Ryder gazed through the heavy red curtain at the howling blizzard as the clock struck eleven P.M. His little girl had promised to be home by now. She always kept her promises, but today was different. She was on her first date with Alex Ryan. The skinny punk couldn't overpower Hazel, even though he was seventeen and she was fourteen. Of course someone tougher than Hazel could have jumped them. He waited a few minutes before dialing her number.
“What's up, Dad?” Her small soft voice sounded like a baby's. Maybe it was because she was his baby. Then again, freshmen in high school were babies all around. None of them were as cute as Hazel, though.
Ryder breathed in relief. “Where are you?” He knew they had gone to the ski resort for dinner. What he wanted to know was where exactly on the highway they were.
“We're coming back now. Alex got a flat.” She sounded ready to laugh.
“Okay.” Ryder wouldn't have to shoot Alex after all. “I'll see you soon.”
Suddenly, a crash jarred the receiver, Hazel screamed, and then all went dead.
“Hazel!” Ryder leaped to his feet, as if he could transport to her location in a blink. Snatching up his keys, the man yanked on his winter gear and sped out the door. The plow hadn't gone through yet. Nevertheless, Ryder forced his battered truck onto the caked highway.
Trucks were lousy in the snow, but Ryder knew how to maneuver like a boss in bad weather. He hadn't expected such an enormous storm, although he should have. Not only had the weatherman announced clear skies for eternity, but Ryder had read all the weather signs.
He dialed 9-1-1 and could hardly get his voice to work. Why had he let Hazel go on this date? Was it because she wasn’t popular with the boys at school? Growing up with just her dad made her tougher than most of the boys in her class. Ryder had taught her to be an outdoor kind of girl, a real flesh-and-blood woman with thoughts of her own. Blood actually flowed through her veins. She handled a gun as well as she could a computer. She invented games, read books made of real paper, and ran like the wild things in the woods.
Now this phone-mongering idiot who didn't know what a tree was had wrecked with her in the snow. If his toothpick legs weren't already broken, Ryder would do it.
A small made-for-the-city car appeared in a deep snowdrift on the roadside. The passenger side faced the forest. Thoughts of Hazel's blood and brains marring the pale dashboard and seat covers rushed through Ryder's head. He pulled up beside the car. The wheels slid several feet before stopping.
“Hazel! Hazel!” Fighting through the drift, Ryder gained the passenger door. It had been ripped off its hinges. Only Alex was inside, shivering behind the wheel, knees pressing his chest.
“Where's Hazel?” Ryder barked.
“M-Mr. Ethelbah!” Alex scrambled out. “Th-there was this thing!” Alex stared at the ice-laden trees. “It pulled off the door!” He clutched his cracked phone as if it could save him. “W-we're going now, right?”
Ryder shook him. “What thing in the snow?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know! It was big and tall! It dragged Hazel out!”
Ryder's grip tightened. “Where'd it take her?”
Alex shook his head. “I couldn't see nothing!”
Ryder cursed under his breath. He had no time to break Alex's legs now. He had to find Hazel. Dragging the fleshless teen to the truck, Ryder thrust him inside. There was no point in asking what Alex had tried to do for Hazel. He had probably screamed louder than she had.
“Stay here and keep trying the phone.” Ryder grimaced. His gun was at home. At least he had left his hunting knife in the glove compartment. Hooking it to his belt, he snatched up the flashlight that lay next to it and searched the area around the small car. Snow had almost filled the deep depressions of what looked like footprints with freakishly long strides. They led into the woods.
Ryder plunged into the forest after them. “Hazel! Hazel!” The forest thickened until he could only see what the pale beam of light revealed. Droves of snowflakes half blinded him as they gleamed in the light. Snow caked his hood and shoulders, and gathered around his knees.
Moonlight pierced the clouds, and a pale blue world filled with sapphire snowflakes surrounded him. Ryder’s blood seemed to freeze in his veins. The tracks he had been following ended several feet in front of him. He swung the pale beam desperately across the virgin snow.
Not even his voice echoed back to him.
Nobody knew where Hazel’s mother was, even though Ryder had searched for her. The woman would have taken Hazel from him, had she been able to see straight for five minutes. The courts were stupid enough to believe anything the lush said. Now there was no fear of anything. No feeling. No body to mourn over at the wake, no body to bury at the funeral.
