The returning fog helped snuff the Sunol hills inferno.Slowly, the air cleansed, and on October tenth, the Golden GateBridge glistened in the morning sun.But an approaching cold front left Oakland’s RedwoodRegionalPark jarringly deserted.The stalker grew restless.And then a young girl giggled . . .
Advertising executive Randy Connifer held his car door open for daughter Kerri.Though eager to spend time with her, he couldn’t help fretting over his business meeting.He kissed her, closed the door, and ran to the other side of his shiny BMW.He had just enough time for their walk, drop her off at school, and then grab a latte before his business meeting.This account had the potential of elevating Bay View Advertising Agency to icon status.The belief pleased him very much.
His six-year-old rolled down her window and waved to her mom.In his mirror, Amanda Schaefer was waving back from her Oakland hills porch.She looked pretty as ever, but her heart was cold.Toward him, at least.He breathed easier after he pulled away from the curb.
Wednesday mornings with Kerri were always special, but today’s crisp air would make their hike exceptional.He couldn’t wait to get started.He smiled warmly at her.“It’s a perfect day for a walk, isn’t it?”
“It sure is, Dad.”She watched out the window, randomly smacking her lips.“Can we get some cocoa afterwards?”
She pressed the button and her window slid shut.The car quickly warmed once the draft was sealed.“I bet a lot of people will be taking pictures today, huh, Dad?”
He contemplated his upcoming meeting.Two years of courting Wilson Industries was about to pay off.Slack times had hit his business hard, and a contract with Wilson could triple his income.
She toyed with her hair, just like Amanda.She also shared her mother’s fine features.Lately, it seemed that everything Kerri did reminded him of his loss.Only a heartless woman could break their family apart like this.Her blue eyes smiled back at him.He rested his palm against her cheek and said, “Have I ever told you I love you?”
She giggled.“Only a million times.”
“Then I guess I’m starting my second million.”They both laughed at that one.
Skyline Boulevard traversed the Oakland hills, which predominantly ran east and west.From Amanda’s house, the woods was to their right; San Francisco Bay their left.Thankfully, some influential people had the foresight to safeguard green space for future generations.Now, a series of connecting regional parks preserved much of the EastBay’s forest.
Redwood Regional Park was thier favorite, encompassing a labyrinth of trails. One of Kerri's most beloved spots was the bench overlooking Mount Diablo on West Ridge Trail. Standing four thousand feet above sea level, the morning sun cast ominous shadows from the devil's mountain. Beine the tallest peak in the Bay Area, it was also one of the few to receive snow, though that was very rare.
“Hey, Dad.Do you think there’s any snow on MountDiablo?”
He grinned.A series of cold fronts had brought brisk temperatures to the Bay Area, but while the damp air may chill bones, the climate remained deceptively mild.“Honestly, Kerri, I can’t remember the last time it had snow.”
She pouted, wrinkling her button nose, pondering his answer.“What about a rainbow?You think we’ll see a rainbow today?”
More weather was on the way, but for now, the sky was clear.She loved rainbows, and must have painted three a week.“I suppose anything’s possible, right?”She smiled at him enthusiastically.“Let me know if you see one, okay?”
The narrow, winding road led them to RedwoodRegionalPark.This magical place allowed him to share his love of nature with his daughter.He and Kerri had hiked all of the park’s trails where ever-changing vistas made them forget that six million people lived on the bay side.Kerri had no idea how blessed she was living here.
The Skyline Gate entrance to RedwoodRegionalPark was curiously deserted.He had never been the first to arrive, and looked for signs that the park was closed.Not seeing any, he took the parking spot closest to East Ridge Trail and shut off the engine.“It looks like we have the park to ourselves.”He climbed out and inhaled the eucalyptus scent, finding its effect more invigorating than a Starbuck’s.“Let’s go, kiddo.”
“I’m right behind you, Dad.”
A punch on his key fob locked his doors.After tucking it in his pocket, he took her hand and read the latest notice on the bulletin board.
MISSING FEMALE CHOW DOG!!ANSWERS TO “PURINA”.FORTY POUNDS, BROWN FUR, NO COLLAR.LAST SEEN NEAR LAKECHABOT, HEADING TOWARD REDWOODREGIONALPARK.PLEASE CALL 510-555-1745.REWARD!
Randy empathized with the owner.Regardless of the circumstances, losing your pet was heartbreaking.Too bad people can’t mimic a dog’s unconditional love.He kneeled down, smiling as he zipped up Kerri’s jacket.“How should we get to Eucalyptus Trail?East Ridge or Phillips Loop?”
She gave a dour expression to warn him he was in trouble, and then placed her hands on her hips to drive her point home.“You know where the lookout bench is, Dad.Let’s take East Ridge all the way.I want to see snow.”
“Sweetheart, the lookout bench faces Sunol.You can’t see MountDiablo from there.”
“No, Dad.I know you can see it from there.I’ve seen it.”
She was confused, but their time was limited, so rather than argue, he led her up the East Ridge fire trail that was wide enough for two vehicles.Kerri had walked every path, so there was no way he could cut their walk short without her knowing.Less than a half mile in, he checked his watch.“Kerri, I’m not sure we have enough time to make it to the bench.You have school and I have an important meeting.”
She grabbed his hand and tugged hard.“Come on, Dad, we can make it.I know we can.Run!”
He broke into a trot, but quickly stopped.College football had ruined his knees.Now, even fast walks hurt.He nearly fell when she yanked on his arm again.After catching himself, he sensed something was hiding in the bushes.Oddly, there were no birds today.Not even a lizard.An eerie sensation came over him.He had never felt so paranoid.
