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Heart of the Wood (Part One of Two)

You can go green in life, but why stop there?
Twigs and dry leaves crunched underfoot as Glen wandered the trail, his thoughts turned inward. The warmth that permeated the sun-dappled wood prompted him to absently remove his jacket, and the action brought him out of his internal dialogue just long enough to notice something on the breeze.

Taking a deep breath, he filled his lungs with the scent of moist earth and honeysuckle. The flowers wouldn’t bloom for months anywhere else, but here they opened their petals even before the last frost. Winter came to the wood, as it did everywhere else, but here, other forces were at play.

The distraction didn’t last long, though. After running his fingers through his short blond hair, he resumed his walk. The spring semester had proven a little difficult – especially the foreign language requirement – forcing him to concentrate hard on the Spanish course. Now that he finally felt confident in the class, he had time to wonder where he was going with his life again.

Only the slightest rustling of leaves betrayed the presence of someone trailing along behind him, easily dismissed as the wind or the abundant wildlife. So, when he sat down on a fallen log and arms suddenly wrapped around his neck from behind, Glen naturally started.

A musical giggle preceded a kiss on his ear, and Glen let out the breath he’d sucked in as a relived sigh. Most would have descended into a new wave of panic upon turning around, but Glen’s upbringing was hardly common.

Completely nude, the dryad stood with her nose scrunched up in a mischievous expression. Her skin had a golden tone, as though lit from within by sunlight. The hair rustling about her shoulders in the breeze was the color of new leaves.

“Geez, Grandma. You about scared the pants off me.”

“I couldn’t scare them off if you weren’t wearing them,” Xantina countered, sticking her tongue out at her great-grandson. The nymph had a strong prejudice against clothing, and the family usually indulged the ultimate mother of their line. Having grown up as much in the wood as at home, nudity was more natural to him than putting on clothes.

Taking stock of his surroundings, he realized where he was in the wood after his directionless wandering of the paths. Once confined to the section of the wood where she lived around a spring-fed pool, the dryad had taken to wandering farther as her magic grew stronger with each new generation’s efforts to protect and nurture the local woodlands.

“So, what are you doing all the way out here, Grandma?”

Xantina pointed off to the side. “There is someone there.”

Glen shifted on the log and turned in the direction she was pointing, but didn’t see anyone. He knew that the road lay just beyond sight, and so asked, “Up by the road?”

Only a fading giggle answered his question, and when he turned back around, his capricious great-grandmother had vanished into the wood.

Not really getting anywhere with his musing about the future, and made curious by the dryad’s game, Glen stood up and stretched. He pulled on his jacket as he wended his way through the trees, knowing at least one thing that awaited outside the sheltering boughs.

Flashes of green quite unlike the color of the evergreens around him caught his eye through the branches. As the true chill of March weather reasserted itself over the magical warmth of the wood, he realized that what he had seen was a car sitting off the side of the road. Quickening his pace, he negotiated the last of the trees in his path and went to see if the driver of the VW Beetle was still around and needed any help.

The windows were fogged up, but he could just make out the silhouette of someone in the driver’s seat. Climbing up onto the road bank gave him a clearer picture of a woman with her forehead resting on the steering wheel.

She didn’t seem to notice him when he walked up next to the door, so he tapped the glass with a fingernail.

The redhead sat up and turned toward him with a start, a muffled yelp of alarm reaching Glen from behind the closed door. After a moment to catch her breath, she reached over as if to roll down the window, but then made a face and opened the door instead.

Damn, Glen thought as he got a good look at her. Shoulder-length red hair framed a beautiful face, complete with green eyes. He guessed that she was in her mid-twenties, and she certainly filled out her blouse. Glen took care not to get caught staring – because he certainly wanted to.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you,” he apologized. “Need some help?”

Her expression somewhere between caution and relief, the woman nodded. “It just died, and I can’t get a signal on my phone.”

“That happens out here. Too many obstructions, and too few towers.” He pulled out his own cell to find a couple of bars. “Mine’s working. Why don’t you try to turn it over real quick before I call my dad?”

After a brief nod, the redhead turned the key, which resulted in little more than a click.

Having seen none of the lights on the dashboard illuminate, Glen said, “Looks like your battery’s toast. We might actually have one at the house. My sister had a Beetle. We live right up the road. Name’s Glen Rush.”

The redhead’s eyes lit up. “Are you related to Steven Rush?”

“That’s my dad. You know him?”

“I’m supposed to be meeting with him. Melinda Hart.”

“Looks like the meeting place has changed,” Glen said, and then laughed as he called the house.

“Hey, Dad. Your meeting is going to be a little delayed. I’ve got Melinda stranded a ways up the road toward town.”

His father answered, “I was beginning to wonder. What’s wrong with the car?”

“Battery’s dead, I think. We still have a battery for Sis’ Beetle?”

“I believe so. Why?”

“That’s what she has. Might be able to get it to the house without a tow that way.”

“I’ll put it in the car, then. I’ll be there in a couple of minutes.”

“Got it. Bye.”

