Ava pulled the bike onto the dirt path and turned it off. Jerking the kickstand with her foot, she put it down and then put her feet back up and sat there. The path was almost completely overgrown now. Only five or so feet remained, just enough that she knew it was the same spot she parked last year. Taking off her gloves, she looked around. She didn’t need a path to confirm she was in the right place. She couldn’t forget it if she tried. This spot was like a homing beacon that just got stronger each year on the anniversary. She didn’t know why. She only knew that she had to come here every year.
“Welcome home.” She whispered and then got off the bike. Grabbing her key, she stuffed it in the pocket of her leather jacket and zipped it up. It wasn’t like anyone was going to wander by and steal her bike. She sneered at the gravel path she’d rode on to get here. They could try it, but the chances of them living through it wouldn’t be high.
She stood in front of her bike and looked into the trees. Last year, it had taken her almost a day to step in there. She snarled at the ground. It made her feel like a coward. She was no coward. Blowing out a breath, she turned around and opened the bag she’d strapped to the back of her bike—she hated it because it made her look like a tourist. Yanking her backpack free, she slung it over her shoulder. Opening the smaller pouch, she took out the flowers. They didn’t look very perky now, but they were still flowers. “Not a coward.” She whispered under her breath and turned and started walking into the trees.
With each step she took, the tightness in her stomach grew. She knew it wasn’t a long walk. In fact, she knew how many paces it was to reach it. One hundred and thirteen steps. Thirty years ago, that would have taken her right to the doorstep of the little cabin that was her home. Now, there was no doorstep. She stopped and looked into the trees. She’d made it halfway. She could feel how close she was.
“Not a coward.” She whispered again. With a shake of her head, she started walking again. She looked up at the trees. They’d grown a lot taller this last year—a memory of walking in the same steps years before flashed in her mind. Most of the trees still had smooth bark then. She used to climb them and jump over to the bigger ones. She scoffed out loud. She wouldn’t be climbing any trees this visit.
Her steps slowed the closer she got. Had it changed? Maybe the forest reclaimed the space, and new growth covered the area now. She could only wish for that, but she, of all people, knew that wishes rarely, if ever, came true. “Stupid thoughts.” She mumbled and kept going.
By the time she reached the clearing, she was almost at a full run. It was either that or question each step of the way and try to figure out why she had to come here. There was nothing here for her. Nothing will be any different than it was the last time.
She stopped in the middle of the clearing and looked around. It was so overgrown she shouldn’t have been able to recognize it, but she did. It took her a few tries to look directly at where the building used to be. When she did, she was disappointed she could still tell where it had been. Lifting her hands, she stomped in that direction. “You’re growing over everything here. Why not that.” She stopped in front of it, the flooring was barely visible through the weeds and saplings, but it was still visible. Ava walked around it, not on it. A mound along one side could have once been part of the wall. Now it was covered with grass and dirt, the earth was recycling it. That almost gave her hope. Another forty years and it might finally be gone, she thought. Blowing out a breath, she went back around to where the door would have been. Jerking her hand, she looked at the flowers she had a death grip on and then leaned forward and set them on top of the weeds growing there.
She stared at them for a moment and then lifted her head and looked at the sky. “Why?” She whispered. “Why do I have to keep coming here?” Her voice was no longer hushed. “Just give me some answers.” She bellowed. A few birds flew out of the trees, and for just a split second, she thought the wind may have stirred.” Groaning, she dropped her head down and looked at her boots. “I’m losing it.”
Shaking her arms out from her body, she rolled her neck and then reached up and tightened her ponytail. She didn’t need to be here. There was nothing here. She should turn around and go home. Nodding, she went back over to where she dropped her backpack. Picking it up, she put it on her shoulder and then stood there. It was as if her feet couldn’t move. Closing her eyes, she inhaled a deep breath and then blew it out, just like Capri taught her to do. You’re being an idiot. Just—go home.
The hair on the back of her neck stood up. She dropped the pack gently to the ground and stood there, listening. Someone was here. She couldn’t hear anything out of place, but she could feel a change in the air around her. Lifting her head, she continued to stand there. “Are you going to lurk like a creep or step out and say hello?”
“I hadn’t intended to disturb you.”
She turned slowly to see a man standing in the trees near the path that led to the river. He was tall and not ugly, that part she caught. In fact, he may have been the prettiest male she’d ever seen. “Are you lost?”
He stepped out of the shadows and into an area with more light. He had long blond hair that was so bright a shade it would have made Crystal’s bleach-bleach blonde hair look dirty. His features were masculine but in the most gorgeous way she’d ever seen on a male. She looked him up and down and took a quick stock. He was definitely male.
