"I know you don't like being around people, but I still think it's way too early."
Kat slid her purple boots along the icy path, her arm looped around her mother's elbow for stability and warmth. A brown puffy braid snaked down either side of her head from underneath her hat.
The trail had frozen overnight, but the irregular terrain gave some traction if used responsibly. Nearly-bare, black-brown trees stabbed up into the pale grey sky all around them. Though the visibility stretched on, there were too many turns and hills to see the parking lot anymore, or any of the houses.
“I know, it's not the most comfortable, but it'll make sure the ducks are hungry this time. Also, I said I wanted to spend some time with you. Please don't slide, I don't want you to fall.”
Ellen pulled at the knitted brim of her own hat. She wrapped her arm around her daughter's tighter.
Her daughter conceded, planting her feet carefully.
Ellen stopped moving.
Kat's feet slipped, and she windmilled with her one free arm.
Ellen didn't respond for another moment.
She stared straight ahead, down the winding pathway.
Kat regained her traction, and yanked on her mother's arm.
“We need to go back,” Ellen said under her breath.
Kat rolled her eyes, and pulled her mother forward as much as her nine-year-old arms could.
Another human shape was getting bigger, walking slowly down the path the opposite way. As it trudged closer, she could tell it was definitely a man. Yet, there was something odd – just odd enough for her to decline seeing more.
“You got me out of bed at butt-o'clock in the morning, and now you want to go back?” “There's someone else here, Katherine. I don't think we should –” Ellen's words dropped away as detail loomed up in horrifying focus.
He was an older man, with thinning white hair. The grey shirt collar of his park uniform poked out from under a black parka.
His skin was pale, lips dark, and he was dripping wet, as if he'd just stepped out of the shower fully clothed. His left temple had blossomed with deep red blood that ran down the side of his face, mixing in the water.
Ellen watched him approach.
“What if he already fed the ducks?”
She threw her head back and groaned into the air.
She slowly turned to look at her daughter's face.
“Morning!” the man said cheerfully, with a jarring smile against his foggy white eyes.
“Uh, mornin',” the girl said as her head snapped back forward.
The man nodded and crossed by them on the opposite side of the path.
Ellen lowered her arm and wrapped her gloved hand around her daughter's. She mumbled her own “Morning,” before she tugged. Hard.
“Hey, you okay?” Kat resisted and turned back around. Surprise, more than strength, meant success.
“Hm?” he turned back around, and Ellen was given a perfect, wide-angle view yet again.
“You just seem worried about something. You okay?”
“Yeah, I'm fine. Just up early to check on some things.” Here, he paused.
“I don't know if you ladies get up here much, but you're going to want to make sure you stay off that bridge further up the way, over the river. We've been meaning to start replacing it for a few months now, but so far it's just roped off, with signs.”
“Is that why...you're out so early? To make sure the signs are still there?” Kat replied.
The man straightened up a little. He'd been angled against the wind, for better traction.
“They get blown around, or someone moves 'em. I dunno,” he said. “I just come out to check in the morning, particularly when there's bad weather.”
“Thanks for checking. It means you care,” she answered.
Ellen only smiled as well as she could without looking at him directly. Once more, she tugged on her daughter's arm.
The girl waved over her shoulder as they retreated.
“Be careful out there! Have a good day, both of you!” he called after them. Tension and adrenaline had apparently given her mother just enough of a stabbing gait to move quickly across the frost.
Ellen had barely formed the words at the back of her throat when Kat spoke first.
“You know how you talk about listening to people, sometimes?”
“Yes,” she answered.
Kat was quiet for a moment after, in hesitation.
“You also know how you talk to me a lot about, like...sometimes you can listen hard enough you can tell what people want to say? Or don't want to say? Or maybe even what they're thinking about?”
Ellen definitely didn't remember that last part.
“Kat, what are you–”
“I saw it, too, mom.”
They walked a little further in silence, but for the crunch of the path under their feet.
“Does that mean he's going to die?” Kat finally spoke again, keeping her eyes ahead.
Ellen took her hand in both of hers.
“I don't know. Sometimes it does, depending on what they're thinking about. I never really figured that out.”
They passed the turn-off for the bridge, and kept walking.
“What you're going to have to learn though, honey, is that you can't always figure people out. Even if you can talk to them, you can't be the one to change someone's mind for them.”
Entered in the Fall 2019 24 Hour Short Story Contest,
hosted by BookLocker.com
September 7, 2019