The Way Home

This story was originally a contest submission in the Fall WritersWeekly 24 hour Short Story Contest. It didn’t win, but I like it anyway…

“I must have taken a wrong turn after the river, Daddy. The pavement stopped a while back and there’s nowhere to turn around.”

“Hold on, honey, I’m trying to find it on the map.”

“You’re starting to break up some.”

“I don’t see any dirt roads in that area. I’m hearing another voice on the line. It’s like a whisper, can you hear it?”

“No, I’m just hearing you and static.”

hang… now…”

“Did you hear that?!”

“Did I hear what, Dad?”

“Hang up…  can’t help now…”

“That voice, Melissa… Melissa?”

The line was dead.

Will’s daughter Melissa was on her way to join him for a week in the mountains.  He’d borrowed a cabin from an old army buddy, and neither he nor Melissa had ever been there before.  He’d been expecting her to pull up any minute, and was lighting a fire in the fireplace when his cell phone rang.  He’d spent the day unpacking and enjoying the crisp autumn weather.  The mountains all around were ablaze with autumn colors.  He imagined them having a glorious week trekking in the woods and catching up on everything that had happened since they’d last seen each other.  They’d remained close, even after the divorce.  Will enjoyed sharing his love of nature with his only child.

When he’d been unable to get through to Melissa for nearly an hour, Will dialed 911.  He’d never felt so helpless as he felt waiting for the sheriff to arrive.  The man who eventually showed up was kind and understanding.  He’d dealt with distraught family members before.  He got out an aerial survey map and compared it with Will’s map.  As they talked, they traced her route to the point where she’d turned off the road.

The sheriff shook his head as he said, “Mister Hardy, I been livin’ here all my life, and there just ain’t no road there.  But if she hadn’t turned up by mornin’, we’ll start searchin’ from here,” and he drew a circle around the area where he thought she’d made the call.

Will’s heart sank.  He couldn’t bear the thought of his little girl spending the night out on some lonely dark road.  In an attempt to sound in control he said, “She’s bound to call again before then.  I hate that you had to come way out here, sheriff.”

But Melissa didn’t call back later, and the next morning horses, dogs and twenty armed men combed the autumn hillsides looking for her.  Not one clue turned up in the four days that they searched.

Will’s life as he had known it ended with that phone call from Melissa.  He couldn’t bear to go back to work, and the owner of the cabin told him he could stay there as long as he liked.  So he stayed and searched every day for Melissa.  He searched in rain and snow, and slept outside more often than not.

His search carried him ever farther from the places where people lived, but his only fear was that he might never know what had happened to his daughter.  One night, as he lay sleeping deep in the forest, Melissa spoke to him in his dreams.

“I’ll see you at the River.  Follow the path to the River.”

A chilly mist had filled the tiny glade when Will woke up.  It was still dark, and he lit a fire.  As he sipped his coffee, he noticed a deer path leading downhill.  He was sure the path hadn’t been there when he’d made camp, but he recalled Melissa’s voice in his dream, “Follow the path to the River.”  His map didn’t show a river nearby, but he thought,  “What the hell,” and set off down the tiny dark trail.  It was a gloomy dark place, even at noon, and Will got a little spooked.  His imagination played tricks on him, and the leaves rustling overhead began to sound like voices.

“It’s only the wind,” he told himself.

“Follow the path…” said the leaves.

“I am following the damned path!” he shouted up into the gloom.

He’d been picking his way through spider webs and brambles for hours when the light began to change.  The whispering of the leaves gave way to the gentle babbling of flowing water.  Will felt his heart leap in his chest.  He slipped and slid down the slope as he hurried toward the sound.

Melissa’s voice whispered in his head,  “I’m waiting, Daddy.”

When he reached the river’s edge she was sitting on a smooth rock.  He caught his breath and hot tears filled his eyes.

“I waited for you, Daddy.  Let’s go home now.”

“Oh, honey.  Where have you been all this time?”  But then he saw a rusted bit of bumper sticking out of the water and he knew.  With the tears streaming down his face, he hugged her, so happy to have found her at last.

***

It was six weeks before anybody even realized Will was missing, and it was over a year before a park ranger found his bones at the base of a cliff that had been a riverbank hundreds of years before.  Will’s death would have been just a statistic if they hadn’t also found the twisted wreckage of his daughter’s SUV.  Melissa was still inside, but her bones would never be able to tell about the mysterious shadow road she’d followed so deep into the forest to die.

The legend of William and Melissa Hardy lives on in that remote neck of the woods, but their ghosts are long gone.  They found the way home.