Deciding he’d had enough of a nap, Darren sat up, rubbed life back into his legs, stretched, and, surveying the terrain around him, decided on the woods that invited from behind the wine cellar. He put the picnic stuff in the truck but left it unlocked in case Katelyn came back before he did. When he got to the cellar steps, he peered down and listened carefully. He couldn’t see Katelyn or hear anything. He hoped she was okay. Of course she was. She would have called. Pulling his phone out, he saw she’d tested hers when she first went down. And, they’d both charged their phones on the way there. He started into the trees. They reminded him of a small woods near his house that he and his dad visited often on Saturday afternoons when he was a kid. He remembered those trips fondly. Just him and his dad hanging out together. His dad teaching him things guys need to know. He didn’t know as a kid that was what his dad was doing. He appreciated it now. He’d do the same thing if he was ever a dad. Looking around, he noticed this forest seemed much bigger and more densely grown than the friendly little woods from his childhood. It was mostly pine trees, but berry bushes grew haphazardly in bright spots as did tiny, white wildflowers. Darren hadn’t walked long until he realized he didn’t know where he was. The trees all looked the same. That was stupid. He should have marked the way he came in. He turned his phone on and checked his “find my car” app. Good, he could navigate from it if he had to. For now, he decided to just explore a bit more, but maybe back towards where he thought his truck was.
He wandered for what felt like hours. It was trees, trees, and more trees. He was tired of it all and wanted to go back. He tried Katelyn. She didn’t pick up. Her cheery greeting, which usually made him happy, just annoyed him. He turned on the find-car app and followed it back to an outcropping over a steep descent through pine trees. What the?!? He reset it, but the app stubbornly refused to take him to his truck. Great! Now what? He looked up at the sun but couldn’t remember where it had been when he started into the woods. He looked at his phone again, this time for the time; 2:13. So; he’d only been walking half an hour at most.
He sat on a rock to get his bearings. Everything looked the same: trees, shrubs, a bit of an open space, more trees, more shrubs, a few tiny flowers. He sighed and frowned. He pulled his sun glasses down and looked around. No better. He stuck them back on top of his head. Hearing a rustling, he looked down towards his feet. A chipmunk was foraging near him. He observed its precise movements and tiny paws, its double-striped fur and quick, intelligent eyes. He must have moved though he’d tried to remain still. The chipmunk bolted, zigzagging into the underbrush. Darren felt let down and stared dejectedly its direction. It took him a few seconds, but he finally saw a trail of sorts through the underbrush. He wondered if he’d made it on his way in but thought, might as well follow it; at the very least, maybe the app will work better from a different location.
After checking his clothes for ticks and brushing a few twigs off his jeans, Darren looked for the sun and headed down the trail. He had to work his way among the dense undergrowth and look closely for signs of moved pebbles, scuffed pine needles, and bent or snapped branches on the lower parts of the bushes. He wasn’t very good at it. Truthfully, he wasn’t at all good at it and was mostly making it up as he went. His progress was slow but it was steady though it seemed to Darren that he lurched along like a freight train just starting up. He stopped to get his bearings again and saw a thinning of the trees ahead. He hoped that meant a parking lot or at least a camp site with a real trail. Pretty soon, he saw a clearing and stepped into a bare flat circle of patchy grass maybe 20 feet across. He looked around for signs of campfires or holes from tent stakes, but there was nothing. Trees around, dirt below, no trails leading out, and a dark gray sky above. As the first spits of rain hit his skin, he searched for something to give him shelter and hurried to a large boulder at the edge of the clearing. He tucked himself under its overhang as rain began for real. Where had those clouds come from, anyway? The last time he checked the sun’s position, the sky had been bright blue. He clicked his phone on: 2:49. He rang Katelyn. Still no answer. He had most of his battery left and tried to wait out the rain by playing on his phone. After looking through a sale of sports gear and going through his emails and reading the jokes and exploits friends had posted on Facebook, he noticed his battery was down to almost half. When the rain didn’t let up after another few minutes and the wind sent gusts of spray his direction, he gave up and put his phone away.
He scooted to his right, away from the spray, tucked his legs under him, and watched puddles form in the clearing. He wished he’d gone with Katelyn. She was probably dry. He stared moodily at the growing puddles and suddenly remembered a game his mother used to play with him and his sister when they got bored on road trips. Look at that cloud, she’d say. What does it look like? A Horse. A fish. Pinky, the gerbil. One time, the family had been traveling through flat unremarkable terrain with bluffs in the distance. Over the bluffs, an immense, tall cloud formed that looked exactly like an angel with outspread wings. That had been pretty cool. His dad had pulled over. They sat and watched until the cloud started to unravel. Darren took a picture of it, but it didn’t come out looking like anything much. He wondered why he was thinking of that now. He found himself observing a particularly large puddle when a face appeared in it. Cool! He didn’t know you could play the game with puddles. He tried other puddles, but he couldn’t see anything in them. Maybe they were too small. He returned to the original puddle, almost immediately yelling in shock. He found he was shaking uncontrollably. He had tried to back up when the new face appeared, but his back was already against the boulder. He shut his eyes to block out the puddle picture. Puddle picture, yes that’s all it is. He repeated “puddle picture” several times to calm himself it sounded so silly. It didn’t help much, but at least his shaking had started to subside.
