What a grump he is today,” muttered Annie.

“Well, somebody stole his truck. He can’t be too happy about that,” countered Tara.

Joe came out of the bedroom a couple of minutes later. He balanced on the arm of one of the sofas, pointedly avoiding Claire’s icy stare. “I’m going to have to ask you girls to head back to the lodge. This family is looking for some privacy right now. There’s an awful lot happening.”

“We can’t go without Jenna.”

“No, Jenna is going to stay for a while. Greta has asked her to. Jenna has some news about their son.”

Claire bolted from her corner of the sofa. She was being dismissed. By this guy who had had the hots for her only half an hour ago. She was furious. She went to the door and pushed her feet into her brand new Vasque hiking boots and laced them up, hoping she looked like she did this every day. She crammed her watch cap down over her forehead and put on her hot pink down jacket. She made a dramatic show of putting on her daypack, as though it had been weighted down with 10 days’ worth of food and survival gear.

Annie half-laughed. “Don’t go all Cheryl Strayed on us, Claire.”

Joe had to turn his face so she wouldn’t see his grin. The day pack contained a puffer vest, a water bottle and a protein bar. It topped out at about four pounds.

Claire slammed out of the house but was back in 30 seconds to claim the gloves she’d dropped. The second slam was much louder than the first.

Annie and Tara got up to put on their coats and follow Claire. It wasn’t turning out to be quite the fun-filled three-musketeers (make that four) hike that they had in mind. They would have to go back to the lodge and fend for themselves.

Joe opened the door for them and suggested that they try to notice the sweet fragrance of the stand of pines as they went by. Annie tossed him a city-girl look of mild contempt but Tara grinned and drew in a big breath and sniffed the air.

Joe watched them head towards the trail and then caught sight of Claire, half way up the switch backs. At that moment she stopped, looked around for a second, then stepped off the trail to the left. Damn. Was she looking for a shortcut to the lodge?

Joe stepped out, cupped his hands around his mouth. “No, Claire,” he yelled as loudly as he could. “There’s no way through on that side.” If she had heard him she didn’t let on.

Joe hurried after Annie and said, “Try to catch up with her. There is no way through there – just a steep rock face. You can’t get above it or below it.” Then he turned on his heel and went back to talk to Mac and Greta.

***

Sky materialized out of the snowy landscape and found Goldie pacing and agitated at the edge of the clearing. He put his muzzle across her neck and waited to hear her heart slow. He understood what had drawn her here – the keening of the human woman – the female who has lost her child.

Sky melted back into the forest and Goldie followed. He led her to a dense thicket within a copse of birch trees and motioned to something hanging in a tree far above their heads. It was a wire cage holding a rabbit – a rabbit that had long since died of fright or frost. Below the cage was a human contraption with huge teeth, clamped shut. And caught in those teeth was a length of splintered bone and fur.

Goldie inched over carefully and sniffed at it. Hunter! It was part of his foreleg. She howled her anguish for his pain. She understood now that the human who had killed her son had shown him a mercy.

A trap set by humans. For a big animal. Perhaps for Bear. Or Human-Bear. Sásq̓ats.

Goldie looked into the blue-grey eyes where she could see Sky’s true heart. He too was wounded to his very marrow by the loss of his son.

Goldie was accustomed to the smell of the humans – often rank and sometimes faintly floral. The smell of their fires and black, blistered kill could cause her bile to rise. However, today the evil smell spoke of pain – and a vile, unnatural violence.

But she had seen humans throw out seeds and crumbs for the little birds and rodents. There must be some goodness there. But not at the big den today. She led her mate away from the lodge and over the trail where the switchbacks started.

A small light blinked in a tree above the trap and somewhere in a broken-down shack nearby a human adjusted a screen to bring the image into focus. “Dammit. All I ever get nosing around my traps are the fuckin’ coyotes. Ten years and not a single Sasquatch.

***

Joe went back into Mac’s house and sat on the other side of Greta’s bed. They needed a plan – or wanted a plan. It was hard to just sit there and wait. Greta knew that Matt would be safe from harm but he would surely be afraid. She wanted to find him and bring him home.

Mac thought they should wait. Perhaps the police would have more details by next morning.

Joe was craving action but, without a truck, there wasn’t a lot he could do. How in the hell had Mac’s truck made it all the way to Packwood. Joe was always surprised when it made it to town and back.

Then, suddenly, that off-kilter feeling, like stepping off a curb that you didn’t know was there. Mac grabbed at the dresser for support and Jenna looked alarmed. “Is it an earthquake?”

“Yes,” answered Joe, “but just a little one, I think.” He counted slowly to twenty and then the second jolt – this one a little stronger. They heard something fall in the kitchen and shatter. Then it was over.

“Does this happen often?” asked Jenna. Her eyes were wide and her face flushed.

“Naw. Sometimes not for two or three years.”

Joe leapt up. “I’m going to the lodge, Mac. I’ve got to make sure that Harold got back and the ladies are alright and getting some food. You be okay here, Jenna?”

She nodded. “In fact, I’ll let Mac and Greta sit here and talk. I’ll go sweep up the crockery in the kitchen and make some tea.” Greta smiled her gratitude.

Joe pulled Mac aside and told him he was going to ask Annie to drive him to town. He’d try to rent a truck or some four-wheel drive SUV. Then they would have more options. Mac just silently nodded assent.

***

Joe was having a come-to-jesus moment with himself as he hiked along. He had them fairly frequently these days. He was getting pretty good at the self-talk, the self-lecturing, even the self-flagellation. What he was pretty bad at was the self-discipline, the follow-through. He liked to believe that eventually he would get up off his ass and actually do something worthwhile.

Not that he was idle. He pulled his weight, putting up enough firewood every summer to heat the lodge and Mac’s place. He manned the fire lookout in the summer and plowed the roads up at Omak in the winter. He fetched and carried between the lodge and the cottage at Pine Lake all year and turned on the rustic charm for the tourists. He waited bar, polished glasses and engaged in mindless small talk. So what if he took advantage of the occasional hot and lonely chick that wandered in from time to time? He noted that none of them ever complained about his “attentions”.