Glen ended the call and told Melinda, “He’s on his way. I’ve got a friend who works on cars. I’m going to text him and have him head out this way, just in case.”

“Thank you,” Melinda answered, shivering a bit in the wind.

“No problem. May as well shut the door and keep out the wind until Dad gets here.”

While Melinda did exactly that, Glen tapped away on his phone. By the time the reply came back, his father was coming over the hill from the house.

“That’s him,” Glen said loudly enough for her to hear through the closed door, and then put his phone away.

“Battery’s in the trunk,” Steven said after pulling off the road behind Melinda’s car.

“Got it,” Glen acknowledged. At about the same time as he leaned into his father’s car to pop the trunk, Melinda opened her door.

“Well, this isn’t exactly going as planned,” Steven said to her with a little laughter in his voice. “Steven Rush – and you must be Melinda.”

Her greeting his father gave Glen the opportunity to get a good look at Melinda, and he liked what he saw. She was wearing jeans, showing off curves that perfectly complemented the swell of her breasts that he’d seen earlier. Some few women had a way of moving – or even standing still – that screamed sensuality, and Melinda had that in spades.

She and his father turned toward the car, and Glen spun around just in time. He walked to the trunk to retrieve the battery and heard his father say, “Go ahead and get in out of the cold. Just move those papers to the back seat.”

Glen closed the trunk to see Melinda leaning into the car, giving him a fine view of her butt. He smiled at the sight, but wiped the grin off his face when he turned to see his father’s expression, which let him know that his look at Melinda hadn’t gone unnoticed.

“Let’s get the battery in and see if that works,” Steven said, nodding toward the other car.

Glen gestured up the road. “Go ahead. Frank’s headed this way. If this doesn’t work, he’ll run me back to the house.”

Nodding his approval, Steven opened the door. “Just call if you need anything.”

“Sure,” Glen responded, and then walked past to Melinda’s car.

In the process of unhooking the first battery cable, Glen paused for one last look at Melinda as the car rolled past, toward home. He’d always had a thing for redheads, and she was about the hottest one he’d ever seen.

Wonder if she’s into younger guys?

He hoped that her connection to his father might just give him the opportunity to find out.

The battery swap worked to get the car started right after Frank arrived, and the two friends drove back to Glen’s house. Unfortunately, the verdict Frank delivered wasn’t such good news.

Conversation stopped as soon as he walked in, and Glen distinctly heard the couch cushions creak when Melinda turned around.

“Alternator’s dead.”

“Oh no,” Melinda groaned, covering her eyes for a moment.

“And the parts store is closed, so he won’t be able to get it in until tomorrow,” Glen continued.

“Do you know how much?” Melinda asked with trepidation in her voice.

“Just whatever the parts cost. Frank owes me one.”

“Oh, I couldn’t do that,” Melinda protested.

Before Glen could argue, his mother, Kia, jumped in. “Yes you can. It’s the neighborly thing to do, and we won’t take no for an answer.”

“Is everyone around here this nice?” Melinda asked after a moment of consideration.

Kia put on an exaggerated expression of concentration, and then answered, “No – just us.”

The two women broke out into simultaneous laughter.

Seeing an opportunity, Glen suggested, “I could run you home, and then bring you back over when the car’s done tomorrow.”

In his peripheral vision, he could see his mother eyeing him with suspicion. He expected her to say that she would do the driving, but she surprised him. “That solves that problem, if it’s okay with you, Melinda.”

“That’s fine.” She then turned to Glen and said, “I never did say thank you.”

Glen waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. “No problem.”

“You’re quite welcome, and you’re welcome to stop by any time,” Kia added.

“I suppose I should get home, then,” Melinda said, gathering up her purse.

Glen’s father returned from making a phone call in the other room. “The ball is rolling on my end, and Dan’s already optimistic about the vote in the council. I don’t see any reason why you can’t be ready to open up in a month – two at the outside.”

“It’s overwhelming,” Melinda said as she stood. “I never expected things to happen so fast.”

“Well, you’re not in it alone any more,” Steve assured her. “If you need anything at all, don’t hesitate to ask. We think a green cemetery is a wonderful idea, and we’ll do whatever it takes to make it a reality.”

That explained his parents’ interest in the redhead. Quite the opposite of a regular cemetery that ate up land and pushed away the natural flora and fauna, those buried in a green cemetery actually nourished the earth that covered them. It was exactly the sort of cause that his dryad-born family would throw themselves into, heart and soul.

“Thank you all so much,” Melinda said, and then turned toward Glen.

“Ready when you are.”

After farewells from his parents, he led her out the door.

****

Melinda closed the door behind her, still amazed by the whirlwind of events that had transpired in a single day. She peeked out the window, watching Glen drive away, and found her thoughts straying toward the handsome young man.

Realizing what she was doing, she let the curtain fall and turned away from the window. Her last several relationships had all gone badly, and she hadn’t even made an attempt in two years. It always ended the same. As soon as a man found out that she practiced Wicca, she never heard from him again.