Ryder plunged into his construction work. Days and months melded into one endless gloom. Then, like a murderous phantom, Hazel's fifteenth birthday loomed. Ryder debated within himself if he should flee from the house until tomorrow, or go into special mourning. When he got off work, he had made up his mind.
Some parents fled from the memories of dead children, but Ryder was not so. He clung to them. In a way, it kept Hazel near. His relatives had insisted on burning all of Hazel's belongings, as was the Apache custom, but he couldn't do it. Now where should he go to mourn?
There was a place called the Moon Meadow. That wasn't the official name, of course, if it had a name at all. He had stumbled across it while hunting. When Hazel had turned six, Ryder had taken her there. She had dubbed it the Moon Meadow because the full moon transformed the lonely meadow into a mystical pocket of magic. It was their secret place.
He gazed at the blue and white “Adopt a Highway” signs as he headed for the forbidden spot. He could have adopted a highway in Hazel’s honor, but it gave him the chills. He could have posted a cross on the place where she had vanished, but he could hardly stand one grave without looking at a second.
Turning onto the dirt road off the highway, Ryder trudged into the cool shadows of aspen and silver spruces. He half hoped to encounter a bear, or a pack of wolves. They would reunite him with his lost baby.
As he passed an ancient oak, dust glittered in the sun’s dying light. What was this? Ryder touched the rough bark, and the dust came off on his skin. He rubbed the soft substance between his work-worn fingers. He sniffed it. Rust. Like blood. “Weird.”
Wiping his hand on his jeans, he pressed forward and reached the meadow just as an early moon rose in full glory. As soft wind bent the long grass and whispered through the trees, Ryder sank onto a fallen log. Tears blurred his vision. The lump in his throat expanded until a whimper escaped his lips.
Here was where Hazel had sat on his knee all those years ago. She hadn't brushed her raven hair that day. He didn't know how to take care of a little girl in those ways. Later, her friends had taught her how to do her own hair.
Back then, it was just him and his ragamuffin, wandering the hills like lost souls after Chastity had abandoned them. What a name for a wild woman! She probably couldn’t even remember her daughter’s name by now. The only good thing to come out of that drunk was Hazel.
Something moved on the other side of the meadow. Ryder’s head snapped up. It was a figure in a pallid knee-length dress. The way it walked...Ryder's back stiffened. What was he looking at? No, the question was, who was he looking at? Was it a ghost? The figure spread out slender arms and twirled through the meadow.
“Hazel?” The name escaped his mouth before he could stop it.
The dancer whirled around and stared at him. It was Hazel. Forgetting that she could very likely be a phantom, Ryder cried out with joy and rushed towards her with outstretched arms. Terror crossed her moonlit face and she fled.
“No, wait!” He raced after her. “It's dad, don't be afraid of me!” His heavy boots crunched dead twigs and pine needles as he plunged in among the trees. Branches scratched his arms as he held them before his face.
Moonlit sky shone pale among the trees. They were heading towards a canyon. Hazel would have no choice but to stop. But she didn't. Spreading her arms out, she leaped off the precipice!
“Hazel!” Ryder almost lunged after her. In helpless horror, he watched her plunge for the ground below. Her skirts fluttered into great wings and tail feathers as her body shortened. She had become a bird.
Gliding across the canyon, she alighted beside the gleaming river and the great wings dropped to her sides. She grew back into a girl as she straightened up. Then, glancing up at Ryder, she vanished into the forest.
Ryder kicked the bottom of the chipped door until Alex poked his greasy head out. Vomit caked the front of his white shirt. Red lipstick smeared his face and hickeys mottled his neck. None of the filth on him could blot out the heavy odor of alcohol. Ryder cringed. How could he have let his baby be alone with this smelly butthead?
“What’re you doing?” said Alex, frowning. His voice slurred. “My lady's ‘sleep.”
“What took Hazel?” said Ryder.
“My daughter, punk! You were on the highway and something dragged her out of the car. What was it?”
Alex's face paled. “Man, I don't know you, and I don’t what you're talking about.” He tried to shut the door, but Ryder stuck his boot in the jam.