But really – what the flipping-eff was he doing. He was nearly 41 years old and he was going precisely nowhere except round in circles. His living was bar tips and the bit he earned on the side. His home was a single room at the lodge – in lieu of pay. His possessions were a really nice down jacket, great boots, some pretty good survival gear, a cell phone that seldom worked up valley and a bunch of books he had read a dozen times. 

And aside from all these self-doubts, loomed something larger. The sense of unease he felt with nearly everyone around him these days. Something was going on and he was pretty sure he didn’t want to know what it was. Only yesterday, Harold had called him in some kind of a panic and then hung up. When Joe went to speak to him in person, he had disappeared. At moments like that he would think up excuses for heading up to Pine Lake. But lately, when he went, he ended up being totally pissed to find the two P’s embedded on the overstuffed sofas in the living room. Every.Single.Time. Were they living there now?

***

When he got to the switchback where Claire had gone off trail, he decided to look around. He followed the broken branches and trampled grass about 10 yards – then saw the ragged piece of pink nylon and duck feathers snagged on some Devil’s Club. Shit. He started calling as loudly as he could but there was no answer. The place at his feet was trampled with many footprints but there was no sign below the rock face. Could she have climbed above? Could she have returned to the path and gone on ahead before he left the house? As much as he didn’t want to face the pissed-off version of the ripe and ready Claire, he didn’t want her to die either. He turned back to the trail and started to run. He needed to find a cell signal and call Search and Rescue.

***

Claire had been shaken by the earthquake and had lost her footing. She had grabbed at a small shrub for support for it couldn’t hold her weight and she went down awkwardly, twisting her ankle and landing on her butt on loose rocks.

Her ankle hurt badly and she bent over to unlace her boot. But a cold, hard object pressed into her forehead and a hoarse voice said, “I wouldn’t do that girlie.”

Claire was terrified. Her throat was so constricted that she couldn’t let out more than a squeak. The man, Paul or Perry, she didn’t know which, pulled the rifle away from her face. “If you take the boot off, the foot will get all swoled up and you’ll never get the damn boot on again. And you got some walkin’ to do yet.”

He yanked Claire to her feet and pushed her ahead of him down a tiny deer track below the outcrop. She was crying now and her ankle screamed with every step. Then the other brother stepped out on the track.

“Whatcha’ got there, Pig?”

“This here’s our insurance policy, Bro. I just feel things is closing in an’ pretty soon someone is going to find that girl.”

“An insurance policy?” Pig screamed. “You idiot! It looks far more like an invite to Death Row to me.”

Chapter 24

by Isabel Castro
934 Words

With Matthew now safe and sound asleep within the den, Thunder stepped out, ptinus-em-sút, “to worry by oneself”. He couldn’t tell the cubs about their mother. He’d let Goldie do that. Mothers were always better at those sorts of things.

He bounded through the forest, fleeing humans and their destructive ways, if only for a fleeting moment. He needed to be alone. He reached one of his and Éka’s favorite valleys. Oh Éka. They had laughed so much as he tried to say her name. “Éka” was as close as he could get. In this valley he had taught her the name of paqem, that spring flower that reminded him so much of her. Its light, hypnotic scent had caused him to take her into his arms more than once. He howled. Boy did he howl. He was wild, after all. He was tired of tiptoeing around, trying to play small and invisible. He howled for his wildness. He howled for Éka. He howled for loss, for life, for justice. This proximity to human civilization had forced all of the forest beings to adopt an unnatural tameness. He howled for that, and howled for anything he’d missed.

Srepráp “the trees” listened to his pained cries, “Sqaycw skúza7!  Sqaycw skúza7! ” Their leaves fluttered with empathy, branches swaying with grief. They sent the cries deep into their roots, lightening Thunder’s grief by spreading it out amongst the forest mycelium, and sending word to all the forest beings.

***

Goldie stopped in her tracks and turned toward Sky. Together they heard the cries. Without a yelp, they sprinted at once toward the douglas fir. Goldie knew státalhlec for snek’wnúk’wa7, that Éka had always “stood up” for her forest “friends”, and now Goldie would have to be there when her friend could not.

As they grew closer to the stump they sensed some of those foul-smelling humans roaming around, searching for Sásq̓ats again, no doubt. They kept their distance and waited for the bald two-leggeds to retreat. Once the coast was clear, they found their way into the den.

Anxiously, she looked around for Thunder. The children curiously watched a sleeping human. She hoped their father would return soon. Goldie took in a deep breath, letting the scent reach deep within her. The son. Éka had succeeded, at least in one way. Goldie remembered the howls she’d heard outside Éka’s sister’s house. At least one mother would find comfort soon.

***

“Harold? Haaaarrrrold!” Daphne confidently called out towards the kitchen as she ventured behind the bar counter. Tara, and now Grover, were giving her a new confidence and strength of voice that she hadn’t felt in a while. She hesitated for a moment in front of the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the kitchen door. Then she reminded herself of where she was, this DIY lodge in the middle of nowhere, and pushed the swinging door open. Her breath stopped short as she took in the grimy kitchen.  “Is it sanitary to prepare food in here?” she asked herself. She sighed deeply, shaking off the thought, and turned her attention back to her mission.

“Harold?!” she called out again. Not seeing him around, she assumed he must be in his office, or dealing with some maintenance. She turned and walked back out, longing to run her fingers through Grover’s lush dark hair and woodsy beard.

***

Meanwhile, Grover found the tourist brochures, and a map like the one Claire had used to get to Pine Lake. Having spent so many years tracking Sasquatch, he’d become accustomed to orienteering. He’d packed enough gear in his pack to reach the wild beast, and the young man, before Search and Rescue. As he reached the door to leave, Daphne called out to him. He turned, waved the map in his hand, and thanked her for her help.

Her heart sank as she watched the door close behind him. She sighed and looked around, emptiness rising inside her. She marched straight to the DIY bar, opened a bottle of wine, and poured herself a glass before she went back to sit by the fireplace to wait for Tara.

