If A Tree Falls in the Forest
“Yes, dear. I’m sure you’re right about that,” Wayne said through gritted teeth for what felt like the hundredth time in the five hours since they had left their life behind in Kentucky. What kind of wife blathers to her husband’s congregation about his foibles? he wondered, even if they were on the wrong side of the law. Wayne obviously believed God’s laws trumped man’s laws any day of the week. His particular hobby clearly fell into a scriptural gray area.
He had checked.
“You know, that thrift-store suit of yours stinks. Smells like an old man died in it.” Lolly plucked her cracked vinyl handbag from the floor of the car and plopped it on her lap. “And the whole congregation—every one of them, actually—thought the top of your head looked like a gopher pelt.”
Lolly found the lipstick she had been rooting around for in her bag. She unbuckled her seatbelt and screwed her ample hips forward to the edge of the seat.
“They thought you were a fool. I assure you of that.”
She flipped the visor down and used her sleeve to clean the smudges off the mirror. She began carefully applying lipstick, her awkwardly stretched lips distorting her words.
“And why you can’t hold down such a simple job is beyond me. How hard is it to be a pastor?”
She continued smearing her upper lip with the deep crimson color.
“I mean really, who steals from Girl Scouts?”
She used her fingers to pick a piece of fuzz from the lipstick tube. She resumed her application.
“I think you’re deranged.”
Wayne pressed his lips together and maintained his silence, tightening his grip on the steering wheel. He squinted over the hood of their secondhand, ‘75 Ford Pinto as the early winter sun bounced off the wet pavement ahead. The deserted highway cut an unbending path through the old growth trees pressing in from the surrounding hills. Wayne’s eyes were drawn to a small dirt service road disappearing off into the forest.
“And also,” Lolly continued, “we’re starting a diet today. All those cookies have made you into a blob.”
Sweat had broken out on Wayne’s upper lip, he grunted as he cranked the wheel hard to the right. The old car bounced wildly onto the narrow dirt road, jumping from one pothole to the next. Lolly screamed and gripped the door handle, her chin garishly smeared with lipstick.
“What in God’s name are you doing? Stop the car this instant!”
Wayne’s foot pressed down harder on the accelerator. As the car careened around the next bend, he said, “Oh, shit.”
He scrunched his eyes shut and slammed the brake pedal hard to the floor, stopping just short of the massive fallen log that covered the road. He gasped, trying for a moment to catch his breath and slow his racing heart. He rubbed his chest where the seatbelt’s shoulder strap had violently restrained him.
“Oh, shit,” he repeated. “That was a close one, huh?”
Lolly didn’t answer. Her head rested at an unnatural angle on the dashboard, her bleach-blond hair splayed across the surface like spilled pasta noodles. Wayne placed a hand on her back.
“You alright, old girl?”
Lolly spoke into the dashboard. “Waynie? My head hurts.”
Wayne gently collected a handful of her hair and pulled her back onto her seat. He resisted the urge to clean the remnants of her accident from the dash. He patted her hand. Various parts of her head were no longer where they used to be, and a fair amount of blood had created a slick down the side of her face.
“I’m sure it does hurt, old girl.”
Her breathing was labored and her fingers twitched.
“I don’t feel so good,” she said.
Wayne gazed past the water droplets on the hood of the car into the distance, marveling at the darkness created by the dense trees. He closed his eyes for a long, prayerful moment, and when he opened them and looked up, God had painted a rainbow across the sky. Wayne felt his tears dampen his cheeks.
He also wondered if the ground had frozen for the season yet.
He patted her hand again and climbed out of the car, circling around the back and popping the trunk. Wayne pushed aside their overstuffed suitcases and bags of groceries and rummaged for the old tarp he always carried, it was dusty and smelled faintly of mildew. He threw it over his shoulder and walked around to the passenger door. It groaned in protest as he opened it. Lolly’s head was back and her eyes were closed.
