Tom first met Kathleen when he nearly ran her down with his patrol car.
It wasn’t intentional. However, he was driving down a long, winding path and wasn’t prepared for a figure to dash across the road just in front of him. He was forced to swerve in avoidance, but the figure—a woman—fell down to the ground in spite of his efforts.
In an instant, Tom was out of his car. “Are you all right? Did I hit you?”
The young woman, sprawled on the road in a lacy white dress that exposed her freckly arms, gazed up at him contemplatively. “I’m quite all right, Deputy. But would you mind?” She extended a hand up toward him.
Tom rushed to help her. “No problem.” He grasped her hand and pulled her to her feet, noticing then that she was barefoot, her toenails painted pastel violet. For a split second, he panicked, wondering if he had hit her after all, with such force that he knocked the shoes right off her feet.
But the woman just gave him a serene smile. “It’s so nice to feel the earth beneath your feet when you walk, isn’t it? I just love the sensation of grass slipping between my toes.” She twirled playfully, the ribbons fluttering from the crown of flowers in her long mane of red hair. Her lacy gown billowed out around her before resettling at her ankles.
“I suppose so,” Tom replied cautiously. He hadn’t been in Riverdale all that long, but he knew a few of these free-spirited artist types, weird but harmless flower children left behind by the 60’s. “Are you sure you don’t need medical attention, Ms.—”
“Knight,” she supplied. “Kathleen Knight. And no, I’m fine. You must be the new sheriff's deputy. The ladies in town are all abuzz at your arrival. If I do say so myself, they have reason to be.”
At a loss about how to respond to the frank statement, Tom only nodded. “Well, if you’re all right, I’ll just be on my way.”
Settling himself back in his car, he restarted the engine, and drove off. Kathleen stepped off to the side of the road, waving amiably, but, too flummoxed by her behavior, he didn’t return the gesture. Watching her in his rearview mirror, he then witnessed her running toward the woods again, off into what was to be the last night of Indian summer.
He didn’t see Kathleen again until early next spring, on the 1st of what was to be an unseasonably warm and calm March. Tom was at the floral section of the garden shop, arranging for a bouquet of flowers to be sent to his parents for their twenty-ninth wedding anniversary. He never did find out what Kathleen was doing there.
“Why, Deputy Keller. How good to see you.” The voice was fluid and melodious, like rainwater slipping over mossy rocks.
He turned and found Kathleen, fresh flowers in her hair and another long, lacy dress on her slim frame. This one was of the palest green, the color emphasizing her vibrant eyes. On her feet were a simple pair of sandals, and a woven band of hemp twined around her right ankle.
“Ms. Knight,” Tom said with a polite nod. “How are you?”
She didn’t respond to the question, only gave her serene smile. “Enjoying the weather?”
“Sure,” Tom said, wishing he had some kind of witty repertoire but left lacking. However, he had always found that when in doubt, it was best to be sincere, so he settled for honesty. “Kind of surprised, actually. I thought New England winters were supposed to go on forever.”
Kathleen’s smile dimmed. “Forever? Nothing can last that long, Deputy.”
The response struck Tom as notably odd, and he eyed her curiously. “No. I guess not.”
She exhaled deeply, and her smile returned. “I was wondering if you might accompany me to the spring concert in the park? The one this Friday, at the gazebo.”
“I hadn’t heard of it,” Tom replied candidly.
“Then I’ll teach you about it.” Kathleen placed a slim hand on his shoulder. “You bring a blanket and a picnic basket and just enjoy the music. It’s all very relaxed.” With a twirl of her gown, she sashayed away from him, tossing a wave from over her shoulder. “I’ll bring the basket and meet you at the sheriff’s station at six!”
She vanished out the door before Tom realized he had never actually accepted the invitation.
Sure enough, Kathleen kept her word, touting a basket of refreshments, and Tom repurposed the emergency blanket in his patrol car. They sat together in the park, the music washing over them. In the chill of the evening air, she leaned close to him, wrapping her arms around his neck, spurning the offer of his jacket.
“I just love picnics,” Kathleen sighed dreamily, her voice almost lost between the music and the night breeze. “They’re so much more genuine than restaurants.”