***

Grover headed out toward Pine Lake. Following his intuition, and a call to his senses by the Ponderosa pines, he headed off-trail. Something was pulling him. From time to time he’d glance at the map, and his compass, guesstimating where he was. He stacked sticks or stones as signposts to mark his path. As his distance from the trail grew, so did this voice calling him deeper and deeper into the wild.

He started to question his vision. Was he seeing things? He started to notice more and more stick cones along his path.

Ever since his terminal cancer diagnosis he’d felt the dissolution of a veil – one that separated him from others, from nature, and from Sasquatch. His dream felt more and more possible – to find and protect the Sasquatch. Meanwhile his nocturnal dreams were filled with him tramping through the forest. He’d heard voices. Who was speaking? “Máolalus. Raccoon. Nk̓yap. Coyote. Sásq̓ats. Sasquatch.” WHAT were they speaking?

He’d even heard “Xweystúmilhkan” pour out of his heart. I love you. “Xweystúmilhkan sásq̓ats.” But those were dreams, weren’t they?

That veil had kept things in order. Now he didn’t know what to believe. As he followed the cone stick-signs, he hoped there would be others waiting to help him. What was that Margaret Mead quote? “Never doubt, never doubt that”, sigh, “a small group of …committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Chapter 25

By Nicki Lang
2592 Words

The scent of the human son sleeping in the den pricked Goldie’s heart.  She understood the great circle of life but mourned just the same that her own pup’s death had been so untimely and at the hands of humans.  She stood watch over this human just the same, as she knew his survival was important to Éka.  As she lay down at the mouth of the den, she felt a tremor of fear run through the earth.  Was Thunder in trouble?  This felt different than grief, like someone’s life was in danger.  She couldn’t bear the thought of losing another life.  Sky sensed the same tremor and nodded his head at Goldie.  She knew the man-child would be safe with Sky.  Using her teeth to pull a fallen pine branch over the den opening, Goldie set out in a silent trot.

She began to pick of the scent of the men she had smelled earlier.  Had they captured Thunder?  She couldn’t smell him.  The smell of the men grew stronger, and she knew they were close.  Goldie picked up a lighter scent in the mix, the scent of a woman.  Goldie climbed the rocky ledge up above to get a better look.  She gasped.  Below, she saw the woman who had been saved by the death of her son.  One of the bearded men held her bicep firmly in his grip, while the other prodded her from behind with a rifle. 

Goldie did not want to risk her own death.  She was no match for that rifle.  Perhaps she could create a diversion so the woman could escape.  With all of her strength, Goldie dislodged a marmot-sized boulder and let out a desperate howl.  Other coyotes within earshot began to howl in harmony. 

The yipping echoed through the valley, making it difficult to determine the origin.  The rock thundered down from overhead spewing bits of dirt and duff in its wake.  Terrified, the men threw the woman to the ground and ran in the direction of the human territory.  Goldie let out a sigh; she had done her duty to save this life. 

Claire landed with a firm thud on the needle covered earth.  She felt a strange sense that she had been protected by something she couldn’t see.  The pain in her ankle continued to throb, and she was sure it was broken.  She reached down to look and saw blood on her pantleg.  Her head started to feel light, and she decided that she needed to rest until help arrived.  Crawling on her hands and one leg, she pulled herself to the bottom of the rock ledge where she had tumbled.  Even if Joe wouldn’t look for her, Tara and Annie knew she was out there alone.  She pulled her puffy pink coat tightly around her neck and felt the softness of Joe’s scarf on her chin.  Oh, Joe!  She thought.  If only he wasn’t so untamable!  A breath of frustration came out like smoke as her body slipped into torpor…

She was startled awake by the movement of the earth.  Another earthquake?  She braced herself and covered her head to wait for impact.

“Claire! Is that you?” she heard a voice echoing in her head. 

Claire, still feeling woozy, looked up to see Joe straddling an incredibly large horse.  She shook her head, not sure how to take this all in.  Joe dismounted in one graceful swoop and rushed to Claire’s side.

“Oh!  Thank God you’re ok!”  Joe said with relief.  “When I got back to the lodge, the girls said you had stomped off in the wrong direction and hadn’t made it back yet.  I tried to call search and rescue, but I couldn’t get a signal.”

Claire groaned, knowing that she had lost a lot of blood. 

“Claire, there something I need to tell you,” Joe said earnestly.  Claire squinted at him, her eyelids feeling numb from the cold.

“There’s a reason I had to push you away,” Joe began, struggling for words.  “You know how you started poking around about finding Sasquatch and trying to build up the lodge and bring more people here?” Claire nodded, still feeling very confused.  “Well, I don’t want you to do that.”

Still fading in and out of solid consciousness, Claire could only utter a small grunt. 

“Because, well…” he trailed off. “They exist.  Sasquatch exist.  And I know they exist because I have their blood in mine.”

Not being able to comprehend this information, Claire’s mind shut down.  Her last memory was the heavy rumble of hoofbeats underneath her limp body. 

The human son lay still in the den, Goldie stretched along his back keeping him warm with her body heat, Sky curled at his feet.  They had checked the human son for obvious wounds, but aside from a few small cuts, he seemed to be fine, just very tired. 

The heavy stomping they heard outside could only mean one thing: Thunder had returned.  Sky rose to move the pine branch from the door to reveal Thunder– carrying the woman in his arms!  She was unconscious, and Thunder gently laid her next to the human son. 

Snek’wnúk’wa, Thunder said, feeling a kinship with these human creatures that he had not felt before.  Friends.

The bleeding of the woman’s leg was of great concern to Thunder.  He knew she needed help that he could not give.  The human son seemed to be in fine condition.  Perhaps he could bring the woman to be helped.  Thunder himself was too exhausted from grief to shapeshift, and he could not risk being seen.  Darkness would fall very soon, and this night would be very, very cold. 

The outstretched boughs of a Douglas fir brushed lightly against the cabin window at Pine Lake.  Greta sat straight up in bed, her mind clearer than it had been in months.  “He’s here!” she shouted with a voice of glee and urgency.  “He is so close.” 

A shocked Jenna watched as Greta hobbled to the front door and began to call to her son from the porch, “Matthew!  Matthew!  MATTHEW!  We are over here!”  Jenna came to the door with her, and without questioning her sanity or expecting any results, joined in the calling. 

