As Ellen tromped through the dreary leaf-strewn woods, her mind swirled with all the information she’d learned in the past several days. Collin is fae–and not just any fae, he’s the freakin’ king! If that weren’t enough, the wood nymphs she’d encountered had done a number on her. Spritely little devils scared the shit out of me. And, if she were honest with herself, she needed to get her act together before All Hallows Eve. If I don’t? Collin may take me for his bride against my will, the trees may no longer grow leaves in the spring, and I’ll have single-handedly killed the ecosystem. The hardest to swallow? Caden’s death.
Nothing major–not even for a teenager.
With her hands stuffed deep in the pockets of the cotton duck jacket she wore, stumbling over an exposed root would surely send her tumbling across the dead leaves rotting on the forest floor. I should really have gloves.
Glancing ahead, surveying her surroundings, a tingle ran up Ellen’s spine as fog began to roll across the ground as the sun made its final descent below the horizon. Great. That’ll make it even easier to see. She likely couldn’t roll her eyes back in her head any farther.
The sound of tinkling bells caught her attention–a strange sound in the middle of a woods. She glanced around as she continued walking but couldn’t find the source.
She heard the sound again and glimpsed a shimmering where she thought the downed white pine should be. The very tall tree had a wide base, indicating it was quite old. Where bark met dirt, what Ellen thought was a barrow of some sort gaped. She liked to stop there and often heard a rustling sound coming from the hole. It should have scared her–after all, she had no idea what critter called the space home. Mostly, she didn’t know if the occupant was a normal creature of the woods or if it was other.
The shimmer grew more intense and the sparkling coalesced into the shape of a human. As its features became more defined, Ellen was sure she was having a nightmare. Familiar eyes took shape and gained cognition, trapping her with an intense, long-lashed stare. Irises so dark they appeared black. His sharp, down-turned nose and thin, rosy lips emerged next. Set in a pout, his mouth turned down at the corners and his bottom lip stuck out.
“Caden. What are–” She couldn’t form the words to ask her recently dead boyfriend why he was hanging out in the woods. It’s crazy for me to speak to him. He isn’t really here. This is just a figment of my imagination.
“Ellie,” the figment of her imagination called. “El, don’t be like that. C’mon.”
She heard leaves crunching behind her as she picked up her pace and broke into a careful jog through the foggy forest. He’s not here he can’t be here it’s just wishful thinking and there’s no way he’s here because I threw dirt on his casket yesterday.
She stopped running.
The crunching leaves and snapping twigs behind her slowed and then stopped next to her.
Her eyes were closed–she didn’t want to see what was really following her in the woods. It wasn’t Caden. It couldn’t be Caden. Caden was dead. The drunk frat guy made sure of that when he T-boned Caden’s car at the four-way stop intersection. Witnesses said Caden had stopped and there weren’t other cars stopped there, so he proceeded through the intersection when the four-wheel drive pickup plowed into him without braking. The gigantic tires crushed the driver’s side of the little Ford Fiesta Caden had been so proud to buy for himself.
They cut his dead, crushed body out of the car with the Jaws of Life. The pickup had driven over the top of the little car and kept going.
“El, I don’t have a lot of time right now.”
Cool fingers laced through hers and she shivered. Warmth bloomed where her skin touched the frigid digits–the same warmth she felt every time she’d held Caden’s hand as they walked down the halls of Cedarwood High School. It can’t be.
She surreptitiously glanced to her side, looking for an answer–one that wasn’t Caden.
She didn’t find it. Dark, messy hair–long enough to form ringlets–framed his pale face. A face she loved and missed with every fiber of her being.
Her mom as well as her best friend, Jana, told her she could be sad for a week, but then she’d need to move on. He was only a high school crush, and there were other boys out there for her.
She didn’t think so, but let them go on with their gum-flapping.
His chin was a little too sharp and his cheekbones a little too prominent. She knew the way the angles and edges felt beneath her fingers and longed to stroke his cheek one more time.
“I knew you’d warm me up. It’s so damn cold in the ground already.”
The voice–she knew it like she knew her mother’s. Caden. For sure. Without a doubt.
She turned. “What are you doing here?” A sheen of tears made him appear blurry. “They put your coffin in the ground yesterday. Everyone thought it would be good for me to throw dirt on it, even though I didn’t want to. I put a poem inside. You can’t be here, Caden. It isn’t right.” She shook her head and stepped back, trying to pull her hand free from his.
“Don’t do this to me. We only have until the sun sets. I need you to listen to me, El.” He squeezed her fingers for emphasis.
“You’re not here. I’m not seeing you, and you’re not holding my hand.”
He glanced over his shoulder. “Come back tomorrow. If the leaves on the ground have changed colors, will you believe I’m real?”
She laughed. “The leaves are brown and crunching under my boots. It’s too late for you to revive them–even if you were somehow magical.”
He smoothed his free hand down her arm, capturing her other hand with his. “Come tomorrow and I’ll prove it. The colors will be your favorite.” His stare penetrated the reluctance Ellen had about the situation.
She shrugged. “I’ll come back, but there’s no way you can paint every icky brown leaf in this forest.” She leaned forward. “I’m not sure what you are, but you’re not Caden. Best to show yourself in your natural form tomorrow. Never know what kind of hysterics seeing my dead boyfriend might bring on.”
“That’s my girl.”
Caden’s features began to dissipate–like dust motes twinkling in the last rays of the day’s sun.
When Ellen woke the next morning, her fingers still tingled from where they’d laced with Caden’s. Not Caden’s–something using Caden’s form.
Wrapped in her fluffy pink bathrobe and squirrel slippers, she sported polar fleece Dumbo pajamas. The chilly morning was made even cooler by the overcast sky. The somberness of the environment did nothing for Ellen’s mood.
After warming up a huge mug of coffee, she strolled through the house intending to settle on the chaise in the three-season room and watch the final leaves drift off the trees before fat flakes of snow began to fall.
The edge of the forest had been drab–yellows and browns the previous day. But now, this morning, a brilliant blanket of red swept through the forest. Leaves holding out for the gales of November had flamed to life overnight.
She dropped her mug and it shattered on the ceramic tile, scattering shards across the room. Shuffling through the liquid, she stood with her hands on the uprights between the large windowpanes.
“Oh, Caden. What have you done?”
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