The remark perplexed Tom, and he turned to respond, but paused at the sight of her. He looked at her, really looked, and felt as though he was seeing her for the first time. Her face, luminous in the soft bath of the moonlight, was not beautiful, but striking, like a powerful, haunting song he would remember for the rest of his life. Her green eyes seemed alight with life, glowing with—dare he say it—magic. Maybe she wasn’t movie star gorgeous, but there was a natural vivaciousness to her, drawing him to her, and renewal surged inside him when his eyes met hers.
Tom smiled. “Yeah. There’s something special about picnics, huh?”
A tender expression settled on her features, and she pressed closer against him, and even through their clothes, Tom could feel the heat radiating off of her body. She brought her lips to his in what was at first a soft kiss but quickly evolved into a passionate embrace.
In hindsight, Tom wasn’t able to recall their next date. Their time together was a whirlwind of wading through streams, walking through meadows, and lying in the shade together. Being with Kathleen opened up a part of himself Tom didn’t know he locked away, a loneliness that had settled underneath his skin when he moved to Riverdale immediately after finishing his second tour of duty.
“Do you ever hear them?” Kathleen asked him one day as they lay on the cool grass, her head on his stomach.
“Hear what?” Tom asked absently, running his fingers through her long curls.
“The voices from the hills,” she said, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. “I can’t explain it, but every so often, I hear these far-off voices, singing.” Her tone was thoughtful. “And I’m drawn to them. It’s almost as if . . . they’re calling me.”
The statement brought Tom to open his eyes and frown as he attempted to puzzle out her meaning, wondering if her words were a riddle waiting to be solved. “Can’t say that I have,” he replied at last.
That instance wasn’t the end of Kathleen’s odd behavior. As much as he enjoyed being with her, Tom had to admit that sometimes her people skills were somewhat lacking.
He first noticed when he took her as his plus one to Sheriff Ted Mantle’s Fourth of July party. From the invitation the sheriff had verbally extended, Tom had been expecting a barbecue, but the gathering was much more fancy than he had anticipated. There were all sorts of intricate decorations and lavish foods Tom didn’t recognize. Seeing how the other guests were dressed, he was relieved he’d decided don a pair of khakis and a button-down. He supposed Ted, from family money, was never the type to miss the chance to emphasize his wealth or show off his palatial home. The Mantles’ backyard included a deck leading out to a double-tier patio, and, as part of the landscaping, there were various waist-high stone walls circling around, complete with turrets and archways, designed to be reminiscent of a castle.
Their ritzy surroundings were not lost on Kathleen.
“Quite a big house for only two people,” she noted as she and Tom were served their food on the patio. The Mantles had hired caterers to attend to their guests, with steak and wine in place of burgers and beer.
“Part of the Mantles’ charm, I suppose,” Tom said offhandedly as they seated themselves at their assigned table. “They’re not really much for subtlety.”
The arrival of Ted Mantle’s son, Rick, accompanied by a young Asian woman, prevented any further discussion.
“So, you’re one of those poor S.O.B.s who works my old man, huh?” Rick asked with a grin as he shook Tom’s hand.
“Hey, we do our best to keep him in line,” Tom replied wryly. He gestured toward Kathleen. “This is my girlfriend, Kathleen Knight.”
“It’s a pleasure,” Kathleen said with a smile.
The woman beside Rick introduced herself. “I’m Vicki Mantle, Rick’s wife.” Her dark eyes sparkled. “You may have heard Ted ranting about how I stole Rick away from his family.”
“Ted? Ranting? Perish the thought,” Tom returned playfully.
Conversation continued naturally between the four of them throughout their meal, flowing easily until they were joined by the sheriff himself, accompanied by his wife.
“Tom, glad you could make it,” Ted said as he sauntered up to them. “I see you’re talking to my prodigal son here—he ditched myself and Riverdale to run off to the business world.” It did not escape Tom’s notice that Ted neither introduced his wife nor made any effort to acknowledge Kathleen or Vicki.
“C’mon, Dad,” Rick protested good-naturedly. “Too many Mantles on the police force would give a bad impression, and you know it.”
“Hmph,” was Ted’s only reply.