“What was it?”
“Look man, I'm going to call the cops if you don't—ah!”
Ryder had shoved the door open and seized the cretin by the ear. “What took her?”
“You're hurting me, man!”
Ryder twisted the soft greasy flesh.
“Okay, okay, I'll tell you!”
Ryder released his ear. “Spit it out.” He wiped his hand on his pants.
“It was big...man, you hurt my ear.” Alex massaged it, but seeing that Ryder could care less, he continued. “It was big. You know that centaur people keep seeing over there by—”
Alex opened a can of Pepsi. “Yeah, people see it all over the place. Man, it's scary. It was by that one cat's house, just staring through the window. He got a weird face. Don't look like no human face.” He swigged the can down in three gulps. “It chased this guy for several miles, you know, until his eyes was bleeding.” He belched and tossed the can at the trash, but missed.
Ryder wrinkled his nose against the stench of fizzy liquor. “Eyes don't bleed because you're running.”
“Yeah, they said it was like the centaur's spell. Guy ended up in somebody’s yard and just died. The people saw the centaur in the woods. He's tall, man. They say his head reaches the roof. He looks like he’s made of bark, or something. Man, he ripped the car door off the hinges. He got red eyes in that mug.” Alex shuddered. “He jumped in the middle of the road. I freaked out and crashed. He went through the snow like nothing, ripped off the door and dragged Hazel out.” Alex sat on his filthy couch. “Man, he can talk, too.”
Ryder's eyes narrowed. “What’d he say?”
“Said something about a Moon Dancer, and then he just took Hazel. I thought he was going take me, too, because he just stared at me, but he took off.”
After seeing Hazel become a bird, Ryder couldn't doubt Alex's story, nor could he believe that she was a spirit. As he swept from the room like a storm, Alex hurried back to his inebriated “lady.”
The loaded rifle on his back, a handgun on his belt, and the hunting knife strapped to his leg, Ryder returned to the Moon Meadow. Sitting down on a log, he waited.
When evening stars crystallized the heavens, a figure glided through the trees and stopped at the edge of the meadow. This time Ryder was careful not to startle the girl. He watched her for several minutes. Why didn’t she immediately dance like the last time? Was she watching for him?
The moon rose like a great spotlight, blotting out the stars. Summoned by the soft light, Hazel ventured into the meadow and began to dance. She lilted as gently as a spring breeze. Sparkles dusted off her fingertips into the long grass. Anyone else would have believed that she was a spirit. Ryder bit his lip. Why couldn’t she remember him? He would try a different approach from what he had done yesterday.
Leaning the rifle against a tree, he crept towards her. Several feet from her dancing place, he darted forward. The girl spun around at the sound of crunching earth and grass. He seized her by the arms. The girl let loose a high-pitch scream that nigh cracked his eardrums. She thrashed in his grip as if he would murder her.
“It's dad!” He loosened his grip lest he hurt her. She slipped out of his grasp and dashed towards the canyon. No, no, no, this wasn’t happening again! “I’m not going to hurt you!” Ryder sprinted after her.
No sooner did he reach the edge of the meadow than heavy thuds reverberated up through his feet and into his ears, boom-boom-boom, boom-boom-boom! Ryder whirled about and his spine stiffened. The massive form of a centaur galloped towards him. Two bright eyes peered from a head as rough as the bark from an ancient tree.
Gasping in horror, Ryder yanked out the handgun and shot. The sharp report pierced his ears and echoed on the mountains. The creature dodged to the side. Ryder shot three more times in quick succession, but he couldn't tell if he’d hit the creature or not. Maybe it was like a bear. It didn't get hurt, just angry.
That enormous hand whacked him in the shoulder and face. Pain darted down his arm. His eyes felt as if they had almost popped from their sockets. He struck the rough ground with a groan. Metallic rust filled his mouth and dribbled down his chin. Unable to hear or move, he vaguely discerned the monster rear up on its hind legs.
It’s going crush me, he thought with sudden calm. What’s Hazel going to do without me?
The creature landed, but the hooves struck the ground on either side of him. Bits of dirt flicked into his face. Twisting the gun from his hand and tearing the knife from his leg, the creature crushed the weapons as if they were made of plastic.
