Welcome to Wildwood!
Here are the first few pages of my novel, Wildwood. After reading the prologue, you may purchase the book immediately as a paperback or an e-book by clicking the book cover image on the top right side of this page, or you may order the book through your favourite bookstore. Happy reading!
(The photo is my daughter Katie. Her childhood inspired one of the characters in the book, four-year-old Bridget!)
I turned my back for a minute, and she was gone.
Of course, mothers always say that when their children are missing.
How many times had I seen weeping parents on television, assuring the world that they hadn’t been careless? How many times had I assumed they were lying?
But not in this case. Bridget had been within my reach — if not a minute ago, then definitely not more than five minutes.
I saw her through the open door, sitting on the back steps playing with her kitten, Fizzy, just before I opened the oven in the old cook stove, pulled out an unappetizing tuna casserole, and set it on the counter.
When I turned around, she wasn’t there.
At the time I wasn’t worried, not in the least. It never crossed my mind that she would leave the sanctity of the steps. I walked to the open doorway. “Bridget, come inside for supper!”
Although we had been here for a month, I still felt a sense of wonder at seeing the wild, majestic landscape that surrounded us. The sun was high on this northern summer evening, shedding its molten radiance on the overgrown yard, the long grass mingled with brightly coloured weeds and wildflowers, the cool air fresh with the scent of resin.
Stepping back inside, I pumped two glasses of icy well water using the green hand pump over the enamel sink and set them on the table before calling again. “Bridget!”
Had she slipped back inside without my noticing? I stopped and listened, but the old house was silent. There was no sound but the call of an unseen songbird from the windbreak at the edge of the yard.
She must be in the toilet. I went down the path and around the corner of the barn to the biffy, built of small vertical logs, now grey and weathered, flanked by a couple of huge lilacs. The toilet door hung lopsidedly on leather hinges.
She wasn’t there.
“Yoo-hoo! Bridget, where are you?” I walked over to the log barn, its double doors fastened shut with a piece of bone like a skeleton’s finger. The catch was too high for a four-year-old to reach, so I didn’t open them.
Beside the barn was an old log cabin, my great-aunt’s first home. I poked my head inside. The squirrels had been busy in here, and there was a pile of leaves and twigs in one corner, but the cabin was empty.
“Bridget, come out right now! If you’re joking, it isn’t funny!”
That’s when I felt the first flicker of fear.
Surely she wouldn’t have gone down to the creek by herself.
I dashed across the backyard and through the knee-high grass toward the creek. The poplars, their green leaves already tinged with gold, shook their branches in the breeze as if trying to frighten me away.
In contrast, the creek moved slowly and dreamily through the fragrant silver willows and bulrushes lining the banks. Along both sides, ferns leaned into the flowing water, their leaves streaming out behind them like hair in the flowing water. Along both sides, ferns leaned into the flowing water, their feathery fronds streaming out behind them like human hair.
“Bridget!” My voice was rising now, matched by the mounting panic in my chest.
The creek made a lazy curve before it widened into a large pond. At the far end was a beaver dam, a small fortress of branches and mud as high as my head. The pond looked like a dark-blue mirror lying in the green grass, a few fluffy cloud reflections floating on the still surface.
There was no sign of her.
Running back to the house, I reassured myself that I would find her waiting inside. I sprang through the back door, but the kitchen was empty. The cooling casserole looked less appealing than ever.
I flew up the stairs to the second floor. She wasn’t in the front bedroom where we slept, nor was she hiding in any of the unused rooms. I could tell by the layer of dust on the staircase leading to the third floor attic that she hadn’t been there.
She must be outside, but where? I vaulted down the stairs again, through the kitchen, and out the back door.
“What’s the matter?” Wynona’s low voice startled me. I whirled to find our new friend from the nearby reserve standing beside the steps.
“Wynona! Did you see Bridget when you came down the driveway?”
She shook her head silently.
I moaned aloud, turning in all directions as I tried to decide where to look next. “I can’t find her! She’s disappeared!”
Wynona’s face was impassive. “I can help you look.”
“I don’t know where to start! She never leaves the yard. She hardly lets me out of her sight!”
“Did you check the other buildings?”
“Yes. She isn’t even big enough to open the barn doors!”
“Maybe she fell asleep in the grass.” She pointed to the wild overgrown garden. “You look over there, and I’ll walk around behind the barn.”
Although Wynona was only twelve years old, I felt slightly comforted. Why hadn’t I thought of that? Bridget was probably tired from playing outside in the fresh air all day. It wasn’t very long since she had stopped taking her afternoon nap. Surely it was only yesterday that she had been a tiny baby in my arms!
I waded through the jungly garden area, and looked under the row of poplar and spruce trees that marked the eastern edge of the yard. There were flattened patches of grass below the trees where the deer often slept, but these were empty.
Running to the opening in the windbreak, I took another look down the long driveway that divided the grain field. The wheat had been cut down on both sides, leaving nothing behind but ankle-high golden stubble. There was nowhere to hide.
Now I felt a spurt of anger. If she were playing a trick on me, I swore that I would punish her for the very first time in her short life for giving me such an awful scare.
As I ran back toward the house, I heard a faint call. “Over here!”
