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Shawn P. Madison

Strawberry Fields

 

The gravestone was only seven days old but she felt the void, the absence, as if years had been pressing down upon her shoulders. She read the words, “Beloved Father,” etched just below the name and the dates on the cold gray stone and she wept tears of both joy and loss, the memories sweeping her away, so vivid and bright. The day was warm and breezy and beautiful, as were most of the days she recalled from her childhood, spent in this place. 

 

Her Dad’s grave occupied the far corner of the backyard, the grave stone’s back to the woods that lined the east side of her father’s land. The property was very large, most of it made up of the dense woodlands that surrounded the old house on three sides, melding well with the forest of trees just beyond the property lines that wound their way into the hills. 

 

She had come to this spot every day since her father had been placed in the ground…the soft loamy earth that covered the rectangle of land directly in front of the grave stone smelled like her childhood, the grass of the surrounding lawn so green and thick. Countless times had her toes found purchase in that green carpet as she ran about the fields and over the small hills growing up. The house was hers now…a gift, her dad’s attorney had told her…the man dark and gray and his voice flat, devoid of emotion. She couldn’t even remember his face as the news he’d brought her sunk in. But a gift it was…no doubt. A magical gift. A place of memories and smiles and sweet dreams and even sweeter smells.

 

Mom had been gone for the better part of a decade now but Celia had never thought the old man would pass. He was such a fixture in her life, such a rock, a man of such strength and grace. He had been living alone up here, so close to the wilderness, ever since her Mom had died. His daughter’s offer to move in for a while soon after the funeral had been turned down in his usual way, with a smile and a small joke, but leaving no room for argument. At first, Celia thought he just needed time to become accustomed to the fact that she would no longer be there, that he would wake up each morning and her side of the bed would be empty. But the better part of ten years had passed and still…he stayed.

 

Her Mom’s grave stone was showing the first signs of the years that had gone by, sitting not very far from her Dad’s brand new marker. The third stone, just a few yards further, was far older and had been showing evidence of the years for quite a bit longer. For some reason Celia could not fathom, coming here to visit the place where her Mother and Brother were both laid to rest had never been a top priority during her frequent visits to Strawberry Fields. Yet, she had made the walk of about a hundred yards or so from the house out to this little corner of grass, sitting in the shade of many trees, every day over the past week to stare down at her Dad’s name and significant dates. It was as if she was drawn to it, as if her legs were directing her down the path, well worn by her Dad’s many footsteps to and from these graves, of their own volition. 

 

“Dad…” she whispered and the word was carried away on the breeze, a tear slipping down her left cheek. “I wasn’t ready for you to go…”

 

She heard a rustling in the trees somewhere off to her right – her eyes darted that way and caught nothing but sunlight filtering through the eternally waving branches and leaves. A twig snapped a bit further in, the sound of what could have been an animal scrabbling through the brush but too distant to matter much…all of this barely registering and very nearly already forgotten. But somewhere in the back of her mind, memories stirred. Memories of standing near this same area of the property on many occasions, looking into the woods, peering intently at something that had caught her attention. The thoughts were fleeting and were soon replaced again by grief. More tears followed, more breezes rustled the thin fabric of Celia’s summer dress and the sun continued to shine down on her Dad’s property…now her home, until those same legs decided it was time to head back to the house.

 

***

 

Finally, it hit her. Two days later, she was standing at the sink, washing the breakfast dishes – one bowl, one cup, one spoon. The windows were open, the curtains blowing gently in every direction, the fan above the kitchen island whirling around in lazy circles. It was a smell, wafting in from outside. An earthy smell, a smell that reminded her of Logan, the little black mongrel dog they’d had while she was growing up.

 

“Logan,” she said and laughed out loud, not having thought of that little guy in a very long time. He used to bark at the woods incessantly, he would run out to the boundary where the grass met the trees and point himself at whatever it was he was complaining to and bark his little head off until one of them ran out to call him back in. Sometimes Celia would walk all the way out there very slowly, trying as hard as she could to find out what had Logan so crazy but she could never see…

 

Wait…that wasn’t right…she did see…that one time. Or was it more than once?

 

Celia shut the faucet off and took a step back to lean against the island. All this time, all these years, she had always chalked it up to childhood fantasy – the stuff of dreams and imagination that made it so magical at times to be a kid – but this place, this location with the lake fronting the property and the deep dark woods behind, made her childhood even more magical than most. There were fairy tale princes and princesses back there, castles in the woods, unicorns in the hills, all of the images that little girls kept close to heart when given hours to play outside. 

 

But this one time…this one dreadful time…

 

She had been too little to play with Jack and Logan in the woods, he was a couple of years older and she was just a toddler. He would disappear with the dog for what seemed like hours, although she was sure that it couldn’t have been very long before Mom would start calling for him. And when he returned, he would regale her with tall tales of their adventures in the deep dark woods. To her little girl's ears, his words were filled with wonder. She remembered wanting so badly to be old enough to join them both on their expeditions into the unknown – to see with her own eyes the amazing things he would describe to her. 