Tom chose that moment to intervene. “Hey, Ted, thanks for having us. This is Kathleen Knight, my date,” Tom said, indicating Kathleen. “Kathleen, this is Sheriff Ted Mantle, my boss.”
“Charmed,” Ted said with a nod in her direction, before turning back to Tom. “So, what do you think of the place?” He swept out an arm to indicate the house and grounds.
“It’s quite the sight,” Tom replied honestly.
“Isn’t it, though?” Ted said, surveying the lawn and patio approvingly. “Took a lot of work to make it this nice. Had to tear up the lawn to put the expansions on the house, and then I had to tear it up again to expand the patio and add the second level. Wasn’t much of a lawn left by then, but most of the surrounding forest were available, so I was able to buy it up, cut down a bunch of the trees and brush, and prevent my property from getting too crowded.”
“That’s both pretentious and wasteful,” Kathleen said with no hesitation, bringing Tom to choke on his wine and everyone else to turn to stare at her.
“Excuse me?” Ted demanded.
Kathleen fixed him with a level gaze. “There’s no point to owning all that land, or to be constantly adding more opulence to your home. You’re doing it for no other reason than because you can, because you want other people to admire your wealth and possessions.”
Ted snorted, eyeing Kathleen’s simple ensemble of sandals and a ubiquitous lacy dress. “Let me guess: you’ve got a problem with capitalism?”
“Hardly.” Kathleen’s tone was even. “My only problem is the crass materialism that’s revealed when people attempt impress the world by making themselves out to be some kind of refined land barons.”
Tom rushed in to ease the escalating tension. “Well, Rick, I don’t know if you left Riverdale to get away from the small town mentality or not, but I bet you’re surprised to come back and find such a variety of opinions, huh?”
“Sure am,” Rick replied cheerfully. “Tell you what, Mom and Dad, I haven’t had the chance to talk to the Blossoms lately. Take me over to them so we can reminisce together, why don’t you?”
He ushered off his parents, leaving Vicki at the table with Tom and Kathleen.
Vicki grinned at Kathleen. “You really don’t hold back, do you? I’m glad. It’s about time someone stood up to Ted, for once.”
Later, Kathleen apologized to Tom. “I’m sorry if I made you look bad in front of your boss.”
“Eh.” Tom shrugged, putting an arm around Kathleen’s shoulders. “Every once in a while, I don’t think it hurts Ted to be told what’s what.”
Near summer’s end, Kathleen brought him to meet her mother, Hazel, who lived in a rambling farmhouse surrounded by acres of the fields and brooks Kathleen so loved. Tom’s questions in regards to Kathleen’s father were neatly avoided.
“So you’re the one who my daughter is chasing with such vigor, eh?” Hazel asked with a twinkle in her eye. With her hair already white and wrinkles lining her face, there was little resemblance between her and Kathleen, who epitomized youth in both appearance and energy.
“Looks like it,” Tom replied easily, shaking her hand. “Thing is, she’s so busy running that she doesn’t realize she’s already caught me.”
Kathleen laughed at that. Her laugh was a full and genuine sound that emanated from the very core of her being and seemed to carry on the wind and through the clouds.
At the end of the night, Kathy gave him an oil painting of her own creation that depicted sunset over Sweetwater River, the sky a gradient of colors reflecting down onto the water. Tom went home and hung it on the wall opposite his bed, so it could be the first thing he saw when he rose each day.
Awaking one morning in early fall, Tom found Kathleen on the small porch of his bungalow, watering the potted plants she had brought to his house.
“You’ll have to start wearing shoes when the cold comes along,” he remarked teasingly, handing her a cup of the strawberry tea she liked.
“Will I, though?” She returned with a smile.
Kathleen disappeared a month later. No one seemed concerned but Tom, and after a day without any kind of response from her, he went to see Hazel. To Tom’s surprise and dismay, the door was answered by an in-home nurse. She led him to Hazel, who was in the living room, hooked up to an oxygen cart, looking much older and frailer than when Tom had last seen her.
“Hazel,” Tom greeted her, trying to be tactful and avoid gaping at her sickly appearance. “How are you?”
“Never mind me.” Hazel waved a hand; her health may have been declining, but her spirit was not. “I’m guessing you’re here about Kathleen?”