“Come on, old girl. Why don’t we go for a little walk?”
She gurgled gently.
Planting his feet on the muddy ground, Wayne braced his knees as he rolled Lolly off her seat and hoisted her over the tarp on his shoulder.
“Oof,” she said.
“Bah. No complaining, old girl. You’re not as light as you used to be, so this is the only way I can carry you.”
Wayne stepped carefully over the log and weaved his way through the maze of trees, quietly humming “Closer my God to Thee” under his breath. He occasionally paused in his singing to listen for any other cars that might have found their way down the service road, but Wayne only heard the birds chirping happily around him.
He had to stop several times to hoist Lolly higher onto his shoulder.
Once his legs began to protest from the hike and he knew they had gone far enough, Wayne placed Lolly gently at the foot of a large fir tree, seated, with her hands folded demurely in her lap. He tried to lean her head back against the tree but it kept falling forward; after several attempts, he gave up.
Hands on his hips, Wayne took a moment to catch his breath and survey the small clearing. The ground was packed tightly with snaking roots and thick underbrush, and the tall trees blotted out the sky with their tangled limbs. A large fallen log rested above a shallow depression in the ground, cradling a darkened nest of leaves.
“Well, isn’t this just darn near perfect?”
Taking care not to muddy his pants, Wayne laid the tarp down and began pulling the damp leaves out from under the log and into a pile. While he worked, he picked out as many worms as possible, throwing them far across the clearing (Lolly was terrified of worms). Once he was satisfied, he stood up and slid the tarp part way under the log. He brushed the dirt off his hands and walked over to his wife.
Her eyes were closed and her shoulders lifted and fell with her breathing.
“All right, up and at em, old girl,” he said.
He was careful not to jostle her head too much as he scooped her up. He carried her across the clearing and set her gently on the tarp positioned under the log, he rolled her onto her side and tucked her knees up to her chest.
Lolly exhaled loudly and groaned. A small bubble of blood and spit grew between her lips for a moment, before quickly receding back into her mouth.
“Now, now. We’re gonna get you all cozy in there in a minute, but I need you to work with me a little bit.”
Wayne folded the tarp over his wife and carefully tucked the edges underneath her, he began scooping the leaves over her.
Lolly mumbled something.
Wayne flung the tarp back from her face.
“You’ve gotta speak up. You know I can’t hear you under there.”
“Waynie? I’m cold.” Her eyes were closed and her voice was barely a whisper now.
“Well now, you know I can’t control the weather,” Wayne said, continuing to scoop leaves over her legs. “But I’m working on getting you all warmed up soon.”
“But I want to go home. I have a headache.” She began to whimper softly.
“Criminy, Lolly. I feel like you’re not even listening to me.”
She mumbled something again, so he turned his attention back to his work. Once the tarp was almost completely camouflaged by the bed of leaves, Wayne leaned down close to Lolly’s ear.
“All right, old girl, I made you a lovely warm bed. It was a lot of work, but you know I’d do anything for you. Take a rest now and I’ll be back to get you.”
Her reply was unintelligible.
“You’re welcome, sweetheart.” Wayne smiled and kissed her gently on the forehead, before folding the tarp back over her face and tucking it tightly under her head. He shoveled the last of the wet leaves over the exposed corner of the tarp, and then stood up and walked to the middle of the clearing. He turned slowly in a circle, there was no sign anything had disturbed the area. Wayne brushed his hands off on his trousers and shoved his fists deep into his jacket pockets, and began the trek back to the car. By the time he arrived, the late-afternoon sun was bathing the forest in a pink glow.
His stomach growled.
He climbed in the car and turned the heater to high, before carefully fastening his seatbelt, and slowly backing the car down the little dirt lane and up onto the main road. Eventually, his cold fingers began to warm and he started to hum. He hadn’t even reached the end of his first hymn when he came upon a sign announcing the city limits of Fernton, population seven hundred thirteen.
