What Is So Upsetting About a Magnolia Tree?

This time we rode with Liz and Abby, heading to the shops in the nearby village that appeared to be the town’s only purpose, the whole reason it existed. Unlike yesterday there seemed to be an invisible wall between Clay and me. I had no interest in bridging the distance and it appeared he didn’t either. As awkward silence filled the car, I was grateful our destination wasn’t more than 15 minutes away.

Pulling into the spot next to Mike’s SUV we all gathered. The group was a little more subdued than we had been, the tension evident. Lilly suggested we split up and then meet at a restaurant by the river at noon for lunch. I wanted to disagree, after all I had come on vacation to be with them, but realizing I was the only one who didn’t like this plan I didn’t voice my opinion. It was probably for the best to have a break from them anyway.

We walked without a word, passing storefronts but never pausing to look in the windows or enter them. Something had changed between us and I wasn’t sure how to fix it. Lost in thought, I kept my head down, shoulders slumped, hands in my pockets. In the past, Clay’s mood had improved when we were alone, but not that day.

Reaching the end of a block we stopped for a traffic signal. Lifting my gaze I saw an art gallery filled with unusual but interesting pieces. I knew Clay considered himself an aestete, a true aficionado, and I was about to suggest we go in when the light changed. The moment passed and we kept walking.

Looking around now I spotted a park. I put my hand on his arm to get his attention, then suggested we walk through the garden since neither of us were particularly interested in shopping. Our eyes met for the first time since we’d arrived. As I watched, I saw his internal storm clouds clear, his expression changing from one of hostility, or possibly anger, to a more affectionate one.

Relieved, I grasped his hand and led him up the steps to where flowers were blooming in abundance. We wandered slowly down the path and eventually he let go of my hand to wrap his arm around my shoulders. When we stopped to admire a blooming Magnolia tree I rested my head on his chest.

He kissed the top of my head and tears began to fall unbidden. Suddenly memories overwhelmed me, thoughts of my mother flashed through my mind, times before she passed away. The tree before us looked almost exactly like the one my father and I had planted in her memory. Clay ran his fingers through my hair, then rubbed my back soothingly.

He shushed tenderly me, like a parent comforting a child, like my mother consoled me when I was upset. It was like he knew, as if he understood without having to say a word.

This post is in response to the daily writing prompt Striving and is part of something longer I am working on.

This post is a part of the story about the ex and comes after What Is More Important Than Love?.

What Can We See from His Hiding Spot?

“Can you show us what you found?” Caleb asks.

Just as the man is about to speak I interrupt, “Caleb, you’re hurt. We can do this later.” I’m worried about the wound on the side of his head. It needs to be cleaned, bandaged.

He looks directly into my eyes, his expression more serious than I’d ever seen it. “No, we need to go now.”

Striving to contain my growing panic I look away, the intensity of the moment too much to bear. He places his palm against my cheek, guiding my gaze back to his. “We’ll find him.” His assurance does little to calm me. A tear trickles down my cheek and he wipes it away with his thumb.

He crushes me against him in a protective embrace as he speaks over my head, asking the stranger to lead the way.

The path is narrow most of the way, requiring us to follow him in single file. Caleb walks behind me, his hand never leaving my hip in a gesture that feels almost as possessive as it does protective. I wish we’d met in ordinary circumstances. More than anything, I want life to become normal again, whatever “normal” ends up being after all this, although the idea of him leaving is heartbreaking.

I long to be free; I just don’t see how this game will ever end.

As we work our way down the path I realize we are heading in the direction of the cabin. My heart starts to pound in my chest as he takes the same turns I had taken just a short while before, retracing my steps. Where could he be going?

Breaking to the right he finally changes course. Walking in silence, we approach the edge of the woods. On the left side of the path, there’s a spot where the foliage has been trampled, low hanging branches broken and bent. He goes in this direction now then stops about 100 yards from the main trail.

He turns to us and points to an area behind a large rock. This is where he believes someone has been hiding. As he explains, I try to see what he sees but it doesn’t look any different to me. Caleb however seems to understand. He approaches the site cautiously, pausing every foot or two to bend down and examine the ground closely. When he’s satisfied, he stands and stretches.

Casually Caleb comments, “It does look like someone has been here. A hunter after deer off season maybe?” He shrugs dismissively then thanks the man for his time. As an afterthought he asks where he lives. After he indicates a house in the direction from which we’d come the men shake hands. Addressing me the stranger says, “Make sure he gets that cut washed out so it doesn’t get infected.” He nods once and is gone.

Caleb motions for me to join him where he’s standing, then points in the opposite direction the man had gone. Turning, my heart jumps in my throat as I plainly see our cabin on the other side of the boulder, just beyond the trees.

“He’s been watching us,” Caleb tells me calmly. I stare open mouthed as his meaning seeps in.

This post is in response to the daily writing prompt Striving and is part of something longer I am working on.

This post is a part of the story about the ex and comes after Who Was the Man He Had Seen Lurking Above Us?.

What Is More Important Than Love?

Catching up to the group, we heard their mirth before we saw them. When they spotted us, their laughter faded, like the end of a movie dissolving to black. Had they been talking about us? About Clay? Frustration bubbled inside me but I stuffed it down. I was determined to make this a fun day. Somehow I needed to relieve the strain that was building.