“Matthew!” they shouted in unison. 

They heard rustling in the underbrush, then boots on the trail. The women held their breath, waiting to see what would appear. “Greta!  What are you doing out here?” Mac appeared on the trail.  “You’ll catch your death!”

But Greta was undeterred.  She continued calling the name of her son, tears now streaming down her face, as Mac embraced her. 

“He’s not here, Greta,” Mac said. “Now come inside, I have more news I need to tell you.”

Just then, there was more rustling in the underbrush.  Jenna hopped off the porch to get a closer look.  There before them appeared a very dirty man, holding up an unconscious woman.

“Matthew!”  Greta moved to her son more quickly than she had moved in years, her body lighter without the weight of grief.  She couldn’t speak, and just kissed her son’s face, their tears flowing together. 

“And Claire!” Jenna exclaimed, exchanging a confused gaze with Matthew. 

“Jenna, what are you doing here?” Matthew asked, pulling away from his Mother’s embrace. 

“I had to make sure your parents knew the truth, too,” Jenna said.  “We need to get Claire inside right away, she’s in pretty rough shape.” 

“I heard you calling, Mom.  I had no idea where I was or how I got there, but I heard your voice as if the wind was carrying it to me,” Matthew said. 

“I love you, son.  I have always loved you.  Not a day has gone by that my heart didn’t call your name.” Greta had not let go of Matthew’s hand.  “Welcome home.”

They laid Claire down on the couch where she had first encountered Pig and Perry.  Mac carefully removed Claire’s boot and rolled up her blood-soaked jeans. 

“I can’t tell if it’s broke, but she sure does have a big gash.  We’ll need to pack it real tight to get the bleedin’ to stop.” Mac said, retreating to the bathroom for first aid supplies.  “Jenna, get me some warm water in a bowl to clean the wound and in a cup for her to drink the minute she wakes up.”

Claire began to come to, head rolling back and forth on the dusty couch pillow.  She moaned, “Uggggh.  Where I am I?” she opened her eyes to slits, then closed them again. “What happened?”

Glances were exchanged across the warm cabin air.  No none knew where to begin.  More questions than answers filled everyone’s mind.  Greta and Matthew sat at the small wooden table, connected by both hands as if they’d never let go.

“Did they find the body?” Claire mumbled.  “Where’s Joe?”

“Shhh.  You just relax, Claire,” Jenna said, stroking her hair from a stool at the end of the couch. 

Mac returned with a bandage and other supplies.  Jenna held the bowl of water and a clean sponge.   “Now hold still, Claire, I need to clean this up before we wrap it and splint it, ok?  Jenna, just set that bowl right down.  She’s gonna need a hand to hold.”

Claire winced and writhed as Mac dabbed at the wound.  “You know you’re lucky someone found you,” Mac said.  “You could have bled to death out there, not to mention the freezing cold.  How’d you find her, Matthew?”

“That’s the weird thing.  I didn’t find her.  I just woke up in the middle of the forest and she was there with me.” Greta cringed at the thought of Matthew not remembering things.  She didn’t want to go back down that road again. “I had no idea where we were, but I knew she needed help.  Then I heard you calling my name.”

“Joe,” Claire moaned.  “Joe came on a horse,” she said, feeling a little more clarity returning. 

“There ain’t horses around here for miles,” Mac said with certainty. 

“Claire, honey, what did you mean about a body?” Greta said, taking her eyes off Matthew for the first time.  “Was someone hurt?”

“We tripped on a leg earlier,” Claire began, still feeling a little foggy.  “They found it connected to a body and put it in the freezer.”  She was sure someone would have reported it to the authorities.

Confused looks darted around the room.  “I think you’d better get some rest, Claire.”  You’ve been through something very traumatic.” Jenna said kindly.  “Let’s let you rest and recover.  You’ll feel better in the morning.”

Mac finished wrapping Claire’s leg and propped it up with a small wooden stool and another dusty pillow.  “There is something I need to tell you, Greta,” Mac said, getting very serious, pulling out the third chair, sitting down at the table with his family.  He paused and looked at Matthew, who knew what his father was about to say.  “It was Erika,” he choked out, not knowing how to say the words.  “Erika stole my truck to bust Matthew out of Western.”  Matthew began to sob.  Greta was stunned and confused. 

“Erika?  My sister?  But she hasn’t been around here for years.  How did she even know where Matthew was?  And how did she steal the truck,” Greta’s brain felt like loose jigsaw puzzle pieces.  “And why are you crying?”

The past day’s events swirled around Matthew in visions and sound bites–the letter from Tyson, the broken glass, being a crow, the car crash.  He sobbed into his hands, elbows on his knees.  “She’s dead.” Matthew said in anguish.  “She died to bring me home.”

Greta rose and walked behind Matthew and covered his body with her own, like a blanket.  Together they sobbed, tears of sorrow, tears of joy, tears of being human.  Mac rose and went to the porch, not knowing how to balance the joy of his son’s return with the grief of this new loss. 

The sun was setting through the Ponderosa pine trunks, frost already forming from the dense, moist air.  Snow was coming.  Mac loaded his arms with wood to restoke the dying fire, when he heard the buzz of an ATV on the trail.  He couldn’t see well at a distance but could recognize Joe’s wild hair sticking out from under that ragged old goat hat. 

“Harold’s in trouble,” Joe shouted, turning off the engine, but not getting off the ATV.  “He got himself locked in the freezer somehow, and one of the guests found him.  No one knows how long he was in there, he’s in real rough shape, barely a pulse.” Joe noticed a hesitancy in Mac, surprised he wasn’t grabbing his coat to hop on.  Mac was always the wise one in difficult situations.  “Paul and Perry are acting real weird, too.  They don’t think we should call for help.  I don’t know what to do.”

Mac sighed.  “I’ll go,” he started, “but you need come inside for a minute.”

Frustrated that Mac didn’t share his urgency, Joe threw his legs over the side of the ATV.  He also feared that Mac’s hesitancy meant that Greta was in bad shape.  He knew Greta’s

condition was tenuous at best. 

