Exhausted, but satisfied, Amber Wheatleigh trudged up the steps to the front door of her childhood home. She was staying with her parents for a few bright, late spring days, enjoying the cool nights and the comforts found in the spacious, well-appointed rooms of the large country house, its brick façade as impressive as ever. Having packed up her apartment in town, the only things that were left for her to pack were the few remaining odds and ends she had left here, but they could wait until tomorrow. Tonight, she would enjoy the sunset from the terrace overlooking the graceful lawns and hardwood forest that bordered their property.
Passing through the house on her way to the terrace, Amber almost ran into her mother. It was clear from the look on her mother’s face that she had found the printout of the email Amber had been hoping to keep private. If her mother had read the confirmation message giving all the details about the three-month writers’ retreat, she knew everything anyway, so there was little more to say. Amber decided to jump right into an offensive stance. “What were you doing rummaging around in my things, Mother?”
“It’s my house,” Annalisa Wheatleigh replied acidly. “My ancestral home as a matter of fact, that has been in the family since before the Revolution. I think that gives me the right to—”
“Point taken. As you can see, I won’t be in your house much longer, and if you are wondering why, you have at least one of your answers.” Amber took the printout of the confirmation and started to walk out of the large, gleaming kitchen. Lined with the latest stainless steel appliances, the room, like the rest of the house, lacked nothing but warm childhood memories.
“Is this the thanks I get for all I’ve done for you? The best schools, the best private university in the area, every conceivable type of lesson and club, and what do you do with it all? Throw it back in my face.”
Amber turned around, an apologetic but rather strained expression on her face. “I’m sorry, Mother. I don’t mean to be sarcastic or ungrateful. You know how much I love you and Father, and how much I appreciate all you’ve done for me. It’s just time, don’t you think? I need to give it one more shot or give it up.”
Annalisa ran a hand over her daughter’s short blond hair. “Let’s sit down and discuss this rationally, dear. I cannot imagine what you might be thinking. What are you talking about giving up on?”
Amber followed her mother out onto the terrace. “My writing career, of course. It’s been a year.”
“But why talk of giving it up? It’s a perfectly respectable pastime for a young woman in your position. We don’t mind paying for your apartment and expenses. You can’t imagine how proud it makes me to tell all the girls at the bridge club that you’ve started another novel. Only a year out of graduate school and you’re already well on your way to becoming a writer.” She patted her hair in a self-satisfied manner.
Amber noticed that the lines she had seen last week framing her mother’s eyes seemed to have miraculously disappeared. The slender neck and high cheekbones she had inherited from her mother were firmer as well. To her mother, appearances were everything. Doctor Hurst, the plastic surgeon, being on her mother’s speed dial said it all. “Started and never finished. All year it’s been the same. If that announcement makes you proud, then no wonder you’re surprised at my leaving. You may be happy that I start, but I want to finish. I want to carry a book through to the end.”
“And I’m sure you will, dear. Maybe when you’ve met the right man, he’ll inspire you.”
“I’m not going to wait around for some hypothetical man, Mother. This paper is my confirmation. I’m going to the writers’ retreat I told you about. I’ll be packing up all my things, from here and from my apartment in town as well, putting them in storage for the summer. On Monday, I’ll be heading out to Colorado. If I haven’t made real headway on a book by the end of three months, I’ll know.”
“What will you know?” Annalisa’s tone was suddenly disparaging. “In three months? A book can take years.”
“I’ll just know, all right? I have to go.”
“Your brother never gave us this kind of trouble.”
Amber nodded. “No, he didn’t. Wolcott was always the perfect son.” And what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you, she continued silently, thinking of how her brother, ten years her senior, had confided in her over the last few months. Things weren’t always what they appeared, but for her mother, appearances were all that mattered.
“After medical school, he settled down nicely in a very respectable practice.”
“I’m not arguing with you about him. He’s done well for himself and I’m glad he’s found his place in the world. I just want to find mine.”
Annalisa seemed to consider for a moment before changing directions. “So, how did you pay for this retreat?”
Amber hesitated before answering in a slightly embarrassed tone, “I borrowed the money from Father, of course. I’ll pay him back somehow.”
