The Trail of Lost Hearts by Tracey Garvis Graves (Excerpt)


Chapter One

It rains a lot in the Pacific Northwest.

It’s not like I didn’t know this before my plane touched down in Oregon and I walked out of the airport into a steady drizzle. I know all about the area I’ve chosen to visit, because I’ve prepared for it.

I’ve studied the weather and topography.

Looked at endless hours’ worth of coordinates on a map.

Memorized the daily high and low temperatures.

Nearly all the clothing I packed is waterproof, and my handheld GPS is state-of-the-art. I shoved an umbrella into my carry-on, too, which is a total tourist move, but that makes sense because I live in Dayton, Ohio. I also didn’t feel like getting wet to prove that I know all about the natives’ disdain for umbrellas. And I wouldn’t call myself a tourist, either. Explorer, maybe, or whatever it is you call a woman who’s on a solo quest and will fly home when she’s finished doing what she came here to do.

That’s me, Wren Waters. I’m the woman.

Now, as I stand at the trailhead entrance of the Wild Iris Ridge Loop in Eugene, Oregon, the rain has tapered off and the late-September air feels cool. I’m wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt and hoodie and have tucked my gray leggings into a pair of hiking boots. I’ve threaded my ponytail through the opening at the back of my nylon cap. Lastly, I’ve swapped out my regular eyeglasses for polarized prescription sunglasses.

The Wild Iris Ridge Loop is a three-and-a-half-mile lollipop route, which means I’ll hike up the stem, go around the loop, and come back down the way I went up. Checking my Garmin, I make sure I’m heading in the right direction and begin.

I walk under a spreading oak just past the gate at the trailhead. The trail’s namesake irises are absent, but I can picture how it must look when the ground is covered in their purple and white petals. The large gravel trail goes straight uphill and runs alongside a power-line corridor that clashes with the nature surrounding it. There is a fenced llama pasture to my right, which delights me, and a smattering of large, newly constructed homes to my left that look as out of place as the power lines. I could have hiked in from a different entry point, but I’d rather get the uphill part out of the way at the beginning versus the end. Wild blackberries line the trail; many of them are withered, but some are plump and juicy, still thriving in the last gasp of the summer growing season as it winds to a close. I pluck the biggest one and pop it into my mouth. The flavor explodes on my tongue, and before I can stop myself I eat at least ten, wiping my lips on the back of my hand. The berries are better than anything I’ve ever bought in the supermarket at home.

Largely deserted on this late Monday morning, the trail offers exactly the kind of solitude I’ve grown used to and prefer. At a band of tall trees near a creek, I pick up a narrower trail. I’m breathing harder now as I continue my uphill trek through a meadow and into a woodsy area full of oaks, and sweat trickles in a light rivulet down my neck; I take a quick break to shed a layer and tie my hoodie around my waist.

I cross a footbridge, and then at the fence, I walk under the power lines and through more woods. Finally, I make a left at the junction that concludes the stem of the lollipop and transitions into the loop part of the hike.

I stop to drink some water. Hearing footsteps not far behind me, I move farther off the side of the trail, pulling my Garmin from my waist pack under the pretense of studying its screen while I wait for the hiker to pass me.

Out of the corner of my eye, I can see a man approaching. As he draws closer, I notice that he looks a little older than me—closer to forty than my thirty-four. He’s tall and broad-shouldered, but lean, like maybe he enjoys rock climbing or distance running. He’s wearing hiking pants and a lightweight blue nylon jacket. A cap hides most of his hair, but enough of it peeks out that I can tell it’s dark.

He looks nothing like my medium-height, blond-haired ex-fiancé, Rob.

Technically, Rob is my late fiancé, but that makes it sound like he’s just running behind or got stuck at work, which is also sort of true. He was on his way home from his company’s headquarters in Dayton when the driver of the other vehicle blew a stop sign and obliterated Rob’s company car in a way that was not conducive to survival.

All I’m saying is that “late fiancé” sounds weird to me.

