Diamond Dust

Submitted into Contest #140 in response to: Write a story that involves a flashback.... view prompt

38 comments

Fiction Sad

This story contains sensitive content

T/W: Sudden illness, grief, death




Moonlight traces an outline of the sofa, table and chairs as I creep about, gathering my things. Clouds bury the valley, but I know that above them the sky is clear, crystalline and pure. However, I am not there yet; I am here. Sequestered in my mountain-village flat, deep beneath the brooding cumulus.

The only sounds are the hum of the fridge and my flatmate, Sandra’s, soft rumbling snores. She’ll be angry when she wakes to find me gone, but it’ll be too late by then.

I don’t feel guilty since this is the only way it can be done. And at the end of the day, it’s just another hike. I’ve gotten very good at pretending, you see.

The last time I scaled this particular mountain, I was sixteen with my mother leading the way. Her: tanned, muscled arms pointing out bent or snapped off branches, paw prints in the dusty earth, cursing at any litter she found before picking it up and shoving it into her pocket. Blue eyes twinkling at the ease with which I kept up. Me: dark-blonde hair falling over freckled cheeks, eager and alert, mimicking my mother’s every move with gossamer-light feet. It is one of my favourite memories.

The Cascade trail is 20.1km of switchbacks, scree and gravel. It shouldn’t take me longer than five hours to reach the summit at 2998m above sea level, but I’m giving myself an extra hour just in case. I know I shouldn’t be going on my own, but I’m an experienced hiker and I know the trail. Besides, I can’t put it off any longer.

Once outside, fur-lined hat flaps warming my ears, I orientate myself, torch in hand - easily picking out the ragged shape of Cascade Mountain against the royal-blue velvet night sky - and begin to walk.

Somewhere, an owl hoots, long and mournful, and I wonder if it knows.

 

***

Summit in 16.5km

***

 

My muscles remember how much I like hiking before I do. Legs finding their rhythm, keeping in sync with my ponderous heartbeat as I follow the steady incline through the trees. I used to be so much lighter in more ways than one. Now, I am akin to a pack animal overburdened and undernourished. Irritated at my own analogy, I huff and push myself onwards, ignoring the complaint in my lungs.

When did I get this unfit?

After about two hours, the air begins to lighten enough for me to put away my torch. I am still beneath the clouds and amongst dense pine forest having ascended approximately a fifth of the way up. I estimate arriving at the peak for noon, which will give me plenty of time to rest, eat lunch and make my descent.

The only sounds are those of my own footsteps upon the bare earth, the occasional snap of a twig, a rustling of leaves and the steady tinkling of bells on my rucksack (for warding off wild animals). I absolutely love the feel of being the only person around for miles.

When I was little, Mum and I used to pretend we’d accidentally crossed a barrier into another realm and that magical creatures lurked beneath the gnarled tree roots and thorny underbrush. That if we were stealthy enough, we would see them and maybe, just maybe, they’d grant us a wish.

What would I wish for now, I wonder? I’m itching for my transfer to the sister-hotel in Vancouver to be approved. Spending my days lolling on the beach or hiking with the salty-fresh scent of the ocean in my lungs. Living in a city as opposed to a small village; I can only imagine.

And I do, too often: at home when adverts pop up during America’s Next Top Model (a show I like way more than I’m willing to admit), in the shower, at work when I’m listing off the hotel’s amenities to guests checking in or even worse, when I’m supposed to be listening to their grievances, nodding and grunting in the appropriate places.

I feel bad when I find myself doing that, glazing over as Mr and Mrs Pratt from Suite 17 complain about the hideous streaks left by housekeeping on their bathroom mirror, wondering if I’ll be any good at beach volleyball – maybe I should practice before I go; the Vancouver hotel might have a team.

I’d also wish for Sandra to stop behaving as if I have “Fragile” stamped across my forehead. That would be nice, though I don’t resent her for it. She’s a good friend and she has her reasons.

A bird squawks very close by and I jump, startled out of my reveries. I stop for a moment, leaning against a thick tree trunk as I wolf down a trail mix bar with a gulp of water before carefully returning the used wrapper to my side-pocket.