It bent over him and turned his head side to side, sniffing. Its breath smelled like well-fermented mulch. “Ah, you attempted to purloin my Moon Dancer.” The husky voice resonated from the pit of its barrel chest. “For that I should eliminate you, but you possess the scent of the forest.”
“Give me back my daughter,” Ryder groaned.
“Have no fear. You shall be reunited with her.” It rested a heavy, unyielding hand on his forehead, and drowsiness pressed on Ryder's senses. It was as if he had been up for three days and had finally come to rest on a soft bed. He struggled to stay awake, but darkness swallowed him up.
The creature's voice echoed in the void between sleep and waking. “This wood must thrive.” Something soft cradled Ryder’s limbs. “Do you not know that without me, this forest would be ravaged beyond repair?” Ryder forced his eyes half open. In a bleary, greenish haze, the centaur’s hands passed over his body. Gleaming dust sprinkled from the bark-like fingers. “I arrived here in the days of war and bloodshed, when your people were nigh extinct. I arrived here when men raped the forests, murdered every living thing in it. You, with your gun, would seek to do the same. This forest demands the blood of its killers.”
Ryder couldn’t open his mouth to speak. Something was inherently wrong with what the creature had said, but he couldn’t think clearly enough to combat it. The pungent air seemed as heavy as a woolen blanket. It weighed on his eyes and clogged his ears.
“You tear apart the trees, you slaughter these innocent animals that have done nothing to you, and have burned the forest to ashes. Your trash litters the most sacred areas of these woods. Your roads cut like wounds through the mountains. They bleed of fuel and gas that choke the vegetation and cause landslides where there was no fear of them before.”
“Give me back my daughter,” Ryder said between gritted teeth.
“Know your master, human. I am Fassrin. You and your daughter belong to me. Now sleep, and let the transformation settle into your bones.”
The creature departed. Ryder stared at the wiggling tree branches above him. They sparkled like the dust on the tree trunks when he had first seen Hazel. His head swam. Memories jumbled into one another until past and present became the same. Only one thought was clear: Hazel.
Ryder struggled to regain command of his limbs. Somehow he rolled off the bed. Crawling to the roundish doorway, he looked outside. He realized that he was inside a tree. More trees, glinting different colors, surrounded the area. They had been planted in uniform clusters. Ryder couldn’t help but think of a garden. Not far away, the centaur gathered leaves and herbs from one of the clusters. His furrowed back faced the prisoner.
Ryder inched for the other side of the tree. His limbs flopped as if he were a beanie. The centaur could turn around at any moment, but Ryder continued to crawl for the safety of the clump of grass behind the curving trunk.
Suddenly the monster's hooves crunched the ground. Ryder’s heart skipped a beat and he looked back. Fassrin had gone to another tree. Biting his lip, Ryder dragged himself into the clump of grass. Sweat beaded his forehead. The drowsiness threatened to glue him to the ground.
“Hazel,” said Fassrin, “bring the flowers to life.”
A jolt ripped through Ryder’s frame and he peered through the springy grass. His little girl stood before the hulking centaur. She stared at the ground as if she feared to look Fassrin in the eye. He handed her four dead flowers.
“These are for your father.”
Hazel kissed the shriveled plants, and vibrant gold gilded the brittle petals as the leaves plumped and multiplied. Ryder’s mouth fell open, but then rage cut his awe short. Fassrin seized the girl’s hand and sliced her palm with a sharp finger.
Screaming in pain, Hazel gripped her wounded hand. Blood pooled to the ground and stained her pale dress. It was all Ryder could do not to lunge at the abominable monster, but there was something better he could do. His mind flitted to the rifle leaning against the tree in the Moon Meadow. Maybe his handgun had too small a bullet to wound Fassrin. He’d blow this monster’s lungs out with the bigger weapon.
“Now dance,” said Fassrin. “This wood must thrive.” He turned his corrugated face to the sky. “It is what nourishes my life spark. If it dies, I shall die. You cannot do that to me, I, who care for this forest.” He caged her head in his gnarled hands. “Let your blood flow into the earth. The forest will drink your life force. In turn, I shall drink the forest’s life force. We must fight for that which cannot fight for itself.”
