3rd Place – September 2019

Happenstance

By

Gail Armstrong

 

She felt someone standing behind her as she crouched by the chicken coop.
She looked up. Fear oozed from every pore in her small body. Her breathing almost stopped. Then, she stood up and ran as fast as her legs could carry her, to her father digging in the garden.
“Daddy, Daddy, he came out of the woods.” Her body trembled.
“He was big like a giant, and he had a long white beard.” Her breath came quick and hard.
“Well sweetie, I don’t see anyone now. He must have gone. It’ll be okay.” He went back to digging in his garden.
She went back to play, and then—she was gone.
The car radio blared, “Little Pearl Hollister, six-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Hal Hollister brazenly taken from her backyard as she played with her chickens at the edge of the dense woods, remains missing.”
Cyrus turned off his radio as he sped along the back road.
“I can’t believe the police haven’t found her.  Dogs do that stuff. If she were mine,  I’d search heaven and hell. No one would keep my little girl.”
The annual art show at the Hollister estate was on Cyrus’s mind as he drove along the lonely road by the National Forest in Ashville, 50 miles from town. The show- cancelled.
He felt a surge of anxiety for the family. As a photographer, he had to do his job, but his heart wasn’t in it today.
“Dense woods, is that all there is? There must be some combination of aesthetic senses out here besides trees.”
“Keep looking boy.”
At first glance, it appeared to be a small opening to a field that extended into the thicket at the edge of the forest. On closer observation, it looked more like an area where a vehicle had dug in.
“Huh, hunters with a truck.”
Cyrus pulled his VW Beetle off the road, took out his Nikon camera and walked further in, to get a better view of the area.
“Raw nature, the bones, yeah, that’s what people buy to hang on their walls.”
He felt the crisp freshness of the spring air dance through his long, dark artist’s hair.
“Damn, smells good, mmm pine needles. Spring smells like a new beginning.”
The surrounding area, full of flourishing pine trees behind wrangled brush was dense, green and surprisingly untouched. Wild, orange tiger lilies that edged the road started to bloom.
An ancient stone wall rambled into an open field, tipped and curved, as it meandered to the edge of the forest and melted into the woods. Dark, cobalt sky with large cotton ball cumulus clouds, was the finishing touch.
“Aww, yeah, this is it. Finally.”
He focused the Nikon and shot one after another. “At 26, I’m a novice but people like my work.”
Each spring the Hollister family turned their expansive New England estate, into a sprawling venue for budding artists and entrepreneurs. White tents dotted the grand property for a weekend of roaming art lovers. Mrs. Hollister would select pieces by a talented artist to exhibit in the Hollister Library art room. A huge boost for their career.
Something caught his attention.
“What was that weird noise? An animal? Aww, maybe a deer. That would make a cool picture.” He headed over to investigate.
As he approached the thick bushes, he felt a queasiness in his stomach and cold sweat beaded on his brow.
“Damn, this could be dumb.” He tasted dryness in his mouth. Fear? “Maybe an injured animal, hungry and waiting to pounce.” His thoughts ran wild. He moved slower with a quiet demeanor.
“Ahh, startling an injured moose would not be good, man.” Uttered softly. A quiver ran down his tightened body.
“Really, fella, I hope this isn’t stupid.” Bravely, he forged in.
“Mmmmmm.” Serious moaning caught him off guard.
“Here goes nothing.”  He carefully pushed aside the thick brush.
Under a roughly built shelter she lay there, in fetal position, legs bound tightly behind her with what looked to be an old sweater. Her trembling hands tied in back with cloth and duct tape over her small mouth.
“Holy crap.”
“My God. You’re alive.” He shouted.
A strange combination of sheer terror and delight lit up large, brown, teared up eyes.
Her berry stained T-shirt- spread with debris, dirty jeans under branches and leaves.
