Winter of the Fallen Excerpt

 

 

 

-Prologue-

 

 

Beneath the shadows of the cool, damp night, the wind started to stir, warning of storms to come. Thunder claps in the distance startling the infant in the man’s arms. A middle-aged man dressed in long, dark-brown robes stands holding two small children on the covered porch of an old, well-kept, creamy white Victorian-style home. The home is adorned with spindle trim and a bench porch swing that frames the warm, inviting entrance. The porchlight glows dimly, casting bits of light on the painted flower boxes against the windows. They are dressed with cascading dark-pink blooming vines swaying with each gust of the blustery wind.

Bending down slowly, the man lowers the child that looks to be no older than 4 years of age. With a heavy heart, he extends his strong hands before him, placing a fiery-haired infant in the arms of the young child.

Kneeling before them, Barnabus digs deep inside himself to produce a reassuring smile to the scared little girl. He can see her fear and feels the waves of anguish rolling off of her.

He resolves himself, steadying his mind for what must be done. Without hesitation, he must instruct this young girl as quickly and urgently as he can. He worries as this is an enormous burden for an adult, much less a child, to carry.

As time is not on their side, he must do this quickly or none of them will walk away from this night with their souls intact, much less their lives.

‘Sophie, you must remember what I tell you. Can you promise me?’ The little girl nods her head tentatively, with fear marring her angelic face. He has told her what he can, but she will not remember her life before for now, only bits and pieces until the time comes.

‘Without the light, there is only darkness. Protect the light with all you are, my little one. Let no one take it from you. It is for you to protect, and no other. Do you understand? You must never lose it.’ He shows the child the amulet contained in his hand. He caresses the young child’s round, rosy cheeks, sending the warmth of his light to the tiny girl before him. The golden-haired girl looks up to him, with sapphire eyes too big for her heart-shaped face. Delicately attaching the amulet around the child’s neck, he reaches down and places a soft kiss on her head.

‘Don’t despair, sweet one. We will meet again. You will know when to come to us, but until then, you must be brave and strong. Magic will keep you safe until the time comes, but you must speak of it to no one.’

Barnabus reaches down, wrapping the pendant in both his hands, between his palms. Upon his touch, the stone begins to glow brightly, dripping out tiny bits of golden streams of light washing over both the children, only dimming as he pulls his hand away. The young child looks up to him with tears threatening to spill from her cheeks.

The man’s frantic companion calls to him from the shadows, with only a slight glow of light from the moon bouncing off his tall, thin frame. ‘Barnabus, hurry!  The Dark One comes!  We must go now, or all is lost!’

‘You be brave now, my child.  We will meet again, I promise.’ With an endearing smile, Barnabus leans down to kiss the infant’s head that lay cradled in the girl’s arms. With her bright green eyes, the baby coos at him, offering a gummy smile. He looks up to meet the eyes of the young girl before him, wrapping her in a strong embrace, holding on tightly, to grab even one extra moment.

‘Goodbye Sophia, my love.’ Kissing the top of her head, he turns away with tears threatening the edges of his eyes. With an ache slicing deeper into his soul with each step, he takes special care to not look back, for to meet her eyes again would mean forcing his next step forward an impossible task.

As the men walk into the shadows, Barnabus glances back finding the door of the house open. He lifts his hands sending a powerful blast of magic that surrounds the home in a ward of protection that extends to all those that inhabit it. The edges of the steep peaks of the home glow a molten orange momentarily but is only visible to him and his companion. The home is now hidden from the pursuing eyes of the dark beings.

A young brunette woman steps out, scooping the infant up in her arms and takes the hand of the young girl, leading them in.

‘They are safe for now. I have placed wards on the home and the family. The dark that seeks them will not be able to find them.’ Barnabus turns to his companion. He nods to the man beside him, indicating his resolve and end of their time there. Moving further out of sight, the man and his companion disappear into the shadows leaving the biggest piece of his heart behind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

-Chapter 1-

Sophie

 

A slight whisper tickles the edge of my mind...’It is time…’ the words send ripples of fear through my body, echoing in the distance of my consciousness.

Stopping on the edge of the sidewalk, I turn my head looking around for the source of the words that continue to make their way to me. No one…Just the remnants of anxiety that the voices bring each time they come.

People are walking about their day unconcerned with my increasing paranoia…I, on the other hand, am beginning to fray at the edges. Questioning my sanity has become my new internal dialogue, only leaving me with more questions than answers.

I reach up, wrapping my hand around the unremarkable pendant draped around my neck, gripping it tightly. I gain comfort when I touch the object, holding a piece of my past that reassures me that I’m, in fact, not losing my mind. This is not my imagination…I am not crazy….

My mind swims with images of the day my sister and I were brought to Laura and Mark Hamilton’s home…when the man gave me this pendant… and left us there…with strangers. My adoptive parents were good people. All in all, before they died, Leighton and I had a good life. Real memories before that day lay just beyond my reach, locked behind a door to which I don’t have the key. Always searching for a glimpse of the parents we were robbed of and the life we would never get to live.

