Abe's eyes desperately swept the terrain for a place he could land. Nothing but the tops of trees appeared. To his left he spotted a ridge where the land leveled off somewhat, and he angled his course in that direction. Although the topography on the ridgeline was more level, there was no break in the trees. An unfamiliar feeling, panic, began to take root in his gut.
Cool man, stay cool.
The ultralight continued its descent. Abe opened the visor on his helmet and then fished a cell phone from his pocket. Flipping it open, he searched for Kelsey's name. Spotting it, he pushed DIAL and slid the earpiece inside his helmet. Waiting for the call to go through, he glanced at the compass on the instrument panel. Unlike the plane's propeller, it was spinning wildly.
What the hell?
He tapped the display, but the needle continued to gyrate. He tore his eyes away from the panel to continue the search for a landing place. The approaching treetops racing towards him looked like green teeth waiting to chew the plane to pieces.
Abruptly, the densely clustered treetops beneath him separated revealing a small opening in the forest. A little building squatted in the middle. The steeple rising above the roofline immediately identified it as a church. No other structures were visible. Alone in the clearing, it seemed to be engaged in a losing battle to hold back the encroaching forest.
What would a church be doing way out here?
He watched the church below him slide by and then disappear, once again engulfed by the forest. A voice in his ear startled him. “Hi, this is Kelsey. I can't take your call right now, but leave your name and number, and I’ll call ya back soon.”
Abe had really needed to hear a live voice. A tone squealed through the earphone, signaling him to leave a message. Before he could get a word out, a change in the scenery distracted him. Ahead, a little to the side of the ridgeline, the top of a large rock protruded through the shrouding canopy. It was massive, with an unusual greenish-blue hue, unlike the gray-brown color of most other rock in the area. There was something peculiar about the way that it stood independent and not part of a cliff face or other rock structure.
Like it had been dropped there.
His attention returned to the phone. “Kelsey, it’s Abe. I've got engine problems and have to set down. I'm about an hour somewhere northwest of Buladean. I passed over an old church, I think, and some huge rock is ahead of me. No roads or fields–this might be a rough…” He stopped mid-sentence.
That's what I'm talkin' about!
To his left, slicing through the forest along the ridge he had aimed the ultralight towards, was an old trail or road. It curved close by the unusual rock and then straightened out somewhat a little further ahead. Though not very wide—and some acrobatic flying would be necessary to get down there—it was the chance he’d been hoping for.
“Honey, I found a small road. I'm going to try and set down on it. Wish me luck. Love ya,” he said, snapping the phone shut. In the excitement of locating a possible landing site, he didn't notice that the signal reception bars on his phone had disappeared before he’d completed the message.
The tops of the trees lining the road were too close together for the wing to clear horizontally, but if he tilted the wing line vertically he might be able to slide through, then level out once below the upper canopy. Abe angled the nose down and lined up his approach.
Easy, Abe, easy does it.
Nearing the tops of the trees, Abe dropped the ultralight’s nose and banked to the left. One wing edge dipped low while the other pointed skyward. At forty miles per hour, things happened fast. The wing cleared the narrow gap between the tops of the first trees. Abe pushed forward and left on the Triangle Control Frame bar, raising the nose, slowing the speed, and leveling the plane. Twenty feet below him the road beckoned.
I'm gonna do this.
Out of nowhere a tree limb appeared directly in front of him. Abe shifted his weight and pushed against the TCF bar. The plane started to dive and bank to the right. It wasn't enough. The wing clipped the branch in an explosion of leaves and wood, crumpling the aluminum support bars. The jolt of the impact stunned him. Abe worked the TCF bar trying unsuccessfully to regain control. No longer aerodynamic, the craft plummeted towards the ground at a steep angle. Abe released the TCF bar, instinctively extending his arms in front of him for protection.
The ultralight struck the ground on its left side, bounced slightly, then slammed down again, tumbling over and over, finally coming to rest on its side against a small tree. Dazed, and still strapped into the seat, Abe tried to release the seatbelt, but his body wouldn’t respond. Slumping against the side of the trike, he stared at a suspended wheel that was slowly spinning. An inky darkness settled over him.
Amaury pushed his younger brother on the rope swing. “Higher!” Haston squealed among giggles.
“Any higher an’ you gonna fly off the mountain.”
“No I won't neither. Please!”
The two boys were playing in an old growth stand of hardwoods on an adjacent mountain ridge. Someone had tied a thick rope to a stout limb of a tree that grew close to the edge of a steep drop off. Fixed to the lower end of the rope was a circular-shaped piece of wood to sit on while swinging. When pushed towards the steep hillside, the rider would arc high above the sloping ground.
