The Guide watched the family enter the farmers market from the west—from Lawrence Street. A man and a woman in their late thirties or early forties, and a girl, age six or seven. The family merged with the sauntering Saturday crowd, staying together, pausing at various stalls to admire the goods within: colorful summer produce, fresh-baked breads, flowers, bright and vibrant. 

THE GUIDE

KENNETH G. BENNETT

They sampled artisan cheeses at one stall—the Guide couldn’t see if they purchased anything—and tested the handmade Adirondack chairs in another. The little girl seemed almost to disappear into the chair she tried. Her dad helped her climb back out. They all laughed.

            They were taking their time, taking it all in, enjoying the sunny July day. But they were getting closer.

            The Guide waited.

            To the casual observer, the family looked fine. Healthy. Happy. Complete.

            The Guide knew otherwise.

            Beneath the veneer, despite their best efforts, the little family bore a wound that would not heal, would never heal—not if they all lived to be one hundred. The parents carried the bulk of the burden, but the little girl felt it as well. The hurt permeated everything. Colored everything.

            They were approaching the Guide’s part of the market now—the little girl in the lead, twirling like a ballerina, singing to herself, lost in her own daydream; the parents following, holding hands.

            They came on and drew even with the Guide.

The Guide’s “stall”—if you could call it that—was by far the simplest in the market, consisting of a folding chair and a section of cedar log turned on end, for a table.

            The couple noticed it at the same time and paused, ten feet away. The little girl stopped dancing.

            The Guide got to his feet. Smiled. The woman smiled back, then read the hand-lettered sign propped on the cedar log: Explore Olympic National Park with an experienced, licensed guide. Half-day, full-day, and overnight outings. Ask for details.

           “Let me know if I can answer any questions,” said the Guide, wondering, as he said the words, if they would notice his accent.

            “You work for a company?” asked the man.

            “For myself,” replied the Guide. “I’ve spent most of my life in the mountains.”

            The family kept their distance and stared at the sign, longer than they needed to, as if trying to discern some deeper meaning in the simple offer.

            The Guide waited.

            Bluegrass music wafted over the green from the far corner of the market, the sound of a lone fiddle suddenly cutting through the hum of the crowd. The woman lifted her eyes from the sign and stared at the Guide. He held her gaze. Thought he saw the briefest flicker of recognition—an instant of knowing—dismissed, discarded, as suddenly as it had flashed to mind.

            Just a flicker.

            And now the family was turning, moving away, toward the metalworker’s stall, and booths displaying glasswork, organic-fiber clothing, handmade lotions and soaps.

            The Guide watched, and noticed that their pace had changed. They were moving more slowly now. Talking. The woman was gesturing. Maybe trying to make a point.

            The Guide saw the woman glance back his way.

            He waited.

            And prayed.

 

 

 

“He looks too old,” said the man.

           “He looks like he could out-hike us,” said his wife, laughing.

           “We don’t need a guide for that trail, Laura.”

           “Yes. We do. Especially for that trail.”

 

 

 

It took fifteen minutes for the family to return. This time, they emerged from the crowd and walked right up to the Guide.

            “I’m Paul Wagner,” said the man. “This is my wife, Laura, and this is our daughter, Jenny.”

            “Graham Evans,” said the Guide as he shook their hands. “Nice to meet you folks.”

            “We don’t really need a guide,” said Paul.

            The Guide nodded respectfully. “I see.”

            “We live here. We’re not tourists. We’ve hiked all over the Olympics. Day hikes. Long backpacking trips. We know what we’re doing.”

            “I’m sure you do.”

            Laura said, “But we have a trip in mind for tomorrow, a day hike where we feel like we might really benefit from . . .” She hesitated. “From having someone with us.”

            “I see,” replied the Guide. “Where are you folks thinking of hiking tomorrow?”

            “Marmot Pass,” Paul replied. “An easy one. We’ve done it a bunch of times.

In fact—”

            “Daddy,” Jenny said, “isn’t that where Ryan… you know…?”

            Laura pulled the little girl to her side and held her close. “Hush,” she whispered.

            She turned to the Guide. Her lower lip trembled. “Our son died on Marmot Pass,” she said. “Five years ago.”

            “I’m so sorry.”

“Maybe you heard the story. It was all over the news for weeks. There was a big search.”