Storefronts that had closed for the day began to appear along the road as he entered the town. Wayne pulled into the small parking lot in front of a quaint retro diner, choosing a parking spot that was not directly under the streetlight. He sat in his car and watched the townspeople come and go from the gas station across the street, all good folks driving American-made cars. Around the gas station, a few sparse trees had been allowed to remain free of the others, reminding him that, as the crow flies, Lolly was on the other side of the wooded area just out of sight.
Wayne felt a wave of love and gratitude wash over him and he smiled. Lolly was so near, and she wouldn’t have guided him to this town unless there was a future for him here. Even from the grave, she was pushing him forward.
He pulled a packet of hand-wipes out of Lolly’s purse and began cleaning the blood from the dash. When he was done, he reached into the backseat for an empty box of Thin Mints and stuffed the used wipes inside. He tucked Lolly’s purse out of sight under the passenger seat and climbed out of the car. Outside the diner door, he tossed the cookie box into the trash can and then stepped into the brightly lit restaurant. Even at 5 p.m. the place was filled with the sounds of the town congregating, and the aroma of fried food. Wayne’s stomach growled again.
“Howdy,” said the blonde waitress crossing his path, her arms filled with plates of hot food. Despite her delicate features, she had an air of authority about her. “Why don’t you take a seat over at the counter.”
“Alrighty, then,” Wayne said.
No other customers were seated at the counter, so he chose the stool right in the middle. A few moments later, the blonde waitress brought over a menu. Wayne squinted to read her nametag. Jean. He waved off the menu.
“I’ve got a hankering for some pie,” he said.
“Dessert for dinner? My kind of guy.” She chuckled as she poured a glass of water and set it in front of him. “So what brings you through Fernton, hon?”
“Road trip. I got a line on a new position at a church in Montana and I’m driving out that way.” He took a sip of water. “My name is Wayne, by the way.”
“Are you a pastor by any chance, Wayne?” Jean asked.
“Indeed I am.” Wayne sat a little taller and straightened his suit jacket.
“I could tell by your fancy clothes that you do something important.” She leaned in closer and lowered her voice. “You know, this town is without a pastor right now. We could really use someone like you, but you probably wouldn’t be too interested in a quiet little place like Fernton.” She left to take the order of a large group who had just came in.
Wayne swiveled on his stool to take in his surroundings. Was it possible that he’d just lucked into his next job? The long front window was lined with shiny red upholstered booths, and not a single piece of food soiled the spotless black and white checkered floor. Three small children danced between the tables, giggling hysterically. Time passed with some commotion near the back, maybe a customer confused about which door to use and then Jean swung back into his vision.
“Here’s your dinner, Wayne,” she said. She placed the apple pie in front of him.
“Any idea who I’d talk to about that pastor position you mentioned?” he asked. “You know, just to consider all my options.”
Jean’s eyes lit up. “You betcha. Mayor Carl and his wife Jenny. They own this diner, and the roadhouse right upstairs. They should be in for dinner real soon.”
Wayne was halfway through his second piece of pie when Jean brought the Mayor and his wife over to the counter.
“How do you do?” Carl extended his hand. “Jean tells me we may have our new pastor dining with us tonight.”
Wayne shook his hand firmly and smiled. The Mayor was oddly shaped, like a bowling pin, and sported a ruddy complexion. His wife more closely resembled a bowling ball wearing a short, curly, brown wig. He could deal with them.
“Good to meet you both,” he said. “This is a lovely town you have here. So, I hate to be forward, but I wonder what this Pastor position of yours pays? As I mentioned to Jean, here, I’ve got another prospect lined up in Montana.”
“It would only offer eight hundred a month, but since we own this fine restaurant and the rooms upstairs, the position comes with free room and board.” Carl smiled broadly. “And eight hundred can go awful far in a little town like this. Why don’t you bunk up there tonight and see what you think of the place?”