The voices have started to come more frequently, leaving me shaken to my core each time they occur. Those layered with the vivid dreams and seizure-laced blackouts, I was certain I would drop dead of a brain tumor any time.

Deep down though, I know there is more to this, and I will not risk being locked up in a mental hospital until I have exhausted all possibilities.

Making my way through the streets of downtown Seattle, I head towards the apartment I share with my sister.  It is a modest flat in an area of the city that sits between the business and entertainment districts.  We moved there recently following my new employment at a firm downtown.

My sister has finally talked me into a night out after spending the last month sulking about a breakup. She has been asking for weeks, and I finally gave in and agreed.

Leighton loves the loud dance clubs in the city, while I am more of a hole-in-the-wall, blues and funk sort of girl.  No matter, I will endure tonight on her terms.  Getting out of this pitiful state was the point anyway.  It didn’t matter what four walls I did it in.

Making my way up the elevator, I fumble through my purse, fishing out keys to our apartment. Stepping off, I am greeted with the smells that come from cramming ten units into one floor. Tonight it’s not bad. I can smell dinner being started somewhere down the hall. Thankfully it smells like Italian tonight, with hints of garlic and roasted tomatoes assaulting my senses.  It is the nights of heavy Indian cuisine that is difficult, with the smell of curry soaking into everything in its path.

Propping our door open, I call out for my sister while launching my black leather briefcase on the kitchen counter.

‘Leighton! Lei, are you here?!’ Our apartment is eccentrically decorated, with most of the décor coming from Leighton. She is the artsy type with a flair for the dramatic. Our furniture is draped with bright-colored throws, and the artwork on the walls are a hodgepodge of pictures she had picked up at secondhand stores and swap meets.

My dog Atlas comes running at me at full speed, with his tail wagging and a slobbery tongue. ‘Hey, buddy!’ I kneel down, rubbing his head and taking in the affection he has for me. We aren’t really set up for a dog, but Leighton works from home most of the time, so he gets plenty of exercise between the two of us.

With each step into our apartment, I peel off a layer of my stuffy business suit while tossing my heels off as fast as I can. Slowly but surely, I feel the stress of the day coming off piece by piece.

I work my way to the end of the hall, pushing my sister’s bedroom door back with the tip of my toe. No wonder she didn’t answer.  My sister is dancing around, in all her glory, with her earbuds in. If I had been a burglar, she would have been tonight’s headline story.

‘Leighton!’ I say as loud as my lungs will carry, to get her attention.

‘Oh hey! I didn’t hear you come in. How was work?’ Of course, she didn’t hear me, no one would as loud as she had the music turned up.

‘Good, but our meeting ran later than planned. I was just going to jump in the shower and start getting ready. We are still on for tonight, right?’ With our planned night out, I was looking forward to getting back in the mix of things after my very public breakup. I had dated the jerk the last two years, only to have him unceremoniously dump me during my 28th birthday dinner in front of everyone I knew.  Apparently, he has a ‘thing’ for the new intern of the week.  I only accidentally discovered his little secret when he carelessly left his phone at the table during my birthday dinner.  What an ass.

‘Of course! I can’t wait!  I got us on the VIP list at ‘Q.’ It is going to be Ah-Mazing! Wear your new red dress, you look hot in it. I am wearing this one, with my gold stilettos.’

She holds up a dark-green sequined dress with a slit up the side.  Perfect for her and her long auburn hair.  ‘I love it. Wear your gold dangly earrings with it. I won’t be long getting ready.’ She nods in agreement, and I make my way to our shared bathroom.

Our apartment is on the small side, but it works fine for Leighton and me.  Growing up, we lived in a run-down neighborhood with our foster family, until I aged out of the system at 18.

The people were nice enough to us, but in the end, we were simply a means to a monthly check they received for caring for us. It had not always been that way, though. Life was pretty great with the Hamilton’s, almost normal. We had family dinners, stories at night and soccer games on Saturdays. That all went away when they had been killed. I was only ten and Leighton was only seven. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any direct relatives, so we were promptly placed in a foster home, as no one was available to take us in. Life then became more about survival than hugs at night and who got to sit in the front seat on the way to school.

After a long and desperately needed shower, I jump out and get to work. Untangling my long, blonde hair was always a task.  After winning the battle, I finally manage to get it in workable order. Tonight I have it down in long, loose curls that drape perfectly over my shoulders. I finish off my look with smoky eyes and fire engine red lipstick. If I am going to trot around in this short, tight red dress, why not go all in, right? With one last look, I set out to start our evening.

‘Leighton, are you ready to go?’

My sister looks fantastic! She has legs for days, and I was right, the green is perfect on her! ‘I’m almost ready. Just adding the finishing touches!’