Having grown up in the craft, she knew that she shouldn’t attach such restrictions to her desires, which were perfectly natural. The world outside her mother’s coven had intruded into her heart in this one place, at least.

She needed peace and clarity – and to contemplate the blessings that had fallen upon her today. Reaching into the inside pocket of her jacket, she withdrew the package she’d picked up in town before going to her meeting. The incense had arrived just in time, because she’d burned the last stick that morning.

Dropping her purse and jacket onto the couch, she made her way through the house to the sunroom at the back, opening the package along the way. The setting sun bathed the room in a beautiful glow through stained glass windows, while panes of clear glass gave her a view of the trees beyond.

Melinda removed her clothes and knelt – now Skyclad, as the traditions of her mother’s coven had taught her – before the altar.

****

Glen joked with Frank and helped where he could as his friend worked on Melinda’s car. They almost had the old alternator out when the phone rang. With his mother off on a veterinary call and his father in town, he was the only one home. A couple of quick steps brought him to the phone sitting on a shelf in the garage. Seeing Melinda’s number brought a smile to his lips.

“Hey.”

“Hello. I was wondering when the car is going to be ready?”

He turned the phone away from his mouth and asked, “How much longer?”

“About an hour.”

Glen repeated the answer for Melinda and she let out a quiet – but still audible – groan.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“I need to go in to work for a few minutes.”

“No problem. I’ll take you.”

After a moment of hesitation, she responded, “If you wouldn’t mind. Someone’s making a last minute change, and I need to enter everything in the computer.”

“Like I said – no problem. Headed out the door now.”

As soon as Glen hung up, Frank chuckled. “This chick must be a real code eighty-eight.”

The semi-secret code word from his days working at the grocery store, which meant that an attractive woman was in the building, brought a wide smile to Glen’s face.

“Oh yeah,” he agreed as he headed for his car.

Melinda opened her front door almost as soon as Glen rolled to a stop in her drive. She was wearing a skirt that showed off gorgeous legs, culminating in a pair of short, black heels. Gripping her skirt in one hand against the gusting wind, she hurried to the car. Glen was almost positive that she was blushing when she sat down in the passenger seat, which he considered a good sign.

“Guess I better ask where we’re going,” he said as he put the car in gear.

“The funeral home,” she answered.

Thinking that he should have guessed that, considering what she was talking to his father about the evening before, he said, “Ah, okay. No need to drive through town then.”

Melinda nodded and settled into the seat as the car rolled out of the drive.

Though he made a couple of attempts at conversation, it didn’t take long to determine that she was preoccupied with something. Wisely not pushing the issue, he drove to the funeral home and pulled into the nearly empty parking lot.

“Do you want to call me to pick you up, or should I just wait?”

“I should only be a few minutes, if you don’t mind waiting?”

“That’s cool. Frank will probably have your car ready by the time we get back.”

Melinda offered a smile. “Thank you. I’ll try not to be too long.”

Though the weather was still on the cool side, the sun was shining bright, and quickly warmed the interior of the car. Glen kicked back in his seat and half-dozed, replaying the image of Melinda walking toward the building in his head – her hair and skirt fluttering in the breeze.

The sound of the door opening snapped him out of his pleasant reverie not long after, and he stretched, straightening in the seat. Melinda sat down, letting out a groan, and massaged her temples.

“You okay?” he asked before starting the car.

She shrugged and gave a little nod. “I just didn’t sleep very well, and I only had decaf in the house.”

Jumping on the opportunity, he said, “Well, you’re in luck. Best coffee in town is just down the street. My treat.”

The redhead stiffened, and Glen was sure that she was going to make an excuse to refuse the offer. Even as he was thinking of a way to smooth things over, she surprised him.

“Okay. Thanks.”

“All right then,” he said as he started the car, somehow resisting the urge to do a victorious fist pump.

****

Melinda took another sip of coffee and thought, What are you doing? She had no idea what had overruled her defensive instincts when she accepted Glen’s offer. Yet, here she was.

Though determined to keep things simple, Glen had asked how his father was helping her. An offhand remark expanded the conversation into a wider arena of environmentalism.

Though he attributed the activity to his family, he spoke of conservation and promotion of green solutions with such passion that she knew he was hardly divorced from such concerns himself. Like her, he felt the umbrella of global climate change was doing more harm than good by creating divisiveness where a lot of consensus could be found on contributing issues. The chat came full circle in time, returning to green cemeteries.

After Glen returned with two fresh cups of coffee, he remarked, “Never would have guessed that you work at the funeral home.”

She nodded, letting out a half-hearted chuckle. “Creepy, huh?”

“Nah. Don’t know if I could do it, but there’s nothing creepy about it.”

That was a surprise.

“Guess that’s how you got the idea for the green cemetery, huh?”

“The other way around, really. The cemetery was always my mother’s dream, and that’s how I ended up in college for funeral services.”

“Bet she’s tickled that you’re so close now.”

She sighed. “She passed away not long after I graduated.”

He winced and said, “I’m sorry.”