She quirked an eyebrow at him. “No. I know where I am.”
“That is a relief.” His voice was deep but sounded like a melody to her ears. That was a stupid thought.
She looked at the ground and took a quick mental inventory. Was she losing it? Pretty men with a voice like music didn’t usually wander the forest filled with critters and slugs. She looked back at him. “Look, I’m fine. I’m not a damsel in distress or some lost teenager.” He just continued to stand there and look perfect. “I’m a lot older than I look.”
His mouth quirked like he wanted to do more with it, but nothing more happened. “So am I.” He looked around. “Why do you come here every year? What is it you hope to find?”
Ava’s heart felt like it skidded to a complete stop inside her chest. “What?” She backed up several feet and held her hands out from her body. “How do you—are stalking me?”
Again, with the quirking mouth. “Do I seem like someone that would stalk a young woman?” He held her look.
She looked him up and down again and wanted to roll her eyes but wasn’t about to in front of him. With the whole sexy, perfection thing he had going on, she knew he wasn’t some total creep. “No, I guess not. You probably have all the girls throwing themselves at your feet, begging you to take them.” She scoffed.
He did smile, but it was so brief she thought maybe she had imagined it. He put his head down and looked at the ground. Shaking his head, he lifted it and studied her for a moment. “Not exactly.”
Ava nodded. She was done with the chatty stuff. “Well, it’s been fun. You should—uh, run along home. If you stay here too long, you might get a split end or something equally horrifying.”
He did grin, and she wanted to curse at him. She’d spent a second or two picturing him smiling with a mouth full of rotted teeth. No such luck. He had a perfect freaking smile to match his perfect—everything else.
The smile faded, but his eyes still held an amused look. “Why are you here?” She looked around. “There’s nothing here.”
“I could ask you the same.”
She snorted. “Yeah, well, don’t.” She moved to go stand over by the remnants of what was her home once, but the sunlight stabbed her in the eye, so she went a little further. “I’m not big on sharing with—” She made a point of examining him in an exaggerated way. “Pretty men in the forest.”
Something made her look at the sky in the small clearing, and she sighed. “Great. A rainbow.” Pretty men and rainbows. This was not what she had come here for.
He turned and looked up. “You don’t like rainbows?” Turning back to her, he tilted his head to the side and watched her.
“Not particularly.” She shrugged. “There was one the day I was born—” She waved her hand around. “Or so I was told.”
He nodded his head slowly, a somber expression on his face now. “I remember.”
He said it so quietly she wasn’t sure she’d heard him. “You remember? A rainbow? The day I was born?” She sneered at him. “Let me guess, you’re my long, long lost Uncle Bill.”
His expression didn’t change. “You don’t have an Uncle Bill.”
“Yeah, thanks. I know.” She paced a few feet to her left, so she was closer to her bag. If anything, she could toss it at him before she cleaned his clock. He was big, but she had secret skills that no one would ever guess. He continued to stand there, and it felt like something crawled over her skin. “You’re not joking. You were there when I was born.”
“I said as such.” His harsh expression eased a bit.
“Why were you out here? Then?” She held her breath. Had he known her mother? No one knew anything about her mother. Or her father, she thought.
“I was—” He looked at the ground for a moment. “I was looking for someone to bring them home.” He sounded so desolate it made her feel bad.
“Did you find them?” She already knew the answer. She could feel it coming from him.
“Too late.” He said quietly. He moved suddenly, and she raised her fists. His mouth quirked as he turned to look at the sky again. “I have to go.” He looked back at her and bowed his head. Taking a step back, he glanced at where her home used to be. “The answers you’re looking for aren’t here, Avalie.” He bowed his head once more and then walked quickly back into the trees.
Ava stood there, her mouth hanging open—for real, wide open, free for bugs to fly in. He’d called her Avalie. No one had called her that since she left this place.
She grabbed her pack and jogged in the direction he’d gone. She saw no trace of him anywhere. Stopping, she looked down at the ground. The grass and weeds weren’t even broken like they get when someone walks on them. Reaching up, she tapped her hand against her cheek. No, she was awake. This was not a dream.
Stomping back to the clearing, she looked over where she had set the flowers. “I said answers, not more questions.” Dropping the pack, she sat down and leaned against a tree. “Dreamy, perfect guy knows my name. Knows about the stupid rainbow.” She looked in the direction he had gone. “Who were you looking for?” She balled her one hand up, wrapped the other one around it, and massaged her fist. “Who were you looking for?”