Drama Sad Fiction

This story contains themes or mentions of mental health issues.

TW: Death and firearms.

James sometimes heard ghosts in the wind. Ancient memories whispered past his ear when he was deep in thought. Sometimes real things too. A bird call would sound oddly human-like. A tree, swaying and creaking with age, sounded like a baby cry. Loneliness never left; it circled and came back, on and on through the years.

When James heard shouting back at the house one day, his first thought was of the house fire. Images of his wife, kneeling in the grass before the fiery altar of their home. Her wails were overlapped by sirens as help arrived too late. 

Then he heard it again and decided it was real, perhaps a bear. Maybe a pair of them were trying to get into the root cellar again and had started fighting. He turned and started weaving his way back through the woods, about a quarter mile. His thin legs lifted expertly over each root and bump like a deer, independent of thought. James pulled his pack forward to search through it as he walked. 

He pulled out a string of empty cans, but held them still until he could just see the clearing of his homestead. Beyond the trees was a field of tall grass adjacent to a stream. His log cabin was built on top of a small hill at the edge of the clearing. Inside the hill was an area hollowed out for food stores. James could see that the cellar door was still closed and locked. The fenced area of his garden, full of early summer sprouts, was also undisturbed. The door to the house, however, was open. 

James lifted the cans above his head and shook them. They clanged against each other, a piercing noise against the calm of the wilderness. James yelled to add to the noise, his aging voice cracking and wavering. When he paused, he heard an unmistakable human voice call back: “Hello?!”

 A figure appeared in the doorway, stooping slightly under the frame. It was a man, clothed in khakis, a windbreaker, and a ball cap. His clothes were torn and dirty. Under a sparse copper beard, the man looked young, still in his twenties. 

The man stepped out of the house and called again through cupped hands. James stood frozen in the tree line, shocked and without thought.

“Please!” the man shouted, his voice catching with emotion. “I’m lost! Help! Please!”

James smoothed his long gray beard, pulled a revolver from his coat pocket, and stepped out. He aimed toward the stranger.

When the man noticed him, he raised his hands above his head and shivered. “S-sir!” he said. “I-I-I’m sorry for trespassing. I’ve been lost for two days.”

James stared at him. “Where’s your gun?” he asked, raspy and low-toned.

The man frowned. “I can’t hear you.”

“Where is your gun!” James shouted.

The man jumped, “I don’t have one!”

They stared at each other. 

“Empty your pockets.” James commanded loudly. 

The man immediately turned his pockets out, tossing a pocket knife and a black rectangle of glass onto the ground several feet away. He unzipped his jacket, lifted his shirt up, threw his hat off, turned around, lifted his pant legs, wildly trying to prove he was unarmed. 

“Alright, alright.” James said. He lowered the gun. “You’re lost?”

“Yes,” the man said quickly. “I was hiking around Porcupine Lake. I got turned around in the dark. I have no idea where I am now.”

James blinked at him. “You have to go west.” 


“Porcupine Lake is west,” James repeated loudly. “Ten miles.”

“Ten miles?!” the man rubbed his forehead. “Oh, no. Oh, God.” 

“You got food?” James asked.

The man shook his head.

James started walking to the root cellar. “I’ll give you something for the trip. It’s not noon yet; lots of time.”

As he unlocked the cellar and descended the stairs, the man walked over and peered in. “Whoa,” he said softly. 

James steadied a lump of smoked meat hanging from the low ceiling and sliced at it with his knife. He held it out to the man, who took a ravenous bite and sighed. 

“Go get your pack,” James commanded.

When the man returned, he held open his backpack as James dropped in bare chunks of meat, a few apples and some carrots.

“Thank you,” the man said. “Thank you so much. I’m Connor, by the way.” 

James nodded and ushered him out. As he locked the cellar door, the man spoke up. “Do you live here all the time?” he asked.

“Yeah,” James said.