            “Yes,” he said gently. “I do remember that.”

            “We haven’t been back. We haven’t been to the mountains at all since then. But we think it’s time.”

            The Guide nodded, his weatherworn face full compassion. “I think I understand,” he said. “And I’d be honored to accompany you—if you like.”

           “A mountain lion ate Ryan,” Jenny said matter-of-factly.

            “Sweetie,” her mother countered, “we don’t know what happened to Ryan.” Then, to the Guide: “Our little boy was never found. He wandered away and—”

            “Will there be mountain lions when we go?” blurted Jenny, peering up at the Guide, meeting his glacier-blue eyes with an innocence and directness that utterly disarmed him.

            The Guide squatted down so that he was eye level with the child. “We’ll stay together tomorrow, Jenny,” he said. “No animals will bother us. You don’t have to worry about that.”

 

 

 

They talked about gear. Logistics. Cost. And agreed to meet at the trailhead at eight the following morning.

            The family said good-bye, and the Guide watched them go.

            Tough, resilient, lean and hard as an old alpha wolf, few things perturbed the Guide. Now though, watching the family melt into the crowd, his hands shook. His heart hammered in his chest. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

    

 

They met the next morning at the agreed-upon place—the Big Quilcene River trailhead, at the end of US Forest Service Road 2750. The Guide was standing under an old-growth Douglas fir tree near the self-service kiosk when they arrived—weathered pack on his back, stout walking stick in his right hand.

            “Looks like John Muir is ready to go,” said Paul as he parked the car.

Laura laughed. “Paul . . .”

            “Who’s John Muir?” Jenny asked from the backseat. “I thought his name was Graham.”

            “It is, sweetie,” said her mother. “Daddy’s being silly. John Muir was a famous naturalist.”

            “What’s a naturalist?”

            “Someone who knows a lot about nature—animals, plants, insects.”

            “Oh.”

“‘Natural’ is a good word for him,” said Paul, peering through the windshield. “His gear looks homemade.”

            It did. The Guide’s pack, walking stick, even his boots—all looked as patinaed as their owner. Original. Handcrafted.

            “A little eccentric,” said Laura. “But I like him. He reminds me of someone I knew a long time ago.”

            “Who?” asked Paul.

            Laura shook her head. Laughed. “I can’t remember. It’s driving me crazy.”

 

 

 

Paul filled out a hiking permit and marked the group’s destination as Marmot Pass—5.3 miles in.

            Laura stood alongside her husband, scanning the maps and official notices tacked to the kiosk. Warnings to treat all drinking water, camp in designated areas only, keep food in bearproof containers, and the like. She said quietly, “Ryan helped me fill out the permit that day. He was standing right here—next to me. Just like we’re standing now.”

            Paul stopped writing and set down the pen. Looked at her. Took her hands gently in his. “You okay with this? We don’t have to do this hike.”

            “I’m fine,” she replied. “And I need to do this hike.”

 

 

 

Car locked, packs loaded and ready, they turned their backs to civilization and plunged into the primeval forest. There was no one else around. The trail—broad and well maintained—climbed gradually but steadily, from the start.

            The gloom of the cathedral grove deepened, and they traveled in silence, adjusting to the trail, to their packs, to each other, falling into a rhythm—the Big Quilcene River rolling and rumbling like drums in the distance.

            They walked past hulking hemlocks, colossal firs, cedars hundreds of years old and hundreds of feet tall. Over brawling streams and around house-size boulders clothed in moss.

            “The glaciers left these here,” the Guide told Jenny as they approached one of the massive boulders. “Thousands of years ago.”

             Jenny stopped—they all stopped—and studied the huge stone. Water dripped from the moss, and the rock beneath glistened in the muted light.

            “Ryan loved climbing on these,” Paul murmured, running his hand over the stone. Feeling the moss. “Took forever to hike anywhere with that boy.”

            Laura laughed. “It sure did—but that was part of the fun.”

 

 

 

            They saw no one and encountered no wildlife, save for birds flitting through the shadows—wrens and jays, warblers and woodpeckers.

            The miles passed.

            At four thousand feet, the forest gave way to avalanche chutes and vast scree slopes fanning down from Buckhorn and Iron Mountains. They stopped next to a stream to rest and eat a snack.