Joe bounded up the porch steps behind Mac and closed the door behind them with a squeak.  Shocked at the number of people in the small cabin, he didn’t know who to look at first.  Claire sprawled on the couch in and out of sleep, with her bandaged foot in the air, Jenna on a stool next to her.  Greta was out of her room.  He hadn’t seen that in months, maybe years!   And then— it couldn’t be.  Joe locked eyes with his childhood friend, the one who had helped him discover the world, to take care of the trees, to listen to the animals, the one he had abandoned out of fear and the space that lost time creates. 

“Hi Joe,” Matthew said.  Sitting up, gazing out from heavy eyes.  Greta returned to her chair and reached one hand across to Matthew and the other outstretched to Joe. 

Joe grabbed Greta’s hand and Matthew stood to receive Joe’s embrace.  “Welcome home, Matt.  We’ve missed you.”  Joe pulled back and then bent down to hug Greta.  She hugged him back with animal ferocity. 

“I knew he’d come home.  I knew it,” she said. 

All of the commotion had Claire fully awake.  “Did they report the body?” she asked again, guessing that Joe was here to bear that news. 

Joe turned at the sound of her voice. “Hi Claire,” he said sheepishly, avoiding her gaze the best he could.  “They found Harold locked in the freezer.  He’s still alive, but just barely.  I need to get back there right away.  Mac, I hate to ask, but can you come?”

Claire laid back down, frustrated that no one seemed to be answering her question.  What did they mean Harold was in the freezer?  He’s the one who dragged the body there in the first place.  Her head hurt, and she was still confused about Joe and what he had said earlier about the Sasquatch being in his blood.  “Where’s your horse, Joe?”

He looked over at her, and then at Mac. “Horse?” he said with one eyebrow cocked.

“She’s been a little confused since she got here,” Mac said, reaching for his coat.  “Greta, is it ok if I go?”

Beaming, Greta squeezed Matthew’s hand.  “My boy is home.  I have everything I need.”

Chapter 27

By Seán Dwyer
1233 words

Daphne barely heard the commotion in the kitchen, because she had crooked a finger at Tara and gone back to her (and Ray’s) room for a nap. Without coffee, she felt no urge to get moving.

Yes, it was Ray’s room as well. As long as she was married to him, it was his room. No matter that Tara had slept in his spot for the past couple of nights, and Ray had abandoned Daphne for whatever bimbo he was seeing. The only thing that bothered her was that he probably had access to coffee, while she didn’t.

She could, however, guarantee that his overnight companion didn’t provide better company than Tara did.

Loud thumping from the dining room startled both of them, and they bumped noses. They pulled apart, each rubbing her nose.

“What’s going on?” Tara exclaimed. “Are they prepping for a bigger quake or something?”

“There’s just one way to know.” Daphne slid on her jeans. She didn’t have to hop and wiggle the way she used to, now that she had no butt. She tossed on a sweater and opened the door.

“Hey!” Tara whispered. “I’m still naked.”

“Hurry up.”

“What if your hubby sees us?”

“Hope so. I want a divorce.” She padded barefoot down the hall, the dirt-stiffened pile of the carpeting pricking her soles like cactus needles. Men milled about: she recognized Joe, but there were several others, and she didn’t know them. Still no Harold. Thus, no coffee.

A couple of EMT looking guys, bearded, their uniforms covered in reflective stripes, were at work on someone. They had blankets and an oxygen tank spread out on the floor. She leaned in for a peek at the victim and felt Tara’s breath on her ear.

She and Tara screamed at the same time, Daphne’s eardrum bending under the pressure of Tara’s voice. It was Harold. Had he gotten lost in the snow?

“Joe!” Daphne called. “Was Harold outside? I couldn’t find him earlier.”

Joe stepped over and hugged her. “No, he was locked in the walk-in freezer. He was . . . getting out some meat, it seems. Don’t go back there.” He threaded his way back to the couch, and Daphne saw Claire lying there. She looked to be as bad off as Harold. What was going on up here? Did these girls really want to turn this morgue into a resort? Tara or no Tara, Daphne was getting bad vibes about investing in their scheme, even if Ray left her and she got a good settlement.

The EMTs lifted Harold onto a stretcher. Daphne straightened up, Tara still leaning on her back. The men began to wheel Harold out of the dining room. Daphne stroked his hair and whispered, “Good luck.” With the way clear again, she headed for the kitchen, planning to make her own coffee.

Tara took her hand, and they walked to the coffee maker, Daphne’s feet freezing on the cold linoleum. Through the kitchen door she saw that the freezer was open. There was no sense in letting the food spoil, so she tiptoed toward the freezer, Tara in tow, Daphne hissing each time she felt a jolt from the cold floor.

She was about to grab the door and slam it when someone slammed open the kitchen door.

“Hey!” Joe yelled, “Don’t go in there. Police evidence and stuff!”

But he was too late. Daphne saw a body on the floor, and judging by the grip on her hand, Tara saw it too. From the outstretched arms, frozen in time, her gaze continued until she saw the face.

“Ray!” Daphne covered her mouth with her free hand. “Ray!”

Joe caught up to her and put an arm around her shoulders. “I tried to warn you. I know this is a shock.”

Daphne turned to Tara. Tears glistened in Tara’s eyes. Daphne felt a stinging sensation in her own tear ducts.

“Ray!” she exclaimed again. Then she let out a war whoop. “It’s over! Oh, my gracious God, you freed me! Free at last! And I get his insurance! His 401(k)! His IRA! The house! Woo hoo!” She threw her arms around Tara’s neck. “I can help finance this place. But it has to be an eco-lodge, not some goofy Sasquatch thing. Promise me that.”

Joe pulled back his arm and leaned against the wall. Daphne turned to him and felt a pang when she saw his ashen face, his jaw hanging open. She ran to him in case he was going to faint.

“Joe, are you all right? Don’t think I’m a bad person. Ray and I weren’t meant for each other, and he wouldn’t divorce me. But he had a girlfriend. I guess I’ll have to figure out who she is.” She cocked her head and thought for a moment. “Wait, how did he die? He’s frozen. But what killed him?”