“Hold on then,” Amaury gave a Herculean push and his brother swung high out over the edge.
“Amaury, stop, STOP!”
“What’s wrong, chicken? I thought you wanted to go higher?” asked Amaury, grabbing hold of his brother on the return motion.
“Look!” Haston said, pointing.
Amaury looked in the direction of his brother's finger. Something that resembled a big kite was dropping into the trees.
“What is it, Amaury?”
“Not sure. I think it’s a kite, or maybe a parachute.”
“What's a parachute?”
“It’s like a big blanket that floats people down from planes that are crashin',” Amaury explained.
“Git out, a plane is crashin'?”
“Don't know, didn't hear none flyin',” said Amaury, watching the strange sight.
“Then where did the parachute come from?”
The brothers watched in unison as the ultralight descended into the forest. Haston's face screwed into a quizzical look. “Isn't that by the bad place Papa tells us to never go to?”
Amaury’s young features registered the significance of Haston’s words, and his voice rose in excitement. “Yeah, come on. We gotta go.”
“Go? Where?” asked Haston, still watching the spectacle.
“To tell Papa. Now come on.”
Haston opened his mouth to protest but stopped short at the urgency in his older brother's tone. They sprinted along a narrow path leading down into the cove, Amaury in the lead with Haston screaming after him to slow down.
Abe slowly opened his eyes, forcing them to focus. His head swam. Blood trickled down one side of his face from somewhere underneath his helmet. He felt like he was floundering in a pool of molasses as he slowly moved first each arm, then each leg. It hurt, but at least nothing seemed broken. Unbuckling the harness, he dropped out of the seat onto the ground and let out a yelp. His left shoulder felt like a hot dagger had been thrust into it. Must be dislocated.
Abe stood up, woozily steadying himself on the mangled remains of the ultralight. Gingerly, he lifted off his helmet and touched the huge swelling on the side of his head. Most likely have a concussion.
The helmet had saved him from worse damage. Looking back at the path his plane had taken through the trees he was simultaneously shocked and impressed. The mangled tree limb and gouged soil on the trail painted the fateful landing in silent detail. Not half bad though, considering the alternative.
Abe listened for sounds of civilization: a tractor, four-wheeler, chainsaw. There was nothing but the swish of leaves in the breeze. The trees were dense and grew right up to the forest road he had landed on, blocking any long-range view. He fished for his cell phone with his right hand. His initial relief that it had not been smashed was replaced with dismay when he saw that he had no signal.
Great! He'd left this morning without talking to anyone, hadn't shared a flight plan, and actually hadn't even planned one. No one knew where he was, or where to look. Abe didn’t even know where he was—somewhere in the southern border of the Cherokee National Forest was his best guess.
Typical Abe. Dump yourself in the middle of nowhere without tellin’ anyone where you were headed. Never say I don’t like a challenge.
Abe contemplated what to do next: stay put or walk. There hadn't been any landmarks. No, wait. There was a church. He remembered seeing it just before the crash; it couldn't be that far away. If he could find it, there might be help there. Something else swam into his thoughts—a rock, a big rock, was near the church. He should be able to locate that easy enough, and the church should be close to it. There have to be people near a church, right?
“Stay put son.” That was what his father would say. “Sit tight until help arrived.” Abe decided against that.
“Of course, you would,” his father’s voice wheedled in his head.
Abe rationalized his decision. One, he needed to move while he still could, in case his injuries were worse than he knew. Two, no one would be missing him until Kelsey got her message. Three, the rescue team wouldn’t know where to begin looking. Four, he was certain he hadn’t seen any sort of civilization close by other than the church. If nothing else, it would provide shelter.
Sorry Dad, I win this one.
Pushing off the mangled frame of his trike, Abe stumbled around the wreckage that had been his plane. His rucksack was miraculously still attached. Detaching it from the frame, he opened it and pulled out the two water bottles, which were a little worse for wear but intact. A hooded sweatshirt, a package of crackers and a lot of old fuel receipts rounded out the contents. Pulling out the sweatshirt, he reached in the front pocket and found the pen that he had stuck there after class last week. Pulling out one of the least crumpled receipts, he turned it over and on the back wrote: Ashton Everett, crashed on 6/6/09. I am walking towards a church—will mark the way. I am injured. Please send help.
He had intended to put a direction on the note, but he remembered that the compass had gone crazy right before he went down. Right now it was a crushed, useless mess. He had no good idea of which direction was north, south, east or west.
Abe speared the note on a ragged piece of metal frame, and took off his rucksack from the seat back. Putting the two water bottles and the sweatshirt back in, he took a last look at what was left of his ultralight and then headed down the trail in the direction of the church.