 

Jack…she thought…poor Jack…

 

One of those days, while she played in the grass with dolls, Mom’s lunch smells wafting outside through the open kitchen windows…Logan started barking, deep inside the woods. Not his usual annoying bark but a sound of desperation, of danger, of urgency.

 

She remembered Dad racing past her, dashing toward the spot in the woods where Jack and the dog had entered the thick canopy of trees.  She remembered Logan’s barking getting louder, closer, a great sound of rumbling through the brush looming toward her father, and another sound – of gruff breaths being taken, deep and fast, just beyond the boundary of the trees. Breaths that she should not have been able to hear from such a great distance – as if what was coming toward them was huge, much larger than Jack.

 

Her Dad pulled up short, she remembered, skidding through the grass just a few feet before the tree line. Something dark scrambled to the edge of the woods, she barely caught a glimpse from behind her father. She remembered the eyes, the pain of sadness in the eyes, as whatever it was dropped something gently on to the grass. Then, just as quickly as the glimpse she barely had, it was gone. A great roar filled the air as trees shook and branches danced in its wake. All of that was lost on her in those few seconds, these memories just now being recalled…but nothing at the time mattered more to her than the wrenching she felt in her young heart as her Dad sunk to his knees in the grass. 

 

“Richard!” her mom had shouted and she remembered the terror emanating from that one word, her father’s name. She remembered looking over her shoulder at her mom, not understanding what was happening, when a great wail filled the space between the woods and the house, making the hairs on the nape of her neck stand on edge. It was the first time she remembered feeling such fear, such ultimate panic and the look of disbelief in her mother’s eyes started her to crying.

 

As her mom stumbled forward in awkward, grief stricken steps, her father was running back up to the house, the lifeless body of her brother in his arms. There was blood on Jack’s face, matted in his hair and his eyes were open…she remembered…Jack’s eyes were open, staring at nothing but staring nonetheless. Then, as her brother’s body bounced jerkily in her father’s arms, his head lowered toward her and those eyes looked right at her – into her, telling her that she would play with Jack no more, that he would be her brother only in spirit from this time forward.

 

Logan’s barking, her mother’s screams and her father’s crying ceased to exist for Celia in those moments. Instead, her only focus was her brother’s eyes, locked on to hers for that briefest of instants, but searing their look of sadness and fear into her mind for many years to follow.

 

***

 

Celia snapped out of the memory, realizing that she was now sitting on the floor of the kitchen with tears streaming down her face. She held her head in her hands and let the tears come, knowing that there was nothing to do but ride out this wave of grief until it was done.

 

Those memories must have been buried deep inside her mind all this time. She had not recalled these events since she was a little girl. She had fleeting memories of a house full of people dressed in black shortly thereafter and a simple ceremony near the family plot in that eastern corner of the property – when the first stone had been put there. But little else.

 

Once the crying was done and she could stand, she suddenly remembered that the dark gray man who had come to let her know that the house and property now belonged to her had also given her a card from her father. She had not read it then, hadn’t really remembered receiving it until now. But at this very moment she needed to see that card. 

 

Where did she put it?

 

Where was the thick manila envelope that the attorney had also handed her?

 

Celia dashed from the kitchen to the small foyer near the front door, scrambled through a week’s worth of mail that had been thrown haphazardly into a small basket hanging on the wall…not there. She checked under the magazines on the coffee table in the living room, through the stack of flyers and junk mail that had somehow gathered on the small table against the wall in the hallway. No luck.

 

Several minutes later, she found them in her Dad’s office down the hall, sitting alone on the middle of his old beat up desk. The card was nothing special, just a floral pattern on the cover and her father’s words handwritten inside. 

 

Celia, never fear – Logan’s friend would never harm you, read the first line and she paused before continuing, a smile on her face as she thought of her Dad. He may barely show himself, to be honest, and you may never even notice anything but a strange rustling in the leaves of the woods. But he likes you, he always has…and your brother…he was so sad that day, Celia…I could see it in his eyes. We’ll never know what really happened to Jack but I know in my heart it was no fault of Logan’s friend.

 

That’s where the short note ended. Her father’s large and flowing signature was below in the same blue ink. The card had no date, it was not new to be sure. She turned it over, nothing on the back. Just that short message. How odd, she thought and lifted the larger envelope. Written lightly with a thick black marker were the words – For Celia, Upon My Death. Inside were pictures, several dozen, some large, some small – some in color, some in black and white. All depicting various scenes of the woods as seen from the property. Trees in various stages of bloom or leafless and covered in a white blanket of snow. Also inside were two small stones – one grayish and one black, both small. Celia gasped as she remembered that there had been small stones likes these on the tops of two of the grave stones in the family plot this past week during her daily visits. She had barely noticed them at the time but, upon seeing these two small stones, the memory surfaced. 

