This is the second chapter of my book about the town of Walskit.
Tom Nelson fiddled with the latch on the trunk of his 1988 Crown Victoria. It had been giving him trouble lately, kept making an obnoxious clanking sound every time he went over a bump or a pothole, and he decided today was the day to fix it. He grabbed his flashlight to get a better look and spotted the problem immediately - a loose screw on the left side of the handle. Easy enough to fix. As he was rummaging around in the trunk looking for a screwdriver, his boss Owen came walking down the steps.
“Still at it there Nelson? Thought you went home hours ago.”
Tom carefully maneuvered out from the trunk, narrowly avoiding hitting his head. “Uhh yeah I uh….I still had a few things to get done. Wanted to get the car cleaned up.”
Owen was already in his car, starting up the engine. He didn’t care. He gave Tom a half-hearted wave goodbye and drove up the winding mountain slope.
When Tom turned back around to face the trunk, he saw the screwdriver sitting neatly on top of his grease cloth. “How did I miss that?” he said to himself. As he tightened the screw, he began to look forward to the much quieter drives around town that he could soon enjoy. With the windows rolled down, driving around Walskit and soaking in the mountain air was the town’s best kept secret, and Tom hoped nobody would ever find out.
While there were certainly more chores that could be done, Tom figured it was time to head home and face the music. He didn’t know for sure what topics of conversation awaited him that night, but as he thought back to the conversation he had with his wife from a few nights earlier, a feeling of dread crept up on him.
Tom turned left toward the park. He figured he’d take the long way back, no harm in taking his time since there wasn’t much to look forward to at home. The park was small but serene. The playground equipment had been changed out a few times over the years, but it was still the same park little Tommy grew up playing in. As he wheeled over the speed bump entering the park area, Tom grinned at the now silent handle on his trunk. One less thing to worry about.
No one was there, so he parked his car and got out, figuring a loop or two around wouldn’t do any harm. Maybe it would help to clear his head before tonight. Eventually, he settled on a bench near the swingset and reminisced about his many days spent playing here as a child. Most of them were good memories. Some were just...memories. So many things he could’ve done differently.
“Little Tommy loves his Mommy!” chanted Steven - earlier that day as kids were filing into the school he had seen Tom’s mother drop him off at the curb and give him her signature goodbye kiss. She didn’t do it to embarrass him, but Steven saw it nonetheless and now he’d never let Tom live it down.
“Shut up Steven” muttered Tom as he started walking away from the swings toward the parking lot.
“Or else what? You going to go tell your Mommy on me?”
Tom ignored the jeers and kept walking, hoping that would be the end of it. He looped around the long way and started climbing up the big hill that overlooked the park. He saw Steven resume his vandalism of the playground equipment. He was bored with him now. Tom crossed his arms behind his head and laid back in the grass. It was a gorgeous fall day - the perfect temperature, just enough clouds in the sky and all the leaves had changed color but hardly any of them had started falling yet. Fall in Walskit was too enjoyable to let a few comments from Steven ruin Tom’s day. He thought back to all of the seasons he had enjoyed growing up here. Riding his bike, playing basketball, skipping rocks - even raking the leaves provided a peaceful tranquility for Tom. And then there were the mountains. The mountains in Walskit made you feel invincible. You were close to nature in such an intimate way that it left you feeling as though everything would be alright. The people would tear you down and the mountain would build you back up. Yes, it was definitely fall. Because as Tom laid down and rested his head back on the grass he saw a dark red maple leaf drift slowly toward the ground. It danced slowly back and forth, back and forth, and before Tom saw it hit the ground, his eyes were closed.
He drifted off to sleep and began experiencing all of the usual paranormalities of unconsciousness. Just a few steps removed from wakefulness, Tom felt himself in the same spot he occupied in reality - on the hill overlooking the park. But he heard a dog barking in the distance. He glanced around and saw the dog standing at the trailhead, staring at Tom, his tail wagging. This was odd, because Tom loved this park but he had never noticed a trailhead before. The park was small and the two areas immediately surrounding it were the town and the woods. All of the popular mountain trails had official entrances in nearby areas, but this wasn’t one of them. He went after the dog to follow it and floated effortlessly over (as one does in a dream, it’s either effortless floating or mind-numbingly impossible dredging, depending on the situation.) When he reached the trailhead, he noticed a very visible trail leading him up into the woods and eventually through the mountains. The dog was excitedly leading Tom through the forest. He noticed an opening in the trees ahead - perhaps a scenic view of the valley below - it was just a few more steps ahead of him and--
WHACK! Tom awoke to the feeling of his cheekbone being kicked like a soccer ball by a large, black combat boot that belonged to none other than Steven. Tom noticed Steven’s friends standing behind him, urging him to continue as Tom retreated into the fetal position, hoping to protect his face from Steven’s boot. But he kept aiming for the head. It was infuriating.
