Home > Stranger Ranger (Park Ranger #2)(8)

Stranger Ranger (Park Ranger #2)(8)
Author: Daisy Prescott

In other words, I was born a fool, unable to realize the difference between a blessing and a curse.

Three years ago, no one seemed all that surprised when my rental car pulled up to my parents’ house, dust billowing down the road in my wake. Dad gave me a nod over Momma’s shoulder while she hugged me tight. The prodigal son had returned home.

Nannie Ida greeted me with a wary glance and asked if I was done being a fool. I told her I couldn’t make any promises. Her narrowed eyes studied me and her thin lips pressed together so tight they disappeared as she made up her mind about me.

Woke up the next morning, stepped outside into the mist, and knew for once in my life I didn’t have to second-guess my decision.

I belong to these mountains. I can breathe deeply here in a way I can’t anywhere else. Took me a decade and a half to realize it, but I’d rather have this dirt under my nails than concrete beneath my boots.

Angry, seventeen-year-old me swore he’d never set foot in a holler again. Anywhere in the world had to be better than getting stuck in the shadows of the Smokies.

I’m here to say I was wrong—about many things, but mostly about random places being better than right here. Guess that’s called perspective. With age comes hard lessons and sometimes, if we’re lucky, wisdom.

Funny how the shit we swear we’ll never do when we’re teenagers we end up doing at some point as grown-ups.

I read somewhere that the “universe” doesn’t hear the negative in a sentence. Saying “I won’t turn out like my parents” is pretty much the same as declaring you will. In other words, we’re all doomed to keep repeating our patterns, which is the same as saying we’re fucked. Nihilistic, sure, but also liberating.

Once I stopped rebelling against everything, I had enough energy to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

 

 

Chapter Five

 

 

Daphne

 

 

Tucked into the narrow point of a small valley sits a white, one-room church, its steeple jabbing into the sky. Having more in common with a chapel in a fairy tale than today's mega churches, the building dates back at least a hundred and fifty years.

Long gone are the echoes of sermons warning of fire and brimstone, and a bird's nest above the door is the only ornamentation in the otherwise bare interior. Other than two rows of pews, their wood soft and smooth from years, there isn't much indication inside of what was once an active house of worship. No altar or cross. No hymn books or donation cards tucked into the carved pockets on the backs of the benches.

No stained glass colors the windows. The clear glass isn't original, but a small church like this was probably never able to afford fancy decorations.

And yet, this is where I come to think and sometimes have conversations with myself and sometimes God, or whatever higher power I imagine might listen. More Are You There, God? It's me, Daphne and less Forgive me Father, for I have sinned.

When I went through my “experimental” phase, I briefly explored Catholicism, thinking I needed more structure. The saints and their stories of martyrdom appealed to me. I always liked the story of Saint Lucy plucking out her eyes to deter an over-zealous suitor. Even with the cool stories and all the miracles, turned out I needed less organized religion, not more.

Unitarians and their songs to the trees should’ve been a good fit. I’ve dipped a toe in Buddhism and even sat in on a Wiccan circle or two. Alas, nothing has been quite right. I’ve tried on a lot of religions like a spiritual Goldilocks. Too structured. Too scary. Too big. Too woo-woo. Too … weird.

I’ve finally accepted I’m not really a joiner.

I'm more agnostic than church goer, even though I still feel a microscopic dose of guilt if I sleep in on a Sunday morning—at least until I snuggle under the covers and enjoy the quiet of a lazy morning in bed.

Deconsecrated years ago, this tiny chapel suits me fine, and I come here often to enjoy the quiet. Some people like hanging out in clubs or bars, bowling alleys or arcades. I’ve always found those places to be loud and crowded, the opposite of what I crave.

If anyone ever asks, I can tell them I'm in here on official park business. Security, or perhaps maintenance. Slightly outside of my official duties, both are still viable explanations.

Along with abandoned moonshiner cabins and the restored settler buildings at Cades Cove, the Smokies are dotted with old structures held together by a few rusty nails and stubbornness.

I swear some of the local residents share the same composition: rust, reluctance and pure obstinance toward anything, or anyone, new. If I hear “That's the way we've always done it around here” one more time, I might scream.

That reminds me—I need to make an appointment to see the dentist. My jaw has been bothering me, probably from all the clenching to swallow words I should not say out loud. I'm almost positive I've begun grinding my teeth in my sleep again.

There isn't one particular reason I'm internalizing stress, nothing I can put my finger on specifically. Job is good. My boss, and newly appointed chief ranger, Gaia, is both a friend and mentor. I get along with my co-workers, and I’m enjoying teaching my classes. I feel useful and needed. The park is beautiful and the local small towns are charming. As a bonus, I have a small cabin to call my own.

None of the above is reason for me to be grinding my teeth.

Cloven hooves flash to mind, no, not the devil, nor is it an adversarial goat I’m picturing. They belong to a certain pig, one owned by a certain local.

My jaw tenses.

An unfamiliar warmth settles low in my belly.

My heart contracts with a delicate squeeze of anticipation.

Clearly, it doesn't understand that sometimes fear and excitement are the same sensation and would be the idiot who runs toward danger like a tourist snapping a selfie with a bear at close range, or climbing a sheer cliff for the adrenaline rush.

Acts of defying death come with great highs, but they also sometimes end in death.

Tell that to my heart.

Inhaling through my nose and then unclenching my jaw, I blow out a slow exhalation while counting to seven. I press my hand to the center of my chest the same way a parent might rest their palm on top of their child's head, indulgent and firm and filled with calming energy meant to soothe wayward emotions.

“There, there,” I tell my body. “Nothing to get worked up about. Odin Hill is nothing more than a strange farmer, most certainly not our type and definitely not the right man for us. Stop with these delusions you’re having just because a man with symmetrical facial features and more than his fair share of muscles smiled at us.”

My heart flips and flops around like a trout in a net at the visual memory of biceps, reminding me it, too, is a muscle, as if sharing something in common is proof of their entwined destinies.

“He's not our type. We want a good man, a decent and kind person. Gainful employment and clear life goals would be nice. Truthful and trustworthy. Intelligent and ethical. Funny—definitely funny. Nowhere on this list is cheekbones or a classical nose or a well-arched eyebrow. Yes, a heart is necessary. No vampires. Adequate arm strength to at least hold a fork or a glass, or my hand, but we don't need to go overboard and get greedy with those bulging globes of overworked flesh. Nothing in excess. Avarice is a sin.”

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