“Life always begins with one step outside of your comfort zone.”
– Shannon L. Alder
As a writer, I constantly search for ways to stretch myself beyond the confines of my comfort zone. To try new writing genres and styles is fun, exhilarating, and scary. It is also necessary to hone my skills and develop techniques that lead to richer character developing and stronger story lines. One of my goals for 2020 included submitting my work to some writing competitions. To throw my “hat in the ring” so to speak and see how it compared. The Facebook notice from the Lewis County Writers Guild caught my attention as a different type of contest. They provided three photographic images to serve as a writing prompt and inspiration. These options included the typical “path in the woods” and a “cowboy riding into the sunset” picture. A orange fox stared at me from the third picture. His eyes bright and inviting as if saying to me…have you ever felt invisible and longed to be free.
The wooden park bench suggested a welcoming warmth as Amber sat down. Reclining back, she lifted her face towards the sun to soak up every ray of strength humanly possible. She had brought her lunch with her. The same lunch she packed every day. The same sandwich, apple and chips that were meant to sustain her day’s work.
Amber worked as an accounts receivable clerk in an enormous office building in downtown Portland. Her office comprised of a cubicle, one of many on the third floor; all of them filled with people who did a variation of what she did every day. Every day for ten years. Open her accounts, add numbers, enter data and move on to the next. She would like to say she loved her job, but that would be a lie. She had a job. She lived a job. That was all.
This park and this bench had become the only part of her life that did not connect to her job. Her own little private sanctuary of joy. Her parents had recently passed away and her love life… well, it did not exist. She wondered as she sat in silence, would anyone even know if she just disappeared? How long would it take her floor manager to realize she had not come back to work? Who would know?
The bench and the sun enveloped her into a faux sense of well-being. A sentiment that rarely lasted past her hour long lunch break.
She closed her eyes and leaned her head further back against the hard metal bench frame. The birds sang to her from the treetops, and occasionally a bee buzzed past. The heavy, musky scent of lilacs blooming tickled her senses. Sighing, she tried to take her mind and body to another place.
Amber perceived someone observing her. Alert to danger, she opened her eyes! In front of her, sitting quiet and still in the grass by the trunk of the towering willow tree, sat a fox. His golden colored eyes pierced hers as if he saw deep into her soul and understand her pain. In the sun, his fur glowed a bright orange and red as he continued to stare. She saw his heart beating fast as the white patch on his chest moved in and out.
Amber had never seen a fox anywhere outside of cages at the zoo. She glanced around her. Did anyone else notice? Groups of people strolled past her. Some were walking their dogs and others chatted with friends, or talked on their phone. No one seemed to detect the fox.
Her first instinct was to take a picture with her phone–to capture this special moment, but she couldn’t pull away from the intensity of the fox’s stare. His gaze locked with hers. She studied him until her eyes started to burn. She slowly closed them to ease the pain, but when she opened them again the beautiful fox had disappeared.
Shook to her core, Amber shoveled her things into her bag and stood up. Her legs shook like jelly as she struggled to move. A beeping phone alarm signaled her lunch time would soon be over. Confused, she wondered, had it really happened? Had she truly seen a fox? She reluctantly started back towards her office to finish out the remainder of her shift.
Later that night in her tiny Burnside Street apartment, Amber could not shake the notion that somehow today her life had changed. Brushing her teeth, she found several of her front teeth seemed larger than normal. Perhaps she needed to make a dentist appointment. When she glanced into her bathroom mirror, it shocked her to discover streaks of orange and red highlighted in her drab, brown hair. Amber gazed at her image. Somehow she was different. Still plain and simple Amber from the accounting department, but different. She clicked off the light and climbed into bed.
Amber never had trouble sleeping, but tonight, she tossed and turned; lost in a world between reality and fantasy. In her dreams she watched the fox running free through the meadow by the park; his joyful spirit and happiness evident by how he gracefully leaped and played in the tall grass. Then he stopped and turned. Dreamily his face zoomed in; close and intense. He seemed to pull her to him; pressing her to join him. Amber reached out to touch his face.
“Beep, beep, beep” Amber’s alarm shattered the moment and called her to the start of another day.
Normally resolved to her tasks and duties at her desk, Amber glanced frequently at the clock. She yearned for her lunch break. She wanted to return to her bench in the park. Would the fox be there again? Had he ever really been there at all? Anxious and confused, Amber bolted from her desk exactly at noon to get to the park as quick as possible.
Once again her bench welcomed. Once again she found her comfortable bubble of sunshine, birds, bees and flowers. But today, she closed her eyes, sighing with anticipation. Would he come? Minutes passed.
She thought she detected a noise. Alert now, she searched and waited as she mindlessly nibbled on her peanut butter sandwich. Her eyes strained to see through the deep shrubs and foliage that bordered the park. She thought she caught a flash of red? Was it the fox? Then again, behind a bush a little closer. The fox’s fur, despite being a brilliant red and orange color, seemed to disappear among the mottled green of the plants.
