It was nearly dusk and he was completely turned around on the forest trails. He hoped he was going in thedirection of the cabin. After a few more minutes walk, he could hear the soft swoosh of water rushing over rocks.
His lungs took a calming breath and let it go slowly. There wasn’t a creek anywhere near the cabin. He was lost. The canteen was almost empty. He should fill it while he had the chance.
With the sky turning a pinkish gold overhead, he made his way off the trail toward the soft splashing sounds. As he moved closer a soft voice humming blended into the sounds of the creek. Maybe another hiker and he wasn’t as lost as he thought.
He stepped through the brush toward the song to the rocky edge of the creek. His hand gripped a hanging tree limb to keep his footing on the moss slickened stones as he picked his way along the edge. He kneeled on a flat rock and watched bubbles float upward as he held the canteen below the water line.
The bubbles calmed as the last of the air was replaced with refreshing cool liquid. He capped the canteen and cupped his hands to scoop up a drink and bathe his face and neck. As his hands dipped under a face appeared in the water not his own.
With an unmanly yip he jumped back and looked behind him. No one was there. He sighed and shook his head. “I’ve been out in the sun too long today.”
As he stood the humming became louder clearer. He turned and saw a young redheaded woman. She sat on the rocks at the creek edge with a washboard.
He blinked, was she there before? Maybe he was just too tired from the long walk to notice. He watched her pick up a large bar of soap and rub it up and down the board as she continued her song, seemingly oblivious to his presence.
She had to live near by. “Excuse me…. Miss?”
She picked up a shirt from her basket and started to scrub up and down over the washboard. He stepped forward and lost traction on the damp stones. He hit the ground hard enough to see stars. His eyes watered with the ache in his head as he sat up.
The woman had stopped her song and now looked at him as she turned the shirt and continued to scrub. She turned back to her work as she spoke. “Does it hurt?”
He rubbed the back of his head. “Not really, I think I just showed how much of a city boy I am.” His lips curled in a soft grin. “I’m completely turned around on these trails. Do you live near the campground?”
She glanced up for a moment, then rinsed the shirt in the creek and examined it carefully. In the dying light, he could see the white shirt was still stained. She sighed and began to scrub it up and down the board again. “I live in the wood.”
He raised a brow at the short answer. Maybe she was one of those Rainbow People he was always being told to be cautious of. They traveled to different areas, sometimes camping out in the forest like a wild hippy commune. Maybe she, her family was a bunch of cannibal axe murderers on the run or weird apocalypse get back to nature groupies.
If he was lucky she had a phone and he could call for help before she went all Blair Witch on him. “It must be nice to live out here in the quiet. Could I use your land line to call someone to pick me up? My cell is useless out here and I am totally lost on these trails.”
She continued to push and pull the cloth over the board. “There is no phone.”
His spine tingled as he moved closer to her, more carefully over the rocks this time. He made a silent promise to pay more attention to signs and maps next time if hiked. “There’s no phone? Could you give me a ride back to camp? I’ll be glad to pay you for the gas and trouble. I’m sure you get a lot of lost hikers up here.”
She held up the shirt, in the dying light, the dark stain glistened. He thought it looked larger than it had before. The woman seemed satisfied as if it should be worse not better.
“You’re not lost, Thomas.” She began to sing a little louder this time as she worked the cloth once more.
He swallowed, how did she know his name. He rubbed his arms as gooseflesh covered them and chill filled him to the bone. “I really need to get out of the woods. My friends are going to wonder where I am. Is there someone that can give me a ride to camp or town?”
The woman’s lips curled ever so slightly. “Soon, he will come for you, Thomas.”
She stood her hair flowing around her as she turned and pointed. “Don’t worry so, you’re not lost.”
Thomas felt a knot of fear in his throat as he gazed down the line of her finger. His knees felt weak as he walked back to where he had slipped. He looked down at his own face, eyes open, blankly staring at the rising moon. Blood still glistening covered the rock beneath his head. “No… this… isn’t real.”
She put a dainty blood speckled hand on his shoulder. “Some fairy tales are very real, Thomas.”
His chest rose and fell rapidly, his pulse beating in his ears. She said… “Who is coming for me?”
She turned and picked up her basket with its bounty of stained clothing from those she had called for today. Silently she stepped back into the wood disappearing from sight.
He looked up and down the rocky bank as hoof beats began to fill the empty night air. Thomas stood frozen at the sight of the black coach drawn by a demon horse with red eyes. As the coach drew near he could hear the woman singing again. Only now the soft, sweet song had turned into a wail.