Giving a slight shake of her head, Melinda said, “It’s okay. You didn’t know. Learning to deal with losing her has sort of helped me help others.”

“I guess it would.” He pointed and asked, “That’s a Celtic cross, isn’t it?”

She realized that she was absently toying with her necklace and let go of it to grab her coffee again. “Yes. My mother gave it to me.”

“It looks good on you. My sister got big into that. Celtic lore, Druidism, Wicca – stuff like that. She talked about it so much that I ended up doing a paper on it in high school.”

Melinda’s heart leapt in her chest, but she was wise enough not to let it overwhelm her. “So, you weren’t worried she was turning into a witch?”

He laughed, and there was nothing of mockery in the sound. “Nah. You know, it’s about nature, not broomsticks and black magic.” He wiggled his fingers in an exaggerated pantomime of spell casting. “Not that she can’t be a witch sometimes.

“I actually went and talked to some members of a coven in the city while I was working on that paper. They were a little leery of me at first, but I guess they decided I wasn’t out to get them, and I learned some pretty cool stuff. Got an A on that one.”

It was only when Glen’s eyebrows twitched upwards for a moment that Melinda realized she was staring at him, grinning so wide that her cheeks hurt. Those same cheeks grew warm as she lifted her cup to cover her embarrassment. “Thanks for the coffee.”

“Any time.”

She’d stood on this precipice many a time before, and she knew all too well how hard and painful the rocks were at the bottom. There was a glimmer of hope. He’d recognized her necklace. He knew what it could represent, and he didn’t seem afraid of it. Quite the opposite, actually.

Maybe this time could be different.

****

Encouraged by the way Melinda had opened up at the coffee shop, Glen hoped to keep the ball rolling. He had the perfect way to go about it, as well.

Lying on the bed, he dialed her number, and she picked up on the second ring. “Hey, it’s Glen. I just wanted to make sure that the car’s doing okay.”

“Oh, yes. It’s fine. I appreciate it.”

“No problem. Feeling better this morning?” Glen asked, having stopped so she could buy some real coffee before returning home the previous day.

“Much,” she replied, and chuckled. “I won’t make that mistake again.”

Glad you did, he thought. “I completely forgot about it yesterday. I was going to ask you if you’d been to Geraldine’s yet?”

“Where?”

“It’s this restaurant a little way up the highway from you. Kind of a local secret. Why don’t you let me take you there for lunch? I already showed you where the best coffee in town is. Let me introduce you to the best food in town, too.”

“I’d like that.”

This time, he did clench his fist in celebration.

“How about in an hour?”

“That sounds good.”

“See you then. Bye.”

Thinking that he should probably play it safe, Glen dressed as he usually would, but chose his newest pair of brand name jeans and a nice t-shirt with no slogans. A quick look in the mirror confirmed what he wanted to project. If he was too dressed up, it might make her nervous, and she’d already proven a bit skittish. The slightly more clean-cut than usual look did say that he was trying to make an impression, though.

Satisfied, he headed down the stairs to give the carpet and seats in the car a once-over with the dust-buster, and to wipe down the dash. The timing worked out perfectly, and he rolled out of the drive shortly thereafter.

The weather had warmed significantly from the previous couple of days, which he took as a good omen. That optimism lasted right up until the moment when Melinda answered the door.

The smile he wore faded when he saw the haunted look in her green eyes. “What’s wrong?”

“I...” She closed her eyes and sighed. “It’s nothing.”

“Doesn’t look like nothing. You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

She shrugged and rolled her eyes, but her voice wavered as she answered, “It’s just this letter. I forgot to check the mail yesterday, so I went out to the mailbox right after you called.”

“A bill or something?”

She shook her head and reached down next to the door, retrieving an envelope. “I don’t even want to open this one.”

Glen glanced down at the envelope, and his eyes fixed on the address label – one he knew all too well.

Francine Robinson was a local church busybody who had often stood in opposition to causes Glen’s family supported over the years. One incident in particular brought his blood to a barely controlled boil, though. Her meddling had convinced his first girlfriend’s parents to not only keep them apart, but also to move so she would be in a different school. His parents had eventually explained that the woman believed his family was dabbling in the occult.

This just got real personal. Mastering his anger, Glen asked, “Did you say, this one? There’s more?”

“This is the third one,” she answered while gesturing with the letter.

“What are they about?”

“All sorts of reasons why I shouldn’t be able to have the cemetery here.”

“Do you mind if I open that one?”

Looking a little perplexed, she said, “Okay,” and handed over the letter.

A brief skim was all he needed. The letter listed a number of reasons why Francine and other concerned citizens opposed the green cemetery. The complaints ranged from water contamination to pagan rituals inconsistent with community values.

“I know we were supposed to go to lunch, but I doubt you’re in the mood now, and we should show this to my dad – as soon as possible.”

“Really? Do you think it’s important?”

“For one thing, this is harassment,” Glen said, and then slapped his fingers against the paper. “She’s not going to stop with writing letters, either. Dad and Uncle Dan need to know that she has her nose in this, so they can be ready for her.”

“I still have the other two.”

