There’s the river… Lucas thought as he walked slowly along the grassy trail. I must be close…
He lingered by the water for a moment, glancing down into the slow current below. Is it here? He wondered. Was this where he was supposed to try?
No… Lucas realized. It can’t be that simple…
Everywhere else the old woman’s map had led them had been secret, and hidden. Of course, they had also been complete and utter failures.
It took more than six months after Krystina and Mitchell’s visit to Granite Falls before they finally made any real progress on the map. The entire family had spent so many hours poring over old rune and symbology books, looking at cartography guides, and scouring the internet for any clue they could find… But it had been Evelyn who found the breakthrough at last.
Lucas would never forget the night Evelyn had woken him and Mel, awkward and apologetic as she hovered in the darkness of their bedroom. She had to tell them, she’d explained, while the idea was fresh in her mind. The strange spiked shapes in the corner had reminded her of cacti – and the large lumps, mountains. “Doesn’t that sound like Oasis Springs?” She’d asked.
It took just a few days after that to figure out the approximate location the map portrayed. How had Lucas failed to figure it out? After all, he had spent the first half of his childhood growing up there.
As luck would have it, Mitch had an away game scheduled in Oasis Springs just a few weeks later, and Krysti had gone along with him to help with the search. They’d found the entrance to the underground cavern easily enough, but hours and hours of fishing there had yielded nothing but a couple of minnows, a nice bass, and some strange-looking seeds dredged up from the floor of the underground lake.
And while the fish made for some lovely meals for he and Mel, and the seeds offered some unique additions to his garden, the journey had been a total failure.
Lucas sighed to himself as he continued walking along the edge of the river, admiring some of the colorful flowers along the way. It was so long ago now, yet Lucas still felt the sting of disappointment as though it were only yesterday.
But in reality, it had been two years since their first attempt at finding the fish, and so much had changed since then – Danica was in fourth grade now, and loved being a big sister to her baby brother Alex (who had taken his first steps just a few weeks ago, much to everyone’s delight); Krystina’s art business had been booming, and she had been able to open a bigger gallery in the city; Lucas had finally joined his wife in retirement (though he still brought in a hefty profit from the restaurant each month); and Melanie had celebrated her 70th birthday a few months back.
But what had not changed was their lack of success in finding the angelfish. Their second failed attempt had come nearly a year before, when Lucas and his daughter trekked for hours through the woods near Magnolia Promenade, only to find a beautiful hidden spring – with absolutely no fish to be found in its crystal-clear water. It was hard not to lose hope after that.
Krystina, Mitch, and Danica had even returned to Granite Falls together to seek out the old woman again, and ask for more help… But the entrance to the hidden glade was nowhere to be found. How could it possibly have vanished? Had Krystina simply forgotten the way? None of them could be quite sure… But one thing was certain — they’d hit yet another dead end.
The only good thing that had come from any of it, it seemed, was an ease in the tension between Evelyn and Mel. Lucas could not quite explain his wife’s eagerness to help find the fish – maybe it was fueled by her love of solving puzzles. Maybe she enjoyed having something to keep her busy in her retirement. Or maybe she was simply hoping to bring closure to her husband at last. Whatever the case, Melanie had dedicated countless hours of her time to trying to decipher the map. And Evelyn had eagerly joined her.
The two women were not friends, of course – And Lucas had a feeling they never would be – but it was a relief to see them be able to exchange more than two words with one another, and even share a few smiles now and then.
And when Krystina had suddenly recognized the large forked shape on the corner of the map as a tree, it was Mel and Evelyn who had worked together to identify the jagged black line beside it as the river that flowed through Willow Creek.
His wife had not been feeling well that morning, so Lucas had woken early, downed a few cups of coffee, and made the long drive to Willow Creek on his own. But even now, as he walked along the river in search of the large tree the map portrayed, he could not bring himself to feel excited – just frustrated as he headed toward what was sure to be just another waste of time.
But he had to try, didn’t he?
For Evelyn. Lucas told himself as he approached the tall willow tree that had come into view around the bend. This has to be it. He thought, recalling the large forked symbol on the map.
He circled the tree slowly, examining it carefully as he did so. All of the lines on that section of the map seemed to be pointing to this tree – but why? It was a huge and beautiful specimen, sure. But what was he supposed to do?
As he crossed around to the other side, Lucas’ eyes fell on a second tree he had not noticed before. Was it even there before? How had he missed it?
It was old and twisted, covered with moss and various multi-colored fungi. Certainly not as attractive as the willow he stood beneath now – but much more captivating. Lucas could not help himself as he drew closer to the strange old tree.
He looked up at its twisted trunk curiously. It felt almost uncomfortable to be standing there before it, though Lucas could not quite explain why. It felt so alive… And not in the way a tree should be. A strange chill ran down his spine at the thought. He could not help but recall the strange feeling that had come over him nearly fifty years before, when he’d met the old woman in Granite Falls.
It was that same, indescribable feeling that washed over him now.
Lucas reached out a large warm hand, pressing it gently against the rough bark. There was a slight indentation forming an arc-like shape at the base of the tree. Hmm… He looked up at the criss-crossing branches high above. It felt almost like they were looking back.
“Um… hello?” Lucas whispered aloud. “A-are… are you what I’m looking for?” Please, please be it…
There was no reply, of course. Only silence.
Jesus Christ, what am I doing? Lucas asked himself. He was talking to a tree, for crying out loud. Am I going senile already? He almost laughed at the ridiculousness of it all.
But then a soft rumbling sound reached his ears and the tree in front of him began to change and shift before his eyes. What the…? He took a step back, glancing down nervously as the layers of bark and wood twisted in on themselves, forming an open archway in what had been a solid trunk only moments before.
“Holy shit…” He whispered aloud, staring into the darkness before him.
Despite everything he’d seen in his life to this point – a ghost, a mystic old woman, and even Death himself – Lucas was terrified. How was this even possible? Should he really go inside? Where would the passage lead? What if it was dangerous?
He took a deep breath. And what if this is what we’ve been waiting for? What if it leads to the angelfish? Lucas thought, mustering up as much courage as he could.
It was a risk he had to take… For Ev.
With a quick glance over his shoulder and a silent prayer for good luck, Lucas hunched forward and crossed into the darkness.