Stella didn’t come out of her room until after lunch. Her pale face and the circles under her eyes told Ellie that she hadn’t slept well. They sat out on the porch for a short time, but when the scent of cooking hamburger reached them, Stella clamped a hand over her nose and ran back inside.
Miss Ruby’s will could wait until Stella felt better. Or maybe she should just talk to her Uncle Jim since he was the lawyer who drew up the papers. That seemed like a better option, so Ellie went to her room and called his office. Unfortunately, he was in court and his assistant couldn’t say when he would return.
Ellie opened the box and read through more of Miss Ruby’s letters to her daughter. Each year, on the anniversary of Maddie’s death, the fragile, barely-healed scars on Miss Ruby’s heart tore open again, and the words she read left Ellie feeling vulnerable and raw. The tenth anniversary letter was particularly tough to read and afterward she desperately needed to escape.
She drove the Ranger out to the edge of the woods as near as she could to a secluded little area her father had cleared for her. This was her private little sanctuary. An Adirondack chair sat under a willow tree she’d planted near the body of her first pet—a goldfish who had died, probably from overfeeding, when she was seven years old. Murphy and she used to spend hours out here. She’d read whatever book she was absorbed in at the moment while Murphy hunted squirrels and rabbits as a younger dog, or rested beside her when he grew too old to care about the wildlife.
Ellie found the clearing and glanced around. A couple of summers ago, she’d planted a small shade-loving perennial garden with hostas, bleeding hearts, columbine, and bluebells. A new tree now stood in their center and she smiled. A dogwood! Her father had planted a dogwood tree in her little garden. It seemed to be thriving here, nestled in among the larger trees and protected from the harsher weather. She took a deep breath, enjoying the scents of the forest surrounding her and already feeling more at peace than she had in her bedroom.
She parted the hanging fronds of the willow and settled into the chair. She couldn’t stay long, the sun was already heading for the horizon and it was hard enough finding the place in the daylight—a ten minute trek winding through oak, hickory, ash, maple, and fir trees—but this spot had always calmed her when nothing else could. Oh Murphy, I wish I could have buried you here.
She woke with a start. It was pitch dark under the willow. She reached for her crutches and hurried from the clearing. If she headed as straight as possible through the trees, they would end eventually and then she would just have to locate the Ranger. She shivered. It was too quiet in the trees and that worried her. Shouldn’t there be crickets or something making some noise? Or was her presence keeping them silent?
It was nearly impossible to stick to a straight line as she skirted the trees, but she tried to adjust and readjust as she hobbled through. Several times she caught a crutch on an exposed root and almost fell, catching a branch or a tree trunk to stay upright. She decided to slow down since she didn’t want to rebreak her leg. Why did she leave her phone in the Ranger? What a stupid thing to do! But she hadn’t planned to stay long. Only half an hour or so to recharge her mental batteries. Her parents must be worried sick. Maybe that was good though. Maybe they would come hunting for her.
The sound of a stick breaking high up in the trees behind her made her whirl around. She searched the boughs for reflective eyes and felt relieved when she didn’t see any. But what would they reflect? She carried no flashlight. Her heartbeat sped. Were there any black bears in their woods? Or wildcats?
She gasped as something touched her good leg and lost her balance when she shifted onto her cast automatically. She landed on her side and cried out in pain. A wet tongue swiped at her face and she threw her arms around the furry body standing over her. “Murphy!” Her dog whined and his whole back end wagged in time with his tail. “You’re alive! How did you get home?”
Murphy squirmed free and pushed against her, propelling her to her feet. He took several steps away from her, then paused, looking over his shoulder. “I’m coming, Murph. Lead the way.” She followed the old dog as he picked his way through the trees at an angle from the direction she had been heading. It took longer than she thought it should, but he led her straight to the Ranger. She climbed in behind the wheel and waited for him to jump up beside her. When he didn’t, she went looking for him.
The old dog sat at the edge of the forest. “Come on, Murph. Let’s go home, boy.” She patted her leg as she spoke. Murphy didn’t move so she approached him. She bent over in front of the Border Collie and stared into his intelligent eyes. “Murphy?” The dog, his tail wagging again, stood on his back legs and put his paws on her shoulders so he could lick her face once more. She hugged him tightly. “I love you, Murphy. And I always will.” She felt his flanks rise and fall with a deep sigh. As soon as she let go, Murphy turned and raced back into the forest. She waited in the Ranger, eyes searching the tree line, hoping he would return. But knowing he wouldn’t. Her phone rang and she picked it up. There was a long line of missed calls illuminated on the screen. All from her parents. “Hello?”