Twirling about, she is laughing away. She always has the best laugh, with her smile reaching all the way to her eyes.

‘Let’s go before all the good tables are gone.’ Rushing her out the door, we grab an Uber and head straight there.

Pulling up front, I tip the driver as we both step out, making our way out to head for the entrance door.  It is late summer, so the nights are moderate and comfortable this time of year. The streets are lined with clubgoers and local Seattleites of every kind. I love living here because you get the benefit of an urban culture found in larger cities, without the utter chaos a place like Chicago or New York may have.

Leighton greets the doorman with a wink and one of her award-winning smiles.  Armed with a hipster beard, tattooed arms, and biceps the size of my legs, he checks each of our IDs. Grabbing Leighton’s, he glances, ushering her through. Picking mine up he looks up and pauses, keeping his eyes trained straight on me.

His body stiffens, then his pale blue eyes turn as black as the night is dark. A maniacal smile sweeps across his mouth...but as quickly as I notice, he blinks, and his eyes are back to blue…losing the wicked smile he wore just seconds before….

Terror rips up my spine. What the hell was that? He hands over my ID and waves us past the ropes. I grab it from him, stepping away as quickly as my legs will carry me. My imagination seems to be in overdrive today…. The flashing lights of the club are messing with my eyes. I really need to get a grip.

We head straight to the VIP lounge where we are met by our table hostess for the night.  She is a gorgeous, petite Asian girl, dressed in a white bodycon dress and white thigh-high boots.

In the VIP area, we get a full view of the dancers in cages scattered about the club. The music is loud but more subdued in the area we are in, giving us a chance to hear each other’s voices.

Settling in, we find ourselves sitting on the white leather benches facing out to the dancefloor below. After perusing the drink list, we settle on a bottle of my favorite Oregon Pinot Noir.

Leighton and I get in a steady rhythm of conversation, with her filling me in on the latest gossip from the clinic she works in. Before she goes into another theory about the hot guy she works with that she suspects is gay, the hostess sweeps in and graciously serves us each a heavily poured glass of wine.

With my first sip, the wine fills my mouth with explosions of blackberry and pomegranate flavors. It has an easy bite to it, making it the perfect wine for an evening of conversation and fun. Swirling my glass, I still feel bothered by the man at the front door…it just doesn’t feel right. Even sitting there I have the constant feeling of being watched. That in itself shouldn’t bother me in a club…it’s the hair standing up on the back of my neck that keeps nagging me.

Leighton is looking at me, I presume to wonder why I am being so quiet. I snap out of it hoping to avoid questions from her that I can’t really answer. I want tonight to be fun and whining about my constant paranoia would surely kill our vibe for the night.

Breaking the silence, Leighton pops up. She is trying to get me more engaged in the evening. ‘So, we should do a toast! Let’s see….’ She taps her finger on her lips, contemplating her toast. She has a positively devious look on her face. This should be good….

Lifting her glass to mine, she stands like she is presenting an Academy Award. ‘To my gorgeous, crazy-smart, hellcat of an attorney sister, Sophie!  May the fleas of a thousand camels infest Trey’s crotch!’ PFFFT!!!!! Out comes my wine.

‘Oh my God, Lei! I almost spit my wine all over you!’ We are both laughing so hard we are red in the face. My sister has always had a knack for funny speeches, tonight being no exception. I appreciate the effort though, and it did get me laughing again.

‘It would have been totally worth it! I have been saving my toast for you all day! Did you like it?!’ She was the best sister and best friend a girl could have.  Funny enough, I am 100% certain she did in fact, put a ton of thought into her ‘toast.’

‘It was perfect! Very eloquent! Cheers!’ Tipping our drinks back in celebration of our night out, or maybe the speech, I’m not really sure…either way, we are off to a great start.

The evening goes on easy enough. The music is amazing, and the drinks are even better.  I even feel relaxed, which is a foreign feeling for me. A night out dancing was exactly what I needed. The music is thumping and vibrating down to our cores. There are plenty of bodies to entertain ourselves with on the dance floor, with men vying for body to body contact at every turn. A couple of them drool worthy for sure, but I just can’t get myself past anything more than a bump and grind on the dancefloor. My head just isn’t in it.

After a few songs, we find ourselves making our way into another round of cocktails. My sister is now fully enthralled in a conversation with some hot broker guy at the bar. This guy is her type for sure. Clean cut, and a white dress shirt with a black jacket. I would be willing to bet he even has a tie stuffed in his jacket pocket.  He was good-looking enough and seemed to really dig her.

I turn to grab my clutch when the hostess that had been serving us stands right in front of me blocking my way. Looking down at her I noticed right away that her expression is off. She is standing perfectly still, and her eyes were now milky white. Chills rip up my body ‘Go, now. The Dark One is coming. You must protect the light.’

