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Good Memories

By: Keb Rogers

By Keb RogersPublished 2 months ago 9 min read
Runner-Up in Whispering Woods Challenge
4

Every morning for the past six years Henry has walked through the Havenwood forest alone. He wore a loose-fitting button up shirt tucked into slacks, and in his hand a picture of his late wife, Lora, smiling with a glow warmer than the Sun. She was out here somewhere in the woods; he was sure of it. People just don’t disappear into thin air, and the cancer in her pancreas wouldn’t have allowed her to travel far, but she vanished this exact day six years before. No trace, no footprints, nothing. Just gone.

It was their ritual to walk the woods. It was a personal escape from the painful feelings embossed into the walls of their home they’d been made to remain inside for so many years. The woods gave them both the fresh air necessary to maintain a sane mind, even though every doctor they’d seen heavily advised against the strenuous activity. Henry had put in a request with the county to have some benches installed along the path, but they never got back to him despite his countless requests. Lora told him she knew it was almost time for it all to be done with, that she couldn’t even do that walk anymore and she had grown so tired. He pleaded with her not to quit, that there’d be a cure around the corner, that relief was possible. Henry went to bed that night and woke to an empty bed; his wife was never seen again.

For six years he had walked the woods, and for six years he had been tormented. Henry’s body wasn’t what it used to be despite getting the exercise, but he wouldn’t let it stop him. Even if all he was going to find a pile of bones resting along the leaf bed, he wanted to find her. But his old body demanded rest, so he decided to lean against one of the ancient oaks along the path.

“Henry…” A voice whispered so softly that it could have been the breeze. Henry paid no mind. “Henry….”, it said again, louder this time.

“Hello? Who said that?” Henry asked, spinning his head, searching for its origin.

“You know, it wasn’t that long ago that your wife leaned on me just the same, young Henry.” A warm elderly voice said softly, appearing from nowhere as if it were carried on the wind.

“Who’s there?” Henry asked again, his hand outstretched and pointing frantically.

The voice chuckled. The leaves of the large oak tree closest to him shook as though with laughter. “No, no, I’m not over there, or there. You are in fact leaning on me.”

Henry took a moment to look around the tree and then realized his forearm was still pressed against the bark. “Are you the tree?” he asks.

“In the flesh — well… not really. I used to have flesh, but then I became this. Oh, my apologies, where are my manners? My name is Gregory Burns. It’s a pleasure to finally speak to you, Henry.”

Henry took a couple of steps back. “Wha – what is going on? Are you talking to me? A tree?” The sudden shift of movement made his head spin for a moment.

“Easy, Henry. I’m not here to cause you trouble or alarm. I’m simply here to talk to you.” Gregory says.

Eighty-two years on the body makes it stiff — makes bending down, standing up, and even just walking around a monumental task. Henry had always been active, and it bothered him more than he let on about not being able to do the things he loved anymore. Now, a tree was telling him to take it easy, and – Wait, talking trees. So the stories are true, Henry thought.

“Gregory, am I going to die?”

There was a pause and then Gregory sighed, his branches sagging slightly. “Yes, Henry, you are.”

Henry knew it was coming — the day it was all supposed to end. He remembered Lora talking about knowing when, the feeling one feels deep in one’s bones. That night — the night Lora disappeared — he distinctly remembered her saying “What?” out of nowhere. Henry asked her what was wrong, but she said nothing. The old myths of Havenwood were true: those close to death do speak to the trees.

“Wait, my wife leaned on you not long ago? When?” Henry asked.

If Gregory had a face, then it would be smiling. “Ah, yes, it was late, and she came here alone and made it as far as you did today. It seems your family's fate and I are intertwined. I am now charged with guiding you to the end and to what awaits after, the same way I did for her.”

Death is natural, but that doesn’t make it an easy pill to swallow. Henry stood for a moment soaking in the realization that death wasn’t just something to think about. It was real, and it was close. Worry flooded into his mind, reflection and regret pulsed through his body, he was going to die. What would the rest of his family do, his children and grandchildren. How would they react? Would they miss him? A million questions and even more feelings crashed into his body like a storm-fueled wave.

“What about my family?” Henry asked.

“What about them?” Gregory said back. “They will live on with the lessons and love you’ve imparted to them, just the same way your own parents left you.”

Henry thought for a moment, his heart rate the highest it’d been in probably more than a decade. He wasn’t ready to die, and it was hard for him to believe that anyone ever could be. Was Lora actually ready? He thought. He knew his body was on its final stretch, but it’s never a real consideration until it happens. Henry always wanted to quietly drift into the afterlife, riding a gentle cloud of sleep. Who didn’t? Those who have to sit under the looming shroud of death and reflect go through what he always felt was unnecessary torment. Why be reminded of the mistakes and regrets one has made along the way? His own mind raced with all the years of yelling at his oldest son, Darren, far too much and the face Darren wore when Henry didn’t shout at his youngest, Calvin, hardly enough. Had he been a good father? A good husband? A good man? Would passing strangers with names he never knew remember him fondly in their momentary interactions? Did it even matter? Had he taken good enough care of his wife, who fought daily battles that were harder than anything he’d ever known? He was drowning in the unending ocean of thoughts. The early morning air was no longer crisp or refreshing, but stifling, making it hard to breathe. Blades of light poking through the canopy strobed around Henry’s head as he tried to stay upright.

“Henry, are you alright? Please, lean on me again if you must. I fear if you fall you would have the worst time getting back to your feet.” Gregory pleaded.

Henry found himself against Gregory again with his arms wrapped around the trunk. His shirt was now covered in loose moss and chipping bark. He felt safe with this talking tree but couldn’t quite grasp the reason why.

