Short Story: Out of the Woods and into the Fire

On Thursdays, I host a flash fiction challenge on twitter at the #PhotoStoryPrompt hashtag. The rules are simple: write a story based on the photo prompt, and follow that week’s challenge (today, the challenge was to include a shovel in the story, and have your main character say the words, “it has to”).

This week’s photo prompt inspired me to write a longer story:

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One of my writer friends, Thomas Norman (who doesn’t like to go by “Thomas,” but too bad, since this is a formal introduction), is writing a fantastic novel, and we decided to challenge ourselves even more by exchanging our main characters for crossover stories. How fun is that? Without revealing much, I’ll say that his MC, Marcus, is fascinating and incredibly well developed, and I can’t wait to read Tom’s manuscript when it’s ready!

In the story below, Marcus meets one of the main characters in my screenplay, Eva.

OUT OF THE WOODS AND INTO THE FIRE

“No,” Eva said firmly. “I never promised to deliver in a week, Jerry. I told you right from the get-go that we’re going to have to play the long game on this one. I need time to earn his trust.”

She listened intently to the angry voice on the other end of the line. Jerry wasn’t known for his patience.

“Don’t pull me back yet,” she said, more urgently. “I got you the scoop on Senator Bowden, didn’t I? I–” she stopped short, cut off by the yelling on the other end of the line. “Yeah, ok, that was a year ago, but–.” More yelling. “Listen, Jerry,” she cut in quickly, “I know I haven’t closed on a story in a few months … ok, fine, more than a few months, but this is different. I’ve been out here for four days and I already know for a fact that this guy wants to talk. He’s scared, but he has the kind of dirt on Rivex Corp that would make the cover of the Times. And the Journal. And the Post. All I need is another month.”

She knew she was pushing it, and sure enough, the yelling restarted.

“Fine,” she said, “two weeks. Give me two weeks, and if you don’t have my notes on your desk by close of business on–what? the twenty-sixth?–you can fire me.” She listened. “Yeah, I know you can fire me anytime you want, but we both know my local coverage brings in more ads than both investigative journalists on staff. Combined. And you pay me half of what I’m worth.”

Bingo.

She hung up with a sigh of relief. She had bought herself another two weeks, maybe three, if she was really lucky, but she would have to work fast.

And time was not in her favor at the moment. She got out of the driver’s seat, walked around to the front of the car, and stared hopelessly at the hood. She had no sense of how long it might take for roadside assistance to reach her, but in this sparsely populated area of Upstate New York, it could be well past nightfall.

Eva glanced behind her at the tunnel and out onto the open road, sunk in deep shadow beneath a thick canopy of trees. Empty as far as her eyes could see.

A soft rustling caught her attention and she turned to the sound, straining to make it out above the whisper of wind through tree leaves. There: a rhythmic rustle through moist undergrowth. Footsteps.

Eva’s skin prickled.

Out of the bushes on the side of the road, a man stumbled onto the pavement, moving with the weary steps of someone who had walked for many miles and dragging a shovel behind him. He doubled over, hands on his knees, panting, and wiped his brow.

He sensed Eva’s eyes on him before he saw her, and with one swift movement, he straightened and spun around to face her.

They stared at each other, two deer in headlights.

Observe, Eva commanded herself, barely breathing. See what you see. It was a lesson the editor at her first journalism internship had taught her: don’t imbue a situation with what you expect to see. Start with a blank slate and take in every detail, one by one.

First: the man appeared as alarmed to see her as she was to see him. He was afraid, not hostile. Second: he was young, dressed in a pair of dirt-smudged jeans and t-shirt, and if he hadn’t stumbled out of a dense Upstate forest, he would have appeared normal. Or, at the least, he did not have the look of an axe-murderer, except for the shovel. And that was a big except.

“Uh, hi,” he said.

“Hi,” Eva raised a hand in a small wave and instantly regretted it. She could see the headline: Reporter’s Body Found in Woods. A string of faces flashed through her mind as she wondered for a split second which actress would play her in the made-for-TV movie.

“Um, can I help you?” she asked.

He considered for a moment. “Well. Yeah, actually. Can you give me a lift?”

“Oh. No.”

He nodded, looking embarrassed to have even asked.

“Oh, I don’t mean it like that,” Eva said quickly. Surely an axe murderer wouldn’t have looked so ashamed to be suspected of being an axe murderer, would he? “My car broke down. I’m waiting for a tow.”