Instead of passing me, the hiker stops. He smiles and it’s the kind of smile that probably melts hearts when it’s at full wattage, but it doesn’t extend to the far corners of his mouth, and there is something guarded behind it. I only notice the guardedness because his smile looks a lot like the one I’ve been giving everyone since Rob died. The one that says, I’m fine. Nothing to see here as long as you don’t look too closely. He’s wearing a waist pack, and his sunglasses are sitting on the bill of his ball cap. He’s got a pen behind his ear, and the Garmin in his hand looks a lot like mine. His long-sleeved T-shirt is faded, and the pants and hiking boots are well-worn.

“Hi,” he says.

I pinch the bridge of my nose and sigh inwardly. Since Rob died, I’ve often wished men could see the spiky armor I’ve metaphorically donned and would therefore know not to waste their time trying to penetrate my thorny exterior. Hoping he’ll get the hint that I’m not interested in a trailside chat, I nod in response to his greeting, my expression pure granite.

“I’m Marshall,” he says. “Great day for a hike.”

“Yep,” I say. Maybe my one-syllable effort and the withholding of my name will get my point across. I’m not getting a creepy vibe or anything, but voluntarily chatting with any man sounds about as appealing as a root canal.

“I see that you found the blackberries,” he says with a grin.

I’m about to ask him how he knows about the blackberries when it dawns on me. I take off my sunglasses and try to use the polarized lenses as a makeshift mirror. It doesn’t really work, but I wipe my mouth repeatedly with the cuff of my shirt, staining the light gray fabric.

“It’s still there,” he says.


Here’s something you should know about me: I hate being embarrassed. Like, truly hate it. I’ve always been this way. My friends tease me mercilessly about my inability to trip or fall and laugh it off instead of turning a mortifying shade of red. If I dribble splotches of cabernet on my favorite top, I’ll spend the rest of the night sweating under a borrowed layer so that no one will know. One night, my best friend Stephanie tripped and farted loudly in front of a table full of men. Without missing a beat, she turned to them, bowed, and said, “And now for my next trick.” A guy named James was sitting at that table, and he later married her. The best man included the story in his speech at the reception, and Stephanie laughed so hard she cried. “I would move to another state if that ever happened to me,” I told Steph. “Straight up just get the hell out of Dodge.”

“I have some antibacterial wipes in my pack,” the hiker offers.

I hold up my hand. “Thanks. I’ve got some too.”

He takes in my Garmin. “Fellow geocacher, by chance?” His guarded smile broadens in genuine delight.

“Yep,” I say again, but unlike him, I’m not smiling. Can’t you sense my spiky armor? It’s sharp and pointy and I guarantee you’re not getting past it, so don’t even try.

“Looks like we might be searching for the same cache,” he says. “Want to team up?”

“There are lots of caches here. We’re probably not searching for the same one.” I give no further comment or explanation, and an awkward silence ensues.

“Well, good luck,” he finally says, moving a respectable distance away. He continues up the trail, and I watch until he’s out of view, then reach into my waist pack for the wipes. I pull out my phone, open my camera, and flip the screen to turn it into a mirror. There it is. Big purple smudge on the corner of my mouth. I look like a six-year-old. In addition to the smudge, my teeth are stained a faint purple, and my lips look as if a drunk woman lined them with red wine and forgot to fill in the rest. I scrub at my mouth vigorously until I’ve removed all traces of the stain.

The only saving grace is that I won’t have to move away, because I don’t actually live here.

Chapter Two

I’m alone with my thoughts as I resume the hike. The cache location is right before—but slightly off-trail from—where I’ll pick up the lollipop stick to head back down. And because I let that guy go ahead of me on the trail, he’s going to get there first. According to my geocache app, there are at least fifteen active geocaches hidden here, but I’d bet we are looking for the same one. It’s a newly listed cache placed only yesterday, and I want the FTF—the first-to-find.