Amaury and Haston burst out of the woods at a full run, speeding around an old tobacco barn onto a lane that led to the old farmhouse where they lived. As they passed a crooked shed leaning over an old tractor, a group of chickens burst into a melee of feathers and agitated clucks. On the porch that encircled the farmhouse, two individuals were slowly swaying back and forth in a pair of old rockers, watching the two boys run towards the house. Closing the distance, the boys charged over an ancient timber bridge, the noise of their passage drowning out the warbling of the stream below.
“Papa, Papa,” Amaury called out, stopping at the bottom of the steps and panting with exhaustion. Haston pulled up behind him, doubled over, too winded to speak.
Nathan Bridger, clad in worn Carhartt jeans, blue-checkered flannel shirt and Ariat boots, stopped the seemingly perpetual motion of his rocker. “What’s got you boys so riled up?”
The boys clambered up the steps, panting. Amaury, wanting to tell the story before his little brother, blurted out fragments of the event they had witnessed. “There was a kite, or parachute, or somethin’ that crashed in the woods,” Amaury said between giant heaves of his chest. Haston added an emphatic nod.
“Well, which was it son? A kite, a parachute or something else?”
“I don’t know Papa, I never seen anything like it.”
“Never saw,” corrected Nathan. “What did it look like?”
“It was yella, and there was a bike-like thing hangin’ under it,” Amaury said.
“Really,” Nathan said, furrowing his eyebrows and feigning intense interest.
Amaury, his sense of self importance inflated, gathered himself up like a young puppy receiving its first praise. “Yep, and I think someone was on the bike!”
Nathan cocked his head slightly at his son’s last sentence. “Someone?” Amaury nodded. “Where did you see this?”
Haston, who had been catching his breath till now, jumped into the conversation. “Near the bad place, Papa.”
Nathan stood up from the rocker, anger flashing in his eyes, “You are NOT supposed to go there!” Amaury took a half step back, looking up at the imposing presence that was his father.
Nathan Bridger was a tall, powerfully built man. His coal-black hair, livened with flashes of silver, covered a lean and chiseled face of mocha complexion. Deep blue eyes shone passionately from beneath a heavy brow.
Despite being innocent of the implication, Amaury gulped. “We saw it from the swing, Papa. We wasn’t at the bad place. Honest.”
Nathan regarded him intensely for a moment, and then his face softened. He squatted down on his haunches and pulled Amaury to him. “I’m sorry Amaury, I should have never doubted you. I was just worried for a moment.” He hugged Amaury briefly, and then stood, leaving his hand on the boy’s shoulder. Nathan turned and looked towards the mountains, momentarily lost in thought.
“You must go, Nathan,” commanded a hoarse whisper.
The intrusion of her voice into the silence startled them and three heads jerked in her direction.
She was still seated in the rocker, frame stooped over to the point of not touching the chair back. Gloved hands protruded from the sleeves of a faded, once-white cotton dress. Brown, baggy nylons sprouted upwards from inside a pair of battered black shoes, disappearing beneath the dress fabric. A threadbare paisley print shawl was pulled cloaklike over her head, hiding her face. Not a glimpse of the person underneath was visible.
“Do not waste time!” Her voice sounded like autumn leaves scraping across pavement.
The boys’ father nodded slowly, seemingly reluctantly. “I know, Nana,” he said and turned to look at his sons. “Boys, your mother and Aunt Mariah are in town getting groceries. Stay here with Nana until they get back.”
“Awww,” Haston started, but a stern look from his father killed further protest.
Nathan looked at Nana. “I’ll get Sandor and his boys to help me check it out,” he said, starting towards the barn. “And do NOT go back into the woods until I say so,” he added, casting a glance over his shoulder to the boys.
“We won’t!” they answered, plunking themselves down on the steps. Nathan stopped, waiting.
“Sir!” they responded in unison. He smiled and nodded his satisfaction to their response, and continued down to the barn.
Abe walked at a slow pace down the trail searching for the lonely building he had seen from the air. His progress was slow, every step aggravating his dislocated shoulder. An unusual buzzing sensation had developed in his head that disoriented him, making him feel nauseous. He’d thought that he would have spotted the church by now and was starting to wonder if he should have left the ultralight.
Too late, Hero. Keep on movin’.
He continued his slow pace down the trail. Cresting a small rise he ran into a metal gate barricading the trail with a large wooden sign bolted to it that in large black letters warned:
PRIVATE PROPERTY–NO ADMITTANCE
TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED
Barbed wire snaked away and into the trees from either side. Abe smiled; being prosecuted would actually be a welcome occurrence right now.