Feeling revived, I roll my shoulders, crick my neck and continue onwards.

 

***

Summit in 11.8km

***

 

The forest lies behind me now and the terrain is a little rockier. Before me is the boulder field, strewn with unstable rocks of varying sizes and on the far side is the first layer of impenetrable fog. I move slowly, focusing on my balance, placing both feet and hands with care. If I hurt myself, I’d need to explain to an exasperated mountain rescue why I (a local and not a bumbling tourist) was hiking a mountain alone in the gloom.

Unbidden, my mother’s voice rings in my head, “How many times, Jemma! You can’t do everything on your own. You need to learn to ask for help. Ask me! Ask me…” I smirk ruefully. Hello pot, it’s me kettle.

I remember last winter, when the first snowfall was so high Mum couldn’t get out of her front door. Instead of calling me (or literally anyone else), she climbed down from the first-floor balcony, shovel in hand, and proceeded to clear the whole driveway unaided. It was hours before the neighbours surfaced and joined in, protesting that she should’ve woken them. “It’s no bother,” she’d said, “I’m not too old to shovel a bit of snow!” 

My boot hits a loose bit of scree and I fall down on one knee. Wincing, I use both hands to bring myself into a better position and crawl the next few paces.

Well, I’m not too old to climb a mountain on my own, so there. Dad won’t mind, he said as much and I’ll tell him all about it when I see him at Christmas. He’s paying for me to fly out and stay with him in Montreal (either from here or, hopefully, Vancouver). My French is pas mal, but that hardly matters.

Apparently, I look like my dad minus the black bushy beard. I have Mum’s hair and hazel eyes, but whilst her face is pointed like a woodland elf, mine is oval with high cheekbones and a rounded jaw. They’ve been divorced for years now, but Mum has this special half-smile and a certain tilt to her head when she’s thinking how much I look like him. Though she always denies it, sighing as she tucks a loose strand of hair behind my ear and instead, tells me how grown up I am.

My memories of us all together are hazy as if seen through a waterfall. The smells of fresh snow and hot cinnamon like a fine mist on bare skin.

My foot slides again, but I catch it and right myself without falling. From what I recall, there is a fair bit of scrambling and two false summits to go before I reach the true peak. I reach the far edge of the boulder field and step into the shifting grey nebula.

 

***

Summit in 7.2km

***

 

How thick are these clouds? It seems to be going on forever, giving the landscape of rocks and scree an indistinct, ghostly hue. Visibility has dropped to twenty paces at most and each pebble I knock with my toe scuttles away, its passage muffled by the chill damp fog.

I’ve depleted my snack supply and two-thirds of my water. The sandwich I’m saving for when I reach the top. If I find the damned thing.

Am I lost? I staunch the fear brewing in my gut. Could I have missed the last cairn? I force myself not to whip around in a frenzy, which would only make things worse. My quads are burning and every step incites a new throb of pain, but I grit my teeth and keep going.

I’ve been through worse, like the time I skied down a double-black run at Sunshine Village. I was thirteen and it didn’t look too bad from the top. It meandered and undulated through the trees before joining up with a wide green piste. It took me about two seconds to realise I’m made a terrible mistake. The run was much steeper than I’d thought and too narrow to turn, making it impossible for me to slow down. Trees flashed by and I gripped my ski-poles with tight fists, desperately trying to stay upright, praying that I could make it to the end and out onto that safe flat. For a moment, I thought I might just do it.

Then I hit a rock.

My skis wobbled, clanking awkwardly as I tried to hold them straight. In desperation, I picked one up and rode on one ski for a painfully slow moment before crashing face-first into a tree trunk.

Mum was apoplectic, but mostly relieved that I wasn’t seriously hurt. I promised never to go off on my own again and she promised not to tell my ski instructor (I was terrified he would remove me from the off-piste explorers’ group). I told him anyway, which I felt was very grown up of me.