 

Looking inside the envelope, she pulled out several loose pages of handwritten notes, also in her father’s hand. One of them was a message from him explaining that he had been sick for quite some time but hadn’t wanted to worry her or cause her stress. That was so like him, she thought…to not let her be there for him when he needed her most, to not let her know that her time with him was growing shorter every day. She fought back the tears then and tried to keep reading but the notes were a scattered collection of unfinished thoughts and speculations. Mixed in were a few articles about the history of the property and the surrounding woodlands, a few lines had been underlined but they meant nothing to Celia. She couldn’t make heads or tails out of most of it, and she began to wonder if her father’s last year or so had been spent in a steep mental decline. But, no, she decided – she would have noticed that during her sporadic trips to Strawberry Fields…

 

Then again – she hadn’t noticed that her father had been dying during the past year either.

 

Celia grabbed it all up, stuffed everything back into the envelope, dropped it back on the desk and left her father’s office. The dishes could wait, she had to clear her mind and headed for the lake. The sun was already hot although not yet high in the sky. The golden reflections off the slight ripples on the lake’s surface nearly blinded her as she approached the small bench at the foot of the pier. In all of her thirty or so years, nothing could ever bring a calm to her quite like the soft sounds of the water lapping up against the shores of this lake. 

 

Some time later, she moved from the bench to the edge of the pier, slipped off her sandals and let the cool water tickle her toes. Birds flew by every so often, off to wherever it is that birds are so urgent to get to. She realized that the silence of Strawberry Fields was never actually a quiet but, instead, was full to bursting with the sounds of life – swimming fish, croaking frogs, scurrying squirrels, slithering snakes, buzzing bugs and a million other sounds that made up the background noise of this beautiful place. Just the sort of quiet she needed to clear her mind. 

 

It was late August, with September looming closer, threatening to bring with it the cooler air and bursts of color that was Autumn. By Lunchtime, Celia was ravenous and worked her way back to the house, carrying her sandals and letting her feet glide barefoot through the thick grass. The woods were closer to the house and she caught something out of the corner of her eye as it moved in the trees. She turned to look, but it was gone – she couldn’t put her finger on it but she felt like something exactly like this had happened dozens of times to her as she grew up here.

 

Logan’s friend, she thought and smiled.  

 

***

 

The small stone was cold and smooth as she turned it over and over in her hand. There were three of them this morning – one on each of the headstones. Two were black and one slightly grayish in color. They were completely free of dirt and debris, almost as if they had been scrubbed. 

 

Celia smiled and replaced the stone on her father’s marker. She had been looking through his notes again and started piecing together small pieces of his puzzle. While going through some of his other files she had found two more boxes of notes – these from many years earlier. Seems her Dad had been working on this for quite some time, just a bit obsessed with the history of the woodlands surrounding Strawberry Fields. 

 

She’d always wondered where he had gotten the name for the property – there were surely no strawberries anywhere close by and the fields ended abruptly at the not too distant tree line., but she did remember his mentioning once, many years ago, that the place reminded him of the spot in Central Park of the same name – that wonderful bit of nature firmly ensconced in the middle of one of the busiest places on earth. 

 

Wherever the name had come from, this had always been home. The family never ventured away from it much when she was younger – her cousins usually came here to visit, spending weeks in the gentle country breezes, fishing off the pier and swimming in the lake. She often felt that no other grass felt quite the same between her toes as it did here. Colors seemed brighter, the sunshine more glorious, the breeze much more soothing than anywhere else she had ever been.

 

Walking back toward the house she heard a familiar noise in the woods – just far enough within the canopy of trees to be muffled but close enough that it carried to her across perhaps a dozen yards. Smiling again, she made her way to the hammock on the porch and began to swing lazily. Reaching down, she picked up one of the other stones she had found in the family plot over the past day or so. Also smooth and shiny, also clean as a whistle…some care was being taken with these stones. 

 

Her father’s files had shed a bit more light on the research he had been doing. At first, she laughed at the folly of it all but, now that a week had gone by and she had become enthralled by the prospect, she was enjoying the pursuit of the mystery all the more. She was certain that her dad had completed his search, had solved the mystery and had set this all up knowing his daughter would enjoy it as well. 

 

“Dad…” she said, the word full of joy and happiness. The tears were mostly gone now, replaced by good memories, the loving times spent here with her father. She was still grieving, no doubt, and would continue to do so for some time but the overpowering sadness of when it first happened had lifted over the past few days. Celia accepted that she was alone now, her parents and brother resting in peace just a stone’s throw away from this very front porch, and knew that she would carry on here. Continue breathing life into Strawberry Fields and the surrounding woods, making sure that her family’s legacy lived on in this little stretch of wilderness, far from the crowds and traffic, tucked away in its own small piece of paradise.

