The Clearing
By Mike MacConnell

The snow crunched under Danny’s feet as he carried the last armful of firewood inside. The air was icy, yet oddly inviting. The cabin’s door was heavy; it opened with a rusty swing that reminded him of the high pitched cry of a loon. After stacking the last three logs, he peeled off his boots and propped his feet up by the warm and crackling fire. He shivered momentarily as he eyed the full moon in the window. Finally, he would be able to relax. Between his job, his wife, and the high demands of everyday life, he hadn’t truly been able to relax.
Now, with a warm glass of bourbon in his hand, the crackling fire filling his ears and nose, Danny sighed and sank into his chair. This is great. Dropped the cell phone off at the house and left all my anxiety on this doorstep.  Danny happily sipped at his glass, savoring the warm and smoky flavor of the rusty colored bourbon. Mmm, this hits many spots, Danny wistfully thought.
Before he could take another pull off his glass, a thunderous crash sent Danny tumbling over backwards.  He shot up like a bottle rocket and raced to the window; his footsteps pounding the hardwood floor like an out of tune bass drum. He could see a bright glow no more than fifty yards away. There seemed to be a small trail surrounding it. One thought ripped across his mind—plane crash! Danny pulled on his boots, grabbed his hatchet and ran out the door, barely closing it behind him. Danny’s breath spilled out in ragged puffs as he raced to the site of the crash. The closer he got, the heavier the smell of fuel became. The scent hung inside his nostrils thickly; at one point Danny gagged.
He pulled a handkerchief and wrapped it around his nose. Like an outlaw. Look out, Mister, here comes Jesse James to the rescue, Danny fleetingly thought. Upon his approach, Danny crept further to the wreckage. No sign of any bodies—plenty of debris. Maybe some poor soul is trapped under the fuselage or something,he reckoned. He twisted, hacked and struggled with some shards of the plane, but he got nowhere. Too heavy, he thought. The dull roar of the flames swirled all around him as a crisp wind began to blow, causing Danny to back away. The heat seared at his face, causing him to flinch away. As he wheeled away, he saw the tracks—half-footstep, half dragged. Danny looked closer and noted a small dark trail along the trail. Blood, he thought. Jesus, I hope they’re alright.
Danny followed the trail into the trees where the tree line began, around roughly twenty feet to the east. If they got this far, they’ve gotta be alright,Danny thought. Danny headed down through the tree, branches popping and the icy ground crushing under his feet. The thick smell of pine filled the air—Danny pulled off his handkerchief and took a deep breath as he trudged on. From a distance, a small muffled pop could be heard. The plane? He wondered. Danny crunched onward. There’s a clearing here somewhere—before he could continue his thought, he saw it. Just ahead, he could see the clearing. Danny stepped out; he breath caught in his chest. The clearing was huge; it instantly reminded him of some forgotten Tolkien tale. The low pine branches were covered with the soft powder of a fresh fallen snow.
The moon was bright and full in the sky. Its reflected light caused the clearing to glow softly and brightly—almost creating a magical cast to the natural scene. There, at the north edge of the clearing, Danny spotted him. There was a shape huddled against the tree. A small but growing puddle of blood surrounded the base of the tree. Danny hurried to the shape, fearing the worst. He crouched down, checking for a pulse. The man appeared to be in his seventies—a wise old face, crisscrossed with wrinkles. His forehead was split at the left eyebrow. His face was battered and bruised almost beyond normalcy. The man sat up sharply, coughing out a small stream of blood. Danny reeled back with a shout.
“I—I’m sorry…” the person said.
Danny wiped his hand across his cheek quickly.
     “It’s alright, sir. Can you tell me your name?”
     “It’s Win—Winston…Winston—hic—Green.
     “Ok, Winston, I’m Danny. You’ve been in a plane crash—was there anyone else on board?”
     “No. Just…me.”
     “OK, Winston, I’m gonna check your wound, if that’s ok.”
     “You a…a doctor?”
     “EMT, sir.”
 Danny pulled Winston’s heavy coat back. He gasped—he could see three of Winston’s rib bones—and a sharp metallic fragment rammed in between. The blood was gushing in steady pulsing currents. This guy’s an endgame, Danny thought. Nothing to do now but keep him comfortable.
     “Winston,” Danny said.
Winston slowly turned his head. The moonlight was making his pale face glow.
     “Yeah?” Winston croaked.
     “You have any kids? Any loved ones?”
Winston lightly groaned and struggled to breathe for a second.
     “It’s alright, Winston. Take your time.” Winston grabbed Danny’s hand and drew him in close.
     “My wife is gone…” Winston whispered.
     “I’m sorry, Winston.”
     “It’s alright…I’m gonna…gonna get to see her soon.”
Danny’s clenched his jaw. What am I gonna say? Thanks for the conversation—would ya put in a good word for me when you see God?

     “You…you’re a good man,” Winston began. “You have a good soul. Thanks for trying, son.”

Danny felt a lump in his throat. Winston struggled and coughed, sending up more blood.

“Danny,” Winston whispered.
“Cherish her…cherish your time.”
“I will.”
“Take care of Sarah…show her that you love her.”

Danny’s eyes widened. How did he know her name?  Winston took one last breath, then sagged lifelessly against the tree. Danny clutched Winston’s hand as tears streamed down his cheeks.

Only then did he hear the distant crackle of the flames.

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I'm a student, father, husband, destroyer of pizzas, lover of the guitar, friend to animals, and a serious student of the absurd.

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