“Are you alright?” Gregory asked again. The tree seemed to be leaning over Henry in concern.

“Yes, I’m fine. Just a lot to soak in.” Henry’s legs regained their stability. “Why am I afraid, Gregory?”

“It would be odd if you weren’t, young Henry. To begin a new journey, the first one must end. However, for me, it wasn’t the ending of my journey that I feared the most, but the uncertainty of what followed.”

Henry pondered the tree’s response and took a step back. “Did I do enough?”

“What do you mean?” Gregory asked.

“You probably know me better than anyone else with the way I talk to myself and to Lora on these walks through the woods. You know more of my aspirations, my regrets, my hopes, my dreams than anyone else. From all you’ve heard me say, did I live a life worth remembering — worth being proud about?”

“You’re worried about your legacy?” Gregory asked with a chuckling rattle of leaves. “Why are you worried about how I would perceive it?”

Henry looked at the ground and exhaled loudly. “You know, I don’t know. I don’t know why I want the validation of an ancient, sentient oak tree. I guess I just want someone who knows me as well as myself to tell me if I did good or not. I don’t feel I’m in the appropriate position to make that judgment about myself.”

Gregory didn’t speak for a long time, as though the ancient oak had never been asked such a question before. Then he spoke, “I am in no position to make that judgment, nor would I ever want your final memories of this world to be that of a tree telling you that you did or didn’t do enough. I will say this: your wife loved you more than the Sun’s light loves Earth, your family is proud to be following in the footsteps you left behind, and those who existed in the world you knew will remember you with a smile on their face. I’ll let you decide what that means.” Henry smiled but said nothing. He walked forward and laid a hand on Gregory’s bark.

“The regrets do their best to repress the good, but they never can completely. Now, enough chit-chat, I believe someone is waiting for you.” Gregory said, his branches slightly swaying, causing some green leaves to fall onto the path.

Henry looked up, confused. “Who?”

Gregory didn’t answer. “Continue down the path, and you’ll find an open area beside a tree with red leaves. It will be the only one, so you shouldn’t miss it.”

“Okay. But who will be there?” Henry asked again.

Gregory sighed. “It’s been an honor, young Henry. I will see you again soon. Good luck.”

Henry started to fear that he was losing his lifeline, the only one who knew what he was currently going through. “Gregory, what do you mean? Is it time? Who am I meeting?” Gregory didn’t answer, and Henry’s only comfort before facing death had gone. There was only one thing to do now: keep going. So Henry did. He continued down the path, stopping to lean on the occasional tree to catch his breath. His body was becoming weaker by the second, and he had never been this tired during his morning walks. He finally reached the spot — a small clearing in the woods where a circle of gleaming sunlight shined a tree with vibrant red leaves. The color reminded him of Lora’s hair and made him smile.

Through a grueling effort and with nothing to lean on, Henry finally made it to the base of the red tree and sat down. He was exhausted to the point of knowing he probably wasn’t going to be walking back home for a while, if at all. It had been years since he laid down on the ground on his back, but something called him to do so. The warmth of the sun held his face like a pair of hands cupping a loved one’s cheeks. He spread his arms out and accepted the beautiful late morning atop the grass Spring had kept in such good care for Summer. His left hand instinctively grabbed an exposed root of the red-leafed tree that was within reach.

Gregory wouldn’t say when or who he was meeting, but Henry never wanted this feeling to end. That's when he felt it, the soft warm kiss on his cheek of a red leaf.

"I've been waiting but I always knew you’d find me. Oh how I've missed you, my Henry." Lora's sweet voice whispered in the air like morning fog.

A smile grew on Henry’s face as his eyes closed and never opened again. A root, now present where his arm had been, connected the red-leafed tree to the one now standing where Henry’s body once laid.

With large ceremonial scissors in hand, both sons and their families stood around the bright, red bench their parents had always wanted built along the Havenwood trail. The placard read:

Built two years too late. We love you and miss you with all of our hearts.

In Loving Memory

Henry and Lora Davis

Short Story
4

About the Creator

Keb Rogers

I am a writer who focuses primarily in the science fiction and fantasy genres. I'm excited to share my ideas, stories, and worlds with you all! I look forward to the feedback from this lovely community's vast sea of talented writers.

Reader insights

Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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  1. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  2. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

  3. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  1. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

  2. Expert insights and opinions

    Arguments were carefully researched and presented

  3. Masterful proofreading

    Zero grammar & spelling mistakes

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Comments (4)

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  • Shirley Belk13 days ago

    Congratulations on your placement! My youngest daughter's name is Lora. It is an unusual spelling and when I saw the name in your story, I was pulled in. At the end, I almost couldn't believe the Lora Davis. (Also, my Lora's maiden name!) My Lora has red hair, also. You did such a fantastic job on this beautiful, heart-wrenching story. Loved the phrase, "riding a gentle cloud of sleep." And the question you pose, "did I live a life worth remembering — worth being proud about?” is one I reflect on in this phase of my life, too. I am very impressed with your writing.

  • Joe O’Connorabout a month ago

    This was a good read Keb! I liked how the story was carried by Henry’s thoughts, and the idea of people dying to become trees is a lovely idea. A touching concept👏

  • Anna 2 months ago

    Congrats on the win!!🥳

  • Christy Munson2 months ago

    Congratulations on your Runners-Up Placement in the Whispering Woods Challenge! I loved your story. I had not read it until now only because you mention early on "the cancer in her pancreas" and we've just lost family members to cancer a year ago this week in fact. But now that you've placed, I've set aside my own heartbreak and read your story clear of eye. Absolutely mesmerizing piece. Congratulations!!

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