APPREHENSION EXCERPT, or an invitation to a tea party in my backyard. See you… 😉

ZAC

“Where the hell are you going?” I mean, there’s off the beaten track and off the track altogether.

“On an adventure, just like when I was little, come on. Those firs are the gatekeepers to the secret garden and the only way to make it past them is to follow the secret trail. No cheating allowed.”

She climbs like a mountain goat along a faint path carved by a spring torrent, long dry by now, effortlessly balancing, hopping from one boulder to the next.

Me, not so much.

Soon lagging behind, I simply find it easier to haul myself up the slope, using the low-hanging limbs of the evergreen trees like a chimpanzee on crack.

Cheating, granted, but much more effective.

Taking a sniff, my eyes instantly water, and I blink moisture away, the pungent smell that potent. Looking at my hands, I yell up, “Can you run by me what happens if I cheat?”

“Then you’re in a sticky position,” I hear from above.

I stare down at my hands.

“You cheated, didn’t you?” she calls out.

Uh…

“And if I did?”

Jesus. My fingers are fucking glued together, full of a fragrant-thick resin, sticky as all hell.

Magali takes one look at my hands and diagnoses, “The good news is, you smell amazing, plus your respiratory tracks are getting a deep cleansing with instant aromatherapy.”

“What the hell?”

She shrugs, face impish. “This oleoresin is full of medicinal virtues a page long.”

“Awesome,” I grit through my teeth. “And the bad news is?”

She holds in a laugh, patting me consolingly on the chest. “The bad news is … you’ll literally stick everywhere.”

I eyeball the sticky mess coating my palms and pretty much all of my fingers. “Well, that’s not so bad. Want to hold my hand?” I ask slyly, lunging.

She sidesteps, holding her hands up to ward me off. “Oh no. I’ll stick by you of my own accord, thanks. Besides, you need my hands to be your hands right now.”

“We have a bottle of saline in the first aid kit…” My voice trails off into silence as she shakes her head, a laugh building behind her twinkling eyes.

“Won’t do anything.”

“What about the baby wipes you packed?”

“No go. Not even the bottle of expired hand sanitizer lying at the bottom of the backpack will help you with that,” she says, leaning on one hip. Arms crossing over her chest, her brow slightly raises, upping the ante on her knowing look that asks, “Aren’t you glad you cheated now?”

I stare, incredulous.

“What in God’s name is that bloody fir from Hell,” I mutter, and she chuckles. I take a closer look at the bulbous, yellow-tinged resin oozing from the bark of the mature evergreens surrounding me, seeping onto the limbs like some kind of liquid plague waiting to happen on the next unsuspecting victim.

“That’s the greatest fir of all.” She teasingly bumps her shoulder into mine, and aren’t we just full of puns. “Also known as the balsam fir, a widespread Québec native all the way to the Ungava. And that wonderful resin can greatly increase your chances of survival in the wild, just so you know.” A smile lingers in her voice.

“Really? Could have fooled me,” I grumble as she slides the backpack off my shoulder.

“Seriously, just, you know, not on your fingers.”

I shoot her look. “No shit,” I say drily. “Now what?”

“Hold on, your plight has a few home remedies … but you probably don’t want to know some of them—tried out of desperation, no doubt.” She barely holds in a laugh, rummaging through the backpack side pockets, where we shoved the remnants of our lunch.

“Define desperation?” I ask suspiciously. My eyes narrow, wondering what kind of whacked-up thing I’ll have to do to get rid of my mess.

“For now, the only one at our disposal is butter, or the likes,” she says, taking out our empty sandwich wrappers.

“What exactly am I supposed to do with that, cellophane wrap my fingers until we can buy two matching tubs of butter?” I ask, remembering, a scant millimeter away from disaster, not to put my hands on my hips and spread the mess around.

“You’re supposed to rub it in until it scrapes off. Might take a while, but nothing too drastic. Fear not, or should I say fir not?” She ponders, drumming her fingers on her mouth, her serious tone belied by eyes glinting with merriment, her full, kissable lips fighting a smile.

“I’ll never live this down, right?” I ask, resigned.

“Probably not, and it’s half the fun. Here, let’s see if we can rub some mayo and Dijon on your hands, and have it listed as an alternative.”

“By all means, let’s rub it in,” I quip, a tad sardonic, but wipe my hands dutifully, nevertheless, on the leftover scraps from Magali’s baguette sandwich to collect the grease, never as thankful for extra mayo. Guess desperation will do that. It’s not a miracle but it will do for now.

Wondering if olive oil will do the trick just as well as butter is supposed to, as we don’t have any at the farmstead, either, I wash my hands with the saline solution, topping it off with a squirt of hand sanitizer Magali hands over.

Catching her palm in passing, I bring it flush with mine, pressing on it back and forth a few times, test-driving the sticky factor.

I still have tar on my fingers but at least it’s no longer as sticky. On a scale of one to ten, I’d say a five, not so bad considering that thirteen is what I started with.

I eye the trees with new respect.

“Where to?” I ask, hoisting the backpack over my shoulder.

“We go beyond the gatekeepers, through the Cathedral.” She drops a quick peck on my cheek, adding mischievously, “Just stick with me.”

“Have no fir, you bet I’ll stick by you,” I retort wryly.

“You’re such a dork, I love it.”

I wink. “I’m your dork, though. Lead the way.”

The line of trees is thinning out, thank the fuck, so this time I have no problem keeping up with her. We climb the rest of the way up in companionable silence, and I inhale with relish the woodsy aromas of ferns and moss, underlying the strong hint of eau de Christmas tree I can’t seem to shake. Not that I’m complaining now that I got full use of my hands back. Magali’s right, I smell amazing.

She frequently stops, her face deep in introspection as she lets her soft gaze sweep the mossy undergrowth, and I let her have her moments.

Her eyes shine, lit from within as she takes in the vista.

She’s so fucking gorgeous, I want to bottle her up. This moment. Her expression. An eternity preserved inside a container I can hold close and protect.

“We’re entering my favorite spot in all of your Enchanted Forest of Laure.” She lets out a happy sigh, breathing in her surroundings. “A magical kingdom, worthy of fairies and long-ago knights.” Her face tilts up to the sky, arms wide open, her eyes closing in total bliss.

The hairs on my body stand on end, and my skin prickles in some sort of unforeseen anticipation. My heart pounds, pulse racing as a strange, new awareness takes hold, like a portent of things to come. The last time I even got close to that visceral reaction, I was dangling back and fro, stuck on a jammed chairlift, watching Magali ski away, my gut screaming at me not to let her out of my sight…

Unbidden, an image of a little girl with glossy dark-brown hair, and bright, silver eyes, running wild and free in this very place comes to me. The image is haunting but so real it punches me right in the solar plexus, so hard that I almost double over. When the vision fades, I’m breathing hard, but Magali is still caught up in her moment and hasn’t noticed.

Tamping down on my growing exhilaration, I retrace our steps in my mind and orient. I estimate that we’re about twenty degrees northeast of the old farmstead, having followed a trail circling the perimeter of Liam’s meadow from the back since leaving the marsh, up until we veered off at an eighty-degree angle, here. At my guess, we’re no longer in the protected area of the nature preserve, but in the woods surrounding the old farmstead, and if so … it’d be possible to obtain a building permit for a residential. That much I know from Liam’s own odyssey into the local bureaucracy.

My heart thuds in my ears. I don’t know how it will play out exactly, if I do recognize a place like Liam and Leo did.

I close the distance between us, joining her on the summit. The view from the top is spectacular. It’s the highest peak in the vicinity, and green mountains unfold as far as my eyes can see, swelling gently like rolling waves on a peaceful ocean. And to our right, tucked into the picturesque valley, the abandoned barn appears in all its decaying glory, surrounded by its fallow fields, taken over by wild flowers in bloom.

Running my hands around Magali’s waist, my arms enfold her from behind, and her hands curl over my forearms. My chin comes to rest on top of her head as we contemplate the horizon, absorbed.

“Pretty awesome view. I get why you’d fiercely guard this Cathedral of yours.” I sigh in her hair.

“Oh, we’re not there yet, this is only the Belvedere pit stop. The Cathedral is down that way.” She points behind.

“Oh?”

“We came in from the back and I usually go there direct from the farmstead, crossing over the fields.” She kisses my still mildly tar-stained fingers before taking hold on my hand. “Makes me happy we took the long way, though. I haven’t entered the Cathedral from this side in years, and it’s the best way to experience it, especially the first time,” she says, letting out a long, breathy sigh.

“Why?”

“The view’s different for one side to the other, and from this one, you don’t see it coming,” she whispers reverently.

“Why are we whispering?” I whisper back.

“You’ll see. Now shush.”

She makes a shushing motion with her index finger, pecking it before pressing the kissed finger down softly upon my lips, and I shake my head at her.

Lead on, I mouth.

We walk unhurriedly down the slope on the other side, the slant a gentle two-degree gradient, keeping quiet. Not hard to do as I stare, slack-jawed, as the terrain changes suddenly.

We just entered a wood sprite palace. Dozens of ancient maple trees, probably centennials, border the meandering trail we’re following, their far-reaching limbs forming an arch over our heads. The majestic trees grow tall and proud, protected from the fierce winds and severe cold by the lee of the mountain. Their intermingled canopies reflect a myriad of translucent green tones through the sunlight in a stained-glass, church window effect, some rays penetrating in arrows of light, illuminating phosphorescent ferns and mossy trunks.

It’s breathtaking and awe-inspiring.

Magali shoots me a smile, and my lips curve, echoing hers.

“On a breezy summer day, you would have found me here, in the chancel between sanctuary and nave, listening to the choir of leaves singing.”

Eyes turned skyward, I make a slow turn, marveling. “It’s quite a feel.”

“If those trees could talk…” she says feelingly, and my brow angles.

“What would they say?” I ask, cocking my head.

She interlaces her hands with mine, her chest leaning onto my chest.

“Lots of things only a little girl would understand.” She drops a sweet kiss on my cheek.

I bend close to her ear. “Try me,” I whisper enticingly.

“Not on your life, no boys allowed.” She looks down to hide a smile. “But I’ll share my little girl’s secret home away from home, and we’ll have a tea party if you’d like.”

At her words, a tingly sensation fires up every nerve ending in my body. “I’d like.”

“Tea party it is,” she decides, eyes twinkling. “Just remember you volunteered.”

The glint in her eyes makes one briefly wonder what kind of stew she brews in there, or what kind of pretend stuff she’ll make me do … Could go either way, but then again, can’t be that much worse than glued fingers.

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