The glow of warm lights emanating from the wooden cottage beckons Nick. He slogs through knee-deep snow, one heavy snowshoe at a time while a nearly full moon illuminates the way. Stars sparkle overhead and crystal daggers of ice hang heavy in the trees, threatening to fall and spear him through. It’s a silent night – only the sound of his ragged breath, labored, in and out as he makes his way toward the cabin. He’s been here before, only then, he’d been running, needing distance. He’d had the advantage of being on foot and blended into the mossy green surroundings. He’s good at that. Two tours in Iraq taught him the importance of staying hidden in plain sight.
The last time he made this trek was in summer, when the heat and abundant vegetation helped him camouflage. Thankfully on this frozen moonlit night, he isn’t being pursued. He wants to see his old friend again…to sink into warmth, where the aroma of cinnamon, cloves and baked apples permeate the air. The old man loved baked apples. Charlie. He looked like a Charlie – grizzled with piercing blue eyes and axe-muscled arms. In those days Nick couldn’t see what plagued the tough old-timer. He’d been too imprisoned in his own suffering to notice the grief lines etched into Charlie’s face
The Nick who emerged from the woods those years ago, was a Nick of nightmares and adrenalin-fueled hallucinations. He wanted to escape the man who could only find ease in the slow syrup drip of a syringe. Heroine made him comfortably numb for a time. But it didn’t last. It leached everything, leaving him wrung out like a dishrag. He wanted to find young Nick, easy-going and generous Nick – the guy with an easy smile and a helping hand.
Charlie opened his home to him – aware that something clung to the young man like a murky shadow you can’t shake. He’d seen it in others before - the tattoos, track marks, bruised arms and eyes that dart like scattered fragments of broken glass. Charlie’s peaceful nights in the cottage wouldn’t be peaceful for a time.
But still, he welcomed Nick. Something about the young man, gaunt and apprehensive, intrigued Charlie. Charlie’s eagle eyes picked up Nick’s movement long before he heard him. He moved like a deer, graceful and silent. He didn’t know what chased him, whether it was real or in the boy’s mind. Didn’t matter. Maybe he could be there in a way he wasn’t for his own son.
He lost Thomas ten years earlier, another casualty of war. Only this war was fought and lost on American soil in the throbbing heart of Letcher County. Charlie and Mimi never wanted him to work the mines, but that’s where the money was. Thomas liked the physical aspects of the job, never acknowledging the risk. Folly of youth, Charlie thought. Thomas was a roof bolter, one of the more dangerous occupations in the mine. But he had plans – a proposal to Hailey Haskel, the cute red head he’d been courting a couple years. Tragedy struck and he died in a roof collapse at the Potato Branch mine, the same disaster that made national news after a string of accidents. His parents were devastated. Thomas was their only son and thought of Hailey as a daughter. Hailey did the unthinkable and moved away for college and never returned. It was like losing another child.
A few years later he lost his beautiful Mimi too. They moved to this cottage after becoming childless. It was a refuge from the questions and stares. They filled it with family antiques and memories of better times. It healed them with quiet and the simplicity of homesteading. They ate what they grew and raised goats for milk and meat. The beds were strewn with handmade quilts made by ancestors – Double Wedding Ring and Crocus Star in vibrant colors, muted over time. Mimi’s final days were spent wrapped in those quilts, as he tended her. He wished he’d been able to do the same for Thomas.
Nick appeared that hot summer day, when the world was green and wet with dew, humidity hung like a damp blanket. He’d seen Nick coming, maybe in his dreams. He’d been living alone for four years by this time, set in his ways. He wasn’t used to the sound of the human voice, aside from his own. He’d talk to the creatures that shared the cottage– the occasional mouse or bird that flew in when he left the back door open. He even had a neighborly pine snake that lived in the wood and would make an appearance, sunning itself on his porch. He noticed the drop in rodent visits after Sisal came around.
He watched Nick glide through the forest with grace he’d rarely seen before. It was beautiful to watch, if he hadn’t been concerned about what chased the boy. Charlie stood by the well, in plain view.
The old man’s calm unsettled Nick at first. But after a few moments he made his way out of the woods and nodded hello, worried his voice wouldn’t work properly. Aside from the screams he woke up to each night, he hadn’t spoken in a long time.
“Water?” the old man said holding out a cup. Nick’s eyes dart around, searching for hidden threats. He’d seen similar looks from a cornered raccoon he ensnared in the cottage loft, after it had climbed down the chimney one night.
“Yes sir,” Nick croaked. He took the tin cup with shaky hands, willing himself to stillness. After taking a long drink and emptying the small cup, the old man reached out to fill it again. He drank a second and third cup, hoping he wouldn’t throw it all up.
The old man watched, deep blue eyes taking in the scarred and ragged shell of Nick. After moments of silence, he said, “Would you like to rest for a spell? It’s just me out here and I don’t mind the company. I was just warming vegetable soup for lunch. You’re welcome to join me.”
Normally Nick would have kept running. The thought of food almost made him faint.
“Yes sir, but I don’t want to trouble you.”
“No trouble. I’ve got a place where you can clean up. Follow me.” Charlie led him behind the cottage where an outdoor shower stood. He and Mimi put this in on a whim, as they loved showering on hot summer evenings, where they could hear the life of the forest around them. It was an indulgent addition, but Charlie used this shower more than the indoor one, even in winter. It reminded him of Mimi and the life they’d lived before the cancer got her.