Her mother sighed deeply, in a false showing of patience. “Of course you will, dear.” Brightening, she continued, “I know! I can redecorate your room while you’re gone. Paint, drapes, bedspread, everything new. That should take about three weeks. It will be ready just in time for you to come to your senses and return. Then, if you still want to give up writing, your father will be able to find a place for you in his firm. You should do well there.”
Amber took hold of her temper in both hands. “We’ll just have to wait and see, won’t we, Mother?”
* * *
“Excuse me! Excuse me! Can you tell me where I might find Walden’s Echo? It’s supposed to be on Golden Parkway, but I can’t seem to find it on the map. I was told it was too new to appear on my GPS, but I thought maybe the local map would have it.” Amber waited expectantly for what she hoped would be a simple answer to her question. The Colorado town she had finally reached after three days of driving wasn’t that big. Surely anyone who lived around here would know everyone.
“Ain’t never heard of it.” The grizzled old man ambled on his way, but a young woman of about her own age came up beside her.
“Did I hear you asking about Walden’s Echo? Are you going to the retreat too?” The woman looked as tired as she felt. “I’ve been waiting all morning.”
“I just pulled into town. I drove like a crazy person trying to get here on time. The website said it was important to be prompt,” Amber replied. “Though for the past hour, I haven’t been able to pull up anything on my phone when I’ve tried to check the site. I wondered if maybe they had posted an announcement or something.”
“There are some other participants here in the parking lot of the post office. I found that at least. This way.”
“I’m Amber, by the way,” Amber said as they walked up the street toward the center of town.
“I’m Mitzi,” the young woman replied. “You say you just got here? How far did you have to drive?”
“From Connecticut, or maybe Mars. At this point I’m not even sure which.”
Mitzi laughed. “And I thought I had a long drive having to come from the next county.”
As they passed a coffee shop, a middle-aged man beckoned to Mitzi. “We’re in here. They’ve got Internet and one of the other guys is trying to get in touch with the retreat organizers.”
Mitzi and Amber entered the shop, the aroma making Amber’s mouth water. She loved coffee, especially the dark roast she was smelling now. “I think I’ll just get something and join you in a minute.”
As she waited for her order to be filled, she took out her phone and was pleasantly surprised to find the reception excellent and her connection strong. That was why, by the time she returned to the group, she knew what Mitzi was going to tell her. “The website’s not functioning,” Amber began.
“Not just not functioning. It’s been taken down. That guy over there, the one with the laptop, says there’s no trace of it. He’s looking now for reviews and complaints. I’m beginning to smell a rat.”
“No, surely not!” Amber exclaimed dismissively. “There’s probably just something wrong at the ranch. They’ve lost power or Internet connection or something and can’t update their site to tell us what’s going on.”
Mitzi grimaced. “I wish you were right, but I’m afraid you’re wrong. I’ve got a bad feeling about this. Something’s not right about our writers’ conference.” She stressed the words to emphasize the pun.
“Oh, bad,” groaned Amber. “But at least you can find some humor in the situation. And it’s too early to give up hope just yet. I’m going out to drive around and see if I can spot the road or even the ranch.”
“What? Just drive around looking? That’s crazy.”
“No more crazy than you smelling a rat with no more to go on than a non-functioning website. I’ve paid my ten thousand dollars and I’m going to find this retreat!”
“Ten? I only paid two!” Some of the others chimed in as well. Only Amber had paid so much or arranged to stay for so long.
“That’s it! I’ll prove it to you! Maybe the service isn’t as thorough or as organized as I had been led to believe, but there is a writers’ retreat and I’m going to attend! I’ll find Walden’s Echo and come back for the rest of you. See you in a while.” Amber escaped before anyone could say anything to make her change her mind. She simply couldn’t accept the idea that something shady was going on. So the retreat wasn’t everything the organizers had promised. Efficiency and service left something to be desired, but as long as she was out in her tiny private cabin by nightfall, starting afresh on her great American novel, it would all be worth it.
Amber bumped her way out of town on roads with potholes like rain barrels. Up and down, following the tree line, the road ambled out of town then headed straight up into the rocky pass between two stony peaks. She saw some official road designations and more custom or homemade signs naming streets, houses, and ranches, but nothing like what she was looking for.
Maybe I should try taking one of these smaller roads, she mused. The website said the ranch was situated in deep forest on the west side of the mountain, overlooking a pastoral scene and a huge lake. From what I can see, this is the only area where such a view would be possible. And I’ll try this Golly Bill Road turnoff here. It’s not exactly Golden Parkway, but maybe the organizers just didn’t want to admit their ranch was off a road with such a silly name. And no wonder they didn’t want us driving our cars up here. This road is terrible.