Tom blinked. “How did you—”
Hazel shook her head. “A little more than two and a half decades ago, I was in your place, trying to hunt down her father.”
“Her father. Do you think she could have gone to see him?” Tom questioned.
Hazel paused. “Kathleen’s father hasn’t been in these parts for years. Can’t recall the last word anyone had of him.”
“Is he missing, too, then?” Tom’s alarm was rising rapidly. “If you give me some basic information, I can fill out a report for him, as well. When did you see him last?”
“Now, you listen here.” Hazel leaned forward, her gaze fixed on Tom. “Neither Kathleen nor her father are missing. They’re not in any danger.”
Tom frowned, studying Hazel, wondering about her certainty. “But you don’t know that. Any number of things could have happened to her—either of them.”
“She’ll turn up,” Hazel said firmly. “That girl can be a flighty one, but she always comes back.”
And yet her father didn’t, Tom internally mused, but did not say out loud.
“That hippie girl?” Sheriff Mantle asked disapprovingly when Tom filed the two missing persons reports. “Not really from a reliable sort, is she? That father of hers— he ran off, too. I suppose she might come around again if she’s so inclined.”
Tom clenched his jaw and did not respond, instead concentrating on digging up any leads on Kathleen in addition to his regular duties. But suddenly, he found himself lost. When he was with Kathleen, the whole world felt fresh and new. With her by his side, sparkling with vitality, he had been hopeful for the first time in a long time, felt optimistic, nearly invincible. But with her gone, Tom was left adrift, feeling nothing but far older than his years.
The winter was long without her, and Tom longed for summer, wondering, pleading for a chance to see her again.
In spring, Hazel’s health took a final turn for the worse, and Tom occupied his spare time between visiting with her and pouring every last ounce of effort into his search for Kathleen, hoping to locate her before her mother passed on.
“You have no idea where she could have gone?” Tom persisted one evening during a break in his reading out loud to her.
Hazel closed her eyes for a long moment, opening them the moment Tom began to wonder if she’d fallen asleep. “You asked me once if she went to see her father. I think she did.”
“What?” Tom’s heart began pounding at the prospect of finally landing a lead. “Any idea where they are? I can go and find her—just tell me which direction to drive.”
A soft chuckle emitted from Hazel’s mouth. “They’re nowhere you can reach, Tom.”
The reply left him puzzled. “How do you mean?”
She sighed. “Did Kathy ever talk you about hearing singing? Singing that came from some far-off place?”
“Yeah.” Tom stared at her. “She told me that last summer. I never knew what to think about it.”
“Well, her father heard it, too, and then he went to find it,” Hazel said tiredly. “Kathleen and her father—my Frank—they’re of a free-spirited type. I don’t know what it is, but for whatever reason, they’re drawn to the earth, to forests and rivers and fields. When Frank disappeared, I went to his family in Greendale to ask about him, and they told me that with every generation in his father’s line, as far back as they can remember, one or a few of their family just . . . fade away suddenly, with no explanation. They half-believe it’s some sort of curse, but I think that nature is in their blood, and some of them simply can’t resist being a part of it. It’s their true kin.”
Tom had no idea what to think of Hazel’s statement—it sounded bizarre, but she was an ill, elderly woman. Perhaps she simply didn’t realize what she was saying. He fell back on police instinct and asked logical questions. “How long were you with Frank before he vanished?” he inquired.
“One summer,” Hazel replied. “We met in late spring, and then he was gone by autumn. His parents told me he had a habit of going off the grid during the fall and winter months and only coming around when it was warm. I expected to see him again once the snow cleared, but . . .” she shook her head. “He never came back again, just like Kathleen hasn’t come back now.”
In the end, Tom’s efforts to find Kathleen were in vain: Hazel died in August with no visit from her daughter. Tom was disturbed to find that Hazel willed him her farm and a sizeable amount of funds; she had given up hope of her daughter ever returning. The realization brought Tom to wonder if he would be a fool not to do the same.
In order to maintain the property, Tom forsook the bungalow and moved into the farmhouse, where he happened upon Kathleen one morning in early October. He was returning from a walk around the property, sipping his morning coffee as he went. To his shock, Kathleen was awaiting him upon his return, sitting on the swing of the large wraparound porch. This time, her dress was black, a color he had never once witnessed her wearing, and there were no decorations in her hair, which was plaited into a tight braid.