Mouthing the words to me robotically, the girl quickly slips back into consciousness, falling back into step with her normal routine of clearing drinks off the surrounding tables. I stand there dumbfounded. What the hell was going on?! My breathing comes quickly now in fast erratic patterns…a sensation I now know that leads me straight into a humiliating panic attack.

Deciding I need to splash some cold water on my face, I slip in behind Leighton to let her know I was stepping to the ladies’ room.

‘Want me to come with?’ Of course, she offers—girl code…but more importantly, she knows the look on my face when I am struggling.

‘No, I’m good! I’ll be right back! I just need a little air.’

Stepping away, I head in the opposite direction of the crowd.

‘It is time Sophia. You must leave now.’ The voice louder this time, like someone’s mouth, is just inches from my ears. Looking around—again, no one. This is really starting to freak me out. This night has been plagued with ominous warnings from imagined voices in my head. I think after I freshen up I will grab Leighton and head out.

Ignoring my insanity, I head down the corridor, locating the ladies’ room on the far end of the floor. Thankfully the VIP area only allows those sitting in the area to utilize the facilities.  That made for no lines and much-valued privacy in a pinch.

Stepping in, I secure the door shut. Parking myself in front of the mirror I reapply my lipstick and straighten my hair. I grab the handle to step back out when I start to feel dizzy…and my pendant begins glowing a bright golden light…

Grabbing the counter, my entire body tenses. My head throws back, and I go into a full convulsion. Then my vision goes stark white…

‘What is this? Where am I?’ My voice bounces off the edges of the expanse around me.

I look down into a snowy valley to see me standing in the middle of a circle of people, I am draped in a long white cloak with a white dress that touches the ground. Snowfall is raining down on us, dusting the tops of our heads. My head and hands are raised to the air, and the amulet that hangs from my neck is glowing a bright, blinding light. Around me there are seven people holding hands in a circle. Five men and two women. The man that faces me directly is the man from my dreams, the beautiful one with the ebony hair and golden eyes.

Beyond where I stand, I look up to see storm clouds forming rapidly just above the mountains edge. They are moving unnaturally fast, growing darker as they approach the valley below. The snowfall that started as flurries is growing thicker, clouding my vision as the volume grows.

In a flash, I now see I am in the valley with the others in my own body, not simply looking on. I can now see my hands lifted above my head.

I am in the middle of the circle. Lowering my hands from the sky, I place my palms up catching the snow. As each snowflake hits my palm, it starts to change color, growing darker…

Touching the dark snowflakes with my other hand, they start to smear like mud. It burns my skin everywhere it touches. I look up in the darkening sky to find that this is not snow at all, but ash, growing thicker and darker…blackening the pure white blanket of snow all around us….

I suck in a deep breath, startling myself back to consciousness.

A woman in a police uniform is beside me, holding my head upright. ‘Ma’am! Are you ok? I am with the Seattle Police Department. Can you tell me your name?’

‘I’m fine.  Help me up please.’ She grabs my hand and eases me to my feet.

‘Miss, can you please tell me what happened?’ The officer looks to me with concerned eyes.

‘I have…seizures, I…I must have blacked out. I’ll just get going, I think I will just call it a night. Thanks for checking on me but I’m fine.’ I step to the side, ready to make my way out only to have the officer stop me.

‘Ma’am I will need to escort you out the back entrance. There was an incident…three people were killed tonight. You were lucky you were locked away in here. Police are processing the crime scene, so we will need to be careful exiting the building. I will need to ask you some questions, but we can do it outside. Is there someone I can call for you?’

‘Oh, God! That’s awful!’ Leighton must be completely freaked out by now. ‘No, thank you, my sister is here. I will just grab her and go. She’s probably frantic looking for me anyway.’ The officer, and we make our way out. The club is relatively quiet now with all the lights on and no music along with the flashing light effects turned off. There are officers swarming the VIP lounge with plastic tarps laying over the bodies…right where I left Leighton.

I stop looking across the room, feeling the air vacuum in around me. I dial her phone as fast as I can…although my heart already knows…

…ring…ring…ring…

My head jerks toward the bodies covered in the plastic tarp…

…ring…ring...ring…

No…..no…..no…..

I rush away from the officer towards the sound...

…ring...ring…ring…

Looking down, I see the edge of her green dress poking out just underneath the plastic cover.

…ring...ring...ring…

The scream that rips from my throat lights every inch of my body on fire. I can no longer hear the words around me, only muffled echoes of voices calling out to me…

I fall to my knees and reach for her, only to have my body heaved up by the officer that was just steps behind me and carries me out.

She’s gone…Leighton…she’s gone…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

-Chapter 2-

Sophie

 

After a heavy night’s sleep, I finally woke up this morning with the urge to get out of my bed. I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing. Leighton has been gone for three weeks now. Three horrible weeks without my sister and best friend. It’s Saturday morning. Saturdays were always our day to make breakfast together and catch up on the gossip for the week. Now I had no one but myself.