This isn’t that bad. At least I’m not careening down a mountain, but plodding up one. I remember once asking Mum how to climb a mountain and she said, “By putting one foot in front of the other. As long as you don’t stop and turn back, you’ll get there eventually.” I realised years later that this advice actually works for a lot of things.

A large boulder looms on my left and I know there is a sheer drop somewhere to the right. I consider stopping and waiting until the clouds are dispersed by the sun (as the forecast suggested) but mountain weather is vastly changeable, one minute its clear skies and the next—

The boulder moves.

Frozen in place, I shift my gaze towards the dark mass which lets out a wet snort and lumbers closer. I silence the scream clawing up my throat as every muscle in my body spasms, fighting to keep very, very still.

It’s a grizzly bear.

I’ve never seen one this close before. They avoid humans if they can, attacking only if threatened or surprised; the cloud cover (and my own careful footing) must have dampened the sound of my approach.

Turn around. I beg silently. Please, turn around and go the other way.

The roar of blood in my ears in deafening as the bear pads forwards. It hasn’t seen me. The ground vibrates under its weight, dust puffing around its enormous paws; an adult grizzly can weigh up to 770kg, and this one looks fully grown to me. Painfully slow, I reach my left hand back and unhook the bear pepper spray from my right side-pocket and hold it inoffensively to my chest.

Anyone who grows up in the valley knows the rules: do not run, avoid direct eye contact, don’t scream and if a bear charges… you stand your ground and wave your arms. Advice I recite to tourists and visitors alike from the safety of my hotel reception desk. I always wondered how I would fair in such a situation (thinking that I would be brave), but as it happens, I really, really don’t want to find out.

I’m shaking violently now, staring at the tip of its snout, not daring to blink as it inevitably, inexorably turns to face me. Go away… Please.

The bear charges.

Every blade of its midnight-black fur glistens as its razorlike claws shred the gravel. I thumb off the safety tab, point the spray and fire.

Click. Nothing happens. Oh God, please work!

Click. Click! Again, nothing.

The bear roars. A screeching howl of primal outrage and hot rank breath slaps my face, stinging my eyes as it rears up upon its powerful hind legs, the front paws swaying in line with my head.

I don’t move. And, from somewhere deep in my core, anger surges, overwhelming my fear. How dare this animal get in my way! Today of all days! My outrage gives me the courage to slowly wave my arms.

The bear stays upright for a few moments, swaying, inspecting me, weighing and judging. I try telepathically to tell it I’m not a threat.

Then, it crashes back down, close enough for me to see its lolling tongue and pointed teeth. It sniffs at me, once, twice, grunts and – I’ll never know why – turns away in dismissal. Bored, it ambles off back into the fog and disappears.

I don’t move again for what feels like a very long time.

 

***

The Summit

***

 

At the first opportunity, I will hunt down the man who sold me the bear spray, but for now I put my vengeful thoughts aside because finally, I’ve made it.

The true peak.

Relief tingles my skin as I approach the official lookout point marked by a large red-painted cairn. The sun throbs directly overhead and in every direction a blanket of white cloud covers the landscape, pierced here and there by other rugged peaks. I feel that, at some point, I crossed that imaginary boundary between worlds and now I’m floating, adrift, and above it all.

As I admire the view, an unexpected thought grips me, stifling any others: I don’t want to do it.

I shake my head, unsure of how to proceed. Chill wind tickles my hair, blowing it in front of my face, into my mouth and eyes. Automatically, I tuck it back behind my ears, just like Mum used to. Except her fingers were different. They were longer and more delicate with the tenderness that only a mother’s hands possess. I emulate that gentleness as I undo my backpack and remove the little grey box snugged beside my spare jumper.

The summit’s cairn is where I remember it to have been, just a few steps away from the slabs of white rock upon which Mum and I stopped to rest the last time I was up here. We ate lunch there, drinking in the view as she probed for information about my (non-existent) love life and future plans. Dreams of leaving the valley to explore the world, get lost in unknown cities and camp under unfamiliar stars. 