            “Maybe Ryan’s still here,” said Jenny, eyeing a stand of stunted trees on the opposite slope. She was sitting on the ground, shoes off, one foot splashing in the stream—eating gummy bears, one bear at a time. “He could be. Since they never found him.”

            The adults exchanged glances.

            The Guide said, “Do you remember your brother, Jenny?”

            She shook her head. “Sort of. Not really. I was still a baby. I wish I did.”

 

 

 

They hiked on, winding their way uphill, Jenny and Paul in front, the Guide and Laura a couple of minutes behind.

            “We brought a tent for the kids to nap in,” Laura told the Guide after a long silence. “It was just a day hike, but it was late October, so we had warm clothes, and the backpacking stove—for soup and hot chocolate. Ryan was six, Jenny, eighteen months—Paul carried her pretty much the whole way. She liked riding on his back. Ryan did, too, when he was that age.”

            They crossed another stream and entered Camp Mystery. It was deserted. No people. No tents—unusual for July.

            “I remember it was chilly when we got here,” Laura continued. “But exhilarating—like fall can be. You know?” She stopped walking. Turned to the Guide. Suddenly self-conscious. “Do you mind if I talk? It feels good to talk about this stuff—especially here.”

            “Please do,” he replied gently. “I’d like to hear the story.”

            Laura said, “The searchers used Camp Mystery as a staging area. Some came in by helicopter—landed on the ridge. Others hiked up the trail. There must have been fifteen tents here. More near the pass.”

 

 

 

The trail zigzagged higher, around vast outcroppings of basalt, and they left Camp Mystery far below. Laura talked. She told the Guide about the search-and-rescue teams, the tracking dogs, the friends and relatives and volunteers who trekked in to help.

            Now, the land opened around them, the last stands of trees giving way to broad meadows iridescent with flowers.

            Looking back, they could see the Big Quilcene valley spread out below, the Puget Sound in the distance. Beyond the sound, Glacier Peak. The Cascades. It was a stunningly clear day—to the east.

            Turning the other direction, gazing uphill, they could see Paul and Jenny waiting at the grassy saddle of Marmot Pass.

             The sky looked darker that way.

 

 

 

A few hundred feet below the pass, Laura and the Guide stopped at a junction in the trail where a short side path led north. They could see exactly where it went. The little trail terminated in a flat, grassy bench tucked into the side of the ridge. It was dominated by an enormous boulder, broken into two jagged halves.

            The boulder lay there. Dramatic. Raw. A bit of detritus left thousands of years earlier by retreating ice. The rock had undoubtedly weathered over the centuries, yet it looked somehow new. Alive. As if it had just that morning been born, then blasted in half by some stupendous bolt of lightning. Or smashed by a giant’s sledgehammer.

            Laura eyed the stone uneasily. “Ryan spotted that when we were hiking in five years ago,” she said. “He wanted to explore, but I wouldn’t let him. Paul and I just wanted to get to the pass and eat lunch. We were tired, and worried about running out of daylight. October, you know?” She looked at the Guide. “When we realized Ryan was missing, that’s the first place we looked. I ran straight here.”

            She stared at the granite behemoth, remembering. “There was just a trace of snow on the ground. A light dusting on the grass. I thought I saw footprints—just the faintest little impressions around the rock, leading into that fissure between the two pieces. But I was wrong— he wasn’t there. I called and called and looked all around. So did everyone else.”

 

 

 

All four hikers reconvened on Marmot Pass, opening packs and adding layers of clothing against the steady, chill wind. The sky overhead and to the east was still clear, but to the west, fat gray clouds obscured Mount Fricaba and Mount Deception and were closing fast on the Needles, engulfing the jagged peaks with silent, flowing tentacles of fog. The entire length of the Upper Dungeness valley lay in shadow.

            Paul laughed. “Gotta love the weather in the Olympics,” he said. “The forecast called for sun. Just sun.”

            “We should eat lunch,” said Laura, “before it rains. Or maybe it’ll all clear off here in a little bit. Either way, I’m hungry.”

            “Me too,” said Jenny. “I’m starving. There are more gummy bears, right?”

            Paul smiled and mussed his daughter’s hair. “There might be more gummy bears—if you eat a good lunch.”

