Into the Woods

A short story by Meg Sorick

I lost sight of the dog and I knew I was in trouble. I called her name but whatever had caught her attention was more enticing than me. Mom was going to be so mad. Especially if she had to come looking for me. She hated the woods. She said they were all bugs and snakes and stones to turn your ankle on. And why couldn’t I be a proper young lady and play with my dolls? Why couldn’t I be more like my sister and do as I was told? Yeah, she was going to be mad even if I found my way home. My pink jeans [which I hated] were muddy at the cuff and grass-stained at the knees. I was sweaty and I’m not sure I got all the twigs out of my hair. The woods were my refuge, my enchanted forest, the place where my imagination set itself free. How could I stay at home and play with stupid dolls? Still, I should have known better than to stray from the path.

I stopped and looked behind me while keeping my feet pointed straight ahead. I didn’t want to get even further turned around. Nope. The path was nowhere in sight. I squinted, hoping maybe I could see evidence of my trail —footprints, broken branches or crushed weeds— but there was nothing. With a deep breath, I tried one more time to call the dog. My voice ended in a shriek and I felt tears welling up. I shook my head. Crying was not going to save my bacon.

I stood still, listening, hoping I could hear sounds that would help me figure out where I was. Maybe if I was really quiet I could hear the gurgling of the stream that ran through the property. I could just follow it upstream till I caught sight of the house. I held my breath and tried to hear over the heartbeat sounds in my ears. Nothing. But then… the crack of a branch. I jumped. It sounded big. Mom would be extra mad if I got eaten by a bear. No, that was silly. She would be sad, right? I let out a giggle and clapped a hand over my mouth. Shoot! Now the bear would know I was there. Another branch broke and I heard a snort. Cautiously, I turned my head in the direction of the noise. Saplings bent and branches shook as the buck stepped out of the thicket. Tawny and smooth with at least 10 points on his rack, he was magnificent and he was staring straight at me.

I kept my hands over my mouth and tried to be still. Deer weren’t dangerous. I could just clap my hands and yell at him and he would run away. Even so, I couldn’t help shaking. He dipped his head just a little, still holding my gaze. Then with one deliberate step after the other, he approached. I swear my heart was about to burst from my chest. He stopped just inches away and snorted again. Maybe I was a little stinky? Gross, I suppose. But why would a deer care? And why would a deer get this close? This wasn’t normal. Maybe I should be afraid.

He snorted again and this time he was so close, I felt the breath. My instinct was to run but I rooted myself to the ground. He backed away just a few steps and shook those majestic antlers. Then he turned, moved toward the thicket he’d emerged from and looked back at me. I swear he was trying to tell me something. Follow? I took a tentative step towards him. He moved ahead just a little and waited. I made two more strides. He did the same. Yes! It was like he was saying, “This way.” It never occurred to me that he could be leading me deeper into the forest and further from home. I just knew he was trying to help. I took a deep breath and followed.

The buck moved at a much faster pace than my little legs could manage. I ran and stumbled through the forest, trying to keep up. As he moved out of sight, I fell over a branch and landed hard. Sprawled on the muddy, mossy forest floor, I gave way to the pain and frustration and sobbed. Stupid, stupid, stupid. What was I thinking? Now I would never get home. I would die in these woods. I would starve to death if I didn’t get eaten by a bear. Or maybe I’d get so hungry I would eat poison berries out of desperation. Or get bitten by a snake. Or wolves would get me. Did we have wolves around here? Coyotes, maybe. As I lay there imagining all the ways I would meet my end, something nudged my foot. I screamed and sat up, bracing for the first bite or claw. Instead, it was the buck. He came back! I wiped my tears on my sleeve and stood up.

“Not so fast, this time,” I said. The buck blew out through his nostrils and resumed his trek. And like he got the message, at a much slower pace. On and on we walked and I started to worry. Had I really wandered so far from home? It felt like forever since I’d left the path to chase after the dog. Soon though, I smelled water. You know, that cool, loamy smell that forest streams have? And now I could hear it! Water gurgling, babbling as it rushed over rocks and around bends. I hurried on, down a steep bank, holding onto tree roots and branches as I slithered down to the stream bed. My feet squished in the mud when I landed but I didn’t fall. The buck peered over the bank like he was checking to make sure I was ok. “Thank you!” I yelled up to him. “I got it from here!”

With a shake of his antlers and a big exhale of breath, he was gone.