I greeted them cheerfully, as if nothing were amiss. “Hey guys! What’d we miss?”

“Nothing,” Lilly replied, suppressing a giggle. “Just Mike being stupid,” she added with a roll of her eyes as she swatted his arm.

“Oh, okay,” I responded, not trying to hide the disappointment in my voice. Why couldn’t she see how badly I needed them to include Clay? Was it really so difficult to just get along? So he was different from them. That was one of the things I liked, his fresh perspective. He made me believe anything was possible.

“How much further to the waterfall?” I asked, changing the subject.

Emily pointed to a trail marker that showed another quarter mile to the falls. As we continued our walk Clay fell behind the others, not so far that he couldn’t hear the conversation, but far enough he wasn’t really part of the group. I sighed, then resolved to talk to him again later. Maybe he hadn’t understood what I’d said to him earlier after all.

Forcing a smile I talked animatedly to Liz about an animal crossing the trail when Clay and I had been on our own. The incident had been inconsequential but I embellished a little, playing up how startled I’d been and portraying Clay as the brave protector. I tried to draw him into the story but he remained quiet.

Disheartened by the cantankerous mood, I turned my attention to the beauty surrounding us. The noise of rushing water began to fill the silence that had descended on our little party. The continuous steady crash of the falls mingled with the softer sounds of scurrying animals and rustling leaves as we approached, gradually drowning them out, overpowering them until they vanished into nothingness, as if they had never been there.

Rounding a bend the waterfall appeared before us suddenly, beautiful, powerful, and a little dangerous as the water plummeted over 100 feet into the pool below. I stopped abruptly, awed by the majesty thinking, this, right here, is what matters. The petty bickering, the sullen pouting when people refused to relent or compromise, none of that was important compared to what nature offered.

I had been so caught up in what ultimately was meaningless, mundane details that become inconsequential in the larger picture.

Clay stepped behind me, circling my waist with his arms. I leaned into him, feeling his strength. I conceded to myself that maybe I had been wrong about the falls after all. The emotion that rose within me with his caring gesture eclipsed all else, just as the falls transcended nature.

In that moment, I believed love was paramount.

This post is in response to the daily writing prompt Mirth and is part of something longer I am working on.

This post is a part of the story about the ex and comes after Will He Be Mad if I Tell Him I Want to Be with My Friends?.

Is He Following Me at the Park?

As I walked away I glanced over my shoulder and spotted him standing outside the entrance to the cafe watching me.

What was he thinking? Was he going to follow me?

I waved and grinned, attempting to look like nothing was wrong. He held his hand up in response but I couldn’t read his expression. Just before I entered the park I turned again but he had vanished. A chill passed through me as I wondered where he had gone.

I needed to keep moving, but what if he’d come this way? He thought I was going to the park to work so I could use that as a ruse while I figured out a plan. I still didn’t know my next step.

Maybe I was being dramatic, but I was afraid to go home. He had never physically threatened me. I really had no reason to think he would, but the look in his eye, the barely concealed anger when he thought I was leaving, terrified me. There had been a few times when his temper had flared uncontrolled, but I had attributed it to stress, although I had to admit to myself I wasn’t exactly sure what would cause him to feel anxious.

The secret room and the journal entry had helped me see things from a new perspective, and now I was forced to reevaluate the entire situation. I found myself questioning everything, seeing sinister meaning in even the most mundane occurrences.

Noticing a bench slightly off the paved trail I sat with my laptop perched on my legs. Opening it, I connected to the hotspot on my cell phone. My hands hovered over the keys waiting for inspiration, when I remembered I was supposed to be on a conference call.

As I picked up my phone memories flashed through my mind, times over the past weeks when my phone should have worked but didn’t. Was I being paranoid to think he might have tampered with it? Will he know if I don’t don’t actually make a call, or worse, can he listen to my conversation?

Realizing I was being overly suspicious I pretended to dial then propped the device between my shoulder and my chin, freeing my hands to do a search. The best place to start would be the police so I pulled up Google maps and looked for the nearest police station. I was relieved to discover there was one just a few blocks past the far end of the park, an easy walk.

Opening a Word file, I began to write down what I knew for certain, which wasn’t much. Starting a new page, I decided to list what should have been warnings of what was happening. As the list grew I felt embarrassed that I didn’t realize how wrong I’d been about him, about what I had thought was for once a real relationship. How could I have been so foolish?

A susurrus of leaves behind me, a quiet rustling I would have missed if the park hadn’t been so still, made my blood run cold. I was afraid to turn to see what might be behind me, convinced it was Clay. Fighting the urge to run, I slowly closed my computer and slid it into my backpack.

Standing, I began to wander down the path in the direction of the police station. My hope was that he would think I was listening to the call, absorbed in work. I meandered slowly, taking a path that circled a small pond. I was startled when a jogger passed, so surprised I almost dropped my phone.

Taking a route that led toward the park exit I stopped myself from looking behind me, worried I’d show my apprehension, reveal my growing panic. Sudden footsteps approaching compelled me to pick up my pace, fear rising with each step.

This post is in response to the daily writing prompt Sussurous and is part of something longer I am working on.

This post is a part of the story about the ex and comes after .