“The rooms really are quite nice,” Jenny said. Her voice was high, like the squeak of a mouse. “I think you’d be really comfortable.”
“Well, that all sounds swell. I think I’ll take that job if you’re offering it to me.”
The bowling pin and the bowling ball eyeballed him. “How about you settle in tonight, and we can discuss it further tomorrow?” Carl asked.
Prompted, Jenny pulled a room key out of her pocket. “It’s usually pretty quiet up there, but we just now gave the other room to a lady who was in an awful car accident nearby. She looked a wreck. Poor dear refused to see the doctor. Probably doesn’t have insurance. You know how it is.
Wayne felt the blood drain from his face as pie threatened to rise in the back of his throat.
“No,” he said.
“You probably won’t hear a peep out of her, but you just give the desk a call on the phone if she starts fussing, and we’ll bring the doctor on by. Whether she likes or not, the woman needs care.”
Wayne left their mouths all hanging open by issuing a spontaneous blessing and taking the key out of Jean’s hand. “I’ll show myself to the room,” he said.
Across the room, a narrow wooden staircase to the second floor hugged the pine-planked wall, before opening into a bright yellow hallway with two doors. A Bible verse was inscribed on each door. Wayne didn’t recognize either one.
He inserted his key into the door marked with a number two, slammed the door behind him, and fastened the security chain. He walked over to the foot of the bed and sat down, dropping his head into his hands.
“Shit. Jesus. No.”
After a few moments of raw panic, he looked up. There was an adjoining door. His heart pounding, he placed his ear against it. There were no sound in the other room, but Lolly was always a heavy sleeper. He returned to his bed and piled the pillows so that he could recline with a clear view of the door. He left his shoes on. Wayne kept his vigil, marking the passage of time by the slow fading of the sounds from downstairs and out in the parking lot. By 11 p.m. it was silent, except for the occasional passing car.
At exactly midnight, he stood up and approached the adjoining door. He wiped his sweaty palms on his pant legs and gently tried the doorknob. It was locked, but when he pressed lightly on the flimsy door, it flexed. Careful not to apply enough force to break the door frame, he pressed his shoulder hard against the door and pushed. With a slight popping sound, the door swung open.
The light from his room spilled into Lolly’s. Wayne could just make out her shape on the bed. It was impossible, but there she was. He closed the door behind him and waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, as he listened for her sounds. Her breathing was raspy and uneven, but she didn’t stir. He could have deliberated or panicked, but instead he walked over to the bed, picked up the second pillow, and pressed it firmly against the shadowed outline of her face.
He made a quick prayer of thanks to the Lord for his aid in bringing her into his life some twenty-odd years ago. He also thanked God for adjoining doors and for giving him the ability to see a solution nestled in the cradle of a soft pillow. Lolly shifted only slightly under the blankets, but made no effort to remove the pillow. After a few moments, she lay still. Wayne counted to sixty before removing the pillow and placing it carefully next to her. He was relieved he couldn’t smell any trace of her favorite perfume.
“Sorry, old girl, but I don’t think these folks in town would’ve understood how you got yourself so hurt.” Wayne patted her arm. “It’ll just have to be our little secret.”
He turned and walked over to the adjoining door, carefully inspecting the doorframe, and found no sign that visible force was used, so he gently closed it behind him. He kicked off his shoes and climbed into bed. Wayne knew he should go straight to his car and get out of town, but his exhausted limbs refused to cooperate. He set the alarm on the bedside table for 4 a.m. and snapped off the lamp.
He woke with a start to the sun streaming through the filmy curtains. Through blurry eyes, he looked over at the alarm clock. 6 a.m.
He lurched out of bed and fumbled to put his shoes on. In the bathroom, he splashed some cold water on his face. Then he grabbed his wallet and keys off the dresser and stuffed them in his jacket, before quickly tiptoeing to the door. The hall was empty. Quietly closing the door behind himself, Wayne made his way downstairs, cringing at every squeaking floorboard.
