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!”

Cheeseburger In Paradise

A Bucks County short story [revised and retitled] by Meg Sorick.

Nobody was expecting him. After all who in their right mind drives to Florida from Pennsylvania on the spur of the moment? Kerry Donovan –that’s who. Although the part about him being in his right mind was questionable. It had taken him eighteen hours to reach St. Martha’s Cove, the tiny Gulf Coast town where his parents had moved after retiring a few years ago.  Back home in Bucks County, Kerry and his brother Leo had taken over their father’s construction business.  

The sun was just lightening the sky as Kerry pulled into his parents’ driveway.  He had thrown some clothes in a duffel bag and taken off without telling anyone where he was going, not even Leo, and chances were pretty good he was going to be pissed.

Ryan Donovan was sitting on the front porch with his coffee and the newspaper.  He tossed it aside and stood when he heard the crunch of gravel.   Kerry saw him open the front door and yell inside.  No doubt announcing to his wife, Sophie, their son’s unplanned arrival. Kerry cut the engine and got out. His muscles were stiff and his back was sore from sitting so long. He barely had time to stretch before his dad was on him.

“Kerry,”  his father said, striding over and putting a hand on his arm.  “What the hell’s going on, son?  You ok?  Is it Leo?”  He gripped Kerry by the shoulders and stared at him hard.  “Brianna.”  He muttered a curse.  “What happened?”

Kerry gave him a shaky smile.  “I took her over to see the house.”

“What?  She didn’t like it?”  Ryan asked.  “You’ve got to be kidding me!”

Sophie Donovan ran outside, still in her pajamas and bare feet.  “Sweetheart!  What on earth…?”  she began.  “Come inside, you look exhausted.  We can talk over coffee.”  She held Kerry’s arm and led him to the house, peppering him with questions the whole way.  Ryan got Kerry’s bag from the truck and followed them inside.

Sophie directed her son to the kitchen table and set a cup of coffee in front of him.  “Now, tell us what’s going on,” she ordered.

Kerry covered his face with his hands, resting his elbows on the table before speaking.  “She called off the wedding.”

“What?!?”  Sophie cried.  “With only three weeks to go?  Oh, sweetie, why?”

Kerry rubbed his eyes.  They felt like sandpaper.  “She’s decided she can’t spend the rest of her life with me.”

“Why the hell not?”  Ryan growled.  “You guys have been dating for over two years and it took her this long to figure that out?” He shook his head in disgust. “At a minimum she shouldn’t have said yes when you asked.”

“I know, Dad,”  Kerry sighed.  “I’ve been asking myself why I didn’t see it coming for the past eighteen hours.”  He gave them the whole story, detail by sordid detail.  “That’s it.  We’re finished.”

“Did you tell your brother?”  Ryan asked.

Kerry shook his head.  “No.” He paused and blew out a breath. “Not ready for the pity party.”

“Well, you can stay here for as long as you like, dear,”  Sophie said patting his hand.  “But you have to call Leo and tell him.  He’ll be worried.”

“Yeah.  Not right now, ok?”  He drained his coffee cup and stood.  “So can I bunk over the garage or do I have to squeeze into that closet you call a spare room?”

“The rooms over the garage are all yours, sweetie.  Let me go get you some towels and sheets,”  his mother said, rising.  “Then I’ll fix you breakfast.”

“Sounds good, Mom.”

***

The setting sun shining through the west-facing window finally roused Kerry from his slumber.  He trudged into the bathroom and splashed cold water on his face.  His dark stubble was past the five o’clock shadow stage but he couldn’t have cared less.  On returning to the bedroom, he checked his phone.  There were three missed calls, all from Leo, and one voicemail.  Maybe he’d try and sweet talk his mom into calling Leo back for him.

He pulled a pair of cargo shorts out of his duffel bag and tucked the phone in one of the pockets.  His parents’ bungalow was quiet when he entered through the lanai in the back of the house.  “Mom?  Dad?”  he called out.  No response.  He found a note in the kitchen,  ‘Kerry, we ran out for some extra supplies.  Shouldn’t be gone too long.  Help yourself to whatever you find in the fridge.  Love, Mom.’

He opened the fridge, didn’t see anything that caught his fancy.  He felt like a big greasy burger and about a gallon of beer.  He ran back upstairs for his wallet, left a note for his parents and walked toward the town, looking for a bar.

