Jack marched over the threshold, slammed the front door with a backward kick, and slapped his phone on the counter. With a groan, he fell onto the couch and buried his face in his hands. Stupid manager! Idiot clerk. How was I supposed to know the kid was lying? Three grand—gone—on my watch. Blast!
Rolling onto the couch, Jack stared at the ceiling and considered his existence. What’s the point? I’ve tried so hard. No breaks. There’s always someone ready to mess with your mind—or break your heart. The picture of his ex-wife embracing his best friend floated before his eyes. He squeezed his eyes shut.
A revolving red siren blared by his window and drowned in the distant cityscape. With a strangled cry, he sat up, his eyes darting around the room like a trapped animal. “I’ve got to get out of here.” He started forward. A magazine caught on his sleeve and flipped to the floor, exposing a full-page, glossy ad. Frowning, Jack retrieved the magazine and stared wide-eyed at his salvation.
Two days later, Jack squatted before a modest fire in an immodestly large national forest. His chin sported a rough beard, and his wrinkled shirt, torn pants, and mud-smeared boots proclaimed their freedom from the usual constraints of formal living. He bit his lip, his red eyes peering intently at the stripped twig bearing his dinner, which he balanced over the flickering flames. Three blackened cinders and an open package of surviving hot dogs bore testimony to his recent culinary adventures.
After achieving the perfect level of brown with only a hint of carbon coating, Jack pulled a white bun out of his portable kitchen sack and sat cross-legged for the first meal of the day. It took three more such examples to settle his stomach into a mere grumble. He rummaged through his bag, grabbed a bag of corn chips, and then snapped open a beer. With a satisfied sigh, he plunked down on the picnic bench in front of his one-man tent and smiled.
A pink and orange sunset melted into the horizon across the lake. “God, this place is beautiful.” He rubbed his chin. “I may never go back. Why should I?” The food, the beer, and assorted mental strains whispered together in conspiratorial tones. Before Jack knew what hit him, he fell into a deep sleep before his dying fire.
The next morning after a quick swim in the lake, a change of clothes, and three granola bars, he rummaged through the glove compartment of his car and found his jackknife. Scuffling through many years’ accumulations of dead leaves, Jack found a small branch with a quirky knot. He snapped off a section, perched himself on his bench, and commenced to whittling.
The sun sailed over the sky. Jack peered at his food bag. Just as he reached for the trail mix, he paused at the sound of angry voices.
A man and a woman clumped down the trail, their hands flailing and their tempers flaring. Jack retreated to his bench and his half-carved bird.
“It’s your fault! You’re the one who said that it’d only take an hour. Now we’ll be late, and Mom will complain, and Dad will hate you!”
“Your dad already hates me. Being late hardly changes—”
The two pair of eyes fastened on Jack. The woman blushed as she came to a complete stop. “Oh, sorry. Didn’t know we were trespassing. Kinda got lost.” She squeezed her mate’s arm like a lifeline.
Jack stood and shrugged. “No problem. The road’s about half a mile that-a-way.” He jerked his thumb to the right.
The man stepped forward, one hand extended. “Thanks. Name’s Jansen—this is Colleen. We’re getting married next week.”
Colleen’s eyes rounded into glowing orbs as she focused on the food sack. “You have any water by chance? I’m nearly dead. Jan forgot to pack the water bottles and then led me on this forsaken adventure—”
“Hey! Not fair. Who forgot to bring the snacks—huh? You—”
Shaking his head, Jack retreated to his car, pulled two water bottles from the back seat, and then snatched a couple of candy bars from his food bag. He tossed them over. “Here. You’ll live long enough to get married, okay?” His eyes shifted to the right.
Jansen nodded appreciatively and tugged Colleen aside. “Thanks! You’re a lifesaver.” He checked his watch. “We’ll still make it if we hurry. Come on.”
Jack watched the couple bounce down the road, gulping water and tearing into the snack food. Just as he settled back to his bench, he heard a squawk. A blue jay hobbled into view, a bright orange twine wrapped tight around his leg.
Five minutes, three pecks, and innumerable protesting squawks later, the bird flew free into a nearby pine tree.
Shading his eyes from the sun’s glare, Jack considered the angry bird. “You might try a little gratitude, you—”
A chuckle turned Jack to the left. The oldest man in creation ambled toward him. “Oh, they’ve no sense of gratitude. Not a blue jay. They like to complain. No matter what happens, they gotta squawk about it. It’s their nature, you know, like some people—bitter to the very end.”
Jack cleared his throat, his eyes shifted to his limp food bag. “You need something?”
The old man settled on the edge of Jack’s bench. “Naw. Just a second to catch my breath. This used to be my spot. I’d come up here to get away from things and consider my next steps.” His aged, lined face wrinkled into a wreath of smiles.
Heaving a deep breath, Jack plunked down on the other side of the bench, his hands resting on the knife and the half-carved figure. “I wish I could. No next steps for me. Just retreat.”
The old man surveyed the sky. “Yep. I done that too. It’s a good move—while it lasts. But you can’t retreat forever. You got to keep moving or lay down and die.” With a tilt of his head, his gaze swiveled over to Jack. “You don’t look dead to me.”
Tears filled Jack’s eyes. Snatching up the knife and figure, he set to work.
As he rubbed his beardless chin, the old man surveyed the distant hills. “It was a nice thing you done—helping out that lost couple and freeing that ornery bird. That’s how it often works out. Can’t help yourself, but you can help someone. Makes life worth living.”
Jack’s hands froze. He tried to blink away his blurry vision.
The old man stood and stretched. “Well, this isn’t my place anymore. I gotta move on, too. But stay and enjoy—till you’re ready. You can always come back.”
When Jack dared to look up, a breeze rustled the leaves of the trees and rumpled his hair. No old man. No couple. Even the bird was gone. His stomach growled. His eyes flickered from the depleted food bag to the remains of last night’s charred feast.
He picked up the knife and the wooden figure and stared into the horizon.
Four hours later, Jack steered his car down the road. A roughly carved bird sat perched on the dashboard, its gaze pointed straight ahead.
A. K. Frailey is the author of 15 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.
Make the most of life’s journey.
For books by A. K. Frailey check out her Amazon Author Page
“There are many excellent stories in this collection.” ~McEvoy
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