I have been holed up for days on end drowning myself in wine and vodka until my stomach could no longer tolerate either. My eating habits have been sporadic and I am starting to see the toll it is taking on my body. Nothing seems to do enough to dull the ache I carry…not alcohol…not sleep…nothing.

Whether the time is right or not I have to get out of this apartment. I can’t pass her bedroom door another day…or smell her shampoo…or even bear to load the last dishes she used still left in the sink.

Most days I can’t work, I can’t sleep and being awake at all, is unbearable. All I do is cry. But the crying never helps.

Over and over…every detail plagues me of that night.

If we had just not gone out that night…if we had just skipped it and not been there…she went there for me. To help ME…

I spend night after night replaying the evening building layers and layers of anger around me.

I know in my heart that the things that have been happening to me have something to do with Leighton’s murder. I just don’t know what.

I should have listened…The voice from the waitress told me to go…but I didn’t listen.

I never fucking listen...

Because of me, she is dead.

I need peace. Peace from all of this. I need to clear my head.

A few days camping in the woods with nothing but the birds to disturb me should at the very least, help me think clearly. At least then, my phone won’t relentlessly ring with people calling to offer their condolences.

✽✽✽

Trekking further into the woods, I stand, scanning the surrounding forest spanning for miles upon miles around me. The aloneness feels comforting.

The trees are colored with shades of green, gold, and red, canvassing the mountains from end to end. The wildlife greets me with a symphony of hellos, and the air assaults me with layers of deep, earthy smells that dance around bouquets of sweet-scented flowers. Taking in a deep breath, I can feel a little life creeping back into me.

Wildlife is at its peak, and the summer blooms cover each inch of the forest floor.

The damp air clings to every inch of my skin like a silk blanket.  It is warmer and a lot muggier than I had anticipated. It’s more like walking through an oversized greenhouse than a sprawling forest in Northwest Washington.

Making a stop for water has to be next up on my to-do list or the hot weather is going to be the least of my concerns.

Thankfully, my long blonde hair was coaxed into a high ponytail on top of my head this morning.  At least I have some relief from my thick mane, which serves as an extra layer of warmth in the winter.  The high today is to be close to 78 degrees, but it feels much warmer without the breeze, almost stagnant in places.

When dressing this morning, I opted for a tan cotton tank top with long khaki cargo pants that fit a bit too loosely around my waist.  My curves make it difficult for anything off the rack to ever fit right.  If it fits my waist, my pants fit too tightly around my athletic legs. If it fits my large chest, the rest of my shirt looks like an oversized trash bag.  That leaves me with baggy pants and a form-fitting tank that hugs me in all the ‘wrong’ places.

My hiking boots are smart and well-worn, tightly laced to right above my ankle. They were my biggest purchase of recent times and probably one of my wisest.  They are a far cry from the bargain boots I had worn in the past. With my new job, a steady paycheck means I can buy real gear for the only hobby I have ever loved.

The heat is rising steadily with no break in sight, but I shouldn’t complain. My beast of a dog is covered in thick layers of fur.  So far, he hasn’t made a fuss at all…..well, he couldn’t if he wanted to.  He’s a dog and dogs don’t talk.  Well, he’s not really a dog, but a wolf hybrid according to my vet.

‘What do you think buddy?  My ass is hot as hell.  You’ve got nothing to say to me?  You are a terrible conversationalist, you know?’ Atlas tips his head at me, looking like he understands exactly what I am saying. At least he humors me when I talk to him. Most men in general tune women out. He’s part fluffy domesticated canine… part predator that could eliminate you with ease. The perfect mix for someone like me, you might even say a match made in heaven.

He is mostly black with little hints of white on his muzzle and paws.  His long, black tail stays bent in a slight curve up only dipping down when he is on the hunt or in full play mode ready to pounce on the nearest unsuspecting victim.

The most striking thing about him is his light blue, almost white eyes, which stand out like beacons against his jet black fur. His eyes alone make him look a bit on the scary side, but I know better.  He is a total ham.

While stopping short of the upcoming ridge, I take advantage of the shade provided by the overgrown trees rounding out the end of this section of the trail.  The branches make a canopy that feels like you are walking into a grand entrance hall.  Each tiny detail of the forest is perfectly placed, much like an artist’s canvas….

The branches and vines twist about making it difficult to distinguish where one starts and the other ends.  Greens and golden browns light up every corner, bending round and round, resembling what music must look like if we could see it manifested in physical form.

The air smells new, like the first snow of the season, mixed with the odd combination of freshly mowed grass.  The fragrant plants wrap their perfume with the surrounding earth, touching each corner with its scent. It is the perfect mix of all the wonderful smells of summer, like a hug from someone you love.