She ploughed ahead, twisting and turning, not able to avoid the potholes because the trees grew right up beside and sometimes into the lane. It was just after one such tree intruder that the mischief was done. Amber swerved to avoid the tree, but rolled over a large root behind which was lurking a huge dip in the road. Amber was jolted against her seatbelt, temporarily stunned, though still conscious.
When she came to herself, she realized that the car was at a strange angle and the engine emitting alarming amounts of steam from under the hood that had obviously popped open on impact. She grabbed her purse and then scrambled out of the car as quickly as possible, digging for her cell phone, which of course had no service. After a few futile minutes of internal cursing and crying, Amber got her small overnight bag out of the car and was just about to set off on foot, hoping that if she made it back to the main road, someone might come along to help, when she heard the sound of a small engine approaching.
Up ahead, through the trees, she noticed a wide track. Down this, within a few minutes, came a large ATV. It was a four-wheeler, with huge tires, a roll bar, and handlebars, behind which sat a very large, rather hairy man. Amber couldn’t tell much about what he looked like except that his reddish-brown beard seemed to join with his hair both at his chin and down his shoulders and chest. On second look, she realized that the man was riding with a towel wrapped around his neck, but the hair and beard were still very long and rather unkempt. His ball cap shaded dark sunglasses so that she couldn’t see his eyes. In fact, with his hair fanning out and onto wide shoulders, he gave the comical impression of the top of a dried-out Christmas tree with a few baubles left over. Still, it was rather disconcerting, his coming up on her like that, but she was desperate, so she wiped her eyes and went around the car to meet him.
The tree-man brought his ATV to a stop a distance away from the road and hailed her in a friendly manner. “Hello? Is there somebody there?”
Amber stepped further toward him and in between two trees so she could be seen more clearly. “Yes, I’m over here!”
“Is that your fire?”
“No, it’s not a fire. My engine is letting out steam.”
The stranger looked more human now, coming nearer and taking off his hat to smooth his hair down and away from his face in an embarrassed manner. “Maybe I’d better get the extinguisher anyway, just in case.” He turned back to his ATV and took two strides before switching directions again. “But first, are you okay? Do you need first aid? I’ll get the kit.” Pivoting, he took off again in the direction of the ATV, but was changing direction again before Amber could reply. “But the fire has to come first. Sorry, but out here, fire’s the biggest hazard. We’ll both be in need of more than first aid if a forest fire starts. Let me take a look.”
Taking off his sunglasses, he strode past her as she stood gaping at him, almost afraid to interrupt his rather erratic train of thought. “I think it’s okay, but if you need to spray it, go right ahead. I wouldn’t want to start a fire. Of course that’s the major concern out here, isn’t it?”
“That’s how I found you so quick. The fire spotter over on the ridge saw the smoke and radioed me to ask me to check it out. I got over here as fast as I could and I was already close anyway. This road borders my ranch.” The man walked up to Amber’s car and stuck his head under the hood, fanning the steam away with the hand towel.
“You live up here?” Amber felt a surge of relief. “Then you’ll know where Walden’s Echo is.” When he didn’t respond right away, she continued, “The ranch that holds the writers’ retreats and seminars? You’ve heard of it, surely.”
Withdrawing from the wreck that had been her car, the man straightened. “Can’t say as I have, miss, and I know everybody who lives up here. I wouldn’t know about retreats or seminars, but I know cars.” He indicated the front wheels, then the back of the car, where one tire was hanging morosely in mid-air. “If that axle’s not broken, I’ll eat it for breakfast.”
Amber slumped. “Oh, no! This can’t be!”
“I’m telling you, it’s true. You should never have tried to drive this car down this road. You need a four-wheeler or a truck with high clearance to use these tracks, not some cute little sedan like that.”
“I’m not talking about the car. That’s bad enough in itself, but the retreat? Are you sure? Nobody in town has heard of it either, but I thought surely up here someone would know.”
The stranger shook his head. “As you can tell, there aren’t too many people who live up here. I hardly see anybody but my ranch hands for days at a time if I don’t go to town.” He nervously pulled his hair back from his face. “I guess I’ve kind of let myself go a little bit this spring. Been busy. There’s no need to be scared of me. I’m not the wild man of the mountain I look like right now.”