“What a coward!” screamed Tom. “Attacking a guy while he’s sleeping! You’re a real winner Steve!”
This only further enraged Steven, continuing to kick at every opening he saw.
Tom felt his nose running and when he wiped it with his hand, he noticed it wasn’t snot - it was blood. He had had enough. He stood up and ran towards the back end of the park at full speed. He didn’t realize it fully, but he was aiming for the trailhead that he saw in his dream. You know, the one that doesn’t exist in real life - at least he thought so - right? After a solid five minutes of all out running, Tom found a thick enough tree to hide his slender frame and took the opportunity to catch his breath.
“Shit!” Tom uttered as he realized he was completely lost “shit shit shit shit”
He felt confident enough that he had successfully lost Steven and his crew, but now, he was lost. He spun around several times as the panic set in. His father had warned him about this possibility. As beautiful as the Walkit forest was, many parts of it looked similar. And it lurked with the many dangers that come to mind when you think of the mountains. Bears. Wolves. Uneven & unpredictable terrain. He tried to take a deep breath and focus on his immediate surroundings. Then, he expanded his focus out about twenty feet. That’s when he noticed something he recognized. Not from the park or from his memories - but from the dream. There was actually a trail. He hadn’t seen or noticed a trailhead on his way in, but now that he was about a hundred yards into the woods, literally standing on it, he realized there was, in fact, a subtle pathway cut through the woods, leading the way into the mountains.
Tom recalled the tranquil feeling from his dream and decided to follow the trail further into the woods. Despite the steep terrain, the trail moved Tom effortlessly up the mountain, taking him further into the autumn woods. Tom looked up and realized that the forest was so dense, he could barely see the sky through all of the tree branches anymore. But he kept going. Even though he didn’t know exactly where he was, he figured he could just follow the trail back and it would get him close enough back to find the park.
After about half an hour of walking, Tom reached an unnatural opening in the woods. It formed almost a perfect circle, and picked the trail up again on the other side. Curious, Tom walked the circle, but couldn’t find anything else unusual about it so he picked the trail back up on the other side. About twenty-five feet later, that’s where it ended. The woods became a bit more sparse and it was clear to Tom that he was standing on a cliff. Nowhere to go but down, or back the way he came. It wasn’t a steep drop-off--the rock outcroppings dropped gradually before they became anything too severe looking. But the view was incredible. Especially with all of the full trees boasting fall colors - everything glowed in the evening’s golden hour.
Despite the view, Tom was disappointed that the trail ended. He figured he should head back before it gets too dark. As he turned to leave, he noticed the flicker of a light in the corner of his eye. It had come from inside of a cave that had formed in one of the outcroppings.
“Hello?” Tom asked.
Then he thought to himself ‘That was stupid. Why did I say hello? There’s clearly no one here.’
Still, curiosity got the best of him, and he made his way over to the cave. It wasn’t all that deep - really more of a natural shelter, but he stepped inside and looked around. Due to the sun setting directly behind him, natural light filled the cave and Tom could easily see nearly every inch of the inside of it. Tom noticed the scurry of a small animal and jumped back. It was a lizard. A pretty sizable lizard, but still, just a lizard.
‘Ah’ he thought. ‘That explains the flicker I saw. Alright, now it’s really time to head home.’ As Tom watched the lizard crawl away, he thought about how beautiful this place was, and mentally bookmarked the cave as a place he should come back to sometime. It could be his little secret hideaway.
Tom turned around to leave and quickly drew in his breath.
There was a tall bearded man standing on the trail staring at him.
Tom stood up from the park bench and quickly thought to his wife waiting at home for him. Yes, this park, this town, it held many memories for Tom. Each section helping to shape a part of who he is. He walked back to his Crown Victoria, again admiring the recently tightened latch on his trunk. It’s the little things.
As he drove home, he no longer felt a sense of dread thinking about any potential arguments that awaited him. He felt differently now. He didn’t want to argue. He just wanted to talk.