Step by step, the trees wrap themselves around me like they are the only balm that can ease my longing for the peace I so desperately seek. Layer by layer it strips away the darkness and chaos that has been consuming me, making each step forward a lighter burden on my heart.

‘It is time. You must go.’ THAT was loud.

‘Who is there?! Who are you?! Come out and show me your face! GO FUCKING WHERE? WHERE DO YOU WANT ME TO GO? TELL ME!’ Nothing. No one is there. I am sick of this shit and now I have nothing to lose. I want answers. I sit here…looking for anything…anyone…no one to answer back.

‘No one is there, Sophie.  Quit being paranoid.’ These voices…I need them to stop. Please God, make them stop. Just show me what I am supposed to do, I plead.

Atlas has kept a strong pace with me and needs a place to rest his tired body, and I could use a break both physically and mentally.  Trotting by my side, he pushes past me taking up residence against a green, moss-covered log that has fallen along the path.  It must feel nice as he stretches himself out.

I screw open my water bottle and pour the last bit of water left in the cap for him to drink.  The silver metal is worn on the outside but keeps my water cold and secure while hiking.  He laps it up, finishing it off, looking quite satisfied with himself.  He thanks me with a sloppy wet kiss…enough to leave the side of my face with serious need of a wipe.

‘I love you too, boy. You about ready to go?’ The excitement in my voice stirs him to his feet.  He circles my legs, impatiently urging me to get moving.  Reconfirming my water situation, I discover that I am officially empty in bottle number one.  I will need to refill when I come upon the next water source.

I pull out my spare bottle and take two long gulps of the cool liquid. The cold drink slides down my throat dropping my temperature from the inside out.  After I catch my breath, we carry on ahead.

Atlas finds a large brown pine cone and proudly carries it off like a treasure.  A stick was always a bigger prize to him, much more valuable than any store-bought plastic toy.  It will bring him hours of chewing and entertainment, especially when we settle in for the night.

Pressing on, we keep a moderate pace while taking in our surroundings. Atlas trots ahead of me, around the bend.  Concerned I may lose him, I increase my pace to catch up. Squish. What was that sound?! Oh god, no…and the smell hit my nose.

‘Seriously?!’ Peering down, I am greeted with nothing other than a hot pile of dog mess. Well, that’s about par for the course with my life. I scrape away the last bits of the ‘gift’ that Atlas left me and move away from the offensive area.

Stepping away, I am finally able to breathe in clean air. I close my eyes as I peek my head through the last shady opening. The trail ends on the top of a climbing hill. My chest is busting with excitement as I hear a sound in the faint distance that sounds like running water, more specifically, the sound of a waterfall. My heart leaps with excitement!

The forests of Washington are known for the hidden falls that can be found tucked away deep in their landscape. Feeling a burst of energy, I press forward to seek out the source of water.

The water mimics a melody of small pieces of glass crashing together.  Two long strides in, and up a slight hill, there I was, overlooking the most majestic waterfall I have ever seen.

Lined by carved-out rocky cliffs made of golden hues of brown and rich green vines draped along the surface, the waterfall looks to be at least five hundred feet high. It is humbling to see it in its splendor, just waiting to be found and admired. Leighton would have loved to see this, I wish she were here with me today.

Curiosity takes over, so I pull out my map to identify my location.  I wonder what this beauty is called and need to get a bearing on my location. After consulting my GPS tracker, I quickly discover that I am, in fact, lost.  There is no waterfall listed on this map, and my coordinates are way off the mark.

I had been so distracted by how well my hike was going, I have now landed myself in the starring role in an episode of ’Dumb Woman Lost in the Woods.’  ‘How in the hell did I manage that?!’   At least I have navigation tools so I can recover from this...slight miscalculation.  I had planned to camp overnight anyways…It will just have to be in an improvised location.

The base of the falls looks like a good place to start.  I want to get a better look and desperately need a place to take a break anyway.  The descent to the base of the river does not look steep, but I definitely have to be careful climbing down.  Eventually, I need to get back to the topside of the falls, but below looks like an excellent place to take a break. A cool mist greets me as I step out from the shaded archway and golden rays prickle across my skin. With a brief pause, I close my eyes, taking in the tiny spray of water kissing my face.  It is a welcome relief and has immediately started to cool down my exhausted body.

The aqua blues and brilliant whites that flow through water look like liquid glass pouring over the cliff.

As it is just after noon, the sun sits directly above us making every droplet of water sparkle like fireworks exploding all at once. The mist covers everything, making the canyon glow like a million tiny mirrors pointed in every direction.  It looks like a painting you might stumble upon in a fine museum, a place that doesn’t really exist in the here and now, only in the mind of the artist that has imagined it to life.

With my first destination located at the base of the falls, I descend the natural slope that leads to the mouth of the river. The falls are its lifeblood.  It is brilliantly calm, not far off the base, with a cozy bank situated just to the side.