“You should grab them. Dad will probably want to talk to you, if you’re up to it.”

“I guess so.”

“Don’t worry, Dad will take care of this. Nosey Robinson is always pushing like this, and he knows who to call. You won’t get any more of these, at least.”

She gave a half-hearted smile, “That would be a relief.”

“She acts like she’s talking for everybody, but don’t believe her, okay?”

Her smile widening, Melinda said, “Okay.”

Glen grinned as well. “Grab those other two letters, and let’s go take care of this.”

****

The house had broken out into a whirlwind of activity as soon as Glen showed his father the letters. Once his mother had finished speaking with his uncle, Glen asked her to make some sandwiches, and then returned to where he’d left Melinda admiring a collection of nymph and animal statuettes.

“Got Mom making us a little something to eat. I know my stomach was growling.”

“Mine too,” Melinda agreed, her eyes bright and a crooked grin on her face. She pointed at a clay sculpture occupying the center shelf of the curio cabinet and said, “That one’s interesting.”

Glen’s face started burning and he let out a nervous chuckle. He’d made the sculpture for his mother, as the words for mom from Glen scratched into the base openly declared. Bunnies and flowers hardly conveyed a macho image.

“Yeah. I made that for Mom for Mother’s Day one year.”

She glanced at the statuette again and asked, “In art class?”

“Nah. Mom makes all animal dishes for the clinic herself, so I snuck some clay and made it for her, then had Dad put it in the kiln.”

“That’s sweet,” Melinda said, and then pointed at a picture hanging on the wall nearby. “Is that you?”

The picture was of him sitting on the bank of the pond with his feet dangling in the water when he was around five. “Yeah, that’s me,” he answered, grateful for the change in subject away from the embarrassing knick-knack.

“It’s a beautiful spot. That’s an elm, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ve never actually seen one, except in pictures. Dutch Elm has wiped out so many.”

“Want to?”

Her expression betrayed interest when she asked, “Where is it?”

“The pond is just a couple of minutes through the woods.”

Glen’s mother walked in the room with the sandwiches and two oft-refilled water bottles. “Here you go.”

Jumping on the chance to take the redhead somewhere private that she’d already said was beautiful, Glen asked, “Want to take these down to the pond? Get away for a few minutes and relax? Not much we can do other than get in the way at this point, anyway.”

She nodded, and Glen turned to take the sandwiches from his mother. The faintest hints of a knowing smile on Kia’s face surprised him, after the suspicion he’d seen in her eyes before.

Glen led the way through the house and across the yard, taking a bite of his sandwich along the way. The pine boughs closed in around them, alive with the sound of birds. Melinda looked up as she walked, watching the avian dwellers zipping from tree to tree.

“Watch out for the chipmunks. Little jet-squirrels will rob you blind if you turn your back on them, Glen said, and then chuckled as he pointed out the fork in the trail that led to the pond.

She shook her head and grinned, still admiring the sights along the trail. “I swear I keep smelling honeysuckle, but it’s too early for that, isn’t it?”

“It comes up early around here in places,” Glen explained, glossing over the magical nature of the wood. He then pointed ahead and said, “We’ll have to push through the branches up there where the trail looks like it vanishes.”

Upon reaching the spot, Glen held back the natural privacy fence as best he could, and let her step into the clearing first.

Silvery sparkles reflected off the surface of the pond, mirroring the sparkle in Melinda’s eyes when she turned to him for a moment, before heading straight across the grass toward the elm. Glen followed, his eyes drawn to her bottom and the hypnotizing sway of her hips.

“It seems out of place, but then again, it doesn’t,” she remarked as she looked up into the tree.

“My uncle had it transplanted here when he was a kid. It was going to get cut down, and he talked Grandma and Grandpa into it.” He sat down near the elm. “It’s really his spot more than anybody else’s.”

She took a seat as well. “Hope he doesn’t mind us borrowing it.”

“Nah, he’s busy all the time, so someone has to keep her company besides the squirrels and birds.”

Glen settled in and ate, a familiar feeling washing over him. The sound of the water lapping against the shore and the leaves rustling overhead was soothing – almost hypnotic. Though birdsong could still be heard, it was subdued in the clearing around the elm. The sun shone down warm and bright, moderated by breezes heavy with the perfume of nature.

“This was a good idea,” Melinda said after drinking in the sunlight and the scenery for a few minutes. “Those letters almost made me sick at my stomach, but I already feel better.”

“I come out here when I need to think. It’s far enough away from everything to let you clear your head.”

Just then, something bounced off the top of his head. “Ow,” he muttered and picked up the acorn, which certainly shouldn’t have fallen from an elm tree.

She reached over and took the acorn with a little laugh. She looked up in the tree and said, “Must be a squirrel up there somewhere. Either that, or you have a dryad in the woods, playing tricks.”

The water he was drinking went down the wrong way, and he broke out into a coughing fit.

“Are you okay?”

Still fighting off coughs, he nodded. “Yeah, just went down the wrong pipe.” Once he caught his breath, he asked, “So, do you believe in stuff like that?”