“I’m not gonna hurt you. I’m Cyrus. Don’t be scared, you’re safe now. You’re Pearl?”
She shook her head up and down as her eyes bulged with copious tears.
“Don’t worry, I’ll untie you after I call 911.”
He talked with 911, then reached down to gently untie the restraint from her arms and legs and slowly remove the tape from her mouth.
“Are you injured?”
She flung her thin arms around his neck with childish abandon.
“Guess not.” He smiled.
“Mommy, Mommy, I want my Mommy. Awwwwww.” She cried till Cyrus thought there could be no tears left.
He picked her up, her cradled her warm, soft body lovingly in his arms and started to sing. “Hush little baby don’t you cry, Mommy and Daddy will be here by and by.”
He tenderly carried her to his car. Precious cargo.
Who the hell does this? He thought.
“I wanna talk to Mommy.”
“I guess we could do that.” He looked up the number.
Mrs. Hollister answered.
“Mrs. Hollister, this is Cyrus Moore. I have wonderful news for you. I’m going to put your daughter on the phone.” He heard an audible ‘Dear God.’ She’s shaken up and weak but seems to be okay.”
“Sweet Jesus, Hal, it’s our Pearl. She’s on the phone.”
Sobs of joy echoed from the phone.
“The ambulance is on its way and you can meet them at Memorial. First, here she is.”
It was the most satisfying day of his life to hear Pearl cry out “Mommy” and to hear the response.
They talked and cried for a few minutes and they all felt better for it. He then took over to explain how he had found her by happenstance, pretty much the whole story.
By the time the ambulance came, she had stopped sobbing. The small sips of water Cyrus gave her were soothing to her dry, cracked lips.
The EMT’s checked her over, put her into the ambulance and left.
On the way home, Cyrus had a feeling of calm satisfaction, proud to have found this sweet girl, alive and hopefully well.
“Way the hell out on the edge of the forest.”
The phone woke him early the next morning.
“My dear Cyrus,” said Mrs. Hollister.
“How is she today?” He perked up.
Happy to be home.”
“We don’t have words to express our gratitude.”
“Mrs. Hollister, I’m happy for you all. It was the best day of my life to have found her and for her to be safe. I stumbled on her by sheer fluke you know, looking for photos to take, up in Ashville.”
“Dear Jesus, all the way out there. That’s 50 miles. No wonder we couldn’t find her.
“Well, you did, and we will forever be grateful.”
“Her Dad didn’t believe her when she said a giant was in our yard. You know kids. Such imaginations.”
“He’s a drifter, lost his family in a house fire and Pearl reminded him of his daughter. He lives in the woods and when the opportunity presented itself, he snatched her, and put her into his old truck he keeps in the woods behind us.”
That’s why the grass was trampled down. His truck, Cyrus thought.
“He’s six feet, four—would look like a giant to her. Has long white hair too.”
“They forged wild berries to eat and slept in a make-shift hut or his truck when it got cold. The proper people will find help for him. The blessing is he didn’t hurt her, kept her warm with leaves, but in his unstable state, he did leave her on the side of the road. Told her he would be back after he got some food.”
“Crazy, we’re grateful for many things this year.”
“Cyrus how can we ever repay you?”
“Take care of the sweet girl.”
“Oh, that will happen, you can bet the farm on that.” Mr. Hollister piped in.
“You could buy a photo from my next collection; we would be even.”
“Dear, dear young man, we will never be even. You saved our daughter’s life.” Said Mrs. Hollister.
“Along with purchasing several of your photos personally, I’d like to feature you this year at the library.”
“Mmm. Thank you, Mrs. Hollister. That is quite an honor.”
“No—thank you, Cyrus. You have given us a new beginning. Oh, Pearl has something to say to you.”
“Thank you, Cyrus.”
“You are so very welcome young lady. It was just something I do for sweet little girls who are in trouble and I happen to stumble on to.”
“I love you Cyrus.”
“I love you more.”

Writers’ workshop and writing group