A lock that had once secured the gate dangled uselessly from an eyebolt—and the gate hung ajar. He leaned against one of the gateposts to rest, and felt the bump on his head. His hand came away with a small amount of sticky blood, which he wiped onto a fence post. Marshaling his strength, he pressed on.
The forest grew dense along the trail here, pressing in, as though trying to smother him. Abe had the feeling that he had entered an entirely different wilderness, cold and unwelcoming. He caught himself glancing repeatedly through the trees as he walked, half expecting to see something looking back at him. An uneasy alertness crept over him flooding his system with adrenalin, and he unconsciously picked up his pace. Rounding a bend, he looked back nervously over his shoulder and a vine caught his foot, tripping him. He stumbled onto one knee, crying out at the sharp pain from his shoulder. Kneeling in the middle of the path he looked up and gaped. Rising above him a short distance off the trail was what he knew to be the rock he had seen from the plane.
The monolith emerged abruptly from the ground towering into the trees, rising above all but the tallest. Gazing down its length, he guessed it to be about a football field long and maybe half as wide. He felt cowed in its presence, and momentarily forgot his situation. Not sure why, Abe wanted to move closer. Pushing through scrubby mountain laurel, and wildflowers he didn’t know the names of, Abe picked his way to the giant stone. Drawing near, he ran a hand across the surface. The texture was smooth, like it had been polished. It was greenish-blue in color and flecked with what may have been quartz. The most intriguing aspect was that it was warm to the touch.
Couldn’t be geothermal, must be heated from the sun?
Abe placed both hands on the surface, the warmth comforting. His shoulder pain actually seemed to lessen, and he felt better. In fact, standing close to this monolith seemed to clear the foggy, buzzing sensation in his head too. He moved in close, pressing as much of his body against the surface as possible, like a child snuggling against its parent.
Wouldn’t this make a YouTube video! Abe Everett, rockhugger.
He rested against the huge stone, enjoying the effects it had on his body. A trance-like state enveloped him. The forest around him seemed to hush, as though holding its breath. He had closed his eyes and placed his forehead against the stone when he heard it. “Ashton.”
Someone called my name! They’ve found me!
He spun away from the stone, looking towards the path for the person who had called him. No one was there. “Hello,” he answered, listening intently. Nothing but the hushed sounds of the forest answered his call.
Pushing through the vegetation, he hurried down to the trail and called out again, “Hey, I’m here!” There was no reply. Abe looked up and down the trail as far as he could see, but no rescuers materialized.
Must have hit my head harder than I thought. I better find that church.
Reluctantly Abe walked away from the strange rock and continued his search. He tried to envision the position of the church in relation to the rock and concluded that it was somewhere off to his left. He peered intensely through the trees as he walked. A little further down the trail a slight clearing in the vegetation on the left drew his attention—a path!
The path hadn’t seen use for a very long time, and he would have missed it if not looking so intently for some sign of the church. It forked off the main trail at a downward slope, and disappeared into dense brush. Abe looked down the scraggily footpath. He didn't like leaving the main trail for a barely discernible passageway leading to God knew where, but it did lead in the direction he thought the church might be. Also, he seemed to remember that the church was not on the main trail he had been following.
Fragments of a poem he’d once been forced to learn came to mind, something to do with two roads and the less travelled one being a better choice. His old teacher, Mr. Sangent, wouldn’t be too impressed with his recitation skills, Abe thought. He looked down the path, wondering if it could possibly lead to the church he had seen.
Guess it wouldn’t hurt to at least check it out a little ways.
Abe broke a sapling to mark his way and started down. His head had begun to buzz again. Even though this was an obvious trail, it had been used so infrequently that he had to push through knee-high briars and wild rose bushes that were attempting to erase the intrusion into their world. The thorns scratched into his legs, tearing the skin. After a short while of bushwhacking, he stopped.
There can't be anything down here. It’s probably just an old animal trail.
He turned around intending to go back to the main trail. “Ashton.”
Abe whipped around so fast that he tripped over himself and stumbled. His shoulder protested in agony. Someone had called to him again.
“Hey?” he called out. He looked and listened. The forest remained motionless around him. Not a thing moved.
“Helllooo?” Abe queried, dragging the word out. No one answered back. His heart began to pound in his chest. I know I heard my name.
Abe stood still trying to make sense of his situation. He knew he’d heard a voice call his name, but who out here would know him? And no one called him “Ashton” except his father—and then only when he was angry. Abe wondered if his head injury was causing him to hallucinate. Pull yourself together, you’re losin’ it.
