This story is by Kim Russell and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It had been five years since Max disappeared in these woods. This year Betsy walked in for the last time.
The smell of the fall air and the crunch of the dry leaves under her boots all brought back the memories of them and their time together. They would’ve gotten married right here at the bridge where they shared their first kiss, played their leaf game.
That was the plan anyway.
Betsy took a deep breath at the entrance, closed her eyes and put her head down. Her long brown curls tumbled over her shoulders and covered her face.
For a moment she stood still.
Then lifting her head, she shook her hair back and entered over the bridge on the path she used to walk with Max every year to celebrate the start of fall.
She used to come here all the time looking for him. She used to believe she would find him, but each time she lost a little more hope. In fact, with help from her father, she decided this would be her last visit.
Just this morning before she left, Betsy’s dad followed her to the front door.
“Let him go.” He said as he placed his hands on her shoulders.
Betsy stood there, hands in her pockets, head down.
“You have to move on. It’s killing you and that’s killing me. I want you happy.” He said.
She teared up and laid her cheek on his chest for a moment, deciding he was right. The permanent dark circles under her eyes and the way her clothes hung off her told her what the stress was doing. Dad wanted her to give up years ago, but she wasn’t one to just give up on something, so this was hard for her.
Kicking leaves and branches and tapping tree trunks with a stick, she thought of Max and the reason she was here.
“Leaf game.” She said.
Every fall color under the rock on the bridge. Tradition. Maybe she would take them with her this time. She was still deciding.
The way the light was streaming in at an angle through the trees, lit the the leaves up like fire and she wished she’d brought her camera. The brisk wind was swirling the leaves around her boots and she could smell the rain coming. She pulled down her hat, put her hands deep in her pockets and marched ahead.
She must have been walking around for an hour searching for the last color when she realized she was lost. Her sense of direction was, well, she had no sense of direction and she didn’t bring her phone.
With not many options, she decided to keep playing the leaf game and kept following the path past the yellow oaks and the orange maples muttering to herself. “Got that color, got that color.” When she looked up, she saw a purple tree, the only color she needed, sitting in the center of a small clearing.
She smiled for the first time all day.
Maybe it was her imagination or just the memory of Max in the woods, but in this circle she felt him near. She smelled him. His leather coat, the smoky smell of barbecue. It was him alright. She whipped around expecting to see him standing there.
Shaking it off, she bent down at the tree base to complete her collection when she saw in her peripheral vision, a rock glow. A perfect circle of smooth grey rocks surrounding the tree were all lighting up in a pattern.
As she walked over to see, the rock pattern stopped and she heard a creak, like an old door. The ground beneath the tree opened, revealing a stairwell.
“Max” She said, as she ran over to the stairs, but before she could descend, the sky downpoured, holding her up just long enough for mother nature to..
Lightning sizzled past her head and struck the tree, splitting it right down the middle and setting the purple leaves gathered at its trunk on fire. She threw sticks, dirt, anything and everything to get to the stairs and past the fire, but it was no use. The fire fed off the leaves and sticks, taking advantage of the week long drought and grew quicker than Betsy could handle. As the flames grew higher and spread along the ground, she was forced back into the woods.
Which way was the damn bridge?
No matter. The fire was running after her now, chasing her out of woods and away from the stairs at the base of the tree. Maybe she could go back up the hill another way and get back to the stairs. Each time she tried, though, the fire overtook her and forced her further down the hill.
She had two choices, run or burn.
Not knowing the way back to the bridge and failing, yet again, to find her love, she didn’t care anymore if the flames caught her. She collapsed on the forest floor.
The flames were so close she could feel her flesh burning, but before she closed her eyes to surrender to the fire, she saw a figure off in the distance. If she didn’t know better, she would’ve sworn it was Max. Same size. Same shape.
“Max.” She said, as she scrambled to her feet and leapt over the burning ground, straight toward him. Logic told her he must be an illusion, but she wasn’t listening to logic right now, so she ran without paying attention to the ground beneath her feet.
She tripped over a tree root and landed right on her chest, knocking the wind out of her for a minute. When the flames licked her boots, she thought of the possibility of Max and knew she had to pull herself together and get out of there.
Looking back down the hill, she saw him again and started to half crawl half roll her way down toward a creek she’d never seen before in all her years coming to these woods. On the other side of the creek stood a blurry Max. Her heart felt like it was swelling out of her chest. He stretched out his hand toward her and she crossed the creek to him.
They hugged for what seemed like forever.
Betsy had so many questions, but when she opened her mouth to speak, she choked on the smoke-filled air and they had to run.
He led her downstream and up a small embankment to within sight of their stone bridge now just a short distance away. They were almost out. She had Max again. She could hear him shuffling through the leaves behind her and the sound of the fire crackling close behind them both as she climbed up to the bridge.
Once she was safely on top, she turned around to face Max only to find no one behind her at all.
He was gone.
Left in his place was a perfect pile of fall colored leaves under the stone on the bridge. One of every color.
She stood on the bridge watching the woods burn and clutching her leaves, his last gift to her and the end of the leaf game for the year. Was it all a dream? The stairs? The tree? Max?
No, the proof was in her hands and she would never give up now. She knew the truth and she would find him again.