The walk was habit, the path instinctual. She was going to her usual place, a place she wasn't supposed to be. "I don't want you climbing around in those mountains," her father had said, so many times it no longer had any meaning. She'd never really thought to ask why she shouldn't do it. She just did it anyway. Not fearlessly, but then that was the difference between her and say, Lisa, who would never do anything she was told not to do. Lisa had learned her lessons. "You're so brave," she would gush after hearing of Nicky's exploits. No, Nicky would think, not brave. Just desperate to be somewhere other than my house.
The trek through the woods was long and rough, an obstacle course of gullies and jagged granite, and in the rainy season, thick mud and swollen streams. But on a good day she could reach the small hunter's shack at the base of the mountains in half an hour. Not bad, really, and she always felt the deep reward of her efforts when she got there. It was the only man-made thing for miles around, a one-room shack with no glass in the windows and no door in the doorway, but it had walls and a leaky roof, and she wondered what more a person could need. No one used the shack anymore, that much she knew; each time she left she snagged pieces of thread across the doorway, and when she returned the thread was never disturbed.
And it was important that it was never disturbed. This was her place, essential to her existence, caught as it was in the middle of two worlds, a buffer zone between the wild and the tame, the exciting and the mundane, a region not like either it lay between but having some characteristics of each. From here, at the outreaches of the valley, she could safely flirt with the danger of the wilderness, then run back anytime she needed to. She needed to know that she could.
She stood outside the shack and drew in the sharp smells of hard mountains and high places-pine, cold rock-but under those smells rode a softer scent, carried on a warm breeze--the delicate traces of wisteria and lilacs and new-mown grass from the yards in town.
Town. The thought of it made her feel squirmy, tight, like she wanted to wriggle out of her skin. She never had that feeling in the mountains, even if they did scare her. At least they were a constant, something to depend on, something that would be there forever with those long ridges that, like enormous tree roots, anchored them to the earth. Their power over her was strange, almost magnetic, and she often found herself wanting to throw herself on their slopes, face down, and hug them to her. There was no threat in their power, although she did think of them as being disingenuous, knowing her deepest secrets and challenging her, daring her, to test her limits. And too, like a lover, with all the fierceness and passion they aroused in her, they offered her a sense of constancy and comfort when there was none to be found elsewhere.
She unsnagged the three pieces of thread that barred her entrance to the shack, leaving them to dangle limply on one side. It only took ten of her short strides to cross the floor, and she turned to sit on the rotted log in the corner, first making sure no bugs crawled where she was about to sit. Hers was a gray mood on this day, neither here nor there, nothing focused or urgent except that story about the Gunn family. This wasn't a day for playing pioneer woman, an animated game with full dialogue and a cast of good guys and bad guys she had to deal with while collecting her daily pioneer sustenance--the hard, red berries that grew on the bushes that threatened to overtake the shack. She would make them into an unappetizing mush by grinding them between two flat rocks from the stream, and while she never ate the berries, she always figured they were something she could survive on if she had to. Survivor seeds, she called them.
No. No pioneer woman today. Just Nicky Dalton with a soggy newspaper clipping and a head full of scary ideas. She took the piece of wet newspaper from her pocket and spread it out on the log next to her. Her hair fell into her eyes and she swept it back off her forehead and squinted. Still illegible. Probably ruined for good. She said something under her breath and shook her head while picking up a rusty metal Band-Aid box from behind the log. Carefully she emptied the contents of the box into her lap--a pitted church key, a Coke bottle cap, three pennies, a nickel, a handful of the hard red berries, a brittle, brightly-colored butterfly wing. She refolded the newspaper clipping and placed it in the tin, making sure to leave room for the other items.
From Winterkill by Karen Wunderman. Copyright 2002 Karen Wunderman, all rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the author.
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