 

 

 

They found a shallow, grassy bowl somewhat sheltered from the wind, a few hundred yards above the pass, with views all around. They sat on the ground, talking softly, watching the sky to the west morph and rearrange itself, like a sky in a time-lapse film. Great billowing clouds tumbled into the valley, getting closer. The breeze picked up.

            Peering over the edge, Laura spotted Boulder Shelter, on the Upper Dungeness Trail, a thousand feet below the ridge. She watched as the shelter vanished under the eclipse-like shadow of the advancing storm.

            “Not very summery,” she said. “No wonder there are no other people.”

            She regarded her companions and smiled. Raised her voice over the wind. “It’s all good, though. Even if it rains, I’m glad we’re here. Glad we did this. And Graham—I’m happy you’re with us.”

            “Me too,” he replied, eyes riveted on the wild sky.

            Laura said, “I was telling Paul, I feel like I know you—like we’ve met before.”

            The Guide said nothing for several seconds. The wind howled around them.

            “We have met before,” he said.

They looked at him curiously. “When?” asked Paul, a bite of sandwich in his mouth.

            The Guide stood and walked to the lip of the shallow bowl. There was a faint amethyst tint to the clouds now, and it looked like the midday sun would soon be obscured.

            “The trail we just hiked,” said the Guide, “I first took it sixty-one years ago—with my family.”

            “That’s amazing,” said Paul. “How many times have you done it since then?”

            “Once. Three weeks ago. When I hiked back out.”

             Paul raised an eyebrow. “Hiked back out?”

            “I came here sixty-one years ago,” said the Guide, turning to face them, “and sat on this ridge with my mother and father and sister. And then I went down the hill—just for a minute—and I couldn’t get back. Couldn’t find them again. I tried and tried, but there was no way. Not until three weeks ago, when it opened back up.”

            The Guide turned to the tumultuous sky once more, concern in his eyes. “Things are changing again. Sooner than I’d hoped. I don’t have much time.”

            Paul set his sandwich back in its Tupperware container. Tapped his wife with his foot.

            “You feeling okay, Graham?” Paul asked.

            The Guide made no reply.

            Paul said, “You’re saying you’ve been in the mountains for sixty-one years?”

            “Yes. And no. Here, but not exactly here.”

Laura saw the Guide’s eyes flick between the sky and the fractured stone below them, on the eastern flank of the ridge. She said, “You mentioned we’d met before. When?”

            The Guide knelt in front of her. Looked at her for a long moment. “In your dream, most recently. When you dreamed about the farmers market. I held your hand and asked you to come to Port Townsend.”

             Laura’s entire body twitched, as if she’d touched a live wire. Her eyes went wide. “Ryan held my hand,” she said.

            “Yes.”

“How did you—? I’d forgotten that dream until this second.”

            Jenny twisted closer to her father in the grass. “I’m scared, Daddy.”

            Paul stared at his wife and the Guide. “What’s he talking about? What’s going on?”

            The Guide ignored him. Kept his eyes on Laura. “You told me, when we were walking up here, that you brought a tent for the kids—the day Ryan went missing.”

            She nodded.

            “It was a Mountain Hardwear tent,” he said. “Big thing. Kind of a burnt-orange color, but fading.”

            “I didn’t tell you that.”

The Guide glanced at Paul. “You said it was fading because of the UV light. You were talking about getting a new one. I didn’t know what ‘UV light’ meant, but you explained it to me.”

            Paul gaped.

“The zippers would always stick,” said the Guide. “I remember that. And the big gear pocket in the back was torn. From when you left your Swiss Army knife open, accidentally.”

            Paul Wagner was rising to his feet now, scattering the remains of his sandwich, face flushed and angry. “What is this? How do you know this stuff? Do you know something about Ryan?” Then: “Did you do something to Ryan?”

            The Guide stayed kneeling in front of Laura and shut his eyes. “You unrolled a sleeping bag for us to lie on, inside the tent. And that blanket Grandma Ellen made. The one with the ducks. It was cozy. You gave me a book and told me to read to Jenny. A book about penguins—”

            “Puffins,” Laura whispered.