The roots that line the trail, lay across my path creating a natural staircase to climb down. I step cautiously being careful not turn my ankle, with slow and steady movements.  Atlas speeds along beating me to the base and making his way directly to the inviting water that lay before us.

Landing on the bank, I heave off my backpack and situate myself on a large boulder bordering the water.  I pause a moment to take a breather.  My muscles have the good kind of ache you feel after a long run and my feet are no worse for the wear.  Glancing up at the falls, a tremendous peace washes over me. There is nowhere I would rather be right now…

I have been wrapped up in so much darkness that I had forgotten how to live life with joy. Between losing my beautiful sister, my break up, and my ever-slipping sanity, I have been losing my grip. I have got to get myself together. She’s not coming back.

Laying my face in my hands, the weight of my life comes crashing in. Everyone I have ever loved is gone. I am completely alone. My carefully constructed wall begins to fissure in every direction, and the tears I have been holding for so long came pouring out in droves.  I heave and sob as loud as my body would allow me.  The depth of my despair is drowning me. All I had was my sister…the only one that never left…and now she’s gone. I am completely and utterly alone.

Every tear is expelled from me leaving streams of sorrow pooling down my cheeks.  As the last tear left my eyes, I decide at that moment I will no longer give any energy to this fucked up situation. The only tears that have a place in my life are for Leighton and I have to move forward and be strong for her. No one else owns them. Not my parents who abandoned us, not an ex-boyfriend… I will find out who is responsible for her death and I will make them pay with their life.

I stand up and wipe the salty tears from my cheeks. I dust the front of my khakis and bend over to refill my water bottle all the way to the rim.  I drop in a water clarification tablet and screw the cap back on tightly and set it aside.  The water is much cooler than I had expected for this time of the year, almost icy, odd…

The clarity all the way to the bottom of the river is a surprise given how deep I was in the mountains.  It looks to be no deeper than 3 feet directly off the bank edge tapering to deeper water in the middle.  The stones are showing through with blues and greens bouncing off their reflection, making the floor of the river look like it is dancing to the beat of a thousand drums. Blankets of large, white flowers hug the bank on the opposite side, floating just above the water. Multicolored fish swim about unconcerned with my presence in their world.  I hear the chirps of hundreds of birds layered right behind the sound of the water. If I close my eyes, it sounds like an orchestra tuning up for a concert.

I peel off my dirty hiking boots and toss my thick wool socks to the side for some much-needed rest.  My feet are as tired as my pathetic dating life.

Atlas eases himself into the river, lapping up mouthfuls of water and splashing about.  Snapping at tiny minnows that flutter about the edge, he covers himself in water and his tail is now wagging at a furious pace.  He is loving every second of it.  The wolf part of him craves the outdoors.  Watching him in his natural element always brings a smile to my face.  After long hikes, he always seems the most satisfied.

The river is luring me into its embrace, so I scoot to the edge and bury my feet just enough to bring the water to my calves.  As my toes slip past the surface, I feel the water cool the skin on my feet and ease the ache that has started to form along the length of my body.

My eyes trace to the end of my toes as I feel a gentle vibration tickle my toes. The fish from the river are swimming in circles around my feet.

Leaning back on my arms I tip my head back allowing the sun to wash over my face.  Leighton would have loved it here…

I sit there for what seems like forever…at least long enough to feel all the ache in my feet subside and the muscles in my body relax.  Oh, what I would do for a nap right about now.

Deciding it was time to resume my journey, I slide my feet across the soft silt that meshes between my toes.  It reminds me of the sand at a beach I once visited in California, but thicker. I shake my feet clean in the freshwater and pull them out one by one to dry them with a towel from my pack.

Rummaging through my bag, I pull out a container of roasted cashews and a large, red Honeycrisp apple.  I toss Atlas a large piece of homemade beef jerky and begin to work on my apple. I savor the sweet and tart flavors exploding in my mouth. The only thing that could make this better is if my apple was cold.  I feel energized and am ready to start trekking to the top of the falls.  It is going to be a steep climb, looking to be at least a 45-degree angle up the trail with a few flatter parts along the way.  There are some plummeting drops, but if I stay on the path, I will be good to go. I have climbed higher, more challenging trails in the past, and they were still doable.

As I stand up to gather our things, I immediately feel the hair stand up on the back of my neck.  An electrical, uneasy feeling of being watched washes over me.

‘Go, now…’ Panic rips through me. It’s the voice again, only this time it strikes fear into every cell of my body.

As quickly as my senses stand to attention, Atlas perks his ears up and he begins to growl aggressively towards the tree line on the opposite bank of the river.  I grab his collar in fear that he may dart after whatever layout of our site.  He leans forward bending me over his long body, stretching me into an awkward angle.  Bearing his sharp teeth… he stalks in front of me, placing himself between me and whatever he sees.  There is something out there watching us, and somehow Atlas had a lock on it.

‘I see you little one...you are mine for the taking now.’ A hissing voice filled my mind, laughing. Where did that come from?!

I look about, quickly scanning the area for anyone there…but again, nothing.

We are deep in the woods, so it could easily be a bear or even a coyote.  These voices I keep hearing are just my imagination.  I need to quit freaking myself out.

Atlas continues to pull towards the threat, yanking my hand wrapped tightly around his collar.  I reach to the back of my pack and grab his lead, quickly attaching it to his collar.  I pull him in the opposite direction, as I did not want either of us getting attacked by an animal.  As much as I was enjoying our little stop, I don’t want to battle with the local wildlife.

Finding a place to camp for the night is now a top priority, and to make matters more urgent, I only have a couple of hours of daylight left before nightfall.  I am not interested in a brawl at the moment or being dinner for the local wildlife, so off we go to tuck in for the night.

With a slight tug, I urge Atlas along.  He is slow to go, stopping at first to glance back at the area we just left.  I know he wants to go investigate, but I was not keen on finding out what is hanging out in the woods.  We still have a little ways to go and need to make up some time if possible.

As we move along, catching small wildlife starts to appeal to Atlas more than the excitement we just came from.  He stays alert, noticing any new noise, sure to stop and investigate at the slightest movement.  This constant redirection of him is making the hike up the pass much more difficult than I had planned.  Instead of only focusing on my steps, I had to keep him on task and pushing forward.

We finally fall into a strong pace ascending up the abrupt, winding path. The trail we are on leads up the north side of the top section of the falls.  It is treacherous, but it offers a spectacular view that we will be rewarded within the end.  There are plenty of vines to steady myself on and large rocks nestled along the trail that makes for strong launching points to push off from. At around 100 feet from the top, we are treated to a glance of a mother rabbit with three tiny bunnies following diligently behind her. I wonder if their den is close. Maybe they had taken up residence in an old log or perhaps an abandoned tortoise den nestled in the floor of the forest?

As we move along, the forest seems to wind down to a slower pace as nightfall grows closer. Crickets start their evening lullabies, and birds begin to chirp in celebration of the day coming to an end.

Reaching the top lag of the trail, I again feel the hairs stand back up on my neck.  Something is indeed watching us.  I stop and turn to view the small canyon below us to see if the wildlife that startled us before, has somehow made its way out of the tree line. Nothing is there.  Not only was there nothing to see, but not even a sound can be heard.   Curiously, the birds and crickets have abruptly stopped their nightly serenade.  The only sounds to be heard were the actual falls hitting the base of the river.  Everything else has gone dead silent.  Everything but the vicious growl coming from Atlas and the loud thump of my heart, threatening to come right out of my chest.  He is turned to the trail that sits opposite of us on the other side of the falls.  His growling turns to a formidable bark and the hackles on his back are standing straight up.

‘Hello, lovely.’ I hear the snarling voice in my mind again. I look up to see a man standing on the opposite side of the falls looking at me. He has long, greasy black hair hanging loosely in the front of his face. He’s dressed in strips of worn black fabric, but he is oddly barefoot. He smiles at me maniacally showing off a mouth with rows of razor-sharp teeth that remind me of a shark, with a black liquid oozing between them, trickling down his chin. What the fuck?!

‘Oh, how sweet it will be to have you finally. I have been looking for you for so long. You can’t hide from me here love. I’ve got you now.’ The man keeps his dead-looking eyes targeted in on me. What’s worse, I hear the vile creature’s voice in my mind.

Before I can run, Atlas starts furiously pulling on the leash like a bucking bull.  He is 120lbs of pure muscle, and my 150lb frame is quickly losing this battle at an alarming pace.  I grab on with all I have to secure him, wrapping his lead around my wrist.  With a final pull, he yanks me completely off my feet.  I am now tumbling straight down the steep and narrow trail, hitting every rock and branch in my path. I grip for anything I can to slow my descent.  The branches and vines are shredding my arms like razors with every foot I drop. I almost have my grip….getting close to a stop, but feel a strong slam to the back of my head before I make it. With a few more jolts I finally come to an abrupt stop.  ‘Jesus!’ I groan out.  The pain is excruciating!  I hurt from head to toe but seem to have only deep bruises with no broken bones.  All my limbs seem to be in working order.

I have to get away from here. Now!

As I gingerly push myself to a sitting position, I feel liquid pouring down the back of my neck.  I put my hands up to see what was causing the moisture only to pull my hands back and find sticky blood covering my fingertips.  My blood, a lot of it, everywhere. I start to feel dizzy, and a wave of nausea sweeps over me.

As I look up to get my bearings, I am relieved to see Atlas running at full speed in my direction, but I see the man descending the trail on the opposite side coming straight towards me, right on the heels of my dog.

As I pull myself to my knees to stand, a rush hits me, sending me right back to the ground.  Something is wrong…dizziness is washing over me…then only darkness…

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