Because here’s something else you should know about me: I am competitive as all get-out. I will not lie or cheat, but I will do everything in my power to win. Game night with my friends is not just an excuse to have drinks and eat appetizers.

At least it isn’t for me.

“You get scary on game night,” Rob said to me shortly after we started dating. He was smiling when he said it, but I didn’t see what the big deal was.

“I play to win,” I said. “That’s the whole point of playing a game.”

“I think the point is to have fun with your friends,” he teased.

“Two things can be true.”

“You can spin it any way you like, but I’m pretty sure if we were running a race and I fell, you’d step on my head and keep going.”

“Maybe don’t fall then,” I said, and then Rob chased me into the bedroom and tackled me onto the bed. The tackling turned into tickling and the tickling turned into kissing and I need to stop thinking about that day because it was one of the good ones.

Still walking at an incline, I hike three consecutive switchbacks through a meadow, walk past a cluster of ponderosa pines, and spot a kiosk for one of the other trailhead entrances. I’ve seen a few people, but I’ve mostly been one with nature, and the physical exertion and fresh air have my heart pumping and my mood improving along with it.

According to my Garmin, I’m getting closer, and I enter a denser forested area to my left. It’s a good thing I’m looking down at my feet, because otherwise I might have missed the arrow on the ground fashioned from sticks. It points toward a small clearing in the distance, and my excitement builds. The fact that it looks undisturbed tells me there’s a chance no one else has made it this far, including the geocacher who stopped to talk and whose name I’ve already forgotten. Miller? Matthew? Something like that.

The cache itself is easy enough to find, and the canister is fastened with wire to the base of a narrow tree trunk directly across the perimeter of the clearing. Inside the canister is a small yet intricate wooden carving of an oak tree. After unrolling the log, I see that there are no other names on it. “Yes!” I exclaim. My personal life might be in utter shambles, but I got the FTF and that feels pretty damn good.

I sign the logbook and put everything back. I’ll eat the sandwich I picked up on my way to Wild Iris, drink some water, and then head back down.

Two men enter the small clearing. They’re dressed in work boots and jeans. One is wearing an untucked flannel shirt and the other is dressed in a T-shirt. No packs. There’s an uncomfortable silence while they study me. Uncomfortable for me, that is. They don’t seem uncomfortable at all. Unlike before, when I encountered the other hiker, these guys do give me the creeps, and their stony glances raise the hair on the back of my neck.

“What are you doing out here?” the one in the T-shirt asks. He’s short and stout with a barrel chest and a beer gut.

“Looking for the cache. Same as you.”

Beer Gut looks at his friend and laughs, but it’s not a friendly sound. “Cash? We don’t know nothin’ about any money.”

The guy in the flannel shirt sends a silent message to Beer Gut with his eyes. They look around at the empty clearing and then they look at me like a couple of opportunists who can’t believe what they’ve stumbled upon. Surely, I’m wrong.

I want to be wrong.

I hope I’m wrong.

They come closer.

“Not money,” I say. “A geocache. Hidden objects you search for with GPS. It’s super fun, and good exercise. Lots of fresh air.” I’m talking way too fast. It’s time to shut up and get out of here.

Before I can scramble to my feet, they sit down next to me, one on each side, way too close. Their deliberate proximity sends a message that is hard to ignore: my instincts were spot-on. My heart pounds and I want to run, but my legs have turned to jelly and I don’t know what to do. Will the prey be even more exciting if they get to chase and overpower it first? I’m afraid to run and I’m afraid to stay.

Think, Wren.

Very casually, I take out my phone and press the side button along with one of the volume buttons until the Emergency SOS slider appears. But before I can drag it to the right, Beer Gut, the barrel-chested one who scares me the most, yanks the phone from my hand. He looks at the screen and turns to me, something cold and dark in his eyes.

“That’s mine and I want it back,” I say. Beer Gut slides my phone into his pocket, taking what isn’t his and sending the message that he’ll have me, too, if he feels like it.

Copyright © 2024 by Tracey Garvis Graves

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