Mum’s dreams involved wildlife conservation projects, eco-friendly lifestyle pursuits and painting. “If I sell one, I’ll have beaten Van Gogh” she’d said, dabbing the end of my nose with bright-blue, right as I was leaving to go on a date. And in response to my fury, she’d said, “If he doesn’t like you with a blue nose, he’s not worth it.”

Why was she always so right? Why can’t she still be?

Because all those dreams that Mum had - all her secret thoughts and throw-away smiles - they came before.

Before.

Before an undetected blood clot slipped into her main artery and rode it all the way to her brain. Before she collapsed in the supermarket, golden locks fanned out in a sunburst with her beautiful green eyes already losing their light.

I was at home making spaghetti when it happened and I want to say I felt something, that on some level I knew my world had been torn apart, but I didn't.

It doesn’t feel real. One day she was there, and then she wasn't. Never again will she tuck my hair behind my ear or kiss the top of my head, breathing in the smell of me (I used to think that was really weird, but it’s one of the things I miss the most). Now, all I have are our memories.

My memories.

The funeral is a blur of snow-white flowers on sunlit wood. I was lying when I said I'd wish for anything other than to have her back with me. I do so wish I could carry on pretending...

And that’s when it hits me. Why Dad suggested I scatter her ashes on the summit of Cascade Mountain.

It was to help me say goodbye.

Trembling, I kneel down in the exact same spot where we laughed together all those years ago and bring the box up to rest against my lips. I love you… and I’ll always miss you, Mum. Always.

I lift the lid and gently pry open the bag. I’m not sure what I expected to happen, but as I tilt the box, thus beginning the trickle of ash, the wind ceases whipping my hair in all directions and instead blows steadily away from me.

I blink away my tears, watching as the tiny particles catch fire in the molten glow of sunlight like diamond dust sprinkled on the wind. My chest swells with the beauty of it. Enraptured by the ethereal blend of finality and endlessness as she is carried up and away, into the azure blue and on towards the glorious shimmering horizon.

April 01, 2022 19:58

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38 comments

Zelda C. Thorne
20:01 Apr 01, 2022

OK, so full disclosure, I wrote this story a few weeks ago and by the time Friday came around I had started to really HATE it, so I removed it. Won't do that this week, I'm leaving it up for sure. Thank you to K. Antonio who commented on the original version, giving me fabulously helpful feedback, which unfortunately I didn't have the foresight to save. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts! Thanks for reading :) It makes my day. Fun Fact: Cascade Mountain is an actual mountain in the Canadian Rockies, which I have climbed.

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Riel Rosehill
18:30 Apr 02, 2022

Hey! I've not seen the first version of this story, and I am nowhere as good as K in giving feedback but I agree with what he had to say. What I can tell you for myself: I was holding my breath reading the bear encounter, and tried no to tear up at the very end. Your story was colourful, emotional, and a loved the little details: the bells on her backpack to ward off wild animals, and the description of the fog (I'm totally biased - I'm a sucker for fog and nature), the pain in her leg... I hope you don't hate this story anymore. I know I wo...

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Zelda C. Thorne
21:19 Apr 02, 2022

Hey, thanks for reading and for the positive feedback. I'm feeling better about it now it's been revamped. When I read "I'm a sucker for fog" all I could think was Has she read The Mist by Stephen King? 🤣

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Riel Rosehill
21:23 Apr 02, 2022

The Mist? I have not! Is that a recommendation or the opposite? I can't tell 🤣

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Zelda C. Thorne
21:26 Apr 02, 2022

Well, I liked it! It was also made into a film (a brilliant adaptation in my opinion). Scary good.

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Riel Rosehill
21:37 Apr 02, 2022

I'll grab that next from the library then - I didn't have a plan what the next one should be and it's been a while since I read a scary novel! Thanks for the tip 😁 I'll skip on the movie though, my nerves are not strong enough for horror on screen🤣

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Zelda C. Thorne
21:41 Apr 02, 2022

Fair enough! It's one of his shorter ones too.