Gritting his teeth, Ryder crawled out of the garden. No sooner did he escape the oppressive air than strength flowed back into his limbs. He caught hold of a tree and dragged himself to his feet. Making a wide berth of the garden, he staggered after Hazel. Soon he no longer needed the trees to support his faltering steps, but the ache in his head and shoulder from the centaur’s blow intensified.
Where would Hazel go now? Surely she didn’t dance in the meadow every night. But she did return to it. Glancing at the spot where she had first seen Ryder, she began to dance. She stretched out her wounded hand. The dark blood turned silver, dusting the trees and ground with every turn. Ryder’s muscles tensed. It had been her blood that had come off on his fingers when he had touched the tree!
His fists clenched until the knuckles cracked. All of Fassrin’s eloquent speeches were nothing but rationalizations. The self-righteous monster wasn’t protecting anything but himself.
Ryder couldn’t dwell on this, though. He had to get a grip on himself if he was to rescue Hazel. He couldn’t appear to her in a rage. He couldn’t sneak up on her, either. Last time she had seen him, she had fled. What was he supposed to do?
Don’t rush her. The thought struck like a hammer on a giant bell. She couldn’t fear him. Calming himself with all the willpower he possessed, he stepped out behind her.
“Hazel,” he said in his gentlest tone.
The girl stiffened and turned around, but she didn’t recoil.
Encouraged, Ryder held his hands out to her. “Hazel, baby, it's dad.” Please don't run.
Hazel contemplated him for what seemed hours. Fassrin might come! He could already be on his way. With his long stride, he could be upon them in seconds. Then all would be over. Their blood would dust the trees until every last drop had been soaked into the forest.
“I...” Hazel rubbed her thumbnail. “I know you...I think.”
Ryder nodded. “Yeah, you know me. It's dad. Don't be scared of me.”
Inching forward, Hazel reached out and touched his rough fingers. She rubbed them between hers, turned his hands over and sniffed them, like a curious rabbit. Just when Ryder began to wonder if she would ever recognize him, warm tears dribbled onto his skin.
“D-daddy.” She threw herself against him.
Sobbing, Ryder enfolded her quivering form in his arms. Would she become a bird and fly away, proving herself only a dream? He pressed her closer. She felt too real to be a dream. For a few blessed seconds, it was just him and his baby girl. If only it could have remained! The memory of Fassrin jumped to his mind like a signal flare.
“We have to get out of here.” Taking her hand, he hurried across the meadow. The tree where he had left his rifle wasn’t ten feet away when--Boom-boom-boom, boom-boom-boom! Ryder glanced back as Hazel screamed. Fassrin struck him in the jaw. Stars sprinkled Ryder’s vision as he sprawled to the ground. Tumbling across jagged rocks, he slammed into the tree. His rifle tipped over and landed across his stomach.
“I cannot comprehend you, human,” said Fassrin in a wounded tone. “You have a chance to repay this forest for the sins of your race. Is it not your wish to help the dust from whence you came?”
He reached for Ryder’s prostrate form. He was going to drag Ryder back to the sleepy garden. He would bind the prisoner to the bed and slice a thousand wounds into his body. He would break the tender flesh with his own fists.
Ryder’s hands slid over the cold metal of the rifle and tipped the barrel towards the monster. As the massive hand gripped him around the neck, he pulled the trigger. Ringing filled Ryder’s ears. The great shadow collapsed, still clutching his throat.
“Daddy!” Hazel scurried to his side and helped him out from under the centaur.
Ryder leaned against her, rubbing his aching jaw. Was it broken? Pain seared his head and neck. His ribs throbbed from where they had hit the tree. At least his legs still worked.
“Let’s go,” said Hazel.
“Th-that way.” Ryder cupped his jaw as fire ripped through the bones. He moved towards the truck. Hazel hooked her arm around him and his ribs smarted. Feeling the spasm that ran through her dad’s frame, Hazel’s hand changed position.
They hadn’t taken five steps when the great bulk of the centaur moved. “No. You will not leave!”
All pain vanished in the wake of stark terror. Father and daughter sprinted towards the dirt road where the truck was parked. Twigs, grass and broken branches snapped beneath Fassrin’s weight as he dragged himself after the pair. Though paralyzed in his back legs, he was swift. His claws scraped whole slabs of bark from the trees. They alone impeded his speed, and he screeched in fury.
