Dan's eyes popped open when he heard the hiss of something running through the dry leaves and grass, the sound drawing closer by the second.
"Hey," he protested when the two young squirrels used him as a convenient ramp to reach the tree behind him. They ran straight up his leg, jumped to his shoulder, and then scampered upward into the branches.
Dan looked up while rubbing his nose to stave off a sneeze brought on by bushy tails tickling it, and saw the mother of the two rambunctious youngsters. She tilted her head to the side and chattered what he took for an apology before chasing the pair up into the tree.
He chuckled and then stretched, glad in a way that the pair had distracted him before he dozed off. Despite having a lot on his mind, he was still a little drowsy, and the setting was perfect for a spring nap. Sunlight sparkled on the nearly still surface of the pond in front of him. Birds chirped morning greetings in all directions. The smell of pine filled the air, along with that unique scent that could only be called earthy.
Dan sat up a little straighter, ran his fingers through his sandy-blond hair, and then leaned back against the young elm that stood apart from the sea of conifers that dominated the area. It had taken Herculean efforts to save the tree when an apartment building had replaced the island of green where it once stood in the city. Only his parents would have indulged such a whim in a ten-year-old boy, when Dan couldn't bear the thought of someone cutting the tree down. Once it was transplanted here, his grandmother had nurtured it, ensuring that it survived the sudden upheaval and flourished.
He always came here to think, and he had a lot of thinking to do. With high school now behind him, he had to decide what to do with his life - and he didn't have the foggiest clue what that might be.
The sound of his cell ringing caused him to close his eyes and sigh. He'd meant to turn it off, but it was too late now. Broken from his reverie, he pulled the phone from his pocket and scowled at the number on the screen.
The reporter had been trying to contact everyone in the family for a month now. Word was that he was snooping around everyone who knew them, and scouring any records he could find as well.
Some quick thumb work sent a text to his mother, following up on the course of action that his grandfather had suggested. A minute later, she returned his message. Here too. Catch a ride with your sister to your grandmother's?
Daniel whipped off a quick 'K' in reply and reluctantly stood up. He patted the trunk of the elm and said, "I'll be back soon," before heading through a gap in the pines toward his sister's house.
The leaves of the elm shuddered just a little more than the gentle spring breeze warranted.
Dan walked down the hill from his house toward the woods with his sister at his side. The fair hair, expressive eyes, and soft features of the pair marked them as two of a kind. Anyone who didn't know better would find it difficult to believe that Kia was nearly twenty years older, however.
The light dimmed as Dan stepped from the grass at the bottom of the steep hill into the woods, but it was anything but gloomy. The breeze outside still carried a slight bite of lingering chill, but pleasant warmth permeated the wood. The fragrance of flowers that wouldn't bloom for months elsewhere tickled his nostrils. All around the animal trail that he followed with his sister, nature thrived at the limits of its bounty.
Despite his earliest memories lying within the boundaries of his grandmother's wood, Dan never failed to feel wonder at his surroundings. The trees let in just the right amount of dappled sunlight to bring out the shine on ivy leaves curling upward amongst their trunks. The canopy above conspired to allow beams of light to fall upon different highlights. Here, a particularly beautiful cluster of flowers. There, the stump of a tree that had completed its cycle of life nurtured an almost perfect circle of orange toadstools.
The trail opened up into a clearing at the center of the wood. He wasn't shocked by the sight of his mother and father sitting nude on the edge of the spring-fed pool, though he was a bit surprised that his father was here instead of at his office in town. Nor was he embarrassed to remove his own clothing while his sister shed hers but an arm's length away. This too was something that he'd known all his life, and as natural to him as breathing.
"Where are Grandma and Grandpa?" Kia asked as she pulled off her bra and let it fall into the pile of clothing at her side.
Brina shrugged. "They should be here soon."
Just like her daughter, the years barely touched Brina. Though over sixty, her honey-blonde hair had lost only a little of its luster, and only the faintest of laugh lines decorated her face. Her husband, sitting at her side with his arm around her waist, showed his age in his thinning gray hair.
