The woods of Westin Hallow were always a foreboding place. The false night created by hundreds of pine skyrocketing above the ground often created a creepy feeling. At times, the woods were so dense that there was little noise to hear but for the echoing beat of one’s heart.
It was a wonder that meek and misunderstood Hunter Slade found comfort in the deep forest that surrounded his grandmother’s home. For all of the chilling surroundings the forest seemed to have, Hunter found wonderment within the green ambient sunlight the trees allowed. He wandered about the twilight woods and tried to spot the movement of chipmunks upon the ground. He roamed in amazement as the hummingbirds courted his attention.
Sometimes he intentionally got lost in the woods in order to escape the emptiness he felt on the inside. His parents had been in a car accident six months ago, and it had broken his heart. He was playing kickball in his P.E. class. Just as he’d hit the ball with all of his might, the principal interrupted the game to take him to the office. Hunter feared that he was in trouble, but instead he saw his grandmother waiting for him. The sadness and tears flowing from her crystalline blue eyes made Hunter worried.
Grandma Fay had made her annual trip to see Hunter and his parents for the week, and he enjoyed her company. She was slender and tall with flowing white hair, only a few wrinkles lined around her eyes, and a mouth telling the tale of a mirthful life. When she visited, she would bake him cookies and listen to all of the tales Hunter would regale to her with a ready laugh at the funny parts and astonishment when he would get dramatic.
That day, Fay’s face showed every year of her age, which was sixty. The generous smile she usually had was inverted into a frown, and the crow’s feet at her eyes were stressed. She held a handkerchief trying to blot the tears away. As Hunter approached, she straightened up while trying to take on the guise of confidence and poise.
“Grandma, what’s the matter?
She held her arms open to him, inviting him into a deep hug and sighed.
“Hunter, I have to tell you something important.”
As his heart raced, Hunter looked around frantically; he knew something was terribly wrong.
“Where – Where’s mom?”
As Fay released him from the hug, she looked intensely into his eyes. There was nothing but sympathy in her stare.
“Dear boy, your mother and father have been in a car accident.”
With those few words, Hunter’s life was changed. He would never again hear his mother’s whimsical voice; she wouldn’t be able to give him hugs or tell him stories that she’d written.
Hunter’s father wouldn’t be there to coach his baseball team, nor would he be able to teach him all the little nuances of becoming a man like shaving and advice when it came to dating.
After the funeral, Hunter had been told that he would need to move in with his grandmother, who lived three states away. Hunter didn’t want to leave his few friends on the baseball team or his life in Cincinnati to move to Westin Hallow; however, if not for his grandmother –his warmhearted, understanding, and comforting grandmother– Hunter would have been lost amid a sea of sadness and anger.
Having been a psychologist, Fay understood the needs within Hunter and encouraged him to talk to her and took him to see his own therapist once a week. In addition to emotional help, Fay was active enough that she had taken him into the woods and showed him some of the more beautiful spots around. She also encouraged him to navigate about the woods within the boundaries that she’d set.
The boundaries were pretty far from the house and were usually painted on rocks. It was the hook of a backwards question mark with sharp edges and a crossing line through its stem painted in black.
“You must never go beyond these points without me, love,” Fay said. “There are dangerous creatures deeper in the woods.”
In a way, the exploration of the woods surrounding Westin Hallow was his own way to escape into a world he’d never thought he would call home. He welcomed the fragrant green scent of crushed pine needles under his shoe, and the slight chill the wind called from his bones under his light jacket.
On occasion, Hunter would travel beyond the boundaries, and during those times, he had yet to encounter anything more dangerous than butterflies, hummingbirds, and the occasional owl. He marveled at the fact that the animals never shied away from him.
It was on the morning of his thirteenth birthday that he truly stumbled upon a most glorious sight. It was then that his life changed once more. He’d awoken to the scent of his favorite banana and blueberry pancakes with warm maple syrup.
“Happy birthday, Hunter.” Fay said with a genuine smile painted on her face.
After demolishing his large stack of jacks drenched in sugary goodness, he ran up to his room to dress for the day. He wore his favorite pair of blue jeans with both of the knees worn out, a black Star Wars T-shirt with R2-D2 on the front, and the blue and white matching baseball cap and jacket from his old junior baseball team he’d had to leave when he moved to Westin Hallow.
As he raced out the wooden screen door and into the early mountain summer coolness, he was ready for his day’s adventures. His grandmother was sitting on the porch swing rocking back and forth as she read from an oddly large book. There was a slight breeze stirring about her, and as the whimsy sway of the wind swept about, the fine strands of her hair would dance about her face. Though the slight breeze played about Fay, Hunter admonished that there wasn’t any wind trailing toward him.
“Don’t go too far, love,” Fay called, “your uncle and cousins will be arriving later for cake and presents!”
“Okay, Grams!” he called, though he felt slightly guilty and nervous that he didn’t plan on staying within the confines of his grandmother’s land.
He walked west from home for half an hour, fully intending to go to his favorite clearing, but as he passed by a giant boulder that had the odd markings of his grandmother’s boundaries, he paused for a moment as he noticed there was a faint light blue glow from the black symbol. He looked up toward the trees to see if the canopy of branches was allowing in sunlight.