She rolled her eyes and shrugged. “I don’t know. Mom always did, but, you know...”

“People think you’re cuckoo,” he finished; smiling wide to show that he didn’t share that sentiment.

“Yeah,” she agreed, and then laughed. “It’s nice to think that there’s a little magic in the world, even if you never actually see it.”

“One of the women in the coven said that magic is always around us, but it’s subtle, and most people overlook it.”

“My mom used to say something like that, too. So, what about you?”

Their eyes met, and entranced by the green orbs, Glen answered, “Yeah, I believe in magic.”

****

Melinda closed the door behind her after a final wave to Glen as he pulled away. She leaned up against the door, letting out blissful moan.

Time had slipped away unnoticed as she sat with him in the shade of the elm. Since he already knew her plan for the future, she’d asked him about his. He was in much the same place as she had found herself when she was sixteen. Part of her had gravitated toward following in her mother’s footsteps, but another part wanted to be free – to find her own identity.

In the end, she’d decided that following her mother’s path was her true desire. Glen hadn’t made that decision yet, but the way he spoke with understanding and reverence of the law hinted that he might very well mirror her choice.

Only the sight of the sun dipping toward the western horizon coaxed them to return to the house, where dinner awaited. Somehow, eating with his family hadn’t felt awkward in the slightest. There was something about Kia that reminded Melinda of her mother, and Steven’s good humor contrasted greatly with her image of a lawyer in his off hours. The two were obviously still deeply in love, despite years of marriage, turning her thoughts toward whether another potential lawyer might not take after his father.

The urge to kiss Glen when he pulled up in front of the house had quite nearly overwhelmed her. Undeniably attracted to him physically, she felt more of an emotional attachment with every moment they spent together. The thought that her work and his college classes would prove a barrier to spending time together was more than a little frustrating.

Find your center, Melinda, she cautioned herself. Though she was feeling light-hearted – almost giddy – she knew better than to charge forward on nothing more than emotion. That thought drew her toward the sunroom and her altar, where she always felt the most balanced and in control.

Upon crossing the threshold into the sunroom, an odd – but far from unpleasant – sensation settled upon her. For just a moment, she felt as if she had stepped outside into a warm spring morning. The scent of sun-kissed earth and flowers teased her. She could almost hear songbirds welcoming a new day. The numerous plants in the room seemed larger and more vibrant than she remembered when she watered them that morning.

As quickly as it had arisen, the feeling faded. It didn’t completely go away, though. She could almost hear her mother saying that this was the magic of the world, just as Glen had earlier in the day.

In the midst of popping open the top button of her blouse, a hint of movement caught her eye beyond the double doors leading out into the yard, and the woods beyond. Bemused by the sight of the squirrel sitting right outside the doors looking in, she crept across the room.

Remarkably, the squirrel didn’t run away as she approached, though it could obviously see her, as it tracked her progress. Kneeling down when she reached the door, she slowly extended a finger to the glass. The squirrel actually leaned in and appeared to be sniffing when her fingertip pressed against the window, and then it let out a chittering sound and scurried a few feet across the grass.

Melinda stood, and on a whim, opened the door. Once again, the animal turned and slithered through the grass for a few feet before turning to rise up and look at her – almost as if it was beckoning her to follow.

Follow she did, and her small guide continued the pattern of hurrying forward, then pausing to let her catch up, all the way to the edge of the woods. As she walked, more than the squirrel seemed to be leading her forward. What she could only describe as a tug pulled her toward the wood, and to somewhere within.

Though she was curious, the deepening shadows gave way to true darkness beneath the canopy, bringing her to a halt. She had no light, and despite the tug, the thought of going into the woods that she’d barely explored at night was enough to break the spell over her.

“Some other time,” she whispered to the now vanished squirrel, and after a final look into the trees, she turned to return to the house.

While Melinda disrobed before her altar, the trees rustled as if disturbed by someone peeking out from within.

****

Glen turned off the radio and broke out into a wide smile when Melinda walked out of the funeral home. Though he had called her a couple of times, they hadn’t seen each other in three days. She paused just outside the door to adjust her purse, and then her face lit up with its own smile upon seeing Glen’s car parked right next to hers. She hurried over to where he waited with the window down.

“I thought you were supposed to be at class?”

“Skipped it. Got somebody taking notes for me. Thought I’d come see if you felt like a cup of coffee.”

She nodded emphatically. “Someone else made the coffee before I got to work this morning.” She then made a face and added, “It was horrible.”

“Why don’t we walk? Too nice a day to be cooped up in the car.”

Melinda smoothed back an errant strand of hair from her face. “Sounds good. I’ve been behind a desk all day.”

The pair crossed the parking lot to the sidewalk, and Glen relayed the progress his father was making with the legal side of opening up the cemetery. He had a hard time concentrating, because she was walking close at his side, and her perfume was making him feel lightheaded and silly.

Turning the corner revealed something equally distracting, and not nearly as pleasant.

She must have noticed him stiffen and clench his teeth. “Glen?”