“Ellie? Oh thank God! Where are you honey? Your dad and I are worried sick. We were just about to call the police but we knew you’d taken the Ranger out so we thought at first that maybe you just needed some alone time. But it’s four in the morning. Are you alright?” Her mother’s words rushed out. Relief and worry mingled in her voice.
“I’m okay, Mom. I went to my clearing for a few minutes and fell asleep. I’m on my way back and I’ll explain more. I’m sorry I worried you but I’m fine. Relax and I’ll be right there.”
“Oh thank God. Thank God.” Her mother replied, but her voice sounded distant so Ellie assumed she was talking to her dad. She hung up the phone and, with one last glance around the area, started up the Ranger and pointed it toward home.
Her mother and father were waiting for her on the porch when she pulled up. Her father bounded down the stairs, took her crutches away from her and propped them against the Ranger, then picked her up, cradling her in his arms as he carried her to the house. “Ellie-girl, you scared us near to death.” He kissed her forehead and put her down in front of her mother, who immediately clamped her arms around her tightly, tears streaming down her face.
Her father brought her crutches to her and both of her parents flanked her as she hobbled into the living room. “Sit down, baby, and tell us what happened. You’re as white as a ghost.” They positioned themselves on either side of her.
“Well, as I told you on the phone, I went to my clearing to escape. Some of Miss Ruby’s letters are heartrending to read. Tonight’s was the tenth anniversary of Maddie’s death and I just wanted to spend a few minutes in my sanctuary.” She turned to her father. “Thank you for the Dogwood, Dad. It’s so beautiful and looks perfect there. When did you plant it?”
Her mother huffed, probably frustrated at the sidetracked conversation.
But her father’s face had lit up. “I bought it when we got back from visiting you the first time in the hospital.” He shrugged, looking sheepish. “I spent a little more than I normally would for a tree, but we were so relieved to know you were going to be okay. I kind of went hog wild.”
“Aw, Dad, that’s so sweet!” Ellie gave her father a hug. “I love it. Truly!”
“I knew you would. You can’t believe how hard it’s been to keep it secret. I was beginning to think you didn’t care about the clearing anymore.”
Ellie chuckled. “I do. I just hadn’t gotten out there yet.”
“Well don’t go just before dark anymore, please,” her mother said.
“I won’t, Mom. I promise.” Ellie paused. “Murphy found me.”
Both of her parents reacted with shocked expressions and exclamations. “What?” “How?” “Where is he now?” “Are you sure it was Murphy?” The words flew at Ellie from both sides. She held up her hands to stop them.
“I don’t know if I can fully explain it. I was trying to find my way out but it was so dark and I kept getting tripped up.” She took a deep breath, the feelings of fear returning with the story. “I heard a branch snap in a tree behind me. It was over my head but when I tried to see anything, I couldn’t.”
Her mother clamped a hand over her mouth. Her eyes wide. “It could’ve been a wildcat,” she murmured.
Her father grimaced. “Don’t borrow trouble, honey. Now go on, Ellie.”
“That’s when Murphy found me. He brushed against my leg and nearly frightened me to death. I fell down, but he licked my face and I realized it was him. He let me hug him and he gave me more doggy kisses, but then he pushed against me and I realized he wanted me to get up. After I got back on my feet, he started leading me out of the woods. I must have gotten way off track, because it took him a while but he eventually led me right to the Ranger.”
“He’s always been such a great dog,” her mother mumbled. “I’m going to spoil him rotten.” Her expression changed to puzzlement as she looked back toward the front door. “Where is he now?”
Ellie shrugged. “I don’t know, Mom. He wouldn’t come with me. I called and called him. I even went back to get him. He was sitting right at the edge of the trees, but . . .” Her voice broke and she choked back the tears. “He just stood up on his hind legs and licked my face.” Sobs broke free. “I told him I love him. And then he ran back into the trees.”
Her mother held her while she cried. Her father patted her back. She pulled herself together after a few minutes and sat back up.
“Tomorrow I’ll comb the area and see if I can find him.” Her father smiled gently.
“Why wouldn’t he come with you? Was he hurt?” Her mother still looked puzzled.
“I don’t think so. He raced back into the woods like he used to when he was a pup.”
“And you’re really, really sure it was Murphy? Maybe you dreamed it.”
“It was Murphy, Mom. He was wearing his collar with his dog tags and everything.”
“That’s so weird.”
“I know, Mom. I know.”
It was quiet in the room until Ellie yawned. “Well, we can discuss it more in the morning. We should all get some sleep.” Her father pulled her to her feet and helped her up the stairs and to her room. Her mother hugged her, asked her if she was okay, and left with her father to get a couple of hours of sleep before the new day began.
Ellie changed clothes and collapsed into her bed. Misty jumped up beside her, snuggling in, and Ellie curled around the little dog. Her last thoughts before she fell asleep were of Murphy.