Part 2 of my “12 Short Stories” – Challenge
Based on a prompt by Mia from deadlinesforwriters.com
Saved by the squirrel
”I can‘t believe you lost both your phone and the map!” Helen set off stomping along the forest path, very clearly not looking back at Paul.
”Oh yeah? Well, at least I had a map with me! Wonder why you didn‘t want to take one yourself!” Paul went through all of his coat pockets and backpack again. He only came up with a tissue, slightly used, two sandwiches, slightly out of shape, and a handful of lint. He huffed and puffed for a bit, stuffed everything into the backpack and jogged after Helen.
”Wait up! Hey! Are you sure this is the right path?”
”We’d know that if we still had the map. Anyway, I wish there were more signposts here. There hasn‘t been one of those for miles!”
Paul looked at the trees left and right. He couldn‘t see any signs either. Then he looked at Helen. He raises just one eyebrow.
”You know what would be amazing too? If the battery in your phone wasn‘t down. I mean, who takes a phone on a hike that only has enough juice left to tell you it‘s going to switch off any second now?”
”I would have recharged it, had I known you would leave yours in the picnic area. Anyway, I haven‘t had any reception around here before it went down.”
”Like I told you before: This network of yours is cheap for a reason.”
”Ooooh, thank you, that‘s so helpful! We always use your phone to navigate or look things up anyway, so I don‘t see why I should switch to a network you approve of.”
Paul decided not to insist. Something else occurred to him: ”Have we been here before? I think I remember passing by these trees earlier today. Strange how they look so much alike. They didn‘t when I was here as a kid.”
Helen rolled her eyes and walked on. ”If we had been here before we would have gone in a circle, and so we would have had to pass by at least the one signpost with the green squirrel on it.”
Paul took off his hat to wipe his brow. ”Okay, but didn‘t the sun use to be on our left the entire time? I don‘t think so. I remember having to blink my right eye when we set out from the picnic site. I wonder if we are still going south. What do you think?”
Helen stopped. ”What do you think asking me all these questions is going to achieve? You know I have never been here before. You know I don‘t usually go on walks. Especially not through the woods. How would I know where south is? I thought you had all this hiking experience! If you don‘t know, how should I?”
Paul stopped next to her and put his hand on her shoulder. He took a long breath. ”You‘re right. Let‘s just keep on walking. We are bound to get to the edge of this forest eventually, and then there will be people who we can ask for directions. We just have to stick to the path and everything will turn out fine.”
So they kept on walking until some time later they came to a fork in the path. Still no signposts, not to speak of the lack of any markers indicating official trails.
”So: Left or right?” Paul asked.
Helen shrugged. ”If we really got turned around, we should go left now. If we got turned around. I can‘t say that I remember having to squint my right eye.”
Paul closed his left eye, then his right. Left again. Right again. He shook his head. ”Hm. Well. Maybe I did squint on the left. So the right path it is. Let‘s go.”
Going right is what they did, but anyone watching would have had to say neither of them projected confidence. Helen threw suspicious glances at the trees as if accusing them of misleading and ridiculing her just out of spite. Paul pasted on a less than convincing smile and put a bit more spring in his step than strictly necessary.
The path went on and on. More trees. No signposts. They had run out of things to say even before they had reached the fork. Now the silence was growing louder by the minute.
”Oh no!” Helen pointed forwards to another fork they were approaching.
”What? Why no? What?” Paul looked from the junction to Helen and back. ”What is it?”
”It‘s the same fork! See the lump of wood over there? See the stump with the green stuff growing on it? We have definitely been here before. We really have gone round in circles! Damn!”
”Maybe we should actually have taken the left? Just maybe?”
”What kind of stupid date is this? Why did I let you talk me into this? Argh!”
”Well, excuse me, I just thought it might be fun. Mark the occasion and all that. You were the one who did not want to have a party.”
Helen shot him a dirty look.
”Right. Right. We‘ll go left then.”
Paul crossed his arms. ”Like I said, maybe we should have…”
”What I maybe should have done is not come along to begin with!”
Both of them stomped off at the same pace, looking like they were each determined to overtake the other in a dramatic exit. After about a mile of this they went out of steam, however, and settled into a sulking trudge onwards.
This time it was Paul who stopped and pointed toward the fork they had now passed twice before.
Helen threw up her hands and stared.
”But how…? What…? We can‘t have gone in a circle! Not this time and not the first time either. Did the website say anything about portals or dimensional problems in this forest? I didn‘t know they had them! I just don‘t get it!”
Paul scratched his head. ”Beats me too. Are we sure it really is the same fork?”
There was the short shrub with the frizzy needles on the left, the tallish tree with the round leaves and also the stump half covered in moss on the right. Either someone had designed this forest using copy and paste or they had to face the fact that they had got turned around twice now. On an unbranched path going straight forward.
”Paul? How big is this stupid forest? What happens if someone doesn‘t find their way out of it?”
Paul was slowly rotating on the spot and scanning the surrounding trees.
”What? I don‘t know! When I used to come here with my family, we never got lost. We were always back at the car in a matter of hours. This forest sure has changed a lot since then.”
”I‘ll say! This is exactly why I don‘t go hiking in the first place! Everything looks the same and they only put up a few signs where you know where you are anyway and here there is nothing! Not even water! Paul? Do you have any water left? Why didn‘t we take more water? How big is this forest anyway?”
”Can you just stop with the questions, Helen? I didn‘t make us get lost, you know!”
”But you ate my sandwiches! Even worse, you lost your damn phone! And the map!”
Paul stopped spinning. ”Yes, I get it! It‘s all my fault. Like everything always is!”