Joe rubbed his face with his hands. “I don’t think anyone knows. Harold must know. Claire was talking about a ‘body.’ If she meant Ray, she will also know. Hey, let’s check with Annie.”

The three of them trooped back to where Annie was keeping vigil over Claire while the EMTs prepped their other patient for transport. Daphne knelt beside Annie.

“No worries if you know what happened to Ray and didn’t tell me. But I need to know, if you do.”

Annie turned a tear-streaked face to her. “Yeah, Claire and I tripped over him. He was under a pile of snow. No marks. He must have froze to death. We went for Harold, but he wouldn’t let us report it. He wanted to think of how to explain the situation.”

Daphne held her hands behind her and leaned back on them, settling her butt on the cold floor.

“They say freezing to death is the best way to go,” she said in a soft voice. “I didn’t like him much, but I wasn’t ever going to kill him. I hope the autopsy shows he didn’t suffer.”

*     *     *

The entire forest, from the tree roots to the crows, the deer to the coyotes, the mice to the owls, all beings mourned the loss of the woman who best understood the entire system. Thunder heard the laments from all directions, as if he stood within a sphere of loving energy intended to keep his pain, impossible to ignore, at a level he could accept.

He emerged from the den in his grizzly bear shape, huge paws lifted to the sky, claws spread. He roared his thanks, the vocalization echoing in all directions. Just as Erika had been there for all of the forest beings, including him, he would continue to protect everyone. Erika’s nephew, Matthew, one of the few humans who could speak their tongue, would carry on her work of support for their world.

Thunder knew that the man to whom he had appeared had died a peaceful death. His intention had been to create a sensation that would make the evil twins and their contrived stories seem foolish. Had he known this man would fail to know his limits, would spend an hour talking on his phone to some woman, to the point that he could not return to the lodge, Thunder would have left him alone.

Returning to his natural shape, Thunder stooped and entered the den to comfort his grieving children.

Chapter 28

By Cami Ostman
Words: 1891

Perry and Piggy Paul crept down the trail back to the lodge, but when they saw the red and blue swirling lights, they dared not go inside. The ambulance had driven away with Harold tucked snuggly in it, but now a police car, and then a second one, rolled up to the building.

            So, the bodies had been found.

            “Well, goddamn,” Perry said. His fingers went numb and his face began to burn as panic seized him. “I guess trouble has finally found us.”

            Paul, always the servant of his brother—or at least it seemed so to the casual observer—didn’t have anything to offer, other than a hand on Perry’s shoulder and a shake of the head.

            “I’ve got to think here, Pig. Even Harold doesn’t know how those folks in his freezer died. That’s a good thing. He thinks the ‘Squatch killed ‘em. Thinks when you see a Big Foot with the naked eye, a curse overtakes you and you drop dead. That ridiculous story should serve as a distraction from us for a while—I hope.”

            Paul nodded dumbly.

            “He’s been examining those bodies for years. Even before he took over the lodge, he was trying to do this research in the lab based on the ‘you see him, you die’ crock of shit. Poor fellow. He’s just looking for the wrong thing, isn’t he?”

            Again, Paul nodded.

            “Piggy, my brother, I have a bad feeling that your… our… jig is up. I’ve almost lost count on how many people you’ve done in out here in these woods. I’ve done my best to cover your tracks, but there’s a lot of evidence in that freezer. We’ve got some decisions to make.”

            “Okay,” Paul said. But of course, Perry knew that all the deciding would be left up to him. As it always had been.

The first death, the poor child—Shannon was her name—had fooled even Perry, at least for a very brief moment. In those days, he was deep in the throes of his Sasquatch search. That night, the scalp in his brother’s hand, along with the absence of a body, pointed to the possibility that the giant beast had killed the young woman and absconded with her remains. Of course, he knew in his heart of hearts that the Sasquatch were not people killers, but perhaps her death had been an accident? Perhaps the beast had mistaken Shannon for prey and had realized only later that she was a human woman.

            But Perry had seen the look in Paul’s eyes. And he knew that they’d been separated on the trail briefly that night. He’d looked at his brother, made him drop the scalp on the trail, and had asked him frankly, “Did you hurt that girl, Pig?”

            Paul had nodded and said, “Had to.”

            Perry felt a terrible nausea rise in him. “Had to? Why’d you have to, Paul?”

            “She saw him. And you always tell me you have to be the first.”

            “What are you talking about?”

            “First one to prove he exists. Has to be you, you always say.”

            Perry had stood on the trail staring at Paul and understood immediately that his quest had become a dark harbinger of some future travesty for his brother and for himself. The girl had seen the creature. In the end, she’d been carried away by him, perhaps to be buried respectfully. But the Sasquatch hadn’t killed her.

            In the intervening years, Perry had stepped away from his research, though it still pulled at him—sometimes so strongly that he didn’t know what to do with himself. He’d tried to keep his brother close to him, but he couldn’t be with him day and night. And thankfully, by the next time Paul discovered someone else had seen the mythical creature before Perry once again, Harold had arrived with his insane obsession with examining the bodies of those whose sightings had somehow rendered them lifeless. The old myth.  Only one person had ever been allowed to survive with Paul knowing he’d seen the Sasquatch. That was the boy Tyler. And Tyler had been safe only because Perry saw to it that he left with the police that same night.

            Of course, Perry well understood that if his brother knew when someone had seen the Sasquatch, that must mean that Paul himself could see him. Had seen him. Many times, perhaps. And still Perry had not. The fact that Paul had encountered Sasquatch while Perry remained in the dark was painful, but protecting his brother was even more painful.

            And what to do now that some of the bodies had certainly been discovered in the freezer?

            They couldn’t go back to Greta and Mac’s place. And if they didn’t go back, the effects of the drugs Perry had been feeding Greta would wear off and she would have a great deal to say about what she’d seen in those woods. They couldn’t go into town either. Everyone knew them, and if the police sniffed around, anybody could point them out. Their own home, the little cabin a half mile down the trail from Mac’s place, was gone, burned to the ground after a recent Sasquatch sighting that Pig had “put right.” The poor man he’d taken out that time was a homeless fellow who’d been pitching his tent in the woods and warming himself with campfires. Perry guessed Paul had been keeping an eye on the guy, and when Paul dragged the body into the cabin one night saying, “You’re still gonna be the first, I promise,” Perry had simply taken his brother out of the cabin by the collar and lit the place on fire. Told everyone he’d left a cigarette burning too close to the curtains.