"He called me too," Kia revealed after removing the last of her clothing and kneeling down to hug her parents in turn.
Dan shook his head. "The guy just won't give up."
"Nosy reporters aren't our only problem, either," his father said.
Brina sighed. "Gary, you could have at least waited until Mom and Dad got here before you said anything about that."
Gary winced from the rebuke. "Sorry."
"Someone speak of the devil?"
Everyone turned toward the voice as Daniel's grandmother and grandfather parted the thick curtain of ferns on the other side of the pool. As with the customary nudity of family gatherings within the wood, his grandparent's appearance was nothing unusual to Dan. Neither looked any older than him, and the family resemblance couldn't be denied, but his grandmother's skin shone as if she stood in golden sunlight, while his grandfather's skin was patterned and colored like tree bark.
Xantina's nose crinkled and she said, "I don't like that word."
Her mate, for whom Dan was named, apologized, "Sorry, love," and ran his fingers through her new-leaf green hair.
Xantina's smile returned almost immediately, and she laughed. She pulled him close, twining her fingers into his slightly darker green hair, and planted a kiss on his cheek.
Dan sat down on a sun warmed cushion of last year's leaves next to his mother and chuckled when his grandfather said, "Not in front of the kids."
The nymph rolled her eyes. "So silly."
The family patriarch cleared his throat and sat down with his legs dangling near where the water churned from its underground source. His mate sank down to the moss right next to him, and leaned her head against his shoulder. "So, something other than the reporter going on?"
"Got a call from councilman Carson yesterday," Gary answered. "The county is thinking about selling the preserve off 71 to balance the budget."
"Hmm. Must be pretty bad if they're thinking about that. The county has had that land as long as I can remember."
Gary nodded to his father-in-law. "Trosper just made the proposal yesterday, and it can't be good with his voting record. Carson said he was going to try to find out more. I was supposed to go talk to him this afternoon, but something came up and I'm going to have to be in court over in Jefferson County."
"I could go see what he found out," Dan offered, as the councilman had been his Scoutmaster before seeking public office, and he knew him quite well. Carson had actually taught him to tie knots and navigate with a compass in the very same woods that was apparently going up for sale.
Gary smiled. "Thank you. I was hoping that you might offer. This is personal, as far as I'm concerned. I have too many memories from that woods when I was in Scouts to let it go without a fight."
"Me too," Dan agreed.
His grandfather laughed. "Make that three. Like I said, the county has owned that land for a long time."
"Well, I guess Kia and I will find out what we can through the grapevine."
Kia groaned at that prospect, causing her mother to laugh and nod in agreement with the sentiment.
With his mate fidgeting at his side, the green-haired Daniel said, "We'd best move this along. Our little reporter friend obviously thinks that he's got something to sink his teeth into, and he's not going to back off. I think you're going to have to go a step beyond telling everyone to give him what he wants. Do it yourselves. Pile it on him."
Gary's brow furrowed as he considered the notion. "If nothing else, it might get him off our backs while he digs through the whole mess."
"I have a couple of other ideas too, but just put together all the financial records you can for now."
Xantina leaned in to ask her mate, "Done?"
He chuckled and kissed her on the forehead. "Yes, love. I believe we are."
"Good," she declared, and then snapped a kick at the water. The single movement of her slender foot somehow managed to splash all four of her family members across the pool, while the follow-through curled a stream of water right into her mate's face as well.
The game was on.
Daniel had felt buoyant when he left his grandmother's pool, but that had quickly changed as he spoke to his old Scoutmaster. Carson had managed to find out where the idea to sell the land had originated, and it wasn't good.
The man really orchestrating things behind the scenes was from a neighboring county. Daniel sat in the councilman's car off the side of a gravel road, looking at the future as he beheld the last parcel of land that Wilson had purchased.
"It's worse than I'd heard," Carson remarked as he surveyed the scene through the narrow gap in the trees.
.... There is more of this story ...