”I didn‘t say that. I just wish I still had my sandwiches, if we are going to spend the night here outside. Actually, I wish I didn‘t have to spend the night here outside at all! I wish I had not come with you!”
”Then why didn‘t you say that before we went? Before we decided to go? Why didn‘t you make a suggestion that I could have then been against? Or could have pretended to agree with and then complained at length about afterwards? That would have been fantastic!”
Helen‘s stomach growled. ”What kind of sandwiches did you bring?”
”Hummus, olives and capers, why?
”Capers? Guess I am not that hungry.”
”So you are criticising my sandwich making decisions now? What next? Also, we are not going to spend the night here outside.”
Helen shouted: ”How do you know that? What makes you so sure that if we take either of the two paths again, we are going to end up anywhere but here? We are lost and there is no sign, no map and nobody else to help us!”
Paul tapped his chin. ”We could try going back?”
”Hah, and there is it, another genius idea: Why not go in circles but this time backwards? Why haven’t I thought of that?”
”As a matter of fact, that is a very legitimate question. Why don‘t you tell me how to get out of here?”
Now it was Helen‘s turn to cross her arms. ”You got us into this.”
”And there we have it. I come up with an idea, research a nice location, clean the car, charge my phone, drive us here…”
”Eat my sandwiches, lose said phone…”
”… and just because not everything goes to plan, I am to blame? I just wish that for once I was not responsible for everything!”
”And I just wish that for once we could do something that I like!”
”It would help if you told me what you wanted to do!”
”I would if you ever listened to me!”
Paul slumped for a second, then gripped his backpack straps and looked behind him.
”That‘s it. I officially don‘t care anymore. I am going back.”
Helen looked shocked for a second, then narrowed her eyes. ”I am most definitely not going back the way we came.”
”Suit yourself, then.”
And with that, Paul went back and Helen stayed. She frowned, then fished her phone from her back pocket and switched it on to check the reception. She got nothing apart from a beep and the message that it would switch off now. She stared after Paul for a few moments, then started walking down the left path.
After what felt like hours, she halted and took off her own backpack. Maybe there still was something left to eat in there, who knew? Yet, the only thing she found in there was a folded piece of paper. It read:
My amazing Helen,
I am so glad we found each other. My life so far would have been incredibly boring without you. I love how you always support me and my weird ideas and how you are so uncomplicated and easy to be around. Thank you for joining me on this trip, it means a lot to me.
Paul kept turning around to see if he recognised the trail from the two times he had walked it in the other direction. Hard to tell, no matter how much he squinted. When he had finally cooled off from his outburst of frustration, he slowed down until he stood still and sighed. He patted down his coat for the phone again and felt something in the inside pocket. It turned out to be a letter which read:
can you believe we made it this far? Every day, I enjoy your company so much, even though we sometimes seem so different. I love how you challenge and inspire me with all your weird ideas and how you are this big rock in my life. Thank you for agreeing to make today just about us, it means a lot to me,
It took only about two minutes for them to meet again at the fork, completely out of breath but laughing. Paul was the first to find his breath and say something.
”Today was a stupid idea. I should have listened to you, and next time I definitely will. I just thought a fun trip with just the two of us would be special, you know? Spending time together in peace, enjoying some fresh air. Turns out this forest is not that peaceful after all. We didn‘t even see any animals.”
”Because I am usually such a fan of fresh air,” Helen chuckled, then became serious. ”Honestly, I am sorry as well. Nothing about today was stupid, it was so thoughtful. And I really do appreciate you doing all the planning. I even kind of like this forest and spending time together. I just don‘t seem to do that well under pressure. Sorry I panicked.”
Paul ran his hand through her hair. ”I know. I‘m not happy with myself either. Sorry I took your sandwich.”
”Sorry I blamed you for the trip going down like this. But sometimes I do learn, so I am going to make the decision: We will take the right path and this time focus on our surroundings instead of who did what. Or didn‘t.”
”The best idea I have heard in a long time.”
They hugged once more before they moved towards the right hand path. They walked for a few paces, then both of them reached out at the exact same time and wordlessly clasped each others hands, looked into each others‘ eyes and grinned.
Suddenly, something dropped onto the ground in front of them. Someone actually: A red squirrel that stared at them for a few moments, then scampered away only to stop again and look at Helen and Paul. It ran a bit further away, then looked at them over its shoulder. Finally, it jumped up on a tall tree stump and from there hopped onto some branches hanging overhead and disappeared.
”Look Helen! The squirrel!”
Helen patted his arm. ”Yes Paul, I saw. Very cute and fluffy. A wild animal at last, shame my phone is down and yours is gone or else we could have taken a picture.”
”No, I mean the green one! There on the post! It means, we are on the squirrel trail!” Looking closely, the stump was actually a signpost. Paul jogged over there and hugged it. Then he dropped to the ground to sit next to the post but immediately jumped back up.
”Huh,” he said and reached for his back pockets.
”What is it?”
Paul flashed a big grin. ”Would you believe it? My phone! And the map! And see? I even have great reception! Let me just have a look…”
Helen grimaced. ”Is it far to the car park?”
”Not really, just one more mile,” Paul beamed.
Helen did a little dance on the spot. ”You are the best, did you know that?”
Even the phone made a happy little noise. Paul checked his notifications.
”Tom and Nina say hi and congratulations!”
Helen smiled. ”That‘s lovely. Who would have thought we would manage 25 years, right?”
”And Helen? Next time you are in charge of our wedding anniversary planning. No pressure.”
”Oh, in that case, how would you like a day out? Maybe walking through the woods? Some fresh air?”
”With you? Just the two of us? Sounds perfect.”