John grasped the handle of the axe tightly, feeling his knuckles crack. His joints ached and the snow falling around him didn’t help matters. It had gotten steadily worse in the years since he turned thirty-five. He was fifty-two now and he felt a pang of sadness at the idea that his best years were behind him. He was still in decent shape, except for the arthritis that plagued his finger joints. Pain in his knuckles prevented him from swinging the axe like he used to. The muscles were still there, but he was losing the ability to grip the axe and use them. John supposed it could be worse. He could have been like his mother. The signs of dementia had begun to show when she was only forty-seven and her mind had gone by the time her first grandchild was born. He supposed the loss of the body must be better than the loss of the mind and identity. He shook his head as if to clear these morbid thoughts away and sent the snow flying.
He looked down at the fallen tree in front of him. It lay on its side on the edge of the tree line, which created a border between his field and the dense woods that surrounded it. There was only one small road that snaked its way for about half a mile through the woods and ended in his backyard. He looked at the axe in his hand and let out a sigh. He turned to walk back to his truck and get the brand new chainsaw that lay in the bed. He hadn’t wanted to use the thing. He’d chopped his wood by hand since he was fifteen and he’d planned to chop it until the day he died, but advancing years had changed his plans. As he turned towards his truck, John glimpsed a strange shape in the corner of his eye that forced him to do a double-take. At the far end of the field, slightly obscured by the falling snow and cloudy, sunless sky, John could make out the silhouette of a man. He squinted to make sure his eyes weren’t playing tricks, but sure enough, he could see a figure standing at a distance. John waved, but the man only stood there, showing no sign he had seen John’s gesture of greeting.
John stood staring at the dark figure for a full minute, before setting his axe next to the fallen tree. There wasn’t another house for miles. The nearest town out here in rural Missouri was Julius and although John’s land fell within town limits, it was still several miles away. He wondered if this man perhaps needed help. There were occasional accidents along the state highway that ran near his property, mostly due to the multiple wineries that dotted the area. He started walking towards the silhouette. His feet left large holes in the snow behind him which began filling again with every step. John had gotten about halfway across the field, when his foot caught in a small depression in the earth hidden beneath the ever deepening snow, causing him to lose his balance and fall forward. It happened so fast that John didn’t even have time to catch himself, which was probably a blessing considering the ache in his hands. The ground was already covered with at least five inches of snow, which stopped his fall in any case and he didn’t think he’d hurt anything except for his pride. John stood up, brushing snow from his coat, but the embarrassed grin on his face turned to confusion when he saw that the stranger was gone. John called out, hearing his voice echo back to him slightly when it hit the tree line. He briskly strolled to where the stranger had been standing, this time wary of the rough ground in front of him. When he reached the spot, he squinted into the woods and shielded his eyes from the snow which caught in his eyelashes. There was nothing but trees, snow, and darkness. Something bothered him. There was an itch in the back of his mind. Something was wrong here, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Just then, a large gust of wind hit him in the face, nearly knocking his wool hat off his head and burning his exposed cheeks. The snow was falling harder, almost blinding him. This was no time to go wandering in the woods for someone who apparently didn’t want help. He felt a little creeped out by the behavior of the stranger and decided that must be what was bothering him. It was time to call it a day. The tree wasn’t going anywhere. John needed to stock up on firewood, but he had enough to make it through the week. He made his way back to his truck and this time avoided falling. John reached the driver side door and got in. He started the engine, put it in gear and pulled away. John was just reaching the road that snaked through the woods when he slammed on his brakes. His truck slid for a foot on the snow, before coming to a complete stop. John sat there, staring at the path in front of him, replaying what had just happened in his head. Something hadn’t been right about where the stranger had been standing and as he replayed it, John realized what it was and his blood turned to ice in his veins. When he’d been scanning the trees for the stranger, he had seen something odd, or rather, he hadn’t seen something. There had been no footprints in the snow where the stranger had been standing. Then another thought jumped into his head and his heart started racing faster. He’d forgotten his axe.
John put the truck in reverse and backed through the field, toward the fallen tree. Even in four-wheel drive, John had a hard time keeping the truck from sliding around. The sky had darkened even more when he reached the tree. John put the truck in park and jumped out, scanning the tree line as he made his way back to the dead tree. The snow was falling faster now, turning the world into a sheet of white. John searched around the fallen tree for several minutes before finding it. The axe was gone, but he found a small trail, already half-filled with snow, leading into the woods, as if someone had dragged the axe through the snow behind them. The missing axe wasn’t what frightened him though, nor was the fact that whoever had taken the axe, like the stranger, left no footprints in the snow. No, the most frightening thing of all was that the trail his axe had left in the snow. It could be leading anywhere in the world or nowhere at all, but to John it looked as if it led toward home.