“Sorry,” he muttered. “Anyway, this place is great. This is like a dream. I would love to live off the land like this. You must be retired, huh?”

James glanced at him. “No.”

“No?” he frowned. “What do you do?”


Connor stared for a moment and cracked a smile. “Oh. Yeah, I guess the work on a homestead never stops. You seem really good at it! You’re in great shape too; how old are you?”

“You got water?” James asked.

“Not much.”

“I got some boiled in the house,” he said. 

More questions came: Do you have a generator? No. A phone? No. Radio? No. A vehicle? No. Neighbors? No. After filling the man’s canteen, James was practically pushing him out the door.


James stared at him from the doorway.

“Which way is west?”


Connor looked up at the sky helplessly. “Which direction? You said west.”

James was silent for several seconds. “Why are you out here if you don’t know your ass from which way is west?”

He stuttered. “My cell phone died. I can’t use the GPS. And I can’t call for help. That’s how I got lost.”

James shook his head. “You don’t have a compass? A map?”


“For God’s sake,” James said. They were quiet as he wondered what to do with this ignorant man. 

“Okay,” he finally said. “There is a road a few miles to the south. It does not go to Porcupine Lake, it goes to a town. You can walk to town and someone there will help you. It’s further than the lake, but maybe you’ll see a car on the way. I’ll take you to the road.”

Connor was nodding. “Okay, yeah. That would be so great. Thank you. Thank you so much, sir.”

James emptied his pack and filled it with proper supplies. He led the way through the forest with a large walking stick, the man following loudly and clumsily behind him. 

“My fiancé left me,” Connor confessed suddenly. “We were supposed to be married this weekend. I don’t know, I just wanted to get back to nature. My life feels so pointless. I sit in an office all day looking at a screen, then I come home and look at more screens. I’m sick of dating apps. I don’t have any friends…”

The man chattered on and on, complaining about things James didn’t really understand. He quickly stopped listening. He imagined a boy from another lifetime in Connor’s place, stepping in sync with his footprints. The wind whispered to him: “Do you think Bigfoots live in the woods, daddy? I’m tired. How much further, daddy?”

They reached the road two hours later. James was surprised to see that it was paved now. Far off, he could hear a car. 

“Oh my God,” Connor said. “Thank you.” He started crying.

“It’s alright,” James muttered. “Just follow the road that way.”

“Thank you!”

James was pulled into an embrace and his body turned to stone. 

Connor wiped his tears. “I would have died out there. I’m such an idiot.”

James was turning back to the woods. “Get home safe, son.” 

“Wait!” Connor called. “What’s your name?”


He nodded. “James. I won’t forget you.”

James tried to forget the lost hiker. When was the last time he talked to a person? What year was it? Questions he had stopped asking long ago robbed him of sleep. You belong here, he reassured himself. Nobody lives out here. You’re nobody.

A few days later, the hiker came back. 

James woke from an afternoon nap to a rumbling overhead. The noise grew louder and closer, until he had to cover his ears in pain. James rushed over to the single window on the south side of his home. A large black machine was descending from the sky: a helicopter. The words “Channel 7 News” were painted on the side. It landed in the clearing and shut off the engine.

Three men emerged from the helicopter, and he could see that one of them was Connor. James stood frozen, wondering if he should hide. He could climb up the chimney. He could dash out the door and into the woods, sneaking home after dark.

He stepped away from the window as the men approached his front door. Connor was knocking and calling his name.

“Go away,” James croaked after some time.

“James, we just want a few minutes of your time,” one of the other men said. “Connor says you saved his life. You’re a hero.”

A hero. James’ stomach soured.

“Go away,” he said louder.

“James,” Connor said. “I’d really like to thank you properly for helping me. I brought you something.”

“I don’t want anything.”

“That’s admirable, sir,” the other man said. “We’d really like to tell the story of a humble guy, helping people when he doesn’t have much himself. There aren’t enough positive news stories, you know?”

