Down the Hidden Path

By: Heather Burch

CHAPTER 1


Dear Dad,

It’s fall here and the leaves are changing. The colors are unusually vivid this season, the deepest red, the brightest yellow, and the richest orange I’ve seen. Or maybe it’s that I’ve been gone so long, staring at endless shades of olive drab, I’d forgotten the beauty of autumn.

I drove out to the cemetery yesterday to visit the Havinger family plot where Mom’s buried. I wondered if we should contact Grandfather Havinger and see about having your urn placed there by Mom’s grave; it just seems wrong that the two of you aren’t together.

But I know that’s not what you asked for. Your words echo back to me: “We had your mother in life. We can let them have her in death.” You were always so strong, so fair—even with those who didn’t deserve it. Of everything you taught me about life, three things stand out. How to be a good man, how to be a good soldier, and how to be a good father.

The first, I daily strive for. The second, well, I suppose I’ve done. The third . . . the third I hope to one day do. And I guess that’s what this letter is about.

I’ve put in my time for Uncle Sam, and though the journey was both long and radically difficult, I find myself missing it and wondering what life would be today had I never signed up. I don’t know how to be a civilian, Dad. I’m a little bit scared I’ll fail at it. What advice would you give me if you were standing here at the water’s edge, enjoying the grand display of colors and life? I imagine you placing your hand on my shoulder and saying, “It’ll be fine, son. Truly, it will all be fine.” I wish you were here. I wish I could hear your voice one more time.

Though worlds separate us, you’re one of the biggest pieces of my heart.

Your son,

Jeremiah

Jeremiah McKinley wadded the letter and dropped it on the last embers of the early morning campfire. Fog rolled off the lake, great billowing clouds that rose and disappeared as the sun trekked over the mountaintop. It had been the pre-dawn hour when he left his house and walked down to the rock-strewn water’s edge where he’d started a fire with wood and kindling he’d gathered earlier in the week. There was still a chill in the air and it went straight to his bones as he wondered, for the thousandth time, what he was doing back in River Rock, Missouri.

Jeremiah turned to walk back up the winding path to his house, the place he’d throw his time and attention into until he figured out how to be normal again. When he thought of the road ahead, though he was apprehensive, seedlings of excitement had taken root in his heart. He planned to open a hunting and fishing lodge right here on Table Rock Lake. And instead of carrying a gun to kill insurgents, he’d carry one for hunting deer or turkey, maybe even the occasional bear.

Jeremiah shot a glance in the direction of his sister’s land and her ever-odd artists’ colony. Charlee’d found happiness, and that was something Miah wanted as well. Happiness. Contentment.

Peace.

An hour later, he headed into town with the weight of all his questions still heavy on his shoulders. When he spotted the breakfast taco truck, he whipped into the Dairy Flip’s parking lot.

He counted four people in line and glanced down at his watch. 7:25. Miah chewed the inside corner of his cheek. Since he’d been in River Rock, he’d come to love the breakfast taco truck that showed up wherever and whenever it chose. He hated the fact that you could stand in line and at any given moment, the man inside would say, “Sorry, we’re out,” and close the little window. Just like that. It had happened to him twice. Miah tapped his foot and waited behind a guy with three kids in tow. Three customers in front of him, a woman with long, ink-black hair stood on the tiptoes of her tennis shoes, arms folded and propped on the counter while she chatted with the guy inside.

Miah had no patience for morning chitchat and was just considering the merits of telling her so when her laugh split the air.

Something shot straight into his gut. The sound from her lips was deep, rumbling, almost smoky, rich as warm butter and sweet as mountain honey. He knew that laugh.

A slender hand reached up and captured some of the silken hair. Jeremiah’s mind rushed to catch up. This couldn’t be her. But that voice. When the guy in front of him moved and blocked Miah’s view, he sidestepped so he could see her fully, if only from behind. He had stepped completely out of the line and a heavyset woman rushed up to take his spot.

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