I waded through the shallows to clean off my sneakers —wet was better than filthy— and followed the course upstream. Soon I found familiar landmarks that told me I wasn’t far from home. Good thing, too. It was starting to get dark and Mom would be extra mad if I ruined dinner.

The dog came running when I emerged from the woods, happily barking and jumping to greet me. “This is all your fault,” I said, grudgingly ruffling her fur.

My mother stuck her head out the door and frowned. “Look at you! Just look at you! You’re a mess! Shoes off and straight into the tub,” she ordered, pointing. “And get right back down here when you’re done. Dinner’s almost ready and your shenanigans aren’t going to hold the rest of us up.”

I obediently pulled off my sneakers and left them at the door. Mom was still muttering under her breath at the state of my appearance till I got out of earshot. I cleaned up and brushed the tangles from my hair as fast as I could so as to not make things worse. My sister would pout. Even though I was the one in trouble, she hated not being the center of attention. Mom would be exasperated and play the martyr as always. Rolling her eyes heavenward and wondering what she did to deserve such a child as me.

As we took our seats at the table, the interrogation began. Where did I go? What did I do? Why was I so late? When was I ever going to learn? And then to my father, “I hope she grows out of this…” and “I told you we should have sent her to camp for the summer.”

“But Mom,” I started. “The coolest thing happened!” Hoping the story would impress enough to distract from my shortcomings, I told them about the buck.

My mother raised an eyebrow. “Led you to the stream. Really.” Then with that pinchy frown that made her look like she’d just sucked a lemon, she said, “Making up stories is not getting you off the hook. You are grounded through the weekend. No playing outside, no dessert and you will wash the dishes every night.”

“But it’s true!” I cried. I turned to Dad for support but he just shrugged sadly. “I’m not making it up!”

“That’s enough!” Mom shouted. “Keep it up and I’ll add more days!”

After clearing the table and scrubbing the pots and pans, I retreated to my room. No TV for me either. I plopped on my bed and stared out the window at the purple dusk sky. Movement at the edge of the forest caught my eye. The buck stepped out of the trees and looked at the house. I jumped from the bed and pulled the screen from my window so I could lean out. The buck saw me, I swear. I waved and he shook his head side to side in response. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back,” I said. And I concentrated real hard so maybe he could read my mind. Then with a flick of his tail, he bounded along the perimeter of the woods to an opening and was gone.

I stayed at the window until it grew fully dark, dreaming. They couldn’t keep me out of the woods forever. And maybe someday, I’d leave and never come back.

Hair Of the Dog

[Here’s a follow up to my story Cheeseburger In Paradise. And maybe the beginning of another Bucks County Novel… maybe?]

Kerry Donovan felt like someone had placed tiny little cotton socks on each of his teeth. He rolled over and his stomach rolled in the opposite direction. Steady, steady now… He opened an eye. It was light out. Very light, in fact. And the last thing he remembered was dancing (dancing?!?) in a dark corner of Martha’s Tavern with a gorgeous brunette. He cautiously picked his head up from the pillow and realized he was on his parents’ sofa. Apparently, Martha did have to call his daddy to come pick him up. Great. His first night in town and he’d gotten blind drunk. No doubt he’d made a fool of himself, too. “Way to go, dumb ass,” he muttered to himself.

He lay staring at the ceiling for a minute and listened. The house was quiet except for the whir of the ceiling fan. Both his parents were early risers so either it was very late and they were already up and about their business. Or —and he shuddered to think— he had kept them up way past their bedtime with his shenanigans and they were still sleeping.

He tried to remember the events of the previous night. He remembered bearing his soul to Martha, telling her the whole sordid tale of his failed engagement. And then Brianna calling…. She had called, hadn’t she? Kerry cringed. “She just sweet talk you into taking her sorry ass back. That’s what…” Yeah. That’s what Martha had said as she hung up on her. And then she’d introduced him to her baby sister…

Magdalena. He remembered her dark eyes, high cheekbones, her thick lustrous hair. The bee-stung lips he was sure that he’d kissed. He closed his eyes and imagined her scent, the press of her body close to his as they swayed to the soft music on the bar’s sound system. God, he hoped he hadn’t done anything too embarrassing. If he was sticking around, he sure would like to see her again.