Suddenly he felt very alone. He looked down the trail to where it bent to the right. He would go down that far, and if no church were in sight he would head back to the main trail. With a set plan, he proceeded down the path but at a much slower pace. After what seemed like forever he reached the bend and looked beyond.
There it was!
Triumph was quickly replaced by defeat as he took in the picture before him. The church had been built into a small hillside. It stood crooked, like a snaggled tooth in a diseased gum. Once-white pine board siding, now defiled to gray with mildew and grime, girdled the exterior. Dead, brown, leafless vines snaked up the side of the building and violated the slats of the bell tower. The few windows were filmed black from years of neglect. A faded red door stood ajar, not quite halfway open. The depth of shadow prevented any view further inside.
The small clearing in which it sat was roughly circular. A rusted wrought iron fence began on either side of the path and ran uninterrupted around the perimeter. No gate barred entry. The forest pressed right up to the edge but appeared afraid to cross some unseen line. With the exception of a very few cowlicks of spidery, brown grass in between rocks and decaying logs, nothing grew inside the fence. A small stream crept silently out of the woods along one side, but nothing else moved. No birds flitted; no squirrels scampered; no insects stirred.
Abe leaned on the fence. This was not what he’d hoped to find. Obviously no one had been here for a very long time. He laughed at the situation in which he had placed himself. Great move, Genius. Why not stay here and start your own apocalyptic parish?
Abe eyed the dilapidated structure while supporting his weight against the iron fence posts. Churches were places of safety, sanctuaries that exuded a welcome-home feeling for wayward souls. Not so this one. It had a cold, repellent aura—like when reaching into the dark space where you’d seen a glossy black spider creeping a second ago.
There wouldn’t be any shelter here nor any help for his situation. Time to leave. His head was really humming right now, the pain in his shoulder a continuous throb. Abe felt his strength ebbing and began to question if he could make it back up to the main trail. Still leaning against the fence, he looked back the way he had come. The silence here had a physical presence, pressing down on him, holding him in place. Come on, hero. Move.
Abe had taken a step down the path when he heard it. A tortured, cracking whine from behind him. He turned back towards the church. Its door was now completely open! Scenes from a dozen backwoods B-horror movies he’d seen through the years slithered into his mind. Mutated, inbred, deformed cannibals momentarily dominated his thoughts.
Heart beating, Abe turned to leave again, wanting to put some distance between himself and the church, but his left foot slipped on a loose rock and he hit the ground hard. Hot pain flashed from his shoulder throughout his body causing his vision to blur. He rolled onto his back and the church swam back into view. Something, or a shadow of something, was in the doorway.
A garbled sob erupted from him as he tried to get up. His head hummed like an electric transformer ready to blow. He forced himself to stand but fell again. Disoriented, he pushed himself up on one knee. He stopped, instinctively aware of something behind him.
Slowly he turned his head. Oh my God!
His scream died in his throat as blackness enveloped him.
The sun had slipped behind the tallest of the mountains when Nathan and four other men on horseback rode into Abe’s crash site. Nathan scrutinized the area around the wreckage, but there was no sign of the pilot.
“Stay here while I check further down,” he said.
Nathan urged his mount down the trail, in the direction that Abe had taken. Riding at a trot he quickly came upon the monolith. From the crushed plants, it was easy to see that someone had walked up to the stone. But whoever had walked through the vegetation was no longer there.
Dear God, please don’t have gone down there.
Nathan continued down the trail at a trot, passing through the opened gate and on down towards the church. At the point where the path to the church forked from the road, he stopped, his stomach tightening. A sapling was broken in half as a marker. The pilot had gone down the path.
Nathan had to check, had to be sure. He urged his mount off the trail and down the path. As they got closer to the church the horse began tossing its head and balking. When the building appeared, Nathan could barely keep the panicked animal from bolting. It wasn’t necessary to hold the horse back for long. Nathan saw what he needed. The church door was wide open.
He stared through the open door for a second, searching the shadows within for any movement. The horse finally gave in to its panic and bolted back up the path. Nathan let it run.
He was stunned. This couldn’t be happening again. He wasn’t ready, wasn’t able, to deal with it a second time.
As Nathan rode back into the crash site, a younger man sharing his dark features stood up from the rock. “Has it happened?”
Nathan looked down at his brother, Sander, and in a heavy, quiet voice said simply, “Yes.” Then he added, “We need to clean this up quickly.”
The men went to work without a sound. When they were finished, all evidence of the crash was gone from sight. To a casual observer it would look as if nothing had ever happened. Darkness had descended by the time the weary men headed back the way they had come, each lost in his own thoughts. Nathan was thinking about the phone call he would be making later.