He brightened. “I can help with that.”

“You’re good with cars?”

“Cars, trucks, you name it – if it has an engine, I can fix it.”

Eva glanced down at her phone. Wait who-knows-how-long for roadside assistance, or take a chance?

“Ok,” she said. “Have at it.”

The man walked over and looked as if he were about to offer her his hand in introduction, then drew back, aware of her cautious eyes following his every move. He set the shovel down against the wall of the tunnel. She eyed it with undisguised suspicion.

“I’m Marcus,” he said, raising a hand in salute.

“Jenna,” she waved again, relieved the lie rolled so smoothly off her tongue.

She watched as he busied himself under the hood, moving with practiced efficiency, and counted the number of steps it would take her to run for the shovel if she needed a weapon.

“There,” he said after what felt like only a few moments. “That should do it.”

“Really?”

“Give it a go.”

He stepped back from the car as she sat back in the driver’s seat and turned the key in the ignition. It revved to life.

“You’re a miracle worker,” she said, smiling for the first time.

He grinned back. “Wow. Thanks.”

They considered each other for a moment.

“Get in,” she said at last. The grin had done it. Axe murderers did not have that kind of glowing grin.

He made a point of walking past the shovel and not taking it with him.

They rode in awkward silence for a while, Eva staring straight ahead, Marcus following the blurred tree line with increasingly sleepy eyes.

“So, can I ask what you were doing out in the woods?” she said.

He thought for a moment, struggling to find the balance between the true truth and a believable truth. “I got lost,” he said at last.

“With a shovel?”

“I was, uh, gardening.”

Instantly, she was hooked. That feeling–the burning curiosity for the lives of others, for the things they most wanted to keep hidden–was what had drawn her to journalism, and what still kept her hooked, despite the low pay-grade. She could never back down from the opportunity to dig into another person’s secrets.

“It’s pretty wild out there,” she said.

“Sure is.”

“Especially, um, gardening alone?”

He said nothing.

She resisted the urge to keep pressing him on the shovel; she wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer.

“What would you have done if I hadn’t showed up?” she asked.

He shrugged. “Walked to the nearest town, I guess.”

“Do you even know where that is? Or how far?”

Again, silence.

“So you went gardening in the middle of nowhere, with no trail heads nearby, and you don’t know the surrounding towns?”

He rubbed his eyes. “I don’t know, ok? It’s been a long, long, long day. You would’t believe me if I told you anyway.”

“Oh yeah? Try me.”

“Forget it.”

“No, really. I’m a reporter. Trust me, I’ve heard pretty much every crazy story there is to hear.”

He snorted. “Not likely.”

She gave him a sharp, questioning look.

“Fine,” he sighed. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He paused, wondering if it wouldn’t be better to get out of the car and leave her blissfully ignorant. Too late. “I sort of, how do I put it, fell into the forest.”

“Is that like a philosophical experience?” she asked.

He shook his head. “Literal. I fell. As in, from a portal.”

“A portal.”

“Yeah.”

“From where?”

He looked at her, startled. Her voice was calm and professional, without a trace of sarcasm or mocking.

“Um. Well. I don’t know, exactly. I mean, I know where I came from, of course. I was just there. Shoveling dirt. But I don’t know how it’s connected to this place. I think this is a different world. It has to be.”

She nodded thoughtfully. “What makes you say that?”

“Things just look … different. Where are we, anyway?”

“Upstate New York,” she said. “A few miles out from Finger Lakes National Forest.”

“Oh,” he said, his eyes growing wide. “Wow.”

She waited for more, and when he said nothing, she asked, quietly, “Are you supposed to be on any medication?”

So that’s why she was so calm. She thought he was out of his mind.

“No. Look, I told you that you wouldn’t believe me.”

“Hey, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to offend you, it’s just that–”

“Seriously, forget it. Just drop me off somewhere with food and water and I’ll figure the rest out.”

“You can’t just wander about by yourself,” she said, turning to examine him more closely.

Before he could respond, something enormous hit the windshield. Their air bags deployed and in the ringing silence that followed, Eva could barely make out through her blurry vision a streak of blood across the shattered glass and Marcus, inert and bleeding from a deep gash on his forehead, pressed against the passenger window.

/END