He gingerly placed one foot on the floor and then the other. Slowly, steadily he pushed himself to a sitting position. He was still in last night’s clothes, minus his flip flops, and he smelled like beer. It made his stomach roll again. With one hand on his belly and another shading his eyes, he shuffled to the kitchen. The clock on the stove said 9:45. The coffee in the pot was long cold and neither of his parents’ cars were in the driveway. He breathed a tiny sigh of relief. At least that conversation was postponed.

He filled a glass with water, chugged it, filled it again and took it with him to the outside steps that led to the rooms above the garage. After trudging up to the tiny apartment, he searched the medicine cabinet for aspirin, hoped they weren’t expired and downed four of them with his glass of water. He found his toothbrush and scrubbed the ‘cotton socks’ from his teeth. After a shower, he felt nearly human again. He returned to his parents’ kitchen to forage for food. As he was about to pop two slices of bread in the toaster, the doorbell rang.

He peeked through the front window to see who it was. Tall, tanned, her black hair piled on her head and wearing a short, white sundress that showed off her long legs, Magdalena stood at the front door with carry out coffees and a bakery bag in her hand. She spotted him at the window and smiled. Kerry felt like his bones had just dissolved.

“Thought you could use a little hair of the dog, honey,” she said as she floated past him. “It’s Martha’s special hangover cure. Irish coffee and croque monsieur. Salt, sugar, fat and alcohol. If it don’t cure ya, it’ll put ya outta your misery.”

She handed him a cup and the bag. Their fingers touched and he imagined that a jolt of electricity passed between them. Ridiculous. He found his voice. “You want to sit outside?”

“Sure,” she said, giving him the bone melting smile again.

He led her through the house to the lanai overlooking the back yard. They settled in the shade of the ancient live oak, at the antique cafe table his mom had rescued from a second hand store. His stomach rumbled noisily as he unwrapped the melted ham and cheese sandwich. Magdalena laughed and raised her coffee cup in a salute. “Just what the doctor ordered.”

He bit into the sandwich and nearly groaned out loud. Magdalena sat back in her chair and kicked off her sandals. Then tangling her feet with his beneath the table, she made little circles on the inside of his ankle with her big toe. It was all Kerry could do to chew and swallow.

“You were a lot of fun last night, honey,” she said with a mischievous grin.

“Fun?” he repeated, his voice cracking. He cleared his throat. “In uh… what way do you mean? Fun?”

“You got some moves, sugar.”

“Moves?” He winced, realizing he was repeating everything she said.

Her foot moved higher up his leg to stroke his calf. “Oh yeah…” she said.

‘What the hell was that supposed to mean?’ he wondered. He put the remainder of the sandwich down on the foil wrapper and took a big gulp of the whisky laden coffee. He coughed and sucked in air. “Damn! Is there actually any coffee in there?”

She laughed again. “Mm hm. Just enough.”

He sat forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “Look, Magdalena…”

“Maggie’s fine, sugar,” she said gently.

“Ok. Maggie. Listen, I have to be honest… I don’t exactly remember what happened last night. At least not after you sat next to me and we got to talking. So…” he looked at her hopefully.

“Aw, baby. Don’t you worry. We had a lovely evening. Dancing at the bar, walking on the beach, kissing under the moonlight… and…”

He swallowed hard. “Yeah. And?”

She leaned forward so their knees were touching and her face was inches from his. “And you were a perfect gentleman.” She smiled and leaned closer, taking his face between her hands and kissing him softly on the lips. “Much to my chagrin.” He could feel her smile against his mouth as she lingered. He brought his hands up to cover hers and kissed her back. She sighed softly as he deepened the kiss, running his hands down the smooth skin of her arms.

Neither of them were paying enough attention to notice the click of heels on the walkway leading to the lanai. The thud of a suitcase landing hard on the ground finally broke their embrace. Kerry turned and gasped. “Brianna!”

Keeping Up Appearances

An older short story, recently revised for an upcoming collection.

Jane awoke with that familiar knot in her stomach. Every day was the same. Her husband sighed and rolled over, silencing the alarm. Jane pretended to sleep through it so that he would be quiet as he readied himself for work. Then, just before he left, he would softly kiss her cheek and whisper, “I love you.” She’d murmur her response and wait until the door closed behind him. Today was just like every other day.

She ran her fingers through her short hair and stepped over the dog as she climbed out of bed. Then after using the toilet, she washed her hands, swapped her glasses for contact lenses and stared at herself in the mirror. The strain was starting to show. Dark circles and fine lines framed her haunted blue eyes. She turned away and shuffled to the kitchen for coffee.

