Another short story competition got me moving on as I wait for NaNoWriMo to begin. This one was for the “Horror” section of Scribophile.
The photo prompt was this.
Here’s what I did with it:
LeeAnn found the trailhead easily, despite the vague directions from the nervous hotel clerk. He had been very upset to learn that she planned to come up here tonight. By day, this short mountain pass had little enough traffic – mostly hill dwellers with city jobs. But by night, he warned, almost nobody drove this way.
“That road ain’t real friendly miss. I mean, you’re already paid through tonight, won’t cost you any more to stay over and leave in the morning. Something happens up there at night – car trouble, anything – well, won’t nobody be along to help you for hours and hours.”
He seemed to feel strongly that this warning should put her off.
It did not.
Midnight hikes were her passion. She loved everything about it, strapping on a headlamp and searching slowly, tentatively, along a new, unfamiliar trail for the perfect spot. It was always different, but she always knew when she found it – the ideal curve in a riverbank, the sudden plunging drop that by day would yield a spectacular view, the place a few yards off the trail where a fallen tree left a deep secret hole where its roots had been. That hole would vanish in a season, filled with leaf mould until it was a brand new bit of level forest floor, ready for its next tree.
She had thanked the boy graciously for his concern. Anything to avoid a scene, after all, even if it meant being polite to a Nosy Parker. She did not have the time to deal with him properly just now. As she opened the boot of her little hatchback and slung the strap of the heavy gym bag diagonally across her body, she wondered again why people tried to initiate conflicts with her. She so wished that they wouldn’t. Angry, confrontational people made her head spin and her thoughts feel sticky. Arguments upset her stomach. Her parents had yelled a lot.
A recent threatened confrontation had sent her off on this trip. Her neighbor in the apartment below hers had complained to the management – about noises, about smells, about anything he could think of. Bitter, angry old man. LeeAnn had received a notice to come to the manager’s office, to ‘work the situation out.’ The implication was that he would be there as well. The very idea had made her skin crawl. She simply couldn’t face it. The afternoon before the scheduled meeting, she had knocked on his door with a peace offering – a bottle of bourbon. She knew what he drank. He threw away lots of bottles.
The next morning, early, she had thrown her meager belongings and four heavy gym bags into the trunk and hit the highway. She had made a grand adventure of it, finding new trails and old, little-used roadways across two states over the past few days.
But all adventures end. Tonight would be her last midnight hike of this trip. Tomorrow she would have to come down out of the mountains, find a new town to live in, a job, a new life. Start over.
Just as she had started over when she had left her previous job. Her boss had been a difficult woman. Demanding, of course – that was fine. But she also played favorites and did not even try to hide it. And she made no secret of her plan to find a reason to fire LeeAnn. Of course there were procedures in place to handle problems like that – a formal grievance with HR, a mediation team, long hours of sitting in a conference room telling old hatchet-face exactly how she felt about the unfair treatment and the unearned negative performance reviews. But really, that was more than LeeAnn could bear.
So she went hiking.
The adventure before that had begun when she ended her engagement. She thought about her fiance, about how he insisted that they would move back to his hometown after they married, socialize with his friends, live on his parents’ property. LeeAnn knew that the “right” answer would have been to have the conversation – to tell him honestly that she wasn’t comfortable with that, tell him that she wanted them to build a new life together, that she did not want to be an accessory – an ornament – to his old life. But it would have been an ugly scene. She could not bear an ugly scene.
Well, that was over now and she need not worry about it any more.
She shifted the bag as she hiked the trail, her headlamp moving slowly up and in, until she found exactly what she was looking for. A sharp drop off into a deep culvert. It was perfect – deep enough that even if someone looked down into it and saw a dropped sports bag, they would not be able to retrieve it. Especially now, with the heavy summer rains coming on.
Perhaps, next fall or early spring, some adventurous soul might climb down to see what was there. They might find the cheap bag from the popular discount store. And if they did, the last quarter of the downstairs neighbor would eventually be identified. But she would be long gone and someone else, and she would not have to be involved in any uncomfortable conversations about any of it. So, it would all work out.