There isn’t anything coming in from the tree tops. The light has to be coming from somewhere; maybe I should ask grandma about it when I get back.
Hunter continued his walk while the heavy cover of leaves and pine needles muffled his footsteps as he moved about the ground. His clearing was an area where the sun shone through and cultivated a healthy swath of grass and a tiny pond that was fed by a small stream. The hummingbirds frequented this spot, and his tiny friends came and danced about him as they fed at the various blue, red, and purple wildflowers. On occasion, he would see deer prancing into the sunny spot and bend low to tear at the sweet grass in the clearing or pause to quench their thirst with a long drink from the cool pond’s water.
As he arrived at the clearing, he spotted a tiny man dressed in a deep green shirt with a brown leather overcoat and pants that seemed to be made of the same leather. At first, Hunter thought the man was another boy around his age because the man was about a foot shorter than he was, which put him a little over three feet, but the man had a very intricately kept brown beard that stayed trimmed to his jawline and came to a slight point at his chin. His unruly brown hair was tucked under a floppy green cone-shaped cap.
The little man moved with more speed than anyone he’d ever seen. He jumped about fallen logs with a gleeful fervor and a ready chuckle. At the end of his last jump, which put him close to the pond, the man held out his right hand and a pipe made of golden oak appeared.
As he watched the spectacle, Hunter’s heart skipped and leapt, for he had seen this type of creature in storybooks; he believed it was a gnome.
He looks just like he came from the stories mom used to read to me about Zeph Plink Knightergast!
The memory of his mother reading to him came to mind and caused his eyes to tear up. He saw himself in his bed, wrapped tight under his Captain America blanket, as his beautiful mother read to him from a well-loved leather bound book.
The gnome inhaled a plume of smoke and exhaled; as he did, the cloud twisted and turned, winding about and creating a dragon’s head. As the smoke cleared and the gnome took another long breath, the exhalation this time created the visage of a tiny boy, which twisted and danced about the gnome’s head.
“H-h-how’d you do that, mister,” Hunter cringed for a moment as his voice cracked a high note.
The magic of the moment and the mischievous glint in the gnome’s icy blue eyes overrode Hunter’s fear.
“A question before introducing yourself?” The gnome asked the slight lilt of an Irish accent coloring his voice, “You are quite a rude human, aren’t you?”
The gnome turned his back on Hunter and vanished.
“I-I’m s-sorry! m-m’names Hunter, please come back!”
The chirping of a cricket was all Hunter could hear beyond the slight trickle of the small stream feeding the pond. Hunter’s heart grew heavy, believing that he had truly offended the little gnome and he wouldn’t return. Hunter slowly walked toward the log that the little man had stood upon and gasped as he heard his voice.
“Well, hello Hunter, I am DenDink CasterCrank, but you may call me Dink,” the gnome said as he became visible.
The gnome made a sweeping bow as he removed his hat and his wild mane spilled out. The unruly locks waved in the slight breeze that stirred about. With a quick swish of his hand, the pipe Dink held disappeared.
“The forest needs your help, Hunter lad,” Dink pleaded, “There is a very dark magic about our lands, and I believe you may be able to help me save it.”
“W-w-what would I have to do?”
Dink’s eyes squinted, and the smile he gave was full of blocky white teeth. He didn’t think that the boy would be so quick to want to join his cause to save the forests of Westin Hallow, for most of the other beings he’d tried to coax into joining him were never of the mind to help the cause. A rift in the mother tree was too dangerous for the likes of most of the forest dwellers.
Dink gave the boy a quick glance and invoked his second sight, finding that he glowed with cerulean mage energy. Dink’s smile grew as he watched the power touch everything around Hunter, as though it were trying to search something out.
“There is a small rift in the mother tree of our lands, and it’s bleeding darkness into the world of humans.”
Hunter’s heart pounded in his chest as he swallowed the lump in his throat.
This is the sort of adventure I’ve been wanting, isn’t it? Just like Zeph?
“B-but, Grams s—“
“Piddle, lad! The forest and adventure calls!”
“I’ll get into trouble!”
“A bargain then, perhaps I could teach you a magic trick or two.”
Magic? But how?
At that moment, a tiny blue humming bird jotted into the clearing, hovered over Dink’s shoulder, and appeared to whisper into the gnome’s pointy ear.
“Now Flit, tell Stryker she needs to hold her paws, and introduce yourself to Hunter,”
The hummingbird glided up to Hunter and began bouncing up and down in introduction.
Pweased to meet you, I am Fwit! The intrusion of a tiny child’s voice sounded in Hunter’s mind.
“Who?” Hunter asked, looking about the clearing and seeing no one but Dink and the hyper hummingbird floating in front of him.
“Hunter, this is Flit, one of my companions.”
“O-oh, hi. I’m Hunter.”
The hummingbird bounced up and down and then flew off
“If you could hear Flit, that is just the beginning to the magic I can teach you.”
With his interest piqued, Hunter nodded and prepared for what he hoped would be the adventure of a lifetime.
I’m going to be in so much trouble.
Bio: I am a student at Aims Community College and the University of Northern Colorado. I am currently an English major with a minor in creative writing and leadership studies. I had two submissions published in the Aims Review in 2014. I’ve written a feature article for the Greeley Tribune in 2002, and I was an honorable mention in “A Celebration of Young Writers” in 2001.