Lookout!

“This one’s a feather fern,” Andy gestured toward a snow encrusted mound with a single frond exposed. “The shape gives it away.”

Lacey knew it was actually a sword fern, but she let it slide. Andy could be such a bore. What her best friend saw in him, she’d never know.

Too bad Anne couldn’t be here right now. They had planned this hike a month ago. When Anne got called into work for an emergency, Lacey and Andy decided to go anyway. They promised to send a selfie from the fire lookout at the top. All three knew that this was probably the last chance this winter to hike their favorite trail before the snow was gone. After that it would be clogged with tourists.

The trail was mostly clear already, if a little muddy. It was a beautiful day for a hike, though, even if the conversation wasn’t spectacular.

They rounded the final bend to see the tower dead ahead. Andy led the way up the final mound of boulders and into the historic building.

The sweeping view from the observation deck always took Lacey’s breath away. A thump and Andy’s voice pulled her attention back.

“I have something to ask you,” he said as Lacey glanced down at him.

He must have dropped something, she thought. What a klutz.

Just as she was about to return her attention to the valley below, Lacey noticed Andy fumbling with a tiny, hinged, box. It finally popped opened and he thrust it toward her, the diamond catching and refracting the late morning light.

Lacey’s jaw fell as her mind raced. Look at that diamond! He’s boring, but he must be loaded. Anne would never forgive her.

Andy spoke again before she could collect herself.

“Do you think she’ll like it?”

Missing

Renée stood on the warm side of the sliding glass doors, holding her favorite mug. Scents of cinnamon and clove mingled with orange warmed her from within even though the tea was still too hot to drink. Scanning the fenced backyard, her gaze came to rest on the open gate.

Stepping into snow boots, she quietly muttered, “Where’s Willy now?” She set down the tea and instantly forgot about it as she lifted her down parka from the coat rack and slid it over her bathrobe.

She knew he couldn’t have gone far, not in these freezing temperatures. She was grateful that they didn’t still live in Amarillo, where by this time the crust on the lingering snow would have prevented any tracks. Instead, delicate layers of flakes had captured each of his tiny footprints. Renée followed them across the yard, through the open gate, and towards the woods.

Fortunately for Renee, these were not the deep, dark, woods that one reads about in horror stories. However, like all undeveloped areas, there were some local legends of extraterrestrial activity explaining the oddly precise triangular clearings found deep within, far from any roads. It was an interesting hypothesis, but not one that Renee put much stock in.

These tall pines, with their sparsely grown, high branches, allowed plenty of soft morning light to filter through onto the path. While they had captured some of the snow, a light dusting remained. Just enough for Renee to spot an occasional footprint to follow.

“Willy? Willy!”

The woods responded with complete silence. In other circumstances Renee would have found it peaceful, relaxing even. After all, this is what she moved out here for. It had seemed like such a safe, quiet place for her and Willy.

Renee’s mind began to work through scenarios, all of them horrible, as she followed Willy’s trail. She wasn’t very familiar with this area yet, she hadn’t even really finished unpacking, much less explored the woods in any depth. She had been here with Willy just once. They had followed the path down to a creek and splashed in the water for a bit. This was right after they moved in, just before the weather turned.

She rushed along that path again now, hoping to find Willy safe and sound at the edge of the creek. Gruesome images swirled through her head, though. Were there wild animals out here? There had to be. Little Willy would be no match for a hungry tiger or bear. Could he drown in the creek? It was almost certainly frozen over, but would the ice be thick enough to hold him? She just didn’t know.

Underneath the chaos of catastrophic thoughts, Renee was burdened with the knowledge that if she hadn’t stepped away from the window to selfishly make herself a cup of tea, Willy would still be in the yard enjoying the snow. If she was honest with herself, she would acknowledge that she should have been out there playing with him instead of cozy inside.

With growing apprehension, Renee began to wonder if this was even the same path. It seemed twice as long and half as wide as she remembered it. Plus, it felt much more sinister than last time she was here. Other than her frequent, calls, the woods remained silent.

Her unanswered calls to Willy were cut short as she caught her toe on a root and sprawled face first onto the snow dusted dirt. A rush of air escaped her upon landing and the impact shook her out of her thoughts. Closing her eyes for a moment to collect herself and take stock of the damage, Renee felt dread rushing back.

She hadn’t realized she was crying until she felt Willy’s sandy tongue licking her grimy tears.

“Willy!” Relief flooded in as Renee pulled herself to her knees, scooping up the shivering Chihuahua and hugging him to her chest. “Thank God you’re alright!”

Renee planted a big kiss on his snout before tucking him inside her jacket and heading back to the house. There would be no more unsupervised playtime until she had a chance to check out that latch on the gate.

Back at home, Renee was delighted to find her tea still warm. She sipped it, snuggled in her favorite chair, with Willy curled on her lap. As she daydreamed of the future, so did Willy.

He had thought this was a pretty dull place until this morning. He was playing in the snow when a person-like thing with no smell floated out from the woods and opened the gate for him. They had played in the woods for a bit until his human had interrupted them. That’s okay for now, though. Willy knew he would be seeing a lot more of his cool new friend.