They pleaded a few more times. 

“James, I brought you a satellite phone and a solar charger,” Connor said. “You’re out here all by yourself, you’re older… This place took so long to find again! I don’t want something to happen to you and you can’t call for help. You helped me.” 

The door cracked open and James poked his head out. “Son, I don’t want anything,” he said to Connor. “Go live your life and leave me be. You already thanked me; that’s enough.”

Connor stared at him pitifully. The other two men were watching them intensely. One of them held a microphone, the other had a video camera perched on his shoulder.

“Could we take a photo of you two?” the man with the microphone asked. “We won’t ask you any questions; just something to put in the paper.”

James thought about it. “And then you’ll leave?”

They promised.

“Don’t put my name,” James said. “Don’t put where I live either.”

After they left, James felt better. He knew for sure that the hiker survived and that he wouldn’t return. James promised to use the satellite phone when he could no longer take care of himself; there was no need to come back and check on him. The next day he dug a hole and buried the phone, then he resumed the rhythm of his life, preparing for harsh winters ahead. 

Three weeks later, another helicopter landed in the clearing, bearing the letters: “FBI.”

A man and a woman approached James in his garden, clothed in navy blue. Their eyes were hidden behind reflective sunglasses.

“James McCormick?” the man asked.

James’s heart skipped. He nodded.

The man looked at the woman and smirked.

“You’re famous James,” the woman said. “Did you know that?”

He shook his head.

She pulled a badge from her pocket and flashed it at him. “I’m Special Agent Patterson. This is Special Agent Lance. Can we ask you some questions?”

James said nothing.

“Why are you hiding out here?” she went on. When she got no answer, she asked, “Did you know you were declared dead?”

“I am,” James said cryptically.

“Hmm,” she said.

“We talked to your wife,” Lance chimed in. 

James looked away.

“She wrote a letter to you,” Lance said. He extended an envelope to James, who did not take it.

“I don’t think I want to read that,” he said hoarsely.

“Would you like me to read it?” Patterson offered. 

“No,” James wiped his face. “What do you want from me?”

“Well James,” Patterson said. “We want to close your missing persons case, and then we want to get you some permanent housing and some counseling.”

“I got a house,” James sniffled.

She shook her head. “You’re on federal land, James. You can’t live here. It’s illegal.”

“I've been living here for–” James wondered how long to estimate. “For decades. I’m not hurting anything. I’m nobody. Leave me alone, won’t you? Just leave me alone.”

The agents were quiet as he cried. Finally, Patterson said, “James, we’re going to wait thirty minutes for you. Go grab the things you want to take with you.”

“Take where?” James asked. “Am I under arrest?”

Lance laughed. “No! The internet loves you; it would be a PR nightmare.”

“You’ll be staying in a hotel until we can get you a permanent placement,” Patterson explained. “There’s nothing to worry about. We’re here to help you.” 

“I don’t need help,” James said. “I don’t want anybody’s help… I can’t go back.”

“You can,” she assured him. “It’s okay.”

“What will happen to my house?”

She cleared her throat. “We’ll have to return the land back to the way it was.”

“How do you know the way it was?” he countered. “Nobody knows how it was except God and me. No one knew I was here. Just forget about me! Leave me alone, please!”

“I understand,” she said. “Take your time. Say goodbye. We’ll wait here.”

James walked to his cabin with numb, robotic motions. This home too would be reduced to ashes. He imagined smoke and flames on its grassy rooftop, his wife screaming again, sirens, a lifeless boy carried on the shoulder of a fireman.

He looked around the tiny dwelling and wondered what to take. None of it had any value to him; it was the place that mattered. The solitude, the silence, the forest, the animals, the hard work: a sanctuary from an irreparable past. 

His eyes rested on the revolver.

February 09, 2023 12:46

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


Bring your short stories to life

Fuse character, story, and conflict with tools in the Reedsy Book Editor. 100% free.