            “Puffins,” he repeated. “That’s right. There once was a puffin . . . just the shape of a muffin.” The Guide opened his eyes and looked at Laura. “I’m sorry I left the tent. I had to pee. You guys were making hot chocolate or something. Looking at the mountains. At the snow. You didn’t see me. I saw the split-open rock down the hill and decided to go look at it. Just for a minute. I was planning to come right back.”

            The Guide heard a click, and turned to find Paul holding a gun against the side of his head.

           “What the fuck did you do to my son?” Paul screamed, voice blending with the shriek of the wind.

            “Paul,” Laura cried. “No!”

            The Guide got slowly to his feet, hands out, in a gesture of peace. Surrender. He turned to face Paul.

            “I thought,” said the Guide, “when I got back, that you would be dead. Or very old. So much time has passed. But then I discovered it isn’t the same here. Time isn’t the same. It’s only been five years.”

            Paul shrieked, “What did you do to my son?”

“I have a family of my own,” said the Guide. “A wife. Three children. Seven grandchildren.”

             “And you are never going to see any of them again unless you tell me who the fuck you really are.”

            Laura was at her husband’s side now. “Paul, put the gun away.”

            The Guide moved his right hand to his left forearm, slowly, and began rolling up his sleeve. “The Gordons still have those dogs?” he asked.

            There was an ugly white scar on his left bicep. A distinctive crescent shape, just above the elbow. Laura and Paul stared at the scar. The gun shook in Paul’s hand.

            The Guide looked at Laura. “You cried more than I did, I think. You thought I’d lose my arm, remember? But it wasn’t that bad. Nineteen stitches. No nerve damage like you feared. Dr. Frankland did a good job.”

            “Who are you?” Paul asked again, lowering the gun, his voice a weak whisper now.

            The Guide faced his mother and father. Laura was sobbing, her entire body shaking. Paul’s face was as pale as a ghost’s.

            “Look at me,” said the Guide. “See me. You know who I am.”

 

 

 

The family stood together in front of the broken stone, the wind blowing steadily, the clouds the color of bruised skin. Rain was falling, but shafts of sunlight pierced the thick canopy, bathing patches of the ridge in a shimmering, almost holy aura.

            “The boulder exists in two places,” said the Guide. “This world, and the world I grew up in. It’s split in half on that side too.” He looked at his family. “I came back to the rock every year. Camped nearby. Walked the cut, hoping the way might open again, as it did all those years ago. But it never did. Not until three weeks ago.”

             Laura took his hand. “When you went through, the first time—you were so little.” Tears welled in her eyes.

            The Guide nodded. “Yes. But people found me. Kind people. Good people. They took me in, explained what had happened. They’re a bit more open to this kind of . . . magic? Phenomenon? Whatever you want to call it. On that side. A family let me stay with them. Gave me a new name. I found my place. Grew up, healthy and strong.” He looked at them. “But I never forgot my real family.”

            “Is it just like here?” asked Paul. “Where you grew up?”

The Guide shook his head. “It’s quieter. Fewer machines. Less technology. Not as many people. It’s more peaceful. Not to say there aren’t disagreements. Wars, even. But less than here.”

            He turned and faced the stone. The light was changing again. A shaft of sunlight was drifting toward the boulder, like a spotlight searching for a runaway. The Guide took a step into the cut. “There isn’t much time,” he said.

            Jenny took the Guide’s hand. “Can we come with you?” she asked. “I want to see it.”

            He knelt so that he was eye level with the child and answered her gently. “I believe you could,” he said. “But you would not be able to return home.” He glanced at Paul and Laura. “At least not in a predictable fashion. The door might open again. But it might not. It might never open again.”

            “We’d be trapped over there,” said Paul.

            The Guide nodded. “You could build a new life. I would help you. Others would help. You would make friends. But you would be turning your back on everything here. Walking away from all that you have and all that you know.”

            The Guide started toward the cut. He glanced back, smiling, rain falling around him, sunlight hitting the raindrops—making them glint and glitter like diamonds. “Good-bye,” he said.

            Another three steps and he began to fade.

            The family gasped. They could see through him now, see the stone on the other side of his body. And then he was gone, like a wisp of smoke.

            They stood there, in silence, wondering whether to follow or stay.

                     

 

                      THE END

 

 

 

THE GUIDE is a new short story set in the Olympic Mountains of Washington State. Thank you for reading— I'd love to hear what you think!   Ken

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