He found a place facing the beach, right on the edge of town, called Martha’s Tavern.  At first, he thought it was named for St. Martha’s Cove but as he got closer, he saw in smaller letters beneath the sign:  ‘And this Martha ain’t no saint’.  He chuckled.  This was just what he was looking for.  He poked his head in the door and saw a few customers sitting at the bar, a few more playing pool in a small room off to the side.  It looked like a mix of locals and a couple of stray tourists.  Perfect. He found an open seat at the bar and sat down.

A mountain of a woman came over to take his order.  She must have been six feet tall and built like a line backer.  She had a mass of black hair pulled back in a braid and the tattoo of a snake coiling from her thick wrist to her impressive bicep.  She smirked at Kerry’s shocked expression.  “Somethin’ a matter, sugar?”  she drawled.

Kerry blinked and mentally smacked himself.  “Uh, no, no.  Nothing’s the matter.”

“Aw, a Yankee boy.  You down a visit, honey?”

“Uh, yeah, my folks live here,” he replied.

She cocked her head to the side, swinging her long dark braid behind her.  “You sure they ain’t nothin’ wrong, darlin’?”  she asked.  “Lemme getcha a drink and you can tell me ’bout it.  Whatcha havin’?”

Two shots and two beers later, Kerry’s head was spinning.  He hadn’t eaten anything since his mother had forced breakfast on him that morning.  Martha had matched him shot for shot and didn’t seem fazed in the least.  Before she set his third beer in front of him, she went back to the kitchen and returned with a big burger on a kaiser roll, a pile of fries and a pickle.  “Chow down, honey.  Else I’ll have to call your daddy to come getcha.”

Kerry shook his head to clear it.  “How’d you know…?”

She laughed and patted his hand.  Kerry dug into the food while Martha moved down the length of the bar to take care of her other customers.  He nearly groaned with pleasure – this might be the best burger he’d ever had.  Getting a little food in his belly helped to clear his head somewhat, too.  When Martha had refilled everyone’s drinks she came back to Kerry and leaned in close.  “You wanna talk about it?”  she asked gently.  “Might help.”

Kerry found himself pouring out the whole story.  How he’d bought an old run-down house and remodeled it for his soon-to-be bride.  The time and attention he’d put into restoring every detail in the beautiful Craftsman-style bungalow.  Hardwood floors, wood trim, tile in the kitchens and bathrooms.  Stained glass in the window of the front door.  It was his wedding present to her and she’d dumped him on the front porch.

“That girl be crazy, let a handsome young fella like you get away.”  Martha patted his cheek.  “She don’t deserve ya. That’s what. You better off without her.”

The phone in Kerry’s pocket vibrated.  It was probably his mom worrying that he wasn’t home yet.  He answered without looking at the caller ID.  “Hello.”

“Kerry, it’s me,”  Brianna said quietly.  “Can we talk?”

Kerry’s stomach knotted and the shock must’ve shown on his face because Martha frowned.  “What do you want Bri?”

“Kerry, I’ve been thinking…  Maybe… maybe you were right, I was just getting cold feet.  I’m sorry.  I’ve made a huge mistake.  Can you forgive me?  Will you please let me come over so we can talk?”

“Forgive you?  Come over?”  Kerry repeated into the phone.  “Just like that?”  He swallowed hard.  “Bri, I’m in Florida at my parents’ house.”

Across the bar from him, Martha mouthed “That her?” and Kerry nodded.  Martha snatched the phone away from him and hung it up. “Hey!” Kerry protested.

“No good’ll come from that, sugar.  She just sweet talk ya into takin’ her sorry ass back.”  She pushed a fresh beer in front of him.  “You’ll find the right girl, doncha worry none.  In the meantime, set a spell and keep ole Martha company.” She grinned wickedly and gave him a wink.  “Who knows, maybe you’ll meet somebody here.”

Kerry drank deeply from his pint glass and shook his head.  Then for the first time in the last thirty-six hours, he smiled.  Yeah, he would be all right.  He could stay here, fish in the gulf, get himself a tan and help his Dad fix up that old boat he’d bought.  Leo could manage without him for a while.  Winter was coming and business would slow down anyway.  Besides, the weather here was beautiful.  And even better, Brianna was eleven hundred miles away.

Kerry was concentrating on his burger when someone slid onto the stool next to his. He turned his head, intending to be polite and found himself face to face with a stunning brunette. He managed a smile and forced himself to keep his eyes from drifting south to her sinful curves.  With thick black hair, huge dark eyes and full kissable lips, she was breathtaking. She smiled and Kerry went weak in the knees. Martha cleared her throat,  “Sugar? Lemme introduce you to my baby sister.”