            They’d been at Mac’s ever since. But that was over now too.

**

Grover pulled away the branches of the den. A series of low purrs came from inside. The dim light of the late autumn afternoon allowed only a faint view of the depth of the interior. On hands and knees, he crept into the opening, letting his eyes adjust to the relative darkness.

            Thunder felt the human presence immediately, and he heard the children growling deep moans of awareness as well. But he also sensed the sickness of the being creeping into their abode. The threat was minimal. But the intrusion was unwelcome nonetheless. In one swift movement he approached the man and breathed hot air on his face. “Do not come near my children.”

            Grover shifted positions so that he sat on the moist bed of needles and rotting leaves that made up the floor of this abode. He held up his hands so the creature could see he bore no weapon. Then he boldly looked in the eyes of the beast, took in a deep lungful of air, and felt gratitude sweep through him.  He’d done it. He’d fulfilled his final wish. He’d seen the Sasquatch.

            The two faced each other for a very long time. Thunder was aware that his children were on edge behind him, already burdened with grief and now frazzled with the anxiety produced by this intruder. He kept his own vibration slow. He didn’t believe this man would harm them, but wasn’t sure what he wanted.

            Grover closed his eyes. Opened them again and took in the being beside him. “Xweystúmilhkan sásq̓ats,” he said. I love you Sasquatch.

And then Grover closed his eyes once again and breathed his last breath.

The air grew still.

          The children felt the shift in the energy surrounding them and the whole cave seemed to light up for a moment as the sacred sacrament of death sizzled in the air.

Thunder let out a growl of respect. And when he was sure the man’s spirit had departed the body, he rose and carried the human corpse out into the deep woods where he would bury him beside his wife and the young woman he’d carried here so many years before, right before his nephew Matthew had been taken away.

**

Jenna, Matthew, and Greta were alone in the house now. Evening was setting in and Jenna had rooted around for dinner makings, throwing together some edible bits and pieces. They sat together in the low light nibbling and talking companionably, ignoring the fact that the authorities would probably be looking for Matt and that they would most certainly come looking at his parents’ home.

The letter Tyson had sent was sitting on the table between them. Jenna remembered it first, and after they’d all eaten enough to stave off hunger, she picked it up and handed it to Matthew.  “I really think you should see what my brother wrote to your mother.”

          “May I read this to you, mom?”

          Greta was still weak from her prolonged illness, but her face was ruddy with relief and hope. She nodded.

          Matthew opened the envelope and pulled out paper identical to that which his own letter had been written on. The handwriting was the same. This letter was much shorter, however.

Dear Mother of Matthew, Greta: I write this letter to you with so much pain in my heart. I’ve done you a terrible wrong that I could have made right many years ago. I can’t live with myself anymore, but I also can’t go to my death without giving you something that may soothe your soul. That night when Shannon died, the night your son was arrested, I saw something I’ve never told anyone. Actually, I saw someone.

I saw you. You were in the shadows on a side trail while I was frozen by the scene of Shannon being carried away.

I know now that you and your husband were not far away from home, as I’d believed that night, but that you’d simply gone into town to hear a bluegrass band play. I learned much later that you’d had a bad feeling while you were listening to the music, and you left the concert early to walk home up the trail. I know now that you must have seen what happened to Shannon. Did you see the Sasquatch, too? Did you see him kill her? I know you were a witness to something. And I know that you have known all along your son didn’t do what he was accused of.

Over the years I’ve had communication from one of the men I met on the trail that night, a fellow named Perry. He told me where you’d been that night. And he told me that you were crazed by your son’s arrest… that you began telling tales of seeing things that night. Perry has been giving you something to suppress your memories. I don’t know how he’s managed to do that, but I do hope you get your memories back and that this letter, along with your own clear mind, will help you free your son.

I’m deeply sorry,

Tyson

The three were silent after Matthew put the letter on the table. Greta began to cry softly—for lost time and the loss of her own sanity, for trusting the untrustworthy. Matthew put a hand on her hand and Jenna placed hers on the pile well.

They sat this way for many moments before they were startled by a knock at the door.

Chapter 30

by Marian Exall
1573 words

            The solstice: the longest night of the year was about to begin. Dusk gathered around the Lodge. Inside, Tara and Daphne held hands in front of the massive stone fireplace in the living room. The previous day, the chimney had been swept clean of accumulated rodent nests and bird droppings, and Joe had hauled in logs of a size commensurate with the huge grate. Now the firelight cast a romantic glow over the happy couple.

            The ceremony was short. Tara and Daphne had penned their own vows in which they honored the mountains and forests that had brought them together, and pledged to respect all creatures who made their home there. Tara wore a flowered Laura Ashley peasant dress, and Daphne sported an elegant winter white pantsuit. On their feet, matching baby-blue cowboy boots.

            The celebration that followed was subdued. Greta sat, pale and silent, close beside her son. Mac had explained how, now free of the memory-suppressing drugs that Perry had been feeding her, Greta had given her statement to the sheriff identifying Paul as the awful figure she had seen with his bloody trophy in hand. Together with Tyson’s dying declarations, the evidence persuaded law enforcement of Matthew’s innocence in Shannon’s murder and sent them hot on the trail of the brothers P. Disregarding the “trail closed” signs, Perry had gunned the snowmobile up above the tree line, Pig clinging on for dear life and whimpering. When the sheriff and his posse caught up with them, they were lying under the overturned snowcat. Perry pulled a gun, shot his brother and then himself. At least, that’s the story the sheriff told.  No one questioned it: rough justice, mountain justice, quicker than a trial. Better than a trial, as it meant Greta and Matthew didn’t have to testify.

Mac hovered over his wife and son, bringing food and drink that neither wanted, and asking repeatedly if they were warm enough. Claire, still incapacitated by her injured ankle, limped around taking photos—“These’ll be great for PR.” If Joe featured in most of them, Claire could be forgiven: he was looking particularly attractive this evening, freshly shaved and showered, in a crisp chambray shirt and clean Levis.