A gentle, almost imperceptible feeling that blew in with a spray of rain prompted him to look at the puddle picture in his mind where he could control what he saw. He started at the top. Dark, straight hair, parted and combed to the left. Unremarkable. Broad forehead, well-shaped brows. Ears flat against the sides of the man’s head. All unremarkable. Straight nose, not big, not small. Again, unremarkable. But the eyes. The eyes drew him in. They weren’t mean looking or hate-filled or crazed. But they were intense with a fierce longing. Perhaps for something they thought they couldn’t have. They looked heart-broken though Darren thought that in the puddle they hadn’t really looked any emotion. He forced himself to look below the man’s eyes. And here was where things started to get terrifying and weird. The man was wearing a mask over his cheeks and lower parts of his face. The mask itself wasn’t remarkable in any way except that it was there.
It completely covered the front and sides of the man’s head from the eyes and nose down but with a cutout for the mouth. He could clearly see an ordinary looking mouth, but it shouldn’t be surrounded with a mask. It just shouldn’t. There was something very unnatural about that. It made him feel queasy and want to cry. And then he did. He started crying and couldn’t stop. He rolled onto his side and sobbed in wrenching, anguished bursts. He wanted to stop but couldn’t stop. His eyes hurt and his head had started to throb. His stomach hurt from trying to contain himself. But still he couldn’t stop. He couldn’t even tell what were his tears and what was rain. And he was now getting soaked for the rain had switched directions and was blowing in. Why did something so ordinary, a silly puddle picture, affect him so? He didn’t know. He wanted it all to go away. He wanted to go back to, to where? To where Katelyn said, “Let’s go to Helmsley,” and this time he’d say, “No, I don’t want to,” but he did want to. He could barely admit that to himself, but he knew it at some deep level even though he didn’t know why. And as the rain soaked him, he began to relax and shiver again but from the damp and cold. The boulder now felt clammy. He’d left his sweatshirt in the truck. Didn’t matter. It would have gotten wet, too, and that would have just made him colder.
He worked his way out from under the rock and went to the puddle that had so unnerved him. He hesitated and then put one foot in at the edge and then the other foot, and then he just stood. After a few seconds, he took a deep breath and looked down. The face was still there but was harder to see because he was blocking the light from it. Reflexively, he almost tried to stomp it out, but something about the man’s face stopped him. He let out his breath and forced himself to look at the face and communicate with it. Communicate? What?!? But that’s the thought that came to him. Maybe his tears had emptied him. Maybe his chilliness distracted him, but he was willing to try. “Hi,” he said. That sounded stupid. But the face seemed to invite more although nothing about it changed. “You scared me. Who are you? Why do wear a mask and just on the lower part of your face? Why is that so scary? I’m not easily scared. I hardly ever cry. How did you get me to do that? Who are you?” Darren asked. He waited. No voice spoke. Thank goodness, Darren thought, but then he was disappointed none had. He waited some more and realized water was starting to soak into the bottoms of his shoes. But instead of stepping out of the puddle, he felt drawn to step farther in.
It was ankle deep in the middle. Darren hadn’t expected that. Water poured into his shoes, but he stood and waited. Whatever it was he was waiting for, he wanted badly, very, very badly. He now wanted to cry, but he was cried out. The only wetness was from the rain. He tilted his head back and let the rain be his tears. He felt the masked face surrounding the soles of his feet along with the water. Then he felt a warmth spread throughout his body from the soles of his feet upwards and from the crown of his head down until the warmth met at his navel. And then he knew. The face was his. He felt his life. He felt all life. Then he felt something leave. All the hurts from his past and present washed out of him to be replaced with a gentle whisper. “What are you saying? Please say it again.” he begged. “I can’t hear you. I don’t want to lose you. How do I keep you?”
He couldn’t leave his head tilted back any longer and lowered it and rubbed the back of his neck. He noticed the downpour was lessening, the sky growing a bit lighter. He was unafraid now as he looked for the face, but it no longer showed in the puddle. As he looked away, disappointed that it was no longer there just when he’d gotten used to it and wanted it, he clearly saw a trail leading from the clearing. He knew he should leave. Katelyn would be starting to worry. She might come looking for him and get lost herself. But he wanted to stay. Forever. Here in this clearing. “Please let me keep this, whatever it is. I’ve never had, I’ve never felt, anything as, as what? as good,” he thought. “Please?” he asked again, and this time he was pretty sure Whom he was petitioning. He repeated “please, please, please,” as he walked. And as he cleared the last trees and saw his truck up ahead and Katelyn standing by it, waiting for him, he knew he wouldn’t lose the whisper. He wouldn’t let it be lost. He wanted to nurture it into a voice, a strong, real voice, and he realized with a start that it would have to be his voice just as it had been his face. He didn’t even have to think. He made his choice. He was sure he’d change, and friends would wonder, but he had to let it become. He had to become. Simply become. It sounded so simple. He instinctively knew it wasn’t; it wouldn’t be. But he’d do it. He’d become. He accepted and said, “Yes, I promise.” He said it aloud to Who had called him and was now listening and waiting for his decision. And Darren, who promised carefully, always kept his promises.