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K. Antonio
01:24 Apr 02, 2022

Haha, I'm back! I remember this piece and I'm happy that the feedback I gave was helpful. I think the first time I had read it, my feedback was to focus on the feels and that the beginning was a bit slow (I vaguely remember the MC waking up and the first scene taking a bit long to jump into the premise). Also, in the first scene (I could be mistaken) I think you mentioned early on that the MC had an urn and was going to scatter some ashes. Anyway, second time reading it and my thoughts are: - I think the first scene could be shortened. I...

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Zelda C. Thorne
14:19 Apr 02, 2022

Thanks again, K! Greatly appreciated. I have already edited the first paragraph and moved things around a bit to make it more engaging (I hope). Now to try and add some extra 'feels' as you called it. Cheers :)

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J.C. Lovero
21:19 Apr 03, 2022

Hi Rachel! What a wonderful story. I really liked your descriptions; it almost felt like I was there with the narrator. You really had me during the bear scene - I for sure thought the narrator was done for! The last paragraph was just gorgeous to read. Really liked the title diamond dust after reading it. Thanks for reposting this!

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Zelda C. Thorne
13:01 Apr 04, 2022

Thanks! I think the bear scene was my favourite to write. And I agonised over every word in the last paragraph so you saying it was 'gorgeous' has made me smile.

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Graham Kinross
08:50 Aug 24, 2022

I feel like your character would have stood a better chance with the bear if they’d screamed or shouted. Bears are known to run from aggressive cats and even chickens if you look at YouTube, you have to get them on the run from the get go though. They’re often drawn to the smell of cooking food at campfires and the advice there is to bang pots together since the sound terrifies them. The MC was lucky really my heart was in my mouth. Have you seen a bear in the wild for real when you visited the mountain?

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Zelda C. Thorne
09:01 Aug 24, 2022

No I didn't meet a bear! But I was near one, I crossed paths with other hikers who warned me there was a bear nearby and to be really noisy. But in the story, she accidentally meets it because she's being quiet. Good point about her shouting, but I imagined her being too petrified! Lol

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Graham Kinross
11:22 Aug 24, 2022

I guess you have to be thankful you didn't meet the bear.

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Daniel R. Hayes
22:53 Jul 19, 2022

This was incredible!! I can't believe I missed this one... Well, better late than never as that old saying goes. I thought this story really worked with the prompt and I loved it! You are such a great talent, my friend! Great job as always!! :)

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Zelda C. Thorne
09:12 Jul 20, 2022

Awww thanks, Daniel! Appreciate your cheerleading 😁 Your comments always put a grin on my face.

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Alex Sultan
12:17 Apr 23, 2022

Hi friend - j'ai aimé lire cette histoire, c'était très bien! I liked the title a lot, which caught my attention, and there were so many moments that stood out. I thought the paragraph about being little and crossing into a different realm was nice, and I also thought the bear attack was well written, with the bear spray not working. I also never heard the word 'apoplectic' before, cool use of it. Great ending too - this is one of my favourites of yours. well done 🙂

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Zelda C. Thorne
15:25 Apr 23, 2022

Salut ! Merci beaucoup, c'est très gentil de ta part. Je suis en train de rédiger mon dernier essai de l'année scolaire (je procrastine un peu). J'ai aussi une idée pour les Prompts qui me turlupine ! I love the word apopletic and have been itching to find an excuse to use it. Thanks again!

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Chris Dee
07:53 Apr 21, 2022

Best story I've read here.

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Zelda C. Thorne
12:55 Apr 21, 2022

Thank you so much, what a lovely comment 🙂

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15:16 Apr 16, 2022

This is my kind of story! Brisk pacing. Engaging plot. And relatable lines: "When did I get this unfit?" Artful use of the present tense. I loved the scene breaks and how they mirrored the narrator's dynamic change. Lovely epiphany: "And that’s when it hits me. Why Dad suggested I scatter her ashes on the summit of Cascade Mountain. It was to help me say goodbye." *sob* Your closing paragraph is pure poetry. Man, can you write!

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Zelda C. Thorne
16:04 Apr 16, 2022

Awwww thanks, Deidra! 😊 I'm putting this comment aside for when I'm feeling like a hack. Cheers!