Then she met his eyes. Staring directly at her through the leaves of a low shrub. Never wavering his gaze, the fox slowly moved forward towards her until he sat once again in the dappled shadows of the willow tree. He stopped.
Amber sensed each and every breath she took. She found herself mesmerized by the fox. The intense color of his fur was so stark. Combined with the sunlight it created a halo glow around his compact frame. Amber seemed suspended in a third dimension, unable to move or release her gaze from the fox’s eyes. Tears rolled slowly down her face and fell like tiny drops of rain onto her lap.
The fox opened his mouth and whispered. Come. Then he disappeared.
Back at work in the employee restroom, Amber splashed cold water on her face. She needed to clear her mind. Studying herself in the mirror, she again noted the red and orange highlights in her hair–more than last night. And now, the tip end of each red strand glowed bright white. Amber wondered what was happening to her. Perhaps she needed a dentist AND a doctor appointment or a therapist? She envisioned herself slipping away, no longer able to focus on life around her. Is this how it happened? People just drifted away to an unknown place and silently succumbed to lunacy?
In her dreams that night, Amber wrestled with her mind and heart.
Come. The word played over and over as she followed the fox darting in and out of scenes from her life. Behind the trees at her parent’s funeral. Under her desk at work. She even glimpsed him in the elevator of her apartment building, as the door slammed shut. Unsettling, yes, but somehow Amber was not afraid.
Amber had no recollection of returning to work the next morning. She moved throughout the day in a trance. The numbers on the page had no actual connection to her mind. They were just black marks on a white page. The only thing that registered with her was the clock. She felt and heard it tick off every single second as the hands crawled towards noon. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
Finally free, Amber arrived at the park and found her bench. Today she felt only nature around her, even though there were groups of other people enjoying the warm spring day. Nervous, she bounced her heels up and down against the soft green grass. Anxiously waiting.
Amber didn’t have to wait long. Peering up, she noticed the fox sitting under the tree in the same place as yesterday. Their eyes immediately found each other. But today his gaze was softer, more inviting. Amber had seen many people walking their dogs in the park. The dogs looked at their owners the same way this fox was looking at her. Love? How?
“Hello, my little friend.” Amber whispered.
The fox’s ears perked up.
“Where did you come from?”
Amber’s soul and spirit floated in the warm sun, enclosed in the bubble that seemed to emanate from the fox. They were the only living things on earth, even though people continued to surround her with activity and noise. In the bubble, she and the fox were one. Amber had no comprehension how long she stayed in the park. Time and normal life had no place in the bubble. She sensed darkness falling as the fox suddenly looked at her and scampered off through the meadow and into the trees.
Amber shook from the cold. She became aware of the darkness surrounding her, and was overcome by loneliness. She trudged home to her little apartment. Home. By herself in a world that did not know her.
That night, the fox dream vividly returned.
This time, Amber felt the fox lying next to her in bed. She sensed him breathing and shuddered at the tickle of his soft fur against her skin, igniting her emotions. The fox’s tongue kissed her cheek. Amber stroked his head and whispered into his silky pointy ears. Every breath joined them together, and she now knew she would never be the same. She had to be free.
Amber’s work desk had been empty for three days. After a week her manager wondered where she might be. It was not like her to not show up. In fact, the manager didn’t remember having ever seen her desk empty. Believing something wasn’t right, she contacted the police to do a wellness check at Amber’s apartment.
When the police arrived, they knocked several times.
“Amber, it’s the police. Are you okay in there? We need you to open up.”
The apartment manager brought the master key and slowly opened the door. When the door opened just a crack, a beautiful red fox dashed out, scampered down the hall and disappeared.
“What in the heck was that?” they questioned.
Shaking their heads, they searched Amber’s apartment. After inspecting all the rooms, and finding nothing suspicious or out of place, they locked up again.
“How odd,” they said as they left the apartment with the manager. “Maybe she left for vacation? Do you think someone will file a missing person’s report?”
“No,” said the manager. “The young woman didn’t have any family or friends that I know of. In fact, I don’t actually remember ever seeing her. She kept to herself.”
As the sun disappeared west towards the Pacific Ocean, all was once again quiet in the city park.
People gathered up their books, bags and bikes and headed out; each to their own homes and families. The world slowed down and closed up for the night. The wooden bench by the willow tree in the park sat dark and empty.
In the last few glimmers of evening light, darkness swallowed the day. Nearby in the meadow, two bright orange foxes leaped gracefully through the meadow flowers. They chased each other through the tall grass and tumbled on the ground among the poppies and lupine. The birds sang nature’s song of love as they disappeared into the forest together.
– by Connie Nice
This short story was awarded Honorable Mention by the 2020 Lewis County Writers Guild. Have you ever felt invisible? Have you yearned to be free? Step out of your comfort zone.