Amber realized that she had been backing away from him without meaning to, keeping the car between them like a fence. She tried to force herself to relax, but something about the man got at her. She was surprised to find that, when she looked at him, her first feeling wasn’t fear, but curiosity. He intrigued her. She wanted more than anything to trim that beard and cut that hair so she could see the face of the man hidden behind them.
“I—I’m sorry I’m staring. I’m just exhausted. It’s been a long day.” She leaned against a tree, willing herself not to cry.
“I’m Travis Bradley,” he said, kindly. “What’s your name?” He came around to lean on the tree next to hers.
“I’m Amber Wheatleigh and I drove all the way from Connecticut in the past three days. All the way out here for this retreat that may not even take place on a ranch that may not even exist! What am I going to do?” She banged her hands beside her on the trunk.
Travis put out his hand to grasp hers and helped her stand up straight. “I think it’s time we got you back to town. What do you say? Are you up to it?”
“I’ll call somebody to tow it for you later. Right now, you look right done in. Come on.” He gestured for her to follow him, but he was heading into the forest.
“The road is that way.”
“And you want to walk the whole way back? I can radio for somebody to pick you up, but it could take hours. It’ll be much faster if I just take you on my ATV. I’ve got a helmet. It’s safe.”
Amber hesitated. “I hate to put you to all that trouble, but I am kind of in a mess.”
“Don’t worry about it. I was going in to town anyway. My friend said if I didn’t get a haircut soon, he was going to turn me upside down and use me for a mop.”
Amber laughed, sniffing back a tear. “I really appreciate this.” She looked up into his eyes and saw for the first time that they were green, a clear penetrating green that reminded her of the leaves on the trees all around them. Looking away, she let her eyes roam back toward the car. “Say, is it safe to leave it out here like this? What if it ignites?”
Travis put on his sunglasses and hat, then wrapped the towel around his neck. “The radiator is cooling off, and the car’s in no danger of catching fire. We might have to leave it here overnight. Do you have what you’ll need to spend the night somewhere?”
“Yes, right here,” she answered, thinking, everything but money. I do not want to put a hotel night on my credit card. Make that Father’s credit card. He’s bankrolled me long enough. “On second thought, maybe I don’t. You know, I should probably just stay here and wait for the tow truck.”
“It might not be here till morning,” objected Travis.
“No, surely not, but if it is, so what? I like camping out.”
“Come on, Amber. This is crazy. I can’t leave you out here. Let me take you to a hotel.”
“No, thank you.” Amber went back to the car and struggled with the door. “I’ll be fine. I love this car. I don’t want to leave it.”
Travis laughed as he followed her to the car. “You’ve got to be the worst liar in three counties. Maybe in the state. What gives?”
Amber scowled at him. “What do you mean? Can’t a woman love her car? Can’t she like sleeping out under the stars?” Just then, a bird cawed raucously in the trees overhead and Amber flinched visibly. “There aren’t any bears in these woods, are there?”
“Have you ever even been camping once in your whole spoiled little rich girl life?” He took one of her hands from the car door and pulled her gently but inexorably back toward the path.
“What do you mean? How can you… I mean, what makes you think I’m rich?”
“This car? Those fingernails? That handbag? I watch TV, too, you know. I’ve heard of that brand. You reek of money.”
“I… I don’t intend to. I brought the oldest car I have.”
Travis laughed again. “Oldest? You have others?”
“Well… Oh, all right, that was kind of a stupid thing to say, but I mean it. I don’t want to go back into town. I want to stay here.” There was a long pause before she added, “As long as there are no bears.”
Travis chuckled again. “I’ve got to hand it to you. For a spoiled rich girl, you do have grit.” He let go of her hand and leaned against the tree. “Tell me why you don’t want to go back to town and I’ll stop pestering you.”
Amber took a deep breath, then spoke slowly. “If I go back, I’ll probably have to spend the night in a hotel and I don’t want to spend the money. I haven’t got any cash, just the credit card, and I don’t want to depend on my father any more. I want to be self-sufficient. That was the whole point of this retreat, so now, I’m just going to sleep in the car and if the car is out here in the woods then that’s where I’ll sleep.” The last part came out in a rush.