The moment he saw her, Tom stopped dead and stared, unsure if she was actually there or simply a figment of his imagination. But as she approached him, a bundle in her arms, her smile gone, Tom knew she was real.
Silently, she handed him the blanket wrapped object, and Tom automatically reached to take it. Once he did, he realized he was holding a sleeping infant.
Tom glanced at Kathleen, and she answered his unspoken question. “He’s yours.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Tom asked, at a loss. “I would have married you. I can marry you now—support you.”
She shook her head silently, and Tom realized tears were trailing down her face. The sight sent him reeling and filled him with dread; he had never seen her cry before, and the expression seemed inherently wrong upon her typically joyous features.
“Come here.” Shifting the baby to one arm, Tom reached for Kathleen with the other, pulling her close. She leaned against him, wrapping her arms around him like she had done their first night together at the park. She tucked her head against his neck, and he could feel her warm tears dripping onto his collarbone.
For a few minutes, he just held her and their baby, but then he spoke again. “Marry me, Kathleen. We can be together, we can have a family—”
She flung herself away as if he had burned her. “No.”
“Tom, please,” she begged, her voice cracking. Suddenly, it occurred to Tom how tired and ill she looked. “I can’t stay.”
“Why not?” Tom asked in utter confusion.
She didn’t respond to his query. “Please just look after our son.”
“At least tell me where you’re going,” Tom said desperately. “He’ll want to meet you someday.”
“He won’t be able to,” Kathleen rasped through her tears. “I’m not going to a place where anyone can follow, Tom.”
He stared at her. “What do you mean?”
“I can’t quite explain,” Kathleen said helplessly. “But for a long time, I’ve felt chained here, to this world. Like I’m being held back from the place I’m intended to go, where I belong. I can stand it in the spring and summer, but once winter comes along, I can’t bear to keep myself here. I can’t erase this feeling that there’s an entire different being I’m supposed to become, another self, and it’s slowly poisoning me that I’m restricted from being it.”
“Let me help you,” Tom implored, even as her words sent his head spinning.
“No,” Kathleen said gently. “Please, Tom. I’ve made my decision. Those voices from the hills are calling to me, and I won’t resist them any longer. But nothing mortal can go where I’m travelling, so I’m leaving our child with you.”
“ ‘Nothing mortal’?” Tom repeated, questioning his comprehension.
“Yes.” At long last, Kathleen’s usual serene smile returned to her features. “Please, always tell our son that I love him. I know you’ll raise him well.”
Tom meant to reply to her, but he found himself distracted by the baby, who was now awake and gazing at him curiously with a vivid green gaze.
“He has your eyes,” Tom murmured, looking up again, but Kathleen had already gone.
He named the baby Kevin, after his own father, and gave him two middle names, one from each of Tom’s grandfathers. Kathleen’s painting of the sunset was placed on the wall opposite Kevin’s crib, so he could see it every night before he fell asleep. The money Hazel had left was immediately put aside for her grandson’s college tuition.
Kevin grew up long and lean, his form slim like his mother’s instead of muscular like his father’s. But Tom could see himself in Kevin’s smile, and that was enough for him.
“You ever hear it?” Kevin asked him one day when he was twelve. They were sitting out on the porch together one evening in late summer, celebrating Tom’s election to sheriff.
“Hear what?” Tom asked, handing him a warm mug and keeping another for himself.
“Coffee?” Kevin asked, peering at the mug’s contents.
“Cocoa,” Tom informed him fondly, ruffling his hair. “You’re too young for coffee.”
Kevin sipped his drink. “Those voices from the hills. Sometimes I think they’re singing.”
Tom tensed, swallowing. “You, uh, ever think they’re calling for you, Kev?”
“Sometimes.” Kevin smiled up at him. “But I won’t go anywhere, Dad.” He leaned against Tom. “You’re stuck with me.”
Tom chuckled, tenderly putting his arm around Kevin and pulling him close as the sun started descending in the sky, bleeding a trail of light and color in its wake.
“I don’t mind, kiddo,” he said, holding his son tightly. “I don’t mind a bit.”