by Maurissa Guibord
Art by Shutterstock.com
Maggie slowed her pace as the trail reached a fork at the top of a gentle rise. She set her walking stick against the gnarled ridges of an old maple and pulled a neatly folded sheet of paper from her pocket. It should be close now. Maggie nudged her glasses lower on her nose and peered at the next set of clues over the top of the frames.
Continue to the right on the bridle trail approximately 0.5 miles until you reach an outcropping of stony ledge.
Look for a large triplet birch after the ledge, about halfway up a slope on the left.
Climb up the hillside directly behind the triple birch.
So far, Maggie reflected, this had not been a very challenging search. These so-called clues that BailMeOut had posted were more like Google Maps instructions. Straightforward ones at that, with hardly a need for a sense of direction, never mind a compass or orienteering skills. She shrugged and took up her walking stick. Easy was fine with her. If she’d learned anything from practicing medicine it was that an easy solution to a problem was every bit as satisfying as a difficult one. As long as things turned out right.
And from being a patient she’d learned something too. Things often didn’t.
Anyway, this letterbox would be special because she’d be the very first to find it. BailMeOut had only posted the clues on the message board last night, and she’d been surprised to see that the location, Crandall Farm Preserve, was only a twenty-minute drive from Portland. She’d never been the first one to discover a letterbox after its owner had hidden it. It would make a great addition to her logbook.
According to the information sign at the entrance, the sixty-five acres of rolling fields and woodlands of Crandall Farm had not been a working farm in decades. Recently purchased by a conservation trust, it was now designated for public use with walking, hiking, and cross-country ski trails. And by the looks of things, she thought, looking across the long, empty expanse of trail ahead of her, it was still an undiscovered gem. There had only been two other cars in the small dirt turnaround in front of the entrance where she’d parked.
Maggie took her time, walking carefully to avoid the snarls of wizened grasses, stumps, and rocks along the trail. It was one of those rare November days in Maine where the headlong rush into winter takes an unexpected pause. Today was warm, with a blue sky and a light breeze. When the trail led through the deep green tunnels of shade beneath the pines the air smelled of balsam, and when she emerged into the sun it changed, wafting the sweet scent of moldering leaves. To top it off, the black-capped chickadees were chirping their little heads off. All was right with the world, Maggie mused.
“And chick-a-dee-dee-dee,” she added, aloud.
That was the nice thing about a solitary ramble. You could talk to yourself, or any nearby wildlife for that matter, without fear of being judged. And you could escape the real world, even if just for a little while. There was no television out here blaring “breaking news” about the latest horror of a school shooting, or an escaped cop-killer who stared wild-eyed at the camera, his features nearly obscured by piercings and tattoos, or some new atrocity with chemical weapons in the Middle East. It was a relief to shut that all out.
The trail led around a curve, and Maggie caught sight of the ledge wall just ahead. At the same moment, she heard voices and laughter coming toward her on the trail. She kept up her steady pace and smiled, nodding a greeting to the group that strode toward her. The two men and two women all looked to be in their mid twenties, fit and dressed like experienced hikers, in sturdy boots and lightweight layers, many of which had been stripped off and tied around their waists. The terrain had obviously been no challenge to them and they bounced as they stepped, talking and joking to each other and hopping over small obstacles in the path.
Maggie couldn’t help feeling a tiny twinge of jealousy as they passed. Forget Botox or plump lips. What she would have loved is some of that plump, youthful cartilage in her knees.
As their voices faded behind her Maggie spotted the triplet birch.
There was no missing it; the trio of straight, snowy white trunks with their papery bark stood out sharply against the dark moss and leaves on the slope. But she walked past it and kept walking for a little distance. She wasn’t about to let anyone see her stop at that spot and scramble up the slope. Letterboxing was all about being discreet. Secretive even.
Letterboxing was simple too. And right now, Maggie needed simple in her life. You follow the clues to find the box, you open the box and leave your mark inside to show that you found it. Then you put it back. That was it. No entry fees or T-shirts, no prizes, and no congratulatory selfies on Facebook. Letterboxing was like going on a treasure hunt and being a member of a secret society all rolled into one. Admittedly, it was a bit old-fashioned. You didn’t use GPS coordinates or any high-tech gadgets, just your legs and your brain. Some might find it silly, childish even. Probably that was why Maggie never told anybody about it, and never went letterboxing with anyone else.
She was about to turn back toward the triple birch when she heard someone else approaching, this time from behind her. Maggie sighed. It seemed the place wasn’t quite as undiscovered as she’d first assumed. She slowed her steps and stopped near a large fallen log near the trail. Here Maggie plopped down, unzipped her backpack, and began to rummage a hand around inside, pretending to look for something.
From the corner of her eye she spied a tall, beefy man with a spiky crop of unlikely blond hair jogging toward her with a lurching gait. Abruptly, he stopped running and walked, raising his arm to check the fitness bracelet on his left wrist. He was dressed in black shorts and a shiny red athletic shirt. By this time, she was watching him with concern. She thought it was a darned good thing he’d stopped running. His face was an alarming shade of red that nearly matched his shirt. Streaks of sweat coursed down his face and neck and he was wheezing for air. He should stop and rest. As he came closer he drew up phlegm in the back his throat with a long, sickening chhh-auuwwk sound, then turned and spat the gob onto the trail.
She wrinkled her nose and changed her mind. He should pick up the pace.
“Hey,” he said as he passed, giving Maggie a quick, terse nod.
This didn’t seem to require any response on her part so Maggie just gave a terse nod of her own and continued with her fake rummaging. After a few minutes, when she was sure he was well on his way up the trail (and probably to chronic pulmonary disease if he didn’t quit smoking) she rose and retraced her steps to the triple birch tree.
After assuring herself once more that the trail was empty, she began to climb the hillside behind the birch. The ground was steep and soft here with a thick cover of newly fallen leaves. She went carefully, using her stick for balance and testing her footing as she made her way around rotted logs, tall fronds of ferns, and moss covered stones.
At the top of the hill Maggie stopped to look around. From this vantage point she was well above the trail and could see up and down for quite a distance in both directions. Unless someone looked up here, and knew just where to look, she was out of view.
Someone else was down there now. . . .
Copyright © 2022. Dead Letterbox by Maurissa Guibord