Joe mixed and delivered drinks, while Annie supervised the buffet table. After the County Health Department closed and sealed the kitchen, she had scoured the valley towns for smoked salmon and French cheeses. Mac contributed two home-baked loaves and jars of pickles and green beans Greta had put up last summer. Jenna wove evergreens into garlands and made a centerpiece with pinecones. With the firelight supplemented by clusters of scented candles—another Annie inspiration—the dreary Lodge was transformed into a wonderland.

Nobody mentioned Ray, although he drifted in and out of Daphne’s thoughts. The autopsy had determined the cause of death was hypothermia, confirmed by the 60-minute-long video with commentary retrieved from Ray’s iPhone. He had tracked a shadowy figure into the forest—“Probably a bear,” opined the coroner, frowning over the top of his glasses to challenge anyone to say differently—and then got lost. Ray’s recorded speech became slurred and rambling as he tried to stumble his way back through the snow to the Lodge. But for the blizzard, he might have seen he was only yards from the building when the phone’s battery died, and so did he.

Claire and Annie gave statements about finding the body, and the coroner entered a finding of accidental death. Harold did not testify. He was still in hospital while doctors fought to save his frostbitten extremities; a sheriff’s deputy guarded the door to his room. He was charged with tampering with a deceased human body, although the sheriff hinted that more offenses might be added. The other corpses found in the freezer were yet to be identified, and cause of death to be determined.

After toasts and thanks and a few happy tears, the guests dispersed. Claire blew out the candles, and Joe banked up the fire for the night.

***

Half an hour later, Claire kicked off her Crocs and eased, naked, into the hot tub on the Lodge’s back deck. “Aaah,” she exhaled.

It was a moonless night but the snow reflected the starlight in a thousand crystal pinpoints. Joe put his arm around Claire’s shoulders and pulled her to him. They sat in steamy silence, eyes closed, until Claire’s wandering hand encountered the waist band of Joe’s swim shorts. “What’s this?” she said, mock-stern.

            “Well, I was worried some of the guests might decide to take a midnight dip,” Joe replied, embarrassed.

            Claire laughed. “No danger of that. They’ve all gone beddie-byes. It was quite a day.”

            “Mmmm. Our first wedding. The brides looked beautiful, and Annie did a really good job as officiant.”

            “Yes. I think she’s probably the only licensed realtor who’s also a licensed minister in the whole North Cascades. It’ll be quite a selling point when the Lodge reopens in the Spring.”

            Joe nodded. “I’m just so glad she gave up that idea of a sasquatch theme.”

            “Yeah,” Claire agreed. “The eco-lodge concept will appeal to a younger, more affluent demographic, and seeking charity status for the forest preserve will mean tax-exempt—”

Joe shut her up with a long, deep kiss. When they came up for air, he said “I’m just happy Matt got a steady job out of it. He’ll make a great activities director. He’s getting stronger every day, planning wildflower hikes and birding classes.” He smiled. “Forest bathing: who knew it was a thing? Even Greta wants in: foraging cooking school, nettle soup and chokecherry jam.”

“And you behind the bar mixing CBD cocktails—all organic, of course.”

They leaned back, gazing up at the celestial ceiling.

“There’s Orion,” Joe pointed up to the southwest.

“Who’s Ryan?” Claire asked.

Joe explained the three stars of Orion’s belt, and his sword leading to the brightest star in the sky, Sirius, the Dog Star. “There’s the Big Dipper, and that’s the North Star over that mountain there. In the old days, sailors navigated their way home by that star; the true north.”

But Claire was no longer looking at the heavens. She curled up against Joe’s lean body. “You are my true north. I know I have a lot to learn about trees and nature and stuff, but I really like it here. I think we can make the eco-lodge idea work. I think we can make us work.”

***

Several miles to the north, in a mountain cave in the untracked wilderness on the Canadian border, Thunder sat hunched over, his head in his hands. Tremors rippled through his shoulders and his breath came in wheezy rasps.

Thunder was dying. He would not last more than a few hours. The efforts of the previous weeks, the struggle to escape his human predators, the shape-shifting to free Matthew and rescue Claire, and most of all his soulmate Èka’s death—all had taken an unsustainable toll. He was not afraid of passing. He understood that he had completed the circle of life in this world and soon would travel on to be united with creatures long extinct, to share with the trees knowledge that spanned the ages, to transcend time and space, and be at one with the universal spirit.

Before the last snowfall had sealed off the cave, Thunder had made a final excursion. First, to Pine Lake to check on the reunited family, Mac, Greta and son Matthew. The winter isolation would be good for them as Matthew healed and they learned to trust and love each other again. The snow that blanketed their homestead would keep them wrapped in a protective cocoon until the spring melt, and the need to face the world. Thunder charged his spirit-brother Owl to look after Greta and her family, to ensure that no harm befell them, and to remind Matt to take his meds.

Then he visited the coyote pack in their den deep in the forest. He was happy to find that Goldie was pregnant again with a litter to be born in the spring. Hunter would not be forgotten, but new pups would nip and tumble around their mother, fighting for a place to nurse. She would teach them the law of the forest, how to survive wildfires and escape predators, animal and human. Thunder left the coyotes with a warning: “Never eat from the trash cans behind the Lodge. They put bad stuff in there.”

He didn’t roam close to the Lodge himself. Now that the three evil ones had gone away, he had no feelings—good or bad—about the other humans that remained there. Although often mistaken for a hirsute human, the sasquatch had no comprehension of man’s preoccupation with success, competition, control and domination. Human ambitions seemed irrelevant against the expanse of the universe or geological time. He hastened back to the cave as if to a womb that offered both a sanctuary and a portal.

Now huddled in the darkness, he felt Èka’s presence around him. She cooed to him in their common language. “Tllaket, sqàasï, tllaket … Come, Brave One, come. Be with me and all your kind who went before . . .”

Thunder was the last of his species. With his passing, Sasquatch was no more. And yet, where the wild things are, the legend of Bigfoot lives on . . .

THE END

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