The Tree by Mike Hazelwood

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SUMMARY: Entry for the December Flash Fiction.

The Tree

Kevin turned onto a rutted tractor trail which snaked through a field bristling with corn stubble. In the rearview mirror Ella was belting out that most famous of holiday standards involving Jingles Bells and Batman. He parked where a narrow walking path forked off the track leading to a wall of trees. His wife, Beth, surprised him at the trail head with a kiss before they slipped into the forest. He smiled, but inside he felt he didn't deserve her love. Shame boiled acid in his stomach as he thought for the thousandth time of almost betraying her a week ago. Almost. He swore things would be different; he would not take his family for granted any longer.

"All right, Clark Griswold. Let's go get your tree," she said. "I don't suppose your wild tree comes with a guarantee against us having our annual tree stand fight do they? You know I do prefer mine pre-lit from China." Kevin beamed as he admired the vision before him. Her flushed cheeks provided a striking backdrop for snowflakes dancing in the breeze. He wanted to say so much to her.

"I don't deserve you," is what he blurted out before catching her full on the lips with a kiss. Ella stood puzzling over her parent's rare display of affection. Her gale of giggles delighted Kevin as he picked her up and ran off. As a child he had loved tromping through these woods. He'd trail behind his parents and older brother in search of the perfect Christmas tree. Now Kevin chased Ella as she bounded from tree to tree in her bright red snow suit. She declared her verdict of each candidate in turn.

"Too small, Daddy. Too tall, Daddy. Too pointy."

The family's sense of merriment ended, however, as the breeze turned to a roar. The wind blasted them from all sides at once, firing darts of ice and imprisoning them in walls of white. They staggered, heads bowed, seeking respite from the snow scouring their faces. They found an old oak tree and used it as a shield. Kevin hugged his family tight against its rough bark. But the squall, though fierce, died with as little warning as it had arisen. Kevin's mouth went dry and adrenaline tingled his nerves as he realized that in the dying light of afternoon nothing looked familiar. It dawned on him that they might be lost.

"Momma, I'm cold. Can we go home now?" Kevin watched as tears streaked down Ella's face. But as Beth knelt to comfort her, his stomach flipped as he realized she was not crying. He felt wetness on his face too, could hear rain striking the shell of his coat. In his mind he heard his voice screaming to get out of the woods. Kevin scanned for a landmark and met Beth's eyes; they pleaded for him to take action. He opened his mouth but the rain started to hammer down, jarring a thought loose. Smiling slightly he fished a cell phone out of his pants pocket and flipped it open. The smile receded, giving way to a curse under his breath. He watched grimly as a satellite dish spun on the visual display. No signal.

"Come on. This way," he said feigning calmness. Kevin set off, knowing they had to keep moving.

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