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Ana Bright
09:56 Apr 15, 2022

I can't imagine why you would've hated the story. It is wonderful! It felt like a sharp-left turn when you started talking about how the mother got sick but then so beautifully made the connection between mom and mountain. I love the little pieces of advice that your character realized mom was right about the whole time. I was gripped at the bear "attack." Well done! Thank you sharing (and not deleting this time).

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Zelda C. Thorne
13:35 Apr 15, 2022

Thanks Ana 😊 I just wasn't happy with it that first time I posted, it needed a redraft and I got mad at it because it just wasn't working for me. A few weeks away and I saw what I wanted to change. Pleased to hear you liked it (the bear bit was fun to write!)

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Zack Powell
19:43 Apr 13, 2022

Imagery is one of my personal weak points, so I'm always impressed when other authors use it to full effect, as is the case with this story. Your opening image was spot on, the descriptions of nature are absolutely stunning, and the almost-bear attack was my favorite part because I was right there with Jemma. (The bear spray malfunctioning gave me the most anxiety!) I really appreciate how you weave the backstory/flashbacks into the scenes instead of having them be their own untethered sections. It keeps the momentum and pacing of the story...

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Zelda C. Thorne
20:24 Apr 13, 2022

Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. I'm pleased you noticed the flashbacks being part of the scenes, I really tried to do that so it didn't break the flow of her journey. Yey, it worked!

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Michał Przywara
21:56 Apr 08, 2022

I liked this story. The descriptions of the trail are good, they set the scene and I could see it. The moving boulder -- my immediate thought was a moose, but a grizzly is also terrifying. Especially with the spray not working! But the ending was nice, and I agree with J. C. Lovero, the last paragraph is fantastic. Particularly the "fire in the molten glow." Very intense imagery. Thanks for sharing!

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Zelda C. Thorne
09:00 Apr 09, 2022

Thanks for reading and commenting, Michal! Moose are massive. I remember someone hit a moose with their car and the car had to be wrote off.

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Shea West
20:23 Apr 04, 2022

Rachel, I'm a tad behind in my reading, but I finally got to this today! I love the way that you write, and I always have. If I picked up a piece of your writing without your name on it I would know it was you. The way you describe the smallest of things always captures my attention in a way that makes me want to come back for more. This had a Cheryl Strayed vibe to it, and I loved that. This moment was the moment was the most relatable: When did I get this unfit? THAT IS THE QUESTION I ASK MYSELF EVERYDAY!

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Zelda C. Thorne
08:06 Apr 05, 2022

Hey Shea, what a lovely comment! There are certain authors that I can tell it's them - Sir Terry Pratchett, Stephen King spring to mind for me. I have no idea how you can tell its me though, I guess that means my voice is coming through? Very encouraging thought!

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Howard Halsall
23:51 Apr 03, 2022

Hello Rachel, I really loved your story. I enjoyed everything about it to be honest: great pacing, beautiful descriptions and a well crafted blend of action scenes and narrative descriptions. I felt at times as though I was transported to the Cascade trail and accompanying your protagonist on the journey, and experiencing the pain and delights of a mountain hike myself. I enjoy days rambling on new and familiar paths and have joyous memories from both the Lake District’s mountains and Scotland’s lofty peaks; your story brought back those re...

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Zelda C. Thorne
12:58 Apr 04, 2022

Wow such praise. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I'm very pleased you enjoyed it. It's been a few years now that I went hiking. It was fun to remember what it's like for this story.

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Calm Shark
21:02 Apr 02, 2022

Love this story and I was sad when the main character talked about her mom and how she passed away. I love the way you write and I laughed at the fact the main character wanted to hunt down the person who gave her the pepper spray. Anyways, a good story Rachel!

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Zelda C. Thorne
21:19 Apr 02, 2022

Thanks, Calm Shark! Glad to hear you enjoyed reading. I appreciate it. 🙂

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Calm Shark
21:45 Apr 02, 2022

You're welcome!

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