Wynona had found her! I tore around the side of the barn, my knees weak with relief, but I didn’t see my precious daughter. Wynona was standing at the western edge of the yard beside a row of old wooden granaries, their red paint peeling and faded.
As I came panting up to her, she pointed at the wall of forest behind them.
“I think she went into the bush.”
The only forest I had ever seen — the sparse ponderosa pines of northern Arizona — was quite different from this dense boreal forest. The leafy poplars with their gleaming narrow white trunks grew as straight as power poles while they fought for elbow room with the tall, pointed spruce trees. Woven in and around them was a tangled mass of underbrush, forming a thick stockade.
I stared at it, shaking my head in denial. There was no way that my timid daughter would venture into such a forbidding place.
“What makes you think so?”
Wynona didn’t speak, she simply gestured. There was a slight track through the tall grass leading toward the trees, no more than a disturbance, as if a small animal had moved through it recently.
Or a small child.
My anxiety was suddenly transformed into sheer terror. I plunged toward the faint path, screaming her name. “Bridget! Bridget!”
Wynona caught up with me and grabbed my arm. “Let me go first. I know what to look for.”
I forced myself to hang back while Wynona waded through the long grass, parted the underbrush with some effort, and wriggled between two spruce trees. I followed her.
Within a few steps, the forest closed behind us and we were encased in vegetation. I looked up to the sky. The trees weren’t very high, but they would seem monstrously tall to a child. I could see a patch of blue overhead and thanked the gods that the sun would shine for another two hours. Wynona bent down and picked up a sharp rock, scoring the white bark on the trunk of a poplar.
“What are you doing?”
“That’s so we can find our way back out.”
It hadn’t even occurred to me that we might get lost as well. I looked behind me, but I couldn’t tell what direction we had come from. We proceeded at an agonizingly slow pace. Dead trees had fallen sideways, crisscrossing each other. We were forced to crawl under them or, if they were low enough, to climb over them.
But it was the underbrush that made movement so difficult. The shrubs had branches as hard as iron rods, and twigs like thorny table knives. They were too strong to break, and behind us they snapped back into place. One of them whipped me in the face. My bare arms were soon scratched and bleeding.
Even worse were the hordes of mosquitoes that swarmed around us, stinging and biting my bare skin mercilessly. Since Wynona had on her usual jeans and long-sleeved hooded sweatshirt, she didn’t seem bothered by them.
I remembered that Bridget was wearing only shorts and a T-shirt.
“Bridget!” My throat grew hoarse as I tried with all my strength to project my voice into the forest. The mosquitoes landed on my lips and my eyelids.
Wynona didn’t speak, but every few minutes she stopped to examine our surroundings. I had no idea what she was looking for.
“What is it?”
Silently she pointed to a broken twig. She made a mark on a nearby tree trunk, and we turned to our left.
I felt sick to my stomach. How had I allowed this to happen? Me, with my overprotective nature! Back in Phoenix I had warned Bridget hundreds of times about stranger danger, about crossing the street without looking, about washing the germs off her hands. But never had I told her not to venture into an impenetrable forest!
I glanced up through the branches. Was it my imagination, or was the sky turning a darker shade of indigo? I was terrified that we wouldn’t find her before darkness fell. We didn’t even have a flashlight.
“Wynona, don’t you think we should get help?”
She didn’t answer.
Suddenly I realized with stunning clarity that there would be no help.
There would be no search and rescue personnel, no trained dogs, no helicopter blades beating overhead, no searchlights, no ambulances with sirens wailing.
We were utterly alone.
The tears started to run down my cheeks and I sobbed aloud. “Bridget!” I wailed, on the verge of hysteria.
Wynona stopped dead and raised her hand for silence. “Did you hear something?”
“No.” I gulped back my tears and held my breath, straining my ears above the sough of the wind in the treetops.
Then I heard it, too, the faintest of far-off cries. “Mama!”
“Oh, thank God! Bridget, I’m coming!”
I plunged toward the sound, but Wynona struck off in a different direction and I knew better than to disagree. We crashed through the undergrowth. A jagged branch tore open my jeans and gashed the skin underneath.
Then we saw her.
She was sitting in a small clearing, her back against a tree, clutching Fizzy to her chest. Her arms and legs were scratched and bitten, her little face tearstained. I threw myself on her and her arms came around my neck, squeezing me for dear life as she burst into sobs almost as loud as my own. Fizzy yowled in protest.
“Bridget, my darling! You scared the wits out of me! How did you end up way out here in the bush?” Even now, she wouldn’t speak in front of Wynona.
I turned to the older girl as she stood watching without expression. “Please, let’s get out of here!”
It was doubly difficult to clamber through the brush with both Bridget and the cat clinging to me, climbing over and under fallen trees while trying to keep the clouds of mosquitoes away from her face, but she didn’t loosen her grip for an instant.
Mingled with my immense relief was a crushing sense of dread.
Until now my greatest fears had been presented by civilization — in other words, people. People with semi-automatic weapons. People with incurable contagious illnesses. People who drove drunk.
Never before had I considered that nature herself would threaten our very existence.
As we emerged from the trees, sweating and exhausted, Wynona spoke again. “Good thing there were no bears around.”