“Let’s just get inside.”

“What...” she began, and then trailed off when she spotted the silver-haired woman down the street staring directly at her with eyes as hard as agates.

“That’s her. Francine Robinson,” Glen explained as he opened the door to the coffee shop and interposed his body between Melinda and the other woman’s stare.

“What’s wrong with her?”

Glen almost choked up and completely forgot why he was angry for a moment when the redhead took his hand. Curling his fingers around hers, he shrugged and answered, “She sees sin in everyone and everything. Thinks it’s her job to do something about it.”

One of the girls behind the counter asked, “Nosey Robinson?” When Glen nodded, the young woman picked up a piece of paper and let out a disgusted snort. “She was trying to get us to put this up.”

The notice was about a town meeting, and all but demanded that god-fearing townsfolk attend.

“Oh no,” Melinda muttered as she read over his shoulder.

“Nothing to worry about,” he assured her. “Dad and Uncle Dan probably know about it already, but they will now, for sure.” He stuffed the flyer in his pocket.

Their turn in line came up, so Glen ordered. When he had to let go of Melinda’s hand to reach for his wallet, there was no denying the blush in her cheeks.

“Let’s take these over to the park. Like I said – too nice a day to be cooped up.”

“Mmm hmm,” she agreed and nodded. She then picked up her coffee and followed him to the door.

The old busybody was thankfully nowhere in sight when they emerged onto the sidewalk. A quick walk across the street brought them to the park, and Glen led the way to a spot he knew where a couple of benches sat secluded by evergreens.

“I’m glad she’s gone,” Melinda said after taking a sip of her coffee.

“Dad said something once... Oh yeah. She has her eyes so set on heaven that she’s of no earthly good.”

Melinda giggled. “I like that.”

“Of course, I said that she’s like a Slinky – boring until someone pushes her down some stairs.”

She covered her mouth, stifling a gasp, though her eyes were bright with amusement. “That’s terrible!”

“Funny, though,” he countered.

Upon reaching the benches, He gestured for Melinda to sit down, and then took a seat beside her. His butt had barely settled on the wood when she scooted a little closer.

Skipping out of class had been absolutely worth it.

****

Steve’s eyes narrowed as he read the flier. “Well, she’s acting true to form,” he growled.

“Should take some of the wind out of her with you and Uncle Dan there, though.”

“One problem with that.” Steve shook the flier. “I’m going to be on the road home from court in Martinsburg.”

Glen’s shoulders slumped. “Damn.”

“I’ll give Dan a call, but what Francine is trying to do is take advantage of the fact that Melinda is young, and new in town. It would probably make more of an impression if she went herself. Hard to paint her as having two heads when she’s sitting right there.”

“I don’t know. She was shaking when we ran into the old bag, and those letters were enough to make her sick.”

Steve smiled and pointed at his son. “Maybe she needs somebody to go with her and hold her hand.”

Glen plopped down on the couch across from his father, his face burning. “Lay off, Dad.”

After a little chuckle, Steven continued, “You know what’s going on – more than enough to counter anything Nosey Robinson is going to come up with.”

“So, you’re saying that I can present the case, huh?” Glen shook his head and sighed. “Don’t go painting my name on an office door at the firm just yet, Dad.”

“Can’t blame me for trying.”

“Yeah, yeah. Anyway, I’ll ask her. I’ve got a couple of weeks to try to convince her.”

“What about you?”

Glen’s eyes narrowed as he thought about the busybody standing up at the meeting, badmouthing Melinda.

“Yeah, I’m gonna be there.”

****

Walking hand-in-hand with Glen to her front door, Melinda’s heart tossed in a tumultuous sea of emotion.

The last two weeks had been perfect, culminating in the early dinner they were returning from. As she walked, the dryad pendant he’d given her tapped lightly against her chest, hanging just below her mother’s necklace. That prompted her to look at him, and to once again feel her heart race from how handsome he looked, dressed up for the restaurant.

Despite how wonderful everything was, she couldn’t shake the memory that the town meeting was tomorrow. The thought of facing the hard-eyed churchwoman still made her stomach go sour. Some of the woman’s decrying of the cemetery was actually taking hold, the grapevine abuzz with gossip.

She didn’t want to let go of his hand to unlock the door, but summoned up the strength. Once the key was back in her purse, she turned toward him, her cheeks growing warm as he smiled down at her.

“Thank you.” She laid her hand over the pendant. “For this, and for dinner. It was wonderful.”

“I had fun too, even though I feel like I’m in a straightjacket in this outfit.”

She chuckled as she took a step toward him, tilted her head back, and closed her eyes.

Chills raced all through her body as Glen’s lips met hers. The first kiss on the weekend after finding out about the meeting had turned her knees to water, and every one that followed seemed to be better than the last. She pulled him closer, her tongue slipping out to caress his upper lip of its own volition. His hand moved from her back to her cheek, and their tongues intertwined.

She moaned from the heat that swelled up within her, causing her nipples to stiffen and her sex to tingle. She kissed him harder, feeling him respond in kind. Her heart pounded in her chest, and she gasped when his other hand found her bottom.