“Good morning, Wayne,” Jean said.
“You scared the hell out of me. Didn’t think anyone would be up yet.” Wayne’s heart pounded in his ears. Jean stood in the entryway of the bright diner holding a steaming pot of coffee in her hand.
“Rough night, Wayne?” Jean asked. “You’re sweating like a man running from the law.”
“I’m not sweating.” He wiped sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. “Just eager to get on the road,” he said.
She narrowed her eyes. “The road? Sounds like you could use a cup of coffee,” she said.
“Maybe.” Wayne shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “I guess I could take a quick cup to go.”
He followed Jean over to the counter and waited while she dug through a cabinet for a paper cup and then watched impatiently as Jean slowly poured the sugar into his coffee.
A bell chimed as the front door swung open. Mayor Carl entered the diner, followed closely by a short, bald man dressed as a police officer.
“Well, looky looky, it’s the man of the hour,” Mayor Carl said. “Wayne, I don’t think you’ve met Sheriff Dobbs yet.”
Wayne bugged his eyes at one man, then the other.
“You all are here awfully early,” he said.
“I’d much rather still be sleeping,” Dobbs said, adjusting his belt.
“Then let’s all go back to bed,” Wayne said, his eyes resting on the sheriff’s holstered gun.
The sheriff chuckled.
“You sure are afflicted with directness,” Mayor Carl said to Wayne.
“Here you go, hon.” Jean snapped a plastic lid on the coffee cup and placed it on the counter.
“Well, I’m here because the lady in the room next to you expired last night. You happen to hear anything?” Dobbs asked.
Wayne belched softly and shifted his weight from one foot to the other again.
“Probably there was nothing to hear,” Dobbs said. “Looks like she died in her sleep.”
Wayne blinked heavily.
He cleared his throat. “You mean, she died of natural causes?”
“Well, I don’t know how natural the cause was,” Dobbs said. “The little lady from California was in a car wreck, after all. But the good Lord took her on up without a fight, sure enough.”
Wayne’s head jerked back. “Why do you think she was from California?”
Dobbs snickered. “As a sheriff, I’m trained to sniff out clues like a bloodhound. And also, she had a driver’s license in her purse. Maureen Stanich of San Diego.”
“I don’t understand,” Wayne said, staring down at his shoes.
“California. It’s on the other side of things. You ever been out that way?”
Wayne shook his head.
“No? I hear you’re not missing much. The whole place is filled with heathens and musicians. Don’t take the woman’s passing too hard. There’s nothing to understand,” Carl said, putting a hand on Wayne’s shoulder. “A woman you’ve never met before passed in her sleep in the room next to you last night. It’s only natural you’d find that troubling.”
“I do. I really do,” Wayne said. He swallowed back a rush of vomit and then sneezed violently. Swaying on his feet, he mumbled, “I’m sorry. I never meant to do it.”
Carl pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and daubed the front of his suit. “Don’t you fret, I got allergies something awful myself.”
“The Lord works in mysterious ways, gentleman,” Dobbs said. “How about we put this ugliness behind us and have some breakfast?”
Wayne exhaled slowly and stared at the floor. “Maureen Stanich of San Diego. Natural causes,” he said. “Huh.”
Misunderstanding Wayne’s murmurings, the other two men lowered their heads in prayer and said in unison, “Amen.”
Wayne exhaled slowly and lifted his face to the Heavens as the dark clouds outside parted and the warm morning sun streamed through the front window, bathing him in a golden light. “Pastor,” Mayor Carl said, “you’re glowing like God Himself just patted you on the head.
Wayne smiled at each man.
“Well, you all sure have given me a lot to process. And I’m struggling here, I don’t mind saying.” Wayne guided the two men toward a booth dappled in the golden light. “But a slice of pie should help clear things up real nice.”
Wayne looked over his shoulder. “Jean, honey, pies all around. And why don’t you make that coffee for here.”