 

She had seen her father’s sketches, done in pencil on standard sized printer paper. Although, crude and fuzzy, an artist her dad was not, they had flipped a switch in her memories, bringing back vivid images of when she was a girl, playing outside on the long flat expanse of lawn leading toward the woods. Images of vague shapes deep within the trees, playful sounds and sharp smells – strong and pungent, like those emanating from a petting zoo. 

 

She remembered the smells more than anything else – the odors of larger beasts like horses or cattle, much more vibrant than any left by the smaller critters that inhabited these woods. How could she have ever forgotten those smells? She laughed in wonder as the memories flooded back in. She and her brother at the very edge of the woods – pointing in at the shadows. Logan racing back and forth along the tree line with playful barks. And after Jack…long periods of time, most of some afternoons, spent just standing before the trees, eyes longingly searching through the spaces between trunks, hoping for another glimpse of the secrets hiding in those shadows.

 

But not always hiding either…

 

Celia smiled…

 

***

 

She took it slow this time, that long walk to the far corner of the property, with three of those small smooth rocks in her hand and her feet still wet from being dipped in the lake a few moments ago. The sun hung low in the late afternoon, hovering just over the tops of the trees. There were a few thick clouds in the sky, the ones that you could find shapes in if you looked hard enough. One swam lazily in front of the sun, suddenly filling the entire area leading up to the graves in shadow.

 

The breeze was brisk, blowing her hair in wild directions, and Celia was happy she had worn the light sweater. She was nervous, to be sure, but also confident that it was time. The graves of her parents and brother were bathed in the gloom of shade that often permeated this section of the property at this time of day. 

 

That last note of her father’s, a note she had found in a stack of photos and articles that she thought she’d already looked through, had been short but very enlightening. It was a note written directly to her, dated only a few weeks ago. In it, her father had told her that this was the best time of day to make contact and that the best place to do so was at the Family Plot. He had hoped that the activity of digging a new grave wouldn’t result in a lull and was confident that, once all was put back in place and the funeral guests had been gone for a few days, the normal daily activity would resume.

 

Celia was hoping that he’d been right. She wasn’t scared, not after reading the last of that note. It had brought a tear to her eye knowing that, even in his last days, her Dad was thinking of her, taking care of her and working to keep her safe in her new home – this wonderful place of clean air, sparkling water, green grass and natural beauty.

 

Celia, do not fear, her father had written. Logan’s friend would never hurt you, in fact – just the opposite – I expect that you will be safer here, in Strawberry Fields, than anywhere else on earth. There’s but one place to look that will alleviate all of your fears – the eyes, Celia, the eyes…

 

She held that note in her other hand as she stepped up to the gravestones. First she laid one of the black stones on that of her Brother – poor sweet Jack. Then the gray on top of her Mother’s stone. Then, with a deep breath, she stepped up to her father’s new marker and placed the last of the small stones on top of it, adjusting it so that it was straight. Then she stepped back and closed her eyes.

 

It took a few minutes but, off in the distance, she could hear some twigs snap and some branches break. Footfalls approached through the darkness of the woods, heavy but nimble. The smells that she had remembered from her youth sprang forth and she breathed deeply of the scent – the memories coaxing a smile to cross her lips.

 

Suddenly the sounds stopped and Celia felt a presence beside her, large and hulking yet gentle in demeanor. She opened her eyes and saw a massive arm, covered in thick brown fur, reach forward to pick up the small black stone sitting on top of her father’s marker. The arm withdrew, the stone swallowed in the great confines of that massive hand. She heard gruff breathing from slightly behind and to her right. 

 

Looking up she stared into the large eyes of the creature standing next to her and saw the gentle soul that her father had also been witness to. She saw a tear escape down one long cheek and heard a soft moan of grief from her companion. She nodded as tears fell from her cheeks as well. Several seconds followed in silence before she struck up the nerve to speak. “So, Logan’s friend,” Celia said. “It’s so nice to finally meet you…”



 

Shawn P. Madison, creator of the Guarder/UEN Universe, currently lives in the beautiful Garden State of New Jersey with his wife and a veritable cornucopia of kids. Although he has written in many different genres, he tends to write mostly science fiction and horror. He has published more than ninety short stories in numerous magazines and anthologies, both electronic and print. His novels, GUARDER LORE and THE GUARDER FACTOR were both recently reprinted by Writer's Sanctum Publishing, his novella EMPIRE OF THE IRON CROSS was published by Cyberwit,net Publishing and his collection of horror short stories, THE ROAD TO DARKNESS, was published by Double Dragon Publishing. You can reach Shawn via e-mail at: asm89@aol.com. Bienvenue au Danse, Shawn.