“You … you all right?” he said, and his brows dropped to match the corners of his mouth. His eyes drifted up and down over me, over the mud, the dry, rust-colored pine needles clinging to me, my dirty, peat-caked hands.
I nodded, but couldn’t speak. My dry mouth wouldn’t open. And I felt like I’d run a mile, winded and tired.
“You ain’t hurt, are ya?” He took a step forward and didn’t take his hat off.
I shook my head and took a halting step for him. He closed the distance and wrapped me in his strong, safe arms and I buried my face in his soft, flannel shirt, his firm belly underneath smelling of my dad, laundry detergent and sweat and saw dust and woods. He rubbed my head with his calloused hand, smoothed my mussed hair, and knocked the bits of dead leaves out of it, then rubbed my bony shoulders and down my back.
“It’s all right, now, if ya ain’t hurt,” he said, his deep comforting voice rumbled, and I heard it with my ears and felt it with my face and shut my eyes. Tears ran then, but I didn’t want him to see. I wanted to feel him against me, and the safeness, the warmth of being near my daddy. I didn’t want him mad at me, and I didn’t want him to move, not ever, just stand there and hold me and make it all better like only he could.
“Shh, hush now,” he said, and I realized then I sobbed against him. “You went down the path to the hollow, didn’t ya?”
I nodded, kept my face pressed on him, and prayed he wouldn’t get angry.
“It’s all right. I done told you, though — ain’t nothin’ to see, much. Trees, fog and peat’s about it. You go far?”
I shook my head.
“Scared ya too much?”
I balked. Why bother, though? I nodded. “I’m sorry, daddy.”
“Sorry? For what? Bein’ curious? Hell, I’d be disappointed in you if ya hadn’t tried it once or so.”
I turned my tear-streaked, mud-smudged face to his, eyes wide. “You ain’t mad at me?”
He chuckled soft and pressed my head to him again. I could hear his soft, steady heartbeat and shut my eyes again, as the comfort pumped out of him with each throb. “No, I ain’t mad atcha. What for? It’s just a path. Fog makes it look strange, and hides it from us, but it ain’t but a hollow, like I told you. Nothin’ to fear in there ‘cept maybe ticks or chiggers or maybe an angry ‘coon or skunk.”
He took my shoulders and eased me away, though I didn’t want him to. Then he hunkered down and stared into my face, and grinned. “Tell you what,” he said, “you get all cleaned up. You an’ me’ll take a walk down there when you’re done, and I’ll show ya there ain’t nothin’ down there to be afraid of, all right?”
I think he felt me trembling, and my face must’ve said something I couldn’t speak, because he took my chin and stared firm into my face. “I think it’s best you see what’s there, and if I’m with ya, you won’t be so scared of it. My daddy did it for me, and I think it’s time I did it for you. Now, hurry along — your ma will be home ‘fore long and I want to be back when she gets here. Go on, now.” He stood up.
I sniffled and darted toward the bathroom down the hall. Granddaddy put the bathroom in himself. When the cabin was new, there was an outhouse for it out back, beside the forest, and you had to take a spider-stick with you to make sure you didn’t get something unpleasant in unspeakable places. I washed my grubby, peaty hands and scrubbed my face clean, and changed my caked, stiffening jeans and did my best to get the mud off my shoes. I combed the needles and crumbled bits of leaves out of my hair and when I came back to the entry, daddy stood outside on the porch, his old felt hat tipped back on his head with its tired, sagging brim. He turned when he heard me and smiled at me.
“All right then, ready?”
I gave an unsteady nod. He chuckled and twitched his head toward the hollow. I followed his confident strides to those two big, ancient trees and felt my tummy tighten and a cool sweat wash over my whole body. He gave me a backward glance with one corner of his mouth turned in a knowing grin and he stepped down into the mist. He was so sure, so confident, but my heart slammed in my chest, and I trotted to the entrance of the path, shaking and scared, expecting to find my daddy vanished or in the maw of some horrible monstrosity, being chewed with his legs dropping from either side of its terrible, serrated teeth before turning its blood-red glowing eyes on me.