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Excerpt from The Witch of Bracken’s Hollow by Evan Winters:
Standing in the backyard of the Unity Road Baptist Church Retreat, Damon Daugherty gazed out across the black waters of Deep Run Lake to the woods that ran into Bracken’s Hollow and for unknown miles beyond. For the umpteenth time that day, Damon struggled with the strange feeling that he was somehow peering not just through space but backward through time. There he stood in the present on a chilly October day. The sound of laughter came from inside the lodge where his friends were preparing dinner in the kitchen. Damon, on the other hand, labored with refuse. In each hand, he held a trash bag, both of which sagged heavily under the weight of discarded bottles, cigarette packages, and all the rest of the debris that had been left on the trails around the lake by local kids over the course of a long summer worth of secret parties in the woods. Damon had spent the afternoon cleaning up the campsite in preparation for the teen retreat he would be hosting that weekend—his first as the youth minister of Unity Road Baptist. His labors that day had been simple and straightforward, requiring little in the way of mental effort.
But even after several hours working under a cold October sun, Damon couldn’t help but feel out of step with the present moment. Excitement ticked in his chest, a childish impatience so strong that it bordered on anxiety. Damon supposed it was to be expected. Though he was a grown man with a set of new challenges before him, he had grown up a member of Unity Road Baptist. He had attended many retreats at Deep Run as a kid, and it had been over ten years since his last visit.
All afternoon, as Damon had worked along the bank of Deep Run, he had found memories waiting to ambush him around every corner. For the first few hours, as he picked trash out of the trail that ran along the lakeside, he couldn’t help but glance from time to time out to the dock expecting to see his junior high school buddies cannonballing off the end or challenging each other to dive all the way to the bottom and return with a handful of mud from the mucky bottom.
Later, as he cleaned out the fire pit in the clearing along the eastern path and gathered a batch of firewood for the next night, the nostalgia was so strong that Damon could almost hear the hymns he’d sung around that fire pit so many times in his youth. Then, as he cleaned trash from the trail that led into Bracken’s Hollow, Damon’s memories of hikes he had taken with his father were so strong that he could almost feel the man’s footsteps following along the dirt path behind him.
But for all these fine memories of his youth at Deep Run, one memory lurked under them all, rising up from the depths of Damon’s consciousness like some submerged leviathan coming up for air. So, after depositing the trash into the bins at the corner of the lodge, Damon turned back to the lake and gave it a long, thoughtful look. Over the course of the past week, as he had been making arrangements for the retreat, Damon had been quietly bracing himself for his return to the lake. Damon’s ten-year absence had not been accidental. Damon was no fool. He had known this memory would come for him. And as he gazed out across the dark waters shimmering in the late afternoon light, he let it rise up in him in the shape of a single word, spoken aloud.
“Rachel,” he said.
Then, as if in reply, a voice called to him from inside. “Damon! Come on! These steaks ain’t getting any more done than they are. Least not on my watch.”
“Be right there,” Damon shouted in reply. Then he turned away from the water and went inside, forcing himself not to look back. He’d had enough of the past for one day.
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