While the Breville heated, she fumbled in the liquor cabinet for just the right bottle. Bourbon? Yes. A shot of Woodford to kick start the motor. Perfect. With a healthy dose added to her mug, she ground the beans, packed the filter with the grind and set the mug beneath it to fill with the extracted coffee.

Rain battered the windows. Her daily walk would be impossible —only a zealot would be out exercising in this weather. She’d be trapped inside. Maybe a double shot was in order. With a heavy sigh, she splashed a little more bourbon in the mug and stirred. Taking the coffee with her, she sat on her sofa and tucked her feet beneath her. How had things gotten to this point? She used to be happy, used to leap out of bed in the morning. When had that changed? She laughed wryly, knowing the answer. Was it already ten years since she’d been manipulated into moving her elderly parents into her home? Her father was gone now and just Mother now occupied the apartment on the ground floor. Jane and her husband had been pushed upstairs into the smaller of the two spaces. Her reverie was broken when her mother hollered up from the bottom of the stairs. “Janie? Are you up yet?”

Jane muttered a curse under her breath. “Yeah, Ma. I’m up.”

“So what’s on the agenda today?” her mother asked, increasing her volume to be heard through the closed door.

“None of your damned business,” Jane muttered. If only she had the guts to say that out loud. “Nothing. Why? You have big plans?” she asked, sarcastically.

“Well, I need some things from the store and the drug store and…” her mother droned on and on, missing the sarcasm. “I was hoping you would go for me.”

“I have clients today, Ma. And it’s pouring. Can it wait?”

“Not really,” her mother whined. “Besides, you aren’t seeing clients ALL day, are you? You’re never that busy…”

“Fine,” Jane replied, ignoring the barb. “I’ll go at lunch.” She sighed. “As usual.”

“Did you hear the news?”

Jane rolled her eyes. Her mother seemed to think she was uninformed just because she didn’t watch the nightly news and the morning news and the noon time news as religiously as her mother did. “No, Ma. What happened?”

“A water main burst in Center City. It flooded an entire neighborhood!”

And this impacted our lives, how? “Oh yeah? That’s too bad.”

“You should see the pictures. It was terrible.”

“I’m sure it was, Ma.”

After a brief rundown of the rest of the broadcast, her mother toddled off to get her breakfast, leaving Jane to her thoughts. She missed her father. He had been the only reason she’d agreed to this badly thought out plan. She’d had three extra years with him and that was a blessing wasn’t it? Jane sighed and drained the last of her spiked coffee as tears filled her eyes. She looked heavenward to keep them from spilling over. “Pull yourself together,” she said to herself.

After she showered and dressed, Jane wandered downstairs through her mother’s part of the house to reach the basement office where she saw clients on most days. Another mistake —they should have devised some way for her to reach the office without having to pass Mother on the way. She was in the kitchen fixing breakfast as Jane strode past.

“You’re not going to let people see you like that, are you?” she asked, turning at the sound of Jane’s footsteps.

Jane looked down at her jeans and black pullover sweater. “What’s wrong with this?”

Her mother sniffed. “It’s awfully casual, don’t you think?”

“I want my clients to feel comfortable with me, Ma. Not intimidated by a business suit or dress.”

“You could at least put on some lipstick,” she grumbled as Jane walked away.

The irony of being of family counselor struck her every time she flipped on the lights and turned on the soothing music in her subterranean work space. Jane checked the time. She had ten minutes before the Hedbergs were due. They were easy. All she had to do was sit and listen while they got their grievances off their chests. After each session, the couple left smiling and holding hands. Jane was nothing more than a means to get them talking.

At lunchtime, she trudged up the two flights of stairs to eat and let the dog out. As she passed through the first floor, she heard the noon news broadcast coming from the TV in her mother’s bedroom. Jane rolled her eyes. She would get a full report when she got her mother’s list of errands.

Lunch was a vodka martini with extra olives and a few slices of cheddar cheese. Just a little something to take the edge off before facing the dragon again. When she descended the stairs, she was surprised to find the living room empty and the sound of the TV still blaring from the sitting room. Jane went to investigate.

“Ma?” she called out.

No answer.

She peeked in the room. Her mother sat in the recliner with her eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling. Jane knew without checking that the old woman was dead. She picked up the remote and lowered the volume. Then closing the door to the room behind her, Jane exhaled slowly and tried not to laugh out loud.