She tugged one more time.“Come on, Dad.Walk faster.”When he refused to speed up, she let go of his hand and sprinted up the trail.
“Kerri, wait!”She spun around, pouting, arms folded across her tiny chest.He caught up and took her hand, fighting the urge to spank her.“You know I can’t run, and it’s more fun walking together anyway.Let’s see how far we get, okay?”
“Okay.”She automatically assumed the lead.
Sunshine speared the forest, but the air smelled like rain.The Weather Channel predicted it, but not until later this morning.The forest canopy obscured the western sky.This time of year, anything was possible.Hopefully, the rain would hold off until they were done.
Sandstone wrinkles caught his eye and he pointed them out.“This dirt reminds me of rhino skin.What do you think, Kerri?”
She glanced at the washed-out trail and shrugged.“I guess.Come on, Dad.Let’s go.”
He smiled, dreading what she’d be like as a teenager.But her determination came from being focused, not spoiled.Her teachers loved that quality in her.He thought about her mother and realized all three of them were over-achievers.But while high standards had benefits, they also created friction.Were all their disagreements fight-worthy?When Kerri kept tugging, he cupped his hand over his ear.“Listen.Do you hear that?It sounds like the beach.”
Her rolling eyes reminded him he had asked her that question too many times.But for him, the resonance stirred up memories of his father saying, “Listen to the wind.When it blows like this, the forest becomes a waterless beach.”And his dad was right.This was the same sound as when he was a child.So why couldn’t Kerri hear it?
These days, kids don’t seem to use their imagination as much.Perhaps it’s the result of too much TV and video games.Then again, maybe he was just overreacting.In any event, Kerri wasn’t fooled.She knew the nearest beach was miles away, and they always crossed a bridge to get there.
“Can we please go now?” she huffed.
“All right, but stay close.”
He tucked his hands in his pockets, watching her run ahead.It seemed there was no stopping her.Then again, there was no reason to.
Proceeding east, giant Monterey pine and eucalyptus trees yielded to live oaks and madrones.At the lower elevations, colossal redwood trees laid a needle carpet that nurtured lush ferns.Overgrown raspberry, Scotch broom, and poison oak shrubs obscured most of the park’s views of MountDiablo.It would take a while to reach the bench, and time was running out.
Kerri noticed something on the trail and squatted to inspect it.She picked up a twig and poked curiously at the matted gray object.“What’s this, Daddy?”
He recognized it and immediately kicked it aside.“That’s what’s left of a mouse.I’m guessing an owl ate it.Don’t ever touch stuff like that.”
“You mean that’s owl poop?Yuk!”She tossed the stick into the woods and yanked a Kleenex from her pocket.She wiped her hands, wadded the tissue, and handed it to him. “Gee, thanks.”
Suddenly that creepy feeling returned.Clouds stole the sun and narrowed their path.The rustling leaves and clanking branches sent a chill up his spine. He scanned the forest for anything unusual, but saw only foliage.Oddly, his daughter wasn’t bothered in the least.“Kerri, we don’t have time for hide-and-seek today, so stay close to me, okay?”
“Sure, Dad.”She grinned and marched forward, staying a few steps in front of him.
Randy expected her to take off at any moment.That twinkle in her eyes announced her intentions. She couldn’t help herself.She was like a thoroughbred in a starting gate.Besides, hide-and-seek was one of her favorite games, and she loved making him find her.He loved it, too.Just not today.
A skyward glance confirmed that storm was building.By the time he looked back, she had stretched her lead by twenty yards.“Kerri, wait.”He limped along, thankful that she stopped to look at something.“Hey, cutie, what did you find?”
“Ladybugs.Look at them all.There must be hundreds of them.”
Her enthusiasm eased his tension.He stood over her, mesmerized by the colony where hundreds of tiny beetles jockeyed for position on an old wooden post.“This is amazing,” he said, bending over for a closer inspection.“I’ve never seen anything like it.Do you suppose they’re having a ladybug convention?”
“I’m kidding.”He brushed her golden hair aside and gently kissed her cheek.
“Don’t, Dad!That’s gross!”
Her sudden rejection made his face flush.She’s definitely her mother’s daughter.Years had passed since his wife kissed him.Sadly, their daughter didn’t know what a loving relationship was like.Still, he missed everyone living together as a family.
Having Kerri a few hours a week was never enough.Why did he ever agree to Amanda’s terms?Two visitations a week when both parents are working is absurd.His fists were bunching.He had to force them to relax.He smiled wryly and said, “What do you say we race to—?”She was kicking up dust before he finished his sentence.“Hey, cheater, I never said go.”
She laughed over her shoulder, stretching her lead.“Too bad, so sad.”
He groaned and took off jogging.She loved hiding behind trees and popping out to scare him, and even though he insisted there be no hide-and-seek today, she did it anyway.He saw her in his peripheral vision and pretended not to notice.“Oh, Kerri.Where are you?Come out, come out, wherever you are.”
She darted out and tagged his rear end, giggling as only a little girl can.“Boo!”
He caught her with his massive arms, tickling her until her belly ached.Her baby-blue eyes made his heart swell.“I love you, ya know.”
“I love you, too, Dad.”
He released her and she took off like a rabbit.Hunched over with raised hands, he cackled like a green witch.“Come back here, you little munchkin.I’ll get you, my pretty!”
She shrieked and tore down the roller-coaster trail.He stopped running after a few steps.It was now seven-twenty-five AM.At this rate, they might actually reach the bench.But then that sensation returned and he grew anxious.He cupped his hands over his mouth and shouted for her to wait, but as with most six-year-olds, his words fell on deaf ears.