His great hand suddenly circled Ryder’s ankle. Sharp pains stabbed through the tendons and Ryder collapsed with a cry of pain. As the centaur loomed over him, images of the silver dust on the trees raced through Ryder’s brain. Whatever happened, he refused to let Fassrin suck the life out of his daughter and himself. Rolling on his back, Ryder shot the monster through the chest.
Hot blood gushed all over his front and spattered across his mouth. It smelled like sap. Hazel’s hands gripped him under the arms and he struggled to his feet. His ankle sent electrical sparks up his leg. Was that broken, too? Nevertheless, Ryder staggered for the truck parked on the dirt road. Thankfully his right ankle was still intact. He could drive with it. At the moment, he could still run.
“Come back, come back,” Fassrin’s husky voice pleaded. “Give me your blood! Do not let me die!”
Ryder forced his ankle to work as a soft voice in the back of his mind whispered, It’s going to hurt tomorrow.
The crashing brush from Fassrin’s lunging body sounded right behind them. He was going to catch one of them! Ryder spun around and pulled the trigger. The wall of shadows collapsed. Moonlight gleaming among the trees revealed the great heap of the centaur’s body that had fallen to the earth. Panic darted through Ryder’s heart. Why wouldn’t Fassrin go down? How many bullets did he have left?
Stumbling on old logs and broken trees, Ryder and Hazel reached the truck. Somehow the keys had stayed in Ryder’s pocket this whole nightmarish night. He pushed Hazel inside and twisted the key in the ignition. Forcing the vehicle into a sharp U-turn, he tore for the highway. Dust blinded the windshield for several seconds, but when it cleared, the headlights lit the centaur crawling towards them head on.
The entire form was made of jagged black bark. Snarling jowls exposed shimmery needle teeth. The eyes glinted like bloody orbs. Those sharp fingers tufted dirt and rocks from the ground. Massive bloody holes throbbed in the chest, neck and stomach.
Ryder’s arms stiffened. All those months ago, Alex had swerved off the highway and landed in the snowdrift. Ryder could swerve to the side and end up with busted tires and a broken oil pan in the forest. He floored the gas pedal.
Thunder roared through the truck and rattled Ryder’s cracked bones as he slammed the vehicle into the monster. Involuntary tears blurred his vision, and a white sheen shrouded his surroundings. His head spun, but he struggled to remain conscious. Fassrin doubled over the hood, hate and rage bleeding from his glimmering eyes.
Snatching up the rifle, Ryder shot the monster through the windshield. A gaping bloody hole opened up in place of the face. Glass and gore scattered into the truck’s cabin as cold wind rushed inside. That smell of well-prepared mulch clogged Ryder’s lungs.
Without a sound, Fassrin rolled off the truck. His body bumped beneath the still rolling wheels and dragged several yards before snapping loose. Ryder glanced in the rearview mirror. The body lay in a massive heap in the middle of the road. Scavengers and predators would devour it before morning.
Hazel buried herself in Ryder's side as he squeezed her around the shoulders. All down that quiet highway, Ryder watched for Fassrin’s hulking form to suddenly appear. It never did.
One week later...
Hazel wandered through the long grass and wilting flowers. “I have a lot of work to do.” Some plants survived because they were from Wal-Mart. The place was like New York for a plant. If it could survive there, it could survive anywhere.
Hazel knelt beside a wilting red flower and touched it. “I kind of wish I could bring them back to life. That part was nice.”
“Yeah, well,” said Ryder, adjusting his grip on his crutches, “you have a green thumb. You don't need magic. Let’s go eat.”
Hazel jumped to her feet. “Where’re we going?”
“It's up to you.” He touched his jaw. “Just make sure I don’t have to chew anything too hard.”
Hazel tapped her chin in thought. “Mmm, steak, and giant hamburgers, and lots of caramel…” She giggled.
“You suck,” said Ryder, smiling.
As they headed to the little green Ford that Ryder had bought to replace the truck, the red flower that Hazel had touched perked up. The petals filled out and leaves ballooned from the thickening stem. Pollen sprinkled from the stamen, glittering gold in the summer sun.