“I’ll bring you clothes. I have a few things left from my son who was about your size,” he said, turning to go into the house.
Nick stood there, the constant buzzing of nerves muted for the first time in a while. He couldn’t remember when he’d begun running. Truthfully, he couldn’t remember what he was running from. His mind played tricks and truth felt fleeting. He knew he needed to get away – just not sure what or why anymore. Minutes later the old man emerged with clothes, a towel and fresh bar of soap. “Here you go. There’s plenty of water – so take as long as you like. I’ll heat up lunch.” And with that, he disappeared back into the cabin, leaving Nick alone.
It had been sometime since Nick had undressed The fabric felt plastered to his skin. He peeled layer after layer, watching the grime and dirt fall away in chunks. His skinny arms showed old track marks and bruises of his previous addiction – an addiction he finally beat. The worst of his withdrawl symptoms were over - only night terrors remained. He stepped into the shower bracing for cold. It was a jarring but cleansing waterfall. The soap looked home-made and smelled of pine and lemon. He scrubbed and rinsed and scrubbed again. He’d never been so filthy. Actually he had, just not for so long. His time in Iraq had brought him to this level of filth.
Later he tapped on the door of the cottage, decked out in another man’s clothes. They were baggy as he’d become thin during his heroin spell. But he was starting to eat again. The old man opened the door to him and startled at his improved appearance. He no longer looked like a homeless vagabond. He could see the light coming into his eyes. It was amazing what a shower could do to lift a person’s spirit.
“Name’s Charlie. I should have introduced myself earlier. Glad those clothes worked for you.”
“Thank you. I’m Nick. That’s a nice shower, there.” Nick tried on a smile.
“Glad it helped. Come in. Soup’s almost on. Have a seat.”
Nick walked in and sat down, gingerly. He was bone tired and now that he’d finally stopped running, he could feel his body’s spasms, struggling to relax for the first time in days. He hoped he wouldn’t fall asleep at the table. That might be rude. Charlie set the soup in front of him and sat down. They ate in silence.
Charlie’d steal a glance from time to time, watching Nick eat. He knew the boy wanted to gobble down the hot soup but had the presence to eat slowly with restraint. Disciplined. The silence didn’t bother either of them. They were used to quiet.
When Nick finished his bowl, Charlie got up and refilled it. He pulled warm bread from the oven and offered him a hunk. After his 3rd bowl, Nick felt weariness overtake him. Charlie saw it too. He gently led Nick to the back bedroom and said quietly, “Why don’t you rest here a spell.” He grabbed the quilt and laid it over him. Nick was asleep before he’d had time to remove his boots. Charlie pulled off the boots and was glad to see the clean socks he’d left him. He closed the door and went back to the kitchen to clean up.
Out in the frozen tundra of forest, Nick remembers this time. He’d stayed three weeks with Charlie. “For a spell” really didn’t have an end. He could have stayed there for months or years. But eventually Nick recovered enough and Charlie saw him through some rough nights – withdrawl and PTSD – everything that turned Nick into someone he didn’t recognize. Slowly he found his way back, fewer night terrors, although they still came from time to time. No more uncontrollable sweats and flu like symptoms of fever and crushing headaches and body aches. His body still bore the scars of things he’d survived since Iraq. Charlie had been kind and not asked about much. Every once in a while he’d share stories of his son Thomas. And in turn Nick would mention something of his past, but not much.
Now as he stands outside this rustic cabin and sees Charlie sitting in his favorite reading chair by the fire, Nick is tempted to turn away. He doesn’t want to interrupt the old man’s peace again. He doesn’t want to bring him back to those weeks when Nick was anything but Nick. It’s been two years and he’s relieved to see the old man alive and the old place still standing.
As if sensing Nick’s presence, Charlie looks out the window and despite the frosty window panes, sees the young man who’d filled his home for a spell. Charlie stands and opens the door to welcome in his young friend.
“Nick, good to see you. It’s been some time.”
“Hey Charlie, sorry if I interrupted you. “
“Nonsense, it’s good to lay eyes on you, especially looking healthy and well. Come in!” Charlie grabbed him in a hug. Nick returned his embrace, feeling at home.
Nick stepped into the warmth and quiet, firelight flickering. It may not have been much to look at from an outsider’s perspective, with its worn bookshelves and tattered rugs. But a roaring fire and smell of baked apples brought back memories from a time he’d wanted to forget. Only now Nick recognizes those memories as being good ones, a time when he’d been nurtured and healed. He’d contemplated ending his life during the harrowing months running, but those weeks with Charlie brought him home, to himself. And now he could properly thank the old man for his gift.
Charlie went to the kitchen and brought Nick a cup of steaming hot cocoa he’d been heating on the stove. He offered him his seat by the fire, throwing one of the old quilts over his shoulders. He knew he’d walked in the three miles through the woods to find him again. The two sat and embraced the silence as they always had, listening to the crackling of the fire and crash of icicles falling from the trees.
About the Creator
Writing is breath for me. Travel and curiosity contribute to my daily writing life. I've had pieces published in Adanna Lit Jour. and Halfway Down the Stairs. My first novel, The Call, comes out in 2024. I live in New Orleans.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Original narrative & well developed characters
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions