The Escapade

A lone owl perched on a the branch of a birch tree, was wide-eyed, looking out at the noises emanating from the ground. Moonlight streamed in through the canopy, letting the owl discern some little figures that were slowly trudging through the forest floor.

Rachel tossed the wet tissue into a bin, having dabbed her puffy eyes with it. She untangled her black hair, touched with a liberal amount of grey and pulled it back in a neat little bun. Running her hands over her face, she flashed a watery smile at the mirror before leaving the vanity table.

Heavy rain drummed on the patio roof, creating short-lived puddles on the clear glass. The climbers adorning the posts were drenching in water along with the vast array of greens that were outside the expanse, planted on a narrow strip of land.

Rachel slid the door open and felt a real smile creeping in. There was something comforting about how her father was perched on one of the armchairs, bespectacled with a reader’s digest clutched in his wrinkled hands.
She sunk next to him and he kept the book away, his grey eyes raking his daughter. 

‘Crying again, I see.’

She nodded, her gaze fixed on the floor. ‘Can’t help it. Just as I think I’d run out of them, it all starts spilling out again.’

‘Like every other year.’, he said softly and when Rachel glanced up, she saw tears welling up in his eyes too.

Alarmed, Alice grabbed her brother’s arm, hissing, ‘What was that?’ into his ear.

Tom shrugged her off impatiently. ‘An owl, you idiot. Just an owl.’

She exhaled, almost stumbling on a branch. He caught her arm this time, balancing his torch in the inside of his elbow.

‘Careful.’

The ground was covered in a sheet of leaves, moss, branches and soil. 
But the clusters of dried leaves topped the lot having dappled the land the most. Their feet crunched on them, inducing noise like a wrapper being crumpled. It was extremely satisfying.

‘Nobody would ever figure it out’, declared Alice, snickering a little. ‘Who knew sneaking out could be this easy?’

‘It isn’t.’ Tom turned to to face her, taking small steps backwards as he talked- ‘It takes skilful planning and intricate precision and that, my dear sister is what defines me.’ He pointed at himself and grinned absurdly.

Alice wanted to slap him.

‘Yes, it is.’
The persistent pitter-patter of the rain seemed far from enjoyable to Rachel but she didn’t say it aloud to her father. Especially how each sound was like a gunshot, penetrating her mind and thoughts. 

Now, petrichor. She could handle that. The rich smell wafting from the muddy soil was pouring peace into her heart until some fresh rumbles of thunder began to blare above them. Rachel saw her dad cocking an eyebrow at her. ‘The sign to skip the visit this time?’

She shook her head. ‘No. Not if we wait long enough.’

‘Alrighty then.’

She saw his lips stretching into a half smile and then vanishing the next  second, like a broken light flickering on and then off. Rachel knew he was trying to spark happiness inside her but that wasn’t what she wanted, not today. He should know that better than anyone. And yet the concern and sadness brewing inside his eyes bore the telltale signs of another account.

She opened her mouth say something when a sudden shrill tune bounced back from the interior of the house. 

‘Your phone…’ he cast about and she gave him a quick nod and set off for it.

The weak ring of torchlight danced on the last birch tree before touching a moonscape stretched out in front of them. They were out of the woods, breaking into an odd clearing, pocked with scattered rocks, mud potholes and tufts of messy grass. Further away in the distance, mounted on level land was a forsaken cabin with a chain of trees curtaining it.

‘Looks pretty challenging.,’ remarked Alice, gesturing at the fissured path in front of them.

Tom shrugged. ‘But the trophy shines bright.’ His eyes fastened on the murky cabin. ‘And we don’t have much time till midnight. We’d better get going unless we want them to cut us out.’

‘Fine.’

Darkness seemed scarce in the open land where the moon hung above them and poured down light like a disco ball. But picking their way down the disfigured path proved to be trickier than plodding through the forest.

Alice’s feet ached to step on leveller ground and when they were halfway through, she called out for a pause and shook the stiffness out of them that was growling up to her mid thigh.

Tom, who was a little ahead, flashed his torch at her. ‘Hurry up, Alice. We’re almost there.’

‘I did. A clump of lavender, the bouquet kind. What do you mean it’s raining? I paid for it. What refund? Where will I go for….hello? Hello? Damn it!’ Rachel threw her phone across the couch. Hot tears streamed down her lashes, dripping off her chin and wetting her face but she made no effort to wipe them away.

‘I should have bought them at the market that day.’ She muttered to herself, shaking her head. ‘Now it’s too late. Just too late.’

‘Maybe not. There’s always the good old plan B.’ said a voice behind her and she turned to face her dad who was standing in the hallway, holding a couple of freshly plucked peace lilies in his hand. 

Sobs rose up inside her chest, quivering her body until she gave in and flew to her father’s arms, almost knocking over his frail frame. She bawled into his shirt like a little girl with him stroking her hair and trying contain her until it silenced into fast little puffs of her breaths.

After statued in the state for what seemed like hours, Rachel finally pulled back, laughing sheepishly as she eyed his drenched shirt before switching on a serious face, her voice weak as she spoke- ‘Dad, you know, I’d always kept only that. It was a tradition.’

He shook his head and held up the flowers. ‘Traditions are born to die, Rachel. Just like we do.’

The cabin was warmly decorated with banners, candles and food with a old table rooted in the forefront of the enclosure. A strip of coloured paper with a scrawled ‘happy birthday’ hung from the nucleus of the wooden walls.

‘Now, this place looks grand.’, declared Ben, lighting the last of the scented candles. ‘She’ll love it.’

Alice twirled around, freckling the floor with scrapes of mud. ‘Sure she will. You did a great job.’

‘Yeah’, added Tom and his eyes gleamed as he took in the place. ‘This is all so very exciting!’

‘I know right.,’ said Ben, producing a small cardboard box. ‘We’re living the dream. The escapade we’d been planning for months is finally happening!’

‘I must say we’ve already lived the dream by having come here without getting busted by our mom.’ said Tom, exchanging a look with Alice before edging near him. ‘What’s that?’

Ben set his box on the table. ‘So I pitched in a few headlights that’ll help us lone it back home later.’

‘Nice,’ said Alice, leaning over it. ‘The birthday girl should be here anytime soon for the greatest night of her life. And ours’.

Ben grinned and heaved the box up when a startled cry from Tom made him drop it with a loud thud. A faint crackling sound seeped into Alice’s ears to which she hadn’t given heed before and now made foreboding rise up inside her. She turned to face her brother who’d blanched as white as paper and followed his gaze stopping by the door. Two candles that had been placed between a hollow in the wall, lay knocked by the wood, heating and charring it. A short growing blaze ran vertically like a scar, bursting into a full-fledged fire along the open door.

Alice retched from the smoke arising from it and clutched at her brother’s arm, faint with fear.

‘W-what have we done!?’

Tom only stared horrified at the scene with beads of sweat trickling down his temple and his pulse thundering uncontrollably in his throat.

The evening star peeked in through the window, twinkling like a laughing eye, gazing at a calmer Rachel who was standing in front of a shelf inside her bedroom. Hot winds flew around, wafting inside the room and rustling the forest trees outside.

The rain had died a slow death, burying their hopes of visiting the graveyard. But the birth of the ‘plan B’ had paved way for a dash of acceptance in Rachel’s heart, in a space that had been vacant for years, that had been carved with wishes for it to come and live. The dream was finally real now, although conservatively.

Rachel was staring at the framed photograph placed on the shelf. Her eyes usually watered at the mere sight of it but now they were dry for she gazed at it with a yearning so strong that it burned her tears to ash.

But she took a deep breath and let it go not without some effort. She unclasped the lilies from her hand, adorning the foot of the photograph with it and stepped back to sit on her bed. 
Cross- legged, fingers digging into the mattress for support, she relived the memories of her children until she was lost in them with a rare smile playing about her lips.

A tall boy and a girl slightly younger than him, were posing beside a tree in the frayed photograph with cheeky grins painted across their happy faces. 

It had been seven years.

A piece of wood, lit with raging fire crumbled down, blocking the doorway where it flared into a brighter flame. Napkins, aimed at dousing the fire had instead gotten eaten up by it, killing their optimism with each try.

‘Help!,’ screamed Alice for the umpteenth time, her face flushed and tear-stained.

Tom’s cries overshadowed her’s as he banged at the walls that were devoid of fire, kicking and punching at them. 

In a corner, Ben was shuffling through all the things he had bought in an attempt to find something usable. 

The fire crackled as the winds carried them across the space; orange tongues of flame dancing to the scorching heat that hung heavy on the air.

Alice coughed and leaned against a wall, slick with sweat. She thought she could distinctly smell lavender from the scented candles that were melting away but felt smoke flowing over it. All of her panic and fear escalated to a faintness, blurring the heat, voices, sounds and sparks from the blindingly bright spectacle of the fire. She slowly closed her eyes.

Tom cried in exasperation and slumped down on the floor, his feet and hands were heavily splintered and they were aching. He sighed as he watched another piece of wood fall in the distance, ablaze.

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