Travis seemed to consider for a moment, his emotions showing on his face so clearly Amber thought he might as well have subtitles running like a stock ticker across his chest. His words proved her read of him correct. “No, you won’t. You’ll get in this ATV right now.”
* * *
Travis fought the memory that was choking him, twisting his heart as it jumped to his throat, clogging his breath. This total stranger, this Amber in front of him was just so much like Heather. The present faded before his eyes. In its place, a scene coalesced like a jigsaw puzzle put together under time-lapse photography.
He could see her as she was when she was alive, when he still felt truly alive, as he had not felt since she died. Her long, full brown hair framed elfin features, so full of vitality and mischief. Her coffee eyes dancing with fun, Heather ran from him, shouting, “See you tomorrow.”
As he recalled it, when he had told her it was time for him to walk her home after their second date, she had not wanted to go. He had tried to follow her that night, but she had been on her home turf and eluded him easily. He remembered making his way to her dorm room by another route, not finding her there, searching for her all night without success. His breath eased as he recalled with a sweet ache how he had finally discovered her where she had fallen asleep on the ground in a secluded part of the college campus. “Do you realize how worried I’ve been?” he had demanded, shaking her.
“I fell asleep looking at the stars,” she had replied sassily. “Don’t blame me if you can’t keep up.”
“I’ll show you ‘can’t keep up,’ you little brat! I’ll keep up, all right! All over your hiney!” She had laughed until he had gotten her pinned over his lap. Then, after the first few swats had made clear what he intended to do and continue doing, she had gotten very still. He recalled wondering if he had gone too far, but since she didn’t struggle to get away, he kept right on applying the flat of his hand to the round of her bottom. Over the light cotton shorts she wore, he had known it had to sting. The shorts revealed enough of her flesh that he had spanked bare skin on her thighs as well.
When his hand had become hot and sore, he had pushed through the pain, feeling a kind of rightness about imposing his own brand of order on her wild chaos. At last, he had stopped spanking and rubbed her bottom, wondering when she would stand up.
“Are you done?” Her voice had sounded small, subdued in his ears.
He recalled doubting himself in that moment, knowing that he could not have reacted any other way. “Yes, I’m done, if you’ve learned your lesson. Promise you won’t ever stay out all night again.” It had seemed like an eternity before her answer reached him.
“I promise I’ll try. But if I do, will you promise to take me over your knee again? Like this, I mean?”
“No, not like this. It’ll be twice as long and I’ll use my belt.”
He could still hear her sharp intake of breath, still feel the shock he experienced when she had stood up to face him, then melted into his arms. “Nobody’s ever told me ‘no’ before.”
“Well, they have now.” He had held her close, stroking her hair, enjoying the sensation of her clinging to him. “How’s your father going to feel about this? I don’t want to get expelled personally by the dean of students in my third semester.”
“You won’t. He’ll like you. I’ve never dated a college student before.” She had released him and taken his hand to lead him back up the path.
“A bit of a wild child, huh?”
“More than a bit. I wouldn’t have gotten in here if my dad wasn’t dean. In fact, I’m on academic probation as it is.”
“Well, then, we’ll just have to make sure you get off probation and onto the honor roll.”
Heather had laughed loudly at that. “I don’t expect that big of a miracle, Travis, but if you can just help me get through calculus, Dad won’t care how you do it.”
Travis remembered vowing to himself that she would get through calculus and English lit and anything else she might need to earn her degree while he earned his. “I’ll hold you to that, Heather, but maybe we’d better keep my methods our little secret.”
“Fine by me,” Heather had replied, rubbing her rump. “I don’t want anybody knowing what just went on out there. And we’d better find a more private place to do it, too.”
“You do have a dorm room, you know. It’s that little room at the end of a long hall where you were supposed to sleep last night. Do you make a habit of staying out until dawn all alone?”
Heather had shrugged in her ‘Am I supposed to care?’ way. “Yeah.”
“Well, not any more. Don’t you realize what could have happened to you? I can’t even tolerate that thought. From now on, you’ll be with me or at least one other girl if you’re out after hours, or you’ll regret it.”
She had hugged his arm tightly as they continued up the path toward the dorms. All this flashed across his mind, along with the overwhelming sadness he always felt when he remembered his late wife. The memories came and went quickly, but they left an ache in his soul that lingered hours and days.