Then, she remembered the last time she’d felt this much passion and excitement – and the heartbreak that followed when she’d revealed her secret.

When she pulled away, Glen took a step backward. He held his hands up, palms toward her, and then dropped them to clasp them together at his waist. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have...”

Melinda quickly shook her head and moved closer to take his hand in hers. “No, don’t be sorry.” She looked deep into his eyes, flashed a nervous smile, and said, “I guess I’m just not ready.”

“It’s okay,” he responded, and she felt like a great weight had been lifted off her shoulders from the sincerity in his voice. “Guess I’d better get going. I’ll call you tomorrow about the meeting. If you want to go, I’ll be right there with you.”

“Thank you. Goodnight.”

“Night,” Glen said, keeping his eyes locked with hers for a couple of backwards steps before turning and walking to his car.

Melinda closed the door, her heart and body both screaming at her to open it right back up again. The flash of remembered pain was enough to overwhelm even those soaring feelings, though. Tenting her fingers in front of her, she took deep, measured breaths, until her nerves had calmed. When she opened her eyes again, her feet were already moving toward the sunroom.

Undressing proved that she hadn’t completely shaken the emotions that had taken control of her on the porch. Her nipples were still pebble hard, and when she slid down her panties, she could feel the kiss of cool air on the dampness there.

Though not really common practice in the craft, Melinda’s mother had sometimes performed seances for guidance. She always said that Wicca was a deeply personal calling, and that one should practice it as the heart dictated, so long as it didn’t harm anyone. Feeling the need for her mother’s wisdom, she gathered up pure white candles to seek it.

Kneeling before the circle of burning candles, she found her center, and sought the power within. The words flowed from her lips, etched into her memory from studying the Book of Shadows that was now hers. The chant finished with, “Come to me. I summon thee. Cross now the Great Divide.”

The candles flickered, as if stirred by a breeze, and Melinda gasped. She’d never before had such a physical manifestation happen during a ritual. A sense of familiarity filled the room – the aura that had always surrounded her mother.

Though still shocked, she wasn’t going to let the opportunity slip by. “Mom, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know if I have the strength to face that woman. I’m afraid to tell Glen. I need something – a sign. Help me find the right path, Mom.”

A faint click broke the stillness of the room, and she turned to see the door leading outside had opened. Sitting in the grass, illuminated by the moon overhead, she saw the squirrel.

As it had before, the animal looked at her, and she felt the tug, reinforced by the ethereal sense of her mother’s presence. With little conscious thought, she stood up and walked to the door. The squirrel scampered off through the grass toward the trees.

Though it might be possible for someone to see her from the road for a brief moment when she walked out the door, she didn’t even consider her nudity as she followed her bushy-tailed guide. This time, when she reached the edge of the woods, the squirrel was sitting at the beginning of a trail that she was certain wasn’t there before. The thought lasted for only the briefest moment before her bare foot settled onto the leafy path.

The squirrel remained always in sight, looking back at her frequently as she followed. The vegetation surrounding her was lush – ferns and saplings swaying in the breeze amongst the rustling leaves – more akin to late spring growth than what she would expect for April. The scent of honeysuckle and lavender tickled her nose. Though she knew that she should be shivering in the night air, she was perfectly comfortable.

The light of the moon intensified ahead, as if the trail was opening up into a clearing. Her guide suddenly darted forward, directly into the light, and she quickened her pace.

Wide-eyed, Melinda gasped upon entering the clearing.

The full moon was directly overhead, shining down on an almost perfectly circular opening in the canopy. Save for the path where she had entered, ferns, vines, and low hanging limbs formed a natural wall around the clearing. In the center was a great stone, about knee height, and reddish in hue. Vines adorned with luminous white flowers grew up the side of the stone, and she knew that this was what had called her here.

Having always wanted an outdoor altar, to be closer to nature, she had finally found it. A few steps brought her to the side of the rock, revealing a heart-shaped depression filled with sparkling water on its top. Sinking down to her knees, she placed her palms on the stone next to the heart, and lifted her eyes to the sky above.

A jolt – but not an unpleasant one – passed through her body, and she let out a high-pitched moan. The wind whispered to her, and tears rolled down her cheeks when she heard the words – the ethereal sound carrying unmistakable qualities of her mother’s voice.

Tell him.

****

Author's Note: This story was submitted in two parts due to length. The first story in the "Magic of the Wood" series, "Steward of the Wood", is linked below. In chronological order, it is followed by Daughter, Forever, Secret, Kindred, and then this story, with more to come.

If you're reading the whole series and ticking off the years, all I can say is suspension of disbelief LOL Technology doesn't advance at the same rate in the parallel world as it does in ours. I hope practitioners of the craft aren't offended by my depiction of Wicca. To "Charmed" fans - I know I used the last few words of the summoning spell, and not the chant for a seance. I just prefer the wording, and it fits better to me.
This story is protected by International Copyright Law, by the author, all rights reserved. If found posted anywhere other than Lushstories.com with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.


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